House of Commons
Wednesday 20 July 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
North-south Electricity Interconnector
Let me say at the outset what a privilege it is to have been appointed as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to the work of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers). She played a very important role and made a significant contribution, and I, for one, fully recognise that. I look forward to working with right hon. and hon. Members across the House to maintain that approach of continued political stability, greater economic prosperity, and safety and security, as part of a bright positive future for Northern Ireland.
I understand that the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), met EirGrid, the electricity system operator across the island of Ireland, to discuss the proposals for a new interconnector. I hope that proposals to deliver a stronger, more secure and more competitive network in Northern Ireland can be progressed quickly.
May I start by welcoming the Secretary of State to his new position and welcoming all his colleagues? I look forward to working with them over the coming months. He will know the benefits that the interconnector would bring, not only to Northern Ireland, but to the Republic of Ireland. Our understanding is that Sinn Féin is one of the biggest objectors to this. Does he agree that that shows its lack of understanding of simple economics?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for warmly welcoming me to my post, and I felt this in a positive way when I was in Belfast on Monday. He raises the issue of the interconnector, as he has done on a number of occasions. This is being considered by the Northern Ireland Planning Appeals Commission—it is a decision for the Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive—but I reiterate that given the significant potential to help to reduce energy costs for Northern Ireland businesses, I would hope to see the project move forward as quickly as possible.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position and his very able partner, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), who has been an outstanding Member of this House. Has the Secretary of State had an opportunity, at this early stage, to make an assessment of the long-term future of the all-Ireland energy market in the light of the referendum result? Will the result alter that market in any way?
Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I certainly recognise the importance of the all-Ireland arrangements for electricity and for gas. In the continued negotiations and discussions on Northern Ireland and the UK being outside the European Union, that will be a core part of the issues we will be taking forward.
I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on their appointments, and thank the previous team for all the work they did for Northern Ireland. On an alternative electricity supply and the renewable heat initiative, the Northern Ireland Audit Office has told us that it may cost our block grant £140 million. Will the Secretary of State ensure that there is an investigation as to what has happened?
Coming into this role, I recognise the issue of costs for electricity and power more generally, and its importance in the context of the Northern Ireland economy. Indeed, this is why I made the points I did about the electricity interconnector. I will look closely at the points the hon. Gentleman makes, and I look forward to discussing this and other issues with him and other colleagues in the months ahead.
I am determined to build on the progress this Government have made in delivering peace and prosperity to Northern Ireland. We have already taken significant steps to back businesses across the UK, including reducing corporation tax and bringing the Exporting is GREAT campaign to Northern Ireland in May.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment and I join in the remarks made about his predecessor. Will he continue the Government’s work to ensure that the private sector continues to grow? In his discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive, will he emphasise the need to improve private sector investment, so that more jobs are created in Northern Ireland and more people can gain from prosperity?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the creation of jobs and prosperity. I am sure that he welcomes today’s figures, which show further falls in unemployment and the claimant count in Northern Ireland, and increased employment, underlining the important aspects that he highlights. Yes, I will certainly be discussing with the Executive the role that I have to play with regard to investment and how we promote further jobs, growth and opportunity.
Will the Secretary of State reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the devolution of corporation tax powers as set out in the Stormont House agreement? Does he agree that a vital part of that is that the Executive demonstrate that their finances are on a stable and long-term footing?
We do want the UK to stand out as a low-tax destination for business. We have already cut the rate of corporation tax from 28% to 20%, and we will cut it further. My hon. Friend makes the point about the devolution of corporation tax powers. They are subject to conditions around fiscal discipline and financial stability. We look forward to working with the Executive to achieve that and to see that that further devolution takes place.
May I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State and to his ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), on their new positions? I look forward to working constructively with the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office in the coming days. May I also pay tribute to the outgoing Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who played an enormously positive and constructive role in Northern Ireland, and was instrumental in bringing about the “Fresh Start” and Stormont House agreements? We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to her.
I thank the Secretary of State for the discussions that he has already had with some of us and with the First Minister and the Executive Office. Can he spell out for the benefit of the House once again what he has already said publicly in Northern Ireland, which is why there is no question of a border poll in Northern Ireland?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome and indeed for the very warm comments that he made about my predecessor, which I wholly endorse. I have been quite straightforward about this issue of the border poll. The conditions are set out very clearly in relation to the Belfast agreement, and I have been very clear that those conditions have not been met.
The reason why they have not been met is that the overwhelming majority of people in both communities in Northern Ireland want to remain part of the United Kingdom. Does the Secretary of State recognise the irony and the illogicality of those who are talking so much doom and gloom about Northern Ireland and the UK post the Brexit referendum, when their main policy—their main raison d’être—is to drag us out of the United Kingdom, which would be the most financially catastrophic and politically demoralising thing that is possible to imagine?
Let me underline the comments made by the Prime Minister about the very special bond that binds the peoples and nations of the United Kingdom—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a very simple message. Now is the time to come together and to work together to secure that bright positive future for Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom outside the European Union.
On behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, may I welcome the new ministerial team and indeed the shadow Secretary of State to their positions? I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), who was the former Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and particularly to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who really has carried out an enormous amount of work in Northern Ireland.
May I ask the Secretary of State about south-east England airport connectivity, which is very important to the economy of Northern Ireland? Could he have a word with his Cabinet colleagues and speed up the decision on airport capacity in the south-east of England?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome. Indeed, I very much look forward to working with the Select Committee. I note that he is tempting me into a broader area of policy in relation to airport capacity. He will know that the previous Transport Secretary made a clear statement on the timing of that, and, obviously, the matter requires further consideration.
May I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State and to the Under-Secretary of State on their appointments? Has the Secretary of State and his officials, working with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, made any calculation of the economic damage to Northern Ireland as a result of the vote to leave the European Union when the people voted to remain?
I certainly recognise that there were differences of view on the EU referendum, as there were across the rest of the United Kingdom. Our focus now needs to be on what Northern Ireland can be, and on what we can achieve in terms of trade, jobs and new opportunities. It is precisely that positive agenda that I intend to take forward.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his position, and also commend the former Secretary of State for her hard work on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. Austerity has hit all of us hard, but Northern Ireland has special circumstances which make the impact even harder. Will the Government now consider reversing the austerity measures so that Northern Ireland’s economy can recover from the damage done?
I thank the hon. Lady for her warm words of welcome. Again, I underline the figures that we have seen today, showing further falls in unemployment. It is right that we have a strong, stable economy, and that we continue to look outwards. I point the hon. Lady to the fact that the total value of goods exported from Northern Ireland over the past year has increased by 9%—a figure which outperforms the rest of the UK.
I, too, welcome the new Secretary of State and his Minister to their posts, and assure him that we on the Labour Benches will do everything we can to carry on the bipartisan approach, doing the best we can for the people of Northern Ireland. I also thank my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). Everyone I have met in Northern Ireland asked me to thank him for his work.
For years the rebalancing of the Northern Ireland economy has been promoted by the Government, and intrinsic to this has been a push to reduce corporation tax, but in recent discussions that I have had with businesses in Northern Ireland, they have told me that it is much more important to address the huge skills gap in Northern Ireland, where far too many young people are leaving school unable to read and write properly. What will the Secretary of State do to help the people of Northern Ireland to bridge that gap?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. I certainly want to continue the bipartisan relationship. He highlights the issue of skills. I absolutely recognise that and will work with the Northern Ireland Executive on apprenticeships and on creating jobs and opportunities for young people, to give them the best possible advantages.
May I suggest to the Secretary of State that for his summer reading this month, he looks into a number of reports—the report recently produced by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the referendum, the report from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association on its economic plan, and crucially the report from the Economic and Social Research Institute that was produced for the Irish Government in November last year to show that the trade deficit between the north and the south following Brexit could fall by at least 20%? Will he come back to the House in the autumn and tell us why his predecessor and the Northern Ireland Office were so badly prepared for Brexit?
I am always grateful for recommendations for summer reading and I will add the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions to my list. It is important to recognise that exports from Northern Ireland to the United States increased by more than 80%, and also increased to Canada and Germany. We will certainly promote that positive outlook for Northern Ireland.
The joint agency task force, created under the “Fresh Start” agreement, is tackling cross-border crime in Northern Ireland. The task force has completed a strategic assessment to identify priorities and is co-ordinating joint law enforcement operations against the criminals involved.
I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. I am sure his previous experience as Security Minister will stand him in good stead. Does he agree that in this pending Brexit world, closer co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana is more important than ever? What plans does he have to make that happen?
I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s comments on the need for good cross-border working relationships between the PSNI and Garda Siochana. I have already had a conversation with Frances Fitzgerald, the Irish Justice Minister, to underline that. We have very good relationships and I want to see them continue.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. Does he agree that tackling cross-border crime involves tackling paramilitarism? Has he had a chance to look at the report published by Stormont yesterday with respect to action, in particular, to consider what may be done about decommissioning residual paramilitary weapons? How is that going to happen?
At the outset, may I commend the hon. Gentleman for his work? He and I have obviously had a number of discussions on issues of crime and security over many, many years. I welcome the publication of the Northern Ireland Executive’s action plan on tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime. This represents another significant milestone in terms of the commitment set out in the “Fresh Start” agreement. It provides a positive basis on which we can now move forward, and I look forward to the more detailed action plan, which will be published shortly.
May I warmly associate myself with the comments made by so many other people? I note that this is now my sixth opposite number facing me—it is almost as if I am being used as a training aid for young, thrusting Tories.
Last week, when my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and I met Chief Constable George Hamilton, he expressed his grave concern about the implications for the European arrest warrant post-Brexit and the desire not to go back to the old extradition methods. What assurance can the Secretary of State give us that the European arrest warrant can survive post-Brexit?
I am always grateful to continue the interplay between myself and the hon. Gentleman in so many different ways. He makes a serious and important point about the European arrest warrant—something I was very conscious of in my previous role at the Home Office. I see this as a core part of the negotiations that the Home Secretary and others will be taking forward, recognising the huge benefit to the UK—and to Northern Ireland—of having those extradition arrangements under the European arrest warrant.
I have already highlighted the work of the joint agency taskforce. It is a question of all the law enforcement agencies working together to identify the organised criminal groups. That is precisely the activity that is intended. Equally, I recognise the work that the National Crime Agency does more broadly, which absolutely helps to support this.
In Northern Ireland recently, incidents have increased and severe violence has been used at cross-border posts. Organised crime gangs and criminal networks outside of the islands are involved. Does the Minister recognise that the increase in crime needs to be top of the agenda in any forthcoming Brexit talks?
As I have already indicated, I do see the whole issue of safety and security as a priority. That requires good working relationships between the PSNI and the Garda Siochana. I had a meeting with Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris in Belfast earlier this week to discuss those very issues, and this certainly is a matter that I regard as a priority in moving forward with my role.
Security Situation: Trade
May I begin by recognising the enormous contribution of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace)? I wish him well in his new role. I am determined to build on the progress this Government have made in delivering peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. This Government have already taken bold steps to back businesses across the UK, including reducing corporation tax and bringing the Exporting is GREAT campaign to Northern Ireland.
I, too, welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box—he was an excellent member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. On trade and crime, he will know that there has been a hangover of paramilitary crime affecting trade along the border. There has been a complete delay in dealing with fuel fraud. Will he agree to meet me and the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) and for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and to bring along Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs officials to boot, to allow us to discuss this issue and resolve it once and for all?
10. Following the recent threat increase, will my hon. Friend assure the House that he remains absolutely committed to ensuring that our security agencies, police and others have the equipment to deal with any threats they might face? (905918)
The Government want to make sure that Northern Ireland voters can benefit from the introduction of digital registration. This new technology also provides an opportunity for the chief electoral officer to examine how electoral services can be delivered more effectively.
I, too, welcome the Minister and the Secretary of State to their place and thank the former team. Does the Minister accept that there may be some difficulties with online registration that are particular to Northern Ireland and not to other parts of the United Kingdom?
The issue of flags in Northern Ireland is sensitive and complex. Any change in existing arrangements would require cross-community support. The Stormont House agreement included a commitment to a commission on flags, identity, culture and tradition, and that was established in June.
During the consultation process on electoral services, will both the Minister and the Electoral Office ensure that accessibility is a top priority, so that local people outside Belfast can have access through their local electoral offices for registration and photographic ID purposes?
The key thing to say about the issue of digital registration is that it is not replacing the old system. The existing system will stay in place and there is an opportunity to contribute on the issues relating to rural communities in particular, which I know many Members from Northern Ireland are concerned about.
Republic of Ireland: Discussions post-EU Referendum
I congratulate the Secretary of State and his team. There is not one politician with an ounce of sense who suggests that a hard border would be of benefit to either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland, but some are suggesting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State take this early opportunity to rule out such a nonsensical and dangerous proposal?
The issue of the common travel area and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is absolutely at the forefront of my agenda. I recognise, as do the Irish Government, the real benefits of the common travel area. It is about not just the movement of people, but goods and services. I certainly do not want to see a return to the borders of the past, which is why I will engage with colleagues across Government, as well as the Irish Government, to get the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I extend my courtesies to the new ministerial team.
Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the concern is to avoid not just the creation of new border posts, but the unnecessary and unhelpful borderism that the separation of north and south—of non-EU and EU—would entail? The new Immigration Minister gave an example of borderism yesterday when he boasted of his pre-Brexit bout of borderism with the HGV levy on cross-border trucks.
I certainly recognise the various points the hon. Gentleman has made. Border issues are significant both for the movement of people and for goods and services, and that is intrinsic to the overall arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is why I have made a very clear commitment in all my statements to ensuring that we do not return to the arrangements of the past, and that is precisely what will remain a priority for me in my role.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in welcoming today’s employment figures, which show employment at another record high, the lowest unemployment rate in over a decade and wages rising.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today. This afternoon, I will travel to Berlin to meet Chancellor Merkel to discuss how we implement the decision that the British people took in the referendum, and I expect we will also cover a number of other pressing international issues. Tomorrow, I will visit Paris for similar discussions with President Hollande.
I warmly welcome the Prime Minister to her place. Given her unwavering commitment to delivering economic stability and national security in our United Kingdom’s interest, does she welcome Monday’s emphatic vote in this House for the Trident successor programme, and will she ensure that economic stability and national security remain the guiding principles of her premiership?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I join him in enthusiastically welcoming the vote taken in this House on Monday evening to renew our nuclear deterrent. I think that vote showed the commitment of this House: it showed that we have not only committed to our own national security, but considered the security of European and NATO allies. We can now get on with the essential job of renewing our nuclear deterrent. May I thank the 140 Labour Members of Parliament who put the national interest first and voted to renew the nuclear deterrent?
May I welcome the right hon. Lady to her first Prime Minister’s Question Time, and congratulate her on her appointment and on becoming the country’s second woman Prime Minister? I hope that she will agree with me that Prime Minister’s Question Time in this House should be an opportunity to debate seriously the issues that face our country and our place in the world.
On the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister talked very eloquently about “fighting…burning injustice”, yet her last act as Home Secretary was to shunt the Orgreave inquiry into the long grass. The Advocate General told the House of Lords:
“The IPCC told Home Office officials that if it announced any action to set up an inquiry or other investigation relating to Orgreave, it would have an impact on the Hillsborough investigation.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 July 2016; Vol. 774, c. 216.]
The Independent Police Complaints Commission disputes that account. I hope Parliament was not misled. Will the Prime Minister now proceed with a full public inquiry into the terrible events at Orgreave?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the welcome he has given me. He referred to me as the second woman Prime Minister. In my years in the House, I have long heard the Labour party asking what the Conservative party does for women. Well—it just keeps making us Prime Minister.
I welcome the comments the right hon. Gentleman made about Prime Minister’s questions. We do debate serious issues at Prime Minister’s questions. I look forward to the exchanges he and I will have, and I hope that we will be having those exchanges over the Dispatch Box for many years to come.
As regards the Orgreave inquiry, I think the shadow Home Secretary has an urgent question on that this afternoon, to which the Home Secretary will be responding.
The new Prime Minister also said on the steps of Downing Street:
“If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”
In 1998, more than half of working households of people aged 16 to 34 were buying their own homes. Today, the figure is 25% and the Resolution Foundation suggests it will fall to 10% in the next nine years. What figure has the Prime Minister set herself for home ownership among young people?
I notice the timeline that the right hon. Gentleman referred to. He might have forgotten that during that period we had 13 years of a Labour Government—a Labour Government who had a very bad record on house building. It is this Government who will change that and this Government who are putting more into building more homes to ensure that young people have a better opportunity to get on the housing ladder. That is why we are a Government who will govern for everyone in this country.
That Labour Government put a decent homes standard in place in every part of this country. I am not sure that—[Interruption.] I am not sure that starter homes at £450,000 for young people earning 7% less than their parents’ generation represent a good prospect for people owning their own homes.
The Prime Minister is rightly concerned that:
“If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly…than if you’re white.”
Before appointing her new Foreign Secretary, did she discuss with him his description of black people as “piccaninnies” and ask why he had questioned the motives of US President Obama on the basis of his “part-Kenyan” heritage?
The right hon. Gentleman started his question by making reference to the issue of starter homes and the upper limit in London of £450,000. I have sat on these Benches and heard him raise that with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) on a number of occasions when he was Prime Minister. Can I just explain this to the Leader of the Opposition? If he looks at house prices across the country, he will see that they vary. In Liverpool, the average house price is just over £116,000. In London, the average house price is just over £676,000. That is why we have a higher limit for starter homes in London. If he objects to that, he needs to tell his constituents why he is against their having opportunities to get on the housing ladder.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the remarks I made. It is correct that if you are black, you will be treated more harshly in the criminal justice system. That is exactly why, as Home Secretary, I dealt with the issue of stop and search. I was concerned to make sure that nobody should be stopped and searched on the streets of this country because of the colour of their skin. I did that as a Conservative; in 13 years, Labour did nothing on it.
My question was actually about the language used by the Foreign Secretary.
Earlier this week, the new Chancellor abandoned the Government’s budget surplus target, which Labour has long called for. The Prime Minister’s Government are already missing their targets on debt, the deficit, the welfare cap and productivity. Six years of Government austerity have failed. The long-term economic plan is clearly dead. Is there a new one?
It is the long-term economic plan that has delivered the record level of employment that we see today. Perhaps I could put the right hon. Gentleman straight. We have not abandoned the intention to move to a surplus. What I have said is that we will not target that at the end of this Parliament. He uses the language of austerity; I call it living within our means. He talks about austerity, but actually it is about not saddling our children and grandchildren with significant debts in the years to come. It is not about austerity; it is about ensuring that we have an economy that works for everyone.
Jobless claims have risen for the fourth month in a row and welfare claims have risen as well. Austerity actually means people being poorer, services being cut and local facilities being closed. In her speech on the steps of Downing Street the Prime Minister also addressed insecure workers, saying:
“You have a job but you don’t always have job security.”
Does that mean that those people who are worried about their future in work—[Interruption.] I am talking of the people who sent us here to serve them. Does that mean that she is proposing to scrap employment tribunal fees, repeal the Trade Union Act 2016 and ban zero-hours contracts, as more than a dozen European nations have done already? That would help to give greater job security to many very worried people in this country.
Again, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that yes, I said that on the steps of Downing Street, because it is very important that here in this House we consider not only what might be called the more obvious injustices, but life for those people who are in work and struggling to make ends meet. That is essential, and the Government have raised the threshold at which people start to pay income tax, for example. It is also about making sure that we have more well-paid jobs in this country, which the Government are also doing.
I am interested that the right hon. Gentleman referred to the situation of some workers who might have job insecurity and potentially unscrupulous bosses. I suspect that many Members on the Opposition Benches might be familiar with an unscrupulous boss—a boss who does not listen to his workers, a boss who requires some of his workers to double their workload and maybe even a boss who exploits the rules to further his own career. Remind him of anybody?
We are sent here to represent people. Many people in this country are struggling with low wages and insecure jobs—[Hon. Members: “You!”] I know this is very funny for all the Conservative Members, but I do not suppose there are too many Conservative MPs who have to go to a food bank to supplement the food on their family’s table every week. We should reflect on that.
The Prime Minister highlighted the failures of her predecessor on social justice, home ownership, education and the cost of living. Some might say that, as a Cabinet Minister, she too was responsible for those. She empathised with working people, saying:
“I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle.”
Yesterday a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that two thirds of children living in poverty in Britain have at least one parent in work. What, other than warm words, is she going to offer those families and those children, who are often hungry and very insecure in their way of living? Is it not our duty to offer some hope and security to them?
Yes it is, and we are concerned about those people, but the answer is not the Labour party’s unlimited, uncapped welfare for people. The answer for people who are in work and struggling and for those who want to get into work is to have a strong economy that delivers jobs, and well-paid jobs in particular. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that on the Government Benches we are focused on building a country that works for everyone. That means an economy that ensures that everyone can benefit from the nation’s wealth, a society where everyone gets the opportunities they deserve and a democracy that everyone can have faith in.
Finally, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the Labour party may be about to spend several months fighting and tearing itself apart; the Conservative party will be spending those months bringing this country back together.
Q4. I agree with the Prime Minister. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] We are leaving the EU and we are going to make a success of it, so will she make my day special by saying that she is prepared to reject staying in the single regulated market and to offer instead to our friends in Europe a free trade deal that is very much in their interests? Let us take back control. (905972)
I am tempted to say that I probably ought to sit down and enjoy that for the rest of the day. My hon. Friend has made my day, and I hope that I can make his day by wishing him a very happy birthday. I assure him that as we look at the result of the referendum, I am very clear that Brexit does mean Brexit, and as he says, we will make a success of it. In negotiating the deal, we need to ensure that we listen to what people have said about the need for controls on free movement, and that we also negotiate the right and best deal for trade in goods and services for the British people.
May I extend my congratulations to the Prime Minister on her first outing at Prime Minister’s questions, ahead of her travels to Berlin? The German Vice Chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, has already confirmed how Scotland is able to remain in the European Union. Did the Prime Minister discuss that when she met First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh, and will she do everything to ensure that remain means remain for Scotland?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome, for his comments in Monday’s debate, and for his recognition of support for my husband Philip. As the right hon. Gentleman said, we all rely on support from those around us to do our jobs, and we should never forget that. I did discuss arrangements in relation to the negotiations for the United Kingdom leaving the EU with the First Minister, and I was very pleased that my first trip was a trip to Scotland and that I was able to do that so early in my premiership. As I have been clear, the Union is very important to me. I was also clear with the First Minister that I think that some of the ideas being put forward are impracticable, but I am willing to listen to options that are brought forward, and we will be engaging fully with all the devolved Administrations.
Germany has the highest level of support of any continental European country for Scotland remaining in the European Union. Will the Prime Minister thank Chancellor Merkel for the interest of the members of her Government and of the Bundestag in having Scotland remain within the EU? Will she assure the Chancellor and other Heads of State and Government that we in Scotland will do everything—everything—that is necessary for us to remain in the EU?
The right hon. Gentleman has taken that line for some time—he took it with my predecessor—but I find it a little confusing, given that only two years ago in the Scottish referendum, the Scottish National party was campaigning for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom, which would have meant leaving the European Union.
Q6. We all stand with the people of France, and particularly Nice, following the appalling terrorist act there last week. Will the Prime Minister update the House on how the security collaboration between our two countries can help to prevent such attacks in future, and will she reassure the French people that although we are leaving the European Union, the close links between our two countries will remain steadfast? (905975)
My hon. Friend raises an important topic, and as has been said in this House before, our thoughts are with all the people of France after the appalling attack that took place in Nice last week. We continue to work with the French authorities in the aftermath of that attack, and my hon. Friend is right to say that we must continue our security co-operation with France and other European countries. We will not be cowed by terrorists; we both face the same threats, and we need to work together to defeat those threats. I absolutely confirm that, yes, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union, but the United Kingdom is not leaving Europe and our co-operation will continue.
Q2. I welcome the Prime Minister to her place and I wish her well in healing the country in the months and years to come—after all, it is she and her colleagues who so bitterly divided it. I also thank her for her wholehearted support for and endorsement of official Labour party policy on Trident. It is such a refreshing change to hear that from the Dispatch Box. As a type 1 diabetic and a father and uncle to children with type 1 diabetes, and on behalf of 500,000 people in this country, 30,000 of them children, may I thank the Prime Minister for the example she has shown in demonstrating without doubt that diabetes does not hold us back in any way whatsoever? There is no doubt that the Prime Minister’s predecessor left the NHS in a much worse condition than he found it. Will the Prime Minister visit West Cumberland hospital in my constituency, honour the promises made by the previous Prime Minister, and stop her Government cutting services there further? (905970)
The hon. Gentleman refers to divisions on the Conservative Benches. I have to say: which party was it that took three weeks to decide who its unity candidate should be? It is the Labour party that is divided.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks on type 1 diabetes. There are many youngsters out there, from tiny tots to teenagers, living with type 1 diabetes. It is important that we send a message to them that their future is not limited: they can do whatever they want.
The hon. Gentleman is the first hon. Member at Prime Minister’s questions to invite me to his constituency. I will, of course, look very closely at all invitations I receive. It is important that decisions about the construct of local NHS services are taken at a local level by the NHS. He made a point about the agreement in the official policy of the Conservative party and the Labour party on Trident. I simply remind him that where we did disagree at the election was that the Conservative party agreed to put in the money that was necessary for the NHS. The Labour party refused to commit to that.
Q7. Extremism takes many forms, from the atrocity in Nice to the violent murder of Qandeel Baloch by her own brother in Pakistan. That murder was justified as an “honour killing”. There have been 11,000 incidents of self-styled honour crimes in the UK in the past five years. Does the Prime Minister agree that such crimes are in fact acts of terror, not honour? Will she therefore direct her new Government to choose to lead and end the use of the word “honour” to describe these vile acts in order to stop giving any legitimacy to the idea that women are the property of men? (905976)
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, one that I think resonates across the whole House. She is absolutely right: extremism does take many forms. That is why, in the Government’s counter-extremism strategy, we are looking very widely across the breadth of issues of extremism, including tackling the root causes of some practices within communities, such as so-called honour-based violence. I absolutely agree with her that there is absolutely no honour in so-called honour-based violence. It is violence and a criminal act, pure and simple.
Q3. I, too, welcome the Prime Minister to her first Prime Minister’s Question Time. Will she listen to the headteachers of the excellent primary schools in my constituency? They tell me that the recent unprecedented changes to primary education, including the new SATs, have led to negative impacts on children’s learning outcomes. Will she urge the new Secretary of State to take those concerns forward, listen and make useful changes? (905971)
I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. Getting education right is absolutely crucial if we are to ensure that people can take up the opportunities they deserve and have the aspiration to take up those opportunities. Obviously, my right hon. Friend the new Education Secretary will be looking across the board at the education provision that is in place. We have made some important changes already over the past six years that are improving the quality of education and mean that more children are receiving the quality of education they need. There is, of course, more for us to do and we will be looking to do that.
Q8. In my constituency, aerospace is of vital importance, with Rolls-Royce employing more than 1,000 people at sites in Barnoldswick. Aerospace is important not just to Pendle, however, but to the whole UK economy, so will the Prime Minister congratulate all the companies that attended the Farnborough airshow last week on the deals they signed, and does she agree that the nearly £100 billion of trade deals already done this year demonstrates that Britain is very much still open for business? (905977)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that Britain is open for business, and I know what an important role the aerospace industry plays in his constituency, as he pointed out with his reference to Rolls-Royce, and in constituencies across the country. I also know of the importance of the Farnborough airshow. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) was telling me last night what a great airshow it was. The Government committed at Farnborough to providing a new £365 million fund for research and development to ensure we retain our leading position in the sector. As my hon. Friend also said, a significant number of trade deals have already been signed, which shows that Britain is open for business. I would encourage other companies to go out there and get that business.
Q5. I, too, welcome the right hon. Lady to her place. Newcastle airport was voted “best in Britain” this week, but the good news that it is really waiting for is a decision on Heathrow expansion. The Prime Minister knows that Britain needs to be open for business, so will she do better than dithering Dave and give us a decision without delay? (905973)
I have fond memories of Newcastle airport, from the time when I stood in the North West Durham constituency some years ago and made quite good use of the airport. It has changed and expanded rather since then. Our position on Heathrow has not changed. Obviously, there was the Howard Davies review, and further work has been done on the question of air quality around the proposals put forward. The Cabinet and the Government will take a decision, in the proper way, in due course.
Q12. Based on an analysis of the crime survey for England and Wales by the Children’s Society, it is estimated that 113 16 and 17-year-old girls in my constituency experienced a sexual offence in the past year. Given the progress made in tackling child sexual exploitation in the last few years, will my right hon. Friend outline whether the Government have plans to strengthen the protection for this particular vulnerable age group? (905981)
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. We have seen recently the appalling circumstances in Rotherham in relation to child sexual exploitation, but as she has shown, in every constituency in the country, young people are being subjected to sexual offences of various sorts. That is why, since Rotherham, the Government have been working with all the appropriate agencies to ensure we put greater support in place. We have provided an extra £7 million of funding to ensure that victims of sexual abuse receive the right support, launched the whistleblowing helpline to help authorities to spot patterns of failure, and made child sexual abuse and exploitation a national threat, meaning that police authorities have a duty to collaborate on this terrible crime. In the coming months, we will also be strengthening our arrangements. We are all appalled by child sexual abuse, and we need to carry on making sure that we eradicate it.
Q9. In her first statement from the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister stated that she would lead a Government who would work for everyone. Since she became Prime Minister, I have tried unsuccessfully to get assurances on the continuation of the northern schools strategy and the £80 million set aside for it. Will she give me that commitment today so that children in Bradford and the north can have the same chances as those in London and the south? (905978)
It is important that we ensure that children across the country get the opportunities they deserve, and the quality of education they receive is an important part of that. The review launched in March by Sir Nick Weller will make recommendations to address this particular issue. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary will look carefully at the result of that review and, in due course, make clear the Government’s response to its recommendations.
Q13. Growing up on a council estate, I found it tough coming out—as a Conservative. Difficult as it was, I understood then, as I do now, that it is only Conservative Governments that deliver real social mobility. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the Government’s job to fight for such opportunities for the people of Britain, because the Labour party are too busy fighting each other? (905982)
My hon. Friend puts it very well. If we look at the Conservative Benches, we see, as he said, Conservative Members of Parliament who were brought up in council houses and Conservative MPs brought up by single parent families, while the chairman of the Conservative party is a former miner. It is this party that is looking at opportunity for all. I am certainly very clear that the Government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by the interests of everyone in this country. We are not entrenching the advantages of the privileged few in terms of opportunity, but extending opportunity to all.
Q10. Whatever one’s politics, one cannot help but be inspired by last week’s image of the female Prime Minister of the UK meeting the female First Minister of Scotland. It sends a message to girls everywhere that they can achieve anything they want and nothing should be off limits to them. Does the Prime Minister agree that to do this, girls and women should be able to live free from gender-based violence and domestic abuse, and will she commit to supporting the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and ratify the Istanbul convention? (905979)
It is an important symbol for girls and young women when they can see women in positions such as Prime Minister and First Minister of Scotland. I respect the First Minister; we had a very constructive first meeting. There were certain issues on which we disagree and will continue to disagree, but we will work practically and pragmatically together.
It is important to deal with the issues of gender violence and domestic violence against women and girls. That is why the Government have—I led this as Home Secretary—a strategy to deal with violence against women and girls, which is now being taken on by my right hon. Friend the new Home Secretary. We have a good record on what we have done, for example, putting into operation domestic violence protection orders and the new coercive control offence, but there is always more to do and we will be doing that.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to her place, and if it is not too untoward to say, I declare it as game, set and match to her this afternoon. Last week, when I met local National Farmers Union representatives in North Dorset, they understood precisely what we were doing in delivering on Brexit, but were keen to ensure that the needs of agriculture and British farmers are front and centre in those discussions and that their interests are not neglected. May I invite my right hon. Friend to make that commitment today?
I am very happy to make the commitment that, as we look at the position we will take in the negotiations for the UK to leave the European Union, we will consult widely. I recognise that agriculture is a sector that is particularly affected by Brexit, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we will consult and listen to the views of farmers and others involved in the food industry and agricultural sector.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on becoming Prime Minister, and gently remind her of the conversation we had a few weeks ago when I said she was going to come through the middle and trounce the men standing for that position. I was right. I also said I was going to put some money on her, but I never got round to it —unfortunately, because the odds were very good at the time.
May I ask the Prime Minister a serious question about the younger generation, the millennials? So many of them in our country believe that they are citizens of Europe who have the ability to travel, to work and to be true Europeans. Will she soon give them her vision of how that reality as European citizens can be delivered even in the present circumstances?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I do indeed remember the conversation in which he said that I would, as he put it, “trounce the men”. I have to say, however, that the Conservative party came up with an all-woman shortlist, without being required to do so.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the younger generation. This is what I would say to them today. As I said a little earlier in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), we are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe. Over the coming weeks and months, we will be setting out our negotiating position on the relationship with the European Union when we leave. I would also say to the young people that the hon. Gentleman talks about that we should not limit their opportunities and their horizons by just looking at Europe. This country will make a success of Brexit, because we will be out there in the world as an outward-looking, expansive country, with opportunities around the globe.
May I warmly welcome the Prime Minister to her post? Unlike dithering Barry, I did place a bet on her becoming the next leader of our party. I apologise for the fact that my phone was obviously turned off when she was calling me to invite me to join her Government.
The reason the people of Yorkshire voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union was largely to do with immigration control. Can the Prime Minister reassure them that when we finally do leave the European Union, she will insist on keeping her original promise to bring the immigration figures down to the tens of thousands?
The vote that took place on 23 June sent a very clear message about immigration. It sent the clear message that people want control of free movement from the European Union, and that is precisely what we will ensure that we get in the negotiations that we will undertake. I also remain absolutely firm in my belief that we need to bring net migration down to sustainable levels, and the Government believe that that means tens of thousands. It will take some time to get there, but now, of course, there is the added aspect of the controls that we can bring in relation to people moving from the European Union.
You are all very, very kind.
May I, genuinely, warmly welcome the Prime Minister to her position? She has come a long way since we were on the hustings together in North West Durham, and she is no doubt reflecting on the fact that she is receiving more support in the Chamber than either of us received in Consett working men’s club.
There are reports today that the new Brexit unit will be hiring lawyers at a cost of £5,000 per head per day. May I ask whether the Prime Minister will be using the mythical £350 million to pay the legal fees, or is that still pencilled in for the NHS, as promised by her Cabinet colleagues who campaigned for Leave?
I think it absolutely right for us to create a new Department to focus on the work of negotiating the United Kingdom’s departure from the United Kingdom, and that Department will need the expertise that will enable it to undertake the negotiations.
I am very happy to remember the days that the hon. Gentleman and I spent campaigning in North West Durham at the time of a general election. Little did the voters of North West Durham know that the two unsuccessful candidates in that election would become leaders of two of the country’s political parties, although I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that my party is a little bit bigger than his.
Orgreave: Public Inquiry into Policing
Last week my noble friend the Advocate General for Scotland answered an oral question asked by Lord Balfe of Dulwich on whether the Government had yet decided whether there would be an inquiry into police actions during the Orgreave miners’ clash in 1984. He explained that the previous Home Secretary had been considering the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign’s submission, and that the Independent Police Complaints Commission is working with the Crown Prosecution Service to assess whether material related to the policing of Orgreave is relevant to the Hillsborough criminal investigations with decisions yet to be made by them on whether any criminal proceedings will be brought as a result.
The Government take all allegations of police misconduct very seriously and the then Home Secretary considered the campaign’s analysis in detail. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have today written to the campaign secretary, Barbara Jackson, to say that I would be very happy to meet her and the campaign immediately after the summer recess. I would also be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss this case as I know this is something that he feels very strongly about. This is one of the most important issues in my in-tray as a new Home Secretary, and I can assure him that I will be considering the facts very carefully over the summer. I hope to come to a decision as quickly as possible following that.
I promised the Hillsborough families the full truth about the 20-year cover-up. They will not have it until we also know what happened after Orgreave. A year ago the IPCC found senior officers gave untrue statements exaggerating violence from miners to distract from their own use of force, some would say brutality. So the force that would wrongly blame Liverpool supporters tried to do the same against the miners five years before. In response, the then Home Secretary promised to consider a public inquiry. That was welcome because the miners’ strike caused deep scars when, in the words of a former chief constable, the police were used as an “army of occupation”. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign has, as the Home Secretary said, submitted an application, but there was a somewhat unexpected announcement in another place last week that it would now be substantially delayed. The Advocate General’s exact words were:
“The IPCC told Home Office officials that if it announced any action to set up an inquiry or other investigation relating to Orgreave, it would have an impact on the Hillsborough investigation.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 July 2016; Vol. 744, c. 216.]
However, the deputy chair of the IPCC says:
“I would like to clarify that the IPCC has not taken or offered any position on whether there should be a public inquiry...That is a decision that is entirely a matter for the Home Secretary.”
That is why we have brought the Home Secretary here today.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s offer to meet me, but might it not help to build the right climate if she today corrects the misleading impression given to Parliament that the IPCC had advised against the establishment of an inquiry at this time? Does she accept that there is no reason why ongoing investigations should delay an Orgreave inquiry, and that in similar situations it is commonplace for protections to be put in place to manage any risks? Can she see why the Government’s actions look like a Home Office manoeuvre to shunt a controversial issue into the long grass?
This, one of the final decisions of the former Home Secretary, was announced as she stood on the steps of Downing street promising to “fight injustice”. People may remember another Tory Prime Minister quoting St Francis of Assisi outside No. 10 and the subsequent gap that emerged between her fine words and her deeds. To ensure that history does not repeat itself, will the Home Secretary do the right thing? Will she restore the trust that has been damaged among people who have already waited more than 30 years for the truth and, today order a full public inquiry into Orgreave?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that this Government have not been slow in looking at historical cases. There have been Labour Governments and there have been Conservative Governments since 1984, but it is this Government who are taking the campaign very seriously. I will not resile from that. I have told the campaign I will look at the evidence I have. It was submitted at the end of last year; it is a substantial file. It is because I take this so seriously that I am not going to rush it. It would be a mistake to do that today. What I am going to do is look at it over the summer, meet the campaign group in September and reach a decision after that. The right hon. Gentleman should not allow anybody to think that this means I do not take it seriously; the Government take it very seriously and will reach a proper conclusion when I have looked at all the evidence.
The future of South Yorkshire police is clearly linked to this. These allegations are historical, but if we bring them together with more contemporary problems it seems to be a force that has institutionalised dysfunctionality. Surely my right hon. Friend now must look at the future function of South Yorkshire police’s management, and not shy away from any fundamental reorganisation?
My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that we are doing exactly that. He draws an important point to our attention, and it is particularly that issue that the IPCC is looking at. I can reassure my right hon. Friend, as well as the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and the House, that the work of the IPCC will not delay the work that I will be doing in looking at this particular case.
The 1980s were a quite shocking time in politics. I know that Conservative Members will disagree, but it was a difficult time to be growing up, under Thatcher, and a distressing experience for many of us. There are many examples to illustrate that, but what happened at Orgreave was one of the most shocking examples of all. It is not just me who is saying that. Liberty has said:
“There was a riot. But it was a police riot.”
Michael Mansfield QC has called it the
“worst example of a mass frame-up in this country this century.”
Obviously, he was talking about the last century. Alan Billings, the South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner has said that, on that day, the police were
“dangerously close to being used as an instrument of state.”
That is frightening indeed. The SNP welcomes the findings of the Hillsborough inquiry and urges the UK Government to ensure that accountability follows, but we call on them to go further by not looking at that tragedy in isolation. It is imperative that there should be an inquiry into the policing of Orgreave to ensure that justice is done and the public can regain trust—
I understand entirely the point that the hon. Lady is raising. It is about the crossover of police behaviour in the Hillsborough incident and the Orgreave incident. She raises an important point, and she is right to say that there are serious allegations to be addressed. That is what the IPCC will be looking at, but we will also be making sure that the incident at Orgreave and the questions that she has raised will be carefully examined.
One of the things that occurred in the Hillsborough inquiry was that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and other people exposed the fact that the police were writing similar things about similar incidents. It has already been explained that the South Yorkshire police did exactly the same thing at Orgreave. I went there and saw it for myself. It was one-way traffic by the police, and then the same statement was written over and over again for each of the miners. So I hope the Home Secretary is not going to be hanging about for very long on this. An overt promise was made by the last Home Secretary that, arising out of Hillsborough, the Orgreave case would be linked to it. Let’s have some truth and justice for Orgreave.
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask for truth and justice. That is why I contacted the campaign leader this morning to ensure that we have an appointment to see each other in September. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not hanging around on this. It is one of the most important items in my in-tray. There are a lot of allegations, some of which he has raised here today, and I will look at them.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to her new position. I also welcome this urgent question from the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), because these are important issues. I very much back up what my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) has just said. As I have said before, when talking about the Hillsborough verdict, the name “South Yorkshire police” now does a disservice to the honest, hard-working officers who put themselves on the frontline. I appreciate that the Home Secretary is taking time over the summer to consider this inquiry. May I ask her—I know she cannot answer today—to acknowledge that the time has come to consider reorganising Yorkshire policing and to remove the name “South Yorkshire police”?
I can tell my hon. Friend that the new leadership has made a clear commitment to address issues within South Yorkshire police. The incoming chief constable will have in place a long-term package of support, comprising several subject experts from across policing and the College of Policing. They are aware of the damage that has been done and my hon. Friend’s suggestion may be one thing that they consider, but it is most important to have clear leadership to deal with the legacy of difficulties.
I welcome the new Home Secretary to her position and wish her well. It is not unreasonable in these circumstances for her to want to take time to consider the matter, but it will not go away. While it may relate specifically to South Yorkshire, it has implications for the credibility of policing right across the country. Does she accept that this matter is wholly exceptional and will need a wholly exceptional resolution?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I made a point earlier about historical cases, which make it feel like there is a series of issues and allegations to be dealt with. I hope that he will take some comfort from the fact that this Government and the previous Home Secretary have a reputation for not shying away from addressing difficult issues. I hope to ensure that we continue to deserve that reputation.
My father was a West Midlands policeman in the 1980s and spent some days policing at Orgreave. Clearly, where there is solid evidence of police malpractice, it must be dealt with effectively and with the full force of the law. Does the Home Secretary recognise the concerns of many serving and retired police officers about what they perceive to be a political campaign with a predetermined outcome?
There is a strong thread between Orgreave and Hillsborough, but there is also a parallel with Shrewsbury. The only way to disprove what the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) just said about political motivations is to have a full independent inquiry. Why doesn’t she get on with it and just do it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his view, but I repeat that it would be wrong for me to just, as he puts it, “get on with it”. I want to look at the evidence; the process must be driven by evidence. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign spent six months pulling together a substantial package and body of evidence. I will not ignore its work; I will take a careful look at all of it.
I am happy to refer to it as an incident—the word that the hon. Gentleman uses—but it is more important to ensure that we look carefully at all the evidence. Once I have had a look at all the evidence and have reached a conclusion, I will be able to come back and describe it as what it really was.
Orgreave is in my constituency and people still come to my surgery in tears after reliving the horror they saw when they went with their families to picket peacefully, the violent abuse that they suffered and the vile media campaign afterwards. Will the Home Secretary please give them justice and peace by holding a public inquiry?
The hon. Lady makes a clear and passionate case as she always does in the House when she campaigns. My office spoke to the campaign group this morning and I will be meeting the group in September. I appreciate the levels of distress, hurt and historical anger that are part of this case, which is why I will take it seriously.
With my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), I brought the campaign group down to meet the then Home Secretary over a year ago. It was therefore unexpected and unwelcome to hear last week that, after all that, she was still waiting for the investigations to be concluded. The shadow Home Secretary raised a serious question about the IPCC’s advice. Will the Home Secretary take this opportunity to correct the record, and will she give a firm commitment about exactly when after meeting the campaign group in September she will be making a decision?
I recognise that this has been a long time in coming—the incident happened of course in 1984. The previous Home Secretary met the campaign group in July last year. Six months later, it came back with the evidence, so we have had that since the end of last year. I have decided that I will look at it over the summer—it is substantial—and will meet the campaign group in September. I will come to a decision as soon as I can after that. I hesitate to say anything firmer than that, but I reassure the hon. Lady that I will come to a decision as soon as I can.
I know about the concerns that the hon. Gentleman refers to when he says “the top of it” and that is what the IPCC is focused on. It is about looking at the connections between the Hillsborough inquiry that we have already had and Orgreave. I will not shy away from looking carefully at wherever there has been wrongdoing or wherever there are links.
While Orgreave happened many years ago, problems still exist in South Yorkshire police, as the recent peer review identified. I thank the previous Home Secretary and the previous Policing Minister, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), for their help in setting up that peer review and their support for the police and crime commissioner in getting in an interim chief constable and then appointing a permanent chief constable—that was welcome. Will the Home Secretary now commit to support the IPCC in addressing the issue identified by the peer review? Will she also have a look at the role of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary? It has done several reviews of South Yorkshire police in recent years but never identified the issues raised by the peer review.
The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. He is right; we hope that there will be progress under the new leadership. We will carefully follow progress under Dave Jones. My colleague the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), has already said he will be going to visit over the summer, so we are taking seriously the improvements that the new leadership has said that it will make.
The Home Secretary said that she will make a decision in the autumn, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and for Halton (Derek Twigg) and I, as chair of the all-party group on the Hillsborough disaster, spent many hours talking with the Home Secretary’s predecessor and the IPCC to understand the consequences of the decisions being made about that injustice. Will the Home Secretary speak to the Prime Minister about that experience to learn those lessons and will she commit to meeting extensively with Members about the horrific events at Orgreave?
I can certainly give the hon. Lady that commitment. I have already said that I will meet the right hon. Member for Leigh. If any other colleagues would like to join us in that meeting, I will also meet them to ensure that I am fully informed and up to date on the whole issue and the campaign thus far.
It is important that not all police officers are tarred with the same brush on Orgreave. I have heard personal testimony from Greater Manchester police officers saying that they did not co-operate with the corrupt practices of South Yorkshire police during the dispute. How does the Home Secretary suggest that I feed in that evidence?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, which was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) in reference to his father. We must ensure that not everyone is tarred with the same brush—if indeed that is what happens. I will be delighted to receive any information from the hon. Gentleman that would help to reach a decision and that could form part of the inquiry that I am looking at in September.
Order. Presentation of Bill, Geraint Davies—where is the chappie? He is not here. [Hon. Members: He’s behind you! Better late than never.]
UK International Trade and Investment Agreements (Ratification) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Geraint Davies, supported by Sir Edward Leigh, Ms Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, Hywel Williams, Mr Mark Williams, Helen Goodman, Sir Alan Meale, Jonathan Reynolds, Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck, Mark Durkan, Stewart Malcolm McDonald and Stephen Twigg, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to lay bilateral and multilateral trade and investment agreements before Parliament; to prohibit the implementation of such an agreement without the approval by resolution of each House; to provide a process for the amendment of such agreements, including any arrangements for investor-state dispute settlement, by Parliament; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 October, and to be printed (Bill 56).
Perinatal Mental Illness (NHS Family Services) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Rehman Chishti, supported by Norman Lamb, Yasmin Qureshi, Kelly Tolhurst and Tim Loughton, presented a Bill to make provision about the appropriate level of access to NHS services and accommodation for mothers with perinatal mental illness; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 2 December, and to be printed (Bill 57).
Electoral Reform (Proportional Representation and Reduction of Voting Age)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a bill to amend the Representation of the People Acts to provide for the introduction of proportional representation as a method for electing Members of the House of Commons; to reduce the voting age to 16 in all UK elections and referendums; and for connected purposes.
I am introducing this Bill today because our electoral system is broken and we urgently need to address some of the reasons why. As a country, we pride ourselves on our strong commitment to democracy, yet the vast majority of votes cast up and down the land simply do not count. Power is held by a small minority, and the voting system upholds that status quo. We may be on the path to leaving the EU, but all those who were promised they would be given back “control” simply will not have it without meaningful electoral reform.
The current unrepresentative voting system is doing long-term pervasive damage, which manifests itself in phenomena such as a widespread lack of trust and faith in public servants, and the growth of what some have coined, with Orwellian overtones, “post-truth politics”. Far too many of our constituents are disillusioned, disaffected and disengaged, and continuing to deny them a voice in the decisions that affect us all only perpetuates the problems. Yet, that is exactly what happens under our first-past-the-post voting system. It is a system where votes are not all equal, because unless someone lives in one of the small number of heavily targeted marginal seats, their vote simply does not count. The Electoral Reform Society has described the 2015 general election as
“the most disproportionate in electoral history”,
with this Government elected on just 24% of the eligible vote.
First past the post has a long record of failing to deliver Governments who command genuine majority support. In 1997, Labour gained 43.2% of the total votes cast but won 63% of seats at Westminster. In that same election the combined number of votes for the Tories and Liberal Democrats represented 47.5% of the total votes, nearly 4% more than Labour, yet between them they got 32.1% of the seats available at Westminster. No Prime Minister since 1931 has won a majority of the vote to match his or her majority in the Commons—not Blair, not Thatcher, not Attlee.
Moreover, first past the post creates seats so safe that some incumbents are so relaxed as to be almost horizontal. This complacency in MPs is matched by disillusionment among voters. How does it engage people in the political process if large numbers are driven to vote tactically, rather than to vote for what they actually want, because, as so many campaign leaflets are always reminding us, “Party X can’t win in this area”? Interestingly, MPs in safe seats were twice as likely as those with the smallest majorities to be found abusing the expenses system.
In the 1950s, most people simply voted Labour or Conservative, but since then the proportion of people voting for the two main parties has fallen from 97% to 67%. Parties other than the big three received 10% of the votes at the 2005 and 2010 elections, but in 2015 that rose to a staggering 24.9%—nearly a quarter and the biggest share since 1945. In other words, people vote differently now, and we need a voting system that is updated to reflect that.
My Bill would introduce a proportional voting system. There are two main PR systems, but my preference is for the additional member system, because it retains the constituency link, which most MPs value enormously. But I have deliberately not specified which system should be introduced, because it is the principle that I am seeking to establish at this stage. All voting systems have advantages and drawbacks, but none are so mind-bending that the public cannot cope with their complexities, despite what many detractors of PR like to claim. They perhaps forget that voters already manage with a PR system used for the London Assembly and for the Scottish and Welsh Parliament Members, and of course we have the single transferable vote for European elections. That same attitude demonstrates the very lack of respect for voters that adherence to the disproportionate first-past-the-post system perpetuates. Voters are not stupid; they know when they are being spun a line or patronised. It is deeply insulting to be denying them a fair vote on the basis that they would not know how to use it. As an aside, let me say that the fact voters decisively rejected the alternative vote system in 2011 is irrelevant; AV is not PR.
Under PR there is a simple relationship of cause and effect for voters. If they vote for a candidate, they increase his or her chances of getting elected. If they vote for a party, they increase that party’s entitlement to seats. By doing this, they achieve more representation for their views. First past the post does not deliver seats that look like the votes cast, whereas PR does. A winner-takes-all system in which the Conservatives claim to have a mandate based on 37% of the vote and just 24% of the electorate is not sustainable, nor is one in which the Greens quadrupled their share of the vote nationally, to 1.1 million votes in 2015, and got one seat. The UK Independence party polled 3.8 million votes, and although I do not like its policies, it is still not right that it got just one seat. The Scottish National party, whose Members I am glad to call my hon. Friends, polled 1.4 million and won 56 seats. I know that even they would agree that that is a little disproportionate, which is why they are here in such force—I welcome that and am grateful to them. Of course, changing the voting system would not necessarily have changed the overall outcome, but that is not the central point here. The main reason for introducing PR is that making every vote count is a vital part of the process of reconnecting people and politics. I believe that encouraging more people to come out to vote because they know their vote matters would lead to an increased voter turnout.
Some people say that people are not interested in politics, but everyone is interested in the state of their local schools and in whether or not they have a local hospital. Those are political matters. Whatever someone’s take on the recent EU referendum, it demonstrated that if people are given a say, they can be very political indeed, in the best possible sense of the word—as citizens who feel they can be genuine agents for change. I would also anticipate that under PR we would return a Parliament that better reflects modern Britain. Only 29% of MPs are women and although that is more than ever before, it still not right when women make up just over half the country’s adult population. People of colour, disabled people, carers, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender—LGBT—people are still under-represented in Parliament. I think that would change under PR, because MPs would not be able just to rely on the votes of their tribe. To win the support of the majority of voters, they would be forced to reach out across the party divides to the wider electorate: to more women, to more black and minority ethnic—BME—communities and so forth. I hope that would mean traditionally excluded groups standing for election, too.
Above all, proportional representation is about fairness, which is why my Bill puts PR hand in hand with giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. Sixteen-year-olds are considered old enough to enter into marriage and civil partnerships, pay income tax and national insurance, obtain welfare benefits in their own right, and join the armed forces, a political party or a trade union. Surely they should help elect the MPs who make decisions about those very things. About 64% of registered voters aged 18 to 24 went to the polls in the EU referendum, compared with an estimated 52% in the last general election. In other words, increased awareness of voter registration, combined with a vote that actually counts, means that young people come out in large numbers to voice their opinions.
The United Kingdom was one of the first countries in the world to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, but it is now trailing behind countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Austria—unless, of course, you live in Scotland, which has blazed a trail with a more inclusive and equal political system, through giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote in the independence referendum. Those young people need a say, not just on the future of the Union, but on all the decisions that affect their future. We also need equality between 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland and those in the rest of the UK.
If democracy is about fairly representing the views of the people, our current democratic system is failing. In future, especially with the Government’s planned boundary changes, that could get even worse. PR would bring some much-needed fairness, as well as helping to tackle some of the reasons why people do not vote—the idea that their vote does not make a difference. Just under a month ago, people opted to take back control of our democracy, yet unless we reform the electoral system they will still have virtually no control over who runs the country or represents them in Parliament. Much has rightly been said about the importance of reversing the alienation and neglect felt in many parts of our country, which this EU referendum result laid bare. I believe that electoral reform and votes at 16 have a key role to play in healing the country and bringing it back together. They are a way of demonstrating to people that, yes, every vote they cast is important and, yes, their voice does matter and indeed has been heard.
As we have heard, this Bill would do two things. Reducing the voting age has been repeatedly discussed and rejected by sizeable margins in the Commons in the past 12 months. It was discussed, for example, in multiple stages of both the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill and the European Union Referendum Bill, so I will not rehash all the same arguments here.
The proposed Bill would also change the voting system. Although I acknowledge and respect the energetic commitment and zeal of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for this particular cause, I fear that this Bill may harm our democracy rather than help it—the exact opposite of what she intends to achieve—because we held a referendum on whether to change our voting system in 2011 and, collectively, we voted against change. We decided to keep our tried and trusted first past-the-post system by a hefty margin of more than two to one. Therefore, a proposed Bill that claims to be about improving our democracy starts with a proposal to ignore a very clear democratic decision. The people have spoken, and, by a majority of more than 6 million, they have decided that they want none of this. Some would argue—in fact the hon. Lady did—that the 2011 referendum result should not count; that it asked the wrong question about the alternative vote system, which is not technically a proportional system at all; and that if only they could be allowed to rerun the poll with a slightly different question somehow a completely different result could be achieved.
I am happy to pick the matter up with the right hon. Gentleman in the Tea Room afterwards.
Let us ignore, for the moment, the unlikelihood of a 6 million vote majority being overturned by a small change in the question, and just consider for a second the dozens and dozens of different forms of proportional and alternative voting systems. It does not matter whether we are talking about open lists, zipped lists, the D’Hondt method, supplementary votes or transferrable votes, every different version has its own passionate and committed band of dedicated enthusiasts. Some of them are highly reputable organisations and others are lonely obsessives blogging furiously in the privacy of their parents’ spare bedrooms. No matter who they are, it is simply not possible to argue that we should ignore the AV referendum result just because it did not propose precisely their preferred flavour of new voting system. That fundamentally misses the point. Not only did voters reject changing our tried and trusted first-past-the-post system, but they will take a very dim view indeed of the prospect of many further referendums in future as dozens of other organisations queue up to argue that the last poll did not propose precisely their particular favourite voting system and to demand yet another rerun with a slightly different question.
Even worse, this Bill comes at a time when a large proportion of the population is far more concerned about the much more recent EU referendum where there was a narrower—although still decisive—majority verdict. I am not alone in getting hundreds of emails from people who do not like the result of the EU vote and are loudly demanding a rerun, a vote in Parliament, a lawsuit, anything in fact, to change the result. By telling people they can ignore the results of the even more decisive AV referendum in 2011, this Bill would implicitly encourage people to believe that they can ignore the result of the EU referendum too, telling them, in effect, that if they stick their fingers in their ears and sing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” loudly enough, Brexit may not actually mean Brexit after all.
Our democracy is already pretty fragile, with trust in politics and politicians, and election turnout, already worryingly low. I cannot think of anything more calculated to stoke the fires of anti-political anger than acting as if the will of the people, clearly expressed in not just one but two separate referendums on different issues, might not be democratically binding or sovereign after all.
So please, Mr Speaker, enough already. This Bill ignores the repeatedly expressed democratic will of Parliament, which has already rejected lowering the voting age many times over the past year, and it ignores a thumping referendum verdict against changing the voting system in 2011 as well. We are about to abolish an entire layer of proportionately elected representatives when we get rid of MEPs as we leave the EU. Now is not the time to replace them with something else. The people have spoken and even though I understand and respect the fact that the answer is not to the hon. Lady’s liking, I urge her please to respect its democratic power and to leave the issue alone for a long, long time.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23).
[6th Allotted Day]
Supported Housing: Benefit
Before I move the motion, I take the opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and members of his team to their posts.
I beg to move,
That this House notes that the Government intends to cut housing benefit for vulnerable people in specialist housing, including elderly people and people who are homeless, disabled or fleeing domestic violence; believes that this will have harmful effects on current and future tenants of these specialist housing schemes; further notes that there is already a significant shortfall in this type of housing provision across the country; notes that charities, housing associations, councils and others have made Government Ministers aware of the damaging impact these cuts will have on tenants and the financial viability of these schemes and that the Government’s proposal to mitigate these cuts with discretionary housing payments will not compensate for these cuts; notes that the Government’s own evidence review into the impact of its decision, commissioned in December 2015, has yet to be published; notes that the Government has postponed the implementation of these cuts for new tenants to April 2017 but plans to fully roll out its planned cuts to housing benefit in April 2018; and therefore calls on the Government to exempt supported housing from its planned housing benefit cuts and to consult fully with supported housing providers to identify ways in which all vulnerable people who need supported housing can access it.
Six months ago my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) led an Opposition day debate on the Government’s decision to cap housing benefit support for vulnerable people in specialist housing. The decision will affect elderly citizens, our armed forces veterans, those with disabilities, people with learning difficulties and people with mental health problems. It will hit homeless people and it will jeopardise the safety of people fleeing domestic violence.
Following pressure from the Opposition Benches, and concerns raised by Members on the Government Benches, there was an interesting debate last week led by the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). A campaign has been mounted across the country by community groups and housing providers. I was pleased that the Government agreed to delay the implementation of the cap, but I press Ministers now to go one step further. They must reverse their decision to slash housing benefit for a huge range of vulnerable people living in supported housing. What kind of country would we be if we abandoned the most vulnerable in our society? What kind of message will it send, not just to the country and to vulnerable people but to observers around the world, about the priorities of this Government?
What credibility will be left for the outgoing Prime Minister’s repeated assertion that the Government would not balance the books on the backs of the poorest? Unless Ministers reverse that destructive decision, that is precisely what they will be doing. I am willing to give way to the Secretary of State if he is prepared to stand at the Dispatch Box, say that he will reverse the decision and make the announcement that we are all hoping for. To implement that decision would be a damning legacy for the former Prime Minister and a broken promise to those who can least afford it. The decision is not just detrimental to the most vulnerable members of society; in purely financial terms, it makes no sense.
Indeed, that is the case. The groups I originally listed are some of the most vulnerable in society—they are people who should be protected and who require supported housing. If the Government proceed on their intended course, some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people will be further disadvantaged, and the cost to the taxpayer and the Exchequer will be greater.
The Government’s proposal does not make financial sense, and it leaves the providers of supported housing in an invidious position. I know that housing providers—I have met many of them—breathed a collective sigh of relief when the decision to cap support was delayed pending a review, but they are still left in a very precarious position, with the sword of Damocles hanging over the services they provide.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne pointed out in a debate in the House on 27 January, unless the Government reverse this pernicious proposal, 156,000 units of supported and sheltered housing may have to close.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have received a letter from the New Charter housing group, which operates social housing in the Tameside part of my constituency. New Charter hits the nail on the head when it says that, as a result of this proposal, it
“will not have the income to sustain the provision of supported housing”
“will inevitably see the closure of some schemes.”
“Many of these supported and sheltered schemes”
in Tameside will
“become financially unviable”.
Is that not exactly what will happen up and down the country if these cuts continue?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point in a very concise way. [Interruption.] A member of the Government is saying from a sedentary position, “They don’t know,” but the situation is absolutely clear. The point I am trying to make is that housing providers need certainty over their income streams before they can plan for new provision—that is a reasonable point, which I am sure is not beyond the understanding of Ministers with a financial background.
Is it not important to do this review, with housing benefit being rolled into universal credit? There is scaremongering that there are going to be cuts, but people do not actually know what the outcome is going to be, so let us have a constructive discussion during the review and give some certainty to the sector.
With respect, I must point out that Government decisions should be based on evidence. Before embarking on a plan and a policy, it would be sensible to look at the evidence objectively and scientifically. If the hon. Lady wants expert opinion, I am happy to give her that and to quote the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, David Orr, who met the then Housing Minister on 18 December last year. He said—this is an expert in the field—that the impact of the local housing allowance cap will be
“stark and make it extremely difficult for any housing associations to develop new supported housing.”
He also said:
“providers across the country will be forced to close schemes.”
There is plenty of evidence of that, and I am sure that Members on both sides of the House have had representations from housing associations and housing providers.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand that a research project is now looking at this evidence? That conflicts with his motion on the Order Paper, which says:
“the Government intends to cut housing benefit for vulnerable people”.
That is pure scaremongering.
It is a matter of fact. It is a kind of chicken-and-egg situation: surely you review the evidence before you announce a decision and then put it on hold. I believe the review was started in 2015—perhaps the Minister can correct me if I am wrong—so why are we still waiting for the results? Why did the Chancellor of the Exchequer make an autumn statement that had huge implications for some of the most vulnerable people living in supported housing, without looking at the evidence first?
I do hope the hon. Gentleman will talk about the 20 years prior to this review, when there was no review. For many years under the Labour Government, there was no review of what was happening with the additional housing benefit for people in supported housing or of how it was being spent. Does he remember that in the last debate on this issue, many people said they did not know where that money was? They did not know how much money was being spent, what it was being spent on or whether it was effective. Are the Government not therefore absolutely right to conduct this review and then to come forward with their proposals? Is he really not just scaremongering?
We have to deal with the position we now find ourselves in. Demand for supported housing has changed and increased dramatically. One million people rely on food banks, which certainly was not the case 10 years ago. We have a huge problem with people suffering from mental health problems and learning difficulties. We have a debt to our armed services personnel—our veterans—many of whom have post-traumatic stress disorder and need supported housing.
There are therefore new factors that we need to take account of, but, if I may be so presumptuous, it is surely the job of the Government to commission the studies. [Interruption.] Well, indeed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne and my noble Friend Lord Beecham—or Jeremy Beecham, as we know him—have tabled a series of questions and got the answer that Ministers do not know. That is a bit of an indictment of Ministers, who are supposed to compile an evidence base on which to make decisions.
Looking again at the advice of professionals, we see that the National Housing Federation estimates that a staggering 80% of the total planned new build will not be built.
Sorry, the hon. Gentleman is sceptical. The reason is that providers need certainty; without certainty they cannot proceed. Often, they are raising funding for these schemes—I can see the Minister for Housing and Planning nodding in agreement—and they need certainty when going to the market. Where there is uncertainty, they cannot raise the necessary funding. On that basis, as responsible organisations—they are a mixture of local authorities, housing associations, charities, charitable trusts and so on—they cannot reasonably go on to build the supported housing units I think everyone in the House agrees we need.
There is another effect as well. That situation, in turn, has a knock-on effect on the construction industry. The jobs that would have been created, and that I think we all want, will not now happen. This is an important sector, and we should be growing it, not allowing it to contract. At a time when house building outside London remains in the doldrums, that will be another setback for the industry and the economy.
How on earth can Ministers expect supported housing providers to continue, when they know that spending cuts and other policy decisions have already hit people living in supported housing schemes? Supported housing provides vital help for tens of thousands of people across this country. It is mark of a decent, civilised society that services such as this exist in the first place. They play a crucial role in providing a safe and secure home with support so that people can live independently and others can get their lives back on track. As I mentioned, that includes supporting ex-servicemen and women to find a stable home, including those suffering from post-traumatic problems, and with mental health needs and physical disability needs.
I remind the House of the armed forces covenant, which sets out the relationship between the nation, the Government and the armed forces. It recognises that the nation as a whole and this House in particular have a moral obligation—I call it a debt of honour—to members of the armed forces and their families. It establishes how they should expect to be treated and how we should expect to treat them. I am an eternal optimist—I am a Sunderland supporter and we have escaped four times—but if Ministers do not do a U-turn today, they will be breaking that covenant with our veterans and those who have given so much in service to their country.
In addition to ex-servicemen and women, many older people also rely on supported housing to maintain their independence. These elderly citizens have worked all their lives and paid their taxes, only to find in the autumn of their lives that their Government are turning their back on them. Personally, I think that that is morally indefensible and a betrayal of a generation that gave us the welfare state and the national health service.
I know that some of my hon. Friends are going to address the issue of victims of domestic violence, who are another important group. Over time, a number of Members—not just Opposition Members, but Government Members—have raised concerns about the closure of homes for victims of domestic violence. I understand that at least 34 such establishments have closed, and I am advised by housing associations that all eight in my own region are at risk of closure, including that in my own constituency.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about domestic violence refuges, but this Government committed £40 million in the autumn statement for services for victims of domestic abuse, which is a tripling of funding compared with the previous four years. Does he not welcome that?
I welcome the Government’s commitment to providing that specific support, but the problem is that the hostels, establishments and places of safety are disappearing. Places of safety are needed, mostly for women, but also for some men who have suffered violence and threats of death. It would be a terrible indictment of the Government if they allowed such establishments to be closed.
On the £40 million, which has yet to be allocated, and the £10 million gift before the election, the bids for money to be allocated to Refuge were submitted with sustainability plans for the future based on housing benefit at its current rate. The Government signed off on every single one of those plans, but then, dishonestly, went back on them.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing up the important issue of domestic abuse services. I am sure that he will agree with the concerns expressed to me by De Gwynedd Domestic Abuse Service and many other agencies that arrangements for abuse sufferers under the age of 35 when they are moving out of refuges may well put victims at risk.
I completely agree. This is a very real concern that affects the constituencies of Members on both sides of the House. I shudder to think what the consequences will be if these facilities are allowed to close. It would be simple for the Secretary of State to announce from the Dispatch Box that he will do a U-turn on supported housing. The whole House and the country would breathe a sigh of relief if he did that.
Homeless people are another defenceless and vulnerable group who can and do benefit from supported housing. Supported housing for homeless people with complex and multiple needs, such as mental health problems, can help them to make the transition from life on the streets into a settled home. It can help them with education, training, life skills and normal socialisation. It also helps homeless people in desperate circumstances to stabilise their lives, and it can assist them into employment and a stable future. In short, it brings dignity back into homeless people’s lives and enables them to participate fully in society once again. It can also provide huge savings for our criminal justice system.
There has already been a steep rise in rough sleeping since the coalition Government came to power in 2010. That has been caused by a number of factors, not least the combined impact of rising rents, cuts to housing benefit allowances, which have affected younger people in particular, and reductions in services that local authorities can offer to vulnerable people on the brink of homelessness. Unless the Government have a rethink about the housing benefit system, there will be a further rise in homelessness. The inherent cost to the Treasury and society must not be pushed to one side. Are Ministers seriously suggesting that, in the sixth richest economy in the world, this country cannot provide that vital assistance to homeless people?
I have heard Ministers waxing lyrical about the importance of mental health provision, and I absolutely agree with them. It should be a priority and they have said that it must be a higher priority. People with significant mental health needs often have to utilise supported housing—the hon. Member for Waveney made this point in an Adjournment debate last week—to stabilise their lives and live more independently. If the Government’s rhetoric about prioritising mental health means anything, Ministers must not proceed with the plans to slash housing benefit for supported housing.
People with learning disabilities also need supported housing. I declare an interest, because I have an association with Mencap and Golden Lane Housing. In fact, I met the previous Minister, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who is in his place, to discuss some specific points. If Ministers are really serious about helping people with learning disabilities and learning difficulties to maximise their independence and to exercise choice and control over their lives, they cannot possibly countenance these cuts.
I remember that meeting, which made it clear why this review cannot be rushed. Many unique challenges have to be supported through supported housing, and it is right and proper that the Government do not rush this. Crucially, support in the short term remains in place. That view has been echoed by Denise Hatton, the chief executive of the YMCA, who has said:
“It is positive that the Government has listened to the concerns of the sector and we welcome the fact it has taken appropriate action to protect supported housing.”
We cannot rush this, because that is how mistakes will happen.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for the courteous way in which he met the delegation from Mencap. As a basic principle, however, surely we should compile the evidence and assess it before making a decision, but the Government have made an announcement, and that has introduced uncertainty. That is why schemes have been cancelled and why housing providers are giving notice of their intention to close facilities. A basic principle needs to be applied. The amount of time that the review has taken—I think it is of the order of 19 months or so—is another issue. Does it really have to take that long to have an impact study on which the Government can base their policy?
I will make progress because a lot of right hon. and hon. Members want to take part and I do not want to stifle their contributions. In my opening remarks, I said that these cuts make no financial sense. I remind Ministers that the Government’s own Home and Communities Agency has found that supported housing provision has a net positive financial benefit of about £640 million for the UK taxpayer every year. Rather than cutting provision for supported housing, the Government should now expand and improve it. The National Housing Federation has calculated that there is a current shortfall of 15,640 supported housing placements, so there is already considerable pressure on the sector. I have mentioned some of the reasons for that. Local authorities, housing associations, charities and other providers in this sector really want to deliver the supported housing that the people of this country need, but delivering this ambition is virtually impossible because the Government have made the operating environment so uncertain.
Incredibly, in last year’s autumn statement, the then Chancellor introduced the cap on housing benefit to local housing allowance levels without the Government actually knowing what its impact would be. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne highlighted this point when he spoke at this Dispatch Box in January. Before the debate, he had asked Ministers for evidence about the impact of the decision. Specifically, if memory serves, he asked the Minister—
Perhaps I am mistaken and it was one of the Minister’s colleagues.
My right hon. Friend asked how many elderly people, how many women fleeing from domestic violence, how many people with mental health problems and how many young people leaving care would be affected, but, incredibly, the then Minister for Housing and Planning was not able to provide an answer. If the Government do not know how many people in supported housing are in receipt of housing benefit, how can we expect them to make a decision? It is absolutely vital to have such information to hand to make an informed decision. Ministers did not know what a profound impact their decision would have on providers and on the people who depend on these services, and it seems that they still do not know, unless they are just not answering questions on this.
To be fair, Ministers did commission an evidence review, but that was back in January 2015. Even though the review had not reported on its findings at the time of the last autumn statement, the then Chancellor still ploughed on regardless. Six months ago, my right hon. Friend was assured that the review would be ready later this year. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), teased us in the Adjournment debate last week by suggesting that the review would be published imminently.
Did Ministers know what the impact would be when the Chancellor included this decision in his autumn statement? They did not know what the impact of their decision would be—that is for sure—when the issue was debated in this House six months ago. That raises the question: what is happening, and when will we know?
When it comes to making policy, Ministers are old hands at making policy in an evidence-free zone. The use of evidence to develop policy seems to be an alien concept to the Government, but I would have thought it was in the natural order of things. This is something of a travesty. Although the Government’s evidence review seems to have ground to a halt, Ministers cannot claim to be completely ignorant. After all, the providers of supported housing have made their feelings known. I am sure that Ministers—even those in the new ministerial team—have met housing associations, charities and providers. We have met them regularly, and they have made their views absolutely plain.
I have mentioned the views of David Orr. He has said that housing
“providers across the country will be forced to close schemes.”
He has described the difference between supported housing and general needs social housing and explained why rents in supported housing are higher. He has pointed out that
“the uncertainty about the future approach is already leading to supported housing under development being delayed or cancelled because of the long lead times involved in investment and development.”
The hon. Gentleman is being most generous in giving way. He mentioned an “evidence-free zone”, but all I have noted so far from his speech are continual references to David Orr of the National Housing Federation. There are more voices in this industry than his. Is not the process the Government are going through about taking on those voices, and about gathering and discussing the information? There is not therefore an evidence-free zone.
I am grateful to the Minister—[Interruption.] I am sure it is just a matter of time. This is a terribly confusing time.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right that there is a plethora of housing providers. I have met and received evidence from Mencap, Golden Lane Housing, Rethink Mental Illness and Changing Lives, as well as various housing associations, such as North Star and the Durham Aged Mineworkers Homes Association, and the National Housing Federation itself, all of which have raised concerns about supported housing in particular sectors. I have not listed those supporting members of the forces, but there is a similar thread and strand bringing this all together.
Before my hon. Friend finishes his long list, which could possibly be even longer, may I remind him that the YMCA is desperately concerned about these proposals? We should place that concern on the record. I cannot believe anyone in this House wishes to destroy all the good work that the YMCA has undertaken.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out what an important role the YMCA plays in providing supported accommodation for young people, particularly those leaving care and those in the younger age bracket.
It is important that we look at the evidence. I do not think that the sums add up. Ministers seem to be drawn to an evidence-free policy, but surely it should be obvious to them that a local discretionary scheme will not work. Ministers have previously said that discretionary schemes can assist in mitigation, but that does not alleviate the uncertainty. Providers of supported housing need certainty in the rental stream to fund the cost of managing these schemes and to service the loan charges incurred in developing them in the first place. Any reasonable person—let alone a Minister—will know that people cannot rely on a fluctuating income stream to service the cost of a loan. If Ministers persist with this ham-fisted plan—let me call it that—existing supported housing schemes will close, new supported housing schemes will be cancelled and some of the most vulnerable people will be left to fend for themselves.
The new Prime Minister once talked about the Conservative party as the “nasty party”. When she spoke on the steps of No. 10, she said she wanted
“a country that works for everyone”.
The Government have an opportunity today to prove that the Prime Minister meant what she said just seven days ago, but if the newly appointed Ministers refuse to listen to reason and proceed with these callous cuts, they will be demonstrating that the Conservatives have not really changed and truly deserve their label as the “nasty party”. I commend the motion to the House.
It is an unexpected pleasure to be back at this Dispatch Box. I thank the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) for his welcome to me and my new ministerial team. May I say at the outset that I absolutely understand the concerns he has expressed and that have been expressed by other Opposition Members in this and previous debates and, indeed, by Government Members as well? This is clearly a hugely important, sensitive and difficult issue, which is why I welcome this debate.
Before I move on to the principles on which I will take the decision, may I respond very directly to a couple of points made by the hon. Gentleman, who speaks for the Labour party on these issues? I agree with him that supported housing can and does relieve pressure on other public services. It performs a hugely important job. That is precisely why I am considering very carefully the costs and benefits of supported housing in the round as part of the review that the Government have been conducting.
The hon. Gentleman asked for two things in his speech. First, he asked me to change the policy now. Secondly, he asked us to take the evidence first and then make a decision. I can either take one piece of advice or the other, but I really cannot take both. I have decided to take his second piece of advice: I will look at the evidence first and then take a decision, because that is the rational way to make policy.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned various representations he has received, particularly from the National Housing Federation. I am happy to assure him that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), and Lord Freud met David Orr last week to discuss the precise details that we need to get right.
I will, as the right hon. Gentleman would expect as an experienced denizen of this Dispatch Box on this subject, come to that in the course of my speech. This is, as I have said, a complex matter and it is important to get it right.
Let me start by setting out the principles on which I will operate in this area.
It is a great pleasure to welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box. He has mentioned David Orr and there are other organisations that have concerns and that take different views on this subject. The Government have been in very active dialogue. Will my right hon. Friend commit to maintaining that dialogue as he goes through the evidence behind this policy?
Absolutely, I will. I am coming up, in a minute, to the six-day anniversary of my occupation of this post, so I apologise if I have not taken all the representations in person yet, but my Ministers and I are certainly trying very hard to do so.
As everyone on both sides of the House knows, the supported housing sector provides important support to a diverse range of groups and individuals across the country. It supports those with learning difficulties, allowing them to live as independently as possible; it provides a safe refuge for those escaping domestic violence; it helps ex-offenders make a successful transition back into mainstream society; and it supports those who have experienced homelessness. The sector helps to transform lives and it allows people to live as independently as possible, to move into work where possible, which is hugely important, and to be safe, healthy and happy. It is a very important sector.
As constituency Members, we all have examples of that kind of support being provided. I have visited the Porchlight project in my constituency, which helps vulnerable and isolated people get support with housing, mental health issues, education and employment. Vital work is done by this sector. From my previous experience in government, I have seen the value of the sector in the criminal justice system. A stable and supportive environment can be the key to reducing reoffending. For example, Stonham BASS provides accommodation for people who have been bailed by the courts or released on home detention curfew after they have served a prison sentence. The service reduces unnecessary imprisonment and the negative effects that it has on family life, employment and housing, and so helps to deter people from reoffending.
I have discussed this matter with Solihull Carers, which has concerns. It understands that this is the first review of these things for 20 years. It also understands that the total bill for housing benefit in this country is some £25 billion, and that it is right that we take our time, explore all the options and try to come to the best resolution.
My hon. Friend is exactly right and the representations he has received are very wise. A huge sum of taxpayers’ money is being spent and it is important to spend it in the right way, not just in the taxpayers’ interest but so that it helps the particularly vulnerable groups that I have referred to as much as possible.
The Government have a strong track record in protecting supported housing. In the last Parliament, we found that many hostels and refuges were treated as “supported exempt accommodation” even though they did not fit the precise technical definition. We acted swiftly to introduce regulations to regularise the position and, vitally, to protect their income streams. We exempted supported housing from the benefit cap. We have continued to meet the housing costs for universal credit claimants through housing benefit. That is hugely important, because it means that providers do not have to adapt processes to accommodate the new arrangements while we work towards a more sustainable funding model that works for all parts of the sector.
I assure the House that I am prepared to listen carefully to the concerns of the supported housing sector regarding the application of local housing allowance rates. I will pray in aid as evidence of the flexibility with which I will approach this issue the written statement about welfare reform that is on the Order Paper today, which the hon. Member for Easington and others may have noticed. It deals with changes that I am making to and flexibilities that I am introducing into the universal credit regime. I hope people will take that as a sign that I am prepared to be as flexible as possible in making sure that these vital welfare policies actually work.
This issue is high on my list of priorities, so I am keen to ensure that the decisions I make do not unduly affect the sustainability of provision, the commissioning of new services or, particularly, the individuals who receive support. It is worth noting that the local housing allowance cap will not affect any benefit recipient until April 2018. My Department is working hard with colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government to resolve this issue. It is better to get this right than to rush to make a decision.
To answer the question from the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) directly, I expect to make an announcement on the way forward in the early autumn. We will spend the summer looking at the evidence and I will make an announcement in the early autumn.
I am grateful for that confirmation, although we have seen other commitments and timescales come and go. We look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State and will hold him to that. May I correct something he said earlier? It will be from April 2017 that new tenancies will then be affected in April 2018, so these changes will come into effect before 2018 and affect people from April 2017 onwards. That is why it is important that he gets to grips with this problem urgently.