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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
27 October 2016
Volume 616

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Cybercrime

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1. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to set out its approach to prosecuting cybercrime. [906823]

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The Crown Prosecution Service has this very month published guidelines on crimes involving social media, and it will publish a broader cybercrime strategy and guidance for prosecutors this autumn. All CPS prosecutors already have access to training on how to deal with cybercrime.

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Last week’s internet of things bot attack, which brought down Twitter and Spotify, among other sites, was the result of tens of millions of household devices, such as baby monitors and televisions, being hijacked by cyber-criminals. This Government have been perilously slow to recognise the real harm that online scams and viruses do to our constituents. What is the Solicitor General doing to ensure that the CPS can respond to internet of things attacks?

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The hon. Lady will know that the Government have in place many measures to deal with prevention; she is quite right to talk about the internet of things. When it comes to prosecution, I am confident that the CPS understands the international nature of this crime, particularly the exploitation by organised crime groups of cybercrime across the world and the need for co-operation with other jurisdictions to deal with it. Our cybercrime strategy will address a lot of the concerns she has expressed.

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Do we not rely too much on prosecution guidance when it comes to cybercrimes, such as online abuse, when there is no substitute for clear primary legislation? Will my hon. and learned Friend carefully consider the proposals of the Law Commission’s 13th programme of law reform, which looks at offensive online communications, and will he advise our right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor that this should be a top priority?

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I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work she has done and continues to do to tighten up the law on offences such as revenge pornography. I believe it is incumbent on the police and on prosecutors to use the existing law more thoroughly, but if there is a case for further reform, the Government will of course look at it very carefully.

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Has the Solicitor General seen that over 100 Members of Parliament have now signed a letter to President Obama on the case of Lauri Love, who is going to be extradited to the United States to face trial for hacking into government files? Does he realise that this young man is on the autism spectrum, has severe mental health challenges and may not survive such a journey?

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I am very conscious of that case, as I have a strong interest in autism issues. I have to emphasise that it is of course a matter for the courts—there has been a court procedure relating to this issue—so I am loth to make direct comment on the case, but I am certainly following it very carefully.

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There is little doubt that there has been a huge increase in cybercrime of all sorts over the past few years. Does the Attorney General think we have the specialist knowledge we need within all our law enforcement agencies to tackle the problem?

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My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. It is vital that the investigatory and prosecutorial authorities understand the global nature of cybercrime. I am confident that the new strategy, to be published very shortly, will address the very concerns that he has raised.

Vulnerable Witnesses

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2. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that vulnerable victims and witnesses are enabled to give effective evidence. [906824]

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Vulnerable victims and witnesses can already give evidence from behind a screen or via a video link. In addition, having piloted pre-trial cross examination, which allows vulnerable witnesses to pre-record all their evidence ahead of the trial, we will be rolling it out nationally.

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I thank the Minister for that reply. What special arrangements are there to support vulnerable children and under-age witnesses, in particular in cases of abuse or of a sexual nature?

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My hon. Friend is right that those witnesses are of particular concern. I am sure she will be pleased to learn that those kind of witnesses will particularly benefit from pre-recorded cross examination; where it has been trialled—we have trialled it in three court centres so far—about three quarters of the cases have been cases of a sexual nature, and most of the witnesses have been children.

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Does the Attorney General agree that we have to address the issue of having to go to court for initial proceedings, where victims may come face to face with the accused at a very early stage? Victims feel fear when facing the accused. Will he outline what will be in place to help them?

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The hon. Gentleman is right that that is a serious concern for many of those involved in these kinds of cases. That is precisely why the measures I have described are of benefit. If all of a witness’s evidence is pre-recorded, they will not come face to face with the defendant at all. That is a huge benefit.

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With the rise of social media, victims and, in particular, witnesses fear intimidation from the online community. Will my right hon. and learned Friend take into consideration protections in the digital space as well as the physical courtroom?

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Yes, indeed—my hon. Friend makes an important point. We have to deal with a context that is very different from anything we have experienced before. It is important for people to understand that social media is not ungoverned space. The law applies there as it does elsewhere. If those using social media engage in behaviour that would otherwise be criminal, they will find it is criminal there, too.

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I thank the Attorney General for outlining protection for vulnerable victims in the criminal courts. What progress has been made in providing special protection measures for vulnerable victims within family courts?

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We need to look carefully at how we might read across some of the things that are clearly working well in the criminal courts to other types of court. The hon. Lady is right to highlight that. There is huge scope for us to understand more about how people can give their best evidence. That, after all, is what court systems of all kinds should be looking for.

Leaving the EU: Devolved Administrations and Prosecutions

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3. What discussions he has had with devolved Administrations on the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the ability to prosecute criminals. [906825]

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The Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office regularly engage with Scotland’s prosecution service and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland. The Government recognise the importance of retaining good co-operation with European countries on prosecutions, and will continue to engage with the devolved Administrations to seek the best arrangements possible on leaving the EU.

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Post Brexit, will the Government seek to continue to use the European arrest warrant? If not, what will they put in its place?

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As the hon. Gentleman will anticipate, I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the negotiations and discussions we will have. It is of course right that the European arrest warrant and other measures like it are of huge benefit not just to this country but to our European partners as well. For that reason I am optimistic that we will be able to put in place measures that benefit both sides.

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Once we are freed from the freedom of movement rules, will the Crown Prosecution Service seek to prosecute EU nationals who commit crimes in this country and to ban them from returning to this country, which we are not able to do at the moment?

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My hon. Friend will know that at the moment the CPS does indeed prosecute European nationals who commit crimes in this country. Some of the measures I have just described are of assistance not just in returning those individuals to be tried in this country but in gaining the evidence necessary to secure their conviction. As for the measures taken thereafter, sentencing decisions are of course for the courts. We will look carefully at what other measures might become available to the courts once we have left the European Union.

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

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4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. [906826]

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The number of sentences considered by my office under the unduly lenient sentence scheme has increased by over 108% since 2010, from 342 to 713 requests in 2015. Of those, 136 were referred to the Court of Appeal as potentially unduly lenient, with the court agreeing to increase the original sentence for 102 offenders.

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Stalking causes enormous harm and distress to victims, and the Government have rightly strengthened the law in this area. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider extending the unduly lenient sentence scheme to cover these crimes?

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My hon. Friend will know that as a party we have a manifesto commitment to extend the unduly lenient sentence scheme. A number of offences are surprisingly not included in the scheme at the moment. We need to look carefully at the whole range of criminal offences to decide what should be inside and what should be outside the scheme, but he certainly makes a good case for the types of offences we might consider including in the future.

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Given that the need for an unduly lenient sentence scheme has been conceded, the public are very confused as to why some offences are covered and some are not. Would it not be simpler to have a scheme that covered all offences?

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My hon. Friend makes a tempting proposition to give my office a good deal more work. There is no doubt that one of the advantages of the unduly lenient sentence scheme is that it is available to the public. It does not require the intervention of lawyers and it is, I hope, easy for the public to access. It should also be easy for the public to understand, and I am therefore in favour of drawing the line between cases within the scheme and those outside in a logical and easily understandable place. I would also say that it is important to bear it in mind that, even with an extended version of the scheme, we are talking about a very small minority of cases where judges err in this way. As I said, last year 102 cases were considered under the scheme to be unduly lenient. That is out of about 80,000 sentences passed in the Crown courts that year.

Leaving the EU: International Co-operation

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5. Whether he has made an assessment of the potential operational consequences of the UK leaving the EU on how his office interacts with its international counterparts. [906827]

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We are leaving the European Union, but co-operation with our European and global allies will remain important. My office will continue to engage internationally to promote the rule of law, a shared understanding of international law and global co-operation on criminal justice.

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I thank the Attorney General for that answer, but is not the stark reality that Europol’s director stated that the UK will be demoted to second-tier membership? Will that not undermine the UK Government’s plans to tackle and prosecute money laundering crimes?

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Again, I do not think we should pre-empt the outcome of any discussions that will follow, but, as I said earlier, I think there is an understanding, not just in the United Kingdom but in the rest of the European Union, that the sort of co-operation on crime and security that we have now benefits both sides and will need to continue in order to make sure that we are all safer and more secure, and that we can successfully capture and prosecute the sorts of offenders he describes.

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Is it not fallacious for the remoaners to always say that once we have left the European Union, we will not have access to European institutions? Is it not the case that Europol, the Erasmus programme and the Eurovision song contest all have members who are not members of the European Union?

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I do not think that by grouping them together my hon. Friend is describing Eurovision as a criminal enterprise—although there are those who may say so. It is important, as he says, to recognise that leaving the European Union is not the same as leaving Europe, and it is certainly not the same as being unprepared to co-operate. We will be co-operating with a whole range of partners, because, as I have said, it will be in our mutual interest.

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Given the warnings from Rob Wainwright and given the Attorney General’s duty to the legal profession, will the Attorney General confirm that he will be making the case on Europol, the European arrest warrant—and, indeed, the Eurovision song contest—in the Brexit Tory Cabinet?

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I am unwilling to commit to making the case for the Eurovision song contest, but it is very important that all in this House understand that the Government are committed to continuing our internationalist perspective and to keeping this nation and its citizens safe. I do not think the hon. Gentleman will hear, from any member of the Government, the view that we can do so without co-operating internationally. We will seek to do that just as successfully and just as fully as we have done in the past, inside or outside the European Union.

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How is my right hon. and learned Friend interacting with the Government of Romania? He will know that the Heritage Foundation has recently issued a report saying that the courts in Romania are subject to chronic corruption and political influence.

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I am not going to comment on the status of other court systems. What I will say is that part of the engagement that this country has abroad on the rule of law, in a variety of different countries, is designed to ensure that the long experience that this country has in running effective, efficient and fair court systems is transmitted to others where they ask for our help, and I am sure we will continue in that enterprise.

Prosecution of Sexual Offences

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6. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on ensuring that prosecutors are able more effectively to prosecute cases of rape and other sexual offences. [906828]

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I regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions to discuss this and other topics. The Crown Prosecution Service continues to prioritise rape and serious sexual offending and has taken steps to ensure that prosecutors are able to prosecute these cases effectively. Those steps include increasing the number of specialist staff in its rape and serious sexual offences units, providing specialist training for prosecutors and developing closer working arrangements with the police.

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A constituent of mine is a victim of rape. A complete lack of communication and action from the police has left her unable to move on and recover from the horrific ordeal. After a year and a half, the case—which the superintendent deemed “a professional embarrassment”—has finally been brought to the CPS. However, this might not be the end of my constituent’s torment. Does the Attorney General agree that communication with victims is vital in effectively prosecuting offenders and that the Director of Public Prosecutions should ensure that every victim is kept updated, that their views are taken into account on key decisions and that a high level of communication is upheld?

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Yes I do agree, and what the hon. Lady describes clearly does not sound acceptable or in line with the standards we would all expect. There are two things that I think are important. The first is that the prosecutors should be involved as early as possible, so that advice can be given to the police about the development of an investigation with a view to prosecution. The second is to ensure that when a case comes to court, we continue the communication that we should have had up to that point with victims and witnesses and that people are given to understand what is going on around them. Courts can be very confusing places, and we only add to the distress if we do not take the trouble to explain the process to those who are, through no fault of their own, suddenly involved in it. That is one of the things we will look to do better.

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I welcome the increased number of prosecutions for rape, but will the Attorney General outline what more can be done to improve the consistency across different areas and also the prosecution rate?

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My hon. Friend is right that although we should welcome the increased volume of prosecutions that are taking place, there is still a divergence in the way in which this is done across the country. For that reason, the CPS has set up a national delivery board and is looking at ways in which we can understand why those differences exist and is attempting to resolve them. As my hon. Friend says, this is also a matter of making sure that prosecutors are properly trained, as they are, and have the resources they need to do the job well.

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As this is my first question in this role, I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and the fact that I am a non-practising door tenant at Civitas Law in Cardiff.

The Attorney General will be aware of the grave recent concern about the admissibility of a complainant’s previous sexual history in rape trials. Does he agree that single, high-profile cases can give rise to wider perceptions about the law, partly because of the level of coverage they receive, and will he undertake to tackle those wider perceptions?

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. It is good to see him across the Dispatch Box. He will be pleased to learn that this is probably the only part of Parliament where he does not have to apologise for being a lawyer.

There is concern about the subject that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and we need to accept that that concern is sensible and deal with it. We need to look at a number of things. We need to understand more about the decision in this particular case. We need to understand whether a change in the law is appropriate and, if not, whether it is sensible to look at the guidance that is given to judges about when such evidence is admissible and at the guidance that judges give to juries about how that evidence should be used. We need to do all those things before we are in a position to understand what, if any, changes are needed.

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I am grateful to the Attorney General for his welcome and I look forward to debating with him and, indeed, my fellow Welsh lawyer, the Solicitor General, across the Dispatch Box.

Prosecution lawyers will, of course, deal with these applications for the admissibility of a complainant’s sexual history before the courts. I am glad to hear that the Attorney General has committed to looking at the guidance given to judges and at what judges say to juries. In addition, will he look at the guidance given by the Crown Prosecution Service to the lawyers who appear before the courts and regularly deal with these applications?

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Yes, I will. He will know that in the case he raises the Crown Prosecution did indeed oppose the admission of this evidence at the Court of Appeal stage. It is certainly worth looking at all the guidance and indeed at the whole picture. This provision is, as far as I am aware, not routinely used, but we must be confident that the message sent to those who are willing but currently worried about reporting these sorts of offences is not that they are not encouraged to do so—quite the reverse; they are. We need to ensure that those messages are clear.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Sex and Relationship Education

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1. Whether the Government plan to update its guidelines to schools on the provision of sex and relationship education to include (a) LGBT relationship issues and (b) sexual harassment in schools. [906852]

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We want to provide all young people with a curriculum that prepares them to succeed in modern Britain. That is why I want to make sure that sex and relationship education really is fit for the world that children live in today. I agree that we need to look again at how schools deliver high-quality and age-appropriate sex and relationship education. We are carefully considering all the options, including updating our guidance, and I shall provide an update shortly.

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The Women and Equalities Committee has recommended that the Government amend the “Keeping children safe in education” guidance to include the issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. When do the Government plan to release the updated guidance, and will they consult the specialists working in the field of sexual harassment and violence against women and girls?

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I agree that we need look at ensuring how this guidance is brought up to date. From my perspective, the key is making sure that our young people have the right information and get the right advice, and that through this guidance and the quality of teaching in schools we produce the right attitudes for the young generation growing up in our country. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the need to get that done effectively; that is precisely what I intend to do.

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The Select Committee report to which the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) referred uncovered a shocking truth—that most girls in secondary education have experienced physical or verbal sexual abuse. Four Select Committees are now calling for sex and relationship education to be made compulsory. What more evidence is the Minister looking for?

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I do not disagree with my right hon. Friend’s point. The Women and Equalities Committee report was an excellent one, to which we shall shortly respond. I have spoken about the nature of what we need to look at, and there are also questions such as what sex and relationship education comprises and how it can be taught at a high quality. As my right hon. Friend suggests, where it is taught and the breadth of schools in which we expect it to be taught are also relevant questions. About nine out of 10 secondary school teachers say that they have seen children bullied on sexual harassment grounds, which is totally unacceptable. We need to make sure that we take the next steps forward through a thoughtful and measured approach that responds to today’s world.

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I would like to thank all the women, parliamentarians and campaigners who come before us to get equality and justice in this country. I am sure that we all want to take that forward.

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As do the men.

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Good. The Minister for Women and Equalities has an admirable record of supporting sex and relationship education, and I welcome her comments today. Giving all children good-quality education in respect of themselves and others and encouraging healthy friendships is the cornerstone of preventing abuse, hate crime, intolerance and relationship violence. This approach is supported by five Select Committees and all the leading charities. When will the Minister introduce sex and relationship education for all children from key stage 1—regardless of where they are educated?

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I welcome the hon. Lady to her new role, particularly as she is the MP who represents my home town of Rotherham. The different ages at which children need to start understanding relationships means that what we teach in schools must be age-appropriate. Of course, SRE is mandatory in all secondary schools. Primary schools have more flexibility, but the hon. Lady is right to emphasise that if we want to get this right, we need to start at an early age so that children can understand relationships with one another.

International Men's Day

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2. What plans she has to commemorate International Men’s Day. [906853]

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Some women might be forgiven for thinking that every day is International Men’s Day, but this year it falls on 19 November. The theme will be “Making a Difference for Men and Boys”, and there will be a focus on the very important issue of male suicide. As with International Women’s Day, it will be up to Back Benchers to bid for parliamentary time for a debate on the subject, and I encourage them to do so. Of course, I welcome any initiatives that support gender equality and its meaning in people’s lives.

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So the answer is that the Minister has no plans. Perhaps her Department ought to take International Men’s Day as seriously as the Prime Minister has. She has said:

“I recognise the important issues that this event seeks to highlight, including men’s health, male suicide rates and the under-performance of boys in schools. These are serious issues that must be addressed in a considered way.”

Why is International Men’s Day not as important to this Minister as it is to the Prime Minister?

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Let me gently say that I think that my hon. Friend is being a little unfair. The role of the Government Equalities Office is to tackle inequality wherever we find it. All parents of sons throughout the country, including me, will be conscious of and concerned about the issues that the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, the Prime Minister have mentioned. However, I am also aware that there are parts of the world where girls are routinely subjected to genital mutilation, forced marriage and sexual violence. For me, equality is not a zero sum game.

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Does the Minister agree that International Men’s Day will give fathers of daughters an opportunity to ask, for instance, why those daughters may have to wait another 30 years for equal pay, and will give men a platform on which to ask why there continues to be a problem of violence against women and girls? Does she agree that it will give men an opportunity to express concern about those subjects?

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International Men’s Day in the United Kingdom takes a very gender-inclusive approach, which is why issues affecting women and girls are also involved. The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the gender pay gap. We welcomed reports this week that it has been reduced again, and is now narrower than it has ever been. However, he was also right to point out that, while focusing on the very important issues that International Men’s Day raises, we must never forget all the women around the world who are suffering every single day.

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No doubt, in seeking ways of celebrating International Women’s Day, the Minister has looked around the world to find out which countries do it best. Which countries best celebrate International Men’s Day, and will she note the example that they provide?

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I know that 60 countries celebrate International Men’s Day in various ways, focusing on men’s health and wellbeing, discrimination against men and any inequalities that they face, improving gender relations, and promoting gender equality. That creates a safer world for everyone, and is always to be commended.

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The aim of International Men’s Day is to promote gender equality and highlight positive male role models. In the United Kingdom, two women are killed by a partner or ex-partner every week. Action is urgently needed to tackle deeply ingrained and damaging inequality. Does the Minister agree that we should support campaigns to tackle misogyny and sexist attitudes, and that men have a crucial role to play in that?

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I could not have put it better myself. The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the fact that last year 81 women were killed by violent partners or ex-partners. In fact, 19 men were killed by violent partners or ex-partners as well. The Government are absolutely committed to tackling violence against women and girls—it is of the utmost importance, which is why we have put more money into it than ever before—and we will not rest until that happens.

Women’s State Pension Age

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3. If the Government will take steps to provide further transitional support to women affected by the increase in the state pension age. [906854]

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The Government will make no further changes in the pension age or provide financial redress in lieu of pension. A total of £1.1 billion has already been committed to lessen the impact of the changes on those who will be most affected, so that no one will experience a change of more than 18 months.

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It is clear that the members of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign and their many supporters around the country think that the Government have not done enough. Will the Minister commit herself to publishing all assessments of the impact of the 2011 changes, and any analysis that has been undertaken of possible transitional arrangements at the time of the Pensions Act 2011 and in the period since then?

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The Government have made available £1.1 billion for transitional arrangements because of these changes. This is about undoing an historical unfairness by equalising the state pension age, which both men and women should welcome.

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The Scottish National party commissioned independent research by Landman Economics that found the inequalities facing many of the WASPI women can be rectified if the UK Government implement the report’s recommendations for the sum of £8 billion, rather than the previously cited £30 billion. Will the Minister urge her Treasury colleagues to prioritise this issue ahead of the autumn statement?

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A range of potential options have been proposed by a number of different campaigns, but nothing that is specifically aimed at those most disadvantaged by the state pension age increases, and none of them has proposed something significantly better or, indeed, affordable and at an acceptable cost to the taxpayer.

Caste Discrimination Consultation

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4. What progress the Government have made on the publication of its caste discrimination consultation. [906856]

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We have said we will issue a public consultation on how best to provide legal protection against caste discrimination later this year. My hon. Friend takes this issue very seriously and represents his local communities views and concerns in respect of it.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. In excess of 85% of British Hindus consider having caste as a protected characteristic in equality legislation unnecessary, ill-considered and divisive. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in the forthcoming consultation she will look at all measures, including the abolition of caste as a protected characteristic in the legislation?

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This will be an open consultation. We know and understand how sensitive and emotive this subject is, and that there are very strong opinions on both sides of it. We need to look at the best and necessary level of legal protection against caste discrimination, and the findings of that consultation will help inform us on what to do to provide the appropriate legal protection.

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In the consultation process, will the Minister outline what steps have been taken by diplomats, ambassadors and embassies to combat caste discrimination, and is there an estimate of the success of these steps?

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My old Department, the Department for International Development, working hand in hand with the Foreign Office does huge work not only to advocate but to take action on the ground to help groups fighting for equality, including fighting against caste discrimination. We do that in the countries where it is most prevalent. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, these are generational issues that take time steadily to shift, but we believe we need to keep pushing on them to move things forward.

BAME Representation on Boards

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5. What steps the Government are taking to increase the number of BAME people on boards and at senior executive levels of FTSE companies. [906858]

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A diverse boardroom that reflects its customers and wider society is likely to perform better and make better decisions. The Government are very supportive of the private-led diversity initiative chaired by Sir John Parker, who is currently considering how to increase ethnic diversity in FTSE 100 companies, and we expect the group to report on its findings next month.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. I am chair of the all-party group on communities engagement, and fewer than 4% of directors in the 150 largest FTSE companies have ethnic minority backgrounds. Will the Government support a target of increasing the percentage of board members or directors with black and minority ethnic backgrounds to 10% by 2021?

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My hon. Friend rightly points out this unsettling statistic, but, as with the fantastic work to get more women on boards, we support the principles of increasing the ethnic diversity of the boards of the FTSE largest companies through a business-led voluntary approach because we believe there is a strong business case for better board diversity. We need to tackle the root cause, which is why we have established the Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith review looking at the obstacles faced by businesses in developing BME talent across the board, from recruitment right through to executive level.

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It is a little disappointing that the Government have not put as much resource into developing issues around the Parker review as women on boards, and there has been a significant drop in diversity on boards since the Government established the review, which will report in November. Many organisations, including the Executive Leadership Council, have board-ready visible minorities ready to hit the road running. Will the Minister work with me to reverse the trend?

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We are very happy to work with anybody who wants to see greater board diversity and, indeed, greater diversity in business all through the pipeline. The Government are clear that we want absolutely everybody to reach their full potential in life, regardless of their background, gender or race. Valuing diversity in the workplace is not just the right thing to do; our economy cannot afford to waste the talent of a single individual.

STEM Industries

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6. What steps the Government are taking to increase the number of women working in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—industries. [906859]

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Increasing the number of women in STEM industries is not only vital for our economic growth but part of how we can support our ambition to eliminate the gender pay gap. We are supporting girls to choose STEM subjects and careers by improving the quality of teaching in STEM subjects and increasing the proportion of girls’ A-level entries in maths and science. We are also raising awareness of just how exciting and valuable STEM careers can be for our young people through STEM ambassadors and through publishing online guidance called “Your Daughter’s Future”.

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I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. The east coast energy internship is a new scheme supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Ogden Trust. As a result of undertaking one of the internships, Felicity Levett, a student at Lowestoft sixth-form college, is now pursuing a career in offshore renewables. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such schemes should be promoted more widely so that everyone, regardless of gender or background, can realise their career ambitions?

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I strongly support what my hon. Friend has just said. I am well aware of all the work that has been going on in his local community to encourage girls to get into STEM. His constituent is a shining example of the great steps that girls can take once they follow this path, and we will be promoting a whole range of fantastic opportunities to encourage more young people, particularly young girls, to follow her example.

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Men continue to dominate apprenticeships in the fields with the best earning potential. In 2013, nearly 13,000 men started engineering apprenticeships, but only 400 women did so. Will the Minister commit to ensuring 50:50 recruitment in STEM-focused apprenticeships?

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The hon. Lady makes a really important point. At the moment, we are seeing success in getting girls to take STEM subjects at GCSE, where the rates for girls and boys are broadly comparable. It is when we get to A-levels that we see more boys than girls doing maths, for example, although the rate for girls has risen. We need to ensure that we improve those statistics and strengthen the careers advice that can encourage girls to follow these paths.

Welfare Polices: Disabled People

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7. What assessment the Government have made of the effect on equality for disabled people of the Government’s policies on welfare. [906860]

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The UK is recognised as a world leader in disabled rights and equality, and the Government continue to spend about £50 billion a year to support sick and disabled people. That is about 2.5% of GDP. According to OECD figures, that is more than is spent by other countries including Germany, France and the United States of America.

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But we still have not seen the publication of the long-awaited Green Paper to map out what employment support will be made available for those with disabilities. Can the Minister provide an explanation for the continued delay? Does she agree that this does not look like the action of a Government who want to provide “an economy that works for everyone”?

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, we will soon publish a Green Paper that will explore a whole range of options for long-term reform across different sectors. The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), is working incredibly hard to ensure that that happens soon. We are going to target the factors that contribute to the disability employment gap and engage with disabled people, their representative organisations and a wide range of other stakeholders. There will be an opportunity for hon. Members to feed into that consultation process, and I urge the hon. Gentleman to do so.

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Disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as a result of their condition, and the situation has been made worse by this Government’s £28 billion social security cuts, which have affected 3.7 million disabled people since 2012. Sick and disabled people are also more likely to be hit by social security sanctions and forced to use food banks, as the film “I, Daniel Blake” so poignantly showed. Today’s report by Oxford University proves the link between the Government’s punitive sanctions and the rise in food bank use. What action are the Minister and her DWP colleagues taking to tackle these injustices, as the Prime Minister calls them?

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This Government are committed to providing support to the people who need it, which is reflected in the fact that spending to support disabled people and people with health conditions will be higher than in 2010 in real terms in every year until 2020.

The hon. Lady mentions “I, Daniel Blake”. I have seen the film. My first visit as a Department for Work and Pensions Minister was to a jobcentre in Newcastle, and I can tell her that the front-line DWP workers whom I met do not recognise their portrayal in the film. The film raises important issues, which we shall debate, but we must remember that it is a dramatic interpretation. I also recognise none of its portrayals of DWP staff.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [906835]

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This Government have been clear that we want to build a country that works for everyone, which is why we are so determined to close the gender pay gap. I am therefore pleased that the Office for National Statistics recently released figures showing that the gap has narrowed significantly from 19.3% to 18.2%, reflecting the hard work of so many, not least the business community. That also reminds us that if we are to keep closing the gap, and close it completely, we must keep driving progress forward. That is why we extended the right to request flexible working and introduced a new system of flexible parental leave. We are also introducing mandatory gender pay gap reporting for large employers from April next year.

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Baroness Cox has long campaigned in the other place for the abolition of sharia councils, largely because of the unfair way in which they treat many women. Will the Government support Baroness Cox’s private Member’s Bill on the issue and ensure that Muslim women enjoy the same protections under the law as everyone else and do not feel pressured into having their cases determined by a sharia council rather than a British court?

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I assure my hon. Friend that that issue is of utmost importance. We know of concerns about sharia councils, including those raised in Baroness Cox’s Bill, and take them extremely seriously. The Government will respond to the Bill on Second Reading and will continue to consider the issue in the light of the findings of the independent sharia review, which was launched in May by the previous Home Secretary, now Prime Minister.

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T5. Figures just out from NHS Digital show that 28% of women aged 16 to 24 have a mental health condition. Alarmingly, reports of self-harm among that age group trebled to 20% between 2007 and 2014. Despite that, a survey of 35 mental health trusts carried out by Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, showed that just one had a specific women-only mental health strategy. What action is the Minister taking to address that serious issue which is affecting women in our country? [906839]

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As constituency MPs, we all see such issues locally, and the House is holding a worthwhile Backbench Business debate later on the broader topic of young people and mental health. This country has a long way to go to deliver on our ambition to ensure that mental health provision is on a par with the rest of our healthcare provision. As the hon. Lady highlights, that should include understanding the different levels of mental health challenges faced by different parts of our community, of which women and girls make up 50%.

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T2. Reports this week indicate that female entrepreneurs, such as Clover Lewis of Clover Lewis Swimwear, struggle to access start-up capital. Male entrepreneurs often receive up to 90% of all available start-up funding, but the return on investment with female entrepreneurs is on average much better than with men. What steps is the Minister taking to stimulate lending to address that anomaly? [906836]

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I am so pleased that my hon. Friend mentions Clover Lewis Swimwear. I have met Clover Lewis, who does outstanding work creating swimwear for women who have undergone mastectomy surgery. We are absolutely committed to supporting women to start and grow their own businesses, and I am proud that Britain has been named as one of the best places in Europe for female entrepreneurs. My hon. Friend will be as pleased as I am that 40% of the loans given out by the Government’s StartUp loans company since it was established have gone to women, providing funding to more than 15,500 women and totalling £87 million.

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T6. Will the Secretary of State welcome the Women into Tech initiative, which just goes to show how many women can get into business in tech? Will she help our campaign to improve the numeracy of girls and young women, as that is the key link between success in management later and everything else? [906840]

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We had a question earlier about STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and the importance of ensuring that girls are taking those. It is important not just for those wishing to pursue a career in engineering, for example; these subjects, and maths in particular, open up all sorts of doors for our young girls. That is why it is so important that the kinds of initiatives the hon. Gentleman has just talked about are in place to help deliver on those aspirations.

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T3. A recurring theme for the Science and Technology Committee is the lack of progress being made in achieving gender balance across the scientific community, both in business and academia. What work are my right hon. Friend and her Department doing to remove barriers faced by women? What steps are being taken to ensure that work is integrated with ongoing efforts in the universities sector, particularly Athena SWAN? [906837]

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My hon. Friend is right to say that business needs to work hand in hand with the Government on this, and the Women’s Business Council has been enhanced by this Government to now include representatives of and membership from the science, engineering and construction industries. That is very much linked in with not only my Department, but the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We have particularly welcomed initiatives such as Athena SWAN, which are doing so much to move this agenda steadily and progressively forward.

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Gypsies and Travellers suffer particularly poor outcomes across a range of measures, but too many Government Departments and agencies are still not recognising them as distinct ethnic groups in accordance with the 2011 census categorisation. What can the Secretary of State do to encourage the use of that categorisation right across government—national and local?

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The hon. Lady is right to raise this important issue. The Select Committee on Women and Equalities has recently announced that it will be examining it, and I know it will do so with its customary rigour and intensity. We look forward very much to hearing what the Committee comes up with.

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T4. Online misogyny and other abusive online behaviour is damaging young people’s self-esteem and is even undermining their mental health. Does the Minister agree that social media platforms must face up to their responsibilities to keep young users safe online? [906838]

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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. This is something that all parents worry about, and social media platforms must take some responsibility for it. This year, we invested almost half a million pounds in the Safer Internet Centre to provide advice on how to keep children safe, and we are developing guidance on cyber-bullying for schools, which will be published shortly.

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The Secretary of State may be aware of the closure of the only UK lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender charity, Broken Rainbow, in August. Sadly, this very much mirrored what happened to Kids Company, with the closure being reported by Patrick Strudwick of BuzzFeed. Will she work with me, him and others who are interested in this to put pressure on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Charity Commission to have a full review of this and make sure that LGBT people in this country have access to domestic abuse support?

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I am happy to talk to the hon. Lady further about the specific issue she has just raised, which is of concern. Only last night, I was at the PinkNews awards, which celebrates a huge amount of the work that is happening on the ground to push forward on LGBT rights. It is important that this work can continue.

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T7. The new head of John Lewis, the head of the National Crime Agency, the Prime Minister and, with any luck, the next President of the United States of America are all women at the top of their fields. Does the Minister agree that having strong women at the head of organisations is one of the best ways to encourage women into professions, and what is she doing to promote that? [906841]

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I am delighted to agree with my hon. Friend, as we cannot overestimate the value of role models at every level and in every sector, inspiring girls and other women to follow them. We now have more women on boards than ever before. There are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. Women in key roles, such as the ones my hon. Friend mentioned, provide massive inspiration to girls and other women, as indeed does having a female Prime Minister.

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I come back to the issue of STEM subjects. We do fantastic work in west Cumbria in encouraging women into the nuclear industry, and it would be great if the Minister could recognise that and look at how we can work it. However, often when I go to meetings at a senior level I find that I am the only woman in the room or, if I am not, that there are only one or two of us. What can we do to encourage women to come right the way up through to the senior level?

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It is about building the ladder at all levels. We have talked about the importance of STEM subjects, and there will be a national college that will focus on skills for the nuclear industry, which is the next stage. As the hon. Lady says, many of us have been to meetings where we are the only woman at the table, and we need to play our part as role models to encourage the next generation to aim high.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Standing Order No. 143

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1. Whether he has had discussions with his ministerial colleagues on the scope of Standing Order No. 143(1)(ii) and 143(1)(vi). [906842]

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I have had no such discussions to date, but while we are a member of the European Union, our obligations remain in place, as does the scrutiny reserve resolution, so the scrutiny Committees will be able to examine and interrogate EU dossiers in the usual way.

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Does the Leader of the House agree with the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) that the document to trigger article 50 is one that the European Scrutiny Committee would recommend for debate and possible vote in the main Chamber? If he does, would that be before or after the Prime Minister has served the notification?

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As the hon. Lady knows, the Government take the view that the triggering of article 50 is a matter for the Executive to determine. This, as the House knows, is an issue that is being contested in the courts at the moment, and we are currently awaiting a judgment.

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I applaud the initiatives that the Leader of the House is taking to ensure maximum debate about Brexit and the establishment of the Select Committees. Will he ensure that there are no procedures of this House that could block the will of the British people to leave the European Union?

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The Government’s intention, whatever side of the referendum debate individual Ministers took, is that the will of the British people has been clearly expressed in a referendum with a very high turnout, and that the House voted by an overwhelming majority to enact the European Union Referendum Bill and hand that decision to the British people. That mandate from the British people now needs to be respected.

Standing Orders: Reform

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2. What plans he has to bring forward proposals to reform the Standing Orders of the House. [906843]

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Standing Orders undergo frequent revision. The Procedure Committee, the Clerks and the Government monitor their use to ensure that our Standing Orders reflect how business in the House is conducted in practice.

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Yesterday, the Leader of the House announced a review of last year’s change to Standing Orders, which implemented the absurd English votes for English laws process, which disfranchises non-English MPs. Will he restore equality for MPs by removing the over-convoluted and shamefully partisan EVEL procedure from Standing Orders, and make sure that all MPs in this House are equal?

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I shall take that as a first contribution to the consultation that the Government have initiated. I am disappointed that Members from the Scottish National party seem unable to comprehend that it is a matter of justice that legislation affecting only England should command the support of a majority of Members of Parliament from England.

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Do the Standing Orders not need to be changed to reflect what goes on today? Despite your valiant efforts, Mr Speaker, we have far too many subjects to cover today, which prevented me from railing against the madness that prevents gay men from donating blood unless they say they have been celibate for 12 months.

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As I think my hon. Friend has demonstrated, an ingenious Member of Parliament is able to find numerous ways in which to place the points about which he is concerned on the record.

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The hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) is a notable practitioner of what I call the shoehorning technique, which is to shoehorn the matter of concern to oneself into any question whether it naturally fits or not.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) is absolutely right that EVEL has been a bureaucratic, cumbersome and misunderstood nightmare, which has divided this House on the basis of nationality and geography. Given that the Government have a majority in both England and the rest of the United Kingdom, what difference has this useless apparatus made to any legislative outcome that we have considered in the past year?

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The changes are a demonstration of the Government’s commitment to ensuring justice is done to Members from all parts of the United Kingdom. The EVEL arrangements apply only in respect of legislation, amendments or statutory instruments that cover matters that are devolved in Scotland, over which this House has no say and no jurisdiction, but which are a matter for this House to determine in respect of England, and it is only right that English Members should exercise the veto that these arrangements provide.

IPSA: Members’ Budgets

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3. What recent discussions he has had with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority on changes to hon. Members’ budgets; and if he will make a statement. [906845]

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Mr Speaker, I attended a meeting of your Committee for IPSA on 18 October, and the agenda included discussions on IPSA’s current consultation exercise.

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Has the Leader of the House had a chance to examine IPSA’s proposed changes to zone 3 accommodation funding limits? May I make it clear that they do not affect me, because I do not claim any London rent from IPSA? However, does he agree that they could have a damaging effect on MPs with young children? Does IPSA not understand that, apart from on Monday, when we sit late, on virtually every other evening many MPs are kept here until well after the House rises?

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The points my hon. Friend makes about the pressures of parliamentary life on Members’ families are true, and I think they are true of Members right across the House. As we all know, IPSA is an independent body, and it will, I am sure, consider carefully the representations from hon. Members and others, and then come to a decision at the end of its consultation.

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The Leader of the House, and all Members of the House, will remember so clearly the dreadful killing of Jo Cox only in June. Since that time, has he had any intelligent communication and conversation with IPSA about how Members are better protected here, in their constituencies and on their travels between them?

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As I hope all Members of the House know, Members’ security was the subject of very urgent consideration following the shocking murder of our late colleague. Under the leadership of the Chairman of Ways and Means, a new package of security measures has been made available to all right hon. and hon. Members, with a fast track for delivering those security improvements, where they are needed.

Private Members’ Bills

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4. Whether he plans to provide an opportunity for the House to vote on the proposals from the Procedure Committee on reform of the private Members’ Bill system. [906846]

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As I confirmed to the House on Tuesday, and to the Procedure Committee last week, the Government are currently considering the Procedure Committee’s report, and will respond in detail within the normal two-month timeframe.

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Before Christmas, there will be important private Members’ Bills on the minimum wage, disability equality, awards for valour, and violence against women. To save us all a repeat of last Friday’s farce, can the Government just tell us now which ones they plan to talk out?

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If the promoters and sponsors of any of those Bills command widespread support across the House, they should ensure that their supporters turn up on the day and vote, whether on procedural motions or on the substance.

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While the Leader of the House is right on that point, there are reforms to private Members’ Bills that are important, and we need the House to look at them. We need the Government to bring forward a package of proposals, which we could then amend and vote on in the House. We need to have a debate and a vote on this. Could he please arrange that?

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As my hon. Friend knows, the Procedure Committee has, indeed, proposed such a package. The Government will want to consider the Committee’s recommendations carefully, including its recommendation that the decision on this be placed before the House. We will, as I said earlier, respond to the Committee in detail in due course.

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6. Sticking with the subject of the private Member’s Bill from last Friday, the Leader of the House said on Tuesday that there was no complaint during the debate. I was there, and I was complaining—I was one of dozens who were complaining—about the farce that was opening up in front of us. Does he stand by the actions of the Minister in this case, or does he agree with me and with people across the country that it was an absolute farce—a shameful, embarrassing disgrace? [906849]

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No; as I said on Tuesday, there was no argument last Friday that any hon. Member on any side of the argument was engaged in filibustering. When 2.30 pm came, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), as the Minister responsible, had spoken for only one minute more than the Bill’s promoter and for a shorter time than one of the Bill’s main supporters. He sought to respond in detail to the many questions raised, and he gave way seven times to interventions. It seems to me that he behaved in a thoroughly reasonable manner.

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In order to guarantee the fairness that the Leader of the House spoke about earlier, is it not time that English votes for English laws was extended to private Members’ Bills?

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That sounds to me like a further interesting submission to the Government’s consultation.

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I call Mr Laurence Robertson. Not here.