House of Commons
Thursday 17 November 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
New Southgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Thursday 24 November (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
High-performance Sports Cars: Rentals
The Government are committed to ensuring that courts have sufficient powers to deal with dangerous driving and will soon commence a consultation looking at driving offences and penalties. Rental companies can check Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency driver records and should not be renting vehicles to unsafe drivers. The British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association has a code of conduct it expects its members to comply with, and, if concerned, the public can contact the BVRLA or trading standards.
In my area, and across the UK, a large number of accidents and deaths have been caused by inexperienced drivers, who often hire high-performance cars for just a few days at a time. Later this month, the Lancashire Telegraph will launch a dangerous driving campaign looking at this and many other aspects of road safety. Will the Minister join me in supporting the campaign, which aims to shine a light on what is happening on our roads?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about road safety, which is a critical issue, because, despite our enviable national record, 1,730 people lost their lives on British roads last year. Media campaigns in this area can be very helpful, so I do, indeed, support the Lancashire Telegraph campaign in principle, and I look forward to hearing more when it starts.
I, too, am supporting that campaign, and we have seen numerous incidents across east Lancashire, but would the Government not accept that one thing that is not helping on motorways is the fact that local government cuts mean that motorway lights are being turned off?
There is no evidence that any of the changes taking place on our motorways are impacting on road safety; in fact, it is the other way round—our motorways are some of the safest roads on our network, and our network is among the safest in the world.
Does the Minister agree that anyone with points on their licence indicating a number of offences should be excluded from the rental of cars with above a 2-litre engine? Would he consider co-operation with the police and insurance companies on this issue?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point. I do not think we can necessarily exclude people from a marketplace, but, of course, all the rental companies do have access to driver records, and I will take that idea forward.
Car Manufacturers: Emissions
The Secretary of State has regular discussions with the Attorney General on a range of issues.
The Government take any matters regarding the safety and environmental performance of vehicles on UK roads extremely seriously.
We hear that quite often, but as consumers in this country look around the world—to New Zealand, Brazil, France, Germany and South Korea—they see action being taken against companies such as Volkswagen, while this Government let people down and drag their heels. Can I hear something firm about what the Government have been doing to take these companies to task?
The hon. Gentleman underestimates me. It is true that, in a hard world, I have a soft heart, but companies that care less for their workers or treat their customers without integrity will soon learn that, in my velvet glove, there is a steely fist I am not afraid to use. To that end, I have met Volkswagen twice. I am absolutely determined it should meet its legal obligations. It will meet in full the costs that we have endured as a Government. I can tell the House today that I have received a pledge from Volkswagen to pay £1.1 million, which taxpayers have had to spend as a result of its behaviour, and I expect to receive that cheque before Christmas.
Drivers have been very concerned by pollution rulings on diesel cars. Would it not be wholly wrong for drivers of diesel cars to be punished for buying cars they were encouraged to buy by the Labour Government?
It would certainly be right to encourage people to behave in a way that met the Government’s objectives for emissions. To that end, my hon. Friend, who is a knowledgeable and assiduous Member of this House, will know that the Government have taken direct action to promote the use of electric vehicles and to encourage those who choose to purchase vehicles with lower emissions. He is right that we must act with moderation, but, equally, we must act with determination to ensure that our vehicles are as clean as they can be, for it is emissions that lead to particulate material, which we know—this is a matter not of speculation but of evidence—is injurious to our health and wellbeing.
This is a scandal of huge proportions. Thousands of people have died in this country because of the defeat devices that Volkswagen inserted. The fact is that the European Union’s legislative framework is weaker than the framework of capitalist United States. Does the Minister agree that the European Union does not deserve its reputation for protecting the environment?
I am tempted to say that I find it difficult to believe that anything that emanates from the European Union is virtuous, but I will not say that. What I will say is that the Volkswagen scandal is, as the hon. Gentleman says, unacceptable. It would be unacceptable whether we were members of the European Union or not. There are other aspects to this, however. There is the programme of technical fixes that Volkswagen is engaged in, which I pressed it to get on with. There is also the issue of its legal obligations, which I mentioned a moment ago. Let me also be clear that I have not ruled out a separate investigation into these affairs by this Government, and I have told Volkswagen that.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that modern diesel vehicles have either exhaust gas recirculation systems or diesel particulate filters fitted to stop the emission of harmful gases and particles. Is he aware of the increasing practice among the owners of diesel vehicles, including taxis and buses, of illegally removing these systems and causing these harmful gases to be emitted into the atmosphere? If he is aware of it, what is he doing about it, and if he is not will he investigate it and write to me about the action that he intends to take?
To write to the hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished Member of this House whom I met briefly earlier this week, albeit not on these issues, would be inadequate. I will meet him to discuss this matter in some detail, because he clearly has expert understanding to bring to bear.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman feels enormously privileged at the prospect of a meeting with the Minister of State, as of course would most sane people.
I wish he would meet me. Question 3, please, Mr Speaker.
Rail Stations: Disabled Access
All the funding under the current pot of money for Access for All has been allocated to stations. We intend to seek further funding for the next rail control period. We will seek nominations from the industry and start to announce the successful projects in 2018.
Lichfield happens to be one of the smallest cities in the country, but Lichfield Trent Valley railway station is an important interchange between the west coast main line and the cross-city line that connects Lichfield with Birmingham and with Redditch. Yet two out of the three platforms are completely inaccessible to anybody who is disabled, or indeed anybody who has baggage with them and wants to get to one of those platforms. We were meant to get disabled access in October this year, so when is it going to happen?
I am glad that my hon. Friend shares my commitment to and passion for improving disabled accessibility. I understand that he has met Network Rail at the station to discuss its plans for the project. It intends to start work as soon as possible and it should take about a year to complete, so I hope it will been seen within a year. Network Rail should appreciate that Access for All projects are as important as any of its major prestige projects.
On Saturday there was a tragic suicide at Pencoed station in my constituency. One of the issues is that it has a level crossing, which is the only way in which disabled people are able to go between the lines. It is far too accessible in terms of the station lines, and there is a very high suicide rate. Network Rail has allocated funding via the Department for Transport to improve the level crossing, but I would like to see it closed. Will the Minister meet me to discuss additional funding to try to close off the access at that station?
I am always happy to meet hon. Members. I know that level crossing safety is a particular concern across the country. Every level crossing has its own characteristics and difficulties, so I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss this case.
There is obviously no cause for complacency in relation to disabled access, but it is worth putting it on record that in the past 15 years there has been a sea change on our railways; I certainly see that from a London and home counties perspective. While I hope that we can continue this progress on disabled access, substantial improvements have been made in recent years.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. He is right to indicate the progress that has been made. However, we cannot accept a situation where some of our busiest stations remain inaccessible, so work will have to continue into the next rail period and beyond. I intend to keep up the pressure on Network Rail and train operating companies, as I am sure Members across the House will, too.
Despite the fact that so many disabled people rely on public transport, the Government have slashed the Access for All programme, which pays for improvements to access at stations, by 40%. Some 19% of stations currently have step-free access via lifts and ramps to all their platforms. Given that record, we can hardly describe ourselves as an inclusive society when so many stations are inaccessible to disabled people. What representations will the Minister make to the Chancellor ahead of the autumn statement to address that appalling state of affairs?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman also shares my commitment to the issue. We have made important progress in delivering improved accessibility at many of our busiest stations, but there is still more to do. I will not pre-empt the autumn statement, however much he might like me to do so, but I will seek more money for Access for All in control period 6 of our rail investment. That will deliver far more accessibility at far more stations.
We need to continue to improve transport and rail links in the south-west, and my No. 1 priority is to deal with resilience near the Dawlish sea wall and the Dawlish cliffs. The next stage of the project requires a further £10 million to continue to develop the programme and deal with the issue once and for all, and I can announce to the House today that that funding will be granted and the work will go ahead. That is an important part of ensuring that we protect the essential rail links to the south-west, and I hope that people there will see it as a commitment to making sure that they have a proper transport system for the future.
That is fantastic news and it shows that this Government really are investing in the south-west. Given that resilience work, will they consider a potential branch line to Okehampton as part of the wider south-west rail package?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and, indeed, to all my south-west colleagues, who are vociferous champions of the need to make sure that we have the best possible transport links to the constituencies that they represent. I will be very happy to discuss with him the needs of his constituents in Cornwall and, in particular, the potential for improving links to Okehampton.
The National Audit Office’s verdict on the Great Western Railway electrification fiasco was absolutely damning. It described it as
“a case study in how not to manage a major programme.”
It is estimated that passenger growth on the line will be 81% over the five-year period leading up to 2018-19. Anyone who uses the line will know how overcrowded it is. What reassurances can the Secretary of State give that there will be an improvement in our area?
The hon. Lady will not be surprised to learn that I am not happy about the way in which the modernisation and electrification programme has been managed. The NAO report also said that, since 2015, my Department has had a much firmer grip on the programme. I am still not satisfied with the progress that is being made. New trains will, of course, be rolled out across the network sooner rather than later. I am committed to making sure that the project is delivered and that the improvements it brings will happen for passengers.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement on the Dawlish line, given how vital it is in ensuring that my constituency actually has a train service. Does he agree that it was not acceptable for CrossCountry trains to bury in a lengthy timetable consultation document a proposal to axe virtually all of its direct services between the bay and the midlands and Manchester?
We have discussed the issue with my hon. Friend. When timetable changes are proposed, it is important that they are as transparent as possible, and I want the cross-country service to grow rather than shrink in future.
My objective is to make sure that the programmes under way are delivered properly, with the benefits delivered as quickly as possible. As I said, I am not happy with what has happened so far. One great irony is that during the Labour party’s 13 years in power only 10 miles of railway line were electrified. The other is that at a time when Labour is demanding the nationalisation of the railways, these problems have arisen in the one bit of the railway in the public sector.
Transport Infrastructure: North England
Improving northern transport infrastructure is vital to the success of the northern powerhouse. The Government are committing £13 billion in transport improvements over this Parliament, and we have created Transport for the North, a partnership of key organisations to drive forward a northern transport strategy. Our announcement this week on HS2 phase 2b is further confirmation of our commitment.
We are told that HS2 will cut journey times from the north to London and therefore benefit places such as St Helens, but surely the real driver of economic growth and regeneration in the north is good transport infrastructure across the region from west to east. When will we see a commitment to, and action from the Government on, connecting our great northern cities and towns to each other, not just to London?
The action the hon. Gentleman is calling for is already under way, with the electrification of the trans-Pennine rail links, the road investments that are taking place and HS3, which we have called “northern powerhouse rail”. That project is being developed by TfN and we will be seeing its proposals early next year.
Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said, when I attended the UK Major Ports Group reception on Monday evening, the port director for the Humber stressed to me how urgently needed east-west connections from Immingham and the Humber ports to Liverpool and Manchester were. He talked about trans-Pennine tunnels and so on, which are decades off, so can the Minister reassure him that action will be taken immediately?
I can provide my hon. Friend with much reassurance. I entirely agree on the importance of connecting businesses to our key modes of transport, especially our ports. Developing the connectivity of our ports is a project being taken forward by the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes).
Liverpool2 has recently opened, with a new deepwater port, which raises the possibility of the whole of the north becoming an economic powerhouse. What can the Minister tell us about plans to improve freight access to ports right across the north, in an integrated approach with road and rail?
The Liverpool2 development is a very exciting one, opening up the port of Liverpool to 95% of world shipping. Access to the port is, of course, part of the project being taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State.
Does the Minister agree it is vital for infrastructure in the north that we electrify the midland main line through the midlands and on to Sheffield on the existing timetable?
The next stage to Corby is just about to start, but my hon. Friend’s point will have been heard by the rail Minister and I will pick that up with him afterwards.
Ninety-five per cent. of the steel used on our railways already comes from Scunthorpe, and that is a key part of all of our procurement. We want to see British steel used in our transport infrastructure, and Scunthorpe will of course play a key part in that.
By the time HS2 eventually opens from Manchester Piccadilly, it will take some of my constituents, who live within Greater Manchester, longer to drive to Manchester, especially at peak times, than to travel by train from Manchester to London. What plans do the Government have to improve that?
It is not as though HS2 is the only investment taking place in the north: more than £1.25 billion is being spent in the north-west on local transport schemes through the growth deal; £800 million-plus is being spent on north-west road schemes; and a further £1 billion is being spent on other parts of the rail network. It is HS2 plus all the other investments that makes the comprehensive transformation of transport in the north.
Does the Minister agree with a group of leading north-west businesses that the gap between investment in north-west transport infrastructure and investment in London transport infrastructure is unacceptably high? Does he agree that if we were to close that gap, we could really transform the commuter services, trams and buses, and we could get the Oyster card of the north, which we so desperately need to transform our transport?
Transport investments around the country are not necessarily happening at the same pace, but I suggest to the hon. Lady that £340 million is being spent on rail in the Liverpool city region right now, and nobody could really doubt our commitment to the north after this week’s announcements on HS2.
I do not want to prick the bubble of self-congratulation, but new analysis published yesterday by the TUC reveals that the UK ranks towards the bottom of the table of OECD countries for capital investment in important areas of economic development, and worst of all is transport. As a percentage of 2014 GDP—these are the latest figures—UK investment was the lowest ranking, in last place out of 34 countries. With pauses and unpauses, and shunting programmes off into the distant future—be it HS3, northern powerhouse rail, or whatever we want to call it—is it not time that the Government started delivering instead of continually breaking their promises?
I remind the hon. Gentleman how we collapsed in OECD league tables under the last Labour Government, and that we are spending £13 billion on transport investment in the north during this Parliament, as I outlined earlier.
Rail Passengers: Delay Compensation
As my hon. Friend will be aware, we recently announced an improved compensation scheme for passengers that will apply if their train is more than 15 minutes late. All franchise competitions let by the Department will include that policy, and we will be exploring how to roll it out for all our existing franchises during this Parliament.
I thank the Minister for his response. On the Chase line, passengers face not only delays, but cancellations and part cancellations. Services often do not reach the two Rugeley stations, leaving passengers stranded and resulting in overcrowding on subsequent services. Will my hon. Friend outline how the compensation scheme will benefit those who are affected by part cancellations?
This is the third time that my hon. Friend has brought me to the Dispatch Box to discuss the Chase line, so no one can say that she is not assiduous on the matter. As she may well be aware, if a passenger’s journey is delayed by 30 minutes, for whatever reason—be it cancellation, part cancellation or a train turning around short of its destination—they are entitled to claim delay repay compensation. Under the new invitation to tender for the west midlands franchise, we are looking at how we scope the “delay repay 15” scheme, which will be brought in under that franchise.
My constituency is not served directly by the London underground or the docklands light railway, much as we would like it to be, which means that we are heavily reliant on rail services. I receive a stream of complaints almost daily about delays on Southeastern railway. This cannot be allowed to continue, because people are heavily reliant on that service. One thing I would say for Southeastern is that it needs extra capacity—it needs extra carriages. The carriages that become available when the Thameslink programme is complete must be made available for Southeastern so that we can deal with the capacity problem, but we must also deal with Southeastern’s performance.
I think that the question was rhetorical in nature, but if the Minister wants briefly to reply, he may.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and look forward to seeing him at our meeting on Southeastern for all affected MPs later this month. He will know the impact that the London Bridge works have had and the extra capacity that they will unlock. We are having a meeting later today with Southeastern to discuss performance issues further, to make sure that we are on top of ensuring that this is an adequate service, delivering for passengers.
However welcome the Minister’s response is, given the regularity of interruptions to services—they are primarily the fault of Network Rail—for my constituents travelling to Liverpool Street, the end of the Parliament is too long to wait for this improvement in the compensation scheme. May I urge the Minister to ensure that it is brought in for all rail users across the country as soon as possible, rather than by 2020?
I share my right hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for bringing in the scheme as soon as we possibly can. As he will understand, an in-franchise change involves a more complex commercial negotiation, but that does not mean that we do not wish to do this as soon as we can.
Although Northern Rail is very reluctant to pay out compensation to rail passengers, it is over-enthusiastic about prosecuting people who have not been able to buy a ticket through no fault of their own. Will the Minister put pressure on Northern Rail to reconsider its approach?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of engaging in adequate revenue protection on the railways, but I accept that when people have inadvertently, for whatever reason, not been able to purchase a ticket, there is a sense of unfairness. I will make sure that I write to Northern Rail and get a reply for him.
Rail Infrastructure: Sussex
My hon. Friend will be aware that we are making a range of substantial investments on the rail network in Sussex, including in longer platforms on the Uckfield line, a new Thameslink depot and upgraded power systems. That said, I want to be clear that I am well aware of the frustrations felt by passengers in her constituency. Quite apart from the disgraceful and unwarranted industrial action that is taking place at the moment, one of the key issues is that this network is not reliable enough. I give her and her constituents an assurance that I am looking very hard at how to step up a programme of incremental improvements to stop the day-by-day breakdowns that are making the current issues much worse.
I welcome the investment in infrastructure, which is causing 50% of the delays. Does the Secretary of State not agree that, in the long term, a second rail main line between Sussex and London is needed to increase rail capacity in the south-east and to improve journey times for my constituents?
I am well aware of the degree of campaigning behind the Brighton main line 2 concept. My hon. Friend the rail Minister and I have discussed that, and I am aware that a report has sat on the desk for much too long. I intend to make sure that it does not sit on the desk for very much longer.
Sticking to Sussex, I call Pat Glass.
The Secretary of State will no doubt have seen the “Panorama” programme that was broadcast on 7 November that highlighted the daily hell faced by passengers, especially those using Southern rail on the line mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield). Is he content that Southern rail customers are facing this commuting hell every day, or will he act to do something about it?
No, I am not at all content. Of course, the biggest step that could be taken would be for the rail unions to call off their action so that we can deal with some of the underlying infrastructure problems, which I described a moment ago. One of the things I find sad is that, far from joining us in calling for the strikes to end so that we can improve the situation, Labour Members seem keener to line up with the militants rather than opposing them.
Southern rail was a disgrace before the current industrial action, and it will continue to be a disgrace long after the current industrial action is complete and the dispute is settled. The Department for Transport sets the routes, allocates the franchises, dictates the number of trains that run and sets fare increases, so when will the Secretary of State stop pretending that this is nothing to do with him, stop blaming everybody else around him and act to stop the daily hell on this line?
I have every intention of addressing the issue and I am working as hard as I can to do so. I would tell Labour Members that figures published this morning show that, across our railways, far more—more than twice as many—problems arise as a result of infrastructure, which is in the public sector, than as a result of train operations, which are in the private sector. Their persistent arguments that nationalising would solve the problems are just plain wrong. We need to invest; interestingly, we, unlike the Labour party, are doing so.
The utility of any rail infrastructure investment on the Brighton main line in Sussex will depend on the trains running effectively through Surrey. Will the Secretary of State undertake to look at proposals from people in my constituency about extra infrastructure investment in Surrey, alongside the Sussex proposals?
This is a Surrey, Sussex and south London problem, and we must look at the whole thing holistically. My hon. Friend will be aware that I have asked Chris Gibb, a senior rail executive, to look at the issues and to identify ways of addressing resilience problems. He has now put in place detailed plans, and some of that work has already started. For example, a joint team to control the railway on a day-by-day basis was put in place three weeks ago—at Three Bridges, one person will be in charge on a day-by-day basis—and individual infrastructure issues are now beginning to be addressed. I am determined that we do as much as we can, as fast as we can, to improve the resilience of the network.
High Speed 3: Bradford
Northern powerhouse rail, which is sometimes called HS3, is the Government’s vision for dramatically faster and more frequent rail journeys across the north, to help to build the northern powerhouse and strengthen the British economy. With Transport for the North, we are investigating the benefits, both to passengers and to the economy, of northern powerhouse rail serving key markets such as Bradford.
It is absolutely essential that a city the size of Bradford has a station stop on the HS3 route, otherwise the economic benefits in West Yorkshire will be only for Leeds, which will be like throwing apples into an orchard that is already full. Will the Minister therefore commit to making sure that Bradford is on the route so that the Bradford district can also benefit from the northern powerhouse?
We are expecting Transport for the North to publish its priorities for northern powerhouse rail development early next year. I will make sure that the voice of my hon. Friend is heard in that planning, and I will keep him informed of progress.
Will the Minister give a good talking to to the infrastructure tsar—who waxed lyrical on the radio this week about how important it was to link Oxford and Cambridge—about concentrating on the links across Yorkshire and Lancashire? That is the emphasis we want. We do not want Huddersfield left off the map on any occasion.
It is impossible to think that Huddersfield would be left off the map on any occasion. Obviously, we are investing in transport in all parts of our country, including connectivity in the north, and between Oxford and Cambridge.
Overcrowding: Calderdale Line
I am very aware that that is a busy line, which is why we are seeking to ensure that the new northern franchise tackles overcrowding with investment in new rolling stock that will increase capacity by 37% on peak services into our northern cities. There will be the improvements on the line that the hon. Lady seeks.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response but, further to the comments made by other hon. Members from the region, HADRAG—the Halifax District Rail Action Group—tells me that two morning trains from Halifax to Leeds have been cut from four carriages to two, leading to quite serious overcrowding. Services connecting our major northern towns and cities are essential to delivering the northern powerhouse, so will the Minister tell me what he is doing to avoid the crush that we are seeing on those commuter services?
I recognise that we have a number of issues with trains arriving in Manchester and Leeds with passengers standing because of issues with capacity. That needs to change, which is why in the new northern franchise we have ensured that the pacers will be removed, and we are investing in new carriages that will mean more seats for passengers. We are also investing specifically in the Caldervale line. We have just completed work on the west section, and we will start on the east section in the new year. I hope that the hon. Lady will start to see improvements on that particular network soon, not least because that will help to improve connectivity to Bradford as well, which will bring joy, I am sure, to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).
Light Rail: Leeds
I have had no such discussions with Leeds City Council.
That is a worrying answer. The Government made an excellent decision when agreeing with the inspector that the new generation trolleybus scheme was not right, while allowing Leeds to keep £173.5 million to be match funded with £81 million from local authorities. The Department said that that money was clearly for the right system and that NGT was the wrong one, so does the Minister share my dismay that authorities have failed to consider any other system, and specifically failed to consider light rail?
We should congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on his work to ensure that that money was retained in Leeds, but it is now a matter for Leeds City Council to decide the appropriate scheme for Leeds. It is not my role as rail Minister to dictate to Leeds what scheme should be selected.
Let us hear the voice of Pudsey.
A survey by Rawdon Parish Council showed that Leeds’s solution of getting passengers to the airport through the road system would not cope with the number of passengers and where they would be coming from. Surely using money for the road and the £173 million for a rail link to the airport would give us an opportunity to address that problem, and would also be the first stage of the properly integrated transport system that the city deserves.
My hon. Friend’s question demonstrates the range of ideas in the wider Leeds region about how the money can be spent. I understand that the combined authority is also looking at matters. I am more than happy to meet him to discuss such ideas further, but it has to be Leeds City Council that decides what the best option is for Leeds.
Thousands of people in Leeds, and my constituents in Wakefield, use buses to travel to work, school and college every day. In the absence of a new light rail system for Leeds, will the Minister look at the Bus Services Bill, which is about to be introduced in this place, and giving powers to integrate and regulate bus services not just to the metro mayors of Manchester and Liverpool, but to the cities of Leeds and Wakefield? That would have the advantage of not costing the Government one penny piece.
I recognise the importance of bus services, particularly in many of the great northern communities—they are vital to Blackpool, too. We will have ample chance to discuss the Bus Services Bill in this place, and I am sure the hon. Lady will make her voice heard.
Order. Wolverhampton has much to commend it, but it is a long way from Leeds.
It was about rail.
This is about light rail schemes for the city of Leeds, which is a very considerable distance from the constituency so ably and eloquently represented by the hon. Gentleman.
National Minimum Wage: Seafarers
The right hon. Gentleman will know I am a proud trade unionist. This is an area of great concern to me. I have met my friends in the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, and Nautilus International—I have Nautilus’ charter with me. My officials have been working closely with officials in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and HMRC, as well as stakeholders, on the application of the national minimum wage to seafarers in UK waters more generally.
I am grateful to hear that the Minister is taking this matter seriously. It surely cannot be right for HMRC to deem that a ferry service that starts in Aberdeen and finishes in Lerwick is operating wholly outside UK territorial waters. It is nonsense for the body that is supposed to enforce the minimum wage to be undermining it in this way. Will the Government do something to stop this?
I worked with the right hon. Gentleman in government and he knows of me what I know of him, which is that he does his homework. I have the statutory instrument and the original legislation in my hand as I speak. Let me tell him this: I am committed to reviewing the legislation to ensure that it applies to the offshore sector.
Heathrow Airport Expansion
Heathrow airport expects to add six more domestic routes across the UK when the new runway opens in the middle of the next decade. This will strengthen existing domestic links to regions such as Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north of England, and allow the development of new connections to regions such as the south-west. We expect Heathrow to meet these pledges. We will ensure that the Government hold the airport to account; that is an obligation, not a desirable.
I thank the Secretary of State for that excellent answer, and for the hope and expectation contained therein. Is he, like me, taken aback by the EU’s decision to block a multimillion pound aid package to United Airlines, which has effectively removed one of our air carriers out of Northern Ireland? Will he investigate who lodged the complaint to the EU that has effectively destroyed this business in Northern Ireland?
I fear it probably will not tell us, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the decision was deeply unwelcome. My Department spent a fair amount of time working alongside the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Executive on trying to make sure that we sustained this route for Northern Ireland. The loss of the route because of EU action is deeply unwelcome and precisely the kind of unnecessary decision from Brussels that led this country to vote to leave the European Union.
Could air connectivity between Northern Ireland, Heathrow and other parts of England be improved by changes to air passenger duty, especially in response to the impending cut to APD in Scotland?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is listening carefully to representations on this issue. The Scottish National party stood on a platform of getting rid of air passenger duty in Scotland, but it is now discovering that it is more difficult to make ends meet than perhaps it had previously realised. That is one of the challenges of actually having to take decisions, rather than just talking.
What further discussions have taken place with the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Executive on lowering air passenger duty to underpin our local economy?
The Treasury has held detailed discussions about this, and lots of Members representing different parts of the United Kingdom have made representations, but I fear that it is a matter for the Treasury to indicate whether it plans to do anything in response.
Lord Empey’s Bill in the other House would have guaranteed slots to Northern Ireland. As the Secretary of State knows, air connectivity is very important to us, but the Bill fell because of EU regulation. Can we ensure that it is put back after Brexit?
We have to be quite careful about the mechanism. I am not personally of the view that the solution is just about slots. There are slots at inconvenient times of the day. We want connectivity at times that maximise benefits to the regions of the UK, so that Northern Ireland, Scotland, the south-west and the north of England have proper, good, effective international links. My commitment to the hon. Gentleman and to the House is that we will ensure proper protection for that connectivity, but the actual mechanism needs to await more detailed work.
Just to correct the Secretary of State: it is Ruth Davidson and the Tories who are trying to stop the APD cut in Scotland.
Additional regional capacity is of use only if there are airlines willing to fill it. The lack of a Brexit plan has seen businesses literally in flight from the UK. For instance, easyJet has confirmed that it is in the process of setting up a separate airline based on the European mainland. It said:
“We are not saying there will be no agreement. We just don’t know the shape or form. We don’t have the luxury of waiting”—
and neither do we or those counting on these services. What is your plan?
I do not have any plan on this matter. The hon. Gentleman is a well-meaning fellow, but the question was too long.
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman who does have a plan. Bombardier has a plan: it is now investing in a major international rail hub in the UK based on the excellent work in Derby. Nissan has a plan: it is expanding its plants in the north-east. Honda has a plan: it is investing more money in Swindon. Google, Facebook and Apple have plans: they are opening new headquarters in London. In an economy that continues to grow well post-Brexit, that proves that this country will do well regardless.
Hoping for laser-like precision and succinctness, I call Mr Drew Hendry.
Instead of deflecting, will the Secretary of State at least agree to a meaningful update of route development and assistance for supporting additional services on existing routes, as well as new services, and—crucially—will he bring forward, before March 2017, firm proposals for specific airport-to-airport public service obligations?
The Government have not shied away from public service obligations when necessary—most recently, between Londonderry and Stansted airport. There are routes in and around the UK that are essential to the maintenance of our regional economies, and we have always been committed, and will remain committed, to ensuring that those obligations are met when necessary.
Electric Vehicles: Charge Points
The UK now has 11,000 publicly accessible charge points, with Europe’s largest network of rapid charge points and provision at 96% of motorway service areas. We will continue to support the roll-out of electric vehicle charging infrastructure to ensure that we realise our ambition that almost every car and van on UK roads is a zero-emission vehicle by 2050.
I welcome the Minister’s reply. I also declare an interest: I am in the process of buying a Nissan Leaf to show my support for Nissan’s welcome investment in electric vehicles and indeed in other vehicles. Will the Minister explain how he is looking to support small businesses investing in electric vehicles for their staff and their businesses?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend is taking that step. I had the joy of driving a Nissan Leaf for the first time last week, and I know that he is as committed to this cause as I am, but he asked a very particular question. Disraeli said that justice is truth in action. Now, I am going to offer him some justice for those who want to get this right. I am pleased to inform the House that the £7.5 million grant scheme for charge points at workplaces will be rolled out—applications will begin—this Monday.
I think that we can agree that Disraeli did not drive a Nissan.
Sorry to break the consensus, but is there not a danger of the Government putting too much emphasis on electric vehicles and not enough on liquefied petroleum gas and hydrogen cells, which do not require the same level of infrastructure?
The hon. Gentleman is right that technology is changing in all kinds of ways, and there will be all kinds of results from that in respect of the zero emission ambition that I set out. The electric vehicle developments that I described, and to which the hon. Gentleman referred, are important. The Government’s role is to make sure that we do what we can to make them as attractive to consumers as possible. Charge points are at the heart of that.
Leaving the EU: Passenger Rights
The Prime Minister has made it clear that we will convert existing EU regulations into UK law when we leave the European Union. Once the great repeal Bill is given Royal Assent, Parliament will be free—subject to international agreements and treaties with other countries and the EU on matters such as trade—to amend, repeal and improve any law it chooses.
The collapse of low-cost holidays this summer emphasises the importance of the EU package travel directive, which offers consumers protection in the case of insolvency. Can the Minister give me a guarantee that any rights to which UK passengers are currently entitled will not be eroded by Brexit?
The hon. Gentleman must understand that this Government remain entirely committed to putting passengers at the heart of our transport policy and ensuring that we have the right regime for passenger rights. In the end, it comes down to this simple fact. As Ruskin said, quality is never a matter of accident, but the result of intelligent effort. I believe in the determination of this House to do right by passengers. If the hon. Gentleman does not believe that, I suggest that he comes into the new light of the dawn of our leaving the EU rather than staying in the murky darkness of Scottish nationalism.
In the wake of last week’s dreadful accident in Croydon, I would like to start this topical questions session by paying tribute to the British Transport police, for which I have ministerial responsibility, to all the emergency services and to the transport staff who worked so hard in the aftermath. I want to send all the good wishes of this House to those injured and our condolences to the families who tragically lost loved ones.
Recently published annual figures for those killed or seriously injured on our roads at the end of the second quarter of 2016 show a 3% increase on last year. For the third year running, deaths are higher than they were the year before and went up by 2% last year and this year. Thirty deaths may not sound that many out of 1,800, but for every grieving family, they are a tragedy. What is the Government’s plan to arrest and reverse this disturbing trend?
Of course every death on our roads is one death too many. It has to be said that our roads are among the safest in Europe and the world, but that is no reason for complacency. A trend in the wrong direction is an unwelcome one. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who is in his place alongside me, has responsibility for road safety. He is actively engaged, and will continue to be actively engaged, in looking at measures we could take that will improve things. We will look at different investment measures and different ways of educating motorists and those using the roads, and we will work with anyone who can come up with suggestions about how we can improve the situation.
I am fully aware of the merits of the scheme, and I will make sure that officials from the Department, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Bradford Council sit down to sort this out. There is no reason why Government mechanisms for approval should hold back schemes in Bradford. We are seeing schemes progressing all over the country, so I shall make sure that Bradford knows what to do so that the people of Bradford can see the investment they need.
May I associate Opposition Members with the Secretary of State’s comments about the tragedy in Croydon?
The latest statistics from the Department for Transport show a marked decline in bus patronage across the whole country—a drop of some 3%, along with a drop of 2% in bus mileage. Given that we are trying to get passengers out of cars and on to buses, is this not a mark of Government failure? What is the Secretary of State planning to do about it?
We are, of course, maintaining our support for buses, which we see as the workhorses of our public transport system. They make more than 5 billion passenger journeys per year, compared with 1.7 billion on our railways. We are maintaining, for instance, the bus service operators grant and the £1 billion for the concessionary bus pass scheme, and the Bus Services Bill will be introduced next week.
I rather expected the Minister to refer to the Bus Services Bill. Given that franchising is the answer, why is he denying the choice to many swathes of the country? Why cannot parts of England which do not take on elected mayors—and which are represented largely by his own side—have powers to improve their services as well?
I think the hon. Gentleman is mistaken when he says that franchising is the answer. All the conversations that I have had with local authorities have produced a mixture of solutions, but most of have focused on partnerships: good partnerships between local authorities and bus companies which will meet local needs.
I have looked at the report, and I recognise the importance of protecting our biodiversity. Our country is probably more covered in woodland today than it has been for many centuries in our history, and I find it encouraging that organisations such as the Woodland Trust are continuing to plant the forests and woods of the future. However, I am sceptical about a 1:30 ratio which appears to be based on nothing more than a gut instinct. I am not sure that that is an appropriate way of dealing with the issue. What is important, to my mind, is replacing lost woodland with extra planting, and following a “finger in the air” formula may not be the best way of doing so.
The hon. Gentleman has already attended a round table discussion with me on just such matters, and I believe he will be attending another this afternoon. I am spending more time with him and the truckers than with almost anyone else. He can be assured that the case that he makes is dear to my heart, and that it will inform Government policy. He is right to say that we need to look after the smaller operators as well—he has taken a proud and informed stance on that—and I will ensure, through him and through other mechanisms, that they are involved in the discussions.
As my hon. Friend knows, rural Wales is the most beautiful part of any country in the world to drive through. I wonder what more he can do to press the Welsh Government to improve investment in roads in my area, so that our world-class countryside is accessible via a world-class road network.
I do indeed know how beautiful rural Wales is, and my hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of good connections to the tourism industry. I, too, wonder what I could do to press the Welsh Government. Perhaps we could simply highlight to the people of Wales the greater priority placed on investment in infrastructure by Conservative Governments.
Absolutely, but that does not apply only to the steel industry. I believe that HS2 is a great engineering project for the United Kingdom, and I was pleased to note a substantial British presence in the first set of contracts that we announced this week. I have made it very clear that the firms that hope to participate in this project should expect to leave a skills and expertise footprint behind in the United Kingdom, and that those that fail to do so should not expect to find themselves at the front of the queue when it comes to contracting.
On the midland main line, East Midlands Trains often gets it in the neck for train delays when often the responsibility is failures by Network Rail. Will the Secretary of State and the rail Minister design a rail compensation scheme that sends the correct signals to Network Rail to raise its game?
I recognise the situation my hon. Friend describes. We have a number of compensation schemes operating within the rail industry focusing on schedule 8 payments. I recognise the need to make sure that that remains a very clear system for passengers to understand why delay attribution occurs and recognise that there is much work to be done.
There are two separate issues here. Improvements are needed to local roads in west London, and the M4 is one of those where plans are afoot now to deliver improvements way before we have a new runway in place. Heathrow airport will be expected to pay for the infrastructure improvements directly linked to the new runway. There are of course other improvements, such as M4 improvements, that are not directly linked and that have for some while been envisaged as part of the ongoing road improvement programme this Government are pursuing. My commitment is that where a transport improvement is required to make the third runway possible, that will be met by Heathrow airport.
I thank the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), for his commitment to tackling illegal HGV fly-parking across roads in Kent and throughout the country. Does he agree that ending this blight requires not only more lorry parking spaces, but more effective enforcement?
My hon. Friend knows I have also held a round table on that issue—as I have said before, my table is ever more round and I always welcome hearing from hon. Members across this House. My hon. Friend has made this case forcefully; she has done so at Westminster Hall and again today. She is right that we need to look at these matters because they affect local residents in exactly the way she said. We want to get a balanced package for HGVs, but a package that takes account of the overtures my hon. Friend has made in the interests of her constituents.
When the Minister has discussions with Leeds City Council about the light rail scheme, will he also discuss trolleybuses? I drove a trolleybus for three years; they are very efficient and are a lot cheaper in infrastructural costs, and it would be a lot cheaper for Leeds and elsewhere if we had trolleybuses rather than trams.
The hon. Gentleman does not need to localise it any more to Leeds or Wolverhampton. I am in constant discussion with UK Tram and am very keen to lower the cost of all options, whether it be light rail, tram, train or trolley bus, but it is for local councils to decide on the most appropriate scheme for their local area.
I never cease to be impressed by the varied life experience of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris).
Does the Secretary of State share my concern that the reduced growth deal 3 offer made to the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership has threatened a number of important road and rail improvement schemes in Somerset? Does he also agree that driving growth through improvement to transport infrastructure should trump the devolution agenda?
First, it is important that the funding we allocate to different parts of the country delivers real improvement, whether to congestion and connectivity, economic development or housing. I met the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government earlier this week to discuss the issue. No offers have yet been made on funding to LEPs; that will happen shortly.
The electrification of the line to Hull was included in the Government’s northern transport plan published in March. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), now the Minister for the northern powerhouse, said:
“The problem if you are not included in the electrification is the risk that you then become just a shuttle service connecting into the main line.”
So can the Secretary of State explain to me why yesterday the decision was made not to include the electrification of the line to Hull, and to leave the TransPennine electrification finishing at Selby, 30 miles outside Hull?
The train companies got there first, and the good news for Hull is that both Hull Trains and TransPennine Express are going to be running on this route with new generation state-of-the-art hybrid trains that will run on both electric and diesel, and will connect Hull across the Pennines and connect Hull to London. That is good news for the passengers.
Order. I am sorry, but we must move on.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to make a statement on the future of the British people of the Chagos Islands and the British Indian Ocean Territory.
The islands of the Chagos archipelago have been British territory since 1814, when they were ceded to Britain by France. In 1966, the UK agreed with the United States to make the British Indian Ocean Territory available for the defence purposes of the US and the UK, and the Chagossian people were removed from the islands. Like successive Governments before them, this Government have expressed their sincere regret about the manner in which Chagossians were removed from the British Indian Ocean Territory in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is right that the UK Government paid substantial compensation to Chagossians—nearly £15.5 million in current prices—and the British courts and the European Court of Human Rights have confirmed that compensation has already been paid in full and final settlement.
We must now look forward, not back, on decisions about the future of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The Government have considered this complex issue very closely and carried out an independent feasibility study of the practicalities of resettlement and a public consultation, which sought better to gauge the demand for resettlement by illustrating the most realistic way in which resettlement would hypothetically take place. The Government have looked carefully at the practicalities of setting up a small remote community on low-lying islands and the challenges that such a community would face. We were particularly concerned about the difficulty of establishing modern public services, about the limited healthcare and education that it would be possible to provide—which would create difficulties for any new population and especially for elderly Chagossians returning to the islands—and about the lack of realistic economic opportunities.
The Government have now considered all the available information and decided against the resettlement of the Chagossian people on the grounds of feasibility, defence and security interests, and the cost to the British taxpayer. Although the Government have ruled out resettlement, we are determined to address the aspirations that drove Chagossians to seek to resettle—for instance, their desire for better lives and their wish to maintain a connection to the territory. To meet those aspirations, the Government are creating a significant and ambitious support programme to provide Chagossians with better life chances and developing an increased visits programme. The British Government intend to liaise with Chagossian communities in the UK and overseas and to work closely with the Governments involved to develop the kind of cost-effective programmes that will make the biggest improvement in the life chances of those Chagossians who need it most.
I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he not understand the shock, anger and dismay among members of the Chagossian community in the United Kingdom, in Mauritius and in the Seychelles who were displaced from their homeland in the 1960s at the Government’s decision not to allow resettlement? Does he not realise that they are British subjects who are entitled to the same rights, freedoms and self-determination that all British citizens should have? How can the Government defend the right of self-determination for the people of the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and other British overseas territories, while completely denying the same rights to the people of the Chagos Islands?
Why have the Government ignored the arguments put forward over the years by the all-party parliamentary group on the Chagos Islands and by experts concerning viability, sustainability, cost, funding, defence and security, international human rights obligations and the views of the courts, which since 2000 have deplored the treatment of the Chagossians? Have the Government properly considered the Supreme Court conclusion that, in the light of the KPMG study, maintaining the ban on Chagossian return might no longer be legal?
Does the Minister accept that the United States was not opposed to resettlement and that any security concerns would be easily manageable, just as they are when indigenous people around the world who live around military installations are accommodated? Will he clarify whether the right of abode, which is different from resettlement, can be restored, giving Chagossians the right to visit their homeland whenever they wish? Does he not see that this decision continues to undermine the United Kingdom’s human rights record and the British sense of fair play? Why should Chagossians, who are British, be treated any differently from other nationals of overseas territories? How does this leave the Government’s so-called “unwavering commitment” to human rights?
British Chagossians should have the right of self-determination that is afforded to all Her Majesty’s subjects, who rightly expect the protection of the Crown, which is being denied to the Chagossians today.
I fully accept my hon. Friend’s passion on this subject, which he has demonstrated for many years. He has become a champion of this issue. However, as he will appreciate, the Government and I do not agree with many of his points. First, we do not consider that the right of self-determination actually applies to the Chagossians. In fact, the issue here is one of sustainability and viability—[Interruption.] Well, let me go into that.
When I was an International Development Minister, looking at communities such as the Pitcairn Islands, one needed to appreciate that it is demographically difficult to sustain a population of that size in such a remote area: services cannot be provided; the travel distances are enormous; and the costs are quite significant. The costs here have been estimated to vary between £55 million for a mere 50 people and something like £256 million for 1,500. The obligation on Her Majesty’s Government to pay on an annual basis the costs of sustaining the population would be triggered. When no hospital is available and when care cannot be delivered urgently, it is unsustainable to expect a community of any such size to exist in such a setting.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. After four decades of intense debate on the disgraceful relocation of the Chagossians, after the campaign for their resettlement and after all the legal disputes, the marches and rallies, the parliamentary debates and the reviews and inquiries, it is disappointing that the Government thought they could deal with the issue with a 500-word written statement in the other place yesterday.
After KPMG provided a comprehensive analysis of the resettlement options, why have we not at least seen an equally detailed evaluation of those options from the Government, so that we can understand the rationale behind the decision? We are told that cost is one of the three factors, but that comes from a Government who have spent £285 million building an airport on St Helier—[Hon. Members: “St Helena.”] Whether it is called St Helier or St Helena, the fact is that we have spent £285 million on an airport where it is impossible to land planes. If cost is of such importance, let us put it in that context. If the Government are prepared to spend such amounts on an airport that does not work properly, why not evaluate this situation in those terms?
We are told that the agreement with the United States on the Diego Garcia military base is another factor, but that agreement is due to expire at the end of this year. Has the Minister even discussed with the incoming US Administration whether the renewal of the agreement could be made conditional on both parties facilitating the resettlement of the Chagossians?
Finally, we are told that feasibility is also a factor, but why has that not been tested by means of a pilot programme of relocation, as considered by KPMG? The treatment of the Chagos islanders is a dark stain on our country’s history. Yesterday’s decision, and the manner in which it was made, has done nothing to remove that stain. It is another disgraceful attempt to cover it up, but it will not be covered up. The Chagossians can be assured that the Opposition, led as we are by someone who has campaigned for them for 30 years, will never give up on their right to return.
May I at least agree with one thing the hon. Lady said, which is that we all deplore the relocation that took place in the 1960s, and the manner in which it took place? That is why compensation has been paid to those who were displaced in that manner. May I also point out that the written statement yesterday was not in another place, but here in this House of Commons?
Yes, it was.
The statement goes out in parallel to both Chambers. Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to learn something about how parliamentary procedure works. It went out at the same time.
The Government have been looking at this issue for more than four years, and the decision was made at Cabinet level by appropriate Ministers. During that process, there has been a full consultation. Perhaps I should point out that, of those invited to express a view, 832 people answered. When it was described what life on the islands would look like, only 25%—approximately 200 people—indicated that they would like to go to reside on the islands. As for Diego Garcia, the hon. Lady needs to appreciate that the Chagos Islands, or the British Indian Ocean Territory, comprise 58 islands—it is not just Diego Garcia. The agreement is likely to be renewed before the new President comes in and is expected to continue—indeed, it will continue—until 2036.
It has been my privilege, since 2010, to represent one of the largest communities of the Chagos Islands anywhere in the world—it is certainly larger than that on the Chagos Islands. I have pursued this issue since before being elected to this place and it has been my honour to do so. I believe that the Chagos islanders have a right of return, and I am very disappointed with yesterday’s statement by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I note that a compensation package of £40 million over 10 years has been proposed. Can the Minister say a little bit more about how that will be spent in local communities such as mine in Crawley? And rather than just regretting the forced eviction of Chagos islanders from their homeland, will the British Government now apologise?
Yes, I am very prepared to—and do—apologise. That is why compensation has been paid, and the matter has been recognised by the courts. My hon. Friend, who has a large Chagossian population in his Crawley constituency, has taken a keen and proper interest in this issue ever since he was elected. That must be respected, as must his views and opinions. He has touched on something that is very important, which is that, in looking forward, the Government intend to allocate £40 million, shared between the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, to address the needs of Chagossians wherever they are—whether in Mauritius, the Seychelles or the United Kingdom. In respect of how that will be paid, some of it will qualify as official development assistance—the DFID element—and the rest will do lots of other things in conjunction with the communities and with the Governments in the countries in which they reside. I very much hope that this £40 million over 10 years will be well spent and particularly address the needs of those older Chagossians, who might have been displaced in the ’60s and ’70s, but who are still alive and who are perhaps the ones in greatest need.
Has it occurred to the Minister that, in the era of President Trump, an island group in the middle of the Indian ocean, thousands of miles from anywhere, might be one of the safer and more desirable places on this planet? In the late 1960s, the community on the Chagos Islands was fully employed and perfectly sustainable. How can the Minister seriously argue now that it would not be so in modern times, particularly with the advantage of an airport with a very long runway? Finally, the Minister has said that the right of self-determination does not apply here. Why exactly is that? The shame of successive Administrations is not something to do just with the 1960s and 1970s. It covers the past 15 years, where successive Administrations have used every effort through the courts to block and tackle the rights of the Chagossians, including the use of the royal prerogative, disgracefully, against Her Majesty’s subjects. Instead of apologising for the past, will the Minister properly address the future and allocate to these people their right of self-determination and their right of return?
The right hon. Gentleman’s reference to the runway refers to only a very small part of the archipelago, where there are 58 islands. There is no obvious manner in which a few people on low-lying islands will be able to sustain themselves economically without outside help.
As for what the right hon. Gentleman describes as the runway, and hence implicitly Diego Garcia, the nature of the employment there did not prove attractive to those Chagossians who were consulted, because in most cases they are people who cannot take their families and work in a solitary manner, and they did not find the likely package of employment attractive. The right hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but that is the response that came through in the consultation.
On self-determination, the legal advice that we have received is that the Chagossians were not and are not a “people” for the purposes of international law and hence self-determination.
There are many issues that we could raise in connection with the statement, and many of us did raise them on 25 October, when there was a Westminster Hall debate on the issue. At that time, I asked the Minister what the timeframe was for announcing his decision about the islands, and we were told that it would be announced before the end of the year. Does he accept how regrettable it is for many of us to have read the contents of the written ministerial statement in The Guardian on Tuesday night and how concerned we were, whether the written ministerial statement was published in this House or the other place, that it was published two hours before a long-standing meeting of the all-party parliamentary group to discuss the matter? Many of us feel that that was an affront to many Members. Will he undertake an investigation to determine how the statement ended up in a national newspaper, rather than here on the Floor of the House?
I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, although the Minister to whom he refers was not me. What I am doing today is repeating a statement that was made in another place. I hope and believe that the APPG was afforded proper respectful attention. I think that there were three Ministers there, properly explaining the policy. Quite how the matter got into The Guardian I do not know. All I can say is that that is not the natural paper for Her Majesty’s Government, and I therefore suspect that the sources probably lie elsewhere.
The Guardian contacted me on Tuesday and asked me whether the Minister was going to make an announcement. Nobody in this House or in this country thinks that Britain behaved well in the 1960s in relation to the Chagos Islands. How we behaved then is a disgrace. The question is how we proceed now. Many people have suggested, incorrectly, that the Chagos marine preserve zone, which was initiated in 2010, was deliberately put in place to prevent the Chagossians returning to the British Indian Ocean Territory. That is completely untrue. Will the Minister update us on where we are now with protecting the biodiversity there, which is vital not only in itself, but to the entire east coast of Africa?
I acknowledge the keen attention that the hon. Gentleman gave to the matter when he was a Minister. He is right that the creation of a marine protection area or zone has no bearing on what we are discussing today, but in respect of his subsequent question, I am pleased to say that I was in Washington last month at the ocean summit and, because we have a number of these islands as part of our historic legacy, I was able to announce a 4 million sq km marine protected area around many of them, which puts the UK in the forefront of marine biodiversity and protection.
Did any of the estimates for the cost of resettlement include the building of a prison such as we have had to build in Pitcairn?
I am not aware that they did, but my right hon. Friend and successor as Minister in the Department for International Development puts his finger on an example of a small community on a remote island that has had serious difficulties—demographic, behavioural and economic difficulties. Under our legislation we are obliged to offer reasonable support to such a population, even though on the Pitcairn Islands there are only 46 people. Simply for child safeguarding, when I was a Minister I insisted that all teenagers go to New Zealand to be educated, rather than suffer improper behaviour on the island.
I know the Minister quite well, and I detect a bit of embarrassment about his statement today, perhaps partly because of the way this whole thing has been handled, with a statement being rushed out yesterday, having been leaked to the papers. This is a very sad day for our country and it reflects so badly on our attitude to human rights across the world. Is there anything he would listen to that would make the Government change what I think is a deplorable decision?
I am afraid I have to say directly to the hon. Lady that I diametrically disagree with her. I am not in any way embarrassed, although, of course, when it comes to leaks, I neither like nor approve of them. However, this is the final decision. I do not think it is deplorable. Certainly in my direct experience, and looking at the evidence—and, indeed, in response to a consultation where so few people actually said, given what they thought the conditions would be in living there, that they wanted to go—it is not deplorable or a breach of human rights to say that, in our judgment, this would be creating a community that would actually not be sustainable and that, probably, at the end of the day, would be neither safe nor happy.
This is a sensitive decision, but it is the right decision. Is the Minister of State aware that, when I was Minister for overseas territories, I actually travelled out to the Chagos Islands and also went out to the outer islands? I think I am the only person in the House today who has visited. It was certainly quite a difficult experience; over five days, I spent only 15 minutes on land in a bed. This is a massive area, and it is very difficult to get to. It would be wholly impossible to populate the islands, as other Members of the House have argued. Does the Minister agree that, while this is a sensitive issue, it is good to have what I hope will be closure on it going forward?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who has served, of course, as a Minister. As he says, he is probably the only one of us who has visited. I really think that what he has said is right: it is wise to realise that, despite the many arguments we have heard for repopulating the islands, that would not lead to an attractive existence for those who lived there, in what we foresee as the circumstances in which they would live. For instance, if someone has appendicitis and it takes them five days to get to a hospital, they are probably not going to get there alive. I hope the House will listen to my hon. Friend’s first-hand evidence and experience.
What have the Government actually decided here? They say they will not facilitate resettlement, but do they accept or not that the Chagossians have a right of return or a right of abode? If I won the lottery and decided to spend my winnings on building a paradise retreat for myself on one of the Chagos Islands, would that kind of development be permitted?
It would potentially be illegal. In my view, it is quite clear that our decision is that there should not be resettlement or repopulation on these islands.
When we renegotiate this treaty with the Americans for the use of the Chagos Islands, could not part of the conditions of agreement be that Chagossians should be the people of choice for employment in the American airbase there? They would then be sustained by the American infrastructure and be looked after that way. That would be an honourable thing for us to do; what we decided to do yesterday is dishonourable.
I do not agree with my hon.—and gallant—Friend. I do not think this is dishonourable. As I have already said, Diego Garcia is only one small part of this large archipelago. The nature of the employment there would not necessarily prove attractive, and it is not seen as practical to link subsistence payments for a repopulated series of islands to the use of the defence base, for which, at the moment, there is no payment anyway.
May I assure the Minister that I understand better than most people in this House the challenges of providing public services in remote island communities? However, if the Chagos Islands are where people belong and that is where they want to be, they have an inalienable right to be there. What the Minister describes today as practicalities exist only because of what this country did some decades ago. Paying £40 million over 10 years cannot buy out our responsibilities.
Notwithstanding the fact that, as I said earlier, the manner in which the Chagossians were displaced in the ’60s and ’70s was deplorable, we think it inappropriate to return them. We have to look to the future, not the past. Compensation has already been agreed and upheld in the courts, so we are now trying to offer a forward-looking support package of £40 million in the manner that I described.
If resettlement went forward as an option, how resilient would that be to climate change and changes in sea levels, which have been a problem elsewhere in the area? Will the Minister explain the background on the business of ceding the archipelago to Mauritius if it is no longer used for defence purposes?
My hon. Friend answers his own questions in a way. Yes, the islands are low-lying and so do face some of the perils of climate change, although I hope that recent decisions and the actions of Governments will stop the water level rising any further. He is correct in saying that there is an understanding that we would cede the islands to the Mauritians in the event that they were no longer needed for defence purposes.
I believe this decision to be wrong. I also believe that the FCO has not comported itself well in how this information has come out. This morning I spoke to my constituent, Louis Elyse, who is the leader of the small Chagossian community in Wythenshaw and Sale East. He is utterly heartbroken and said that it was cruel and unusual that the KPMG report gave so much hope only for it to be undermined in such a way by Government yesterday.
It is not entirely fair to say that the KPMG report was undermined by Government. The report gave a whole range of possible scenarios, and consultation then followed. I say again that only 25% of the 832 people who responded after further discussions indicated that they would want to return. These are very, very small numbers that would, under the KPMG report, trigger a very high cost per capita. I very much hope that the package we have announced will benefit those of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who qualify for assistance as Chagossians. It is on those people on his own doorstep that I would like to concentrate the expenditure of this money. We are very happy, in the FCO and DFID, to discuss how that might take place.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to increase the number of visits to the Chagos Islands, and the package of measures for elderly people who were removed forcibly from the islands. Will he undertake to ensure that priority is given particularly to enabling elderly former residents of the islands to return to see the land of their birth, and their children and other parts of their family to see the beauty of the area?
My hon. Friend puts his finger on a very important element of the support package that has been designed. It is a heritage package, in most respects, such that those who were born there and are still alive can go back and see the place of their birth, while those who are descendants can see the origin of their heritage. I very much hope that an appropriate amount of the £40 million will be directed to that end and will promptly facilitate exactly what he has described.
A study by the coalition Government in 2014-15 concluded that resettlement was possible and affordable if Diego Garcia was involved. What consideration was given to that option? How have we moved from the resettlement that the previous Government decided was a good idea to a statement today that says there will be no resettlement at all?
The link with Diego Garcia as a potential payer, as it were, for all this is illusory, particularly because following consultation and the discussions that followed the KPMG report, it was clear that few, if any, Chagossians really wanted to work on the base.
On the rights of Chagossians, the United Nations has found in their favour in regard to return, and recently the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has found against the UK Government and criticised their policy. Why is the Minister ignoring the view of the United Nations?
We are not ignoring the view of the United Nations, and I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation. For all the reasons that I have described at length today, this would be an impractical proposal that would not lead to happy lives for those who might choose to go there.
The original decision is a throwback to colonial thinking, and the support package currently on offer does not even match the original discount given to Polaris nuclear missiles, so more money should be made available. More recently, the KPMG report says that it is feasible for Chagossians to return, and despite the Minister’s comments on the quality of life that they would get, the consultation showed that more than 200 of them want to do so. How can the Government decide that they are not allowed to return because they would not get a good enough quality of life?
Because of the expense and, indeed, because they would not get a good quality of life. Only 200 maximum said that they wished to do that, and it is not the case that the KPMG report said that it was straightforwardly feasible. It presented a number of scenarios, most of which came out at a very high cost that could not justify the resettlement of Chagossians on the islands.
I am sure that the Minister knows his history. A couple of hundred years ago, his predecessor would have stood in the same place and assured Parliament that the colony called America could not possibly deliver a decent standard of life to its people. Does not he accept that if the decision whether it is in the interests of islanders to return is made here and they are not given the right to decide, that is a return to the days of the arrogant, colonial, Britain-knows-best days, which should have been consigned to the dustbin of history 100 years ago?
No, because, as I have already said, that right of self-determination is not considered legally to apply. We have gone through all the arguments today and explained why we think that would be impractical. It is better to look to the future and to make sure that the help that the islanders need, wherever they are, be it in Mauritius, the Seychelles or the United Kingdom, is properly given by Her Majesty’s Government.
Last but certainly not least, I call Ian Paisley.
The Minister’s statement about no right to self-determination will have much wider implications and will be listened to by many people on other islands and rocks around the world. Will he make it clear to those people who may have felt a shiver down their spine when they heard that statement that Her Majesty’s Government do not intend to roll back self-determination anywhere else?
My interpretation of the hon. Gentleman’s question—I think that this will be to his satisfaction—is that he is implicitly also referring to sovereignty. May I make it absolutely clear that questions as to the existence or presence of a population on the British Indian Ocean Territory do not affect our position on sovereignty? We have no doubt whatsoever about our sovereignty of the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 21 November—Remaining stages of the Higher Education and Research Bill.
Tuesday 22 November—Opposition day (13th allotted day). There will be a debate on education and social mobility, followed by a debate on the national health service. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Wednesday 23 November—The Chancellor of the Exchequer will present his autumn statement, followed by a general debate on exiting the EU and transport policy.
Thursday 24 November—Debate on a motion on reform of the support arrangements for people affected by contaminated blood and blood products, followed by a debate on a motion on reducing health inequality. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 25 November—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 28 November will include:
Monday 28 November—Remaining stages of the Digital Economy Bill.
Tuesday 29 November—Second Reading of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill, after which the Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to announce opposed private business for consideration.
Wednesday 30 November—Opposition day (14th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 1 December—Debate on a motion on transgender equality, followed by a general debate on the future of the UK fishing industry. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 2 December—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 21 and 28 November will be:
Monday 21 November—Debate on an e-petition relating to free childcare.
Monday 28 November—Debate on an e-petition relating to child cancer.
It may be for the convenience of the House if I also say that in view of the intense speculation in the media this morning about the Strathclyde report, my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Privy Seal intends to make a statement in the House of Lords later today, and I shall place a copy of it in the Library of the House and in the Vote Office as soon as it is available. The Government intend to respond very soon to the Strathclyde report and to the Select Committee reports of both Houses on that subject. I can confirm that although the Government found Lord Strathclyde’s analysis compelling and we are determined that the principle of the supremacy of the elected House should be upheld, we have no plans, for now, to introduce new primary legislation.
I thank the Leader of the House for the information he gave, particularly on the Strathclyde report. Obviously, we will wait to see what it says when he places a copy of it in the Library, but I understand that problems may remain despite the report’s contents.
We have heard nothing from the Leader of the House about the dates for the next recess and the next terms. We appear to stop at 9 February—then there is radio silence; there is absolutely nothing after that. Is there any business? Are we on an election footing? Who knows? Even if the Government do not have plans, the staff and Members, and their families, all have to plan for Easter and summer. We might want to go to see Dippy the dinosaur, who is leaving the Natural History Museum and going on tour—there are rumours he might end up in 1,600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2017. The Prime Minister knows what it is like to talk to the winner of the votes of the electoral college—not the popular vote—in the US presidential election. She made the call and heard, as the rest of us do when we try to make an appointment with our doctor or we are talking to our banks, “Thank you for holding. You are ninth in the queue.”
In the Prime Minister’s first foreign policy speech, at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, she said that globalisation—and liberalism, a dirty word—
“in its current form has left too many people behind”.
What we say is that people have been left behind by the past six wasted years of this Government. They have been left behind by: austerity measures; freezes on wages; zero-hours contracts, which now extend to lecturers; current childcare provision; cuts in grants to local authorities, which have decimated local services and caused the closures of libraries; the bedroom tax, which has now been ruled in two cases to be unreasonable; and the reduction in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs staff, which has stopped us addressing tax evasion and tax avoidance schemes, and therefore stopped money flowing into the Treasury coffers. Will the Leader of the House give us a debate in Government time to analyse how people have been affected by their policies in the past six years?
May we also have a debate on the sustainability and transformation plans in the NHS? We have had an Opposition debate, but we need a debate in Government time. The British Medical Association and the King’s Fund have added their voices, saying that the plans are not transparent and there is no legal or clinical accountability. Clinicians, patients and the public should be involved, or we will all be left behind by the new NHS plans. I do not know whether you have heard, Mr Deputy Speaker, but they are called STP footprints—that reminds me of Dippy the dinosaur. STPs will form a group with clinical commissioning groups, local authorities and goodness knows how many other people, adding another tier of bureaucracy. We have had a reorganisation of the NHS, under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, and it cost £3 billion. Is this another one? Where are patient care and patient safety in this? These plans need to be made public immediately.
May we have a debate on reaffirming the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law? A judge made an analysis of a case in a lecture to students, and the comments about that are extremely threatening. An hon. Member said:
“If judges dip their toes in political waters by making speeches outside the courtroom, they are asking to get splashed back.”
If anyone says something the Government do not like, they are trolled and trashed. Judges give speeches outside the courtroom all the time. Lord Denning and Lord Scarman did so in the Hamlyn lectures. Lord Bingham did so in the Sir David Williams lectures in Cambridge, and he produced a book called “The Rule of Law”. As I have done before in this House, I encourage all hon. Members to read that book. The situation is a far cry from the Youth Parliament last week, which wanted to debate a better, kinder democracy.
And now to Brexit. The Prime Minister yesterday said that our democracy is underpinned by the freedom of the press. However, No. 10 does not like the fact that the press have said that Whitehall is struggling to cope and that there is no plan for exiting the Union. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on whether there is a plan and whether extra civil servants are required for the 500 projects that relate to leaving the EU? The Leader of the House was the longest-serving Minister for Europe, and he has built very good relationships. He is best placed to be there to negotiate with friends rather than out of secrecy and fear. He must be despairing of the right hon. Members for North Somerset (Dr Fox), for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) and for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who are like “Three Men in a Boat”, only without the oars. The sequel to that is “Three Men on the Bummel”. Bummel is a German word, so let me explain what it means. Jerome K. Jerome—who was, incidentally, born in Walsall—described it as a:
“journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started”.
That seems to describe the Government’s policy on exiting the Union. The British people are being left behind by this Government.
I join the hon. Lady in welcoming and celebrating the sitting of the UK Youth Parliament in this Chamber last Friday. She and I, and the Minister with responsibility for civil society, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), were present. We all came away feeling energised by the enthusiasm of those hundreds of young men and women for open, vigorous debate and for the process and the institutions of parliamentary democracy. I hope that following their experience here they will go and spread the word in all parts of the country about how important it is for young people, whichever political party they sympathise with, to become involved in helping to shape the future of their country.
Apropos of recess dates, I am keen, too, to bring an end to the suspense as soon as possible, and I recognise that colleagues in all parts of the House wish to have clarity on future recess dates. Equally, the hon. Lady will appreciate that any Government have to bear in mind the pressures that there will be on handling Government legislative business, but I hope to make an announcement as soon as possible. I can promise the hon. Lady that her appetite for additional legislation and other Government business will be more than satisfied in the months to come.
I was surprised that the hon. Lady made slightly disparaging comments about the Prime Minister’s efforts to build, from the start, a strong and robust relationship with the new President-elect of the United States of America. I had always thought it was common ground between the main political parties to accept that it is in the fundamental interests of the people of the UK for a British Government, whatever its political complexion, to seek to maintain a strong, intimate relationship with the US Administration, whether it is Democrat or Republican.
The hon. Lady asked about NHS plans. The STPs that she mentioned will all be made public. Indeed, the arrangements for STPs explicitly provide for local authority health oversight committees to challenge and check any proposal for significant service changes proposed by the NHS as a result of locally based reviews.
The hon. Lady asked me about EU exit. I am sorry if she was not listening during my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s response to the Leader of the Opposition yesterday, because my right hon. Friend spelled out the fact that the Government have a very clear plan. It is to secure for British business the maximum access to, and the greatest possible freedom to operate within, the single European market. It is to continue our strong tradition of close co-operation with our European colleagues on police and judicial matters, fighting together against terrorism and organised crime. It is to continue the essential network of relationships on which our foreign and security co-operation is founded. It is certainly to bring an end to the freedom of movement of people as it currently exists. It is also about forging a role for the United Kingdom as a champion of freedom of trade and investment worldwide. I would once have hoped that the Labour party aspired to support those objectives as well.
Equally, I was sorry that the hon. Lady painted such a bleak and inaccurate picture of the Government’s record in office without acknowledging this week’s employment figures. The figures show that more people are in work in the United Kingdom than ever before, and they show that more people with disabilities have secured employment than ever before. The Resolution Foundation has hailed the past 12 months as the best year in history for low-paid employees because of this Government’s introduction of the national living wage.
The hon. Lady said that she was looking forward to following the tour of Dippy the dinosaur around the country. It is somehow appropriate that Opposition Members should pay such attention to that event. It probably brings back fond memories of their recent leadership campaign. Perhaps the fact that the Opposition is mired in Jurassic-era policies helps to explain why so many of the hon. Lady’s Labour colleagues now fear political extinction.
Like the shadow Leader of the House, I believe in the freedom of the media to report, but the BBC increasingly appears to be becoming the “Brexit Bad Corporation”. I was listening to the “Today” programme at 8 am this morning, when it reported on the launch today of four satellites as part of the European Space Agency and the EU’s Galileo programme. At the end of the report, the BBC said that British businesses were fearful they would not be able to co-operate fully with the programme following Brexit. I did a bit of research and found out that China, Ukraine and Morocco are part of the programme, but the last time I looked, none of those three countries was in the European Union. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to come to the House to tell us what discussions she is having with Lord Tony Hall about having some fairness in the coverage of our Brexit?
My hon. Friend is right to say that there is active participation by a number of non-member states in the Galileo and various other EU programmes. That indicates that it is possible for a country outside the EU, but enjoying friendly relationships with it, to forge such a partnership. It is probably fair to say that the BBC got a lot of flak from both camps during the referendum campaign. The best position for Ministers to take is to respect the independence of the BBC. We should make complaints if we feel that the Government’s position is misrepresented in some way, but, in a free society, we ultimately have to respect the editorial judgment of the broadcasters and newspaper editors.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week.
Well, well—it looks like the unelected circus down the corridor has just won the battle of the statutory instrument, as the Government hastily and embarrassingly withdraw all their plans to rein in the powers of the unelected ones. With the imminent ennoblement of the dark lord Farage it seems as though the only intention the Government have for the House of Lords is to increase the numbers in that grotesque place down the corridor.
Today’s piece of Tory Brexit cluelessness does not come from the prosecco-swilling Foreign Secretary as he goes around Europe upsetting the diplomatic community but from the Treasury, as we learn that £100 billion is to be sucked out of the economy because of this shambolic Brexit. Given that dramatic news I presume we are not going to be getting our £350 million for the NHS. May I suggest a way in which we might be able to resolve that situation—could we perhaps get some of the Brexiteer clowns who made that absurd statement during the referendum to come forward and apologise for what they said during the campaign?
We are now anticipating that the Government will be defeated in the Supreme Court when it comes to the appeal on the High Court ruling. Will the Leader of the House tell us what provisional plans he has for legislation as it comes forward? As Leader of the House—this House—will he pledge that there will be opportunities for Members to properly debate that legislation and for amendments to be tabled, and there will be no attempts whatever to curtail any debate on it?
Lastly, after business questions the Labour shadow Leader of the House and I will be doing some recording for the Jo Cox Foundation, as we reclaim the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. It is for a great cause, and I am sure that the Leader of the House will be prepared to support it; perhaps he will even help us get to No. 1 in the new year.
The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to put questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer after the autumn statement about the implications for the economy of EU exit and many other matters.
The Government believe that we have a powerful case to argue in the forthcoming Supreme Court case. We intend to make that case. We should not forget that the High Court in Northern Ireland came to a different conclusion from the High Court in England on the matter. Both the Belfast and the London cases are to be heard together by the Supreme Court later this year. The Government are of course completely respectful of the role of the courts and their independence, and of the rule of law. That is written into the ministerial code and the civil service code alike.
I am certainly happy to wish the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues well in their chart-topping endeavour. Given the character of some of the songs that have managed to top the charts at Christmas and the new year over recent decades, he could follow in the footsteps of Clive Dunn and children’s choirs in becoming an emblem of this country’s somewhat eclectic tastes in music.
I read with interest today in the Telegraph an article by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the conference she has been to in Vietnam. May we ask her to give an urgent statement next week to explain why she is saying that we are leading the world in banning ivory but the fact is that we are only consulting on it after Christmas?
There will be questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 24 November, which will give my hon. Friend the opportunity she seeks. I think hon. Members on both sides of the House will want to support strongly the lead my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is taking in trying not just to highlight this issue in terms of British public opinion, but in persuading other Governments, in particular those from which the demand for ivory and other products from endangered species largely comes, that it is in their interests and in the interests of the people of the world to maintain wildlife, habitats and the biodiversity of the planet.
I thank the Leader of the House for the welcome development of giving the Backbench Business Committee notice of available dates. That has allowed him to announce this morning the next two Thursdays’ Backbench Business debates. Long may that continue.
I was not able to get in on Transport questions this morning, but the delay to the electrification of the Great Western main line is having a knock-on impact. That electrification was going to release class 150 and class 153 diesel trains for use on the northern rail franchise. There is a massive differential in investment in rail between the north and the south, but I am afraid to say that even delays to the investment proposals in the south and the south-west are having a knock-on effect on rail in the northern “poorhouse”.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about my efforts to try to give greater notice to him and his Committee about forthcoming Backbench Business days. I am committed to trying to maintain that good practice.
The Government are committed to pursuing the electrification of the Great Western main line. As the recent announcement reflected, however, we need to ensure that constant attention is paid to the need for best value for the taxpayer in how we go about that. I will draw his concerns about the possible impact on the northern rail franchise to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the system of testing at key stage 1 and key stage 2? Concern has been expressed about whether teachers are being adequately trained in the new rules. There also seems to be some inconsistency in the implementation and moderation of the testing, with particular regard to reading at key stage 2 and the disadvantageous effect it may have on children with special educational needs.
I ought to declare an interest, as my wife is a primary school teacher who teaches key stage 1 and key stage 2. A wide-ranging consultation, which will commence in the new year, was announced on 19 October by the Secretary of State for Education. It will give teachers, headteachers and others the opportunity to have their say on the current arrangements for primary assessment. The objective surely has to be to have a system in place that seeks always to drive up the standards attained by children in primary school, while of course at the same time making sure that children with disabilities and special educational needs have their particular needs taken into account, and that they are themselves able to succeed to the very limit of their own talents and determination.
Fourteen-year-old Nasar Ahmed, who lived in my constituency, died on Monday this week after falling ill at school last Thursday. His family are, naturally, devastated. His death is being investigated by the police as unexplained; by the local authority, which has a duty of care; and possibly by the Health and Safety Executive. I have every confidence that the authorities will conduct a thorough examination, but in the event of wider implications and lessons to be learned my request of the Leader of the House is that I can rely on his support for access to appropriate Ministers outside this Chamber—and, with your approval, Mr Deputy Speaker, inside this Chamber—should that prove necessary in due course.
First, may I express my sorrow and deep sympathy for the family of Nasar Ahmed? What has happened to them is the most appalling and unspeakable tragedy that any parent or relative can imagine. Clearly, as there are ongoing investigations, the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment further in detail, but I can assure him that the Government will want to pay close attention to the findings, and I am confident that should central Government need to reflect on current law and practice the relevant Ministers will be happy to talk to him.
Last weekend, we commemorated those who sacrificed their lives in service to this country to enable us to live in freedom and democracy. This weekend, we will celebrate the role of the Indian army in the great war and world war two, and on Sunday the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women will march at the Cenotaph, and I will be pleased and honoured to join them. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate in Government time, particularly in the centenary of the great war, to commemorate the role of the various parts of what was then the empire, and is now the Commonwealth, in securing our freedom?
I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate in Government time—this might well be a suitable subject for an Adjournment debate either here or in Westminster Hall—but I think that the House will be at one in joining him in saluting the sacrifice and service of those who served in the Indian army during both world wars and in saluting Jewish servicemen and women who also fought for freedom.
Will the Leader of the House facilitate a statement from the Home Secretary regarding the position of non-EEA fishermen, mainly Filipinos, who are critical to the fishing industry in the County Down ports and the ports of the west of Scotland and who have already been subjected to raids by UK border agencies? We urgently need proper regulation in this area. We have already had meetings with the Immigration Minister, but we now urgently need a statement from the Home Secretary outlining a solution.
Having visited Kilkeel a few years ago, I am aware of the importance of the fishing industry in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and I will certainly draw to the Home Secretary’s attention the points she has made. It is clearly important that we have arrangements to ensure that people from other countries who come and work here are legally entitled to be here, not least because legal status enables them to take advantage of the opportunities to work and, to some extent, access services they might need. Without legal status, they can so easily be exploited by rogue employers. I accept, however, that the fishing industry has for some time needed to take on labour from the Philippines and other countries, and I will make sure that Home Office Ministers are aware of this problem.
The House of Commons briefing paper on the northern powerhouse, issued on 1 November, states that the ability of the north-west to retain talented graduates was identified as a key factor in the success of the northern powerhouse. May we have a debate on how the Government, in partnership with north-west universities and business, will work to better retain skills developed in the north-west?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. When we look at how to encourage a revival of the civic dynamism that characterised the growth of the great northern cities during the 19th and early 20th centuries, we need to think about economic stimuli and about how we can further encourage those cities as centres of educational and research excellence and as centres of culture and the arts. That is why the devolutionary model initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) and being taken forward by the present Government is so attractive. It enables elected authorities in the region itself to work across the piece on policies that address the cultural and educational issues, alongside those simply to do with economics.
Will the Leader of the House assure us that next week’s debate on Europe will be broad enough to encompass today’s opinion poll finding that 90% of the country wants to be within the single marketplace? Given that I want to be in the single marketplace, that I know the Leader of the House wants to be in the single marketplace and that anybody with an ounce of a sense understands that in this Trumpian world of protectionist economics where the special relationship means being 11th in the telephone queue for a call with the new American President, we had better be in the single marketplace, will the Leader of the House now get up to the Dispatch Box and tell us that he actually understands the difference between access to a marketplace, which the association of Patagonian shoe manufacturers has, and being within the single marketplace, which should be the overwhelming priority of the Government to secure?
Business questions are about understanding—that is the only slight difference.
I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, as the Prime Minister repeated yesterday, her declared objective is not just the maximum access for British companies to the European market, but the greatest possible freedom to operate within that market as well. Clearly, the detail of that future trading and investment relationship is going to be an absolutely core element of the negotiations that we intend to start next year. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be ingenious and experienced enough to find ways of weaving his particular concern into next week’s debate or indeed on other occasions.
My right hon. Friend may not be aware that Walsall Council is proposing to close all the libraries within the borough, save for one in the town centre. There are six libraries in my constituency and they are all under consideration for closure. What advice can my right hon. Friend give me about this, and will he consider allowing time for a debate on libraries and on the fact that libraries are about much more than just books?
My hon. Friend is right to challenge some of the decisions that Walsall Council is proposing to take about libraries. Of course local authorities throughout England have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service, and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has a statutory duty to superintend that local provision. She also has the power to call a local inquiry if she believes that there is evidence to doubt that the local authority is providing the required service. I am sure that my hon. Friend will ensure that, if such a service is not being provided by Walsall Council, she will put a strong case to the Secretary of State.
Following the publication of the Cheshire and Merseyside NHS sustainability and transformation plan on Wednesday, a senior manager from Liverpool clinical commissioning group has admitted in the Liverpool Echo that the plans are financially driven, were drawn up in secrecy and are already being implemented—yet none of my constituents has had any say in how the proposals were formulated. May we have a debate in Government time so that we can properly consider the impact on my Garston and Halewood constituents of the proposals to reduce the opening hours at Whiston A&E and supposedly “reconfigure” the Liverpool women’s hospital while merging the Royal, Aintree and Broadgreen Trusts?
As the sustainability and transformation plans are published, it is important that they are examined closely. As I said earlier, local authorities have the power in law to exercise scrutiny and a check on proposals for changes in service delivery. The Government have delivered to the NHS all the money that the NHS chief executive asked for to fund reforms to the NHS to make it suitable for the health policy challenges of today and the future. When any of us talk to clinicians in our constituencies, we often find that it is the doctors and the nurses who say that there sometimes needs to be a change to the pattern of the location of services, particularly to deliver more specialist units, to provide patients with better treatment.
With today’s news that Boeing is planning to open a new aviation maintenance facility at Gatwick airport, supporting over 100 jobs, may we have a debate on the importance of the British aviation industry—particularly post-Brexit, given that we are an island trading nation—hopefully including the issue of reducing air passenger duty?
I shall take my hon. Friend’s last comment as a late bid to the Chancellor of the Exchequer prior to the autumn statement, but he has made a good point about the importance of the aviation industry to the country’s economic health and job creation. I think that Boeing’s investment at Gatwick is a further sign that, despite the political turbulence that is bound to follow the referendum result, our country is still seen as an extremely attractive destination for global investors.
This building is one of the most iconic in the world, and millions of people take photographs of it every day, but it has problems. Last week the House of Lords had to go into “Pleasure”—its word, not mine—because of the noise of the building work that was going on. It is now 10 weeks since the Joint Committee, two of whose members were Ministers, produced its report on what should happen here, and all the evidence suggests that any delay of this nature costs millions of pounds more. Why can we not have a debate as soon as possible, and certainly before Christmas?
Both the Leader of the House of Lords and I want Parliament to have an opportunity to debate this matter and make a decision as soon as possible. As a responsible Government, we have felt the need to seek the advice of the independent Major Projects Authority about the Government’s proposals in particular, but I hope that we shall be able to announce a date before much longer.
Voting in my shop competition closes in a couple of weeks’ time, on 1 December, and I shall be announcing the results on Small Business Saturday. I urge those who have not yet voted for their favourite shops to do so before voting closes. May we have a debate about the role that our high streets play in creating new jobs and ensuring that we have thriving local communities?
My hon. Friend is right to speak up for the importance of high streets as a focus of both civic identity and economic activity in towns and villages throughout the country. I applaud the initiative that she has taken, and I hope that not only many Members of Parliament but many members of the public will play an active part in the poll she has launched.
May I press the Leader of the House a little further on his response to the earlier question about the Joint Committee’s report on restoration and renewal? Does he intend the motion and debate proposed in the report to be dealt with in the House before Christmas?
I am not yet in a position to announce a firm date. I am, however, as aware as anyone else of the intense pressures on services in the building that need to be completely renewed, and of the links between the R and R project and the timetable for other restoration work that needs to be done.
As we approach the winter months, it is essential to ensure that people have access to the best possible tariffs for their energy. May we have a debate about competition in the UK energy market?
That is an important point, especially as winter is now approaching. We have a more competitive domestic retail energy market than ever before, and nearly 4 million energy accounts were switched between January and June this year, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy wants to do more. He is particularly anxious to ensure that customers are not penalised for loyalty, and that energy companies treat all their customers fairly, not just those who switch between suppliers.
May I remind the Leader of the House that our constituents will be deeply affected by the decision to take action on article 50, which will, it seems, be made in March? It will make a dramatic change to their lives—indeed, to all our lives. Is it not about time the Leader of the House told us that we shall have a major opportunity every week to debate our progress towards that date? This is such a big issue that my constituents demand accountability of that kind from the House. Will the Secretary of State introduce special measures to meet their needs?
I have just announced the second in a series of debates in Government time about aspects of the public’s decision in the referendum that this country should leave the European Union, so the Government are committed to providing the opportunities the hon. Gentleman seeks. He will also have the opportunity to put questions to the Foreign Secretary on 22 November, and to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on 1 December.
Will my right hon. Friend assist in securing a debate on the preservation of ancient woodland and veteran trees? People are writing to me, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Steve Brine) and for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), about the possible bulldozing of ancient woodland and its loss to our communities and the environment. This needs further protection where there are no neighbourhood or local plans, but options B and C in our proposed local plan are putting my constituents and their green spaces in peril.
My hon. Friend’s point will strike a chord with many Members on both sides of the House. She may get an opportunity to raise that matter on Monday 28 November during Communities and Local Government questions, but I should add that the sooner local authorities get their local plans in place, the sooner they will be able to assure local people that there will be proper protection for ancient woodlands and for other key environmental amenities.
Yesterday the Exiting the European Union Committee heard evidence from Dr Hannah White, director of research at the Institute for Government. It has warned that there will be a full-blown constitutional crisis unless all nations of the UK are involved in the negotiations around leaving the EU. Under questioning, Dr White said it would be almost unprecedented for one of the devolved legislatures to express concern and refuse to pass a legislative consent motion but for the UK Government to go ahead none the less. May we have a debate about how we can avert the constitutional crisis that the Institute of Government has warned about by involving all the devolved nations fully in negotiations to leave the EU?
The Government have made it clear again and again that we are committed to engaging in detail and constantly with all three devolved Administrations, whether that is at the level of the Joint Ministerial Committee, or at operational level between Ministers here and Ministers in the devolved Administrations or between officials in the different Administrations.
May we have a debate on responsibility for repairing damaged culverts? They result in flooding in certain parts of my constituency every time there is heavy rain, and there is a problem with determining who is responsible for the damage, who is responsible for repairs, and what can be done if nobody accepts responsibility, or if they do but cannot afford to pay for the damage.
I will draw my hon. Friend’s concern to the attention of the relevant Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but I can say to him that under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, unitary authorities and county councils have a duty to be the lead local flood authority. That Act also requires all authorities to co-operate and exchange information.
Is the Leader of the House excited by today’s news of a unique parliamentary series of events next year with the performance of a brand-new musical under the snappy title of “The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee takes oral evidence on the relationship between Whitehall and Kids Company”? Does he not think that arrangements by him to have a performance in this House would be both politically instructive and culturally enriching?
I can barely contain my excitement. I look forward to the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who has a fine baritone voice, playing himself in such a performance.
Order. Let’s hear from a man who should be able to deliver well: Conor McGinn.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. My Bill to introduce Helen’s law would deny parole to murderers who refuse to reveal the location of their victims’ remains. It has the support of 400,000 members of the public and many Members on both sides of the House, but will only become law if the Government support it or incorporate it into their legislative programme. Will the right hon. Gentleman and perhaps the Justice Secretary meet me and Helen’s mum, Marie McCourt, to discuss how we might work together on this?
I will ask the relevant Minister in the Justice Department to contact the hon. Gentleman about this case. No one in the House today will have anything but unreserved sympathy for the family involved, or indeed for any other family in the same appalling situation. There will be also opportunities for him to highlight this issue further through Adjournment debates.
It has now emerged that the person appointed to the quasi-judicial role of Pubs Code Adjudicator has made personal loans of more than £230,000 to Fleurets, a company that is dependent on income from the pub companies that he is supposed to regulate. Having taken four months to respond to the Select Committee, which said that the adjudicator’s appointment should be rescinded, the Secretary of State has now said that he is not going to look into the matter. That is not good enough. May we have an oral statement at the Dispatch Box from the Secretary of State?
I am not familiar with every detail of this case, but my understanding is that the regulator in question was appointed following the normal public appointments process involving all the Nolan principles. I also understand that the criticisms that the hon. Gentleman and others have made have been carefully considered and that there was no evidence to justify a change to the original decision.
On 15 September, the rail Minister, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), told me that I could expect “good news” about rail electrification to Hull shortly. Yesterday afternoon that scheme was scrapped, despite it appearing in the Government’s northern transport plan. May we please have a debate in Government time about whether people in Hull, who pay their taxes and often pay higher rail fares, can believe anything that a Tory Minister says to them about being included in the northern powerhouse?
As the hon. Lady knows, the Government are investing large sums of taxpayers’ money in improvements to transport infrastructure and, more generally, in northern cities, but I will alert the rail Minister to her particular concern about the situation relating to Hull.
The city of Dundee has spent years and hundreds of thousands of pounds preparing a bid to become the 2023 European city of culture, which would bring funding from Brussels, as well as being a major boost for tourism and cultural, social and economic development. This has now been thrown into doubt, bizarrely by the UK Government’s Culture Secretary, who wants to withdraw from the competition. This has led to the Foreign Secretary having to write to suggest that this move would be framed as “pulling up the drawbridge”. The Culture Secretary should check her job title—the clue is in the name. May we have an urgent debate on this matter before yet more Brexit folly leads to a devastating blow for Dundee?
Cities of culture will be one aspect of the forthcoming negotiations between the United Kingdom Government and the EU 27. This is tied up with our EU membership and our eligibility to draw upon EU funds.
Four months have passed since the end of the Government’s consultation on tips, gratuities and service charges, but abuses are still happening, with workers being told that they will receive a share of the service charge only if their pay is cut by a third. The former Leader of the House promised some months ago that the Business Secretary would update the House about this, but there has been a deafening silence. Will the Government now provide time as soon as possible for the new Business Secretary to make a statement on this matter?
If that commitment was given in the past, I will ensure that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is made aware of the hon. Lady’s wish for such an announcement as soon as possible.
Twice visitors from the diocese of Hyderabad have been refused visas to visit the Church of Scotland Presbytery of Glasgow, despite the Church having committed to bear the costs. The reason for the refusal suggested that the visitors were not genuine, despite the existence of an ongoing twinning relationship. I hear similar spurious reasons for visa refusals week in, week out. May we please have a statement in Government time on how the Government plan to sort out this sorry situation?
I know from my constituency experience that decisions by immigration officers about individual visa applications are often difficult and sensitive. My advice to constituents is always to ensure that the paperwork—the audit trail—is wholly in place so that it is absolutely clear that people are going to abide by the terms of the visa, if granted, and that they will return to their own country at the end of the visa term. The hon. Lady will clearly not expect me to know about that particular case, but if she writes to me, I will pass the details to the Immigration Minister.
Yesterday, the National Assembly for Wales unanimously supported a motion led by my colleague Steffan Lewis calling for an urgent review of the mineworkers pension scheme. Over the years, the Treasury has cashed in around £8 billion of surpluses from the scheme for acting as a guarantor. May we have a Treasury statement on the matter so that MPs who represent mining communities can make the case for a review?
Treasury questions on 29 November may well provide the hon. Gentleman with that opportunity.
May I check with the Leader of the House whether the Government will publish Sir John Parker’s national shipbuilding strategy prior to the autumn statement? If so, may we have a debate in Government time to discuss this iconic, highly skilled industry, which employs many of my constituents and other workers in the United Kingdom?
I will ensure that the shipping Minister knows about the hon. Gentleman’s wish for the strategy to be published as soon as possible. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the Ministry of Defence’s commitment to spend more money on building new ships in Scottish shipyards, which will maintain the jobs and expertise that he rightly celebrates.
I recently spoke to the CEO of Pernod Ricard, who informed me that the Chivas Brothers site in Paisley will close in three years. I learned yesterday that while the workforce consultation is in its infancy, the company has applied for permission to demolish part of the site. May we have a debate on employment rights to ensure that such applications can take place only after a consultation has concluded?
As the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, this is a clearly a commercial decision for the company concerned, but the company must, of course, act in accordance with UK and European employment law as it goes about such things. An Adjournment debate might give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to highlight this important local issue.
My youngest son is doing an accountancy course. He explained to me that if I want to spend 2% of my budget on one thing and 0.7% on another, I need to set aside 2.7% of my budget. Will the Leader of the House therefore explain how the Government can claim to spend 2% of GDP on defence and 0.7% on overseas aid when those two sums do not add up to 2.7%?
The 0.7% target refers to official development assistance expenditure, as defined by the OECD. The 2% is a NATO target, which relies on a completely different set of criteria. The hon. Gentleman is asking me to compare apples with pears.
In February, Department for Culture, Media and Sport Ministers froze rather than cut their contribution to S4C’s budget pending the outcome of a review into the broadcaster’s future. We still have no review. Will the Leader of the House allow us a debate on a sustainable future and funding for S4C?
I completely understand why Welsh-language broadcasting is important to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. I note that Welsh questions are on 30 November, which might provide him the opportunity to raise that matter.
Pakistan’s poverty rate is some 39%. It has weak governance and political institutions. It has been gripped by violent extremism—it is No. 22 in the league table—and its levels of persecution of Christians and other ethnic minorities put it at the top of the league table for that. It is affected by climate change and natural disasters, which have exacerbated migration and food insecurity. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on the important issue of the shrinking space for civil society in Pakistan?
The hon. Gentleman is a formidable champion of religious rights in parts of the world where those rights are under threat. I think everyone here would want to join him in arguing passionately for freedom of worship and religious expression everywhere. Foreign Office questions are coming up on 22 November, at which he might wish to raise this subject. We do need to continue to help the fragile authorities in Pakistan, but we try to target our aid through non-governmental organisations and others to ensure that it reaches those who are in such desperate need.
Following inquiries from constituents who are serving prison officers, I tabled written parliamentary questions 46654 and 46655 on 15 September regarding officers’ life expectancy, and their medical and injury awards. To date, I have had no answer, and not even a holding response to what were named day questions submitted more than two months ago. That is unacceptable. May we therefore have a debate in Government time on the response times to parliamentary questions?
The Government not only set expected standards for replies to parliamentary questions, but publish regular bulletins showing how each Department has performed against those standards. I am concerned by what the hon. Gentleman says and I shall make sure that it is chased up today with the Department concerned.
Earlier, the Leader of the House waxed positive about the Government’s commitments to city deals and regional growth deals. May we have a debate in this House on the range and reach of such deals across the UK, including the very positive developments and prospects in Scotland and Wales? That might help to illuminate the resistance and negligence on the part of the Northern Ireland Executive in failing to take up what previous Whitehall Ministers have said would be their readiness to support deals—if they get proposals—including cross-border deals.
It may well be that either a long debate in Westminster Hall or a Backbench Business Committee debate would provide the opportunity for the kind of exchange of best practice that the hon. Gentleman wants, so that Members from different parts of the UK can all share their relevant experiences. Clearly the Northern Ireland Act 1998 devolves important powers to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, and it must be for the authorities in Northern Ireland primarily to decide how to take this policy further.
The business statement gives us no indication of when the Brexit Secretary will come to the Dispatch Box, as required by a resolution of this House, to explain why he signed up to the comprehensive economic and trade agreement without waiting for it to clear parliamentary scrutiny, and nor does it give us any indication as to when an urgent debate in Government time, which is also required, will be held. I raised this matter in business questions on 20 October. During the intervening four weeks, will the Leader of the House tell us what he has done to get those two items of urgent business on to the Order Paper?
The position is that CETA has to be ratified by all 28 member states of the European Union. Under our system, that means that the treaty—for that is what this is—must be laid before Parliament under the terms of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and that can, if Members so wish, provide the trigger for a debate.
How many more times do the Government expect to end up in court? Not only have they been taken to court over the article 50 shambles, but they lost their appeal against the Terence Higgins Trust and are now compelled to provide PrEP—pre-exposure prophylaxis—anti-HIV drugs to those who badly need them. Given that, can we have a debate in Government time on the commissioning of this treatment, which will make a massive difference to rolling back the tide on the spread of HIV across the United Kingdom?
We welcome the clarity that the recent court judgment on PrEP provided. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there was a genuine difference between the view of the NHS and the view of local authorities as to where legal responsibility ought to rest, and we now have that clarity. Over the years, Governments of every political shade have got used to being taken to court by way of judicial review or other challenge. That is what living in a free society under the rule of law is about.
Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit
To move the motion, in a contribution that should not exceed 15 minutes in total—I make this point by way of reminder, as there has been slippage in recent times—I call Mr Neil Gray.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the Government’s plans to reduce the Employment and Support Allowance work-related activity component and the corresponding limited capability for work component in universal credit in April 2017; further notes that this measure will cut the weekly amount received by recipients with long-term health conditions or disabilities by £30 and that these cuts are due to take place before the promised Work and Health programme Green Paper can be considered or implemented; and therefore calls on the Government to use the upcoming Autumn Statement to postpone the cuts to Employment and Support Allowance work-related activity component and the corresponding limited capability for work component in universal credit until appropriate alternative measures to progress the commitment to halve the disability employment gap have been considered, in order to secure support for current and future claimants so that sick and disabled people are supported adequately when they are unable to work.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for accepting my application for this urgent debate today. It was brought to the Committee at short notice and with my added time pressures ahead of the autumn statement, so I am grateful to the Committee. I am grateful also to the MPs from nine parties in this Parliament who supported the motion.
From April 2017, new employment and support allowance claimants who are placed in the work-related activity group will receive £29.05 less than do current ESA WRAG claimants. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 legislated for this cut, and the Government promised
“new funding for additional support to help claimants return to work.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 333.]
This afternoon, I intend to set out why the Government should use the opportunity of the autumn statement, a new Prime Minister, a new Chancellor and a new set of Department for Work and Pensions Ministers to pause the cuts to ESA WRAG and the corresponding universal credit work allowance elements, at least until the new system that they are to propose has been scrutinised and implemented.
I agree with the motion. Does the hon. Gentleman recall, as I do, that the Conservative party manifesto said that the target for increasing employment support for disabled people was to halve the disability employment by 2020, and does he share my dismay that that target has been abandoned?
I sincerely hope that it has not been abandoned and that the Government will continue to work towards it. I will come to that later in my speech.
It is clear to me that it is not Opposition politicians but Government Back Benchers who are most influential in changing the minds of Ministers, especially when those Ministers currently have such a narrow majority, so I am pleased to have the support of at least five Conservative Members for this motion. In their actions in supporting this debate, they are indeed honourable, for it is not an easy thing to go against the current thinking of their party. I am aware that a number of other Conservative Members are expressing their concerns in private, and some have made more public statements of concern, such as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) and the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). I am not standing here today to lambast the Government. I am here to make a cross-party appeal to the Government: please press pause on these cuts.
Today is about this new set of Government Ministers having an opportunity to look at this issue again—to look at the timetable of events that have led us to this point and to look ahead to the impact that these cuts will have on nearly half a million sick and disabled people who have been found unfit for work. Yesterday, I attended an event in Westminster with Disability Agenda Scotland, which is an organisation of six disability charities north of the border. One of the speakers at the event really highlighted for me, and should highlight for us all, why this issue is so important.
John Clarke from Stirling spoke about his experience of trying to enter the employment market. He volunteered for 10 years in a charity shop. He took on all the responsibilities that an employee would be expected to take on. He did cash handling, was customer facing and turned up for his shifts in a timeous fashion at all times. He has been making a very meaningful attempt to find work. John has been trying to find paid employment, using the significant experience that he gained from his time at the shop to progress that, but has failed to do so.
John just happens to have a learning disability and is in receipt of ESA WRAG. He is not financially incentivised to be out of work because he is on ESA WRAG; he is desperate to get a job. He needs his ESA WRAG, because he has additional costs associated with finding work, but John also needs the Government to come forward with that additional package that the Prime Minister talked about yesterday—such as supporting employers, publicising Access to Work more widely and helping employers see that someone like him would be an asset, not a liability, to their workplace.
What is most concerning for me about John’s story is that he has a new volunteering role after moving on from the charity shop, but the jobcentre wants him to stop that so he can come in to carry out job searches. I put it to those on the Treasury Bench today—what is more beneficial to John, not just for his ability to get a job, but for his emotional wellbeing, his self-worth and his feeling of contributing to society?
This is where we come to the crux of the issue, and John summed it up so well. He said, “Everyone has needs and it is important that these needs are met.” That is the starting point from which the UK Government should be working. We cannot escape the fact that part of that need is financial. It is worth remembering that the rationale for paying some claimants more than others was considered by Richard Berthoud in his 1998 report on disability benefits. He found that the primary reason historically was that those who have to live for a long time on social security could not be expected to survive on the very low income available as a temporary measure for a short-term claimant.
Some people may argue that those who currently receive ESA WRAG, like John, will not be affected by the cut, but as people fall in and out of work, with many of those who receive ESA WRAG the subject of fluctuating conditions, they could well be affected. So if John gets a job after April next year, which I hope will happen sooner for him, and if, unfortunately, it does not work out, although obviously I hope it does, John will reapply for ESA, but will receive £30 per week less than he does now. That is a reduction in income of almost a third between what John receives now and what he would receive next year.
This cut will create two tiers of disability support and create an arbitrary cut-off for people to receive a reduced support rate, purely by virtue of their application date. The Scottish Association for Mental Health agrees. It says that this cut could provide a perverse disincentive to work for people with mental health conditions, who make up 49% of ESA WRAG recipients. It says that people who are currently in receipt of ESA may be affected by the forthcoming change in April 2017 if they have been claiming the benefit and move into work before they are well enough to do so.
Why should John’s peers who apply for ESA WRAG next year get two thirds of the support that John gets now and could continue to receive if, sadly, he does not find a job? John just wants a job. He is not incentivised to be out of work because of ESA WRAG payments. Such a suggestion is an insult to John and to the hundreds of thousands of sick or disabled people like him who want to work but struggle to get noticed in the employment market. The Government will add to that frustration and the feeling of rejection by telling them that the £30 a week lifeline is being pulled away because it somehow holds them back.
The payment of a higher rate of ESA WRAG compared to jobseeker’s allowance was supposed to acknowledge the longer time that someone in that position will take to find employment. It was also supposed to acknowledge the additional costs that someone with a long-term illness or disability incurs as they carry out work-related activity. Scope is particularly concerned at this aspect and says that this cut to disability support will have an impact on the financial wellbeing of sick and disabled people, leaving them further from work, not closer. Its research suggests that 49% of disabled people rely on credit cards or loans to pay for everyday items such as food and clothing.
New figures today from the StepChange Debt Charity show that a third of ESA recipients were running a budget deficit, and that figure could rise to over a half if they had a cut to their income, however small that cut. John’s experience shows us that it is not easy to tell ESA WRAG recipients to find work to make up for that cut. He has done everything he can to do that.
This leads me on to the timing issue before us. During the debates on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, the Government at the time said that they would find new funding for additional support to help claimants return to work—new money and a new system, which was included in the work and health programme White Paper, now the Green Paper. I argued then and I repeat now, that the Government cannot cut away this lifeline support before the new system of support is in place, otherwise there will be a vacuum of support from April. ESA WRAG will no longer be available for new or returning clients, but the new system, which the Government hope will do a better job, will also be unavailable.
The Government need to get the horse back in front of the cart. They need to put these cuts on pause, at least until we can see what is coming forward. Their new system is still in Green Paper consultation form. The ESA cuts happen in four months. Even if the new system will be better, we have seen nothing more than consultation proposals, and we do not know when the new system will be implemented.
That view is supported by the Disability Benefits Consortium, which represents 60 disability charities. It has published an open letter today, which is signed by 74 disability charities and other organisations, including Action on Hearing Loss, Age UK, the National Autistic Society, Enable Scotland, Action for ME, Carers UK, the MS Society, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Scope, Mencap, the Royal British Legion, Citizens Advice and dozens of others I wish I had time to mention individually, as they represent health conditions and disabilities that hon. Members’ families, friends and, certainly, constituents will have. Those organisations say that this cut will undermine the Government’s welcome commitment to halve the disability employment gap. Their survey of over 500 disabled people found that seven out of 10 said that ESA cuts will cause their health to suffer. More than a quarter said they sometimes cannot afford to eat on the amount they currently receive from ESA, and nearly half said that this cut will probably mean they will return to work later than they would have done.
The Government predicted that savings of £450 million a year would be realised from these cuts. Just two weeks ago, we saw the welcome publication of the health and work Green Paper, which sets out the options for the Government to create a replacement system. The budget for that for next year is £60 million, rising to £100 million by 2020-21. That does not equate to new money; it does not even match the cuts being made to ESA WRAG—a point echoed by today’s open letter from the charities, which cannot see where the additional support for disabled people to find work will come from, or how it will mitigate the effects of the cut.
There must also be concern on the Treasury Bench after the Supreme Court ruling on the bedroom tax. Letters, which have been published, between the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) highlight the concerns the EHRC has regarding the Government’s impact assessments on these cuts.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Most disabled people I know in my constituency are desperate to work if they can and would give every penny they have to get back into work, but can I just press him on one point? He said at the start of his speech that the only way we will persuade the Government to change their mind is through a Conservative Back-Bench rebellion. That is not going to happen, so can I plead with him to join me in persuading the Scottish Government to use the welfare powers they have to replace ESA for disabled people in Scotland? They have done it with the bedroom tax; let us persuade them to do it with this as well.
Order. I remind the House that interventions must be brief.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am disappointed in the hon. Gentleman. He knows well that ESA has not been devolved, and it is not in the Scottish Government’s competence. I genuinely believe that there is a feeling on the Conservative Benches that the Government can change their mind and that there are workings under way to make that happen, so his pessimism about where the Government might be going is, I hope, unfounded.
Parkinson’s UK points out that the Government’s statutory obligations may not have been met, leaving them open to further legal challenge.
In conclusion, I want today to be a time for reflection for the Government. I want them to reflect on whether they truly believe that people such as John will benefit from this cut without a replacement support system being in place. I want them to listen to those 74 disability charities and other organisations, and to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I want them to pause these cuts, at least until they have delivered what they promised would be a better system. Everyone has needs, and it is important that those needs are met. I hope those are the words ringing in the ears of Ministers today.
Order. I advise the House that, on account of the number of would-be contributors, we need to start with a limit on individual Back-Bench speeches of eight minutes, and we will see how we get on.
I do not think I will be taking the full eight minutes, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and to colleagues on both sides of the House for securing this important and timely debate.
Any welfare-to-work system needs to satisfy four criteria. First, it should support people and families in their times of need. Secondly, it should provide every assistance to people in moving forward and in getting back into work, where that is a realistic objective for them, taking into account their personal circumstances. Thirdly, there should be an underlying theme that work must pay, so that welfare does not become a lifestyle choice. Fourthly, any system must be affordable to the nation as a whole.
The system we have, which has evolved over many years, has, I am afraid, become incredibly complicated. It would be great if we could start with a clean sheet of paper, but I fear that is not possible, given where we are at present. The Government should be commended for taking on the challenge of seeking to reform the system and for not filing it away in the “too difficult” tray. Credit is also due to them for some of their initiatives in this Parliament and the last Parliament: taking the low-paid out of tax altogether, the introduction of the national living wage and the provision of 30 hours of free childcare.
The question today is whether the proposed changes to universal credit and ESA satisfy the four criteria I outlined. I would just like to make three observations as to whether they do or not. First, I would like to look at whether the changes are properly researched, backed up by evidence and supported by impact assessments.
When the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was going through Parliament in the spring, it was made clear to me that reductions in ESA WRAG would be followed by a full consultation on the package of support measures to help the disabled into work. At that time a White Paper was proposed, and we were assured on the Floor of the House that it would be published before the summer recess. In the event, a Green Paper, which is actually very good, was published at the end of last month, and a consultation will now run until 17 February. I say to the Government that it surely makes sense to digest the outcome of that consultation—to get feedback from non-governmental organisations and other groups that have the detailed first-hand knowledge as to what changes we need—before making any radical changes.
There is a concern, as we heard from the hon. Gentleman, that there has not been a full and proper impact assessment on the proposed changes. It has been suggested that the impact assessments published with the original Welfare Reform and Work Bill may fall short of the Government’s statutory obligation to properly analyse policy, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In its report, “MS: Enough—Make welfare make sense” the MS Society has recommended that the Government undertake a full impact assessment of any changes they make to disability benefits.
There is also a concern that what is emerging is a lottery, with some family types being more adversely affected than others. Research has highlighted that two thirds of single-parent families will be hit particularly hard by the work allowance cut and the delay to childcare support.
I move on to my second issue—support for vulnerable groups. Again, there is concern that particular groups are being unfairly hit, and I have in mind those with fluctuating conditions such as Parkinson’s and MS. There is also a worry that it has not been recognised that not every disabled person is able to work. The all-party group on multiple sclerosis, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), has just published a report on support for people with MS in the workplace, and I urge the Government to take on board its three recommendations.
It must always be borne in mind that Parkinson’s and MS are degenerative conditions: people do not get better, there is no cure, and the severity of symptoms fluctuates not just from day to day but, very often, from hour to hour. The consultation on the work capability assessment is to be welcomed, but the feedback I receive, such as that from Waveney Suffolk Help in Multiple Sclerosis—an MS support group I will be with tomorrow—is that more needs to be done.
My third issue is the roll-out of universal credit. The full roll-out of universal credit went live in Waveney on 25 May. While I acknowledge the hard work of Jobcentre Plus and DWP staff on the ground, I have to report that it is not going well. Those in my constituency office are spending most of their days addressing very real problems that people face in having nothing to live on, nothing to pay for food, and no money to pay the rent. The DWP is being helpful in addressing these cases, but I have to question whether it is right to make further changes to universal credit at a time when there are major practical problems in its roll-out.
Is the universal credit that my hon. Friend has in his constituency the full version or the initial straightforward version just for single claimants?
We have the full version being r