House of Commons
Thursday 8 December 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Attorney General was asked—
We have the strongest legal framework in the world, including the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which came into force in July last year. The Law Officers are supporting the Prime Minister’s taskforce on modern slavery, and the Crown Prosecution Service continues to see a year-on-year increase in the numbers of prosecutions.
One of the main areas of modern slavery that we are uncovering in Lancashire is the trafficking and subsequent sexual exploitation of women. Often these victims will not come forward because they are being controlled through fear and violence. What more can my hon. and learned Friend do to support vulnerable women through the process?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. The CPS has been instrumental in developing special measures to help people with vulnerabilities to give evidence, such as the pre-recording of cross-examination, ground rules hearings that are held ahead of the trial in order to avoid inappropriate questions, and evidence via remote link. All such measures help to increase confidence that support will be there for victims.
I note my hon. Friend’s interest as a north-west MP, and I am happy to tell her that under the new modern slavery offence, eight charges were laid in the north-west region and eight offences in the Mersey-Cheshire region, plus other offences under older legislation, in the past year. Only last month three people were convicted of modern-day slavery and human trafficking in Liverpool and were sentenced to a total of seven years and three months’ imprisonment.
Many of the prosecutions were the result of the European arrest warrant playing an important part. Will the Solicitor General, with the Home Office, ensure that the European arrest warrant remains a useful tool, whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to note the huge importance of the European arrest warrant in streamlining the process. That, together with other tools to encourage close co-operation not only between countries in the EU but more widely abroad, is a vital means by which we can deal with what is an international crime.
The Modern Slavery Act review published a few months ago noted that although it is national Crown Prosecution Service policy that all trafficking and exploitation cases be referred to the complex casework unit, in practice the policy is not always followed. What subsequent measures have been put in place to reduce the number of cases that could slip through the cracks in that way?
The hon. Lady is right to point out that important review, which I am glad to say is forming a key part of the Prime Minister’s taskforce. At all levels, proper emphasis is being placed on the serious nature of this type of offending. Let us not forget that other types of offence that encompass such behaviour need to be dealt with as well, so the complex case unit has a key and increasingly important role in the prosecution of such crime.
My hon. Friend is right to say that these are challenging offences. The problem is that very often the victims of this type of crime take a while to realise that they are in that position. When they come forward, they want a consistent approach from the authorities that gives them support when they come to give evidence. That is the emphasis of the CPS and other agencies, and with that increasing support we are seeing those barriers increasingly being removed.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The independent review commissioned by the Prime Minister that the Solicitor General has referred to expressed concern about the insufficient quality and quantity of intelligence at national, regional and international level, which it is said hampers our operational response. What steps does the Solicitor General think can be taken to ensure that our exit from the European Union does not further hamper our operational response?
May I first welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his place at what is a very challenging time for his family? We give him our very best wishes.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to talk about international working. He will be glad to know that the taskforce, in the form of the National Crime Agency and the other agencies, is placing heavy emphasis on the need to improve that intelligence gathering. When our exit from the EU happens, I firmly believe there will be mechanisms in place to ensure that that important work carries on unimpeded, whether by way of mutual legal assistance or some of the other mechanisms we have opted into, which will no doubt be an important part of the negotiation in the months ahead.
I am very grateful to the Solicitor General for his kind words and good wishes to my family at this time.
The Solicitor General has set out that our membership of the European Union gives us access to a toolkit, including the European arrest warrant, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), and which the Director of Public Prosecutions referred to as absolutely vital. However, there is also access to agencies such as Eurojust, where we have one of the busiest desks. What will the Solicitor General do to ensure that we quickly negotiate a new relationship with Eurojust, rather than ending up in Switzerland’s position, where the negotiation took seven years?
The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise other mechanisms. Eurojust and the European investigation order are other mechanisms that may be relevant. Clearly, they have to form a central part of any negotiation and be a priority for the negotiating team when it comes to the details. As he knows, the CPS is well aware of this issue and has been raising it, and the Law Officers will, of course, play their part in raising these important issues.
As I was saying, Mr Speaker, the cross-Government hate crime action plan, published in July 2016, focuses on the reduction of hate crime, the increasing of reporting, and ensuring that all criminal justice partners deliver the appropriate outcomes for victims.
Like many others in the Chamber, I was very concerned about the spike in the number of racial and religiously aggravated offences after the referendum. Will my hon. and learned Friend please tell the House whether that trend has continued in recent months?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. I think we were all concerned about the spike that clearly occurred after the referendum. The total number of racial and religiously aggravated offences reported in July this year was 41% higher than in the previous year, but I am happy to report that the number of such reported offences has now declined and is at similar levels to before the referendum.
Will my hon. and learned Friend look carefully at the law relating to abusive and offensive online posts? Often when I look at the remarks that are made, particularly when someone has died, I find it quite incredible that newspapers host them, and I think these cowards should have their names and addresses printed along with the offensive posts.
My hon. Friend raises a proper point of increasing concern. I assure him that anonymity—perceived or real—is not an escape route for perpetrators. The use of false online profiles and websites still means that people are traceable, and they can and will be pursued, just like the appalling individual who, only this week, was convicted of offences arising from a racist campaign against the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger).
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an issue that has been of consistent importance to me since my appointment to this office. I am glad to note that there has been a rise of 44% in the number of prosecutions for disability hate crime generally in the last year. When it comes to learning disabilities and autism, I am a strong supporter of local advocacy groups, which will often be the first port of call when a complaint is made by people with an impairment. The evidence shows that where the police work with these groups, more people with a learning difficulty will come forward, and I want to see this good practice spread much further.
But given that on the ground in north Wales the number of prosecutions generally is falling, how can we ensure that public perceptions are reflected in prosecuting policy so that more individuals who commit crime get taken to court and dealt with by magistrates, who tell me that their courts are empty?
I am following the position very carefully in all parts of England and Wales. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are some areas, such as his, where there has not been the rise in prosecutions that we have seen in others. We have to further encourage consistency. The training that has been rolled out in recent months to all the CPS areas needs to bed in. With that approach, I think we will see a rise across the board not just in the prosecution of these offences, but in the confidence of victims to come forward.
Does the Solicitor General agree that prosecution of hate crimes is helped when the victim is supported enough to give evidence, and that more training must be provided by the teams that deal with hate crime UK-wide to ensure that all possible support is afforded to victims and their families?
The hon. Gentleman knows from his experience in Northern Ireland that the Leonard Cheshire Disability organisation has an excellent scheme in place to support victims. This echoes the point that I made earlier about the need for such best practice to be spread to give better support.
I am sure the Solicitor General would agree that regional variations in conviction rates for disability hate crime are unacceptable. Will he set out how such convictions will be dealt with, so that they will not depend on where a person lives?
The hon. Gentleman is right to reiterate the points that have been made. I assure him that the training that is being provided applies to all CPS regions; it is being done on a national basis. That means that in whatever part of the country it is, there should be the same awareness and understanding about the sensitivities that apply to disability hate crime, and of the need to stop looking at people with disabilities through the prism of credibility; rather, we need to look at the person beyond the disability, understanding that their voice has to be heard.
Criminal Corporate Liability
The offence of failing to prevent bribery under the Bribery Act 2010 is holding corporate offenders to account for criminal activity and has incentivised good governance within companies. A new offence of failing to prevent tax evasion is included in the Criminal Finances Bill, which is going through Parliament at the moment, and a call for evidence will be published shortly to explore the options for further reform.
I am grateful for my right hon. and learned Friend’s answer; I know he has had a busy week. I am sure he is aware that there is real concern that our regime has made it much harder to prosecute senior directors of companies that have been involved in very serious wrongdoing. When he gets on to this consultation—perhaps he could say when that will be—will he look at other regimes such as that in the US, to see how they have performed better than we have?
I hope it is no disrespect to my hon. Friend to confirm that he is not the most intimidating tribunal I have addressed this week. He is entirely right that we should look at examples abroad, as well as at domestic practice, to make sure that we are doing all we can to deal with corporate criminal offending. He is right, too, that we must address the issue of whether it is easier to prosecute those in charge of small companies than those in charge of large companies because of the complexity of the latter’s management structures, because that cannot be right.
During the passage of the Criminal Finances Bill, the Government have so far refused to extend corporate economic crime beyond tax evasion. Does the Attorney General agree that companies should only be criminally liable for failure to prevent tax evasion?
The hon. Lady’s question reflects precisely why we are asking for evidence on this subject. We will then conduct a consultation to see whether there is a case to extend the type of “failure to prevent” offences that she describes beyond bribery, where it currently exists, and tax evasion, where it will shortly exist, assuming that Parliament passes the Criminal Finances Bill. There is an argument to say that we should look at this, because, as I say, there are other types of offending where it would be sensible to consider whether a “failure to prevent” offence would be appropriate.
The late Professor Gary Slapper, the well-known commentator and columnist who sadly died at the weekend, was a considerable crusader for informing the law on corporate responsibility. It would be a tribute to his memory if we were to work on that.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we should also look at two other matters? The first is the so-called Magnitsky arrangements for freezing the assets of those involved in corruption. Secondly, in order to enforce that, we must maintain the operational independence of the Serious Fraud Office.
I will attempt to remember them all, Mr Speaker. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is worth looking at his first point. There are many people who believe that there are gaps in the law, but it is also important to make sure that we take full account of concerns that will be expressed about the burdens placed on businesses of all kinds if we get that balance wrong.
On asset freezing and asset seizure, my hon. Friend is right to say that if we are going to successfully prosecute and convict those who are engaged in criminal activity, we must also make sure that we can recover assets where appropriate, so we will look at that in the course of the process in which we are engaged.
Leaving the EU: Human Rights
As I hope I made clear in my first answer, I do not believe that human rights protections in this country are dependent on EU law. We will certainly look, in the course of the great repeal Bill and other measures that this House will have to consider, at how we transfer those obligations currently under EU law into domestic law where the House believes that it is appropriate to do so. I maintain the view that we will continue to protect human rights in this country. Moreover, we will continue to be leading advocates for human rights around the world.
We remain of the view that human rights law requires reform. I think that my hon. Friend and I are in full agreement that, although we have no quarrel with the content of the European convention on human rights, it is the way in which that document is applied that gives us difficulty. The Government are certainly committed to seeking to do something about that. He will have noticed that we have a few other things on our plate at the moment; I think we will have to resolve those before we can resolve the matter to which he refers.
What assurance can the Attorney General give that, once we exit the EU and become once again an emancipated, independent and liberated nation state on the stage of the world, we will maintain the proud heritage and tradition of defending individual rights in this United Kingdom?
I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s confidence. We will certainly do that; we always have and we always will, and we will do it in all parts of the United Kingdom. As he knows, we will make sure that all parts of the United Kingdom are engaged in the process of exiting the European Union.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, when referring to our exit from the European Union, it is important to distinguish between that and the convention, and that the Government’s policy continues to be that we should remain in the European convention and observe human rights as before?
My hon. Friend is entirely right: those two things are distinct. It is our exit from the European Union that the public have confirmed in the referendum outcome and that we will now follow through. Of course, as I said earlier, our commitment to human rights will be maintained not just domestically but abroad.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Careers Advice: Girls
Careers guidance should help all young people to get the inspiration and the advice and guidance that they need for success in working life. We want to see schools giving not only impartial careers advice and guidance, but high-quality guidance. That is why we are investing £90 million over this Parliament to improve careers provision for young people.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that good-quality careers advice is essential. Are there any further plans for the Government to remove barriers for women when they progress with their careers, particularly when they have young children?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that. When we look in detail at the gender pay gap, we see that the situation for people who start a family often presents the biggest challenge that we face in reducing the gender pay gap further. We have given more than 20 million employees the right to request flexible working. We are providing shared parental leave, because childcare is not just an issue for women; it is an issue for men as well. My hon. Friend will know that we have committed to doubling the free childcare provided for working parents of three and four-year-olds from 15 to 30 hours a week.
Does the Secretary of State agree that although the gender pay gap has reduced, the fact that the pay gap for full-time workers is at a differential of 13.9% indicates that much work still needs to be done? Has she considered a penalty system for employers who do not comply?
We try to work with employers on a voluntary basis. This is not just about forcing employers, although we have laid gender pay gap regulations on transparency before the House. It is about business understanding why they have an interest in fixing this issue in the first place. Yes, we are bringing in mandatory reporting, and we laid regulations on that before the House in the last few days, but we want business genuinely to grasp the nettle and understand why the issue matters so much.
Female part-time workers enjoy 6% more pay than do their male equivalents. At a time when we are encouraging men to take more of their fair share of childcare responsibilities, is the Secretary of State as concerned as I am by the fact that the excellent Equal Pay Portal is worried that the gap is increasing over the long term?
What is interesting is that we have seen people’s work habits and routine change over recent years. We want to see no gender pay gap, irrespective of which gender is disadvantaged. Historically, this has been a significant issue for women, rather than men, but we want to see no gender pay gap, irrespective of gender.
Rail Companies: Disabled Passengers
The provision of an audio-visual passenger information system is mandatory for all new trains, and it has been since 1999. For older trains, operators have until 1 January 2020 to fit an AV passenger system. Currently, 70% of the fleet operated on the main line has been either built compliant or upgraded to be compliant, and the rest of the fleet will be upgraded or replaced by 2020.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is a condition of an operator’s passenger licence that it must publish a disabled persons protection policy. That covers how the needs of visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing people are met with regard to AV systems, including in times of delay or disruption. DPPPs have to be approved by the Office of Rail and Road. Additionally, disability awareness training is mandatory for all customer-facing staff and managers in train operating companies.
This week, the all-party parliamentary group for disability published an informative report on measures to close the disability employment gap. One of the issues raised by disabled people is the cutting of benefits, which reduces their independence and results in the removal of their Motability vehicles. When will the Government reverse this disabling policy?
Having a disability-accessible train service is hugely important, but disabled people need to be able to get to the train station in the first place. What is the Minister doing to make sure that local authorities have a more consistent approach to making our built environment more disability-accessible, particularly in making sure that we have more consistency in shared space schemes?
Shared space schemes are a very controversial area, and their name does not help people. With shared space schemes, local authorities are trying to remove some of the visual clutter and improve the built environment, but that cannot be done at the expense of disabled people. In the Department, we have a work group that, with the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation, is looking at good practice in this area, and it will publish its report shortly.
The Government tabled an amendment in the Lords to introduce AV displays on buses. The Bill has finished its passage through the Lords, and I think it will be introduced in this House in the new year. We are very keen on the amendment, and we were very pleased to get it into the Bill.
When companies have a senior team that better reflects the customers they serve, it is simply better for business and makes good business sense. Since 2010, we have more than doubled the number of women on boards in the FTSE 350. We have now committed to 33% of the members of the boards and executive committees of those companies being women by 2020.
I welcome the work that Plymouth University in my constituency has done to ensure that there are more women on its governing body. As well as the work the Government are doing with FTSE companies, what steps is the Department taking to ensure that more women are on the governing bodies of universities across the country?
Plymouth is always a trailblazer—as we know, one of my hon. Friend’s predecessors was Nancy Astor—and Plymouth University is clearly no exception. I commend the work that the university is doing. Female leaders in universities and colleges are very powerful role models who are inspiring the next generation. We welcome the last WomenCount report on higher education, which showed that a third of governing bodies are now gender-balanced, and we support the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s aspirational target of 40% of women on governing bodies.
The fact that female representation on boards is rising is certainly welcome, but the number of female executive directors is still ridiculously low, accounting for less than 10% of the total number of directorships in the FTSE 100 and less than 6% of the total in the FTSE 250. How are the Government encouraging those companies to promote diversity within their executive pipelines?
The hon. Lady makes an absolutely excellent and very important point. We want more female executives on boards, which is why the Hampton-Alexander review requirement for work on the pipeline is so vital. It is also why the target of 33% female representation on executive committees and on the committees that report to them by 2020 is so important.
What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that successful women entrepreneurs—I am thinking of people such as Leah Totton, of “The Apprentice” fame, from Northern Ireland—are projected as role models, particularly for young females who aspire to follow in their footsteps?
It is absolutely vital that we celebrate successful female entrepreneurs. There are more female-led businesses in this country than ever before, but we know that if women were starting up businesses at the same rate as men, there would be 1 million more of them. That is why it is absolutely vital that we celebrate those fantastic entrepreneurs—through the Careers and Enterprise Company, for example—as role models for the next generation.
Sex and Relationships Education
The sex and relationships education guidance was issued in 2000. MPs from all parties, including those in the Chamber who have held my position during the past 16 years, know that this is a complex area and that we need a thoughtful and measured approach to updating the guidance. I made it very clear at the Education Committee that we are actively looking at the SRE guidance to ensure that all young people are supported in developing healthy and respectful relationships.
As the Secretary of State outlined, five Commons Select Committee Chairs, countless children’s charities, MPs across this House, experts and academics agree that good-quality statutory age-appropriate relationships education in schools will provide children with the knowledge and resilience they need to develop healthy and respectful relationships, and will ensure that they are less vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence. The Government have finally accepted that the current quality and accessibility of SRE are not good enough; will they amend the Children and Social Work Bill to introduce good-quality statutory SRE that applies to every school?
We have already set out the fact that we are actively looking at the SRE guidance. It was first brought in 16 years ago, and we all recognise that the world that children are growing up in now is very different from that world. The hon. Lady’s question raises in particular LGBT relationship issues and sexual harassment. Those are important areas where we can do better. I am very proud of the Government’s record on LGBT issues and bringing forward same sex marriage, but it is an important area and is one that we are looking at.
A young trans person in England is, sadly, three times more likely to have self-harmed and almost twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their peers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that more should be done to improve LGBT sex and relationship education in schools to support all students to understand better and be compassionate, to help reduce those shocking statistics and the often heartbreaking outcomes for those young people?
My hon. Friend is right. No child should suffer the kind of discrimination and harassment she mentioned. In September we set out £2.8 million of funding over the next three years to focus in particular on tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools. It is important that, alongside education, we are clear that we need to change attitudes as well.
I appreciate the Secretary of State’s answer on the SRE guidance. It is indeed almost 17 years out of date. At the last Women and Equalities questions she said she would “provide an update shortly”; now she is carefully “looking” at it. She is right that the guidance is completely out of date. It does not include anything on the internet or online grooming—it does not mention grooming full stop, let alone exploitative relationships. I wrote to her last month about this but she has not replied. Children in this country are waiting for a reply on when they will get proper sex and relationships guidance. Will she please answer now?
The hon. Lady wrote to me on 17 November. I will of course respond to her letter. In addition, we have been very clear that we want to see how we can make progress in this area. However, as many questions have underlined, it is very complex, with many different aspects that we need to work on very carefully to get right. Although I know that within this House there have been some excellent reports underlining some of the areas where the guidance should be updated, there is also a broader debate in the country about the right way to do that. This matter needs to be handled very sensitively. That is why we will make sure we take the time to get the process right and then set it out to MPs.
State Pension Age
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is fully aware of the issue, which we debated in this Chamber just last week. He has clearly stated that the introduction of further transitional arrangements cannot be justified given the imperative to focus public resources on helping those in most need. There are no plans to go beyond the £1.1 billion concession introduced when Parliament considered the changes.
I thank the Minister for that response, disappointingly predictable as it was. Will she tell me whether anyone in Government has done an analysis of how much it would cost to implement transitional measures by comparison with what it will cost the Government reputationally and financially when the Women Against State Pension Inequality take them to court and win?
Consistent is how I would prefer to describe my answer. The Government have looked into a variety of different proposals that have come forward in many forms, both from the WASPI campaign and from Opposition parties. As I have very clearly stated, we will not make any further transitional arrangements.
The Minister must know that the lack of transitional support is causing real hardship to women in her constituency, as it is in mine. In the interests of transparency, will she publish any proposals that have come up since the Pensions Act 2011? Will she publish them and the Government’s research, so we can see what they have done?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the welfare system provides a safety net for those experiencing hardship. We have made it very clear that we have already provided £1.1 billion in transitional concessions. The Government have published a great many figures on this subject. It is very difficult for the Government to publish further statistics on proposals that have come forward from both the WASPI campaign and Opposition parties when it is very unclear what provisions would be included around those transitional arrangements for women as well as men.
With the effects of austerity being felt disproportionately by women, another Government policy affecting women is the 4% tax on child maintenance. Does the Minister accept that this places an additional tax on survivors of domestic violence, and will she ensure that that is addressed?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question, although I am not sure how it relates to the WASPI campaign. As she will know, I answered questions on this very subject at the Select Committee yesterday. Interestingly, no mention was made of the charges to parents in the collect and pay system. We are determined to encourage as many families as possible to have family-based arrangements. Indeed, even in cases where there has been domestic violence, the child maintenance service can step in to make sure that bank details can be passed safely, including using bank accounts that do not have a geographic location—they have a centralised sort code—so that we protect women and have as few families as possible within the collect and pay arrangements.
Scientific Professions: Women
It is vital that we encourage talented women into scientific careers. Those working in science, technology, engineering and maths careers on average earn a pay premium of 19%. Ensuring that women work in STEM careers will also help to tackle the gender pay gap. Role models are absolutely crucial for young women, and some 40% of STEM ambassadors are women.
I would like to take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to Tim Peake, who did an amazing job of working with schools while he was on his space trip earlier this year. I have met many, many schoolchildren who have had their interest in STEM stimulated from the work he did while on his space trip.
We are trying to make sure that some of the very best graduates in STEM subjects go into teaching. Our bursary schemes help to encourage that. Some fantastic teachers are now coming into the profession, which will help us to further build the STEM pipeline.
Research from the Institution of Engineering and Technology shows that science, technology, engineering and maths-based toys are three times more likely to be targeted at boys than at girls. I should declare an interest as a chartered engineer in the IET. Will the Secretary of State declare her support for the Let Toys Be Toys campaign, which aims to give girls and boys, in the run-up to Christmas, a real choice about the kinds of toys they can enjoy and the careers they can have?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight this. There are no boys’ careers and girls’ careers anymore—these careers should be open to all children. A person’s gender should not matter. As we have said, part of how we fix this challenge is by working in schools. I was very proud last month when one of my own schools, Ashcroft academy, won a STEM inspiration award for its Tuesday lunchtime STEM club. Such initiatives might seem small, but they have a profound effect on improving children’s interest in taking STEM forward.
Employment Tribunal Fees
The Government are undertaking a post-implementation review of the introduction of fees for employment tribunal proceedings. The review is considering, so far as possible, the impact fees have had on women and those with other protected characteristics, and the type of cases they bring. The Ministry of Justice will announce the conclusions of the review in due course.
The Minister will surely be aware of the wealth of evidence submitted to the review that the number of tribunal claims has fallen by 80%. Only 1% of women discriminated against at work have brought a claim to tribunal. There is a whole raft of evidence suggesting that tribunal fees are denying women access to justice. Will she make representations to the Ministry of Justice?
There is no doubt that the number of tribunals has gone down, but in actual fact there is good news here, in the sense that people have been diverted from potentially acrimonious tribunal hearings and into mediation. ACAS has given people the opportunity to resolve their differences through conciliation, and that scheme was used by over 92,000 people last year.
It is well documented that the Minister for Women and Equalities has been sitting on her Government’s equality impact assessment since October 2015, and although I have made several requests to have sight of it and for it to be put in the public domain, I have been consistently told “in due course”. I am still waiting for an explanation of how long that means. Given that this week she published an equality analysis of further changes that the Government want to make to employment tribunals, will she now commit to publishing the document, announced and on her desk since 2015, before we break for Christmas?
Last month, the Government welcomed the first report of the independent review by Sir Philip Hampton and Dame Helen Alexander of women in the executive pipeline, and we are pleased to welcome their recommendation that FTSE 100 companies should have at least 33% of their executive pipeline positions filled by women by 2020. In addition, this week the Government laid draft gender pay gap regulations that, if passed, will give unprecedented pay transparency to everyone working for a private or voluntary sector employer with 250 staff or more. That means the regulations will affect around 8,000 employers and over 11 million employees.
How can the Minister possibly believe that a budget reduction of 70% will enable the Equality and Human Rights Commission to fulfil its statutory functions, and why have the Government continued to refuse to complete a full equality impact assessment of the implications of the cuts for the work of the EHRC?
The EHRC performs an important and valuable role, and its chair, David Isaac, and his board are well equipped for this task. The commission receives, and will continue to receive, sufficient funds to enable it to fulfil its full range of statutory duties.
Assistance dogs are vital to the independence of many disabled people, and their continual refusal by a minority of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers is inexcusable. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), for his commitment to addressing this issue and eliminating this discrimination. My hon. Friend makes a profound case, and my Department will do all it can to support this important work.
We have commissioned research revealing that as of the autumn statement 86% of net savings to the Treasury since 2010 through tax and benefit measures had come from women—an increase on the last autumn statement, when the figure was 81%. When will the Minister deem this issue serious enough to warrant action from the Treasury—when the figure reaches 88%, 90%, 100%? And when will she agree to listen to the EHRC and the UN, among others, and publish a cumulative gender impact analysis of the Government’s policies?
One of the best things we can do to help women financially is to make sure we have a strong economy, and that is precisely what we have done, hence the record employment levels for women, which are good news. The hon. Lady’s question missed out our raising of the personal allowance, which has disproportionately helped lift women out of tax altogether.
By 2030, over 3 million women stand to gain on average £550 extra per year as a result of these changes. For women reaching state pension age in 2016-17, their median net income in retirement is estimated to be approximately £207,000. This is more on average than women have ever received.
As the hon. Lady will know, the Department for Work and Pensions has recently published the work and health Green Paper, and we are looking at working very closely with the Department of Health on a whole range of issues to make sure that older people and our pensioners are treated fairly by all Government Departments and services.
Eliminating the gender pay gap remains an absolute priority for this Government. Transparency is one of the most important and powerful tools for shaping behaviour and driving change. That is why we will be requiring large employers to publish their gender pay gaps. Draft regulations were laid on Tuesday 6 December, and if Parliament approves this legislation, which I hope will happen, the regulations will commence in April 2017.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, changes were announced in the autumn statement to the taper rate of universal credit. The reality of our changes to the welfare system is that universal credit is encouraging more people into work, and once they are in work, it is helping them, via our work coaches working in every single jobcentre, to make sure that they get more work and indeed better work.
I very much welcome the report that my right hon. Friend’s Select Committee published on this issue. That is precisely why we want to look actively at this issue. She will know from our recent meeting that I think it important to have SRE that works for the 21st century. It is indeed time to look at this, and I am very conscious of the House’s overall view that this is a matter that we should now take on board. My right hon. Friend will know from her previous role as the Minister for Women and Equalities that it is a complex issue, but we are looking to see what we can do to address it.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has found that this Government’s pursuit of an austerity agenda, resulting in cuts to benefits, meets the threshold for human rights violations of disabled people. What are the Government going to do to rectify that?
The Government are committed to providing support for disabled people who need it, as reflected in the fact that spending to support disabled people and people with health conditions will be higher in real terms in every year to 2020 than it was in 2010. The core intention of the recommendations set out by the UN is already incorporated in UK policies, and our response sets that out in more detail.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and he is absolutely right that we intend to issue a full public consultation shortly on how best to provide the legal protection that we want to see against caste discrimination. When we do that, I am sure that my hon. Friend and his community will want to participate fully in the consultation.
It took the Government almost a year to come up with a very thin eight-page review on the care and management of transgender offenders. That referred to
“a number of events linked to transgender prisoners”
that attracted attention last year. Those so-called “events” were, in fact, the deaths in the space of a month of two transgender women held in men’s prisons. Will the Minister tell us why the Government failed to acknowledge those tragedies in their review, and why their proposals are so meagre?
I question all those statements. The response is not meagre; it is thorough. The Government are firmly committed to ensuring that transgender offenders are treated fairly, lawfully and decently, and that their rights are respected. A revised instruction drawing on the conclusions of the Ministry of Justice’s “Review of care and management of transgender offenders” was published on 9 November. It is already being applied, and will be implemented fully by 1 January.
In the two months between 14 September and 15 November, the tax credits of 24,219 families were reinstated after being unfairly removed by Concentrix. What work have the Government done to assess the impact on women—particularly single mothers—who have been disproportionately affected?
The hon. Lady has raised an important issue. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury decided not to renew the Concentrix contract precisely because of some of those challenges, and I will ensure that my hon. Friend contacts her with further details relating to her specific question.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Barnett Consequentials: Estimates Process
Every Member has an opportunity to vote in the estimates process. The Liaison Committee is the body that has been chosen by the House to represent the interests of the House in selecting topics for debate on estimates days. If Members wish to examine a particular estimate in relation to the effect that it has on the block grant or for one of the devolved Administrations, they are free to make representations to the Committee, and are, in fact, encouraged to do so.
As Members know, the Procedure Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the estimates process, to which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House recently gave evidence. We look forward to its report, and will examine its recommendations carefully.
The simple fact is that the OECD has previously said that we have some of the worst levels of estimates scrutiny in the developed world. The EVEL process makes it even harder for Scottish Members to participate in decisions that can have Barnett consequentials, and we were promised that the estimates system would be reviewed for that reason. What changes will be introduced, and when?
I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. What with oral and written questions, Opposition day debates, Backbench Business day debates, business questions and Select Committees, there are doubtless more opportunities for Members to raise these issues today than there were when Mr Barnett invented Barnett consequentials in the late 1970s. Many avenues are available. As I have said, however, the Procedure Committee is looking into the matter in some detail, and I invite the hon. Gentleman to take part in that inquiry. [Interruption.]
The floods of 2013 were devastating in Somerset, and my constituency covered half the flooded area. The Somerset Rivers Authority was established to deal with flood resilience, and the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government gave assurances that the authority could be funded through a precept on our council tax bills. May I have an assurance that work on the framework for such an arrangement is under way?
Order. That is absolutely fascinating material, especially in Taunton Deane, but I question whether it has any particular relationship with the issue of Barnett consequentials. I am sure that that is a matter to which the hon. Lady will devote her grey cells in the hours that follow.
A few seconds ago, the Deputy Leader of the House cited this question time as an appropriate mechanism for scrutiny of Barnett consequentials. Will he therefore tell us what the current Barnett consequential is for the health service in Scotland?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the blocks of sums that are allocated to the different Departments in Westminster have no bearing on what the Scottish Government can do in respect of the breakdown for the departmental heads. He is comparing chalk and cheese.
September 2017 Sittings
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House announced recess dates up to, and even including, Whitsun at last Thursday’s business questions. Further dates will be announced in due course, and in the usual way.
My right hon. Friend is not likely ever to be admonished by Mr Speaker for verbosity. As far as September 2017 is concerned, this House will be sitting here. I think my right hon. Friend is referring to the renovation and renewal of this place; that would not take place, if it is voted on in this House, until the early 2020s, so we would be sitting here in September 2017. But my right hon. Friend may wish to spend some time in the cellars of this place, because there one can gauge, if one has a tour, just how much work needs to be done in the renovation of this House, and I am afraid an extra couple of weeks in the summer recess won’t cut it.
On timetabling, can the Deputy Leader of the House say what progress has been made in government in securing a money resolution for the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill, which was passed by a majority of 216 on Second Reading four weeks ago?
That has nothing to do with sitting in September 2017. The House is in a very curious mood today; questions are very interesting, but they suffer from the disadvantage of bearing little or absolutely no relation to the matter on the Order Paper. But the Deputy Leader of the House is a barrister, so if he cannot respond, nobody can.
In relation to September sittings, I think the Deputy Leader of the House did not quite get the point my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) was making: if we are to have a renovation of this House that lasts a number of years, clearly not meeting in September means there are many months when work can be carried out uninterrupted. In that case, would it not be a good idea to move September sittings around the country, starting of course with Wellingborough, because the Deputy Leader of the House, who is the Member for Northampton North, would not have far to travel then? And perhaps we should take this a little further: maybe the idea should be to take them abroad, so those overseas can see how British democracy works, and may we start with Brussels?
It is always very tempting to spend time in Wellingborough, with or without my hon. Friend. The reality is that there have been decades of under-investment; there is a huge amount of work in utilities, including electrics, sewerage, telephones and every manner of utility and facility in this House. It is very far from clear that an extra couple of weeks, even were they to be allocated, in the summer would be sufficient time. But in any event, on the exact point my hon. Friend makes, the reality is there will be a debate on this matter and ample opportunity to discuss it.
Topical Questions: Northern Ireland
As a consequence of devolution, the range of issues which are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office is narrower than that of other Departments. The introduction of topical questions might lead to a situation where a number of the questions asked fall outside the range of the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In May, the former Leader of the House wrote to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee citing these as the reasons why we will not be introducing topical questions to oral questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for that response, but would he not accept that especially with regard to Northern Ireland, although a number of issues are indeed devolved, there are very serious issues that are not devolved, and there have been occasions—some could argue yesterday even—when very important issues could do with being raised during Northern Ireland questions? So will he reconsider allowing just 10 minutes of topical questions? I am not really sure what harm that could do.
The concern has been that questions could be ruled out of order by the Chairman or that they might not be answered substantively, and that less time would be available for questions that had been balloted for in the usual way. This is simply an attempt by the House to ensure that the time is allocated as efficiently as possible.
I have every sympathy with what the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) is proposing, Mr Speaker, but you are always very kind and assiduous in ensuring that all right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland get a chance to ask our questions. If we had topical questions, that would reduce those opportunities. Could we instead have more time for Northern Ireland questions?
There is pressure on the time in the House and we have a six-week cycle for questions to each Department. However, these matters are always carefully considered and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I will certainly take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 12 December—Remaining stages of the Savings (Government Contributions) Bill followed by debate on a motion relating to the welfare cap.
Tuesday 13 December—Remaining stages of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill.
Wednesday 14 December—Opposition day (16th allotted day). There will be a debate entitled “The disproportionate negative effect of the Government’s autumn statement and budgetary measures on women” followed by debate on homelessness. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to counter-terrorism.
Thursday 15 December—Debate on a motion on creation of a commercial financial dispute resolution platform followed by a general debate on broadband universal service obligation. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 16 December—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 19 December will include:
Monday 19 December—General debate on exiting the EU and science and research.
Tuesday 20 December—Debate on a Back-Bench business motion, subject to be confirmed by the Backbench Business Committee, followed by general debate on matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment.
I thank the Leader of the House for coming to the House today. He has had a very busy week. Margaret Thatcher said that everyone needed a Willie. She was referring to Willie Whitelaw, and the Leader of the House is rapidly becoming the Willie Whitelaw of this Government. He is there whenever anyone needs him.
The Leader of the House helpfully published the dates for Easter, May day and Whitsun under Standing Order No. 25 on Monday. May I press him for one more date? He failed to say when the House would rise for the summer recess. Some people are suggesting that it will be on 20 July, but we are not sure.
Yesterday the Government finally accepted that they needed a plan, a strategy and a framework. The Leader of the House said yesterday that the Opposition were
“quarrelling like ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ as re-shot by the ‘Carry On’ team.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 208.]
I am sure that the British Film Institute is wondering where this genre falls! I should like to remind him that it was the intention of 40 Government MPs to support yesterday’s Opposition motion that resulted in the Prime Minister conceding—from Bahrain—the Labour motion. Where was the tarantula? The spider was missing, too. As ever, the message is confused. The Chancellor is saying that we are going to be out of Europe but that we will actually be in and paying for it. So we are out but we are in; it sounds like Government hokey cokey.
The situation is confusing for everyone, including our farmers. May we have a debate on the effects of exiting the EU that are causing concern to our farmers? In 2014, the UK exported £12.8 billion of products to the EU, which was approximately 73% of our total agri-food exports. May we have a response to the letter to the Prime Minister signed by 75 organisations asking for tariff-free access to the single market and a competent reliable workforce? Those organisations want protection for food safety, security and hygiene, and proper stewardship of our countryside, and they say that affordable food will be at risk if Ministers fail to deliver continued access to labour and the best possible single market access.
May we have a debate on the report on opportunity and integration? If this Government were serious about opportunity and integration in this country, they would reverse the £45 million cut in English for speakers of other languages, which affected 47 colleges and 16,000 learners. I know of a learner under ESOL who learned English, learned to drive and is now a driving instructor—oh, and she just happens to be a Muslim woman. Members around the House will be able to find similar examples of people taking opportunities as a result of ESOL. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Government restore grants to local authorities, so that libraries, community facilities, the provision of skills training, and prevention work with families are not cut? Will he also ensure that they restore the migration impacts fund, which was set up by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and then cut by the coalition Government in 2010? It was included in the 2015 Conservative manifesto as the “controlling migration fund”. They can change the name, but they have not yet introduced it.
We must support our schools and ensure that the Equality and Human Rights Commission remains funded, independent and able to scrutinise the equality impact of policies and legislation. As we will celebrate Human Rights Day on 10 December, may we have a debate on protecting the Human Rights Act, which is an important piece of legislation? Some have argued that the UN declaration that became the European convention on human rights was just a moral code with no legal obligations, but the Human Rights Act gives it legal force. Every right that was incorporated in the Human Rights Act was systematically violated during the second world war.
Given that it is soon Human Rights Day, will the Leader of the House follow up on the Prime Minister’s response to the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British national imprisoned in Iran? If the Foreign Secretary is too busy trying to learn who his counterparts are, perhaps we can ask the United States, which signed that agreement with Iran. We need the Human Rights Act to protect basic freedoms—every day, everywhere.
There have been two electrical overload near misses on the parliamentary estate and we still, through no fault of our own, cannot turn off the lights in Norman Shaw South. Will the Leader of the House update us on that?
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the Speaker’s chaplain Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin both received awards this week. The whole parliamentary family acknowledges and congratulates them.
As for Her Majesty’s Opposition, we will be carrying on regardless—[Laughter.] Wait for it. We will carry on regardless, trying to secure economic and social justice for all British people.
May I join in the congratulations to your chaplain on the recent award, Mr Speaker? I also I wish the shadow Leader of the House many happy returns for yesterday.
We will try to give the summer recess dates as soon as we can, but it is not usual for them to be announced at this stage in the parliamentary year. I looked into the situation regarding the lights in Norman Shaw South after the hon. Lady’s question last week, and my understanding from the House authorities is that there was a serious fault in what is frankly an obsolete electrical circuit system. They had hoped to get the repairs done this week, but I will ask the relevant executive in the House service to write to the hon. Lady with the latest details. As for the other matter the hon. Lady raised, when she said “carry on regardless”, she rather provided the description herself. I am sorely tempted to indicate the cast list that I have mind, but I will eschew that particular temptation.
Turning to the hon. Lady’s policy questions, what was striking about last night’s vote was that for the first time the Opposition Front-Bench team and most, but not all, Labour Members accepted the Prime Minister’s timetable to trigger article 50 by the end of March 2017. Given that the shadow Foreign Secretary had said as recently as September that we ought to go back to the people before taking a final decision to leave the EU, that possibly suggests a welcome change of heart on the part of the Opposition, and I hope that it is genuine and sustained.
The hon. Lady made points about the impact of leaving the EU on the food and farming sector, which is an important aspect of the forthcoming negotiation. That sector is a major employer and makes a major contribution to the UK’s GDP. Many of its chief export markets are in other EU countries, so the Government are closely consulting the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and other representative organisations—the Food and Drink Federation and so on—about the approach that will ensure that their interests are strongly represented in those negotiations. Clearly, the issue of labour will be a part of that, as will access to markets, but the Opposition have to acknowledge, as one or two in their ranks who have served in ministerial office have said publicly, that it is hard to see the vote on 23 June as one that would allow the continuation of free movement of labour as it currently exists. From my experience, of looking at opinion polls and of talking to people during the campaign, it seemed that that issue of migration was very much at the forefront of people’s minds when they came to vote.
The hon. Lady alluded to the Casey report on integration, produced earlier this week. Louise Casey highlighted, in her direct style, some really important and deep-seated social challenges. I can trade statistics about money spent on teaching English as a second language, and I do not want to decry the importance of ensuring that people who arrive in this country learn English as a matter of priority, because without that someone cannot really play a full part in the mainstream of society. However, what I hope to see coming out of that report will be a conversation and a growing shared understanding, across party political lines and around the country, of the fact that these problems are not capable of solution by an Act of Parliament, a ministerial speech or a tweak to a spending programme here and there. We are talking about problems of the self-segregation of communities that have deep cultural roots, and we have to work out locally and nationally how those should best be addressed.
The hon. Lady made a few points about other items of spending. I have to say to the Opposition that they cannot both attack the Government for not moving quickly enough to reduce the deficit and also criticise every action that is designed to obtain savings and pay that deficit down. We are having to take tough decisions now because of the failure of the housekeeping of Labour Ministers when they were in charge for 13 years.
Finally, we have a proud tradition of human rights in this country, but that existed and was strong long before the Human Rights Act. There was no magic to that piece of legislation, and this Government are committed to keeping human rights at the forefront of all our policies. I agree on the importance of the case of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and I hope that the Government in Iran will show mercy towards her and bear in mind the fact that her little daughter has been separated from her parents for so long. British Ministers and officials are doing everything they can on behalf of the family to try to bring this case to the outcome that we all wish to see.
The Royal Bank of Scotland has announced its latest round of NatWest bank branch closures, which will have a significant impact on my constituency, as well as on the constituencies of many colleagues across the country. Rochester, which is a key commercial town, will be left with only one bank in the centre. This has been a running theme across the country as we have seen the number of bank branches reduced by half in the past 25 years. Will the Government make time for a debate on the wider impact of these closures on the elderly, the disabled, and small businesses and retailers, which rely on these very important services?
I completely understand why my hon. Friend is speaking up so strongly on behalf of both domestic bank customers and businesses in her constituency. Of course what the banks will say is that more and more of us, both as individuals and businesses, are moving to online banking services, and that that therefore reduces the viability of the branch network. Ultimately, these are commercial decisions for the banks, but I hope that when bank directors and managers think about the impact of a proposed closure on a particular town, they will take carefully into account the impact on communities, particularly on people and those businesses that cannot simply go on online for the banking services that are so essential to their needs.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. It is good to see him back in his more familiar habitat of business questions after his exertions yesterday at PMQs. It was such a stellar performance that I and several of his hon. Friends are thinking about a DL for PM campaign—a sort of “Carry on Lidington” when it comes to PMQs.
It is another week and another instalment of Brexit cluelessness and chaos. Now we have it under the banner of a red, white and blue Brexit. After the Labour party meekly followed the Government’s article 50 agenda yesterday, it will be the red, white and blue Brexit v. the tartan remain. Now that Labour has more or less caved in on the article 50 agenda, why does the Leader of the House not just bring forward a proper vote and end the circus in the Supreme Court? What is stopping him doing that now?
On that same theme, some remarkable things have been said in the Supreme Court, most notably from the Government’s top legal officer in Scotland, Lord Keen, who told us that the Sewel convention was merely a political act and that this House can simply override the views of Scotland. I was in this House during the passage of the Scotland Act 2016, and I remember speaking on it at length—I also remember the Tories voting down every single amendment that we put forward. In particular, I recall that a motion that said that the Sewel convention would be in statute was passed by this House. We also agreed on the permanence of the Scottish Parliament. As massive disrespect has been shown to the views of Scotland, I would like to hear what the Government’s views are on all this.
This week, the lords debated the size of the House of Lords. It was like watching be-ermined turkeys voting on the size of their Christmas pens. Now that the House of Lords has managed to secure a debate on the size of that unelected circus, when will we get the same opportunity?
I think that I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. I always think it is very dangerous when one is being prayed in aid by a senior Opposition spokesman in that way.
On the points that the hon. Gentleman makes about Europe, we must not forget that, even in Scotland, 40% of the population voted to leave. I can assure him that the Government will be looking for a Brexit that is, yes, red, white and blue, but that pattern includes the flag of St Andrew, and the saltire’s interests will be very much in our minds throughout those negotiations. That is why—to take one example—we have just established a new Government Committee, along with the three devolved Administrations, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, to ensure that the three devolved Administrations have access regularly and at ministerial, not just official, level to those who are leading the negotiations on behalf of the entire United Kingdom, and that their interests are fully taken into account and understood.
The hon. Gentleman questioned me about the court case. Although I will not comment on ongoing judicial proceedings, I will simply say that the High Court judgment did raise important questions about the scope of prerogative powers and the relationship between the Executive and the legislature that we believe need to be decided through the appeal to the Supreme Court. The High Court decision required not just a resolution to be passed by this House or by both Houses of Parliament, but primary legislation. Clearly, as I have said before, we will have to await the Supreme Court’s decision, but the ministerial code and the civil service code oblige the Government at all times to obey the rule of law.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for giving me two bites of the cherry, and apologies for standing at the wrong time earlier, which goes to show how confusing this place is. Thank you for being so generous.
The floods of 2013 were devastating in Somerset, and my constituency covers half the area affected. The Somerset Rivers Authority was established to deal with future flood resilience. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the then Secretary of State for the Environment gave assurances that the authority would be funded by a precept on council tax bills. Can my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that the legal framework for that is being established?
Anyone who remembers the TV coverage of those dreadful floods in Somerset will understand why that was such a searing experience for my hon. Friend’s constituents and those of other hon. Friends representing the county. The Government have, of course, given additional funding to the local authorities directly affected so that they can make the necessary provision for future flood management. My hon. Friend calls for that sum effectively to be ring-fenced and handed over to the precepting powers of a new statutory rivers authority. The Government remain committed to the action promised by David Cameron when he was Prime Minister and we intend to legislate as soon as parliamentary time is available.
The Leader of the House will be aware that on Monday and Tuesday this week the House rose somewhat earlier than scheduled, as Government business had come to an end. I know that the Leader of the House does not have a crystal ball, but I wonder whether we can work together to schedule reserve Backbench Business debates for such eventualities in the future. Members would accept, obviously, that if the Government business ran to time, those Backbench Business reserve matters would fall, but it would be useful to have reserve Backbench Business debates for such eventualities.
On a constituency matter, my constituent Jawad Dar came from Pakistan, where he had witnessed a double murder, for which the perpetrator was imprisoned in 2004. The murderer was released after six years and Mr Dar fled to this country in 2012 when other witnesses to the original crime were themselves murdered. By then the perpetrator had become the mayor of the region. Since 2012 Mr Dar has wrongfully been accused and convicted in absentia of crimes that he could not have committed because he was here in this country. The Home Office accepts all this as fact, yet has inexplicably determined to send Mr Dar back to face almost certain death in Pakistan. I implore the Leader of the House to urge Home Office Ministers to review this case urgently in the name of the British values of fairness, justice and mercy.
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I am happy to have a discussion with him about that possibility, although as he acknowledged in the way that he framed the question, it is very difficult for Government business managers to understand in advance how much time Members from different Opposition parties and, for that matter, from our own Back Benches are going to want to spend debating particular amendments on Report, how many Divisions they may seek, and so on.
On the constituency case, although I do not know the details I will ask the Home Secretary to take a close look at it, as the hon. Gentleman asks.
The proportion of secondary schools that are good or outstanding in the north-west has increased by 3%, by comparison with a national increase of 13%. Can we have a debate on what measures we can put in place to support northern white working-class boys and girls so that they can achieve their true potential?
I point my hon. Friend towards Education questions on 19 December. The point he makes echoes the argument made in a speech earlier this week by Sir Michael Wilshaw, who drew attention to the gap in achievement between northern and southern England and called for a much more resolute, determined exertion of leadership in schools, local authorities and other agencies in the north, to drive up standards. I am sure that my hon. Friend will do all he can to champion that effort.
After the past week, it would be hard to deny that the Secretary of State for Transport is doing anything other than making a huge partisan mess of managing our railways. Govia Thameslink also manages Great Northern and the Hertford loop, which affects many thousands of my constituents. This is the largest franchise let by the Department for Transport. If the Great Northern franchise is going to go the way of Southern, which increasingly looks to be the case, we will have a further, even greater disaster on our hands. Can we have an urgent debate in this Chamber on those train services, which affect people in the north and south of this capital city, and will the Secretary of State himself attend?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport did, of course, respond in person to an urgent question earlier this week on these matters. He has always felt that local authorities and MPs should have an appropriate say in local train services. I understand the point the right hon. Lady is making, but a lot of suburban commuter services also serve communities in the home counties, my own included. Placing the entire lead role in the hands of the Mayor of London and Transport for London would remove from my constituents and those elsewhere in the home counties any kind of democratic accountability for the management of their train services and the setting of budgetary priorities, so this is a more complex question than some of the critics of my right hon. Friend have been prepared to acknowledge.
May I gently say to the Leader of the House that the work done by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), on the Somerset Rivers Authority is proving fruitful? However, the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who is not in her place, was trying to make is that this is not just about Somerset—it is about the whole United Kingdom. We need to have another look at the whole way flooding is dealt with in this country; it is not synonymous with Somerset or any other part of the country. We do need to look at precepting, but we also need to have legislation, and I know that the Secretary of State is looking at it. Would it be possible to have a debate in this place to discuss the whole concept?
I cannot offer an immediate debate in Government time, although there may be opportunities for my hon. Friend to raise this issue—perhaps in the debate before the Christmas Adjournment. I can only repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow): the Government are committed to the changes she is seeking, and we will legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows.
In January, the Secretary of State for Transport promised the then Mayor of London that Southeastern’s rail services would transfer to Transport for London when the franchise came up for renewal. On Tuesday, he told the House that he had looked at Transport for London’s business case and that it was not going to provide improvements for passengers in terms of capacity and extra trains, both of which points were incorrect. We now know that his true reason is that he wrote to the former Mayor of London in April stating that he had changed his mind because he would rather keep suburban rail services out of the clutches of a Labour Mayor. That is politically partisan and brings no benefit for my constituents, who suffered delays on that rail service yet again this morning. We need the Secretary of State back here in the House to account for the chaos on our rail services.
I completely understand why the hon. Gentleman, as a London Member, makes that case so vehemently, but, as I said a moment ago, there are interests to be borne in mind of communities outside Greater London who depend utterly on those same routes for their own journeys to work. The Department for Transport wants to work to jointly with TfL to get the best deal for passengers both inside and outside London.
In recent days there has been further media coverage about the risk of fires in certain models of the Vauxhall Corsa. It is welcome that the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency is looking into this again, but may we have a statement from a Transport Minister on what the Department is doing to co-ordinate activities and reassure owners?
When can we discuss the injuries suffered in sport? We will then have a chance to congratulate the Welsh Rugby Union and England’s Rugby Football Union, which have reacted positively to the new medical knowledge of the deadly long-term effect of early Alzheimer’s on those who suffer repeated blows to the head. Could we also look to the suggestions made here last week that we need international action throughout the rugby world and the boxing world to recognise that practices that have been tolerated for a long time should no longer be permitted, so as to allow these sports to be made acceptable to younger generations?
It is right that it should be primarily for the sports’ governing bodies to take the lead on this. I am sure that since they are so keen to recruit young men, and increasingly young women, to these sports, they want to be able to say confidently that the rules that they have in place do everything that can be done to protect the safety of competitors. I will ensure that Ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are aware of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. DCMS questions, including to the sports Minister, are coming up on Thursday 15 December, so he may well have another bite at the cherry then.
As my right hon. Friend knows, the biggest social issue facing our country is that of dementia. Only too often, dementia carers do not have access to blue badges in order to help their charges. May we have a debate on this to ensure that carers can park much more easily?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of this issue. I am sure that he would want to join me in saluting the work of the Alzheimer’s Society, in particular, and the creation of a network of more than 1 million dementia friends throughout the United Kingdom. The blue badge scheme already allows carers to use a blue badge when accompanying the badge holder, so the carer in those circumstances does not need a badge in his or her own right. It is then up to local authorities to decide whether to have an additional local permit parking scheme for carers on their own. Given the very different constraints on car park capacity and patterns of travel between one local authority and another, it is right that those decisions should be taken locally.
Now that the Leader of the House has had a bit of time to think about it, may we have a statement or a debate on jobcentre closures, with particular reference to the part of the Smith agreement that says that the UK Government and the Scottish Government should work together to
“establish more formal mechanisms to govern the Jobcentre Plus network in Scotland”?
Perhaps in that debate the Government can explain to Glasgow’s MPs and the Scottish Government why they had to read in the press that our jobcentres were going to be closed.
My understanding is that the existing pattern of provision in Glasgow means that it has significantly more small, separate jobcentres than other large Scottish cities. The Department for Work and Pensions is proposing—the consultation is now under way—to reduce the overall number so that services can be concentrated in locations that are still accessible to everybody in the city and provide a better quality of service to people who need access to jobcentres in person. One of the reasons why fewer people have been using individual jobcentres in Glasgow is of course that unemployment in that city has been falling significantly. I wish that the hon. Gentleman would sometimes acknowledge that in his questions.
At a recent surgery, two of my constituents described how members of their family had had their lives turned around for the better by the work of the Burton addiction centre in Staffordshire. Could we have a debate on the provision of drug and alcohol services in Staffordshire, which are set to be considerably reduced by reductions in spending next year, so that we can ensure that the experiences of my constituents will continue to be positive?
My hon. Friend is always assiduous in speaking up for the interests of his constituents in Stafford, but it is local authorities that are responsible for commissioning effective drug and alcohol prevention and treatment services, and those decisions are based on the authorities’ understanding of local needs. Health questions on Tuesday 20 December may give my hon. Friend the opportunity to raise his concerns directly with the Secretary of State.
May I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on his award? He is a fellow Leicester City supporter and we need some good news this week after last night. May I also warmly congratulate you and Mrs Bercow, Mr Speaker, on your 14th wedding anniversary, which was yesterday? I noticed that you yawned a couple of times this morning, so it must have been a very good party last night. Perhaps that is why the Norman Shaw South lights are still on today.
The Prime Minister has returned from the Gulf, where she met various kings and other Heads of State. The issue of Yemen must have been discussed. Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early statement by the Prime Minister on her discussions with the Heads of Government on the issue of Yemen, where 80% of the population are still in desperate need of humanitarian care and assistance? We hear about Syria and Iraq a great deal in this House, but not enough about Yemen.
I am happy to add my congratulations to those expressed by the right hon. Gentleman, both to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and to you and Mrs Bercow, Mr Speaker.
Anybody who saw Fergal Keane’s BBC report earlier this week about the situation in Yemen will have been both shocked and moved by the plight of so many families who are suffering grievously in the way described by the right hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did discuss Yemen, among many other issues, with the Gulf leaders during her visit this week. The Government are, of course, committing significant sums—£100 million has so far been committed for this year—to humanitarian relief in Yemen. We are also part funding, through an additional £1 million, the office of the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, because ultimately it is only through an effective political process that we will be able to bring about a resolution to this appalling conflict.
I was delighted to hear that there is to be a debate in this place about broadband, but discussions on broadband invariably tend to focus on rural areas. I have nothing against rural areas, but the reality is that there are pockets of urban areas, including my constituency of Cheltenham, that are affected. There are specific factors that affect urban areas. May we please have a debate on the roll-out of superfast broadband in urban areas?
I completely understand my hon. Friend’s point. The problem that he describes in Cheltenham is also experienced in not spots in other towns and cities, and I know how frustrating it is, both for householders and for businesses whose broadband access is limited because of it. The Chancellor announced in the autumn statement some additional funds that are available to develop high-speed broadband further. I hope that that may provide opportunities for Cheltenham, as well as for other places.
Post offices play a crucial role in many communities, particularly in rural villages such as Blackford in my constituency. May we have a debate about the importance of maintaining small shops and post offices, particularly in rural communities, so that the Post Office and others can see the important economic and social impacts of closures?