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House of Commons Hansard
23 February 2017
Volume 621

  • Could the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?

  • The business for next week is as follows:

    Monday 27 February—Estimates day (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on future flood prevention, followed by a debate on health and social care.

    Tuesday 28 February—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). There will be a debate on the Government’s productivity plan, followed by a debate on intergenerational fairness. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

    [The details are as follows: Second Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Future flood prevention, HC 115, and the Government response, HC 926; Second Report of the Environmental Audit Committee, Flooding: Cooperation across Government, HC 183, and the Government response, HC 645. First Report of the Health Committee, Impact of the Spending Review on health and social care, HC 139, and the Government response, Cm 9385; Second Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Personal budgets in social care, HC 74, and the Government response, Cm 9351; Tenth Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, NHS specialised services, HC 387, and the Government response, Cm 9351; Twelfth Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Discharging older people from acute hospitals, HC 76, and the Government response, Cm 9351; Sixteenth Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Improving access to mental health services, HC 80, and the Government response, Cm 9389; Twenty-fifth Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, UnitingCare partnership contract, HC 633, and the Government response, Cm 9413. Second Report of the former Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Session 2015-16, The Government’s Productivity Plan, HC 466, and the Government response, HC 931. Third Report of the Work and Pensions Committee, Intergenerational fairness, HC 59, and the Government response, HC 964.]

    At 7 pm the House will be asked to approve all outstanding estimates.

    Wednesday 1 March—Proceedings on the Supply and Approbation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill, followed by Second Reading of the Bus Services Bill [Lords].

    Thursday 2 March—Debate on a motion relating to International Women’s Day, followed by a general debate on Welsh affairs. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

    Friday 3 March—The House will not be sitting.

    The provisional business for the week commencing 6 March will include:

    Monday 6 March—Second Reading of the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill.

    I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 2, 6 and 9 March will be:

    Thursday 2 March—Debate on the ninth report of the Work and Pensions Committee on support for the bereaved.

    Monday 6 March—Debate on an e-petition relating to high heels and workplace dress codes.

    Thursday 9 March—Debate on the second report of the Scottish Affairs Committee on demography of Scotland and the implications for devolution.

    In addition, I should like to inform the House that, following discussion through the usual channels, the 10 minutes allocated for oral parliamentary questions to the Leader of the House that have previously taken place on a six-weekly rota will now be used as additional time for questions to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. A new questions rota is now available from the Vote Office. Members should be reassured that I shall continue to appear at the Dispatch Box every Thursday morning at business questions, and they will be able to use that opportunity to ask any questions that they might otherwise have asked at orals.

  • I thank the Leader of the House for confirming that he will still be here for business questions, even though he is such a talented former Minister for Europe that I think his talents should be deployed elsewhere.

    I am still going to ask for the date of the recess. The Deputy Leader of the House is very keen to know when he will be able to go on holiday, because he will need to respond to the pre-summer recess Adjournment debate and he needs to order a new tie.

    Following a point of order by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), the Leader of the House kindly mentioned the year of the relevant legislation. I have asked the Library about it and it is called the Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) (Elected Representatives) Order 2002, which enables the processing and disclosure of sensitive data to elected representatives. The Library was very helpful and I am sure that if hon. Members want a copy, it will provide one.

    This is a photo-opportunity Prime Minister and Government—all photos and no substance or any thought for the British people. Not content with being the first to visit the United States, when she should have been networking in Europe, the Prime Minister then photo-bombed the House of Lords, in the company of the Leader of the House—no wonder we cannot get the recess date. Instead of photo-bombing, the Prime Minister needs to focus on what is going on in her own Cabinet. She may have got up off the sofa to sit at the Cabinet table, but she needs to hold a discussion with her Cabinet members, because they are completely out of control.

    The Prime Minister needs to think about our young people, because they are our future. Just before the Christmas recess, the Government snuck out a statement on removing the cap on tuition fees, so students will face a tuition fee rise in perpetuity. A Labour Government, by the way, would have reduced fees and kept the cap. Yesterday the Prime Minister talked about children and their aspirations, but this generation is saddled with debts of £44,000 each before they even start out in life. There are two statutory instruments that are a tax on aspiration, so could the Leader of the House please schedule a debate—similar to that which we had in 2010—on this disgraceful increase in tuition fees by statutory instrument? We want to debate and scrutinise those SIs and vote on them.

    The Prime Minister mentioned the Great Get Together, which has been organised to remember our colleague Jo Cox. The Prime Minister said that we should recognise the things that unite us, but at the same time the Government are presiding over the decimation of the staff at the Equality and Human Rights Commission. People have been handed redundancy notices via email and the Government are cutting the very organisation that can help people and communities to trust each other. It is there to help eradicate racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism—there has been a rise in hate crime—just as all of us try to do, including you, Mr Speaker. Could we have a debate on early-day motion 944, tabled by the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens)?

    [That this House notes with great concern the decision of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to sack 10 staff members on 9 February 2017 via email and with only one day’s notice; further notes that seven of those who were sacked are of black and minority ethnic (BME) origin, six are disabled and all are trade union members; is further concerned that staff were denied the opportunity to seek employment within the Civil Service due to the implementation of Payment In Lieu of Notice; believes that this in particular discriminates against BME, disabled and female staff who may struggle to find further employment; notes that staff have taken part in several days of strike action in recent months against compulsory redundancies and budget cuts within the Commission; understands that the EHRC was established to help eliminate discrimination, reduce inequality and protect human rights in the UK; and calls on the Government to intervene and reinstate all sacked staff members and to properly fund and staff the EHRC to ensure that discrimination and inequality within the UK is eradicated.]

    The Government are not interested in education. Many Members of all parties, including the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), who raised the issue yesterday after meeting headteachers, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who raised concerns about the aspirations of boys, are alarmed at the new funding formula cuts to our schools. The Prime Minister said that the Government were looking at a new formula—she said, “It is a consultation”. Will the Leader of the House guarantee that there will be a statement immediately following the consultation? When will the consultation come to an end?

    The Government are not interested in businesses. What a lesson in disorganisation and chaos we have had on business rates. For every £1 generated by local businesses on the high street, 70p goes back to the local economy. Most businesses on the high street pay more in business rates than in corporation tax. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy says that he will look into the short-term and long-term effects of business rates. He should have done that before he introduced the policy. A loophole that was missed by the Treasury will allow online multinationals to see a fall in their business rates while a small independent bookshop sees a rise. Will the Leader of the House ensure that there is a full impact assessment of the proposals before they are enacted?

    Which other disorganised and chaotic Government would get away with the Secretary of State for Health saying, as he did on the BBC last week, that performance in the some parts of the NHS is “completely unacceptable” and then doing absolutely nothing about it? Yesterday, the Prime Minister mentioned Mid Staffs, but she forgot to mention that Sir Robert Francis, who led the inquiry, said earlier this month that the NHS was facing an “existential crisis”, with a “disconnect” between what the Government were saying and people’s experiences on the ground. May we have a statement on the Government’s plan of action to restore the NHS and listen to clinicians and staff? A 10-point plan would do.

    When the City of London warns that the loss of banking jobs to the EU threatens financial stability, the Government need to listen and to be transparent with the British people about those warnings.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and I heard yesterday that, for people working in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, once their contracts are over, that will be it—their funding will come to an end and there will be no more jobs.

    Education is a mess; health is a mess; businesses are under threat; a judge says that the Government are making slow progress on allowing civil partnerships for heterosexual couples; and research funding is ending. Who are this Government serving?

    Someone who has served this House well is my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), although he is not in his seat at the minute. He had a birthday during the recess and is now 85. I am sure the whole House will join me in belatedly wishing him a happy birthday and in looking forward to the documentary on his life: “Nature of The Beast”.

  • I am afraid that I cannot yet give the hon. Lady a date for the summer recess. In my experience, my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House can barely be torn away from his desk, so assiduous is he in his commitment to his work in government and on behalf of his constituents. I will try to give the hon. Lady and the whole House notice of the summer recess dates as soon as I can.

    I completely agree with the hon. Lady on the significance of the 2002 order. I recall that it was brought in at a time when hon. Members from all parts of the House were, as now, finding a number of public authorities reluctant to disclose information that they were seeking on behalf of constituents who had approached them. I intend to write to all Members to draw their attention formally to the order.

    I am rather disappointed by what the hon. Lady said about the House of Lords. It is important that Ministers respect the constitutional role of the House of Lords. In my experience, both in government and in opposition, Members of the other place like the fact that Ministers and, occasionally, Opposition spokesmen go and listen to what they have to say. That is exactly what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I were doing earlier in the week.

    We could have a long debate, which you would not want me to move into, Mr Speaker, about the opportunities for young people in our society. I simply say to the hon. Lady that it is under this Government that we are seeing a rise in the number of schools that are rated good or outstanding, which is giving our young men and women the best start in life. Employment in the United Kingdom is at a record high, and enabling young people to have a decent education and then a job gives them the best start of all. The housing White Paper then spells out how, through generating additional housing supply, we will help young men and women get a foot on the housing ladder, which so many cannot currently afford to do.

    The hon. Lady asked about tuition fees. The maximum fee cap will not increase in real terms for anyone who goes to university.

    The hon. Lady and others have asked me in previous Thursday sessions about the measures that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has taken. It is publicly funded, but at arm’s length from ministerial direction. Like every other part of the public sector, it has to take responsible decisions about how to set priorities for the finite taxpayers’ resources that it has been allocated.

    I will write to the hon. Lady and put a note in the Library about the exact date when the consultation on the new funding formula for schools is due to end. From memory, it is later in March, but I will confirm that in writing.

    Let us not forget that business rates are based on the rental value of business properties, and rental values change over time. I was not quite sure whether the hon. Lady was saying that the Opposition would rather that the valuation were based on rental values that are now seven years out of date. The Government have brought forward the revaluation that needed to be done, but as the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said yesterday, he is working with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to see whether we can find further ways to ensure that some relief is given to individual businesses that might be particularly adversely affected by the revaluations.

    We could also debate the national health service for a long time. I simply remind the hon. Lady yet again that the NHS is getting record funding under this Conservative Government. The numbers of doctors and nurses and, critically, of our fellow citizens who are being treated by immensely professional and hard-working staff, are increasing.

    Far from being disunited, the Government are pursuing a determined course to try to address some of the deep-seated social and economic challenges that our nation has faced for many years in a way that benefits people in all parts of our United Kingdom and all parts of society. If the hon. Lady is looking for chaos, she should look behind her and particularly around the table when the shadow Cabinet meets weekly. I suspect that she has to look at the name plates to remind herself who is entitled to be at those meetings.

  • Notwithstanding the debate in Westminster Hall next Thursday, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on funeral poverty? Although I applaud the work of the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), and the legislative proposal of the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), I am still convinced, having recently met people from the sector, that the Government could do more to help people in financial difficulties at a distressing time.

  • My hon. Friend makes an important point. As he will know, the current arrangements mean that people in need can have their costs reimbursed. That can cover necessary costs for burial and cremation and up to £700 for other expenses. My understanding is that, in the last year for which we have figures—2015-16—29,000 awards were made of more than £1,400 on average. However, the Government are exploring various options for simplification and making access to the schemes that we have easier. I am sure that any thoughts and proposals that my hon. Friend has will be gratefully received by the Ministers responsible.

  • I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week.

    I suppose the Leader of the House can safely put away the abolition of the Lords Bill. All we really needed was a selfie of him and the Prime Minister visiting the Chamber this week. After threatening to lead the great Brexit rebellion, the brave tribunes in ermine led the nation all the way to the top of the Woolsack hill and all the way back down again—while leaving the taxi meter running. Am I the only Member of this House disturbed by the former Lord Speaker’s allegations? This is taxpayers’ money. Does the Leader of the House not agree that at least some sort of investigation is warranted into what is going on down there with their expenses?

    Will the Leader of the House assure us today that the Government have no intention of debating early-day motion 943 in Government time?

    [That this House has no confidence in Mr Speaker.]

    This is a pathetic early-day motion in the name of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), which invites us to express no confidence in you, Mr Speaker. It has secured a paltry five signatures, so will the Leader of the House confirm that that is the end of the sorry business?

    On Monday and Tuesday, we have our annual estimates day. One of the key features of estimates day is that the estimates do not have to be debated. When trying to debate estimates last year, I lasted one minute and 37 seconds. We are just about the only advanced democracy in the world where departmental spend is not scrutinised and debated. When will this absurdity end?

    Lastly, Mr Speaker, I am sure you will welcome the news that David Bowie secured two Brit awards last night. I think everybody welcomes that. There are a few bleary eyed hon. Members who perhaps over-indulged at last night’s ceremony. Our music industry is one of our great success stories, contributing £4.1 billion in gross value added to our economy. I am sure the Leader of the House, in a more conciliatory tone, would like to welcome not just the enormous cultural contribution our recording artists make, but the economic contribution, too.

  • On the hon. Gentleman’s first point about the House of Lords, I do not know any detail beyond the reports of the television programme, but it is clearly right that evidence about specific allegations needs to be investigated by the appropriate authorities in that House, just as should be the case in this House. However, there has also to be due process. One has to be proceed on the basis of evidence, not just allegation.

    The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that I have not announced any plans to debate early-day motion 943.

    On estimates, this is a long-running campaign pursued by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. The Government are awaiting the Procedure Committee report on estimates procedure and I will want to reflect carefully on it when I see it. The Government will respond to whatever recommendations the Committee may wish to make.

    I am very happy to endorse the hon. Gentleman’s salute to the economic and cultural impact of our arts sectors and creative industries, and the enjoyment so many people derive from them. It is important to remember that the arts and creative industries are major generators of wealth and employment, as well as bringing first-class entertainment to people. I rather suspect that when the hon. Gentleman went to the awards last night he was hoping against hope that perhaps next year there might be a guest slot for MP4, so we could see him and his colleagues in all their entertaining glory. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

  • My right hon. Friend will agree that corruption in local government is totally unacceptable. May we have an urgent debate on this subject? The Serious Fraud Office is investigating a multimillion pound council tax scam by Taunton Deane Borough Council and its officers. The leader of the council is also under fire for failing to declare a conflict of interest and his links with well known local building firms are a bit more than dodgy. I also understand that a club has been set up to extract funds from favoured companies. It is called the monument club, but is known locally as the monumental rip-off club. There is a very nasty smell coming out of Taunton Deane and this place needs to air it urgently.

  • My hon. Friend has made some serious allegations. He has told the House that the Serious Fraud Office is involved. As he knows, the Serious Fraud Office is completely, and rightly, independent of political direction from Ministers. Any evidence must be placed before the appropriate authorities, and then it is for them to decide what further to do.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Order. As usual, I would like to accommodate the very large number of Members who are seeking to ask a business question, but I should point out that both the debates that are to follow—the Opposition day debate in the name of the Democratic Unionist party, and the debate under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee—are well subscribed. I therefore hope that the House will help me, and Members will help each other, with pithy questions and answers—led, in this important matter, by no less a figure in the House than Dame Rosie Winterton.

  • I absolutely agree with what was said by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) about early-day motion 943, and I welcome what the Leader of the House said in response.

    The Leader of the House did not mention when the next debate on Brexit would take place. May I urge him to ensure, when he does allow that debate, that it focuses on the impact of Brexit on the English regions, so that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has an opportunity to tell us what analysis he has conducted of how it will affect areas such as Yorkshire and the Humber, and what plans he has to convene the meeting in York about which he has spoken but which does not seem yet to have materialised?

  • I can assure the right hon. Lady that there will be plenty of opportunities for the House to debate all aspects of our exit from the European Union, but I shall discuss with my colleagues the particular bid that she has made.

  • In the absence of the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns)—we wish him well and a speedy recovery—let me, on behalf of the Backbench Business Committee, thank my right hon. Friend for securing this afternoon’s debates with protected time. Next week we shall debate international Women’s Day and Welsh affairs. May I ask for protected time to be considered for those two debates, the subjects of which have traditionally been allotted a whole day of debate in the House?

    We have a full waiting list of debates. If every Thursday from now until Prorogation were allocated to us, we could fill them straight away, even before further requests are made. Moreover, we have had to shoehorn debates into 90-minute slots in Westminster Hall to meet the demand from Back Benchers. May I gently remind my right hon. Friend that the House rose very early on Monday? We could have had a Back-Bench business debate in the time that was available.

    The Backbench Business Committee has sanctioned two requests for Budget-related debates which we would like to schedule before my right hon. Friend the Chancellor presents his Budget. If timings could be made available for those, we would appreciate it.

    Last night I hosted an event to mark the centenary of the Rotary Foundation. The foundation provides a prime example of how polio can be eradicated, but it can also be eradicated through the use of international development funds. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for International Development about the money this country has used, quite wisely, to help to eliminate polio throughout the world?

  • I cannot offer an immediate debate or statement on that last issue. However, my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to its importance, and to the achievement of voluntary as well as Government action in helping to reduce the incidence of this dreadful disease.

    As for the other points that my hon. Friend has made, let me first join him in sending best wishes to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns). I spoke to him on the phone earlier this week. He seemed to be in fine form, and was hoping to be able to return to the House as soon as possible.

    I will consider the hon. Gentleman’s request for protected time on 2 March. I understand his point about the pressure on Backbench Business Committee time, but I have to say that in my experience, Back-Bench debates, as well as Government debates, sometimes finish unexpectedly early and at other times run right against the buffers. It is always very difficult to predict. However, for both the Government and the Backbench Business Committee, the question of setting priorities is, I am afraid, unavoidable.

  • The Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority will meet next Tuesday, and I understand that IPSA will produce its new scheme for the future. Many Members on both sides of the House simply feel that IPSA is not meeting its requirement to provide adequate and proper support. There are Members who say they will never stand again because of the way they have been treated; there are families who are finding it difficult to get along and provide proper support for their children; and there are, in particular, Conservative colleagues from seats close to London who, when we have late nights, find it impossible to know whether they will be able to stay in a hotel. Surely it is time that we had a proper, full review of IPSA’s operation.

  • The Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority will be one of the highlights of next week for me, as well as for other Members. We need to defer judgment on the new scheme until we have seen its detail. Very strong representations have been made by colleagues right across the House to IPSA on different aspects of the current scheme, and on the way in which advice is offered to Members. Let us see how it responds. I do not think it would be sensible to go back to the days when Members themselves tried to set the rules on expenses or salaries; we are better with a system where that is done independently.

  • May we please have a debate on the ease of registering to use Government websites? If someone does not have a passport, driving licence or credit record, it can be very difficult indeed, if not impossible.

  • I cannot offer an immediate debate. The great majority of people do have digital access and expect to engage with both public and private services in that way, and we are right across government to try to make it easier for them to do so. We know that not everyone, particularly the most vulnerable in society, has the official credentials that are often demanded of them by Governments, which is why we have set up the new scheme—gov.uk verify—for letting people prove their identity more easily online. I hope that may provide part of the answer to the problem my hon. Friend has identified, but we clearly need to continue to focus on the matter.

  • The all-party group on human rights held a screening last night of the Ross Kemp documentary, “Libya’s Migrant Hell”. Will the Government make a statement on how we are helping those people in Libya, because we saw the most dreadful scenes of women being raped and beaten, and of the holding camps, where there is not enough food? We have some responsibility, and I would like a statement.

  • The right hon. Lady has a long history of championing the cause of refugees and others in dire need around the world. She knows that the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office are seeking to support the very fragile Libyan Government in trying to establish control over their own territory and to ensure that decent standards in the treatment of refugees—and, for that matter, Libyan citizens—are maintained. We will do what we can, and I will make sure that DFID Ministers are alerted later today to the right hon. Lady’s concerns, but the reality in Libya is that we need order and governance on the ground to be able to start work to improve standards, as both she and I would like.

  • Andy Street, our party candidate for west midlands mayor, has pledged, if elected, a special fund to bring 1,600 hectares of brownfield land into use. May we have a debate on the need to focus on brownfield land first, before we tamper with the green belt, particularly around my constituency of Solihull?

  • I am delighted to hear about the creative thinking that Andy Street is characteristically bringing to questions of housing and planning in the west midlands, and I very much hope he will have the opportunity to put those proposals into effect as the elected mayor. As my hon. Friend will know, the housing White Paper states, in terms, that local authorities should bring forward brownfield land for development, and the Government are eager to explore ways of ensuring that obstacles such as the risk of land contamination are addressed so that we can get that development done.

  • Does the Leader of the House, or indeed any other member of the Government, know roughly what the two-year process of Brexit negotiations will actually yield? If so, will he arrange a statement to tell the rest of us?

  • We know that the exit negotiations have to be conducted under the process set out in article 50 of the treaty. The other 27 Governments and the European institutions have made it clear that they are not prepared to engage in negotiations until article 50 has been triggered, so the straight answer to the right hon. Gentleman is that we do not yet know the details, but the Prime Minister and the entire Government are committed to seeking a deal that delivers on all the principles that were set out in the Government’s White Paper.

  • May we have an early debate, followed by legislation, to prevent the unacceptable practice of large developers buying freehold land on which they then sell new houses on a leasehold basis? Taylor Wimpey has, to its credit, stopped that practice, and I very much hope that Persimmon and Galliford Try will do likewise. Many young people and first-time buyers using the Help to Buy scheme feel that they are being ripped off by this practice, which is unnecessary and unacceptable, and we need action.

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue today. Developers should be building homes for people to live in, not creating income opportunities from ground rents or charging fees to alter properties or selling on freeholds to investors or financial institutions. Other than in a very few exceptional circumstances, I do not see why new houses should not be built and sold with the freehold interest at the point of sale. My hon. Friend the Housing Minister has said that he intends to stamp out the

    “unfair, unjust and unacceptable abuse of the leasehold system”—[Official Report, 20 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 1354.]

    and our housing White Paper highlights the Government’s commitment to consult on a range of measures to tackle all unfair and unreasonable abuses.

  • Two weeks ago, I raised the matter of a colleague having made a freedom of information request in relation to the renewable heat initiative and being fobbed off with the response that there was too much information involved. He resubmitted his request, only to get another excuse. We have an election in Northern Ireland that is based on the renewable heat initiative, so will the Leader of the House confirm that Her Majesty’s Government have not been in discussions with anyone in the Executive and that they know nothing about the renewable heat initiative?

  • I certainly do not know anything about the renewable heat initiative, other than what I have read in the press. All Government Departments in the UK have a set of rules that govern how we respond to FOI requests. A definition is used in calculating disproportionate cost that applies right across the Government. In my experience, refining a request to make it more precise can often enable it to pass the test of not incurring disproportionate cost. If the hon. Gentleman would like to have a word with me, perhaps outside the Chamber later today, I will see whether there is anything I can do to assist him further.

  • Will the Leader of the House encourage the Government to give some time to talk about not only the economic value of our high streets but the culture that they bring? Business rates are being widely discussed at the moment, but it would be wrong to focus solely on the economic output of our high streets and not on the nature of the society that they create. Without their high streets, the towns that I represent—including Edenbridge, West Malling and Tonbridge—would simply be dormitories for London and lose the very essence that keep our county and our country so great.

  • My hon. Friend makes a good point. In a world where everyday lives and the nature of businesses are being transformed rapidly by digital technology and social change, it is important to find ways to enable our high streets to continue to thrive both economically and culturally, as my hon. Friend says, while adapting to the new challenges of this century. High streets that remain fossilised tend to fail. There are good examples from around the country of where local high street business communities have successfully adapted, and I hope that we can find mechanisms to disseminate that good practice.

  • The Minister for the Northern Powerhouse has a big job of work to do, and I imagine that he was dismayed by this week’s Treasury figures showing that transport infrastructure investment in 2016-17 is £190 per head in Yorkshire and the Humber but £1,943 per head in London. May we have a debate on what the northern powerhouse actually means for areas such as Hull, where people pay taxes and fares on the railways but do not seem to get a good deal?

  • As I would expect, the hon. Lady champions the cause of Hull, but the Government are investing £13 billion to improve transport across the north of England, to improve journeys for local people, and to help industry. That is possibly only because we are pursuing economic policies that generate the wealth that enables us to provide that support. I can list a number of projects, including £1 billion to upgrade rail infrastructure, the work with the rail franchises in the north, and the £2.9 billion of road improvements across the north. The position is getting better, but continuing that spending relies upon a strong, productive economy.

  • Can the Leader of the House give us the anticipated timetable for the Prisons and Courts Bill? In the meantime, may we have a debate about assaults on prison officers? As we all know, the number of assaults has gone up, but the number of extra days added to the prison sentences of those who commit the offences has gone down since 2010 from an average of 20, which was pretty low anyway, to just 16. We should prevent people who have been convicted in prison of assaulting a prison officer from being released halfway through their sentences. May we have a debate to try to influence the Government’s Bill?

  • When my hon. Friend gets the chance to study the Prisons and Courts Bill, he will find that it contains a number of measure that will be welcomed by prisons governors and prison officers. They are designed to help prison staff to run establishments in a way that is safe for staff and for prisoners alike, and to ensure good discipline, order, and productive work and educational opportunities. I cannot give him the timescale for the debates on the Bill, but there will be questions to the Secretary of State for Justice on 7 March and he may have the opportunity to pursue some of these matters then.

  • The revelations from the former Lord Speaker about the peer and the taxi call that House into complete and total disrepute. The peer acted as though this place was basically a smash-and-grab cash machine. For the Leader of the House to shrug that off and say, like Manuel, “I know nothing about the horse,” is not good enough. Has a question been put to the former Lord Speaker to reveal the name of the peer? If not, will an investigation take place into who that peer was? Will the former Lord Speaker be questioned over her allegations?

  • Like this House, the House of Lords is self-governing when it comes to the conduct of its Members. We currently have reports of allegations without people being named, but where there is evidence that there has been malpractice, it should be investigated. If the evidence is proven, appropriate disciplinary action should be taken.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me a hat trick of questions this morning. In my speech on the Christmas Adjournment last year, I raised the need for social media companies to take responsibility for addressing hate speech and extremism on their platforms, rather than leaving it to the police to do their dirty work at the taxpayer’s expense. As there has been no real improvement from social media companies, may we have a debate on how to make them face up to their responsibilities?

  • I cannot offer an immediate debate in Government time, but it strikes me that this would be an extremely appropriate subject for debate under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee or in Westminster Hall. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and most of us in this place are pretty sickened by the racist, vicious, misogynistic and anti-Semitic material that is sent to our constituents and, frankly, is often used to intimidate Members of this House, too. It is a practice that needs to stop, and I hope that the internet companies will live up to their corporate responsibilities.

  • Is the Leader of the House aware that the mechanism to introduce an elected mayor is open to abuse? In my constituency of Burnley an outsider has peddled a petition that makes unfounded claims that an elected mayor would mean lower council tax and an end to landlord licensing. The misleading petition has placed a duty on Burnley Borough Council to hold a costly referendum. Will the Leader of the House allocate time so that those processes, and the abuse of them, can be investigated?

  • I am certainly aware—the Tower Hamlets case is a conspicuous demonstration—of the possibility of abuse in a mayoral election. I cannot offer an immediate debate in Government time. It is of course important that, where there are allegations of fraud or other types of malpractice, they are independently and rigorously investigated and people are brought to justice.

  • I commend the Leader of the House for announcing that this House will have the opportunity to vote on allowing Welsh to be spoken in the grandest of all Committees, the Welsh Grand Committee. Does he agree that that is another example of a Conservative Government championing the Welsh language, as we have since introducing the Welsh Language Act 1993? May we therefore have a debate in this House on that momentous decision?

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his words. If I attempted to address the House in Welsh, I would probably undo all the good will that we may have obtained through yesterday’s announcement. I am pleased by his welcome, and indeed by the welcome from Welsh Members on both sides of the Chamber. The announcement is a demonstration of the Government’s respect for the Welsh language and its centrality to the sense of national and cultural identity in Wales, and that respect will continue.

  • Yesterday, Perth and Kinross Council passed a budget that guarantees local services will invest in jobs, education and social care, which is a great deal for local taxpayers. Contrarily, however, council tax in England and Wales is, on average, £300 to £400 higher than in Scotland. May we therefore have a debate in Government time on why England is the highest council taxed part of the United Kingdom?

  • One would have to look at the variations in council tax levels and in central Government grants to local authorities in different parts of the kingdom. The point about devolution is that it gives Scottish authorities a choice on how to raise money. The Scottish Government have chosen to impose additional taxes centrally on constituents right across Scotland, making people in Scotland the most highly taxed anywhere in the United Kingdom.

  • May we have a debate on the case of Juhel Miah, the Welsh maths teacher who was removed from a plane, in front of his pupils, on his way to the United States? As a former teacher, I find that absolutely shocking. Is there not a contrast between the way in which we are rolling out the red carpet for President Trump, whatever our views on that, and his treating our school teachers like criminals?

  • It is perfectly fair for the hon. Gentleman to raise that case, which is disturbing because it is contrary to the declared policy of the United States Government on British citizens. My understanding is that the decision was taken at a more local level in that particular case, but I will draw his concern to the Foreign Secretary’s attention.

  • On 22 April 2013, in the outskirts of Aleppo, Metropolitan Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Metropolitan Paul Yazigi were abducted by an unidentified group of men. Amid all the ensuing confusion and accusations, and despite the efforts of many involved in this case, there has been no resolution to it—there has been a deafening wall of silence. Almost four years have elapsed since the abduction. All reports indicate that the two gentlemen are still alive, but every effort to free them has met with a wall of silence. Will the Leader of the House arrange a statement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on this important, urgent case?

  • I will make sure that FCO Ministers are aware of this, but the reality, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is that we have no British embassy in Syria at the moment, and the situation in and around Aleppo remains dire in humanitarian terms. We all hope and pray that the metropolitans are alive and will be released in due course.

  • Rochdale Boroughwide Housing has mismanaged College Bank flats for years and now, instead of dealing with that, proposes to demolish those iconic tower blocks. Such action will do nothing to tackle the housing crisis, so surely it warrants a statement from the Minister for Housing and Planning or a debate.

  • There will be questions to that Minister and other Communities and Local Government Ministers next Monday—27 February—which might give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to raise that matter, but I fear that it is primarily one for the local authority rather than the Department.

  • The Leader of the House will have seen headlines about armed drones operating from RAF Waddington with a kill list targeting UK citizens, without the leave of this House. If the reports are right, what has happened to the commitment to coming to the House at the earliest opportunity if lethal force is used in self-defence? May we have an urgent debate on the number of UK citizens targeted, the legal and evidential basis for that, and whether the kill list extends beyond areas where military action has been authorised by this House?

  • My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has been clear about this. Of course the House did vote in favour of permitting the Government to extend the military operations being carried out in Iraq on to Syrian territory as part of a campaign to check and then defeat—and, we hope, eradicate—Daesh. He has been clear that we and the coalition against Daesh will pursue people who are a threat to our security and to the safety of British citizens, wherever those people may come from. We act, as always in our military operations, within the law, but the message to anybody tempted to go to join Daesh must be that they do so at great risk to themselves.

  • May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to my early-day motion 938?

    [That this House calls on the Government to introduce a cap on the total charges any bank can place on overdrawn personal current accounts; further calls on the Competition and Markets Authority to note the 2016 decision not to introduce a mandatory cap on overdraft charges; notes the high levels of interest that can arise as a result of daily charges accruing over time; and expresses deep concern over the disproportionate impact these charges have on low-paid households and on those relying on insecure sources of employment.]

    May we have a statement from the Treasury or a debate on this matter, because it is important that the Government consider a cap on the total charges that any bank may place on overdrawn personal current accounts? As a constituency MP, my experience has been that these charges place an undue burden on many people who find themselves in uncertain employment.

  • I encourage the hon. Lady to attend Treasury questions next Tuesday—28 February—when she can put that point directly to the Chancellor a short time before the Budget.

  • In January, the Chartered Institute of Taxation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Institute for Government published “Better Budgets: Making tax policy better”, which contains recommendations about ways in which Parliament and Government can improve how they make tax policy. Will the Leader of the House commit to looking at that report and getting back to me about what actions he intends to take to realise those recommendations?

  • It would, of course, primarily be for Treasury Ministers to consider their response to the recommendations in that report, but I shall ask them to write to the hon. Lady to explain their response to it in the way she suggests.

  • On Saturday, I will be in Campbeltown to meet the management and workers of CSWind, a manufacturer of wind turbines that is in the process of laying off employees because, as a company spokesman says, the UK Government’s

    “energy policy has resulted in a slow-down of development of onshore wind projects.”

    Is that an intended or unintended consequence of the change in Government policy? May we have an urgent statement about the catastrophic consequences of the Government’s energy policy for the already fragile economy of my Argyll and Bute constituency?

  • Despite the hon. Gentleman’s strictures, the facts are that the United Kingdom is the world’s leading player in the offshore wind market and we are now on track comfortably to exceed our ambition of delivering 30% of the UK’s electricity from renewables by 2020-21. Instead of carping, he should be standing up and applauding what the Government have done.

  • Small businesses are vital to our economy, so I congratulate Cake Stuff and DNDP couriers, the winners of my small business constituency awards this year. DNDP is an inclusive business that employs people with disabilities. May we have an debate on providing entrepreneurship support for disabled people so that we can harness and realise everyone’s potential?

  • First, I unreservedly congratulate the businesses in the hon. Lady’s constituency on what they have achieved and on winning those awards. She draws attention to an important point: we need to ensure that people with disabilities have access to employment opportunities that are equal to those of people without disabilities. Of course the United Kingdom now has more people with disabilities in employment than ever before, but there is a great deal still to be done. Yes, that requires action by the Government, but it also requires action by innovative, forward-looking businesses that can see the advantages of inclusion.

  • May we have a debate on UK visa policy and its negative contribution to the UK economy? In 2014, two of my constituents, Dhruv Trivedi and Vandana Pillai, who originate from Mumbai in India, were brought over as part of the UK Trade & Investment Sirius programme under tier 1 graduate entrepreneur visas. They set up their own business and became part of Entrepreneurial Spark and Scottish EDGE, and they have raised significant funding for their company. However, all that has recently been put at risk by the UK visa and immigration system. They have had their tier 1 entrepreneur visas rejected on a technicality, putting at risk all they have worked for, the investment they have secured, and the Government’s commitment to them by bringing them here in the first place. They currently have no valid leave to remain. May we have a debate on this important subject? It makes no sense to bring people over here to be part of the economy and to contribute, but then to kick them out.

  • If the application was rejected on a technicality—clearly I do not know any of the details of the case—I would hope it would be possible to find a remedy via the Home Office system. In any visa system there has to be a balance between getting the brightest and the best in the world to come here to take job opportunities and study, which we all want to see, and at the same time ensuring that we have proportionate and effective immigration controls.

  • The Leader of the House will be aware of his Government’s policy of taxing victims of domestic abuse for using the Child Maintenance Service. Women’s groups, charities and members of the public have said that the tax puts single parents and children at risk. Some 30% of CMS users are victims of domestic violence, and tens of thousands of women are losing money because they cannot engage safely with their ex-partner. This national scandal must be addressed by the House, so may we have a debate in Government time, on the Floor of the House, about this injustice?

  • As the hon. Lady will know, the Government have demonstrated their commitment to trying to help people who are victims of domestic violence. The Prime Minister takes a very close and strong personal interest in this issue and, as she has said within the past week, the Government are committed to looking again at the whole range of laws that apply to domestic violence to consider what changes should be made. If the hon. Lady would like to provide me with some details of the particular problem she raises today, I will certainly draw it to the attention of the appropriate Ministers.

  • The Leader of the House will be aware that there will be Assembly elections in Northern Ireland next week. It has been revealed this week that the even-more-holier-than-thou sister party of the Liberal Democrats, the Alliance party, has been seeking to manipulate phone-in programmes by encouraging its members to give fake names and addresses and claim to be members of other political parties—a tactic that it says has worked at previous elections. So far, the BBC has provided very little coverage of this story, which is yet another example of the biased way it has conducted itself during the election campaign. May we have a debate in the House on the political bias of this publicly funded body and how it has breached its charter?

  • The hon. Gentleman has made his point powerfully. The BBC in Northern Ireland, as in everywhere else in the United Kingdom, is under an obligation, particularly during any kind of election campaign, to demonstrate that it is impartial with regard to rival political parties, but it must be for the BBC, not Government Ministers, to take responsibility for editorial decisions.

  • Last week I was part of a delegation that visited Cyprus, where we met the President, Members of Parliament and many of those involved in the peace process that is currently showing such promise. Given the UK’s close relationship with Cyprus, may we have a debate on this important issue so that opinions and perspectives from both sides of the House can be aired?

  • I know from my previous ministerial experience that the Government are utterly committed to doing whatever we can to help to bring about a reconciliation between the different communities in Cyprus and to support them in reaching a settlement that will not only reunite the island, but endure for the long term. A reunited Cyprus could provide such opportunities to Turkish and Greek Cypriots alike. It is good that, in President Anastasiades and Mr Akinci, we have two leaders who are genuinely committed to seeking that peace and reconciliation.

  • The Scottish Huntington’s Association is based in my constituency. It is concerned that no legislation exists to prevent insurance companies from discriminating against people with genetic conditions such as Huntington’s disease. Those who might carry a gene cannot access insurance at an affordable rate or, in some cases, have no access whatever. May we have a debate on this deeply worrying discrimination?

  • That might be a good topic for a Westminster Hall debate. The hon. Gentleman has identified what I think is going to be an increasing challenge for our society. Insurance companies have a business model that is based on the assessment of risk, and more genetic information will allow that risk to be calculated much more precisely than in the past. That starts to get us into a situation in which certain people find it very difficult indeed to get insurance, so that is certainly an issue that is well worth highlighting.

  • May we have a debate on the definition of new money? On Wednesday, the Department for International Development issued a press release announcing £100 million of “new support” for South Sudan in the wake of the famine declaration. It turns out that that is not in fact new money, but money that was already budgeted for in the 2017-18 spending round. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for International Development to urgently clarify what new and additional funding the Government are prepared to provide to assist people who are literally starving to death in South Sudan?

  • Nobody in any part of the House would wish to underplay the gravity of the crisis in South Sudan. The declaration of famine was shocking but, frankly, not unexpected. It derives from the prolonged political crisis and civil war in that country, and the situation has been steadily worsening since the conflict began back in 2013. The Government have provided more than £500 million of humanitarian, health and education support over the past three years, and that support has helped to prevent famine in previous years. That was on top of the £100 million that we have given to help refugees who have fled South Sudan. As I understand it, the £100 million for 2017-18 is on top of the £500 million that has already been spent over the past three years. Clearly, DFID Ministers always keep under review allocations within their budget, particularly with regard to the need for urgent humanitarian relief. We also need to ensure that the money that we spend is going to help those who are in genuine need and will be effective in bringing about the results that we want to see.

  • Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has lost a court case in which it wrongly sued one of my constituents, Mr Munro, for £250,000. That action cost Mr Munro £125,000 and he has no effective recourse to HMRC. May we have a statement from the relevant Minister on how to rectify that type of injustice?

  • I would say two things. First, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows, HMRC operates independently from ministerial direction when it handles the cases of individual taxpayers. That is for a good reason: we would not want Ministers to have the power to intervene in cases that related to individuals’ tax affairs. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman says that the case went to the courts and that his constituent was successful. I would normally expect the court to consider the question of costs, but if there has been the injustice that he describes, and if he lets me know the details and why the court apparently did not address it, I will refer the matter to the Minister with overall responsibility for HMRC.

  • Have the Government any plans to copy the excellent initiative of the Scottish Cabinet to hold regular meetings—not only Cabinet meetings, but public meetings—in places other than the capital? If so, may I recommend the kingdom of Fife as an early destination? That would not only give the Leader of the House and his colleagues the chance to visit a particularly beautiful part of these islands, but allow him to point out to his colleagues in the Department for Transport that the Forth bridge is open.

  • The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question is yes. The Cabinet met in the north-west of England quite recently. I would be very attracted by the idea of a Cabinet visit to the kingdom of Fife, and I will ensure that No. 10 is aware of his wish to welcome us.