House of Commons
Thursday 23 February 2017
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
High Speed 2
HS2 Ltd let the early works contract for activities such as demolitions, site clearances and species translocations in November 2016, with work commencing after Royal Assent—you will be aware, Mr Speaker, that earlier this week the Bill passed its last stages prior to Royal Assent. The main works civil contracts to construct the main physical works for the railway, including tunnels, viaducts and embankments, are due to be let later this year. The initial works on the project will begin shortly after Royal Assent. I have been very clear that through the construction phase I expect HS2 Ltd and my Department to do everything we can to ensure that the impact of construction on those affected is mitigated wherever possible.
It is ironic that I should have drawn the first Transport question on the day the Bill for phase 1 of HS2 gets Royal Assent. Although some people are crowing and backslapping each other about it, let us remember that it is tragic for many people. The impact is disproportionately felt by my local authorities, such as Buckinghamshire County Council, and our parish councils, such as Great Missenden. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me, my constituents and my excellent councils that the Department for Transport will reimburse parish, county and district councils for any reasonable expenses incurred as a result of the construction of this dreadful project, HS2?
I am well aware that when a project of such national importance is constructed, it inevitably has an effect on some of those who live on the route. I reiterate that we will do everything we can to ensure that the process is as reasonable and fair as possible for those affected. With regard to local authorities, I give my right hon. Friend that assurance and repeat the assurances made in the debate on Monday by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones). HS2 is putting service-level agreements in place with every single local authority along the line of route to set out the additional funding that we will make available for the new railway line’s construction process.
I welcome Royal Assent being given to this much needed investment, but how will the Secretary of State ensure that the promises made about jobs and training opportunities during the construction of High Speed 2 actually materialise?
I take this very seriously. We have been very clear when letting contracts—most recently in the information that we put into the market about rolling stock—that we expect this project to leave a lasting skills footprint not just in the areas of construction but around the United Kingdom. A number of events have been held for potential suppliers to the project around the UK, and we have been very clear with all firms, both UK and international, that want to bid to be part of it that we expect them to leave that footprint. It is an essential part of the project.
Is the Secretary of State aware that because of the decision to have a station at Sheffield, we will have two HS2 lines running through Derbyshire: a fast track and a slow track? Many villages throughout Bolsover will be affected as a result. There is one in particular, Newton, where more than 30 houses are due to be demolished. Will he meet a group of residents from that village to try to sort this matter out?
I am aware of the issue the hon. Gentleman refers to. I give him the same assurance that I just gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan): we will do our best to minimise impacts. The Minister alongside me, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, will answer these questions in more detail in the Adjournment debate tonight. Either he or I will also meet residents to discuss the issue.
Some of the homes on the route that are worst affected are in East Acton, which faces 10 years of construction disruption, 24/7. Their gardens have been compulsorily purchased and the main access route is to be blocked. HS2’s QC called my residents “tedious” for pointing out that they do not qualify for compensation under the rural support scheme and that unlike Camden they have not been granted exceptional status. I am encouraged to hear that the Secretary of State is putting emphasis on mitigation, because all my constituents have been offered is express purchase. Will he urgently meet them and the London Borough of Ealing? These people just want to preserve their suburban way of life and not be ridden roughshod over.
It is important that I remind the hon. Lady and reiterate what I said. The matters relating to her constituency—the routes through London and the route on phase 1—have been exhaustively examined, not simply by my Department but by Committees of this House and the other place. Although we will always be open to representations about ways in which we can minimise impact, these issues have been exhaustively dealt with by this Parliament.
We are working with local authorities to drive the improvements in air quality that are so needed in our more polluted cities. My right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary will consult on a new air quality plan later this spring.
Diesel vehicles are part of the problem and we need urgent action on them, but is the Minister also aware of today’s Environmental Audit Committee report on how Heathrow will affect pollution and climate change? I have just come back from Beijing and saw the level of pollution there. Will the Minister bear it in mind that that is not where we want to go for towns and cities in this country?
It is important to appreciate, as I know the hon. Gentleman does, that this is not a matter of some high-flown theory about what might happen in many centuries’ time; it is about the wellbeing of people now in our cities and elsewhere. The direct relationship between air quality and health is well established. Pollutants are affecting the quality of life—more than that, they are affecting the health and wellbeing of our people. The issue is about the defence and promotion of the common good, which, as he and the whole House know, is always central to my heart.
I urge Ministers and the Government to do something about older diesel cars, either through taxation or a scrappage scheme. We can get electric vehicles in, but we also need to take diesels out, especially in our inner cities, with their hotspots of pollution. Unless we tackle that issue, we will not get the levels down.
Just this morning, I was with no fewer than 16 motor manufacturers looking at low-emission vehicles. It is vital that we promote electric cars. As you will know, Mr Speaker, this week we have published our Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which deals with the electric car charging infrastructure, among many other things. One can deal with this by sanction and penalty or through encouragement, incentive and a change of mind. I prefer to look on the positive side of these things.
The penalty is going to be the millions of pounds of fines faced by our constituents because of the Government’s failure to act. When are we going to hear about some practical action from the Government to reduce the number of diesel vehicles? The Minister has not answered the question. Air pollution is the second biggest avoidable killer after smoking.
Let us be clear: we have made real progress to date. In 2016, the UK was the largest market for ultra-low emission vehicles in the EU and a global leader in this development.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, in the spirit of bipartisan generosity that characterises all he does in the House, will welcome the announcement in the autumn statement setting out a further £290 million of funding for ultra-low emission vehicles. He says that he wants action, but what more action does he want than the policy, the legislation and the resources—we are taking action. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is feeling grumpy because it is Thursday morning, but he really ought to welcome that.
I point out to the Minister that figures from the London Assembly Environment Committee from 2015 set out why it is wrong to try to demonise diesel cars and their drivers. Diesel cars account for just over 10% of all emissions in London: the same amount, nearly, as Transport for London’s buses; the same amount, nearly, as ageing trains; the same amount, nearly, as ground-based aviation services. The issue is not simply diesels.
As this short discussion on low-emission vehicles and emissions began, I thought, as you Mr Speaker, must have done, of Proust, who said, as you will remember:
“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.
Using those eyes to see to the future is necessary if we are to be ambitious and have vision about where we can go with low-emission vehicles, particularly electric vehicles. We are making progress and we will continue to make more. The plan that I described, which we will draw up this spring, will set out exactly what that progress looks like.
On diesel vehicle manufacturers, the Minister knows of my particular interest in Volkswagen. Will he confirm from the Dispatch Box the extraordinary and contradictory evidence that the Select Committee on Transport received on Monday from Volkswagen’s managing director, Paul Willis, and that Mr Willis has not given the Minister’s Department everything it asked for?
The hon. Gentleman was at the sitting of that Committee, on which he serves, where he will have heard the extraordinary statements made by Mr Willis, which I described at the time as “little short of ridiculous.” I have met Mr Willis and Volkswagen on numerous occasions and asked them for four things: a quicker retrofit to the vehicles affected; compensation for customers who are affected; a warranty for those retrofits; and the money the taxpayer has had to spend as a result of what Volkswagen did to be repaid in full. None of those things has yet been done to my satisfaction, which is why I have written again to Mr Willis, setting out exactly our Government demands—not Government demands, but demands on behalf of the people.
The public are perplexed about where we are going with diesel cars. Will the Minister be sure to remember that many people bought a diesel car because they knew it would be cheaper to run, even though it was a more expensive car? They cannot afford to make the coming changes. Does the Minister recognise that?
It is certainly true that we need to make the transition to low-emission vehicles affordable. We are not in the business, as a Government who champion the cause of ordinary, hard-working people, of penalising people to the point at which they cannot go about their lives or access employment and other opportunities in a way in which the whole House would expect, so it is absolutely right that we take a measured view. Having said that, we have to make more progress, and being measured does not mean being complacent. As I set out earlier, we will make that progress, and we will change minds and behaviour through what we do.
Following the Transport Committee hearing earlier in the week, am I right in thinking that Volkswagen situation now denies any wrongdoing in the UK but still feels obliged to fix 472,000 vehicles, with another half a million remaining to be looked at? The company says it has provided the Government with all the information requested, but the Minister denies that, and it is refusing to publish the report it commissioned from its lawyers, Jones Day. The Minister told the House in November that there would be a “steely fist” in his “velvet glove” if Volkswagen did not meet its obligations, so will he tell the House what that steely fist will actually mean and what he will actually do when he meets VW again next month?
First, to establish the detail of what Volkswagen has and has not done, and what the Government have asked it to do, it might be best if I let the hon. Gentleman and the House have a copy of the letter I have just written to Mr Willis, which sets out how and where Volkswagen has not done what the Government have asked. Secondly, as I said a moment ago, I am determined to use every avenue to pursue the interests of the consumer. The Secretary of State and I will travel to Berlin to meet German counterparts to have discussions because much of the evidence lies there, where the tests were done. Yesterday I met the legal representatives of the consumers who are moving a private prosecution against Volkswagen. I will leave no avenue unexplored and no stone unturned. My steely fist is now a galvanised steely fist.
Transport Modal Integration
The Government have strongly supported the north of England’s local authorities and local enterprise partnerships to come together to form Transport for the North. We have committed £50 million to Transport for the North to produce a comprehensive transport strategy covering all modes of transport in an integrated manner to support delivery of the wider northern powerhouse strategy.
The Institute for Public Policy Research North report this week revealed that London gets £1,500 more transport spend per head than the north. For the cost of one Crossrail project we could connect the four major cities of the powerhouse and the four existing runways, utilising the spare capacity, adding £100 billion to the economy and creating 850,000 new jobs. Does the Minister agree with the report?
I am aware of the report, and we await the recommendations from Transport for the North on northern powerhouse rail, but the point about the report is that it offers a snapshot of where we are at the moment. It reflects where individual projects are in development and delivery. The situation will look extremely different in a few years.
Is the Minister aware that a 21% cut, on top of existing cuts, to the mode shift revenue support grant will have a devastating effect on the rail freight sector in the north of England and could lead overall to up to 190,000 extra lorry journeys every year? Surely this is taking things in absolutely the wrong direction. Will he undertake to reverse the cuts?
I hear the right hon. Lady’s comments. Our policy is to get more freight on to the railways. One of the points of HS2 is to free up capacity on the existing network for more freight. I will relay her points about the mode shift revenue support grant to the rail Minister.
The Government have said that one of the benefits of HS2 will be how well it links into, and integrates with, other forms of transport. Why, then, in the alternatives for HS2’s route through Sheffield and south Yorkshire is there no reference to how HS2 connects to HS3?
Northern powerhouse rail is being developed with the platform of HS2 being delivered—we are looking potentially to use parts of the HS2 network for northern powerhouse rail—but the final decisions on the routes through south Yorkshire have not been made. This is a live consultation, running until 9 March, and I ask that the hon. Gentleman participate in it.
HS2: A4010 Plan
HS2 Ltd anticipates that draft route management improvement and safety plans, including that for Buckinghamshire covering the A4010, will be available for discussion and consultation with highway authorities in March.
That is great news. I am glad that the people of Wycombe, Aylesbury and Buckingham will have an opportunity to scrutinise this essential emergency route. Will my hon. Friend take steps to enhance the safety of the route?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Safety is critical as we go into the delivery phase of HS2. As a result of the petitioning process, the Secretary of State has committed to contributing £480,000 for permanent safety measures along the A4010 and A4129 in Buckinghamshire. The Government have also created a £30 million road safety fund for HS2, the details of which we will be announcing very shortly.
Harmful Emissions: Road Transport
As you would expect, Mr Speaker, I am working closely with my colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the vital issue of air pollution, and as I said earlier, we intend to consult on a new air quality plan later this spring.
Given that 40,000 people die prematurely every year from air pollution and that the Government have lost two High Court cases over their lack of action, will the Minister now use his large, galvanised fist to push through clean air zones in cities such as Norwich to protect people’s health?
Yes, I think the hon. Gentleman is right. Clean air zones play a vital role in that work. Sometimes all I need is the air that I breathe. Certainly, we all need and deserve clean air. He will know that Norwich is one of the cities that has already implemented a bus low-emission zone and that the Campaign for Better Transport has welcomed the themes to be addressed by the clean air zones, including the plans for local growth, air quality and health. It has said that these are
“sound principles to underpin transport and planning”.
He is right, however, that we need to do more on clean air zones, and we will consult on that. I am in weekly discussions with my colleagues in DEFRA accordingly. The key thing—if I might add this, Mr Speaker, at your discretion—is that it is really important that we not only have good, consistent national standards, but respect the local particularities of different places and cities, so the role of local government will be vital. These zones will not be vanilla flavoured. They will reflect local circumstances, but they must all work to high national standards.
We are all, I am sure, greatly educated in consequence, but at a cost in time.
One of the reasons for harmful road emissions in my constituency is the queues of traffic from Baildon through to Shipley, so when can we have a Shipley eastern bypass, which would be good for the local economy, alleviate congestion, and deal with these harmful emissions?
My hon. Friend’s perspicacity means that he has managed to weave a point about local roads into a question about air quality. On that basis, I think the best thing for me to do is to agree to meet him to discuss its particularities in greater detail.
It will not come as any surprise to the hon. Lady to know that when I am in Nottingham I travel on the bus from my mother-in-law’s home to the city, so I can speak with some authority about bus journeys in Nottingham. She is right that bus travel is a key part of this, which is why we have made an extra £150 million available specifically for cleaner buses. She is right, too, that we need to encourage that as part of our low-emission zones.
Encouraging parents to leave their cars at home and get their children on to local public transport can have a major impact on air quality. Has my right hon. Friend done any analysis of how much free bus travel for children will cost? The Labour metro mayor candidate has promised free bus travel for all children across the west of England, even though the devolution deal is £30 million a year. Is this another underfunded Labour promise?
Order. That is very wide of the substance of the question, so I think that a single sentence of eloquence from the Minister of State will probably suffice on this occasion.
Buses are good, walking is good, cycling is good—that was how I got to school.
The Minister promised new eyes, so will he use them to recognise that there are some 10 million diesel car drivers in the UK. Rather than joining in their demonisation by a hysterical media, will he hold a full and proper inquiry into the pros and cons of diesel, including for buses, trucks and trains, and thereby adopt a proportionate approach to what remedies might be necessary?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise from my immensely measured remarks earlier that I am not prepared to demonise anyone. I am certainly not prepared to put at risk the wellbeing of people who need to travel to work and school, and to access other opportunities—public services and so forth. Of course we need to be balanced in our approach to this.
Night Flights: London Airports
I fully recognise the effect on local communities of aircraft noise during the night, particularly the health effects associated with sleep disturbance. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we are consulting on future night flight restrictions at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, including options that will reduce the amount of noise that airports are allowed to make while ensuring that we maintain the benefits to the economy of night flights on some key routes.
I hugely welcome the work on this that the Secretary of State is doing, but may I urge him to agree that the major European airports that have brought in quiet periods from 2200 hours onwards offer a very suitable example for airports such as Gatwick that are blighting the lives of many people in towns such as Edenbridge and Penshurst?
I am well aware of the pressures on my hon. Friend’s constituency and neighbouring ones due to night flights and the way in which routes currently operate around Gatwick. As he will know, part of our consultation is about exactly how we use airspace, as well as how we limit the use of night hours for aircraft. I encourage him to take part in that consultation. I do believe, however, that new technology can help us to make a significant difference.
Will the Secretary of State outline his plans to ensure that air links are strengthened for routes from Northern Ireland to the UK mainland, and that any reduction in flights, wherever they may be, will not adversely affect those links or any enhanced provision for Northern Ireland?
That is clearly a very important issue. I am pleased that yesterday my Department announced the very important decision to continue support for the flight from Derry to Stansted. We decided that it was important to make the resource available for that to continue, and I hope that people in Northern Ireland will welcome that.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I want airports to provide clear incentives to the airlines that use them to make sure that, if they use the night hours, they do so with a new generation of quiet aircraft, which can make a real difference to local people.
May I thank the Secretary of State and his Department for the public service obligation announcement about the Londonderry to London route? Will he also pass on our thanks to Lord Ahmad for the meeting that I suggested should take place in the House several weeks ago, which helped to resolve the matter? We now look forward to the effective marketing of that route so that it can be successful beyond the two-year period that the PSO covers.
I am very happy to pass on those thanks to Lord Ahmad, who has done a great job as aviation Minister. I am glad that we have reached a resolution. I hope that the route will build up sufficiently such that it will become permanently commercial and will not need public support.
I am very sensitive to issues affecting not just people who live near the immediate approaches to airports, but those who live further away, such as my hon. Friend’s constituents. That is why I believe that the better use of air space, particularly with state-of-the-art technology rather than the methods of 40 or 50 years ago, will enable us to provide much more respite for individual communities that are currently affected by aircraft noise.
Exiting the EU: Inbound Passengers
The Government are considering potential impacts on the border as part of our preparations for negotiating our departure from the EU. It is too soon to say what arrangements will be needed, but we are very conscious of the interest of the transport industry in future arrangements. We remain committed to putting passengers at the heart of our transport policy.
Does taking back control of our borders mean that the 23 million inbound passengers from the EU who pass through our airports each year will be subject to full border checks? Is the Secretary of State aware of research by the Tourism Industry Council that shows that that would require the resources of UK Border Force to be increased by 200%? Will he assure us that those costs will not be met from the £350 million he promised for the NHS each week?
It is already the case that when an EU citizen arrives in this country, they have to show their passport. I do not envisage that changing in the future.
The reality is that since 2011 this Government have cut the UK Border Force budget by 15%, despite it having to cope with an 11% increase in passenger numbers over the same period. That is already having an impact on passengers. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Home Secretary to make sure that neither passengers nor border security are prejudiced or compromised after Brexit?
The hon. Gentleman will know that in recent years we have significantly increased automation at airports, with e-gates for passports, which provides a good way of balancing the need for effective border controls and the ability to live within our means.
Under service level agreements between the Government and UK airports, passengers from the European economic area are expected to queue for no longer than 25 minutes while those from outside that area are expected to queue for no longer for 45 minutes. Does the Secretary of State believe that those service level agreements will need to be revised post-Brexit?
I reiterate what the Prime Minister said recently: our desire post-Brexit is not to have long queues at our borders, but to have sensible arrangements that allow people to travel to do business, and controls on migration to the United Kingdom, which I think people voted for last year.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the UK leaves the EU, we will be free to open dedicated entry lanes at our airports for UK citizens and citizens of our overseas territories, thereby speeding up entry to the UK?
As my hon. Friend knows, it will be for this House and this Government to decide how best to manage our borders post-Brexit. I am sure that he would wish to ensure that, where appropriate, there is the smoothest possible passage through our borders for people we wish to welcome to our country.
At a sitting of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee this week, several witnesses expressed concern about the time that would be required to undertake a considerable physical reconfiguration of airports. Is the Secretary of State having conversations with the airports about the possible scenarios?
I had a meeting with airlines and airports earlier this week and we will continue to consult the industry carefully. As I have said, people who arrive from all around the world already have to show their passports when they arrive in the United Kingdom, so I do not envisage the dramatic change that some are suggesting.
The hon. Lady makes an assumption that I simply do not accept. It is already the case that people arriving at our borders have to show their passports before entering the country. I do not envisage that changing. We certainly do not envisage a situation in which we create vast additional queues at our borders. We want a smooth, streamlined process so that people who have a right to come here can do so and be welcome.
In addition to the ongoing discussions with UK ports and airports, what discussions have taken place with the Treasury about encouraging inbound passengers by reducing VAT on tourism?
Taxation is an issue for the Budget. Many representations are made by people across this House and across society to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about what he might or might not do in his Budget. I fear that the hon. Lady will have to wait for a short while to see what he has in store for us this year.
To reduce delays at UK airports, EU nationals who arrive in the UK are processed faster due to what is called a “soft border” approach, using special lanes and scanning. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government intend to continue those measures after the UK has left the EU?
We will decide the detailed arrangements as the months go by but, as I have said, it is not our intention to create queues at our borders. It will remain the case that people have to show their passports when they arrive in the United Kingdom. There is a warm welcome for people from all around the world who come to the UK as tourists, as visitors or to do business, and there will continue to be so.
Currently EU nationals can use the expensive but effective e-passport gates. Will the Secretary of State confirm that those machines will effectively become redundant? If so, do the Government intend to offer them second hand to our European neighbours at bargain prices to recoup some of the cost?
Actually, I expect more use of technology in countries around the world to move people through passport lanes. I expect such a change to accelerate, rather than decelerate.
The Government have no plans to roll out tolling on existing roads. Successive Governments have taken the view that tolls are occasionally justified when private finance enables some of the most expensive road infrastructure, such as significant river crossings, to proceed. It is right that the user pays, rather than the taxpayer, because the user benefits.
My constituents who work in Liverpool will need a pay rise of £1,000 a year just to stand still when the Mersey crossing tolls are introduced. Will the Minister consider a scheme whereby those who can demonstrate that they were in permanent employment on the other side of the water on the day the tolls were announced would have either some kind of tapered introduction or a discount to reflect the additional costs?
As I said, it is not unusual for Governments to use tolls to finance large estuary crossings. I would rather be straightforward with the hon. Gentleman about this matter because he is a diligent, popular and well-respected Member of this House and, more importantly, he is one of my friends. I cannot do what he wants and I would rather say that now. We did consider whether we could widen or add to the discount scheme, but we could not make that cost-effective, so I would rather be absolutely frank with him and just say that.
My goodness, what barefaced cheek from the SNP. It did indeed cancel the tolls, and the crossing closed because the SNP did not have enough money—[Interruption.] There was not enough money to make it work.
Cycling and Walking
We will publish the strategy shortly, but I am not able to specify a precise date yet.
The Wirral Way in my constituency is a beautiful path that is popular with cyclists and walkers for the expansive views it gives over the Dee estuary, and, of course, the fresh air it affords and the internationally renowned bird life. The Government have committed more than £15 billion over five years for their roads investment strategy, but just £316 million for their draft cycling and walking investment strategy. What more will the Government do to increase cycling and walking in the United Kingdom?
We will publish our strategy shortly, but let me correct the hon. Lady. We are spending approximately 2% of the Department’s total budget in this Parliament on cycling, which amounts to just under £1 billion out of a total budget of around £50 billion. We want to make cycling and walking the default choice for shorter journeys, and I recognise all the hon. Lady’s points about the very pleasant area that she represents.
That was an extraordinary answer from the Minister because at Transport questions six weeks ago, the Secretary of State told us that we would not have long to wait for CWIS, but it is almost a year since the consultation was launched. The Department seems to have a problem with lateness: the Bus Services Bill—late; CWIS—late; taxi regulation—who knows?; and private parking measures—more than a year late. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many people in the Department are working on CWIS and give us a firm date—or is it just the Department being late?
That question did not quite capture the hon. Gentleman’s customary generosity at the Dispatch Box. It is clearly a load of nonsense. The Government are investing more in transport than any other Government in British history. Publication of the strategy is slightly delayed because so many people have responded to the consultation, which we will go through very shortly. The strategy is near publication and I will let the hon. Gentleman know exactly when we will publish it shortly.
Rail Services: Disabled Access
This is an issue worth waiting for, as I am sure the House will agree.
We are committed to improving the accessibility of the rail network. Currently 70% of train fleets’ operating passenger services meet modern accessibility standards, with the remaining vehicles due to be either upgraded or replaced by 1 January 2020.
Has the Minister had a chance to read the Muscular Dystrophy UK Trailblazers’ “End of the Line” report, in which young disabled people identify problems with accessibility to train stations, to which the Minister referred, and the advance booking system? Will the Government commit to looking at both issues with a view to finding a solution?
Probably the most rewarding period of my time as a Member of Parliament has been spent chairing the Muscular Dystrophy UK Trailblazers all-party group and challenging and cross-examining the industry, so I am well aware of the report. It is worth pointing out that Passenger Assist bookings are increasing by 7% year on year. The challenge for the industry is to ensure that passengers who wish to just turn up and go get the same service as those who book through Passenger Assist. More than that, the industry should ensure that when Passenger Assist does not work properly, people have adequate recourse to an ombudsman’s system to get redress. That is not currently the case.
Can the Minister confirm that the number and availability of on-board supervisors at Southern Rail is increasing? As a result, can we expect to see an improvement in services for disabled passengers?
I am certainly keeping a very careful eye on Govia Thameslink Railway both in terms of official passenger assist bookings and the unofficial turn-up-and-go service. I am very keen to see the outcome of the mystery shopping exercises being conducted by the Office of Rail and Road. I want to ensure that all passengers who travel on GTR get the service they need from the on-board supervisors.
You will recall, Mr Speaker, that six weeks ago I asked a question at Transport questions about the experience of disabled passengers. I have subsequently been contacted by lots of people who have told me their stories—awful stories that shame us all. I want to ask the Minister about the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, of which this House can be rightly proud. Does the Act apply to train operating companies? I think we would all expect the answer to be yes. If so, what are the Government doing to make sure that train operating companies allow disabled passengers to travel? I have been told that in the past disabled passengers were able to turn up at the station and travel in the guard’s van like a parcel. However unacceptable that is, we are taking that away. Do the Government accept that by encouraging train operating companies to take guards off trains, they are contributing to a breach of the Disability Discrimination Act?
I would be very concerned at any suggestion that it is appropriate, in any way shape or form, for passengers with a disability to travel in the guard’s van. Indeed, most of our rolling stock these days does not have a guard’s van to travel in. Like the hon. Lady, I have received a number of worrying complaints. I have met the Office of Rail and Road, which scrutinises the licence conditions under which all train operating companies operate. It is conducting a very careful evaluation of the thresholds for triggering licence conditions, which is why it is doing a mystery shopping exercise. Over and above that, I want to ensure that where individual passengers have an inadequate level of service, they too have a route to go down to seek redress from train operating companies.
I regularly meet the Chancellor, and plans for the spring Budget have been included in those discussions. At the autumn statement, my Department was allocated over £2 billion of additional funding as part of the wider national productivity investment fund. My focus is on making the best possible use of that funding for travellers and passengers across the country.
The collapse in the value of the pound has led to steep rises in fuel costs for motorists. Will the Secretary of State impress on the Chancellor the need to avoid any rise in fuel duty in the forthcoming Budget?
I am very proud that the Government, having inherited a fuel duty escalator from the Labour party, have been very good at keeping fuel duty down over the years. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that one current pressure is the rise in the oil price. I am certain that he will be confident that the Chancellor will keep this matter constantly under review, as the Government have demonstrated how important it is to be thoughtful about motorists when it comes to costs.
I have both visited my hon. Friend and holidayed in his constituency, so I know that it is indeed a lovely area and we encourage people from around United Kingdom to visit it on a regular basis. He will be aware of how important we regard the transport links to such areas. On the English side of the border, we will always seek to ensure the right connectivity is in place to support tourism. It is simply a shame that the Welsh Labour Government have proved so ineffective in such a wide variety of ways of working.
Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Regulation
At the request of the Department for Transport, the Law Commission conducted a comprehensive review of taxi and private hire regulation in England and Wales. The Government are currently considering all the recommendations in the report, against the background of a rapidly changing industry. We will formally respond to the Law Commission and announce our intentions once that scrutiny is completed.
That is useful. However, I share Stockton Borough Council’s concern at the fact that a taxi driver whose licence had been revoked following inappropriate conduct with young female passengers was able to go on working for the same company, driving a minibus. There are countless other examples, including examples of sex offenders doing likewise with public service vehicle licences. When will the Government actually do something, and change the law to close this loophole?
Loopholes are, of course being closed, and we are working with the Home Office on the issue, but it is critically important and has, I think, united the House before. We can have a further conversation about it outside the Chamber.
The theme continues. Last month, two taxi drivers in Southend who had been stripped of their licences by the council were found to be working in the town once again, having simply gone to another authority to obtain licences. The Conservative councillor responsible for such matters has been quoted as saying that the loophole has left the council
“impotent to protect the public.”
Does the Minister think it reasonable for the council to be left “impotent”? When will the Government actually take some action?
In fact, we are strengthening the law in this area. The Government tabled an amendment to the Bill that became the Policing and Crime Act 2017 to allow the issuing of statutory guidance to licensing authorities. That is obviously work in progress. This is a critical issue which is taken seriously by the Department and also by the Home Office, and action is clearly being taken.
Roads: East England
My hon. Friend is well aware of the investment that we have made in the A47, which affects his constituency and indeed mine, to some degree. I know that he has been a consistent and effective campaigner for improvements to the road, and I look forward to continuing to work with him to complete those improvements.
Given that nearly 30 years ago, back in 1988, the then Transport Secretary promised to dual the entire length of the A47, will the Minister give serious priority to the six schemes that are currently planned, and ensure that they start as soon as possible?
There is indeed a series of schemes for improvements along the road, particularly in the parts where it could be dualled, and, as my hon. Friend will know, Highways England is looking into the matter. However, I think that I should meet my hon. Friend on the road, with representatives of Highways England and my officials, to look at the specificity of this, because I owe him and the House that at least.
I am sure that the image will be graphically captured for posterity.
As you know, Mr Speaker, we are a Government who make big decisions and are ambitious for the future of our country. This is an important week for my Department in terms of legislation. We will shortly see the Bus Services Bill back in the House of Commons to bring improvements to bus services throughout the country; earlier in the week we introduced the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which will ensure that we are at the head of the game when it comes to the new generation of vehicle technology; we have published, in draft, the Spaceflight Bill, which will also take us forward in an important area of new technology; and, as we heard earlier, this is the week in which we see the completion of the progress of the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill.
The current Highways England scheme for improvements to the A64, which is a key road in my constituency, involves spending £135 million on a roundabout when what we need is a dual carriageway between York and Malton. Will the Minister agree to meet me and members of the A64 Growth Partnership to discuss how we can secure the best scheme for local residents and the best value for the taxpayer?
We are well aware of the importance of the A64 to my hon. Friend’s constituency and, indeed, to the economy of Yorkshire. I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend, as will my hon. Friend the roads Minister. We will ensure that progress in the road’s development continues as we move towards the start of the next investment period.
A report by the Office of Rail and Road on Highways England revealed that the road investment strategy is in chaos. The agency is £1 billion over budget, the cost of 31 projects has more than doubled, and there is little evidence that 60 major schemes can be delivered on time. The strategy is beginning to look more like a fantasy wish list than a deliverable plan to improve England’s road network. Will the Minister take this opportunity to try to reassure the House that it is not the comedy of errors that it appears to be, and will he guarantee to deliver it on time and on budget?
Let us be clear about the road investment programme. It is a £13 billion programme that is currently delivering improvements around the country, and is on track. It is absolutely not the disaster that the hon. Gentleman says it is. Let me also remind him—Conservative Members will remember—how ineffective 13 years of Labour government were in dealing with infrastructure challenges. We will not be taking any lessons from Labour Members.
It is about time the Government took responsibility. Labour has been warning consistently that this Government have been over promising and under delivering on investment in England’s road network. We were promised the biggest upgrade in a generation, but the ORR is now warning of the deterioration of England’s roads. The number of people killed and seriously injured on our roads is already rising, so can the Minister explain how he will guarantee road user safety and mitigate the increased safety risk caused by his Government’s failure to manage investment in England’s roads?
The Labour party neglected our roads for 13 years. The hon. Gentleman needs to travel around the country today and see the schemes that they did not do, that we are doing: dualling the A1; building the link road between the M56 and the M6; smart motorways; starting the progress, finally, on the A303 and developing the tunnel there; as well as smaller schemes around the country. Last week I was in Staffordshire, seeing an important improvement to the A50. None of that happened when the Labour party was in power. It is, frankly, bare-faced cheek to hear them saying what they are saying now. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that in the autumn statement we provided an additional £75 million to improve Britain’s most dangerous roads.
My hon. Friend is identifying the fact that the problems on the Southern rail network are not simply about the trains; they are also about the track and infrastructure. That is why we are now spending £300 million, in addition to the money I announced last September, on things like points replacement, track replacement, and replacing the small things on the infrastructure that go wrong regularly and cause frustrating delays for commuters. We are now moving ahead with that quickly, and it is very important in making sure that my hon. Friend spends less time on a train outside East Croydon and more time in this House asking about space.
Having been a little unkind to the Scottish National party earlier, let me be rather more generous now: the hon. Lady is right, and this is a matter for the whole House to work together on. As I made absolutely clear earlier, Volkswagen’s behaviour has been unacceptable. It is vitally important that we move ahead with rigour, but with care, too, to make sure that consumers are properly dealt with by Volkswagen as a result of this unacceptable behaviour.
As most of East Anglia has a two-track railway at best, does my right hon. Friend accept that it is very difficult to reconcile the ambitions of the Mayor to have increased frequency services to inner London train stations while there is a growing need for faster services to Norwich, Chelmsford, Stansted airport and Cambridge, without providing extra track capacity at key points?
My right hon. Friend is certainly right to observe that on any crowded part of the network—be it in the south-east or elsewhere—we have to make choices over the stations that are served. He rightly points out that that choice will involve outer stations in the south-east versus inner London stations. I can certainly assure him that this ministerial team is more than aware of those challenges, and I am sure my officials can benefit from his wisdom on this part of the network and look forward to his meeting with them.
Of course, it is not an either/or. We are currently spending money on the Ordsall Chord in Manchester, which will provide a dramatic improvement to services in the Manchester area and enable more services across the Pennines. We also have the most ambitious improvement plan that the northern rail network has seen in modern times. So I am very proud of what we are doing transport-wise in the north of England. I would simply say that if we are going to meet the capacity challenges of the future, we are going to need to build a new railway line, and if we are going to build something new, why would we not build something state-of-the-art? That, I am afraid, is the view of the overwhelming majority of Members of this House?
The Minister of State will recall our meeting in December with representatives of Vivergo Fuels, where jobs are under threat. The renewable transport fuel obligation consultation has now closed. Will he enlighten us as to when he is going to make a decision and lift those threats of redundancy?
My hon. Friend is right to suggest that we are looking closely at these matters following the consultation. He will know that I held a meeting with all those concerned recently. We will consider the representations that we have received and make a decision as soon as possible.
We are working hard to ensure that the benefits of technology and improvements in road safety are passed on to drivers through motor insurance premiums. We are working particularly with younger drivers, and a research programme on this is under way. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with details of the work we are undertaking.
I am sure the whole House will be disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) was unable to ask about space flight, so will my right hon. Friend the Minister please set out what steps he is taking to ensure that the UK becomes the world leader in commercial space flight?
Ah, the final frontier! And who better to take us there than Britons? Our journey to the stars will be informed, and we will become the premier site for satellite launches and lead the way in commercial space flights, as we set out in our document earlier this week. Mr Speaker, I see you as Captain Kirk and me as Mr Spock. Other parts will be played by members of the cast.
We will leave that open to the imagination, but I think it is safe to say that the right hon. Gentleman will always shine brightly on the outer edges of the galaxy.
At the last Transport questions, and again today, the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) has been bullish about Volkswagen executives facing criminal charges for the diesel emissions scandal in the UK. How is that going?
It is important that we work with the Germans on this. The tests were done in Germany, and they have much of the evidence that we need to proceed with all that we are doing to force Volkswagen to do the right thing. It is also important that we work with and support the private prosecution that is being brought by consumers. I am doing both, and I will bring the results of all that work back to the House in due course. The hon. Gentleman can be sure that I am absolutely determined to defend the interests of people against this soulless corporate behaviour.
The A27 Reference Group has long campaigned for investment, and my constituency of Wealden—and especially my town of Hailsham—are in desperate need of modern roads. Will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives of the A27 Reference Group to discuss how we can secure extra funding for the A27?
I can hardly wait. Coffee, tea, supper—whatever my hon. Friend wishes. I will be happy to meet her and her friends to consider these matters.
Yes, but I actually have a slightly different ambition. I have an ambition to see that train deployed in other countries as well. I have already told the Japanese Transport Minister that, although he has good trains on the suburban network in Tokyo, our Bombardier trains from Derby are better and that he should buy some for his network.
Back on planet Earth, the recent ASLEF ballot was obviously disappointing, and the guarantee of a second person on the train clearly remains a bone of contention. Will the Secretary of State consider making it a performance indicator measure when, in exceptional circumstances, a train leaves without that second person?
I am happy to look carefully at that option. It is not my policy or the Government’s policy to remove people from trains. Ways of working will change, but we will need more people, not fewer, delivering services to customers on our railways as demand grows.
The thing is that I have seen the SNP make such a hash of education in Scotland that I do not trust it with the transport system. We benefit from having a national rail infrastructure operator as part of the United Kingdom.
Is the Secretary of State in a position to confirm that Bradford will be one of the stations on the northern powerhouse rail?
I imagine that there is a strong case for that. We are waiting to see what Transport for the North has to say about northern powerhouse rail, but I will be surprised if Bradford does not feature in those plans.
I support the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) in raising the issue of Vivergo Fuels and the danger that the 2% crop cap may pose to an important local business. Will the Minister meet MPs of all parties from the region to consider the matter before determining what to do?
I have had meetings about that. I know how closely the hon. Gentleman has worked with colleagues from across the House to promote the interests of his constituents and others. I will happily have more meetings. It is a challenging matter, but we must get it right. The hon. Gentleman is right that we do not want unintended consequences, so I will of course be delighted to meet.
Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the proposals for Crossrail 2? If there are to be any delays, will he tell us what can be done about overcrowding on our trains, such as the one I was on this morning, in the meantime?
I am waiting for Transport for London to deliver the business case for Crossrail 2. I am expecting that in the next few weeks, but we are taking action on capacity in the meantime. I will be at Waterloo station this afternoon to see one of the new generation of trains that will be operating in the coming months on the routes that serve both our constituencies. The works taking place at Waterloo this summer will allow 10-coach trains, rather than eight-coach trains, to serve our suburban networks. That is good news for passengers.
The Department for Transport is currently consulting on the airports national policy statement. Why are residents in Chiswick, Brentford, and Osterley not being told in that consultation that the approach path to runway three will be over their heads? Will he meet my constituents to explain the noise impact that the runway will have?
The important thing to understand about the consultation, and about airspace management in particular, is that more precise technology will enable us to provide a much more varied management of airspace in a way that minimises impacts on communities. Much more precise flightpaths are one of several measures that we can take to minimise those impacts. We have been pretty clear in the consultation. We are consulting all the areas that will be affected by the airport’s expansion, and we are expressing a desire for views and opinions from across the House and across the affected areas.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Points of order ordinarily come later, but if it flows from Question Time and is brief and not disputatious, we will hear it briefly.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance. In response to my earlier question, the Minister suggested that ending toll charges in Scotland had led to bridges in Scotland being closed. When the Forth road bridge was damaged it was repaired ahead of schedule. The Queensferry crossing is being completed on time and significantly under budget without the need for tolls. Perhaps the Minister of State would like to take this opportunity to correct his earlier comments.
I very much doubt that the Minister wishes to do so. The hon. Lady, who is well informed and I imagine has a very good vocabulary, has just feigned ignorance of the word “disputatious.” I said that her point of order should not be disputatious, but it was disputatious. I think we will leave it there. I am not knowledgeable upon the matters to which she has referred and, more importantly, I have absolutely no responsibility for them myself, which is a great source of relief.
Before we come to the urgent question, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Commonwealth Development Corporation Act 2017
Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Act 2017
High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Act 2017.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether you might indulge me. As you have now confirmed Royal Assent for the HS2 Act, I thank everyone in the House who was involved in its passage. It has been a long and arduous process, particularly for those who served on the Committees in both Houses. I thank them for their work.
The Secretary of State’s courtesy will be warmly appreciated on both sides of the House, and I thank him for what he has just said.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the case of Jamal al-Harith.
I make it clear at the outset that the United Kingdom takes the security of its people, interests and allies very seriously, and we will not hesitate to take action in accordance with our inherent right of self-defence. The Government strongly discourage British nationals from travelling to conflict zones and work hard to dissuade and prevent people from travelling to areas of conflict.
It is, however, the long-standing policy of successive Governments not to comment on intelligence matters. The monitoring of individuals is an intelligence matter, and the Government do not and cannot comment on individual cases. Neither can the Government comment on whether particular individuals have received compensation payments.
In November 2010, the then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), informed the House of Commons that the Government had secured a mediated settlement of the civil damages claims brought by detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in the early 2000s. The details of that settlement were subject to a legally binding confidentiality agreement, and we are therefore unable to confirm whether any specific individual received such a settlement.
More broadly, the Government’s priority is to dissuade people from travelling to areas of conflict in the first place, and our strategy works to identify and support individuals at risk of radicalisation. More than 150 attempted journeys were disrupted in 2015. Since Channel, the Government’s process to identify and provide support to individuals at risk of being drawn into terrorism, was rolled out in 2012, there have been more than 4,000 interventions to prevent radicalisation, but we have been clear that we will seek to prosecute those who travel abroad to commit criminal or terrorist attacks. Our brave men and women of the intelligence services and law enforcement agencies work every day to make sure that the risk to our citizens is minimised.
It has been reported that Jamal al-Harith died in a suicide attack in Mosul, and in doing so killed several others on behalf of a barbaric extremist regime. If the reports are correct, he was a deeply dangerous man involved in the worst kind of extremism and terrorism that I am sure is widely condemned on both sides of the House.
We know that Jamal al-Harith was released from Guantanamo Bay in 2004, and it is reported that he received a payment from the Government after concerns that defending his case would lead to the revelation of intelligence and the compromising of national security.
The former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation has provided information about the case, as has the former Home Secretary, Lord Blunkett. Everyone understands that some information cannot be revealed for intelligence reasons. However, the Minister has provided far too little information about such a serious case. Can he confirm whether Mr al-Harith was made any payment? Notwithstanding the subsequent welcome legislation to tighten the law, which had cross-party support, does he agree that people across the country will feel sickened at the idea of large payments being made to someone who may have been involved in serious terrorist activity?
We know that Mr al-Harith was subject to monitoring after 2004. Was he subject to monitoring between 2010, when the compensation payments are reported to have been made, and his reportedly leaving the country in 2014? Was he considered for a control order or a terrorism prevention and investigation measure? Can the Minister confirm that no one is currently subject to a TPIM? It is reported that al-Harith left to join ISIL in 2014. Was he being monitored at that time? Was he on any border watch lists at the time? We ask that question because, legitimately, we want to know whether this occurred because of a lack of intelligence about his case or whether there was some failure in the border watch list system, in which case there are legitimate questions for this House to pursue.
What happened to the payment allegedly made to Mr al-Harith? Do the Government know whether any of that money was subsequently used to fund terrorist or extremist activity? Was any monitoring in place in respect of any of these compensation cases? Has any attempt been made since Mr al-Harith left for Syria and Iraq to recover any of the payments that have been made? Is any of that payment left now? Can the Minister at least say whether the Government are now reviewing this case and will at least provide a report to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which will be able to listen to all the questions relating to intelligence so that we can understand whether such a serious case has been properly pursued, and that every possible action has been taken on behalf of both our national security and the British taxpayer?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her questions. Like her, and like my constituents, we will be outraged and disappointed by the sums of money that have been paid. As for the sums that have been paid, and that are reported to have been paid, I cannot comment on individual cases. Unlike former Home Secretaries, the Government are bound by their legal obligations—we cannot break those legal commitments—but I can say that some of the vulnerability that led us to have to pay those damages occurred when the right hon. Lady was a member of the Labour Government and when those individuals brought claims against us.
It is important that we recognise that that is why some of these claims had to be paid out and why, in response to those outrageous sums of money that have been reported, this Government and the coalition Government brought forward the consolidated guidance— David Cameron brought that forward—to make sure that our intelligence services act within the law and get the full support of the law in order to do their job. That is also why we brought forward the Justice and Security Act 2013 to introduce closed material proceedings so that in future claims brought by such people, held in Guantanamo Bay in 2004, can be challenged in court without revealing sensitive intelligence information and we can, thus, defend many of those claims. It is also why that Act brought in stronger powers for the Intelligence and Security Committee, in order that it can investigate such incidents and give confidence to this House that such events are properly investigated, with lessons learned if they need to be and allegations put to rest if they are found to be false. That happened as a result of these types of payments; that action was taken under the coalition Government of David Cameron to make sure that we minimise the risk of this ever happening again.
As you are aware, Mr Speaker, before I came to this place I worked as a Government lawyer. Although I did not work on this specific case, colleagues in the department in which I worked were involved in it.
That is called hearsay evidence.
No, it is not.
In this country, we have a proud tradition of law: law that supports not only people who are attractive to the general public, but those with whom the general public would not have sympathy. The question I wish to put to the Minister is this: to what extent has he worked and have this Government worked to enable the rule of law to be upheld and to enable the “secret courts” Act to come into effect so that we can study these cases properly?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. First, as I said earlier, by introducing consolidated guidance to guide our intelligence services when they operate abroad; by introducing the 2013 Act, which allows for closed material proceedings; and by beefing up the ISC, we have put in place a much more robust and defendable structure so that we are not the victim of people coming along and trying to sue us for actions we may or may not have taken. That is the most important part of it. It is also important to point out to the House that we will act in accordance with our inherent right of self-defence. We will always put first the defence of our citizens and our nation, and we will make sure that we do that to the best of our ability.
Terrorism is the scourge of modern democracies. It has meant that the frontline of international conflict has moved from the battlefield to our homes and high streets. There will therefore be natural public concern about the case of Jamal al-Harith, who was allegedly paid £1 million in compensation by the UK Government following his incarceration in Guantanamo. There will also be natural public concern that the Minister has chosen to hide behind the notion of sensitive intelligence in order to fail to answer even the simplest factual questions about this case. I repeat: was there any payment? We do not need to know exactly how much, but was there any payment? Is there any truth in the idea that the settlement was designed to prevent al-Harith from making embarrassing revelations about our acquiescence in and enabling of the torture of a UK citizen? Given the monitoring of British detainees after their release from Guantanamo, how was he able to leave the country and travel to Syria in 2014? Will the Government review this case and refer it to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which we believe would be the appropriate, and secret, method of dealing with these very important issues?
I can perhaps answer the last point. Of course, the Intelligence and Security Committee now has the power, because of the 2013 Act, to properly investigate these issues. Members of that Committee will be listening to this debate and will have read the media reports, and it is entirely for them to choose what they wish to investigate. If they do choose to investigate, we will of course comply, as we are obliged to and as we would wish to. It is very important that we do that.
The right hon. Lady asks me to disclose intelligence operations concerning an individual. I cannot do that; it has never been the practice of this Government, the previous Government or the Government before that. We are not hiding behind that phrase; we are having to oblige ourselves in line with the legally binding confidentiality agreement made between Her Majesty’s Government and the parties involved. I am sure the right hon. Lady is not trying to encourage me to break the law and reveal details of the compensation.
It is reported that around £20 million has been paid to 16 former Guantanamo Bay detainees. This morning, Lord Blunkett suggested that that sum should be formally reviewed because the public will be dismayed. They will be particularly concerned if any of that money has gone to fund terrorism. Will the Minister undertake to review the £20 million, or thereabouts, that is reported to have been paid to these individuals?
My hon. Friend raises an important point about the destination of, or what happens to, any money paid to individuals. One reason why only this Tuesday we took through the House the Criminal Finances Bill, which covers terrorist financing, is to give us even more powers to track money destined for terrorism and deal with it. It is incredibly important that we do that. The comments of the former Home Secretary Mr Blunkett are of course a matter for him. No doubt he may be questioned by the Intelligence and Security Committee about the role that he and his colleagues played at the time in making sure that British citizens’ interests were protected when they were in Guantanamo Bay, which may have led to these claims being made in the first place.
I associate myself with the comments made by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). The Scottish National party is of course committed to protecting the people of Scotland and keeping our communities safe, while recognising that that commitment needs to be balanced with the protection of civil liberties. We recognise that the ways in which people are becoming radicalised are constantly evolving, so we must remain vigilant and refresh our approach in doing so. Police forces throughout Scotland have been extremely vigilant, and for many years have been working closely with the Scottish Muslim community to prevent violent extremism and radicalism.
It has been suggested that Jamal al-Harith was able to travel to Mosul because the Home Office, when it was under the current Prime Minister, weakened the surveillance of terror suspects because of issues of resource. What will the Government do to meet their duty of care and vigilance in monitoring those who have been vulnerable to radicalisation and to address any resource issues so that they can do that effectively?
May I say how impressed I have been, in my time as Security Minister, with the Scottish police and their work across the United Kingdom to protect UK citizens and people living in Scotland from the threat of terrorism? I have been to visit them, and their work on Prevent and on fulfilling the Contest strategy agreed between the UK and Scottish Governments is the reason that we are seeing people in many areas prevented from travelling and dissuaded from radicalisation. I am grateful to the Scottish Government for their role in ensuring that people in Scotland are safer. Of course, everything we do is within the rule of law and the rights of the country to take action in self-defence. I urge hon. Members to look at the Government memorandum to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, in which we restated our view on when we are legally able to take action against individuals.
The hon. Lady mentioned funding. We have increased funding for Prevent year on year, to ensure that we focus on dissuading people as much as on putting money into pursuing people, tracking them down and trying to stop them.
I was a strong supporter of the Justice and Security Act 2013, which was bitterly opposed by elements in this House—some of whom were on our Benches, I am sorry to say—but it was quite a modest step in the right direction. Does my hon. Friend accept that public confidence in the system is at the absolute heart of the concept of the rule of law and that the current framework of human rights, as it affects areas such as our ability to monitor suspects, is unsatisfactory? That is one more reason to review human rights law in this country.
I hear the points that my hon. Friend makes, but I remind him that this House took the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 through collectively. The Government conceded a huge number of amendments, tabled by all sides, and we worked across parties to deliver the Act. We believe that it is a robust and successful piece of legislation that complies with human rights obligations, but also ensures that our people are kept safe and gives law enforcement agencies and intelligence services the powers they need in the 21st century to face the threats posed to us today.
The root cause of the problem is the operation of the detention camp at Guantanamo. The Government supported President Obama’s aspiration to see it closed or its numbers reduced. The current President said when he was campaigning that he would
“load it up with some bad dudes”.
Do the Government now support President Obama’s position or President Trump’s?
Before the Government comment on the actions of the United States, we should see what those actions are. From my personal experience as a young officer doing counter-terrorism in Northern Ireland, I can say that torture and degrading people do not work. They do not get the results that anyone wants; in fact, they usually extend conflict. People should know that the use of torture should not be tolerated. On Tuesday, I was therefore delighted to introduce a new power in the Criminal Finances Bill to allow the Government and law enforcement agencies to freeze the assets of people guilty of human rights abuse anywhere in the world.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to ask a question on this important subject. I declare an interest: when these incidents were happening, I was an Army officer serving in Her Majesty’s Intelligence Corps. Although I was not aware of the particular incidents that arose in this case, I am aware of the situations that could have given rise to it. I have to say that I welcomed the decision of the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett. It is difficult to know when and how to make evidence public that could endanger the lives of fellow citizens. The then Home Secretary took a difficult decision, which might have resulted in a payment that—let us be honest—none of us is comfortable with. However, if that payment saved the lives of others by not revealing sources, it was the right decision not only politically but morally, and we should defend him. I ask the Minister to talk not about that decision but about the changes that have happened which mean that instead of making those payments, we can now have a proper trial—admittedly in a closed court—to review the evidence and see what the real decision should be.
My hon. Friend is right. At the heart of some of this was our inability to test allegations in an open court, and that is why we passed the Justice and Security Act 2013, which brought in the closed material proceedings. Hand in hand with that was the reassurance of a beefed-up Intelligence and Security Committee, to make sure that there was no abuse or any other issue. We should not forget that many in the House opposed the 2013 Act, which could have left us facing even more claims and pay-outs.
Understandably, there is much justified concern about public money being given to those engaging in terrorism, and obviously we all deplore that. However, those of us who campaigned against British nationals being held in Guantanamo Bay are not going to offer any apology whatever. We were right to so campaign. If people are suspected of terrorist offences and there is evidence, they should be tried. In many respects, Guantanamo gave ammunition to terrorists and potential terrorists, and that should not be forgotten for one moment.
I have not come to the House to ask the hon. Gentleman to apologise for campaigning against Guantanamo Bay. My and the Government’s view is that the best place for these things to happen is in a court of law, with evidence presented. I sat on the Opposition Benches listening to a Labour Government constantly try to cut corners in terrorism legislation, trying to mix intelligence with evidence; the hon. Gentleman and I were probably in the same Division Lobby on the 90 days issue. It is my long-held experience that these things should be done in a court of law, through the rule of law, and with appropriate evidence. I have not come here to ask him to apologise; I pretty much agree with what he said.
I hope that those who celebrated the release from Guantanamo Bay of Jamal al-Harith will reflect on what he has done since his release.
Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), will the Minister say whether the Government are exploring any options to recover the compensation paid to the people from Guantanamo Bay? Taxpayers have been ripped off and terrorists have prospered from appalling activities. The public are rightly disgusted, and they want to know what the Government are trying to do to rectify the situation.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I will go from here and make sure that any legally binding agreements are correctly monitored and that, where there is a breach, we recover any moneys we can.
The British public will be completely bewildered by the lack of information from the Minister today. They will be appalled: this is not simply an issue of the individual case, but a policy issue that we need to reflect on in the House. The debate is already raging out there among the British public and the media, along with an awful lot of misinformation.
There are questions that the Minister needs to answer about monitoring. Is he confident that we are monitoring our suspects? How are people able to leave the country, given that there are checks at the border? Crucially, how are we monitoring people through our money laundering laws, to notice any changes in behaviour? The Government must come clean on those policy issues. The Minister said that the Government are discouraging people from travelling to Syria, but it looks to the British public as though they have funded that.
It is a regrettable part of the operation of the security services—and, often, our police—that we cannot sing about our successes as much as we would like. Every day and every week, we manage to prevent people at the border from going across to do harm, either within Europe or further afield. We often have to do that on the basis of intelligence that we cannot reveal, but we use our powers in a number of terrorism Acts that have gone through the House.
As the hon. Lady mentioned, there are occasions on which we have to discuss whether we could have done more or less. That is why we gave more power to the Intelligence and Security Committee: so that it can ask all the deep, searching questions without putting at risk agents, methods, capabilities and technologies that we need so diligently to protect to make sure that more and more people are kept safe from a more and more determined group of terrorists who operate in the name of Daesh.
There was a long campaign to return British citizens from Guantanamo Bay and for them to face a proper trial. Does the Minister share my disappointment that more effort was not made at that stage to consider how sensitive information could be heard in camera to allow those trials to take place? Will he confirm that that lacuna has since been addressed by the Government?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that Guantanamo Bay goes back way before the coalition Government got into power. It is interesting that it took until 2010 or 2011 when we started making plans for the Justice and Security Act 2013 to do that. The question about what was done before is a matter for a former Government.
May I dissociate myself from these disgraceful attacks from the Tory Benches on the Daily Mail for campaigning to release British subjects from Guantanamo Bay? Lord Carlile was a Government adviser, and he has stated that Jamal al-Harith and others were paid compensation to prevent the release of security information through the courts into the public domain. It is a bit late for the Minister now to rest on confidentiality, so perhaps he will tell us the date of the confidentiality clause he cited, or is that too confidential?
First, I do not think that anyone has heard from this Dispatch Box an attack on the Daily Mail, although I know the right hon. Gentleman would like to put up a straw man to make some allegations. As I said previously, we made a legally binding confidentiality agreement in November 2010. The key words there are “legally binding”, not “confidentiality”. As I am sure he will understand, that puts an obligation on this Government and not, by the sound of things, on former Home Secretaries or reviewers of terrorism. Even a Scottish National party Government would be legally obliged to stick to the confidentiality agreement, and he knows it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as there were 16 applications for closed material procedures in the first two years after the Justice and Security Act 2013 was passed, millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money may have been saved simply because the security services are now free to present the evidence they have?
Hopefully the closed material procedures are doing exactly what we wanted: seeing off vexatious claims, testing the evidence and ensuring that, where the allegations are unfounded, the UK Government are not vulnerable to paying out money or compensation.
The Minister has admitted that his Government have made these payments. I accept his point about confidentiality, but I ask him a simple question. What was the decision-making process in agreeing these payments? Which Ministers agreed to them? Did the current Prime Minister agree to those payments when she was Home Secretary, or is that covered by the confidentiality agreement?
I think the best thing would be for me to write to the hon. Gentleman. I was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) in the Ministry of Justice at the time. If I were to say that my memory of the time is that the Ministry of Justice or the Government signed the payments off, I may be misleading the House inadvertently. The best thing is for me to write an accurate response to the hon. Gentleman, but he will know, as a former Minister, that we all take responsibility and that the whole Government stand by their legally binding commitment.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to deal with tragic cases such as this one and the many other cases of this nature is to prevent radicalisation in the first place? Once radicalisation has happened, we need to support our intelligence services and our border officials at ports such as Dover, and work internationally with other countries to ensure that we can deal with the consequences.
My hon. Friend makes an important point that the whole way in which we can tackle this threat is by working together both internally in the United Kingdom at our borders between all the agencies—SO15, the intelligence services, the home police, Border Force and everything else—and with our international partners. We do that more and more to ensure that when people threaten to come to this country or to leave and do harm elsewhere, we interdict them, deter them and deal with them to the best of our ability.
It is a pity that we have not heard any regret at all from the Labour party, which lobbied intensely to have this dangerous terrorist released in 2004. Given the fact that this man was on the loose, can the Minister explain why and how our security was so slack that he was able to leave the country and to use the funds available to him to finance terrorism and kill people?
The hon. Gentleman knows, from his own personal experience, the efforts that go into countering terrorism—the resource, the man hours, the risks taken. As a Northern Ireland Member, he will also know that it is an “easier said than done” job. It is very hard to deal with all the threats every day, and people have to make judgments. It is important to understand that we can rarely advertise our successes, whereas unfortunately, in some cases, people choose to focus on other areas that come to light. It is important to remember that people make judgment calls in good faith to keep people safe, and it is not an easy thing to do. I have the highest regard for our intelligence services and police, who have to make life-and-death decisions every day without any reward, recognition or benefit.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this case shows the moral, legal and security dilemmas thrown up when someone is suspected of terrorism or of intending to commit an act of terror but there is not sufficient evidence to convict them, even in closed session? There were loud protests in favour of closing Guantanamo Bay, and now an outcry when a former detainee goes on to commit an act of terror.
There is always a balance to be struck in how we live in our society. Britain is open for business and open for trade, and that implies an element of open borders. We have to allow some to-ing and fro-ing for us to prosper. This is also about a balance between the rights of individuals and the rights of the state to interfere in people’s lives. It is a very tricky balance, and a live balance, that is struck every day, and we do it within the rule of law. We are grateful, as are any Government, when we get the House’s support for measures such as the Justice and Security Act 2013 that improve the accountability of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies. That is the challenge, and it will not change no matter who is sitting on the Treasury Bench. It is a balance we must always try to strike and do better with.
The Minister did not answer the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) posed: is anybody currently on a TPIM? Given we know that UK citizens have travelled to fight for Daesh and then returned to this country, I would be surprised if there were not some people on TPIMs to protect people in this country.
The hon. Lady will know that there is a bulletin of TPIM numbers every year. If my memory serves me correctly, the latest number was nine, or perhaps six. [Interruption.] It is six—there we are. That number will obviously be refreshed, however, and when the new one is published, hon. Members will be able to see the latest number. I can assure her, however, that TPIMs are just one of the tools in the toolbox we use to monitor or deter people from taking dangerous action. We use them when we need to, and will continue to do so.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for dragging the Home Office to the House, although it is obviously totally unprepared and has no understanding of the issue or concern about what has happened. The former Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, cut our border staff by 15% and allowed this individual to go through the gates unhindered. Despite the TPIMs, no one had sight of this individual. It is no good hiding behind the security services. Why have the Government not dealt with this issue using those measures?
The hon. Gentleman might like to reflect on some of his comments. It was this Government who brought in exit checks, which did not exist under the Labour Government, so people could leave the country come what may. People do not just travel through e-gates unmonitored—of course they are monitored—so his allegation is wrong. And no one was dragged to the House. He should realise that I like the sound of my own voice, and I am happy to stay here all afternoon to answer questions on this issue, if he wants.
It is not good enough for the Minister, as the Prime Minister’s official spokesman did yesterday, simply to hide behind intelligence as an excuse for not answering the most basic questions about this dreadful case, so let me try a policy question: what assessment has he made of the impact of the coalition Government’s disastrous decision to scrap Labour’s control orders and his ability to monitor people like this?
The right hon. Gentleman forgets the position of Labour’s control orders before the courts. Funnily enough, as I pointed out earlier, his Government did not seem to have quite the right regard for the Human Rights Act 1998 or the rule of law that they should and were constantly seeing their measures struck down. We do believe that TPIMs are a good policy—one of the tools in the toolbox to enable us to monitor these people. We will use them wherever we can and whenever we need to do so, to make sure that we do everything to keep people who pose a threat under control. So far, we have not abandoned them or failed to use them when the need presents itself.
Can the Minister assure us that he knows the current status and whereabouts of the other three people released from Guantanamo Bay alongside Mr al-Harith in 2004?
I cannot comment on our operations, or on knowledge or surveillance, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, as I have said, the powerful Intelligence and Security Committee can ask all these detailed questions and investigate unilaterally these issues to make sure that, if it needs the answers, it can get them and reassure the House on whether or not enough is being done.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) to write to him and tell him which Minister took the decision about the compensation. The Minister mentioned the introduction of exit checks. Presumably, this individual was subject to an exit check when he left the country. Can the Minister give an account, from the Government’s point of view, of what happened in this case after that individual left the country?
As I said at the very beginning, I cannot comment on the individual case or the intelligence behind it. However, as I have said, the Intelligence and Security Committee is perfectly able to look into it. The point about which Minister took the decision is a bit of a red herring. The United Kingdom Government were obliged to make certain agreements because of the vulnerability they found themselves in as a result of 2004 and the allegations made when a number of Members on your Benches were members of the Government.
Not on my Benches. In fact, I do not have a Bench but a very comfortable Chair.
Basically, the Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary, and/or the Justice Secretary, agreed £1 million or thereabouts for a man who went on to commit a significant terrorist act that killed many people. Why the Minister thinks that he can hide behind legal confidentiality and security so as not even to assuage any of the basic concerns that all our voters will have is a mystery to me. The man is dead, for a start, and secondly the Bill of Rights says that no proceeding in Parliament shall be impeached or questioned by any court of law or any other place. The Minister can tell us everything he wants today, if only he had the courage to do so.
They always save the best for last, Mr Speaker. The hon. Gentleman uses the word himself: it is the word “legally” that is important and seems to have missed his attention. This is a legally binding confidentiality clause between parties. If he wants to investigate more, I refer him to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which has all the powers given by this Government and the coalition Government to make sure that it gets to the bottom of the issues.
Business of the House
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 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.
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 measures 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.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 18 January, I asked the Ministry of Justice, in a written question:
“how many and what proportion of sentences for each category of offence are suspended sentences.”
On 16 February, the prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), replied:
“The information requested can be found on GOV.UK”.
Clearly it took a month for the Ministry of Justice to find the information on gov.uk before it could give that answer to me. It did not indicate where on gov.uk the information could be found.
This is not the first time that such a thing has happened. It is becoming an increasingly regular occurrence with the Ministry of Justice. It seems clear to me that it is doing it deliberately to try to ensure that the information never comes to light. I will refer the matter to the Procedure Committee, but I wonder whether you, Mr Speaker, can do anything to ensure that Departments, particularly the Ministry of Justice, give us open and transparent answers rather than using this rather dishonourable tactic.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order. My response is consistent with what I have said previously on the matter. First, responses should be timely, and he suffered an untimely response—he had to wait rather longer than he should have. Secondly, responses to Members’ parliamentary questions should be substantive, and he did not receive a substantive reply. Thirdly, it is one thing for a Minister answering a written question to refer to a website on which further and more detailed information might be available that would be of interest to the Member concerned, but it is quite another matter simply and blandly to refer to a website, without guidance or direction and saying nothing about where on it the Member should look, and to imagine that that is a satisfactory substitute for a straight answer to a straight question—it is not.
I know that the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House take very seriously their responsibility to ensure that Ministers provide timely responses that are substantive and do not use that ruse or device. They have heard the hon. Gentleman’s point of order and my response. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter.
Prisons and Courts Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Elizabeth Truss, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Amber Rudd, Secretary Justine Greening, Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Secretary David Mundell, the Attorney General, Sir Oliver Heald and Ben Gummer, presented a Bill to make provision about prisons; make provision about practice and procedure in courts and tribunals, organisation of courts and tribunals, functions of the judiciary and of courts and tribunals and their staff, appointment and deployment of the judiciary, and functions of the Judicial Appointments Commission; and make provision about whiplash claims.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 145) with explanatory notes (Bill 145-EN).
Un-allotted Half Day
Armed Forces: Historical Cases
I beg to move,
That this House acknowledges the service and sacrifice of the armed forces and police during Operation Banner in Northern Ireland as well as in other theatres of conflict in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan; welcomes the recent decision to close down the Iraq Historical Allegations Team; and calls on the Government to take steps to ensure that current and future processes for investigating and prosecuting legacy cases, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, are balanced and fair.
On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I am delighted to move this motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist party. Let me say at the outset that our party holds veterans of our armed forces and those who have served in the police, not only in Northern Ireland but across the United Kingdom, in the highest esteem. We have always sought to use our parliamentary time to raise issues that are of concern to those people; I am glad to do so again today. I welcome the opportunity for this debate, and I thank all Members present, including the Ministers from the Northern Ireland Office and the Ministry of Defence.
Although policing and justice issues are now devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive, the legacy of our troubled past remains a matter for this Parliament and the UK Government to deal with. Our motion refers to other theatres of conflict, including Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and I pay tribute to all those who served in each of those operations, especially to those who died in the service of our country. I know that other right hon. and hon. Members will wish to refer to those people. I hope the House will forgive me if I concentrate mainly, and with good reason, on the situation in Northern Ireland.
I remind hon. Members that Operation Banner was the longest-running military operation in the history of the Army. During the period known as the troubles in Northern Ireland, there were more than 3,500 deaths, of which more than 2,000—some 60%—were murders carried out by republican paramilitary terrorists, mainly from the Provisional IRA, while more than 1,000—some 30%—were carried out by loyalist paramilitaries. British and Irish state forces were responsible for 10% of the deaths, almost all of which occurred as a result of entirely lawful actions, when soldiers and police officers acted to safeguard life and property and uphold the rule of law. In fact, a member of the security forces in Northern Ireland was three times more likely to be killed than a member of the IRA. If we contrast that with Iraq, for example, where terrorist insurgents were three times more likely to be killed than members of the armed forces, it sets the Northern Ireland situation in context.
Let me restate for the record that paramilitary terrorists were responsible for some 90% of the deaths in Northern Ireland—on both sides of the border, that is—whereas 10% of the deaths are attributable to state forces. Those deaths include more than 3,000 unsolved murders arising from our troubled past. What a terrible legacy that is—one of pain, loss and a deep sense of injustice on the part of the victims and their families.
Let me be clear that there can be no moral or legal equivalence between our police or armed forces and those who were members of illegal, criminal terrorist organisations. Let us contrast how the two have been treated. It is a well accepted principle that in a democracy no one should be above the law, yet—as will become clear from my remarks—there appears to be one rule for those who serve our country and another for those whose objective is to destroy it. Unfortunately, the legacy issues were not adequately addressed, never mind resolved, in the deeply flawed Belfast agreement of Good Friday 1998. Instead, in that agreement the Government of the day agreed to release early from prison those prisoners sentenced for offences linked to the troubles in Northern Ireland and who were members of a terrorist organisation on ceasefire and supporting the peace process.
In effect, the terrorists, who were found guilty of crimes including murder, were released from prison after serving only two years in jail. They included, for example, the notorious Shankill bomber, Sean Kelly, from the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). Kelly was sentenced to nine life terms in prison for the murder of nine innocent civilians on the Shankill Road. He served just seven years in jail—less than one year for each life he destroyed.
In addition, in September 2000, beyond the terms of the agreement, the then Secretary of State, now Lord Mandelson, announced that the Government would no longer seek the extradition of those Provisional IRA prisoners who had escaped from prison, including several who had escaped from the Maze prison in my constituency in 1983. They included convicted terrorists such as Dermot Finucane, brother of the late Pat Finucane and former head of the Provisional IRA southern command, and Kevin Barry Artt, who had been convicted of the murder of the deputy governor of Maze prison, Albert Miles, who was shot in front of his wife. What an appalling atrocity! They also included Liam Averill, convicted of the sectarian murder of two Protestants, who escaped from the Maze prison dressed as a woman in 1997. Their extradition was not sought by the Government of the day. In addition, perhaps up to 30 Provisional IRA terrorists have been granted the royal prerogative of mercy and allowed to go free.
In 2001, the then Labour Government sought to extend the concession further so that an amnesty would be introduced for all members of terrorist organisations on ceasefire. In a letter dated 4 May 2001, the then Secretary of State, Dr John Reid, wrote to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair:
“In the Hillsborough statement of 8 March we accepted publicly for the first time that it would be a natural development of the Early Release Scheme to discontinue the prosecution of pre-Good Friday Agreement offences allegedly committed by supporters of organisations now on ceasefire.”
In the same letter, Dr Reid made it clear that the legislation to provide for that amnesty
“should exclude members of the security forces from the amnesty arrangements, though we should not underestimate the difficulty of holding this line in Parliament in the face of an inevitable press campaign.”
You bet, Dr Reid! We opposed it vigorously and stopped it in its tracks. I am confident that this Government would never consider such a concession to those who have committed murder on the streets of Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Note that an amnesty was offered—an amnesty was put on the table for terrorist organisations while members of our security forces were to be excluded, just as they were excluded and ignored in the agreement of 1998. Dr Reid was certainly right about the opposition that he would face to such a reprehensible scheme.
But things did not stop there. A secret deal was then done between the Northern Ireland Office and Sinn Féin, to the benefit of Provisional IRA terrorists who were still on the run—fugitives from justice. They were wanted for questioning about serious terrorism-related offences, including murder. Letters of comfort were issued by the Northern Ireland Office to each of those terrorists, sometimes delivered by the postman Gerry Kelly from North Belfast, informing them that there were no warrants in existence and that they were not wanted in Northern Ireland for arrest, questioning or charge by the police. The issuing of those letters by the Northern Ireland Office resulted in the disgraceful situation of an alleged IRA member, John Downey, being able to escape conviction in the courts in London for the murder of four soldiers in the Hyde Park bombings of 1982. I could go on, but it is important that we focus now on the sacrifice of the security forces—of those who served our country.
According to the Sutton Index of deaths during the troubles in Northern Ireland, 520 members of the regular Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and reserves, and veterans, were murdered by terrorists during Operation Banner. In addition, 243 members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish Regiment, and veterans, were murdered by terrorists. Some 325 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other constabularies, and retired police officers, were murdered by terrorists. Twenty-six prison officers and former prison officers were murdered by terrorists. That amounts to 1,100 men and women in the service of the Crown who were murdered by terrorists, and countless others seriously injured and left to bear the mental and physical scars of this reign of terror.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is speaking powerfully about the victims of terror. One of the victims who is not counted is my uncle, who now sits in the other place. He was attacked brutally by IRA men while representing our country in Brussels. I understand why the right hon. Gentleman mentions the statistics, but they hide so many scars. Victims are hidden because they are not listed, yet they bear those scars today, even if they were unharmed physically.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As I said, countless others were seriously injured and left to bear the mental and physical scars of this reign of terror.
It is evident that little effort has been made to bring to justice those responsible for the heinous crimes committed by the terrorist organisations responsible for 90% of the deaths during the Northern Ireland troubles. Yet enormous resources—hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and countless hours of valuable police time—have been devoted to hounding the security forces: to vigorously pursuing investigations against veterans of the armed forces and retired police officers.
The Chief Constable did establish the Historical Enquiries Team that sought to re-examine the unsolved murders in Northern Ireland, but it could review only the previous police investigations and lacked full police powers to renew the investigation of these killings. It was eventually wound up, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland established a new Legacy Investigation Branch as a temporary measure until wider agreement could be secured on the legacy issues.
Today, the PSNI Legacy Investigation Branch devotes a wholly disproportionate level of its resources to the investigation of killings linked to the security forces and hopelessly inadequate resources to the thousands of unsolved terrorist murders. Recently, two retired veterans of the Parachute Regiment, aged 67 and 65, were charged with murder in connection with the shooting of IRA commander Joe McCann in Belfast in 1972. That follows the decision to prosecute a 75-year-old veteran of the Life Guards who has been charged with the attempted murder of a man in County Tyrone in 1974.
While the families of thousands of innocent victims, including the police officers, soldiers and prison officers involved in more than a thousand murder cases, wait in vain for some action to be taken to investigate those crimes, the police are devoting resources to investigating the small number of killings linked to the state.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; I apologise for not having been here at the start and for not being able to stay for the whole debate. I salute him and his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party for securing this hugely important debate.
The right hon. Gentleman has just mentioned the disproportionate number of investigations of former soldiers and police officers. Is he aware that the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland has issued what is effectively a fatwa to news organisations across the United Kingdom? If they have the temerity to make any criticism of Mr McGrory, they will be served with legal proceedings. Does that not illustrate the attempt being made by some in Northern Ireland to ensure that they get a soldier in the dock for something that happened 45 years ago? It is completely immoral.