House of Commons
Monday 6 March 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Terrorism: Armed Police Protection
We are providing £144 million over five years, of which £32 million will be provided between 2017-18 to enhance our armed policing capability and capacity to be able to respond more quickly and effectively to a firearms attack. This means that the number of armed police will increase by more than 1,000. Additional round-the-clock specialist teams will be created outside London and 41 additional police armed response vehicles will be on the streets.
I am concerned by the fact that a number of armed police officers have said to me, both here in the Palace of Westminster and in Downing Street, that they do not feel they have the freedom to act that they should have because of the rules of engagement. Can the rules be changed to make them fit for purpose?
I recognise that this is sometimes a difficult issue. We have been reviewing the support we provide to our firearms officers so that they can carry out their crucial duties without fear, while ensuring there is necessary scrutiny. My hon. Friend has specific concerns about automatic suspension and firing first. I can confirm that only in exceptional circumstances would someone be automatically suspended for using their gun. There is no rule prohibiting officers from shooting first. Their decision is and must be based on an assessment of threat to life, including their own. I would be delighted if he would like to meet me or the Minister to discuss this matter further.
Will the Home Secretary join me in commending Mark Rowley and the counter-terrorism team on the announcement today that 13 terrorist threats have been thwarted in the past four years? Does she agree that this is not just about arming the police; it is about the public being vigilant and ensuring sufficient resources for the counter-terrorism unit to engage with communities? That is the way we deal with this threat, as well as arming the police.
I happily join the right hon. Gentleman in commending the announcement made by Mark Rowley and the work done in general by our counter-terrorism police officers in London and beyond. He is absolutely right that it is essential we do not think we can solve this issue simply by putting more money into it. We need to work closely with local communities, so that everybody plays a part in countering this vile crime.
The armed response capability of the British Transport Police is a relatively new function, yet the prospect of a mass casualty attack at one of our major transport interchanges is probably one of the more likely scenarios. Can the Home Secretary assure me that there is maximum integration and co-operation between the British Transport Police and local territorial police forces?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that the local transport police and local police forces will always work closely together. We are very mindful of where the likely places might be for any attack. He is right that that will often involve large transport hub areas, so we are careful to give specific advice to those areas where necessary.
Does the Home Secretary agree that countering the terrorist threat begins with preventing radicalisation? She will be aware of the case of Tanveer Ahmed, who is in prison for murdering the peaceful Ahmadiyya shopkeeper, Mr Assad Shah. From his prison cell, Mr Ahmed is using the phone and letters to continue to radicalise people against Ahmadiyya Muslims. Given the increase in anti-Ahmadiyya extremism, is the Home Secretary confident that she has enough Urdu speakers in the entry clearance section at the high commission in Islamabad and here in London?
The hon. Lady raises counter-radicalism, which is a very important element of our counter-terrorism and counter-extremism strategy. I can reassure her that a lot of additional work is going on in prisons to ensure that counter-radicalism takes place. My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary has taken additional steps to work with people who are being radicalised or are the sources of radicalisation. I hope that that will yield positive results.
Will the Home Secretary join me in praising the work of the east midlands operational support service, which places armed officers in the smaller cities and towns of the east midlands, and will she ensure that smaller cities have the resources they need? A terrorist attack is just as likely to happen in a city like Nottingham or Derby as in London.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will join him in commending the work of the east midlands service. We are mindful of the fact that, although London can be the central target, other cities could also be a target. We are mindful that our counter-terrorism efforts go way beyond London to other cities, but they are always intelligence-led.
The Home Secretary knows that many of our constituents are saying that they see fewer police in their towns, on their streets and indeed on their roads. The Budget is coming up, so surely we should have some commitment to making the level of policing for counter-terrorism in our communities as high as possible.
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that there has been a 30% increase in the budget for counter-terrorism and we expect that to continue. When it comes to ordinary policemen, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will, like me, welcome the fact that crime has fallen by 25% since 2010. The key element is that our police forces have the tools to deliver that reduction in crime, and I believe that under this Government they do.
I very much welcome this question from my hon. Friend, who is chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on retail crime, which recently launched a report on this very subject. I can assure him that we take retail crime very seriously. I am co-chair of the National Retail Crime Steering Group with the British Retail Consortium, which brings together retailers and the police to understand the challenge and take effective action.
I thank the Minister for her reply, but she will be aware of growing concern among retailers about levels of both physical and verbal abuse. Will she do something to ensure that police across the country prioritise this issue sufficiently? Retailers are worried that different areas receive a different response from the different forces.
Let us be absolutely clear: violence or verbal abuse of any kind is simply not acceptable for any workforce in our country. I shall take this issue forward through the national steering group, and will draw particularly on the very effective work that has been done between the police and forecourt retailers, where we put in place measures that are really improving police response around the country.
On that very point, the Minister will know that as well as seeing an increase of crime carried out on shop workers, we have also seen under-reporting of that crime. Will she urge businesses to encourage their employees to support the campaign of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers on freedom from fear and indeed to report these crimes?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point, and we very much work alongside USDAW on the national steering group that I mentioned. I absolutely back up his call that everybody should report crime. There are some excellent initiatives in town centres all over the country through which businesses and the police are working well together to ensure that such an increase in reporting happens.
Controlling and Coercive Behaviour
Mrs Newton indeed, Mr Speaker.
We introduced the new offence of controlling and coercive behaviour to shift the focus of the criminal justice system from single incidents to identifying and addressing patterns of abuse. The Home Secretary will chair a working group to drive change in how we think about and tackle domestic abuse, and this will include closely monitoring the implementation of this new offence.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but existing police powers to remove perpetrators of domestic violence from a property are tremendously under-used, largely because costs and cuts in police funding have made the situation worse. What is the Minister going to do to help protect women affected by domestic violence?
This new offence was brought in right at the end of 2015, so the Office for National Statistics will not report on the level of uptake of the new police powers until later this spring. From my conversations with the police up and down the length and breadth of the country, I know that they are making very good use of the new powers.
My hon. Friend is quite right to talk about stalking, which can be a truly devastating crime. This Government are placing an absolute priority on keeping women and girls safe across our country through extra resources, extra training and new forces so that they can go after the perpetrators of these terrible and devastating crimes.
The Opposition welcome the introduction of this legislation—it was, after all, Labour party policy—but when are the Government going to put their money where their mouth is on domestic violence? We know that local authority spending cuts have severely impacted on specialist domestic abuse services, which has meant cuts and closures. Women and children are being turned away daily at the point of need. Data from the Women’s Aid annual survey showed that on just one day in 2015, 92 women and 75 children were turned away from a refuge. When are the Government going to address the financial pressures on women’s refuges?
This Government have done more than any other to keep women and children in our country safe. It is very disappointing when the right hon. Lady takes a partisan approach to something that should unite the House rather than dividing it. As she knows, we have committed £20 million to refuges, and we have an £80 million transformation fund. Grassroots organisations throughout the country are benefiting from our record level of investment in services to keep women and children safe.
It is very disappointing that the Minister is not prepared to accept that, as a result of local government cuts, services are being reduced and refuges are closing. As for the question of resources, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary recently flagged up failings on the part of the police when they were dealing with the most vulnerable victims. In at least two forces, domestic abuse risk assessments were being conducted over the telephone. This is a consequence of trying to deal with increasing levels of demand with few resources, and if the Government are serious about combating domestic violence, they must make those resources available.
I very much welcome HMIC’s work in inspecting the police response to domestic abuse and violence. It is making excellent progress, as we saw in the police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy programme—PEEL—reports last week. However, the right hon. Lady is right to point out that some force areas have more work to do. That is why we are helping the College of Policing to ensure that training is available, and why we are investing record amounts in the police transformation fund, which is enabling more organisations to provide the services that women and girls all over the country deserve.
Coercion and controlling behaviour take different forms. Will the Minister undertake to extend the legislation to the postal voting regime? At every election, the votes of thousands of women are stolen through abuse of the postal voting system during so-called community voting, largely in the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities. That is not acceptable, and the Government need to act now.
My hon. Friend has raised an incredibly important issue. What could be more important than people’s fundamental right to express their opinions at the ballot box, and to elect representatives to town councils and the House of Commons? We shall be taking a very close look at what more we can do to use those powers, and any others, to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to vote.
Leaving the EU: Policing
As the Prime Minister made clear in her Lancaster House speech in January, our commitment to co-operation with European partners on security and law enforcement will be undiminished by our leaving the European Union. The Home Office is working with operational law enforcement partners to examine all the different ways of delivering that result, and to find a practical, co-operative way of supplying certainty as we leave the EU.
The sharing of intelligence with our European counterparts is vital to the work of our police forces in keeping our citizens and country safe, and data-sharing underpins that co-operation. How will the Home Office meet the challenge of maintaining those arrangements when Britain has left the European Union?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The use of data is critical in our fight against cross-border crime and terrorism, and will always remain a priority for us. We value the co-operation that we have at present through the European Criminal Records Information System and the Schengen Information System. We want our future relationship with the EU to include practical arrangements so that we can engage with it on that basis, and I can reassure my hon. Friend that that is also what our EU partners want.
The Home Secretary’s predecessor, now the Prime Minister, said that ditching the European arrest warrant would make Britain
“a honeypot for all of Europe’s criminals on the run from justice”.
Can the Home Secretary guarantee that we will continue to participate in European arrest warrant co-operation?
I certainly agree with the principle that the European arrest warrant is an effective tool that is essential to the delivery of effective judgment on the murderers, rapists and paedophiles on whom we have managed to seek judgment. It is a priority for us to ensure that we remain part of the arrangement, and I can reassure Members in all parts of the House that our European partners want to achieve that as well.
Police National Computer
The PNC central bureau is operated by the Metropolitan police, and it processes all licence notifications on behalf of police forces in England and Wales. A sample of transactions in the bureau are checked daily for accuracy by supervisors.
I understand from Ministers that this problem was rectified last year, which I am happy to learn. However, is there any more the Department can do to work with families like the one here with me today whose son was murdered by an individual on licence? I pay tribute to Andrea Sharpe on her efforts to close this gap. Will the Department work with families to ensure that they get the support they need so that cases like that of Tanis Bhandari cannot happen again?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Fortunately, very few of us in this House can ever understand or will ever have to go through what the family of Tanis Bhandari had to go through; that was a tragic incident that we all wish would never happen to anybody. My hon. Friend is right that the process around post-sentence supervision has changed following the implementation of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014, but I am always willing, as, I know, are colleagues at the Ministry of Justice—I think my hon. Friend has arranged for the family to meet the Secretary of State for Justice later today—to look at what more we can learn from the experiences of today and the past.
Leaving the EU: Residency Rights
The Prime Minister has made it clear that one of her 12 negotiating priorities is to secure the status of EU nationals already living in the UK as soon as possible, once formal negotiations have begun. She has also made it clear that she seeks a deal based on reciprocity, which also secures the status of UK nationals living elsewhere in the EU.
The cross-party Exiting the European Union Committee published its second report yesterday. It unanimously agreed that the Government should make a unilateral decision to safeguard the rights of EU nationals living in the UK. Will the Home Secretary now commit to doing so?
I will of course read the report with the respect and interest that it deserves. Nevertheless, I feel that reciprocity is an important part of securing the position not only of the EU nationals, who add such value to our economy and are so welcome here, but the UK citizens who live their lives abroad in the EU.
This weekend, Rita Windham-Wright, a Hungarian national living in Oban told me that she and her family were considering leaving Scotland, Celia Krezdorn from Helensburgh, a Swiss national married to a German, whose children are Scottish, told me they have no idea what the future holds for them, and Jean Michel Voinot from Lochgilphead asked whether his family will be able to hold together. Given that the Exiting the European Union Committee said it would be “unconscionable” if such people were to be denied clarity about their future, how do the Government intend to—
I urge the hon. Gentleman to reassure his constituents, if that is what they are, about how valued they are for the contribution they make to the UK economy. I also point out that the recent immigration statistics show that we remain just as popular a destination as ever for EU nationals.
We cannot even deport convicted criminals. The reality is that even if we wanted to, which we do not, we are not going to deport a single EU national. It seems to me that we might as well acknowledge this fact now, while reserving the right, in the extremely unlikely possibility of our EU partners deporting any UK citizens—which they will not, for the same practical reasons—to change our mind. But let us at least reassure these people now.
My hon. Friend makes a very fair observation about the reality of the situation. I point out, however, that as he seeks the assurance and certainty that the EU citizens who are here want, I seek it, too, for the UK citizens who are in other parts of the EU. It is a priority; the Prime Minister has said that she will move on to that as soon as negotiations begin.
Does the Home Secretary agree that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) could refer his constituents to the acquired rights EU citizens might have under the Vienna convention? Those same rights might not be available to UK citizens abroad, who also need our protection.
The Home Secretary advises Members to tell their EU constituents that they are safe, and many of us have been doing that, but, frankly, they need to hear it from her and from the Prime Minister. We really need the Government to step up and say to those individuals that their lives here in Britain are secure, at the same time as trying to ensure that the people who went from Britain to Spain will be equally secure.
I understand the concerns that the right hon. Lady has raised. We have all experienced this as MPs in our surgeries. My point to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) was that as MPs we can give that reassurance that EU citizens are valued here and that it is the Prime Minister’s intention to do that. We will make it a priority as we begin the EU negotiations.
The Home Secretary talks about reciprocal arrangements, but when she gets round to reading the report from the Exiting the European Union Committee, she will see that representatives of UK citizens living abroad, to a man and woman, gave evidence to the Committee that they want the British Government to give a unilateral guarantee to EU citizens living here because they think that it will benefit British citizens abroad. Will she listen to the voices of UK citizens living abroad and give that unilateral guarantee?
There are more than 1 million UK citizens living in the European Union, and they are not all represented by the groups that gave evidence to the Brexit Committee. I care about every one of those UK citizens, and I repeat that it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that we protect their position as much as we protect that of EU citizens.
Last week, the chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce pointed out that Scotland relies heavily on EU residents for the supply of labour. She said that business in Scotland wants a separate deal for immigration in Scotland. The Exiting the European Union Committee has said that the UK Government should respond fully and speedily to the Scottish Government’s proposals for a differential immigration policy for Scotland. Will the Home Secretary listen to the voice of business in Scotland and give a guarantee that that full and speedy response will be given without further delay?
Is the Secretary of State aware that British public opinion increasingly thinks that the Government are being callous in continuing to seek to use EU nationals as bargaining chips? Is she also aware that, given the cloud of uncertainty hanging over EU nationals and their families, employers in sectors that rely on their labour—notably financial services, health and education—want that uncertainty to be removed?
It is because we care about employers and the jobs that they provide that we will be consulting during the summer on the right form of immigration process to put in place as we leave the European Union. There is no question but that this Government are going to continue to listen carefully to the employers who have provided so many jobs to people in the UK and quite a few in the European Union as well.
Unaccompanied Refugee/Asylum-seeking Children
The Government undertook a comprehensive consultation with local authorities in order to assess their capacity to accept unaccompanied children. This consultation included 10 regional events in each part of England, and events in Scotland and Wales, which were attended by representatives of more than 400 local authorities.
When the Calais camp was cleared last year, 550 of the 750 children who came to the UK did so under an accelerated process based on the family reunion criteria of the Dublin regulation, which has since been discontinued. How will the Minister ensure that refugees in Greece, France, and Italy, including unaccompanied children with family members in the UK, can be reunited with their families?
The Dublin process works well and is well established. Indeed, a member of the Home Office staff is embedded in Athens, helping the process to work. Although we had a fast-track system during the Calais clearances, it is important that, first, we identify that the children are who they say they are and, secondly, that they can be properly cared for by the family they are placed with.
The Prime Minister did much to lead the campaign against human trafficking, and we are undoubtedly the best country in Europe at countering human traffickers, but I am still concerned about one area in which the traffickers operate: children who are given to local authorities and then re-trafficked. Will the Minister assure us that the Government are following up on children who have been placed in care to ensure that they are still in care?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s long campaign on this issue. He is right that it is a concern that children placed with local authorities may abscond due to traffickers wanting their pay day—for want of a better phrase. It is absolutely right that local authorities understand their responsibility to care for those children and to ensure that their safety is maintained.
The Minister will have seen the Home Affairs Committee report, which is out today, that sets out the evidence we heard from charities and the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner about the increased risk of child trafficking if the Dubs scheme closes, from councils about their extra capacity, and from the Local Government Association that thousands more places could be available if the right funding is in place. New clause 14 to the Children and Social Work Bill, which is before the House tomorrow, has cross-party support, so will the Minister agree to seek further evidence from the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner and from local councils on their capacity, rather than rushing to close the Dubs scheme?
I certainly look forward to appearing before the right hon. Lady’s Committee to give the Government’s side of the story. I do not recognise the figures that I saw, and I suspect that some of the methodology behind them will not bear too much scrutiny. If spaces are available with local authorities, it is important that they are made available for the national transfer scheme. Kent County Council, for example, has 400 surplus children over its normal capacity—Croydon is another—which makes things difficult.
I pay tribute to local authorities such as Cambridgeshire that not only take in children under the national transfer scheme but make families welcome under our scheme for the 20,000 children and their families coming from the camps around Syria and the 3,000 children and their families from the wider middle east and north Africa area.
On Holocaust Memorial Day, Michael Brown movingly described his experiences as a child refugee fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 and advocated the need for Britain to be open to children from Europe fleeing atrocities today. Numerous local authorities, such as Ealing, Hammersmith, and even Hastings—the Home Secretary’s backyard—are willing to take more, so why are the Government pulling the plug on the world’s most vulnerable by closing the Dubs scheme?
If any parallels are to be drawn between Nazi Germany and the situation nowadays, they would be in the situation in Syria, not in our European neighbours and partners. I point out for the record that of the 750 children we took from Calais under both Dubs and Dublin fewer than 10 were actually from Syria. We should concentrate on the children and their families most in need, and they are the ones in the refugee camps in the region.
Immigration Rules: Spouse Visas
The Supreme Court has now endorsed our approach in setting a minimum income threshold for spouse visas to prevent burdens on the taxpayer and ensure that migrant families can integrate into our communities. That is central to building an immigration system that works in the national interest.
The Supreme Court has described the financial threshold that forces UK citizens to choose between their country and their family as being “particularly harsh.” Will the Minister put families and children ahead of the illogical and arbitrary net migration target, ditch the £18,600 threshold or, at the very least, consider the circumstances of those in low-paid employment?
Refugee Camp: Calais
Both countries are alive to the risk of new camps forming in northern France and are continuing to work together to combat the criminal groups that facilitate people smuggling. The UK Government are contributing up to £36 million to support the situation in Calais and ensure that the camp remains closed in the long term.
Many economic migrants dispersed from Calais refuse to apply for asylum in France, so they are not fingerprinted there: thus they can get smuggled to the UK and claim asylum here. Has the Minister urged upon the French authorities the desirability of all such individuals being fingerprinted in France and the records exchanged?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The principle of first safe country is central to the asylum policy. If people are in France, they should claim asylum in France and have their fingerprints taken. We can then use those biometrics in the Dublin process to ensure that the people are dealt with properly. We certainly urge our French friends to ensure that that can be done, and we encourage asylum seekers in France to go through that process.
I urge the Minister to do all he can to make sure that a new “jungle” does not form at Calais this year. It is not just about the humanitarian squalor to which 10,000 people were shamefully condemned. It is also essential that we stop the terrible pull factors that draw people on these terrible and dangerous journeys across Europe.
The site of the former Calais camp remains clear and there is ongoing work, supported by UK funding, permanently to remove all former camp infrastructure and accommodation and to restore the site to its natural state. That work will help to prevent any re-establishment of squats or camps in the area.
Thank you for the second opportunity, Mr Speaker. My constituent Bashir Naderi came to Cardiff as an unaccompanied child refugee aged 10. Two months ago, Bashir and I personally delivered to the Home Secretary my letter and a petition against his forced removal to Afghanistan signed by more than 14,000 people. I have had no acknowledgment from the Home Secretary, never mind a response to the letter or the petition. When will she reply to me?
Police and Security Services: Terrorist Prevention
The UK has one of the world’s most effective legal regimes to empower our law enforcement agencies and security services to tackle terrorism. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the Terrorism Act 2000 and, more recently, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 form the foundation of our continued strategy to counter terrorism in the 21st century.
Given what the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) said earlier about the excellent efforts of our security services to protect this country, it is clearly not just about powers but about people, too. To that end, will my hon. Friend the Minister join me in commending Hampshire constabulary for its excellent progress on recruiting firearms officers to work with our security services, and will he confirm that the recent Government funding allocation has made provision to train more firearms officers?
I ask my hon. Friend to reflect on the answer given by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but I put on record our appreciation of the extra efforts of forces across the country in delivering the extra £144 million armed uplift that, as my right hon. Friend has said, will see an extra 1,000 armed officers and additional round-the-clock specialist teams operating across the whole country.
Non-UK EU Nationals: Status Regularisation
The latest data show that in the two quarters following the referendum 136,479 applications for residence documentation were received from EU nationals and their family members, and the application fee for this documentation is £65.
Three per cent. of Newcastle’s population are EU nationals, and be they in our hospitals, universities, restaurants or high-tech start-ups—or in our championship- topping football team—they are an integral part of our lives. Does the Minister realise how insecure they feel as bargaining chips, and how does he justify charging them for the privilege?
I would certainly pay tribute to the contribution that EU nationals make in all spheres of life, not least football, but particularly in the health service and our public services. While they are here and we are members of the European Union, they can exercise their treaty rights. As the Home Secretary has said, we wish to sort this situation out as soon as possible, and of course we also need to recognise the status of UK nationals elsewhere in the EU, who deserve and want the same protections.
Many people will have documentation already available, for example, their national insurance or tax forms; they may appear on the electoral register. All sorts of documentation could be relevant in this case, but I must stress that nobody needs to get any additional documentation at this stage. We are absolutely happy that people continue making a contribution, and they should not be worried about their future here in the UK.
I urge caution about describing these people as “bargaining chips”. It is absolutely right that we are keen early in the negotiations to secure the status of EU nationals living here, but at the same time we do need to ensure that British nationals living elsewhere in the European Union get that same protection.
Some EU nationals—for example, Roma or those from central Europe—find it particularly difficult to produce documentation, as they may have been in insecure employment, have ended up sleeping rough and so on. Following on from the Minister’s answer to the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), what can be done to ensure that those who have lived, worked and contributed here but who struggle to produce documentation will also receive a fair hearing?
I stress again that there is no need for EU nationals who are living here and exercising their treaty rights to make any change in their status; there is no need for any further documentation. As we quickly get into the negotiations after triggering article 50, I hope that this will be resolved very quickly.
Metropolitan Police Funding
I will not comment on the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I would say that we can be very clear that the Metropolitan police has the resources it needs to police London. It is the best-funded force in the country in terms of direct resource funding per head of population, and it also has the most officers per head of population.
Ilford North residents worried about bread and butter crime and policing on issues such as burglary feel unlucky because the average London taxpayer pays £61 a year to subsidise the national work of the Metropolitan police. Given that, will the Government accept the recommendation of Sir Richard Mottram’s panel and provide an additional £107 million a year to fund the vital national work of the Metropolitan police?
Clearly, the Metropolitan police have a role to play in that national context that is different from other police forces. The review of the NICC—national and international capital city—contribution, which the Metropolitan police has outlined in conversations about the police funding formula review, will be done in line with that funding formula review.
Of equal importance to ensuring adequate funding for the Met police is ensuring proper funding for West Yorkshire police. There are real concerns about the use of firearms in my constituency, where firearms offences have risen by a third during the past four years. Will Ministers ensure that West Yorkshire police have the resources necessary to get these weapons off our streets?
The hon. Lady just highlighted the cross-party calls from across this House to see that police funding formula review work done, ensuring that we are properly reflecting things. The current formula is immensely out of date, and it is well known and well accepted that that needs to be reviewed. I therefore look forward to her support in that review work.
Just over a year ago, the Chancellor promised real-terms protection for police funding, but the Met faces real-terms cuts of £47 million, Manchester faces a £12 million one and West Yorkshire faces a £9 million one—England and Wales as a whole faces a massive £200 million cut. That has consequences, with violent crime deprioritised, domestic violence victims ignored and neighbourhood policing eroded. All of that has been evidenced by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, yet we have heard nothing from the Minister except complacency. Who should the public believe: the Minister of broken promises or the independent HMIC?
I appreciate the tone in which the hon. Lady has asked the question. If she actually looks at the HMIC report, she will see that it is clear that this is not about levels of funding; the report is very much about how the police use the funding they have. I gently point out to her that, if they are using the precept abilities they have, not only is every single police force in the country, bar one, protected, but indeed, this year overall we are seeing an increase in the resources for police forces. Even in London, the police have seen a £30 million increase in their reserves, which means there has been money that they have not used.
Immigration: Indefinite Detention
Detention and removal are essential parts of an effective immigration control system, but it is vital that they are carried out with dignity and respect. When people are detained, it is for the minimum time possible. We take the welfare of detainees very seriously, which is why the Government commissioned Stephen Shaw to carry out an independent review of the welfare of vulnerable people in the detention system.
Numerous reports suggest that the Government are using indefinite detention. I commend to the Minister a report by Women for Refugee Women that sets out practical alternatives to detention as a routine part of asylum policy. I would like to see the reality for myself, yet my application to visit Yarl’s Wood as a party leader appears to have been blocked. Can he tell me the status of my application, which was first made in November and has, I understand, been referred to his office? When can I expect to get clearance?
When will the current system of detention reviews be replaced by the individual removal assessments and reviews, and when will the plan for the future of the immigration and detention estate, promised by the Minister’s predecessor last year, be published?
The UK provides protection for refugees here, in accordance with our international obligations. The Government have established a £10 million refugee children fund for Europe, provided significant assistance via the European Asylum Support Office, and allocated up to £39 million to the humanitarian response in Greece.
Why is it that only a solitary Home Office official in each of Greece and Italy is working on the Dubs and Dublin schemes? According to non-governmental organisations on the ground, the result is that the schemes are barely functioning there at all.
We work very closely with our colleagues in France, Greece and Italy. We committed 115 staff into Greece, 75 of whom are already there, including one embedded member of the Home Office staff who is helping with Dublin applications in Athens. Of course, we also have our Border Force commitment in the Mediterranean, which ensures that we save people’s lives should they make that perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
Home Office guidelines recognise that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender refugees are at serious risk in Afghanistan, but also suggest that if the individual did not attract or seek to cause public outrage, they would avoid persecution, so could be returned. Will the Minister tell us why the Home Office has decided to depart from the UN guidelines on refugees?
We aim to process all asylum claims sympathetically. Our staff are trained in interviewing asylum seekers who may have LGBT issues or, indeed, who may have converted to Christianity and find it difficult to express some of their feelings during those interviews.
Bath and North East Somerset Council has one of the best relocation programmes for unaccompanied children and for refugees in the country. However, it is struggling to enable more to come to Bath and North East Somerset due to a range of different safeguarding risks. What more support can the Government give to councils such as Bath and North East Somerset that are really struggling on safeguarding issues? Perhaps I could meet the Minister to discuss those issues.
We recognise the challenge that many local authorities face in dealing with some of these particularly vulnerable children, which is why we have increased the funding up to £40,000 for the under-16s, and to around £30,000 for 16 and 17-year-olds. I hope that will help them find the resourcing that they need to deal with those particular children.
Kent continues to be on the frontline when it comes to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in the UK, with more than 3,000 arriving each year. Given the interest in the matter across the House, will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to ensure that local authorities across the country are helping counties such as Kent and sharing the burden of these children no matter how they have come into the UK?
That is precisely why we have set up the national transfer scheme for local authorities such as Kent, which have 400 more children than the 0.07% allocation would indicate. It is also why we have encouraged local authorities that say that they have spare spaces to participate in that scheme and take the pressure off counties such as Kent and Croydon.
We are taking robust action to tackle radicalisation online and to counter the poisonous ideology that is promoted by terrorists and extremists. In 2016, our police Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit secured the removal of more than 120,000 pieces of terrorist-related content. We work with communications service providers to tackle proactively terrorist use of their platforms and we support community-based initiatives that challenge terrorist propaganda and provide credible counter narratives.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I pay tribute to the Home Secretary and her ministerial team for all they do to protect the values that we all hold so dear. With Cardiff in mind, may I ask what the Government are doing in particular to tackle extremism in this country?
In October 2015, the Government published a comprehensive new strategy to tackle all forms of extremism, including both Islamist and that from the far right. The strategy sets out an ambitious programme to deal with those who promote hatred and intolerance, which can cause real harm in our communities. When it comes to Cardiff, my hon. Friend will be aware of the extra efforts going into the Prevent programme in his local authority, and I would be delighted to visit the Prevent providers with him should he wish to make such a visit.
On Wednesday, we celebrate International Women’s Day when we recognise the achievements of women internationally and acknowledge the real challenges still faced by so many. One of my priorities as Home Secretary is to ensure that all women are protected from violence. Since 2010, we have done more than ever before to tackle gender-based violence. Last year, we launched the ending violence against women and girls strategy and pledged increased funding of £80 million in support. We have strengthened the laws and provided agencies with tools to support victims and bring perpetrators to justice. We know that there is more that we can do to bring those crimes out of the shadows, which is why the Justice Secretary and I will be leading a comprehensive programme of work to combat domestic abuse, including considering a new domestic violence Bill. The Government will continue to take steps to achieve our ambition that no woman should live in fear of abuse, and that every girl should grow up feeling safe and protected.
Parents will be shocked to know that, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, youth leaders and sports coaches are not included within the definition of a “trusted position”, which means that they can legally have sex with 16 and 17-year-olds for whom they are responsible and whom they supervise. Will the Home Secretary work with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to close that loophole in the law?
My hon. Friend gives a really good example of a very forward thinking police force in Essex. Credit must go to the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable for the work that they are doing to use modern techniques and good technology to drive forward and to be efficient and effective. That is a good example of why we are increasing the police transformation fund to some £175 million this year.
Does the Home Secretary really believe that the 45 days of support for suspected victims of trafficking is adequate, given that the organisations working at the coalface of the problem, such as the Human Trafficking Foundation, the Salvation Army, the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, the Snowdrop Project, City Hearts and ECPAT, all say that it is completely unrealistic to expect to deal with the immigration, psychological, economic and housing issues that these vulnerable individuals are experiencing in 45 days? All those organisations also agree that this lethal combination is exposing victims to the real possibility of being re-trafficked.
I think that it is important to remember that the Prime Minister has led a global challenge to crack down on slavery. We now have some of the best anti-trafficking legislation in the world, and really excellent protection for victims. What the hon. Lady said is not actually correct, because the average time that people receive through the national referral mechanism is 90 days. We are working on reforms to the system to ensure that it is absolutely the best in the world.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; arguably that will be the most watched sporting event in the world this year. It is an opportunity for the United Kingdom, and indeed for Wales, to show clearly what we have to offer. I was delighted to accept his invitation to go and meet the team down in Cardiff. We will keep a close eye on them to ensure that they have all the structural organisation they need to give everyone a fantastic event.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point—and a few wild allegations. It is this Government who set up the National Cyber Security Centre to ensure that we correctly align our response to cyber-attacks, getting it out through Cyber Aware and a range of cyber awareness campaigns to ensure that people are properly protected, working alongside manufacturers, and using the full weight and expertise of GCHQ to counter cybercrime. That is making a difference, and I hope that people are more aware, rather than scared by her allegations.
Yes. My hon. Friend’s question backs up the earlier comment from our hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), because Essex police have done some phenomenally good work, as we can see in HMIC’s report. I congratulate everybody at Essex police on that. I will urge one note of caution, however, because there are still areas that need improvement, and I expect to see the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner focusing on those to deliver for the people of Essex in future. But it is good news, so well done to them.
I can assure the hon. Lady that there is a substantial piece of work going on, with academics, police chief constables and police and crime commissioners across the country working to feed in and ensure that the police funding formula review takes account of everything it needs to take account of. A lot of people in the sector are outlining to us how pleased they are with the process. We are determined to see that through. We will see where it goes for all forces in order to get a fair formula in future.
The Government take cyber-security extremely seriously, which is why we have committed to spending £1.9 billion on cyber-security over this Parliament. The newly created National Cyber Security Centre is at the forefront of driving forward the Government’s national cyber-security strategy, which will include working with businesses and the private sector, and developing an ambitious skills programme.
I reassure my hon. Friend that we remain committed to those numbers, ensuring that we protect and move people over from the region. We have, in fact, brought over 4,369 in the past 12 months. The last Labour Government capped their figure at 750 per year, and we are pleased to be doing five times that every year.
Further to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and others, the report of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary that was published last week found that a third of police forces required improvement or were inadequate, that there was a national shortage of detectives, that neighbourhood policing is being eroded and that there is no coherent strategy for the threat posed to communities by organised criminals. Will the Home Office respond to that damning report and outline what impact the findings will have on the police funding formula review, which we expect to see in the next few weeks?
The response is for police forces, and I look forward to all police forces responding with the outcomes for their areas. I will write to all those forces that were found to require improvement. Straight after the report came out last week, I met the chief constable of the only one that was found inadequate, and I was impressed with their response to want to deal with the issues. Ultimately, there has also been a big improvement on previous years, which is good news, but the police need to respond and do the work to deliver.
I thank the Fire Minister for his intervention, which has seen Staffordshire fire authority cancel a £4 million life-skills centre. Does he agree that the fire authority was right to review the scheme as we need to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely, and that there are other ways to deliver all-important fire prevention work?
I thank my hon. Friend for her very kind comment. Importantly, the credit goes to a really good fire authority that has looked at the programme and taken a proper view on using taxpayers’ money effectively. I congratulate the authority on and thank it for that work.
My constituent, Robert Makutsa, who is a well-known figure on the Scottish music scene, has now been in detention for 38 days, which is taking a brutal toll on his mental and physical health. I wrote to the Minister for Immigration on 16 January, but have yet to receive a response. Will he now meet me to discuss Robert’s ongoing detention?
Does the Secretary of State agree that looking after adult victims of human trafficking through the Salvation Army is the best system in Europe? Will she also confirm that the 45 days mentioned is the minimum period, not the maximum?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to the incredible work he has done in helping us to put the system in place. We use third parties such as the Salvation Army, which does a fantastic job looking after people who have been trafficked. He is right that 45 days is a minimum. Quite often, we look after people for much longer, but we will always keep that under review because we want to help these vulnerable people.
At the weekend, I heard the heart-breaking story of one of the children, who has only ever known her father as a face on a laptop. When he stood up to walk away during a Skype call, she shouted, “Mummy, look! Daddy’s got legs too.” Does the Home Secretary find that as distressing as I do? If she does, and given that I have no power to do anything about it but she does, what will she do?
Will the Home Secretary give an absolute guarantee that there will be no changes in the rules relating to EU migrant labour this summer, so as to allow fruit pickers in my constituency to implement the contracts they have already entered into?
My constituent Mr Kreem was empowered by, and worked with, coalition forces in Iraq post the 2003 invasion to set up an academy to train security forces in Mosul. That work put his and his family’s lives in probable danger, particularly post the invasion of Mosul by Daesh. In 2014, the family claimed asylum, and they have still not heard back, despite numerous interventions by their previous MP with the ministerial team. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss this special and urgent case?
Trafford Council has already received 10 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and is supporting two more. The council and the community are keen to support more such children in need, but they are finding it difficult to establish with the North West Regional Strategic Migration Partnership the exact numbers they can expect over coming months. Given the uncertainty local authorities face in planning to receive such vulnerable children, what assurances can the Home Secretary give?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The fact is that it is sometimes uncertain when we are able to bring the children over to the UK. When we had the situation with Calais, we were told x number by the French one day, and it moved very quickly the next. We will always do our best to give councils as much notice as possible, but sometimes the numbers change at very short notice.
My constituent Barrie Smith was born in Dumfries, was raised in Dumfries and is 100% Scottish. Due to a mistake with his mother’s maiden name on her marriage certificate, he has been denied a passport and been told that he will need to reapply for British citizenship at the cost of £2,000. Will somebody from the Home Office meet me behind the Speaker’s Chair so that we can discuss this hideous case?
On 22 February, the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) raised a point of order about correspondence from the Department for Work and Pensions informing Members of new arrangements for accessing information about constituents’ universal credit claims. The same matter had been raised by the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) at Department for Work and Pensions oral questions on 20 February. I undertook to investigate and to report back to the House.
I can confirm to the House that there is no requirement in law for the Department to obtain explicit consent before releasing information on constituents’ universal credit claims to Members. The Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) (Elected Representatives) Order 2002 provides that a data controller may, in reliance on the order, provide sensitive personal data to a Member about a constituent, if the Member has been asked by the constituent to take up an issue on his or her behalf and the information is necessary for the purposes of that request. The Leader of the House has written to Members to confirm that position, and I am most grateful to him for doing so.
I am assured that the Department for Work and Pensions is continuing to look at how the security requirements of the new universal credit system can be made compatible with the needs of Members to act on behalf of their constituents. I would hope that Ministers will update the House as soon as possible. I hope that that is helpful to the House.
Opel/Vauxhall: Sale to PSA Group
This morning the boards of General Motors and PSA Group announced plans for PSA to acquire GM’s Vauxhall/Opel operations. The proposed deal is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
The Prime Minister and I have been engaged in discussions with both GM and PSA, and with the French and German Governments, to ensure that the terms of the agreement can give confidence to Vauxhall’s UK workforce now and for the future. Vauxhall is an iconic, important and successful British car manufacturer. Vauxhall cars have been made in Britain for 113 years, and we are determined that that should continue to be the case for many years to come.
The car plants at Ellesmere Port and Luton have a proud record of being among the most efficient in Europe, with workforces that are skilled, committed and flexible. Both PSA and GM have confirmed to the Prime Minister and me a number of important commitments, including that the company will honour its agreements with the Vauxhall workforce; that Vauxhall pensioners will be in at least as good a position as they are today; that the treatment of the UK division will be equal to that of other countries in the Vauxhall/Opel group; that the identity of Vauxhall will continue to be distinct and prominent; that the strategy of the new company will be one of building on existing strengths and commitments, not on plant closures, taking opportunities to increase sales around the world; and that the company will work with me and the rest of the automotive sector to ensure that it can participate in a substantial programme of research and investment for innovation in areas such as electric vehicles and battery technology, which is part of our industrial strategy.
This morning I had a further conversation with my French counterpart the industry Minister, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and Industry spoke again to his German counterpart to agree a consistent approach. I speak frequently with Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the largest trade union at Vauxhall, and I have kept, and will keep, colleagues with particular constituency interests up to date at all times.
It is in everyone’s interests that Vauxhall should look forward to a successful future. A generation ago, the British car industry epitomised our economic woes; today that industry is a beacon of success. Companies invest in Britain because our automotive sector has a high-quality workforce and world-class efficiency, and is part of one of the most exciting places on earth for innovation and research in new technology. The future of the motor industry is bright in Britain, and we will be active at all times in doing everything that we can to make it brighter still.
I thank the Secretary of State for that positive response, but I would like further clarification on a number of issues.
First, although I welcome PSA’s promise to honour existing contracts, I am deeply concerned about the 40,000 workers who are currently employed at Luton and Ellesmere Port and in the wider supply chain, who will be worried about the future of their jobs. What assurances has the Secretary of State personally received about the future of Vauxhall’s plants and the wider UK workforce beyond existing contracts? During his discussions with PSA, did it confirm that the production of the new Astra model would take place in the UK?
Secondly, there has been some discussion about the £1 billion deficit in General Motors’ UK pension scheme, with some commentators stating that it could have jeopardised the deal. The scheme has 15,000 members and is one of the largest in the UK. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that the pensions of the UK workforce are guaranteed in full?
Thirdly, it is increasingly clear that the Government have little power to ensure that certain corporate takeovers are in the public interest and accord with Britain’s industrial strategy. Existing legislation allows intervention only when matters relate to national security or media concentration. Does the Secretary of State have any plans to broaden the definition of public interest, for example to serve stakeholders and not just shareholders? If so, when will he publish the draft legislation?
Finally, what support has been offered to PSA following Britain’s exit from the European Union? We welcomed Nissan’s decision to remain in the UK as a result of assurances provided by this Government. Has PSA been offered the same deal? If so, would it not make sense for the Government to set out their strategy for this sector as a whole, rather than enlightening businesses one crisis at a time?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. The last two weeks have been worrying times for the workforce. The statements that have been made by both parties today have been welcomed—not just by me, but by the trade unions—as steps in the right direction. It is important that we should hold the company to account on that.
On the points that the hon. Lady mentioned, PSA has said that it will honour GM’s agreements with the unions, which extend to at least 2021. In the motor industry, as she will know, new models come in at various points. We are fortunate that both the principal models in the UK are at quite an early stage in the cycle. I want, as I am sure she does, both plants to be competitive in expanding their production in the years to come.
I have discussed pensions regularly and in detail with GM and PSA. They have given an absolute commitment that no pensioner—current or prospective—will be worse off in any way. Of course, the Pensions Regulator, which is independent of the Government, is required to confirm any changes in pension arrangements.
In terms of the takeover regime generally, the hon. Lady will know that, in this case, one overseas-owned company is being taken over by another; we are not talking about a listed UK company that falls within the UK merger regime. In discussions with my counterparts in France and Germany, I have agreed that we should take a consistent approach on the assurances that are needed. The trade unions are equally in contact with their opposite numbers in other countries.
In terms of the support available to the automotive sector, as I mentioned to colleagues a few moments ago, that sector has been a great success in this country. One of the foundations of that success is the co-operation that we have had—Government to sector, and within the sector through the Automotive Council—to invest in research and development, particularly for electric vehicles and battery storage, and to make sure that we have institutions to train the future workforce. That has been a great success, and I hope that the future owners of Vauxhall will participate in the same way as other successful UK motor industry players have done.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and his engagement with those of us who represent employees in the areas concerned—in my case, Luton. I would be grateful if he indicated what reassurance has been given to PSA in recognition of the fact that part of the strength of the Luton plant arises from the quality of the supply chain and the investment that has been made in it over recent years. I hope that he can give us some reassurance, because an understanding of that position will help to secure jobs not just at Luton, but in the supply chain, which is so important to the home counties area around Bedfordshire.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. We are talking about both the workforce directly employed by Vauxhall and the substantial employment in the supply chain. Both are very important, so this has been part of our discussions. I think that there is every opportunity—I will be vigorous in pursuing it—to expand the supply chain that supplies not only the Vauxhall plants, but other plants in this country. In the context of our industrial strategy, that is one of the avenues that we intend to expand on during the months ahead.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on securing this urgent question. I welcome the Secretary of State’s initial comments regarding guarantees on pensions and short-term jobs, which are welcome. Even then, we have to appreciate that workers are clearly experiencing some uncertainty.
I know from manufacturing plants in my constituency that being efficient does not necessarily protect them from wider politics. It is quite clear from media vox pops that some of the workers are concerned about the future impact of Brexit, given the wider European plants that they are combining with. To repeat the earlier question, what guarantees has the Secretary of State got for the wider supply chain for components, given that we are now talking about a much bigger multinational company? Has he had any discussions about the effect that the UK being outwith the customs union would have on costs and component supply for UK plants? What discussions has he had with the Chancellor about the provision of R and D money out of the £23 billion so-called investment fund, which is clearly needed to do what he talked about—to support these plants, and continue the development of electric vehicles and battery storage?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. On the first point, it is evident that these discussions are about the restructuring of GM’s operations and are not tied to Brexit. With regard to the supply chain, there are opportunities. It is very clear that PSA has been talking about expanding its production, and that should create further opportunities for the supply chain, which I intend to pursue in this country. Research and development has been an area of success for us, as is recognised by companies in the sector. With the industrial strategy challenge fund, which was announced in the autumn statement, we made a specific commitment to expand our research into battery technology in particular, and that will be very attractive to suppliers in this sector.
May I ask the Secretary of State what he has learned about PSA’s plans to build ultra-low emission vehicles in the United Kingdom—whether electric, hybrid, hydrogen or indeed liquefied petroleum gas—all of which there will be increasing demand for in the future, not least as we meet our air quality objectives?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have had many discussions about opportunities for expanding the manufacture and provision of ultra-low emission vehicles. This country has a very good reputation as a hotbed of research in that area, and PSA wants to expand its exposure to that and is doing so. I am determined that we should seize the opportunity that that gives us for our sector to go from strength to strength.
The plants at Luton and Ellesmere Port are productive and efficient. They have a highly skilled workforce that any company would be proud to employ—this is not a basket-case industry—but in the face of strong foreign Government support, we need an active and interventionist Government who are determined to safeguard these competitive skills and manufacturing assets for Britain. If the new enterprise plans to become profitable through the development of products and the supply chain, and by moving the production of Opel cars on to PSA assembly lines, what specific things will the Government pledge to do both to win the new model Astra for Britain and to develop this country’s automotive supply chain?
The Chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is absolutely right. I do not think that anyone in PSA and GM, or in the French and German Governments, would think that we have been anything other than completely active in promoting the strengths of the UK. He is absolutely right: the presence of those factories in this country is not a matter of altruism; they are efficient and they make a great contribution to the performance of the company. We will build on that through the industrial strategy. I have mentioned research and development on electric vehicles, and the training and development of the workforce is a very important asset. We have a good workforce there, which we need to keep equipped for the future. He will see in the industrial strategy, as it develops, a renewed commitment to research and training in the auto sector.
My right hon. Friend outlined how the UK automotive industry has been a huge success in recent years, and he has mentioned the industrial strategy a number of times. Will he provide a little more detail about how the industrial strategy will help us to ensure that the automotive industry continues to develop and grow?
I will, indeed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. I have mentioned two areas in particular. On research and development, bringing together our universities and research institutions with the companies in the sector through the Automotive Council is very important. On the training of people who are going to work in the sector, I have had the pleasure of visiting the campus of Warwick University, where the automotive innovation centre is being built with a school for apprentices that will train 1,000 apprentices a year to work in this sector, and those are important developments. I have mentioned the supply chain, and through the industrial strategy we will make Britain even more attractive, particularly for smaller and medium-sized enterprises to service the major companies.
I thank the Secretary of State for keeping colleagues informed as matters have developed. It is clearly good news that we have a guarantee that production will continue until the end of the current Astra run at Ellesmere Port, but there is a deep concern in the community about what will happen after that. The noises that we have heard from PSA so far have been about plants being judged on their efficiency. I am very confident that, with the track record we have at Ellesmere Port of unions and management working together, we can put a very good case forward. However, there are things beyond their control, which is where the Government can step in, whether on business rates, procurement or the supply chain. I would like assurances from the Secretary of State that he will do everything in his power to ensure that we have a competitive environment for the Ellesmere Port and Luton plants.
I will indeed. I will work with any hon. Member who has an interest in securing the future of this company and others in our economy. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The fact that plants will be judged, as they tend to be in the automotive sector for new models, on the basis of competitive efficiency is a strength for us in this country, because our automotive plants are the strongest in the world. I would rather we competed on efficiency. I will work, through the Automotive Council and our industrial strategy, to ensure that all the competitive elements that have been so successful to date will continue and increase.
Like my right hon. Friend and other Cheshire Members, I want to ensure that the renaissance we have seen in the automotive sector in recent years continues for decades to come. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps he will take to improve technical skills and apprenticeships to ensure that automotive manufacturers in Cheshire and elsewhere in the north-west get the support they need in the years ahead?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute again to the workforce in both plants and in Vauxhall’s other operations in this country. They are efficient and highly committed, and they have been very flexible. As technology changes, we need to keep their skills up to date. The automotive sector is aware of that and is working with the Government on institutions to train not just apprentices, but other people in the industry. That will have my full-hearted commitment.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the Luton workforce are brilliant. They produce a superb vehicle. Today’s news is very positive, but Britain is still a net importer of motor vehicle products, in particular high value added components. Will he discuss with PSA the possibility of developing more high value added production in the supply chain over here, particularly in view of the recent depreciation of sterling, which looks likely to be permanent?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his engagement over the past few weeks. He knows the workforce in Luton well and what he says about them is absolutely right. There is a big opportunity across the automotive sector to increase the supply chain. It is one of the areas where we can make further progress in what is already a successful sector. We will do that through the industrial strategy and it will have my personal engagement.
We want to make sure that we have the best possible trading relationship with the rest of the single market, but whether we were leaving or staying in the EU the opportunity to get more suppliers in this country is there, and I am determined that we should take it.
I have constituents who work in the Ellesmere Port plant and many others are reliant for their employment on local supply chains, so this is causing huge worry in the area. What can the Secretary of State say to reassure my constituents about the future, particularly given that our employment laws make it easier to sack workers in the UK compared with those who work in France and Germany, which puts them at an immediate disadvantage? What can he say to reassure them about the fact that we are leaving the EU and the single market, which again potentially puts them at a disadvantage in the competition to come?
What I would say to the hon. Lady is, first, that the reason we have a successful record in this country is that our car plants and their workforces are highly efficient, and we should not forget that. Secondly, the commitments given—they have been shared with the trade unions—are to honour agreements that include the trade unions, which I think she will welcome. In the long term, we want to expand the industry. We want to take every opportunity to work with the automotive sector to increase the number of good jobs available to her constituents and people across the country.
I welcome PSA’s assurances that it will continue to respect the commitments made by General Motors to Vauxhall’s employees and, very importantly, Vauxhall’s pensioners. Can the Secretary of State assure us that he will continue to engage and work with PSA in the weeks and months to come to ensure not only that any assurances are kept, but that PSA will continue to build on the success of both plants for the long term?
I will indeed. As soon as we heard about these proposals, my colleagues and I engaged immediately with the management and the unions of this country and with our counterparts. My engagement in our activity will not let up in the weeks ahead. These assurances are welcome, as everyone has noted, but we need to make sure that they are implemented in practice.
I echo the thanks to the Secretary of State for his efforts to keep those of us with a constituency interest involved. I am most grateful to him. Does he accept that our car industry is at a competitive disadvantage compared with those in other European countries because of the way that business rates operate, and that when new plant is installed, it increases business rate costs? Will he speak to his colleagues in the Government to see if we can find a way around this disincentive to invest?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, but I remind him and colleagues that this country is a competitive place in which to do business, including in the car manufacturing sector. Different countries will have different policies. I am determined to make sure that we are competitive and that we remain competitive so that we can expand our production in the future.
I have talked about the supply chain in general, and I think that there are opportunities right across the supply chain—from individual components to materials—and I want to make full use of that. We are discussing with the steel industry a steel sector deal, part of which is to make sure that there are bigger opportunities, especially by UK customers, to make greater use of steel products.