House of Commons
Thursday 16 March 2017
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
CULTURE, MEDIA AND SPORT
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
Leaving the EU: Creative Industries
Before I start, I remind the House that, as per today’s Order Paper, I plan to make a statement on the proposed merger of 21st Century Fox and Sky after business questions, so I will not answer any questions on the subject during oral questions this morning, but I will of course be happy to do so at the Dispatch Box later.
We have been engaging with representatives from across the creative industries to understand the potential impact and opportunities of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, including on funding. The Treasury has announced that it will guarantee funding for structural and investment fund projects between the time we leave the EU and 2020.
Blaenau Gwent has been the filming location for everything from “Wrath of the Titans” and “Doctor Who” to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. I am keen for the British film industry to thrive after Brexit, so will the Government negotiate for the UK to stay in Creative Europe, the vital film funding programme which our brilliant British Film Institute helps hold together?
I join the hon. Gentleman in praising Blaenau Gwent. I also praise not only all the parts of Wales that are used as filming locations for some fantastic films and television programmes, but the studios in Cardiff where many great programmes, including “Doctor Who”, are filmed. I am aware of the views about Creative Europe, and we are looking at all the European funds and making decisions about the appropriate response from the United Kingdom to those funds after we leave the European Union.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recognition of the importance to the creative industries of their ability to license on an exclusively territorial basis. Will she ensure that that message gets across to the UK permanent representation in Brussels so that it argues that case as strongly as possible while we remain in the EU?
I can say categorically yes. My right hon. Friend’s point is one reason why people were concerned about our membership of the EU and one of the things that led to the vote on 23 June last year.
Leaving the EU could affect not only funding, but the growth of the creative industries, which contribute £87.1 billion a year—£160,000 a minute—to the UK’s economy. What safeguards is the Secretary of State putting in place to protect this currently thriving sector of UK plc?
I also want to take this opportunity to put on the record my enormous thanks to the Secretary of State and her team for bringing forward “ban the bots” legislation and taking on board all the recommendations of the Waterson report.
I thank the hon. Lady for that comment. The two of us first met to discuss the matter probably about three years ago when I was a Home Office Minister and had responsibility for it through the organised crime portfolio. She has campaigned long and hard to achieve this result. She and my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) deserve great credit for the fact that we have reached this point.
The hon. Lady rightly says that the creative industries are a great British success story, which is one reason why they are mentioned explicitly in our industrial strategy Green Paper. It is worth saying that the creative industries are a success because they are truly global. The European Union is not the only market that they look at; they look across the whole world, and I want to ensure that they continue to be a success.
We are very grateful.
Does the Secretary of State agree that there has been cross-fertilisation of creative and artistic talent among all the peoples of Europe for at least several millennia, and that there is no reason to suppose that that will stop once we leave the European Union?
I will take your hint about brevity, Mr Speaker, and say yes.
All across Europe, our competitors in the creative industries are ready to pounce, believing that Brexit uncertainty is their opportunity. By refusing to guarantee the residency rights of EU nationals this week, does the Secretary of State realise that the Government have once again shown themselves to be a poor champion for those in this and so many other sectors in the UK?
We have had debates about EU nationals at length in this House and in the other place. We have been clear that we want early certainty not only for EU nationals here in the UK, but for UK nationals in Europe. It is incredibly important that we get that reciprocal arrangement as soon as possible so that we can give that certainty.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport recently visited Belfast, where we were able to visit the “Game of Thrones” set. We asked about the EU contribution to the Northern Ireland creative industries and, to my surprise, EU funding as such did not come up but access to a UK talent pool did. Does she therefore believe that Government investment should be focused on building that talent pool?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. We need to make sure that we have the skills and talent here in the UK and that we attract the brightest and best from around the world. I look forward to visiting Northern Ireland. A few political issues are stopping me doing so at the moment, but as soon as they are resolved I will make that visit.
Leaving the EU: Charities and Voluntary Sector
The Government are assessing the impact of leaving the EU on the voluntary and community sector. We are in ongoing discussions about the challenges and opportunities that leaving the EU presents, and I encourage charities to raise specific concerns with relevant lead Departments. We will continue to work with the sector and with devolved Administrations, including the Welsh Assembly, as we plan our exit from the EU.
I thank the Minister for his response and I place on record that I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on charities and volunteering. He will be aware that this is a serious situation, with somewhere between £350 million and £450 million being seen as the Brexit shortfall, and that does not include match funding. Can we have some assurances that there will be a long-term strategy, and not just in terms of current funding?
I thank the hon. Lady for her work on the all-party group, which obviously has support both inside and outside this House and is of great benefit to the sector. On working with the sector on funding, leaving the EU means that we will want to make our own decisions on how we deliver the policy objectives previously targeted by EU funding. For projects signed after the 2016 autumn statement, funding will be honoured by the Treasury after we leave the EU if it provides strong value for money and is in line with domestic priorities.
According to the Directory of Social Change, the money that charities get from the EU amounts to some 0.5% of the sector’s income. Does my hon. Friend agree that the opportunities afforded by the Government’s proposals to access dormant funds will go a long way towards covering any shortfall in funding from the EU, and might exceed it?
Indeed, I do. Last year, according to the Charity Commission, the sector received about £73 billion in income. The Government have a number of funding mechanisms that are aiding the sector now, and £5 billion of tax reliefs and other support is in place to make sure that the charity sector can go from strength to strength.
Charity legislation is devolved from the EU, so it is a UK responsibility, and within the UK responsibility for charity legislation is devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Government are listening very closely to all parts of civil society across the UK, and we will be working closely with them to make sure that we have a long-term plan and a long-term strategy.
The Brexit Secretary tells us that he has done no work to understand the implications for the country of a no-deal Brexit. What work has the Minister done to understand the implications of a no-deal Brexit for charities, not just in terms of funding but in terms of the sector’s extremely diverse workforce?
There is an enormous amount of ongoing work, and we recognise that civil society organisations have a wide range of important views on Brexit. We have chaired a number of roundtables with representatives from the sector, and we are working very closely with the sector. As I said in a previous answer, we have a long-term plan and strategy to make sure that the sector is supported.
I can tell the House that independent figures show that superfast broadband is now available to 92.5% of UK premises; we are on track to meet our manifesto commitment of 95% by the end of the year.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. The superfast roll-out in Northamptonshire is ahead of schedule, but what reassurance can he give to my constituents in the most difficult-to-reach areas, particularly those who find themselves on county boundaries, that they will soon benefit from this roll-out, too?
My hon. Friend’s support for the Digital Economy Bill means that the universal service obligation to bring high-speed broadband to every premise in the UK is getting closer to reality. Not only that, but because of the take-up of superfast broadband, every person in Northamptonshire who takes it up also helps to get the roll-out to go further, because more money goes back into the system to provide more connection.
It is shameful that seven out of the 10 UK communities with the slowest broadband download speeds are in Wales. Abererch in Dwyfor is bottom of that league, with a speed of 2.7 megabits per second. Llanymawddwy in Meirionnydd was promised broadband by this spring, but BT backed out last month. Will the Minister join me in asking when the Labour Welsh Government will speed up their act on broadband?
Of course the delivery of the broadband contract in Wales is a matter for the Welsh Government, but they have made some progress on this recently and we have been working together. The geography of Wales means that the roll-out there is harder, but that does not mean we should not get to everybody with high-speed broadband by the end of the decade. I hope that the hon. Lady’s support for the Digital Economy Bill will help to make that happen.
In my village of Tholthorpe, 12 of 100 houses have not been enabled for superfast broadband, although the rest have. Openreach could solve this problem by the simple deployment of a wireless connection, but it refused to do so. The Minister met me to discuss this, so does he agree that contractors taking public money should use all means at their disposal to solve these problems?
Yes, I do.
Does the Minister accept that often, even though the Government may say they have met their targets and the broadband providers will say that they have got fantastic speeds, people in their house or in their business will experience speeds that are much, much slower and nowhere near what the Government are promising? I am not attacking the Government in saying this; I am simply trying to get reality into the equation, so that people in their homes and in their businesses can get proper superfast broadband.
Working with the hon. Gentleman on this subject has been unusually enjoyable, because he is not making party political points on this one; he has been working hard for his constituents and we have been engaged in serious correspondence. The truth is that we use independent figures on the roll-out, but a lot of people do not take up the broadband that is available to them.
We are immensely grateful to the Minister. I would call the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) on this question if he were standing, but if he does not stand, I will not do so.
I am glad to say that he is standing, so I call Mr David Rutley.
Yes, I can. In the Budget we announced that we are going to have a full-fibre business voucher. This means that businesses will be able to access a voucher to help provide a full-fibre connection, giving gigabit speeds. The first wave of projects will be towards the end of this year or the start of next year, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend on implementing that deal.
Does the Minister think that this super-duper broadband, which is relatively new to me, will be able to expose, even more so, the Tory election fraud covering 20 seats? What a wonderful idea!
I thought that even the hon. Gentleman was going to join in this non-partisan celebration of connectivity, but unfortunately he could not resist.
Data from the House of Commons Library show that the rural Higham and Pendleside ward in my constituency suffers some of the worst levels of broadband, with a quarter of residents experiencing absolutely pathetic download speeds. Will my right hon. Friend get his Department to sit down with Superfast Lancashire and Openreach to find a way forward for that ward?
Yes, we are making some progress in Lancashire, but there is much more to do. I hope that my hon. Friend’s support for the Digital Economy Bill and the universal service obligation will help to make sure that we can connect everybody in Lancashire with a decent speed over the next couple of years.
We are firmly committed to improving diversity and social mobility in broadcasting, as we are in all other areas of the creative industries. Next week, we will host the first ever formal diversity forum at the Abbey Road Studios, bringing together people from music, film, theatre, broadcasting and sport to build a country that works for everyone.
Will the Minister update the House on the discussions he is having and the progress that is being made on securing minimum levels of access—subtitling, signing and audio description—in on-demand services?
We have made some progress with on-demand services, and the broadcasters do a very good job of making sure that subtitling is available. Technology has obviously changed the way people consume video, and a lot more of it is on-demand, so we are going to introduce rules to ensure that on-demand gets the same sort of subtitling.
In October last year, the BBC “Look North” reporter Danny Carpenter was suspended for making vile comments about the Government, relating them to a Nazi regime. I have written several letters to the BBC to find out how its investigations are coming along, but it has not given me an answer. Does the Minister agree that although we agree with diversity of opinion and views in broadcasting, the BBC should take action regarding Mr Carpenter to prevent the recurrence of such ridiculous bias?
We rightly do not have direct Government regulation of the BBC regarding such matters, and I think that is appropriate. Nevertheless, through the new charter we are introducing Ofcom as the regulator. That will be the case once the Digital Economy Bill becomes law, after which it will be for Ofcom to regulate the BBC, and the BBC’s board will ultimately be responsible for making sure it gets these judgments right.
In a previous DCMS questions, the Minister of State told the House that he had chosen four white males for the Channel 4 board and rejected a well-qualified BAME woman because he rejected tokenism. However, this week the Secretary of State failed to appoint a BBC governor to represent Wales because she could not get her way and appoint a women who was not assessed as the best candidate. Is not the only diversity here that between the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, who thinks he should be the Secretary of State?
No. On the Welsh appointment to Wales, it is a great pity that although the Welsh Government had a representative on the panel who signed off the appointability of the candidate, the Welsh Minister then decided not to appoint. Given that the Welsh Government agreed that the candidate in question was appointable, it would be far better for the appointment to be made.
Creative Industries: Skills
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues about the UK’s creative industries, and I am pleased that the creative industries are at the heart of the Government’s work on building our industrial strategy. The Green Paper includes an early sector review of the creative industries, which will be led by Sir Peter Bazalgette. It is critical that our world-leading creative industries have access to the skills they need, and that is one of the three themes of Sir Peter’s review.
I do not know whether the Secretary of State is aware, but there is an acute skills shortage in the creative industries. The simplest way to change that is through apprenticeships. However, there are insufficient training establishments and not enough support for relevant small and medium-sized enterprises compared with, say, construction or engineering, and there is absolutely no history of training apprenticeships in the industry. Is the Secretary of State aware of those problems? What is she doing about them?
I am very aware of those problems. Structural issues with the creative industries have prevented apprenticeships from being included in the past. As part of the work of the Creative Industries Council, we have a specific workstream on skills, and I am in discussions with the Department for Education about how we get those apprenticeship opportunities.
Charities and Voluntary Sector: Funding
I have been reforming the charities sector and widening its strength and depth as part of a long-term plan. There are a number of sources of finance. Most recently, the Dormant Assets Commission has reported that there might be up to £2 billion of additional dormant assets, which could be transformational for the sector.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. In Suffolk, the Community First Endowment Match Challenge was extremely successful in leveraging local donations for grassroots causes, with private giving matched to almost three times the initial donation. Will the Minister meet me and the Suffolk Community Foundation to discuss how such an endowment challenge might be reintroduced?
I am very pleased to hear about the Suffolk foundation’s success. The Community First Endowment Match Challenge raised a permanent endowment of £130 million, which has provided £5.8 million in grants to local groups up to the end of 2015. It will continue to support local community groups and projects across England in the future. There are no plans to expand this programme in the current Parliament, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this further and, in due course, to see whether we can consider how dormant assets are spent.
I call Stewart Malcolm McDonald. Not here. Oh dear, where is the feller?
Access to the Arts
We seem to have moved on very quickly, Mr Speaker.
The Government are committed to ensuring that the arts are accessible to everyone, regardless of their background, and not just to the privileged few. That is why the Government’s culture White Paper, which was published a year ago this month, sets out a range of commitments to increase access and participation, including a new cultural citizens programme for young people.
Will the Secretary of State read the report on access to the professions by the all-party group on social mobility, which I chair? During our evidence sessions, we heard a great deal about how many young people are completely denied access to the arts and media because they are not prepared, or cannot afford, to take a series of unpaid work placements. That is really limiting access, so will the Secretary of State seriously consider the report’s recommendation of banning unpaid internships lasting more than one month?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the all-party group; I will look carefully at the points that he has made. This Government have done much to change the culture of unpaid internships. I for one have never taken on an unpaid intern; I have always made sure that there is fair recompense for people who make a valuable contribution to my office.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Royal Opera House regularly screens performances right around the country—I am particularly familiar with the ballet—which means that anyone can see them locally, without having to come to London.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The screening of the Royal Opera House’s productions across the country has widened access. I feel very strongly that we should have fantastic regional arts. Last Friday, I saw some fantastic arts in Hull, the city of culture. That amazing work was about ensuring that the arts were getting to everybody.
Will the Secretary of State look at some of the work that we did when I chaired the Education Committee on young people’s access to the arts, including access to museums? What we found was that if a child from a more deprived background did not go on a school visit, they did not go at all, whereas middle-class children went with their parents. It is vital that we encourage schools to take kids to the arts and to museums.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. This Government made a manifesto commitment to keep free access to museums to ensure that access is available to young people, whatever their background.
Arts and Culture: Local Authority Funding
Local authorities should recognise the huge benefits that investing in arts and culture can bring. Many already do, and are building successful partnerships to deliver arts and culture, and to develop new models of working together.
The Government really ought to recognise the importance of investing in local authorities to deliver these services but, given the crisis in their funding, philanthropic giving is playing an increasingly important role. The Minister will be aware, I think, of the success of “Going Public”, which is a Museums Sheffield initiative on private giving. Will he agree to meet me and Museums Sheffield to discuss what more can be done on that front?
Yes, I would be delighted to, not least because the best local authorities are increasing their investment in arts and culture, as they see its value in strengthening the sense of place and ensuring that arts are available to all. There is no excuse for not doing so.
An innovative new organisation called Arts Taunton has just been established in my constituency to infiltrate art and culture into every aspect of our lives, including the new garden town. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this sector should have an equal weighting with other sectors and, indeed, that it can not only raise spirits, but benefit the economy?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. I commend initiatives such as Arts Taunton for embedding arts, culture and creativity in all aspects of life. It is incredibly important that people of all ages have the opportunity to participate and are encouraged to do so.
Youth Football Contracts
I am aware of concerns relating to youth football contracts in Scotland and have followed up the matter with the English football authorities in the light of this question. In relation to youth football in Scotland, I understand that the Scottish Government are discussing these matters with a range of stakeholders, including the football authorities, clubs, the Professional Footballers Association Scotland, and the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland.
I thank the Minister for that answer. I presume that she is aware that the Realgrassroots campaign group has highlighted that some football clubs pay as little as £1 a week for youth football players who do 30 hours’ work. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has named and shamed those clubs, but will the Minister confirm what she will do to end this exploitation?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this is a devolved issue, but I understand that the Scottish Government have emphasised strongly to the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Professional Football League that concerns must be taken seriously. We obviously take the duty of care to youngsters incredibly seriously and continue to look at this.
Broadband: Rural Communities
We are on track, as we mentioned, to deliver 95% access to superfast broadband for UK homes and businesses. By 2020, we will introduce a universal service obligation to bring high-speed broadband to all parts of our country, including the most far-flung.
Far-flung places such as London, if you start your journey in Orkney, Mr Speaker.
Faroese Telecom has a bold and exciting proposal to improve connectivity in Scotland’s islands communities, but it is in fact thwarted at every turn by Ofcom regulation. Will the Minister agree to meet me and a delegation from the islands and Faroese Telecom to discuss how we could use Ofcom as an enabler rather than an obstructer?
Yes, I would be delighted to. I am more familiar than I would ever have expected to be with Faroese Telecom’s policy because of how it has managed to roll out connectivity to the whole of those islands, and we should see whether we can do that for some of the islands in Scotland. Of course, the roll-out of superfast broadband in Scotland is done through the Scottish Government. They have been much, much slower than almost every other part of the UK—much slower than the Labour Welsh Government—but I am sure that, together, we can ensure that we bring the country together by delivering good connectivity.
In due course.
The question about privatisation is this: ITV’s profits are 26% of turnover, and Channel 4 has a £1 billion turnover. Are the Government seriously considering privatising Channel 4 and taking a quarter of its income for programming away?
The hon. Gentleman knows that in a fast-changing and challenging broadcasting environment, the Government want to ensure that Channel 4 has a strong and secure future, and that it can provide for audiences and support creative industries around the UK. I am looking at a broad range of options and, as I have said, I will report in due course.
Review of Stakes and Prizes
The Government announced a review of gaming machines and social responsibility measures, which will cover fixed odds betting terminals, on 24 October, and we expect to publish our findings in the spring.
Will the Minister reassure the House that firm action will be taken against fixed odds betting terminals—the so-called crack cocaine of gambling? In my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran and the neighbouring one, there are 135 of these machines, on which a vulnerable player can lose £100 in a mere 20 seconds. Will the Government protect the vulnerable by capping the machines’ maximum gambling stake at £2?
This is all part of the review. The hon. Lady does not have long to wait to find out what we will recommend in that review.
Since we last had oral questions to my Department, it has launched the Government’s digital strategy, which will ensure that we have the infrastructure, regulation and skills that we need to build a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone. The Dormant Assets Commission identified a potential £2 billion in such assets, which could open up new streams of funding for good causes, and we are considering the best way to proceed on that. I visited South Korea for the third Korea-UK Creative Industries Forum, launched the UK-Korea year of culture, and signed a joint statement on co-operating on the content industry. Finally, I am sure that at least most Members will join me in wishing the England team well this weekend in their attempt to break New Zealand’s record for the most consecutive wins in top-level rugby.
To echo what my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, the Secretary of State will be well aware that the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals is £100, which is 50 times the permitted cap on other high-street fruit machines. That particularly affects areas of severe deprivation, as there is great proliferation of these machines on high streets in such areas right across the UK. Does the Secretary of State recognise that that is an anomaly in gambling regulation and that far tougher regulation is required?
As the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), just said, we will make an announcement on this in the spring.
I am sure that we all share my hon. Friend’s excitement at the women’s cricket world cup returning to England this summer. We are not alone in looking forward to the tournament; I understand that a record number of tickets have been sold for the final at Lord’s, which is great news. Hon. Members may be interested to know that the first games of the tournament will coincide with Women’s Sport Week, which will provide further opportunities to celebrate women’s sport and encourage participation.
The hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) is permanently excited, not only about matters of sport, but about all matters under the sun, as far as I can tell.
Does the Secretary of State feel bound by the 2015 Conservative party manifesto?
Ah, very good. That is interesting, because that manifesto promised to lift the number of women on sports’ governing bodies to 25% by 2017, but it is 2017 already, and we have not achieved that. Did the Secretary of State think that nobody would notice, or, like the Chancellor on national insurance, did she not bother to read the manifesto?
We will be at 30% in 2017, which exceeds the manifesto commitment, because of the Government’s work on reforming sports governance, and our work with governing bodies to make sure that we have the right diversity and representation on those bodies.
Suicide is the leading cause of death of young people and the biggest killer of men under 50. The Secretary of State will know that there are clear links between certain types of media reporting and an increase in suicide rates. Will she join me in commending the work done by Samaritans through its media guidelines, and its tireless work to reduce suicide rates? Will she meet me to discuss the findings in the Health Committee’s report on preventing suicide, which is out today, given the role of the media, social media and the internet, and to discuss what we can do to reduce rates?
I commend my hon. Friend for her work on the Health Committee and look forward to reading the report. She is right that the media have an incredibly important role in helping to prevent suicides, not to cause them. I will, of course, sit down with her to discuss the matter.
Absolutely. Local newspapers are incredibly important. As constituency MPs we all engage with them, as well as with the national media. I will be happy to meet the NUJ and take part in the week, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Ely cathedral has benefited from funding for essential building work from the first world war centenary cathedral repairs fund. The cathedral makes a significant and real contribution to community life. What future long-term funding is there for cathedrals?
I was delighted recently to announce additional funding for many cathedrals around the country, including Ely. Cathedrals play an important part in our appreciation of heritage in the United Kingdom, so we continue to support the Heritage Lottery Fund to ensure that it continues to invest in cathedrals and other buildings of great importance.
The prominence of PSBs is important. We are ensuring that S4C gets the funding that it needs—more than £6 million last year and more than £6 million next year. We have repeatedly made it clear that we strongly support S4C, which was a great Tory invention.
In a woeful performance before the Home Affairs Committee earlier this week, managers from Google, Twitter and Facebook admitted that they do virtually nothing proactively to reduce hate speech, extremism or child abuse from being hosted on their sites. Is it not time that we proactively pursued a policy similar to German proposals that would see social media companies penalised with large fines if they failed to take down such sites within 24 hours, or to prevent them in the first place?
I saw my hon. Friend’s comments about this in the newspapers this morning, and I reassure him that the Government are determined to do everything that we can to stamp out hate crime, which has absolutely no place in society. We have some of the strongest legislation on hate crime, and we expect social media companies to respond quickly to incidents of abusive behaviour on their networks. However, there is much more that we can do. We have just announced work on an internet safety strategy, which I will take forward with other colleagues, that is aimed at making Britain the safest country in the world for children and young people online.
This is an important point. The Digital Economy Bill brings forward age verification processes so that all pornography cannot be accessed by those under the age of 18. ISPs will be required to block sites that do not put such age verification in place—that is incredibly important. The Bill is in the Lords at the moment but it will come back to this House shortly.
I add my excitement to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), because the women’s cricket world cup will actually launch in Derby. I recently discovered my inner warrior when playing rugby with England Rugby and my local Derby team—in fact, I made my first tackle—so will the Secretary of State tell me what we are doing to encourage more women to play sports?
I know from personal experience that Derby has fantastic sporting opportunities for everyone. It is incredibly important that more women play sport and feel that they can take part. The “This Girl Can” campaign, for which I am sure my hon. Friend has seen the television advertisements, is part of that, as is the fantastic women’s cricket world cup. I know that one of the matches is in Derby, but I have to confess that I am going to the one in Leicester.
Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), I met Realgrassroots, which explained that it had been campaigning against the exploitation of young footballers since 2010 and that the Scottish Parliament is investigating the issue. Will the sports Minister meet me to discuss it further, and commit to ensuring that football clubs abide by basic employment legislation, the enforcement of which is reserved?
I am always delighted to meet honourable colleagues, and I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman, too.
The Attorney General was asked—
Great Repeal Bill
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues, including with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, on various issues of importance to the Government. The Government will publish the great repeal Bill in due course, and the content of the Bill will determine the process to take it forward.
Last month, the Secretary of State for Scotland confirmed that a legislative consent motion would be required from the Scottish Parliament for the great repeal Bill, but in his answer just now the Attorney General stopped well short of that. If the UK Government’s position is the same as the Secretary of State for Scotland’s, will a legislative consent motion be required?
The hon. Lady tempts me to explore what will be in the great repeal Bill. I am not going to do that, but she knows, and I am sure her colleagues know, that if the Bill affects the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament or the executive competence of the Scottish Government, there will need to be a legislative consent motion.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my concern that people might be slightly misled by our referring to the proposed Bill as the great repeal Bill? Although it will repeal the European Communities Act 1972, it is actually the great continuity Bill, because its other purpose is to transfer the body of EU law into UK law.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. He is right to say that this Bill will repeal the 1972 Act, and that is a significant step in this country’s history, but it will also, as he says, make sure that we do not have huge amounts of disruptive change for business, industry and individuals, and we will try to make sure that there is as much continuity on the day after departure as there was on the day before departure, where that is feasible.
Does the Attorney General envisage that there will be consent motions under EVEL provisions in respect of any of the potential clauses in the great repeal Bill?
Again, we shall have to wait and see the content of the Bill, but it is unlikely—given what is likely to be in the Bill, and given the purpose of the Bill—that we will be looking at very many areas, if any at all, that do not affect the entire United Kingdom.
Can the Attorney General clarify whether any of the devolved Administrations effectively have a legal veto over our decision to leave the European Union?
I can, and they do not.
Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that the Bill will not be called the great repeal Bill?
I suspect that we will find a rather more technical title for the Bill when it comes forward.
I must admit to being confused by the Attorney General’s answers. Clearly, the great repeal Bill, as indicated by the Supreme Court, will affect devolved competences. The Secretary of State for Scotland has said an LCM is required. Why are the Government hesitant? Can the Attorney General not be clear? Will an LCM be required for the great repeal Bill, because it affects devolved competences?
The Supreme Court was not deciding on this Bill; it was deciding on a Bill that the Government have now passed, and which I hope will receive Royal Assent very shortly. However, in relation to the contents of this Bill, whatever it ends up being called, the hon. Gentleman will have to be patient and wait until we see it. As I set out to his colleagues, there is a clear set of expectations as to when LCMs will be required, and the Government will honour those expectations.
The Crown Prosecution Service anticipated increases in complex cases such as fraud ahead of the last spending review, and there was indeed a 14% increase in fraud and forgery cases last year, but, importantly, the conviction rate stayed stable at 86%.
With a third of the workforce cut since 2010—400 prosecutors and 1,000 administrators and caseworkers—does the Solicitor General really consider that the CPS is able to deal with these complex fraud and economic cases, and will not any further cuts leave it in a really bad state to prosecute?
I assure the hon. Lady that the allocation of resources for the prosecution of fraud has increased within the CPS. There are now over 200 specialist fraud prosecutors, not just here in London but across the country in important regional centres, and that number is set to increase to 250 in the months ahead, so the CPS is really placing an important priority on this.
Does the Solicitor General agree that the work of the Crown Prosecution Service in this area is very much complemented in cases of really serious economic fraud by the work of the Serious Fraud Office, which has been transformed under the leadership of David Green, resulting in the recovery of over £500 million of ill-gotten gains? Does he agree that the model of the Serious Fraud Office does this country great credit and will be of increasing value to us in future?
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Justice Committee. He is right to highlight the recent successes of the SFO in collecting millions of pounds for the taxpayer as a result of deferred prosecution agreements. I think the Roskill model, which brings together investigators and prosecutors in one unit, works very well.
Picking up on the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee, does not the existence of the Serious Fraud Office reduce pressure on the Crown Prosecution Service in terms of prosecuting big-ticket economic crime? Will the Solicitor General therefore guarantee that the Serious Fraud Office will continue to exist as it is and will not be merged with the Crown Prosecution Service or the National Crime Agency?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government are at all times under a duty to review the mechanism by which we tackle economic crime, because it is a question not just of criminality but of national security. The Government are therefore right to examine the situation. As I said, I think the Roskill model works extremely well.
I did not detect a guarantee in that answer. A month ago, the Solicitor General praised the work of the director of the Serious Fraud Office and how he had enhanced the role of the Serious Fraud Office in our national life. I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman has fine persuasive skills, so if he will not give a guarantee, will he at least undertake to go to see the Prime Minister to speak about the advantages of the Serious Fraud Office and having investigatory and prosecuting services under one roof?
I am happy to indicate to the hon. Gentleman that I have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues about all these issues. I praise David Green for the work he has done in leading the SFO. I will continue to make the case for the Roskill model.
I suspect that those who have the necessary financial expertise to investigate, uncover, prosecute and prove complex financial fraud will probably get paid a lot more in the private sector working for business or the City. What can the Solicitor General do to ensure that the right people with the right skills are retained by the CPS and the SFO?
My hon. Friend knows that the SFO operates a model of funding that means it can be quite flexible as regards particular investigations. The important point is that we get the right people with the right specific expertise in particular types of serious fraud. Flexibility is the most important principle.
Everybody knows that there is a lot of hot money in the London high-end residential market, especially coming from Russia, and there are extensive reporting regulations on financial advisers and agents, so why have there been so few prosecutions for money laundering in this area?
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about this. He will be glad to know that the provisions in the Criminal Finances Bill, which I hope will become law very soon, will enhance the powers of prosecutors and investigators in going after ill-gotten gains with new measures such as unexplained wealth orders, which will help us to deal with the perpetrators of this type of fraud.
The Prime Minister has recently restated her personal, and the Government’s collective, commitment to tackling domestic violence and abuse. My colleagues in Cabinet and I will work together to take that forward. That work will include considering how we can support the CPS in bringing prosecutions against perpetrators of domestic violence.
Ashiana, which is a great Sheffield charity working on domestic violence in the black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee communities, has raised its concerns with me over the appallingly low prosecution rates for female genital mutilation and honour-based violence. The Attorney General will know that there have been no successful prosecutions for FGM. I am sure he shares my concern about that, but what is he going to do about it?
I do share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about that. He may be aware that there are often considerable evidential difficulties in proving these offences in court, but that does not mean that we should not bring appropriate cases before criminal courts and seek to gain convictions. The Crown Prosecution Service will continue to do that. In relation to domestic violence more broadly, he may know that the volume and conviction rate of prosecutions are rising, on the basis of the last year for which we have figures compared with the year before, but he is right to point out specific areas where we need to do better.
Survivors of domestic abuse in my constituency in the excellent Safe Spots group tell me that right out of the gate, they cannot access the criminal justice system because they have to pay a discretionary fee to their doctor for a note to access legal aid, which can cost up to £175. Will the Attorney General consider talking to his Department of Health colleagues about whether we can scrap this fee for those people?
I will certainly explore the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. I think he is indicating that there are a number of different things that we need to do to support those who are victims of domestic violence. This is not solely a criminal justice issue, but if people are to access the criminal justice system, we need to do as much as we can to make the process as easy it possibly can be for them. If victims of domestic violence are unwilling to give evidence, that should not necessarily be the end of a prosecution. We have seen recently with the use of body-worn video cameras that the police can sometimes give evidence that can secure a conviction, even if the victim is not prepared to give evidence.
Will the Attorney General work with the Justice Secretary to ensure that changes to the law on domestic abusers cross-examining their victims are fit for purpose, and that they adequately protect victims in our family courts?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. He will know that in a criminal context, courts already have the authority to stop alleged domestic violence perpetrators cross-examining their alleged victims directly. Family courts need to have such a power, too. He will know, I am sure, that the Government intend to make sure that they do have that power, and I understand that that will form part of a Bill that will come before the House very shortly.
Violence Against Women and Girls
The CPS is prosecuting and convicting more defendants of domestic abuse, rape, sexual offences and child sexual abuse than ever before. Under the cross-Government violence against women and girls strategy, the CPS has committed to a number of actions between now and 2020 to ensure the effective prosecution of these offences.
What is the CPS doing in the Derbyshire area to ensure that more perpetrators of violence against women and girls are brought to justice?
I know that my hon. Friend has a great interest in and concern about these serious matters. I am happy to tell her that in the last year, 1,805 cases were charged by the CPS—a rise to 70.6% compared with the figure for the previous year—and 1,867 cases resulted in a conviction. The conviction rate in Derbyshire is running at 4.4% higher than the national average.
In Cambridgeshire in 2015-16 there was an increase in the number of convictions for violence against women and girls to 1,031. What is being done to use technology to improve the gathering of evidence for these crimes?
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General has just mentioned, the CPS and the police are embracing the use of technology. The use of body-worn cameras, which is being rolled out across the country, will transform conviction rates and the number of guilty pleas when the evidence is clear and overwhelming in these cases.
Much of the violence against women and children is caused by human traffickers. Does the Solicitor General welcome the announcement today of an investment of £6 million by the Home Secretary in fighting modern-day slavery? We are really leading Europe on this issue.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to link modern-day slavery with violence against women and girls. He knows from his leadership on this issue that if there is a co-ordinated approach to these problems, victims can be identified and perpetrators can be brought to justice. This is yet another welcome milestone along the road in our world leadership on these issues.
The article 50 litigation concerned an important constitutional issue that it was right for the Supreme Court to consider. The Court considered both the Government’s appeal in England and Wales proceedings and five devolution questions referred by the courts in Northern Ireland after a judgment favourable to the Government. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has committed to publishing the total cost figures in due course.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU has praised the article 50 debate as among the best he has heard in the Chamber. Will the Attorney General attest whether the cost to the public purse of preventing this House from having a meaningful and democratic debate was well spent or a waste of public money?
It is not a waste of public money to explore an issue of this constitutional significance in the highest court in the land, and that is what happened. Of course, if the hon. Lady were right that this was a complete waste of money, three Supreme Court Justices would not have found in favour of the Government’s arguments. She will also be aware—I must gently point this out to her—that some of the money spent by the Government was spent on responding to arguments made by the Scottish Government that were rejected unanimously by the Supreme Court.
I think that just proves that you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t with the Scottish National party. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, ultimately, we cannot put a cost on defending democratic principles such as this?
My hon. Friend is right. Again, I think there is merit in ensuring that the highest court in the land has the chance to consider a very significant set of constitutional questions. It has done that and produced its judgment. The Government have complied with that judgment, and the House of Commons and the House of Lords have passed a Bill accordingly.
Criminal Corporate Liability
The Bribery Act 2010 “failure to prevent” offence is holding corporate offenders to account for criminal activity. We are introducing a new offence of failing to prevent tax evasion in the Criminal Finances Bill. Building on this, the Government have published a call for evidence to explore the options for further reform, including extending the “failure to prevent” offence.
Will my hon. and learned Friend look very carefully at the way in which Uber operates? In the past year, it paid £411,000 in tax. I have been inundated with complaints from traditional taxi drivers about the seemingly unfair, unscrupulous and unregulated way in which Uber deploys its drivers.
I listened with concern to my hon. Friend’s question. As I have said, there will be a new corporate offence of failing to prevent tax evasion. If there is evidence of criminality, I urge my hon. Friend and others to report such matters to the police.
I have regular meetings with the Director of Public Prosecutions at which a variety of issues are discussed. The CPS takes the prosecution of hare coursing very seriously. I understand that the chief Crown prosecutor for the east midlands has recently had a meeting with the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable of Lincolnshire at which this issue was discussed.
Not only is hare coursing cruel to the hare, but it causes economic damage and is causing increasing fear in our rural communities. What is the CPS doing to ensure that prosecutions for hare coursing are successful, and to help to put a stop to this crime?
I know that my hon. Friend, who represents a rural constituency, is dealing with this issue and working with local farmers and others to try to combat it. Each Crown Prosecution Service area has a wildlife co-ordinator so that the knowledge needed to prosecute these offences is readily available. The CPS works closely with the police and other wildlife communities to tackle this serious scourge.
It is the long-standing position of successive UK Governments that a state may use force in self-defence not only in response to armed attacks but to prevent an armed attack that is imminent. In each exercise of the use of force in self-defence, the UK asks itself questions such as: how certain is it that an attack will come; how soon do we believe an attack could be; what could be the scale of the attack; could this be our last opportunity to take action; and is there anything else we could credibly do to prevent that attack?
I thank the Attorney General for that answer. Does he agree with me that there is an important difference between the threats we face now and the threats that have not materialised but that may develop later?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and there is a significant difference between those two things. What I have sought to make clear is that the UK Government are saying they have authority under the law to respond to threats that have emerged, not to threats that may yet emerge in the future but have not yet done so.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?
The business for the next week is as follows:
Monday 20 March—Second Reading of the Prisons and Courts Bill.
Tuesday 21 March—Remaining stages of the Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Bill [Lords] followed by a general debate on fuel poverty.
Wednesday 22 March—Remaining stages of the Pension Schemes Bill [Lords] followed by a general debate on exiting the European Union and global trade.
Thursday 23 March—Debate on a motion on compensation for Equitable Life policyholders followed by debate on a motion on the Social Mobility Commission state of the nation report. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 24 March—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 27 March will include:
Monday 27 March—Remaining stages of the Bus Services Bill [Lords].
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 27 and 30 March will be:
Monday 27 March—Debate on an e-petition relating to badger culling.
Thursday 30 March—Debate relating to the future of local and regional news providers.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week. Can he confirm or deny rumours that the Queen’s Speech will be on 17 May?
I would like to wish everyone a very happy St Patrick’s day for tomorrow. I do not know whether you know, Mr Speaker, but it traditionally marks an interruption to Lenten fasting. Perhaps the Leader of the House or even the Chief Whip will say, “Salt and vinegar crisps all round” just to cheer up the troops.
This has been a week of delay, incompetence and confusion. The big six energy companies have raised their prices and consumers have been overpaying. In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), in which he stated that E.ON raised its prices by 14% and SSE by 8%, the Minister said:
“It has been reported by Ofgem that there is no reason to increase prices…The time is up for these companies.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2017; Vol. 623, c. 177.]
What does the Minister do? Instead of acting, he publishes a Green Paper. The Government must take a leaf out of the 2015 Labour manifesto and step in to put a cap on prices now—no more delay. In contrast with the obsession about how someone eats a bacon sandwich, it was a popular and costed policy. May we have a debate on what powers the Government will use to protect consumers immediately?
Speaking of manifestos, it is because the Government got away with it before—they said no top-down reorganisation of the NHS but they did it; they said in coalition no increase in tuition fees but they did it—that they thought they could do it again. There is a real piece of work to be done on national insurance contributions. Bizarrely, the Government instigated the Taylor review, which is due in June, having already put the policy through. They should have given businesses the time to plan for the increase. It is very hard for small businesses to find extra money suddenly. Instead of coming to the Chamber, the Prime Minister took to the podium in Brussels to announce that the policy had been deferred. The Chancellor came to the Chamber on Wednesday. The Chancellor seems to have fallen down his own black hole—tell that to Stephen Hawking.
What of the confusion and chaos that is Brexit? As more and more Select Committee reports are published, may we have a timetable of when and how they will be debated? The Government seem to be fixated on an unamended Bill going through Parliament, rather than preparing the country for what is to follow. The Foreign Affairs Committee report on the implications of no deal said that the Government refused to give evidence, saying it would be nothing more than an exercise in guesswork. However, the Committee’s report stated:
“The consequences of such a failure are far from ‘an exercise in guesswork’. They are, in scope if not in detail, largely predictable—and, in…evidence…have been predicted.”
The report recommended that each Department should
“produce a ‘no deal’ plan…setting out proposals to mitigate…risks.”
Will the Leader of the House tell us whether that will happen, and whether those plans will be reported to the House? Pages 97 and 98 of the report “Brexit: trade in goods”, published by the other place, remind us that
“The EU is, by a significant margin, the UK’s biggest trading partner… Many UK businesses cannot easily substitute their imports from the EU with UK products.”
What help will businesses be given to secure those new suppliers—or are the Government abandoning small businesses?
Let me now raise the issue of the west midlands leaflet. Apparently, a leaflet produced by another candidate for the post of west midlands mayor—a member of the same party—suggested that Siôn Simon did not have any experience. In fact, Siôn Simon is a former Member of Parliament, a former Minister and a Member of the European Parliament, so he is quite experienced enough to take the west midlands forward after Brexit.
Women are not just for International Women’s Day, but for life. We are currently celebrating women’s history month as we continue to tell “herstory”. On 21 March, in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Room, there will be a lecture on Constance Markievicz, who was the first woman to be elected to Parliament but did not take her seat. International Anti-discrimination Day falls on the same date. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on “Race in the workplace: The McGregor-Smith Review”? Staff at the Equality and Human Rights Commission are being sacked, but it is that organisation that should be implementing the recommendations of the report, which states:
“If BME talent is fully utilised, the economy could receive a £24 billion boost.”
That would fill the £2 billion hole in the Budget.
Not only is it good for the economy to use all the talents, but using all the talents is the right thing to do for the common good, in a good society.
Let me begin by joining the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) in wishing everyone, particularly our colleagues from Northern Ireland and colleagues with Irish ancestry, a happy St Patrick’s day for tomorrow. It is one of those occasions which, whatever the divisions in Northern Ireland, tends to bring all sides together in a common celebration.
The hon. Lady asked whether I could confirm or deny a possible date for the Queen’s Speech. I am afraid that the answer is no.
The Government have made very clear that we are pressing ahead with the Taylor review, which will be a very important study of and report on the way in which digital technology is changing our notions of employment. I am sure that Matthew Taylor will produce a number of specific and challenging recommendations, which the Government will want to take seriously.
The hon. Lady asked about exit from the EU. There is provision in our arrangements for debates on Select Committee reports, which from time to time are chosen either by the Backbench Business Committee or the Liaison Committee in the time that is allotted to them. I do not think that the hon. Lady can fault the willingness of Ministers—and, in particular, the willingness of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union—to appear before the House and before Select Committees to answer the questions that Members quite reasonably ask. Detailed work is taking place, not only in my right hon. Friend’s Department but throughout Whitehall, to examine the potential impact of various possible outcomes of the negotiations on the different sectors of our economy, and it is obviously sensible for us to consult those sectors closely about possible scenarios.
I am happy to join the hon. Lady in celebrating women’s history month. I hope that, as well as a celebration of the achievements of people such as Constance Markievicz and Nancy Astor, there will be a proper salute to the two women Prime Ministers of this country.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of harnessing all the talent and energy of our fellow citizens from the black minority ethnic communities. While it is in part down to having the right sort of equalities and anti-discrimination legislation, I hope that the House acknowledges that getting it right also means encouraging people from those communities to believe that everything is possible for them in our country. I am heartened by having seen in the time that I have been in this place ever more men and women from our black and other minority communities playing a leading role in mainstream life in my constituency and nationally, whether in business, the media, the arts, the professions or politics at both local and national level.
I do not blame the hon. Lady for wanting to try to find something nice to say about the Labour candidate for the west midlands mayoral election, but while I am the first to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of people who serve in the European Parliament, I think that in respect of having executive authority for the midlands engine—one of the real heartlands of our national economic life—the commercial experience of Andy Street puts him head and shoulders above his competition.
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:
Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2017
European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017.
Business of the House
The Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), is unfortunately once again unable to be with us, so may I just gently remind my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that we have an ever-growing queue of applications for debates? Would he therefore consider allowing protected time, particularly on Thursdays, for Backbench Business debates? That might mean that this House would sit slightly later, but it would also mean that we could get at least two debates in and clear the decks.
Speaking on my own behalf, the Mayor of London has not only called in, but directed approval of, a planning application in Harrow which comprises two tower blocks next door to two-storey housing. The planning committee of Harrow Council has on a cross-party basis rejected this unacceptable planning application. The Mayor of London has called it in and directed approval, against the wishes of Harrow Council, all the residents and everyone—and not only that, it is hideous. May we have a debate on planning in London?
It was good to see the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee in his place earlier this week and I hope it will not be long before he is again playing a regular part in our Thursday exchanges. In the meantime, I say to my hon. Friend that we always take seriously the Backbench Business Committee’s requests for time, but the reality is that there is pressure on both Government and Backbench Business time and we must all select priorities. I am very happy to look at the case my hon. Friend and the Committee make for protected time on specific Thursdays, but I would be reluctant to agree a general rule for all Thursdays because sometimes Backbench Business debates peter out before the allotted time has been completed—that may be rare, but it does occasionally happen. I think my hon. Friend will acknowledge that we have in the past tried, where we know that there are statements coming, to protect the Backbench Business agenda.
On my hon. Friend’s point about Harrow, he, as always, speaks strongly on behalf of his constituents, and I am sure he will seek to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, for a possible Adjournment debate.
May I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week and wish everybody a happy St Patrick’s day?
There is so much kicking around this morning that it is difficult to know where to start, but how about we start with securing an urgent statement on the Electoral Commission’s record fine on a political party for breaching electoral law? We need to hear in that statement that this Government are taking these allegations seriously, and not hitting out petulantly, as some Members have done this morning, at the Electoral Commission and treating it with contempt. Our electoral laws are critically important to protecting our democracy, and the Conservative party will now be investigated by the Metropolitan police, just as I asked the police to do last year. A sum of £70,000 is absolute peanuts to the Conservative party, so will the Leader of the House now say today that it will fully comply, and take part in every single one of those police investigations? This could well be the “cash for honours” of this Parliament.
May we have a debate on automotive manoeuvres? The screeching of yesterday’s U-turn on national insurance contributions is still ringing in our ears, and the skid marks go all the way from here to the doors of No. 10. I do not think we have ever seen a Budget unravel as dramatically as last week’s has done. Perhaps we need to get our Budgets manifesto-proofed, or perhaps we should get Laura Kuenssberg to deliver next year’s Budget from the Dispatch Box.
Lastly, will there be a statement from the Government approving a section 30 order to approve a legal independence referendum if, as is likely, the Scottish Parliament votes next week to request one? Surely there can be no case for standing in the way of democracy or defying the will of the democratically elected Parliament in Scotland. I say ever so gently to the Leader of the House that if this Government are thinking for one minute of standing in the way of Scottish democracy, that would be the biggest possible recruiting sergeant for the cause of Scottish independence.
The Government will of course consider carefully any recommendations from the Electoral Commission for a change in regulatory powers. We are already considering a number of possible changes to electoral arrangements, following the report by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) on electoral corruption. I have to say to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), however, that complaints from his party, of all parties, about the use of battle buses are more than a little odd. It is not exactly a secret that, at the 2015 general election, the Scottish National party flew Nicola Sturgeon from constituency to constituency in support of its candidates, which suggests to me that some of his party’s complaints in this respect are both spurious and hypocritical—
Order. The Leader of the House must not use that last word. He is a versatile fellow: he can use another word, and I feel sure that it will spew forth immediately.
I am happy to withdraw that, Mr Speaker. I make no allegation against any hon. Member, but I think that the party in question has not displayed consistency of approach when it comes to this matter.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about a referendum in Scotland. Obviously we will want to look at whatever request might come from the Scottish Parliament in due course when it has debated whatever motion is put before it, but I say gently to him that the autumn statement and the spring Budget together have given roughly £1.25 billion of extra spending to the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament, and that they could use that money to reduce the tax hikes on businesses and middle income families in Scotland. They could also use it to improve failing schools in Scotland, or to help struggling hospitals in Scotland. That would be a much better service to the people of Scotland than posturing about a further referendum.
I call Mr Charles Walker.
Oh sorry, Mr Speaker, you took me by surprise!
As the hon. Gentleman was standing and seeking to catch my eye, his expression of incredulity is perhaps a tad misplaced.
And as I am only the Chair of the Procedure Committee, these things are lost on me!
May we have an urgent debate on the conduct of the Hertfordshire local enterprise partnership in relation to its possible misuse of £6.5 million of public money to promote and ease a planning application on behalf of Veolia? The relationship between Veolia, the LEP, Hertfordshire County Council, the relevant planning authority and the owner of the Veolia contract is too close to carry the confidence of my constituents.
As always, my hon. Friend makes his point powerfully on behalf of his constituents. I note that he has been successful in securing an Adjournment debate on Thursday 23 March, so I am sure that he will pursue those arguments then.
He certainly has been.
I would like to sign my question. Is the Leader of the House aware that 18 March marks the 14th anniversary of the UK Government’s recognising British sign language? Will he agree time to debate giving British sign language legal status like other recognised languages?
The hon. Lady has eloquently reminded us of the importance of British sign language to a number of our fellow citizens who live with deafness or a severe hearing impairment. The Department for Work and Pensions has under way a review of the provision of signing services in this country and has received several hundred submissions. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will bring forward the conclusions in due course. I can also tell the House that the Department for Education plans to accept British sign language as an alternative qualification to functional skills in English within apprenticeships, which I hope will be one step towards giving opportunities to more people who live with deafness to play a full part in the labour market.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate aimed at promoting projects to deter young people from drinking to excess and taking drugs? I recently saw the Smashed Project perform at St Thomas More High School, and I am convinced that a hard-hitting message can make a real impact.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the devastating impact that drug and alcohol misuse can have on the lives of too many young people and their families, who are often distraught about what has happened to a loved son or daughter. The Government take a broad approach to prevention, supporting investment in a range of different programmes. We announced earlier this week new funding for Mentor UK to continue to deliver the ADEPIS programme, which includes a range of resources to give young people the tools and confidence they need to resist being drawn towards drug misuse in the first place.
When can we debate early-day motion 1079, which covers the House’s abject failure to deal with the potentially corrupt revolving door between ministerial office and outside jobs?
[That this House recalls former Prime Minister David Cameron’s condemnation in 2010 of politicians who are out to serve themselves and not the country by lobbying; notes the abject failure of the Government’s watchdog, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, to reduce the abuses of the potentially corrupting revolving door between ministerial office and big business lobbying; and calls on the Government to establish an effective watchdog that would enhance the House’s reputation for probity, removing the opportunities for former Ministers to sell their inside knowledge and contacts for financial advantage by prohibiting their lobbying for companies they influenced or regulated in their Ministerial roles.]
The temptation is there for former Ministers to use their insider knowledge and contacts for their private gain. How is it right that the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which is responsible for approving such appointments, saw fit to give its blessing to a former Minister receiving £13,000 a day in addition to his parliamentary salary? Does that not bring this House into deeper disrepute?
It is right that we have a committee that is not part of the Government and not a Committee of this House or the other place to make rulings on individual cases. It is important that former Ministers stick to the proper procedures in seeking clearance before taking on any new external appointment.
Now that the Government have expressed their determination to honour both the letter and the spirit of manifesto commitments, may we have an urgent debate on how the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government can be persuaded to honour the letter and the spirit of the Government’s commitment to Parliament and to my constituents on 7 December 2015, as reported in column 822 of Hansard, that they would not force structural change on any local authority against its will?
As he has done previously, my hon. Friend speaks strongly about the continued existence of Christchurch Borough Council. He will continue to press the matter strongly with Ministers, and I am sure that his opportunity will arise in an Adjournment debate at some point.
Following a High Court judgment, the Government have to produce a new air quality plan by next month. Fifty thousand people a year die as a result of air pollution, which has an impact on my congested city of York. Even in Micklegate ward, we have five poor air quality hotspots. May we have debate in Government time about the steps that are needed ahead of the publication of the air quality plan so that we can have a real input into the Government’s plans?
The Government have given that very clear undertaking. There was a plan in place that the courts deemed to be inadequate, and the Government will respond to that court judgment by July. The right occasion for Parliament to consider the issue in greater detail will be when the plan is available.
As the economy continues to thrive, the claimant rate in my constituency is just 1.9%, but the local economy is quite dependent on European workers. Can we have a debate in Government time on how we can have a sensible work permit system for those valuable workers post-Brexit?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and reminds us that, when debating immigration policy, we should not get trapped into criticising people who come here from European countries and elsewhere to play an important part in our economy by working hard, paying taxes and contributing to our society. As he knows, the Government are committed to trying to agree a reciprocal deal on the status of EU nationals here and British nationals in the 27 other EU countries at the earliest possible stage of the negotiations. Although we will need a system of immigration controls subsequent to our exit from the European Union, we are alive to the need to be sensitive to British industry’s continuing need to staff posts.
Last week the Leader of the House assured me that the Government are seeking urgent clarification from the Israeli authorities on the new law banning foreigners who call for the boycotting of illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. There has been a week of absolute silence from the Foreign Office on that issue and, on Monday, Hugh Lanning, chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, was the first UK citizen to be deported from Israel following the passing of that law. May we please have a statement from the Foreign Office clarifying how the application of the law will affect UK passport holders and UK foreign policy?
The straight answer is that, since the hon. Lady raised the issue with me last week, we have not yet had the detailed clarification that we are seeking from the Israeli Government. As a result, the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office is raising the matter directly with Israeli officials this week.
I am grateful for the fact that you have called me before calling any Liberal Democrat Member, Mr Speaker. This week unemployment, at 4.7%, was at its lowest rate since the summer of 1975. It has always been a rule of thumb that Labour Governments increase unemployment and Conservative Governments reduce it, but there is another link—[Interruption.] I apologise to Labour Members, but the link is clearly different. What happened in the summer of ’75? That was when the country decided to stay in the European Economic Community, so unemployment has gone up all the time we have been in, and now we are coming out, it is going down. May we have a debate on that?
The hon. Gentleman has already had the debate.
The growth in employment and the fall in unemployment should be welcomed unreservedly on both sides of the House, and it is due to the hard work and enterprise of British business in creating jobs and to the Government’s creating an economic climate in which businesses want to invest and are willing to hire people. I hope that every Member, whichever party they come from, will welcome the fact that unemployment is now at its lowest since 1975 and that employment is at its highest in our country’s history.
As the Leader of the House knows, next week marks the second anniversary of the conflict in Yemen that has resulted in the death of 10,000 Yemeni people and brought that country to the brink of famine. The Yemeni people now face the four horsemen of the apocalypse: al-Qaeda, Daesh, starvation and airstrikes. When can we have a debate on that important subject? Britain holds the pen on Yemen so far as that matter is concerned, and it is vital that the House is updated before Yemen slides into the greatest catastrophe of this century.
We all share the right hon. Gentleman’s sense of horror at what has happened in Yemen. The British Government are extremely active in the international work, but it would be foolish to pretend that we have a quick and easy solution to this conflict. We continue to support the tireless efforts of the UN special envoy to broker an agreement between the warring parties inside Yemen, just as we continue to commit large sums of our overseas aid budget to relieve humanitarian suffering in Yemen. That political work and that humanitarian work will continue.
In the unlikely event of the Scottish people following the advice of the Scottish National party and voting for independence, they would be very much poorer. Many of my constituents are already concerned about the foreign aid budget. May we have a debate on the aid budget, so that the Government could make it clear that they will not sanction an increase in order to bail out the Scots?
There is some really good news for Scotland: since 2010 employment in Scotland has gone up by 171,000; 90,000 fewer Scots are out of work, and women’s employment in Scotland has gone up by 76,000. We should celebrate that.
The Leader of the House might know that people in Huddersfield are deeply disappointed in a Budget that does so little for the NHS and for our hospital accident and emergency unit, which might be closed. But they are good people in Huddersfield, so they wanted me to prioritise today in this House the need to do something to save the children starving in east Africa. We must have a debate on that, raise consciousness about it and get this country to donate to save those children and families from starvation.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the need to remember that humanitarian crisis in east Africa. The Department for International Development is extremely focused on that, but anything that can be done to raise public consciousness about the need for charitable donations to supplement the Government’s work is very welcome.
Last Friday, I visited Great Addington Church of England Primary School, where I was asked lots of difficult questions, inspired by the pupils’ visit to Parliament last year. They asked me to convey to the House their sincere appreciation for the excellent tour, and I ask the Leader of the House to join me in thanking the staff of the House for their help on that. May we have a debate next week about the important role that this place plays in educating young people about our democracy?
I am delighted that the pupils from Great Addington’s school enjoyed their visit. Obviously, they put their lessons to good use in interrogating my hon. Friend. That will prepare him for his future ministerial career, I am certain. I know that you have given very high priority to enhancing the House’s educational work, Mr Speaker. I certainly share that objective and am seeking to do this in programming my future external engagement. I hope that we all in our individual constituencies will try to interest young men and women in our work, because capturing the imagination of boys and girls at a young age is the surest way in which we can rebuild confidence in and enthusiasm for our democratic processes.
The answer from the Leader of the House is of great interest to me and to colleagues, but it may also be of considerable interest to a number of young people who are observing our proceedings from not very far away, at whom the Leader of the House, to his credit, is now smiling beatifically.
Race hate crime in the north-east is up by 48% since Brexit, and the English Defence League is to march again in South Shields this weekend. My constituents and I have always challenged extremism, and such groups are not welcome in South Shields, yet the process to have such marches banned is complex and arduous. Will the Government make a statement on what they are doing to stem the rise of racially charged demonstrations, which have no place in Britain?
I face the challenge of EDL marches in my constituency. A balance has to be struck between the rights of freedom of expression and freedom to demonstrate, which we all cherish in the United Kingdom—and they cannot be only for the people with whom we agree—and the importance of demonstrating our rejection of extremist groups. My view is that the best way to respond to the EDL or similar groups is for the entire community to speak and to show in their actions that they utterly reject and are repelled by the venom and hatred that those groups seek to sow in our society. In particular, those of us in leadership positions should show solidarity with the minority groups who feel so threatened.
There are housing association tenants in my Bury constituency who would like the opportunity to buy their property. May we please have a statement on the progress on extending the right to buy to housing association tenants?
In last year’s autumn statement, the Chancellor announced a large-scale regional pilot that will enable more than 3,000 housing association tenants to buy their own home. We are undertaking pilots to ensure that we get the policy right. We will test its key features and look at the evidence to decide how we can take forward the scheme.
Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union admitted that the Government have made no full assessment of the potential impact on the UK economy of our leaving the EU without a deal. May we have a debate in Government time on that specific issue so that the House can hold the Government to account on that very important matter?
There will be an opportunity in the debate on EU exit and international trade that I announced in the business statement. I should correct the hon. Lady, though: my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said yesterday that the Government are looking across the piece at the impact of our leaving the EU on various sectors of the economy. He was asked about a new overall economic assessment, and said that his Department, and others in Whitehall, are in the process of carrying out a programme of rigorous and extensive analytical work on a sector-by-sector basis. That, surely, is the constructive way to approach the matter.
We all know that the Government are very keen on manifesto commitments and following through on them. I think all parties would welcome a debate on what the Government mean by “shortly”. Before Christmas, we had a debate on elephants and the ivory trade, and were told then that a decision would come out shortly. In February, we were told again that it was coming out shortly. May we have a statement on when we will know when we are going to follow through on the Conservative manifesto promise to ban the trade in ivory?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs plans to take the decision and announce her proposed way forward soon.
If we could try to speed up, that would be really good, because there is a statement to follow.
The Leader of the House will no doubt be aware that at the recent Beacon awards, which are known as the Oscars of the further education sector, Bridgend College, which sits in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), won an award. Will he find some time for a debate on the success of the FE sector, particularly its contribution to enabling people of any age to continue on their learning path?
The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us of the importance of that sector, and I join him in congratulating Bridgend College on its achievement.
Medway hospital in my constituency has been in special measures for nearly four years. The staff and the leadership in partnership with the Government have worked tirelessly to improve standards. Will the Leader of the House join me in paying tribute to the excellent staff who have won awards for their work, including Excellence in Maternity Care? May we have an urgent statement on the performance of hospitals in special measures?
It is always tough when staff have to face up to criticisms of their record and to see their institution placed in special measures. I am delighted to hear from my hon. Friend that staff at Medway hospital have responded so positively, and I hope that their efforts soon receive the public tributes that I know that he hopes for.
Yet another GP surgery is closing in my constituency—the sixth in recent times. The patients are being dispersed to other surgeries, but the length of time that people have to wait for a GP appointment is growing. Can we have a statement from the Minister about the performance of NHS England in providing GP services, because the situation in my constituency is intolerable?
We want to see GP practices open for longer so that more people can benefit from the excellent services they offer. Some 17 million patients have already benefited from evening and weekend appointments. We have increased investment in general practice by nearly £2.5 billion, and there are 1,100 more GPs now compared with 2010. I will certainly draw to the Secretary of State’s attention the particular difficulty in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
May we have a debate on the northern powerhouse schools strategy? Last month saw the launch of the Pendle challenge, with more than 80 organisations involved in the provision of education from nought to 18 years coming together to improve the aspirations and achievements of young people in Pendle. I am keen to see how we can better work together across the north on this issue.
As my hon. Friend says, it is really important that we look to raise not just the standards of achievement by children in schools, but their aspirations and their expectations about what is possible in their lives. The northern powerhouse schools strategy aims to do just that, which is why the Government are putting in £70 million over the course of this Parliament. I hope that we will see a further announcement on that before very long.
Given that, shamefully, there was no mention of help for the WASPI women in the Budget, can we have another opportunity to speak on behalf of the women affected, including my constituent who was denied, with little notice, the chance to retire when she had planned and has now found out that she is terminally ill, as her voice and others deserve to be heard?
I point the hon. Lady towards questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on Monday 27 March. There has been about £1 billion of investment in transitional arrangements to help those women who are worst affected by the equalisation of pension age. None the less, the equalisation of pension age did have cross-party support in this House when it was brought in.
Millions of people have installed cavity wall insulation successfully, but many have experienced failures, leading to damp, fungal infection and structural difficulties in their homes. Those people are often elderly and disabled, and they thought that they were participating in a Government scheme. The industry’s response has been defensive and evasive most of the time, and the Government seem to be hoping to keep out of what could be a very expensive mess. Can we have an early debate on the CWI scandal?
Without checking, I do not know to what extent this is a legislative and regulatory problem and to what extent it is a matter of consumer law to be resolved in the normal way. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me with details about his experience, I will happily consider the case.
I am sure that I am not the only Member of this House to be disappointed that the Chancellor made no mention of extra police funding in his Budget statement last week. Cuts to frontline policing in Bradford South have been profound, with 75 fewer officers engaged in neighbourhood policing today than in 2012. Will the Leader of the House allocate time for a debate on this important issue?
The spending total for the police, as for every other Government service, was announced at the time of the spending review. Crimes traditionally measured by the independent Crime Survey for England and Wales have actually fallen by a third since 2010; they are now at a record low. That shows that the police have been extremely professional in managing their budgets to ensure that the public are protected and that crime comes down.
May we have a debate or a statement on funding third sector organisations to assist the long-term unemployed into work? I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1003, which seeks to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the GalGael Trust, an organisation in my constituency that maintains the skills and traditions of woodwork and metalwork.
[That this House recognises the 20th Anniversary of the founding of an inspiring and life-changing community project based in Govan, the GalGael Trust, founded by the late Colin McLeod whose vision for the project is still upheld today; notes that this groundbreaking boat-building and woodcraft workshop upholds the proud Glaswegian traditions of hard work, community spirit and skilled craftwork whilst changing lives by restoring pride through achievement and developing skills; further notes that GalGael shows that supporting the long-term unemployed with respect and a creative vision can be more effective and engaging than traditional methods; notes that re-using Scottish timber from landfill respects the environment and the roots of the project lie in that vision of positive action coming from protest; and supports the view that the sustainability of this project is due to the inspiring people who have been at the heart of the community in Govan, working to maintain the skills and traditions of crafts in woodwork and metalwork, and building a future whilst honouring the past.]
Does the Leader of the House agree that the sustainability and finance of such organisations can help the long-term unemployed?
I do not know any more about the GalGael Trust than what the hon. Gentleman just told the House. I am happy to salute the work that it does and the work of many other such organisations in all parts of the United Kingdom in trying to provide mentoring and support, which is often so valuable to people who have been unemployed for a very long time in helping them have the confidence and basic skills to get back into the marketplace.
Yesterday, there were three separate illegal Traveller encampments across my constituency. This problem plagued my constituents for most of last year and is taking up where it left off. I recognise that Travellers have rights—as do my constituents, especially to enjoy the public parks that they pay for. This issue does not just affect my constituency; it is a problem right across the country, and there is real confusion about the law and enforcement. May we have a debate in Government time where Ministers set out clearly the Government’s expectations about how the problem of illegal encampments should be tackled?
This might be good material for a Backbench Business debate, as it does indeed affect a large number of constituencies. Sanctions and processes are available to both local authorities and the police to deal with the problem of illegal encampments. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think what riles residents more than anything else is the sense that they are expected to stick by the rules and obey the law when it comes to any kind of planning matter, yet they see people getting away with it apparently scot-free, which they quite rightly get angry about.
A constituent recently came to see me about his zero-hours employment with the leading automotive retailer Evans Halshaw, where he has worked for six years with no sick pay and no job security. May we have a debate on how we can strengthen the legislation in relation to this kind of insecure employment?
Of course, it was a Conservative-led Government that outlawed exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts. Although we keep a close watch on this—I am sure it is one of things that Matthew Taylor’s review will want to look at—it remains the case that fewer than 3% of the workforce see a zero-hours contract as their main job, and roughly 70% of those people say that they are happy with the number of hours that they work.
The Leader of the House is of course no philistine, so he will know that this year is the bicentenary of the birth of the eminent Scottish architect Alexander “Greek” Thomson. Will he join me in congratulating the Alexander Thomson Society on putting together a whole year of events to remember the architect’s work, and may we have a debate on his contribution to Scottish-built heritage?
This is the question that the hon. Gentleman would have asked if he had been present for his question at Department for Culture, Media and Sport questions. He was not, so he did not, and he is therefore doing it now. I just thought I would make that by way of a public information statement.
I am happy to pay tribute to the work of the Alexander Thomson Society. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will pen a brief note to all Members so that we know where we can go to see more of Thomson’s work when we come to Scotland.
In recent weeks, there have been a number of reports of foxes being hunted by hounds in Cheshire. Graphic and disturbing images have been plastered all over the internet. This barbaric practice is illegal, and I thought this Government were keen to implement the will of the people. May we please have a debate on what more can be done to uphold the law?
The enforcement of the law is, rightly, a matter not for Ministers but for independent police and prosecuting authorities.
The Prime Minister said in this House on Tuesday that at the recent European Council meeting she encouraged the EU to
“complete the single market and the digital single market.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2017; Vol. 623, c. 180.]
May we have a statement or a debate in this House on why it is in the UK’s national interest for the EU to complete those markets but it is not in the UK’s national interest to be part of them?
It is in the UK’s national interest that the European Union, with which we are negotiating a new partnership, has a system of economic co-operation that is as friendly to open markets and free trade as possible, because that will enhance the opportunities for our companies and citizens when it comes to that new relationship. I would have thought that was an objective that the hon. Gentleman would support.
May we have a statement on car manufacturers who cheat on emissions tests? Volkswagen, and now it seems Renault, have serious questions to answer. If there is fraudulent behaviour, senior executives need to be held to account.
I have seen the reports of alleged malpractice by Renault. I would hope that any such allegations were properly investigated, and that those responsible for any wrongdoing were held properly to account.
Chester continues to be blighted by student housing developments built by speculative developers. Those developments are favoured because the distortion in the council tax rules mean that they get higher investment, and they take up land that should be used for family accommodation. May I add my voice to that of the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) in calling for a debate on planning law, so that we can tackle these issues?
With the best will in the world, I suspect that we will never get a system of planning law that satisfies everybody in every sector of the economy, but I encourage the hon. Gentleman, as I encouraged my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), to seek an Adjournment debate or Back-Bench business debate on this matter.
Today is the 708th anniversary of Robert the Bruce calling his first Parliament in St Andrews. Of course, he spent a bit of time in my constituency, too. Can we have a debate on Scotland’s distinct parliamentary tradition, given that it is a story that is still being written?
That might be a suitable subject for a Scottish National party Supply day debate. Convinced Unionist though I am, I am happy to salute Scotland’s parliamentary and constitutional tradition. I see the declaration of Arbroath and the Scottish parliamentary tradition as being among those constitutional and ultimately democratic traditions in our national life that have helped to enrich the United Kingdom as a whole.
You may be aware, Mr Speaker, that I have campaigned on periods and have, within that, looked at period poverty. I recently spoke to BBC Radio Leeds, which highlighted that in that city, a significant number of girls are playing truant because they do not have any sanitary protection around the time of their period. One can only imagine the indignity that that causes. May we have a debate in Government time on whether there is anything that we can do to provide sanitary protection for low-income families and those who simply cannot afford it in these days of austerity?
This is probably a matter to be raised initially in an Adjournment debate, but of course one of the things that we will be able to deal with when we have left the European Union is the rates of value added tax that are obligatory under the fifth directive. The hon. Lady knows that the tax on sanitary products is one of the matters that the Government are committed to re-examining.
Recently, I asked the Prime Minister whether she would at the very least exempt older people from the local housing allowance cap that is being introduced for social housing tenants in 2019. Unfortunately, she did not seem to understand the question, so to assist her—and, more importantly, to avoid causing undue hardship to thousands of people across the country—may we have a debate on the implications of the proposals as soon as possible?
I am happy to refer the matter to the Department for Work and Pensions so that it can look at the problem, if the hon. Gentleman would like to let me have a few details, but the principle of a cap is right. Funds are available to councils for discretionary use in cases of hardship, as he knows. If he thinks that there is a particular case for reform to the regulations, he can write to me and I will pass that to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
May we have a statement on the lack of Changing Places toilets across the UK? It cannot be right that parents of disabled children are having to change their children on unhygienic toilet floors in this day and age. Surely this must be put on a statutory footing. Something must be done to bring us into the century that we should be in.
That is an interesting point. I absolutely understand the difficult position for parents who find themselves in such a situation. The hon. Lady might want to raise the matter in an Adjournment debate. I also suggest that she writes directly to the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work; I am sure that she will get a very reasonable hearing.
I had a Westminster Hall debate yesterday, which a number families travelled from across the UK to attend. The debate was also attended by six MPs from majority parties throughout the House. We were debating police widows’ pensions, as the widows lose their pensions should they remarry or cohabit. It is basically a tax on love. Unfortunately, the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service gave only a seven-minute response—including taking an intervention—in the 15 minutes that he had in which to speak. Can we now have a debate here in the main Chamber so that a further and fuller answer is provided to those families, who feel they are facing a terrible injustice?
I am sure that the hon. Lady would acknowledge that the Minister, since he speaks last in such debates, only has such time as is available from the 90 minutes or 60 minutes that has been allotted for that particular debate. I am sure that she will be able to air her concerns further if she seeks the opportunity to raise this matter at Home Office questions, via the Backbench Business Committee or in an Adjournment debate.
It is a pleasure to get back to my usual place in business questions—at the end.
I am not sure whether the Leader of the House is aware of the Daughters of the Vote event that was held at the Canadian Parliament on International Women’s Day. Young women from each of Canada’s 338 constituencies or ridings sat in Parliament to gain experience and communicate their vision for Canada, hopefully inspiring them to participate in the political process for years to come. Can we have a debate in this place on how we can encourage more women into politics?
Before the Leader of the House replies, I say to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) that he can always tell himself and the people of his constituency that we keep the best till last.
The way in which some of today’s exchanges have highlighted the need to engage better with young people as an institution, and the way in which we have addressed, through these exchanges, the need to encourage greater opportunities for women, help to contribute to the hon. Gentleman’s objective. I hope that he would agree that it is not just about women. We also want to encourage young men, particularly those from working-class backgrounds, who often feel disaffected and alienated from mainstream democratic processes, and people from black and minority ethnic communities to be involved more. We can all do this through leadership in our constituencies and by using the services of the parliamentary education service, which really does provide first-class education materials and will happily host visits from schools and colleges here.
Sky/21st Century Fox: Merger
I came to the House on 6 March to give an update on the proposed merger between 21st Century Fox and Sky. At that time, I said that I was minded to issue a European intervention notice on the basis that I believed there to be public interest considerations, as set out in the Enterprise Act 2002, that may be relevant to this proposed merger and warrant further investigation.
The grounds on which I was minded to intervene were, as I explained at that time, media plurality and commitment to broadcasting standards, but I also confirmed that, in line with statutory guidance, I would be inviting further representations in writing from the parties. I gave them until last Wednesday to provide those representations.
Having carefully considered the representations from the parties and the other representations that I have received, I can now tell the House that I have today issued a European intervention notice on the grounds of media plurality and commitment to broadcasting standards. I have written to the parties, Ofcom, and the Competition and Markets Authority to inform them of my decision.
While the representations from 21st Century Fox highlighted areas in which it contested the position taken in my “minded to” letter, none of the representations have led me to dismiss the concerns I have regarding the two public interest grounds I previously specified. I am of the view that it remains both important, given the issues raised, and wholly appropriate for me to seek comprehensive advice from Ofcom on those public interest considerations, and from the CMA on jurisdiction issues. I note that, overall, the parties have welcomed a thorough regulatory review, and that is what will now happen as a result of the intervention notice I have issued.
Since my “minded to” decision, I have also received just over 700 representations from third parties, the vast majority of which supported intervention. A number of those representations called for me to create a new public interest consideration, which would require a fit and proper assessment of the parties to the merger to take place as part of the intervention process. They also argued that it should be made clearer that matters of corporate governance, accountability and conduct could be taken into account in assessing this merger. These issues relate to questions about the application of the fit and proper test by Ofcom, and I will come to those issues shortly.
As I have previously set out, the decision will now trigger action by Ofcom to assess and report to me on the public interest grounds I have specified, and by the CMA to report to me on jurisdiction. They each have 40 working days to prepare and provide these reports. This means that I will expect their reports by Tuesday 16 May. I will then resume my decision-making role in relation to the merger.
To be clear, this intervening period, and indeed any time after that until a final decision on the merger is taken, is subject to the constraints that apply to my quasi-judicial role. Mr Speaker, I am sure you understand that I cannot—nor can any other member of the Government—comment substantively on the case as it proceeds. I will, however, as I have done so far, keep the House updated once I have considered the reports of Ofcom and the CMA.
What I will comment on is that much of the discussion in last week’s proceedings here and in the other place focused on Ofcom’s assessment of whether a licensee is fit and proper, including the ongoing duty that falls to Ofcom under the 1990 and 1996 Broadcasting Acts. I have received representations from the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) and the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), as well as from a number of other parties, on adding fit and proper as a new public interest consideration in the Enterprise Act 2002. I want to assure them that I have very carefully considered the arguments they have put forward.
The grounds set out in the Enterprise Act that allow for intervention in media mergers are aimed at ensuring plurality of the media, which is essential to a healthy democracy—something I know that Members of this House and the other place support. It is a view I fully and unequivocally endorse. However, I am also clear that the question of whether someone is fit and proper to hold a broadcasting licence is a different requirement, and one that, quite rightly, sits with Ofcom, the independent regulator.
On Monday, Ofcom announced that it would conduct its fit and proper assessment at the same time it considers any public interest test in response to my decision to intervene in the merger. This means that Ofcom will conduct its assessment within the 40 working days it has to report to me on the public interests I have specified in the intervention notice. I welcome Ofcom’s announcement, which will provide not only clarity for the parties, but reassurance to those who have expressed their own concerns, that this is a matter that Ofcom will now consider before the merger takes place.
I trust, as before, that this update is helpful to right hon. and hon. Members, and that it gives us an opportunity to debate this important issue, while at the same time respecting the limits of what I can say, as I referred to earlier, given my ongoing quasi-judicial role in relation to this merger. I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of her statement. She says that she will go ahead with what she indicated she was going to do last week. That might not sound like a big deal, but it is more than the Chancellor and the Prime Minister managed yesterday.
Labour Members welcome the fact that the Secretary of State is intervening. She will have noticed that 21st Century Fox is happy, too. In a letter to her last week, it said:
“We welcome a thorough and thoughtful review”.
I have no doubt that that welcome is sincere, and that 21st Century Fox is thrilled by her decision. On that basis, I hope that it will seek not to challenge or impede any element of Ofcom’s investigation. If it does, I trust that she will make a new referral to put it beyond doubt that Ofcom can investigate what it needs to investigate.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that the “broadcasting standards” ground of her referral gives Ofcom the power to investigate any corporate governance issues affecting 21st Century Fox, including the phone hacking scandal, any cover-up of illegality at News International, the rehiring of people responsible for governance failures, and ongoing sexual harassment claims in the United States? Is it her view that Ofcom should examine those issues?
The Secretary of State referred to representations made by me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and others about adding “fit and proper” as a new public interest consideration, but she has regrettably chosen to reject them. I welcome Ofcom’s announcement that it will conduct a fit and proper assessment at the same time as considering the public interest test she has specified today, but I have two concerns about this. First, Ofcom has only 40 days to conduct the fit and proper assessment. Is the Secretary of State confident that it can get to the bottom of all these issues in such a short time? Secondly, the 2012 Ofcom report on James Murdoch, which found that his conduct
“repeatedly fell short of the conduct to be expected of him as a chief executive officer and chairman”,
contained this important caveat:
“The evidence available to date does not provide a reasonable basis to find that”
“knew of widespread wrongdoing or criminality at”
News of the World. The reason for that lack of evidence was that Ofcom did not have the power to gather the evidence it needed.
Just a few years ago, News Corporation, 21st Century Fox’s predecessor company, was involved in one of the biggest corporate scandals and one of the biggest corporate governance failures of modern times. Many of the questions about the failure of corporate governance failure within 21st Century Fox’s predecessor company, and much of the evidence of the role of James Murdoch within those failures, can be answered only by going ahead with part 2 of the Leveson inquiry. Ofcom does not have the power to obtain documents and compel witnesses to appear before it. Is not the easiest way of getting to the bottom of the corporate governance questions that we all want answered to hold an inquiry in public, using powers under the Inquiries Act 2005, with terms of reference that have already been announced by a Conservative Prime Minister as a promise to the victims of phone hacking—namely Leveson part 2?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I will address his final point first—the issue of Leveson—as I did last time I was at the Dispatch Box on this matter. As he will know, the consultation we launched, which closed in January, is subject to judicial review. I am therefore unable to comment on the consultation, or any aspects of it, with regard to the Leveson inquiry. I hope he will understand that I cannot make further comment about that.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the decision to refer this merger, but it is important that I make a couple of points in relation to his questions. He asked whether the “broadcasting standards” element could include looking at corporate governance. I was clear in my original “minded to” letter and in the statement I made to the House on 6 March that corporate governance was one of the issues on which I was referring the matter to Ofcom, and therefore I would expect it to look at that. Clearly, however, Ofcom is an independent regulator. I have made the decision to refer to Ofcom, but it is for Ofcom to decide what evidence it wants to look at. It is open to look at whatever evidence it feels is appropriate to enable it to make its decision.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the fit and proper test. I very carefully considered the representations that were made, but it is important that it is the independent regulator that looks at fit and proper and the Government who have grounds on which to intervene under the Enterprise Act. Those two things have to be kept separate. The Government should not step into the area where, quite rightly, the regulator should sit.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether Ofcom has the time, resources and ability to gather the evidence that it needs. I have been assured by Ofcom that it has the time to do this and the ability to gather the evidence it needs, and I now look forward to letting it get on with the job.
Although it is clearly sensible to ask the regulator to examine this bid, does my right hon. Friend recognise that this transaction represents a £11.7 billion investment by an international company in a British broadcaster and is, as such, a fantastic vote of confidence in the UK’s remaining an international centre of broadcasting long after we leave the European Union?
As the House knows, my right hon. Friend has significant experience in matters of culture, media and sport. He is right to say that the UK is global Britain, open for business to the whole world, and that it will remain so after we have left the European Union.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. I am pleased that she will intervene in the proposed merger of Sky and Fox, and that she will ask Ofcom to investigate the deal. Scottish National party Members have consistently voiced our support for media plurality and our commitment to broadcasting standards. There are valid concerns about the merger, which will increase the influence of Rupert Murdoch and his family in the UK’s media. There are concerns regarding a number of breaches of broadcasting standards by Fox, as well as News Corporation’s past behaviour and corporate governance failures.
Many people highlight the fact that part 2 of the Leveson inquiry has yet to be commenced, and they question whether such a significant deal can go ahead before that happens. This is not the first time that there has been an attempt to take over Sky, and we should be mindful of why the previous bid courted such controversy and failed.
At the same time, it should be acknowledged that television is adapting to changes in viewing habits and competition throughout the world. Some will argue that investment in Sky might allow the UK to thrive in the international arena and continue to compete with competitors such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. We welcome the fact that Ofcom will report on the public interest grounds of media plurality and commitment to broadcasting standards, as well as conducting a fit and proper assessment. I trust and believe that that will provide the Secretary of State with the necessary recommendations on how to proceed, and I look forward to Ofcom’s conclusions.
I refer to my earlier comments regarding the Leveson inquiry—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand. I thank him for his welcome for the decision. I look forward, as he does, to seeing the reports from Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority, which will enable me to use my quasi-judicial role to make a fair and transparent decision.
It appears that even the mention of the name Murdoch gets some people twitching and frothing at the mouth. Does the Secretary of State recognise the fact that while James Murdoch was chief executive and later chairman of Sky, the company grew to employ 24,000 people in this country, with investments of £700 million a year in original production and programming? Does she believe, as I do, that Sky is an important part of the creativity of this country, and that the proposal of this merger shows the confidence of the rest of the world in Britain’s productivity and future?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I agree that media plurality is important, which is why I have asked Ofcom to look at the proposed merger and to make a decision, on the grounds set out in the Enterprise Act 2002, about whether it will affect media plurality. Like him, I am optimistic that, following Brexit, the UK broadcasting industry will continue to thrive and to be the world-leading industry that it is today.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to refer this bid. Many of us believe that in view of the conduct of the Murdochs and the untrammelled power that they already have, it is not in the public interest for them to take over Sky and have full control.
I want to ask about the question of fitness, which I know the Secretary of State has thought about a lot. The 2011 Ofcom review took 15 months to look at the fitness of the Murdochs, but she expects Ofcom to report back to her within 40 days. There is a question about timescale and powers, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) has said. Can she assure us that if during this period Ofcom seeks more time, or indeed more powers, to carry out the fitness review, she will grant its request?
Ofcom has assured me that it has the time and the powers that it needs, and I look forward to seeing its report in due course.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the freedom of the press, and indeed of press ownership, is a bastion of our liberties? It is for Ofcom—objectively, not subjectively—to define, as a narrow term of art, a fit and proper person; it is not for Ministers and politicians to get involved in this.
My hon. Friend’s point is exactly what I concluded, having considered the representations. There needs to be a distinction between the work of the independent regulator in determining who is a fit and proper person to hold a broadcasting licence versus the role of the Secretary of State when it comes to determining whether a media merger can go ahead under the terms of the Enterprise Act.
Having encouraged the Secretary of State to take this course of action, may I now welcome the fact that she has done so? She deserves credit for doing the right thing, and I have no doubt that she will have the support of the House as this matter goes forward. Many years ago, I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Enterprise Bill, and I recall that the provisions on this process were supported by all parties at that time. It strikes me, however, that in the light of this experience, it might be appropriate at its conclusion to revisit whether we do in fact have the processes we really need to ensure that we get the ends that we want to achieve.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming this. If he wants to make representations to me regarding the Enterprise Act and areas in which he feels changes could be made in the light of changing broadcasting and consuming habits, I will of course look at them carefully.
I agree with the Secretary of State’s view that the decision on whether somebody is a fit and proper person should quite correctly be for an independent regulator, not a politician. Does she believe that that is consistent with our goals of not politicising our broadcasting landscape?
I agree with my hon. Friend. That was exactly the conclusion I reached when looking at the representations that I received.
I recognise and respect what the Secretary of State has told the House, and we all appreciate her keeping the House up to date. I again say that this is not a question of any kind of vendetta against Mr Murdoch, but it would be simply unacceptable for the amount of media ownership he already controls to be increased. That is the position, and it is why I hope that the right decision will be taken at the end of the day.
Ofcom will look at these matters and I look forward to seeing its report.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, but will she assure me that the question of plurality is not just examined occasionally—when a big merger such as this comes up—but kept constantly under review by Ofcom and, indeed, her Department?
Ofcom has a responsibility to consider on a regular basis the fit and proper person test for holding a broadcasting licence. Clearly, however, when looking at the whole media landscape—there were questions about the status of Channel 4 during oral questions—the issue of media plurality is at the forefront of my mind. That is the case when looking at the right decision to take regarding the future of Channel 4 and all media matters.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her statement. I have received a huge number of emails on this issue from many constituents, and I welcome the intervention that she detailed in her statement. A free, open and diverse press is of course important to democracy, and I want to put on record that my constituents have asked that she understands the depth and strength of feeling on this issue. I look forward to hearing from her further in due course.
The hon. Lady will probably not be surprised to hear that I have, I suspect, received more emails than even she has on this matter. I have taken note of them.
I think my right hon. Friend’s decision will be warmly welcomed by all parties to the proposed merger, as well as across the country. However, one of the considerations is the short time in which Ofcom must carry out the review. Will she therefore ask Ofcom for an interim report part of the way through this period? If there is any obstruction or a need to extend the time, she would then be able to look at the situation sympathetically to ensure that Ofcom can do the proper job we all want it to do.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion, but Ofcom has reassured me that it has the time and resources required to produce a report in 40 working days. It is important to remember that we want to make sure that there is sufficient time and scrutiny, and that we provide certainty within a reasonable timeframe, so that all parties can get on with business as usual, whatever that might be.
I warmly congratulate the Secretary of State on her decision. She should bear in mind, however, that historically successive Governments —and Prime Ministers, in particular since Mrs Thatcher—have decided that Rupert and now James Murdoch are fit and proper persons because they own newspapers that support them in general elections. The concentration of ownership is the problem. Sky now has nearly four times as much money to spend every year as the BBC. I hope that we end up in a position in which we maintain diversity in the British ecology, with a strong BBC not being bullied by Murdoch and Sky.
I am getting slightly worried, because this is the second time this morning the hon. Gentleman has worked consensually with the Government, but I take note of his comments.
I welcome today’s statement, as will many of my constituents who have been in contact with me regarding this matter. I am sure that they will all be happy that the bid is being referred to the regulators. Given that Britain has one of the most concentrated media environments in the world, with three companies controlling 71% of national newspaper circulation and five companies in command of 81% of local newspapers titles, does the Secretary of State agree that now is the ideal time to review properly the media landscape in Britain?
I am very proud of the incredibly diverse free press that we have in this country, and I want to preserve it and ensure that we can enable it to thrive. There was a question in oral questions about local newspapers, and I certainly want local newspapers, and others, to thrive. Through this process, it is important that we ensure that we have a plurality of media and broadcasting. That is why I have asked Ofcom to look at this particular issue.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision. I would merely point out that someone has to be a fit and proper person to be a licensed London hackney carriage driver. With that in mind, this is not just a question of the amount of influence that the Murdochs already have; it is their association with so much corruption and illegality, which is still being uncovered even now. I am incredulous that they are being considered for a 100% controlling share of Sky. That must not be allowed to happen.
I am sure that Ofcom will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I hope that his comments about fit and proper persons for taxi driving is not a reflection on any experiences he may have had in the past.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on how she is handling this matter which, if I may say so, is better than any Secretary of State since 2010. She says that she cannot respond to any substantive questions on Leveson 2 because it is under judicial review. When will the judicial review be resolved so that we might come back to Leveson 2?
The judicial review is a matter for the courts. I am in their hands.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Yes, I will take a point of order now. There are a couple of Select Committee statements coming, but we can await those with eager anticipation and bated breath. I am sure colleagues do so, but let us first hear the point of order from Mr Christopher Chope.
In a section headed “Making Commitments on the Floor of the House”, paragraph 23.42 of the Cabinet Office guide to making legislation, published in July 2015, states:
“Parliament will hold Ministers to any commitments they make on the floor of the House which are recorded in Hansard. Ministers must, therefore, take care during debates not to make any c