House of Commons
Thursday 20 April 2017
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Air Quality National Framework
The UK has made significant progress in improving air quality in the past decade, with lower emissions of all five major air pollutants. However, the UK is among 17 European countries, including France and Germany, that are not yet meeting EU emissions targets for nitrogen dioxide in parts of our towns and cities. To help to address this, the Government last year consulted on a clean air zone framework, which will be published shortly.
Following three humiliating defeats in the courts for failing to address the 50,000 deaths a year in this country due to poor air quality, and where the Government defended the indefensible, Justice Garnham ordered the Government to produce a new air quality plan by this Monday. Labour believes we need to go further with an air quality national framework as part of a clean air Act. What are the main pillars of the plan and how much resource has the Secretary of State allocated to addressing the UK’s poor air quality?
It is a great shame that the hon. Lady criticises this Government, who since 2011 have committed more than £2 billion to increase the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles and support greener transport schemes and have set out how we will improve air quality through a new programme of clean zones. In addition, in the autumn statement we announced a further £290 million to support low-emission buses and taxis, retrofitting and alternative fuels; and, as I say, we will consult on our plans to improve nitrogen oxide emissions very shortly.
I do not want to be intemperate with the Secretary of State, but this is just so much pie in the sky. Every time we have Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, she says that something will happen soon. When are we going to have our big natural environment report? When are we going to stop people being poisoned in our cities and towns like Huddersfield, and when are we going to see action—now, not next week, next month or next year?
Let me be very clear: the Government are totally committed to cutting harmful emissions that worsen our air quality. We have made great progress already in the past decade, which is more than the Labour Government did. Emissions went up on their watch. We absolutely recognise that there is more to do and we will publish our proposals very soon.
I am very concerned about people who bought diesel cars thinking that they were the best way forward. Will the Secretary of State discuss this matter with the Transport Secretary, the Treasury and the devolved Administrations to ensure that these people are not penalised? We need to find a way forward that looks after them.
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. In taking steps to reduce harmful nitrogen dioxide emissions, we have to take into account the impact on ordinary working families and businesses. As the Prime Minister made very clear, we completely understand that people bought diesel cars under incentives from the last Labour Government. They bought them in good faith and we need to ensure that they are not penalised for the actions they took.
Will the Secretary of State consider a targeted diesel scrappage scheme that supports low-income families in particular? The opportunity to do so was missed in both last year’s autumn statement and the Budget.
I can assure the hon. Lady that the Government are looking at all possible areas both to reduce emissions of noxious substances such as nitrogen oxide and to ensure that we have good mitigation across the board to try to support ordinary working families. All types of mitigation are on the table.
Northern Ireland has very low air pollution with all areas in the low pollution band, but it is essential that the national framework is truly nationwide and encompasses Northern Ireland. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with her counterpart in the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that that happens?
I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that we have had discussions right across the devolved Administrations on this subject. The UK Government and all the devolved Administrations take it very seriously. We are working together closely and we will make an announcement in due course.
Leaving the EU: Environmental Standards Regulations
The great repeal Bill will ensure that the whole body of existing EU environmental law will continue to have effect in UK law. Over time, we will have the opportunity to ensure that our legislative framework is outcome-driven and delivers on our overall commitment to improve the environment within a generation. I can assure the House that the Government will continue to uphold our obligations under international environmental treaties, champion high standards in environmental protection and continue to seek to influence other countries to do so.
Ensuring that environmental regulations are introduced in the great repeal Bill is fine: that is very important. At least as important, however, is ensuring that those regulations are permanent. Will the Government commit themselves to placing no limit on the timeframe within which regulations will remain in place to protect our health?
The country decided to leave the European Union last year. We are trying to provide as much certainty as possible to ensure that regulations continue to exist as part of UK law, and, as a consequence, that will be the case. It concerns me that the hon. Gentleman thinks we are somehow going to rip up the rule book, because that is far from being the outcome. We want a better environment for our future generations, and that is what the Government will deliver.
The Minister knows very well that the EU environmental regulations have been very helpful to people like me—and you, Mr Speaker—in holding the feet of HS2 to the fire when it comes to protecting our environment. Will she undertake not to allow any diminution in the protections that are afforded to areas of outstanding natural beauty, and to ensure that our exiting of the European Union does not hand HS2 a blank cheque enabling it to ride roughshod through our countryside?
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Government have already committed themselves to upholding the highest environmental standards—standards that we cherish—in developing HS2, and, indeed, other infrastructure.
May I echo the call from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for a national framework rather than ad hoc local decision making, especially given that emissions are currently declining? Will the Minister bear that in mind while she is working on the EU air quality regulations? In drawing up the framework, will she take account of all causes of air pollution, properly cost the alternatives—I am thinking particularly of the costs to drivers and the taxpayer—and urge the Government to stop demonising diesel drivers?
I think it fair to say—and we have said it at this Dispatch Box before—that when we are tackling air quality issues we must work with local communities, because the solutions will vary and there must be targeted interventions. I am afraid—well, I am not afraid—that our Government are not demonising diesel drivers at all. It was the Labour Government who introduced incentives for people to start using diesel. It happens to have been the current Mayor of London who stood at the Dispatch Box in his last year in the Brown Government and said that Euro V emission standards would solve the problem. We know that that is not the case, but we are clearing up the mess. Together, we can work across party lines to ensure that we have cleaner air for the people whom we all represent.
One of the environmental standards that we can improve outside the European Union as much as inside relates to the state of the oceans. As the Minister knows, a massive amount of dumping of plastics is damaging sea life and coral wellbeing. A huge United Nations conference will take place between 5 and 9 June. Ministers will be busy doing other things, but what will this Minister do to ensure that the British voice is properly heard to ensure that something is done to clean up our oceans?
My hon. Friend will be aware that we launched our litter strategy recently. We know that a great deal of the litter that ends up in the marine environment comes from the land, and we must proceed with our work on that, because marine conservation is particularly important to us. We have continued to extend our blue belt, not only around the this country’s coastline but in overseas territories. As my hon. Friend pointed out, a general election will take place in the middle of the oceans conference, but I can assure him that the interests of the United Kingdom in providing global leadership will be well represented.
While the great repeal Bill may bring short-term stability and a working statute book when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, it remains to be seen whether this Government, or indeed future Governments, will take any action to erode the UK’s existing environmental policies. What assurances can the Minister give the constituents who have written to me expressing deep concern about environmental protections post-Brexit?
I can only continue to try to assure the House, and the hon. Lady’s constituents, that we made it very clear in the manifesto on which we stood in 2015 that we wanted to be the first Government to leave the environment in a better state than the one in which we found it, and that is what we will do.
On 24 November 2015, the then Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), announced that the UK Government would ban lion trophy imports by the end of 2017. What progress has been made in that regard, and what reductions in trophy lion hunting does the Minister expect to be made following the review of international treaties when the UK has left the EU?
I did not quite catch the opening of the hon. Gentleman’s question, when he referred to something from 2015, but I assure him that all these imports are undertaken on a case-by-case basis and that we continue to work with other countries to ensure that we conserve important species throughout the world. It is a key issue in which the UK is a global leader. We will continue to work with other countries and to have an influence.
The consultation closed on 28 February and we are currently examining the responses. Our intention is to introduce legislation this year, with a ban on manufacturing expected to apply from 1 January 2018 and a ban on sales expected from 30 June 2018, as was outlined in our proposals.
I strongly support the Government’s plans to ban microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products, but they account for probably only about 4% of the micro-plastics polluting our rivers and oceans. What are the Government doing to tackle the other types of micro-plastics which we want to stop polluting our oceans?
The consultation also sought to gather evidence on the extent of the environmental impacts of micro-plastics from other sources. We are reviewing the responses to that consultation, and any new evidence will be used to inform actions to protect the marine environment. I assure my right hon. Friend that we are also looking at the litter strategy, the use of plastic bottles and on-the-go consumption, but I remind her that we need to be careful as we take that forward as a lot of microbeads and plastics are the outcome of, for example, recycled bottles that are made into fleece.
I was recently rummaging through my wife’s collection of shampoos, and to my horror I found a plastic container of Olay anti-wrinkle, anti-ageing lotion, complete with exfoliating microbeads. Obviously, neither the Secretary of State nor her Minister would ever need to use such a product, but will the Minister get on the telephone to the chief executive of Procter & Gamble and tell him that selling that sort of product is completely outrageous and that it should be withdrawn from the market at once?
The leisure pursuits of the hon. Gentleman are truly extraordinary.
What I find extraordinary is that Lady Bellingham, who is a flawless picture, would even need these products. I am sure my hon. Friend will be buying flowers later today to make up for this.
It is fair to say that we are working with manufacturers now and a lot of them are already starting to remove these products proactively. That is good news, but we want to ensure that that avoidable pollution is taken out of our environment permanently.
Food and Drink Sector
We regularly meet EU counterparts at Agriculture and Fisheries Council and at Environment Council. Food and drink issues are routinely on the formal agenda and are frequently discussed at informal bilaterals, too.
The great and noble county of Lincolnshire is the bread basket of England and much of the food that we eat comes from that county. Glyphosate has been proved to be harmless by scientists. It is used by farmers in the safe production of wheat and the food we eat, so can the Minister assure me that once we regain control of our destiny its use will be reauthorised?
As my hon. Friend knows, the European Union is currently reviewing the use of glyphosate, but the European Food Safety Authority, the food safety agency for the EU, as well as the German authorities that led the work are very clear that it is a safe product. The UK has therefore consistently backed a position in line with the science to continue to authorise glyphosate.
My first DEFRA question, on 18 June 2015, was on convergence uplift. Now, €230 million should have flowed to Scottish farming. Since then, the Minister has demonstrated an uncanny ability to procrastinate, which my children could only envy. However, this is not children’s homework or getting to bed on time; it is fundamental money that is important to Scottish farming and it is now a matter of trust. The Minister wants us to believe that we can trust this Government with post-Brexit UK policy. Where is that money? How on earth can Scottish farming trust this Government and the Tories?
The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this a number of times, and he is aware that the review that we intended to carry out last year was delayed because of the referendum, which has clearly changed the context dramatically. We continue to have discussions with Scottish industry; indeed, just yesterday I met NFU Scotland to discuss future agriculture policy.
What can be done to encourage the European Union to promote the processing of foodstuffs in developing countries? I am thinking particularly of olive oil and coffee, where the value added tends to be within the European Union.
The UK and indeed a number of other European countries have preferential trade agreements in place to support developing countries and give them tariff-free access to the European market. This is important to the development of some of those countries, and the issues that my hon. Friend raises are regularly discussed at the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council.
The fishing industry in my constituency is an important part of the food-processing sector. As part of the discussions with EU ministerial counterparts, what efforts will be made to ensure that there is no border in the Irish sea, thereby permitting fishermen to fish in both parts, as they currently can?
As the hon. Lady will know, there has been an issue with the voisinage agreement, a long-standing agreement between the UK and the Irish Republic. There had been an issue with the Irish courts on this, and I discussed it just a couple of weeks ago with the Irish Minister, when we also talked about the arrangements we might have after Brexit.
Like my constituency neighbour my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), I have the honour of representing a constituency whose farmers feed the country. Will my hon. Friend the Minister work to ensure that farmers in Louth and Horncastle and beyond are not put at a disadvantage with their EU competitors when these exciting new trade deals are negotiated?
My hon. Friend represents an important farming constituency, and I reassure her that I worked in the farming industry for 10 years and am passionate about it. I have been going up and down the country in recent months meeting farmers to discuss their concerns. We have a fantastic opportunity now on leaving the EU to design a new agriculture policy that is fit for purpose.
Press reports earlier this week suggest that the Danish Government may press for restrictions on UK fish imports to the EU if the Danish fleet loses access to UK—mostly Scottish—fishing waters when the UK leaves the EU. That would have very serious implications for Scottish fish producers, who currently export in the region of almost half a billion pounds-worth of fish to the EU every year. What conversations has the Minister had with his Danish counterpart this week, and what solutions is he proposing?
As I said, I have regular meetings with all EU counterparts; indeed, I believe that the Danish Minister is planning a visit to the UK in the next few weeks, and I hope to meet him then. The hon. Lady should not worry about the opening positions that people might take in a negotiation: what matters is not what people ask for but what the UK Government are willing to grant. I simply say this: the Scottish fishing industry does not want to be dragged kicking and screaming back into the EU. It wants to leave the EU and the common fisheries policy; it wants to take control of our waters.
The fishing industry is vitally important to my constituency. Will the Minister update fishers there and around the UK about if, and when, the Government will trigger their intention to withdraw from the 1964 London fisheries convention?
My hon. Friend makes an important point: there is a 1964 London fisheries convention which has access arrangements for a number of countries. As we have made clear on numerous occasions, we are looking at this very closely, and, as the Prime Minister said just two weeks ago, we hope to be able to say something on this shortly.
Since 2015, DEFRA has opened or improved terms for over 160 markets for agri-food commodities. Increasing access to markets is a priority set out in the food and drink international action plan. We work with industry to identify and prioritise new markets and increase export value.
In my role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, I have recently invited the Nigerian agriculture Minister to come to the UK. Does my hon. Friend agree that it will be important to show him the whole of the value chain in agriculture, in which we do so well?
I commend the work that my hon. Friend does in building relations and important trading links with Nigeria, which is an important trading partner. It is also an important market for some fisheries products, including mackerel. I am delighted to hear that he has invited the Nigerian agriculture Minister here to see some of the great work that we do through the supply chain and some of the technology that we use to reduce waste in the supply chain.
Does the Minister recognise that it is crucial to place the needs of the agricultural sector at the heart of the Brexit negotiations? Is it not clear that if the Government do not get their act together, a bad Brexit deal would leave British farmers and food producers facing the double whammy of cheap food imports and tariffs on their exports?
Access to the UK market is incredibly important for European countries as well. We export around £11 billion-worth of food and drink to the European Union, but we import some £28 billion-worth of food from the EU. That is why farming unions across the EU are telling their Governments that they must have a free trade agreement with the UK.
But how do the Government intend to deliver on these promises? The Country Land and Business Association is saying that the Government should admit that they cannot design a workable new agricultural policy in less than two years because DEFRA simply does not have the capacity to do so. The Government’s failure to reach an agreement could leave our farmers unable to compete at home and abroad. What specific guarantees can the Minister provide here today to rural communities across the country that farming subsidies and tariff-free trade will be guaranteed under a Tory Government?
We have some tremendously talented policy officials in DEFRA and in our agencies, and they have been working closely on the detail behind the design of future agricultural policy on some of those issues. The Prime Minister has made it clear that she is going to make an offer to the other European countries of a bold, ambitious and comprehensive free trade agreement.
One of the markets that farmers in northern Lincolnshire are hoping to expand is the production of crops that can be converted into bioethanol fuel. However, they are concerned about the Government’s commitment to this market. Can the Minister reassure them that this is a market for future expansion?
We see a role for bioethanol fuels, but we are also keen to ensure that we do not lose too much good agricultural land to biofuels. My hon. Friend will be aware that this is predominantly an issue for the Department for Transport, and I would invite him to raise it with that Department in the next Parliament.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) has just pointed out, markets are not only country-based but product-based. The UK has a tremendous market for lactose-free milk, most of which is imported. What can we do to encourage UK producers to develop that product and manufacture it in the UK?
We have a strong dairy industry in this country, and there are lots of opportunities of that nature. We have established the food innovation networks, and we have the agritech fund and a number of other funds to support innovative product development of that kind.
Leaving the EU: Food Prices
Energy prices and exchange rates are the key drivers of change in agricultural commodity markets, and they affect all the countries in the world, irrespective of whether they are members of the EU. Following the sharp spike in food prices in 2008, they levelled off in 2014 and fell by about 7% over the following two years. In the past year, they have seen a modest increase of about 1.3%.
I thank the Minister for his response, but the fact is that the Office for National Statistics is reporting a surge in food prices that is likely to continue. Children are returning to school hungry after the Easter holidays and elderly people are being admitted to hospital malnourished, but still the Government refuse to measure hunger and food poverty levels in this country properly. Is it not the case that they refuse to measure those things because if they did so, they would have to admit some culpability?
No, the hon. Lady is wrong; we do measure them. We have the long-standing living costs and food survey, which has run for many years and which includes a measure for household spending among the poorest 20% of households. I can tell her that household spending in those poorest households has remained steady at around 16% for at least a decade.
Ah, yes: on the matter of food, I call Mr Marcus Fysh.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Farmers across the south-west are rightly very proud of the high-quality food that they produce, be it beef, lamb, milk and so on. What opportunities from leaving the EU does the Minister see to ensure that they get a fair price for that food in the future?
As my hon. Friend knows, we have recently had a call for evidence and a review of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Representations have suggested extending its remit further up the supply chain, and we are considering those representations. The Groceries Code Adjudicator has made a good start to improving the relationship between producers and supermarkets in particular.
I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that I have had regular meetings with food processors. Just two days ago, I had a meeting with the new president of the Food and Drink Federation, and this issue has been raised. According to the Office for National Statistics, some 30% of employees in the food processing sector are from other European Union countries. The Prime Minister has been clear that she wants to safeguard and protect the rights of the EU citizens who are here and that she would expect that to be reciprocated—and that that can be agreed early in the negotiations.
May I gently remind the Minister again of the paradox that we starve the poor by refusing to buy their food from them?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. As I mentioned earlier, we give preferential trade access to some developing countries: the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries are especially important in sectors such as sugar. It is important for them to develop those industries.
Ivory Trade Ban
My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue and I share her concerns. She will recognise that we want to get the proposals right, and we will consult as soon as we can.
Does the Minister agree that when the policy is in place rigorous enforcement will be one of the most vital elements?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend: robust enforcement will be important to ensure that the rules are effective. She will recognise that the police and border agencies do an excellent job of enforcing the current rules. We will work with them on how best to enforce the new measures, but she will also recognise that our strategic approach to tackling the illegal wildlife trade is about enforcement, strengthening criminal justice and tackling demand, so that together we can help to solve the poaching crisis.
Seasonal Agricultural Workforce
I very much enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency last week. It was a great pleasure to meet some of her growers, including those at Oakdene farm, to discuss seasonal labour. I am very aware of the horticultural sector’s concerns about labour supply issues. The Government plan to commission advice from the Migration Advisory Committee and to consult with businesses later this year.
The Secretary of State obviously had an agreeable excursion: I am very interested to hear about it.
I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to Kent to visit one of my local fruit farms and listening to the growers who assembled there, especially as it was during the Easter recess. Can she give me an update on the discussions that she has had with the Home Office about introducing the much-needed seasonal agricultural permit scheme?
I visited not only my hon. Friend’s constituency, but that of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), so I had a lovely day in the county I grew up in. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) is right that this is an important issue. The Government have assessed the need for a pilot seasonal workers scheme, and have decided that the evidence shows that one is not needed. As I have said, the Migration Advisory Committee and a consultation with businesses later this year will seek to determine exactly what the need is, and the Government are committed to making a huge success of the food and farming sector as we leave the EU.
As this is the last DEFRA questions before the election, I remind the House of the Government’s twin ambitions for food, farming and the environment: to grow more, sell more and export more great British food; and for us to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. Only last week we published the first ever national litter strategy for England and announced a £10 million grant scheme to restore England’s iconic peatlands. We look forward to putting our case to the country.
What is my right hon. Friend doing to support our fisherman, in particular the under-10 metre fleet—that is 33 feet in English money?
I am glad that my right hon. Friend can still do the sums. The Government have taken several measures to make the inshore fleet more economically sustainable. For example, we have permanently transferred unused quota from over-10 metre vessels to the under-10 metre fleet, representing a 14% uplift to the under-10 metre fleet. We continue to top-slice the quota uplift, which is now more than 1,000 tonnes, in order to help the under-10 metre fleet.
Contrary to what the Minister of State said earlier, recent inflation figures reveal that food prices are rising at their fastest pace in three years, adding over £21 to the average household shopping bill in the last three months alone. When will the Secretary of State get a grip on a soaring cost of living that is affecting millions of families?
As I pointed out in answer to an earlier question, we saw the biggest spike in food prices in 2008 due to energy prices. Food prices fell by around 7% between 2014 and 2016. It is true that there has been modest increase over the last 12 months of 1.4%.
Rising food prices simply add to the burden on those with little money for food. The Food Standards Agency recently reported that one in four low-income families struggles to eat regularly, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission has shown that disabled people are more than twice as likely to live in food poverty. How much longer can the Secretary of State refuse to monitor and publish figures on UK food insecurity and food bank usage?
As I said earlier, we have always monitored spending on food through the living costs and food survey, and food spending among the poorest 20% has been stable at 16% for over a decade. This Government have put more people in employment than ever before, taking more people off benefits and giving them an income. That is how to tackle poverty.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of natural flood management, which I saw for myself on a recent visit to Leicester when I launched a £1 million competition for natural flood protection. In the right place, it can absolutely help alongside more traditional measures. We are investing a total of £15 million to fund natural flood management schemes across the country, which will help to support many communities that are at risk of flooding, and we will continue to build the evidence.
We have already addressed the issue of seasonal workers in the agricultural sector, and it is important that we assess the needs there. As for workers who already work and have made their lives in this country, the Prime Minister has said that it is absolutely her intention to ensure that those rights are protected, provided that the EU reciprocates. It is exactly right to look after British workers who have moved to the EU at the same time as protecting the valuable contribution that EU citizens make in the UK.
My hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner on that issue, which he and I have discussed on numerous occasions. The Government are committed to giving consumers as much transparency as possible and to improving labelling wherever we can. He understands that there are some difficulties—there is no single definition of halal or kosher, for instance—that make compulsory labelling complex. He is also aware that the European Union has been looking at the issue. Obviously, once we leave the EU there will be an opportunity for us to look at all these issues.
The hon. Lady might be aware that a significant decision was taken by the people of the United Kingdom last summer to leave the European Union. We have been clear about our ambition to make a huge success of the food and farming sector, and to be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we found it. On what that means for our plans, it is essential that we consult widely with all the stakeholders. They have clear evidence and ideas to give us for a future outside the EU that is more successful than ever.
As I said in response to the earlier question, the evidence is fairly clear. EFSA has studied the matter, and it believes that glyphosate is safe. It has always been the UK’s position to follow the science and the evidence on pesticide decisions, which is why we support the reauthorisation of glyphosate. We will continue to have an evidence-based, science-based approach to these issues when we leave the EU.
Does the Secretary of State agree that we need good science, good technology and good innovation? What will she do about the fact that ChemChina has taken over Syngenta, a leading scientific research company largely based in my constituency but with research centres in Jealott’s Hill? Syngenta is the fifth leading innovation company in our country that the Chinese Government have absorbed—ChemChina is not listed on the stock exchange, even in China. What is she going to do about it?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that pesticides and crop protection products are quite an integrated industry across the world. It is not uncommon for foreign-owned companies to be based and operating in the UK. We have some of the world’s best scientific expertise in this area, which is why companies choose to locate here.
I am delighted that we launched our litter strategy for England on 10 April. The strategy will seek to cut the £800 million annual bill to taxpayers for cleaning up after litter louts. We have delivered on our manifesto commitment to let local councils fine small-scale fly tippers. We have also given local authorities the power to seize and crush vehicles that are involved in fly tipping, and we are ensuring that community payback is used to clear up litter and fly-tipped waste.
Food processors in my constituency operate integrated processing, distribution and packaging plants across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. What assurances can Ministers give those companies that there will be no border restrictions that inhibit their operations between the UK and Ireland after Brexit?
As the hon. Lady knows, the Prime Minister has made it clear that she wants a bold, ambitious and comprehensive free trade agreement. We are looking closely at the issue of border controls, particularly in respect of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. We talk regularly to industry on the issue, and we have a meeting with some of the devolved Administrations later today in which we will be looking at precisely these sorts of issues.
Lamb is trading at significantly lower prices this year than it did last year at this time. New Zealand lamb comes in during the winter, when our lambs do not, and there seems to be too much New Zealand lamb in our major retailers and not enough British lamb. I would like the Minister to bring it to the attention of the major retailers that British lamb should now be in the shops, which should not be packed with New Zealand lamb.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. At Easter, people really want to buy high-quality west country, Welsh and Scottish lamb, and indeed lamb from every part of the United Kingdom. We faced an issue this year, in that prices were actually very good during the winter, which meant that a number of sheep producers decided to sell their lamb early and so there has been less British lamb available at this time of year.
Will the Secretary of State be pushing for a total ban on ivory sales in the 2017 Conservative manifesto, equivalent to the unrealised pledge in the 2015 manifesto?
As I outlined to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) earlier, we are working carefully on the proposals and we hope to publish a consultation in due course.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), we in the west midlands are seeing a terrible spate of fly-tipping on a commercial scale, including of hospital waste and household waste. May I ask the Minister seriously to help the farmers with the costs of deterring these serious criminals from dumping such hazards on their land?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. We know that fly-tipping is a particular problem at the moment, which is why the Environment Agency is working with councils and with farmers to try to prevent waste from being dumped in the first place. We will continue to pursue waste crime as an urgent priority. People who despoil our countryside and our streets deserve to be sentenced to the full, but we need the evidence to do that, which is why sometimes these things can take time to develop.
Apart from the EU citizens already here, does the Minister recognise that food processors will need to continue to recruit employees coming to the UK from other EU countries?
Yes, absolutely. As I said, the Home Office is looking closely at future needs for businesses. We absolutely recognise that for businesses in the UK to thrive they will need access to some of the brightest and the best from around the world, and the Migration Advisory Committee and a consultation with businesses will be looking at those needs later this year.
Cleaning up the nation’s bus fleet is an important part of tackling air quality, but does the Secretary of State agree that smaller companies such as Southgate & Finchley Coaches in my constituency will need time to adapt, particularly where the cleanest vehicles are not yet available on the second-hand market?
My right hon. Friend is correct to point out that we need to work with industry. I know that the Department for Transport has been proactively working on plans for some time with manufacturers to make those improvements, so that as a nation we can make the technological changes to vehicle emissions that are important in improving our air quality.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
Cancer Drugs: Funding
I can inform the House that the NAO published an investigation into the cancer drugs fund in September 2015, which set out the facts relating to the fund to inform consideration of what had been achieved. The NAO’s investigation followed up on a number of concerns raised during the earlier work on progress in improving cancer services. The investigation found that all parties agreed that the fund was not sustainable in its form at the time, and that NHS England was proposing a new arrangement for the fund. It also noted that NHS England did not have the data to evaluate the impact of the existing fund on patient outcomes.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Can he tell the House whether the Public Accounts Committee has actually looked at this issue?
I can indeed. This is a very serious matter that everybody wants to improve, so the Public Accounts Committee followed up on the National Audit Office investigation and recommended that the Department of Health and NHS England make better use of their buying power in order to pay a fair price for cancer drugs and improve data on patient outcomes. The NAO also followed up on several related issues in an April 2016 report. It recommended that the Department and NHS England should, in collaboration with the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, consider affordability and ensure best prices for high-cost drugs.
The findings show that although 40 cancer drugs were available through the cancer drugs fund in 2013-14 and 2014-15, some 71% of patients were covered by the 10 most common drugs. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that surely that indicates a need to move those 10 drugs on to the NHS list? Does he believe those findings have had any effect on Government policy on cancer drugs and the cancer drugs fund?
Which drugs are approved by NICE is of course not a matter for the Comptroller and Auditor General, but I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He makes his point well and I am sure the House has heard it.
I would like to ask the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), what the Church of England is doing to help to protect churches throughout Northumberland from the theft of metal from their roofs.
Mr Speaker, do you wish me to reply to the question? The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission cannot respond to it.
I rather thought that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) was posing a supplementary to Question 1, which was the basis upon which I called her. Never mind; it is not a great sin.
I have a feeling that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has an insatiable appetite, and there is no change there.
Thank you for that compliment, Mr Speaker.
Is the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) aware of the real challenge, which has been brought to my attention by the excellent team at Huddersfield royal infirmary, that it is rare cancers that are the problem because they are very expensive to develop drugs for? There is a special case to be made for the treatment of and supply of drugs for these rare cancers. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of that minority group?
I am aware of that group, and the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We all hear in our constituency surgeries the heart-rending cases of people who are denied life-saving drugs. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee are fully aware of this issue and are going to continue to put pressure on the Government with regard to the cancer drugs fund to ensure full transparency so that we are always aware of the problems and can assure affordability for all our citizens.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Religious Dress and Symbols: Workplace
The Church of England was very concerned by the judgment of the European Court of Justice that stated that blanket bans on the wearing of political, philosophical or religious signs do not amount to cases of direct discrimination, because that conflicts with the pre-existing rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. By leaving the European Union, we presumably stand some chance of resolving such inconsistencies.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is yet another reason to be pleased that last year the British people took the decision to leave the European Union? The ruling was deeply offensive to people of all faiths and totally unnecessary.
Yes, and it was completely at odds with the statutory purpose of the Church of England, which was put far better than I possibly could by the head of the Church, Her Majesty the Queen, when in 2012 she made it clear that the Church of England
“has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”
That is what we should be able to do if we can resolve this inconsistency.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
Leaving the EU: Value-for-money Scrutiny
I assure my hon. Friend that, among the many opportunities provided by Brexit, there is a chance to revise the National Audit Office’s work programme. In fact, it is determined by the Comptroller and Auditor General and is regularly revised. Taking back control and leaving the EU will be a major task for Departments, but of course some Departments will be more affected by Brexit than others. The NAO is keeping in close touch with all Departments as they make their Brexit preparations. That is likely to mean additional work for the NAO, not least the audit of the new Department for Exiting the European Union.
Will the NAO audit the settlement with the EU?
Eventually that will indeed be a matter for the NAO. We are currently at a very early stage of our work: we are simply ensuring that all Departments, particularly the Department for Exiting European Union, have their tackle in order for this monumental task. I am sure that all Government Departments will do it most efficiently.
The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) is a member of this important Commission and therefore we ought to hear from the fella.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I should declare an interest, as I sit on both the Public Accounts Committee and the Commission itself. Further to the question of the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), I asked the Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Office what concerns he had about the additional workload on his Department as a result of Brexit. He has many concerns, as intimated by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), but said that he needs to know the details of the Brexit deal on the table before he can properly ascertain the impact. Is the hon. Gentleman confident that we will know the detail of this Brexit deal in 18 months’ time?
The hon. Gentleman is leading me astray. As Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, which is charged with the budget of the National Audit Office and its work programme, I am not sure whether I am qualified to comment on the nature of the negotiations. I can give an assurance that the Comptroller and Auditor General believes that that is now a fundamental and really important part of his work. There is so much that could go wrong with efficiency in Government Departments in this task, and we will be keeping a beady eye on matters. With the hon. Gentleman’s help on the Commission, we will ensure that the Comptroller and Auditor General has adequate resources to ensure that the interests of taxpayers are protected.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Marriage: Preparation and Aftercare
I must pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his long-standing support of the institution of marriage. I am very pleased to tell the House that, since he last asked this question in 2011, the Church of England has launched the successful new initiative, “Your Church Wedding”, which is designed to increase the profile of church weddings, highlight the possibility for those seeking to be married, and offer more consistent marriage preparation and aftercare.
I am very grateful for that answer, but the fact is that marriage rates have unfortunately declined in recent years. I know that my right hon. Friend will agree with me that there is nothing inevitable about that, given that for a decade, between 1962 and 1972, they rose. As this is a real social justice issue, with the decline in marriage rates having a particularly significant impact on lower-income families, will the Church appoint a bishop to promote healthy marriage, with the aim of spreading best practice in every single parish across the country?
I genuinely believe that this new initiative will spread best practice. I am sure that all bishops regard themselves as a bishop for marriage. However, there is no doubt that there has been a decline in church weddings, and that is in part due to the fact that there has been liberalisation of the legislation around where couples can get married. None the less, we should celebrate the fact that they want to get married. I will finish with one good new trend: women over 65 are getting married in increasing numbers.
It is always useful to have additional information. We are most grateful to the right hon. Lady.
Number of Vocations
The number of people selected for training for ordained ministry within the Church of England has been stable for some time. However, the age profile of serving clergy means that larger numbers are retiring, leading to an overall decrease in the number of active clergy. The Church seeks to address that by increasing by 50% the numbers training for ordained ministry: an increase from about 500 to 750 by 2020.
That is an A* answer, but how can we do even better?
Quite simply, we need to make it easier for people who feel the call to enter ministry to do so more flexibly. The Church offers not only a three-year residential course to become an ordained minister, but part-time peripatetic provision. As a result of the apprenticeship levy, resources will be available to the Church for people to learn on the job. That should make it a whole lot easier for people to enter ministry.
Does my right hon. Friend believe that the number of vocations would be improved if the Church of England did more to protect its churches in Northumberland from metal theft, which leaves young ordinands with a lot of logistics to deal with when they should be focusing on their parishioners?
I must congratulate my hon. Friend on her ingenuity in raising the very important and serious matter of metal theft—an ordained minister cannot practise without a roof on their church. This is a serious problem. The Church of England offers guidance, and I refer hon. Members to the ChurchCare website. There is a range of metal substitute products that can be used even on listed buildings. Currently, there is a pilot system for marking lead, which is designed to help scrap metal dealers so that they can identify when stolen goods are being presented to them. This is a serious matter, and we are working closely with Government Departments to try to make it harder for the criminals to impede the desire of those who wish to minister in the Church and to make sure that the roof stays on.
I welcome that news, and the initiatives on raising the number of clergy vocations. Stealing metal from church roofs is indeed an unfortunate vocation. What are we doing in the Yeovil area specifically to stop such theft?
I do not have information on Yeovil specifically, but advice is available on the Church’s website for every diocese—unfortunately, every diocese is affected by this serious crime. In addition to the deterrents I outlined in my previous answer, there is a system for fixing or locking lead—perhaps I should not give it away in the House, because then the criminals will know about it. It is pertinent to my constituency, where that system was used after the second theft of lead from a church roof. The deterrence means that even in the dead of night it is possible to catch evidence of the crime taking place. I recommend the Church’s website.
Christian Communities: Africa
As this is likely to be the last question today, Mr Speaker, please allow me to congratulate the parliamentary unit of Church House on the splendid way in which they have briefed me throughout my two years as Church Estates Commissioner, for none of us can be complacent about returning to our existing posts after the general election.
This is a serious question. The Church of England and the offices of the two archbishops are in regular contact with the Church in Egypt, South Sudan and Nigeria directly through the Anglican Communion Office. They are most concerned about the recent attacks in Egypt, where on Palm Sunday 44 people died at St George’s church in Tanta.
The 2017 World Watch report by Open Doors states that persecution increased for the fourth year in a row during 2015-16, with murders of Christians in places such as Nigeria and Egypt, as the right hon. Lady mentioned. What practical measures can the Church offer to communities in such countries?
I attended that Open Doors event here in Parliament, where a Nigerian pastor spoke movingly about the violent persecution of himself and his congregation in northern Nigeria. With regard to Egypt, I am pleased to say that Bishop Mouneer has secured intensive security measures for the Christian Church in Egypt, including emptying the streets around churches and cathedrals of cars, and putting extra police on duty to protect worshipers before services begin.
Persecution and Detention of LGBT Citizens: Chechnya
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on allegations of persecution and detention of LGBT citizens in Chechnya, Russia, and on what discussions the Government have had with their counterparts on the issue.
The arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of over 100 men in Chechnya because of their sexual orientation is of deep concern to the UK. Credible reports suggesting that at least four people have been killed and many have been tortured are particularly shocking. Statements by the regional Government in Chechnya that appear to condone and incite violence against LGBT people are despicable.
We condemn any and all persecution, and call on the authorities promptly to investigate and ensure that perpetrators of human rights abuses are brought to justice. That would be in accordance with international human rights commitments adopted by the Russian Government to respect the human rights of all individuals.
The Minister of State, my noble Friend Baroness Anelay of St Johns, released a statement on 7 April outlining the Government’s concern at the reports and called upon the Russian authorities promptly to investigate and ensure that perpetrators of human rights abuses are indeed brought to justice.
The Foreign Secretary has expressed his serious concerns through social media. Officials from the British embassy in Moscow reiterated those concerns directly to the Russian Government on 13 April, and we are working with international partners in Russia as part of wider lobbying efforts. The EU made a statement on behalf of member states at the Permanent Council of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe on 6 April, and the UK permanent representative to the Council of Europe delivered a statement on behalf of the UK in the Committee of Ministers on 19 April.
Thank you for granting this urgent question this morning, Mr Speaker.
I praise the Minister for his sincerity on this issue, which he takes very seriously, and for his comments. This is truly a shocking anti-gay campaign, involving over 100, and possibly several hundred, men. I praise the non-governmental organisations and journalists in Russia, the UK and elsewhere who have brought this issue to public attention. We are talking about detention, beatings, abuse and electric shock treatments, and—I do not say this lightly—some have talked about gay concentration camps. We have also heard of at least four killings.
The LGBT community in Cardiff South and Penarth has repeatedly raised this issue with me, and PinkNews tells me that its petition on it is its most signed ever. LGBT Labour wrote to the Prime Minister on this issue last week; sadly, it did not get a reply, and the matter was just passed on to the Foreign Office. There have also been representations from MEPs from all parties.
President Putin already has a record of persecuting the LGBT community. He also takes a keen interest in Chechnya, so is he turning a blind eye, or is he complicit in the actions of President Kadyrov? Let us remember that President Kadyrov’s spokesman said that you cannot detain people who simply do not exist.
Shaun Walker of The Guardian expressed the horrors we are seeing. He described the situation of an individual who, at least once a day, had metal clamps attached to him that
“sent powerful electric shocks through his body. If he managed not to scream, others would join in, beating him with wooden sticks or metal rods”
“to know the names of other gay men he knew in Chechnya.”
If we had any doubts about the brutality of this regime towards the LGBT community, we need not have them any longer.
I praise the Minister’s sincerity on this issue, but I have to ask why it has taken the Foreign Secretary so long to speak out—a tweet simply is not enough. We have also not heard clear condemnation from the Prime Minister. Has she or the Foreign Secretary spoken directly to the Russian or Chechen Governments? Have they called in the Russian ambassador? Does the Foreign Secretary now regret his cancelled trip to Moscow, where he could have raised these atrocities in Chechnya, not to mention those in Syria? Was the issue raised in the G7 discussion about sanctions on Russia? Will the Minister say more about what is being done to co-ordinate with EU colleagues and the United States on this issue?
The Foreign Secretary tweeted that the situation was outrageous, but the Foreign Office has referred questions on whether we will provide refuge to people fleeing this horrendous persecution in Chechnya to the Home Office. As yet, there is no clarity, and I hope the Minister can provide some.
Let me say at the outset that I applaud the hon. Gentleman for raising this topic, and I hope it is one around which the House can unite without any party politics, because the strong, united message he is calling for is exactly the one we should be sending.
The actions in these reports are utterly barbaric. One of the most disgusting things I have seen is a Chechen security source stating that these arrests are part of what he called a preventative clean-up. That followed a request by an LGBT group called Gay Russia simply for licences for gay pride parades in the North Caucasus—the group had not yet even applied for a permit in Chechnya.
Human rights groups report that these anti-gay campaigns and killings are orchestrated by the head of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. He has carried out other violent campaigns in the past, and this time he is directing his efforts at the LGBT community. Sources have said that he wants the community eliminated by the start of Ramadan. Such comments, attitudes and actions are absolutely beyond contemptible.
I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government fully condemn this action. We do use all engagement with Russia to make our voice clear, and I did so, personally, with the deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, Vladimir Titov. I met him two or three weeks ago, and we spoke about general human rights matters, but also about Chechnya. I hope the House will be fully united in giving the strongest possible siren message to Russia, and to Chechnya in particular, that this kind of activity is beyond contempt and not acceptable in the world in which we live.
May I pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker, for the support that you have given to the LGBT community ever since you have occupied the Chair and prior to that?
It is absolutely right that this issue should be raised here, as it has been determined that we have more openly gay Members of Parliament in this Parliament than anywhere else in the world. I was asked in 2010 why I came out. It was partly to send a signal to other people who were troubled about their own sexuality to give them hope and confidence—to say that if people like us can be open about our gayness, then hopefully they will be able to take from that some form of moral support that may help them to do likewise.
We have made fundamental changes around the rest of the world in looking at climate change, for example. We made massive advances when we brought countries together on that issue. Can we not do the same on LGBT issues so that we can have LGBT change throughout the world? May I suggest to the Minister that one area that might be worth a lot of attention is the Commonwealth, where some of the countries that are part of our family of nations have slid back on LGBT rights? Will he place some concentration on that and show that the British Government are going to lead the way on LGBT change throughout the world?
Indeed. One of the other strong messages as we approach a general election is that candidates in any party will be able to stand and be openly gay without being in any way ostracised by their own party, or indeed, we hope, any part of the electorate. That in itself sends a strong message to the world. It is a great tribute to the House and our democracy that over the past 15 years or so we have seen all parties have gays sitting on these green leather Benches. Whatever the outcome of the election, long may that continue. I also hope that that will be reflected in the Commonwealth in the years to come, as my hon. Friend suggests. We must campaign within Commonwealth countries to make sure that they do not fail to reflect the standards that we in the House reflect with regard to the LGBT community.
May I add my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question today? I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for bringing such an important matter to the House and speaking so eloquently. I also thank the Minister for his response and pay tribute to his long and proud record of standing up for LGBT rights: he is a brave and much-needed pioneer in that regard within his party. I well recall an article by Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail in 2002—I am sure that the Minister does as well—entitled, “I’m sorry, Mr Duncan, if you’re gay, you’re not a Tory”. Thank goodness that in this country that kind of reprehensible prejudice has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
However, there is no room for complacency. This appalling and disgusting prejudice still represents official policy in some parts of Europe, and we must do something about it. In recent days and weeks, we have heard reports from Russian LGBT organisations and human rights NGOs documenting the most terrible abuse, and we have all read them with great distress. This is nothing short of officially sanctioned policy from the Chechen authorities, but the Russian Government, who bear ultimate responsibility for their citizens’ safety, appear to be looking the other way, and that is scarcely any better.
A week ago, LGBT Labour wrote a letter to the Prime Minister in which it asked particularly that she
“meet with the Russian Ambassador as a matter of urgency to demand answers; and to ensure that the Foreign Office is doing all it can with the Russian Government, and our European and international partners, to free those who have been detained and to shut the camps down.”
We are speaking today with a strong and unified voice. However, while I applaud, of course, the right hon. Gentleman’s raising the matter as deputy Foreign Secretary, it needs to be escalated. I hope that as a result of this urgent question we get an undertaking from the Government that it will be raised at a much higher political level. This is a matter that Prime Minister should take an initiative on—she should call in the Russian ambassador and demand some answers.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her tone. I had actually forgotten about the Hitchens article—I am not sure that I want to be reminded of it—but at least I can take pleasure in the fact that now I am but one of many on the Tory Benches. I hope that my statement can be seen as reflecting the Prime Minister and the entire Government’s personal condemnation of the situation. I note the right hon. Lady’s wish to see the issue raised to a higher level of political comment.
In another of the most contemptible elements of this whole issue, a representative of Chechnya’s Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, Kheda Saratova, who is supposedly charged with the task of upholding human rights in the republic, has said that she would not accept an application for help from a gay person, because the persecution of gay people should not be condemned in Chechen society, even if a person is killed by their own family. The LGBT community in Chechnya is at risk not just of persecution by the Chechen authorities, but of falling victim to so-called honour killings by their own family members. They are not safe inside Chechnya and, as I said earlier, what is happening in that republic is beyond contemptible.
I agree entirely with the Minister’s condemnation of this terrible occurrence. Building on the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that, although many Members, including me, will be unable to attend next week’s plenary part-session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, because of the general election, some of our colleagues will be there? Will he have a word with Ambassador Christopher Yvon to see whether the matter could be raised, for example, in the free debate during next week’s plenary part-session? It is important that the matter is raised continually in an international environment, to put more pressure on Russia and the Chechen authorities.
The Council of Europe is a very important voice for the expression of wider continental opinion. I will certainly convey to our ambassador my right hon. Friend’s wishes, which I sense are also the wishes of the entire House.
The scenes and stories emanating from Chechnya are beyond comprehension and utterly sickening, and we share the sentiments expressed by others. Although we may still have many challenges on LGBTI equality in the UK, we are fortunate that we have come a very long way and, in having that greater freedom, we absolutely must use our voices, whether we are members of the LGBT community or not. We must say, loudly and clearly, that we condemn this horrific brutality.
For the Chechen authorities not only to deny the attacks, but to claim, incredibly, that no gay people exist in their province is at best extraordinary and at worst deceitful. We fully endorse Amnesty International’s call to action to protect those at risk in the region, and the UK Government can do more to protect LGBTI people around the world. The Scottish National party manifesto called on the UK Government to establish the position of a special envoy to promote the rights of LGBTI people around the world as an integral part of UK policy. Will the Minister consider that for his party’s forthcoming manifesto? May I also appeal to him and his colleagues to act on our proposals and put all the pressure he can on Chechnya and Russia to stop these abhorrent abuses and the persecution of gay men and the wider LGBT community? We cannot stand idly by and let this happen. Those facing abuse must know that we care and that we are standing up for them.
I am pleased to say that I broadly agree with the hon. Lady and that all that she wishes to see us do is enshrined across the board in our Government policy, including through the Department for International Development, the Home Office and our foreign policy, and so it will remain. In that sense, I think we should all be envoys in what we do internationally. Indeed, Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials in Russia regularly meet LGBT activists and attend LGBT events, such as QueerFest and the Side by Side film festival in St Petersburg, so that we can provide visible support. We have also provided support to organisations such as Stonewall and helped to facilitate Sir Ian McKellen’s visit to Russia last year, during which he met LGBT activists in Moscow, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. I think that his powerful messages about UK values resonated, at least with Russia’s next generation.
Is there an element of reversion to type here, in that it was always a feature of totalitarian regimes to vilify minorities as a matter of routine political management? Equally, it was typical of the former Soviet Union to identify any person who posed a political threat, to brand them as gay and to detain them in a mental institution.
Chechnya does, indeed, seem to be the worst of the lot. In that sense, as part of Russia, I urge President Putin to make his views clear by condemning what is going on in Chechnya.
This reminds us that those of us who are gay are phenomenally lucky in this country. I remember meeting an 83-year-old lesbian activist in Russia in 2009. I asked her how she got away with it, and she said, “I think President Putin thinks that women don’t have sex after the age of 80. How wrong can you be?”
The serious point is that we should pay tribute to those who are standing up at the risk of their own lives, and I am glad that the Government are acting on that, but is this not all part of a piece? President Putin appointed Kadyrov as President in Chechnya, and he was elected with 98% of the vote—that does not seem at all bizarre, does it? He and Putin have both repeatedly abused human rights. They have used violence to excess, and they have always resorted to violence, even when they have had the opportunity to use a peaceful means to provide a solution. Will the Government make sure that people who engage in such activity, and those who are involved in the murder of British people working in Russia, do not enter this country?
I think that an 80-year-old activist gives us all a bit of hope in this world. Having just turned 60—
Oh yes, I did—[Interruption]—and I know I do not look it.
Much more seriously, what the hon. Gentleman says is absolutely right. This is part of a wider picture across Russia, although I say again that Chechnya appears to be the worst example. Within the constraints of our ability to influence what happens in any country, we have to speak loudly and collectively, and we must be brave and courageous. At a diplomatic level within the country we will do our utmost to continue to put pressure on the regime and ensure that it understands that in the modern world, this kind of activity is barbaric, and that it can no longer be allowed to continue.
If memory serves me correctly, the right hon. Gentleman’s birthday was 20 days ago.
I start by thanking the Minister for his very forceful statement. On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I have written to the Russian ambassador. I echo the calls made by other Members today for the UK Government to call in the Russian ambassador and ask him, in particular, what will be done to protect the journalists who were involved in leaking this story. Clearly they, as well as the LGBT community, are now at risk. Finally, have any lessons been learned since the G7, where our Government unfortunately failed to secure sanctions against Syria and Russia, about how to improve co-operation to ensure that action is taken against Chechnya at an international level?
I think the right hon. Gentleman has deviated slightly from the collective tone of the House. As I think he will appreciate, what happened at the G7 was in response to fast-moving events following the gassing of people in Syria.
As I said a moment ago, on the issue of gay rights in Chechnya or, indeed, anywhere else in the world, we need to speak with one voice not only in this House but by working together with other countries and NGOs. We must make sure that the world collectively homes in on the likes of Chechnya, and Russia more generally, and makes it clear that they are completely out of step with the rest of the world and that they will, over time, lose all credibility and become increasingly derided. It is high time for them to grow up and understand what the modern world is all about.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), on exposing the latest manifestation of the barbaric treatment by Russia of the people of Chechnya for over a decade. I pay tribute to Lord Judd, the Council of Europe rapporteur for many years, who reported fearlessly on the terrible things happening in that country. We entirely support the opposition, which should be worldwide, but we should reflect on the fact that this terrible activity is spreading. One reason for that is the fact that there is now less pressure on countries to improve their human rights, because they do not have the incentive of joining the European Union, which demands high standards. We are, sadly, going back to barbaric treatment not just in Chechnya but in many other countries, including Turkey.
I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the noble Lord Judd for all the efforts he has made over the years, but I say again that it is for all of us to work collectively across parties, across countries and across all organisations to ensure that the simple rights for people, which should never be denied them, are upheld in all countries across the world.
Considering how this may be misrepresented abroad, particularly in Russia, is it not important to emphasise that this is first and foremost a matter of human rights, and certainly not a matter confined only to those who happen to be gay? Is it not interesting that this is being discussed 50 years after the House of Commons changed the law on homosexuality? If there is a debate in July near the anniversary of the actual date when the legislation was passed, I would hope to be here—I will certainly do my utmost to be here—to explain why I was pleased to vote for the change in the law. I think I am the only Member who did so now remaining in the House.
The way the hon. Gentleman is going he will be here in another 50 years’ time. He makes a very valid point about the importance of promulgating the truth. When we hear absolute, blatant propaganda, we should not shy away from robustly countering such lies. For instance, Kadyrov’s spokesman has called reports of persecution and murder absolute lies themselves. Indeed, as we heard earlier, he added that “there are no gay men in Chechnya” and that
“You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist”.
Even worse, he went on to say that if they did exist, their own relatives
“would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”
It is the use of language like that that appears to condone the outright murder of someone simply because of their sexual orientation. That is utterly unacceptable and condemns them in the eyes of the decent world.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I am delighted to be called to speak. My concern is not just as a member of the LGBTI community, but in the broader sense of the profound impact of social, economic and political impoverishment on all Chechen society. Whether we like it or not, Kadyrov has in some terms the fundamental support of his nation, as a region of the Russian Federation. How we undermine that is through investment in foreign aid to tackle human rights abuses across the world. Will the Minister commit now, on the Floor of the House, that in fighting for LGBTI rights and other human rights in places like Chechnya, his foreign aid budget will not change after the general election?
We should all commit to fighting prejudice wherever we find it. I hope that, in the election on 8 June, that will be one of the views we all hold as we present ourselves to the electorate. The hon. Gentleman raises a deeper point, which is that the House needs to understand foreign affairs, to take an interest and to debate countries such as Chechnya. I hope that early in the next Parliament the opportunity will present itself, so that the arguments we are beginning to hear today can be made even more loudly after 8 June.
The House rightly speaks with one voice in condemning the abhorrent acts in Chechnya, but this is not the first time the Russian Government have been found wanting when it comes to human rights. They need to be constantly reminded that they should honour their international human rights obligations. How can we ensure that other countries are similarly robust in explaining that to the Russian Government, not least because those members of the LGBT community in Chechnya must be feeling so insecure at the moment?
We work through all collective European and other organisations, and, of course, through the United Nations more widely. Because we speak frankly, we have had a rather scratchy relationship with the Russians recently, but we will not shy away from raising these issues both frankly and forcefully. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will maintain a policy of robust engagement with the Russians, and that it will include matters of this sort.
All Glasgow weeps at this news, and when I return there later this afternoon there will be a vigil in George Square at which politicians and ordinary people will express their horror at what is happening in Chechnya.
I must disagree with some of my colleagues, in that I see no need for this matter to be escalated to the Foreign Secretary. I think that the Minister is a very capable Minister, and a deeply thoughtful Minister.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell). Is it not time for us to join countries such as Canada in having an envoy on LGBT rights who will report directly to the Prime Minister? I also echo what was said by my hon. Friend from Clydebank and—in the context of the Commonwealth—by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans): now is not the time to cut the foreign aid budget.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words—unusual, I have to say, during this particularly fervent political period, but deeply appreciated nevertheless. I am contemplating their inclusion, in quotation marks, in my election address.
I note what the hon. Gentleman said about an envoy. It is not for me to say what our policy will be on that, but my personal observation is that a dedicated envoy is not always as effective as action by all Ministers across the board, and, indeed, by all Members of Parliament. If that is in the hon. Gentleman’s manifesto, however, we will let the people decide.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on raising this important human rights issue. May I add a word of caution about complacency? We have a united voice in the House of Commons, but when I paid an official visit to part of the European Union, towards the east, I found disturbing evidence of the lingering influence of attitudes of this kind, so we should not be complacent. I was particularly worried when I saw examples of some pretty virulent propaganda in Austria. We should be on our guard wherever this kind of human rights rears its ugly head.
I think we should take those as serious words of wisdom from a senior Member of the House. We must always look at our own supposed allies to make sure that they have not got—let us call them diluted views. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out that Europe, for starters, must be united if we are to make our voice clear and resonant in the wider world.
Having tabled an early-day motion on this very subject earlier in the week, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing the urgent question and to you, Mr Speaker, for permitting it. Will the Government assure us that members of the LGBTI community in Chechnya will be granted asylum in the United Kingdom should they flee and seek refuge on our shores?
I have to tell the hon. Lady that that is primarily a Home Office matter, and a matter for the proper workings of asylum legislation.
In February, the Foreign Secretary announced the £700 million empowerment fund to come from the aid budget to project soft power and human rights. How is that fund being used to promote LGB rights and equal rights campaigners and to support civil society in Chechnya and elsewhere? May I echo the points of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) because the Minister has not yet confirmed the Government’s commitment to the 0.7% aid target? This is precisely a demonstration of why that target is so important.
The hon. Gentleman makes proper reference to the empowerment fund, for which, I understand, bids are currently in play. Given the election, I imagine that that process will be forestalled slightly, but I am confident that within many of those bids there will be programmes designed for the promotion of human rights in many of the countries at which the fund is directing its efforts.
I pay tribute to the amazing work of Yorkshire MESMAC, which is based in Leeds and first brought these appalling abuses to my attention. The abuses are chilling, horrific and evil, but also a clear breach of international law. What discussions has the Minister had not only with EU partners but with the United Nations to look at an initiative to stamp out this appalling persecution, wherever it may happen?
Those discussions take place regularly in all the forums in which we are represented. More often than not, it is the UK that is in the lead in designing initiatives and statements that echo exactly the opinions that the hon. Gentleman just stated.
The appalling treatment that LGBT people face in some countries makes it all the more important that officials here making decisions on sexual orientation-based asylum cases get them 100% correct. Will the Minister at least make representations to the Home Office that no asylum case should ever be refused solely on the basis that a person can return home and hide their sexuality?
I undertake to convey the comments of the hon. Gentleman, and indeed this entire exchange, to the Home Secretary.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Points of order should really be raised after the business question. Does it relate to the urgent question? No. The hon. Gentleman is such a patient fellow. We can always hear from him later. In fact, there will be a great sense of anticipation in the House as to what he is planning to raise.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 24 April—Consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointments and Regional Rates) Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Tuesday 25 April—Committee of the whole House and remaining stages of the Finance (No. 2) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Wednesday 26 April—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Digital Economy Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Digital Economy Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Criminal Finances Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 27 April—Consideration of Lords amendments.
The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received. The House will not adjourn until Royal Assent has been received to all Acts.
Since this is probably going to be the last weekly business statement in this Parliament, may I take the opportunity to thank the staff of the House for the service that they provide to every one of us throughout the Parliament, and to wish them the opportunity to put their feet up a bit over forthcoming weeks?
Secondly, I wish particular good fortune to those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have decided that they will not seek re-election. Each of them in their own way has striven to represent the interests of their constituents during their years here, each of them has brought particular experiences and political commitments to the causes for which they have fought, and all of them have contributed to building democracy in this country, and I place our thanks on record.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the very last week of this short and eventful Parliament; I will save my further thanks for the end of my response. This was an eventful Parliament, not least because of the death of PC Keith Palmer, Leslie Rhodes, Aysha Frade, Kurt Cochran and now Andreea Cristea, as well as the injury of many others. As the dean of Southwark cathedral said at the memorial service for PC Keith Palmer, they died in the shadow of the clock that counts the minutes, the hours and the years of our lives. And, of course, our beloved colleague Jo Cox should have been fighting this election. We need to remember them as we campaign, during the election, for a country that is tolerant and just.
The Prime Minister wants stability and to strengthen her hand in the negotiations, but blames the opposition parties for calling a general election. This is about her dithering and confusion, and watching her back. First, what an arrogant alleged statement it is that she should presume to know the outcome of an election. Secondly, what have her Government been doing for the last nine months? Thirdly, can the Leader of the House confirm that if the Government win, we will not enter into a rolling programme of snap elections during the negotiations?
The Prime Minister wanted to trigger article 50 without a vote, but the courts said that we live under the rule of law and that Parliament should have a say—this is a democracy, not a dictatorship—and there has been silence from the Government since July 2016. Her Majesty’s Opposition called for a White Paper on the Government’s plans for Brexit in October 2016, but there was silence until a speech in Lancaster House, not this House. Mr Speaker, I do not know what the matter with the Government is; they seem to be afraid of you and of making statements in the House. I find you very personable—except when you say “Order, order.” Only later did the Government set out their 12 points of principle. Finally, a White Paper was published in February. Her Majesty’s Opposition insisted on a final vote on the deal and forced the Government to agree, because we are a representative democracy. As the Prime Minister sat in front of the great portrait of Robert Walpole to sign the letter to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, she forgot to mention Gibraltar, one of our overseas territories, where 96% of people voted to remain—no wonder she forgot to mention them.
The Government therefore appear to be speaking for the 52 %, while Her Majesty’s Opposition will balance the views of the 52% and the 48% and speak for the country. The confusion lies within the Prime Minister’s party, not within the Opposition. Of course the Government want a general election, because they need a new manifesto. Every day the Government break a manifesto pledge. There was no mention of lifting the cap on grammar schools in the 2015 manifesto; that became Government policy, and it is now stalled by opposition from all sides of the House. An increase in national insurance contributions for self-employed workers was ruled out of the manifesto, but then became Government policy, and then there was a U-turn. The manifesto said nothing about doing no harm to the vulnerable, yet their cars are being taken away as they wait for their personal independence payment assessments; many hon. Members have written on behalf of their constituents to stop the vulnerable losing their only mode of transport before they can appeal the decision.
This is a dithering, confused Government who cannot make a decision for the good of the country, so may we have a final debate next week on what leadership and stability really look like? We on this side of the House say it looks like this: for children, it is protecting Sure Start and free school meals for all primary school children; for students, no increase in tuition fees; for working people, a £10 minimum wage that will lift them out of poverty, not the living wage of £7.50; for society, investment in our public services, with local authority grants that are based on the need to protect local services, such as police forces and libraries, not special deals for special friends; ensuring small businesses thrive by preventing late payments; supporting those who care for others by an increase in carer’s allowance; and for senior citizens, protecting pensions and compensating women affected by an increase in the state pension age. Policies for the seven stages of life—that is what this country needs. No dithering, no confusion, just clear vision and strong leadership. Her Majesty’s Opposition, in government, will work for a tolerant, fair and dynamic United Kingdom.
I should like to echo the Leader of the House in thanking all the House staff for their brilliant support. I should like to thank you, Mr Speaker, and your office, and the Leader of the House, his erstwhile deputy and his office for all their help. I also thank my office and everyone who has made my job easier, including my Chief Whip, who tells me to cut out the jokes. Tomorrow will be Her Majesty the Queen’s 91st birthday. She shares her birthday with my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), for whom it will be a significant day. I hope he will not mind my saying that it will be his 60th.
Oh, it is the right hon. Lady’s birthday as well! I will not say what her age is. [Interruption.] She is 21, as are we all. I echo the Leader of the House’s thanks to those Members who are standing down. They have given their lives to public service, and we thank them all. Finally, I should like to say that it has been an absolute privilege to be the shadow Leader of the House.
I associate myself with the hon. Lady’s final gracious words, and with her tributes to those who lost their life in the recent terrorist attack and to our late colleague, Jo Cox. I hope that it will not be long into the life of the new Parliament before the permanent memorial to Jo can take its place in the House of Commons. I know that that will be welcomed and supported by every Member of this House and of the next House of Commons. I join the hon. Lady in wishing many happy returns to Her Majesty, to the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). As my right hon. Friend’s constituency neighbour, I can tell her that whatever number might be appended to her years, nothing can diminish her vigour or her commitment to working on behalf of her constituents. Like her, I have always enjoyed and appreciated my relationship with our other constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). Indeed, following the last boundary change, I became an elector in the Buckingham constituency, and I now have a particular interest in the outcome there.
Did you vote for him?
If the hon. Gentleman peruses Mr Speaker’s previous election material, he might find the answer that he is seeking.
The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) asked me a number of questions. I have to say that, when it comes to Gibraltar, her Front Benchers have a very short memory. People in Gibraltar have not forgotten how the last Labour Government tried to sell that territory down the river, or how they sought a joint sovereignty agreement. That proposal was rejected by the people of Gibraltar by a margin of well over 90% in a subsequent referendum.
The hon. Lady made a number of assertions about policies that I am sure will be debated in the country in the weeks to come. I simply say that all of us in this House, whatever political perspective we bring to these matters, want the kind of public services in which we can take pride, and which work effectively for our constituents who are vulnerable and in need of help. It is the belief of this Government and this party that the foundation for effective public services is a strong and growing economy. Under the plans put forward by the Leader of the Opposition, any chaotic Government of his would be incapable of funding public services, because they would bankrupt the British economy, raise taxes on ordinary working families and pile yet more public debt on to the next generation—a betrayal of young people.
The hon. Member for Walsall South said that she looked forward to the Leader of the Opposition being in a position to form a Government, but we know that three quarters of her parliamentary colleagues had no confidence in his ability to continue as the leader of the Labour party. Few Labour Members of this outgoing Parliament will be able to say with a straight face that they really have confidence that the Leader of the Opposition should be entrusted with the government and leadership of this country.
Order. Pursuant to what the Leader of the House said about our late and esteemed colleague, Jo Cox, I advise the House that the memorial to her had been scheduled to be installed in the Chamber next month. That date fell within what will now be the election campaign, and therefore a rescheduling is essential. The matter was discussed by relevant colleagues, the Jo Cox Foundation and me yesterday, and it is fully intended that the installation will take place very soon after the start of the new Parliament.
Notwithstanding my advanced years, I appear to have gained no more wisdom, because I wish to ask the Leader of the House for a debate on my and his favourite subject, and no doubt yours, Mr Speaker: High Speed 2. We need an emergency debate on HS2 next week, because in evidence to the Transport Committee yesterday, the boss of HS2, David Higgins, indicated that its failure to consider conflicts of interest led to the fiasco of its key contractor, CH2M, withdrawing from a £170 million contract. I want to know who will take responsibility for that, especially as this is a massive project—the largest infrastructure project in this country. We need to examine whether senior management are fit for their roles and should be in charge of such large amounts of taxpayers’ money at a time when we will be away from this place and unable to scrutinise them. May we have an emergency debate on HS2 next week?
My right hon. Friend is right to pursue this matter of great importance to her constituents and mine, and those in other constituencies along the proposed route. The failure of due diligence that Sir David Higgins acknowledged should not have happened. I am glad, therefore, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made it clear in his evidence to the Transport Committee yesterday that he gives a high priority to fair and transparent procurement in HS2, and all such projects for which he has responsibility.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week and the abrupt and premature ending of this Parliament. This will almost certainly be the last business questions for this Parliament, and I think I am the only shadow Leader of the House who has lasted the full two years. It has been a pleasure to work with the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). I shall give my thanks at the end of my contribution.
May we have a big shout out to all the Members who will compete in the London marathon on Saturday?
It is on Sunday.
It is at some time over the weekend. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) has the distinction of being the first Scottish National party Member to compete in the London marathon. I pity her political opponents when she laps them on the leaflet run during the election campaign.
Before the House rises, we must have an urgent statement on the status of all the Conservative Members of Parliament under police investigation for electoral fraud. Up to two dozen Conservative MPs face the possibility of being prosecuted in the middle of the election campaign. The public deserve to know what will happen under those circumstances. Will it be possible for those Members to continue as candidates in the general election if those prosecutions happen? With the first charging decisions to be made on 20 May, many people suspect that that is the real reason for this snap election. We need to hear from the Leader of the House whether that played any role in the Government’s determination of the election date.
May we have a debate about debates and a Prime Minister who seems feart to participate in the television variety? It was the Prime Minister who unilaterally called this election, but she will not debate the issues with her political opponents, and it is right that all the broadcasters are considering empty-chairing her so that the maximum embarrassment is heaped upon her.
Lastly, I wish all Members of Parliament—well, nearly all Members of Parliament—a good election and pay tribute to those who are standing down. I thank the staff, who have served us diligently over the course of the past two years, and you and your office, Mr Speaker. I also want to echo the words of the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz): as we leave today, we will remember Jo Cox and wish that she was out there on the stump with us, fighting for her re-election. It is so tragic that that has been taken away from this House.
I join the hon. Gentleman in wishing every success both to his colleague the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and to all colleagues from all parties as they make their final preparations for the London marathon on Sunday. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that their marathon training will serve them all in good stead for the seven weeks that now beckon us all—seven weeks that may give the rest of us the opportunity to wear out some shoe leather, although I suspect not quite as much as those who are competing on Sunday. I hope, too, that all those Members are successful in raising large sums of money for the various charities that they are supporting.
The hon. Gentleman made a serious point about the police investigations, and I want to reiterate what the Prime Minister said yesterday. We stand behind all our candidates at the forthcoming election, who will be out campaigning for a strong, stable Government in the national interest. A number of police forces have conducted investigations, many of which have been dropped. It is right that such matters are investigated properly, but the battle bus was directed by the national party, as was the case with other political parties, and we are confident that individual colleagues acted properly.
May I commend my right hon. Friend for being an exemplary Leader of the House? He is widely regarded as someone of impeccable integrity and has conducted his office impeccably during this Parliament, and I hope that nothing will change.
May I also draw the Leader of the House’s attention to and put down a marker about Select Committee staffing? We have wonderful staff who work incredibly hard, but Committee specialists tend to change too often. That does not happen in the Library, where specialists sometimes remain in post for a decade or more. It would strengthen the role of Select Committees if we could look at changing the nature of staffing, rather than put up with the current turbulence. I appreciate that that is something for the next Parliament, but I wonder whether he could leave something on his file to remind him when he gets back.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between the value of continuity that he describes and the need to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to develop their careers in service through a variety of difference experiences and occupations. However, I will make a note, and I am sure that the Leader of the House—whether it is I or somebody else who has these duties when the new Parliament assembles—will want to take a close look at the matter.
The Backbench Business Committee has concluded its business for this Parliament, and I am grateful to the Leader of the House because we have had our full allocation of Back-Bench time in the Chamber in this Session.
We have half a dozen outstanding debate applications lying unheard and, if it is all right with the Leader of the House, I will ask our Committee Clerk to write to his office to seek an airing for those debates in the new Parliament, possibly before the new Backbench Business Committee is established, as happened in the current Parliament—general debates were scheduled by the Leader of the House’s office. Some of the subjects could possibly be debated in that time.
I place on record my thanks to the members of the Committee. The ever-presents: the hon. Members for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). The later arrivals: the hon. Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) and for Witney (Robert Courts). The members who departed in this Parliament: the hon. Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone). And those who had more than cameo appearances for a brief time: the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter).
And I thank you, Mr Speaker. That is me done for this Parliament.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and the members of his Committee for their sterling work during this Parliament. Backbench Business allows Members on both sides of the House to raise issues of importance to our constituents that might not be the subject of Government legislation. I take careful note of his point about the scheduling of general debates in the next Parliament, which I will consider carefully.
Today I will desist from eviscerating Veolia, but I hope, electorate willing, to be returned on 8 June to pursue this appalling company on the Floor of the House. Shortly after that, Mr Speaker, I will ask you whether you have received the apology you requested from the company a few weeks ago for misleading me, as the hon. Member for Broxbourne.
Does the Leader of the House agree that, early in the next Parliament, the Procedure Committee needs to revisit Standing Order No. 122A to ensure that it reflects the reality of contested elections for Select Committee Chairs and the expectation of the House that those elected into such roles will serve the full term of the Parliament in which they are elected?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me notice of his question, which gave me the unexpected opportunity to study Standing Order No. 122A and the associated Standing Orders of the House. I concede that the Standing Orders relating to the election of Select Committee Chairs are capable of being construed in a number of different ways. It seems to me that the way forward is for the Procedure Committee in the new House of Commons, when it is constituted, to take the issue away, to examine the current Standing Orders, to consult across the parties in the House and to come back with recommendations in due course.
Mr Speaker, I thank you and the Leader of the House for making it clear that we will remember Jo Cox at the earliest possible opportunity. We all wish that she could be on the campaign trail with us. I will be on the campaign trail but will not be returning to the House, so I thank you, Mr Speaker, and everyone here for the 20 years that I have been privileged to represent Birmingham, Edgbaston. It has been a privilege.
The next Parliament has a very difficult task. The Government have to implement the will of the people, as expressed on 23 June 2016. The Opposition have to scrutinise the Government in a constructive but, nevertheless, relentless way to ensure that we get the best deal.
Finally, I paraphrase Nancy Astor: I will miss the House, but I will miss the House more than the House will miss me.
The right hon. Lady is characteristically gracious and self-deprecating in her remarks. Those of us who have served with her in this House will remember her and her contributions for a very long time.
I appreciate that we have very little time left in this Parliament but, nevertheless, I request that consideration be given to a debate on the additional £10 billion that the Government have committed to the NHS until 2020. It is certainly starting to see results in my constituency, with the opening of new units at Crawley hospital.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point, and I join him in welcoming these new units. It seems to me that the commissioning authorities and the trusts in his part of the country have taken advantage of the record Government spending on our NHS to reconfigure services in a way that will provide better services for his constituents and those in neighbouring constituencies in Sussex in the future.
Let me try again with the Leader of the House: is it possible in the next few days to have an urgent debate about the appalling state of our roads? In Nottinghamshire, there is a £320 million backlog on road repairs and some of the roads in my constituency are simply shocking. The Government’s response is to give the county council £14 million, but it will take 30 years to repair all of the roads at that rate. This is not good enough and the Government need to do something about it.
The Government set aside £23 billion for infrastructure in the autumn statement and we are investing a record £15 billion on road schemes. The amount we are spending on roads includes allocations to local authorities to fill in potholes and carry out other essential road maintenance, as well as providing for central Government spending on motorways and trunk road schemes. But I come back to the point I made to the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz): the ability of any Government to provide for increases in public expenditure of the kind that the hon. Gentleman is seeking rests upon the capacity of our economy to create wealth and increase employment. The policies that I am afraid his party are espousing in this general election campaign will impoverish our economy and saddle future generations with debt.
May we have a debate on hospital services in Shropshire? Will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming the recent comments by Simon Wright, the chief executive of the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, that the women’s and children’s unit—the paediatrics unit—at the Princess Royal hospital in Telford is now safe and that new services such as cancer care patient services will be introduced over the coming months? Is that not more evidence that the NHS is safe in Conservative hands, both locally and nationally?
I very much welcome that news from Telford and Shrewsbury. It is important that these detailed decisions about the configuration of services are taken at local level and driven by the assessment of those in charge of our NHS locally about what is needed for their particular communities. One set-up will not work equally well in every part of the country, and there does need to be local sensitivity, and I am really pleased that that is what seems to be happening in Shropshire.
The reputation of politics was rock bottom, but now it is subterranean, as we have done nothing to reform the deep corruption at the heart of our political system by doing nothing about lobbying and the revolving door. What the country needs is a leader of integrity—a man who is not mired in corruption and is not dedicated to seeking office in order to gain insider knowledge that can then be prostituted to the highest bidder upon leaving office. We need a man who is different from what we have had, and that is what the country is looking forward to. When can we investigate the activities between previous Ministers and Electricité de France and Blackstone investments? These are unresolved problems, where we have people leaving this House honoured but then having the consolation of vast salaries of up to £650,000 for a part-time job. This does not honour politics—it drags politics down into the gutter. What we need is a new Prime Minister of probity and integrity.
As always, the hon. Gentleman speaks with passion, and in this case on behalf of the 25% or so of Labour MPs who support the Leader of the Opposition. He may not have meant it in this fashion, but I think he was being extremely unfair to successive Prime Ministers from both the main political parties in this country, and to the people who have served in their Governments, who have, after leaving office and membership of this House, gone on to work in other capacities in our country. Whether Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat, these are men and women who have things to offer and, subject to the various codes and rules that apply, it is right that when they leave office, and particularly when they leave membership of the House of Commons, they should be free to pursue new avenues.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) is wrong: she will be missed by the House.
Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the persecution of Christians throughout the world? Given that we start proceedings each day with Prayers, were we to hold such a debate, it would send out an extremely strong message.
I cannot offer my hon. Friend an immediate debate, but every single Member of the House will have been shocked by the attacks on Coptic churches in Egypt during holy week, which will have reinforced in all our minds the importance of the point he has made. He will know that in her Easter message the Prime Minister spoke up strongly about the need to defend religious freedom around the world, and made particular reference to Christians and other religious minorities who do not enjoy the freedoms we are fortunate enough to cherish here in the UK.
One month ago, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on female representation in politics. Two weeks from today, the voters of Renfrewshire will elect a new council administration, but although the Scottish National party will offer a 50:50 gender split among its candidates, only 29% of Labour and a shameful 17% of Conservative candidates are women. If the Leader of the House is doubly fortunate to be returned to both the House and his current role, will he endeavour to schedule a general debate on this subject early in the new Parliament?
The Government could not have been clearer about our wish to encourage more women to take part in public life, not only through seeking membership of the House of Commons and local authorities but through many other forms of public service. Successive leaders of my party have worked hard to promote that, not least my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. My party, unlike the hon. Gentleman’s, has a woman leader both in Holyrood and at Westminster.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) has been an outstanding Member of Parliament. Her successor, whoever they may be, has an incredibly difficult act to follow.
Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Prisons and Courts Bill has been abandoned for this Parliament and will have to start its passage through the House again in the next Parliament? Can he tell us which Bills will be going through the rather grubby process of the wash-up, which is a rather unsatisfactory way to pass laws?
The Bills that were introduced to this House quite late in the current parliamentary Session and which received carry-over motions so that they could be debated in what would have been the third Session of this Parliament, including the Prisons and Courts Bill, will fall. I referred in my statement to some of the measures that we will be addressing during the wash-up period next week. As my hon. Friend knows, though, discussions are going on through the usual channels about how to handle particular pieces of legislation; I do not want to prejudice the outcome of those discussions.
Mr Speaker, may I thank you and the Leader of the House for your kind remarks about my neighbour and friend, Jo Cox? Jo will be in all our minds as we fight this election. She was a radical and a reformer. She cared about this House, but she was discontent with it because she thought it was not as accountable as it could be in this modern age. Can we think about that during this election period? When we come back, may we have an early debate on that? I say that to whoever is on the Front Bench over there—I quite fancy the job of Leader of the House myself. [Interruption.] There is no ageism here, Mr Speaker. Seriously, may we have a serious debate about how we make this place more accountable? Many of my constituents find that the call for an early election has got in the way of accountability. People like me who wanted to stay in the European Union accepted the will of the people, but want to fight like mad to make sure we get a good deal. If we can have the money for our public services that was mentioned, surely we should have a good deal. This House is now in a weaker position to make sure that that happens.
I simply do not see the connection between there being a general election and this House being in a weaker position. I would have thought that the fact that we had a House of Commons charged with a new mandate from the people to carry through the referendum outcome meant there was greater strength of purpose in this House and indeed on the part of the Government in going forward to what will be very challenging negotiations. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind about the utter determination of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to secure the best possible deal for all the people of every part of the United Kingdom at the end of those negotiations.
Will the Government make time for a statement on North Korea? Although security concerns there are currently uppermost in many people’s minds, will the Government convey the concern of many of us in this House that the policy of the Chinese Government of returning refugees and escapees from North Korea to the North Korean regime to near certain death or lifetime imprisonment, sometimes going on for three generation of their families, is not something that many of us in this House want to be silent about?
My hon. Friend makes a very cogent point. The Government are concerned that China continues to regard North Koreans fleeing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as economic migrants rather than treating them as refugees under the terms of the 1951 UN convention. As we all know, the scale of human rights abuses in North Korea is too severe for the international community, including China, to ignore. We have repeatedly called on the Chinese authorities at the very least to respect the fundamental principle of non-refoulement that is built into the United Nations convention, and we did that most recently at our regular UK-China human rights dialogue.
I recently met the father of toddler, Harry Studley, whom hon. Members may remember was shot in the head with an air rifle in south Bristol last July. Harry’s dad has impressed me not only with his resilience in the face of adversity—he told me that Harry is doing well—but with his determination that, as a nation, we should learn something from this incident. May we have a debate about what measures the Government can put in place to improve air rifle safety—for example, the introduction of compulsory trigger locks on these lethal weapons?
First of all, may I wish Harry a full recovery and express my best wishes to those caring for him and treating his injuries? The Government keep the legislation and misuse of air weapons under review. At present, we have no plans to ban or license them. The vast majority of people using air weapons do so safely and responsibly. High-powered air weapons do require a firearms licence and even low-powered air weapons are subject to a range of controls, including restrictions around their sale. A small minority of people tragically misuse air weapons in England and Wales—sometimes in the way that the hon. Lady describes—but by introducing a further set of controls we would divert police resources from controlling the other higher risk firearms, such as rifles and shotguns, which is an area where the police should give priority
I am sometimes asked by constituents who have watched our proceedings on television whether we really hate one another. They see us shouting across the Dispatch Box and ask, “What are they like after they’ve done battle?” I then explain the reality, which is that sometimes I have more difficulty with Members on my own side than with those sitting opposite.
You know who they are, and they know who they are.
The reality, of course, is that we build lasting and enduring friendships with Members from all parties, and none more so than the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who leaves an enduring legacy in the work she did on Brexit, and to whom I am grateful. Given your end-of-term latitude, Mr Speaker, I hope that you will allow me to say: I will miss you, Gisela, and I wish you well for the future.
As far as future debates are concerned, it would not be business questions if I did not mention that there is an issue with potholes in Ribble Valley—I will spend the next seven weeks looking at them as I drive around visiting towns, villages and hamlets. I hope that as part of our imaginative manifesto for the future, we can consider allowing district authorities to bid for some of the money made available by central Government so that we can fill those potholes.
Mr Speaker, I wish you and all the parliamentary staff well for Dissolution and in all the hard work that will be needed to prepare for the new Parliament.
My hon. Friend makes the point that it is sometimes quite difficult for people outside this House, many of whom see only the moments of high drama on their TV screens, to understand that we all come to this place with an equal electoral mandate, and with passionately held political views about how best to make things better for the people we represent, but actually there is a certain amount of camaraderie that transcends party political differences, and friendships that are built across party lines over many years.
On my hon. Friend’s policy point about Ribble Valley, the idea of having a system for additional bids from local authorities is an interesting one. I will ensure that it is placed in the incoming Transport Minister’s in-tray after the election.
The Leader of the House did not clarify the point about 2 May, so perhaps we could have some more information on that. Is he aware that the families of the victims of the Hyde Park bombings have been denied legal aid to fund their civil action against the chief suspect? Will he meet the Members and peers who support the victims’ campaign in order to consider the Government making exception funding available so that justice, which they have been denied for 35 years, can be delivered?
As an Ulster Unionist, may I associate myself with all the remarks that have been made in thanking all those who have helped us over the period we have been here? It is particularly good to hear that we are remembering Jo Cox. The strength of her husband has been quite fantastic. I wish all the best to those Members who are standing down. I wish to share an Irish blessing—it is such good wording—with all Members for when they are knocking on doors:
“May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”
I think the whole House warmed to the hon. Gentleman’s concluding comments. I join him in his salute to Brendan Cox, who has shown the most inspiring courage and fortitude over the months since Jo’s murder, but who has also spoken out fearlessly in defence of democracy and human rights and against extremism, at a time when he must have been under the most appalling personal stress.
On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about legal aid, I think that implicit in his question was the fact that these decisions are taken at arm’s length from Ministers, but I will ask the Minister responsible for the legal aid system to make contact with him and other interested colleagues in both Houses. On his point about Tuesday 2 May, although the working assumption at the moment is that the House will not be sitting, that day is available should it be needed to ensure that business is completed. By law, the Dissolution of Parliament must take place one minute past midnight on Wednesday 3 May, so Tuesday will be the last day on which Members of this Parliament and their staff will have access to their offices in the House of Commons.
I was somewhat disappointed and dismayed to hear that Walsall Borough Council has declined to take part in the Government’s pilot scheme on voter identification measures at polling stations. Is the Leader of the House aware of any advice for presiding officers at the forthcoming local and mayoral elections and at the general election to deter personation at polling stations?
The Electoral Commission does provide such guidance to returning officers and their staff, including those running polling stations. The handbooks from the commission specifically include a procedure for dealing with personation and guidance on dealing with other issues. I am disappointed to hear that Walsall Council does not wish to follow best practice, and I hope it might reconsider following my hon. Friend’s representations.
The coalition Government introduced a £173.5 million fund for a modern public mass transit system in Leeds, and I was delighted that this Government stuck to that commitment. With the election, of course, that has been thrown up in the air, so may I ask the Minister what will happen? Can he assure me that when this place is not sitting there will be proper scrutiny of Leeds City Council’s unambitious and poor plans for spending that money?
First, there will be elections in Yorkshire—certainly, in the Greater Leeds area—this year. The processes for the auditing and scrutiny of expenditure within Government will also continue, and Ministers will remain in office. What there will not be until the new Parliament assembles is the opportunity for Members of this House to raise cases where they think money has not been spent to best effect. However, we are talking of a matter of only seven weeks, so it will not be long before Members representing Leeds and every other part of the country can raise such points.
May I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) said in welcoming the Government’s increased investment in the NHS? I also acknowledge what the Leader of the House said about the need for local decision making on health service matters. None the less, I seek his reassurance that in the next Parliament we will have the opportunity properly to scrutinise any proposed changes that result from NHS England’s sustainability and transformation plans. As he will know—I have raised this in the House before—there is considerable concern about services at North Devon district hospital in my constituency. The concern is that any proposed changes might be rather hastily imposed by local health service managers. Will he assure me that we will have an opportunity to scrutinise those matters?
Before I sit down—it seems I have the privilege of being the last Conservative Member to ask a business question in this Parliament—may I echo the comments that have been made about our colleague Jo Cox? Mr Speaker, may I also thank you, your staff and the staff of the House for helping to run the business of the House so smoothly? Long may it continue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can assure him that the next House of Commons—in this Chamber, in Westminster Hall and in the Health Committee when it is re-established—will have the opportunity to consider sustainability and transformation plans as they come forward in all parts of the country. Any such plan has to meet four tests for service change: it must be supported by GP commissioners, be based on clinical evidence, demonstrate public and patient engagement, and consider patient choice. The NHS organisations involved are obliged to consult the local authority’s health overview and scrutiny committees on any proposals for substantial changes to local health services. Those committees can make a formal objection to such a substantial service change and then refer the decision to the Secretary of State for a decision—and the Secretary of State is of course, like all Ministers, accountable to this House.
With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, before I ask my question I would like to put on record my sincere thanks to the hon. Members for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for assisting me when I was unwell yesterday. I also extend my thanks to the wonderful Commons staff and to the medics for their usual excellent care.
In Culture, Media and Sport questions on 16 March, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and I asked the Minister responsible about our long campaign for caps on the ruinous stakes for fixed odds betting terminals, and we were assured that a long-promised announcement by the Government would be made in the spring. Will the Leader of the House commit today to keeping this firm commitment before the Dissolution of Parliament?
No, I cannot promise that, because once a general election has been announced the normal rules on Government purdah start to apply fairly promptly, and they will certainly apply from the end of this week. This is a matter for the Cabinet Secretary rather than for Ministers. While Ministers will be free in the next 24 hours or so to make a number of statements, as soon as the purdah rules come into play, which I am expecting to happen tomorrow, the Government machine is prohibited from making such announcements because it must maintain impartiality during an election period.
We all know that to ensure that constituents can get better paid, better quality jobs and that our businesses can compete better abroad, we must ensure that our people have the right skills. It is a disgrace, therefore, that in my area we are facing further savage cuts of beyond £20 million per year to our local schools. Before Parliament is dissolved, may we have a statement from the Education Secretary on why this Government are pulling the rug from under our young people and taking us back to mid-1990s levels of Tory underinvestment in our schools? Our young people deserve better.
First, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the number of pupils attending schools that are rated by Ofsted as “good” or “outstanding” has risen since 2010 to the highest level ever—some 89% of pupils attend such schools—and the number of individual schools that meet those standards is also at a record high. He chose not to mention this Government’s commitment to 3 million good apprenticeship starts. Nor did he mention this Government’s renewed focus on technical and vocational education, which is absolutely essential if we are to give young men and women the opportunities that he, like me, wishes to see them enjoy.
I think that behind the hon. Gentleman’s question was an attack on the proposed new funding formula for schools, but it has long been the case, argued by Members of Parliament on both sides of this House, that it was not tolerable to continue with a situation in which almost identical schools in different geographical areas could find that one school received half the money per pupil that the other, comparable school was receiving. As he knows, the new funding formula is the subject of a public consultation that has just closed. The Secretary of State is considering what her response should be, and she will come forward with proposals in due course.
The Leader of the House referred to Gibraltar. May I remind him that Gibraltar has a Labour Government, and we in Rhondda certainly know that any Labour Government is always better than a Tory Government?
Rather than that, however, I want to ask the Leader of the House why the Government have broken their promise, in that Minister after Minister has said that if the Opposition demand a debate and a vote on secondary legislation, there will be a debate and a vote, but for the past two years successive Leaders of the House have repeatedly refused to allow us a debate and a vote. In particular, dozens of our constituents, many of them with severe mental health problems, are worried about the changes to personal independence payments and concerned that the changes are going to go through without any debate or any vote. They are absolutely furious. Why will the Leader of the House not stand up now and say, “Yes, we’re going to have a debate and a vote next week”?
The hon. Gentleman knows that an election has been called, and that makes a difference to the allocation of time for business, particularly as we have to make provision—I think that this is agreed across the House—for emergency legislation in relation to Northern Ireland, which will take time that might otherwise have been available for other purposes.
On personal independence payments, if the hon. Gentleman looks at what is actually going on, he will see that the number of successful appeals against PIP decisions is only 3% of cases that have reached a decision, and that the number of people with mental health conditions who are getting additional help under PIP is significantly higher compared with the disability living allowance. PIP represents a big improvement on the previous situation.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman is on very dangerous ground in praying in aid the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, because all political parties in Gibraltar detested and resented the previous Labour Government’s proposals for their territory.
May I echo the comments made about our colleague and friend, Jo Cox? Of course, Jo was a huge champion of international development. Although I am pleased that there will be a memorial to her here in the Commons, one of the greatest memorials would be for all parties in the upcoming election to recommit to the cross-party agreement on 0.7% for international development. It would be a great tragedy if that was abandoned.
Jo was also a great champion of the situation of older people in this country. We have a surprise general election, so I wonder whether we could have a surprise Government statement in the next few days on righting the historic injustice facing the WASPI women and so many other pensioners across the country, including Allied Steel and Wire workers in my constituency, who have been led down paths that have resulted in them not receiving what they expected to receive in their retirement.
It will be important, as we leave the European Union, that the United Kingdom is even more outward looking on the world than it is already. I am certainly proud of the way in which we use our very generous aid programme to give humanitarian assistance to people in need in parts of central and eastern Africa, and to people both inside Syria and who have taken refuge in neighbouring countries.
On the state pension age increase for women, transition arrangements are already in place and the previous Government committed more than £1 billion to lessen the impact of those changes. No one will see their pension age change more than 18 months compared with the previous timetable. The problem with what the hon. Gentleman seeks is that to reverse the Pensions Act 2011 would cost more than £30 billion, and neither he nor his party has any plan as to how they would find that money.
Six innocent UK military veterans, including Billy Irving, remain in jail in India. The Foreign Secretary has still not met their families. This Government have been in a tizzy over Brexit and have not been focusing on those men, and now this cynical Tory election means that their perilous situation slips even further down the priority list. These military veterans deserve better, so in the time left what are the Government going to do to get Billy and his colleagues home where they belong with their families?
The hon. Lady has raised that case before, so she knows that the Prime Minister has raised the case of the Chennai six with Prime Minister Modi of India; that Foreign Office Ministers and our high commissioner in New Delhi have raised the issue many times with their Indian counterparts; and that representations continue to be made to the Indian high commissioner here in London. The case is with the judicial system in India, which is a mature democracy, and we will continue to make all representations possible on behalf of those men. We are certainly not giving up and it is wrong for the hon. Lady to suggest in any way that we have done so.
South Tees clinical commissioning group announced a fortnight ago that the Marske medical centre, which serves more than 5,000 people in the village, many of them elderly, will close at the end of June. NHS England has provided emergency GP cover for the last year after Danum Medical Services, the company that previously ran the centre, went into liquidation. Not a single bid has been received—what a damning indictment of this Government’s market approach to healthcare.
I have written to ask the Secretary of State for Health to step in urgently on behalf of patients who rely on the GP service. Will the Leader of the House bring the matter to the urgent attention of the Secretary of State? Otherwise, any mention of protecting the NHS in the Government’s manifesto will be seen around my way for the hollow sham that it is.
I will certainly refer the particular case to the Secretary of State for Health and his team. In respect of the hon. Lady’s strictures about the use of private sector contractors, under the previous Labour Government there was a significant increase to 4.5%, from memory, in the delivery of NHS spending through contracted-out services, and the proportion has grown only very slightly since 2010.
I return once again to the national shipbuilding strategy. We have been told since last summer that it is imminent, most recently on 8 February, when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), assured Parliament:
“It will be published in spring 2017.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2017; Vol. 621, c. 174WH.]
Can the Leader of the House confirm today that the shipbuilding strategy will not be published before the end of this Parliament? Does he accept that that will be seen by the shipyard workers on the Clyde and elsewhere as a complete betrayal, and yet another gross dereliction of duty, by this Conservative Government?
We are not going to be shy of publishing the national shipbuilding strategy, but I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) about the impact of purdah rules. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and his party would be the first on their feet to complain if we had announcements coming out of Whitehall during a general election campaign; he would argue that those announcements were designed to help a Government seeking re-election.
The Conservative Government in London spent £7 per person on transport projects in the south-east for every £1 per person spent in the north. Meanwhile, schools in Sefton face a cut of £518 per child and the loss of nearly 500 teachers. Before the election, can we have a statement about whether the people of Sefton Central have been let down by the Government and why they have had such appalling treatment?
If the hon. Gentleman looks back to as recently as the autumn statement he will find that £13 billion of infrastructure investment was reserved for northern England. I could list some of the projects—improved connections to Manchester airport, £317 million for the Tyne and Wear metro and so on—that benefit northern cities and regions directly. In his question to me, he ignored the fact that investment in London can actually bring direct benefit to centres outside London. The Crossrail trains are being built in Derby, providing jobs there, and components for London buses are made in Falkirk and Ballymena. All parts of the United Kingdom are benefiting from that programme of Government investment.
On a point similar to that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), can we have a statement before Dissolution on the procurement of Type 26 frigates? The best shipbuilders in the world—the workforce of the Govan shipyard—have waited for two years for work to start on those frigates. As a minimum, if we are not to receive a statement, will the Leader of the House ensure that the Ministry of Defence writes to me with an update?
I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s concern to the attention of Defence Ministers. As I think I have said at this Dispatch Box before, the Government hope that steel cutting can begin on that programme as soon as possible. He will know that two carriers—the two biggest warships ever built for the Royal Navy—are being constructed in Scotland as we speak.
Following the official opening last month of Carrington power station in my constituency, which was attended by the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), a number of north-west businesses remain unpaid following the liquidation of the project contractor, Duro Felguera UK, by its massive Spanish parent. I am sure you will agree, Mr Speaker, that it is disgraceful for our local businesses to lose out on a major infrastructure project that contributes to our national energy security. Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement to be made next week on the support that can be made available to those businesses, particularly during Dissolution?
It is clearly important that businesses, particularly small businesses, are paid in full and on time within the terms of their respective contracts. As the hon. Lady knows, if a liquidation is involved, a particular legal regime kicks in. If she would like to let me have some details, I will send them on directly to the Minister with responsibility for energy.
In the remaining days of this Parliament, can we please have a debate about the northern powerhouse? London gets 10 times as much per head of population to spend on transport as do Yorkshire and the Humber; schools in my patch face cuts of up to £400 per pupil; our NHS, under its sustainability and transformation plan, is set to see cuts of £328 million; the council budget has been slashed by 50%; and we have the smallest number of police officers in Humberside since the 1970s. Can we please have a debate on what the Tories have against Yorkshire, and against Hull in particular?
If the hon. Lady looks at the record, she will see that large sums of money—I have already mentioned the £13 billion for transport in the autumn statement—are being allocated to Yorkshire, the Humber and other parts of northern England, and that more than 60% of the increase in private sector employment since the 2010 general election has been in parts of the United Kingdom outside London and the south-east. She will see that Yorkshire and Humberside are benefiting from the sound economic policies that the Government are pursuing.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that in the coming election she would be
“out there campaigning in every part of the United Kingdom”.—[Official Report, 19 April 2017; Vol. 624, c. 669.]
Perhaps there will be a statement on that. May I helpfully suggest that she visit the Stirling constituency, where the presence of a hard-Brexit, hard-right, pro-austerity Prime Minister will do the SNP the world of good when it comes to winning the campaign?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is looking forward with relish to coming to Scotland and making the positive case for a Conservative Government. She is also looking forward to pointing out that after 10 years of SNP stewardship, there has been a decline in the national health service in Scotland and standards in Scottish schools are being overtaken by those in schools in England, Wales, Poland and Estonia.
I am proud to be part of a final Caledonian flush in this, the last business questions of this Parliament. I hope that on Sunday there will be more of a Caledonian flash: everyone has a sprint to the election, but some of us have a marathon to run. I wish the other 30 Members of the House of Commons who are taking part well in their endeavours. It is one of those occasions on which we put politics aside, and we will stand together and run together for our local charities. First and foremost, as Members of Parliament, we are there to stand up for and represent our local charities and organisations.
I will be representing and raising money for Jak’s Den, in memory of Jak Trueman, a young man who died of a very rare form of cancer around the time of my election in 2015. His mother Allison Barr and his sister Aimie do a huge amount of work in my local community. I will also be raising money for and representing the Michelle Henderson Cervical Cancer Trust. Michelle was in the year below me at high school, and she very sadly died a number of years ago of cervical cancer. Her work is continued by her father Willie Henderson, the famous Scottish footballer. Running the marathon will be a very proud moment for me, and I wish all who are running in it well.
I reiterate the good wishes I expressed earlier to the hon. Lady and others who are competing in the marathon on Sunday and I salute the work of the charities she is supporting.
Many of my constituents will be affected by recent changes to welfare policy brought about by the Government. Given that they will soon be left without a Member of Parliament for over a month due to purdah, will the Leader of the House make provision next week for urgent business to reverse these iniquitous changes until after the general election?
No. The Government’s changes to welfare policies have contributed towards a significant growth in employment, which is at record levels. That includes a big increase in the number of disabled people in work. They are now gaining the dignity and self-respect they want to have through their participation in the labour market. At the same time, we have increased and protected the benefits received by the most disabled people in the United Kingdom.
May I first echo the comments of the convenor of the Backbench Business Committee and ask for clarity on whether there will be debates in Westminster Hall next Thursday? If not, will the business be carried over? The Leader of the House said a few moments ago that we are all elected with an equal mandate. Well, even Margaret Thatcher recognised that the return of a majority of Scottish National party MPs from Scotland would be a mandate to take forward our policies on independence, yet the current Prime Minister does not seem to respect the mandate of the Scottish Parliament to give Scotland a choice. May we have a debate on which Prime Minister was right?
The mandate given by the people of Scotland in 2014 was for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom. I wish the hon. Gentleman and his party would respect that.
Our families sacrifice a lot for all of us to be in this House. Over this Parliament, the family of Jo Cox gave the ultimate sacrifice. Personally, I know that I could not undertake this role without the love and support of my husband John and my family. I am sure every Member in this House would say the same about their spouse and family.
On 27 March, the Prime Minister stated to the staff of the international development team in East Kilbride:
“Because of the work you do…this United Kingdom and the values at its heart is one of the greatest forces for good in the world today.”
Will the Leader of the House intimate whether there will be a debate in the House after the general election to ensure that this and any future Government retain their commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on international development aid and do not push it into the budget headings of other Departments?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the 0.7% target is calculated by reference to the OECD’s definition of overseas development expenditure. That definition is confined not purely to expenditure programmes controlled by the Department for International Development, but to Government spending that meets the OECD criteria. I can assure him that, if the Government are re-elected, there will continue to be a strong United Kingdom commitment to an active and generous policy of international development. It is right that we continue to help the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. It is also right that we contribute towards the better governance and long-term stability of countries at risk, because that helps us to tackle some of the broader international problems that we in the United Kingdom and our European neighbours face.
It is good to follow our answer to Arthur Scargill, Mr Speaker—with a bit of Glasgow finesse no less.
It has been some two years since I was elected to this Parliament. I have to say that at the start of it I did not think that, two years in, we would have left the European Union and I would be on my second Prime Minister. Hopefully, in a few weeks’ time, I will be on my third Government. They say a week is a long time in politics. Over the time that the right hon. Gentleman has been Leader of the House I have asked him about many issues, but for the past six months I have consistently raised the issue of jobcentre closures in Glasgow. Given what he has said to other colleagues with regard to other Government announcements, would I be right in thinking that he expects Glaswegians to go to the polls not knowing which jobcentres his Government intend to close?
Since the hon. Gentleman is wishing for a change in Government, he is confirming that his party wishes to prop up the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) as the leader of a putative coalition or minority Government. It is good to have that confirmation on the record.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the provision of jobcentres in Glasgow, as he has heard me say before, Glasgow has a greater concentration of office space for jobcentres than any other major city in Scotland. We have seen proposals from the Department for Work and Pensions to rationalise the estate in Glasgow so that his constituents and others in Glasgow can have a better-quality service. All necessary expert staff will be concentrated in a smaller number of locations, which will be fully accessible to his constituents.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you very much for indulging the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire. During the urgent question, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) intimated that I represent my home town, the great borough of Clydebank. I am sure you will be very well aware, Mr Speaker, that I not only represent my great home town, the borough of Clydebank, but the ancient borough of Dunbarton and of course the mighty Vale of Leven. I am delighted to say that I will be standing for re-selection and, hopefully, re-election as the Member of Parliament for the greatest constituency in this House, West Dunbartonshire.
Lest any of us were unaware of the sheer extent of the hon. Gentleman’s reach, whether physical or metaphorical, such concerns have been comprehensively allayed by his—I use this term non-pejoratively—opportunistic attempt to raise a bogus point of order. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is not related to the previous point of order.
It is very reassuring to know it is unrelated.
Breaking with all convention, I think this actually is a point of order, Mr Speaker. The crux of my question to the Leader of the House concerned Government announcements and purdah. I have no idea whether there will be an announcement on which jobcentres they intend to close. Could you advise me, Mr Speaker? Is there anything to stop the Government making that announcement between now and the dissolution of Parliament?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday to the House, in which she stated that
“leaving the election to 2020 would mean that we would be coming to the most sensitive and critical part of the negotiations in the run-up to a general election. That would be in nobody’s interests.”—[Official Report, 19 April 2017; Vol. 624, c. 685.]
If we had stuck to the fixed term for this Parliament, the general election would have been in 2020. The negotiations, therefore, would not have been in the run-up to the election. They would have finished. Does the Prime Minister need to explain to the House that her plans for negotiating our exit from the European Union will go beyond those two years, as promised to the House?
I think there is a degree of linguistic licence available to, and sometimes deployed by, Members in all parts of the House, including those who sit on the Treasury Bench and on the Opposition Front Bench. If the Prime Minister felt the need to clarify her remarks she could do so, but I have no sense that she feels any such need. I hope the hon. Lady will understand if I say that I do not think this is a matter into which it would be proper for me to intrude. It is substantially a matter of interpretation and debate. The hon. Lady, with some skill, has used her opportunity to flag her concern and it is on the record. I know how persistent a terrier she is, so if she is dissatisfied doubtless she will pursue the matter.
EU Referendum: Lessons Learned
Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
Select Committee Statement
We now come to the first Select Committee statement. In a moment I shall call the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Mr Bernard Jenkin, who will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of it, and to do so briefly. I will then call Mr Jenkin to respond briefly to those questions in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. I reiterate that interventions should be questions, and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in questioning.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving me time to present PACAC’s 12th report of this Session, which is entitled “Lessons learned from the EU Referendum”, and which is still topical in so many ways. We shall be producing further reports at the fag end of the current Parliament—including, on Monday, a report on the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments—but I fear that there will be no opportunities for them to be presented on the Floor of the House before the Dissolution.
The referendum on our membership of the EU and the vote to leave by a margin of 52% to 48% represents one of the most momentous political events in our politics for decades. It has already had, and will continue to have, far-reaching consequences, and it will shape the destiny of our country. PACAC’s report, published last week, seeks to draw out some important lessons to be learned from the EU referendum in relation to the purpose of referendums and how they should be conducted. It builds on the work of our predecessor, the Public Administration Select Committee, whose report on the Scottish independence referendum was published in the last Parliament. We hope that both reports will be regarded as required reading for anyone who plans a major referendum in the future.
PACAC argues that referendums are appropriate for resolving questions of key constitutional importance that cannot be resolved through the usual medium of party politics. However, it also argues that the system is less satisfactory in the case of what might be called a “bluff call” referendum which—as happened last June—is used by the Government to try to close down an unwelcome debate. Future Parliaments and Governments must consider the potential consequences of promising referendums, especially when, as a result, they may be expected to implement an outcome that they opposed.
PACAC argues that referendums should be limited to matters that are in some way of fundamental or constitutional importance and lend themselves to binary questions, and to instances in which the consequences of both possible outcomes are clear. That is not least because referendums still create a tension in our parliamentary system of government. Although we are becoming used to direct democracy, it contrasts with our constitutional traditions and culture of representative democracy. Direct democracy, as we have just learned, can be a shock to the system, particularly when most of the elected representatives disagree with the result. The forthcoming general election is all the more necessary because it will heal that rift, and will translate the direct mandate from the EU referendum into a representative mandate for a new Government and Parliament.
That, however, is the point of a referendum. It is a new way of challenging entrenched opinion, just as the Anti-Corn Law League overturned agricultural protection and the campaigns to widen suffrage and to open our economy to free trade challenged the establishment in previous centuries. Today, people are educated and have direct access to the information. Voters are therefore more capable of deciding individual questions for themselves, and less willing to accept wisdom handed down from on high.
PACAC also considered the conduct and delivery of referendums in the future. It found that Government fears that the purdah restrictions provided for in section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 would impair the conduct of government were groundless. The Committee recommends that those restrictions, which are vital to the fair conduct of referendums, should be extended to cover the full 10 weeks of a referendum period, as recommended by the Electoral Commission. It is something of a testament to Select Committees that we succeeded in persuading the House of Commons to prevent the Government from altering the purdah rules in advance of the referendum. We also recommend that the rules be updated to reflect the digital age. We support the Law Commission’s proposals to consolidate the law regulating the conduct of referendums.
As for the administration of the referendum, the evidence gathered during PACAC’s inquiry suggests that while it was not without some faults, the referendum was on the whole run well. PACAC commends the Electoral Commission for the successful delivery of the referendum, which was of enormous scale and complexity.
One of the most significant problems was the collapse of the voter registration website just hours before the registration deadline on 7 June. The Government attributed that to “unprecedented demand”. More than 500,000 online applications to register to vote were recorded on 7 June alone. According to the Electoral Commission, the problems that led to the website’s crash were aggravated by a large number of duplicate applications: 38% of applications made during the campaign were duplicates, and there was no way of checking online whether an application was a duplicate. PACAC supports the Electoral Commission’s recommendation that the Government develop an online service to enable people to check whether they are already correctly registered to vote, which would be invaluable in preventing the website from collapsing again in the future. Such websites should be better tested for resilience.
The media devoted a great deal of attention to our having raised the possibility that the website collapse had been caused by a cyber-attack. Whether or not that can be proved is not the point; it is important to be aware of the potential for foreign interference in referendums or elections, responsibility for which is actually being claimed by some countries, and attacks experienced by others. Permanent machinery for monitoring cyber-security in respect of elections and referendums should be established.
Lessons relating to the protection and resilience of IT systems against possible foreign interference must also extend beyond the technical. Our understanding of cyber is predominantly technical and computer-network-based, but Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on an understanding of mass psychology and how to exploit individuals. In my capacity as Chair of PACAC, I shall be writing to the Intelligence and Security Committee to raise the issue of cyber-security in the EU referendum, and to ask whether it will be following up on PACAC’s concerns. Today, however, I am encouraged by reports that the National Cyber Security Centre will be advising political parties on the matter during the forthcoming election campaign.
PACAC also again looked at the role played by the civil service during the referendum. We expressed concern that the manner of the presentation of some Government reports, particularly those from the Treasury, and the decision to spend £9.3 million on sending a leaflet to all UK households advocating a remain vote, were inappropriate and undermined public confidence in civil service impartiality. PACAC reiterates the recommendation made by its predecessor, PASC, that there should be a new paragraph in “The Civil Service code” to clarify the role and conduct of civil servants during referendums. It currently contains no reference to referendums.
Finally, we looked at the degree of contingency planning that was made in respect of a possible leave vote. In the run-up to the 1975 referendum, according to the contemporary accounts, Whitehall prepared for a possible UK exit from the common market with a “fairly intensive” programme of Cabinet Office-led contingency planning. PACAC was alarmed to learn that in the run-up to the EU referendum last June, the Government’s official position was that there would be no contingency planning. The only exception was planning in the Treasury to anticipate the impact of a leave vote on the UK’s financial stability.
PACAC was relieved to learn that work was undertaken within the civil service on the potential implications of a leave vote, albeit without the knowledge of Ministers and despite their explicit instructions. There was a secret away day. Civil servants should never have been asked to operate in a climate in which contingency planning was officially banned, and the Government should not have shirked their constitutional and public obligation to prepare for both possible outcomes. PACAC recommends that, in the event of future referendums, civil servants should be tasked with preparing for both eventualities, as they do in the case of general elections.
It is essential for referendums to be well run, to be conducted fairly, and to command public trust and confidence. PACAC therefore hopes that the Government will heed our recommendations so that the country will be ready for any further referendums in the future.
Let me take this opportunity to thank the House, but more particularly my Committee and its dedicated staff, for the privilege of serving as Chair of PACAC in the current Parliament.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the fairness you have always shown me in this and previous Parliaments.
The report is clear: the referendum was called to call the bluff of the Brexiteers, civil service neutrality was clearly jeopardised and, as the Chair of the Committee said, there was no preparation for the vote to leave. Is not it obvious that the referendum was held not in the national interest but in the governing party’s interest? Now, with 30 of its MPs under investigation, we are having an election, instead of focusing on the outcome of the referendum. Paragraphs 102, 103 and 104 of the Committee’s report should concern the House—and, in fact, the whole country. We have not done enough to secure our systems for either referendums or elections. In the Chair’s view and the view of his Committee, are our systems strong enough, at the time of a snap general election, in the event of a concerted cyber-attack, to which the report refers, by a foreign power or from some other source? Even at this late stage, does he think that there is anything that we can do to strengthen our systems’ resilience?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. I will not tangle with all the things that he raised, but we have a pretty resilient system. The fact that the vast majority of votes cast are pencil or pen marks on bits of paper that are physically counted means that it is basically an impossible system to hack. What we need to be aware of is the vulnerability of electoral registers and systems. The dispersal of our electoral register among different electoral authorities is another source of resilience: there is not one system to hack. However, we need to be aware of what certain countries might want to be seen to be doing—what they might want to be seen to be attempting to influence the result of, or want to be thought to influence the result of. I do not think that any country influenced the result of the leave vote in the EU referendum. I do not think that the result in any election in any major country would have been altered, but we need to understand why certain countries are doing this and what psychological effect they are trying to create by attempting these things, and we need to be alert to the vulnerability of our systems.