House of Commons
Wednesday 26 April 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
On today’s Order Paper, it is noted that on 20 May 1917, Major Valentine Fleming DSO, C Squadron, the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, the Member for Henley, was killed in action near Epéhy, France. On 7 June 1917, Major Willie Redmond, 6th Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, the Member for Clare East, died of wounds received during the Battle of Messines, Belgium. We remember them today.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Effect on Wales
At this last Welsh questions before the general election, I should like to pay tribute to two Welsh stars. Josh Griffiths of the Swansea Harriers was the first Briton to cross the finishing line at the London marathon at the weekend. In particular, I want to pay tribute to Matthew Rees, who helped a fellow runner during the closing stages of the marathon.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that, as we negotiate our exit from the European Union, we will work to secure a deal that benefits all parts of the United Kingdom. Wales is a vibrant, dynamic, innovative country and is well placed to make a success of the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Brexit could have a negative impact on jobs in Wales, so the proposal to build a category C prison in my constituency is welcome in principle. However, it is difficult to understand why the Baglan Energy Park has been selected as the site for the prison. It is even more difficult to understand why the Prisons Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), has not had the courtesy to reply to my letter of 23 March. Will the Secretary of State please encourage his friend the Minister to check his in-tray? Will he also guarantee that our local community will be fully and properly consulted about the siting of this prison?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are record employment data in Wales, with unemployment at a record low, and the prison will provide a further boost to his constituency. The answer to his question is quite straightforward: the site was selected in consultation with, and with the support of, the Welsh Government.
My hon. Friend regularly shows a great interest in Wales and he obviously knows a lot about the Welsh economy. He mentions the high-tech sectors. We have seen the expansion of General Dynamics, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I visited a couple of weeks ago. On that same day, we both handed over the Red Dragon super-hangar to Aston Martin. These are real jobs that are being created by real investors creating new opportunities.
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that exports from Wales have grown significantly, by 6.2%, over the past year. That is something that we welcome. He will also recognise the data that I highlighted earlier about record levels of employment and record low levels of unemployment. On that basis, he will recognise that we want the freest possible open trading arrangements in support of Welsh farmers, because we maintain an active relationship with them—
We are extremely grateful to the Secretary of State, but we have a lot of colleagues trying to get in today.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the rural areas of Wales will be placed front and centre in a post-Brexit Britain?
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does on supporting the rural economy, particularly in his constituency. We maintain a close relationship with both the farming unions in Wales, and most of those meetings take place in his constituency. That demonstrates the active relationship that we have with key stakeholders as well as with the Welsh Government.
If the Secretary of State has such a close relationship with the farming unions, how does he respond to their request for a full assessment of the impact on Welsh agriculture if we have to fall back on World Trade Organisation tariffs? Is it not obvious that 40% tariffs would destroy Welsh agriculture?
I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman’s approach. He is assuming the worst-case scenario. We are having this general election in order to have strong and stable leadership in the challenging negotiations ahead. There are 27 EU nations that will be challenging everything as we negotiate to leave the European Union. Strong and stable leadership is needed now more than ever before.
If the right hon. Gentleman is so keen on listening to Welsh farmers, will he tell us why the Government are refusing to agree with the Farmers Union of Wales? Why will powers on agriculture not be devolved to the Welsh Government post-Brexit? Will he come clean on that?
I am sure the hon. Lady will recognise that we engaged closely with the FUW and the National Farmers Union before drafting the great repeal Bill White Paper. They had active input directly to me and other Cabinet colleagues. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also met the farming unions to consider the matter, and they are absolutely supportive of the position we have taken in the White Paper.
The Prime Minister has said that she is prepared to walk away from the negotiating table without a trade deal with the EU, and the Foreign Secretary has said that no deal would be no problem. Yet no deal, as we have heard, could see tariffs of 30% to 40% on Welsh dairy farmers and meat producers, and 10% tariffs on Welsh car manufacturers. Is it not the case that this Tory Government are prepared to play fast and loose with the Welsh economy, with an extreme Tory vision of Brexit that would put Welsh jobs and livelihoods at risk?
I do not recognise the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We want the freest, most open trading agreement, and it seems to me that the real investors, who are creating real jobs, are taking us towards our ambition. We have seen major investment by Nissan in Sunderland, major investment by Toyota in Derbyshire and major investment in my constituency by Aston Martin. That demonstrates their confidence in our vision as we leave the European Union.
The UK, including Wales, remains the same outward-looking, globally minded country we have always been. International businesses, such as Aston Martin, choose to invest in Wales as a result of the great work done by the Department for International Trade and the Wales Office, working hand in glove with the Welsh Government. That shows that Wales continues to be a great investment destination.
Welsh food and drink exports to the European Union will face eye-watering tariffs on leaving the single market. Will the Minister simply guarantee that, as part of a World Trade Organisation deal, the home market will not be flooded with cheap food imports such as Australian sheepmeat?
The hon. Gentleman is again guilty of peddling scare stories. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to lamb, for example, New Zealand currently does not even meet its quota to the European Union—only 70% of the New Zealand quota is currently maintained. He should have some confidence in Welsh agricultural produce, rather than talking down the prospects of the economy.
I would have a great deal more confidence if the Minister answered the question. On Monday I visited one of the largest and most successful high-tech businesses in Wales, which told me that, post-Brexit, it is hoping against hope to be able to export to its European partners, as at present, without all the red tape and expense of being outside the customs union. Why are this hard-Brexit Government so determined to make life more difficult for our key exporters?
The hon. Gentleman again highlights the negativity that surrounds the issue, but it is a negativity that I do not recognise, that is not recognised by businesses in Wales and that is certainly not highlighted by the investment decisions made by businesses in Wales. Businesses in Wales are investing and are looking to a global future. We will secure the greatest possible access to European markets, although we are also looking to global trade deals that will ensure Wales is part of global growth as well as maintaining European markets.
Wales has huge potential in terms of exporting and trading opportunities, and the Department for International Trade is an important tool for companies in Wales that are looking to expand overseas. How are the Minister and his Department ensuring that Wales is central to the work of the Department for International Trade?
The Department for International Trade is a crucial component of the way in which we support Welsh businesses, and the Wales Office is working closely with that Department. We had an export conference in Cardiff on 6 March, which was extremely well attended, and the opportunities available to Welsh businesses, both within the European Union and globally, were highlighted. That meeting was a huge success.
My hon. Friend will agree that there is much common ground between Cornwall and Wales with the opportunities that Brexit presents for the export of high-quality goods and services across the globe. What advice can he share with businesses across my constituency as we begin the negotiations to leave the European Union?
I thank my hon. Friend for the question. She correctly says that Wales and Cornwall have a lot in common, not least in terms of language. Businesses in Cornwall should do the same as those in Wales: engage with the Department for International Trade; look at the opportunities to go on trade missions; and identify new markets. Opportunities are there for businesses from Cornwall and Wales, and we need to exploit those.
What guarantees can the Minister give companies such as Airbus, which rely on British employees moving and working across Europe, when we leave Europe?
The guarantee we can offer to any company that wants to work across Europe is that this Government will listen to them and act on their behalf. We have absolutely no interest in doing anything other than fully supporting companies such as Airbus, which is such a key component of the economy of north-east Wales.
To enhance trade across the whole of Wales we need to have proper infrastructure in our ports. Will the Minister congratulate the Welsh Government on putting in additional funds? Will he work with them to ensure that places such as Ynys Môn remain at the heart of the British Isles, because of both their close proximity to Ireland and their trade with the rest of Europe?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in what he says, and I am pleased that the Secretary of State visited the port of Holyhead with him. He is also right to highlight the fact that Wales is in a fortunate position: we have two Governments that can work for the benefit of our economy. Co-operation between the UK Government and the Welsh Government for the development of ports such as Holyhead is crucial to the way forward after Brexit.
Great Repeal Bill
To provide the greatest level of legal and administrative certainty upon leaving the European Union, the Government will replicate the current frameworks. In parallel, we will begin intensive discussions with the devolved Administrations to identify where common frameworks should be retained. We expect the outcome of that process to be a significant increase in the decision-making power of the devolved Administrations.
Accepting the Minister’s request to be positive, may I ask him whether he agrees that the best way forward for Welsh and Scottish farmers is for the responsibility for financial subsidy arrangements to be transferred to the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies post-Brexit?
Naturally, the UK Government will continue to engage positively with the Scottish Government, as well as with the Welsh Government. However, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that protecting the integrity of the UK market must be fundamental to that discussion, because clearly the Scottish farmers will sell more to the UK than they will elsewhere.
Wales has consistently voted to make the National Assembly responsible for the governance of its own country and to transfer responsibilities away from Westminster and closer to the people in Wales. Will the Secretary of State give a concrete guarantee that there will be no attempt to undermine devolution in relation to any of the devolved Governments?
I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight one achievement of this Parliament: passing the latest governance legislation, the Wales Act 2017, which enhanced powers even further in a range of areas. It demonstrates our stance on devolution, which is to trust the people.
Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party will defend against the power-hungry Tory Government’s plans in the White Paper to use the great repeal Bill to undermine devolved government by not passing on powers from Brussels. What guarantees can the Minister make to ensure that all powers are repatriated to Wales and Scotland in the devolved competences and not absorbed by the Westminster machine?
As powers are repatriated from the EU, it is vital that we provide industry and communities with as much certainty and security as possible. We need to protect the integrity of the UK market, and we need to work with the devolved Administrations to construct common standards and common frameworks to support that single market.
After a decade of Tory rule in Westminster, it is clear that the Government have given up on Wales. They have refused to devolve the responsibility for rail infrastructure, as both Plaid Cymru and the Silk commission suggested, and in paragraph 4.2 of the great repeal Bill White Paper they have pledged to snatch the transport powers currently held by Brussels away from the people of Wales. Will the Secretary of State tell us what exactly he is doing to ensure that the people of Wales, and their interests, are not forgotten?
The Government will continue to engage with the Welsh Government, but we will also continue to engage with stakeholders. The stakeholders across agriculture, business and commerce have supported the standpoint we want to take with the great repeal Bill, which is to replicate the powers on a temporary basis until we can come to an agreement with the devolved Administrations on where those powers should ultimately lie in the interests of the UK market.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the setting of business rates in Wales is now devolved. Does he share my concern that the small business rate relief scheme in Wales is less generous than the one in England?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can well remember walking recently along the High Street in Prestatyn, where business rates were highlighted as a major concern for some of the small shops. He is right that the setting of business rates is devolved but, of course, in the recent Budget my right hon. Friend the Chancellor enhanced the Welsh settlement significantly as a result of his support for small business rates in England; I hope the Welsh Government will use that money to support small businesses in Wales.
I have been an MP for only two years, but during that short time I have seen two Secretaries of State and five shadow Secretaries of State for Wales fob off my country with crumbs from the Westminster table. Now, the Government are preparing to claw back devolved powers. When will the present incumbent announce a Wales Bill that brings power back to Wales?
The hon. Lady will appreciate that we have said with the great repeal Bill White Paper that no decisions currently taken by the Welsh Government will be removed from them. We expect that the repatriation of powers from the European Union will extend the Welsh Government’s powers significantly, but there is of course a process to work through in order to provide the stability and certainty that industry needs.
May I thank all Labour MPs, and particularly the Welsh Labour MPs, for their support?
The Welsh Labour Government tell me that the Joint Ministerial Committee is not listening or responding to the voices of the devolved Administrations. It is not fit for purpose. Does the Secretary of State agree that the JMC should be given statutory powers so that the great repeal Bill will not in any way rewrite or override devolution as set out in the recent Wales Act?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the time she has spent as shadow Secretary of State for Wales.
I underline the importance of the role played by the Joint Ministerial Committee. Having been at the Committee’s meetings, I know that an awful lot of discussion takes place in the interests of the whole of the United Kingdom. There may well be the potential for it to be developed further, but a statutory footing is not the answer.
The chapter in the Brexit White Paper on securing trade deals with other countries contains no mention of Wales whatsoever. What influence will the Secretary of State give to the Welsh Government to do something about that so that Wales is not just an afterthought, as it is under the Tories?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Welsh Government are represented on the Joint Ministerial Committee. I have made it a determination to engage proactively with the stakeholders in Wales, because they share a view that is not always consistent with that of the Welsh Government. Through my office, they have had a direct input into the great repeal Bill White Paper.
We are delivering a bold, long-term industrial strategy that is truly UK wide and builds on our strengths and prepares us for the years ahead. It is important that the economy works for everyone, delivers good, skilled, well-paid jobs, and creates the conditions for competitive, world-leading businesses to prosper and grow across the UK. That, we are doing.
The industrial strategy and the Cardiff city deal demonstrate the strong and stable Government the people of south Wales need. Alongside the compound semiconductor catapult in Cardiff, the industrial strategy and city deal are delivering sustainable high-tech jobs. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I could do nothing other than agree with my hon. Friend, who is a fantastic champion for Wales’s capital city. The city deal is an example of the Westminster Government working with the Welsh Government for the benefit of Wales, and the semiconductor centre is an example of a world-class resource in which Wales leads the globe. We can contribute so much more with the support of the UK Government, working with the Welsh Government.
Will the Minister outline what response he has had from businesses and organisations across Wales since the launch of the industrial strategy consultation, and how is he ensuring that Welsh interests are front and centre of the strategy as it goes forward?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The response from stakeholders across Wales has been truly superb. The engagement that the Wales Office has had with businesses and industry across Wales has been second to none. The response to the industrial strategy is very clear: businesses and industry want us to support research and innovation, and to invest in digital infrastructure. Those are exactly the types of priorities that we have in our industrial strategy.
The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Craig Williams) is right to be concerned about possible unequal treatment under his Government’s industrial strategy for Wales because there has been silence about Bridgend and Ford compared with what has been said about Nissan and the north-east. Will the Minister guarantee from the Dispatch Box that Ford in south Wales will get exactly the same treatment as Nissan in the north-east?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers and officials have been in regular discussions with Ford at Bridgend. Indeed, those discussions are ongoing and constructive, and they involve the Welsh Government as well. Our aim and intention is to ensure that Bridgend remains a car producing area.
The Welsh Labour Government have proved that lasting economic success comes only through continued investment in Welsh industry and infrastructure. Is there any chance of progress on the electrification of the Great Western Railway to Swansea, the north Wales growth plan and the HS2 hub in Crewe before purdah kicks in?
The hon. Lady is right that investment in infrastructure is absolutely crucial for the future of the Welsh economy. That is why the Welsh Government should get on with work on the M4 in south Wales and improve the A55 in north Wales. In relation to rail infrastructure, electric trains will be on their way to Swansea before the end of the year. More importantly, the commitments that we have in Crewe will be absolutely crucial to the development of north Wales. We had a meeting yesterday with the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) to ensure that north Wales benefits from these investments.
We are immensely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I call Mr Stephen Crabb.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. The fiscal framework that has been agreed between the UK and Welsh Governments has been described as a game-changer by Gerry Holtham. It means that, unlike during the 13 years when Labour was in government in this place, Wales is no longer underfunded. The people of Wales should look at the M4 and the A55, and point the finger of blame at the Labour Government in Cardiff.
The Under-Secretary of State says that there will be electric trains going out of Swansea, but there will not be an electrified line. When will he get on with electrifying the line from Cardiff to Swansea, ensuring additional infrastructure investment for the Valleys line, including my line at Ogmore?
The hon. Gentleman should be aware that £500 million has been put towards the city deal in Cardiff, which will be crucial for the electrification of the South Wales Valleys line. We have also done work on the Severn tunnel. Let me say one thing to the hon. Gentleman: I will take no lessons from a party that electrified not a single mile of rail track in Wales in 13 years.
I have been in close discussions with Cabinet colleagues about our response to the Hendry review, which we are actively considering. Any potential energy project that can contribute to a clean, secure and diverse energy mix for the UK is worthy of serious consideration. Projects of this scale must also meet the essential requirement of delivering value for money for the taxpayer.
The Henry report very much supports a tidal lagoon in Swansea, which has the second highest rise and fall of tide in the world. We should be harnessing that tide. Does the Secretary of State see that as part of the Conservative manifesto for this general election?
My hon. Friend is right to recognise that natural resources in Wales can play a significant role in the energy mix of not only Wales but the UK. We would like this type of project to succeed, but of course it needs to be value for money for the taxpayer.
Why are the Government so reluctant to embrace Wales’s equivalent of North sea power: tidal energy, which is entirely predictable, eternal and free, and would provide a bonanza of jobs?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that it was this Government’s early actions in 2015 that led to planning permission being granted for the project that he highlights. As I said, we would like this type of project to succeed, but it must be value for money. Above all, we need strong and stable leadership to provide the economic security to pay for any such project.
I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave earlier to my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff North (Craig Williams) and for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara).
Does the Minister agree that the UK-wide industrial strategy highlights the importance of linking north Wales with the northern powerhouse?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We have a great relationship with my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), the Minister for the northern powerhouse. A north Wales growth deal is essential for north Wales because the northern powerhouse needs north Wales, and north Wales needs the northern powerhouse. We will ensure that that happens if we are re-elected.
Warm words build no roads and no railways. We have had enough of warm words from this Government. What we want is investment in north Wales. For the first time, show us the money.
I am disappointed by the comments of the hon. Gentleman, who was at the meeting with me yesterday with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones). More importantly, he should highlight, for example, the huge investment in the new Berwyn prison in Wrexham, which is creating jobs and has been seen as an example of how to do public sector investment in Wales and the UK.
The Prime Minister was asked—
West Midlands: Economy and Public Services
The economy in the west midlands is performing well. Businesses are continuing to invest, and since 2010 employment in the west midlands has risen by 180,000. That is because the Conservatives in government have safeguarded the economy. As a result—my hon. Friend asks about public services—there are more doctors and more nurses in his hospitals, because you can only have strong public services when you have the strong and stable leadership that delivers a strong economy.
I think what this nation needs is a strong and stable Government. But is it not the case that thanks to devolution, we will not only have—I hope—strong and stable government after the general election, but strong and stable leadership in the west midlands if the right choice is made on 4 May?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, because on 4 May, people in the west midlands have the opportunity to elect a strong local leader who will oversee £8 billion of investment. In Andy Street, I think that they have absolutely the man who has the local knowledge, the business experience, and the commitment to the west midlands to deliver for the whole west midlands. Of course, on 8 June, people in the west midlands will then have the opportunity to elect the strong and stable leadership of a Conservative Government. Working together, strong Conservative leadership in the west midlands and strong Conservative leadership in government will deliver for the west midlands.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
In 2015, a group called the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory incredulously drew up a plan to disband MI5, disarm the police and scrap our nuclear deterrent. Would my right hon. Friend allow anyone who endorsed such a plan to write her manifesto or, indeed, serve in her Cabinet?
My answer to that is a resounding no, I would not. I commend my hon. Friend, who has a proud record of defending our country. He raises an important point because, of course, the Leader of the Opposition has chosen just such a person. The plan to disband MI5, disarm our police and scrap our nuclear deterrent was endorsed by the right hon. Gentleman’s policy chief and even by his shadow Chancellor. At the weekend, we saw the right hon. Gentleman again refusing to say that he would strike against terrorism, refusing to commit to our nuclear deterrent and refusing to control our borders. Keeping our country safe is the first duty of a Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman is simply not up to the job.
This is the last Prime Minister’s Question Time of this Parliament, so I think it would be appropriate if we all paid tribute to those colleagues who have decided to leave the House. I thank them for their service to democracy in this country. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for the way in which you have presided over this House and sought to reach out to the wider communities in this country.
When I became Leader of the Opposition 18 months ago—[Hon. Members: “More!”] If Conservative Members wait a moment, I will explain what I am about to say. When I became Leader of the Opposition, I said that I wanted people’s voices to be heard in Parliament, so instead of just speaking to hand-picked audiences who cannot ask questions, I hope the Prime Minister will not mind answering some questions from the public today. I start with Christopher, who wrote to me this week to say, “In the last five years, my husband has had only a 1% increase in his wages. The cost of living has risen each year. We now have at least 15% less buying power than then.” Where is Christopher and his husband’s share in the stronger economy?
May I first join the right hon. Gentleman in commending those colleagues who are leaving the House for the service they have shown to their constituents and to Parliament over the years? I also say a huge thank you to the staff of the House of Commons and of Parliament who support us in the work that we do in this Chamber and elsewhere.
By the way, I note that the right hon. Gentleman did not take the opportunity to stand up and say how he would actually stand up for the defence of our country. Once again, he missed that opportunity. I note what he is saying about wages increasing. I see today that he is talking about paying for extra wage increases in the national health service. First of all, we should recognise that around half of staff working in the national health service, because of progression and basic pay increases, will actually see, on average, a pay increase of 4%.
What we know, and what I can say to Christopher, is that he will have a choice at the next election between the strong and stable leadership of the Conservatives, which will secure our economy for the future, and a Labour party that would crash our economy, which would mean less money for public services, with ordinary working families paying the price.
Is not the truth that many people are being held back by this Government, who have slashed taxes for the rich, and held back or cut the pay of dedicated public servants?
Andy, a parent, is concerned about how his children are being held back. He asks why, “despite the fact they have worked consistently since leaving school, all three of my children, who are now in their mid-20s, cannot afford to move out of the family home.” Is this not a crisis that many people are facing all over the country? Do we not need a housing strategy that deals with it?
First of all, let us look and see what happened under a Labour Government on housing. Under the last Labour Government, house building starts fell by 45%. Under the last Labour Government, house purchases in England fell by 40%. The number of social rented homes under a Labour Government fell by 420,000. Under the Conservatives, we have seen more than twice as much council housing being built than under the last Labour Government. That is the record of a Conservative Government delivering on housing and delivering for ordinary working families.
The last Labour Government delivered a decent homes standard for every council home in the whole country, and it is something we are proud of—we are very proud indeed of that achievement. Under the Prime Minister’s Government, house building has fallen to the lowest level since the 1920s. More people homeless, more people on waiting lists, more people overcrowded, more people unable to pay the rent—that is the record of the Tory Government.
Our children are being held back by Conservative cuts. Laura, a young primary school teacher, wrote to me this week to say, “I’m seeing a decrease each year in available cash to provide a quality education to the children in my class and an increase in reliance upon our parent teachers association.” Is the Prime Minister still denying the fact that funding for each pupil is still being cut?
What I would say to Laura is that we said we would protect school budgets, and we have. We have seen record levels of funding going into schools in this country. At the election on 8 June, people are going to have a very clear choice. They will have a choice between a Conservative Government that have delivered 1.8 million more good and outstanding school places for children across this country, and that believe in parents having choice with a range of schools providing the education that is right for every child and a good school place for every child, and a Labour party under the right hon. Gentleman. He believes in “one size fits all; take everybody down to the lowest common denominator; take it or leave it”; we believe in encouraging aspiration and helping people to get on in their lives.
Labour is not slashing school budgets. Labour is not putting money into pet projects. We want every child—every child—to have a decent chance in a decent school. We do not want an education system that relies on begging letters from schools to maintain employment and books in the classroom.
Many people feel that the system is rigged against them. Maureen wrote to me this week—[Interruption.] I say to Conservative Members that if I was you, I would listen to what Maureen has to say—I really would—because she writes, with a heavy heart, “We have been treated disgustingly. Most of us women born in the 1950s will not be receiving our pension until we are 66, with no notification of this drastic change. We have worked for 45 years and have accrued more than enough to be paid our pension. People want what is rightfully theirs.” Maureen asks, “What can be done to help the WASPI women?”
What I would say on the issue that Maureen has raised is that the Government have taken steps to help these women. Extra funding has been made available and we have ensured that there is a limit to the period of time that is affected in relation to these changes. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about pensions and pensioners looking to the future, then once again there will be a very clear choice at this election—a clear choice between a Labour party that in government saw an increase to the basic state pension of 75p in one year, and a Conservative Government whose changes to pensions mean that basic state pensioners are £1,250 better off. But you only get that with a strong economy, and what do we know about Labour? Only yesterday, we saw that we had finally emerged from Labour’s economic crash. What we now see is a Labour party that would do it again: crash the economy, more debt, more waste, higher taxes, fewer jobs. That does nothing for ordinary working families or for pensioners.
Millions of WASPI women will have heard that answer, as they will have heard the other questions I have put that have not been answered today. I simply say this: Labour will guarantee the triple lock. Labour will treat pensioners with respect and we will not move the goalposts for people looking forward to retirement.
Sybil, who witnessed the Labour founding of the national health service, which made healthcare available for the many, not just the few, wrote to me this week, and she says, “I am 88 and have had a wonderful service from the national health service, but nowadays I am scared at the thought of going into hospital.” With more people waiting more than four hours in A&E, more people waiting on trolleys in corridors, and more delayed discharges thanks to the Tory cuts, is not Sybil right to be frightened about the future of our NHS so long as this Government remain in office?
Let me just say to the right hon. Gentleman that our national health service is now treating more patients than ever before. We are seeing more people having operations; we are seeing more doctors, more nurses, more midwives, more GPs, and record levels of funding in our national health service. But that is only possible with a strong economy and only possible with a strong and stable Government. Of course, over the coming weeks we are all going to be out there campaigning across the country, as I will be, on our record on the national health service.
I noted this week that the shadow Home Secretary has been campaigning in her own personal way. She has directed her supporters—her followers—to a website called “I Like Corbyn, But…” which asks:
“how will he pay for all this?”
“But”. It also says:
“I heard he wants to increase taxes”.
“I’ve heard he’s a terrorist sympathiser”.
“his attitudes about defence worry me”.
“But”. They are right to be worried. Unable to defend our country; determined to raise tax on ordinary workers; no plan to manage our economy: even his own supporters know he is not fit to run this country.
My question was about the national health service and Sybil’s concerns. The NHS has not got the money it needs; the Prime Minister knows that. She knows that waiting times and waiting lists are up; she knows there is a crisis in almost every A&E department. Maybe she could go to a hospital and allow the staff to ask her a few questions.
Strong leadership is about standing up for the many, not the few, but the Prime Minister and the Conservatives only look after the richest, not the rest. They are strong against the weak and weak against the strong. Far from building a strong economy, schools and our NHS are being cut, people cannot afford homes, and millions cannot make ends meet. That does not add up to a stronger economy for anyone. The election on 8 June is a choice between a Conservative Government for the few and a Labour Government who will stand up for all of our people.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the NHS, perhaps he should talk about Labour’s custodianship of the NHS in Wales. There is somewhere that the NHS has been cut, and that is in Wales under the Labour party.
The right hon. Gentleman is right: in something over six weeks we will be back at these Dispatch Boxes. The only question is: where will we be standing? Who will be Prime Minister of this great country? He says that the choice is clear, and it is. Every vote for him is a vote for a chaotic Brexit; every vote for me is a vote to strengthen our hand in negotiating the best deal for Britain. Every vote for him is a vote to weaken our economy; every vote for me is a vote for a strong economy with the benefits felt by everyone across the country. Every vote for him is a vote for a coalition of chaos, a weak leader propped up by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists; every vote for me is a vote for strong and stable leadership in the national interest, building a stronger and more secure future for this country.
Order. The exchanges between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have been unprecedentedly comprehensive. We wish to hear questions from Back Benchers.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that he has been campaigning tirelessly on that issue on behalf of his constituents. I understand that Highways England is already considering a number of options to divert traffic away from Bath, as he suggests. Of course, it is this Conservative Government who have increased annual Government infrastructure investment, but that is only possible with a strong economy, which is only possible with a strong and stable Conservative leadership. A vote for any other party is a vote for wrecking our economy and for a coalition of chaos, which would do nothing for my hon. Friend’s constituents, for whom I hope he will continue to be able to work tirelessly.
Will the Prime Minister give a clear and unambiguous commitment to maintaining the triple lock on the state pension?
I have been very clear that under this Conservative Government we have seen pensioners benefit to the tune of £1,250 a year, as a result of what we have done to the basic state pension, and I am clear that under a Conservative Government pensions and incomes will continue to increase.
I asked the Prime Minister a pretty simple yes/no question and she failed to answer it, so pensioners right across this land are right to conclude that this Tory Prime Minister plans to ditch the triple lock on the state pension. Too many women already face pensions inequality, and the Tories will not even guarantee the pensions triple lock. The only reason they will not do so is that they want to cut pensions. Is not the message to pensioners: you cannot trust this Prime Minister or the Tories with your pension?
I say to everybody, as I have just said, that the party that has, in government, improved the lot of pensioners across this country is the Conservative party. Under a Conservative Government, pensioner incomes would continue to increase. The right hon. Gentleman talks about inequality for women. The change in the structure of the state pension introduced by this Government is going to improve the lot of female pensioners in the future; it is going to be much better for them. One thing that pensioners in Scotland will know, as will other voters in Scotland, is that if they believe in the Union, there is only one way to vote, and that is Conservative.
My hon. Friend has raised this issue with me previously, and I know that he has been a tireless campaigner on it. He has been a strong voice for his local constituency and he has put his case persuasively to Ministers. He is absolutely right: Labour’s disastrous PFI deals are costing the NHS more than £1 billion every year. The choice at the election will be clear. Do the people of Colne Valley want his strong voice for their local A&E, and the ear of a strong Conservative Government who are continuing to keep our economy strong and investing in our national health service, or do they want the Leader of the Opposition and his coalition of chaos—less money for our public services, less money for our national health service, fewer doctors, fewer nurses and worse healthcare for our constituents?
I believe that the hon. Gentleman is standing down at the election, and he has said that that is due to his “significant and irreconcilable differences” with the leadership of his party. [Interruption.]
Order. I am trying to help Back Benchers to be heard. Please help the Chair to help Back-Bench Members.
What is important for the steel industry in this country is that this Government have taken action to support it. I was very pleased, when I visited Wales yesterday, to be able to visit a company that works with the steel industry galvanising steel products. The company talked about the greater amount of work that it is seeing and the improvements in the steel industry. This Conservative Government have taken steps to support the steel industry and will continue to do so.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on this issue. I know that she has been a strong campaigner and a strong champion for her constituents in Cheadle. I can assure her that we are very clear that the green belt must be protected. What we have set out in the White Paper is that boundaries should be altered only when local authorities have fully examined all other reasonable options, such as making use of brownfield sites, as she herself has suggested. I know there was a great deal of interest in the consultation on the Greater Manchester spatial framework. I commend my hon. Friend for the work she did to gather the views of her constituents in Cheadle, and I am sure that those views will be taken into account as the response is developed.
First, the hon. Lady is right to raise this issue of the announcement from Nestlé, which arose, as she says, only yesterday. We should be clear that Nestlé has itself been clear that this is not a decision that was affected by leaving the European Union—it says it has made it irrespective of that—but of course it is a worrying time for the workers and their families at Nestlé in both York and Newcastle. I can assure her that we are already in contact with the company to understand its plans and the next steps. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary will speak with senior Nestlé representatives later today. The Department for Work and Pensions of course stands ready to put in place its rapid response service to support any workers made redundant by helping them back into employment as quickly as possible, and there are various ways in which Jobcentre Plus can help. What is important is that we ensure that the support is there, and as I have said, the Business Secretary will be speaking to Nestlé representatives later today.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has of course, since his fantastic, historic election in Gower, been a really powerful voice for his constituents, but also, indeed, for the needs of Wales more generally. I have already referred to the fact that I was in Wales yesterday, and had the opportunity to speak to people in business and to meet voters and hear their concerns, but my hon. Friend goes absolutely to the heart of the matter when he says that what is necessary is a good Brexit deal. That is crucial for businesses, it is crucial for jobs and it is only achievable by a strong and stable Government. Every vote for me and the Conservatives, and for Conservative candidates at local level, will strengthen our hand in those negotiations.
This is an incredibly sensitive issue, and that is why we have looked at it very carefully. We consulted very carefully on it, and we have put in place a series of sensitive measures for when such cases arise. I think it is important, however, that we look at what lies behind this, because underpinning this policy is a principle of fairness, and we know that what the SNP want to do is actually to scrap the policy in its entirety. We believe that people who are in work have to make the same decisions as those people who are out of work, so that people who are on benefits should have to decide whether they can afford more children, just as people in work have to make such a decision.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. We have been able to invest in York, with £1.6 million this year for transport improvements, £2.2 million for highways maintenance and £1.3 million to support the sustainable i-Travel York initiative, but we can invest in infrastructure only if we have the strong and stable leadership that secures a strong economy. That is what the choice in June will be. It is very clear: a strong economy, guaranteeing investment in York and across the country under the Conservatives, or bankruptcy and chaos with Labour.
I recognise that a number of hon. Members have raised concerns about this issue. We did indeed have the consultation and there will be a Government response to it. Of course, that response—[Interruption.] “Get on with it,” we are told. We are now in a situation where these things will be published after the purdah period and after the general election, so the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait for that response. Obviously we recognise the concern over this issue and we will respond in due course.
I thank my hon. Friend. I think I will be visiting communities around the whole country over the next few weeks. I congratulate the staff at Milton Keynes university hospital on achieving that rating. As my hon. Friend said, it was backed up by considerable investment. As we know, between 2015 and 2020 more than half a trillion pounds is being spent on the NHS in England. That is only possible because we have safeguarded the economy over the past seven years. As I have said previously today, that will only be possible in the future if we secure the strong and stable leadership our country needs. As I said, in Wales Labour has been cutting the health budget.
Order. The hon. Gentleman has got his point across with considerable force.
It is perfectly possible that I will find myself in Southampton over the coming weeks. As I have said before in this House, there is general agreement that the current funding formula is not fair. Labour did nothing in 13 years of government to address that. It is important that we get it right and we will respond to the consultation in due course. What is good news for schools in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is that 7,000 more children are now in good or outstanding schools in his constituency. Under our proposed reforms, overall funding for schools in his constituency would rise.
As he steps down after 44 years’ service in the House, I call Sir Alan Haselhurst.
Will my right hon. Friend assure me that her second Government will have high regard for matters of great concern to the Saffron Walden constituency, namely improved railways with extra track capacity, in line with the West Anglia and Great Eastern taskforce reports; the spread of fast broadband to rural communities; and an airspace regime that prioritises noise reduction?
May I first pay tribute to my right hon. Friend not just for his service to his constituents over the years, but for his service to the House when he took the Chair as Deputy Speaker? He has been a stalwart and a champion of the people of Saffron Walden over the years—for 40 years, as you said, Mr Speaker.
My right hon. Friend is right to raise issues of infrastructure spending. We included £40 million for the east of England in the Budget, but, as I think he implied in his question, such spending is only possible with the strong economy that comes from a strong and stable Government, and for Saffron Walden that will mean the election of a Conservative Government on 8 June.
We want to ensure that we have a system that properly assesses people who apply for benefits. As the hon. Gentleman has said, and as other Members will know, there have been issues relating to the way in which the system has operated. The Department for Work and Pensions has been looking very carefully at it to ensure that it makes proper assessments and delivers the right results for people.
Does my right hon. Friend realise that I am standing down after 34 years because of her? I am standing down because I am confident that the country will be safe after the election under her strong and stable leadership. Does she agree that seizing the opportunities presented by regaining control over our laws, our money, our borders and our trade will be more important than the terms of any exit deal and that, if we are to secure a reasonable deal, we must accept that no deal is indeed better than a bad deal? To deny this signals that no price is too high, no concession too grovelling to accept—a recipe for the worst possible deal.
I wish my right hon. Friend, all hon. Members and this House I love Godspeed.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the tremendous contribution that he has made throughout his years as a Member of the House, not only on behalf of his constituents but during his time as a valued Minister in a Conservative Government. He has rightly highlighted the importance of the decision that was made last year by the people of the United Kingdom, and I commend him for the role that he played in the referendum campaign.
It is right that we get on with the job of delivering Brexit and making a success of it, which means having a strong hand in negotiations. The only way to ensure that that is the case—for the people of Hitchin and Harpenden and for the whole UK—is to ensure that a Conservative Government is elected on 8 June.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is, of course, important for the constituents who elect Members of Parliament to feel that those Members of Parliament are able to do their job—to bring their concerns to the House and to play a full part in the Chamber. The right hon. Gentleman is also right to stress that we want to ensure that every part of the United Kingdom has a strong voice, which is why it is so important that we continue to work for the restoration of the devolved Administration of Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister has shown considerable leadership in adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. Does she believe that it is the duty of all party leaders in the house not just to pay lip service to it, but to do something about it, and does she share my disgust that a former Member of this House, criticised by the Home Affairs Committee for his anti-Semitic utterances, is now the official candidate in Bradford East—for the Liberal Democrats?
May I first pay tribute to my right hon. Friend—my chum in this House—for all the service he has given, and not just for his service in this House: he had a considerable record in local government before he came into this House? He has also in his time and the work he has done on anti-Semitism performed a very important role: he has had a relentless drive to stamp out anti-Semitism and, indeed, intolerance in all its forms in our communities, and he should be proud of his record and the work that I know he will continue to do as a champion on this issue.
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight Bradford—of course, he has a particular knowledge of that city—and I think that people will be rightly disappointed to see the Liberal Democrats readopt a candidate with a questionable record on anti-Semitism. It is important that all parties maintain the strongest possible censure of all forms of intolerance and send that message to our communities.
In the nine months that the Prime Minister has held office, she has closed the door on desperate child refugees and ignored the plight of those suffering under the crisis in health and social care, and she is responsible for the shameful rape clause. Twenty years ago, she berated the Conservative party for being the “nasty party”, but her party has never been nastier. The legacy of this Parliament—[Interruption.]
Order. Whatever the strength of feeling, the hon. Gentleman must be heard.
The legacy of this Parliament is the utter, abject failure of Her Majesty’s official Opposition to effectively hold her Government account for any of this. Is it not time that Britain had a strong, decent, new Opposition?
First, let me pick up the point the hon. Gentleman made on child refugees. This Government have a proud record on supporting refugees from Syria. We have been the second biggest bilateral donor to the region, to support millions of refugees and educate children, as I saw when I visited Jordan recently, and of course we have also supported some of the most vulnerable refugees, including children, by bringing them here to make a new life in the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman talks about a decent Opposition; I find it difficult to hear those words coming from his mouth when we have just heard that his party has selected a candidate with questionable views on anti-Semitism.
It has been an immense privilege to serve the people of Cannock and Burntwood and of Aldershot for the past 34 years. I arrived here in 1983, when one formidable and determined female Conservative Prime Minister was transforming the country’s economic fortunes, and I depart as another is determined to restore to this country the status of a sovereign nation state embracing the rest of the world. As I, too, bid my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister Godspeed for a resounding victory on 8 June, may Aldershot make one final plea in these troubled times: please will she ensure that Her Majesty’s armed forces are properly funded, manned, equipped and housed to defend and protect the people of this glorious sceptred isle, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
Once again, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he has done in this House representing two different constituencies over 34 years? One of the underlying themes of his time in this House has been his passionate championing of, and consideration for, our armed forces, and I can assure him that on 8 June people will have a very clear choice between the Leader of the Opposition, who refuses to defend our country, and a Conservative Government who will continue to support our armed forces.
May I ask the Prime Minister why she is running scared of the televised leadership debates? May I suggest that she hold a televised debate in the Easington colliery miners welfare centre, where she can see the consequences of seven years of her policies on housing, of the cuts to policing and of 500 people at Walker’s losing their jobs? Perhaps she could then explain to the people there, if that is possible, why she has any mandate to seek their support for re-election.
I have been in televised debates with the Leader of the Opposition week in and week out since I took over as Prime Minister, and I will be taking the fine record of this Conservative Government across all parts of this country. The hon. Gentleman talks about housing. Twice the number of council houses were built under the Conservatives as were built under Labour. There has been record funding for our national health service and our schools, and pensioners on the basic state pension are £1,250 a year better off. That is the proud record of the Conservatives and a record that we will continue after 8 June.
It is good to be back—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] To be honest, it is good to be anywhere. Doctors and nurses at Russells Hall hospital saved my life in January, but each year in the UK, 44,000 people are less lucky. Will my right hon. Friend look at what measures we can take to reduce deaths from sepsis, including awareness raising, a national registry to properly record the burden of sepsis and effective commissioning levers to incentivise best practice? The UK Sepsis Trust estimates that such measures would save 50,000 lives over the next Parliament.
It is fantastic to see my hon. Friend back in his place. I hope that he will have noted the welcome that he got from across the House. He is absolutely right to bring our focus on to the devastating condition of sepsis. Every death from it is a tragedy, but as we know, something like 10,000 deaths a year could be avoided through prevention, early diagnosis and treatment. We need to get better at spotting sepsis across the NHS, and the Department of Health is already beginning work on a new sepsis action plan. We are having a new public awareness campaign and we expect a NICE quality standard to be published later this year. With the passion that my hon. Friend now brings to this campaign, I am sure that he will continue to make his voice heard on this important issue.
Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham)—who will be much missed in this House—had a debate on contaminated blood, in which he called for an independent, Hillsborough-style panel to get to the truth. The Prime Minister has praised the independent panel approach as a way to open up the door to justice, so will she join Labour and the Scottish National party in committing to setting up such a process in her party’s manifesto?
Last July, we committed £125 million of extra funding for those affected by the contaminated blood tragedy of the ’70s and ’80s. That is more than any previous Government have provided. We published some proposed reforms last year, and we are now consulting on a new measure to allow the people affected to benefit from higher annual payments, but I can reassure everybody that everyone will receive, at a minimum, what they receive now as a result of the proposed changes. The Department of Health will respond to the consultation in due course.
It was a privilege to win back the seat of Upminster in 2001 for the Conservatives. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House why the good people of Hornchurch and Upminster should continue to vote Conservative at the coming election?
First, I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the contribution that she has made, not just for her constituents but in the time she served in the Whips Office in this House, for example. I am happy to tell the voters of Hornchurch and Upminster that every vote for me and the local Conservative candidate will strengthen our hand in the Brexit negotiations to get the best deal for this country, every vote for me and the local Conservative candidate will be a vote for a stronger economy and every vote for me and the local Conservative candidate will be a vote for a strong and stable leadership in the national interest, compared with the coalition of chaos that we would see under the Labour party.
What assurances can the Prime Minister give to the 3.8 million people who voted UKIP at the last election that if she is Prime Minister after 8 June, the United Kingdom will become a sovereign country again, living under our own Parliament and making our own laws?
I will give an assurance to all those people who voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union—and to all people across the country, regardless of how they voted, who now want to see this Government getting on with the job of Brexit and making a success of it—that we want to see control of our borders, control of our laws and control of our money, and that that is what we will deliver.
In wishing the right hon. Gentleman all the best for the future, I call Sir Simon Burns.
Mr Speaker, may I thank you for that? May I tell my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that, for 30 years, I have had the privilege and the honour to represent the great people of Chelmsford? May I tell her that the great people of Chelmsford are perspicacious and that they have always wanted a Government who provide strong defences, a strong economy and strong leadership? May I also tell her that it is the Conservative party under her strong leadership that will deliver for this country for the next five years?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the significant contribution that he has made for his constituents in Chelmsford, in this House and in government over his period of time here. He is absolutely right to say that his constituents will be looking for strong defences, a strong economy and the strong leadership that will build a more secure future for this country, and it is only a Conservative Government that can provide that.
In this Brexit world, the Prime Minister is desperate to obtain trade deals with anybody or nobody, so the International Trade Secretary went to the Philippines this month, where he appeared with the President and said that he wanted a strong relationship based on “shared values”. Can the Prime Minister identify for the House what shared values she has in common with President Rodrigo Duterte?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that, as we leave the European Union, we want to ensure that we are a truly global Britain and that we have trade deals around the rest of the world. The reason that we want those trade deals—as well as the strong, secure, deep and special partnership with the European Union on trade—is so that we can ensure prosperity across the whole of this country and jobs for ordinary working families.
Order. I will now take points of order. [Interruption.] We will come to points of order in a moment, but right hon. and hon. Members deserve an attentive audience. If, inexplicably, some right hon. and hon. Members are leaving the Chamber, perhaps they could do so quickly and quietly.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Because Question 1 was closed, there was no opportunity to follow up that particular point about the west midlands. Is it possible to put it on the record that, if there had been an opportunity, Labour Members—certainly I and other hon. Members from the west midlands—would have restated that public services have been crippled in the west midlands as a result of the Tory cuts? That should be said, as there was no opportunity to respond to the Prime Minister’s answer.
The hon. Gentleman has made his point with force. It will be recorded in the Official Report and may then, if he so wishes, be more widely disseminated.
I am saving up the hon. Gentleman.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You and I are familiar with the syndrome of pre-election tension that afflicts this place. You are concerned for the wellbeing of Members, particularly the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney), but I believe that what we have seen today is a sudden outbreak of parliamentary Tourette’s. The rumour is that something known as a “Crosby chip” has been implanted in the brains of Conservative Members that compels them to say “strong and stable” every 18 seconds and “coalition of chaos” every 38 seconds. Can we inquire into whether the affliction is permanent or one that can be cured?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I am not sure it is a matter for the Chair. I can only say, I think without fear of contradiction, that in my time in this place I have never been pre-programmed, or otherwise, by anyone.
You used to be quite different from the way you are today.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to raise a serious point. You rightly referred earlier to today’s Order Paper, which commemorates two Members of this House who were killed in the first world war—that is the right thing for us to do. This short Parliament has seen two members of our community killed: Jo Cox, our colleague, and Keith Palmer, who was defending us. I am sure the whole House would want to add their thanks to those expressed earlier to all the police officers who work on the estate.
Jo Cox will have a shield up in the Chamber by the time the next Parliament gathers. No Parliament can bind its successors, but it seems to me and, I think, to quite a lot of Members on both sides of the House, wholly appropriate that Keith Palmer should also have a shield up in the Chamber. He was not a Member of Parliament, but he was one of us. He was our shield and defender. Surely if there are any voices out there who say that this Chamber should just be for Members, those voices should be rejected. There must be a permanent reminder of what Keith did for us.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, of which I had no advance notice—I make no complaint whatsoever about that. It is right that these matters should be considered by a number of people, and it would be wrong and disrespectful to other individuals who should be consulted for me simply to say, “Yes, it’s going to happen.” Am I, however, entirely open to the hon. Gentleman’s proposition? I most certainly am. Not all precedents in every matter have to be observed. There is scope for innovation; otherwise nothing would ever change. Keith Palmer will always have a very special and perhaps unique hold on the affections and respect of Members of this House, so I think that that discussion can continue. Perhaps I can most appropriately say, having heard the hon. Gentleman’s view and having expressed a response not unsympathetic, that I would be interested to hear the views of my parliamentary colleagues. I am absolutely up for doing just that.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I certainly agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) in that respect.
I am mystified by the point of order from the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), who said that there was no opportunity to follow up on a closed question. There was an opportunity; he just did not take it. Surely he can stand and, depending on whether he catches your eye, Mr Speaker, be called on a closed question. It is just that the follow-up must relate to the substantive question on the Order Paper.
That is correct. I do not want to have a long debate about this. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) was standing. I did not seek to call a supplementary on the closed question. The Chair makes a judgment about the best means by which to progress the business of the House and to maximise the opportunities for participation at Question Times in general and at the heavily subscribed Prime Minister’s Question Time in particular. I had, of course, given thought to that matter in advance, and I decided that I would move from the closed question to the engagements question from Mr Richard Drax. Believe me, I had made the mental calculations about numbers, and I think it was the right judgment.
There was not an opportunity on the closed question. More widely, I would simply say that colleagues might have noticed that, on this occasion and conscious of the very large number of people wanting to contribute, I ran proceedings on somewhat longer than normal. There is no debate offering the opportunity for valedictory speeches at the end of this Parliament, as there was at the end of the last Parliament. I make no complaint about that; I am simply saying that there is to be, as I understand it, no such opportunity. I thought that the mood of today was that as many Members as could reasonably be called should be called, perhaps particularly, although not exclusively, with regard to those who have announced their intention to leave the House. We ran on a bit, to which I reply, “So what?”
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. In order that there should be no misunderstanding, because the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) gave the strong impression that I was not standing, I was desperately trying to catch your eye. If I may say so, the right hon. Gentleman and I have all the differences in the world, I am sure, but I have always looked on him as a person of integrity. I would be most grateful if he would clarify the position.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I confess that I was not looking at the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) at the time. I accept entirely that he was standing, so I withdraw my earlier comment.
Very gracious. We have it on the record that the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) was standing and seeking to catch my eye.
And you didn’t call him.
Well, I did call 35 Members. I will take one further point of order—[Interruption.] Order. We really then ought to proceed.
The hon. Gentleman has had a good crack today, but we will give him another go.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I merely want to correct the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who I think was referring to me when he mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney). Of course I am Lichfield. Although there has been considerable speculation about what might be on my head, a chip is not one of them.
It is very reassuring to have a bit of additional information. Head inspection, so far as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) is concerned, may be available to Members, but it is not available to those who observe our proceedings from elsewhere. I do not want them to feel excluded.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure I speak for my colleagues who are standing down when I thank you very much for allowing us the opportunity to express our appreciation for the honour our constituents have done us and to the Prime Minister for staying as long as she did. As you know, I have always been a staunch supporter of maintaining conventions, but on this occasion your stretching of the convention was rather a good idea. Thank you very much.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. We have known each other a long time, and I wish him all the best for the future.
Construction Industry (Protection of Cash Retentions)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to safeguard, and for the release of, cash retentions in the construction industry; and for connected purposes.
When I secured this ten-minute rule Bill slot, I genuinely hoped it was going to be the start of new legislation, but unfortunately the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) was apparently so scared of what I was proposing that she called a general election. [Laughter.] Joking apart, this topic is very important.
A cash retention is the deduction of a portion of an agreed value of a contract—in effect, a cash bond. That cash is withheld by the main contractor to cover any snagging defects in an agreed maintenance period of one or two years. Usually the subcontractor will remedy defects at their own cost, as per the contractual terms and conditions, with the expectation of the retention being released promptly at the end of the contract period. That is where problems arise, when the retentions are not released in a timely manner, for various reasons—even worse, they may not be released at all.
The most common reason for non-release is a company going into liquidation, and so, for example, a Wirral-based company lost £240,000 over a five- year period due to insolvencies. A Scottish plumbing firm has lost £150,000 of retentions over five years, which is a huge amount for a small or medium-sized enterprise—SME. We must also bear in mind that Scottish plumbers have also been hit by the Pensions Act 1995, with the section 75 multi-employer pension debt issue. Some company owners are already at risk of personal insolvency, so the retentions issue is just another distraction that is not required. One SME steelwork contractor with an annual turnover of £3 million has retentions of £150,000, which is 0.5% of turnover. Given how low profit margins can be at the downstream end of the construction industry, that is a considerable sum.
Having worked in the construction industry, I understand the origins of the retention system and, to be fair, I also know how hard it sometimes can be to get a subcontractor back on site to address snagging issues. The reason for that is often that they have moved on to another job and so the resources are not immediately available. That said, it is seldom that subcontractors would not fulfil their obligations, and so when they do so they expect the money to be released when it is due to them. If they comply, why should they not receive the money in a timely manner? I ask the House: why, in the 21st century, are we dealing with unprotected cash retentions?
The loss of cash retentions comes with a human loss attached. According to the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, a survey of SMEs found 25% stating that a debt of
“£20,000 or less is enough to jeopardise their business prospects.”
As I have highlighted, retention losses are often much higher than £20,000, which means: thousands of jobs lost or facing an uncertain future; fewer opportunities to recruit new apprentices and for companies to invest in training; and a risk of individual bankruptcies following calls by banks on directors’ personal guarantees to pay off loans.
This Government continually acknowledge a productivity problem in the UK, yet we have smaller companies struggling with cash flow, stressed and having to put man hours into chasing up these cash retentions. Surely resolving this issue can only improve productivity, in terms not just of the man hours saved through not having to chase up the retentions, but of money released for investment in new equipment or job creation, which will further improve productivity. The issue of late payments has been understood by this Government, with action taken, but the release of retentions is the missing link in this payment chain and action has yet to be taken on it. To further illustrate the seriousness of this, I point out that in 2015 small firms across the UK lost almost £50 million-worth of retentions because of insolvencies up the supply chain. That money could have been re-invested, and a client somewhere along the line has to pay for the lost revenue. Approximately £3 billion-worth of retention moneys are withheld at any one time. I repeat that this can affect productivity, cash flow and profits.
In addition, the uncertainty of retention release means that banks do not allow borrowing against sums due to companies. That is not a new issue; it has been known about for a long period. The Banwell report, prepared for a Government 53 years ago, recommended the abolition of retentions, and 23 years ago the Latham report, a joint construction industry and government report, recommended that cash retentions should be at least protected in a trust account. We operate a tenancy deposit scheme to protect individuals in the private renting sector, yet for some reason there has still been no will on the part of Governments to do something with these construction “deposits”.
In 2002 and 2008, the Business Select Committee recommended phasing out cash retentions because they were outdated and unfair to small firms. When this issue was raised in a debate in Westminster Hall in January 2016, the Minister confirmed that there would be an evidence-based review, to be completed by the end of that year. I was a member of the Enterprise Bill Committee when we were told:
“It is fair to say that there is absolute cross-party agreement about the need to reform cash retentions in the construction industry. I am very open about it: I think they are outdated and I do not think they are fair. They are particularly unfair to small businesses.”
When I challenged the Minister about timescales, she told me:
“the hon. Gentleman can be assured that this Minister gives absolutely her word that this matter is not going to be kicked into any long grass. In fact it is very short grass, which has only just grown, because the review will be completed by March and then recommendations will go out to public consultation. If legislation is required as a result of that consultation, I will be happy to be the Minister to take that through.”––[Official Report, Enterprise Public Bill Committee, 9 February 2016; c. 47-48.]
Here we are in April 2017, the process has been kicked back all this year and now we have a general election, which will cause further delay. We are not just in long grass, but in long grass growing out of a sea of mud. Worse still, it is rumoured that the consultation which has been completed will be consulted on again, so we can now assume that any new Government will not move on this until after the summer recess. I plead for consideration of suitable secondary legislation to be enacted early in the new Session, whoever the new Government may be.
I have been contacted by companies in my constituency affected by the late release or non-release of retentions. One company, which wished to remain anonymous, would not name the company it had been having difficulty with, because it still has to tender for more work from the company withholding the money and so does not want to upset it. That is how that market share operates. I pay tribute to the Specialist Engineering Contractors Group, SNIPEF—the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers Federation—the National Federation of Roofing Contractors and the Builders Merchants Federation, which have been proactive in raising these matters with me. Simply put, however, these organisations and companies are fed up with the blockages from the Government.
The Scottish Government have been operating a “Project Bank Accounts” system to ensure subcontractors get paid on time when the Government pay the main contractor. Such a system could be adapted to include retentions. As I mentioned, the tenancy deposit scheme is the model that should be adopted for retentions. This scheme could already have been in place had the UK Government accepted the proposed amendment to the Enterprise Bill. Instead, this year alone, we have seen examples of £720,000-worth of retentions lost when TAL Ltd in Northern Ireland went into liquidation in January this year. In an article in The Times in February, a Welsh bricklayer director was lamenting that
“main Contractors treat retentions as their own money”
and that it can take five years to get bills settled.
Retention moneys are ring-fenced in separate accounts, in compliance with legislation, in countries such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and certain EU member states. As I have outlined, we know what the problem is—it has existed for well over 50 years—we know that there is a solution that works, as it does in other countries, and the Government have acknowledged cross-party support for ending cash retentions. I have outlined today that this is a UK-wide issue that requires UK Government action, so I urge them to support the Bill. If I am lucky enough to be re-elected, I will continue to pursue this issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That Alan Brown, Hannah Bardell, Callum McCaig, Gavin Newlands, Stuart Blair Donaldson, Bill Esterson, Alison Thewliss, Patricia Gibson, Corri Wilson, Dr Philippa Whitford, Mark Durkan and David Simpson present the Bill.
Alan Brown accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May, and to be printed (Bill 174).
Business of the House
That the Order of 24 April 2017 (Business of the House (24, 25, 26 and 27 April) be varied as follows:
In paragraph (17)–
(a) after sub-paragraph (c) insert–
“(ca) proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) two hours after their commencement;
(cb) the Lords Amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill shall be considered in the following order: Nos. 1 to 12, 209, 210, 13 to 78, 106, 79 to 105, 107 to 208, 211 to 244;”, and
(b) in sub-paragraph (d), for “and (c)” substitute “to (ca)”.—(Heather Wheeler.)
Digital Economy Bill (Ways and Means)
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Digital Economy Bill, it is expedient to authorise the imposition of charges which are payable to the Information Commissioner.—(Matt Hancock.)
Digital Economy Bill
Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendments 248 to 254. If the House agrees to any of them, I will cause an appropriate entry to be made in the Journal.
Universal service broadband obligations
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to consider the following:
Government amendments (a) to (c) in lieu of Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendment 2, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
Lords amendments 3 to 39.
Lords amendment 40, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.
Lords amendments 41 to 236.
Lords amendment 237, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 238, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 239, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 240 and 241.
Lords amendment 242, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
Lords amendments 243 to 245.
Lords amendment 246, and Government amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 247 to 289.
I am delighted that today we have a final opportunity to scrutinise the Digital Economy Bill and, I hope, get it on to the statute book before the Dissolution of Parliament. The Bill has been widely supported during its passage and tackles head-on some serious issues that many in this House feel strongly about. It will help us to extend digital connectivity, protect children from online pornography and better deliver Government services. The other House has made some amendments to the Bill, so I shall go through them in turn.
Lords amendment 1 challenges the Government to be more ambitious on universal digital connectivity. The universal service obligation forms part of our plan to deliver better connectivity, helping to ensure that everyone gets decent broadband and no one is left behind. However, we have serious concerns about whether the amendment is deliverable. As drafted, it is counterproductive to the implementation of a USO, because of the risk of legal challenge and the delay that that would cause. We are legislating for the USO under the EU telecoms legislative framework, under which a USO is intended to ensure a baseline of services where a substantial majority has taken up the service but the market has not delivered, and where users are at risk of social exclusion.
According to Ofcom’s latest data, in 2016, take-up of ultrafast broadband with a download speed of 300 megabits per second and higher was less than 0.1%, so we are nowhere near being able to demonstrate that the majority of the population have access to full fibre with a download speed of 2 gigabits per second. We therefore cannot accept Lords amendment 1, and we are not in a position of a substantial majority having taken up superfast broadband. I do, however, support the ambition of better, faster, more reliable broadband, so the Government propose an amendment in lieu that requires any broadband USO to set a download speed of at least 10 megabits per second, and requires the Government to direct Ofcom to review the minimum download speed in the broadband USO once superfast take-up is 75%. That gives the assurance that any USO speed will be reconsidered once a substantial majority of subscribers are on superfast.
Lords amendment 2 seeks to tackle a number of issues relating to mobile phones and frustrations about the service we receive. I understand those frustrations—I represent a rural constituency, so am often subject to them—and the Bill is designed to address them through the new electronic communications code, new switching and information powers, the enabling of automatic compensation, and the strengthening of Ofcom’s hand in the interests of consumers. Lords amendment 2 is an understandable reaction to the faults in the market, but it is not the answer, for the following reasons.
First, the requirement to allow customers to roam is unclear, and there are doubts about whether it would work legally, as acknowledged by the Opposition Front-Bench team in the other place. Although superficially attractive, roaming is the wrong solution. It would stymie investment by operators—why would they improve their coverage when a competitor could reap the rewards as their customers roamed on to their network? By contrast, taking roaming off the table in 2014 locked in £5 billion of investment to improve the UK’s mobile infrastructure, and 4G coverage from all operators has grown from 29% to 72% in the past year.
Secondly, the Bill already has greater provision on switching than the Lords amendment would require. That provision concerns operators of all telecom services—including fixed line, broadband and pay TV—not just mobile phones. Ofcom is better placed to ensure that operators adhere to procedures that enable easy and quick switching, thereby compelling operators to improve the level of their service.
Thirdly, the Government intended to look into bill capping in the consumer rights Green Paper, and it is already offered by some providers. Although we cannot accept Lords amendment 2, we can see the benefits for consumers of being offered the choice to limit their bills and avoid bill shock. We have therefore put forward an amendment in lieu that requires providers to make sure that as well as new customers, those with existing contracts have the opportunity to place a limit on their bill. This will not affect any obligations regarding contacting the emergency services, be that by voice call or text message.
We agree with the spirit of Lords amendment 40 and the proposed code of practice for social media platform providers on online abuse. We take the harm caused by online abuse and bullying very seriously. We offer an alternative provision that we think will achieve the intended outcome and which will form part of our work in the next Parliament to tackle serious harms and online threats and improve internet safety. Our amendment in lieu will provide a code of practice that will help to protect the users of online services and set out the behaviour expected of social media companies. The code is intended to give guidance for how social media providers should respond to harmful behaviour such as bullying. Good work is being done by some companies to prevent the use of platforms for illegal purposes and, when it is reported to the police, potential criminal conduct will continue to be liable to investigation, as with any other offence. We already expect social media providers to work closely with law enforcement in relation to potential unlawful activity taking place on their sites.
Other uses of social media might be cruel, upsetting, or insulting, but nevertheless legal. More can be done to tackle online abuse, such as bullying, and the other serious issues that face our children and young people. The code will set out guidance about what social media providers should do in relation to conduct that is lawful but that is nonetheless distressing or upsetting. Our intention is that the guidance will address companies proportionately. The biggest social media companies have recently put in place some improvements to make their platforms safer, but we all agree that they still have some way to go, and the amendment in lieu will help to achieve that.
Lords amendments 237 to 239 would establish a BBC licence fee commission to make a recommendation on the level of the licence fee required to fund the BBC, for a full public consultation on the appropriate level of BBC funding. However, we do not believe it is right for an unelected body effectively to set tax rates. It is a long-established principle that the Government do not consult on the level of taxation, so the amendments are not only impractical but unnecessary.
Lords amendment 242 would extend the public service broadcasting prominence regime for TV to on-demand menus and platforms, and I know it is a favourite of the Opposition Front-Bench team. We recently consulted on this idea and concluded that we could see no compelling evidence to change the regime, but I understand the impulse behind the amendment—to ensure that PSB channels are readily available as technology changes. However, the technologies of broadcasting and internet-based on-demand viewing are completely different, and amendment 242 goes far beyond the current prominence regime because it would extend the regime to content originating from the non-PSB portfolio channels of the commercial PSBs. It also seeks to give absolute prominence to PSB content by removing Ofcom’s discretion in applying prominence rules, and to extend the current definition of an electronic programme guide to include smart TV interfaces, which manufacturers tell us would create the need for bespoke products for the UK market, putting up the cost of a television. Therefore, we cannot accept the amendment, but we do understand the strength of feeling in both Houses on this issue so we have tabled an amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 242 to place a new requirement on Ofcom to report on the ease of finding and accessing PSB content across all television platforms. If Ofcom’s report makes it clear that there is a problem in this area, and one that can be fixed only by legislation, then, assuming that this Government are returned in June, I can commit to bring forward that legislation as soon as possible.
Another area that has raised serious concern is secondary ticketing. I pay tribute to colleagues across this House for their work on this, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), who is in his place in a bright blue suit. Since this issue was last debated in the House, we have published our response to the Waterson review, accepting the recommendations in full; introduced Lords amendment 247 to provide the power for Government to introduce a criminal offence to stop the use of bots to purchase tickets in excess of the maximum specified; provided funding to the National Trading Standards for enforcement action; and facilitated the sector’s participation in cyber-security networks. The Competition and Markets Authority has launched an enforcement investigation into suspected breaches of consumer protection law in the online secondary ticketing market.
However, that was not enough. The noble Lords have also added Lords amendment 246 to the Bill, requiring ticket resellers to provide buyers with the ticket reference or booking number and any specific condition attached to the resale of the ticket. We agree in principle with the amendment. We do, however, have concerns over its practicality, and the provision relating to the restrictions on tickets duplicates existing provisions in the Consumer Rights Act 2015. Therefore, we have tabled our amendment to Lords amendment 246, requiring that any unique ticket number must be identified, which we intend to have the same effect. We will also continue to work with industry to reduce the risk of fraud or unwarranted cancellation of tickets. I hope that that satisfies my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty.
I also wish to say a few words about some of the amendments that we are proposing to accept on age verification for people accessing online pornography in part 3 of the Bill. This is a hugely important part of the Bill and has been welcomed across the House. Although the intention is to protect children, the scope of material for adults that the regulator can act against has prompted much debate. In the other place, we heard concerns that the current “prohibited material” definition may be going too far in the type of material that the regulator is able to block above and beyond the age verification requirements, and that would give the regulator extended powers of censorship beyond that originally envisaged in the Bill.
Our goal here is to ensure that children are prevented from accessing online pornography. Our amendment therefore redefines the scope of the material, taking an approach based on the definition of an “extreme pornographic image” in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. I can confirm that this does not change the definition of what is, and what is not, lawful for adults to view. In Lords amendment 45, we have made it absolutely clear that content behind age-verification controls can still be subject to criminal sanctions provided by existing legislation.
What is illegal offline is illegal online. Where material is criminal in nature and not hosted in the UK, the National Crime Agency’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre works with international partners through Interpol to address this material in that jurisdiction. As those who are interested in consuming this material are likely to be of interest to law enforcement, CEOP considers all aspects of illegal images of children as it is the appropriate body to tackle this issue. I recognise that, for many, the Digital Economy Bill represents unfinished business in reforming the law in this area. Our internet safety strategy, which is already under way, will look into the question of safety on the internet. We agree with Lords amendment 41, which requires the Secretary of State to produce a report on the impact and effectiveness of the new regulatory framework for online pornography. The amendment includes a requirement that the Secretary of State consults on the definitions used in the Bill.
The power for the regulator to direct internet service providers to block non-compliant sites is a significant step. The ISPs should take reasonable steps to block non-compliant sites when directed by the regulator to do so, but we should recognise that no solution is 100% effective.
I am delighted that we have been able to make this much progress in this Bill to protect children from harmful content online. I pay tribute to the work of many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Devizes (Claire Perry) and for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), the former Secretary of State, the Select Committee and others. I look forward to putting this Bill into action.
Let me turn now to the other amendments proposed by the other place. Lords amendment 46 fulfils our manifesto commitment, just in time, to enhance the public lending right by extending it so that authors of e-books and audio books have the right to receive payment from a Government fund for the remote lending of these books from public libraries across the UK.
Lords amendment 240 concerns children’s TV programming. We support children’s TV and have extended the tax relief for animation and high-end programmes to children’s TV. This amendment, which was proposed, and strongly supported, by Baroness Benjamin in the other place, empowers Ofcom to support children’s TV further if necessary.
Lords amendment 241 concerns the accessibility of on-demand programmes. We debated that on Report in this House last November. I pay tribute to Action on Hearing Loss as well as to the many hon. Members who have pressed this matter. Ofcom will now have the power to ensure that subtitles or other appropriate provision is put in place.
Lords amendment 243 concerns listed events. In the UK, the listed events regime operates to protect free-to-view access to the coverage of sports events with a national significance. This amendment will ensure that the regime is future-proofed as the way people watch TV changes with new technologies.
Lords amendment 244 creates a new power for the Secretary of State to set a strategy and policy statement relating to telecommunications, the management of radio spectrum and postal services, which Ofcom, as the regulator, will have regard to when carrying out its statutory duties. During the passage of this Bill, there has been debate on the state of the UK’s fibre networks, the ability to switch communication provider, the quality of business connectivity and other matters such as the universal service obligation, which are all vital to our future economy. This new measure will allow the Government to establish a clear policy direction on all these matters to ensure greater coherence in an increasingly complex and interlinked environment. I pay tribute to, and thank, Ofcom for the work that it has done supporting the passage of this Bill. It is an excellent regulator.
On Report in this House, we agreed that the parental control filters on internet connections are a very important tool in protecting children from harmful material online. I agreed to ensure that the Bill was amended in the Lords to tackle concerns that the EU net neutrality regulation would render these controls, which have worked well, illegal. Lords amendment 245 delivers on that promise.
Lords amendment 249 responds to an operational requirement of the police who need support in tackling gangs, particularly those in large urban areas, who supply drugs, especially class A drugs, to suburban areas, and market and coastal towns. To support their market expansion, gangs recruit, exploit and use children and vulnerable adults to carry drugs and money through deception, intimidation, violence, debt bondage and grooming. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire for his long campaign on this and to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton). With this amendment the police will be able to disrupt the mobile phones on which the drug gangs rely.
Lords amendments 249 to 252 are the start of our reform of the Data Protection Act. The new legal framework will come into force in May 2018, and these amendments pave the way by ensuring that the future funding mechanism can be put in place on time and provide certainty to data controllers.
Lords amendments 253 to 255 concern the Crown guarantee for BT pensions. These amendments are necessary following the announcement on 10 March of a deal between BT and Ofcom that will legally separate BT and Openreach. We welcome that split, and these amendments ensure that the split does not affect people’s pensions.
Just briefly on that particular point, we do not have BT Openreach in Northern Ireland to roll out the broadband; that is carried out by BT itself. Is there any provision for BT in Northern Ireland?
The provision in the Bill is to ensure that those whose pensions are protected under the Crown guarantee, which was provided at the privatisation of BT, will be able to retain that protection when they transfer to the separate organisation, Openreach. For those who are not leaving BT Group, there will be no change to their pension arrangements, so they are not negatively affected. Therefore, the provision is not necessary. It is necessary to allow this split to take place without detriment, and without added benefit, to any current BT employee, so that the Crown guarantee continues to operate essentially as it does today.
Further technical amendments have been tabled, including to safeguard journalists from data protection laws when whistleblowing—this was brought to my attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman)—and to refine the electronic communications code. That is one of the core measures of the Bill which, for all its technicality, will be a crucial enabler of better connectivity and a driver of the digital economy.
Just before I conclude, let me say that improvements have been made to the Bill thanks to the work of many people on both sides of the House, but—
The Minister spoke about missed opportunities. Does he recognise that he leaves this Parliament with data sharing and the rights of citizens over their own data in exactly the same state—if not worse—of chaos and total mess across Departments that was the case when he took up his role, I think just over a year ago?
The hon. Lady is usually reasonable and constructive, so a sense of electioneering must have got into her. I am afraid that I do not recognise that description. We have made considerable progress in the Bill on data sharing, but of course the rules around data will have to evolve, not least because European rules will come into force before we leave the EU. Yes, there is more work to do, but I think that she must have had the rosette on a little bit too often recently, given that she is so churlish about the progress in the Bill.
Will the Minister answer the question? Do citizens own and control their own data—yes or no?
Well, of course citizens elect the Government, and in many cases the Government are responsible for data. Having democratic legitimacy behind the control of data is critical to a functioning democracy. No doubt we can return to this issue in the future. There are no Lords amendments on that subject, and I consider that the Bill represents significant progress.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). She has worked hard on the Bill and made a number of suggestions that we have taken on board. She has been a pleasure to negotiate with and very effective. When I am complimentary about her, she always tells me that I am damaging her career no end, so I hope that she will take my compliments in the spirit in which they are intended.
The Minister knows that it makes me deeply uncomfortable when we agree on anything, and that also applies to compliments paid from the Dispatch Box, but it is a great privilege to speak for the Opposition today during the closing stages of this Bill. Thanks to the deliberations of hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the Minister, and what I would describe as exemplary cross-party working, the Bill is in considerably better shape than when it was introduced last year.
The Bill still does not go far enough in a number of crucial areas. It represents a missed opportunity to update our infrastructure, skills strategy, finance, the responsibilities of the behemoths of the digital age, and the rights that individuals should have in this era when data is increasingly the currency that matters above all. Nevertheless, there have been some useful changes, and I am grateful to the Minister for his considered exposition of the Government’s position, especially regarding the amendments, with which we are not in dispute.
I will deal briefly with each of the Lords amendments in turn. Lords amendment 1 will increase the USO to superfast levels to ensure that every household and business in the country can benefit from speeds of at least 30 megabits per second. The benefits of that do not need repeating, as we have considered them at length during many debates in the short time that I have served as shadow Digital Minister, and the House is united on the need for much improved broadband speed and reliability across the country. Indeed, I note that the Minister’s constituency has fallen down the rankings for superfast availability during his tenure in his post, so he will be particularly keen to tackle this issue.
Just 59% of rural Britain has access to superfast speeds, while an utterly shocking 40% of people in rural hamlets do not have access to even basic broadband. In my city of Sheffield, superfast access is by no means universal. In fact, we have the poorest availability of any major city in the UK. I appreciate the Government’s argument about the universal service directive, although it is disappointing that more of an effort was not made at an earlier stage of the Bill’s passage to test that argument, given that Ofcom has clearly made the case that it is better value for money for the taxpayer to intervene in the market now and futureproof it for a speed of 30 megabits per second.
The European Commission provided only non-binding guidance in its latest review of universal service in 2011, so it is not entirely clear that a superfast designation is beyond the scope of its directive. Of course, the legal mechanism of a USO is only one of the tools that the Government have at their disposal to deliver decent broadband to all, including more highly specified services.
Nevertheless, Government amendment (c) in lieu of Lords amendment 1 directs Ofcom to continuously review broadband take-up across the UK and to review the USO accordingly, effectively tying the USO to the rest of the market and ensuring that the last 10%, 5% or 1% do not fall too far behind the rest of the UK. Of course, we would have liked the Government to back 30 megabits per second for all, and I do not accept that millions of consumers and businesses should simply be left behind. This was an opportunity to prepare the UK for the ubiquitous future demanded by the digital revolution, and although the Government’s amendment is a first step, it is a baby step and nothing more.
On Lords amendment 2, it is fantastic that the Government have now accepted the case that we put forward on mobile bill capping. Government amendment (a) in lieu of the Lords amendment will allow consumers to set a financial cap on their monthly bill when they enter a contract with their telecoms provider. Some mobile providers are offering bill caps already. Tesco Mobile and Three are leading the way, and BT Mobile has a cap of £5. In addition, some smaller companies have bill caps—Plusnet has a smart cap automatically set at £10, and iD Mobile has a £5 cap on its Shockproof tariffs. That proves that it is both possible and commercially viable for all companies to introduce such a measure. However, there is not currently the sector-wide standard that we would like. Amendment (a) will secure the same basic protections across the whole sector for all consumers, and we are delighted that the Government, who opposed such a measure earlier in the Bill’s passage, have seen sense and been persuaded by the sheer strength of our arguments
On pornography and age verification, under part 3 of the Bill, Members from all parties in the House have worked together in partnership, and very often in unison. The original intention of protecting children from the harmful effects of pornography remains. I am delighted that the House has worked together to ensure that we will have one of the most effective regimes in the world for protecting children from pornography.
The digital age brings with it responsibilities, and part 3 of the Bill is a recognition of that fact. However, its provisions have grown beyond the narrow bounds of age verification during the Bill’s passage. The blocking measures relating to age verification, which we supported, have also brought us into the contentious areas of what is categorised as extreme pornography or prohibited material. Our consideration of the Bill could have been a welcome opportunity to debate fully what should and should not be accessible on the internet, but due to the late tabling of Government amendments on Report in the Commons, debate was curtailed. It is vital that these issues are properly debated because we are treading a very thin line between protection and censorship. We are pleased that the Government have chosen to accept our reasonable amendment that will require the Secretary of State to produce a report on the impact and effectiveness of this regulatory framework. Crucially, the Government will also be required to consult on the definition of extreme pornography in the Bill.
Does the hon. Lady agree, however, that in setting out these definitions on a spectrum ranging from prohibited material to extreme pornography—I will speak to this later—we have left ourselves in something of a quandary, as material that she and I would probably agree is completely unacceptable can in theory be viewed behind age filters? I heard that the Minister was prepared to consider this unfinished business. Will the hon. Lady, on behalf of her party, commit to trying to work out these definitions in the next Parliament to ensure that we arrive at a better place?
That was exactly why we pushed for an amendment in the Lords and it is why we are so pleased that the Government have accepted it. We need consultation, as well as a clear definition of extreme pornography and prohibited material. My understanding of the legislation is that nothing extreme, prohibited or otherwise will be able to be viewed behind age verification filters. If something is deemed to be pornography and analysed as such by the British Board of Film Classification, it will be required to be behind such filters.
The hon. Lady is right, but she will know that the original definition referred to five statutes. We now have a definition that is much tighter, specifically because items that were included under the broader definition are now deemed not to be obscene—I agree with that. The problem is that there is material that, according to 85% of people who have viewed it, should not be accessible on the internet for any age group. Such material could be accessible behind those filters for anyone to see. That is the problem that we need collectively to solve.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is true that such material is currently available without any AV filters, so we have made substantial and welcome progress in this area, but the consultation in the next Parliament will be crucial. We look forward to participating in that debate and ensuring that we get the best possible regime for online pornography.
Several Government amendments on age verification were tabled in the Lords. We understand why technology cannot be dictated in legislation or even guidance, but the effectiveness of AV measures will obviously be determined by the technology that is used. If we are not careful, we could end up with age verification that is so light-touch as to be too easily bypassed by increasingly tech-savvy under-18s, or that is far too complicated and intrusive. That could push viewers on to sites that do not use age verification but still offer legitimate content, or completely illegal sites that stray into much more damaging realms. Equally, we must ensure that privacy and proportionality are at the heart of the proposals, so I push the Minister to say more about that.
The BBFC has intimated that its likely preference is age-verified mobile telephony, but there are significant privacy issues with that approach. We should proceed with extreme caution before creating any process that would result in the storing of data that could be leaked, hacked or commercialised when that would otherwise be completely private and legitimate. Concerns have been raised about whether the BBFC is appropriate to be the AV regulator, not least in relation to its conduct in lobbying Members of this House and the other. I am grateful that the Minister has listened to those concerns and that guidance will now be produced by the Secretary of State, meaning that there is proper accountability, and then issued to the regulator. I want to ensure that the report that the Secretary of State produces on the effectiveness of the regulation covers the regulator itself, so I would be grateful for clarification about that from the Minister.
On the social media code of conduct, we are delighted that the Government have taken a decisive step in the right direction. Amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 40 requires the Secretary of State to issue a code of practice for online social media platforms in relation to bullying, directing insults, or other behaviour likely to intimidate or humiliate. It is difficult to understate the importance of tackling bullying and offensive behaviour online. Although social media has brought about transformative and significant changes for the good, it has also facilitated an exponential increase in bullying. It is estimated that seven in 10 young people have experienced cyber-bullying, with 37% of those people experiencing it frequently. Cyber-bullying can lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide.
This is the first time that social media providers will be subject to legislation on this issue. They will be required to have processes in place for reporting and responding to complaints about bullying. As the Minister said, some providers have taken steps to address these issues, but the pace of change has to keep up with the scale of the problem. It is absolutely right that the Government have taken decisive legislative action to make the internet a safer place for its users. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm that there will be full public consultation when drafting the code of conduct.
On public service broadcasting prominence, we are happy to support Government amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 242, which requires Ofcom regularly to review electronic programming guides in relation to public service broadcasting and the implications of changing technology for public service broadcasting. We are pleased that the Minister has confirmed that any necessary powers will be transferred to Ofcom, should it be required to intervene.
We are delighted that, after many years of campaigning, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), significant progress has been made on efforts to tackle abuses in the secondary ticket market. Fans across the country will be thanking her, the Minister and all those involved in the campaign, but we recognise there is still more to do and that the Waterson review must be implemented in full in the next Parliament. We are pleased that the Minister has again seen sense by accepting Lords amendments on e-lending and on-demand accessibility.
The Bill has been improved significantly and it has been a privilege to enter negotiations with the Government. It has also been a privilege to negotiate with the Minister, as he said it had been to negotiate with me. However, I must say that this Bill is not legislation for the digital economy. The tech sector waited eagerly for well over a year for the Government’s strategy and vision for this crucial area of our economy. To say that it was disappointed with the lack of ambition and strategic direction in the Bill and the Government’s eventual strategy would be a gross understatement. Our burgeoning digital economy is the largest in the world, growing at a rate that we could hardly have expected even a decade ago, but after seven years of a Conservative Government, 12 million people still lack basic digital skills.
Some 3 million homes and businesses do not have access to superfast broadband. Britain does not even feature on the fibre broadband league table, and our 4G mobile coverage lags firmly behind that of our major competitors. Too often, workers find themselves overworked, underpaid and exploited by bosses they never meet who do not even fulfil their basic duties as an employer. People across the country suffer from digital exclusion because our infrastructure is second-rate and our digital skills programme is well behind the times. Now should have been the moment to lay the foundations for not just a world-leading digital sector, but a truly world-leading economy with digital inclusion at its heart. Those foundations must be built on the responsibilities of employers towards the burgeoning workforce, of the digital giants to their users, and of the Government to create the environment in which digital can transform the economy.
Although the Bill undoubtedly brings forward some welcome changes, it has revealed an alarming lack of ambition for the country and a worrying indication of the Government’s priorities in relation to tech as we Brexit. I can assure the House that come 9 June, when I will be preparing to take the Minister’s place, it will be the Labour party that will have the ambition and vision on infrastructure, skills and finance, and that will champion this sector, which is essential to the UK’s ability to thrive post-Brexit and for us to deliver the high-skilled, well-paid jobs that areas of the country such as mine so desperately cry out for. We welcome the improvements that have been made in the Bill, but I hope that, however the next Parliament looks, our digital economy will be given far greater prominence and priority.
I welcome the Bill and the Lords amendments supported by the Government. This debate takes place against the background of the UK’s creative economy, which is the leading creative and tech economy in Europe. London is by far and away the leading creative and tech city in Europe and one of the major centres of the world. The creative and digital economy has been a major factor in our growth and is a great success story for this country. The Bill brings in a series of necessary and welcome measures for reform, but builds on a position of considerable strength, where the UK tech and creative economy is the envy of Europe and many others in the world.
I thank the Government for their intervention in online ticketing resales and abuse in the secondary ticketing market. This follows the campaign of the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), who have championed the cause. They brought it to the attention of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, and we held our first hearing on the matter in November, just before we debated the Bill on Report in the Commons. With cross-party support, we tabled an amendment seeking legislative reform to combat the use of bots and the failure of people correctly to identify tickets sold on the secondary market. The Minister said that the Government would consider the representations made, including amendments in the Lords. That has taken place. I congratulate him, the Secretary of State and the Department on the interest they have shown in the subject, on the important roundtables they hosted and on the decisive action that was taken, with the support of the Lords, to amend the Bill.
It is important that people who buy tickets online know what they are buying. I welcome the Competition and Markets Authority’s decision to open its investigation to ensure that the existing consumer protection legislation is being enforced. I also welcome the Minister saying that a ticket should have a unique reference number that people can see on the ticket when they purchase it. That would make it easier to identify the reseller.
There is also the question—perhaps the CMA could address this in its inquiry—of consumers buying tickets but not being clear about the seat number and row number. A reference number might not tell them where in a theatre the ticket is for. People end up buying, at high and inflated prices, a cheap ticket at the back of the hall that they were not aware they could have bought themselves in the first place. Many of the venues that gave evidence to the Select Committee complained about that, and it should be addressed through the CMA investigation to make sure that existing consumer protection legislation is enforced and that action is taken against people who breach it. However, the amendment to make sure there is a unique reference number is a welcome addition.
I also welcome the amendment to ban the use of bots to harvest tickets for mass resale. There has been widespread abuse in the market, and I am glad that these reforms will lead to decisive action to combat it.
I want briefly to touch on the code of practice for online social media platforms, which was rightly born out of the debate about internet safety and, in particular, cyber-bullying. This will be an interesting issue for the future, because many of the practices of social media companies are giving cause for concern. One of them is linked to the sale of tickets online, particularly where social media platforms promote and support secondary ticket sites, with tickets being fraudulently acquired or fraudulently sold, which should not be the case.
In the context of the debate about social issues such as fake news, it is also important to consider the broader social obligations social media companies and platforms have to protect users from harmful or misleading content, to make sure there is fair redress for those who are its victims and to recognise that companies do have an obligation. When looking at some of these important issues after the election, we might even consider placing in statute a broader obligation on companies that is linked to the failure to act. If someone refers evidence to a company that harmful, misleading or elicit content has been distributed on a site, and the company fails to act, there could be some measure of redress against the company. That would be an important first step in looking at a code of conduct and at the broader social obligations of social media companies, and I would welcome that, too.
It is only fitting that you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, because this is my last opportunity to speak before we break up, and you were there for my maiden speech. It is lovely to see you there.
I welcome the changes to the Bill. We have worked very well together, as the Minister and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) outlined—at least, he is wearing red socks, so she might have had some influence on him, although she is shaking her head, and I think she is correct. None the less, it is excellent that we have been able to go on a journey with this Bill. A huge amount of work was needed; when we sat in the Bill Committee, there was a lot of concern that the Bill needed significant improvement. Even though we have managed to put a lot more into the Bill—something my colleagues and I have urged all along—there are still some deeply worrying issues, particularly around data sharing, which will need to be revisited.
It will not surprise Members who know me to hear that I would like to focus my comments exclusively on connectivity, especially given that the hon. Lady has covered every other aspect so wonderfully. Connectivity is a fundamental issue in rural communities and the lifeblood of our communities. It is no longer the roads, although people still complain about them, but the superhighways of the internet that people are desperately concerned about.
We therefore welcome the Government’s move on the universal service obligation. As we have heard, however, we would have liked to see more ambition, and the 30 megabits option, which was one of those proposed by Ofcom, highlights that that was possible. I do not accept the Government’s argument that it was not possible to be more ambitious because of the mechanism itself. If that truly is the case, we are perhaps choosing the wrong mechanism. If we are not choosing the wrong mechanism, we perhaps need to put in place other measures to ensure that rural communities are not left behind.
In areas in my constituency such as Oxnam, Bonchester Bridge and the Ettrick valley, 10 megabits would be a huge step forward, as people there have 5 or 12 kilobits or 1 megabit. Ten megabits would be welcome, but it will be overtaken in Scotland by the Scottish Government’s commitment to 30 megabits. The Minister has talked that down and said, “You’re not showing more ambition in Scotland. We could go further—things are open.” Well, I am afraid that the end product lets us down. In Scotland, the Scottish Government have committed to 30 megabits to 100% of the population over the current Scottish Parliament.
Let us look at what will happen with the Government’s offer here and at the trigger mechanism of a 75% subscription rate. In 2016, only 31% of people were getting 30 megabits; in 2015, it was only 27%. How long is a constituent in England, Wales or Northern Ireland going to have to wait before the USO catches up and gets to 75%? The USO could be either a really ambitious measure to close the digital divide or simply a safety net, and it is quite clearly the latter, which is fine—as long as it is clearly articulated as such—because other things can be done.
As the Minister knows, I have been a huge advocate of vouchers. I was disappointed that a voucher alternative was not included specifically in relation to the USO, but I welcomed the Government’s move at the end of last year to hold a consultation on vouchers. That consultation is ready to report, but we are going into purdah. On this occasion, I accept that that is a valid excuse for not continuing our discussion for a number of weeks. However, I urge the Government to live up to their ambition.
The Minister says that fibre means fibre and that fibre is the future, and the Chancellor talks about millions of pounds for fibre and 5G, but they need to ensure that that money is universally available, because based on the Government’s strategy to date, most of it, if not all of it, will flow to urban areas if there are no specific policies to ensure that it also goes into the rural economy. In their rush to get back up the fibre league tables, the Government will inevitably show the same pragmatism they have shown on superfast. I therefore urge them to use the opportunity of an election to put in their manifesto a commitment to vouchers and to empowering rural areas.
I have set up a Scottish borders digital forum, which brings together all the community councils. We have been looking at solutions and options, and we are considering how we not only catch up but put in place structures that ensure we do not fall behind in future. The USO will not help us do that; it will push fibre slightly further away, and we will see copper and perhaps some wireless. If we get the right support, communities in my constituency such as Newcastleton or those in the Lammermuirs, which want to do community fibre schemes, could leap ahead, and that is where the voucher schemes could prove so valuable. Perhaps the Minister could confirm, if he is not saving this for some future date, whether vouchers are something that he could support and that fit into the current model. They would allow constituents in the borders to see their speeds leap forward.
If we do not show more ambition, and put more money in, the Government’s policy will widen and cement the digital divide. They will be telling constituents in rural areas, “You can only get 10 megabits,” while people in the cities are suddenly getting gigabits. I am sure many hon. Members here—not least those in rural constituencies—think that that would be a failure of Government policy. So let us take this opportunity to show ambition and to ensure that we realise the full potential of fibre and connectivity into the future.
I close by again thanking the team here for the way it has worked. I would like to have been consulted a bit more and to have seen a bit more foresight and ambition in the whole scheme, but the Bill does represent progress, even though it is, as was said, a baby step.
Thank you, Madam Speaker, for giving me this final opportunity to speak on this Bill. I am particularly pleased given all our hard work and the fact that the Government have made the completion of its passage a priority during this final week.
I will confine my remarks to Lords amendments 246 and 247, which address problems in the secondary ticketing market that I, along with many other music fans, have been personally affected by. We have refined these proposals through various stages of the Bill Committee and discussed them at length in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I thank the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), for helping us to get the time to hear detailed evidence on this very important issue. I also thank all my colleagues on the Committee for their tenacious advocacy for producers and fans of sports, theatre and music, and their constructive work to allow the Committee to make some unanimous recommendations for the Bill Committee.
I thank my hon. Friend for his words. Does he agree that it was particularly regrettable that Viagogo decided not to appear in front of the Committee when it should have given important evidence to us? Many people will draw their own conclusions as to its reasons for not appearing.
I could not agree more. It is despicable that Viagogo has dodged and been slippery around attending the Select Committee. There have been so many victims of Viagogo that it should have taken the opportunity to come and explain how it markets itself and presents its website. I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend.
I do not know if you are going to mention Claire Turnham and her campaign at this juncture, and I do not want to steal your thunder if you are, but I just wanted to mention—
The hon. Gentleman’s thunder.
Correct—his thunder. I wanted to mention that I have had an email from Claire Turnham, as I know you have—[Interruption.] He has, I mean. You would think I would have got the hang of this by now, Madam Deputy Speaker—I have been doing it for 12 years. I am obviously demob happy. I do apologise, and I will try to get the protocol right. Claire Turnham has been in touch, and the numbers are shocking—£51,000 has already been refunded to the victims of Viagogo. I was astonished, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman was, that there are still 418 members waiting to join the group.
I can assure the hon. Lady that my thunder is still very much intact and has not been stolen. I totally agree. The campaign that Claire Turnham has run has been exemplary, but she should not have had to run it. The customer services team at Viagogo should have dealt with the complaints that were flooding in. We will see, but I suspect that we have not heard the last of Viagogo in this place.
Although we have not been able to conclude the inquiry due to the impending Dissolution, I hope that our successor Committee, however it is comprised, will adopt the evidence that we have already heard and continue this work. I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who has campaigned for years to get wider attention for the problems with secondary ticketing. Based on the number of people across the country who have shared their stories of being ripped off or missing out on a favourite show because of the practices of parasitical touts, I imagine that a large number of colleagues across this House have also heard from affected constituents how these practices are poisoning our cultural wells both for fans and creators.
Amendment 247 will prohibit breaches of ticket sales limits, helping to combat touts who use bot software to gobble up tickets before genuine fans can get them. I originally tabled a version of this amendment in Committee, and, thankfully, members of the Select Committee unanimously added their names. I am grateful to Ministers, particularly my right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and Culture, a huge Paul Simon fan who has had experiences trying to gain Paul Simon tickets; to Members of the other place for their co-operation in fleshing out the legal details for a workable law; and to the Secretary of State for her work in engaging very closely with the industry.
It is particularly important that the amendment provides for an unlimited fine when someone is found guilty of this offence. Fans and ticket agents have been engaged in a technological arms race against increasingly sophisticated touts who can make tens of thousands of pounds of profit in one go from, say, just one pair of Adele tickets. To prevent fans from being fleeced and to protect the rights of artists to decide how they want to sell their tickets, we needed to make touting a genuinely bad proposition for those seeking to make a quick windfall, and a smaller fine could not have done that. I am very pleased that this law has teeth.
Amendment 246 seeks to augment the Consumer Rights Act 2015 provisions that require transparency and declaration of certain information to the buyer during any ticket resale. We have heard time and again from fans who have bought tickets from touts only to find that they were misled about the validity of those tickets or where the tickets were located, or even denied entry; and, on the other side, from artists and venues who have anti-touting policies but cannot enforce them because touts and resale websites either flout the Consumer Rights Act or are not required under the Act to declare enough information for them to identify and cancel these tickets.
Some of these stories are heart-breaking. As we have heard, one of the worst offenders has been the company Viagogo, which, in addition to often completely ignoring Consumer Rights Act requirements to declare information such as the face value of the ticket, has often even failed to display to consumers the full price they would be paying for the resold tickets. As a result, fans who thought they would be paying a couple of hundred pounds would end up instead finding that their credit cards had been charged amounts into the thousands. For some, the dire financial straits this put them into has led them to have panic attacks and even to consider suicide. The Victims of Viagogo group organised by Claire Turnham has identified approximately £108,000 of refunds owed, of which less than half has been refunded, and the group has hundreds upon hundreds more ripped-off fans waiting to join. Even when a refund is given, people are still left without tickets for events they were excited about, with disappointed children and a family day out ruined, as was the case for one woman who hoped to surprise her husband with concert tickets when he came home from serving in Afghanistan. As we have heard, our Select Committee invited Viagogo to give evidence and respond to our questions, but it left an empty chair. I hope that our successor Committee does not let this pass.
Lords amendment 246, and the Government amendment to it, is important because adding an unique ticket reference number to any ticket resale will allow consumers to check with a venue, in advance of the purchase, whether that ticket will be valid, and also allow artists and venues to enforce their terms and conditions and to cancel touted tickets. There is no point in making a rule if we cannot enforce it, and it is high time for touts to learn that they cannot simply continue with impunity. I therefore ask that Ministers work with the industry to establish in regulations what constitutes a unique ticket number that will be identifiable to agents and venues. If this happens, it is genuine progress, and I am grateful to the Government for getting behind it. Originally, however, Lords amendment 246 included the addition of a requirement for the CRA to list any terms and conditions associated with resale of a ticket. The Government amendment has deleted that provision, contending that this is already covered under section 90(3)(b). What I have learned seems to indicate to me that the position is significantly less clear. An unequivocal statement from the Minister would therefore be a welcome step, and I would also be grateful if we could look into this further in future.
Going back to the point about a law being only as good as its enforcement, one problem we have is that there have not yet been any prosecutions under the Consumer Rights Act for violations to do with secondary ticketing, and instead the Competition and Markets Authority is undertaking a review. The review is welcome, and should I be re-elected I will be most interested in its conclusions. There have clearly been myriad violations of the CRA with regard to ticket reselling. Without having been able to test the law’s function in court, we do not know whether it is legally effective and fit for purpose, not to mention the fact that the lack of prosecutions means that the law is not serving as the robust protection for consumers that it was intended to be.
For example, Metallica—a group with which I am sure you are familiar, Madam Deputy Speaker—has a very popular UK tour coming up this autumn. There are strict conditions attached to the tickets, including that the lead booker must enter with others in their party, which is limited to a maximum of four. They must also present photo identification matching the name on the purchase. All those conditions have been clearly listed by the primary sellers, namely Ticketmaster and the Ticket Factory. However, the FanFair Alliance, which does great work in this area, has found multiple listings on Ticketmaster’s secondary sites, Get Me In and Seatwave, as well as on those of the other two major resellers, StubHub and Viagogo, which do not note those conditions. It is a disaster waiting to happen for fans, if the venues follow through on enforcing those conditions.
Whether the problem is one of enforcement of the CRA or of the CRA being unclear, it certainly needs to be sorted out, because it is obvious that the conditions are not being consistently declared. Personally, I cannot see how it would be harmful to make the Consumer Rights Act absolutely clear on that issue, and I would appreciate clarification from the Minister.
Although we have achieved great progress, problems remain with secondary ticketing and they need to be considered in future. A number of dodgy practices are yet to be investigated. This week I heard from someone who recently resold spare tickets on StubHub. He told me that he had priced the tickets below those offered by other sellers and closer to their face value, but instead of a fan buying them it was StubHub itself that bought the tickets, presumably to resell for an even greater profit.
The potential use of Google AdWords is also an issue. Ticket resellers, including Viagogo, spend top dollar to advertise themselves highly in Google’s search results, often masquerading as official ticket resellers when in fact they have not been authorised by the venues or the event organisers and are selling tickets that are invalid if resold. I understand from Google that it wishes to be vigilant of deceptive advertising but that to act on those issues it needs evidence and examples to be reported, either from consumers who have been turned away from events after buying a ticket from a company using a sponsored link on Google, or from the Advertising Standards Authority. Such information has not been forthcoming thus far.
In conclusion—I can see the joy on the Whip’s face at those words. [Hon. Members: “More!”] There is more, if Members would like me to continue. [Interruption.] I will not quote any of Metallica’s lyrics, but only because I do not know them. I thank Ministers, the Secretary of State and colleagues across this House for helping to make some real progress in this Bill and I look forward to seeing its measures enacted.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman, who I have got to know very well in our time campaigning on this issue during this and the last Parliament. It is a real delight that we have reached this stage and I rise to speak in favour of Lords amendments 246 and 247 on the resale of tickets. It is with great delight that I welcome the news that the Government accept those Lords amendments and that they will make it on to the statute book before this Parliament dissolves.
It goes without saying that we would not be in this position without the concerted cross-party campaigning to put fans first in this broken market. None of that would have happened without the campaigning by me and others over the years. The list is very long, so I hope that the House will indulge me. It includes the steadfast support received from my own party’s Front Benchers, especially in recent years. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), made an excellent speech today; I sincerely hope that she will be returned so that she can continue in that vein.
Conservative Members have also given support, including, most notably in the last Parliament, Mike Weatherley, the former Member for Hove and Portslade, who I know is a friend of the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams). Mike Weatherley and I founded and co-chaired the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse. In recent years, the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and other members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, including the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston)—I was going to say the gentleman sitting over there wearing a red tie, but that would have made me sound like David Dimbleby—have worked tirelessly on its investigation into the secondary ticketing market. I sincerely hope that the Committee will pick up on the issue again in the next Parliament, so that all of the inquiry’s hard work is not lost. I am sure that that will happen.
I also acknowledge the Minister’s customary good humour and willingness to listen, which, along with the work of shadow Front Benchers in the Lords and those who tabled the amendments, has ensured that we have reached a satisfactory conclusion. I also thank the Secretary of State, who I am pleased to see in the Chamber. More than three years ago, when she was a Home Office Minister, she met me and the former Member for Hove and Portslade to discuss the fraud aspect of this issue. That proves that Ministers have long memories, so such meetings are worth it.
In response to a point raised by the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), we are clear that section 93 of the Consumer Rights Act requires secondary sellers to provide information on ticket restrictions on resale.
Excellent. I was going to come on to that issue, following on from the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty. I will have to remember not to press the Minister on it, because he has already addressed it. That is welcome and I am pleased that he has put it on the record.
I also commend the sterling work over many years by colleagues on both sides of the House of Lords. Way back in 1997, the Labour peer Lord Pendry, the then shadow Sports Minister, was the first to coin the phrase “put fans first”, so I cannot claim credit for that, as I did not invent it. He campaigned on the issue way back then, but sadly for him and, indeed, for us, he was not made a Minister in the Government that followed, so he was not able to ensure that this happened 20 years ago. That shows that this day has been a very long time coming.
More recent contributions have been made by Lord Stevenson and Baroness Hayter from the Labour Front Bench, Lord Clement-Jones of the Liberal Democrats and the amazingly talented late Baroness Heyhoe Flint of the Conservatives, who tabled the first relevant amendments in the Lords and who sadly passed away a few months ago. She was a joy to work with. Without this campaign I would never have had the chance to know her and I wish I could have had that privilege for longer.
I also want to give a special mention to the former Sports Minister and Conservative peer, Lord Moynihan, whose renowned tenacity during debates on the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the wash-up at the end of the last Parliament ensured that we got certain measures on to the statute book. Without him, we would not have progressed to where we are now, as we would still be at base camp waiting for the weather to shift. He has been the most amazing ally and expert in this crusade, and all fans across the country who are not ripped off in the future should know his name and thank him.
Having finished the thank yous, I turn to the business at hand. Lords amendments 246 and 247 will take us one step closer to ensuring that fans are finally put first in the secondary market, something has been sorely lacking for years. At this point, I was going to press the Minister on the point that he has clarified, so I thank him again for doing so. Accepting the Lords amendments is a fitting way to end this Parliament, and I am confident that any residual issues will be picked up quickly once Parliament returns following the general election.
None of us know or can predict what will happen come polling day, but if the good people of Washington and Sunderland West re-elect me, and if other Members present are re-elected by their constituents, I will definitely get right back to businesses and pick up where we leave off today, because there are plenty more issues to continue to campaign on. We have taken one step closer, granted, but we are still far from our cross-party vision of a fair market that ensures that fans are not ripped off.
We need to consider the enforcement of current legislation, such as that which is being investigated by the Consumer Markets Authority, as the Chair of the Select Committee mentioned. We need to support the victims of Viagogo, who, as the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty mentioned, have been unfairly ripped off by one of the worst players in this market, which, disgracefully, did not attend the Select Committee when called to do so. We should definitely revisit that question to see whether there are ways to force companies that have their head office overseas to come and give evidence in this place. It seems wrong that they can evade that by saying that they are not based in the UK when all their customers are based in the UK. We should also ensure that the Waterson review’s recommendations are implemented fully and effectively. The list of things that we need to put right could go on, but those are just a few of the many issues that must be picked up in the next Parliament.
Finally, I want to again thank the Minister, the Secretary of State, my Front-Bench colleagues, Members from across the House and our colleagues in the other place for committing so much time to this campaign. For the early part of the past eight years, I felt like a lone warrior, but I have welcomed the momentum and support from Members of both Houses that have built up around the campaign. That momentum cannot slow when the newly elected House returns in June. Fans deserve for us to campaign for them at every opportunity and to put them first. Let us all commit to continue to fight for them until this market is cleaned up; then our work will be done.
It is a pleasure to speak today, because, as in the case of my friend the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr)—I call him my friend with sincerity—you, Madam Deputy Speaker, were in the Chair when I gave my maiden speech. You will also be in the Chair while I make my final speech of this Parliament.
I support the Bill wholeheartedly as it is consumer-friendly from beginning to end. That will be of extreme benefit to my constituents; it will improve their lives and enable them to grow their businesses and have more fulfilling careers. In particular, I want to highlight the points made about the universal service obligation, switching mobile phones—this has been an ongoing debate for a while and it is good to see resolution on it—and all the initiatives with digital government. I also appreciate the intent of many of the suggested amendments, if not their exact wording, and agree with the Minister that those that have been accepted are there to improve the Bill.
I would also like to echo the comments of many other Members by saying that in the development of the Bill and in Committee—we almost have an alumni network of Committee members in the Chamber today—it has been very nice for me, as a relatively new MP, to see Parliament working at its best, when we work across parties, have meetings and discussions, and disagree respectfully, but come to reasonable conclusions because we have the same intent in mind. We see the theatre of Prime Minister’s questions and other events, but Parliament does a lot of work across the parties. I echo the comments in praise of the work done by many colleagues over many years, well before I came to the House of Commons, to make significant progress on a vital Bill.
I respectfully disagree slightly with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). I would not like to run down the UK digital economy. We have the largest digital economy in terms of percentage of GDP in the world and this Bill will enable us to be even more successful. We need to ensure that we have an enabling Bill to continue that success. We should not take our digital leadership for granted, and measures in this Bill will therefore be a huge advantage.
The Minister mentioned further work being required in several other areas. I agree with him, particularly on bill capping and many of the topics to do with the significant changes required in secondary ticketing. The devil will be in the detail on secondary ticketing. I completely understand the rationale for having a booking number or unique reference number for secondary ticket transactions, but we have to be very careful that that does not have the unintended consequence of opening things up to more fraud. We must be very careful about the details of that element of the Bill.
Finally, I want to comment on the internet and social platforms. I know a fair bit about this because, as many Members know, I worked for Google before I came to Parliament. It is a great company, as are all the major internet players. They do a lot of good, but they also need to take their responsibilities far more seriously than they have of late. I welcome the changes, and significant progress has been made on child exploitation images and age verification. It was alarming for me to learn that 1.4 million people under the age of 18 accessed pornography in the UK just last year.
The scale of inappropriate content online now is huge. YouTube alone has 400 hours of video uploaded every single minute of every single day. A lot of that content is perfectly acceptable—fine, fun, entertaining, newsworthy and so on—but some of it is inappropriate and the scale of the inappropriate material is shocking, and this comes from someone who worked in the sector for a while. Every single day, Google removes 200,000 videos that have been flagged as inappropriate. Last year, Google removed 92 million videos from YouTube for being inappropriate, up from 14 million the year before. Clearly, Google are being active and other social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter, are being somewhat active, but we need to send a message loudly and clearly, particularly when we consider the social media code of conduct, that although they are doing something they are not doing enough.
If that means that they have to spend millions, tens of millions or billions working on making sure that we, our children and our families are protected and can operate online in safety, so be it. I would prefer the companies to do this of their own volition and to take appropriate action by investing considerably in technology and human resources—bodies to make judgments and assessments on the appropriateness of content online—but I hope that I can work with colleagues across the parties when we come back to Parliament, as I hope we will, to ensure that if they do not act we will take action for them.
I hate to be someone who repeats things, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I think that you were also in the Chair when I made my maiden speech. I hope that that is not a bad omen.
To get back to the Bill, I am at a slight disadvantage compared with other Members who served on the Committee and have a better insight into the Bill. I want to restrict my speech mainly to Lords amendment 1. I found myself somewhat in agreement with the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr)—we come from rural areas, although his is in Scotland and mine in Northern Ireland, and we find ourselves in fairly similar places on this matter. At one stage, the Minister said that the Bill was unfinished business and I think that he will find that as time goes forward it will continue to be unfinished business. Technology is moving on so fast that we will see more demands, no matter what area that is in. That is my one concern about the Bill; it might not be future-proof. I accept that there is movement in reducing the proposal from 30 megabits per second down to 10 megabits for broadband.
I understand that argument, and one reason we rejected Lords amendment 1 was precisely because it was not future-proofed and contained specific figures. The powers in the Bill require Ofcom to review speeds so that as technology advances so too can the expectations and demands of the universal service obligation.
I thank the Minister for that clarification, which is useful for someone such as me, who does not have that specific insight. And hey, if we can get 10 megabits per second to all the householders and businesses in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, that is great. It is a huge job of work, as less than 40% of businesses and households in my constituency have access to 10 megabits per second. If we can get to that grade, I say bring it on, and the sooner the better. I want to see businesses flourish. In an area that is very rural, many of the application forms of agriculture now have to be done online. It is a requirement, and we do not have the access to the high-speed broadband needed to do that.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept from me that there are rural areas in England, too? Although the Government are to be congratulated on what they are doing, does he agree that we must do more to ensure that geographically isolated areas do not remain digitally isolated?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman—he has my full support in his attempts to resolve that matter.
I will give hon. Members an example. My young son got a new PlayStation 4 for Christmas 16 months ago, and I promised to download him a game for Christmas. I gave him the voucher on Christmas morning in the hope that the game, which was some sort of simulator, would have downloaded by lunchtime, but it had not even downloaded by new year’s day—it took 10 days to download. Such things are frustrating for young people. They also have to be able to do their classwork and their student work, so they rely on being online. There is now a great deal of reliance on being online.
I want to put on record my appreciation for the fact that the Government have introduced this important Bill and ensured that it has made progress. I accept the Minister’s suggestion that Lords amendment 1 was not future-proofed, but I emphasise that we must continue to look at the matter regularly, because changes will be required.
I want to make three points, and I will not detain the House for too long. First, I want to set out for the benefit of the Front Benchers the concern that I still feel about some definitional points; secondly, I want to talk about how far we have come; and, thirdly, I want to echo what has been said about how cross-party working can deliver in this place.
Both Ministers have received a letter from me on the part 3 amendments. I understand how we have reached the current position. We expressed concern during various briefings about the fact that definitional questions about the difference between “prohibited” and “extreme” were not thrashed out in Committee. I commend Ministers for the very productive Committee proceedings. Despite what the Opposition Front-Bench team have said, I think that the Bill was greatly improved by the current ministerial team, who showed a real willingness to engage, listen and improve the Bill. I feel strongly that we are in a much better place after Committee than we were when we started.
We have had concerns about the definition of “prohibited material”, which is now a clear, appropriate and workable definition guided by five different statutes, one of which is the Obscene Publications Act 1959. That Act gave rise to the concern about whether certain acts—I will not trouble Hansard to check whether certain terms are permissible; I will simply not use them—that were once considered to be illegal are no longer considered to be so, and thus should not be captured by the definition of “prohibited”. I think that the concern over those very specific items led the Government to narrow the focus too much to a definition of extreme pornography. That definition leaves in the middle a lot of material that is not currently captured by statute, but is considered to be anything from life-threatening, at worst, to damaging at best.
By my reading, the definition of extreme pornography makes space for two things: all but the most extreme forms of sexual violence—by that I am referring to choking pornography and multiple sexual acts on one woman or man—and non-photographic child sexual images, including animation. The latter particularly concerns us, because we have all worked hard to ensure that this whole area is outlawed, without any discussion of what is permissible. I think we would all support the complete removal of that whole area from the internet.
It was a great privilege to work with the hon. Lady on the Committee. Does she share my concern that we do not yet have enough information or clear, research-based evidence about the long-term impact of viewing or appearing in all sorts of different types of pornography?
The hon. Lady has worked assiduously in this area, and I thank her for our many conversations and the improvements that we have made together to the Bill. She is quite right: in some ways we are conducting an experiment with the unknown, in terms of child-rearing and the way in which young people absorb information about the world. It is not for me to stand here and pontificate about what might or might not be harmful, but according to research that Care and others have shared with me, when people are shown images of activities that will now be permitted behind an age verification screen, between 74% and 81% favour preventing any access to them. That is the joint response from men and women, although unsurprisingly women have a stronger sense that such images should not be visible to any age group.
The Bill will mean that we use the definition of “prohibited material” in the offline world, but the narrower definition of “extreme pornography” in the online world. When people are asked whether that is sensible, 82% say that the regime should be as tough or tougher for online material, given its ease of access for the generation we are trying to protect.
I want to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend, who, like others, has improved the Bill no end through her work. I reiterate that what is illegal offline is illegal online. For online, we have used the Bill to introduce and enforce age verification. Age verification can, of course, take place only online, because it is about stopping people viewing such material online. I therefore think the point that she has just made is taken care of.
As for definitions, we had to use an existing definition but, as I said in my speech, we regard that as unfinished business. We have accepted an amendment that compels the Secretary of State to report, after consultation, between 12 and 18 months after this Bill is enacted. That report will provide the opportunity to take all the research into account and reach a good settlement that has strong support behind it, rather than doing everything in a rush just before the Dissolution of Parliament.
I appreciate the Minister’s comments, and he neatly anticipates what I was going to say: I have no intention of causing trouble at this stage, because he has assured us from the Dispatch Box and in meetings of his firm commitment to making sure that these definitional questions are resolved in such a way as to enable all parties to support them.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way a second time. I want to put on record a further concern that I raised by tabling a probing amendment in Committee, but that remains unresolved. Regardless of the appearance of the acts, I am concerned about the welfare and safety of people who may have been coerced, forced or violently pushed into appearing in pornography. We may not be able to tell whether that is the case from viewing such material, and I am very concerned about the effect that that can have.
The hon. Lady raises an important point about such material, which is easily available and, in some cases, marketed for commercial purposes. Many of us believe—evidence is emerging to back this up—that it may be extremely damaging to people who view it, particularly if they are underage, as well as to those who are coerced into performing such acts. I hope that the hon. Lady shares my relief and satisfaction about the fact that Ministers accept that, and that they are prepared to continue to consider the question of who this material is harmful to.
That brings me neatly to my second point, which is to emphasise quite how far we have come. I pay tribute to many colleagues, some of whom are not in the Chamber. Some, like the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), are standing down. With me, she led the cross-party inquiry into the original question about what we should do in this space. In the face of much prevarication and pushback—not from within this place, but primarily from the industry—we managed to deliver a result that was effective and proportionate. I thank all colleagues, including Ministers and shadow Ministers, for continuing to work with such commitment.
I want to refer to the recent conversations that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has had about banning extremist material or making its dissemination more difficult. In this space, none of us is a technological expert—with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), who can probably claim to be one—but I think that we understand what our constituents want. Whenever we want to change something in this space, we get the response, “Oh, don’t trouble your little heads about the internet,” or, “You innocent people know nothing about this, so how can you possibly stand up and talk about stopping extremist material or preventing children from accessing material online? You do not really understand that the internet is a special place and it should be different.” I have never understood why we should allow the internet to be a special form of content dissemination when we willingly accept self-regulation and Government regulation of other forms of media distribution.
What has been so good about the journey we have been on since 2012 is that we have seen an increase in corporate social responsibility, as my hon. Friend said. We have seen internet service providers—led, I might say, by TalkTalk and Sky, which were then joined rapidly by the others—really going out there to put in place family-friendly filters and to invest in education about online safety. I was delighted to see that the proposed changes for PSHE—personal, social and health and economic education—include conversations about how our young people can be safe digital citizens online.
I want to report back from a visit I recently conducted to the wonderful Internet Watch Foundation in Cambridge. It has benefited substantially from increased funding from the industry as the result of the work that we have all done. That work has enabled it to go into places such as the dark web, where it knows that people are exchanging child abuse imagery, and to block that material and take it down. It is extremely grateful for the work the Government have continued to do and the support it has received from right across the House.
However, I share the concerns raised by my hon. Friend. I still think that companies out there are hiding behind their legal jurisdiction in the United States, and therefore their adherence, as it were, to a very different set of freedom of speech standards. Secondly, they are giving the slightly shoulder-shrugging response, “Well, if you make it illegal, we will comply,” which is not the way to build Government and consumer confidence in their platforms. I am afraid that time is running out for companies such as Facebook to be saying, “We’re really sorry that a video of a man hanging his 18-month-old baby was on the internet.” If the company can be so clever as to make an advert for a specific colour of shoes, which I had browsed once, that will follow me around the internet almost in perpetuity, I think it has the technology—the pictorial and IP addressing technology—to deal with that. It would probably say, “Look, she does not know the right words,” but I am a politician, not a technologist. I think that the industry is stuffed full of very clever people who could make this change happen if they wanted to, and they should stop looking for individual or collective Governments to force them to do so.
Finally, I want once again to put on record my thanks to all Members who have campaigned with me. Together we have really made a difference. I also thank Ministers, who have really taken this seriously and worked very hard to deliver real progress. Should I be lucky enough to be re-elected in a few weeks’ time, I guess I will be happy to continue this journey, particularly in relation to the definitional clarity that would enhance this space even further.
Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.
Government amendments (a) to (c) made in lieu of Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendment 2 disagreed to.
Government amendment (a) made in lieu of Lords amendment 2.
Lords amendments 3 to 39 agreed to.
Lords amendment 40 disagreed to.
Government amendments (a) and (b) made in lieu of Lords amendment 40.
Lords amendments 41 to 236 agreed to.
Lords amendments 237 to 239 disagreed to.
Lords amendments 240 and 241 agreed to.
Lords amendment 242 disagreed to.
Government amendment (a) made in lieu of Lords amendment 242.
Lords amendments 243 to 245 agreed to.
Amendment (a) made to Lords amendment 246.
Lords amendment 246, as amended, agreed to.
Lords amendments 247 to 289 agreed to, with Commons financial privilege waived in respect of Lords amendments 248 to 254.
We now come to my favourite piece of parliamentary procedure, so in my last session in the Chair, I am delighted to ask the Whip to move the motion for the Reasons Committee.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H(2)), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments 237 to 239.
That Mims Davies, Louise Haigh, Matt Hancock, Calum Kerr, Scott Mann, Jeff Smith and Graham Stuart be members of the Committee.
That Matt Hancock be the Chair of the Committee.
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.
Criminal Finances Bill
Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendments 11 and 33. If the House agrees to them, I will cause an appropriate entry to be made in the Journal.
Unexplained wealth orders: England and Wales and Northern Ireland
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments 2 to 147.
I just heard what you had to read through, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have 147 amendments, so I hope the Chair has changed by the time we have got through them. However, I do not think we will be taking them individually.
When we sent the Bill to the Lords some months ago, there was considerable cross-party consensus on its aims and measures. After exercising robust scrutiny, we made a number of amendments in this House, including the significant addition of the Magnitsky clause on gross human rights abuses and violations, which I believe significantly improves the legislation. I am pleased to say that the same consensus continued in the House of Lords and that the group before us consists only of Government amendments.
With Prorogation imminent, it is crucial that we get the many valuable powers in the Bill on to the statute book, including unexplained wealth orders, the seizure and forfeiture powers, and the offences of corporate failure to prevent tax evasion. I welcome the support of colleagues across the House to ensure that we can achieve that goal. Although there are 147 amendments in the group, I reassure hon. Members that they are to a great extent minor or technical changes that aim to enhance the operation of the Bill’s existing measures. I will briefly highlight some of the most significant measures.
Undoubtedly, the issue that received the most substantial scrutiny in the House of Lords was that of company ownership transparency in the British overseas territories with financial centres and the Crown dependencies. This topic is of great interest to right hon. and hon. Members in this House. As part of our international efforts to increase corporate transparency, the Government continue to work closely with our overseas territories and Crown dependencies to combat corruption and ensure that they implement the commitments they have made on law enforcement access to beneficial ownership data by the deadline of June this year.
I met the Chief Ministers of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man earlier this week to discuss their progress, and pressed again our ambition for transparent registers. Yesterday, I co-chaired a meeting of peers and the London representatives of the overseas territories, so that they could update us on their efforts so far.
Once the commitments have been implemented, they will put the UK and our overseas territories and Crown dependencies well ahead of most jurisdictions in terms of transparency, including many of our G20 partners and other major corporate and financial centres, including some states in the United States. As I have said previously, we should be proud of that fact and of the progress we have made since the anti-corruption summit last year. These arrangements will prevent criminals from hiding behind anonymous shell companies and bring significant benefits in terms of the capacity and information that UK law enforcement authorities will have at their disposal to tackle criminal activity and investigate bribery and corruption, money laundering and tax evasion.
It is right, however, that we review the effectiveness of the implementation to assess whether the arrangements are delivering the outcomes that we and our law enforcement agencies are after. That is why we amended the Bill in the House of Lords to require a statutory review of the progress made by the territories against their existing commitments. That report will be laid in Parliament, so that the House can revisit this issue as appropriate in due course.
Some peers and right hon. and hon. Members would have liked us to go further. However, as I have made clear, we are making considerable progress by working consensually with the territories and respect our constitutional settlements with them. The Government maintain that it would not be appropriate to force legislation on jurisdictions that are, to a great extent, self-governing. With Prorogation growing ever nearer, I welcome the fact that that amendment was strongly supported by peers of all parties. I trust that hon. Members will agree that it is a sensible way forward at this stage.
Turning to the provisions that were already in the Bill, we have made a number of amendments to the proposed operation of unexplained wealth orders. The hon. Members for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) raised concerns that the £100,000 threshold for the imposition of unexplained wealth orders could disadvantage law enforcement agencies in certain parts of the country, particularly where property values may be lower or the proceeds of crime more evenly shared out. The Northern Ireland Executive raised similar concerns. In the light of that, Lords amendments 2 and 15 will lower the threshold from £100,000 to £50,000, as was requested by the SNP. The threshold remains an important safeguard that will be considered by the court, along with other factors, before unexplained wealth orders can be made.
Following concerns raised in the Lords and by the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) in evidence to the Public Bill Committee, further amendments were made in the Lords to ensure that unexplained wealth orders could be applied in relation to property held in trusts or other complex ownership arrangements, including through a foreign company. Those amendments will help to ensure that the orders have the greatest possible impact once law enforcement agencies can use them.
Lastly in relation to unexplained wealth orders, Lords amendments 11 and 33 provide for a compensation scheme in relation to the interim freezing orders that can accompany an order. Such a freezing order would be used to ensure that someone does not scarper while we go to court to put in place an order. We therefore need a compensation scheme, should the court decide an order is not appropriate. That is an important safeguard to circumscribe the use of such powers.
Hon. Members will recall that we extended the seizure and forfeiture powers in chapter 3 of part 1 on Report in the Commons to cover gaming vouchers and casino chips, following another concern raised by Opposition Members. Following a representation from the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway, Lords amendments 47 to 49 and 91 to 93 will also allow law enforcement agencies to seize a betting slip where they suspect that the funds used to place the bet are the proceeds of crime. Those provisions will be subject to the same safeguards as those on cash seizure, and we will work with bookmakers and their trade associations to ensure that the measures are used effectively. I trust that hon. Members will welcome that further expansion of the powers.
On a related issue, Lords amendments 69 to 71 will allow for legal expenses to be deducted from any property recovered under the seizure and forfeiture powers, helping to ensure that they function effectively in practice.
Following discussions with banks and other regulated bodies, Lords amendment 36 will extend the period in which companies can share information with each other to tackle money laundering. At present, information sharing can take place for 28 days from the initial notification; we are extending that to 84 days. That takes account of more complex cases where, for example, numerous banks may have relevant information. It is a further sign of this Government’s commitment to working in partnership with the private sector to tackle money laundering. It will help to ensure that the information sharing provisions underpin the incredibly important work of the joint money laundering intelligence taskforce.
As I said at the outset, there are a number of other Lords amendments in the group that provide for minor or technical changes to the existing provisions. I do not expect that any of them will provoke significant concern among hon. Members, but I would, as ever, be happy to address specific queries during my closing remarks.
I hope that the House agrees that the amendments that have been made in the Lords improve the Bill, which, as I have said, has been the subject of significant cross-party support throughout its passage. The Bill, as amended, will ensure that law enforcement agencies have the tools they need to tackle money laundering and terrorist financing and to work as effectively as possible with the private sector on those crucial national security priorities.
We must, of course, remember that the Bill is only one element of the Government’s wider approach to tackling corruption and other serious and organised crime. I referred in earlier debates to Labour’s Bribery Act 2010, which is another plank in the assault on corruption. That goes to the heart of how the Bill is part of a wider package and continual process of tackling corruption.
I was pleased that there was a call for evidence on the review of limited partnerships, which closed on 17 March 2017, as this allowed people to make their concerns known about the abuse of Scottish limited partnerships that we have all seen and that has been evidenced by The Herald newspaper throughout this process. I thank the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, who has been an effective champion on this issue. I hope that, once the review is completed and we see the results, he and I will be in agreement about the next steps. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy officials are analysing the responses and expect to submit advice on options to Ministers shortly after the election.
The Ministry of Justice has conducted an initial call for evidence to examine the case for changes to the law on corporate criminality liability for wider forms of economic crime. It is considering the responses at present. We are also strengthening the supervisory regimes for the regulated sector, including proposals for a new office of professional body anti-money laundering supervision—OPBAS, I am told it is called—in the Financial Conduct Authority, to help ensure that the non-statutory supervisors comply with their obligations in the money laundering regulations.
The UK’s public register of beneficial ownership information—the first of its type in the G20—has been up and running since June 2016. Recently, we published proposals for a further public beneficial ownership register for foreign legal entities to increase the transparency of overseas investment in UK property and central Government procurement contracts. We are continuing to reform the suspicious activity report regime, including through investment in systems and processes to complement the legislative reforms. Following a commitment at last year’s anti-corruption summit, we have worked closely with civil society, businesses and practitioners to develop the first UK anti-corruption strategy.
I am pleased that we have reached this stage of the Bill’s consideration in such a constructive fashion. I invite the House to agree to the Lords amendments before us, so that this crucial legislation can be enacted without further delay.
I rise to speak on behalf of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition for the final occasion in the current Parliament.
The Minister talked about cross-party co-operation and Labour’s Bribery Act 2010, which the Bill builds on, as well as the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. We welcome all the Government’s technical amendments, because we want a Bill that works and prevents financial crime.
We all remember the heady days of 2016, when the Bill was first announced. We remember the headlines about the possibility that the assets of human rights abusers who bought London homes would be seized and all the rhetoric about cleaning up dirty money. We welcome the Bill and we are happy to support the amendments, most of which are technical and will ensure that some measures in the Bill will work more effectively. They perform a tidying-up function. We particularly support the measures that are intended to ensure that unexplained wealth orders cannot be circumvented through trusts or other complex financial arrangements, and we welcome the thought that has gone into the specific arrangements for the devolved Governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We in the Labour party hope that the return of an inclusive devolved Government in Northern Ireland will be achieved as soon as possible.
Let me now say something about Lords amendment 34. Throughout the Bill’s passage through the House of Commons, we have consistently returned to the elephant in the room: beneficial ownership and transparency in the United Kingdom’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies. I do not want to restate all the arguments—there is no time for me to do so, because we all have to go back to our constituencies and prepare for power, do we not?—but I believe that my position, and that of the Labour party, is clear. Labour believes that the Government have a moral duty to ensure that our overseas territories and Crown dependencies adopt publicly accessible registers of beneficial ownership to prevent them from being at the global epicentre of illicit financial practices, which damage developing countries and the world economy. They contribute to geopolitical instability, and they do our reputation harm as well. We have seen headlines that, while not suggesting that dead bodies can be seen piling up on the streets of London, make it clear that malpractices have been taking place.
The argument can run and run, and we can have another day for it, but I take heart from the Government’s realisation that a step in the right direction on the long and winding road is ensuring that the new arrangements for information sharing between the relevant territories and the UK’s enforcement agencies are subject to an open and transparent review. Territories such as the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands have been astute. They are very clever at using what are essentially tokenistic, box-ticking consultations—soi-disant, in inverted commas—to argue that compliance, competitiveness and security concerns hamper their adoption of centralised and closed registers of beneficial ownership. They do that because they know they can get away with it. They know that having a centralised, as opposed to a decentralised, platform brings them one step closer to laying the foundations for a public register in the future. That is the holy grail. That is what is at the end of the rainbow—what we are all looking for.
The Government’s concession on the issue is much appreciated, but I believe that the original Labour amendment would have been a far more effective vehicle for assessing the substance of the overseas territories’ claims that they are unable to have public registers of beneficial ownership owing to those compliance, security and competitiveness concerns—all the pretexts and excuses that are being wheeled out. We firmly believe that this is a missed opportunity for Britain. The systems of British overseas territories and Crown dependencies allow tax avoidance on what some people describe as an industrial scale. It does go on, and we cannot pretend that it does not. The Government’s unwillingness to support our position on registers of beneficial ownership is unforgivable. Sadly, it shows that the Conservative party is not serious enough about money laundering. It could do better. We used to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime—indeed, we still are—but the Conservatives could be tougher on financial crime. They are not as tough as they would have us believe.
Money laundering and corruption have been identified as high-priority threats in the National Crime Agency’s national control strategy. The Minister mentioned last year’s summit under David Cameron. How long ago it all seems! Times are changing before our eyes. Those threats have also been identified in the UK’s strategic defence and security review, its national risk assessment of money laundering and terrorist financing and its overseas development aid strategy. Incidentally, I welcome the fact that the 0.7% commitment remains in the Conservative manifesto.
We all know that international terror networks require large-scale and continuous funding to conduct their operations. It could not be clearer that a finance sector embroiled in money laundering and tax avoidance is a threat to us all. I grant that the Bill is a step in the right direction, but it is regrettable that it does not contain provision for public registers of beneficial ownership. It is a case of two steps forward, one step back. However, I am not surprised that the Government are unperturbed by having missed this opportunity, given their threat to turn post-Brexit Britain into a low-wage tax haven in which workers’ rights will potentially be tossed aside.
We are in a wash-up period, so let us hope that a Bill that was announced with such fanfare is not washed up on a beach of lost dreams. We now find ourselves caught up in a precipitous rush to an election that is taking place with almost indecent haste. Whatever happened to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011? It really is not worth the paper that it is written on. This election is taking place for no other reason than political expediency. I very much hope that on the other side of it we will be in government, but wherever we are, we will be watching what happens next.
If the forthcoming review demonstrates that the decentralised platforms favoured by the overseas territories are impeding the operational efficacy of our enforcement agencies, Labour Members will demand that the Government react immediately to ensure that all platforms are centralised and made public. The review is not the end of the path towards transparency for those territories; it is merely the start. The Labour party will continue to fight to ensure that they eventually embrace full openness and transparency.
Unlike some other Members, Madam Deputy Speaker, I did not make my maiden speech with you in the Chair, but I seem to have made a number of speeches in front of you, although some have been made to an empty Chamber. Perhaps, if we are both lucky enough to be re-elected, we will not be drawing the short straw during the next parliamentary term.
As the Minister said, the Bill’s passage has been widely consensual and co-operative. We have managed to work together across all party boundaries in Committee, at various meetings, in discussions with the Minister and during debates on the Floor of the House. We have reached a point at which we think that the Bill is a very decent start towards the longer-term goal of tackling and eradicating financial criminality. I think that everyone agrees with those aims. Of course, we think that the Bill could be improved, and I am sure that the Minister will be minded to agree, in theory, with the principles of the improvements that we envisage. I trust that we will work on that as time goes on.
Touching now on some of the Lords amendments, I was delighted to hear the Minister say that the threshold for unexplained wealth orders will be reduced from £100,000 to £50,000 pursuant to the submissions we made in the Bill Committee. It was gracious of the Minister to give us that credit at the Dispatch Box, and it is taken graciously. There are very good reasons why the threshold should be £50,000, and the Minister acknowledged them in his speech. The last thing we want is something in the terms and conditions—the facets and facilities—of an UWO that could be used by the criminals to get one step ahead and subvert that process. Bringing the threshold down goes a long way towards closing off the gaps for the criminals; I thank the Minister for that and am glad that this change will be in the Bill in its final form.
The inclusion of betting slips as a form of cash in the Bill is also welcome. That was a Scottish National party election pledge, and we are proud that it has been delivered in the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) has made significant political waves on the issue of Scottish limited partnerships, and special mention must go to the journalists David Leask and Richard Smith from the Herald—as acknowledged by the Minister—who have done some great investigative journalism on this subject over the last couple of years.
I had not intended to participate in this debate, but just want to acknowledge the co-operative way in which the Minister has responded.
I corroborate that: the Minister has never given any indication at any point in the process that he does not agree with the thrust of what we have been saying. It is heartening to hear that he has corroborated our position in the consultation. My only request to him—and I will take him at face value—is that he and his Department show the same energy in tackling this issue beyond the consultation period, so that we can finally get rid of the scourge of the awful vehicle of the Scottish limited partnership, which brings this place and our economy into disrepute.
The question of compelling jurisdictions to publish registers of beneficial ownership has been a hot topic during the debates on the Bill. I would have preferred a situation where we could justify persuading or compelling overseas territories to publish registers of beneficial ownership, although we in the SNP would, rightly, always stop short of allowing this place to tell another jurisdiction what it can and cannot do; clearly, that is consistent with what we believe on constitutional issues. For that reason alone, I am pleased, although not overwhelmingly so, by the new provisions in the Bill. There is a commitment for discussions and an assessment to take place in relation to the information-sharing between the territories and the UK Government. We have had good and constructive discussions with all the territories and with the Government, and they all assure us that, on a 24-hour turnaround, information can be ascertained to aid the tackling of financial criminality in the UK. That is a good and reassuring assurance, but it must be documented and proved in this House.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) on contributing to putting some real teeth into this Bill. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway agree that the Government’s compromise amendment 34 on sharing beneficial ownership information is not really a compromise at all, and instead just a restatement of existing Government policy, with no mention of transparency or of developing countries? Does he also agree that this is a lost opportunity, in light of the Panama papers, to grasp the issue of corruption and work a bit harder to ensure real transparency in the OTs, so that we can stop the sucking away of money from developing countries?
I agree with my hon. and learned Friend, but the jurisdictional issue still comes into play. Although of course I agree completely with the thrust of her substantive argument that it would be sensible to compel the OTs to publish these registers, unless I can satisfy myself that this place has locus to do so, I would find it very difficult to support that suggestion. My view is that we will never fully rid the financial sector of financial criminality until we have a uniform publication of registers of beneficial ownership, and we must strive to achieve that.
Despite the cross-party co-operation, I was somewhat perturbed by the Labour Front-Bench Member saying that its position is clear on this matter. I do not agree; it has not been clear. In particular, an amendment was put before the House when the Bill was previously before it that would have compelled the Crown dependencies to publish their registers, but with nothing against the OTs. That should have been the other way around. Therefore, we could not support that amendment, but we would have been willing to support an amendment in relation to the OTs. That might well have been a missed opportunity.
Throughout the passage of this Bill we have sought to co-operate, and, more importantly, we have sought to widen the debate beyond the technicalities and the manifestations of financial criminality contained in the Bill. We think that the banking culture in the UK is a significant facilitator and indeed the root cause of financial criminality, and that we will never have the tools to eradicate it fully until we tackle that root cause. I do not think that that is a particularly controversial point. I can understand why the Minister was keen not to include the provision for a banking culture review in the Bill, although we would have done so, but I urge the Conservative Front-Bench team—or whoever is in government after the next election—to pursue this point. The banking culture that has developed over the last generation is the real facilitator of financial criminality and it must be reviewed and brought to task.
We have sought to widen the debate in relation to whistleblowing. Whistleblowers need genuine, material and proper protection. It is not easy for people working in large financial services organisations who see things to report to their boss that things are not as they ought to be. People who find themselves in that position should have the maximum protection from this place, to feel able to bring that information forward so that the regulators, the Government and all of us can react accordingly. That will be crucial in the future.
Therefore, while we accept and agree with what is in the Bill, I do not want the conversation to stop here. It should continue beyond this Bill, to examining how we can tighten things up further and deal with some of the underlying root causes of financial criminality, not just the manifestations and the vehicles to tackle it.
I conclude by saying that I am delighted that I will be fighting the general election in Dumfries and Galloway for the SNP. We will be giving it everything we have got, and hopefully sending this Prime Minister homewards to think again.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 147 agreed to, with Commons financial privilege waived in respect of Lords amendments 11 and 33.
Higher Education and Research Bill
Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendments 23, 138 and 139. If agreed by the House, I will cause an appropriate entry to be made in the Journal. I also remind the House that certain of the motions relating to the Lords amendments will be certified as relating exclusively to England and Wales, as set out on the selection paper. If the House divides on any certified motion, a double majority will be required for the motion to be passed. I also alert Members to the fact that an additional paper has been published today containing three additional motions to disagree to Lords amendments 183, 184 and 185. I am sure that the Minister will explain this further to the House. The first motion to be taken is to disagree with the Lords in their amendment 1, with which it will be convenient to consider the other motions and amendments as on the selection paper. I call the Minister to move to disagree with Lords amendment 1.
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendments (a) to (d) in lieu of Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendments 2 to 11.
Lords amendment 12, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 209, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 210, and Government motion to disagree.
Government amendments (a) to (g) in lieu of Lords amendments 12, 209 and 210.
Lords amendments 13 and 14.
Lords amendment 15, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.
Lords amendments 16 to 22.
Lords amendment 23, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (c) in lieu.
Lords amendments 24 to 70.
Lords amendment 71, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
Lords amendments 72 to 77.
Lords amendment 78, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 106, and Government motion to disagree.
Government amendments (a) to (h) in lieu of Lords amendments 78 and 106.
Lords amendments 79 to 105.
Lords amendments 107 to 155.
Lords amendment 156, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (c) in lieu.
Lords amendments 157 to 182.
Lords amendment 183, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 184, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 185, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 186 to 208.
Lords amendments 211 to 244.
The Higher Education and Research Bill sets out the most significant legislative reforms of the sector for 25 years. The world of higher education has changed fundamentally since the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, leaving a regulatory system that is complex, fragmented and out of date. The sector has consistently called for new legislation to update the regulatory framework and just yesterday the two main sector groups, Universities UK and GuildHE, reiterated their full support for this important legislation.
Given its scale and importance, this Bill has understandably received robust and constructive debate as it has progressed through this House and the other place. I would like to put on record my thanks to all Members and noble Lords who have engaged with it during the process, throughout which we have listened, reflected and responded. This group includes no fewer than 240 amendments agreed in the other place which strengthen and improve the drafting of the Bill. They cover a range of issues including institutional autonomy, the inclusion of collaboration and diversity of provision in the Office for Students’ duties, student transfer and accelerated degrees. The other place also agreed amendments to strengthen the research provisions in the Bill, including putting the Haldane principle into legislation for the very first time. Today, I am pleased to show once again that we are willing to engage and respond. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me if I speak at some length: there are many important points that I would like to set out clearly.
Turning first to Lords amendment 1, we listened carefully to the debate in the other place about the role and functions of universities. At its heart was the importance of protecting institutional autonomy, which we fully support. We responded to this with a significant package of amendments designed to provide robust and meaningful protection of institutional autonomy across the whole of the Bill, which I was pleased to see receive support from all parties. On the definition of a university, in a limited sense a university can be described as predominantly a degree-level provider with awarding powers. If we want a broader definition, we can say that a university is also expected to be an institution that brings together a body of scholars to form a cohesive and self-critical academic community to provide excellent learning opportunities for people. We expect teaching at such an institution to be informed by a combination of research, scholarship and professional practice. To distinguish it from what we conventionally understand a school’s role to be, we can say that a university is a place where students are developing higher analytical capacities: critical thinking, curiosity about the world and higher levels of abstract capacity in their analysis.
Further, the strength of the university sector is based on its diversity and we should continue to recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach is not in the interests of students or of wider society. In particular, small and specialist providers that support, for example, the creative arts, theology and agriculture have allowed more students with highly specialised career aims the opportunity to study at a university. Indeed, as we have said in our White Paper and throughout the passage of the Bill, the diversity of the sector and opportunities for students have grown as a result of the important changes introduced by the previous Labour Government in 2004, including the lifting of the requirement for universities to have students in five subject areas and to award research degrees. No one would want, and we would not expect, to go back on the specific changes that the party opposite made.
To protect the use of university title, we have tabled amendments (a) to (d) to Lords amendment 1 to ensure that before allowing the use of that title, the Office for Students must have regard to factors in guidance given by the Secretary of State, and that before giving the guidance, the Secretary of State must consult relevant bodies and persons. This consultation will be full and broad. It will reference processes and practice overseas, for example in Australia, and provide an opportunity to consider a broad range of factors before granting university title. Those factors might include a track record of excellent teaching; sustained scholarship; cohesive academic communities; interdisciplinary approaches; supportive learning infrastructures; the dissemination of knowledge; the public-facing role of universities; academic freedom and freedom of speech; and wider support for students and pastoral care.
In the other place, we tabled an amendment based on a proposal from Baroness Wolf requiring the Office for Students to take expert advice from a relevant body on quality and standards before granting, varying, or revoking degree-awarding powers. I can confirm that the role of the relevant body will be similar to that of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s advisory committee on degree-awarding powers, and the system we are putting in place will build on the QAA’s valuable work over the years.
Amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 71 further strengthens that provision. Specifically, the amendment makes it clear that, if there is not a designated quality body to perform the role, the committee that the OFS must establish to perform it must feature a majority of members who are not members of the OFS. Further, in appointing those members, the OFS must consider the requirement that the committee’s advice be informed by the interests listed in the proposed new clause, which will ensure that the advice is impartial and informed. The amendment also makes it clear that the advice must include a view on whether the provider under consideration can maintain quality and standards, and it requires the OFS to notify the Secretary of State as soon as possible after it grants degree-awarding powers to a provider that has not previously delivered a degree course under a validation arrangement.
I also confirm that I expect the Secretary of State’s guidance to the OFS on DAPs to continue to require that a provider’s eligibility be reviewed if there is a change in its circumstances, such as a merger or a change of ownership. The OFS has powers under the Bill to remove DAPs from a provider where there are concerns as to the quality or standards of its higher education provision following such a change. We expect the OFS to seek advice from the relevant body on any such quality concerns before taking the step of revocation.
In the other place we made amendments providing additional safeguards on the revocation of DAPs and university title, recognising that those are last-resort powers. Amendments were also made relating to appeals against such decisions. Amendments (a) to (h) in lieu of Lords amendments 78 and 106 achieve the same aims as the Lords amendments but will align the wording more closely with terminology used elsewhere in legislation. The amendments allow an appeal on unlimited grounds, and permit the First-tier Tribunal to retake any decision of the OFS to revoke DAPs or university title.
Over the course of the Bill’s passage we have seen complete consensus in both Houses on the importance of teaching in higher education. We have always been a world leader in our approach to higher education in this country, but we cannot and should not be complacent. The teaching excellence framework offers us the opportunity to safeguard the UK’s best teaching and to raise standards across the sector. For the TEF to work properly, however, there must be reputational and financial incentives behind it. We propose to disagree with Lords amendments 12 and 23, which would render the TEF unworkable.
Almost 300 providers took part in the first round of assessments, and we have received vocal support for the TEF from the major sector representatives. The sector has voted with its feet and has demonstrated real confidence in the framework. It would not be appropriate to stop or fundamentally alter the TEF now.
I hear what the Minister is saying about the TEF, but does he accept that, although there might be widespread consent across the sector for a TEF-type exercise, the sector is not happy about the traffic light system and wants to see the review he is establishing?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point, which enables me to discuss the amendment that the Government have tabled precisely to address those concerns.
I am pleased to present to the House a series of amendments that demonstrate our continued commitment to developing the teaching excellence framework iteratively and carefully. We have consulted widely on the TEF, and we want to continue drawing on the best expertise as we develop this important scheme. That is why I am pleased to have tabled amendment (c) in lieu of Lords amendment 23, as it requires the Secretary of State to commission an independent review of the TEF within one year of the TEF clause being commenced. Crucially, the amendment requires the Secretary of State to lay the report before Parliament, ensuring parliamentary accountability for the framework as it moves forward.
The report must cover many aspects that have concerned Members of this House and the other place, including whether the metrics used are fit for use in the TEF; whether the names of the ratings, to which the hon. Lady alluded, are appropriate for use in the TEF; the impact of the TEF on the ability of providers to carry out their research, teaching and other functions; and an assessment of whether the scheme is, all things considered, in the public interest. I am happy to confirm that the Secretary of State will take account of the review and, if he or she considers it appropriate, will provide guidance to the OFS accordingly, including on any changes to the scheme that the review suggests might be needed, whether in relation to the metrics or any of the other items the review will look at.
We have also heard concerns about the impact of the link between TEF and fees. We recognise the important role of Parliament in setting fee caps. That is why I am also pleased to propose amendments (a) to (g) in lieu of amendments 12, 209 and 210, which amend the parliamentary procedure required to alter fee limit amounts, to ensure that any regulations that would raise fees would be subject, as a minimum, to the affirmative procedure. That provides a greater level of parliamentary oversight on fees than the measures originally put in place under the Labour Government in 2004. I have also today brought forward a further motion to disagree with Lords amendments 183 to 185, which are no longer required as a consequence of these amendments. That is a purely technical change as a result of the wider set of amendments regarding fee amounts.
Furthermore, today’s amendments demonstrate our commitment to a considered roll-out of differentiated fees. Amendments in lieu (c ) and (d) will delay the link between differentiated TEF ratings and tuition fee caps, so that this will not come in for more than three years, with the first year of differentiated fees as a result of TEF ratings being no earlier than the academic year beginning autumn 2020.
If I have understood it correctly, the linking of the TEF and the fee level is just being postponed, and these things are not being completely decoupled. I wonder whether the Minister might be able to provide reassurance to the University of West London in my constituency, which has 17,000 students who are worried about this. They like Lords amendment 156, which relates to international students, and fear that they are going to go completely bankrupt if things are not kept as they are in the Lords amendment.
I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are committed to ensuring that universities are able to increase their fees in line with inflation, provided they can demonstrate that they are delivering high-quality outcomes through the TEF. We are going to be introducing this scheme gradually and we are not going to be differentiating according to the fee uplift that institutions are able to get before the academic year starting August 2020; until that point there will be no differentiation of fee uplift based on performance in the TEF.
This means that differentiated fees will not be introduced until after the independent review has reported to the Secretary of State and to Parliament. Until that point all English providers participating in the TEF will receive the full inflationary uplift. It will be up to devolved Administrations, as before, to determine whether they are content for their institutions to participate in the TEF and what impact participation may have on their fees. I can confirm today that the ratings awarded under the TEF this year will not be used to determine differentiated fees, unless a provider actively chooses not to re-enter the TEF after the independent review. In practice, this means that this year’s ratings will only count towards differentiated fees if, after the review, a provider does not ask for a fresh assessment before their next one is due—that is an opportunity that will be open to all participants.
Before moving on to our other amendments, I would like to reiterate our commitment that the TEF will evolve to assess the quality of teaching at subject level, as well as institutional level. We recognise that subject-level assessments are more challenging, which is why I have already announced an extension to the roll-out of subject-level TEF pilots, with an additional year of piloting. This follows the best practice demonstrated in the research excellence framework, and means the first subject-level assessments will not take place until spring 2020.
In both this House and the other place, we have heard compelling arguments about the importance of student electoral registration. I commend the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for his passionate work on that issue. Having worked closely with my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution, I am pleased to propose Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu of Lords amendment 15. Our amendments will improve the electoral registration of students by permitting the Office for Students to impose a condition of registration on higher education providers that requires their governing bodies to take steps specified by the OFS to facilitate co-operation with electoral registration officers in England. The amendments place that requirement firmly within the new higher education regulatory framework while, equally importantly, maintaining unaltered the statutory roles and responsibilities of EROs for ensuring the accuracy of the electoral register. The provisions will complement EROs’ existing powers.
In implementing the condition, the OFS will be obliged to have regard to ministerial guidance issued under the general duties clause, which will lay out what the Government expect in relation to the electoral registration condition, alongside expectations about other functions of the OFS. There are many excellent examples from across the sector of methods of encouraging students to join the electoral register, including the models put in place by the University of Sheffield—in the constituency of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central—that provide an example of good practice.
Through the Government’s amendments, the OFS will have a specific power to impose an electoral registration condition to deal with HE providers that are not doing enough to co-operate with electoral administrators. When a condition is imposed, it takes effect as a requirement—it will oblige action to be taken. The clear aim is for the OFS to look across the sector and, when needed, ensure that necessary action is taken. The condition can require particular steps to be taken so that higher education providers work with EROs to facilitate registration. As with any registration condition, non-compliance is enforceable, including through OFS sanctions.
I thank the Minister for his comments on the work that we have done on this issue. The Cabinet Office has been extremely helpful from the very start in supporting the initiative with the University of Sheffield. Nevertheless, does the Minister recognise that the critical game-changer is the seamless integration of electoral registration and student enrolment? When other universities—not only Sheffield—have taken that up, they have seen levels of registration that the simple promotion of the voter registration portal, or giving direction towards it, have not succeeded in achieving. In monitoring the effectiveness of the Government’s proposals, will the Minister look at effective outputs? If universities’ outputs through methods of co-operation with electoral registration officers do not deliver the sort of 70% mark that integrated systems have delivered, will he expect them to be pushed in that direction by the Office for Students?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his continued and thoughtful engagement with this issue. We look forward to continuing to work with him as we develop the guidance that will be given to the OFS. As we have said previously, we do not expect that there will be a one-size-fits-all approach. We need an approach that recognises the particular circumstances at different institutions. We look forward to continuing to engage closely with the hon. Gentleman in the coming weeks and months, subject to the results on 8 June.
It is vital for this country that we have a healthy democracy that works for everyone. The Government share the aim of increasing the number of students and young people who are registered to vote. It is vital that the views of students and young people are taken into account in the democratic process, and our amendments will help to deliver that.
Last but by no means least, amendments (a) to (c) in lieu of Lords amendment 156 relate to international students. I reiterate that the Government value and welcome international students who come to study in the UK. We recognise that they enhance our educational institutions, both financially and culturally, enrich the experience of domestic students, and become important ambassadors for the UK in later life. It is for those reasons that we have no plan to limit the number of genuine international students who can come to study in the United Kingdom. I need to be very clear that that commitment applies to all institutions. We have no intention of limiting any institution’s ability to recruit genuine international students. We have no plans to cap the number of genuine students who can come to the UK to study, or to limit an institution’s ability to recruit genuine international students based on its TEF rating or on any other basis.
Can the Minister explain the logic of including in a statistic which the Government wish to limit a statistic that they have no desire to limit?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that this Government welcome international students, who deliver huge value to our institutions, our economy and our learning environment. However, it is also important to recognise that the independent Office for National Statistics classifies students as part of migration. The ONS has an independent status and it applies that definition accordingly. It is appropriate that the matter is treated in the way that it is at present in our immigration system.
I thank the Minister for these amendments, as they reflect very well what the Education Committee said in its recent report on the university sector and implications of leaving the European Union. I, like the Minister, believe that it is important to ensure that our sector—this very important sector—is attractive abroad.
Indeed. No one would disagree with that. It is good news that the UK continues to be a highly attractive place in which international students can come to study. Numbers of international students are running at record highs, and we have more than 170,000 non-EU entrants to UK higher education institutions for the sixth year running. The latest Home Office visa data show that, since 2011, university-sponsored visa applications have risen by around 10%.
I will take one more intervention—[Interruption.] I will take two more interventions on this subject.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but he is being rather selective with the statistics, because the UK is losing market share across the world when it comes to international students. In fact, the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that the UK has seen a reduction of more than 50% in students coming to the UK from India. More than half of international students in the UK say that they do not feel welcome. Does he recognise the scale of that problem?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is being selective. I can easily point to the 8% increase in visas from Chinese nationals in 2016. Overall, if we look at the numbers since 2011, visa applications are up by 10%, but let us not get distracted further. I will take a further intervention and then I shall move on.
My hon. Friend has been a great advocate on this issue for a long time. I personally thank him for delivering these amendments. Given that there will be a new duty on institutions to give out their numbers of international students, what will happen to institutions that, for any reason, do not give that information to HESA under the terms of the enforcement powers?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. We would expect all higher education providers on the OFS register to be compliant with the duties and conditions imposed on them. If they are not, the OFS has a range of regulatory tools at its disposal to deal with such eventualities.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
For the last time.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I understand his discomfort on the issue. He talked about numbers, but does he not recognise that in the latest year for which numbers are available—2014-15—new enrolments of international students fell by 3%, so he cannot say that the numbers are going up?
We can certainly say that visa applications have risen by around 10% since 2011, although there might be fluctuations from year to year. That has been the case for many periods in the history of international students coming to study in this country. There has not been a story of continued growth; there have been ups and downs. Since 2010, which is a longer timeframe, we have seen applications up by around 10%.
Lords amendment 156 could do real damage. For example, it would prevent international students being treated as long-term migrants. The internationally recognised definition of a long-term migrant is anyone moving countries for a period of more than a year. If we were not able to apply to international students the key features of our work immigration regime, such as the need to obtain a time-limited visa that specifies the terms on which the migrant can come and a requirement to return home upon expiry of the visa, that could undermine our whole student migration system. I cannot advise the House to agree to that amendment.
Secondly, the Lords amendment would prohibit any change to the future student migration regime that could be interpreted as more restrictive than that in force when the Bill is passed. Any future changes—even minor technical changes—would require fresh primary legislation rather than being made by immigration rules laid before Parliament. I do not believe that that would be sensible or helpful, particularly given how crowded the forthcoming legislative programme is likely to be.
That said, I recognise