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—
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.