House of Commons
Tuesday 27 June 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I have a short statement to make. I would like to draw Members’ attention to the fact that the book for entering the private Members’ Bills ballot is now open for Members to sign in the No Lobby. It will be open until the House rises today and when the House is sitting on Wednesday 28 June. The ballot itself will be drawn at 9 am on Thursday 29 June in Committee Room 10. An announcement setting out these and other arrangements, and the dates when ten-minute rule motions can be made and presentation Bills introduced, is published in the Order Paper.
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
North Sea Oil and Gas
1. What recent discussions he has had with trade bodies and companies involved in extracting oil and gas from the North sea. 
My Department is in regular contact with the oil and gas industry. As hon. Members will be aware, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), met industry representatives regularly, both in London and in Aberdeen. On 23 March the Oil and Gas Authority awarded licences for 111 blocks to enable exploration and production across frontier areas—the first licensing round to focus on frontier areas in two decades. I look forward to continuing this relationship, which is very important for jobs and the wider economy. Indeed, in my first week in post I attended a reception at Imperial College London and met several companies and trade bodies in the field.
I thank the Minister for that answer and warmly welcome him to his new post. In 2016 the Chancellor announced that action would be taken to improve the tax regime for late-life asset transfers. In the 2017 Budget he re-announced the same policy, but now an expert panel is to be set up. Can the Minister let me know how many times the expert panel has met so far, and when we can expect the outcomes of its deliberations to be made public, as it says they will be on the gov.uk website?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. She and I have worked together in previous roles, and I look forward to visiting Aberdeen, where hopefully she will be able to explain this further. As far as late-life assets are concerned, we realise how important it is to get this right, and not just for the jobs and tax revenue, but for generating further investment. The discussion paper and the panel of experts are considering this. We look forward to hearing a wide range of views and will report our findings at the autumn Budget.
The Minister will be aware that over the past decade Qatar has become an increasingly important source of gas for the UK, not least from imports of liquefied natural gas through my constituency. What steps is he taking to ensure that the current diplomatic crisis in the Gulf affecting Qatar does not lead to any disruption of energy supply into the UK?
As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the Government are monitoring the situation very carefully, and we do not believe that it will make any difference whatsoever to liquefied gas supplies.
I welcome the Minister to his new post. Getting back to the North sea, the kind of action described by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) is vital, especially to help along the return optimism. The Scottish Government have invested £5 million to explore decommissioning opportunities in oil and gas that could grow many new jobs. When will we get action from the UK Government, and when will we see a robust and comprehensive future energy strategy from the UK Government?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government have been very actively involved in funding seismic surveys and the 3D visualisation centre at Heriot-Watt University. I am looking forward to the next licensing round and to dealing with the strategy he mentioned. I should mention the Kraken development, which the Government have supported, because the first barrels of oil were produced last week, and we look forward to there being 50,000 barrels a day at peak.
The fact is that the UK Government have been slow to realise the potential of decommissioning, pulled funding from vital carbon capture and storage pipeline projects, failed adequately to address the drop in renewable energy investment and plunged public funds into risky and poor-value nuclear power projects against the advice of experts. When will this Government wake up and take our energy opportunities seriously?
I am afraid that I must completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s view of things. We are committed to supporting the development of a decommissioning industry. I think that there are significant opportunities. We are currently considering options for the delivery of a port and yard, and we will continue to engage closely with all relevant stakeholders as we develop our options.
Leaving the EU: Business Consultation
2. What steps he has taken to consult businesses on the process of the UK leaving the EU. 
Since the referendum, I have held discussions with businesses, workers and local leaders across the UK, and investors all around the world. These will continue over the coming months, including my weekly meetings with the directors general of the five main business organisations. The Government are creating a new EU exit business advisory group to ensure that business is not only heard but is influential throughout the negotiations.
My particular interest is in the UK’s life science sector, which is worth some £30 billion to the economy and involves nearly half a million jobs, many of which are in my constituency of Bury St Edmunds. Will the Secretary of State tell me how he will ensure that there is continued support to this vital leading research and science sector as we leave the EU?
I will indeed. My hon. Friend is a great champion of the sector. In our negotiations, we want to ensure that we can continue these successful collaborations, as well as making further investment in the future of research through our industrial strategy. The House may be interested to know that I can announce today that the Government’s commitment to underwrite the UK’s fair share for the Joint European Torus costs—the leading nuclear fusion facility in Oxfordshire, supporting 1,300 jobs—will be made. The facility is funded through a contract between the European Commission and the UK Atomic Energy Authority. In making this commitment, the Government hope to provide the certainty and reassurance needed for a mutually beneficial extension of the contract.
All the five business organisations to which the Secretary of State refers have come out against the Prime Minister’s extreme and damaging Brexit. What is he personally doing to ensure that the Prime Minister not only hears what they are saying, but listens to it?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that the five business organisations have put forward a sensible set of principles to govern the transition and the shape of a final agreement. Those suggestions seem very sensible. Part of the point of engaging with business, as I do rigorously and frequently, is to ensure that that voice is heard.
One of the important principles that those business organisations have stressed is the essential nature of having contractual and legal certainty for those who are entering into legal obligations so that they know that that will continue to be enforceable once we leave the EU. Will the Secretary of State therefore ensure that particular regard is had to the need for transition periods to be based on the reality of business practice, rather than on arbitrary considerations?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If he has the continued privilege to chair the Select Committee on Justice, I am sure that it will provide some help in this.
Many businesses are particularly concerned about additional checks on trade imports and exports if we leave the customs union. Can the Secretary of State give businesses any reassurance at all that there will not be additional checks if and when we leave the customs union?
I have always been clear, as have the Government, that we want not only no tariffs, but no bureaucratic impediments of the type described by the hon. Lady. That is one of the objectives set out by the business organisations. As she knows, the negotiations have just started, but we are clear that that is our objective.
Will my right hon. Friend be asking businesses to list the most egregious and restrictive EU directives that may be removed once we leave in order to make British business more competitive and efficient?
I am sure that my hon. Friend will be an assiduous contributor to the scrutiny of the repeal Bill. The approach is to transfer into UK law that which was part of EU law precisely so that this House can scrutinise and consider what should be continued.
The Government said yesterday that EU citizens will be able to apply for what they called “settled status”, so that they can continue to live and work in the UK. Application processes can be time-consuming, not to mention complicated, expensive and off-putting, especially when this Government are involved. How can the Secretary of State guarantee that all EU nationals working in the UK will be allowed to stay not just in theory but in practice, to the benefit of the many businesses that rely on EU workers?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his place. In fact, I think that Labour’s whole Front-Bench team has been reappointed. It is nice to see loyalty rewarded. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I thought that he would welcome the Prime Minister’s very positive statement. It is important that the process is implemented with no bureaucracy so that people can apply with confidence.
Construction Industry: Cash Retentions
3. What his policy is on the non-release or late release of cash retentions in the construction industry. 
Unjustified late and non-payment of a retention payment or any amount owed is unacceptable. These practices cause particular problems for small businesses in the construction sector, and the Government are committed to tackling them. We will shortly be publishing research into these issues, alongside a consultation document.
The system of cash retentions has been wreaking havoc in the construction industry for decades. Can the Minister assure us that there will soon be radical action to overhaul the system, and can she explain why it has taken so long?
There is, indeed, far too much abuse of the system of cash retention, and it has been going on for too long. The burden of administrative time spent securing payments and the drain on working capital weigh far too heavily on smaller firms in the supply chain, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will be taking action.
If the Government had only listened in 2015 to the amendments the Labour party tabled to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, we would already have a solution. We were told then that the Government were going to take action. We were told again a few months ago that they were taking action with their proposals about naming and shaming businesses that did not publish their late payments. We now have yet another consultation. Research from Crossflow Payments shows that 74% of small businesses do not believe that the Government’s recent changes will make any difference. Can we have a policy that actually enforces action on late payments, rather than the series of consultations that we have had?
I agree that action is needed, but it is important that we take the right action. We have undertaken a consultation, the results of which will be published shortly. That will be followed by a consultation on the 2011 changes to the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996, which will consider the merits of ring-fencing retentions and the extent to which contractors are making the payment of retentions conditional on the performance of obligations under other, completely separate contracts.
4. What steps he is taking to ensure that the electric grid is able to support the charging of the number of electric cars estimated to be in use by 2020. 
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his pathfinding work in this area. I understand he is a proud owner of a Nissan Leaf—an electric vehicle made in the UK. He will therefore know that this is an exceptionally important point for us. I am very proud of the Government’s ambition for almost all cars on our roads to be zero-emissions by 2050, and also of our success in positioning the UK as a leading destination for the manufacture of and research into these vehicles. He will be reassured to know that good progress is being made with grid-readiness, and the upcoming smart systems plan and the automated and electric vehicles Bill will ensure that electric vehicle demands are managed efficiently, and the roll-out of electric vehicles is accelerated.
I thank the Minister for her response, and I am glad to hear that, because a study of the impact of electric vehicles on the UK’s distribution network has estimated that
“voltage imbalances, coupled with overloaded distribution transformers could…impair power lines.”
How quickly can we have a report on that, given that the usage of such vehicles is likely to rise substantially in the coming years?
I think my hon. Friend is right. With policies to really accelerate the usage of electric vehicles, this is a critical thing. He will know that Ofgem has approved business plans for the local network companies, which already bake in billions of pounds of investment, to ensure that the expected demands on the grid can be met. But, equally, it is not just about raw investment in cables; it is actually about changing consumers’ behaviour to ensure they can charge their vehicles at a time that puts least demand on the grid and perhaps saves them money. I refer back to our plan and to the Bill, which will enable smart charging and help people to charge their vehicles at a time when it puts least demand on the network.
It all sounds very exciting, I must say.
Does the Minister ever worry that the country looks like investing £100 billion in High Speed 2, which will open at the earliest in 2033, but that, by that time, we will be able to use our phone to call to our home a driverless Uber-type vehicle powered by electricity that can take us anywhere in the country? Is that £100 billion not wasted money?
I would define seeing you in an electric vehicle, Mr Speaker, as a success in my new role. We can have a conversation afterwards.
The hon. Gentleman will know that I think that upgrading our rail and road networks is one way to reduce congestion on the roads and to open up business opportunities and create potential new capacity for things such as electric rail freight, which has been severely neglected by successive Governments over many years. That is why we want to position ourselves not only as a leading manufacturer of electric vehicles—one in five electric vehicles sold in the EU are made in Britain—but as a hub for innovation. We are putting millions of pounds into innovation studies and research, to see how those new technologies can work together to ultimately achieve the aim of zero emissions by 2050.
Electric vehicles are a vital part of meeting our climate change commitments. Can the Minister update us on further action to tackle climate change after the USA’s repudiation of the Paris agreement?
I thank my hon. Friend for that valuable question. I was delighted to be sent, on almost the first day in the job, to Luxembourg to meet our EU counterparts to discuss the fact that we are all very disappointed with Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement, and accept that more work needs to be done by the remaining countries to emphasise that Paris is non-negotiable, although we would like him to come back to the agreement. I was also personally able to increase the level of UK funding for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change trust fund, across the board with other European friends and neighbours, to ensure that any reduction of USA funding can be met.
May I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position and, indeed, Front-Bench Members, new and old, to their roles? Can we have proper local accountability and ownership of local community grids, so that we break the monopolies of the distribution companies, which make masses of money and do not always reinvest?
The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly valuable point about how we start to move ourselves away from generating emissions in the heating and lighting sector. He will be pleased to know that I was able to put more innovation funding into trials that are doing exactly that.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I like to do these things seriously. We are already funding pilots to see how peer-to-peer exchange of power can work, and how further to improve community generation and storage of energy.
Thames Gateway: SMEs
5. What steps he is taking to support the growth of small and medium-sized businesses in the Thames Gateway. 
Supporting small business is a crucial part of our industrial strategy. The Government are investing in the Thames Gateway, including through the local growth fund and the new lower Thames crossing. We will continue to work with industry and local authorities in the Thames Gateway to create the conditions for all businesses to thrive.
The lack of connectivity between Kent and Essex frustrates commerce between those two counties. The lower Thames crossing will help with that, but it will take some years for it to be built. Will the Minister use that time to work with local businesses in the area to unlock its huge potential, which has yet to be fully realised?
The lower Thames crossing is due to open in 2025. In the meantime, local growth hubs will continue to deliver support services to help businesses in the area to grow over that period. In addition, almost half of the South East local enterprise partnership funding of £274 million is directly supporting growth in north Kent and south Essex by improving transport infrastructure, addressing skills needs and creating new business spaces.
The Minister will know that one of the strengths of the Thames Gateway is the closeness of connections elsewhere in Europe, and one of the worries that small and medium-sized businesses have is whether they will be able to continue to recruit staff from other EU countries after Brexit. Will she acknowledge the strength of concerns of firms in the Thames Gateway, and can she offer them any reassurance about the prospects after Brexit?
Having travelled around the country talking to many businesses over the past year, I acknowledge those concerns in the Thames Gateway area. However, I was reassured—I hope the right hon. Gentleman was, too—by the Prime Minister’s opening contribution to the negotiations last week and the reassurance she offered many hundreds of thousands of EU citizens currently residing in the UK, including those working in the right hon. Gentleman’s area.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is an estimable fellow, but West Dunbartonshire is a considerable distance from the Thames Gateway. Knowing the intellectual eclecticism of the hon. Gentleman, I think he may have a pertinent inquiry and I am absolutely fascinated to discover whether that is the case.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Businesses—those in the Thames Gateway, along with those in West Dunbartonshire—require confidence in those who form Governments and in those who support them. Does the Minister agree that that requires transparency? Will he call on every political party in Northern Ireland to publish fully everything in terms of the political donations and campaigns they are involved in?
No, that is manifestly out of order. The hon. Gentleman, I think, was more interested in what he had to say to the Minister than in anything the Minister might have said to him.
Gas Storage Facilities
6. What estimate his Department has made of the future level of investment required in the UK’s gas storage facilities. 
There has been significant investment in the UK’s natural gas supply infrastructure over the past decade. It is highly complex, because we benefit from highly diverse and flexible sources of natural gas. They include: indigenous production from the North sea; six international gas pipelines with Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands; three liquefied natural gas terminals that can bring supply from anywhere in the world; and a number of modern, responsive gas storage facilities. We are confident that market-led investment will continue to deliver secure gas supplies, but I will continue to monitor the position.
I thank the Minister for his answer. The ceramics industry is a major employer in my constituency. It is very energy-intensive and heavily reliant on a secure supply of gas for business continuity. In the light of the announcement that the Rough gas storage facility is to close, what assurances can the Minister give the ceramics industry that the gas it needs will not run out or become unaffordable?
As I explained in my answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question, we have a very diverse range of sources. Analysis conducted by the National Grid and others confirms that the closure of Rough will not cause a problem with security. I give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking to monitor this, with my Department, on a weekly basis.
7. What steps he is taking to improve business confidence. 
14. What steps his Department is taking to foster a positive environment for business growth. 
The industrial strategy Green Paper was launched on 23 January and has been warmly received across the country. We have received over 1,900 responses to the consultation, with respondents from every part of the United Kingdom. I look forward to taking our modern industrial strategy forward, with the involvement of all Members of this House, in the months ahead.
In a damaging blow to business confidence and the wider economy in Renfrewshire, Chivas Brothers announced that it was moving operations from Paisley in 2019. The workforce have voted to strike over a pay offer that Chivas Brothers itself admits does not meet commitments it made to the workforce. Will the Secretary of State join me in urging Chivas to offer a deal that prevents industrial action and recognises the contribution the Paisley workforce have given to Chivas over many, many years?
Of course we want to avoid industrial action. I am not aware of the particular circumstances, but I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman so he can inform me of them in more detail.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the Secretary of State for Defence, who spoke this morning about the need to provide extra investment in those areas that are left behind—even if the bill comes to something like £1.5 billion? When is he going to open talks with other hon. Members about the needs of their areas, so we can ensure that those left-behind regions are not left behind and left out?
I am very surprised to hear that question from the right hon. Gentleman. Of all the people in this House, he was a great proponent of a city deal and a devolution deal for Birmingham and the west midlands, the value of which is over £1 billion. Looking around the Chamber, there are many Opposition Members who have made precisely such a case that we should invest in areas of the country, outside of national programmes. It seems to me to be reasonable to continue that programme.
I took soundings from small businesses in Rugby at a small business expo run by the Federation of Small Businesses on Friday. Their single biggest concern related to the recruitment of staff, in that the skills they are looking for often are not available among local jobseekers. Given those instances, will the Secretary of State reassure us about the training of young people and the ability to recruit staff from the EU moving forward?
I will indeed. One of the big findings, which has been reinforced by the consultation on the industrial strategy, is that we need to ramp up the level of skills and technical education and training in this country. We will respond to the consultation in the weeks ahead, but my hon. Friend can rest assured that that will be one of its key pillars.
The Kingswood Lakeside business park in Cannock is home to many leading businesses, and the new developments there will create hundreds of new jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those developments are evidence of business confidence, and show that Cannock Chase is well and truly open for business and is a great place to do business?
I do indeed. Having visited Cannock Chase with my hon. Friend, I know that she is a great champion of the businesses there. It is fair to reflect that the confidence of manufacturers and employers in other sectors is high. As the CBI attested this week, it is high across the country, including in Cannock Chase.
8. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues and other key stakeholders on the potential effect of the UK leaving the Euratom treaty on energy suppliers and on the availability of radioisotopes for the NHS. 
We have discussed the UK’s exit from Euratom across the Government and with key stakeholders. Our objective is to ensure that leaving Euratom has no adverse impact on energy suppliers or on our international commitments on nuclear non-proliferation. Medical radioisotopes are not special fissile nuclear material, and are not subject to international nuclear safeguards. Therefore, their availability should not be impacted by the UK’s exit from Euratom. As the hon. Lady will have seen, the Queen’s Speech announced the Government’s intention to legislate to establish a domestic nuclear safeguards regime.
Yesterday The Times reported that officials from the Minister’s Department estimated that it would take seven years to negotiate equivalent terms to this treaty. Given that experts have warned that, above all, we must avoid a cliff-edge withdrawal, does he not agree that leaving on the current timeline is infeasible and that it would be in the UK’s best interests to stay in Euratom and avoid this mess?
I should have welcomed the hon. Lady to her place in the House. Our objective in these proceedings is clear: we want to maintain the UK’s leading role as a responsible nuclear state, with world-leading nuclear research and development and a flourishing nuclear power industry. We will establish a regime that ensures that nothing changes in that regard as we leave Euratom.
9. What the Government’s policy is on zero-hours contracts. 
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House, along with the considerable expertise he brings on labour market issues from his former employment.
Zero-hours contracts allow people to access the labour market who cannot or do not want to commit to standard, regular work. The Government recognise the concerns about employers who may be breaching the rules or otherwise exploiting their position. We want to make sure that everyone is paid properly and receives the employment rights to which they are entitled.
I thank the Minister for her response and for her kind words. Given the ease with which, just yesterday, £1 billion was found to protect only one job in Westminster, will the Minister please say what actions the Government are taking to encourage business to offer genuine financial and personal security to the nearly 1 million workers on zero-hours contracts?
The Government believe that people are entitled to be treated fairly at work, regardless of what type of contract they have with the company for which they work. The Prime Minister commissioned Matthew Taylor to undertake a review of the rights of employees. He will report on the ways in which employment regulations need to keep pace with changes in the labour market very shortly.
I welcome the Minister’s statement that the Government are determined to ensure that employees get their employment rights. Why, then, did the Government introduce the huge fees for access to employment tribunals? Will they now abolish those fees?
Employment tribunals are a matter for the Ministry of Justice, but I am in discussions with it over the review of employment tribunals that it has undertaken and we keep a watching brief on the matters the hon. Lady raises.
What does the Minister have to say to the young dustman who said to me, “Jack, I’ve just got married. We’re about to have a baby. We’re paying a fortune in rent. We’d love to buy our own home, but no chance, because I’m on zero-hours contracts”? Is not the truth that he and millions of workers like him have seen through the pretence that the Conservative party is somehow the party of the working class, and the false claims and the phoney promises, and have simply had enough of falling pay, squeezed living standards and insecurity in the world of work?
I think we should have perspective on these matters, because less than 3% of the UK workforce are actually on zero-hours contracts, and according to the most recent research 70% of those people are content with the number of hours they are working. I do accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about his constituent, however, and that is precisely the scenario that Matthew Taylor has reviewed and will report on very soon.
Leaving the EU: Small Businesses
10. What safeguards the Government plan to put in place to protect small businesses as part of negotiations on the UK leaving the EU. 
Ministers in the Department for Exiting the European Union and I are in regular discussions with small and medium-sized enterprises and their representatives, and we are arranging a joint ministerial roundtable with SMEs to ensure that their voices are heard throughout the Brexit negotiations. Only last week, the permanent secretary of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and I held a roundtable with small businesses on the negotiations.
A survey by the Federation of Small Businesses found that 92% of exporting small businesses trade in the EU single market. How does the Minister predict those small businesses will be affected by the loss of our membership, and how will she ensure that the sector continues to be represented in any future negotiations?
The Government are committed to negotiating a full and open trade agreement with the European Union on our departure. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, we are aiming for a situation in which no tariffs are applied to SMEs that export into the single market and there is no unnecessary bureaucracy.
Many SMEs in my constituency are part of European and global supply chains. Does the Minister understand that those businesses, as well as larger financial services businesses, need clarity and certainty? When will she and the Government be in a position to give those businesses certainty about the transitional arrangements that will be put in place? As she knows, businesses are already making investment or de-investment decisions.
The hon. Gentleman’s points are valid, but they are part of the ongoing negotiations, which, as he knows, have some way to go. However, we are defending our position as the No. 1 destination for foreign direct investment, and we will ensure that SMEs have a strong position in global supply chains into the future.
Energy Price Cap
11. What plans he has to implement an energy price cap. 
22. What plans he has to implement an energy price cap. 
Our manifesto said that
“we will introduce a safeguard tariff cap that will extend the price protection currently in place for some vulnerable customers to more customers on the poorest value tariffs.”
I stand by that commitment.
The lived experience of many people in Hull West and Hessle is that the Conservative party has done nothing to fix the energy market for the past seven years. Although I welcome the Government’s move and transformation from calling an energy price cap Marxist and extremely dangerous to copying it, is the Minister facing calls to water down that policy either from the big six or from his own Back Benchers?
I welcome the hon. Lady to the House; she follows a distinguished predecessor. I would perhaps invite her to reflect on her own party’s history in this matter—the former Leader of the Opposition was the Energy Secretary and failed to do anything whatever about it. I have been clear about the commitment that we have made, and we will see it through.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. To misquote Caroline Aherne’s question to Debbie McGee, what first attracted the Secretary of State to Labour’s financially astute, socially just and politically responsible energy price cap?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman back. What he describes as an energy price cap was launched as an energy price freeze. The problem with that was that as energy prices fell, consumers would be paying more than they needed to. That would have been disastrous for them, which is why the proposal that we have made, in response to the Competition and Markets Authority analysis, is a much more sensible approach than we got from Labour.
As we have heard, various media outlets have reported recently that senior Cabinet members were lobbying for the Conservative price cap manifesto commitment to be dropped. Indeed, the Secretary of State’s recent letter to Ofgem was silent on the price cap element and, when questioned last week, the Prime Minister refused to confirm unambiguously that the price cap would be upheld. Will the Secretary of State confirm for the avoidance of doubt that he will implement the promised price cap, and not just stand by it, to deliver to 17 million customers the £100 saving that his Prime Minister promised?
I welcome the hon. Lady back. It is very good to see her back in her place. I did not hear her name chanted at Glastonbury and it is probably unparliamentary to do it here, but I warmly welcome her back. I have been very clear and the Queen’s Speech is very clear. It said, in terms:
“My government will ensure fairer markets for consumers, this will include bringing forward measures to help tackle unfair practices in the energy market to…reduce energy bills.”
I am afraid it is not clear. The Secretary of State’s recent letter to Ofgem simply asks it to advise him of the action it intends to take to safeguard customers on the poorest value tariffs. It was not a direction to implement a price cap. Can the Secretary of State confirm that should Ofgem not take directions to implement a price cap, or if it directs a price cap that is narrower than the Conservative manifesto commitment, he will legislate to uphold his party’s manifesto commitment and, if so, when?
The powers that I have are to ask Ofgem to move in this way, not to order it; Ofgem is independent. As there is a strong body of opinion on both sides of the House that the detriment that consumers have been suffering should be put to an end, I would have thought that the hon. Lady welcomed it being put to an end as soon as possible, rather than waiting for legislation to pass through the House. Ofgem has those powers and I believe it should use them.
12. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that all regions benefit from the Government’s industrial strategy. 
The importance of our regions is a core pillar of our industrial strategy. We will build on successful clusters, of which the Humber Energy Estuary is a perfect example, as the hon. Lady knows. The Humber’s leading position in marine engineering has been further strengthened by the opening of factories around the offshore wind industry, including at Siemens, where 1,000 new skilled jobs have been created. This is the industrial strategy in action.
Ministers recently blocked Hull’s privately financed initiative to deliver rail electrification all the way to Hull, an important part of our infrastructure that is needed in east Yorkshire. Are people in Hull right to now believe that the £1 billion that was found for the Northern Ireland powerhouse comes at the expense of the northern powerhouse?
The hon. Lady knows as well as anyone in this House the commitment that this Government, and I in particular, have made to devolving funds to Hull and the Humber. They have benefited considerably, first from a city deal and then from a growth deal. That has contributed to the increased prosperity in her city, which I would have thought she would welcome.
Notwithstanding what my right hon. Friend has just outlined, and despite the fact that business confidence in the region is high, as outlined by the most recent Hull and Humber chamber of commerce’s quarterly report, there are still further initiatives that could be taken to advance the northern powerhouse. What further plans does my right hon. Friend have?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the aspects of the progress made around the Humber is the close working relationships that have been established by businesses and council leaders north and south of the Humber with the Government. I look forward to visiting the area again—I am a regular visitor—so that we can have further devolution of funds and powers there.
Over the last seven months nearly 2,500 job losses have been announced in York, including some at Nestlé, as well as the closure of two company head offices. There are clear challenges to York’s economy. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me, along with his senior officials, so that we can address those serious challenges and ensure that the industrial strategy reaches York as well?
I should be very happy to do that. Nestlé is, of course, a major employer, and there is a cluster of food and drink and agriculture businesses in and around York. It has been identified in the industrial strategy as an area of real potential, and I look forward to working with the hon. Lady to realise that potential.
As the Secretary of State will know, expanding Torbay’s manufacturing sector is a key part of diversifying our economy for the future, but a lack of skills may hold us back. Will he confirm that the Government are still seeking to deliver institutes of technology throughout the regions in England?
I will indeed. As I said in an earlier answer, the importance of upgrading our skills education is vital in all parts of the country, including Torbay, and institutes of technology are a way of making sure that industries can benefit from the particular skills that they need.
Having abolished the regional development agencies, the Conservative party has refused to invest in growth for good jobs across the country. Ours is now the most unequal economy in western Europe. If every region produced at the same rate per head as London, we would all be one third richer, but instead working people have not had a pay rise for seven years. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to matching the specific proposals for investment for jobs that are laid out in Labour’s industrial strategy, or does his new-found largesse end at the shores of Ulster?
Again, that was a disappointing response. The hon. Lady knows, and the leaders of her local councils know, how important initiatives such as the city deal and the growth deal have been in the north-east. If she looks around the country, she will see that, whereas in past years most jobs were created in London and the south-east, that situation has been transformed, and the north-east of England is one of the areas that have created jobs at a more rapid rate than anywhere else in the country. She should commend that development.
Carbon Reduction Plan
13. What the reasons are for the time taken to publish the Government’s carbon reduction plan. 
I welcome the hon. Lady to her new job. I also have a new job, and, since taking on the role I have been incredibly impressed by the progress that the United Kingdom has made, both in meeting its own climate emissions targets and in exercising international leadership in that regard. I want the carbon growth plan to be as ambitious, robust and clear a blueprint as it can be, so that we can continue to deliver on this hugely vital piece of domestic and international policy. I am therefore taking the time to ensure that the draft could be extended to become more ambitious, and I intend to publish the plan when Parliament sits again after the summer recess.
Order. I have been on the edge of my seat while listening to the hon. Lady, as has always been the case, but I think I am right in surmising that she was seeking to group Question 13 with Questions 15 and 19. So carried away was she with the excitement of her new responsibilities that I think she neglected to inform us of that.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall group Question 13 with Questions 15 and 19.
15. What the reasons are for the time taken to publish the Government’s carbon reduction plan. 
19. What the reasons are for the time taken to publish the Government’s carbon reduction plan. 
I thank the Minister for her words. Will she join me in commending the work of the Moors for the Future partnership in my constituency in the Peak District for the purpose of carbon reduction? It is revegetating the large areas of bare peat that exist there, thus fixing carbon emissions. Will the Minister also please let us know what effect the new timeframe of the carbon reduction plan, which was due in 2016, will have on industries and other partnerships that are relying on seeing the plan?
I am, of course, delighted to welcome that incredibly innovative partnership, which was launched in 2002 and is making real progress in working out how we can naturally store carbon in the peat environment that the hon. Lady now represents. As I have said, I intend to publish the clean growth plan when Parliament returns from the summer recess. I look forward to cross-party discussion and, hopefully, consensus on a document that is hugely important both for Britain’s domestic future and for our international leadership.
The publication date that the Minister mentions is almost a year after the date originally intended by the Government. Does not this reflect a lack of commitment to tackling climate change? What is she doing to engage with other Departments to ensure that they carry out emissions impact assessments so that we can see a real commitment to tackling climate change across the whole of the Government?
May I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that, as the proud MP for the constituency that has Britain’s leading carbon capture and storage research facility, he ought to welcome the progress that successive Governments have made on this agenda? We were the first country in the world to set binding carbon budgets, and we have over-achieved on the first and second ones. Our full intention is to engage the whole of Government and industry in delivering on the upcoming budgets.
Again, we do not seem to have a date for publication. The Minister talks about a date after the recess, but what specific date is that? Does she not agree that this delay is creating considerable uncertainty for the business community, and that it has the potential to increase energy bills?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. He will know that we are talking about setting a trajectory of budgets from 2022 and beyond. The progress we are making is absolutely exceptional, both domestically and internationally. Perhaps he is new in his place, but he could look in his diary and check when the House returns from the summer recess. My intention is to publish the plan when the House returns from the summer recess.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Single-sentence inquiries are now required.
The Minister spoke of peer-to-peer exchanges of energy. I have no idea what they are, but given the enthusiasm she has brought to her brief I believe that we all deserve a tutorial. Could that be arranged?
It would be a pleasure to educate my right hon. Friend. Let us think of it as a lot of hot air being generated by one particular point and being shared around many other data points. It is part of our future, Mr Speaker.
I am sure the hon. Lady’s ministerial peers in other countries—to whom I think she referred earlier—must have felt keenly conscious of their great privilege in meeting her.
I would like to applaud this Government’s record on tackling carbon emissions. Our carbon reduction plan, alongside investment in new technologies and ratification of the Paris agreement, will make us world leaders in this field and create many more jobs—particularly, I hope, in Taunton Deane, with spin-offs from Hinkley Point, the lowest carbon energy development in Europe. Can the Minister give any further indications of how the Government are responding to the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement?
Even those who do not think that this is a pressing international issue must surely welcome the fact that there are now more than 400,000 people employed in this industry—more than in the aerospace sector. Britain has shown, in the G7 and the Environment Council meetings, that we are absolutely prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with our European and international partners to make up any deficit caused by Mr Trump’s withdrawal.
We were promised the publication of this report in the middle of 2016. In October 2016, the permanent secretary promised that it would be published by February 2017. In January 2017, the then Secretary of State promised that the report would be published in the first three months of this year. Now we hear that it might be published this autumn. A year and a half on from the original promise, we are now clearly defaulting on our commitment under the Climate Change Act 2008, which requires that the plan is published as soon as is reasonably practicable after the order has been laid. Is not the Minister ashamed of this lamentable failure to act on that legislative requirement to produce a report that is important to the future of climate change activity, and will she apologise to the House for the delay?
I would have expected more from the hon. Gentleman. Let me just remind him what has happened since the Committee on Climate Change’s report was produced. We have had Brexit, we have had a general election and we have had the withdrawal of the USA from the Paris climate change agreement. I want to take the time to ensure that this report exceeds his expectations. I will take no lessons from those on the Opposition Front Bench, who have consistently failed to welcome this country’s progress, which the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband)—who is, sadly, not in his place—was sensible enough to kick off in 2009. I believe in delivery, not promises, unlike the Labour party’s manifesto.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
As outlined in the Queen’s Speech, our industrial strategy will drive prosperity across the country, and in the past month we reached an important stage in that process. While we analyse the nearly 2,000 responses, we continue to make decisions that help UK-wide industries. We have announced £1 billion over the next four years for our most innovative industries, such as artificial intelligence, medicine, and autonomous vehicles. We have boosted investment in UK bioscience, such as by providing the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute with some £20 million, which will not only support its research on infectious diseases but create more highly skilled jobs and cement the UK as a world leader in science and innovation.
Energy security is essential for national security and for family finances. The essential Moorside energy project in Cumbria is key to such security, but with Toshiba now predicted to lose £7 billion and the French firm backing the project pulling out will the Secretary of State tell us if and when the project will go ahead and provide the assurances that industry, workers and consumers desperately need?
We have inaugurated a new era of nuclear power through the approval of Hinkley Point C. The NuGen consortium, the membership of which has changed from time to time, is confident that that investment will be able to proceed.
T5. I welcome the Government’s commitment in the Queen’s Speech to the new industrial strategy. Will the Secretary of State update the House on his plans to support new, cutting-edge technologies that will help Britain to lead the fourth industrial revolution? 
My hon. Friend was a great champion of the strategy in the previous Parliament, and I hope that he will be here. One of its early fruits is the industrial strategy challenge fund, which is already making resources available for research in healthcare and medicine, artificial intelligence, clean energy, driverless cars, advanced materials, and satellites and space technology. That is exactly in line with what he and his group have been urging.
T2. The Conservative manifesto pledged to deliver a country“where wealth and opportunity are spread across every community in the United Kingdom”,and I see that Northern Ireland has just had its share. Will the Secretary of State tell me how the Government’s industrial strategy will bring wealth and opportunity to places such as Blackburn, where the national average wage is far less than it is in Maidenhead, for example? Blackburn has seen too many cuts from this Government and it is time that we had some investment, so how quickly can the strategy be delivered? 
I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. She will discover over time, I hope, that a key part of the industrial strategy is to drive growth in all parts of the country. My Department and I have looked to get funds out of Whitehall and into local places in every part of the country, including £320 million in Lancashire for the funding of the growth deal. She will also be aware that it is necessary to have an economy that is prospering, and one thing that would stand in the way of that is the record peacetime taxation with which the manifesto on which she stood was threatening the country.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. We are very short of time. We need to speed up.
T8. Our emerging technology and universities sectors welcomed our manifesto commitment to increase R and D spending from 1.7% to 2.4% of GDP, but it was not in the Queen’s Speech, so what has happened to that commitment? 
Fear not, Mr Speaker, legislation is not required to deliver on that commitment. It remains a priority for the Government and for the delivery of our industrial strategy. We want to get to 2.4% of GDP for our R and D spend, and we have a longer-term ambition of 3% after that.
T3. Research by Citizens Advice found that half the people on zero-hours contracts, and two thirds of people on temporary contracts, worryingly believe that they are not entitled to paid holiday. Kirklees citizens advice bureau has found employers deliberately misleading workers about their rights. What steps is the Minister taking to make sure that workers are aware of their rights to a fair holiday? What repercussions will there be for companies that mislead staff? Can the Minister confirm when the Taylor review will be published? 
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to workers who are misled and workers who believe erroneously that they have fewer rights than they do. We are absolutely committed that any individual, whatever contract they are on, is entitled to their rights. We have increased the powers open to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to enforce those rights.
T9. Market towns are vital to the rural economy, and they are the heart of rural communities, drawing people together across the 531 square miles of my constituency. Modern shopping habits, however, can mean that it is difficult for businesses in market towns to survive. What are the Government doing to support our much-needed and much-loved market towns? 
Market towns, such as the ones in my hon. Friend’s constituency, will have all the support we are giving to the retail sector and high streets so that they can flourish.
T4. The National Audit Office recently published a report on Hinkley Point C that is nothing short of damning, describing it as “risky and expensive”. When will the Government listen to the experts and scrap this costly expenditure, and when will they invest instead in carbon capture and storage? 
If ever you decided not to be Mr Speaker, a career as chairman of the BBC Radio 4 programme “Just a Minute” would be appropriate. In answering the hon. Lady’s question, I will try to keep to your one sentence rule.
The Hinkley Point contract is entirely designed so as not to get the Government involved in expensive capital expenditure, and the nuclear power produced by Hinkley Point will be an excellent part of a mix of power for decades to come.
Having access to the next generation of skilled workers is vital for business confidence and growth. Will the Minister consider promoting the opportunities of our ambitious apprenticeship programme through the annual business rate mailer to increase awareness?
Significant attention was given in the Queen’s Speech to commitments to roll out new institutes of technology, to the extra £0.5 billion of spending that will be given to further education and to our target to deliver 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020. High-quality further and technical education is an absolute priority for this country and this Government.
T6. The British ceramics industry owes its current success and future survival to the innovation and development of breakthrough technologies. With funds such as Horizon 2020 potentially disappearing along with our EU membership, will the Government assure me that domestic projects such as the advanced manufacturing research centre will receive support to keep us at the cutting edge? 
We remain committed to ensuring that the UK remains the go-to place for science, innovation and tech investment in the years ahead. We want to remain open to collaboration and research partnerships with institutions across the European Union and around the world as we negotiate our departure from the EU.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the Government’s industrial strategy for Scotland?
It has been warmly received in Scotland, and we have had a positive response from businesses there. I had an enjoyable roundtable in Aberdeen, which was described by one local business as a “breath of fresh air.” I look forward to continuing that engagement with everyone in Scotland, and I am sure my hon. Friend will play a big part.
T7. While other countries, including our EU partners, have over the years used public purchasing to support their own industries, Britain often has not. As Brexit approaches, what are the Government doing to ensure that Government Departments, local services, emergency services, councils and other public bodies back British industry and British jobs by buying British first? 
The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have already changed the procurement guidance so that local value can be taken into account. We have anticipated the issue he mentions and this is being done.
The Secretary of State is aware that I have long campaigned for parental bereavement leave, and I was delighted to see this policy in not only the Conservative manifesto, but the Labour manifesto. On that basis, will he kindly set out what steps the Government will take to introduce this important benefit?
I agree that bereaved parents should have the opportunity to grieve away from the workplace, and we will seek to provide for that. I am willing to meet my hon. Friend to discuss further how we might make such provision.
The Secretary of State has talked repeatedly today about the discussions he has had on Brexit. Which trade unions has he met, and when?
I regularly meet trade unions: I met Frances O’Grady of the TUC last week; I spoke to Roy Rickhuss of the steel union yesterday; and I spoke to Len McCluskey a few weeks ago. My contacts cover both sides of the employer and trade union mix.
Earlier this year, 116 MPs signed a letter I wrote to the Secretary of State urging him to implement the recommendations of the Hendry review for the world’s first ever tidal lagoon. When will a decision be taken?
The Hendry review also said that there are significant questions as to whether tidal lagoons can be cost-effective, and very complex issues are involved. We are fully aware that a Government decision is needed in order for anything to proceed, but it is absolutely right that we take the necessary time to consider this carefully.
Several hon. Members rose—
Now that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) has reached the midpoint of his parliamentary career, I had intended to call him if he was standing, but he is not and so I will not—but if he does, I will.
I have listened to the questions and answers for the past hour, and I hear about the city deals and all the rest of it, but why does the Secretary of State not answer the specific questions about the trade unions? If he wants to give the impression that he is on the side of working-class people, why do not the Government drop the trade union Bill and all the rest of it?
I could not have been clearer about the regular discussions I have with trade unionists. My concern, which I hope would be the hon. Gentleman’s concern, is to make sure that in all parts of the United Kingdom we generate the jobs and growth to ensure that all working people have a prosperous future to look forward to. That is the purpose of this Government, in contrast to the manifesto on which he stood.
Answer the question!
I did not get an answer.
Order. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that on the strength of his 47 years’ experience of this place he knows that not receiving an answer is not an altogether novel phenomenon in the House of Commons, irrespective of who is in power at the time.
The following Members took and subscribed the Oath, or made and subscribed the Affirmation required by law:
Jonathan George Caladine Lord, for Woking
Adam James Harold Holloway, Gravesham.
As we are about to hear the first urgent question of the Parliament, I think it right to remind the House, particularly the Front-Bench teams, of the conventions on time limits. Colleagues will understand that I do so because they have not been adhered to with any religiosity in recent times. For urgent questions, the Minister may speak for up to three minutes; the person asking the urgent question and the official spokesperson, where different, a maximum of two minutes; and the third-party spokesperson a maximum of one minute.
For oral statements, the Minister is usually limited to 10 minutes; the Official Opposition spokesperson to five minutes; and the third-party spokesperson to two minutes. Members wishing to take part in statements, urgent questions and business questions must be in the Chamber, in accordance with a very long-established convention, before such events begin, and colleagues should not expect to be called to ask a question if they are not in their place as the statement/urgent question/business questions begin.
In a moment, I shall call Jonathan Ashworth, but it might be helpful if I indicate to the House that, as there are not far short of 70 Members wishing to take part in the continued debate on the Queen’s Speech, I would like the exchanges on this question not to go on much beyond half an hour.
NHS Shared Business Services
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of Statement to make a statement on NHS Shared Business Services.
As the House knows, on 24 March 2016 I was informed of a serious incident involving a large backlog of unprocessed NHS patient correspondence by the company contracted to deliver it to GP surgeries—NHS Shared Business Services. The backlog arose from the primary care services’ GP mail redirection service that SBS was contracted to run. No documents were lost, and all were kept in secure storage, but my immediate concern was that patient safety had been compromised by the delay in forwarding correspondence. A rapid process was started to identify whether anyone had been put at risk.
The Department of Health and NHS England immediately established an incident team. All the documentation has now been sent on to the relevant GP surgery where it was possible to do so, following an initial clinical assessment of where any patient risk may lie. Some 200,000 pieces were temporary residence forms and a further 535,000 pieces were assessed as low risk. A first triage identified 2,508 items with a higher risk of harm, of which the vast majority have now been assessed by a GP. Of those 84% were confirmed to be of no harm to patients and 9% as needing a further clinical review. To date, no harm has been confirmed to any patients as a result of this incident.
Today’s National Audit Office report confirms that patient safety was the Department and NHS England’s primary concern, but as well as patient safety, transparency with both the public and the House has been my priority. I was advised by my officials not to make the issue public last March until an assessment of the risks to patient safety had been completed and all relevant GP surgeries informed. I accepted that advice for the very simple reason that publicising the issue would have meant GP surgeries being inundated with inquiries from worried patients, which would have prevented them from doing the most important work, namely investigating the named patients who were potentially at risk.
A proactive statement about what had happened was again not recommended by my Department in July for the same reasons and because the process was not complete. However, as I explained to the House in February, on balance I decided that it was important for the House to know what had happened before we broke for recess, so I overruled that advice and placed a written statement on 21 July. Since then, the Public Accounts Committee has been kept regularly informed, most recently being updated by my permanent secretary in February. The Information Commissioner was updated in August.
In July 2016, I committed to keeping the House updated once the investigations were complete and more was known, and I will continue to do so.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his place, but is it not an absolute scandal that 709,000 letters, including blood test results, cancer screening appointments and child protection notes, failed to be delivered, were left in an unknown warehouse and, in many cases, were destroyed? Does not the National Audit Office reveal today a shambolic catalogue of failure that took place on the Secretary of State’s watch?
As of four weeks ago, 1,700 cases of potential harm to patients had been identified, with this number set to rise, and a third of GPs have yet to respond on whether unprocessed items sent to them indicate potential harm for patients. Does the Health Secretary agree that this delay is unacceptable? When will all outstanding items be reviewed and processed?
The Secretary of State talks about transparency, but he came to this House in February because we summoned him here. In February, he told us that he first knew of the situation on 24 March 2016, yet the NAO report makes it clear that the Department of Health was informed of the issues on 17 March and that NHS England set up the incident team on 23 March, before he was informed, despite his implying that he set up the incident team. Will he clear up the discrepancies in the timelines between what he told the House and what the NAO reported?
The Secretary of State is a board member of Shared Business Services, and many hon. Members, not least my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), have warned him of the problems and delays with the transfer of records from SBS. Given that those warnings were on the record, why did he not insist on stronger oversight of the contract?
The cost of this debacle could be at least £6.6 million in administration fees alone, equivalent to the average annual salary of 230 nurses. Can the Health Secretary say how those costs will be met and whether he expects them to escalate?
Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the NAO that there is a conflict of interest between his role as Secretary of State and his role as a board member? Further to that, can he explain why his predecessor as Secretary of State sold one share on 1 January from the Department to Steria, leaving the Secretary of State as a minority stake owner in the company, and never informed Parliament or reported that share in the Department’s annual report—
Order. We are immensely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but sooner or later the discipline of sticking to the two minutes has to take root. I am afraid that it is as simple as that and I am sorry, but he has had two and a half minutes.
Let me respond to those points. First, what happened at SBS was totally unacceptable. It was incompetent and it should never have allowed that backlog to develop, but before the hon. Gentleman gets on his high horse, may I remind him that SBS and the governance arrangements surrounding it were set up in 2008, at a time when a Labour Government were rather keen on contracting with the private sector? I know that things have changed, but the fact of the matter is that throughout this process our priority has been to keep patients safe. Transparency is nearly always the right thing; I am the Secretary of State who introduced transparency over standards of care in hospitals—[Laughter.] It is interesting that Opposition Members are laughing, as Labour was the party responsible for sitting on what happened at Mid Staffs for more than four years, when nothing was done.
Transparency is incredibly important but it is not an absolute virtue, and in this case there was a specific reason for that. If we had informed the public and the House immediately, GP surgeries would have been overwhelmed—we are talking about 709,000 pieces of patient data—and they would not have been able to get on as quickly as we needed them to with identifying risk. That was the priority and that is what today’s report confirms: patient safety was the priority of the Department and NHS England. I put it to the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) that if he were in my shoes, and faced with advice that said that it was wrong to go public straight away as that would compromise the very important work GPs had to do to keep patients safe, he would have followed exactly the same advice. That is why, while I completely recognise that there is a potential conflict of interest with the Government arrangements, I do not accept that there was an actual conflict of interest, because patient safety concerns always overrode any interests we had as a shareholder in SBS.
The NHS is a large organisation. It has a huge number of contracts with both the public and private sectors, and no Government of any party can ever guarantee that there will be absolutely no breach of contract. However, what we can do is ensure that we react quickly when there is such a breach, which happened on this occasion, and that we have better assurance than we had on this occasion. I assure the House that the appropriate lessons will be learned.
While Members from across the House will be relieved that so far no patients are identified as having been harmed by this appalling incident, will the Secretary of State set out what steps he is taking to ensure that this can never happen again?
Absolutely. There is a short-term and long-term lesson. The short-term point is that it is unlikely this would happen again because it was paper correspondence, and we are increasingly moving all the transfer of correspondence to electronic systems. The longer-term point is exactly that—[Interruption.] An Opposition Member mentions cyber-attacks; they are absolutely right to do so, because of course we have different risks. This clearly indicates that we need better checks in place, so that when we trust an independent contractor with very important work, we know that the job is actually being done, and that did not happen in this case.
The NAO’s findings are deeply concerning for the families of patients caught up in this chaotic shambles. For those involved and the wider public, this will only deepen their mistrust and misgivings in how the Tories are running the NHS; we can be grateful that they are not in charge in Scotland. Surely it is simply astonishing that a company partly owned by the Department of Health failed to deliver 500,000 NHS letters, many of which contained information critical to patient care. Not only were 1,700 people potentially at risk of harm, but thousands of others were put at risk. Was this SBS contract properly scrutinised by the Secretary of State? Was patient care or cost-cutting at the forefront of that decision? Why did he publish a vague written statement in July 2016 when he actually knew what was going on four months earlier?
Splendid—the hon. Gentleman was within his time. He gets an additional brownie point.
I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that it is totally inappropriate to try to make political capital from this incident. The facts of the case are that the NAO today published a report saying that patient safety was the primary concern of both the Department of Health and NHS England throughout. There were some problems with the assurance of that contract, but the contract and the relationship with SBS in particular dates back to 2008. Both sides of the House need to learn the lessons of properly assuring NHS contracts, and I dare say the same is true in Scotland.
I fully support the Secretary of State’s actions, which were quite right in the difficult circumstances in which he found himself, but what action will be taken against the executives who presided over this shambles? Is there any enforcement mechanism under the contract against the other owner of the company?
The company has been stripped of that contract; it was relieved of the contract back in 2015. We are very clear that it will have to fulfil all its contractual requirements, including paying its fair share of the costs that have been incurred as a result of this wholly regrettable incident.
Patient confidentiality and safety must be treated with the utmost seriousness at all times, and the NHS fails if it loses the trust of its patients, so how did the Secretary of State for Health come to the conclusion that risk to more than 1,700 patients was merely due to an issue of mail redistribution?
I did not come to that conclusion. The hon. Lady is right, as a doctor, to say that patients’ trust in the way we hold their records is very important. In this case, the correspondence concerning patients was not forwarded, but it was not lost either. It was held securely, so no patient data were put at risk, but it should have been forwarded to another part of the NHS, and it was not; it was effectively stockpiled. That is what caused the concerns. We have been going through the high-priority cases. So far, the vast majority of cases have had two clinical reviews, and the ones we are still concerned about are having a third clinical review. We are taking this extremely seriously.
The Secretary of State mentioned Mid Staffordshire and patient safety, which is absolutely critical, but may I point out that the County hospital in Stafford now has an excellent record? It is currently seeing 27 patients in A&E with a waiting time of not much more than one hour, according to the app that I have on my phone. Will he confirm that the situation has been transformed because of the fantastic work of the staff in that hospital?
I am happy to confirm that. I am also happy to say that the problems in the old Mid Staffs, which I am afraid we had in many parts of the NHS, are being addressed much more quickly because of an independent oversight regime—the new Care Quality Commission inspection regime—and the appointment of a chief inspector of hospitals, who is independent in law and gives his judgment independently in law. That is something the Labour party regrettably tried to vote down.
May I commend to the House the record of the debate I secured in November 2011, in which I warned the Government in terms about the very poor record of SBS and urged them not to part-privatise what had been an excellent NHS service? Ministers said at the time that the new contract would save £250 million. Will the Secretary of State now tell the House how much this scandal has cost, rather than saved, the taxpayer? Will he apologise both to the staff and the patients affected?
The costs are in excess of £6 million, and we are seeking to recover as much of that as we can from the company involved. I know that the regime in the Labour party has changed, but to try to turn this into an issue of privatisation when under the right hon. Gentleman’s own party’s Government—and indeed, during his own time as Health Secretary—we had problems at Mid Staffs that were squarely in the public sector is wholly inappropriate. This is about proper assurance of what is going on in the NHS, and both sides of the House need to learn the lessons.
In order to reassure my constituents, will my right hon. Friend confirm that NHS SBS no longer provides this mail redirection service, that all backlogged correspondence has now been delivered to the relevant GP surgeries for filing and that no patient harm has been found in this case?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Of course we welcome the fact that no patient harm has been identified to date. We have to wait until the process of the third clinical review is completed on at-risk patients’ records, which will happen by the end of December. She is absolutely right to say that SBS is no longer performing this contract; it has been taken in-house. Other parts of the SBS contract not related to what we are discussing today were given to another supplier.
Does the Secretary of State agree that this is a very straightforward case? It shows a woeful lack of transparency, is a good example of why so many of us have concerns about too much private sector involvement in the NHS and, bluntly, there is a conflict of interest for the Secretary of State.
I acknowledged in my statement that there is, or was, a potential conflict of interest when the contract with SBS was in operation, and the National Audit Office talks about that today. In reality, as the National Audit Office confirms, patient safety was always our overriding priority in all the decisions we took. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, as I do to the shadow Health Secretary, that he would have taken exactly the same decisions had he been in my shoes.
My right hon. Friend has confirmed that the contract has now been taken in-house. Can he also confirm that it is a totally different operation and that none of the people who were involved in making the decisions is now involved in making the decisions on the current service?
I can absolutely confirm that.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State at least acknowledges that this was incompetent but, crucially, does this not run deeper? Problems were first raised in January 2014, and then again internally by an administrator in June 2015. He found out, as Secretary of State for Health, only in March last year, and the Public Accounts Committee found out and was able to look at this only in September, because information was released on the final day that Parliament sat last summer. He talks about transparency, but does he not think there are deeper lessons to be learned here not only about transparency but about how the NHS supports whistleblowers?
There are two big lessons that we need to learn. First, why did the company have no internal systems in place to deal with the fact that from 2011 the mail was building up into a backlog? According to the NAO report, the situation was not escalated to the chief executive’s level until the end of 2015. That is wholly unacceptable. Secondly, it is also unacceptable that we did not have the assurance systems in place that would have allowed us to know that a backlog was building up. That is why it is so important that lessons are learned.
Who drew up the contract for the redirection service that omitted any key performance indicators?
The original contracts with SBS went back to 2008, which is when it started providing mail redirection services, but they were renewed in 2011, which is why I think Members on both sides of the House need to reflect on this.
Over 700,000 pieces of sensitive medical information went missing, and the situation was allowed to escalate over a five-year period without being discovered, which I think shows gross incompetence. What has been done to set right this wrong, especially for the families left behind who have been affected by this worrying incident?
There has been a huge operation to deal with this. As the hon. Gentleman will know, there were 709,000 pieces of correspondence. We did an initial clinical triage to identify which ones were low risk, such as notifications of change of address, and which ones were higher risk, such as test results. We identified 2,500 that had a high priority, and 84% of those have so far been identified as being of no clinical risk, but we are continuing to do more thorough clinical risk assessment.
As I am sure the Secretary of State is aware, for many patients the image created by the media is one of documents being lost. Can he confirm that at all times the correspondence was kept either in secure conditions on NHS premises or in secure archive facilities?
I am happy to confirm that. I think that in such situations it is important to allay public concerns about what might have happened. What happened was unacceptable, but no patient data were lost.
The Secretary of State says that no patients were harmed and that the documents were securely stored, but 35 sacks of mail were destroyed. How does he know that he made the right call in every situation?
Just to be clear, what I said was that to date there is no evidence of any patients being harmed, but the process of proper clinical review, with multidisciplinary teams, will take until the end of the year. We have to do this properly to get to the answer. We hope that it remains the case that no patients were harmed, but we will not know that until the end of the year. However, throughout this whole process we have prioritised the highest risk cases and made sure that they get the most urgent attention.
Following this failure, I welcome the Secretary of State’s decisive action in bringing in the national incident team. How will we learn the lessons and share the best practice, as discovered by that team?
The NHS is extremely good at responding to crises and emergencies, as tragically we have found out in recent months. This is an example of the NHS doing a very good job when it realises the scale of the problem. For me, the lessons that really need to be learned are about not the response to the issue but the assurance processes that allowed the problem to happen in the first place.
The National Audit Office says that the review of the backlog of correspondence has found 1,788 cases of potential patient harm, so what action is the Secretary of State taking to support those patients?
All those cases have already been looked at by two sets of clinicians, and so far, on the basis of those two reviews, no patient harm has been identified. However, because we want to be absolutely sure, we are having a third clinical review that will be even more thorough, potentially with more than one set of clinicians, so that we can get to the bottom of this and find out.
I understand that the inquiry has focused on patient risk, but has there been any analysis of the impact on patient waiting times, which are also extremely important for patient care? Exactly how many patients have waited longer than they should have for treatment?
The hon. Lady is right. That is one of the most critical questions when it comes to trying to understand whether there was any actual patient harm. Ordinarily, if a patient was waiting for a test result that did not arrive at their GP’s surgery, the GP would chase it up and get a copy, so there would be no delay in treatment. However, only by looking at the patient’s notes can we understand whether any harm is likely to have happened. So far we have not identified any patient harm, but we will continue to look.
The Secretary of State told the House in February that all correspondence was kept safe and secure, and he has repeated that claim today, so when did he know that 35 sacks of mail had been destroyed by staff, and why has he not mentioned it since?
As the hon. Lady knows, I was informed at the end of March 2016. The issue with the correspondence that was destroyed relates to procedures around what it is legitimate to do when patients have been dead for 10 years. At the moment we are not aware of any specific risk to patients as a result of those sacks of mail being destroyed, but we will continue to look at the issue very closely.
The Secretary of State was made aware of the failings of the contract and warned about the dangers in the House in 2011, yet he did not take up two places on the company’s board. Would that not have added to the overall scrutiny of the contract? Is he not guilty of being asleep at the wheel?
I have been Health Secretary for a long time, but not since as far back as 2011. However, the hon. Gentleman asks an important question. It is true that the Department was entitled to three seats on the SBS board but took up only one, but I do not believe that would have made a difference in this case, because the board directors were intended to represent the Department as SBS shareholders. What we needed was better assurance of the implementation of the contract. That needed to happen with the NHS as a contractor. That is the lesson that needs to be learned.
The Secretary of State talks about the need to learn lessons, but we have seen a pattern across Government—not just in the Department of Health, but in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office, for example—of companies being awarded contracts and then failing miserably. Those companies have the contract taken away but are then awarded another one. Clearly the lesson to be learned across Government is that some companies are simply not fit for purpose when it comes to delivering public services.
We do need to be robust when companies fail in their contracts with the public sector. I do not think that this affects only private sector companies, because we contract with people in the public sector and are let down. Equally, we need to be robust when the right things do not happen. Most importantly, the lesson from what happened with SBS is that we need to understand much more quickly when things are going wrong, so that we can nip problems in the bud. That did not happen in this case.
How many more times is the Secretary of State going to come to this House, as he has done on countless occasions, when he personally is at the centre of a controversy? Even a cat has only nine lives.
I am not sure that I have as many lives as the hon. Gentleman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) was absolutely right when she suggested that the Secretary of State is trying to downgrade 1,788 cases of potential harm and a potential conflict of interest to no more than an administrative error by a contracted-out service. In my constituency, a tender for cancer care was ended prematurely, costing the taxpayer millions of pounds. Are these not examples of where the Conservative party’s ideological agenda to contract out our NHS services is failing and patients are suffering as a result?
Quite the opposite. Those examples show that we take the contracts off the private sector when it lets us down. That is what happened in the case raised by the hon. Gentleman and with SBS.
Shared services in my constituency saved £120 million in four years. When the system was privatised under Steria, it lost £4 million and goes on being inefficient. Can the Government escape from this paralysis of thought that is costing the country so much—that everything private is good and everything public is bad? Will they look to not outsourcing but insourcing services from the inefficient private sector back to our wonderful, efficient civil service?
I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that the last Government who had an active policy of increasing private sector market share in the NHS were the last Labour Government. This Government legislated to stop the Government nationally prioritising the private sector and made that a decision for individual doctors at a local level.
As a doctor, I understand the importance of ensuring that results and letters are reviewed in a timely manner. There will always be opportunity for error in any system relying on bits of paper being sent around. Hospitals such as Peterborough City hospital, where I have worked, provide results electronically, which is quicker, as well as having a back-up paper form, which provides for patient safety. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that good practice such as this is being rolled out elsewhere?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is right to point out that we are in a different world from the world of 2011. The future is to transport patient records securely over electronic systems. It is much quicker and there is much less room for error, but we do need the back-up systems that she mentioned.
I wrote to the Secretary of State in January on behalf of a GP practice in my constituency that is concerned about the potential impact on staff working at the practice. I raised the matter again four months ago during the previous urgent question, and the Secretary of State promised to look into the impact on staff. Can he report back to the House today?
I will relook at the situation in that surgery to ensure that we are learning any lessons that need to be learned. However, this is a complex process. There have already been two clinical reviews in the vast majority of the high risk cases, and we want to have a third review to really establish whether there was any actual patient harm. That takes clinician time, which is one of the reasons why we have not been able to complete the process by today. It will take until Christmas to do that because we have to balance the other responsibilities that clinicians have in their daily work.
Earlier, the Secretary of State assured the House that the individual directors who are responsible for this catastrophe are no longer in a position to cause similar damage. Is he aware that the briefest of searches through Companies House records shows that the same three or four names associated with Shared Business Services come up time and again?
There are about a dozen companies, many of which come under the Sopra Steria Ltd group of companies, and most of which advertise the fact that they do a lot of work for the NHS right now. One is titled NHS Shared Employee Services Ltd, which suggests that, far from having been removed from any influence, the individual directors who were legally responsible for this disaster are still very much in a position to make money for themselves while presiding over similar disasters in the future.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but he will understand that I am not in a position to pass judgment at the Dispatch Box on the behaviour of individuals. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has respected and well-established systems in place to ensure that people who are not fit and proper to be company directors are not able to continue with their duties.
My constituents are served not by the SBS contract, but by the Capita contract. I have raised problems with that contract to the Secretary of State on many occasions. There are still problems with the helpline, which appears incapable of logging and following through with complaints. Why is this contract, which is clearly failing, not taken back in-house by the Government?
Just to be clear, this is a different contract, as I know the hon. Lady understands. We have been working hard, and I know that the hon. Lady worked hard with my Department in the previous Parliament to try to get to the bottom of the problems with the Capita contract. My understanding is that the situation is improving, but I will happily look into the individual situation she mentioned.
The Secretary of State said that this takes time and, if I heard correctly, that a third of GPs have failed to respond. What steps is he taking to ensure that patient care is not being compromised by the extra admin burden on already overworked GPs?
We are paying GP surgeries for the extra admin time that this is taking. That is designed to ensure that, where necessary, they can buy in extra resources to deal with the extra admin. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we have to ensure that GPs’ core work is not compromised by the issue.
I used to work as a clinical scientist in the NHS, so I know only too well the harm that can be caused by the non-arrival of a test result. If a diagnostic test is performed and the result goes nowhere and is not seen by a clinician, as in this case, it is the same health outcome as if the test was not done at all. Will the Secretary of State stop trying to downplay the situation and own up to the seriousness of this scandal?
No one listening objectively could possibly say that I am, or that anyone on this side of the House is, downplaying this very serious situation. Since the issue came to light, we have instituted a review of 709,000 pieces of patient correspondence. We have identified the high-priority ones, of which there are 2,508. Two, and sometimes three, clinical tests have been done on all of them. No patient harm has been identified to date, but we are not complacent. We will continue the process until we have been through every single patient record with that thoroughness.
I too will mention the Capita contract. This is not an isolated case. A pattern is occurring. The Government are failing in their governance over patient records. Will the Secretary of State now review that governance and bring it back in-house? It is so urgent that we oversee the safety of patients first.
As I confirmed to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), I will look into the outstanding issues with the Capita contract for GPs that are not related to the delivery of patient records. My understanding is that things have got better, but we were very unhappy with the initial performance from Capita.
Confidence and Supply Arrangement
Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I rise to propose that the House debates a specific and important matter for urgent consideration—namely, the Government’s confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist party and the associated funding arrangements.
Yesterday morning, the Government confirmed a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist party to secure a working majority in this Parliament. The central part of the deal involved a funding arrangement that would see Northern Ireland benefit from more than £1 billion of extra investment, while the other nations of the United Kingdom would secure next to nothing. The full details of the deal must be fully debated and all the issues properly scrutinised as quickly as possible, certainly ahead of Thursday’s votes on the Humble Address. Yesterday there was an hour-long statement, with little notice, from the First Secretary of State, who took questions from hon. Members. That cannot be considered satisfactory, given the significance and importance of the deal. Members must be given a chance to debate all the issues fully.
The normal arrangements for the funding of the nations of the United Kingdom have been turned on their head with the disregard of the Barnett formula. Had the Barnett formula been applied, Scotland would have been entitled to nearly £2.9 billion of additional funding and Wales would have got an extra £1.7 billion. The First Secretary yesterday claimed that the deal was to be compared to allocations made under city deals. That is not the case and that assertion must be tested. City deals in Scotland are match-funded by the Scottish Government and local authority partners; and Northern Ireland is not a city.
There are also questions about the role of the Scotland Office in all this. On Sunday, the Secretary of State for Scotland noted he would not support any funding that,
“is deliberately sought to subvert the Barnett rules”.
This deal clearly does—it fails that test. We and all the new Scottish Members of Parliament need to know whether the Scotland Office made representations to the Prime Minister in advance of this deal being announced, and whether it did anything at all to protect Scotland’s vital funding interests in this deal.
While we welcome the increased funding for Northern Ireland, we believe there are serious questions regarding the relevance of the Barnett formula in the light of this new deal. If this represents a relaxation of ideological austerity, all regions and nations of the UK should benefit. This matter requires more attention from the House, and I humbly request an emergency debate to get the answers that this House and this country need.
The hon. Member asks leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely the DUP funding deal. I have listened carefully—it was my decision to allocate to the hon. Gentleman three minutes in which to make his case—to the application from the hon. Member. However, I am not persuaded that this matter is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24.
I do realise that that will disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but he is a persistent terrier, and I feel sure that he and other Members from his Benches will raise this matter in all sorts of ways in days to come, and they will not be deterred in any way by the thought that they might be repeating themselves. [Interruption.] They will very properly return to this matter as and when they wish—preferably, however, when they are on their feet, rather than, as exemplified by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), from the comfort of their seat. We will leave it there for now.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, I raised the lack of clarity from the Communities Secretary on the Government’s plans to introduce local retention of business rates to replace the revenue support grant to local authorities. In reply, the Secretary of State indicated that today’s Queen’s Speech debate may be an opportunity to raise the matter. Has the Secretary of State given you, Sir, any indication that he intends to make an oral statement on these matters during the forthcoming debate? How might Members with an interest in this matter adequately question him if they have not put in to speak in the debate?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The relevant Minister will, I think, be making a speech to the House. That, of course, does not constitute a statement as such, but it is nevertheless a full treatment of the issues of which the Minister wishes to treat.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s second inquiry—how do Members probe the Minister if they have not put in to make a speech?—the short answer is, by intervention. It is not for me to try to set myself up as an executive coach, and the hon. Gentleman would not wish me to do so, but the idea of Members proceeding collectively with the same line of inquiry is not entirely a novel idea, and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to encourage his colleagues to focus on a particular theme or point and to keep repeating that theme or point until they are satisfied, it is perfectly open to him to do so. I feel sure the hon. Gentleman’s followers, or his disciples, will listen to his advice with the very closest interest and respect at all times. We will leave it there for now.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
A separate and unrelated point of order, I feel sure, from Mr Paul Flynn.
With your prodigious memory, Mr Speaker, you might recall that the final point of order in the last Parliament was about a worry that the electoral system in this country is more open to corruption than at any time since 1880, and it is possible now to buy an election.
I do not know whether you saw the Channel 4 programme about the activities in Wales of a call centre that was employed by the Conservative party throughout the election to concentrate on my constituency, among others. It was not carrying out any kind of market research; it was being used to give information that was damaging to the Labour party to as many voters as possible. One hundred people were employed to do that, and they were paid to do it. The allegation was also made—I can confirm it from what happened in my constituency—that canvassing was also done from this call centre on polling day, and I had many complaints about people getting repeated calls.
We have an electoral system that is not fit for purpose. We are in an age where neither the Electoral Commission nor the Information Commissioner can handle the election. To restore integrity to our electoral system, we need major reforms, and I am sure you will use your office to ensure that that is accelerated.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I think he invests me with powers or influence that I might not currently possess, but I am very grateful to him for encouraging an increase in the said powers or influence.
As it happens, I do recall the last point of order of the last Parliament, and it is very reasonable of the hon. Gentleman to draw my attention to it. My pithy advice is that if he has ongoing concerns about what might constitute an offence, he should notify both the Electoral Commission and, indeed, the police.
I did not see the Channel 4 documentary to which the hon. Gentleman refers, although I have a feeling that he will exhort me to view it sooner rather than later. What I would say is that if there have been egregious activities taking place in his constituency—I do not suggest that this invalidates his concern, because it does not—manifestly those activities have not been successful if they were directed against the hon. Gentleman. That is not altogether surprising, as he has been a consistent presence in this House for three decades—he might not yet have reached the halfway mark in his parliamentary career attained by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), but he is getting a bit nearer to it. We will perhaps leave it there for now.
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 26 June).
Question again proposed,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Education and Local Services
It is a pleasure to be able to open this Queen’s Speech debate this afternoon.
Since 2010, this Government have been focused on the pursuit of higher standards in education, higher standards in our schools, higher standards in our universities and higher standards in technical education—in fact, higher standards across the board—to unlock the talents of every single one of our young people.
We have made significant progress. Thanks to the energy of our great teachers and leaders, nine out of 10 schools are now good or outstanding, with 1.8 million more children in those places since 2010. Thanks to the energy of our thriving universities, more young people are going to university than ever before, including more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Thanks to the energy of businesses, we are well on our way to achieving our target of 3 million apprenticeships by 2020.
Perhaps more than most Departments, the legislation we need to drive up education standards and opportunity is already in place. In the last parliamentary Session alone, we passed the Technical and Further Education Act 2017, creating the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to oversee our bold new reforms; we passed the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, the most significant legislative reform of the past 25 years in higher education, to give students better value and more choice, information and opportunity; and we passed the Children and Social Work Act 2017 to better protect and safeguard the most vulnerable children in our society.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Children and Social Work Act, and an important provision the Government put into it was making relationship and sex education compulsory. What progress is being made on regulations to bring that into force?
I am grateful for the cross-party support that enabled us to do that, and we are determined now to push on with the issue. We will shortly be setting out our plan for how we take the review forward and how we continue to get the overall support we need to make sure relationship and sex education in secondary schools, and relationship education in primary schools, are age appropriate and effective for children growing up in a very different Britain from the one many of us grew up in.
Several hon. Members rose—
If I could make a little progress, that would be appreciated. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunities for interventions.
As I was saying—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but there is a fly buzzing around. We are determined to build on that strong platform of success, to create an education system that works for all our children and all our young people. Equality of opportunity for everyone—wherever they are, whatever their background—is in the end unlocked only by education.
The North Shore Academy in my constituency faces a spending cut of several hundred thousand pounds. It serves one of the areas that the Secretary of State is talking about—an area of high deprivation. How on earth can that be fair funding in an area of high deprivation?
I will come on to funding later, but suffice it to say that it is important we make sure that all our schools are fairly funded. That challenge is recognised across the House. Clearly there are difficulties in doing that.
Does the right hon. Lady feel that education and local services in England would be helped in any way by the large part of £30 billion that would be the Barnett consequential of money for England as a result of the deal in Northern Ireland, given what the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) just said about the North Shore Academy in his constituency?
Our manifesto pledged to increase education funding. The challenge that the hon. Gentleman’s part of our United Kingdom faces is the real issue of its standards lagging significantly behind those of England in relation to scores on the programme for international student assessment.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will make some progress. We want equality of opportunity for everyone. In her speech, Her Majesty the Queen set out that we will work to ensure that every child has a good school place and that no young person will be left behind, in part by making sure that this country possesses world-beating technical education and, of course, by maintaining our world-class higher education.
I will give way to the hon. Lady, who is a near neighbour of mine.
On the issue of a good school place for every child, the Secretary of State will be aware of the proposal that the local mental health trust in our area should no longer diagnose children with autism. Without a diagnosis there is no chance of an educational care plan, and without an ECP there is no opportunity for a child with autism to get a good school place. Will she personally intervene to stop that?
Work on making sure that children can be in mainstream schools has been a key focus for this Government. That is why we have introduced educational health care plans—the correct term is EHCPs—which are holistic plans to make sure that children get not just their educational needs but their broader health needs assessed. I am always happy to look at specific issues raised by hon. Members. It is exceptionally important that our education system works for all children, whatever their challenges, not just the majority of children.
Several hon. Members rose—
I am going to make a little progress. Under our education reforms, we are determined that no person, community or group should be left behind, because in reality no person, community or group has a monopoly on talent. Talent is spread right the way across our country, and this Government will create an education system that unlocks that talent in everyone and in all parts of the country. That is how we will succeed in finally shifting the dial on improving social mobility in the UK.
The Conservative manifesto proposed introducing primary school breakfast clubs. Given that research commissioned by Magic Breakfast, the Educational Endowment Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that a good, nutritious breakfast can improve educational attainment by about two months in any given year, may I urge the Secretary of State to stick to that part of the manifesto and make sure that it is fully funded, so that all children can go to school without being too hungry to learn?
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we already had plans to scale up the sorts of programmes undertaken by fantastic charities such as Magic Breakfast. We all recognise their benefits, particularly for disadvantaged children, who can get into school a bit earlier, have time to settle and start their classes ready to concentrate and learn.
In the election, people were faced with choices. Indeed, the Opposition set out their alternative plan. It was very big on rhetoric, but the question is what it will actually mean for people in reality. Of course, we do not have to go far to find out. It is clear what Labour would mean for education standards as we only have to go across to Wales and look at its education performance. Instead of high standards for children in schools, Welsh children are faced with low and falling standards. Indeed, according to the OECD it is the lowest-performing country in the UK, and it is run and overseen by the Labour party. In fact, its performance is now significantly below that of England in maths, reading and science. That is Labour’s legacy for Welsh children and it would import it for English children, if it ever got the chance.
The Welsh Government are quite open about the fact that we need to get better scores in relation to the PISA results, but what I will not accept is how, yet again, the Tory Government are trying to demonise Wales. They did it before on health, calling it a line between life and death. It is a disgrace. Will the Secretary of State apologise to the people of Wales?
The hon. Lady’s comment shows the reality, which is that Labour needs to pull together a strategy to improve education in Wales in the same way as our strategy of reform has improved standards in England. It has not been easy, but Labour has dodged it in Wales. Labour will never be credible to parents in England until it sets out why it feels it is failing children in Wales, including on opportunity.
The right hon. Lady rightly talks about the need for Government strategy to be credible in the eyes of parents, but what credibility does she think her Government have with parents when schools are sending home letters requesting donations so that they can afford to buy books and computer equipment so that their children can have an education?
I think that what most parents are interested in is the fact that independent school inspections by Ofsted say that nearly nine out of ten schools in this country are now good or outstanding. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention shows very clearly the difference between Members on each side of the House. On one side, there is a genuine intent to see standards rise; on the other, it is all about politics, not outcomes for children on the ground. We heard that in the intervention by the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), who had nothing to say about the standards in Wales, other than calling for an apology for raising the issue of falling standards for Welsh children. That is a disgraceful response from a party in government in Wales.
Several hon. Members rose—
I am going to make more progress. This was not the only area on which the Labour party made proposals. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said that its plan on university and higher education funding had a £2 billion black hole. In fact, the IFS estimates that the proposal could cost as much £13 billion by 2020.
Inevitably, that Labour higher education black hole would mean cutbacks for universities. It would mean lower teaching standards or the introduction of an emergency cap on student numbers. If we look at how that £2 billion black hole would be plugged, we see that it would be the equivalent either of cutting 40,000 lecturers or of a cap that would mean 160,000 fewer students going to university, based on the average student grant for fees and maintenance loans. There just would not be the money. In fact, we know that if a cap were reintroduced because of a black hole in our higher education funding, it would be disproportionately likely to hit students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Labour’s higher education black hole could force universities with lower student numbers into significant financial trouble.
On equality, what is the evidence that no tuition fees mean that more disadvantaged students can go to university? Again, we do not have to go far to find the evidence. In Scotland, the policy of no tuition fees goes side by side with lower equality of opportunity for disadvantaged young people to go to university. That is because the policy benefits children who are more likely to go to university. However, the people more likely to go to university are children from better-off families. We all know that: it is not a surprise to the Opposition.
What benefits disadvantaged children is having more places at university for them overall. The imperative therefore is not having a cap on the numbers. In Scotland, there are no fees. In England, where there is no cap, more disadvantaged young people go to university.
Clearly, the right hon. Lady’s party had no offer whatsoever for students and young people at the election, so perhaps she might like to reflect on the terrible mistake that was made in the previous Parliament? Non-repayable grants targeted on the poorest students were scrapped by the Government. Is it not time to deal with the real funding crisis facing students, which is the one in their pockets?
I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not answer my question. [Interruption.] There will be plenty more time to dig into the Labour proposals for higher education and what they mean for the most disadvantaged children in the country.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I hope that it is a point of order, rather than merely a point of frustration.
Is it in order, Mr Speaker, for Front-Bench Government spokespeople to put questions to Back-Bench Members of the Opposition? They are there to defend their record; it is not for the Opposition to do so.
There is nothing disorderly about it. It is not in that sense, I must tell the hon. Gentleman, narrowly analogous to Question Time. At Question Time, I have said now and again to Ministers that it is not for them to ask questions; they are there to answer questions. A debate is a more seamless enterprise, as I think the hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced denizen of the House, must know. It is perfectly in order for the Secretary of State to pose an inquiry to a Member, just as it is perfectly in order for another Member wholly to disregard it. I call the Secretary of State.
I should be delighted to give way to my hon. Friend.
Am I not right in saying that there has not been a fall in the number of students going to university since fees have had to be paid? Indeed, I have two daughters who have recently completed university. They both paid fees, but on different rates—one the high rate, one the low rate. They both agree that it was right that they should pay fees for the advantage they have gained, because they should earn more money than someone who does not go to university. Is it right that someone who does not go to university should fund people who do and who have the potential benefit of earning more money?
My hon. Friend asks some important questions not just about equality of opportunity but about equality more generally and why we are prioritising technical education. The approach in England has benefited students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who now go to university at a record rate. In 2009, the rate was 13.6%; it was 19.5% in 2016.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
Will the Secretary of State give way? I have been very patient.
I will give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), and then to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown).
I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) said. He asked what we had to offer young people, and I will tell him, although I will say that it would have been better if we had mentioned it during the election campaign. Unemployment for young people is now six percentage points lower than it was in 2010, whereas in the eurozone it remains at 20%. Under this Government, young people have a very, very good chance of getting a job, which is an excellent route to prosperity. That is what we have to offer.
My right hon. Friend is right. Under the Labour Government, youth unemployment went up by just under 50%. It was not just young people from lower income backgrounds coming out of the education system often without basic skills. It was graduates who came out of the system and could not find a job. We are determined to make sure that never again is there a lost generation of young people in our country coming out of the education system wanting a career but not even being able to find a job.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on giving way to me. May I commend her on the increase in standards in education? To improve those standards still further—the current funding formula is unfair and depends on a lottery code—does she agree that every pupil and every school deserves fair minimum funding?
As my hon. Friend knows, we are absolutely committed to making sure that we have fair funding across our schools. We had an extensive consultation that received 25,000 responses, which we have gone through. We are pulling together what that means for the right way forward. He is right to point out that many schools in his local community have been systematically underfunded, which is not tenable in a country where we want all children to receive consistent investment and a consistent opportunity to make the most of themselves. We are determined to introduce our plans to ensure that schools are fairly funded, wherever they are.
Several hon. Members rose—
I am going to make a little more progress, because I was pursuing an argument on access to higher education, which is hugely important in relation to how we drive social mobility.
The Labour party has proposed a policy that will lead to more inequality. It would benefit the young people most likely to do well: university students from better-off, richer backgrounds. However, the policy would be paid for by everyone, including lower-income workers and pensioners. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that Labour’s policy does not seem to be an effective use of £11.5 billion to £13.5 billion if the aim is partly to aid social mobility for the most disadvantaged students. I am not sure what the Labour party thought was its raison d’être, but clearly it is no longer lifting up the children growing up in our most disadvantaged communities that are furthest from a level playing field on opportunity.
Given the incredibly important role that primary education plays in the preparation of young people for secondary and further education, will the Secretary of State explain how the proposed funding cuts in Sandwell, which will amount to nearly £600 per pupil over the next three years and lead to a reduction of seven teachers per school, will help that process in one of the most socially deprived areas?
I have made it clear that we are going to introduce proposals on fair funding. There is record funding in our schools, and we have set out a commitment to increase that further in our manifesto. We will introduce those proposals shortly.
To conclude on higher education, the £2 billion higher education black hole would mean an emergency cap on student numbers. Young people would miss out on university. They would almost certainly be from disadvantaged backgrounds: young people hoping to be the first in their family to get the chance to do a degree, as I was. It is literally a cap on aspiration. Labour are not being honest and up front with young people about the implications of their proposals for higher education funding. It is simply snake oil populism.
It is vital to ensure that higher education remains accessible, is affordable and provides value for money. We need to listen to the voices of young people at the last election and we are committed to doing so, but our approach must reduce inequality and the lack of access for disadvantaged young people, not increase it as Labour’s policy would.
I remind the Secretary of State that the last Labour Government expanded higher education and had a cap on fees. She talks about 1 million young people being unemployed. In the first Parliament under the Tory Government, youth unemployment was at 1 million and the Work programme was a disaster, wasting billions of pounds. I ask her to reverse the £3 billion of education cuts being proposed by her Government, which will devastate aspiration in schools around the country. It is time to act, Secretary of State, not attack the Opposition. You are in power—deal with the cap on aspiration now.
I can set out for the hon. Lady exactly what we have been doing. We have been reforming our education system and standards have gone up; we have taken away a cap on the number of students going to university, which is why a higher percentage of disadvantaged young people are going to university than ever before; and, of course, our economic policies have led to 2.8 million jobs being created in our economy, which has provided opportunity for young people who would otherwise have been sat at home getting unemployment benefits, with their careers on hold until they were able to get them kick-started. That is what we have been doing.
The final thing we have been doing is tackling the huge, huge deficit left by the Labour party when it left office. [Interruption.] The Opposition are bored with hearing about it, because clearly—[Interruption.] I am sorry they are in such uproar at being reminded that when we came to power, the country was living £151 billion a year beyond our means—borrowing that was due to be passed on to young people. Clearly, the Labour party has learned nothing from this at all. Its only answer to every single question it faces in any policy area is, “Spend more money, but don’t worry about where it comes from because”—[Interruption.]
Order. There is a cacophony of noise. I have told the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) before that he should not yell out from a sedentary position. I had great aspirations for him to obtain the level of a statesman, but his apprenticeship has some distance to run if he is going to conduct himself in that manner. The Secretary of State must be heard, and the same goes for everybody else in the Chamber.
We are focused on raising social mobility and on levelling up opportunity for people who do not have it. That is why we have made investment in technical education a priority, as Her Majesty set out in the Queen’s Speech. For too long, there has not been parity of esteem between technical and academic routes in education. That has cost our country dearly. It has also created inequality between those who go to our world-renowned universities and those young people who do not have the chance to do so. That inequality stretches across communities and regions. It has cost us dearly in the loss of the human capital and productivity that high-skilled people in a high-skilled economy provide. We are determined to continue our work to recover the legacy of Labour’s lost generation of young, unemployed, unskilled people coming into the labour force. Those young people have been let down—
Will the Secretary of State give way?
The Secretary of State cannot hear that the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) is seeking to intervene. It is up to her whether to accept the intervention; I am merely offering a helping hand.
I give way.
I congratulate the Government on the annual £500 million increase in technical education. In my constituency of Copeland, a practical skills community, it is essential to continue the legacy of world-class trades if we are to deliver a modern industrial strategy.
That is absolutely right. It is critical that we take advantage of two opportunities. The first is the kinds of businesses and industries in my hon. Friend’s area that are creating jobs and opportunities. The second is a generation of young people who want opportunity and want a career. We should be investing in generating our home-grown talent to take advantage of those opportunities, which we all see in our local communities. Exiting the European Union provides new impetus to the focus on developing our home-grown talent.
The Secretary of State referred to world-class universities. We are proud of them in this country, but it is important that they are able to attract students from all around the world. Why do the Government persist with the ludicrous idea that we must cut net migration to the tens of thousands, including cutting the number of international students coming to stay in this country? They pay their own way, they improve their relationship with this country, and when they go back home they want to continue doing business with us. It is ludicrous!
The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that he is entirely misinformed, because we do not have a cap on the number of international students. That will save him from having to ask that question again. We are determined to ensure that our universities sector remains open to the best and brightest talent around the world. He can scaremonger and raise fake issues all he likes, but it will not change the position. The much bigger threat to universities lies in decimating the funding going into them. That is the biggest challenge they would face if they ended up with the kind of higher education funding black hole that the Labour party would present them with.
We are shaping the curriculum for young people going into technical education into 15 technical routes, each culminating in a so-called T-level, which will become the gold standard qualification for technical excellence. That reform is matched by investment, as the Chancellor announced in the March Budget—a Budget that the CBI called
“a breakthrough Budget for skills.”
That investment would be at risk under a Labour Government because of the black hole in post-16 funding for higher education. Our new institutes of technology will also provide a path to develop excellence in higher technical skills. One problem we have had with technical education is that there has not been a ladder of steadily more challenging qualifications so that young people can better themselves.
Will my right hon. Friend outline how the technical qualifications will meet the needs of employers? After all, we need to ensure that the skills that are being developed meet business requirements.
Part of the plan we set out in the manifesto was to establish what we called skills advisory panels. In other words, local employers within regions will look at what the needs are in their skills pipeline, consider them in relation to the 15 skills routes that we have set out and understand how that maps on to the provision in the education system locally. Across the country, that is exactly what we will need, to make sure we have the right number of people coming through with the right skills in the right places; to have an understanding of what is needed in the years ahead; and to know the risks in provision so that we can tackle them early. This is common sense and I think it will bring a significant step change in our ability to have a successful industrial strategy that benefits young people.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I will make a bit of progress because many colleagues want to speak in this debate once I have sat down.
The Government are committed to having the best lifelong learning for adults in the developed world. We will achieve that by setting up a national retraining scheme.
All these reforms represent real support for people across the country, real opportunity and real ways to tackle inequality. We recognise that access to equality of opportunity—social mobility—is what will lift our country, not some kind of snake-oil populism from the Labour party, backed up by a fiscal black hole that will mean cuts in the very areas that are most important in improving opportunity.
Of course, throughout those reforms we will work hand in glove with British businesses, relying on their expertise, knowledge and leadership—businesses that the Labour party continually castigates as being part of the problem that our country faces, as Labour sees it. We see businesses as critical in driving opportunity and social mobility.
We know that good schools are the engines of social mobility, and they are not just about individual success. Schools are at the centre of every single community. Last week I visited the Kensington Aldridge Academy, in the shadow of Grenfell Tower. I am sure the House will join me in paying tribute to the teachers and staff of all the schools in the area, and indeed those in Manchester affected by what happened after the Ariana Grande concert. They were met with a terrible situation but helped the young people caught up in it with absolute professionalism. Leaders, headteachers and teachers in those areas have been the unsung heroes over recent weeks, along with our emergency services, and I want to put on record again my thanks to them for all the work they have done to make sure that our children are back in school but also getting the support that they need to deal with the experiences they have had. We are committed to ensuring that that support stays in place as those schools continue, when the cameras have gone, to help their students deal with what they have been through.
With the news today that 95 tower blocks have failed the cladding test, it is clear that hundreds of children across the country, not just in Camden but in other local education authority areas, will experience the disruption of being moved out of their home. What will the Secretary of State’s Department do to help to support schools in areas where that disruption is occurring?
We have been clear that we are getting in touch with schools that we know are being affected by such challenges. We did a huge amount of work in response to the Manchester atrocities, stretching far beyond Manchester into the broader north-west region, and in response to Grenfell Tower. As a result, the Government will have a much better, more systematic understanding of how to respond quickly so that not only are the right links in place between my Department, regional schools commissioners, local authorities and schools, but we can work in a streamlined fashion with local NHS services and educational psychologists. All those things have worked effectively, but we have had to work hard to identify emerging problems and tackle them quickly.
I would also like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to the mental health professionals who came from all over the country to offer their support following the Manchester attacks in particular. It was much appreciated and enabled us to deal much more effectively with the children who had been affected by the tragedy. Such responses provide the blueprint on which the Government can continue to develop emergency response.
The Queen’s Speech made it clear that the Government are determined to introduce a fairer distribution of funding for schools. We will set out our plans shortly, but, as we outlined in our manifesto, we will make sure that no school has its budget cut as a result of the new formula. We have, of course, given our schools record levels of funding, and in our manifesto we committed to increase funding further. Now that the consultation has finished, we will explain our plans for the fair funding of schools shortly.
More broadly, school improvement and great teaching and teachers are, in practice, the same thing. I had the chance to meet many inspirational teachers and leaders at the Times Educational Supplement awards last Friday. It was a fantastic evening, and it emphasised to me that teaching deserves to be thought of as a high-status profession. We will continue to work hard to crack down on unnecessary workload, and we will ramp up the quality of continuing professional development, centred around a new college of teaching. We will continue to invest in the profession to ensure that we attract the best people. Alongside continuing our reforms on academies and free schools, we are making sure that headteachers get the support they need to improve their schools through the £140 million strategic school improvement fund.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment that no school will see any reduction in funding because of the Government’s fairer funding formula, which is extremely welcome. Will she condemn the propaganda that is still going out from schools and the unions, claiming that there will be vast reductions in expenditure on a per pupil basis?
I think all parents expect teachers and headteachers to behave professionally. There is space for an important political debate, but I question whether some teachers have pursued it in the right way, given the high status that I want the profession to have in the public mind. There is absolutely a place for debate on the funding going to schools and the reform strategy that will see standards get better, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it has been concerning to see what many people have felt are utterly political messages being put out inappropriately.
We are also committed to ensuring that the whole education system, including independent schools and universities, works together to drive up standards for all our children. Of course, the Government’s 12 opportunity areas are there to deal with complex and entrenched challenges in education in areas such as Blackpool and Norwich. We are backing local leaders in those areas—teachers, businesses, civil society and local authorities—to come together to find solutions to long-standing problems and plan for future skills needs. We want to ensure that home-grown talent plugs the skills gaps. To confront that challenge, we need a powerful alliance of employers, civil society and Government, working hand in hand in every corner of our country. I welcome the huge number of businesses, charities and ordinary people stepping forward to help us to do better for our young people.
Although we all recognise the need to address deprivation, does my right hon. Friend also recognise the need to address the historical injustices for underfunded areas? Will she confirm that she will increase the age-weighted pupil unit block in the funding formula and help to reduce the costs that some schools are facing through the apprenticeship levy?
As I said, we are committed to introducing fair funding. It is right that we hold all schools to the same standards and the same accountability framework, and it makes sense that we should ensure that children with comparable needs are funded comparably wherever in the country they are. I will set out shortly the details of how we will do that following the consultation.
I will finish my speech. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] In many respects I was just getting started, but I am sure the rest can wait for future debates. The Government have done sterling work in narrowing the gender pay gap and advocating having more women on boards, but those efforts cannot slacken and need to be stepped up. We will bring forward new approaches to supporting women in the workplace. The 30-hour childcare offer will help families with the cost of childcare, and our returnship pilots will explore new ways of supporting mothers—it is overwhelmingly mothers—to get back into work. We know from some of the work that is already under way how powerful they can be. Of course, inequality is not confined to gender, and the Government will bring a renewed focus to the ethnicity gap in our workplaces.
The Government have an ambitious agenda for this Parliament: creating world-class technical education, ensuring that there is a good school place for every single child, wherever they are growing up, and tackling inequality in educational opportunity in all its forms. To achieve those goals, we will be resolute in our pursuit of high standards. We are building on a firm foundation, although there is more to do and more to deliver. Our young people deserve nothing less. This nation contains a wealth of talent just waiting to be unlocked, which will create opportunity and success for individuals and a strong and prosperous country that can take on, and succeed in, any challenge.
Let me first welcome you back to the Chair, Mr Speaker, and also the many new Members to the Chamber for today’s debate. I am sure we are all looking forward to hearing some excellent maiden speeches.
I also welcome the Secretary of State back to her place and her new Ministers to theirs. I suspect she may have found herself debating education issues quite a lot during the campaign, not least in her own constituency, but a lot has changed in these few short weeks, so today’s debate might be rather different. In fact, the Secretary of State concentrated more on the Labour party today than on her own Government and the Queen’s Speech. There are more than 2,500 words about education in the manifesto on which the Prime Minister stood those few weeks ago, but barely 50 in the speech we heard last week. Maybe that is why the Secretary of State concentrated so much on the Labour party manifesto. What we have heard is not so much a programme but a Post-it note. Although I listened carefully to the right hon. Lady’s opening remarks, I do not think we know much more about her policy now than we did before she stood up.
Let us start with the obvious points. The centrepiece of the new Prime Minister’s education policy was meant to be new grammar schools. I will not rehearse the arguments, but I will just put this observation on the record:
“When people talk about the grammar school issue, I never get people asking the question, ‘Why don’t you bring back the secondary modern?’ And in fact…most children would go to a secondary modern school…if we brought back selection”.
Of course, that is not an original observation. In this case, it is the argument made by the Minister for School Standards, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), when explaining why he opposed new grammar schools, when that was the Conservative policy under the last Prime Minister. I do not think it was said in this election campaign, so let me be the first to say it: #IagreewithNick. Perhaps the Secretary of State can explain what a hashtag means to her Home Secretary. I also agreed with the Minister for School Standards when he said:
“Now our job is to improve the standards in the three thousand comprehensive schools in this country and I believe it’s not getting rid of the grammar schools that was the issue.”