House of Commons
Monday 3 July 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry
May I take the opportunity, first, to welcome the new shadow Front-Bench team—the hon. Members for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), for Derby North (Chris Williamson), for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan)? They are welcome indeed.
I agree that it is regrettable that Survivors of Organised and Institutional Abuse has withdrawn from the inquiry. The inquiry is making good progress, in line with the plan it published last year. This is evidenced through public hearings and other events with victims and survivors. I retain my confidence in this independent inquiry to deliver its important work, to get the truth and to learn lessons for the future.
I thank the Home Secretary for that, but this is now really serious: this is the fourth victims’ group that has left, and today we have had the Sutton review, which reads like a total whitewash and suggests that no lessons have been learned by the inquiry or by the Government that set it up. What message does she think that sends to everybody in this country who is currently relying on a public inquiry to deliver justice for them?
I ask the hon. Lady to reconsider her view. The inquiry has said that the group can always come back if it wants to, and I ask her to think again about the people who are already being helped by the inquiry. There are 60 to 80 people whose experiences and attacks have been referred to the police, which may lead to prosecutions, and there are up to 1,000 people whose lives have been changed and who are getting the answers that they want. Those are real differences, which I ask the hon. Lady not to underestimate.
Last year, the inquiry attracted some unhelpful headlines on the back of its internal workings and certain personalities, since when, I am glad to say, it has been getting on with its important work. But we were promised an interim report and greater transparency, particularly after the Home Affairs Committee sittings, so when might we expect those?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I remember well giving evidence about this very matter when he was the acting Chair of that Committee. Like him, I have confidence in the new inquiry chair, Alexis Jay; she is getting on with the job, and as I said to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), we are seeing real action and real results from the progress that is being made. I have been told that we will get an interim report during 2018.
I refer the hon. Lady to the fact that different police chiefs are taking different positions on this, depending on their experience in their particular communities. If she has a particular concern about the situation in her community, I encourage her to come and talk to myself or the police Minister in due course.
That is a matter for local policing. It is up to local operations to decide how they will proceed with that matter; it is not for the inquiry. The inquiry is making its inquiries, having the truth sessions and then referring, where appropriate, to the police.
Since 1831, special constables have made a genuinely valuable contribution to local policing. That is why we should keep under regular review what the Government do to support that work.
Will my hon. Friend congratulate the 358 special constables in Essex, and congratulate Essex police on their push to encourage even more people to become special constables? Will he consider making it easier for councils to offer council tax rebates to special constables so that we can give something back to those who serve in our communities?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that. He has been a tireless champion for volunteering, and for special constables in particular. He represents a county that, through the leadership of police and crime commissioner Roger Hirst, is showing real leadership in trying to encourage more special constables. At the moment, we provide access to insurance for legal expenses. There is provision for out-of-allowance expenses, and there is provision in law for discretionary benefits such as discounts on council tax, but I am happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss how we can go further.
I had to do something with my wasted years.
I welcome the police Minister to his place. We all congratulate the specials on the work they do, which is of course first-rate, but it seems to me from my experience—I am going out with the specials on Friday, so I am sure they will tell me in no uncertain terms whether I am right—that being in the specials is no longer an entrance point to the full-time constabulary. Is there a reason for that? If it is because of problems of release or of financial support, will the Minister look into that and do something about it?
I add my voice to the congratulations to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I used to serve on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; it seems like 1,000 years ago. I would be concerned if what he says were true. It is not what I hear and not what the data tell me about the number of specials who go on to become regular police officers, but I will keep it under regular review.
As a former special constable—I am sure that will not be the last time that is mentioned from this Dispatch Box—I saw at first hand the dedication and bravery of our frontline officers, but I also witnessed a collapse in morale as the Government ignored warnings over jobs, pay and resources, and this has only gotten worse. Only last month at the Police Federation conference, the Home Secretary dismissed the concerns of an officer who told her how pay cuts had left him struggling to put food on his table. Does the Minister agree with the Home Secretary or the Foreign Secretary on whether our bravest and best should continue to experience a real-terms pay cut until 2020?
I thank and congratulate the hon. Lady on the contribution that she has made as a special constable. In relation to police pay, let me be very clear: we want to make sure that frontline public service workers, including the police, are paid fairly for their work, not least because of the contribution that they have made over the years to reducing the deficit that we inherited from Labour, and, in that context, the work they have done to safeguard hundreds of thousands of jobs. How we do that in a sustainable and affordable way is under active discussion.
3. What steps she is taking to tackle extremism in the UK. (900117)
We will establish a commission for countering extremism to reinforce current efforts to tackle extremist ideology in all its forms wherever it occurs. Already, through the 2015 counter-extremism strategy, we have taken steps to protect children from the threat of extremism, taken action on hate crime, and provided protective support for places of worship. We are also supporting civil society groups to tackle extremism in their communities.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Ten years ago last week we saw the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport, and since then we have sadly seen instances of extremism and terrorism in Walsall, Exeter, Manchester, Yorkshire, and of course here in London. What is being done with the devolved Administrations, as well the combined authorities and regions, to ensure that extremism, and therefore terrorism, has no place in the United Kingdom?
I very much welcome my hon. Friend to his place. I am sure he is going to make a significant contribution here at Home Office questions, as well as serving his constituents. He is quite right to point out that there is simply no place in our society for extremism or terrorism. In launching the counter-extremism strategy in 2015, the Government agreed with the devolved Administrations that they were not going to be part of the strategy at the time, but we continue to work with them. As we carry on working with them on setting up the commission for countering extremism, we will consult them widely. It is very important that we work together and learn together to keep the whole of the United Kingdom safe.
Last year, Twitter suspended 125,000 accounts that were linked to global terrorism, but millions of videos of such material remain on the internet. In Germany, companies can be fined up to £43 million for failing to take down illegal videos. When do the Government intend to introduce legislation of that kind?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the vile hatred that is being spread on the internet. I am pleased to report that the action we are taking is regularly enabling thousands of images to be taken down. We leave no stone unturned, and the Home Secretary is working closely with all the bodies responsible for the internet to make sure that we take more action to remove every vile piece of hatred from it.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of anti-Semitism. There is no room at all in our society for hatred of anyone based on their faith, race or ideology. The Government have put a safeguarding responsibility on universities and schools to make sure that they protect young people from being exposed to vile hatred and radicalisation.
May I press the Minister on the answer she gave to the former Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)? Social media giants remain the command and control platform of choice for extremists. I wrote to the Home Secretary on 29 March to ask whether she was considering similar laws to those in Germany and in Ireland, where a new watchdog is being created to police social media giants, or indeed proposals similar to those in the US Senate, such as the Feinstein Bill, which would require social media giants to report terrorism content. Governments around the world are taking action; when will this Government follow suit?
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government are taking action by leading the international efforts to make sure that internet platforms take their responsibilities seriously. The Home Secretary has made it absolutely clear that nothing is off the table. We are considering all options to make sure that the vile ideology and hatred that is pumped around the internet is stopped as soon as possible.
18. Maajid Nawaz is a former constituent of mine whom I once visited in prison in Cairo, where he was being held because of alleged terrorist activities. Is my hon. Friend aware that he has completely turned his life around and is the founder of Quilliam, an organisation dedicated to tackling extremism in the UK? (900133)
I thank the Home Secretary for her welcome.
A working and workable definition of what extremism means is central to any effective strategy for tackling extremism. Can the Minister assure me that the new commission set up to tackle extremism will construct a definition that is not only statutorily robust but will be able to withstand the scrutiny of the courts?
I not only welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place but very much welcome his views. The whole purpose of setting up the counter-extremism commission is to see what more we can do and what further steps we can take. I think we all understand what our shared British values are, and our strategy is making good progress. Of course, one of the commission’s actions will be to look at the definition that the hon. Gentleman mentions.
Police and Fire Services: Collaboration
8. What steps her Department is taking to encourage greater collaboration between the police and fire services. (900123)
The Policing and Crime Act 2017 introduced a raft of new measures to drive greater collaboration between emergency services, including a new duty to collaborate and enable police and crime commissioners to take on governance of fire and rescue services where a case is made. The Government continue to expect the pace and ambition of emergency services’ collaboration to increase.
Staffordshire’s police and crime commissioner, Matthew Ellis, has identified savings of at least £3.6 million a year from the integration of police and fire services, and he has committed them to bolstering frontline services in each of those two areas, as well as to investment in preventive measures, especially relating to fire. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such integration should progress where there is a strong local business case for it?
My hon. Friend is right. Where there is a strong business case and collaboration can improve outcomes and save money, which can then be used for the frontline, it should be encouraged. I welcome the good work that she has been doing with Matthew Ellis to deliver just that.
Roger Hirst, the Essex police and crime commissioner, has moved himself and his staff into fire HQ, saving £1.5 million, and has identified a further £23 million of potential savings in governance. What more can be done to encourage such excellent work in Essex and across the country?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving me another great example of the sort of collaboration that we are trying to encourage to improve outcomes and save money that can be used on the frontline. I congratulate him on his good work with his PCC, Roger Hirst, and wish them well in that new endeavour.
Both police officers and firefighters have told me that they are increasingly called to assist residents experiencing a mental health crisis, so I was very concerned when the collaboration in Nottinghamshire, which saw a mental health nurse based in the police control room, was axed in May because of a lack of funding, even though the scheme was described as successful and valuable. What discussions has the Home Secretary had with chief constables and chief fire officers about how best to support their staff who are dealing with members of the public experiencing mental health problems of that sort?
I share the hon. Lady’s view about how important it is to ensure that people with mental health crises or difficulties are treated differently. If she wants to write to me about the particular example she has set out, I will certainly look at it, but I am proud of the work that the Government have done to reduce the number—I think by nearly 80%—of young people with a mental health crisis ending up in police cells. The more we can do to address that, the better.
The Merseyside police and fire services already collaborate closely and are looking at ways of collaborating further. Does the Home Secretary accept that the scale of her Department’s financial cuts to the police service and the fire and rescue service in Merseyside makes that job much more difficult?
It is a good thing that we have protected police funding from 2015 to 2020. I admire enormously the work that the police and fire services do, and we will continue to look at how better we can support them. One of the ways that we have heard about today—I know that Merseyside has led on this too—is through collaboration, which will allow stronger working, better outcomes and money saved for the frontline.
The Government’s programme of reforms is aimed at ensuring that the police workforce is flexible, capable and professional, agile enough to adapt to changes in crime and society. We established the College of Policing as the professional body for policing, and its new policing education qualification framework is designed to ensure that policing is fit for the future. In addition, innovative recruitment schemes are widening the talent pool, bringing in people from a diverse range of backgrounds.
Tim Passmore, the police and crime commissioner for Suffolk, is recruiting more officers. To help Suffolk police with that task, will the Minister consider expanding the direct entry scheme and introducing more flexibility in salaries and promotion within ranks, so that officers are better able to progress their careers and are not continually moving into new roles when promoted?
We are already encouraging more police chiefs to take advantage of the direct entry scheme. There are a range of innovative examples around the country, including the chief constable in Durham, who is going direct to Sheffield University. As my hon. Friend says, it is also important to recognise police who are already serving, and that is why we fully support the advanced practitioner programme, which is being piloted in eight forces and encourages police to continue to specialise for a longer career, and rewards that effort.
Will the Minister join me in commending Hampshire constabulary on its great specialist entry detective programme, which is helping people find jobs that they want to do in the police service, bringing new people in and keeping the people of North East Hampshire, their property and their families safe?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to his force. It is really important that in the 21st century we recognise that policing has changed and that people who can contribute to delivering safe streets and investigations come from all over—from education opportunities in universities and from within forces and other public sector bodies. That is why direct entry is one key and enhancing careers is another.
Given the falling numbers of uniformed police officers in Lancashire—down 700 since 2010—what reassurance can the Minister give to my Muslim constituents, who are fearful for their own safety and that of their families in the light of recent attacks on mosques and the horrendous recent acid attacks?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady who, like me, is a Lancashire MP. I speak regularly with the chief constable of Lancashire and his officers. They have put in place lots of measures to ensure that hate crimes do not impact on the community. It is important to note that since 2010 crime has fallen in Lancashire. It is not simply that crime has remained high and police numbers have been cut. The police are doing an amazing job facing today’s challenges with the resources they receive. We have to remember that we have to live within our means.
Given the fact that 21,000 police officers have been lost in the past seven years, whether it is modern crime or traditional crime, and given the pressures that police chiefs recognise, how many police officers does the Minister intend the Government to recruit this year?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the number of police required in each force is down to the chief constable of each force. He should recognise, because in 2009-10 he was doing a similar job to me, that, owing to the changing nature of policing, we have seen an increase in funding for the National Crime Agency and specialist policing to tackle those areas. That goes alongside normal day-to-day policing. Back in 2015, in recognition of the importance of the beat constable, we on the Government Benches protected police spending. We were able to deliver that because we had a firm economy.
Community Police Officers
The hon. Gentleman will know, I am sure, that direct resource funding for the South Wales police force, which covers his constituency, will be up 3% in 2017-18. He will also know that decisions on the size, composition and deployment of the police workforce are operational matters for individual chief officers and police and crime commissioners.
Ministers should be given credit for making sure that they leave no cliché left unsaid in their attempt to defend their actions in relation to the police force. Can the Minister remember a time when a Conservative Government have been so unpopular with police officers—apart from when the current Prime Minister was Home Secretary?
I know from my time shadowing the hon. Gentleman that he defers to no one in his admiration of a good cliché. What I would say to him is what I hope any Policing Minister for any Government of any colour would say, which is that public safety is the No.1 priority for any Government. As he heard from the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), we have protected police spending in real terms since 2015 and increased spending in areas of specialisation. Now, in the light of the terrible events that have shocked us all, it is quite right that we go through a process of reviewing, with police and crime commissioners and colleagues from all parts of the House, what resources are needed to be absolutely sure that the police have the resources to keep us safe.
The Minister will be aware that motorbike and moped crime in London is on the increase. We need community officers who can deal with this problem directly, as it is an increasing issue. What are the Government doing about it? Can we please make our communities safer in this respect?
As a fellow London MP, I totally agree. In fact, I heard it directly the other day from a sergeant with whom I was walking the beat in London Bridge. As my hon. Friend knows, it is a requirement of local police chiefs to set the operational priorities. It is our responsibility to make sure they have the resources they need to meet all the risks they see.
19. The Minister will agree with me that community policing is the bedrock on which all policing operates, but following the bomb in Greater Manchester the whole of the police service has been working 12-hour days and there is no capacity to draw people in for overtime. Does the Minister not understand that policing is stretched beyond any capacity to deliver? (900134)
I hope the hon. Gentleman knows that we are extremely sensitive to that point. As I said in my remarks, we are very aware that the pressure put on the police as a result of recent terrible events, not least the one in Manchester, has required a surge of police effort and fantastic collaboration between forces, but we now have to sit down rationally with police and crime commissioners and police chiefs, to really understand and test assertions about pressure on police forces and to make sure that they have the resources they need to keep us safe.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. I hope I can reassure him that a lot of work is being done to ensure not only that the police have the resources they need, but that they are allocated fairly across all forces. No final decision has been taken on the fair funding formula, but I am happy to sit down with my hon. Friend and colleagues from all parts of the House who have concerns about the resource allocation for their forces.
During the Queen’s Speech debate on security last week, the Home Secretary said she was more worried about outcomes than police numbers, so will the Minister tell the House how the Home Office measures and values the outcomes of community police officers?
Ultimately, what matters most is the trend in crime, which the right hon. Gentleman knows from experience is what unsettles our constituents most. Public safety is the No. 1 priority, so the ultimate outcome is the crime statistics, and I am sure that he will join me in welcoming the long-term decline that we have seen since 2010.
Fire Prevention and Safety
The Secretary of State, who I believe is making a statement on Grenfell Tower this afternoon, has established an expert advisory panel to provide independent advice on any immediate measures that may need to be put in place to make buildings safe for residents following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Survivors and relatives of the victims of the Grenfell disaster are concerned at the proposed scope of the public inquiry, as the Minister knows, but does he agree that Departments, including his own, should act now to address many of the concerns raised? They include the safety of building materials, the resilience of the fire service across the country, the enforcement of regulations and a lack of trained professionals to carry out fire inspections as thoroughly and often as are needed.
The Grenfell tragedy, which should never have happened, and subsequent events, in terms of what we are learning about the fire safety of buildings, mean that there is a system failure, which has been allowed to build up over too many years. It is imperative that we do not just wait for a public inquiry, but that we get on with the work of reviewing not just regulation, but the whole system of enforcement and management of risk, and that we lead on that and are informed by an inquiry.
I, like all Members, have been inundated with emails from constituents demanding immediate changes to fire regulations. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we look at what changes are needed to the fire regulations, but also at what changes are needed in the implementation of existing regulations, so that tragedies such as Grenfell do not happen again?
I do agree with my hon. Friend, and his question allows me to build on what I was saying before. There has been a system failure, built up over many years, and we need to address it as a matter of urgency and with rigorous analysis underpinned by evidence. As part of that we will of course look at whether the regulations are effective, but my instinct is that the biggest failure has been in the system of enforcement, inspection and risk management.
Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack, who is conducting some of the inquiries, has said that the insulation has proved
“more flammable than the cladding”.
Has the Home Office had representations from the police or the fire service on this? Does the Minister sit on the Government’s taskforce and, if not, has whichever Home Office Minister does raised the testing of the insulation with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? If not, will they do so urgently and call for testing of insulation to be done?
I can assure the right hon. Lady that both the Home Secretary and I have sat on the regular Cobra meetings that have addressed this, and I sit regularly on the sub-group as well. The right hon. Lady is right; of course, testing the cladding was the priority, but it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not just about the cladding. There is a significant issue with insulation and fitting, and there are considerable questions to be answered about safeguarding and risk inside buildings. That is what we have to understand better, informed by the police investigation and the public inquiry about what exactly what has happened, but we also have to get on with the business of stress testing our current systems.
Banning flammable cladding is clearly a no-brainer. It should never have been used in those buildings, and nor, indeed, should any other flammable materials. As we start to beef up the rules and regulations, will my hon. Friend ensure not only that best guidance is spread around all local authorities in the United Kingdom and action is followed, but that we work with other Governments in other countries that contain tower blocks, so that the tragedy that has befallen the people of the United Kingdom will never befall another country?
I entirely agree with that sentiment, which was expressed very powerfully. The materials, particularly the panels, were not compliant, and should not have been used on those buildings. We must now re-examine systematically, using all the best evidence available, the landscape of policy and regulation—both the regulation itself, and what is meant to happen in respect of building inspection.
The concerns about fire prevention and safety are vital issues, but does the Minister agree that we should not lose sight of the immediate plight of the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, their families and their community? Does he understand that one of the factors preventing people from coming forward, either to obtain the help that they need or to provide the information that we need, is concern about their immigration status? I know he has said that their papers will not be checked, but will he consider announcing an immigration amnesty for the survivors of Grenfell Tower? Otherwise there will be people who have died whom we will never know about, and too many people who need help will not receive it.
The right hon. Lady is right. That is an issue, as I know from conversations that I have had and will continue to have with survivors. One of our big problems is not being able to identify fully who was in the building on that night, and concerns about immigration status are part of that. We have communicated some advice which was meant to reassure, and we are reviewing with people closer to the community whether that advice is sufficient.
Avon Fire and Rescue Service
I hope the hon. Lady will welcome, as I do, the fact that fire incidents in Avon have fallen by a quarter since 2010. Avon fire and rescue service will receive stable funding for 2019-20, and the Government consider that to be a fair settlement.
The service has lost £5 million of funding in recent years, and 200 frontline firefighting jobs have gone. Meanwhile, the police and crime commissioner is saying that the police are being pushed to their limit and have been asked to cut a further £20 million, which simply cannot be done. Must we wait until an incident in Bristol—an incident like the Grenfell Tower fire, or a terrorist attack—brings home to the Government just how much pressure those services are under?
I understand the point that the hon. Lady has made, but resources must be allocated in the light of risk, and, as I have said, risk has fallen in Avon since 2010. Obviously we cannot be complacent about that, and I have clearly signalled that there will be a profound re-examination of fire safety and risk, but I return to the point that I made about police resources. I am very committed to engaging with police authorities and police and crime commissioners, so that I can really understand their concerns about resources and ensure that any decisions are based on evidence rather than assertion.
Immigration Rules: Agriculture
I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about this issue only last week. I know that he is engaging with the National Farmers Union, and I shall meet NFU representatives and my right hon. Friend shortly to discuss it further.
Every summer farmers in my constituency require thousands of workers to pick their delicious fruit, but only 705 people in the constituency are unemployed and claiming jobseeker’s allowance, so it is very difficult for the farmers to recruit enough workers locally. Will my right hon. Friend consider a permit scheme for seasonal agricultural workers?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the excellent fruit that those workers pick in Kent. In terms of quality, it is almost up there with the blackcurrants in Great Yarmouth. While we are still full members of the European Union farmers can benefit from the free movement of labour, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will continue to discuss with the sector what will be done after we leave the EU.
As the Minister knows, agriculture is devolved and stringent immigration rules could have a particular impact on the Welsh food production sector. Does he agree that, if there is to be, regrettably, a Brexit outside the single market, there would need to be a geographical visa system to protect key sectors of the Welsh economy?
We are determined to ensure that we have an immigration system that continues to encourage the brightest and the best, and to ensure that all our sectors are able to flourish and thrive. However, I am not going to predict the outcome, or what we will be doing once we leave the European Union, after those negotiations.
EU Citizens in the UK
On 26 June, we published and laid in Parliament, and the Prime Minister outlined, a paper that outlines our offer for EU citizens. We want to ensure that they have certainty about the future. We have a fair and serious offer that we are confident will lead to a good agreement with our colleagues and partners across the EU.
As someone who is married to an EU national, I can assure the Minister that right now EU nationals do not feel any certainty from this Government. Does he agree with the organisations British in Europe and the3million that the Prime Minister’s offer will severely reduce the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU? Can he also explain why the Prime Minister made no reference to the far superior, detailed and comprehensive offer set out by the EU on 12 June?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me and colleagues in making it very clear that anyone from the EU who is working and living here at the moment can have confidence about the future. The offer we have made about settled status gives them that certainty. I hope that he will encourage not just his other half but all others on the matter. We ask him to bear it in mind that the offer we have made will mean that anyone from the EU who is settled here will have the same rights as any UK citizen. That is a fair and serious proposal.
My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a very good point. The Prime Minister has made a fair, full and serious offer that gives European citizens, once they have settled status, the same rights as a UK citizen. I am hopeful that we and our partners across the EU will be able to reach an early agreement on that.
The Minister talked about giving confidence to EU citizens. Given that just under 30% of applications currently being made for EU permanent residence cards are being turned down, what assurance can he give the House that the new application process set out in the White Paper will not lead to the same outcome? Will those EU citizens who are refused under that new process be required then to leave the UK?
What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that we outlined just last week in laying the paper that we want to ensure that, when we announce the system next year, it will be a simple, clear system, probably making use of digital technology, so that the 3 million Europeans who are living and working here, contributing fantastically well to our culture and economy, are able to go through that process as swiftly as possible.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) has highlighted, it is bizarre that the Prime Minister expects the EU to reciprocate an offer that falls short of the offer that the EU made on 12 June. Can the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister expects the EU to water down its offer? If so, how does he think that will reassure British nationals living abroad, never mind EU nationals living in the UK?
I will say two things to the hon. and learned Lady. First, just last week, I met one of the Ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union and representatives of British citizens living abroad to go through with them the position we have taken. Secondly, the Prime Minister is right to ensure that the people who are living in the UK who gain settled status have the same rights as a UK citizen. I do not think any UK citizen would expect any more or less from the British Government.
The point is that the EU offer would give EU nationals living in the UK and British nationals living abroad more rights than the Prime Minister’s offer. One thing the Minister could do to reassure EU nationals living in the UK is to state that access to the national health service will be considered sufficient by the Home Office to fulfil the requirements for comprehensive sickness insurance. That was the cross-party recommendation of the Exiting the European Union Committee in the previous Parliament. What or who is stopping the Home Office from implementing that recommendation now?
It is the EU that is stopping that, and if the hon. and learned Lady has a proper read through of our proposals, she will see that that is an issue we are looking forward to dealing with as we leave the European Union. It is right that we as the UK Government are saying that people have the same rights as UK citizens.
The Prime Minister’s recent remarks on the status of EU nationals were too little, too late. The Government have failed to reassure long-standing EU nationals living here and have failed to prevent the brain drain of much needed staff in high-value industries and academia, and of students. Will the Minister clarify the position of EU students studying in the UK who will be part-way through their courses when we leave the EU?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position.
This offer applies to all EU residents. If they are in this country and want to take settled status, they will be able to do that. That is an offer that will be open to everybody across the European Union, so in that sense it makes no change to the position of students.
The requirements we have in place promote not just family values but integration, while also striking the right balance to ensure that we take into account the burden on the taxpayer as well, so we have a fair balance between family, integration and the taxpayers’ position.
My constituent Paul McMillan, a medical student from Port Glasgow, is unable to be with his American partner because of the minimum income requirement on spousal visas, which stands at £18,600 and is due to rise. He has decided that because of the UK Government’s increasingly hostile attitude towards immigrants, on completing his studies he will emigrate from Scotland to be with his partner. Scotland will lose not only his future medical expertise but the expertise of his partner, a qualified social worker. Considering Paul’s situation, will the Home Secretary abandon plans to increase the minimum income requirement?
If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me about any specific case, I will be happy to have a look at it. As a general point, however, it is right that we look at making sure that everybody across the UK has the same position to deal with, so that the system is fair and that it is also fair to taxpayers, so that someone bringing a member of their family to this country can afford for them to be here. I also point out to the hon. Gentleman that the figure of £18,600 is several thousand pounds below the median wage in Scotland.
Under the freedom of movement rules, EU citizens are currently not obliged to meet that minimum income threshold if they wish to bring in family members. However, UK citizens do have to meet a minimum income threshold, which the Supreme Court has said causes hardship and ignores the rights of children. Is it not therefore fair to say that this new regime proposed by the Government means that EU citizens will lose their current rights to family life and that it represents a levelling down?
I think the right hon. Lady has slightly misunderstood the situation. If somebody from the European Union and their family are here, they will have that ability to have settled status. If they have not been here for five years but they stay for five years, they will be able to attain that right. I also point out to her that family life cannot be established here at the taxpayers’ expense. That is perfectly right; family migrants must be able to integrate. That is what our family immigration rules achieve, and it is an approach that the Supreme Court has endorsed.
There is substantial interest in the House about this Government’s policy about removing counter-terrorism online, and I want to update the House briefly.
Last week in Ottawa, we secured support from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US for the Government campaign to take terrorist material offline. Together, we announced that companies including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter would form a new global industry forum to tackle terrorist use of the internet. We made it clear that hateful content used to recruit and radicalise should not be allowed on their platforms and must be removed faster and more proactively. The commitment from fellow “Five Eyes” members to a shared approach and their backing of a new industry group is a vital step forward. I plan to travel to the west coast of America to continue discussions with major technology companies and to see what progress they are making on the forum, and I will share these findings. The key to successful action here is to make sure that we have a truly global initiative engaging other countries and the international headquarters of these businesses.
The Scottish Affairs Select Committee, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors have all said that Scotland requires a different immigration policy for its unique demographic needs. Will the Home Secretary consider the report by Professor Christina Boswell of the University of Edinburgh that evaluates the options for a differentiated approach to immigration policy in Scotland?
I do not think that we should have a different immigration policy for different parts of the United Kingdom, but I do think that we should have a fair, open and inclusive immigration system that will attract the brightest and the best, the right students and the people who are legitimately coming here to join their families. We will ensure that when we consult stakeholders and businesses over the summer, we have Scotland and other parts of the country in mind.
T3. In the light of the recent cyber-attack on Parliament and the National Crime Agency’s announcement that, because of under-reporting, the scale of cyber-crime is significantly underestimated, will the Secretary of State outline the specific steps that the Government are taking to tackle this threat? (900107)
Through the national cyber-security programme, we are investing £1.9 billion in cyber-security. We are investing in the National Crime Agency, the National Cyber Crime Unit and the National Cyber Security Centre, as well as the regional organised crime units at local level to ensure that there is a regional response. We have also given an extra £10 million to improve Action Fraud’s response to constituents. At the same time, the Government are trying to consolidate and ensure that there is a consistent message in Cyber Aware so that all colleagues and members of the public understand what they need to do to keep themselves safe online.
Following the wholly avoidable tragedy at Grenfell Tower, will the Home Secretary tell us why the review of the building regulations, which was promised by Gavin Barwell in the wake of the deadly Lakanal House fire, has failed to materialise? Mr Barwell was the Housing Minister at the time; did he suppress the review?
I do not think there is any evidence that our former colleague suppressed any review. There was plenty of work ongoing into the simplification of regulations. I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said before, that the Grenfell tragedy should never have happened, and what we have found out since about the fire safety of the building means that we have to do a root and branch review not only of the regulations but of inspection and risk management.
T4. When I was a district councillor in West Oxfordshire, I helped to settle six Syrian refugee families in the area. I have seen those families regularly, and one of the most heartening things is how they have integrated in our society in terms of school places and employment. Will the Minister please tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure that such integration takes place swiftly and efficiently? (900108)
I know that my hon. Friend’s constituency area has generously welcomed a number of families. So far, we have accepted 7,000 under this scheme. Today, additionally, I can confirm that we are taking advice from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on widening the eligibility for the scheme for vulnerable refugees so that we can include people of any nationality who are affected by the Syrian crisis. This will be good for families and good for ensuring that we truly help the most vulnerable in the region.
Merseyside police have had to cut £87 million and more than 1,000 officers and staff since 2010 and, notwithstanding the Home Secretary’s bizarre claim earlier that police budgets had been protected, they are now being expected to cut a further £18 million over the next three years, leading to 540 staff and officers being placed under threat while tackling a gun crime wave that has involved 100 shootings in the past 18 months. Will the Home Secretary agree to meet me and a delegation of Merseyside MPs to discuss why her Department has just turned down a bid for extra resources to deal with this, which she and her Ministers themselves invited?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this question. We did meet; I met her and the other Merseyside MPs, and I have met the chief constable, Andy Cooke. I can absolutely confirm that the National Crime Agency and the regional organised and serious crime units are giving a great deal of support to help to tackle the appalling increase in gun crime in Merseyside. We will continue do everything we can to support the police there.
When I spent some time on the night shift with the local police, they told me that when they arrest a person they spend most of the remainder of the shift filling in forms relating to that arrest. The police obviously have to be accountable when depriving somebody of their liberty, but that system can surely be speeded up.
As my hon. Friend knows, we have done a lot to cut police targets and bureaucracy so that they can focus on what really matters. Post-arrest administration has not been raised to date in my meetings with the police, but I will ensure that I raise it in any future meetings.
T5. Under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016, 480 unaccompanied refugee children were expected to come to the United Kingdom. We learned in the House of Lords last week that only 200 have arrived. What are the Government doing to ensure that the other 280 vulnerable children at risk of exploitation are able to come to the safety of our shores promptly? (900109)
It is a very good question. I am aware of those numbers. We have made it clear to the countries that currently provide a home to those children—largely Italy and Greece, but some are in France—that we are ready and stand able to take those additional children. We will continue to engage with those countries to try to do that. Part of the issue is that some of those children have already settled in the country where they are, but we remain engaged with those countries to see what else we can do to help those children. Where we can, we would like to bring over those who have not settled and whose interests are truly best served by coming here.
Kent continues to be one of the main points of entry to the UK for illegal workers. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what steps the Government are taking to make it easier for businesses in Kent and elsewhere to identify whether someone is working here illegally?
We implemented the Immigration Act 2016 to make illegal working a criminal offence so that the profits can be seized as the proceeds of crime. The Act also introduces new, stronger sanctions against employers of illegal workers. There is a balance to be struck in ensuring that people are checking whether someone has a passport, if they are from the EU, or has leave or the right to work here, if they are not from the EU. If businesses have done those checks, they are in a position to defend themselves against any action, which is appropriate.
T6. Ann Jones, the Welsh Assembly Member for Vale of Clwyd, successfully steered through Welsh Government legislation to make it compulsory to have sprinklers in new-builds and to retrofit them in refurbished residential buildings. Will the Home Secretary follow the Welsh Government’s example and work with her Cabinet colleagues towards making that a UK-wide policy? (900111)
I refer the hon. Lady to what I said before. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is making a statement this afternoon, and the Prime Minister has made several statements about the way forward in reviewing regulations, guidance and the whole inspection and risk-monitoring regime, which will include guidance on sprinklers. As the hon. Lady will know, sprinklers have different applications in different locations; there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Yesterday evening, Gatwick airport had to close its runway on several occasions, leading to the cancellation of quite a few flights, owing to the irresponsible use of a drone. Will the Minister say whether the Government will consider reviewing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles around airports?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the dangers that drones can pose to aircraft, but drones are also used illegally to supply drugs to prisons and they are used by terrorists and criminals further afield. That is why this Government set up a group chaired by me and the Ministry of Defence about a year ago to look at measures that we can put in place not only to deal with the technological challenge that drones present, but to ensure that we counter drones in a way that fits with the idea of an open society in which law-abiding citizens can continue to use drones for their pleasure or for their work.
T7. The prohibitive cost of testing for novel psychoactive substances is causing considerable expense to police forces in enforcing the current law. The present law on novel psychoactive substances simply is not working, so will the Home Office team please initiate an immediate review of it? (900113)
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the very, very tragic case of James Brindley, who was so brutally knifed and killed in her constituency. The local police force’s investigations are well under way, and a huge amount of work is being done to tackle knife crime. The local police force, West Midlands police, often takes part in Operation Sceptre, with the next operation happening in July. Every Member has an important role to play in going out there to tell young people in their communities about the real dangers they are presenting to themselves by carrying knives.
Having lost more than 800 police officers and almost a quarter of its funding, Northumbria police have just announced that they are closing every single Newcastle police station front desk outside working hours. Given all the reassurances we have heard today, why is Northumbria police still being obliged to make operational decisions based on cost cutting, and not on preventing and detecting crime?
I say to all colleagues on both sides of the House that we have protected police spending—[Interruption.] Hon. Members can have their own views; they cannot have their own facts. These are the cases. As long as individual councils use the maximum precept of 2%, they can raise the money. Additional support is available from the police transformation fund, and we will always make sure that we use it to keep communities safe and to provide the best policing available.
In Northamptonshire our excellent police and crime commissioner, Stephen Mold, is dramatically investing in police buildings by, for example, opening the new command centre in north Northamptonshire. Does my hon. Friend agree that, actually, it is the investment in buildings that are fit for purpose for operational policing and the modernisation that are so important for driving outcomes?
West Yorkshire police are still reeling from cuts dating back to 2010, when they lost 20% of their force. Will we look again at budgets so that they can restore the number of police officers on our streets and give them a fighting chance of dealing with demand?
I take this opportunity to clarify once more the situation with regard to police funding. From 2010 to 2015 there were indeed cuts, but what was so remarkable is that the good work of local policing and the good work of local communities meant that crime came down by a third. Between 2015 and 2020 we will continue to protect police money to ensure that crime continues to come down and that policing and communities get the necessary support.
What progress has been made to improve the co-operation between Action Fraud and individual police forces to ensure that, as in the case of a couple of my constituents, people are not passed from pillar to post when they seek information from one of those organisations?
My hon. Friend is right, and he has raised the issue before. That is why we have given some extra funding to Action Fraud to improve the process of managing the triage. At the same time, through the national cyber strategy, we are starting to see money going into the investments we require. Working with senior police leadership, whom I met last week, we are also trying to make sure that the response from forces to cyber-crime is consistent because, as he knows, it is very inconsistent at the moment. For too long, some forces have thought that cyber does not belong to them while other forces have done a very good job. We want to make sure that there is a consistent response right across the board.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) pointed out that 30% of applications for permanent residence are turned down, to a large extent because of the complexities of the process. Would it not be sensible to simplify the process now, instead of waiting until next year for the new system?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is correct that the system we are currently using is not the one that was designed for leaving the European Union and for allowing EU members here to apply for settled status. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that we will be providing a new system, which will be available by the end of next year; we are allowing people to make sure that they get additional information as it comes along and that their name is registered so that they get sent that information, but we need the time to build that system. We are confident it will be ready by the end of next year and provide a streamlined, effective online system for those applications to go through.
In last month’s birthday honours list, Alex Murray, who until very recently was Solihull’s police commander, received an OBE for his work. Will the Minister join me not only in congratulating Alex, and indeed all police in Solihull, who do such a tremendous job, but in recognising the need for a fair funding settlement for West Midlands police?
I am delighted to congratulate Alex Murray on his well-earned OBE—and all the other police officers and constables whose work was so rightly recognised. Perhaps we could also, from this House, recognise the good work that has been done by all police and emergency services, particularly over the past three and a half months, given the tremendous strains there have been on the work they have been having to do.
The provision of accommodation for asylum seekers is the responsibility of the Home Office and its contractors. What recent discussions have they had to ensure that such accommodation complies with fire prevention and safety regulations?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I visited some of those centres just last week, when I raised that very issue. I am writing to all suppliers across the country to raise that point, to make sure that they are fully aware of their duty of care and work to make sure that fire safety is of paramount importance for them.
Energy Price Cap
Following a two-year inquiry, the Competition and Markets Authority found that energy customers on standard variable tariffs were paying on average £1.4 billion a year more than would be the case in a competitive market. That is completely unacceptable, so my party’s manifesto committed to introduce a safeguard tariff to extend the price protection currently in place for some vulnerable customers—those on pre-payment meters—to more customers on the poorest-value tariffs. The energy regulator, Ofgem, has the powers necessary to impose such a price cap without delay, and I wrote to its chief executive on 21 June to ask it to use its powers to do so. Today, the regulator has replied and announced that it will work with consumer groups to take measures, including extending the current safeguard tariff for those on pre-payment meters to a wider group of consumers, and move urgently to implement these changes.
I welcome this initial proposal—it is a step in the right direction—but I will wait to see the actual proposals turned into action to cut bills, as the test of whether the regulator’s changes go far enough is whether they move sufficiently to eradicate the detriment to consumers that the CMA identified. I remain prepared to legislate if they do not, and I hope that such legislation would command wide support across the House.
I thank the Minister for his response. Does he recall that during the election his party placed the promise of an overall cap on energy prices at the centre of its manifesto? Indeed, does he recall the Prime Minister stating:
“I am making this promise: if I am re-elected on 8 June, I will take action to end this injustice by introducing a cap on unfair energy price rises. It will protect around 17 million families on standard variable tariffs from being exploited with sudden and unjustified increases in bills”?
Does the Secretary of State accept that Ofgem’s response to his letter of 21 June on energy prices falls far short of implementing that promise and that, although there are welcome suggestions on safeguarding tariffs and capping warrant charges for the installation of pre-pay meters, those measures would affect only 2.5 million customers, leaving more than 14 million SVT customers completely unprotected from price rises over the next period? Will he confirm that his letter did not ask Ofgem to consider introducing a general price cap? Will he tell the House why it did not, even though the chief executive officer of Ofgem confirmed earlier this year that it would have the discretionary power to implement an energy price cap?
Does the Secretary of State intend to pass legislation to require Ofgem to introduce a price cap, or is he now content to let his firm election promise of a cap fall by the wayside? If so, what does he have to say to the 17 million people on standard variable tariffs who thought that relief from rip-off price rises was on its way but will now feel completely betrayed by this policy U-turn?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. I hope he will see that I answered many of his points in my initial response to the urgent question. He will share my view—indeed, I think it is his view, too—that we should act as soon as possible to provide relief to consumers. That will require Ofgem to use its powers. It has powers that it can use immediately, and I have encouraged it to do so.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned my letter. I am sure that, as he was hoping to come into government, he studied the prospective use of the powers, so he will know that legislation requires me to ask Ofgem for advice. I did so under exactly those terms and Ofgem has responded by saying that it will work with consumer groups to identify how far the protection should go. I have been clear that I want the detriment of £1.4 billion a year to be eradicated. It is a test of Ofgem’s responsiveness that it should use its powers to that end. The constituents of Government and Opposition Members will look to the regulator to make use of its powers to prevent the continuation of such an unacceptable situation, which involves more than £1 billion a year.
To build on my right hon. Friend’s most recent answer, some 17 million families are being ripped off by expensive standard variable tariff deals. Ofgem’s proposals will deal with at most 3 million of them, leaving 14 million still being preyed on by the big six energy firms. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Ofgem’s proposals will be viewed as a great betrayal of those 14 million households? If we are going to create an economy that works for everyone, will he distance himself from this big six stitch-up and pledge to help the millions of households that Ofgem seems set to ignore?
My hon. Friend has done great work with many Members from various parties to establish that there is an appetite and need to tackle the problem exposed by the CMA, which has been going on for too long. In response to my letter, Ofgem has said today that it will work with consumer groups and come forward with a range of responses. I will look at them closely, as I know my hon. Friend will, and I am sure that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee will, too. I have said clearly that the test of the adequacy of the responses is that they address the clear detriment that the authorities have identified.
The UK Government really lack strategy right across the energy sector. The £20 billion Hinkley Point C project will add to future household bills, mention of energy was sadly lacking in the Green Paper that was published before the election, and now there is this lack of a joined-up approach to an energy cap. Will the Secretary of State confirm the Government’s plans to protect the 14 million people who will not be covered by the current proposals? Of the £1.4 billion that the CMA has said is going to the big companies instead of staying in consumers’ pockets, how much will be returned to consumers under the measures that are being introduced? He said that he might consider legislation, but what is his timescale for reviewing what is happening and deciding whether there is a need to act? Will he ask Ofgem to determine what the true level of a cap should be?
The hon. Gentleman talks about energy strategy, and it is right that the Government have taken a decision—this was ducked by previous Governments for decades—to renew our nuclear power stations that are coming to the end of their lives. He will know that the SNP Government in Scotland agreed to extend the lives of nuclear power stations there, and he will also know about the impact of our success on renewable energy, specifically offshore wind, in Scotland. I have had fruitful discussions with colleagues throughout Scotland, especially in the remote islands, about the future possibilities for that.
On Ofgem’s response to my letter, I have set out clearly that it has said it will work with and consult consumer groups, and come up with a range of options. The £1.4 billion detriment has to be eradicated, and that is the test of whether the proposals are acceptable. I am sure that the House wants to scrutinise them as much as I do.
My right hon. Friend inherited a system that relies increasingly on dear energy, which drives up household bills. Is there anything that he can do to bring a greater amount of cheaper energy into the mix so that bills reduce in five or 10 years’ time?
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We need to ensure that we meet our important climate change commitments at a competitive cost—for consumers and for businesses—and that we obtain the industrial benefits from having a supply chain in this country. That is exactly why we devote a chapter of the industrial strategy Green Paper to future plans to make the most of the clean energy transition in all respects.
Having seen the recent report, surely it is safe to say that wind and solar will be the future for low-cost energy, but there was a Duke Ellington song called “How long has this been going on?” The fact is that this has been going on too long—this exploitation of people who cannot avoid paying above the price. Is it not about time that we moved away from botched privatisation and inadequate regulation to an answer that puts money back in people’s pockets, rather than taking it out?
In response to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I welcome, as he does, the huge progress that has been made not just in the deployment of renewables, but in the cost reductions that we have seen. That process has created jobs across the UK, especially in coastal towns. I had the pleasure of opening the Siemens wind blade factory in Hull, which created 1,000 good jobs. However, he is right that the detriment has been going on too long, which was why the Government asked the CMA to investigate the industry root and branch. It has identified £1.4 billion of detriment, and I have made it absolutely clear that that detriment needs to be returned to the pockets of consumers.
May I tell the Secretary of State that the latest data show that 2,687 households in my constituency are estimated to be in fuel poverty? That is 6.6% of all households. What more can be done to identify these vulnerable groups and ensure that they have the best advice and information about switching tariffs? The suggestion that people search online is not the way forward. Perhaps it would be more helpful to have a better dialogue between the consumer and the energy provider.
I agree with my hon. Friend. One feature of the energy market is that the poorer someone is, the larger the proportion of their income that they spend on energy. That is why it is imperative that vulnerable consumers should not be required go on the internet every few months to check that their tariff has not defaulted to a much higher one. That was the reason for my letter to Ofgem, and it is why I want its response to be vigorous. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that an aspect of the wider set of policies is to make it easier for consumers to know the price of energy and how much they consume, and smart meters are being introduced to help more people to do that.
Has the Secretary of State seen the analysis and evidence of former independent energy regulators who say that the consumer detriment pointed to by the CMA in this market was based on seriously flawed methodology? If he has not, will he look at that and report back to the House?
I have seen that. This two-year inquiry conducted by the CMA identified £1.4 billion of detriment, which is a huge amount of money. When our constituents see the difference—it can be up to £100 a year—that they pay for a dual fuel bill by being on a dual fuel tariff, they know that that is significant amount.
The CMA said that suppliers have “unilateral market power” over their inactive customer base and could exploit their position by pricing their SVTs above a level that could be justified. That cannot go on.
A response is required from the regulator; this is a regulated industry. The development of modern markets means that it is possible for suppliers, especially dominant ones, to identify the customers who are the least likely to switch. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) said, they are often among the most vulnerable. It is unacceptable to use that information to sting them, and regulation has to catch up with that.
It is my lucky day today, but I am sure it will not continue. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
As much as we welcome the attempt to deal with fuel poverty, the Secretary of State must realise that there is an adverse effect on renewables at the margins, which will now not come forward because of this fairly blunt pricing structure. Will he look into that and ensure that there is still a drive forward for renewables?
We are seeing a big increase in the deployment of renewables as the price comes down, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said. The effect of the overcharging—the abuse—is not a return to consumers, and this is not about the increased deployment of renewables. In the analysis of the CMA, the practice results in profits that are higher than they would be in a competitive market and relative inefficiency on the part of the suppliers. Consumers should not be paying for either of those.
Many energy consumers, particularly those on low incomes, do not pay their energy bills by direct debit, but they get huge increased charges from many of the energy companies when they do pay, even when they do so on time. Will my right hon. Friend look into this and make sure that people who do not pay their energy bills by direct debit get a fair energy bill?
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As I said, the poorest 10% of households spend 10% of their household expenditure on energy, whereas the richest 10% spend 3% of theirs on it. We need to look particularly at the conditions of more vulnerable consumers to ensure that they are not disadvantaged. My right hon. Friend mentioned one of the ways in which they are.
Are we not tinkering at the edges and doing a little bit of window dressing? I think that we all agree that the energy market appears to be dysfunctional. We saw that best at the beginning of this year when there was an increase in tariffs across the board that bore no relation to wholesale prices, but had everything to do with the exchange rate, particularly that with the euro, as most of our domestic companies are actually based in France or Germany. The big six are essentially operating as a cartel, not in the interests of the consumer.
I am not sure that I would give them the excuse of exchange rate movements. The Competition and Markets Authority has said that suppliers have unilateral market power over this part of their customer base. This is a regulated market. Ofgem has the powers to introduce and extend the price gap, and my view is that it should use those powers now.
I agree with my hon. Friend. While there should certainly not be barriers in the way, it also should not be necessary for people to spend every evening on the internet checking whether their bill has gone up by an outrageous margin. If people are loyal to a brand, it is not unreasonable for them to expect to be treated reasonably, especially as that brand may be a trusted brand. The regulator should enforce that.
We produce far more electricity in Wales than we use, yet we pay the highest electricity prices in the British state. More than a third of our households are in fuel poverty. Does that not suggest that Westminster control over Welsh energy policy is not working?
I do welcome that. We have talked about household consumers, and for many very small businesses, their energy bill is also an important component of their costs. In my request for advice, which it was technically necessary to make to Ofgem, I asked for that advice to apply to microbusinesses as well.
The usual vested interests—the big six—were on the airwaves this morning advising consumers to switch their energy supplier, but if consumers really want to see a change to this rip-off of energy prices, do they not have to switch Governments?
No, it was this Government who referred the whole industry to the Competition and Markets Authority. When the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) was Energy Secretary, I urged this measure on him, and he rejected it flat, so it is this Government who have exposed the level of the detriment, and it is this Government who are acting to put a cap in place to prevent this abuse—that did not happen under Labour.
As welcome as a price cap will undoubtedly be, does the Secretary of State agree that the real key to bringing down prices for consumers is the liberalisation of the energy market through the digitisation of the energy system, storage in front of and behind the meter, and a demand-side response?
My hon. Friend, who is well informed about such issues, is absolutely right. The opportunity that smart meters bring is that people can have much more knowledge and control of their energy use, and use that to get the best deals available. That is why the roll-out of smart meters is such an important part of our reforms to the energy market.
But does the outcome of the CMA inquiry not tell the Secretary of State, as a reasonable man, that this is the end of the road for the system? Privatisation did not work, the regulatory system has not worked, and we have had to have a CMA inquiry. What is needed is a fundamental reappraisal and change of this whole energy edifice?
I am surprised to hear implicit support from the hon. Gentleman for the programme of nationalisation of this sector that the Labour party stood on. The billions of pounds that that would cost would not be the most important use of funds. This has been a regulated industry since privatisation many years ago, and the regulation needs to function better than it has.
I have been listening carefully to my right hon. Friend’s answers. Am I right to understand that he would not be satisfied with a final solution from Ofgem that continued to cross-subsidise some customers out of a kind of loyalty premium paid by those who, even if not vulnerable, did not switch?
This is a wake-up call for the industry. A model in which consumers who are known not to switch can be milked to pay a subsidy for other consumers in an unfair way—the CMA identified “unilateral market power”, which enables firms to exploit their position—has to come to an end.
My hon. Friend is right, and the proposal to consult consumer groups and to go beyond the CMA’s remedies—at least what the majority report of the CMA recommended—is welcome. As I said, that is a step in the right direction, but I would want to see this put out in detail and implemented before I would be satisfied with it.
Speaking as someone who represents an industrial town, has my right hon. Friend, as part of the wider debate on these issues, had the opportunity to assess what impact nationalising the energy companies would have on household and commercial energy bills?
I have indeed. The impact of finding the billions of pounds necessary to take these industries into public ownership would not only be a disaster for our public finances, but the destruction of investor confidence in a whole range of industries that we need investment in.
I was a BBC News consumer affairs reporter for five years, and during that time I saw the havoc that can be wrought by pre-payment metering. Does my right hon. Friend agree that practices such as rip-off emergency credit, which makes a payday loan look reasonable, need to be brought to heel, and that we should welcome Ofgem’s proposal to extend the current safeguard tariff for consumers on pre-payment meters?
It can only be a matter of time before my hon. Friend enjoys the position to which you referred, Mr Speaker.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It has been the practice of this Government to intervene when there are abuses, especially of vulnerable people in the way in which he describes. That has happened with pre-payment meters, but the approach needs to go much further.
Northern Ireland: Political Situation
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the political situation in Northern Ireland.
As the House will recall, following the resignation of Martin McGuinness, the then Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in January, an election took place to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 2 March. Despite intensive discussions in the three weeks following the election, the Northern Ireland parties were unable to reach agreement on the formation of a new Executive. In order to facilitate further discussions between the parties, Parliament passed legislation immediately prior to Dissolution extending the period in which an Executive could be formed until 29 June. Last Thursday—29 June—I made a statement in Belfast setting out that while differences remain between the parties, progress had been made and that it was still possible for a resolution to be achieved. I urged the parties to continue focusing their efforts on this, with the full support of the UK Government and, as appropriate, the Irish Government. In that regard, I want to recognise the contribution of the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, and his predecessor, Charlie Flanagan.
In the past few days since the passing of the deadline, some progress has continued to be made, including on the most challenging issues, such as language, culture and identity, but gaps remain between the parties on a defined number of issues. The Government remain committed to working with the parties and the Irish Government to find a way to close these gaps quickly in order to reach an agreement that will pave the way for the restoration of devolved government. The Prime Minister has been actively involved, following on from her meeting with each of the parties, including speaking to Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill on Friday night. I continue to believe that a deal remains achievable, and if agreement is reached, I will bring forward legislation to enable an Executive to be formed, possibly as early as this week.
But time is short. It has been six months since a full Executive were in place to represent the people of Northern Ireland. In that time, it has been civil servants, not politicians, who have made decisions on spending. Without political direction, it has not been possible for strategic decisions to be made about priorities in areas such as education and health. This has created pressures that need to be addressed, and it has led to understandable concern and uncertainty among businesses and those relying on public services alike, as well as the community and voluntary sector. This hiatus cannot simply continue for much longer.
There is no doubt that the best outcome is for a new Executive to make those strategic decisions in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. It should be for a new Executive to make swift decisions on their budget and make use of the considerable spending power available to them. While engagement between the parties continues and there is prospect of an agreement, it is right that those discussions remain our focus. At the same time, we will not forget our ultimate responsibility as a Government to uphold political stability and good governance in Northern Ireland.
I made a written statement in April that sought to provide clarity for those civil servants charged with allocating cash in Northern Ireland, to assist them in the discharge of their responsibilities. Some £42 million in resources flowing from the spring Budget and budget transfers from the last financial year remain unallocated, and they are intended to provide an incoming Executive with the room to decide how they should best be spent.
If we do not see resolution in the coming days, however, it will become urgent that we reflect further on whether clarity is required for Northern Ireland permanent secretaries about the allocation of those resources. In that situation we would also need to reflect carefully on how we might allocate funding made available to address immediate health and education pressures, as set out in last Monday’s statement on UK Government financial support for Northern Ireland, recognising Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances. If no agreement is reached, legislation in Westminster may then be required to give authority for the expenditure of Northern Ireland Departments through an appropriations Bill.
From my conversations with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, I know that we have not quite reached that critical point yet. But that point is coming and the lack of a formal budget cannot be sustained indefinitely. Similarly, decisions on capital expenditure and infrastructure and public service reform in key sectors such as the health service cannot be deferred for much longer.
One area on which there is much consensus, however, is the need for greater transparency on political donations. In line with the commitment set out in the Conservative party’s Northern Ireland manifesto at the general election, I can confirm that I intend to propose legislation that will provide for the publication of all donations and loans received by Northern Ireland parties on or after 1 July 2017.
All of that reinforces further the importance of the parties coming together and reaching an agreement. It sets out, too, some of the hard choices we face if uncertainty persists. I am also conscious that, with the deadline now passed, I am under a duty to set a date for a new election. I will continue to keep that duty under review, but it seems unlikely that that would of itself resolve the current political impasse or address the ultimate need for political decision making, however we proceed.
As the Government for the whole United Kingdom, we will always govern in the interests of all those in the United Kingdom. Therefore, if resolution were to prove intractable and an Executive could not be restored, we would of course be ready to do what is needed to provide that political decision making in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
I am clear, however, that the return of inclusive, devolved government by a power-sharing Executive is what would be profoundly in the best interests of Northern Ireland, and that will remain our overriding focus in the crucial days ahead.
The UK Government will continue to govern in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland by providing political stability and keeping an open and sustained dialogue with the parties and with the Irish Government, in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach.
I stand ready to do what is necessary to facilitate the quick formation of an Executive once an agreement is reached, and that is where our focus should lie. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for his welcome efforts to keep me regularly updated on progress in the talks. I know that the Secretary of State, the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, and all the parties have been working hard to try to narrow the gap on the outstanding issues, in particular on languages, culture and identity. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has not come here today to say that the shutters are coming down on the talks and I admire his sustained—if slightly surprising—optimism that a deal might be done this week.
People in Belfast and across Northern Ireland will have heard his contention that there remains the prospect of a deal. If that is achieved, he will enjoy the Opposition’s full support in putting in place whatever legislation is necessary to enable the Executive to reform and the Assembly to meet. But there will be legitimate frustration among many Northern Ireland citizens that fully six months after the Executive broke down, and little more than a week before the marching season reaches its apogee on 12 July, we remain at this impasse. There will also be some scepticism about the likelihood of his surmounting it in a few short days.
Hard questions must now be asked about what more the Government can do to assist the parties in moving forward. It is encouraging that the Prime Minister picked up the phone on Friday night to the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein. But I invite the Secretary of State, in the new spirit of free speech that seems to be abroad in the Conservative party, to agree with me that the Prime Minister could do a bit more. He could tell her to get on a plane to Belfast herself. I am sure that Arlene Foster would not mind lending the Prime Minister her plane for the weekend.
History tells us, on both sides of the House, that the direct involvement of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach can sometimes help to bridge the divide in Northern Ireland and move things forward. It is a surprise to me that the Prime Minister continues to seem reluctant to take personal responsibility to break the deadlock. In fact, I think many in Northern Ireland would feel that the current Prime Minister has a particular duty to take some personal responsibility and get more involved because it was her decision to call an election in April that lengthened the hiatus and has taken us so close to 12 July, and her reliance on the DUP—a legitimate reliance, given the arithmetic of the House—that is being cited by other interlocutors in the talks as part of the reason for the impasse.
I agree with the Secretary of State that the hiatus simply cannot continue for much longer, but I would like to hear more from him about what he will do to resolve it. If it is not with greater hands on involvement by the Prime Minster and the Taoiseach, as I and others have suggested, does he think there is a role for a new independent—and perhaps international—chair for the talks, with fresh eyes and a new mandate? That too has been an important means of shifting things in the past.
I noted the coded warning that the Secretary of State gave, rightly, that if a way forward cannot be found, he will have to bring forward further budgetary transfers to give extra clarity and certainty to the Northern Ireland civil service. That may well be necessary and, if so, he would again enjoy our support, but I am not sure that it would provide much of a spur to the parties, because they are used to this limbo land after the last six months. I know he agrees with me that it is profoundly unsatisfactory for strategic decisions to be put off and for Northern Ireland to be in the hands of unelected civil servants, no matter how competent and well intentioned they are. An appropriations Bill may prove to be a bigger spur, but some—as the Secretary of State knows—will see that effectively as a return to direct rule. I am sure that that will be a position that he will wish to avoid and I would urge him to take all possible steps to avoid it.
I welcome the decision that the Secretary of State has taken today to legislate for publication of all political loans and donations received by parties in Northern Ireland after 1 July. That is an important step in normalising the politics of Northern Ireland, although it may strike some as ironic in the light of the recent deal with the DUP. Does he intend that the thresholds that will apply to that legislation will be the same as apply to donations and loans in the rest of the UK? Will the same requirement apply that all donors are registered voters in the UK?
Finally, I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that Northern Ireland needs its Assembly and Executive up and running as soon as possible. There is no greater illustration of that than the fact that we are now entering the Brexit negotiations in earnest. Northern Ireland effectively has no voice at that negotiating table; certainly not one that reflects all the traditions, culture and heritage of Northern Ireland. There is an absolute imperative to get the Executive back on their feet and to restore Northern Ireland’s voice. I am sure he will join me in urging all Members to urge all parties to make sure that that happens as soon as possible.
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in underlining that core message. I appreciate and welcome the support he has given to the Government in trying to reach a point where agreement is concluded and we are able to move swiftly in this House. I appreciate the opportunity we have had to discuss these issues over the last few days and I will certainly maintain that dialogue with him.
The hon. Gentleman raises a number of points. He highlights the frustration of many people in Northern Ireland that no deal has been concluded thus far. A theme that I know binds us together is how we can achieve that conclusion, with an inclusive power-sharing Executive of locally elected politicians getting on and making decisions in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the engagement of the Prime Minister. She has been involved throughout the process. She met all the leaders of the political parties in London and has maintained contact throughout this time. As I indicated, in recent days she has, as she has previously, spoken to the leaders of the two main parties. He will recognise that particular interventions may not necessarily have the desired outcome. From his previous involvement in Northern Ireland he will know of occasions that did not lead to the outcome he wished for at the time, in places such as Leeds Castle, for example. Different solutions and scenarios present themselves in different cases. A defined number of issues remain outstanding and we need to give them our focus and attention, rather than extending out and changing the whole dynamic. We will continue to keep matters under careful review. Resolution is possible if the willingness is there. It is with that urgency that we must approach the days ahead.
There is opportunity here. I spoke about the additional funding that could be available to an incoming Executive to enable them to act and to take strategic decisions. It is profoundly in Northern Ireland’s interest for locally elected politicians to do that.
I will write to the hon. Gentleman and set out further details on transparency issues relating to political donations—I think that is probably the best way to do it—and I will put a letter in the House of Commons Library. I will also introduce legislation spelling that out so that everyone will be able to see the next steps very clearly.
Order. Consistent with what I said to the House last week, I am keen to uphold the tradition that Members wishing to take part in exchanges on a statement should be those, and only those, who were here at its start. I do not wish to embarrass individuals. A couple of Members who came in late are, very graciously, not standing, but that is not uniform. Those who came in late and are standing should not be doing so. It is quite wrong to wander in halfway through a statement and then expect to be called. Some people might even think it a tad arrogant, but there we go.
Regardless of the difficulties or disagreements among the parties in Northern Ireland, should not those issues be sorted out within the Assembly and the Executive, and not in this place? Or is it the case that one party, or maybe more, is actually looking for a rewriting of the rules?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his continued focus on Northern Ireland, following his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs in the last Parliament. I think all parties are focused on seeking an outcome and ensuring a functioning Executive, rather than fundamental changes to the rules. That is where we should focus our attention, because as he suggested, that is where I think he realises that decision making should happen—within Northern Ireland, within the Assembly and within the Executive, acting in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
It is disappointing to say the least that a deal has not been made and that the proper governance of Northern Ireland cannot restart. Does the Secretary of State accept that his party’s deal with the DUP makes reaching a deal more difficult? Does he consider the link between his ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), and the Constitutional Research Council, which made the questionable Brexit donation to the DUP, to be an additional and unwelcome complication? Why did it take three years from the consultation on increasing the transparency of political donations in Northern Ireland to get to a position where the Government are now announcing that they will be introducing legislation? The murk that surrounds this whole affair at times makes it increasingly difficult to trust that there is true impartiality on the part of the Government. What can the Secretary of State do to clear up the questions around the Constitutional Research Council and its donations, and restore confidence in the Government’s impartiality?
Lastly, the devolved Administrations are supposed to be involved in the Brexit negotiations. Can the Secretary of State tell us who has been providing the input from Stormont and whether it is less or more than the input from the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government? Very lastly—[Interruption]—what representations were made to him by the Secretary of State for Scotland about the deal done between the Government and the DUP?