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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
18 July 2017
Volume 627

House of Commons

Tuesday 18 July 2017

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Middle Level Bill

Motion made,

That the promoters of the Middle Level Bill, which originated in this House in the previous Session on 24 January 2017, may have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).— (The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

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Object.

To be considered on Tuesday 5 September.

Richmond Burgage Pastures Bill [Lords]

Lords message (11 July) relating to the Bill considered.

Resolved,

That this House concurs with the Lords in their Resolution.— (The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

University of London Bill [Lords]

Lords message (11 July) relating to the Bill considered.

Resolved,

That this House concurs with the Lords in their Resolution.— (The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Mouncher Investigation Report

Resolved,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of a Paper, entitled Mouncher Investigation Report, dated 18 July 2017.—(Graham Stuart.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Wages

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1. What fiscal steps he is taking to help increase the average level of wages paid by employers. [900546]

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The key thing that we can do to increase productivity is to ensure that we invest in education and improve skills. We have more people going to university and doing apprenticeships, and we are investing in our rail and roads.

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Unlike the Scottish Government, the UK Government voted for the public sector pay cut. Moreover, this Government’s so-called national living wage is not based on the cost of living. What new measures will this Government bring in to provide people with a wage that they can live on?

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We have made sure that basic rate taxpayers are paying £1,000 less tax by raising the personal allowance. We are also introducing the national living wage, bringing in a £1,400 rise in take-home pay for the lowest earners.

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The important thing for ensuring that people get a wage from an employer is to make sure that they have a job. Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury welcome the record fall in unemployment to a 42-year low, particularly among young people, which is giving them much better opportunities in Britain than those available in most other European Union countries?

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My right hon. Friend is right. We now have the lowest levels of unemployment since 1975, thanks to the economic policies pursued by this Government to improve skills and infrastructure, and to take sensible decisions on public sector pay.

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As has been clearly demonstrated, the Government are celebrating falling unemployment without any critical analysis of the nature of the employment being created. Many residents of North West Durham are in work that exacerbates their financial difficulties because their pay is low, their terms and conditions are poor, and they do not have regular hours. Will the Minister update the House on the number of people who are currently working on zero-hours contracts? Will she also accept that looking at employment figures in a vacuum does nothing to help us to understand whether people are any more secure or any better off?

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Fewer than 3% of people are on zero-hours contracts and, as Matthew Taylor recognised, many people want that flexibility so that they can combine their work with the other things in their lives. We need to ensure that people have the skills to get better jobs in the future, and that is exactly what this Government are investing in.

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Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury join me in welcoming the fact that 75% of the 2.8 million jobs created since 2010 are full-time jobs, and that zero-hours contracts account for just 3% of all jobs?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Is it not amazing that not one Labour Member has welcomed the fact that we have the lowest unemployment since 1975, or that we have lower youth unemployment? In fact, the Opposition model their policies on countries such as Greece, which has exceptionally high youth unemployment, and they take for granted the progress that we have made over the past seven years.

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First, let me welcome any increase in jobs in our society, but when it comes to commenting on wages, does not the Chief Secretary to the Treasury agree that it ill becomes a multi-millionaire earning £145,000 a year, admittedly in a temporary job, and living in two grace-and-favour properties at the taxpayer’s expense to attack public sector workers—our hospital cleaners, nurses, teachers and firefighters—as being “overpaid”? Public sector workers’ pay has fallen on average by £4,000 in the first six years of this Government. One in five NHS staff are forced to take a second job, and teachers are facing a further cut to their salaries of £3,000 by 2020. Does she not think that the Chancellor should just do the right thing and apologise?

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Yet again, the right hon. Gentleman is not giving the House the full picture of what is happening with public sector wages. Last year, teachers’ pay went up by 3.3%. More than half of nurses and other NHS workers saw a pay rise of over 3%, and the armed services saw a pay rise of 2.4%. The cleaner he talked about was employed not by the public sector but by Serco. The right hon. Gentleman needs to get his facts right.

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That is true—the Government privatised the jobs.

I note that the Chief Secretary did not dispute the fact that the Chancellor said that staff were overpaid. The Chancellor tried to justify his attack on public sector workers by trying the classic divide and rule between public and private sector workers, citing public sector pensions. Is the Chief Secretary aware that those supposedly generous pensions across several professions pay on average the princely sum of just £5,000 a year, and that low pay has forced many public sector workers to opt out of their pension scheme? Eleven per cent. of those in the NHS have opted out; if that figure continues to rise, the whole scheme could be undermined. Will the Chief Secretary recognise the damage that the Chancellor is causing and lift the pay cap so that public sector staff can have some hope of a fair wage settlement—and, yes, a decent future pension?

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The right hon. Gentleman still has not acknowledged the truth of the figures that I cited—the 3% pay rise for over half of nurses and the 3.3% rise for teachers. He simply will not look at the facts. The reality is that public sector workers are, rightly, paid in line with the private sector to allow the public and private sectors to flourish so that we can create wealth in this country. In addition, public sector workers have a 10% premium on their wages in pension contributions, and that is in the Office for Budget Responsibility report.

National Debt

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2. What progress is being made on reducing the national debt. [900547]

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6. What progress is being made on reducing the national debt. [900551]

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Debt has climbed steadily since 2009 as a result of the high levels of deficit. Since 2010, we have reduced the deficit by three quarters, so national debt will now peak at just under 90% of GDP this year. As the OBR’s “Fiscal risks report” of last week makes clear, that level of debt—a legacy of Labour’s recession—leaves us vulnerable to future shocks, which is why the Government have committed to eliminating the deficit and reducing the level of debt as a share of GDP. As a result of the actions taken to bring the public finances back under control, the OBR now forecasts that debt will start falling next year and will be below 80% of GDP by 2021-22.

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Those figures are welcome, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that were the Government to pursue a policy of wiping all outstanding student debt, that would cost in excess of £100 billion and cause the national debt to surge? Will he also confirm that the biggest beneficiaries by far would be the top-earning graduates in the country?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He might have added that were anyone to suggest that they were able to do that, they could be accused of practising a deception on the people to whom they were offering that proposal. The cruelty of that would become apparent when it would have to be admitted that the proposal could not possibly be delivered. We face a debt challenge in this country, and we cannot borrow our way out of debt. The Opposition would do well to acknowledge that. Stronger growth and sound public finances are the only sustainable way to deliver better public services, higher real wages and increased living standards.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that last week’s OBR study shows that the debt level is 89% of GDP, highlighting that we must continue to be responsible with the public finances to weather any future uncertainty and to ensure that the Wiltshire economy continues to thrive?

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My hon. Friend is right to express concern about the vulnerability created by the high level of debt. As the OBR made clear last week, that debt means that if the economy were to face an external shock, we would not be in a position to respond in the way that we would ideally like. That is why we have to get debt down, and the only way to get debt down is to get the deficit down. That means responsible fiscal policy, not the kind of rubbish we hear from Labour Front Benchers.

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Was it not clear from the OBR report last week that it is a hard Brexit that presents the biggest threat to our national finances? Just a 0.1% decrease in productivity could lead, over 50 years, to a 50% increase in the ratio of debt to GDP. If the reports are true that the Chancellor is prepared to champion a longer transition from the single market for the UK, such welcome news might secure a lot of support on both sides of the House.

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. On an issue as important to our nation’s future as our exit from the European Union, I welcome any opportunity to build consensus across the House and the nation. He is right to draw attention to what the OBR said. Even a very small decline in our productivity performance would add huge amounts to the debt and would reduce, by significant amounts, our projected growth in GDP. That is why it is so important that we now act responsibly in maintaining fiscal discipline and ensuring that we reduce our debt over time.

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How is the Chancellor’s consensus building around the Cabinet table going? Will he update the House on his assessment of the trade deals that will be done after we leave the single market? He knows that Brexit is going to cause a fiscal shock. Is it true that he has challenged the Secretary of State for International Trade to disprove Treasury calculations that show there is no trade deal we can do after leaving the European Union that will make up for the huge loss of trade that Brexit will create?

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The hon. Lady is assuming that we will lose trade with the European Union. It is clear to me that, all other things being equal, the ability to enter bilateral trade deals with third countries will be a positive for our economy. Of course, we also want to protect our trade with the European Union. My focus is on ensuring that we get a Brexit deal that protects our existing patterns of trade and commercial engagement with the European Union, as well as, over time, allowing us to explore new opportunities beyond the European Union.

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The Chancellor will be aware that the current cost of Government borrowing is at a historical low, with gilt yields at 1%. Does he agree that, if markets lose confidence in our ability to live within our means, the cost of that borrowing would spiral, costing us billions of pounds? That would mean less to spend on our public services.

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My hon. Friend is right to warn of the danger of a loss of market confidence in UK fiscal policy—I am looking very hard at the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). If markets lose confidence in UK fiscal policy, they will re-price lending to the United Kingdom. We already spend more every year on servicing our debt than on our armed forces and police services together. It would do a huge disservice to taxpayers in this country if we created conditions that would cause the cost of that debt to rise.

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An enfeebled Chancellor has been forced to give a £1 billion bung to the Democratic Unionist party, to cough up £1.3 billion for a schools funding U-turn, to scurry around to find £2 billion to pay for his humiliating national insurance contributions debacle and to bail out his nightmare neighbour’s social care retreat with £2 billion. Why should this House believe a word, a promise, a claim or a target on reducing the debt?

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I was glad to see the hon. Gentleman smiling by the end of that little rant. I do not know which planet he lives on, but I do not feel particularly enfeebled. I do not know what the Labour Treasury team does all day, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education made it clear in her statement yesterday that she has put extra money into the frontline schools budget by reprioritising the wider education budget and finding efficiencies across her Department. That is the way to do a fiscally prudent protection of our public services.

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Yes, the Government have taken it off some children and given it to others.

The national debt has risen by £707 billion since 2010 and is rising. It is barely a year since the Chancellor was given the keys to No. 11, and in that time public sector net debt has not been reduced. According to the Office for National Statistics and the OBR, it has increased by £122 billion. Given that lamentable record, has he been given notice of eviction by the woman in the bunker next door? Perhaps they may leave Downing Street in the same removal van.

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The hon. Gentleman will know—I say that, but perhaps he will not—that public sector net debt will continue to grow until the deficit is eliminated. That is a simple arithmetic fact. His Government pushed our deficit up to almost 10% of GDP, and we have spent the past seven years getting it down to 2.4% of GDP. We will carry on getting the deficit down so that this country’s public finances get back into balance. We are a responsible Government, planning for Britain’s future.

Infrastructure: Private Sector Investment

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3. What steps he is taking to incentivise private sector investment infrastructure projects in the nations and regions. [900548]

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This Government are committed to supporting private investment, which finances about half our infrastructure. We have a trusted and stable regulatory system, and through the UK guarantees scheme we have supported projects worth more than £4 billion. We are also introducing innovative support such as the digital infrastructure investment fund, which will accelerate the roll-out of the ultrafast network.

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The north Wales Mersey Dee region hosts world-beating businesses such as Kellogg’s, Airbus and JCB, but we need competitive infrastructure in order to ensure that we remain competitive. For that reason, and in the absence of the public sector investment we are crying out for, may we please have the ability to deliver private sector investment? What are the Government going to do to deliver roads and rail?

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I simply do not recognise what the hon. Gentleman says; investment in our infrastructure is at a record high. We are seeing investment in roads, rail and south-east air capacity—in all modes of transport. The point is how we deliver that investment, and it is a combination of public and private. He is clearly right to champion the requirement for infrastructure in his area and to highlight its impact on the economy, but to say we are not doing anything is just factually wrong.

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One disincentive for the private sector to invest in infrastructure is the delay that sometimes occurs in bringing major projects through to completion and commencement. The private sector is already committed to making a significant contribution to the funding package for Crossrail, but we have been waiting since March for a decision to take it forward. Will the Minister do all he can, across government, to speed up that regional and national infrastructure project?

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I see significant merits in Crossrail 2, just as I see them in northern powerhouse rail and projects right across our country. I will of course take on board my hon. Friend’s point and relay it to the Transport Secretary.

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Private investment thrives on stability, but we have a Cabinet in a state of anarchy when it comes to the terms of our exit from the European Union. Do the Government agree with Labour Members that an early announcement on transitional arrangements is therefore essential? If the Minister does agree with that, will he tell us the Government’s position on the latest date such arrangements could be announced—or are we more likely to see a transitional Chancellor than a transitional deal?

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I am not going to speculate on the negotiations, as that would be way above my pay grade. I just refer the hon. Gentleman to the Chancellor’s answer a moment ago on the merits of a Brexit deal that secures our economic future.

Infrastructure: Government Investment

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4. What assessment he has made of the effect of Government investment in infrastructure since 2010. [900549]

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7. What assessment he has made of the effect of Government investment in infrastructure since 2010. [900552]

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Infrastructure is at the heart of this Government’s economic strategy, and our investments will boost productivity and growth. Since 2010, more than a quarter of a trillion pounds has been invested by the public and private sectors, about 3,000 individual projects have been completed, we have almost completed Crossrail, and more than 4 million homes accessed superfast broadband for the first time.

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Nearly 100 years ago, the world’s first radio broadcast was sent out from Britain—from Chelmsford. Does my hon. Friend agree that the digital infrastructure investment fund will give a massive boost to fibre and superfast broadband so that the UK can continue to lead the world in the digital and communications sectors?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I have just learned something about Chelmsford and its history in the development of our digital and radio infrastructure. The investment will boost Britain’s internet, making it more reliable and consistent and easier for people to live and work more flexibly, which will of course boost productivity right across the UK. Fibre is the technology of the future, just as radio was 100 years ago, and this fund will significantly assist small and medium-sized enterprises with capital to roll it out, with both Chelmsford and the UK benefiting.

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Investment and infrastructure projects are absolutely key to keeping our nation moving. As the Minister knows, Chickenhall link road and Botley bypass in my constituency were helped to do just that and to improve the quality of life of my constituents. I welcome road funding through the national productivity investment fund. Will Ministers meet me to discuss the delivery of those projects, which will affect my constituency in Eastleigh?

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My hon. Friend is a great champion for her constituency and for these projects. I have absolutely no doubt about the importance of them locally. If nothing else, we have met on the subject a number of times, and she is very tenacious. These projects not only open up opportunities for development, but help to relieve the congestion in the heart of her constituency. I will of course ensure that she meets the Transport team as soon as possible to progress those projects.

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The electrification of the Great Western Railway between Paddington and Swansea was to provide huge economic benefits for businesses along that line. Unfortunately, the project has now overspent by £1.2 billion, and not a yard of the line has been electrified. What are the Government doing to ensure that projects such as this do not run over and waste taxpayers’ money in future?

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The efficiency in the way that we deliver our infrastructure is a critical consideration when the Government are putting in so much money to transform our infrastructure. The points that the hon. Gentleman makes about Network Rail will have been heard by my hon. Friends in the Transport team, and I will highlight his comments to them.

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Last month, the Institute for Government produced a report on infrastructure spending that said that decision makers do not know whether projects deliver value for money. It also believes that Parliament and the public are misinformed. What action are the Chancellor and his Department taking to ensure that future infrastructure spend delivers value for money and that costs do not spiral out of control like they have for Hinkley Point C?

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I simply highlight the extremely rigorous business case process, which every single project has to go through before it receives approval. The idea that these schemes are not considered is just wrong.

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The Scottish Government have committed to delivering 50,000 affordable homes by 2021. We recognise the calls that are being made by organisations such as Shelter Scotland and Big Issue, which believe in prioritising affordable housing. Why are the UK Government committing to build only 40,000 affordable homes in the same period?

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Again, that is a question that will have to go to colleagues in another Department. I will make sure that they hear the hon. Lady’s comments.

Corporation Tax

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5. What assessment he has made of how to balance the needs of (a) business and (b) the Exchequer in setting the corporation tax rate. [900550]

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This Government believe in a tax regime that is fair and competitive. Since 2010, we have reduced the headline corporation tax rate from 28% to 19%, allowing companies, big and small, to invest in expanding their business, boost wages, create jobs and lower prices. Onshore corporation tax receipts have also increased by over 50% despite the rate being lowered.

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Does the Minister agree that if we raise corporation tax, it is normally passed on by business to customers, and that if we lower it, we hope that prices will come down?

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. It is important to remember that the burden of corporation tax does not just fall on shareholders. If we were to follow Labour’s policy of increasing corporation tax, we would see less investment, lower growth, lower productivity and, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said, lower wages and indeed higher prices.

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Earlier, the Chancellor acknowledged that productivity is the key to economic growth and eliminating our public sector deficit. When manufacturing businesses invest, they often lose any benefits of corporation tax reduction because of higher business rates. That acts as a disincentive to invest and increase output and productivity. Why does he not cut business rates instead?

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This Government have done a great deal in terms of providing business rate reliefs, which were announced in previous Budgets and are, I think, well known to the House. There will be more to come on that in the Finance Bill.

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Will the Minister tell the House by how much the corporation tax take has gone up since the corporation tax rate was cut?

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This is an important point. As the corporation tax rate has decreased to 19%—it will go down further to 17%—we have seen a 50% increase in the take, which is an amount in the order of £18 billion.

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Most economists prioritise building business confidence and improving infrastructure and skills over cutting corporate tax rates. Is the Minister aware that lowering corporate tax rates now presents the appearance of Britain trying to undercut countries with which we need to agree a decent Brexit deal—at a time when businesses are not confident in the Government’s leadership, but are instead “aghast” and “confused” at their approach to Brexit?

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We have seen a huge increase in employment in this country to a record level, and a record drop in unemployment to the lowest level since the mid-1970s. A lot of that has been driven by business. If the hon. Lady is seriously suggesting that the recipe for increasing the confidence of business is putting up its corporation tax to 26%, she has, I am afraid, missed the point.

Economic Growth

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8. What assessment he has made of recent trends in economic growth. [900553]

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13. What assessment he has made of recent trends in economic growth. [900558]

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Short-term indicators of growth are volatile. Quarterly growth was 0.2% in the first quarter of this year, but this followed strong growth of 0.7% in the quarter before. The underlying economy is robust, thanks to record employment levels. Although a recent rise in inflation, caused mainly by the depreciation of sterling last year, may temporarily dampen consumer spending—today’s inflation figure for June is a little lower at 2.6%—there are signs from surveys of business that export orders and business investment intentions are up.

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I call the Chair of the Select Committee on the Treasury, Nicky Morgan.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Would the Chancellor not agree that a growing economy is necessary to pay for our essential public services? The Office for Budget Responsibility’s “Fiscal risks report”, which has already been referred to, says that

“governments should expect nasty fiscal surprises from time to time”—

I am not referring to the shadow Chancellor there—and “plan accordingly”, but this Government also have to manage the uncertainties posed by Brexit. Should not a responsible Government not worsen uncertainties and risks by the decisions that they take?

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Let me first congratulate my right hon. Friend; it was remiss of me not to do so in my first answer. I very much welcome her to her role on the Treasury Committee, and I look forward to being grilled or toasted by her, or whatever the correct expression is. She is of course exactly right: the only way to build resilience into the economy is to have strong public finances, and the only way to have a sustainably growing standard of living is to have rising productivity over the medium and long term, and that is what the Government’s policy is focused towards.

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These are obviously still worrying times for many in north-east Scotland, with the continued low oil price still causing concern, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the strength of the United Kingdom’s economy, now the second highest growing in the G7, has enabled this Government to provide over £2.6 billion of support to the industry, securing jobs in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine?

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Yes. The UK oil and gas sector has made a huge contribution to the UK economy, having paid over £330 billion in total in production taxes to date, and supporting over 300,000 jobs. In the next phase of the life of the North sea basin, as many fields come towards the end of their life, we are working with the industry to ensure that we extract every drop of oil and gas that it is economic to extract, that we enable decommissioning, and enable end-of-life fields to be operated in the most effective way.

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17. Much of the growth is due to the fact that we are spending more on imports, due to the low cost of the pound. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that our trade in goods deficit has risen by £2.6 billion over the past quarter and now stands at a staggering £34.4 billion. Does not the extra cost of imports have an impact on the cost of our exports and affect our productivity? [900562]

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As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know, the short-run effect of a depreciation in sterling would be expected to be a decline in our trade balance performance as we suck in more expensive imports, in sterling terms. But over time the economy will adjust—there are signs that this is happening now—with exporters increasing their output to take advantage of weaker sterling and their greater competitiveness in international markets, and indeed not just exporters, but those who would substitute imported products with domestically produced products, which is often the best way forward for smaller companies.

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One of the ways of reducing the deficit is by increasing economic growth, rather than increasing taxes or reducing spending. What steps is the Chancellor taking to produce economic growth, and how are his efforts being affected by those who continually talk the economy down and predict dire effects from Brexit, even though their predictions to date have been proved wrong?

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The hon. Gentleman is exactly right; those who talk the economy and its prospects down are not doing the country any favours. It is not about borrowing more or taxing more; it is about growing our economy faster and increasing productivity so that we can have sustainable jobs and economic growth that produces the taxation to support our public services as well as rising living standards for our population.

Youth Unemployment

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9. What progress is being made on reducing youth unemployment. [900554]

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Youth unemployment is at a record low: 5.1% of 16 to 12-year-olds are unemployed or not in full-time education. That compares with 9.4% in 2009, under the previous Labour Government.

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Although I welcome the record unemployment figures that the Minister has given this morning, youth unemployment is still higher in my constituency and in Scotland than the UK average, so will he work with me and others across the House to encourage more investment in my constituency and in Scotland as a whole?

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I will be very happy to work with my hon. Friend, because we recognise that work is the best route out of poverty. Indeed, unemployed households are 13 times more likely to be in relative poverty than those with people in full-time work.

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I understand what the Minister says about less unemployment, but my concern is that this is not just about employment, but about retention. Does he agree that now is the time for hard-working, tax-paying public sector workers to get the pay rise that they have earned, and that he should scrap the cap?

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We can see the effects, were we to follow the hon. Lady’s policy, by looking at youth unemployment rates elsewhere in Europe. In Greece it is 45.9%, and even in France it is 22%. The best way of addressing poverty is by keeping young people in work.

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18. Government investment in Cheltenham’s cyber-accelerator since 2015 is now yielding results, with numerous cyber start-ups benefiting from local mentoring from experts at GCHQ. Does my hon. Friend agree that mobilising the UK’s sovereign expertise in areas such as cyber boosts jobs for young people and opportunity in places such as Cheltenham? [900563]

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The GCHQ cyber-accelerator in Cheltenham is part of the Government’s £1.9 billion cyber-security strategy. It allows business start-ups to gain access to GCHQ’s world-class personnel and expertise, and the accelerator helps these businesses to expand, contributing to jobs and opportunities, including in Cheltenham, and it makes the UK a safer place online. I know that my hon. Friend has worked very hard on this for a considerable period of time. He makes an important point as he speaks up for his constituency, and how it is leading in the UK and across the world.

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How does the Minister expect to reduce youth unemployment, given the further education budget cuts across the country, particularly in Coventry, where the budget has been cut by 27%?

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Actually, we are seeing record numbers of people, in particular disadvantaged students, going to university. The situation will not be helped if people are conned with the idea that student debts will be written off.

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Well, that was a first in this place, certainly during my time in the Chair: I have never known a ministerial swap to take place mid-answer. I assume that it was inadvertent; the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury is nothing if not immaculate in his parliamentary manners. I put it down to error. But I hope that the Ministers know their own identities. I would be worried for them if they did not.

Rooftop Solar

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10. What fiscal steps his Department is taking to incentivise businesses to invest in rooftop solar. [900555]

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Immaculate parliamentary manners, but not immaculate parliamentary procedure—sorry about that, Mr Speaker; I thought we had moved on from that question.

Solar is a UK success story. In 2013, solar capacity was expected to reach between 10 and 12 GW by 2020; we now expect Government support to bring forward about 13 GW by then. Feed-in tariffs provide an incentive for businesses to invest in rooftop solar.

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The sun might be going down on the Chancellor’s time at No.11, but it remains an important source of energy and income for 44,000 microgenerators, including schools and hospitals. But since April they have seen their business rates increase by up to 800%, in some cases. Some major deployers of the technology are now pulling out of the rooftop market. Will the Government reassess the business rate levy paid on rooftop solar, so that we can give real growth to this important environmental sector?

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The Government are continuing to support the take-up of solar panels through business rates by maintaining the exemption for new installations of solar power generating less than 50 kilowatts of power; of course, we also have all the transitional relief schemes and the cut in business rates announced in the Budget last year, which cost nearly £9 billion. The Government have listened to the voice from solar. We are keen to see progress on solar, and these schemes will help that.

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Will not the roll-out of solar panels be greatly helped by Brexit, when the very high tariffs imposed on cheaper Chinese photovoltaic cells are removed and we will no longer be protecting the inefficient German industry?

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I thought my hon. Friend was going to say that the sun may be shining more brightly post-Brexit. We are very keen to see the progress of solar as well as all other renewables. We will have to see what happens with pricing, but the key thing is that we will be supporting solar, as it is a key part of our power mix for the future.

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There was I thinking that the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) was taking an interest in energy saving because he has six children. Apparently not.

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Have not the Government actually cut support for solar because, together with new storage technologies, it threatens to become so successful that it would kill off any case for horrendously expensive nuclear?

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The support for solar comes directly from people’s bills. When the costs of installation and generation come down, through efficiencies and economies of scale and production, so should support. We are taking steps to control the cost of support schemes and putting solar on the path to delivery without subsidy.

Tax Avoidance and Evasion

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11. What plans he has to introduce measures to tackle tax avoidance and evasion carried out through non-domiciled status and offshore trusts. [900556]

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The UK has effective legislation to tackle avoidance involving offshore structures and we have announced our intention to legislate further, making it harder for non-doms to avoid paying tax on funds withdrawn from trusts. I am also pleased to say that we have been at the forefront of international work that has seen 100 countries commit to exchange financial information automatically.

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The Conservative manifesto said that the Government would

“take a more proactive approach to transparency”.

Does the Minister believe that enough is being done to tackle companies that promote tax-avoidance schemes, or is there still a tendency for the big four accountancy firms to regulate the big four, via the big four, in order to protect the big four?

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The hon. Lady asks if enough is being done to clamp down on tax avoidance. I can assure her that it certainly is. Since 2010, we have raised £160 billion by way of clamping down on exactly those behaviours. In the forthcoming Finance Bill there will be further measures to make sure that over the scorecard period we are bringing in between £7 billion and £8 billion in addition, in corporate tax avoidance measures.

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Will the Minister confirm that due to steps taken by this Government, the top 1% of people now pay 27% of income tax, and that that is a higher proportion than under the previous Labour Government?

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. The Labour party would constantly have us believe that somehow we are being soft on the wealthy and hard on the less well-off when the precise opposite is true. The top 1% pay over 27% of tax, and the wealthiest 3,000 people in our country pay as much as the poorest 9 million. Under Labour, the poor paid more tax relative to the wealthy, not less. No wonder that under our policies income inequality is at a 30-year low.

Income Tax/National Insurance

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12. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of merging income tax and national insurance. [900557]

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The Government are committed to simplifying the tax system. In 2015, we asked the Office of Tax Simplification to provide an independent assessment of the alignment of income tax and national insurance contributions. We have already taken action in a number of places highlighted by the report. However, alignment now would cause significant upheaval for millions. Now is not the right time for further reform in this area.

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I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new ministerial role. Last year the Office of Tax Simplification said that bringing national insurance and income tax closer together would create a simpler and fairer system for business and taxpayers. As national insurance and income tax revenues go into the same pot, would it not be simpler and clearer to merge the two and have one single income tax?

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As I said, we recognise the value of merging national insurance and income tax where that is practical and achievable, and there are some measures coming up in the Bills in the autumn that will address that in certain circumstances, but to do it right across the piece at this stage is perhaps a long-term aspiration rather than one we will be addressing in the short term.

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The Minister will know that as people go into the higher tax threshold they stop paying more national insurance, so would one of the impacts of merging the two be to reveal that the British tax system is not as progressive as people think, and make the case for those with the broadest shoulders to pay more?

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The hon. Gentleman needs to recognise that national insurance and income tax function in different ways and have different roles in the tax system. We have one of the most progressive tax systems in the entire country. If we look at, for example, those earning above—[Interruption.] Well, by raising the personal tax allowance we have taken 3 million to 4 million people out of income tax altogether. For those earning over £100,000, where we removed the allowance, that, plus national insurance, means that the marginal rates are up to 62% at that level of income.

Public Sector Pay

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14. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of public sector pay since 2010; and if he will make a statement. [900559]

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We hugely value the work of public servants—teachers, police and nurses. That is why they are paid in line with the private sector, and, in addition, receive a 10% increment, on average, for their pensions.

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We all agree that MPs’ pay recommendations are decided independently and go through automatically. However, other public sector pay review bodies take into account Treasury submissions but then find that their recommendations are vetoed by Ministers. If it is good enough for Members of Parliament, why is it not good enough for nurses, the armed forces, firefighters and teachers?

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We do take notice of what the independent pay review bodies say. We have just approved the recommendations of the teachers pay review body and of the nurses pay review body. Listening to their recommendations, the pay review body for the NHS said:

“We do not see significant short-term nationwide recruitment and retention issues that are linked to pay.”

We followed that advice and gave the pay accordingly.

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Increases in the tax-free personal allowance since 2010 have put £1,000 into the pocket of each basic rate taxpayer, including those who work across the public sector. Will the Chief Secretary continue to help public sector workers to keep the money they earn, through lower taxes?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The worst thing that we could do is to support the Labour party’s policies, which would, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, lead to the highest levels of taxation in peacetime history.

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19. I think the Treasury response today to the questions about the 1% pay cap are profoundly disappointing. This is the single biggest thing ensuring that inflation erodes living standards. It is impoverishing workers, and it is driving up consumer debt. When will the Treasury agree with the Foreign Secretary that the time has come to end this cap? [900564]

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I point out to the hon. Gentleman that, in fact, teachers have seen a 3% pay rise, many nurses get progression pay and people in the armed forces get an X-factor supplement that is worth 2.4% a year. Their salaries are in line with private sector salaries. It would be wrong to have a significant differential between the public and private sectors, because we need businesses to thrive in addition to having well-funded public services.

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Time is against us, but I want to hear a couple more of the Order Paper questions.

Government Investment in Skills

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15. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on the effect of Government investment in skills since 2010. [900560]

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Treasury Ministers have engaged on a regular basis with the Secretary of State for Education. We will double spending on apprenticeships over the decade to 2020, allowing 3 million apprenticeship starts in England by 2020 and giving people the best start in their career.

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Since 2010, the substantial increase in apprenticeships has helped many young people into work. Stansted airport in my constituency is a great provider of apprenticeships, and its employment academy placed 700 people into work in the last year alone. Does the Minister agree that apprenticeships have contributed to the record low level of youth unemployment?

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I very much agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, there are 55,000 fewer young people unemployed than there were a year ago, thanks in large part to the investment that this Government are putting into apprenticeships.

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Is the Minister aware that if we are going to do anything about skills or productivity in our country and our communities, we have got to look to local further education colleges? Will he support, with money, resources and leadership, the introduction of a practical maths course to help young people who are waiting in colleges up and down the country, struggling to get apprenticeships? Will he talk to the Education Secretary about doing that, to get these young people on their way?

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The hon. Gentleman will welcome the Government’s record investment of £500 million in T-levels, to tackle exactly the issue that he has raised in technical education. The Government’s commitment can also be seen in apprenticeships. Whereas under the last Labour Government there were just 280,000 apprenticeship starts, there were more than half a million last year under this Government.

Corporation Tax: Receipts

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16. What effect the reduction in corporation tax rates has had on receipts from that tax. [900561]

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Since 2010 the headline corporation tax rate has been cut from 28% to 19%. Despite that, onshore corporation tax receipts have increased by more than 50%, from £36.2 billion in 2010-11 to £55.1 billion in 2016-17.

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According to KPMG, we have the second-most competitive tax regime anywhere in the G7. Does my hon. Friend agree that that encourages businesses to locate here and boosts our tax receipts?

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. The OECD has made it very clear that corporation tax increases are the most harmful tax increases for economic growth. By keeping business taxes down, in 2015-16 we saw a record number of inward investment projects creating more than 1,600 jobs per week.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

[900536]

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My priority is to ensure that the economy remains resilient as we negotiate our exit from the European Union. That means building on this Government’s achievements in reducing the deficit by two thirds, delivering record levels of employment and getting unemployment down to the lowest rate since the mid-1970s, while continuing to tackle the long-term challenge of productivity enhancement and making steady progress towards balancing the budget

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Raising the personal tax allowance has been a key achievement of this Government. What recent assessment has he made of the number of my Hazel Grove constituents who have benefited from that policy?

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I agree with my hon. Friend. The UK will have increased the tax-free personal allowance by over 90% compared with 2010, completing a decade of sustained tax cuts for working people. Over 31 million taxpayers will pay less tax in 2017-18, including 3 million taxpayers in the north-west. Since 2010, more than 4 million taxpayers have been taken out of income tax altogether.

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Personal contract purchase plans for financing cars have gone up by 394% in the past five years, and the Governor of the Bank of England has said that we are failing to learn the lessons of the past when it comes to easy credit. What action is the Chancellor taking to ensure that lending is affordable and does not pose a risk to the wider economy?

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May I first congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment as Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee? As she will be aware from her Bank of England days, this is a matter for the Financial Policy Committee. Indeed, the FPC noted in its recent report that consumer credit is growing at a lower rate than it was under the previous Labour Government, but loss rates on lending remain low, as they are at present.

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T2. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will know from his time in the Foreign Office that one of the great strengths of our great kingdom is the perception of fairness we enjoy around the world. Will he talk a little about fairness in financial transactions, as the hidden taxes imposed by many companies on investment are grossly unfair on those who are saving in pensions for the future? [900537]

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There is a theme here, because I should congratulate my hon. Friend on his election as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The Government are committed to the principles of transparency. He will have noted the recent Financial Conduct Authority report on the asset management market study. Indeed, we are seeing technology—in particular, through FinTech—driving the sort of transparency to which he refers.

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T9. As chair of the all-party group on refugees, I am told by refugees that they are desperate to work once they have achieved such status, but are hindered by various fixable problems in the system. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to make it easier for refugees to have bank accounts? [900544]

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The hon. Lady will be aware that when the Home Office grants refugee status, it includes the biometric residence permit as proof of the holder’s right to stay, but I am very happy to discuss with the hon. Lady any further measures that she feels would be helpful.

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T3. To promote the drive towards world free trade, will the Chancellor of the Exchequer assure the House that he is absolutely, personally and enthusiastically committed to following our manifesto commitment to leave not just the EU at the end of 2019, but the single market and the customs union? [900538]

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Yes, I have made it clear on many occasions that when we leave the European Union on 29 March 2019, we will also leave the single market and the customs union. Those are matters of legal necessity. My focus is on ensuring that thereafter we put in place the closest and deepest possible partnership with our European neighbours that will allow us to continue the patterns of trade and business, patterns of security co-operation and patterns of educational exchange and scientific and research collaboration that we enjoy now. That is the best way to protect Britain’s prosperity.

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Unsecured borrowing has rocketed, and lenders warn that default rates on credit cards and other products this summer will be at their highest level at any point since the height of the financial crisis. Instead of simply passing the buck to the Financial Policy Committee, what are the Government going to do in public policy to alleviate the serious risk of a household debt crisis?

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The hon. Gentleman misstates the position. It is an independent responsibility of the Bank of England to address that—[Interruption.] It is. It is of course an area where there will always be frequent discussions with the Treasury, but it is a Bank of England matter.

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T4. The UK Government have a strong record of supporting Scottish businesses, and the British Business Bank has provided nearly £1.5 million of support to small businesses in East Renfrewshire. However, many businesses in my constituency are disadvantaged compared with competitors and counterparts in England due to the Scottish Government’s approach to business rates. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling for the Scottish Government to reverse their decision to double the large business supplement, restore rates parity on both sides of the border and allow Scottish businesses to compete on a level playing field? [900539]

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. The large business supplement is a devolved tax matter and the supplement in Scotland is double that in England. The consequences were best summed up by Liz Cameron, the chief executive officer of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce:

“Here in Scotland, we must ensure that we are seen to be the best place in the UK to do business and that will require a fundamental reassessment by the Scottish Government of its tax policies.”

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The Chancellor will know from his own officials’ analysis that the difference between staying in the European economic area and a Canadian-type deal, which is essentially what the Government are now aiming for, is a hit to GDP of £16 billion, which is equivalent to a 4p rise in the basic rate of income tax. How can it not be right to stay in the EEA, at least for transition?

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The hon. Lady is now asking a different question. The Prime Minister has been very clear that Britain is a very large economy in relation to our European neighbours and we would expect to have a bespoke arrangement with the European Union as our long-term future status quo, and indeed a bespoke arrangement for any interim period that is agreed. The hon. Lady is quite right that as we go forward with this process, we need to deliver on our commitment to leave the European, but to do so in a way that protects the British economy, protects British jobs and protects Britain’s prosperity, and that is what we will do.

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T5. Will my right hon. Friend, for the benefit of the House, confirm the cost to the economy of cancelling student debt, say whether that is affordable and explain what effect it would have on the work we have done to reduce the deficit? [900540]

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As the Labour party admits, cancelling student debt would cost £100 billion. The Opposition made that reckless promise, which would see the debt soar, during the election campaign, but now they say it is just an “ambition”. Are they going to say sorry to the people they made their promise to, and are they going to say sorry to the British public for threatening to bankrupt the economy?

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Further to the questions asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), will the Chancellor confirm, as he failed to do before, that the cost to us of Brexit will be as described by my hon. Friends some moments ago?

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The hon. Lady, I think, knows that there can be no definitive answer to that question. We do not yet know what the form of our agreement with the European Union will be and we do not yet know what arrangements will be in place for any kind of interim or transition period, so she is speculating. What I can tell her is that the Government are 100% focused on getting the best deal for Britain and delivering it in a way that protects British business and British jobs.

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T6. Several of my Beckenham constituents have suggested that the winter fuel allowance might be a taxable benefit. Is that being considered? [900541]

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We have no plans to tax the winter fuel allowance.

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One of the best boosts to economic growth is Government infrastructure spending, so will the Chancellor look down the back of the sofa where he found the £1 billion for the deal with the Democratic Unionist party and find more change to sign the Edinburgh city growth deal?

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At the autumn statement, I made a conscious decision to borrow an additional £23 billion for investment in economically productive infrastructure projects—a conscious decision to address one of the challenges we face in improving Britain’s productivity. The Government will continue to combine a prudent fiscal approach with investment in our future through productivity-raising measures.

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T7. The new Conservative Mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, is setting up the first mayoral development corporation outside London on the former SSI site in Redcar. The regeneration of the site and the attraction of inward investment are obviously vital. Will my hon. Friend work with me and the Mayor to deliver the best outcome for the site and the local economy? [900542]

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The South Tees Site Company is currently undertaking ground investigations to assess the levels of any contamination on the SSI site. The mayoral development corporation is leading on the development of plans for the future of the site. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend, the Mayor of the Tees Valley and others to promote the economy of the area.

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In the Budget, the Chancellor promised a consultation on business rates, but we have not yet seen that. Businesses in York are really struggling and some are leaving the city because of the astronomical business rates. When will we have that consultation—what is the date?

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We have to deal with two issues. One is the process by which we uprate business rates, and we all saw earlier this year that long periods followed by dramatic revision are not good for anyone. They cause disruption to business, so we are looking at how we can smooth the process. Secondly, we need to look more broadly at the way in which we address the perceived unfairness that companies that operate in bricks and mortar are effectively treated differently from companies that do not. That is not an easy challenge, because many of the digital companies operate internationally and it requires international co-operation.

The consultation that the hon. Lady asks for will be issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government and I will pass on to the Secretary of State her concerns about the date.

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T8. Noting that the unemployment rate is at a 42-year low, may I inquire of my right hon. Friend what the effect has been on average personal incomes for workers in Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock—and, indeed, the rest of the UK—of increases in the minimum wage and the national living wage? [900543]

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The increase in the national living wage to £7.50 an hour means that a full-time worker on minimum wages has had a pay rise of £2,800 since 2010. More than 150,000 low-wage workers in Scotland are benefiting from that extra money.

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The Tyne and Wear Metro is in urgent need of investment if we are to see the new rolling stock rolled out by 2021. What conversations has the Chancellor had with the Transport Secretary about funding that vital piece of infrastructure for the north-east?

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As the hon. Lady may know, I take a clear view about the confidentiality of conversations between Cabinet Ministers—[Laughter.] While I have had many conversations with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, I make it a rule that it is for departmental Secretaries of State to make announcements when appropriate.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that lowering corporation tax to 19% has incentivised business investment in North Warwickshire and Bedworth by companies such as Aldi, which has its headquarters there, and throughout the UK?

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My hon. Friend is right, and he is rightly a champion of business in his constituency. There is no doubt that lower taxes create wealth and in turn pay for the public services that we all desire—contrary to the party opposite. I share one exchange with the House—when my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) asked the shadow Chief Secretary if he was

“aware that tax as a percentage of GDP is going to be at its highest level since Harold Wilson was Prime Minister?”,

his response was:

“Let me put it like this: if we had a Labour Government, the percentage would be even higher.”—[Official Report, 18 April 2017; Vol. 624, c. 579.]

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The TUC estimates that nurses, firefighters and border guards face losing more than £2,500 in real terms by 2020. For ambulance drivers, who earn significantly below the UK average wage, the figure is more than £1,800. Does the Minister agree that it is about time that we gave hard-working public sector workers the pay rise they deserve?

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The hon. Lady should be aware that more than half of nurses and NHS workers saw a 3% pay rise last year. She needs to check her facts.

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T10. Last night, I met a major financial institution. Does my hon. Friend agree that for London to retain its place as the leading financial centre we need a regulatory regime based on mutual recognition and an early-agreed transitional phase to provide certainty? [900545]

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My hon. Friend rightly champions that key sector which provides £71 billion of tax to fund public services. It is in the interests of the UK and the EU to avoid fragmentation because that will increase costs, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that we are ambitious, in terms of the trade deal that we reach with the EU, to come to an arrangement that delivers regulatory equivalence.

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Does the Chancellor accept that the confusion and conflicting ambitions of the Government’s policy on Brexit are already having an impact on investment? In the long run, that will be massively damaging to the economic prospects of this country.

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No, I do not accept that. However, I readily agree with the hon. Gentleman that, as I have said many times in the Chamber, the process of negotiating our exit from the European Union and then executing that exit is bound to create uncertainty, and uncertainty is always unwelcomed by business. The challenge for us is to secure as much certainty as possible as early as possible for business, and that is our focus.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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I am advised that the point of order flows from Treasury questions, and I will therefore take it, but if it turns out to be just a continuation of the debate, I will be pretty intolerant of it; so I hope it is pithy and something approaching a genuine point of order.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I very much appreciate your taking my point of order.

During Treasury questions, I asked the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), a question that specifically concerned an announcement in the Chancellor’s autumn statement. He did not answer it, saying that it was not within the remit of his Department. May I ask for your guidance, Mr Speaker? Whom should I ask questions about Treasury documents, if not Treasury Ministers?

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If memory serves me correctly, the Minister indicated that he would pass the matter on to the relevant departmental Minister. These are matters not of precise fact but of judgment, and also of some discretion so far as the Minister answering questions is concerned. Of course, when the Chancellor delivers either his Budget or an autumn statement, he inevitably makes announcements that concern expenditure covering all sorts of different Government Departments. If subsequently a Treasury Minister is asked a question relating to expenditure in a particular area to which, because of his or her natural self-effacement and modesty—in the case of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough—he feels that another Minister would be better equipped to provide an informative answer, there is nothing disorderly about that. It may be disquieting for the hon. Lady, but that is not the same as the Minister’s behaviour being disorderly. I hope the hon. Lady will accept that for now—and I see that the Minister is beaming with contentment, although it has to be said that there is nothing new there.

Free Childcare

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(Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement on the process for applying for free childcare hours from September 2017.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing the urgent question. It gives me an opportunity to highlight the Government’s determination to invest a record amount in childcare, supporting early education and helping parents financially. That amount will total £6 billion annually by 2020.

My Department is committed to ensuring that three and four-year-olds have access to free early education. All parents, regardless of income and employment status, are entitled to 15 hours of free early education for their three and four-year-olds, and for parents who are working we are providing access to an additional 15 hours of free childcare from September 2017. Parents who want to take up 30 hours of free childcare can apply through the digital childcare service. They can access the application via the Childcare Choices website, which provides information on all the Government’s childcare offers. The application process takes about 20 minutes. I have recently had a walk-through of the service myself; it is straightforward, and the format will be very familiar to parents who have used other Government digital services.

The childcare service is a complex IT system, which checks parents’ eligibility in real time by interfacing with other Government IT systems. The vast majority of parents will receive an instant eligibility response, but there will be a delay for some parents whose eligibility is not immediately clear—for example, for some self-employed people. The service has also experienced technical issues which have meant that it has been unavailable to parents on a small number of occasions. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which has developed the service, has been working hard to resolve those issues, and as a result the customer experience has improved.

The application has been open to the parents of under-fours since 21 April, and today my Treasury colleagues will make a written ministerial statement informing the House that the service has been further rolled out to the parents of under-fives, the so-called summer babies. Parents whose application is successful will receive a 30 hours eligibility code to take to their provider in order to claim their childcare place. As of today, more than 145,000 codes have been generated from successful applications. That is an increase of almost 5,000 codes since Friday 14 July and an increase of almost 25,000 since Friday 7 July. Increasing numbers of parents are successfully applying. It is great news that so many families will benefit from 30 hours in September because, as we have seen from our early implementer and early roll-out areas, the support can make a positive difference to the lives of hard-working families.

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Order. Before we proceed to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) and to subsequent questioners, I must make it clear that I granted the urgent question because of the narrow and specific focus on the issue of the accessibility, or otherwise, of the Government’s website. This is not an occasion for a general debate about childcare policy. If Members want just—this is not unknown in politics—to score political points and to ask rhetorical questions, that is not what this exchange is about. It will run for 20 minutes and it will focus on the particular issue that the hon. Lady identified in her application.

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I thank the Minister for his response, but as some may be reading in their end-of-year reports due this week, “Good effort; just not good enough.” The process for applying for free childcare is confusing both for parents and nurseries. As one parent said to me:

“getting the code was the most complicated process that I have ever endured. I would imagine that many parents would give up!”

They explained that

“you get passed from pillar to post between different areas of the website, each asking you for a different password, sent to you by SMS or email. Is this really necessary?”

As Members will attest, setting up two-factor authentication on our phones was difficult enough, and we have a well-resourced IT department. Who is helping the parents at home who are juggling this with jobs and caring for their young children? As a result, parents have not been able to open accounts to pay their nursery, playgroup or pre-school. Even some of the providers, particularly in the voluntary sector, cannot register.

The Government’s roll-out of 30 hours of free childcare is welcome, but only if it is of high quality and if parents can access it readily. Therefore, I ask the Minister: why is the Department for Education website still sending parents a holding response when they finally submit an online application? How long is the Department taking to confirm eligibility? What proportion of children eligible for the free childcare have been able to access it? Moreover, with the end of the school term rapidly approaching, how can nurseries plan for the upcoming year if parents cannot provide them with their voucher details? What support can the Government provide to nurseries to plan and budget effectively for an as-yet-unknown number of children who will be joining them on 1 September? Finally, what will the Government do to review the matter and the accessibility of the online registration process so that this does not happen again next year?

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Thank you.

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The hon. Lady asks some reasonable questions. I reassure her that, at the moment, 2,850 parents are registering per weekday and we are on track to reach, we think, about 200,000 by the end of the month. I encourage parents to get on with it. We do not want everyone to leave it until 11.30 pm on 31 August. As I said, the vast majority of cases are processed fairly simply, but because we need to check that the person meets the eligibility criteria on income, sometimes there are complications. I have mentioned self-employed people and people who change jobs, so occasionally it is more complex. I reassure the hon. Lady on the point about people who cannot use the online system. We have an offline process for any parents who experience persistent technical difficulties. I encourage anyone who has those problems to take up the matter.

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I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. What resources are being given to those from disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure that they have access to the 30 hours of free childcare?

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Obviously, disadvantaged children are eligible for free childcare at the age of two and that continues for 15 hours through to the age of four. That additional funding and that additional 15 hours are for people in work. Some of those people may be on low incomes. A person who is working 16 hours at the national minimum wage qualifies. I have already mentioned that there is an offline system for people who may have problems and who cannot use the online system because of sight or other difficulties. However, the evidence so far is that the applications are coming in. They are now being presented to their providers and they will come back to us via the local authorities. May I make the point that some local authorities have been a bit tardy in passing the codes back to us? If anyone goes back over the recess, do ask them whether they are getting on with it, because that is another area where we need to see some improvement.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. What a shame it is that, when we could be weeks away from a great breakthrough for providers, parents and most importantly children, we are instead discussing a policy that is riddled with holes—and, my word, are there questions to answer!

Just yesterday the Minister’s colleagues in the Treasury admitted in response to one of my written questions:

“It is not possible to provide a definitive number of applications not completed due to technical issues”.

Will the Minister give us his estimate of just how many parents suffered these “technical issues”? What steps are being put in place to fix the system, and what guarantees can he make to parents that, as the August deadline approaches, the system will work for them?

How many calls has the hotline received? Of the 30,000 people who applied and were rejected, what were the reasons for those rejections and can the Minister guarantee that those rejections were correct and not due to system errors? What about the parents on zero-hours contracts who are simply unable to guarantee that they will work over the minimum weekly hours: how many of them will be refused the childcare they were promised?

Finally, as the Minister will be aware, there are huge problems with this offer and there are many other questions to answer. As the Minister likes to refer my written questions to those at the national provider, Childcare Works, with implementation weeks away will he accept my request to meet them as soon as possible?

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In welcoming the hon. Lady to her place, I have to say she is very much not a glass half full person. This is a great childcare offer. Yesterday morning, I was in the city of York, one of the pilot areas, meeting providers and parents who were benefiting, and I heard from people who said, “This is a great offer. It means no longer do I have to pass my husband in the hallway as I go out to my evening job and he comes in from his daytime job.” We heard of eight people in York who are now accessing employment because of the childcare being available. So it is a great offer and I am very proud that it has been delivered. We have ironed out the glitches in the software, and people are registering; as I have said, we are on track for 200,000.

The hon. Lady asked how many people we expect to register, and the short answer is that we do not know, because it is a voluntary system to which people will opt in. Also, of course, there will be three tranches. It will not all happen with a big bang in September; there will be another tranche of parents who qualify in January and another tranche after Easter. It is great news for working families—something this Government are delivering on.

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Given the amount of my time that was taken, the amount of time that my constituent had to give up, and indeed the amount of time given by the technical support people in the Minister’s Department, all as a consequence of the fact that my constituent had an apostrophe in her name, can the Minister speculate why on earth we were not told that there was a manual workaround?

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I have made that clear today. There have been a number of outages, several of which were to fix some of the glitches to which my right hon. Friend draws attention. The most recent one was due to a power supply issue between 6 pm and 10.20 pm last night, 17 July. That has now been fixed and the system is up and running again.

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Very reassuring.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on securing this urgent question, and given that this is largely a devolved matter, I will be brief.

Ensuring affordable, flexible and secure childcare is one of the best ways to narrow the gender pay gap, by helping parents back to work when it suits them, and also to prepare children best for school. In Scotland, the Scottish Government are trialling childcare funding following the child by investing £1 million to make sure that, when we expand free childcare to 1,140 hours, parents have the choice to decide what is best for them and for their children. We are also going further than the UK Government by helping the most vulnerable two-year-olds in Scotland, to ensure that all children can have the best start in life. That is quite a contrast to the issues being faced by parents south of the border. If disadvantaged parents are not able to apply for childcare by the deadline due to the Minister’s website problems, how will they will be supported thereafter?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for the party election broadcast on behalf of the Scottish National party. The website is up and running and, as I have said, 2,850 parents per day are registering and getting their confirmation codes; we encourage people to do so as soon as possible, rather than leave it to the last minute. Indeed, I am very pleased that we are now on track. Some 143,000 valid 30 hour contract codes have been generated and we are on track to reach our target of 200,000 by the end of next month.

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As a mother with three children, I have been through a raft of different child support schemes. There were none initially, which is why I welcome the fact that this support is in place; we must not forget that. Obviously, it is essential that parents have confidence that they can apply. Will the Minister reassure those who are struggling—not just parents but nurseries; I understand the difficulties—that we will help them? I have met people from many nurseries in my constituency. We are relying on them to deliver this service, so can we have assurances that it will work?

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That is why we ran the scheme through 12 development areas. Indeed, 15,000 children are already enjoying it, including those in the families I met in York yesterday. It really is a good offer. Of course there is flexibility in the system: one can use a childminder, a pre-school playgroup, or a formalised nursery setting and mix and match the hours. So it is a great opportunity. Indeed, the hours can be spread over the holidays; currently, 30 hours a week for 38 weeks are available, but that can be spread over the year for those who wish to cover the holidays as well.

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The Minister says that 120,000 codes have now been issued and that he expects that to rise to 200,000 by the end of the month, but given that the Government’s own estimate of the number of eligible families is in excess of 390,000, by my maths that means that only just over a quarter of those eligible have now got their codes. Given that we had warning after warning from providers that the scheme would be unaffordable to them and that they worried about there being sufficient places, how are they supposed to plan for September when only just over a quarter of families have registered for this scheme to date?

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I am afraid that the hon. Lady is making a fundamental error. The total number will come in three tranches: one in September, one in January and one after Easter, as children reach the eligible age. This will be an ongoing system, and therefore—[Interruption.] The children starting in September need to apply by the end of August. There is no rush for parents whose children turn three in time for starting in January. We are on track to deliver 200,000 by 1 September. Subsequent tranches of children will come in after Christmas and Easter.

A number of concerns have been raised about providers being able to deliver for the funding we have provided, and we have put additional funding in. I am pleased to say that in the city of York, where I was yesterday, despite the fact that some of the private sector providers expressed disquiet, 100% of providers are delivering on the scheme. Indeed, in contrast to the numbers projected, we have 117% delivery.

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Dorset was one of the pilot areas for 30 hours of free childcare. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the performance of those pilots, specifically in relation to the online system?

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Those in the pilots did not participate in the online system we have in place now; there was an all manually based system. I can assure the House, however, that 4,000 parents were involved in testing the service and valuable lessons have been learned from Dorset regarding the operation of the service and provision of free places.

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In light of these additional difficulties in bringing in what is a very welcome policy, what additional support will the Government give to nurseries that are preparing to deliver the scheme? We need to make sure that the resources are there for delivery.

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As I have said, we increased the funding to allow for it to be delivered; an average funding of £4.94 for each hour is now being provided. That was in direct response to the concerns of some providers about the level of funding, but I have to say that even the providers who said that the funding was not sufficient have now managed to deliver at this price. Indeed, the nursery I visited yesterday said it had surplus places before the pilot scheme was introduced, but is now full, which is great news for it in terms of its overall funding.

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Small, community-led pre-schools, such as the one in Hedge End in my constituency, are not necessarily groups, and they are worried about the process for them and for local parents. Will my hon. Friend tell us what the Government have done to ensure that all early-years providers are able to deliver the 30 hours for those families and to retain the positivity around this programme?

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Parents have a choice about where to deploy their 30 hours of care. It can be with a childminder or in a nursery school, but it can also be with one of the many excellent voluntary sector providers, including pre-school playgroups. My wife used to run a pre-school playgroup, so I have been briefed on this issue. It is vital that people have a choice about where to send their children that suits their lifestyle, their work and the logistics of getting their children to that setting.

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The Minister will know that I was Chair of the then Children, Schools and Families Select Committee when the Labour Government set us on this path, and I am sure that most Labour Members will welcome this good news. I have a vested interest in this subject, having 10 grandchildren and, I hope, more to come. However, many people in my constituency are struggling with access and are not very computer literate. Will he consider enabling the National Day Nurseries Association, which is based in my constituency, and the other marvellous children’s charities to help by being the interlocutors between the Government and our constituents?

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In the short time that I have had this portfolio, I have met a number of organisations and I particularly look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman’s own locally based organisations. That is very much on my bucket list. We certainly wish to engage as widely as possible with representatives of providers and of the families who are benefiting from this programme. Also, I have to say that we could not deliver this £6 billion a year of funding without the successful economy that this Conservative Government are delivering.

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As the parent of a one-year-old, I am very grateful for this scheme as I find my way through the challenges of parenthood. I am sure that many others will feel the same. Will the Minister please tell the House what testing was carried out prior to the launch of the system, and how many parents were involved?

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As I have said, there were two aspects to the testing. We had pilot areas in which we tested the delivery, working with the providers, and that was very successful, particularly in the city of York and North Yorkshire, where I was yesterday. In relation to the system, we had 4,000 parents involved. Indeed, I had a run-through to demonstrate how the system works. However, there are sometimes complications when people change jobs or when self-employed people’s accounts have not been submitted. In such cases, the telephone service can be used as a back-up.

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It is clearly important to resolve the problems as quickly as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) asked a number of factual questions, along with some others, which the Minister has not been able to answer directly today. Will he write to all those who have participated in the urgent question by the end of business on Thursday, so that we may have a full understanding of the picture?

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I will certainly be happy to give updates. As I have said, we have now passed 143,000 valid applications—not 120,000, as the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) suggested earlier—and I would be more than happy to give the right hon. Gentleman ongoing updates on that.

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I am grateful to the Minister and to colleagues. In a moment, I will call the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) to make an application for leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Gentleman has up to three minutes in which to make his application.

Unaccompanied Child Refugees

Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)

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I seek leave to propose that the House debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration—namely, the acceptance of unaccompanied asylum seeking children into the UK.

Baroness Williams revealed in a recent response to a question in the other place that under the Dubs scheme only 200 unaccompanied asylum seeking children had so far been transferred to the United Kingdom from mainland Europe. The Government stated before the general election that before closing the scheme they would take 480 children, which in itself was the cause of outrage to many of us who had championed the Save the Children campaign to give sanctuary to 3,000 children in the UK. The Government’s choice to take a figure as low as 480 was mean-spirited, blatantly politically motivated and not worthy of this House or this country—and yet the number of desperate children we have actually received is less than half that measly target.

The Government cannot use a lack of capacity or of resources as an excuse. Recent freedom of information requests have shown that local councils have voluntarily offered to accept 1,572 more children than they were supporting. Be it Syrian children, survivors of the Nazi death camps, Ugandan refugees or those fleeing genocide in the Balkans, this country’s values of openness and tolerance dictate that we have a moral duty and responsibility to be a land of sanctuary. Our history shows that we are stronger and more successful because of our willingness to take in desperate refugees, who go on to become proud Britons. So why do the Government seem committed to turning their back on the world?

Our actions in this House directly affect the lives of the many hundreds of children who have a legal right to come to the United Kingdom but who are currently scattered across Europe, scared and alone. I and many others feel strongly that this issue must be debated before the House rises for the summer recess. In the summer, migrants make more trips to Europe in unsuitable boats, and I fear that all over again we are likely to see more news of people drowning while trying desperately to reach safety. Put bluntly, by the time October comes around there will be many more children alone, orphaned and living a hand-to-mouth existence in continental Europe.

We must examine our consciences. The Government made an unambitious commitment that had to be dragged out of them. They then cancelled that agreement before managing to meet even half of its terms. I ask the House to take this opportunity to address this outrage and to help these desperate children.

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The hon. Gentleman asks leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration—namely, the acceptance of unaccompanied child refugees into the UK. I have listened carefully to his application, and on this occasion I am not persuaded that the matter is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24. Ordinarily, I am exhorted to say nothing more than that, but I will say to the hon. Gentleman that I am not insensitive to the strong concern that he and others have on this matter. There is a limitation on time—we do not have unlimited time between now and the recess—but if he wants to seek other opportunities to air his concerns on this matter tomorrow, on Thursday or indeed both— who knows?—he may be successful in his quest.

In a moment, I will call the shadow Education Secretary, the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), to make an application for leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Lady has up to three minutes in which to make such an application.

Tuition Fees

Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)

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I seek leave to propose that the House debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration—namely, the Government’s proposed increase in tuition fees with regard to the Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2016, statutory instrument No. 1205, and the Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2016, statutory instrument No. 1206.

On 30 March, the then Leader of the House—now the Justice Secretary—stood at the Dispatch Box and promised a debate and a vote on the Government’s plans to increase tuition fees. The debate was scheduled for 19 April, but on 18 April the Prime Minister announced her plan to go to the country in an early general election. That meant that the debate was cancelled. Oddly, the Government have been determined not to grant the House a vote on the matter since the election.

Since then, the shadow Leader of the House raised the issue at Business questions on 22 June and on 6 and 13 July. She finally received a letter from the Leader of the House stating that the Government currently have no plans to schedule these debates in Government time. What a contrast that was with the words of the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union who said last week that

“if a statutory instrument is placed in front of the House of Commons, then the Commons decides if it debates or votes on it.”

A statutory instrument is indeed before the House, but we are not being allowed to decide whether to debate or vote on it. How can he expect the Opposition to trust the Government with the sweeping powers that he wants under the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill?

Only two weeks ago, the First Secretary of State called for a national debate on tuition fees and student debt, but that national debate will apparently not include this House. Universities and thousands of students across the country are now uncertain about the rate of tuition fees that can be charged. With neither Government nor Opposition time to debate the matter, we have no choice but to use Standing Order No. 24—so 109 days since it was first promised by Ministers I ask leave for an emergency debate on their plans to raise tuition fees.

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The hon. Lady asks leaves to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely the Government’s proposed increase in tuition fees with regard to the Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 and the Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2016. I have listened carefully to the application, and I am satisfied that the matter raised by the hon. Lady is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24. Has the hon. Lady the leave of the House?

Application agreed to.

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The hon. Lady has obtained the leave of the House. I can therefore advise colleagues that the debate will be held tomorrow, 19 July, as the first item of public business. It will last for up to three hours and arise on a motion that the House has considered the specified matter set out in the hon. Lady’s application.

Points of Order

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The BBC is our public sector broadcaster and is paid for by all of us through the licence fee. It will announce tomorrow the details of presenters’ salaries over the threshold of £150,000. The campaign to get that transparency has gone on for around 10 years, and some of us have been heavily involved in it. The BBC initially avoided the matter and then dragged its feet before eventually agreeing to publish the information, which the general public, as its paymasters, have a right to see. However, the BBC is publishing said information the day before parliamentary scrutiny ends for the summer recess—tomorrow. Have you been informed by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport of her intention to come to the House to outline the unacceptable nature of the timing of the announcement?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, both for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me notice of his intention to raise it. The short answer on the last, key point in his remarks is that, no, I have received no indication from any Minister of an intention to make a statement. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern and appreciate that it may be shared by many Members. That said, it is not a point of order for the Chair. The decisions made on the timing of announcements or disclosures by the BBC do not fall within the aegis of the Speaker. It is also fair to say that, strictly speaking, those judgments do not to any significant extent fall within the responsibility of Ministers. Ministers can have views on such matters, which is perfectly proper, but they are not matters for ministerial decision.

The hon. Gentleman has succeeded in putting his concern on the record, and I feel sure that it will have been heard not only by the occupants of the Treasury Bench but by the broadcasters themselves. He is an assiduous denizen of this House, and I feel sure that he will be in his place tomorrow and, indeed, in all likelihood on Thursday. I dare say that he will want to get back to Northern Ireland at some point, but I am sure he will be in his place on Thursday and springing from it with a view to giving the House the benefit of his views in the summer Adjournment debate. That might be a suitable opportunity for him to expatiate further on this important matter.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance and advice. As you are aware, it is regular and customary for the Government to give a written response to Select Committee reports within two months of publication. The Foreign Affairs Committee published reports in March, in the previous Parliament, on Russia and Turkey. Given the topicality of the anniversary of the attempted coup in Turkey, I was hoping to read a Government response to the report on Turkey. I know we have had a general election and that the period of two months was not continuous, but the period between March and Parliament resuming is more than two months. I would therefore be grateful if you advised me on what I can do to ensure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides the long-overdue responses to those Select Committee reports.

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I am very sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, whose interest in and knowledge of such matters are well known and respected throughout the House, but the short answer is that the best way to guarantee a timely—or at least less untimely—response to the Select Committee reports will be to reconstitute the Foreign Affairs Committee as soon as possible. He is absolutely right that there has been a long delay. Ministers can take the view that they are responding to a report from a Committee and that the Foreign Affairs Committee currently does not exist and needs to be reconstituted.

I think the hon. Gentleman might have been present when I volunteered some thoughts with some asperity on the merit of getting on with the reconstitution of Select Committees. Although the Chairs have been elected, I am saddened that members have not been elected across the House—it is a pity if some have not got round to doing that. Frankly, however, there is not much that I can do other than say that I am always looking out for the hon. Gentleman. If he bobs up and down with a view to raising the matter, I will try to accommodate him. [Interruption.] It is always a delight to hear the views of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), to which I have been accustomed for the past 30 years. It is always better when they are offered from him on his feet, rather than from his seat, but I heard him chuntering from a sedentary position.

Drugs Policy

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered drugs policy.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate on drugs policy because, as many Members will know, the Government have just published an ambitious new drug strategy, which sets out a range of new actions to prevent the harms caused by drug misuse. The Government’s previous drug strategy, launched in 2010, balanced action against three strands: reducing the demand for drugs; restricting the supply of drugs; and supporting individuals to recover from drug and alcohol dependence. Since the 2010 strategy was published, local communities have been placed at the heart of public health, giving local government the freedom, responsibility and funding to develop its own ways of improving public health in local populations, including action to reduce drug and alcohol use and to support those recovering from dependence.

We have already taken concerted action to tackle new threats, such as the supply of so-called legal highs, through the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, and there are positive signs that the Government’s approach is working. Compared with a decade ago, drug misuse among adults and young people in England and Wales has reduced from 10.5% in 2005 to 8.4% in 2015-16.

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Drug and alcohol abuse is a difficult issue to address. What consultations has the Minister had with the various groups and communities that are rightly concerned about the mental health problems related to such abuse? Has she had any discussions?

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We have consulted widely with a range of experts and academics, and we are well served by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but we have also consulted communities, users and people with frontline experience of addressing these issues. I totally agree that we have to consider the complexity of the challenges facing individuals who are drawn into substance misuse, and we must ensure that we have tailor-made recovery solutions, which will often include support on underlying vulnerabilities or mental health issues. The strategy, as I will outline in some detail, seeks to take a multifaceted, joined-up approach so that people right at the heart of it can make a sustained recovery, which is what we all want to see.

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The Minister says there are signs that the policy is working, but does she ever pause for thought when she sees the significant increase in the number of people dying from drug misuse in the past three years? That picture is not mirrored in other European countries that take a more enlightened approach.

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There is no complacency in my approach, or in the Government’s approach. In setting out the context of the new strategy, it is worth reflecting on some of our past successes—we have a good evidence base upon which to build for the future. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am concerned by that increase in the number of deaths, often of people with long-term substance misuse problems. If he stays for the debate, I hope he will hear about our approach to prevent those deaths, which is a key part of our new strategy. I will welcome further interventions at that point. A speech from the right hon. Gentleman, who served so well as a Health Minister in the coalition and who played such an important role in some of the Department’s successes, would be carefully listened to and taken into consideration in our work in the years ahead.

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The rate of drug mortality started to rise in 2013, when the ring fence was removed and local authorities became responsible for drug and alcohol treatment. Does the Minister regret her Government’s decision to remove that ring fence?

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I will address how more people with long-term substance misuse problems are dying, but I remind the hon. Lady that the public health grant remains ring-fenced. It is for local authorities, working with partners in their communities, to come up with the best ways of tackling people’s serious and long-term substance misuse problems.

We have seen a phenomenal improvement in our understanding of the overlap between mental health problems and substance abuse problems. Councils not only have the public health grant and their partnerships in local communities; they also have the significant additional funding that the Government have made available for mental health services and community mental health services, as well as the homelessness prevention and troubled families funding. As I will hopefully have an opportunity to say, what is different about the strategy, in part, is the partnership working that we see as being at the heart of driving further improvements.

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Parents will welcome the Government’s focus on an updated and joined-up strategy. The mental health impacts associated with cannabis use, particularly by teenagers and young people, are one of the most upsetting issues raised in my constituency surgeries. Does she agree that this joined-up approach to local access is vital to the affected families?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. I doubt there is a single Member who has not had either a family member or a constituent come to speak to them about their huge concern about the harrowing effect on young family members who get involved in drugs. There is a growing evidence base and deep concern about the impact of cannabis on the development of young minds. A lot of concern is being raised about how psychosis can be brought on by even modest exposure to cannabis. It is essential that we consider mental health and substance misuse together. I assure her that that is at the heart of what we will be doing.

Although we have all far too frequently come across these heart-breaking cases of young people who have faced the terrible consequences of taking drugs, including losing their life, it is worth noting that, overall, fewer young people are taking drugs. Reliable data show that drug use among 11 to 15-year-olds peaked in 2013, and there has since been a continual decline. Again, we are not at all complacent, and we will be doing more work to educate young people about those harms.

Not only are fewer people taking drugs in the first place, but those who enter treatment services are having a good experience. The average waiting time to access treatment remains three days, and within two days for under-18s. Some 80% of young people who enter treatment leave successfully, so we have good foundations on which to work.

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The Minister is making good points about the seriousness of this issue. Does she agree that, although total drug use figures may be coming down, we all see a small number of high-profile incidents in our communities—often murders—involving drugs and drug dealing? That unsettles our communities. Does she have any hints on what we can all do to try to improve the situation? On the business of curing people, has she had a chance to look at the programmes introduced in Gloucestershire by the Nelson Trust, which takes a tough-love approach that seems to be working well?

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I have not visited the Nelson Trust in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but perhaps in a subsequent intervention he will invite me to come along. It is important that we continue to build the evidence base on what works. We have an open mind on innovation and on new ways of helping people give up their addiction.

My hon. Friend raises a good point on the overlap between crime and substance misuse, and of course there is a strong correlation. The modern crime prevention strategy identifies substance misuse—both alcohol and drug misuse—as a key driver of crime, so law enforcement has a critical role to play in our drug strategy’s joined-up solution.

We want to ensure that law enforcement has all the tools it needs. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 has had a positive impact, and hundreds of retailers across the United Kingdom have closed down or are no longer selling psychoactive substances. The police have arrested suppliers, and action by the National Crime Agency has resulted in the removal of psychoactive substances from sale by UK-based websites. The first offenders have been jailed, and we are seeing the police use their new powers, with more people going through the criminal justice system.

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I would be delighted if the Minister cared to visit Gloucester to see the county council’s Families First troubled families programme, to look at the Nelson Trust’s drug rehabilitation programme and to meet the Hollie Gazzard Trust, which is doing a lot to educate people in schools about the dangers—Hollie Gazzard herself was murdered.

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My hon. Friend illustrates well that in a local community what is needed is a joining up of services, whereby everything from prevention in schools right the way through to the criminal justice system and recovery services is working well. Of course I will be delighted to visit his constituency to see how those different services are joining up so well in Gloucestershire.

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Police and law enforcement issues have also been raised in my constituency. Will the Minister be prepared to consider legislation to deal with situations where prolonged cannabis use is having an impact on neighbours, with long-term users having an impact on the daily lives of children and babies next door?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. What I would be prepared to do is write to her setting out the range of powers that already exist. I know from my constituency that the police are not always aware of all the civil powers they have, in addition to the criminal powers, to tackle some of the antisocial behaviour associated with persistent drug use. I understand and recognise the challenge she is portraying. The troubled families programme is designed in part to help those families where a drug user has substance misuse problems and, in so doing, help the children living in those households.

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We have already had more mentions in the first 10 minutes of the police than we have police officers in Bassetlaw. Will the Minister confirm that we remain the only country in the world, other than the United States, where the Government lead for drugs is in criminal justice, as opposed to health? If the approach is evidence-based, why is that the case?

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I am sure there are many more police officers in Bassetlaw than there are Members in this Chamber this afternoon. I am proud that our drugs strategy is world-leading, and is recognised to be so, because we take this cross-government approach. This is not a simple issue. Tackling substance abuse and preventing people from taking drugs is not a simple thing to do, which is why we take this whole-government, joined-up approach. Our colleagues from the Department of Health are firmly involved in our activity, as is almost every Department.

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If colleagues do not mind, I am going to make a bit more progress as I think I will then be able to answer some of the questions.

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Okay, I will take a few more interventions.

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Greater Manchester police would argue that since the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 supply has shifted to the streets, and the product was more consistent in the headshops, whereas now it is constantly changing. Does the Minister agree that that shift is part of the reason for the epidemic of Spice use in Manchester, which is causing huge problems?

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comment. We were all really concerned when we saw those images of people on this kind of new zombie Spice in Manchester, but I was pleased that the 2016 Act proved itself in the case of Spice, because as soon as we saw those dangers emerging we were able to take action to ban it through that Act. As we did the testing to understand the chemical components and how serious they were, we were then able to shift them into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which gave them a proper classification. Just this Friday I was pleased to see that in Manchester the whole community got together with other cities—there were people there from Nottingham and Wrexham. Law enforcement, the mayor, civil society and local authorities all came together to do exactly what we are proposing in the drugs strategy, which is to take a multi-agency approach, so that the issues that brought about those awful scenes we saw, where vulnerable homeless people in Manchester were so wickedly targeted with that type of Spice by drug dealers, are now being properly managed. This allows homeless people to get the support they need so that they do not fall prey to that activity. The more stringent measures and sentencing available under the Misuse of Drugs Act mean that the police in Manchester have the full range of tools they need to take action there.

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The Netherlands has had a pragmatic, intelligent policy of drug decriminalisation for 50 years. It now has a serious prison problem, because there are not enough prisoners to fill its prisons. Is that not a problem we would like to have here?

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I accept that some Members and some people in our country think that we should decriminalise drugs. I do not agree, because we are evidence-based policy makers and all the evidence shows the awful harms caused by the drugs that we ban and restrict. Our primary job is to keep people safe, and the way to do that is to prevent them from taking drugs in the first place.

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I note the point about this being “evidence-based”, but the evidence clearly shows that the most dangerous drug in terms of harm is alcohol. So will the Minister explain the different approaches the Government take to alcohol, the most dangerous drug, and to cannabis?

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I would not agree that alcohol is the most dangerous drug, as we can see if we look at the substances we are restricting. There are people who take alcohol to such a harmful degree that it is devastating for them, and for their family members and the wider community. I fully accept, as the Government do in the modern crime prevention strategy, that the misuse of alcohol has dramatically harmful effects and contributes to crime, but alcohol taken in moderation is not a harmful drug. The Department of Health constantly keeps this under review and is doing research all the time to understand the health impact of alcohol, and it revisits what it considers to be safe drinking guidance. Public Health England has only recently updated the guidance, which suggests that people should be consuming less alcohol.

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Last week, I visited Path 2 Recovery, which does the drug recovery work in my constituency. It expressed concern about the effectiveness of the drug rehabilitation requirements, feeling that they did not have enough teeth, took up a lot of staff time and were not very effective. I note that page 23 of the strategy says that the Government are evaluating the framework pilots. Will the Minister say something about her thinking on the current effectiveness of drug rehabilitation requirements, and whether we can do anything differently and better?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He takes a deep and sustained interest in this policy area. We are very much hoping that when we have the recovery champion up and running, they will take a key role in looking at best practice and developing our evidence base as to what works. We have set out clearly in the strategy that we see sustained abstinence over a 12-month period, getting back into work and playing a full part in society as key outcomes of recovery. That will address some of my hon. Friend’s concerns about how in the past too many drug recovery programmes have really just been a revolving door, where people came in and were there for too short a time, and although they may have got clean, what they needed was support on housing, jobs or education so that they could sustain their recovery. Those programmes were not incentivised to enable that. So we are looking at outcome frameworks over a longer period which make sure people have the best possible chance of recovery, with mental health services and recovery services involved in this.

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I wish to refer back to the point about alcohol abuse, with which I agree. Alcohol is consumed throughout this House; we have 15 bars and restaurants in this place, all selling us alcohol. Some 90% of recreational drug users are not a problem—they consume their drugs and get on with their life—and only about 10% are a problem, so I cannot see why the Minister wants to take alcohol as one problem and drugs as another.

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Our published drugs strategy definitely recognises the relationship between those who take drugs and those who drink alcohol, and understanding that relationship will be a key part of our recovery programmes. In our modern crime prevention strategy, we have a whole series of actions around alcohol. Public Health England and the NHS do a lot of work in that area as well. We are very understanding of the hon. Gentleman’s point, and it will form part of our joined-up integrated approach. Is there a further question I can take before making some progress?

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An enormous part of the harm that is done by drugs is when people, particularly young people, do not know what it is that they are taking. If we are considering a harm prevention strategy, should we not be trying to ensure that we can protect people and help them to know what they are taking? Does that not include making drugs available legally so that we can test them and properly protect people?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We need to be really clear here: we do not ban substances without an evidence base that shows that they are harmful to people’s health. The reason why we put in those protections—whether it is through the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, or the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—is that the evidence base clearly shows that these substances are harmful. There is no safe way that people can take these products. It would be terrible to confuse young people by saying that they can, somehow, safely take a legal high. I know how difficult it is to have these conversations with young people; I have three children in their 20s. I understand the world in which they live and the temptations with which they are faced, but that is why it is so important that we have very clear messages and effective education tools for teachers, which we are investing in now. We will be legislating to make personal, social, health and economic education statutory in schools so that every young person understands the risks of taking alcohol and drugs, which will make them more resilient and more able to resist the temptations. I have said to my own children, “If you can’t go into Boots or any other reputable pharmacist and buy something, then it will not be good for you.” It is really important that we have very simple and clear messages for young people.

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I thank the Minister for generously giving way so many times, but I must challenge her. She said a moment ago that there is such a thing as a safe level of consumption of alcohol, but that is not what the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines say. The NICE guidelines are clear and accurate: there is no safe level of consumption of alcohol. We allow it to be consumed legally and we provide information, treatment and recovery, but we do not criminalise people who are consuming alcohol. Why will she not consider the graph that I can show her—[Interruption.] No, I am not supposed to do that. Evidence is available that shows just how much more harmful alcohol is than any other drug.

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This debate today is about the drugs strategy. I have been very generous in answering questions. We understand that there is a relationship between drugs and alcohol, but I will not be drawn into a wider debate about the current legal framework around alcohol, because we are here today to talk about our drugs policy. [Interruption.] May I just finish my point? Look, our policy is based on independent evidence, and is informed by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The vast majority of academic and medical research backs up our position.

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No, I will not give way as I wish to make some progress. I will answer some more questions later.

Let me remind everyone that we are not at all complacent about this. We definitely recognise the scale of the threat that drugs continue to pose to our society. They do destroy lives and have very serious impacts on families and communities. The cost to society is about £10 billion a year, half of which is related to theft and criminal activity around drug usage.

I wish to go back to this very serious point about drug-related deaths and how they have increased by 10% in the past year. Again, using the best available evidence, we understand that there is a cohort of people—and of older people—who have been taking heroin and crack cocaine for some time, which has had a very significant impact not only on their mental health, but their physical health. That is a driving factor in our strategy. Using the evidence base, we are able to segment better the treatment and the recovery programmes. We will be doing that with the firm hope that, by tailor-making the support that they need, we will see fewer people die and more people—even if they have been taking drugs for some time—being able to get off drugs and have the independent and fulfilled life that we want everyone to enjoy.

We are also very concerned about the way that synthetic cannabinoids—commonly known as Spice—have been so ruthlessly targeted at the homeless population. We are working on that, alongside our homelessness reduction programmes, with mental health services. In particular, we are looking at young people who might be vulnerable to these types of substances. We want to ensure that everybody has access to the best possible recovery programme.

The strategy builds on the three strands of the previous strategy—reducing demand, restricting supply and building recovery—by embracing a smarter, partnership-based approach, both locally and nationally, and recognising the links between different Government Departments and different Government ambitions. Clearly, we want to reduce crime, improve people’s life chances, promote better health, tackle homelessness and protect the most vulnerable people in our society. The strategy sets out key actions covering the wide range of partners critical to tackling drug misuse successfully, including those in education, health, safeguarding, criminal justice, housing and employment.

The strategy also introduces a new fourth strand on global action to bring out the critical importance of international co-operation. We want to reduce the demand for drugs by acting early to prevent people, especially young people, from taking drugs in the first place and then preventing escalation to more harmful use. This starts with universal action to give all young people the resilience and confidence they need to make positive choices about their health and well-being, including resisting drugs. For example, we will be legislating to make PSHE statutory in schools and expanding the Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Information Service for young people. That will be complemented with more targeted action to prevent drug misuse among vulnerable groups, including young people who are not in education, employment or training, looked-after children, offenders and the homeless. There will also be a targeted approach for emerging and evolving threats such as performance-enhancing drugs, so-called chemsex drugs and, sadly, the misuse of prescription drugs.

Tough enforcement is also a fundamental part of our drug strategy and we will continue to bear down on those who seek to benefit from the misery caused to others. We will take a smarter approach to restricting the supply of drugs, adapting our approach to reflect changes in criminal activity. For example, we have taken action to close down the mobile phone lines being used for drug dealing and other dreadful exploitation such as the trafficking of young people to sell drugs. Those mobile phone lines will be closed down. We will also use innovative data and technology to disrupt supply over the darknet. Our Serious Organised Crime Agency and the National Crime Agency have a very important role to play.

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Let me take the Minister back to investment and the idea that if this matter was treated as a health issue, there would be more investment in drug treatment services. Is it not the case that in France, where this is treated as a health issue, the investment is less than it is here where we have treated it as a criminal justice issue and a health issue combined?

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I just do not accept the premise of what the hon. Lady is saying. We do not take it in the way that she describes. We see this very much as a partnership or a joined-up whole Government approach. Of course health and recovery is at the centre of our strategy. It is not a fair interpretation to say that this is led by justice. It is about a joined-up whole system approach. Recovery remains a vital part of the Government’s approach.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I will make a bit more progress. We are absolutely determined to improve support for those dependent on drugs by raising the quality of treatment, and to improve outcomes by ensuring that people get the right interventions for their needs. That means ensuring that they can access the full range of services to help them rebuild their life, which may include mental health, housing, employment and training services, and a lot of support for a stable family life, free from crime. I am pleased that we will appoint a national recovery champion, who will drive progress by visiting different parts of the country to identify good practice and ensure local collaboration. We will also encourage partnership working and transparency by developing a new set of outcome measures to give local areas further support through Public Health England.

For the first time, we are setting out global action. We are already taking a global lead on our psychoactive substance work, encouraging data exchange to give us a richer picture of international trends, and bringing in global bans on the most harmful new psychoactive substances. We will continue our work through the United Nations. We have a balanced, evidence-based approach to drugs. Collaborating with partners around the world will help to give us a better intelligence base and enable us to take better action.

I hope that Members will see that this is a truly cross-Government strategy that requires the commitment and coming together of many Departments. The Home Secretary will establish a new drugs strategy board, of which I will be a member. It will include people from all the key Government Departments, Public Health England, and national police leads. Then we can all plan together to implement the strategy and hold each other to account. I am confident that the strategy is grounded in the best available evidence. We consulted extensively with key partners working in the drugs field, and I am sure that the strategy will make a lasting difference, but we know that there is no easy way to tackle drugs and the harms that they cause, and we need to do much more. Our strategy is flexible enough to enable us to respond to emerging threats.

Finally, by working together across government, locally and nationally, we can genuinely deliver the safer, healthier Britain, free from the harm of drugs, that we all want.

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Everyone in this Chamber knows that drug abuse casts a long shadow over our society. Whether it is the many thousands of crimes committed by drug users seeking to fund their habit—fully 45% of acquisitive crime is committed by regular heroin or crack cocaine users—the chaos caused in families and communities by drug use, or the lives ruined or cut short by it, the scale of the problem is truly shocking. We have the highest recorded level of mortality from drugs misuse since records began. There are record numbers of deaths from morphine or heroin, and from cocaine abuse. Under this Government, the UK has become the drugs overdose capital of Europe.

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, one in three of Europe’s overdose deaths—they are mainly related to opioids—occurs in the UK. That is roughly 10 families a day bereaved as a result of illegal drugs—more than are bereaved in traffic accidents. We have an overwhelming economic, moral and public health case for examining this country’s drugs policy.

Labour Members welcome the publication this month of the 2017 drugs strategy, even though it comes two years after the Government’s self-imposed deadline. However, having waited nearly two years for it, we have to confess to being a little disappointed. Let us remember what has happened along the way. Drug rehabilitation centres have been closed; budgets to tackle drug abuse have been cut; key services such as the NHS are under increasing pressure; and there have been cuts to police officers and Border Force guards by the thousand. In the light of these constrained resources, it is not clear how much impact this strategy, in which there is much to welcome in principle, will have.

Official drug strategies always include reducing demand, increasing awareness and education, restricting supply, tackling organised crime and improving treatment and recovery, so those elements, although important, are not new. The Government’s recognition of the importance of evidence-based treatment, recovery and harm reduction is welcome, but what stakeholders, and families and communities up and down the country who are suffering from drug abuse, want to know is whether the strategy is not just old methods in a shinier package. We frequently use the term “war on drugs”; I ask the Minister how exactly we expect to win a war with reduced forces and resources on the frontline.

Responsibility for drug and alcohol treatment was transferred from the NHS to local authorities in 2013, which was undoubtedly a good idea in principle; local authorities are much better placed than central Government to facilitate co-operation between drug and alcohol services, local police, those involved in social and youth work, education and housing and other stakeholders, but sadly local authorities gained those new responsibilities at a time of bone-crunching pressure on their budgets, and this transfer of responsibility meant an end to ring-fenced budgets for drug treatment.

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I agree exactly with my right hon. Friend, but does she think that when the Government transferred that responsibility to local authorities, they missed a trick by not making it clear that police and crime commissioners and representatives from the criminal justice system should sit on health and wellbeing boards, so that they could provide input on drug and alcohol treatment services?

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My hon. Friend is exactly right, because the purpose of transferring responsibility to local authorities was that they should bring together all the stakeholders, including police and crime commissioners and the local police.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the vast number of Labour local authorities that, in 2013, took their drug service out of the NHS and gave it to private providers? That includes mine in Nottinghamshire. Should we not have a Labour party position that would stop them doing this?

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It is unfortunate that many authorities, including many Labour authorities, privatised these services. Privatising them necessarily makes it harder to achieve the co-ordination and co-operation that was the whole point of having these services sit in the local authorities.

Local councils face unprecedented cuts to their funding—anything from 25% to 40% of their entire budget. Is it any wonder that drug-related deaths are increasing when local authorities do not have the funds necessary for comprehensive treatment programmes?

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The right hon. Lady has talked about the war on drugs, and how it has been undermined by a lack of resources, but does she favour simply increasing the resources in that war, or a more enlightened approach that involves decriminalisation and, potentially, the regulation of cannabis markets so that we take the criminals out of the market altogether?

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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We cannot have a meaningful strategy on drug abuse without looking at the question of resources, but I would be the first to say that it is more complex than simply providing more money.

To give an overview of what local authorities are facing, Barnsley cut its drug and alcohol service by more than a third between 2015-16 and 2016-17. Some services will be unavailable and key drugs practitioners will be made redundant. Staffordshire County Council was forced to make cuts of 45% to its drug and alcohol treatment budget over the past two years, due to its local commissioning group pulling the expected £15 million of NHS funding. Middlesbrough Council, which sadly has one of the highest rates of death from heroin overdoses in the country, cut its budget by £1 million last year.

When the Home Office announced those policies, it correctly said that for every £1 spent on public health, £2.50 is saved. However, instead of helping local authorities to follow that logic, the Government have obliged them to pursue short-term cuts. Some local authorities have tried, and some have been particularly innovative in seeking efficiencies in their public health budgets, but the reality is that too many are looking at significant reductions in services, and some are even privatising services. When it comes to public health, the Government talk a good talk but do not follow through with the resources. I note with dismay that the strategy includes no mention of providing more resources to local authorities, which after all are on the frontline of any strategy against drug use.

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Bearing in mind the figures that my right hon. Friend has set out—for every £1 spent on public health, £2.50 is saved for the public purse—does she agree that the overall cuts of £85 million to local authorities’ public health budgets are a false economy that are not serving our communities, or even the Exchequer?

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I think that the public health cuts were disastrous. The Treasury, in an extraordinary example of short-term thinking, clawed back the funds that had been promised. The King’s Fund has shown that local authorities in England are being forced to spend more than 5% less on public health initiatives this year than in 2014, and tackling drug misuse in adults will face a 5.5% cut of more than £22 million. Until the Government put their money where their mouth is on the drugs strategy, they will have to accept that some stakeholders remain sceptical.

There was an interesting discussion about alcohol earlier in the debate. Ministers seem to struggle with the notion that alcohol is actually a drug, but the truth is that in absolute terms alcohol causes more harm than any illegal drug. It is shocking that the strategy managed only two paragraphs on alcohol, which is a major killer in Britain today. Professor Ian Gilmore, chair of Alcohol Health Alliance UK, has said that

“we also need a dedicated strategy on alcohol which recognises the breadth of harm done by alcohol. In the UK alcohol is responsible for over 26,000 deaths per year, over 1 million hospital admissions per year, and…alcohol cost the UK economy between £27—£52 billion in 2016.”

In 2015, there were 8,000 casualties caused by drink-driving alone. Professor Ian Gilmore continued:

“The time has come for the Government to take an evidence-based approach to controlling the supply of and reducing the demand for a legal drug which is sold on virtually every street corner, sometimes at pocket money prices.”

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Portugal de-penalised drug use in 2001 and, as a result, halved the number of heroin users in the country, and the number of deaths has fallen from 80 a year to 16 a year. In the 30 years in which my right hon. Friend and I have been in the House, can she think of any initiative by any Government that has reduced drug harm so spectacularly?

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My hon. Friend is a passionate proponent of decriminalisation, and I think that he makes his own case.

The strategy claims that the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 has been hugely successful in stopping the proliferation of legal highs. It is true that in the first six months since the Act came into force nearly 500 people were arrested. However, as various drug charities suspected, despite those measures demand for the substances continues to increase. So-called legal highs have simply been pushed into the black market or on to the internet, which I suspect is why the Government have in the same breath claimed that they will focus on eliminating the vast range of problems that these substances cause. That exposes something that the Opposition made clear during the passage of the Act: legislation is effective only if there is a wider strategy in place.

The strategy has now been produced, but meanwhile legal highs are more dangerous than ever, affecting the poorest and most vulnerable in society. It remains the case that too many people, particularly women, go to prison without a drug habit and leave with a drug habit. I believe that Ministers, working with the Ministry of Justice, could do a great deal more to make our prisons drug-free zones. It is an elementary issue, but one that the Government continue to fail to address.

I am sure that most Members were as alarmed as I was last year by CCTV footage of a drone making deliveries to a prison. That is the favoured manner of getting contraband, in the form of mobile phones, weapons and drugs, into our prisons. There are no easy answers, but if there are not enough guards to guard the prisoners, I find it hard to believe that they could devote much time to searching one another or taking down drug-mule drones. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Justice has repeatedly said that the decimation of prison officer numbers under the Conservatives is a key reason for the Government’s inability to stem the growing influx of drugs into prisons. What specific extra staffing resources will be given to prisons to enable officers and prison authorities to meet the objectives of the new drugs strategy?

The Minister referred to global issues and to the international war on drugs, but she will be aware that it is largely regarded as failing. We would like to hear how Ministers plan to make the international war on drugs more successful than it has been. There are some aspects of the strategy that we welcome. For example, it is excellent that greater efforts will be made to provide young people with effective, evidence-based drug prevention education. As a parent, I think that most parents are unable to keep up with the kinds of drugs that young people are discovering nowadays. As I said earlier, it is very important that prisoners are given more help to get into recovery and that their progress is monitored closely. We need far clearer and more explicit guidelines on the value of opioid maintenance treatment which, if properly implemented, allows many people with opioid dependence to live their life and, crucially, prevents overdoses.

Another important aspect of the strategy is its recognition that people can slip through the cracks of dual diagnosis of mental health problems and problem substance use. I am glad that the strategy, at least in principle, wants those people to be better catered for, rather than shunted between services that are reluctant to take on complex and demanding cases.

There is a tendency to regard drug use and abuse as a personal failure. We in the Opposition would rather regard it as a societal failure. We say that any drug strategy has to look at the broader picture, including what is happening in society and the resources available. Although we welcome the drug strategy in principle, we question whether the resources or the will is there to make its worthy aims real and manifest.

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I suspect that the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and I will have sympathy with my hon. Friend the Minister, given the bounds within which she has had to present this strategy to the House. She presented the strategy with candour; my only concern is whether she really believes in it. As I will discuss, the evidence from around the world is that the approach within the strategy is profoundly mistaken and simply not working.

I rather suspect that the speech made by the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) will have disappointed those behind her the most: here was an opportunity really to engage in thinking on this issue and to persuade us to consider the actual evidence from around the world. I fear that the right hon. Lady opted for the “safety first” routine: she will have avoided disagreeable headlines about the Opposition’s drug policy in the Daily Mail. As I shall come on to say, we need a space in which we can properly consider the issue. The kernel of my argument is that we need a royal commission to assess our drugs policy, to get it to the right place.

President Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971. Nearly half a century later, I defy anyone to disagree that it has been a global public policy catastrophe. We desperately need a new approach and a completely different strategy. Although I welcome the emphasis that the Government strategy puts on improving treatment and recovery for users, it also rehearses the same failed arguments for prohibition and criminalisation that have patently failed. The measure of that failure is spelt out in the strategy itself: it tells us that in England and Wales the number of deaths from drug misuse registered in 2015 increased by 10.3% to 2,479. That follows an increase of 14.9% in the previous year and 19.6% the year before that. Deaths involving heroin—about half the total—more than doubled from 2012 to 2015, as the right hon. Lady mentioned. The strategy also informs us that, each year in the United Kingdom, drugs cost society £10.7 billion in policing, healthcare and crime, with drug-fuelled theft alone costing £6 billion a year.

I am delighted that the Government have published these figures. When I was the criminal justice Minister, between 2010 and 2012, the Ministry of Justice would not provide the numbers to me, directly or otherwise. In the end, I got Bob Ainsworth, a former drugs policy Minister, to table a written parliamentary question to me as a way of eliciting the numbers from the Government. I am fine about their being on the public record now: we can see the cost of our failure of public policy in this area.

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The hon. Gentleman is noted for his candour on this subject and the House respects him for it. Until 1968 we ran what was widely known throughout the world as the British system: GPs prescribed diamorphine hydrochloride and cocaine hydrochloride. We had nothing like the number of deaths today because of the purity of the product. Now the cause of death is impurity and differentiated supplies.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it has been almost impossible to have a rational, sensible and sane debate on this subject? The 1968 legislation was a panicked reaction, fuelled by the most reactionary forces. As a humble individual on these Benches, I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept my wholehearted support for his excellent idea that a royal commission should consider this issue. Frankly, there is not a country in the world that does not have a drug problem, and there is certainly no victory in the so-called war on drugs.

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I wholly agree. If the evidence of failure is clear in the United Kingdom, the problem is dramatically worse in other countries of the world. However, even in the UK, as page 16 of the strategy makes clear, drugs are

“a significant threat to our national security.”

There is a way of dealing with the problem.

Ever since prohibition or criminalisation of illicit drug use was enshrined in the 1961 UN convention on narcotic drugs, we have been fighting a losing battle to stem the global drugs trade. As is increasingly recognised—especially in Latin America, where many leaders are crying out for their societies to be rescued from the malign fall-out from a multi-billion dollar criminal industry—eradication, interdiction and criminalisation of consumption have failed. We have left the manufacture and supply in the hands of organised criminals and treated their victims—many of whom are vulnerable members of our society and many of whom have mental illnesses—as criminals, and they are unable or unwilling to seek medical help due to the illegality, exclusion and stigma.

I hope that hon. Members will reflect on this simple statistic: between 2006 and 2013, 111,000 people died in the Mexican drug war—as a result not of drug consumption, but of the wars over the control of this vast industry. Building on the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, convened by former Presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, the Global Commission on Drug Policy has opened a public discussion about the association between the drug trade, violence and corruption.

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I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. He has talked about the number of people who have lost their lives through violence in Latin America. Does he agree that the policy engenders violence in our own communities—particularly poor communities—in this country? The only way in which the supply to a particular community can be maintained is through the use of extreme violence. Does that not add to the case for much needed reform?

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Unsurprisingly, I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman.

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I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I declare an interest: I used to prosecute national-level drug barons. We are talking about gun-toting criminals, who think nothing of shooting each other and the people who carry their drugs for them. What on earth does my hon. Friend think their reaction will be to the idea of drugs being regulated? Does he really think that these awful people are suddenly going to become law-abiding citizens?

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I shall come to my hon. Friend’s point directly. We have set up the business model that those people use. The value of that business model is why people go to the lengths they do to kill so many in trying to maintain control.

I come back to commending the work of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which has advocated a balanced, comprehensive and evidence-based debate on drugs, focusing on humane and effective solutions to reduce the harm caused by drugs to individuals and societies. Last year, it succeeded in getting the issue back on the international agenda at the United Nations General Assembly special session. Tragically, however, the regressive voices upholding prohibition and criminalisation stopped the endorsement of a new approach. All the while, however, more and more countries are starting new policies, while we lag behind.

Decriminalisation of personal possession is proving to have significant effects in reducing harm where it has been tried. In Portugal, where the possession of small amounts of drugs has been de-penalised since 2001, there is now a clear political consensus behind the policy. The data show that decriminalisation has not led to increased drug usage rates—in fact, in numerous categories, Portuguese usage rates are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly in comparison with states with stringent criminalisation regimes. Drug-related pathologies, such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to misuse, have decreased dramatically as the Government are able to offer treatment programmes without having to drag users into the criminal justice system, where it becomes even harder to manage addiction and abuse. The focus is public health; penalties are used only if considered necessary and productive.

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My hon. Friend is being generous in allowing me to intervene. I refer again to my experience in the criminal courts. We tried that experiment in this country, when David Blunkett downgraded the classification of cannabis. The impact of that on the ground in magistrates courts up and down the country was terrible. Young people were coming to court with very severe mental health problems because of their use of cannabis. We tried the experiment and it failed.

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It has not failed. If we adjust one part of the system and move from a categorisation of B to C, as we did with cannabis, then that sends a message about usage and the rest. However, if the supply of cannabis is in the hands of people who are not going to tell people what is in it, or educate them as to the effect it is going to have on their mind, it is hardly surprising that we see a massive increase in schizophrenia caused by the use of these drugs, because people do not know what they are buying and we are not in a position to educate them properly about the consequences of their use. That is why there is a public health issue about getting a regulated supply into place whereby we could educate people at the point of purchase. I will come on to talk about the relationship between the dealer and his interest in how he deals with his client base in a regulated and licensed system.

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Having been in the House at the time of David Blunkett’s change in the category of cannabis, and very much involved with it, I remember that everyone predicted an increase in cannabis use when the classification was changed. That did not happen. In fact, there was a reduction in the use of cannabis when the penalties were less. Contrary to all the expectations, and the great argument we hear in this place, it is not the drugs that are killing people—it is prohibition that is killing people.

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While I am obviously minded to agree with the hon. Gentleman, the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) and the Government are putting forward in trying to send a message should be considered somewhere so that we can go through the evidence. That is very difficult to do in a charged environment where the tabloid press will be seeking to send a message if we are perceived to be weak in this area of public policy. Yet hundreds of thousands of people across the world are dying because this policy is in the wrong place globally. I rather hope that a royal commission here in the United Kingdom could assist us in getting to a place where, based on evidence, we can begin to lead the international debate.

As well as the decriminalisation of personal possession, we ought to consider the merits of a legal, regulated market taken out of the control of organised crime. A recent report by the drugs policy think-tank Volteface makes the case for a legal, regulated cannabis market in the UK to improve support, guidance and access to treatment for people experiencing problematic cannabis use. It found that the current illegal and unregulated market means that cannabis users are hidden from health practitioners, leaving them

“fumbling around in the dark trying to find them”.

Among people showing signs of cannabis dependence, only 14.6% have ever received treatment, help or support specifically because of their drug use, and 5.5% had received it in the previous six months. The report says a regulated market would provide

“opportunities for more public guidance, packaging controls, products which vary in potency, research into cannabis culture and consumption to improve interventions, and reduced stigma to enable access to services.”

I am sorry to say that the drug dealers reading the strategy and watching this debate will simply laugh at us. We are doing nothing to undermine their basic business model. By ensuring that supply is criminal, we have created a highly lucrative, criminal black market for the distribution and sale of drugs, worth an estimated £4.6 billion per year in the United Kingdom—and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and Europol estimate that the global market is worth $435 billion a year. That is an astonishing amount of money, and it is hardly surprising that people arm themselves, and fight and kill, to try to maintain their share of that market.

Drugs are believed to account for some 20% of all crime proceeds, with about 50% of all organised crime groups believed to be involved in drugs, and about half of transnational organised crime proceeds derive from the drugs trade. Profit margins are enormous, with 100-fold increases in price from production to retail. Exploited customers, trapped in addiction—indeed, having been encouraged and incentivised there by the criminal dealer—turn to crime to pay the inflated prices. Those using heroin, cocaine or crack cocaine are estimated to commit between a third and a half of all acquisitive crime. Drug dealers vie with one another to gain market exclusivity in their domains, leading to further appalling gang violence.

Yet that is only part of the story, as the uncomfortable truth is that respect for our laws is diminished when large swathes of the population can see no difference between their recreational drugs of choice and their recreational use of alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol prohibition was an acknowledged public policy disaster when it was tried in the United States in the 1920s. If the state or its licensed agents became a benign, regulated monopoly supplier instead, that would smash the drug dealer’s business model. Proceeds from sales or taxation of sales would pay for treatment and public health education. We would protect people because they would know what they were buying.

Instead of more of the same, we should be brave enough to be at the forefront of international thinking. Legalisation, licensing and regulation may be radical ideas for the United Kingdom, but forms of decriminalisation are already being widely put into practice in Europe and in North America and Latin America. The merits of other countries’ approaches, and the extensive work of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, warrant proper consideration in British public debate and policy making. A royal commission would be able to do that. It would be the most appropriate way to consider fully and carefully the complex issues involved and all the policy options, exploring best practice abroad and responding to increasing calls here and internationally for a truly new strategy.

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It is a pleasure to take part in today’s general debate on drugs policy—a very important issue that affects every community, class and creed in the country. The scourge of drugs misuse and its associated criminal and antisocial behaviours has been a blight on too many of our cities, towns and villages for far too long.

Only last week, I conducted a home visit to a distraught family who were coming to terms with the tragic loss of a young man from drug misuse—a thoroughly decent family who had tried to get help for their loved one, but sadly were not successful in time. I will not go into the specific details, but a grieving mother and sister explained about the physical and behavioural changes they observed, and about their loved one stealing from other family members and the general antisocial behaviour that ensued. This story is not uncommon across any of our communities.

That set of circumstances brought home to me why we need aggressively to tackle the forces of organised crime, who are making millions from human misery—effective enforcement against the dealers is a key factor in the war against drugs—while sympathetically addressing the health and safety of users, and with greater emphasis on prevention and harm reduction rather than punitive punishments. Once criminalised, these victims can often face further life challenges and stigmatisation, all of which can result in users finding it harder to recover and to move on from drug problems and addiction, in some cases even trapping them in a self-destructive cycle.

As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, health and justice, which are key areas in any joined-up drugs policy, are devolved to Scotland. The regulation of all proscribed drugs remains a reserved issue, and the policy is set by the UK Government. There is a strong argument that drugs policy should also be devolved to Scotland. The Minister herself referred to a joined-up, whole-policy approach, and that would be easier to achieve in a Scottish context if we had all the levers of policy. However, the Scottish Government continue to work with the Home Office to implement a series of actions against drug misuse in Scotland.

It is estimated that drug misuse costs society in Scotland £3.5 billion a year. That is very similar to the impact of alcohol misuse, which is estimated to cost £3.6 billion a year. Combined, this amounts to about £1,800 for every adult. In 2008, the SNP Government published the current national drugs strategy for Scotland, “The Road to Recovery”, which set out a new strategic direction for tackling drug misuse based on treatment services promoting recovery. The strategy continues to receive cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament. Evidence has shown that drug taking in the general population is falling, with misuse among young people at its lowest in a decade. However, drug deaths are currently at their highest. The approach taken recognises the importance of supporting families, and the number of family support organisations across Scotland is growing. In addition, several national organisations have been established or commissioned to support delivery of the strategy. They include the Scottish Recovery Consortium, which was established to drive and promote recovery for individuals, family members and communities affected by drugs, as well as Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol & Drugs and the recently launched Partnership for Action on Drugs in Scotland.

The Scottish Government also work with Scotland’s 38 alcohol and drug partnerships, which bring together local partners, including health boards, local authorities, police and voluntary agencies. They are responsible for developing local strategies for tackling problem alcohol and drug use, and promoting recovery, based on an assessment of local needs. A good example is the current Glasgow city health and social care partnership proposals for a pilot safer drug consumption and heroin assisted treatment facility in the city centre. The latest iteration of its business case was presented to the HSCP on 21 June 2017. The facility is designed to service the needs of an estimated 400 to 500 individuals who inject publicly in the city centre and experience high levels of harm. In particular, it is anticipated that the facility will significantly reduce the risk of further outbreaks of blood-borne viruses.

In 2015 there were 157 drug-related deaths in the Glasgow City Council area—up from 114 the previous year—and 132 of them involved an opiate or opioid. The recent rise in deaths is concerning and not unique to Glasgow. I am grateful to the Transform Drug Policy Foundation for its briefing, which informed me that around a third of Europe’s drug misuse deaths occur in the UK. We all need to do something to address this challenge. The British Medical Association and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs have indicated their support for pursuing safer drug consumption proposals to promote harm reduction. Although that remains a matter for authorities in Glasgow to take forward, the Scottish Government will subsequently consider any formal proposal that is brought to their attention for consideration.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is reserved legislation, so any proposal is dependent on authorities in Glasgow making a formal request to the Lord Advocate to vary prosecution guidance. It would make sense to devolve all drugs policy to Scotland, to allow the Scottish Parliament to legislate on it and other issues.

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The Scottish Government have followed entirely the Tory Government’s approach on recovery-based treatment, as opposed to NHS treatment. Why would devolving power make a ha’pence of difference, when all the SNP has done is to adopt Tory policies and their consequential failures?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, but I am saying that it would be another tool in our armoury that might allow future drugs policy to go in a different direction. We can only work within the current constraints. At its conference last year, the Scottish National party backed the decriminalisation of cannabis for medicinal use, but that is another issue currently reserved to Westminster, so we cannot go down that line.

A few years ago, a survey conducted by Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol & Drugs found that peer support was an important part of the recovery process. It also found that despite the pressures most families wait at least two years before seeking help—a delay that can prove fatal, as evidenced by the constituents I mentioned earlier. Their loved one had been using for about six months, by their own reckoning, prior to his death.

In my area we have a wide range of support services. In Linlithgow, the 1st Step Café is run by people who are in recovery, and who now help others living with the effects of addiction. Across West Lothian, the social work addictions team—known as SWAT—supports those affected by drugs or alcohol to plan for recovery, and promotes goal-focused work to make positive changes. In the Falkirk and Forth valley area, Addictions Support and Counselling assists with community rehabilitation and recovery.

Undoubtedly for the users, their families and local communities, recovery is the key, but it cannot work on its own. It has to be coupled with education about the dangers and about harm reduction, and with public health measures—improving access to treatment and reducing waiting times. In short, the issue is no longer simply one of law enforcement, although tackling the supply of drugs and drug-related anti-social behaviour will, I suspect, remain a permanent feature of our societies for some considerable time.

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I very much welcome the strategy, with its emphasis on effectively treating and, even more importantly, preventing substance misuse problems. I welcome the acknowledgement that national and local government have a clear responsibility to improve public health with regard to addictions. Indeed, because such problems often affect the most vulnerable in society, this is a matter of social justice. I welcome the strategy’s recognition of that, and of the clear and very sad links between substance misuse and a range of other issues: underperformance at school and later exclusion from the job market, domestic abuse, mental ill health, sexual exploitation, homelessness and imprisonment.

I welcome the recognition of the need for a joined-up, partnership approach to address those issues. I implore local government to ensure that, as some local authorities do, individuals receive support from one lead caseworker rather than from a confusing mix of social workers and agencies. I heard of one family who had to cope—yes, cope is the right word—with 26 different local agencies trying to help them.

I particularly welcome the strategy’s focus on helping the most vulnerable young people, such as those in care, those on the streets, those in the criminal justice system or at risk of entering it, those in troubled families and young girls at risk of entering prostitution. We know how pimps use drugs to enslave young girls, particularly those who have been trafficked. I welcome the strategy’s prioritisation of helping those young people, many of whom have never had a first chance in life. The strategy’s approach is designed to give them the chance they need to live a life of self-worth, free of the devastating impact of substance misuse.

I particularly welcome the Minister’s statement that we must look at mental health and substance misuse together, and the recognition of the key role that parents and families can play in the treatment and prevention of substance misuse. Family breakdown—or, if not breakdown, chaotic or dysfunctional family relationships —must surely be one of the key reasons, if not the key reason, for young people seeking comfort in drugs. I welcome the inclusion in the strategy of the need to support families in their own right, with the suggestion:

“Evidence-based psychological interventions which involve family members should be available locally and local areas should ensure that the support needs of families and carers affected by drug misuse are appropriately met.”

That echoes a comment piece that I wrote for this week’s The House magazine about young people’s mental health problems, in which I said that we need to do much more to strengthen family relationships and offer holistic family support, engaging parents, carers or wider family members. If we are to do that, there needs to be substantial growth in the number of people in local authority services trained to provide relationship and family support, and to provide appropriate counselling and help for young people in such difficulties. I am glad, too, that the strategy recognises that the reality of harm experienced by substance abusers’ families is significant, and that families need help as well.

I am chair of the all-party group on alcohol harm. I recognise that the strategy contains recommendations for joined-up action on alcohol and drugs, and that areas of the strategy apply to both. As we have heard this afternoon, however, we need to do more. Statistics illustrate the extent of the harm caused by alcohol. In 2015 there were 2,479 deaths from drug misuse. In the same year, there were 23,000 alcohol-related deaths. Drug deaths equate to only 10% of the number of deaths caused by alcohol. We must rise to the challenge of providing sufficient resources and setting out a clear Government alcohol strategy. The current strategy is more than five years old, and much has changed in that time—yet, sadly, much has stayed the same.

I would particularly like the Government to address the impact of alcoholic parents or carers on children. An estimated 2.5 million children in this country live with problematic drinkers. In a debate on alcohol harm that I secured on 2 February, Members gave deeply moving accounts of living as children with alcoholic parents and carers. Those of us in the Chamber very much welcomed the response of the then Under-Secretary of State for Health, the former Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, who said that she would look into the matter. I ask the Minister to take back to her successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), a request for further progress, because the very important and specific issue of children living with problematic drinkers has not been sufficiently addressed.

Evidence shows that spending money on treatment is effective, with every £1 invested generating £2.50 of savings for society. Yet only 6% of dependent drinkers in this country actually access treatment. It is vital that we recognise the need to review the alcohol strategy. The current level of alcohol harm illustrates the need to do so urgently. If Members will bear with me, I want to go into this in a little more detail. The harm caused by alcohol consumption extends not just to the families of the individuals involved but to wider society. It often harms innocent bystanders, such as those injured in road traffic accidents or patients needing treatment for serious illnesses who have to wait because precious NHS resources are being used to tackle the issue. It affects us all as taxpayers through the tax bills we pay, and it affects the emergency services.

Just a few months ago, our all-party group produced a report, “The Frontline Battle”, on the impact of the misuse of alcohol on those who serve us in the emergency services. Some of the stories about emergency services staff being assaulted are heartrending. I therefore welcome the private Member’s Bill, which I understand will be presented by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) tomorrow, to address assaults on emergency services staff. However, we cannot address that without also looking at the fact that so many of those attacks are caused by alcohol abuse.

There has never been a greater need for robust Government action to tackle the massive problem resulting from alcohol consumption. That has been evidenced by the Public Health England report, which has already been mentioned, that was published in December 2016 at the specific request of the former Prime Minister David Cameron. It paints a bleak picture: 10 million people are currently drinking at levels that are increasing their risk of health harm. Devastatingly, it finds that for those aged 15 to 49 in England—those of working age—alcohol is now the leading risk factor for ill health, early mortality and disability. There are now over 1 million hospital admissions relating to alcohol each year, half of which involve those in the lowest three socioeconomic deciles. Alcohol-related mortality has increased, particularly for liver disease, which has increased by 400% since 1970. We need a strategy because 167,000 years of working life were lost to alcohol in 2015. Alcohol is more likely to kill people during their working lives than many other causes of death—in other words, it causes premature deaths. Alcohol accounts for 10% of the UK’s burden of disease and death, and in the past three decades there has been a threefold rise in alcohol-related deaths.

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I very much share the hon. Lady’s concerns about the danger of alcohol and the damage it causes to society. Does she support the case for a minimum unit price for alcohol? It could act as a deterrent, particularly to prevent young and disadvantaged people from ending up with all the consequences that flow from excess alcohol use.

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I agree. In fact, the introduction of minimum unit pricing was the very first recommendation in the 2012 strategy. The most recent review states that it

“is a highly targeted measure which ensures tax increases are passed on to the consumer and improves the health of the heaviest drinkers. These people are experiencing the greatest amount of harm.”

Increasing the price of alcohol would save lives, but would not penalise moderate drinkers, so I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Public Health England very clearly states in its report that affordability is the lead factor in addressing health problems resulting from alcohol harm.

If I may, I will mention the issue, which again relates to cost, of white cider products, such as Frosty Jacks. They are almost exclusively drunk by the vulnerable, the young, the homeless and dependent drinkers—just the kind of people who, as I have said, need help. Just £3.50 buys a large bottle of white cider that is the equivalent of 22 shots of vodka. Time and again, homeless hostels tell us that that is what the people there drink and what, because of its high strength, causes their deaths. One of the most heartrending meetings I have attended in the House was when a mother came to talk to our all-party group about her teenage daughter. This happy, carefree young girl had gone out one night, but when she got back she told her mum that she did not feel very well. Her mum said, “Well, have a drink of water. I’ll put you to bed, and we’ll see how you are in the morning.” When her mum went into her room in the morning, she was dead. She had drunk three bottles of white cider, which means that she had drunk well over 60 shots of vodka in one evening. That is the devastation this drink can cause.

Ciders of 7.5% alcohol by volume attract the lowest duty per unit of any product, at 5p, compared with 18p per unit for beer of equivalent strength. There simply is no reason not to increase the duty on white cider and so save some of these young lives. Some 66% of the public support such a policy. It is a matter of social justice, so I ask the Minister to go back to the Treasury. I know that the former Member for Battersea looked at the issue in the last Parliament, and I ask the Minister to go back to her successor and ask for progress to save these young lives before any more families suffer as the one I have described did.

Another key intervention for an alcohol strategy is to improve the training of GPs and other people working in clinical centres, so that they can give very brief additional advice on how to prevent alcohol harm. For example, just during the few moments when someone is having their blood pressure tested, they can have a short conversation about how much alcohol they are drinking and suggest that a couple of days off a week to rest their liver would not be a bad idea. We need to pursue such improvements to prevent the kind of damage suffered by so many people in the country through excessive alcohol drinking. No one that I am aware of in our group is saying that people should not drink alcohol; this is about drinking alcohol responsibly.

I want to close by borrowing the words of our former Prime Minister in his foreword to the 2012 alcohol strategy:

“We can’t go on like this.”

He was right, but insufficient action has been taken since. Things have not improved—rather the opposite—so I call on the Government to save lives and reduce harm for us all by revising the alcohol strategy. We cannot have a successful long-term approach to substance misuse without looking at both alcohol and drugs.

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Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to make my maiden speech within such an important debate. I commend the previous speakers, hon. Members, for the eloquence with which they have delivered their strong message on the drugs debate.

I first wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, Fiona Mactaggart, for her two decades of determined and dedicated service for our constituency. She, along with her predecessors, are very fondly remembered by the people of Slough for their honourable service. I will try to emulate them by becoming a hard-working MP for my constituents, because that is what Slough deserves.

Slough is a major cultural and creative hub, with one of the highest numbers of corporate and start-up companies and headquarters anywhere in the country. Slough trading estate, for instance, is the largest singly owned industrial estate, providing more than 17,000 jobs. Having run my own small start-up construction business, I appreciate how hard businesses need to work to succeed and become the engine of our economy. Home to some of the top-performing state schools in the country and with superb infrastructure links, I think hon. Members will agree with me that Slough has a very bright future. I am from the silicon valley of England.

We have a vibrant and diverse community, with Kashmiris living harmoniously side by side with Punjabis and those with Irish, Polish and African-Caribbean ancestry. Indeed, it is the world in microcosm.

However, juxtaposed with this idyllic scenario of low unemployment is the fact that we have some of the highest levels of homelessness, child obesity and malnutrition in the country. There is a lack of affordable and social housing, and that is why I need to work closely with Slough’s Labour-run council to help deliver for our residents. But we need to achieve that economic progress for all, while caring for our environment.

Slough is a town of firsts. It elected the UK’s first ever black lady mayor and now, more than three decades later, it has elected the first ever turbaned Sikh to the British Parliament—indeed, I believe, the first ever to be elected to any European Parliament. A glass ceiling has truly been broken. I sincerely hope that many more like me will follow in the years and decades to come.

The enormity of what has been collectively achieved has not escaped me. The hand of history—the huge excitement, anticipation and sheer expectations—weigh heavily on my shoulders. Among the literally thousands of good-will messages from around the globe, one individual very succinctly put it:

“I feel really happy, because finally there is someone that looks like me, sitting in Parliament.”

However, I was most overwhelmed during a recent trip up north, when an elderly gentleman walked up to me with tears streaming down his eyes and said, “I’m proud, son, because I didn’t think that I would see this in my lifetime.”

It is about a sense of belonging—when you get bullied at school for looking different, when you stand out from the crowd. It is a case of being respected and embraced by your fellow countrymen and women, including within the highest echelons of the establishment. What could demonstrate greater embrace than being elected to serve and sit on these green Benches in this august House in the mother of all Parliaments?

In addition to human rights abuses elsewhere in the world, forget being embraced, even acceptability is still a huge problem, for example in our neighbouring France. I find it extremely disappointing and incredibly ironic that more than 80,000 turbaned Sikh soldiers died—yes, died; not injured—laid down their lives to liberate the very country where their descendants cannot even have their ID photos taken without having to remove their turbans, and cannot even send their children to most state schools without removing their turbans. This same warped interpretation of secularism precludes Muslims from wearing their hijabs and niqabs, Jews from wearing their skull caps and Christians from wearing their crosses. Acceptability is still a problem in advanced nations, such as our close ally the United States, where several Sikhs have been shot dead because of mistaken identity—mistaken for being terrorists.

The only way to fight such ignorance, to overcome the politics of hate and division, including the Islamophobia that is so prevalent in certain sections of our society and media, is to call it out and condemn it, and to espouse the politics of integration. These are not just hollow words; I believe strongly in community cohesion and integration. When I served as mayor in 2011, integration was my mayoral theme. The message that I consistently took out to our schools, our various faith groups and the wider community was that we should all be proud of our own distinct identity, whatever that may be, but that we should also be proud of our shared heritage, and for those of us who were born and brought up in Britain, are British nationals, we should also be proud to be British. I thought it was particularly pertinent that I should deliver that message, because I belong to a “minority” community.

None the less, being distinct or standing out from the crowd has its own distinct advantages. I, for one, Mr Speaker, am very much hoping that these brightly coloured turbans will act as a magnet as you repeatedly point towards the Member for Slough to make his invaluable contributions to proceedings in this House. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

Whilst I am proud to be a Sikh, I will be serving in the true Sikh spirit of “sarbat da bhalla”—working for the betterment of all, regardless of background, or colour or creed. As I stand here today, I do feel immensely proud to be British; to be part of the most diverse Parliament ever, wherein more women MPs, more ethnic minorities, more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and more people with disabilities have been elected than ever before. While further work of course needs to be done by the political parties, the British public can rightly be proud of this, their achievement.

While faith, family and community have been central to my life, there is one more thing that has been pivotal in my life and will no doubt continue to guide me in the coming years—Labour values: of equality and social justice; of delivering high-quality public services; of being part of a society where we are truly in it together, looking out for and sharing with others; of solidarity, as expressed by unions of hard-working people; of co-operative and internationalist values; of free quality education, including higher education, for all; and of free quality health and social care for all, free at the point of need, the zenith of which was the formation of the NHS.

My grandfather, a retired teacher and committed socialist, explained to me at a very young age what Labour did for him and his family: “They treated us as equals and just because we have a few bob in our pockets, it does not mean that we’ll now abandon them.” While others were busy making speeches on “rivers of blood” and trading with an apartheid Government, Labour was speaking up for people like him and standing in solidarity with black South Africans. It is very easy to pay platitudes to Nelson Mandela, a personal hero of mine, when the whole world regards him as a hero, but to stand in solidarity with him and his people when the chips are truly down takes immense courage. That is what Labour does best.

To conclude, having been born locally, when my father worked at the Langley Ford factory and my mother worked for a local petrol pump company on Farnham Road, little could they have imagined that their son—the son of immigrants—would go on to serve as the town’s MP. Indeed, little could I have imagined that my constituency office would be just a stone’s throw away from where I spent my early years on Lorne Close in Chalvey. From such humble beginnings, it is with great humility that I take on this august office. After the faith they have placed in me, I really hope to make the people of Slough proud of their MP, as I seek to serve my constituency and my country.

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I commend the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi)—or, should I say, for the silicon valley of Europe?—on his excellent maiden speech. It was thoughtful and thought-provoking, and I am sure that I am joined by colleagues on both sides of the House in looking forward to his contributions in the future.

I must first declare an interest, because my husband works for a company that has a Home Office licence to grow non-psychoactive versions of cannabis to treat epileptic conditions in children. It is groundbreaking work, but I thought I should declare it, given that I will be talking about the psychoactive version of cannabis in due course—a very different substance.

I welcome the new strategy and the joined-up approach by Government to tackling the problem of drugs in our local communities and on a national and international scale. Although my hon. Friend the Minister and others were good enough to take interventions from me about my experience in the criminal courts, I share with them the hope that we can find more international solutions to tackling the problem of drugs. It is not just a problem in the United Kingdom: sadly, it is a problem that pretty much every country faces. We will have to improve our relations internationally if we are to have any chance to tackle the growers and dealers on an international scale.

As I have mentioned, before my election I worked as a criminal barrister. In my early days, that meant that I often used to defend young people afflicted with drug addictions in youth courts and magistrates courts. As I rose up the ranks, I began to prosecute high-level drug cases—the sorts of cases that are stories in the newspapers, with international drug barons who supply the first tier of the market in this country, which then disseminates the drugs regionally and eventually down to the street. It goes without saying that the tonnes of cocaine, heroin and cannabis that featured in the cases on which I worked were of a very different purity from the substances that would be bought on the street. Like any efficient—I hesitate to use that word—business model, criminals diversify. They pad out the product as much as they can to try to increase their profits.

One of the most fascinating witnesses I have ever called in a criminal trial was the Metropolitan police’s expert witness on the business of drugs. The idea that the drugs industry is run by anything other than consummate professionals—ruthless and evil, but none the less professionals—cannot be gainsaid. Like legitimate companies, these people have branding, and send out testers to their best purchasers. They are utterly ruthless in the way they sell their product, and that is why I do not share the optimism of others about tackling the problem through regulation—I will say more on that later.

The high-level criminal gangs that operate in these markets do not only import drugs. Having a method of importing drugs means having a way of importing guns and ammunition and, sadly, smuggling people in. Those drug gangs have a host of criminal behaviours to try to spot flaws in law enforcement across the European Union. They find the holes and they exploit them to make huge profits.

Other hon. Members have talked about alcohol, which creates its own harms, and I understand that. However, I urge a note of caution when comparing class A drugs to alcohol. When a drinks company legally makes an alcoholic drink, it is an efficient process with factories, licensing and so on. The reality of the drugs market—and one I fear cannot be changed—is that by definition the drugs that cause the most harm, heroin and cocaine, cannot be grown in this country, which means that they must be grown overseas in nations that tend to be poorer, such as Mexico, Colombia and Iraq.

Those drugs then have to get into this country. That happens in a variety of ways, but the most distressing for me—and it is one we should perhaps educate our young people more about—is the use of swallowers. There are various drug routes from Colombia and Mexico, and they usually pass through the Caribbean. Young people, and sometimes children, are persuaded or forced to swallow condoms full of cocaine or heroin. They are sent by air to major airports in Europe and then bounced into the United Kingdom. One has to hope beyond hope that those young people are caught by customs officials at Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton or wherever they end up, because that is their best chance. If they are caught by customs, they are taken to a customs facility with special—I am phrasing this carefully, because I am conscious this is a public sitting—lavatory facilities to enable the condoms of cocaine to leave the human body. They are watched as that happens by customs officials because, for evidential reasons, we need to know which evidence came which person. Obviously, they are in great pain as the condoms leave their bodies, because the human body is not made to pass such objects.

The lucky swallowers are caught by customs and dealt with officially—protected, I have to say—by customs officials. The worst-case scenario for the swallowers is to pass customs, meet the dealers and be taken to their headquarters. In unsanitary and unpleasant conditions, they are forced to try to pass the condoms. If they do not pass them, the dealers have a decision to make. They have as much as £50,000 of profit in a swallower’s stomach—how are they to get it out? It is not pretty. They are ruthless and violent, so they use a knife to get the profit out of that person’s stomach. That fact is not often reported, which surprises me because if we could communicate to people who use cocaine that that is how it ends up in that wrap in their club or wherever they buy it, they might pause for a moment.

I know that some hon. Members will say that is why we need to regulate and take the criminals out of that market. I can understand that view, but my experience from the courts means that I do not see how we will persuade people who are ruthless enough to gut another human being like a fish to follow a law-abiding existence. Forgive me for being a beacon of pessimism, but I just do not see how we can do it.

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What is the alternative? Do we allow them to continue to behave in that way, or stand up against them?

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That is a perfectly proper question. The only solution I have come up with—and I am a person, not a think-tank or a Home Office official—is to continue and increase our pressure on criminal gangs. We are getting better at it, but we need to work internationally with other countries. We could do more in some of the countries I have mentioned to try to remove the financial attraction of giving a field over to opium poppies.

I take that approach rather than the “let’s regulate it” approach—apart from my cynicism that the dealers will withdraw from criminal activity—because of the nature of addiction. When I used to mitigate for young people in the criminal courts, I would try to explain the addiction in the following way. I think that it takes three forms. There is the physical addiction, in which the body craves the next fix. There is also the mental addiction: “How can I cope? How can I get through the day, the week, without my next fix, my few fixes?” But there is also the social addiction.

If you are in such a dark place that you are addicted to a class A substance, you will probably not be hanging out with people who are not also addicted. We know that people gather to share instruments, substances and so on. That is a social addiction, and it must be challenged. I hope that that will happen, and I am very encouraged by what I have seen in the drugs strategy. At present, when a prisoner is released from a certain prison in south London—I will not name it—the dealers line up on the avenue outside the prison saying, “Oh, hello, old friend, you are back, would you like a fix on me?” If we can break that social addiction, it will help such people to break the addiction overall.

I welcome the idea of a national recovery champion, and all the other ideas in the drugs strategy, because we are finally looking properly at the ill effects of addiction as well as the law enforcement side. However, I still strongly believe that we must focus on the criminal aspect. It is possible that, in the event of regulation or decriminalisation, some addicts would be able to make the journey to the local chemist, or wherever it might be, to pick up their doses, but I fear that the social addiction and the pressure of the dealer would still play a part. The dealer would say to the addict, “Oh, well, you may be getting your fix from the chemist or wherever, but you really want to buy your fix from me, don’t you?”

Given the mental and the social addiction and the threats that dealers are quite prepared to use, I fear that there will be a black market, and there is evidence to suggest that that would happen. We know that, sadly, when heroin users are prescribed methadone, they are not always able to withstand the enticements of their dealers. That may be partly because they want to carry on using heroin, but I worry that the regulation/decriminalisation strategy will allow the dealers to carry on dealing on the streets.

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There is a black market in tobacco and there is a black market in alcohol, but most people do not obtain their tobacco and their alcohol from the black market. Is it not the case that there would be less temptation, and that over time there would be a reduction in the number of people using dealers?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because the subject of counterfeit cigarettes was next on my list. Again, I speak from personal experience. I prosecuted a criminal gang who, at the time, controlled the counterfeit cigarette market in the north of England. When the customs knocked out that gang—they did fantastically well: they got the guy at the very top as well as the distributors at the bottom—that knocked out the counterfeit cigarette market in the north of England for six months. After that, however, another gang came in and filled the vacuum. I do not have to hand the figures on usage of counterfeit cigarettes, but it is a fact that many people seek them out, not least because cigarettes are generally priced very highly—and rightly so, because we want people to stop smoking. Although I do not have the figures now, I remember reading them when I was dealing with that case. It is compelling to see many people use counterfeit cigarettes.

We know that there is also a growing market in counterfeit alcohol. In the last six months, corner shops have been warned that they need to be aware of very good reproductions of certain brands of vodka. The vodka that people may be buying in good faith from their local shop is, in fact, far more alcoholic than they would expect. I hope that, if nothing else, I am explaining my worries about how complex the position is, and demonstrating that we cannot just rely on the idea of regulation and decriminalisation.

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Is the hon. Lady not impressed by the simple fact that, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), in 1971 fewer than 1,000 people in this country were addicted to heroin and cocaine, and there were virtually no deaths because those people were receiving their heroin from the health service? After 46 years of the harshest prohibition in Europe, we now have 320,000 addicts. Is it not true that prohibition creates the drug trade, creates the gangsters, and creates the deaths?

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I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has a long history of campaigning on this subject, which I respect. However, I am afraid that I must disagree with him. A very great deal has changed since 1971. Criminal gangs come to the United Kingdom from all over the world because the UK is much more densely populated than other countries, and they come here to sell drugs. I am sure that some Members sometimes want to turn the clock back to 1971, but I do not think we can do that. We now have to deal with the international movement of criminals and so on as it happens.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to other countries that have decriminalised drugs, and the impact that that has had on addiction rates. I know that in various American states that have decriminalised cannabis—which, obviously, is a different substance from heroin—there is evidence of a growing backlash against that decriminalisation. People may like the idea in principle, but when it comes to practicalities such as where the shop that sells the cannabis will be located in their towns—will it be the post office?—and whether advertising will be allowed near a school, they feel uncomfortable.

We need look no further than my own county. The city of Lincoln celebrated the Government’s introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 because it was fed up to the back teeth with having headshops all over the city. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman and I will never see eye to eye on this, but I do not think we can turn the clock back to 1971.

The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) cited Portugal and the number of drug deaths there. I assume that he took his figures from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which I think contains the latest statistics. It turns out that Romania has the lowest rate of deaths through drug use, followed by Portugal, and that Bulgaria and Turkey have the third and fourth lowest rates. I do not know, but I suspect that Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey do not have liberal policies on such matters as drug use decriminalisation. I urge Members to exercise a bit of caution when looking at those statistics, because decriminalisation may not be the whole answer.

We know that the potency of the psychoactive substance in cannabis has increased from an average of about 1% in the 1960s to about 11% in 2011. What on earth does that mean? According to my research, it is equivalent to an increase from one low-alcohol beer a day to a dozen shots of vodka a day. That is quite a jump in potency. Sadly, as we know, skunk can be even stronger, with up to 30% of tetrahydrocannabinol potency. As I mentioned earlier, we see the real impact in the criminal courts: we see young offenders with mental health issues who have also used skunk on a regular basis. Those are the people I want to protect. If we can persuade fewer young people to smoke dope or take drugs, that has a benefit for them and their families, and it has a huge benefit for the local community. We all know of the role that drugs play in onward crimes, committed to fund the next drugs purchase.

I am conscious that I have taken a long time and we have a very exciting maiden speech on its way. Although the international debate on how to deal with drugs continues, it is essential that the Government set out a strategy for what we do at home. I am really impressed by this drug strategy. I welcome in particular the introduction of a national recovery champion. It is a good idea to have someone looking over good and not so good practice. We may not agree on decriminalisation, but I am sure we all agree that healthcare must form part of the drug strategy. We have to be able to look after addicts to help them to get rid of their addiction. None the less, I am still a firm believer that law enforcement plays a vital role here and internationally in stopping the drug barons profiting from this terrible industry. I will support the Government in their efforts to stop it.

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May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on a really excellent speech? It was a privilege to be here for the first maiden speech by a brightly coloured turbaned Sikh. I am looking forward to a number of maiden speeches today. In my own maiden speech two years ago, I said among other things that I looked forward to arguing for reform of our drug laws. There has been very little chance to do so since then, so I welcome the debate today. However, unfortunately, the Government’s new drug strategy is a massive missed opportunity.

We do not get a new strategy very often. There is always the hope that it might contain some radical thinking. This strategy, sadly, offers little that is new. It is more of the same approach that is not working, that has seen an increase in drug-related deaths in the UK and that sees the UK responsible for nearly a third of Europe’s drug deaths.

My friend Cara’s son is five tomorrow. It will be his third birthday without his father Jake, who died of a heroin overdose. Cara wants to legalise drugs to end the stigma around drug use and to end the unnecessary criminalisation of drug users that made it so hard for her family to deal with Jake’s addiction, and makes it more difficult for people to seek help with drug problems.

The day after tomorrow, Thursday, will be the fourth anniversary of the death of 15-year-old Martha Cockburn, who died after taking ecstasy that turned out to be 91% pure; as a result, she died of an accidental overdose. Martha’s mum, Anne-Marie, who I think is in the Public Gallery, now campaigns for the legalisation and regulation of ecstasy, among other drugs. Martha died because there was no controlling measures on the substance that killed her and no way for Martha to check the safety of the substance she was using. Martha was failed by our approach to drug policy.

Many people who have been touched by the loss of loved ones want a more measured debate and a more rational approach to drug policy. Fifty people a week are dying of drug-related deaths in the UK—50 Marthas and Jakes. Our first duty in this place has to be to try to keep people safe and we are failing. The biggest missed opportunity in this strategy is the fact that we have not even considered decriminalisation or legalisation of some drugs as a solution to the problem. We have heard a number of times about Portugal, which decriminalised the use of drugs in 2001. Its drug-induced death rate is five times lower than the EU average. It had 16 overdose deaths last year and there has been a massive reduction in HIV infections.

In an article last week on the publication of the strategy, the Home Secretary said:

“We owe it to future generations to work together for a society free of drugs.”

Talk of a society free of drugs is a dangerous fantasy. Humans have taken drugs for thousands of years and are not going to stop because the Home Secretary produces a new strategy. It is a dangerous fantasy because it diverts attention and resources from the real challenge, which is how we make drug taking safer, how we educate users, how we reduce the consumption of dangerous drugs, how we take control of the drug trade from the criminals who want to exploit vulnerable users, and how we stop criminalising thousands of people unnecessa