House of Commons
Wednesday 6 September 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Queen’s Speech (Answer to Address)
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That her Majesty, having been attended with its Address of 29th June, was pleased to receive the same very graciously and give the following Answer:
I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Economic Opportunities: South Wales and the South-west
I am keen to strengthen the relationship between south Wales and the south-west. After all, Bristol is the most productive city in England outside of London. Abolishing the Severn tolls will strengthen the links between communities and help to transform the joint economic prospects of south Wales and the south-west of England.
Will the Secretary of State be a strong voice in Cabinet not just for Wales, but for the regions of our country, especially for places such as—oh, I don’t know—Cornwall? Will he also make sure that the shared prosperity fund is distributed fairly and on the basis of genuine need?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question because his area, like large parts of Wales, benefits from the current European Union structural funds. The shared prosperity fund offers great prospects of a much more streamlined approach to supporting some of the most needy parts of the United Kingdom. I am determined to ensure that the shared prosperity fund is a much more efficient delivery system with fair distribution around the UK—to serve my hon. Friend’s region, as well as Wales.
What would have strengthened Wales’s economic development links was the electrification of the railway between Cardiff and Swansea, which the previous Tory Prime Minister described as “vital”. By scrapping that, have not this Tory Government once again let down Wales?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that advances in bimodal technology mean that electrifying the line between Cardiff and Swansea would not save passengers any journey time. In fact, there would be significant disruption and delay, adding costs to travellers and businesses alike without any time saving. The advances in bimodal trains mean that we can take the most modern fleet of trains further in west Wales than we would otherwise with solely an electrified railway.
The scrapping of the Severn tolls is a huge benefit to businesses across Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is also of vast benefit to businesses in places such as Wiltshire, where HGV operators have been paying £20 a time to get across the Severn? All of a sudden, they will be able to do business in Wales much more profitably.
My hon. Friend has rightly recognised that scrapping the Severn tolls is a significant boost not only to the south Wales economy, but to the economy of the south-west of England. He welcomed it along with the South Wales chamber of commerce, Business West and many others. It seems that the only people who have not welcomed the scrapping of the Severn tolls are the Labour party and the Welsh Government.
The UK shared prosperity fund can do even more because we will not have the same restrictions that the European Commission puts on European structural funds. It hardly makes sense that some of the most deprived parts of Wales are excluded from the European structural funds map as it stands because of European rules. The UK shared prosperity fund allows us to introduce a much more efficient and responsive scheme.
One project that could provide significant economic opportunities on both sides of the Bristol channel is the provision of a regular ferry service between Ilfracombe in my constituency and south Wales. It has been considered by a commercial company. What support could the Wales Office give to that idea?
I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss the prospects. Like me, he recognises the major economic opportunities of binding the regions together. Between the south-west of England and the south Wales economy, we have one of the largest digital clusters and one of the best cyber-security clusters. We can do more to encourage economic growth, including the sorts of subject I have mentioned and tourism, which would benefit from the Severn crossing we have talked about.
I hold regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and the Welsh Government on improving transport infrastructure in Wales. The UK Government are investing significant sums in infrastructure, delivering improved journey times for passengers on the latest trains. This will provide tangible benefits to people and businesses in south Wales and boost access to jobs and new opportunities.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the question. Yes, I have discussed with Cabinet colleagues the need for investment in new stations in Wales. There is the prospect of new stations, and there is the prospect of further investment. I have met Cardiff Council to talk about that. I have spoken about it to the Welsh Government. I am keen to explore the opportunities that exist there, and also the opportunity to attract private investment, so I have also spoken to the private developer around that site.
Returning to the subject of electrification, it is true that the bi-mode trains are good, but they are a second-best solution. However, looking to the future and further rail infrastructure investment in Wales, does my right hon. Friend agree that there are major questions to be asked about Network Rail’s ability to deliver projects on time and control its costs? What more can be done to create a more competitive and cost-effective environment for rail infrastructure investment in Wales?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the efficiency of Network Rail. Earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee called on the Government to reassess the case for electrification on a section-by-section basis, partly as a result of the increased costs that have been delivered by Network Rail. However, to improve rail access to west Wales—to Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and other places—we have the opportunity to explore opportunities for new stations, which could well deliver bimodal trains on a regular basis to parts of Wales that do not access fast trains at the moment.
12. Following a delegation I led in 2014 of four councils, two universities, many AMs and MPs, industry and Admiral, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, pledged to extend electrification to Swansea, saying it would have a huge economic impact on developing employment in an area of neglected infrastructure, so will the Secretary of State stand up to the Prime Minister, as the previous Secretary of State did, and deliver the promises of the previous Prime Minister on electrification, which we so urgently need? (900700)
I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the new, most modern trains will be available and in service in Swansea within a few weeks. Swansea will benefit from the latest, most modern trains and from 15 minutes of saved journey time when the project is complete. There would be no time saving—in fact, there would be significant disruption to Swansea—if we continued with the electric-only model he seems to be advocating.
Is it not the case that Swansea’s connectivity will be improved by the new Kingsway project, which is creating a digital district? Is it not a shame that Opposition Members do not recognise this important move? Perhaps they do not know what a digital district is.
My hon. Friend has great expertise in all things Welsh, but particularly in relation to digital projects and the Kingsway project he talked about. The Swansea Bay city deal is an exciting project that will complement the private activity that is taking place, and that will improve connectivity by digital means, as well as rail connectivity, with new trains in operation very soon.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I love the new haircut and the tie. You look great.
Before the summer recess, the Transport Secretary—the Secretary of State’s Cabinet colleague—sneaked out news that the UK Government would break their promise to electrify the main line from Cardiff to Swansea. People in Wales are now rightly asking whether the Government can even be trusted to deliver electrification as far as Cardiff. Will the Secretary of State promise that that electrification will go ahead and not join the ever-growing list of broken promises the Government have made to the people of Wales?
The hon. Lady will be well aware that work is under way on electrification to Cardiff. The bimodal trains will affect service times and when the project is completed it will be of major benefit not only to Cardiff, but to Swansea. The major advantage of the bimodal trains means that we can take the latest rolling stock further in west Wales, whereas the electric-only project would have meant that any benefits stopped in Swansea.
Funding in Wales
3. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on whether additional funding announced for Northern Ireland in the Government’s deal with the Democratic Unionist party will have consequences for funding in Wales. (900691)
The agreement with the Democratic Unionist party is about delivering for the whole of the United Kingdom so that we can get on with our plan to get the best Brexit deal for our country and create an economy that works for everyone. It is part of the Government’s commitment to support growth across all parts of the UK, including commitments to investment in city deals in Wales and the introduction of the Barnett floor to provide the Welsh Government with fair funding for the long term.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State and I have been successful in achieving city deals for Cardiff and Swansea, and we are working towards a north Wales growth deal as well. That additional funding from Westminster was not subject to any Barnett consequentials with regard to any other part of the United Kingdom.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is absolutely right: this Government have delivered a fiscal framework for Wales that was called for for 13 years, when the Labour party did absolutely nothing. That fiscal framework gives certainty of funding for Wales and the people of Wales, and it will be beneficial to the development of the Welsh economy.
The Secretary of State and the Minister have been having some problems with the Conservative party in Wales. Does the Minister agree with its leader, who said:
“Any potential incentives considered for one nation in securing the majority must also be considered for Wales”?
When are the Secretary of State and the Minister going to do their job and at least follow the line of their leader in Wales on securing additional funding for the people of Wales?
The leader of the Assembly group in Wales has the right of his own position, but the situation is very clear: this Government’s commitment to Wales is unprecedented. We delivered a fiscal framework when the Labour party did nothing. We have delivered city deals for Cardiff and Swansea, and we will deliver a growth deal for north Wales. This Government’s track record is one of additional investment to Wales, which needs to be matched by the Welsh Government.
As part of their arrangement with the DUP, the UK Government will contribute £150 million over two years to the improvement of broadband in Northern Ireland. As I am sure the Minister will be aware, of the bottom 10 UK constituencies for average download speeds, more than half are in Wales. What discussions has he had with Cabinet colleagues to ensure similar funding to improve broadband infrastructure in Wales?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question and I welcome him to his place. The situation is very clear: constituencies such as Ceredigion and my own of Aberconwy have lagged behind in broadband connectivity in a Welsh context. He will be aware that broadband roll-out in Wales is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. It is interesting to note that Labour constituencies in Wales were prioritised over constituencies such as Ceredigion and my own of Aberconwy.
The May magic money tree, celebrated by the Tories during the general election, has been found planted and flourishing in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, Wales withers under Tory austerity. Some Tories have taken a principled stand on the use of pork-barrel bungs to Northern Ireland. The Tory Secretary of State for Scotland said that there should be no “back-door funding”, and the Tory leader in Wales, Andrew R. T. Davies, said:
“Any potential incentives considered for one nation…must also be considered for Wales.”
When is the Secretary of State for Wales going to do his job and stand up for Wales?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position on the Front Bench, and I welcome him back to the House. I will repeat the comments that I have already made. For 13 years between 1997 and 2010, he was a Back Bencher when there was a Labour Government in this place. That Labour Government did not deliver any change to the Barnett formula, and they did not deliver a fiscal framework for Wales. This Government are delivering for Wales, and we will deliver a north Wales growth deal, which will be beneficial to his constituents.
Hendry Review: Tidal Lagoons
The Wales Office has had close discussions with ministerial colleagues following the publication of the Hendry review. The lagoon at Swansea is an exciting project, but it is essential that it delivers value for money for the energy consumer and for the taxpayer.
It is nine months since the Hendry review strongly endorsed the tidal lagoon at Swansea, where the rise and fall in the tide is the second highest in the world. It would unlock power for generations, not only on the Welsh side but on the other side of the Bristol channel. When are Ministers going to make a decision?
My hon. Friend is undoubtedly a champion for this new technology. However, it has to be stated on record that although the Hendry review was supportive of a tidal lagoon in Swansea, no real financial issues were dealt with in that report. It is necessary that we make the right decision not just in terms of the concept of a tidal lagoon in Swansea, but for the energy price that the consumer will pay and for the taxpayer. We will make the right decision in due course. [Interruption.]
As has been indicated, the Hendry review was set up by the Conservative party, and the framework to finance these big projects was set up by the Conservatives. It is time, now, to stop talking and start delivering for Wales. I urge the Wales Office to stand up for Wales on this project and deliver for Wales.
The hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly a champion of energy projects across Wales and, indeed, in his own constituency of Anglesey. He will understand, as I do, that such decisions must be right in relation to the costs for the taxpayer and the energy consumer. We will ensure that the decision, when it is made, takes all issues into account, and that it is right for the energy consumer and the people of Wales.
The development of energy policy in Wales is about energy security. It is about securing our energy supply for the future, which is why I and my colleague in the Wales Office are always involved with projects such as the new Wylfa power station in Anglesey. We are looking at small modular reactors for parts of Wales, and we are, indeed, still looking at the tidal lagoon in Swansea.
Wales has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to become the world leader in tidal lagoons. The Swansea Bay tidal lagoon alone will generate 2,000 jobs and contribute £300 million to the Welsh economy during its construction. Welsh Labour MPs, the Welsh Labour Government and many public faces and campaigners have declared that they “Love the Lagoon”, so why are the Government refusing to publish their response to the Hendry review and, in so doing, putting the project at risk?
At the risk of repeating myself, I have to say that the hon. Lady highlights the fact that there is support for the concept in Wales—indeed, there is. But she also needs to be honest about the fact that the Labour Government in Wales, Labour MPs from Wales and Labour Assembly Members from Wales have highlighted the danger of high energy prices for the steel industry, for example. We need to make a decision that is right for industry in Wales and for the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, but we need to do that on a calculated basis, looking at the facts. That is what we will do.
Renewable Energy Projects
The Government are committed to supporting renewable energy to deliver more secure, cleaner energy. For example, in March we gave consent for the Glyn Rhonwy pumped storage project, which will support other renewable technologies by capturing and storing excess energy from solar or wind. It will support 250 full- time jobs at peak construction, and it is a great example of the essential role that Wales plays in energy supply.
Following on from questions from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Neath (Christina Rees), the issue of the tidal lagoon does need a response from the Government. It is eight months since the review. Will the Minister say now when the Government will publish their response? There is a very real risk that the investors that are needed to fund the project will walk away unless a decision is made very soon by the Government.
In the previous Parliament, the hon. Lady was an Opposition Front-Bench Treasury spokesman, so she will be aware that we need to analyse the benefits and costs of a tidal lagoon. The decision will be made and announced in due course by the relevant Ministers.
Community hydro schemes throughout Wales have faced business rates increases of up to 900%. In Scotland there is 100% relief and in England there is a cap, but Labour Ministers in Wales are sitting on their hands. I am told that the basic problem is made here in London because of the regulations. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the sector to seek a full and quick solution?
The hon. Gentleman’s constituency, like mine, has a number of hydro projects, and I would be more than delighted to meet him to discuss where the problems lie. My understanding is that the problems lie in Cardiff, with the Labour Government, but I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to make sure that we deal with this.
Exiting the EU: Welsh Economy
I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on how all aspects of our exit from the EU will affect Wales. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will maximise certainty to individuals and businesses across Wales and the rest of the UK.
Fifteen months after the referendum result, progress on Brexit is still too slow. About two thirds of Welsh exports go to the European Union and thousands of Welsh jobs depend on this trade, so what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that our Welsh economy is not wrecked by a cliff-edge Brexit that would damage these vital ties?
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will be debated tomorrow. I hope that he will support that Bill because of the certainty and security it provides by closing loopholes and ensuring that we have appropriate frameworks in place. Those in themselves present the issue of a cliff edge that he mentioned.
Since the referendum result, we have seen record inward investment in Wales, record levels of employment and a proposal to scrap the Severn bridge tolls. Does that not show that under the Conservative Government the future for Wales is very good indeed?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He is a passionate campaigner for not only the UK and Wales, but the benefits of leaving the European Union. We want a stronger, fairer, more united and outward-looking Union, and Members on both sides of this House have a role to play in that.
One hundred years ago, y Gadair Ddu—the Black Chair—was posthumously awarded at the Birkenhead Eisteddfod for Hedd Wyn’s awdl “Yr Arwr”. I would like to congratulate the poet’s nephew Gerald Williams and Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri on safeguarding for Wales the family farm, Yr Ysgwrn, which will be opened officially today.
This month also celebrates the referendum 20 years ago that brought devolution to Wales. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is a bare-faced Westminster bid to take back control against the will of the people of Wales. Will the Minister tell the House what his Government will do when Wales denies consent to the Bill later this year? Would it not be political folly to press ahead in such circumstances?
I would certainly underline many of the points that the hon. Lady made in relation to Hedd Wyn, whose former home is being opened today.
The hon. Lady will recognise that withdrawal is about creating the smoothest form of exit that we can possibly deliver. My right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State and I met the First Minister earlier this week, and we are keen to deepen our engagement even further. We want the Welsh Government to respond so that we can come up with the sort of frameworks that will work for every part of the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State has said in the past that there will be more powers for Wales, but is not his banal rhetoric undermined by the Government’s record of broken promises? The tidal lagoon—no decision; S4C funding—slashed; rail electrification—cancelled. Will he list the powers that Wales can look forward to and say when we will hear what they are?
I am disappointed by the tone of the hon. Lady’s question. She is well aware of our strong record on devolution. Earlier this year, we passed the Wales Act 2017. Last December, we agreed a new fiscal framework, which gives Wales a very fair settlement, and we are trying to work as closely as possible with the Welsh Government to deliver an exit from the European Union that works for every part of the UK. Wales is obviously my interest in that.
I am sure that the Secretary of State knows that the Welsh economy could be damaged by careless talk about Brexit. The public narrative from the Welsh Government is often alarmist and could even scupper future foreign investment. What can my right hon. Friend do to reassure potential foreign investors that Wales is open for business and remains a first-class destination for foreign investment?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a shame that many Opposition Members and remoaners fail to recognise the opportunity that leaving the European Union creates. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was in Japan just last week, she announced a deal in relation to Aston Martin—yet another significant trade arrangement with Japan on the back of those with Nissan and Toyota—and the Vale of Glamorgan and the midlands will benefit further from it.
In the past year, the employment rate in Wales has reached a record high. Wales benefits particularly from thriving tourism, which, with the help of UK Government initiatives, such as the coastal communities fund, grew by a massive 36% last year. Ten per cent. of Welsh workers are now directly employed in tourism—up from 7% in 2014.
The Wales Office is committed to maintaining the employment growth stats that we have experienced in Wales in the past seven years. The investment that the Secretary of State mentioned from Aston Martin is a fine example of our ability to attract investment into Wales that will create high-quality jobs.
There will be more HMRC jobs in Wales as a result of the reorganisation than is currently the case. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the situation in Wales is one of employment growth—99,000 more jobs than in 2010, and 119,000 more jobs in the private sector. The employment story in Wales is a success of which the hon. Gentleman should be proud.
Today’s important report from the Institute for Public Policy Research provides a damning indictment of direct Westminster rule over the Welsh economy. Does the Minister agree that the only solution is greater economic powers for Wales?
The hon. Gentleman is like a stuck record on this issue. Rather than citing reports from high-flown companies, he should highlight the real, on-the-ground success story: unemployment in Wales is falling and fewer people are dependent on welfare. We are creating jobs and a successful economy in Wales. The hon. Gentleman should celebrate that.
The Prime Minister was asked—
As we return from the summer recess, I am sure that the thoughts of Members across the House are with the friends and families of the victims of the tragic Barcelona terror attack last month, including seven-year-old Julian Cadman.
I want to reassure the House that the United Kingdom has ensured that assistance, in the form of military and humanitarian resources, is already in place for those countries, including the overseas territories, that are preparing for Hurricane Irma.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Of course everyone agrees with my right hon. Friend about the thoughts that she has shared, particularly in relation to all those who perished in the terror attack in Barcelona—especially Julian Cadman.
As part of the process of leaving the European Union, it is imperative that we transfer existing EU laws, regulations, directives and the rest into substantive British law. There are many concerns—very serious concerns—among Conservative Members about the means, not the ends, of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that she will look in particular at amendments that seek to change the Bill so that it does not become an unprecedented and unnecessary Government power grab?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. I know that she, like me, wants to see an orderly exit from the European Union, and that she will support the Bill, which will enable us not just to leave the EU but to do so in an orderly manner, with a functioning statute book. As we do that, of course, we will require certain powers to make corrections to the statute book after the Bill has become law, because the negotiations are ongoing. We will do that via secondary legislation, which will receive parliamentary scrutiny—the approach has been endorsed by the House of Lords Constitution Committee. Let me reassure my right hon. Friend that as the Bill undergoes its scrutiny in this House and the debate continues, we will of course listen very carefully to that debate. I shall be happy to meet her to discuss the issue further.
I agree with what the Prime Minister said about Barcelona. The attack was abominable and appalling. I believe that we should think of the victims, but also thank the people of Barcelona for their wonderful community response to what was a threat to all of them.
I hope that the whole House will join me in thinking also of the victims of the terrible floods in Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Sierra Leone and Texas. Obviously, our thoughts are with those who are facing Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean as we speak.
Every Member on both sides of the House should be concerned about the fact that inflation is once again running ahead of people’s pay. This week, workers at McDonald’s restaurants took strike action for the first time in this country. The boss of McDonald’s, Steve Easterbrook, is reported to have earned £11.8 million last year, while some of his staff are paid as little as £4.75 per hour. Does the Prime Minister back the McDonald’s workers’ case for an end to zero-hours contracts and for decent pay?
Obviously, what is taking place at McDonald’s is a matter for McDonald’s to deal with, but the questions—[Interruption.] Let us focus on the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, such as zero-hours contracts. In fact, the number of people on zero-hours contracts is very small—[Interruption]—as a proportion of the workforce, and there are people who genuinely say that it is of benefit to them to be on those contracts. However, for the 13 years the Labour party was in government, it did nothing about zero-hours contracts. It is this Conservative Government who have put the workers first and banned exclusive zero-hours contracts.
My question was about McDonald’s, whose chief executive is paid 1,300 times as much as his staff—and approximately 800,000 people in Britain are on zero-hours contracts.
When she became leader of her party, the Prime Minister pledged:
“I want to make shareholder votes on corporate pay not just advisory but binding.”
She put that in her manifesto but, like so much else in her manifesto, it has now been dumped—or archived, or however we want to describe it. Was the tough talk on corporate greed just for the election campaign or is it going to be put into law?
I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he looks again at the action that, in government, Conservatives have taken on this issue: it is the Conservative Government who have recently published our proposals on corporate governance; it is Conservatives who gave shareholders the power to veto pay policies; it is Conservatives who forced companies to disclose board directors’ pay; and it is Conservatives who introduced tough transparency measures for the banks. That has been done not by a Labour Government; it is the Conservative party that has been putting workers first.
I note that the Prime Minister uses the word “advisory”, because page 18 of the dumped manifesto says:
“the next Conservative Government will legislate to make executive pay packages subject to strict annual votes by shareholders”.
She has gone back on her word.
To help people who are struggling to make ends meet, many politicians have become convinced that we need to cap energy prices. Even the Prime Minister was briefly converted to this policy. Last week, the profit margins of the big six energy companies hit their highest ever level. I wonder if I could now prevail on the Prime Minister to stick to her own manifesto pledges on this matter as well.
First, on the question of what we are doing on corporate governance, I actually did not use the word “advisory” in my answer, so may I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that in future he listens to my answer and does not just read out the statement before him?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important issue about energy prices, because we are concerned about how that particular market is operating. We do expect the companies to treat customers fairly. That is why we have been looking at the action that can be taken, and it is why the Business Secretary has been doing exactly that: he wrote to Ofgem in June asking it to advise on what action it could take to safeguard customers. We are particularly concerned about the poorest customers who are kept on those tariffs that do not give them value for money. So I agree—and it is the Government who are doing something about it.
If only that were the case, because Ofgem’s plans will benefit only 2.6 million customers, but 17 million customers are short-changed by the big six energy companies. The Prime Minister could and should take action on this.
But the Prime Minister is not the only one going back on her word—[Interruption.] When Conservative Members have calmed down a little, I would just like to say this: at last year’s Sports Direct annual meeting, Mike Ashley personally pledged to ban the use of zero-hours contracts in his company. A year on, it is still exploiting insecure workers with zero-hours contracts. Will the Prime Minister join me in now demanding that Mr Ashley honours his words and ends zero-hours contracts in all his companies?
As I have said, it is this Government who have actually taken action in relation to zero-hours contracts, unlike the Labour party.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about manifestos and people going back on their word. I might remind him that the Labour party manifesto included a commitment to support Trident, our independent nuclear deterrent. Shortly after the election, in private, he told people he did not agree with that. For years the right hon. Gentleman sat on the Labour Benches and did not support Labour policy; now he is Labour leader and he still does not support Labour policy.
I listened very carefully to what the Prime Minister said on this occasion and I am struggling to see the connection between what she just said and Mike Ashley, Sports Direct and McDonald’s. Perhaps she will now answer the question: will she condemn what Sports Direct and McDonald’s are doing to their staff? It is quite straightforward—yes or no?
Today, thousands of nursing and other healthcare staff are outside Parliament. They are demanding that this Government scrap the 1% pay cap. Poor pay means that experienced staff are leaving and fewer people are training to become nurses. There is already a shortage of 40,000 nurses across the UK. Will the Prime Minister please see sense, end the public sector pay cap and ensure that our NHS staff are properly paid?
We absolutely value the work of all those who work in the public sector—nurses, teachers and others—who are doing a good job for us, day in and day out, often in difficult and harrowing circumstances. It might be helpful if I remind the House of where we are on the issue of the pay review bodies and public sector pay. There are two pay review body reports for 2017-18 still to be published and for the Government to respond to—for police and prison officers—and that will happen shortly. Then later in the autumn, as happens every year, we will publish the framework for 2018-19. We will continue to balance the need to protect jobs and public sector workers with the need to ensure that we are also protecting and being fair to those who are paying for it, including public sector workers.
We have seen the right hon. Gentleman, in this House and outside it, consistently standing up and asking for more money to be spent on this, that and the other. He can do that in opposition—[Interruption.] He asks consistently for more money to be spent, and he can do that in opposition because he knows that he does not have to pay for it. The problem with Labour is that it does that in government as well. As a result of the decisions that the Labour party took in government, we now have to pay more in debt interest than on NHS pay. That is the result of Labour.
The Prime Minister had no problems finding £1 billion to please the Democratic Unionist party—no problems whatsoever. NHS staff are 14% worse off than they were seven years ago. Is she really happy that NHS staff use food banks? Warm words do not pay food bills; pay rises will help to do that. She must end the public sector pay cap. The reality for working people is lower wages and less job security, with in-work poverty now at record levels. So will the Prime Minister clarify something she evaded during the election campaign? For those struggling to get by, whether employed, self-employed, permanent or temporary, can the Prime Minister categorically state today that they will not see rises in the basic rate of income tax, national insurance contributions or value added tax?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman about the help we have been giving to those who are just about managing. We have taken 4 million people out of paying income tax altogether, and we have given a tax cut to more than 30 million people. We see record numbers of people in employment in this country. We have given the lowest earners the highest pay rise for 20 years by introducing the national living wage, but you only get that with a strong economy. We believe in sound money; he believes in higher debt. We believe in making our economy strong so that we can invest in our public services. Labour’s approach is reckless; ours is balanced. Our approach delivers a strong economy. That is more money for the public services and more jobs for people and families, but you only get a strong economy and a better future with the Conservatives.
Q2. As the Prime Minister has said, this Government have an outstanding record on job creation, with 3 million more people in work than there were seven years ago. It is perfectly true that wage rises have not been as high as we would have hoped, but I am proud that we gave that big boost to people at the low end with the rise in the national living wage. What the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) does not understand is that we can only have sustainable rises in pay with increases in productivity. My question to the Prime Minister is: will she instruct all her Ministers to bring forward proposals for productivity rises in time for the Chancellor to announce them in the Budget? (900625)
My right hon. Friend has absolutely put his finger on it: productivity is crucial to the strength of our economy and to improving it going forward. That is why we are introducing our modern industrial strategy, which will boost productivity, and why we are introducing really good-quality technical education for the first time in this country, to ensure that young people have the skills they need to take the higher-paid jobs created as a result of our industrial strategy.
As I have said on many occasions, overall immigration has been good for the UK, but people want to see it controlled—that, I think, is what people want to see as a result of our leaving the EU. We can already exercise controls in relation to those who come to this country from outside the EU, and the Government continue to believe that it is important to have net migration at sustainable levels—we believe that to be in the tens of thousands—particularly given the impact it has on people at the lower end of the income scale in depressing their wages.
Last October, the Prime Minister was forced into a humiliating U-turn on proposals to force companies to disclose how many foreign workers they employed. During the summer, 100 EU nationals resident in the UK received deportation notices in error, which caused alarm to them and many others. We need to cherish those who are here, not chase them away. She must stop dancing to the tune of her right-wing Back Benchers and apologise for the disgraceful treatment her Government have shown migrants in the UK. In the first instance, will she pledge that international students will no longer be included in the net migration figures?
In relation to the error made by the Home Office, every single one of those individuals was telephoned with an apology. [Interruption.] It should not have happened in the first place, but the Government did telephone with apologies. As I explained in my first answer to the right hon. Gentleman, however, there is a reason for wanting to control migration. It is because of the impact that net migration can have on people, on access to services and on infrastructure, but crucially also because it often hits those at the lower end of the income scale hardest. I suggest he think about that impact, rather than just standing up here and saying what he has. It is important that we bring in controls, but we want to continue to welcome the brightest and the best here to the UK, and we will continue to do so.
Q3. I know that my right hon. Friend will be as alarmed and angered as many people are at the decision of the Northern Ireland judicial authorities to reopen the so-called legacy cases involving past and present members of the armed forces. These cases have been investigated meticulously and represent just 10% of deaths in the troubles. A line really needs to be drawn. Does she agree that it is wrong to single out any group for this kind of investigation and that the hundreds of thousands of people who served in Northern Ireland should feel appreciated for the difficult job they did and not be hounded into old age by such investigations? (900626)
We are unstinting in our admiration for the role that our armed forces played in ensuring that Northern Ireland’s future would only ever be decided by democracy and consent. The overwhelming majority served with great distinction, and we do indeed owe them a great debt of gratitude. As part of our work to implement the Stormont House agreement, we will ensure that new legacy bodies are under legal obligations to be fair, balanced and proportionate, which will make sure that our veterans are not unfairly treated or disproportionately investigated and reflect the fact that 90% of deaths in the troubles were caused by terrorists, not the armed forces. Of course, as my right hon. Friend will appreciate, however, the investigations by the Police Service of Northern Ireland are a matter for it, as it is independent of government.
Q9. The Prime Minister will be aware of the death of my constituent, Kim Briggs, who was knocked over last year by a cyclist on an illegal fixed-wheel bike with no front brake. Does she agree that the law on dangerous driving should be extended to included offences by cyclists and that the 1861 offence of wanton and furious driving, on which the prosecution had to rely in this case, is hopelessly outdated and wholly inadequate? (900632)
First, I extend our sympathies to the family and friends of the hon. Lady’s constituent who died in those tragic circumstances. The hon. Lady has raised an important issue. We should welcome the fact that the prosecution team were able to find legislation under which they were able to take a prosecution, but she makes a general point about ensuring that our legislation keeps up to date with developments, and I am sure that the Secretary of State for Transport will look at the issue.
Q4. Living near a natural green space is good for physical and mental health, but people in the most deprived areas of the country are the least likely to do so. My right hon. Friend has committed to reducing inequality and improving mental health, so I ask her to read the new report published by the Conservative Environment Network and masterminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) and to take on board its recommendation to consider the environment across Government policy. (900627)
I thank my hon. Friend for that. She has campaigned on and has a particular interest in the whole question of mental health. I welcome the fact that she has raised the health benefits of green space, which are becoming ever more recognised, and I know that the Conservative Environment Network highlights that in its report. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be producing a 25-year environment plan. It will consider the evidence within that report and will focus on what can be done to ensure that the benefits provided by access to green space are available to all segments of society.
Q13. This summer, a third of all parents across the country went without a meal to ensure that they could feed their children during the school holidays. In Stoke-on-Trent, amazing volunteers came together to provide over 10,000 meals for local kids. I am proud of my constituents, but I am disgusted by this Government, who have turned a blind eye and done nothing. How many kids have to go hungry and how many parents have to go without food before this Prime Minister will do her job and act? (900636)
I recognise the issue that the hon. Lady raises about children who are normally able to access free school meals during term time and the impact that that has during the holidays, which is a matter that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) has been taking up together with colleagues in the all-party parliamentary group on hunger. From the Government’s point of view, our focus remains on tackling the root causes of poverty, not just the symptoms. That is what is important. Nearly three quarters of children from workless families moved out of poverty when their parents entered full-time work, and we see record levels of employment under this Government. That is why ensuring that we get a strong economy and those jobs is so important. I am sure that Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education will be looking at the proposals that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead has brought forward.
Q5. The reductions in unemployment, poverty and income inequality are some of our proudest achievements in recent years. What more are the Government planning to do to further the one nation principle and to ensure a still fairer society? (900628)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under this Government, we have seen income inequality fall to its lowest level since 1986, the number of people in absolute poverty is at a record low, and we have the lowest unemployment rates since 1975. He is right, however, that there is more to do, which is why yesterday we announced £40 million for youth organisations to boost the skills and life chances of young people living in disadvantaged areas. That will have a transformational effect on the lives of some of our most disadvantaged young people and will help to achieve the fairer society to which my hon. Friend rightly refers.
Q15. A few weeks ago, the utterly shaming lack of mental health provision in this country was condemned by our most senior family court judge as he sought a bed for a desperately ill teenage girl. The 17-year-old had been restrained no fewer than 117 times in a place not fit to care for her. Does the Prime Minister agree with me in echoing the words of Sir James Munby that the continued failure to tackle our nation’s mental health crisis means the state will have blood on its hands? (900638)
I am sure everybody in this House was concerned to read of the circumstances of that individual and the treatment she received. I accept that we need to do more in relation to our mental health services. That is precisely why the Government are putting more money into mental health; it is why we have introduced a number of programmes particularly focusing on the mental health of young people; and it is why we have reduced by 80% the number of people being detained in police cells because of their mental ill health. As I have said, we have increased the funding, but of course we need to do more. That is why we are pushing forward on further change. We are pledged to reform outdated mental health laws, and we have created targets to improve standards of care. I agree that mental health is important, and this Government are focusing on it and putting more resource into it.
Q6. Given the importance of the fishing industry across the whole United Kingdom, particularly in my constituency of Banff and Buchan, what discussions have the Government had with representatives of the fishing industry in the north-east of Scotland as part of the ongoing EU withdrawal negotiations? (900629)
I recognise the importance of the fishing industry to a number of parts of the United Kingdom, including, of course, my hon. Friend’s constituency. He is right to raise this point. The Government are engaging with a range of fishing stakeholders, including a meeting with the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation in July. We do value our fishing communities, and supporting them will be an important part of the action we take as we exit the European Union. We are working closely with the fishing industry. I myself met fishermen on a number of occasions across the summer and spoke to them about the industry. We are working with fishermen and others who have a stake in the industry to make sure that we get this right when we leave the European Union.
The Prime Minister will be aware of my party’s initiative last week to have devolution up and running in Northern Ireland immediately, in parallel with the talks process—an initiative that was welcomed by the Irish Government, Opposition parties and a wide section of public opinion in Northern Ireland. If, however, despite all our best efforts and the agreement of all the other parties, Sinn Féin stands alone and continues to block the restoration of government in Northern Ireland, will she confirm to the House what a Government spokesperson said yesterday evening about the future governance arrangements for Northern Ireland, particularly the very welcome statement that there will be no question of joint authority or a role for Dublin?
The right hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of the talks to restore a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. I am happy to confirm that we will not be looking at a joint authority. He will be aware that the Belfast agreement includes certain responsibilities in relation to the Government of the Republic of Ireland in north-south co-ordination, but the focus for us all should be on trying to ensure that we can resolve the current differences and see that devolved Administration reasserted in Northern Ireland. That is what would be best for the people of Northern Ireland.
Q7. By refusing even to discuss free trade, does the Prime Minister agree that the European Commission is damaging the employment and economic interests of its own member states? For example, by endangering jobs in the German car industry, for which the UK is the largest export market. Will she call on other European Heads of Government to prevail on the European Commission to end this act of wanton economic self-harm and to start free trade talks, which are so clearly in the interests of everybody? (900630)
As my hon. Friend will know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union was recently back in Brussels for a further round of negotiations. Those negotiations have been productive and constructive, but of course we want to see the discussions moving on to the future relationship. What the Government have done over the summer, and will be continuing to do, is to publish a set of position papers that set out options and ideas for how that deep and special partnership can be taken forward. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is not just a question of what suits the United Kingdom; it is actually in the interests of the European Union to have that good, deep and special partnership.
What action is the Prime Minister taking to ensure that my constituents, many of whom are paying in excess of £5,000 to travel to London every year, get a better service, not the one that the new plans under her Government will introduce? Under those plans the people of Bedford will lose the inter-city rail services.
Q8. One person sleeping rough is one too many. Our party’s manifesto set out to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. Given the important role that charities play in this task, will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the excellent charity Crisis, which is marking its 50th anniversary? (900631)
First, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, because I know this is an issue he cares about deeply and he co-chairs the all-party group on ending homelessness? He rightly says that we did have a commitment on reducing rough sleeping, with the aim to halve it by 2022 and eliminate it altogether by 2027, and £550 million has already been allocated until 2020 to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. I am also happy to join him in paying tribute to Crisis, as it marks its 50th anniversary. Over those 50 years, it has been doing a very important job, and I will be hosting a reception for Crisis to mark its 50th anniversary in Downing Street later today.
The University of Bradford, in my constituency, makes a compelling case for a medical school teaching all types of health professionals. Will the Prime Minister confirm that those universities where the need is greatest will be given the opportunity to set up medical schools?
First, we are of course pleased that we are going to be increasing the number of training places, which means that the Department of Health is looking at the whole question of what places are available and where, and what new medical schools should be set up. So I am sure that the Secretary of State for Health will be interested in hearing the hon. Lady’s pitch for Bradford to have a medical school.
Q10. In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of women were prescribed Primodos as a pregnancy test, which resulted in profound effects for the babies that followed. Alongside elderly parents, my constituent Charlotte Fensome cares for her brother Steven, who was profoundly affected. Does the Prime Minister agree that those families now deserve justice and that there should be a chance to launch a public inquiry into this terrible scandal? (900633)
My hon. Friend has raised an important issue, and she is absolutely right to do so. We should recognise the impact that this had on those women who took this hormone pregnancy test during pregnancy from the late 1950s into the 1970s—I believe 1978 was the last time. An expert working group has been set up to look into this issue and it is due to publish its findings in the autumn, but I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue with her.
Parents in my constituency are disappointed. Over the summer they sought to take advantage of the 30 hours of free childcare, but due to underfunding they found that it was not available and not free. Will the Prime Minister apologise to parents across the country for false advertising on what otherwise would have been a welcome policy?
What I can tell the hon. Lady is that we are investing £1 billion of extra funding every year in early years entitlements, and that includes £300 million per year to increase the national average funding rate. This investment is based on work that was done—a plan that was done—by the DFE, which was described by the National Audit Office as “thorough” and “wide-ranging”. There are important ways that childcare providers can get more from their funding—the DFE is offering to support them to do that—but independent research has shown that our hourly funding rate is significantly higher than the average cost for providing a place to a three or four-year-old. I would hope that she welcomed the fact that this issue of childcare is one that this Government have taken on board and are delivering on.
Q11. For the second year running, I am planning the Wiltshire festival of engineering, this time with my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). We hope to inspire 3,000 children to help to challenge stereotypes of engineering careers and to combat the local skills gap. In addition, we want to highlight that Wiltshire is a hub of engineering, design and technology. Would the Prime Minister consider attending this wonderful event? (900634)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her initiative. She raises a very important point: I think it is important that we see more young people moving into engineering and pursuing careers in engineering and science more generally. The steps she is taking with our hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) are an important part of that. We do need to address those stereotypes. I am particularly keen to address the stereotype about women in engineering, because we should see more women going into engineering. If my diary allows, I would be very happy to attend her festival.
Clinicians do not believe it will be safe. Commissioners and providers do not believe it will be feasible. Is it not now time for Ministers to reverse the decision they took in 2011 to close the accident and emergency department at King George hospital?
Q12. As Home Secretary, the Prime Minister was one of the first to appreciate the alarming extent of child sexual exploitation. She responded to calls from many of us to set up the historic abuse inquiry. Does she agree that those who expose and work to root out the criminal perpetrators for the horrific crimes they commit—especially in the face of so-called cultural sensitivities and people hiding behind the cloak of political correctness—should be encouraged and promoted, not castigated and gagged? (900635)
My hon. Friend has raised a sensitive and important issue. As he said, it is one that I took a particular interest in when I was Home Secretary. Anyone who abuses a child must be stopped, regardless of their race, age or gender. Child sexual exploitation is not exclusive to any single culture, community, race or religion. It happens in all areas of the country and can take many different forms, but I am clear and the Government are clear that political or cultural sensitivities must not get in the way of preventing and uncovering child abuse. The freedom to speak out must apply to those in positions of responsibility, including Ministers and shadow Ministers on both sides of the House. If we turn a blind eye to this abuse, as has happened too much in the past, more crimes will be committed and more children will be suffering in silence.
Glenfield’s children’s heart surgery unit has some of the best outcomes in the country, including mortality rates lower than the national average. Professor Ara Darzi says that proposals to change children’s heart surgery are astonishing, embarrassing and plucked out of thin air. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the final decision is made on the basis of sound clinical evidence and when this House is sitting?
The hon. Lady is aware that there are many ways in which MPs can question Ministers about plans. As I said in answer to one of her hon. Friends, decisions about the future structure of the NHS, its services and their provision will be taken, and are being taken, on the basis of clinical need and clinical evidence.
Q14. Britain is among the world’s leading digital economies, and as we leave the European Union technology will be crucial for a successful Brexit and for dealing with issues from the Northern Irish border to customs controls. Does the Prime Minister agree that Brexit can kick-start a further wave of digital investment and that working with the industry through a Brexit technology taskforce could help her do that? (900637)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the position that the United Kingdom holds in science and innovation. We are already a leading destination: we have some of the world’s top universities, three of which are in the world’s top 10, and we have more Nobel prize winners than any country outside the United States. We have a proud history of cutting-edge research in science, innovation and technology and, as he says, Brexit gives us an opportunity to give a further kick-start to our position in relation to the digital economy and technology. We want to attract investment from all over the world and to work with industry to ensure that that can be done.
In her party conference speech last year, the Prime Minister said that
“existing workers’ legal rights will continue to be guaranteed in law—and they will be guaranteed as long as I am Prime Minister.”
Will she tell the House how long that will be?
Tomorrow is World Duchenne Awareness Day, which highlights this devastating muscle-wasting condition that affects young men such as my constituent Archie Hill. If, as anticipated, the current development of a more reliable newborn screening test goes ahead, psychological support must be readily available to any affected family. Will the Prime Minister assure families, and Muscular Dystrophy UK, that NHS England will develop the provision of such vital psychological support?
My right hon. Friend has raised an important aspect of this terrible condition. I recognise the importance of ensuring that people can access appropriate psychological support when a young family member is diagnosed with this serious health problem. On the new screening test, I understand that Muscular Dystrophy UK is working with one of NHS England’s advisory groups to understand how best to meet the needs of parents and carers following a child’s diagnosis. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for having raised this important issue.
Order. It is always a delight to hear the hon. Lady, but I will have to keep her on ice because ordinarily we take points of order after statements or urgent questions. I shall build up, as the House will, a well of expectation and anticipation to hear what the hon. Lady has to say to us in due course. Meanwhile, she may wish to interest herself in the next item of business.
Free Childcare Entitlement
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question, which gives me the opportunity to highlight the Conservative Government’s determination to support as many families as possible with access to high-quality, affordable childcare and early-years education. We are investing a record amount: our support will total £6 billion per year by 2020. My Department is committed to ensuring that all three and four-year-olds have access to free childcare. All parents, regardless of their income and employment status, are entitled to 15 hours of free childcare for their three and four-year-olds; take-up of that universal entitlement is 95%. In addition, take-up of 15 hours of free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds is rising, and it is fantastic that more than 70% of eligible two-year-olds are benefiting from this.
On 1 September 2017, the Government reached a major milestone in delivering our key manifesto pledge to double the free childcare entitlements for working parents of three and four-year-olds from 15 to 30 hours. Today I have tabled a written ministerial statement updating the House on delivery of the 30-hours offer. By 31 August, more than our targeted 200,000 30-hours codes had been issued to eligible parents wishing to take up a place this autumn; indeed, I can update the House on the figure: 216,384 codes issued. These families join the 15,000 families who are already benefiting from 30 hours of free childcare in our 12 early delivery pilot areas. The independent evaluations of these areas were encouraging, showing that more than three quarters of parents reported greater flexibility in their working life as a result of 30 hours, and more than eight out of 10 childcare providers offering the 15 hours entitlement went on to offer 30 hours.
During the autumn, I will closely monitor delivery of all free childcare entitlements to ensure continued improvements to all our offers for parents and providers. I will continue to work closely with Her Majesty’s Treasury Ministers to ensure that parents can access the HMRC-run childcare service smoothly. The majority of parents have successfully applied using the childcare service, but some parents experienced difficulties accessing the service through the system by the 31 August application deadline. Those parents who are eligible and applied before the deadline will have a code to allow them to access our 30 hours of free childcare. They will not lose out.
I am pleased to report that this is yet another key manifesto pledge delivered for working families.
Last Friday, the flagship policy of 30 free hours of childcare for working parents was introduced. It was a policy shrouded in secrecy, misinformation and mayhem, and now is the time for answers.
From the beginning, the application process was not fit for purpose. Parents were unable to get their code, settings were run ragged trying to help parents, and this afternoon parents who have been waiting weeks are still in limbo. The Minister has told us that 216,384 parents have their codes. Will he tell us what proportion that is of all parents eligible for 30 hours? How many parents received compensation? How many parents does he expect to pay out to in total? How many of those children have secured a funded place and how many have not? This is basic information that we should already know.
Experts, providers and parents are up in arms about this lack of funding. The Pre-school Learning Alliance found a 20% funding shortfall and three-quarters of providers said that childcare funding did not cover their costs. Shockingly, 38% of providers do not think that they will be sustainable in a year’s time. To stay viable, settings will charge for extras such as trips out, nappies and lunches in order to pay their staff and keep the lights on. Can the Minister guarantee that he will not allow a two-tier system to emerge whereby parents who cannot afford to pay the extras do not have access to the policy and those who can do?
Despite the Minister claiming otherwise, Busy Bees and the Co-operative Childcare group have now publicly said the funding rates are insufficient, so what is his strategy to keep experienced and talented practitioners in the sector? The Minister used the pilot evaluations to defend funding rates, but the truth is that 30 hours had a negative financial impact on providers, so has he spoken to stressed-out providers facing closure or parents at their wits’ end?
Finally, this childcare has been advertised as free but it is clear that it will be subsidised by parents or providers. This risks pricing out the poorest and top providers leaving the sector. Will he now listen and commit to re-evaluating the policy’s funding?
I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s rhetoric does not reflect the experience on the ground. I can update her: we predicted that about 75% of eligible parents would apply to the scheme, as there are some parents who for very good reasons, such as family childcare, would not apply. That figure would have been 200,000, so we have exceeded that prediction. I can confirm that only six days into September 152,829 parents have secured a place—71% of those parents. That is a great success story.
We responded to the sector’s concerns about funding; indeed, Frontier Economics carried out some detailed work for us and reported to the Department that the mean hourly delivery cost of childcare was £3.72 an hour. The amount of money that we are providing has increased from £4.56 to £4.94. My experience talking to nurseries up and down the country, including some in London, is that they can deliver for that price. Indeed, the pilot areas have delivered and some 15,000 children have benefited from 30 hours of free childcare, and the lessons learned from those pilot areas are being applied.
I welcome the additional money that the Government are putting into childcare, but may I ask my hon. Friend what help and resource is being given to help childcare providers, particularly the smaller ones that are not part of the bigger chains, that are finding cost pressures difficult with the new policy?
We certainly understand that the sector will deliver this for us, which is why we carried out so much detailed work. Indeed, a survey published on 31 August demonstrated that eight in 10 of those providers will provide 30 hours. If we look at the pilot areas that have been delivering for a year now, including places such as York and Northumberland, we can see that 100% of their providers are delivering and 100% of the parents who wanted a place found one, despite some reservations being put on the record by some of those providers at the very beginning. The pilots have demonstrated that we can deliver and we are delivering.
We of course welcome any changes that increase free early years and childcare entitlements, but it seems as though the Tories’ policies will do more harm than good. In yesterday’s programme for government, the Scottish National party Scottish Government confirmed that the childcare entitlement will double for all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds to 1,140 hours from August 2020. The Tories have decided to cherry-pick who receives free entitlement to childcare. The Scottish Government will also take action to enable all childcare workers delivering fully funded early years learning childcare to be provided with the Scottish living wage from August 2020, recognising that there are few more important jobs than working with the youngest children, while this Government are restricting which parents are entitled to the 30 free hours, freezing out those on low or unpredictable hours, and have said nothing about those who work in that sector. Should not the Government heed the warnings of the Social Market Foundation and the New Economics Foundation that this version of free childcare is regressive? Will they look towards Scotland’s vision of childcare based on quality, flexibility, accessibility and affordability instead of creating a two-tier system?
I will take no lessons from the Scottish Government, no matter what the hon. Gentleman wishes to read out to us. We have committed £6 billion in this area. We talk about childcare, but this is good quality early years education and 93% of the settings are providing good or outstanding childcare. That is great news for education and great news for those parents who, in many cases, find their working lives transformed by access to 30 hours of childcare.
This is clearly the right policy and has been demanded by working parents and others up and down the country. The shadow Minister talked about the policy being shrouded in secrecy; I do not know where she was in the general election of 2015, but I think that this is an issue that all parties discussed in many different debates.
Let me ask the Minister about the implementation of the policy by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the operation of its website. He knows that I, as the incoming Chairman of the Treasury Committee, wrote to the head of HMRC over the summer, who replied on 17 August saying that a total of £45,000 or thereabouts had so far been paid in compensation. Can the Minister update the House and will he confirm that, as he said, those parents who had codes by 31 August will be able to access the childcare this autumn?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. This is indeed a manifesto pledge that is being delivered. It is no secret that there were some technical problems with the IT system and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary is in his place listening to what we say. About 1% of cases that applied online were stuck—that is, for a technical reason those cases were not processed. Another group of cases could not have been processed online, and we refer to those as amber cases. Let me give an example: a person who applies for childcare on the basis of a job offer rather than a track record of earning in that job. If we were not to have a manual system as back-up, we would have a Catch-22 situation in which the person could not apply for childcare because they did not have a job but could not get the job because they did not have childcare. In such situations, there is a manual system.
When the Secretary of State wrote to my right hon. Friend, I think 2,200 cases were stuck. The figure I now have is 1,500, but they are many new cases, some of which have only been on the system for about a week. I am sure that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will write to my right hon. Friend with regards to compensation. A small number of people were affected by the system. The system was operational 93% of the time during which people could apply.
Has the Minister read the report that I published last week with the Social Market Foundation? It shows that, of the extra money that the Government are pumping into early years over the course of this Parliament, 75% is being spent on the top 50% of earners and less than 3% will go towards the most disadvantaged. This comes at a time when the Government’s own evaluation of the two-year-old offer shows that good-quality early education is life-changing for the families who receive it. Is he happy with this distribution of expenditure? What more is he doing to ensure that low-income and disadvantaged families are accessing this high- quality education?
I did read the hon. Lady’s report and some of the press coverage. She is absolutely right that the attainment gap needs to be closed between those from a disadvantaged background and those from other families. We are making progress in closing that gap, which is being closed at a faster rate in London than elsewhere. The 30 hours of childcare is for working families. However, many families cannot get into work because they cannot get childcare, so we will be pulling families out of poverty who currently cannot work because of the extortionate cost of childcare compared to their income. Of course, we still have the offering of 15 hours for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds and the early years pupil premium, which is specifically aimed at helping families most in need—the most disadvantaged families—because we need to close the attainment gap.
When it comes to childcare, parents want affordability and certainty. Many parents listening today will be very reassured by the Minister’s statement, so I thank him for that. Will he take this opportunity to confirm what proportion of childcare providers will offer the new entitlement? I believe it is estimated to be about 80% of providers. Can he confirm that that is still the case?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Not all providers were offering the 15 hours. Of those that do offer 15 hours, about 80% are going to offer the 30 hours. We understand that we might need to increase capacity in some areas, which is why we have made £100 million of capital funding available to provide another 18,000 places for 30-hours placements.
I absolutely welcome the policy. After all, it was a Liberal Democrat policy that we started implementing while in coalition so I would like to see it succeed. However, I invite the Minister to come to Oxford West and Abingdon because I am afraid that the suggestion that the policy is absolutely fine and working on the ground is simply not correct. In my constituency, the places are not available and they are being heavily subsidised by early and late pick-up fees, and extra money for nappies and lunches. Those costs simply were not there before. Please will you look again at the funding in different parts of the country? The total figure does not matter. It needs to be available where parents are. Have you looked at this and what are you going to do about it?
When we selected the areas for the early roll-out pilots, we were careful to select places that were representative of different parts of the country. For example, York would have many parallels with Oxford. Indeed, 100% of providers delivered that childcare in York and 100% of families looking for childcare got it. I would be more than happy to visit Oxford and see the successful policy being delivered for parents who need it so much.
I welcome the Government’s extra investment in childcare. The availability and accessibility of good childcare can make a huge difference to working families. Does the Minister think that the introduction of 30 hours of free childcare will have a positive and direct impact on the finances of working families?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Evidence from the pilot areas demonstrates that almost a quarter of women and 10% of men are able to take more hours at work. Indeed, the policy has been transformational in some people’s lives. I heard a story the other day of a family who, during the working week, only really met in the car park of the factory where they work shifts. As the husband arrived with the child strapped into the back of the car, the mother got back in the car and drove home, so they were not able to enjoy time together. The delivery of 30 hours’ free childcare will mean that they will be able to enjoy a better family life. The policy will address the situation of people passing in the hallway as one person comes in from work and another goes out.
Is it not clear from the contributions of my hon. Friends and from the experience of Busy Bees, a nursery chain that provides a service in Bromborough in my constituency, that these low rates for childcare mean that the market is now fundamentally broken? What will the Minister do if we find, after years of this Tory Government, that they have reintroduced the scourge of low pay into childcare?
If the hon. Lady had been listening to the Prime Minister in Prime Minister’s questions, she will have heard that we look carefully at the cost of delivering childcare. As I said, that is £3.72 an hour—much less than the funding we are providing. Busy Bees has 267 nurseries across the country, and is delivering 30 hours. Despite the reservations we have heard, the Co-operative Childcare is delivering 30 hours at its 45 nurseries, including 17 in London, which is one of the most expensive places to do that. Bright Horizons is participating in the scheme with its 296 nurseries. The big chains are participating. I go up and down the country talking to small independent and charitable nurseries and other providers including childminders, and they are also delivering with the funding we are putting in.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on delivering on this election promise, but will he keep the funding arrangements under review, particularly those in high-cost areas? Even in these early days, some constituents have complained to me that there is a lack of availability at a local level. That is driven by the money. Will he keep that under review to ensure that the provision is universally available across the country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are creating a lot more places and that creates demand within the system. I visited a nursery just outside Selby in East Yorkshire that was gearing up to provide more places and hire more staff to provide the availability. We are putting £100 million of funding into the system to provide 18,000 additional places. Many nurseries are investing through their own resources to deliver this policy.
Children in deprived areas of my constituency start school up to 20 months behind where they should be developmentally. High-quality childcare with properly trained professionals can transform their lives. I urge the Minister to take the Opposition’s concerns more seriously. During the general election campaign, I met several providers who will not be able to deliver the policy. Will he look again and ensure that all children get the very best start in life?
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is vital to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and other children in our schooling system. Indeed, we have 12 opportunity areas across the country where we are looking at ways of specifically addressing that. One way is better provision for early years, but another is working with parents to improve the home learning environment, which is often so lacking in some families, particularly when they have housing problems to address.
Many parents in Torbay will welcome the availability of up to 30 hours of free childcare to support them going into employment, but, as with all policies, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Regarding the early delivery areas, what evaluation has been done of the number of parents who have taken on extra hours at work thanks to the availability of increased childcare?
The raw stats indicate that about a quarter of women and 10% of men took additional hours, but I have also heard from people who could not get into employment at all because of the cost of childcare. A lady I spoke to in York said that the fact that she could now work and take up the 30 hours of childcare greatly transformed her family’s finances and life. The system is very flexible. Families can spread the childcare over more weeks or use different providers, including those in the voluntary sector, maintained nurseries or childminders.
The Government cannot hide on this issue. During the Childcare Bill Committee, I and others here and outside Westminster told the then Minister that his plans were full of holes, and so it has been proved. What will the new Minister do to fill the gaps in provision, particularly in deprived areas, where the holes are the deepest and the need is the greatest?
I am not going to argue with the hon. Gentleman that we need specifically to target some of our more deprived areas. This policy is designed to help working families, but I am all too well aware that many children in the most deprived families, with the most needs, are not in working families. That is why we have the offering for two-year-olds and the additional help that is going in. We are working very carefully to ensure that we do not leave that group of children out, particularly in the opportunity areas.
My elder daughter, Daisy, started nursery this week. From speaking to local parents, I know that this policy will, as the Minister says, help hard-working families take up new employment and additional hours, so it is welcome. I am also encouraged that parents will be able to add to the funding the Government are making available through existing schemes, such as childcare vouchers. However, in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), will the Minister, as he reviews policy in an ongoing way, consider whether flexibility could be introduced for rural or high-cost areas, to make sure those additional schemes can be used to help parents who wish to do so to top up the funding provided by the Government? Instead of always complaining that there is not enough, let us help parents to look after themselves.
I do not want to disappoint my hon. Friend, but we are not in the business of encouraging top-ups. Nurseries are perfectly free to charge for additional hours or for lunch, nappies or other items, but that cannot be a prerequisite to accessing the 30 hours. The Government have a number of other packages, including tax-free childcare and other wonderful policies that the Treasury is making available, to help people afford the cost of childcare. However, this particular policy is great news for parents and great news for children, who are accessing quality childcare and education.
I have a constituent who is struggling to pay for childcare because of the way universal credit works. She is a working single mother and is expected to pay for her childcare up front—it is over £800 in her case—and then to claim it back, which does not make much sense to me. The cost is more than she earns from her job, and she may need to give up working. How does this system help people such as my constituent get back into work?
This system helps people precisely like that, because it is not a system where people pay and reclaim—the money is reimbursed to the nursery by the local authority. Indeed, staff at one of the nurseries I spoke to in York said that one of the best aspects of the scheme is that they would not have to chase parents for money or, on occasion, withdraw childcare because the parent had not paid their bill. This scheme makes the administration easier for nurseries, which are already collecting the 15 hours’ funding from local authorities. That will exactly solve the hon. Lady’s constituent’s problem.
I strongly support the Government’s policy, not least because one of my daughters starts nursery tomorrow. In Nottinghamshire, we have an issue with capacity, and particularly convenient capacity, in rural areas. Parents who commute long distances and who live in villages want childcare close at hand—childminders as well as nurseries. Will the Minister highlight the Government’s childcare business grants of £500 or £1,000, which are available to people who want to set up small businesses as childminders or small nurseries, and will he perhaps consider increasing the grants to a level that enables providers to do more?
We have talked a lot about nurseries, but I must make it clear that there is flexibility in this scheme. Indeed, we have 5,500 dormant childminders, who could see this as an opportunity to get back into that business, although I suspect that a number of them may be working in other jobs, and particularly in nurseries, as jobs are created in them. However, this is a flexible system, and I hope the voluntary sector will also step up to the mark and increase capacity in its nurseries—indeed, we could see a number of new nurseries opening because of this policy.
I welcome the principle of 30 hours of free childcare, but it cannot come at the expense of quality early years education, and that is exactly what is happening. Many children in my constituency from deprived communities currently have access to quality nursery schools employing qualified nursery school teachers, and those schools are doing tremendous work to enhance the life chances of those children. Those schools assure me that they will not be able to fund the continued employment of those qualified teachers. It is important that we make a distinction between childcare and early years education. I note that Save the Children also raised concerns about this issue yesterday, maintaining that 40% of those who took part in the pilot areas actually reported a loss in profits and, therefore, a threat to their sustainability.
I absolutely recognise the importance of the maintained sector. Indeed, many of the small number of maintained nursery schools tend to be in some of the more deprived areas, where needs are much greater. I would just reiterate the fact that 93% of nursery providers are either good or outstanding, according to Ofsted. That is a great sign of the quality that is being delivered on the ground. More hours will mean better quality education, with children starting school more prepared for it. Indeed, a report in the press today showed that children arrive at school without the necessary language skills and simple skills such as picking up a knife and fork. They will learn that at nursery, and that is great news.
Figures produced over the summer show that female employment rates are at a record high, at over 70%. Does the Minister agree that it is important to encourage and support women back into work and that this policy and legislation do that?
I absolutely agree with my hon. and learned Friend, while recognising that some mothers and, indeed, fathers may see caring for their child at home as their priority—sadly, many do not have a choice in that because of the finances of the household. However, this policy is delivering the opportunity for more women to get into the workplace, and I have already heard from women who have taken on more hours or started a job when they could not previously afford to go to work at all.
Last year, in a Westminster Hall debate, the then childcare Minister told me I was scoring cheap political points and should be ashamed of myself when I raised the issue of funding policies and of how nurseries were at threat of closure because of this policy. Recently, a Pre-school Learning Alliance survey said that one in three nurseries fears being driven out of business because of this policy. What action is the Minister taking to ensure our nurseries do not close because of this flagship policy from the Government?
I am surprised the hon. Lady has been accused of making cheap political points. I have known her for some time, and she has never made such points to me. I can assure her that we have looked carefully at the costs of delivery. There will be nurseries that, because of their business plan, are not going to deliver 30 hours, but there are nurseries that were not delivering 15 hours —indeed, there is one in my village, which is connected to a fee-paying prep school, that will not participate. However, there will be choice for parents who might want to go for a different type of nursery education—maybe with longer hours, or with different types of trips and other services—that other families might not wish to choose.
I commend my hon. Friend for the way he is responding to this urgent question. For the thousands of working parents who are taking advantage of the 30 hours of free childcare, how much is it worth to them on average, per year, per child?
All children are entitled to expect the best possible start in life, and parents are entitled to expect help with childcare so that they can go out to work. However, with thousands of parents in Birmingham still in limbo, free childcare that is often not free, providers threatened with going out of business, and the closure of 26 children’s centres in the city, does the Minister understand the grievance expressed by the group of parents I met last week in my constituency, who said the Government are long on rhetoric but are simply letting Birmingham’s children down?
The hon. Gentleman talks about letting children down in Birmingham, but maybe he should look at some of the children’s services there and see how they could be improved. However, this policy has been tested up and down the country, in rural and urban areas, and it is great news for parents and children.
Having listened to the urgent question—I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on getting it granted, and the Minister on doing a written statement—I think there is agreement on both sides of the House that this is an excellent policy, and the issue is just the implementation. If there is one Minister in the whole House who will make sure something is done properly, it is the Minister at the Dispatch Box today. Will he give the House an undertaking that he will come back later in the year to update the House on this policy?
I certainly will. It must be borne in mind that there are three entry times; it is not like reception year, whereby all children start in September. We are already encouraging parents whose children will have turned three by 1 January—and, indeed, those who will turn three after Easter—to apply early to get on the system. Two more tranches of children will come into the system as it builds.
The Minister will be well aware that Northern Ireland has not had a functioning Assembly since January. I want to be reassured that childcare entitlement in Northern Ireland is not falling behind because of the uncertainty over the Assembly, or the lack of it. We have no idea when it will come back. Will the Minister enlighten the House and, in particular, parents in Northern Ireland? Who exactly does he liaise with in Northern Ireland to make sure that childcare entitlement is progressing within the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a part?
May I welcome a policy that will assist another 400,000 families and increase the amount of money we are spending to £6 billion? Will the Minister review the position in East Sussex? As a county with a low average wage, we are not receiving as much as Brighton and Hove, which is right on our borders. As a result, there is a concern that staff in the industry will migrate to Brighton. Perhaps in a year’s time, could the Minister assess whether those patterns are emerging and, if they are, commit to look at the issue afresh?
I respect the Minister, who is making a valiant effort to defend an outstanding policy with holes in it, the biggest of which is funding. One group who have not been mentioned in this debate is childminders, including those in my constituency, who are highly qualified, are often women, have a level 3 national vocational qualification and have been Ofsted assessed. I have been categorically told by a number of my constituents that the county council funding provided from money given by central Government is inadequate. Many of them say that unless that is remedied they will have to pull out of the business. Can the Minister at least assure me that he will review the whole funding arrangement in the coming first quarter?
I, too, warmly welcome this policy and the fulfilment of our manifesto pledge and commitment. Dorset was one of the pilot areas to introduce 30 hours’ free childcare, and many parents have welcomed the additional flexibility. May I invite the Minister to re-emphasise that message? The policy provides flexibility and gives both parents the opportunity to get back into work or increase their hours of work.
Is the Minister not concerned that more than 60,000 children whose parents applied for a funded place do not have one? How is he going to deliver the policy for those parents, who may have been relying on that funded childcare place in order to take up an offer of employment or to extend their hours at work? This is particularly important in rural areas such as mine. The largest chains of nurseries are better able to spread the costs, but three nurseries in High Peak have had to close their doors over the summer. They are all small, independent nurseries that cannot see a way forward on the funding levels that have been set.
That was not the experience in the pilot areas, including areas very similar to that of the hon. Lady. Indeed, we have seen areas where 100% of the providers were delivering and 100% of the parents got places. We are only six days into the school term. I heard that, on Tuesday alone, 8,000 parents got their codes validated with a nursery. Parents will still be looking around and deciding in which nursery to get a place. Indeed, many nurseries will now be considering taking on additional staff to provide more places in those nurseries, given the increased demand.
How many working parents have been excluded from the entitlement because they cannot guarantee that they will work more than 16 hours a week on the national minimum wage? Does he not recognise that the reality of many working parents in my constituency is that their employers will not guarantee them those hours, so nor can they? That makes it even harder for them to earn and work.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Before I answer it, may I correct what I said earlier? Ninety-three per cent. of the funding has to be passed on by the local authority in 2017-18, rising to 95% from 2018-19, which is even better news than I gave earlier.
The experience is that someone has to be earning the equivalent of 16 hours a week of the national minimum wage. Many mothers and, indeed, fathers are looking to take additional hours, given that childcare will be available. That is the experience up and down the country.
Will the Minister acknowledge that the commitment given by his predecessor at a meeting I held with independent small nursery owners in Isleworth last November has not been upheld? They warned her that the funding for the scheme would be insufficient and they would have to close, reduce the range of services to children, charge high amounts for lunch or cut the proportion of highly qualified staff in their settings. She said, “Don’t worry,” and implied that she would sort the funding, but does the Minister agree that their predictions have proven to be true?
We did hear what the sector said, which is why we have increased the funding. Indeed, there will be an additional £300 million a year by 2020 as a direct response to those concerns about the funding levels. We have done a lot of work working out what it costs to deliver, and we are confident that the funding is adequate.
In July 2016 I asked about progress, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, given the Committee’s concerns. I asked in particular about work to ensure that local authorities were managing childcare markets effectively and whether there would be intervention if necessary. The then Minister told me that I had asked an important question and then announced the amount of capital. I was grateful for his kind words. It would be a cheap political point to say, “I told you so,” so I am not going to do that. I will simply ask the question again: what work is the Department doing to ensure that local authorities are managing childcare markets effectively, and will the Minister intervene if necessary?
We are working very closely with local authorities, particularly on the administration. Indeed, we have given very clear messaging to local authorities: if there are parents who have not yet got their codes because of technical or other reasons, they have to show latitude. Of course, it is not the job of the local authority to manage the market; it is the job of the parents to choose the best provision for their child and for the market to respond to that. That is what we are seeing up and down the country, with increased places being provided in existing nurseries, and new nurseries, I hope, being opened, particularly given the grant funding we have made available for another 180,000 places.
Does the Minister agree that some Members seem to be glossing over the fact that this pilot has proved that the policy will empower and enable parents either to go back to work or to extend their working hours, which will transform thousands of lives in this country?