House of Commons
Tuesday 12 September 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
BUSINESS BEFORE QUESTIONS
Middle Level Bill
That the promoters of the Middle Level Bill, which originated in this House in the previous Session on 24 January 2017, may have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of Bills).—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 10 October.
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What steps he is taking to ensure the accuracy of carbon emission measurements. 
The UK’s measurement of carbon emissions is considered among the best in the world, with a 97% accuracy rate. Indeed, our inventory of carbon emissions is among the world’s most comprehensive, covering all sectors of the economy. However, we are always looking to improve our accuracy in this area, and that work is guided by the National Inventory Steering Committee, which meets twice a year.
Excellent! Are we on track to meet our fourth carbon budget from 2023 to 2027?
I hope that my right hon. Friend will also consider excellent the fact that we overachieved against our first carbon budget to 2012 and that we are on track to over-achieve by 5% and 4% respectively against our second and third carbon budgets. However, I am afraid that he is being his usual mischievous self in asking about the fourth carbon budget, which is something that I shall be talking more about when we launch our clean growth strategy, so he will have to be patient just a little bit longer.
We await the hon. Lady’s oration on that occasion with eager anticipation.
The Minister’s response is simply not good enough. We have waited for report after report, and these carbon budgets have been delayed time and again. I know that we have had an unnecessary and uncosted election, but even the United Nations is saying that our air is not clean. It is time that the Government took this seriously, acted and told the House the exact figures.
I think the hon. Gentleman is showing the effect of our late sitting hours with his grumpiness. He should be celebrating the fact that Britain has led the world in decarbonising our economy, while growing the economy at a greater rate than any other G7 country. If he wants more affirmation, he should read the PwC report on that. What we have to do now is set out a very difficult and long-term plan to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets and to go beyond. As always, that requires all of us to support this difficult progress right across the economy. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have a cup of coffee and cheer up.
The Minister is right to say that we have an excellent method of calculating our emissions, but she might have pointed out that other countries do not, and that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is currently preparing updated guidelines on how best to account for emissions. Will she confirm that, for that vital work to proceed, the UK Government will be one of those who increase their financial contribution to the IPCC to make good the shortfall left by President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris agreement? Does she also agree, now that the cost of offshore wind energy has fallen by a half in just two years, that those are the easiest emissions to calculate, because they are zero?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will celebrate the fact that we entirely agree and have committed to increasing our contribution to the funding of that agency, directly as a result of the pull-out of the USA from the Paris agreement—although technically it cannot withdraw until 2020.
2. To ask the Secretary of State what progress he has made on assessing the recommendations of the Taylor review of modern working practices. 
We welcome, accept and agree with Matthew Taylor’s ambition that all work in the UK should be fair and decent, with realistic scope for development and fulfilment. The report is comprehensive and detailed. We will give it the careful consideration it deserves, and we will respond in full later this year.
Taylor agreed that we needed to ensure that the self-employed were genuinely self-employed and to strengthen their rights. A Labour Government would shift the burden of proof, so that the law would assume that a worker was an employee unless the employer could prove otherwise. We would set up a dedicated commission to modernise the law on employment status. Why cannot this Government commit to real action like that?
Much of what the hon. Gentleman refers to is covered by Matthew Taylor in his report, and one of his recommendations that we will be following up with interest is that all workers should be informed of their status in writing by their employer before they start their work.
Has my hon. Friend looked at the working practices of the John Lewis Partnership—with which I no longer have any connection whatever—and seen the way in which it has people on its boards of management? Does she not believe that this is an important way to achieve worker involvement?
I thank my hon. Friend for his commendation of the John Lewis Partnership, with which I concur. It is, indeed, a very good employer, but it is not alone: many other large companies engage with their employees in much the same way.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the Supreme Court’s ruling that employment tribunal fees for workers are illegal? Will she now accept that it is the Government’s responsibility to end the use of bogus self-employment by companies that seek to avoid paying national insurance and giving workers the rights that they deserve? Will she commit to introducing the necessary legislative changes in this Parliament to give workers the rights that they need and to ensure that taxpayers get the tax revenue and national insurance that they deserve?
Indeed, what the hon. Lady refers to as bogus self-employment is one of the reasons why the Prime Minister appointed Matthew Taylor to review employment protection in the context of the modern economy. She raises some good points, and I trust her Committee will be investigating them. My Department will co-operate fully.
As well as the whole issue around modern working practices, what more can the Government do to incorporate productivity within this?
Productivity is a crucial part of our industrial strategy, as are good employee communications and practice. The union between Matthew Taylor’s report and the industrial strategy will focus very much on improving productivity as the basis of improving people’s earning power.
3. To ask the Secretary of State what steps he is taking to increase average weekly earnings. 
We need an economy that works for everyone. We are developing the industrial strategy to improve living standards and boost earning power, so that everyone in our country can share the benefits of our economic success.
With average weekly real earnings lower than they were in 2007 and with the Institute for Fiscal Studies saying that the flatlining of real wages is unprecedented since at least the end of the second world war, does the Minister accept that Britain needs a pay rise? What are Ministers doing to tackle this?
That is one of the reasons why the Government have introduced the national living wage, as a means of boosting the earning power of people at the lower end of the pay scale. I acknowledge that average earnings have been static over the past year, but it is important to recognise that people on the national minimum wage were given a 4% pay rise in April this year, and 1.3 million of those people have been taken out of paying income tax altogether.
Does the Minister agree that this Government have done more than any other to raise the wages of the lower paid in our society, including an average £1,000 pay rise per worker?
I have to agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a very good point. Indeed, the rise in national minimum wage to which I referred in my earlier answer is the best pay rise for low-paid people in this country for 20 years.
It is almost comical; we would not even have a minimum wage if it were not for Labour Members. The Minister spoke about the Government’s industrial strategy, which she thinks will help to give people a pay rise, but that strategy is absolutely at odds with the current Brexit strategy. Will the Department have a word with the rest of the Government and commit to keeping our country in the single market?
I remind the hon. Lady that this Government’s policy is to be outward-facing and achieve the best trade deal possible with the European Union, but we have to bear in mind the concerns of my constituents and hers about immigration. That has to be tackled, and it is no use the Opposition running away from that. They cannot assume that we will be able to remain in the single market indefinitely and address people’s legitimate concerns about immigration.
Average weekly earnings in Kettering are typically 5% below the national average, so anything the Government can do to cut basic levels of tax is particularly important. Does my hon. Friend agree that, because we raised the income tax threshold from £6,500 a year in 2010 to £11,500 a year, basic rate taxpayers typically pay £1,000 a year less in income tax?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s point. I am sorry to hear about the situation with regard to earnings in Kettering, but I am sure that the Government’s commitment to improving skills and our target of 3 million apprenticeship places by 2020 will help the people of Kettering, as they will help people all over the country.
The Government’s pretendy living wage is not available to those under the age of 25. If a 25-year-old and 17-year-old start the same job on the same day, the 17-year-old will be paid £3.45 less than their older counterpart. When will the Government ensure that all workers receive a real living wage of £8.45 an hour?
I remind the hon. Lady that the Government set the national living wage, but only after consultation with the independent Low Pay Commission. It is the commission’s view that we need to have several levels of the national minimum wage because youth unemployment is persistently higher than unemployment among those above the age of 25. The policy is really to balance maximum earning power with maximum levels of employment.
According to the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, the last time wages were stagnant for so long was 150 years ago, when Gladstone was Prime Minister, Darwin was launching the theory of evolution and trade unions were illegal. Now we know from Library figures that, year on year, wages went up under the previous Labour Government and, year on year, wages have gone down under this Conservative Government. Is it not simply the truth that workers get a pay rise under Labour and a pay cut under the Tories?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that this Government are concerned not just about pay, but about employment. If we look at the record of the previous Labour Government—or, indeed, that of any Labour Government—we see that their record on employment is poor. The record of this Government is the maximum number of jobs, with more than 1 million new jobs created, which is an important point. If he wants to talk about anniversaries, let me say that this week is the 10th anniversary of the financial crisis, and I remind him of the deficit that this Government inherited following that crash.
4. What steps he is taking to support growth in the UK space sector. 
6. What steps he is taking to support growth in the UK space sector. 
The UK has a world-leading space sector. A quarter of the world’s satellites are either built in the UK or have major components from the UK. At the last European Space Agency ministerial in 2016, the Government agreed €1.4 billion of new funding for space programmes, and we have recently introduced the Space Industry Bill, which will enable UK firms to participate in a sector worth £25 billion.
I thank the Minister for his very encouraging answer. The tender for the next stage of the ground control segment of the Galileo programme, in which the UK has a leadership role, is currently live, so will he make sure that the European Commission’s request for UK-based companies to clarify how they will repatriate activities to the EU does not undermine them in winning contracts?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. British expertise has been absolutely fundamental to the development of the Galileo and Copernicus programmes. The “Collaboration on science and innovation” paper we published just last week made it clear that the UK would very much welcome an agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have made it clear that we want our companies and our universities to continue participating in key EU space programmes.
The ingenuity, expertise and experience of our UK space sector enables us to punch well above our weight and to collaborate globally in bodies such as CERN, ESA and many others that predate the EU. Does the Minister agree that we should continue fully to support the role that British companies play in both other European space agencies and the EU space programme?
My hon. Friend has great expertise in this area, through his association with the parliamentary space committee. I can reassure him, as I did a moment ago, that we are committed to continuing to collaborate closely with European countries to develop our space sector to the benefit of all those in employment in this sector in this country.
The Minister probably knows that precision engineering companies in Huddersfield are very much involved in the Mars probes and the space programme, but does he know that they are increasingly worried, as is the University of Huddersfield, about the future of partnerships across Europe and the funding from Europe that makes that exploration and the existence of those cutting-edge companies possible?
At the ESA ministerial council in December, the UK committed a record sum of €1.4 billion to ESA. We are committed to continuing to participate in ESA, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is not part of the EU but a separate organisation entirely. We see great value in continuing to participate in the programmes it administers.
The Minister is right to address the space sector. He will also be aware of issues within the aerospace sector, in particular at Bombardier. He will be aware of Boeing’s attempts to stop the contract and to add $30 million to every C Series plane coming out of Belfast. What is he doing to ensure that Bombardier’s contract is secured?
The hon. Gentleman got the word “space” in, but there is a distinction between aerospace and space. Some people might think that he was cheekily shoehorning his own preoccupation into a question to which it was not obviously entirely relevant.
None the less, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are engaging very closely with the companies involved and will follow up on his points.
14. In my constituency of Chelmsford, more than 500 jobs at Teledyne e2v are directly involved in the space sector. We are making the cameras that will go on satellites out in space to see whether there is life on other planets. Will the Minister reassure my constituents that the UK’s ongoing contribution to the European Space Agency is being considered? 
Absolutely; we are committed to our ongoing membership of the European Space Agency. As I said a second ago, we have just provided €1.4 billion of new funding for its programmes. Teledyne e2v in my hon. Friend’s constituency makes an important contribution to the success of the programmes that ESA is running.
5. What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s manufacturing capacity. 
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has asked that question, as we often hear that Britain does not make things anymore. In fact, Britain is the ninth largest manufacturing nation. The sector contributes £168 billion to the national economy and employs more than 2.5 million people directly, and its output has grown by 3.2% in real terms since 2010.
I thank the Minister for that very upbeat response. I, too, get frustrated when I hear people say that we do not make things in this country anymore. My constituency is living testimony to the fact that we do. We have world-leading, cutting-edge companies, particularly in the aerospace and defence industries, but also in other areas of engineering. Should we not paint a rosier picture, not least to help people who are leaving school decide to follow careers in manufacturing? We often forget that many valuable, excellent careers are available in manufacturing, and if we put forward a more rosy picture, people might be attracted into the industry.
I agree entirely. My hon. Friend makes a good case for manufacturers such as GE Aviation and Moog Industrial in his constituency. Productivity, which is the way we drive up earning power across the country, has increased three times faster in manufacturing than in the rest of the economy in the past 10 years. There is much more to do, which is why we have committed to the biggest increase in public science and innovation funding for nearly 40 years; invested nearly £300 million in the high-value manufacturing Catapult; brought forward almost 3 million apprenticeship starts, many of which are in these valuable industries; and increased the permanent level of the annual investment allowance almost tenfold, starting on 1 January last year. We want to help businesses export and thrive across the world, and to support them every step of the way.
The truth is that UK manufacturing capacity has languished at too low a level for many years. However, the depreciation of sterling to a more sensible parity has seen a number of companies, including Rolls-Royce and Nissan, boost their investment. Now that we are leaving the EU, will the Government look to use state aid and public procurement programmes to further boost British manufacturing?
The hon. Gentleman points to one of the impacts of the referendum result, which is that many industries have had a substantial currency tailwind, which has helped sectors such as aerospace and steel to deliver rather impressive results this year. He is right that we need to keep those sectors thriving. We need not only to get the most frictionless and wide-ranging trade deal that we can with the EU, but to export right across the world, where British goods and products are very well regarded.
Minister, 3,500 people in my constituency are employed in the manufacturing sector. Does she welcome the investment in Winsford by Tiger Trailers, a company with 200 employees that started three years ago, which plans to invest £22 million in a new building, doubling the size of its workforce, and exporting to Europe and elsewhere?
I am delighted to welcome, and indeed celebrate, that investment. There has been a series of such announcements in the automotive manufacturing sector—it has been confirmed that the electric Mini will be built in the UK. It is clear that British industry is investing, growing and thriving in the UK. We will do all we can to ensure that that continues.
Given the importance of the aerospace sector in manufacturing capacity and the rather non-committal reply to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), will the Government commit themselves to standing very firmly, alongside the Canadian Government, behind Bombardier and its workers in resisting bullying from Boeing and its friends in the United States Administration?
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree that it is vital the dispute is settled, and that we create the environment for many manufacturers in this vital sector to thrive and grow.
Electric and Autonomous Vehicles
7. What steps he has taken to support the development of electric and autonomous vehicles. 
Our industrial strategy capitalises on our strengths as we build the next generation of motor vehicles. On 25 July, we committed £246 million to the Faraday challenge to make Britain a centre for the development of battery storage. The following day, BMW announced that the new electric Mini will be built in Oxford.
As the fourth industrial revolution gathers pace, countries that embrace electric and autonomous vehicles will find it easier to move both people and products, reducing costs and boosting productivity. Will the Secretary of State continue to support such vehicles, as they drive our future economic growth and productivity?
I will indeed and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his championing of those investments. We already have an outstanding reputation in the automotive sector through our leadership and investment in both electric and automated vehicles. Ford, for example, has announced that its European smart mobility research will be based in Britain, and Nissan is conducting its automated vehicle testing in the UK. Our code of practice for testing new technologies is globally recognised as the best in the world. We have a successful motor industry and we want it to be stronger still.
On 20 February, the Secretary of State said that he would release the famous letter to Nissan
“when it is no longer commercially confidential”. —[Official Report, 20 February 2017; Vol. 621, c. 784.]
Will he explain whether that will be in 2017, 2018, 2019, or sometime thereafter?
Yes, I will release the letter. The hon. Gentleman reminds us of the fact that the investment Nissan is making in Sunderland has secured 7,000 jobs on that site and nearly 50,000 jobs in the supply chain. It was a very welcome investment. We need to respect Nissan’s confidentiality, but I have made a commitment to the House that, when it no longer applies, I will certainly release the letter.
What discussions is the Secretary of State having with manufacturers on prolonging battery life as rapidly as possible, and on rolling out electricity charging points to ensure the existing points are working and not broken down, and that they become more readily available throughout the UK?
We are gaining international respect and attention, including from some of companies that have been mentioned, for our commitment to research and development of battery storage. That is why, through our industrial strategy, the Faraday challenge to make us the best in the world in battery storage is so important. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to mention charging points. We want to make it possible for people to plug in and charge their cars. We have over 11,000 publicly accessible charge points. That is the largest network in Europe, and we want to expand it further.
8. What steps he is taking to ensure the security of the UK’s energy supply after the UK leaves the EU. 
The British energy market is one of the most liquid and developed markets in the world, and it provides security through diversity of supply. We enjoy cordial links with the EU in this field and expect that to continue after EU exit.
Does the Minister accept that it is vital that we stay in the European internal energy market after Brexit in order to facilitate tariff-free trading of gas and electricity across borders, which we currently have? I know that the Department has been busy trying to find out why 20% of its staff have left without telling it why, according to a report in The Times, but when will the Government reply to the report by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and when will they announce policy options in this crucial area?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Government are considering all aspects of their future relationship with the EU, including the arrangements for trading energy. Our priority is maintaining affordable, clean and secure energy supplies for businesses and households.
23. Two thirds of our energy will still come from oil and gas in 2035, so will the Minister join me in congratulating the economic report from Oil & Gas UK highlighting the renewed vote of confidence in the North sea shelf? Will he also make sure that the oil industry is at the heart of the Government’s industrial strategy? 
I fully agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the oil and gas industry, which supports more than 300,000 highly skilled jobs in regional centres of excellence across the UK. I understand from my recent visit to Aberdeen, where I was joined by him, that the sector is working on a compelling proposal for a deal, building on the unprecedented support we have already given to the industry, and I look forward to receiving it in the near future.
20. The UK is already a net importer of electricity. Post-Brexit, for the security of energy, the UK needs to maintain access to interconnectors and to remain part of the integrated energy market, as this provides tariff-free access to gas and electricity. Will the Minister confirm whether the UK will remain in the internal energy market post-Brexit? 
I absolutely can confirm that maximum continuity of supply is very important to us. We have an excellent relationship with the EU on this, and it is the Government’s responsibility to make sure that it continues. I am sure that that will satisfy the hon. Gentleman.
It looks like membership of the internal energy market is not connected to single market membership but that membership of a couple of key industry and regulatory bodies, such as the Agency for the Co-operation of Energy Regulators and European Network Transmission Systems Operators and Council of European Energy Regulators, comes as a prerequisite. Has the Minister had any discussions with those organisations to see whether the UK can be a member when not a member of the EU?
As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware from his former membership of the then Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, we are talking all the time to these organisations, and our priority is to maintain the maximum continuity of supply that everyone in this country has been used to and will continue to enjoy.
Until now, the Government have put nuclear at the heart of their energy strategy, but their decision to leave Euratom puts at risk the security of markets, businesses and workers in the sector. Could this mean that the Secretary of State is finally wavering over his support for the over-budget and very late Hinkley Point?
I can confirm that the Secretary of State is very much in favour of the arrangements at Hinkley Point and that the Government are in favour of a mix of energy that includes nuclear and all its other sources. This has been very successful and ensured energy security and the continuity of supply that everybody enjoys.
The Minister will be aware that energy from nuclear plants will cost £92.50 per megawatt hour but that the new strike price for offshore wind is only £57.50—nearly half. Is he happy for people to pay higher bills for his Government’s nuclear obsession?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for effectively congratulating the Government on the results of the recent auction for energy prices—I, too, was delighted that the cost of offshore wind effectively dropped by half. I also remind him, however, that energy has to remain a mix. Nuclear is part of that mix, and as with all mixes aimed at maintaining continuity of supply, some are more expensive and some are cheaper. What matters is the average price paid, and I think that Hinkley will turn out to be a really good deal for the taxpayer, as it involves no public funds upfront, which is very unusual for this kind of massive development.
I am a little concerned by the Minister’s reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle). The Secretary of State specifically told the BEIS Select Committee in the spring that it was very much in Britain’s energy security interest to continue to participate in the internal energy market. Does the Minister agree with his own Secretary of State on this matter? If so, what action has he been taking to ensure that we can participate in that market after Brexit?
It is the job of the hon. Gentleman—the Opposition spokesman—to be concerned about everything that the Minister says. I fully accept that. In this particular case, however, I can but reiterate that maintaining continuity of supply is our first priority. That is what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says we must do, and that is what we shall do.
As the Minister knows, nuclear is an important industry in Cumbria. As well as being a security issue, energy is an industrial issue. Can the Minister confirm that a nuclear sector deal is one of the Government’s main priorities?
Yes, I can. Having met Lord Hutton and other members of the Nuclear Industry Association, I am delighted to say that the sector deal is at an advanced stage, and we hope it will be one of the first that we are able to announce.
9. What steps he is taking to encourage long-term decision-making in corporate governance. 
One of Britain’s greatest assets in competing in the global economy is our reputation for being a dependable place in which to do business. In our response to the recent Green Paper on corporate governance, we set out plans to build on those strengths through greater transparency and accountability to shareholders, employees and suppliers, and others with an interest in the long-term success of companies.
A myopic focus on short-term profit and share price in many British boardrooms damages the UK economy, leading to chronically low rates of business investment and the treatment of workers as units of production rather than human beings. Some respondents to the Green Paper suggested that long-term investors should be rewarded with stronger shareholder voting rights. Can the Secretary of State explain why the Government rejected that interesting proposal?
We consulted widely on the Green Paper, and the set of reforms that we are making has enjoyed broad support. We are proposing to extend the holding periods for long-term share incentives from three years to five years. I think the hon. Lady played some part in the introduction of the three-year periods, and I hope that she will welcome the extension. We are also making it a more explicit requirement of boards, including boards of directors, to reflect in their reports and accounts what they are doing for a wider range of stakeholders, not just the short-term issues. I hope the hon. Lady will welcome that as well.
Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund
11. To ask the Secretary of State what assessment he has made of the capacity of the industrial strategy challenge fund to increase economic growth. 
The industrial strategy challenge fund will help to drive growth in all parts of the country by using research and development to position us well in global markets where Britain has particular strengths.
Can the Secretary of State explain why his challenge fund is directed at sectors that are dominated by an over-representation of men, while many of the professions in which females are over-represented face low investment, low skills, low pay and low productivity?
Our exchanges this morning show the potential and the strengths that we have in successful sectors such as the automotive, healthcare and medicine, and satellite and space sectors, in which we are creating very good jobs. However, my ambition and my Department’s ambition—which I hope the hon. Gentleman shares—is to increase the proportion of women and other groups who are under-represented in those industries, because there is talent there that we should be using, and part of our drive is to get the best talent into those world-beating industries.
A recent report produced by Sheffield Hallam University found that the challenge fund had too narrow a sectoral focus, which was disproportionately benefiting areas in the south-east at the expense of traditional manufacturing areas in, for instance, the west midlands. What elements of the fund will benefit areas such as mine?
I have not seen the report. I will look at it, but I think it is mistaken. The challenge fund includes, for example, the Faraday challenge, which I launched at the University of Birmingham along with many industrialists and academics from across the west midlands. It is proposed that the west midlands should be at the heart of the challenge. Investment in driverless cars, and in satellites and space, is taking place throughout the country. One of the big features of the challenge fund is that it reaches every part of the country, and, indeed, every part of the United Kingdom.
With Brexit uncertainty mounting, inflation rising, growth faltering, business confidence at a six-year low, and the euro at a record high—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but that is the truth. Our economy therefore needs action from this Government, but instead it is groundhog day, with the same money announced over and over again, which makes it back to the future for our regions, with, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) indicated, the challenge fund money being shown by Sheffield Hallam research to impact only 1% of the economy, overwhelmingly in the south-east. So will the Secretary of State stop prevaricating, do the right thing and tell us right now what level of regional growth he expects the challenge fund to deliver? Or does he not even know what success looks like any longer?
Talking of groundhog day, the hon. Lady talks complete nonsense. The industrial strategy challenge fund and the industrial strategy Green Paper have been widely welcomed in all parts of the country. After our exchanges, I will send the hon. Lady the support it has had from the north-east of England, of which she should be aware. This is something that has long been called for. I have listed the sectors that will benefit. As we are talking about manufacturing, in terms of her reflections on the state of confidence in the economy, the hon. Lady should know that the EEF last week reported record orders, record export orders, record employment and record investment intention. She should welcome that.
Small and Medium-sized Enterprises
12. To ask the Secretary of State what steps his Department is taking to support small and medium-sized enterprises. 
British Business Bank programmes are supporting £3.4 billion of finance to almost 60,000 businesses. Growth hubs and the business support helpline provide information and guidance. In the hon. Lady’s area, the Liverpool city region growth hub has engaged and supported over 4,550 businesses, and I am leading a taskforce to identify opportunities to support SME growth.
The Government’s delay in giving out the business rate relief they announced in the spring Budget caused considerable suffering to thousands of businesses across the country. Measures such as the introduction of the staircase tax have also caused considerable tax increases for thousands of businesses across the country. Confidence has fallen back in the second quarter. The chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses has said—
Order. This is a most interesting essay, for which unfortunately we do not have time. What I am looking for from the hon. Lady—I am sure she will gratify the House—is a short question with a question mark at the end of it.
The chairman of the FSB has said that enough is enough and a fundamental review of the business rates should be conducted. Will the Minister agree with the chairman and bring forward a date for a fundamental review of business rates?
The hon. Lady raises very important issues, and I have met the chairman of the FSB to discuss business rates. Some of her questions should really be directed to my right hon. Friend he Chancellor, but in the meantime let me say that there has been a cap on rates increases, and small business rate relief will mean that bills will not increase by more than £50 per month for the first year. There has also been a £300 million local authority fund to provide discretionary relief on business rates, and I would encourage the hon. Lady to pressurise her council for the full benefit thereof.
The hon. Gentleman is not called “pithy Pursglove” for nothing; I am sure we will have a very succinct question from him.
One way that this Government have very effectively supported SMEs is through the establishment of new enterprise zones. Are Ministers keeping under review the possibility of another round of them becoming available?
I agree with my hon. Friend: enterprise zones have for the most part been a huge success in attracting investment and providing new jobs. We will keep in mind any future growth in the number of enterprise zones; we do not currently have any plans, but they have been a success and we will keep them under review.
Industrial Strategy (Rural Areas)
13. What plans he has to ensure that the industrial strategy is effectively implemented in rural areas. 
Some of the biggest economic opportunities are in the rural parts of the United Kingdom, and I welcome the contribution of many rural representative groups to the development of our industrial strategy, including several organisations in Ayrshire.
Ayrshire has enormous industrial potential, including as a possible site for the medical manufacturing innovation centre and, of course, for the UK’s first spaceport, but for it to succeed and for local people to benefit and access those jobs we require wider infrastructure development. Ayrshire is not covered by a city deal, so will the Secretary of State speak to the Chancellor and back a full Ayrshire growth deal?
The hon. Lady knows that I have great enthusiasm for a deal in Ayrshire, and conversations around that are ongoing. I am sure that she will welcome the progress being made on the spaceport, which is important for Prestwick, and the £3.5 million support for the Halo project at the old Johnnie Walker bottling plant in Kilmarnock. A lot is being done in Ayrshire, but I would like that progress to continue.
Has the Secretary of State considered rural enterprise zones? Small, targeted areas within small rural communities would help to drive business in those environments.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent suggestion. There are particular opportunities for start-ups and smaller businesses to locate in rural areas, where premises may be more available than in towns. Clustering them together so that they can support each other is an excellent suggestion and I will take it forward.
Property Market Transparency
15. What steps his Department is taking to increase transparency in the property market. 
Knowing who ultimately owns and controls a company is crucial in the global fight against corruption, and the UK is leading by example. Our public register of company beneficial ownership went live in June 2016.
Will the Minister confirm whether the Government will proceed with the public register of companies that own high-value property in the UK and whether we will still see it in April 2018, as intended?
We published a call for evidence on the proposal to create a new register showing the beneficial owners of overseas companies that own or buy property in the UK. The responses are currently being analysed, and we will publish a response in due course.
Renewable Energy and Carbon Budget Targets
16. What steps the Government are taking to meet their renewable energy and carbon budget targets. 
As I have mentioned several times, the UK has led the world in introducing legally binding carbon budgets with cross-party support, and we have exceeded our budgets to date. We are also on track to exceed our ambition to generate 30% of our power from renewables by 2021—it is looking like we will deliver 35%. However, all that has not been done at the expense of economic growth and productivity. Indeed, yesterday’s PwC report says that Britain is leading the world in clean growth and is reducing emissions while growing the economy.
Millions of tonnes of wood pellets from clear felling biodiverse forests in the US, Canada and the Baltic states are burned to make electricity for the UK every year. In the light of clear evidence from the old Department—what used to be called the Department of Energy and Climate Change—that that results in carbon emissions at least equal to those of coal, will my hon. Friend reconsider the huge annual subsidies for large-scale, inefficient biomass electricity generation?
My hon. Friend’s question demonstrates his deep knowledge in this area, but I am happy to reassure him that my Department’s follow-up, which was published in February this year, to the biomass energy counterfactual study that he references showed that the UK’s imported biomass is both sustainable and carbon beneficial. Although there is a risk of non-sustainable practices, they are not happening thanks to our strict sustainability criteria, and we continue to monitor the situation, because we are determined to maintain our global reputation for clean growth.
19. Pope Francis warned yesterday that history will judge adversely politicians who do not act on climate change, so when will the Government heed his words and publish their long overdue report and fifth carbon budget emissions reduction plan? 
Again, I refer back to the fact that politicians, led by the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues and with cross-party support, published in 2008 the world’s first legally binding plan to reduce emissions. We also led the world in the Paris agreement that out set long-term, binding targets for the rest of the world. He should be proud of what we have achieved in this House and should join us in spreading the word that the UK is a leader in clean growth. Given the results of yesterday’s auctions, there is no longer a trade-off to be made between the cost of energy production and clean growth. We can both decarbonise and grow the economy, and he should be jolly well proud of that.
The Minister clearly leads a joyous existence. We have again received evidence of that today, for which we are grateful. We will take one further question.
Domestic Energy Price Cap
17. Whether Ofgem is able to implement a domestic energy price cap within its present powers. 
Ofgem has extensive powers that would allow it to establish a cap on household energy prices that cause consumer detriment. The Competition and Markets Authority identified a consumer detriment averaging £1.4 billion a year, which I expect Ofgem to take measures to eradicate.
I thank the Secretary of State for that clarification. Is it not pathetic of Ofgem to ask the Government to pass a law ordering it to impose an energy price cap when, as he says, it has the legal powers to do that already? Does that not show that Ofgem is miserably failing to stick up for energy customers? Will he therefore push Ofgem to grow a spine and introduce a cap without delay?
Ofgem has yet to respond to my request. I have the power to oblige Ofgem to put a cap in place. Doing that would seem excessive, and it would require primary legislation. Ofgem has those powers, so there is no need for that. That is why, faced with this huge detriment of £1.4 billion on average, I believe it is essential that Ofgem uses the powers that Parliament has given it to eradicate the detriment.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
Over the last few weeks we have made significant progress across a number of the Department’s responsibilities. We have been discussing the first sector deal, which will involve the Government working alongside life sciences businesses to capitalise on our expert science and research base to make that industry even more competitive. Our reforms of corporate governance, which will ensure that businesses publish pay ratios between chief executives and staff, will help to maintain the UK’s reputation as a confident place in which to do business. We continue to invest in innovation throughout the country through the industrial strategy. In July, I announced the Faraday challenge, a £0.25 billion investment in battery technology in all parts of the country that will boost both research and development and job creation in the industry.
The Secretary of State knows that the concern for Ofgem, even though it has the power, is that energy companies would appeal to the CMA and frustrate the process. What he has not acknowledged today is that, under section 26 of the Energy Act 2010, he already has the power to introduce a price cap if one group of customers is treated less favourably than other customers by an energy supplier. Why does he not seek measures to introduce the power he already has?
Ofgem is the regulator, and it had a report from the Competition and Markets Authority saying that consumers are being ripped off to the tune of £1.4 billion a year. We have a regulator with powers given by Parliament, and those powers should be used. That is the challenge for Ofgem. I would be very surprised and very disappointed if any of the big six, knowing the objectivity of the CMA report, were to protest and appeal against such a determination.
T2. I know the ministerial team has been working hard on this, but the issue with sleep-in shifts, if it is not resolved, is that charities will have to close their doors and the people they support, including those with learning disabilities, will be left without care. Will the Minister update us on the progress on quantifying the back-pay liabilities of those charities and on when an appropriate solution will be delivered? 
Social care providers play a vital role in supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society, but workers in that sector should be paid fairly for the important work they do. The Government are working closely with providers and worker representatives to estimate the scale of any back-pay liabilities for sleep-in shifts, and we have temporarily suspended HMRC enforcement action while that work continues, and it is continuing as a matter of urgency.
On 27 June, the Secretary of State failed to confirm to me that he would legislate for a price cap to deliver to 17 million customers the £100 saving promised by the Prime Minister if Ofgem did not propose such a cap. On 3 July, Ofgem announced its plans, which fall short of the Prime Minister’s promise, and later stated that a cap is really a matter for Government legislation. I ask again, will the Government now legislate for a price cap to deliver the Prime Minister’s promise?
The hon. Lady is misinformed; Ofgem has not responded formally to my request, and it should act on the evidence presented to it, using its powers. The ball is in its court, and I expect Ofgem to do its job and stand up for consumers.
I am saddened that the Secretary of State is non-committal, because at the same time as we have rising prices, power distributors recently made an average yearly post-tax profit of 32%, paying out share dividends of £5.1 billion. For water, the situation is even worse, as over the past decade companies have made £18.8 billion in profits, paying out £18.1 billion of that as dividends, with Macquarie paying £1.6 billion in dividends alone, while Thames Water incurred £10.6 billion of debt, ran up a £260 million pensions deficit and paid no UK corporation tax. So I ask him: what are the Government’s plans to reform our broken utilities markets?
On the specific point of retail energy markets, a two-year investigation has been carried out by the CMA, and it is now for Ofgem to respond. I hope it will respond and eradicate that deficit; that is the test that Ofgem faces. We have made it clear that we will rule nothing out if it falls short, but I do not want to remove the obligation on it to respond in that way. I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome our intention to publish a consumer Green Paper and that she will contribute to it. This will look across the board—across other utilities as well—to see whether the existing regulatory arrangements are sufficient.
T3. The life sciences industry is worth £64 billion to the UK, and Sir John Bell’s report last week indicated how important manufacturing was. Will the Minister therefore join me in welcoming the opening of the cell and gene manufacturing unit and welcome further jobs in this industry in the east of England, particularly in my constituency? 
We indeed welcome that. Medicines manufacturing is key, which is why we have launched a £146 million medicines manufacturing programme under the industry strategy challenge fund. That includes £12 million for expansion of the cell and gene therapy manufacturing centre. The other centres, a vaccines centre, a medicines manufacturing innovation centre and three advanced therapy centres, are open to competition and could be located anywhere in the country, including in the east of England.
T5. This week’s electricity grid connection deal would make the Cardiff tidal lagoon the UK’s largest renewable energy project, generating some of the cheapest power in the country, and it would be a big boost to Newport, but its potential can be realised only with the Government first backing the pilot project in Swansea bay. When will that happen? 
I do understand the great interest in this matter. As the House knows, I am enthusiastic about renewable technologies, but we have an important responsibility to make sure that they proceed at a price that is reasonable for consumers, who pay through their bills. That is being assessed and I will report to the House when that assessment is finished.
T4. Although wind turbines play an important part in the nation’s energy mix, it is alleged that the quality of life and health of some rural residents is adversely affected by noise emissions. Are the current noise limits and recording methodologies sufficient—I am referring to low-frequency noise and infrasound—or should the methodologies be reviewed? 
Interestingly, the overall balance of the existing peer-reviewed studies suggests that low-frequency sound and infrasound produced by wind turbines is not likely to affect human health significantly. I do, however, accept my hon. Friend’s premise that the potential impact on human health of these turbines is a topical issue, so it will attract further study, both in the UK and abroad, and we are monitoring that carefully.
T9. Will the Minister review the current arrangements for the distribution of the mineworkers pension surplus? I am sure it was never envisaged that the surplus would be so high, so is it not time to re-examine that, and seek to give more money to pensioners and beneficiaries? 
I am aware of the issue and the representations being made on it. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to explore what steps might be available, but he will be aware that pensions are, correctly, run at arm’s length from the Government, through an independent regulator and through the trustees, and so the Government’s ability to determine these things is very limited.
T6. Trading on the world’s markets as a free trade nation after 2019 will be a bit like swimming in the Serpentine on a winter’s morning: bracing and invigorating but a bit heart-stopping if one is not prepared. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explain how he is gearing up his entire Department to ensure that British industry no longer debates the rights or wrongs of staying in the EU or the single market but is fully prepared, and up-to-scratch with conferences, seminars and all the rest, to trade on the world’s markets? 
My hon. Friend will be aware that my whole departmental team are very active, both in this country and overseas, in setting out the huge opportunities to build on this country’s strengths and be economically successful post-Brexit. I know that that work enjoys his full support.
The growth of new and renewable technologies presents a huge opportunity for the north-east economy but, given the continued uncertainty about the clean growth plan and our membership of and access to the single market, what are the Government doing to encourage business investment in this area?
We will publish the clean growth strategy very shortly, but it is not just a question of simple decarbonisation; we have to decarbonise right across the economy and maximise the economic opportunities for doing that throughout the UK. We also have to ensure that we are not putting a high energy-cost burden on consumers and business and that all parts of Government are committed to the strategy for the long term. When we are able to publish the plan, which will be very shortly, I look forward to debating the issue further with the hon. Lady.
T7. The results of yesterday’s renewables sector auction were very beneficial for my constituency. Will the Minister outline what further developments he has in mind to encourage and support the construction of turbines in the UK? How will we ensure, particularly in northern Lincolnshire, that the skills are there to meet the demands? 
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the news about the funding for the offshore wind farm in his constituency. I assure him that it is our ambition to have a strong industrialised supply chain. We have had great progress in attracting investment—for example, the UK’s first offshore tower manufacturing facility in Scotland is providing the UK’s first towers. I am pleased to say that we are working well with the sector to deliver a sustainable UK-based supply chain under the industrial strategy.
Smulders in North Tyneside is a fine example of a company that is already advanced in its own low-carbon growth strategies. What direct support will the Minister give to businesses such as Smulders under the delayed clean growth plan?
I am sure that the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that we have made available more than £2 billion to support innovation and research and development in the sector. If a company in her constituency has specific projects that it would like to bring forward, I would be delighted to meet her to consider them.
T8. Now that it is autumn, many of our constituents are concerned about the cost of fuel and energy this winter. What can the Secretary of State say to reassure all our constituents that fuel and energy will be accessible for all this winter? 
We still have in this country some of the lower energy prices in Europe, but the major energy companies’ increases for those on the standard variable tariffs are clearly unacceptable. The issue has been identified by Ofgem, which needs to take action to correct it.
Since the launch of the much heralded productivity plan 18 months ago, productivity has plummeted to pre-crash levels. Will the Secretary of State tell us which one part of that productivity plan he feels is responsible for the cataclysmic productivity figures we have today?
The hon. Gentleman is an intelligent fellow and knows that the route to building productivity in this country is to look to the long term to establish, in a serious way, a shared analysis and determination about what is to be done. On skills, for example, I hope he will share our view that by investing in technical education through the new T-levels and extending the hours for which people are educated, we are taking a step towards addressing what is a generational challenge for the UK economy.
More than eight out of 10 British manufacturers export elsewhere in the EU and tariffs or customs delays could have a negative impact. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will seek to negotiate transitional relationships that maintain the economic benefits of the single market and customs union until a new relationship with the EU can be implemented?
It is completely understood that a cliff edge would be bad for business. Companies need to have the confidence to be able to make investment decisions over the next few months and years. That acceptance across Government is welcomed by business.
Hurricane Irma: Government Response
At last Thursday’s statement, Mr Speaker, I undertook to update the House as appropriate, and I thank you for the opportunity to do so now.
At this very moment, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is on his way to the Caribbean to see for himself our stricken overseas territories and further drive the extensive relief efforts that are under way. The thoughts of this House and of the whole country are with those who are suffering the ravages of one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded. It followed Hurricane Harvey, and was set to be followed by Hurricane Jose. More than half a million British nationals, either residents or tourists, have been in the path of Hurricane Irma, which has caused devastation across an area spanning well over 1,000 miles.
Given the circumstances, the overall death toll is low, but, unfortunately, five people died in the British Virgin Islands and four in Anguilla. At this critical moment, our principal focus is on the 80,000 British citizens who inhabit our overseas territories of Anguilla, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the British Virgin Islands.
Commonwealth realms in the Caribbean have also suffered. They include Antigua and Barbuda and the Bahamas as well as other islands such as St Martin and Cuba. We have around 70 British nationals requiring assistance on St Martin, and we are working with the US, German and Dutch authorities to facilitate the potential departure of the most vulnerable via commercial means today.
To prepare for the hurricane season, the Government acted two months ago—in July—by dispatching the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Mounts Bay to the Caribbean. This 16,000-tonne landing ship from the RFA is one of the most capable vessels at our disposal. Before she left the UK in June, the ship was pre-loaded with disaster relief supplies, facilities for producing clean water and a range of hydraulic vehicles and equipment. In addition to the normal crew, the Government also ensured that a special disaster relief team, consisting of 40 Royal Marines and Army personnel, was also on board. This pre-positioning of one of our most versatile national assets, along with an extra complement of highly skilled personnel, allowed the relief effort to begin immediately after the hurricane had passed. By Friday night, the team from RFA Mounts Bay had managed to restore power supplies at Anguilla’s hospital, rebuild the emergency operation centre, clear the runway and make the island’s airport serviceable. The ship then repositioned to the British Virgin Islands where its experts were able to reopen the airport.
Meanwhile in the UK, the Government dispatched two RAF transport aircraft on Friday carrying 52 personnel and emergency supplies for more than 1,000 people. On Saturday, another two aircraft left for the region to deliver a Puma transport helicopter and ancillary supplies. This steady tempo of relief flights has been sustained and yesterday it included a Voyager and a C-17. I can assure the House that that will continue for as long as required.
Already, 20 tonnes of UK aid has arrived, including more than 2,500 shelter kits and 2,300 solar lanterns. Nine tonnes of food and water supplies are due to be flown out to Anguilla imminently and will be followed by building materials. A further 10,000 buckets, 2,500 solar lanterns and 300 shelter kits will be arriving this week on commercial flights.
As I speak, 997 British military personnel are in the Caribbean. RFA Mounts Bay arrived in Anguilla again yesterday at dusk, as 47 police officers arrived in the British Virgin Islands to assist the local constabulary. We should all acknowledge and thank the first responders of the overseas territories’ own Governments. They have shown leadership from the start and are now being reinforced by personnel from the UK.
Many people—military and civilian—have shown fantastic professionalism and courage in their response to the disaster. I hope that I speak for the whole House in saying a resounding and heartfelt “Thank you” to all of them. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] This initial effort will soon be reinforced by the flagship of the Royal Navy, HMS Ocean. The Government have ordered our biggest warship in service to leave her NATO task in the Mediterranean and steam westwards with all speed. HMS Ocean loaded supplies in Gibraltar yesterday and will be active in the Caribbean in about 10 days.
The Prime Minister announced last Thursday— within 24 hours of the hurricane striking—a £32 million fund for those who have suffered. But in the first desperate stages, it is not about money; it is about just getting on with it. The Foreign Office crisis centre has been operating around the clock since last Wednesday, co-ordinating very closely with Department for International Development and Ministry of Defence colleagues. The crisis centre has taken nearly 2,500 calls since then and is handling 2,251 consular cases. The Government have convened daily meetings of our Cobra crisis committee. Over the weekend, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Governors of Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands, along with Governor Rick Scott of Florida, where Irma has since made landfall over the weekend.
I have spoken to the United States Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs about the United States Virgin Islands in respect of logistic support for the British Virgin Islands. As well as those affected across the Caribbean, some 420,000 British citizens are in Florida either as residents or visitors, and UK officials are providing every possible help. The Foreign Secretary spoke to our ambassador in Washington and our consul general in Miami, who has deployed teams in Florida’s major airports to offer support and to issue emergency travel documents to those who need them.
The House will note that Irma has now weakened to a tropical storm that is moving north-west into Georgia. I spoke to the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda on Friday. The hurricane inflicted some of its worst blows on Barbuda, and a DFID team has been deployed on the island to assess the situation and make recommendations. Put starkly, the infrastructure of Barbuda no longer exists. I assured its Prime Minister of our support and I reiterate that this morning. On Saturday, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Prime Minister of Barbados to thank him for his country’s superb support, acting as a staging post for other UK efforts across the Caribbean.
We should all be humble in the face of the power of nature. Whatever relief we are able to provide will not be enough for many who have lost so much, but hundreds of dedicated British public servants are doing their utmost to help and they will not relent in their efforts.
Let me thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. I join him in commending the British personnel who are playing such a typically superlative part in leading the relief effort. I also join him in sending my thoughts and those of everyone in the House to those individuals in the British overseas territories and beyond who have lost their lives as a result of the hurricane, and to the tens of thousands more who have lost their homes and livelihoods in its terrible wake.
The unprecedented nature of the devastation makes it all the more important for us to ensure that the Governments and British citizens of the overseas territories, British expats living on the affected islands and British tourists visiting the region receive all the help they need as urgently as they can get it to cope with the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and to begin the long and arduous process of recovery.
I appreciate the efforts spelt out by the Minister today and last Thursday, and I know how hard he and his civil servants have been working over the past week, but he will equally appreciate the widespread criticism that the Government’s response has been both too little and too late. That criticism has come not just from the Opposition or from the respective Chairs of the Select Committee on International Development and the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, but from the very groups I mentioned earlier: the Governments and British citizens of the overseas territories, British expats and British tourists. Theirs is the experience and criticism that really counts. So let us consider what they have been saying and the questions they have been asking, which the Minister will perhaps address today.
First, on the issue of evacuation, I thank the Minister for what he said, but it is alarming to many of us on both sides of the House that almost a week has gone by and he is still talking about the potential evacuation of British citizens, and, even then, only the most vulnerable. By contrast, across the islands, we hear the same accounts that the French, Dutch and American Governments have swiftly evacuated their citizens. It is the British who are left stuck, with the only commercial plane services available charging extortionate rates to get them out. A young British woman on the British Virgin Islands, holidaying with her mum and her two-year-old son, says:
“The UK should be doing more. People need evacuating. It’s becoming dangerous with supplies running low. I’ve looked at getting out but pilots want £2,250.”
That is clearly unacceptable, and it proves the point that, with the security situation deteriorating in many of the affected islands, all British citizens should be considered vulnerable. So can the Minister clarify for the House when all British citizens who want to be evacuated can expect to be evacuated, and what the Government are doing in the meantime to guarantee their safety, their shelter and their security?
On the wider issue of safety and security, the Minister will be aware of the concerns on islands such as Tortola that, as desperation and shortages grow, law and order is completely breaking down. In the absence of a clean-up operation, the threats of disease and water-borne infections are also growing. One resident has said:
“There is debris all over the island… people are running around like headless chickens… there has to be some…coordination.”
So what are the Government doing as part of their emergency support for the overseas territories to help their Governments re-establish some basic command and control, to maintain law and order where it is threatening to break down, and to put in place emergency plans to stop the causes of preventable, water-borne diseases before those diseases begin to spread?
Thirdly and finally, as we talk about the need to help the Governments of the overseas territories, and we hear the reassurances from the Minister and his colleagues that they are in it for the long term, we have to ask what that means. It cannot mean simply cleaning up the damage that has been done, giving people new homes and new livelihoods, and hoping that this will last for a few years until the next hurricane strikes. That is not fixing things for the long term; it is just patching things up until next time. With climate change making such hurricanes more intense and more frequent and showing no signs of slowing down, we urgently need a long-term plan for the overseas territories—a plan that is built around resilience and sustainability. So can the Minister confirm that when the Government sit down with their counterparts in the affected islands, the question of coping with climate change and future extreme weather events will be at the top of the agenda, with financial commitments to match, and will not, as usually happens, be the afterthought that always proves too difficult and too expensive?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. I am glad that, in her opening remarks, she recognised the magnitude of the hurricane—the largest natural disaster of this nature I think we have seen in any of our lifetimes. I am sorry, though, about the criticism she is levelling. Having seen this in the very centre and having watched it, and knowing, as a former DFID Minister, what is possible and what is done by the Government, I am afraid I comprehensively reject her criticisms, which I think are unjustified. It is inevitable that people in distress will want more, but it is essential to appreciate that when half a million people are hit by a hurricane, we cannot evacuate half a million people. What we have to do, particularly for those who wish to reside in the countries in which they permanently live, is to bring them help and, of course, the reconstruction the right hon. Lady mentioned. For instance, on St Martin, which is not one of our overseas territories—it is both Dutch and French—we are working closely with the Dutch and French. As I said in my statement, we hope that people will be evacuated even today.
It is quite right that people are prioritised according to need, and that is exactly what our call centre has done with the over 2,000 calls it has had, which have been logged and prioritised, and people have then, through all the logistical work I described in the statement, been evacuated and helped as required.
Let me say something about security, because that is a perfectly valid point that the right hon. Lady has raised. We had a serious threat of the complete breakdown of law and order in the British Virgin Islands. The prison was breached, and over 100 very serious prisoners escaped. What we then had to contend with—this is what Ministers, the MOD and everyone else are for—was how to cope with the threat that followed from that. So on Friday we put some Marines off RFA Mounts Bay to protect the governor and maintain law and order. I am pleased to say that 48 hours later we have been able significantly to reinforce the Marines. We have maintained and kept law and order on the British Virgin Islands, which at one point could have dramatically threatened the already unfortunate plight of those who have been hit by the hurricane. I hope that the right hon. Lady recognises what the governor there has done, what the Marines did, and what we all did to make sure that law and order was preserved.
On the long term, the right hon. Lady is right. DFID looks at the long term in all its programmes, quite rightly. In the face of growing severe weather incidents, it is important to build resilience and proper defences into the infrastructure wherever possible, but the infrastructure in a lot of these overseas territories is very flimsy, very small and very vulnerable. Perhaps the silver lining in the cloud is that where so much has been swept away, when things are rebuilt they will be better able to withstand the ferocity of the sort of hurricane that we have seen over the past week.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I gently point out that a Member who toddled into the Chamber after the statement started should not then stand expecting to be called. That is in defiance of our conventions.
I am grateful to the Minister for his statement. I would like to reinforce his heartfelt comments about all the personnel who have been involved in sorting out this horrendous damage. For example, in the BVI and Anguilla, there has been total destruction of all the schools. All 15 schools in the BVI have been destroyed. Does he agree that there is a need for a comprehensive, five-year reconstruction package? Does he also agree that one of the lessons coming out of this disaster is the need for a permanent naval base in one of the OTs? If the French and Dutch can do that—they both had two warships on standby before the hurricane—then surely we should. It would send a really strong signal of solidarity to the OTs.
As he is a former Foreign Office Minister, I totally respect the thinking and comments of my hon. Friend. We do not directly govern the overseas territories; they govern themselves. It is perhaps questionable whether it is appropriate, looking at the geography, to have a permanent base at any of them. However, we do rotate our naval assets so as best to cover the danger of hurricanes and to be able to respond to them. I think that in this case that has been shown to be very effective. The trouble is that if we have permanent assets, people or machinery pre-positioned, they can often get hit by the very hurricane that we are trying to respond to a few days later.
First and foremost, our thoughts are once again with those who are affected by the impact of the devastating Hurricane Irma. The SNP echoes the widespread calls for the UK Government to step up their efforts to ensure that those who are in need of urgent assistance receive it as swiftly and safely as possible. We welcome the fact that more than 700 British troops and 50 police officers have been sent to the British Virgin Islands after they were battered by the most powerful storm recorded in the Atlantic ocean. In addition, 20 tonnes of aid and £32 million is a start, but there must be more and we must ask the Minister to provide details of additional help to come. This is too little and too late.
There is real concern about the lack of preparedness by the UK Government in responding to the hurricane. The severity of Hurricane Irma had been predicted and there was time to prepare, but the UK Government did not do so. It is clear that in comparison to other territories’ and Governments’ responses, the UK Government have been lagging behind in their support and strategy. To give just one example to put this beyond any doubt, the French Government deployed their military before the storm, but the one ship sent by the UK Government arrived only on Thursday. Of course, if the UK Government had a proper shipbuilding strategy and this was implemented, they might be able to act sooner. Will the Secretary of State for International Development learn from the example of other Governments with reconstruction efforts and emergency funds? Once the International Development Committee is reconvened in Parliament, an inquiry into the UK Government’s slow response must be made an immediate priority to ensure that the UK is as prepared as it can be in dealing with such disasters.
Why have the UK Government lagged behind other countries in their support and strategy in responding adequately to Hurricane Irma? As I said last week—we have not heard a word about it so far from the Government Benches—it is clear that climate change plays a clear part in the ever-increasing 100-to-500-year storms that we have seen last week, as echoed by Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Barbuda. I therefore ask again what further pressures the UK Government are putting on Donald Trump to change his stance on the Paris climate change agreement.
Again, I am rather dismayed by the hon. Gentleman’s sweeping criticisms of the efforts that have been made, because they are unsupported by the facts. For instance, the French do not deploy in advance specifically for hurricanes; they have troops permanently based there because the nature of French overseas territories government is different from ours. Our overseas territories are self-governing; the French govern directly, and therefore they have soldiers there all the time. But if they are there, depending on where the hurricane goes, they may not necessarily be in the right place, and some of their assets which they hoped would help may have been destroyed. Our flexible naval deployment is the best way of helping people in response to a hurricane when we know pretty well only at the last minute exactly where the force of the hurricane is going to hit.
On a shipbuilding strategy, I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been over the past few weeks, but we have just announced one. Perhaps he might have the good grace to admit that we have announced a shipbuilding strategy and that instead of criticising us, he ought to be standing there saying, “Thank you very much.”
I reiterate the point—perhaps I chose my language imperfectly—that we are not so much evacuating people, because that is not always the right thing to do, particularly for those who want to live there and stay near their homes, as helping them to depart in a way that I would argue, and I think we can prove, is very efficient and is the right way done to the highest standards.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement to the House today, and very much welcome the additional assets that have come forward. I join him particularly in thanking the military units who were so quick to respond. RFA Mounts Bay and the Royal Marines, alongside whom I have served for the best part of a decade, have demonstrated the flexibility that we know they all have. Given the different responses by different countries in different ways, based on their own experience, what lessons learned is he hoping to put in place so that when such an event, sadly, occurs again—as we must expect it to—we are even better prepared?
I am very pleased to welcome praise from the new Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and delighted at this new experience for me as I stand here today. There are always lessons learned, and there are always exercises after an event like this to make sure that we do learn the lessons. The focus at the moment should not be on levelling criticism where it is not justified; it should be—that is what this statement is about—on giving immediate help to those who desperately need it. The response we are giving is “all hands on deck”, and that is where the focus of our attention needs to be at the moment.
My constituent Mark Wilson has been stuck on St Martin since the hurricane, his house completely demolished, with no access to food and water, and increasingly frightened about roving mobs. He finally managed to get off the island last night under his own steam. I am sorry to have to tell the Minister that he and his family in Exeter have been extremely angry and frustrated by what they see as the inadequacy of the British Government response, particularly compared with that of the French and Dutch Governments. However, my question is on the longer term. These territories receive significant European Union help. Will the Minister guarantee that, if and when we leave the European Union, this will continue?
I have taken a close interest in the calls to the centre, particularly from Members of Parliament. I saw the right hon. Gentleman’s name among those who had called a specific helpline and investigated the plight of his constituent and confirmed that he had come off the island. As I said earlier, we have about 70 British people on St Martin, but I would ask the House to understand that it is not one of our overseas territories. It is half Dutch and half French. That is why we have been working with them, as they are best equipped on an island that is one of theirs, to help the British. I would like to send warm words of gratitude to the French and the Dutch for the co-operation they have shown in helping British citizens as much as they have helped their own.
I am sure that we will all welcome Labour’s latter-day conversion to our responsibilities and obligations to the British overseas territories, but many of the islands that are worst affected in the Caribbean are also part of the Commonwealth family. Has my right hon. Friend or one of his ministerial colleagues yet spoken to the secretary-general of the Commonwealth to see if there could be a co-ordinated Commonwealth response to help out some of the worst affected areas?
I have not done so personally, but I take note of the suggestion that someone should do so. The Commonwealth countries do not necessarily have massive financial resources of their own to spend, but any co-operation to try to work together to address the crisis can only be welcomed and I will make sure that that phone call is made.
Our thoughts are with all those affected and the British personnel who are now helping in the region. I welcome the progress we have seen over the past few days, but will the Minister respond to two concerns that have been raised? The first is that the Royal Navy was unable to land heavy equipment on Anguilla because they could not use the docks or the beach. More broadly, we were less well prepared on the ground than both the French and the Dutch. For example, there was no stored equipment such as water, tents and generators on land, whereas such equipment was stored by those other countries. What lessons will he learn for the future so that we do not have these mistakes again?
The conditions when Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Mounts Bay arrived at Anguilla were still very severe, but what they did have was the helicopter so they were able not only to do an immediate assessment across Anguilla but to restore power to the hospital and get the airport going again. What they did was significant. In terms of landing on difficult windy sands, the vessel did not do so on that occasion partly because we were trying to maximise or optimise the utility of the ship by getting it to do what it could urgently to make do and mend in Anguilla before going to the British Virgin Islands, where it became clear that the devastation was greater and where the population is larger. Before the threat of Hurricane Jose came in, which would have meant that they had to sail away again, they brought urgent help to the British Virgin Islands having left half their supplies to help Anguilla. Those operational decisions are to be admired.
HMS Illustrious helped greatly during Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, as did HMS Bulwark during Ebola in Sierra Leone, and now RFA Mounts Bay in the Caribbean followed by HMS Ocean. It is absolutely vital that the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary have the vessels to back up British work on international development, and we know that HMS Ocean is due to be decommissioned. Can the Minister assure me that this is being fed right into the naval shipbuilding strategy?
There is a shipbuilding strategy for two new aircraft carriers, but obviously on the detail of our shipbuilding and fleet the answer should come from Ministers from the Ministry of Defence rather than me, but I reiterate that Mounts Bay did an incredible job, is perfectly well suited to the task and had been pre-positioned with appropriate supplies. That is the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the Chairman of the International Development Committee, because to take supplies in from a ship that has not faced the risk of those supplies being destroyed is the best way of bringing urgent relief to where it is most needed. I would point out as well, on the question of co-operation, that we have HMS Ocean leaving Gibraltar, which will also carry helicopters on behalf of the French.
The Minister should know that my constituents Christine and Tony Bibby, who are in their early and late 70s, have been stranded on St Martin since the hurricane. They have a desperately worried family here in Britain and are running out of water and food and have no electricity. There has been very little news about what positive action will help this couple. May I have some clarification? Will they be made safe, will they get the emergency supplies they need to sustain life, and will the evacuation proceed very quickly?
Again, I have seen the hon. Gentleman’s name among those of many colleagues who have been in touch to represent their constituents’ needs. As I have said, there are 70 British on St Martins. It is not one of our overseas territories, but we are working with the French and the Dutch and we are confident that those in most need—and I hope more—can be assisted to depart today. The whole purpose of our hotline and the crisis centre is to ensure that we can properly rank people in order of need so that if, for instance, they are elderly, running out of food, have dependants or suffer from an illness, they will go higher up the list of priorities and will get help more quickly than the more able bodied.
I think that any fair-minded person would recognise the self-evident priority that the Government have given to their responsibilities to the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla. I am sure that my right hon. Friend also welcomes the €2 million that the European Commission has made available to the territories and countries of the member states affected, but that stands in sharp contrast to the £32 million that the Government have made available. Pre-Irma, the only source of development aid for Anguilla was the European Union because of the rules of our development assistance. Anguilla borders the European Union in St Martin. What consideration is now being given to future support for Anguilla after we leave the European Union?
Our focus at the moment is on helping those who require help and who are suffering from the devastating effects of the hurricane. I am sure that these policy issues will be addressed in due course. As my hon. Friend understands well, there are a number of overseas territories that receive assistance. Under the overseas development legislation, we are obliged to meet their reasonable needs. Three of them have been caught up in this, and no doubt assistance in the future will be reviewed following the consequences of the hurricane.
Last week and over the weekend, I raised with the Foreign Office the case of two families caught up in the hurricane— one in the British Virgin Islands and two constituents in St Martin. I acknowledge that the situation is incredibly difficult and pay tribute to the service personnel who have worked hard to provide support, but I would say to the Minister that the resources he has outlined and the rescue operation he has spoken of were simply not what was experienced by people on the ground. May I press him, as other hon. Members have, on the long-term plans to improve future responses?
I am very conscious that the island that has been most mentioned today in terms of the needs and plight of constituents is St Martin, which is, strictly speaking, not ours, although that does not mean that we do not want to extend as much help as we possibly can. All I would say to the hon. Lady is that if she still has constituents facing difficulties I would urge her to get in touch with me directly. I will do my utmost to investigate where they are on the list of priorities, but the latest advice I had, before I made the statement, was that in the case of St Martin the cases of pressing need should largely be addressed today.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we owe the British overseas territories a special duty of care and that when it comes to long-term reconstruction DFID should be prioritising the interests of those territories, which previous Governments have failed to do?
Intrinsic to my hon. Friend’s question was a reference to DFID, and I hope that he therefore will not mind if I steer him to DFID for a more comprehensive answer, but I am sure that in the light of this hurricane there will be a lot of policy issues that will have to be assessed and reassessed. I am sure that that is one of them.
This has clearly been a terrifying experience for all those caught up in the awesome power of Hurricane Irma and our thoughts are with them. We must also praise the efforts of our brave service personnel. The Minister’s statement contained a lot about inputs but even more important are the outcomes, so will he tell us how many of the 2,000 or so consular cases he mentioned have requested assistance to be airlifted out, how many of those have been evacuated already and how many are due to depart on the flights later today that he mentioned?
I do not have those exact details at my fingertips because this is an unfolding set of affairs. “Evacuation” is a word, but with assisted departure it is not as though we are trying to remove the entire population of an island, although in the case of Barbuda I am afraid that most people have had to go because there is nothing left. The details for which the hon. Lady is asking will become clearer in due course as we analyse how quickly we have been able to help people. We will of course be extremely self-critical and self-examining as to whether we have done this well or not, and whether the people we have put at the top of the priority list were those who most deserved to be there. So far, I am confident that the answer to that question is yes.
Over the weekend I liaised with my right hon. Friend the Minister on behalf of friends of mine in the British Virgin Islands who are co-ordinating the evacuation of 300 British citizens. He was exceptionally helpful and responsive, and I am very grateful to him. Those citizens were very frightened by the breakdown of law and order in the British Virgin Islands, and I would be grateful if he could do everything he can to restore order there. Many of them are also trying to organise private evacuations by chartering private jets and boats to get themselves out, but they need the Ministry of Defence’s assistance to enable flights to land on the island. Will my right hon. Friend also take that matter up for us?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. Yes, it was a busy weekend, but his gratitude should not really go to me nearly as much as it should go to the people in my private office and in the crisis centre who have been working flat out and, in many cases, beyond the call of duty. I will put the nice words he has said about me on a plaque and hand it to my staff. He is right about the airport in one sense. We can get an airport going, but it then takes quite a lot of logistical planning to ensure that the right aircraft come in. We have to get in the ones that can deliver aid. It is up to the airport authority to decide which flights can come in and in what order, what sort of planes the airport can take and whether the runway is going to get too congested as supplies are unloaded. I am confident that things are now ramping up quite a lot as a semblance of normality returns.
I have received a number of phone calls from my constituent Mrs Joyce, whose son Brendan works for the Royal Navy in the British Virgin Islands. He has lost everything, and I thank the Minister’s office for dealing with that inquiry. Can the Minister be more specific about the food and water supplies going to the British Virgin Islands? He said that their arrival was imminent. When are they going to arrive on the island, and can he be more specific about assessing these needs in the days and months ahead?
I think that there is water in the BVI. The main issue there, as I said earlier, is law and order, but we have managed to contain the situation. DFID has supported the delivery of more than 5 tonnes of food and water donated by the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency. It has also deployed a field team to find out exactly where the pockets of need are, so that the supplies can get to them as quickly as possible.
I should like to join the Minister in paying tribute to the UK armed services personnel who are delivering vital aid and support as we speak, and who are once again proving that they really are the most versatile and best-trained armed forces in the world. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on any requests from other Governments in the region to utilise our world-leading assets and personnel?
I have just been talking about this with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). Yes, we are co-ordinating and there will, for example, be some French assets on HMS Ocean, which I think is leaving Gibraltar today. I was in Gibraltar over the weekend, but obviously I had to come back for last night’s vote so I unfortunately had to leave before she docked. There is co-operation and we are grateful to the French and the Dutch. I have also been speaking to the United States. Everyone is proceeding in a spirit of maximum co-operation and urgency. In a way, it should lift our spirits to know that all countries are working together in the best possible way.
In an interview yesterday, Haydn Hughes, the former Anguillan parliamentary secretary, stated:
“Up to today, six days after Hurricane Irma hit Anguilla, there has been no meaningful action provided by the UK Government”.
He said that there was no sense of a “plan of action” or of
“how any aid moneys would be allocated”.
Anguilla is still without electricity or running water. It is a British overseas territory. The Minister is right to say that this is a cataclysmic disaster, but the scale of the UK’s response does not in any way meet the size of the disaster that has befallen those people, for whom we have a responsibility. Will he ensure that when the Foreign Secretary gets there, there will be a real drive to increase the urgency and the co-ordination on the ground, so that the people of Anguilla can have a real sense that Britain is there for them?
To take one person’s comments and say that they describe the overall picture is deeply unfair. What we have done in Anguilla has been a great help. As I have said, RFA Mounts Bay got the power in the hospital going again and delivered supplies. It also got the airport going again before it went to help the British Virgin Islands. Unlike the British Virgin Islands, however, Anguilla has not asked for UK consular support. The Government are still leading on that. The hon. Gentleman really just needs to hold back on his criticism and appreciate that a lot is being done in the midst of this very complicated post-hurricane mayhem, although any kind of complaint is quite understandable because so many people are in deep distress.
I acknowledge that the Minister does not have direct departmental responsibility for this, but may I press him on the issue of our international aid budget? Given our close connections with, and responsibilities for, the British overseas territories, does he agree that the Government should look urgently at ensuring that that budget will help to provide the necessary wide pipeline of aid in the months and years to come?
I am tempted to commit DFID to spending lots of money, as I would wish, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that we will have to assess future budgets. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will make her plans clear in due course, once we have been able to work out how to proceed in those distressed and, in many cases, devastated islands. May I add a tiny thing to an answer I gave earlier? The Mounts Bay used its helicopter to drop a significant amount of water and food on Jost van Dyke yesterday and has done an enormous amount to prioritise the need that we are addressing.
What discussions is the Minister having with the commercial airlines that operate services in and out of the British Virgin Islands? I have been contacted by a constituent whose sons in Tortola in the BVI have been sheltering in a house with 11 people and assorted dogs. They are all safe, but they were hoping to get out on a flight this afternoon. However, they have been unable to make contact with British Airways to find out whether it will actually depart. Apparently the phone lines just keep ringing out. What steps are the Government taking to support commercial operators in emergency situations to ensure that there are clear lines of communication between those affected, their families and the airlines?
The commercial airlines got quite a lot of people out in advance. When we are in contact with people who are asking for that kind of assistance, we endeavour to help with the communications the hon. Gentleman has described. I stress again that our focus has to be prioritised. Those who are ill, dependent, old or disabled get first treatment and, yes, there will be a bit of a queue. However, I am confident that the civil airlines are doing their utmost. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke at length to the Association of British Travel Agents last night in order to discuss exactly the kind of co-ordination and co-operation the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned.
I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the Chamber and updating us on the situation, and for providing a degree of clarity and a depth of information that is useful to us. The FCO crisis centre and crisis line are clearly providing a vital lifeline to many in the affected areas. Can he give us an indication of the volume of calls involved, and of the workload that the centre is handling at the moment?
Yes; there have been about 2,500 cases. Perhaps I can alert the House to the fact that I am endeavouring to book a room tonight to allow members of our crisis centre to meet colleagues so that the facts can be described and explained. At the moment, I am aiming for a meeting at 6.30 in a Committee room, and if I am successful in organising it, I will try to get a note out through the Whips straight after this statement so that the details of any consular cases, and of what we have been doing and how and why we have done it, can be put directly to colleagues by members of the crisis centre. In that way, colleagues’ detailed questions about the operational performance of the response can be answered directly.
Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the British overseas territories that have been helping each other to recover from this crisis? For example, later today a relief flight with the Premier of the Cayman Islands on it will go from that territory to Anguilla with medical supplies, and it will evacuate Anguillans to the Cayman Islands for support.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Bermuda and the Cayman Islands have been helpful, and the Government of Gibraltar, where I was at the weekend, are going to put some very helpful vehicles on to HMS Ocean. The spirit of mutual help from overseas territories and Commonwealth countries—indeed, from all countries—is commendable.
May I confirm that I have arranged for a briefing for all Members of Parliament in Committee Room 16 at 6.30 this evening? It will be cross party, and everyone is invited should they wish to quiz someone from the crisis centre or raise any consular concerns.
Could the Minister say a little bit more about the Foreign Secretary’s visit and his plans for it?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is at this moment flying to the British Virgin Islands. I believe he will also be flying to Anguilla, although the logistics are being put in place at the last moment. He is keen to see the devastation for himself and to reassure Governors, who have done a magnificent job under the most incredible pressure. I could not be more full of praise for the Governors and their staff, in the light of what they have withstood, for what they have managed to do to maintain the continuity of government and co-ordinate with us the aid that their populations so desperately need. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will also co-ordinate very closely with DFID and the MOD about what can be done in the next phase of help to our overseas territories and anyone else deemed to be appropriate.
I call the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to make a statement.
I apologise for beginning my statement by correcting you, Mr Speaker, but I am now the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The Department has a new word in its name.
I am here to give an update on the proposed merger between 21st Century Fox and Sky plc and on my decision about whether to refer the transaction for a full six-month investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority. I should first remind the House that in my quasi-judicial role I must, first, come to a decision on the basis of relevant evidence; secondly, act independently in a process that is fair and impartial; and, thirdly, take my decision as promptly as is reasonably practicable. I am committed to transparency and openness in this process and have been clear that my decisions can be influenced only by facts, not by opinions, and that they can be influenced only by the evidence, not by who shouts the loudest.
I turn, first, to media plurality, and I can confirm that none of the representations received has persuaded me to change my position. Accordingly, I can confirm my intention to make a referral on the media plurality ground to the CMA. On the question of commitment to broadcasting standards, over the summer my officials reviewed the almost 43,000 representations received. A significant majority of them were campaign-inspired, arguing against the merger going ahead but generally without providing new or further evidence or commenting on Ofcom’s approach. Overall, only 30 of the 43,000 representations were substantive, raising potentially new evidence or commenting on Ofcom’s approach. Almost all were related to commitment to broadcasting standards.
In the light of those representations, I asked Ofcom to provide further advice. May I put on record my gratitude to Ofcom for its efforts to respond to the questions that were raised? I am, today, publishing the exchanges between my Department and Ofcom. In those exchanges, I sought clarification on, first, the threshold that Ofcom applied to its consideration of the commitment to broadcasting standards ground; secondly, the consideration made of broadcasting compliance; and, thirdly, the consideration made of corporate governance issues. I also asked Ofcom to consider whether any of the new, substantive representations that I received affected its assessment.
I have taken careful account of all relevant representations and Ofcom’s advice, and I have today, as required by the legislation, written to the parties to inform them that I am now minded to refer the merger to the CMA on the grounds of genuine commitment to broadcasting standards. I will now set out the technical reasons for that decision.
Questions were raised about the threshold for referral. The legal threshold for a reference to the CMA is low. I have the power to make a reference if I believe that there is a risk that is not purely fanciful that the merger might operate against the specified public interests. In its original report, Ofcom stated that
“we consider that there are no broadcasting standards concerns that may justify a reference”.
At the time, Ofcom appeared to be unequivocal. Following the additional representations, Ofcom has further clarified that
“while we consider there are non-fanciful concerns, we do not consider that these are such as may justify a reference in relation to the broadcast standards public interest consideration.”
The existence of non-fanciful concerns means that, as a matter of law, the threshold for a reference on the broadcasting standards ground is met. In the light of all the representations and Ofcom’s additional advice, I believe that those concerns are sufficient to warrant the exercise of my discretion to refer.
The first concern, which was raised in Ofcom’s public interest report, was that Fox did not have adequate compliance procedures in place for the broadcast of Fox News in the UK and that it took action to improve its approach to compliance only after Ofcom expressed concerns. Ofcom has confirmed it considers that to raise concerns that are non-fanciful but not sufficiently serious to warrant referral. I consider that those non-fanciful concerns warrant further consideration. The fact that Fox belatedly established such procedures does not ease my concerns, and nor does Fox’s compliance history.
Ofcom was reassured by the existence of the compliance regime, which provides licensees with an incentive to comply. However, it is clear to me that Parliament intended the scrutiny of whether an acquiring party has a “genuine commitment” to attaining broadcasting standards objectives to happen before a merger takes place. Third parties also raised concerns about what they termed the “Foxification” of Fox-owned news outlets internationally. On the evidence before me, I am not able to conclude that that raises non-fanciful concerns. However, I consider it important that entities that adopt controversial or partisan approaches to news and current affairs in other jurisdictions should, at the same time, have a genuine commitment to broadcasting standards here. Those are matters the CMA may wish to consider in the event of a referral.
I turn to the question of corporate governance failures. Ofcom states in its latest correspondence that such failures raise non-fanciful concerns in relation to the broadcasting standards ground. However, it again concludes that those concerns do not warrant a reference. I agree that corporate governance issues at Fox raise non-fanciful concerns, but in my view it would be appropriate for those concerns to be considered further by the CMA. I agree with the view that, in this context, my proper concern is whether Fox will have a genuine commitment to attaining broadcasting standards objectives. However, I am not confident that weaknesses in Fox’s corporate governance arrangements are incapable of affecting compliance in the broadcasting standards context. I have outstanding non-fanciful concerns about these matters, and I am of the view that they should be considered further by the CMA.
Before I come to a final decision, I am required, under the Enterprise Act 2002, to allow the parties to make representations on my proposed decision, and that is the reason why my decision remains, at this stage, a “minded to” one. I have given the parties 10 working days to respond. Following receipt of any representations from the parties, I will aim to come to my final decision in relation to both grounds as promptly as I can.
I remind the House that should I decide to refer on one or both grounds, the merger will be subject to a full and detailed investigation by the CMA over a six-month period. Such a referral does not signal the outcome of that investigation. Given the quasi-judicial nature of this matter, my decision cannot be guided by the parliamentary timetable. If I come to my decision during recess, I will write, as I have done previously, and return to this House at the earliest possible opportunity to provide an update. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement.
The Secretary of State has taken her responsibilities seriously, and I give her credit for that. I give her credit, too, for listening to the evidence before her, including new evidence submitted after she had announced her initial decision, and for changing her mind. I also want to praise my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), who has run a very effective campaign in this area. Dare I say it, but I think he leads the race for Back Bencher of the year for his campaign?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision—or, I should say, the fact that she says she is minded to make such a decision—to refer the bid on broadcasting standards grounds, as well as on media plurality grounds. This is the first time that a Minister in the current Government has ever stood in the way of what the Murdochs want—and, frankly, not before time. So well done, and as they say in the Black country, “She’s a good ’un.”
The Secretary of State has done everything we asked her to do—or almost everything. Her statement does in my view, however, reflect a failure on the part of Ofcom. In its first report, as she said, Ofcom said that there were
“no broadcasting standards concerns that may justify a reference”.
It has now admitted that there are, as she said, “non-fanciful concerns”. On that basis, she had to refer the bid, and she has done so. It should have been obvious to Ofcom, as it certainly was to all Labour Members, that concerns about the Murdochs were more than fanciful.
After all, the Murdochs have a long history of regulatory non-compliance and of corporate governance failure. Just last week, Fox recognised its own failure to comply with broadcasting standards when it pulled Fox News, which has breached Ofcom’s rules again and again, from the UK. Ofcom could have gone further, too, on the “fit and proper” test. It decided that a post-merger Sky would pass, despite clear evidence of impropriety and failure of corporate governance both at 21st Century Fox and at News Corporation.
Such failures include the phone hacking scandal, which still has loose ends that are yet to be tied up. Just last week, News Group settled 17 cases related to allegations of criminality at The Sun newspaper, ensuring that James Murdoch will not have to appear in court later this year. Those 17 cases are just the first tranche of 91 new claims of phone hacking and illegality in obtaining information against The Sun and News of the World. This story is far from over, even if we will read little about it in the pages of the Murdochs’ newspapers, and all these cases are claims against a company that claimed for over a decade that there was no problem and that tried to move heaven and earth to prevent abuses from being uncovered. This is alongside the ongoing sexual and racial harassment scandal at Fox News, which is part of 21st Century Fox’s empire.
As I have said, the Secretary of State has done almost everything we asked her to do. The one thing we still want, and we have said this time and again, is that we need to get properly to the bottom of the scandals at the Murdoch empire—part 2 of the Leveson inquiry. She has now shot her fox with the Murdochs. She has burned her boats, and they already do not like her—I know what that is like—but that liberates her. Go on, Secretary of State, do the right thing: go ahead with Leveson 2.
I am a little unsure about whether I have been damned with faint praise. I do not know that I will ever again hear such good words from the hon. Gentleman across the Dispatch Box.
I want to repeat the point I made in my statement: I have made this decision on the basis of the evidence. I take my quasi-judicial role very seriously. I have looked at the evidence before me and considered Ofcom’s response to the further evidence that we put to it, and that is why I have made this announcement. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the “fit and proper” duty that he mentioned is a duty on the independent regulator. It is a responsibility of Ofcom as an ongoing duty. It will not end at any point but will be there for Ofcom to continue to consider for any holder of a broadcasting licence.
On the matter of Leveson, I will shortly come to the House with the responses to the consultation about it that we have carried out. The hon. Gentleman will perhaps understand that this summer has been fairly busy, with the need to review significant amounts of evidence.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to join me in condemning the campaign that has been run by some very left-wing activists. Some people spent the summer walking around my constituency wearing masks with my face and carrying big electronic A-boards. They not only pursued me around town, but actually went and found my family, who live outside my constituency, and protested there. I am taking this decision on the basis of evidence, not of any campaign of intimidation and harassment, and I hope he will join me in condemning those activities.
I do not think there is a procedure for responding.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
We do not normally take points of order in the middle of statements, but I am in a generous mood, and I will hear the hon. Gentleman if he is characteristically brief.
I will be brief, Sir. I am very sorry to hear the allegations that the Secretary of State has made, and I promise her that I will go away and look at the evidence. If Labour party members are involved in this, we will deal with them. Let me say to her that I have been as sickened as she has been by the way in which our colleagues in this House have been targeted for doing their jobs. A heavier load is carried by our female colleagues, so let me make it clear: you can either be a misogynist or you can be a member of the Labour party, but you cannot be both. If she gives me the evidence, we will deal with this.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.
I just want to respond by thanking the hon. Gentleman. I think we are at one on that point, and we would like to work in a cross-party way on these matters.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement, and for agreeing to appear in front of the Select Committee during the first week back after the conference recess, when we will have the chance to question her further on this matter. I hope that she will agree that this process is working: it is right that such questions about broadcasting standards and whether licence holders are fit and proper persons are taken by the appropriate independent regulatory body. It should not be for politicians to exercise discretion about who they think should or should not hold licences, but to provide official guidance for the regulator.
As I have not had the chance to do so in the House, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his return as Chair of the Select Committee. I look forward to being interrogated by him, I am sure at length, in a few weeks’ time. He is right: the process is set down in the Enterprise Act. Parliament voted for this process, and it has asked me as Secretary of State to follow the process. I have taken that role very seriously, and I will continue to make sure that I act scrupulously fairly in this matter.
I thank the Secretary of State for prior sight of her statement. She rightly acknowledges that there is growing public concern about the concentration of media ownership in fewer and fewer hands. SNP Members absolutely share those concerns. It is essential that there is a plurality of voices within the media across the UK for the maintenance of diversity and standards.
Before the recess, SNP MPs absolutely welcomed the fact that the Secretary of State was minded to refer this matter to the CMA, and we are delighted that she has now confirmed that it is her position so to do. We also welcome the fact that she is now minded to refer the takeover on the grounds of broadcasting standards as well. In doing so, I believe that she has bolstered the confidence of the public that broadcasting standards and diversity within the media will have been carefully considered, even should this takeover be given the green light at some point in the future.
If the CMA says that this deal does not pass the public standards test, will the Secretary of State follow its advice, or, in her quasi-judicial role, will she allow Fox to make further representations and give assurances before she reaches a final decision? As the process is ongoing, will she commit to consulting MPs such as my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) to ensure that employees’ views are also taken into account before she reaches a decision? We welcome her commitment to openness and transparency, but will she do everything she can, within given constraints, to ensure that the announcement of a decision, when it is reached, is made to this House rather than through a written ministerial statement?
To deal with the last point first, I have given every statement to the House first. The only occasions on which I have not been able to come to the House in person have been when Parliament has been in recess. At those times, I have always written to Mr Speaker, the Lord Speaker, the Chairs of Select Committees and my shadow on the Opposition Front Bench. I will continue to ensure that Parliament hears first about any decisions that I take.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), who I know has raised concerns in this Chamber about Sky employees. The terms on which I can intervene on the merger are set out very clearly in the Enterprise Act 2002. They relate to public interest tests, and I am minded that the CMA should look further at those on plurality and commitment to broadcasting standards. The rules governing this process are quite prescriptive, but I am aware of the hon. Lady’s concerns.
It is worth putting it on record that although nothing has changed in my “minded to” decision on plurality, I can make a referral to the CMA only once. I must make that referral on the basis of all the grounds for referral; I cannot do it piecemeal. That is why I have not yet referred to the CMA on the issue of plurality. Now that I have set out my “minded to” decision, the parties have 10 working days to come back to me. I will then make a final decision on the basis of that.
The hon. Gentleman is right that this is an important part of the process of gaining public confidence in media mergers. It is something that Parliament has prescribed, and I am determined to ensure that I abide by the rules.
I understand and support my right hon. Friend’s decision, or at least the decision she is minded to take. However, she will be aware that by the time the CMA reports, it will be well over a year since the matter was first proposed, which has created considerable uncertainty for the companies and for investors. Does she therefore agree that whatever verdict the CMA may reach, that ought to resolve the matter?
My hon. Friend is right that this process has taken a significant period of time. It was always known that this would be a lengthy process. I remind the House that the proposed merger was set out in December last year, but no official notification of the merger was made to the authorities until February. We have been determined to deal with it as promptly as possible. The small matter of purdah also got in the way earlier in the year, I am afraid to say. I am mindful that I have to act as promptly as is reasonably practicable. I am aware that there are those who are keen to see this matter progress. I want to get the CMA working on it as soon as possible, and that will be the final part of the official process set out in the Enterprise Act, although there are always opportunities for discussion at that point.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision on plurality and her “minded to” decision on broadcasting standards. I join my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) in praising the Secretary of State. She has made a brave decision—or is minded to make a brave decision—but it is the right decision and one that the Murdochs will not like. I have my own experience of the Murdochs, and she is absolutely to be commended for that.
The Secretary of State is ignoring what is, in my view, the unreliable and flawed advice of Ofcom. She knows that I and a number of colleagues believe that its view on “fit and proper” is also flawed and unreliable. If its advice on broadcasting standards is flawed, I think we can draw some conclusions about its position on “fit and proper”, although I know she will not comment on that.
I have one specific thing that I want to ask the Secretary of State. Can she reassure us that if the CMA holds the inquiry she is minded to have, it will be a comprehensive look—the first time this has happened, I think—at the Murdochs’ disgraceful record in news and, indeed, broadcasting—from the News of the World to Fox News to Sky News Australia? Crucially, will she confirm that it will look at the issue of corporate governance, which was something that she flagged up in her letter to Ofcom, although I do not think it looked at that properly? That needs to be looked at, as it relates to broadcasting standards.
I end by saying that the Secretary of State has done her job today; it is now for the CMA to do theirs.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. Together with the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), he contributed one of the 30 substantive representations that I received. He referred to the “fit and proper” test. One question that he raised in his representation was the level of the threshold. What has become clear from the conversations we have had and our work is that the threshold for referral to the CMA is a different threshold from the “fit and proper” test. The “fit and proper” test is, quite rightly, something for Ofcom.
If the right hon. Gentleman looks at my statement, he will see the reasons I have set out for referral to the CMA. As and when the “minded to” decision becomes a final decision, I will set out those reasons in full.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for coming to the House today. No right hon. or hon. Member could deny that she has come to the House frequently and kept us informed. As she has said, this process has lasted for over a year, so I ask her two questions. First, does this announcement today mean that there will be a further delay? Secondly, does she fear that there will be calls for a judicial review, which would delay the decision still further?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Clearly, there is always scope for anybody to call for a judicial review about the process if they feel that that is appropriate. That is why I have been scrupulous in my work during this process to ensure that I comply fully with the terms of the Enterprise Act.
My hon. Friend also asked about delay. The referral to the CMA on plurality alone would be for six months, and the referral to the CMA on both grounds is also for six months, so that does not change the timeframe to ask the CMA to look at commitment to broadcasting standards in addition to plurality.
I add my welcome and appreciation to the Secretary of State for her referrals. I suggest that if she were to revisit Leveson 2—a judge-led inquiry—that would add to the evidence base for Ofcom’s investigation, if it happened quickly.
I presume that the right hon. Gentleman means the CMA and not Ofcom when he talks about the inquiry. As I said in response to the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), I will respond to the responses to the Leveson consultation that we carried out. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his representations, which he made with the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband).
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. Given the lobbying that has gone on, much of which right hon. and hon. Members have received, will she lay out in detail what can be taken into account legally under the quasi-judicial test?
I know that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides the House have been subjected to significant lobbying on this matter. I have been clear throughout that I can look only at substantive evidence. When I came to the House in June, I said that I could look only at new evidence, not evidence that was already in the public domain. Lobbying with no new evidence or shouting the loudest is not the answer; the answer is having the evidence, and that is what I have looked at. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members feel able respond to their constituents, who I know will have written in good faith, to reassure them, and to let them know that the activities they took part in were not conducive to this quasi-judicial process.
My right hon. Friend has been subjected to abuse and intimidation, as has her family. We have all been bombarded by emails from organisations such as 38 Degrees. Will she explain to the House exactly how much weight she puts on the bombardment of emails to all of us?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). Those emails have filled up inboxes and distracted colleagues from important constituency casework. I have made this decision in spite of the lobbying, not because of it.
Good corporate governance in a construction company means that the directors of the company make sure that its building sites, for instance, are safe to work on. Good corporate governance in a supermarket company means that the directors make sure, for instance, that their staff do not sell alcohol to underage kids. One would think that good corporate governance in a broadcasting organisation would mean that the directors of the company would make sure that their organisation abides by good broadcasting standards, which is why I wholeheartedly support what the Secretary is State is doing today. Rupert Murdoch’s defence over phone hacking was, in the end, that his company was far too big for him to possibly know what was going on across the whole of it. That was not good corporate governance, and it could not possibly lead to good broadcasting standards.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments on corporate governance that I made in my statement: “I have outstanding non-fanciful concerns about these matters, and I am of the view that they should be considered further by the CMA.”
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her steady handling of this sensitive issue. She clearly shares with me and other hon. Members concerns about pressure on Members from third-party organisations outside this place representing what is, in essence, a quasi-judicial process as something that it clearly is not. Will she make it very clear that we have to avoid histrionics and instead get to the heart of the matter?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to the Select Committee—I look forward to being interrogated further. He is absolutely right. This process is set down in statute. It cannot be influenced by loud voices, sustained campaigning or a lack of evidence; it can be influenced only by the evidence.
We are all beneficiaries of decisions taken nearly 100 years ago in this Chamber to impose on broadcasters a statutory duty of political balance. Is that not now threatened by what has been described as the “Foxidation” of news, which is taking news away from journalists of integrity and transferring it to alternative bodies that produce news that is corrupted and prostituted for certain political ends? Is it not the Secretary of State’s prime duty to ensure that we do not Foxidise our news services?
That was one of the points made in the representations I received between my statement in June and my statement today, and it is one of the matters I would like the CMA to consider. Broadcasters in the United Kingdom are subject to the United Kingdom broadcasting code. I want to be clear, through the work of the CMA, about the impact that partisan reporting, which may occur in other jurisdictions, might have on the impartiality we expect of our broadcasters here in the UK.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Five years on, it seems as if little has changed. The newspapers have been cast off, but Rebekah Brooks is back having been reappointed by the Murdochs, and Fox wants to take over Sky. There are a lot of loose ends to be tied up on corporate behaviour and governance, including evidence given to the Select Committee. One is the second part of the Leveson inquiry, which might well reveal more. May I press the Secretary of State on this matter, not least because the Conservative manifesto pre-empted the conclusions of her consultation? When will we learn whether an amended Leveson 2 will go ahead, as the Select Committee unanimously recommended?
If I may repeat myself, Mr Speaker, I will come to the House with the responses to the consultation, and our views on that consultation, in due course.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. May I press her again on that point? She said earlier that the consultation outcome will be published “shortly”. When is shortly going to be?
In due course.
One recent precedent—it is from less than a decade ago—was when the competition regulator, on competition grounds, forced Sky to sell 17.5% of ITV. Is it not inconceivable that, in six months’ time, the CMA will wave through a merger that gives one family control of not just two large newspapers but Sky News, a national radio channel, and radio news supplied to every commercial radio station in our country?
I have set out that I am minded to refer the decision to the CMA for a six-month inquiry as part of the terms of the Enterprise Act. These will be matters for the CMA, should I make a final decision to make that referral.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her statement that she is minded to refer the matter on the grounds of governance, but does she not recognise that a commitment to Leveson 2 would go some way towards reassuring the public that the individuals who own the media in this country will be subject to full scrutiny?
Just to be clear, I am minded to make a referral on the basis of commitment to broadcasting standards, not corporate governance. It also worth saying that the CMA has to look at the merger on the basis of the evidence available at the time. Whatever comes out in the future may impact on the “fit and proper” test, as decided by Ofcom, the independent regulator, but the merger has to be governed by information in the public domain and the private domain, with the evidence provided to the CMA as part of the process.
I commend the Secretary of State for her decision, but is it not incumbent on her to secure the evidence to make the correct decision? She must now take forward Leveson 2, which the House clearly wants and the victims were promised so long ago.
As I said, I will come back with the Government’s view about the consultation on the Leveson inquiry, which we conducted earlier this year. However, I again make the point that the merger has to be looked at in the context of today and not what might come out in the future. That is a matter for the fit and proper test, which is covered by an ongoing duty of Ofcom.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. It has taken a bit of time, but we are very pleased to hear it and about the steps she is taking to refer the Sky-Fox merger. I have been in correspondence with her Department on behalf of literally hundreds of constituents, some of whom are seeking private legal action. They consistently tell me that they would like to see Leveson 2. Can she give my constituents some reassurance?
I am sorry to have to repeat myself, but I will come to the House in due course with my response to the consultation we carried out.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I was anticipating a point of order from the hon. Gentleman, but I had not spotted him, so I feared he had beetled out of the Chamber. I am delighted to see that he has not done so.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Yesterday in Education questions, I asked Ministers if they were comfortable about handing over £45 million of public money to a training provider, learndirect, which has been deemed “inadequate” by Ofsted regarding outcomes for learners. In reply, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), told the House:
“In this case, the provision judged to be inadequate by Ofsted—apprenticeships—is no longer offered by learndirect.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 434.]
This is not the case. Not only is Learndirect Ltd continuing to receive public money to complete existing apprenticeships until July 2018, but Learndirect Apprenticeships Ltd, a company with the same directors and the same website, will still be funded to provide new apprenticeships on an ongoing basis. I am sure that the Minister did not intend to mislead the House, so I hope she might come to the Dispatch Box to correct the record, to explain why public money continues to be given to a provider that is delivering inadequate outcomes for learners, and perhaps to understand why the perception exists that Ministers do not have a grip on the learndirect scandal.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman both for his point of order and for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of its thrust. I have to say to him that it is not unusual for an hon. Member to find a Minister’s answer at the Dispatch Box less than totally satisfying. Moreover, the content of Ministers’ answers to questions, as colleagues will know, is the responsibility of the Minister concerned. The hon. Gentleman has been operating as a kind of self-employed sleuth in analysing the evidence and concluding, at least to his own satisfaction, that there is a disconnect between what the Minister said and the factual position. He has clearly been keeping his beady eye on websites and attending to his duties in an extremely assiduous manner.
I have to take care not to act as referee or umpire on the matter of whether a Minister has misled the House, but if a Minister were to accept that she had unintentionally misled the House—because she thought what she said was true—I am sure that she would take swift steps to put the matter right. If she takes a different view and does not accept the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation and conclusion, however, I doubt that she will be volunteering to come to the Chamber.
The thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s comments will have been communicated to the Secretary of State by now —if it has not been, it will be within a matter of minutes. Meanwhile, he has succeeded in putting his dissatisfaction and clear view of the facts on the record. The safest thing I can say in conclusion is that we await events.
We come now to a notable parliamentary delight. I call Mr Peter Bone to move his ten-minute rule motion.
Business of the House Commission
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create a Business of the House Commission to regulate the timetabling of business in the House of Commons; and for connected purposes.
I thank you for that introduction, Mr Speaker. You yourself have done much to enhance Parliament and parliamentary scrutiny.
It is a pleasure to introduce today a Bill that I am certain will be uncontroversial. This is because my Bill aims to complete the measures promised by the 2010 coalition Government to strengthen this House’s legislative work. Page 26 of the 2010 coalition bible, “Our Programme for Government”, states:
“A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament.”
My Bill has cross-party support from senior parliamentarians, and I am very grateful to them for sponsoring it.
We—or should I say the British people?—have already done away with one limitation on parliamentary sovereignty by voting to leave the European super state. It is now time to reassert that sovereignty and strengthen our ancient democracy as a result. We have done away with one such influence on our democracy. It is now time to do away with another. By this I mean the practice that the Government set the timetable in this Chamber.
I am one of many Members frustrated that we as Members of Parliament cannot debate what we want, when we want. Government control of the scheduling of House business undermines our role in scrutinising proposed legislation and demonstrates our inadequacy when it comes to holding the Executive to account. It must be for Parliament to set its own timetable, not for the Government to force their own agenda upon Parliament. This issue was identified by the Wright Committee, the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, which recommended in November 2009 that a House business committee should be established. Its function would be to
“assemble a draft agenda to put to the House in a weekly motion”.
To quote an esteemed former Member:
“The House of Commons’ historic functions were to vote money for governments to spend, and to scrutinise laws. It now barely bothers with the first, and does the second extremely badly. There was a time when legislation that had been formulated after months of civil service and ministerial deliberation was sent to the House of Commons which would pore over it, shape it, send it back, get it back, look at it again - and improve it some more. Bill by bill. Clause by clause. Line by line. Every piece of legislation would be put under intense scrutiny. Is it legally sound? Will it be effective? Is it worth the cost? Compare that to today. Let me take you on the journey of a piece of legislation as it passes through the modern House of Commons. It’s likely to have been dreamt up on the sofa of Number Ten. A Bill gets drafted. It’s sent to the House for a couple of hours of routine debate among a few MPs. Then the bell rings, the whip gets cracked and suddenly, out of nowhere, all these other MPs turn up to vote. More often than not, they don’t even know what they're voting for. The Bill limps through. Then it goes to the Standing Committee. Their duty is to look at the details clause by clause. But it’s packed full of people that the whips put there. So, surprise, surprise, the Government rarely loses the vote on any of the individual points of detailed scrutiny. And then it’s back to the House to do it all again - debate, bell and then vote to wave the legislation through… How has the mother of all Parliaments turned itself into such a pliant child?”
I am sure you will recognise those words, Madam Deputy Speaker. They are, of course, the words of former Prime Minister David Cameron, in his fiery “Fixing Broken Politics” speech. I think that many Members will agree that this picture is still very familiar. In that speech and the subsequent manifesto, the Conservative party promised to implement the measures of the Wright Committee to strengthen Parliament, and this commitment was translated into the coalition agreement. The House business committee was to be introduced within three years, but, for whatever reason, the creation of this committee to regulate the parliamentary timetable was never proposed or voted on—apparently the Whips just did not get round to putting it on the Order Paper.
My Bill seeks to put this oversight right and bring in these long-overdue recommendations. It is patently absurd that I, as a Member of Parliament, can propose legislation only through winning a ballot or by sleeping for a week outside the Table Office. We were all elected to properly represent the interests of our constituents, but currently we have little freedom to do so. On 23 June 2016—independence day—the British people voted to reassert this Parliament as the supreme democratic power in the land. Now that we are taking control of our laws back from the European Union, they will expect us to represent them and to hold Government to account in their interest. How can we possibly do this if the House is unable to run its own affairs? The referendum was a decision to strengthen Parliament and we must live up to this expectation as an institution. Instead of the Government running the whole timetable, my Bill makes sure that the Commons takes back control of its agenda.
I am today proposing to institute a business of the House commission that will decide the parliamentary timetable. The commission would be made up of the Leader of the House, who would be directly elected by the whole House, the shadow Leader of the House and Back-Bench MPs. Crucially, it should be made up of a certain type of Back-Bench MP. It should be immune from Government or shadow Government domination and thus be made up of Members who are true parliamentarians. Those who concern themselves with becoming Ministers or shadow Ministers—and there is nothing wrong with that at all—are far too often beholden to the Government or Opposition Whips.
Having such Members on the commission would be counterproductive to its aim. To try to combat this tendency, members of the commission should, when elected, commit to staying members of the House commission for the entirety of the parliamentary term. The numbers on the commission would be half from Members of the governing party and half from the Opposition. The chairman of the commission should also be an impartial voice whose interest is with Parliament rather than the Government. I suggest that this role be filled by the Chairman of Ways and Means, which of course is exactly what the Wright Committee proposed.
Too often now House business is agreed through the usual channels between the Whips Offices. This backroom dealing lacks the transparency one would expect of a democratic Parliament. The business of the House commission would resolve this current anomaly by meeting in public. It would hear representations from Government, Opposition and Back Benchers each week on what they would like to be included in the timetable. It would deliberate before issuing the timetable for the following week, which would then be voted on in the House. In that way, our Parliament would be given an open and transparent system of timetabling, rather than the closed door dealing and Government handout that currently dominates our system.
The aim of the Bill is to finally establish a commission that would be responsible for timetabling the business of the House. This mother of Parliaments has a democratic heritage like no other, but without control of our own affairs we cannot fulfil our role as a Parliament. Parliament should be the mother rather than the “pliant child” of our democratic process, and I am seeking leave to introduce the Bill in order to rectify that. When the voters in the referendum voted to take back control, they were voting to take back control from the European Union and give it to Parliament, not to the Government.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Peter Bone, Mr Christopher Chope, Chris Bryant, Henry Smith, Paul Flynn, Mr Philip Hollobone, Angus Brendan MacNeil, Zac Goldsmith, Tom Brake, Esther McVey, Philip Davies and Sir Edward Leigh present the Bill.
Mr Peter Bone accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First Time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 November, and to be printed (Bill 106).
I should inform the House that Mr Speaker has not selected the amendment.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Earlier this year, before the general election and in agreement with the Opposition, the Government removed a number of clauses from an earlier Finance Bill to ensure that the House had an opportunity to scrutinise the Bill in more detail. The Government announced their intention to return to the House at the earliest opportunity to legislate for the measures that had been removed, and that is the basis for the Finance Bill that they have now presented to the House. Last week we had a good debate on the resolutions on which this Bill is founded. Today I will be reflecting some of the themes of that debate, as well as setting out again the background of the Bill and its main provisions.
This Bill makes a significant contribution to the public finances through sound policies pursued by a Government who are putting a fair and competitive tax system at the heart of their plans. Those plans have ensured that the economy has grown continuously for more than four years to become 15% larger than it was in 2010. It is an economy that is experiencing record levels of employment, including more women in work than at any time in our history; an economy that has delivered the lowest level of unemployment since the mid-1970s, and the lowest level of youth unemployment since 2001; and an economy that is built on sound money, with the deficit reduced by three quarters to ensure that international investors maintain their faith in us. And indeed they have: foreign direct investment was 40% higher at the end of 2015 than it was in 2010. However, the Government are not complacent—far from it. We know that we must continue to press forward with vigour in supporting new growth and productivity.
Let me now turn to the specific provisions of the Bill, and, in particular, to those that will make our tax system fairer. This is a Bill that abolishes permanent non-dom status. Those who are non-domiciled for tax purposes pay about £9 billion each year in tax and national insurance, which is a huge contribution to our public finances. Lest we forget, it is £1 billion more per year than they paid 10 years ago under the Labour party; more, in fact, than they paid in any year during which the Opposition were last in power. The Government, however, are now putting an end to an unfairness whereby people living in the UK could claim that they were non-doms on a permanent basis. That is something that the Labour party failed to end in 13 years of government. Yes: under Labour, many people who had been living here for over 25 years, clearly settled in the United Kingdom, still technically claimed to be non-doms, and while they did make an important contribution, it was not necessarily a fair one. It is this Government who are changing that.
My right hon. Friend has mentioned Labour, and the 13 years of disastrous Labour rule. Is it not ironic that when he commenced his remarks, there was only one Back-Bench spokesperson for the Labour party in the Chamber who was even prepared to contribute to the debate?
I thank my hon. Friend for those observations, which I am sure the House has duly noted.
Let me now deal with termination payments, an issue on which the Opposition divided the House last week. The current rules are unclear and complicated. Some payments are taxed as earnings, some are only taxed above £30,000, and others are completely exempt from tax and national insurance contributions. Although most employers use the current rules as intended, the present system allows some to ignore those rules and deliberately manipulate their payments to minimise their tax by exploiting the differential tax treatment. That is clearly not fair. The Bill makes the rules simpler and fairer by recommending that we exempt the first £30,000 of termination payments from tax, while tightening the rules in respect of what is rightly included within such payments.
In last week’s debate, some Members raised concerns that the Government would be taxing compensation that is paid to employees when it is proved that they have been discriminated against—for example, after an employment tribunal. I am happy to reassure them. All compensation awards caused by proven discrimination against someone in employment will remain completely exempt from tax. All that the Bill does in the way of change is close the obvious loophole that enables an employer to treat part of a termination payment, as opposed to a tribunal award, as an “injury to feelings” in order to benefit from the tax exemption. It is HMRC’s longstanding position that if an employee claims a tax exemption for injury, it must have actually impaired that employee’s ability to work, and the Bill simply reconfirms that position.
Members also raised concerns that the Government intended to reduce the tax-free amount from £30,000. The Bill makes no such provision. If there were ever any desire to reduce the tax-free amount, it would be subject to a statutory instrument and the affirmative procedure, so the House would have to expressly approve any such proposal.
We also need to ensure that the taxation of different ways of working is sustainable, so that we have the funds to invest in the public services on which we all rely. It is therefore important that this tax treatment is fair between different individuals. The Office for Budget Responsibility has highlighted the fiscal risks arising from the growing number of people working through companies. Such individuals can pay themselves in dividends, and, in so doing, can pay significantly less tax than employees and the self-employed, although in many cases their economic activities are broadly the same. Part of the reason for that difference is the entitlement to a £5,000 dividend allowance, which is available in addition to the income tax personal allowance that the Government introduced at £11,500 in April.
Reducing this allowance to £2,000 will help to reduce the differential in tax treatment and help remove some of the working distortions to which I have referred. It will also ensure that support for investors is more effectively targeted: a £2,000 dividend allowance will ensure that around 80% of general investors continue to receive dividend income tax-free. The less well-off will be protected, with those general investors who are affected having investment portfolios worth around £100,000 on average, putting them in the top 10% of wealthiest households in the country. So the Bill will make our tax system fairer in a number of ways.
The Financial Secretary uses the example of someone who works through a company, and compares that with a wealthy investor with a large portfolio. The concern many of us have is for the small businessperson—the owner-proprietor—with a start-up business earning a very modest wage who relies on the £5,000 tax-free dividend in order to make ends meet. What consideration has he given in that regard?
There are other considerations that the hon. Gentleman should focus on when he looks at individuals setting up in business, and there are many successful entrepreneurs throughout our country. We are the party and Government who have reduced taxation on business. It used to be 28% under the last Government and we have brought it down now to 19% and it will be further reduced to 17% over time. So the hon. Gentleman should look at this in the round, and I persist in my point that we need to look at the different tax consequences of the different models—an individual going into business on their own, whether as a sole trader or partner, or in an incorporated structure—to make sure we do not have people effectively just using one model for no other reason than the tax advantages thereof.
My right hon. Friend refers to the importance of working out different tax models and how they affect the economy and the individual. Does he agree that Labour’s policy to increase tax negatively affects individuals’ income, investment to this country and therefore the country’s economy as a whole?
My hon. and learned Friend is entirely right. As I have said, we are the party of bringing down corporation tax and small business tax, and we continue to bring those taxes down. The Labour party’s current policy is to raise corporation tax to 26%, which is going to do very little to encourage entrepreneurship in this country; it will in fact do the reverse. It must also be borne in mind that, on personal tax, it is Labour’s policy to start dragging more people into the higher tax rate, whereas it is this Government’s policy, through increasing the personal allowance, to take people out of tax and lower the tax burden entirely.
Last week the Institute for Public Policy Research published an influential report on some of the major economic challenges facing the British state, not least chronic geographical wealth inequalities. What measures are there in this Bill to meet those challenges?
The Government’s record on income equality is extremely strong. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we have the lowest level of income inequality in this country for 30 years, as measured by the Gini coefficient. We are assisting the lower paid through the national living wage and national minimum wage and HMRC’s vigorous actions in making sure that that is complied with by businesses, and, as I have already stated, through the personal allowance changes we have made, which have taken many out of tax—3 million individuals, heading towards 4 million as we go up towards £12,500 as the new allowance.
I was asking about geographical inequalities.
We are a party and Government who recognise that all parts of our economy are equally important in sharing the proceeds of growth. That is why we are investing through our national productivity fund—through the work we are doing on skills, the investment we are making in infrastructure and the northern powerhouse, and through all these approaches—to make sure that prosperity, living standards and household income are improved throughout the length and breadth of our country.
In my constituency, the backbone of business is small and medium-sized businesses. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Government have put in place a raft of measures particularly to help them, and many are not paying any business rates at all, which is extremely helpful to them?
My hon. Friend raises an important point on business rates, which are very important as one of the key components of costs for businesses. In 2016 we announced a £9 billion package to ensure that business rates were not too onerous for small businesses, and we have of course this year announced a further £400 million-plus to make sure that further funds are available to those who require it.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he share my concern that the shadow Chancellor does not seem to be present—although he is active on his Twitter account? Does my right hon. Friend know why the shadow Chancellor is not here to hear this excellent speech? Is he stirring up insurrection and urging people to engage in unlawful strike action?
As usual, my right hon. Friend makes some very insightful observations. I have no news, I am afraid, as to where the shadow Chancellor is. Perhaps he has his nose deep in the little red book, but my advice to him is to read my speech and to learn, because there is much to learn from what I have already said and what I am about to share with the House.
It might well be that the shadow Chancellor is trying to cause insurrection outside the Chamber, to try to cause misery to the general public, but does my right hon. Friend agree that he does not seem to be doing much of a job of causing insurrection with his own party in this House, because none of them can be bothered to turn up to this debate?
That is a fair observation—[Interruption.] That is a fair comment from my hon. Friend—[Interruption.]
Order. Even if hon. Members are making a noise in support of the Minister, which I rather think they are, I cannot hear the Minister, and just as others are learning, I am learning from what the Minister is saying, and I would like to hear him.
Thank you for that ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker; I am pleased that you will be able to hear me from now on. I entirely accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies); if there is to be an insurrection, there must at least be some people present with whom to insurrect.
Rather than proving that Conservative Members are able to count people on Benches—which at times is beneficial to them, but at many other times is not—perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could listen to all the small businesses who are squealing about the massive increases they have seen in business rates and the impact on business start-ups of the changes to universal credit that are going to prevent a lot of people from starting up as self-employed, hitting those in constituencies like mine where there is no support for them.
I think the hon. Lady will have heard my—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor has arrived: the troops are in place, so let the insurrection commence.
The Bill will make our tax system fairer in a number of ways, but I want to focus now on how it strengthens our position in tackling tax avoidance and evasion. This is a Government who have already announced more than 75 measures to tackle evasion and avoidance since 2010, and we have secured almost £160 billion in additional tax revenue over this period. We have driven forward international action and will continue to do so. We have published one of the first public registers of beneficial ownership. We have reduced the tax gap to one of the lowest in the world. This Finance Bill introduces new policies to tackle aggressive tax planning, avoidance and evasion. It continues to crack down on disguised remuneration schemes, it introduces a new penalty for those who enable tax avoidance, and it clamps down further on online VAT fraud.
Is it not deeply regrettable that clauses in the previous Finance Bill that would have cracked down on billions of pounds worth of aggressive and abusive avoidance had to be dropped from the Bill because the Labour party would not support them?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely pertinent observation, as usual. We wanted this 650-page Bill to be considerably smaller so that more of it could be on the statute book already.
Notwithstanding the fact that the shadow Chancellor has now been shamed into taking time out of his insurrection to attend the Chamber, is it not remarkable that so few of the Labour Members who were talking so much about scrutiny last night have turned up to scrutinise the most important Bill that this Parliament passes?
My hon. Friend makes an important observation and the House will draw its own conclusions.
Will the Minister give way again?
I will give way again to my hon. Friend—why not?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have actually received more income since cutting corporation tax and the highest rates of tax, meaning more money to spend on public services? If we had followed the advice of the Labour party and increased taxes, we would have received less tax revenue and therefore would have had less money to invest in our public services.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The amount of onshore corporation tax that we took in the last financial year is close to £50 billion—50% more than in 2010. As we have brought taxes down, the tax revenue take has increased. We can draw only one corollary from all this: if the Labour party gets its way and starts to put those rates up again, some of that tax take might be damaged.
The Minister just prayed in aid the new penalties for the enablers of tax avoidance, which I welcome. This Bill is riddled with retrospective legislation, which I hope he will say more about later, but will the Minister explain to the House why those new penalties do not kick in until after the Bill receives Royal Assent when there is retrospectivity all over the place in the rest of the legislation?
I believe that that is due to an element of convention, but I am happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman after the debate. We have already clamped down on those who generate such schemes, and we are clearly clamping down on those who use and seek to benefit from them. The third thing is that we will now be actively clamping down on those who enable those schemes through their advice along the way, and they will face penalties of up to the entire amount that they have charged for their services. That is just another example of this Government’s determination to leave absolutely no stone unturned when it comes to clamping down on tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance.
While the Opposition squeal about tax evasion, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the Conservatives who have done more in government to tackle tax evasion than Labour did in 13 years?
My hon. Friend is right. Some Opposition Members claimed in last week’s debate that HMRC does not have the resources to clamp down on tax evaders, but that is demonstrably untrue. First, we have provided £1.8 billion since 2010 for exactly that purpose. Secondly, as I have already said, we have brought in £160 billion since 2010 by clamping down on such activities. The truth is that we are succeeding.
At a time when our public finances are still challenged due to the Labour party’s economic mismanagement, is it not important to get as much money as we can from tax avoiders and evaders? Our party is doing that.
My hon. Friend is right, which reminds us of the overall purpose of raising tax and ensuring that we bring it in, namely to live within our means, pay down our deficit and, critically, have the fine public services that are a hallmark of a civilised society. All of us can unite in wanting that.
The Bill legislates for new rules to prevent large multinational businesses playing the system by claiming tax deductions for excessive interest expenses and ensures that companies cannot use losses to pay no tax even in years when substantial profits are made. In last week’s debate, I was somewhat surprised by the concerns raised by some Opposition Members about the provisions relating to the taxation of businesses trading in Northern Ireland. They are nothing new. They were announced in the 2016 autumn statement and do not create a tax loophole. The legislation simply ensures that all small and medium-sized enterprises with trading activity in Northern Ireland will be able to benefit from the Northern Ireland corporation tax regime in the same way as larger companies already can, and it also introduces additional anti-avoidance rules to ensure that the regime operates as intended. The Bill’s provisions do not weaken that at all; they simply mean that more businesses will be able to apply the regime to the taxation of profits genuinely arising, and only arising, from activities carried out in Northern Ireland once the regime is put into effect.
My right hon. Friend refers to the taxation and regulation of business, but once we are in the hard, bracing winds of international free trade after Brexit, does he agree that it is essential that our Government ensure that we have a low-tax, deregulated, pro-business environment so that our businesses can compete on the world market?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is why the Government have been clear through our tax planning and the information that we have been signalling to the marketplace. Certainty for business is extremely important, which is why we have lowered corporation tax and have stuck to that position. We are making considerable progress, and I will take my hon. Friend’s point on board.
In short, the Bill continues our hard work to drive down the tax gap and ensures that we will provide a fair and competitive tax system. The other part of the deal is that those taxes must be paid.
On that point, will my right hon. Friend re-emphasise the fact that the tax gaps for large and small companies have fallen by 40% and 50% respectively since we took over from the Labour Government?
My hon. Friend is correct. The tax gap currently stands at 6.5% for all taxes, which is lower than in any year under the previous Labour Government. In fact, the tax gap was 8.3% in 2005-06, so we are the party that has been bearing down on the tax gap.
This Bill introduces significant changes to the clauses in one area that the Government intended to legislate for before the general election. Many businesses of all types and sizes have already gone digital. They do their banking online, pay their bills online, market their products and services online, and buy what they need online. Making tax digital is the natural next step. It will not only make tax administration more convenient for our businesses, but it will reap rewards for the Exchequer. Avoidable tax errors under the current system cost us almost £9 billion in 2014-15. That is more than double the cost of running HMRC and the Treasury combined.
Many Members, including members of the Treasury Committee, as well as business owners, agents and stakeholder groups have had concerns about whether all businesses would be ready for this development. Well, we listened to that feedback, and one of my early decisions as Financial Secretary was to amend the timetable for delivering Making Tax Digital. Digital record keeping will now only be a requirement for businesses with a turnover above the VAT threshold, and they will only have to provide updates on their VAT liabilities.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his announcements about Making Tax Digital and for pointing out that the change will not affect the smallest of businesses. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and does he agree that we on the Government Benches put small businesses first?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. We do put small businesses first, which is precisely why we listened so carefully to the feedback we received on our proposals and have made changes that will allow breathing space for businesses to prepare and for us to pilot further the plans we will introduce in due course.
As the vast majority of businesses already submit VAT returns on a quarterly basis, the transition to quarterly updates through Making Tax Digital should not be unduly onerous.
Although the delay in Making Tax Digital gives breathing space for very small firms, those firms will now face additional administrative requirements, possibly alongside Brexit and a dip in the economy. Is that not an added concern for businesses now that they have seen how onerous the proposals actually are?
The hon. Lady may be aware that in the consultation we received the message from businesses that they broadly welcome these changes as we move into the digital age and do things more efficiently and effectively. However, businesses did have concerns, to which we have listened, about the timing and pace of the changes we originally proposed. The policy is robust, but the Government and I are determined to get the changes right and to make them at the right pace that suits those companies.
Does my hon. Friend remember that in 2010, when the digitisation of VAT was introduced, more than half of businesses with a turnover of more than £100,000 signed up voluntarily? Does that show that moving to the new economy and technology is welcomed by many?