House of Commons
Wednesday 11 October 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
New Southgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]
Third Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 17 October (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Devolved Administrations: Brexit
I met the Deputy First Minister of Scotland and the First Minister of Wales to initiate a full programme of engagement with their respective Administrations. Engagement continues at official level with the Northern Ireland civil service. I look forward to reviewing cross-departmental progress at the forthcoming Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and I welcome the recent announcement of the new civil service hub in Cardiff, which will bring 4,000 civil service jobs from across Wales into one hub. Llandrindod Wells in my constituency was named this morning as the happiest place to live in Wales. Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment to continuing to see the whole of Wales as a target for future civil service collaboration?
I add my congratulations to the people of Llandrindod Wells on selecting an MP who will make them happy, too. My hon. Friend is quite right about the civil service hub in Cardiff. The UK Government have a significant footprint in Wales and the hub will deliver a range of benefits not just to people in Cardiff but across Wales, demonstrating the impact we can make through greater collaboration.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that once we leave the EU we will have total control over our internationally recognised fisheries limits, that fishermen from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England will benefit from any new management regime, and that this will not be bargained away during any negotiations?
I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that when we leave the EU we will be fully responsible under international law for controlling UK waters and the sustainable management of our fisheries. Through the negotiations we will of course work to achieve the best possible deal for the UK fishing industry as a whole.
Will the First Secretary of State please explain what consultation there was with the Welsh and Scottish Governments before the publication of UK Government papers on Brexit issues, including customs, Northern Ireland and research and development?
The position papers we have published over the past couple of months go to the devolved Administrations before they are published. As I said in my answer to the original question, we have regular consultation—indeed, later today I will be meeting the First Minister of Wales.
We are told that the UK Government are preparing for a no-deal Brexit scenario. Will the First Secretary of State detail the preparations his Government have made for a scenario in which the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill fails to gain the legislative consent of the devolved Administrations?
The Government are, as the hon. Gentleman and the House would expect, preparing for all eventualities. That is the only responsible thing for a Government to do and that is what we are doing. The House will have a considerable amount of time during the Committee stage, which is coming up shortly, to debate the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. I hope, partly through the re-institution of the Joint Ministerial Committee, to make sure that the legislative consent motion will be agreed.
As I said in reply to the original question from my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies), at the moment views from Northern Ireland are being fed in through the Northern Ireland civil service, which is currently doing administrative tasks. I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in hoping that we will soon have a Northern Ireland Executive back doing their job.
A lot of us are concerned about the shenanigans going on here and would prefer it if the Government gave a straightforward commitment to transferring relevant powers to the devolved Administrations instead of foutering around. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, when referring to UK-wide arrangements after Brexit, he is talking about co-decision between the UK Government and the devolved Governments—or does he mean that this Government will tell the others what to do?
No, the spirit and letter of the devolution settlement is that there are areas of responsibility for this Parliament and the Westminster Government, and areas of responsibility for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. We have said that these have to be UK-wide frameworks. I think the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the Scottish Government accept that we do not want to break up the UK single market, but that there are responsibilities that will remain with Scotland.
The Chancellor has written today that the Government must be prepared for every outcome from Brexit, but that he will not make resources available for a no-deal scenario. As well as managing the civil service, the Cabinet Office is responsible for co-ordinating Government policy. Whatever the Chancellor’s views, will the Minister now indicate that there is sufficient civil service resource currently working on the potentially disastrous no-deal Brexit scenario and its impact on the devolved Administrations?
The truth is there is no contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit, and that explains the breakdown of policy co-ordination, for which the Minister is supposedly responsible, right at the heart of Government. The Government are a shambles and wholly divided. We have a Prime Minister who said that no deal was better than a bad deal, a Chancellor who now says he will not fund a no-deal scenario and a Foreign Secretary who seems perfectly happy with a no-deal arrangement. The stakes could not be higher, but the Government are a shambles. Is it not time they either got their act together—it is the Minister’s job to make sure that they do so—or stood aside and prepared the way for a Government who will act in the national interest?
I am happy again to assure the hon. Gentleman that the appropriate arrangements for all eventualities are being prepared, and of course the Government are working hard to make sure we get the best Brexit deal for this country—one that will ensure the future prosperity of this country for decades to come.
According to the Electoral Commission, the register used for June’s general election was the most accurate for years. The identity of applicants is verified by electoral registration officers using digital services provided by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, and we have seen record levels of engagement. Recommendations in Sir Eric Pickles’ report have been accepted by the Government and will be used to improve the integrity of electoral processes further.
Although being registered at more than one address is perfectly legal, voting more than once at a general election is a crime that currently carries an unlimited financial penalty. The Government are reviewing a range of measures to prevent people from voting twice at general elections, and I also understand that the police are investigating allegations in several local authorities on this issue. I remind hon. Members that any evidence that individuals might have voted twice must be reported to the police.
The Government are committed to ensuring individual voter registration. A complete register means nothing unless it is underpinned by accuracy, and we have the most accurate register. On electoral fraud, I make the point, as I have done repeatedly before, that it is the perception of fraud that is so corrosive to our democracy. The Electoral Commission’s report published today shows that 38% of people recognise that electoral fraud is an issue at general elections.
The integrity of the electoral register suffers while millions of British citizens are unregistered. What specific measures is the Minister taking to register the millions of young people who remain off the register, and what specific funds has he allocated to that worthy cause?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that at the last general election there were more people on the electoral register, and more people voting, than there have been since 1992. We should bear in mind the state of the Labour Government between 2001 and 2005, when there were far more people off the register. We are determined to have a democracy that works for everyone, and we are introducing a range of measures to that end. They include the publication of a democratic engagement strategy later this year, which I hope the hon. Gentleman will read.
Is the Minister aware of the massive change in Northern Ireland constituencies in terms of proxy votes between the 2015 general election and this year’s election, when thousands of people applied for and received proxy votes, which, in some constituencies, resulted in a virtual usurping of the election result? What plans has the Minister to address that?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, electoral policy in Northern Ireland is dealt with by the Northern Ireland Office, but the Cabinet Office is working closely on how individual electoral registration can be introduced in Northern Ireland. I will refer the hon. Gentleman’s point to the Northern Ireland Office, but proof of identity has been required in polling stations in Northern Ireland since 1985, and the Labour Government introduced photo ID in 2003. Northern Ireland has led the way when it comes to ensuring that we can crack down on electoral fraud.
We are committed to providing a clear and secure democracy. Following our manifesto commitment, we are working with four local authorities to pilot voter ID in polling stations, and working with Tower Hamlets to pilot changes in postal voting in 2018, as part of a developing programme to strengthen electoral integrity.
I welcome the fact that the Government are piloting voter ID. I had the privilege of being in Iraqi Kurdistan for the recent independence referendum, when voter ID was used with apparently few difficulties. Which local authority areas are involved in the Government’s pilot, and how can the system be rolled out to further authorities in due course?
I am pleased to be able to confirm that the four local authorities that have agreed to take part in the voter ID pilot are Woking, Gosport, Bromley and Watford; and, as I have said, Tower Hamlets is involved in the postal vote pilot. We had an agreement with Slough as well, but at the last minute Labour councillors voted against joining the pilot, against the advice of their own officials. As we have heard this morning, the Labour party does not seem to take electoral fraud very seriously.
Is it not a fact that in 2015, when more than 50 million votes were cast, the number of convictions for electoral fraud was in the low double figures? Is not the truth that this is a Trojan horse, introducing voter suppression methods to enhance the electoral prospects of the Conservative party?
If the hon. Gentleman wants to be taken seriously on this issue, he should listen to the Electoral Commission, which in 2014 urged the Government to adopt the kind of measures that we are adopting now. He should also persuade Labour councillors, in Slough and elsewhere, to take it seriously. If Labour is seen as the party that is soft on electoral fraud, that will not be a very good look for Labour.
Government Procurement: SMEs
We will shortly publish the latest small and medium-sized enterprises’ spending performance figures. The Government remain committed to a challenging target to ensure that a third of their procurement spending is with small businesses by 2022, and we are continuing to take action to achieve that.
Following a recent report by the Federation of Small Businesses, will the Minister tell the House whether she intends to issue guidance requiring local authorities to increase their use of dynamic purchasing systems so that small businesses are not locked out from lists of potential suppliers to those authorities?
The hon. Lady has always been a doughty champion of the spreading down of procurement practices to local government so that it, too, encourages more SMEs to take part in the process. We have issued guidance to local authorities on how local government can support SMEs, and have legislated to ban burdensome pre-qualification questionnaires for low-value contracts.
The Government are committed to transparency in lobbying. In 2014 we created a statutory register of consultant lobbyists to increase transparency among those seeking to lobby Ministers and permanent secretaries on behalf of third parties. That legislation complements the existing framework of industry-led regulation.
The Government are of the view that the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 increased transparency around the work of consultants and lobbyists and therefore we will not be undertaking any future review. The Act confers powers on the register of lobbyists to remove an organisation from the register if that organisation seeks to undertake any work in future.
The Government have stated in their manifesto a clear commitment to maintain the voting age of 18, so the Government have no plans to lower the voting age in elections.
The Labour Welsh Government are currently making provision in Wales for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in local and Welsh Government elections. Will the Minister urge his Government and other Conservative Members to support the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) on 3 November, to prove that this Government do not disregard the views of young people?
As the hon. Gentleman has made clear, this Government have given powers to the devolved Assemblies to make decisions in respect of their local government and regional elections, but the position of the Government remains clear: on the parliamentary franchise, the age will remain at 18. Of course, I look forward to the many contributions that will be made in the debate on that.
The Government are of course determined to engage the many young people in schools in the democratic processes. Recently I established a national democracy week, in which I hope all Members will take part. It is vital for democratic participation that we encourage young people to get involved as early as possible, and to be educated in our democratic processes.
Does the Minister agree that sometimes young people make mistakes, and that it cannot be right that a teenager at the age of 16 can make the mistake of joining the Conservative party and voting in the inevitably upcoming leadership election, yet would be denied a vote at the forthcoming general election?
We have had many debates on the franchise, and I have sat as a Back Bencher through several debates in my parliamentary career so far; I think Parliament has voted three times on the issue and has consistently decided not to introduce votes at 16. We will be having future debates, and I look forward to engaging with the hon. Lady in them in due course.
Relocation of Government Functions
The Government’s industrial strategy will help to create a more balanced economy by moving arm’s length public bodies out of London and the surrounding areas, and into clusters in the regions and devolved nations of the UK. Our hubs programme is also expected to save £1.78 billion over 20 years, as well as providing state of the art buildings from which civil servants can deliver world-class services to our citizens.
The Leeds hub will be a catalyst for growth in the surrounding region. We continue to do more to connect our communities and drive productivity. The Chancellor recently announced a further £300 million investment for HS2 and £100 million for the road network—significant investments for the northern powerhouse. That will be crucial for driving growth and regeneration in the north and midlands.
Torbay has not only beautiful beaches, but direct rail connections to London, Manchester and Birmingham, improved road links, and sites ready for regeneration. Which of the plans the Minister listed does she believe present the greatest opportunity for relocating jobs to Torbay?
My hon. Friend has, as ever, emphasised the stunning attributes of his constituency. Our commitment to the public bodies relocation programme seeks to move significant numbers of public servants out of London. I assure my hon. Friend that I have heard his advertisement for the English riviera and the potential it certainly brings.
This month we celebrate the first year of our world-leading national cyber security strategy. A major milestone has been successfully establishing the National Cyber Security Centre. [Interruption.] It has shown that it plays a vital role in providing cyber security to keep our country safe. The NCSC responded to 590 significant incidents, more than 30 of which were sufficiently serious to require a cross-government response. Our five-year national cyber strategy is working to defend our people, businesses and assets, deter our adversaries, and develop the skills and capabilities we need. [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend is completely right about the importance of SMEs, which is why we have taken a number of steps to enable them to access Government contracts more easily, including by putting in place the Contracts Finder website and a requirement for all public sector buyers to have 30-day payment terms in their contracts.
That is a perfectly reasonable challenge, and the hon. Gentleman asked about that when I made my statement yesterday. One area where we absolutely need to do better is inside the civil service, and specifically in fast stream recruitment, and we will certainly do that.
We will ensure that Government functions are increasingly spread throughout the UK and not just in the capital. The Government are reviewing the location of all arm’s length bodies to help to drive growth across the nation, and we will ensure that the east midlands is fully considered as a possible location.
Order. I remind the House that we are discussing the contaminated blood scandal, upon which, despite very heavy noise, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) has made her thoughts very clear. We must now hear the Minister. I ask the House to think of the people affected by this scandal, who would expect the House to treat respectfully of it.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I am aware that the hon. Lady has played a significant role in the investigation of this terrible scandal. As she said, the consultation on how we proceed ends on 18 October. I know that she and the all-party parliamentary group that she co-chairs have written to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the matter. When we have all the responses to the consultation, we will obviously take a decision as soon as possible.
I agree that it is an extremely important development. It is a world first to provide this amount of information in that form. It is true that it holds a mirror up to the whole of society, and not just central or indeed local government and public bodies, but all other bodies, including charities, will need to respond positively to some of the disturbing findings exposed in the race disparity audit.
We are working hard with the National Cyber Security Centre to improve competency not only within the civil service and across Government, but among our young people. Our CyberFirst programme, which I visited in Portsmouth this summer, shows that there is a massive range of really enthusiastic young people who are determined to learn the skills that they will need to help us.
I am afraid that my hon. Friend and I will have to agree to disagree on that point. The Government’s position remains as it was in our manifesto: the franchise will be retained at 18. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to participate in future debates on this issue through private Members’ Bills on Fridays.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The Prime Minister will know that yesterday was World Mental Health Day. Mental health problems affect one in four people, but only £1 out of every £8 in clinical commissioning group budgets is spent on mental health services. Newcastle Gateshead CCG is set to cut its budget by a further 1.1% next year, bringing the total spend for mental health to less than 10% of its entire budget. If parity of esteem for mental health is to be achieved, the Government will have to match their words with more strong and stable, ring-fenced funding. With those cuts and with increasing demand, when will the Prime Minister end the talking and promise to increase and ring fence funding for mental health and specialist psychological services?
The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance that we should attach to mental health. Giving that parity of esteem is an important step that this Government have taken, but we are also doing much more on mental health. In fact, more money overall is going into mental health. More people are able to access NHS talking therapies and receive treatment for their mental ill health, but we also need to look at the issue more widely. That is precisely why I have set up a scheme to train staff in schools to ensure better awareness of mental health problems and to enable them to know how to deal with individuals in schools who are suffering from mental health problems. There is more for us to do, but this Government are putting more money in and are taking more action on mental health than any previous Government.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He is right that we need to build a bridge from our existing partnership to our future partnership to allow time for practical adjustments to be made. That is exactly what we are doing when we talk about the implementation period, which I set out in my speech in Florence, together with our vision for our future partnership. I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that we published a White Paper on our future trade policy earlier this week, and we will continue to publish papers in the coming months.
I hope that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the late Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former general secretary of Unison who died last week. He will be remembered for his warmth and the esteem in which he was held throughout the Labour movement and throughout the community. More than that, he, almost more than anyone else, made sure that the national minimum wage happened in this country. Millions of workers are better off due to the great work that Rodney did during his life. Can we say, “Thank you, Rodney, for everything you did in your life”?
The roll-out of universal credit is already causing debt, poverty and homelessness. Does the Prime Minister accept that it would be irresponsible to press on regardless?
Of course we offer our condolences to Rodney Bickerstaffe’s friends and family on his death. He and I would probably never have agreed on very much in politics, but obviously he played his role with commitment and dedication through his life.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about universal credit. It is perhaps worth our recognising why we brought in universal credit in the first place. What we want is a welfare system that provides a safety net for those who need it, and that helps people to get into the workplace, earn more and provide for their families. The system that we inherited from Labour did not do that. It was far too complicated, there were far too many different sorts of payment and, crucially, too many of those who earned more found themselves with less money in their pockets. Under Labour, too many people were better off on benefits. That is not the system that we want. We want universal credit, which is simpler and more straightforward, and makes sure that work always pays.
I wonder which planet the Prime Minister is on. Citizens Advice describes universal credit as
“a disaster waiting to happen”.
It has made that conclusion based on its work assisting tens of thousands of claimants with debt. Housing associations report an increase of up to 50% in the eviction of tenants in rent arrears due to universal credit. Can the Prime Minister and Department for Work and Pensions not wake up to reality and halt this process?
As I have explained, we have very good reasons for changing the system. Yes, the DWP has been—[Interruption.] We have been listening to concerns raised about the way in which universal credit has operated. Changes have been made; performance has improved, for example. At the beginning of this year, only 55% of people were getting their first payment on time. Now that is more than 80%. Of course there is more for us to do, and that is why the Secretary of State and the Department for Work and Pensions continue to monitor this and to ensure that performance improves. Underlying this is a need to ensure that we have a system that ensures that work pays and that people are not better off on benefits.
The Halton Housing Trust reports a 100% year-on-year increase in the number of evictions. Half of all council tenants on universal credit are at least a month in arrears in their rent. This weekend, the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, described universal credit as
“operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving.”
He is right, isn’t he? It is years behind schedule. It is forcing people to food banks, driving up evictions and leaving families in debt. Can the Prime Minister not see it? If the former Prime Minister can understand it, why can’t this one?
In fact, research shows that after four months the number of people on universal credit in rent arrears had fallen by a third. As I said in my previous answer to the right hon. Gentleman, of course we recognise that there have been some issues to address in the rolling out of this benefit, and that is why we have been taking our time doing it. The underlying reason for moving to universal credit is still the right one. We see more people getting into work on universal credit than on jobseeker’s allowance, and there is the possibility for those people who cannot wait for their first payment to ask for an advance if they are in need, and the number of people getting an advance has increased.
At last the Prime Minister recognises that there are problems. The Institute for Public Policy Research and the Child Poverty Action Group estimate that universal credit is going to put another 200,000 children into poverty. Last month, apparently, a dozen Conservative MPs wrote to the Work and Pensions Secretary calling for a pause. Perhaps they should have listened to people like Georgina, who contacted me this week. She says:
“All summer we were left with no money to survive as it just stopped abruptly. We would have lost everything if it weren’t for my family.”
Others cannot rely on family and are facing eviction. I urge the Prime Minister: show some leadership, pause universal credit, and stop driving up poverty, debt and homelessness, because that is what this does.
First, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I would be happy to look at the case of Georgina if he would like to send me those details?
As I have just said—once again, I referred to this in my previous answer, had the right hon. Gentleman listened to it—it is possible for those who are in need to get advance payments. The number of those getting advance payments has increased from 35% to just over 50%—the majority. So we are seeing the system being improved and performance improving. But let us just think about the Labour party’s record on this whole issue of welfare. Under the Labour party, 1.4 million people spent most of the last decade trapped on out-of-work benefits. Under the Labour party, the number of households where no—[Interruption.]
Under the Labour Government, the number of households in which no member had ever worked nearly doubled. The welfare bill went up by 60% in real terms, which cost every household an extra £3,000 a year. That is not the way to run a system; that is the way to have a system that is failing ordinary working people.
The last Labour Government lifted a million children out of poverty. Gloucester City Homes has evicted one in eight of all of its tenants because of universal credit. The Prime Minister talks about helping the poorest, but the reality is a very, very different story. Not only are people being driven into poverty but, absurdly, the universal credit helpline costs claimants 55p per minute for the privilege of trying to get someone to help them claim what they believe they are entitled to. Will the Prime Minister today show some humanity, intervene and make at least the helpline free?
I have made it very clear that we continue to look at how we are dealing with this and ensuring that we get this system out in a way that is actually working for people. The performance is increasing, and it is working because more people are getting into work on universal credit than were doing so on jobseeker’s allowance. [Interruption.] I do want people to be able to find work. I want people to be able to get better jobs, to earn more and to get on without Government support. That is why it is so important that we help businesses to create jobs. Perhaps when the right hon. Gentleman stands up he would like to welcome the fact that 3 million more jobs have been created due to a strong economy under a Conservative Government.
Sadly, universal credit is only one of a string of failures of this Government. Everywhere we look we see a Government in chaos. On the most important issues facing this country it is a shambles: Brexit negotiations that have made no progress; Bombardier and other workers facing redundancy; most working people worse off; young people pushed into record levels of debt; 1 million elderly people not getting essential care; and our NHS at breaking point. This Government are more interested in fighting among themselves than in solving these problems. Is it not the case that if the Prime Minister cannot lead, she should leave?
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what the record of this Government is: the deficit is down by more than two thirds; 3 million more people are in jobs; 1.8 million more children are in good or outstanding schools; more people are visiting A&E; more people are getting operations than ever before; there are record levels of funding into the NHS; and there are record levels of funding into our schools. What did we see about the Labour party from its conference? [Interruption.] Wait for it.
What did we hear from Labour’s conference? What happened at Labour’s conference? First, Shelter said that the Labour party’s housing policy would end up harming people on low incomes; Labour’s flagship Haringey Council rejected another of Labour’s policies; the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that Labour
“needs to…establish that it is not a racist party”;
and the Labour leader of Brighton Council threatened to ban Labour conferences because of freely expressed anti-Semitism. That was all before the shadow Chancellor admitted that a Labour Government would bring a run on the pound and ordinary working people would pay the price.
Hon. Members: “More!”
My hon. Friend makes the important point about the fundamental benefits of universal credit, but she is of course right, and that is why the DWP is continuing to look at the performance of universal credit and how it is operating. I am happy to meet her to look into the issue. She mentioned the advance payments; as she said, it is important that those who need those payments are aware of them, so it is about not only advertising but making sure that jobcentre staff are trained and are being retrained to ensure that they are aware of what they can do to help people. The advance payments can be with people within five days or, in an emergency, on the very same day. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss them.
The Prime Minister cannot answer a simple question. [Interruption.] I am quite happy to wait. The reason why the Prime Minister cannot answer a simple question is that she is hamstrung by the parliamentary majority and a divided party of right-wing Brexiteers. This morning—[Interruption.]
This morning, Chancellor Philip Hammond admitted that a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the UK economy. The Scottish National party is the only party in this House that is united on the issue. We know that crashing out of the single market and the customs union will cost 80,000 jobs in Scotland and £2,000 per person. Now is the time for leadership. Will the Prime Minister come off the fence and recognise that, if we are to save this economy, we need to stay in the single market and the customs union?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is obviously a very worrying time for workers at BAE Systems, including those at Warton in his constituency. He raises two issues. I can reassure him that the Department for Work and Pensions will ensure that people have all the support they need to look for new jobs. That will include the rapid response service, which will help with CVs, training and information about benefits. We will also continue to promote our world-leading defence industry right across the globe, so that companies like BAE Systems can secure contracts for UK-made equipment. Just last month, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary signed a statement of intent with Qatar, committing the country to the purchase of 24 Typhoons and six Hawks from BAE. We will continue to promote these first-class products from first-class manufacturers such as those in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We will also ensure that support is given to those who lose their jobs.
The hon. Gentleman is referring to our announcement that we are putting £2 billion extra into our successful affordable housing programme, bringing the amount dedicated entirely to creating affordable homes to more than £9 billion. For every pound the Government put in, housing associations raise a further £6, which means that thousands more families get the homes that they need and can afford every single year over the next five years. This is a good announcement from the Government. It means that more people will get the homes that they need. I would have expected him to welcome it.
My hon. Friend raises a very sensitive issue. As he will be aware, health is a devolved matter in Wales. The NHS in England has strict guidelines regarding the prescriptions of these sorts of medications to young people. They can be prescribed only with the agreement of a specialist team after a careful assessment of the individual, and generally only to patients who are 15 or older. I recognise the concern raised by my hon. Friend.
First, let me re-emphasise—I have said this before in this House—that we value the contribution that EU citizens have made in this country and we want them to stay. That is why we made citizens’ rights one of the key issues, and one of the early issues that is being discussed in the negotiations that are currently taking place. We are working to ensure that we get a good deal. If there is no deal, we will obviously have to have arrangements with other member states regarding not just EU citizens here, but UK citizens in those member states. But we are working for the best deal for the United Kingdom. We are very close to agreement on citizens’ rights. We want EU citizens to stay here in the UK because we value the contribution they are making.
On Monday, my right hon. Friend was clear about her negotiations, saying that it remains the Government’s priority to get a very good free trade arrangement with our European friends and partners before we leave. She also made it clear that, alongside that, we would make plans and all necessary arrangements to depart under World Trade Organisation terms should no such agreement be available. Will she confirm, then, that all moneys necessary will be allocated to this project as and when required?
I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that confirmation. We are preparing for every eventuality. We are committing money to prepare for Brexit, including a no-deal scenario. It might be helpful if I update the House. The Treasury has committed over £250 million of new money to Departments such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Home Office, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Transport in this financial year for Brexit preparations. In some cases, Departments will need to spend money before the relevant legislation has gone through the House. The Treasury will write to Departments and to the Public Accounts Committee explaining this process shortly. Where money needs to be spent, it will be spent.
The message that I would like the hon. Gentleman to take back to his constituent’s partner is that we offer our condolences at the death of her partner. We are working to ensure that there is greater consistency in the judgments that are originally given on PIP assessments. We introduced PIP in order to ensure that we are able to focus payments on the most vulnerable. I completely understand how she feels about the position she is in. We offer her our deepest condolences.
HS2 Ltd continues to fail my constituents living along the line of route for HS2, with some being offered tens of thousands of pounds less than the true value of their homes. Will the Prime Minister now personally intervene to ensure that my residents living in the affected areas of Erewash do not lose out as a result of this major national infrastructure project?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and it is right that she is speaking up on behalf of her constituents. I know that the Department for Transport is looking carefully at these issues and that my hon. Friend the rail Minister is determined to see that fair and comprehensive compensation for those directly affected by the route is paid, and it will be paid as if HS2 did not exist, plus the 10% and reasonable moving costs. We are committed, as ever, to infrastructure investment—we are investing in infrastructure—but it is important with a major infrastructure change such as HS2 that we do ensure that those compensation payments for people are being paid properly. As I say, my hon. Friend the rail Minister is focusing on this issue.
The hon. Lady could not be more wrong. First of all, we are not ramping up a no-deal scenario; we are actively working in negotiations with the European Union to ensure that we get a good deal—the right deal for Britain—for a brighter future for this country, which is what I believe we can and will achieve. It is what I set out in my Florence speech. I recommend the speech to the hon. Lady.
On the second point, I made very clear—perhaps I need just to explain it again to members of the Opposition—that when we leave the European Union in March 2019, we will cease to be full members of the single market and the customs union. That will happen because you cannot be full members of the single market and the customs union without accepting all four pillars—free movement; continued, in perpetuity, European Court of Justice jurisdiction. During the implementation period, we will be looking to get an agreement that we can operate on much the same basis as we operate at the moment—under the same rules and regulations—but that will not be the same as full membership of the customs union and the single market.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Royal Marines, supported by a specialist amphibious fleet, have served our country with great distinction for many, many years? Does she share my concern that one of the proposals currently being considered by the Royal Navy is to downsize the amphibious fleet? In an uncertain world, is this not both short-sighted and dangerous, and will she please intervene?
First, I absolutely agree that we can commend and applaud the contribution that the Royal Marines and our amphibious fleet have made to the defence of this country and, indeed, the defence of others. It is absolutely right that, as we look at how threats are changing, we look at how we should best spend the rising defence budget to support our national security. We have committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence every year of this Parliament. We are spending £178 billion between 2016 and 2026 on equipment for our armed forces. Naturally, we do not always discuss the specific operational details, but if I might just say to my hon. Friend, I understand that the claims he has referred to are pure speculation at this stage.
First, of course we send our deep condolences to the families and friends of all those students in the hon. Lady’s constituency who have died as a result of contracting meningitis. The point she raises about raising awareness of meningitis is a very valuable one, and it is something that we do need to continue to do. Very often, when decisions are taken by the Government, such as on the vaccination that is already in place, it is very easy to think that that is a job done, but, actually, we need to continue to look at see how we can ensure that we do not see these deaths from meningitis in the future.
I was shocked the other week to hear the shadow Chancellor predicting a run on the pound if Labour took office. For my constituents that would mean an increase in their household bills and in the cost of their weekly shopping. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the biggest risk to this country would be letting the shadow Chancellor into No. 11 Downing Street?
I absolutely agree; my hon. Friend is right that a run on the pound would mean higher prices and that it would make life much more difficult. It would mean job losses, businesses leaving the country and people being poorer. The one thing that we absolutely must do is ensure that the shadow Chancellor gets nowhere near the Treasury. The Leader of the Opposition asked me earlier what planet I was on. Well, we all know what planet he and his shadow Chancellor are on: Planet Venezuela.
When we leave the European Union, we will be leaving the common fisheries policy. As part of the agreement that we need to enter into for the implementation period, obviously that and other issues will be part of that agreement. But when we leave the European Union, we will leave the common fisheries policy.
It has been assumed that triggering article 50 means that on 29 March 2019 we will come out of the EU if there is no agreement, but is it not the case that the negotiations can be extended if the Government and the EU agree to do that? Will the Prime Minister assure the House that under no circumstances will the negotiations be extended?
My hon. Friend is accurate in his interpretation of the treaty, which does allow for an extension of negotiations. I have been very clear that by March 2019 we want not only for those negotiations to have ended but to have an agreement on the future relationship and on our withdrawal, and we will leave the EU in March 2019.
Of course we want to work to see a positive future for the south Wales economy. That is what the United Kingdom Government are doing across the whole United Kingdom: working for that brighter and more positive future. With regard to the tidal lagoon, we will publish our response to the Hendry review in due course.
I recently visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, which was truly harrowing. It can only be described as a humanitarian disaster. I am immensely proud of the work that the United Kingdom Government are doing through UK aid, but what pressure can my right hon. Friend put on the Myanmar Government to end the persecution, so that the Rohingya people can go home?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. We remain deeply concerned by what is happening to the Rohingya. We know that there are now over 500,000 refugees in Bangladesh. It is a major humanitarian crisis. We have been providing support through our international development and aid, and we have provided money to the Red Cross in Burma and bilateral donations to support the refugees who have crossed into Bangladesh. We have raised the matter three times at the UN Security Council. The international community has delivered a clear message that the Burmese authorities must stop the violence, allow the safe return of refugees and allow full humanitarian access. We have also suspended any practical defence engagement that we had with Burma because of our concerns.
The hon. Gentleman again raises a very serious case, and our condolences go to the family of his constituent. This is an issue on which, as I have said, we need to raise awareness. He raises the question of the response by medical professionals. This is not just about individuals—about parents—recognising the symptoms, but about ensuring that healthcare professionals are identifying them. I will ask the Health Secretary to meet the hon. Gentleman and people who are anxious about this to hear directly from them their concerns regarding vaccinations.
On Monday, at the start of Baby Loss Awareness Week, this Conservative Government launched 11 pilot projects for a national bereavement care pathway. This groundbreaking pathway will look at support for parents who have lost a child from conception to the age of one. May I ask the Prime Minister to congratulate the parents, the charities and the health professionals who have worked so hard to develop this project, and to make sure that it is rolled out more widely once the lessons from the pilots have been learned?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating all who have worked so hard on this issue, which, sadly, brings such distress to too many people—including, I know, Members of this House. I am sure that everybody will want to join me in marking Baby Loss Awareness Week. There was a debate on the matter yesterday, and I pay tribute to Members from across the House who spoke very movingly about their own experiences.
I am happy to welcome, as my hon. Friend has done, the pilot of the national bereavement care pathway this week. The Department of Health is also providing funding to Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, to work with other baby loss charities and royal colleges to improve the quality of bereavement care in the NHS. We expect the pathway to be rolled out nationally in October 2018. As my hon. Friend says, it is important to conduct a pilot, so that we can learn from it as we come to the national roll-out.
I fully understand the hon. Lady’s concern about her constituent, who is fleeing domestic violence. We do not want anybody in this country to be subjected to domestic violence and abuse. That is why the Government have actually been putting more money into supporting refuges across the country. It is why we have ring-fenced money for domestic violence support across the country, and it is why we have introduced new legislation. But we are also going to look at what more we can do, through a domestic violence Act, to provide the support that is necessary to ensure that we deal with the perpetrators, support survivors and, as all of us across the House should want to do, end domestic violence.
May I commend my right hon. Friend for her pledge to build hundreds of new free schools? Does she agree that they are critical to drive up standards and increase parental choice, and is it not true that we are committed to creating a school system that works for everyone, while the Opposition want to hold everyone back?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Free schools have performed a very important function in raising standards in education in this country, and I am pleased that we have so many more children now in good or outstanding schools. Free schools have done something else as well, as I see in my own constituency, where one of the free schools is specifically for children who are on the autistic spectrum. That is very important, and it is a service that was not available previously. Free schools have enabled that to happen. They are providing for people up and down the country, and we should welcome them.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I am obviously not aware of the details of the particular services and of the transfer that he has referred to, but the overall point he makes is that people living in Wales are often seeing that they are getting a less good service from the Labour Government NHS in Wales—[Interruption.] Oh, yes. Yes, this is the case. As the hon. Gentleman says, there are people who will travel from Wales to England to get the service that is available in the NHS in England, and the Labour Government in Wales need to take a hard look at what they are doing to the NHS in Wales.
Higher Education Funding
On 9 October, I made a written ministerial statement to the House setting out changes to the repayment threshold for student loans from April 2018 and confirming the maximum tuition fees for the 2018-19 academic year. The Government’s reforms to higher education funding since 2012 have delivered a 25% increase in university funding per student per degree. University funding per student is today at the highest level it has been at any time in the past 30 years.
As the House is aware, the Government have decided to maintain tuition fees at their current level for the 2018-19 academic year. This means that the maximum level of tuition fees will be £9,250 for the next academic year, 2018-19, which is about £300 less than if the maximum fee had been uprated in line with inflation.
We will also increase the repayment threshold for student loans from its current level of £21,000 to £25,000 for the 2018-19 financial year. Thereafter, we will adjust it annually in line with average earnings. This change applies to those who have taken out or will take out loans for full-time and part-time undergraduate courses in the post-2012 system. It also applies to those who have taken out or will take out an advanced learner loan for a further education course. Increasing the repayment threshold will put more money in the pockets of graduates by lowering their monthly repayments. They will benefit by up to £360 in the 2018-19 financial year. The overall lifetime benefit is greatest for graduates on middle incomes; low earners of course continue to be exempt from repayments.
We have world-class universities, accessed by a record number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and a progressive funding system. We are building on those strengths through our planned reforms, including reforming technical education to provide new routes to skilled employment and strengthening how we hold universities to account for the teaching and outcomes they deliver through the teaching excellence framework.
The changes we are making are considered proposals that reinforce the principles of our student loan system and ensure that costs continue to be split fairly between graduates and the taxpayer. However, we recognise that there is more to do. We have further work under way to offer more choice to students and ensure they get value for money. We want more competition and innovation, including through many two-year courses. As the Prime Minister made clear last week, we will continue to keep the system under careful review to ensure it remains fair and effective. The Government will set out further steps on higher education student financing in due course.
Let me welcome Members back from conference season. We sang “The Red Flag”; the Conservatives waved the white flag. I told our conference that the Government should get on with sorting out student finance. Then the Prime Minister told her conference that they would. I suppose I am cheaper than Lynton Crosby, but the Government’s announcement begs just a few questions: what, who, when, why, how and how much? Apart from that, it is completely clear. What are the details of the review of higher education that the Prime Minister promised? Who will sit on it? When will it start and finish? Who decided that policy, how and when? Is it true that the Minister was unaware until the Prime Minister announced it? Surely he cannot be the least favoured Minister in the Johnson household.
Can the Minister tell us how much these policy changes will cost? How much more will taxpayers contribute and how much interest receivable is lost? Will the reduced income be replaced by additional funding? Can the Government explain why they have changed their mind since we last asked for these measures to be taken and they refused? Are they still considering capping interest rates below the 6% some graduates are being charged? What is their policy on grants? “Senior sources” have briefed that the Education Secretary wants them back. Will the Minister now match our commitment to restore maintenance support?
Just what is the Government’s policy on tuition fees? They boast about freezing fees for one year, but we all know that that is simply because they do not have a majority in this House for any rise, so what will they do after that? Will they finally accept that this House voted against their most recent rise, and revoke that too?
The Prime Minister said that the Government have listened and learned. Will they listen to this House, and when will they learn that actions mean more than words?
I will answer some of the hon. Lady’s questions—in fact, all the questions. The normal, cross-Government processes were followed in the run-up to the announcements. The Department for Education worked closely with the Prime Minister’s team to develop those announcements. We are delighted to be able to announce the changes that she set out. I set out in the ministerial statement that I published on Monday the full details that the hon. Lady has just asked for. However, to recap, the threshold will rise to £25,000 from £21,000. That will put a further £360 in the pockets of graduates. We have taken stock of the views of parents, students and Parliament itself in coming to our decision to freeze tuition fees for the coming academic year. Therefore, we are listening and, where appropriate, we are taking action to ensure that our student finance system is getting the balance of interests right between those of students and those of the general taxpayer.
That is the core principle of our student finance system, which must achieve three goals. First, it must support access for the most disadvantaged, and it is achieving that with great success. Someone from a disadvantaged background is more than 50% more likely to go to a highly selective university than when the Labour party left office, and more than 43% more likely to go to university overall. Students are less likely to drop out, whether they are from BME, disadvantaged, mature or part-time backgrounds, than they were when the Labour party left office. This system is delivering participation and access in a way that alternative student finance systems never have.
Secondly, the system is working for universities. Our universities are 25% better funded per student and per degree than they were under the old student finance system, before the 2011 reforms. That is of fundamental importance. Does the Labour party really want our universities not to have the resources they need to do excellent teaching and to deliver great research? That is what it is proposing. It is proposing a return to the system that we saw in the run-up to the Dearing report in 1998, a system that saw a real-terms decline in university funding of almost 50%. Those are the changes that the Labour party will deliver if it has a chance to get into office.
Thirdly, our system is fair to the taxpayer. We keep the balance of funding under careful review. As the Prime Minister made clear in her party conference speech and in announcements in Manchester last week, we will announce further steps in that regard in due course.
I strongly welcome the measures that my hon. Friend has set out because we have to be fair to students and fair to the taxpayer, too. In the review, will he look at the high interest rate and at lowering the interest rate for students? On a wider issue, the Government announced a big boost to degree apprenticeships. Does he agree that we should be incentivising and putting all financial incentives into degree apprenticeships because the students earn while they learn, there is no debt, they get a job at the end and such apprenticeships help to meet our country’s skills deficit?
We continue to keep all aspects of our student funding system under careful review to ensure that it remains fair and effective, and that we are getting the balance right between the interests of individual students, who go on to have far higher lifetime earnings, and the interests of general taxpayers, whose voices must also be heard in this debate. The interest rate that my right hon. Friend mentioned will be among the things that we will continue to keep under careful watch in the weeks and months to come. Degree apprenticeships are a very promising way of combining the best of higher education and further education. We want them to develop and grow, and we want more providers in the system to offer them. They have huge potential.
Raising the repayment threshold is a positive step and I am delighted that the UK Government are following the Scottish Government’s lead on that matter, but we have to be clear: it is not the panacea that this Government would have us believe. Average student debt on graduation is now more than £50,000, so the announcement needs to be part of a wider reform of student support and funding, which must include bursaries, grants and the abolition of tuition fees—indeed, everything we are doing in Scotland, which is ensuring that our students have the lowest student debt and the best level of support in the UK. We also have more students from deprived backgrounds accessing HE than ever before.
What further steps will this Government take both to increase student support and to reduce student debt? Will the Minister now commit to reducing or better still abolishing fees and reinstating the maintenance grant for those in most need as part of a realistic student support package? Will he guarantee that he will look at reducing the interest on student loans in England, which is keeping young people locked into long-term debt?
No, I certainly will not commit to abolishing tuition fees. They are a strong policy success in many ways and an unsung one. They have enabled us to allow more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university than at any point before. They have enabled us to lift student number controls. That is a critical argument for holding on to a system that shares the cost of funding fairly between the individual student, who goes on to have far higher lifetime earnings, and the general taxpayer.
We keep the system under careful review. As the Prime Minister set out in Manchester, we will make further announcements in due course about the rest of the student funding system.
I congratulate the Minister on the steps he has taken to try to get the balance right and welcome what he said about keeping this rather startling interest rate under review. I urge him to continue to resist the inevitable populist pressures to sweep away the whole system, which play very well to today’s students but would create great problems. In hindsight, I was lucky enough to have people in low-paid jobs paying taxes to maintain me to meet my living costs when I was studying and being trained to be a reasonably successful barrister when I emerged from university. Therefore, will he resist claims that taxpayers at all levels of income should pay for the costs, which would never be repaid by some of the students, although others will go on to achieve very considerable incomes?
I can certainly assure my right hon. and learned Friend that we will continue to bear in mind carefully the taxpayer interest. It is critical to remember that the Labour party’s proposals, were they to be funded out of income taxation, would add about 2.5p to the basic rate of income tax, so it is vital that we bear taxpayers’ interests in mind and we will continue to do so. He mentioned the interest rate, which we of course keep under careful review. It is worth remembering that this is a heavily subsidised loan product overall. The Government write off about 30% to 40% of the student loan book. That is a deliberate investment in the skills base of this country, not a symptom of a broken student finance system. The interest rate cannot be looked at in isolation.
Surely the Minister needs to go back to the Dearing principles. Dearing believed that the expansion of higher education should be based on the student who benefits paying the community through the taxpayer, society and the employer. Can we go back to those principles? I am worried that the Minister and the Prime Minister have already made up their minds about the review they are suggesting. The fact of the matter is that we cannot have a higher education system that is created entirely on a pile of student debt. It is time, cross-party, to think about a radical alternative to what we have at the moment.
The Labour party helped to introduce the system we have today and this Government have been building on it since 2010. It is extraordinarily successful at enabling more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get a chance to benefit from higher education. I am startled that the Labour party wants to roll back all that progress. Why would they want to reverse the changes that have enabled more than 50% more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get into higher education? That is what the hon. Gentleman’s proposals would end up achieving.
I congratulate the shadow Secretary of State on continuing the fine tradition of women carrying on with speeches in the face of adversity. As someone who represents a university, was it not the case, when we made the decision in 2010 to put up fees, that it was a very simple calculation that if fees were not raised, we would have had to cut the number of young people able to go to university, because otherwise the public purse would not have been able to afford the system we have now? Universities are now well financed: we are not having the debate about university financing that we are having about other areas of public spending.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was the increase in tuition fees that enabled us to take the limit off student numbers and release student number controls. That change is what has driven the sharp increase in participation in higher education by people from lower socioeconomic deciles. It has driven a huge expansion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds getting a chance to go through university and higher education. The Labour party’s policies would reverse all that progress.
It is right that the Government have frozen tuition fees, but I wonder whether I could nudge the Minister to go a bit further and get rid of this unsustainable fees system altogether. When is he going to guarantee that universities and their funding will not be adversely affected in any way by the changes the Government are proposing?
Universities are well funded. As I said in my opening remarks, funding per student per degree is up by 25% since the reforms the Government introduced in the previous Parliament. We are confident, having assessed the financial position of our institutions, that they can sustain a freeze in the level of fees for this coming financial year and that is the policy the Government set out.
There are excellent examples of two-year programmes across our higher education system, such as those offered by the University of Buckingham. It is not alone—there are others. We want many more providers, including high-tariff, highly selective institutions, to start to offer two-year programmes. They have huge potential to access students who have been hard to reach by the higher education system. We will come forward with proposals very shortly to enable the rapid expansion of two-year degrees throughout our system.
The Minister’s replies this afternoon reveal the utter shambles at the heart of the Government’s higher education policy. We told them not to lift the cap on tuition fees. They did not listen and now they have had to U-turn. We told them not to freeze the repayment threshold. They did not listen and now they have had to U-turn. We now find that the Prime Minister has announced a review of student finance and higher education funding with absolutely no idea who is going to lead it, what the scope will be, or what the desired outcome will be. They are making it up as they go along.
I urge the Minister, given that he has not listened to advice in the past year or two, to look at the biggest issue facing students as part of the review, which is not so much the tuition fee system itself, but student finance and the money in their pockets when they are at university, so that, finally, we can have a higher education student finance system that means that, wherever students are from and whatever their background, they have the money they need to succeed throughout the lifetime of their course and beyond.
We look carefully at the student finance system all the time. It is constantly under review and we have taken account of the views of colleagues in Parliament, parents and students in coming to the conclusion that we wanted to make the changes we announced last week in Manchester, so it would be unfair to say we are not listening and not responding appropriately. We always keep the system under review to ensure it remains fair and effective, and balances the interests of students and taxpayers appropriately. We will continue to do so in the weeks ahead.
I very much welcome the increase in the threshold, but in all this focus on finance is there a danger that we forget the whole purpose of going to university, which is to obtain a high-quality education? Will my hon. Friend assure me that whatever reforms he undertakes will not undermine the ability of universities to provide the highest-quality education possible, but that, on the contrary, they will drive universities on to deliver even higher standards?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The more interesting part of this debate is about ensuring universities deliver value for money, great teaching and fantastic research with the resources the Government make available to them. In the autumn statement, we increased research spending in our system by the largest amount in 40 years. We should celebrate that fact. We have increased per student per degree funding by 25% since 2010-11. We should be celebrating that fact, because it is enabling our universities to do the great job we need them to do. Through the teaching excellence framework, we are holding them to account more tightly than ever before for the value for money we need them to deliver.
It is true that universities are better funded, but the Campaign for Science and Engineering, as well as universities, tell me that the definition of which subjects receive the top-up payment from the Government are out of date and too narrow. To ensure that we maintain funding, especially in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, can the Minister confirm that the list will be looked at again as part of the review to help universities to fill the skills gap that his own Department is trying fill?
I thank the hon. Lady for her suggestion. We continue to keep that aspect of the system under watch. Clearly, it is important that courses that are more expensive to deliver receive appropriate support from the Government. Obviously funds are not unlimited and we have to be careful in terms of promising further resources to all subjects, but we keep it under review.
The right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) described the current regime as having all the advantages of a graduate tax with none of the disadvantages. Is that not still the case, and would we not want to avoid the ridiculous situation at the University of St Andrews, where Scottish student numbers are capped at 20%?
My right hon. Friend puts it very well. Our system has enabled us to release student number controls, an option that has not been available to the Scottish Government precisely because they have not got the balance right between the individual student and the general taxpayer. I entirely agree with him.
May I urge the Minister to remember that most students become taxpayers, so it is completely pointless to try to set up a false divide between students and taxpayers? May I also urge him to look at the interest rate repayment? The retail prices index, which is used for student loans, is an outdated measure. It is not the Government’s measure of choice and it makes our students’ debts even more extortionate. We should be looking at the consumer prices index, not the RPI.
As I said to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), we keep interest rates under view, along with other aspects of the system. RPI has historically been the measure of inflation for the student finance system and in some ways is more appropriate than CPI, as it takes account of, among other things, mortgage interest payments and council tax, which are typical expenses for graduates not included in the calculation of CPI.
It is exciting that record funding is now going into higher education, and it is absolutely right, of course, as the Minister said, that we get value for money from our universities. Does he share my concern, therefore, that the number of senior university figures being paid salaries in excess of that of the Prime Minister seems to be spiralling out of control?
My hon. Friend is right that there are examples of institutions where senior pay has accelerated very rapidly. It is a matter of concern and great public interest. The new regulator, the Office for Students, will take steps to ensure much greater transparency and accountability in how pay is set, particularly the very high salaries we have seen in parts of the sector.
The Minister will be aware that students are leaving university with debts on average of over £50,000. How on earth can this burden be a sensible way to equip the next generation to meet the challenges they and society will face?
I say to the hon. Lady what I should also have said to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne): this should best be seen as a graduate contribution, rather than a debt pile. Graduates do not have to repay until they are earning over £25,000, which is a world away from the world of commercial debts, and their debts are written off after 30 years. No commercial loan offers such terms. This is a time-limited and income-linked graduate contribution. We should start to move away from this conception of it as a debt and loan.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I find it alarming that the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) is chuntering away saying, “It’s not true.” It is true. The proportion of people from disadvantage backgrounds now going to university has increased. It is undeniably true. It is in the statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the Office for Fair Access. The number is 43% higher than it was in 2009-10. A young person is 52% more likely to go to a highly selective university than they were in 2009-10. It is extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman wants to deny it.
Order. I was happy to indulge the Minister and to listen to his mellifluous tones, but as he will quickly discover as part of his apprenticeship in this place, the Minister is not responsible for the observations on “Question Time” or elsewhere of the shadow Secretary of State on this or any other matter.
The Minister talks about the expansion in student numbers. How often does he have conversations with the local government and housing Ministers about the impact on housing pressures in cities such as Bristol and on council finances, given that students do not pay council tax and developers do not pay the community infrastructure levy? Although those students are welcome, it does come at a cost.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Our university students bring enormous economic benefits to cities up and down the country, which is why our universities are such important economic actors across the country. Clearly, local authorities have an important role to play in managing the pressures that students bodies can sometimes put on the provision of public services, and I work closely with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to keep abreast of the pressures she mentioned, but there is no doubt that our towns and cities are immeasurably the better for having universities within them. They are anchor institutions that are steadfast and have longevity in a way that many other economic entities do not, and we should wholeheartedly welcome their presence.
Building on the point from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), will the Minister explore making university finances much more transparent to ensure not only value for money for students but that the money is spent effectively and efficiently to enhance our fantastic institutions?
Yes, we feel it is important that there is greater transparency in the sources and uses of university income. In the regulatory framework consultation in the coming weeks, we expect the Office for Students to make great progress in this area, so that we can boost student confidence that their tuition fee income will be spent clearly, well and for the purposes they want.
The Minister has said a few times now that he wishes to keep the system fair and effective. I remind him and the Government that further education is also a part of higher education and that, while additional sums have been going into HE, FE has been cut and restricted remorselessly. Would he say that what the Government do with FE is equally fair and effective? I can tell him it is not.
Of course, excellent higher education is being delivered in our further education system, and the teaching excellence framework results in June highlighted the excellence in HE found in FE providers. On the hon. Gentleman’s question about funding, the Government made available an additional £500 million to support the evolution and development of T-levels, a transformational qualification that will help us to achieve parity of esteem for technical and further education in our system.
I apologise for being late, Mr Speaker.
The Minister has said two or three times now that student debt should not be considered real debt because it will be written off in 25 to 30 years. Will he or his colleagues in the Treasury publish their forecast of the cost to the public purse in 25 to 30 years of the loans written off as a result of students not meeting their repayments in their entirety? Given that he is raising the threshold for repayments, and so potentially increasing the level of debt, presumably that figure will grow, so he is actually stacking up a burden for a future Chancellor.
As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, we regularly publish assessments of the amount the Government write off at the end of a 30-year period to reflect the fact that they want to make higher education free at the point of access to students. It is called the resource and accounting budgetary charge. Prior to the changes we announced at the party conference, the proportion of the loan book to be written off over that period was approximately 30%, but it will have risen as a result of the changes announced, and we will make the new amount public in due course.
I sympathise with the Labour Front-Bench team’s position on this matter. Basing higher education funding on billions of pounds of student debt that might never be repaid is neither morally right nor operationally pragmatic, so I urge the Minister to commit to a wide-ranging review of higher education funding that encompasses not only tuition fees but maintenance grants and the sustainability of funding for higher education students.
If I may be so bold, Mr Speaker, I also urge the Labour Front-Bench team to enter into a discussion on this matter with their colleagues in Wales. The only Administration now committed to raising tuition fees is the Labour Welsh Government—
Order. I am inordinately grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but it is procedurally improper for him to veer off the centre of the fairway, which he previously inhabited. Questions must be to the Government about the policy of the Government, not general exhortations to other Opposition parties, but I am sure if he wants to have a cup of tea in the Tea Room with the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson, there might be such an opportunity.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It is true, of course, that the Labour Government in Wales have recently increased fees beyond the fee cap in England.
Nuclear Safeguards Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Greg Clark, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary David Gauke, Secretary Boris Johnson, Secretary Liam Fox and Secretary David Davis, presented a Bill to make provision about nuclear safeguards; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 109) with explanatory notes (Bill 109-EN).
Fetal Dopplers (Regulation)
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 regulate the sale and use of fetal dopplers; and for connected purposes.
It is an honour to introduce the Bill, which aims to improve standards of monitoring babies’ health as we look to reduce significantly our country’s relatively high neonatal and stillborn death rate. The United Kingdom is ranked 114th out of 164 countries in terms of progress made in reducing the number of stillbirths, and serious concerns have been raised about the use of foetal dopplers. In the next few minutes, I will outline those concerns and the case for regulating the sale of such devices.
Since being elected in 2015, I have looked closely at policies relating to baby health, particularly through the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, which I set up alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince). Discussion of the issue is timely, as this is Baby Loss Awareness Week. I pay tribute to all Members for their contributions to yesterday’s debate on baby loss; I also thank the Government for their energy and determination in reducing baby loss, and especially for their target of halving the number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths by 2030. We must continue to work on a cross-party basis, as a great deal of progress has been made and a great deal is still to be made. It is in that spirit that I thank the Members on both sides of the House who have sponsored the Bill.
As I said during yesterday’s debate, the Government’s support in reducing baby loss has meant that progress has been made. That includes funding for the raising of standards in, for instance, perinatal mental health services, and for improvements in equipment and the physical environment of maternity units. However, we are languishing behind other developed countries when it comes to our stillbirth rates, and that must change.
It is in this context that I hope to secure the House’s support for regulation of the sale of home dopplers, devices that allow pregnant mothers to listen to the heartbeat of their babies. There are serious concerns about the use of those devices. I have heard some consumers speak in favour of dopplers, and I am not suggesting that they have no use, but there is evidence that they can falsely reassure people about the health of their babies. We must place that responsibility in the hands of medical professionals, and encourage mothers to respond to changes in the movements of their babies rather than using devices that can be bought over the counter for £30.
Foetal dopplers send ultrasound waves into the womb, and then simulate a sound. That sound may or may not be the baby’s heartbeat; it is a simulation of the ultrasound waves bouncing off moving blood vessels. While I absolutely understand the attraction for parents wanting to hear their baby’s heartbeat, the sale of the devices is on the rise despite warnings from medical professionals. Even if home dopplers could flawlessly detect a baby’s heartbeat, that would still not be a sufficient measure of the baby’s health. A heart can continue beating despite other serious issues being present.
There is already a wealth of advice online—including advice from the NHS and expert organisations—warning against the use of home dopplers, and comprehensive advice is also provided with the instructions on the box. However, that advice is not deterring people from purchasing the devices, and their use is on the rise. Kicks Count, a campaign group that is calling for the banning of home dopplers, has been trying to raise awareness of their dangers for five years, but has not been able to change public attitudes and preconceptions. Its petition has attracted more than 12,000 signatures.
The NHS Choices website says that home foetal heart monitors
“are potentially dangerous to the mother and baby’s health”.
The Royal College of Midwives has also urged mothers not to use home dopplers. Its website says:
“Expectant mothers have been warned against the use of home fetal Doppler devices over fears that they may give false reassurances to mothers about the health of their baby.”
Guidelines issued by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence state that dopplers are
“unlikely to have any predictive value and routine listening is therefore not recommended.”
The problem with these devices is that anything that moves inside the abdomen, whether it be the baby kicking, air moving in the mother’s intestines or blood flowing in the arteries, is translated into a sound. It requires training to be able to detect a baby’s heartbeat, yet the sale of dopplers is not restricted to medical professionals; they are available over the counter. Given that the expert medical advice that I have mentioned highlights their dangers, I suggest to the Minister that the Department of Health needs to consider how regulation could improve the monitoring of babies’ health and restrict the sale of the devices.
The question that we must ask ourselves is this: if midwives are not using dopplers to identify foetal wellbeing, why are we allowing pregnant women to reassure themselves at home, when seeking medical advice would be the sensible and safe option? According to the instruction manual for a home doppler kit,
“It is intended to be used by care professionals, including practical nurses, midwives, relative technicians and physician assistants”.
Dopplers were never originally intended for such widespread sale on the open market.
I understand that people may feel that regulation is not necessary, and that as long as people know the risks we do not need to legislate. However, Kicks Count has been raising awareness of the issue for years through, for instance, a national media campaign. The guidelines tucked away in the doppler information booklet are often ignored. We cannot have a situation in which a product that can falsely reassure mothers about their babies’ health is being sold at an expanding rate.
I praise Mothercare for its welcome announcement earlier this year that once current stocks ran out, they would not sell any more foetal dopplers. That company recognises the concerns of healthcare professionals, and I hope that other businesses will follow suit, but in this age of Amazon, we cannot rely on the replication of such responsible behaviour by every single seller of dopplers. That is why there is a case for regulation.
The BBC spoke to the manufacturers of the product, and was told that dopplers should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care; nor should they be relied upon as an indicator of foetal health. It is potentially fatal to do so. In practice, the Bill would introduce a licensing system in England and Wales to ensure that medical professionals were responsible for monitoring foetal health. With such verification, we could remove dopplers from high street shelves and encourage more responsible practice and use of the devices. It would be for the Department of Health to oversee the process as part of our wider ambition to reduce stillbirth rates.
Baby loss is an issue that is thankfully gaining much more attention in Parliament, and we must improve the outcomes for mothers and babies in the UK. The current figures show that our standards are below those of other developed countries, and I know that the Department of Health is working hard in trying to change that. I am not suggesting that the Bill will solve all our problems, but I believe that it will go some way towards improving the monitoring of babies’ health.
Let me end by paying tribute to Kicks Count, and in particular to Elizabeth Hutton, who has put an enormous amount of energy into this campaign and who is here today. Babies and mothers deserve the very best care, and foetal dopplers pose a risk to the high standards for which we strive.
Question put and agreed to.
That Antoinette Sandbach, Stephen Hammond, Maria Caulfield, John Howell, Tulip Siddiq, Tim Loughton, Diana Johnson, Sir David Amess, Vernon Coaker, David Hanson, Mr Clive Betts and Kelvin Hopkins present the Bill.
Antoinette Sandbach accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 January 2018, and to be printed (Bill 110).
(Clauses 5, 15 and 25, and related new clauses)
Considered in Committee
[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]
Termination payments etc: amounts chargeable on employment income
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 12, page 13, line 27, at end insert—
“402F Review of impact of termination payments on low income workers
(1) Within two months of Royal Assent being given to the Finance (No. 2) Act 2017, the Chancellor of the Exchequer shall commission a review of the impact of the provisions of sections 402A to 402E on low income workers.
(2) A report of this review must be laid before the House of Commons before the start of the tax year 2018–19.”
This amendment requires the Chancellor of the Exchequer to carry out a review of how the changes to termination payments will affect low income workers before these provisions come into effect.
Amendment 2, page 14, line 15, leave out “different” and insert “higher”.
This amendment removes the power for the Treasury to reduce the £30,000 threshold in connection with the taxation of termination payments by regulations.
Amendment 3, page 14, leave out lines 20 to 23.
This amendment is consequential upon Amendment 2.
Amendment 4, page 14, leave out lines 27 and 28 and insert—
‘(2) “Injury” in subsection (1) includes—
(a) psychiatric injury, and
(b) injured feelings.””
This amendment explicitly includes (rather than excludes) injured feelings within the definition of “injury” for the purposes of payments which are excluded from the provisions of Chapter 3 of Part 6 of the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003 (payments and benefits on termination of employment).
Clause stand part.
To be fired from a job is perhaps one of the most difficult experiences for an employee. There are very few people in this Chamber, let alone in the country, who have never had to go through the awkward, bitterly disappointing and scary experience of losing, or potentially losing, a job. This is the daily reality for thousands of people, and it goes to the heart of clause 5.
I ask the Committee to imagine how thousands of people across the country at BAE are feeling at this moment after yesterday’s announcement of job losses. How are those workers feeling in Warton, Samlesbury, Portsmouth, Guildford and RAF Leeming, and in the Chief Secretary’s own county of Norfolk at RAF Marham? Added to the worry, concern, anxiety and hopelessness of redundancy now comes a potential tax bill to pay for the Government’s hapless management of the economy. Will the writ of clause 5 stretch across the Irish sea? What about the threat to the jobs of those at Bombardier in Northern Ireland, and the thousands of other associated jobs over there?
The hon. Gentleman rightly points out the devastating consequences for people who lose their jobs—he refers to particular instances at the moment—but does he also recognise that this Government have created 3 million more jobs, which is helping our economy and those people?
This is not relevant to the debate, but a significant number of those jobs are incredibly low paid, and people have not had pay rises for many years. What the hon. and learned Lady says might well be the case, but the reality is that it is not about the quantity; it is about the quality—[Interruption.] Of course it is.
How insensitive and out of touch must this Government be to put clause 5 before Members today of all days? The Prime Minister has vowed that she will do anything and everything she can to help those affected at Bombardier and BAE, so perhaps the Minister would like to withdraw this provision here and now and put the Prime Minister’s warm words into action.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the concerns that those workers will be facing, but he knows perfectly well that the Government’s proposals in this Bill are designed to deal with abuse. He knows that there are no plans to change the rules in a way that would affect people on lower incomes who are not doing anything wrong, and the Minister made that clear on Second Reading. The hon. Gentleman’s scaremongering is making the concerns of those workers worse, rather than reassuring them, which is what he ought to be doing in this House of Commons.