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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
08 January 2018
Volume 634

House of Commons

Monday 8 January 2018

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Fire and Rescue Services

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1. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of funding for fire and rescue services. [903101]

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I recognise the vital role that firefighters play in the protection of communities, as demonstrated recently during the tragic fires at the Liverpool Echo Arena car park and in Manchester. Fire and rescue services have the resources they need and will receive around £2.3 billion in 2018-19 to continue their vital work. Single-purpose authorities’ non-ring-fenced reserves increased by 88% to £615 million between March 2011 and March 2017. That is equivalent to 49% of net expenditure.

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The Home Secretary will be aware that there are 20% fewer firefighters in Plymouth today than there were in 2010, but the risk has not gone down. With combustible cladding still on the tower blocks in Mount Wise and Devonport, the risk remains high. Will the Home Secretary reassure us that there will be no further reductions in the number of firefighters in Plymouth and no further reductions in firefighting funding?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. He is right that there are 20% fewer firefighters, but there are 50% fewer fire incidents that firefighters have to attend. It seems to me that that means we are still able to get the very best service from our firefighters. If the hon. Gentleman has requirements in respect of tower blocks in his community, in which he has shown a particular interest, I urge him to approach the Department for Communities and Local Government, which sometimes allows some financial flexibility to assist with additional needs.

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In Northamptonshire, we now have a joint police and fire commissioner. Does the Home Secretary agree that that is the best way to make the best use of limited resources?

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Yes; my hon. Friend is absolutely right that an excellent way to use resources most efficiently is to make sure that we have those sorts of mergers. In fact, there is now an obligation under legislation passed last year to make sure that fire authorities work more closely with the police.

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The Home Secretary has already referred to the major fire that ravaged the car park at the Liverpool Echo Arena on new year’s eve, when around 1,400 vehicles were destroyed. It was only because of the magnificent efforts of Merseyside firefighters that there was no loss of life. Will she take that as a warning that Government cuts, which have slashed 42 full-time appliances down to 26 now and 18 next year, are putting lives at risk? Will she undertake urgently to review funding for the Merseyside fire and rescue authority?

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I would point out to the hon. Lady the scale of the reserves that I have already highlighted and ask her to work closely with her local fire authority to ensure that it is using that money wisely. To follow up on her comments, I have the utmost respect and admiration for the firefighters who did such an excellent job in that particular incident.

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In Lichfield, we have a brand new fire station, but one fewer fire appliance, which seems an odd sense of priorities in the way that the fire service is run in Staffordshire. There would be a £10 million saving if only the police and the fire service were to merge their back-office functions. What can the Home Secretary do to encourage them to do just that?

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That is an excellent point from my hon. Friend, and it reinforces the point that was just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) that the best way to achieve such efficiencies is through closer working between police and fire services. I urge him to encourage his authority—if it has not done so already—to put in the business case review for us to look at.

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May I wish you a happy new year, Mr Speaker?

The Secretary of State has already mentioned the fire in the Lighthouse tower in the northern quarter in Manchester. Will she join me in praising the very quick efforts of the Manchester fire service, which meant that everybody was safely evacuated from what looked to be a very serious fire in that tower block? Will she also reassure me, and communities in Manchester and across the country, that the fire services will have not only the resources that they need, but the powers to inspect and ensure that private as well as social housing residential blocks are fire safe and that these fires do not spread?

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I happily join the hon. Lady in congratulating and thanking the fire fighters for doing such an excellent job. She raises an important point: it is about not just resources but having the right powers. That is why we commissioned a report on building regulations from Dame Judith Hackitt, who reported her interim findings in December. We will be hearing from her later in the spring, in a few months’ time—or even in weeks—with her final report. I hope that that will give us additional guidance about what powers are necessary to ensure that these fires do not take place in future.

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Tackling waste fires represents a significant financial burden for fire and rescue services; the fire at Slitting mill has cost Staffordshire fire and rescue service in the region of £70,000 to date. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of waste fires?

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I also congratulate my hon. Friend’s local fire authority on the good work that it has done. I am happy to volunteer the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service for an early meeting with my hon. Friend to address her concerns.

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We constantly hear Ministers at the Dispatch Box talking about reserves in the fire and rescue service as if there is some sort of magic money tree, but is the Secretary of State aware that most of the reserves are already earmarked for future spend? The annual budget for the fire and rescue service in England is £2.3 billion, yet it holds only £143 million in unallocated reserves. That is less than a month’s operating costs. Is she seriously suggesting that capital reserves of just 6% are an adequate buffer for all emergencies? If she is, she is living in cloud cuckoo land.

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I can generously deny that I am living in any cloud cuckoo land—to wipe that immediately from the hon. Gentleman’s views. I just think he is being too lenient on these enormous reserves that have been accumulated. They have grown by 150%; they are now 40% of annual revenue. I know that the Labour party is not familiar with careful public finance guarding, but I urge him to take a little more scrutiny to this matter, rather than treating it like some Venezuelan dictatorship.

Frontline Police Officers

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2. What the change in the number of frontline police officers is estimated to be between 2018 and 2020. [903102]

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5. What the change in the number of frontline police officers is estimated to be between 2018 and 2020. [903105]

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13. What the change in the number of frontline police officers is estimated to be between 2018 and 2020. [903113]

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15. What the change in the number of frontline police officers is estimated to be between 2018 and 2020. [903116]

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Before Christmas, the Government proposed a new police funding settlement for 2018-19 which will increase funding by up to £450 million across the police system. It is for police and crime commissioners and chief constables to determine the number of officers required for their force areas.

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On new year’s eve in West Norwood, 17-year-old Kyall Parnell became the 39th victim of a fatal knife attack in England and Wales in 2017. To solve the growing tragedy of knife crime, the police need to be able to work creatively in partnership with communities, the NHS, and other public sector agencies, but the loss of 20,000 officers since 2010 means that forces across the country are stretched to breaking point. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be no further drop in police numbers?

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The short answer is that that is down to the Mayor and the leader of the Met. The hon. Lady is entirely right to talk about these tragic losses of life in tragic terms; lives have been cut very short. However, she is wrong to focus entirely on the question on police officers, because the last time London saw a spike in deaths from knife crime was in 2008, when there were roughly the same number of police officers as there are now.

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In December, I went out with my local Safer Neighbourhood team. Despite the tremendous work they do, two officers per ward is not enough. Added to that, my local police station in Penge recently closed. Met police numbers are set to fall below 30,000. Given the rise in violent crime in London, will the Government now commit to investing in our police and reversing the cuts?

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Police numbers in London have been stable for some time, going back to 2008. Any decisions on future projections are to be taken by the Mayor and the head of the Met. If the Mayor does what we are empowering him to do, this settlement will mean an additional £43 million for the Met on top of £200 million of reserves. The force has made great strides in efficiency but, according to Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, continues to require improvement. Of course, public safety in the capital matters a great deal, which is why the Met police have 1.6 times the number of officers per head than the national average.

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Constituents in Leigh are bearing the brunt of the Government’s police cuts, with Greater Manchester police officers cut by 23% since 2010. That is nearly 2,000 fewer officers on the streets of Manchester. The Home Secretary rightly praised the officers involved in the response to last year’s terror attack in the city, yet GMP face further real-terms cuts to their resources. What steps will she now take to ensure that our local police force is adequately resourced to keep the people of Leigh safe?

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I am sure that the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that the number of police officers in Greater Manchester actually rose in 2016, and the fact that the police funding settlement will result in an additional £10 million going into Greater Manchester policing. She may also want to ask the Mayor why reserves for Greater Manchester have gone up by £29 million.

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In 2014-15, the provisional grant allocation for the police was just over £8 billion. However, the Home Office announced in December last year that it would be just £7.325 billion for 2018-19, despite the fact that inflation is predicted to be 7% over that period, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. As this is a substantial real cut in police funding, would the Minister like to suggest where savings could be made on a scale that would protect police numbers?

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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that, if the police and crime commissioner exercises the flexibility that we are offering, Thames Valley police will benefit from an initial £12.7 million in 2017-18. How that works out to a cut, I do not know.

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I thought I had better get in quick before the Prime Minister’s inevitable call to me. [Laughter.]

There has been a very worrying increase in crime across the Shipley constituency over recent months, and my constituents and I expect to see more police officers. The first duty of the Government is to protect the public and keep them safe, and I have to say to the Government that they are not putting enough focus on police resources. Will they please give the police the resources that they need to keep our constituents safe? The Government are in danger of being very greatly out of touch with public opinion on this issue.

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I am sure that she is keeping a job open for the hon. Gentleman; I feel more certain of it now than ever.

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I had better keep my answer short then, Mr Speaker. I understand my hon. Friend’s point. The police funding settlement means that there is more cash going into policing in Yorkshire. How that money is allocated is up to police and crime commissioners and to chief constables; they are directly accountable to the public they serve and to the Members of Parliament who serve those constituents, so these representations need to be made directly. What is not in doubt is that up to £450 million of new investment will be going into British policing next year as a result of the funding settlement.

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The Mayor of London has something over half a billion pounds in reserves. Does the Minister agree that some of that should be spent on strengthening police resources in my constituency?

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The Met’s budget is set to grow to £2.5 billion. There are reserves of £200 million in the Met. In addition, the Mayor has his own reserves. Funding per head for officer numbers is running at over one and a half times the national average in London. It is time—I speak as a Londoner and a London MP—for the Mayor of London to give a serious answer to the question, “What are you doing?”, because at the moment the answer is just writing letters to the Home Secretary, and that is not good enough.

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Although the number of police officers is very important, so are their skills and the nature of the crime they are dealing with. Given that we are now 20 times more likely to be a victim of online crime than offline crime, can the Minister assure us that the police have the skills to deal with crime in the digital age?

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I thank my hon. Friend for making an incredibly important point. I know that my constituents are much more vulnerable to crime on their computers at home than they are when walking down Ruislip High Street. We have to respond to the changing nature of crime in this country. The number of police officers matters a great deal, but the capabilities inside the service matter enormously. That is why this Government are investing £1.9 billion in cyber-security.

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Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker.

This is really all about getting the best service for the funds we have invested. Avon and Somerset police have seen a 180% rise in sexual offences and a 42% rise in recorded domestic abuse in the past four years. Can the Minister confirm that any new funding, either from Government—that is most welcome—or raised through an increase in the precept, can be directed to these growing areas of crime?

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If the PCC uses its new powers, Avon and Somerset should receive £8 million of new investment next year, and that will need to be allocated to local priorities. The numbers that my hon. Friend states about the growth in reporting of crimes such as domestic violence are striking, and I would expect that to be reflected in local priorities.

Police and Fire Services: Collaboration

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3. What steps her Department is taking to encourage greater collaboration between police and fire services. [903103]

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4. What steps her Department is taking to encourage greater collaboration between police and fire services. [903104]

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The Government are very keen to encourage further collaboration between the blue-light services and have taken actions through the Policing and Crime Act 2017 to empower exactly that.

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I wish you and your family a happy new year, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on retaining her job. She is doing splendid work.

Can the Minister reassure me and my constituents that, given that collaboration is potentially leading to a sort of patchwork quilt of service across the country, he will ensure that the integrity of services will be maintained?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. I would say two things. First, joint police and fire governance will improve accountability because there will be a single point of accountability, democratically elected. Secondly, in relation to the efficiency and integrity of fire services, I hope that he will welcome a very significant reform introduced by this Government—the introduction of independent inspection of fire services.

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I recently held meetings with the chief constable and the chief fire officer for the Humberside area, and welcomed the fact that they are collaborating more closely. Can the Minister reassure my constituents that in an area that contains chemical plants, oil refineries and other dangerous plant, the fire service will not take its eye off the ball in its main role?

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I am well aware of the risks in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As the Home Secretary said, our local fire services are adequately resourced and sit on relatively high levels of reserve, so we believe that they have the resources to do the job.

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Twenty-two-year-old Steven Dyson’s body was found in the River Irwell in Ramsbottom on Saturday morning, six days after he went missing on new year’s day. It is at the worst of times that we often see the best of people. Will the Home Secretary join me in thanking Greater Manchester police, our fire service, and the hundreds of local volunteers who spent last week looking for Steven, as well as Ramsbottom British Legion, which hosted the campaign centre, and all the local businesses that donated items to our cause? The outpouring of support was incredible, and I hope that it goes some way to giving strength to Steven’s dear mum and everyone mourning.

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I am sure that the whole House would want to associate itself with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and to pass on our condolences to the young man’s family. Of course I join him in paying tribute to the hard work of all the emergency services involved in that tragic circumstance.

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Does the Minister accept that there is already a great degree of co-operation and collaboration between our blue-light services and that any move by the Government to force further formal collaboration through mergers could be detrimental to all services?

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I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that there are fantastic examples of collaboration across the country —fire and fire, police and police, and across the blue-light services—and evidence is building about the benefits, not just financial but in terms of service to the public. We are simply saying that where police and crime commissioners want to seize such an opportunity to improve accountability for local performance, we will enable them to do so, but they still have to deliver a strong business case and they still have to consult their communities.

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Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), I was very uneasy about the amalgamation of the Wiltshire fire service and the Dorset fire service last year. Does my hon. Friend the Minister not agree that it makes subsequent co-operation with the ambulance service or the local authority very much more difficult? Is their amalgamation irreversible, and if so, what will he do about the other amalgamations he seeks?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. My understanding is that that amalgamation is actually working well, and has largely been welcomed across the system. It does present challenges for further amalgamations because of boundary issues, but I would ask him to open his mind to the benefits of that merger, which appear to me to be very real.

Mental Health Assessments: Detention

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6. How many people have been unlawfully detained for more than 24 hours while awaiting a mental health assessment in each of the last three years. [903106]

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Provisions in the Policing and Crime Act 2017 ban the use of police cells as places of safety for under-18s, restrict their use for adults and reduce the maximum period of detention to 24 hours. Information on the length of time for which people are detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 pending an assessment is not held by the Home Office, but we are seeking to ascertain the scale and nature of this issue and we are reviewing the available information that we were provided with last month by the College of Policing.

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Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the police have just 24 hours to hold someone with a mental illness. The College of Policing shared with the BBC last December the fact that 264 people were held for longer than this, including a mentally ill child who was held for five days. Is the Home Secretary aware of this report, and what steps have been taken to remedy the situation?

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Very much so, and I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue. We know that there is an issue in this area, and she will be pleased to know that her constabulary—the West Midlands—in fact does very well on this. It did not use police cells at all for such detentions last year; indeed, since 2013 it has used them on only 14 occasions. Of course, however, any such occasion is one occasion too many. She will I am sure join me in being pleased that the use of police stations as places of safety nearly halved last year, but we need to do more.

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Does the Minister agree that a police cell or a police station is not a suitable place for an innocent person suffering from mental health problems, and will she support initiatives such as the mental health triage projects in the West Midlands to make sure that people with mental health problems get the medical support they need when they need it?

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Very much so. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that health places were used as places of safety in more than 26,000 cases last year, compared with 1,029 cases of using cells, but we are determined to try to sort this out.

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On the question of detention, the Minister will have read recent reports that immigration detainees are being paid £1 an hour. Will the Minister assure the House that no children are currently being held in detention, that no pregnant women are currently being held in detention and that no one is being paid below the legal minimum wage in any of the immigration detention centres?

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As I say, we are determined to ensure that places of safety are in appropriate places—health places—and we are investing £30 million to try to ensure that happens. If there are any individual cases that the right hon. Lady would like to bring to my attention, I will of course consider and review them very carefully.

Immigration: Effect on the Economy

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7. What recent assessment the Government have made of the effect of immigration on the economy. [903107]

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The Government are clear that carefully controlled migration benefits the economy, our Exchequer and our communities in general.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Scottish Government, as well as Scottish National party Members of this place, have been calling for immigration to be devolved. Does my right hon. Friend agree that any separate immigration systems would do nothing except lead to chaos, confusion and extra barriers for those looking to live and work in Scotland as well as in the rest of our United Kingdom?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Immigration is a reserved matter, and applying different rules of immigration to different parts of the UK would complicate the system. He might share my view that if Scotland wants to attract the brightest and the best, as the rest of the country does, it might think twice about raising its own taxes, because that might put people off.

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The NHS reports that almost 10,000 European Union doctors, nurses and support staff left the country in the year following the referendum. Is the Home Secretary aware of those levels of staff shortages, and how does she see the situation developing if there are further restrictions on migration for work purposes?

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We really value the incredibly important work that EU migrants do in our health service, and there are no plans to restrict the way in which they can come and work here. They make such an important contribution. I am aware that some of them have gone back to work in countries that have had a strong economic recovery, such as Spain. There has also been a higher level of English language test to make sure that all health professionals in our service are able to communicate very clearly and effectively with patients.

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What progress has the Secretary of State made in designing a system that allows soft fruit farmers in Angus and, indeed, across the United Kingdom to access seasonal labour from overseas?

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I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I know that she is very concerned to make sure that agriculture has the support it needs from overseas workers. The Migration Advisory Committee will be looking at the issue for us, and we expect it to report later in the year.

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May I congratulate the Home Secretary on having just made a positive economic case for immigration? However, how does she think that the message given by the immigration cap, Brexit, a hostile approach to immigrants and the general rhetoric of many of her Conservative colleagues help to make that case?

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The right hon. Gentleman cannot take the moral high ground on immigration. We wholly recognise the value that immigrants bring when they arrive in the UK, with the brightest and the best working in our hospitals and attending our universities. We are wholly positive about immigrants. We want to do this in a way that controls our borders and delivers on the reductions to which we have committed.

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Education is vital for the economy. A constituent of mine, Heather Cattanach, returned to Canada, but Home Office delays in looking at her application left a vacancy in the Moray Primary School where she taught. I have previously raised this issue with Ministers. Will the Home Secretary now look at it urgently so that the case can, I hope, be concluded?

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising an issue about which I know he has been particularly concerned. I cannot comment on this individual case, but as soon as we have a new Immigration Minister, I will volunteer him or her to speak to my hon. Friend.

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International students make an enormous contribution to our economy—Labour estimates the figure to be £25 billion a year. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government now support Labour’s policy of removing international students from the net migration target?

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I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we value the contribution that those students make to our economy, cultures and university towns. In the past 10 years there has been a 25% increase in their number, and in recent years there has been a 9% increase in the number of them attending Russell Group universities. Those numbers remain uncapped and we continue to welcome them.

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Business, trade unions and universities in Scotland have all asked this Government to look at devolving immigration to Scotland. In a report just before Christmas, the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank said that devolving immigration would assist the Scottish economy. Will the Home Secretary now look seriously at those recommendations and at the request of business, the unions, think-tanks and universities in Scotland to devolve immigration?

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The hon. and learned Lady and I have discussed this issue before, privately as well as publicly. She is aware that the Migration Advisory Committee will look at different areas and regional areas in the United Kingdom, so I respectfully suggest that she come back to me to continue the conversation when it reports, but we have no plans to devolve immigration.

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I thank the Home Secretary for saying that she will at least look at the issue. Bunessan Primary School on the island of Mull has received only one application for its vacancy for a Gaelic teacher. It came from a fully qualified teacher who was Canadian but had trained in Scotland. Despite her being the only candidate for the job, the Home Office has refused her visa application twice. Does that not show that a one-size-fits-all UK immigration policy is not working for the Scottish economy and not working for rural communities?

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I am surprised to hear that there are not more Gaelic speakers in Scotland who might apply for the job, rather than Canadians. Again, I suggest that the hon. and learned Lady come to see the new Immigration Minister at some stage because there may be more to the matter than what she has said in the House. It is difficult to comment on individual cases.

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I hope that that Minister will know all about the situation on the island of Mull, preferably on day one.

Border Force: Boats

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8. What steps she is taking to upgrade Border Force boats. [903108]

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17. What steps she is taking to upgrade Border Force boats. [903118]

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21. What steps she is taking to upgrade Border Force boats. [903122]

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22. What steps she is taking to upgrade Border Force boats. [903124]

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I am standing in for the Immigration Minister, but hopefully not for too long.

In addition to the recent introduction of new coastal patrol vessels, Border Force has an ongoing upgrade programme for its cutters. It recently installed new electro-optic surveillance systems on its cutters, and it is currently upgrading radars and replacing the rigid inflatable boats used by cutters to deploy boarding teams to ensure that they remain a highly effective maritime security platform.

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Does the Minister believe that the UK Border Force is adequately resourced to safeguard small harbours and landing sites, such as those in my Chichester constituency? Our harbourmaster has already been involved in apprehending people smugglers, working with coastal communities who look out for suspicious activity. Is he considering using volunteers to support patrols in areas such as Chichester harbour or Selsey Bill? Does he agree that there is no substitute for trained and qualified Border Force professionals?

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By the end of the financial year, the Border Force maritime fleet will have six CPVs and three cutters in the UK, plus two cutters deployed overseas to deal with the issue upstream—one in the Aegean and one in the central Mediterranean. Border Force has invested £108 million in new technology and capability to deal with some of those challenges and will commit a further £71 million this year.

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While I was volunteering with the lifeboats at Walton-on-the-Naze, I learned how important local maritime knowledge is. I believe that such intelligence would be useful to Border Force when solving and preventing crime. Is Border Force engaging with other agencies, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the coastguard and pilot boats, to share intelligence, tackle crime and keep our coastline safe and secure?

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The key to improving our coastal security is better collection and exploitation of data. Some of that happens through full-time people, but it also happens through the many volunteers who populate the coastal paths and watch stations of our communities. That is why Border Force has set up the multi-agency general maritime intelligence bureau to bring together the existing organisations of HM Coastguard, HM Revenue and Customs, Border Force, the Ministry of Defence, and the bureaux linked directly to the National Maritime Information Centre.

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Will the Minister tell the House what other measures the Government are undertaking to protect and secure the UK border?

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Border Force, the National Crime Agency, the police and other law enforcement agencies are working with international partners to secure our borders from a range of threats, including modern slavery, human trafficking and terrorism. Over the past two years, Border Force has invested £108 million and £71 million.

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In addition to the vital work of Border Force vessels, will my right hon. Friend congratulate the Royal Navy and other agencies on ensuring that the rules are enforced in our fishing waters?

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Many people forget that our border is manned not just by Border Force but by HM Revenue and Customs, the Royal Navy, which does an amazing job on fisheries protection, and volunteers, both through the Royal National Lifeboat Institute and the coastguard. Together, they form a large set of eyes to keep watch on our coastline. That is why we have developed Operation Kraken to ensure that all reported threats go to a central place where they are analysed and acted on.

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Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

The Daily Telegraph today reports that new checks will be introduced at ports to help to stop the import of dangerous high-powered laser pens. Does this mean that the ports of Immingham and Grimsby will see more Border Force staff to help with these new checks?

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What the hon. Lady will see is better use of the information we have now to target our resources in the right places. Just sending Border Force officers or customs officers to turn up randomly usually has no effect at all. If we can base it on information and work well with shippers, such as Fast UK Parcel, and all sorts of organisations shipping such contraband into the country, we can make sure that the right resources are delivered to the right places.

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The Minister will know that his own figures show that 27 of the 62 small ports had no visit whatsoever from a Border Force operative over 12 months last year. That will not be solved by volunteers; it needs Border Force staffing.

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The right hon. Gentleman will know from his previous job that the borders are policed not just by Border Force but by counter-terrorism officers, HMRC officers, coastguard officers and fishery protection officers. On top of that, as he will also know, the voluntary network of people such as the RNLI are the eyes and ears, and when a report is made, a suspicion raised or intelligence received, the National Crime Agency and others attend the scene to deal with it.

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And there is another body to be added to that list. Over Christmas we learned of the Government’s plans to put in place a special volunteer force to help police our coastal communities. This Dad’s Army-type operation is apparently to be responsible for helping keep us safe and protect us from terrorism. I wonder if the Minister is going to come to the Dispatch Box and say, “We’re doomed”, or complacently tell us, “Don’t panic!”

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The only people who are doomed are the Scottish National party. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I have actually worn a uniform. He will know that uniformed services rely on a range of specials and Territorial Army support to meet the specialist requirement we need. All uniformed services should be able to take advantage of the good will people want to provide, and if we want to use specials and Territorial Army support, we will.

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Happy new year from my party, Mr Speaker.

Given what the Minister just said about the role of the Royal Navy, is it not rather worrying when we read about all these Royal Navy warships being tied up at harbour and not at sea?

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I am sure the hon. Gentleman wants to make sure that our naval ships put to sea are properly serviced and properly equipped for their latest patrol. That is why ships tie up in port—not for any other reason—and why we deploy ships when needed to match the threat. He will also know that fishery protection vessels are often up and down the north-east of Scotland, where his constituency is located.

Cyber-crime

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9. What steps she is taking to tackle cyber-crime. [903109]

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The Government take the threat of cyber-crime extremely seriously, which is why we have committed to spending £1.9 billion to support the national cyber-security strategy. This includes boosting the capabilities of the National Crime Agency’s national cyber-crime unit and investing in the cyber teams within regional organised crime units to bolster our response.

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The Jazz Centre UK, a UK-wide charity with its headquarters in Southend—yet another reason why Southend should be a city—recently had £10,000 hacked from its account. Will my right hon. Friend reassure us on what further safeguards can be put in place for vulnerable charities to protect them from cyber-crime?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. If he writes to me with the details of that case, I will be happy to look into it for him. I am particularly concerned because where something is hacked, it is usually called a “cyber-enabled” crime, which often gets a reimbursement from financial institutions. In general, we have invested in the National Cyber Security Centre in order to stop that type of fraud. It is out there, busy advising many organisations, voluntary and large scale, about what they can do to make themselves safer online. It is also why we are investing in technology to try and counter it.

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Cyber-crime is one of the fastest-growing forms of crime, but after we have left the EU, the European Commission will still issue directives that relate to tackling cyber-crime; Europol will still continue to operate to apprehend criminals; and the European Court of Justice will still issue rulings. What steps is the Home Office taking to ensure the continued alignment of UK laws and regulations in this field—

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I call the Minister.

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We are working on a third party treaty to address just that. It is absolutely our intention to continue collaborative working in all areas of security with our international partners, whether they be in Europe or further afield, because that is the way to solve it.

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I do apologise if I missed something extremely valuable. If I did, I suggest that the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) place it in the Library of the House, where I imagine it will be regularly and exhaustively consulted.

Extremism

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10. What steps she is taking to tackle extremism. [903110]

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The Government’s counter-extremism strategy, which was published in October 2015, established a comprehensive approach to the tackling of extremism through a wide range of activities aimed at countering extremist ideology. We are also launching a new commission for countering extremism, which will identify and challenge extremism and advise the Government on new policies to address it. The appointment of a lead commissioner will be announced shortly.

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Flying the flag of the political wing of the anti-Semitic terrorist organisation Hezbollah is provocative, incites extremism and is deeply offensive to our Jewish community, but the flag can still be seen flying at events such as the al-Quds day marches in London. Will the Home Secretary update the House on what steps are being taken to prevent that from happening?

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I am aware of, and very sympathetic to, the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. I have discussed the matter with Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, and I know that the police are not ignoring it. As my hon. Friend has rightly said, only Hezbollah’s military wing is currently a proscribed terrorist organisation, but its flags are the same as those of the political wings that are not proscribed. For an offence to be committed, the context and manner in which the flag is displayed must demonstrate that it is specifically in support of the proscribed military wing of the group.

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Last month, in Turkey, I met a British national who was due to be deported back to the United Kingdom on suspicion of terrorism. The Turkish authorities gave us details of six other British nationals who have been accepted back to the UK. What is the total number of Brits who have been deported back from Turkey on suspicion of terrorism and joining Daesh, and how many of them are facing charges in the UK?

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The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to a very important aspect of our relationship with Turkey. When people who have been potentially fighting for ISIS are returning to this country, we have a managed return process so that we can prosecute. I will certainly come back to the hon. Gentleman with an update on the numbers, but I can reassure him and the House that we take every return very seriously and that, when we can, we will always prosecute.

Violence against Women and Girls

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11. What steps her Department is taking to tackle violence against women and girls. [903111]

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14. What steps her Department is taking to tackle violence against women and girls. [903115]

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In March 2016 we published the cross-Government violence against women and girls strategy, which sets out an ambitious programme of reform and is supported by increased funding of £100 million. We will also introduce a draft domestic abuse Bill to transform our approach to domestic abuse, to support victims better, and to bring perpetrators to justice.

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What action are the Government taking to support refuges for women fleeing domestic violence in Walsall and throughout the Black country, whose excellent staff do so much to protect the safety of women and children?

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My hon. Friend is right: excellent work is being done in the Black country to support women and children. When I visited a Women’s Aid Black country refuge, it was impressive to see the excellent work that was being done there. I can reassure my hon. Friend that Walsall Council received a share of £639,000 of funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government—it is £40 million in all—in partnership with local authorities across the Black country. In addition, Wolverhampton and Birmingham received £1.1 million between them from the Department for early intervention projects.

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Women in custody in our prisons are experiencing psychological abuse as they struggle to gain access to sanitary products, which is a potential breach of their human rights. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that women in custody have access to those products?

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. I completely agree that it would be outrageous if detained women were not given access to sanitary products. I have seen the report that the Home Office commissioned. We will act immediately to ensure that where that is not on a statutory footing, it will be put on a statutory footing, so that nothing like this happens in the future.

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The Home Secretary will be aware of the deep public concern about the Parole Board’s decision to release the serial sex offender and rapist John Worboys after only eight years. I am sure that she will also be shocked to learn that some of the victims have still not been contacted by either probation or victim liaison officers. I realise that the issues surrounding the Parole Board’s decision are matters for the Ministry of Justice, but can she say whether she has had any contact with the police to establish whether they are able to pursue further the cases of 19 women who came forward after the conviction, and whether those cases can be prosecuted so that justice can be done and women can be kept safe?

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I share the right hon. Lady’s views on this matter, and I am sure she will have seen today’s comments from the Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), about ensuring that there is more transparency in the Parole Board. I am aware that certain victims are talking about possible judicial reviews and talking to the police, but I cannot say any more than that at this point because these matters are subject to potential legal proceedings.

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Further to the answer that the Home Secretary gave to the hon. Member from Sussex—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield); I do apologise. Lewes is close to Sussex, I am sure.

I want to clarify a point with the Home Secretary. We would not find it acceptable to deny someone access to loo roll, so why do we think it is acceptable to deny someone access to tampons? She has said that she is committed to putting these matters on to a statutory footing. Does that include amending code C of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and meeting the Independent Custody Visitors Association which has been working on this issue?

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We commissioned the Independent Custody Visitors Association to produce the report. I share the hon. Lady’s view, but I respectfully say that I do not need reminding about this. I completely agree that of course women should have access to sanitary products, just as anyone should have access to loo roll, and yes I will put this on to a statutory footing if it is confirmed that the current guidance is inadequate. It looks likely that that is the case, but I just need to confirm it for myself.

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Further to the Home Secretary’s response to the question about the John Worboys case, can she explain why her Department is still pursuing two of John Worboys’ victims, knowns as DSD and NBV, all the way to the Supreme Court in an apparent effort to avoid paying compensation? She will be aware that those victims are women whose cases the lower courts have already found not to have been investigated properly. How will pursuing them through the courts reassure the public that the Government are serious about keeping women and girls safe?

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The Government are committed to keeping women and girls safe, and I hope that some of the points I have set out today will reassure the House that that is the case. I recognise the point that the right hon. Lady raises, but because this matter is sub judice, I cannot comment on it at the moment.

Domestic Violence

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12. What steps she is taking to tackle domestic violence. [903112]

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This Government are committed to doing everything we can to tackle domestic abuse. We have introduced a new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour. We have introduced measures such as domestic violence protection orders and Clare’s law. We have put domestic homicide reviews on to a statutory footing and committed £100 million to supporting the victims of violence against women and girls. We look forward to introducing a draft domestic abuse Bill.

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I thank the Minister for her answer. Refuges provide valuable specialist services to protect women from having to return to abusive situations. What commitment are the Government making to refuge services, particularly those in Sutton and Cheam?

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My hon. Friend has spoken many times about domestic abuse issues, and particularly about the help that Sutton women’s centre provides to the victims of domestic abuse in his constituency. The Government have made available £40 million of dedicated funding for specialist accommodation, and refuges and bed spaces have increased 10% since 2010. We are committed to reviewing funding for refuges and to ensuring that all victims get the support they need, when they need it. The supported housing consultation is ongoing, and we will of course explore all models within the sector.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [903161]

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I should like to update the House on plans for the royal wedding in May. The marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is an occasion of national celebration, and that is why I launched a public consultation yesterday seeking views on the proposal to relax licensing hours in England and Wales over the weekend of the royal wedding. Extending the licensing hours on the nights of Friday 18 and Saturday 19 May until 1 o’clock the following morning will enable licensed premises in England and Wales to sell alcohol for consumption on site to those who want to continue their celebrations beyond the normal licensing hours. Whether toasting the royal couple or celebrating a football triumph, everyone should have the opportunity to make the most of this historic weekend in May.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Following last year’s police funding settlement, does she agree that now is the right time to work with and alongside police forces in Hertfordshire and across the country to keep improving and reforming the service to ensure that it is fit for the future?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We are able to confirm that this year up to £450 million of new money is going to support the police, while another £50 million is going towards counter-terrorism policing. However, that does not mean that we want to slow down the pace of reform in any way, so we will work with the police to ensure that there are reforms to make them more efficient and better servants to the community so that everybody has a better service overall.

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Last week, Theodore Johnson, a serial killer and repeated domestic violence perpetrator, was sentenced to 26 years in prison for his crimes. However, despite the fact that two women are murdered every week, high-risk perpetrators such as Johnson face little intervention from statutory services. With less than 1% of perpetrators of domestic violence receiving any form of intervention, will the Minister reassure us that the Government will look urgently at innovative programmes such as Drive that challenge the behaviours of high-harm perpetrators?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question and offer our condolences not only to the family of Angela Best, but to the families of Yvonne Johnson and Yvonne Bennett. The case shows how manipulative the most violent domestic abusers can be, and I join the hon. Lady in wanting to ensure that we treat perpetrators to try to stop the cycle of violence. With the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), I had the pleasure of speaking at a recent event for Respect, which works with perpetrators, and the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) is correct that we must look at perpetrators as well as, of course, at supporting victims.

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Order. If everybody asks a short, one-sentence question, and if replies are correspondingly brief, far more people will be able to contribute—it is not magic—and then we will spread the happiness across the Chamber.

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T2. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I apologise for not wishing you a very happy new year from the sunny shores of Clacton-on-Sea.Does my hon. Friend agree that sheer numbers of police is not the whole answer in tackling crime? In Clacton, Tendring District Council and Essex police have established a successful community safety hub with some 47 partners. Will the Minister please come to sunny Clacton to see how the scheme has been working and to look at some of the successes that we have achieved for ourselves? [903162]

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The answer to an invitation to visit sunny Clacton-on-Sea is, of course, yes.

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T3. Given cuts to police numbers and resources, how many police forces have notified the Home Office that they will not be pursuing certain types of crime? [903163]

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I know the hon. Gentleman knows this, but the proposed funding settlement will lead not to cuts, but to increased investment of £450 million in our policing system, which will help police forces across the country to cope with the changing face of crime.

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T4. Ministers have already spoken about online crime. My constituent Anne Gleed was defrauded out of a considerable sum when she was given false bank account details for the seller of a car after her emails were hacked. She reported the matter on the same day, but has been unable to recover her funds. This is an authorised push payment scam. What are the Government able to do to reduce crimes of that nature? [903164]

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The Payment Systems Regulator is working with the joint fraud taskforce and the National Crime Agency to invest in new technology to improve the speed of funds repatriation.

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T9. Since 2010, according to the Fire Brigades Union, Cheshire fire service has lost more than 170 firefighters, incident response times are up, the number of available appliances is down, and casualties are rising year on year. Will the Minister now accept that his Government’s cuts are having a detrimental effect on local services? [903169]

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Funding for fire services is basically being held flat against a backdrop of a welcome decline in fire incidents. At the same time, the single fire authority system is sitting on hundreds of millions of pounds of public money in reserves, so we still believe that fire services are adequately resourced.

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T5. Will the Home Secretary confirm her commitment to the right to peaceful protest in this country? Given that there have been no successful prosecutions for harassment outside abortion agencies in recent history, will she resist the campaign to set up buffer zones? Does she accept that if peaceful protest outside abortion agencies is banned, the Government will also have to ban it, for instance, at hunts and outside animal life laboratories? [903165]

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My hon. Friend and I have already met to discuss this, and it was a pleasure to meet him and various colleagues to discuss their concerns about the continuation of peaceful protests. I hope that I was able to reassure him that it is this Government’s plan always to ensure that peaceful protests can continue, wherever that is. It is also this Government’s commitment to make sure that women can access abortion safe from harassment and intimidation.

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T10. One of the missing links in tackling violence against women and girls has most certainly been caused by a failure to deal with perpetrators. Although the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) with sympathy, how precisely can we use research on what makes a difference to ensure that we empower our police forces and other agencies to deal with perpetrators? [903170]

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Among the many things we can do is to carry out effective inspections, which we already have. We will be introducing a domestic abuse and violence Bill, on which we will consult. I hope we will get lots of contributions to the consultation, perhaps including from the hon. Gentleman, so that we can ensure that we stop domestic abuse and violence at an early stage and ensure that perpetrators are properly dealt with.

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T6. Does the Minister share my concern that there were 59 known cases of drug-driving on Kent roads in 2016? Sixteen of those cases resulted in serious injury, and three resulted in death. What action are the Government taking to address this increasing problem? [903166]

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I share my hon. Friend’s concerns and thank him for raising this important issue. We have developed mobile drug-driving enforcement devices to help the police to identify suspected drug-drivers at the roadside, and they help to enforce the drug-driving offence that was introduced in 2015 to make it illegal to drive with a specified drug in the body above certain limits. The Government commissioned an evaluation of that new drug-driving legislation, and we are considering its findings and recommendations as part of future work to strengthen the law.

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As the Immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), has done a runner, what will the Home Secretary do to clear up his lamentable record? In particular, does she think six months is an acceptable benchmark for resolving immigration cases? The Department is avoiding even that low aspiration via spurious excuses about cases being “complex.”

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I would not characterise the former Immigration Minister in that way—he has done an excellent job—and nor do I share the right hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the Department. If he has particular concerns, I would urge him to bring them to us. The vast majority of our cases are dealt with within the time set out in statutory guidance.

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T7. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister for Policing meet me to discuss what more may be done to provide protection for police dogs and police horses? Ministers will be aware of concerns arising from the experience of my constituent PC Dave Wardell and his police dog, Finn. [903167]

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I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his ten-minute rule Bill. The Government share his view that attacks on service animals are unacceptable and should be dealt with severely under the law. As he will know, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has published the draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill, which will increase the maximum penalties available for animal cruelty, including attacks on service animals. The short answer to his question is that of course I would be delighted to meet him.

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Cuts in police services do not just mean fewer pumps, as the cuts also fall on the crews of those pumps. Some brigades, instead of sending out crews of five, are now cutting them to four. Instead of four, they are sometimes sending out crews of three or even two. Is that not dangerous and unsustainable?

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The hon. Gentleman referred to police services, but I think he meant to say “fire”, so I refer him to my earlier answer: funding for fire services has kept pretty flat against a background of fire incidents falling; we feel that fire services are adequately resourced; and how resources are allocated is down to local authorities and leaders.

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T8. Prior to Christmas, I had the pleasure of meeting some of the Syrian refugees who now call East Renfrewshire their home. One of them, Nader Bani Almarja, is looking to be reunited with his family, who remain in Lebanon. I appreciate that the Home Office can only consider applications that come directly from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but will the Home Secretary explain how her Department works with UNHCR to facilitate the resettlement scheme so that families, once identified for resettlement, do not get stuck in an administrative logjam? [903168]

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My hon. Friend has been a constant representative for his constituents on this issue. We rely on UNHCR to identify and process the most vulnerable refugees as it is uniquely placed to determine refugee status, and to assess vulnerabilities, needs and suitability for resettlement. If UNHCR decides that resettlement is the most appropriate solution, it will then consider which resettlement scheme best suits people’s needs, which may be a UK scheme.

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Crime is rising sharply in the west midlands, yet police numbers are falling—2,000 have gone and yet more are to go in the next stages. How can it be right or fair that Hampshire, which has nowhere near the same problems or challenges, gets treated more favourably than the west midlands?

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I do not recognise that depiction. West Midlands police is set to get an additional £9.5 million and will be able to keep increases in council tax. Let us remember that this force has increased its reserves by £26.9 million since 2011.

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The Government have a clear strategy to tackle violence against women and girls. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the use of non-disclosure agreements to hide violence against women in the workplace?

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. She is a huge champion for women, and she could perhaps assist us on that issue and contribute when we go ahead with our consultation on the new domestic violence and abuse Bill.

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In the past two years alone, we have lost more than 160 police officers in my area, yet we are seeing rising levels of antisocial behaviour and youth disorder. Rather than passing the buck to police and crime commissioners, why will the Home Secretary not give Northumbria police the funding that it needs to tackle this blight in our community?

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It is not a question of passing the buck; we have a devolved system whereby PCCs are accountable to the public for the performance of the police. On Northumbria’s police force, I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that it is due to get another £5.1 million next year.

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Will the Home Secretary tell the House what we are doing to support schools to identify when the dark web is accessed through apps that are free to download? This is how some of our most vulnerable children are accessing footage of ISIS beheadings and other disturbing imagery, which is fuelled by extremists who are trying to get new recruits.

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My hon. Friend is right to raise these real concerns about online access, which is why the Department for Education and the Home Office work together on campaigns such as Cyber Aware to bring good computer hygiene and caution into the classroom so that children are not exploited online. It is also why the Government invest in the Prevent programme to make sure that the people doing this are brought to justice and that the online space is not the dangerous place it could be.

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In Staffordshire, 106 councillors from Staffordshire County Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council unanimously oppose the commissioner’s proposal to take over the running of the fire service. He is progressing with that despite there being no public support. Why are the opinions of one commissioner worth more than those of 106 councillors?

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The hon. Gentleman misrepresents the situation entirely, because the obligation on a police and crime commissioner is to produce a business case and demonstrate that he or she has consulted the local community. In this case, Matthew Ellis has done just that, which is why we are reviewing it.

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Despite the rhetoric that we heard earlier, does the Home Secretary agree that what the vast majority of people in this country want is an immigration system that delivers both fairness and control, and that is underpinned by common sense? Will she deliver just that?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He makes an excellent point and sets out exactly what we want: fair, rational, controlled immigration that not only is good for this country, but gives the public confidence that we are protecting our borders and we are absolutely clear about the numbers that we are targeting.

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Why does the Government’s domestic violence strategy not include fully funding refuges so that no woman fleeing domestic violence is denied access to vital support?

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I reassure the hon. Lady that we are committed to ensuring that there are fully funded refuges. I point out to her that 10% more beds are available to women now than in 2010. She may know that a review is going on with DCLG to make sure that we have the best outcomes for supported housing, and I will ensure that we engage with that so that we continue to maintain high levels of availability of beds for women fleeing violence.

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In 2009, John Worboys was rightly found to be a dangerous, predatory sex offender. It is a feature of those sorts of offender that they are also clever and cunning. What assurances can the Home Secretary give us that, upon his release—if he has to be released—women will be safe?

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Making women safe and ensuring that we have the legislation in place for that is a priority for me and this Government overall. The particular case that my right hon. Friend raises was under discussion part way through this Question Time. She may know that there will be a review of some of the procedures, the Parole Board element and the transparency required. The Prime Minister has already said that she wants this looked at.

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Control operators in North Yorkshire fire and rescue service are working under such pressure that sometimes just trainees are on duty. Will the Minister look at this issue and meet me to assess the risk to our fire and rescue service?

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I am more than happy to have that meeting. My first question will be, “What are you going to do with your reserves?”

NHS Winter Crisis

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health to update the House on the NHS winter crisis.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for applying to ask the urgent question as I agree that it is helpful for colleagues in the House to be updated on the current performance of the NHS during this challenging time.

We all know that winter is the most difficult time of the year for the NHS, and I start by saying a heartfelt thank you to all staff across the health and care system who work tirelessly through the winter, routinely going above and beyond the call of duty to keep our patients safe. They give up their family celebrations over the holiday period to put the needs of patients first. Those dedicated people make the NHS truly great.

Winter places additional pressure on the NHS and this year is no exception. The NHS saw 59,000 patients every day within four hours in November. That is 2,800 more every day compared with the previous year. The figures for December will be published on Thursday. We have done more this year in preparing and planning earlier than ever before. That means that the NHS is better able to respond to pressure when it arises. In the words of Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, the national medical director:

“I think it’s the one”

winter

“that we’re best prepared for. Historically we begin preparing in July/August. This year we started preparing last winter. We have, I think, a good plan.”

Let me tell the House about some of the things that have been done differently this year. We further strengthened the NHS’s ability to respond to risk, and the NHS set up the clinically-led national emergency pressures panel to advise on measures to reduce the level of clinical system risk.

We are supporting hospital flow and discharge. We allocated £1 billion for social care this year, meaning that local authorities have funded more care packages. Delayed transfers of care have been reduced, freeing up 1,100 hospital beds by the onset of winter. Additional capacity has been made possible through the extra £337 million we invested at the Budget, helping 2,705 more acute beds to open since the end of November.

We have also ensured that more people have better access to GPs. We allocated £100 million to roll out GP streaming in A&E departments and I am pleased that 91% of hospitals with A&E departments had this in place by the end of November. For the first time, people could access GPs nationally for urgent appointments from 8 am to 8 pm, seven days a week, over the holiday period. In the week to new year’s eve, the number of 111 calls dealt with by a clinician more than doubled compared with the equivalent week last year, to 39.5%, thereby reducing additional pressures on A&E.

We extended our flu vaccination programme, already the most comprehensive in Europe, even further. Vaccination remains the best line of defence against flu and this year an estimated 1,175,000 more people have been vaccinated, including the highest ever uptake among healthcare workers, which had reached 59.3% by the end of November.

We all accept that winter is challenging for health services, not just in this country but worldwide. The preparations made by the NHS are among the most comprehensive, and we are lucky to be able to depend on the extraordinary dedication of frontline staff at this highly challenging time.

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Order. For a moment I thought that the Minister intended to treat this as though it were an oral statement, to judge by the length. I think it is fair and correct for those following our proceedings to point out that this is not an oral statement offered by the Government: it is a response to an urgent question applied for to, and granted by, me.

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It is always a delight to see the Minister, but the Secretary of State for Health should be here to defend his handling of the crisis, not pleading for a promotion in Downing Street as we speak.

I join the Minister in paying tribute to all those NHS staff working flat out. Many of them have said that this winter crisis was entirely predictable and preventable. When you starve the NHS of resources, when you cut beds by 15,000, when you cut district nurses, when walk-in centres are closed, when we have vacancies for 40,000 nurses, when you fragment the NHS at a local level and drive privatisation and when social care is savaged, is it any surprise that we have a winter crisis of this severity?

More than 75,000 patients, including many elderly and frail, were stuck in the back of ambulances for over 30 minutes in the winter cold this December and January. A&Es were so logjammed that they were forced to turn away patients 150 times. In the week before new year’s eve, 22 trusts were completely full for up to five days. The blanket cancellation of elective operations means that people will wait longer in pain, distress and discomfort. Children’s wards have been handed over to the treatment of adults. Of course, we do not know the full scale of the crisis, because NHS England refuses to publish the operational pressures escalation levels alerts revealing hospital pressures. Given Ministers’ keenness on duty of candour, why are OPEL alerts data not being collected and published nationally for England?

The Minister mentioned the winter pressures funding, but that money was announced in the Budget on 22 November. Why were trusts not informed of allocations until a month later? That is not planning for the winter: it is more like a wing and prayer. He will know that cancelling elective operations has an impact on hospital finances. What assessment has he made of the anticipated loss of revenue for trusts from cancelling electives? Will he compensate hospitals for that loss of revenue, or should we expect deficits to worsen? Can he tell us when those cancelled operations will be rescheduled?

The Prime Minister defends this crisis by saying nothing is perfect. Patients do not want perfection: they just want an NHS which is properly funded and properly staffed without the indignity of 560,000 people waiting on trolleys in the last year, in which operations are not cancelled on this scale, and in which ambulances are not backed up outside overcrowded hospitals. Patients do not just need a change of Ministers today: they need a change of Government.

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I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Secretary of State. I want to put on record my tribute to my right hon. Friend, who has served in that position for almost as long as Aneurin Bevan, who was the first Secretary of State for the NHS.

I am delighted to be here to respond to the hon. Gentleman, who, as usual, listed a cacophony of allegations, very few of which are directly related to the challenges that our hospitals face today—the increase in demand and pressure on our NHS as a result of a combination of the increase in population and challenges posed by demographics, as well as the weather and the presence of flu in many parts of the country, adding to the pressure on staff at this time of the year.

The hon. Gentleman asked several questions. On the funding issue, he is well aware that the £337 million announced in the Budget was allocated in December. His own local trust, which includes the Leicester Royal Infirmary, received £4.2 million. It is a great shame that he chose not to welcome that extra money for his local trust. The money announced in the Budget has been allocated, but we have kept £50 million in reserve to allocate this month if particular pressures that become apparent during the course of the month need addressing.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the impact of the cancelled operations. We do not know that operations are cancelled. There have been a few thus far; procedures and treatments are being deferred. It will not become apparent until after this period has finished how many actually do end up being cancelled, so it is not possible to calculate the financial impact on any of the trusts where deferral is taking place.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the situation as unprecedented. I gently remind him that we have a winter crisis of some kind or another every year. He will have been in Downing Street in 2009-10, when, as it happens, the then Conservative shadow Health Secretary chose not to try to take advantage of the near flu pandemic at the time because he recognised that there were operational pressures on the NHS and it was not down to him to score party political points. The hon. Gentleman has unfortunately chosen to do that. At that time, tens of thousands of elective procedures were cancelled to provide capacity to cope with the emergency at the front doors of our hospitals. So this is a routine way to deal with pressure coming through hospital front doors.

What distinguishes this year from previous years is that in the past elective procedures were cancelled within hours of operations being due to take place. Sometimes it was the day before and sometimes it was on the day. That caused patients considerable distress and gave rise to considerable problems for staff. We have set up the national emergency pressures panel to anticipate problems when we see the signals, and we can then give notice to patients that their procedures are going to be deferred. That is a much more humane and sensible way to do things and it provides much more opportunity for hospitals to cope with the pressures that are coming through the door.

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NHS acute services have never been better and are among the best in the world. As the Minister just said, every year we have this slightly ritual exchange about winter pressures, but does he accept that the problems are changing because of the increased number of elderly people in the population and the increased urgency of the need to solve the problem of how to admit them promptly to the right part of the service and then discharge them properly and safely as soon as they are recovered? Will he advertise further to the many people who are not aware of it the availability of emergency GP services? Will he concentrate on the reform and integration of the community care system, the social care system and the primary care services and make sure that co-operation among them is steadily improved so that they can cope better in future years, because this problem is undoubtedly going to develop?

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I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for making those points. He brings to the House considerable experience of what it is like to be responsible for the NHS. He is absolutely right: the number of over-80s who are presenting to hospital A&Es is going up exponentially each year. Hospitals need to adapt the way that they treat such patients to try to keep them as healthy as possible so that they can live independently for as long as possible. That is why many hospitals are now introducing frail elderly units close to or at the front door of A&E departments so that they can turn around patients and avoid admissions. My right hon. and learned Friend is also right to point to the increasing integration between the NHS and social care that is necessary to encourage more people to live independently out of hospital and leave emergency departments for those people who are urgently ill.

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I, too, pay tribute to staff across all four health services, where the normal pressures have been added to this winter by freezing weather and influenza. Scotland still leads in A&E performance across the UK, but we do not need to see four-hour data to understand the stress that NHS England is under. Thousands of patients have been held in ambulances for more than an hour outside A&E before they can even get in, which means that ambulances could not respond to other urgent calls, and that has obviously put other patients in danger. We have heard about patients being held in corridors for hours at a time, causing not just suffering and danger to patients, but enormous stress to those staff to whom we are paying tribute.

The Minister talks about the elderly population. We need to have beds for that population. England has halved its number of beds in the past 30 years, and now has only 2.4 beds per 1,000 population, compared with four in Scotland. Will he and the Secretary of State make sure that there are no further cuts in the sustainability and transformation reorganisation, and will they look at how they replace the money that has been cut from social care so that when elderly patients are ready to go home they can do so and free a bed for someone else?

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As I have already said, the social care funding has gone up very significantly this year, and there is a second billion pounds to go into social care over the next two years. The hon. Lady is right to point to Scotland having a slightly better A&E performance than England, and the two countries are far better in performance terms than any other country that we regularly monitor, but she has to be a little careful when she talks about how Scotland is performing so much better. She talked about waits. It is the case that the over-12-hour trolley waits in England for November were half the rate of over-12-hour trolley waits in Scotland. We are providing information, and we are increasingly trying to be more transparent about the impact of winter on our health service in England. I strongly encourage her to take back to her colleagues in the Scottish Government the amount of data that is being published in England and to see whether they can try to match it.

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I join the Minister in thanking NHS staff and in commenting that there is nothing new about winter pressures in the NHS. What is different is that they are extending now into traditionally quieter months, and that the depth of those pressures is so much more profound over the current winter, because there has been a failure over successive Governments to plan sufficiently for the scale of the increased demand across both health and social care. Will the Minister think about the forthcoming Green Paper for social care and think about combining it with health, so that we can see this as a truly across-system approach? I would also like to reiterate the points made by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) about the role of bed-occupancy levels. Can the Minister tell us what the current bed-occupancy levels are in the NHS in England?

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On the last point, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that, at Christmas eve, the bed occupancy rate was 84.2%, below the target of 85% that we set going into this particular winter period. Of course the rate fluctuates daily and I do not have the figures for the most recent days. We did at least start this holiday period in that position, which is a great tribute to the work done in preparing for winter. I wish to reiterate to her, as I did to my right hon. and learned Friend, the importance of the integration work being done through the sustainability and transformation partnership process between NHS organisations and social care providers. It is part of the solution for the longer-term arrangements that we need to put in place to try to make sure that people who are living longer live better, more healthily and in a more independent way out of hospital.

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Where does the postponement of tens of thousands of operations leave the promise made by the Health Secretary to the Select Committee, the last time he appeared before us, that he would begin to reverse the very bad deterioration in routine waiting times for operations that we have seen in the past seven years?

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Many areas of the country are doing very well with their waiting times. There are some—this tends to be concentrated in a relatively small number of trusts—where the referral to treatment targets are not being met, and need to be met. Part of the funding settlement achieved in the Budget in November is designed to bring down waiting time targets, to get more people treated within an 18-week period. That will clearly exacerbate the problem during this immediate period in which procedures are being deferred, but we hope that it will not last long.

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Notwithstanding the increased funding for social care, does not the principal constraint remain the inability to discharge patients?

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As I said in my initial response to the question, it is very important that we improve patient flow through hospitals. One of the critical features that enables this is ensuring that patients can be discharged when they are medically fit. We have put a huge amount of effort into this during the past nine months or so. I am pleased to say that some progress is being made, but we absolutely need to focus on this area. Again, there is huge variability between systems across the country. Some have virtually no delayed transfers of care, but the numbers of DToCs in other areas are much too high. We need to learn from the areas that are doing it right and introduce that in areas that are not.

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To progress beyond the tribal arguments about funding, what is the Government’s response to the 90 MPs from both sides of the House who have urged the Government to establish a cross-party consensus to agree a funding formula for integrated health and social care?

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As the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have said, we are always interested to hear ideas for improving the health service. At the moment, we have confidence in the five year forward view; that is the route that we are taking to bring the health service forwards and make it completely fit for the future. If the right hon. Gentleman has specific points that he would like to make, I am always ready to listen.

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It has been an extraordinarily difficult winter for hospitals serving my constituents in Kent. May I, too, thank NHS staff for the efforts that they have made to provide the best possible care? I welcome the extra money from the Government that has helped to open extra beds out of hospitals and to employ extra staff, particularly GPs and A&E staff. Will the Minister looks carefully at future capital funding bids and at Kent’s proposal for a medical school, so that we are better prepared for future winters and have the buildings and staff that we need?

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My hon. Friend is a consistent champion of efforts to improve health facilities in her constituency. I am acutely aware of the challenge of medical training places in Canterbury, which was one of the reasons that we met last year to discuss what could be done to encourage medical students to come to Kent. I am not able to give her any specific guidance on the allocation of new medical training places because that recommendation will be coming to me over the next few months from Health Education England. We look forward to making decisions on that, and I specifically included in the criteria that rural and coastal areas should have good representation.

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The Minister will have seen the images of patients at Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust sleeping on the floor because they could not even get a trolley, never mind a bed. We have had over 95% bed occupancy rates and a shortfall of over 200 nursing vacancies, and we will have a multimillion-pound budget shortfall by the end of this year. The Health Secretary and the Prime Minister have been repeatedly warned about this by nurses and doctors at Mid Yorkshire trust and across the country, by the public and by the NHS chief executive, yet they still decided to deny him the funding he needed at the Budget. How many more patients will have to sleep on the floor before this Government act?

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I cannot comment on what the right hon. Lady says happened in her hospital regarding individual patients. I acknowledge that there has clearly been a lot of pressure on space for beds, which is in large part down to a multiplicity of factors including the high bed occupancy to cope with the high admission rate. I say gently to the right hon. Lady that her area has received £3.3 million to help to cope with winter pressures; that is not an insignificant amount. As to nursing vacancies, we absolutely recognise that we need to increase the number of nurses in this country, which is why we announced last October a 25% increase in nurses in training. That will start to take effect from next September. In addition, we have introduced the new alternative route into nursing of the nursing associate role, and we expect several thousand of those to start shortly.

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Order. It might be helpful to the House if I inform Members that I am looking to move on to the second urgent question at no later than 4.30 pm, so inevitably some people will be disappointed on this question. The longer each question and answer takes, sadly, the more people will be disappointed. I am in favour of fewer disappointments. I am sure that colleagues share that ambition with me, not just in general, but including in terms of its implications for their own question.

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Does the Minister agree that the social care system is broken and that the leader of the Liberal Democrats is right that we are not going to solve the problem unless we all work together?

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I do not think my hon. Friend will be surprised if I say no, I do not agree that the system is broken. I do accept that it requires more funding, and that is why more funding was provided. It also requires local authorities to work more closely alongside the NHS to try to share these problems and find solutions together.

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The Minister said earlier that he did not know how many operations had been cancelled—maybe a few. Let me tell him that in one week alone 300 operations were cancelled in Leicester. I find myself unusually agreeing with the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—social care is broken. Will the new Cabinet Office Minister be leading on the social care Green Paper, as the previous one did, and if not him, who?

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I am glad that the hon. Lady has referred to the social care Green Paper, because that will be published this year, providing an opportunity for all Members to participate in it. It does not sit within my set of responsibilities, so I will come back to the hon. Lady on exactly who will be leading on it.

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My constituents can access Derby and Nottingham hospitals. The two trusts have been allocated an extra almost £7 million for winter preparedness. Will the Minister reassure me and my constituents that there will be a full analysis of how that extra money is spent, so that we can learn lessons to make sure that we build on good practices for next year?

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I am pleased that my hon. Friend welcomes the extra money provided in her area. I can confirm that once this winter period is behind us, we will absolutely look to learn lessons on what works best in ensuring that we get patients seen to as quickly as possible.

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Is the Minister aware that on six of the seven days after Boxing day, all of north Middlesex hospitals’ general and acute beds were occupied? Does he agree that this state of affairs is totally unacceptable, that more investment is needed in our emergency health services and that much better planning is required for any future winter crisis?

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I confirmed to the House at the beginning of my remarks that we believe that planning is essential. We started planning for this winter at the end of last winter, and I expect that we will continue to do so for the coming winter. As for what happens in individual hospitals with the individual pressures that they have, it is down to the local NHS leaders and clinicians to determine what capacity they need, and they need to plan for that, too.

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In Medway, we have seen great pressures in the system over the past few weeks. We have seen advance planning at Medway Maritime Hospital and extra funding going into the clinical commissioning group. Does my hon. Friend agree that the staff at the hospital have done an outstanding job so soon after coming out of special measures and that it is important that we should hold the CCG to account on where this money is spent?

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I visited the Medway hospital when it was still in special measures and saw the pressures with the configuration of the A&E and the challenges that that posed to good patient flow. I am pleased that significant investment has already gone into Medway to try to resolve some of those physical characteristics. I absolutely agree that we should praise the staff of the hospital for the work that they have done in turning it around so well.

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Three months ago at the Health Committee, Jim Mackey, the head of NHS Improvement, told us that

“we are running tighter than any of us would really want to and we have not had the impact from the social care investment…that we had hoped for; so, it will be difficult—it will be very tight—over winter.”

The Government knew that this crisis was coming, and the social care investment to which the Minister has referred this afternoon has not been enough. Why have this Government not acted?

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The Government have acted. We provided £2.9 million of extra money to the hon. Lady’s area to cope with winter pressures. Chris Hopson, who is the chief executive of NHS Providers, has said that this winter was better prepared for “than ever before”.

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Will the Minister congratulate the doctors and healthcare workers of Leicestershire on their excellent work over Christmas but recognise that the problems of A&E are not just about the supply of services, but about trying to reduce demand through triage, the involvement of the 111 service at A&Es and dealing with drunks who are abusing the old doctrine of a service free at the point of delivery?

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I am very pleased to respond to my hon. Friend on a subject that is not always at the forefront of his mind. He is absolutely right to highlight the abuse of the health service by certain people—revellers—who turn up at hospitals in an unfit state to be treated. In some places, we have introduced holding areas to ensure that they do not disrupt the work of the hospital.

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The Minister will be aware that the tragic case of the elderly lady who lost her life while waiting four hours for an ambulance is not an isolated one: there are constant failures of care across the country every day of the week. If he recognises that this is completely intolerable, will he not respond to the 90 MPs from across this House who have demanded that the Government get a grip and work, on a cross-party basis, to come up with a long-term solution?

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I am always interested in what the former Health Minister has to say on these subjects, because he speaks with considerable authority. On ambulances, it is obviously unacceptable for there to be delays of that nature and leading to that kind of outcome, and we absolutely need to ensure that all trusts, when these incidents occur, look very carefully at trying to prevent them from occurring again. We have now—in part, in response to the pressures that the ambulance service has been under—set up a national ambulance control centre to try to help co-ordinate ambulance responses where services are not meeting the targets in certain parts of the country or our requirements in individual hospitals.

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It was back in 1994 that Germany got an integrated system of health and social care, with dedicated funding to pay for it. Will the Minister commit to moving forward, both at pace and at scale, with the sustainability and transformation partnerships, which are our answer to this problem?

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That is absolutely our intention.

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May I press the Minister a little bit further on the photographs, which were taken by a constituent of mine, of people sleeping on the floor? These poorly people had been waiting on chairs for hours and had not been given a bed or a trolley. What I did not hear in his response was an apology. Is it not now time for the Minister to apologise to those affected?

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The hon. Lady will have heard last week the apology from the Secretary of State to patients having operations postponed, and I am absolutely prepared to apologise today to patients who are not able to be treated as quickly as we would all like them to be treated. There are seats available in most hospitals, where beds are not available. I cannot comment on what happened in her individual case, but I agree with her that it is not acceptable.

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I pay tribute to all the staff who work at Cannock Chase Hospital. A key advantage of this hospital is that it does not deal with medical emergencies, so no elective operations have been cancelled. Does my hon. Friend agree that this clearly demonstrates the real value of Cannock Chase Hospital to local patients?

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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that improving out-of-hospital capacity in our communities is vital. That includes capacity in medical centres and community hospital settings wherever they are outside the acute hospitals, which are inevitably under the most pressure at this time.

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Constituents of mine recently waited several hours for an ambulance, owing to the North East Ambulance Service running at a high state of alert. What are the Government doing about the crisis in the ambulance service?

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This financial year we have introduced the new ambulance response programme precisely in order to try to direct category 1 calls more rapidly, with conveyance by ambulance for those people who need it most. It is in the early stages of introduction in many areas, and we have yet to be able to analyse its impact. If my hon. Friend would like to write to me about the specific case he mentions, I would be happy to look into it for him.

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May I thank all the staff at the Alex Hospital in Redditch for doing an amazing job this winter? The hospital and the trust have been in special measures. I thank the Minister for his interest in my hospital and for the additional Government funding to address winter pressures. It is making a difference, with encouraging early signs in the elderly and frail unit in particular.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on her campaigning role in holding the Government to account for delivering on the capital injection of £29 million that we promised to the Worcestershire trust, of which the Alex is a key part. I reiterate to her that she should not rest until it has the money.

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The cancellation of thousands of elective surgery appointments simply shows that the Tories are doing what they have always done, which is forcing people to wait longer for their operations and rationing healthcare in that way. How will the Minister deal with the backlog that will be created in future months because of all the operations that have been put off?

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I have to say that I am disappointed with the right hon. Gentleman. He was a Minister in the previous Labour Government, and in each quarter for which I have the figures, which go back to 2000, between 10,000 and 20-something thousand procedures were deferred or cancelled. This problem has affected this country’s health service every year, going back to the beginning of recorded data.

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My hon. Friend will be aware that Harlow’s Princess Alexandra Hospital has among the highest rates of A&E use in England. That has been exacerbated by the winter crisis, which has caused significant pressures on the ambulance services, resulting in a constituent having to wait 10 hours for an ambulance over Christmas. Will my hon. Friend redouble his efforts to do everything possible to have a new hospital in Harlow, to help us with the infrastructure and ensure that Harlow has a hospital that is fit for purpose for the 21st century?

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My right hon. Friend is another consistent campaigner in favour of improving the infrastructure and estate of his hospital. He has invited me to visit; I have seen it and I am well aware that the hospital trust has put in an application for a significant rebuild, which will be considered in the allocation of the next phase of sustainability and transformation plan funding.

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Up to 31 December, more than 400 patients had to wait an hour outside the A&E at Hull Royal Infirmary, and a further 1,000 had to wait half an hour. Has the time not come for the Minister to accept that the NHS does not have enough beds and to reverse the policy of cutting beds, which has happened under successive Governments? This Government need to take action now.

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I indicated in my opening remarks that this Government have taken action. We have freed up the number of beds available through the DToC procedure, with an increase of 1,100 in the run-up to winter. We have also, as a result of the extra money we have been given, including the several million pounds given to the hon. Lady’s area, provided an additional 2,700 winter beds. The procedure for future bed closures has been made very clear by NHS England: it will not happen unless acceptable alternative community provision is available in the area.

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Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester, provided excellent care over the Christmas period, despite a 9% increase in the number of patients since last Christmas. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a tribute to excellent leadership, brilliant staff and innovative planning with other local community services to improve processes and anticipate this annual need?

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My hon. Friend highlights articulately the fact that proper co-ordination between local authorities and NHS trusts in some areas means that they can cope with the pressures better than others. I commend the example that she has given.

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I worked as a doctor on the NHS frontline last week. I saw elderly patients who would have been better off being looked after at home by community and social care, and people waiting far too long for ambulances. Cancelling non-urgent work just makes more patients suffer. What does the Minister say to the woman with Crohn’s disease who is in pain and has terrible symptoms now that the bowel operation for which she has already been waiting for six months has been delayed again? The only way she will get the operation now is if things get even worse and she becomes an emergency case.

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I put on the record my appreciation of the hon. Gentleman’s role not only on the Health Committee but in undertaking shifts, as he mentioned. On deferred procedures, we have given very clear instructions that time-critical operations should not be cancelled—cancer operations should not be cancelled. Ultimately, it comes down to the clinical decisions that are made at each hospital about who they should treat and who they believe can wait.

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Clearly there is pressure on the NHS, including on the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle. However, does the Minister agree that we must not lose sight of the positives, such as the £1.8 million investment in cancer equipment that has just gone into the hospital and the proposed £38 million investment in a proposed cancer unit, all of which are in the long-term interests of healthcare in Carlisle and Cumbria?

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Cumbria is one of the parts of the country that has had persistent challenges in the delivery of healthcare. I am pleased that decisions have been taken over the past year or so, including those about investing in improving cancer facilities in Carlisle that my hon. Friend referred to, which we hope will address long-standing issues that have not been addressed under successive Governments.

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Despite the best efforts of NHS staff, patients in my area routinely waited over 12 hours just to be seen at hospital. We have heard from my hon. Friends about patients having to sleep on the floor. Will the Minister therefore take this opportunity to say that he will halt all further downgrades and closures of services in my area at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and Dewsbury and District Hospital until a full assessment of capacity has been undertaken?

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A significant amount of funding—some £3.4 million—was made available to the hon. Lady’s area. Reconfiguration proposals are being driven by the STP process. It is down to local authority leaders and local NHS leaders and clinicians to determine what is the best configuration of services in their area.

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In Oxfordshire, considerable effort is being put into growing home-based health and social care systems. Does the Minister accept that that will solve the problem of delayed discharges of care by preventing them in the first place?

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I agree that prevention is an important part of the long-term solution to improve healthcare outcomes for the population. I believe we are on the cusp of some significant technological advances that will allow more treatment to take place at home and more diagnostic tests to be taken without the necessity of attending acute facilities. Oxfordshire is a good leader in that.

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Of 106 emergency beds at St Mary’s in Paddington, 105 were in continuous occupation over Christmas. Not long ago, a ceiling collapsed in a ward in that hospital. It is coping with a £500 million maintenance backlog—the biggest by far in the country. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how St Mary’s Hospital will be assisted to cope with funding a maintenance backlog that, if things went wrong at the time of these pressures, would cause an absolute calamity?

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I visited the A&E department at St Mary’s for a night shift a few months ago. I was not aware of the incident of ceiling damage that the hon. Lady referred to, but I would be very happy to meet her to discuss it.

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As my hon. Friend and his colleagues continue to wrestle with the conundrum of the merging of social care and healthcare, I urge him to keep at the front of his mind in his discussions with healthcare providers the importance of beds in community, district and cottage hospitals in providing a segue between acute settings and returning home.

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My hon. Friend is a lively champion of the community hospitals in his area, which I know provide an important service, but I am afraid that I must again refer to the STP proposals and say that it is for local clinicians and health and local authority leaders to decide what is best in their area.

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The hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) should be doubly gratified to be acknowledged not merely as champion of the said hospitals but as a lively champion at that.

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It is better than the alternative.

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It is better than the alternative.

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Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust and the East Midlands Ambulance Service have both declared the highest level of alert in recent days. Despite the heroic efforts of NHS staff, emergency patients’ care, safety and dignity have been put at risk, and of course other patients have had their operations cancelled. Does this not confirm that the Government’s preparations and resourcing were too little and too late?

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As I have tried to explain to the House, the preparations began earlier, have involved more alternative measures than ever before and have been accompanied by considerable resource allocations right across the country, including, I think, £3.4 million to the hon. Lady’s area.

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Our fine GP surgeries around the country are facing the challenge of their neighbouring practices not being as well run, while many practitioners are choosing to retire because of our pension rules. Is it now time for the state to step in and provide practice where the private area will not cover?

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Clinical commissioning groups have a responsibility to provide cover in every area, so if a practice does close, it is up to the CCG to ensure alternative provision. That responsibility is part of the NHS mandate and remains with it.

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Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, which serves my constituency, has advised the public to attend A&E for serious or life-threatening conditions only and the rest to visit the local pharmacist or call 111. What immediate help will the Minister give to community pharmacies and the 111 helpline to help them to cope with the increased demand?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point to the increased demand channelled in part through very local facilities such as pharmacies and NHS 111. The latter has seen a 21.5% increase in the volume of calls in the last month, but, despite that, has had nearly a doubling, compared with a year ago, of the number of calls dealt with by a clinician—just under 40%—which is very impressive.

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On my behalf and that, I hope, of the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), may I welcome the £4.2 million of additional winter funding for the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust? To remind the Labour party what an NHS crisis really is, will my hon. Friend tell the House who was in charge at the time of the Mid Staffs crisis—

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Order. I have tried over a period of seven and a half years to educate the hon. Gentleman, and I am afraid that on the whole my efforts have been unavailing. I have tried to explain to him that his responsibility is to ask questions about the policy of the Government, for which it is the responsibility of the Government to answer; it is not the occasion for asking questions about the policy of the Opposition or the opposing party when in government. It is a point that is so blindingly obvious that only an extraordinarily sophisticated person could fail to grasp it.

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Royal Stoke University Hospital in my constituency faces a double whammy during this winter crisis: an estimated net cost of £8 million even with the Government’s investment of this period and the loss of income as a result of the cancelation of elective surgery where income has been put to one side. How does the Minister expect the Royal Stoke and the University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust to meet that cost? Given that CCGs will now have a windfall because of cancelled operations, how will he make sure that that money is reinvested in community and acute services?

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As I said earlier, it is our intent to review what has happened in relation to deferred procedures this month and over the winter, and we are monitoring that on a weekly basis. We will also keep under close review what happens with individual trusts as a result of the imbalance between income and expenditure.

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The Minister is a very good man and an excellent Minister, in my opinion, but what does it say about the priorities of the Government when they are allowing so many operations to be cancelled over the next few weeks, while also pouring more and more money every year into overseas aid? I say to the Government through the Minister that people are now angry about this in the country. Billions of pounds every year are being spent on overseas aid when it is so clearly needed by vulnerable people at home in the UK. Will the Government get a grip on this? They will be massively out of touch with public opinion if they do not.

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Let me gently say to my hon. Friend, who is also an important champion of the hospital in his area—we had a meeting before Christmas to talk about allocating medical places—that deferred procedures have happened at the rate of tens of thousands a quarter for very many years. What we have done differently this time is give notice to patients and hospitals that they should rearrange their schedules weeks rather than hours or days in advance.

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During this winter crisis, has the Minister ever stopped to think what a barmy idea it was to allow the clinical commissioning groups to close, or threaten to close, a number of community hospitals in all parts of Britain, including Bolsover and several others in Derbyshire? Will he now get to that Dispatch Box and reverse that barmy decision?

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As the hon. Gentleman well knows, STP plans are being developed by local NHS leaders, clinicians and local authorities, and it is they who are making recommendations in some parts of the country for changes in the configuration of services.

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Order. I am sorry, but we must now move on.

Office for Students: Appointment

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement on the appointment of Toby Young to the board of the Office for Students.

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The Office for Students came into being on 1 January and will be operational from April. It will put quality of teaching, student choice and value for money at the heart of what it does. It will be helped in that regard by a remarkably broad and strong board bringing together a wide range of talents and backgrounds, including vice-chancellors, graduate employers and legal and regulatory experts, as well as a student representative mandated by statute. The board also brings a diversity of views: its excellent chair, Sir Michael Barber, was a senior adviser to a former Labour Prime Minister; and several of its members have declared themselves to be past or present members of the Labour party. This is clearly not a body of Conservative stooges, but one that draws on talent wherever it can be found.

The Opposition have called this debate to discuss one of the board’s 15 members, Toby Young. They would have us believe that he is not qualified or suitable to be on the board. Yes, Mr Young is not a university insider, but a board made up only of university insiders would be hard pressed to provide the scrutiny and challenge to the sector that students and taxpayers deserve. Indeed, the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 requires the Secretary of State to have regard to the desirability of the board’s members having, between them, far wider experience, including experience of promoting choice for consumers and encouraging competition. Mr Young has real experience of both as the founder of the West London Free School, and now as director of the New Schools Network, helping parents around the country to set up schools of their own. That experience will be important to a new regulator that will be charged with creating a level playing field for high-quality new providers to offer degrees alongside established universities.

At the West London Free School, which Mr Young set up, 38.5% of children receive the pupil premium, and they have done better than the national average for those on the pupil premium this year and last. A parent-governor at the school described him this week as being

“committed to public education, academic excellence, and greater opportunities for kids from lower incomes”.

He has won praise for supporting diversity by making the school a safe and supportive place for LGBT+ students. He is also an eloquent advocate of free speech, a value that is intrinsic to successful universities and which the OFS has undertaken to uphold. He has served with credit on the board of the US-UK Fulbright Commission, where he has been a strong supporter of the commission’s work with the Sutton Trust to help disadvantaged young people to attend US universities. Indeed, the chair of the Fulbright Commission, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, described Mr Young as an effective, committed and energetic commissioner, saying that he had seen no evidence that any of Mr Young’s remarks had influenced him in despatching his duties as a commissioner.

The hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) has called today’s debate to discuss tweets and remarks, some of which go back to the 1980s. These were foolish and wrong, and do not reflect the values of the Government, but I am not aware that anything Toby Young has said in the past has been found to have breached our strong discrimination laws, which are among the toughest in the world. In future, of course, he will be bound to comply with the Equality Act 2010 when performing all his functions for the Office for Students. Regardless of the legal position, it is of course right that Mr Young has apologised unreservedly to the OFS board. It is also right that he has said that he regrets the comments and given an undertaking that the kind of remarks he made in the past will not be repeated. So be in no doubt that if he or any board member were to make these kinds of inappropriate comments in the future, they would be dismissed.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday, since these comments and tweets, Mr Young has been doing “exceedingly good work” in our education system, and it is for that reason that he is well placed to make a valuable contribution to the work of the board of the Office for Students, where he will continue to do much more to support the disadvantaged than so many of his armchair critics.

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It is not lost on me that I am up against one of the Johnson brothers and asking questions about one of their mates.

Mr Speaker,

“Violent, sexist and homophobic language must have no place in our society, and parliamentarians of all parties have a duty to stamp out this sort of behaviour wherever we encounter it, and condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

Those are the words of the Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), and it is a shame that she is not here today—I am not quite sure what job she has at the moment. I note that the Leader of the House is with us. She chairs an excellent committee in which we talk about eradicating sexual harassment, victimisation and bullying, and changing the culture in this House. I am therefore flabbergasted by this decision, and it is beyond me how the Minister can stand up and support the appointment of Toby Young. I find it hard to comprehend the appointment; I believe that it leaves the credibility of the Office for Students in tatters.

There are three areas that need to be urgently addressed today. The first is the process. What process was followed? Was the Nolan principle, as outlined in the application, applied? Was due process followed in all cases? Who was the independent assessor—I cannot find that person’s name? Why did the Department for Education exaggerate Toby Young’s qualifications and suitability for the role? Has the Commissioner for Public Appointments approved the appointment?

The second area is suitability. Have the Department for Education’s guidelines on the seven principles of public life been upheld? Most people would laugh at that, but I will leave the Minister to respond. Toby Young’s long history of misogyny and homophobia makes a mockery of such guidelines. A man who wrote about how he went to a gay club dressed as a woman in order to molest lesbians is far from appropriate. Far from apologising, however, he has defended his actions, citing free speech. That might be free speech, but surely it also shows that he is not suitable to hold public office. Just 13 months ago, someone put a sexual harassment policy document on Toby Young’s desk. He said:

“The next bit was underlined in red felt-tip pen: ‘A joke considered amusing by one may be offensive to another.’ I found out just how true those words were when I hired a strippergram to surprise a male colleague on his birthday on what turned out to be Take Our Daughters to Work Day.”

I challenge the Minister to explain that.

The third area is merit. The Prime Minister said on the steps of No. 10 that people would be promoted on the basis of merit, not privilege. Is that still the case, or does having friends like the Johnsons override all that? There are over 800 free schools, meaning that there is a plethora of suitable people who meet the criteria to be involved in the Office for Students. Is this simply a case of jobs for the boys? The Foreign Secretary—the Minister’s brother—declared that Toby Young has caustic wit, making him the ideal man for the job, but if boasting of masturbating over pictures of dying and starving children is caustic wit, I have most definitely lost my sense of humour. Why was the Prime Minister not aware of the comments before the appointment was made?

It is not too late. If there is an apology, rather than a statement of regret, will the Minister place it in the Library along with the more than 40,000 deleted tweets?

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On the point of process, Mr Young’s appointment to the board of the Office for Students was made in line with the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ code of practice, and Mr Young was appointed following a fair and open competition. He was selected for interview based on the advertised criteria and interviewed by the same panel that interviewed all other board candidates. Sir Michael Barber, who is the chair of the Office for Students, was one of the panel members, along with a senior civil servant and an independent panel member from the higher education sector, and that panel found Mr Young to be appointable.

As for whether the Department for Education exaggerated Mr Young’s qualifications, it absolutely and categorically did not. Mr Young was a teaching fellow at Harvard and a teaching assistant at Cambridge, positions for which he received payment. The Department for Education never claimed that they were academic posts. As I have said, Mr Young is a Fulbright commissioner and co-founded the West London Free School, and that experience will be vital in encouraging new providers and ensuring that more universities are working effectively with schools.

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The Minister will know that I am a supporter of his work and of universities, but things have gone badly wrong here. I accept that Mr Young has done great work on free schools, but so have many other people. I am not talking about the things he has done on Twitter; I am more concerned about some quite dark articles in which he talks about the disabled and the working classes. Much more significantly—I have the article here—in 2015 he talked about what he calls “progressive eugenics”, which is incredibly dark and dangerous stuff. I suggest that my hon. Friend look again at the appointment, because I do not think that it will give students confidence.

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I always listen closely to what my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Education Committee, has to say, and I will look carefully at the article he has with him. Mr Young has expressed his regret and has apologised unreservedly for comments that, in some cases, were made in the 1980s. These are often very old writings and old pieces of work. I think that it is more helpful to Members if we focus on what he does rather than what he says. He has been a champion of students and of children with disabilities in mainstream education. He has a brother with learning disabilities and is a patron of the residential care home in which his brother lives, so we should not characterise him in the crude terms that Opposition Members have used. His deeds matter much more than the terms and the tweets that he has disowned.

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Order. Using language slightly loosely, the Minister referred at the outset to how the shadow Minister had called this debate. On advice, I gently remind the House that this is not supposed to be a debate or, therefore, the occasion for speeches either from the Back Benches or the Front Benches; it is a time for pithy questions and answers, to which I know we will now return with enthusiasm.

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rose

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rose

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I call Mr Alan Brown.

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Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

This appointment sums up this incompetent Government. Toby Young is a Tory crony, and the Department for Education exaggerated his qualifications. He thinks teachers have it easy. He has shown prejudice against the working class. He has written several misogynistic tweets and, as we have heard, talked about masturbating to Comic Relief images of children in Africa. When that came to light, the reaction of Tory MPs, including the Foreign Secretary, was to defend him.

Young himself does not seem to care. He has not made a full apology, and he says that most of the tweets are several years old, which also seems to be the Minister’s attitude. Frankly, the Minister is putting his head in the sand. It was only two years ago that Toby Young was writing about eugenics for the working class. This House is supposed to be trying to be seen to clean up its act and Conservative Members were only too keen to call for action against the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Jared O'Mara) when his inappropriate tweets were made public, so the rank hypocrisy is absolutely stinking.

It has been suggested that Toby Young is on a yellow card, so will the Minister tell us what constitutes a red card? Will this appointment process be reviewed? What will the Government do to allay the concerns of the National Education Union, of students and of the wider general public? And when will the Government lead by example?

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I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Prime Minister’s remarks yesterday on “The Andrew Marr Show.” The Prime Minister was absolutely explicit that she expects no repetition of any of the remarks, comments or utterances that have been the subject of considerable attention over the past week. Any member of the board of the Office for Students who says such things will no longer carry on in that position, and that will be the position going forward.

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What account did the independent appointment process take of the public views of candidates, particularly when those views might be so clearly at odds with the equality principles that the Government clearly support?

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Of course, the Office for Students is there to represent all interests in our higher education system. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 puts an obligation on the Secretary of State to have regard to a wide range of factors in making such appointments, including that board members must reflect the broad range of higher education providers, those who experience higher education—the students—and those, such as taxpayers and businesses, who either pay for higher education or are on the receiving end of its product in the flow of graduates into the workforce. The Government are, of course, attentive to reactions to appointments to the board, and we want the board to be highly effective in delivering on the core duties of the Office for Students.

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rose

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rose—

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I call Afzal Khan.

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Toby labelled Islam a “deeply misogynistic religion,” and he referred to the choice of some Muslim women to adopt the hijab as forced by male oppression. At a time when many more young British Muslim women are entering higher education, do the Government consider it appropriate to appoint such a person to the Office for Students? What is the likelihood that Toby Young will command the respect of Muslim women in higher education who wear the hijab?

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The hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) looked almost inconsolable not to be called. It is true that I was looking in her direction at an earlier stage and might very well do so again, but it would be a pity to squander her at too early a stage of our proceeding. I am saving her up.

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In response to the question of the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), and to many other questions that might relate to individual tweets, articles or comments made by Mr Young over a long period of time, the answer is basically the same. Mr Young has acknowledged, and the Government have recognised, that much of what he said was foolish, wrong, offensive or obnoxious, and it is right that he has apologised and expressed regret for what he has said, written and done. It clearly does not reflect the values of the Office for Students or of the Government, but it is also important to recognise that, since he made many of those remarks, he has continued to make a valuable contribution to our education system, to the work of the Fulbright Commission and to the network of free schools across the country, and it is for that reason that he has been appointed to the board of the Office for Students.

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I welcome the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood on her return from maternity leave, and let me say that it was a pleasure to attend her wedding.

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Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It was good to have you at the wedding.

Labour Members feign outrage at Mr Young’s use of social media, but perhaps they should look at the way their own Labour activists and Momentum have treated other candidates, including during the general election. I got attacked by someone called “Corbyn Chick” for being an unmarried mother—where are the family values there? Perhaps Labour Members—[Interruption.] Perhaps if they listened rather than shouted—[Interruption.] Perhaps they should look at how their own Momentum activists and Labour party activists treat other candidates on social media. Why the hypocrisy?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point about double standards, because misogyny and misogynistic attitudes are rampant on the Labour Benches, as has been acknowledged by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who has described a persistent pattern of

“low-level non-violent misogyny”

at the top of the Labour party. It is important that Labour Members—[Interruption.] That is what she said. It is important that Labour Members do not apply double standards when addressing this question. [Interruption.]

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Order. I just say to the shadow Transport Secretary: sir, if you were a motor car, you would go from 0 to 60 in about five seconds. It is a discernible trait that I have discerned in you over a period of years and I wish to help you with this condition. Calm yourself. Just be a little calmer. There are many, many hours to go and there are many important developments to take place. Now, after due patience having been exercised, I call Lucy Powell.

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Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

Mr Young’s comments over the past few months and years speak for themselves, and the Government are making a gross misjudgment in now trying to defend them, but let us just take a moment to look at his record, as the Minister is so keen to talk to us about it. If he looked at the data dashboard for the West London Free School, he would find that progress 8 at that school is, in fact, average, and that its percentage of children on the pupil premium is below that for Hammersmith and Fulham and well below that for inner London. Perhaps that is why the school has only just got a “good” rating from Ofsted. I could give the Minister the names of many, many more people with much more experience, so is this not a case of “chumocracy”, as the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) rightly said?

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We have armchair critics who do not do half as much good as Mr Young does for disadvantaged students in London and across the country. The hon. Lady has questioned the record of the West London Free School, but its GCSE results for 2016 put it in the top 10% of all English schools in the country.

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I am afraid that I feel Mr Young’s comments do cross a line and are indicative of an underlying character. We are talking about the kind of person who would tweet comments to a woman about masturbating over images of refugees—this does just cross a line. I feel that he should withdraw. When we apply for jobs, we all say whether or not there is anything in our past that could cause embarrassment. If that question was asked and it was answered “no”, there is clearly a case for the board revisiting this and asking him to step down.

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I recognise that, as I have said, many of the tweets have been obnoxious and repellent in many ways—obviously, I have not seen all 40,000 of them—but it is also important to recognise that that tweet was probably eight or nine years old, since which time Mr Young has been on something of a developmental journey. It is possible that there is a capacity for reform, and we want to encourage Mr Young to develop the best sides of his personality—those that have led to him setting up good schools and to working with disadvantaged children in London so that they can make the most of their potential. It is for those reasons that he has been appointed to the board.

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There is a fault line in politics, with those who want a modern democracy with people appointed on their merit rather than their mates on one side, and I am surprised that the Minister, who is meant to be a serious person, finds himself on the other side.

I ask the Minister specifically about Mr Young’s comments in the past two to three years, which the Select Committee Chairman raised, and in which Mr Young advocated what he called “progressive eugenics”—not in 2009, but in 2015. He repeated that in November 2017. The comments were removed by the Teach First website and he claimed that he had been no-platformed and censored. Does that sound like someone remorseful, who is suitable for public office? Why on earth has the Minister done this, not only to his and the Prime Minister’s credibility, but to that of the Office for Students?

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Mr Young’s work on behalf of disadvantaged and disabled students speaks for itself. He has championed inclusion in the educational institutions that he has set up. I cannot speak for the content of specific articles or tweets because, frankly, there are too many, and he has apologised for any offence he has caused, but I think that we should judge him by what he does—more so than we are currently doing.

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Will the Minister confirm that Toby Young has never used social media to tweet bomb threats against rival politicians, unlike one member of the Labour party, who is named in the newspapers today, and that some of the outrage is little more than an extension of the “no platform” policy used to drive anyone with a right of centre view out of the university sector?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point, the same one that was made a few moments ago, which is essentially that double standards are being applied here. Opposition Members should look at their use of social media—for example, the appalling slurs on Conservative candidates that are frequently levelled before a general election, and the deception targeted at students about the Labour party’s intentions on student fees and tuition debt. They should consider their record on social media before criticising others.

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Does the Minister suggest that, simply because Mr Young, under pressure, has now apologised for his dark and dangerous comments, he no longer holds the views that he has held for many years?

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Mr Young has apologised, as the hon. Lady said. He has said that he regrets the comments, which suggests that he has moved on. He has also committed to not repeating those comments and accepted the reality that if he does, he will no longer be publicly appointed to the Office for Students board.

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The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee oversees the public appointments process and we hold the public appointments commissioner accountable for the conduct of the code. This is a timely reminder that public appointments are to be held accountable. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the panel had the due diligence they should have had when they made their appointment? What representations has he received from any member of the panel about the appointment since it was made?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his questions. The panel was correctly composed. As I said earlier, it consisted of a senior civil servant from the Department for Education, Sir Michael Barber himself and an independent panel member. They conducted the interview with Mr Young in the same manner as they conducted interviews with other candidates and found him appointable. In respect of due diligence, one has to look at what is reasonable and proportionate for a panel to do. Neither I nor the Department were aware of the offensive tweets before the appointment was made, but there is nothing unusual about that. Many of the remarks were made years—in some cases, decades—ago and it is not reasonable or proportionate for the Government to trawl through tens of thousands of tweets over many years when making public appointments.

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As a woman and as the mother of a young girl, I am appalled that the Minister and the Prime Minister deem it suitable to appoint such a man to this position. He has joked about anal rape of women. He talks about women’s breasts constantly on Twitter. Will the Minister not join me in condemning this misogynistic view from someone who will be in a position of power and show all those young girls who look to the Government that it is simply not good enough?

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I agree with the sentiments the hon. Lady has expressed. Those comments and tweets are obviously obnoxious and repellent, and that is why it is right that Mr Young has apologised for them, it is right that he has expressed regret for them and it is right that he has committed not to repeat them at the risk of being immediately dismissed from the Office for Students board.

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I have been interested to hear the Minister’s answers. Can he reassure me about what evidence he took in relation to Mr Young’s current appointment as a Fulbright commissioner and what reassurances he has that some of the behaviour we have discussed this afternoon will not be repeated?

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Mr Young does important work on the Fulbright Commission. He is a commissioner and has been reappointed to that role as a result of the good work he has done. That carries on. As I said earlier, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the chair of the Fulbright Commission, has described Mr Young as an effective, committed and energetic commissioner and seen no evidence that the historic remarks—going back many years—have influenced him in discharging his duties responsibly on behalf of disadvantaged young people. He does very good work in promoting social mobility through the Fulbright Commission’s work with the Sutton Trust and other organisations.

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The Minister asks us to judge Mr Young by what he does. As one of the many women who have had personal, repeated and recent experiences of his ability to lose friends and alienate people, I say to the Minister that an undergraduate student would know that it is not evidence enough of a change in behaviour for someone simply—when they have been caught out—to say sorry. Every educationist would say to the Minister that rewarding bad behaviour, as he is, sends a terrible message to our universities about the standards we accept. What more does Mr Young have to say before the Minister realises that he deserves to stay on Twitter, not in teaching?

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Since Mr Young made many of these comments and wrote these articles—which, in most cases, predate 2010—he has been appointed to the Fulbright Commission, he has been reappointed to the Fulbright Commission, he has been made director of a leading education charity and he has done important work setting up schools in west London that are delivering great outcomes for young people. That is what we should judge him by, not foolish and obnoxious tweets from the distant past.

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My constituents have no time for unpleasant and obscene remarks, no matter who makes them. Will the Minister ensure that all appointees to the board, including this one, have as one of their first priorities a close examination of the obscene levels of executive pay for some of the senior personnel in the higher and further education sectors, which many students regard as completely outrageous?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point, and it is a priority for the Office for Students to address the spiralling top-level and vice chancellor pay in our institutions. It featured in the regulatory framework consultation, which closed shortly before Christmas, and will be prominent in the regulatory framework when that is published later in the spring.

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The problem is that this man thought it was okay to publicly leer at women’s bodies while they were in the workplace, including tweeting repeatedly about women, about their knockers, their breasts, their boobs, their baps—on and on. What does it say to women and young girls across the country that a Minister is defending that—including when this man attacked a woman MP in this House in that way? Instead, why does not the Minister stand with women across the world who are saying to men like this that their time is up?

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The Government have condemned the tweets. Mr Young has apologised for them. Any repetition of language of that kind will not be tolerated.

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I suspect I am one of the few people in the Chamber who has been to the West London Free School. I saw there for myself the outstanding work that Toby and his team have delivered, and they have done that blind to people’s background and wealth, to the colour of their skin and to the creed that they practise. Does the Minister agree that that record deserves to be honoured and recognised? The comments were wrong, but those deeds need to be respected and they give Toby a credible platform for taking that office.

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My hon. Friend is right to laud Mr Young’s achievements at the West London Free School, where the 38.5% of children who receive the pupil premium have done better than the national average for pupils on the pupil premium in both this most recent year and the previous one. Mr Young has created an inclusive environment. A parent governor at the school described him as

“committed to public education, academic excellence, and greater opportunities for kids from lower incomes.”

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I am usually the first to congratulate my constituents on their achievements, but even Toby Young’s Acton address cannot save him on this one. In his column in The Spectator on 9 December—not historical, but mere days before his appointment—he boasted

“what a Big Swinging Dick I am.”

The column was titled “The subtle art of showing off at work”. How does that and the fact that his West London Free School has gone through five headteachers in almost as many years make him qualified for this post?

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