House of Commons
Tuesday 23 January 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Legal Systems
The Government have made it a priority to ensure that there is a smooth legal transition both in our negotiations with the EU and in our domestic implementing legislation. I fully appreciate that Scotland and Northern Ireland have distinct legal systems, and that is why my Department has been working closely with the devolved Administrations, looking at how our legal and justice systems are affected by EU exit. The Government are clear that a good deal with the EU will be one that works for all parts of the United Kingdom.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his position, having shadowed him for a few months when he was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
The UK Government’s position papers on judicial co-operation in civil matters, data protection and judicial oversight have been dismissed by EU interlocutors as unsatisfactory, due to their lack of realism and detail. Does the Secretary of State intend to respond to that by producing more realistic and detailed proposals?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words. It is pleasing to know that, wherever I go, he follows.
Regarding the hon. Gentleman’s question, we are ambitious—we want to get the best deal. I appreciate that, in the course of negotiations, it is possible that our interlocutors will express an adverse opinion, but we will continue to engage and to be ambitious.
The Secretary of State has acknowledged Scotland’s distinct legal and judicial system. The role of Lord Advocate in overseeing the investigation and prosecution of crime means that, in Scotland, there is direct co-operation between Scottish law enforcement agencies and their European counterparts. Will the Minister give details of the consultations between his Department, and the Scottish Government and Scottish Law Officers in that regard?
We continue to engage with the Scottish Government across the board, including on that implementation matter.
Will the Minister update the House on plans in relation to foreign criminals in UK prisons and on whether, after we leave the EU, we might be able to return those who break our laws to their country of origin, rather the UK taxpayer footing the bill for their stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure?
Since 2010, we have removed more than 40,000 foreign national offenders from our prisons, immigration removal centres and indeed the community. There is a range of removal mechanisms that enable the return of foreign offenders to their home countries. The Government are now considering future criminal justice arrangements with the EU with the aim of continuing our close working relationship.
The Secretary of State will be aware that in family law there are mutual and reciprocal arrangements between EU countries to ensure that judgments are recognised and enforced. How does he envisage the interests of children being protected after we exit the EU and are no longer able to rely on those mutual arrangements?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. Having satisfactory arrangements with the European Union in that and other matters is important. It is right that we are ambitious so that the interests of children are put at the heart of what we do.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post—it is nice to see a lawyer there. I hope that he has a lengthy tenure, if not quite as long as that of the last lawyer from Ipswich who was Lord Chancellor, and with a better ending.
Much of the debate has been concentrated on criminal justice co-operation. In his speech on being sworn in, my right hon. Friend rightly referred to the importance of the UK as a jurisdiction of choice in civil and commercial litigation. Will he make sure that that aspect is not lost in our negotiations, in particular the importance to London and the UK’s financial services sector of having contractual certainty?
I thank my hon. Friend. Given that the last Lord Chancellor from Ipswich was Cardinal Wolsey, who ran into some difficulties in negotiations with a powerful European supranational body, I should tread carefully. It is important that in our negotiations we try as best we can to provide the certainty my hon. Friend seeks.
I welcome the new Secretary of State for Justice to his place. Sir David Edward, a distinguished former judge in Scotland and at the European Court of Justice, has said that so far
“the UK Government has overlooked the significance of the separate Scottish legal system, the Scottish judicial system and the Scottish prosecution system in relation to justice and home affairs issues”
in their negotiations with the EU. Will the new Secretary of State undertake to meet me to discuss how those oversights might be rectified?
I am not sure that I would accept the hon. and learned Lady’s characterisation of the position as one of oversight. I made it clear in the very first answer I gave in this role that I fully appreciate that Scotland had a distinct legal system. However, I would certainly be delighted to discuss the matter with her further.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for agreeing to meet me, but that was not my characterisation; it was the characterisation of a senior judge in the Scottish courts and in the Court of Justice. The judge went on to describe the UK Government’s paper on enforcement and dispute resolution as
“an undergraduate essay which would have failed”.
He says that those who are writing the papers are not aware of the problems posed by the separate Scottish legal system and that they do not want to hear from the experts who have offered to help. This is a serious problem. Will the Secretary of State, in his new role, undertake to listen to those who know about the Scottish legal system and to take on board their concerns in his negotiations on these matters?
I want to ensure that we end up in a position that is good for the legal system and legal services in every part of the United Kingdom. That certainly includes Scotland, and of course I will want to engage with representations and representatives from all parts of the United Kingdom to ensure that we get the best possible deal.
After Brexit, can we do something that we cannot do now? In other words, if an EU national is found guilty of an imprisonable offence, will we be able to deport them to serve their sentence in prison in their own country and ban them from ever returning?
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), we are considering future criminal justice arrangements with the European Union. We want close working relationships, but we also need to work together to ensure that foreign national offenders can be removed when possible.
Homelessness Reduction Act 2017
I should like to begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for his work on the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. With the agreement of colleagues from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Act should come into operation in April. It is absolutely vital that every prisoner leaving custody has a home to go to.
I thank my hon. Friend and welcome him to his new position. As he rightly says, it is in our best interest that ex-offenders leaving prison do not reoffend. One of the key issues is to ensure that prison governors honour their commitment under the Homelessness Reduction Act to ensure that people are prepared for life outside prison. What action will he take to ensure that prison governors train offenders who are due to leave prison so that they do not reoffend?
There are two key things to do: first, to empower governors so that they have real flexibility and control over education budgets and career advice; and, secondly, to connect that to housing. There is an obligation under the Act that my hon. Friend has championed, and co-ordination with local authorities will be essential.
Why has the number of women who become homeless on release doubled in only a year? Is this not more evidence of the Government failing prisoners and probation policies?
There are a number of complex issues relating to homelessness, but we absolutely agree that this is unacceptable and shocking. We need to work much more closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, with local authorities and with prisons to ensure that we cut those numbers.
The provision of legal aid to support the most vulnerable is an important part of our justice system. We spend £1.6 billion a year on legal aid, which is more than a fifth of the Ministry of Justice’s budget. In terms of accessing legal aid, there is an online tool at gov.uk to help people to check their entitlement to it.
I welcome that answer, but people in my constituency in west Cornwall find it hard to access the legal aid that they are entitled to. In fact, there is only one office there that holds a legal aid contract, and it deals only with family law. Will the Department assess how the changes in legal aid funding have affected rural people, and consider measures to address the shortage?
Maintaining access to justice is extremely important, which is why the Legal Aid Agency regularly reviews the capacity of the legal aid market to cope with demand and takes action when regional shortfalls develop. Those in need of urgent advice in Cornwall and elsewhere can always use the civil legal aid specialist telephone service. In autumn 2017, the Legal Aid Agency began national tendering for new civil contracts to start in autumn 2018.
I have received hundreds of emails from people in my constituency who face eviction, live in overcrowded conditions or rent properties that are in dire need of repair. Does the Minister agree that early legal advice in housing matters needs to be restored urgently, and that it is unacceptable that large parts of the country have no housing legal aid providers at all?
As the hon. Lady will know, the previous Lord Chancellor committed to a review of legal aid later this year, and I also commit to reviewing the situation later this year. Legal aid for housing is always available and can be accessed through the telephone gateway.
Judicial review is a key tool for ordinary people to challenge unjust and unlawful decisions by the state and other public bodies. Deep cuts to legal aid have undermined that ability, so will the Minister commit to reviewing legal aid funding for judicial review in the Government’s forthcoming legal aid review?
As I have already mentioned, a legal aid review is taking place later this year. As a matter of principle, legal aid is available for judicial review in certain circumstances when certain conditions are met.
Oakhill Secure Training Centre
The findings of a recent Ofsted inspection report on Oakhill secure training centre are completely unacceptable. We took urgent action to address Ofsted’s concerns. The Ministry of Justice’s monitoring team has been carrying out further scrutiny to investigate Ofsted’s findings.
The young people held in the centre often have complex, challenging needs and require considerable intervention to help their rehabilitation. By when can we hope to see some tangible improvement in that intervention?
My hon. Friend is spot on. These vulnerable children require the very best care, particularly for their mental health. In negotiations with the main contractor, I rule out absolutely nothing if the contract obligations are not being met.
Order. The right hon. Gentleman needs to focus his supplementary question exclusively on the Oakhill secure training centre in Milton Keynes.
Absolutely, Mr Speaker. Has the Minister taken any view on reducing the financial arrangements with G4S for running Oakhill or imposed any sanctions? What does it take to lose a contract?
The right hon. Gentleman, as a previous Minister responsible for the institution, will acknowledge that the contract is subject to a series of obligations. It was signed in 2004 and lasts for 25 years. I am fully aware of the need to improve standards at Oakhill. I rule absolutely nothing out, and I have already met senior people at G4S to point that out.
Oakhill, which is run by G4S, was found last year to make use of high levels of force, but G4S is not the only private security company using high levels of force against vulnerable groups. Today’s report into the Sodexo-run Peterborough Prison shows that it has become the first women’s prison in years to be deemed not safe enough, with high levels of force and the overuse of strip searching, so is the Minister worried that profit is being put before prisoner safety?
The children being held at Oakhill can sometimes be extremely challenging, and the staff have to be able to control them to protect not only themselves, but other children and staff. With reference to Sodexo and the report into Peterborough Prison, the situation is not acceptable. We have already engaged with Sodexo, particularly around strip searching, and I expect and have demanded improvements.
Victim Impact Statements
It is critical that the voice of the victim is heard in the criminal justice system. The victims code is clear that victims are entitled to make a victim personal statement to explain in their own words, to a court or to the Parole Board, how the crime has affected them. We are spending £96 million this year to fund critical support services for victims of crime. Under the code, all victims are entitled to a needs assessment to determine what emotional and practical support they need.
I know from a family in my constituency that making a victim impact statement, and having to do so regularly, is a very stressful and nerve-racking experience. What steps is he taking to ensure that in those situations the victim, rather than the offender, is the priority?
My hon. Friend has raised this with me before. We are committed to making sure that practical and emotional support is in place for victims throughout the criminal justice process, such as by providing independent sexual violence and domestic violence advisers. If victims wish to attend a parole hearing to present their victim personal statement, a Secretary of State representative is allocated to provide support and guidance on the day.
Steven Mullins was 12 years old when he was abducted, sexually assaulted and brutally murdered on his way home from school. His killer was released last month. Although the family submitted a victim impact statement, they feel extremely let down both by the Parole Board and by the victim liaison service, which have lost their letters, ignored their letters and left so many of their questions unanswered. It appears that a worrying pattern is emerging. Will the Minister please meet me and Mr and Mrs Mullins to give them some of the answers they deserve?
First, I express my sympathy with Mr and Mrs Mullins, who have experienced the most horrendous situation. In the context of another case, I have already made it clear that we need to look again at how the victim support process works. We want to look at that specific case and, more generally, at how we can improve the situation of victims. In this particular case, of course I am willing to meet the hon. Lady and Mr and Mrs Mullins to see if their concerns can be properly addressed.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. In 2009, my constituent Mr Samuel was acquitted of common assault following an unsuccessful prosecution centred on a fabricated witness statement by the police. Since then, his efforts to seek redress through the courts have been frustrated by a cover-up that I believe reaches right to the top of the Crown Prosecution Service. Will my right hon. Friend please accept a meeting with me at his earliest convenience to discuss the real issues concerning this case?
I am happy to meet my right hon. Friend. I am not in a position to comment on that particular case, but I am of course willing to engage with him.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. Victims must be at the heart of our justice system, but we have seen failings in enabling victims to give their impact statements in the Worboys case. We have seen the police failing victims, and victims are asking why there were no further prosecutions. In fact, victims feel let down throughout the process. I ask the Secretary of State once again to support victims, and to help to restore their faith and that of the wider public in our justice system. Will he agree today to an independent end-to-end review of the whole handling of this case?
As I announced to the House on Friday, Dame Glenys Stacey has agreed to undertake a fact-finding review of what happened with regard to victims in the Worboys case. It is important that we get to the bottom of precisely what happened and whether processes were followed. I am aware of conflicting evidence on that point, so it is important that we pursue it. I quite understand why the hon. Gentleman suggests an end-to-end review, and indeed there are questions that need to be considered about what happened in 2008-09 and so on. As I have said before, at the moment I want to focus on the immediate questions in front of us in terms of support for victims and the Parole Board process.
The proposed release of John Worboys has absolutely horrified and terrified his many, many victims. Like me, they are appalled to learn today that he has been moved to London’s category A Belmarsh Prison. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that he will do everything in his power to ensure that Worboys is released with strict licence conditions that keep him out of Greater London?
My hon. Friend has been tireless on this matter in recent weeks. The precise conditions are operational matters that are decided at operational level, but let me reassure him that nearly a fortnight ago I wrote to the relevant authorities and stressed the need to ensure that the concerns of victims are at the heart of the process and that the most stringent conditions are applied.
I visited Liverpool prison yesterday. The inspector’s report was genuinely disturbing, and of course that is reflected on the ground. There are some very good prison officers working there, but unfortunately the conditions are really shocking, particularly basic sanitation, with piles of garbage. We now have a new governor in place, millions of pounds are going into the infrastructure, and 172 places have been closed so that we can begin a proper refurbishment and maintenance programme. Most importantly, we must not allow this to happen again.
These appalling conditions did not emerge overnight. Who will be held to account locally and nationally for failing to implement the recommendations of the many critical reports about the prison? How in 21st century Britain could this national disgrace be allowed to happen? Lack of adequate healthcare meant that lives were lost. What happened to the regulators and the leadership? Were they being paid while asleep?
Those are important questions that we will look at closely. We have published an action plan for Liverpool prison. There are two key things we need to do. The first is about leadership. The governor has now been replaced. The second is that we have put in place a new urgent notification process, so if anything like this happens again and inspectors raise it, we will be forced to reply within 28 days. But that is only the beginning, because this requires a complete change in culture that focuses on getting back to basics: cleaning the prison, reducing the violence, reducing the drugs and making sure the healthcare provision is in place.
This is a big question of management. There are many very hard-working people at Liverpool prison who take their jobs very seriously and work very long hours, but we have to balance that with a recognition that clearly there have been fundamental failings. People will be held to account. Above all, we need to work with the team at the prison to ensure that in future it is a clean and decent place, both to protect the public and to reduce reoffending.
I welcome the Minister’s prompt visit to HMP Liverpool in his new role, and to Altcourse prison, which is in my constituency. His action plan states that there will be a full conditional survey and investment proposal for medium-term refurbishment. Given that Walton prison was built in 1855—some 15 years before this Palace was completed—is that the most realistic outcome for the future of the prison?
It is certainly true that there are challenges with older buildings, as we see with this place, but it is possible to keep them going—Westminster Hall was built in 1080. Stafford prison, which was built in the late 18th century, is a clean and decent prison. We will look carefully at the fabric, and in some cases there is reason to build a new wing. But in Liverpool prison we can make a huge difference simply with £2.5 million for new windows and for refurbishing individual cells.
The inspectors described the conditions at HMP Liverpool as the worst they have seen, citing rat infestations and filthy conditions. Prison maintenance at Liverpool was outsourced to Amey. This shows that the problems with outsourcing go way beyond Carillion, which mismanaged maintenance at 50 different prisons. Will the Secretary of State commit to a review looking at bringing prison maintenance back in house, in Liverpool and at all prisons, as Labour has pledged to do?
We will look carefully at the maintenance issues in Liverpool, but sadly the problems are not only to do with Amey; they are also to do with relationships between management and the contractors and how prisoners were, or were not, used to clean the estate. We have made a huge amount of difference in just the past five weeks by changing not the Amey contract but the management approach and the focus on cleanliness.
I thank the Minister for his answer on Amey and contractors, but it is hard to have faith that he will address the problems at Liverpool or, in fact, any prison, because it has recently come to light that his Government handed £40 million to Carillion in 2017, even after the then prisons Minister had expressed concerns in Parliament about Carillion’s performance in prisons. Will not poor maintenance in Liverpool continue to contribute to inhumane conditions while responsibility is left in the hands of private contractors who, in reality, put profit first?
We do not believe that this is fundamentally an ideological fight between the private and public sectors. Most of those people working for Carillion—70% of them—were public servants just three years ago, and most of those people working for Amey were public servants in the prison service. Most of the problems have been solved through basic management and leadership. There has been a deep clean, the yard units have been increased from five to 18, and the conditions have improved rapidly. In the end, a lot of this is about management, not a private/public debate.
Offenders: Employment and Education
We have been doing three things on education: first, we have been making sure that governors are empowered to bring in their own education providers; secondly, we have been setting minimum standards, particularly on English language learning; and thirdly, through the new futures network, we have been connecting people to jobs.
I call Michael Fabricant; get in there, man.
My hon. Friend the Minister knows that 46% of prisoners have a literacy age of only 11. That proportion is three times the national average, which is still too high. Does he agree that that lack of literacy is often the reason why people go to prison in the first place? Will he explain in a bit more detail how we can reduce the illiteracy level so that we do not get reoffending?
Not too much detail.
As the Speaker implies in his reprimand to me, the causes of offending are many and multiple. Literacy is one of them, along with many issues relating to people’s health, education, social background and, indeed, our criminal justice system as a whole. Nevertheless, literacy is key to the reduction of reoffending because it is key to getting a good job. Good education provision in prisons, driven by governors, is going to be key to addressing this issue.
It was a gentle exhortation, I would say.
Can the Minister say anything more about the steps the Government are taking further to empower governors to deliver effective education and training in prisons?
Yes. We have empowered governors by having in place a new procurement contract, which means that we in the Ministry are going to do the central procurement bureaucracy, but the governors will be able to choose who they use to train and educate the prisoners. I saw a good example in Altcourse Prison in Liverpool of how governors are also going to be able to choose which companies to pair with. The excellent work on metal welding that I saw in Altcourse will really contribute to those prisoners getting jobs in the community.
Does the Minister agree that whatever plans he comes up with will require there to be enough prison officers on the estate so that they can release prisoners from their cells and take them to education and training classes? Does he now accept that the Government’s dash to reduce the number of prison officers has seriously hampered the chances of preventing prisoners from reoffending?
Among the many challenges that face education in prisons is the issue of numbers, which is why we have now committed to having 2,500 more prison officers on the estate, and we are delivering that ahead of target. That will allow us to have in place the key-worker programmes, in which each officer will be paired with six prisoners to guide them through the process.
Does the Minister accept that there are some good examples of literacy classes in prisons and reoffending rates thereby reducing? Will he undertake to ensure that best practice from throughout the United Kingdom is replicated so that reoffending rates fall across the UK?
That is absolutely true. An enormous number of programmes have huge success in reducing reoffending. For example, in Brixton prison, the Clink programme has reduced reoffending by 43%, but we can do much more to learn the lessons and have a proper standardised document that takes what works elsewhere and drives it through the entire system.
In order to encourage more businesses to take on ex-offenders, the Government need to lead by example and not just by exhortation. The Ban the Box initiative was brought in across Government a few years ago to encourage that. How is ex-offender employment going within Government and the public sector?
First, I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who did this job far better than I will be able to do. One of the things that he introduced, which is going very well at the moment, is working with the Ministry of Defence. We are providing basic supplies for British military troops. It is something that is providing not just employment to prisoners, but the training and vocational skills they require for future employment.
Prisoners move round the prison system and, in the end, they come out of the prison system. One thing that consistently goes wrong is the lack of consistency in education and training between different institutions and in institutions once the prisoner leaves. The Minister has talked about power to the governor, but governors must work within the construct of the wider environment. What will he do to ensure that we have that consistency?
This is of course a balance between empowering the governor so that they can have a tailored programme that is flexible and works for the prison and having decent national standards. That will mean setting the curriculum at a national level, having the area managers engaged over the governors and also giving the governors the ability to have education that is relevant to their areas—skills that are relevant to the jobs outside the prison gates.
Public safety is the primary consideration in Parole Board decisions on releasing a prisoner. The law requires that the Parole Board may direct release only if it is satisfied that continued detention is no longer necessary for the protection of the public. Parole Board members are selected on account of their experience and ability to assess risk. Their decisions are based on a comprehensive assessment of the ongoing risk posed by the offender, using detailed reports produced by risk management professionals. More broadly, I have already announced that my Department will be carrying out a full review of the relevant processes and procedures in place for victims relating to Parole Board decisions, and we will consider whether they should be improved.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. Both of us worked in the same City firm—Richards Butler—at different stages over a number of years. In light of the recent John Worboys case, my constituents have raised similar concerns with regard to the release of Colin Pitchfork who brutally raped and murdered two teenage girls in my constituency and pleaded not guilty. He was only found guilty as a result of DNA evidence, which was a first at the time. What assurances can my right hon. Friend provide for the safety of my constituents and others who have not been fully considered in this matter? Will he assure us that the Parole Board will take into account the safety of our citizens in regard to Mr Pitchfork’s release?
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. The safety of the public is the Parole Board’s overriding concern in considering whether a prisoner should be released, and that will be the Board’s concern when it comes to reviewing Pitchfork’s detention. I can confirm that the families of Pitchfork’s victims are receiving regular contact under the Probation Service Victim Contact Scheme. Specifically, they have been given the opportunity to submit a victim personal statement to the Parole Board and to make representations regarding licence conditions for any upcoming parole hearing.
On the special protections in place for the release of sex offenders, does the Minister believe that releasing them to the same area that the attacks took place re-traumatises the victims and stirs up community anxiety?
Ultimately, these are operational decisions. A number of factors have to be taken into account in deciding what licensed conditions exist, but, clearly, the views and concerns of victims are an important part of that process.
In relation to the Parole Board’s review of public safety, for those of us with deeply concerned victims of John Worboys in our constituencies, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will at least co-operate with the judicial review now being brought by victims?
In my statement to the House on Friday, I set out that I would not be pursuing a judicial review on behalf of the Government in this case, but I also made it very clear that I did not want to say or do anything that would in any way stand in the way of others who may have different routes into a judicial review. I maintain that position.
Victims of Crime
The Government want victims to get the support they need to cope with, and as far as possible recover from, the effects of crime. We are spending £96 million in 2017-18 to fund critical support services for victims of crime. That includes £7.2 million for nationally commissioned rape support services.
John Worboys lived in Rotherhithe in my constituency and is not welcome back. He has not served the sentence he was given and was not prosecuted for the vast majority of his crimes. How are the Government working with victims, police authorities and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that sex attackers are prosecuted for their crimes, and how is the Ministry of Justice better ensuring that victims’ rights are upheld in future parole decisions?
The case of Worboys has troubled us all; it has troubled me personally—of course it has. In this particular case, Dame Glenys Stacey is investigating the review from a probation point of view. As the Secretary of State has already said, there are operational responsibilities with regard to where he is transferred to and the directions when he is released and where he can go. The Department is engaged with that on a daily basis.
The biggest insult that can be given to a victim of crime is the imposition of a derisory sentence on the offender. Will my hon. Friend update the House on his plans to widen the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme, as set out in the Conservative party manifesto?
As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, the Government committed in their manifesto to consider the extension of the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General is reviewing that.
We all know that, too often, victims are failed by the criminal justice system. That is presumably why, in 2015, the Conservatives matched Labour’s manifesto commitment to enshrine victims’ rights in a victims law. It is three years on. Can Ministers give me a single good reason why it has not happened?
After Easter my victims strategy will be published, as promised, and within it there will be recommendations on legislative and non-legislative measures, part of which will be the legislative underpinning of the victims code.
I first pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), for his extraordinary work on drones. We have done a range of work, ranging from Operation Trenton with the police, which took place in 2016, through to the conviction of over 28 individuals for drone-related offences.
What particular extra support is given to those prisons with a high incidence of drone attacks? Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss potential improvements to the relevant legislation?
We have established specialist teams for prisons that have particular vulnerabilities to drone attacks. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss some of the legislative issues. I also believe that there is much more we can do on basic issues such as netting and grills, as well as focusing on high technology.
Drones are one of the ways in which mobile phones are got into prisons, where they can be used for criminality alongside drugs. What measures are being taken to use technology to limit the use of mobile phones in prison?
Two types of technology can be used on mobile telephones. One is jamming technology, and the second, which is more commonly used in prison, is a wand to detect mobile telephones. An astonishing number of phones—at over 20,000, there are far too many—are detected in prisons. We should be addressing this in two ways. The first is by making sure that they do not get in: these are closed environments and we should be able to massively reduce the amount coming in. The second is that, by putting phones in cells to allow people to talk to their families, we can monitor the calls and control the need for phones in the first place.
The Ministry of Justice has plans for a £1 billion modernisation programme for the courts. This will streamline and simplify processes using technology, helping those who work in the courts and those who use them.
Will the Minister give an assessment of the Department’s recent work in improving the performance of the alternative dispute resolution scheme, which is intended to help consumers resolve disputes with traders but also to ease the volume of work in the courtroom?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance and value of alternative dispute resolutions. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service already runs a small claims mediation service to help parties resolve claims worth under £10,000 before a hearing. We are also working to offer an online mediation service for those who begin their claims online.
Under this Government hundreds of courts have closed, and I now see that Fleetwood court is on the latest consultation list. How do these court closures contribute to a positive experience for “those who work in the courts and those who use them”?
Last year, nationally, court and tribunal services were used at only 58% of their available hearing capacity. Moreover, as I have outlined, we are planning to spend £1 billion on modernising the courts service by using technology to put some processes online and employ video evidence more effectively. In those circumstances, it is appropriate to consider the best use of the money that we spend on the legal services system, as we are doing through a consultation that will include the hon. Lady’s local magistrates court. We will listen closely. It is important to remember, however, that all the money saved through any court closures will be put back into the justice system, making sure that it works effectively for everybody in it.
The Worboys case has made it clear to me that there are some aspects of the Parole Board’s decision-making process that need to be examined and improved. It is crucial that we preserve the independence of the Parole Board, but equally important that these decisions can be scrutinised and, in some circumstances, reconsidered. That is why I announced on Friday the expansion of the scope of the review of the Parole Board to include not just transparency of decision making, but whether, in what circumstances, and how outcomes can be challenged. I will not rush to conclusions. This is a complex area where the rightful concerns of victims will be considered but also balanced with the legal rights of offenders. We will have completed the review by Easter, and I will report thereafter.
The Lord Chancellor will be aware of the case of my constituent who was left blinded in one eye and unable to work because of her abusive ex-partner. The offender was sentenced by our court to a pathetically small 22 months and released early, and the Crown Prosecution Service could not be bothered to pursue a compensation order. Will he personally review how this case has been handled, the soft sentence given, and the failures of the criminal justice system to support the victim?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising what certainly appears to be an extremely distressing case. We are looking at options to strengthen our response to domestic abuse and hope to bring forward proposals soon. I cannot comment on individual sentencing decisions, and prosecution decisions are made by the CPS. I will, however, look at the role that my Department had in this case and write to her in response to her specific questions.
It sounds like an appalling case. I ask the hon. Lady to write to me about it and I am happy to meet her.
We focus on making sure that we have a proper capital investment programme in place, so additional money has been allocated for the building of new prisons, two are currently being commissioned, and we currently have spare places in our prisons. To reassure my hon. Friend, it is absolutely vital that we have the places so that people can serve their sentence. Sentences should not be driven by availability of prison places.
It is very important that those who are most vulnerable get access to legal aid, and legal aid is available for those who are in need at the most critical moments in their life. The hon. Gentleman mentioned housing, and legal aid is available where there is homelessness or where disrepairs to the home seriously threaten an individual’s life or health. We are reviewing legal aid, and we will update the House accordingly.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am aware of the situation, having met representatives of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Muslim burial representatives in October 2016. Coroners are independent of the Government, but I do recognise that there are some sensitivities around this issue and that there have been some difficulties in communication between the coroner and certain parties. That is why I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and, indeed, those representatives again in the Department.
First, as I said a moment or so ago, we are looking to say more about domestic violence in the near future. This is a matter that the Government take very seriously across the board. On legal aid, as the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire, has already pointed out, we are currently undertaking a review.
We know that conversion to a radical brand of Islamist thinking too often occurs in a prison setting. Will the Minister update the House on the work being done to address this issue and set out the procedures to vet religious officials working with the vulnerable prison population?
This is a hugely important issue for Members on both sides of the House. We know absolutely that extremism—we can see this in France, and we of course saw it in Iraq—can be driven in a prison setting. The problem is not simply the 230 prisoners arrested for terrorist offences, but others who can be influenced when they are in a prison setting. We are working very hard with colleagues in the Home Office on this issue, and it will be a priority for the Secretary of State and me during our time in office.
Healthcare in prisons was a priority for me when I took over in July 2016: it was the first thing I started to ask about. The Ministry of Justice now has a much closer relationship with the Department of Health with regard to the provision of healthcare. We have made advances in the transfer of patients’ information—when prisoners come in, their patient data follow them—which was a problem in the past. I am under no illusions about the healthcare challenges still faced within the prison system, and that is why I will continue to work actively with the Department of Health, which is ultimately the Department responsible for the provision of those services.
I was pleased, along with other Shropshire and Telford MPs, to see last Friday that Telford magistrates court was not included in the list of courts to be consulted on, but will the Minister meet me and other Shropshire MPs to understand how important it is to retain the last magistrates court in our county?
I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and other MPs from the area. There are two consultations taking place: one in relation to eight specific court closures, and a wider consultation on the future of our courts. I encourage my hon. Friend to participate in that, and to highlight any concerns he has about his local area or nationally.
As I have outlined, there is a £1 billion modernisation programme, which is very complex and which we need to get right. It involves a number of aspects that need scrutiny. PwC is replacing a number of smaller providers and fulfilling an important service.
Recent reports by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons reveal a consistent failure by the Prison Service to act on recommendations made by the inspector in previous reports. Does the Minister agree that compliance with inspectorate reports should be the norm, rather than the exception?
Absolutely. Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, does an extraordinary job. We are doing two things to make sure that we implement those recommendations better. First, we have set up a special unit in the Ministry to follow up on every one of those recommendations. Secondly, we have introduced an urgent notification process, which requires us to reply within 28 days to any issues raised by the inspector.
I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that issue.
Pakistani nationals make up one of the largest national groups in our prisons, but the prisoner transfer agreement with Pakistan has been suspended for the last eight years. As a matter of urgency, can we get it up and running again?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the prisoner transfer agreement was suspended because of the corrupt release of prisoners from Pakistani prisons. We are addressing that at the moment with the Government of Pakistan, and we continue to work very closely with officials in the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and the Home Office to make sure that we continue to return a record number of foreign national offenders—4,000 last year—to the places from which they came.
In the 18 months prior to May 2017, three openly transgender women took their own lives while they were in custody in England. What is being done to ensure that staff have the right training and, critically, that prisoners have the right mental health support to head off such tragic events?
The hon. Lady is right that such events are tragic. We are working extremely hard on training staff to recognise the particular needs of transgender offenders. The challenge for the system is that they are a relatively small number of people spread across a number of prisons. We are making some progress, but there is more to do.
It is good to hear the Minister offer to speak to Members around the House about the courts in their patch. When she does so, will she explain to them about modernisation and digitisation, and how those changes may improve access to courts?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. First, this is a consultation, and I am very happy to engage with any colleagues who would like to discuss it, because we are listening. Secondly, the future of our courts is exciting, and transformation will take place through technology. Interestingly, in a document entitled “Transforming Our Justice System”, the then Lord Chief Justice, the then Lord Chancellor and the Senior President of Tribunals highlighted the fact that as our courts and tribunals are modernised, we will need fewer buildings.
I congratulate the hon. and learned Lady, my neighbour, on her appointment. She will have noticed the very strong and universally hostile reaction in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire to her plans to close the magistrates court. Can she reassure us that local people will be properly listened to, and better still, will she withdraw those plans today?
As I have highlighted, these plans take place within the context of a £1 billion modernisation of the court system, and in circumstances where, nationally, courts and tribunal services are not used at capacity. As I have said, I will listen properly in the court closures consultation, although the Lord Chancellor will make the ultimate decision. I would like to point out that five sites identified in the last consultation on court closures remain open following the review. When strong cases are made, we will listen.
When a prisoner is released, they are not even at base camp in their rehabilitation unless they have accommodation. Some local authorities actively discriminate against ex-offenders—for example, by claiming that they have no local connection because they have been sent to a prison a long way away. Fairness is what is required. Will the Minister challenge that behaviour with his counterparts in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his knowledge of this issue. There are three things we are doing to address this issue, but we can do much more. The first is having a statutory duty on governors to identify prisoners who are at risk of homelessness. The second is investing more in bail accommodation support services to provide temporary support and accommodation. The third is working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to make sure that, through the Housing First pilots, we can actually have homes available even for people with severe mental health needs. Housing is essential.
One of my constituents has a young son who is serving a very long prison sentence. He often spends 23 out of 24 hours locked up in his cell. How does the Minister think that is affecting his mental health and his chances of rehabilitation on release?
Clearly, this is not good. Prisoners need decent, purposeful activity. If they are locked up in their cell for too long, they are obviously not having educational opportunities. We should aim, as the chief inspector of prisons made clear, to make sure that people are spending eight or 10 hours a day outside their cells. That is partly about numbers of staff, which is why we have brought 250 more staff into the Prison Service. It is also about better scheduling of educational and vocational provision. However, the situation the hon. Lady describes is not acceptable.
Following campaigns by victims’ families, the Government announced in October last year that they would bring in tougher sentences for those causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving, but still nothing has happened. Why the delay?
We will be reporting to the House in due course.
I would like to put on record my role as co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group.
When north Wales’s only prison, HMP Berwyn, partially opened on 28 February last year, its regime of skills development and rehabilitation was lauded as pioneering, yet we now learn that, in its first six months, 27 staff members left, and I am told by the Prison Officers Association that morale is at rock bottom. I understand that, in the early months, prisoners assaulted staff on nine occasions, and only one was referred to police. How will the Minister improve offenders’ rehabilitation when recruitment, retention and, critically, staff safety at HMP Berwyn are in crisis?
I am very happy to speak in detail with the hon. Lady, who has put an enormous amount of passion and energy into studying issues in prisons in Wales. We believe there are some very positive signs now at HMP Berwyn, but we can talk those through. Recruitment figures have actually been very positive—we are ahead on the recruitment of 2,500 people across England and Wales—but I am very happy to sit down and talk about Berwyn in particular.
While the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) was ploughing through her question, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) was doing his customary knee exercises, from which I hope he greatly profits. I call Mr Andrew Slaughter.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
Has the Secretary of State seen the investigation published at the weekend by The Sun into new allegations of misconduct by the west London coroner, including bullying, sexism and homophobic conduct towards staff? Despite previous findings of serious misconduct, three-year delays in issuing death certificates, secret inquests being held at night and important case papers being lost, he has been cleared by the Secretary of State to return to work. Will the Secretary of State meet west London MPs and council leaders to discuss this crisis?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who is responsible for coroners, will be happy to meet him.
The number and percentage of women given custodial sentences has dropped in many areas of the country. In north Wales, the figure has increased by 57%. Will the Minister look into the reasons for this huge increase?
I am very happy to. Will the hon. Gentleman please send me the information?
Some women in York have been taken to the family courts on multiple occasions by former partners. This process is clearly being used as a form of emotional abuse, and is highly costly to constituents and the state. What steps is the Minister taking to recognise court abuse, and what actions will she take now?
Using the court process to further any abuse is completely unacceptable, particularly in relation to domestic abuse. The court can already take actions if it thinks that there is abuse of process, by restricting litigants’ ability to continue with further applications and further claims. New family court rules were introduced in November to make sure that vulnerable court users get the support they need in courtrooms.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder are some of the most vulnerable inmates in prison and are often subject to bullying, abuse and victimisation, with high rates of suicide. What progress is being made on autism accreditation in prisons?
This is a hugely important issue. I would very much like to sit down with the hon. Lady, because the Scottish Prison Service has a lot that it can teach us. It is doing a very good job on many of these issues, and I think we can learn a great deal from it.
Personal Independence Payment
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make a statement on the recent ruling by the High Court over the judicial review on the application of personal independence payments to persons with mental health problems.
After careful consideration, I took the decision not to appeal the High Court’s judgment on this case. I informed the House of my decision immediately by tabling a written statement on Friday last week. The written statement set out my decision and the steps that my Department will now take to implement that judgment, although I welcome coming to the House today in addition to that.
I repeat once again my commitment to implementing this judgment in the best interests of our claimants and through working closely with disabled people and key stakeholders over the coming months. The Department for Work and Pensions will undertake an exercise to go through all affected cases in receipt of PIP and all decisions made following the judgment in the MH case to identify anyone who might be entitled to more as a result of the judgment. We will then write to the individuals affected and all payments will be backdated to the effective date in each individual’s claim.
In accepting the outcome of the High Court judgment, the Department does not agree with some of the details in it. The 2017 amending regulations were introduced in response to an upper tribunal case that broadened the interpretation of eligibility for mobility 1—the ability to plan and follow a journey. Our intention has always been to deliver the original policy intent through clarifying how symptoms of overwhelming psychological distress should be assessed. We are not appealing the outcome of the recent High Court judgment to provide certainty to our claimants.
Our next steps will build on the positive work that the Government are already undertaking: spending on the main disability benefits—PIP, the disability living allowance and the attendance allowance—has risen by £4.2 billion since 2010 and real terms spending on disability benefits will be higher every year to 2020 than in 2010. The Government have commissioned two expert-led reviews and invested a record £11.6 billion in mental health services. Access to Work’s mental health support service has been expanded with a two-year trial of targeted support for apprentices with mental health conditions. We have also accepted all the recommendations in the independent review by Lord Stevenson and Paul Farmer, including establishing a framework for large employers to voluntarily report on mental health and disability within their organisation.
With regard to the next steps following this judgment, the DWP will write to those who may be entitled to a higher rate of PIP. Where relevant, all payments will be backdated to the effective date in each individual claim.
PIP is a modern, dynamic and fairer benefit than its predecessor, DLA, and focuses the most support on those who are experiencing the greatest barriers to living independently. At the core of PIP’s design is the principle that awards of the benefit should be made according to the claimant’s overall level of need, regardless of whether they suffer from physical or non-physical conditions. The Government are committed to furthering rights and opportunities for all disabled people and we continue to spend over £50 billion a year to support people with disabilities and health conditions.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for attending the House today and welcome her to her recent appointment. It seems that Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions change with astonishing regularity, but the Government’s callous and chaotic attempt to attack the rights of the poor, sick and disabled continues unabated. Although the Secretary of State said that she is pleased to come to the House to make this statement, she did not take the two or three opportunities she had over the past few days to do so, without waiting for an urgent question. Instead, she waited for a month after the High Court decision and then submitted a written statement on a Friday morning, when she knew nobody would be here to read it.
The High Court has ruled yet again that the Government have been acting unlawfully in their incessant attack on the very people the DWP should be seeking to protect. We now know that up to 164,000 people will get higher disability payments—or, to put it another way, that the Government have unlawfully been seeking to withhold benefits from up to 164,000 people who are not only entitled to them but who need them if they are to have anything like the normal life that the more fortunate among us take for granted.
This is not the first time the Government have been overturned in the courts. We have previously seen the courts ruling against the Government on the imposition of benefits sanctions, where the Government were acting unlawfully, and before that on the iniquitous bedroom tax. That one is particularly poignant for my constituents just now because the man who stood up to the DWP over the bedroom tax and won, Davie Nelson, a Glenrothes man through and through, sadly died very suddenly last week. His family and friends will be pleased that others are continuing the campaign for social justice that Davie fought so bravely.
The Secretary of State has promised that her Department will now seek to identify anyone who should be receiving higher benefits. My office has estimated, on the basis of preliminary constituency casework, that there could be 71 people in my constituency alone not getting the money they are entitled to. Will she update us on how many people she now thinks have been underpaid? How long will it take to carry out the review? How much longer will these people have to wait to receive the money that they rely on and which is rightfully and lawfully theirs? Will she explain why her Department is amassing such an appalling record of defeats in the courts? Does that not tell the Government something about how they are making these cuts to benefits? Finally, will she now commit to delivering a social security system whose fundamental principle is not to work down to a budget but to protect and respect the dignity of those who rely on it, and not continue to punish people for having disabilities?
There have been changes in the DWP. Some people have come back, having previously worked here and seen what the changes were, and I am back here, several years later, and hence was probably a good person to say that we would not be appealing the court case.
On the timetable, I made the judgment just a week and a half after being made Secretary of State. It took up most of my time. It was a Friday—and could not have been any other time—because that was the deadline I had to meet for the legal judgment. At the same time, I made sure, following all protocol, that there was a written statement on exactly what had been done.
The benefit was always intended to be a dynamic benefit. Hon. Members on both sides of the House understood that DLA was focused on physical disabilities, and all parties decided there needed to be a more dynamic benefit that reflected invisible disabilities, which we all know are very difficult to assess. The extra money and support went into acknowledging that.
There has been massive change, and also massive understanding, in terms of what is going on. When I stood here all those years ago in 2013 talking about what the budget would be, people said we were cutting it. I explained the matter very clearly, though it fell on deaf ears, and I was often vilified. People still said it was being cut, but it was not. When I arrived, the budget was just over £13 billion, and it has gone up every year since, and will continue to go up. That is in real terms. Much of the vilification, therefore, was not only unnecessary but deeply untrue, and that again is why I welcome the opportunity to come to the Dispatch Box to explain what is going on.
Changing benefits is not always easy. Expanding support is not always easy. We knew at the time we were taking on a very difficult change and that there would no doubt be legal challenges. When there are legal challenges, however, we must look at them, make a true and fair judgment and carry on along that path, and I believe that in this instance I made a fair judgment. Today, the Glasgow Herald welcomed the decision—although I accept that the piece in question picked on various other issues—and it was also welcomed by Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind. My hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work has met her Scottish counterpart; they, too, welcome the decision and look forward to establishing closer working relationships and making plans for its implementation.
I hope that what I have said explains what we have done, and I hope that what we have done is welcomed by Members on both sides of the House. If the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) would like to talk to me about a specific case or constituent, my door is open, and I will meet him.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post, and I welcome her knowledge in making this decision. In supporting her, I remind the House that it was our predecessor Labour Government who put off changes in disability living allowance deliberately before the election and that afterwards we were faced with the decision to make those necessary changes. More money is now spent on disability benefits year on year, and more people, including those with mental health conditions, will receive them. DLA never delivered that to those people before.
I thank my right hon. Friend. He spent many years working on social issues and cases, and established the Centre for Social Justice. The change that he brought about was not just about changing the benefits, but about reaching out to people who are sometimes left alone. Some of those people did want to be helped to get back into work. They did want to talk about their hopes and aspirations. There are now over 600,000 more disabled people in work, because they chose that path towards self-determination and the fulfilment of their ambitions and hopes.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant).
Any disabled person who listened to what was said by the Secretary of State will have been gobsmacked by the suggestion that there is a commitment to disabled people. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has described the Government’s action as a “human catastrophe”. The cuts that they have wrought on disabled people are an absolute disgrace.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) said when she raised a point of order yesterday, the Government sneaked out a written statement late on Friday, announcing that they would not appeal against the High Court judgment of 21 December, in effect reversing the emergency PIP regulations that they had introduced in February last year. Those regulations were introduced without a vote or a debate, despite two urgent questions and an emergency debate, and despite widespread concern about their impact. The Government’s own Social Security Advisory Committee was not consulted. I warned at the time:
“The move to undermine and subvert independent tribunal judgments is unprecedented, and ... marks very troubling behaviour by the Government on cases they lose that could weaken such social security tribunal judgments’ reach, influence and effectiveness in making independent decisions.”—[Official Report, 28 March 2017; Vol. 624, c. 145.]
I am pleased that the Secretary of State and her Department have finally seen sense, but there are a number of questions that the Secretary of State must answer—questions that have already been put by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea. How many people does her Department estimate have been affected? How quickly will her Department be able to identify affected claimants, and by what process? Given the issues relating to letters from that Department, it is a little worrying if that is the only means.
How soon after identification will the Department make back payments? Will there be an appeal process for PIP claimants who are not contacted by the Department and who believe they should receive such payments? Will the Department compensate claimants who have fallen into debt and accrued interest charges? Will applicants be entitled to a reassessment if they were given the standard rate of the PIP mobility component after the February 2017 changes to PIP regulations, when the cause of the claim was “psychological distress”?
Finally, just how much public money has been spent by the Department on lawyers and legal advice seeking to defend the indefensible in the initial tribunal and the more recent court case?
This sorry debacle should serve as a warning to the Government of the dangers of seeking to undermine and subvert the decisions of our independent judiciary and the House of Commons.
Can we start the dialogue on a firm and factual footing, which I set out before, and dispel the myth about the spend on disabled people? The facts speak for themselves: in real terms, the money has gone up. In this place, we are supposed to have the definitive facts of an argument, so I seek to give those here.
This was not about a policy change; it was about implementing the correct regulation after a court case. It came about after taking advice from and working with experts in the field on how to help people with severe psychological disorders. It was about support by prompting and by aid and assistance; at the time, it was not deemed to be something for people with severe learning disabilities, who might want a constant companion. That was how the regulations were set down, after advice was sought on the best approach, because this is a tailor-made benefit. However, the judgment in the case went the other way. We will work with MIND and with charities and stakeholders in the field to implement this as quickly as possible, but it is not just about speed; it has to be right and effective and to work for the people it is made for. That will take some time, but we will do it as quickly as possible.
Up to 220,000 people could be affected. That is why we are taking the process very seriously. We as a Department will reach out to those people, once we know exactly what we are doing. I reiterate that, according to figures from 27 October, 66% of PIP recipients with mental health conditions get the enhanced daily living component, compared with 22% who received the highest DLA care component; and 31% of PIP recipients with mental health conditions get the enhanced mobility rate, compared with just 10% of DLA recipients. Those facts speak for themselves. We know that this is a highly emotive issue, but it would be helpful if all MPs when working with their constituents offered them the help and guidance they need, and not ramp up some of the rhetoric and incorrect information we have heard here.
Finally, I was asked about legal costs. The cost in these cases was £181,000, but a Department as big as the DWP expects the costs of court cases to be that high, and they are comparable with those of other Departments engaged in similar judicial review cases.
I am so pleased the new Secretary of State has decided to accept the court ruling, and I thank her very much indeed. As I and colleagues said last year, we should have listened to the message the courts were giving us. Accepting their ruling will be a significant step forward in achieving parity of esteem for mental and physical health. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions, of which I am a member, is about to publish a report on PIP and employment and support allowance. Will the Secretary of State seriously consider our recommendations on how to improve both those benefits? We all want the same thing—the best possible support for people who need it.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a vocal champion of people with disabilities, as is every other Conservative Back Bencher—and Members in all parts of the House. That is why this is sometimes such an emotive issue—everybody wants to be heard. I will indeed listen to her and take on board the recommendations of the Select Committee.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this important urgent question. I congratulate my hon. and assiduous Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing it.
The High Court ruled that the UK Government’s PIP regulations were “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health impairments. That follows the damning report from the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which found “systematic violations” of disability rights. Although I welcome the Secretary of State’s acceptance of the High Court ruling—a position I hope the Government will adopt more regularly in response to High Court defeats on social security policy—I was worried by an aspect of her written statement, which was sneaked out on Friday. She said on Friday and again today that
“Although I and my Department accept the High Court’s judgment, we do not agree with some of the detail contained therein.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 30WS.]
Will she clarify that she will implement the ruling in full? Will she make an oral statement on the Floor of the House, so that we can consider whether the response follows the High Court ruling? Will she answer the pertinent questions put by my hon. Friend regarding the timescales—a matter she has not covered? Finally, in the light of the ruling and other external interventions, will the Government admit that their policies are causing harm and commit to widescale review of the social security system in the United Kingdom?
We will implement the judgment in full, but we will work with stakeholders and charities to understand and implement what was said. When we said we did not agree with the detail, it was a reference to the language and terminology that went above and beyond a legal ruling and judgment, but we saw through that to the facts and that is why we decided not to appeal.
I reiterate that I am not the kind of person who sneaks anything out. I have come to this House and answered every question. I set out the timetable. The matter had to go to the Court for a decision on Friday. The House was not sitting by the time I made the decision, so I put out a written statement. I hope that all hon. Members understand that it is better to get a decision right than to rush just to answer in a different way. Nothing was sneaked out.
Again, I reiterate the support the Government give and have said they will give to people with mental health conditions. The Prime Minister has made that a key issue that she wants to deal with, and she and I came to that decision to do so.
I strongly welcome the Secretary of State’s decision, which will benefit a lot of disabled people. We all know that DLA was a far worse benefit for people with mental health problems than PIP. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, even before the ruling, far more disabled people were receiving PIP than had ever received DLA?
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about this subject and is also a member of the Work and Pensions Committee. He has given the correct facts. We as a compassionate Conservative Government will do as much as we can to help people who need our help.
I welcome the right hon. Lady to her place and I welcome her statement. Given the size of the task before her, with up to 220,000 people affected, may I again press her to give some sort of timetable for meeting that objective? Might she start by writing to the oldest claimants first, and might she put a monthly report in the House of Commons Library on progress to that end?
The right hon. Gentleman is another champion for these causes. As he suggests, this is a mammoth task, and I will be working with experts in the field and doing things as sympathetically and effectively as possible. I will listen to all the advice that he has offered me.
And can we have a monthly statement?
I will do the best I can to adhere to the right hon. Gentleman’s requests.
I very much support the Secretary of State’s decision, and I am sure that she is delighted that the Opposition parties called for an urgent question so that they could tell her how much they support her decision on the court case. Or at least I think that is what they were saying. I also very much welcome the fact that we are now spending far more money on people with disabilities than the last Labour Government did, which probably explains the anger with which the shadow Secretary of State gave her performance. Will my right hon. Friend look at measures to try to get the decision making on PIP right first time? In too many cases, the right decision is not made the first time, and I hope that she will look at that urgently, and early in her time in office.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for his comments. He always likes to see things in his own inimitable way, and he is quite right. Both sides of the House are meant to be supporting this decision, but listening to the tone and the noises coming from the Opposition Benches, it is difficult to believe that. He makes a fair point about getting the decisions right first time and helping the decision makers to get it right. There was an independent review—the Gray review—and we will be taking its advice on board.
I, too, welcome the right hon. Lady to her post. I also welcome the decision that she has made. Bearing in mind the fact that many disability benefit claimants with mental health issues struggle to get out of the house, does she share my concern and that of the Work and Pensions Committee about the great discrepancies between contractors and between regions? There are discrepancies relating to the number of people being allowed a home visit for their benefits assessments. Will she please review this, to ensure that those people can get the benefits they deserve and not be sanctioned because they cannot leave their house?
The hon. Lady has raised a good point about how some people are visited while others have to go in for assessment and support. That was part of the freedoms of contracting, so that we could get best practice. Were some people better seen at home? Were other people better seen in their local community? We constantly gauge and value that, and we will continue to do so.
Building on this very positive announcement, we all need to do more to support people with mental health conditions, and one of the biggest challenges is identifying people with those conditions. The PIP process can play a crucial role in that. Will the Secretary of State therefore bring forward plans to enable us to signpost those identified for the additional targeted support that is available across all parts of the Government, so that they can get the maximum amount of help?
That is another good offer of support and advice from our side of the House from someone who knows his brief very well. We will look at the suggestion that my hon. Friend has put forward.
How many staff in the Department for Work and Pensions will be directly deployed on the rectification process? I ask because the evidence is that the number of staff in the DWP used to complete any kind of task involving a complaint or a rectification is directly relevant to how long it takes them to complete the process.
Again, we have to consider these key practical points. We are actively recruiting hundreds of staff for this at the moment.
As for the comments from the United Nations, how do the figures that my right hon. Friend has given compare internationally?
My right hon. Friend raises another good point. The UK is one of the most generous countries in the world when it comes to supporting its disabled people. In the G7, only Germany spends more. We spend what is deemed appropriate and available, which is more than £50 billion. I reiterate that we are one of the most generous countries in the world.
Vulnerable people with severe mental health problems in my constituency have had to resort to a distressing appeals process in order to secure the support they are entitled to. This is wholly inappropriate. Pursuant to the answer that the Secretary of State gave to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), may I ask when we can expect to see some progress from her Department to ensure that individuals are assessed for psychological conditions by mental health clinicians in the first instance?
We are constantly reviewing the numbers to support who is coming forward if we need further decisions or clarifications for people. That is part of the ongoing day-to-day process to make sure that we get this benefit right.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to her place. We are all right behind her, whatever some people might say. From my experience as an MP in South Dorset, I suspect that the main problem relating to people slipping through the net is the lack of home visits. I agree with the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on this point. I suspect that such visits are more expensive, but I think that they would save money in the longer term because the assessment would be more accurate. Will my right hon. Friend look into this, to ensure that we hit the targets smack on, first time?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words and support. Anyone in need of a home visit can have a home visit, and I will be looking at the communications relating to this, because perhaps people, including MPs, do not know that. This is something else that we need to work on.
We on the DWP Select Committee heard some alarming evidence and unconvincing answers from contractors about the number of staff who had specialist knowledge of mental health. Can the Secretary of State confirm that she will take this up with the contractors and carry out a review of the assessment process?
I have indeed got a date in the diary to be on a PIP decision-making process. I met the contractors last week. I had obviously done that when I was last in the House, but I need to be updated to see exactly what is going on. I have had meetings on this, but the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that there is nothing quite like going through the process myself.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her statement. I recently visited my local jobcentre in Stockport and met the great work coaches there who are doing so much to help people back into work. Will she join me in congratulating them, and perhaps explain how this is going to help us in our quest to help a further 1 million people into work?
My hon. Friend and neighbour rightly acknowledges the work that the work coaches do in her constituency and right across the country. The aim of the Government in carrying out this transformation was to get a tailor-made benefit service, whether through PIP or universal credit, so that the work coaches know who they are dealing with and therefore how they can help and support them in the best possible ways. The Government should be proud of what they are aiming to do.
This was an ill-advised attempt to reduce the amount of benefit payable to people with mental health problems, and I am glad that it has been abandoned. Will the Secretary of State take steps to ensure that, in future, her Department complies with its obligations under the Equality Act 2010?
The right hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable on this subject, and we spent hours debating these issues across the Dispatch Box when I was last in the House. He knows as well as I do that we always aim to fulfil all obligations. If we do not, this is what happens: we get a court case and we have to deal with the consequences. I hope that I have dealt with them correctly today and received support across the House. I will not be seeking leave to appeal, and that is right on this occasion.
I, too, warmly welcome the Secretary of State to her post. I am visiting my local jobcentre in Poole on Friday, so will the Secretary of State set out how our new jobcentres will support my constituents and others across the country with mental health challenges into work?
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), this is about tailor-made and flexible support. We are putting in place more training so that people understand mental health conditions, and we are giving our work coaches and mental health assistants as much support as possible. As I say, this is about tailor-made and flexible support.
The Secretary of State talks about the unnecessary vilification of her policies, but her Government were responsible for the vilification of so many mentally disabled people by presenting them as applying for benefits to which they were not entitled. I have seen the misery that such decisions caused many of my constituents, including those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of sexual abuse. Will the Secretary of State now confirm the maximum amount of time that they will have to wait to have their cases reviewed?
It is unfortunate when Opposition Members try to ratchet up the level of emotion in the Chamber, especially when the situation is as emotional as it is. Nobody has ever sought to vilify anyone, and we should get it on the record now that this is not about vilifying anybody—it is about the giving the right support to those who need it. Surely all of us want to focus resources and money on the most disabled people and on the disabled people who need that money. I hope that I can end on that note. The facts speak for themselves: we have spent more than Labour ever did.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision. Does she agree that it is simply nonsense to suggest that the Government are not interested in this agenda? More money is going into the programme than ever. The life chances agenda, which has significantly challenged the welfare state that previously kept a lot of people out of work, is fundamentally changing our country, including communities such as Plymouth, for the better.
My hon. Friend hits on an important point. The Conservative party and the law that it is bringing in are all about life chances. That is how we view the world. Social mobility, life chances, a foot on the ladder and a career ladder are what we aim to provide all the time.
This will sound like a bit of an advert, but I want to highlight the fact that the Minister for Disabled People holds PIP sessions that all MPs can attend. If anybody has anything that they want to bring to her, they can go to one of those sessions. The sessions take place regularly, and she is holding one today.
What we are hearing about today is a court judgment that found the Government’s policy wanting, but the Secretary of State has come to the House seeking plaudits for now not appealing that decision, and that is frankly unacceptable. While it is right for those who were not given the help and support that they needed to get a backdated payment, that payment does not remedy the trauma that they faced during the years when they did not have support. Will the Secretary of State offer an unequivocal apology from the Dispatch Box for the consequences of her Department’s policy? Whether intended or not, it was her Government’s decision that led to people struggling at home, and that is simply not right.
That was another reason for making a written statement, as well as the time constraints and what we had to do to adhere to the legal ruling. I have not come here today for plaudits. I have come here to do what is right and to explain what is right. That is what I have done, and that is the key thing for all our constituents and the people who are watching this closely at home. We have made a decision. I believe that it has been accepted on both sides of the House, and we are going to get things right.
I warmly welcome this decision, and it is worth noting that this new Secretary of State made it after only eight working days in her role, which represents a decisive course of action. Is it not the case that the entire focus of the Department, which I know well, is on ensuring that those with mental disabilities and challenges have opportunities to access the workplace and lead independent lives? In making this decision, the Secretary of State has shown that that is her focus.
My hon. Friend puts his point so eloquently that I do not think that I can add much to it, but I reiterate that this is about opportunity and allowing everyone to lead an independent life.
I thank the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) for securing this urgent question, but I also thank the Secretary of State for her response and promise of action. In my office, transfers from DLA to PIP occupy a large proportion of my staff’s time. For people with severe anxiety, depression and emotional and mental health issues, some of whom are suicidal, the system has pushed them to the very edge, even when there has been copious evidence and information from consultants, GPs and family members. I ask that the staff who process applications do so with more knowledge, more understanding and certainly more compassion.
I said that the Minister for Disabled People holds meetings for MPs, but she does the same for caseworkers, so MPs’ staff can attend those sessions, meet the Minister and ask relevant questions.
The shadow Secretary of State said that she was gobsmacked by my right hon. Friend’s response. I am gobsmacked by the vilification of my right hon. Friend on social media and by the threats from Opposition Members to string her up, which are more unacceptable. Just for clarification, will she let the House know precisely by how much disability payments have risen since this Government came to power?
I am glad that “gobsmacked” has become part of the language of the House. My hon. Friend is gobsmacked, but I was obviously greatly dismayed by the comments from the Opposition and by the personal attacks that I have suffered. However, I know that people make personal attacks only when they do not have workable policies to put forward, so that shows that the Opposition have no workable policies. We do not need to link politics with violence.
In answer to my hon. Friend’s question, the increase has been £4.2 billion.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question, and I also thank the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) for requesting it. The Government have decided not to appeal only now, after putting many claimants with mental health problems through a year of hell. Does the Secretary of State really believe that that was a kind or fair way of treating people with mental health issues?
This is a key issue for the Government. The Prime Minister has made supporting people with mental health issues a key pledge, and we have put in an extra £11 billion. Coming to the House with this decision is a step in the right direction towards helping people as best we can.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s appointment, and my constituents, including those who come to my weekly advice surgeries, will welcome her announcement. Will she update the House on what steps are being taken to disseminate information about what all this means to local advice services so that they can best advise their clients about the next steps and the way forward?
I thank my hon. Friend, because the point really is about the practicalities of getting this right. It is about engaging with stakeholders and charities. It is about working with our Department to get this right. Mind has welcomed the decision, as have other charities, and it is working with us. Once we have worked through that, obviously we will disseminate it through the whole system.
The Secretary of State says that the Department will now be identifying the 164,000 disabled people who were wrongly denied the help to which they are entitled. Her Department also recently announced it is scrapping a target it previously denied existed—that of upholding 80% of initial decisions. When will the DWP be contacting the 83,000 disabled people who were potentially wrongly denied help under that equally dodgy practice?
We will do everything systematically and coherently. We will get to people affected by any incorrect decision as soon as possible.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post and congratulate her on her response to the urgent question. My constituents in Kettering would like to know whether there are more or fewer disabled people in work in 2018 than in 2010.
There are considerably more people with disabilities in work than ever before, and particularly more than in 2010. That is true not just for people with disabilities but for all sorts of people, including young people and women. This Government have fundamentally achieved what we set out to do on life chances, social mobility and opportunities.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome both the judgment and the response. However, this process has been extremely stressful for my constituents, many of whom have been plunged into poverty and absolute despair, with their mental health problems exacerbated along the way. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that cognisance is taken of the opinion of professionals such as psychiatrists, who know what people are capable of doing and what support they need? How will she ensure that any further process does not add additional stress to those who have already been affected?
As I have said in reply to many questions, we are actively recruiting more people, and we are doing more training on mental health conditions with our caseworkers. We have to make sure that we understand the judgment and that we work with partners to make sure that we can help people who come forward. I have heard the hon. Lady and, again, I would be happy to meet her if she would like to speak to me about anyone in particular.
It must be through gritted teeth that the Opposition have to rely on citing the views on human rights of Saudi Arabian, Russian and Chinese members of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Meanwhile, Conservative Members do not want bluster; they want action and support. Will my right hon. Friend confirm the proportion of PIP recipients with mental health conditions who receive the higher rate of benefit compared with the figure under the DLA regime it replaced?
I reiterate that 66% of PIP recipients with mental health conditions got the enhanced rate of the daily living component in October 2017, compared with 22% who were on the highest rate of the DLA care component in May 2013. Some 31% of PIP recipients with mental health conditions got the enhanced rate of the mobility component in October 2017, compared with 10% who received the higher rate of the DLA mobility component in May 2013. I hope that that is clear.
Two hundred sufferers of motor neurone disease have been interviewed by the Department in the past 18 months alone. In addition to their physical disability, many will have mental ill health, which is increased by the stress and anxiety of the interviews. Some MND sufferers die within a year of diagnosis. Will the Secretary of State prioritise this group of sufferers when reviewing those cases?
We will absolutely go via the people who are most in need.
I call Julian Knight.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I had a one-in-two chance.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her place and welcome her talk of engagement. Will she commit to providing specific guidance to MPs’ offices and council contact centres at the earliest possible opportunity?
That is another good point about how people are going to know about the changes. We will indeed take that suggestion forward.
Many disabled people in the highlands, particularly those with mental health conditions, are often refused PIP appeals, despite overwhelming evidence from their doctors. Does the Secretary of State agree it is wrong and discriminary—[Interruption.] Does she agree it is wrong—[Laughter]—to accept a private company’s decision over that of highly trained medical professionals who know their patients, and their conditions, well?
I will keep to the word “discriminate”, and obviously we do not want to do that. Ultimately we will be making the decisions, but it is imperative that we get them right.
I call Jeremy Quin.
And finally, Mr Speaker.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that PIP claimants, including those who will benefit from her decision, which I warmly welcome, will not be subject to the benefit cap in respect of these payments, and that payments will continue to be untaxed and, indeed, will rise by the rate of inflation?
My hon. Friend is right that PIP is not subject to the benefit cap. A person will get PIP irrespective of whether they are in work. PIP is also not means-tested.
I am here in my capacity as the quasi-judicial decision maker on the proposed merger between 21st Century Fox and Sky to update the House on the interim report issued today by the Competition and Markets Authority.
The decision-making role is one that my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) discharged, having met her commitment, which was given many times in this House, to the greatest possible transparency and openness allowed by the process. Although I come fresh to this, I intend to follow that approach of being as open as possible while respecting the quasi-judicial nature of the decision.
As the House well knows, after the proposed acquisition was formally notified to the competition authorities last year, my right hon. Friend issued an intervention notice on media public interest grounds, namely of media plurality and the genuine commitment to broadcasting standards. That triggered a phase 1 investigation, requiring Ofcom to report on the specified public interest grounds and the CMA to report on jurisdiction.
Having received advice from Ofcom and the CMA, in September 2017, my right hon. Friend referred the proposed Sky/Fox merger to the CMA for a phase 2 investigation on both grounds. The original statutory deadline for the final report was 6 March 2018, but the CMA has today confirmed that it will be extended by a further eight weeks and that the revised deadline is 1 May.
Once I have received the final report, I must come to a decision on whether the merger operates or may be expected to operate against the public interest, taking into account the specified public interest considerations of media plurality and genuine commitment to broadcasting standards. Following receipt of the final report, I will have 30 working days to publish my decision on the merger, so if I receive the CMA’s report on 1 May, I will have until 14 June to publish my decision.
To be clear, the publication today is of the CMA’s provisional findings. I have placed a copy in the Library. On the need for genuine commitment to broadcasting standards, the CMA provisionally finds that the merger is not expected to operate against the public interest. On media plurality grounds, the CMA’s provisional finding is that the merger may be against the public interest. It cites concerns that the transaction could reduce the independence of Sky News and would reduce the diversity of viewpoints available to, and consumed by, the public. It also raises concerns that the Murdoch family trust would have increased influence over public opinion and the political agenda.
The CMA has identified three remedy approaches and seeks views from interested parties on them. The remedy approaches are: first, to prohibit the transaction; secondly, to undertake structural remedies—to recommend either the spin-off of Sky News into a new company, or the divestiture of Sky News—and thirdly, behavioural remedies, which could include, for example, enhanced requirements relating to the editorial independence of Sky News.
The CMA recognises that the proposed acquisition of Fox by Disney could address concerns set out in the provisional findings. However, the uncertainty about whether, when or how that transaction will complete means that the CMA has also set out potential approaches that include introducing remedies that would fall away subject to the Disney-Fox transaction completing. The CMA has invited written representations on the provisional report’s findings, and the potential remedy approaches, with 21st Century Fox, Sky and other interested parties, before producing a final report.
As such, and given the quasi-judicial nature of the process, I hope that the House will understand that I cannot comment substantively on the provisional report and must wait for the final report before commenting. However, I am aware of the keen interest across the House in this important matter, and I know that Members will be closely scrutinising the CMA’s provisional findings and will have views on them. The CMA’s investigation will continue in the coming weeks. It has set out the process for making representations on the remedy options outlined, and on the provisional findings, with deadlines of 6 and 13 February respectively. I am sure that today’s debate will provide helpful context for that work.
What I am able to confirm today is that I will undertake to keep the House fully informed and to follow the right and proper process, considering all the evidence carefully when the time comes to make my decision on receipt of the CMA’s final report. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. This proposed merger has gone on for longer than the Murdochs ever expected, and for that I want to pay tribute to the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley). She could have done what the Murdoch family expected by clearing a path for the bid to go ahead, but she took her quasi-judicial responsibility seriously. I hope that the new Secretary of State will have as strong a regard for his responsibilities and for the public interest as his predecessor. I can assure him that if he does the right thing, he will have the support of the Opposition.
The CMA says that if the Sky/Fox merger went ahead as proposed, it would be against the public interest. It would result in the Murdoch family having too much control over news providers in the UK, and too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda. Does the Secretary of State accept that assessment?
The CMA says that it is not concerned about the proposed merger on broadcasting standards grounds, but in order to reach a proper assessment of that we need to look at corporate governance issues through part 2 of the Leveson inquiry. The Government have not yet published their response to the consultation on that, so can the Secretary of State tell the House when they intend to do so, and will he give us plenty of notice?
The previous Secretary of State said last June that she was minded not to accept undertakings offered by Fox and Sky that were intended to safeguard the editorial independence of Sky News, which they put forward to mitigate Ofcom’s media plurality concerns. Does the new Secretary of State share his predecessor’s view of those undertakings? In November, Sky threatened to shut down Sky News if it proved to be a plurality obstacle in its bid. Will the Secretary of State reject any attempt by the Murdochs to blackmail him or the regulator by threatening Sky staff?
Just this weekend, “friends” of the Secretary of State were quoted in the newspapers as hinting at the outcome of a separate Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport review of gambling stakes and prizes. Will he undertake, in his quasi-judicial role, not to speak to his “friends” about his views on the takeover, and to discourage them from talking to the press about them?
When the Prime Minister took office 18 months ago, she stood on the steps of Downing Street and spoke directly to the country, saying:
“When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you”.
This ambitious, thrusting new Secretary of State now has the opportunity to put her words into action. He can stand up to the rich and powerful, stand up to the Murdochs and act in the public interest. I hope that he will do the right thing.
I think that is the most cheerful response I have had from the hon. Gentleman, so I thank him for that. I will try to answer his questions in as much detail as possible. He asked a number of questions about the process. I am clear that we will follow due process; we will follow our statutory responsibilities and respect the quasi-judicial nature of the decision. My predecessor acted with great solidity and integrity in that regard, and I intend to do the same. In my previous role as Minister for Digital, I was outside the Chinese walls that the Department has on this subject, and therefore not involved in the internal discussions of the earlier stages. I will therefore follow the process by considering the CMA’s final report, once it is published, and all the relevant evidence and information, and then I will make the decision.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Leveson. Although we will no doubt have debates on the future sustainability of the press in the coming months, this is a separate process under existing law in which I have a quasi-judicial role; it is not intertwined with the debates that we will have on the primary legislation that was just passed by the other place and received its First Reading in this House this week. Those two questions are separate. The question before us today is one in which I will operate fully in my quasi-judicial role, as I am required to do by law.
The Secretary of State rightly raised Disney’s proposed takeover of Fox. If Disney wholly acquired Sky, Sky would of course be completely separate from the Murdoch family trust and in the ownership of a completely different company. However, does he believe that the Fox takeover of Sky must first be considered on its own merits, and that the future acquisition of Fox by Disney is a separate matter?
The CMA’s report does address the fact that the proposed takeover by Disney is uncertain, and it sets out some details of potential options, given that uncertainty. Anybody can make written representations in the next three weeks, based on that interim report, and I will consider the question when I see the full report in the months to come.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I have said many times in this place that plurality and diversity are vital components of an independent media, and therefore I welcome today’s findings by the CMA, which have put on the record the valid concerns that many people have about the further concentration of media ownership in fewer and fewer hands. Although the CMA has said that the deal, as it currently stands, does not meet the public interest test, I am pleased that it references a number of possible remedies.
We have heard reports that the owners of Sky might look to close down Sky News if it becomes an impediment in the takeover deal, with the possible loss of 500 jobs. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he will not allow employees of Sky to be used as pawns in any takeover when the final decision comes before him? If the takeover deal between Disney and Fox is likely to be green-lit, what impact will that have on his final decision, given Disney’s reported lack of interest in news broadcasting?
It is a matter of law that while consideration of the proposal is ongoing, Sky News cannot be shut down in advance of a decision—I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. He also made points about his views on the report published today; I shall reserve my judgement, see the final report and come to a conclusion based on that.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s keeping the House informed, but of course he currently has no role. When the CMA presents the final report and he comes to address this matter, will he bear it in mind that, to date, no regulator that has carried out any objective assessment has found any reason to block the merger on the grounds of commitment to broadcasting standards, and also that the greatest disaster that could befall the plurality of the media in this country would be for Sky News, which is after all a loss-making enterprise, although extremely good, to be closed by its new owner?
Both those points are covered in the CMA report that was published today. If my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State wishes to make to the CMA any further comments like those he just made, he has three weeks in which to do so, after which I will consider the final report in full.
I warmly welcome the CMA’s strong set of findings on plurality. The CMA says explicitly that the deal would give the Murdoch family trust
“too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda.”
I pay warm tribute to the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), because we would not be here had she not had the guts to stand up and say that this matter should be referred to the CMA. We all owe her a debt of gratitude for having done that.
I very much hope that the new Secretary of State, whom I welcome to his place, follows his predecessor’s lead. He can do that by doing two things. First, it is important that he and the CMA should not allow a back-door attempt by the Murdochs to get control of Sky through the so-called remedies process. The simple way to stop the deal going ahead is to prohibit it, not to have some carve out or complicated process. Secondly, it is relevant to the context, so I think the Secretary of State was wrong to attack the other place for what it did on Leveson 2, which was promised by David Cameron, by me and by people from all parts of this House to the victims of phone hacking. If the Secretary of State is to stand up to the Murdochs, he has to allow Leveson 2 to go ahead to get at the truth, because that is what the victims were promised.
It was enjoyable to hear a rendition of the right hon. Gentleman’s greatest hit on Leveson, but on the points relevant to today’s statement and the decision on this deal, I intend fully to exercise my quasi-judicial decision-making role by taking into account all relevant considerations, based on the CMA’s final report. It is in that straightforward and reasonable way that I intend to proceed.
May I say to the Secretary of State that this is personal? This is basically about lefties—particularly the Labour party—who do not like Murdoch. If this involved any other media organisation, the shadow Secretary of State and the Labour party would have nothing at all to say. This is personal, and the Secretary of State should bear that in mind. After all, Ofcom is there to make sure that Sky News is impartial in its coverage, and I am sure that Ofcom can be trusted to deliver on that. In the light of this provisional judgment, can we now expect the CMA to call for the BBC to be broken up, given its dominance over news output in the UK?
The report does go into detail on the different level of media dominance of different parties and sets that out clearly, but obviously I will take forward the views of the CMA’s final report when it is published. My hon. Friend—like the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale)—has the opportunity to let the CMA know his views in writing in the next three weeks.
As the CMA acknowledges the importance of Sky News to media plurality, as well as the risks and threat of a forced closure, might the Secretary of State conceivably have a role in facilitating white-knight investors?
The most important thing that we in the Government can do is to execute on the law as it stands. The law has clear constraints and must be operated properly, above board, with integrity, in the quasi-judicial capacity that it sets out.
My constituents in Kettering would like to know what Sky’s audience share is compared with the BBC and ITV.
The BBC’s audience share is the biggest, ITN is second and Sky is smaller than that. The details of that are covered in the report, which I am sure my hon. Friend’s constituents will find illuminating.
I am honoured to have Sky and Sky News based in my constituency. Despite very serious instances of sexual and racial harassment at Fox News, the CMA has concluded that none of that, and none of the industrial-scale phone hacking at Murdoch’s UK papers, is relevant to broadcast standards. Does the Secretary of State really agree with the CMA and think that none of that is relevant to how companies that are completely controlled by the Murdochs behave?
My position is not to agree or to disagree with the CMA; it is to consider the final report that the CMA produces in a couple of months’ time.
Given the fact that Sky’s audience share is dwarfed by that of both the BBC and ITV, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government are committed to the high-quality journalism and the world-class British broadcasting sector that we know and love?
Yes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) alluded to, the report does describe the market shares of the different broadcasters, including, of course, the BBC, which is the biggest. We are fully committed to ensuring a sustainable future for high-quality journalism. That is a policy question, and it is also a question of legislation that we will no doubt debate when the Data Protection Bill comes before the House, but it is separate from this decision, which is to be taken specifically within the rules and the law as it stands.
Five years after the phone hacking scandal broke, some civil cases regarding alleged criminality in the Murdoch empire are still ongoing. There will be victims who were very disappointed with the Secretary of State’s response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). The commencement of Leveson part 2 would be in the public interest, because it would finally reveal the full scale of hacking and the relationship between the press and the police. When will the Secretary of State follow the CMA’s lead and act to protect the public interest by commencing Leveson part 2?
These two questions are separate. We have a consultation on the Leveson issues. In policy terms, I really care about making sure that we have a sustainable future for high-quality journalism, but that is separate from this quasi-judicial decision, which has to be done within the existing law, and that is how I will take it.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his position and congratulate him on the transparency with which this process is being conducted. Does he agree that it was sensible to refer the merger of Sky and Fox to the CMA to avoid making it party political? Given the Government’s commitment to high standards in broadcasting, will the Secretary of State assure my constituents in Taunton Deane that the Government will continue to maintain high standards in broadcasting and journalism? I have a vested interest as a former broadcaster, but it is also what the people on the street want.
I am not sure that the high-quality journalism of “Farming Today” will ever be the same again without my hon. Friend. Undoubtedly, the importance of high-quality journalism, with a sustainable business model to fund it and plurality around it, are incredibly important policy questions. We will no doubt debate that in future, but it is a commitment to which I stick firmly.
Of course, “Farming Today”’s loss has been Taunton Deane’s gain, as we are all conscious.
In his statement, the Secretary of State said that he will consider “all the evidence carefully” in his quasi-judicial role. How is it possible for him to consider all the evidence unless he goes forward with Leveson 2—thereby honouring the promise given by a Conservative Prime Minister—and hears the evidence that remains unheard so that he can properly judge the Murdochs’ capability and competence for governance?
As I think I mentioned earlier, the question that the hon. Gentleman raises is not relevant to what we are discussing, because the latter is about exercising a quasi-judicial decision within the law as it stands. As I might have mentioned already, I intend to exercise that quasi-judicial decision-making role very clearly within the process as laid out in the law as it stands.
Point of Order
We will move on, if there are no points of order. I did have an indication that there would be.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I think I have effectively solicited a point of order.
Thank you for the prompt, Mr Speaker.
Last Thursday, I was made aware by the office of my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), that he was meeting the Transport Secretary in my constituency before heading to events in his own patch. Subsequently, it transpired that, while visiting Stoke-on-Trent, the Secretary of State held meetings in my constituency with the hon. Gentleman about matters that pertain to my constituency. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman did not tell me that information and I was not made aware of it by the Secretary of State himself. When I queried it with both their offices, I was told that no such meeting took place, yet the Twitter account of Stoke-on-Trent Conservatives has plastered pictures of the meeting across the social media website, saying how wonderful it was. How might I remedy the situation, Mr Speaker, and stop it happening again?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise it. There is a sense in which it can credibly be said that he has found his own salvation. He asks me how he can, in a sense, achieve restitution for the situation from which he has been suffering—as he sees it. He has chosen to raise the matter in a point of order, and it has been registered with Members on the Treasury Bench. I confess that I am not familiar with the Twitter accounts concerned, still less have I surveyed them, but I will take it from him that this material is there.
All levity aside, perhaps I can reiterate what I said yesterday in response to a point of order from—if memory serves me correctly—the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who was deprecating an unannounced visit by a Cabinet Minister to his constituency on, as I understand it, public business, of which he had no advance notice. Members intending to visit their colleagues’ constituencies on public business, as opposed to going to some private engagement, should give the colleague whose constituency they are visiting reasonable notice of the intention. This is not a matter of law, it is not even a rule, but it is a very strong convention in this place and I think it is a courtesy that we should observe. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) will make further inquiries, but I trust that this exchange will be heard by the Secretary of State. I hope that it will not be necessary for Members repeatedly to raise these matters on the Floor of the House. It should be possible for colleagues to operate in a mature and courteous way.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the regulation of the carrying of passengers in Greater London by pedal cycles and power-assisted pedal cycles for hire or reward; and for connected purposes.
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), to her place—literally, as I see that she is taking her place now.
I am pleased that enabling the regulation of pedicabs through this Bill has attracted the support of Members from all three parties represented in London in this place and from Members representing London constituencies. Support was so readily given from across the House that I was not even able to accommodate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), who has done much work in his role as chairman of the all-party group on taxis, on which I also serve. Although we do not always agree on the solutions for taxis and private hire vehicles, we both know that there is much that we can work on together to improve our hail and ride and pre-booked transport services in a way that is both fair to providers and protects customers.
Both Transport for London and the Department for Transport have been keen to see the simple change proposed in my Bill. The current and previous Mayors of London and Westminster Council also support the move. A group of leading businesses and organisations have come together to push for change under the umbrella of the Regulate Pedicabs Coalition, including the London Taxi Drivers’ Association, the Mayfair residents group, the Hippodrome Casino, the New West End Company, the London Chinatown Chinese Association, as well as many other residents associations and theatre groups representing interests across the west end, so I hope that I am pushing against an open door.
Pedicabs and pedal rickshaws are currently unregulated in London—and solely in London. As a result, there is no requirement for insurance, fares are not fixed or consistent, and neither vehicle condition nor driver quality are assessed. The behaviour of some pedicab operators causes problems for businesses, as they block highways, harass customers and cause serious risk to visitors and workers. In fact, they are the only form of public transport in the capital that is not regulated in any way.
One provider, London Pedicabs, estimates that there are around 1,400 pedicabs on the roads and pavements of London. It states on its website that it has pushed hard to get pedicabs fully licensed and accountable, so, in my mind, we have a great opportunity to make this happen in the coming months by the leave of this House and the other place.
I have said that pedicabs are not insured and that neither drivers nor their vehicles are regulated. Injuries to passengers have become frequent and lives may be at risk. One man told the Evening Standard in 2016 how he had been knocked out and left with a broken cheekbone here in London after being hit by a rickshaw whose driver allegedly spat in the face of a member of staff in Covent Garden before pedalling away in a midnight hit and run.
I am not aware of any deaths of passengers in London as yet, but the fact that an off-duty soldier died after falling out of a pedicab in Edinburgh back in 2010 shows that it is very possible. Of course, accidents can happen whatever regime exists, but even the most basic checks will reduce the likelihood.
London is a global city with a positive international reputation. Some 20 million people come to our capital—my home town—every year. It vies with Bangkok each year to be the most visited city on the planet. Although London has so much to offer visitors, we should not take our tourism industry for granted. Making sure that visitors have a wonderful experience, feel safe, get value for money and have a great time is vital to keeping those figures up and ensuring that people share positive stories about their trips with their friends and keep coming back.
In 2016, an undercover filmmaker revealed examples of rickshaw drivers boasting about charging three Chinese tourists £350 each for a 35-minute ride, and about charging £200 to £300 to go the half mile from Oxford Circus to Piccadilly Circus. Groups of pedicabs frequently block streets, increasing traffic delays and pollution, while disrupting legitimate businesses in the west end. Many play loud music, and their drivers shout and swear and park in doorways and on pavements. Clearly not all do so, but, as on many occasions, there are enough to ruin the reputation of those simply trying to earn a living in a reasonable and conscientious way.
Many cities across the world have looked to regulate pedicabs. Despite different contexts, several themes recur, such as pedicabs’ legal status as bicycles, passenger safety concerns and fare transparency. New York and Rome failed in their attempts to introduce a blanket ban, but San Diego successfully introduced comprehensive regulation, which is what I am asking for today. San Diego City Council voted to strengthen regulations on pedicab operators following the death of a tourist in an accident. Pedicab operators there are required by law to display fares openly, and numbers are capped in high-traffic areas. They are banned from using metered parking spaces and drivers are required to carry proof of insurance and ensure that seatbelts are worn. Operators with criminal convictions are banned.
In 2016, the Government stated that they were concerned about passenger safety. They wanted to take dangerous pedicabs off the road and regulate pedicab drivers so that they are allowed to charge only reasonable fares and must meet minimum safety standards. They proposed that Transport for London be responsible for creating detailed rules, such as setting out what is a reasonable amount to charge for a short journey, and that the licensing scheme would operate in a similar way to the rules for taxis and private hire vehicles. In setting out the approach that TfL would take, the Mayor of London said:
“Every Londoner and visitor to our city deserves a world-class service, whatever mode of transport they use. And this move will allow us to ensure that pedicabs must make big improvements to the way they operate. They are going to need to match up to important safety standards and we will be able to crack down on any attempts to charge rip-off fares.”
I happily disagree with Sadiq Khan on many issues, but he is absolutely on the money on this one.
The Bill would enable TfL to develop a regulation system, but does not prescribe what that system should be. However, there is every indication that TfL will conduct a background check of the driver and a safety inspection of vehicles, which are usually bought or rented from a few providers; place a cap on fares or rates charged; and set out sensible rules as to where and how drivers can park and tout for business.
Under the current law, pedicabs can be licensed as hackney carriages in every part of England and Wales apart from London. In a legal anomaly, pedicabs are treated as stage carriages in London, rather than licensed hackney carriages, under section 4 of the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869. The leading court case about pedicabs in London reaches the opposite conclusion to case law relating to the rest of England and Wales, and Mr Justice Pitchford, in Oddy v. Bugbugs Ltd, commented that, in his view,
“primary legislation will probably be required.”
That case was in 2003. The Greater London Assembly looked at the pedicab business as long ago as 2005. The 2014 Law Commission inquiry into taxi and private hire services made clear recommendations that pedicabs should be brought into a revised regulatory regime.
It is 15 years since the court case that brought this anomaly to our attention, and successive Governments have not found a suitable Bill to which to attach the proposed change, nor have we been able to get it through the private Members’ Bill maze. I am only too aware that Members can vote this Bill down, shout “Object”, or talk it out of time, but I hope that colleagues will understand that it simply irons out an anomaly and that it is supported across the political divide at every level of government. It will allow Transport for London to give consumers, whether they are Londoners or visitors, protection against excessive fares and safety protection through driver and vehicle checks, and to give others, including pedestrians, local businesses and nearby residents, some peace through reasonable and proportionate regulation. Before they pipe up at any stage with any objection, however principled, I ask Members to consider the ordinary Londoner, who may scratch their head at the glacial progress we have made on a simple point that has near-unanimous agreement.
Some people want to ban pedicabs entirely, but looking around London in the open air on a rickshaw gives people a chance to see the city in a way that few other modes of transport allow—although the weather needs to be better than it is at present. Instead, we can help reputable pedicab drivers to develop a good, popular and sustainable business through sensible regulation.
Some Government Members may be concerned that it is a Labour Mayor who would oversee the design and implementation of the regulatory system, but I caution against taking a partisan view. London has a mature system of regulation for public and private hire, an experienced team to enforce transgression through fixed penalty notices and, in the most serious cases, an operating ban. We also have the London Assembly to scrutinise Transport for London and the Mayor, and all of its members are accountable to Londoners through the ballot box.
I hope that I can count on the support of this House to tidy up the law in scrapping this legal anomaly, and to tidy up London’s west end by ensuring that responsible rickshaw drivers ply for business by offering a safe and reasonably priced service that does not obstruct others from going about their business. I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Paul Scully, Julia Lopez, Stephen Hammond, Bob Blackman, Robert Neill, Dr Matthew Offord, Zac Goldsmith, Tom Brake, Mike Gapes, Jim Fitzpatrick, Ms Karen Buck and Mr Virendra Sharma present the Bill.
Paul Scully accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 March, and to be printed (Bill 154).
Nuclear Safeguards Bill
Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee.
New Clause 1
“(1) The Secretary of State shall, upon laying any statement under subsection (3A) of section 76A of the Energy Act 2013, seek to secure a transition period prior to the implementation of withdrawal from EURATOM of not less than two years.
(2) During a transition period under subsection (1), any—
(a) conditions under which the UK is a member of EURATOM before exit day shall continue to apply;
(b) obligations upon the UK which derive from membership of EURATOM before exit day shall continue to apply;
(c) structures for UK participation in EURATOM that are in place before exit day shall be maintained; and
(d) financial commitment to EURATOM made by the UK during the course of UK membership of EURATOM before exit day shall be honoured.”.—(Dr Whitehead.)
This new clause would aim to put in place a transition period, during which the UK could seek to secure an association to EURATOM
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Purpose—
“The purpose of this Act is to provide for a contingent arrangement for nuclear safeguarding arrangements under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the event that the United Kingdom no longer has membership or associate membership of EURATOM, to ensure that qualifying nuclear material, facilities or equipment are only available for use for civil activities (whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere).”
This new clause would be a purpose clause, to establish that the provisions of the Bill are contingency arrangements if it proves impossible to establish an association with EURATOM after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
New clause 3—EURATOM: maintenance of nuclear safeguarding arrangements—
“No power to make regulations under this Act shall be exercised until the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament a report on his or her efforts to—
(a) seek associate membership of EURATOM, or
(b) otherwise maintain the implementation of nuclear safeguarding arrangements in the UK through EURATOM
after the UK has left the European Union.”
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on his or her efforts to maintain the implementation of nuclear safeguarding arrangements through EURATOM after the UK has left the EU.
Amendment 3, in clause 1, page 2, line 14, at end insert—
“(3A) No regulations may be made under this section unless the Secretary of State has laid before both Houses of Parliament a statement certifying that, in his or her opinion, it is no longer possible to retain membership of EURATOM or establish an association with EURATOM that permits the operation of nuclear safeguarding activity through its administrative arrangements.”
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to certify, before making any regulations to provide for nuclear safeguarding regulations, that it was not possible to remain a member of EURATOM or have an association with it.
Amendment 2, page 3, line 3, at end insert—
“(11) Regulations may not be made under this section unless the Secretary of State has laid before both Houses of Parliament a report detailing his strategy for seeking associate membership of EURATOM or setting out his reasons for choosing to make nuclear safeguards regulations under this Act rather than seeking associate membership of EURATOM.”
This amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from using the powers under Clause 1 to set out a nuclear safeguards regime through regulations until a report has been laid before each House setting out a strategy for seeking associate membership of EURATOM or explaining why the UK cannot seek associate membership of EURATOM.
Amendment 7, in clause 4, page 5, line 6, at end insert—
“(5) No regulations may be made under this section until—
(a) the Government has laid before Parliament a strategy for maintaining those protections, safeguards, programmes for participation in nuclear research and development, and trading or other arrangements which will lapse as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from membership of and participation in EURATOM, and
(b) the strategy has been considered by both Houses of Parliament.”
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to lay a report before Parliament on the protection and trading arrangements that arise from membership of EURATOM, and his strategy for maintaining them prior to making regulations concerning nuclear safeguarding.
The proposed new clauses and amendments appear in my name and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), who is the shadow Secretary of State, and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and others.
First and foremost, I want to set down a marker on new clause 2, because it represents the dividing line between us and the Government on membership, associate or otherwise, of Euratom. This purpose clause makes explicit that this is a contingency Bill. In other words, it is being enacted to deal with circumstances that may never arise—namely, that we as a country have no future association or membership with Euratom that would enable us to continue to reap the benefits of association or membership in a way that I think is almost universally agreed.
I think that it is agreed—the Minister has stated as much during the passage of this Bill—that Euratom has served well our purposes as a nuclear nation over the past 40 years, and nuclear safeguarding has worked very well in inspecting and representing our obligations to international agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Authority.
It is clear that our interests as a country would be best served by continuing our membership of Euratom, which was founded by a different treaty from that which brought about the EU. Indeed, during evidence to the Public Bill Committee, we heard strong arguments along those lines from eminent lawyers who had been called as witnesses. However, we appear to be in the position of assuming that our future membership of Euratom is not possible, because essentially the Prime Minister, as a matter of choice, included exit from Euratom in her letter to the Commission informing it that we were invoking article 50.
The treaty on Euratom membership is part of the set of treaties described in the treaty of Lisbon. Therefore, as we leave the European Union, we will, de facto, leave our membership of Euratom. It is as simple as that.
I am afraid that it is not as simple as that. A considerable body of legal opinion states that, because Euratom was founded by a treaty other than the treaty of Rome—it was, in fact, founded before the EU came together—it can and should be dealt with separately. Although arrangements relating to association with and membership of various EU bodies have changed over time as a result of changes in EU regulations, that has not been the case with Euratom. The articles relating to associate membership and arrangements are identical to those that were in place when Euratom was founded. There is no case to answer as far as separate arrangements for Euratom are concerned.
My hon. Friend is making a strong case for associate membership. He will recall a Westminster Hall debate that I held only last year, during which there was broad consensus on the issue, including among Conservative Members. I think that the Minister was the only Member who did not agree. The only reasons the Government have given relate to the legal position and the European Court of Justice. If Conservative Members were not whipped, they would understand the logic of the very sensible new clause.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that strong point. I recall that even the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) suggested during that debate that associate membership of Euratom could be effective in continuing those arrangements, which have served us so well over many years.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the International Atomic Energy Authority. The Government have made it clear that we will be seeking new arrangements with it and that they will follow exactly the same principles as the current arrangements—that is, the right to inspect civil nuclear facilities and to continue to receive all the safeguards and reports. We should be confident that this Government are going about the issue in a serious, sensible and meticulous way.
The hon. Lady makes the case for our new clause. If the Government are going about their business in a sensible and coherent way—I note the Secretary of State’s statement on 11 January on how the Government intend to go about conducting relationships with Euratom—it would be a good idea to place that procedure into the Bill, so that we can be clear about what we are about, what we want to achieve and how we will do so.
After all, it has been stated that this is a contingency Bill. We want to know what it is a contingency against and therefore how it should be framed in terms of what we should be doing in contemplating whether to bring it into operation. If we had either membership of Euratom or an associate form of membership, which might be fairly similar to that enjoyed currently by Ukraine but with a number of additional factors, this Bill would not be needed. The arrangements with Euratom would continue to be in place, rendering the Bill superfluous. We need to be clear about what we are debating.
The shadow Minister knows that he and I often agree on stuff, but I wonder whether today he might concede this point. At worst, his new clauses would merely render the Bill superfluous if we manage to achieve associate membership of Euratom, but at best we are providing the contingency plan that gives industry the certainty that it says that it so much wants. The Bill is therefore relevant and necessary in that sense, even if it may ultimately prove to be superfluous because we achieve Euratom membership.
Yes, indeed. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I are going to agree substantially on this. We regard the Bill as necessary in the context of the possibility that, after Brexit, no arrangements can be brought about with Euratom, either associate membership or full membership. The Bill will then ensure that the nuclear industry is clear about its future and that the arrangements for our international obligations can be properly carried out in the absence of those arrangements. We have indeed been constructive and helpful during the Bill’s whole passage through Parliament. However, that does not detract from our thinking that a number of its procedural elements should be strengthened in relation to what we do while it is gestating and coming to potential fruition after the point at which the things that we are doing may not have had any success.
The hon. Gentleman will see that in some of our amendments we are also trying to make sure that Parliament is fully informed of what processes are under way while we get to the position that the Bill could, or could not, come into operation. That is important for Parliament’s sake. After all, we are in new territory with regard to this Bill, and we therefore have to do a number of new things in legislation that fit the bill for our future arrangements. That is essentially the beginning and end of what we are trying to do through this group of amendments.
I am puzzled why new clause 1 is necessary. All its ingredients are issues that form part of the transition negotiations that our country is going through with the European Commission. It therefore seems bizarre to try to legislate that
“conditions under which the UK is a member of EURATOM before exit day shall continue to apply”
during the transition. On that basis, we would be legislating for all sorts of things that form part of the negotiations to continue during the transition. What would the hon. Gentleman say to that?
The hon. Gentleman has slightly got ahead of me, because I started by talking about new clause 2, and I am about to start talking about new clause 1. He thinks that new clause 1 may be superfluous. I would suggest that because this Bill is about procedure as much as fact, the new clause sets out a procedure that we need to undertake in the event of certain things not happening, and it is important that a number of those possible events are covered in the Bill. Should it not prove possible to remain a member of Euratom, for various reasons, it is important to consider the idea of a transition period after which we would then be in a position to fully carry out our obligations to the IAEA and other agencies separate from Euratom. That, indeed, is what the Bill is essentially trying to bring about. The Bill is predicated on the notion that membership or association with Euratom will not be possible, and it is therefore necessary to recreate the arrangements for nuclear safeguarding that have served us so well in a solely domestic form and thereby enabled us to negotiate separate voluntary arrangements with the IAEA and, indeed, separate bilateral agreements with a number of other countries, including the United States, Australia, Japan, and Canada.
The proposition that the Bill is prepared on a contingency basis is not something that the Opposition have made up. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State stated explicitly that
“the Bill has been prepared on a contingency basis. The discussions around our continued arrangements with Euratom and with the rest of the European Union have not been concluded, but it is right to put in place in good time any commitments that are needed in primary legislation. Euratom has served the United Kingdom and our nuclear industries well, so we want to see maximum continuity of those arrangements.”—[Official Report, 16 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 617.]
However, this central point regarding the Bill is not stated within it. That is why it is so important to have a purpose clause, and that is what new clause 2 does. It provides that the Bill is operational only in the event that other arrangements are impossible to achieve.
I accept that there was a vast amount of legal argument on our membership, or not, of Euratom. Indeed, it is not a simple point. However, we have now triggered our leaving Euratom. The treaties are uniquely joined, so it is a fact that we have left Euratom and will no longer be members. As we go forward with negotiations, putting the word “contingent” into the Bill would create uncertainty for our partners in the EU, given that the negotiations are two-sided. Those negotiations have yet to progress, so we need this Bill to be a clear signal or statement to our EU partners to achieve what we want. I fear that having the word “contingent” in the Bill will muddy the waters in our negotiations with our partners. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I would have thought that the Bill, in whatever form it eventually emerges, demonstrates the opposite. Yes, there are a number of negotiations to be undertaken. We do not yet know the results of those negotiations. We have not left Euratom, which, it is generally agreed, has served our purposes very well. The new clause would enable us to signal, in the event of all those negotiations not working, that we are nevertheless still able to fulfil our obligations to the IAEA and to show it that we have a regime in place that does the business with regard to nuclear safeguarding from the point of view of the IAEA’s concerns. Putting forward this Bill as a contingency measure, as the Secretary of State said was the case, is important in the uncertain position we are in at the moment. Nevertheless, we will need certainty, over a relatively short period, with the bodies that are responsible for policing and organising the nuclear non-proliferation treaties and the whole arrangements relating to nuclear safeguarding. I think, if I may say so, that that is the right way to do it as far as putting a Bill before the House is concerned. The Opposition do not dispute that: we think it is right to have the Bill as a contingency. Our concern, however, is whether there are sufficient elements to the process part of the Bill to ensure that it works as well as it could. That is really the point of difference on the Bill at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman knows that this is incredibly important to him and several of his colleagues, and it is incredibly important to me, with EDF Energy’s operational headquarters for nuclear in my constituency and Horizon just down the road, so we are all coming from the same point. His specific proposal—I am talking about new clause 1 again—is very specific. It even mentions a period of two years, although the transition period that is being negotiated may well come to an end at the end of 2020. In effect, he is asking the Government to legislate on something over which they do not have control. Surely the better approach is to plan for the contingency, as he has already agreed, and recognise that the other elements—Euratom and other agencies—are all subject to a negotiation that this House cannot, by its nature, control.
That is a little strange in that the Prime Minister referred to transition periods for the overall EU negotiations in her Florence speech, and the Secretary of State did so strongly in his written statement on 11 January. If the hon. Gentleman wants to be assured, as far as the nuclear industry is concerned, that there will be a seamless transition at the point at which we are no longer a member of Euratom, I would have thought he ought to be strongly in favour of aspiring to a transition period. As he knows and we know, the process of recreating in the UK all the things that have been done by Euratom for 40 years—we will discuss that later—will be extremely difficult, lengthy and problematic. It will certainly, in the opinion of many people, be extremely difficult to achieve in the period ahead if we corral those negotiations and are to complete them by March 2019. If he thought about it for a moment, he would recognise that the last thing we could conceivably want is a period of, in effect, nuclear shutdown, or of defaulting on our international obligations because we are not ready to carry them out on Brexit. That is why a transition period may be so important.
Yes, of course we all want a transition period, which is precisely a part of the negotiations. What I struggle to understand is that the scenario the hon. Gentleman describes is in effect not within our control. The transition we are seeking is being negotiated—in fact, the Minister and other Front Benchers have made it absolutely clear several times that we want to continue the relationship with Euratom as deeply as possible—but I cannot see the need, in a legislative context, for his proposed new clause 1. In fact, I do not believe it would be possible for any Government conceivably to agree to it.
I repeat my suggestion that, because the Bill is about process as much as content, it is important that it is guided by the sort of considerations we want to take place in order to achieve, as we are all agreed, the best outcome—[Interruption.] Indeed, yes, the best outcome. We must make sure that the negotiations not only proceed with the best outcome in mind, but cover the fact that it may be the case—again, this is out of our control—that if we stick to a position, with the provisions of the Bill, in which everything essentially stops in March 2019, that would be just catastrophic for our nuclear industry and our international nuclear safeguarding obligations. We must get this right, and we must have continuity of arrangements inside or outside Euratom. It is in those circumstances that a transition period is suggested.
The arrangements for the founding of Euratom and its articles suggest that a period of transition for negotiating our way out of Euratom may not be identical to the period for the arrangements for negotiating our way out of the EU as a whole. It is quite possible to conceive the circumstances in which we do not have a transition period beyond March 2019 for negotiating our general withdrawal from the EU, but we do have a transition period for negotiating our way out of Euratom. It is at the least strongly arguable that that may be the case in the future, and it is another reason why such a provision should be in the Bill.
I feel I must pull up the hon. Gentleman because he has twice referred to Euratom having been around for 40 years, but it began in 1957. It was born out of the civil nuclear industry that began in my constituency of Copeland when Calder Hall was first constructed. I thought that I should make it clear that this was from Britain and by Britain back in 1957. We have actually had it for 70 years, although there was the merger in 1967.
I was referring to the length of time that we have been a member of Euratom, not the length of time that Euratom has been around. Indeed, the hon. Lady will know that when Euratom was founded, the UK was not a member of it. I am sure she will also know that the founders of Euratom, particularly one of them—Mr Spaak—wrote a substantial report at the time of the founding of Euratom that strongly envisaged, setting out in chapter and verse, how an associate relationship of Euratom with the UK could come about. The arrangements that Mr Spaak considered in the report for associate membership are identical to those that exist today. I thank the hon. Lady for reminding us that Euratom has been around a lot longer than the period during which the UK’s relationship with Euratom has existed, but I am sure she will agree that even at the outset of Euratom, an association with the UK was envisaged before the UK joined to facilitate nuclear exchange, nuclear development and—although the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was not around at the time—joint endeavours in civil and defence nuclear work.
I fear, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I have tested the patience of the House, particularly, given the number of interventions I have taken, because of the necessity of ensuring that I responded to them fully. I will end by telling the House that we need to remember that this Bill covers just one aspect of our relationship with Euratom over the period during which we have been a member of it. Our relationship with Euratom also includes participation in nuclear research, the transportation of nuclear materials, the development of nuclear arrangements, the trading of nuclear materials and a number of other arrangements, all of which will lapse on our exit from participation in Euratom and all of which will need to be secured for the future. They are not the subject of the Bill, but they will have to be dealt with at some stage if we are not to have a close association with Euratom after Brexit. Amendment 7 would provide for at least an understanding that we will move forward to secure working arrangements for a future outside Euratom, not just making provision for our treaty obligations concerning nuclear safeguarding.
The Opposition think that the suite of connected amendments to the Bill will strengthen it enormously so that it is a fully fit-for-purpose contingency arrangement. I therefore commend these new clauses and amendments to the House.
New clause 1 concerns me, because it seems to me to be a delaying tactic. As I have mentioned, Euratom and the IAEA were really formed in 1957, when Calder Hall was built in my constituency. There are now 70-something businesses operating in the nuclear industry in my constituency alone. I have spoken to each and every one of them, as well as to Sellafield, the Low Level Waste Repository and the National Nuclear Laboratory. They all say that it is absolutely critical that we get on with the job swiftly and provide certainty so that when we leave the European Union on 29 March 2019, we know exactly where we are.
I come back to the point that Euratom was formed in 1957, and I find it somewhat disappointing that Opposition Members are not crediting our country with the ability to do what is necessary. I have been reassured by the Minister on several occasions about the timescales, and about the process that is already in place for recruiting new safeguards inspectors to the Office for Nuclear Regulation. There are clear synergies inherent in having the ONR, which is the overarching umbrella organisation, working on safeguarding, security and safety.
When it comes to the transition, the Prime Minister has already said that there will be a transition arrangement after we leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. Therefore, the most important thing is to get on with the job, and the Bill enables us to do just that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in the new clause, great uncertainty is built into the very thing—the contingency—that was intended to give certainty to people such as those in her constituency?
That is exactly my point. This is about certainty and getting on with the job. Not having the Bill in place would be absolutely catastrophic for my constituency and the whole county of Cumbria.
I know that the hon. Lady cares hugely about this issue, because it matters a great deal for her constituency. She and I have been in meetings with the Office for Nuclear Regulation, in which it has said very clearly that it will not be able to meet Euratom standards for safety inspections by March 2019. Indeed, even to meet IAEA standards will be very challenging. Does she not agree that new clause 1 would provide certainty, rather than the other way around, because it would ensure that in March 2019 we were in a transition period in which we could still rely on Euratom to perform the inspections that are so crucial in her constituency?
It is not just my constituency, though; this is about the whole country. Today, more than 20% of our electricity is provided by nuclear power stations. The hon. Lady is not quite correct. My memory of the meeting she mentions is that we were told we would have sufficient aspects in place to be able to have the regime, there or thereabouts, to continue with our existing—[Interruption.]