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Commons Chamber

Volume 635: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2018

House of Commons

Wednesday 31 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—

Cross-border Economic Opportunities

Last week, I hosted the first cross-border Severn growth summit in Newport. More than 350 people attended the event, all looking to strengthen the economic links between south Wales and the south-west. Through our industrial strategy, we want to build on this cross-border collaboration and help create prosperous communities throughout the whole of Wales.

Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire, relies very heavily on trade with our friends and neighbours across the border in Wales. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his counterparts in the Welsh Assembly about dualling the A5, which crosses the border between England and Wales? Will he join me in paying tribute to my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who has campaigned assiduously, but who has been very badly injured in a riding accident and is recuperating at home?

We wish the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) a full and speedy recovery, but the fullness of the recovery is more important than its speed.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). Both are assiduous and relentless in their pursuit of the dualling of the A5. I would point them to the second road investment strategy for England. I liaise with the Welsh Government Minister Ken Skates regularly to pursue the issue, because it works for much better co-operation if we bring together investment priorities. My hon. Friend’s efforts are paying significant dividends in the negotiations.

Every “Gavin and Stacey” fan knows that the journey from Essex to Wales involves the most expensive toll bridge charges in the country, so I am delighted that this Conservative Government have removed the burden of crossing the border for tourists, businesses and commuters generally. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how he intends to capitalise on that wonderful news?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of that iconic “Gavin and Stacey” scene where Smithy is struggling to get into Wales because he has to pay the £6.70 toll charge to cross the bridge. I would point out to my hon. Friend that tolls have been reduced by 20% in the interim, and by the end of the year they will be abolished. That will be one of the biggest stimuluses for the Welsh economy in decades. It will provide the opportunity for more and better-paid jobs, and a £100 million boost to the Welsh economy. This is an opportunity for the south-west of England and south Wales to come together as an economic powerhouse to provide better opportunities in the western side of the UK.

My constituents who work in Bristol and beyond have to put up with chronically overcrowded rail services as fares increase. Will the Secretary of State talk to UK Government Transport Ministers—rail services are not devolved—to sort this out?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about public transport in general. The Great Western franchise is out for consultation as we speak, and I encourage her, her constituents and south Wales Members to make representations about the improvements they would like. She talked about overcrowding, but one of the most overcrowded roads in the UK is around the Brynglas tunnels in Newport. I hope the Welsh Government get on with building that road sooner rather than later. After all, the UK Government made money available more than three years ago, and we are frustrated by the lack of response and reaction in building it.

Since assuming office, the Secretary of State has broken a promise to electrify the main line to Swansea; vetoed devolving airport taxes to Wales because he does not want to upset Bristol airport; and not delivered on the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. Is not the reality that his record on the economy is failure, failure, failure?

I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman’s tone. I would point to significant wins for Wales over recent years, the most important of which is the fair funding settlement, which provided a 5% uplift—it will be a £67 million uplift in the next financial year and similar sums in subsequent years. Thirteen years of underfunding by the Labour party have been corrected in the first year of a Conservative Administration.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for inviting my district council and my tourism industry to his Severn growth summit. I am also grateful that the tolls will be removed, given that the old Severn bridge is half in my constituency and the gateway to Gloucestershire, not just Wales. May I urge him, as he continues these cross-border opportunities, fully to involve business and industry in my constituency so that we can take full advantage of growth in the western part of our country?

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s support for the call to abolish the Severn tolls, because that really will be a major boost to his constituency and constituencies across the whole of south Wales. After all, can he imagine a £6.70 charge to do any business between Cardiff and Newport and the impact that that would have? Well, that is really what has been in place between his constituency and the south Wales economy for more than 50 years. Abolishing the tolls is a commitment on which I am pleased to be able to deliver.

I welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), to his place. They say the first time is always the worst. I understand that he was born on Ynys Môn and that he was a member of the Labour party. We would like to welcome him back, but we might be full.

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I would like to congratulate the Welsh Assembly: there was an announcement by Stonewall this morning that it is the No. 1 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employer in the UK. I will not mention that Swansea City beat Arsenal 3-1 last night.

Manufacturers across the UK consider the world-leading tidal lagoon industry a lifeline for their businesses. Thousands of skilled jobs in cross-border factories are earmarked to supply the lagoons, and they are at risk because the UK Government cannot make a decision. The Secretary of State has said many times that he would love it to happen. The Welsh Labour Government have pledged millions to the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. Hendry says, “It’s a no regrets decision.” Has the Secretary of State anything constructive to report? In the words of Gavin and Stacey, “What’s occurring?”

I join the hon. Lady in recognising the Welsh Assembly for its recognition by Stonewall; that is something to be accepted, underlined and recognised. I also recognise, as a City supporter, the success that Swansea had last night. She raises an important point about the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. As I have said previously, I really would like this to happen, as would the whole of the UK Government. After all, we gave planning permission for it after the 2015 general election. We would like to see progress on it, but, clearly, it must be value for money. The Welsh Government have communicated with the UK Government about something that they call “an offer”. Last week, officials from my office, the Welsh Government, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy met to establish what this offer amounts to. We will continue discussions. I point out to her that she needs to look at the jobs that will be created in the long term, and not those thousands of jobs that she talked about, because the project itself will deliver 40 or more jobs.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the jobs, because these cross-border jobs include local government apprenticeships for 16 and 17-year-olds. They are now at risk because of the UK Government’s dithering. Now that the Welsh Labour Government are introducing votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in local government elections in Wales, are the UK Government worried that Welsh young people will be able to vote on their future, vote for apprenticeships and vote for tidal lagoons?

Apprenticeships are part of the UK Government’s manifesto, and we are grateful to the Welsh Government and recognise that they have followed the ambition that we set out for apprenticeships. I also point out and pay tribute to the Welsh Government for their action over changing the voting structures, but remind the hon. Lady about who gave them the power to do that in the first place, after it was refused for 13 years by Labour.

Is the Minister aware that the Welsh Affairs Committee has invited the First Minister of Wales to come before us and spell out exactly what the offer is and that, so far, he has refused to do so? If there is a serious offer from Welsh Labour to support tidal lagoons, does he agree that the Welsh First Minister should reconsider, come before the Committee and tell us exactly what it is that he is offering us?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend as Chair of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs—a position in which he has been vociferous in pursuing these sorts of issues and the case for value for money. He has invited the First Minister to give evidence to his Committee. I would have thought that the First Minister would want to respond positively to that invitation, if he wants to be seen to be doing everything—and, indeed, to do everything—to make this project come about and to prove the value-for-money case that we seek.

Universal Credit

3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on reducing the time taken to make universal credit payments in Wales. (903563)

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on reducing the time taken to make universal credit payments in Wales. (903566)

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Llefarydd. Rwy’n ddiolchgar i’m cydweithwyr am y croeso cynnes.

At the Budget, the Chancellor announced that all claimants will be eligible for universal credit from the first day that they claim it, removing the seven waiting days.

Och aye the noo!

The Opposition welcomed the U-turn by the Chancellor, increasing the waiting time for universal credit from six weeks to five weeks, but this does not go far enough. Household claimants in Wales and across the country are still suffering from rising debts, housing arrears and evictions. Will the Minister stand up for universal credit claimants in Wales by asking his Cabinet colleagues to reduce the waiting time further?

I loved the hon. Gentleman’s introduction.

The need for reform was absolutely clear. Under the old system, people had to go to the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the local housing authority and, potentially, more organisations. We are now simplifying the process so that we have a system that encourages people into work. Surely, we should all welcome that. We are rolling the scheme out slowly to ensure that we are learning lessons, and that is exactly what we have done. The Chancellor made the announcement in the Budget so that we improve the system to ensure that people have the money they need when they apply.

The DWP’s own analysis shows that half those with rent arrears under universal credit said that they had gone into arrears after making a claim. Is the Minister content with the fact that more Welsh families who were not previously in arrears have begun 2018 in debt following their claim for universal credit?

That is exactly why we made the announcements in the Budget. Now, households who already claim housing benefit will automatically receive an additional two weeks of housing benefit when they claim universal credit. We are responding to the lessons that we are learning, and we will continue to do so as we roll out the project.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box. May I urge him, in looking at the administrative changes to universal credit, not to lose sight of the overarching goal, which is to have a simpler welfare system that actually encourages people into work—a far cry from the old system that it is replacing?

I am delighted to take a question from my hon. Friend, and I mean that in the sincerest sense. He is absolutely right. Unemployment in Wales is currently 73,000, which represents a decrease of 52,000 since 2010. People are going back into work because universal credit is encouraging that. Under the old system, people who worked a minute over 16 hours would lose their whole jobseeker’s allowance. There was no incentive to get into work, which is why we have introduced this new system.

I too offer my congratulations to the Minister on his elevation to his new position—llongyfarchiadau.

Waiting times are important to all claimants, but none more so than the terminally ill—those who the DWP expects to live for less than six months. The DWP’s own data shows that personal independence payment claimants who are terminally ill have their claims reassessed at the rate of seven in 100 in the south-east and 17 in 100 in Wales, which is the highest rate in the country. Why is there such a huge variance, and will the Minister join me in requesting a meeting with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss these issues?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for the warm welcome, which I much appreciate. It is important to recognise that, with PIP, we are bringing in a system to try to help people live with the conditions they have. If we compare the systems, 29% of PIP claimants are receiving the highest possible support, compared with just 15% for disability living allowance. I have only been in this job a few weeks, but I will be taking this up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and will report back.

We need to speed up a bit, because we have a lot of questions to get through. What we need now is pithy questions without excessively demonstrative behaviour.

Broadband: Rural Areas

4. What progress has been made on the roll-out of high-speed broadband in rural Wales; and if he will make a statement. (903564)

Superfast broadband is now available to more than 19 out of 20 UK homes and businesses, including 95% of premises in Wales. That underlines the progress made in recent years thanks to our investment of £69 million in Wales, plus an additional £56 million gainshare to be reinvested.

That investment is working. In Gwynedd, for example, it was previously only possible to get a download speed of 0.9 megabits per second. In Merionethshire, Openreach has now given fibre to the home that delivers at least 75 megabits per second. That is great, but what can the Government do to provide a legal obligation for everyone to have a right to broadband?

My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the importance of good connectivity through broadband, particularly in our rural areas, if we are to maximise the economic benefits. We have decided that regulation is the best way to ensure that everyone in the UK has a decent broadband connection. A regulatory universal service obligation will give everyone in the UK access to speeds of at least 10 megabits per second by 2020.

May I genuinely welcome the Anglesey-born Under-Secretary to his place? The last Anglesey-born Tory Minister was Sir Wyn Roberts, so he has very big shoes to fill. The success of the broadband roll-out in Wales is due to the partnership between the European Union, Government here in Westminster and Government in Wales, working with BT. Will the Minister assure us that in 2020 there will not be a cliff edge and that we will have transitional money from Europe, so that we can roll out to 100%?

I am grateful to have such a welcome from someone I have known for many years. I am very grateful. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

No, actually I was a member of the Young Conservatives then. We are determined to roll out broadband and to achieve the 2020 target. It will be incumbent on us, as the UK Government, to work with the Welsh Government to ensure that broadband is rolled out to every part.

Ceredigion has among the slowest broadband speeds in the UK. Despite that, Ceredigion, and indeed the whole of Wales, was left out of the UK Government programme to provide full fibre broadband to six areas across England and Scotland. Will the Minister confirm that representations were made to his Government to ensure that Wales was included in that programme? What explanation was he given for its omission?

Let us not forget that the roll-out of broadband is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. As the hon. Gentleman will know, because we have already had a conversation about this, this could form an important part of the mid-Wales growth deal. That will be incredibly important in making a successful growth deal for the area.

For the households in Pembrokeshire in my constituency that have been told they cannot get broadband, the roll-out coverage is not 95%; it is zero. Will the Minister provide assurance that he will keep working with colleagues in the UK Government and Welsh Government to see that we connect up the whole of Wales?

I absolutely accept that we have to ensure that broadband is rolled out to every part of Wales. Pembrokeshire is equally important, and my right hon. Friend is a big champion of his constituency and area. I am a little bit disappointed in the Welsh Government’s roll-out priorities, but we will continue to work to ensure that we deliver the roll-out that we have promised and envisaged.

Cross-border Transport

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on improving cross-border transport links between Wales and England. (903565)

13. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on improving cross-border transport links between Wales and England. (903574)

14. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on improving cross-border transport links between Wales and England. (903575)

I hold regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and the Welsh Government on modernising cross-border transport connectivity. With 50% of the Welsh population living within 25 miles of the border, improving connectivity is central to delivering economic growth on both sides.

If providing funding to remove the tolls from the Severn bridge is good enough for the people of Wales, why not extend such a generous Government offer to the people of Cheshire and Merseyside and do away with the tolls on the Mersey Gateway?

The tolls on the Severn crossing have been there for more than 50 years, and the Mersey Gateway bridge has very different levels of tolls from those that were levied on the Severn crossing. Locals will not have to pay on the Mersey Gateway bridge, other than the £10 administration fee; locals around the Severn tolls have had to pay the full charge for 50 years.

My constituents were pleased to see a commitment to fund a business case to improve the Wrexham to Bidston line in the autumn Budget, but we have not actually had any progress since then. We would really like to see some improvements in both efficiency and frequency on that line, so can the Secretary of State update us on what progress has been made with respect to that?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), who has highlighted the importance of the Wrexham to Bidston line. It forms part of our cross-border growth strategy and is reflected in the UK’s industrial strategy. I spoke with the Welsh Government’s Transport Minister on Monday to discuss the project and we will be updating the hon. Gentlemen and the House in due course.

The industrial areas around my constituency, which include Airbus in Broughton and Deeside Industrial Park, absolutely depend on the M56 running smoothly. Has the Secretary of State had any conversations with Highways England, or his counterparts in the Transport Department, about when we shall get that motorway unclogged and running smoothly?

Again, the hon. Gentleman highlights the importance of cross-border connectivity. I would point him to the second road investment strategy for England, which will provide an opportunity to highlight the priority. A million people a week cross that border between north Wales and the north-west of England; 2,000 go to Airbus alone.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the UK Government’s investment in the Halton curve significantly improves rail services between my constituency and north Wales, and that there was a missed opportunity with the Welsh Labour Government in the failure to include that train line in the TEN-T network in the last round of European funding?

The Halton curve, which is approaching £18 million in terms of the spending cap, is an exciting project because it is a relatively simple, straightforward investment that will bring direct services to Liverpool again, improving cross-border connectivity, and releasing new opportunities for economic growth and development. We want to integrate it into both the north-west of England and the Wales and borders franchises.

Welsh EU Continuity Bill

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on proposals for a Welsh EU continuity Bill. (903567)

We continue to have constructive discussions with the Welsh Government on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, with a view to securing the National Assembly’s support for the legislation. The Welsh Government have not discussed with us their proposals for an EU continuity Bill, but we do believe that such legislation will be unnecessary.

So bad has the Westminster power grab become that on 17 January the National Assembly unanimously, including the Conservatives, supported a motion on Plaid Cymru’s continuity Bill. Both sitting devolved Administrations have now rejected this constitutional embezzlement. Can the Minister confirm that Ministers will not meddle any further in respect of devolved Administrations?

First, I do not believe that the continuity Bill is actually needed. We are engaging heavily, at every level of government, with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we go through the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to ensure that the clauses that we want to amend in the other place will be effective. Then will get the support of those Assemblies.

Order. We are very short of time. I will call the hon. Gentleman if it is a single short sentence; otherwise, we won’t bother. Blurt it out, man.

When will the Government publish their framework analysis and their proposed wording for the amendment to clause 11 of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill?

We are continually engaging. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Wales and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster are going to Wales tomorrow to meet the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, so that we can get the further detail of those discussions and bring forward the amendments as soon as possible.

Hoffwn gymryd y cyfle i groesawu’r Gweinidog i’w barchus, arswydus swydd. The Minister will recall the Scottish Secretary claiming there to be a Scotland-specific economic impact assessment, only to contradict himself a week later. [Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Lady should not be disquieted in any way. I think the robin is keenly attending to her words.

It appears now that regional assessments do exist. Which road will the Minister take? Will he confirm that a Welsh assessment has been produced, or will he concede that the Government are so heedless of Wales’s future that there is no such assessment?

I know that Bristol City’s emblem is a robin, so maybe it is trying to interfere with Welsh questions.

We have many assessments as we go through this process. We will look at all of them in great detail and ensure that we come up with an effective resolution that suits every single part of the United Kingdom, because having a statute book that is fit for purpose is incredibly important once we leave the European Union.

Will the Minister in that case ensure that he shares those assessments, not by Twitter, but also with all Members and all members of the Welsh public?

Obviously, we will make things available at the appropriate time, but I can assure the hon. Lady that I will not be sharing things like that on Twitter.

I am going to allow a little injury time, because I do not want the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) to feel left out.

Leaving the EU: Welsh Economy

8. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect on the Welsh economy of the UK leaving the EU. (903569)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on new opportunities that leaving the European Union brings to Wales and the UK. Wales was the fastest-growing nation in the UK in 2016 and is well placed to seize the opportunities presented.

Will the Minister reassure the House and businesses across Wales by confirming that arrangements will be put in place to ensure that new trade deals negotiated after leaving the European Union do not undermine devolved policies?

The hon. Gentleman points to the opportunities for new trade deals, which are exciting for every part of the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has re-established the UK’s Board of Trade. We have the privilege of having Lord Rowe-Beddoe, a former chairman of the Welsh Development Agency, as well as Heather Stevens, a very successful business lady, who is part of the Board of Trade and will be looking after Welsh interests on all occasions.

How will the Secretary of State guarantee that integrated supply chains with the EU will be preserved when Britain leaves the European Union?

The hon. Gentleman knows that we are working to deliver a trade agreement that leads to frictionless trade between the UK and the European Union, but I would also point out that, as 80% of Welsh exports go to the rest of the UK, maintaining the integrity of the UK market should be our first priority.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I have been asked to reply. Mr right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in China, building on the existing strong ties between our two countries, and she is accompanied by the largest business delegation that this Government have yet led.

A number of Carillion employees and former employees live in my constituency; indeed, the company has an apprenticeship training centre in Gateshead. They all still face an uncertain future. Will the Government act now to prevent similar corporate theft, whereby pirate directors have syphoned off what should have been hundreds of millions of pounds in pension contributions to pay bogus dividends and unearned corporate bonuses to themselves? Exactly what action do the Government propose to take?

I completely understand the anxiety that must be affecting the apprentices and their families in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He probably heard me say during last week’s debates that the Construction Industry Training Board has taken responsibility for finding alternative employers to enable all those apprentices who were with Carillion to continue and complete their qualifications. It is making good progress in that work, but I shall ensure that the particular concern that he has expressed about Gateshead is brought to its attention.

On the broader question, the House will understand that it would be wrong for me to pre-empt findings by an independent inquiry by the official receiver, but we have already made it clear that we will be publishing proposals later this year to stop directors being able to siphon off pension funds in the way the hon. Gentleman described.

Q2. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the country faces significant cyber-threats from other countries and from non-state actors. He will also be aware that we are protected from those by our security and intelligence services, including the men and women at GCHQ in my county of Gloucestershire. When the Government publish the results of the security review, will he confirm that we will continue, as we have since 2010, to invest in those capabilities to keep our country safe? (903647)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct and I am happy to give him that assurance on behalf of the Government. The sad truth is that, in this country, we face a growing threat of cyber-attacks from states, from serious crime gangs and from hacking groups. We do have a robust national cyber-security strategy to protect critical services, including our democratic processes, and that is underpinned by nearly £2 billion of Government investment.

Let me start by welcoming the Minister back to his role deputising for the Prime Minister. The last time he did so was in December 2016, when the Conservative party was 17 points ahead in the polls, and he told the House that the Labour party was “quarrelling like” in the film

“‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ as re-shot by the ‘Carry On’ team.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 208.]

Well, what a difference a year makes.

But I am not going to intrude further on the Government’s public grief, because I genuinely hope that we can reach consensus across this House today on a very important issue. Next Tuesday will be the centenary of women gaining the right to vote in Britain; that was followed later in 1918 by a second right, to stand for Parliament. I am sure that the Minister will agree that we have a long way to go with regard to the second right; after all, I am the only Emily elected since 1918, and he is one of 155 Davids. The women behind me on the Labour Benches represent one quarter of all the women elected in the last 100 years, but it is still not good enough. Will the Minister tell us how we can best increase female representation in this House?

May I first thank the right hon. Lady for her words of welcome? Clearly, my previous remarks struck a chord with her, to have been treasured in the way that they have. It is a delight to me to see the right hon. Lady still in her place, when no fewer than 97 members of her Front Bench have either been sacked or have resigned since the Leader of the Opposition took office. I pay credit to her sticking power, although she must sometimes whisper to herself, “Surely, I’m a celebrity. Please get me out of here!”

The point that the right hon. Lady raised is a serious one. I think that all political parties represented here—she is right to seek to make this consensual—want to encourage more women candidates to come forward. I am pleased that the Conservative party, since I was first elected 25 years ago, has made very considerable progress, but I also accept that there is more to be done. I hope that she, for her part, will accept that we have now had two women leaders and Prime Ministers, so the Labour party has a bit of catching up to do.

If the Conservative party is so proud of having a female leader, why are so many of them trying to get rid of her and why has she had to run away to China to get away from them? However, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer and I totally agree with his sentiments. Let me ask him about the first right that I mentioned, a right that millions of women received 100 years ago this week: the basic right to vote. It was originally restricted to women with property over the age of 30. Then 90 years ago, it was extended to all women over 21. Almost 50 years ago, it was extended to all men and women over the age of 18. I ask the right hon. Gentleman a simple question: how many more years do we have to wait until the vote is extended to everyone over 16?

The age of 18, rather than 16, is widely recognised as the age at which one becomes an adult and that is when full citizenship rights are attained. Only a handful of countries have a nationwide voting age below 18 and we believe that it is right that the age of majority—18—should continue to be the age at which people become eligible to vote.

The right hon. Gentleman makes international comparisons, but I have to say to him that it was this country and a Labour Government that led the way in Europe and the English-speaking world in reducing the voting age to 18 in 1969. Where we led, others followed, and it will be the same here.

Let me move on to a second question that I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman. I have listened carefully to his answer, but I did not hear any logical explanation for the different rights that we give to 16-year-olds in this country. At 16, we are free from parental control, we can leave home, we can start a family, we can get married, we can start work, we can pay taxes and we can join the forces, so can he give us a logical explanation of why a 16-year-old should not have the right to vote?

I am slightly baffled by the right hon. Lady’s comments when compared with what her party did in office, because it was the last Labour Government who raised the legal age for buying cigarettes to 18, raised the age for sales of knives to 18, raised the age for buying fireworks to 18 and raised the age for using a sunbed to 18. If she wants a lesson in inconsistency, she might like to examine the mirror.

The right hon. Gentleman mentions a range of restrictions that we have until the age of 18, but those are for the most part to do with public health, public safety and the prevention of crime. They are not the same as the basic right to vote on issues that affect your life once you are considered old enough to make other independent decisions about your life, such as leaving school, leaving home and getting married. Let me give him a specific example—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sure that it will not have escaped public notice, and it is rather a sad irony, that when a woman is addressing the House, quite a lot of noisy, boorish and, in one case rather stupid, individuals are trying to shout the right hon. Lady down. Cut it out!

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

I want to give the right hon. Gentleman a specific example to illustrate what I am talking about. According to the Government’s own figures, the number of 16 and 17-year-olds receiving carer’s allowance for looking after disabled relatives at home has risen by more than 50% over the past four years, so last year, over 2,000 16 and 17-year-olds gave up their youth and often their schooling to care for relatives at home. How can it be fair and how can it be logical to expect them to take on that responsibility because of failures of the state and then to deny them a say on how that very state is run?

The logic of the right hon. Lady’s argument is that she wishes to lower the age of majority from 18 to 16. She listed a number of areas in which she supported the age at which activity should be allowed to 18, on the grounds that only then could people be expected to have sufficient maturity and responsibility to have those rights. My argument to her is that the age of majority should be set matching both rights and responsibilities. I think that it is perfectly reasonable to say that, from the age of 18, we entrust young men and women to exercise those rights and responsibilities in full. On the final point she made, it is right that sensible local authorities have particular care for the role of young carers. In my experience, local authorities, whichever party runs them, make every effort to do that.

I am genuinely surprised at the Minister’s response. This is what he said two years ago, speaking to the Youth Parliament:

“When the voice and the vote of young people is absent, decisions are taken that affect young people’s lives that they have not always chosen”.

Not for the first time in these exchanges, I have to say that I agree with him—all of us on the Labour Benches agree with him. Why does he no longer agree with himself?

If the right hon. Lady had been with me at the Youth Parliament, which was indeed both a memorable and an enjoyable occasion, she would have discovered that a significant number of the young men and women there were actually over the voting age. I fully support the role that the Youth Parliament plays, the role that its members play throughout the country and the role that organisations such as school councils play in getting young people used to the idea of exercising democratic responsibility. That seems to me to be excellent training for the full adult responsibilities they will inherit when they turn 18, and I hope that it will encourage more young people to go out and vote.

The Minister says that he was only talking about 18 year olds, but you were there, Mr Speaker; he was talking to 370 under-18s. These discussions have revealed that there is no logical principled objection to votes at 16. That is why the Welsh and Scottish Governments support it and why every single political party in the House supports it, except, of course, the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist party—joined, once again, in opposition to change. They are not the coalition of chaos; they are the coalition of cavemen. [Interruption.] Does he not realise—

Order. One Member who thinks he knows what he is talking about is gesticulating at me. The answer is that it is a matter of taste, not of order. It is blindingly obvious and should not really escape somebody of great intelligence.

I was talking about cavemen, Mr Speaker. Why does the Minister not realise the lesson that we women taught his predecessors 100 years ago? When change is right it cannot be resisted forever, and this is a change whose time has come.

My advice to the right hon. Lady is to wean herself off the habit of watching old versions of “The Flintstones” on the relevant cartoon channel.

We ought to salute the fact that not just the Youth Parliament but many schools and other youth organisations throughout the country are working hard to get young people used to the idea that, as they grow up, they should take an interest in current affairs and then, when they reach the relevant age, exercise the full rights and responsibilities of an adult by participating in elections and political campaigning, The situation here, with the national voting age at 18, is one that is followed by 26 out of the 27 other members of the EU and by the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Unless she is going to denounce all of those countries as somehow inadequate by her own particular standards, she ought to grow up and treat this subject with greater seriousness.

Q3. The Government’s policy on tax has made the UK one of the most competitive places to do business, as was confirmed by the recent growth figures. Does my right hon. Friend agree, therefore, that raising tax would damage the UK economy, as we have seen in Scotland, where growth has fallen behind the rest of the UK? (903648)

I am very happy to agree with my hon. Friend. We devolved new powers from this House to Holyrood, and it is obviously for the Scottish Government to determine how to use them. It is a matter of great regret, however, that they have chosen to use those powers to break their promises and penalise aspiration in Scotland. In our Budget, we increased the Scottish Government’s spending power by £2 billion, so the SNP has no excuse for hiking the taxes of hard-working people, including public servants, and penalising businesses. The leader of the Scottish nationalists in Westminster used to champion wealth creation and free enterprise. I hope he will ask the First Minister of Scotland to think again.

I welcome the Minister to his place. If the reports are true, he may be auditioning for a new role. I wonder if he is sending a “round robin” letter.

The Minister has previously said that

“the Single Market is essential to this government’s agenda for trade and competitiveness.”

Since BuzzFeed published the leaked Brexit analysis, has the Minister recognised that the single market is essential to jobs and prosperity?

When we leave the European Union in March next year, we will, as a matter of legality, leave the single market and the EU customs union. The Prime Minister and the entire Government have also made it clear, in both the Lancaster House speech and the Florence speech, that we are seeking a new partnership with our neighbours in the European Union that will ensure that we continue to have frictionless trade, which is in the interest of not just our people but the people of every one of the 27 other EU countries.

I must say that I am surprised at the Minister, because it is not a question of legality. We are going to be in a transitional deal, so we will still be in the single market when we leave the EU.

This is a Government who are in crisis, and an international embarrassment. The Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Scottish Conservatives and the Home Secretary have all supported membership of the single market, but despite that, the Government are still prepared to make everyone poorer. Where is the leadership?

The leadership that the right hon. Gentleman wants was set out very clearly at Lancaster House and then again in Florence, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be making further speeches on these issues in the weeks and months to come. Let me point out to him, however, that the single market that is most important to the people of Scotland is the single market of the United Kingdom, which is worth nearly £50 billion every year to the Scottish economy—four times more than trade with the European Union. It is our deep and special partnership with the EU in the future, not the separatist policies pursued by the Scottish National party, that will help to deliver prosperity to Scotland.

Q5. I know my right hon. Friend shares my passion for ensuring that all children have opportunities to succeed, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Can he tell us what progress the Government have made in reducing the attainment gap between less well off secondary school pupils and their peers, and—given their positive impact—when the round of free school applications will open? (903650)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government’s clear ambition and purpose is to ensure that our school system works for every child in every community in this country. Our reforms have already raised school standards. Nearly 2 million more children are attending good and outstanding schools, and since 2011 the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has shrunk by 10% at GCSE and by 10.5% at key stage 2. I know that Education Ministers will be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about their plans to further improve standards in schools.

Q4. Last Sunday in my constituency, Reece Oduleye-Waters, who was just 17, was stabbed, with life-changing results. The knife crime that is happening across our country is not being driven by minors and young people; it is being driven by gangsters, organised criminals, and dirty money. Cocaine alone is worth £12 billion to the market in this country, with 100 tonnes of it crossing our borders. So I ask the Minister this: why are we cutting our border force, why are we cutting our police, and why has London been offered, in the violence reduction strategy, a community fund of only half a million pounds? No one could buy a house for half a million in London. (903649)

I, like every other Member of this House, have nothing but the most heartfelt sympathy for Reece and his family and friends for the most appalling experience that they have endured and are still living through. The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that there are complex causes of the knife crime we are seeing. I agree that there is no doubt that organised crime is contributing to this, and is exploiting young people; organised criminals try to groom young people and attract them into criminal gangs. The Government will publish later this year a violent crime strategy looking not just at the criminal justice system, but at how we can work effectively with all other agencies to ensure that young people are diverted away from that sort of activity in the first place. But it is also true that those carrying a knife can now expect to end up in jail; we have toughened the sentences. And despite what the right hon. Gentleman said, we have also protected police budgets; a quarter of all police are in London.

Q8. Demand for school places in the London Borough of Bromley is forecast to grow by some 20% over coming years, but repeatedly proposals for much needed schools have been delayed, in no small measure because of concerns at the way the Education and Skills Funding Agency has handled the planning application process. On behalf of the Prime Minister, will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss the very real concerns of local parents as to the competency of the agency? (903653)

Either I or my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary will be happy to talk to my hon. Friend. The purpose of the ESFA, formed at the start of this financial year, is to provide a more joined-up approach to funding, covering both schools and colleges and other providers. I note that Bromley has increased both primary and secondary school capacity by more than 6,300 places since 2010, and the ESFA is delivering nine schools in Bromley, but there is clearly more work to be done, and Ministers will gladly talk to my hon. Friend about that.

Q6. Recent research shows that international students are worth a staggering £20 billion to the UK economy; that research was commissioned by Nick Hillman, Conservative parliamentary candidate in Cambridge in 2010 and a former adviser to Lord Willetts. Yet the policies of the Prime Minister have stopped that steady increase in the number of international students coming to our country. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is a touch careless of the Prime Minister to have squandered billions of pounds that could have been available to our schools and hospitals? (903651)

The facts say that we are the second most popular destination in the world for students and university-sponsored visa applications are up by nearly one fifth since 2010, so I would argue that, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman alleges, we are doing a good job in attracting international students.

Q10. South Dorset is the most beautiful constituency in the whole of the United Kingdom, so improving the infrastructure to create jobs and prosperity is difficult. What we can do is improve our rail links on the Salisbury line and at Yeovil Junction to get faster trains to Weymouth. Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents and me that the Government are behind this scheme, to do exactly what the Government want: create more wealth and prosperity in South Dorset? (903655)

As my hon. Friend will know, the Chancellor last year set aside very considerable sums of money—more than £20 billion—to finance infrastructure improvements in rail, road and broadband, in order to generate growth around the country and facilitate housing developments; my hon. Friend’s constituency has seen considerable new housing development in recent years. I will ensure that Transport Ministers talk to him about the particular concerns he has expressed.

Q7. On 25 January 1985, the Conservative Government promised that no nuclear waste would be dumped in the Billingham anhydrite mine. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirmed that that promise still stands? (903652)

The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me, but my memory for statements that were given in 1985 is a little bit rusty. That was seven years before even I was first elected to this House. I will look into the point that he has raised and write to him to set out the position.

Q13. To secure our future prosperity and to meet the employment challenge posed by artificial intelligence, this country has an urgent need to improve its digital skills base. Will my right hon. Friend therefore congratulate the Open University in my constituency on securing a leading role in the Government’s Institute of Coding? (903658)

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Open University on securing that lead role in the Institute of Coding, which is an important new initiative to get universities to work closely with business to develop specialist coding skills. The Government are investing £84 million to deliver a comprehensive programme to improve the teaching of the computing curriculum, and we look forward to working closely with the university and the institute.

Q9. After 10 years in this country, one of my constituents missed out on the right to claim indefinite leave to remain by 22 days when she left the country to attend her father’s funeral and broke her leg, making her unable to return. The Home Secretary is aware of this case, and my constituent has been told that she will have to wait a further 10 years to reapply. This will mean that she will be unable to adopt a child, which could be the only way in which she can start a family in this country. Will the right hon. Gentleman raise this issue with the Prime Minister when she returns, and may we have a meeting to discuss the issue? (903654)

Obviously I know no more details of the case than those that the hon. Gentleman has just described, but, like many Members, I have immigration casework in my constituency, so I am familiar with the type of problem that he describes. If he would like to write to me after these exchanges to set out the details, I will discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and the relevant Minister will certainly meet him.

Q14. Last week, I visited RNAS Culdrose as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and was delighted to see the great outreach programme that the sailors are using to promote science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—skills and innovation in the local community. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this initiative to inspire the skills that our armed forces and our country will need to succeed in the future is a huge credit to the forward thinking of the team at Culdrose and that its approach should be highly commended? (903659)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know about the important role that Culdrose plays in the life of Cornwall, but he has highlighted the fact that its work deserves to be in the national spotlight as well. We want and need to build the science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills that we will need in a growing and rapidly changing economy, as we highlighted in the Government’s industrial strategy, and the initiative at Culdrose will contribute to the success of those objectives.

Q11. It is an extraordinary fact that this year, last year and every year for more than a decade, one London borough, the London Borough of Islington, has received more Arts Council funding than all the midlands and northern ex-coalfield communities combined. Who is going to be brave enough to reverse that inequity so that my constituents, especially my young constituents, can have fair and equitable access to arts funding? (903656)

I am not sure whether that was meant as an attack on the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) or the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), but I can say to the hon. Gentleman that if there is a particular bid that he feels has been unfairly treated, he is welcome to take that up with the new arts Minister, who I know will want to examine the case carefully. In general terms, however, more than half the arts funding in England is awarded to arts activities outside Greater London.

Q15. Holiday homes in Cornwall are a mixed blessing. They provide important support to our local economy, but they also take up vital housing stock and push up prices beyond the reach of many local people. In addition, many people avoid paying council tax on them by switching them to business use and then enjoying the benefits of small business rates relief. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that unacceptable? Will he use his good offices to help the Government to find a way of closing the loophole? (903660)

My hon. Friend raises a valid point, and it is right that holiday home owners should pay the correct tax. Obviously, individual decisions on whether a property should pay council tax or business rates rests with the Valuation Office Agency, which rightly operates independently of Ministers. However, if a property is available for rent for 140 days or a more a year, it will be subject to business rates. If it does not meet that test, council tax will be due. If an individual provides false information in order to seek business rates relief, that person is liable to summary conviction or a fine or both.

Q12. The Prime Minister wants to bring forward legislation to tackle domestic violence and abuse, but her Government are currently taxing the same survivors for using the Child Maintenance Service. For survivors of domestic abuse, using the collect and pay service is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of safety. Will the right hon. Gentleman urge the Prime Minister to commit to using legislation to scrap the tax for survivors of domestic violence? (903657)

A Government consultation on this matter is imminent, and I urge the hon. Lady to make her representations to that consultation and also directly to the relevant Minister.

Following last year’s terrorist attack in Manchester, the Government committed £24 million to the city. With the effects still being felt across the area, including in my constituency, will the Government provide an assurance that they will continue to support Manchester?

We will certainly continue to support Manchester right across Government through the various agencies and spending programmes that the Government have available. Manchester demonstrated its resilience and its strong sense of community identity and purpose last year, and they will serve it well both economically and socially in the years to come.

The whole House will warmly welcome the fantastic news that has saved thousands of jobs at Bombardier in Northern Ireland. We should pay tribute to Bombardier’s management, both in Belfast and in Canada, the workforce and the unions, which worked well together, hon. Members on the Democratic Unionist party Bench, including my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and the Government, which rode in strongly to support the company. I urge the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to get behind improving manufacturing in Northern Ireland, because vital decisions are outstanding. I also gently urge the Government, who always listen very carefully, to get on with it.

May I first thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words? Although it is now a few years since I had the opportunity to visit Bombardier in Belfast, I still remember how important that enterprise is for the provision of high-quality, well-paid skilled work both in the city and more widely in Northern Ireland. He is right to say that the Government worked closely with Northern Ireland leaders and politicians. The Prime Minister raised the matter personally more than once with President Trump and with Prime Minister Trudeau, and my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has also been active on Bombardier’s behalf. We are pleased by the outcome. The right hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the Government will remain a strong supporter of business in Northern Ireland, but the sooner that we can get back to devolved government in Northern Ireland, the easier it will be to ensure that practical benefits flow back to Northern Ireland.

A vibrant high street is critical in traditional market towns such as Knaresborough, which has had a market since 1310. In this age of internet shopping, will my right hon. Friend confirm the Government’s support for traditional markets and for policies that will boost our high streets?

My hon. Friend is right to speak up on behalf of his constituents, and I know he is a tireless campaigner for Harrogate and Knaresborough. Markets like the one in Knaresborough are part of the local fabric and tradition of towns right across this country. The Government want to help those markets and town centres to prosper in a rapidly changing retail environment. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will be happy to write to him with further details.

Lincoln’s walk-in centre will close in a few weeks, despite there being inconsistent and insufficient service provision in place to mitigate the closure. Will the Minister pass on to the Prime Minister my request for her to meet me both to discuss and review that closure?

If the hon. Lady would like to provide a bit more detail than she has had the time to set out today, I will ensure that a Minister sees her about this.

Next Wednesday we will be assessing and voting on the local government finance settlement. A group of us from the shire counties are very concerned that there is not enough money for rural counties like ours, where adult social care costs are spiralling out of control. My own county is facing a black hole of £10 million because of adult social care costs. What message should I take back to the leader of my council?

One message is that the Government have made an extra £2 billion of funding available to local authorities for social care. Obviously, local authorities are currently deciding whether to use the more flexible precepting powers they have in respect of social care. My hon. Friend met my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary a few days ago, and I would encourage him to continue talking to the Communities Secretary and other Ministers in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about the particular circumstances in Shropshire.

The current edition of The Economist carries an article that says the hostile takeover bid for GKN by Melrose

“casts doubt not only on the survival of GKN, Britain’s third-largest independent aerospace and defence firm, but on much of the rest of the industry, too.”

The right hon. Gentleman knows that, where national security issues are involved, Ministers have the power to intervene to protect the public interest. Will they do so in this case?

As I understand it, the bid for GKN is being examined by the relevant independent authorities. Clearly this is also something that the appropriate Ministers in the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be monitoring very closely. For now, it would be wrong of me to speculate about this case in more detail.

My constituency of Chelmsford is a very popular place to live, and this week we have had the very good news that more first-time buyers are getting on the housing ladder than at any time in the past decade. Will my right hon. Friend update us on the Government’s progress on helping people to buy a house?

I am pleased to be able to say that the number of first-time buyers is now at the highest level for about 10 years, which is a tribute to the various initiatives that both the Communities Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have put in place to encourage first-time buyers—the cut in stamp duty, for example, will benefit about 95% of first-time buyers—but we also need to improve housing supply. Constituencies like hers and mine are showing the way to much of the rest of the country on the need to build houses to meet the legitimate demands and expectations of young people who are working incredibly hard and want to get a foot on the housing ladder.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, in the National Assembly for Wales, when my constituency colleague Adam Price asked for a vote on the Labour Welsh Government’s plans to potentially close hospitals in Carmarthenshire, the First Minister misled the Assembly and Assembly Members, and in doing so provided details of correspondence between the local health board and my constituency office. He claimed that our office has made no effort to engage with the health board over this issue.

I first became aware of the proposed closure plans on 18 January this year, following a panic email from Mr Steve Moore, chief executive of the Hywel Dda University Health Board, in which he explained that the closure plans had been leaked and were due to appear in the local press imminently. Our office replied on 19 January, asking for an urgent meeting. Although I do not expect you to comment on health policy in Wales, Mr Speaker, or indeed the manner in which the Labour Government of my country harvest information from public bodies in order to smear opponents, I would be grateful if you could say what advice you would give MPs who may find their data protection rights breached by a public body and how I could put on the record a correction of the comments by the First Minister.

I thank the hon. Member for his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise this point of order. It is not my role, I am very pleased to say, to pass judgment on matters before the National Assembly for Wales. That said—the hon. Gentleman in in pursuit of advice—if he believes that there has been a breach of data protection requirements, he should most certainly raise the matter with the Information Commissioner. We will leave that matter there for now.

Freedom of Information (Amendment)

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 make provision for the disclosure of information held by public authorities or by persons contracted to provide services for them or on their behalf; to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000; and for connected purposes.

Nearly 20 years on from the revolution of the Freedom of Information Act, this Bill would extend its parameters into the unaccountable outsourced state. It would also enhance the existing powers available to private citizens, investigative journalists and concerned communities so that they are not forced to wade through a swamp of bureaucracy before getting answers about the decisions that are made in their name.

I would first like to pay tribute to the many other Members who have campaigned on this issue for many years, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who has a very similar Bill in this Session and has focused particularly on housing associations, which I will come to shortly. Those in power have had a long and difficult relationship with freedom of information, and, like much that challenges government, it has met resistance every step of the way. The Thatcher Government were so concerned in the 1980s that they warned that FOI would reduce the sovereignty of Parliament itself.

In that context, it was remarkable that the last Labour Government, who had been out of power for 18 years, committed themselves to shining a light on the shadows cast by decisions made behind closed doors. Tony Blair said at the time that the Act

“is fundamental to changing the way we do politics in this country…there is still far too much an addiction to secrecy and wish to conduct Government business behind closed doors”.

Tony Blair, of course, came to regret the revolution that followed, but it was nothing short of revolutionary. Literally thousands of cases, on every topic imaginable, saw information drawn into the public domain—expenses, bonuses, stop-and-search figures and child sexual exploitation were all exposed and brought to light because of this Act. That was a Labour achievement and it is one we should be proud of.

That is why the last two Labour manifestos pledged to extend FOI to private contractors performing public services. We propose extending this Act because we recognise the climate in which FOI operates has changed, as the Government’s addiction to outsourcing has exploded.

The collapse of Carillion is just one recent example of an ever-growing shadow state in which some of the Government’s more dubious policy priorities are outsourced for private profit, leaving citizens in the dark about what is happening in their name. Under the coalition, outsourcing almost doubled to £120 billion. Never before has shareholder interest over the public interest had such a large stake in the functioning of our state. Transparency and accountability have diminished in consequence, and the limited scope of the Freedom of Information Act allows too many of those who are performing public functions with public money none the less to hide behind a cloak of secrecy.

Bad decisions, targets missed, warnings ignored—the result time and again is similar to the scandal exposed in the past fortnight, which should have been predictable. Carillion was not an isolated example of incompetence and indifference from one individual contractor; it was a symptom of a much broader problem—private contractors providing public services that should never be driven by profit. In the welfare system, we see contracts structured by Government farmed out to the private sector, and the consequences only truly exposed when things fall apart.

We saw that in the last Parliament, when we were pursuing Concentrix, the firm contracted to identify fraud in the tax credit system. That multinational corporation was ruthlessly pursuing single parents and families, on the instruction of the Treasury, and treating them as guilty until proven innocent. It accused them of living with people they had never met, or told them they were to have their tax credits arbitrarily cut because they did not respond to a letter they had never received. One single mum, who worked two jobs for little pay, said to me, “I feel as if I am being treated as a criminal.”

The scandal was not just the treatment of these parents, or the pursuit of profit at their expense. The scandal was the Government’s absolute failure to manage the contract effectively, and then the denial of information to Members of this House who were demanding to know what went wrong. A similar case is that of Cygnet, a private provider of mental health services. Its hospital in my constituency was judged unsafe owing to some very severe shortcomings, but even something as basic as the action plan agreed by the regulator, the NHS and the provider has been withheld from public scrutiny as it is deemed to be the property of the private provider.

It should not take public exposure for decent people to be treated with dignity, or for information to be put into the public domain as a matter of course. The current situation is allowing private contractors to withhold information that is very clearly in the public interest. Maurice Frankel and Katherine Gundersen, from the fantastic Campaign for Freedom of Information, have pulled together examples of the type of request private contractors have refused. They include: the number of prison staff at HMP Birmingham and the number of attacks at the prison—information currently held only by G4S—whistleblowing policies applying to Virgin Care staff providing NHS services, and the number of employees providing outsourced services for a local council employed on zero-hours contracts.

Extending the Act into areas that used to be overseen by the state and were therefore subject to FOI is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. When institutions or private providers are permitted to withhold information, bad decisions are made and mistrust builds among communities. The Grenfell Tower fire has highlighted the desperate need for public access to information held by the providers of social housing. Housing associations, which own or run many former council estates, are completely outside the scope of the Act, and residents are denied information that they have a right to know. In one instance, a housing association refused to reveal information to residents about the cause of a fire in one of their flats, and whether potentially toxic lead pipes were used for the water supply to a property. Making contractors accountable to the public they serve for the decisions they make will lead to better, safer, clearer decisions.

The original Act still gives too much power to authorities to delay and obstruct an individual’s right to information. In 2015, the Government commissioned an independent review of FOI, which made several recommendations to improve the functioning of the Act. This Bill takes up those recommendations. It includes strictures on the delaying tactics available to authorities and a statutory time limit for internal reviews, and provides that an offence under the Act should be triable either way rather than being summary only. There has never been a prosecution under section 77 of the FOI Act, in large part because there is a six-month deadline for bringing prosecutions, which is long gone by the time the public authority has made a decision and the commissioner has received and investigated a complaint. Extending the offence to be triable either way gives authorities a chance to bring prosecutions and ensure that the Act is enforced.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant—advice from their former leader that the Government may wish to remember. Ultimately, few could disagree with the need for parity for public and private providers when they are delivering public services. Whether it is Concentrix, Carillion or Cygnet, why would we hold private providers to a lower standard of transparency and accountability than their public competitors? If sunlight really is the best disinfectant, here today is the chance to clean up the murky world of our outsourced state, to drive up standards, to improve trust and to ensure that it is always citizens, not shareholders, who are the ultimate authority for our public services.

Question put and agreed to.


That Louise Haigh, Tommy Sheppard, Andy Slaughter, Paula Sherriff, Jo Stevens, Ian C. Lucas, Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods, Nic Dakin, Alex Sobel, Diana Johnson, Anna Turley and Clive Efford present the Bill.

Louise Haigh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on 15 June 2018, and to be printed (Bill 159).

Business of the House (Opposition Day)


That at today’s sitting, paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments) shall apply to the Motion in the name of Jeremy Corbyn as if the day were an Opposition Day; and proceedings on the Motion may continue, though opposed, for three hours after commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order and shall then lapse if not previously disposed of; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Rebecca Harris.)

Opposition Day

Un-allotted Half Day

Government’s EU Exit Analysis

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the EU exit analysis which was referred to in his response to an Urgent Question in the House on 30 January by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union be provided to the Exiting the European Union Committee and made available to all Members on a confidential basis as a matter of urgency.

The saga of the Brexit impact assessment rolls on. This all started back in December 2016, when the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union first told the Brexit Committee that the Government were working on “sectoral impact analysis” in 57 areas—later, one was added to make it 58. In October last year, he got rather carried away with the idea and elaborated, saying that the analyses were “excruciating detail”, throwing in for good measure that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet had read the summaries. When various right hon. and hon. Members sought disclosure of the impact assessments, they were met with a flat refusal.

Things moved on. In November last year, we presented and won a Humble Address requiring the Government to disclose the impact assessments arising from the Government’s analysis—an important statement of principle. So far, so good. Some documents were made available, and I was one of those who went to the Treasury to see them. I was escorted to a room, where I had to pass over my phone and sign a document on confidentiality. I sat down, and two files were solemnly brought to me; I was allowed to read them and take some notes. We now know that those documents contained a description of the sector that could have been found in any House of Lords or Select Committee report, a summary of the EU law and policy—surprising that I had to give up my phone to read that—and then a very generalised view from the sector. I went through the footnotes to that third section and struggled to find one that did not relate to open-source material. Press releases and evidence given to Select Committees were there, all of which I solemnly noted before I handed the files back, got my phone back and left the premises. Those documents are now available online, minus the sector analysis and therefore the open-source material.

In September, when questioned by the Exiting the European Union Committee about the rest of the documents, the Secretary of State said that the Department had not done any impact assessments on any sector of the British economy. He made the point that the use of the word “impact” did not mean that an impact assessment had been done within the formal definition used by the civil service. As a former defence lawyer, I was struck by that defence. It was technically right that someone cannot be censured for contempt for failing to hand over impact assessments because they have not done any, but I was never sure which was worse: relying on that technical defence, or not doing the impact assessments in the first place.

Roll on one month, and in the past two days it was leaked that an assessment called the “EU Exit Analysis – Cross Whitehall Briefing” does in fact exist. It is reported that that document looks at three of the most plausible Brexit scenarios based on current EU arrangements with the range of predictions. Consistent with the principle established back in November 2017, the Opposition yesterday called on the Government to release that analysis. In true groundhog fashion, the Government said no, as they did last year.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman had a distinguished career in law before he came to this place. Does he condemn the leak of a Government document? To what extent are any Government documents to be regarded as confidential? Will he condemn the leak?

Before I was in this place, I held the post of Director of Public Prosecutions. We took leaks from our department or any other civil service department very seriously. I can only assume that an inquiry is in place in relation to this leak, and in the circumstances we should say nothing more about it.

I have repeatedly raised concerns that the north-east and other regions will be hard hit by the very obvious risks of Brexit. It seems from the leak that the Government share that view. Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my view that it is completely unacceptable that the Government think it is okay to keep businesses and people in regions such as mine in the dark?

My hon. Friend demonstrates that hon. Members have been trying on behalf of their constituencies and regions to get a proper analysis of the impact of Brexit on the individuals, businesses and communities they represent. That is why it is so important to have that information. It will mean that we can have an informed debate and hold the Government properly to account.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman described his experience of dealing with leaks. Does he accept that we have a curious cult of secrecy across Government today and have had for some years? A leak is a serious matter and I deplore leaks when documents are revealed whose contents compromise the national interest or are loaded with party political or other significance, but it is impossible to see how an objective analysis of the economic consequences of the various options that the Government are considering compromises the national interest. A properly open Government should make such information freely available to all those who have a legitimate interest in the subject, including MPs.

I agree. It is significant that the original documents that were requested last year were initially refused on freedom of information grounds, only then to be made available in the form I described, and then to be put in the public domain in any event, which demonstrates the point that many Governments—this Government are doing the same—put their arms around information that ought to be in the public domain to inform the debate. It is the wrong way of doing business.

If the Government are eventually forced to release the impact assessments, as I suspect they will be—I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman suspects the same—and if they confirm that any deal the Government strike will be worse than the one we have with the European Union, will he and the leader of the Labour party change their position and campaign much more vigorously to keep us in the European Union?

We will look at information when it is put into the public domain. We have been looking at analysis and data for months, and have been visiting businesses and communities for months, to inform our position.

I have taken a number of interventions and will make progress. I will allow interventions later, otherwise I will not get very far.

Yesterday, standing at the Dispatch Box, I asked the Government to release the documents referred to in the leak. As I have said, the Government said no. The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who is in his place, advanced three defences for that position, none of which withstand scrutiny. His first defence—that the analysis is rubbish—was astonishing. He was asked whether he could name a single civil service forecast that was accurate. He glibly replied: “They are always wrong”. He may have forgotten that he is now part of the Government, and yesterday transposed himself back to being spokesperson for Vote Leave. Ministers and the Government commissioned those papers, and it is frankly ridiculous to attempt to rubbish them as an excuse for not publishing them.

I will complete this point and then give way.

There is a serious point. Is it seriously Government policy that impact assessments are so inherently unreliable that it is better to proceed without them? That is the logic of the position described yesterday. Is it not better to adopt the approach tweeted last night by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who said:

“The next phase of Brexit has to be all about the evidence. We can’t just dismiss this and move on. If there is evidence to the contrary, we need to see and consider that too”?

Before I give way, I will make one further point about the line of defence of rubbishing the analysis. It is deeply discourteous and disrespectful to the civil servants who have worked on those papers and are presumably continuing to work on them, often in difficult circumstances. In my experience, having been a civil servant, and having had civil servants as staff, they do a very good job whether or not they agree with the instructions given to them. To glibly answer that they are always wrong was deeply disrespectful to them. I hope the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who will speak for the Government today, will take the opportunity formally to apologise to the civil servants who prepared those papers in good faith, and assure them of the support we all have for the work they are trying to do.

I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and then to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford).

My right hon. and learned Friend makes the good point that, yesterday, we saw a pretty grim approach to economic forecasting, which was full of jokes and did not address the seriousness of the situation. Does he agree that an opportunity presents itself? The Conservative Government created the Office for Budget Responsibility—independent forecasters who could do the job of providing the public with the facts if only the Government would tell them what their policy is.

I do agree, and that is a very important point. Essentially, the OBR is saying that it cannot do its job because it does not have the information to do it. That is why it is far better to proceed on the basis of assessments of risk and impact, and to allow the OBR to do its job.

I will give way in one minute, but may I just finish this point?

Having been a civil servant for five years and having engaged in risk assessments, I can say that the purpose of the exercise is to identify the risk, the size of the risk, and the likelihood of the risk. The fourth column, which is always the really important one, is what the Government will do to mitigate the risk. That is why these risk assessments are so important.

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for giving way. I agree with him on the important work of the civil service. Many real stakeholders, including the digital industry, the banking industry and the legal services industry, have come to me this week to say what a good job our civil service is doing in preparing for the Brexit negotiations. My understanding of this paper is that it suggests that the no-deal scenario is not very attractive and that cutting and pasting the Canada or the Norway deal is also not very attractive, but that is not what the Government are proposing. Does he not agree that it would be better if our Ministers got out of this House and on with their work to deliver a better deal?

I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Lady will remember that one question I asked of the Minister yesterday was whether the model that the Government are pursuing has also been subjected to an impact assessment. I did not actually get any of the questions that I asked—about six—answered or even addressed by the Minister yesterday. I hope that some of them might be addressed later on today.

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. Can he help us with this: has he established the status of these documents? From what I gather, these were not some loosely put together drafts of a document. Has he been able to establish whether these are the documents that were to be made available to members of the Cabinet—next week, I think, if not this week—under lock and key and subject to them not making notes? This is really important. Are these documents the ones that were deemed to be of such importance that the Cabinet should see them?

I am grateful for that intervention. I will answer it, and make a second point as I do so. This is a really important point. The second line of defence that was deployed yesterday for not releasing these documents was that they are not complete, they are at an early stage, and they are just evolving. As I recall it, that was exactly what was said about the first set of documents that we were trying to have released last year. We have heard that one before. I have not yet ascertained the status of the documents, but, as I understand it, they were being shown to key Ministers ahead of an important Cabinet Brexit Sub-Committee meeting next week. No doubt, the Minister will be able to confirm that. If those documents are in such a form that they can be shown to Ministers to brief them for an important meeting next week, they are certainly way past the stage of an early script that has not been approved.

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Is he aware that, this morning at Welsh questions, the Wales Office Minister, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), said “We have many assessments as we go through this process”, so it is not just the one, but many? Will it not be essential that the Government release those assessments when they become available as we go through the process?

I think that it is, because, otherwise, all that is available are the increasingly stale assessments that were put—eventually—into the public domain last December.

I will press on. [Interruption.] I will give way once, twice and then a third time to a Member on the Government Benches, just to be fair.

The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) makes an important point on where the devolved Administrations have already done their work on the assessments. Therefore, is it what the Minister said yesterday at the Dispatch Box that the Government will not assist them with that work, because many of these areas are partly devolved and partly retained?

I am grateful for that intervention, because it is consistent with the point that was made earlier about the regions. Each of the regions and nations needs to understand the risk that it faces, so that it can then, if necessary, put the various mitigations in place. We need to press on these issues, so that is vital.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if the Government had at their disposal any economic evidence or forecast that backed up their chosen approach, it would already be in the public domain; it would not be called a leak?

I am grateful for that intervention, and I agree that it would be highly likely that such material would be put into the public domain.

I come back to this serious point: the choice now to be made is how we leave the EU and what the future relationship might be. That is a profoundly important question. There are many different choices, and we absolutely need—and there should be—a robust impact assessment that we can all see and all discuss.

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. Is it his party’s policy to remain in the European Union’s customs union—yes or no?

Mr Speaker, I rather thought that the point of interventions was to engage in the debate that was going on, rather than to make a completely different point. Our position on the customs union has been made clear very, very many times, and I do not see that that is an intervention on the point that I am making, so I will press on.

The third line of defence that was advanced by the Minister, who now seeks instructions from the civil servants he disparaged yesterday, was that any disclosure might harm or undermine the negotiations. Again, we have heard that one before. We have always accepted that anything that genuinely undermines the negotiations should not be put into the public domain, but there is a difference between that and something that is simply embarrassing to the Government, a point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) yesterday afternoon. This motion provides for confidentiality. That defence was immediately undermined by the Minister himself yesterday. When there is a leak, Governments usually say that they will not comment on the leak, and that they do not rely on the information in the leak, because if it is not to be in the public domain, nobody should rely on it. But the Minister not only commented on it, but sought to rely on the leak to advance his own case. When challenged by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) about the customs union, he prayed in aid the figures, saying that

“there is economic growth under all the scenarios in the economic assessment.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 683.]

One cannot simply say, “I will rely on the figures to advance my own case, but I won’t publish the full figures so that anyone can question me properly on what I am saying.” We now need to go back to first principles.

I will press on, but I will give way again in a minute.

As I have said, only question was asked on 23 June 2016, which was whether we should leave the EU—not how and not what the future relationship should be. These are incredibly important questions. We need an informed debate, including on the likely economic impact of different approaches. Publication is needed in the name of transparency; publication is needed in the name of scrutiny. There has been an indication that the Government will accept this motion, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister. When he does so, may I caution him, because his fellow Minister, the hon. Member for Wycombe, yesterday found himself saying, at the beginning of his answer that

“this economic analysis is not what is formally known as an impact assessment.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 680.]

Let us not go there again—where a motion is accepted only for later there to be a quibble as to whether the precise wording was sufficient to release the documents. If the motion is being accepted, it needs to be accepted in spirit, in form and in full. Secondly, let there be no confusion about editing or redacting. That is not provided for in this motion, just as it was not provided for last time.

Finally I ask the Minister, if the motion is to be accepted, when do the Government intend to release the documents? I remind the Minister that when this question arose at the end of our first Humble Address, Mr Speaker was asked what he considered to be a reasonable timeframe for the Government to respond. On that occasion, Mr Speaker said:

“One can take a view about this, one can consult “Erskine May” and one should reflect in a sober and considered fashion, but if the hon. Lady is asking me whether I envisage this being something that needs to be deliberated on over a period of several days, the answer is no.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2017; Vol. 630, c. 932.]

The Opposition anticipate and expect the same sort of timeframe to be kept to in this case.

The Government will not be opposing this motion. As the motion is therefore expected to pass, I will focus my remarks on three important points: first, how we plan to comply with the terms of the motion; secondly, an explanation of exactly what the analysis to which the motion refers is and the significant caveats to the status of the analysis, so that all Members fully understand the preliminary nature of the analysis and the challenges around this type of modelling more broadly; and, thirdly, the fact that there are parts of the analysis that remain negotiation-sensitive and should not be put into the public domain. The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), who speaks for the Opposition, has recognised the latter point in his motion, which refers to confidentiality. A key part of this is about the importance for Government of being able to conduct internal thinking when it comes to preparing policy.

Let me start with the terms of the motion. We will provide the analysis to the Exiting the European Union Committee and to all Members on a strictly confidential basis. This means that we will provide a hard copy of the analysis to the Chair of the Committee. A confidential reading room will be available to all Members and peers to see a copy of the analysis, once those arrangements can be made. This will be under the same terms as previous arrangements in similar circumstances, under this and previous Governments.

We have heard many requests and demands for this information to be published here today and in the press. Has the Minister had any similar requests from the devolved Government in Cardiff for Welsh-specific information from these assessments?

I personally have not yet seen such requests. We do intend to make this information available to the devolved Administrations, as we did with the previous reports that we made available to this House. It is then a matter for the devolved Administrations to ensure that such documents are handled with appropriate confidentiality; we have no objection in principle to their being shared with Members of the devolved legislatures on the same basis of confidentiality.

As the Minister is a former economist, can he persuade me that it will be worth my while to visit this reading room, given that every economic forecast that I have ever seen has been wildly inaccurate?

My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I would like to turn to the analysis itself, so he pre-empts some of the caveats that are important to mention.

I will give way in one moment.

The document is preliminary, unfinished and has only very recently been presented to Ministers in any form at all. It contains a large number of caveats, and sets out on every single page that this is

“draft analytical thinking with preliminary results”.

The analysis has not been led by my Department or, for that matter, by any single Department. This next stage of analysis has been a cross-Whitehall effort to support our negotiating priorities. It is not yet anywhere near being approved by Ministers, and it has only been brought together in a draft paper for them to review this month. Even the ministerial team in my Department have only just been consulted on this particular paper in recent days, and have made it clear that it requires significant further work. It does not yet reflect this Government’s policy approaches and does not represent an accurate reflection of the expected outcome of the negotiations.

It would not be right to describe the figures as Government numbers, as they have not had formal Government approval or sign-off as most analysis or policy would. The primary purpose of analysis at this stage was a preliminary attempt to improve on the much criticised analysis published around the time of the EU referendum. It is there to test ideas and to design a viable framework for the analysis of our exit from the European Union.

Since the Conservative party governs with the support of the 10 Democratic Unionist party Members—of whom I am not one—I am very curious to know whether any Member of the DUP will have advance notice of this economic analysis ahead of the Select Committee or, indeed, in addition to the Select Committee.

The simple answer is no. We would make this information available to the whole House on the same basis, while responding to the points on confidentiality that are covered in the Opposition motion.

If the hon. Lady will give me one moment, I will give way. I just want to complete my point about the caveats to the analysis.

At this very early stage, the analysis only considers the off-the-shelf arrangements that currently exist, and we have been clear these are not what we are seeking in the negotiations. It does not consider our desired outcome, which is the most ambitious relationship possible with the European Union, as set out by the Prime Minister in her Florence speech—such an agreement is in the interests of both the UK and the EU—and, to be crystal clear, it does not consider a comprehensive free trade agreement scenario as some reports have suggested, but simply an average FTA. We believe that we can do much better, given our unique starting point and shared history. Therefore, the scenarios in this analysis continue to suffer from the flaws that we have seen in previous analyses of this type.

I will give way to the hon. and learned Lady after I have given way to the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire).

Yesterday, a number of Members of this House spoke eloquently about the challenges of modelling uncertain outcomes over an extended period. The analysis presented by many organisations prior to the referendum is a clear example of those challenges. To date, we have seen outcomes that are quite different from some of those that were set out.

I find this conspiracy theory so absurd. The Treasury published very clear and totally wrong short-term forecasts for the referendum debate, and it published very clear and, I think, equally wrong long-term forecasts before the referendum debate, so that the whole nation could engage with these wrong forecasts. The latest lot of leaks looks very much like the wrong long-term forecasts that the Treasury previously published. I look forward to the Minister getting some more common sense into the thing, because there is absolutely no reason at all to suppose that leaving the EU will cause any hit to the long-term growth rate of the UK.

My right hon. Friend makes his point well. I think that the point on which we would all agree is that there have to be caveats to any form of modelling. As Members will see when they look at the analysis, it sets out the caveats very clearly.

I am so grateful to the Minister for being very patient and giving way to me, but I must press him on this point. It is curious to think that the Government are at this moment planning their negotiating strategy without having considered adequate impact assessments. I went to the so-called reading room in December. It was laughable that I had to sign a piece of paper, a copy of which I was not allowed to remove, in order to promise that I would not reveal what was in the documents. If there is going to be another reading room, I will do exactly what I did last time and reveal what is not in them, which is quite a lot. When will the Government work out that they need these impact assessments to have a decent negotiating strategy?

As we have said many times, the Government are informed by a wide range of analyses, but I am responding to the motion from the hon. Lady’s Front Benchers that respects the importance of confidentiality in this case.

I will give way to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) in a little while. I just want to finish my point about the nature of the analysis and the caveats that are contained in the document, as Members will see when they view it. Economies of all sorts face an uncertain future in the face of new technologies and the next phase of globalisation, which presents both challenges and opportunities.

Not right now.

Of course, there is a specific role for this sort of modelling, but it must be deployed carefully and appropriately alongside a full range of policy work in our EU exit plans. On its own, no model or analysis will be sufficient to provide us with the full picture of the various benefits and costs of different versions of Britain’s future relationship with the EU. Such models cannot predict the future. It is the Government’s job to use these sorts of models appropriately and to develop them as best they can. Despite this—and, in many cases, because of it—the analysis remains extremely sensitive.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Surely the million dollar question is this: if the Government have not yet assessed the model agreement that they want, when are they going to tell the British people what it is that they want, cost it and publish the results?