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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
27 February 2018
Volume 636

House of Commons

Tuesday 27 February 2018

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Local Authority Funding

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1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on trends in the level of funding for local authorities since 2010. [904028]

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2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on trends in the level of funding for local authorities since 2010. [904029]

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It is right that more of our money that is spent locally is raised locally. In 2010, councils were 80% dependent on Government grants. By 2020, they will largely be funded by council tax and other local revenues.

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Local councils have faced devastating cuts. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that, between 2010 and 2020, councils will have had their direct funding cut by 79%. In Tower Hamlets, we have lost £138 million through budget cuts since 2010. With one of the Conservative party’s own councils going bust, will the Minister now finally commit to funding local authorities properly, so that they can provide vital services to their communities?

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As I have pointed out, it is right that we rebalance council spending from central Government grants to locally raised taxes, to help to keep councils accountable. We have seen councils up and down the country finding innovative ways of working, such as sharing back-office services and doing things such as installing wi-fi and improving waste collection. We have also seen Labour councils wasting money. For example, Momentum-supported Birmingham City Council bin strikes have cost the taxpayer £40,000 a day, and Reading—

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Order. Resume your seat, Minister. That is the end of it. You answer for Government policy. You do not waste the time of the House by launching into rants about the policies of other parties. I have made my point, and if the Chancellor is confused about it, he really is under-informed and I say to him: stick to your abacus, man.

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My own council of Brighton and Hove has had to make £52 million-worth of cuts in three years, despite superb Labour leadership in the city. With one of the Minister’s own Tory councils going bust, will the Chancellor finally commit to properly funding local government in tomorrow’s local government finance settlement?

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We have provided local councils with council tax flexibilities to enable them to fund spending in their areas. It is absolutely right that councils should not waste money and should find savings. The fact is that we went through an incredibly profligate period under Labour in which the Government were running record deficits, and we have succeeded in reducing the deficit by three quarters. I must also point out to the hon. Gentleman that councils have reserves of £23 billion. In fact, those reserves have increased by £8 billion since 2010.

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In Cumbria, the Labour council leaders failed to reach a devolution settlement with the Government that would have brought in additional resource. Does the Minister agree, however, that this is not just about resource and that it is also about council structures, leadership and creating efficient organisations?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Lots of councils have done things better and more efficiently, and have led the way across government. We have given more powers to local Mayors, and we are giving Mayors across the country £4.8 billion of new investment over the next 30 years.

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What priority does my right hon. Friend attach to local authorities building new housing?

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It is vital that we see more housing built across the country, and that is why in the Budget we committed to 300,000 homes a year being built over the next decade.

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Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury join me in paying tribute to Kent County Council, which has managed to make substantial savings and efficiencies since 2010, while continuing to provide excellent services?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have seen the leadership of numerous Conservative councils across the country in finding new and efficient ways of doing things. That is what we need to do as a Government. We need to find better ways of doing things and more efficiency, rather than wasting money and crashing the economy, as happened under the previous Labour Government.

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23. My county council of Derbyshire has seen its Government funding cut by over £200 million, and two thirds of its spending goes on adult social care. Does the Minister think that a postcode lottery of which counties can afford the most council tax should determine whether their elderly get looked after decently? [904050]

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We have put additional funding into social care, and we have also allowed councils to raise the precept, but it is a very important principle that local councils are accountable to local voters for the money they spend. The situation we inherited in 2010, when 80% of the money came from the Government, meant we could have profligate local councils and local taxpayers would not have to foot the bill.

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This week, having faced the same central Government cuts as everyone else, Conservative-controlled Kettering Borough Council, of which I am a member, can be expected to freeze its council tax for the eighth year in a row. Does it therefore appear that some councils are better at managing their affairs than others?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I note that council tax doubled under the previous Labour Government, and we are hearing talk from the Opposition that there might be another rise if they were to get into government again.

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The issue of public sector pay is inextricably linked to the level of funding provided to both local authorities and other public bodies. Will the Chief Secretary commit to lifting the public sector pay cap across the board and to properly funding these pay increases?

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We put an extra £2 billion of spending power into the hands of the Scottish Government at the last Budget, and we have also said that we want to be flexible over public sector pay to make sure we are retaining and recruiting the best possible staff.

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First, if you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, as we came into the Chamber we heard the news of the death of Simeon Andrews, who co-ordinated a large number of all-party groups and trade union groups, and, if we can, I would like us to send our sympathies to his family on behalf of the House.

The ministerial responses we have heard demonstrate absolutely no understanding whatsoever of the crisis created by the cuts of the past eight years and their impact on local government. Local councils are now facing a funding gap of nearly £6 billion by 2020, and it is the most vulnerable in our society who are suffering. The number of children taken into care is at its highest level since 1985, and one in three councillors are warning that the cuts have left them with insufficient resources to support these children. The leader of the Chancellor’s own Surrey council said:

“The Government cannot stand idly by when Rome burns.”

Will the Chief Secretary commit today to use the opportunity of next month’s spring statement to address the funding crisis in our local councils?

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First, the spring statement is not a fiscal event, and it is vital that we maintain the discipline that we have achieved over the past eight years and keep control of public spending, because that is what has led to the strong economy we are now seeing, with record levels of employment and an increasing number of new businesses starting up. The reality is that if Labour were to get into power, that legacy would be squandered.

Local government will see a 2.1% increase in cash terms between 2015 and 2019, and, as I have pointed out, they have also seen an increase in local council reserves of £8 billion—money available to spend on, and invest in, local services.

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With the crisis in children’s services, to be frank this is not the time for political knockabout responses. I am not sure whether the Chief Secretary has witnessed a child being taken into care; I have, and it can scar that child for life. But do not listen to me; listen to the all-party inquiry into children’s social care, which warned that nine out of 10 councils are struggling to meet their legal duties to children. The president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has said:

“We cannot go on as we are”,

and it is reported that over half the councils in England are planning further cuts to children’s services.

Recent estimates of Government spending and income show that the Chancellor will have sufficient resources to protect our children from further cuts. So I appeal—once again—to the Chancellor to use the flexibility he has to use the spring statement to address the £2 billion funding gap in our children’s services, to protect our children.

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It is a bit rich of the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that we should not bring politics into this when that is precisely what he is doing. We are making sure that local councils have the flexibility to raise council tax to fund these vital public services. Labour has to acknowledge that this is not just about the money we spend but the way we spend it. The reality is that if the entire focus is on the level of spending rather than what we are doing, we end up with the situation that occurred in 2010—vast increases in spending and services actually getting worse.

PFI Contracts and Carillion

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3. Whether he has reviewed his Department’s procedures for authorising and monitoring private finance initiative contracts as a result of the liquidation of Carillion. [904030]

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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows this, but just to put it in context, the vast majority of all current PFI projects—86%—were signed under the previous Labour Government. Since coming into office in 2010, this Government have reformed the approach, so that now PF2 contracts deliver better value for money for taxpayers. The performance of PFI contracts, including those where Carillion is involved, are monitored by the procuring authorities. New PF2 contracts will be subject to a rigorous value for money assessment. There are currently no PF2 projects in procurement.

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I am concerned about the workers. Apparently, 90% of Carillion’s private sector contractors have suggested that they will continue to pay staff, but only in the interim period. What about the 10% who are not going to be paid, and what is going to happen to the staff after the interim period? Are the Government going to guarantee the employment status and pay of those individuals?

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The hon. Gentleman may be slightly confusing PFI contracts with outsourcing contracts that do not involve capital structures. The resolution of Carillion continues. So far, there has been a very high rate of uptake by private clients of Carillion to continue the services that are being delivered, and we have high hopes of protecting the vast majority of the jobs involved.

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What are the Government doing to improve transparency in public-private partnerships?

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We absolutely value transparency in the public-private partnerships that are delivered. They are an important part of the overall infrastructure. As I just explained to the House, there are currently no PF2 projects in procurement. That indicates that we have set the bar for value for money in public-private partnerships very high, and we will continue to do so.

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Order. This is a rather extraordinary state of affairs. I hope that the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) is not indisposed, and if he is I am sorry, but otherwise there is absolutely no basis for his leaving the Chamber during the exchanges on his question. That is a rank discourtesy to the House—and a discourtesy to the Chancellor as well, for that matter. It must not happen.

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The shadow Chancellor recently wrote to the Chancellor asking when he will produce revised value for money guidance, as highlighted by the National Audit Office; an updated list of PFIs, as existing data is nearly two years old; and details of any assessment the Treasury carried out on Carillion’s readiness to fulfil its PFI contracts. When will we get them?

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I have not yet received a letter from the shadow Chancellor, but if he has written to me, I shall of course reply to him and answer his questions.

Road and Rail Investment

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4. What recent assessment the Government has made of the effect of the national productivity investment fund on road and rail infrastructure in the north-west. [904031]

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This Government have put raising our national productivity at the heart of our mission. From the national productivity investment fund, we have already announced over £50 million of investment in road and rail in the north-west, and this is in addition to the transforming cities allocations to Manchester of £243 million and to Liverpool of £135 million.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that the £31 billion national productivity investment fund, targeted at transport, digital communications, research and development and housing, will boost the infrastructure of the UK economy?

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The latest statistics show that we have had the best run of productivity growth since before the financial crisis, but we are certainly not complacent. The national productivity investment fund is improving passenger journeys, our roads and our broadband connections and delivering more homes, all of which are key to raising the wages and living standards of people in Southport and across the country.

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The problem is that the national productivity investment fund is not doing anything to stop the disrepair on our roads and motorways. The Government are simply not putting in enough money for local councils and the national agency to make sure that repairs on motorways and local roads are brought up to standard. We now have a greater crisis than we have seen for some time.

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I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. The Government have put a record amount of investment into our roads and rail. As the Chancellor announced in the autumn, there is further money for transport projects in the north. There is £13 billion in total to improve transport across the north of England.

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rose—

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I do not think the hon. Gentleman represents a north-west constituency.

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This Government have done nothing to deliver local rail infrastructure in the north-west, which is vital for jobs and the economy. When are they going to invest in decent local rail services, including those used by my constituents from Southport to Manchester? If the Government will not do it, they should stand aside and let us get on with the job.

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The Government have been investing more in railways across the country than any Government since Victorian times, including in the north of England. Across the country, the Government have invested £0.25 trillion in infrastructure projects since 2010, 4,500 of which have already been completed.

Major Infrastructure Investment

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5. What plans the Government have to invest in major infrastructure during the 2017 Parliament. [904032]

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7. What plans the Government have to invest in major infrastructure during the 2017 Parliament. [904034]

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8. What plans the Government have to invest in major infrastructure during the 2017 Parliament. [904035]

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As my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury has just told the House, there has been more than £0.25 trillion of public and private investment in infrastructure since 2010. We continued to invest in infrastructure in the autumn Budget 2017 by expanding the national productivity investment fund, so that it will now provide £31 billion of additional investment, including more than doubling the housing infrastructure fund to £5 billion. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said after the Budget that our plans will see public investment increase to levels not sustained in 40 years.

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Through the major road network, vehicle excise duty will be made available for investment in strategic roads outside the remit of Highways England. I understand that economic growth must be a priority, but how much will the pressure of future housing developments be considered in any of these future schemes? My constituency in York, for example, is surrounded by the northern ring road and we have a lot of housing coming forward.

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My hon. Friend is right that the major road network will support the creation of new housing developments by improving access to future development sites and boosting suitable land capacity, so investment decisions for this funding will include consideration of how proposed schemes will unlock land for housing developments, helping to improve how transport is planned for new developments at the outset. The ring road to which he refers is, of course, part of the proposed major road network.

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The Chancellor will know of the great eastern main line taskforce, which has made the economic and business case for rail infrastructure directly to the Treasury. He will also know that Greater Anglia commuters are forking out £3.7 billion to the Treasury under the current rail franchise. Will he ensure that we can get some of that money back out to invest in the much-needed infrastructure improvements for which our commuters are campaigning?

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My right hon. Friend is a great champion of infrastructure in Essex, and I share her wish to create a more dependable railway with an increased focus on punctuality and reliability, which is why the Government are pursuing the biggest rail investment programme since Victorian times. Under the Greater Anglia franchise, there is a commitment to deliver more services and faster journey times, including two “Norwich in 90” trains each way a day from May 2019. The great eastern main line proposals are currently at an early stage of development, but we will carefully consider the case she has made for the passing loop.

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Will the Chancellor update the House on the steps being taken to ensure the Government’s ambitious plans for housing are supported by local infrastructure investment, such as through the housing infrastructure fund?

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My hon. Friend is right to observe that we cannot build the homes this country needs without infrastructure. Often, the push-back from local communities against the idea of accommodating greater numbers of homes is caused by the fear that infrastructure will not keep pace. The autumn Budget 2017 more than doubled the housing infrastructure fund, taking it to a total of £5 billion. On 1 February 2018, we announced the first £866 million of investment from that fund to support 133 projects, which will unlock infrastructure for up to 200,000 new homes.

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It is now two years and two months since the Boxing day floods hit much of Yorkshire, including my constituency. Kirkstall in Leeds is no better protected from floods than it was on Boxing day 2015, and the Government still have not signed off money for the phase 2 Leeds flood alleviation scheme. When will that happen? The scheme is urgently needed to protect my constituents and local businesses from devastating floods such as those that we have already experienced.

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My constituency has also been affected by flooding, and some of the responses are major engineering projects that take time to develop. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency have funding for flood relief projects, but those developments have to be prioritised and worked up into proper business cases. I will look at the specific case the hon. Lady raises and, if I may, I will write to her and place a copy of my letter in the Library of the House.

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Some of the most important national infrastructure projects include the network of tidal lagoons for low-carbon energy. As the Treasury has, apparently, approved the project as good value for money, why is it allowing dinosaurs in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to block it?

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I imagine that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project which, as he knows, is under consideration by the Government. An announcement will be made in due course.

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Contrary to the Treasury’s own assessment, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research North recently found that transport investment in London is two and a half times higher per capita than in the north. We know that in Norwich Britvic is shedding hundreds of jobs, citing poor transport as a key cause. That inequality hurts business and local authority revenue, so what actions will Ministers take to redress this unjust imbalance? Will they commit to working with the Mayors of Manchester and Liverpool on the convention for the north that was announced this morning?

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I just do not recognise or agree with the hon. Gentleman’s figures. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s analysis shows that infrastructure investment per capita in the north is actually higher than in the south-east.

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21. The Chancellor has spoken out in favour of rebalancing the economy via a fairer distribution of transport spending. Will he therefore consider Transport for the North’s strategic transport plan, which calls for a 50% increase in transport spending across the north of England? [904048]

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The Government are committed to the northern powerhouse project and recognise that that has to be supported through infrastructure investment. We are looking at northern powerhouse infrastructure investment projects on a case-by-case basis, and we will continue to support the development of the northern powerhouse.

Leaving the EU

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6. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on the economy of the UK leaving the single market and the customs union. [904033]

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The Government are undertaking a wide-ranging set of analyses of the impact of our departure from the European Union. This is changing through time as we develop our approach and we move to a bold and comprehensive agreement with our EU partners.

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The Chancellor knew in 2016 that the majority of people would prefer a soft Brexit to a hard Brexit. I am referring to remainers, plus people such as the Foreign Secretary, who said he favoured a single market and would vote for it. Now that the Chancellor knows that a hard Brexit will cost us £45 billion in lost tax receipts, will he at least acknowledge that people such as me on both sides of the Chamber who support our remaining in both the customs union and the single market do so in the name of prosperity and of upholding democracy?

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The Government have made their position very clear: we are leaving the European Union, and that means we are leaving the customs union and the single market. However, we are determined to negotiate a deal under which our trade with the EU27 is as frictionless as possible and we are able, as a globally facing nation, to secure free trade agreements with other countries around the world.

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Will the Minister confirm that the Conservative Government are and will continue to be the voice of British business, and that securing a strong economic future will be at the heart of the Brexit negotiations?

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I thank my right hon. Friend very much indeed for that question. I can of course confirm that we remain entirely committed to the strength of our economy and to supporting businesses up and down the country, not least in our negotiations with the European Union. I have some responsibility for the customs part of the negotiations, and we are committed to making sure that goods and services move as frictionlessly as possible across the boundaries with the EU27 following our departure.

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Mr Speaker,

“I believe that the best way forward is for Britain to renegotiate a new relationship with the European Union—one based on an economic partnership involving a customs union and a single market in goods and services.”

Those are not my words, but the words of the Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade on his website. What representations has the Minister had from the Secretary of State in support of our membership of the customs union and single market?

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The Secretary of State for International Trade is fully committed to the options that we set out in last year’s White Papers on the customs union and on trade. We are taking forward legislation to make sure that our aspirations in that respect for our negotiations with the EU can be landed when the deals are concluded.

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Yesterday, I met a delegation of business representatives from my constituency who are optimistic about our prospects when we leave the single market and customs union. They are examining the concept of a free port for Immingham. Will the Minister agree to meet them when they have further developed their thoughts so that we can try to overcome possible obstacles?

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I—or, indeed, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury—would of course be happy to meet my hon. Friend and the business colleagues from his constituency. We are potentially interested in free ports and will keep the idea under review.

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Many Cabinet members have made their views clear about the single market and customs union. The Chancellor has said that he would like to see no tariffs with Europe after we leave the EU and no hard border in Northern Ireland. His exact words, which were in a letter to the Treasury Committee, were that he wants a deal

“that facilitates the freest and most frictionless trade possible in goods between the UK and the EU, and allows us to forge new trade relationships with our partners in Europe and around the world.”

Will the Financial Secretary therefore welcome the speech that the Leader of the Opposition gave yesterday in which he proposed a new UK-EU customs union that would, to quote the Chancellor directly, facilitate

“the freest and most frictionless trade possible in goods between the UK and the EU”

and allow us to

“forge new trade relationships with our partners in Europe and around the world”?

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I am here to speak about Government policy, as you have quite rightly indicated, Mr Speaker. However, if I may say so, Opposition Members’ zig-zagging in respect of their position on the customs union has been quite extraordinary. If I understand what is being suggested, it seems to me, at a first take, that the idea that we can be in the customs union yet go out and have a high level of control over deals and free trade arrangements with other countries just does not hang together.

The Welsh Economy

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9. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of Government investment on the Welsh economy. [904036]

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My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced an additional £1.2 billion for Wales in the Budget. We maintain our position of ensuring that Welsh Government funding per head is some 15% or more above the rate in England. As a consequence of those and other measures, Wales is now one of the fastest growing of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that leaving the UK single market would represent a far bigger risk to the Welsh economy than leaving the EU single market?

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. It is a simple fact that some 80% of Welsh exports go to the other nations of the United Kingdom, compared with just 12% going into the European Union. Those figures speak for themselves.

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Traditionally, Wales has lower wages than the rest of the economy. In the light of low productivity and growth forecasts, what are the Government doing to attract high-quality jobs to the Welsh economy?

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As the House will know, we are doing a great deal for productivity throughout the country. We have agreed two city deals in Wales, with £500 million for Cardiff and £115.6 million for Swansea. Since 2010, employment in Wales is up by 7.3% and unemployment is down by 39%.

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My question is this: what investment? The Government have broken their promise to electrify the main line between the two main cities in my country, they will not commit to the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, and the Swansea Bay city deal is 90% Welsh public and private money. At the same time, the Government are subsidising the most expensive railway in the world—in England. When will the British Government stop taking Wales for a ride?

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I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman level those accusations against the Government because, as I have explained, we set aside an additional £1.2 billion for Wales in the recent Budget. I have referred to the two city deals, and we are also backing the south Wales metro, as he will know. We are committed to agreeing further growth deals with north and south Wales.

EU Exit Analysis

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10. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on the Government’s preliminary EU exit analysis; and if he will make a statement. [904037]

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The cross-Whitehall analysis referred to is provisional internal analysis—it is part of a broad, ongoing programme of analysis—and further work is in train. The analysis has been developed as a tool to inform Ministers on the European Union Exit and Trade Committee and its Sub-Committees about the choices that must be made as negotiations progress.

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I thank the Chancellor for that answer. Does he agree with the former permanent secretary at the Department for International Trade that giving up the single market and the customs union is like giving up a three-course meal for a packet of crisps in the future? If not, can he identify what specific evidence his Department has seen to suggest that the benefits of future trade agreements will outweigh the damage of leaving the single market and the customs union to businesses and jobs across the country, particularly in the north-east?

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The Government intend to maintain the greatest possible access for British businesses to European Union markets. The hon. Lady is right that we should approach this on the basis of evidence. We should look for evidence of the value of our trade flows with Europe and what jobs they generate in the UK, and we should look objectively at the opportunities that arise with third-country trade deals and with the likely profile of the new jobs, trade and opportunities that can be created, and then weigh those carefully.

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Leaks from the Brexit analysis show that UK Government borrowing will rise dramatically under Brexit, with figures ranging from £45 billion to £120 billion in a worst-case scenario. Can the Chancellor reassure us that he will not cut vital public services to plug this gap?

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As the hon. Lady knows, the analysis to which she refers is based on standardised, off-the-shelf trade models. The Government are seeking a bespoke deal with the European Union to deliver a deep economic partnership, which would have a completely different set of outcomes. That remains our objective.

Public Sector Pay and Equality

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11. What equality impact assessments his Department has undertaken on the Government’s policy on the public sector pay cap. [904038]

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It is for Departments to consider the equalities impact of their proposals on workforce strategy and pay. The important thing is that we reward public servants fairly for the work they do.

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Well, public sector servants have certainly not been rewarded fairly, but let me turn to pay differentials in the private sector. Is the Chief Secretary as concerned as I am that many private sector firms are excluding partners’ income in their reporting obligations on the gender pay gap, on the basis that they are not employees? What will the Government do to close that loophole?

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We have announced new policies on reporting the private sector pay gap. The pay gap has come down under this Government and we are now seeing a record number of women in work, and the reason is that we have taken the difficult economic decision to close the deficit and ensured that we have allowed the private sector to flourish.

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17. With inflation at 3% and Government cuts to council tax and police budgets forcing up precepts, why should low-paid workers, who are predominantly women, have an increase of only 1% next year, after four years of 1% already? [904044]

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First, I point out that those on the lowest pay have seen their real wages rise by 7% since 2015, which is the highest level for some time. Also, it is women who are more likely to be in work, with record levels of employment. We have also given additional flexibility to public services to ensure that they can recruit and retain.

Household Debt

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12. What plans he has to tackle household debt. [904039]

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The Government are taking a proactive approach to support borrowers, to aid people to manage their money well, and to help those in problem debt. We reformed the regulation, giving the Financial Conduct Authority considerable regulatory powers, and we are setting up a new single financial guidance body to make it easier for people to get help with money matters.

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After seven wasted years, wages are still lower than they were in 2010. Self-employed people are paid less on average than they were a generation ago and 6 million people are earning less than the living wage. Does the Minister share my alarm that too many people have to worry about buying school uniform, affording a family holiday, or even just paying their rent or mortgage?

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The Government recognise that it is very important that we focus on the poorest people in our society. That is why we have increased the national living wage by 4.7%, which will mean a pay rise of £600 for those working full time. We have also increased the personal allowance, frozen fuel duty and increased childcare support to attend to the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

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As part of the Treasury Committee’s inquiry into household finances, we are looking at the problems facing financially vulnerable households. Last week, my Committee colleague, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), and I visited the citizens advice bureau in Nottingham. Caseworkers there told us about the problems caused by banks and companies, but said that the harshest creditor of all is the Government. There is little forbearance for late council tax or welfare overpayments, and bailiffs are often the first port of call, rather than a last resort. Is the Minister concerned by this heavy-handedness? Does he agree that central and local government should lead by example in their treatment of the most financially vulnerable?

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I acknowledge the vital work that my right hon. Friend and her Committee are undertaking in this important area. We will be implementing a breathing space as part of the work of the single financial guidance body. The Bill establishing that body is in Committee, as my right hon. Friend will know. I am absolutely determined that we will get this right and listen to best practice across the country. We committed in our manifesto to a six-week breathing space, and we will look carefully at the representations received from across the country.

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22. Citizens Advice reports that there are universal credit claimants who are having more than 40% of their standard allowance taken from their monthly payment. There is a 40% cap on repayments to third parties, but that does not appear to cover repayments of advanced or budgeting loans. This is leaving people unable to make ends meet—for example, one person retained just £97. Will the Minister agree to meet his colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that people are not pushed into debt by the Government’s rules? [904049]

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Of course I will meet with colleagues in government. I am meeting the relevant Minister as we seek to get this legislation right, and I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman as well.

Leaving the EU

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13. What assessment his Department has made of the potential merits for the economy of the UK adopting an EEA Norway-style arrangement after the UK leaves the EU. [904040]

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Membership of the European economic area would require free movement of people with the rest of the European Union, and the UK Government have been clear that the free movement of people cannot continue as it does now. We are seeking a bespoke, comprehensive and ambitious economic partnership in the mutual interests of the UK and the EU.

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The Government’s own forecast suggests that a no-deal Brexit will cut GDP growth by 12% in the north-west of England. What steps is the Chancellor taking to minimise the impact of a no-deal, WTO-terms Brexit on my constituents in Eddisbury?

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As I said in answer to a previous question, the figures to which my hon. Friend refers are based on standardised trade models, not the bespoke deal that we are seeking to achieve. She asks what steps I am taking to protect her constituents’ interests. I am supporting my colleagues in seeking to negotiate an ambitious economic partnership with the EU that delivers the maximum possible benefits for both the EU and the UK.

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What assessment has the Chancellor made in particular of the potential benefits of EEA membership for the £91.8 billion contribution to the UK economy made by the creative industries that are so important for my constituents in Bristol West?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the creative industries are one of Britain’s great success stories. More broadly, our services sector is our strategic strength in many respects. As we negotiate our future relationship with the European Union, we have to ensure that we protect not only the market in goods, but the market in services, where Britain has such significant comparative advantage.

Technological Progress

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14. What steps he is taking to ensure that the economic benefits of technological progress are shared throughout the UK. [904041]

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By helping all places to access the benefits of technological progress and reach their full potential, we can drive growth at national level. Since autumn 2016, the Government have announced an additional £7 billion for science and innovation—an increase of about 20% to total Government R&D spending by 2021.

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Does the Minister agree that digital technology enables further devolution away from London of high-tech industries? What are the Government doing to support that?

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The Government are expanding Tech City’s reach across the UK, creating Tech Nation by investing £21 million over four years to help people grow digital businesses. That includes a large-scale CityVerve smart city demonstrator in Manchester, which demonstrates how the internet of things, technologies and services can improve local services in transport, energy, health and culture.

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Newcastle has national centres of excellence in data, health and energy—key drivers of our future economy. On Saturday, I held a business summit with Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, at which start-ups identified attracting investment as a key barrier to their growth. What are the Government doing to attract investment to businesses in Newcastle? Does that include a regional business bank, as supported by Labour?

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We certainly have a national bank to encourage investment in small businesses. We also have the £400 million digital infrastructure fund. As a Minister, I am doing all I can to ensure that we find the best conditions for investing in small and medium-sized enterprises across the country.

Regional Infrastructure Development

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15. What fiscal steps he is taking to support regional infrastructure development. [904042]

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As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed, under our plan, public investment will reach levels not sustained since the late 1970s by the end of this Parliament. We want to see that investment across the United Kingdom. We are delivering £13 billion of transport investment in the north and have launched a £1.7 billion transport fund to transform our great cities.

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Devolution in the Labour-controlled Liverpool city region and Greater Manchester is beginning to unlock opportunities for investment in infrastructure, research and development, and innovation in the north-west, allowing facilities such as the Daresbury campus in my constituency to develop and prosper. Does the Minister agree that if we are to be able to realise the full potential of our regions, devolution needs to extend to the many of my constituents and not the few?

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I am delighted to hear the positive story that the hon. Gentleman has given to the devolution that we have created as a Government. In the past week I have met the Mayors of Liverpool and Greater Manchester. We are committed to working with anyone who shares our commitment to the economic growth and prosperity of the north of England.

The Scottish Economy

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16. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of Government investment on the Scottish economy. [904043]

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The Government are committed to driving up investment in Scotland; my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced an additional £2 billion at the last Budget. We have already boosted city deals by £1 billion and have committed further to looking at city deals in Stirling, Tay Cities and the borderlands.

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I am sure that my right hon. Friend will share my concern, and that of my constituents, at recent statistics showing that trend-based productivity in Scotland had declined by 3.2% in the year end to September 2017—well below the levels of the UK and its lowest level in eight years. Does he agree that instead of making Scotland the highest-tax part of the UK and increasing the tax burden on businesses, the Scottish Government should be encouraged to follow this Government’s lead—encouraging enterprise, boosting economic development and growing UK productivity to its highest levels in 10 years?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the critical issue of productivity, which is, of course, the responsibility of not just this Government but the Scottish Government. I totally agree with him about the tax matter that he raised. It is important that we keep taxes down. To the extent that that has been achieved in Scotland, it has been to a large degree because of the changes we have made to the personal allowance—a decision taken by this Government in this House.

Local Authority Funding

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18. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on trends in the level of funding for local authorities since 2010. [904045]

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We have made sure that local councils have the full ability to serve local residents by giving them additional council tax flexibility.

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I thank the Minister for that answer, but between 2010 and 2020, Peterborough City Council will have had its direct funding cut by 78.7%. Can she explain how my authority is expected to meet the rising children’s services and adult social care demands?

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As laid out in the local government settlement, councils have been given the ability to increase council tax levels to pay for those services. It is vital that those taxes are raised locally, so that local councillors are accountable for the decisions they make.

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Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will move promptly to a new fair funding formula for local government to replace the untransparent and unfair system? Will she look closely at the Leicestershire model for doing that?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Local government funding has not been fair enough. That is why we are consulting on a fair formula at the moment, and I will look with interest at his representations.

Deficit Reduction

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20. What progress is being made on reducing the deficit. [904047]

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In 2010, we had a post-war record level of deficit at 9.9%, and we have reduced that to 2.3% as of last year. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast in November is that the deficit will further decline to 1.1% of GDP by 2022-23.

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Will the Minister give an estimate of the effect that our deficit reduction measures have had on relieving the tax burden for younger generations?

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My hon. Friend raises a critical point about the importance of getting the debt down to make sure that future generations do not carry the burden of it. That is why we have reduced the deficit by three quarters and why we are going to hit our reduction in the level of debt as a percentage of GDP two years early, in 2020-21.

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rose—

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The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is a really eager young pup, and at this early point in his parliamentary career, I think we ought to hear the fella.

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Mr Speaker, you will know that I am not the most radical Member on the Labour Benches, but I want to tell the Minister that if the Government had been successfully reducing their budget, my constituents in Yorkshire could forgive her. The fact of the matter is that we have had the money for the electrification of the trans-Pennine railway stolen from us, and the Chancellor refuses to give it back. When will he make amends?

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, whether he is young or a puppy or whatever he may be, we are awaiting the business case for the trans-Pennine project, and when we receive it, we will look at it most closely.

Gender Diversity

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24. What recent assessment the Government have made of gender diversity in the financial services sector. [904052]

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In summer 2015, the Government asked Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, to lead a review into gender diversity in the financial services sector. In response, the Treasury launched the women in finance charter, which asks firms to commit to four key actions as recommended in the review. So far, 162 firms have signed the charter, which covers more than 600,000 UK financial service employees.

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I thank the Minister for that excellent answer. Following the Royal Mint’s appointment of its first female chief executive in its 1,100-year history, will the Minister join me in congratulating her on her new role?

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Yes, I am delighted to congratulate Anne Jessopp, and I wish her all the best in her new role. If I may, Mr Speaker, I would also like to take this opportunity to applaud and congratulate my own constituent, Minette Batters, who was elected as the first woman president of the National Farmers Union. I wish the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs all the best with that.

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I am sure he will read that with some anxiety.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [904055]

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My principal responsibility is to ensure economic stability and the continued prosperity of the British people, and I will do so by building on the plans set out in the autumn Budget. This Government are determined to meet the important challenges we face and to seize the opportunities ahead as we create an economy fit for the future. Our balanced approach to the public finances enables us to give households and businesses support in the near term and to invest in the future of this country, while also being fair to the next generation by reducing a national debt that remains far too large.

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Reducing tourism VAT to 5% after we leave the European Union would create an extra 121,000 jobs and £4.6 billion in revenue to the Treasury over 10 years. It would be a great boost not only to our great cities, but to our great coastal towns, such as Exmouth, Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton in my East Devon constituency. Will the Chancellor commit to looking again at this issue as we leave the EU?

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My right hon. Friend is nothing if not persistent and consistent. I cannot remember how many times he has raised this issue. There have been numerous requests for new VAT reliefs since the referendum, some of which are currently not permitted under EU law. We have calculated that if we were to grant all the VAT relief requests that we have received, that would come to more than £38 billion a year. On VAT and tourism, the Government have received representations on this issue, and we are looking again at the case for change.[Official Report, 1 March 2018, Vol. 636, c. 6MC.] We have issued a call for evidence on the impact of VAT and air passenger duty on tourism in Northern Ireland, and we will certainly keep this issue under careful review.

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The Chief Secretary gave a speech last year calling for better value for money from the public finances and not spending money we do not have, and she has talked about not wasting money today, so how can she justify spending hundreds of millions of pounds on further tax giveaways worth £2,000 per child to the wealthiest families—those, for example, using private schools—via the tax-free childcare scheme? Is that not a waste of money and spending money we do not have?

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I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that the voucher scheme invented by the previous Labour Government benefited only 600,000 families whereas our scheme is much broader—it benefits 1.5 million people—and the Labour Government’s scheme was open to private schools and private nurseries as well.

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T3. Last week in the Chamber, we yet again heard an Opposition MP complain that they believed they should personally be paying far more tax. Will the Minister confirm the mechanism by which anybody can currently do exactly that voluntarily? [904057]

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As a Minister at the Treasury, I am delighted if people voluntarily step forward to pay more tax than they are due. I am pleased to inform my hon. Friend that that is already possible by way of a gift to the Crown. I am looking at ways of raising awareness of that particular opportunity, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss such options. I would also point out to right hon. and hon. Members the very generous gift aid reliefs that the Treasury provides for those who wish to make direct payments to charities of their choice.

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T2. Four in 10 of Enfield’s children are living below the poverty line, which is almost 34,000 children. The borough is the 11th most impoverished area for children in the UK, and my constituency is now among the top 20 constituencies in the country with the fastest growing levels of child poverty. Is the Chancellor pursuing any kind of joined-up policies with other relevant Departments to do what the Prime Minister said, and“make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”,including those 34,000 children? [904056]

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The Government believe that work is one of the most important drivers of bringing people out of poverty, and we are rolling out universal credit as a consequence. There is evidence that that is more successful as a way of doing so than relying on legacy benefits. As the right hon. Lady will probably know, 200,000 fewer children are now in absolute poverty than was the case in 2010.

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T5. What preparations has the Treasury been making for leaving the European Union, and will the Treasury be ready on day one to ensure frictionless borders when we leave the European Union—deal or no deal? [904059]

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The Government are continuing with detailed preparations for all possible March 2019 scenarios, including ensuring that Departments have adequate resources to prepare effectively for EU exit. To date, the Treasury has allocated to Departments nearly £700 million for preparation activity, and we are currently in the process of allocating the 2018-19 funding from the additional £3 billion over two years that I announced at autumn Budget 2017.

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T4. “The health and social care system has been pushed to its limits in recent weeks”—those are not my words, but those of my local hospital trust. Last month, it was forced to cancel about 325 operations and 640 outpatient appointments. That not only means that my constituents who are unwell or in pain are being made to wait longer for treatment but makes the trust’s already challenging financial situation even worse. When is the Chancellor going to give our health and social care system the sustainable funding it needs? [904058]

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The hon. Lady should acknowledge that the NHS has been rated as the best healthcare system in the world. We recognise that there are extra demands on the health system and that is why we put in an extra £6.3 billion of funding at the Budget.

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T6. What progress has been made in reducing the level of corporation tax evasion? [904060]

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I am delighted to inform the House that considerable progress has been made in reducing the level of tax evasion, avoidance and non-compliance in the corporate sector. We have been at the forefront of initiatives launched with the OECD—the base erosion and profit shifting initiative, the profit diversion tax we brought in in 2015—and, as a consequence of clamping down in this area, we have brought in £53 billion from big business since 2010.

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T7. Members have already raised the insufficient funding of local authorities by this Government. A recent campaign in Lewisham prevented local children’s and adolescents’ mental health services from being cut, but they are still facing a 5% loss in funding from national Government. When will the Government finally take this seriously and reverse the cuts to children’s mental health services? [904061]

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We are putting additional funding and support into children’s mental health services and the Department for Education has recently announced additional support for children’s mental health issues in schools.

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Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what assessment the Treasury has made either separately or jointly with the Department for Transport of how external initiatives on competitiveness and investment might help the rail sector and Network Rail in particular?

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Strictly, this is an issue for my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary, and he is looking at how to improve productivity in the railway and how to ensure that every pound we invest in the railway delivers the maximum possible benefit to railway users. He will make further announcements in due course.

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T8. Could the Chancellor set out the benefits or otherwise of the arrangements the Government appear to have for a customs union between Camden, Islington and Westminster? [904062]

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I am sure that when I go home and reflect on it, the deep meaning of that question will become clear to me. What I will say to the hon. Lady is that if we look at how goods and services flow freely between different parts of our own economy, and indeed between different parts of the United Kingdom, we see at once the huge benefit that it brings to have frictionless borders as we move our goods and services.

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I am very much in favour of gift aid, but some large charities say that they receive no direct support from Government but do receive gift aid and the Exchequer will not publish those figures. Will the Chancellor reconsider this?

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The Revenue does not disclose the sums that individual charities receive from gift aid due to its obligations to respect taxpayer confidentiality under the 2005 legislation. Of course, some large charities do so voluntarily. Cancer Research is one example, and receives £31 million in this way. I am sympathetic to my right hon. Friend’s argument and will take the matter forward.

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Ryanair has announced the slashing of more than 20 Glasgow airport routes, a cut of more than 1 million passengers and the loss of up to 300 jobs. The high level of APD and the delay in introducing the air departure tax—caused by this Government’s not notifying the European Commission regarding the ongoing exemption for the highlands and islands—have been cited as a reason. Another is the Brexit uncertainty in the aviation sector. With more routes and jobs likely to go, what are the Chancellor and his colleagues doing to support the aviation sector during Brexit negotiations?

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, the devolution of ADT has been delayed after consultations between ourselves and the Scottish Government. Both Governments are satisfied with the arrangements. As for Ryanair, I believe that part of the announcement was also that the company would be extending the number of routes out of Edinburgh airport.

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If we want a sustainable rise in wages, we will need higher productivity. Does my right hon. Friend therefore welcome the recent improvement in the figures?

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Yes. We have had two quarters of good productivity data, but we should recognise that the productivity challenge we face is long term. The Government have taken a range of measures to address it and we will watch the evolution of the data very carefully, but there is certainly absolutely no scope for any complacency about the scale of the challenge we face, and we are determined to rise to it.

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Artificial intelligence brings huge economic opportunities, but to date big tech companies have seemed even more likely than traditional corporates to engage in aggressive tax avoidance and concentrate power in the hands of a narrow, homogenous group of people. What will the Treasury do to ensure that companies in this growing industry pay their own way fairly and take account of their wider corporate responsibility to society?

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The hon. Lady will know that we made announcements in the Budget in respect of the taxation of digitally based businesses that operate from digital platforms and so create value as a consequence. We are consulting on the measures we may take. We said in our consultation document that it is possible we will look at revenue taxes as one particular approach. Our preference is a multilateral move with our partners in the European Union and the OECD, but we are prepared to go it alone if that proves necessary.

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The services sector makes a huge tax contribution to the public purse. What confidence can the Chancellor give to my constituents who work in financial services that our new free trade agreement will cover services as well as goods?

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We are clear that a future comprehensive trade partnership with the European Union must include goods as well as services. A deal can only be done if it is fair to both sides, and because of the shape of the UK economy it would be very difficult to see how any deal could be fair if it did not include services. We have heard it asserted that it is impossible for services to be part of a trade agreement. I do not believe that that is the case. Next week, I shall make a speech in which I will set out our view of how it is possible to include services within such a trade deal.

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The Chancellor referred earlier to what he called the “continued prosperity” in the UK. Will he undertake to ensure that a simplification of the tax system is undertaken by looking at the level at which low paid full-time and part-time employees get the first £300 a week free of national insurance and income tax, to try to raise prosperity among all sections of the community?

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We will continue to seek to simplify the tax system, although I have to say that my personal observation is that whenever there is a proposal to simplify, those who benefit from complexities quickly speak up. They are not always people on high incomes; they are often people on lower incomes. We shall continue to try to simplify the system in a way that is fair and appropriate for all.

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While accepting that the Ministry of Defence is in need of serious reform as well as more money, will the Chancellor confirm that he has agreed with the Secretary of State for Defence that there will be no further reductions in capability while the modernising defence review takes place, and that the money required to do that, in the region of £2 billion, will be forthcoming?

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As the House will know, I had the privilege to serve for nearly three years as Defence Secretary and I yield to no one in my admiration for the work of our armed forces. I also understand how complex and challenging managing the defence budget is: it is a multi-annual budget with many complex procurements. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I are working very closely with our right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary as he carries out the modernisation review. We will ensure that defence has the funding it needs to continue to defend this country appropriately.

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North Derbyshire clinical commissioning group finished last year £27 million in the red, and £16 million of cuts were demanded. In spite of closing hospital beds at a time when they are most needed, it will again end this year £27 million in the red. When will the Government give the NHS a sustainable settlement to enable it to provide proper services?

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We have given the NHS a sustainable settlement. It received an additional £6.3 billion, but it is also important that we reform our healthcare services, that we put in place sustainable transformation plans, and that we are investing in capital and new technology and making sure that we use our fantastic frontline workers—nurses and doctors—in the best way possible.

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As the Chancellor knows, investment in infrastructure is key to ensuring that we can build the thousands of homes that this country needs. Will the Chancellor agree to meet me, other Hertfordshire MPs and the leader of Hertfordshire County Council to discuss how we might be able to do that in Hertfordshire, where we need to deliver about 100,000 new homes?

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Yes, I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues. Hertfordshire is one of the high-pressure housing areas, where it is absolutely essential that we deliver additional housing if we are to improve affordability.

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Cold weather payments were triggered in all postcodes in my constituency yesterday—information that I shared on social media—yet a constituent contacted me this morning to say that when she contacted the universal credit people, they said they knew nothing about it. Given the freezing weather and the fact that people will be nervous about turning on their heating if they do not know they can pay for it, will the Minister work with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to resolve the situation as soon as possible?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I will look into the point that she raised immediately. This is obviously an immediate issue in relation to the cold weather that we are having now. I will find out and let her know later.

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Order. I am awfully sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues. I allowed some injury time because a wholly disproportionate amount of time was spent discussing the policies of parties other than the Government, but we must now move on.

Mental Health Act: CQC Report

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(Urgent Question): Thank you very much for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. This morning, the Care Quality Commission published—

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Order. I am immensely grateful to the hon. Lady, but she needs to say, “To ask the Minister for a statement, etc.” She will get her full go—her full bite at the cherry—when the Minister has delivered the initial statement. That is the way it works.

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To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to make a statement on the Care Quality Commission’s report, “Monitoring the Mental Health Act in 2016/17”.

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The Government welcome the CQC’s latest annual report, which it produces as part of its statutory duty to monitor how mental health providers exercise powers and discharge their duties when people are detained under the Mental Health Act 1983. We are committed to ensuring that the Act works better for patients and their families, and this is why we have commissioned an independent review led by Professor Sir Simon Wessely, which will make recommendations in autumn. We are also investing more in mental health than ever before, spending an estimated record £11.6bn this year.

We have seen that the number of detentions under the Act has been rising year on year: it rose by 2% last year and by 9% the year before that. We also know that black people are disproportionately affected. These were both driving reasons for the Prime Minister’s decision to call for a review of how the entire Act is operating. The Government have already acted when they saw that the Act was not working properly. Last year, we legislated to make it illegal to use police cells as places of safety for children under the Act, and to ensure that police officers consult health support staff before using their detention powers.

Sir Simon, his vice-chairs and the independent review’s team are consulting actively and widely with service users and professionals, and today are taking part in a major stakeholder event in Newcastle. Indeed, I welcome the fact that the CQC takes care in its report to state: “We have confidence that the independent review’s solutions-focused approach to identifying priorities, based on the feedback and experiences of people across the country, will offer a review of the MHA that has the confidence of patients and professionals.” The CQC is, of course, directly involved in that review.

The CQC’s report found examples of good practice, but we recognise that more needs to be done to ensure that people’s voices are heard and their rights respected. Where possible, we expect all patients to be involved in their care planning and that providers should consider how best to do this in the light of the CQC’s recommendations. In the spring, the review will provide an interim report identifying priorities for its work. It will then develop a final report containing detailed recommendations on its priorities. This final report should be delivered by autumn 2018.

There are problems with the Act, and we will address them, but we should remember that today no one gets sent to an asylum only to disappear within its walls. There are regular reviews, clear rights of appeal and checks to ensure that people are lawfully detained only to get the treatment they need. Our society is changing how it thinks about mental illness, however, and we want to ensure that people have as much liberty and autonomy as possible.

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This scathing report finds that too many patients subject to the Mental Health Act continue to experience care that does not fully protect their rights or ensure their wellbeing. Some Members might have seen the harrowing episode of “Dispatches” last week, which showed scenes of a patient experiencing violent restraint at the Priory Group’s Dene Hospital. Today’s CQC report indicates that these experiences are not isolated. It shows no improvement in key areas of concern raised by the commission in previous years. It is totally unacceptable. In fact, some of the indicators are getting worse. Why is there still no evidence of patient involvement in 32% of care plans—up from 29% last year; of patients’ views being recorded in 31% of care plans—up from 26% last year; and of consideration of the least-restrictive care options in 17% of cases—up from 10% last year? This last, in particular, is a matter of serious concern. We know that the period following discharge from in-patient care is when most suicides happen. Why, then, in 24% of care plans was there no evidence that plans were made for discharging patients back home?

The report exposes the pressure on high secure hospital placements for women. One patient was in long-term segregation for over a year while waiting to access a bed. The Minister, to whom I listened closely, referred to the review by Sir Simon Wessely, but his review and report cannot provide answers to this patient or many hundreds more across the country today. Despite repeated Government promises of parity of esteem, we have seen yet another year of inaction. Does she accept that, in 2018 here in England, what is outlined in today’s CQC report is completely unacceptable, and will she tell us exactly what she is going to do this week to ensure that no patient in our country in a mental health unit is deprived unnecessarily of their human rights?

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It is worth reminding the House why we introduced the CQC—to provide for transparent inquiry into the performance of our health services and so ensure they remain the best in the world. It is for precisely this reason—to make sure we do better—that we invite the CQC to do so so honestly and take any criticism arising from the transparent scrutiny that characterises this and all its reports. We recognise that we can always do better. The duty of candour in the NHS under this Government means that we will step up to the plate and respond to these challenges.

The hon. Lady describes the report as “scathing”. In fact, it highlights a positive direction of travel on access to advocates and promoting good physical health, and an improved direction of travel on care after discharge, so I do not accept the tenor with which she characterised the report. I would go further and quote the deputy chief executive of the CQC, who also highlighted the parallel review by Sir Simon Wessely. He says: “We have confidence that the independent review’s solutions-focused approach to identifying priorities, based on the feedback and experiences of people across the country, will offer a review of the MHA that has the confidence of patients and professionals.” The report also highlights that Sir Simon Wessely is already undertaking and identifying actions that can be taken outside new legislation, and the CQC is very much part of delivering that.

Far from being complacent, we recognise that we have a long way to go, which is one reason the Prime Minister has put mental health firmly at the top of our health agenda. The report identifies a positive direction of travel, but we will continue to turbo-charge it and deliver sustained improvements in mental health services.

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Are there any proposals to address the fact that three quarters of GPs have no formal mental health training?

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One of the things that we are doing in prioritising mental health is dealing with exactly that issue. We are having discussions with every part of the health community. We recognise that all the professional organisations have a role in spreading best practice, but we need to do that as well, and the CQC report—and the fact that we are undertaking these reviews so transparently—will help us to do it.

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Today’s report lays bare the problems that are at the heart of the Government’s short-sighted and incoherent approach to dealing with mental health issues. The CQC has found the system to be “under considerable pressure”, with no improvement in the areas of concern raised in previous reports.

Rather than taking a preventive approach to mental health treatment, the Government have made real-terms funding cuts which mean that more people are at risk of being detained and fewer detentions are being prevented. Crucially, those cuts are causing less restrictive alternatives for the community to be removed at the same time as the reductions in the number of beds for admissions. As the report tells us, the number of detentions under the Mental Health Act 1983 has risen by 36% since 2010, and between 2015 and 2016 it rose by more than 5,000. Will the Minister note that between 2000 and 2009 rates of detention fell, largely owing to investment in community services by the last Labour Government?

Recent research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists showed that mental health services have less money to spend on patient care in real terms than they did in 2012, and more than a quarter of clinical commissioning groups underspent their mental health budgets last year. The Government make many claims about the funds that they have pledged to mental health services—as the Minister has today—but it is clear that the money is not reaching the frontline. The CQC thinks that reform of mental health legislation on its own will not reduce the rate of detention, and reductions in mental health beds and community services are clearly contributing to the rise in the number of detentions. Is it not time to increase funding for mental health, and to ring-fence mental health budgets?

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I repeat that we have increased mental health spending by £11.6 billion. The hon. Lady suggested that a quarter of CCGs are spending less than their allocations on mental health, but that is not the figure that I have. We believe that 85% of CCGs have increased their mental health expenditure in excess of their allocations, which does not chime with what she said about community services. It may give her some reassurance to know that from next year, NHS England will ensure that the mental health investment standard forms part of its planning guidance. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says “Next year”, but, as I have said, 85% of CCGs are already meeting the standard, and those that are not are experiencing intervention from NHS England. We are satisfied that the 85%—and it will be 100% next year—are investing more in mental health services beyond their allocations.

I agree with the hon. Lady, and indeed with the CQC report, that the review of the Mental Health Act is not the entire answer. That is the reason for the CQC’s annual inspections, and we will act on its recommendations, but central to the work that Sir Simon Wessely is leading is identifying non-legislative action that we can take in order to make the system work better, and we are involved in many cross-Government initiatives that will enable us to do exactly that.

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The report also concludes that the number of mental health wards without ready access to GPs has fallen from 25% in 2013-14 to just 7% now. Is that not welcome news, and another step in the right direction?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. He has highlighted both the reason why we tasked the CQC with conducting annual inspections and an instance in which, having been given a conclusion and a set of recommendations, we have delivered, and we will do the same in respect of this report.

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The report makes clear the need for a major shift in focus that will place patients at the centre of their care. What is required is a human rights approach in which the least restrictive option is adhered to. Detention must be the last resort.

A key issue is that patients feel invisible in the present system. Will the Minister go to the frontline? Will she visit the hospitals, speak to the staff about resourcing, and speak to the patients and the carers who are in, and have been through, the system? Will she hold the focus groups that are so badly needed with patients and carers to ensure that the system is overhauled and their voices are heard?

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The ethos that the hon. Lady has outlined is very much the one that is being proposed by Sir Simon Wessely, which is why he is organising round tables, but I assure her that I am visiting services at the frontline as well. At the core of the point that she has made is the issue of a rights-centred approach for mental health patients, and that too is at the centre of Sir Simon’s inquiry. Patients need to be empowered to ensure that they receive the right treatment. Central to that is the whole issue of consent, which is something that very much concerns me, and not just in the context of mental health. We may be able to take the lessons from Sir Simon Wessely’s review and apply them elsewhere in the NHS.

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Does the Minister agree that a better laydown of mental health services, involving crisis houses and step-down facilities, might end the need for people to be admitted to acute mental health facilities in the first place, or else support them immediately after their discharge? Will she join me in encouraging the Somerset CCG to ensure that such facilities are available in that county as well?

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My hon. Friend reached the nub of the issue in that final point. Commissioning is a matter for local commissioning groups. However, through the CQC report, the work that we are doing through the mental health investment standard and the scrutiny applied by NHS England, we are trying to ensure that there is a consistent application of good-quality services around the country. We find some centres of excellence and some areas in which the service is less patchy, but when it is less good it obviously leads to worse outcomes. We are determined to do our best to promote the best possible services throughout the country.

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I welcome the Government’s outlawing of the use of police cells for those experiencing a mental health crisis, and I do not question the Minister’s commitment to improving the service, but the system is fragmented. There have been local authority cuts, including cuts in community services. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 leaves local commissioners to decide where the money goes, which has led to a confusing local picture and fragmentation. Do we not need to give people clear pathways out of hospital, and to ensure not only that the money goes to the right places, but that individuals know their rights and that local agencies know their responsibilities?

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The hon. Gentleman’s point about people knowing their rights and providers and commissioners knowing their responsibilities is crucial to the whole issue, and I think it probably underlies the lack of parity of esteem hitherto. When it comes to the role of central Government, we want to continue to rely on local provision and local commissioning, but we also need to be clear about the standards of performance that people should be able to expect. We are being more transparent about where services are being delivered well and where they are being delivered less well, but I think the work that Sir Simon Wessely is doing will shine a light on exactly that, and will enable us to engage in a much more meaningful debate about what is appropriate.

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Does the Minister agree that involving more patients in determining their own care packages and giving them more control over their own treatment is part of the treatment itself?

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I totally agree. Feeling empowered and in control of one’s own care is quite a big part of the journey towards getting better. We are very concerned that we are still finding cases in which people are being detained under the Mental Health Act without being properly apprised of their rights under the Act, and without the support of advocates to represent them. Dealing with that is very much a priority as we drive improvement forward.

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More than half of women with mental health problems have experienced violence or abuse, so may I ask the Minister what reforms will be made to the support available to women with mental health difficulties, particularly to reflect women’s experience of abuse in coercive or controlling relationships?

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The hon. Lady raises an issue that is close to my heart. In my opening statement I highlighted the discrimination faced by black people in detention, but I could just as easily highlight the discrimination faced by women. As she says, if they become victims of domestic abuse or coercive relationships, they often face mental health challenges as a result, and they are more likely to be detained in those circumstances. I co-chair the women’s mental health taskforce with Katharine Sacks-Jones from Agenda, and towards the end of the year we are looking to bring forward concrete actions to tackle exactly this kind of discrimination and make mental health services more responsive for women.

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As a doctor, I know how carefully doctors and other health professionals consider individuals before resorting to detention under the Mental Health Act. Does the increase in detentions under the Act reflect a general increase in mental health problems in the population, or can it be better explained by a greater proportion of people becoming so unwell that they need to be detained in order to support their care? What research is the Minister doing to determine which is the better explanation, and to ensure that we identify those people who are going to become severely ill in time to treat them?

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Clearly, if we can determine the causes of the increase in mental health detention, that will become part of the toolkit that we use to tackle the issue. This is one of the things that we are asking Sir Simon Wessely to look at. There are anecdotal examples of why this might be happening, but the fact that we are seeing higher rates of detention among the black community and among women raises some interesting questions that will bear further examination. I recognise my hon. Friend’s point completely. Good medical practitioners will use detention under the Mental Health Act only as a last resort, and we must ensure that that good practice is spread as far as possible.

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An acute mental health facility in my constituency has been forced to close because refurbishment would be too expensive, and patients are forced to travel a long way outside Bath. Is not a local facility much better suited to treating mental health problems than a facility that is many miles away, particularly because carers are a long way away as well?

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Generally, I would say that local facilities were better, but there is also a tension between a local facility and a good facility. It is better that patients should get the best possible support rather than the closest possible support to them. That is a balancing act, and it is something that needs to be determined by local commissioners.

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It is absolutely essential that every one of us should challenge the system to give more, but could we also talk up progress where it has been made? The Sussex partnership has had a difficult past, but it has gone from being rated as requiring improvement to being rated as good, and one of its categories has been rated as outstanding. Can we praise the staff who are doing things well?

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We absolutely should do that. I often think that when we are challenging each other in this place about things that are poor, we end up talking our services down, but it remains the case that the NHS is the best health service in the world, and we should always celebrate that fact. Also, the fact that we are putting mental health services under such scrutiny is in itself driving an improvement in performance, because, as we all know, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

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Further to that response, the CQC says that it has seen limited or no improvement in the key concerns that it has raised in previous years. The problems are long-standing and they have been raised by the quality regulator in previous reports to Parliament. Does the Minister not understand, when she tries to tell us that sunlight is the best disinfectant, that all we are seeing in our mental health services right now is clouds?

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I would say to the hon. Lady that this report represents sunlight, not clouds. It is very transparent, and these are exactly the things that I will be holding myself and NHS England to deliver to address these points.

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It is very worrying to hear the CQC’s judgment that there has been limited or no improvement, especially relating to the failure to involve patients in planning their care. The Government’s review of the Mental Health Act is therefore timely, and it rightly considers evidence from people who have experienced being sectioned. The report mentions significant variation in performance. Will my hon. Friend be looking into the performance of specific organisations? Can we have more transparency about the failures, down to specific organisation level? What steps are being taken to intervene earlier and to care for people better in order to avert crises and reduce the need for sectioning in the first place?

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My hon. Friend will be aware that, in addition to this annual review of how the Act operates, the CQC is also involved in inspections at individual provider level. Those institutions that are not performing to the standards that we expect are under close scrutiny by the CQC. In fact, I have had exchanges on the Floor of the House about some of them. I repeat my point about the spirit in which we embrace the challenges offered in the report. We have asked the CQC to undertake this annual report precisely so that we can ensure that the Mental Health Act is operating properly, and I actually welcome its frankness. I do not run away from the criticisms in the report, because it highlights exactly where we need to take action.

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If everything in the garden is lovely for mentally ill people, why am I constantly told by people in my constituency that another Government Department—namely, the Department for Work and Pensions—is getting loads of people who are mentally ill to be reassessed, having been out of work for several years in some cases? If the Government want to help mentally ill people, somebody should tell the DWP to stop sending these mentally sick people for reassessment.

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The first thing I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that I am not pretending that everything is rosy. One of the reasons we are making this such a priority is precisely because it is not, and we are determined to deliver improvement. He mentions the DWP, but I do not think that we should write people with mental illness off and say that they can never work again. It is in that spirit that we are working with the DWP to look at where we can help people, through person-centred interventions, to get back into work if they are able to do so. That is exactly what we are doing, and I hope that it will become very successful.

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Obviously, the CQC report will help to inform a lot of ongoing Government work. With that in mind, will the Minister assure the House that Sir Simon Wessely’s review will look at the concerns of people from ethnic minority communities, who have particular issues with detention at the moment?

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I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The increased prevalence of people with a black background being detained is very much part of Sir Simon’s review.

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Is the Minister also aware of the CQC report out today that rates as inadequate the child and adolescent mental health services in the Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust? That is partly because of its vacancy rate of 27%, which the report says has

“impacted directly upon patient care resulting in poor patient handovers, cancellation of appointments, increasing waiting lists, patients waiting allocation of care coordinators, inconsistent care and low staff morale.”

Does not this indicate that, contrary to what she says, mental health services are not getting the resources they need, either in Birmingham or anywhere else?

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I was not aware of that report, but the hon. Gentleman highlights the positive influence of CQC inspection. He has highlighted a provider for which things are not going so well, and that will enable an intervention to be made through the CQC to improve performance. In the meantime, the local commissioners in Birmingham can buy services from other providers.

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My hon. Friend the Minister is right to highlight some of the concerning figures in this report, but there are some encouraging ones too, and does she agree that those who get a mental health problem in the United Kingdom today have a higher chance of being diagnosed, treated and making a recovery than ever before in our history, and that this is largely due to the brilliant staff up and down this country in tackling this fight?

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I completely agree with my hon. Friend: they are better than they ever have been, but that does not mean we cannot do better, and we must strive to do better.

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The mind and the brain are intimately associated, and I heard a horrible story this morning of a man who, after having been in and out of prison and in the criminal justice system and in and out of mental health institutions throughout his life, only really discovered at the age of 44 that many of his problems had originated from a traumatic brain injury at the age of 17. If he had been properly treated then, and had the rehabilitation that is unfortunately not available to so many people today, he would not have been through all of this round of problems. So will the Minister make sure that we get proper rehabilitation services for everybody who has a traumatic brain injury?

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The hon. Gentleman gives a very powerful example, which highlights better than any other we have heard today the challenge we face. Not only was that person failed at the time of having his brain injury, but it was not subsequently picked up as he went through the criminal justice system, and I often say that we can deal with one weak link in a chain of events, but when we have a succession of them, things go horribly wrong. It is very much top of my list to make sure we have better integration of services between health and the criminal justice system, to pick up precisely those situations.

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The Minister rightly said that police cells are inappropriate places to detain people with mental health breakdown, but she and the Government must address the fact that the police have a duty of care to people in mental health crisis until they can deliver them to qualified mental health professionals. The right facilities are simply not available everywhere, and we must make sure that they are, both for the police and, more importantly, for people in the middle of a health crisis.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have seen impressive and rapid rates of decline in the detention of patients in police cells, and I congratulate police forces and police and crime commissioners for helping to achieve that, but he is right that we need to make sure that, when people are taken to places of safety, suitable facilities are available for them.

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Yesterday some of us were present when Esther Rantzen told us that calls to Childline from children with suicidal feelings had risen in 10 years from virtually none to over 22,000 last year, and the CQC report yesterday found that young patients are not receiving the mental health care they need. So can the Minister explain why only 7% of the overall mental health budget is spent on children, when children make up 20% of the population and 50% of enduring mental health conditions materialise by the age of 14?

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The hon. Lady is right to highlight that point, and that is exactly why we have brought forward the children and young persons Green Paper, recognising that the earlier we intervene, the more likely we are to delay and prevent any long-term mental health issues. We are working with the Department for Education, and we are going to be rolling out 8,000 mental health support staff to work in schools to identify precisely that early intervention. The point the hon. Lady makes about Childline raises more questions about why the number of such calls have increased, and we need to do more to understand that. We know some of the social causes that lead to poor mental health, such as domestic violence and other kinds of trauma; they have been with us for a long time. We also need to look at whether there are other environmental factors contributing to that.

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I say very plainly to the Minister that nobody on this side of the House is criticising the staff in the mental health services; we very much support them, but we need more of them and they need to be better resourced. Can she explain why we in West Yorkshire are one of only six authorities who have had year-on-year cuts for five years? We have now lost £20.4 million from the service. May I add that many people on the autism spectrum also find that they are in need of mental health services and they feel these cuts particularly?

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As I have said, we have increased the amount of funding for mental health. That is separate, of course, to the commissioning decisions at local level by local authorities, who also have a role to play in this, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I am very conscious of the needs of people on the autism spectrum. We must give that support, and the things we are doing in terms of improving provision in schools will help identify people who are struggling with that. Planning for the future is great, but we are where we are now, and I join the hon. Gentleman in wholeheartedly congratulating staff up and down the country on their efforts in delivering a good service.

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This CQC report shows that the bad old days of poor mental health care are creeping back: insufficient staff, a doubling of restriction, and a third of patients not involved in their care plan. Why do the Government continue to fail people with mental health conditions, and when do they expect all mental health services to be made safe—the most basic of requirements?

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I disagree profoundly with the hon. Gentleman. This report shows that patients have increased access to advocates, that more attention is paid to the physical health of people with mental health treatment, and that there is better planning for aftercare and discharge, but we are being honest: we still need to do better, and I expect Members to hold me to the findings highlighted in the report.

Office for Students

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

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The Office for Students, which will be operational from April, is the biggest regulatory change to higher education in 30 years. It will run a new regulatory framework that will, for the first time, put the interests of students at the heart of higher education regulation. It will focus relentlessly on student choice and value for money and ensure that the concerns of the all students in higher education in England are heard in the corridors of power. It has a wide-ranging remit and powers to deliver for students.

The OfS is ably lead by Sir Michael Barber, who has a long record of working for Labour and Conservative Administrations, including advising a Labour Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education, and he has also been a Labour parliamentary candidate. Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive, has a background from Universities UK and as an equalities lawyer. They are supported by a board of 12 further members with a wide range of talents and from different backgrounds, including senior leaders in higher education, graduate employers, and legal and regulatory experts, as well as a student representative. I am particularly pleased that Chris Millward, the director of fair access, sits on the board, putting widening participation and fair access at the heart of the organisation. Toby Young would have been just one non-executive member of this board.

The board will put quality of teaching, student choice and value for money at the heart of what it does. The commissioner for public appointments advised the Department on 11 January, two days after my appointment, that he was looking into the appointments processes for the OfS, and the Department has provided him with the relevant paperwork. We are grateful to him for forwarding his report yesterday. His report recognises the good intentions of Ministers and officials, and that the advisory panel did judge candidates on a fair and impartial basis. That said, we note his findings and will carefully and seriously consider his recommendations.

The commissioner raises important points with regard to due diligence in public appointments. We have already accepted that in the case of Toby Young the due diligence fell short of what was required, and therefore the Department has already reviewed its due diligence processes and will seriously consider the further advice from the commissioner.

The commissioner has rightly observed that it was wrong not to have made a formal request to him regarding the approach the Department took in appointing the student experience role, and therefore this was in breach of paragraph 3.3 of the governance code. We should have clarified in the announcement that it was an interim position, although the candidate had been informed of this, as had all failing candidates in the process. I understand that informal contact was made, but I accept that this should have been formalised with the commissioner. Without this formal advice and under pressure to make an appointment by 1 January, the announcement was not made in line with the commissioner’s expectations.

I can confirm that in line with the commissioner’s steer, we will shortly be launching a recruitment campaign for a permanent student experience representative, and we intend to appoint before the end of June this year. We are glad that the commissioner agrees that the incumbent in the interim role, Ruth Carlson, is free to apply. I want to put it on record that she is doing an important job, and I extend my thanks to her for agreeing to accept the interim appointment.

There are lessons to be learned here, and we will learn them. I will write to the commissioner shortly with an initial response to his findings and the next steps we will take with regard to his recommendations.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

Weeks ago, the Government told this House that the process was

“a fair and open competition”

and

“in accordance with the code of practice”.—[Official Report, 8 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 42-52.]

But the commissioner has found that this is not the case. One candidate was rejected on the basis of their past public statements. Incredibly, this was not Toby Young; it was the student representative, rejected due to the desire of

“ministers and special advisers not to appoint someone with close links to student unions”,

as the report notes. Can the Minister tell us why being elected by students makes someone unsuitable to represent them? How could the then Minister tell us that it was not “reasonable” to vet social media, when that was done for the student representatives?

The report found that the appointment was influenced by special advisers at No. 10, and not by the panel. The commissioner concludes that, as the Minister said, the code was broken. Is the Cabinet Secretary now investigating that breach? Is the Minister’s predecessor really still suitable for ministerial office given the findings of this report? Does the Minister believe that after this level of interference we can possibly call the Office for Students an independent body?

The report also notes that an all-male appointment panel was used twice. Will the Minister end that practice immediately? The commissioner made a number of other recommendations. Will the Minister tell us which of the lessons that he talks about his Department will take on board? He has a simple choice: learn the lessons, or make the same mistakes again. What will it be?

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The hon. Lady asked a number of questions that I will take in turn. Her first question relates to having a National Union of Students rep on the board. As she will know, in addition to having a senior representative on the board, there is also a student panel. I met the student panel within, I think, the first week of my being appointed. [Hon. Members: “Answer.”] I am giving an answer. I spoke to the student panel directly; it is doing a great job. There is an NUS representative on the student panel, but there is nothing to say that the person on the board has to be an NUS representative, given that the board has not been constructed to be the place where delegates of represented bodies congregate. The NUS can therefore influence what is happening in the Office for Students.

On the wider question of social media and social media vetting, clearly the social media vetting of Toby Young was not as extensive as it could have been, also given that there were 40,000 tweets.

With regard to the influence of special advisers, Members across this House will know that the way government works is that civil servants and advisers advise but ultimately Ministers decide. In making a decision, Ministers make a judgment call, especially in recruitment decisions. The judgment call in this case was that, having considered the advice from the advisory panel that had looked at the candidates and all the information, none of the three student representatives who were put forward were suitable. Therefore, because someone needed to be in place by 1 January, an interim member was appointed with a view to reopening the competition later on.

I take the hon. Lady’s point about the all-male appointment panel. I think that an attempt was made to make sure that the panel was more representative, but, for whatever reason, someone could not be available. [Interruption.] The key thing, if the hon. Lady will stop commenting from a sedentary position, is that three out of the five members who were eventually appointed were women. Sometimes, in these situations, it is as important to look at the outcomes as the process.

As we look at the process and the lessons that we have to learn, it is important that we do not forget the ground-breaking role that the Office for Students will play in empowering students and championing them—something that this Conservative Government have delivered that was never delivered by Labour.

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I welcome the Minister’s comments, but may I ask him about a wider issue? What I do not understand about the board of the Office for Students is that, given what the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have said about technical education and further education and the link to higher education, why on earth does the Office for Students not have serious individuals from the further education sector and from the apprenticeships sector, many of whom are students doing degree apprenticeships?

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The Chairman of the Education Committee asks a very important question. As he will be aware, however, this is a regulatory body for the higher education sector. He will also be aware that the panel that has been appointed for the higher education review includes some very strong representation from the further education sector. Baroness Wolf of Dulwich is very well known for her work in her reviews of further education, and Beverley Robinson is the principal of an FE college. However, this particular regulatory body is for the higher education sector.

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This report confirms what we all knew—that the appointment of Toby Young, someone who expressed many misogynistic and prejudiced views, should never have happened and could only have happened due to Government meddling. During the previous UQ on this matter, the Universities Minister defended the appointment, stating that it was

“made in line with the Commissioner for Public Appointment’s code of practice, and Mr Young was appointed following a fair and open competition.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 42.]

Does the code of practice therefore include a recommendation to tip off a friend about open positions? If the Education Secretary expressed concern, who is actually in charge of the Department? Is it appropriate that the Universities Minister has simply been shuffled to another Department, given that the current Minister has confirmed that there was a breach of the governance code? Given the stated disparities in process and ministerial input for the candidates and the two different positions for consideration, what reviews are being taken across the entire Government, including on the role of special advisers? What is going to be done to eliminate the blasé crony appointment system that the Government have been operating?

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Just to be clear about what the commissioner has said in relation to the code, he cited a breach in relation to paragraph 3.3, which is a particular reference to the failure to consult formally—there was an informal consultation—before the announcement of the appointment of the student representative. As I said in my opening remarks, there is a lot to be learned here. The Cabinet Office public appointments team, who own the governance code, are working with the Department on the commissioner’s findings and will be writing to the commissioner about how we intend to proceed.

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Is the National Union of Students doing enough to counter the rise of extremism and radicalisation on campuses? What powers does the Office for Students have in that area?

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The first part of my hon. Friend’s question should be directed at the National Union of Students, but he is right that the Office for Students has a wide-ranging remit when it comes to promoting—not simply tolerating—free speech in our universities. Under the current law, the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, the only recourse if someone’s free speech has been infringed at a university is for them to go to court. The Office for Students can investigate, promote culture and, in extremis, fine universities that are not taking seriously their responsibilities on free speech. That is a huge development.

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This report is absolutely damning, particularly in relation to the previous Universities Minister and his role in this appointment. Are there not very serious questions that the previous Minister should be answering to this House about his claim that it was not appropriate and not proper to do due diligence on candidates—he made that statement from the Dispatch Box—when his Department, and he himself, ordered that very same due diligence against a candidate he did not want to appoint? When is he going to come to this House to apologise, at the very least, else further action be taken?

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The same due diligence was carried out by the same advisers on all the candidates. As I said in response to an earlier question, the due diligence could have been more comprehensive and extensive.

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Throughout the general debate we have in this country on higher education, there is typically a focus—perhaps understandably —on finance. Does the Minister agree that we need to be equally focused on outcomes and on the quality of the degrees that graduates obtain? Can he assure me that the inception of the Office for Students will help us to achieve that focus? What really matters is that our graduates have the best quality education.

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My hon. Friend makes the important point that, for many students at university today, the important thing is that they are getting value for money, that they get what they pay for, and that their degrees are worth the paper they are written on. That is what the Office for Students, which this Government created, is set up to do. There are lessons to be learned but, as we have these discussions, it is important that, in the big picture, we do not forget what the Office for Students can do and what it can deliver for our students.

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Toby Young believed in eugenics. He made terrible remarks about disabled people. He made awful remarks about women. This is a man who the Minister’s predecessor thought was fine to be on the board of the Office for Students. What confidence should working-class young people, under-represented groups and ethnic minorities across this country have in the Office for Students if the Minister who did this cannot come to the Dispatch Box to apologise or step down?

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The right hon. Gentleman is someone who likes to have perspective and a balanced view on things, and he will know that Toby Young also set up a free school mainly to give disadvantaged people in some of the poorest parts of our country the excellent education they deserve so that they can improve their prospects in life. Yes, there are issues here that are questionable, but we always need a sense of perspective when we consider such things. Some of the things that Toby Young did are admirable and laudable, and those are the reasons why he was considered to be a serious candidate for the job.

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I beg the Minister to stick to the point. We do not live in some Soviet or Putin-style kleptocracy; we are supposed to be living in a modern parliamentary democracy in which public appointments are done properly, with scrutiny and transparency. That certainly has not been the case with this appointment, and it certainly was not the case the other day when the proposed chair of the Charity Commission was unanimously rejected by the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Why cannot the Government get this right?

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It is precisely because we live in a well-functioning democracy that we are here and you—not you, Mr Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman—can ask those questions. For perspective, there were 15 appointments to the board. There are question marks, quite rightly, over the appointment of Toby Young and the process for the student representative, but 15 candidates were appointed to the board.

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It is a sign of a well-functioning democracy that you are here, too, Mr Speaker. Does the Minister agree it is important that the Office for Students has the requisite skills and resources to be able to play its role in tackling radicalisation on our campuses?

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Absolutely. It is important that the Office for Students has the relevant skills, and also the laser-like focus and the teeth to do something about this. I am glad that we will have a regulatory body with the teeth to do that very effectively.

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I start by thanking all Members who signed the letter to the commissioner for public appointments asking for his investigation. I also thank him for yesterday’s response.

Despite what the Minister says, the report clearly shows a lack of proper process in the appointment of Toby Young and in relation to the student appointment. We need to hear a lot more from the Minister about how lessons will be learned. The commissioner did not look at the person specification, which required candidates to want to contribute to the delivery of the Government’s priorities—not that they should have experience of higher education—but that politicised the process right from the outset. What will the Minister do to address that and to get the person specification checked?

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If the Government were interested in politicising the process in our favour, we would not have a former Labour parliamentary candidate as the chair of the Office for Students—he has advised Labour Prime Ministers and Conservative Ministers. All the candidates had to declare their political affiliation, which was subsequently published.

In the case of Ruth Carlson, for example, there are no discernible political views, but she is very well qualified. She is a student ambassador at the University of Surrey. She was also her second-year course representative and a member of the scholarship committee. When we think of these representatives, we should not always default to the lobby organisations or to people we think fit the bill; we should cast the net wider to bring in the widest possible experience and fresh thinking.

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The Minister has the audacity to talk about casting the net wider when another old Etonian mate of his friends has been appointed through a process that was utterly corrupt. The report says that the key question is whether each candidate was treated fairly and impartially; the answer here is no.

The Government are in absolute disarray, and the Minister is making the situation worse. He says that he is willing to learn lessons. Will he at least confront the fact that this process is not fit for a modern nation like ours?

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I stopped listening when the hon. Gentleman said that Toby Young is an old Etonian—I do not believe he ever was.

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Toby Young is the chief executive officer of the New Schools Network, which has been awarded a series of Government grants to provide advice to people who are opening a free school. In the light of the blatant cronyism we have learned about as a result of the report, do the Government now intend to review those contracts and determine whether due process was followed there?

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The Department is looking at options for support around the New Schools Network. An announcement will be made in due course.

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Hard cases make bad law. It is absolutely clear that the previous Minister made an outrageous, dogma-driven choice in Toby Young and, as the current Minister has admitted, clearly failed to undertake due diligence. I urge that we should not allow that to lead to the abdication of responsibility for appointments to a self-perpetuating quangocracy that looks after the great and the good.

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I reject the idea that there is a self-perpetuating quangocracy here. I have made it absolutely clear that Toby Young’s experience of setting up a free school and his commitment to social mobility meant that there were strong reasons for him to be a candidate. Of course, subsequent information has revealed that he should not have been appointed, which is why he is no longer on the board. We need to look clearly at how these processes work in the future. We will work with the commissioner and we will make sure we implement the recommendations in a way that makes the process more effective next time around. On the student representative, we have someone who is doing a sterling job and has the confidence of the chair. So perspective is needed—this is not cronyism. One appointment should not have happened and that person is no longer on the board, and we will learn lessons as far as the process is concerned.

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I congratulate the Minister on getting his alibi in early during his response to the statement. I should not have been surprised, because on 15 January, when he answered my written question, he unusually provided quite a lot of information about this appointment, which showed that he had looked under the stone and not liked at all what he had seen. Why is the Minister who was responsible for the appointment not being held to account for his actions under the ministerial code of conduct?

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As I have said, we will be responding to the comments of the commissioner for public appointments. The Department is working with the Cabinet Office, and we will do what the commissioner has recommended we do to make sure that this process works better in future.

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When the Government are considering this, will they think about why the same level of due diligence was not applied to Toby Young? Was it Government and ministerial interference—yes or no?

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Ultimately, this is a departmental issue. The Department has taken responsibility and will act on the recommendations of the commissioner for public appointments.

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The Minister rightly reminds us that this was a judgment call for the then Minister. Does this Minister think it was a sound judgment call to allow No. 10’s political advisers to blacklist anybody with NUS involvement and then to appoint somebody who was a chum by not following any proper process? Was that a good judgment call by his predecessor?

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Every decision that any Minister makes involves a judgment—it is not a scientific process. Clearly, all the issues had been gone through, with the input of the advisory panel and civil servants, and everyone involved then came to a judgment. Clearly, in retrospect, Toby Young should not have been appointed, which is why he is not on the board. In terms of making sure the process works better, the Department, which has ultimate responsibility here, will make sure that we have a much more robust and stringent process next time.

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As chair of the all-party group on students, may I express concern about how the credibility of the Office for Students has been damaged by the then Minister’s handling of these appointments? There is a legal requirement for one board member to have experience of representing students, yet it appears that Ministers have actually taken the best possible experience—involvement in a student union—as a reason to not make an appointment.

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indicated dissent.

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I am sorry that the Minister shakes his head, because that is what the commissioner says in the report. Will he assure me that under the new process that he has indicated the Government will follow, involvement in a student union will not be a barrier to consideration?

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The reputation of the Office for Students has not been damaged by this. It has a board with 15 members. It is led by Sir Michael Barber, who is very well respected across the House, and Nicola Dandridge, who has a long and proven track record in higher education. Toby Young was going to be one non-executive board member. Of course experience of being involved in a student union is particularly important, which is why there is a member of the NUS on the student panel. As a Minister, I value students’ views, which is why I have been on a tour to talk to students across the country. It is important that student unions have an input, but it is also important that so do all the other students who do not stand for election and are not politicians, but have views on public policy and how that has an impact on them. It is important to make sure that their voice is heard, too. That is what we are doing with the Office for Students and it is what I am doing as a Minister.

Points of Order

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I asked the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation whether the person specification for the board members of the Office for Students had been checked properly and if we could be assured it met the requirements of the code for public appointments. He did not address that issue, so I wonder whether you could give any advice as to how we can take it forward.

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That is not a point of order for the Chair. Whether it momentarily slipped the Minister’s mind or for some other reason he chose to focus his remarks elsewhere, I do not know. The Minister is welcome to come to the Dispatch Box if he wishes, but he is not under any obligation to do so.

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It is not a point of order.

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It is not a point of order, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says. If the hon. Lady wishes to go in hot pursuit of the Minister and to seek to engage him in conversation on this matter, conceivably even over a cup of tea, it is open to her to try, although it does not look as though the prospects of her succeeding today are high.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), he said that the same due diligence was carried out by the same advisers on all candidates. That is simply not true. Would the Minister like to correct the record, based on the commissioner’s findings?

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I am aware of the summary of the report, but I have not read the report. Again, this is not a point of order; it is a matter of debate. If the Minister wants to engage with this, he can briefly respond, but he is not obliged to do so—[Interruption.] It appears he does not wish to. What I would say to the shadow Secretary of State is that she has made her own point in her own way. As I said to somebody yesterday, she has done so with her usual force and alacrity. It is on the record and we are grateful to her.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I respect what you have just clarified, but what recourse does the House have regarding the former Universities Minister? I feel that he misled this House in his statement on 8 January, and the report by the commissioner has now clearly set out that it was a misleading statement. What recourse do we have regarding that Minister, who is not here today to answer?

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I entirely understand what the hon. Lady is saying, but it is not right to accuse somebody of misleading the House, particularly when the Minister involved is not here. I think she probably wants to insert the word “inadvertently”—I think that would be safe.

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Inadvertently.

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I understand her concern. The Minister in question no longer occupies this office—witness the fact that the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) answered the urgent question, as he is now a Minister in the relevant Department and the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) now serves in another capacity. My advice to the hon. Lady is that she should repair to the Table Office, which is a short distance from here, to consult it as to the means by which questions may be capable of being put to that Minister which might elicit a reply. If that course of action proves not to be fruitful, I suggest that she approaches me again, perhaps with notice, giving me an opportunity to reflect, because certainly I believe in the importance of holding Ministers to account for present and indeed past actions.

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rose—

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rose

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I will come to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins)—we will save him for now. He can cook for a little longer.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the Minister’s gracious reply to me, he said that there should not be further education representation on the board of the Office for Students because it was about higher degrees. However, further education colleges actually do higher degrees. I just want to get that point on the record.

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The right hon. Gentleman has made his own point and it is a factual one. It is on the record and it can be shared, not only with all parliamentary colleagues, but, conceivably, with the masses in his constituency of Harlow.

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rose—

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I think I ought to take the hon. Member for Chesterfield first, so the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) can wait.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In my question, I described Toby Young as an old Etonian. I am sure he has been called worse, and I could have used many other phrases, but apparently he was not educated there and so that should not be added to his charge sheet. Will you therefore allow me the opportunity to correct the record?

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Yes, the hon. Gentleman has corrected the record, and I am grateful to him for his courtesy in doing so.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Further to the point of order that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) made, if there are no other means by which the House could hold the former universities Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), to account, is it still in order to table a motion to reduce his salary as a way of expressing the House’s concern about that lack of accountability?

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That has been an option deployed in the past—there are certainly precedents for it. The hon. Gentleman, who is a person of considerable perspicacity, will certainly know the route to the Table Office by now, as he entered the House in 2001. He may wish to make that journey and to inquire about the feasibility of such an approach, but that there are precedents for such an approach I am happy to confirm.

Access to Banking Services

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about access by customers, in particular those in rural areas, to banking services; to make provision for community banking hubs; to review access to banking services through the Post Office network; and for connected purposes.

In an otherwise fraught and divided political climate, few issues unify Opposition and Government Members from every corner of the British Isles as successfully as bank closures. In short, my Bill would: make it more difficult for banks to close branches; enable the establishment of community banking hubs; and ascertain whether the Post Office has the necessary resources truly to deliver its banking offer.

The insidious decline of the bank branch network is a long-standing phenomenon. The number of branches has halved since 1988, with more than 800 closing in 2017 and a further 250 earmarked for closure this year. In too many instances, banks are abandoning communities that have supported them for generations. That is certainly the case in Ceredigion, where bank after bank has decided to vacate.

Ceredigion was home to some of the first banking networks at the turn of the 19th century, but the 21st century has seen the seaside towns of Aberaeron and New Quay lose branches and the old market towns of Llandysul and Tregaron inherit the unenviable accreditation of being towns without any banks at all. The most recent round of branch closures includes those in the towns of Cardigan and Lampeter. There is no solace to be found in the tragic irony that these rural communities, home to some of the earliest banking networks, could soon be deprived of any at all.

The experience I have described is replicated throughout the UK. The concerns that arise from it do not in any way reflect a romantic fixation with the past or a Luddite reluctance to acknowledge that the way we bank is changing; rather, the transformation of both personal and business banking is developing in such a way as to leave some communities behind. Yes, the use of cash may well have fallen by a fifth in the past decade, and I do not doubt that the number of branch visits has fallen by a third since 2011, but we should not turn a blind eye to the fact that for many individuals and businesses, particularly those in rural or deprived areas, access to banking facilities over the counter is still crucial.

Losing over-the-counter access has a devastating impact on the local community. Too often, online banking is still a hope for the future, rather than a realistic alternative for the present. Indeed, it is often the case that those areas that have suffered branch closures also receive among the poorest broadband services. That is true of Ceredigion, where almost half of all properties do not have “decent broadband” by Ofcom standards. Without access to physical branches, and in the absence of sufficient broadband, people are simply unable to conduct their day-to-day banking online, let alone change their accounts, no matter how seamless or intuitive banks make their websites.

Compounding the lack of digital connectivity is the fact that public transport links are often poorer in rural areas, making that 20-mile or 30-mile journey to the nearest branch even more challenging, especially for the elderly, those with disabilities, and those on low incomes.

The impact of branch closures on small businesses and the local economy is also significant. As the Association of Convenience Stores has noted, 73% of rural customers still pay by cash. A 2016 Move Your Money report found that, apart from the practical difficulties that branch closures cause for the operation of small businesses, they also have a severe impact on local business finance. Bank branch closures dampen small and medium-sized enterprise lending growth by an average of 63%, and postcodes that have lost the last bank in town lose almost £1.6 million-worth of lending over the course of a year. The current trend of branch closures has a devastating impact on individuals, businesses and communities, which the Bill seeks to mitigate.

In all fairness, some banks are beginning to improve the way in which they support communities following the announcement of a branch closure. This is partly a result of the access to banking protocol and its more recent, reinforced iteration, the access to banking standard. Although some banks will adhere to, or even go beyond, the requirements detailed in the standard, it needs to be strengthened further if it is to stem the tide of closures. My Bill would build on the existing access to banking standard and place it on a statutory footing, so that customers of every bank can be assured of best practice.

Currently, communities understandably feel disconnected from the development of local bank networks, so the Bill would require banks to work more closely with the local community prior to a decision to close a branch, as part of their pre-closure assessments, and to determine what options, other than complete closure, are possible. This work would have to include proper consultation with communities so that the full impact of a closure was clear, and alternative options would have to be identified before a final decision was made.

Greater emphasis would be placed on how customers could access cash in rural areas—for example, by taking account of their proximity to a post office, another bank branch or a cash machine—and the distances would be measured in travel time rather than geographical distance. Furthermore, local transport, in addition to broadband infrastructure, would be considered as part of the process. Where the provision is so poor as to exclude customers from accessing an equivalent service, banks would need to work with others to improve the situation and, if necessary, funds should be made available for broadband schemes and skills training.

Consideration would also be given to the wider impact of a closure on a community, including the fact that a branch is often not only the last bank in town but the last service in town. In such circumstances, a bank should be precluded from closing the branch unless an equivalent alternative can be secured, or it should pay a levy to fund the provision of community banking.

To give banks and communities a greater range of options than the closure of a branch, the Bill would provide for establishing community banking hubs. In essence, such an option would enable banks to pool their resources to provide centres in which they could all be accessed by their customers. In other words, the Bill would help banks to co-locate, instead of completely vacating our rural communities. Although there is no specific regulation to prevent banks from sharing branches, such banking hubs would require significant co-operation and a fair amount of trust, in order to overcome their practical and commercial challenges. To address those challenges and inspire collaboration between banks, the Bill would encourage the creation of regional forums, which would open an avenue for banks to discuss ways in which they can work together to maintain a physical presence in communities.

The role of the Post Office, particularly its banking offer, has been referred to in many of the recent debates about community banking. The services available through its network are certainly vast, and in many instances they have served to fill the gap left by the closure of the last bank in town. If post offices are to assume this ever-growing responsibility, it stands to reason that resources will be required to ensure that staff are trained in banking services or that post offices employ those made redundant by bank closures.

Furthermore, many post offices require physical adjustments—from improving accessibility to the installation of private meeting rooms to discuss personal finance matters—to make them appropriate centres for greater banking services. Funds should be forthcoming from either central Government or the vacating banks to support such adjustments. If the Government intend the Post Office to fill the vacuum left by retail banks, they must stand ready to allocate the resources needed for it truly to flourish in this new role. Before that, a review is required to ascertain what precisely is needed. The Bill would provide for such a review.

Taken together, the provisions in the Bill would stem the tide of branch closures. It would ensure that banks give full consideration to the broader impact that closure has on communities, offer an alternative way for banks to maintain their physical presence in rural areas, and determine what support will be needed if the Post Office is to assume an even greater role.

As Professor Griggs noted in his review of the access to banking protocol, we should not wait for branches to close before

“addressing the issues that some have with these changes”.

Rather, banks and the public sector should work proactively to find alternatives

“to help all of us feel that we are part of this journey, and not excluded from it.”

I would be glad to have the opportunity to consider other aspects of this issue, should the House give me leave to bring in the Bill, which I commend to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Ben Lake, Liz Saville Roberts, Jonathan Edwards, Hywel Williams, David Linden, Brendan O’Hara, Mr William Wragg, Stephen Kerr, Ruth Smeeth, Martin Whitfield, Caroline Lucas and Jamie Stone present the Bill.

Ben Lake accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 169).

Estimates Day

[2nd Allotted Day]

Supplementary Estimates 2017-18

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Homelessness

[Relevant Documents: Oral evidence taken before the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on 27 November 2017, on the Homelessness Reduction Act, HC 554; Fifth Report of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2016-17, the draft Homelessness Reduction Bill, HC 635, and the Government response, Cm 9443; Third Report of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2016-17, Homelessness, HC 40; Eleventh Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Homeless households, HC 462; Sixty-third Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Session 2016-17, Housing: State of the Nation, HC 958; and Written evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government Supplementary Estimates 2017–18, reported to the House and published on 21 February 2018.]

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I should inform colleagues that, following recommendations from the Procedure Committee, this year the subjects for the estimates debates have been chosen by the Backbench Business Committee, based on bids from Members. The subjects chosen by the Backbench Business Committee were then recommended to the Liaison Committee, which in turn, under Standing Order No.145, recommended them to the House, which agreed to them on 22 February. The first debate will be introduced by Layla Moran, who should speak for no more than 15 minutes, in accordance with the Standing Orders. Because so many Members wish to speak, after Layla Moran has introduced the debate I will impose a time limit of six minutes.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31 March 2018, for expenditure by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government:

(1) further resources, not exceeding £296,942,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 808,

(2) further resources, not exceeding £484,352,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and

(3) a further sum, not exceeding £1,618,448,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Wendy Morton.)

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It is a great pleasure to introduce this estimates day debate on the spending of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as it relates to homelessness. I would like to start by thanking the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) for co-sponsoring the debate. I also thank colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee and the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, all of whom supported our bid to the Backbench Business Committee. I am delighted that so many Members wish to speak.

I draw Members’ attention to the reports of the Public Accounts Committee and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that are listed on the Order Paper. It was a real eye-opener to work on the Public Accounts Committee as a lead member on that inquiry, alongside the hon. Member for Chichester and the Committee’s Chair, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). I will focus my remarks today on that report, which is well worth a read.

The Public Accounts Committee heard and read evidence from a wide range of witnesses. I would especially like to thank St Mungo’s for hosting us and showing us its exemplary work, which led in large part to the questioning we went on to do. The report, which received widespread media coverage, made a number of recommendations on how the Government could more effectively co-ordinate and prioritise spending on tackling rough sleeping and helping all homeless households. These issues are of huge concern across the House and across the country, but they are of equal concern to very many members of our communities, especially on such a freezing day, in a week that is unusually cold.

In my constituency of Oxford West and Abingdon, residents regularly raise concerns about rough sleeping and provision for homeless people—it is the No. 1 issue at the moment. I pay tribute to the incredible work being done in my constituency, especially by Homeless Oxfordshire, formerly known as Oxford Homeless Pathways. It has told me that in Oxford alone it is reaching out to, on average, two new people a day who are seeking its help.

Recent news reports have highlighted a heavy-handed approach by Oxford City Council, with notices issued threatening homeless people with fines of up to £2,500 if they did not move their belongings. The treatment of homeless people in our city has sparked outrage from the public. There is now real determination, and not just in Oxfordshire but across the country, to ensure that we treat those who are sleeping rough with the dignity and respect they deserve.

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The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that we should also be concerned about some of the campaigns that have arisen aimed at the “fake homeless,” including one campaign in Devon that has led the police and Torbay Council to intervene because of the risk of vigilantism? Does she agree that, in the face of rising rough sleeping and homelessness, we should be taking a generous approach to those who are most vulnerable, not seeking to label them as fakes?

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I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I completely agree that a compassionate approach is absolutely what is needed.

Following a campaign by Oxford University students, I was pleased to be able to introduce a private Member’s Bill earlier this month aimed at repealing the archaic Vagrancy Act 1824, a Dickensian law that is no longer fit for purpose.

Oxford is not alone in seeing an increase in the problem of homelessness. Anyone who has visited a town or city centre recently will know that rough sleeping is now at crisis levels. Indeed, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that homelessness is a national crisis, with the number of rough sleepers rising year on year since 2010, doubling to over 4,100 in 2016. Crisis estimates that the figure is now as high as 9,000, and possibly more. Last summer in England there were over 78,000 households in temporary accommodation—this is not just about rough sleeping—which is up by 65% since 2010. Then there are the hidden homeless: the sofa surfers or people staying temporarily with friends and family who escape national statistics on rough sleepers.

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Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am that youth homelessness is one of the largest factors contributing to those figures, due to the benefit cut for 18 to 21-year-olds? Is it not time we reintroduced those benefits?

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Yes, I agree. In fact, joined-up thinking between Departments is a theme that I will return to later in my speech.

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The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that it is important to tackle homelessness before it happens? The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which will come into operation in April—I was proud to sit on the Committee that scrutinised it—will deal with this by alerting services of the risk 56 days before people become homeless, and indeed the Government are providing £73 million to help local authorities tackle this.

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I am indeed getting to that point, at which I will be very generous in my comments.

I am sure that hon. Members are aware of the scale of the problem. How can we not be, when we heard the story of the gentleman who died right on our doorstep in the underpass of Westminster tube station just a few weeks ago? It is clear that the House needs to take this issue much more seriously, and I am sure that many of our constituents would agree.

It is worth repeating some of the key statistics from the Public Accounts Committee’s report. There has been a 134% increase in rough sleeping since 2011. The average life expectancy of a rough sleeper is only 47. People on the street are 17 times more likely to be the victims of violence than those in settled accommodation. Children in long-term temporary accommodation miss far more days of school, at an average of 55 days a year. The country is seeing record problems including record numbers of rough sleepers, and huge increases in the number of families living in temporary accommodation and in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, sometimes for two and a half years at a time. It has never been more important for this House to ensure that the Government are spending enough—and, critically, that they are spending wisely—to address this problem of national significance.

Having looked at the supplementary estimates—dare I say that I have not read them line by line?—it seems that the Ministry proposes an overall reduction of £470 million in its resource budget. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what impact this is likely to have on homelessness. But this is not just about overall spending; it is also about how effectively the money is spent. The Public Accounts Committee has expressed concern over how effectively taxpayers’ money is being used. There have been some welcome developments, including the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

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I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Southwark Council, one of the local authorities that serves my constituency, is a trailblazer for the Homelessness Reduction Act and has been much praised by the Minster’s predecessor for its implementation work on the Act and its good prevention work. Within a matter of months, Southwark Council will have to issue redundancy notices to the staff that it has recruited to implement the Homelessness Reduction Act, unless the Government can confirm their ongoing commitment to fund the implementation of the Act. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Homeless Reduction Act, which I and many other Members supported, will be a wasted opportunity to address homelessness unless the Government make that commitment?

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I absolutely agree. Indeed, I will make that point myself later. We need to ensure that the resources are available to make this work.

Local authorities spent £1.1 billion preventing and tackling homelessness in 2015-16, but the Public Accounts Committee found that there were problems: a lack of guidelines on how they should spend the funding they receive and what outcomes they are aiming for. The increase in spending to address homelessness coupled with ongoing cuts to local authority budgets means that councils are struggling to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. Instead, their funding is being spent on tackling homelessness after it has already occurred.

According to the National Audit Office report that underpinned our inquiry, spending on temporary accommodation, which is often poor, has risen from £622 million to £845 million. Meanwhile, countries such as Finland that have prioritised prevention are saving an average of £13,000 a year per homeless person. The key feature is that such countries give homeless people a stable place to stay, where they can rebuild their lives.

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Will the hon. Lady therefore welcome the £28 million investment in the Housing First initiative, which is very much along the lines of the Scandinavian model to which she refers?

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I will, of course. Any money in this area is a good thing, but I do have a concern about the supplementary estimate for 2017-18 that I want to raise with the Minister.

The estimate proposes a reduction in current spending on preventing homelessness, from £265.8 million to £263.6 million. It also proposes to remove £25 million of capital funding previously allocated for reducing homelessness that will now not be spent in 2017-18. Given that the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee were both clear that there needs to be a focus on preventing homelessness in the first place, these figures are a cause for concern.

I very much welcome the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, as did the whole Committee. Our concern, however, was that far too much sway was put on the Minister for that Act alone to be the panacea. It is not going to work without extra funding available to councils in order to implement it and without funding for truly affordable rents, particularly social rents.

Let me highlight the case of one of my constituents, who lives in a rented house in Abingdon with her two children, one of whom has autism. She recently contacted me because, despite working full time, she cannot afford her rent and is terrified of eviction. She has looked high and low, but cannot find anywhere to live in Abingdon. This story exemplifies the crux of the issue. The report showed that the main driver of the current rise in homeless is the spiralling rents in the private rented sector. As a nation, how did we get to the stage where a mother in full-time work cannot afford a roof over her head?

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Surely building more houses can help to reduce homelessness. Does the hon. Lady welcome the £9 billion that the Government have put towards building more affordable and social housing?

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I do welcome it, although I worry. As the hon. Gentleman will know, given that his constituency is in Oxfordshire, even something “affordable” in Oxfordshire is not really that affordable when people want to buy. The prices are 80% of market value, but in a grossly inflated market. The key issue is that very little social rented accommodation is being built in our county and across the nation.

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Will my hon. Friend give way?

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I have to make some progress. I am sorry, but I am mindful of what Madam Deputy Speaker said.

The estimates show a £259 million reduction in Homes and Communities Agency funding for starter homes and a £72 million reduction this year in affordable homes spending. This worries me. Meanwhile, the estimates show a significant increase in funding for Help to Buy. But those who are about to become homeless are very far from accessing Help to Buy: they have no spare cash, so how are they meant to raise the money for even a small deposit? The estimates also show that capital spend on other housing programmes will fall by £1.2 billion—a reduction of 40%—from £3 billion to £1.8 billion. Help to Buy is useful, but it is certainly not the fix-all solution. The Government have got the emphasis wrong.

Liberal Democrats would like to see a more ambitious programme of house building, but one that aims to be truly affordable—not 80% of market value—and that, critically, also includes rented housing. We have yet to hear from the Government how they are going to achieve that, in the latest Budget or elsewhere.

We also need to consider that people become homeless for a number of other reasons, the most common of which is the end of a private tenancy. Decreasing numbers of houses available for social rent means that local authorities are having to rely on private accommodation providers. This accommodation is often of a poor standard and does not offer value for money. There is a problem with landlords who do not want to accept people in receipt of housing allowance, and we suspect that universal credit will make this situation much worse.

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The hon. Lady is making an incredibly powerful speech, and a lot of personal commitment has clearly been put into addressing this issue. She mentioned universal credit among other policies. Given that this has contributed to the problem, is it one of the policies that she is most embarrassed about her party pursuing while in government with the Conservative party?