House of Commons
Wednesday 18 April 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
CHOGM: Sustainable Development Goals
We will be working with our Commonwealth partners to ensure that we address the global goals by discussion and commitments across all the goals, but particularly those on prosperity, education and global health.
Goal 16 of the sustainable development goals includes a commitment to provide legal identity for all by 2030. Is the Secretary of State ashamed that her Government destroyed thousands of landing cards of those arriving from Commonwealth nations and are now trying to throw those people out?
I should thank the hon. Lady for affording me the opportunity to associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister yesterday. This has been an appalling episode taking place during CHOGM week, and she took the opportunity yesterday to apologise and to provide reassurances to Commonwealth partners as well as to people here. It is important to reiterate that anyone who answered Britain’s call all those years ago has the right to remain and call Britain home. The Home Office has, as the hon. Lady knows, put in place new measures to ensure that no one should have any concerns about the process.
In my speech last week, I reiterated that programmes on health are one of the best ways that we can use UK aid, providing a win for the developing world and also contributing to our own global health security. We have made some commitments on malaria during CHOGM, and there will be a malaria summit this evening.
Clearly, the Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa and other Ministers, will be having bilaterals all week with Commonwealth Heads Government and with their Ministers when those Heads of Government are not attending.
Killer diseases such as malaria are a huge barrier to the attainment of the sustainable development goals. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming today’s malaria summit, which will accelerate global action to tackle this deadly disease, and continue to back and thank the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation?
The House need take it not from me, but can take it from Bill and Melinda Gates, that this nation has played a huge role. The British public should be immensely proud of the efforts that have been made to combat malaria. It is still a huge problem, particularly in Commonwealth countries, and we are determined to eradicate it.
The Prime Minister of Jamaica referred yesterday to climate change as an existential threat, and he was absolutely right to do so. Prior to CHOGM, we had been working with our Commonwealth partners to work up concrete proposals and commitments, and we have had many meetings this week, including one particularly focused on small island states, which are disproportionately affected by this issue.
I associate myself with what my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) said. I must say that an apology from the Government is not good enough, because we need to look at the wider picture. The Government have threatened to deport the Windrush generation and have extended their hostile environment to Commonwealth citizens who are legally here. They are unable to provide data on how many have been wrongly detained or deported, and they have even destroyed their landing cards. Exactly what kind of signal does that send to our Commonwealth partners? I ask the Secretary of State to raise these issues with the former Home Secretary and tell her that this is not the global Britain that we want to build.
I thank the hon. Lady for those comments. Whatever the policy intent, it is quite wrong if it is not delivering the effect that it should in practice—if people are not reassured and cannot get the answers to basic questions, or if the process is moving so slowly that the person is denied access to healthcare, for example. I am pleased that the Home Office has now gripped this issue and is determined to put those wrongs right. The Prime Minister is providing that reassurance, not just in what she said in public yesterday but in in the bilaterals that she and I have had with members of the Commonwealth.
I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Last week, she set out her new vision for UK aid, saying that it should act as a “shield” against migration. Does she really believe that the British public want to see our aid budget—meant for poverty reduction—being used to prop up her Prime Minister’s hostile environment?
The hon. Lady has misquoted me; I did not say that. Clearly, migration is a very positive thing. The migration that happened with the Windrush, for example, was hugely beneficial to Britain and, I hope, to those individuals, but other issues will be exacerbated if we do not create jobs and prosperity in Africa. I remind the hon. Lady and other Members that thousands of people have lost their lives in transit across the Mediterranean. We need to do more to alleviate poverty in Africa. People should not have to leave their homes, cross the sea via people traffickers and risk their lives in order to survive.
Yemen: Humanitarian Access
The UK has led the call for unhindered humanitarian and commercial access to Yemen, including through the UK co-ordinated Security Council statement of 15 March, the Secretary of State’s visit to Riyadh in December and lobbying from the Prime Minister. DFID is also providing expertise and funding to UN shipping inspectors to facilitate import flows into Yemen.
Cholera is currently a massive problem in Yemen, so getting medicines in is, of course, crucial. Hodeidah port is still only open on a month by month basis, so what is the Department doing to keep it permanently open?
I am conscious of both aspects on the hon. Gentleman’s question. Just the other week, on 3 April, I was in Geneva, where I co-hosted a discussion on cholera with Sir Mark Lowcock, the UN Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs. We had a roundtable of all the major agencies involved in dealing with the cholera outbreak, including the World Health Organisation and others. We are doing as much as we can to encourage preparation for dealing with that outbreak. Of course, we continue to work on ensuring that there is as much access as possible through any of the ports, although the hon. Gentleman is right that the lack of commercial shipping now coming into Hodeidah by choice is an extra burden.
Given the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, I welcome the role that the UK is playing in funding the global relief effort. Will the Minister confirm what more work his Department plans to do to ensure that we can get the aid to where it is needed within Yemen?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. On 3 April, DFID announced an additional £170 million for the new financial year in response to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. We work with all partners to ensure that there is greater access and a greater prospect of resolution of the conflict through the new UN special envoy Martin Griffiths.
I welcome the steps that the Department is taking to secure continued humanitarian access to Yemen, and urge Ministers to do the same in Syria in the light of recent events. Does the Minister foresee humanitarian grounds for military intervention in Yemen, as those were apparently the grounds for action in Syria? In any event, will he confirm—unequivocally and without exception—that none of the 0.7% aid budget, which is for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, will be used to fund military activities?
There is no prospect of United Kingdom military action in Yemen. The humanitarian efforts are going on at the same time as seeking to resolve the complex political difficulties there. I remind the House of the exceptional difficulties of access in the northern areas controlled by the Houthis.
The Minister’s Department assured the public at the start of March, following the Secretary of State’s trip to the region in December, that humanitarian access in Yemen had been restored. However, fuel imports are estimated to be just 30% of what is needed, with food imports at just 9%. Bombing of port areas also continues. Why did the Secretary of State sign a £100 million aid partnership with Saudi Arabia in March, without insisting on full, permanent aid access in Yemen?
In March, imports met 61% of monthly food needs and 60% of monthly fuel needs. While we recognise, of course, that the level of access is not as great as we would wish, we are working hard with coalition partners to make sure not only that there is increased access but that the issues concerning the smuggling of weapons into Yemen, which has been a principal cause of the restricted access, are being dealt with as well.
Women and Children’s Education
The UK is a major investor in education generally and in girls’ education specifically. Yesterday, the Prime Minister committed £212 million through the Girls’ Education Challenge to ensure that almost 1 million girls across the Commonwealth, including the most marginalised, can get the quality education they need to fulfil their potential.
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she is doing in this important field. I join her in celebrating the Girls’ Education Challenge—the programme supported so strongly by her Department. Will she update the House on the future of this programme going forward?
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the amazing work of the Girls’ Education Challenge, which is the world’s largest girls’ education programme. Yesterday’s announcement of £212 million will support 920,000 girls in Commonwealth countries and give 53,000 highly marginalised adolescent girls in Commonwealth countries the opportunity to have a second chance at learning.
Does the Minister agree that one thing that inhibits girls’ access to education is early motherhood? What steps are the Government taking to ensure excellent family planning and contraceptive services in developing countries?
We remain strongly committed to our family planning programme, under which we work in a variety of different ways, whether through provision of family planning services directly or advice to girls in schools, to try to ensure that girls are not getting pregnant during their education.
Sadly, parents in developing countries are sometimes persuaded to give up their children to orphanages on the promise of a good education. The charity Home for Good told me this morning that the Australian Parliament is looking at measures to tackle orphanage trafficking as part of its modern slavery legislation. Does DFID have any plans to amend our legislation similarly?
DFID’s policy on orphanages is not to fund those establishments. On my right hon. Friend’s point about whether UK legislation, which has led the world in tackling the terrible issue of trafficking, should be amended, we will certainly be discussing that with Home Office colleagues.
Does the Minister agree that one of the most disruptive things in a family’s education is when a member of that family is killed by the greatest epidemic of our times—unnecessary, preventable road deaths, which kill 1.3 million people a year on our planet?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his amazing work as a United Nations envoy on this important issue. It is important not only that children can go to school but that they can get to school safely. That is why DFID funds a range of different programmes to tackle the problem.
UK Aid Match Fund
So far, UK Aid Match has provided more than 100 grants benefiting more than 24 million people in 22 countries.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Will she outline how UK Aid Match funding is allocated to ensure that projects on the ground are receiving the dividends of the generous spirit of so many in the UK? What is being done to ensure that not a penny goes to militarily active groups in any way, shape or form?
UK Aid Match is a competitive process. We select the strongest appeals and projects, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that not a penny goes to military groups.
Does the Secretary of State agree that Aid Match is a vital method for building support for international development among the UK public, as it allows them a genuine say over where and how the aid budget is spent?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Some 89% of the public believe that helping developing nations is a good thing to do, and I know that they support the Aid Match programme.
Tackling modern slavery is a priority for DFID. We are expanding our work in developing countries through £40 million of new programming that will reach at least 500,000 people at risk of slavery. Today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is announcing £3 million of new funding to tackle child exploitation in the Commonwealth.
Libya has become a hub for human traffickers who exploit migrants and refugees attempting to make their way to Europe. That has left thousands of women the victims of horrendous abuse. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Libyan Government of National Accord to bring traffickers to justice and to end that abuse?
As good fortune would have it, the recess took me to Libya, to Tripoli, where I met the Prime Minister, the Minister for Justice and the Minister for the Interior. We did indeed discuss the difficulties relating to trafficking that my hon. Friend mentions. We are supporting the Libyan Government with capacity building. We are also working on a £75 million programme to try to deter migrants from moving from sub-Saharan Africa where they might be at risk on that route. It remains an important issue for us and the Government of National Accord in Libya.
Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires British companies with a turnover of £36 million to make declarations of actions that they are taking to reduce modern-day slavery, yet by their own admission, the Government neither keep a record of companies that should make a declaration nor monitor those that have done. What action is the Minister taking with his Government colleagues to make sure that British companies are not unwittingly perpetuating modern-day slavery?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are setting up a new business hub to try to ensure that companies accept their obligations in that regard, and we will be working hard with them to make sure that they do.
Technology: Developing Countries
Our investments in technologies are saving and changing lives all over the world. Half of DFID’s £397 million annual research budget is focused on new technologies in developing countries in the health, agriculture, climate, clean energy, water, education and humanitarian response sectors.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to see at first hand how some of our aid budget has helped to develop technologies and engineer solutions that have changed people’s lives around the world. Can the Minister tell the House, however, whether any of the technologies that have been invented using our aid budget have been of direct benefit to people here in the UK?
I welcome the interest of the former Chair of the Science and Technology Committee in this important work and commend the Committee to hear from the team involved, because there are a range of different examples. Diseases know no boundaries, and the UK’s development of a test for TB is a good example.
Wales and Lesotho share the precious asset of water. Will the Minister support my initiative to bring together Welsh Water— the not-for-profit water company in Wales—and the Government of Lesotho to work on providing technological solutions to the problems that we share?
That is a wonderful example of the way in which Welsh Water and Lesotho water companies can work together to ensure that everyone has access to clean water.
We are running out of time—in a single sentence, Vicky Ford.
I know that my hon. Friend tried to give up plastic for Lent and saw what a challenge it is, which is why we were so delighted to announce over the weekend further funding for research that will help tackle the prevalence of plastic not only in developing countries but here at home.
In sub-Saharan Africa, one of the most comprehensive issues is the provision of clean water to many hundreds of thousands of people, and many small charities are doing that. Will the Minister work closely with them to ensure the provision of technology to develop that in future?
In paying tribute to the wonderful work that those small charities do around the world, I draw hon. Members’ attention to our small charities challenge fund, which is an open window through which they can bid for additional funding.
We were all appalled by the horrific attack in Douma, Syria, on 7 April. All indications are that this was a chemical weapons attack. We have not had to rely on hearsay to conclude that: UK medical and scientific experts have analysed open-source reports, images and video footage and concluded that the victims were exposed to a toxic element. This is corroborated by first-hand accounts from aid workers.
May I take the opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State’s speech last week outlining her vision for the future of international development policy? Will she update the House on the practical steps she is taking to make that vision a reality?
We need to ensure that UK aid is working doubly hard—better delivering on the global goals but also working in the UK’s national interest—and is not just spent well, but could not be spent better. Part of that will be delivered through a new cross-Government ministerial ODA meeting to ensure greater coherence and better spend of UK aid.
The hon. Gentleman is right—I have indeed visited the school and the village. The UK has made repeated representations on this particular possibility of demolition and I assure him that we will continue to do so as a matter of urgency.
I call Richard Graham. Where is the fella? He is not here, but he ought to be. What a shame.
We are well aware of this threat. We support the materials monitoring unit of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, which oversees the approval, entry and use of materials for reconstruction. We regularly audit spending to ensure that there is no diversion in the manner that my hon. Friend raised.
Ensuring that we have good access is critical to whatever work we do in Rakhine and our prime concern is to stop any initial violence. Our main effort to help the Rohingya is ensuring that we are as prepared as we can be for the cyclone season that is about to hit Cox’s Bazar.
We are proud to be a global leader in tackling malaria and we have committed £500 million a year until 2021 to that fight. We will work with global partners to spend that effectively. We particularly appreciate the efforts of Bill Gates and the foundation, and we thank him for his kind words this morning about the British Government’s contribution to that.
I call David Linden. [Interruption.]
I say to the hon. Gentleman: enjoy it while it lasts, man.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that important issue. I can assure him that there are some 5,000 schools where the Girls’ Education Challenge is supporting many, many girls in their menstrual protection.
We are very proud to be a founding supporter of the Robert Carr civil society Networks Fund. So far, the United Kingdom has committed £9 million to it. We will make our decision on future investments to the fund later this year and I hope to attend the international convention on HIV/AIDS prevention in Amsterdam later this year.
Given the Government’s wretched treatment of the Windrush generation and the loss and destruction of paperwork, will the Secretary of State talk to her colleagues about introducing an amnesty?
That gives me the opportunity to reiterate what I said earlier. The Home Office has now stepped up its efforts to ensure that people are reassured. It has given further reassurances on precisely the point the hon. Gentleman raises. We all have to ensure, as constituency MPs and as members of the Government, that everyone has the information and support they need at this moment.
DeafKidz International, which is based in my constituency, does great work to protect deaf children around the world. What is DFID doing to redress the imbalance of services available to deaf children?
I praise the work of DeafKidz International, which has also received UK aid funding. We are doing many things. Through the Girls’ Education Challenge, we supported 46,000 girls with disabilities, including deaf girls, to access education.
It has never been more important to make the positive case for overseas aid. However, delivery of the global learning programme in schools ends in July. May we have an assurance that it will be replaced in time for September?
We are doing a refresh of some of those programmes. Clearly, programmes such as Connecting Classrooms will carry on and we are doing a refresh of the International Citizenship Service. We think these are important ways in which we can deliver on the global goals and help young people in our country to learn more about the rest of the world.
The Prime Minister was asked—
This week, the UK plays host to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. I know the whole House will want to join me in welcoming to London leaders from 52 countries, who collectively represent a third of the world’s population. Over the coming days, we will discuss a range of shared priorities, from oceans and cyber-security to continuing to tackle malaria and ensuring all children have access to 12 years of quality education. With 60% of the Commonwealth under the age of 30, the summit will have a particular focus on how we revitalise the organisation to ensure its continuing relevance, especially for young people.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
The whole House will be aware of the stories of people who came to this country from the Commonwealth more than 45 years ago—people who are facing the anxiety of being asked for documents they cannot provide to prove their right to reside in the country they call home. Will the Prime Minister update the House on what she and the Government are doing to provide reassurance in these cases?
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, which I know has caused a great deal of concern and anxiety, so I would like to update the House.
People in the Windrush generation who came here from Commonwealth countries have built a life here; they have made a massive contribution to the country. These people are British. They are part of us. I want to be absolutely clear that we have no intention of asking anyone to leave who has the right to remain here. [Interruption.] For those who have mistakenly received letters challenging them, I want to apologise to them. I want to say sorry to anyone who has felt confusion or anxiety as a result of this.
I want to be clear with the House about how this has arisen. Those Commonwealth citizens—[Interruption.]
Order. The House must calm down. The Prime Minister is responding to the question. There will be a very full opportunity for questioning of the Prime Minister on this occasion, as there is on every occasion, but the questions must be heard and the answers must be heard.
Thank you. Let me update the House on how this has arisen. Those Commonwealth citizens who arrived before 1973 and were settled here have a right conferred by the Immigration Act 1971 to live in the UK. They were not required to take any action with the Home Office to document their status. The overwhelming majority already have the immigration documents they need, but there are some who, through no fault of their own, do not, and those are the people we are working hard to help now. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made clear that a new dedicated team is being set up to help these people evidence their right to be here and access services, and it will aim to resolve cases within two weeks, once the evidence has been put together.
Last month, I raised the case of Albert Thompson, a man who has lived and worked here for decades, paid his taxes, and yet been denied national health service treatment. The Prime Minister brushed it off. Will she say what she will now do to ensure that Mr Thompson gets the cancer treatment he urgently needs and is entitled to?
The right hon. Gentleman did indeed raise the case of Albert Thompson. It was not brushed off—[Hon. Members: “It was!”] No, the Home Office has been in contact with Mr Thompson’s representatives. First of all, I want to make one point very clear: no urgent treatment should be withheld by the NHS, regardless of ability or willingness to pay——[Hon. Members: “It was!”] No, I also want to make clear that as it happens, Mr Thompson is not part of the Windrush generation that I have just spoken about in answer to the first question. And finally, clinicians have been looking at Mr Thompson’s case and he will be receiving the treatment he needs.
On 20 March, the Prime Minister wrote to me stating,
“while I sympathise with Mr Thompson...we encourage him to make the appropriate application”
and provide evidence of “his settled status here.” Yesterday, we learnt that in 2010, the Home Office destroyed landing cards for a generation of Commonwealth citizens and so have told people, “We can’t find you in our system.” Did the Prime Minister, the then Home Secretary, sign off that decision?
No, the decision to destroy the landing cards was taken in 2009 under a Labour Government.
All the evidence—[Interruption.]
Order. I said the Prime Minister must be heard. The Leader of the Opposition must be heard, and he will be.
All the evidence suggests—[Interruption.]
Order. There was a lot of this yesterday—very noisy and extremely stupid barracking. It must stop now. That is the end of the matter. The public absolutely despise that type of behaviour, from wherever in the House it takes place. Cut it out and grow up!
I remind the Prime Minister that it was her Government who created “a really hostile environment” for immigrants and her Government who introduced the Immigration Act 2014.
We need absolute clarity on the question of the destruction of the landing cards. If she is trying to blame officials, I remind her that in 2004 she said she was
“sick and tired of Government Ministers…who simply blame other people when things go wrong.”
Does she stand by that advice?
The right hon. Gentleman asked me if the decision to destroy the landing cards—the decision—had been taken in my time as Home Secretary. The decision to destroy the landing cards was taken in 2009 when, as I seem to recall, a Labour Home Secretary was in position.
It was under a Tory Government, and she was Home Secretary at that time, and that is what is causing such pain and such stress to a whole generation. On Monday, the Home Secretary told the House:
“I am concerned that the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual.”—[Official Report, 16 April 2018; Vol. 639, c. 28.]
Who does the Prime Minister think is to blame for that—the current Home Secretary or her predecessor?
The Home Office is a great Department of State that touches people’s lives every day in a whole variety of ways. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been swift in responding to the unfortunate confusion and anxiety, for which we have apologised, that has arisen from the Windrush generation. The right hon. Gentleman referred earlier to action that we had taken as a Conservative Government to deal with illegal immigration. It is absolutely right that we ensure that people who access services that are paid for by taxpayers and relied on by people living in this country have the right to do so and that we take action against people here illegally. The Windrush generation are here legally—they have a right to be here; they are British. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to question the idea of taking action against illegal immigration, I suggest he has a conversation with the former shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who in 2013 said:
“we need much stronger action from Government to bring illegal immigration down”.
This is not about illegal immigration; this is about Commonwealth citizens who had every right to be here. Cases such as Mr Thompson’s have occurred because it was Home Office policy in 2012 to create “a really hostile environment” for migrants, and the right hon. Lady was the Home Secretary who sent Home Office vans around Brent telling migrants to go home. On Monday, the Immigration Minister said that some British citizens had been “deported in error”. The Home Secretary did not know, and then asked Commonwealth high commissioners if they knew of any cases. Does the Prime Minister know how many British citizens have been wrongly deported and where to, and what provision has she made to bring them back home to Britain?
As the Immigration Minister has made clear, we apologise unreservedly for the distress caused to anyone who has been told incorrectly that they do not have the right to be in the UK. We are not aware of any specific cases of a person being removed from the UK in these circumstances and we have absolutely no intention of asking anyone to leave who has the right to remain here, but the Home Office will work to reach out to those from the Windrush generation who do not have the necessary documentation to ensure that that is provided. There will be no cost to them; nobody will be out of pocket as a result. There is a difference between the Windrush generation, who are British, are part of us and have a right to here—we want to give them the reassurance of that right—and those other people who are here illegally. It is absolutely right that the Government make every effort to ensure that people who access our services have a right to do so and that we take action against people who are here illegally.
I am informed that Mr Albert Thompson has still not been informed when he will be getting the treatment he obviously needs as a matter of urgency. Does the Home Office not keep records? It has been months since these occasions were first brought to the Government’s attention. We know of at least two British citizens languishing in detention centres in error, and this morning the Jamaican Prime Minister has said that he knows of people who are unable to return to Britain.
This is a shameful episode, and the responsibility for it lies firmly at the Prime Minister’s door. Her pandering to bogus immigration targets led to a hostile environment for people contributing to our country, and it led to British citizens being denied NHS treatment, losing their jobs, homes and pensions, and being thrown into detention centres like criminals and even deported, with vital historical records shredded and Ministers blaming officials. The Windrush generation came to our country after the war to rebuild our nation, which had been so devastated by war. Is not the truth that, under her, the Home Office became heartless and hopeless, and does not she now run a Government who are both callous and incompetent?
As I have said, the Windrush generation did come here after the war, they did help to build this country, many of them worked in our public services and they contributed. They have a right to be here: they are British. That is why we are working with those who have no documentation to ensure that they have that provided for them. The decision was taken in 1971 not to require them to have documentation. That is what has led to the problem that we now see in relation to the anxiety of these people.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about being callous and having a disregard for people. I have to say to him that I am the Prime Minister who initiated the race disparity audit, which said: what are we doing in this country to ensure that people have equal opportunities in this country? The right hon. Gentleman talks about being callous. I say to him that I will not take that, following a debate last night where powerful contributions were made, particularly by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). I will not take an accusation of being callous from a man who allows anti-Semitism to run rife in his party.
May I assure my hon. Friend that Theresa from Maidenhead would bring exactly that? I am very pleased that, in yesterday’s unemployment figures, we see employment in this country at a record high. Any visit to Carlisle will be about jobs, it will be about the future and it will be about national security—our commitment to spend 2% of our GDP on our defence, our commitment to ensure that we have the powers for our intelligence services and law enforcement agencies that they need to keep us safe—and I look forward to my visit to Carlisle.
Does the Prime Minister agree with her Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who is sitting just along from her, that the rape clause provides victims with “double support”?
I know this is an issue that has been raised a number of times in this House. It is an incredibly sensitive issue, and of course I fully recognise the sensitivities that are involved for the mothers involved. We have taken great care—considerable time and care—to set up procedures, following extensive consultations, that mean that no Government staff will question these mothers about what they have experienced. The point my right hon. Friend was making was that a mother will be granted the exemption through engaging with specialist professionals, such as health and social workers, who may be able to provide them with support in those circumstances over and beyond the issue of their entitlement.
That is not quite the point that the Secretary of State made when she seemed to offend all who were at the meeting of the Parliament in Edinburgh.
Rape Crisis Scotland has clearly stated:
“Hinging benefits on proving trauma isn’t a choice, it’s a disgrace and one which may well re-traumatise women.”
The chair of the British Medical Association in Scotland has said that the rape clause
“is fundamentally damaging for women—forcing them to disclose rape and abuse at a time and in a manner not of their choosing, at pain of financial penalty.”
This is the form, Mr Speaker, with a box for the child’s name. What kind of society do we live in?
We live in a society in which we have taken every care to ensure that this is dealt with in as sensitive a manner as possible. That is why the Government took considerable time and engaged in extensive consultations when putting the arrangements in place. As I have said, no mother in these circumstances will be granted the exemption by dealing with jobcentre staff; mothers will be granted the exemption by dealing with specialist professionals.
My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and he is absolutely right to do so. Home ownership is a dream, and, sadly, too many young people today feel that they will not be able to achieve that dream. We have been having success—last year more homes were built than in any but one of the last 30 years—but we need to ensure that we are helping people into home ownership and seeing more homes being built. I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend and others to discuss this matter.
I understand that it is, in fact, possible for special arrangements to be made for split payments. Domestic abuse—domestic violence—is a terrible abuse, a terrible crime that we must deal with, but I understand that it is possible for those arrangements to be made.
I am very much aware of the key role that is played by the A5 in the midlands and of the plans for growth—the plans for new housing to which my hon. Friend has referred—along a route that is so important to him and his constituents. As he will know, we are already making investments in the A5. However, I have also heard his case promoted by Midlands Connect, as has my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary, and it will be considered very carefully as we make decisions on further road investment.
We do of course particularly want to ensure that we are recruiting people with the skills our armed forces need. In the modernising defence programme, we are looking at the capabilities we require to defend this country against the threats we face, and that will also involve looking at the particular skills that are necessary.
We are actively considering the proposals for the mid-Wales growth deal. I know that my hon. Friend has put a lot of effort into this, particularly into bringing local partners together, including by making important cross-border links for this area. We believe that the best decisions and proposals for what will work for mid-Wales will come from people who live, work and do business there. We will be offering help and support, and UK Government Ministers in Wales have already met a variety of local partners to start this process off. We are ambitious for Wales and I am keen to see every part of Wales having a city or growth deal.
I was very pleased to be able to meet Alfie and his family, and I know the sympathies of Members across the House are with them as he undergoes treatment. I have written to the family to reiterate our commitment to explore a range of options for finding a solution for Alfie. Of course we want to ensure that people get the treatment they need. It is also important that medicines are properly and thoroughly tested, but I will certainly ensure that the Home Office looks at this application speedily.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important issue. It is one of the issues we will be focusing on in this Commonwealth Heads of Government week, and yesterday I called on my fellow Commonwealth leaders to join the UK in committing to halving the number of malaria cases by 2023. We are the second largest donor to the fight against malaria and, as the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said in International Development questions, we remain committed to our five-year pledge to spend £500 million tackling it. Yesterday I announced that the UK will commit a further £100 million to the global fund, which has the aim of unlocking a further £100 million of investment from the private sector.
I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman has raised this issue with me before. The contract between the trust and the private finance initiative company is still in place, so the PFI company is contractually obliged to manage the project and find another subcontractor who can continue to deliver the building work and the services. As the right hon. Gentleman may know, even before the issue arose with Carillion there were some delays to this project. The Department of Health and Social Care is working actively on it, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is doing so as well and he has also been in discussions with the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, who has also been in discussions with the trust. We recognise the level of concern being raised on this issue and we are working to resolve it.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Team England on winning the second largest tally of gold medals at an overseas Commonwealth games, as they return on Saturday to Birmingham, which will be the next host of the games?
I am happy to congratulate Team England on coming second in the medals table—
Wait for it. I am also happy to congratulate Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, all of whom had a very good Commonwealth games. It was an excellent Commonwealth games; Australia put on a very good show. I was pleased to see that one of the last results was in the women’s netball, in which we beat Australia.
More money is being made available to police forces in the 2018-19 year, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has taken action in relation to the serious violent strategy that she has published. Also, I have to say this to the hon. Lady:
“We do not say that there is a direct causal factor between the number of officers on the ground and the number of crimes.”
She may wave her hand at that, but those are not my words but those of the shadow Policing Minister.
My right hon. Friend has rightly made reference to yesterday’s debate on anti-Semitism. I sat in the Chamber and listened to that debate, including the two appalling testimonies from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and particularly from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), which were deeply moving. They were horrifying in the sense of the abuse that those hon. Members have faced, but also uplifting in the sense of the bravery that they have shown in tackling their abusers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what came out of yesterday’s debate was that there should be absolutely no place in any political party for anyone who is an anti-Semite and that, just as importantly, any apologists for anti-Semites should be kicked out of their party as well?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is incredibly important for us and for the political parties in this country to show a clear signal that we will not accept or tolerate anti-Semitism in any form. I have made reference to a number of the speeches that were made yesterday, and I also join my right hon. Friend in commending those Members, particularly the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Liverpool, Wavertree, who have suffered incredible abuse as a result of this anti-Semitism but who have also shown incredible bravery in being willing to stand up and set that out to the House. Theirs was a fine example of the best of this House of Commons and the best of Members of Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman raises a question that I know has been raised in the House before. I am sure that it is a matter of concern not only to him but to a number of his constituents. We continue to take the view that the best resolution of this issue is for India and Pakistan themselves to come together and resolve the matter. That will be the way to resolve it that will actually ensure the sustainability of a resolution.
RBS recently announced plans to reduce the number of mobile banking visits to Dufftown in Moray. Following strong representations from myself, Dufftown and District Community Council, and Speyside Community Council, the bank confirmed yesterday that it would not go ahead with its plans. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming that? However, does she agree that RBS needs to engage more with local communities, because had it done so, it would have realised how unacceptable its proposals were?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming RBS’s decision, but I commend him for his efforts on behalf of his constituents in Dufftown. Such things are commercial issues for the banks, but we have been clear that banks need to consider carefully the impact on people and their access to services when making such decisions.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and we are happy to ensure through various channels that we encourage others to follow the example that India has shown in relation to TB. At one stage, it was eradicated here in the UK, but we need to ensure that action is taken in other countries around the world.
As the Prime Minister said, unemployment is at a 43-year low, and investment in UK industries, including the tech industry, is at a high. When she is on her way to Carlisle, will she come and visit Imagination Technologies? It has received an £8 billion investment, which shows the confidence that overseas technology investors have in our tech industry.
I think that that might be a bit of a detour on my way to Carlisle, but I certainly support what my hon. Friend says about the importance of high-tech business and of the work that companies such as Imagination Technologies are doing.
Search and rescue at sea is provided by several organisations, including the coastguard and the RNLI. The RNLI has a proud tradition, and we should be grateful for its record on search and rescue at sea. It is obviously independent and decides where best to put its resources, but we are supporting the work of independent lifeboat charities through our rescue boat grant fund, which has allocated more than £3.5 million since 2014 to increase capacity and resilience by providing new boats and equipment.
The Commonwealth is a wonderful organisation, but too many Commonwealth countries have anti-gay legislation on their statute book. Of course, a lot of that is a legacy of the colonial days, when Britain was a very different country. What message about gay rights does the Prime Minister have for Commonwealth leaders this week? More importantly, that message should go out to gay people in those countries who are suffering because of such legislation.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have a special responsibility to help to change hearts and minds on such issues within the Commonwealth. When I addressed the Commonwealth forum yesterday, I said that across the Commonwealth
“discriminatory laws made many years ago continue to affect the lives of many people, criminalising same-sex relations and failing to protect women and girls.”
Many such laws were put in place by this country, and I deeply regret the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today. As a family of Commonwealth nations, we must respect one another’s customs and traditions, but we must do so in a matter that is consistent with our common value of equality. The message that I sent yesterday is that we stand ready to support any Commonwealth member that wants to reform outdated legislation that makes such discrimination possible.
I have already met Prime Minister Modi—I did so this morning—and I raised the issue of human trafficking and the work being done in India. We will be setting up discussions between our officials.
London welcomes our good friend Prime Minister Modi today. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to condemn absolutely the mobile billboards that are going around London attacking our good friend Prime Minister Modi, and will she congratulate and thank the 1.7 million members of the Indian diaspora on their contribution to the work of this country?
India is indeed a good friend of the United Kingdom, and the Indian diaspora here in the UK plays an enormous role and makes an enormous contribution to our society and our economy. I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating and thanking them, and indeed in encouraging the continuation of that contribution. When I spoke to Prime Minister Modi, we discussed how we can encourage and increase the links and development between our two countries.
The vile online and social media abuse suffered in particular by female politicians, which was movingly highlighted in yesterday’s debate and also by events at the weekend back home in Northern Ireland, is testimony to how this must be tackled head-on. Can the Prime Minister assure us that steps will be taken to bring social media companies and platforms to account, so that the wild west culture of “anything goes” is brought to an end as quickly as possible?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important point about how these platforms can be used for the sort of abuse that we heard about in the Chamber last night and that, as he says, has also been raised in Northern Ireland in the past few days. We are working with the social media companies. Good work has been done with them on a number of aspects, such as child abuse on those platforms, and we continue to work with them on the wider issues. We are also looking at the issue of the liability of social media companies. They are not publishers, but on the other hand, they are not just platforms. We are looking at that issue urgently.
Free and fair elections are the foundation of our democracy. I am sure that the Prime Minister will be aware of the events that happened in the Gower constituency during last year’s election, where the Labour activist Dan Evans has admitted spreading lies and libellous accusations against our former colleague Byron Davies, to influence the outcome of the election. It appears that his efforts worked. Does the Prime Minister believe that the leadership of the Labour party needs to make it very clear that our democracy has no place for this sort of behaviour? Does she believe that the honourable thing would be for the new incumbent of that seat to resign and fight a free and honest by-election?
Of course, our former colleague Byron Davies has received an apology, and I understand that a donation has been made to charity. Of course, our former colleague lost his job as a result of the action that was taken. People across the House talk of free and fair elections—that is what we believe in as a democracy—but political parties need not just to talk about free and fair elections; they need to ensure they put it into practice.
Last week, Shop Direct announced that it is closing all its Greater Manchester sites, with the loss of 2,000 jobs, including nearly 1,400 in my constituency at Shaw. That was without prior warning or discussion with staff, the unions, Oldham Council or even myself. Given that this is about the ascendance of automation, what specific measures is the Prime Minister taking to support my constituents? Will she meet me and my colleagues to discuss this and the longer-term, more general impact of automation on the labour market?
Obviously, this is a time of great concern for the Shop Direct workers and their families in Greater Manchester. The Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus are working with the company to understand the level of support that is required for employees, and the DWP stands ready to put in place its rapid response service to support any workers who are made redundant and to help them back into employment as quickly as possible. There are a number of ways in which Jobcentre Plus can support workers, and it will ensure that it does that in this instance.
The hon. Lady raises a wider issue about the impact of automation on jobs. We are looking at the question as part of our industrial strategy, and I will ask the Business Secretary to meet her to discuss it.
Malaria has been mentioned by several Members in the Chamber today. In her conversations with the Prime Minister of Canada this week, will the Prime Minister be discussing how the G7 can help to drive progress towards a malaria-free world?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. I have not yet met Prime Minister Trudeau this week, but this is certainly an issue that we have made sure is being spoken about here at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, and we will raise it within the G7 context.
In 2009, Michelle Samaraweera was raped and murdered. Since 2012, Aman Vyas has been avoiding extradition for this and eight other charges of sexual violence against women in Walthamstow. There have been 47 hearings to date, with the judge not showing up for seven of them, and seven different judges have been appointed. When the Prime Minister talks to her good friend Prime Minister Modi while he is here in London, will she commit to raising this case with him and asking India to take it seriously, so that we can finally get justice for Michelle?
I have already met Prime Minister Modi for our bilateral discussions. There are a number of issues of extradition between the two countries—the UK and India. We raise a number of cases with the Indian Government, as I did this morning. It is important that we recognise the independence of the judiciary in both countries.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Order. Points of order tend to come after urgent questions, so we will look forward with eager anticipation and a sense of excitement to the contribution of the hon. Gentleman at that point.
Gender Pay Gap
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Women if she will make a statement about Government action to close the gender pay gap.
May I say that it is a pleasure to answer this urgent question from the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman)? It is unacceptable that in 2018 there are still differences in how men and women are paid in business and in industries. That is why this Government introduced new regulations, which came into force in 2017, requiring all employers with 250 or more employees to report their gender pay gap. I am delighted that as of yesterday 10,055 employers, covering all sectors of the economy, have reported their gender pay gap. These new regulations have shone a light on the injustice that has existed for too long and created a new conversation on the need for a step change in gender equality. We are now working with employers to support them to take action to close the gender pay gap; we are building our research base on what works, to drive real change; and we will be supporting employers to understand what has caused their own gender pay gap and what they can do to make a real difference.
We want employers and employees to succeed in driving real change. The Government have launched a range of initiatives that will help. We introduced shared parental leave to enable working parents to share childcare in the first year of their child’s life, and we have extended the right to request flexible working. We have introduced a new £500 million fund to support women and men who have been out of the labour market for a long period to return to work, and we have doubled the early education provision, so that all three and four-year-olds from working households in England can access 30 hours’ childcare a week.
I am pleased that the majority of employers have published action plans, alongside their reporting, to set out what they will do to tackle the gender pay gap in their business or sector. I look forward to hearing more about the ongoing work in this area and the work done to address this great inequality, but there is more to this issue than just the regulations. It is about driving cultural change. From the subjects that girls choose to study at school and university to the expectations of women who are climbing their own career ladder, we want the message to women and girls to be, “We will support and encourage you to achieve your full potential.”
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I thank the Minister for her obvious commitment to this issue. It was Labour legislation that enacted gender pay transparency, but it was her Government who implemented it. It is important that they did that, because it has laid bare what women have always known but previously did not have proof of, which is that there is systematic pay discrimination. It is now clear: eight out of 10 employers pay men more than they pay women—and that is across every sector, including the retail sector, which would not exist without women’s work. Why on earth should women in Tesco put up with £8 an hour on the checkout when men in the stores get up to £11.50 an hour?
Although it pains me to say this, the trade unions that need to be part of the negotiations to narrow the pay gap need to get their house in order. How can women members of Unite believe that that union will champion their rights to equal pay if there is a 30% pay gap in the union itself? The NASUWT, a teachers union, pays its male staff 40% more than it pays women, so it too has to take action. As for the public sector, let us look at the University of Liverpool. Its public policy is to narrow the pay gap, but the University of Liverpool pays men 90% more in bonuses than it pays women. That has to stop.
Does the Minister agree that we are no longer interested in rationalisations, explanations or justifications? The time for excuses has passed. We want stretching targets year on year to narrow the gap. Will she join me in congratulating the women in the House who have spoken up on this issue, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), among many others, including the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and Labour’s Front-Bench team, who have been pushing on this issue? Will she congratulate all the women outside the House who have been pushing on this, not least women in trade unions and the BBC women?
May I give the Minister some sisterly advice on what she should do to really focus on this issue? First, she should stay on the back of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and make sure that it uses all its powers and has the resources to take action. Secondly, she should suggest to the Prime Minister that she has a Cabinet session on the gender pay gap, with all Secretaries of State required to come to Cabinet and say what stretching targets they are going to impose in their Departments and the sectors for which they are responsible. Thirdly, she should commandeer Downing Street for a summit at which business and trade unions can tell her what they are going to do to narrow the pay gap. If she does all that, she will have a great opportunity and a great responsibility, because if she drives forward on narrowing the pay gap, that is not only fair and just but the most important thing to help low-income families and tackle child poverty.
I said at the beginning of my statement that I was extremely grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for raising this issue in an urgent question, and I meant it. I fully recognise and thank her for the work that she did in government to introduce legislation on the gender pay gap. Like her, I thank other female Members, including the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who, along with her colleagues on the Committee, does so much to drive through change. I thank female Members from all parties. There is a real sense of urgency and impatience about this issue. For what it is worth, my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister share our impatience—I hope I do not regret that word—to have this matter sorted.
I must of course pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Lady for all the work she does to try to ensure that this place is a little more understanding and accommodating of a diversity of backgrounds, for Members and our staff. I very much take on her advice, although I worry that I might be stepping a bit above my station if I commandeered Downing Street for the summit she suggested—
We will back you up!
I assure the right hon. and learned Lady that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is taking a very keen interest in this urgent question and the issue. I welcome her ingenuity of thought. Watch this space.
The Government’s action means that large companies cannot hide their gender pay gap any more. We should commend the Government on that. That action means that we have transparency of information, and I believe that that transparency will create a momentum for change. If we are to make that momentum as fast as it can be, will my hon. Friend the Minister outline for the House the work that the Government will do to review some of the causes of the gender pay gap, particularly the discrimination that pregnant women still endure in the workplace? What work will the Government do to make sure that pregnancy discrimination is outlawed in this country in the same way that the Minister is trying to outlaw the gender pay gap?
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question; I am always grateful for her thoughts and suggestions on this issue and the other subjects that her Select Committee examines. I completely endorse what she said about pregnancy discrimination: discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy is unlawful and wrong. Anyone who suffers from that form of discrimination has the support of the law. My right hon. Friend and other colleagues have raised the issue of the three-month time limit. Tribunals have the power to extend that time limit if they feel it is just and equitable to do so, but I am very conscious of the issues that colleagues have raised in relation to the time limit and am looking into it.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for tabling the urgent question and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. I also thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her work on section 78 of the Equality Act 2010.
We need actions, not audits. More than 10,000 companies have reported their gender pay gap, which shows that the Government underestimated the number of organisations that should report. The Government might therefore like to review the figure. It is great that more than 10,000 organisations have reported. Labour’s Equality Act—the legislation—was just step 1 of a five-step programme to narrow and close the gender pay gap. In the sisterly way in which these exchanges are being conducted, I wish to tell the Minister the other four steps. She is very welcome to steal them.
Step 1 is the focus on mandatory auditing. Step 2 is companies’ and organisations’ action plans to close the pay gap. Step 3 is Government certification for fair equality practices, which would ensure that those organisations that are doing well are given certification to show their progress. Step 4 is to follow in the footsteps of Iceland with further auditing and fines for those organisations that fail to get certification of their equality practices, taking into consideration their action plans and reporting. Step 5, which is extremely important, is to shift the responsibility to unequal pay from the employee to the employer, so that instead of the employee having to go through court cases to prove unequal pay, it would be the employer’s responsibility.
In addition, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which I am sure has been mentioned a number of times today, needs more resources. Seventy per cent. cuts to its resources will jeopardise its ability to enforce sanctions, so the Government will need to review the cuts that they have levied on the organisation. Labour wants to follow in the footsteps of Iceland, which consistently ranks as the No. 1 country for gender equality. I hope that the Government will see Labour’s five-step plan as a way to accomplish that. The deep-rooted social and economic inequality facing women runs deeper than the pay gap. Women have borne the brunt of 86% of Conservative cuts. More than 60% of those currently earning less than the living wage are women. We need to tackle all the issues.
I am actually more ambitious than the hon. Lady. I do not just want to impose regulations on business; I want a change in the culture of business, a change in the culture of the public sector where we know there are gender pay gaps and a change in the culture of schools and universities. This cannot be imposed from the top down; it must be driven with enthusiasm by the organisations themselves. I hope that this will empower women to begin asking very difficult questions of their employers. I would like women to begin thinking about this when they apply for jobs. They should look at the gender pay gap and make decisions about how that shows how that employer treats their female workforce.
The hon. Lady mentioned the number of companies in the Government’s first estimate. This is just the first year. This was always going to be a bit of a learning exercise not just for the Government, but for businesses and the way they manage the system. We are delighted that there are more companies than we initially estimated that meet the criteria. As she knows, the criteria cover businesses that employ 250 or more people, which means big, successful businesses. We are delighted that there are more of those than our initial estimates suggested.
I am very pleased that we have the support of the shadow Front-Bench team in our common ambition to help women in the workplace to get a fairer deal. Of course we must always seek to do better—and we must use the data to improve the way in which women are treated—but I am pleased to note that we have more women in employment than ever before and, what is more, the full-time gender pay gap is at a record low of 9.1%—that is 9.1% too high, but it is at a record low, and it is on a downward trajectory. I am sure that we all support that in this House.
I congratulate the Minister on achieving something that people on both sides of this House have been working towards, which is an audit that gives us an exact understanding of the data. I speak with experience as I looked at the gender pay gap back in the ’90s as an education and employment Minister. The truly shocking figure for me was not just the eight in 10, but the 8% of organisations that have no gender pay gap between men and women. It is most important that we learn from those organisations. May I just say that the law at the moment applies to those with more than 250 employees? When will the Minister look at lowering that limit, because many women who receive unequal pay are in those smaller organisations?
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend. Those of us who have been in the House for only a couple of years are very much standing on the shoulders of giants and she, like the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), are among those giants. I am delighted that she has raised the issue of companies or employers that employ fewer than 250 people. I am very much looking at that matter. We must understand that this is world-leading regulation. This is the first time ever that any country has done this on such a scale. By definition, the first year will be a learning process both for the Government and for businesses, but I am very happy to commit to looking at lowering the requirement if the research and data show that that is appropriate.
The gender pay-gap figures show how far we have still to go on this issue. It is very concerning that there are still some 1,500 companies that have failed to report. Perhaps the Minister could tell us a little more about what she intends to do to ensure that they report those figures, because there could be a lot more hiding within them if they have not reported them in time. Will she give more resources to the EHRC to ensure that it can do its enforcement work and follow up on all these cases so that none of that is missed? It occurs to me as well that the reporting is very much the start of the process. It tells us where women are now within the workforce. What more is she doing to look at the pipeline to ensure that women are coming through, because it will take more than just equalising the pay to make that happen? We have to be there right at the start.
I was very glad to hear the Minister’s comments on pregnancy discrimination, which is utterly unacceptable in this day and age. Will she expand on the issues around the time limit, because three months is really not long enough for women to put in a claim; six months would be far, far better. It would be good to hear some progress on that.
For the limited powers that we have in Scotland on this issue, the Scottish Government have introduced stronger reporting requirements for public bodies, asking them to publish their pay gap every two years, and also to bring down the threshold from 250 to 20 employees in the public sector. Will the Government take that on, because it is something that they can do right now? I was glad to hear that the Minister is at least considering reducing the threshold to 150 for all companies, because at the moment many companies that employ women are hiding. They will not be able to demonstrate the gap, and women will continue to lose out in those companies, which, I would argue, provide the majority of the workforce in the UK. They, too, need to be held to account.
Order. This is an extremely important matter, which I judged rightly, I think, warranted the urgent attention of the House. However, progress has been disappointingly slow. As we have another urgent question and then substantial business thereafter, it would be greatly to our advantage if questions and answers could be a tad pithier.
I apologise, Mr Speaker, but I am just so full of enthusiasm for this subject.
Let me answer the hon. Lady’s questions. On the issue of the private sector employers who have yet to report, it has been the responsibility of the EHRC to tackle them since the deadline. It has a programme of action. It wrote to every single employer who did not report on Monday 9 April, and it is considering each and every company that falls within the boundaries that has not yet reported. I should say that 100% of public sector organisations have reported, so they are to be commended for that.
Let me turn now to the issue of the EHRC—I apologise because someone mentioned this earlier. The EHRC will receive £17.4 million in the next financial year. I have spoken to the chief executive and I am not aware that resources are an issue, but of course I will listen to her if she says otherwise. On the very important point about the pipeline, I have to say that that is why the Hampton-Alexander review is so important. At the moment, 27.7% of FTSE 100 companies have women in senior executive positions. We want that to be 33% by 2020, which is a challenge for business, because that will mean that they have to start recruiting one woman for every two places that come through. It is a challenge and I hope that the business community will live up to it.
The Minister is quite right: this is about changing the culture of organisations. Will she therefore congratulate the Conservative party whose own gender pay gap figures show a 15.7% gap in favour of women?
I hesitate to say this, but we are leading the way not only when it comes to the pay gap in our central office, but in terms of female leadership of our party and of the country.
The reason why I fought so hard as a Minister in the coalition Government to win the battle to introduce gender pay gap reporting—despite the Minister’s obvious commitment to this today, my goodness it was a battle with No.10 at the time—is that the visibility and transparency of hard numbers help to pierce the bubble of complacency in boardrooms, in newsrooms and in our living rooms where some people still think that we live in a world of gender equality. What concrete action are the Government taking to help employers understand that the gender pay gap is about unequal pay and so much more? It is about the fact that jobs in care and other roles are undervalued and low paid because they are predominantly done by women. It is about the 54,000 women a year who lose their job because they have a baby. It is about the toxic workplace cultures where the boys’ clubs make the decisions and sexual harassment is endemic. Time is up on pathetic excuses. It is time that organisations got serious about action.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady and hope that she will forgive me for not including her in my roll-call of honour of female Members who have helped on this issue. She is right that we need to say to organisations, “Look, you need to do more.” I am pleased that companies have followed our best practice guidance so that, alongside reporting the gender pay gap, they have set out their action plan for how they intend to tackle it. We have seen some interesting plans—for example, from easyJet for rebalancing the number of female pilots in its workforce. This is part of the overall programme, along with our expectation about executive positions and addressing a lot of the pipeline issues. For example, we know that the choices that girls and young women make at school and university dictate their career path, so we need to encourage them into science, technology, engineering and maths.
The World Economic Forum does an annual survey of the gender pay gap in 200 different countries. I am very pleased that the UK ranks in the top 10% in the world, although much more can obviously be done. Will the Minister look at the recommendation of the charity Bliss, to give more support to mothers of very premature babies? They are a small number of women who could do with some extra help.
My hon. Friend raises a sensitive issue in her usual sensitive manner. Of course I will look into it. So many issues can impede the career path of a woman or, indeed, a man. It is in the best interests of businesses to find the flexibility to be able to encompass such sensitivities as and when that flexibility is needed. Flexible working really does pay in results for businesses.
It is now over 40 years since a heroine of mine, Barbara Castle, introduced the Equal Pay Act. She did so with great support from the labour and trade union movement, because the principle that women should be paid the same for doing the same job as men was believed then. Forty years later, we are really no nearer to achieving that pay equality. Although it is important that we have seen transparency, it has laid bare the size of the task. Allowing enforcement mechanisms so that the existing law can actually be enforced is crucial, so that women who are illegally sacked for being pregnant can use the law to get proper redress and so that we can drive out this direct discrimination, which has been illegal for years. Does the Minister understand that?
I commend the hon. Lady’s passion on the issue. Of course, equal pay has been the law for 40 years. Paying people unequally for the same or similar work is unlawful. We are currently seeing the impact that inequality has on workforce morale in various organisations, let alone the anger that individual women feel when inequality comes to light. The gender pay gap provisions obviously deal with the pay gap—unequal pay for the same or a similar job is dealt with under separate legislation. I think that Wendy Olsen’s report in 2010 defined the second highest factor impeding women’s participation in the workforce as “unknown”, which we know is direct and indirect discrimination, so we need to ensure that women are aware of their rights. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has the powers set out under the Equality Act 2010, and we will be looking at how powerful and effective those powers are.
Is not the key point that this is the very first reporting that has been required? It is the start of a process that can be developed. Although the criterion of companies having more than 250 employees accounts for 40% of employment and 49% of turnover, there is an acceptance that that threshold number of employees should be decreased. Does the Minister agree, however, that it should be a gradual decrease over time?
Yes, this is the first year. As of this month, we are having a conversation about the pay of more than 10,000 private sector businesses and more than 1,600 public sector organisations. We are also reviewing their data, which simply was not there a year ago, let alone 10 years ago. Although I absolutely understand the impatience in the Chamber to get this issue sorted as quickly as possible, we have to be realistic. Rome was not built in a day. We need to be sure about action plans.
It’s the law.
I completely agree; it is the law. But we need to review the action plans and the evidence. We have to give ourselves a bit of time to see what the data says and what lessons we need to learn from that data.
I hope the Minister will agree that it was revealing to see that job segregation by gender has an impact on pay. I hope she will also agree that the opportunity to change that is in our hands today, with apprenticeships. This is urgent. It is disappointing that the Government have not set a target for tackling gender segregation when it comes to apprenticeships, although they do have a target, which I support, for encouraging more people from ethnic minorities into apprenticeship roles. Will the Minister look into this issue and discuss with her colleagues whether more should be done to tackle the gender imbalance in apprenticeships across different sectors, and will she write to me with her findings?
I will happily write to the right hon. Lady about those conversations. We are conscious of this issue, particularly in the STEM subjects, which is why have committed in the careers strategy to improving STEM careers advice in schools. We are also ensuring that girls and women are being encouraged into the STEM subjects as much as possible, but of course it is not just about STEM. The right hon. Lady’s point about apprenticeships is important; I will take that away with me.
Mandatory reporting requirements are an important step in eliminating the gender pay gap, but does my hon. Friend agree that it will be key for shareholders and customers, as well as employees, to hold businesses to account on those reports?
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head when it comes to cultural change. I very much hope that women employees and shareholders are looking at the performance of their companies and asking themselves, “Is this how we want this company to behave?” Let us be clear: more than 10,000 businesses have been having a conversation about this issue at board level in a way they simply would not have been a year ago. I am keen that we look at this not just in terms of regulations, but in terms of cultural change and cultural ambition.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for asking this urgent question and for starting us off with her characteristic insight, constructive challenge and no-nonsense approach to the issue.
For employers with a particularly large gender pay gap, would the Minister consider exploring a threshold above which an organisation would be required to publish an action plan for closing or reducing that gender pay gap?
We have thought about this carefully. At the moment, we are saying that it is best practice for companies to publish action plans, and a lot of companies are doing so. I want to take businesses with us. I do not want to set the Government’s face against them. We want this change to happen and we know that the public will exists, so although we are advising organisations to publish action plans as best practice, that does leave us with options should companies not choose to follow that guidance.
I feel compelled to advocate on behalf of the men who work at Personnel Hygiene Services Ltd, where my wife works, who are paid 6.3% less than the women—we do not want to forget about the men. I appreciate what the Minister has said, but will she commit to naming and shaming companies that do not file their returns? This has gone on long enough, and we need to be aggressive in narrowing the pay gap.
My hon. Friend shows his customary courage in saying that during this particular UQ. The information on naming and shaming is actually out there already—in case anyone has not had the chance to look at it, the names of the companies that have reported, and all their details, are on the gov.uk website. Indeed, when I had the pleasure of appearing before the Treasury Committee, I encouraged colleagues across the House to look at the gov.uk website to see for themselves whether large employers in their constituencies have complied, because I would hope that they would want to encourage those employers to follow the law and report their findings. At this stage, after the deadline, compliance is a matter for the EHRC, which has a range of powers and has considered the issue very carefully. It has published its action plan, and it will be for the EHRC to decide the best action in relation to each and every company.
It is estimated that 1,557 companies employing more than 250 people had not reported their gender pay gap by the deadline. Precisely what penalties will affect those companies, which did not report on time and therefore broke the law?
As I said, the EHRC has set out its action plan, because it rightly has responsibility for enforcement after the deadline. It wrote to all the companies that had not complied on Monday 9 April. Since that date, more companies have complied. Let us not forget that it is not necessarily a question of businesses saying, “We have 250 or more employees—this is our gender pay gap.” Some of them will fall just shy of the threshold and so may declare themselves as not meeting the criteria. However, since that letter has gone out, their numbers may have gone up. We are reviewing this very carefully, and the EHRC has set out what it plans to do over the next 28 days in reviewing companies that have not complied and what it will do thereafter.
Would it not further focus minds if companies were required to provide an action statement along with the numbers that are being reported?
My hon. Friend highlights a point that has been raised before. At this stage, we are saying that it is best practice. The advantage of that, I hope, is that we bring businesses with us. In fairness, the vast majority of businesses want to do this. Let us not pretend that those in the corporate sector in the UK are against doing it—they are not. Indeed, the fact that the vast majority of them reported on time—indeed, some of them reported way ahead of time—suggests that they want to do it. That is because businesses know, as McKinsey’s most recent report showed, that if we sort out the gender gap, it has the potential to add £150 billion to our economy. That is a figure that we, and companies, are most interested in.
I am ambitious, just as the Minister is, to change the culture. However, we are a very long way from that. What are the Government going to do to make it easier for women who now know what they have long suspected to raise this issue? The #PayMeToo campaign set up by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and many other women across this House has shown that it is not that women are not asking; they are asking, but the culture in their organisations does absolutely nothing to support any change. It is not the fault of women. What can we do for women who are currently being silenced?
I would ask for the help of colleagues across the House. If they know of such employers in their constituencies, or indeed constituents who are employed by companies that are not acting in their best interest, then I ask them to please write to me or stop me in the corridor. I will always be happy to hear about it.
This is a matter of compliance for the EHRC. I think that as time goes on, the swell of public opinion will cause the companies in question, which do not have the good will of the public behind them, to really examine their conscience. We know that happened during the reporting period—there were instances where companies’ results came in, they were put on to gov.uk, the EHRC and the Home Office said, “Come on, that doesn’t look right”, and then the companies re-submitted their reports. Public power, I think, has a great deal to play in this.
I raised the Iceland example with the Government some time ago and was simply told that unequal pay is already against the law, but that does not cut it: women are still losing out. Will the Government look again at Iceland and independent certification for companies above a certain number of employees?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being so far-sighted in his question. I am very happy to look at Iceland’s self-certification. I repeat that this is the first year that this has happened. We have conducted a world-leading exercise, led from the top by the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who both share a great passion about this. We will review the data and then see what more needs to be done.
I was very pleased to hear the Minister talk about shared parental leave as a potential way of closing the gender pay gap. However, the number of dads and partners who are taking it seems to have stalled at 2%. A recent survey by the Campaign for Parental Pay Equality has shown that 80% of the self-employed and freelancers would take it if they were offered it. Opening it up to freelancers could mean that it is an engine for change to drive through the cultural change that we need in our society. With that in mind, would the Minister support my “selfieleave” Bill—the Shared Parental Leave and Pay (Extension) Bill—which would extend it to freelancers? Will she work with me to persuade the Chancellor that in the autumn, this small and inexpensive tweak would mean that the burden of childcare does not fall on the shoulders only of women?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I note that my very able Treasury colleague, the Economic Secretary, is sitting next to me and has heard her question. I am really proud that in 2015 we introduced shared parental leave and pay, which enables working parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay in the first year. In February, we launched a joint campaign with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to promote shared parental leave, because we get the point that awareness of it is not particularly high. That is why we have invested in spreading awareness of it.
Along with outrageous direct discrimination on pay, this reporting also highlights, as the Minister has indicated, persistent under-representation of women at the top level in organisations. Does she agree that this not only amounts to an injustice but is also economically stupid, because we are failing to make use of our human capital? We need to get the message out there that not acting on this is both wrong and stupid.
The right hon. Gentleman has identified a very important point. In a recent report, McKinsey estimated that businesses that have more diversity in their leadership and senior positions add up to 15% to their turnover compared with their competitors that do not have that diversity. The message to businesses is very clear: have a diverse and qualified range of workers, because that will help your business—and of course it will help the wider economy and our society as well.
The Minister talks about wanting women, and indeed men, to be able to use this data to have conversations in their workplace. Just two weeks ago, a cross-party group of us set up the #PayMeToo campaign precisely to help women and men to do that and to make sure that they know their rights in being able to have these conversations at work. We have already had hundreds of reports back from our anonymous survey of the experiences they have had. Women are being told by their employers to raise their grievance with HR if they want to talk about these issues, being told that their careers could be damaged by talking about them, and being told, “Don’t worry—we’ll just employ some more junior men to even out the figures.” There is a clear difference between what is happening on the frontline and what the Minister is talking about.
Will the Minister join me and other parliamentarians in encouraging people to use our anonymous paymetoo.com website to report details? Will she meet us to go through the findings and look at what we can do to make sure that the culture is changing on the ground, that men’s and women’s rights to speak up on these issues are protected in the workplace and that we finally close the gender pay gap?
The hon. Lady brings her usual passion and strength of argument to the House. I will be delighted to meet her to discuss this. I am most interested to hear about that campaign. She and other colleagues have rightly raised the question how we ensure that women feel empowered to raise issues in their workplace. I note the insightful contribution of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham with regard to the role that trade unions play. I very much share the hon. Lady’s commitment, and I would be delighted to meet her.
It is wonderful to see such a sisterly and, I hope, brotherly approach to the gender pay gap, because if we are to eradicate this social evil, it is very important that women and like-minded men work together. It is good to see that more than 10,000 firms have reported their figures, but what decisive steps will the Government take to ensure that those that have not reported do so? What precise punitive measures will the Government introduce for firms that do not comply?
The Act and the regulations place the responsibility for compliance with the EHRC. The EHRC is independent of the Government, but of course we work with it and watch its movements with great interest. It has set out its strategy for dealing with non-compliance. As I said, it wrote to businesses on 9 April, which has helped some to report. I understand that it has given businesses 28 days to comply or to flag up problems—for example, if they do not understand how to use the system or if they are not meeting the criteria for the number of employees—and thereafter the EHRC will look at each company that has not complied and decide what will happen.
The Minister knows of my concern about the gender pay gap in the financial services sector. I want to give her the opportunity to send a message to banks today by answering this question—a one-word answer is all that is needed. Should they be telling members of their staff who are concerned about the gender pay gap that they ought not to talk to one another about their personal pay?
No, they should not be doing that.
I welcome the Minister’s comments about the need to encourage women to visit websites such as paymetoo.com and to come forward and talk to their employers. Does she agree that something also needs to be done to make it clear to employers that this is not acceptable and that some steps might have to be taken to prevent employers from discouraging women from coming forward and talking about the gender pay gap?
Very much so. That is what I mean when I talk about a national conversation. We are now talking about the treatment of women and of workforces generally in a way that we were not a year ago. That is why auditing where we are with the gender pay gap, reviewing the evidence and working out an action plan is the way forward.
It is all very well to go after big businesses, top FTSE companies and boardrooms, but there is a much greater number of women in social care, catering and hospitality who feel isolated because they rely on agencies. Will the Government focus their attention more on that end of the scale and end the scandal of zero-hours contracts, which hit women so hard in those sectors?
We focus on all sectors, all parts of the economy and all levels of pay. The press and colleagues throughout the House tend to talk about things such as the Hampton-Alexander review, which I appreciate is not in any way reflective of everyone, but it is important because it is about leadership at the top, from which will flow the expectation of a diverse workforce. We are very clear: we are absolutely not ignoring the women whom the hon. Lady describes. That is why we took the extraordinary step of introducing the national living wage, which was increased in April, enabling more women to find work. That is along with all the childcare help we are providing; we are spending more on childcare than any Government before us—£6 billion. This is all part of a plan to help women into the workforce, so that they have the financial independence they need.
The EHRC has faced savage cuts under both this Government and the coalition Government. Does the Minister genuinely believe that the EHRC has the resources to enforce compliance, or is she passing responsibility without passing the cash?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The EHRC is to receive £17.4 million in 2019-20. I have spoken to the chief executive about the gender pay gap compliance issue. Of course we will keep in mind the EHRC’s responsibilities, but at the moment we are clear that that sum of money should be sufficient to enable it to do the work necessary to help with compliance.
Thank you. Before I call the next urgent question, could I exhort colleagues to stick to the time limits that are prescribed in relation to these mechanisms and encourage people to be as pithy as they can be? We have a very important matter now of which to treat—I cannot guarantee that everybody who wants to contribute will have the chance to do so—but there is also substantial business afterwards, and I am sure everyone will want to be considerate not only of their own interests but of others’.
Leaving the EU: Scotland and Wales Continuity Bills
(Urgent Question): To ask the Attorney General if he will make a statement on the Government’s position on the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill and the Law Derived from the European Union (Wales) Bill.
The continuity Bills—that is, the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill and the Law Derived from the European Union (Wales) Bill—passed, as the hon. and learned Lady knows, through the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly on 21 March. As she also knows, the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 2006 provide the Law Officers with the power to refer to the Supreme Court the question whether devolved legislation falls within legislative competence. That power enables us to fulfil our constitutional roles in upholding the rule of law and monitoring the boundaries of the devolved settlements in the interests of legal certainty.
The continuity Bills raise serious questions about legislative competence that need to be explored. That is apparent from the view of the Scottish Presiding Officer at introduction that the Scottish Bill was not within the legal scope of the Parliament, and the recognition of the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly that the assessment of competence in relation to the Welsh Bill was not a “straightforward” decision,
“as it was recognised that there are significant arguments both for and against legislative competence existing for this Bill.”
The key purpose of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill before this Parliament is to provide certainty across the UK on day one after exit from the EU, and the Scottish and Welsh continuity Bills would frustrate that objective. If the continuity Bills were to become law, there would be impacts not just on the Governments and legislatures but on the widespread understanding of and confidence in UK law after exit. The UK Government and the Scottish and Welsh Governments therefore agree that the best place for the provisions to ensure legal certainty after exiting the EU is in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, and we are working hard across Governments to reach an agreement on how that might best be achieved.
However, the four-week statutory limit for making a reference closed yesterday, and an agreement has yet to be struck, so the Law Officers have made references to the Supreme Court in relation to both Bills, as a protective step in the public interest towards upholding legal certainty. This is therefore now a matter for the Supreme Court to determine. However, I remain hopeful that the ongoing negotiations with the devolved Administrations will result in an agreement. It is clear that that would be the best outcome for all involved. Should an acceptable agreement be reached and should the Scottish and Welsh continuity Bills consequently not take effect, the UK Government would seek to withdraw the references.
I thank the Attorney General for his answer. These combined challenges are unprecedented in the 20-year history of devolution. Indeed, it is the first time that the UK Government have challenged legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish Parliament’s Bill was passed by an overwhelming majority of 95 votes to 32. Only the Tories and one Liberal Democrat did not support the Bill. The rest of the Parliament—the Scottish National party, the Labour party, the Greens and the rest of the Lib Dems—supported the Bill. Scottish Ministers are satisfied that the Bill is within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. In that view, they have the support of Scotland’s most senior Law Officer, the Lord Advocate.
The purpose of the Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament is to prepare for the consequences for devolved powers of UK withdrawal, and it is designed to work with the Westminster EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Can the Attorney General tell the House why this Tory Government are seeking to defeat a Bill in the courts that they could not defeat by democratic means in the Scottish Parliament? Does he agree that working with the Scottish Government and Parliament to resolve those political differences is preferable to resorting to law? Does he appreciate that this will widely be seen as an attack on the Scottish Parliament and the democratic legitimacy of the devolved settlement? Finally, how much will this cost and who will meet the legal costs?
I agree with the hon. and learned Lady that the situation is unprecedented. She is right that no reference to the Supreme Court about Scottish legislation has previously been brought. However, she will recognise that that is not the only unprecedented factor here. As she knows, it is also the first time the Scottish Parliament has been prepared to proceed in the face of the advice of its Presiding Officer that the Bill is not within its competence. History is being made in more than one way.
I recognise that, as the hon. and learned Lady said, the Lord Advocate is of the view that the Bill is within competence, and I am heartened by her confidence in the unassailable wisdom of Law Officers, but she will recognise that his is not the only view and that legitimate questions have arisen about the Scottish Parliament’s competence to pass the legislation. Law Officers in the United Kingdom, in accordance with our powers under the devolution settlement, are seeking to refer those questions.
The hon. and learned Lady says that the continuity Bills mirror the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, but she will recognise that there are significant differences between them. Those differences create the difficulty about legal certainty. We cannot have two versions of rules operating at the same time. That needs to be resolved.
Finally, the hon. and learned Lady said that we are seeking to defeat a Bill in the courts that we could not defeat in the Scottish Parliament. I gently point out that a substantial part of the Bill that was certainly passed in the Scottish Parliament was a rerun of amendments that she sought and failed to get passed in this House. As I said, there is more than one way of looking at the position. I hope that she and her colleagues would accept that there is a legitimate dispute, at least about competence, and that it is in accordance with the devolution settlement that the Supreme Court resolves it, unless we can do so by negotiation. I fervently hope that that is the case, because I agree with her that that would be a far better way forward.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the people of Scotland have voted to stay in the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union, the people of Wales have voted to leave the EU, and he is trying to implement the democratic will of the British people?
I certainly agree that, whatever the views of any Member of this House, the practical reality is that, before the UK has another opportunity to consider whether Scotland, Wales or anywhere else should be independent, the UK will leave the EU. We therefore need to address the questions that arise about a workable system of rules, regulations and laws that will apply on the day we leave. That is what the withdrawal Bill seeks to do, and the complications that the continuity Bills cause simply have to be addressed.
I thank the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) for applying for the urgent question and you, Mr Speaker, for granting it.
The UK Government’s challenge to the legality of the emergency Brexit Bills passed by the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales rightly merits consideration in this House. Crucial policy areas currently dealt with in Brussels, such as agriculture, food labelling and air quality, are affected. They will have a great impact on people’s lives in the years ahead.
On those EU powers in devolved areas, there has been widespread concern for some time that Brexit legislation affecting the devolved Governments will be used as an opportunity for a power grab by the UK Government.
I ask the Attorney General to answer a number of questions. First, can he confirm the estimated legal costs of the challenge being brought by the UK Government? Secondly, will he confirm, even at this stage, whether a flexible approach can still be taken to finding a settlement that would resolve the matter? Crucially, does he agree that protecting our devolution settlement is vital and that, on UK-wide matters such as these, reaching solutions by consensus is the better way by far of resolving things? Finally, will he commit to withdrawing his referral to the Supreme Court if the hoped-for consensus is achieved through the Joint Ministerial Committee?
Let me deal with the hon. Lady’s questions in turn. I apologise to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who also raised the question of costs, which I did not address. I cannot give a figure for how much the challenge will cost, but hon. Members will recognise that, where there is a legitimate question about a devolved Administration’s competence to do what they have done, the devolution settlement provides for a mechanism, which we are using here. It is therefore envisaged in the settlement that where a problem occurs, that is how we deal with it. I do not deny that there will be a cost, but it is part of the devolution settlement that that is how we should resolve disputes when they arise.
The hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) asked me about the necessity for a flexible approach to settlement, and I agree. Certainly as far as the UK Government are concerned—and, I believe, as far as devolved Governments are concerned—that is very much the spirit in which the continuing negotiations are being approached. I remain optimistic, and I hope others are too, that we can settle the matter in that way.
The hon. Lady said that it was crucial to protect the devolution settlement. Again, I make the point that the process that we are undergoing is part of the devolution settlement. It is the mechanism that the devolution settlement set out for dealing with such concerns.
On withdrawal of the reference, I hope I made the position clear in my initial remarks. If we can reach an acceptable agreement—I very much hope that we will—and, flowing from that, the continuity Bills in Scotland and Wales no longer have effect, the Government would seek to withdraw the references.
I assure my right hon. and learned Friend that, from my experience, in private the Scottish and Welsh Governments are considerably more constructive and realistic in approaching the post-Brexit devolution settlements than some of the rhetoric I suspect we are about to hear would suggest. Does he agree that they are being constructive and realistic because establishing a decent settlement is hugely in the interests of the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? The biggest threat to those countries’ prosperity is anything that damages the UK single market.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, to whom I pay tribute for his considerable involvement in the hard and mostly unrecognised work of the negotiation. He is right: in the end, we seek to get to a place where we recognise that there must be an enforceable and workable UK-wide market. When that requires that powers do not go to devolved Administrations, we will seek to reach a settlement by agreement. I hope that we will reach such an agreement soon.
Order. I advise the House that I am looking to move on no later than 2.10 pm, so some people might not get in, particularly if other people contribute in such a way that prevents them from doing so.
This is a shambolic mess entirely of the Government’s making. They could have accepted amendments in this place or tabled amendments in the other place, but they did not. They could have attempted to find consensus on a cross-party basis, but they did not.
The Attorney General mischaracterised what the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly said. She said that the Bill was within the Assembly’s competence. Even UKIP Assembly Members voted for it—Neil Hamilton said that it did not in any way block the Brexit process.
No, I did not mischaracterise what the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly said. Although the hon. Gentleman is right that she concluded that the Bill was within competence—I did not deny that—I made it clear that she said that there were arguments in both directions. The point that we have made about the references is that, where there is lack of clarity and serious questions about whether a Bill or part of it is within competence, the devolved settlement makes it clear that it is for the Supreme Court to resolve the matter. That will now happen. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we are not attempting to undermine the devolved settlements but to ensure that they are operating as intended.
What elements of the proposed Scottish legislation were rejected as amendments in this House?
The SNP sought, as part of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, to impose requirements that Scottish Ministers would be able effectively to veto the process of dealing with incompatible EU law after the point of exit. They returned to that, as they are entitled to do, in the course of passing their own continuity Bill in the Scottish Parliament. The difficulty we now have is that in our view the methods they have chosen raise very real questions as to whether in doing so they exceeded the competence of the Scottish Parliament. That is what the Supreme Court, if necessary, will need to resolve.
This is quite extraordinary. There is only a question about this legislation because the Tories have chosen to question it. They have been democratically defeated in the Scottish Parliament by an overwhelming majority and are now showing their utter contempt for Scottish democracy by seeking to have that democratic decision overturned in the courts. First the power grab, now this. Is it any surprise that the Scottish people will never, ever trust the Scottish Tories with the future of our national Parliament ever again?
I think we will pass over, because it will take too long, how anyone can define as a power grab a situation where one at least retains powers already devolved and probably has a lot more. Leaving that to one side, there is no contempt here—quite the reverse. As I said, what is happening is entirely within the devolution settlement set out in the Scotland Act and the Government of Wales Act. That is what we are doing to resolve what I would have thought sensible members of the SNP would accept is an undeniable controversy. There is more than one view on competence. That is apparent, because the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament did not just say that there were questions; he concluded that those questions could be answered only by saying that the Bill was not within competence.
My colleagues and I have been concerned that the SNP’s continuity Bill is a political manoeuvre designed to create precedent for legislation on a second independence referendum. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is time for the SNP to put this grievance to one side and to get serious about working together as one team for the best possible Brexit deal for Scotland and the United Kingdom?
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is what we should be aspiring to: a workable situation where we can have a system of laws that works on the day after we leave. That is what we owe to all our constituents in whatever part of the United Kingdom they may live.
I rise to pay tribute to my Plaid Cymru colleague Steffan Lewis AM, who built cross-party consensus in our Assembly for our continuity Bill. I wish Steff well in recovery from serious illness.
Devolution means divergence. Devolution means difference. Why does the Attorney General seek to deny that, knowing as he does that he calls into question the very concept of devolution?
Again, I do not call into question the concept of devolution—quite the reverse. I seek to assert the provisions of the devolution settlement that enable us to resolve such disputes when they occur. There is undoubtedly a dispute. I am surprised to hear Opposition Members even dispute that there is a dispute. It seems to me that that bit, at least, is pretty obvious.
On the hon. Lady’s point, I accept that there will be differences of approach to devolution. Where the devolution settlements allow for differences in approach, that is perfectly reasonable. What we are talking about, however, is the capacity for the Government to say not just to us in Parliament but to individuals and businesses around the country, that they can be sure what the arrangements will be on the day after we leave the European Union. There simply cannot be two competing versions of that in place at one time. That does not accord with legal certainty and it is that which we seek to address, aside from the very real questions about legal competence, which in the end, if necessary, the Supreme Court will have to decide.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) talks about democracy. It is important to remind the House that more people in Scotland voted to leave the European Union than voted for the SNP in the general election. When we talk about respecting democracy, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament ruled this out of order. The SNP is showing not respect to the devolved Parliament, but contempt. Will my right hon. and learned Friend work with members of the Scottish Government who are willing to be constructive to deliver the best possible result for this House and for my constituents, who, by the way, live in the United Kingdom.
I agree with my hon. Friend. He is right that whatever our final judgment may be, or whatever the final judgment of the Supreme Court may be, no one should disregard the views of a Presiding Officer of a Parliament. I feel confident that I have Mr Speaker’s support in saying that at least. My hon. Friend is also right about what we want. We want a negotiated settlement that is agreed between all the Governments involved. That must remain, and does remain, what we seek to achieve.
The Minister says he is hopeful. The Minister says he is heartened. Why can the Minister not actually be helpful and recognise that in Wales we now have a reserved powers model? We know perfectly well that agriculture, for instance, is to be decided in Wales. Why on earth can he not recognise that and why are the Government seeking to pick a fight with the Welsh people? Why do they not just get on and recognise it?
No, I am afraid the hon. Lady cannot have that. First, the Government of Wales Act 2006 applies here, not the current devolution settlement with Wales. Secondly, the Government have not picked a fight with anybody. What has happened is that particular Bills have been passed—on an emergency basis, by the way—in both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, which raise very serious questions about the competence of each to pass them. That is not just our view; it is the view of others as well. It is therefore the responsibility of the Law Officers to determine how that should be resolved. The way in which it gets resolved, as set out in the devolution settlements, is by reference to the Supreme Court. If we can avoid that, we would all like to do so. The negotiations that are under way—the reason I am optimistic and heartened is that I hope they will be successful—are a better way to do that.
Opposition Members say that this is an attack on democracy, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that an independent judiciary is a vital component of a strong and functioning democracy, and, given the judgment of the Presiding Officer that the Bill’s introduction is outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament, it is therefore only right that the Supreme Court itself makes a judgment on the legality of the Bill?
My hon. Friend is right. As I said, there surely cannot be any doubt that there is a difference of view about whether the Bills are within competence or not. It is not simply the Government who have done that. The Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament has expressed the same view. To resolve the dispute, the devolved settlements are very clear: it is for the Supreme Court to do that. We make a reference so that they can, but the problem will go away if we can resolve this through negotiation. I certainly hope that we do.
The Attorney General stated, along with the Advocate General for Scotland, that it was the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament’s opinion that triggered the legal action in this case. Can we then be given a clear answer on why the Welsh Bill is also being challenged? If he is incorrect and if the Advocate General for Scotland is incorrect, what is the real reason for a legal challenge to Scotland’s right to legislate?
No, I did not say that the view of the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament triggered the reference. What I said was this: what the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer thinks about that is good evidence that there is a dispute that needs to be resolved—and it does. It is no good the SNP selectively quoting at us what has happened here. It is no good saying that the Lord Advocate thinks it is within competence and forgetting that the Presiding Officer does not think it is within competence. All that demonstrates—this is my point, Mr Speaker—is that there is a disagreement, and when there is a disagreement the devolved settlement makes it very clear that it needs to be settled by the Supreme Court. Unless we can settle it another way, that is what will happen.
The Attorney General is absolutely right to resist politicking by the SNP. Does he agree that there is no sense in Northern Ireland that the people there will be remotely disadvantaged by the lack of a continuity Bill?
I agree with my hon. Friend, but of course there will not be a lack of a continuity Bill in Northern Ireland, because we have the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which will apply to the whole United Kingdom. The difficulty we are dealing with is that there seem to be competing versions of continuity, and we really can have only one.
The blame for this mess lies squarely with the UK Government and the Secretary of State for Scotland for rushing legislation through this place without proper amendment, as I and other Opposition colleagues warned. As the party that delivered devolution in Scotland and Wales, we are deeply concerned about this. If the UK Government’s appeal to the Supreme Court is successful and devolution is therefore not presumed, what actions will the UK Government take to ensure that the Scottish Parliament’s powers are protected and enhanced?
It is important to be clear about the process. We are making a reference to the Supreme Court so that it can consider whether these particular Bills, one Welsh and one Scottish, are within the competence of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Government. It is not about deciding whether devolution is or is not going to stand. It is about whether, in accordance with the provisions of the devolution settlement, these particular Bills are inside or outside competence. That is what the Supreme Court will need to do. There is a way of avoiding all this, and we have discussed it at length. If these ongoing negotiations, which involve my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and other members of the Government, are fruitful, and I hope they will be, there will be no need for this process to be concluded. However, if there are competing versions of the way in which continuity is dealt with in legislation, in the end the system will require that to be sorted out.
Does the Attorney General agree that the SNP Scottish Government should have been focusing on their day job of delivering the best possible Brexit deal for Scotland, rather than pursuing this divisive continuity Bill?
I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, the Scottish Government are perfectly entitled to bring to their Parliament whatever legislation they wish and to argue for it, and if they can win a vote, good luck to them. But having done all that, it is bizarre in the extreme for them not to recognise that through their own actions, they have created a difference between the way in which the Scottish Government seek to deal with continuity and the way in which the UK Government have set out that they would deal with continuity. When there is a dispute, there is a way of resolving it, and that is what we are seeking to engage with.
The Scottish people have been told, “They should not be leaving the UK; they should be leading the UK.” They have also been told that they are a valued and equal partner in the Union. In what way does the Minister think that launching a legal challenge to the continuity Bill that was passed by 92 votes to 32 is in keeping with what the Scots have been told?
I am in danger of repeating myself, Mr Speaker, and I know you hate that, so I will not. Let me simply say this: it is all very well saying, “There is a democratic imperative to do what the Scottish Government have done because we won a vote in the Scottish Parliament,” but they are forgetting all about the fact that they lost some votes in this Parliament on more or less the same issues. There is a difference of opinion—there is no doubt about it—so how do we resolve it? The answer is that we resolve it through the mechanism that the devolution settlement sets out. That is what we seek to do unless, and this would be better, we can resolve it by agreement.
I find astonishing the level of contempt in which the SNP holds the office of the Presiding Officer—an individual whose role is to uphold the institution of the Scottish Parliament. Does the Attorney General agree that far from undermining devolution, ensuring that no Scottish Government act outwith the scope of their powers is protecting and preserving devolution?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, and it does not seem to me that we need to invite our colleagues on the SNP Benches to agree with the view of the Presiding Officer. All we really need them to do is to recognise that his view is worthy of respect, that it is valid and needs to be considered and that it represents a clear difference of opinion on the position in this Bill.
I was delighted to hear the Minister say that in the event of a negotiated agreement between the two Governments and the Government of Wales, the references will be withdrawn. Does he agree that what we really need is that agreement between the Governments, some certainty and an end to this endless political, constitutional posturing, which is not really doing anything for the people and businesses of Scotland?
I can agree entirely with the hon. Lady that an end to political posturing would be most welcome, but I suggest to her that although she is absolutely right that an agreement is desirable, all agreements require more than one side to consent to them, and we must all do our bit to make sure that agreement is reached.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that this legal challenge does not alter in any way the UK Government’s intention and sincere desire to resolve the genuine issues with clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill?
Yes, I can.
I am afraid that we have heard quite a bit of tosh today from the Attorney General, cheered on by the alt-Brit Unionist ultras on the other side of the Chamber. Given that he has tried to stop this Parliament having a vote and has failed previously, given that he is in the middle of a power grab and given that he is now taking the Scottish Parliament’s Bill to court, does he not see why some of us think that the Government harbour views to abolish the Scottish Parliament?
Well, that is a bit of a stretch, even for the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] Look, what we are doing here—[Interruption.] If I can just interfere in the family dispute that is going on across the Chamber at the moment—what is going on is that we are respecting the devolution settlement. I do not expect the hon. Gentleman or his colleagues to love the Scotland Act 1998, but I do expect them to have read it, and when they read it, they will see that when such disputes arise—there surely is a dispute here—a mechanism is clearly set out for resolving it. If he and we can find a better way of doing it without engaging the time of the Supreme Court, then we and no doubt the Supreme Court will be delighted, but until that agreement is reached, we have to rely on the mechanisms set out in the devolution settlement.
Yes, there has been excessive gesticulation on both sides of the House. The hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), though he is newly arrived in the House, is what I would call a very over-zealous gesticulator, and we do not need to see his rather eccentric arm-waving, which does not greatly advance the cause. However, having heard him prattling away for the last 20 minutes from his seat, perhaps we can now hear him on his feet.
It is clear to the great Scottish public that the SNP is simply playing political games with this issue. It is trying to manufacture a crisis when there is no need for one. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the architects of devolution foresaw issues arising about competence and that the Law Officers of the United Kingdom are now following laid-out due process by referring this matter to the Supreme Court?
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend.
At Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said, “It is important that we recognise the independence” of another country’s judiciary. After the Conservatives lost the argument and a vote in the Scottish Parliament, does this referral not highlight the necessity of an independent Scottish judiciary with its own Supreme Court and an independent Scottish Parliament whose democratic decisions are not undermined and overruled by a so-called equal-partner Government in London?
No, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood. The dispute is not about how many votes the proposals that he is talking about got. The argument here is that once they have passed the Scottish Parliament, we have a real question about whether there was in fact competence to pass them at all. That is the issue that in the end the mechanisms require the Supreme Court to resolve, unless we can do it a better way.
The SNP does not listen to the Presiding Officer in the Scottish Parliament and it does not seem to be listening to the answers from the Attorney General today. Can my right hon. and learned Friend reiterate that we could have avoided this whole issue if the SNP had put more focus on getting the best possible deal for Scotland, rather than on its narrow-minded party-politicking with its divisive continuity Bill?
I think that would be a better way forward, and I hope it is the way taken.
Do the Government not accept that this “legal uncertainty”, as it is called, is causing enormous concern to the business community? Would it not be better for the Government to recognise that there is a political choice that needs to be made and that the onus is on them to make it in favour of the devolution settlement?
The hon. Gentleman is right that, as I have said, we need to provide certainty wherever we can, and he is right too that there is a political job to be done as much as there is a legal one. I have indicated to him that I take the view that the political way forward is better than the legal way forward, but there is a necessity to resolve the difference of opinion that currently exists over the way forward. If we cannot do that politically, we will have to do it legally, but I know which way I would prefer.
In December, I asked the Secretary of State for Wales what he would do if he failed to gain legislative consent from Wales, and he replied, in his usual way, that he was very confident of success. And now the case is going to the Supreme Court. Is the Attorney General confident that this matter has been handled well, or even half-competently?
Yes. Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I are optimistic, and for good reason, and we will remain so in the hope that a sensible settlement can be reached.
Does the Attorney General accept that however Opposition Members try to dress up the legislation passed in Wales and Scotland, its real design is to thwart the will of the people in the referendum and the legislation passed in this House that gave effect to that will? Does he not also find it hypocritical that those who are complaining about the Government now taking this action to the Court to clarify the issue of competence were supportive of those who used the courts to try to overturn the referendum result?
There is no doubt that the SNP does not have a great track record of accepting referendum results, but I hope very much that on this issue we will be able to find common ground. As for the UK Government—and, I still believe, the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales—that is what we will seek to do.
To be clear, the only reason the Scottish and Welsh Governments felt obliged to pass this legislation is the failure of the Attorney General’s Government to come to an agreement with the devolved Administrations on how things should be administered post Brexit, and at the centre of that is an insistence that the devolved Governments should be subservient to his Government. Will he now proceed on the basis of partnership and co-operation to make this situation work?
I do not accept that a co-operative approach is not being taken, but as I pointed out earlier, all agreements require everyone to engage and play their part. I might add, however, as he might be unaware, that in respect of every Bill that has passed through the Scottish Parliament since it has been passing Bills, the Scottish Government have taken the opportunity to share the text of the Bill with the UK Government before its legislative process, so that any questions about competence could be resolved and discussed beforehand. For the first time ever, that did not happen on this occasion. It might be that he or one of his colleagues can explain why, but it certainly does not seem to accord with the principle of maximising the opportunity for collaboration.
Order. We must now move on.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that the decision to destroy landing cards was taken in 2009. I have had it confirmed that the Home Office briefed yesterday that the decision was taken by the UK Border Agency in 2010 and that the records were destroyed in October 2010. Can the House, the Windrush generation, the Commonwealth leaders and the country get clarification from the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. The short answer is that every Member of the House takes responsibility for the veracity of what he or she says in it. If any Member feels that he or she has inadvertently erred, that Member is responsible for the correction of the record. The matter to which she refers is, as we all know, a very public matter about which opinions have been aired in this Chamber and beyond. If it transpires that the record needs to be corrected, I trust that it will be, and I am grateful to her for taking the proper opportunity to air her concern.
Access to Fertility Services
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about access to NHS fertility services, including equality of access to such services across England; to make provision about pricing of such services; to provide for a minimum number of fertility treatments to be available to women on the basis of their age; and for connected purposes.
I first became aware of the totally unequal nature of access to IVF in 2016 when I was contacted by constituents who had been refused treatment because of arbitrary criteria, with couples being judged on the basis of such things as past relationships. Apparently, if one partner has had a child from a previous relationship, no matter how long ago or what their level of contact, that serves as grounds to deny treatment. Similarly, some clinical commissioning groups are starting to introduce restrictions based on the male partner’s body mass index. Such arbitrary and perhaps rather moralistic judgments have no clinical basis.
As I looked at the situation, I found that the provision of fertility services in England varied considerably and that the number of CCGs restricting or completely decommissioning their services had increased dramatically since 2014. I am left wondering how it can be right that people in Thurrock and Luton—good luck to them—have access to comprehensive fertility services while my constituents and many others get a much poorer deal because of where they live.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence issued guidelines on fertility treatment in 2004 that clearly stated that women under the age of 40 who had failed to get pregnant after two years of trying should be offered three full cycles of IVF. An update in 2013 further clarified that women between the ages of 40 and 42 who met other specific criteria should have access to one full cycle. As members will know, however, NICE recommendations are not binding, and according to the charity Fertility Fairness, which compiled data for all 208 CCGs in England, only 12% of CCGs provide three full cycles, which is half the number offering them in 2013.
Seven CCGs have completely decommissioned their IVF services. Those who live in the areas covered by the Herts Valleys, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Croydon, South Norfolk, Mid Essex, North East Essex and Basildon & Brentwood CCGs are effectively denied IVF on the NHS. Most CCGs offer just one cycle of IVF, and some of these offer only a partial cycle. NICE has repeatedly advised that a full cycle should include one round of ovarian stimulation followed by the transfer of any resultant fresh and frozen embryos. When IVF is delivered in this way, the treatment is both clinically and cost-effective, but when the advice is ignored, the cost to the NHS probably outweighs its effectiveness. I guess that this amounts to saving money by wasting money. Only four CCGs in England follow the NICE fertility guidelines in full; the remaining 197 that provide some services do so in an imperfect and inefficient way. I freely admit that NHS resources are stretched, but that is all the more reason for insisting on a consistent and cost-effective approach.
I was given assurances by the then Minister in January last year that NHS England would disseminate commissioning guidance to help CCGs. More than a year has passed, but no progress has been made. Through a parliamentary question, I learned recently of NHS England’s decision not to publish guidance after all, and instead to pass the buck back to the commissioners.
The World Health Organisation is clear in classifying infertility as
“a disease of the reproductive system”,
but we are hardly treating it like other medical conditions. We should not be rationing it in this way. We need to take steps to address poor clinical decisions and the injustice that results from unequal access.
Fertility problems affect one in six couples in the UK. If left untreated, there can be serious consequences involving high levels of stress, anxiety and depression, which often lead to relationship breakdown and other long-term, chronic health conditions that require expensive lifelong treatment. It is important to remember that IVF is not an easy fix—it is hard both physically and emotionally, and not always successful—but if it is administered properly, it is a clinically effective treatment for a legitimate medical condition.
Since 2016, I have discussed this matter with four different Ministers, led a Back-Bench debate and spoken with senior officials from NHS England. As I have mentioned, there have been promises but little progress, and almost every other week another CCG announces plans to reduce or decommission its services. Approximately 17 CCGs are currently in this position. Without action, fertility treatment will be squeezed out of our NHS.
My Bill would eliminate regional variations, including the absurd use of the arbitrary access criteria my constituents have been subjected to, and ensure that all CCGs in England commission fertility treatment in line with NICE guidelines. The Bill would also pursue the development of national pricing to end the wide disparity in costs.
The price for one full cycle can range from as little as £1,343 to well over £6,000—and sometimes much more. Those high costs are used as a justification for reducing the service, but surely it is commissioning failures that need to be tackled. It seems ridiculous that exactly the same treatment can cost the same—supposedly national—health service so much less in Newcastle than in Birmingham. Successive Ministers have confirmed that work on benchmark pricing is ongoing, but that started in 2016 and we are still to see any results. If they cannot resolve an issue like this, what faith can there be in their ability to deal with problems of a larger order?
The simple measures in my Bill would guarantee eligible patients fair and equal access to NHS fertility services wherever they live and minimise commissioning costs. Sir Bruce Keogh, the former national medical director, wrote to me in November 2017, saying:
“it remains the fact that the NHS has never been able to fund all the IVF that people would like and this is unlikely to change”.
That is small comfort to those whose needs are being ignored. I accept that resources are scarce, but surely we must not be prepared to accept that individual CCGs can ration treatment on the basis of whatever whim catches their fancy.
My Bill enjoys wide cross-party support because the issue affects people all over the country. I want to thank the constituents and campaigners, particularly Fertility Fairness and Fertility Network UK, that support the Bill and all the couples who have helped me to understand just how unjust things are. They are the victims of rules and decisions that would be completely intolerable if we were discussing any other illness. The NHS was founded on the principle that healthcare should be universal, comprehensive and free at the point of delivery, and as with all illnesses, fertility treatment should be dependent on a person’s medical need, not their postcode or ability to pay. Infertility is a medical condition, and it is time that we started treating it like one.
Question put and agreed to.
That Steve McCabe, Kate Green, Paula Sherriff, Joan Ryan, Ann Coffey, Mr Edward Vaizey, Tom Brake, Layla Moran, Jim Shannon, Andrew Selous and Will Quince present the Bill.
Steve McCabe accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 196).
Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill [Lords]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We can be proud of the safety culture across our transport sector in recent years, but we cannot be complacent and we want to maintain and improve safety standards. That is why we have to look at new areas where legislation is needed, and one of them is strengthening the rules against the minority of thoroughly irresponsible people who shine lasers at aircraft. At the same time, we will make it an offence to shine a laser at cars, trains, ships and air traffic control for the first time.
Will not the Bill throw into doubt the long-established police practice of an officer on foot jumping into the highway and waving a torch at a motorist in order to stop a vehicle? Would that not be an offence under the Bill because a strict liability offence is proposed, as I understand it, or does my right hon. Friend expect the police to have to pray for salvation and to rely on clause 1(2) to argue that they have a defence?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point, which may have been a request to join the Committee and argue about it in great detail. I argue that any potential law and order intervention would judge there to be a key difference between a torch and the modern laser pen that is causing such issues and on which, particularly in relation to aircraft, we need the law to be substantially strengthened.
I am sorry to labour the point, and I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. That is what I initially thought would be the answer, but if we look at the Bill, we can see that a laser beam is defined in clause 3 as
“a beam of coherent light produced by a device of any kind”—
in other words, a torch.
I am not a physicist, but I think the key word is “coherent”, in that a beam is coherent if it focuses the light in a way that represents a danger to the public. As I have said, I encourage my right hon. Friend to join the Bill Committee—this may be one of the issues that are well worth debating—and I have no doubt that my colleagues on the Treasury Bench will be delighted to offer him such an opportunity. It is a serious point, however, and we will double-check.
I am very grateful to the other place, which has done a detailed job of scrutiny. Amendments made there have removed ambiguity and extended the provisions beyond vehicles to include air traffic control facilities. I thank my noble Friend Baroness Sugg and those in the Lords who took part in debates on the Bill, and the external stakeholders, particularly the UK Laser Working Group, that have made an important contribution to shaping the legislation.
It is important to say that there are legitimate uses for lasers. They are used as alignment aids in the construction industry, by lecturers in classrooms and by astronomers in the course of their work. We intend to legislate not against the use of laser pointers at all, but instead against their illegitimate use. They can dazzle, distract or blind those in charge of a vehicle, with serious and even fatal consequences. We know that, in aviation, such incidents take place during take-off or landing, or when aircraft such as police helicopters are carrying out civil safety duties.
Back in 2003, 15 years ago, there had never been a reported case of a laser being shone at an aircraft. The following year there were six cases, and by 2008 there were 200. There are now 1,000 a year, as indeed there were last year. Thankfully no aircraft, train or road vehicle in this country has had an accident as a result of these dangerous and senseless acts, but it is all too easy to imagine the potential consequences—for instance, a pilot being blinded by a laser when trying to land a passenger jet, or a train driver being dazzled from a bridge and missing a signal as a result.
It is already an offence, under the Air Navigation Order 2016, to shine a light at an aircraft to dazzle or distract a pilot. However, the maximum penalty is a £2,500 fine, and we do not think the fact that this is a summary offence gives the police adequate powers to investigate and pursue it effectively. Offenders can also be prosecuted, under another air navigation order, for the offence of endangering an aircraft. That carries a maximum prison sentence of five years and a £5,000 fine, but it involves legal complications. It is sometimes difficult to prove the endangerment of an aircraft.
The Bill will simplify the position. It is a straightforward measure, which will make it an offence for a person to shine or direct a laser beam towards a vehicle if it dazzles or distracts, or if the action is likely to dazzle or distract a person in control of a vehicle. It will extend to all transport modes, will give the police the powers they need to investigate, and will provide penalties that reflect the seriousness of the offence. This will be an either-way offence, which means that it can be dealt with in the magistrates courts or, as an indictable offence, in the Crown court. It gives the police powers, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, to enter a property for the purposes of arrest and to search a property after an arrest. Those powers are not currently available to the authorities in respect of existing aviation offences. The maximum fine will be unlimited, and the maximum prison sentence will be five years. The Bill will extend to the whole United Kingdom. We have been working with the devolved Administrations, who are very supportive, and I am grateful to them for their co-operation.
As I said at the start of my speech, the Bill has already faced scrutiny in the other place, where it received strong cross-party support. It reaches us in much better shape as a result. One of the positive additions in the other place was the extension of the provisions to air traffic control, which has a key role in our aviation sector. It is right and proper for those who attempt to shine one of these devices at an air traffic control point to be treated in the same way. That is a constructive example of the way in which debate on such Bills can improve them.
The Bill has received widespread support from both the authorities and the transport industry. The British Airline Pilots Association has welcomed its reintroduction—it was, of course, debated before the general election, but had to be set aside because there was not enough time to proceed—saying that it is good news for transport safety. It has also been welcomed by airlines and airports, the National Police Chiefs Council, the National Police Air Service, the Military Aviation Authority, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Rail Delivery Group, Public Health England and the Royal College of Ophthalmologists. That is a pretty good list of supporters.
Everyone agrees that we need to do something about this problem, and everyone agrees that the actions of the small number of individuals who behave in this way are utterly unacceptable. We must give our police the powers to deal with them in the toughest appropriate manner. I hope and believe that today, in the House, we can give our support to a measure that I believe is absolutely necessary for public safety, and whose time has come.
Labour fully supports the Bill. Our concerns about it were addressed as it made its way through the other place. However, this is not the first occasion on which I have had a strong sense of déjà vu when discussing legislation introduced during the current Session. The issues dealt with in this Bill, along with those in another two Bills that have been presented since June last year, were first put before the House more than a year ago as part of the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill. The Prime Minister’s gamble in calling a snap election not only demolished her majority in this place, but had the knock-on effect of disrupting much of the business of Parliament. A host of important Bills, including the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, were dropped ahead of the election.
Having expended a great deal of parliamentary time and effort debating issues like those contained in this Bill, we were surprised to note that there was no reference to the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill in the Queen’s Speech. Instead, the Government decided to take up even more parliamentary time by fragmenting the previously proposed legislation, splitting it between what became the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Act 2017 and the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill. In fact, the Queen’s Speech made no mention of laser misuse, and it was only after Labour raised the issue with the Government during the debate on the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Bill that they introduced this Bill.
While Labour Members are happy to see these measures finally making their way into law, it is disappointing to note that 50% of the Government’s transport programme during the current Parliament has consisted of clauses taken from the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which should already have passed into law. Moreover, having introduced three separate Bills, the Government have yet to include a number of clauses from the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill that should be on the statute books by now. There has been no legislation on diversionary driving courses, and the clauses relating to air traffic services appear to have been axed as well.
All those facts only go to show that this minority Government are utterly out of ideas and cannot competently deliver those that they attempt to recycle. It is astonishing that they are willing to take up so many hours of Parliament’s time with business that should have been dealt with a year ago, when such a vast number of pressing transport issues require our immediate attention. For example, we have heard nothing from them about what action they will take to address the crisis in local bus services, the collapsing rail franchising system, the huge disparities in regional transport investment, or the air pollution that is causing 50,000 premature deaths each year. This Bill could have given them an opportunity to legislate on drones. There were 70 reported near misses with aircraft in 2016, and the number is rising year on year, but they simply have not addressed the problem at the required pace.
While it is disappointing to see the Government drag their feet on important problems relating to the transport sector, it is nevertheless a good thing that they are listening to the Labour party and legislating on laser misuse. Worryingly, we have seen a sharp rise in the misuse of lasers in recent years. According to figures released by the Civil Aviation Authority, between 2009 and 2016 there was a 70% increase in the number of incidents in which a laser was shone at an aircraft in the UK. The British Transport Police reported 578 laser incidents between April 2011 and November 2017, an average of 96 each year.
It is currently an offence only to direct or shine any light at any aircraft in flight so as to dazzle or distract the pilot of the aircraft, with a maximum penalty fine of £2,500. A suspect can be imprisoned for up to five years under the Aviation Security Act 1982 if intent to damage or endanger the safety of aircraft can be proved. The Bill will extend the offence to other vehicles, remove the cap on the amount that offenders can be fined and make it easier to prosecute offenders by removing the need to prove an intention to endanger a vehicle.
The Government have taken on board the points raised by my Labour colleagues in the other place about the definition of “laser beam” and the types of vehicles covered in the Bill, as well including a new clause making it an offence to shine a laser directly towards an air traffic control tower. The Opposition would like to put on record our gratitude for the work of our colleagues in the other place, particularly Lord Tunnicliffe, to make those significant improvements to the Bill. It is with pleasure that Labour can take responsibility for a piece of legislation that the Conservatives omitted from their programme for government and only introduced after heeding our calls. Indeed, when they did so, the work of Opposition spokespeople in the other place was required to get it into its current shape. If we were in government, we would have passed this legislation into law a year ago, and we would now be getting on with the business of implementing our policies to save local bus services, fix our railways, equalise the disparities in regional transport investment and address the air pollution crisis.
All the Conservative party has to offer are recycled bits of legislation and sticking plasters for an ailing transport system that is in need of major medical assistance. While I reiterate Labour’s full support for the Bill, the transport needs of the nation are many and varied, and, sadly, the totality of the Government’s legislative programme is utterly deficient in addressing them.
The shadow Secretary of State was untypically churlish, and I can only attribute that to the fact that since I left the Front Bench he has become more bombastic—I think he is missing me. He is well aware— indeed, in his final remarks he acknowledged this—that this is a Bill that any decent Government would introduce. As he said, it was the subject of considerable discussion when that earlier piece of proposed legislation was introduced and there has been a broad measure of support across the House about the need for such a measure.
The use of lasers for malevolent purposes has grown, as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) described. These devices were virtually unknown until the early 2000s; in 2003, fewer than half a dozen cases were reported. As he said, however, by last year over 1,000 cases were reported in various ways and forms. The need for legislation is proven simply on the basis that we know that these things can be used by those with malevolent intent to do damage and that they may well get access to a device that can be bought for as little as £1 on the internet and then go about their vile business.
The bringing down of a plane is obviously one of the principal fears, but, as the Bill now recognises, there are others, too—other transport modes are vulnerable. Someone with one of these laser pens could direct it into the face of a driver of a heavy goods vehicle or at a train driver from a bridge, so it is right that the Bill addresses all the risks associated with the misuse of these devices.
As has been said, the Bill encourages the identification of such malevolence, introduces tougher penalties and makes it easier for prosecutions to take place. There is an argument for extending the powers of the police still further by extending stop-and-search to, for example, people loitering on the edge of an airport or at a railway station with the clear intention of doing harm. Perhaps the Minister will deal with that when she sums up the debate.
“Early and provident fear is the mother of safety.”
It is right that we should be cautious and fearful, but it is also right that we should be prepared, ready to deal with any threat to public safety. These pens can present such a threat; we know that from what all the authorities report to us. The Bill is pertinent, prescient and it deserves the support of the whole House. I was proud to be—
I can tell that my right hon. Friend does not want me to conclude quite so promptly, and on that basis it would be ungenerous not to give way and so extend my peroration a little further.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and join him in praising the Government for introducing this measure, but will he include himself in the congratulations, as he was an excellent Transport Minister and had a large part to play in this matter coming before us before, but unfortunately, because of the election, the Bill did not proceed into law?
My right hon. Friend is very generous and, of course, absolutely right in all that he just said, and I was just waiting for him to say it; I acknowledge that praise and thank him sincerely for what he said. Yes, I was involved in the outset of this. The shadow Secretary of State and I rubbed along very well together when I was on the Front Bench—and we did some good work together, too—but I think it is a bit rich to say that we would not have thought of this if it was not for the Opposition. We had been discussing and planning this, considering it and plotting the right way forward, for a considerable time, and I have absolute faith in the Secretary of State and my successor as Minister to take this matter forward with the same kind of diligence and concentrated effort that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) very generously attributed to me.