House of Commons
Thursday 13 September 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Trade Co-operation: UK and Israel
The UK and Israel have an important trading relationship in information and agricultural technology, which we are strengthening through our dedicated trade promotion team at our embassy in Tel Aviv. We have established a UK-Israel tech hub, which helps to create partnerships between British companies and innovative Israeli technology businesses. This is part of our confident, outward-looking approach to Britain’s trading future.
From online banking security to prescription drugs to cherry tomatoes, Israel has become an international technological and trade powerhouse. Every day, millions of Britons are benefiting from Israeli inventions and produce, even if they do not realise it. What progress is being made in the UK-Israel trade working group to ensure that this vital trade relationship continues to prosper after Brexit?
My hon. Friend is right. Our trade with Israel currently stands at £3.9 billion in goods and services, with our exports up 7% in the past year. The Prime Minister met the Israeli Prime Minister in February 2017 to set up the joint trade working group, and I would like to thank the Israeli Government for their close liaison. We are dedicated to the continuity of trade and, once we leave the European Union, to having an ambitious new trade agreement that will provide even greater benefits than those we currently have.
I do not know whether the Secretary of State listens to my favourite programme in the morning, “Farming Today”, but is he aware that, following the publication yesterday of the Agriculture Bill, there is a great deal of concern in the farming community about the Bill and about the possibility of having a decent trading relationship, with high-technology components, after Brexit?
Thank you, Mr Speaker; I was wondering whether there was going to be even a tentative link to the question. The tech hub is there to help British businesses to get access to the innovations that come out of Israel across a range of sectors. It is worth pointing out that Israel is an extraordinarily innovative country and has more start-ups per capita than any other country on the planet. Where we can get UK businesses across a range of sectors to get access to such innovation, it is always a positive outcome.
The latest computers used in the House of Commons use Intel 7 and Intel 8 cores and above, and Shazam, Skype and FaceTime all use technology developed in Israel. What more are we doing to encourage that sort of co-operation, particularly in relation to computer technology?
As I have already said, the key to that is the UK-Israel tech hub. This relates not only to the area of computers, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, but to FinTech, cyber-security, biomed, retail technology and the creative industries. These are all prime areas for co-operation between the United Kingdom and Israel, and we should celebrate that relationship and the benefits that it brings to both our populations.
In the context of the agriculture sector, what representations have been made about trading with illegal Israeli settlements, which in the long run further jeopardises the two-state solution that the UK is supposed to aspire to?
Our trade relationship with Israel is clearly set out in the agreement that the European Union has with Israel, and that is the agreement that we will roll over as we leave the EU. We will want to have a further ambitious trading agreement. We believe that the extension of trade in Israel and in the wider region contributes to not only the prosperity but the political stability and security of the region.
Trade and Investment: India
India is a key partner for the UK, and bilateral trade between the UK and India was £18 billion in 2017, up 15% on 2016. The UK and India are among the top four investors in each other’s countries, and the Secretary of State will be visiting India in December to attend the annual joint economic trade committee and to continue to build on this important relationship.
In my constituency, we are lucky to have a lot of firms doing business with India, which is an incredibly exciting market. Will the Minister tell us a bit more about what the Government will do to try to drive further trade, particularly between the east midlands and India?
I am pleased to say that trade between the east midlands and India is performing well and grew by 11.4% in 2017, with success stories such as Royal Enfield in Bruntingthorpe. We are supporting visits from the midlands engine to India, and I was in India with Prime Minister Modi at the Move Global Mobility conference only at the weekend.
If the Minister was with Mr Modi at the weekend, I expect that the subject of student numbers came up. India will want something in return for an expanded trade and investment programme, so what exactly is the Minister offering? I am not against increasing student numbers, but is he? Will he be honest with the British public?
That is an interesting question from the Opposition, as is so often the case, given that, from memory, student numbers from India grew by 32% last year. There is absolutely no cap on Indian students coming here, and I would hope that the hon. Lady, representing her constituents and the wider country, would promote the positive message that we are open to Indian students. There is no cap, students are growing in number, and we want more of them.
The potential for growth in trade between India and the UK is enormous and should be backed up by further trade missions. However, may I suggest that the next trade mission should take Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury? He would be able to talk to some of India’s incredible entrepreneurs and perhaps learn about wealth creation and the fact that greater trade between India and the United Kingdom will lift millions of Indians out of poverty.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. There are so many things that we can do jointly with India. As I said, we had the mobility conference at the weekend, which was about cleaning up our air and our transport. India has set targets for 2030 to ensure that at least 30% of vehicles produce zero emissions, and we have said that 100% must produce zero emissions at the tailpipe by 2040. Working together, we can do more.
I thank the Minister for his response to that question. The cultural, historical, economic and educational links between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and India are enormous. Will the Minister outline how he believes that will continue post-Brexit? Will he also ensure that all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can benefit?
The Board of Trade was established precisely to send out a message about the benefits of trade and relationships with countries such as India to every part of the United Kingdom. We plan to work with Northern Ireland to ensure that it is part of the whole suite of offers that we provide using our posts right around the world.
Free Trade Agreements
The Government are committed to an inclusive and transparent trade policy. On 20 July, we launched a 14-week online consultation, allowing the public to provide views on future potential UK trade agreements with the US, Australia and New Zealand and, of course, the potential accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
We have huge potential to increase exports, particularly in the fantastic ceramics industry in Stoke-on-Trent, so I thank the Minister for that response. Will he update the House on the progress that is being made with the US-UK trade agreement, which is so important for that industry?
It is important to point out to my hon. Friend and, indeed, to the House that our duty of sincere co-operation means that we are only exploring information at this stage since we may not, cannot and should not explore actual free trade deals. However, the UK-US trade and investment working group has now met on four occasions and will meet again in November in Washington. We want our future trade agreements to work for all sectors and regions of the UK, including the UK’s highly valued ceramics industry in Staffordshire, for which my hon. Friend is a doughty champion. The Secretary of State will be chairing the consultation in Birmingham on 1 October. My hon. Friend recently wrote to me requesting a meeting for that particular sector, and we will be exploring dates shortly.
A potential free trade deal with the United States of America is reckoned to be worth about 0.2% of GDP, but the loss of GDP with a mere FTA deal with the European Union is 6%, which is a loss thirty times greater than the gain from America. Even if the Minister got an equivalent free trade agreement with the rest of the world, he would need a world population of 15 billion —twice the current population—to make up the gap. There are only 7.5 billion people on earth. Where are the Government going to make up the gap in GDP loss that this Brexit is costing the United Kingdom?
I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the British people voted in a referendum to leave the European Union and that is exactly what we are organising. We are in the middle of negotiating with the EU on a wide-ranging and comprehensive package of proposals that will allow trade to continue with the EU hopefully much as it does now.
The Minister’s last answer was very interesting. Do the Government agree that free trade agreements are good? If, unfortunately, the Chequers proposal is rejected by the European Union, would not an alternative be a free trade agreement with the European Union based on the Canada model?
At the moment we have a free trade agreement with Colombia through the European Union, but the new President of Colombia, Iván Duque, has said that he wants no more free trade agreements, probably including with the United Kingdom if we are to leave the EU, and that he wants to renegotiate the deal with the EU. If we were to be able to roll over a new agreement with Colombia, would we make sure it had very strong human rights protections?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are negotiating with our partners who are currently signatories to agreements with the European Union to create continuity for businesses and to make sure those agreements are put in place. The elements to which those countries have already signed up will be included in those agreements, and I hope he will take some comfort from that.
Last time I stood at this Dispatch Box, I said that I was not entirely sure I understood a particular question.
We will negotiate free trade agreements that are to the benefit of the United Kingdom—we have offensive and defensive interests—and, when we conclude those agreements, I have no doubt they will be good for the United Kingdom.
I apologise on behalf of my colleague, who is not here and for whom I am standing in.
This 14-week consultation period is probably the only period in which the public will have a chance to have their say on the free trade agreement. Does the Minister agree it is vital for those people who are concerned about changes in food regulation, and for those people who are concerned about the diminution of the high standards we have here, that they take the opportunity to input into this consultation and make their voices heard, as they did so successfully in previous campaigns on, for example, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. It is right that members of the public should feed in all their concerns. One of the reasons why we are running this consultation is for exactly that purpose. I back her encouraging people to take part in the consultation. Indeed, when I was in Scotland recently to meet the Scottish Government, I also met Trade Justice Scotland to discuss exactly these sorts of issues.
The Government’s current consultation process has a worrying lack of transparency. No mandates have been published and no explanation has been given of which sectors are being considered or of what chapters may be included. Will the Minister commit to working with businesses and civil society to develop a consultation process that is more transparent, that looks at the full range of issues and that allows proper engagement on the big questions regarding our future trade? The current one is just simply not good enough.
In that case all I can say to the hon. Lady is that she simply does not understand the consultation process. There are 14 weeks in which the public themselves may come back to us with all their input. We are very clear that we will be exploring widely and deeply with all sectors of society, and indeed all sectors of business and all those with an interest. We have set up the strategic trade advisory group to do exactly the sorts of things she is asking for, and I am confident that this is the most open consultation on free trade agreements this country has ever undertaken.
I would like to thank my noble Friend Baroness Fairhead for all her hard work in driving forward the launch of the Government’s export strategy, in her role as Minister for Trade and Export Promotion. We launched the Government’s export strategy on 21 August. The strategy has four pillars—encourage, inform, connect and finance. Our ambition is simple: it is for the UK to be a 21st-century exporting superpower.
My hon. Friend, who is a very strong advocate for those sectors, makes a good point. They are strong export sectors for the UK, and the Government’s export strategy will build on their success, further encouraging and assisting companies to export. We will do so by providing more information and connections to overseas markets, supporting companies at overseas events and providing better access to export finance.
My hon. Friend, as usual, makes a telling point. I congratulate businesses up and down the country who export their goods and services overseas, but our survey suggests that some 20% of companies could be exporting at the present time but do not. That is around 400,000 companies whose export potential is not being fully realised. My message to those who could export but do not is to look at the success of our current exporters—if they can, so can you.
The north-east is the only region that exports more than it imports. Employers, employees, trade associations and trade unions all agree that a no deal Brexit will destroy jobs. What is the Secretary of State doing specifically to protect north-east businesses from a no deal Brexit, and to ensure that we continue to export successfully around the world?
Many small businesses in my constituency tell me that they have never exported outside the European Union and do not have plans in place—particularly in relation to a no deal Brexit, if that was to happen—for how they would export outside the EU. They do not have people who are experts in customs arrangements outside the EU. What practical help can the Minister give to small businesses, to ensure that they can trade outside the EU?
That is a very useful point. Members of the House who have used the export hub and had the export hub visit their constituency have seen the benefits of the very practical help that can be given to small businesses. We have been encouraging UK Export Finance to help more small and medium-sized enterprises trade. We have put UK Export Finance experts in the field, so that they may better understand overseas markets, regulatory frameworks and cultural issues. Our new trade commissioners around the world are there to provide better help. If the hon. Gentleman has not yet had the export hub in his constituency, if he contacts the Department we would happily arrange a time for a visit, so that small businesses in his constituency may get one-to-one advice on the opportunities and help available.
I very much welcome the export strategy, but given that international trade is a reserved matter, will my right hon. Friend look at extending his Department’s footprint north of the border, so that more Scottish businesses may take advantage?
We already have a footprint, but it is very clear, emphasising the point that my hon. Friend correctly makes, that it is a reserved matter, so it is the duty of the Government to ensure that all UK citizens, in whatever part of the kingdom they reside, have the same access to help when it comes to trade; and that is what the Department for International Trade provides.
The Federation of Small Businesses describes the export strategy as lacking “definitive detailed interventions”. The Secretary of State would do well to take note of what the FSB says. SMEs are vital to our export success, so I suggest, before he gets carried away by his own complacency, why not listen to what small businesses are saying?
We spend a great deal of time doing so, and in fact I was deeply encouraged by the welcome that we received for the export strategy from the FSB, the chambers, the Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry, who do not share the Labour party’s anti-trade, anti-capitalist, anti-wealth agenda. The Labour party increasingly seems to see the model it prefers for Britain as the Venezuelan model.
We are preparing ourselves to be able to take a decision on potential CPTPP accession in the light of the ongoing public consultation and the process of accession for new members being established. We are also undertaking further work to understand the opportunities that CPTPP presents, including by engaging with existing members.
I share the Secretary of State’s enthusiasm for the potential of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and greater trade with the countries of the Pacific rim in general. Will he confirm that nothing in the proposals currently being negotiated with the EU would prevent our being able to accede to the TPP? Does my right hon. Friend agree that although it is of course entirely for Malaysia to decide its role in the TPP, both its involvement and our accession would be good for all involved?
The CPTPP states currently account for more than 13% of global GDP—they comprise a combined GDP of around $11 trillion. Their economies are projected to grow to more than $14 trillion by 2023. It is self-evident that if Britain is able to take advantage of growing markets, a country that has a much more ambitious export strategy can benefit hugely. Malaysia will be able to take advantage of the improvement in our bilateral trade.
The work of the Board of Trade is primarily about supporting exports and investment. The board itself does not have a role in trade policy, but the Department is fully co-ordinated with partners across the CPTPP and ready to discuss with them the great potential that exists for the United Kingdom. We should want to extend our trading horizons as we leave the European Union. We need to raise our ambitions, extend our timelines, and widen our geographical horizons if we are to maximise the benefits to the UK of the opportunities that Brexit will bring.
My Department has responsibility for exports, inward and outward investment, and trade policy. I am delighted to announce that on my recent visit to China, I received approval from the Chinese Government to ease restrictions on the import of UK dairy products. That will be worth a quarter of a billion pounds over the next year and will be of particular benefit to Northern Ireland. I congratulate the many people involved in that effort, including my officials and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Such success shows the benefit of collective effort, and I look forward to similar collaboration to support British companies to secure business around the world.
Later today, I will travel to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.
Given that more than 60% of the north-east’s exports go to the EU, what preparations have the Secretary of State and his Department made for there being no Brexit deal, which could lead to firms in the north-east being hit with tariffs of up to 80% overnight?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have already published a number of papers in preparation for no deal. I have just left a Cabinet meeting, to which I shall return later, at which we are looking into that very subject. The best thing that we can do is to get an effective comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union so that all the countries of Europe—the EU27 and the UK—can continue to get the benefits of free and open trade.
There is no greater parliamentary champion of the furniture industry than my hon. Friend—I am delighted to congratulate her on that. For businesses and sectors of all sizes, the export strategy sets out a new UK export challenge, a smarter offer to help them to export, and a new framework to maximise our impact. The Long Point exhibition in my hon. Friend’s constituency next week will be another excellent opportunity for her and us to promote the furniture industry.
What proposals has the Secretary of State made to his counterparts ahead of this weekend’s G20 ministerial meeting to avert the threat by the President of the United States to pull the United States out of the World Trade Organisation, and to ensure that the WTO can continue to function despite America’s refusal to approve appointments to the WTO’s appellate body—or has he made no proposals?
I have had conversations with a number of my trade colleagues from Japan, Mexico and Canada all ahead of the G20 meeting. That is a very good opportunity for us to recommit ourselves to the concept and practice of free and open trade and the rules-based system based on the WTO in Geneva. We should be pointing out that protectionism has never ended well, and that the benefits that we have introduced in terms of the elimination of poverty and the support for our global security agenda are based on free trade. It is also worth saying that the alternative to a rules-based system is a deals-based system, which would upset the balance of global trade. Incidentally, let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that he will find that the power to withdraw from the WTO is not a presidential power, but one that would require approval by Congress in law.
I thank my hon. Friend for her very encouraging story from Tanzania. Britain is, of course, an international leader on development and my Department is working with the Department for International Development to ensure that global prosperity is at the heart of future policy. Our first priority is to deliver continuity in our trading relationships as we leave the EU. In the future, the Government will explore options to expand our relations with developing countries. DIT will be focusing on unilateral preference schemes and schemes to help to break down barriers to trade that exist in many countries.
As I have already pointed out, it is advantageous for us to have an open, liberal comprehensive trading deal with the European Union, but it is also important that we open up trading opportunities elsewhere, which was why I found it utterly depressing that the Labour party voted yesterday against the EU’s free trade agreement with Singapore, which is a chance generally to open up trade. That is another example of how the Labour party has been captured by the anti-trade hard left to the detriment of the United Kingdom’s interests.
At a general level, joining up across Government and working with local partners to help businesses to overcome trade barriers is a key principle in the Government’s export strategy. I am encouraged that joint working between the Torbay Development Agency and my Department will allow ARC Marine to visit the wind summit in Hamburg in September. That is another good example of how collaboration can help local businesses.
I think that it is in line with our ambitions elsewhere. Businesses themselves were very clear. They wanted us to inform them better, so we have upgraded our great.gov.uk website. They wanted better encouragement from their peers, so we have set up a new online community to ensure that that can be done. They wanted better finance, which is why we have been improving links between UK Export Finance and small and medium-sized companies. They wanted better connectivity, which is why we have now published, in advance on our website, where Ministers will be visiting. That means that companies looking for market access, or indeed getting a deal over a line, can know when Ministers will be visiting and ensure that they are in contact with us.
My hon. Friend asks two questions, the second of which is about our relationship with the United States. In our working group, we have had specifically dedicated discussions about how we might help SMEs on both sides of the Atlantic to improve that trade. Of course, one of the key elements of that is UK Export Finance. I am very pleased to say that, in a real change from previous practice, last year around 78% of the contracts that UK Export Finance placed were with SMEs. That is a real change that makes a difference to real businesses.
That is a very interesting question. Our services exports to the world’s most open market—the United States—comprise 65% of our exports. For non-EU countries, the figure is about 50%, and for the EU itself, it is only 38%. In the future, I would like to ensure that our services exporters are given the free access to European markets that they can currently take advantage of outside Europe.
As the Secretary of State knows, the UK is the largest investor in Tanzania, a proud Commonwealth nation to which I have just been appointed trade envoy. Will he be good enough to outline what Her Majesty’s Government will do to strengthen that relationship as we leave the European Union?
I welcome my hon. Friend to his post as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Tanzania and wish him luck. As the Prime Minister made clear on the visit on which I joined her at the end of August, partnerships based on mutual interest are key to the UK’s offer. The presence of a proactive Department for International Trade and broader prosperity team, and UK Export Finance’s risk appetite of £750 million for Tanzania, further show that commitment. We are working with the Department for International Development to align trade and investment policies throughout Africa and the developing world.
As usual, the right hon. Gentleman seems to have overlooked the fact that UK exports rose to a record £429 billion in the 12 months ending in July 2018. We are witnessing a very strong UK export performance, and the Government aim to see that continue by achieving a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU, and taking advantage of market liberalisation and new free trade agreements elsewhere. The Government are committed to that process; I just wish that we had seen more commitment to it from the Opposition this week in Parliament.
Fifty-one per cent. of the north-west’s goods exports go to non-EU countries, which is hugely important for Greater Manchester. What discussions has the Mayor of Greater Manchester had with the Department about Greater Manchester’s trade strategy as we leave the EU?
I am happy to have discussions with a range of stakeholders, including the Mayors, local enterprise partnerships and any other parts of government infra- structure. I am happy to have a meeting with the Mayor of Greater Manchester, but I have not yet had a request for a meeting following my letter to him in July 2017. I am perfectly open to making my diary available.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Shared Parental Leave
The Minister for Women and Equalities takes her responsibilities to the House very seriously and regrets that she cannot be present this morning because she is attending an important Cabinet meeting on EU exit. If there are any urgent matters, she will of course be available to discuss them with colleagues this afternoon.
Earlier this year, the Government Equalities Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ran an award-winning £1.5 million communications campaign to promote the take-up of shared parental leave. That was supported by revised guidance and case studies, making it easier for parents to understand and access the scheme.
The introduction of shared parental leave was a momentous step forward for families and for parents in work, with families no longer being held back by outdated stereotypes. Unfortunately, however, official figures show that only 2% of eligible parents have so far taken up the scheme. Many fathers say that they are worried about taking leave because of a perceived negative effect on their careers. What are the Government doing to encourage cultural change to help men to feel that they can take leave, to encourage companies to do more to bring men’s leave pay in line with maternity pay, and to make companies publicise parental leave and pay policies that help to reduce discrimination?
The hon. Lady has hit on the point that this is about not just businesses, but cultural change. That is why we are building the evidence base to understand what works best in encouraging a parent to take up shared parental leave. There are 285,000 parents or couples who can access this scheme across the country, and we encourage them to do so. We are also funding a research programme, which I will disclose more about in response to the first topical question, that will deliver evidence-based tools for employers on what works in closing their gender pay gaps and addressing their employees’ parenting responsibilities.
No awareness campaign on shared parental leave, however welcome, can lead to a significant increase in uptake while structural issues—the fact that men still, on the whole, earn more than women, for example—are making it really hard for families to make this choice. What will the Government do to follow international best practice and make parental leave more accessible and affordable?
Again, we are conscious that this is not just a matter for businesses; it is about cultural change as well. That is why our evidence-based programme will, we hope, bring real results. We look constantly at what other countries are doing to encourage parents to share their parenting responsibilities while maintaining their place in work, because we know that work helps women through financial independence. We want to do all that we can to help parents to maintain their careers while, of course, bringing up their children in a loving family environment.
Just as women should have equal opportunities to work, men should have equal opportunities to be active parents, but they face many barriers to doing so. Will my hon. Friend assure me that she and the Government will be keeping a close eye on their shared parental leave policy to make sure that it achieves its ends?
Very much so. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who does a great deal of work on gender issues. Before making any changes to shared parental leave and pay schemes, it is important to evaluate the situation, and we will be doing that this year. We will look carefully at what the evidence tells us, and also learn from other countries, before committing to a particular course of action.
Take-up of shared parental leave has been reported to be as low as 2%, and the low rate of shared parental pay is often cited as a reason for that low take-up. Does the Minister agree that if we are serious about tackling the gender pay gap and maternity discrimination, we need to introduce properly paid, stand-alone statutory paternity leave?
As I said, we have to look carefully at the repercussions of any changes to shared parental leave. For example, we want to help self-employed mothers in this space. If they qualify for maternity allowance, they are allowed to share parental leave and pay with an employed father or partner. We are not ruling out providing further support for working parents. We very much agree with the principle of equalising benefits for the self-employed. However, as part of our response to the Taylor review of modern employment practices, it is important that we consider making changes to this area only after careful thought and consideration.
Many colleagues have highlighted their concern about take-up being just over 1% and I must push the Government further. Will the Minister spell out what exactly this Government will do to ensure that taking up the scheme is a real option for parents?
First, I welcome the hon. Lady to her role. I am sure that working with her across the Chamber in the coming months will be a pleasure.
As I said, I am going to make an exciting announcement in response to the first topical question about our detailed programme looking not just at shared parental leave, but at other gender equality issues in the workplace. This Government are committed to leading the world in this space. As part of that, we will evaluate how shared parental leave is working, and get the message out that someone who is a working parent should ask their employer whether they are able to take shared parental leave.
Universal Credit Roll-out
Job coaches working with people claiming universal credit treat all people as individuals, whatever their gender, and can provide personalised support to help people into employment and help them make progress at work. Universal credit also provides a safety net of support for those not in work. We have worked hard with partners to support vulnerable customers such as victims of domestic abuse, and Jobcentre Plus has recently launched a campaign to provide additional support for women, including those who are single parents.
What is the Minister’s message to young mothers such as those supported by Home-Start Glasgow North, whose fantastic tartan tie I am wearing today, if they find that the lack of second earner work allowance in universal credit is a barrier to second earner mothers wanting to enter or re-enter the labour market? Will she raise those concerns with the Department for Work and Pensions and ask that the roll-out of universal credit be halted until those anomalies are sorted out?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his tie. A good friend of mine has volunteered for Home-Start, and I know that it is an extremely valuable organisation. Of course, we want to ensure that any parent, including women who are lone parents, have the opportunity to balance their caring responsibilities with employment. We know that that is really important for women, and that it is important for children to grow up in a home where someone is working. I am always happy to raise any concerns, and perhaps we can have a meeting, but universal credit is working, and it is helping people into work.
The Minister mentioned domestic violence. Will she support the amendments to the domestic abuse Bill being brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), which would introduce split payments of universal credit as a default option for survivors of domestic violence?
Of course, all of us in the House need to work day and night to do everything we can to prevent the appalling atrocity of domestic abuse and violence in our country. It is everyone’s responsibility. In the DWP, we take the support of victims of domestic abuse and violence very seriously, and we are working with Women’s Aid, ManKind and a range of other charities to ensure we provide that support.
The Work and Pensions Committee, on which I sit, recently published a report calling on the Government to see whether universal credit can offer more help to victims of domestic abuse. Will the Minister consider our findings?
Work coaches are critical to the success of the roll-out of universal credit, and the team in Chichester are brilliant, but can my hon. Friend outline what training is available specifically to help work coaches to support women and to spot the underlying issues that victims of domestic violence may be suffering from?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for visiting her jobcentre. I strongly urge all those who are calling for the halting of the roll-out of universal credit to go to their jobcentre and meet the work coaches, to see the excellent work they are doing and the personalised support they are able to offer all their customers. We have worked closely with Women’s Aid and ManKind to ensure that it is a mandatory part of every work coach’s training to identify potential victims and to help them get the support they need.
The Minister mentioned single parents. As she will be aware, 91% of lone parents are women. Does she agree that the new conditionality requirements for lone parents under universal credit will have a hugely disproportionate impact on women? Will she make representations to the Department for Work and Pensions about that?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I simply do not agree with her. As I said, the relationship that a claimant builds up with their work coach is a personal one, and the support is tailored to that individual. We ensure within universal credit that women or, indeed, men who are bringing up children are able to balance their desire to work with their caring responsibilities. It is not until the youngest child in a family starts school that the job coach begins a conversation about the journey to work. It is not until the youngest child in a family is three that those conversations about getting into work begin to happen.
Gender Pay Gap: Reporting Process
May I first thank the hon. Lady for her role in introducing gender pay gap reporting? I have good news because it has emerged that 100% of employers identified as in scope have reported in the first year. I think that may be unprecedented in Government schemes. My thanks, as I say, to the hon. Lady, to everyone in the Government Equalities Office involved in making that happen and of course to the employers. That represents more than 10,000 boards across the country having board-level conversations about closing the gender pay gap, but reporting is just the first step. Employers must also take action to close the gap and we are supporting them in doing that.
I thank the Minister for that response. I congratulate her on the—almost suspicious—100% compliance, but I am sure the House will agree that that is good news. It is simply unfair that people earn less because they happen to be women, have brown skin, have a disability or come from a working-class background, yet there is clear evidence of pay gaps for all those characteristics. The gender pay gap reporting has clearly made employers pay attention to inadvertent and structural biases in their pay arrangements, so will the Government consult on extending pay transparency and reporting to tackle those wider injustices?
That is a very good point. We are committed to looking not just at gender, but BAME and issues such as mental health. This reporting is opening up conversations about gender, as I say, but we hope that, as part of that, it will open up conversations about how employers treat their workforce generally and ensure that fairness is extended to everyone regardless, as the hon. Lady says, of gender, how they look and so on. One thing we are keen to do is to ensure that, as part of the reporting, employers put their action plans out there. About 48% of companies are already doing that. We would like them to do more.
It is good news and should be celebrated that 100% of eligible businesses have reported on the gender pay gap, but may I press the Minister further? What further steps will she take to see that action flows from the reporting of this gender pay gap?
Very much so. We have a packed agenda of meetings with business leaders but also with industry leaders, so that we can trickle down good practice from the largest employers, who obviously have the most resources in terms of HR departments and so on. We want to get the best practice from them and trickle it down so that we help those employers who under the legislation are required to report. My aspiration is also for employers who fall under that threshold to start adopting the same good practice as well.
In July, we launched the Gender Recognition Act 2004 consultation and a 75-point LGBT action plan in response to the findings of the national LGBT survey. The action plan includes a £4.5 million fund to support delivery of these commitments—ranging from bringing forward proposals to end conversion therapy to appointing a national LGBT health adviser. This work marks a culture change to ensure that LGBT people feel respected at every level of our society.
The “Safe to talk to me” initiative pioneered by Dr Mike Farquhar gives badges, such as the one I am wearing, to NHS staff to encourage members of the LGBT community to understand that they can raise such issues in an open and safe environment. Will my hon. Friend welcome that initiative?
Very much so. I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she does in the national health service looking after ill children. I am admiring her badge from afar. It looks very colourful. I hope that it will draw exactly the sort of reaction intended—namely, encouraging people who perhaps need extra reassurance that they are welcome and they are safe in the NHS to talk about their needs.
Does the Minister agree that we need to do more to help our LGBT friends around the world, particularly those who are seeking asylum? Will she therefore condemn the Home Office’s approach at the moment? It is deporting one of my constituents back to Venezuela after he has applied for asylum and married someone here and lived in Britain for three years. The Home Office still says that Venezuela is a safe place for an LGBT person to live. It even recommends that his husband moves back with him.
Of course I am concerned to hear about LGBT people in Venezuela being treated as despicably as the hon. Gentleman has described. If I may, I will take the opportunity to invite him to write to the relevant Minister. I would certainly hope that we can look into the matter in more detail.
Very recently, the Government reduced the waiting time for gay people who want to give blood from 12 months of celibacy to three months, which was welcomed by the LGBT community. Will my hon. Friend update the House on how that progress is going?
I thank my hon. Friend for his work. I know that he campaigned strongly on this issue, and he adds colour to the House, as I am sure he added colour to that campaign. I regret that I do not have the precise figures to hand, but if I may, I will take the opportunity to write to him, and I would, of course, be happy to discuss the matter with him after this session.
As you know, Mr Speaker, I entered a civil partnership eight years ago, yet the Government are still consulting on what to do about civil partnerships—there is a threat that you are going to abolish us! [Interruption.] Well not you, Mr Speaker, but the Government are threatening that they might abolish civil partnerships. There is joy, there is passion, and not so much celibacy in civil partnerships, so would it not make far more sense to extend them to straight people as well?
There are so many ways I could go with this. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on his civil partnership. He will know that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) is promoting his Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill, and I will have the pleasure of responding to that as the Minister responsible. We are conducting a consultation and carefully considering the Supreme Court judgment because, all joking aside, we know that these issues matter to people and we want to ensure that our country continues to be a place of equality.
Sexual Exploitation: Accommodation
The practice of offering sex for rent is unacceptable. It preys on vulnerable people who are seeking affordable accommodation and was, I believe, the subject of a recent “Inside Out West” programme. Such behaviour is already a criminal offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and the decision on whether to prosecute and for what offences rests entirely with the Crown Prosecution Service, rather than the Ministry of Justice. My officials have been working, including with the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to raise awareness of the offences available to prosecute such behaviour.
I thank the BBC’s “Inside Out West” for its investigation into this despicable practice which, as the Minister pointed out, is illegal, although it continues to target vulnerable women and men. Will the Minister continue to work with me, as we did on upskirting, and consider a code of conduct, or perhaps go even further and consider binding legislation to prevent websites from hosting these adverts?
The CAP code, which is the independent Advertising Standards Authority’s rulebook for non-broadcast advertising, including print and online, does not apply to classified adverts, but it does prohibit ads for illegal products and services. DCMS colleagues are working to ensure that technology companies meet their responsibilities of preventing their services from being used for criminal activity, and they are further exploring how classified ad websites are used to facilitate crime. I would be delighted, as always, to meet the hon. Lady.
When someone facilitates accommodation, money, food or services in exchange for sex, it is abuse. It degrades the victims, and unfortunately financially benefits the facilitators. The Government must commit to legislation that punishes those who profit from such abuse.
It is a pleasure to take a question from the hon. Lady, and she is right to highlight this despicable crime. As I have said, we believe that such practices are already against the law under the 2003 Act, and as I said to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), I am happy to continue looking at what more we can do.
My hon. Friend asked this question at the previous Women and Equalities questions. I suspect he is keen to know what is happening with the pregnancy and maternity discrimination consultation, which we said would be published over the summer. I would like to reassure him that we intend to publish the consultation shortly.
It is a pleasure to be the first to congratulate the Minister on her appointment. Recent studies suggest that businesses, in particular small businesses, are not sufficiently aware of maternity discrimination rules. What can we do to increase that awareness?
My hon. Friend raises an extremely good point about this challenge. To be honest, the awareness of the rights and obligations among small businesses and individuals is a challenge. To help to tackle this, ACAS has produced and promoted new guidance on pregnancy and maternity discrimination but, regarding this question, we are also looking at improvements that we can make to gov.uk.
Access to Abortion Services
Since June 2017, women from Northern Ireland have been able to access abortion services in England free of charge. We have also introduced a central booking system to simplify the process and there is support for travel costs where appropriate. The numbers of women from Northern Ireland accessing abortion services in England and Wales has increased as a result: up 25%, to 919 in 2017, which is the highest level since 2011.
Recently, the Government announced that they will echo Scotland in giving women the right to take early medical abortion pills at home. In Scotland, however, there is a residency test for this healthcare, which, if copied in England, will deny the 28 women a week who are now coming from Northern Ireland for an abortion in the UK, that choice of procedure. Will the Minister pledge to work with the Department of Health and Social Care to prevent that happening, or will she now listen to the Supreme Court, which said that this was a human rights abuse in the first place? Let us get on and give our Northern Irish sisters the right to access healthcare and abortion at home, just as our sisters around the rest of the UK have.
Department of Health and Social Care Ministers only have the power to approve English homes as a class of place for medical abortion. The definition of what “home” means in this context is not straightforward and will be determined as we take this work forward. DHSC officials are working with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to develop a protocol that will set out criteria for which places should be covered by the term “home”, as well as contradictions for use at home and other relevant issues. We will look at how the schemes are working in Scotland and Wales and learn from their experience. The hon. Lady knows, on the wider point of abortion, that we call upon representatives in Northern Ireland to get their act together and get the Assembly working again, so that Northern Irish people can make their decision on this very important topic.
Through the industrial strategy and our response to the Taylor review, the Government’s ambition is to increase the earning power of men and women throughout the UK, and to support the creation of good-quality jobs. Where women are under-represented in sectors of the economy, the Government are actively supporting business-led reviews to increase participation and the representation of women.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He raises an important point. He clearly recognises the value and benefits that more men entering into primary school teaching can bring. We are committed to developing a diverse teaching workforce and to undertaking a range of activities to achieve that. We convened a roundtable with the sector to discuss equality and diversity, and to drive progress to meet these challenges.
Let me be clear; the Government deplore hate crime, and we are determined to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to get on in life free from harassment and fear. We are strengthening the cross-Government working group on anti-Muslim hatred. My Department and the Home Office fund Tell MAMA, which is the leading service for recording anti-Muslim incidents and supporting victims.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: it is important that we continue dialogue with social media companies. Across Government, colleagues are already having such discussions with social media companies, and it is important that anything that incites hatred is taken down immediately. I hope that the social media companies are listening.
The Government are committed to ensuring that the UK is an international leader on gender equality research, so that employers have the tools and knowledge to act on their gender pay gaps. We are investing £3.1 million in research on gender equality in the workplace over the next two years. That includes £2 million in the gender and behavioural insights programme, to help us to understand what works to change employers’ behaviour and improve gender equality in the workplace. In June, we launched the workplace and gender equality research programme—a two-year programme that will invest more than £1 million in new research and deliver evidence-based tools for employers on what works to close their gender pay gaps. That reflects the Government’s strong commitment to ensuring that evidence supports employers and employees.
Research from Wales TUC showed that as many as 85% of women who took part in its survey felt that the menopause had adversely affected their working life. Will the Minister press colleagues to consider workplace policies on the menopause, so that women get more support and employers cannot ignore the welfare of women with menopausal symptoms?
One of the advances of this Parliament is that we are beginning to talk about the menopause and its effects more than we did three, four or five years ago, and I think that that is a good thing. I very much take the hon. Lady’s point about encouraging employers to recognise the effects of the menopause as part of their treatment of employees. That goes to the point that we have been talking about, whether it is the gender pay gap or the treatment of black and ethnic minority employees and others. It is about employers treating their workforce fairly in a way that gets the most out of people’s potential and makes them feel valued.
There are now 1.1 million women-led small and medium-sized businesses in the UK, and I want that number to grow, having been a small business owner before I arrived in this House. It is fantastic to hear about my hon. Friend’s constituent, Mrs Darlington, and I am pleased to hear about her success. The Government-supported Start Up Loans company had given loans worth nearly £450 million, nearly 40% of them to women, by March this year. We also have 38 growth hubs across England providing information and support to anyone—that includes women—who wants to start and grow their own business. I wish Mrs Darlington continued success.
We welcome the fact that upskirting has been made into a specific sexual offence. It cannot be right, therefore, that victims of revenge porn are not afforded the protection of anonymity. The Government’s new victim strategy, which was released on Monday, failed to address the lack of protection for victims of image-based sexual abuse. When will the Government close this loophole in law and give all sexual abuse victims the protection that they deserve?
The hon. Lady has raised this matter with me on previous occasions, and I know that she will welcome what is in the victim strategy. She highlights an important issue. As she will be aware, in terms of tackling the publication of upskirting images and voyeurism online and via social media, the Law Commission is looking, as part of the DCMS-commissioned review into online abuse, into the sharing of intimate and sexual images. I believe that that is the right way for us to proceed with looking at the important issue that she rightly highlights.
The Government have responded today, in a written ministerial statement, to the inquiry that I requested—as the then Minister for Women and Equalities—into whether we needed a national buffer zone system for abortion clinics. They have concluded that we do not. May I ask the Minister what arrangements individual councils or areas will have in the absence of such a system?
Let me add that I welcome the conclusion reached in the written ministerial statement. Now that I am able to travel slightly less conspicuously, I took the opportunity to visit the abortion clinic in the constituency of Ealing Central and Acton to take a look for myself. I observed that there was no longer any harassment taking place, which I believe continues to reflect the conclusion in the statement.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question, and, obviously, for her work on this issue.
I asked for the written ministerial statement to be issued in advance so that Members would have an opportunity to question me about it today. Having looked at the evidence, we have discovered that 363 hospitals and clinics in the country offer abortion services, and that in 36 of those locations there have been demonstrations, or protests—however people wish to phrase it. On the basis of that evidence, we have concluded for the moment that we should continue the current scheme of enabling councils to apply for public space protection orders which target their localities, but we will of course keep this matter very much under review, because we want to ensure that people who need to access such services can do so safely.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue. I know about the work that she does alongside the Albert Kennedy Trust, which does fantastic work in supporting young people. We recognise that 24% of homeless young people identify as LGBT. That is a shocking statistic, and one that we cannot ignore in the LGBT action plan or in the rough sleeping strategy that we have just announced. We have committed ourselves to undertaking research, along with the Government Equalities Office, on the nature and scale of the problem. We have also committed ourselves to taking concrete next steps to address LGBT homelessness in the first annual “refresh” of our strategy, which the research will inform.
The arrival of Blake Bridgen on 8 September means that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) will have the opportunity to engage in shared parental responsibility. Can the Minister assure me that we will continue to promote the “share the joy” campaign, so that other men can benefit from shared parental leave?
Very much so, and I am delighted to hear about my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen). That was news to me, and I am sure that we all share his joy. I look forward to his taking some shared parental leave—if that is permitted under house rules.
May I take up a point that was made earlier? During the summer recess, I visited Corby jobcentre and met the very dedicated staff there. They told me unequivocally that universal credit was working locally. Is it not the case that more women are in work, and that universal credit is helping that?
I thank my hon. Friend for taking time out of his summer recess to visit his local jobcentre. If more Members were to do the same, they would see that not only are more women in work, but many more older women are in work—and, indeed, that we have record levels of employment across our country, and wages are beginning to rise. We all want people to have more money in their pockets.
The hon. Lady is right to raise that question. The number of women now accepted on to full-time science, technology, engineering and maths courses has increased by 25% since 2010, but we are working hard to drive that figure up further. In my constituency, for example, BAE, from the private sector, is working with education providers and university technical colleges to drive women and young people into those areas, but the Government need to keep working to close the gap further.
We have, through the media, statements in the House and, I hope, colleagues such as my hon. Friend, done everything we can thus far to make people aware of the strategy, but we will continue to promote it so that everyone is aware of what we are proposing and how it will help them.
The hon. Lady will be aware that £1.1 billion of concessions have been made, and it is really important to note that as a result of our reforms, more than 3 million more women will receive £550 a year more by 2030.[Official Report, 9 October 2018, Vol. 647, c. 2MC.]
Forced marriage is outlawed in this country, but it still happens, and schools do not do enough about it. It does not help either that children can get married at 16 in this country. Will the Minister meet me and Jasvinder Sanghera from Karma Nirvana to discuss this issue?
It was a pleasure to sit in for my hon. Friend’s 10-minute rule motion on exactly this point last week, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss the marriage age. Forced marriage is illegal, of course, and the Home Office is doing a great deal of work to spread the message around communities particularly affected by it that it is simply not acceptable in the 21st century.
It does not show that at all. The Government have a record of trying to push people into work, because we see work as the best way of tackling hunger and poverty. That is why we are trying to make universal credit taper more easily—so that when people get into work, they keep more of their own money. It is also why we raised the threshold at which people start paying income tax—again so that the lowest paid keep their money rather than paying it to the state. It is also about extending educational opportunities to children so that when children leave our schools they have had a good or outstanding education.
I always look forward to the six-weekly question from my hon. Friend on this matter. The Government completely oppose any discrimination on the basis of a person’s origins, including any perceptions of their caste, which is why we issued a public consultation on caste and the Equality Act. It ran for six months and closed in 2017. We responded in July and now propose to ensure there is appropriate legal protection against caste discrimination through reliance on existing case law. In our view, this shows that a statutory remedy against caste discrimination is already available. As for a date, I am afraid he will have to keep pressing me, because, as he will appreciate, machinations are in place.
I am pleased that today the previous Home Secretary’s review of abortion clinic protests has seen the light of day—and that the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) is in her place given the last episode of “Bodyguard”. However, the conclusions are a bit disappointing as the word “women” does not occur in there once; the review talks about pregnant persons. It seems to say that a disproportionate number of women must be affected before any action takes place. May I suggest that the Minister has a meeting with her boss, the Home Secretary, me and the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, because there are other ways of proceeding than the blanket ban that the Government have rejected?
I commend the hon. Lady for all the campaigning and other work she has done to stand up for her constituents and those visiting her constituency for the services provided by the clinic there. I am of course happy to meet her and the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee to discuss this issue further. We will keep it under review. We are particularly interested to see how the public spaces protection order in Ealing is working. We understand from Marie Stopes that it considers it to be working well, but of course we will keep it under review.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018
Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018
Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At 9.55 this morning, ensuring it was then too late to question the Secretary of State at International Trade questions, his Department released a written statement saying it was concerned about breaches of export controls and the conduct of licence applicants. We have been challenging this Government for many months to tighten export controls in relation to military and dual-use goods in Saudi Arabia, Honduras and the Philippines. Is it not discourteous to this House to deny Members the opportunity to question Ministers on which companies have given rise to concern and which country destinations are suspected of illegitimate use? Have you, Mr Speaker, received any request from Ministers to come to this place and allow a proper discussion of these disturbing matters? There is now a three-week recess and many will feel that what I have referred to as a discourtesy is in fact an outrage.
The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes, it is discourteous, and it is highly regrettable that Members have not had the opportunity to question Ministers about this important matter. It would have been open to the Government to make an oral statement to the House and it might have been judged seemly for that to have happened, so I share the hon. Gentleman’s sense of unease and disappointment, to put it mildly, that we find ourselves in this situation, but unless an oral statement is volunteered there is no immediate remedy. Knowing the hon. Gentleman as I do—he and I came into the House together 21 years ago—I know that he is nothing if not persistent, and he will seek to use the Order Paper and the opportunities presented in the House upon our return fully to probe the Government on this subject. I am sorry that that will have to wait for some time, but his opportunity will come if he is patient.
May I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this urgent question? We spoke briefly on the telephone yesterday. I know that he is a champion of the interests of the people of Bedford and Bedford prison, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss this in more detail.
I begin by setting the broader context of what is happening at Bedford prison and will then talk more specifically about what we need to do to resolve the serious issues in Bedford prison.
A number of local prisons with significant challenges have come before the House in the past six months, of which Bedford is the latest. I want to clarify a number of things before I focus specifically on the issues at Bedford. The first is that some of these issues are fundamental to any prison. Prisons are challenging places to run at the best of times. By definition, the people inside a prison do not want to be there, and we are now facing a cohort of people in prison who have multiple needs. Nearly half the people in prison have a reading age of under 11, and nearly 30% have a reading age of under six. Very large numbers are coming to prison directly out of care at the moment, and only 18% of people coming into prison had a job beforehand.
There is also a rising tide of violence in prisons. I am pleased that Royal Assent has today been given to the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). The Bill clarifies that this is not just an issue in prisons. Assaults against police officers have risen to an all-time high, and assaults on ambulance workers have risen to a very disturbing level. It would have been almost inconceivable 30 years ago for someone to get into an ambulance and assault the paramedic who was trying to treat them. It was almost unheard of 30 years ago for prisoners to assault prison officers, yet last year there were more than 9,000 such assaults.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, in relation to Bedford prison, I will return to the question of how we address violence in prisons and how the new legislation brought in by the hon. Member for Rhondda, which we on this side of the House are proud to support, will help to address some of the issues.
The second thing I want to put on record is that although there are many challenges in prisons, there have been improvements. It is worth remembering in this difficult atmosphere that some things are getting better. The situation relating to escapes and security is much better than at any time in the past. Similarly, while any suicide is a tragedy, because of our understanding of the drivers of suicide and the evidence that we gather, the measures that we are taking are beginning to work. The suicide rate is now considerably lower than it was a year ago, two years ago or indeed in the historical past, because we are beginning to address that issue. We also have a much better idea about how to deal with some of the underlying issues around reoffending. Our first night reception centres are much stronger, as are the family links that we are able to promote. More prisoners are now actively in work or education than before, and the education strategy ensures that the education they receive is much more relevant to the workplace.
Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Bedford and the chief inspector have pointed out, there are three very significant challenges in Bedford. The first is a big problem around decency and conditions in Bedford. The second is a problem around drugs in Bedford. The third is a problem around violence, particularly assaults against prison officers in Bedford. How do we deal with this? Bearing in mind that there are underlying problems in all local prisons and that the problems we are talking about—decency, drugs and violence—are familiar from inspections in other places, what is it that gives me some hope that we can turn this around? Do we have a plan to turn this around?
The answer is that there are prisons out there in the country—local prisons with similar problems to Bedford—that are already showing that we can tackle these issues. Hull is a good example, as is Preston. There has also been a significant improvement in tackling exactly these kinds of issues in Leeds over the past three months. In Bedford, we put the prison into special measures some months ago, and we are now beginning to see some key improvements. We are seeing improvements in the physical infrastructure, more investment is going into windows, the mental health provision is better than it was, areas such as the showers and the segregation unit are better than they were, and we are now bringing in a more experienced management team.
However, that still leaves those three fundamental problems to be dealt with. How do we deal with them? Addressing the issue of drugs is first a question of technology. We have done a lot to understand the criminal networks through gathering intelligence on how the drugs are getting in, but there is much more we can do to get the right scanners in place to investigate the drugs being carried in in people’s bodies, and to spend money on the scanners to investigate drugs being put in the post that is getting into the prison.
Decency is fundamentally a question of spending money, which is why we are putting an extra £40 million into addressing basic issues, such as windows. That is not just about producing decent living conditions for prisoners—
Order. It is always a pleasure to listen to the mellifluous tones of the Minister of State. I simply advise him that, in delivering his disquisition thus far, he has exceeded his allotted time by only 100%, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman is approaching his peroration.
My apologies for taking up so much of the House’s time on this issue. To return in my final minute to the serious issues that we are dealing with today, this is about decency, drugs and violence. Dealing with violence fundamentally has to be about having the right training and support for the prison officers on the landing. They need the right legitimate authority to challenge acts of violence. They need training and equipment—body-worn cameras and CCTV—to do that. They need the law that has been introduced by the hon. Member for Rhondda. Above all, however, prison officers need management support, standing with them day in, day out, to challenge the acts of violence, to take the action to punish them and to do so in a calm, legitimate fashion. Only by restoring order and control will we be able to address the many other issues, including education, rehabilitation, decency and drugs, that we need to deal with to protect the public.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I thank the Minister for his phone call yesterday and his answer today. I have been raising concerns with his Government about levels of violence in HMP Bedford since my election. In May, it was placed in special measures, and officers fear serious assault every day. The situation is getting worse, not better. Will the Minister explain what the Government are doing differently this time to resolve the systemic failures at the prison?
Bedford prison is designed to hold 300 men, but at the last count it was holding more than 420. How can any prison operate safely with such overcrowding? Will the Government take urgent steps to reduce pressure on the system? The prison building itself is not fit for purpose, and I have been to see it for myself. The cells are cramped, I could smell drugs, and the building is very old. How can we expect to rehabilitate serial offenders if we cannot provide them with even basic facilities and dignity? The consequences of not getting things right are far reaching for society.
The people who live around Bedford prison are affected, and our emergency services are frequently tied up on long call-outs. Reoffending levels are high. Prison officers fear for their lives at work and are leaving the profession in droves. The Minister told us that he is putting in new managers, but how will that solve the recruitment and retention crisis among frontline prison officers? Will the Minister commit to an action plan that will make Bedford prison safe, bring in experienced officers, vastly improve facilities and properly invest our penal system before we have another riot on our hands?
Bearing in mind your warning, Mr Speaker, I will try to deal with those four quite different questions briefly, but they are serious questions that are worth spending a little time on. The question about numbers is a good one. During the previous Labour Government, the number of people in prison rose from about 40,000 to nearly 80,000—the prison population nearly doubled—so we inherited a prison estate with an enormous number of prisoners. That involves a serious conversation right across the House about the number of people we wish to put in prison, and that goes beyond this question about Bedford. However, we will undertake to look carefully at the population of Bedford prison and at the ratio between prison officers and prisoners, and we will come back within 28 days to the chief inspector of prisons with an answer laying out a plan.
The second question is on the building at Bedford, which of course dates from the early 1800s, as the hon. Gentleman said. Although we have a new wing in place, a lot of the physical infrastructure is very difficult, which is unfortunately true not only of Bedford. A third of the current prison estate was built before 1900—these are Victorian prisons—which is why we will be spending the money to create 10,000 new prison places with modern accommodation. There is a very clear relationship between old buildings and this type of problem, and only new investment and new builds will solve it.
On recruitment and retention, Bedford has, as the hon. Gentleman knows, quite a challenging job market. Wages have been rising, employment figures are quite high and Bedford is relatively close to the commuter belt, which means we have had some struggle recruiting and retaining.
We now have 3,500 more prison officers in place than we had in 2015. We need to invest more in training them, and we need to invest more in making sure they stay.
The hon. Gentleman’s final point returns to the question of violence. We do not want to fool the House. Turning around violence in prisons like Bedford will be a long, hard road, and that violence has deep roots. Part of this is about historical staffing numbers, and a lot of it is about new attitudes in society—the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill, tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda, addresses the assaults—and a lot of it is about new types of drugs.
There is no magic wand, but investing in making sure that we reduce the number of drugs coming in, making sure we have decent living conditions and, above all, building up experienced staff with the right management to challenge that violence on the landings day in and day out, hour in and hour out, is the only way that we will make these prisons safer.
This report is particularly damning, and it is the fourth such report in recent times. It talks of men who are locked up for 23 hours a day without food or lavatory paper.
I accept that the Minister is doing his level best to sort out the situation, and I wholeheartedly support his reforms, including those to increase the number of prison officers and to work hard on rehabilitation, but if we are to continue incarcerating this number of people, we simply have to ask the Treasury for more money so that we can do it safely. Does he agree?
We are definitely putting in more investment, and we need to put in more investment. That is why we are spending £40 million on additional improvements in the existing infrastructure, and that is why we will spend well over £1 billion on building new prisons, but the urgent problem we face will not be addressed overnight by new prisons. These prisons will take serious time to build, and the problem will have to be addressed on the landings and outside the cells by legislative measures such as the Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda, by body-worn cameras, by CCTV, by training and, above all, by management and support for staff.
The chief inspector of prisons has spoken of the continual and unchecked decline in standards at the prison over the past nine years. He also said that, at times, it felt like the prisoners were in control. This is the prison with the highest rate of assaults in the country. Some 77% of prison officers at HMP Bedford have less than one year’s service.
That is the reality, so I am disappointed that, in his seven minutes, the Minister said a lot but avoided the specific question at hand on HMP Bedford. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) for his tireless work on exposing the failings at the prison. As we have heard, this is the fourth jail in just 12 months to be issued an urgent notification. Formally, the Minister has to publish a plan of action for the prison within 28 days, but we need answers today.
The Government’s recent solution to the widespread failure at HMP Birmingham was to increase prison staff and reduce prisoner numbers there. Will the Minister commit today to a similar increase in staff and reduction in prisoner numbers at Bedford? There was a riot at Bedford in November 2016. What have the Government done since to improve the situation, bearing in mind what the chief inspector of prisons has said?
Whose fault is it that in the latest annual performance figures, HMP Bedford is still labelled as a prison of serious concern? It remains one of the most overcrowded prisons in the country—40% over capacity. What has the Minister done, and what have the Government done, to tackle overcrowding there since the 2016 riot?
More widely, what plans do the Government have to end overcrowding across the prison estate, given that over half of prisons are overcrowded? The proportion, by the way—people on the Government Benches will not like to hear this—is even higher in private prisons. Finally, if more staff and fewer prisoners was the answer to HMP Birmingham’s problems, will the Minister commit today to an emergency plan, with new Treasury funds, to end overcrowding and end understaffing across the prison estate?
Essentially, the hon. Gentleman posed three questions. The first is whether we recognised the problems in Bedford following the 2016 riot. We certainly did. The riot in 2016 was very disturbing, and since then we put the prison into special measures. So we absolutely agree with the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), and by the shadow Secretary of State, and indeed by the inspector. That is why we put Bedford prison into special measures; that is why we anticipated this inspection report.
The second question was, how many of these urgent notifications are coming? Fundamentally, as I laid out at the beginning of my speech, this is a problem that exists in many of our local prisons. It is not an issue that specifically exists in cat D prisons, or in the high security estate, or particularly in the female estate. This is an issue in prisons such as Bedford, Exeter, Nottingham and Liverpool, and, as we discovered, Birmingham.
What is the solution? The shadow Secretary of State asks whether the question is a private/public question. It is not an ideological question. Two of the best local prisons currently in the country, Forest Bank and Thameside, are private prisons. Bedford is, of course, a public prison. He asked whether we would look at the ratio between prison officers and prisoners, and rightly pointed out that in Birmingham, as in other prisons, when we face these kinds of problems, often we temporarily reduce prisoner numbers and bring in additional prison officers. I can undertake that that is something we will be examining during the 28 days we have; we will prepare a plan and come forward with an answer for the chief inspector. It is a very reasonable proposal, and it is one we will consider very carefully.
During my all-too-brief time working with my hon. Friend, he clearly recognised and was up-front about the real difficulties in the prison estate. Will he take the opportunity to tell the House the ambition he has for improvement, specifically work to be done in the 10 target jails, such as Hull, Nottingham—also under urgent notification—and Wormwood Scrubs?
We have chosen 10 of our most challenged local prisons in order to prove that we can turn them around. One of the problems over the last few years is that we are developing a situation in which people are beginning to feel that there is no solution to these prisons. I believe very strongly that these prisons can be turned around. That is why I have said repeatedly that if I do not succeed in turning round the 10 prisons for this pilot, I will resign. Why is it that I am confident that we can turn these 10 prisons around? Because the fundamental problems in these prisons are relatively straightforward. They are problems of decency, they are problems of drugs, they are problems of support and management on the wings. I believe that we have demonstrated in the best of our local prisons that with the right support and the right investment we can do that, and that is what we propose to do in those 10 local prisons, and what I would expect the House to judge me on doing over the next 12 months.
What we see today, yet again, is the horrendous impact of austerity cuts on the state of prisons. Prison staffing levels are down by almost one third since 2010, and that contrasts, by the way, with a 14% increase in Scotland over the same period. So we join the calls for significant new resources for new prison officers, for increased staff retention and for equipment and training in the forthcoming Budget.
Specifically on overcrowding, the prisons Minister has spoken about keeping a close watch on how the presumption against short sentences is working in Scotland, but surely he must see that placing people for a few months in institutions like Bedford or Birmingham is utterly counter-productive. He has explained exactly the complex needs that prisons just cannot address, particularly in a short period of time. So instead of watching, surely the time is now for acting on short sentences.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question. Connected to the question of crowding in prisons is the question of how many people are sentenced. The two are clearly related. The Scottish Government have led on the question that the hon. Gentleman now raises: what is the point of sending someone to prison with a three-month sentence? What does that achieve? In effect, it means that somebody is in prison for less than six weeks. Is that really a length of time that allows them to take any kind of punishment and that will deter anybody? Above all, is it enough time to rehabilitate someone—to really turn their life around so that they do not reoffend? The evidence suggests that very short sentences are in fact likely to lead to more reoffending than a community sentence. It is an issue that we need to look at very carefully.
In May 2016, the inspectorate of prisons rated Bedford as “not sufficiently good” on the four healthy prison tests. Since then, there has been a prison improvement plan, the prison has been put into special measures, and there has been a comprehensive action plan, yet when the inspectorate went back this September, Bedford’s rating on three of those healthy prison tests fell to 1, or “poor”, while its rating for resettlement remained at “not sufficiently good”. Am I wrong to say that that seems to suggest that the people running Bedford prison are simply not up to the job?
The question is absolutely right. In 2016, when the previous inspection report was published, Bedford prison was already in trouble. It then got significantly worse. There was a riot at the end of 2016, and it is extremely difficult to recover from a riot. When a riot happens in a prison, it takes a long time for that prison to stabilise again. We put the prison into special measures, and that is a long, hard road. I have talked about some of the improvements that we have made to mental health provision and some of the support around key workers. We have now increased staffing numbers dramatically compared with where we were in 2016, and we are bringing in a new management team, but it takes time to turn around deep-rooted problems of this sort. I believe that the green shoots are there, but sadly we are not going to see them overnight. That is why I am determined that we put in more investment now.
It is a very long time since I was the shadow prisons Minister and visited a lot of prisons, including Bedford, but is it not a fact that we cannot make excuses? When a prison is in a situation like the one Bedford is in, there is something wrong with the prison’s culture, and if there is something wrong with the culture, it is to do with the quality of the management. Should we not look into that? When I was Chair of the Education Select Committee, we visited prisons and looked at prison education, and we learned a lot by going to Scandinavia, where they have similar challenges but handle them better.