House of Commons
Wednesday 14 November 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Postal Voting System
The British public deserve to have confidence in our democracy, and the Government are committed to ensuring that our electoral system, including postal voting, is fit for the future. Next year, Peterborough and Pendle will pilot improvements to the security of postal voting. The Electoral Commission’s evaluation of some similar 2018 pilots was published in July.
I would condemn any such undue influence, and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I agree on that wholeheartedly. It is really important that postal voters are aware that their vote is theirs alone. That was the subject of a major awareness campaign at past local elections, and we hope to see similar again.
Will my hon. Friend examine what happened at the local elections last year, particularly those in London? Large numbers of voters were added to the register, had postal votes and then disappeared off the electoral register very soon afterwards. There are clearly potentially fraudulent activities at work.
I would certainly expect returning officers to look into that carefully, and I would support them in their efforts to do so. It is difficult for me to make any more detailed comments on that from the Dispatch Box, but in general terms we certainly wish to keep the postal voting process secure and safe and to ensure that that process contributes to the overall integrity of our elections.
Does the Minister share my view that strengthening the integrity of the postal voting system will ensure that our electoral system is fit for the future?
Does the Minister accept that we must ensure that there is no repeat of what happened in the most recent election in Northern Ireland, where, because the proxy and postal vote system did not require people to produce photographic ID, there was a 600% increase in such voting in one constituency, resulting in a perversion of democracy?
I am happy to take a closer look at the figure that the hon. Gentleman cites and the specifics of that case. I mention again the pilots that we have tested in 2018 and that will run again in 2019, which are about helping voters to be confident that the whole system—not only postal and proxy voting but the rest of the electoral system—is secure, by means of looking into ways for voters to identify themselves and show that they are who they say they are.
Infected Blood Inquiry
The inquiry has now completed its preliminary hearings and plans to start its formal public hearings at the end of April 2019. Between now and then, the inquiry will hold public meetings in 18 places throughout the United Kingdom to enable people who have been affected or infected to express their views to the inquiry team. The inquiry has appointed 1,289 core participants, of whom 1,272 are people who have been either infected or affected by contaminated blood.
What steps will the Minister take to repair the damaged relationship with those infected, whose confidence in the Government has been undermined by the fiasco around their entitlement to legal aid and now by the failure of the Cabinet Office to swiftly notify Departments not to destroy relevant files?
As far as legal aid is concerned, more than £250,000 has been provided to those affected by this scandal to help them pay for their legal representation. As regards the other matter that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, this was an honest mistake caused by an administrative error. We explained that in full in the form of a written statement to the House and apologised to the inquiry as soon as it was discovered. All Departments, other than the Legal Aid Agency and the Courts and Tribunals Service, have now confirmed that no relevant records were destroyed during the relevant period.
Last month, the chair of the inquiry, Sir Brian Langstaff, said that many victims of the infected blood scandal are still living on the breadline today. The inquiry is not due to look at financial support until 2020, so what more now can the Government do to help the people affected?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, different compensation packages have been agreed by the Department of Health and Social Care in the different parts of the United Kingdom. Sir Brian did ask the Government to look at the case for some additional measures, which are being considered by the Secretary of State for Health and his ministerial team, and the Minister responsible for mental health, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), is very willing to talk to the inquiry team about that.[Official Report, 20 November 2018, Vol. 649, c. 7MC.]
The very comprehensive nature of this inquiry is important, and it is also important that it should have a timeframe that is kept to. Is my right hon. Friend able to give us any idea whether the timetable is still robust and when we can expect to see a final report?
As my right hon. and learned Friend will know, it is a matter for the independent chair of the inquiry to determine its duration. In my conversations with Sir Brian, he has always been very clear that he does not want this inquiry to drag out; he wants to get justice and a clear outcome for the survivors and the victims, and he will be striving to secure that objective.
A number of my constituents are affected by this scandal and have waited for decades for answers on how it was allowed to happen. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Members are updated about where those meetings outside London are held so that we can keep our constituents informed and get the maximum participation?
May I suggest to the Minister that one measure that he could take quite quickly is to level up all the payments that those who are infected and affected receive? There is a variation around the United Kingdom at the moment because of devolution, and such a move would go a long way to show good faith to this community.
The hon. Lady has always been the most ardent champion of those who have been affected by this scandal, but it is the legal and constitutional position that each part of the United Kingdom is responsible for its own compensation scheme, which reflects the devolution settlement as regards health policy.[Official Report, 20 November 2018, Vol. 649, c. 8MC.]
Will my right hon. Friend say a little bit more about the role that those who have been affected by this tragedy will have in setting the terms and the scope of the inquiry? I particularly raise this because of the issue of access to treatment, which is something that I have regularly raised and that I think should be explored.
That issue is certainly one that I know Sir Brian and the inquiry team want to examine and call evidence on. People who have been directly affected have had opportunities at the preliminary hearings to express their views. More than 1,200 of them have now been appointed as core participants and the forthcoming public meetings will give them a further chance to make sure that their views are indeed heard. Sir Brian is determined that that will be the case.
Our world-leading national cyber-security strategy, supported by £1.9 billion of investment, sets out measures to defend our people, businesses and assets, to deter our adversaries and to develop the skills and capabilities that we need.
I am grateful for that response. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a sovereign capability is very important when it comes to cyber-security and that, when Government contracts are awarded, British companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, should be given preference?
Where national security interests are at stake, exceptions can be made to the normal rules on public procurement, as my hon. Friend knows. The other thing that we need to do is drive up standards among all Government suppliers, large and small, and that is something where we have an active programme of work.
A Wrexham constituent was concerned that a cyber-security breach at his business was being dealt with from central London and was very disappointed with the responsiveness of the authorities when the breach was reported. Will the Minister do more to ensure that people understand where cyber-security breaches are investigated and improve the system?
I am happy to look into the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. I encourage all businesses and third sector organisations to look at the materials available on the website of the National Cyber Security Centre, because it includes plenty of evidence about best practice in improving cyber-security for large and small organisations.
We heard last week that there is an estimated shortage of 50,000 cyber-specialists in the UK—estimated because, unbelievably, the Government have not made any assessment of their own. The Government’s immediate impact fund, designed to quickly increase the number and diversity of cyber-specialists, is helping just 170 people, only 28% of whom are women. Does not this prove that this Government are failing at the first hurdle when it comes to keeping this country safe and bolstering our cyber-resilience?
No. The hon. Lady made a point about women cyber-security specialists. It is true that only about a 10th of cyber-professionals anywhere in the world are women. That is why the Government this year launched the CyberFirst Girls competition, which is getting more teenage girls actively interested and involved. That is the way to help develop further cyber-skills in our workforce.
Departments are responsible for ensuring that adequate staffing levels are met. As part of the national cyber-security strategy, we have newly established a Government security profession unit to support Departments in quantifying and managing their cyber-skills gaps and in building career pathways for specialists.
In July, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy criticised the Government for not properly addressing the cyber-security skills and recruitment gap, which it said is of vital importance to Britain’s defence and economy; but today the Minister still cannot tell how many of these specialist role vacancies exist across the Government. When will the Department tasked with upholding cyber-security standards make this tier 1 national security threat a priority?
The Committee praised what the Government had done, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, it also said that we needed to do more. I do not dissent from that conclusion. Indeed, the Government made that clear in their response to the Committee’s report. It is important that every Department feels ownership of cyber-security; it is not something seen as for the centre only to worry about. The profession framework, which will be outlined in the spring of next year, will run right across the Government and will outline the job families for specialists and the pay, rewards and career progression that they should be able to expect anywhere in the Government. [Interruption.]
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that commitment. I could list a range of programmes that the Government are undertaking with school-age students and tertiary education students to drive up those standards, as well as working with international partners, who look to us for some of the best practice around the world.
I am very sorry, Mr Speaker—I could not hear you for the hubbub.
One would think that a cyber-attack against such a lovely country as Scotland would be unthinkable. Does the Minister have any feel for how the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament are getting on with cyber-security?
The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to go into detail, but we do work very seriously and closely with the devolved Governments in both Scotland and Wales and with the Northern Ireland civil service. In my experience, Ministers and senior officials in those Administrations take this challenge very seriously indeed.
Electoral System: Overseas Interference
We have not seen evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes. However, we are not complacent, as the Prime Minister has said, and we will do what is necessary to protect ourselves and work with our allies to do likewise. The Cabinet Office co-ordinates cross-Government work to protect our democracy and to ensure the public’s confidence in our elections.
Deepfake videos have the potential to do tremendous harm, as they can easily be fabricated to show candidates making inflammatory statements or, God forbid, simply looking inept. Civic discourse will further degrade and public trust will plummet to new depths. This is the new wave of disinformation and election interference coming from overseas. What are the Government doing to prepare?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her very serious question and engagement with this important issue. I share her concern about that as an example of disinformation. The Government are acting to counter disinformation in a number of ways, including following on from our manifesto commitment to ensure that a high-quality news environment can prevail. I look forward to working further with her on this important issue.
We are doing that in a number of ways. I would be very happy to have a longer conversation with my hon. Friend on this subject. Work goes on across the Government to look at these matters, including with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and in the Home Office. We, collectively, will ensure that we seek those views.
In the past week, the police have begun an investigation into whether Arron Banks used foreign money to buy the Brexit referendum. We have also seen Shahmir Sanni victimised for blowing the whistle on electoral crime by Vote Leave. Is it not now time for the Government to admit that the legitimacy of their mandate for the referendum is fatally compromised?
I think that the hon. Gentleman draws the wrong conclusion from his argument. The Government will be delivering the outcome of that referendum, on which, I have no doubt, we will hear more from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in just a minute. What I will say, crucially, about the investigation into Arron Banks is that the Government will not comment on an ongoing criminal investigation.
A lot of the focus on foreign interference, particularly from the Russians, is on technological interference, but there is also a large amount of Russian money swilling around that is finding its way into political parties. What are the Government doing to restrict Russian financial influence on political parties at national and constituency level?
We are fully behind the law as it stands, which is that it is not permissible for parties on campaigns to accept foreign donations. We uphold those laws. We will examine recommendations recently made by, for example, the Electoral Commission, about how more may be done.
Government Hubs: Civil Service Efficiency
The hubs programme saves money and creates a better place to work by bringing together Government activity on to single sites. We make extensive use of shared spaces, smarter working and workplace design. This encourages productivity as well as reducing vacant space. Indeed, in total, the programme is saving £2.5 billion over 20 years.
Flattery will get my hon. Friend everywhere, and may I repay it by saying that I know what a powerful advocate he is for the city of Plymouth? He once again makes his case exceptionally well. While further hub locations cannot be confirmed until commercial negotiations have concluded and Departments have informed staff, future locations are under active consideration.
There is cross-party support for moving Government hubs to Plymouth. What support can the Minister give to local authorities such as Plymouth City Council, which is working to create the buildings and land for these Government hubs to move into?
Yesterday I chaired the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations, attended by Scottish and Welsh Government Ministers and civil servants from Northern Ireland. This, the eighth such JMC meeting that I have chaired this year, followed the significant progress made in recent months with the devolved Governments in developing UK-wide frameworks to protect the vital internal market of the United Kingdom.
From policing to education, health and the environment, the approach of the Scottish National party Government is that control from Edinburgh is best, and when in doubt, centralise. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on what he is doing to ensure that the Smith commission promise to ensure decentralisation from Edinburgh is met?
The Smith commission was clear that it is the responsibility of the Scottish Government to work with the Scottish Parliament, civic Scotland and local authorities to ensure that power is devolved from Holyrood to local communities. For our part, we are ready to help the Scottish Government to implement the Smith commission in full and will give them our support if and when they choose to do that.
Will the Minister confirm without equivocation that the Government will fully comply with yesterday’s resolution that all information provided to the Cabinet will be made available to the House as soon as the Cabinet finishes, if it ever does?
I set out the Government’s position yesterday in the debate. We will reflect upon the outcome of the vote yesterday, but at the moment, there is no agreed deal. There is a provisional agreement between negotiators, which has yet to be considered by the UK Cabinet or the 27 member states meeting in Council.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is fantastic to see such wide diversity of candidates in Walsall. I remind the House that the Government Equalities Office is providing financial assistance for all MPs, to encourage female constituents to come here on 21 November, and I hope more colleagues will take up that opportunity.
We believe that the legislation is working well, but we would be happy to look into any specific further points that the hon. Gentleman would like to make.
The Prime Minister was asked—
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. The Cabinet will meet this afternoon to consider the draft agreement that the negotiating teams have reached in Brussels, and the Cabinet will decide on the next steps in the national interest. I am confident that it takes us significantly closer to delivering on what the British people voted for in the referendum. We will take back control of our borders, our laws and our money and leave the common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy while protecting jobs, security and the integrity of our United Kingdom. I will come back to the House to update it on the outcome.
Yesterday saw the best wage growth figures in a decade and the best employment figures in my lifetime. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that that can only be delivered by the free market economics that unite this side of the House, and not by the bankrupt socialism opposite?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He references yesterday’s figures, which showed more people in work than ever before. They showed the female unemployment rate at a record low and, as he said, the fastest regular wage growth in nearly a decade. However, may I say to my hon. Friend that that is on top of figures last week that showed our economy growing three times faster than the eurozone average, the share of jobs on low hourly pay at a record low and the number of children in workless households at a record low? You only get that through good Conservative management of the economy.
Order. If necessary, I will say it again and again to Members on both sides of the House: voices must be heard. I happen to know that there are visitors from overseas in the Gallery. Let us try to impress them not merely with our liveliness, but with our courtesy.
The Government’s deal breaches the Prime Minister’s own red lines and does not deliver a strong economic deal that supports jobs and industry, and we know that they have not prepared seriously for no deal. Does the Prime Minister still intend to put a false choice to Parliament between her botched deal and no deal?
The right hon. Gentleman is wrong in the description that he has set out. Time and time again, he has stood up in this House and complained and said, “The Government are not making progress. The Government are not anywhere close to a deal.” Now that we are making progress and are close to a deal, he is complaining about that. That clearly shows that he and the Labour party have only one intention, which is to frustrate Brexit and betray the vote of the British people.
After the utter shambles of the last two years of negotiations, the Prime Minister should look to herself in this. She has not managed to convince quite a lot of the Members who are standing behind her. The rail Minister resigned last week, saying:
“To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis”—
and that from a Tory MP. Last night, the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator reportedly told the 27 European ambassadors that the UK
“must align their rules but the EU will retain all the controls.”
Is that a fair summary of the Prime Minister’s deal?
As I have said all along, throughout the negotiations, we are negotiating a good deal for the United Kingdom. We are negotiating a deal that delivers on the vote of the British people; that takes back control of our money, law and borders; and that ensures that we leave the common fisheries policy, we leave the customs union and we leave the common agricultural policy, but we protect jobs, we protect security and we protect the integrity of the United Kingdom.
Under the Prime Minister’s deal, we are going to spend years with less say over our laws or how our money is spent. The International Trade Secretary said last week that the decision to withdraw from any backstop agreement could not be contracted to somebody else. Can the Prime Minister confirm whether under her deal, it will be the sovereign right of the UK Parliament to unilaterally withdraw from any backstop?
There needs to be a backstop as an insurance policy, but neither side actually wants us to be in that backstop, because we want to bring the future relationship into place at the end of December 2020. I am aware of the concerns that we do not want to be in a position where the European Union would find it comfortable to keep the United Kingdom in the backstop permanently, and that is why any backstop has to be temporary.
I think that that non-answer has confirmed that Parliament will not have that sovereign right. The International Trade Secretary breezily declared that he would have 40 trade deals ready to be signed the second after midnight when we leave the EU. With four months to go, can the Prime Minister tell us exactly how many of those 40 deals have been negotiated?
Order. It is not acceptable for Members to shout at the Prime Minister when she is answering questions. We have been talking recently in this Chamber about respect and good behaviour. On both sides, the person who has the floor must be heard, and that is the end of the matter.
We have been negotiating on two fronts. We are negotiating on the continuity agreements, which ensure that the trade deals that we have been party to as a member of the European Union can continue when we leave the European Union, and we have also started discussions with other countries about the trade deals that we can forge across the world once we leave the European Union. If the right hon. Gentleman is interested in trade deals, he really needs to sort out the Labour party’s position on this issue. Originally, the Labour party said that it wanted to do trade deals around the rest of the world. Now, he says that he wants to be in the customs union. That would stop him doing trade deals around the rest of the world. We know what is good for this country: an independent trade policy and trade deals—good trade deals—with Europe and with the rest of the world.
The International Trade Secretary is not the only one who does not understand international trade rules, and he is not the only one in the Cabinet who does not understand a few things. The Brexit Secretary said last week:
“I hadn’t quite understood the…extent of this, but…we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing”.
When did the Prime Minister become aware of this absolutely shocking revelation about Britain’s trade routes?
The right hon. Gentleman stands here and reads out something that says that we do not know about trade policy, but we do know about trade policy. That is exactly why we are negotiating the continuity agreements, and it is why we will be taking our place as an independent state in the World Trade Organisation. If he wants to talk about different positions that are being taken, what we are doing is delivering a good deal that will deliver on the vote of the British people. We are delivering Brexit. What have we seen recently from the Labour party? Well, the Labour leader said: “we can’t stop” Brexit, but the shadow Brexit Secretary said that we can stop it. When the right hon. Gentleman stands up, he should make it clear: is it Labour party policy to stop Brexit?
Labour respects the result of the referendum. What we do not respect is the shambolic mess the Government have made of negotiations: the mess they created that they cannot now get themselves out of. We will not let them destroy this country’s economy or the jobs and life chances of so many others.
If the Brexit Secretary is still in office by the time the Cabinet meets this afternoon, could the Prime Minister take him to one side and have a quiet word with him? Will she tell him that 10,000 lorries arrive at Dover every day, handling 17% of the country’s entire trade in goods, estimated to be worth £122 billion last year? This woeful ignorance by a person in high office is disturbing to so many people.
This Government spent two years negotiating a bad deal that will leave the country in an indefinite halfway house without a real say, yet they think they can impose a false choice on Parliament between a half-baked deal and no deal, when a sensible alternative plan could bring together—[Interruption.]
When a sensible alternative plan could bring together Parliament and the country. Even Conservative MPs say the Prime Minister is offering a choice between the worst of all worlds and a catastrophic series of consequences. When will the Prime Minister recognise that neither of those options is acceptable?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about woeful ignorance. I will tell him where the woeful ignorance lies: it lies with those on the Labour party Front Bench who think they can build a better economy by spending £1,000 billion more, putting up taxes and destroying jobs. The real threat to jobs and growth in this country sits on the Labour party Front Bench. I will tell him what we are delivering in relation to Brexit. [Interruption.] He says, “What about Brexit?” I will tell him what we are delivering on Brexit: we will not rerun the referendum, we will not renege on the decision of the British people, we will leave the customs union, we will leave the common fisheries policy, we will leave the common agricultural policy, and we will take back control of our money, laws and borders. We will deliver Brexit and the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019.
I say to my hon. Friend that what we have been negotiating is a deal that does deliver on the vote of the British people. In the list I set out earlier, I left out one of the things that the British people are very keen to see from this deal, which is an end to free movement. We will ensure that we deliver on that, as well as the other elements I set out. What we are doing is a deal that delivers on that vote, and in doing so protects jobs, protects the integrity of our United Kingdom and protects the security of people in this country.
The Scottish National party, with the leaders of other Opposition parties, has written to the Prime Minister, urging her to drop plans to prevent a truly meaningful vote on the Brexit deal. Shamefully, it seems that the Government are seeking to prevent Opposition amendments to the deal, effectively gagging the sovereignty of Parliament by playing dirty tricks with procedures. I ask the Prime Minister: what is she afraid of? Is her Government so weak that the Brexit deal will not succeed when other solutions are still on the table?
We have been very clear that there will be a meaningful vote in this House. We have also been clear that the motion on the deal will be amendable, but I say to the right hon. Gentleman that if you went out and asked any member of the public, “When the Government bring a deal back from Europe, what do you expect Parliament to vote on?”, I think they would expect Parliament to vote on the deal.
We expect Parliament to take its responsibilities, which are to hold the Government to account and amend the deal. This Prime Minister is hamstrung, divided, desperate and looking defeated. In a total panic, the Prime Minister has been reduced to playing political games rather than playing fair. This is not a game. The SNP will never, ever gamble with Scotland’s future. There is only one lifeline left: to protect jobs in Scotland, we must stay in the single market and the customs union. The Prime Minister will not drag Scotland out against its will. If there is a deal to protect the economy in Northern Ireland, why not Scotland?
First of all, it is very good news to see more disabled people getting into the workplace, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the Disability Confident scheme. I praise the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who created and has personally championed the scheme since it started back in 2013. As my hon. Friend obviously knows, it works directly with employers and aims to challenge the perceptions of what it means to employ a disabled person. We will continue to ensure that we are making every possible effort to make sure that more disabled people who want to be in the workplace are able to take their place in it.
As I said earlier, what we are negotiating is a deal that will deliver on the vote, that will actually ensure—under the proposals that we put forward in the summer—that we are able to see that frictionless trade across borders and a free trade area with the European Union, and that gives Parliament a lock on those rules.
I recognise the concern that my hon. Friend’s constituents have raised about this issue and thank her for the hard work that she has undertaken to campaign on this issue on her constituents’ behalf. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is aware of this issue. He is urgently looking into it, and I encourage my hon. Friend to continue to engage with him on this matter to ensure that her constituents get what they were promised.
Obviously we have seen a change to the post office network across the United Kingdom—it has happened as people’s pattern of behaviour in relation to these matters has changed—but I am sure the Post Office is making decisions that it believes are right for local communities and to ensure that services are there where they are needed.
I thank my hon. Friend for referring the House to the fact that we are bringing in those changes to business rates to help local businesses. We are determined to help local businesses, which is why we are also implementing reforms to make the system fairer and more effective, including three-year evaluations, removing the so-called staircase tax and the new check, challenge and appeal system. We also aim to increase the local share of local business rate receipts to 75% from 2020-21. On future taxation, I can assure him that we will of course continue to keep it under review.
The hon. Gentleman raises a terrible and tragic case in his constituency, and, as he says, the thoughts of the whole House will be with the victim’s family and friends. Our deepest condolences go to them following this terrible attack. Crossbows are subject to strict controls, but we keep the legislation under review and will consider the risk that such weapons pose to public safety and whether further measures are needed, and we will of course look at that in the context of the legislation we are bringing before the House.
My hon. Friend highlights the fact that we are delivering the biggest rail investment programme since the Victorian era. He says we are spending millions on our railways, but actually we will be spending nearly £48 billion on modernising and renewing our railways, which will deliver better journeys and fewer disruptions. He is right, however, that it is absolutely vital that Network Rail delivers its projects on time. I am told that Northern’s new rolling stock is currently planned to serve lines from June and July next year, but I know he has been campaigning excellently on this issue, and I encourage him to continue to do so.
If the hon. Lady looks at what we have been doing for education funding overall, she will see that we have been putting extra money into funding—[Interruption.] Members say, “Not in FE”, but we have invested nearly £7 billion in further education this year to ensure that there is an educational training place for every 16 to 19-year-old who wants one. We are also transforming technical education through T-levels, and £500 million will go into those once they are fully rolled out. By 2020, the funding to support adult participation in further education is planned to be higher than at any time in England’s history.
I am very pleased first to wish Dennis Brock a very happy 100th birthday, and secondly to pay tribute to him for his 87 years of bellringing. As my hon. Friend has said, that is a considerable and significant record, and I think the support he has given, the work he has done and his commitment to St Mary’s in Sunbury-on-Thames are truly inspiring.
As the hon. Lady is well aware, we are introducing universal credit because the previous system, the benefits system that we inherited from the Labour party, did not work. It left more than a million people living on benefits, trapped on benefits for up to a decade. What we are doing is ensuring that people are given more encouragement to get into the workplace, and that when they are in the workplace, work always pays. As I have said, we are seeing very good figures showing a significant reduction in the number of children in workless households.
We are currently in the middle of a swirl of rumours about the proposed deal with the European Union, and a torrent of criticism from all the Government’s most ferocious critics. One of the rumours is that if the Cabinet agrees to the deal this afternoon, the Government propose to publish a White Paper setting out all the details later today.
Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that, if and when this deal is published, a statement will be made to this House of Commons when it is produced? It is this Parliament that will have to decide now what to do next, and we do not want Parliament to be consulted only after another 24 hours of rumours and criticism. We want to re-establish parliamentary sovereignty, and I wish the Prime Minister well in obtaining a majority for some course of action in future that is in the national interest.
There are, in fact, two stages—potentially two stages—in this process. As I said earlier today, the Cabinet will be looking at the draft agreements that the negotiating teams have produced, and will consider and determine what the next steps should be in the national interest, as my right hon. and learned Friend requests us to do. I can assure him that we will be looking at this in the national interest.
As I said, I will return to the House to explain the outcome of that, but I should also say to my right hon. and learned Friend that there is then the issue of ensuring—as we will—when a final deal is agreed with the European Union, that proper analysis is available to Members before the meaningful vote takes place, and that briefings on the details of the proposals that are laid are available to Members, so that, as he has said, Members are able to make their decision in the light of an understanding of the details of the deal that has been agreed.
I am sure that we are all concerned across this House about the attacks that have taken place in recent days in London. We are concerned about knife crime and the serious violence we have seen. We heard earlier from the right hon. Lady’s colleague, the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), about the use of a crossbow to attack and, sadly, kill an individual. The right hon. Lady talks about police funding. We have protected police funding overall since 2015. We are putting more money into the police. We are making more money available—we have announced that. But this is also about ensuring that the police and the criminal justice system have the powers they need to deal with knife crime, and if she is concerned about knife crime I suggest that she asks her right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition why he voted against increasing the powers to deal with knife crime.
I say to my right hon. Friend that I am not going to be asking about Brexit—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] For now. I was enormously proud of my Government for agreeing to lower the stake on fixed odds betting terminals to £2 because they have caused endless harm and terrible damage to families. It was the right decision. Since then there has been a hiatus about the date on which this will start. Is it a reality that now we have put down an amendment the Government will accede and we will get this process started on 1 April next year?
My right hon. Friend has campaigned on that issue with a passion because, as he says, the question of the maximum stake for FOBTs has an impact on vulnerable people as well as their families and loved ones. I recognise the strength of feeling on the issue. I know that gambling addiction can devastate lives, so our priority is making sure that this change delivers the results we all want to see. We are listening to concerns being raised by colleagues and, if he will have a little patience, I can tell him that the Culture Secretary will set out further details later today.
What we have seen under this Government is absolute poverty reducing to a record low. We have also seen, as I referenced earlier, a significant reduction in the number of children in workless households. When we look at the figures, we see that actually three quarters of children are taken out of poverty when their household moves from being a workless household to a household with work, which is why the changes that we are making, to ensure that our benefit and welfare system encourages people into work and makes sure that work pays, are the right changes.
Former New Zealand high commissioner and experienced trade negotiator Sir Lockwood Smith told our International Trade Committee:
“If you remain bound into the EU regulatory system you will not be able to have a significant global trade strategy”.
Will my right hon. Friend advise whether this might be one of the prices to pay for her Brexit deal?
No, it is not one of the prices paid that my hon. Friend refers to. We will still be able to strike those deals around the rest of the world. I am pleased to say that not only are a number of countries expressing an interest in that, but, as we have seen and as I saw two or three weeks ago, countries including Japan, Vietnam and Australia are keen that we should talk to them about joining the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-pacific partnership. We specifically looked at our ability under the proposals we put forward to strike those trade deals around the world, and we will have an independent trade policy—we will able to strike those trade deals.
It is no secret that the Labour Welsh Government have been somewhat lacklustre in what they demand from the British Government on Brexit, so I will speak on behalf of Wales. When will the devolved Parliaments be given the opportunity to see the withdrawal agreement texts and to see for themselves the devastating effect that leaving the European frameworks will have on each of the devolved nations?
As I have indicated in response to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), we will ensure that information is available to Members of this House on the withdrawal agreement and on the future relationship that is agreed with the European Union. We will ensure that briefings are available, that documents are available and that the analysis that the Government have previously committed themselves to is available, so that, when Members of this House come to the meaningful vote on a deal, they will be able to have that information and to cast their vote against the background of that information.
Further to the point raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), will my right hon. Friend endeavour as soon as practicable following the Cabinet meeting this afternoon to make available to all Members the details of the draft agreement, so that those of us who wish to do so can comment on them on the basis of fact, rather than on the basis of ill-informed speculation?
Obviously the Cabinet is meeting to determine what the next steps are in relation to this issue. If this is a deal that is then taken forward for further debate and negotiation with the European Union, I believe it is the intention to ensure that the details of that deal are made public so that people can look at the facts.
If what is being reported is correct, the Prime Minister is set on ploughing through with a Brexit deal that will be bad for our economy, bad for our jobs and bad for a hard-working people up and down this country. If she honestly believes that she commands the will of the people, will she put her Brexit deal to the people, either through a general election or, failing that, through a new referendum?
First, we are negotiating a deal that will be good for the economy of the United Kingdom. It will be a deal that will ensure that we continue to have a good trading relationship with the European Union but also that we are able to strike independent trade deals around the rest of the world. On the issue of the second referendum, there was a referendum in this country in 2016 in which we asked the British people whether they wanted to remain in the European Union or to leave it. They voted to leave, and that is what this Government will deliver.
This morning, an incredibly well-attended annual general meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on thalidomide took place. May I invite my right hon. Friend—and indeed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to lend their support, to talk to the German Government to persuade them of the merit of social justice, and to deliver a lasting solution for those who have suffered for too long?
I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has been championing this cause. It is significant that, so many years after thalidomide caused the problems and difficulties for people that it did, he and others like him are still having to campaign on this particular cause. I will certainly look into, and ask the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to look into, what he says about the possibility of speaking to the German Government on this issue.
Asia Bibi spent eight years on death row in Pakistan for a crime that she did not commit. Since the High Court quashed her conviction, she has been in hiding. Weekend reports suggested that she had applied for asylum in Britain. Does the Prime Minister agree that Britain should be a beacon for human rights and for those fleeing religious persecution?
Our primary concern is for the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family, and we want to see a swift resolution of the situation. Obviously there is an issue for the Government and courts in Pakistan, and the Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has publicly supported the Supreme Court and promised to uphold the rule of law while providing continued protection for Asia Bibi. A number of countries are in discussion about providing a safe destination for her once the legal process is complete—
But is she welcome here?
I am sure the House will understand, given the sensitivity of this case, that it would not be right to comment on the details of those proposals at this stage, but we remain in close contact with international partners to ensure Asia Bibi’s long-term safety and interests.
The Prime Minister confirmed earlier that we will indeed be leaving the common fisheries policy, which is welcome, but she will be aware that there is still considerable concern within the industry. Can she give an absolute assurance that it will be for the UK, and the UK alone, to determine who fishes in our national waters after a deal is signed?
The Prime Minister will know that, back in 1965, there was a neighbourhood agreement between Northern Ireland and the Republic that each could fish in the other’s six-mile waters. Two years ago, the Irish Republic reneged on that. We, of course, taking the moral high ground, did not renege, so now all the Irish fishermen can come into Northern Ireland waters, but Northern Ireland fishermen cannot go into Republic waters. Will the Prime Minister try to speak up sometimes for Northern Ireland fishermen and not feel that she always has to support the Irish Government?
Consistently throughout these negotiations one of the issues that I have had at the forefront of my thinking has been the people of Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady raises a specific issue about fishing, and I am happy to look at the specific issue of the six-mile waters. We will become an independent coastal state, as I have just said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). We will ensure that it is the United Kingdom that is negotiating on behalf of the UK for access to UK fishing waters, but the people of Northern Ireland are at the forefront of our concerns in relation to the deal that we are negotiating.
The Prime Minister is to be commended for initiating her race disparity audit, which showed, among other facts, that Traveller children have the worst educational, health and employment outcomes of almost any group. Given the acute distress also caused to many settled residents by policy in this area, and given the support yesterday for my ten-minute rule Bill calling for a review of this area across the House, will the Prime Minister please appoint a senior Cabinet Minister to undertake a complete review of this area so that we can have better outcomes for all our constituents?
My hon. Friend raises an issue that I know is of concern for many across the UK in terms of what they see in their constituencies. As he said, there is also a concern about the impact on the educational attainment of Traveller children. As he will know, we published a consultation on tackling unauthorised encampments in April, and we will respond on that in due course. We are committed to strengthening local councils’ and the police’s powers to address these problems and to ensure fair play. We take this issue very seriously, and we are carefully considering the response that we can give to the consultation.
Can the Prime Minister confirm that her deal will leave the United Kingdom a rule taker, not a rule maker —in other words, a vassal state? Is not the best way to get herself out of the mess that she and her colleagues have caused to allow the people a vote in a people’s vote?
I think I have given the right hon. Gentleman the same answer to this question on a number of occasions. This Parliament gave the British people the vote on whether or not to stay in the European Union in 2016. The British people voted—they voted to leave—and it is this Government who will deliver on that vote and deliver Brexit.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following the question from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), can you advise Members whether you have had any indication about when a statement will be made on the apparent withdrawal agreement with the EU? We hear rumours that a statement may be made tomorrow, but many hon. Members may already have commitments. I understand that the House needs to mark the 70th birthday of the Prince of Wales today, but in the remaining six hours we could surely discuss the most important issue facing this country in a generation.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. The candid answer is that I had been given to understand that there would be a statement on this matter, in all likelihood, tomorrow. Factually to respond to her, what I would say is that the Chair would be perfectly amenable to a statement before then. That is not, however, a judgment for me; it is properly a judgment for the Government. I understand what she says about people having commitments tomorrow—[Interruption.] Order. But it does seem to me a reasonable point to make in response that, if Members consider this to be a supremely important matter, they can potentially rearrange their diaries in order to be present. I am always in favour, as she knows, of statements sooner rather than later but, if I may so, I do not think we should have a great row about whether a statement is made today or tomorrow.
What I would like to say to Members is that when there is a statement to this House, in conformity with the practice I have applied for nearly nine and a half years from this Chair, there will be a full opportunity for Members in all parts of the House, and potentially expressing or representing all sorts of different points of view, to be heard. That is the way it has always been and, as far as I am concerned, that is the way it will continue to be.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Although you say you have no role in this, do you not agree that, until very recently, it has always been the constitutional convention in this House that, when a Government announce a major policy, they do so, first of all, by a statement here in the House of Commons, usually simultaneously with the publication of a White Paper? With great respect, it is not just a question of Members having other commitments, or of convenience. We are slipping into a practice where Government policies are leaked in advance, then the Government brief the press and a great national debate breaks out, and then Parliament finally gets the opportunity to discuss it a day later. If you have any opportunity to discuss with the usual channels what the proper role of Parliament should be, I think your assistance would be greatly appreciated.
I am very grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that point of order. I am bound to say to him that my attitude has been that we have Cabinet government in this country. The policy is the policy of the Government only when it has been approved by the Cabinet. [Interruption.] Members can take their own view on whether I am right or wrong, but I am simply seeking to explain to the Father of the House that the premise on which I am working is that it will be Government policy if and only if, and only when, it has been approved by the Cabinet.
It therefore does not seem to me to be unreasonable, if the Cabinet is meeting this afternoon, for the House to hear a statement tomorrow. However, if it is possible for that statement to be made today, in the sense that a policy has been agreed, I am at the service of the House and I am in favour of a statement being made at the earliest possible opportunity. That point will have been heard on the Treasury Bench, and I am grateful to the Father of the House for his assistance in this important matter.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you advise me on the courses of action that are available to raise this issue? The Chief Minister of Gibraltar has, I understand, been briefed by the Minister for Europe and the Americas, and I understand that no such courtesy has been afforded to the Scottish Government. How do I bring a Minister here so I can ask why the Scottish Government have not yet seen the final deal but Gibraltar has?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. If it will help the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), I had a very constructive meeting with the First Ministers of both Wales and Scotland last Friday morning, when we discussed the progress of negotiations up to that point. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will, when the Cabinet has taken a view and come to a decision about what has been agreed provisionally between negotiators, talk directly to the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, because it is quite right that they should be fully briefed on what the Cabinet has decided.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would not be frustrated at all, Mr Speaker, especially not in here.
One year has now passed since my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal was arrested in India. Neither evidence nor a witness has been placed before a court of law, and a report of torture has been placed before the United Nations rapporteur on torture. I have raised the issue with you previously, seeking ministerial responses to letters and to requests for meetings with the Foreign Secretary. A commitment was given, the last time I raised this, on the Floor of the House. Can you assure me, while I am standing here and my constituent’s brother is in the Under Gallery, that the new Foreign Secretary could make that commitment, either through a statement to the House or through my writing to the Minister directly, yet again, as I have done already?
I am sorry that it is necessary for the hon. Gentleman repeatedly to write to Ministers on this matter, and it is obvious that he is dissatisfied with the response or lack thereof. My only advice to the hon. Gentleman is the advice I usually give to Members irritated in these circumstances, which is persist—persist man, persist. He is a dexterous and adroit parliamentary performer, and he will know the instruments available to him. If he believes, as I rather imagine he does, that the matter is urgent, he may wish to deploy a procedure that might give him a chance of raising the matter with a Minister in the Chamber on that basis.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The House may well not have seen that another issue has just broken in the news, which is that more than 48,000 women have not received correspondence regarding cervical screening appointments and have gone without correspondence regarding cervical screening results, 500 of which, apparently, were abnormal results. This is the latest failing of Capita, and Capita should lose this contract and the service should come in-house. The previous Health and Social Care Secretary, who is now the Foreign Secretary, would routinely update the House on these types of matter. Has the current Health and Social Care Secretary given you an indication that he is going to come to this House to update us, so that we can ask questions on behalf of our constituents?
The short answer to the shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is no, but I would very much expect that the House will be addressed on this matter very soon, certainly within a matter of days. Like the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), the hon. Gentleman is well versed in the instruments available to him. If he does not get a statement, or in lieu of a statement and as a reserve mechanism, he knows that he can seek to raise the matter on an urgent basis. I believe that on 528 occasions over the past nine and a half years the Chair has judged that a matter is urgent, whether the Government think it is or not.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given the very clear decision of the House yesterday in relation to the publication of legal advice and the reported very worrying comments of the Attorney General in recent hours, can you ensure that the advice will be brought forward in a timely way and should certainly not be very long delayed after the publication of any White Paper or any statement? These things should happen almost simultaneously if we are to have a proper and informed debate on the statement or whatever comes forward. The House spoke clearly yesterday and that must be acceded to by the Government.
The short answer is that I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman and I could not have put it better myself. I hope that that message has been heard clearly by those on the Treasury Bench. What happened yesterday was not an expression of opinion by the House of Commons; it was an expression of the will of this House. That will must be respected by the Executive branch—it is as simple and incontestable as that.
If there are no further points of order, perhaps we can now proceed.
Clerk of the House
I have received a letter from the Clerk of the House and, as is customary in such circumstances, I propose to read it to the House. The letter is as follows:
“Dear Mr Speaker,
I write to inform you that I have indicated to Her Majesty The Queen that I intend to surrender my Patent as Clerk of the House on 1 March next year. I shall then have served the House for over 43 years, for the last 16 years at the Table. In March 2019 it will be 4 years since I was appointed as the 50th Clerk of the House. You have long known of my plans to retire in the first quarter of 2019, and I am grateful to you and the House of Commons Commission for agreeing in July of this year to all the detailed arrangements for selecting my successor, which can now be activated.
It has been a turbulent 4 years, covering three governments, two general elections and two referendums; the murders of Jo Cox MP and PC Palmer; threats to our physical and cyber-security; and the ebb and flow of launching Restoration and Renewal. It has seen the establishment of the new Parliamentary Digital Service and the Parliamentary Security Department; as well as new governance structures. And it hardly needs saying there may be more turbulence over the next few weeks and months.
The last 12 months have also of course seen the surfacing in various ways of the complex issue of bullying and harassment and sexual misconduct in the parliamentary community. I am confident that we can deal with it if we all acknowledge past failings—as I readily do—and move beyond concerns about process to reach a place where, quite simply, everybody in the community treats everybody else with respect and dignity. And where, if they do not, they are called out and if necessary sanctioned.
It has been a privilege if not always a positive pleasure to do this job and the other 14 jobs I have done here, in all of them sustained by the loyalty and friendship of my colleagues across the House of Commons Service, and in the House of Lords. I could not have been prouder than when I was appointed as the Head of the House of Commons service four years ago. The House of Commons service are a remarkably talented, diverse and dedicated group of public servants and I will miss them.
I will also miss the support and friendship of Members on all sides of the House. I do not think the public appreciate the work of Members, or their staff, as they should; and perhaps they never will.
Members demonstrate the best of public service in so many ways: in scrutiny and debate and inquiry here and in representing their constituents. I have found the House at its best to be a kind and generous place.
I am also glad over the past 4 years to have been able to visit a number of constituency offices around the country and see at first hand the public service provided by Members’ staff. Members and their staff carry out their work in the face of spiteful abuse and threat and vilification. They deserve better.
Finally, I would like to thank you, all the Deputy Speakers with whom I have worked, and the chairs and members of the select committees I have served, for their friendship, collegiality and good humour, especially in times of tension or difficulty.
The ten years since the expenses scandal and the Wright Report have seen the House of Commons come back from a very low place to being as open and vibrant and independent and outward-looking as at any time in modern history. I am proud to have played a small part in that journey. Whatever happens over the next few months the House of Commons will be at the centre of it, and that is how it should be.
I am confident that the House will continue to thrive as the central institution of our parliamentary democracy, cherishing the old while embracing the new, and holding fast to the recognition that parliamentary service is in the truest sense a form of public service.
Hear, hear. [Applause.]
An exceptional occasion justifies an exceptional response.
David, I am extraordinarily grateful to you. You have been an outstanding Clerk of the House. You have given dedicated and brilliant public service. I am grateful to you, and I believe everybody in this place is grateful to you.
Members with experience in this place will know that there is an occasion for tributes to the outgoing Clerk. That occasion is not today, but it will come subsequently, and I feel sure that it will involve a very substantial number of Members wishing to participate and to record both their respect and their appreciation of an exceptional public servant.
European Union Withdrawal (Evaluation of Effects on Health and Social Care Sectors) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Brendan O’Hara, supported by Neil Gray, Stephen Gethins, Joanna Cherry, Martyn Day, Tommy Sheppard, Caroline Lucas, Liz Saville Roberts, Ben Lake, Christine Jardine, Layla Moran, Tom Brake and Ian Murray presented a Bill to make provision for an independent evaluation of the effects of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on the health and social care sectors; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 January 2019, and to be printed (Bill 288).
Freehold Properties (Management Charges and Shared Facilities)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the regulation of fees charged by management companies to freeholders of residential properties; to make provision for self-management of shared facilities by such freeholders; to require management companies to ensure shared facilities are of an adequate standard; and for connected purposes.
A couple of years ago, I had a trickle of complaints about the poor upkeep of new estates and unfair fees being charged to homeowners on them. It then turned into a torrent, and latterly into a flood. Constituents of mine who live at Hazelbank, Burton Woods, Durham Gate and Middridge Vale, and now at Castle Vale and Startforth Park, have all been affected. I am grateful to them for alerting me to what I have now discovered is a national problem. I also wish to thank Cathy Priestley, who is sitting in the Gallery. She has set up the national pressure group the Homeowners Rights Network, fondly known as HorNet. She has been campaigning on behalf of homeowners and really understands the problems.
The first issue is that the public spaces are not made up to a proper standard. One man I met is still living on an unmade road after eight years. Promises of green areas, woodland, play facilities and even street lighting are broken. As it happens, County Durham has miles of unadopted roads of terraced housing that were built by mine owners in the late 19th century. Now, we have property developers with the same exploitative disregard for homeowners. We are building the 21st century blight.
Secondly, fees are high, rising, uncapped and unregulated. One constituent told me that their fee had risen from £60 to £134 in four years. At that rate, in 16 years’ time it will be £3,316 a year. Another constituent faced a 50% rise in one year. On the Middridge Vale estate, the total payments were £27,000—and that was just for grass cutting. There is a total lack of transparency about the way the fees are made up. Management charges usually exceed upkeep costs, with items such as company admin fees, accountancy, dormant account fees and transfers appearing to be plucked from the air. On one small estate, the actual maintenance costs were less than a fifth of the fees charged. On another, the homeowners found a gardener who would do the work for £400, and the agent promptly added a £400 admin fee. Extra sums are charged for installing TV aerials, and residents have been tied to E.ON as their electricity provider. It all looks like just another way for property developers to screw more money out of hard-pressed households. It is really a private new build tax, so the news that Persimmon boss Jeff Fairburn received a £75 million bonus was greeted with outrage.
The third problem is that when challenged by residents about the fees or upkeep, the management companies adopt an ultra-aggressive stance. My constituents have been bullied with threats of High Court action, or even the bailiffs. This is going on throughout the country: we estimate that 1.3 million households are currently affected. The Government’s response to HorNet—that people should take up their issues with developers, or that the Government will legislate at some point in the future to give a right of challenge through the first-tier tribunal—is wholly inadequate. Individual citizens cannot challenge multibillion-pound corporations, because the underlying problem is the legal structure, which my Bill would change.
The large property developers, such as Persimmon, Barratt and Taylor Wimpey, are scamming people from the start. Purchasers are offered solicitors who are not truly independent and appear to be contracted by the developers, which the Law Society surely ought to address. Many people feel that they were mis-sold their homes, and this is increasingly looking like another PPI scandal. People are worried that the situation will make it very difficult for them to sell their houses in future, so they have an asset of uncertain value.
The open spaces are initially owned by the property developers, who sell them and the right to manage them on to agents. The same names crop up over and over again: Greenbelt and Gateway. Indeed, one Antony John Dean is the director of 130 such companies. This monopolistic position gives the managing agents the opportunity to mismanage and overcharge with impunity. Some of my constituents have discovered that the land has been put into trusts or covenanted to avoid liability and control its use. The residents are powerless to appoint new agents or influence their behaviour.
Unlike leaseholders, who have access to a dedicated ombudsman service, freeholders have no legal recourse in the event of a dispute. Using old law—in particular section 121 of the Law of Property Act 1925—the agents can place charges on the property if residents are late with payments. It is an incredibly one-sided contract. Homeowners do not have the power to ask for justification of costs, but the management company can legally send in bailiffs or threaten repossession of the home if a resident does not pay on time. This is why people are coining the terms “fleecehold” and “fake freehold”. Indeed, there is no point in the Government legislating to give leaseholders the right to buy their freeholds unless they strengthen the legal position of freeholders.
My Bill would tackle the problem. To prevent more people from being caught in this trap in future, developers should be required to make up their public spaces to adoptable standards on a reasonable timescale. For existing homeowners, a different approach is obviously needed. First, the Bill would cap and regulate estate maintenance fees to give people the security of knowing that prices cannot increase indefinitely. Secondly, it would introduce measures to ensure that shared facilities are maintained to an adequate standard, to end the “money for nothing” culture of property companies. Finally, it would make provision for the transfer to genuine self-management, to end the stranglehold of managing agents.
The overwhelmingly positive response that I have had from colleagues across all parties demonstrates that this is a national problem. Currently, we estimate that 1.3 million households are affected; given the Government’s ambitions for house building, many more soon will be. We need to grip this problem and act fast.
Question put and agreed to.
That Helen Goodman, Faisal Rashid, Justin Madders, Louise Haigh, Ian Austin, Sir Peter Bottomley, Ian Mearns, Mr William Wragg, Fiona Bruce, Catherine McKinnell, Jim Fitzpatrick and Mary Glindon present the Bill.
Helen Goodman accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 January 2019, and to be printed (Bill 289).
I had been given to understand that there would be some points of order now, but I do not see any. If anybody wants to raise a point of order, he or she can do so. [Interruption.] I was told less than five minutes ago that there would be some points of order, but there are not, and that is absolutely fine. I am simply responding to what I have been told.
70th Birthday of the Prince of Wales
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty on the seventieth birthday of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, to assure Her Majesty of the great pleasure felt by this House on so joyful an occasion.
That the said Address be presented to Her Majesty by such Members of the House as are of Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council or of Her Majesty’s Household.
That a Message be sent to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, to offer His Royal Highness the warmest good wishes of the House upon the occasion of his seventieth birthday, expressing the gratitude of the nation for his lifetime of service to the country and the Commonwealth and praying that His Royal Highness may long continue in health and happiness.
That Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister, Andrea Leadsom, Jeremy Corbyn and Ian Blackford do wait upon His Royal Highness with the said Message.
Over the past 70 years, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has played many roles in our national life. As a sailor, he commanded a minesweeper in the Royal Navy. As an airman, he gained his wings with the RAF. As the founder of the Prince’s Trust, he has worked tirelessly to help more than 900,000 vulnerable young people turn their lives around. As a farmer and entrepreneur he created and built a successful business, one that turns over more than £200 million a year and whose profits help support charitable causes. And, as heir to the throne, he has unstintingly supported Her Majesty the Queen for many decades, working with and representing our monarch and our country both at home and abroad. Binding those diverse strands together is a common thread; one that is encapsulated in the motto that, for hundreds of years, has adorned the Prince of Wales feathers: “Ich Dien”—I serve.
Throughout the Prince of Wales’s life, his commitment to public service has been total. That is true of his royal duties, which see him performing well over 600 official engagements every year. It is true of his work with the Commonwealth, in which he has played an active role for many years. The esteem in which he is held by the Commonwealth was made clear at the Heads of Government meeting earlier this year, when the member states unanimously chose to name him as the next head of the organisation—another role in which I am sure he will excel. It is also true of his wider work. First and foremost there is the Prince’s Trust and his other charities, of course. There is also his involvement with groups as diverse as the British Red Cross and the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which has helped to regenerate the historic centre of Kabul—just two of the more than 400 organisations that he serves as patron.
Yet this public work only begins to scratch the surface of the Prince of Wales’s life. He is also an author, an artist, and a sportsman. As a student, when he became the first heir apparent to graduate from university, he also displayed an aptitude for comic acting. I am told that his impression of Peter Sellers’ Bluebottle, from his beloved “Goon Show”, is particularly on point. He is, I believe, the only public figure to have appeared on both “Gardeners’ Question Time” and “MasterChef Australia”, not to mention once delivering the weather forecast on BBC Scotland. He has a great and wide-ranging love of music. Indeed, he remarked in 1974:
“If I hear rhythmic music, I just want to get up and dance.”
That is something, I am sure, that many of us empathise with.
The more one looks at the prince’s life, the more one sees a man who has spent 70 years defying expectations and refusing to be categorised. It is an approach that has seen him delivering a speech in Pidgin to an audience in Nigeria only last week, during an official Commonwealth tour; encouraging his sons to spend childhood holidays collecting litter from the local countryside; and choosing to celebrate his 40th birthday with 1,500 young people from deprived backgrounds. It is an approach that often shows him to be a man ahead of his time.
In one of his first major public speeches, in 1970, the Prince of Wales warned of the
“horrifying effect of pollution in all its forms”,
with particular criticism reserved for the “mountains of refuse” created by plastic bottles that are used once and discarded. Half a century later, the UK and the world have woken up to the plastic threat and are taking action to tackle it.
In his debating debut at the Cambridge Union, the young prince spoke about the potentially dehumanising effects of technology in the workplace—another issue that is now at the front of many minds as we consider the impact of artificial intelligence. The same foresight can be seen in his long-held views on urban regeneration, on sustainable agriculture, on inter-faith dialogue and on improving the quality of the built environment, each of them issues that, after being raised by the prince, have moved to the mainstream, becoming widely embraced and accepted.
We could not pay tribute to His Royal Highness without mentioning perhaps his most important role of all—that of father and, more recently, of grandfather. Regardless of background or resources, raising children is never an easy task. It is made all the more difficult when they suffer a devastating loss at an early age. So today, as Prince William and Prince Harry make their own way in the world and begin to raise their own families, I know that I speak for all of us when I say that they are a true credit to their father. We as a nation are immensely proud of them, and I am sure that he is too.
On behalf of the whole House, it gives me great pleasure to wish His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales a very happy 70th birthday, and to offer him our very best wishes for the years ahead as he continues his remarkable record of service to his Queen, his country and his Commonwealth.
It is a pleasure to support this motion. Many people across the country will be wishing His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales a very happy 70th birthday. It might come as a surprise to many that His Royal Highness and I have something in common—we are both, it seems, leaving it late when it comes to career progression, although he has had a lifetime preparing for this role.
People in this country may have varying opinions about the institution of monarchy, but no one would say that being the heir to the throne of the UK as well as of 15 other nations is an easy job. His Royal Highness has shown a commitment to public service and charity and a passion for several notable causes throughout his life.
People say the past is a different place, and the Britain of 1948—the year the prince was born—was a very different place from the Britain of today. In many ways, it was a time of great optimism. It was the year of the universal declaration of human rights, which aims to give universal rights to everybody across the globe no matter who they are. It was, of course, also the year of the founding of the national health service, which is celebrating its 70th birthday this year. It was also a time of hardship, with the country emerging from the horrors and destruction of world war two. We had beaten fascism, but there was little rest to be had as work had to be done to rebuild Europe in the aftermath of that war.
In those days, our country was considerably poorer, both economically and culturally, not having benefited from the richness of multiculturalism that we enjoy today. It was, of course, the year that the Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury, bringing people from Jamaica and the Caribbean to start new lives here in Britain. Many of them and their children and grandchildren now form an integral part of our society, our country and, indeed, this House.
In 1948, British towns and cities were still scarred with bomb craters, rationing for food and clothing remained in place and censorship was enforced on stage and in our theatres. Prince Charles might have regretted the ending of censorship when, at a televised awards ceremony in 1994, the late great Spike Milligan, who was a good friend of the prince, infamously described him in words that I am sure, even today, Mr Speaker, you would not permit me to use in the House. Spike later faxed the prince to apologise, asking, “I suppose a knighthood is out of the question now?” Obviously, Prince Charles accepted the apology, because Spike did indeed later get an honorary knighthood.
Throughout his life, the Prince of Wales has committed himself to public service, as the Prime Minister said. The Prince’s Charities, supported by the Prince’s Charities Foundation, comprises 19 different charities. The charities focus on issues from the arts to the natural world. They include initiatives such as the British Asian Trust, which celebrates our country’s openness to the world and aims to help lift people out of poverty both in south Asia and here in Britain.
The trust picks up on another of the prince’s own passions, which I have regularly talked to him about: giving support to young people from all backgrounds and every part of the country. The trust has done unrivalled work in opening up opportunities for young people, helping them to find employment, education and training, unlocking their talents so they are able to lead the lives that they want and deserve to lead.
One example of the work the trust does is at Dumfries House in Ayrshire, where it supports courses for young people, teaching practical crafts such as stone masonry and carpentry. The work done there reminds me of a quote by the Victorian socialist and promoter of such skilled crafts, William Morris, whose work I believe the prince appreciates. Morris wrote:
“I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.”
Instead of writing people off, as some people are often too willing to do, the Prince’s Trust, its supporters and its hard-working staff have endeavoured to make a real difference to young people’s lives and to provide the support and encouragement that, for whatever reason, had previously been absent from their lives.
The prince has also shown a consistent commitment to our often ignored natural world. As our climate and soils are being destroyed before our very eyes, the prince’s interest in the natural environment has not gone unnoticed. My friend the late great MP Michael Meacher once recalled that when he was an Environment Minister, he and His Royal Highness would “consort” to persuade the Government to do more on green energy. Asked by the press if there was a constitutional problem with a member of the royal family advocating a political opinion, Michael—a committed republican—replied:
“Maybe he was pushing it a bit. I was delighted, of course.”
It is a vital principle that the royal family remains above politics, but Prince Charles is an ambassador for a country that does take seriously the scientific realities of climate destruction. I do wonder whether, if there is anyone on this planet who might be able to get that message through to the President of the United States, it could well be Prince Charles. Indeed, His Royal Highness may be a Knight of the Garter and a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, but few accolades can compare to when a brand new species native to Ecuador was discovered in 2012 and named the Prince Charles stream tree frog.
His Royal Highness’s horticultural exploits are well known. As a keen gardener and allotment holder, I can sympathise with the prince’s desire to talk to plants. I have certainly found them better listeners than many Members of this House over the years. It is traditional to give gifts, especially when one reaches a milestone such as a 70th birthday, so I was thinking of giving His Royal Highness a jar of Corbyn Originals jam from my allotment. But I am now suffering from a deep crisis of confidence. Will my jam match up to the standard of the prince’s Duchy Originals jam? I do not know how to deal with this conundrum. If His Royal Highness is listening, perhaps he could offer some advice.
As the Prince of Wales reaches 70, I wish him and his family a very happy birthday on behalf of everyone on the Opposition Benches.
It is a pleasure to follow two incredibly generous speeches. I absolutely endorse and support everything that has been said so far about His Royal Highness, the Prince’s Trust and the other foundations. I have had the privilege and the honour of working closely with His Royal Highness in my capacity as the MP for North West Norfolk, which includes the Sandringham estate. When I was in the Foreign Office, I also had the privilege of accompanying him on two foreign visits, so I had a chance to see for myself his extraordinary personality.
Sandringham is a large and highly diversified estate that employs a significant number of people in my constituency and generates many more jobs through tourism. It is, without doubt, one of the most innovative estates in the country, with a lot of pioneering work going on around organic farming and soil structures, habitat management, forestry, coastline and marshland preservation, and eco-housing for rent. His Royal Highness has played a pivotal role in all this, especially on the housing front. The Sandringham estate has built a number of new developments to be rented out—not just to people working on the estate, but to retired people and local people. In this way, it is setting the highest possible standards, and I applaud and salute that work.
His Royal Highness takes a very close interest in west Norfolk and the wider local community, and his advice and input has always been discreet, tactful and very much aware of the local political constraints. On occasions, I have had the opportunity to deal with him myself alongside the local borough council. When we have gone to him for advice, we have always found him incredibly approachable, but above all else is his convening power—a power to bring together different experts. Depending on what the situation demands, he has the experts to bring together, although he also has the most extraordinary knowledge himself.
I do not want to run through a lot of examples, but I should say that his foundation was absolutely indispensable in the redevelopment of King’s Lynn town centre, ensuring that we moved from what was going to be a very ordinary design to one that was quite exceptional. The Norfolk coastal footpath provides another example. And although recycling policy may sound very prosaic and boring, his input has been crucial at different times. He has also been involved in our work regarding the Construction Industry Training Board, which has a proud history in west Norfolk. We are doing our level best to persuade the board to keep its presence in west Norfolk, to develop the site and, above all, to make sure that when it puts its training contracts out to tender, we have the right people running those contracts so that we can use the organisation to help with skills and the whole apprenticeship agenda.
Behind the scenes, His Royal Highness has always shown so much interest, huge energy and a great sense of humour. Above all, he has an extraordinary ability to inspire, motivate and bring out the best in other people, so I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in saluting Prince Charles on his 70th birthday.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate on the Humble Address. I am pleased to join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in wishing His Royal Highness—the Duke of Rothesay, as he is known in Scotland—a very happy 70th birthday on behalf of the Scottish National party. I would like to take this opportunity to put on the record the appreciation of His Royal Highness by the people of Scotland, with whom he has had a lifetime connection, and to discuss his commitment to our country. His Royal Highness has always shared with us a rich and emotional history with Scotland, as his historical title of the Duke of Rothesay has traditionally been held by the heir to the Scottish throne.
Throughout the decades, His Royal Highness has been a regular visitor across Scotland, in particular visiting Balmoral, where he spent part of his honeymoon with the Duchess of Cornwall. His Royal Highness has a real affection for Scotland. I recall him once expressing:
“I cannot tell you how much I miss Balmoral and the hills and the air—I feel very empty and incomplete without it all.”
His Royal Highness is not only the Duke of Rothesay, but the Lord of the Isles, and he is a very frequent visitor to the islands. I recall that he spent a week on the island of Berneray in 1987, to be immersed in the art of crofting. He engaged in many of the wide variety of activities that crofters often do, such as planting potatoes, lifting peat and engaging in sheep dipping. I understand from the writings of the time that he very much enjoyed his life on an island croft. May I respectfully say to him that if he wishes to return and help me on my croft, particularly over the lambing time in spring, he would be more than welcome as a guest of ours?
His Royal Highness makes a point of attending the annual Braemar Gathering, which is Scotland’s most famous highland games. He was also educated in Scotland, attending Gordonstoun School in the north-east. Today, the Duke of Rothesay remains the Royal Colonel of both the 3rd and the 7th Battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. But His Royal Highness’s connections are not just with our beautiful country, but also with our people. Over the years, his dedication to helping advance the lives of people in Scotland through various projects has been invaluable to our society.
The Prince’s Foundation recently announced a new partnership with the Royal Lochnagar distillery. For those who have not experienced the whisky, I highly recommend it. The foundation has also been involved in building the new Duke of Rothesay Highland Games Pavilion and a visitor centre that charts the history of Scotland’s highland games. Again, I extend a welcome to His Royal Highness; there are many highland games throughout the country, not least in my own constituency, and there is no better way to spend a holiday than by participating in the rich variety of life that happens throughout the highland games season.
His Royal Highness is also a patron of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and he has been hugely supportive of its work in its four gardens at Edinburgh, Benmore, Logan and Dawyck.
The Prince’s Foundation has created workshops in traditional arts and crafts, with educational facilities for many schools. One notable project that stands out is the support from the Prince’s Trust for Dumfries House, saved by the intervention of His Royal Highness, who used £20 million of his own charitable foundation’s money and personally brokered a £45 million deal to secure the house for the future. This has helped to create a sustainable business in an effort to support the regeneration of the local economy in east Ayrshire. Your Royal Highness, we applaud you for work in this regard. The outdoor centre there now supports a variety of residential opportunities. The activities and facilities at the outdoor centre help students to develop leadership skills and encourage personal development. The Get Into programmes at Dumfries are part of an effort to get young people aged 16 to 24 who are not in employment, education or training to a positive destination—a worthwhile project and a credit to His Royal Highness’s work in Scotland.
While there are many of us here who want to see a different future for our nations, we acknowledge the aspects of our shared cultures, our heritage and our history. For me, this is something we must acknowledge when we look at the role that His Royal Highness has across the UK, but of course also in Scotland.
Today, His Royal Highness celebrates his 70th birthday —a remarkable milestone for all who reach it, but particularly for someone who is so dedicated to a lifetime of public service. I thank His Royal Highness for his friendship with Scotland. On behalf of my party and all those we represent, I warmly wish him all the very best on this special day and for many years to come.
It is a great privilege to follow the generous addresses that we have just heard.
For decades, the Prince of Wales has been a champion of the natural environment, and I want to take a moment of the House’s time to comment on that. Some people have pejoratively described it as meddling; I would call it contributing. He has been way ahead of most of us on many of these issues. He was talking about the danger of plastics in our oceans decades ago. His work on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change caused, at times, criticism—but again, he was way ahead of his time. Now he speaks a language that really has a remarkable affinity right across the political divide in this country. He raised these issues when it was unfashionable to do so. There is also his work on promoting the circular economy, which is now being mainstreamed by all parties in this House, moving away from the “extract, use, dump” culture to one that really does deal with how we use our natural resources in this country. In his book “Harmony”, which he co-wrote with Tony Juniper, he connected the environment with related issues such as health and wellbeing in a way that was really prescient for its time.
Let me conclude by mentioning—I think that this has already been commented on—his power as a convenor. There are very few people in this world who have the power to say, “There is a problem, which we need to talk about,” and world leaders, captains of industry and cultural figures will then jump on a plane to go to any corner of the world to engage in that problem. I have seen at first hand how he has been able to do that on issues such as oceans and fisheries and wildlife crime, with the extraordinary work of his International Sustainability Unit.
I am not a constitutional expert, so I cannot say what is or is not possible in the future. However, I want to take this opportunity to thank His Royal Highness for what he has provided and, I hope, will continue to provide—that is, thought, dialogue, reason and challenge.
It is a great privilege to join these tributes to the Prince of Wales. As somebody who crossed the milestone of a 70th birthday some years ago, I suggest that this is very much an opportunity for celebration rather than regret. Let me also add from personal experience that it should not represent a glass ceiling for progression to a bigger job. I have to say that in my five years in the Cabinet, I never received one of those letters in spidery handwriting requesting that I take action. I do not know whether to be offended or relieved that I did not.
I did have an opportunity, however, to see at first hand many of the achievements that stemmed from the prince’s commitment to helping disadvantaged young people—in particular, the role played by the Prince’s Trust, which was absolutely crucial in, for example, making a success of the start-up loans scheme, which operates with the British Business Bank and has launched thousands of young people with an opportunity to begin a life as entrepreneurs.
Several colleagues have already made a point of acknowledging the prince’s contribution to environmental thinking. We need to stress that he showed some courage in doing so—going way, way ahead of his time—while making the important point that we have to think about these issues both globally and locally. He has challenged many of the threats to the planet, but he has also sought to apply his thinking in practice in such gestures as taking his sons litter picking, for example. I add to the Prime Minister’s comment about the contribution he has made by bringing up his sons in this tradition of public service and commitment to tackling some of our difficult contemporary issues. We see this now in the excellent work by the two princes through the Royal Foundation in fields like mental health and early intervention.
Finally, I acknowledge the fact that the prince has been willing to tackle some very sensitive but important issues that directly bear on the royal family, most notably his advocacy of the fact that the role of the monarch should be the defender of faiths rather than the single faith. I wish to add my tribute and wish him and his family every happiness.
It is a great pleasure and a privilege, on behalf of myself and my constituents, to wish His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales—or, indeed, the Duke of Rothesay, as he is better known north of the border—many happy returns on his 70th birthday.
His Royal Highness is a weel-kent and welcome face in Scotland. He has taken a considerable interest in the architectural heritage of this nation, not least in preserving for the community and the nation the beautiful Dumfries House in my constituency. In hosting events such as the annual Boswell book festival, farming conferences and a recent Police Scotland seminar, Dumfries House remains a focal point for the whole community in East Ayrshire. It also stimulates tourism and is an excellent source of employment and training locally, which is vital. His Royal Highness has given hope and opportunity to many, many young people.
The prince has also embraced and supported other projects locally, working in New Cumnock in partnership with the Sir Tom Hunter Foundation and others towards the restoration of the beautiful red sandstone of New Cumnock town hall, as ever utilising good-quality construction and design methods. Also in New Cumnock, he was a driving force for not so much the refurbishment but the rebuilding of the New Cumnock outdoor swimming pool—which will be the best in the United Kingdom, I am sure, and is well worth a visit. The Prince’s Foundation also supports the very popular Cumnock Tryst music festival held there each year, which celebrated its fifth anniversary this very year.
On behalf of the residents of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock—and, indeed, Scotland—I would very much like to wish His Royal Highness many happy returns on his threescore years and ten today. Finally, as a former firefighter, I would ask His Royal Highness to be careful with the candles on his cake.
On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and the people we represent in Northern Ireland, I am delighted to speak in this Humble Address and to endorse what has already been said by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and the other speakers so far. We express our heartfelt congratulations and best wishes to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales on the occasion of his 70th birthday.
His Royal Highness has, over the course of his entire life, shown total devotion to supporting Her Majesty in the discharge of her duties both at home and abroad, and he has made a massive contribution in his own right to the role of the monarchy in our national life and across the globe.
In addition to supporting Her Majesty the Queen, with an almost unrivalled schedule of duties and commitments, he champions many important causes that have helped to transform the lives of countless people across the United Kingdom. His has been a life of duty that has earned His Royal Highness the thanks of a grateful nation. He has had a truly enriching impact upon our country, our precious Union and our Commonwealth, transcending borders, language and generations. His pursuit of the causes of peace, prosperity, the countryside and the environment has touched the lives of so many.
For me, one of the highlights of his work was the founding of the Prince’s Trust, which to this day continues to support those most in need in our society. I have no doubt that Members from all parties can testify to the amazing impact that the Prince’s Trust has had on the lives of their constituents and in many communities. For those facing homelessness, health problems, educational disadvantage or difficult times, the Prince’s Trust has often been there to put their lives back on track.
His Royal Highness holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Northern Ireland, shown by the warmth with which he has been received on his countless visits to Ulster. During the darkest days of our recent past, His Royal Highness continued to visit Northern Ireland very regularly in the face of threats and danger. It is his willingness to support those who suffered so much at the hands of terrorism, combined with his own personal loss, that made him a figure of so much admiration. A particularly poignant quote that has stuck with me came from the families of the victims of the Omagh bombing, who said on His Royal Highness’s visit to the site of the bombing, “It shows he hasn’t forgotten our suffering.” His Royal Highness has exemplified the qualities of duty, sacrifice and service to our country, and for the future may he and his family know God’s richest blessing.
I gently point out that there are a number of Members standing and seeking to catch my eye who did not indicate any intention to take part in these exchanges. It seems rather curious for a Member not to have put in to speak but suddenly to bob. It is simply not in conformity with our procedures, and we have a Second Reading of a Bill. I hope I have made the position clear.
I shall keep my words brief. Windsor is home to the military in the form of the Household Cavalry, which is the presentation regiment for the royal household and the protection unit, and to the monarchy, with Windsor castle being the longest continuously inhabited castle in the country.
It strikes me whenever I meet the prince just how dedicated he is to public life, over so many years and to so many different causes. The Prince’s Trust takes care of disadvantaged youngsters by providing entrepreneurial loans so that they can make their own way in life, which is a fine thing to do. His passions for the environment and architecture are well known.
Prince Charles has a strong heart and a good heart, with a strong voice in convening people around the issues in which he believes. We know in this place just how challenging it can be to speak out on key issues—one is often condemned if one does, and condemned if one does not—and yet the prince has managed to speak out on many issues, without causing offence, and in a way that opens up areas for public debate that we may otherwise not have opened up.
In this place we are volunteers, and yet the prince has taken on his duties and his responsibilities through a sense of commitment to the country. On behalf of the residents of the Windsor constituency, and on behalf of myself and other Members, I wish Prince Charles a very happy birthday.
You may ask, Mr Speaker, why somebody committed to Welsh independence and an elected Head of State would want to take part in this debate on the Humble Address. One of the main lessons I have learned in politics is that it is always wise to be nice to one’s constituents. As Members may know, the Welsh residency of His Royal Highness is situated in the north of my constituency, in the Tywi valley. He is held in huge regard by many of my constituents, and I know that he shares my deep love for the county of Carmarthenshire and the Tywi valley in particular.
I have met the prince on several occasions, and he is a deeply intelligent and humorous person. I will share one short story with the House. I met him for the first time soon after being elected in 2010, at the opening of Frank’s Ice Cream in Carmarthenshire, which makes the best ice cream in Wales, if not the world. In the line-up to meet the prince was my father, who is the local county councillor, Councillor Kevin Madge, the leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, and myself. As the prince worked his way down the line, he got to me; the lord lieutenant whispered in his ear that he had just met my father, and the prince said, quick as a flash, “Ah! Hereditary”.
In all seriousness, whatever anyone thinks of the monarchy as an institution, the prince’s lifetime of commitment to public service is something to be commended, and I am happy to do so on behalf of my party today.
I want to briefly express my admiration for the Prince of Wales and all his work on climate change, the environment and our oceans. In particular, I want to thank him and his wife, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall, for their great patronage of our nation’s armed forces and the ships, regiments and squadrons of which they are colonels.
I have seen at first hand just how close a relationship they have with those regiments and the personal interest they take in not only the lives of the men and women serving in those units, but their families, those who have served in the units previously, those who are bereaved as a result of soldiers, sailors and airmen serving in those units being killed in action and those who have been injured in the course of their duties. On behalf of my constituents and all those soldiers, sailors and airmen who hold both His Royal Highness and Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall in such high regard, I wish him a happy birthday.
I rise to pay my respects and to wish His Royal Highness a very happy birthday, as well as to acknowledge all the work he has done on the environment and his interfaith work, sometimes against being popular, to ensure that there is the respect for all faiths that our country needs at every level of our society.
I want briefly to mention the prince’s work in supporting teachers and excellence in teaching, particularly through the Prince’s Teaching Institute. That institute and its chief executive, Chris Pope, have been very important and supportive in a project that we have started in Hounslow, Hounslow’s Promise, which supports social mobility, education and employability. The support and interest of the prince and his charity make a huge difference in our local endeavours. It is a mark of the prince that he takes a great interest in how what he does nationally makes a difference locally. For that reason, I wish him a very happy birthday and hope that his family enjoy their celebrations.
I apologise for my error, Mr Speaker—I thought that we did not have to put in to speak in a Humble Address debate. I will be very brief.
I was driven to speak because I grew up on a family farm that belonged to Prince Charles, so we were effectively his tenants; perhaps I should declare an interest. It was a wonderful farm on which to grow up. Prince Charles is such an advocate for farming, and his farms are prevalent in the west country. He should be applauded for the ease and insight with which he engages with the farming community.
I remember when he came to our farm one time. It was all top-secret, but we were invited to lunch with him, and he engaged, with great insight, with everybody on every subject to do with farming. I was also pleased that, of all the puddings on the table, he chose mine to eat.
I want to pay tribute to his wider work in the rural community. Prince Charles really understands why we need our rural communities to remain vibrant. He does a great amount of work on that through his Duchy College and his skills, training and apprenticeship courses. That is very important.
Colleagues have mentioned the prince’s work on the wider environment and nature, biodiversity and wildlife, and he has really helped to get soils on the agenda. All his climate change work has to be applauded. As others have said, he was ahead of the game on that, and many people are now following on the work he began.
The prince has a great interest in horticulture and gardening, and he is a great advocate worldwide. The UK is the home of gardening, and to have somebody in our royal family who is an advocate for it is brilliant for the tourism that it attracts and the wider industry. He has a show garden at Highgrove. I was lucky enough to go there with the Somerset Gardens Trust. It is a tremendous place to visit, if people get the chance. It is a tremendous advert for us worldwide. I share something in common with Prince Charles: he talks to his plants, and so do I. I do not see anything wrong with it. On that note, I wish him a very happy birthday and a blossoming next few decades.
As you are aware, Mr Speaker, I represent a far-flung and far away part of the British Isles. It is on behalf of the people who live there that I want to thank the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Rothesay. For some years, he has been coming to stay in his grandmother’s old home, the castle of Mey in Caithness. He loves that castle as much as one can imagine. He comes in August, and every time he takes the trouble to go on a series of visits to businesses, enterprises and such like right throughout my constituency. The time and trouble he takes on those visits to talk to everyone beggars belief. In fact, I do not think he ever has lunch. One of the things I do is put a Mars bar in my pocket.
The prince’s schedules almost always overrun because he is so busy saying hello to absolutely everyone. I cannot tell you, Mr Speaker, how much that means to my constituents. We are far, far away from London. I think what lies behind it is that he feels at ease in my part of the world. I feel easy with him, and there is a real thread of kindness. The milk of human kindness is there, and that is appreciated by my constituents. On behalf of the good people of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, I wish him many, many happy returns. It is my privilege to do so.