House of Commons
Thursday 13 December 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Independent Breast Screening Review
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of a Paper, entitled The Independent Breast Screening Review 2018, dated 13 December 2018.—(Gareth Johnson.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
Mobile Phone Coverage
The Government are committed to ensuring that there is high-quality mobile coverage where people live, work and travel. We welcome the opportunity that Ofcom’s forthcoming 700 MHz spectrum auction offers to extend coverage across all parts of the UK, and we continue to work across Government with Ofcom and the mobile network operators to support investment and deliver coverage to 95% of the UK’s land mass by 2022.
That all sounds very well, but it would appear that we still have some way to go. Recent research from Which? and OpenSignal showed that 4G phone users in Scotland can get a 4G signal only 50.4% of the time on average, compared with 69.7% in London. In Wales, that figure is as low as 35%. What are the Government doing about that?
The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is considerably more progress to be made—I do not need to explain to him the particular geographical difficulties in Scotland—but it is worth recognising that considerable progress has been made. He quoted those figures, but there are slightly different figures when one looks at 4G coverage from at least one mobile network operator. The increase from last year to this year is considerable. In June 2017, about 50% of Scotland was covered by one mobile operator at 4G level; that figure was up to 75% in May 2018. I agree with him entirely that there is more work to do, and we intend to do it.
It is good to hear the Secretary of State say that there is more work to do because there really is. My constituency runs along the M4 corridor. Some villages just two or three miles from the M4 simply have no coverage—not just no 3G or 4G. Will the Secretary of State set out what additional investment he will provide to ensure not just that there is 4G, but that there is basic mobile phone coverage for many of the villages in my constituency?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There is more that we can do in relation to the road network. The aspiration is to get to a point, in 2022, where all major road networks are covered. As he mentioned, there will then be a knock-on benefit to areas near those roads. One way in which we can do that is to make maximum use of the emergency services network that is being rolled out by my colleagues in the Home Office that is producing increases in coverage, but as I said to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael)—I make no bones about it—there is a good deal more work to be done.
We have some of the worst networks in the advanced world. We heard yesterday that download speeds in Gloucestershire, for example, are 2,000 times slower than they are in Birmingham. Frankly, it adds insult to injury for those struggling to get on to universal credit, which is of course a digital-only benefit. The National Infrastructure Commission and Ofcom think that it is going to cost something like £11 billion to bring our networks into the 21st century, so will the Secretary of State assure the House that that is the full sum that he is seeking from Her Majesty’s Treasury?
The right hon. Gentleman has gradually shaded into the subject of broadband from mobile coverage, but it is certainly right to point out that considerable progress has been made on digital connectivity of all kinds—both mobile and broadband—over the last few years. There is a radical difference between the position that we are in now and the position we inherited in 2010 but, as I have said a number of times this morning, there is a good deal more to be done; the right hon. Gentleman is right about that. We will ensure that we are making full use not just of the market roll-outs, but of the extra support that needs to be provided to the parts of the country that will not be covered by a market roll-out. The right hon. Gentleman will have carefully read the future telecoms infrastructure review that we produced in the summer, which deals exactly with how we reach parts of the country that will not be reached by a market roll-out.
Fixed Odds Betting Terminals: Maximum Stake
We are taking decisive action to ensure that we have a responsible gambling industry that continues to contribute to economic growth while protecting the most vulnerable in our society from gambling-related harm. Such commercial arrangements are a matter for the industry and were not a factor when the Government determined their policy to reduce the stakes on B2 machines.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and congratulate her on her well-deserved promotion. When the offshore gambling company GVC bought Ladbrokes for £3.9 billion, £700 million was contingent on the date on which statutory instruments were submitted by the Government on reducing the odds on fixed odds betting terminals. Does she think that the shareholders of Ladbrokes, including UK pension companies and employees, should get that £700 million, or should the offshore gambling company GVC pocket it and use it for irresponsible gambling adverts?
I thank my hon. Friend for making an important point about being responsible in this industry. We have been very clear that we were going to be acting in this space. As the Secretary of State said during an urgent question on 1 November, when determining policy in this area, it would not be
“proper for Government to take account of such commercial arrangements”.—[Official Report, 1 November 2018; Vol. 648, c. 1064.]
The Government take the protection of data extremely seriously and want the UK to be the safest place to live and work online. The Data Protection Act 2018 makes our data protection framework fit for the digital age, with increased powers and funding for the Information Commissioner. Additionally, we have invested almost £2 billion in our national cyber-security strategy and opened the world-leading National Cyber Security Centre to protect the public and industry.
Last month, I held my first ScamSmart event in my constituency, bringing together police, charities and banks to inform residents and discuss with them the dangers of online scamming and the importance of data protection. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that my constituents’ data is safe from these unscrupulous companies and that they are informed about how they can protect themselves?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on holding that event, which is a very important thing to do. The new legislation strengthens people’s rights to access their data, to object to the way it is being processed, and to seek erasure of data where appropriate. For those that break the rules, we have increased the fines to 4% of global turnover—a dramatic increase. We have also substantially increased the resources available to the Information Commissioner to investigate scams like those that she seeks to eradicate.
Some years ago, the addresses of my staff in this House were released due to a data breach. The danger to safety posed by these breaches demands that we address this issue, so will the Minister do so in the strongest terms? Will she also outline the funding that has been allocated to cyber-security and to the personal safety and security of people in this House?
The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to know that had that breach occurred since the Data Protection Act was put into law, the Information Commissioner’s Office would have had substantially increased additional powers to take measures to address it. The Government are investing almost £2 billion in cyber-security, and the National Cyber Security Centre is there to help individuals, Members of Parliament and businesses.
Documents published last week by the Select Committee show that Facebook was offering privileged access to user data to some commercial partners without those users’ knowledge, and was cutting off some other companies’ access to data altogether. Does the Minister feel that this should be a matter of investigation not only for the Information Commissioner but for the competition authorities?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I congratulate him and his Committee on the work that they have done. His exposure of the information that Facebook engineers have reported the mass harvesting of data since 2014 is certainly worthy of continuing investigation.
Libraries support people, communities and society as a whole by providing access to books and literature, and, increasingly, to modern technology. My Department, DCMS, established and funds the Libraries Taskforce to implement the Libraries Deliver strategy, which helps to support and reinvigorate England’s public libraries service.
I thank the Minister for that answer. There is considerable concern in Shenfield in my constituency that the local library will close, and residents have already put together 1,000 signatures. What steps is the Department taking to ensure the future of local libraries?
Local authorities in England have a statutory duty under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service. I caution all local authorities that I will challenge them about their proposed library service reductions in each case, before deciding whether a local inquiry is needed, as it may be in some cases.
Will the Minister take a trip up to Matlock, where the county offices are for Derbyshire? The Tory-controlled council there has recently announced the closing down of 20 libraries and a reduction in the hours of every librarian in the whole county. Something needs to be done urgently. Get up there to Derbyshire and sort it out.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his charming invitation to Derbyshire. I am always pleased to visit. It is a beautiful county, and I look forward to my visit. I would say to local authorities of any political party that they have a responsibility under the 1964 Act, which this Department takes seriously and has proven so in the past.
When the library in Lichfield was too costly to maintain, the Tory-controlled Staffordshire County Council sold it and moved the library to a museum in the centre of Lichfield. It will now be bigger and better than before. Will the Minister congratulate t’Tory-controlled Staffordshire Council?
I congratulate my hon. Friend and his council. In fact, councils of all political hues around the country are investing in libraries, building new ones and reinvigorating them. I have opened several myself and visited others that have been renovated. Local authorities are doing that across the country.
I can give the Minister the example of Glasgow City Council, which has a multimillion-pound investment programme in refurbishing libraries, including the 93-year-old Partick library, which has served communities in my constituency for that length of time. Does he agree that that is welcome investment and shows that it is important to protect libraries and reinvent them, so that they can continue serving communities into the 21st century?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his local authority. I am pleased to say that I have visited Glasgow. The reality is that many libraries need reinvigoration, which needs investment. Local authorities have the resources to do that, and they need to make those choices. We know in this House, across the political divide, that libraries have a high value in our communities and our society, and they should be invested in.
Mobile libraries are a vital lifeline for rural communities. Will the Minister give an assurance that when he is considering whether to push local authorities further in their provision of services, he will consider that the provision of mobile libraries is essential?
Yes. Mobile libraries, particularly in rural areas, can be extremely useful. They can visit different villages on different days of the week and be very productive. Many local authorities use mobile libraries, and they are a good thing.
We know that the roll-out of universal credit and the shutdown of many jobcentres has put a huge amount of pressure on libraries. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about the impact on libraries of the UK Government shutting those jobcentres?
I understand that the DWP made that decision with regard to jobcentres in order to rationalise, with larger jobcentres rather than smaller ones. Libraries are used by our communities for myriad reasons, and that is a positive thing. We want to encourage multiple uses of libraries. They are important community hubs and centres. It is important that they are for the loan of books but are also used for a multiplicity of reasons.
Northamptonshire County Council previously planned to close most of its libraries but has now announced ambitious plans to maintain county-wide library provision. Will the Minister welcome that development and offer the county council whatever support his Department can provide?
Yes, I will. I welcome the county council’s position. It has an ambition to save all 32 libraries in the county, which I am pleased with. I appreciate that there are challenges, but it is right that the council saves those libraries. I have recused myself from making a decision under the 1964 Act, for obvious reasons—it is my home county—but the reality is that libraries around the country should be supported.
The Government are working with industry and regulators to ensure that consumers receive clear and accurate information to help them make informed choices about their broadband. The Advertising Standards Authority has recently strengthened its rules on broadband advertising to ensure that speed claims in adverts are not misleading. A new Ofcom code of practice on broadband speeds will come into force next March.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but a High Court case has been raised today to try to overturn the Advertising Standards Authority’s decision to allow broadband to be advertised as fibre when large parts of it are of copper. Given that Edinburgh, where my constituency is, has just become a fibre city and that the Minister herself has called this advertising “misleading”, what can the Government do to ensure that when fibre broadband is advertised, it is indeed fibre end to end and does not have copper?
I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point. As we know, the judicial review of the ASA’s decision, brought by CityFibre, is expected imminently, and we will continue to monitor that issue. In the meantime, however, I hope he can take comfort from the new Ofcom code that comes into effect next March, which will considerably strengthen the situation.
Good broadband services are essential for so many businesses throughout Taunton Deane. Sadly, however, owing to the difficulties with Gigaclear, many are still not getting the services they deserve. While Infracapital has revised the plan for the roll-out, it is going to be much longer and slower. Its success will depend on extending the rate for state aid beyond the March 2020 deadline. If we do not do this, many businesses will be jeopardised and homes affected, so will the Minister meet me to discuss the issue?
I am aware of the issues raised by my hon. Friend. Indeed, I will meet her and the companies she is concerned about in the new year to discuss the issues she has raised.
We call it t’internet in Yorkshire. Broadband suppliers are responsible for the universal service obligation. Will they be required to use wireless technologies where those are the most cost-effective solutions?
We are aware that, no matter how successful our full fibre programme—and we have our target, as my hon. Friend will know, of full fibre coverage across the UK by 2033—there will be premises for which fibre will never be the optimum route of connection. We will of course consider and urge others to consider wireless technologies where full fibre is not effective.
Women’s Sport: Broadcasting
Broadcasters have made significant progress in increasing coverage of women’s sport in recent years. The events covered include the women’s football World cup and Euro championships, the women’s rugby world cup, cycling and tennis. With the success of so many of our women’s sports teams, we should be looking at how many more events can be broadcast to inspire future generations. I will meet broadcasters in the new year to discuss exactly that.
While it is good to hear that UEFA has pledged a 50% increase in funding for women’s football from 2020, particularly in view of the terrific news that the English and Scottish women’s football teams have made the World cup, that translates to only €50,000 extra for each of the 55 member associations. Will this Government commit to match funding that amount for the UK’s associations, with the specific aim of broadening the appeal of women’s football to the broadcast networks?
Of course we will consider that. I know the hon. Lady will be just as excited by the fact that, on 9 June, England and Scotland will play each other in that World cup; all of us will be looking forward to that. She makes the good point that we must make sure that the attractiveness of women’s sport—and, may I say, of disability sport as well—to broadcasters and to everyone is increased, so that we can inspire those who can then see themselves or people like them playing sport and doing so at a high level. That is exactly what I will discuss with broadcasters in the new year.
Women’s Twenty20 cricket is a fantastic spectator and TV sport. May we have it in the Commonwealth games?
We will certainly consider that. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s advocacy for the game. He is right to say that women’s cricket is starting to take off, and he will know that recently, viewing figures for women’s cricket have increased substantially. It is important that the Commonwealth games showcases in the United Kingdom—and more specifically, he would want me to say, in the west midlands—all such sports in any way we can. He will recognise that decisions on which sports are included are not solely—or indeed at all—a matter for the Government, but I understand his point of view.
My constituent, Amy Tinkler, won an Olympic medal for gymnastics. How can the Secretary of State increase coverage of women’s gymnastics to celebrate our success and inspire the next generation of girls?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I congratulate her constituent. It is important that in gymnastics, as in many other sports, we demonstrate to girls and women that they can participate at a high level, and they should be granted equal coverage and respect for what they do. Broadly speaking that happens in the Olympics, the Commonwealth games and elsewhere, but as I have said, I shall ask broadcasters and sports representative bodies what more we can do to increase the prominence of women’s sport.
Is it notable that there are no women’s team sports on the list of protected events that must be offered live to free-to-air TV? Should events such as the women’s World cup, which is on the BBC next year, be protected so that the whole nation can watch women’s World cups in the future?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and as he says, the protected list is designed to ensure that people have access on free-to-air television to these important sporting events. As he pointed out, that is already the case for the next women’s World cup, but we must keep such matters under review, and ensure that if there is a risk that big sporting events will not be covered in that way, we do something about it.
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Mims Davies) to her place. She has big shoes to fill, but I am sure she will do the job well. I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s positive comments, but only 7% of sports media coverage is of women’s sport, which I am sure he will agree is a disgraceful statistic. Will he meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) to discuss what more can be done to get perhaps 50-50 sports coverage for women’s sport by 2020?
I am happy to meet the hon. Lady, and I share that ambition, as do many broadcasters. Let us take the BBC as a good example. She will know that the BBC has committed to broadcasting 500 extra hours of sport next year, 50% of which will be women’s sport. It is important to recognise that progress is being made, but there is further to go and I am happy to discuss with her what we can do.
Free Television Licences
I meet the BBC regularly to discuss a range of issues, including the licence fee concession for the over-75s. The BBC has published a consultation that includes a range of options for the public to consider on the future of that concession, and we expect it to make a decision by June next year. I have made it clear that we expect the BBC to continue the concession after 2020.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, because that popular initiative was introduced by the Labour Government in 2000 to recognise that TV is a lifeline for many elderly people, and to give them something back for their contribution to this country. Does the consultation so far indicate that the cost of administering a new system that might include means-testing would far outweigh the savings that the BBC seeks to make?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point about means-testing, and whenever means-testing is proposed, that consideration must be accounted for. The right approach is to allow all those who wish to do so to comment on those consultation options, and for the BBC properly to consider them and decide what to do next. That is now its responsibility. The Government’s expectation is clear as, I suspect, is that of many Members across the House.
Mr Speaker, this will probably be the only chance I get to wish you, your family and the staff of the House a happy Christmas. We are very grateful for the work you have done for us this year. Thank you. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) to her new position. I am sure she will step into big shoes.
The Campaign to End Loneliness found that four in 10 older people say that television is their main company. That is a sad Christmas story indeed. Is the Secretary of State aware of how many older people in his constituency are set to lose their free TV licence if the provision becomes linked to pension credit?
It will not be my last opportunity to wish you a happy Christmas, Mr Speaker. I will get to that later.
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is about to tell me the answer to the question he has just asked, which of course supposes a certain outcome to the consultation and the decision-making process at the BBC. I do not think we should make that supposition. It is right for the BBC to consider its options. It is now its responsibility to decide what to do on this matter. It is right for it to consider its options and then propose what it wishes to do. We will all have the opportunity to contribute to that discussion. I know he will do so, and I will too.
As the Secretary of State does not know the answer I will tell him, because I think he needs to know: 6,060 households in his area could lose their free TV licence if it is means-tested. Many thousands of people in Kenilworth will lose their TV licence despite a Tory manifesto, on which the Minister stood for election, promising that a Tory Government would maintain all pensioner benefits, including free TV licences for everyone over 75. The Government may have devolved welfare cuts to the BBC, but the Secretary of State will not be able to devolve responsibility for this impending policy disaster. Will he now admit, on the record to this House, that the Government have broken a manifesto pledge and he has broken his promise to all those people in his constituency?
No, of course not, because that has not happened. Let me just say again to the right hon. Gentleman that he is positing a hypothetical situation. It has not happened. It is important that the BBC gets the chance to consider the right way forward. All that he says about the importance of television to those who are elderly, particularly those who are lonely, is quite right, but no decision has been made yet. It is right to give the BBC the space in which to make it. That is the right way forward.
Tourism is an incredibly important part of the UK’s economy, generating approximately £68 billion and employing over 1.5 million people. Visit Britain and the GREAT campaign, backed by Government support, continue to successfully promote the UK internationally. The House will know that the Government will now take forward into formal negotiations a tourism sector deal which will benefit tourism across the country. That is the result of a good deal of hard work by people across the tourism sector and, if may I say so, others including my hon. Friend the tourism Minister.
Some of my constituents have bought park homes only to find that they are actually leisure home owners, with very few rights against their landlords who charge extortionate fees and rent rises. I have heard that the mis-selling of leisure homes and the abuse of tenants is happening across the country. Will my right hon. Friend look into this matter and take action to ensure that leisure home owners are not subject to the whims of rogue landlords?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important matter. It is vital that anyone engaging in such transactions does so in full possession of the information they need and understands the consequences of their decisions. No one should be taken advantage of in this way. She will understand that this is a matter predominantly for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which has policy responsibility in this area, but I will certainly discuss it with colleagues there. We will see what more we can do.
The 2018 Leicestershire Promotions tourism and hospitality awards were held at the end of November. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the almost 800-year- old Loughborough fair, which won the best free event category? Perhaps next November, rather than joining the rollercoaster here, he would like to join the rollercoaster in Loughborough.
That sounds a lot more fun. I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend and congratulate all those involved in the event that she mentions. As she suggests, the importance of what we are doing on tourism, and I hope that this will be reflected in the sector deal, is that tourism can be a hugely successful career—not just a summer job or short-term employment, but a career, and a satisfying one at that. It is important that we make that position clear to all those who seek to enter the workforce, so that we have a high-quality workforce offering a superb tourism product to a large number of people around the world.
Political Coverage: Broadcasting
The regulation of broadcasters’ political coverage is a matter for Ofcom, the independent media regulator. Any televised material is subject to the provisions of Ofcom’s broadcasting code and Ofcom has strong rules in place to ensure the impartiality and accuracy of political coverage.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Many of my Falkirk constituents complained to me that the now doomed Brexit debate would have placed two leaders in a head-to-head format, with no input from any of the devolved Administrations. At a time when politicians often complain that the public are not getting the full, balanced picture, does the Minister really believe that this helps to dispel or remove that belief?
The debate that the hon. Gentleman referred to did not happen, but it was going to be just between the two main parties—that is true. With regard to Scotland, the BBC will be launching its Scotland channel next year to improve the coverage of Scottish life and Scottish affairs. As regards to impartiality, the code will guarantee impartiality across the United Kingdom.
As advertised, Mr Speaker, may I wish you, and indeed, all Members of the House and all the staff of the House, a very merry Christmas and a happy new year?
Last month, we saw a poignant programme of events to commemorate the centenary of the world war one armistice, at the end of four years of moving moments of remembrance. I thank again all those who were involved in the organisation of that programme, including officials in my Department and several Members of the House, including—if I may single him out—my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who played a pivotal role.
I am also pleased to announce today that Black Cultural Archives, the UK’s largest archives dedicated to the history of black people in Britain, will be given a £200,000 cash boost by my Department to help to secure its immediate future. We are continuing to work with the archives, Lambeth Council and others to ensure that there is a sustainable long-term funding strategy to enable its work to continue.
Finally, on behalf, I am sure, of the whole House, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate David Dimbleby on his last appearance chairing BBC’s “Question Time” tonight and on his 24 years of service to the programme, and to offer our best wishes to the incoming chair, Fiona Bruce, who is, of course, the first female chair in the programme’s history.
Growers and farmers in Chichester are very high-tech— we have cows wearing collars that upload real-time health data, and computer-controlled hydroponics—but all that requires high-speed connectivity, and many businesses are now taking a hit. A business recently told me that it had invested £16,000 in connectivity improvements. What is my right hon. and learned Friend doing to improve access to superfast broadband for rural businesses?
My hon. Friend raises an important point and a matter of concern to many of us. She will know that in relation to the existing superfast programme, there is further to go, and some of that additional benefit can be delivered in rural areas. She will also know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has allocated £75 million of grant funding from the rural development programme for England for these purposes. She may also be aware that in relation to further technology, we will seek to test out what can be done in rural areas with a test bed and develop 5G technology, which can deliver further benefits, particularly to agriculture.
I add my congratulations to the new Minister for Sport and welcome her to her place. I look forward to working with her.
Moments of sporting history were made during the London Olympics, with billions of pounds invested in what was meant to be an everlasting legacy. Since 2016, 800 grass pitches have been sold off, 100 swimming pools have been drained, a dozen athletics tracks have been closed, and 350 sports halls have been shut. The Olympic legacy is in tatters and it is fuelling our country’s obesity crisis. We need urgent change, so can the new Minister confirm how many new sporting facilities will be opened in 2019?
I very much welcome my welcome to the Dispatch Box. I will have to write to the hon. Lady about her question, but I dispute the premise that London 2012 is not delivering a legacy. My Eastleigh games has been going since 2012. You can try out boccia and rugby, and get involved in all sorts of different sports. As a local councillor, I set up a staggered marathon, which is still going on and bringing people into running.
Some of the legacy projects, particularly those in the park, will not finish their benefits until 2020, so the inspirational power of London 2012 continues. We also have the stadium. The legacy of 2012 is there in the fact that so many sporting events are coming to our shores. We are leading in this area, and are perhaps looking at having the Ryder cup going forward. I understand the concern around grassroots and we will look at the new sporting strategy next year—we are three years on. It is absolutely right to question London 2012, but its legacy is there in many constituencies.
Order. I think the Minister meant “one” rather than “you”.
I think I know what has driven my hon. Friend’s question. I should like to take this opportunity if I may to apologise to the chairman of the 1922 committee. He apparently issued a rule about last night’s election, news of which did not reach me. It appears that I may have been in breach. I apologise to my hon. Friend if that is the case.
I will certainly join the hon. Gentleman in wishing the teams well, and congratulate them on reaching this point. The fundraising question was an ingenious budget bid, but not one that I should answer now.
I assure my hon. Friend that many measures are being taken. The forthcoming universal service obligation should ensure that households that have a speed below 2 megabits per second have the right to request high-speed broadband of at least 10 megabits per second. That will come into effect in 2020. There is more to be done through Broadband Delivery UK—there are numerous voucher schemes. If my hon. Friend wants further information, I am happy to meet him to discuss the options available to him.
I am not aware of the report to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I am aware that the UK and Scottish Governments are working together to bring about better speeds and access to superfast broadband, which is already at 93.5% in Scotland.
Britain is rated No. 1 in the world for soft power, and my right hon. Friend is absolutely right about its importance. Our Department works very closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in this regard. We have a large number of bilateral seasons of culture with other countries, we promote UK culture globally through the GREAT campaign, which is an extremely successful marketing campaign—one of the most successful in the world—and, of course, we visit countries on a cultural basis. For instance, I was in Rome recently, and I have also visited the United Arab Emirates. A great deal goes on.
I have already met representatives of the Sports Ground Safety Authority, and a small analysis is currently under way. This is a hot topic on my desk, and I will make further announcements in January. In respect of sports ground safety more broadly, I have asked the authority to work with those in charge of the Qatar 2022 World cup to ensure that travelling fans also have a safe experience.
The Attorney General was asked—
Contempt of Court
The institution of court proceedings for contempt is by me in relation to each case on its own merits. I institute proceedings when there is sufficient evidence, and when I, as guardian of the public interest, decide that it is in the public interest to do so.
Contempt of court proceedings are very important to ensuring fair trials and the rule of law. Contempt of Parliament proceedings have been crucial in enabling the House to have the information to which it was entitled. Is the Attorney General not ashamed that his Ministers were found to be in contempt?
It is always a serious matter for any Minister to find himself at odds with the House, particularly over an important question of constitutional principle. On reflection, and the opinion of the House having been tested twice, the Government took the decision to disclose the advice, but I must stress to the hon. Lady that successive Governments have defended that principle robustly. I have a list of very eloquent articulations of it by Opposition Members who have defended it against demands for the disclosure of confidential advice. It is an important principle, and I hope that the House will look again at the procedures relating to the motion for a return.
May I perhaps return to the question? [Interruption.] Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a real need to revisit the standard directions that judges give to juries in relation to the use of social media? Generally judges are well alert to the issue, but, as we know, there have been instances in which convictions have had to be set aside because juries have, in effect, researched the case outside the jury room using social media.
Order. For the avoidance of doubt, the previous exchanges were entirely orderly, and I would have ruled otherwise if they were not. That is the position, which, frankly, the Solicitor General ought to take to heart, and upon which he might usefully reflect. I will be the arbiter of what is orderly, not the hon. and learned Gentleman.
The impact of social media on the integrity and fairness of the trial process is obviously of considerable importance, and we do need to grapple with it. As he knows, we have a call for evidence on social media, and I am currently studying the responses to it.
On the subject of contempt, the Attorney General was meant to disclose the full and final legal advice on the withdrawal agreement. What was actually disclosed was a letter to the Prime Minister dated 13 November exclusively on the legal effect of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. Is the Attorney General seriously saying he did not advise on the remainder of the withdrawal agreement?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, his party colleague the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) refined and defined the request, which was for the final and full advice that was given to the Cabinet, and that is what he has had.
The letter refers simply to the legal effect of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, but let me then ask the Attorney General this: the Prime Minister said last night on the steps of Downing Street that she is seeking “legal and political changes” to the withdrawal agreement and the backstop, so as a matter of honour if nothing else, if the Attorney General advises on any changes or additions that the Prime Minister brings back, will he disclose that advice to this House?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the principle of the convention applies and must be upheld. Of course the Government will consider very carefully, particularly in the light of the House’s expressed wish for assistance on these matters, what assistance they and I as Attorney General can give.
Legal Advice: Public Disclosure
As noted in “Erskine May”, it is a long-standing convention observed by successive Governments that neither the fact nor the substance of Law Officers’ advice is disclosed outside the Government without their authority. That authority is very rarely sought or given.
Given that recent decisions of the House might mean a return to Tony Blair-style sofa Government, does my right hon. and learned Friend think the Humble Address procedure needs revisiting?
Of course, the corrosive effect of the disclosure of confidential advice is that in future Attorneys General will not be able, without risking and fearing its publication, to give frank and robust advice to the Cabinet or the Prime Minister when it is needed, with the point and emphasis that might be needed at that particular time. The risk if it is published is that it is taken out of context, parts of it are seized and plucked and dwelt upon, and the particular moment and context of the advice is ignored. I do think we need to look very carefully at the procedures of the House in this regard while paying due respect to the legitimate desire of the House to have all of the information that it requires.
I think we all understand what the Attorney General’s preferences are in this matter. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), he said that the advice in his letter to the Prime Minister was full and final. It is credible that it is the final legal advice, but it is not credible that it is the full legal advice. Is that seriously what the Attorney General wants us to believe?
The request of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) was for the final and full advice. As I understand it—I read what he said in Hansard—he requested all the final advice. In other words, he requested that it should not be summarised, and it was not. The House had all the final advice given to the Cabinet.
Will the Attorney General further outline when the legal opinion on changes to the withdrawal agreement sought by the Prime Minister will be released, to clarify any change in his legal advice?
As I have just said, I will of course consider what assistance the House might require. Indeed, I shall listen carefully to the House on any changes that are introduced to the withdrawal agreement and on what the Government should do about publishing legal opinion on it.
Leaving the EU: Human Rights
The United Kingdom has a long tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, and of fulfilling its international human rights obligations. The decision to leave the European Union does not change this.
I am proud to say that the Scottish Government announced plans this week to introduce a new statutory human rights framework across Scotland. That will help to ensure that Brexit does not lead to an erosion of human rights in Scotland, while enshrining rights already included in the United Nations treaties. Will the Attorney General join me in welcoming this progressive step? Will he also confirm what measures he will be recommending to his own Cabinet colleagues to ensure that human rights are protected in the event of Brexit?
I am always interested to see the measures that are being introduced in the Scottish legal system, because Scotland has a sophisticated and highly effective administration of justice for which I have the greatest respect. Indeed, we can learn a good deal from Scotland in that regard; the same applies to both traditions on both sides of the border. In England and Wales, we are fully committed to the human rights framework of the European convention on human rights, and we have a proud common law tradition of defending those rights. I would expect that common law tradition to continue to evolve, and I would expect that the courts of this country, freed from the European Union, will start to develop their own jurisprudence, making even more effective the protection of those rights. However, I will look at what the hon. Lady has spoken of today with the greatest interest.
In the hurly-burly of the Brexit debate, there are a number of things to be concerned about. However, this country is very much the creator, cherisher and nurturer of human rights, and we have a proud record in that area both domestically and in leading on the international stage. Does my right hon. and learned Friend therefore agree that this is one area of public policy that Brexit should not create any anxiety about?
I quite agree with my hon. Friend. This country was at the forefront of the development of civil liberties and human rights. We have a robust, fiercely independent judiciary, and we have an effective legal profession on which the vindication of those rights often depends. We should be very proud indeed of the tradition that we have inherited.
The Human Rights Act 1998 is one of Labour’s proudest achievements in government, and we will fight to protect the rights and protections that it affords. I noticed that the Attorney General did not mention that in his answer to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). Will he join us in making a commitment to preserving the Human Rights Act?
It would be unwise for me to think that any Act of Parliament could not benefit from review and subsequent improvement as time goes on, but I can assure the hon. Lady that this Government—and, I am sure, successive Governments—will be wedded to both the rule of law and human rights in this country.
Article 50: European Court of Justice Decision
The decision of the European Court of Justice clarifies a question of EU law, and it does not in any way change the Government’s policy. The Government’s firm and long-standing policy is that we will not revoke the article 50 notice. The position has not changed and, as is well known, the case will now revert to the Scottish courts for the final decision.
Will the Attorney General take this opportunity to confirm that he advised the Prime Minister that the ECJ’s ruling means that voting against her deal does not automatically mean a no-deal Brexit, and that revoking the article 50 notice and remaining in the EU under current terms and conditions is a third option?
The Government’s policy is that we do not intend to revoke article 50. We intend to leave the European Union on 29 March, and the fact or otherwise of the irrevocability of article 50 is wholly irrelevant to that question. The truth, however, is that the giving of notice under article 50 would not just be an easy matter of pressing a button and the revocation taking effect.
Does the Attorney General believe that legislation would be required to revoke the article 50 notice, or could it be done by a simple vote in this House?
That matter is under review. Let me say clearly that the question of what legal route would be required to trigger the process has not been considered at any length because there is no intention of doing so.
The Government fought this case tooth and nail through the Scottish courts and in Luxembourg. Will the Attorney General tell us why the Government were so desperate to prevent Members of Parliament and the public from knowing that article 50 could be unilaterally revoked and that we could stay in the European Union on the same terms and conditions that we currently enjoy? Will he also answer a question that Cabinet Ministers have so far failed to answer? How much taxpayers’ money was spent trying to keep this House and the public in the dark?
As the hon. and learned Lady knows, the Government’s position throughout was that the case involved a hypothetical question. It does raise an important matter of constitutional principle as to whether courts should be able to be seized of issues under live debate in Parliament, when Parliament does not ask for an opinion, simply in order to inform debate. The Government took the view that the matter was hypothetical—we still do—but the truth of the matter is that the ECJ has ruled and we are where we are.
The Government are committed to tackling economic crime, and we know that that requires a multi-agency response. That is why both the SFO and the CPS play their parts alongside others, including through their support for the new multi-agency National Economic Crime Centre.
What assessment has been made of the UK’s ability to tackle money laundering?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, and I was glad to see the recent financial action taskforce report, which reflected substantial progress and referred to the world-leading role that the UK plays in the fight against illicit finance, particularly the risk of money laundering.
Nothing annoys the constituents of Taunton Deane more than people getting away with things they should not, so will my hon. and learned Friend outline some further detail on how we are cracking down on money laundering? It is a priority, and the Government have promised to tackle it.
My hon. Friend will be glad to note the introduction of unexplained wealth orders following the Criminal Finances Act 2017. That is already sending a clear message to those who seek to use the UK to wash their illegal proceeds that we will track them down, ask the right questions and conduct confiscations. Using Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 powers, the Government have recovered more criminal assets than ever before, with £1.6 billion taken from wrongdoers between April 2010 and March 2018.
Crown Prosecution Service: Performance
CPS performance in Northamptonshire is above the national rate in several areas. The latest figures for the first quarter of 2018-19 show that the conviction rate for Northamptonshire magistrates courts was 85.7%, which is above the national rate of 84.8%. Figures also show lower hearing numbers per guilty plea case than the national rate, which reflects the fact that the CPS is putting cases together efficiently.
I thank the Crown Prosecution Service for its work in Northamptonshire. Which aspects of its work does the Solicitor General think are in most need of improvement?
The CPS in Northamptonshire and the east midlands, like in all other regions, acknowledges that it should never rest on any laurels it might gather. I urge my hon. Friend to meet the chief Crown prosecutors and staff to focus on particular areas where he thinks the CPS in Northamptonshire and the east midlands needs to make progress. Recent quarterly and monthly figures show that in many areas, such as burglary, it has been above average, but I am sure it would welcome his constructive input.
Corrosive Substances: Prosecutions
Corrosive substance attacks are unacceptable. There is no place in society for these horrendous crimes. Last month, the CPS successfully secured the conviction of nine men for carrying out a violent attack in which a corrosive substance was squirted at bystanders who tried to stop an assault in the street.
What account is taken of gangs in this context?
My right hon. Friend is right to raise the sad connection with gang offending. Sadly, corrosive substances are sometimes used as weapons by gangs in retribution and as a means of enforcement. The CPS guidance identifies that phenomenon and encourages prosecutors to apply for criminal behaviour orders to prevent such gang-related offending.
Royal Albert Hall
Earlier this year, the Charity Commission wrote to the former Attorney General requesting consent to refer five questions to the first-tier tribunal concerning the registered charity that runs the Royal Albert Hall. Although the Charity Commission has the power to refer questions to the tribunal, it may only do so with the consent of the Attorney General, as set out in section 325 of the Charities Act 2011.
The Attorney General promised that he would make a decision on this matter by the end of the autumn. I am sure we are now in winter, so that decision is overdue. The majority of the Royal Albert Hall’s ruling body own a quarter of all the seats. Those seats are valued at up to £25 million, and they are allowed to sell tickets for the seats on the secondary market, making huge profits. Does the Attorney General not consider that a conflict of interest, and will he allow the Charity Commission to refer it to the tribunal?
The hon. Lady has identified the core of the concern in this case. Before assessing whether I or the Attorney General should consent to the Charity Commission’s request, we invited both the corporation of the Royal Albert Hall and the Charity Commission to make further representations. We have received those representations, and we are in the process of considering them with a view to issuing a decision in due course.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 17 December—My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement, followed by a motion to approve the draft Online Pornography (Commercial Basis) Regulations 2018, followed by a motion to approve the draft guidance on age-verification arrangements 2018, followed by a motion to approve the draft guidance on ancillary service providers 2018.
Tuesday 18 December—Second Reading of the Mental Capacity (Amendment) Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 19 December—Debate on a motion on disability benefit, followed by debate on a motion on mental health first aid. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Thursday 20 December—Debate on a motion on Rohingya. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 21 December—The House will not be sitting.
Are you sure?
I am sure the House will not be sitting. The House decided.
The whole House will want to join me in thanking the police for their swift action following the incident in New Palace Yard earlier this week. We are enormously grateful for the work our police and security officers do to keep us all safe.
I am pleased to be able to spread some festive cheer to the House this morning, as the new edition of “Erskine May”, which is due to be published in 2019, will be publicly available on Parliament’s website, as well as on Parliament’s intranet and in hard copy, as normal. The first edition was published in the mid-19th century and new editions are published approximately every six or seven years, but this will be the first one publicly available online.
Finally, I encourage all hon. Members to visit the 209 Women exhibition on the first floor of Portcullis House, which begins tomorrow and will run until 14 February. It is being unveiled in time for the centenary of some women voting for the first time. I will be heading to the launch later to see the 209 photographs of female MPs, photographed by female photographers and curated by women. It is a fantastic way to round off the Vote 100 year.
It is very useful to have the fact of the prospective publication on the Parliament website of “Erskine May” advertised more widely, but there is nothing by way of news about it; I agreed to it, in consultation with Clerks, several months ago. It is very good that it is happening but there is absolutely nothing new about the fact of it.
I agree with you about “Erskine May”, Mr Speaker; the public will now be able to see what the Government are up to, so that is good. May I also acknowledge that the House has a female photographer, Jessica Taylor, who is absolutely marvellous? She does us all proud, because we all look better in her photographs, for some reason.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week. I do not know whether I heard her properly, but has she given us all the business for next week? I did not hear when the debate on the meaningful vote will resume. Obviously, it is not listed for next week, so when will it come back? Each week we stand here and we trust what the Leader of the House says and we trust the agreements we make. How can we continue to trust this Government? Their mantra is, “Nothing is agreed until it is agreed”, but it should now be, “Nothing is agreed ever.” Even now, the Prime Minister, having made an agreement with the EU, is saying that she will go back and find another way. The Government spent money, and Ministers spread out around the country, but the people they had to convince were here in Parliament. What did the Government do? They did not listen to Parliament—in fact, they told Parliament to shut up. The Leader of the House said this was “Parliamentary pantomime”, but it is not. The Opposition have used settled rules of Parliament to hold the Government to account. At each stage of this process, we have had to drag Ministers back to the Dispatch Box to give us financial information and other impact information on what is happening.
The Government have ridden roughshod over the democratic rights of Members. Mr Speaker, you sat through all the contributions and on one of the days we were here until 1.30 am. Hon. Members were here until then. Time limits were applied, showing that hon. Members had to be curtailed in their speeches. One hundred and sixty-four hon. Members were heard, and almost the same amount of other hon. Members had written their speeches and their contributions were stymied. The Leader of the House must say when they will be given the chance to make their case. Will the debate be resuming or will we have a debate on a new deal—which is it? The Prime Minister cannot amend the agreement, so it is, in effect, just an explanatory note, is it not? Can the Leader of the House clarify whether it will be an addendum or an explanatory note?
The Leader of the House said on Monday, and other Ministers have said this, that we will have our meaningful vote “soon”, “shortly” and “before 21 January”. She said five times on Monday that she is Parliament’s voice in government. Parliament spoke with the vote on the emergency debate on the cancellation of the vote—the vote was won by 299 to zero, which is more resounding than 200 to 117. So on Monday will she make a business statement to say when the meaningful vote will come back before Parliament?
We have had a number of statutory instruments given in the business for next week. I note that the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said that she will look at the draft Universal Credit (Managed Migration) Regulations 2018. Can the Leader of the House confirm that those regulations have now been withdrawn? We will also have the Draft Markets in Financial Instruments (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018 to consider. That statutory instrument is one of a large volume of items of secondary legislation. It sets up a functioning regulatory framework if the UK leaves the European Union without a deal. The size and scope of that SI are completely different. Because of the volume of potential legislative changes, the Treasury has set out a Keeling schedule, and it spent time and money setting out that schedule. As the Government are going to all that effort, will the Leader of the House please confirm that we will debate those regulations on the Floor of the House?
I note that a written statement on immigration is to be published today. So far, it has been impossible to access it; is it the immigration White Paper?
While the Government have been distracted in Committee Room 14, local councils have been waiting to set their budgets. I know that you get upset by points of order, Mr Speaker—or perhaps you do not; perhaps you like them—but my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) made one yesterday on the local government settlement, so I am pleased that there will be a statement on it later. I am also pleased that there will be a statement on the police settlement. I, too, offer my thanks to the police officers who contained the incident on Tuesday, and who keep us safe every day.
Yesterday, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister said that the Government are establishing a 10-year plan for the sustainability of the NHS. Where is it? The plan was promised in September, then in autumn, and then in early December, but still there is nothing. Will the Leader of the House say when it will be published?
The Government are running away from their responsibilities and leaving the country in a mess—so much so that the Prime Minister has said that she will not be around at the next election to be held accountable for her policies so far. There is something to celebrate, though: the tax on visiting Wales has ended, because the Severn bridge toll will end on Monday.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) for all her charitable work on the carol service—it all seemed to get lost on Tuesday. She has raised an enormous amount of money already, but is encouraging us to organise carol concerts so that we can all contribute and add to her charitable work. We have to hurry, though, because we have only 12 days till Christmas.
I am certainly grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning the lovely concert that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) arranged in St Margaret’s church. It was really wonderful, and we were treated to the rather amazing singing voice of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince)—who knew? It was a very enjoyable experience and was for a fantastic cause. We heard some extraordinary and heart-wrenching stories about the current plight of Syrians, so it was incredibly important.
The hon. Lady asked when the meaningful vote will come back to the House. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said on Tuesday, the Government will bring the debate and vote back to the House by 21 January at the latest.
The hon. Lady asked about the Prime Minister. She will understand that the Prime Minister came to the House to make a statement to say precisely that it is because she is listening to the debate in this House that she is going back to the EU, because she recognises that hon. Members require not only reassurances but legally binding reassurance that we cannot be trapped in a backstop permanently. That is what the Prime Minister is seeking. Hon. Members should rest assured that the Prime Minister is very much seeking to address the concerns expressed by the House.
The hon. Lady asked about statutory instruments. She will be aware that it is a matter of parliamentary convention that, if a reasonable request for a debate has been made, time is allowed for that debate. We have demonstrated during this Session that the Government have been willing to provide time, in line with the convention to accede with reasonable Opposition requests. I know that the Opposition would like to debate a number of statutory instruments on the Floor of the House, and we are looking at them carefully.
The hon. Lady asked about the immigration White Paper. I assure her that it will be published next week, before Christmas, shortly followed by the immigration Bill itself.
The hon. Lady asked where the NHS 10-year plan is. It is being drawn up by the NHS itself. The Government have provided the biggest ever investment in our NHS, and we are very proud to be doing that. It will transform services for all patients right across the country.
Will the Leader of the House please arrange for a Minister to make a statement next week on the preparations for leaving the EU without a deal, on World Trade Organisation terms? Perhaps she will arrange for such a statement to be made every week until we leave. No-deal preparedness is vital for the UK. So far, the Government have been shy in setting out what they have been doing.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend as someone who has worked very hard in Cabinet to make sure that we are doing absolutely everything we need to do to plan for every outcome. I sit on the sub-committee that is looking at day one readiness in all circumstances, and I can assure her that the Government’s preparations for no deal are well advanced, and that the Government will come forward with further information as soon as it is necessary to do so. However, to be very clear, the Government do not intend to have no deal with the European Union. We intend to have a withdrawal agreement that this House can support.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week.
Well, it is the morning after the night before, and, as the hangovers start to kick in, they will all be asking themselves, “What on earth did we get up to last night?”. As they survey the wreckage of the night of mayhem, we now find that we have a Prime Minister who has the confidence of only 200 Members of this House. She is a lame duck Prime Minister who would give waterfowl with walking sticks a bad name. A third of her party do not want her to lead them. Her credibility is in shatters and her ability to lead gone forever.
The main item of business next week should be a motion of no confidence in this rotten, divided Government. They are there for the taking, divided, wounded and unable to govern, and I have no idea what the Labour party is waiting for. We could be shot of them pretty soon, so if Labour is not going to put in a motion of no confidence in this Government, it will be left to the other opposition parties of this House to do so.
History will judge the decision to cancel Tuesday’s meaningful vote as probably the single biggest act of political cowardice this House has ever witnessed, particularly when the Leader of the House said to me definitively last week that under no conditions would the vote be withdrawn. If we look at the diary, we can see that there are only two weeks left to have that meaningful vote when we return in the new year, if it is not the Government’s intention to bring it forward next week. It cannot be the last week—the week leading up to the 21st—so that leaves the week that we return. I want the Leader of the House to come to that Dispatch Box and say that we will have this vote in that week.
Finally, we need an urgent statement about the decision of the Supreme Court to uphold the Scottish Government’s view that the continuity Bill is indeed within devolved powers. This Government are now developing a habit of losing constitutional cases to Scottish interests. Hopefully, this will now mean the end of the power grab and the attacks on the democratic institutions of our democracy in Scotland, but looking at Members on the Government Benches, I very much doubt that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for setting out the fact that those of us on the Government Benches do have confidence in the Prime Minister. Perhaps I can just set the scene for him: the Prime Minister won 63% of the vote, against 37% who did not support her, which means that she won that vote by a significant majority. In June 2016, this House decided to ask the people whether we should leave the EU or remain within it. A total of 52% said that we should leave, and 48% said that we should remain. That means that leave won, which is why we are leaving the EU—just for his information. He will recall that, in Scotland, there was a vote on whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom, and 55% voted to stay in, 45% voted to leave. That means that a majority voted to stay in the United Kingdom. I hope that that explains to him what a democratic vote is all about. [Interruption.] I say to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), who is shouting from a sedentary position, that he will recall that his no confidence vote in his leader was 81% for no confidence, but the Leader of the Opposition is still there, so the Opposition party also do not understand what democracy is all about; at least we on this side of the House do. I say to all hon. Members, once again, that the Prime Minister did not call the vote on the meaningful vote because she had listened to the very clear concerns of hon. and right hon. Members, and has gone back to the European Union to seek to address those concerns.
The hon. Gentleman asks about a no confidence motion. This House has confidence in the Government. If the official Opposition dispute that the Government have the confidence of the House, it is for them to test it via a motion under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the stress and anxiety caused by scam telephone calls and emails? Wicked individuals try to extort money from the most vulnerable people in society—the elderly, the frail and the simply too trusting. Surely this House could do something to prevent that from continuing to happen.
My hon. Friend raises an important matter about which all Members are very concerned. The Government fully understand that nuisance calls are quite stressful, particularly for vulnerable people, and we have been clear that there is no place for nuisance calls or texts in our society. In March 2017, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport provided a £500,000 grant to the National Trading Standards scams team to run a project that would provide telephone call blocking technology, particularly to vulnerable people. We continue to work closely with industry regulators and consumer groups to try to find effective solutions to this concerning problem.
I thank the Leader of the House for telling us the forthcoming business, and for the cordial meeting and welcome mug of tea yesterday afternoon.
After the famine comes the feast. We are blessed with two days of Backbench Business debates next week. I would like to put the mind of the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) at ease; before we knew that we had been awarded time in the Chamber on Thursday, we had already determined that we would hold the three-hour pre-recess debate in Westminster Hall, so that debate will still go ahead in Westminster Hall.
The Backbench Business Committee had been starting to feel a bit surplus to requirements, and I was reluctantly considering making an application to an employment tribunal for constructive dismissal, but I am glad to say that that is no longer required.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having a cup of tea with me yesterday, and for clearly setting out the needs and desires of many Back-Bench Members for particular debates. I am delighted that we have been able to accommodate some of them.
Funeral poverty blights our nation. That some of the poorest Britons cannot afford to give those they have cherished, and now for whom they grieve, a decent final farewell pains them and shames us. The bereavement fund was frozen a long time ago by a previous Government and is no longer fit for purpose, so will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister to come here and give details as to how that fund can once again be made effective? Perhaps that Minister might also provide a reply to the letter written by me, the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and others, requesting details of when the children’s funeral fund that was announced by the Prime Minister will actually begin to have effect. Each day’s delay adds fear to the heartbreak already felt by those who have loved and lost.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue in the Chamber. If he would like to send me the details of his inquiry, I would be happy to take the matter up on his behalf.
I call Jess Phillips.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
“She’s so cute. So sweet. I can’t wait to beat her.”
“Can she take a beating?”
Those are not my words, but the words of the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) while barraging two of his female constituents with thousands of sexual text messages. Last night, the Leader of the House’s party gave him and the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) the Whip back without any due process. What message does this send about how any process in this place can ever be trusted? I ask the Leader of the House to answer that question and also to tell me what matters more—political power or tackling victims of sexual harassment and abuse?
Order. Before I ask the Leader of the House to answer that question, which is an entirely proper question, can I just say to the hon. Lady that I trust that she notified the two Members concerned?
She has done, and that is absolutely proper. Thank you.
The hon. Lady will know that I am absolutely committed to changing the culture of this place and to seeing that everybody here is treated with dignity and respect. There has been a process that has been undertaken. It has been a decision by the Chief Whip. It is not something I have been privy to. But I absolutely assure all hon. and right hon. Members that the independent complaints procedure, which is not involved with any party political processes whatever, was established and designed to enable everybody who works in or visits this place to take any complaints that they have to an independent place for proper investigation and proper sanction to be applied.
On 15 March a private Member’s Bill in my name is scheduled; it would create a commission for a general election leaders’ debate. I know that on the first day back a Westminster Hall debate on this will take place because more than 100,000 signatures were provided to the Sky News petition. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Government intend to support my private Member’s Bill on 15 March—and, by the way, could we make it a sitting Friday?
I am always delighted to take up the requests of my hon. Friend and neighbour in Northamptonshire. He will be aware that I have tabled a motion to provide the House with an additional six sitting days—something that he was keen to see and that the Opposition sought to reduce to five. I do intend and wish to bring that back as soon as I possibly can. As to his request on whether the Government will support his private Member’s Bill, I actually do not know the answer to that yet, but I am very happy to meet him and discuss it.
Not all heroes wear capes—indeed, some of them wear aprons. I want to tell the House about David Jones, who has a butcher’s shop in Earlsheaton in my constituency, and has offered to provide any families who are struggling at Christmas because of universal credit with some food in order to see them through. He says that what he has seen is cruel and barbaric, because, despite Government assurances, people are going into his shop who have nothing—they have no money and they are forced to rely on food banks. Could we have an urgent debate on this?
Can I also repeat my plea of last year for all Members and staff of this House to include in their “out of office” messages for constituents the numbers for the Samaritans and other helpful organisations? This can be a very, very difficult time of year for many people, who sometimes turn to their MP as a last resort, so can we at least signpost them towards help while we are away.
The hon. Lady makes a really good point. I am sure that most hon. Members have helpful numbers for constituents to call—I certainly do, and also an emergency number to get hold of me as their local MP. I absolutely pay tribute to her for raising that. It is a very good idea.
I would also like to thank David Jones for his efforts, and all those who give so generously to contribute to, or indeed run, food banks. It is a fantastic contribution by our communities to those who are vulnerable. The hon. Lady will appreciate that we are seeking to ensure that nobody has to wait to receive money under universal credit. There is now a new contract with Citizens Advice to deliver universal support to make sure that everybody who is applying for universal credit can do so easily. As the Government have said, we continue to look at this roll-out, which is why we are doing it very slowly, but nevertheless I think we are making progress. It will be a very significant improvement on the legacy benefits system.
At the last Transport questions, I raised the vexed issue of Crossrail funding and did not get a very satisfactory answer. We have now heard that the Department for Transport is loaning the Mayor of London £1.3 billion, which has to be repaid, in addition to the £300 million provided in the summer. Worse still, this vital infrastructure project for London and the south-east has no opening date. Could we have a statement from the Secretary of State next week on what is happening and what controls will be imposed, so that the Mayor of London gets on and delivers this vital project?
I agree with my hon. Friend; that is a vital project. We have Transport questions on 10 January, and it would be appropriate to raise that then.
The Leader of the House will be aware that managed migration to universal credit is due to start in July 2019. The proposed regulations state that if claimants fail to make their claim by the deadline plus an extra month’s grace period, they will lose entitlement to transitional protections, which will put vulnerable people at huge risk. May we have an urgent debate, so that we can further review that aspect of managed migration and ensure that the least well-off and the most vulnerable in society are protected from these changes?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the application process for universal credit is much simpler and it is designed to help people get into work and then keep more of their benefits as they increase their hours. Having listened carefully to views expressed in the House, we have increased advances to up to 100% of the first full monthly payment, scrapped the seven days’ waiting, so that everybody can get their money on the same day, should that be necessary, and introduced a two-week overlap with housing benefit payments. Unfortunately, his party voted against those changes.
In the most recent Budget, we increased the amount that someone can earn before their universal credit is reduced, introduced a two-week overlap with various legacy benefits for a smoother transition and gave all self-employed people 12 months to get their business off the ground. That demonstrates a Government who are listening but, at the same time, are committed to rolling out a much better benefit than the ones it replaces.
The Leader of the House knows that I voted against the Prime Minister last night, but I accept the result of the vote. The Prime Minister won fair and square, and she is therefore entitled to have my support to continue as leader. She will get my support to continue as leader, as I hope she will from all my right hon. and hon. Friends.
The Prime Minister has said that she is going to the EU to secure significant and supposedly game-changing amendments to the withdrawal agreement. Will the Leader of the House assure us that we will get a full debate when that agreement comes back and will not just continue with the debate as we left it? Given how over-subscribed that debate was, can she assure us that the debate will last longer than five days?
I thank my hon. Friend; his approach is exactly right. Even if he did not support the Prime Minister, she won by a clear majority, and it is right that he now supports her.
My hon. Friend asks what the guaranteed amount of time for debate will be. He will appreciate that that decision depends on what the Prime Minister comes back with. She is seeking significant reassurances, so that she can bring back a withdrawal agreement that the House will support. It is not possible to set out the exact terms of resumption of the debate or, indeed, the terms of an entirely new debate until we see what the Prime Minister is able to bring back. We are certain that the debate and the vote will come back to the House by 21 January, and that time will be given for all Members to make a contribution to it.
My constituents and the country are crying out for certainty. Will the Leader of the House commit to amend our recess time and have the House sit before Christmas and/or from 2 January, if necessary, so that we can rule out a reckless no-deal Brexit? We urgently need to stop the contingency plans for our NHS, other public services and businesses right across the country from being triggered, because it will cost our country millions of pounds.
I fully understand the hon. Lady’s concerns. She will understand that the legal position at present is that, in the event that there was no agreement on our withdrawal and potentially the political declaration between now and the end of March 2019, the UK would leave the EU without a deal. It is right—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is shouting back at me, but I hope she will hear me out. It is vital that any Government make preparations for all outcomes. That is the right thing to do, in the country’s interests. It would be wrong of us to assume that a deal will be forthcoming and therefore to put down our preparations. We will continue to prepare for all outcomes, including no deal.
MidKent College in my constituency has recently had a good Ofsted report. It has played its part—it is at the heart of the local community—in creating over 20,000 apprenticeships since 2010. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the college? May we have a debate on further education colleges and apprenticeships?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating his further education college. It is absolutely vital that more young people are able to develop the skills they need to get the well-paid jobs of the future. We are transforming technical education through T-levels, and we will be investing an extra £500 million a year once they are up and running. That will build on our apprenticeship programme, which is creating 3 million quality apprenticeships that will change the lives of young people, giving them the skills they need for the future.
A constituent of mine was convinced to invest her life savings of £150,000—all of it has gone. When she threatened action against the PlusOption Trading company, it simply offered her a bonus payment to invest even more. It has ignored three letters from me. Further to the Leader of the House’s answer to the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), may we have a Government statement on, and an investigation by the Financial Conduct Authority into, disgraceful companies such as that?
The hon. Lady raises what sounds like a very concerning case. I encourage her to write on behalf of her constituent directly to the FCA, which, as she will know, is independent of Government.
A constituent has pointed out to me that the local government ombudsman will look only at cases that have a direct impact on a particular individual rather than taxpayers in general. He raised an issue about Staffordshire County Council, which I believe is very well run, but we need to have confidence in the decisions made in investigations by councils into their own activities. May we have a debate on setting up an independent arbiter or body that can look at the decisions made by county councils or other councils that are not subject to the local government ombudsman in order to give credibility to the decisions of local government?
My hon. Friend raises an issue that I am sure many hon. Members will have found concerning broader criticisms of the way in which councils go about their business. I am very sympathetic to him, and he may well want to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can discuss with a Minister the specifics of Staffordshire’s councils.
This morning, I received a letter from the Minister for Immigration, thanking me for my email correspondence of 5 February about a previous letter of 22 December 2017. May we have a debate about incompetence in the Home Office? I was raising a very serious matter about the delay in granting indefinite leave to remain to Sri Lankans who have sought political asylum and the impact on their ability to contribute to the UK. It is absolutely and woefully inadequate that I have had to wait almost a year to get any kind of response from the Minister of State. Actually, the Minister of State has changed in that time, and the response is still inadequate.
I am genuinely sorry to hear of the hon. Lady’s experience. She will recognise that correspondence units in each Department have turnaround times. That sounds like a very bad experience, so if she would like to send me the details, I will take it up with the Department on her behalf.
I am sure the Leader of the House will be as pleased as I am that Rugby is delivering new homes at three times the national rate—it currently has 17 sites for homebuyers to choose from—yet the Heart of England Co-op has chosen to push ahead with an application to develop a well-established recreation area at Oakfield, in a part of the town with limited facilities, against the wishes of the local community. May we therefore have a debate about the value of retaining open spaces so that young people can enjoy the great outdoors?
I am sympathetic to my hon. Friend; as constituency MPs we all have to find a balance between meeting housing needs and protecting the green and outdoor spaces around us. The national planning policy framework was updated in July, and it safeguards existing recreation areas unless there is clear evidence that the loss can be justified. As my hon. Friend knows, the planning system is locally led, so I hope that his planning authority has taken into consideration strongly held views about the recreation area in Oakfield.
The Government have faced repeated calls from Labour Members to bring privatised probation services back under public control. Following the shocking news that the largest private provider of probation services, Interserve, needs a bail-out, it continues to be awarded Government contracts, so may we please have an urgent debate about the future of privatised probation services?
The hon. Lady takes a significant interest in this issue, so she will know that Justice questions are next Tuesday, at which she might want to raise the matter. It is vital that offenders are properly supervised, and our reforms mean that up to 40,000 more offenders are being monitored than was previously the case. She raises an important issue, and I encourage her to take it up with Ministers.
Two days ago at the TechFest STEM in the Pipeline schools BP challenge in Aberdeen, students from schools across north-east Scotland battled it out to develop an ideal oilfield development plan for a fictional North sea oilfield. I am delighted to report, to what I am sure is an eager House, that a team from Westhill Academy in my constituency won the Maximising Economic Recovery accolade. Will my right hon. Friend join me not only in congratulating the staff and pupils involved, but in considering what more the Government can do to encourage more young people to get involved in STEM subjects in an engaging and exciting way?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating students at Westhill Academy. As energy Minister I had the chance to take part in a survival challenge in Scotland, before going out to an offshore oil rig; perhaps my hon. Friend could think about offering such a prize to some of those students. They would get in a pretend helicopter and be dropped from the roof upside down into a swimming pool —it is definitely exciting. He is right to point out the Government’s commitment to improving STEM subjects. The Government fund a number of programmes that aim to inspire more young people to study science subjects, such as the STEM Ambassadors programme and the CREST Awards, which encourage students to do STEM-related projects. I congratulate them all on their prizes.
Yesterday, the Conservative party lost any ounce of credibility in leading investigations into sexual harassment and bullying in this place when it restored the Whip to the hon. Members for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and for Burton (Andrew Griffiths). I am afraid it is thoroughly implausible that those investigations just so happened to conclude yesterday. How can we be assured that party politics are taken out of investigations into such allegations, and out of crucial appointments to committees that govern standards and privileges in this House?
The hon. Lady will be aware that parties across the House combined to develop the independent complaints procedure. It was right that we did that, and one key reason for doing so was to ensure that any future complaints would not have to go down party political routes. That was at the heart of the process, as was confidentiality for the complainant, and the complaints procedure has now been up and running for more than four months. A steady stream of complaints are being brought forward to it, and there are a small number of ongoing investigations. That is the right way for complaints to be brought forward in this House, to give people the assurance that party politics will not get in the way.
My constituent, Marion Finch of Muirkirk, had a lifetime disability living allowance higher rate award, yet when she was reassessed for the personal independence payment she was given only the standard mobility rate. While fighting the system her health deteriorated and, tragically, she died. Her husband is convinced that stress was a contributor to that, and on a point of principle he appealed the decision, which was then overturned. Will the Leader of the House, on behalf of the Government, offer an apology to Mr Finch, and speak to her Cabinet colleagues about the real effects of the Government’s welfare policy?
May I say how sorry we all are to hear of the loss of his constituent? It is always incredibly tragic for somebody whose health is deteriorating to then pass on. Our sympathies go to her widower. The Government seek at all times to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Since 2010, more money has been going into supporting those with disabilities to get into work and improve their lives than ever before. It is vital that we continue to do everything we can to improve people’s lives.
The Leader of the House has robbed me of the seventh chance to ask her where the Immigration Bill is. I thank her for that. Instead, I would like to know when, oh when, are we going to get our meaningful vote?
I am so sorry to steal the hon. Lady’s thunder. I thought she might be pleased with that news, but she has another challenge for me. As I have said, and as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) said: at the very latest by 21 January.
May we have a debate on Government Department response times? The Child Maintenance Service has been making me wait for an inordinate amount of time in relation to the case of my Carmyle constituent, Jamie Cameron. The CMS overestimated his salary by £100,000 and I cannot deal with his case until it responds. When can we have a statement from the Government about the woeful state of the CMS?
I am obviously not familiar with the specifics of the case the hon. Gentleman mentions. I suggest he seeks an Adjournment debate or asks a parliamentary question to Ministers to try to get information on his particular case.
As the Leader of the House knows, the Committee on Standards published a report this week recommending some quick wins that we could implement on the way to full implementation of the Laura Cox report recommendations, without prejudice to longer-term improvements. Will the Leader make time for a debate on that report and its recommendations, and a vote on the recommendations that we make and that the House will need to endorse?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for the speed with which she and her Committee have come forward with some quick recommendations on how to ensure more independence in the parliamentary scrutiny process. I pay tribute to her Committee for that. I have already seen the report and I will certainly look at finding time for a debate.
A century ago, Springburn in my constituency was a world centre for locomotive manufacturing. Last night, the heartbreaking news broke that the last locomotive works in Springburn, the St Rollox Locomotive Works which dates from 1856, is to close with the loss of 180 jobs. I am very confident that this could be avoided with a proper effort from Government at all levels. Will the Leader of the House seek to engage with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, so that we can have a statement or correspondence on what we can do to safeguard this crucial highly sophisticated and highly skilled centre for locomotive repair and overhaul in Scotland?
I am genuinely sorry to hear about the threatened closure of that plant. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to seek an urgent Adjournment debate, so that he can raise the issue directly with Ministers.
A UN report and space satellite images show that 1 million Uighur Muslims are in a mass internment camp where they are forced to undergo psychological indoctrination programmes. More recent reports show the widespread use of torture for those who resist. May I ask the Leader of the House to ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on what action our Government are taking with regard to this matter, or is it going to be business as usual where we do not want to upset powerful countries?
I share the hon. Lady’s enormous concern for the plight of the Rohingya people. It is absolutely appalling what is—[Interruption.]
I am sorry. I apologise to the hon. Lady. I heard Rohingya. I do apologise. Mr Speaker, may I ask the hon. Lady to repeat her question?
A UN report and space satellite images show that 1 million Uighur Muslims are in a mass internment camp where they are forced to undergo psychological indoctrination programmes. More recent reports show that those who resist are subjected to widespread torture. Will the Leader of the House ask the Foreign Secretary to come to this House to make a statement on what action our Government are taking in relation to this situation, or is it going to be business as usual where we never want to criticise a powerful country?
My sincere apologies to the hon. Lady for mishearing her the first time round. She is raising an incredibly important point. We have all been horrified to hear the stories of what is going on. We have International Development questions on Wednesday 9 January—[Interruption.] I certainly absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that it is vital that we do all we can in this country, and if she would like to email me, I can take this up directly with the Foreign Office.
Scotland’s parliamentarians and Scotland’s Government are on a bit of a roll at the moment, with legal victories in Supreme Courts across Europe against the British Government in the midst of the Brexit chaos. This morning, the United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament had the competence to pass its Brexit continuity Bill at the time that it did, and that Scotland’s chief Law Officer, the Lord Advocate, gave the correct advice and that the Presiding Officer of the Holyrood Parliament was wrong in this respect. However, what has happened is that retrospectively, through House of Lords amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 here, the will of the Scottish Parliament has been thwarted. Can we have a debate about how it is ridiculous to say that Scotland has the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world and about how the only way to protect people in Scotland and the Scottish legal system from the folly of this Tory Government is independence?
I think the hon. and learned Lady may have just asked that question of the Attorney General, which would have been the more appropriate place—[Interruption.] Okay, well perhaps she should have asked the Attorney General if she wanted the Law Officers’ advice on that. The answer that I would give is simply to remind her that Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom. It voted very recently to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom entered the European Community together and we will be leaving the European Union together.
The Leader of the House obviously does not expect the Prime Minister to get a meaningful concession in Brussels, because otherwise we would have a meaningful vote next week. While the chaos has been happening on the Government’s side of the House, will she join me in paying tribute to the outgoing First Minister in Wales, Carwyn Jones, and the new Welsh Labour First Minister, Mark Drakeford? Does she perhaps concede that we need to take some lessons in strong and stable Government from the Welsh Labour Government, who have delivered real changes for my constituents, including new schools, new hospitals, new further education colleges and real differences in public services? That is what happens when we have a Government focused on what matters to people, rather than one who are focused on the chaos on the other side.
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in thanking the outgoing First Minister for his service to the people of Wales and congratulate and wish all the best to Mark Drakeford, who is taking over. As to the other points that he raises, I am a huge, huge fan of Wales and all the amazing achievements of Welsh food producers, Welsh creators and Welsh farming communities, as well as the amazing culture and the wonderful walks, but less so of the Welsh Government—he will forgive me for making that point.
Yesterday, I learnt that another brilliant live music venue, Gwdihŵ, in my constituency and other long-standing local businesses are being forced to close to make way for unnecessary commercial development. Can we have a debate on what additional measures are needed across the UK to protect cultural assets against the threat of greedy developers?
I hope that the hon. Lady took the opportunity to raise that at Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions, which we just had. She will be aware that the Government do everything that we can to support thriving arts and culture right across the UK and that many of our towns are undergoing quite some change, because of the reduced footprint and the way that people are shopping differently, online and so on. The Government are doing what we can by reducing business rates and by encouraging thriving arts and culture. With regards to the specific issue that she raises, she might want to seek an Adjournment debate.
Cuba is undergoing a process to adopt a new constitution in February 2019. Unfortunately, freedom of religion and belief protections in the draft constitution have been deliberately weakened, and according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, some church leaders who have been standing up for stronger freedom of religious belief provisions have been threatened by the Cuban Government. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement or a debate on this very pressing issue?
The hon. Gentleman often raises the suppression of religious freedom and is absolutely right to do so. He will be aware that the Government entirely support the rights of all individuals to express their religious preferences. I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can raise the matter with Ministers.
I am absolutely delighted about “Erskine May” being online, not least because when I called for that on 2 November 2017, both you, Mr Speaker, and the Leader of the House, were ever so slightly sniffy about the very idea. I am absolutely delighted that we are united in wanting it online.
It is preposterous for us to delay endlessly the vote on Brexit. If we bump up against 21 January, businesses in this country will be wasting time, energy and money worrying about whether there will be a no deal situation. We need to get on with it. I say this to the Leader of the House: please ditch all next week’s business. Let us get on with the debate and get on with making a decision. That is what Parliament is for—decisions.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is delighted. I do not think Mr Speaker or I were sniffy.
On the hon. Gentleman’s main point on the meaningful vote, when hon. Members look at themselves in the mirror, they know full well that the country needs a decision to support a withdrawal agreement. We were looking at a decision not to support a meaningful vote. That is precisely why the Prime Minister decided that we would not go ahead with the vote—she was concerned that hon. Members would not support the withdrawal agreement. If he wants to come forward with a worked-out and negotiable alternative, that would be great, but the reality is that the Opposition have no alternatives to suggest. All they want to do is have a vote so that they can vote no. The Prime Minister, in the interests of the country, is trying to find a withdrawal agreement that the House will support.
Naturally I reject the accusation that there was any sniffiness in my attitude. The Leader of the House can answer for herself and has already done so. My recollection is that the House was advised that “Erskine May” was already available to Members online. In so far as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), leading the charge for progressive change, was making the argument that it should be more widely available online, I am happy to accept that. If that burnishes the hon. Gentleman’s credentials as a champion of progressive change and brings some happiness into his heart, that is a double benefit.
In my meeting with the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, she stated that Department for Work and Pensions auditors of health assessment reports offer recommendations only, but the independent assessment service told me that the auditor has the authority to overrule report justifications. In my constituent’s case, the auditors instructed that changes be made. May we have a debate in Government time to enable Ministers to explain these differences to the House?
The hon. Lady will be aware that we have DWP questions on the first day back on 7 January, when I am sure Ministers will be able to explain that to her.
As one of the 164 MPs who were called last week—I was called a little after midnight last Tuesday—I am very concerned by the suspension of the vote, not least because the Brexit Secretary might change again by the time we get to it. I tell the Leader of the House that kicking the can down the road is not a strategy for government, and that waiting for the sword of Damocles to fall on people’s homes, businesses and livelihoods, and our NHS, is completely unacceptable. She is deliberately pursuing a policy of running down the clock and spending taxpayers’ money in order to blackmail Parliament into supporting her deal. I tell her now that it will not work.
I ask you, Mr Speaker, whether accusing me of blackmailing the House is parliamentary language.
Yes, nothing disorderly has occurred because, if there were a suspicion of disorderly behaviour, I feel sure that I would have been advised thus. I think that the essential point was of a political character. I do not think anybody is making any allegation that would, if you like, detract from the right hon. Lady’s honour or be an imputation of dishonesty, because I feel sure that senior Clerks would have advised me. I think the essential charge was a political one, to which I am sure the Leader of the House is capable of responding.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
The hon. Lady will realise that—as I have just said to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—had we gone ahead with the vote, the House would have been very unlikely to support the withdrawal agreement as it stood. She says that in not holding the vote we are running down the clock. The point is that the Prime Minister listened to the views of the House, and has now gone away urgently to seek changes which will mean that the House can support the agreement—in other words, so that she can put to the House something that it will support in the interests of the country. It is not in the interests of the United Kingdom for the House to have a vote on something that the House does not accept. That is what would create the uncertainty about which the hon. Lady is concerned.
Order. It is an important point, colleagues, that was raised by the Leader of the House quizzically with me, and I have been confirmed in my sense that it was a metaphorical use of the term, and when I say I have been confirmed in that sense, I mean that I have been confirmed in that sense by professional advice of the highest order. So no impropriety has occurred. I have no objection to being asked whether there was an impropriety, but there was no impropriety at all.
Following the news this week about Interserve, the previous collapse of Carillion and the repeated failures of Capita, will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister from the Cabinet Office to come and make a statement about the functions of the Crown Representative system, which is meant to be the link between Government and strategic suppliers? When we see these large companies failing to fulfil their contracts, something is clearly not working in the scrutiny process.
The hon. Gentleman has raised a really important point. After the collapse of Carillion, it was clear that the Government wanted to carry out further reviews to ensure that public service provision and taxpayers’ money were protected at all times, and they have taken a number of steps to achieve that. As the hon. Gentleman will know, Cabinet Office questions will take place next Wednesday, and I encourage him to raise the matter with Ministers then.
It is welcome that the immigration Bill is finally to be published, but when will we have a chance to debate it? My constituent Robert Makutsa is stuck in interminable legal processes as the Government try to deport him through their hostile environment policy, although his wife is a UK citizen and he makes a valuable contribution to music and sound engineering in Glasgow. Will the Leader of the House ask the Immigration Minister to grant him leave, and when exactly will the Bill be debated so that we can seek to amend and reform this hostile immigration policy?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important constituency issue to which I am extremely sympathetic, and I applaud him for doing so, but I do not accept that the Home Office is employing a hostile environment policy. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is trying hard to change any sense that there is an unwelcoming approach to new migrants or, indeed, to existing migrants who are seeking the right to remain here. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise the specific point with me in an email, I can take it up with the Home Office on his behalf.
We are in an absurd position. The Leader of the House is berating Members for not supporting her Bill, but how can we engage with the Bill in any way, shape or form unless she brings it to the House? The Prime Minister has travelled around Europe this week, she has spoken to numerous leaders of countries, and she is going to the European Council at the weekend. There is nothing that she will know after Christmas that she will not know this weekend. She should bring back the Bill next week. Will the Leader of the House press her to do so? If not, she is the Leader of the House: just bring it back.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for attributing such magical powers to me, but, as he will appreciate, I am not able to do such a thing on my own. He talked about a Bill; he means, of course, the withdrawal agreement, and the meaningful vote.
I am not berating Members in any way. Having listened to the views of the House at great length over many weeks, I fully understand and, indeed, share the House’s concerns about, in particular, the prospect of the UK’s being stuck permanently in a backstop that we cannot get out of. However, I think that the House should give the Prime Minister an opportunity to seek amendments so that it can then support the agreement.
The North East England chamber of commerce is telling me that the uncertainty built into the future partnership framework will cost investment and jobs in the north-east of England, and it has asked me to achieve an outcome that leaves the UK in the single market and customs union, so when will I have a chance to end this business uncertainty by voting against the Prime Minister’s deal and for a public vote that includes an option to stay in the EU?
It is not Government policy to allow us to do anything other than leave the EU on 29 March 2019, and it is the Government’s policy to do so with a good deal that works for the UK and the EU.
The images of Christmas that are portrayed in advertising and on television are of families coming together, but the reality for many people is that this is a time of great loneliness. Although I appreciate that there is not time for a statement or a debate on the issue of loneliness, may I invite the Leader of the House and you, Mr Speaker, and all hon. Members to join me at the Samaritans reception on Monday at 4 o’clock in the Thames pavilion where we will be launching a report on loneliness, particularly among young people? Last year 1,660 young people took their own lives, and it is time that we recognised the epidemic that is loneliness in this country.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. She is right to raise this issue. Loneliness is an appalling scourge; whether for a young person at home with a new baby or somebody older who has perhaps been bereaved, it is absolutely appalling. We now have the first ever Minister for loneliness, as she will appreciate, and the Government are committed to a proper strategy for tackling this problem. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the Samaritans reception next week.
Following on from questions from my hon. Friends, the Prime Minister has been touring Europe this week and will be at the European Council this weekend. The Leader of the House has already announced the business for next week, including that the Prime Minister will make her usual statement after the European Council meeting. So why oh why can we not bring the meaningful vote back next week, since we know that the Prime Minister cannot open up the legal agreement and is merely seeking assurances? Is this not just a scorched earth policy from the Government to bribe Members of this Parliament to vote for a deal that we all know is flawed?
The hon. Gentleman rightly says that the Prime Minister will make a statement to the House on Monday after the EU Council. He asserts that she will not succeed in her negotiations. The Opposition have asserted all the way through that the Government’s negotiations will not succeed, but an agreement has been negotiated and the Prime Minister is seeking to further improve on it to address the concerns expressed by right hon. and hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister how that has gone on Monday.
Will the Leader of the House organise a debate in Government time on the planning system? My district council of Stroud has a proud record of delivering the numbers required and has met its five-year plan supply, but under the Government’s new formula there is a massive hike in the number of houses it is expected to provide. Much as we need houses, there must be some fairness in how that system operates, so will the Leader of the House organise a debate?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, we do need many more houses. We have a very good track record: we have delivered over 217,000 new homes in the latest year, which is the highest level in all but one of the last 30 years. That is good news, but there is more to do, and he is right that there needs to be a balance between the needs of those who already live in a community and the needs of those who want a home. He will be aware that local planning is a matter for local authorities, but I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can raise his local concerns directly with Ministers.
So in other news this week, the media have been reporting that Crossrail is about to get a £2 billion bailout to add to what it has already received—a total of, I think, £17 billion —and that is before we even start with Crossrail 2, which has an earmarked price tag of about £30 billion. The north, meanwhile, is getting nothing like those figures, so may we have a statement from the Transport Secretary on what is going on with the mismanagement and overspending of the Crossrail budget?
I sympathise with the hon. Lady. She will be aware that we have Transport questions in our first week back, on 10 January, and I encourage her to raise that matter directly with the Secretary of State then.
As we approach the holiday season, I should like to take this opportunity to wish teachers, staff and pupils a peaceful Christmas. I should also like to give credit to people who will not be with their families over the holiday period because they are helping to keep us safe and secure. May we have a debate in Government time on the role of those volunteers and professionals—people who are just doing their jobs and giving up time for their communities?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this. There are so many people working as volunteers, or doing their duty as police officers, local council workers and so on, who will enable the rest of us to have a lovely relaxing Christmas, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. He will be aware that there is a pre-recess Adjournment debate next Thursday, and he might well want to raise the matter again then.
About a month ago, Royal Mail contacted me to inform me that the Hope Farm Road post office in my constituency would be closing on a temporary basis. It explained the reasons for that and the interim arrangements that would be put in place. Unfortunately, no interim arrangements have materialised and the Post Office appears to have no plan to get it reopened. It is not even replying to my emails now. May we please have a debate on how we can hold this shambolic organisation to account?
I am sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman has had such a bad experience with the Post Office, and he is right to raise the matter here. I think he will probably now get an answer to his question in very short order.
Last week I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on child poverty in the UK. She dismissed my request and said that I was making assertions. She stated:
“Just because the hon. Lady makes those assertions, it does not make them true.”—[Official Report, 6 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 1069.]
I am going to try again. May we have a debate on child poverty in the UK? If any MP has any evidence that refutes the evidence given by the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Child Poverty Action Group and the United Nations rapporteur, let them bring that evidence to the debate. Let us have a proper debate on this, and let us find out the truth about child poverty in the UK on her Government’s watch.
I never dismiss the requests of right hon. and hon. Members. The hon. Lady did indeed ask for a debate on child poverty, and I merely sought to put right some of her assertions. I would say to her that we now have more children growing up in a home where they see their parents going to work and providing for their family, with 630,000 fewer children living in workless households. The numbers of people and children in absolute poverty are at record lows, with 1 million fewer people and 300,000 fewer children in absolute poverty. Income inequality is also down—it is lower than in any year under the last Labour Government—as the Conservatives have built a fairer and more equal society.
Regarding Europe, is it not now time for those on the two Front Benches to get together, perhaps even with you, Mr Speaker, to offer the House a timetable for the votes that we must have—namely, on the Prime Minister’s deal and, if that falls, on a further referendum, on no deal or on a Norway-style option—so that we can see how the land lies while we still have time to do something about it?
As I have said to a number of right hon. and hon. Members, the meaningful vote will be brought back by 21 January at the latest. Members will know that the Government are under a statutory obligation under section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to have the deal approved by a motion in the House, and we will do so just as soon as possible.
A large number of Scottish sports governing bodies have brought to my attention their growing concern regarding sports governance arrangements across the UK. Scottish sports and athletics are being undermined by the decisions and actions of UK bodies—the recent autocratic actions of UK Athletics are a case in point. The all-party parliamentary group on Scottish sport will be having a look at this soon. May we have a debate on the Floor of the House to enable Ministers to hear what Members have to say on this?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman took advantage of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions earlier today. I know that sports governing bodies are a matter of huge interest right across this House, and he might well want to seek a Westminster Hall debate so that all hon. Members can take part.
Local Government Funding Settlement
With permission, I will make a statement on funding for local authorities in England next year. Every day, councils and the many hard-working, dedicated people who work for them do their communities proud, delivering the essential services on which we all depend and making a difference to every life they touch. It is a privilege to be working with and representing those communities. In doing so, I am determined to ensure that they get the resources and support they need to rise to new opportunities and challenges, to grow their economies and to ensure that there is opportunity for all and that no one is left behind. The draft local government finance settlement being published today is an important step towards that. The provisional local authority funding allocations will be subject to further review before final settlements are made in line with my Department’s usual processes. This provisional settlement confirms that core spending power is forecast to increase from £45.1 billion in 2018-19 to £46.4 billion in 2019-20—a cash increase of 2.8% and a real-terms increase in the resources available to local authorities.
It has been challenging for councils to drive efficiencies as they have contributed to rebuilding our economy and tackling the deficit that we inherited from Labour. That is why I am delighted that the Budget committed around £1 billion of extra funding for local services, with a strong focus on supporting some of our most vulnerable groups. That includes £650 million for adult and children’s social care in 2019-20. Of that, £240 million will go towards easing winter pressures, with the flexibility to use the remaining £410 million for either adult or children’s services and, where necessary, to relieve demands on the NHS. That is on top of the £240 million announced in October to address winter pressures this year.
In addition, the Budget pledged an extra £84 million over the next five years to expand our children’s social care programmes to support more councils with high or rising numbers of children in care. That builds on the good work my Department is already doing through the troubled families programme to improve all services for families with complex programmes. The Budget also provided a boost for our high streets via a £1.5 billion package of support, including a business rates discount worth almost £900 million and a £675 million future high streets fund to help them adapt and thrive in changing times. In addition, a further £420 million will go towards repairing and improving our roads this year.
I recognise some of the pressures within social care. I have been working with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to address those pressures, and the Government will soon publish a Green Paper on the future of social care. It is a complex issue, and we are working with local authorities to ensure that we get things right. We have taken that approach across the board, listening carefully to councils of all shapes and sizes across the country and responding. My thanks go to my Ministers, especially my Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), for all their work. As a result, I can confirm that I will increase the rural services delivery grant by £16 million in 2019-20 to maintain it at last year’s level, recognising the extra costs of providing services in rural communities.
In addition, I am committing up to £20 million to maintain the new homes bonus baseline at 0.4% in 2019-20, to ensure that we continue to reward councils for delivering the homes we need. There will also be no change to the council tax referendum limits set for local authorities in 2018-19, aside from further flexibility offered on the police precept level. Authorities will have the flexibility to increase their core council tax requirement by up to 3% and can draw as needed on the adult social care precept to meet demand for services, but local residents will continue to be protected and be able to approve or veto any excessive rise in a referendum. Measures that I have agreed with the Home Secretary to allow police and crime commissioners to increase the police precept to £24 will help PCCs tackle the changing demands they face.
I am also conscious that so-called negative revenue support grant remains an issue in certain areas. Having consulted on options for addressing it, I am pleased to announce that we intend to directly eliminate the £152.9 million negative RSG in 2019-20 using forgone business rates. That will prevent any local authority from being subject to a downward adjustment to its business rates tariffs and top-ups, which could act as a disincentive to growth.
We have been listening, and we have been acting on what we hear. Nowhere is that more true than when it comes to answering calls from councils, over many years, for more control over the money they raise. Our plan to increase business rates retention to 75% from 2020 provides that and more, giving local authorities powerful incentives to grow their local economy. Under the current scheme, councils estimate that they will receive around £2.4 billion in business rates growth in 2018-19, a significant revenue stream on top of the core settlement funding I am unveiling today. It is therefore no wonder that councils are queuing up to get involved in the pilots we have been running to test the new approach.
I am delighted to announce that, in 2019-20, 15 new pilots will get under way in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, East Sussex, Hertfordshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, North and West Yorkshire, North of Tyne, Solent combined authority, Somerset, Staffordshire and Stoke, West Sussex and Worcestershire. We will also be piloting 75% rates retention in London and continuing the existing pilots in devolution deal areas.
I am also pleased to announce that every authority in England stands to reap the rewards of increased growth in business rates income, which has generated a surplus in the business rates levy account in 2018-19. We propose to distribute £180 million of levy surplus to all councils, based on need.
I am aware that a few authorities continue to undertake significant amounts of borrowing for commercial purposes. I share the concerns of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and others about the risks to which those local authorities are exposing themselves and local taxpayers. We are considering with Her Majesty’s Treasury what further interventions may be required.
We are also launching two further consultations today, on reforms to the business rates retention system and on the new approach to distributing funding through the review of relative needs and resources. There is little doubt that the current funding formula needs fixing and replacing with a robust, straightforward approach in which the link between local circumstances and the allocation of resources is clear. With those consultations, we are making important progress towards that and towards a stronger, more sustainable system of local government.
2019 is shaping up to be a big moment for local government, drawing together our plans for a new approach to distributing funding and increasing business rates retention, as well as the upcoming spending review. No one knows their local area like councils, which are at the heart of their communities, and we are supporting them to harness their vast local knowledge and networks—yes, to make the best of available resources and to increase efficiency, but also to innovate and improve the way we deliver services. We are working with local authorities to promote efficiency, and we will use that work to develop a package of support to help councils become more efficient and get better service outcomes. We will launch a continuous improvement tool in spring 2019, and we are championing authorities that are putting communities at the heart of service delivery.
The smarter use of technology is clearly pivotal to this work, and it has the potential to be genuinely transformative, which is why the digital declaration launched by the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks), to share and spread best practice is so important. The declaration is backed by a £7.5 million local digital innovation fund, and I am delighted to say that the first successful bids were announced last week to kick-start projects led by councils to promote service transformation.
There is so much excellent, inspiring work under way in our local communities, and it is right that we get behind it and have faith in the authorities that, day in and day out, always deliver. This settlement and the extra funding announced in the Budget reaffirm that faith, delivering a cash-terms increase of 2.8% and a real-terms increase in spending for local authorities in 2019-20; delivering extra support for the vulnerable, for quality public services, for our high streets and for local economic growth; and paving the way for a fairer, more self-sufficient and more resilient future for local government and a brighter future for the people and places it serves. I commend this settlement to the House.
First, let me thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement. But the real thanks have to go to our councillors, of all political persuasions and none, and to the frontline heroes who, despite almost a decade of austerity, have worked hard to keep our local public services going at the same time as demand has increased and funding has fallen through the floor. The under-resourcing of local government—the sector has lost 60p in every £1 of central Government funding, according to the Tory-led Local Government Association —and the reverse redistribution policies of his Ministry have exacerbated these problems, and he cannot hide from that fact.
Let us bust the myth—this might come as revelation to the Secretary of State and his Ministers—by pointing out that not all areas are the same. Some areas have greater deprivation and greater poverty, and greater demand for people-based services as a consequence, yet these same areas have fronted the heaviest cuts, and that is continuing—it is not ending. But the Government’s approach, as we have heard here again today, is to shift the burden on to council tax. He knows, and it is an inconvenient truth, that areas such as the one I represent and the one my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) represents cannot bring in anything like the resource from council tax that his own council can bring in, and that widens the inequality across England.
So can the Secretary of State confirm how much of the 2.8% that he has announced, to fanfare, is actually being raised through council tax rather than from central Government funding? Can he confirm that he is recommending an inflation-busting council tax rise this year to local government to plug his Department’s gaps? How will he therefore address the inequality issue whereby revenue support grant is distributed on a needs-based formula, but council tax revenue is collected and spent locally, meaning that the richest parts of this country will be able to raise sufficiently more than the parts of the country with real deprivation and real demand on public services? Can he confirm that his plans mean a £1.3 billion cut to RSG next year, offsetting the £1.3 billion of spending in his announcement? That really is the reverse redistribution that I talked about.
Does the Secretary of State agree with his official who told the Public Accounts Committee that the sector is sustainable only if it delivers only statutory services? The Secretary of State will know that councils deliver much more than the bare legal minimum—700 or more non-statutory services to be precise. We are talking about Sure Start centres, libraries, parks, museums and investment in youth—all are not included in his assessment of sustainability. So which of those should councils stop providing altogether, if they are to take the advice of his officials? The truth about this statement is that it was the actually the worst secret Santa ever, because much of what he has announced today was already announced by the Chancellor in his Budget—there is nothing new here.
On adult social care, we were told by the Tory-led Local Government Association that it needs £1.3 billion next year and £2 billion for children’s services, yet the Secretary of State has re-announced £650 million for both—not only that, but it could be shared with the NHS. How is that going to be split between services for adults, children’s services and the NHS? Can he clarify that? The Secretary of State says he is working with the Health and Social Care Secretary to soon publish the Green Paper on social care. Given the pressures that councils are facing, and the real heartbreak and misery experienced by service users, can he tell us how soon is “soon”? Or is this like the Brexit meaningful vote, whereby no date is ever given? The fact is that social care is in crisis. The promised Green Paper has now been delayed four times and it is more than a year late.
On public health, we have seen this week that health inequalities are widening, with life expectancy going backwards in the poorest parts of the country. After £700 million of cuts to public health budgets, and more cuts to come next year, all falling disproportionately on the poorest areas, why is the Secretary of State not doing more to protect those budgets from being used for what are clearly non-public health projects?
Two years ago on the steps of Downing Street, and again last night, the Prime Minister promised to build a country that works for everyone. At her conference, she promised to end austerity. But is it not the case that Brokenshire today delivered another broken promise? Food bank use has increased to the highest rate on record. Child homelessness has increased to the highest level in recent years. Yesterday, we were told that for the first time since records began, life expectancy has come to a standstill, and in some areas it is falling.
The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights warned that local authorities have been gutted by a series of Government policies. Although the Secretary of State may wrap up his statement in Christmas paper, when we unwrap the parcel we will still see poorer areas in this country getting poorer. Frankly, that should shame us all.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I am disappointed that he has not recognised the increases in spending that were set out in the Budget and that I have underlined, and the fact that I highlighted further spending in today’s statement. To take up his theme, one of my colleagues questioned whether the hon. Gentleman might be the Gwynch that stole Christmas. He should recognise that even in his local area there is Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, with an extra £5.6 million in core spending; Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, with an extra £4.5 million in core spending; and Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, with extra £3.6 million increase in core spending.
The hon. Gentleman should recognise the context of the work that the Government have done to clear upthe mess that we inherited. [Interruption.] No, no— the UK economy has grown for five years, there are 3 million more people in employment since 2010, and manufacturing has grown for its longest period in the past 20 years. I recognise that local government has contributed to the hard work involved in clearing up that mess. We know that the demand on local services has increased. We have recognised that in the statement and will ensure not only that councils have the tools and flexibilities to deliver efficiently and effectively, but that they will have the additional funding that I set out today. We are equipping councils well.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted several points about deprivation. The most deprived authority’s core spending power is 23% higher than that of the least deprived. We take council tax into account in funding and when we look into issues of equalisation. He also highlighted the issue of negative RSG. I addressed clearly and firmly in my statement how that will be dealt with.
On social care and the £650 million, the hon. Gentleman questioned the need for strong integration—strong working between our councils and our NHS—to deliver quality services. That is profoundly what needs to happen so that we are looking after the most vulnerable in our communities. I am sorry if those on the Opposition Front Bench do not acknowledge or accept that. It is a fact that 93% of local authorities recognise that the better care fund has promoted integration and improved joint working in their areas.
This is a statement and settlement that, yes, acknowledges and recognises the pressures on social care, and that there is more work to do in respect of the forthcoming Green Paper and on how we will apply the learning from local government to drive better services. I will continue to be a champion for local government and what it delivers and does in our communities. I am proud to support local government and that positive work within our areas.
Devon has successfully piloted the 100% retention of business rates, and it has injected an additional £20 million into Devon to support local economic growth and public services, but the pilot is due to end in March. Surely the whole point is to continue pilots that are a success. Can the Secretary of State provide any reassurance for Devon as to whether it will be able to continue, because it was not in the list of counties that he mentioned?
I recognise the challenges and issues over the business rates retention pilots. Not everyone has been successful in relation to the pilots for 2019-20. We are piloting on the basis of 75%. That is on the basis of the new system that is being introduced in 2020 so that we can properly understand how it will operate in practice. I will certainly highlight to my hon. Friend some of the other issues in relation to, for example, the rural services grant, and how that will be beneficial to her local community, but, obviously, we will look at the representations that are received through this provisional settlement.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
The Government’s austerity policies, as we have heard from the Labour Front Bench spokesman this morning, have been deeply affecting councils in England for many years. I have been in this Chamber listening to debates about the struggles that they have had. Those austerity policies have also hit Scottish finances, but, in contrast, the Scottish National party Government continue to treat local authorities very fairly, despite the fact that the Government have cut the Scottish budget by £2 billion between 2010-11 and 2019-20. There are some warnings from Scotland on match funding and pilots, because this Government also continue to short change local authorities in Scotland directly in other ways by their failure to match the city deal funding from the Scottish Government by £387 million. It is especially critical at this time for Dundee, which faces the prospect of losing 850 Michelin jobs, as the Tay cities deal falls short because the Government have failed to match the Scottish Government’s spending by £50 million
Mitigating Tory costs for local authorities will cost the Scottish Government £435 million next year. On pilots, the extra administration costs of dealing with the hard-hearted and shambolic roll-out of universal credit has meant that Highland Council, a pilot area, has run up costs of more than £2.5 million, which is directly attributable to the costs of universal credit. The council leader and I have written numerous letters to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and the matter has been raised with the Minister for Employment on numerous occasions. The questions are: when will the Secretary of State’s Government reimburse councils such as Highland Council and their tax payers and when will they live up to their responsibility for cities deals and make good on their shortfalls?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am pleased that he recognises the contribution that city deals have made in Scotland, the contribution that the UK Government are making in Scotland to ensure that that sense of growth and opportunity is felt very firmly, and how we contribute in that way to see that that is felt throughout our United Kingdom. I am sorry that, in some way, he does not fully appreciate and recognise the contribution that we are making. On the point that he makes more broadly in relation to universal credit, obviously, care and attention has been given to this matter by my colleagues, who I am sure will listen to the points that he makes. However, I say to him that the Scottish Government themselves have flexibility over welfare policy and over what they can do to deal with some of the issues and concerns that he has highlighted, and therefore that they have responsibility in that regard.
I welcome the change and elimination of negative revenue support grant; that is most important. Will the Secretary of State confirm also that outer London boroughs such as Bromley will in fact profit as a result of the increases that he has announced, but, when the former is revised, will he also bear in mind the need to take into account those authorities that have a track record of historic efficiency and low cost?
As my hon. Friend has highlighted, we do intend to directly eliminate the £152.9 million negative revenue support grant using forgone business rates. That will prevent any local authority from being subject to a downward adjustment to its business rates tariffs and top-ups that could act as a disincentive for growth. I am sure that he will look at the detail of this. Obviously, we have the business rates retention pilots of 75% for London and that long-term sustainable funding arrangement for local government.
At the time of the Budget, the Local Government Association, of which I am pleased to be a vice-president, welcomed the £650 million extra for social care, but contrasted it very clearly with the funding gap in adult and children’s services of £2.6 billion. That, it said, would lead to more than 1 million people not getting the care they need and, in the LGA’s own words,
“threaten other services our communities rely on”—
such as libraries, street cleaning and parks. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, for the majority of councils, there is no additional funding in this statement over and above the amounts announced in the Budget, which the LGA described as “inadequate”, and that, for the next financial year, this will mean further cuts and more austerity still being the order of the day for most local councils?
I recognise the work that the Communities and Local Government Committee does in scrutinising and challenging things in the way that it rightly does on behalf of hon. Members. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman will have noted what I said in relation to negative revenue support grant and other matters within the statement on additional funding that is being made available to local government. Yes, the £650 million is important to support adults and children’s social care and to deal with some of the pressures. That is why I also highlighted the specific fund to drive innovation to help councils that are struggling with some of those pressures to innovate and to make sure that we are raising standards and responding to the needs, acknowledging also that there is other income from council tax and business rates retention growth, too.
I welcome the help that the Government are providing for local high streets, and I urge the Secretary of State to make sure that the new Help for High Streets fund is up and running very soon and is providing help to local town centres in my constituency?
We will certainly be doing our utmost to ensure that councils are able to bid into the £675 million, knowing that, yes, there are challenges on our high streets; no one can deny that. There is a need for innovation and a need to see investment going in there, as well as a taskforce that will support that activity, learning and recognising very firmly the recommendations from the Timpson review, which has been of great assistance.
I was really disappointed with the announcement, as it really does nothing to address the growing inequalities across our country. One of the biggest problems, of course, is that much of local government funding is now based on council tax, and council tax is so very unfair. When will the Government revalue properties so that dwellings worth £300,000 in one area are no longer in the same council tax band as dwellings worth £100,000 in another area?
I am always sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady, but I will have to do so on that point. However, I can highlight the £3.5 million additional funding from 2018-19 to 2019-20 for Bath and North East Somerset unitary authority. Therefore, we do take account of the differentials in council tax and how grant is applied, and that is very firmly recognised and understood within the system.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that my constituents in Northumberland will benefit from the increases in the rural services delivery grant, which is a most welcome recognition of the rurality challenges with which our public services have to deal across my vast and very sparsely populated constituency?
As I have indicated, we acknowledge some of the real pressures within rural areas—some of the additional costs that come through from that—through the rural services delivery grant. We also acknowledge those pressures through the business rates retention pilot, which I am sure will be of assistance in my hon. Friend’s area.
I welcome the announcement of an increase in core spending power, but I estimate that it will be worth about £2.5 million in Knowsley. Set against that, however, the Secretary of State will be aware that Knowsley, with some of the highest need in the country, has also shamefully had the biggest cut in support from central Government, at £100 million. Is the Secretary of State not ashamed that need is now almost irrelevant to the allocation of local government funding?
I simply do not accept the core issue behind the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Indeed, we are undertaking the fair funding review, which will allow further reflection on and recognition of some of the pressures that are felt between councils. Knowsley will see an increase of £2.8 million between 2018-19 and 2019-20, which will mean core spending power per dwelling of £2,282.
To balance, in 2021 Hampshire will have cut a total of £560 million from its budget. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the difficulties faced by even the best-run councils?
I acknowledge the pressures that councils have been experiencing and the hard choices that so many have had to make to deal with the issues with the public finances to which we have had to respond. I hope that my right hon. Friend will recognise the additional funding announced today. Equally, as we head towards the spending review next year, we will look carefully at further efficiencies and opportunities to ensure that councils are sustainable for the long term.
Liverpool City Council and Knowsley Borough Council cover my constituency of Garston and Halewood. Both have been severely hard hit, with more than 60% of their Government grant removed. Will the Secretary of State explain how his announcement will help Liverpool City Council to meet the enormous gaps that have been created as a result of his Government’s policies?
The funding and allocations announced today certainly recognise some of the pressures that councils in Liverpool and elsewhere have been facing—for example, with regard to social care issues. It is important that we recognise those pressures and the growth that has been experienced. The additional funding will assist, but long-term reform is needed through the Green Paper and, in relation to the long-term funding situation, through the spending review. That needs to be addressed next year.
Essex County Council and Chelmsford City Council do an excellent job, and the real-terms increase is welcome. However, there are real pressures because the area is growing, with 16,000 new homes due next year. Will the Secretary of State look favourably on our housing infrastructure bid, and will there be another chance for business rates retention projects for those who were not called for this year’s pilot?
We are moving to a system in which 75% business rates retention will be the norm around the country. In relation to the housing infrastructure fund, we received a large number of bids worth almost £14 billion to deliver 1.5 million homes back in 2017, and further funding has been committed to that. We are looking carefully at this matter because we want to build the homes that our country needs and get the infrastructure in place to deliver them.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that local authorities are now housing 82,000 homeless families in temporary accommodation? Can he confirm that that has risen by 5% in the last year and by 71% since 2010, and can he tell us how much it actually costs local authorities?
I recognise the pressures of homelessness and temporary accommodation, and we have committed £1.2 billion across the board to respond to and deal with the issue. I am committed to dealing with some of the most acute pressures and issues, including rough sleeping. I want us to move towards a situation in which that is eradicated, and we get people into homes and give them the support they need. That is a clear priority for me.
I thank the Secretary of State and his excellent Minister for Local Government, who have given East Sussex County Council a great deal of time and support. I welcome East Sussex being added to the pilot for 75% business rates retention. Using this year’s figures, that will be worth an extra £3.6 million. Does the Secretary of State agree that projects such as the delivery of a new road and business park in East Sussex will mean more money retained by East Sussex, and more jobs and growth in the local economy for my constituents?
I welcome the innovation in East Sussex highlighted by my hon. Friend. That is what I see in local government—the real drive and desire to do the right thing for communities, and to see jobs, growth and prosperity. This Government will continue to support that.
Birmingham is reeling from the biggest cuts in local government history—£690 million, with another £86 million to come. Children’s centres are closing, and there have been cuts to school transport for disabled kids and to advice for poor people. The consequences are ever more serious, yet the Secretary of State seems to favour low-need, leafy shires at the expense of the great city of Birmingham. Does he not recognise that this is not a fair deal but a bad deal for the city, and that Birmingham has simply had enough?
No, I certainly do not acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s point. Core spending power per dwelling in Birmingham is around 10% higher than the average. I draw his attention to the extra £18.2 million that he will see through today’s announcements. We want to see the great city of Birmingham continue to thrive and flourish, which is precisely why we are supporting it.
This year is the last year of the multi-year settlement, so what happens to the 3% of councils that did not sign up to the efficiency savings? How are they treated? More importantly, what are the Secretary of State’s plans for the future of multi-year settlements, so that councils can plan for the future?
I firmly recognise the benefit of multi-year settlements. We have seen this through councils’ ability to plan and to drive efficiencies and effectiveness. As my Department prepares submissions for next year’s spending review, I will reflect carefully on the matter in order to recognise the ability for councils to plan, while also ensuring that we promote innovation.
Does the Secretary of State understand that there is a limit to back-office efficiency savings and the new income that councils can get? Since 2010, Lambeth has seen some of the biggest cuts of any council in the country. There is a rising demand in inner-city areas that we can do nothing about. Just how does the Secretary of State think that councils can continue to deal with this rising demand with the level of funding that they are receiving?
A lot of that demand is in social care pressures, which is why we have made these announcements. Equally, I recognise that there is a need for long-term reform and sustainability to ensure that we can meet the needs of the future. I am firmly discussing that issue with the Health Secretary as we look at the social care Green Paper. Core spending power in Lambeth is also above average for that class of council, but we will continue to reflect on the issue.
I thank the Secretary of State for our recent meeting to discuss a further devolution deal for Greater Lincolnshire. In his statement, he referred to promoting efficiency. Does he agree that more resources for frontline services could be released if we created more unitary authorities, and would he welcome such proposals?
I want to drive efficiency and effectiveness, and I recognise some of the incredible work that has already been undertaken. My hon. Friend highlights the issues of unitarisation, which we very much want to be locally driven. I will certainly be setting out my further thoughts on the conditions to be satisfied, knowing that there needs to be a unanimity of view or that we seek proposals from particular areas to make it effective.
In my previous role, I warned Suffolk County Council that reducing services in children’s centres would lead to increased numbers of children being taken into care. Does the Secretary of State accept that increase in demand for children’s social care is at least partially caused by cuts in preventive services such as children’s centres, and will his Department assess the correlation between children’s centre cuts and an increase in the number of children taken into care?
We are investing in prevention and ways to promote good standards across local authorities. That is why, at the autumn Budget, the Chancellor announced an additional £84 million over five years to work with a number of local authorities that are seeing high or rising demand for children’s social care to ensure that they improve their practice and decision making in delivering for those families.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement, particularly on the rural services delivery grant. There is no doubt that rural counties such as Suffolk do face specific costs. Will he outline specifically what this will mean financially for Suffolk?
The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks), has been highlighting the additional £400,000 for Suffolk in the rural services delivery grant. We are providing £81 million to the most sparsely populated areas in 2019-20, recognising the pressures that my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) has highlighted and just how important that is.
It is the season of goodwill, and I indicated to the diligent Parliamentary Private Secretary that I would like a copy of the hand-out questions, but I have had to make up my own.
Last week, I met the nursery heads and children’s centre leaders in south Bristol. We know that these centres are the greatest, most efficient driver of social mobility in the country. May I therefore invite the Secretary of State to south Bristol to meet those nursery school heads and children’s centre leaders to explain how, if they are not part of his assessment on sustainability for local authorities, they fit into the Government’s policies on social mobility and increasing skills for our country?
I was in Bristol just a few short weeks ago looking at the issue of homelessness, but I recognise the hon. Lady’s bid for me to look at some of the other important services and the work going on that is affecting her community. Yes, there are pressures on children’s social care—I recognise that, and it has been recognised in today’s announcement. I will continue to work with my colleagues at the Department for Education as we look at the spending review and ensure that we have a sustainable system knowing the pressures that are there.
In a similarly festive spirit, I can tell the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) that she has brought back fond memories for me, because in 1992 I fought the Bristol South constituency. Unfortunately for me, and probably for the benefit of the nation, the Bristol South constituency fought back.
You might have been my neighbour, Mr Speaker.
I very much welcome the increase in core spending for Somerset of 3.7% and, in particular, our inclusion in the 75% business rate retention pilot areas, which I and three colleagues from Somerset have worked hard on. I have just had a text from the leader of Somerset County Council saying, “This is excellent news and thank you.” Does this not demonstrate that our Ministers are listening, especially the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), and that they have at last realised that rural areas really do need some special attention?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and, indeed, to all the Somerset MPs who have highlighted to me some of the specific issues that have been engaged in. I welcome the feedback that she has relayed to the House on how we acknowledge some of the particular pressures in rural areas. It is interesting to note, Mr Speaker, that, by the sound of it, you came very close to going into the Bristol area. However, we will continue to focus on all areas around the country as we look at the spending for councils moving forward.