House of Commons
Wednesday 6 March 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
On the first day of Lent, we continue our feast of Northern Ireland business.
I am working closely with the main Northern Ireland parties to restore devolved government. I met the five main political parties on 15 February, and again—with the exception of one party—on 1 March. Northern Ireland needs a functioning Executive and Assembly, and that is what the Government are determined to achieve.
I commend my right hon. Friend’s efforts. What steps is she taking to ensure that Northern Ireland has good governance and political stability in the absence of devolved government?
My hon. Friend has made the important point that in the absence of Ministers at Stormont, it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that, when necessary, steps are taken to ensure that there is good governance. Yesterday we legislated to put the 2018-19 budget on a statutory footing, and today we will legislate to set the regional rates and cost-cap the renewable heat incentive scheme.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as in Scotland, it is vital for us to respect the need for devolution in Northern Ireland? Does she share my concern about the fact that four of the five parties in Northern Ireland want devolution to work, and only one party is holding up the process?
I think that all parties and all politicians in Northern Ireland want devolution to work. We want to find a way through this. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is no alternative to power-sharing devolution that is good and sustainable in the long term for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State knows, and the whole House knows, that there was violence on the part of dissident republicans even when we had devolution. However, given yesterday’s improvised explosive devices and the link to dissident republicans, can she tell the House whether there is any prospect of the security threat level being raised, and does she have any more information about the origins of those devices?
The threat level in Northern Ireland—the level of threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism—is “severe”, and there is currently no suggestion that it will change. I had a conversation with the Chief Constable this morning. In respect of the specific incident to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, these are the early days of an ongoing investigation, and it would not be appropriate for me to say anything further at this stage.
I thank the Secretary of State for that information, but she will understand the concern that is out there about those devices being sent through the post. May I urge her to ensure that the lack of devolution does not hamper the introduction of any powers or resources that the Chief Constable may need in Northern Ireland—or, indeed, here on the mainland—for the purpose of combating such a terrorist threat?
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman of that. Despite the lack of a devolved Executive, we now have a fully constituted Policing Board to ensure that we have proper governance arrangements in Northern Ireland. That step was taken after the House passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right: we need to ensure that the police have the powers that they need, throughout the United Kingdom, in order to challenge and deal with the threat of terrorism.
Given that the majority of the parties in Northern Ireland want the Assembly to be restored, would the Secretary of State consider restoring an Assembly of the willing?
My hon. Friend has made a good suggestion, which has also been made by a number of parties. However, the Government are steadfast in their commitment to the institutions established under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and its successors. I want those institutions to be fully restored, and that is what I am working to achieve.
One way in which the Secretary of State might rebuild some of the trust between the political parties that is necessary for the restoring of devolution would be to make political funding in Northern Ireland more transparent. Will she tell the House whether, and when, she will agree with the Electoral Commission, and backdate the funding legislation to 2014?
The measures that were taken in the House in respect of transparency of donations were taken with the support of the five main political parties in Northern Ireland, and with broad support across those parties. I will look carefully at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, but we must be clear about the need to ensure that such measures are supported in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State set herself a deadline of 26 March in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act. Has she asked her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to clear her diary so that she will be available to support that final push to restore devolution, as the Prime Minister was available in February 2018?
The Prime Minister takes a very keen interest in all matters in Northern Ireland; she has visited Northern Ireland on a number of occasions and regularly meets the main parties from Northern Ireland, both here in Westminster and in Northern Ireland. However, the hon. Lady is right to point out that the Act expires on 26 March and I am looking carefully at what we can do to ensure there is decision making after that date.
The Secretary of State and I have frequent discussions and meetings with Northern Ireland businesses; in the last few weeks I have met Newry chamber of commerce and trade, Thales, and Willowbrook Foods, and tomorrow I will meet Bombardier. The Government have provided £3.5 million for Queen’s Belfast precision medicine centre, £700,000 for Randox diagnostics, and £1 million for Northern Ireland SME research and development. This afternoon, we will legislate to hold business rates at a 0% real-terms rise as well.
I very much welcome that work, but what specific steps has the Minister taken to promote Northern Ireland internationally as a successful business hub and first-class place to invest?
The numbers speak for themselves: over 900 international companies have already invested in Northern Ireland, supported by Government investments such as the ones I have mentioned in global sectors such as biomedicine and defence. Political stability has been a key foundation of this success, which is why restoring devolved government at Stormont is critical.
How is the Minister going to reassure the business community today, after the very serious warning by the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Sterling, that there will be grave consequences if we have a no-deal Brexit?
I think a number of people will have raised their eyebrows at such politically charged comments from a civil servant. The point I would make is simply this: we have a meaningful vote coming up in this place next week where the Attorney General and the Prime Minister will be able to come back and tell us the fruits of their discussions in Brussels. The simple answer to avoiding any of the scenarios that people may or may not agree with which were being painted by David Sterling is to find a deal that will work and which therefore means we will not be in no-deal territory. That will, I hope, solve the problem for everybody.
Is the Minister concerned about the possible impact on small businesses of the changes proposed to non-domestic renewable heat incentives in the legislation that we are about to consider, and is he particularly cautious about advice he may be receiving from the energy Department, because it was that that Department that got us into this fix in the first place?
Without wanting to prejudge this afternoon’s debate—as my hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Chairman has said, we will be going through this in a lot more detail—he is absolutely right that the renewable heat incentive scheme has been the subject of a great deal of concerned commentary, because it has dramatically broken its budgets and is not a sustainable solution. I think everybody is treating any proposals with a great degree of concern and scrutiny because of that history, and I am sure we will have a chance to go through it in more detail, and we will try to ensure that any proposals that are legislated on do not suffer from the faults that existed in the previous version.
I have been married to a lady from County Armagh for quite some time. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Through my marriage I have come to know the image of Northern Irish food products, such as Black Bush, Tayto crisps and Flanagan’s most excellent sausage from the city of Armagh. Do the Government agree that marketing Northern Ireland’s special food could be one way to boost business in Northern Ireland, not just within the UK but to a world market?
Something that Britain and the UK have cottoned on to later than many other parts of the world is the notion of local food and its marketability, along with our ability to forge a local brand not just for food but for tourism more broadly as well. In congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his marital status, and his success in that regard, I am sure he is on to something important as well.
No reason to doubt that at all.
Leaving the EU: No-Deal Preparations
Leaving with a deal on 29 March is our clear objective, and that is what we are working towards. It remains, however, the responsibility of the UK Government to continue preparations for the full range of potential outcomes, including no deal. As we do so, and as decisions are made, we will take full account of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland.
The reality is that, two days ago, a senior official with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs told the Public Accounts Committee that even if border processes were announced today there would be
“insufficient time for traders who wish to comply to get ready.”
It was also admitted that while HMRC has been working on possible trade processes, it “cannot tell” traders. With 23 days to go to Brexit is that lack of clarity not an absolute disgrace?
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government are taking appropriate and responsible measures in the event that we end up with no deal, but there is a way to avoid no deal, and that is to vote for the deal next week.
Order. Just before I call the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), I hope that the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating him on a very special birthday today. I cannot believe that he is the age that I have been advised he is, but I suppose all things are possible. He seems in very good nick to me.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Let me assure you that, contrary to popular belief, my political conviction has not been moderated or mellowed by the passing of the years. The latest Northern Ireland budget included £16.5 million for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to prepare for Brexit. Will the Secretary of State tell us how much of that money is being allocated to the policing of border infrastructure, either at the border itself or some distance away from it?
Mr Speaker, may I join you in wishing the hon. Gentleman a very happy birthday? I hope that he gets to enjoy it, and to enjoy some more Northern Ireland business later in the day, which he can come and join us for. He asks about spending on policing. The Government have ensured that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has the resources that it needs, but it is down to the Chief Constable to determine how that money is spent and how it is used operationally. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that we made it clear in the joint report that we were committed to no new infrastructure at the border and no related checks or controls.
Once we have left the European Union, one of the important aspects of the economic make-up of our country will be how the UK shared prosperity fund works. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the fund will be run on a UK-wide basis, with the UK Government playing an important part on the ground in the devolved nations and regions of this country?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the UK shared prosperity fund will be an important part of our post-Brexit future. We are working as a Government to ensure that the UK fund is properly spent, and we will consult on it shortly.
The Secretary of State will have heard Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, yesterday in the Economic Affairs Committee in the other place downgrading his concerns around no deal as a result of national Government’s preparedness. Does she have the same confidence in the preparedness of the Northern Ireland civil service?
The Northern Ireland civil service is working incredibly hard on no-deal preparedness. My officials hold regular meetings with civil servants in Northern Ireland. It would be better if we had devolved government, because there would be Ministers to whom those civil servants would be accountable, but I repeat that the best way to ensure that we do not need any of this preparedness is to vote for the deal.
Yesterday’s letter from David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, gave the honest assessment that it was apparent that businesses in Northern Ireland were not adequately prepared for a no-deal Brexit. Who could possibly blame Northern Irish businesses for that, if the UK Government are not prepared either? Just ask the Transport Secretary. Given this stark advice, why will the Secretary of State not support the calls to take no deal off the negotiating table now?
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have enormous respect, when he says that the Government are not prepared for no deal. We are working towards preparing for all eventual outcomes, but we want to leave the European Union with a deal. We want to ensure that we respect the result of the referendum and leave with a deal, and the best way to do that is to vote for the deal.
Northern Ireland Assembly: Re-establishment
We debated this point at some length in the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill yesterday, and the frustration from all sides at the lack of a Northern Ireland Executive was palpable. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned earlier, she has met representatives of the five main political parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government recently, and I can confirm that discussions have been ongoing since then.
Does the Minister share my concern at the increasing polarisation of politics in the UK, and particularly in Northern Ireland? Is he satisfied that there is sufficient diversity and pluralism within political representation there to make the re-establishment of the Assembly a success?
We elect the politicians we deserve. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there are periodic calls for a greater variety of representation and range of representation in this Parliament and, I am sure, in Stormont. The difficulty in Northern Ireland is that Northern Ireland’s politics has been far more polarised for a long time. We are trying, collectively, on all sides, to usher it back towards the centre ground and co-operation at least.
Will the Minister acknowledge that the lack in re-establishing the Assembly is not down to this party? This party does not have red lines; one party is causing the difficulty, and that is Sinn Féin. Will the Minister acknowledge that?
I will quote the Labour party spokesman, who said yesterday that the existence of preconditions or red lines was frequently a facet of talks processes. The point is to get a process that allows us to overcome those preconditions. If we allow ourselves to be sidetracked in the first place by their existence, we will never get anywhere towards succeeding.
Stormont House Agreement: Legacy
The Government are carefully considering over 17,000 responses to the recent consultation on legacy. We are determined to replace the current system with one that is fair, balanced and proportionate, and which commands widespread support.
I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. She knows that our ability to secure a lasting peace depends on the support of all the communities involved. Will she assure the House that, when working to address the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, she will be considerate of our Army and armed forces veterans, many of whom are now pensioners?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am grateful to him, as we have been able to speak personally about this matter, and to hear his words of advice and wisdom, because he has great experience and expertise in this area, and I value his contribution. I want to ensure that what we take forward and legislate for—something that has been needed since the 1998 Belfast agreement—commands widespread support. It has to command support in this House, in the other place and in Northern Ireland, and it absolutely has to work for our veterans.
Well over 90% of the murders and injuries caused during the troubles in Northern Ireland were caused by acts of terrorism. Very few prosecutions and investigations are under way and innocent victims are being left behind, with thousands of unsolved cases. When will the Secretary of State address that issue and put in place a mechanism to investigate the acts of terrorism—over 90%—that caused those murders and injuries?
The hon. Lady sets out the figures very powerfully—over 90% of the killings during the troubles were at the hands of terrorists. Every single one of those was a crime. The under 10% that were at the hands of the military and police were not crimes; they were people acting under orders and instructions, fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way. I look forward to working with her more to ensure that we can deliver the much-needed reforms and changes that we all want to see—[Interruption.]
Order. I very much hope that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central is not indisposed. It is most irregular to beetle out of the Chamber before the exchanges on the question have concluded. The hon. Gentleman is normally the very embodiment of courtesy, so if he is not feeling well, I hope he gets well soon; if he is well, he had better get back into the Chamber sooner rather than later. It is an elementary rule that new Members must grasp: do not leave the Chamber until the exchanges on your question have been completed. I am sure you are all interested in the views that other people wish to express as well as in your own. I am sure I can say that without fear of contradiction.
EU Withdrawal Agreement: Backstop Protocol
My right hon. Friend asks what discussions the Secretary of State has had with Cabinet colleagues about the Irish backstop. The short answer is, a lot. The country and this Parliament seem to have been discussing little else for weeks, and it is the same with knobs on for the Cabinet.
Surely, never has something so important, namely Brexit, been put at risk in preventing something that will never happen, namely a hard border in Northern Ireland. Why will the EU, the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom Government simply not attach an instrument to the withdrawal agreement, making it clear that we will never impose a hard border in Northern Ireland? That can be achieved in time and with good will, first with customs arrangements, then with a free trade deal backed by technology. It is so simple—let us do it.
My right hon. Friend raises a creative potential legal solution, which he discussed in an Adjournment debate two weeks ago. The whole House will know that the Attorney General is currently involved in detailed negotiations on how to modify the backstop in line with Parliament’s wishes. Ultimately, it must be for him to judge whether my right hon. Friend’s proposal gets him closer to a legally effective solution that will allow him to change his advice. I will make sure that the Attorney General is aware of the proposal so that he can incorporate it if it is worth while.
From the Minister’s discussions with ministerial colleagues, can he indicate whether they are indicating to him that, at this very late stage in our discussions with the European Union, a sliver of light is beginning to emerge that the EU understands the need for a fundamental change to the backstop?
I suspect that is well above my pay grade. I am sure we would all want to hear what the Attorney General and the Prime Minister have to say when it comes to the meaningful vote next Tuesday.
The threat from dissident republican terrorism continues to be severe in Northern Ireland. This Government’s first priority is to keep people safe and secure. Vigilance against this continuing threat is essential, and we remain determined to ensure that terrorism never succeeds.
Can my right hon. Friend shed light on reports in The Times that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary plans to bring forward a limit on the prosecution of veterans in the Queen’s Speech? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) argued in The Daily Telegraph, we must stop gesture politics and start delivering natural justice.
My hon. Friend should not believe everything he reads in the newspaper. I assure him that I am working closely with the Defence Secretary, the Attorney General and Members on both sides of the House to ensure we can deliver a new system that works for the people of Northern Ireland, that works for the victims of terrorism and, very importantly, that works for our veterans and retired police officers.
Where are we with the European arrest warrant in three weeks’ time?
The way to guarantee that the European arrest warrant continues in three weeks’ time is to vote for the deal.
There has been a bomb attack in Londonderry; there have been various shootings across Northern Ireland; and we had three parcel bombs at Heathrow airport, London City airport and Waterloo station yesterday originating from the Republic of Ireland—at least the postage did. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with her equivalent in the Republic of Ireland to address these issues, which clearly show that the Republic of Ireland is a haven for terrorists?
We discussed the matters of cross-border security and east-west relations at both British-Irish Intergovernmental Conferences in the past 12 months. Close work between the Garda and the Police Service of Northern Ireland is imperative to ensuring the safety of us all.
Would the Secretary of State care to take the opportunity from the Dispatch Box to thank my constituent Alastair Hamilton, the soon to be former head of Invest Northern Ireland, for the 10 years of great service he has given to Northern Ireland in attracting the highest levels of inward investment our country has ever seen?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is referring to the contribution that investment has made to the security of Northern Ireland, and he will notice that I have my Invest NI pen with me.
The idea that the European arrest warrant should be left to the lottery of whether the Prime Minister gets her legislation through simply cannot be in the interests of the people of this country. Will the Secretary of State now get a grip, talk to the Prime Minister and insist that we get the European arrest warrant sorted, irrespective of the outcomes in this House next week?
I want to see access to the European arrest warrant, or a similar instrument, continue into the future. As a Minister in the Home Office, I worked very hard to ensure that we have access to the European arrest warrant as a United Kingdom, and I want to see it continue, but I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that there is a mechanism to ensure all these matters continue, and that is the withdrawal agreement—that means voting for the deal. [Interruption.]
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) to ask his second question, let me say that a lot of noisy private conversations are taking place, including on the Government Benches, where I am sure Members wish to listen to their illustrious Secretary of State as she replies to the inquiries put to her.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State knows that the security situation also depends on trust. When David Cameron was Prime Minister, he recognised the special circumstances of the Pat Finucane case and established an independent inquiry into those circumstances. The Supreme Court decided last week that that was a flawed process. What remedy does the Secretary of State propose, unless it is indeed a second public inquiry?
The judgment from the Supreme Court on the Pat Finucane case came out last week. It is a complicated matter, because although the judgment says that the article 2 obligations on the Government have not been thoroughly fulfilled, it does not suggest the next stage forward. I am looking carefully at the judgment and considering the next steps.
UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
The Government recognise the sensitivity of this issue and the range of views expressed by stakeholders on all sides of the debate. We take our obligations under the convention seriously, including having had positive dialogues with the committee very recently.
On 25 February, at CEDAW, the Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland raised a series of concerns, including on the lack of a gender equality strategy and a violence against women strategy, on a gendered approach to post-conflict transition not being applied and on the disproportionate impact of UK Government policies such as the two-child policy and the rape clause. What is the Secretary of State going to do about this? Why will she leave women in Northern Ireland behind?
I absolutely disagree that that is what this Government are doing. We are determined to ensure that we fulfil all our obligations on human rights matters. Many of the matters raised by CEDAW need to be legislated for in Stormont, which is why we need devolved government in Stormont sooner rather than later.
The Secretary of State will know that in Northern Ireland many women believe that both lives matter. Does she agree that this is an issue to be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive and that we should respect the devolution settlement? It is disappointing that the Scottish National party wants to breach the devolution settlement.
I do agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that. Interestingly, even the majority of those people who say in polls that they want to see change to the abortion laws in Northern Ireland—about 64%—are very clear that they want those changes to be made in Stormont.
Order. Colleagues, we are joined for Prime Minister’s questions today—I know that the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) will be keenly interested in this announcement, rather than in his own no doubt fascinating private conversation—by the former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Australian high commissioner. They are both extremely welcome. We value our excellent relations with your country. We admire your nation. We respect your cricketers. And a lot of us have a particularly high regard for your illustrious tennis players. From this Speaker’s point of view, none was greater than the illustrious “Rockhampton Rocket” Rod Laver.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure the whole House will join you in welcoming our Australian friends to the Gallery, Mr Speaker. I am reminded of the occasion when another former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, visited this House. He watched Prime Minister’s questions and commented afterwards that however lively PMQs was here, it was a vicarage tea party compared with Australia.
The death of anyone through an act of violence is an appalling tragedy. A growing number of young people have lost their lives in a cycle of mindless violence that has shocked us all. Our thoughts and prayers are with the friends and families of all the victims. The responsibility for these crimes lies with the perpetrators of them, but we must all do more to ensure that justice is served and to tackle the root causes of this violence so that we can bring it to an end and ensure the safety of our young people. I will be holding a summit in No. 10 in the coming days to bring together Ministers, community leaders, agencies and others, and I will also be meeting the victims of these appalling crimes to listen to their stories and explore what more we can do as a whole society to tackle this problem.
I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Professor Lord Bhattacharyya who died, sadly, last week. His creation of the Warwick Manufacturing Group was truly a pioneering partnership between academia and industry. Our thoughts are with his family and friends, and I know he will be sorely missed.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks and pass my condolences on to the families and loved ones of those who have been the victims of tragic crimes this week.
Britain spent £27 billion on bailing out the banks, and they have repaid us by closing down 3,000 branches since 2016, including the last branch in Grange this week. They have also failed to compensate innocent customers who have lost £2 billion in fraud. Does the Prime Minister agree that the banks have taken without giving for far too long, and will she meet me so that we can force the banks to compensate the victims of fraud and the communities that they have abandoned and prevent them from closing the last branch in town?
The hon. Gentleman talks about banks closing branches; of course, as people’s behaviour in terms of their access to their finances changes, banks respond to that. They are commercial organisations and those are decisions that they take. He talks about compensation, which is of course an issue that has been raised across the House in the past, and it has been taken up and is being looked at by the financial services ombudsman.
I thank my hon. Friend, who has put forward a positive suggestion for Members of this House, during Lent, to vote with the Government in the meaningful vote. Then, of course, across the House we would all be able to give up being a member of the European Union on 29 March.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lord Bhattacharyya, who died last week. As she said, he was a champion of the car industry and manufacturing in general, and he played a key role in saving Jaguar Land Rover, not only safeguarding jobs but, crucially, ensuring that international research is done in the UK. We thank him for everything he did.
Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, and I am delighted that for the Opposition the debate will be opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), who is herself the daughter of people from the Windrush generation. We will be making the case for closing the gender pay gap, as we are determined to improve the lot of women in our society. In that vein, may I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on giving birth to a son this morning?
I join the Prime Minister in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of those who have lost young people. Yousef Makki and Jodie Chesney, both 17 years old, were the ninth and 10th teenagers murdered already this year. Two hundred and eighty-five people have been stabbed to death in the past year—the highest level ever. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has announced that Cobra is being convened, but what extra funding is being provided to address the root causes of both knife crime and the increasing levels of violent crime on the streets of all our towns and cities?
First, I join the right hon. Gentleman in congratulating the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on the birth of her son. We are all pleased to hear that that has gone well. In relation to International Women’s Day, I am pleased that today marks the launch of the book by his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), “Women of Westminster: The MPs Who Changed Politics”. I hope that that book will be an inspiration to other women to come into politics and have a career in this House. I congratulate the England women’s football team, who last night won the SheBelieves cup, defeating Japan in doing so.
The right hon. Gentleman raises the specific question of knife crime, which I referred to in my opening comments. Of course, as I said, any death of a young person through an act of violence is a terrible tragedy, and we have seen too many young lives—too many lives of promise and potential—being cut short. Responsibility for these terrible crimes does lie with the perpetrators, and we will always stand with the victims to ensure that criminals are brought to justice. We will defeat the scourge of violence only if we understand and address its complex root causes. Yes, that does mean ensuring that all agencies, including the police, have the right resources and powers to do their jobs. It means tackling the drug crime that is fuelling gang violence in our cities and exporting it across the country, and it means intervening at every stage to turn young people away from violence, and that is exactly what the Government are doing.
Many of us in this House will have sat in the living rooms of homes where a young person has lost their life through knife crime and will never forget that experience and never forget that feeling of hopelessness and loss that those families are going through. We owe it to those families and those young people who have lost their lives to do far more about knife crime and far more about ensuring that there are sufficient resources for the police to deal with it. Sara Thornton of the National Police Chiefs Council said:
“We think we need much stronger leadership from Government…and there needs to be more funding.”
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner said yesterday that, of course,
“there is some link between violent crime on the streets…and police numbers.”
A total of 21,000 police officers’ jobs have been cut. Violent crime is at the highest level since comparative records began. If there are sufficient police numbers, can the Prime Minister please explain why, yesterday, the Defence Secretary was offering to send in the military to assist with knife crime?
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner has recognised that the causes of knife crime are complex, and she has said:
“The police alone won’t sort this issue out, we can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”
I agree, which is why we need to tackle it across a number of fronts. We must continue to enforce the laws that bear down on violent crime. That involves the Offensive Weapons Bill in which we introduced the knife crime prevention orders. Those orders were asked for by the police, and we are introducing them. We will intervene early to stop young people going down into a life of crime and becoming involved in crime. We have published the serious violence strategy, and the serious violence taskforce is working. We have also put £200 million into the youth endowment fund, and our early intervention youth fund has already funded 29 projects working with police and crime commissioners. We do ensure that police have the right resources: £460 million more is available this year and nearly double that—nearly £1 billion extra—is available next year. We also need to ensure that we understand the different use and misuse of drugs that is fuelling much of this crime. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has set up the independent drugs misuse review, which will be led by Dame Carol Black.
The police clearly do not have the resources to deal with the problem: safer neighbourhood teams have been cut and community police officers have been cut. Many areas see no police officers at all. There is nobody to supervise these special orders that the Prime Minister is talking about. Perhaps she will listen to Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor of Greater Manchester. Tragically, his 17-year-old relative was recently stabbed to death in Birmingham. He said:
“When you reduce police numbers by 21,000…there isn’t the intelligence any more, there isn’t the neighbour policing any more”.
Does the Prime Minister now regret the cuts in police numbers, and in this review will she undertake to restore them to their former level?
As I have just indicated, we are putting more resources into the police. [Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Members standing up saying, “No, you’re not.” It is a fact that more money is being put into the police this year and that more money is being put into the police next year. The real question is not are we putting more money into the police, because we are, but why did the Labour party oppose that money going into the police.
Violent crime has doubled under the Tories’ watch. I have had a letter from Mike in Gosport—[Interruption.] Yes, it is important; he has something to say. Mike says:
“The crime rate has run out of control because there is no police presence…it has become a really unsafe town to live in”.
I think Mike speaks for millions of people around the country. When are towns such as Gosport and others going to get resources for the safer neighbourhood teams, and the local police they need to tackle rising violent crime and to provide the intelligence from which arrests can be made of those who have committed these crimes?
As we make more resources available to the police, they are available to forces across the country, including Hampshire. Of course we look at the powers and resources that the police need. That is why we are not just putting more resources in, but increasing the powers that the police have. We introduced knife crime prevention orders in the Offensive Weapons Bill. That is an important step, which we have taken because the police asked us to. If the right hon. Gentleman wants the police to be able to do their job on the streets, he needs to tell this House why he voted against the measures we introduced to increase the powers of the police to deal with those carrying knives and to apply custodial sentences in the cases of those who are caught twice carrying knives.
Crime went down when Labour was in office. We increased the numbers of police officers and the safer neighbourhood teams. Police officers are telling me that there are simply not enough of them to do the job. Hampshire alone has lost 1,000 police officers, and its funding has been cut by £70 million. Does the Prime Minister understand the scale of need here?
The Local Government Association says that local services face a funding gap of £3.2 billion this year. By the way, that is double—in one year alone—what the stronger towns fund is offering over seven years. The number of rapes, murders and other serious crimes committed by offenders on parole has risen by more than 50% since the privatisation of the probation service was introduced four years ago. At least one company wrongly classified offenders as low risk in order to meet Government targets. Do the Government now accept that privatising the probation service to profit-making companies has been a disaster that should be reversed, and that the probation service should be brought back completely into the public service?
When we are looking at issues of probation, we want to ensure that we are genuinely reducing the level of reoffending. That is about a rehabilitation method that looks at a variety of issues, including the home of an individual coming out of prison, their employment and their relationship with their family. This was not done fully under the last Labour Government, which is why we saw such a high level of reoffending rates and it is why we need to take action.
The right hon. Gentleman keeps raising these issues, and I welcome the fact that he is accepting that dealing with serious violence and knife crime requires us to act across a number of areas. For example, it is about the work that we are doing with young people, and supporting intervention in hospital accident and emergency departments. We are expanding our support to the charity Redthread, which has introduced its youth violence intervention work in hospitals in Birmingham and Nottingham, as well as in London. We are also supporting the £3.6 million national county lines co-ordination centre.
In just two separate weeks of law enforcement action, we have seen more than 1,000 arrests and 1,300 individuals being safeguarded. We commend all the police officers and other agencies involved in that work. The Government are giving them the support that they need to do their job.
The problem is that violent crime has doubled. The rise has been driven by austerity—something that the Prime Minister told us a few months ago was over. Cuts to police and rising poverty; the police and the Home Office recognise the link, even if the Prime Minister does not. But the issues are wider: the privatisation of the probation service has been a disaster; mental health services are under-resourced; youth and children’s services are in crisis; more than 600 youth centres have been closed; 3,500 youth workers have lost their jobs; funding for colleges and schools has been cut; and exclusions are rising. The public services that were there to support young people have been systematically stripped away, and everyone can see the consequences. Can the Prime Minister not recognise that there has to be a holistic response? We cannot keep communities safe on the cheap, with cuts and privatisation. We have to invest in all our communities in every part of this country—something that this Government are incapable of doing.
We put more money into our local authorities; the right hon. Gentleman voted against it. We put more money into our police—[Interruption.]
Order. There is a very discordant noise from Opposition Back Benchers. The question has been asked—and, broadly speaking, heard—and the answer will be heard.
We have put more money into our schools—£2.6 billion over these two years. We are putting more money into our local authorities—£1.3 billion next year, voted against by the right hon. Gentleman and the Labour party—and more money into our police: nearly £1 billion extra available to them next year, voted against by the right hon. Gentleman and the Labour party.
The right hon. Gentleman stands up here and talks about austerity. If he is that concerned about austerity, you would think that he would want to make sure that it could never, ever happen again. Let us remember why we had to take those measures—because of the state of the economy left by the Labour party. But what would his policies mean? Higher borrowing, higher taxes, crashing our economy, less money for our public services—he would take us right back to austerity, square one.
I recognise that this is an issue of real concern to many constituents. That is why we have committed to clamping down on those agents who abuse the system and protecting leaseholders and renters who are suffering at the hands of rogue agents, every day, from unexpected costs or from poor-quality repairs for excessive fees. We have asked Lord Best to chair a working group to look at regulating and professionalising property agents that will include reviewing the standards around the transparency of service charges and other fees and charges—how they are presented to consumers—and putting them into a statutory code for managing agents. But I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will have heard the issue that my hon. Friend has raised and be happy to meet him to discuss this further.
Tove Macdonald is 87 years old. She was brought up under Nazi occupation in Denmark. She has lived in Scotland for 59 years. Why, Prime Minister, is she being forced to register in a country she has called home for almost the last 60 years?
We want to ensure that EU citizens who are living here have their rights protected. We want to be able to ensure that they have the necessary support that they need and, indeed, the recognition of their status here in the United Kingdom. If the right hon. Gentleman is interested in defending and protecting the rights of EU citizens here in this country, then I hope he will vote for the deal, which does exactly that.
What a disgrace—a woman who has lived here for almost 60 years, and the Prime Minister wants her to register to stay here. Tove has children. She has grandchildren. She has married in Scotland. She has friends here. She has built her life here. Why is the Prime Minister making Tove register after almost 60 years? Will she end this heartless policy? Will she tell Tove and all EU citizens who have come to the UK to work, live and love that the UK is their home, without precondition?
We have consistently said to EU citizens who have been living here for many years, as in the example that the right hon. Gentleman gave, and others who have come here more recently that we recognise the contribution they have made to our society and our economy, and we want them to stay. That is why we put EU citizens’ rights at the front of the negotiations with the European Union. It is why we have negotiated those citizens’ rights in the withdrawal agreement, and it is why this Government have given a confirmation and a guarantee that those rights will be protected even if we leave with no deal. That is the right way to protect the interests of EU citizens here in the United Kingdom. The right hon. Gentleman should recognise the commitment that this Government have given to all EU citizens in the United Kingdom. This is their home. We want them to stay, and they can stay.
The case that my hon. Friend raises is one of great concern, and I know that Members across the House will want to join me in sending our sincerest sympathies to Breck’s family. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Breck’s mother for her brave and powerful campaigning on the wider issue of internet grooming.
The Ministry of Justice has assured me that it is urgently looking into this issue, and I am sure it will update my hon. Friend as soon as possible. I agree with him; we want social media companies to recognise the responsibility they have and to work with law enforcement agencies. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has written to my hon. Friend, to meet him and hear more from the family. It has become increasingly difficult for UK law enforcement to access data containing information on threats to UK public safety if it is held or controlled in other countries. That is why the Government recently legislated—we passed the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Act 2019, which will give law enforcement agencies the power to obtain electronic data controlled by providers outside the UK where an international agreement is in place. He mentioned the United States; we expect to establish the first such agreement with the United States.
As the hon. Gentleman knows full well, we have been investing in the north of England. We have been investing in transport across the north of England. We have been investing in our public services. We are investing in the health service, and the north-east will benefit from that as well. Since 2010, in the north-east, there are over 35,000 more small businesses, more than 18,000 new affordable homes, and over 305,000 children are in good or outstanding schools. That shows that the hard work of this Government is paying off, and the people of the north-east are benefiting.
Earlier this week, the owners of the Westgate shopping centre in Basildon terminated Smart Parking’s contract after a disastrous nine months of operation. I have now discovered that Smart Parking has signed a shared business services agreement with the NHS. May I ask my right hon. Friend to ensure that, before any contracts are signed, the Department of Health and Social Care fully researches the impact that the practices of Smart Parking would have on its users, customers, clients and staff?
Obviously, my hon. Friend has raised an important issue, and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will be happy to meet him to discuss this further.
I think the hon. Gentleman is a living example of devolution of powers from Whitehall out to the areas through the mayoralty that he is serving. We recognise the discussion and debate there has been on the issue of Yorkshire devolution. The One Yorkshire proposals did not meet our criteria for devolution, but my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary has met Yorkshire leaders and discussions are continuing. However, the priority remains the implementation of the agreed Sheffield city region deal, which will bring £900 million of investment to the local area, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome.
It was with profound sadness that I saw my constituency this week join the all-too-long list of areas across our country to have lost a precious young person to knife crime. The public do not want to see politicians throw blame at one another for these stolen lives; they want to see them take responsibility for what is within their control, provide resource if resource is necessary and then demonstrate a relentless and total commitment to snuffing out violent crime. I welcome the announcement of an emergency summit, but what action will the Prime Minister be taking after that constantly to drive performance on these issues until we get the result the public rightly demand—to keep children safe?
May I say to my hon. Friend, as I did earlier, that any death of a young person at the hands of violence is a terrible tragedy? I recognise, as she says, that her constituency has seen just one of the latest examples of a young life cut short far too early. I also say to her that, yes, as I said, what we are doing is bringing together Ministers, local government, police and others—other agencies. This needs to be a cross-society approach to deal with this issue, because it is not just about catching the perpetrators of the crime; it is about preventing the crime from taking place in the first place.
That is one of the reasons why the Government will be launching a consultation on addressing this as a public health issue. There has been excellent work done under what was Strathclyde police force, now Police Scotland, looking at and using the public health approach. What that does is ensure that all agencies—not just across Government, but in local government and elsewhere—are able to be brought together to deal with this issue. What I want to do at that summit is to hear directly from those agencies what further action the Government can take, which we can then put in place to deal with the issue.
I think the hon. Lady has discussed the issue of delaying Brexit with me before, and I just simply say to her that this Parliament gave the people of the United Kingdom the decision to choose whether to leave the European Union or to stay in. They chose to leave the European Union. I think for trust in politics it is important that the Government deliver on just that.
Mr Speaker, you are right that the former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is very welcome here today. As he said in a lecture last night:
“If a state-sponsored adversary has enduring access to staff, software or hardware deployed into a target telecommunication network, then they only require the intent to act in order to conduct operations within the network.”
Given that Chinese law obliges all Chinese companies to assist the Chinese intelligence services, will the Prime Minister explain what the implications are for British Government policy?
We look at these issues very seriously. As regards the issue of 5G security, we are looking at the right approach that we need to take. We want to be able to benefit from that new technology, but of course we need to manage the risks closely and we are considering a full range of policy options. Our review into 5G is still ongoing and no decisions have been taken.
We entered the European Union as the United Kingdom; we will leave the European Union as the United Kingdom. I also say to the hon. Lady that the SNP has no mandate from the Scottish people to continue to pursue independence. [Interruption.]
Order. Calm! [Interruption.] Difference of opinion is the essence of politics. There is an elaborate combination of finger wagging and head shaking going on, which may be personally therapeutic but is institutionally disadvantageous. In any case, we owe the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) a decent hearing. I call Rebecca Pow.
Mr Speaker, I am not sure who is in charge of the washing machine in your house, but were you aware that every time you, I or anyone else puts a load of washing on, 700,000 tiny microfibres get washed down the drain and into the marine environment, causing untold damage?
It is a shared responsibility.
The 68 million loads of washing done in the UK every week contribute a staggering 9.4 trillion microfibres to the environment. As many colleagues, including me, try to reduce their plastics use for Lent, in a campaign masterminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), will the Prime Minister agree that this is a great time to address the issue and carry on this Government’s great record on the environment?
I think that by now the wash would have been completed. [Laughter.]
Despite the laughter, my hon. Friend has raised a very important issue. May I thank her for continuing to be a champion of our environment? She did an enormous amount of work that led to the Government ban on microbeads, and she is now raising the issue of microfibres. She mentions that Members across this House are seeking to reduce their use of plastic during Lent. I think that it is incumbent on all of us to seek to reduce our use of plastic, not just during Lent but for the time to come.
The hon. Lady has raised a specific issue with me, which I will look into, but she says we did not respond on the question about AggregateIQ. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution has written to her about this and responded to her query.
Women’s football is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. I hope you, Mr Speaker, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will welcome the £70 million investment Cheshire Football Association is putting into developing a women’s football training centre in Winsford. May I invite the Prime Minister to come and open the facility—and take part?
I thank my hon. Friend for her invitation. Earlier, I was pleased to congratulate the England women’s football team. I am sure the whole House will recognise the important work being done by Cheshire FA. I think it is a very exciting project. I welcome its commitment to providing this new world-class facility for women and girls’ football in Cheshire. I will look very closely at her invitation. It sounds very interesting, but of course I cannot commit my diary on the Floor of the House.
Obviously, the hon. Lady raises what sounds like a very distressing individual case. I will ensure that the appropriate Minister writes to her.
Last week, MPs heard harrowing testimony from family members of a man who tragically committed suicide because he faced the loan charge, a 20-year retrospective tax facing thousands of families in my constituency and across the UK. On 9 January the Prime Minister said that the Government accepted the review into the loan charge, yet the all-party group on the loan charge was only advised this week by the Treasury that there is no such review. The Treasury has acted in bad faith, so will my right hon. Friend now personally intervene to ensure a genuine review and an urgent delay of the loan charge, so that the review, as promised, can be carried out?
My hon. Friend raises an issue which is of concern not only to his constituents but others’ across the House. I will ensure that he receives a response from the Treasury that sets out exactly what is being done in the review that is taking place.
We recognise we have asked schools to do more. That is why we recently announced an extra £350 million to support children with complex special educational needs. That includes an extra £250 million into the high needs budget across this year and next. That builds on the £6 billion in place for this year, the highest level on record. We have also put in an extra £100 million to create new school places to improve existing facilities for children with special educational needs and disabilities. That takes our total investment on that to £365 million through to 2021. The hon. Gentleman raises the question of the money actually going direct to the schools. I suggest that he needs to sit down—I am sure he has—with the local authority and discuss with it how it is using the money that is being made available to it.
This week marks the beginning of Brain Tumour Awareness Month, and I bring the House’s attention to the event that is happening immediately after Prime Minister’s questions in Westminster Hall. Good progress is being made to find the right care and cure for people who have brain tumours, but will my right hon. Friend meet me and others to discuss how we can improve the life chances of children and young people who survive a brain tumour but are left with brain injuries? Essential therapies and support for children and young people in this situation is not consistent and often lacking, leaving them with significantly impaired life chances.
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue and I thank the all-party group on brain tumours for all the work that it has done on this issue. It is essential to recognise the needs of parents and carers of children to ensure that the right support is in place when and where they need it. That is why those diagnosed with cancer, including children with brain cancer, will be benefiting from a tailored recovery package, individually designed to help them to live well with and beyond cancer. As my hon. Friend mentions, not just dealing with the cancer, but thereafter is an important element of this. NHS England is accelerating the roll-out to ensure full implementation by 2020, as recommended by the independent cancer taskforce. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will be going directly to the event that my hon. Friend refers to, and I am sure that the appropriate Minister in the Department for Health and Social Care will be happy to meet to go through this in detail.
We have been clear that the current system for dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past is not working well for anyone. Around 3,500 people were killed in the troubles; 90% were murdered by terrorists. Many of these cases require further investigation, including the deaths of hundreds of members of the security forces. The system to investigate the past does need to change to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors of the troubles, but also to ensure that our armed forces and police officers are not unfairly treated. That is why we are working across Government on proposals to see how best we can move forward. We are carefully considering the very large number of responses that we received to the consultation on this issue. We will be publishing our next steps in due course and the MOD is looking at what more can be done to ensure that service personnel are not unfairly pursued through the courts, including considering legislation.
The SNP Scottish Government have resurrected Alex Salmond’s call for a Scottish currency. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is reckless and risks destabilising the Scottish economy?
I seem to recall that, back in the 2014 referendum, the SNP were absolutely adamant that Scotland would keep the pound. There have been a few changes since then. They have looked at the option of the euro, then they went back to sterling, and now they are into an independent currency. This Government are working to secure a Brexit deal that protects jobs and our economy. The SNP should focus on that rather than continuing to pursue their independence fantasy.
May I gently say to colleagues that I am trying to accommodate as many Back-Bench Members as possible? This applies to both sides of the House: some extremely serious public purpose-focused questions are being put, but they are too long.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
On the ESA underpayments, obviously mistakes should not have happened and we need to clear this up as quickly as possible. The DWP is taking the issue very seriously. It has about 1,200 people working on sorting it out. We have already paid out almost £330 million. The Department expects to finish correcting the majority of the original cases by April and it aims to process additional cases by the end of the year.
Yesterday, pupils from Tweedmouth Community Middle School won the national Modeshift STARS trophy for secondary schools for its amazing work to encourage more pupils to cycle to school. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the school, its head, Mr Hulbert, and his team of staff, who are committed to creating a fitter, greener and more environmentally focused next generation of Berwickers?
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking and congratulating Tweedmouth Community Middle School on its excellent work encouraging pupils to cycle to school. It is clearly an excellent achievement. We all know the importance of keeping our young people active. I congratulate Mr Hulbert and all the teachers, but particularly the students who have taken this up and put it into practice. It is a very good example of what schools are doing across the country.
The hon. Gentleman has raised a distressing case about a constituent. We have taken steps to ensure that medicinal cannabis is available, but decisions on availability are taken by clinicians, as is absolutely right.
I welcome the publication of the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, and I hope it will pass successfully through the House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as well as tackling extreme abuse and violence, we should also raise awareness of the entry level acts of coercion, deceit and manipulation that lead to more extreme examples?
My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. People will obviously have seen distressing cases of coercion and indeed some instances where that has been taken through the courts. We all need to recognise the importance of dealing with domestic abuse and recognise that for too long the issue of coercion was not accepted or addressed. It is important. It is this Government who are doing that. As he says, we must be very clear about the entry level behaviours that lead to that distress.
The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that has been raised on several occasions. Of course, the Government have responded on this and I would be happy to write to him on it.
This Ash Wednesday, will the Prime Minister give strong encouragement and support to the 48 Conservative MPs who are taking on an environmental challenge because we have seen the devastating impact of plastics across the world? Will she give a big shout-out to all Members of the House taking on a plastics pledge and raising the good work of Tearfund and the Department for International Development in reducing plastic pollution?
I was pleased to see many hon. Friends giving up plastic last year, and I am pleased to hear that many colleagues are planning on supporting Tearfund’s plastics pledge. Through UK Aid Match, the UK Government will match donations of up to £2 million raised by Tearfund’s supporters for a project in Pakistan. We are committed to the UK being a world leader in tackling plastic pollution. Hon. Members are showing by their example the role that the UK is playing, and I congratulate and applaud them.
The Prime Minister will recall the advice she received from her Conservative colleagues as well as mine about the dangerous folly of making landlords responsible in criminal law for immigration control. Following the High Court ruling of Mr Justice Spencer that her policy is now increasing the risk of racial discrimination, will she not accept that her policy is fanning the flames of racism in return for nothing but tougher rhetoric about immigration control?
It is absolutely right that the Government have taken the approach that we need to consider, when people are accessing different services, whether they have a right to be in this country. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has issued a written ministerial statement in response to the case in the courts and I understand that the Government are appealing the case.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I will come to the right hon. Gentleman, but I think there is a point of order from Mr Ian Blackford. I hope it is a genuine point of order.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is disappointing that the Prime Minister, who was alerted that I would be making a point of order, has chosen to scurry from the Chamber. Mr Speaker, you will agree that what we say in the Chamber is important. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), the Prime Minister said that the Scottish National party did not have a mandate for independence. Let me say unequivocally that is not the case. The SNP stood on a manifesto commitment to holding an independence referendum if there was a material change of circumstances. It might be a surprise to the Prime Minister, but we won the election. Perhaps more importantly, we took a motion to the Scottish Parliament, because there is emphatically a majority for independence in that Parliament, and we won that vote in March 2017 by 69 votes to 59. I wonder what mechanism is open to me, Mr Speaker, to make sure the Prime Minister comes back and corrects the record and accedes to the fact that the SNP and the Scottish Government do have a majority and mandate for independence.
I say to the right hon. Gentleman and for the benefit of those interested in this matter, first, that he has made his point with vigour and insistence, very much in the mould he has fashioned since his election to the House. No one could be in any doubt about what he believes; it is one the record. Secondly—I do not know if this will be welcome to him, but it is the honest answer from the Chair—there has been no procedural impropriety or breach of order. There is nothing untoward, in parliamentary terms, about how the Prime Minister has conducted herself. I recognise that it is disagreeable to and strongly objected to by him and his colleagues here assembled, but that, I am afraid, is in the nature of political debate and disagreement. As to when he will have a chance further to pursue his disagreement with the Prime Minister, I think that opportunity will arise ere long.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.
I hope the hon. Gentleman has a genuine point of order. He is certainly wearing a fabulous tie. Whether his point of order is of equal quality remains to be seen, but I will give him a chance.
I accept the compliment about my tie, which is reciprocated.
The truth is that what the Prime Minister said is not the situation in Scotland. There is a mandate for independence. She said there was not a mandate, but there is. That is a fact.
I am not sure that greatly added to the intellectual quality of the exchange, but nevertheless the hon. Gentleman has made his point with some force, and it is on the record, but I do not think it requires a response from the Chair at this time. I am sorry if I have misunderstood, but I feel he has put his point, and it rests and will be assessed and evaluated by all colleagues.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Next Tuesday, the House will vote again on the withdrawal agreement. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union was due to appear before the Committee yesterday but cancelled for perfectly understandable reasons—he was in Brussels with the Attorney General negotiating. We of course accept that, but we have offered him other times this week and next Monday afternoon, none of which have been accepted so far.
While we understand that negotiations will continue, I was very surprised to learn this morning, at a meeting of the Committee, that the Secretary of State’s office had offered times to individual members of the Committee for him to meet them later on Monday afternoon, but had not so far confirmed that he would be available to appear before the Committee. Given that next Tuesday we may well be considering further legal assurances related to the withdrawal agreement, the Committee is absolutely clear that we must hear from him before we vote on Tuesday.
I would not normally raise a point of order on such a matter, Mr Speaker, but given its urgency and the profoundly unsatisfactory state of affairs, what advice can you give the Committee so that we can secure the Secretary of State’s attendance—which is his job—before we vote next Tuesday?
My advice is simple: persist, persist, persist.
Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman, who is held in the highest esteem in, I think, all parts of the House, that if he, on behalf—and clearly with the agreement—of the Committee, seeks the presence of the Secretary of State prior to an important debate and attendant vote, the Secretary of State should appear before the Committee. That cannot be compelled, certainly not by the Chair, but it is manifest and, I think, incontrovertible that it is desirable in terms of the scrutiny and accountability process; from which something else follows.
Simply offering individual meetings with members of the Committee does not remotely pass muster. The fact is that the Select Committee is an established body in the House, established to scrutinise the Government’s Brexit policy, and it has a corporate character. Indeed, its members are operating not merely as individual Members of Parliament, but as part of a body politic—in this case, as part of that Committee. So my advice to the right hon. Gentleman is that he should persist, making it absolutely clear that it is the view of the Committee that the presence of the Secretary of State is desired. It is frankly, if I may say so, a point so blindingly obvious—[Interruption.] Be quiet, young man. In ethical terms, it is so manifestly fair, that that is what should happen.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This Friday I will attend the funeral of Charles Smith MBE. When he died at the age of 98 he had been a member of the Labour party for 84 years, which I believe made him the most long-standing member of the party. In paying tribute to him, may I ask for your guidance, Mr Speaker, on how I might use this opportunity to encourage everyone in Parliament to celebrate all those people who have given long service to our political parties, to recognise that the vast majority of them do so in order to support their communities and the country, and to recognise that our political parties are broadly a force for good and we should welcome their membership?
I do not dissent from that. The hon. Gentleman has made his point very well. It does not require anything further to be said by the Chair, but I congratulate him on taking his opportunity.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have been extremely helpful in ensuring that Parliament can hold the Executive to account in respect of knife crime. Given the Prime Minister’s announcement today of a knife crime summit and given what the Home Secretary has done today in meeting various police chiefs, is there anything further we can do to ensure that, at the earliest possible opportunity, either the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister comes to the House to give us an update on this extremely important issue?
In terms of parliamentary opportunity on the Floor of the House, there is a chance tomorrow, and, indeed, there is a chance on Monday. The opportunities are there, and it is up to Members whether they seek to seize those opportunities. I hope that that is helpful to colleagues.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you please advise me on how I can best clarify the record in respect of a comment that I made during business questions on 20 December 2018?
On that occasion I highlighted the work of two campaigns in the city of Glasgow. One, Saving Lives, led by Duncan and Margaret Spiers, was started in the wake of the tragic death of their 28-year-old son, Christopher Spiers, in an accident at the River Clyde in 2016. Their campaign seeks to promote water safety, to ensure that vital life-saving equipment is provided on the banks of the River Clyde and across Scotland, and, most importantly, to ensure that throw ropes are attached to lifebelts. I also mentioned the Think Again campaign for emergency lifeline telephones to be installed on the Clyde to help those who are in urgent need of emotional support.
For the avoidance of any doubt that may have arisen at the time of my original remarks, Mr Speaker, I wish to emphasise that the two campaigns are separate, with distinctive objectives, and that both are doing excellent work in their respective ways to preserve life in the city of Glasgow and further afield.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He asks me how he can best clarify the record in respect of what he said in the House in December. My response to him is that he has proved to be the architect of his own salvation. Through the device of his point of order, he has succeeded in clarifying the matter and putting the facts very clearly on the record. In the process he has highlighted again the excellent work of those two campaigns, and I thank him for doing so.
Social Security and Employment Support for Disabled People
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement on the changes that her Department intends to make to social security and employment support, including the assessment process, for disabled people and people with health conditions.
Yesterday the Secretary of State provided the House with a written statement, and delivered a speech to Scope that included, among other announcements, an announcement about changes in the delivery of health and disability benefits.
We are making significant progress in improving people’s experiences of claiming disability benefits by working through the recommendations made by several independent reviews of personal independence payments and the employment support allowance, but we need to continue to make improvements in order to give better support to people with health conditions and disabilities. The written statement set out a number of additional measures that we will implement to make improvements, now and in the future, in support for disabled people and those with health conditions.
We will improve and simplify people’s experiences by no longer undertaking regular reviews of PIP awards for claimants at or above the state pension age unless they tell us that their needs have changed. We will also transform the delivery of assessment services. We have established a health transformation programme to undertake the significant task of combining the currently separate work capability assessment for ESA and universal credit and PIP assessment services in one unified, integrated service from 2021. We are extending the contract for the health and disability assessment service, which includes the delivery of the work capability assessment, and aligning it with the duration of the extended PIP contracts. That will allow for a safe and stable service now, and as we make the transition to the new integrated service.
The Department for Work and Pensions will also be testing how we can increase engagement and build a trusted and strong relationship between work coaches and people who are awaiting assessments for universal credit or who are found to have limited capability for work. The Minister for Employment will take that forward.
The health transformation programme will be co-designed with disabled people. The Secretary of State and I will engage regularly with disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and charities. All of us, whatever our age or need, want an equal chance to live a life of opportunity and fulfilment. We intend to support disabled people during all the phases of their lives, so that the pursuit of equality is a shared goal.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for her response. I am, however, disappointed that the Secretary of State was not here to respond, and that the Minister has had to respond to an urgent question rather than making an oral statement, given the extensive scope of the proposals.
I welcome yesterday’s announcement that there would be no PIP reassessment for disabled people above the state pension age, but why are not all disabled people—particularly those with progressive conditions such as motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer—being exempted from repeat assessments? I have a constituent with terminal secondary breast cancer which has gone into her bones, and she has been refused PIP.
The launch of a transformation programme whereby PIP and WCA assessments will be integrated by 2021 is interesting, given that the Government have previously said that that could not be done. How exactly will the two assessments be merged? Who is involved? I am grateful that the Minister has said they will be co-designed with disabled people, but will she commit to supporting the principle of “nothing about you without you”? Will there be a pilot? If so, where and when, and what would be the sample size? Will there be an independent evaluation?
Who will provide the new service? There are real concerns about the profiteering enabled by this Government at the expense of disabled people. There are also worrying reports in various GP journals this week that the medical records of claimants will be made available to the DWP or their social security support will be denied. So I will be grateful if the Minister can confirm that this is not, and will not be, Government policy. Obviously there are huge issues around privacy and ethics.
There is also strong evidence of the physical and emotional harm that these assessments are having on disabled people, over and above their condition. What is being put in place before 2021 to improve the poor quality, validity and reliability of these assessments?
On UC and the role of job coaches in determining limited capability to work, the detail was most unclear in the written ministerial statement. Can the Minister expand on it and confirm that work coaches may start an assessment to determine a claimant’s capacity to work? Can she also confirm a shift in the Government’s approach to sanctions and expand on her Department’s approach to conditionality?
I welcome the review into the inadequacy of social security support for disabled people and more widely. Poverty is a political choice, and 4.2 million disabled people have been pushed into poverty as a result of the £5 billion in cuts since 2010. So what form will this review take and, again, who will be involved?
On the Government’s more ambitious targets to get disabled people into work, again the pendulum is swinging back. The Conservative general election pledge in 2015 was to halve the disability employment gap, but it is actually 4.4% lower than 2015. Then in 2017 there was a pledge about 1 million additional disabled people getting into work, but there was nothing about access to work.
Finally, what is the Minister going to do about the cultural changes needed in her Department to ensure that disabled people and other claimants do not feel demonised, even dehumanised, as happens all too often?
I fear I will test your patience, of Mr Speaker, if I try to answer all of those questions at once, but I will do my best.
I welcome the hon. Lady’s tone and her welcome for the measures we announced in the written ministerial statement. Clearly we have been listening very hard to Members across this Chamber and, most importantly, to disabled people themselves about the changes they would like to see, and that is what has driven the changes we are going to be making. I absolutely want to confirm that throughout the process—in fact this is how we work now—we engage fully with disabled people, enabling them to help us develop the services which are for them.
The hon. Lady touched on a few points about people being repeatedly reassessed. I remind her that we brought in the severe conditions criteria so that people who have reached the highest level of support on PIP will not be routinely reassessed; we have introduced a 10-year light touch review so that many people with the sorts of conditions and illnesses the hon. Lady described will not be undergoing further reassessments. We also have a special process for people who are terminally ill. I undertook research in the summer—and I have been delighted to work with the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on the work she has been doing—looking again at how the special rules for people at the end of life are working. We have worked very closely with the medical profession, which I think was not often aware of the special processes that could so easily be put in place to enable people to get benefits within days. I will shortly be announcing new guidance which is the fruition of the work we have been doing over the last few months.
I want to remind everyone that in the transition from DLA to PIP many more people with mental health conditions are now receiving support, particularly at the highest levels. Concerns have also been raised about work coaches and their ability to work with people with disabilities and health conditions, and I want to reassure the House that all of our work coaches are receiving extensive training and will continue to do so. Over 10,000 work coaches have already received training in mental health services, so I believe that that personal relationship that we want all people claiming benefits to have with their work coach is a possibility and is happening the length and breadth of the country.
We are looking at conditionality and have taken up the recommendations given to us. When people with severe disabilities and health conditions apply for UC there is no conditionality; that conditionality will be switched off, and then as the relationship develops with the work coach, if and when they are prepared to take those steps to work, they will be fully supported by their work coach and other resources that they have available.
As would be expected, we listened to and worked with a range of stakeholders before the announcement to develop the new service. I can absolutely commit to the House that the co-design will be ongoing and there will be plenty of opportunities for everyone in the House to be involved in how we take that forward. But the simple ideal behind it is to reduce the number of assessments people have to take and reduce the amount of information they have to give to the Department. We have all heard in our surgeries each week particularly in terms of people in receipt of both ESA and PIP that they can be asked to complete a whole number of forms where they give us the same information, and are going to assessments where they give the same information. The whole aim of this is to reduce that and to simplify it, so that people give us the information once and we are able to make the best decision we can right from the outset.
It never made sense to me for us to pay different contractors who compete with each other to recruit competent staff to carry out assessments which make many disabled people feel they are involved in a duplicatory process, which adds to the stress. So may I strongly welcome today the decision to combine the ESA and PIP assessments? That will make the system more efficient and hopefully provide more dignity for disabled people.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. This builds on some of the work he started when he was in the Department. It is very much based on listening to people and their experience of the current benefit system. I could not agree more that we need to have a much more streamlined, simplified process under which people tell us the information once, we gather it once, and we are able to make the best possible accurate decisions the first time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this urgent question.
As we saw yesterday, the Secretary of State announced changes to social security, disability and health. By my calculations, she made no fewer than nine different announcements in her statement. The Government will now hand over more money to the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments, better known as Maximus, to continue to carry out the work capability assessments. This is despite the failure, year on year, to meet the Department’s own performance standards and no fewer than 36,000 ill and disabled people wrongly deprived of social security as a result of WCAs. Can the Minister therefore say why the Government have decided to extend the contract for another 16 months? Will the Minister finally consider bringing these assessments back in-house?
The Government have announced that they are looking to merge the assessments for PIP and ESA into an integrated assessment service and use a digital platform to do so. Does the Minister not agree that there is serious risk involved in combining both assessments when the standard of decision making for PIP and ESA is the subject of so many failures? Given the consistent failures with the online platform for universal credit, what confidence should ill and disabled people have that this will not happen to them when they go through a process to access vital social security support?
Over 1 million sanctions have been imposed on disabled people since 2010, and those sanctions have been shown to be counterproductive and cruel. But so far the Government have committed to only a small “test” review of conditionality and sanctions. Why will the Government not follow Labour in pledging to scrap the punitive sanctions regime?
The Government have once again moved the goalposts on employing disabled people. First they wanted to halve the disability employment gap and now they are going to review it yet again. It is time for the Government to consider expanding Access to Work, rather than simply reviewing their employment targets. There are currently seven reviews being conducted into disabled people being wrongly deprived of social security support. These changes are just a drop in the ocean, so will the Minister finally accept that there needs to be fundamental reform, not just tinkering around the edges?
I really would have hoped that, today of all days, the hon. Lady could have found it in her heart to welcome the changes that have been asked for by so many people inside and outside this Chamber, and to recognise the great work that has been done by disabled people, and those who work with them, to engage with us so constructively and enable us to move forward and tackle the issues that she is describing.
The hon. Lady is right to say that we said yesterday that we were going to be more ambitious in enabling more disabled people into work, because we have made such good progress. Since 2013, over 930,000 more disabled people are now in work. Over that time, the disability employment rate has increased from 7.4% to 51.5%, and the gap between the disabled employment rate and the overall employment rate has been reduced to 30.2%. I do not want to see any disabled person out of work when they would like to be in work, but we have made progress and that is why we have committed to reviewing our targets and to being more ambitious. Access to Work is a great scheme, as we all agree, and it supported record numbers of people last year, including more people with mental health conditions and more young people with learning disabilities. The Access to Work fund is demand-led, and it grows every year because every year we are seeing more disabled people into work, and that is what we want to do.
Returning to the hon. Lady’s questions about the contracts, it is really important to me that, while we are going through such a fundamental transformation of our assessment process, we have safe and stable delivery for people who are applying for benefits. That is why we have extended the contracts to 2021, to align with the PIP contracts. We have not just accepted the existing situation, as the hon. Lady knows, and I am grateful for the work undertaken by the Select Committee on this. We have been pushing for continuous improvement within those contracts. The new contracts have higher standards for service delivery, and I would be happy to put a letter in the Library so that people can see the terms of the new contracts and see that they are driving forward improvement. We all want to see the right decisions being made at the first opportunity. We do not want to see people having to go through mandatory reconsideration and then on to appeals in the courts, and we have a whole series of reforms to ensure that that does not happen.
I welcome what was in the written statement yesterday and what the Minister has reiterated about the more ambitious target to get more disabled people into work. As an aside, I also welcome what the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said earlier. As a former Minister for disabled people, I am particularly attracted to the more ambitious target that we had in our 2015 manifesto. Indeed, I may have had a hand in writing it myself. On the substantive question, if we are going to get more disabled people into work, we need to ensure that the social care system—over half of whose budget is spent on working-age adults, not on older people—works better with our social security system and with the other means that we have of helping disabled people to become more independent. I urge the Minister to publish the social care Green Paper as soon as possible, and to start that much-needed debate so that we can deliver those policy changes that many disabled people across the country are crying out for and give them the opportunity to live more independent and fulfilling lives.
I very much thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution in the Chamber today and for all the work that he did when he had the privilege of holding this office. He is absolutely right to say that we want to be more ambitious. We will be looking carefully at how we can set ourselves really ambitious goals to ensure that everybody in our country has the opportunity to fulfil their potential in work, and that business, civil society and the public sector can draw on the talents of the very many disabled people who are unemployed at the moment. He is also right to talk about the importance of adult social care. It is of course the Department of Health and Social Care that leads on this, but I work closely with it and I have been encouraging it to go ahead and publish that very important Green Paper so that we can take forward those urgent reforms and enable more people to live independent lives.
I cannot help but feel that this announcement was a missed opportunity to completely overhaul the punitive PIP assessment progress, which is deeply flawed and continues to be criticised by claimants and stakeholders. The latest PIP assessment tribunal statistics show that from June to September 2018, a staggering 72% of cases found in favour of the claimant. The Minister will be aware that Scotland is taking a wholly different approach, proposing to significantly reduce the need for face-to-face assessments, introducing rolling awards with no set end points, and ensuring that those with fluctuating conditions will not face additional reviews. That is what a system based on dignity and respect looks like. What are this Government doing to address the fact that claimants are still being wrongly assessed at such a staggering rate? Will she look at what the Scottish Government are doing to reduce the burden that is being placed on disabled claimants? Will she also agree to study carefully the responses to the consultation announced yesterday by the Scottish Government on delivering a fairer disability assistance benefit programme in Scotland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. I should like to reassure him that I do indeed work with my opposite number in the Scottish Government, and that we are working closely together as we go through the process of devolving PIP and other benefits to Scotland. Actually, we are testing and learning a great deal from each other. The UK Government are investing a great deal in health and work trials, and we work collaboratively on those. We are always prepared to learn from any part of the United Kingdom. I absolutely agree that too many people are having their decisions overturned on appeal—we want to ensure that we get all the decisions right first time—but it is worth keeping this in perspective, because 10% of all PIP claims go to appeal and only 5% are overturned. However, as I always say from the Dispatch Box, one person’s poor experience is one too many. We have been doing a lot of work with the Courts and Tribunals Service to bring down waiting times, and I hope that all Members will join me in welcoming the fact that we now have a new PIP online appeal service. Since November, people can resolve their appeals online, which is enabling far swifter resolution of those issues.
I produced a list of things that had gone wrong in the claims procedures of my constituents, and I provided it to the Secretary of State’s predecessor to help her to shape these reforms. Will the Minister undertake to dig that paper out and have a look at it, and to ensure that those reforms can be implemented?
I think I can go one better than that, because I would like to invite my hon. Friend in to meet me and go through his paper with me, given all the hard work that he has put in, to ensure that we get this right.
We all support any improvement in the lot of disabled people, but my constituency has one of the highest percentages of disabled people, because of past industrial diseases and so on, and I remember the grief that was caused to so many people when they were forced to reclaim or to appear before various groups of people to be reassessed. There are too many people who are still in that category, and I hope the Minister will be able to assist with improving that situation. I also want to ask her about the situation regarding Remploy. We had a big fight in this Chamber over Remploy, as she may remember, and we were told that alternative jobs would be available, but can she give us the actual figures? I know that too many people in my constituency who were employed in Remploy are still out of work.
The right hon. Lady raises an important point about reassessments. Through a series of measures that we have taken this year, and through the ones that we have announced, far fewer people will be reassessed. We want to ensure that people are getting the support they need. Under the old legacy system, people were just parked on benefits for a very long time, and they were missing out. The evidence of that is the amount of people who get more money on PIP than they did on DLA. It is important that people are assessed to ensure that they are getting all the support to which they are entitled. Remploy in Wales is doing a great job as part of our health and work programme, and we have also introduced new supported ways of employing people, such as the intensive personalised employment support—IPES—programme. I would be very happy to write to the right hon. Lady to describe what is happening in Wales, and if she does feel that people who should be in employment are not in employment, she should please come and meet me so that we can look at those cases.
I warmly welcome the changes that my hon. Friend outlined. Last week, the Scottish Government announced their timetable for replacing personal independence payments, disability living allowance, attendance allowance and carer’s allowance, which will now not be completed until 2024, three years after they initially promised. Will she reassure me, my constituents and all in the House that the Department for Work and Pensions and the UK Government did all that they possibly could to ensure that the Scottish Government were set up for this and that actually there is resistance from the Scottish Government to taking the powers?
I thank my hon. Friend for that very important question. She is absolutely right about the absolute commitment of my colleagues in the DWP to ensure that the Scottish Government can take on those powers. We have not created any delays whatsoever; the delays are all in Holyrood.
A few moments ago, in Prime Minister’s questions, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) raised the case of a constituent who turned up for a disability assessment, was faced with a long wait and eventually had to rebook the appointment. The Prime Minister suggested that she or perhaps the Minister before us would look into the case, but it is not an isolated matter. I, too, have constituents with exactly the same experience, including a gentleman who last month at an appointment with the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments was forced to wait for an hour and 40 minutes, despite having told the CHDA that the nature of his condition meant that he would need to be seen very quickly.
I very much welcome the Minister’s offer to place in the Library information about the contract that has been issued to the assessment companies. We need to be able to scrutinise the performance standards and the rate at which the companies are achieving or failing to meet them. Will she repeat that commitment to the House, so that we can be absolutely clear that the information will be available to us?
I was not in Prime Minister’s questions to hear that particular example, but of course I will follow it up with great urgency. It is not acceptable for people to have appointments cancelled at the last minute or to be asked to wait. That is certainly not the service that we expect from our contractors.
I have made the commitment to publish the standards that we are insisting on in the contract. We monitor compliance with the standards very carefully, and there are penalties in the contract if people fall short of the high standards that we expect of them. Every person with a health condition or disability must be treated with respect and dignity.
I thank my hon. Friend and her colleagues for listening so much and for making these changes, but will she look at the face-to-face assessments and at whether more could be done with paper-based reviews or home visits? It is pretty difficult for some people to get to the assessment centres, certainly from my constituency, and some people who have mental health conditions find the assessments incredibly stressful.
I thank my hon. Friend for his long-standing and passionate championship of the vulnerable people in his constituency and across our country. We have listened very carefully to what he has said and we have increased the number of home visits that can be undertaken but I definitely want to go further and, wherever possible, make decisions based on the information provided by the medical profession, the disabled people themselves or those people supporting them so as to reduce the number of face-to-face assessments. They are all undertaken by qualified healthcare professionals, whose training we keep under review. I want to ensure that we have only those face-to-face assessments that are really necessary.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing the urgent question. I share the welcome for the exemption of those over state retirement age from routine reassessments. Will the Government look again at exempting all those with learning disabilities and progressive conditions, including all those who only secured their benefit—ESA or PIP—through the tribunals process? The Minister is right that some disability organisations will welcome fewer assessments, but the fear or anxiety for disabled people is that the high error rate in existing processes will be transferred. Will the Minister give more detail about how that process will be improved and how individual disabled people and disability organisations can help to shape any new process, and when that will begin?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that that work is all under way. There have been several independent reviews of PIP and ESA, including one by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which made the recommendations that we are working through now, to ensure that the assessments are as accurate as they can be. We are not waiting. The huge benefit of the transformed service is that the DWP will own the whole claimant journey—we are building a whole digital platform—and we will be able to use the medical and other information far more easily to make the right decision the first time. As I said at the beginning, the whole new process will be co-designed with disabled people.
I welcome the announcements to bring in a better service for those seeking to make claims, in particular on the combination of assessments. An issue that is regularly picked up is a more independent record of some of the assessments. What further consideration have the Government given to things such as video recording of assessments, which might not only give confidence to the person taking part, but allow for quality-control reviews and an easier process in tribunal?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising video recording, because our hope is that that will bring a lot of transparency, trust and confidence to the assessments. We are reviewing the findings of a successful pilot. We remain committed to rolling out video recording.
The Minister should know that there really are serious problems with PIP and work capability assessments. I have lost count of the number of constituents who have come to see me in a desperate state because of the lack of understanding and awareness, in particular for those with fluctuating physical and mental health problems. The fact that 83% of people with multiple sclerosis who appeal their PIP case are successful shows how flawed the system is. On that specific point, how will the assessment process and the training and skills of those delivering it change to address such serious problems?
Inevitably, we want to ensure that we make the process better. Each time I come to the Chamber, I describe the steps that we are taking. Specifically on the case of people with multiple sclerosis, or cases brought to me by people who feel that their conditions are not properly understood by healthcare professionals, I ensure that the healthcare professionals meet those people, that they look at the guidance together, and update it and the training used by the frontline people doing the assessments. We get positive feedback from that.
Every year, we look at independent research into the experience of people at the face-to-face assessments. It is really important to me that they feel that they are being listened to, and 89% of people said that the assessor had treated them with respect and dignity. In the high 80s, people are saying that they had time and felt listened to, and that they were able to—[Interruption.] That is still not 100%, which we are working towards, but it is important, because we do not want people outside listening to this debate feeling petrified about going to have an assessment. We know that the vast majority of people have a positive experience when they go along, but we are working continuously to ensure that we improve the process for everyone.
This is welcome news for many pensioners, who do not now have to undergo repeat appointments, but it does not address the fundamental flaw in the system to which the Minister herself has alluded: 72% of PIP and ESA appeals still find in favour of the claimant. Atos, Maximus and Capita are not doing the job properly. Rather than seeking to improve that, will she not consider bringing the assessment in-house so that it can be done properly?
I point out gently to the hon. Lady that 8% of people who apply for ESA go to appeal, and 4% are overturned. I do not want that to be 2%, 1% or 0.1%; I want us to get the decision right the first time, but we must use the information accurately. It is important that we are evidence-based policy makers. When it comes to who will carry out the assessments from 2021, the healthcare professionals doing so have always been clear that by creating this transformed service and our own digital platform, many more people will be able to come forward to say that they can undertake the services, and I would be particularly happy if NHS trusts said that they would do so.
I welcome the fact that Ministers are seeking to improve the accuracy of PIP and ESA assessments and to reduce the number of appeals, but it still takes 48 weeks for an appeal to be heard in my constituency. May I ask the Minister to look urgently at how people are treated while they are awaiting an appeal? My constituent had a serious heart condition, and his doctor said he was not fit to go back to work. The DWP said that that was its decision, not the doctor’s decision. My constituent died on his first full day back at work, which he was forced into. He was awaiting his appeal. It is too late for him, but his wife has asked me to take it up with Ministers to seek a better solution for people who are awaiting appeals, many of whom are rightly and justly appealing.
I pass on my sincere condolences to the hon. Lady’s constituent. Of course I will sit down with her to review the case in great detail, because it is a very, very sad to hear what happened to her constituent. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has employed hundreds more people so that cases can be heard sooner. I am particularly pleased that we have introduced an online resolution service so that, once people’s information is uploaded on to the system, DWP decision makers can look at that information. If we can make a decision earlier that could prevent people from having to go to a tribunal, we will do so. I am very hopeful that we will start to see waiting times reduce significantly.
My constituents in Glasgow North East have seen £2 million taken out of their pockets as a result of the transition from disability living allowance to personal independence payment, but that is not the full story. People are often claiming these disability-related benefits as part of a wider series of social security payments, which have been subject to a freeze since 2016. Child benefit, for example, has been subject to a 23% real-terms decline since 2010, so obviously those in receipt will be disproportionately harmed. What will the Minister be doing? Will she write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about ending the benefits freeze and ensuring that benefits are at least tied to inflation so that people can maintain a level of dignity in our social security system?
It is not true at all that benefits for disabled people have been frozen. This House recently uprated those benefits by 2.4%, and this year we will spend £4 billion more than we spent 10 years ago. All the benefits supporting people with disabilities will continue to grow to 2020. They will be growing throughout this Parliament.
At a recent surgery I held for carers, a woman came along with a case relating to her daughter who has disabilities, and we managed to get a back payment of £22,000 in disability payments. If I had not held that surgery for carers, and if the excellent local carers organisation had not put that lady in touch, her daughter would still be waiting for those payments. We cannot have a situation in which people rely on such fortuitous circumstances to get justice. What can the Minister do about that?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. We know that too many people have been missing out on billions of pounds’-worth of benefits. That is why I hope she will welcome the fact that universal credit and the personal relationship that people have with their work coaches will enable them to understand the full range of benefits available to them. Citizens Advice, working in partnership with jobcentres, will be able to signpost more people to get more support, and I hope Opposition Members will spend some time in their jobcentres to understand the range of services and signposting that is now available from work coaches.
These are very small changes in the right direction, but they recognise that the system does not work. To enable us to better understand the impact of Government policy on ill and disabled people, will the Minister commit to publishing constituency data on the number of UC50 forms that are issued to claimants and the number that are returned? Without proper detailed information, we will not be able to understand the impact on our constituents.
I will take that suggestion away and see whether we can collect that data and whether it is possible to provide it on a constituency basis. I challenge people who say that the whole system has failed because, from the information we have, we can see that millions of people are benefiting from these benefits and that more money is being spent every year. It is important that people have the confidence to come forward and access the benefits to which they are entitled. We remain committed to reforming the work capability assessment, which was brought in by the Labour Government in 2008, and we have taken a lot of time to consult a lot of people. Although everyone can agree that it needs to change, there is no consensus on how it can change. We are continuing that work, because I am determined to see these improvements made.
I think we can all agree that social security staff are under a lot of pressure in dealing with the claimants we have heard about today. Does the Minister agree that those who administer social security should be supported in employment with adequate pay from this Government? Civil servants are receiving 0.25% to 1%—those who took the bribe—but such an increase, in real terms, is a cut.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, because it gives me a wonderful opportunity to pay tribute to the fantastic, hard-working, dedicated and compassionate DWP staff, both in our operating centres and in our jobcentres. I understand from our lead officials in the Department that they have a very good working relationship with the trade unions and that they are listening very carefully. We are working very hard to make sure that people are fairly rewarded.
Leaving the EU: Protection for Workers
I would like to make a statement about workers’ rights when we leave the European Union. Before I do, as this is my first time at the Dispatch Box since his death on Friday, I put on record my deep appreciation for the life and work of Lord Bhattacharyya, a heroic figure in British manufacturing. His work attracted investment to which hundreds of thousands of working men and women owe their livelihoods. A Labour Member of the House of Lords, Kumar worked easily with Ministers and, indeed, Prime Ministers from all parties for the benefit of the people of the west midlands and the whole nation.
The United Kingdom and this Parliament have a proud record of improving the rights of working men and women: from Shaftesbury’s Factories Acts to William Hague’s Disability Discrimination Act 1995; and from the minimum wage, introduced by a Labour Government, to the national living wage brought in by a Conservative Government. Although the EU sets minimum requirements in many areas of workers’ rights and health and safety, Britain has time and again been in advance of those requirements and has chosen to exceed them.
The EU agency for the improvement of working conditions ranks the UK as the second strongest of all 28 member states, behind only Sweden, for wellbeing in the workplace. The UK offers 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay, compared with the 14 weeks required by the EU. We have given fathers and partners a statutory right to paternity leave, which the EU is only just beginning to consider.
Our national living wage is one of the highest in the EU, and the Low Pay Commission that advises on it is widely respected. Because we have not, in practice, been limited to EU standards, there is no reason why we should not maintain this record of leadership outside the EU. The Prime Minister has given a commitment that Brexit will not be allowed to erode workers’ rights.
Nevertheless, some hon. Members have advanced the view in previous debates that a parliamentary mechanism should be established to monitor and implement that commitment. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) introduced a private Member’s Bill to that effect, and the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and the hon. Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), among others, proposed an amendment to a previous motion in a similar vein.
We have been discussing closely with Members on both sides of the House, trade unions and businesses how we can turn this intention into law. The Government are today publishing draft clauses for inclusion in the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill to put these commitments into law. The clauses have two main features. First, a new statutory duty will be placed on Ministers introducing a Bill that affects employment or workplace health and safety that they should certify, before Second Reading of any such Bill, that it is compatible with the Prime Minister’s principle of non-regression. They will be required to provide explanatory information to Parliament in support of that statement, which will be drawn up following consultation with businesses and trade unions. That will ensure that, while respecting and upholding the sovereignty of this Parliament, Members of this House in future will be able clearly to consider the compatibility of every proposed measure with the non-regression principle, to which the Prime Minister has made a commitment.
The second aspect of the draft clauses concerns future EU legislation. Parliament will be given the opportunity, at least every six months, to consider any changes to EU workers’ rights, and health and safety standards in the workplace. This will be reported to Parliament through a document that has, again, been subject to consultation with employers and trade unions, and which will be scrutinised by the relevant Select Committees of this House, subject to their agreement. The Government will be required to table an amendable motion on their intended course of action on those new EU rules. For example, the Government may set out that they intend to legislate to give effect to those commitments or that they intend to give effect to them in a different way, or that they do not intend to give effect to them, setting out their rationale. There are a number of legislative proposals currently under consideration in the EU that have a deadline for transposition into national law which will be after the implementation period. We would expect them to be put forward for Parliament’s consideration under this new process. These draft clauses, published in a Command Paper today, combine well our determination to honour the commitment the Prime Minister has made not to see workers’ rights weakened and respecting the sovereignty of this Parliament.
A similar framework will apply to environmental protections as the UK leaves the EU, implemented through the environment Bill. On 19 December, we published the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill, the first part of a much larger environment Bill to follow in the next Session. The draft Bill outlines our proposals to establish a world-leading body to hold the Government to account for environmental outcomes after the UK leaves the EU. The draft Bill also requires the Government to publish a statutory policy statement on the interpretation and application of nine environmental principles, including the four contained in EU treaties. The Government will also legislate to ensure that where future Bills could affect environmental protections, a Minister of the Crown will make a statement of compatibility to Parliament and provide explanatory information. We will also create a new statutory duty on the Government to monitor any strengthening of environmental protections and regulations by the EU, and to report regularly to Parliament about the Government’s intended course of action in those areas. That will give Parliament the information it needs to consider whether or not domestic protections need to be strengthened accordingly. Through these commitments, the Government will provide a robust framework for maintaining and strengthening environmental standards as the UK leaves the EU.
In addition to the measures I have described, I am announcing today steps that will strengthen the enforcement of employment rights. The vast majority of businesses operate fairly and treat their employees well, but I have been concerned, as I know many Members have been, about the practices in a small number of firms, in a small number of industries, where abuses of the conditions at work are used to the detriment not just of workers, but of reputable competitors, who suffer a disadvantage by comparison in those industries. I therefore intend to consult broadly on establishing a new body to bring together the relevant enforcement functions of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate. As part of the forthcoming spending review, we will consider what level of funding is appropriate to ensure that it is adequately resourced to deliver a strengthened remit.
The measures that I have announced today reflect a process of engagement across this House, and with employers and trade unions. Not everyone will agree with every proposal, but if, as I hope, an agreement can be reached on the withdrawal process during the days ahead, it serves as a helpful guide as to how we might find and act on common ground across the House in the next phase of negotiations. I commend this statement to the House.
Let me, too, put on record my sadness at the death of Lord Bhattacharyya and my deep appreciation for his devotion to British industry and politics.
I must start by thanking the Secretary of State for his engagement with me over recent weeks, and indeed with trade unions and my parliamentary colleagues whom he mentioned: my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint); and my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell). They have championed unrelentingly the protection of British workers as we leave the EU and continue to help us move the position across the House to one that we are all content with.
However, as the Secretary of State knows from our discussions in recent days, sadly the proposals, as drafted, do not yet provide a full guarantee or assurance for UK workers. I hope that this spirit of collegiality will continue and that we will work together quickly to address my concerns and provide the changes and assurances that I seek. As he knows, the TUC has stated today:
“In the face of a government determined to reduce rights, these measures would in no meaningful way compensate for the loss of the protections that currently exist”.
The assessment of less favourability will be decided by parliamentary majority and not by the objective standards of the UK courts. The provisions can easily be revoked by a hostile Government, and even without being revoked, they can be rendered fairly meaningless in practice. Indeed, as drafted, the content of the proposed statement of compatibility and irregular parliamentary assessment of less favourability are not capable of legal challenge by any UK worker. Of course, the process outlined in the draft clauses could be subject to a judicial review, but simply issuing a statement and laying a motion are hardly rocket science. What will not be possible, however, is a challenge to the contents of a statement of compatibility or an approved parliamentary motion to accept a Government assessment.
I think the Secretary of State implied in his statement that we should not automatically accept favourable rights solely because the UK Parliament has already set higher standards of employment rights. On that point, let me be clear: no one—certainly none of the colleagues I have spoken to—is seeking anything other than that UK workers should be entitled to no less favourable rights at work than their EU comparators, not that we should accept unfavourable ones. That point is simple to draft and it could be made perfectly clear, and I am happy to work with the Secretary of State on that point.
Of course, Parliament is always welcome to give more, but history is littered with examples of the UK bitterly resisting EU directives on workplace rights. A Conservative Government sued the EU Commission over the working time directive, claiming that there was no legislative base for the directive since working time had nothing to do with health and safety at work. Luckily for workers in the UK and the rest of the EU, that Government lost.
On the promise not to water down existing rights and protections, even if a Bill is found to be incompatible, there are at present no powers to stop the Government proceeding. In addition, the promise does not apply to secondary legislation, potentially allowing existing EU-derived rights to be watered down with ease. The bulk of UK legislation to implement EU law is actually done by way of secondary legislation—for example, working time regulations, TUPE, and health and safety regulations, to name but a few.
On the process relating to adopting future improvements in EU legislation, the proposals are equally in need of addressing. The only means of challenge is in Parliament, with a vote on an amendable motion, subject to the Government’s majority. Parliamentary procedure may not permit sufficient amendments to deal with all the additional changes to workers’ rights identified by MPs. In any event, resolutions of the House have recently proven to be an ineffective restraint on the Government. The Secretary of State seeks to provide comfort by stating that the Government will consult workers, Select Committees and employers’ representatives, and that sentiment is of course welcome, but, as he knows, there is no direct obligation on the Government to accept any recommendations.
On enforcement, I do welcome the commitments the Secretary of State has made to address funding deficiencies. I await further details in due course. On 1 April 2004, there were 1,483 Health and Safety Executive frontline inspectors; but by 2015 that had fallen to 972. In consequence, the statistically average workplace can now expect an inspection no more frequently than every 50 years.
I have conveyed to the Secretary of State in recent weeks the fact that for a guarantee of non-regression to be truly meaningful, it must be enforceable in the UK courts at the suit of any worker in the UK. Any dispute about whether or not the worker has less favourable rights than her EU comparator must be determined by the courts and not solely by Parliament, still less by a politically motivated Government majority in the House of Commons. Today’s proposals come nowhere near that and do not yet demonstrate that this Government take workplace rights seriously. I do hope, however, that, in this spirit of co-operation, we will work together to move towards more robust guarantees as a matter of urgency.
I warmly welcome the tone in which the hon. Lady has approached this issue. We have different preferences on what would be ideal, and I know that both the TUC and her own Front-Bench colleagues would prefer EU directives automatically to take their place in UK law and to be enforced through the European Court of Justice, as they are now. She knows that we disagree with her on that—in our view, it would not be consistent with leaving the European Union or with the sovereignty of this Parliament—but I accept that that is her position and that she has said that, notwithstanding that, we should explore whether we can meet her perfectly reasonable observations. I am grateful for that.
What we are publishing this afternoon are draft clauses that have not yet gone into the Bill. I am open to working with all Members of the House—of course, continuing to include the hon. Lady—to see which of the observations can be accommodated, subject to the general approach we wish to take. I think that she recognises, and I hope other Members will recognise, that this is an important opportunity. If we are to pass a withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, the chance to have on the statute book from the outset—literally within the next few weeks, I hope—some important protections for workers is one that I think we should all take.
The hon. Lady asked some specific questions, of which I shall attempt to answer as many as I can. She observed, in effect, that future Governments and Parliaments may take a different view from that which we intend. As we know, it is a fact that no Parliament can bind its successor, but it can express a clear intention, set up a test and provide mechanisms against which proper scrutiny of any proposal can be mounted, and that is what we are doing. I acknowledge her right hon. and hon. Friends’ contribution to and, in fact, origination of this idea.
The hon. Lady is concerned that the statements that are provided for could be ignored and may not be as effective as she intends. The case law clearly establishes that if a statutory consultation is provided for, it cannot be lightly swept aside. There is a requirement properly to engage with the recommendations that come from such a consultation, but I hear what she said about that process being open to workers as well as to people who might represent them. We can talk more about that.
The hon. Lady asked about the application to future changes to workers’ rights that may come outside primary legislation. Clearly, the big changes come through primary legislation, but in the spirit of what I said earlier, I am certainly open to exploring what assurances we can give on other significant pieces of legislation that might be in scope.
The hon. Lady mentioned the jurisprudence of the ECJ. It would clearly be inappropriate after Brexit for the ECJ to have a remit in the UK, but of course, as she knows as a lawyer herself, any court can have regard to the decisions of any court that it considers to be relevant in the case being considered.
The hon. Lady mentioned enforcement, on which we strongly agree. There are industries—sometimes concentrated in particular places in the country—in which what she described is correct: a calculation is made that employers who abuse the rights of their workers are unlikely to be detected and enforced against, which leads them to think that they can get away with it with impunity. The intention behind the strengthened enforcement body that I described, and our intention in terms of resourcing it, is to firmly remove that idea from the mind of any such employer. I will work closely with the hon. Lady on that.
It is appropriate to recognise in the House and draw some pride from our record of employment rights. We have a successful labour market that combines a reputation for high standards—standards that have been recognised throughout the EU as being among the best in Europe—while having what is the most important right for workers, which is the right to work. Many more people in this country are able to work as a result of the effectiveness of our labour markets. We need to preserve that while giving expression to the objectives articulated by the hon. Lady’s colleagues, to make sure that the commitment we have given to build on that strength in future is something that is not just a matter of words but has parliamentary force behind it. I am grateful for what the hon. Lady said about working together.
I am assured that the Government and this Secretary of State want high standards of employment rules in this country, and I look forward to our having independence so that we can have our own domestically crafted high standards, which will be above the minimum EU standards, but will the Secretary of State please explain why he has proceeded with this statement? I thought its sole aim was to win over the Labour party, but it seems Labour is in complete disagreement with it.
I was very much influenced by the exchange between my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) when the latter spoke to his amendment in January. As I recall, my right hon. Friend correctly intervened on the hon. Gentleman to reinforce his personal commitment to establishing and maintaining Britain as a place of voluntarily high standards. Because that represents a point of agreement in the House and is a reflection of our traditions—our reputation is as place of high standards, thanks to the accretion of steps taken by Governments of both parties—I think this is an opportunity to work together to see whether we can establish something that is rooted in the sovereignty of this House, which my right hon. Friend quite rightly insists on, but also provides assurance to those who want to see measures as well as words.
The Secretary of State started by talking about his party’s record on workers’ rights. He will forgive me for questioning whether the political party that put into legislation the Masters and Servants Act 1823, which codified corporal punishment for workers, has a good record on workers’ rights. Indeed, to bring us up to date, his party also introduced the anti-trade union Act.
Rather than guaranteeing or protecting workers’ rights, the statement does no such thing; in fact, it would be a misrepresentation to suggest otherwise. The Secretary of State will be aware that the EU is currently discussing regulations on the gig economy and rights for working parents that are far better than what can be found in the Government’s good work plan. If those EU regulations come to pass, how will the Government deal with them in this Chamber? Given that we keep being told that the next election is in 2022, is the Secretary of State committing the Government to at least matching EU regulations until then?
Given that the statutory instrument process is being used to weaken workers’ rights, as we saw recently with the denial of access to European works councils, what makes the Secretary of State believe that we should trust the Government on this? Will he, as a gesture of good will, table an amendable motion on the Government’s good work plan that will allow Members to strengthen regulations, particularly around zero-hours contracts and their elimination and sorting out workers’ status?
On the good work plan, we will be introducing an employment Bill and it will of course be amendable, in the manner of legislation. We are provided, though, with a more immediate opportunity: that Bill is for the next Session, whereas I very much hope that the withdrawal Bill will be available during the weeks ahead and provide that immediate opportunity to express our determination to apply the commitment that the Prime Minister made on this issue.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the measures on the gig economy that are being contemplated by the European Union. Actually, that is a fine example of what I said earlier: those measures follow the commitments that we have made in the good work plan, and they are now making their way through Brussels. We were in advance of that. As I made clear in my statement, both those EU directives would go through the procedure that I described and would be available to the House, if Members thought there was anything extra in them. Actually, though, we think the directives are in many respects modelled on our own proposals.
On the ability of this House to enforce high standards, I say that that been the tradition. My experience as a Minister at European Councils over recent years is that our record of high standards when it comes to workers’ rights, employment protection and health and safety is looked at with admiration by many of our counterparts across the European Union. This allows us to continue that leadership.
I welcome this statement and the proposed clauses therein. As my right hon. Friend has been touching on this matter, does he agree that it is often the UK rather than the EU that has led the way not just on workers’ rights, but on environmental standards, and that we should be proud of that? Will he confirm that today’s announcements will ensure that we continue with these high standards in both areas and that we give due regard to any strengthening of environmental protections and regulations by the EU once we leave?
My hon. Friend is quite right. Again, the provisions adopted by the Climate Change Act 2008 were not required by the European Union. They were a set of decisions that were taken by this House, and that has been our record. The proposals that I have set out allow us to continue to do that, while making sure that the House is not only properly informed but required to make an explicit determination that, if there are new policies that are adopted and directives that are proposed, they are debated and considered in this House. That seems to me to be a good mechanism to ensure that we are always aware of what is being done in the European Union after we have left it.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you and I remember doing an all-nighter in this House when the Labour Government took through the national minimum wage. In fact, we were here all night long, until 9 o’clock in the morning, because both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats filibustered and voted against the national minimum wage. I am glad those days are behind us—at least the all-nighters. I do not need lectures from anyone about being wary of the Conservatives, but may I welcome the statement today by the Secretary of State and the response by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), as we try to forge assurances enshrined in law to protect workers’ rights as we leave the EU? May I press the Secretary of State to say something more about how we will ensure that any changes on workers’ rights and health and safety are consulted on and that they are not cherry-picked by a future Government? May I also support the concerns of my hon. Friend about the right to judicial involvement for workers who want to make sure that those rights are upheld?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for having initiated this conversation through her amendment to the previous motion, and I think a fruitful discussion has come from that. On the ability to cherry-pick those measures that are adopted by the European Union that might find favour with the Government but not those that do not, the requirement would be to report everything that the European Union has adopted during a six-month period and for the Government to have to make a statement in respect to all of those measures. The motion that would then be required to be put before the House would be amendable. The Government might say that they intended to implement one measure, to apply in a different way another, but to reject a third. That motion would be amendable, so the House could alter the Government’s intention and express its view directly. As for the direct access for workers to these procedures, I made a commitment to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) that we would work together to see what can be done on that, and I am sure that the right hon. Lady will want to be part of those conversations.
I actually whipped the minimum wage Bill through Committee on that occasion, so I well remember Conservative hostility to it.
What the Secretary of State is really promising today is future consultation and future opportunities for votes. Looking behind him, I do not see a great deal of commitment from those Benches to such measures. Why can he not go further? Why can he not agree to put a commitment into the withdrawal agreement and the treaty that the UK will never fall behind EU minimum standards on workers’ rights either now or in future? I know that he has mentioned parliamentary sovereignty and not binding future Parliaments but, historically, Governments have negotiated treaties and Parliaments have approved them and those treaties are binding on future Parliaments until they choose to withdraw from them. Why can we not have that sort of arrangement?
We are talking about legislation here, not the treaty, and the withdrawal agreement has already been established. In the future economic partnership, there is a negotiation to be conducted—it is specified there—on our level of alignment when it comes to workers’ rights, but this is in advance of that. This provides an opportunity at the point of withdrawal to give Parliament the ability to make sure that it takes an informed view of whether it wants to continue to be aligned. That is a valuable opportunity. The hon. Gentleman says that we should do it now with the treaty. That is part of the next phase of the negotiations. It is taking all the Government’s efforts to conclude the withdrawal agreement, without being able to conclude the future partnership in the next few weeks. But this is an important opportunity to establish, in primary legislation, a requirement properly to consider all new regulations that would come from the European Union and to assess the compatibility of legislation that we make in this House with that of the rest of the European Union. That, it seems to me, is a valuable opportunity.
Let me start by echoing the warm words of the Secretary of State about Kumar Bhattacharyya. The Jaguar plant in my constituency is open, employing more than 2,000 workers, in no small way due to his herculean efforts over many years to turn around Jaguar Land Rover.
In my previous being, on behalf of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, I took the case of the Eastbourne dustmen all the way to the European Court of Justice because a Conservative Government refused to apply the acquired rights directive to 6 million public servants. We won and TUPE was extended to those 6 million public servants. In future, however, there will not be the same enforcement mechanism. The trade union movement has spoken with one voice today. Frances O’Grady said that this will not protect rights and that there is nothing to stop future Governments from tearing up the legislation. She added that no one should be “taken in” and that our rights are “still under threat.” Does the Secretary of State understand that residual concern and that, crucially, unless the Government go significantly further with regard to legally enforceable rights, not just depending on the whims of future Governments, she is right: these guarantees are worthless?
These rights will be enforceable by the UK courts. I meet Frances O’Grady very regularly. As I said to the shadow Secretary of State, I recognise that the TUC has a different preference, which is to continue to embed European rights directly and to have them enforced by the Court of Justice of the European Union. That is a different approach. In my view, it is not compatible with Brexit. Therefore, we are looking for a way in which this House, this Parliament and the UK courts can provide the guarantees that I think everyone in this House wants to give.
Trust is a big issue here. In July 2016, the Prime Minister told the nation:
“I want to see changes in the way that big business is governed…we’re going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well.”
Can the Secretary of State confirm that that promise to workers was broken?
No, what the Prime Minister set out in that speech was to have the voice of workers represented in the boardroom. The action that we have taken in requiring businesses to establish a worker representative, or to have a non-executive director with the function of representing workers, or to have a works council with an influence on the board, was something that I was proud to set out in furtherance of the Prime Minister’s assurance.
I am sure that the Secretary of State can see that there is a little bit of a credibility gap to close. He said in his statement that the Prime Minister has given a commitment that Brexit will not be allowed to erode workers’ rights, so can he explain why both he and the Prime Minister last week voted in favour of statutory instruments that do exactly that?
I am very proud of the record of this country and this Government in advancing rights in the workplace. The “Good Work” report by Matthew Taylor established, way before many other countries, a means of ensuring changes to UK law around the platform economy and the gig economy to ensure that people are not disadvantaged by these new platforms. The Prime Minister and I have both given that commitment. In deference to some of the scepticism that the words of the Prime Minister should be sufficient, this parliamentary mechanism to enshrine a degree of scrutiny and give this House the ability to insist that that non-regression is abided by is the basis of the amendment that was proposed, and that we are accepting and acting on today.
They say that the Secretary of State is a very nice man. I do not know him. I am sure he is. But I do not trust the gang that he is part of.
I was a Member of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1984. Before that, I took a petition to the European Parliament in ’77, arguing for equal rights for men and women. I then became a member of the employment committee in the European Parliament, and I am glad to say that some of the things in that petition became law because of the European Parliament, not because of this place. You will know very well, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I was a shadow Employment Minister when the Opposition were working on the minimum wage. I know how hard we had to fight every inch of the way, because we were told that that was not possible, that it would cost jobs, that industry would not be able to afford it, and so on.
When there were big job losses in steel and coal, I was an MEP for one of the affected areas, and I took a group of steelworkers to Brussels to meet the Commission. The big criticism of the Government at that time was that the situation here was unlike that in Germany, where steelworkers were also losing their jobs, but every man in the steel industry in the Ruhr had another job to go to. In this country, there was no safety net. The criticism then was that there was a lack of social policy in this country. Why should I have faith that things have changed when I hear that the number of factory inspectors has diminished? If we do not have factory inspectors, we do not have people looking at the limitations in the industries. I would like to believe the Secretary of State, but I am sorry; I do not.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the compliment that she paid me. I would reflect on the facts. She mentioned that introducing the minimum wage was a fight. This House is used to having fights and campaigns. The purpose of this Chamber is to have crusades that are successful. She will know that, far from that innovation having been rescinded, it was a Conservative Government who introduced the national living wage, which was the biggest pay increase for low-paid workers in 20 years. She should take confidence in that.
The right hon. Lady refers to drawing these protections from the European Union. Once we leave the European Union, the basis for a framework of workers’ rights will obviously not be there, and the alternative is that there would simply be no reference to what is happening in the European Union; that would be the default. We are responding to some helpful suggestions from the right hon. Lady’s colleagues that this House should keep a close eye on what is happening in the rest of Europe and that there should be an ability for the House to act on that. That is a good idea. I cannot say that it was my idea originally—it was brought to my attention—but when we recognise a good idea, I think we should back it.
I recall, as an MP, taking a delegation of miners’ leaders to Brussels to argue for jobs and investment, but we were blocked by the state aid rules that the European Commission enforced on us under a Labour Government. That is why Harworth colliery in my constituency closed.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s openness in his statement—both to amendments from Labour Front Benchers over the next few days, if there are precise amendments and, if they are not agreed, to the ability to table amendments to the withdrawal Bill that can be voted on by Parliament.
I negotiated the derogation, under the Labour Government, for one section of workers from the Work at Height Regulations 2005 because of the way in which the Commission framed the legislation. When it comes to health and safety, will there be automatic harmonisation—in other words, we accept everything that comes, regardless of its suitability to specific industries and groups of workers? When it comes to health and safety and sometimes environmental standards, that has been a fundamental issue, and it would be one if we had direct harmonisation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his work in crafting this proposal, and I repeat the commitment to continue to work together as the draft clauses become clauses that are laid before the House. The procedures of this House allow substantial debate of those clauses in Committee and on Report. I agree with his assessment. It is not the case that every regulation proposed by the European Union is ideal and well suited to our circumstances. From my experience in European Councils, there is a process that tries to apply a set of rules in many different countries and economies that may not actually be the best for the UK economy. The procedure that the hon. Gentleman has given us the ability to discuss today provides this House with a means by which to consider what the best form of regulation is, suited to our circumstances and respecting the sovereignty of this House and this Parliament.
This is obviously an extremely important statement, but there is quite a lot of other business to get through this afternoon, so shorter questions and shorter answers might be in order.
The Secretary of State speaks well and everybody wishes to listen to him. However, not all his colleagues are of the same mind. Before Christmas, the Attorney General stood at the Dispatch Box and boasted that the non-regression clauses in the deal are
“not enforceable either by the EU institutions or by the arbitration arrangements under the withdrawal agreement.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 559.]
So why on earth should we trust these clauses?
The Attorney General was making a statement of fact that the provisions in that agreement are not covered by that arbitration mechanism. That is a statement that accurately reflects the reality, which is one of the reasons why availing ourselves of the opportunity to have a parliamentary mechanism to act on and see implemented that non-regression commitment—putting it in the hands of this House—is especially valuable.
The Secretary of State will accept that there is a lot of scepticism among Opposition Members about the Government’s integrity on this issue, and the fact that the trade unions were invited in so late in the Brexit process only fuels that. As he says, we have never solely relied on the EU for workers’ rights and legislation in this country, and when we leave the EU we will need a framework within which to work, so his statement is welcome. Other issues such as electronic balloting are important to the unions. Have they featured in his recent meetings with the unions? How would that demand, and others, fit into his attitude to discussions and communications with the unions in the context of his statement?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he says. Of course, I meet the unions—both the TUC and individual unions—very regularly. My responsibilities there go beyond the matters we are discussing today, which are expressly about the European Union. The issue of balloting is outside of discussions on the European Union. It is important to have a good relationship with trade unions. When good ideas are put forward, whether they come from his side of the House or from the trade union movement should not prejudice their ability to be considered fairly and taken forward.
The Business Secretary knows, as I do, that he has Conservative colleagues who would like to see workers’ rights diluted or swept away in the name of deregulation, and—who knows?—one of them could be Prime Minister before long. Will he therefore confirm that the mechanisms he has outlined could be repealed by a future Government passing primary legislation? Is it not true that exchanging enduring EU protections on the environment and workers’ rights for these flimsy mechanisms is like trading in a car that has a lifetime guarantee for a lemon without a log book just because the floor mats are thrown in?
I disagree with the hon. Lady. I would say that there are far more of my colleagues who recognise the benefits for the UK of being a country and a jurisdiction that is associated with high standards rather than a race to the bottom, and that that is the way we will prosper as a country. I think she should have a little more faith in that.
The hon. Lady talks about the framework that the European Union offers. We are leaving the European Union—I recognise that she would rather we were not—so the choice before us is whether, in leaving, we have no reference to anything that is done, now or in future, in the European Union, or we create a mechanism that allows this House to see what is going on and to be able to act on it, bolstered by the statutory requirements on any Minister, now or in future, to pay due regard to the statements that are made in terms of compatibility.
On the hon. Lady’s point about a future Government being able to repeal the whole lot, she knows enough about the British constitution to know that that is available for every law, in every circumstance, by every House of Commons following every election.
I cautiously welcome the statement by the Secretary of State. I think that we owe it to him to recognise the sincerity with which he has approached the discussions with our Front Benchers, with other Labour Members and with trade unions to try to seek some form of compromise—because that is what this is. It does not meet the gold standard of my private Member’s Bill—I recognise that—but there is much to be welcomed, including the facility of an amendable and votable motion. However, there remains a fundamental issue of trust that he cannot have failed to notice, and I suggest that he may need to do further work to try to reassure more people, specifically, perhaps—this is one of the issues that the TUC has raised—on the fact that statements from the Government might be made only in relation to primary legislation, whereas many employment changes come through secondary legislation. What assurance can he offer to the TUC?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for what she says. As I said to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), most of these rights derive from primary legislation. We will see whether there is an ability to provide the assurance that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) seeks.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the contribution made by her private Member’s Bill. She has done the painstaking work of producing a great schedule of directives to which her Bill would apply. I propose—I hope she will not mind—that we plagiarise that and introduce it as the basis for our list of directives so that we can, if not replicate it in all respects, at least capture the spirit of her Bill.
I thank the Secretary of State for saying that he recognises the abuse by “a small number of firms, in a small number of industries”, but I do not agree with the use of “small”. I think that should be “huge”, “large”, or “common practice”. Will he give a level playing field to the workers in these industries by stopping zero-hours contracts?
I will not do that, because one of the conclusions of the Matthew Taylor report was that most people, of the small—and, indeed, shrinking—number of people on zero-hours contracts welcome that flexibility. The hon. Gentleman will know that many Labour councils up and down the country have casual workers on those contracts and say, in terms, that they are an important part of what their workers want.
However, I do agree with the hon. Gentleman on enforcement. A number of firms are doing such things, but they are not typical, by any means. Some of us will have read about some of the abuses in the garment industry in and around Leicester, for example. These simply cannot be allowed to continue without the steps being taken to restore confidence to those workers that their rights will be respected. That is the intention behind what I have set out in terms of strengthening and better resourcing our enforcement mechanisms.
Fresh in the minds of those of us who feel scepticism about the commitments made by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister will be the fact that his party, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, introduced employment tribunal fees, which were ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, largely because of their hugely disproportionate impact on women bringing cases on maternity discrimination. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, contrary to comments made by the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, his Government have absolutely no plans to reintroduce employment tribunal fees?
The hon. Lady is a little churlish in ignoring some other examples. I would have thought she would welcome, for example, the introduction by a Conservative-led Government of the national living wage, which has made a big difference to many low-paid people across the country. Clearly, the judgment that was made by the Court struck down those fees. We will respect the judgment of the Court in the proposals that we make as we respond to it.
I listened to what the Secretary of State had to say, but the fundamental issues remain the same. This Government’s Brexit deal fails to protect jobs, living standards, and workers’ rights. I am sure that he will tell me otherwise, but if he is so confident that this is the right deal for our country, why will he not let the people decide and have the final say on it?
I can report to the hon. Lady that employers, including in her constituency, are very anxious that we should get on and approve this deal because, as I said, the best right that a worker has is the right to work. The concerns that come from the uncertainty of not agreeing a deal that has been endorsed by employers is giving cause for concern to many workers up and down the country. I hope that in the days ahead, as well as advancing this package, which will provide a means for us to have regard to and take decisions on workers’ rights, and as we see what happens in the rest of the European Union, we will also act to safeguard the jobs of workers in her constituency and mine by approving the deal.
The Prime Minister previously told the House that one step the Government were taking was to abolish the so-called Swedish derogation, but can the Secretary of State confirm that in the regulations laid before the House today, agency workers will be forced to wait until 2020, at the earliest, for equal rights in the workplace?
Having made the commitment to abolish the Swedish derogation, which previous Labour Governments signally failed to do, we have brought forward, at the earliest opportunity, a statutory instrument to do that. I have had representations from the trade unions as to the timing, and we will reflect on that. However, I think that the hon. Lady, being fair-minded, would acknowledge that we have brought forward the necessary legislation very quickly in response to the policy commitments that we have made.
As well as echoing other tributes paid today, I would like to pay tribute to Lord Davies of Coity, who died on Monday. He was a doughty champion of workers and workers’ rights for many decades.
Problems with enforcement of employment rights are not just in particular areas, but are widespread and particularly affect young workers, careworkers and catering sector workers, many of whom work in my constituency and have few other options for employment. I welcome the Secretary of State looking again to expand the enforcement of employment rights. Will he commit to group cases being taken to tribunal and to third-party representations being made to HMRC about the minimum wage?
First, I echo the hon. Lady’s condolences. She tempts me to go beyond my jurisdiction. My portfolio is pretty broad, covering energy, industry and the industrial strategy, but she refers to matters that are, properly, for the Ministry of Justice. I am happy to talk to the Lord Chancellor and meet the hon. Lady if she would like to talk about such grouping of cases.
Has the Secretary of State secured the endorsement of any trade unions for his proposed course of action? If not, what does he propose to do to secure it?
My ambition is not to secure the endorsement of trade unions. We have had fruitful discussions. As I said to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), I respect the fact that the trade unions would rather things were done in a different way—namely, that we continue to import, as it were, directives and regulations from the European Union and have them enforced by the European Court of Justice. That is their preferred policy; I understand that. It is certainly not our policy. I do not think it is compatible with leaving the European Union. However, leaving the European Union and the opportunity to put in statute various measures, which will allow the House to consider actions that we take on employment rights, does not mean that we cannot establish agreement across the House and take the advice of the trade union movement, even though it might ultimately prefer a different solution.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have been contacted by residents in Camellia House in my constituency, who are distraught at being left without a lift for the last two months, which is causing great stress to many residents, and particularly those with young families or disabilities. The situation has now become more serious, with one of the residents, who has had a stroke, now being discharged from hospital. FirstPort has failed to provide any explanation for the delay or any compensation to residents. It has also failed to respond to inquiries from my office since the issue was first raised with the company on 25 January.
Madam Deputy Speaker, what advice can you give me on how to raise that matter in order to get Ministers’ attention, so that pressure can be applied to FirstPort to get the lift fixed and FirstPort can be held to account for its clear disregard for residents and their needs?
I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order and for giving me notice that she intended to raise it. I am sure we are all sorry to hear of the plight facing her constituents, but I hope she will understand that it is not a matter on which I can rule. However, she has placed her concerns on the record, which I am sure will be appreciated. As I am sure she knows, she could go to the Table Office for advice on the other ways in which she can raise that matter on behalf of her constituents.
School Uniform (Gender Neutrality) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Layla Moran, supported by Jo Swinson, Wera Hobhouse, Christine Jardine, Caroline Lucas, Hannah Bardell and Mhairi Black, presented a Bill to require school uniform policies to be gender-neutral; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March, and to be printed (Bill 350).
Charity Trustees (Time Off for Duties)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Employment Rights Act 1996 to give charity trustees the right to time off work for the purposes of carrying out the duties of that office; and for connected purposes.
Charity trustees are the people across the length and breadth of our country who volunteer their time and expertise to provide governance for our nation’s charities, large and small. They deserve our thanks—I do not think anyone would disagree with that—but warm words on their own are not enough, which is why I am introducing this ten-minute rule Bill.
The Charity Trustees (Time Off for Duties) Bill has two clear purposes. The first is to value our existing charity trustees by giving them an improved status in law. The second is to provide the sort of support that might encourage a greater number of people from a wider diversity of backgrounds to take on this important but unpaid civic duty.
I am delighted that the Bill has been commended widely, and I would like to put on record my particular thanks to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, the Small Charities Coalition and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action for their support. I would also like to thank the Members from different political parties who are the Bill’s co-sponsors.
As the law stands, an employee can take a reasonable amount of time off work if they are a magistrate, school governor, local councillor or one of eight other categories of duty. Those categories do not include the role of charity trustee. This Bill seeks to change that. Let me be clear: this is the most moderate of Bills. I am not asking for a higher status in law for charity trustees than for those who undertake any of the other public duties already covered by statute. Under the existing legislation, one has the right to “reasonable” time off to carry out certain public duties. There is, of course, no requirement that it be paid time off.
“Reasonableness” decrees that the amount of time off must be agreed with the employer before taking it and that the employer can refuse a request if it is considered to be unreasonable. What is considered to be reasonable will depend on what duties need to be carried out, the time it will take, the impact on the employer’s business and how much time has already been taken. Moreover, staff cannot ask for time off work for public duties if they are agency workers, members of the police or armed forces, employed on a fishing vessel or a gas or oil rig at sea, merchant seamen, or civil servants if their public duties are connected to political activities restricted under the terms of their employment. The existing terms for “reasonable time off for public duties” would be totally unchanged by the Bill. The only change that the Bill seeks is to extend those terms to charity trustees, and that is not before time.
We cannot overestimate the importance of charity trustees in our society. Section 177 of the Charities Act 2011 defines trustees as
“the persons having the general control and management of the administration of a charity.”
Trustees are ultimately responsible for everything a charity does and can be held legally accountable for the decisions they make. Trustees freely give their own time, energy and expertise to help charities achieve their aims, and the contribution they make to civil society and our country is vital. While it is difficult—indeed, probably impossible—to put an exact monetary value on the contribution that trustees make to society, statistics from “Taken on Trust”, the 2017 report published by the Charity Commission, show that the estimated time value of trustee input per year is £3.5 billion.
Research from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has found that 91% of charities rely solely on the work of volunteers. Many of these charities are community-based, and a significant proportion do amazing work to help tackle poverty and deprivation. Trustees often play both a governance and executive role. Without their trustees, these vitally needed charities simply could not exist. If these charities were not there, either the state would have to undertake the work, or no one would do so, with all the human and economic costs that that would entail.
The Small Charities Coalition asked its members if they would be supportive of this ten-minute rule Bill. The respondents were supportive and believe that the change would not only be beneficial to current trustees, but help small charities to attract new ones. This is something I believe we must aspire to.
The House of Lords Select Committee on Charities report “Stronger charities for a stronger society” expressed its concerns about the lack of diversity among charity trustees, which it saw as limiting the experience and knowledge of charity boards. The Charity Commission’s report “Taken on Trust” made a similar point when it stated that the average trustee is a 62-year-old white British male. Research by the Charities Aid Foundation—“Charity Street II”—found that young people and women are the most likely to use charity services, but there are double the number of male trustees as there are female ones, with charity trustees tending to have an above average income and level of education. A report from the agency Inclusive Boards found that the boards of charities in England and Wales are less diverse than those of FTSE 100 companies.
Today, I want to celebrate both our existing and our prospective trustees. If a 62-year-old white British male trustee is reading this in Hansard or watching BBC Parliament, I want to assure them that this House values their service. However, I would like that service to be enhanced by that of a wider range of people. Without this, I believe that charities will miss out on the huge range of skills, experience and perspectives that a wider pool of trustees could offer.
I also believe that we should take seriously the fact that whole swathes of the population are currently under-represented as charity trustees, and are losing out on the wealth of development opportunities that being a trustee provides. That is simply not good enough. Charities could greatly benefit from having young people on their boards, particularly in the ever more digital world we now live in, while being a charity trustee enables young people to develop key employability skills, interact with people outside their usual social groups and broaden their networks.
Trusteeships offer a rare opportunity for people to gain board level experience early in their careers or even before their career has fully begun. The best companies are already leading the way by supporting their employees as they take on trustee roles. They welcome the part that charity trusteeships can play in offering their staff vital board level experience. I believe it is essential that such experience is offered widely. John Gallanders, chief officer of the Association of Voluntary Organisations in Wrexham, makes the point that this experience should not just be for those who are on middle-management levels or above, commenting
“what is the difference between a parent who is a School Governor getting time off and someone who may be lower down in the staff structure perhaps wanting time for a playgroup meeting?”
I agree totally.
There was a time when the words “big society” were used quite a lot in this place, but I do not want us to get bogged down with the terminology of the day or the semantics of how we on different sides of the House sometimes use different words. Whatever words we use, I have no doubt that a society that values and supports its charity trustees is a bigger and a better one, so I commend this Bill to the House. I hope, too, that this House will support it, and that the Government will act.
Question put and agreed to.
That Susan Elan Jones, Julie Elliott, Lilian Greenwood, Jo Stevens, Jeremy Lefroy, Tonia Antoniazzi, Mary Glindon, Victoria Prentis, Stephen Timms, Daniel Zeichner, Gareth Thomas and Wera Hobhouse present the Bill.
Susan Elan Jones accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March, and to be printed (Bill 351).
Comptroller and Auditor General
[Relevant document: Seventy-fifth Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, HC 1883, Selection of the new Comptroller and Auditor General.]
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Gareth Davies to the Office of Comptroller and Auditor General.
I would like to start by paying tribute to the outgoing Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir Amyas Morse, who has led the National Audit Office since 2009. The past decade has been a period of great change in the public finances, during which Sir Amyas has served with distinction, displaying the independence and professionalism that have been the hallmarks of his career. He has now reached the end of his non-renewable term, and I am sure I speak for the whole House when I thank him for his service and wish him the very best for his future endeavours.
May I as a Back Bencher, but also as a Select Committee Chair who drew on Sir Amyas’s services, record one aspect of him that so struck me, which was his attitude to public service? He had a golden DNA that ran through him, with a knowledge and a certainty about how he should serve this House and, through this House, the public. However friendly one got with him—one might be on Christian name terms—one knew it meant nothing if he did not think something was the right thing to do.
As I have said, Sir Amyas’s professionalism and integrity shone through the work that he did and, as a Select Committee Chairman, the right hon. Gentleman knows that and has experienced it at first hand.
In line with the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011, the appointment of Sir Amyas’s successor, Gareth Davies, has been agreed with the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). With three decades of audit experience, gained in both the public and private sectors, Mr Davies is eminently qualified to be our 17th permanent Comptroller and Auditor General, a position he will hold for a non-renewable term of 10 years.
I am sure that, under Mr Davies’s leadership, the National Audit Office will continue its proud history of rigorous and independent scrutiny of Government, and that the people of the United Kingdom can have every confidence that their taxes will continue to be spent in an effective and proper manner. Mr Davies will be a worthy servant of this House and this country. I am delighted to support his appointment, and I commend this motion to the House.
I rise to offer the Opposition’s backing to the appointment of Mr Gareth Davies as Comptroller and Auditor General. The position was initiated by William Gladstone, a Liverpudlian at birth who lived at Seaforth in what is now my constituency of Bootle and actually went to school in Bootle at one point.
The importance of the position is reflected by the fact that the Prime Minister is in attendance and has formally moved this appointment. Similarly, its significance is demonstrated by the rigorous vetting process undertaken by the Chair and members of the Public Accounts Committee. This reflects the central role parliamentary Select Committees play in modernising Parliament, ensuring that the appointments made by Governments of whatever colour receive proper parliamentary scrutiny.
As the chief executive of the National Audit Office, the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General cannot be overestimated. The NAO provides an indispensable role in independently auditing Government Departments, ensuring financial transparency and good value for money, as was mentioned by the Prime Minister.
I know that I speak for all Members when I say that the NAO’s work is vital in establishing an accurate picture of Government spending and in helping Members to properly hold Ministers to account. That work will be more important than ever as Ministers continue to spend increasing amounts of public money in preparation for no deal, with appropriate oversight from this House. I have no doubt that the new Comptroller and Auditor General will continue the forensic examination of accounts that we have all come to respect and that I hope the Government and their Departments—particularly those that have “Transport” in their name—will recognise, now and in the future. At this pressing time, the NAO’s workload will be made even heavier by the Government’s departmental spending review, which may put more strains upon services.
I echo the Prime Minister’s tribute to the outgoing Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir Amyas Morse. He has served with distinction under difficult circumstances, given that under his tenure the NAO has not found itself protected from cuts to resources and staffing.
Let me turn to the appointment of Mr Davies, who has more than 30 years of mixed experience as a public auditor, including work with local public services, central Government and the charity sector. The Opposition support the recommendation of the cross-party Public Accounts Committee and its satisfaction
“that Mr Davies has suitable audit and professional experience and demonstrates the necessary independence and resilience to make a success of the role.”
It goes without saying that Mr Davies is taking over the position at a difficult time and has an important task ahead. However, the Opposition are confident that he will perform his role with distinction and diligence. On behalf of the Opposition, I wish him well.
I am delighted to catch your eye in this important but short debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I first served on the Public Accounts Committee between 1997 and 1999, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). Since September 2017, I have served as its deputy Chairman. There is probably only one other Member of this House—my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), who is sitting beside me—who has served on the PAC during the tenure of both Sir John Bourn, the previous Comptroller and Auditor General, and Sir Amyas Morse, the current holder of that office. Of course, they were both very different. In some ways the job has evolved with changing circumstances, such as the review of the whole of Government accounts, but in other ways it has not; the NAO’s basic auditing function and its value-for-money reports are exactly the same as when I first joined the PAC. Each CAG and each Chairman of the PAC has different ways of working.
Under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend—as I call her for this purpose—the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), the CAG and the NAO are much more available to give briefings to Members and answer their queries than they ever were in the old days. The briefing session before each PAC hearing and the appointment of lead members has made the Committee’s huge workload—with public sessions twice weekly—manageable for its members. It also means that they are able to specialise, so the Committee’s work is much more professional. Together with the excellent work of the NAO, those changes have led to the Government accepting approximately 80% of PAC recommendations.
Departments could and should make better use of the information that the PAC and the NAO provide. The PAC is probably the most important Select Committee in this House and it’s whole raison d’être is to scrutinise the entirety of Government expenditure. That is reinforced by the convention that its Chairman is always an Opposition Member.
The CAG is a parliamentary appointment that is then approved by the Government, as in the motion so graciously moved today by the Prime Minister. I thank her for being present, given all the multifarious and difficult responsibilities that she has at the moment. Her presence demonstrates just how important an appointment it is.
That brings me to the appointment of the 17th Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr Gareth Davies. Having chaired his pre-appointment hearing at the PAC on 21 January, I have no hesitation in endorsing his appointment. There was an extremely strong shortlist, but he emerged as the best candidate. The CAG is instrumental to ensuring that Parliament is able to carry out its financial scrutiny of the Executive via the PAC, with the support of the NAO, so the vacant post was advertised to a very wide talent pool. The shortlisted candidates then underwent a technical assessment with the Auditor General for Scotland and extensive interviews and testing with a diverse panel of NAO staff. The process was stringent, and I believe that it has found an excellent successor to Sir Amyas Morse.
There can be no doubt about how eminently qualified Gareth Davies is for the job. He has more than 30 years’ experience as a public auditor and has worked at a senior level both in public services and in central Government. A University of Cambridge mathematics graduate, he qualified as a chartered accountant in 1992 and then worked in audit for several local authorities across London and the south-east, as well as for the Department of Health. Since 2012, he has served as head of public services at Mazars LLP, before which he was a managing director at the Audit Commission.
It would be wrong not to record my thanks to the departing CAG, Sir Amyas Morse, for his unparalleled and invaluable work. Under his tenure, the National Audit Office has been at the forefront of scrutinising the Government’s preparedness for exiting the European Union, so it has been influential in shedding light on the scale of the task that lies ahead. Where necessary, Sir Amyas has been unflinching in his criticism of the actions of Government Ministers, or the Government as a whole. It has been an immense pleasure to work with him, and I wish him well in whatever he decides to do in the future. He was not only extremely technically qualified for the CAG’s work, but unfailingly courteous. He will be missed.
As other Members have done, I thank the Prime Minister for coming to the Chamber today to move the motion. It is a symbol of the importance of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s role that it is supported both by the Prime Minister and by myself, as a representative of the Opposition and as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. I am honoured to chair the Committee, but it is only 157 years old, whereas there has been a Comptroller and Auditor General in some form for considerably longer.
The position that we are approving today is a constitutionally significant one, because the Comptroller and Auditor General has to deal with whichever Government are in power. They need to be fearless and strong in their attention to how the Government spend the taxpayer’s money, manage projects that deliver for the citizen and ensure that they are being done as well as they can be. It is therefore important that we appoint someone with backbone, robustness and serious experience. Interestingly, this is the only time in the position’s history that we have required applicants to hold a financial qualification—although the incumbent, Sir Amyas Morse, does have such a qualification.
I am reminded today of Sir Amyas’s comment that it is not his job to be popular. It is important that the Comptroller and Auditor General be able to stand up for what they believe is right, based on the facts and the numbers, and ensure that the House is provided with the real numbers so that we can debate the issues.
I am delighted that the hon. Members for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) are present. They have both served as my deputy Chair, a role that I created for Members of the Government party. As parliamentarians committed to scrutiny, we recognise the importance of the Committee’s work, whichever party is in power. It is important that we have the decent information that the National Audit Office provides.
As my party’s Front-Bench spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), noted, the Comptroller and Auditor General is also the NAO’s chief executive, so it is important that they have the ability to lead an organisation of some 800 people. In that respect, Gareth Davies also has my confidence.
I put on record my thanks to the outgoing Comptroller and Auditor General, whose term of office is limited to 10 years and will come to an end on 31 May; Gareth Davies is due to take over on 1 June, if his letters patent are issued. Sir Amyas has been a fearless advocate for what is good in the public sector and for challenging Governments of whatever party—he has worked under different Governments of different hues—to ensure that Parliament is provided with the information that it needs to engage in scrutiny.
May I add a word of appreciation for Sir Amyas’s accessibility to me and other Back Benchers who are not members of the Public Accounts Committee?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that comment. It is certainly my ambition, as well as the NAO’s, that the information and support that it provides should be available to all Back Benchers, so that all Members of this House can properly scrutinise whichever Government are in power. With a 10-year term it is possible, as it has been with Sir Amyas Morse, that the new Comptroller and Auditor General will deal with Governments of different political hues. I am confident in his robustness, his steel, his ability and desire to call out what is right and truthful, and his straight approach to his profession. As others have mentioned, he has been an auditor for 30 years. He is highly experienced, highly capable and I highly recommend him.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). I would like to make two quick points.
The first point is about Sir Amyas Morse, who has been Comptroller and Auditor General for 10 years. I was one of those who cross-examined him when he appeared before the Public Accounts Committee before he was appointed. He has done an extraordinarily good job over 10 years and built up the National Audit Office, from a good position under his predecessors, to a point where it is now without question one of the best supreme audit institutions in the world, if not the best supreme audit institution in the world. He is widely respected both here and internationally. It is quite fair to say that he really has done the state some service. We are all deeply in his debt.
My second point is about the consequences of the abolition of the Audit Commission and the fact that we are now appointing, in Mr Gareth Davies, an individual of the highest calibre who has spent most of his life at the Audit Commission. Following the abolition of the Audit Commission, there are concerns about the departmental understanding of the picture emerging from local audit work. Indeed, as Mr Davies said in his evidence, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), there is still a risk that, even when things are being flagged up by the local auditor, either the governance of the authority itself or the Department are not acting quickly enough to pick up and address those points.
My concern was that there might be, either in slow time or in quick time, a move to burden the NAO with a whole load of extra responsibilities, frankly swamping it with the work of local government audit. In fact, the work of local government audit is being done quite effectively. There is no evidence that it is not being done well. However, there is evidence that it is not being picked up quickly enough and, where local auditors are issuing qualifications, the Department of State concerned, in this case the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, is not necessarily responding quickly enough. Under the new Secretary of State, who has been in office for nine or 10 months, I am confident that changes are afoot, particularly since the debacle of Northamptonshire County Council. I just wanted to make the point that it is very important that we do not take an extremely good institution that is well-run and functioning extremely well, and try to extend its scope unnecessarily. I was therefore very relieved when I read Mr Davies’s other evidence where he said:
“When an organisation like the NAO demonstrates its capability, it is very tempting to give it additional tasks, and if you are not careful you can lose focus on your prime objectives.”
I was very gratified to see that he is extremely cautious about doing that. I commend his wisdom, evident in the evidence he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds, and I commend his appointment as Comptroller and Auditor General.
Madam Deputy Speaker, as you know I am a newer Member to this House. There is no better apprenticeship for being an MP than sitting on the Public Accounts Committee. I would like to start by placing on the record my thanks to the hon. Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for chairing our Committee so ably.
Without the National Audit Office and without the robustness of its reports, we could not do the job we do quite as well as we do. I pay tribute to Sir Amyas Morse who, right from the get-go, has been—the hon. Member for The Cotswolds said exactly this—unfailingly courteous. That is the first thing one notices about him: that easy smile. Behind that, however, is an intelligence of steel. He has a knack for calling out obfuscation, fudge and imprecision in our civil service, but also a reputation for being completely fair. That is exactly what we in the Public Accounts Committee aim to do. I will genuinely miss him and I wish him all the very best.
I am looking forward very much to working with Gareth Davies. We grilled him. Believe me, we did not give him an easy ride when he came before the Committee for his appointment. I was interested to know in particular, as a trustee of Oxfam and Save the Children, what part he had played in their recent scandals and what he had learnt from them. I have absolute confidence that that and all his other experience will bring great things to the NAO. I very much look forward to working with him.
Question put and agreed to.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Before I proceed to the main business, I wish to clarify the comments I made earlier today to the House during Northern Ireland questions in response to a question raised by the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly), which I believe may have been open to misinterpretation.
At oral questions, I referred to deaths during the troubles caused by members of the security forces. The point I was seeking to convey was that the overwhelming majority of those who served carried out their duties with courage, professionalism, integrity and within the law. I was not referring to any specific cases, but expressing a general view. Of course, where there is evidence of wrongdoing it should always be investigated, whoever is responsible. These are of course matters for the police and prosecuting authorities who are independent of Government.
I thank the Secretary of State for her point of order.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank the Secretary of State for her gracious clarification of her position. Will she take this opportunity to recognise that confidence in the judicial process is fundamental to all communities and all people across Northern Ireland? For those reasons, her clarification that those who have committed criminal offences will face the justice process is important and it emphasises the need to move on quickly with the legacy commitments brought about by the 2014 Stormont House agreement.
I thank the Secretary of State for her point of order and for giving me advance notice of her intention to make it. I am sure the fact that she has come to the House very quickly to make that clarification will be appreciated. I also understand the point made by the Opposition spokesman. I do not want to reopen the debate we had earlier. The point of order has been noted and the Secretary of State has made her clarification.
Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) bILL (bUSINESS OF THE hOUSE)
That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill:
(1) (a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be taken at today’s sitting in accordance with this Order.
(b) Notices of Amendments, new Clauses or new Schedules to be moved in Committee of the whole House may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.
(c) Proceedings on Second Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
(d) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) six hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put
(2) When the Bill has been read a second time:
(a) it shall, despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;
(b) the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.
(3) (a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.
(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.
(4) If, following proceedings in Committee of the whole House and any proceedings on Consideration of the Bill, a legislative grand committee withholds consent to the Bill or any Clause or Schedule of the Bill or any amendment made to the Bill, the House shall proceed to Reconsideration of the Bill without any Question being put.
(5) If, following Reconsideration of the Bill:
(a) a legislative grand committee withholds consent to any Clause or Schedule of the Bill or any amendment made to the Bill (but does not withhold consent to the whole Bill and, accordingly, the Bill is amended in accordance with Standing Order No. 83N(6)), and
(b) a Minister of the Crown indicates his or her intention to move a minor or technical amendment to the Bill, the House shall proceed to consequential Consideration of the Bill without any Question being put.
(6) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (1), the Chairman or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply:
(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;
(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;
(c) the Question on any amendment, new Clause or new Schedule selected by the Chair or Speaker for separate decision;
(d) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;
(e) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded; and shall not put any other questions, other than the question on any motion described in paragraph (17)(a) of this Order.
(7) On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.
(8) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (6)(d) on successive amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Chairman or Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions.
(9) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (6)(e) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chairman shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions, except that the Question shall be put separately on any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out.
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(10) (a) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(11) Paragraphs (2) to (11) of Standing Order No. 83F (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (10) of this Order.
(12) (a) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(13) Paragraphs (2) to (9) of Standing Order No. 83G (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on further messages from the Lords) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (12) of this Order.
(14) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of Standing Order No. 83H (Programme orders: reasons committee) apply in relation to any committee to be appointed to draw up reasons after proceedings have been brought to a conclusion in accordance with this Order.
(15) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply so far as necessary for the purposes of this Order.
(16) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.
(17) (a) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.
(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.
(c) Such a motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.
(e) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on such a Motion.
(18) (a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.
(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
(19) No debate shall be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) at today’s sitting after this Order has been agreed.
(20) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.
(21) No private business may be considered at today’s sitting after this Order has been agreed.—(Karen Bradley.)
Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I rise to ask the House to give a Second Reading to a piece of proposed legislation that delivers on this Government’s commitment to ensure good governance and stable public finances in Northern Ireland. The Bill seeks to achieve those outcomes by bringing forward two essential measures. First, it will enable the collection of regional rates in Northern Ireland. Secondly, it will ensure that fair and appropriate tariffs and cost-capping measures are in place for the renewable heat incentive scheme in Northern Ireland.
As we discussed yesterday, the Government are committed to devolution. I am working hard to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity. I firmly believe that this is the best long-term plan for the people of Northern Ireland and I profoundly believe it is in the best long-term interests of the Union. Important local decisions should be taken by locally elected politicians in Northern Ireland. I share the frustration felt by some Members of Parliament and the public that taking forward important proposed legislation in this manner in this House is not the ideal situation. However, in the absence of devolved government I have made it clear that I will continue to take the urgent and necessary decisions to ensure good governance and to protect public services.
The Secretary of State will recall that during the passage of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018, we raised an urgent issue that crystallises at the end of this month: the forthcoming resources available to our housing associations in Northern Ireland. Because of an Office for National Statistics definitional issue, they would not have been able to draw down on financial transactions capital tax. Will she confirm today that Her Majesty’s Treasury has agreed to extend the derogation on that definition and that legislation will be brought forward in this Parliament to resolve this issue satisfactorily, so that our housing associations and co-ownership and other schemes have the funding available that will not impact on our block grant, but will allow people to have a sustainable future home in the Province?