House of Commons
Monday 18 March 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
When fully rolled out, universal credit will be £2 billion per year more generous than the support it replaces. As a single system that integrates six legacy benefits, universal credit will enable 700,000 households to access approximately £2.4 billion of welfare that previously went unclaimed. Our welfare reforms are about targeting support at those who need it most.
At the Budget, additional funds, which are to come into effect in the new financial year, were allocated to pay for work allowances,. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on when those work allowances will come in, how much they will be, and how much extra the working people in my constituency who receive universal credit can expect to receive each week?
My hon. Friend is right that an extra £1.7 billion a year will be put into work allowances to increase them by £1,000 from April 2019. That will provide a boost to the incomes of the lowest paid that will result in 2.4 million families keeping an extra £630 per year of what they earn.
It is not just the financial support that is key, but the support provided by jobcentres in getting people work-ready. One of my constituents was languishing on benefits for a decade with no interventions. Now, under universal credit, she is being helped and supported to become job-ready. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we continue this approach, and that we reach out and support the work coaches in jobcentres?
I thank my hon. Friend and near parliamentary neighbour for pointing out the excellent work done by work coaches. The defining difference between universal credit and the legacy benefits that it replaces is that tailored, personal approach, which really helps individuals to get back into work.
What support is being given, through not only universal credit but schemes such as Access to Work, to those who experience mental ill health?
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out this important element of universal credit. We are determined to make sure that universal credit really supports the most vulnerable. We are piloting a new scheme in Milton Keynes in which people with mental health difficulties are given an early referral to make sure that their needs are dealt with early on, so that they can be given the appropriate, personal, supportive care that they need.
The five-week wait for universal credit assumed that everybody would have their last month’s pay cheque in the bank, but reality is not like that. Most claimants have to take an advance—a debt to the Department—the repayment of which often forces people to use food banks, as the Secretary of State has rightly acknowledged, or go into rent arrears. Will she scrap the five-week delay?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue; we have addressed concerns about the five-week wait by putting in additional measures. One measure now in place relates to the receipt of legacy housing benefit over two weeks. All universal credit applicants can get an advance, and we now find that 60% of applicants take up that opportunity. That obviates the need for concerns about the early amount of cash that people get.
I spent most of Saturday collecting a third of a tonne of food for our local food banks as part of our Winter of Compassion campaign. It is already clear that we will have to run such food-bank collections all year round. When will the Secretary of State join us in Birmingham to help collect the food needed to end the hunger that her policies are causing?
I totally reject the right hon. Gentleman’s assumption and comments. The issue with food banks is partly that the early roll-out of universal credit had some difficulties. We now know that 85% of applications for universal credit are paid on time and, as I said in answer to an earlier question, 60% of people get advances. I hope that that combination will enable people to access the cash that they need straight away.
Despite the recent funding, the levels of work allowances have still not recovered from the cruel cuts made to them back in 2015. Does the Secretary of State recognise that although the principle of simplicity behind universal credit is a good one, if universal credit is to have credibility, it needs to be funded properly?
It is because universal credit needs to be funded properly that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has, since 2016, put another £10 billion into different areas of it, to ensure that it does what it sets out to do, which is support the most vulnerable and help others into work.
The UK Government have removed the higher rates in universal credit for lone parents under 25. In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), the Minister for Employment had the audacity to claim that under-25s have lower living costs, and that
“this reflects the lower wages that younger workers typically receive”
as a result of state-sanctioned age discrimination, including through this Government. Will the Secretary of State tell me in what way it costs a 24-year-old less to be a single parent than it costs a 26-year-old?
I point out to the hon. Lady that we have made available more childcare that is both better and lower cost. A person can now have 85% of their childcare costs paid under universal credit. We have also made sure, as I said in a recent announcement, that work coaches have the wherewithal, through the flexible support grant, to give that money to people who need it early on in the process.
Ministers may like to claim that nobody will be worse off on universal credit, but people transferring through natural migration get no protection against loss of income, even though they may just have moved home. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what the Government will do to ensure that nobody is left worse off?
I ask the hon. Gentleman to engage with the change that is universal credit. People were left to languish on previous legacy benefits, and were not helped into work at all. We now have a system where the money is focused on trying to help people into work. That is why we have seen the changes with the work allowance, and why we have seen additional support from the Chancellor. It is a different system from that point of view.
Under universal credit, our work coaches provide vital one-to-one support to all claimants. Work coaches receive appropriate training to ensure that they can offer support to claimant groups with a variety of characteristics.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Will he say what support he is giving to people in my constituency to help them back into work?
I thank my hon. Friend and her parliamentary office for engaging with their local jobcentre in Stockport. I know that she has visited it and seen the one-to-one support provided. She asked for a specific example; in the past week, Stockport jobcentre has been working with claimants to prepare them for a sector-based work academy opportunity with the NHS, which will lead to 20 guaranteed interviews.
I have seen the positive effect that the roll-out of universal credit has had in the jobcentres in both Boston and Skegness, but it remains the case that some applicants’ assessment is overturned on appeal. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to get this right first time more often, and can he tell me what he is doing to make that happen?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He will know that earlier this month, the Secretary of State announced a range of measures to better support people with disabilities and health conditions, which of course included exploring whether we can improve the mandatory reconsideration process to reduce the volumes of cases going to appeal.
When I last read the claimant commitment, it was like a prison manual. The duties were all on the claimants’ side, with none on the Department’s. Will the Minister meet me and community groups that have designed a fairer commitment, in which there are duties on the Department to make a success of universal credit, as well as duties on claimants?
Of course I am always happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman. I would say, though, that claimant commitments are agreed with claimants. It is work that is done together; that is what is important.
The hon. Gentleman will know that, across Government, we have a strategy to tackle homelessness. He will also know that we have introduced measures such as the landlord portal, so that payments for rent can be paid directly to social landlords, and that, just a few weeks ago in January, the Secretary of State announced a further change that will allow rents to be paid to private landlords much more easily. We are keen to make sure that this works for everyone.
I thank my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for both coming to my Harlow jobcentre to see how universal credit works in practice. May I ask the Minister specifically what he is doing to help single parents who are moving on to universal credit?
My right hon. Friend is a huge champion for his constituents. He is extremely well regarded in the jobcentre, interacting with constituents and indeed with those working there. The Secretary of State has already referred to the fact that, from 1 April, we will be increasing work allowances by £1,000.
Four single mothers won a legal challenge against the Department for Work and Pensions in January because their universal credit payments did not take into account the way in which their incomes changed from month to month, yet the Government decided to apply for permission to appeal. This was turned down, with the judge saying that the way in which the Secretary of State had interpreted and applied the legislation
“was not only wrong as a matter of language, it produces absurd results”.
Why did the Government choose to spend public money seeking to appeal the original decision, and what are they going to do now to address this grotesque injustice?
As the hon. Lady will know, we are considering this case, so it would not be appropriate to comment at this stage.
Universal Credit: Disabled People
More people who are severely disabled will receive higher payments under universal credit. This means that around 1 million disabled households will gain on average around £100 more per month on universal credit than on legacy benefits. The universal credit rate for the most disabled people is up to £328.32, which is up from the employment and support allowance level of £163.15.
I have a constituent with a severe brain injury who applied for universal credit in August 2018 and immediately lost his severe disability premium. Since then, he has lost over £1,500 in benefits. What are the Government doing to ensure that extremely vulnerable claimants who have lost their severe disability premium are given the back payments to which they are entitled?
If the hon. Lady writes to me personally, I will ensure that officials sit down with her and go through what seems to be a very difficult case. I have suffered from a brain injury, so I know the difficulties involved. The hon. Lady will be aware that the transitional payment and the gateway are available for those receiving the severe disability premium, and that these elements provide protection long-term. Over 1,200 staff are working to ensure that repayments are made.
Our experience in Sheffield is that many people with learning disabilities cannot manage digital applications and are not easily granted access to non-digital routes, and that others who start on digital applications with support, but struggle once they are on their own, are not allowed to return to non-digital routes. Will the Minister therefore agree to assess demand for non-digital applications, and to publish clear guidance for jobcentres to make it easier for people with learning disabilities to be granted access to non-digital claims?
It is a pleasure to answer this question, because both the hon. Gentleman, who is a friend of mine, and I have suffered from the disabling effects of brain tumour. The House will be aware that this is Brain Tumour Awareness Month and that it is Wear A Hat Day on Friday. I will ensure that the points he raises are addressed. He will be aware of the help to claim service, which is already in existence, and of the work that we are doing with Citizens Advice, which will come up to speed in April. A great deal of effort is also going into home visits for vulnerable claimants. However, he raises a legitimate point that we will most definitely look into.
The Employment Minister will recall the case of my constituent Ben Seaman, who received a payment following underpayment of ESA; his parent was concerned that as a result, he would be unable to receive ESA in future. I am very grateful for the letter that the Secretary of State has written to me, which arrived today. Will the Minister confirm that those transferring from ESA to universal credit, who have to log this collection of underpayment within a month, will be told in advance of transferring?
I am delighted to hear about the very welcome development that has been communicated by the Secretary of State today. I can confirm what the Employment Minister has set out today, and I am delighted that this progress has been made.
I am glad that 145,000 more people with disabilities have found work in the last 12 months, leading to a total of 930,000 moving into work in the last five years. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s declared target of helping 1 million people with disabilities into work could be rather more ambitious than it is?
One million is a great start, but I believe that there is capability for more. I encourage all employers up and down the country to consider the many talented disabled people who want to join the workforce. The numbers are up all over the country already, as my hon. Friend outlines, but there is a lot more that can be done.
Those with disabilities have been contacting me from across the United Kingdom in my position as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, telling me that they still find it extremely difficult to access home assessment for benefits, and that they are then being penalised by having to provide GP letters, for which they are charged. Will the Minister respond to this situation and ensure that these people are not being penalised twice for their disability when accessing the benefits system?
I am happy to assure the hon. Lady that her concerns will be taken up by the Department; a Minister will meet her to go through her complaint.
I was recently visited by a constituent who was very distressed during his personal independence payment assessment because he felt that the assessor had not understood his case or his records and did not have the full facts. When will we introduce video recordings, so that our assessors can be held to account?
My hon. Friend raises a legitimate point. Video recording is an important step forward introduced by this Government. The pilot from last November appears successful, and we are looking to do a full roll-out later this year.
Universal Credit: Telephone Applications
Any claimant may claim universal credit by telephone. Each request will be considered on its merits, through discussions between the Department and individuals to see which method of claiming is most suitable and beneficial. After those discussions, phone claims are available to any individual who wishes to proceed with one.
What efforts are made to engage by telephone with those who are considered to be in need of making a claim, who may include elderly, disabled or rural claimants with poor or no internet access?
There is a freephone line. Last month, in February, 1.2 million calls were received on the universal credit full service line, and for those who are particularly vulnerable, home visits are also available.
How fast will the fast track be for cases of mental disability?
We are starting on this work; I made reference to the speech that the Secretary of State made earlier this month. However, if my right hon. Friend has a specific case to raise, we will be very happy to take it up.
Welfare Support: Kettering
I am pleased to say that since 2013 the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits in Kettering has decreased by over a third. The latest published statistics show that there are 3,520 people on PIP in Kettering, 35% of whom are getting the highest rates, compared with 14% of working-age disability living allowance recipients in the area when PIP was introduced.
It is taking too long for those who are refused PIP to successfully appeal against the decision. Across the country, it takes 190 days, and the worst 10% of cases in the east midlands now take 300 days. What percentage of PIP refusals are successfully overturned on appeal?
I share my hon. Friend’s concern that it is taking too long, and that too many appeals are indeed overturned. That is why I committed in my most recent statement to making sure that we look again at mandatory considerations to make them more effective, so that we can start to reverse this. I share his concerns and I am addressing the issue.
By his deployment of the words, “Across the country”, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) has helpfully enabled the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) to come in on this question, as it now refers to a wider area, and not simply to Kettering.
The Secretary of State is a fair-minded person. This morning, I have been looking at her constituency stats, the Kettering stats, and my stats in Huddersfield. However, I appeal to her to raise her vision beyond just the stats and the data, and to look at the evidence from children’s charities such as Action for Children, which will tell her that in her patch, in Kettering and in my patch, child poverty has not diminished.
I am very mindful of what we are delivering on the ground to individual constituents, families and children. We attempt, we hope, to protect the vulnerable and help people into work, but I know that my Department has a part to play in reducing poverty, and I am focused on that.
There are more people in work across our country than ever before, wages are growing at the joint-fastest rate in a decade, and Office for National Statistics data estimates that in the year to September 2018 there were 938,400 people in work in the great county of Hampshire.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. That is great news, but what more will the Government do to help people who find themselves out of work into new jobs?
Under universal credit, as we have noted before, work coaches provide that vital one-to-one support and advice to help people into work. The disincentives of the legacy system are gone, and the reforms are working. In my hon. Friend’s constituency of North East Hampshire, the number of claimants is down by 42% over the past five years.
Household incomes have never been higher. In 2016-17, there were 1 million fewer people living in absolute poverty than in 2010. In Scotland, whichever way we look at poverty—relative or absolute, and before or after housing costs—in the three years to 2016-17, no measures are higher than in the three years to 2009-10; in fact, three are lower.
A few weeks ago, a young family with a newborn baby appeared at my constituency office in Helensburgh. They were halfway through their four-week universal credit assessment period. This was a family in crisis. They were penniless, and the father had not eaten for three days. They did not even have enough money to buy baby milk and had been refused healthy start vouchers because they ticked the wrong box. Is that not the reality of the poverty being created by the Government?
I am sorry to hear about the circumstances of that case, and I am happy to look into it further. One of the recent announcements we have made is that there will be Citizens Advice support within every jobcentre from April onwards. That is the sort of case where Citizens Advice can step in and provide independent support and advice, to ensure that people get their full entitlement.
Be it universal credit, the benefit freeze or Brexit, the poor are being hit the hardest at the moment, yet according to research from the Resolution Foundation, overall tax and benefit changes will take £100 from families in the bottom fifth of income distribution and give £280 to those in the top 10. Does the Minister think that that is fair?
That is not something I recognise. Through the additional money being put into universal credit, record employment, the changes to the income tax personal threshold and rising wages, the poorest fifth in society are now £400 better off in real terms than in 2010.
Does the Minister agree that, with employment at record levels and wages rising in real terms, the best approach to helping people out of poverty is the one that this Government are delivering?
My hon. Friend is spot on. Only 5% of children whose parents work full time are in poverty, against 63% for families where there is only part-time work, which is why our delivering record employment in all regions of the UK is making a real difference.
Next year, the benefit freeze will leave the poorest 20% of families with children £900 worse off on average. In January, the Secretary of State said that the benefit freeze was the right policy at the time, but both she and the Chancellor have signalled that it will not be renewed in 2020. If it is not the right policy now, why are the Government continuing with the freeze for another year?
The hon. Lady continues to object to any measures to restore fairness to the benefits system. Under the last Labour Government, we saw welfare spending increase by £84 billion and an additional tax burden of £3,000 per hard-working household. This is about fairness and supporting people, while having a good safety net for those most in need.
Universal Credit: Debt
No one has to wait five weeks for the first part of their benefit because, as the hon. Lady is aware, they can get an advance of up to 100%, and 60% of people do that. We have also introduced a two-week run-on of housing benefit, and from next year a further two-week run-on of employment and support allowance, jobseeker’s allowance and income support will be available. Those payments are in addition to each claimant’s universal credit benefit award.
I am afraid to say that the five-week wait issue is not going to go away until the Government recognise that it is driving some people to food banks. I was in Glasgow on Friday with the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), and we will continue on our tour of the UK, taking a camera crew with us and shining a spotlight on poverty until the Government change their mind on this. For the most vulnerable in society who have zero financial resilience, the four-week assessment period makes no sense at all—they have to wait four weeks to prove they have no money. I have suggested that there is a need to identify the most vulnerable claimants—those with no financial resilience—and hand-hold them through the system, and either make the assessment period start minus four weeks or make those advance payments non-repayable grants, not for everyone but for the vulnerable.
I am always willing to look at suggestions for how to improve universal credit. The hon. Lady is well known for bringing forward a lot of suggestions for us to look at. However, we need to be careful not to create incentives that are counter to our intention to help people into work. I do believe that advances work well, and the work coaches I talk to—I also go around the country talking to people about it—do tell me that they make a significant difference.
A constituent of mine, a working mum with two little girls, had to wait the five weeks for her universal credit claim and then a further month for assistance with childcare costs because the Department insists on paying childcare in arrears. We all know that, in the real world, nurseries have to be paid in advance, so why cannot the system recognise that simple reality?
We have acknowledged that issue. I have announced that work coaches now have access to the flexible support fund so that they can give that money in advance and do exactly what the hon. and learned Lady is suggesting—giving that money to the people who need it when they are ready to pay for childcare to get into work.
An evaluation of the cap, covering these groups, is expected to be published in spring 2019. Some claimants might not be required to look for work, but they are expected to undertake activities designed to help them prepare for and move closer to the labour market. Those needing additional help adjusting to the cap can apply for discretionary housing payments.
But this is really missing the point. As the Work and Pensions Committee report made absolutely clear, the benefit cap should not apply to people who are not required to undertake a work search. Why are constituents such as mine having to find £50 out of their child benefit and child tax credits when they are in homeless accommodation and have no say over where they are accommodated and how much rent they are paying, or when they are exempted from a work search, including, in one case, when a mother had been fleeing domestic violence.
There are automatic exemptions for claimants on DLA, PIP, carer’s allowance, guardian’s allowance, working tax credits working when over 16 hours a week, universal credit when earning over £542, ESA support or the UC higher rate. Where they are not covered by that, discretionary housing payments can be used, and in that case they certainly should have been looked at favourably.
On 29 January, the Minister told me in a written answer that the Department does not know how many resettled refugee families may be subject to the benefit cap. Can he give me an assurance on the Floor of the House that the Government will start to look at that data and guarantee that no such family will be left unable to access the financial support they need?
I thank the hon. Lady. I have met a number of stakeholders to discuss this issue and wider issues connected to refugees. It is an area of priority for the Department, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss this further.
This country spends £121 billion on pensioners every year, with an increasing budget. My hon. Friend will be aware that the state pension is up well over £1,000 per annum in cash terms since 2010. In addition, there are 12 million winter fuel payments, at a cost of about £2 billion, specifically for the over-80s, with a payment of £300 a year to the individual.
I thank the Minister for delivering that good news to the House. While automatic pension enrolment will certainly help people as they move into retirement, can we make sure that we do not take our eye off the ball with older pensioners, with particular reference to fuel poverty, because there is still a problem?
My hon. Friend makes two points. The first is that auto-enrolment is a massive success in Tewkesbury, with 23,000 men and women now saving up to 5%—going up to 8% in April—for their long-term retirement. In addition, on fuel poverty, he will be pleased with the warm home discount scheme, which supports over 2 million low-income and vulnerable customers each year with direct assistance with their costs. However, I accept that there is always more that we can do.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, one in six pensioners now lives in poverty. Last year, 46,000 pensioners died prematurely, and the winter fuel allowance has not been increased for 15 years, so what is the Minister doing about that? The Government are cutting pension credit for couples at the same time.
The reality is that pensioner poverty is at an historically low level. The hon. Lady will be aware of the 12 million winter fuel payments, at a cost of £2 billion, with £200 for households with someone who has reached state pension age and £300 for households with someone who is over 80. In addition, there is the warm home discount support I just outlined.
I welcome the Government’s response this morning to the collective defined-contribution scheme consultation. What does it mean for posties in East Renfrewshire, a number of whom are looking forward to meeting the Minister when he comes up to Barrhead on Friday?
We believe that collective defined-contribution schemes are a positive step and a welcome innovation to help postmen and women up and down the country to have a sustainable long-term retirement. I welcome the support of the Communication Workers Union and Royal Mail, and the role my hon. Friend has played in the House of Commons. I look forward to meeting some of his posties early—very early, I believe—on Friday morning.
My constituent Christine Paris is a vulnerable 60-year-old women, who has a rare birth defect causing severe learning disability. She has never been able to work and she cannot even travel alone, yet she is being placed in the work-related activity group and forced to face yet another humiliating fit for work assessment. Will the Minister look into her case personally? Does he agree with the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments, which says that the assessment process is unfit for people with learning difficulties, and will he conduct an urgent review?
If the hon. Lady sends that case to the Department, I and the Minister concerned will look into it specifically.
In legislating to allow 140,000 Royal Mail workers to benefit from the CDC scheme, will the Government also legislate as soon as possible to compel employer contribution with the pensions dashboard and to strengthen powers and criminal penalties available to the regulator, to provide a better pension for tens of thousands of workers, to help all workers to plan for their retirement, to protect workers and to send an unmistakeable message to the Philip Greens of this world that those who rob workers of their pension security will end up in the dock?
The hon. Gentleman and I are united in our desire for a Bill that addresses collective defined-contribution, compulsion on dashboards and the defined-benefit reforms that we all agree are both required and necessary. I am confident that with a constructive, cross-party approach, over the next few months, with the hon. Gentleman and other political parties, we can introduce those measures very soon.
Universal Credit: Food Banks
Our own evidence does not show a direct link between the increase in food bank use and the roll-out of universal credit. As the Trussell Trust has said, it is impossible to identify one single cause. Universal credit spends £2 billion more than the system it replaces, and it incentivises work, providing a pathway out of poverty.
In my surgery on Friday, I met a family with very young children who have been without benefits to which they are entitled since before Christmas, due to mistakes by the DWP. They are already in housing rent arrears and reliant on the local food bank. Without resolving those errors, the DWP is now moving them on to universal credit, where the terrifying prospect of a five-week wait and no funds to repay an advance pose a real risk of homelessness. I want the Secretary of State not only to look into this case but to deal with the incompetence and cruelty in her Department, which are causing such misery for far too many people.
First, I give a commitment that, yes, I am very happy to look into that specific case. It highlights the problems with the legacy benefits, whereby £2.4 billion a year of benefits were missed. It was a complex, bureaucratic process where mistakes could happen and claimants—particularly vulnerable claimants —did not take what they were entitled to. Under universal credit, with personalised, tailored support, mistakes can be rectified more quickly.
Rent arrears are deducted from jobseeker’s allowance at £3.70 a week, but for universal credit the deduction is £31 a month, while overpaid benefits and advance payments are deducted at even higher rates. Some of my constituents are having over £100 deducted from their monthly universal credit payments, forcing them to dip into their rent money and use food banks just to get by. They would not find themselves in this position if they were not waiting up to five weeks to receive their first payment. The Secretary of State says she has put in measures to address it, but they clearly are not working. When will Ministers face the facts and scrap the five-week wait?
Those transferring from legacy benefits would get two weeks’ housing benefit run-on, no strings attached, in addition and would automatically be offered the advance payment. We have lengthened the time over which that would be repaid and lowered the rate at which it would be claimed back.
The number of people in employment has never been higher, with a record 32.6 million people in employment. That is up by more than 3.5 million since 2010. The UK’s employment rate is at a joint record high of 75.8%.
More people in Southampton, Itchen are in work than has been the case for years, but many of them are in jobs with poor prospects and low pay. What are the Government doing to create jobs with higher pay and better prospects, not just in Southampton, Itchen, but across the country?
Well, 75% of the jobs that have been created since 2010 are permanent, full time and in high-level occupations that attract high wages. Of course, my hon. Friend is right that we need to do even more to upskill people and help them enter better-paid work. That is why, across the Government, we are investing in higher level apprenticeships, technical skills and a national retraining scheme.
Last month’s unemployment figures showed rises in six areas, including the north-east. There are more than 800,000 people on zero-hours contracts and wages are £9 a week lower than in 2008. Will the Minister describe how he intends to address job insecurity, low pay and the clear failure of the Government to tackle regional inequalities?
The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, be aware that since 2010 employment has gone up in every region and country of the United Kingdom. As I have pointed out, 75% of the new jobs are in high-level occupations. He talked about zero-hours contracts. He will know that there has been a drop in the number of zero-hours contracts over the past year. Ultimately, he talked about failure. The only failure we recognise is that absolutely every Labour Government have left unemployment higher than when they entered office.
We are glad to hear that employment has gone up in every region of the country. Will the Minister at some stage, if not today, put out a written statement on why it is thought that unemployment always rises with a Labour Government and employment increases with a Conservative Government?
We can all have our theories, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that that is precisely what happens. What the Labour party should be doing is congratulating the Government on the work we have done over the past nine years to get employment up.
We are committed to ensuring that individuals receive high quality assessments. Providers are closely monitored against a range of measures, including through independent audit, to improve the accuracy of the advice they provide to decision makers. We continually look to improve the efficiency of the assessment process by working closely with our providers.
Quite apart from the problems with and maladministration of work capability and PIP assessments, I have requested that Ministers consider the passporting of people who were affected by the contaminated blood scandal, so that the benefits they are currently on are passported on to the new benefits. I do not understand, when there is a public inquiry into the scandal, why these people are still having to go through the assessments.
I know that the hon. Lady has campaigned for a number of years on this incredibly important issue, and I pay tribute to the diligence of her work. I would be very happy to meet her to discuss the matter further.
Some 72% of personal independence payment appeals were successful in the first three months of last year, which is an appalling failure rate. It is my understanding that Scottish Ministers have had power over the administration of personal independence payment since the Scotland Act 2016 came into effect, and that they would have the power to usurp the failed system and adopt a new one. Why is it taking so long to do it?
From my former role as Minister for Disabled People, I know that Scottish Ministers had the opportunity to take that forward. We are willing to work with their officials to make that possible if they wish to proceed. The ball is very much in their court.
I declare a family interest in the answer to my question. The undoubted problems with health assessments are causing delays in the appeal process right across the board, not just with PIP and others, but with disability living allowance and mobility allowances. Will the Minister agree to see me and discuss how we can accelerate the process, because some appeals take more than 39 weeks to come to fruition, with the effect that children have to wait over a year before they get their proper allowances?
I am sure that the Minister will agree to see the right hon. Gentleman. It would be extraordinarily reckless and foolhardy to refuse to do so, and I am sure that the Minister would never be reckless or foolhardy.
It will be a pleasure to meet my right hon. Friend. We have been working very closely with the Ministry of Justice to improve the capacity within the tribunal system, to speed up the process. The Secretary of State has set out ambitious plans to improve the mandatory reconsideration stage to reduce the number of decisions that are going on to the independent appeal part.
Will the Department and Ministers join me in paying tribute to Disability Support Project in Redditch, which does some great work to help disabled people to navigate the bureaucracy surrounding the system? Will the Minister outline when we will see a difference on the ground from some of the measures that he is putting in place to improve transparency of the assessment procedures?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the fantastic work that her local organisation does. Those with that frontline experience have to be at the heart of the improvements that we take forward. We engage very proactively and constructively with stakeholders, national and local, and they are helping to shape the improvements.
We are always reviewing that process and we work very closely with stakeholders, with their wealth of experience, to make sure that we continue to deliver improvements.
Domestic Abuse Victims: Welfare
Domestic abuse is a devastating crime and my Department will always do what it can to support victims of domestic abuse. Departmental training and awareness is now better than ever, but I can confirm that, by the summer of this year, we will ensure that we have domestic abuse specialists in every jobcentre to help everybody who needs it.
What steps are the Government taking to increase the provision and quality of supported housing for such vulnerable people?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Of course, supported housing is essential for vulnerable groups, including those fleeing domestic abuse, which is why we announced in August last year that we will maintain funding for all supported housing and housing benefit. I am going to work closely with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Chancellor and local authorities to ensure that quality and value for money is always available in supported housing provision for domestic abuse victims.
Making sure that the system prevents domestic abuse, including financial abuse, is as important as supporting those, rightly, who are affected by it. The Secretary of State made a statement a few months ago regarding single payment of universal credit. What progress has she made on that to make sure that women and the children they support as main carer can directly receive the support that they so rightly need?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. She is right and I announced recently that I want to make sure that it is the main carer who receives the benefit. I am working with jobcentres to ensure that we have a new approach so that there is effectively an early question in their process where they find out who the main carer is, who is usually a woman, so that we can ensure that potential victims of domestic abuse are more likely to have access to the overall funds.
Patience and the City of Chester are alike rewarded. I call Mr Christian Matheson.
Universal credit is now available in all jobcentres across the country and is helping people into work. The universal credit claimant survey published last year showed that, under universal credit, the likelihood of being in work almost doubles between the point of making a claim and nine months into the claim.
Of the claimants who have been transferred from legacy benefits on to universal credit, what proportion are now receiving more money than they were under legacy benefits, what proportion are receiving the same and what proportion are receiving less money than they were?
The hon. Gentleman is referring to where people have a change in circumstances. That is not anything new under universal credit: changes in circumstances exist within the legacy benefits system. People get a different calculation in terms of the amount of money, and that has not changed under universal credit.
The Minister will know that universal credit uses Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs real-time information to determine the amount of money a claimant will receive each month. Late submissions by employers have led to claimants having reduced or cancelled payments because of money they earned a long time ago. Does the Minister not agree that this issue needs to be looked at if universal credit is to be an effective system that does not increase poverty?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. We make sure, working with our colleagues in Her Majesty’s Treasury, that employers are made aware of the fact that they need to get the right date into the RTI system.
Today I can announce that this Conservative Government will deliver on their promise to legislate to create a new type of pension scheme: collective defined contribution schemes. These schemes will help improve retirement outcomes for members, while also benefiting employers. Savers’ contributions are paid into a pooled fund, which is invested to achieve a target benefit. At retirement, savers receive a regular pension income. This is a major promise delivered. It shows this Government are meeting their objective to protect private pensions and provide security for hard-working savers in retirement.
I thank my right hon. Friend for updating us on her Department. Will she comment on how the Government are helping young people in my constituency into work?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important matter, and I thank him particularly for the great work he does in his constituency for young people. I have looked into this, and there are many different initiatives taking place in his constituency, but I particularly commend the Prince’s Trust, which does such great work across country, and which attends the jobcentre fortnightly to provide targeted support for 18 to 24-year-olds.
Shocking reports have emerged today that ill and disabled people are being left without vital social security, as the Department for Work and Pensions has sent misleading letters to GPs advising them that they no longer need to provide fit for work notes to patients who are refused employment and support allowance. Patients need those notes to access the assessment rate of ESA if they are appealing the decision, and this obviously results in many being left close to destitution and in rent arrears. Will the Secretary of State commit today to reword these letters and immediately prevent any further harm to any ill and disabled people?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to set the record straight. These letters simply inform GPs when a claimant has been found fit for work, and are not intended to dissuade them from issuing fit notes for ESA appeal purposes. To claim otherwise is inaccurate. We are committed to ensuring our communication is clear, which is why the wording of this letter was cleared by both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners. However, we will of course consider feedback when revising the letter.
Of course. My hon. Friend is right. I will take a careful look at that issue to ensure that is the case. We care enormously about making sure there is correct access for disabled people. If I may say so, nobody cared more than my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), who did such great work for everybody with disabilities and who will be sorely missed in the Department.
My SNP colleagues and I have been seeing a growing number of constituents who are EU and European economic area nationals and who were previously entitled to social security payments but who are now seeing their universal credit claims rejected because they have failed the habitual residence test. Can the Minister tell me categorically whether DWP guidance has been issued or changed on this matter, and whether this is just an extension of the hostile environment?
The hon. Lady may have written to me about this previously, but let me just make it clear that the right of EEA nationals under freedom of movement is not an unqualified one. EEA nationals who stay in the UK beyond the initial three months must be exercising treaty rights, and this means they must be working, studying, self-employed or self-sufficient.
A mother in my constituency is struggling due to a lack of financial support from the father of her children. The woman’s ex-partner is not in work, but he gets considerable income from several properties he owns. However, that income is not considered by the Child Maintenance Service when calculating maintenance for his children. What can the Minister do to make sure the Child Maintenance Service focuses on not only salaries but other forms of income?
I will be very happy to look personally into this case and to report back. Actually, we do have powers to investigate further—these powers were opposed by the Labour party in January. We believe that everything should be done to help the receiving parent get the support they are entitled to.
The Government will not be revisiting the state pension age arrangements for women born in the 1950s who are affected by the Pensions Act 1995, the 2007 Act, introduced by the Labour Government, or the 2011 Act, introduced by the coalition. A High Court ruling on this matter will proceed to a full hearing on 5 and 6 June, so further comment would be inappropriate.
Is my right hon. Friend’s Department holding up the transfer of welfare powers to the Scottish Government?
Absolutely not. We work closely with the Scottish Government to ensure that their proposals, which sometimes differ from ours, are met, and we are bending over backwards to ensure that we assist them. We are still waiting to receive further information so that we can deliver on their ambitions.
I call Jim Cunningham. Get in there, man! Your moment has arrived.
Our frontline staff deliver vital support to more than 20 million people across the country, and of course we are committed to supporting them in their roles. That includes monitoring staff levels and ensuring that their caseloads are indeed manageable.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are introducing measures to help people gain early access to money so that that eventuality does not occur. They can receive benefit advances of up to 100%, which 60% now access, and can access the housing benefits run-on, which is additional money, and, from next year, other legacy benefits, which are also additional money and which will be paid within that two-week period.
I thought that we had a constructive discussion. As the hon. Gentleman says, my officials have also talked to the council, but I am always happy to have another discussion. I should add that the total amount of new burdens funding is increasing from £14 million to £18 million in 2019-20.
That, of course, applies to 4% of the overall decisions that are made. However, I acknowledge that we need to do better, for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and those of the rest of us. That is why I have already announced that we will look again at the mandatory reconsiderations to ensure that fewer people proceed to the necessary tribunal reviews.
I have just answered that question, in terms of making sure that we do better and that the mandatory reconsiderations will have additional support to ensure that a greater proportion of those reviews do not have to go forward and so are not overturned.
George Osborne said in his 2015 Summer Budget that the welfare system should always support the elderly and the vulnerable. Does the Secretary of State agree? If so, why are we seeing stealth cuts to pension credit for mixed-age couples—a loss of £7,320 to some of our poorest and most vulnerable pensioners?
These changes were introduced in the Welfare Reform Act 2012. We have always made it clear that mixed-age couples already claiming pension credit or housing benefit for pensioners immediately before 15 May will not be affected for as long as they remain in receipt of either benefit after that date. Just to be clear, there is no impact or effect on their state pension.
Were the Secretary of State to get a tax rebate she would be very surprised if she was taxed on it, but my constituent saw an abatement by 63%. Will the Department sort out the reductions to universal credit when people get tax rebates?
I am very happy to look at the individual case the hon. Lady raises, but, as she knows, under UC we have a taper that works: it incentivises people to take on extra hours because they get to keep more of the money that they earn.
Like the Secretary of State, I will miss the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton); she was working with me on my Access to Welfare (Terminal Illness Definition) Bill—a critical Bill at a time when the Scottish Government are consulting on new standards for clinicians to decide when someone is terminally ill. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the Bill and move it forward?
I am aware of the good work that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth was doing with the hon. Lady; I am aware of the campaign and how important it is, and I will be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to see how we can move it forward.
My constituent received a UC sanction for accompanying her younger sister, who has severe cerebral palsy and for whom my constituent cares, to an appointment at the children’s hospice at Loch Lomond. Surely that is an inhumane way to treat young carers under the UC system.
I am very happy to look at the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raises. Of course, he will be aware that easements are available in the system, but I will be very happy to talk to him about that specific case.
My constituent has a connective tissue disorder that has left her bedbound for three months because she regularly dislocates her joints. Despite evidence from her GP and chiropractor, the Centre for Disability and Health Assessments has refused a home assessment because she takes taxis to her GP appointments. Does the Secretary of State think that decision is fair? If not, will she look into it to overturn it?
It sounds to me like the hon. Lady’s constituent should have had a home visit, but I hope that the hon. Lady will have received the email I sent out inviting Members of Parliament to an open hour that I am having tomorrow so that they can bring any individual cases. Sometimes it is best to have a one-to-one over individual cases, rather than deal with them on the Floor of the House.
I would like to press the Secretary of State further on the assurances she gave to the Opposition Front Benchers. As part of the review, will she be prepared to ensure that the original wording is reinstated so that claimants are not left without benefits while appeals are pending?
I am always willing to look at new ideas on how to improve the offer we have, and I will certainly take a look at what the hon. Lady sends to me.
I wish to make a statement to the House. There has been much speculation over the past week about the possibility of the Government bringing before the House a motion on Brexit for another so-called meaningful vote under the statutory framework provided in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. On 13 March, however, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) asked on a point of order, at column 394, whether it would be proper for the Government to keep bringing the same deal back to the House ad infinitum. I replied that no ruling was necessary at that stage, but that one might be required at some point in the future. Subsequently Members on both sides of the House, and indeed on both sides of the Brexit argument, have expressed their concerns to me about the House being repeatedly asked to pronounce on the same fundamental proposition.
The 24th edition of “Erskine May” states on page 397:
“A motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.”
It goes on to state:
“Attempts have been made to evade this rule by raising again, with verbal alterations, the essential portions of motions which have been negatived. Whether the second motion is substantially the same as the first is finally a matter for the judgment of the Chair.”
This convention is very strong and of long standing, dating back to 2 April 1604. Last Thursday, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) quoted examples of occasions when the ruling had been reasserted by four different Speakers of this House, notably in 1864, 1870, 1882, 1891 and 1912. Each time, the Speaker of the day ruled that a motion could not be brought back because it had already been decided in that same Session of Parliament. Indeed, “Erskine May” makes reference to no fewer than 12 such rulings up to the year 1920.
One of the reasons why the rule has lasted so long is that it is a necessary rule to ensure the sensible use of the House’s time and proper respect for the decisions that it takes. Decisions of the House matter. They have weight. In many cases, they have direct effects not only here but on the lives of our constituents. Absence of Speaker intervention since 1920 is attributable not to the discontinuation of the convention but to general compliance with it; thus, as “Erskine May” notes, the Public Bill Office has often disallowed Bills on the ground that a Bill with the same or very similar long title cannot be presented again in the same Session.
So far as our present situation is concerned, let me summarise the chronology of events. The draft EU withdrawal agreement, giving effect to the deal between the Government and the EU, was published on 14 November and the agreement itself, together with the accompanying political declaration on the future relationship, received endorsement from the European Council on 25 November. The first scheduled debate on what I will hereafter refer to as “the deal” was due to take place on 11 December. However, on 10 December the vote was postponed after 164 speeches had already been made over three of the five days allotted for debate. That postponement was caused not by me or by the House, but by the Government. Indeed, I pointed out at the time that that was deeply discourteous to the House and I suggested that the permission of the House for that postponement should be sought. Regrettably, it was not.
Over five weeks later, following a further five-day debate, the first meaningful vote was held on 15 January, which the Government lost by a margin of 230 votes—the largest in parliamentary history. Subsequently, the second meaningful vote was expected to take place in February, but once again there was a postponement. It finally happened only last Tuesday, 12 March. The Government’s motion on the deal was again very heavily defeated.
In my judgment, that second meaningful vote motion did not fall foul of the convention about matters already having been decided during the same Session. This was because it could be credibly argued that it was a different proposition from that already rejected by the House on 15 January. It contained a number of legal changes which the Government considered to be binding and which had been agreed with the European Union after intensive discussions. Moreover, the Government’s second meaningful vote motion was accompanied by the publication of three new documents—two issued jointly with the EU and a unilateral declaration from the UK not objected to by the EU. In procedural terms, it was therefore quite proper that the debate and the second vote took place last week. The Government responded to its defeat, as they had promised to do, by scheduling debates about a no-deal Brexit and an extension of article 50 on 13 and 14 March respectively.
It has been strongly rumoured, although I have not received confirmation of this, that a third, and even possibly a fourth, meaningful vote motion will be attempted. Hence this statement, which is designed to signal what would be orderly and what would not. This is my conclusion: if the Government wish to bring forward a new proposition that is neither the same nor substantially the same as that disposed of by the House on 12 March, that would be entirely in order. What the Government cannot legitimately do is to resubmit to the House the same proposition or substantially the same proposition as that of last week, which was rejected by 149 votes. This ruling should not be regarded as my last word on the subject; it is simply meant to indicate the test which the Government must meet in order for me to rule that a third meaningful vote can legitimately be held in this parliamentary Session.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can I make three points following your helpful statement?
First, at the beginning of it, you used “may” and not the word “must”. At the end, you used the word “must” and not the word “may”. Those are the first two points.
The third point is this: when Sir Ian Gilmour put forward a provision in effect for putting carpets and coffee in betting offices, the puritans objected, so the Bill was withdrawn. Shortly afterwards, a Bill on miscellaneous premises and miscellaneous provisions was passed because no one noticed that it was to do with coffee and carpets in betting shops.
Therefore, there are times when the title of a Bill has been changed. Perhaps if the long title of something that the Government proposed was changed, that might be accepted by the Chair, rather than it having to be ruled out.
I am not sure there were three points there—I detected only two. I do not wish to be unkind or discourteous to the hon. Gentleman, whom I hope I always treat with the utmost respect, but I am somewhat foxed and befuddled by his first observation, which was not as overpoweringly clear to me as manifestly it was to him. I certainly referred to “Erskine May”. I was not conscious that I had used the word “may” early in my statement and the word “must” at the end of it in a way that would brook of contradiction or, indeed, be open to the suggestion that the words were contradictory. If he wishes to labour under that impression and can subsequently convince me, over either a cup of coffee or a cup of tea, that I have erred in some material respect, I shall always be prepared to profit by his counsel. As for the point in respect of the late Ian Gilmour, I am not familiar with that particular example. I suspect it would be interesting reading, and I will add it to my list for the period of days that lies ahead. I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said and for the courtesy with which he has said it.
I will come to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) but first let us go to the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It seems to me that what you have said makes an enormous amount of sense, given that this has been defeated on two separate occasions. Unless there is a substantial difference, it must follow that what you have said, in a very important statement, makes an enormous amount of sense. I just wondered about one thing with regard to the precedent of 1604, which was whether there was any connection between that and the gunpowder plot being very shortly afterwards. [Laughter.]
Well, the hon. Gentleman is a far superior historian, and he may know this—I will not say. I appreciate also his sense of humour on what is, nevertheless, an extremely important occasion. I thank him for what he has said. I have always respected him as a principled and indefatigable parliamentarian. In fact, I think that across this House, whether people agree with him or not, they know of one thing, which I once said, as he knows, on the occasion of Her Majesty the Queen’s visit to this place. As I said directly to her, the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) speaks and votes only and always as he thinks the national interest requires. There can be no greater compliment to a Member of Parliament than to say that to him or her.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I thank you for your statement this afternoon? We do indeed live in interesting times. However, it is fair to say that we are in a constitutional crisis, and I seek your advice on how we can convey a message to the Government that the issue of leadership is now most important and, indeed, imperative. What can we do to prevail upon the Prime Minister that she must immediately call a meeting of all Opposition leaders in order that we can react to this crisis and find a way ahead, and, moreover, that she must immediately meet the Heads of Government in Edinburgh and in Cardiff?
The right hon. Gentleman has made his point with force and alacrity. It is not for me to say whom the Prime Minister should or should not meet, but that point is registered and on the record. If I know the right hon. Gentleman as well as I think I do, it will be repeated by him with some passion and vociferousness in the days ahead and, not least because of the force with which it is articulated again and again and again, I feel certain that it will be heard. Whether it is heeded remains to be seen, but it will be heard.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. First, may I say how delighted I am that you have decided to follow precedent, which is something I am greatly in favour of? Dare I say that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repented than over the 99 who are not in need of repentance. I wonder whether you might help the House with two points of clarity. First, would your indication today prevent the Second Reading, or even the First Reading, of the so-called withdrawal agreement Bill, which may have the same effect of confirming the meaningful vote? Secondly, would I be right in thinking that a new Session after a prorogation would allow the motion to be returned to the House?
The House would decide on the principle of the withdrawal agreement Bill at Second Reading, if we got to that point. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes and the—if he will forgive my saying so—partly rhetorical question accompanying it about post Prorogation and a new Session seem to me to be self-evidently valid. I am not advocating that, but that point is self-evidently valid and I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm to the House that the point of the rule in “Erskine May” was to stop the bullying of the legislature by the Executive? We should exclude the fact that MPs may be either strong-armed, bullied or bribed with issues such as the sacking of the civil servant who is currently in charge of the Brexit negotiations—who, by the way, was overheard in a Brussels bar predicting that what we have seen with meaningful vote 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ad infinitum, would be the Government's way of getting this botched deal through the House. The “Erskine May” rules are there precisely to avoid the kind of spectacle we have been witnessing in the past few months. Will you take all the Government’s other behaviours—ignoring votes of Parliament, making a distinction between votes that somehow are binding and others that are not binding, refusing to grant Opposition days, and beginning not to vote on Opposition days and to ignore the motions that the House passes, thereby devaluing Parliament’s opinion—into account as you judge meaningful vote 3 and any motion that the Government bring forward?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I will reflect carefully on what she said to me. She is an extremely experienced and seasoned parliamentarian and, of course, a former shadow Leader of the House, so I will factor into my thinking the considerations that she has adduced. I do not think there is one single rationale for the emergence and continuation of the convention. I touched on some of the thinking behind it in my statement. It would be true to say that a concern with the judicious use of parliamentary time, when that time is finite, and the avoidance of its wastage is an important factor. Another important factor is ensuring clarity and consistency so far as the statute book is concerned. Associated with and underlying all that is a concept of respect for the importance of decisions made by the House and the weight to be attached to them. I will reflect carefully on these matters.
I say gently to the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)—because I failed to respond to this point, which was very good and wittily delivered—that so far as tradition is concerned, he has a perfectly fair point. A tradition does matter and is important. What I would say to him is that just because it is not desirable to follow precedent in every case, irrespective of circumstance, that does not mean it is justified not to follow it. It depends on the particular circumstance. For example, it depends whether one is facilitating the House and allowing the expression of an opinion that might otherwise be denied, as was the case on 9 January.
In this case, of course, where we are talking about the same-question rule, I have already explained that this matter has been treated of by the House, so the question of whether a subsequent motion is the same, or substantially the same, is a live matter for consideration and judgment at the appropriate time. In fact, that seems to me to be so obviously commonsensical an observation that only an extraordinarily sophisticated person, perhaps bereft of such common sense, could fail to grasp it. The hon. Gentleman most certainly would not fall into that category, because he is both extraordinarily sophisticated and blessed, I feel sure, with a very large supply of common sense.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have said memorably in the past that, sometimes, we have to take the rough with the smooth. Well, it seems to me that, today, that applies to others. May I ask whether this principle applies in other contexts as well? For instance, the House voted a few weeks ago on what became known as the Cooper-Boles amendment to overturn Standing Order 14(1), essentially to take control of the Order Paper for a day. That was rejected. Last week, the House then voted against what became the Benn amendment, which was, I would argue, substantially similar to the original Cooper-Boles amendment to take control of the Order Paper and override Standing Order 14(1). Now you on that occasion, Sir, judged that it was permissible to ask this question because it was not exactly the same as the first one. May I offer you a thought that if there were to be a third variant of that, if it were to be substantially the same, then, to be consistent, Sir, you would have to rule that out, too?
I am always grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I have often reminded the House, and I say this for the benefit of those attending to our proceedings, that I first came to know him in September 1983 when I unkindly and wrongly suggested that, intellectually, he was knee-high to a grasshopper. That was very unfair of me and, to his great credit, he did not appear to bear any grudge and we have got on pretty well over the ensuing 35 and a half years. I always listen to his advice. The answer is that everything depends on context and circumstance—[Interruption.] Yes, of course it does; manifestly and incontrovertibly it does. It is a question not of abstract principle or wallowing, as Edmund Burke would say, in the realms of metaphysical abstraction, but of attending to circumstance, and I would look at that with the important considerations and principle of which he has reminded me in the forefront of my mind in making a judgment. He is absolutely entitled to raise that point and I would indeed have to weigh up very carefully whether a proposition was in fact the same or substantially the same or whether it could credibly be contended that it was different.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is what happens when you do not seek consensus and compromise from the beginning, but lay down red lines and doggedly stick to them with an act of stubbornness and brinkmanship that has brought us to this point. The crisis that is now upon the country has to be unprecedented. We are due to leave the European Union in 11 days and there is no plan and there is no certainty, and this country, especially business, is crying out for them.
Mr Speaker, what would you now expect the Government to do? We are relying on tweets, rumours and spin from No.10 and, as I have said, the clock is ticking. I say with no disrespect to those sitting on the Treasury Bench that there is no senior Member here from Government who can help us with a timetable—[Interruption.] I said a senior Member who can help us with a timetable. [Interruption.] Now, we have that senior Member—the Leader of the House—with a timetable. I meant no disrespect to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Mr Speaker, what do you now expect in terms of this timetable so that, in this crisis, we can make progress and do the right thing by the country?
What I have to say to the right hon. Lady is threefold. First, there was already present in the Chamber—before the arrival of the Leader of the House whom we welcome to our proceedings—the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions who, by any standard, must be considered to be senior. I will not get into a vulgar argument about the respective levels of seniority of different hon. and right hon. Members, and there are, of course, different forms of seniority, but the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was already present and the Leader of the House has now joined us.
I say to the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) that it is not for me to say what the Government should do, but it would be helpful to the House to have the earliest possible indication of how the Government intend to proceed in this important matter. Of course, we may learn more about the Government’s intentions as a result of the upcoming urgent question that I have granted to the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who applied to me for that question this morning. I have every expectation that the right hon. Member for Broxtowe and many others will be in their places for that, so we will learn more anon.
Colleagues’ disposition—in other words, what they choose to do and how they wish to proceed—is a matter for them. The role of the Speaker is to seek to facilitate the House and, if I may say so—and I will—to have a particular regard for the concerns of Back-Bench Members, who should be heard in this place. Part of the responsibility of the Speaker is, frankly, to speak truth to power. I have always done that and, no matter what, I always will, because I think that is the proper thing to do. Others can proceed as they wish, but I have never been pushed around and I am not going to start now.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As a newish Members of this House, I thank you for the clarity of your statement, and for confirming that everything depends on context and circumstance. Since the vote last Tuesday, this House has voted against a second referendum, against the Cooper-Boles amendment—twice—and against a no-deal Brexit in 11 days’ time. Are those the sort of decisions that, in your view, affect the context and circumstances on which this House might make its own decision?
I think the context is a freestanding matter. It depends on the situation at the time, and that is partly a matter of opinion. All government—all influence of human beings upon another—ultimately rests upon opinion, and it depends on what the situation is more widely. I know that the hon. Lady would not seek to entice me—because that would be unkind of her and she would not do that—to pronounce on other questions that are not today before the House. I would not do that, but I would reflect on them in the circumstances of the time, and it is perfectly reasonable that I should be asked to do so if that situation arises.
I do apologise to the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee, whom I should have called several minutes ago.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In distinguishing between the character of the first meaningful vote and the second, in your statement you drew attention to the fact that, in the second meaningful vote, the Government had brought back additional documents, assurances and legal agreements that had not be contained within the first. Does your statement suggest in any way that, in order for a third meaningful vote not to fall within the statement that you have just made, it would require further changes to be agreed with the European Union, rather than, for example, the Government saying that they are prepared to make an offer to a particular party represented in this Chamber about its participation in future arrangements? In other words, would there have to be new political agreement under section 13(1) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 in order for such as motion to be in order, as opposed to not in order?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I would say—preliminarily and off the top of my head—that, in all likelihood, the answer to his question is yes; I do think that a demonstrable change to the proposition would be required. For example, simply a change in an opinion about something would not itself constitute a change in the offer. I would have to look at the particulars and make an honest assessment of the circumstances, and perhaps of the competing claims made as to the veracity of one proposition, argument or another, but, fundamentally, for something to be different, it has to be, by definition, fundamentally different—not different in terms of wording, but different in terms of substance—and this is in the context of a negotiation with others outside the United Kingdom. That would be my initial feeling.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not envy you in trying to make these difficult decisions. First, can I press you on your understanding of what is substantively different? For example, were the Government to come back with a proposition that they would write into law the Stormont lock, would that be substantively different? If there were to be commentary that changed our opinion of this at the European Council, would that be substantially different? Many Members of this House feel that having taken no deal off the table, which I voted against, already makes the situation substantially different, so will you say a little more about that?
Secondly, Mr Speaker, you listed some precedents starting with 1604, which is very interesting to new Members. Some Members were already here; I was not, as a new Member. We are in an unprecedented situation in which we have voted for a referendum, giving sovereignty to those it belongs to—the people—and we are now bound by that decision. How will you deal with this unprecedented situation? My constituents who are worried about their jobs, or worried about losing the Brexit they voted for, will always prefer you, instead of rigidly sticking with precedents from 1604, to be a modern Speaker for modern times who cannot stand in the way of delivering the early deal that I believe will solve this problem.
With the very greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that I have demonstrated, over a period of nine and a half years and more, that I am not a stickler for tradition. I do not believe in doing everything the same way forever more just because people say to me, as so many have, “Oh, Mr Speaker, it’s always been done that way, or, “Oh, we’ve never previously had X.” I have been ready to countenance change. I remember once being told many years ago by a retired and senior Clerk of this House that she was very pleased that I had secured support for the establishment of a nursery in the House that Members and staff could pay for. She said to me that she did not know whether I was aware that throughout her four decades’ service in the House, the idea of establishing such a facility had periodically been discussed but unfortunately nothing had ever happened, which was not helpful to her in terms of work/life balance—her professional commitments and her childcare responsibilities. So I think I can say, with the very greatest respect, that I have attempted to be a progressive change-maker. As for the particulars concerned, it has to depend on the circumstances. I would have to look at the specifics. It would be reckless and foolhardy to pronounce in the abstract.
I would say further to the hon. Gentleman, just to remind him of the context of my statement, that, as regards the use of time, we have been addressing this matter for a period spanning four months. In so far as time has been lost during that period—for example, at one point, a loss of five weeks without the matter coming to the House—that was not a result of fiat by the Chair or folly by the House; it was the express decision of the Government. I cannot, off the top of my head, remember for certain whether the hon. Gentleman supported the Government’s position on that matter. I have a very high regard for his ability, because he is an extremely able man. I hope he will not take offence if I say, in the nicest possible way, that he has always seemed to me to be a keen supporter of close regulatory alignment with the Government Whips Office.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for your guidance today. Here we are in the gravest constitutional situation that I have seen in my nearly 40 years in this House, and were it not for your good guidance today and over the past few weeks, I think this House would have been very badly served indeed. The fact of the matter is that what you have said today has great repercussions for the business of the House. What is your advice from the Chair, or could we have an early statement from the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House, on what is the next step? We are leaving the European Union and we have only a few days. What is the best way that we can represent our constituents at this grave time of crisis?
The short answer is: let us debate these matters sooner rather than later. Of course the Government, for the most part, control the Order Paper—we know that, and the Leader of the House is the Government’s representative in the House—but there are situations in which Members can give voice to their views, whether the Government particularly want that to happen or not. For example, on more than 570 occasions over the last nine and a half years, I have seen fit to grant urgent questions, believing that that is in the interests of the House, is beneficial to Back Benchers and secures ministerial presence in the Chamber, so that the Government can be legitimately questioned, probed, scrutinised, challenged and held to account. There will be further such opportunities today, and knowing the ingenuity of the hon. Gentleman, who will have served 40 years in the House in less than two months’ time, I feel certain that he will be well up to the task of posing suitable inquiries and expressing his views on this matter in the days ahead.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are correct that “Erskine May” says:
“A motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.”
That is absolutely clear. When you allowed the second meaningful vote, your ruling was clearly a balanced decision, but “Erskine May” seems to be clear that it is about whether the motion is substantially changed, not whether something else has happened—that is irrelevant; it is what has happened to the motion. We have in this House the procedure of use of the previous question, which I was thinking of using. The reason why we have it is so that the same question can continue to be debated another time. Can you confirm that this is about the substance of the motion, not something else happening?
It is about the substance of the motion—what it is commending to the House, and what proposition is being put. It is not a question purely of the words, but of the meaning, the intention and the purpose.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have made today a very important and dramatic statement. Already constituents are getting in touch with me to ask exactly what that means, and we have to be clear with the country about what you have said. The Government cannot bring back another meaningful vote if it is the same in substance as the last one. The Government’s one and only intention is to achieve and secure that. This week, they intended to do that very thing, and now you have said that that cannot happen. Stressing that for clarity would be abundantly helpful.
My experience of this Government—I do not know whether it is yours—is that they will try anything to get this through, and they will have the impertinence to try to bring this back once again in any guise that they think will be possible; perhaps it will be under the guise of the DUP agreeing with their deal. How do you intend to be vigilant about that prospect? Under what criteria will a motion be assessed, if the Government bring one back and try to present it as being significantly different from their last one? How do we judge what they are doing, so that this ruling can stand? It is an important ruling, and it is correct.
It seems to me that it is principally a question of whether the proposition is the same, or substantially the same. I would confer. I would of course seek advice. I would have my eyes and ears open. I am looking to serve the House, to reflect its interests and to demonstrate respect for its wishes. I simply repeat that the convention is there for a purpose, and that purpose seems to me to be an honourable and valid purpose. I am afraid that I will have to look at the particulars in the light of what is presented, but I hope that the Government would feel that respect for procedure matters.
I note that, as the hon. Gentleman asks his question and I respond, the Leader of the House is playing with her electronic device, as is the Deputy Chief Whip. I did not include him in the category of very senior people in the House, but I readily grant that that is a debatable proposition. It would seem to me to be helpful if people showed respect for each other in these circumstances, and if, when in the Chamber, they listened to what others had to say. However, if they choose not to do so, so be it. I try to show good manners, and I hope others will try to do so as well.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand your clarity on this. A second referendum was overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Commons in a vote last week; does this mean that if that is brought back, you will apply the same considerations, so that such a motion is not repeated?
I did indicate to earlier inquisitors that everything depends on the circumstance. Is the proposition fundamentally the same, or can it be argued that, in the circumstances of the time, it is a different proposition? I would have to look at that in the circumstances of the time. Is it a relevant factor to be considered? Of course it is, and that is why I have articulated the convention in the way I have done.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. First, are you able to update the House on any sanctions that might have been applied since 1604 to any Governments who have sought to re-table the same motion, and what such sanctions are available to you today? Over a number of months, we have tabled a succession of amendments in relation to a people’s vote, and I want your reassurance and clarification that there is nothing in what you have said that precludes our pressing another amendment on the matter of a people’s vote.
As I have just said to the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), it depends on the context or the circumstances. I cannot yet know in what situation a proposition may be put.
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) asks me about sanctions. I am not aware of any particular sanctions, other than that if a proposition is judged to be the same or substantially the same, it will not find its way on to the Order Paper. There may be instances in which this has been dishonoured or inadvertently neglected, but I referenced in my statement the fact that the absence of Speaker intervention since 1920 is attributable not to the discontinuation of the convention, but to general compliance with it. For the most part, the convention has not been invoked in respect of Governments, but I would argue that that is not least because, on the whole, Governments have tended to comply with the convention.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Do you concede that had you made this statement in fundamentally the same way between the first and second presentations of a meaningful vote, there might have been Members of this House who, believing that the second meaningful vote was their last opportunity to vote positively on the question, would have changed their minds? When there are particularly fast-moving negotiations, we have sometimes seen substantial, if subtle, changes to an agreement during a debate and before a vote. May I inquire how, in that instance, you would assess the validity of another presentation of the meaningful vote?
The hon. Gentleman’s latter point is nuanced, and I think it would be sensible to say, I am afraid—because I think it will disappoint him, but it happens to have the advantage of being true—that I would have to look at the particulars. I cannot possibly be expected to pontificate, or even speculate idly, on an abstract proposition. I would have to look at the reality of what was on the table.
I have always had a great fondness for the hon. Gentleman, but on his first point, I have to say that although the Speaker tries to be helpful to the House, it is not my responsibility, and I would not ordinarily be expected, to hold Members’ hand in advising them on how they should vote in a particular circumstance. Members are perfectly capable of making those judgments for themselves. The reason I did not make a statement at an earlier stage, I say in terms that brook of no misunderstanding, is that no such statement was required, for the simple reason that I adduced in my statement: the second vote on 12 March and the debate that preceded it were entirely proper; there was not a breach of the convention. For the hon. Gentleman to say that it would have been helpful if I had said what I did not say at a time that I could have said it because it might have assisted Members, who as a result of it not being said were not helped, is not altogether helpful, and I am not sure that his logic is impeccable.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for your statement today. The Government have gained an infamous historical reputation for trickery and abuse of Parliament during this whole process, and already rumours are going around that they might seek to use prorogation as a method of getting out of this. Can you confirm that that would not only provoke a greater constitutional crisis, but also result in us losing every single piece of legislation currently before both Houses, including many of the pieces of legislation needed to implement any Brexit?
If particular legislation was subject to carry-over, that would not apply, but in the expectation, let us say—or, to use a more neutral term, in the circumstance—that it was not subject to the carry-over procedure, manifestly and incontrovertibly it would fall. As for whether the Government are contemplating that, I have no way of knowing. No Minister has indicated that to me. I have no idea what is in their mind. It would be an unusual step, but look: I have been in this place a little over 20 years, and some quite unusual things have happened. I have no way of knowing whether this is being contemplated.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In 1604 and in 1920, we were a sovereign Parliament, and we were not subject to the EU constitution, which this House voted for under the Lisbon treaty. This House has passed legislation under article 50 for us to leave the European Union, which is time-sensitive. Parliament could proceed in a rather stately manner in 1920, because it was not subject to such things, but we as a Parliament have voted to leave on a particular date; therefore there is a certain importance to making decisions prior to that date, and not in the next Session.
Secondly, the meaningful vote in itself is a constitutional innovation. It was this Parliament trying to impose on the Government greater parliamentary scrutiny. In that process, the Government have brought forward votes—more votes than most of us expected, and with more amendments than most of us expected. There was a degree of constitutional innovation in what you ruled during that process, Mr Speaker, in order to involve Parliament. Given the time-sensitive nature of the proposal, and given that this Parliament wanted to be involved, I can see no reason why we should not be put through the pain of perhaps another vote.
I stress that the article 50 legislation went through this House and the withdrawal Act went through this House. Every Member of this House expects to have a say on the type of Brexit that we will actually undertake. Sometimes, even if we are dealing with a matter that has been dealt with before, it is important that this House makes a decision or decides not to make a decision; but not considering the matter again could in itself have consequences.
Again, one has to reflect on the particulars. I say to the hon. Gentleman that the issue is not the pain of any vote, which is a subjective matter upon which I do not think I should pontificate—especially as I do not cast such, other than in the circumstance of a tie, which has not arisen since 1993 in this Chamber—but its propriety.
It is absolutely true that the House has legislated in respect of article 50—I believe it did so in March 2017 in the last Parliament—and that that has created a strong expectation, but whether Parliament chooses to legislate on this matter or, as the Government have signalled in recent days, depending on circumstance, to request a particular extension, is a matter for the House. I do not think that the issue of pain really comes into it; it is just a question of what is proper.
I know that the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known since we competed with each other in Bristol South in June 1989, is a stickler for propriety. [Interruption.] I am asked who won. It would not be seemly to say, but I think the hon. Gentleman’s result at the 1992 election was rather better than mine.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Obviously we fully endorse and respect your statement. On a point of clarification, I want to ask something that I am sure people out there will be asking when they read this statement today. On 29 January, the House of Commons voted against the SNP and Plaid Cymru amendment on extending the article 50 period and ruling out no deal by 327 votes to 39. We obviously voted again on those matters last week. Will you clarify why that did not fall under the same ruling?
I would have to look back at those particular votes. I did not receive advice at that time about non-compliance. I do not think that there was a general sense in the House that there was an issue of non-compliance, and I was not asked to rule on it. Matters are already treated of by the Table Office on the basis of established custom and practice. If those matters were accepted on to the paper, the issue of selection would have been for me, in the interests of facilitating the debate. However, the issue of propriety was not raised with me at that time.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Most people who watch our deliberations are watching with increasing amazement. They do not understand the nuances of the twists and changes with which we go about our business here. To many of them, what we are doing at the moment makes very little sense at all; they want to get on with things.
May I ask you, Mr Speaker, as the custodian of the reputation of this House, whether you really think it was right to bring forward this ruling today, at this stage, rather than perhaps last week, because many of us are looking forward to voting again one way or another this week? Perhaps you can inform the House how you came to this opinion and when, and say whether it would have been better at the time of the second vote to announce that there would not be time to have a third vote.
I am a little taken aback by the inquiry from the right hon. Gentleman. I signalled to the hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) why I did not think any statement was required at that time. It is, of course, true that the House passed a motion on Thursday that specified a potential end date for an agreement to be reached. It specified that if an agreement was reached by that date, a particular extension to article 50—if memory serves me, to the end of June—would be requested of the Union. Why did I not say anything at that time? The motion that was passed was not in respect of the withdrawal agreement, and I could have had no way of knowing at that time whether revisions to the agreement or the accompanying declaration would be sought, let alone obtained.
I can be expected to rule only at the material time. If I had ruled—[Interruption.] I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because I know that he has a great sense of fair play. If I had ruled last week, I think I can say with complete confidence that there would have been people accusing me of being hasty and premature, and commending to me the idea of waiting. I thought that it was appropriate to reflect on the matter over a period of days, and I am saying what I am saying before the Government table a new proposition. It seems to me timely to say it now, rather than to wait several days, but to have done so several days ago did not seem to me to be warranted. I have made my best judgment in the interests of the House as an institution, and of its individual Members.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are obviously right that the House does not wish to vote on the same proposition over and again. Equally, I am sure that you will be aware of the fact that some hon. Members were interested in meaningful votes because at that time, they would be able to vote on amendments on matters that we have not yet considered. If the Government are unable to make any changes to their proposition, I seek your guidance on how we might secure opportunities for voting on those alternative propositions. I heard you talk about urgent questions, but of course, there is no vote on an urgent question or a statement, and a Standing Order No. 24 motion is in neutral terms. The Government have not been very generous recently in offering Opposition day debates either, so I seek your advice on how hon. Members might proceed.
Obviously, it would be helpful to the Opposition if Opposition days were supplied. That has not happened recently and I have no way of knowing whether the Leader of the House has it in mind to provide for Opposition days. I think that colleagues would think that it was a democratic and seemly thing to do to ensure that the principal Opposition party had the requisite allocation of days. So far as other business is concerned, the hon. Lady should look closely at the Standing Order No. 24 procedure. What she says about it is true, but I think that she should reflect upon the opportunities that the Standing Order No. 24 procedure presents, because the opportunities are fuller than has traditionally been acknowledged or taken advantage of by Members of the House of Commons.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You helpfully reminded us at the beginning of your statement of the size of the majority against in the vote that took place last week. I think that most observers would feel that, for that to be turned around and for the motion to pass, it would require a significant change. As I understand it from your ruling this afternoon, if, perhaps at the European Council in a few days’ time, a significant change could be achieved, you would allow a further meaningful vote on that basis.
The right hon. Gentleman is very fair-minded and, what is more, he is perceptive. I think I hinted at that, perhaps not with the crystal clarity that he has brought to bear on the subject, but in essence, he is right: if there is a substantially different proposition put as a result of revisions sought and obtained and new agreement reached, that would constitute a new proposition to be put to the House. I would have to look at the particulars and I am not committing to a specific at this moment, but I think nobody could outdo the right hon. Gentleman today by way of reasonableness.
A Kingston knight, no less. I call Sir Edward Davey.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In our current constitutional crisis, I welcome your reaffirmation of the rule of law in this House—namely, “Erskine May”—and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. Given the gravity of the situation, though, could you enlighten the House as to whether “Erskine May” makes any provision for a Speaker’s Conference to bring together all parties in the House under your chairmanship to try to find a way forward?
There can always be Speaker’s Conferences, though I must say—I do not direct this particularly at this Government at all; it is a wider observation—that it is a perhaps curious and quaint fact that ordinarily, Speaker’s Conferences are convened at the instigation of the Government of the day. Indeed, I recall a particular occasion some years ago when I had some interest in the possibility of a Speaker’s Conference on aspects of parliamentary power. If I said to the right hon. Gentleman that the reaction to my suggestion at the time from the then Leader of the House was not wildly enthusiastic, I think that I would be somewhat understating the position. But that was then, and maybe the new Leader of the House, or relatively new Leader of the House, who has been a notable reformer in other respects, will be seized by the salience of what the right hon. Gentleman has commended to the House and will feel that she could have a key role in initiating such an important constitutional development. If she did, I would be perfectly willing to play ball with it. I have no idea; it is not something she and I have discussed, but you never know.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I just want to be very clear: I am indeed a reforming Leader of the House of Commons. For me, treating colleagues with courtesy and respect is at the forefront of that reform. Any Speaker’s council would have to have that at its heart, and I simply would not be confident that that would be the case.
Well, so be it. I treat the House with respect. I have treated its Members with respect. I chaired a previous Speaker’s Conference, and there was no criticism of the way in which I did so. One reason why the Leader of the House might not be well versed in that particular Speaker’s Conference and in a position to make a judgment about my chairmanship of it is very simply that it took place before the right hon. Lady entered the House of Commons.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This House runs on conventions, as you have already made clear in your statement today. One of those conventions is that Treasury Benchers always tell Opposition Front Benchers of statements they are going to make. To clarify, can you confirm to the House that you not only informed the Leader of the House of your intention to make this statement but told her the contents of your statement?
I absolutely cannot confirm anything of the sort. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that his understanding about what might happen between the usual channels is one thing; that absolutely does not apply to Speaker’s statements. If the hon. Gentleman—
The hon. Gentleman shrugs and says, “Why not?” That has never been the case. The Speaker of the House makes statements to the House at a time when the Speaker of the House thinks that they will be of interest and benefit to the House. I am under absolutely no obligation whatsoever to pre-announce that statement, either to the Leader of the House or to the shadow Leader of the House, and I did not do so. If the hon. Gentleman—a keen student of parliamentary procedure—is offended by that fact, well, I am sorry, and he is of course welcome to be offended, but there is absolutely no breach of parliamentary protocol or etiquette whatsoever. That is the reality, and I have explained the position in terms clear and unmistakable.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you confirm that a meaningful vote would be intrinsically different if it included the provision for a confirmatory vote by way of a public vote?
Again, I would have to look at the particulars. I would look at the specifics; I would assess what was being proposed; and I would make a judgment about it. I prefer at this stage to rest on what I have already said about the principle that something should be different, not the same or substantially the same. I would have to look at the specifics in the circumstances of the time.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We are now 11 days, six hours, 21 minutes and about 40 seconds from leaving. This can be described as nothing other than a constitutional crisis. Can you advise us how we can bring forward an emergency motion on revoking article 50?
Emergency motions—I say this as much for the benefit of people observing our proceedings as for Members of the House—are capable of being requested under Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Lady will know that any Member can apply for the right to conduct a Standing Order No. 24 debate on a motion and that that request is, in the first instance, submitted to me. If I decide that the application can be made in a speech of up to three minutes, it is made on the Floor of the House. If I decide that the application is valid, and the application is supported, the debate can take place, and there is nothing to stop such debates taking place in the ensuing days. Many have taken place before—obviously, on nothing like the scale of urgent questions—and I have no reason to suppose that it will be different in the future.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Does the House have the authority to suspend the Standing Orders that prevent motions from being brought back to the House in the same form?
The Clerk of the House has confirmed my own understanding, which is that the House is the custodian of its own Standing Orders. The Standing Orders are a matter for the House, and they can be changed. That has happened before, and it could conceivably happen again. So the answer to the central inquiry is yes.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is there any definition, in terms of precedent, of the meaning of the term “substantial change”? If there is not, can you confirm that that does not preclude you from making a novel decision?
I am sorry of this disappoints the hon. Gentleman, but it is context-specific, and it is a judgment for the Chair. The Chair seeks to make a judgment on the basis of what will be in the interests of the House. I do not think that I can say fairer than that, or say anything different. I hope that that is useful to colleagues.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you clarify a point? Is it the case that you have not ruled out a third meaningful vote, and it is just a matter of that vote’s being conditional on other matters applying, in the motion as well as in the substance?
I think that I explained the position to the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). It depends on the specific terms of what is proposed. Forgive me—I do not mean this discourteously in any way—but I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here throughout our exchanges. Maybe he was; I do not know. What I was seeking to convey, however, was that a new proposition could be put, but the convention would militate against the same, or substantially the same, proposition being put. So I am not closing the door, and, indeed, I specifically said towards the end of my statement that this ruling should not be regarded as my last word on the subject. It is simply meant to indicate the test that the Government must meet for me to rule that a third meaningful vote can legitimately be held during the current parliamentary Session. I do not see that I can expand on that, nor should I be required today to do so.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] I think that the Speaker decides. Would your advice to those who are, perhaps, becoming exercised about this be, “Don’t panic.”?
I am always inclined to say, “Don’t panic.” I am not in the business of panicking myself. I think I can safely say that I have never lost a wink of sleep over any work-related matter. There is no merit or purpose in doing so. I think that we should approach these matters with calm, deploy reason, and seek to make sensible judgments, not just in our own interests and the interests of the House, but in the interests of the people whom we are sent here to represent. I have always done that, and I am sure that that is what colleagues think it is right to do, including, most certainly, the hon. Gentleman.
I am most grateful to colleagues for the interest that they have shown and the inquiries that they have put, and I thank them for their involvement.
Far-right Violence and Online Extremism
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Security and Economic Crime, in the light of the recent terrorist attacks against the Muslim community of Christchurch, New Zealand, to make a statement on the Government’s strategy to tackle far-right violence and online extremism in the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for asking her question, so that the Government can put on record their position on extreme right-wing, neo-Nazi and other types of violent terrorism. The Home Secretary would have liked to respond to the question personally, but he was visiting the Regent’s Park mosque with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government today to show support for British Muslims following last week’s horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch. The attack was a sickening act of terrorism which the Government condemn, as we do the incident reported in Utrecht today and the attack in Surrey on Saturday evening.
The Government take all forms of terrorism and extremism seriously. Our counter-terrorism strategy, Contest, does not differentiate between what motivates the threat: it is designed to address all forms of terrorism whatever the ideology, whether Islamist, neo-Nazi, far-right or extreme left.
If we are to tackle terrorism in the long term, we must challenge those seeking to radicalise people. The Prevent policy is designed to safeguard our vulnerable citizens from being recruited or motivated into terrorism. That is why I always urge people to get behind the policy.
Our counter-terrorism strategy is agnostic to the threat: it is not relevant to us in what name terror strikes; it is the use of violence and hate that we seek to stop. Government and law enforcement will direct their funding wherever the threat emerges, and if we are to stay one step ahead as the threat changes so must the funding. We will continue to keep funding for protected security measures under review as that threat moves and will indeed consistently review it for places of worship and other areas that may be vulnerable.
Social media platforms should be ashamed that they have enabled a terrorist to livestream this evil massacre and spread this mantra of hate to the whole world. As the Home Secretary has made clear, enough is enough. We have been clear that tech companies need to act more quickly to remove terrorist content and ultimately prevent new content from being made available to users in the first place. This must be a wake-up call for them to do more. There can be no safe spaces for terrorists to promote and share their sick views. The online harm White Paper will be published imminently and will set out clear expectations for tech companies to keep users safe and what will happen if they fail to do so.
This Government take the growing threat of the extreme right-wing extremely seriously, and I can assure the House and our Muslim communities that we will stand together to counter it wherever it manifests itself in our society.
Last week’s terrorist attacks on mosques in New Zealand killed 50 people and wounded a further 50 people. I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing our most sincere condolences to those who have lost loved ones as well as our solidarity with the people of New Zealand as they come to terms with this and legislate to prevent such incidents from happening again. We have also seen this morning that a terrorist attack took place in the Netherlands, and we offer our sincere condolences to the three people who died during it.
In Lewisham, we have five mosques; two of them are in my constituency, and I have been contacted about the very real concern. This type of racial hatred and violence, whether in the UK or elsewhere in the world, must not be tolerated. It brings with it such immense fear, worry and anxiety for our Muslim communities, for families, children and young people. This should not be happening to people in this country or other countries; this should not be how people live, and the Government need to demonstrate that everything is being considered and done to keep people safe from harm and to promote respect and acceptance of difference and others. Will the Minster therefore state how his Department will deal with social media offences, including the removal of extreme content, and protect free speech, while developing an efficient strategy to tackle hate speech online? Also will he confirm he will be increasing his commitment to financing mosque security?
The hon. Lady makes some very valid points. First, on the money to protect vulnerable places—whether places of worship, schools or large public areas where people might gather—we of course continue to fund that where the threat requires it. We will continue to review the places of worship fund. The last round of ’18-19 was not oversubscribed despite efforts to advertise it to a number of mosques and other places of worship. We will continue to build on that, and if there is more requirement for it we will certainly stand ready to do that, to make sure my constituents in Preston in their mosques and the hon. Lady’s constituents in theirs get the support they need. Every single police force has a national counter-terrorism security adviser whose job is to go out and advise businesses, communities and places of worship about what they can do to mitigate any threat, even if it is threat unseen, and how they can make sure the people who use their premises are kept safe, and I urge people to do that.
On top of that, the National Counter Terrorism Security Office publishes an online manual to help places of worship, specifically, with tailor-made areas. The Home Secretary and the Communities Secretary are absolutely determined to make sure that the threat of attacks such as what we have seen in New Zealand are headed off. There are different factors at play in the United Kingdom but nevertheless, as I said this morning, it is perfectly possible that this type of thing will happen here.
We are already seeing a growing threat from people moving into the extremist mindset of the extreme right wing and neo-Nazis, and that is the pool that terrorists of the future will recruit from. We must all get together—all of us—to make sure that we teach our children about tolerance and equality and that we understand that just because someone disagrees with us, they are not lesser people. If someone comes from a different religion, they are not lesser, and if they have a different colour, they are not lesser. Until we embrace that, extremism will grow. Doing that is the best way of heading off far-right and neo-Nazi extremism.
With my New Zealand passport in my left pocket, may I thank the House and the nation who, with a very few exceptions, were extremely sympathetic? That was spread throughout the media. Although in New Zealand the armed forces and sports teams, such as the All Blacks, are fearsome in the field, as a nation the people are known for their friendliness and acceptance of different races, colours, and religions. What is most disturbing is that even with such community integration, a case such as last week’s, which “could not happen in New Zealand”, did. The All Blacks I just mentioned are a positive example, as they are of different races, colours and religions but are brilliantly effective at playing as a team.
One positive point, as I am sure the Minister will agree, is that our gun laws are much tighter at the moment than at least those of New Zealand, if not those of all nations. Does he agree that our laws are sufficient, but the difficulty is the importation of illegal weapons? Will he go for that rather than changing our gun laws?
My hon. Friend, as a New Zealander and a Brit, makes a valid point about the strength of the New Zealand nation. He makes the correct observation that the gun laws in this country make it much harder for people to acquire weapons that could wreak mass murder very quickly, as we have seen following the use of semi-automatic assault rifles in places such as New Zealand and the United States. That does not mean that we should ever stop ensuring that when such threats present themselves we put all our resource and, if necessary, our legislation behind making the restrictions that are needed.
Although many people have considered such attacks, they have been unsuccessful in this country because they have simply not been able to get their hands on the type of weapon system that we saw being deployed in New Zealand. Our law enforcement agencies will continue to target both the legal acquisition of weapons by unsuitable people and illegal acquisitions through smuggling, so that we can ensure that our places are safer.
Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this urgent question, and it is a credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) that she applied for it. I join all Members in passing on condolences to the families and friends of those murdered in this heinous act of terror against people for no other reason than that they were Muslims. We send sympathies to the people of New Zealand, and to those affected by the incident in Surrey and the ongoing situation in Utrecht.
As the Leader of the Opposition has said, an attack on anyone at worship is an attack on all peoples of faith and non-believers too, as they go about their lawful, peaceful business. The harrowing live streaming of events in Christchurch, on the other side of the world, raises questions about the role of social media platforms in facilitating a growing extremism. Although a White Paper on online harm is of course welcome, does the Minister accept that asking online platforms to act is not enough and that we need a new regulator with strong powers to penalise them if they do not curb harmful content?
We must also ensure that our laws and policies are robust and up to date. Will the Minister clarify when the new Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation will be appointed and in post? Will he also confirm that lessons will be learned from both domestic and international experience in the forthcoming independent review of the Prevent programme?
I am not suggesting that any political perspective has a monopoly on virtue. Does the Minister agree that such vile acts of hatred show that we must all redouble our efforts to argue for a society of tolerance and respect?
The hon. Gentleman makes many points with which I agree. Tolerance, respect and the underpinning of the British values of democracy and the rule of law are vital in our society, and the more we teach our children about that and the more we clamp down on those who do not believe in that, the better a place we will be.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s questions about the to-be-appointed Prevent reviewer, I cannot speak for that person—
I referred to the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.
I will get to that, but the hon. Gentleman did mention the Prevent review. I want the person reviewing Prevent to be as free as possible to examine people’s views, perceptions and evidence, and I would like those who criticise Prevent the most to produce evidence rather than anecdotes. The Government will, of course, listen to whatever the review produces.
I turn to the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. Hopefully, the appointment will happen in a matter of days or weeks. We are at an advanced stage in the selection process. Like the hon. Gentleman, I would like an appointment as soon as possible, because no Government benefit without an Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.
On new regulations regarding online harm, I know that Opposition Members will be impatient, but they will have to wait for the publication of the online harms White Paper. The document will obviously examine regulation versus voluntary action, but I have said on the record several times that a voluntary system is not enough and that regulation or other methods of encouragement should be explored.
I have also been clear that many online companies are hugely profitable and global, so whatever regulation we explore will have to be deliverable. That is why I met representatives of the G7 in Toronto last year to discuss what the G7 can do collectively; why the Home Secretary attended the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, as did his predecessor, to ensure that countries around the world can get to grips with the problem; and why the European Union is taking forward plans to seek regulations in certain areas, especially the time in which content should be taken down.
If we are to deal with the problem, we must take a layered international approach to regulation—otherwise, companies will simply move their servers to escape their obligations. It is one thing to deal with the big companies that have a nexus here, but there are many tiny companies spreading hate around the world that may have servers in jurisdictions that we cannot reach. That is why we need an international consensus to deal with the challenge.
The House will welcome the calm and purposeful way in which my right hon. Friend spoke this afternoon and in his broadcast round this morning. He was matched by the Opposition spokesman, who has shown that this is a task for the community. This is not just about other faiths, but the whole community, and we must stand with the Muslims as we stand with the Jews.
Will my right hon. Friend go on encouraging the Community Security Trust—the CST—to share with our mosques and Islamic societies the basic steps that people can take, within the law, to help to raise levels of confidence and security?
My hon. Friend makes the strongest point of all, which is that we will defeat this challenge through peer group pressure and by coming together to show what is unacceptable. The CST has already offered online material to help advise other places of worship in how to make themselves safe. But the fact is that our law enforcement cannot do this on their own. The current threat is from sudden violent extremists—people who, in minutes, can step outside their front door, grab a knife or car and wreak murder on our streets. That is not going to be spotted by a police officer on every corner, or a large intelligence service, without the support of the public, who can understand their neighbours and bring any worries they have to the attention of the correct authorities, to make sure we say, “This is not acceptable.”
No one who has ever visited New Zealand can fail to have been struck by not only the beauty of the country, but the warm welcome one gets from its diverse people, as the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) has said. On behalf of the Scottish National party, I wish to condemn the terrible evil we saw in New Zealand last week, and to send our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved and injured.
In Scotland, our Muslim community are a valued part of our society, as they are across the whole of the United Kingdom, but we must always be aware of the particular threat posed to them from far-right extremists. I am sure the Minister will agree that Islamophobia must be combated and condemned wherever it raises its head. Does he also agree that politicians, journalists and those in the public eye should always be cautious never to cross the line on free speech and fair comment to risk stirring up the sort of hatred and “othering” that can feed into the narrative of the far right?
There have been a growing number of incidents across the UK in recent years, and it was good to hear the Minister on the radio this morning and this afternoon saying that he is alive to that threat and will put resources into tackling it. I noticed that on the radio this morning the Muslim Council of Britain was very concerned to ensure that its community should get the same sort of funding as the Jewish community has received to protect its places of worship against attack, and I was pleased to hear the Minister say on the radio that protective security tacks with the threat present. It seems that he does recognise the threat, but will he confirm that he will be meeting the MCB to discuss its requests and to look at directing funds where needed?
Finally, we have seen incidents where far-right extremists have tried to intimidate and silence Members of this House who have called them out for their hate. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), in particular, has suffered at the hands of far-right extremists recently. I know that the Government have been very sympathetic about that, but does the Minister agree that all of us, across this House, must stand united with our colleagues against the threat from the far right?
The hon. and learned Lady makes some good points. On her point about Islamophobia, I have publicly spoken out for many years about the fact that Islamophobia exists. It exists across our communities, in all our political parties and in the communities we represent; it exists throughout Europe, not just in the UK, and we have to tackle it.
If you want a good lesson on how to tackle intolerance, Mr Speaker, I should say that one of the early successful policies of the SNP was on dealing with anti-sectarianism. The SNP recognised in Scotland that this starts with anti-sectarianism and it grows into violent extremism. I have to commend the SNP for what it did all those years ago on that, taking strong steps, certainly among the football community, to stamp it out. That is why, in the end, we have to focus upstream. We must focus in the communities and say what is not acceptable. We must embrace policies such as Prevent to make sure that everyone realises that this is ultimately about safeguarding.
On the issue relating to the community trust, the hon. and learned Lady is right. We will direct our funds as the threat changes, and we are completely open to learning every day from the attacks and plots we see, either here or abroad. We shall direct this in that way. My colleagues in government regularly speak to a range of Muslim communities, and many of us in this House will speak to our own communities in our own constituencies.
We will sense the fear that there currently is in some of those communities as a response to the attack in New Zealand and that there was even before that, given the growing rise of Islamophobia, spread through the evils of some of these chatrooms on the internet. We must, all of us, say that that is not acceptable, and neither is intolerance aimed at other people in other discourse around the world, be it in respect of Unionism and nationalism, or Brexit and remain. Intolerance is where this starts as a small seed, and it grows into hate.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and I strongly agree that the tech companies need to do more to stop the spread of hate and incitement to violence. However, does he also recognise that the internet is a force for good and that many authoritarian countries—China and, now, particularly Russia—are attempting to impose censorship on it for their own repressive political purposes? Does he therefore agree that any measures we take need to be proportionate and targeted, and must not allow other countries, such as Russia, to claim somehow that they are acting for reasons similar to ours?
It is tempting to say that my right hon. Friend is asking the wrong person. As Security Minister, I see daily how paedophiles, organised crime, groomers and terrorist recruiters use the internet as not a force for good. As we speak, the internet is being used to undermine our own democracy.
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point that, in places where there is no democracy and no rule of law, the internet is sometimes people’s only hope to engage with free thought and the outside world. We have to be very careful about how we balance that but, nevertheless, we know these companies can remove extremist content very quickly when they put their minds to it.
There are certain areas on which we all agree. I cannot find anyone in the world who would support allowing child sexual exploitation images to exist on our internet. Violent extremism, beheading videos and bullying online cannot be acceptable in any society. We can all agree that a number of activities should not be allowed or available on the internet without someone taking responsibility for preventing the broadcast or spreading of it. All of us in this House have to try to navigate that fine line, and we will debate it when the online White Paper comes before us.
Will the Minister admit that the internet has allowed the formation of chatrooms such as 4chan and 8chan, online communities such as the “incels”—the involuntary celibates—who are misogynistic and who blame women for their lack of access to sex, and the bubbles in which both ISIS and, now, neo-Nazi, far-right white supremacist groups gather their followers? Does he acknowledge, and does he have a plan for dealing with, the grooming and the escalation of evil and violence that is growing in these unregulated spaces?
The hon. Lady makes the right point. Many characteristics are shared across the spectrum of violent extremism. Whether it is Islamist/Daesh/ISIL extremism or far-right extremism, they often use the same methods. They often appeal to the same type of people.
Both the Government and the Opposition Front Bench have been grappling with how to deal with safe spaces, either in the material world or, indeed, online. This concept of safe spaces either in failed states or on the internet, where these people are reinforcing their prejudices and joining up, is characteristic of the 21st century. It could be argued that 10 years ago people sat on their own in their bedroom and spoke to no one, but now they can speak to thousands. That is being used to seduce people, to groom people and to twist people.
We must start in our schools, which is why I am pleased that the state, local education authorities and primary schools have started to teach children about using the internet safely. Some of the big communications service providers, such as Google and Facebook, also go out to schools and teach young children about how to behave on the internet and what to be careful of.
The challenge is growing. Hopefully, the online White Paper will be a doorway we can all go through and will start a big debate about how to tackle this. But there is also the simple issue that we all have to think about what we, our children and our friends are looking at. We have to ask ourselves, “How are we going to stop it in this day and age?” How many people in this Chamber, at any one time, are on their telephone? An awful lot.
On Saturday morning, I met Muslim families from all over Essex who had come to Chelmsford to meet each other. I spoke to many leaders of the community, but also to young teenage girls and other younger members of the community, and it is clear that they are very fearful and worried. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that our Muslim constituents are our friends, neighbours and colleagues; that they are vital to British society today; and that we as parliamentarians and Government Members will do everything to stand by them and keep them safe?
British Muslims are part of Britain. That is it. They are no lesser than any one of us; we are all the same. We all share different politics and different views. We all have views of the north and the south—living in Lancashire, I have an entirely different view of the south, and my Muslim communities in Lancashire will have a different view of the south as well. We stand shoulder to shoulder. We are not going to let these people spread their hate and we will put in all the resource we need to put in to counter it. It is very much incumbent on us all, from all parties, to do it together, because if we do not do it together, the bad people will exploit that difference and make it worse.
On Friday night, hundreds of local residents in Walthamstow joined together in a vigil for the people of Christchurch. We heard from both our Muslim community and our New Zealand residents, and many were clear with me that they recognise that far-right extremism does not come along talking about Hitler and wearing jackboots; it comes from those people who slowly drip, online and offline, poison into our politics and discussions. It behoves us all in this place, therefore, to stand up to the people who lead that charge. What does the Minister intend to do, when he recognises this twisted mindset, to make sure that nobody in this place gives a platform and a veneer of respectability to people like Steve Bannon, Candace Owens and Fraser Anning? Let us say that they are not welcome here in this Chamber and here in this country.
The hon. Lady presents one of the biggest challenges of today—
That is an immature comment. The reality is that, when we talk about tolerance, we talk not about no-platforming or shutting up people with whom we disagree; we talk about a discourse in which we challenge people’s views, because only by challenging people’s views do we sometimes get to the heart of the argument and either come together or agree to disagree. If we shut people down or bully or ridicule people, we are leading down the path of intolerance. Personally, sometimes I find other people who are invited to this House unpalatable, but I do not think it is my place to shut people out of the heart of our democracy. The way we show them up is by challenging their assertions, proving them to be wrong and taking their arguments apart. That is the best way.
As the Minister is aware, I was a councillor in Tower Hamlets at a time when young schoolchildren were groomed to go to Syria and we had far-right marches going through the borough. It was clear from my time as a councillor just how important Prevent is for giving children the intellectual resilience to resist those kinds of radical, unpleasant and divisive messages. Unfortunately, we have seen too often that people try to spread misinformation about Prevent. Does the Minister share my concern that politicians should challenge that misinformation so that communities feel greater confidence in Prevent and feel confident enough to share the kind of critical information that stops people falling prey to radicalisation of this kind?
I feel that the best way for us to deal with Prevent is to publish the statistics about who is referred, how it works and what the outcomes are. No doubt when there is an independent review of Prevent it can examine all the evidence from both sides and take a view. The only observation I have about Prevent is this. I have listened to the critics, some of whom are my friends, over the past two and a half years, and when they explain, they often just explain the Prevent policy but worry about its name. It cannot just be about the name; it has to be about the substance as well. I see good results in Prevent. Over the past three years, I have seen hundreds of people who were really at risk of becoming terrorists being diverted from that path. I think those more than 700 people in the past three years contribute to our being a safer society.
I send, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, sincere condolences to the victims, their families and all the people of New Zealand. We stand in unity with them and with all our Muslim brothers and sisters across the world.
Will the Minister condemn without reservation Islamophobic language, whether used by individuals or in the media? The Liberal Democrats have looked at the proposed definition of Islamophobia from the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims, and we think that it is a very good one and have adopted it. Will the Government do likewise?
I condemn Islamophobia. It is racism; it is like any other type of racism. We should not even subdivide it. It is what it is. It is racism, just as antisemitism is racism. I do not need to go beyond that. Anyone who is caught doing it should be called out and dealt with, whether that is in my political party or in any other political party. I have absolutely no qualms about that. They should be dealt with.
On the definition of Islamophobia, I read the all-party group report and I looked at its definition. It is an interesting and good starting point. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary chaired on, I think, 5 March, a roundtable with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and members of the Muslim community to discuss Islamophobia and what can be done on it. We will look at the definition and at what we can do to start on that process. But all of this comes back to this: if we over-define, if we start subdividing Islamophobia and antisemitism, we forget what this is really about, which is tolerance. It is really important that we accept that we are tolerant of people. That is what underlines extremism: where people choose not to be tolerant, they start to become extremists. When they think other people are lesser, that is where we are in trouble.
I express compassion and solidarity with all Muslims from New Zealand, across the world and in my constituency of Harlow. We have the wonderful Harlow Islamic Centre in my constituency. It is a small community, but a thriving one. In 2013, there was an arson attack on the Harlow Islamic Centre mosque. Will my right hon. Friend set out again what provision and support there is for the smaller mosques and thriving communities such as Harlow to ensure that these kinds of attacks do not happen?
First, in the Metropolitan police, there are counter-terrorism security advisers who will come out to any mosque, or any place, to help to advise on what steps can be taken to do that. The places of worship scheme, which has received £2.4 million over the past three years, can be applied for. The latest round was not fully subscribed. We will do all we can to advertise it and encourage it. Indeed, the Home Secretary and I have looked at different ways to remove the barriers to people applying to that scheme to make it as easy and as straightforward as possible. We hope to improve that even more. Like my right hon. Friend, I have some very small mosques in my constituency. They are just as vulnerable as some of the very big ones. We must make sure that protective security applies to us all.
May I add the DUP’s sympathies to all those who were killed and injured in New Zealand in that very vicious terrorist attack? Northern Ireland has experienced the unadulterated evil of people slaughtering worshippers in what should be a safe place—for example, in Gospel Hall in Darkley on 20 November 1983. In the face of evil, it is time for good people to stand with those who have been attacked. So can the Minister confirm what support has been offered to New Zealand in relation to policing, to forensic expertise and to counselling support for those victims who have lost loved ones?
My hon. Friend knows all too well the cost of terrorism and indeed, in the society in which he lives, the cost of division. We have offered to the New Zealand authorities any help they wish to have, either in the intelligence or the police space, and we will continue to do that, as we will with the Netherlands authorities following the attack today. Ultimately, we must make sure that, when it comes to saying what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, linking violence and politics is not acceptable. That is a good starting point. We must make it very clear across our political discourse that the first point is that that is never acceptable—it is never acceptable to invoke that and to say that people should be lynched. We should never ever invoke violence in the same breath as politics.
I feel that it is a matter of some regret that this urgent question has been framed as one of right-wing extremists, because there are also left-wing extremists; this is terrorism, pure and simple. I am proud that my first question in this House was to ask for the finances to provide security at Jewish schools in my Hendon constituency. Indeed, the Community Security Trust is based in Hendon and provides that security. Now we need to make the same call on behalf of Muslim schools and Islamic institutions in our constituencies. Will the Minister take that suggestion to the Treasury and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and ask for resources to be made available to these communities, because any kind of extremism is not acceptable?
My hon. Friend is right. As I said in my statement, as the threat moves, we will tack with it. The Home Secretary’s first point of call is within the Department and then it is the Treasury. We are determined to make all our places of worship safe, and we will do what is necessary.
I too visited mosques and had contact with local Muslim leaders on Friday, and there was a palpable sense of fear. I praise South Wales police and our police and crime commissioner for responding so quickly. I was particularly disturbed to speak to young people who told me that they were watching the video of the horrific attacks in New Zealand. We have to do everything we can to prevent young people from having to see such horrific content. On that note, I have to push the Minister and the Home Secretary further. I do not doubt their sincerity in wanting to deal with these issues, but they say that we need to wait for the online harms White Paper. I have previously raised with both of them the issue of an organisation called Radio Aryan, which is available on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. I have also raised this matter directly with the social media companies, and it is absolutely clear that they do not give a damn. That content is still online this morning. It advocates antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and white supremacy. Why is it still on there and what are the Government going to do to remove it?
As I said earlier, one of the reasons that some of these things remain online is that the servers of the companies are often abroad and out of our jurisdiction. We are seeking the powers to do something about that through the online harms White Paper. If these companies have a nexus in the UK, it gives us more power. If they do not, we have to look at other technical issues and see whether we can do this another way. The White Paper is imminent, and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and any Member from across the House to discuss whether they think it is too soft or too hard, or what needs to be done to improve it.
The hon. Gentleman points out one of the real challenges. The United States’ first amendment protects freedom of speech. We often approach companies in America asking them to take down websites and so on, and we get a first amendment response—that is, that they are obliged to United States law and the first amendment. That is why we ultimately have to seek an international solution to go alongside whatever regulation we look at here.
I was particularly moved this afternoon to hear the Home Secretary using the Arabic words, “Bi-smi llāhi r-rahmāni r-rahīm”, meaning “In the name of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful.” We are fundamentally talking about a compassion and a mercy that were not shown to a community—this time in New Zealand, but sometimes at home—and a justice that we now need to extend to members of our own community who feel that they do not have access to the same security as others. I welcome the views that will come forward from the Home Secretary and the Security Minister, and the work that they have done. We need to make sure that addressing these publishers—for that is what they are—who are putting up, or tolerating the publication of, online hate material is absolutely the first line of defence, not the last.
The communications service providers around the world need to get the message that we know that they seem to manage to do something when they really want to. We know that their algorithms are often designed to maximise viewing numbers and profits, rather than the safety of our constituents, and we need them to realise that we are on to that and are going to do something about it. Last year, Facebook took down 14.3 million pieces of content, 99% of which was done by automated tools. Before that, it took the Government to set up the Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit—not the CSPs. That unit, on its own, managed to take down 300,000 pieces of content. If we can do it, those multi-billion-pound global corporations can invest more in artificial intelligence, and they can do so much quicker.
The UK Government currently chair the Commonwealth Heads of Government, of which New Zealand is a proud member. In passing on our condolences and our thanks for the excellent work of Jacinda Ardern, its Prime Minister, will the Minister agree to convene a discussion with the 53 nations about what we can do about Facebook and Twitter to collectively close down extremist content across the Commonwealth?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good suggestion. At the CHOGM that happened last year there was a session or two on cyber, but his recommendation is a valid one. I will nick it, if I may, and take it forward.
I was reassured by the Minister’s remarks about the work the Department is doing to help mosques and places of worship to fight hate crime, but could he confirm that that work extends to Scotland and outline what discussions he has had with the Scottish Government in this regard?
My understanding is that matters relating to places of worship are devolved to Scotland. However, I am always in contact with officials and ministerial counterparts in Scotland, and I will continue to discuss this with them. I am due a visit there very soon, and I will no doubt add that to the agenda.
Mass murder of innocents praying at their place of worship is one of the most abhorrent acts imaginable. We must urgently have conversations about the implications of words and actions, including those in the media. My constituents—those of all faiths and none—are fearful of attacks. Is the Minister of the opinion that the police have adequate resources to protect our mosques, other faith establishments and other sensitive sites, and will additional funding be made available to these places of worship so that worshippers there feel safe?
The hon. Lady will know, as I met her recently, that a number of colleagues across the House are feeling intimidated, bullied and threatened on a regular basis in our inboxes and in our letters, and often physically in person at our surgeries. That is something we have to deal with. What came across at a meeting we held recently was that there is not enough consistency in the police response, and police leaders are aware of that. Some colleagues in this House have a good police response; others have a wholly inadequate one. That extends to the places of worship where people sometimes feel that when they need help they do not get it. We have to improve the consistency. We also have to improve what the Crown Prosecution Service does in charging and dealing with those who are spreading hate and intimidating people. Again, this is all too random across the country, and that does not provide the reassurance that many Members, and our constituents, need.
Like many across the House, I spent time in mosques and with my community on Friday. Obviously, as you can imagine, this was a painful reminder of what happened in Batley and Spen only three years ago. At times like this, compassion is of course needed, but we also need a strategy that works. Dressed up as free speech, white nationalism is a threat to us all. Does the Minister agree that we need to demand more of our mainstream media than newspaper editors who thought it was fine to screen the live filming on Facebook, and the media barons and politicians who see difference as the enemy? We need more than thoughts and prayers when tackling hatred—we need action, so what discussions is he about to have with media moguls and newspaper editors?
The strategy for dealing with terrorism is the Contest strategy. If the hon. Lady reads that, she will realise that it is a well-polished strategy started under the previous Labour Government that is managing to have a successful counter-terrorism effect in the United Kingdom. With regard to the media, whether mainstream or fringe, it is absolutely the case, first, that they must not prioritise sensationalism over the facts. Secondly, all media have a responsibility to report accurate facts. The interpretation of those facts is obviously up to the free press and the media, but they must be careful and responsible about what they do. Like her, I have frustration that some media outlets sometimes actually end up being the biggest broadcaster of hate and terrorist content. They must be made to realise that. I am going to be telling them that over the next few weeks, going right to the top. I am not sure that my rank gets me to a mogul, but it will certainly get me to an editor.
I thank the Security Minister again for what he said following the appalling attack in New Zealand and what he said today following the events in this country and the Netherlands over the weekend. Further to the answers he has given to other Members, I want to say, in terms that I think my Muslim constituents would want me to use, that the kind of prejudice that slaughtered innocent people in Christchurch does not begin with a gunman mowing down people in their place of worship. It begins with unchecked prejudice in our workplaces, our schools and our communities, which is amplified in the pages of national mainstream media outlets that should know better. I am afraid it is also legitimised by people who purport to be mainstream politicians and aspire to the highest office who describe Muslim women as “bank robbers” and pillar boxes without any reaction.
On a day when HOPE not hate has called for action from the Conservative party to tackle Islamophobia within its ranks, when Baroness Warsi has again asked her own party to act and when my constituents are looking to the Government to act, they will have no confidence in this Government to tackle the prejudice they face unless they have confidence in the governing party to tackle racism within its own ranks. I say that with humility but great sincerity. Enough is enough. Condemnation in general is nothing compared with specific condemnation. When will the Minister’s party tackle the racists in its ranks, whether in this House or at the grassroots?
The hon. Gentleman is right; we need to show leadership. If we see racism or antisemitism in our ranks, we should deal with it. If we see Islamophobia in our ranks, we should deal with it; if I find it in my party association, those people should not be in the Tory party. I totally agree with everything he said. We have to be cautious about what we say and what we inspire, given our privileged places as political leaders in society. That goes for my friends, my colleagues and my opponents on the Opposition Benches.
We should also recognise that the next step in intolerance is linking violence to politics. The hon. Gentleman sits in a party whose shadow Chancellor talked about lynching my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey) when she was in the Department for Work and Pensions, and whose shadow Chancellor regularly supported Irish nationalism that had a violent streak rather than a peaceful one. Let us see what his actions are when it comes to condemning Labour’s Front Bench.
I associate my party with the condemnation across the House of the appalling attack in New Zealand. That shows, if evidence were needed, that such attacks can happen in the most peaceable and unlikely of communities. Security is a reserved matter, though the Welsh Government have responsibility for economic, social and cultural matters to do with the faith community. Is the Minister confident that there is sufficiently deep co-operation between the Home Office and the Welsh Government to ensure that such attacks do not occur in rural and city communities in Wales?
All I can say is that we have very strong links with the Welsh Government and the police and counter-terrorism units in Wales. I have visited a number of sites. We speak regularly, including when it comes to conducting exercises across the United Kingdom so that we can practise our response, and I regularly see bulletins about what is going on in Cardiff and other parts of Wales. I am confident that the Welsh police do an outstanding job in dealing with this issue. Many Members in this House bring examples to me involving the far right. I am confident that they are doing a very good job, and I will continue to work with the Welsh Government to ensure that it is delivered.
Will the Security Minister assure communities in Lancashire of the Islamic faith, of any other faith or of no faith that everything is being done through the security and intelligence services and the police to monitor and deter potential attackers from targeting places of worship, including online activity and political campaigns aimed at Muslims and other minority faiths? This should not just be about tolerance, which means accepting something whether we like it or not, but be about mutual respect. Let us talk more about mutual respect, not just tolerating something even though we might not like it.