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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
11 April 2019
Volume 658

House of Commons

Thursday 11 April 2019

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was asked—

Funding for Youth Services

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1. What recent assessment the Government have made of the adequacy of the level of funding for local authority youth services. [910357]

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Local authorities are responsible for funding local youth services, and over the next financial year English authorities’ funding for public services will increase, from £45.1 billion to £46.4 billion. In this role I have confirmed to the House that we are reviewing the guidance that sets out local authorities’ duty to provide appropriate local youth services. In addition, I am delighted to announce that the Government will be developing a new youth charter setting out our vision for supporting young people over the next generation and beyond.

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I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs. Evidence submitted to our recent cross-party inquiry into youth work shows that the reduction in publicly funded youth services has led to the voluntary and community sectors being expected to fill the gap left by Government cuts. That has created an increasing reliance on short-term funding and the loss of qualified and experienced youth workers. Will the Minister commit herself to addressing urgently the crisis in long-term funding for youth services?

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I thank the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs, which has produced an excellent report on youth policy and funding. The Office for Civil Society has allocated £195 million to youth programmes, and the offer that my Department makes to enrich young people’s lives, through civil society, sport, digital and culture, is very important. The new youth charter gives us a chance to continue looking at all the issues the hon. Lady has raised.

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Youth services come in many different formats. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Long Eaton rugby club on its work with young people—boys and girls—which helps provide necessary life skills through sport?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Local authority spending on youth services has been challenged—it is absolutely right that we accept that. However, we have great local authorities and partnerships that continue to innovate to ensure that the challenging funding landscape is addressed and that the benefits are there for children across all communities.

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I do not want to berate the Minister about the lack of resources in youth services, because we know that we do not have as many resources as we used to. Will she follow what we are doing in Huddersfield? We are consulting young people and asking them what they want. Nearly all of them want a safe space where they do not have to drink alcohol, with nice coffee and wi-fi. Is it not about time we supplied young people up and down our country with the safe spaces they want?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. On a Friday evening, what young people want is to be out from the rain and away from parents, with high-speed internet access and the chance to hang out with friends—to be a teenager—and that is very welcome. I met policy officials yesterday, and we will be funding such spaces very shortly. We will update the House soon.

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In the borough of Kettering there are many independently run and often volunteer-led sports clubs, amateur dramatics groups, scouts, guides and cadet forces—all sorts of organisations. Is it not true that successful and diverse youth engagement does not necessarily require direct local authority control?

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I absolutely agree. It is right that we look at the local authority and community facilities that young people would like to engage with, and to reflect the community they live in. In fact, just this week we directed £90 million from dormant bank accounts to the newly established Youth Futures Foundation, which will support some of our most disadvantaged young people into employment. We will be working with all sorts of bodies to ensure that there are opportunities for all young people.

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The Opposition welcome the Government’s recognition of the importance of youth services with their commitment today to a youth charter. The Minister will be aware that there is a strong economic case for investing in youth services, with Ofsted saying that cuts are “a false economy” leading to “greater pressures elsewhere”. We know that the cost of late intervention is estimated to be £17 billion a year. What concrete conversations has the Minister had with her Treasury colleagues ahead of the comprehensive spending review to ensure that the charter is not a no-cheque charter and that there is proper investment in youth services?

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As the Minister for youth—that is slightly embarrassing occasionally—I think it is absolutely right to be in a position to work across Government as we head toward the spending review, to make sure that there are opportunities for our young people. With the youth endowment fund we have seen £200 million to support interventions for children and young people at risk. I absolutely agree that early intervention is right. That is why we have also pledged to review specific youth work qualifications, which were due to expire in 2020, to make sure that the youth work training curriculum is right. That is absolutely on the table.

Historic Environment

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2. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the inclusion of the historic environment in the definition of the natural environment in the Environment Bill. [910358]

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I am aware that there is strong interest in the way that the Environment Bill relates to the protection of the historic environment. I want to make sure that the heritage agenda and the close interplay between the natural environment and the historic environment are appropriately reflected in that Bill. To that end, I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the matter, and I will be writing to him very shortly.

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I am pleased to hear that response from the Minister, because the historic and natural environment often enhance and rely on each other. In my patch, we have the lesser horseshoe bats in Arnos Vale cemetery, the Iron Age hill fort in Leigh woods, and the work being done by the Heritage Lottery Fund in Avalon marshes. The manmade structures—the built environment—enhance and, in some ways, protect the wildlife there. Will he keep us updated on the progress of those discussions?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right: these things are very closely interrelated. The Bill is specifically a natural environment Bill, but the historic environment is very closely interplayed with that. I have written to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about that. I can confirm what she says about the connection. Of course it applied recently to the inscription of the world heritage site in the Lake District.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that we must do all we can to protect our great historic environment? I also wish to praise the National Trust for all the work that it does in this field, particularly in Bexleyheath where we have the Red House, a National Trust property.

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Very much so. The fact of the matter is that our historic environment is important to us all. It is also a world asset—something that draws millions of people to this country. It is important to respect the environment in all its forms, and the natural environment is supported and enriched by the historic environment.

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When the Minister corresponds with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will he ensure that, prior to doing so, he makes contact with the heritage divisions in England and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that the Environment Bill, which extends across the United Kingdom, reflects our needs?

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I always want to ensure that all constituent parts of the United Kingdom are involved in these matters, as they of course are in fact as well as in law. I think that I have already written to the Secretary of State—the letter will be signed today—but we will certainly bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman says.

Online Disinformation

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3. What recent steps he has taken to tackle fake news and disinformation online. [910359]

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On Monday, my Department, in conjunction with the Home Office, published the Online Harms White Paper, which sets out our plans for a new regulatory framework for online harms underpinned by an independent regulator. As part of that framework, the regulator will publish a code of practice to ensure that platforms take proportionate steps to tackle the issue of disinformation and other forms of online manipulation.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I also welcome the White Paper. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on which I serve, took a lot of information on the threat to our democracy; the White Paper is not silent on that, but it is not very talkative about it. Will he outline what steps the Government plan to take to protect our democracy?

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The hon. Lady is right: it is an important area. The Select Committee has done very good work in drawing attention to it. As I made clear on Monday in my statement to the House, we should not see the Online Harms White Paper as the only part of the Government’s response in this area; there will be other important components to it. One of those that will cover the area that she describes will be the work that the Cabinet Office is doing, which I hope we will see very shortly.

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Any regulator will be effective only if it has proper sanctioning powers with teeth. With tech companies turning over billions of pounds of profits and creating untold online harm, particularly to our young people, will the Secretary of State give more information about what kind of sanctioning powers—especially financial sanctions—the regulator will have? Will he give us an idea of what he will do to make sure that companies get in line?

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The hon. Lady is right that the sanctions available to the regulator will be important here. The White Paper includes a number of options. We will want to look at remedial notices and at fines, potentially comparable to General Data Protection Regulation fines, which, as she knows, are very substantial indeed. We will also want to consider individual director liability and, at the top end of the scale, internet service provider blocking for those websites that refuse to co-operate with what the regulator requires.

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The rocket fuel for fake news and disinformation is the tidal wave of dark money flowing into dark ads that are targeted with psychographic precision. Vote Leave has admitted breaking the rules—cheating by pumping in way over the odds during the referendum campaign—but the Secretary of State has done nothing to ensure that we have the transparency we need ahead of a possible second referendum. Will he think again and bring in the honest ads Act we have proposed, so we can finally see who is paying for what—not least the dark ads targeted at Members of this House?

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As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will recognise, it is important that the Government act collectively on this matter. As I indicated to the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), we will shortly see some work by the Cabinet Office, which will deal with some of the questions around transparency that he perfectly fairly raises. However, I hope he will also accept that this Government have given the Information Commissioner additional powers to enable her to take the sorts of actions that he would wish to see taken. Of course, it is for the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner to act in these spaces.

Public Libraries

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4. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of access to public libraries on social mobility. [910360]

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Nearly 3,000 public libraries in England received 195 million physical visits in 2017-18. That is more than all the visits to premier league football games, to cinemas and to English Heritage sites combined—and perhaps even more than to tennis matches, Mr Speaker. Everyone uses public libraries, and everyone is involved in the social mobility aspects of those libraries. It is crucial that we support them so that they give opportunities to improve the life chances and achieve the full potential of everyone.

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Andrew Carnegie, the great Scottish-US philanthropist, once stated:

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

However, since 2010, 605 libraries have closed in England, Wales in Scotland, and 15 of the 34 in Warwickshire have closed. Through their cuts to revenue support grant, are this Government not deserting our communities?

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I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s claim. The fact is that this Government are supporting local government in its work. Local government has a responsibility under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to maintain libraries and provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Taking Part survey found that libraries are used by all parts of our society. They are supported by this Government and this Department.

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12. Will my hon. Friend support the campaign by the Daily Express to save our libraries? Will he also protect Harlow? Essex County Council is threatening to close libraries across my constituency despite having nearly £250 million in reserves. [910368]

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I am aware of what is happening in Essex—my right hon. Friend wrote to me about that—and I am aware of the recent consultation by Essex County Council on proposals for its library service. DCMS is monitoring Essex County Council’s compliance with its duty. I can tell my right hon. Friend that, should DCMS receive a complaint following a final decision by the council, it will look very carefully at whether it is failing to meet its statutory duty.

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Will the Minister also have a word with the people running Derbyshire County Council? They issued a statement in which they said almost every public librarian is going to lose so many hours per week. On top of that, 20 libraries in Derbyshire are due to close completely. Will he have a word with them? It is a Tory county council.

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There are county councils of different colours that, clearly, are dealing with the issues the hon. Gentleman refers to. I do not accept what he says about these facts. Libraries need to be supported by all local authorities. Local authorities have a statutory duty under the 1964 Act, and the Department will continue to monitor those duties.

Music Education in Schools

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5. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on the provision of music education in schools. [910361]

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The opportunity to participate in music, art and drama can be transformative for young people’s self-confidence, mental health and life chances. That is why this Government will invest £500 million in cultural education between 2016 and 2020. We are in regular discussions with colleagues at the Department for Education. The Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries and the Minister for School Standards recently co-hosted a roundtable with the music industry to discuss music education.

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UK Music and the Musicians Union have recently revealed that children in households where the income is £28,000 are half as likely to learn an instrument as children in families that earn £48,000. We know, and I am sure the Secretary of State will agree, that the ability to participate in music is a gift. Will he tell us when the national plan for music will be refreshed so that students in state schools can participate in music?

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The hon. Lady is right: it is important that all pupils have this opportunity. She will know that for pupils aged between five and 14, music is a part of the national curriculum. It is important that all children, whatever their backgrounds, have these opportunities. As she knows, we are working on a non-statutory-model music curriculum, in conjunction with some expert advisers, for key stages 1 to 3. We hope that that will be ready for introduction in the autumn term of this year.

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Order. We almost certainly will not reach Question 16, but with modest dexterity the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) could perfectly legitimately shoehorn her own inquiry into the current question.

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16. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the UK music sector is hugely successful across the world, and that part of ensuring that continued success is the strength of music in our schools, which makes this a hugely important issue for our economy as well as for people’s life chances in learning music? [910373]

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Yes, I do agree with my right hon. Friend. Of course, as she knows, the creative industries more broadly are some of the fastest-growing sectors of our economy. We should be proud of that and encourage that development.

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Mr Speaker,

“Too many politicians are being told a message that is glossy and bears little relation to the reality of what is going on.”

That is what an instrumental teacher told the Musicians Union in its recent report on music education, “The State of Play”. Music teacher training places are down from 850 to 250 per year since 2010, teaching staff are declining year on year, exam entries are down, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) said, there is a worsening class divide in learning an instrument. When will the Secretary of State drop the glossy rhetoric about the Government’s record on music education that is so out of tune with reality?

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No one doubts the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to music in this House, and he is right to be so committed, but he will get no glossy rhetoric from me: what he will get is facts, so let me give him some more. My reference to £500 million-worth of investment includes £300 million in music education hubs, which have so far reached 89% of schools. He will also know that 10% of the funding allocation for those hubs is based on the number of pupils in the area eligible for free school meals, so we are doing something to ensure that this kind of education reaches the right people.

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The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) is not merely committed to music; I think people should be aware that he is a distinguished member of MP4—the parliamentary rock band, no less, which has performed with considerable distinction in Speaker’s House and elsewhere. People should know that—it is very important.

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In Staffordshire, Entrust Music Service and Friends of Staffordshire’s Young Musicians do an excellent job in bringing music tuition and music performance to young people, but we need to do a lot more. Will the Secretary of State meet me and others to discuss how we can ensure that the money that is going in is translated into reality, particularly for children in families on low incomes, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin)?

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Of course I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss this. He is right—there is always more that we can do. As I said in my initial answer, it is right to look not just at music but at art and drama, too. As he will know, the Government are also taking action in those spaces to make sure that more young people who do not yet have these opportunities are given them.

Public Libraries

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6. What recent assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of internet access in public libraries. [910362]

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DCMS invested £2.6 million to install and upgrade free wi-fi in public libraries across England. I am pleased to say that over 99% of public library buildings now provide internet access. I was delighted to visit Wakefield and see the wonderful Theatre Royal, the Hepworth gallery and the Yorkshire sculpture park.

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What a treat the Minister must have had in Wakefield. I urge hon. Members to visit during our wonderful year of sculpture which will start at the end of June.

We have lost three libraries in Wakefield, and across Yorkshire and the Humber we have lost more than 530 computers. So as the jobcentres are closing, we are seeing a digital exclusion double whammy. The disabled are not able to apply for jobs and universal credit, children in temporary accommodation have nowhere to do their homework, and asylum seekers at the initial accommodation centre in Wakefield have real difficulty getting internet access to register with the Home Office. Will the Minister look at provision in Wakefield?

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I am always happy to look at these matters, but of course the facts are that over 99% of public library buildings now have internet access, and we have invested over £4 million on innovative library projects to improve people’s digital skills, literacy, health and wellbeing. Many millions of pounds are going into that topic, but we will remain alive to those issues.

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rose—

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Oh! When one looks at the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, one thinks not of digital, media or sport, but unfailingly of culture. I call the right hon. Gentleman.

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In that spirit, Mr Speaker, Marcel Proust said:

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as…the days we spent with a favourite book”.

Getting children into libraries is critically important not only for the health of those libraries, but for the development of our collective futures. Will the Minister, the nation’s librarian, confirm that he intends to begin a new initiative to bind schools and libraries together so that we can allow more children, particularly from disadvantaged homes, to enjoy the benefits of books?

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I am very flattered by my right hon. Friend’s question, and he makes an important point. The interplay between schools and libraries is a long-lasting one. It enriches lives and we want to promote it at every possible opportunity. We do that by encouraging the wide use of libraries by all sections of society, and I am pleased to confirm that libraries are used by more people across all socioeconomic groups and parts of our society than any other cultural form. He is right to quote Proust, as of course he always is.

Leaving the EU: Creative Industries

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7. What assessment he has made of the effect on the creative industries of the UK leaving the EU. [910363]

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8. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on the creative industries of the UK leaving the EU. [910364]

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The effect of leaving the European Union on the UK creative industries will depend on the manner of our departure. We are engaging with businesses up and down the country, including small and medium-sized enterprises, to understand their concerns and to ensure that they are aware of Government advice, and we will continue that engagement. The UK’s creative and cultural industries are respected the world over. They are an economic powerhouse, exporting services that were worth £27 billion in 2016, and we are determined to continue our support for them.

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I thank the Minister for her answer. Is she aware of the scale of the concern in the Thames Valley, which is an important centre for both the IT and creative industries? When will she be able to reassure local small businesses that are thinking of relocating to the EU that the Government have a realistic plan for Brexit?

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I am very aware of the businesses in the sectors that the hon. Gentleman describes—and not just in his area—and their concerns. We are doing our best to reassure them about access to capital and talent post-Brexit, and we are well aware of their concerns.

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UK creatives who want their trademarks protected in the EU rely on attorneys based in EEA countries. A trademark attorney in my constituency has contacted me with concerns about the lack of clarity in the framework that will allow him to continue representing his clients after Brexit. That threatens his business. Can the Minister reassure my constituent and the £268 billion creative industries that the EU intellectual property regime will continue to apply after Brexit and, if not, what is the plan?

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I assure the hon. Lady that the Government take intellectual property very seriously indeed, and we will ensure that globally leading protections are in place as we leave the European Union.

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Many grassroots music venues such as CICIC—Creative Innovation Centre CIC—in Taunton are wonderful places for bringing forward the talent going into our creative industries, yet they are suffering because they have to pay such high business rates. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss whether they could have lower rates, like many of our retail outlets and pubs?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point indeed. She would be well advised to raise those issues with the Treasury. We are in discussions with the Treasury on those matters, but we are doing a great many other things to support grassroots music venues, including through agent of change proposals and scrapping form 696, all of which have had a beneficial effect, certainly in the London area.

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Post our departure from the EU, will the Minister ensure that she takes every possible step to maximise our opportunities in the creative industries sector right across the United Kingdom and not just in the south-east?

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I assure the hon. Gentleman that we take on those responsibilities, and he will be pleased to hear that I spend more of my time focused on the creative industries outside London and the south-east. We have national skills programmes in the north-west and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and I am sure that we shall support the creative industries in the Northern Ireland, which are doing such a fantastic job, equally.

Digital Skills: Elderly in Rural Areas

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9. What steps his Department is taking to help elderly people in rural areas learn digital skills. [910365]

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Some 75% of those in this country with no digital skills are aged 65 or above. My Department has launched the digital inclusion innovation fund, which is designed to tackle digital exclusion, particularly among older people and people with disabilities. The Government are tackling digital exclusion by giving people the skills they need through the future digital inclusion programme. To date, the programme has supported 1 million adults to develop their basic digital skills.

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In order for elderly people in rural areas to learn digital skills, they must first be able to access the internet. Will my hon. Friend confirm what progress is being made in getting all rural areas connected to the internet?

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I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend on that. We have spent almost £2 billion on bringing superfast broadband to 96%-plus of UK premises and are continuing to deliver in rural and remote parts of the UK. We have just launched the £200 million rural gigabit connectivity programme to ensure that no areas are left behind when it comes to the roll-out of gigabit speeds, which will be of particular value to older people in Wales and other rural parts of the country.

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13. In December, Ofcom recommended that 40% of video-on-demand content should be provided with subtitles within two years and 80% within four years. Will the Minister say whether she is prepared to introduce secondary legislation to ensure that that is done within a decent timeframe? [910369]

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The hon. Lady is quite right: on-demand programme services need to catch up. The Ofcom proposals were made at the end of last year and are receiving consideration by my Department. In the meantime, best practice guidance has been introduced. It is voluntary at the moment, but for example Netflix has made 100% of its content available with subtitles.

Society Lottery Reform

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10. When he plans to publish a response to the public consultation on society lottery reform. [910366]

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Society lotteries are a vital source of fundraising for charities in this country, raising £300 million for good causes in 2018. Since the consultation on society lotteries reform closed, I have held many meetings with colleagues and stakeholders who reflect all sides of the debate. That process, alongside the consultation, is shaping what I intend to be a fair, balanced and future-proof package of measures that will enable all lotteries to thrive.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but does she agree that there is now overwhelming evidence that increasing the maximum prize for society lotteries to £1 million will have zero impact on the national lottery?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know he feels passionately about the work of society lotteries in supporting important causes in his constituency and across the UK. I am delighted to say that I hope to be able to respond formally to the consultation on the points he raised by the summer recess.

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Will the Minister underline the importance of ensuring that any money set aside for administration is at an acceptable level? If something pertains to be a society lottery, the majority of its money should go to its projects and not be swallowed up in administration fees.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point—transparency about the money that goes to good causes is important, and it is no secret that I have ensured that transparency in this sector is a priority going forward.

Visitors to the UK

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11. What assessment he has made of the attractiveness of the UK as a visitor destination. [910367]

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The UK is an incredibly attractive destination for visitors, and we scored third overall top nation in the Anholt nation brands index. London was recently rated the best destination in the world by TripAdvisor. The west end is one example of a huge hit for visitors to the UK and London, and in 2018 audiences exceeded 15.5 million and generated box office revenue of more than £765 million—both record figures.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but if I may, I would like to bring it to a more parochial level. The sunshine coast of Clacton has a proud history as a visitor destination. We had a Butlin’s and we have glorious sands. As a rural community we have often been overlooked by Government initiatives in the past. What can my hon. Friend do to assure me that that will not be the case in the future?

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Go to Clacton man, for goodness’ sake.

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The Butlin’s in Clacton is on my list, Mr Speaker. I very much appreciate rural and coastal areas and understand their value. The local county council received more than £600,000 of coastal communities funding for Clacton and the Essex coast, and this January Clacton pier received £50,000 from the same fund for the “Jolly Roger” project—[Laughter.] That is actually what it is called. That project is supported in Clacton, and we will do everything we can to continue that.

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We all look forward to seeing photographs of the Minister in Clacton with his bucket and spade.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [910375]

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I wish to draw the House’s attention to a written ministerial statement that I am making this morning. As the House will be aware, on 10 January News UK submitted an application to vary certain conditions that were put in place in 1981 by the then Secretary of State for Trade. The proposed changes will allow The Times and The Sunday Times to share journalistic resources, subject to the agreement of each newspaper’s editor. I have reviewed the case, and I am minded to accept News UK’s application. However, in considering the proposed new undertakings as a whole, I noted that the existing governance arrangements agreed in 1981 could be clearer and more certain regarding some roles and responsibilities. I have therefore asked my officials to consider those questions further with News UK before agreeing the application, and the full detail will be set out in the written ministerial statement.

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Harrow Council has raised the rents of uniformed youth groups from £300 a year to a massive £3,000 a year, which will undoubtedly lead to youth organisations closing down. At a time of rising knife crime and real concerns in the community about what young people do, does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a desperate attack on youth organisations?

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I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It is extremely important that youth organisations, particularly the uniformed youth organisations that he describes, have the opportunity to do their important work, which includes helping young people to stay away from knife crime. How they choose to approach that is, of course, a matter for local authorities, but my hon. Friend will know that the Government have ensured additional funding for uniformed youth organisations which, in our view, is the right thing to do.

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Mr Speaker, it is great to see you looking so jolly this morning.

Yesterday, I met a young woman who racked up a crippling debt of over £100,000 using nine different credit cards in just two days while gambling online. The operators that took her bets, LeoVegas and Casumo, should be held responsible for their disgraceful conduct. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet the young gambler? Does he agree with me that it is time to ban credit card gambling? No one should go into debt to place a bet.

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I have a good deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says and huge sympathy with those who find themselves in the position of the individual he describes. I will of course meet her. Indeed, I will try to meet others who have been affected by this kind of gambling. It is important that not just gambling companies but all of us take an interest in the way in which this kind of problem gambling is developing. It is very clear that those who are gambling with money they do not have find themselves very quickly in very serious trouble. He will know that the Gambling Commission is at the moment looking at the specific question of gambling on credit. That is a process we have encouraged. I look forward very much to its conclusions. The Government intend to take action on the back of what it says.

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T2. I recall, in bygone years, the fun my father had completing his pools coupon. That stands in stark contrast with the sinister attempts of corporatist, globalist gambling firms to bypass the new restrictions on fixed odds betting terminals. Will the Minister meet me and others to discuss how we can revitalise the football pools, perhaps by cutting duty on this family fun? [910376]

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My mum was a big fan of doing the pools, an opportunity many people took. We have rightly taken decisive action. From the start of this month, the FOBT stake has been cut. We have been absolutely clear that harm around gambling is not confined to one product. We will always look at where there is harm and act where we see it. We want responsible business. I will of course meet my right hon. Friend to discuss his concerns.

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T3. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Foreign Secretary when he said last week: “Democracy and freedom of expression means nothing unless journalists are able to expose the truth”? How does that square with the arrest of two members of the National Union of Journalists, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, for their role in making the award-winning documentary “No Stone Unturned” which exposes the truth about the police’s protection of the killers involved in the Loughinisland massacre towards the end of the troubles in Northern Ireland? [910377]

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I agree with what the hon. Lady says. It cannot be more important that journalists in this country and abroad have the opportunity to report what is happening. We have discussed already this morning the question of disinformation, of which there is too much. A large part of the answer to disinformation is good quality, well researched journalism produced by those who are free to do it. We must defend their rights at every opportunity.

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T8. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we must protect our children and young people from the wicked and dark side of social media? The online harms White Paper must, without fail, lead to legislation that is wide-ranging, robust and effective. [910382]

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Yes, I do agree with my hon. Friend. He will have recognised from the White Paper that what we believe will be necessary to provide for a duty of care for online companies, and for an online regulator to enforce it, is primary legislation. I look forward to his support and, I hope, support right across the House for that legislation.

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T4. The Minister will, I am sure, be aware of the work done by the Industrial Communities Alliance and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) to demonstrate the disproportionate nature of areas that play the national lottery and areas that subsequently receive lottery funding for community projects. What work is he doing with Camelot to ensure that small towns, small cities and industrial communities feel the benefit of the lottery that they play? [910378]

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The national lottery has raised over £39 billion for good causes since 1994, funding projects in every constituency throughout the UK. It is my job, as we move into the fourth licence, to ensure that it thrives for the next 25 years. The opportunity to re-engage with communities and the public is there for us. If there is a particular concern relating to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I will be happy to take it forward to the national lottery.

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What steps is the Department taking to encourage consortiums of arts organisations to work together with local authorities on applications to the cultural development fund to help local culture’s potential and the visitor economy?

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My hon. Friend will know that in relation to the cultural development fund, five local areas will receive a share of £20 million. We believe that that is hugely important for the reasons that she gives. We expect it to create more than 1,300 new jobs across the country and, as she rightly says, to boost tourism and inward investment.

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T5. The roll-out of broadband has been patchy to say the least, with some people getting duplication and some getting no coverage at all. What steps will the Government take to ensure that the roll-out of superfast fibre optic broadband does not have the same problems? [910379]

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We published our future telecoms infrastructure review last year and we are now implementing it. We are about to launch the £200 million rural gigabit programme at the end of the month, which will help rural areas. Companies are now vying with one another in competition to secure cities and towns to connect full fibre to premises.

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I warmly welcome today’s announcement of a youth charter, and the Minister knows that it will get my wholehearted support. Will she confirm the remit of the charter? Will it, for example, have a cross-departmental focus?

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I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done to push this forward while in our Department. It is absolutely vital that this works across Government, and this is what we have seen through the Prime Minister’s knife crime and serious youth violence summit. It is absolutely right that we make sure that the help for our young people is set out very clearly in the charter and that we listen to people who know what our young people want—that means young people and people working cross-Government in the sector. I will be delighted to work with my hon. Friend on this issue.

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T6. Over recent weeks, we have seen a number of shocking incidents of racism at football matches at both elite and grassroots levels. What action are the Government taking to ensure that we stamp out racist abuse at every level of the game? [910380]

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue in the Chamber. There will be a further Government statement this morning on this issue. Football cannot be used as a cloak for racism and intolerance. This is a sign that players, fans, and this Government have had enough—so stop it. It is absolutely right that players can take the right action. We should stand with them, and I look forward to saying more on this later this morning.

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West Oxfordshire District Council does a fantastic job telling the world about the natural wonders of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds. What are Ministers doing to ensure that more tourism investment comes to rural areas such as mine?

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My hon. Friend’s constituency and many others are rich in tourism offer. The economy benefits enormously from tourism. Tourism saw its best year ever in the 2017 period and it continues to do extremely well. He and others in similar constituencies promote the rural offer of the beauty of the natural environment across the world and we will continue to do that.

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T7. On the very day that the stake reduction on fixed odds betting terminals was introduced, we discovered that the bookmakers had found a way to bypass that reduction. What promises can the Secretary of State make that the industry will not be allowed to do that in pursuit of further exploitation? [910381]

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I agree with the hon. Lady. The actions of those who tried to find a way around the procedures banning the things that we across this House have decided should be banned were disgraceful. What happened thereafter, as she knows, is that the regulator took immediate action and those particular products were withdrawn. I hope that that lesson will be learned by all those across the industry who are tempted to try it again.

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I was one of 80 parliamentarians who wrote to the Secretary of State recently to press the case for requiring mobile phone operators to allow roaming across their networks in rural areas. Will he support those calls?

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Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend and, indeed, to other colleagues who wrote to me. As he knows, my view is very simple: we must get to a place where rural coverage is better than it is. All of us and the mobile network operators have an obligation to achieve that. If it cannot be done any other way, I am perfectly prepared to entertain rural roaming as a way in which it might be done.

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Will the Secretary of State look favourably at the opportunities presented by 5G connectivity on the train line in Devon and Cornwall? If our train journeys are to be long, can he at least help us to make them productive?

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, mobile coverage on train lines at the moment is based substantially on wi-fi coverage—about 85% of trains now have wi-fi coverage, including, I think, the GWR service from London to Penzance. However, 5G gives us the opportunity to do better. He will be aware of the technical challenges in providing the lineside equipment that we need to make the system work properly. We are investing time and effort with Network Rail to develop that technology in a test-track facility. I hope it will bear fruit.

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Tourism and hospitality are vital sectors for Stirling’s economy. When can we expect to see a tourism and hospitality sector deal?

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The tourism sector deal is being closely worked on; it is something we have been working on for some time. It is extremely productive, and the tourism sector itself has been working to make it as productive as possible. It is a reflection of the value of tourism to our economy that it has been given priority in Government over many other sectors, and we are continuing to work on it to produce a result as soon as possible.

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As you will know, Mr Speaker, Scotland has made a hugely disproportionate contribution to British tennis, be it the Murrays, Leon Smith or Gordon Reid—I could go on. However, Tennis Scotland has struggled to capitalise on a membership that has doubled in recent years, because Scotland, despite all the success I have just listed, and despite having 8.4% of the UK population, only receives less than 1% of the Lawn Tennis Association’s revenue funding. Does the Minister think that that is fair and equitable?

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I had the pleasure recently of sharing a platform with Judy Murray and staff from the new women’s sport section of The Daily Telegraph. She spoke about the “lady in the van” tennis club that she ran around Scotland to support grassroots tennis. It is absolutely right that the governing body continues to work from the top to support those doing so much from the bottom. I am happy to speak more about that at some point and to support tennis to grow and create more Andy Murrays and, indeed, all Murrays.

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And, of course, Judy Murray, to her huge credit is promoting the Park of Keir project, which I, for one, and many others, enthusiastically support.

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I support anything to do with tennis, Mr Speaker, as you know.

I was heartened to hear the Secretary of State’s comments just now about mobile roaming. A recent survey highlighted that a third of all rural buildings have either no mobile coverage or poor coverage. At a time when we are trying to get more small and medium-sized enterprises in rural areas, when we have an increasingly elderly population and when tourism is so important, is it not a disgrace that we should have such a divide between urban and rural? I am sure the Secretary of State understands that we must address that.

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I do, and we will.

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Food banks are like the fourth emergency service, especially in rural areas such as mine. High Peak Foodbank has helped over 1,000 people this year, but it is no longer funded by the lottery. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the lottery’s decision on food banks and the vulnerable people who need them?

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As the lotteries Minister, that is not something I am aware of. I am happy to hear more from the hon. Lady and to engage with the national lottery on this issue. We need to make sure there is appropriate funding, and it is great that the national lottery reaches into many communities, helping people broadly. I am happy to take away this issue and the challenge to look across Government and work with colleagues.

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Order. We must move on to questions to the Attorney General.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

CPS: Mental Health

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1. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to support defendants with mental health issues. [910345]

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The Crown Prosecution Service has a duty of fairness to all defendants, including people with mental health issues. In March it launched a public consultation on revised guidance for prosecutors dealing with defendants with mental health issues. It welcomes responses to the consultation to ensure that its published legal guidance gives the best possible help to prosecutors dealing with such cases.

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A fair trial is one in which the defendant can follow the proceedings and advance his defence, and the CPS, as an administerer of justice, will want to ensure that that remains the case. What steps is it taking to engage with experts to ensure that defendants are best placed to have a fair trial?

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My hon. Friend, who has a considerable and distinguished history with regard to the prosecution of serious offences at the Bar, will know that it is vital for experts in the field to be consulted. As part of the consultation, different criminal justice diversions are being considered for some defendants with a range of mental illnesses. I should point out that although autism and other disabilities are included in that consideration, they are not mental illnesses but lifelong conditions. I think that that distinction needs to be drawn very carefully indeed.

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I had to intervene with the CPS in the case of a young man in Wakefield who suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I am happy to say that he has now received the treatment that he needed, and that the CPS was very compassionate. However, research shows that people with ADHD are disproportionately present in the criminal justice system. Will the Solicitor General work with the CPS and experts on the public health White Paper to ensure that young offenders who are disproportionately represented, and who are also likely to have higher reoffending rates, are systematically screened?

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I welcome the hon. Lady’s reference to ADHD. In my professional experience, that condition, connected with communication disorder, is often very prevalent among young offenders in the criminal justice system. As part of the consultation, work will be ongoing to ensure that prosecutors have a greater awareness of the condition when they consider the merits of prosecution.

Sexual Offences

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2. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on ensuring more effective prosecutions of cases involving rape and other sexual offences. [910346]

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10. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on ensuring more effective prosecutions of cases involving rape and other sexual offences. [910354]

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The CPS has undertaken extensive work to ensure that specialist prosecutors are fully equipped to deal with the particular complexities of such cases, and I engage with it regularly about this topic. In March the Government announced a review of how the criminal justice system responds to rape and serious sexual offences. The CPS supports the review, and is committed to working closely with the police and others to address any issues highlighted by it.

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Is there any guidance for the police or the CPS on access to victims’ data? It concerns me that victims of sexual abuse and rape are being subjected to trawls of their personal data—counselling, school and work data—before the CPS considers taking up their cases.

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The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. A natural and anxious debate is taking place about disclosure, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman—and, indeed, all complainants and victims of crime—that “reasonable lines of inquiry” does not mean a reckless trawl through the private lives of entirely innocent individuals. That is not a good use of resources, and it is not what we are encouraging. We need a far more targeted line of inquiry, in accordance with both the law and the code of practice.

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Intimate partners and ex-partners are the largest single category of perpetrators of rape and sexual assault, which, in my experience of working with abusive men, are linked to outdated and, frankly, illegal attitudes to sex in relationships. What discussions is the Solicitor General having with his colleagues in the Department for Education about the content of the curriculum for relationships and sex education in schools?

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I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she has done on this issue in the past. She is absolutely right to talk about the input of the Department for Education. I was delighted that the House overwhelmingly passed the new regulations on personal, social, health and economic education, because they deal with relationships properly, and will help young people to understand at an early age what that means and what their responsibilities are. I will continue to have conversations with colleagues in the DFE, and also, importantly, to ensure that the myth-busting that is already being delivered by judges and prosecutors in Crown court trials continues, so that jurors—along with everyone else who is involved in the system—do not have outdated misconceptions about these appalling crimes.

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12. Millions of people in this country carry smartphones, which collect a huge amount of information on their activities. Will the Government take urgent action to ensure that the criminal justice system gets better at analysing that information? Otherwise, we will see many more collapses of trials. [910356]

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My right hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. She will be glad to know that, as part of the work that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General and I have done to publish a new report on disclosure, I will be chairing a tech summit in June to deal precisely with how we can make artificial intelligence work to help with the huge challenge of trawling through that sort of data.

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In cases where rape leads to pregnancy, does my hon. and learned Friend agree with the intention behind the 10-minute rule Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) to remove parental rights from fathers of children conceived through rape?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue with me. I regrettably have not had time to consider that Bill, but everyone in the House can agree that those who act criminally and break the law in a serious way should not expect to enjoy the same rights and privileges that the rest of us enjoy.

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I am one of those who represents a constituency that has had this curse of the wicked grooming, mainly of young girls, by gangs—it has happened in more than a dozen cities and towns in this country. We still have not had an inquiry into the underlying causes and why this happened. The Crown Prosecution Service is under pressure to meet its responsibilities due to the lack of resources.

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The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this deeply concerning issue. I am happy to report that there have been a number of successful prosecutions of gangs who engage in this despicable and criminal behaviour. That is as a result of a change of culture that means the victims of these crimes are taken far more seriously than they were even a few years ago. So there is progress.

Social Media

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3. If he will make an assessment of the effect of social media on the administration of justice. [910347]

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The response to the call for evidence on the impact of social media on the administration of justice was published on 5 March this year. We concluded that, whereas at present social media are not having a widespread impact on the trial process, this may not remain the case if the issues identified are not addressed. The Government are responding in a number of ways, including a new gov.uk webpage to support the public in understanding how they can responsibly comment on criminal trials in social media.

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Do users, who appear to have an opinion on everything, have any idea what the law actually is?

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I do sometimes wonder. It should be as plain as a pikestaff to anyone that the criminal trial process has to have integrity and be based on the evidence heard in court. That is why the new contempt online webpage sets out clear and accessible information for the public on what might be considered contempt. I reassure my right hon. Friend that the law officers take robust action where there is evidence of contempt.

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Will the Solicitor General set out what work he is doing with Twitter, Facebook, Google and other online platforms, which is mainly where people take the law into their own hands and assume that they know what they are talking about when they refer to cases and other issues?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He will be happy to know that I have set up a special point of contact with each of those social media companies so that if an issue is raised with my office an official can immediately contact a named person to ensure as rapid as possible a takedown of the offending material.

EU Withdrawal: Protection of Human Rights

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4. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the protection of human rights in the UK. [910348]

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The United Kingdom has a long tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, and of fulfilling its international human rights obligations. The decision to leave the European Union does not change that.

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The Scottish Government set out three principles for human rights protections after Brexit—non-regression from current EU rights, keeping pace with future EU rights developments, and continuing to demonstrate leadership in human rights. Does the Attorney General agree with those principles, and will he share them with his colleagues in Government?

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I find myself in total agreement with what the hon. Lady has said. I will share them with my colleagues. We are not in any way going to permit our departure from the EU to detract from our firm and unshakeable commitment to human rights in this country and to the rule of law.

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In that context, and given the December resolution of the House regarding publication of the Law Officers’ opinions, will my right hon. and learned Friend be good enough to tell the House whether his advice was sought on these vital matters of time extensions before critical decisions were taken, as required by the ministerial code? Will he publish that advice?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. He knows that I am acutely conscious of his desire to have the maximum transparency upon the legal advice I give to the Government. He also knows that I am bound by a long-standing convention relating to Law Officers’ advice to disclose neither the fact nor the content of it. Within those constraints, I consider constantly to what extent I can make available to the House all the information it needs to take the important decisions that theses times require.

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Whatever happens with regard to trade, the economy and so on, one of the most important elements in ensuring that we can still secure justice in this country is maintaining some form of extradition with other European Union countries. What will we do if the European arrest warrant is not available to us?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government are committed to a close and special relationship with the EU in relation to security. The question of our participation in a system relating to European arrest warrants will be close to our hearts in the negotiations that are to follow. But if we were not able to avail ourselves of what it is in the interests of both sides to agree, of course we would fall back on the 1957 extradition legislation and its provisions, and the preparations are at an advanced stage, in conjunction with the possibility that still exists of there being no deal between us.

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I hope it is not indecent to point out that yesterday’s European Council was a humiliation for the Prime Minister. At a time when everyone is crying out for more coppers and school budgets are under tremendous, genuine pressure, how does it make sense to spend £100 million of British taxpayers’ money electing 73 Members to the European Parliament to serve for a maximum of five months?

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Order. I think the right hon. Gentleman is concerned, in the context of his inquiry, with the protection of human rights.

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Including electoral rights.

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Including electoral rights and possibly the rights of candidates. I feel sure that was implicit in the right hon. Gentleman’s inquiry. I am merely rendering it explicit for him.

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To answer the question, as amended, I quite understand my right hon. Friend’s frustration. To the outsider, it does not look sensible for us to be holding European elections when the entire country is expecting us to move on, leave the European Union and fulfil the commitments of both major parties at the last general election. However, we are under a legal obligation to do so while we remain a member of the European Union. There is a single, simple answer to this question: let us ratify the withdrawal agreement and we are out.

Leaving the EU

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5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on securing an agreement on the UK leaving the EU. [910349]

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I am extremely grateful for the question. I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest, including on matters relating to the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. The hon. Lady will understand that I am unable to talk about the legal content of those discussions, but the Government’s main priority is to honour the pledges made at the time of the referendum by national politicians of all parties and fulfil its outcome. We can do that by ratifying the withdrawal agreement.

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The Attorney General has already set a precedent by publishing his legal advice on the withdrawal agreement, so will he commit to publishing his legal advice to the Government should Labour and the Tories reach an alternative agreement?

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I made it clear to the hon. Lady and to the House that I am acutely conscious of the need for the House to be as fully informed as possible of all legitimate matters that it should know before taking these important decisions. At any significant event in these proceedings, I shall review that need accordingly.

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Does the Attorney General agree that it is critical that any agreement ensures that our police, prosecution and judicial authorities continue to have uninterrupted access to co-operation and information sharing mechanisms under Eurojust and Europol? That access would be lost in the event of no deal but could be retained in the event of a deal.

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I agree with my hon. Friend. That is one of the most important negotiating objectives in connection with our security and law partnership, and it is a matter that we are constantly bringing to the attention of the European Union. If we can ratify the withdrawal agreement, it will be one of the highest priorities.

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During the Attorney General’s podcast interview with Nick Robinson last week I was delighted to hear him say that the Government would consider the option of a second European Union referendum, and yesterday the Prime Minister did not rule out that option when questioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), so can the Attorney General tell us what recent discussions the Cabinet have had about a second EU referendum?

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That is a subtle enticement by the hon. and learned Lady, but I know that she knows that I am not going to tell her about what discussions the Cabinet may have had. What I can say, however, is that the current discussions with the Labour Opposition are being pursued in good faith. There are no preconditions and of course we will listen to any suggestions, whether they be about a second referendum or any other matter, to see whether we can find common ground, in the interests of the country, to leave the European Union as swiftly as possible.

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The Attorney General’s recent podcast is clearly quite popular, because I have been listening to it as well, particularly his comments on the legal implications of leaving the European Union. He said that

“we have underestimated its complexity. We are unpicking 45 years of in-depth integration.”

Which of his Government colleagues did he have in mind when he made those comments?

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I have been saying this since 2016, as the Hansard record will witness, and indeed most recently on 12 March. I take the view that we need to take a complex and careful view of how it is necessary for us to extricate ourselves from 45 years of legal integration. The withdrawal agreement does justice to those complexities. It settles matters at a complex level, and that is precisely why it is necessary for us to leave the European Union. I urge the hon. Gentleman to vote for it.

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We know that is the Attorney General’s view, but I did not detect an answer to my question in all that, so let us try asking about something else the Attorney General has said about Brexit, namely:

“It needs a hard-headed understanding of realities.”

When the majority was lost in the snap election, there was no sense of reality when the Prime Minister should have spoken out. The Attorney General was sent on a fruitless pursuit to reopen the withdrawal agreement, which was always impossible, and four months have been spent refusing to accept the reality of not being able to get the withdrawal agreement through this House. Does the Attorney General not agree that it is the failure of the Government to accept reality that has led to the mess we are in?

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No, I do not accept that. The withdrawal agreement was the product of two years of exhaustive negotiation. It settles citizens’ rights for millions of British citizens in Europe as well as for EU citizens here. It fulfils the financial obligations to the European Union. It is a complex settlement that requires to be signed before we can leave. I do not accept that it was unrealistic to attempt to get the fruits of that agreement agreed in this House. In truth, as the hon. Gentleman knows, if we are to leave the European Union it is a necessary precondition of our doing so.

East Midlands Rail Franchise

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on why Stagecoach has been disqualified from bidding for the east midlands rail franchise.

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On Wednesday 10 April, it was announced that Abellio is the successful bidder to operate the east midlands rail franchise and will be responsible for delivering new trains, smart ticketing and more frequent services for passengers. Passengers in the east midlands are to get new trains, more peak-time services, reduced journey times and over £17 million of station improvements as Abellio takes over the franchise from August 2019.

Abellio will invest £600 million in trains and stations between August 2019 and 2027, while the Government continue with their £1.5 billion upgrade to the midland main line—the biggest upgrade to the line since it was completed in 1870. This is part of the Government’s £48 billion investment to modernise our railways over the next five years.

As we informed the House in yesterday’s written statement, Abellio was awarded the contract “following rigorous competition.” It was a fair, open competition and Abellio provided the best bid, in which it demonstrated that it will not only meet but exceed the Department’s specifications.

Stagecoach chose to put in a non-compliant bid, which resulted in its disqualification, in line with the terms of the published invitation to tender. That said, Stagecoach has played an important role in our railways, and we hope it will continue to do so after the conclusion of the rail review. However, it is entirely for Stagecoach and its bidding partners to explain why it decided to ignore established rules by rejecting the commercial terms on offer.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question.

The Minister did not really answer the question. Abellio has been awarded the contract as the best bidder, but the bid of the existing franchisee was not even allowed. Generally, Stagecoach has performed reasonably well on the contract, so will he explain when the requirement was first introduced that a bidder has to cover pension costs? Is this the first franchise for which the requirement has been introduced? Why was it applied?

How much, in total, are the Government trying to cover in costs through the franchising process? When were the bidders notified of the requirement—was it at the beginning of the process?—and why was no one else told about it? Are any other companies refusing to cover such costs? Are any other franchises affected? If they are, what will be the effect on competition within the franchising system? What would happen to future competitions and to the costs that the Government seek to cover if all companies refused to cover those costs?

Finally, on the bid that has been accepted, do these hybrid trains actually exist now? When will they be introduced? What will the Government do if existing rolling stock is not disability-compliant in 2020? The Government have promised improvements to the timetable, but can we be assured that, at the beginning of the new franchise, journey times will be at least as good, and at least as short, as they were before the botched timetable changes of last year?

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There are a lot of questions there. First, Stagecoach has acknowledged to the Department that it had bid non-compliantly. We have received offers from other bidders in all competitions that are fully compliant in providing the required pension arrangements for railway workers so, to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question on whether this means the bid process is failing and others are refusing, clearly they are not because we have a compliant bid that won in good form.

Stagecoach is an experienced bidder and fully aware of the franchise competition rules, so it is regrettable that it submitted a non-compliant bid that breached the established rules. In doing so, Stagecoach is responsible for its own disqualification. Bidders were invited to bid on the basis of a pension deficit recovery mechanism. They knew that at the very start of the process. Stagecoach did not accept it and made some amendments as it submitted the bid. On what would happen if all companies refuse, clearly, by definition, they are not all refusing, so the question does not apply.

We will see an entirely new fleet of trains—a full replacement fleet—come into service. Inter-city services will receive new bi-mode trains, and regional services will receive new diesel trains. The express fleet, which is the Corby-Bedford-London service, will receive new electric trains that offer significantly enhanced environmental improvements.

What is interesting in this franchise is that we will see the first trial of a hydrogen-powered train. [Hon. Members: “When?”] In terms of timing, we will see the new trains coming into service in a phased way. We hope to see the first trains coming in next year, and so on over the next three years.

The bidding process was conducted in a fair and consistent way, applying the rules of engagement equally to all bidders. We have provided feedback to those who have not been successful. The reasons are always commercially confidential. Losing bidders may publicise them if they wish, but we will not do that because they are commercially confidential. The key thing that we are seeing here is a franchise awarded in the typical way that franchises are awarded in our rail industry, delivering passenger benefits.

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I am rather surprised at the late withdrawal, or barring, of Stagecoach from this franchise. It seems to have come right at the end, so it is odd that my hon. Friend is saying that somehow Stagecoach knew it was non-compliant, because if the Department knew so early that it was non-compliant, one would have thought it would have been told quite some time ago. These franchise bids are not cheap to make and they are very expensive on the company.

Will my hon. Friend be more specific, as usually is the case, about where the new trains are coming from? If they are to be in operation from next year, presumably an order is about to be made very soon. Where will that order come from? I congratulate the Government on widening state ownership of the railways, albeit that of other states.

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There were a number of points in my right hon. Friend’s question. As soon as the decision was taken on this franchise, all the bidders were notified. That is entirely standard. He has a great track record of delivering improvements across our rail network. Bidders were notified, of course, across all competitions, so that they did not incur extra costs. These things are expensive to operate, so this was awarded in a fair and consistent way.

Obviously, the contract to deliver the rolling stock will be between the successful bidder and its rolling stock provider, but we expect to see significant improvement in the rolling stock, and the feedback I have had from passengers along the line and from colleagues who serve along the line is that they are looking forward to seeing the benefits that those will bring.

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Clearly, the franchise system is in complete disarray. It seems that Stagecoach boss Martin Griffiths and Richard Branson have been taken completely by surprise by the announcement of the decision to disqualify Stagecoach from the discredited franchise process, seemingly for failing to provide sufficient commitments in terms of the pension scheme, bidders having been asked to bear full long-term funding risks on relevant sections of the railways pension scheme. Can the Minister inform the House about the pension commitments made by Abellio that warranted the award of the east midlands franchise and the extent to which any such commitments were distinct and more acceptable to the Department for Transport?

Is not this really payback for the east coast collapse, two years ago? The question on the airwaves today was whether this decision would propel Richard Branson back into his favourite hobby of suing Her Majesty’s Government over the awarding of contracts, which has served him so profitably over the years. What preparations has the Minister’s Department made in readiness for potential costly litigation flowing from this decision?

Why did the Department change the pension rules in the middle of the bids? On south eastern, that was only made clear after two rebids. Is not that moving the goalposts?

The real issue is that this Government, by sleight of hand, are trying to reduce their support for the railways pension scheme. They are trying to pass these costs on to the private sector. That is why both Stagecoach and Arriva defaulted on their bids for the east midlands franchise. The rail industry has a plan to reduce the deficits in its pension schemes, yet the Government have ignored that and are attempting to bulldoze through changes without consultation. That is reckless. It will concern rail workers and worsen the rail service for passengers. What discussions were there with the trade unions? Moreover, given that Keith Williams has been instructed to conduct a root-and-branch review of the operation of our railway, why has such a lengthy franchise been awarded before the Williams review reports later this year?

The announcement is accompanied by the decision to extend the franchise award on south eastern to Govia. How can it be right for that company to be given the nod to continue when it has delivered such a miserable service and completely failed its passengers? Is that not further reward for failure? Surely even this beleaguered Government can see what is staring them in the face: the franchise system is in total collapse. They need to respond to long-suffering passengers and do what the next Labour Government will do: bring track and train back together in state ownership—this state.

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The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions. Is the franchising system in disarray? Of course it is not. If we look at what has happened to our railways over the past 25 years, we see unprecedented passenger growth. We now have more people travelling on our railways and more services run on our railways, and at a greater level of safety than ever before. The franchising system has been a key ingredient in that delivery. Do I think the franchising system is over? Absolutely not. I think we need to look at how it will evolve in future, and that is what the Williams review is doing. Franchising has helped get the system from A to B, reversing years of decline. We now need to see what system we will have as we take it through to the next stage.

Stagecoach knew that its bid was non-compliant—it acknowledged that to the Department. The hon. Gentleman asked about litigation. The Government are completely confident that the bid was evaluated and decided fairly. It is business as usual in the awarding of a franchise on our rail network. He asked whether the decision on the east coast main line was payback. That question is absolute nonsense. This is an entirely separate matter. The bid was won on merit by the strongest bidder. It offered the best bid, with new trains and more services, including more Sunday services and more early and late services. It was won on merit. If a company chooses to bid non-compliantly, that is its fault.

With regard to passing the costs on to the private sector, that is also nonsense, because these are private sector pension schemes. The rail operating companies have a section of the rail pension scheme. Their trustees will meet the Pensions Regulator to discuss that. Is this a question of the Government seeking to remove responsibility? No, this is a private matter and the trustees will be dealing with that in their own way.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I have met the trade unions. I have met the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and ASLEF, and on this occasion I have written to them to highlight the award today.

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Williams said in his recent speech that the franchise system in effect is already broken, and today’s announcement proves it. Abellio is hopeless. The Minister will recall an Adjournment debate he had with a number of MPs a couple of months ago—the business of the House had collapsed early so lots of us piled in. I think six or seven Members from Essex, whose constituents suffer that company every day, got up and told him, one after the other, how utterly useless that company is. We have been waiting for years for new trains from Abellio, yet still they do not turn up. It is Dutch-Japanese owned and it does not give a monkey’s about the passengers. I am sorry, but this is a massive mistake and yet another Grayling cock-up.

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I do not agree with anything my right hon. Friend has just said. That Adjournment debate was very enjoyable; we had many discussions because there were so many interventions. The core of the debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), was about the introduction of the Delay Repay 15 offer for customers, which went live on 1 April and has been widely welcomed by passengers on the line. Indeed, on 1 April, I went to stations in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, and I met passengers, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and the rail operating company, and the arrival of DR15 was widely welcomed. The key thing that people were looking for was the consistent delivery of a timetable, so the requirement to pay any form of compensation would not be necessary. That is, of course, at the heart of the Government’s CP6—control period 6—investment. We are investing £48 billion over the next five years to modernise and upgrade our railway to make sure that we can deliver the network and services that passengers rightly expect. Is Abellio a failing provider? No.

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Ask my constituents.

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I have looked at the measures in terms of performance data and customer satisfaction. I recognise that we have had frustrations across our rail network over a number of years and that we had very poor performance last May, but I do not accept that Abellio is a failing performer. It operates 6,000 trains in the UK each day. The service is improving in all areas—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) is doing an awful lot of chuntering using fairly robust language, as he normally does—or as he has taken to doing recently. The point remains that we are delivering a network that is operating at the best that it has operated for a significant number of years. It has turned around decades of under-investment and underperformance. We are now seeing a network carrying more people with a higher level of safety than at any point in British history and this franchise award takes that further.

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Yet again, we have not had a statement from the Department for Transport. We have to rely on media announcements and urgent questions to hold the Department to account, but when the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, he says, “Oh, that’s a lot of questions.” That is because we are not getting information. Virgin Trains East Coast walked away from the east coast main line owing £2 billion. Many people called for Stagecoach not to be allowed to bid for other franchises, but the Department for Transport dug its heels in, saying that it could bid for franchises and then sat on the non-compliant bid for a long time. Why has the Department adopted such contradictory positions? Martin Griffiths, the Stagecoach chief executive, said:

“We are extremely concerned both at the DfT’s decision and its timing. The Department has had full knowledge of these bids for a lengthy period”.

Again, what discussions were held on pensions and how long has the Department sat on the non-compliant bid before making a decision?

What will happen with the west coast main line franchise, as we are told by the media that Virgin Trains will disappear in a year? Virgin previously won the 2012 franchise after a legal challenge, so what are the risks of further challenges from Virgin after this decision today, and will the Minister provide any legal advice that the Department has taken?

Abellio in Scotland pays the living wage. Is it part of this franchise award that all employees get the living wage? How robust are the pension protections in this Abellio franchise and how will pensions be protected in other franchises? Clearly, this is now a major issue.

Many of us have called for the Transport Secretary to resign. Now we have the irony of the Transport Secretary threatening the Prime Minister to resign over her position on Europe. Will he follow through on his threat, or will the Government take action and make the Secretary of State resign and shake up the Department?

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Well, much of that was absolutely ridiculous—just complete nonsense. Let us turn back the page and remind ourselves about the idea that the Government have somehow been dragged to the Dispatch Box. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this was a contract that included a market sensitive element. There are strict procedures when a market-sensitive contract is awarded by any Government—and that includes the Scottish Government. The announcement is made first of all to the City. There was a written ministerial statement at 7 o’clock yesterday morning and by 9 o’clock there was a “Dear Colleague” letter sent out to all those Members who were affected, so what he says is simply wrong.

I have to say I cannot remember exactly the full range of questions the hon. Gentleman asked, but the key thing is that this contract has been awarded in a fair and consistent way. It is delivering significant passenger benefits, including a complete renewal of the fleet. I have already highlighted that the inter-city, regional and express services will all receive new rolling stock—new trains—and that there will be more services, more seats at peak and improved environmental performance. The benefits are clearly very significant. We should welcome them, not the opposite.

I think the hon. Gentleman got carried away with his own rhetoric when he asked whether the Secretary of State should resign. Of course not—what a load of complete nonsense. This franchise was awarded in a fair and consistent way, and it will deliver for passengers. We should celebrate that, not the opposite.

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Order. I am keen to accommodate colleagues, but we have the business question to follow and thereafter another statement, and after that the Prime Minister’s statement. There is a premium upon brevity, to be exemplified by single-sentence questions, pioneered by the hon. Gentleman from Bosworth, Mr David Tredinnick—one sentence, man.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. As part of his response to the new franchisee, which will be broadly welcomed in my constituency if it really does produce new trains, better capacity and improved stations—from listening to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), I am not so sure about that—will my hon. Friend look at connectivity between Leicester and Nuneaton via Hinckley? There are also big concerns about the west coast main line.

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I will of course consider my hon. Friend’s point, but we have produced an interactive map so anybody can log on and see where the benefits will fall right across the franchise area. That map is available at maps.dft.gov.uk and may provide the detail he seeks.

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I hope the Minister recognises that, although East Midlands Trains staff are covered by TUPE thanks to our membership of the EU, this will be a really uncertain time for them—especially those who have worked for Stagecoach for the last 12 years. Will he first join me in thanking them for their hard work, which I know will continue for the rest of this franchise and into the next? Does he also recognise the wider anxiety that this decision has prompted among railway staff about the security of their pensions? At privatisation, his Department promised to provide a long-term guarantee for their pensions. What assurance can he give them today that that has not changed?

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The hon. Lady is quite right. I happily join her in thanking those who have worked in this franchise and, indeed, in all the other franchises to make our railway system work day in, day out. It is a hard job they do, and we should recognise that, not criticise them for it.

I also recognise that, when anything changes like this, there will be a degree of uncertainty. A level of uncertainty can come when there are takeovers in any sector of business, but when franchises change there are TUPE protections, which are positive, and I entirely support that. Pensions are a key part of having a comprehensive offer for workers in every sector, and the Pensions Regulator is working with the trustees of the railways pension scheme to ensure that workers’ benefits are protected. We want that to happen. We want to see people in the sector retire with secure, stable, good pensions.

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It is very welcome that we are going to have 80% more seats in the morning peak and new bi-mode trains that can benefit from the electrification to Market Harborough, but may I ask the Minister two things? First, when in the new franchise will those new trains arrive? Secondly, does he agree that if we are going to have new trains for the east midlands, they should be built in the east midlands?

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My hon. Friend rightly never misses an opportunity to mention Market Harborough, of which he is a great champion. Obviously, the contract for the new trains will be placed by the new bidder, but I am always keen to see more manufacturing take place in this country. That is why we have been working to make the environment for manufacturing in this country so much better, which is one of the ingredients of the economic turnaround from the mess this Government inherited.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) on securing this very important question. A large number of people across the east midlands will share his concerns about the granting of this franchise. Stagecoach at least backed the Access for All bid for Beeston station, and it is really unfortunate that the Government have not provided the money to make sure that we have that funding.

There is real concern about rolling stock and Abellio’s ability to provide it. In short, the Minister should know that Stagecoach certainly told me that there would be no new rolling stock. As he will know, we have on this line trains that are 40 years old. There will be no new trains for at least three years. We now need to firm this up. Will he confirm that Abellio will not provide trains for at least four years, or is there any chance that it might be a shorter period?

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I recognise that the east midlands franchise has been successful. However, this bid was won on merit and awarded to the strongest bidder. It was the strongest bidder irrespective of any of the compliance issues that we have been talking about today.

As regards the Access for All bid for Beeston, it was not successful in this round. I imagine that we will see further rounds of Access for All funding because it is a critical part of this. We are working to make our railway network available for as many people as possible. There is no greater champion for that than the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who is sitting next to me. I therefore suggest that the right hon. Lady speaks to her to discuss potential future bids for Beeston.

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I welcome any opportunity to improve the service through the east midlands and to get new trains. I echo the calls for those trains to be made in Derby if at all possible. Will the Minister confirm that the new contract includes a requirement for the new franchisee to bring forward a business case for the Robin Hood line extension through my constituency, for which we have been fighting for many years and will be a big step forward for my constituents?

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I receive quite a number of lobbies on the Robin Hood line. I cannot provide the immediate reassurance that my hon. Friend is looking for, but I suggest that we could perhaps meet to discuss this further. I am aware that it will be of interest to many colleagues within the House.

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The Public Accounts Committee has repeatedly highlighted the problems with the franchising system, and the fact that we were whittled down to a single bidder underlines that. I thank the Minister’s Department for sending me details of the franchise. The interesting point is the extension of the Govia contract, which will go on until November of this year, with an option to extend the agreement, the Secretary of State tells me, to April 2020. Does this mean that the outcome of the root-and-branch rail review will be so conclusive that he will have the time to run a new franchising project within six months?

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I think that the hon. Lady is referring to the south eastern franchise.

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indicated assent.

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Right. Well, that franchise is still under consideration and we will be announcing the results in due course. The point in the letter to the hon. Lady was that while that evaluation is taking place, there has been a short extension to the existing franchise to ensure that passenger services can continue to operate.

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The main concerns of Kettering rail users are finding a seat on crowded peak time trains to and from London, the low frequency of services north on the main line to Leicester and the level of fares per mile being among the highest in the country. Does the winning bidder address any of those issues?

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Yes, it does, because it puts more capacity into the franchise so that many more of the constituents my hon. Friend serves so well will be able to secure the seats they are looking for.

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When does the Minister expect the new hydrogen-driven trains promised in his statement to run?

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This is the very earliest of stages, so I am afraid I cannot provide all the details on that. However, I am extremely keen to see further environmental improvements on our rail network, and it is with great relish that I will be taking the first opportunity to bring a hydrogen-powered train on to the network.

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The Minister paints a very glowing picture of this new franchise—it almost sounds too good to be true. As somebody who will be travelling on these trains every week, as he will not be, can he assure me that the quality of the brand-new trains that he has promised us, which will apparently be amazing, will be at least as good-quality as the ones we have now and better than Abellio usually has, or will they be of inferior quality? When will they come into the franchise, and will they be stopping more frequently between London and Belper?

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The quality of the rolling stock will be upgraded. The rolling stock in this area is indeed quite old. I am fully aware that I do not travel on the line as frequently as my hon. Friend, although I am quite a regular passenger. As we replace trains across our network, we are seeing a much improved service. In this instance, there will be more seats and free wi-fi across the franchise, which should benefit her and those she serves. On stopping at Belper, I will need to do some further investigation and reply separately on that point.

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The franchise system is broken. It does not work for staff or in the interests of passengers. The potential for a direct line between Grimsby and London was scuppered by alleged anti-competitiveness between franchisees. Does not the process need a complete overhaul?

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I have already said how I think that franchising has been a key part of the turnaround in our rail network since privatisation. On services to Grimsby, a new Nottingham to Grimsby service, with limited extension to Cleethorpes, is part of the new franchise, and the hon. Lady should welcome it.

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What is the point of asking Keith Williams to conduct a root-and-branch review of the railways while at the same time awarding a very long franchise?

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To make sure that we get the benefits to passengers as fast as possible.

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After a 10-year campaign for station improvement, local residents in Kidsgrove finally secured funding under Access for All for an accessible bridge and an extended car park. Problems with Network Rail have delayed the project, meaning that the car park is now delayed. The car park programme is overseen by East Midlands Trains and will go over the franchise date. Can the Minister assure me that the change in franchise will not affect my car park?

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I am keen to see the Access for All benefits implemented across the network as soon as possible. The detail of that question has been heard by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden, and she will make contact with the hon. Lady to discuss that issue further.

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I am really disappointed that the Secretary of State, who was in his place on the Front Bench earlier, was not able to take the Urgent Question, because franchising is one of the key planks of the Government’s railway policy. It seems to me that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) said, it is failing passengers. Now an award to 2027 has been made, at the same time as the Williams review. How can that possibly make sense?

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The diary of the Secretary of State is not relevant to this point. We have got a bid that delivers more seats, more capacity, more services, reduced journey times and a new fleet of rolling stock. This is not something that is failing: it is a positive thing and the hon. Lady should welcome it.

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Yesterday the Department for Transport announced it has granted the south eastern rail franchise yet another extension. This is the fourth time that has been delayed. It is preventing investment and improvement for passengers. Does the Minister acknowledge that the delay is failing long-suffering passengers who rely on this service?

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I will agree that franchising is one of the best ways to deliver passenger service improvements and new rolling stock, so we agree strongly on that. The hon. Lady might wish to speak with her Front Bench. In terms of the delay on south eastern, it is a complex matter and it is still being evaluated. We will make the decision as soon as possible.

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Is it not correct that the franchise system is a fundamentally flawed business model? Over the past 10 years, we have seen £3.5 billion extracted in dividends—money creamed off our railways that could have been reinvested had we had a proper model of public ownership and democratic accountability in our railway system. Indeed, Virgin Trains alone has extracted £53 million in the last year. It is a thoroughly inefficient system that needs to be corrected, and that includes ScotRail too.

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The hon. Gentleman is wrong. He talks about the dividends that are paid, but he fails to remember one important point, which is the amount of investment brought in from the private sector through the franchising process. That has totalled £10 billion. Would the Labour party take that from taxation or other spending areas? Where will that money be found if we do not bring in private sector investment? Those are great questions which the Labour party is not addressing in its ill-thought-through, uncosted attempts at nationalisation.

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The east coast decision is inextricably linked to the west coast decision, which is forthcoming in June and causing great uncertainty for Virgin rail users in north Wales, the north-west of England and north to Scotland. Can the Minister give an assurance that any concerns raised about the east coast franchise will be reflected on before the west coast franchise is awarded?

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The bids for the west coast franchise will be assessed and the franchise awarded in the normal way. I am slightly puzzled by the Labour party’s position on this. After the east coast main line affair last year, Labour was broadly suggesting that Stagecoach should not be allowed to bid for anything; now it is broadly suggesting that it is bad to take away any franchises from it.

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Can the Minister clarify the situation with Virgin on the west coast main line? And I do not want a lecture about the Labour party’s stance; I want a straight answer.

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The answer is quite straightforward. Stagecoach bid for the east midlands franchise, it was not compliant and, as part of the feedback that it received, was told that it was not compliant, which it knew, on the other bids as well.

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The rail industry, through the Rail Delivery Group and with the support of the trade unions, wrote to the Government some weeks ago with alternative proposals to deal with the issues around the pension scheme. Will the Minister tell us his response to those proposals and say whether they were considered in this important decision?

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I received a letter last week from the rail industry on that matter. That is still being considered and we will respond in due course, but that is not part of this award. The franchise has been awarded on merit to the strongest bidder, and we should be looking forward to the passenger benefits that will flow from that award.

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The Minister will know that Abellio runs part of the London Northwestern Railway, which replaced London Midland. It is now reducing its timetable arrangements, so what comfort can my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent have that the east midlands train franchise, whose services run all the way from Nottingham to Crewe through the great towns and cities of Staffordshire, will not later be subject to the same reduction in services because Abellio was the only bidder and there is no alternative?

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I will look in detail at the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, but our objective is to run more services. That is the key thing that is happening right across our network. We are running more services and carrying more passengers, and with a record level of safety, than at any point in British history, so to suggest that franchising has been a failure is a complete misunderstanding. I will of course look at his points and get back to him to discuss them further.

Business of the House

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Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?

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Subject to the House agreeing item 1 on the Order Paper, I can confirm that the House will rise at the close of business today and return on Tuesday 23 April.

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Just stop there.

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Okay. [Laughter.]

The business for week commencing 22 April will be:

Monday 22 April—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 23 April—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Northern Ireland (Extension of Period for Executive Formation) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the Value Added Tax (Tour Operators) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Electronic Communications (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Animal Health, Seed Potatoes and Food (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019.

Wednesday 24 April—Opposition day (unallotted day). There will be a debate on an opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

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Hooray!

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Resign!

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No.

Thursday 25 April—Debate on a motion relating to school funding followed by debate on a motion relating to restrictive intervention of children and young people. The subjects of these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 26 April—The House will not be sitting.

Following the decision taken yesterday to extend article 50 to 31 October, I confirm that subject to the agreement of the House, the House will rise at the close of business today and return on Tuesday 23 April.

More people than ever are watching what is going on in Parliament, and we now have evidence for that. In March, the number of unique viewers on the Parliament Live website exceeded 1 million in a month for the first time. To put that into perspective, the average number of unique views during 2019 has been around 300,000 a month. We might be facing a very challenging time in Parliament, but the silver lining is that huge increase in democratic participation.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) on his private Member’s Bill having achieved Royal Assent. Finn’s law will help to protect our much-loved service animals.

Finally, I welcome the new hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). Her predecessor was much admired, and he was a keen attendee of business questions. I look forward to her contributions in the Chamber. I wish all Members of the House, their staff and all House staff a very relaxing break and a happy Easter.

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I thank the Leader of the House for the Opposition day debate—I was going to point out that it is 150 days since we last had one, so I thank her for that. Will she supply us with a new list of ministerial responsibilities, as there have been a number of resignations and appointments?

I do not know whether the Leader of the House wishes to correct the record. She said that a no-deal Brexit would not be nearly as bad as many would like to think. Did she receive the 14-page memo from the Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service, Sir Mark Sedwill, who said that a no-deal scenario would be catastrophic for the country? Luckily we are not going down that route. She also said that all the Prime Minister had to do was persuade the German Chancellor to re-open the withdrawal agreement and remove the Irish backstop, and then a deal could be secured. However, a spokesperson for No. 10 said that the EU was clear that that was not going to be possible. Can the Leader of the House confirm what exactly is Government policy?

On Monday, the Leader of the House made a business statement about the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill, yet she did not vote with her colleagues. I was warmly welcomed by both the Government and the Opposition Chief Whips, but the absentees included the Leader of the House, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State for International Trade, and the Secretary of State for Transport. Was the Leader of the House at an alternative Cabinet meeting, and was the Prime Minister invited to that alt-Cab?

I am pleased that the Leader of the House set out a number of statutory instruments for consideration, but could I ask for some more motions to be debated on the Floor of the House? For example, the Opposition have tabled early-day motion 2190 on higher education.

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Higher Education (Registration Fees) (England) Regulations 2019 (S.I., 2019, No. 543), dated 11 March 2019, a copy of which was laid before this House on 12 March 2019, be annulled.]

It seeks to annul statutory instrument 543, which sets out the fees for higher education providers. Universities UK has concerns about those fee increases, and as the SI came into force on 6 April 2019, it is still within the praying period. The European Statutory Instruments Committee disagreed with the Government and recommended that the European University Institute regulations should be debated on the Floor of the House. Those regulations enable our withdrawal from the European University Institute, of which we have been a member since 1976. Academics are up in arms about the fact that we have to withdraw from it.

I have raised previously the Non-contentious Probate (Fees) Order 2018, which is actually very contentious and is found under Future Business B. Can the Leader of the House assure us that there will be a debate on the Floor of the House, and that it will not be pushed through by the Government? Mr Speaker, yesterday you granted an urgent question to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) on Voter ID Pilots. Can the Leader of the House confirm that every study that has been applied for will come to the House for debate as it is important to have that parliamentary scrutiny?

Last week we were—quite rightly—concerned about the gender pay gap. When will the Government tackle the huge differentials in the pay system between executive and employee pay? The managing director of Waterstones, James Daunt, is paid a salary of £1.6 million, while nearly 1,900 of his employees do not even receive the real living wage. The chief executive officer of Centrica, which owns British Gas, is paid 72 times the salary of an employee in the lower quartile of its salary range. The people at the base of the pyramid are the wealth creators. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), recommends that the Government send a strong signal on pay reform by giving the regulator the powers and remit to ensure the highest standards of engagement with shareholders and other stakeholders, particularly employees.

For the first time, Parliament will not be sitting to wish my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) a happy birthday, which falls on Easter Sunday. I also want to send the wishes of the whole House to our gracious sovereign, who will also have a birthday on that day. She said:

“over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration to work together.”

This week we all celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. I pay tribute to John Hume, who won the Nobel peace prize, the Martin Luther King prize and the Ghandi peace prize for starting the peace process. You will recall, Mr Speaker, that the agreement was put to the people of Ireland in a confirmatory vote. Given the divisions at this time in our country, the words of John Hume are important. He said:

“Difference is the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace: respect for diversity.”

I, too, welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) to this place and we look forward to her maiden speech. If her acceptance speech when she won the seat is anything to go by, it will be absolutely fantastic, as will be her contribution to this House.

I welcome Sarah Davies as the new Clerk Assistant. To Sarah there is no such thing as a stupid question. I thank Liam Laurence Smyth and Paul Evans. As the Clerk of the House said, they have covered many jobs to make the work of this House seamless.

Mr Speaker, you are an internet sensation. Apparently in Europe they think you can only say four words—order, order, ayes and noes—but they do like you. I thank you, the Deputy Speakers and your office for their unfailing courtesy and kindness. I also thank: the Serjeant at Arms for all his work; Phil and his team of Doorkeepers; the House of Commons Library; the Official Reporters; the Vote Office, who have had to work overtime to print amendments; the catering and cleaning staff; the postal workers; the police officers; and all the security officers on the estate. Our staff and the staff of all the political parties are unseen, but they have worked incredibly hard. Mr Speaker, not a single person has complained about working extra time to enable us to do our work. We thank them all. I wish everyone a happy and peaceful Easter.

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I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I join her in wishing the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee a very happy birthday for Easter Sunday. Yesterday, I had the huge pleasure of attending Privy Council at Windsor castle. I can tell the House that Her Majesty is in excellent form. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her personal tribute to the Queen.

The hon. Lady asks for an update on ministerial responsibilities. She knows that that will be provided as soon as it can be done.

The hon. Lady asks about the Prime Minister’s policy on Brexit. She will be aware that the Prime Minister made a statement yesterday, in which she said:

“The UK should have left the EU by now and I sincerely regret the fact that I have not yet been able to persuade Parliament to approve a deal which would allow the UK to leave in a smooth and orderly way.”

She went on to add:

“we have a duty as politicians to find a way to fulfil the democratic decision of the referendum, deliver Brexit and move our country forward.”

I totally agree with the Prime Minister.

The hon. Lady asks about certain negative procedure statutory instruments. It is, of course, a matter of parliamentary convention that, where a reasonable request for a debate has been made, time should be allowed for that debate. I think we have demonstrated in this Session that the Government have been willing to provide time in line with the convention to accede to reasonable requests. I encourage her to raise her request through the usual channels.

The hon. Lady raised particular questions about ID pilots and the gender pay gap. She will be aware that we have had urgent questions on both those issues in the last week, so I hope that they answered her questions. She talked about inequality. She should celebrate, as we all should, that the employment rate is at a record high; that we have the lowest unemployment since the 1970s; that over 4 million of the lowest earners were taken out of income tax altogether between 2010 and 2015; and that, importantly, the top 5% of earners are paying half of all income tax. That is absolutely vital; those with the broadest shoulders are carrying the heaviest burden.

Finally, I join the hon. Lady in celebrating the 21st anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which has been so important in ensuring peace in Northern Ireland.

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While I regret that there is no Easter Adjournment debate, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the sacrifices that animals have made with their lives for human beings throughout the ages? Over 1 million horses lost their lives in the first world war and every day, sniffer dogs come into this House to ensure that there is not another gunpowder plot. I am delighted that tomorrow in Essex, a memorial will be unveiled to commemorate the sacrifices that police sniffer dogs have made with their lives.

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I know that all hon. Members always look forward to my hon. Friend’s contributions to pre-recess Adjournment debates. I am sure that Mr Speaker would look very favourably on his desire for a specific Adjournment debate to address the sacrifice that animals have made in the service of our country. I say again that we should all celebrate the Royal Assent that was achieved last week for the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019—Finn’s law—which will help to protect our service animals.

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I thank the Leader of the House for at least giving us the second part of our Easter break.

We really could not make it up: of all the dates to kick the Brexit can down the road to, Halloween could not be a more appropriate destination. Can we therefore have a debate about something that this House is now supremely experienced in: horror and ghouls? That is the date that this House of horrors will eventually meet its Brexit afterlife, and if that is not frightening enough, there is nothing in store for us other than more torment, purgatory and trick or treat, with a special emphasis on trick.

When watching the scenes from yesterday, it must have seemed to so many of my colleagues on the Government side to be the ultimate humiliation and the real horror. Their Prime Minister was sitting in an anteroom waiting to hear what the EU were prepared to grant the UK. After telling us that we would be out of the EU by the 29th of last month, after saying that there would be no extension, and after trying to secure a short extension, they are now obliged to contest the European parliamentary elections, in which they will undoubtedly be gubbed. If that is taking back control, can we not just go back to the good old days when we were just a bog-standard vassal state?

We have been warned that the House should not waste the time that the EU has so generously granted us. Can the Leader of the House detail how the time will be used much more productively and convince us that there will not be just more of the same repetitive and ultimately doomed agenda; no more of this “My way or the highway”; no more not listening; and no more not compromising? Will there be a real attempt to work right across the House and engage with all parts of the UK to show that the Government are at least prepared to listen to others?

Lastly, I very much welcome the new hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones)— she is more than welcome in this House—and I congratulate Sarah Davies on her new appointment to Clerk Assistant. I also take this opportunity to thank the staff of the House, including the police and all those who look after us. It must be difficult to work in a House dominated by chaos, indecision and confusion, when arrangements are changed at the last possible minute, but they have dealt with it stoically and without any complaints. I wish them the very best for the week that they will have for the Easter break.

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The hon. Gentleman talks about Halloween, ghosts, ghouls and horrors, but the real horror is that we as a Parliament have not yet delivered on what we were expressly told to do in 2016, which is to leave the European Union. That is what we will be spending the next few months seeking to do.

The hon. Gentleman says that that means that we need to consult. He knows full well that the Prime Minister is indeed consulting, and has been for many months, with Opposition Members across the House. However, I would remind him of the words of his colleague the constitutional Minister in the Scottish Parliament who was asked by a Select Committee whether, if there were a second referendum, which I gather is SNP policy, and the United Kingdom were to decide again to leave, he would abide by that. The answer? No. The truth of the matter is that it is the hon. Gentleman and the Scottish nationalists who do not want to listen to the will of the people and who do not respect the will of the people.

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Given that the Leader of the House has just made an announcement regarding our going into recess, I am surprised that she has not told the House whether the Government intend to lay today the statutory instrument that is required to implement what is regarded as the unlawful agreement made last night extending the time when we will leave the EU, and that is now, disgracefully, under a negative, rather than an affirmative, resolution. Could she please explain to the House what is going on?

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My hon. Friend will be aware that, since the Prime Minister has agreed an extension of article 50 until 31 October at the latest, that is now set in international law. The EU has agreed that the extension can be terminated when the withdrawal agreement has been ratified, so we now need to reflect this change on our domestic statute book. Following the amendments made by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019, the statutory instrument needed to redefine exit day is now subject to the negative procedure.

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I thank the Leader and the shadow Leader of the House for their birthday wishes, although my birthday is not for a week and a bit yet—I was born on Easter Sunday, and it comes round every now and again. I also wish a very happy birthday for tomorrow to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern)—I think she will be catching up with me quite soon.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing the Backbench Business on Thursday 25 April—they are very important debates, which we have been waiting some time to hear while they have been in the queue.

I think this has been circulated, but the debate on Islamophobia, which was scheduled for this afternoon, is to be withdrawn so that time is given to the conclusion of the debate on the 2019 loan charge and we can get that all-important ministerial response.

We are coming back on Tuesday 23 April, and I understand that we will be sitting in this Chamber on Monday hours. Can we make sure that Westminster Hall is in a similar vein, because it is unfair for Members travelling from further afield to be expected to attend Westminster Hall on Tuesday hours when this Chamber is meeting on Monday hours?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Westminster Hall will be sitting Monday hours on the Tuesday, alongside this Chamber.

I sincerely regret that, owing to the pressures of the very important business today, the hon. Gentleman has found it necessary, quite rightly, to move the date of the debate on Islamophobia. I just want to say again from the Dispatch Box that nobody should ever fear persecution of their faith. It is vital that we all stand together to reject those who seek to spread hatred and to divide us. I want to assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are doing everything they can to tackle hate and extremism.

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I thank the Leader of the House for her comments about the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019. I notice that one or two of my co-sponsors are here in the Chamber, and I would like to thank them and Members in all parts for their support. During proceedings on the Bill, the Government consulted on increasing the sentence for offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to five years. Will legislation come forward in the week commencing 23 April, or shortly, so that that important measure can be introduced to protect all animals?

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My right hon. and learned Friend raises a really important point. He will know, and will no doubt be proud of the fact, as all hon. Members should be, that animal welfare standards in the United Kingdom are rightly among the highest in the world. The Government have sought to do as much as they can to further protect animals, including through some of the measures to prevent illegal puppy trading and so on. The Government will always continue to do all they can to increase animal welfare standards, including by bringing in measures to increase the possibility of sentencing as soon as parliamentary time allows.

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I am privileged to be able to speak in this Chamber as the new Member of Parliament for Newport West.

County lines is a growing issue across the UK, and no more so than in my constituency. May we have a debate in Government time to discuss the way in which it is damaging our communities?

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Let me again welcome the hon. Lady, and congratulate her on her delivery of an excellent question. She will no doubt be aware that the subject she has raised is of huge concern to Members in all parts of the House, and that the Government have taken significant steps to try to resolve the appalling issue of county lines, which involves drug dealing, the abuse of young people—many of whom are being tackled violently—and the increased incidence of knife crime. It is an appalling problem.

The hon. Lady may also be aware that the Government have set up a serious violence taskforce and a consultation on treating serious violence as a public health emergency. The police are making efforts to tackle the county lines problem and, specifically, gang membership. They are trying to catch gang leaders and intervene earlier to take young people away from a life that leads to serious violence, knife crime and county lines.

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Tilly Green is an 11-year-old who lives in Bradfield, in my constituency. She suffers from cystic fibrosis and would benefit from the use of a drug called Orkambi, but unfortunately the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence does not allow it to be used. I am consulting Ministers about the matter, but it would be a great help if there were the possibility of a debate in the House to draw out the relatively opaque nature of how NICE decides whether a drug can or cannot be used. Knowing that the treatment would be available in due course would bring great comfort to families like Tilly’s.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. There are two children with cystic fibrosis in my own constituency, and they and their parents are also campaigning strongly for access to Orkambi. There have been a number of meetings in Parliament between Members and Vertex, the supplier of the drug, to try to move things forward. The Government are doing everything they can to find a way through the problem, but I encourage my hon. Friend and others to keep on fighting for access to this drug.

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Last September my constituent Jacqueline Wileman was hit and killed by a lorry that had been stolen by four men in Barnsley. Three of them were on probation, all four had nearly 100 criminal convictions between them, and one had already been convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. They all received prison sentences of just 13 years or less, including the man who had been driving, who could be released within four years. Will the Government make time available for an urgent debate on removing the 14-year maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving? No other family should have to go through what Jackie’s have been through.

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I am so sorry to hear that. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise it in the Chamber. It is appalling when something as terrible as a death happens, perpetrated by people who already have offences against their names. It appears that the sentences received by those people were too lenient, which must be absolutely terrible for the family of the person who was killed. Justice questions will take place on our first day back, 23 April, and I encourage the hon. Lady to raise the issue directly with Ministers then.

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May we have an urgent debate about the action that is needed to deal with the theft of tools? I hope that the Leader of the House shares my horror at this particularly pernicious crime. Someone who steals a self-employed tradesperson’s tools steals their livelihood, and many of those people cannot claim on their insurance. This is a serious issue, and we need to deal with it.

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My hon. Friend has raised a very important point. I think that we all understand the distress and disruption caused by this type of crime and the effect that it has on victims, particularly when they rely on the tools of their trade to earn a living. It is absolutely clear that all this type of crime should be reported to the police so that it can be properly investigated. It is, of course, for chief constables and police and crime commissioners to decide how best to deploy resources to manage and respond to individual crimes.

In my constituency we recently had a successful operation that resulted in the return of many stolen tools as a result of good police intelligence and good reporting by the victims.

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May we have a statement or an urgent debate on the UNICEF campaign to protect children from deadly toxic air? It is a subject on which I have received a number of representations from the children of Cullivoe Primary School in Yell, who take the view very reasonably that everyone should be entitled to air that is as clean as Shetland air, even if they might not necessarily want it to move at the same speed as ours occasionally does.

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I will take that as an invitation from the right hon. Gentleman to come to Shetland. He is right of course; we have to do all we can to ensure that not just children but all of us are able to breathe clean air. That is absolutely vital. He will be aware that air pollution has declined significantly since 2010. Emissions of toxic nitrogen oxides have fallen by 29% and are at their lowest since records began. But the Government are committed to ensuring that, where people live, and where NO2 levels are at their worst, we do all that we can. We have announced our world-leading new clean air strategy to try to clean up air, and we are spending £3.5 billion on it to try to reduce harmful emissions.

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A number of NHS clinicians have quit the gender identity development service clinic over ethical and safety concerns. They state that they were

“often under pressure to refer young people for life-altering treatment even though they did not believe that it was in the individual’s best clinical interests. … It feels like conversion therapy for gay children.”

They fear that homophobia is driving a surge in transgender young people. They say that

“experimental treatment is being done on children who have experienced mental health difficulties, abuse and family trauma.”

I know, having spoken to her, that the Minister responsible, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), would welcome the opportunity to make a statement, and I hope that the Leader of the House will facilitate that. We are driving too many young people down a road to a destination from which they will never return.

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My right hon. Friend raises an incredibly sensitive topic. We want to make the legal gender recognition process less intrusive and bureaucratic for transgender people. Being trans is not an illness and it should not be treated as though it is. That is why we held our consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004. It is a sensitive topic, and it is important to hear all views on it, including those of some young people perhaps being pushed to make decisions too early. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities is determined to ensure that we get this right.

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May we debate the power of science? Astronomers have achieved an accurate image of a black hole, which is a region in space-time with a gravitational pull so strong that nothing can escape from it. May I suggest that the Government ask the astronomers to point their telescopes next at planet Brexit so that we can reveal that there is a means of escape by holding a confirmatory referendum?

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Well of course, many of us in this place saw our first black hole when we came into office in 2010 and saw the state of the finances that Labour had left for the United Kingdom, so we have already had our own bit of experience. On a more general point, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise this extraordinary scientific progress, and he will be pleased to know that the UK scores the highest of all countries for having the most highly cited papers in astronomy, physics, Earth observation and planetary science. We remain a leading member of the European Space Agency, which is independent of the EU and allows UK scientists to collaborate with international partners on pioneering space science missions. The UK space sector is growing; it is worth a total of £14.8 billion and employs almost 50,000 people in the UK.

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You enjoyed that, didn’t you?

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Residents in Reston in my constituency have fought hard for many years to bring east coast main line rail services back to their community. Despite a promise by the SNP Scottish Government that the station would be reopened by 2016, this has still not happened because of dither and delay by the SNP Administration in Edinburgh. May we have a debate about how Network Rail interacts with the Scottish Government to ensure that Reston station and other rail projects across Scotland are delivered more quickly?

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It is interesting how the Scottish nationalists opposite are trying to shut my hon. Friend down—obviously because this is a devolved matter. He rightly raises a frustrating issue. A number of colleagues have raised concerns about trains, stations and network projects in their constituencies. I am sure that a debate on those matters would be very welcome. He might want to speak to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), so that all hon. Members can share their concerns.

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At Foxhill Primary School, which I visited last week, a reduction in funding has forced it to consider cutting parts of its arts programme despite having an amazing brass band and choir. May we have a debate in Government time on the importance of arts and creativity in the school curriculum?

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I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the schools in her constituency who are doing a great deal to try to ensure that culture and the arts are alive and well—and music in particular, which many children enjoy so much at a young age; some continue with it. She is right that schools need to protect as wide a curriculum as possible, and she will be aware that this year there is more than £43 billion of core funding for schools—the highest figure ever—and 1.9 million more children are being educated in “good” and “outstanding” schools than in 2010. The Government are committed to allowing headteachers the flexibility to provide the kind of education that young people deserve to receive.

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This Sunday sees the Hindu festival of Rama Navami, which celebrates not only the birth of lord Rama but his betrothal to his consort, Sita. This is a time of great joy for Hindus and the deities will be paraded all around the country. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate in Government time on the joys of marriage and the opportunity once again to celebrate the triumph of good over evil?

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My hon. Friend often raises these important occasions on behalf of his constituents, and he is absolutely right to do so. I extend warm wishes to all those celebrating the occasion of the birth of lord Rama. Rama Navami also marks the start of spring, and we are reminded of the hope that this time of year brings for growth and happiness.

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On Monday evening a man was rammed off his motorbike, stabbed and had his motorbike stolen. He is in a critical condition in hospital. The week before, a young man was stabbed at half-past 3 in the afternoon. Fortunately, he is not in a critical condition. May we have a debate in Government time about the impact of a cut of 21,000 police officers on the police’s ability to apprehend the people carrying out these atrocious crimes?

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May I say to the hon. Gentleman how sorry I am to hear about these appalling crimes? It is totally unacceptable, and our hearts go out to the victims.

In the spring statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an extra £100 million in the short term to allow police and crime commissioners to allocate more resources to tackling knife crime. Importantly, we have introduced the Offensive Weapons Bill, which includes a new knife crime prevention order that will give police more powers to stop people carrying knives and prevent young people from accessing knives online. We have extended stop-and-search powers, and under Operation Sceptre police forces are undertaking co-ordinated national weeks of action to tackle knife crime. The Government are taking a huge number of steps in collaboration with local police forces to try to get a grip on the appalling rise in knife crime.

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Aberdeen International airport is essential to the engine room of the Scottish economy, the oil and gas capital of the UK. There has been a serious reduction in the number of flights, which is inconveniencing the business community, leisure travellers and six MPs, including several who sit across the Floor. Will my right hon. Friend consider finding time for a debate on regional connectivity?

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I am sorry to hear that from my hon. Friend. Obviously, we rely on our regional airports, and it is absolutely vital that they continue to offer a good service. I am not sure whether the Aberdeen city region deal will offer any route forward, with new investment coming into the area, but I encourage my hon. Friend to raise his particular issue directly with Ministers at Transport questions.

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We have learned that 4 million older people live in poverty, nearly 1 million live in severe poverty and 46,000 died prematurely last year. Can we have an urgent debate to discuss what is happening to older people in our country and their rights, and a commission to uphold those rights?

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The hon. Lady raises a really important point. It is vital that we do everything we can to ensure that our older population are living in comfort. That is why the Government introduced the triple lock on the basic state pension. We have renewed that commitment, guaranteeing that pensions will rise for each year of this Parliament by the highest of average earnings growth, price inflation or 2.5%. That means that the basic state pension is now more than £1,450 a year higher than it was in 2010. This Government are determined to ensure that our older people have the right level of state support.

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Following on from my right hon. Friend’s answer, when might we have a debate on early-day motion 2265?

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Regulations 2019 (S.I., 2019, No. 552), dated 12 March 2019, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18 March 2019, be annulled.]

Why are 500,000 British pensioners still denied increases 17 years after Judge Stanley Burnton declared that Government policy was not consistent or coherent? It seems time that we take our responsibilities to those pensioners as seriously as we take our responsibilities to others. Why do they get the increase in Jamaica but not Trinidad, in the United States but not Canada, and in the Philippines but not Indonesia? It is crazy.

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I assume my hon. Friend is talking about overseas pensioners—he was not clear. I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can raise his question directly with Ministers. He will be aware that there have been different arrangements over many years. Of course, it is vital that we show fairness to pensioners overseas but also to those who are working hard in the United Kingdom to pay their taxes.

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My constituent David has significant health issues, recently described by his consultant as severe and debilitating. He recently had his personal independence payment cut and faces a lengthy wait for an appeal, which is impacting on his physical and mental health. When I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask her to expedite his hearing, I received a patronising and, frankly, inhumane response unbefitting of a Secretary of State. May we therefore have a debate to consider how we can fix this broken system?

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The hon. Lady raises a particular constituency case, and she is absolutely right to do so. I am sorry if she is not happy with the Department’s response. Obviously, as I often say, I will raise the issue on her behalf, if she wants to write to me. Since the personal independence payment was introduced in 2013, there have been 3.9 million decisions and the total number of people unhappy with those decisions is less than 1% of all assessments. We are seeking to review and improve the system all the time, to make it easier for people to receive the care and support they need.

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The best part of BBC “Question Time” is not the opinion of the panellists but the voice of the audience. Given that the “Question Time” that was due to be broadcast from Bolton was cancelled in favour of London, may we have a debate on how well our national broadcaster represents the nation as a whole?

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I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend. Programming decisions of that kind are a matter for the BBC, but I note that it said that the business of the House was an important factor. We all want the BBC to broadcast right across the United Kingdom and facilitate proper debate across all regions.

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At this time of year we, as Christians, remember the resurrection of Christ and offer thanks for his sacrifice and death on the cross, which offers hope of redemption and life eternal. We also remember all those countless persecuted Christians across the world who must believe, worship and pray in secret for fear of their life. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement on how we in the UK can support the persecuted Church throughout the world?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue. He has a strong voice on the subject of religious persecution, and he will know that the United Kingdom is committed to freedom of religious belief. On 26 December 2018, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced an independent review of the persecution of Christians overseas. That review is to be conducted by the Bishop of Truro and will provide recommendations on additional practical steps that the Foreign Office can take to support persecuted Christians. The report is due by the summer.

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There is public concern that the Government are not following through on the will of the people. Does that now extend to all consultations? Can we have a statement on the Government’s response to consultations? Is it acceptable that the Government have felt able to discount the views of 80% of those who responded to their proposed divorce law changes, simply because many objected to them as the result of a campaign to raise awareness of that very consultation? Are some individuals’ responses more worthy than others? If a person has a view of conscience on policy, does it not count?

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My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I know this is something she cares about very deeply, as do many hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House. The fact is that hostility and conflict between parents leaves a terrible mark on children and can damage their life chances, whether the parents are together or separated. Although we will always uphold the institution of marriage, it cannot be right that outdated laws help to create or increase conflict. All views will be taken into account, but nevertheless the Government, while listening to calls for reform, want to replace the requirement to provide evidence of fault and create the option of a joint application for divorce.

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The Leader of the House said at business questions last week that the House would have a debate this week on the knife crime summit. Why did that debate not happen? Why is there nothing in the future business? This should be a national priority.

While I am talking about issues on which we seem to be making no progress, will there be an update on the Timpson review of school exclusions?

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The hon. Lady will be aware that I announce the business for the following week at business questions on a Thursday morning. I am keen to facilitate further debates, as I already have, on the important issue of knife crime and serious violence. I will continue to seek to find Government time for such a debate.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards has said that he would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady on the Timpson review.

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The last business questions before Easter is a good moment for cross-party unity, so may I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the joint letter by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon)—the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—and myself on behalf of Commonwealth servicemen and women in our armed forces? The letter seeks to waive the application, after four years’ service, for indefinite leave to remain, the cost of which has now risen to £10,000 for a family of four. I understand that the Defence Secretary has raised this issue with the Home Secretary. Meanwhile, may I seek the support and signatures of every Member present today, and the support of the Leader of the House, for both the issue and for a debate on it?

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My hon. Friend raises an issue on which there will be a lot of support from across the House. I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate or a Westminster Hall debate, so that all hon. Members may contribute to it.

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I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last month, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission launched the “Legacy of Liberation” campaign, marking 75 years since the liberation of Europe and the far east. That includes activities across the historical sites of the great escape, Monte Cassino, Normandy and Arnhem. Could we please have a debate allowing Members across the House to mark this milestone anniversary of when we did not just stand alone, but built alliances that delivered Europe from pure evil?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that issue. She rightly pays tribute to all those who gave so much in a co-ordinated effort to stamp out evil. It is right that we commemorate these anniversaries, and I will certainly see whether we can find time for such a debate.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, Christians around the world will be celebrating the resurrection on Easter Sunday, after the darkness of Good Friday, but for many Christians, particularly those in places like the middle belt of Nigeria, this is a very, very dark time, when they are under attack, seeing people—including members of their families—murdered, and churches burnt down. May we have a debate on that persecution of Christians and others in the middle belt of Nigeria and elsewhere?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Specifically with regard to Nigeria, we continue to call for an immediate de-escalation of violence, and for the Nigerian Government to demonstrate a clear strategy for resolving the conflict, ending the violence and ensuring that the needs of all affected communities are met. The United Kingdom promotes tolerance and acceptance of different faiths and beliefs within our own country, but it is also something that we want to see right around the world.

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I wonder whether the Government might provide time to debate the state of a political party whose primary policy is, by its own admission, to undamage our economy, which does not have a leader—just a caretaker manager; a party scared of the public, and even of standing in European elections, with its own MPs openly backing other parties, and which, according to its own accounts, receives more funding from dead people than from the living. But unlike those Tory donors, I will not hold my breath.

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There is really no answer to that.

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Several days ago I met volunteers in Broadfield, who are participating in a community action to clear up litter in that neighbourhood. Unfortunately, over the past five years Labour-controlled Crawley Borough Council has not issued a single litter penalty notice. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on the responsibility of environmental health departments to support communities to clean up their local areas?

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My hon. Friend has thoroughly excited my lovely Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who as he knows is extremely keen on cleaning up our environment. He points out rightly that there is a duty on local authorities to ensure that we keep our communities, roads, hedgerows and waterways free of litter. I would encourage him to raise that at the next local government questions.

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May we have a debate on the vital importance of extending musical tuition to those from low-income backgrounds and deprived areas? I particularly commend the work of the Beatroute Arts centre in my constituency, which recently received a £69,000 grant from the Young Start funding programme. It does very important work in the constituency, particularly in extending opportunity to young people who would not normally be able to access private musical tuition or élite institutions such as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which are often disproportionately enjoyed by middle-class families. Can we commend the extension of that opportunity to those from all backgrounds?

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I join the hon. Gentleman in commending that arts centre for its work for young people. It is absolutely vital that young people get to enjoy the wonders of music and taking part in performance, and I totally commend all those who seek to make that happen.

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I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). I would like to reassure her that Parliament and governance is not always like this—intent on self-destruction. How soon after the talks between the Government and Labour collapse will the Leader of the House be able to bring forward indicative votes? Will she allow an indicative vote to take place that allows the Prime Minister’s deal to be linked to a people’s vote?

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We had a people’s vote in 2016. The result of that was clear. We will be leaving the European Union just as soon as we have been able to find a way forward that works for the United Kingdom and for our EU friends and neighbours, and that this House can support.

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Constituents of mine, the Riddells, an Australian couple, run a community bakery that employs 15 people. They have just had their visas refused by the Home Office because of a very small error that could have been quickly and easily rectified, but it has taken over six months for the family to be told of it. Now they are desperately awaiting an admin review, but they need their passports back to travel to their daughter’s wedding in Australia in a few days’ time. Their life in Scotland and jobs in my constituency now hang in the balance. How would the Leader of the House suggest we might encourage the Home Office to routinely contact applicants at the beginning of the visa process, raising any questions over their documents, to give people a chance to sort those out in good time?

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The hon. Lady raises a very good point about the need for urgency in the rectification of small errors, so that people can get on with their lives. She has raised a particular constituency issue, and if she wants to write to me I can take it up with the Home Office on her behalf.

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I am concerned that many applications to go on the electoral register are being stymied for administrative reasons, such as the lack of a national insurance number. May we have a statement from the Cabinet Office containing an estimate of the number of uncompleted voter registration applications, and stating what the Government are doing to overcome such hurdles so that we can boost electoral registration?

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I am sure that hon. Members right across the House want to see electoral registration boosted and improved. That is precisely what the Cabinet Office is seeking to do, while at the same time minimising any prospect of electoral fraud. We have Cabinet Office questions on Wednesday 24 April—the first Wednesday back—and I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to raise that question then.

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A few weeks ago, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on climate change. Young people and many of us in this place want to see more energy and urgency in addressing the issue. Tomorrow will see yet another climate change strike, including, I believe, at schools in Warwick and Leamington. Given that we now know what a black hole looks like at the heart of Government, will the Leader of the House take the opportunity to fill the power vacuum and grant us a full debate?

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As I said to the hon. Gentleman on the previous occasion, I will try to find Government time. We had a debate in February, which unfortunately many hon. Members were unable to attend because they had other commitments. The subject is important; it is one of the single most important issues that face our world today. The Government’s work towards tackling global climate change has been second to none. We have reduced emissions faster than any other G7 nation. We have generated record levels of solar and wind energy. The latest figures show that we have reduced greenhouse gas by 25% since 2010, and Carbon Brief analysis shows that UK CO2 emissions have fallen for six years in a row, which is the longest decline on record. So there is a lot more to be done, but the Government are taking action.

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