House of Commons
Wednesday 8 May 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Devolution Settlement
Mr Speaker, may I take this opportunity to mark the 20th anniversary of the first elections to the Scottish Parliament? Three current Members of this House were elected to that Parliament back in 1999, including me, but, far more importantly, it is a good time to reflect on devolution and the potential of the Holyrood Parliament to improve the lives of the people of Scotland.
The UK Government, including my Department, continue to engage in frequent and extensive discussions with the Scottish Government in a number of forums to discuss all aspects related to EU exit. Leaving the EU will of course result in substantially increased powers for the Scottish Parliament.
The Secretary of State reinvented history at the weekend when he said:
“I reject the…myth that people were told they would stay in the EU if they voted to stay in the UK”.
The truth is that Scotland voted to stay within the UK but is being dragged screaming and shouting out of the EU against its national collective will. Better Together in fact said:
“What is process for removing our EU citizenship? Voting yes. #scotdecides”.
What part of that tweet did he not quite understand?
I was inclined to vote for the hon. Gentleman to succeed your good self, Mr Speaker, before that intemperate question, although I note from his manifesto that he would no longer support independence if he was in your Chair.
I would point the hon. Gentleman to the debate around the EU at the time of the independence referendum, when the former First Minister of Scotland asserted that Scotland would automatically be in the EU as an independent country. That statement proved to be false.
It is because of nonsense like this and Brexit being imposed on Scotland that many Scots now want a say in their future as regards independence. The Secretary of State’s Government accepted the Scottish National party motion on the Claim of Right, which states that it is the sovereign right of the Scottish people to decide their form of government and their constitutional future. Does he still agree with that principle?
Of course I agree with that principle, but I would point the hon. Gentleman to the recent opinion poll showing that only one in five people in Scotland want another independence referendum before 2021.
In the four parliamentary elections in Scotland since the 2014 referendum, the people of Scotland have voted overwhelmingly for pro-independence parties. Will the Secretary of State recognise that mandate and support moves for indyref2?
My recollection of the 2017 general election is that the SNP lost 500,000 votes and 21 seats and came within 600 votes of losing another six.
During the Scottish Tory conference, Ruth Davidson told STV that she was getting ready to fight an independence referendum. Is there something the Secretary of State would like to tell us? Has the Tory party finally realised that it cannot deny the people of Scotland their right to have a choice over their own future?
As I myself told that conference, there is only one guaranteed way to get an independence referendum off the table and discussion of independence away from the Scottish Parliament, and that is to elect Ruth Davidson as the First Minister of Scotland. [Laughter.]
It’s comedy hour in the House of Commons.
I am not sure whether the Secretary of State fully recognises the implications of accepting the Claim of Right, as he did last year. Can he really believe that 20 years after devolution, once the Brexit process is complete constitutional perfection will have been reached on these islands? Is he really channelling Charles Parnell in reverse and saying to Scotland, “Thus far shalt thou go but no further”?
I am channelling the Edinburgh agreement, which said we would have an independence referendum in 2014 and that both sides would respect the result.
As part of our devolution settlement, air passenger duty was devolved to the Scottish Parliament by the Scotland Act 2016, but yesterday Nicola Sturgeon broke her promise to cut APD. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and business bodies that this tax disproportionately hits Aberdeen and the north-east and that, despite Derek Mackay trying to blame Westminster, the SNP would be better served arguing against this APD U-turn than arguing for independence?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the SNP Government would do better to focus on the domestic issues that are important to the people of Scotland rather than on independence. As we reach this 20th anniversary of devolution, there remains some scepticism about the Scottish Parliament, but I remain very positive about the Parliament; it is the Government in that Parliament who are not delivering for Scotland.
Given the Scottish Government’s failure to take on the welfare powers that have been devolved under the Scotland Act, what confidence has the Secretary of State that they will be able to take on the vast range of powers that will come to them as we leave the European Union?
It is obviously a matter of concern that welfare powers are being delayed, some of them until 2024. However, my hon. Friend may not know that this morning Derek Mackay, the Finance Secretary in the Scottish Government, asked for VAT assignment to be delayed until 2021. It does not seem to me that the Scottish Government are focused on taking on these powers; instead, they are focusing on their independence obsession.
How much funding for Brexit preparation has been received by the Scottish Government, and how much of that has been passed on to councils in Scotland?
The sum is in the region of £100 million. As far as I am aware, none of it has been directly made over to local government in Scotland, although I am sure that the Brexit Secretary and Mike Russell will discuss that topic when they meet in Edinburgh this morning.
What really matters to Scotland, and to many parts of the north of England, is the Union of the United Kingdom. Does the Secretary of State agree that initiatives such as the borderlands growth deal can enhance the economic success of the Union? Does he also agree that part of the success of that initiative was due to the work done by MPs, councils and Ministers, and that perhaps the SNP Government could learn something from that?
I commend my hon. Friend—as I have done previously—for his work on the borderlands initiative, which demonstrates that in the south of Scotland and the north of England, so much more binds us together than drives us apart. The one thing that would be absolutely disastrous for the borderlands area is the introduction of a separate Scottish currency, and my constituents have made it very clear that they do not want Nicola Sturgeon’s chocolate money.
I have the honour to be one of those three people who were first elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and I am very proud of that. As the Secretary of State will recall, during the years that I spent at Holyrood I spent a lot of time arguing for the interests of my constituency, which we often felt was being neglected by all Governments, including one of my own colour. Today my constituents still feel that they are being left behind by the Scottish Government, who seem to be interested only in the central belt. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is crucial for the interests of all parts of Scotland to be brought to the fore and acted on under devolution?
I commend the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), the two other Members who were in that first Scottish Parliament back in 1999. I am very aware of the hon. Gentleman’s efforts to promote the highlands in those days. It is a great disappointment to me, given the range of powers that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, that this Scottish Government are one of the most centralist Governments in history, seeking to draw power to the centre rather than to devolve it within Scotland.
Now the SNP says that in its independent Scotland we would have a brand-new currency. Does the Secretary of State agree that the people of Scotland do not want a bureau de change at Berwick, and that the people of Stirling still want to use sterling?
I absolutely agree. It is completely ridiculous to suggest that my constituents in Annan should use one currency to get the bus to Carlisle and another currency to get the bus back. This is a ridiculous proposal, and the people of Scotland already see through it.
Two weeks tomorrow the people of Scotland go to the polls, and the Scottish National party will be fighting that election not just resisting the shambles of the Tory Brexit but demanding that the voice of Scotland be heard and the people of Scotland be given a choice over their own future. If my party wins that election, will the Secretary of State abandon his resistance to the Scottish Government being able to consult people on their own future?
I do not know what the hon. Gentleman’s definition of winning that election will be, but that election is to elect Members from Scotland to the European Parliament for as short a period as possible, and that should be the focus of that election.
That does not answer the question, and it certainly does not sound like the response of someone who believes in the Claim of Right. Is it not really the case that it does not matter how many elections we win and it does not matter how many times the people of Scotland demand a say in their own future, because the Secretary of State is part of a crumbling Government and his party, which has the support of one in five people in Scotland, will continue to deny them the opportunity to determine their own future?
The fundamental issue is that when the people of Scotland determined their own future in the 2014 referendum and voted decisively to remain in the United Kingdom, the hon. Gentleman and his friends did not like the answer, and their position is to keep going—to challenge that result until they get what they want. But I have been very clear: this Government will not agree to another independence referendum before 2021.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, contrary to the manufactured myth of a power grab, on our leaving Europe the Scottish Government will receive significantly more powers?
That is absolutely the case, and the power grab myth has been deconstructed on many occasions. The reality, as we have heard in previous questions, is that significant powers on welfare and VAT are going to the Scottish Parliament, and the Scottish Government are asking for those powers to be delayed.
I share the Secretary of State’s sentiments in reflecting on the second decade of the Scottish Parliament. As someone who has served in both Parliaments he will be well aware of the importance of the Barnett formula, which is the financial mechanism that ensures that the resources of the UK are pooled and shared across each nation based on the needs of the population. In March the UK Government announced the stronger towns fund, which allocates £1.6 billion of funding for towns in England. However, no Barnett consequentials have been announced with respect to Scottish towns. So can the Secretary of State enlighten us on how much Scottish towns will receive from this fund, when they will receive it and who will administer the payments?
An announcement on the Scottish towns fund will be made shortly.
Universal Credit: Low-income Families
Evidence shows that universal credit is working. We are working closely with the Scottish Government to help them achieve their goals on UC flexibilities. UC Scottish choices are now available to all claimants in Scotland on full service who are not in receipt of a Department for Work and Pensions alternative payment arrangement.
The Scottish choices do not help people to be paid differently if they are receiving less, and Citizens Advice Scotland has raised numerous concerns about the process of migrating on to UC. In one case a 24-year-old single parent was left £90 a week worse off. What are the Government doing to ensure that those on natural migration are aware of their entitlements and do not suffer like that financially?
I am always willing to look into individual cases, and we are working extremely closely with the Scottish Government on their proposals to make the changes they are able to make under the Scotland Act 2016, but of course the Scottish Government are also able to make additional payments to any individual if they choose to do so, but so far they have not chosen to do so.
First, I would like to associate myself with the comments made in relation to the 20th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament—undoubtedly Labour’s finest achievement.
Universal credit is subject to a two-child cap and the subsequent rape clause. In the Scottish Parliament the Tories called it a fair policy; their Scottish leader calls it a “box-ticking exercise”. Can the Secretary of State for Scotland explain why his Government believe it is fair to force the survivors of rape to relive their trauma to claim the support they and their children need?
As the hon. Lady knows, this issue has been debated frequently in this House and in the Scottish Parliament, and the justification for the process has been set out: it is actually to help people in those circumstances. As she knows, the Scottish Parliament has the power to do something different, and if it does not agree with this policy, it could do something different right now. Instead, it is focused on independence rather than on bringing in new welfare arrangements.
That is a pathetic response to what really is a callous and cruel policy. The reality is that the right hon. Gentleman’s Government chose this policy; they chose to cut support to the poorest while giving tax cuts to the richest. They say that the best route out of poverty is a job, but under this Government, jobs are paying less than the living wage and often involve zero-hours contracts. At the weekend, Ruth Davidson talked about the Scottish Tories not wanting anyone to be left behind. Can the Secretary of State explain how cutting tax credits for working families and forcing them to go to food banks is not leaving anyone behind?
What a surprising contribution from the hon. Lady—I would have thought that if she believed that, her colleagues in the Scottish Parliament would be advocating it. Instead, we learned recently that Richard Leonard’s keynote policy for Scottish Labour is an NHS pet service.
European Elections: Voter Registration
I am content that the arrangements are robust. The UK Government have worked to ensure that the “register to vote” website, which has been running since 2014, is secure against malicious attacks and robust enough to manage traffic in line with registration deadlines.
If it is robust enough, how come only 288 of the 2,000 non-UK EU citizens in East Lothian have managed to register? Is that really the foundation of the Secretary of State’s democracy?
If the hon. Gentleman can bring forward details of any citizens who have tried to register but not succeeded in doing so, I will obviously look at that. There have been many campaigns to encourage people to register, and I particularly commend the Daily Record newspaper for its efforts in that regard.
The Secretary of State is a big advocate of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. If he has such great confidence in that deal, why does he not have confidence in the people and allow them to decide whether it is a deal that they want?
The people of Scotland made their decision in 2014; the people of the United Kingdom made their decision in 2016.
Leaving the EU: Devolution Settlement
I refer the hon. Members to my answer to Questions 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7.
It has emerged that the polling company Ipsos MORI has been commissioned by the Cabinet Office to conduct polling in Scotland on the state of the Union. That is surely a sign that this Government are deeply rattled by the growing support for independence. Was the Secretary of State made aware of this, and will he support the full publication of this taxpayer-funded polling?
It might surprise the hon. Lady to learn that all Governments, including the Scottish Government, poll on their policies.
The Secretary of State asked for context in an earlier answer. The House of Commons Library has a Government-issued leaflet from 2014 explaining why people should vote against Scottish independence. Under the heading “An influential voice in important places”, it says:
“As one of the EU’s ‘big four’ nations, the UK is more able to protect Scottish interests”.
Ruth Davidson herself said that voting no meant that we would stay in the EU. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to get his story straight?
To give the hon. Lady some context, David Cameron made it very clear in 2013 that there would be an EU referendum. The SNP and the former First Minister’s assertion was that Scotland would automatically stay in the EU if it became independent. That was not correct. The question for those advocating a yes in 2014, as it is now, is how an independent Scotland would become a member of the EU.
Many of us in Argyll and Bute have been trying for a long time to pin down the Secretary of State on this question. Will he now take the opportunity to spell out exactly what he believes the economic benefits will be, specifically for my Argyll and Bute constituency, of ending freedom of movement?
We are engaged in a year-long consultation on the immigration White Paper. I am happy, as part of that consultation and engagement, to come to Argyll and Bute, just as the Home Secretary went to Aberdeenshire last week, to hear what businesses and people there have to say.
It was reported at the weekend that the Secretary of State could not even get toast out of a toaster. We cannot get an answer out of him. Are there any circumstances whereby he would support the right of the Scottish people to determine their own future through a referendum?
I support the right of the Scottish people to determine their future through a referendum. They already have—on 18 September 2014, when they voted decisively to remain in the United Kingdom.
They asked for more powers over welfare and they have delayed them or handed them back to the Department for Work and Pensions; they asked for the power to cut air departure tax and they have U-turned; they asked for power over VAT assignment receipts and they have postponed it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, rather than moaning about all the powers they do not have, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government should get on with using the extensive powers they do have to make the lives of my constituents in East Renfrewshire better?
I absolutely agree. The Scottish Parliament has tremendous potential to make a difference for the people of Scotland, but it will not do so as long as it is bogged down in the SNP’s independence agenda. We hear about further legislation being introduced on that rather than on issues that matter: health, education and transport.
People in Corby are overwhelmingly pro the United Kingdom Union, but voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. What impact does my right hon. Friend believe that ignoring referendum results and not leaving the European Union would have on the devolution settlement?
I am absolutely clear that the results of both referendums—in 2014 and in 2016—should be honoured. The Government are determined to do so.
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues and we are committed to action that will make a meaningful difference to the lives of disadvantaged children and families. This goes beyond a focus on the safety net of the welfare system to tackle the root causes of poverty and disadvantage. The UK Government will work with the Scottish Government on their child poverty strategy given that this spans both devolved and reserved interests.
In a recent report, the Resolution Foundation projected that the Scottish child poverty rate will hit 29% by 2023-24—the highest rate in 20 years —and concluded that the Government’s welfare reforms are to blame. Will the Secretary of State take a stand in the Cabinet against policies like the unfair benefit freeze or will he allow more children to fall into poverty?
I do not accept that analysis. Of course there is concern about the number of children in poverty in Scotland, but, as I outlined in my initial answer, the best way to resolve it is for the Scottish Government and the UK Government to work together and focus on a really important issue rather than constantly discuss the constitution.
While the Secretary of State gives false assurances about child poverty in Scotland, the Trussell Trust tells me that in my constituency it is giving out more and more food parcels to families and children. How is he using his power to ensure families in Scotland are not relying on food banks?
The first thing, as I have outlined in virtually every answer today, is to get the political debate in Scotland off the constitution and on to the issues that really matter to ordinary families. The idea of bringing forward a new independence referendum Bill in the Scottish Parliament, which would take up time when the Scottish Parliament could focus on issues such as this, is the problem right now.
Scotch Whisky: Economic Impact
I am very pleased to see how this important sector is thriving. The UK Government are supporting the Scotch whisky success story by freezing duty on spirits again this year. That demonstrates clearly how the UK Government are taking the right decisions on taxes and delivering for the businesses and people of Scotland.
The report highlighted that the Scotch whisky industry’s contribution to the UK economy has increased by 10% to £5.5 billion. Due to the UK Government’s welcome announcements, the industry has reinvested £500 million over the past five years in production, distribution and tourism. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that we can do more to ensure a fairer taxation system for the Scotch whisky industry?
My hon. Friend represents the constituency with the most distilleries in the United Kingdom and is a very powerful advocate for the industry. We consider it to be of very great importance, and we will look at any proposals it cares to bring forward in that regard.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in offering our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Guardsman Mathew Talbot of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, who sadly died in anti-poaching operations in Malawi.
I am also sure Members from across the House will want to join me in sending my very best wishes to Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on the birth of their son.
Monday marked the beginning of Ramadan—a time of peace, devotion and charity. I know Members from across the House will want to join me in saying to Muslims in the UK and across the world, “Ramadan kareem”. Later today, I will host a reception to celebrate Vaisakhi and the immense contribution that the Sikh community makes to this country.
This week marks 20 years since the 1999 Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales elections. Two decades on, we remain committed to strengthening devolution within the United Kingdom. As we leave the European Union, we will bring new powers and responsibilities to Holyrood and Cardiff Bay.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I agree with all the tributes paid by the Prime Minister.
Data from the TUC suggests that 780,000 people are on zero-hours contracts, and that two third of them would prefer guaranteed hours. A constitute of mine lives in privately rented accommodation and works two jobs on zero-hours contracts. After getting his third job on a zero-hours contract, his rent went up. He and his family survive, but only by using a local food bank. Will the Prime Minister end these burning injustices and ban zero-hours contracts?
The party that recognised the issue with zero-hours contracts was the Conservative party in government. The Labour party did nothing about them; it was the Conservatives that banned exclusive zero-hours contracts.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. We recognised that we have been asking schools to do more and responded with the highest level of school funding on record, and we introduced the new national funding formula to make the distribution fairer, but of course it is still the case that local authorities are responsible for determining individual schools’ budgets from the overall sum they have received. They have a responsibility, and I am sure that hon. Members will look to their local authorities to make sure that where schools should be receiving extra money, the local authorities are passing it on. But I will also ask those at the Department for Education, who will have heard my hon. Friend’s question, to write to her in more detail about it.
I join the Prime Minister in sending condolences to the family and friends of Guardsman Mathew Talbot, who died while on anti-poaching activities. It is a reminder of the diverse work that the armed forces do, and we thank them for it and for the help they are giving to the people of Malawi. I join her also in welcoming the birth of the baby to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and, along with all of us, in recognising and enjoying Ramadan and Vaisakhi at this time. It is important to show the diversity of this country and celebrate all religious festivals.
I hope the whole House will also join me in congratulating a great football team: Manchester City, on winning the women’s FA cup. In view of Liverpool’s amazing performance last night, perhaps the Prime Minister could take some tips from Jürgen Klopp on how to get a good result in Europe.
Our national health service is our country’s greatest social achievement. Its staff show amazing dedication, but this Government’s failures are taking their toll. An NHS staff survey found that 40% of staff had reported suffering work-related stress in the past year alone. Can the Government explain why staff are being so severely let down by this Government?
First, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that when we look at the Liverpool win over Barcelona last night, we see that it shows that when everybody says, “It’s all over and your European opposition have got you beat. The clock’s ticking down, it’s time to concede defeat”, actually we can still secure success if everyone comes together.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about staffing in the NHS. For too long Governments have failed to produce the proper workforce planning to give our staff in the NHS the care they deserve. It is this Government, with their long-term plan, who are ensuring that we give that care to staff. NHS staff work hard, caring for patients, and this Government will care for NHS staff. It is only because we are able to give the NHS its biggest cash boost in its history and to give it that long-term plan that we will deliver for NHS staff.
Under the last Labour Government, NHS investment rose by 6% a year, but under this Government it has barely reached 1.5%. Five thousand nurses and midwives from European Union countries have left the NHS in the past two years, and there are 100,000 staff vacancies across the NHS in England alone. The Royal College of Radiologists recently said the shortage of cancer doctors “puts care at risk”. What is the Prime Minister doing to remedy this dangerous situation?
What have seen this year? We have seen the numbers of doctors and nurses in the NHS at their highest level in its 70-year history. As I say, our NHS staff work hard 24/7 and their dedication is second to none. I am proud of our NHS. He talks down our NHS. Let us just remember this: at the last general election, the Labour party promised to give the NHS less money than the Conservative Government are giving it. The Labour party in government would crash the economy, which would mean less money available for the NHS. And who is the only party in government that has cut funding to the NHS? It is the Labour party.
Nobody on this side of the House ever talks down the NHS—it is Labour’s greatest achievement. The principle of healthcare free at the point of need as a human right was a Labour achievement, and every Tory MP voted against it.
Today is World Ovarian Cancer Day. As for all cancers, the early diagnosis of ovarian cancer is essential. In February, almost a quarter of patients waited more than two months to start cancer treatment following a GP referral—the worst performance on record. Will the Prime Minister apologise to the thousands of cancer patients who are enduring weeks of unbelievable stress and worry while they wait to start the treatment that, to have a better chance of survival, they should be able to start quickly after they have been referred?
We recognise the importance of the early diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer, of other cancers and of other conditions as well, which is why a key part of the 10-year plan—the long-term plan for the NHS that is being put forward under this Government—is about early diagnosis. We recognise the importance of that. The right hon. Gentleman might like to reflect on the fact that there is a part of the United Kingdom in which the urgent cancer treatment target has not been met since June 2008. Where is that? In Wales, under Labour.
Under the NHS in Wales, more people are surviving cancer than ever before. We should welcome the work that has been done.
The Royal College of Radiologists said,
“our workforce projections are increasingly bleak”,
and almost half of all women with ovarian cancer reported having to visit the GP three times before they were referred for a test. Today, we learned that GP numbers are experiencing their first sustained fall for 50 years. GPs often play the vital role in the early identification of cancers and other serious problems. Does the Prime Minister think it is acceptable that one third of people who need an urgent GP appointment on the day that they ask for one are being turned away because of the shortage of GPs?
We recognise that GPs are a vital part of the NHS, and there are actually more GPs in the NHS today than there were in 2015. We have made it easier for people to access their GPs by ensuring that GP surgeries are open for more days of the week. We are incentivising GP trainees to work in hard-to-recruit areas and making it easier and quicker for qualified doctors to return to the NHS. Under our NHS long-term plan, we will see—for the first time in its 70-year history—the proportion of funding for primary medical and community care increasing as a percentage of the NHS budget. That is because it is this Government who recognise the importance of primary care in our national health service, and it is this Government whose careful management of the economy means there is money available to put into our national health service.
Mr Speaker, if you go to any A&E department in the country, you will find that staff are under enormous pressure precisely because there is a shortage of GPs available to see people in the first place. At the same time as he promotes private GP services, the Conservative Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is overseeing the biggest drop in NHS GPs for 50 years. One in 10 GPs are now seeing twice as many patients as is safe for them to see—that is the pressure they are under. The NHS has failed to meet its A&E waiting time target for nearly four years. In March this year, more than one in five patients waited more than four hours to be seen. Will the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government, apologise to the tens of thousands of people waiting for too long in deep distress just to get seen at an A&E department, because of the pressure A&Es are under?
We recognise the importance of these targets in the NHS. That is why one of the elements of the 10-year long-term plan in the NHS—funded by the biggest cash boost in the NHS’s history, which was given by this Conservative Government because of their good management of the economy—is to ensure that we are improving those targets. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to stand up and apologise for the fact that the A&E waiting-time target has not been met not for four years, but for over a decade under a Labour Government in Wales.
The reality is that, under a Tory Government, spending and investment in the NHS is less than it was under Labour, and, even with the Prime Minister’s funding announcements, that remains the case. The complacent attitude and platitudes hide the reality that, under the Tories, our health service is going through the longest funding squeeze in history: 20,000 jobs in mental health units are unfilled; public satisfaction with GP services is the worst on record; cancer treatment delays are the worst on record; A&E waiting times are the worst on record; and, tragically, infant mortality is rising. Will the Prime Minister admit that the Government have failed the health service, failed NHS staff, and, therefore failed the patients who rely on the NHS?
There are more people alive today because our cancer treatment has improved than would have been the case in 2010. At the previous election, someone said that an extra £7 billion for the NHS would
“give our NHS the resources it needs to deliver the best possible care for patients.”
I wonder who that was. It was none other than the Leader of the Opposition. Are this Government giving the NHS £7 billion? No! Are they giving it twice that—£14 billion? No! They are giving the NHS £20 billion. I am proud of this Government’s record and the Conservative party’s record on the NHS. It is the Conservative party that is giving the NHS its biggest cash boost in its history. It is the Conservative party that is giving it a sustainable 10-year long-term plan to ensure that it is there for people in the future. Under the Conservative party, we have seen more nurses and more doctors in our national health service dedicated to caring for patients. That is only possible because it is the Conservative Government who manage our economy and manage our public finances. A Labour party in government would crash our economy, meaning less money for the NHS, less money for its staff and less care for its patients.
My hon. Friend has raised an important issue and I thank her for doing so. I recognise the importance of this for many parents. Currently, parents can use the shared parental leave and pay scheme to take up to six months off work together, or to stagger their leave and pay so that one of them is always at home with their child in the first year. We are evaluating the shared parental leave and pay scheme. We want to see how we can improve the system for parents. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy hopes to publish findings on this issue later this year.
I also congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Wessex—[Interruption.] Sussex. We have had 113 days since the Prime Minister’s deal was rejected by Parliament—[Interruption.]
Order. Members are rather over-excitable. The right hon. Gentleman’s question must and will be heard.
It has been 113 days since the Prime Minister’s deal was rejected by Parliament. A month of Tory talks with Labour, and we are still no further forward. The clock is ticking down and yet the Prime Minister is silent. When exactly will this House have an update from the Prime Minister?
I had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would join me in congratulating the Earl and Countess of Dumbarton on the birth of their child.
We are indeed talking with the Labour party. The public gave this House a very clear message last week—that they want us to get on and deliver Brexit. It is absolutely right that we do so, and we are working on an agreement that can command a majority of this House. If the right hon. Gentleman is so keen for us to get on with delivering Brexit, why did he not vote for the deal in the first place?
Scotland does not want a Labour-Tory Brexit stitch-up. Scotland voted to remain, and once again—with no Scottish representation in the talks—our nation is being ignored. Does the Prime Minister think that this is good enough for a supposed Union of equals? She must confirm today that any deal will be put back to the people for a final say.
I have had talks with the right hon. Gentleman in the past on the issue of the Brexit deal. I have also discussed the matter with the First Minister of Scotland, and it has been made clear that any discussions on these matters should be with the First Minister. On the question of a second referendum, I remain absolutely of the view, as I have always been—I am not going to change my answer to him—that we should be delivering on the result of the first referendum that took place.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to congratulate AFC Fylde, who I believe are known as the Coasters, on their recent success. We wish them the best for the play-off final at Wembley. AFC Fylde is a very good example of how clubs can engage with their local communities. We want to see these partnerships taking place, as they lead to excellent work in communities. We are currently investing more money than ever in community football programmes and facilities, and we fully intend the funding levels in this area to continue. We have regular meetings with the FA and Premier League to encourage this activity at a local level, but my hon. Friend is right to congratulate AFC Fylde not only on their success on the pitch, but on the changes that they are making to lives in their community through the work they are doing there.
I commend the hon. Lady for her work on the APPG. We are working on providing the Green Paper on social care. She complains that it has been delayed for a matter of months, but may I remind her that the last Labour Government had 13 years to deliver a sustainable social care system, and they did absolutely nothing?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the work that the all-party parliamentary group for British bioethanol is doing on this issue. E10 would help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but it is not approved for use in all petrol vehicles. Any decision to introduce the new grade of petrol must balance the needs of consumers with the emissions reductions it could help to deliver. We will be publishing our next steps on E10 petrol later in the year. I am sure that the Department for Transport will study with interest the findings of the APPG’s inquiry into the issue.
I answered the question about a second referendum earlier and my view has not changed in the few minutes since I did so. I believe that we should deliver on the first referendum. But can I challenge the right hon. Lady on what she said? It is not right that outside the European Union those children have no future. This country has a bright future outside the European Union, and that is the message she should be giving to her constituents.
My right hon. Friend has raised an important issue, because obviously the Palace of Westminster is recognised over the world as a symbol of democracy, and the decision that was taken by Parliament to approve the restoration and renewal programme was a huge step towards its protection. As he says, we will be introducing the Bill today, and I am pleased that we are able to do that. The decision to move to Richmond House was of course a matter for Parliament. I understand that although Richmond House will be substantially redeveloped, the proposals will retain Richmond Terrace and the Whitehall façade. I am sure that, as he indicated at the end of his question, he will agree with me that it is imperative that Parliament keeps the total bill as low as possible.
Obviously the hon. Gentleman has set out a very specific case and I will ensure that the Department looks at that case. It is—[Interruption.] I will ensure that the Department looks carefully at the case that he has set out. It is an important issue. The Department for Work and Pensions has been doing work to ensure that appeals can be heard in a timely fashion to give people that confidence and reassurance.
In the light of last week’s debate in this place and the advice of the Committee on Climate Change, could the Prime Minister indicate whether the Government will be legislating for net zero emissions by 2050?
I commend my hon. Friend, who is a regular and consistent champion on these issues of environment and climate change. We are looking at the result of the review that was undertaken by the independent committee in relation to our targets for the future. We have, as I am sure she would agree, a good record in our decarbonisation and changes to emissions that we have been undertaking over recent years. We will look very carefully at the report and make a formal response to it in due course.
We recognise the concerns about the level of knife crime. That is why I will be chairing the first serious violence taskforce this afternoon, following the summit we held a few weeks ago, bringing all parts of Government together to ensure that we are putting all efforts into dealing with this issue. Diverse elements need to be addressed, and we need to ensure that we turn young people away from violence. That is being done in various ways across the country, and Government are clear about the need for us to work with local authorities and others across the board to deal with this very difficult issue.
I know the Prime Minister will welcome the news that Asia Bibi, who was persecuted for her faith, is on her way to Canada, which has offered her sanctuary. I think everyone wants to know the Prime Minister’s answer to this question: why did Canada offer sanctuary to Asia Bibi, but the United Kingdom did not? Will future such cases of religious freedom be looked at differently by the United Kingdom?
I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the reports that Asia Bibi has been able to travel freely and can now make decisions about her future. Our concern was always her safety and security. We were in close contact with the Government of Pakistan and a range of international partners who were considering the offers that would be available to Asia Bibi. Canada made this offer, and we felt it was right and appropriate that we supported that offer. That is important. We have a proud record of welcoming people here who have been persecuted because of their faith, and we will continue that record, but in individual cases like this, it is important for international partners to work together with the key aim constantly of ensuring that the safety, security and best interests of the individual are put first and foremost.
As the hon. Lady knows, we are making around £1 billion extra available for police this year, which includes a significant amount of extra money available for the Metropolitan police. Extra money is also being put into violence reduction units in hotspots around the country, including London, to ensure that we deal with the issue of serious violence, which the Government take very seriously and will be dealing with in a number of ways across Departments.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has tried her best. Nobody could fault or doubt her commitment and sense of duty, but she has failed. She has failed to deliver on her promises. We have lost 1,300 hard-working councillors, and sadly the public no longer trust her to run the Brexit negotiations. Is it not time to step aside and let someone new lead our party, our country and the negotiations?
First, may I say to my hon. Friend that I am sorry that we saw so many good Conservative councillors lose their seats last week, often through no fault of their own? I have been a councillor; I know the hard work and dedication that it takes. I have also been a councillor who has stood in an election against a difficult national background under a Conservative Government, so I know what that feels like as well. I thank all those councillors for their hard work, and I congratulate those Conservative councillors who won their seats for the first time across the country. May I also say to my hon. Friend—[Interruption.] No, wait for it. Actually, this is not an issue about me, and it is not an issue about her. If it were an issue about me and how I vote, we would already have left the European Union.
At the risk of starting a trend, we have had Liverpool, AFC Fylde and now Sheffield United, and I am happy to congratulate it in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests.
On the issue of education, as I have said, more money is available. We are making more money available in every area for every school. That is what this Government are doing. In his own area, he sees several thousand more children in good and outstanding schools; that is important. The Labour party may talk constantly about the money going into schools, but what matters is the quality of education that children receive. More children in his area in good and outstanding schools, the disadvantage attainment gap narrowed and more disadvantaged young people going to university—that is a good record. It is a record this Government can be proud of.
May I, too, congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Sussex? As I former member of the Coldstream Guards, may I pass on my sympathy to the family of Guardsman Mathew Talbot, who has recently been killed?
May I congratulate the new Secretary of State for Defence on her appointment? It is a highly privileged position to be in, and she will be responsible for sending our brave men and women into dangerous positions. To do that, she must gain their respect and get to know them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is, in itself, a full-time job?
First, may I take the opportunity my hon. Friend has given me to commend the former Secretary of State for Defence for his commitment to the armed forces—the men and women of our armed forces?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that, obviously, as Secretary of State for Defence my right hon. Friend will be needing to get to know the men and women of our armed forces. I have to say that I think my right hon. Friend, as a former Minister in the Ministry of Defence and a Royal Naval reservist, starts from a very good position to do that. May I also say to my hon. Friend, on the implication of his question, that there is a lot to be done in our armed forces on the questions of equality? I think my right hon. Friend is absolutely the right person to be dealing with that issue, as well as ensuring that she is speaking up for and promoting the best interests of the brave men and women of all our armed forces.
The hon. Lady makes out as though I am the only person across this House who thinks we should not have a second referendum. In fact, this House has consistently rejected a second referendum.
Given the 2017 law requiring everyone in China to co-operate with that communist country’s intelligence services, would it not be naive to the point of negligence to allow Huawei further to penetrate our critical national infrastructure, and should we not be grateful to all those Ministers, present and former, who have opposed this reckless recommendation?
We are taking a robust risk-based approach that is right for our UK market and network and that addresses the UK national security needs. The UK is not considering any options that would put our national security communications at risk, either within the UK or with our closest allies. No one takes national security more seriously than I do, and I say to my right hon. Friend that I think my record speaks for itself.
It is under this Government that we see the lowest gender pay gap. It is this Government that introduced the race disparity audit, which is, finally, properly shining a light on public services and what is happening for people from different communities. On the issue that the hon. Lady raises about jobs in the digital sector, the industrial strategy deals with AI and digital as one of its grand challenges. The industrial strategy is exactly about ensuring that the economy works for everyone and that the sorts of jobs that she is talking about are available for people across this country.
I was pleased to welcome the Prime Minister to North East Lincolnshire last Friday evening to mark success in the local elections. It is good to know that the Cleethorpes constituency now has two Conservative-controlled unitary authorities. The Prime Minister will recall that the new council leader, Philip Jackson, and I mentioned to her the Greater Grimsby town deal. I know that she will want to push that forward as part of the industrial strategy, which she has just mentioned. Will she agree to facilitate meetings for me and the new council leader to push it forward?
I take this further opportunity to congratulate the new leader of North East Lincolnshire, his new councillors and the whole Conservative council group on taking control of North East Lincolnshire last week, and indeed to congratulate my hon. Friend on his work in campaigning to secure that excellent result. He is absolutely right; he and the council leader made that point about the town deal, and I will facilitate meetings between my hon. Friend, the council leader and the Ministers responsible.
I call on the House to celebrate 20 years of devolution, and I look forward to the nation of Wales taking our proper place among the nations of Europe.
Today, 32-year-old Imam Şiş of Newport is on his 143rd day of indefinite hunger strike, and the condition of his health is now critical. He is one of many Kurds on hunger strike around the world, including four others in the UK, protesting the treatment of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, who is imprisoned in Turkey and whose human rights are clearly breached by the Turkish Government. The hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and I, along with 48 other MPs and Welsh Assembly Members, have today written to the Foreign Secretary asking him to apply pressure on Turkey to uphold the human rights of the Kurds. I am confident that the Prime Minister respects the urgency and gravity of the situation. Will she please commit to intervening?
The right hon. Lady has raised an important issue. We absolutely expect Turkey to undertake any legal processes against prisoners fairly, transparently and with full respect for the rule of law. That includes ensuring access to appropriate medical treatment. The British ambassador in Ankara has discussed the wider issue of hunger strikes with the Turkish authorities, but we will continue to encourage the Turkish state to uphold the human rights of hunger striking detainees, including access to medical treatment. As the right hon. Lady says, she and others have written to the Foreign Secretary, and I will ensure that the Foreign Secretary addresses the issue urgently.
Our GPs are a very special group of public servants, and it is good news that we have recruited them in record numbers over the last two years. Will the Prime Minister do everything she can to make sure that we look after their job satisfaction, and specifically to help them with the pensions penalty that some of them face in their mid-50s, which is driving some of them out of the profession?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about GPs. They are indeed a vital part of our NHS—they are the bedrock of our NHS—and that is why, as I indicated earlier in response to the Leader of the Opposition, I think it is so important that the long-term plan includes extra investment in primary and community care. The new, historic five-year contract for general practice announced in January was developed in partnership with the BMA, and it will provide greater certainty for GPs to plan ahead.
Another way in which we can help GPs is by providing funding, which we will see, towards up to 20,000 extra staff in GP practices, helping to free up doctors to spend more time with the patients who need them. As my hon. Friend has indicated, we are committed to recruiting more GPs—an extra 5,000—as soon as possible, and to ensuring that they can maintain their careers and continue to provide services to their patients as they do, day in and day out.
Medomsley detention centre in my constituency was a living hell for the boys and young men sent there from across the UK in the ’70s and ’80s. Rape and torture were commonplace. So far, 1,800 men have bravely come forward to say they were affected. Some of those young men reported that abuse decades before the first person was convicted for some of the crimes committed. Nearly a year ago I met the Home Secretary, along with a victim of abuse at Medomsley, to make the case for a public inquiry. Many of the victims are not covered by the inquiry into child sexual abuse because of their age. We need to know what happened at Medomsley. We need justice for survivors and we need to make sure it never happens again. Will the Prime Minister please say that we will have an independent public inquiry into the abuse at Medomsley detention centre?
I take very seriously the issue the hon. Lady raises and what happened at Medomsley detention centre. The independent inquiry into child abuse is looking into historical cases of abuse in state institutions. It is doing so on a step-by-step basis in the areas it is looking at. I am surprised at the statement she made that the Medomsley detention centre cases were not able to be covered by that inquiry and I will certainly look at that issue.
Along with Scottish colleagues, I was pleased to welcome the Prime Minister to Aberdeen on Friday. The Prime Minister will be aware that the SNP Scottish Government want to postpone devolved VAT powers and delay social security powers, and have U-turned on the air departure tax. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is time for new leadership in Scotland? It is time for Ruth Davidson in Bute House.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. What do we see from the SNP Government in Scotland? We gave them powers over welfare payments, which they asked for—not used. It was an SNP manifesto commitment to cut air passenger duty. They have the power. They are not going to use it. But what are they using? They have used their power to change taxes, so that people doing a job in Scotland are being charged more tax than those doing the same job south of the border. When given the chance to help people, they reject it. When given the chance to take more money out of people’s pockets, they take it. It is certainly time for Ruth Davidson in Bute House.
Iran Nuclear Deal
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. To ask the Government to make a statement on the status of the Iran nuclear deal.
The UK notes with great concern the statement made by Iran today concerning its commitments under the joint comprehensive plan of action. We are analysing the detail of it and are in close contact with the other parties to the deal. Today’s announcement from Tehran is, I have to say to the House, an unwelcome step. We urge Iran not to take further escalatory steps, and to stand by its commitments. We are not at this stage talking about re-imposing sanctions, but one has to remember that they were lifted in exchange for the nuclear restrictions as part of the JCPOA. Should Iran cease meeting its nuclear commitments, there would of course be consequences, but so long as Iran keeps to its commitments then so too will the United Kingdom. It is critical that we maintain an open dialogue with Iran, and we intend to do so: for example, the Foreign Office’s political director is visiting Tehran this week to discuss this and a range of bilateral issues. I myself hope to visit Iran in the coming months.
We recall our own firm commitments under the deal, including to lift sanctions for the benefit of the Iranian people. The lifting of nuclear-related sanctions is, of course, an essential part of the JCPOA. It aims to have a positive impact not only on trade and economic relations with Iran but, most importantly, on the lives of the many ordinary Iranian people who have had such a tough time over recent decades. We deeply regret the re-imposition of sanctions by the United States following its withdrawal from the JCPOA.
Along with the remaining participants of the JCPOA—Germany, France, Russia and China—we are committed to working on sanctions relief for Iran, together with third countries that are interested in supporting the JCPOA. We are determined to pursue efforts with European and other partners to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran. The UK and our European partners met Iranian officials in Brussels only yesterday to discuss the next steps needed to operationalise the special purpose vehicle, INSTEX—instrument in support of trade exchanges—which aims to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran.
Even at this stage, we encourage all countries, including Russia and China as JCPOA participants, to make their very best efforts to pursue the sanctions relief that the agreement allows for through concrete steps. We take this opportunity to call on all parties that are not party to the JCPOA to refrain from taking any actions that would impede the ability of the remaining parties to fully perform their commitments.
Finally, it is important to remember that the UK remains very clear-eyed about Iran’s destabilising activity in other parts of the middle east—including its ballistic missile programme, which must now be addressed. However, we see that that can best be done through the JCPOA remaining in place.
It is now a year since the US Government unilaterally withdrew from the joint comprehensive plan of action, better known as the Iranian nuclear deal. The Trump Administration have recently announced the forthcoming expansion of oil sanctions to all countries that buy oil from Iran, and have dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Gulf.
This morning, the Iranian Government announced that they are suspending key parts of the 2015 deal, citing the effect of US sanctions against their economy. Among other actions, Iran has stated that it will keep stocks of enriched uranium and heavy water rather than selling them on the international market, but it has threatened to resume production of enriched uranium in 60 days if the other signatories to the Iran deal—UK, France, China, Germany and Russia—do not plot a way forward to help the Iranian economy to withstand the effects of the US oil and financial sanctions.
It does not take me to remind the Minister that reaching the deal took broadly 10 years of diplomacy. At the time, it helped to avert a regional conflict; the House will remember how close the US, the UK and Israel came to military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2012. You will remember, Mr Speaker, that I led a Backbench Business debate on the issue at the time, in which I called for more diplomacy and less sabre-rattling. The House should also remember that the United Nations has made it clear that as far as it is concerned, Iran has abided by the deal—this is a unilateral action by the US.
I ask the Minister what else the Government can do to ensure the continuance of this important nuclear non-proliferation treaty, because whatever they are doing is clearly not succeeding at this point. I do not think that I am alone in believing that if the deal fails, there is a real chance of nuclear proliferation across the region. If that happened, I doubt whether there would be any winners in the conflict.
I will add one further point. Yes, we know that Iran is up to no good with some of its other activities in the region—terrorist activities and so forth. In diplomacy, however, going from imperfection to perfection in international relationships cannot be done in one bound; it is a series of small steps. The important thing is to head in the right direction. If the deal is allowed to fail, it will make for conflict in the region and possibly an escalation of nuclear capabilities. That would be bad news not just for the region, but for the world. The Foreign Office has to do more to use its diplomacy with regard to the US.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the JCPOA is a cornerstone. It is critical for our security, not least because nuclear proliferation in that region of all regions would be calamitous. We therefore remain committed to it—as he rightly points out, it is the result of hard work over more than a decade of diplomacy. In the 18 years that we have been Members of Parliament, he has taken great interest in these matters; I very much respect his thoughtful contributions.
I ask my hon. Friend, and all hon. Members, to be assured that diplomacy continues. I very much hope to go to Tehran shortly, where we have an outstanding ambassador in Rob Macaire. As I pointed out earlier, we are working tirelessly on a mechanism to ensure that trade can continue, and that prosperity can therefore return to Iran; we were doing that in Brussels in the past 24 hours. Continued work is very much on our mind. We believe that the deal is broadly working, and is therefore delivering on its goal to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme remains exclusively peaceful.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing it and for the consistency and clarity of his statements, which go back many years, about the need for peace with Iran.
Today is a deeply sad day for all of us, on all sides, who regarded the Iran nuclear deal as one of the crowning diplomatic achievements of this century and who saw it as opening a door to potential progress on all the other issues on which we have such grave problems with Iran— not least its human rights record. We very much hope for the contrary of what we fear, which is not just that the door to progress has been closed today, but that a very different door is being opened—one that leads us back to the past and to the threat of a new and devastating conflict in an already devastated middle east.
Let us make no mistake. The theocratic wing of the Iranian Government has always wanted the nuclear deal to fail, just as much as Donald Trump and the neo-con hawks who advise him. Frankly, this is not the day—tempting though it is—to berate those who are seemingly destroying the deal and throwing away the prospect of future progress. Today is simply a day to ask what our Government, our European Union and our United Nations can do together to prevent the slide back to confrontation and, eventually, war.
Iran is a country nine times the size of Syria, with a population three and a half times that of Syria before its civil war. Colin Powell’s former top adviser, Lawrence Wilkerson, who helped to create the case for the Iraq war, saw a potential war with Iran as
“10 to 15 times worse…in terms of casualties and costs.”
My only question to the Government today is the same question asked by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay: what practical steps will they now take to get the nuclear deal back on track and avoid descent into a catastrophic new war?
I thank the right hon. Lady. As she alluded to, it is appropriate, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo here in town to see the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, to look at the narrow facts rather than try to make a broader political point, although she also did so in her comments.
As I said earlier, we believe that the deal is working and is delivering its goal to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme remains peaceful. That it is working has been confirmed by consecutive International Atomic Energy Agency reports, the most recent of which was published as recently as 22 February.
We accept that Iran’s nuclear activities must be peaceful, and that it is imperative therefore that it continue to comply with its obligations under the JCPOA. We will do all we can, not just bilaterally but internationally, including at the United Nations. It is interesting, as I pointed out earlier, that both China and Russia understand the grave concerns of the international community about the major and damaging consequences that could come into play.
It was very fair of the right hon. Lady to point out that Iran has been a destabilising influence and remains so—look at Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza, where various proxies are in place—but equally we must work together with diplomacy. A lot of that work goes on quietly behind the scenes. Please be assured that those efforts will continue, not least because destabilisation in the region would have global consequences.
I do not always agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), but he has got this absolutely right, and I commend him for both the question and the way he put it.
The action of Iran today is not particularly unexpected, but it is incontrovertible that it drops at a time of much-heightened rhetoric around the situation between Iran and the US, and in a complex region where the risk of confrontation has now been increased. What appears to be missing is a channel between Washington and Tehran, however private, to start de-escalating some of this rhetoric and, with regard to allies in the region who take strong views on this, to move away from confrontation.
I note that there is a 60-day delay before the Iranians take further action. In a sense, that is an offer to make progress on negotiations. In the talks today between the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and Secretary of State Pompeo, can we start to explore, however privately—the Americans might not be able to say much about it—the urgent need for that direct back-channel link, which needs to be built if we are to move away from what the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) accurately characterised as the possibility of something catastrophic in the not-too-distant future?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. He will appreciate that we do not comment directly on intelligence matters, but he will also understand that the discussions today in Downing Street and at the Foreign Office will inevitably touch on this, as well as other important bilateral issues. We share many of the US’s concerns about Iran’s destabilising activities in the region, and although it would not be proper for me to comment on intelligence matters, we will maintain an ongoing and deep conversation on this matter with all parts of the US Administration. As I said, the Foreign Secretary is speaking—at this very moment, I believe—with Secretary of State Pompeo. As was alluded to in the last two questions, it is understood that the US is deploying more military assets to the region. This is a matter for the US, and we share its concerns about Iran’s regional activities, but equally we believe it important to de-escalate many of these tensions.
I thank the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing this urgent question and for his remarks. I agree that we have to note the painstaking diplomacy that led to the agreement.
These latest developments are incredibly concerning to all Members, who are worried about the impact on global and regional security, as the Minister mentioned. If the UK has influence, it must be used to urge the US and Iran to re-engage and, critically, to work towards not just an agreement, but a world free from these appalling weapons of mass destruction. Noting the remarks of the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), which were considered, as always, I must say with great respect to the Minister, who has an awful lot on his plate, that dysfunction at the heart of Government should not be allowed to spread elsewhere. Does the Minister know when a Minister for the Middle East will be appointed? I say that with respect to him and all the work he has on his plate. What conversations has the Foreign Secretary had with his counterparts in the US and the EU on the need to get an agreement back on track and also to build a stable, nuclear-free world?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his—I think kind—comments. I am perfectly happy being the interim Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, as well as holding the Asia and Pacific brief. He will appreciate that unfortunately we are all rather ensconced here, so travelling out to the far-flung bits of Asia is a bit of a no go, but, with my Foreign Office experience, I have been able to perform these two roles pro tem and I intend to do so to the best of my abilities in the weeks and months ahead.
The Foreign Secretary works closely on these issues with UN and EU partners, and we are actively looking at them. In my first comments, I touched on the work being done on the mechanism to maintain trade, which is an important part of balancing expectations. One of the concerns of many in the Iranian community over the last four years has been that they have not felt that they have had as much as they should have had of the economic benefits flowing from the sacrifices—as they see it—they made on the nuclear programme. We are very keen to keep those benefits intact on a sanctions-free basis. The Foreign Secretary and others in the Foreign Office are spending a lot of time trying to ensure that we get that into play. I think the hon. Gentleman can be assured that the Foreign Office is working very hard on these matters, and we feel that we are able to do so with the resources that we have.
I observe the interest of three notable parliamentary bigwigs—otherwise known as Chairs of Select Committees. What a delicious and inviting choice. I call Tom Tugendhat.
I am grateful that the former Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), has made his views clear and shared with the House his, as ever, wise counsel. I welcome the Minister to his place, but I agree, I am afraid, with the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) that, though the Minister does a brilliant job, he himself I know is looking for a bit of extra support, although he gets a lot of support from his parliamentary friends.
How much of this is about an internal debate in Iran and concerned not so much with US relations as with the internal palace coups we have seen involving the mullahs, the elected Government, the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militias? The country is falling apart. There is a youth movement challenging authority in a way not seen in the 40 years since the Revolutionary Guard established this extraordinary tyranny. We are seeing a fundamental change in the structure of what should be one of the greatest and most prosperous countries in the region. What is the Minister doing to encourage those for whom liberty is an opportunity and who do not see control as the only vector through which order can be established?
I will take that as a job application and will see that it is passed on to No. 10 Downing Street and the Chief Whip. I also had a whisper in my ear just then. It is only fair that I mention the great team of Parliamentary Private Secretaries and others who provide certain assistance on these matters. I have to keep in their good books at the best of times.
My hon. Friend makes some very wise and important points. It is probably unwise to speculate about the stability of a regime—no doubt there have been predictions in the last 40 years about the stability of the Iranian regime—but he makes a valid point. This is a country at the heart of the region. It is a country of 65 to 70 million people and is a hugely important player, but it is not fulfilling its potential, in terms of prosperity, for its people, in spite of its great assets both capital and human. We would obviously like to see a more stable Iran and Iranian Government. As I said, it would be unwise to make too many predictions at our end, but it is fair to say there is instability within the regime, although it is difficult to predict where that will lead. Suffice it to say that we view the JCPOA in all its facets—not just nuclear disarmament, but its economic aspects—as a cornerstone of the continued co-operation between our countries.
The Iran nuclear deal is imperfect, but it is a significant achievement that helps to make our world safer, and it is too important for us to let it unravel. A key pressure point is obviously the soaring inflation that is hitting ordinary Iranians hard, although, as the Minister says, Iran has kept to its side of the bargain. What can the Government do to help to mitigate the effects of the reckless and short-sighted US sanctions on ordinary Iranian people, and to help to de-escalate the situation and get the deal back on track?
While I broadly agree with the hon. Lady, I think it fair to say that the destabilising impact of Iran in that region is not exactly part and parcel of the bargain either. We have had debates and urgent questions about what is happening in Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon and, of course, Syria, where Iran’s influence has been profound, and we obviously have concerns about that destabilising influence. So things are a little more complicated that the hon. Lady has suggested.
We feel that the JCPOA is the only game in town. That is why, although the US has pulled out of it, we are determined to ensure that we remain actively engaged. As the hon. Lady said, the sanctions relief is the key incentive for Iran to remain bound by the restriction of its nuclear programme, which is why we are so keen to get the special purpose vehicle, INSTEX, in place at the earliest opportunity. It is not yet operational, but the E3—France, Germany and ourselves—are working to address all the technical and legal aspects required to make it operational, and once it is up and running, there will be great trade benefits.
There is genuine debate within Iran—we have no doubt about that—and we therefore feel that it is very important for the UK, with our partners, to engage through diplomatic channels, with the support of those who have a brighter future in mind for that country.
Given the vital importance of the intelligence arrangements that we share with the United States, in the context of this particular crucial and worrying situation, will the Minister encourage the Foreign Secretary to persevere in his attempts to make sense prevail in the Cabinet, so that our intelligence relationships with the US and other Five Eyes allies are not put at risk by cosying up to the communist Chinese Government for short-sighted commercial reasons?
My right hon. Friend and I have had many happy times in our five years together on the Intelligence and Security Committee, and have discussed a range of these matters. As he will know, intelligence issues should not be discussed on the Floor of the House, but he has made his view clear, and I will ensure that the Foreign Secretary is made well aware of it.
The Foreign Secretary is currently meeting the US Secretary of State, Mr Pompeo. What conversations are taking place about Germany? Is Mr Pompeo being encouraged to go back to plan A, which was to visit Germany and speak to his German counterpart—given that Germany was a key partner in the original JCPOA—so that we can form a united front in tackling the crucial question of nuclear disarmament?
I very much hope that Secretary of State Pompeo will be able to visit Germany at the earliest opportunity, or indeed to engage in high-level meetings with his German counterpart, whether at the United Nations in New York or elsewhere. In fairness, I think that he rearranged his programme very late in the day. It was considered important for him to be in Iraq to gain an understanding of what was happening on the ground in Iran, so his programme was reorganised at fairly short notice, but we will ensure that those heartfelt concerns are passed on.
I certainly agree with the Minister that this development is extremely unwelcome, and that there is now a need for calm and for judgment. He mentioned legitimate trade. He will be aware that a significant number of jobs, both here and in Iran, have been created through various trade deals, which is obviously in the interests of both countries. Will he say a bit more about what he is doing to support the role of the INSTEX special purpose vehicle that will be set up under sanctions relief to encourage more legitimate trade?
Let me first thank my hon. Friend for all the hugely important work that he does. He is our trade envoy to Libya, which is obviously a difficult role, but in the past he was our Minister for Africa in the Foreign Office, and I know that his contribution there is remembered very fondly.
My hon. Friend has made a good point about the special purpose vehicle, which is important because it will ensure that we see genuine and lasting sanctions relief. The SPV is designed to facilitate legitimate trade under both European and international law. Its immediate focus will understandably be on the facilitation of trade where the immediate needs of the Iranian people are greatest—the humanitarian needs for foodstuffs, agricultural products, pharmaceuticals and trade in consumer goods. That will obviously have an impact on UK companies wishing to trade with Iran, as well as benefiting the Iranian people. The UK, France and Germany are the initial owners and shareholders of the SPV, but we are working with other interested EU member countries that may also wish to play a formal role in these initiatives.
The millions of young people in Iran who have suffered under the oppressive theocratic regime were hopeful that the JCPOA would lead to an easing of sanctions, which would in turn lead to economic benefits, but because of the incompetence and corruption of the regime, that easing of sanctions has not had the economic impact for which they hoped. Can we send a clear message to the people of Iran that if we have to re-impose sanctions because their regime broke its word, we will not be acting against the Iranian people, and that we look forward to the day when they will be able to choose their Government freely?
The hon. Gentleman has, perhaps, used slightly less diplomatic language than I might have used, but I think that the message to the Iranian people from all of us here is loud and clear: “We are very much on your side.” Iran remains a priority country for the UK in relation to its human rights situation, to which he alluded. On 15 November, the UN General Assembly Third Committee approved a resolution, co-sponsored by the UK, which urged Iran to address a long list of human rights violations, including the widespread use of arbitrary detention. We very much want to see a move towards democracy and all the opportunities that that will provide for all Iranians, not only in human rights but in the broader arena of prosperity.
I hesitate to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), especially after he sponsored my swim in aid of my local hospital, but I have to say that when this agreement was reached, it was understood that Iran would stop supporting and funding Hezbollah and Hamas. Far from that being the case, support for Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups—which is also causing instability in the middle east—has increased to a major extent. May I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to take those matters into consideration when dealing with Iran? I actually think that the sanctions for which the Americans have opted are the right way forward.
I understand that my right hon. Friend swam a long way—I am a non-swimmer myself—and raised a lot of money. I hope that in the two neighbouring parts of Essex he and our hon. Friend will be sinking rather than swimming. [Interruption.] I think I got that the wrong way round. I meant “swimming rather than sinking”. [Interruption.] I always thought I would be the straight man in the Foreign Office—that was certainly the case with the last Foreign Secretary.
As my right hon. Friend knows, he and I disagree slightly on this matter. We feel that the JCPOA is the only game in town. We feel that, broadly speaking, it has worked, and we wish to see it work. I know that my right hon. Friend takes a different, albeit very principled, view, but we will continue to do all we can to ensure that the JCPOA succeeds in its own terms.
Obviously the risk of an escalation in the middle east will be significant if Iran decides to resume its nuclear programme. What is the Minister doing to address the risk of a further escalation, with responses from Saudi Arabia and also Israel, and a potential arms race in the middle east?
I understand why the hon. Gentleman asks that. Clearly we want to de-escalate tensions in the region, so he will also understand why it would be unwise of me to speculate further at the Dispatch Box.
No one wants nuclear proliferation in the middle east; anyone who does would have to be mad, and not even the so-called neo-cons in America want that. Can my right hon. Friend tell me why the Americans pulled out of this deal? I assume their decision was based on intelligence; have the British Government received that intelligence and do they agree with it, and if so why are we still pursuing this deal?
As my hon. Friend will understand, for obvious reasons I am not going to make any comment on intelligence-related matters. There was a concern at the time: the Trump Administration’s view was that it was a bad deal for the US, and it had of course been negotiated by the previous Administration. Let me restate our view: we urge Iran not to take any escalatory steps and to continue to meet its commitments under the deal, but while Iran is in full compliance we shall remain fully committed to the JCPOA, and I know that position is shared by the French and Germans.
Can the Minister reassure the House that the British Government will continue throughout the stages of this crisis to align with France and Germany as opposed to the US Administration, who seem intent on escalating the situation?
I very much hope the US is not intent on escalating this, and I hope we will come to an agreement with all our close allies in this region. We are working very closely with the EU3, two members of which are on the Security Council: Germany is on it this year and next and France, like us, is a permanent member. We will continue to do so, but we would very much like to see the American Administration also supporting many of the aims, which are the only positive realistic route forward and would be good not just for the Iranian people but the region as a whole.
I listen to this ongoing story of Iran and nuclear proliferation with a chill for fear of where it might lead, which is why I have stayed in the Chamber today. We have to put a stop to this. Does my right hon. Friend agree that strength can come from working with the remaining partners in the JCPOA and that through them we must ensure this plan remains in place, and also that we must, working jointly through them, put pressure on the US to deal with its sanctions and potentially remove them?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. It is worth remembering that Iran’s ballistic missile programme is a great threat to the security not just of the middle east but of Europe, and that cannot be ignored. We will continue to urge Iran to abide by all relevant UN Security Council resolutions. We call upon all parties to report to the UN activities inconsistent with the resolutions, and we will continue to keep the pressure up.
Iran’s actions announced today are highly regrettable and are the inevitable consequence of President Trump’s decision last year. However, I echo what the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said and say to the Minister that if, as it says, the Iranian regime wants to negotiate new terms it must also address its support for terror groups such as Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which together fired some 700 rockets, missiles and mortars indiscriminately at Israel from Gaza last weekend, killing four people. It is not acceptable to leave out the ending of that kind of behaviour if new terms are being demanded.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. We first came across each other 22 years ago this week, but in a different context, as some will know. [Interruption.] For the avoidance of doubt for the rest of the House, she beat me in the 1997 election—and look where we have both ended up; isn’t it terrible?
The right hon. Lady makes a serious point, and we were also deeply upset by the death of those four Israeli civilians last weekend and very worried about the potential for escalation. Thankfully, I think wise voices have ensured that that has not happened. She makes a good point, as I said, and a concern we have, shared by some in the US Administration, is that Iran being an ongoing destabilising influence in the region is not compatible with sanctions being lifted.
The JCPOA is headed entirely in the direction many of us told the Government it would be, and for me what is most disappointing is the millions of people in Iran whose future has been destroyed, and also the people in countries including Syria, Lebanon and Yemen who have been killed as a result of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and others taking the money released from the change in sanctions and putting it into death and destruction in the middle east. That has resulted in a destabilised middle east and a breakdown in international diplomacy. Importantly, we should now take the lead of Secretary Pompeo and say, “Let’s reopen this negotiation.” We should look not only at human rights in Iran and economic development in Iran, but at what the Iranian regime is doing with regard to its people and its future nuclear capability.
I disagree with my hon. Friend. I think the JCPOA has been an important attempt at least to try to bring stability to the region. The region was not stable before the JCPOA was negotiated between 2005 and 2015. We believe not just that the deal is based on trust about Iran’s intentions, but that it provides for rigorous verification and monitoring that allows the International Atomic Energy Agency access to Iran’s nuclear programme, and in return we want to see some economic sanctions being lifted. I understand the concerns my hon. Friend has raised, but it would be wrong to think we could either walk away from this plan of action or feel that it is open for fundamental renegotiation, and I do not think that would be practical diplomatic politics either.
But it is important to be clear about Iran’s “destabilising influence”, which the Minister euphemistically and diplomatically talked about. This is a regime that has been propping up the butchery of Assad, funding Hamas on an ongoing basis in killing Israelis with the intention of wiping them off the map and killing their own Palestinians, and funding the terror of the Houthis in Yemen. These are not inconvenient side issues not to be mentioned in the House; they actually show how deadly dangerous it would be if Iran were able to realise the long-held ambitions of some in the regime to hold the bomb. So I would like to hear a little more vigour from the Government about what they will do to make sure that sanctions and consequences are re-imposed, and I would like them to say that they will do whatever it takes to stop Iran getting a nuclear bomb.
The hon. Gentleman is right; he suggests I was being euphemistic, but I spelled out exactly where we have concerns. Those concerns have been raised by Members in all parts of the House and no doubt will continue to be raised; these are very issues whether in Gaza or Lebanon, or indeed Yemen or Syria. We clearly feel that an escalation at this stage as a result of what Iran is proposing to do is precisely the wrong way forward, and we want to find every opportunity to utilise whatever diplomatic weapons we can. That involves acting internationally at the UN, with our EU partners and elsewhere. We will continue to make those efforts, because the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it would be a calamitous escalation if there were any opportunity for Iran to restore and renew its nuclear capabilities.
Putting aside whether the nuclear deal should be dealt with separately from or in conjunction with Iran’s aggressive behaviour in the wider region, my specific question to the Minister is as follows. He talked about Iran’s profound negative influence in the region, whether in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain or Lebanon—and Morocco recently expelled the Iranian ambassador. The UK holds the pen on Yemen at the UN and knows about Iran’s aggressive behaviour in the region; what specifically will the UK with its partners be doing to check that Iranian aggressive behaviour in the region?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We have only this morning received the letter from Rouhani, and we will reply to it. Fundamentally, we are urging Iran not to take escalatory steps, but to continue to meet all its commitments under the deal and indeed any broader commitments reflecting a country that wants to co-operate with others in the region and internationally. It is too early to talk about the direct consequences, but we are clear that our commitment to the JCPOA requires the full compliance of its obligations by Iran.
This situation shows the importance of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office having stronger teams engaged in international treaties in the area of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Can the Minister reassure me that that is the case, and that even though we want to work together with Iran to ensure that the treaty works in the long term, that will not dissuade us from taking up matters such as human rights, the persecution of minorities in Iran and individuals who are being unjustly detained there?
I can give my hon. Friend a full assurance on that. He makes a good point. It is important, particularly in—dare I say it—a post-Brexit world, that this country should engage as far as it can with a range of international organisations, including the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organisation, to name but three. On the issue of human rights, the interactive dialogue with the special rapporteur for human rights in Iran took place as recently as 11 March, and the UK’s statement raised concerns about the judicial harassment of human rights defenders, the death penalty for child offenders under the age of 18 and the limits that are placed on freedom of expression, religion and belief. We continue to make those concerns very clear. The Foreign Secretary publicly shared his concerns about the sentencing of Nasrin Sotoudeh on 12 March, and we will regularly raise human rights issues with the Iranian Government at all levels and urge them to cease the harassment and arbitrary detention of all human rights defenders.
The Minister has given the House a comprehensive list of important international organisations with which the UK must engage. May I add NATO to that list? What conversations has he had recently with our NATO allies with regard to the agreement?
My list was obviously not entirely comprehensive. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I look forward to meeting him again in Westminster Hall this afternoon when we shall talk about West Papua in Indonesia. NATO is important, and what is happening in Iran and the potential for escalation on the nuclear side obviously have strong defence implications, so yes, NATO will very much be added to the list of organisations with which we will seek to engage on this globally important matter.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During last week’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) told me in reply to a question about solar that the UK had installed
“more than twice as much solar capacity as any other European country—more than Germany, France and Australia combined.”—[Official Report, 30 April 2019; Vol. 659, c. 105.]
Even if he meant Austria, rather than Australia, he is wrong either way. Germany alone has 46 GW of solar; the UK has only 13 GW. Germany, France and Austria together have four times the UK capacity at 56 GW, and Australia has 65 GW, which is five times the UK capacity. It seems that the joint Minister of State has failed on both Energy and Education. Mr Speaker, can I get your advice on how to bring the Minister back to the House to correct the record on this matter?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The answer to him is that responsibility for the veracity of statements made in this Chamber lies with each individual hon. and right hon. Member. The question of whether an error has been made that has caused the House to be misled is a matter not for adjudication by the Chair but for the judgment of individual colleagues. I feel sure that the contents of the hon. Gentleman’s point of order will shortly be winging their way to the Minister, and if he judges that he has made a mistake, I feel sure that he will consider himself honour bound to correct the record. There are a number of ways in which he can do that. He could return to the Chamber specifically to attend to the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I would not wish to encourage the hon. Gentleman to hold his breath. We will leave it there, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that he has found his own salvation. The smiling countenance that he now shows to the House suggests that that is so.
Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill
Andrea Leadsom, supported by the Prime Minister, David Lidington, Secretary James Brokenshire, Secretary Jeremy Wright, Secretary Chris Grayling, Secretary Rory Stewart, Elizabeth Truss, Kevin Foster, Michael Ellis, Sir Patrick McLoughlin and Valerie Vaz presented a Bill to make provision in connection with works for or in connection with the restoration of the Palace of Westminster and other works relating to the Parliamentary Estate; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 388) with explanatory notes (Bill 388-EN).
We come now to the ten-minute rule Bill, and the House will have noted the display of sisterly solidarity as I call Angela Eagle to move the motion.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require pension providers to publish standardised information on charges for pension products; to make provision for a cap on such charges; and for connected purposes.
My Bill will introduce greater transparency in the charges applied to pension savings by those who manage them on behalf of the beneficiaries, and introduce a mandatory cap on such charges.
The aim of the Bill is threefold: to drive down significantly the total cost of pension fund management; to achieve better value for money in what is currently a failing market; and to ensure that a higher proportion of pension savings will actually go to help the beneficiaries to achieve a comfortable retirement.
Currently, far too much of people’s hard-earned savings is being siphoned off in hidden charges and costs, and without firmer Government intervention this is likely to get worse rather than better. As a former pensions Minister, no one knows better than me how quickly eyes can glaze over at the merest mention of this subject, but the wellbeing of our society demands that we get this right. Currently, 34 million of our fellow citizens are either paying into or benefiting from pension savings, and the welcome introduction of automatic enrolment has brought millions more into workplace pensions saving for the first time. The automatic nature of this saving means that there is a special duty on the Government to ensure that funds accrued in this way are used to generate pension benefits for savers rather than profits for fund managers and intermediaries.
Despite the welcome cap of 0.75% on costs in these pension funds, it is clear that much more needs to be done. All the evidence demonstrates that this is a failing market. It suffers from information asymmetry for both customers and regulators, it is characterised by very weak if not entirely dysfunctional price signals, and one of its most revealing features is persistent and very high profits for those who supply services, which is the classic sign of market failure.
The pensions being offered are complex by design. Providers are being allowed to conceal many hidden charges that eat away at the individual pension pots in defined contribution schemes, under the noses of their clients. One particular pension product was discovered by consumer champions Which? to contain 44 different charges that could be levied on the fund. Price signals are weak because small, innocuous-looking fee levels can eat up massive amounts of an individual’s savings over time. As the Royal Society of Arts study led by David Pitt-Watson demonstrated in 2012, an annual fee of 1.5% can eat up a massive one third of a pension pot in 25 years.
Despite there being billions of pounds of savers’ money under management, it is not yet possible for any individual workplace saver to find out how much it actually costs them to be a member of their pension scheme, let alone to be able to compare these costs with those levied in other schemes. Thus, astonishingly, when it comes to pension saving it is currently completely impossible to assess the cost of any one scheme against another. It is impossible to make any estimate of what the value for money of any particular scheme will be, yet this decision is crucial to an individual’s future wellbeing and prosperity. Those 13.5 million members now automatically enrolled in defined contribution schemes are trapped in an employer-chosen fund where their only choice is whether to stay or to leave and forgo the valuable employer contribution. That is surely the definition of Hobson’s choice. In reality, it is no choice at all. It is no wonder that the Office of Fair Trading pronounced the pensions market for buyers to be “one of the weakest” that it had analysed “in recent years.” The answer to that problem is not more complexity and faux competition, but transparency of total costs and fees. There should also be a cap on charges.
Necessary transparency can be achieved only if charges and costs are comparable and easily understood across the sector. A mandatory cost disclosure framework defining how to calculate such costs is therefore vital. The results must then be a prominent part of the statements sent to every saver annually. My Bill would mandate transparency across the board on pensions charges by introducing a mandatory cost disclosure framework with independent verification. It would also establish a cap on charges during the accumulation stage of pension saving and crucially extend that to the decumulation stage, when the pension savings made are actually taken.
Pension products should quickly become more standardised and simplified, as they are in the Netherlands, where this reform has already been successfully introduced. In the Dutch case, introducing transparency led to an immediate and huge 31% fall in the cost of managing pensions per scheme. The beneficial impact for savers cannot be overestimated. Just as small increases in costs can eat up large amounts of a pension pot or fund over time, so small cost savings can lead to a huge improvement in fund size over the same period. Dutch regulators calculated that a cost reduction of only 0.25% would result in a massive 7.5% increase in collective pension assets over 40 years. Just think of the benefit that would accrue to all savers from a 31% fall in fund costs should that be achieved here in the UK.
My Bill aims to enable pension savers, rather than fund managers, to accrue a much higher proportion of the benefits generated over time by saving into a pension fund. Such practical and meaningful transparency also enables trustees to pursue their fiduciary duty much more effectively to achieve value for money for the beneficiaries. That makes them potentially a much more effective force for good.
Caps on costs also have a vital role to play in delivering better value for pension savers, which is why the Bill extends their use far wider than is currently allowed. As Unison pointed out in evidence to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, 90% of total costs paid by pension funds are linked to asset management. Asset managers are making record profits, but analysis demonstrates that this is rarely as a result of high performance outcomes.
As I mentioned earlier, in the case of auto-enrolment, a cap of 0.75% has been introduced. That was predictably opposed by fund managers and there was a shift from active to passive fund management as a result. The outcome was that funds that tracked the market passively made better returns than those that had actively invested and charged far higher fees. Evidence demonstrates that both actively and passively managed funds did not outperform their benchmarks when fees and charges were taken into account. In my view, that shows the urgent need for caps on charges.
The advent of so-called “pension freedoms”, which allow savers access to their money early, has created even more fertile ground for pensioner rip-offs. Yet there is no transparency and no caps are applied in circumstances of early drawdown. The cost of drawdown products, which now proliferate, needs to be included in moves to establish transparency and cap costs.
In 2016-17, £15.3 billion was removed early from pension savings—three times more than in the previous year, yet research by Which? has discovered wildly different charging structures and costs associated with the supply of those drawdown products. The highest prices are charged by some of the best-known providers, including by levying heavy fixed fees, set-up charges, administration charges and more general rip-off prices, exploiting the trust in a good brand name. That dubious practice would not survive price transparency and charge caps on drawdown products.
The Bill will mandate cost transparency and caps on charges to drive down cost and drive up value for money for pension savers. It is a timely and necessary reform. Without this further regulation, we will let down millions of pension savers and provide an ongoing bonanza of unjustifiably high profits for fund managers and intermediaries who exploit their power in a complex and failing market.
The time for the Bill is now and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Ms Angela Eagle, Maria Eagle, Debbie Abrahams, Stella Creasy, Ruth George, Tonia Antoniazzi, Rosie Cooper, Marsha De Cordova, Jack Dromey and Liz Twist present the Bill.
Ms Angela Eagle accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 389).
[Un-allotted Half Day]
TV Licences for Over-75s
I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to honour the Conservative party’s 2017 manifesto promise to maintain free TV licences for the over-75s for the duration of this Parliament by ensuring sufficient funding to do so and, should the BBC propose changes to the concession, to ensure that the proposed changes are subject to parliamentary consent.
The motion is in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, me and others, including the leader of the Liberal Democrats and the leader of the SNP.
The debate is about keeping a promise that the Conservative party made on page 66 of its election manifesto just two years ago. In case the Minister has not got a copy, I have managed to find a rare one, which was not shredded, in the Library. It makes for interesting reading. It is called “Forward Together” and claims to be a “Plan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future”. On page 66, it states:
“We will maintain all other pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this Parliament.”
No equivocation, no ambiguity—the Conservative party promised to maintain free TV licences for the duration of this Parliament. Yet we are here today because that promise lies in tatters: 4.5 million older people in receipt of free TV licences could be betrayed unless the Government act.
For many older people, their free TV licence staves off poverty, isolation and loneliness all in one go.
My hon. Friend will recall that last week I asked the Prime Minister a question about TV licences and bus passes and got an extremely vague answer. More importantly, when that manifesto was drawn up, the Prime Minister and the Government already knew that they had handed over responsibility to the BBC. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a deception on pensioners, but that more important is the question of the triple lock for pensioners, which cannot be debated today?
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for pensioners not just in Coventry but throughout the country. Last week, he exposed the ambiguity in the Government’s position. Yet the Government made a promise in their manifesto—the Prime Minister’s own manifesto; we are told that not many Front Benchers got to see it in advance of publication.
If the concession for over-75s ends, more than 5,000 households in Slough could lose their TV licences. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, the 2017 Conservative party manifesto promised to maintain free TV licences for the over-75s until 2022, but the Government have now reneged on their promise and passed the buck to the BBC.
Loneliness is an increasing problem for millions in our country, with four out of 10 people saying that television is their main source of company. Does my hon. Friend agree that cutting free TV licences will merely exacerbate the national loneliness crisis?
I agree, and I will come to loneliness a little later. Thankfully, the pensioners of Slough saw through the ambiguity of that manifesto and voted for my hon. Friend in the last election. We are very proud of his campaigning for pensioners.
The Government claim to care about loneliness, but the issue of TV licences is a significant worry for my over-75 population. It is within the Government’s gift to say that they will protect the free TV licence for over-75s. Does my hon. Friend agree that they should end their prevarication and do that today?
I do. The Government’s commitment to my hon. Friend’s constituents was very clear: they promised that free TV licences would last for the duration of this Parliament. We are seeking to get the Minister to honour that promise.
The Government are reneging not on a two-year pledge but on a 22-year pledge. When the Bill that introduced free TV licences went through the House of Commons, the then Opposition spokesman—Peter Ainsworth, Member for East Surrey—said:
“The Government will no doubt be interested to know whether the Opposition support the granting of free television licences to those over 75. In anticipation of that question, let me say at the outset that of course we give an enthusiastic welcome to any sensible measure that alleviates the burden of the licence fee on the elderly.”—[Official Report, 10 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 122.]
It is a 22-year rip-up by the Government, not a two-year one.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. He was part of the pioneering Government that gave this concession to pensioners because we believe that they deserve dignity in retirement and reward for their hard work and for paying their taxes.
This pattern is becoming more and more prevalent in the Government. They are outsourcing responsibility for decisions, including council cuts and police cuts, to other institutions. Is that not indicative of a lack of leadership on the Government Benches?
I am afraid it is, but in this case there is also the issue of a broken manifesto promise. We seek to expose that today and persuade the Minister that it is not too late to change her mind on this policy.
Almost 7,000 people in my area would lose the concession, were it to go. Does my hon. Friend agree that the over £1 million of costs to pensioners would take money out of already poor pockets? It is thus a double-whammy if the Government do not stick to their manifesto commitment.
I agree: it is the most vulnerable and loneliest who will be affected if this policy is implemented. That is why we called this debate.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. In principle, should a multimillionaire receive a free TV licence?
If we believe in universal benefits and that people who have paid into the Exchequer over their working lives are entitled to benefits, then yes. I hope the hon. Gentleman believes that his party should stick to its manifesto pledges.
My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in giving way. He mentions the impact on the vulnerable. My constituent Elizabeth Tombling, who is 95 years old, says that her TV licence is one of the few bits of pleasure she has in her old age, particularly as she is housebound. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is unfair on her?
It is not fair on my hon. Friend’s constituent and the many hundreds of thousands of other pensioners who will lose out. Very often, it is the most vulnerable and the loneliest pensioners who depend on the free TV licence.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will give way for the last time, and then I will make some progress.
The great pensioner champion, Jack Jones, once made a speech in which he said that one in five of the over-70s never sees anyone from one week to the next; the television is their friend. Jack thought that a generation of progress would never be reversed. Does my hon. Friend agree that those great pioneers of the pensioners movement would be turning in their graves at the thought that the free TV licence might be taken away from them?
What a great campaigner Jack Jones was. I thank my hon. Friend for raising his contribution. His legacy is the National Pensioners Convention, which is solidly against these proposals. I am sure we will talk about it later in the debate.
That is why the Government’s refusal to honour their manifesto pledge and save free TV licences is so cruel. My co-signatories on this motion show the degree of cross-party consensus on this matter. We are calling on the Government to rethink and change course urgently. The threat to TV licences is part and parcel of the Conservative austerity agenda, which has weakened our social fabric and impacted the most vulnerable in our communities. Our social contract, whereby people who work hard all their lives are afforded comfort in old age, is being slowly but certainly unpicked. Free TV licences are a small but important part of that social contract. Taking them away will force older people into poverty and leave many more feeling isolated and alone. Rather than standing by their manifesto promise and standing up for dignity and comfort in old age, the Government are taking it away.
Now a little history. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) said, the TV licence concession for over-75s was introduced just over 20 years ago by the Labour Government as part of a robust package of reforms to support our pensioners and boost their quality of life. The universal benefit was a result of a long campaign to show our oldest pensioners society’s appreciation. Some 4.5 million people over the age of 75 continue to benefit from free TV licences today. Although Labour did not commit explicitly in our last manifesto to continue that policy, our commitment was of course implicit. In case there is any misunderstanding among Ministers, let me be clear. If the Government fall before the natural end of the Parliament in 2022, Labour will honour the Conservative party manifesto pledge to protect TV licences until then.
Despite their manifesto promise of 2017, the Government had already set the stage for the concession to be cut, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) said. In 2015, they outsourced the responsibility for the TV licence concession on to the BBC as part of the charter renewal process.
I am interested that the hon. Gentleman is saying that a Labour Government coming to power before 2020 would restore the TV licence. Is he saying that a future Labour Government after 2020 will maintain the free TV licence for over-75s at a cost that, next year, will already have reached £745 million?
My answer to the right hon. Gentleman is a complicated one. We are committed to 2022. I do not write or decide our manifesto. He knows I cannot do that. Our commitment to pensioners and protecting their benefits will be very clear. It is highly likely that we will be supporting pensioners after 2022, but I cannot give that commitment today. I will certainly make sure we do not outsource welfare policy to a public broadcaster.
The Government’s outsourcing means that, as of 2020, the BBC will be fully responsible for deciding who gets a free TV licence, and for funding that concession. It is manifestly unfair. Labour opposed that at the time, and our position has not changed—first, because passing responsibility for free TV licences to the BBC is outsourcing an important social policy. The BBC makes some of the best TV content in the world, but it is not a political body—it is not an arm of the Department for Work and Pensions—and nor should it be. It is not elected, and nor should it be.
Secondly, we opposed the move because the Government deliberately saddled our national broadcaster with a cost that could lead to many skilled job losses.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. Is there not a more important point, which is that the cost that the public sector broadcaster—a major creative industry employer—is being saddled with from having to pay for free TV licence could prevent it from growing employment, particularly for young people? They find it difficult to find work in traditional industries, and the creative industries pick that up.
Yes, and this is particularly exacerbated as we have massive technological flux in the broadcasting sector that requires the ability to invest in future content and platforms.
On giving a welfare policy to the BBC, a lot of footballing metaphors have been used in the past 24 hours, after Liverpool’s glorious result against Barcelona last night, but does my hon. Friend agree that in policy terms this is the equivalent of a hospital pass?
It certainly is for this Minister, who happens to be answering today. But it is not as if she, or other Front Benchers, did not have notice, because during the passage of the Bill that enabled this my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) made that very point.
My hon. Friend said earlier that the BBC makes some of the best programming in the world, and we would all want to agree with that, but the difficulty is that if the BBC loses such a large chunk of its budget, it will be more difficult for it to do this in the future. We would lose our status in the world as one of the greatest broadcasting production houses in the world and other people, often American players, would be able to take up the British market. Is this not a gross dereliction of patriotic duty?
I think it is, and my hon. Friend makes a good point. I would answer more fully, but I am already running over time.
Keeping TV licences free for all over-75s would require unprecedented cuts to the BBC’s spending on broadcasting and content. This is political cowardice: if the Government want to cut free TV licences for over-75s, they should say so—they should include it in the manifesto and let the public decide on the policy. If the Government want to cut the BBC’s budget by a fifth, they should say so—they should put it in the manifesto and let the public have their say at the ballot box.
The BBC has consulted on a range of options, from means testing, which would still see 3 million households lose out, to raising the qualifying age to 80, which would see 1.5 million households lose their free licence. The conclusions of that consultation are still outstanding, but one thing is clear: if these cuts go ahead in any of the suggested forms, the responsibility will lie firmly at the Government’s door. Passing the buck to the BBC was not a decision made in the national interest, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has said, or for the benefit of older people; it was designed to give the Government political cover to cut a popular policy. This is austerity by stealth. The Conservative party made a commitment to the older people of this country, so now the Government should act and take both the policy and the financial responsibility for funding free TV licences for over-75s back in house—the two should not be separated.
The BBC has been put in an impossible position by this Government, being asked either to make swingeing cuts to the programmes we all know and love or to take free TV away from older people. That is why when the National Pensioners Convention gathered to protest against scrapping the concession earlier this year, they did not convene outside Broadcasting House, but met outside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Those protestors know the cost of losing free TV licences.
Age UK’s analysis shows that scrapping the concession completely could push more than 50,000 pensioners below the poverty line. For many, losing £154.50 from their pensions is a frightening prospect and it could mean being forced to choose between heating, eating or having a TV at home. This debate over free TV licences is an indicator of the Government’s broader policies for pensioners. For nine years, Tory austerity has saved money on the back of our most vulnerable citizens. By outsourcing responsibility for paying for TV licences, this Government will be cutting £745 million in 2021-22. That is in addition to the £220 million the Government will be saving in the same year through changes to pension credit. That is nearly a billion pounds of cuts the Government are making, coming directly out of the pockets of pensioners.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about how this will hit the most vulnerable and needy of our older people. Joanne, a 78-year-old disabled woman from my constituency, wrote to me to say:
“I worked as a teacher for more than 30 years. I have never claimed benefit of any kind until I became disabled…When I was able I went to the theatre, cinema…etc…Now my only source of entertainment is reading…and TV. To take away the free licence I feel, given what we have put into the country…is mean, petty and very unfair.”
Her wellbeing would be affected by not having TV, as would that of thousands of others. It is estimated that almost 6,000 people would be affected in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is outrageous and that we should be working in the opposite direction, in order to help our older people?
Please tell Joanne that we are on her side and that we will be pressing the Government to honour their promises to her and the hundreds of thousands of other pensioners.
The number of pensioners living in poverty is rising—it is 1.9 million today, but it is forecast to pass 2 million by 2020. That is to this Government’s shame. Their austerity agenda asks us to focus on the numbers, but we must not forget the human reality of what life is like for our oldest citizens. Social isolation is the scourge that is on the rise. New research from Age UK shows that half of the 4.5 million over-75s in the UK do not live with a partner, with two thirds having a long-standing illness that means they find it difficult to get out and about. The most heartbreaking of these new statistics is the fact that 400,000 people aged over 75 go a week without meeting up with or speaking on the phone to friends or family. Just one in nine over-75s say that they are not lonely.
I am proud to say that we are very supportive of the motion. The hon. Gentleman has outlined the characteristics of many people in the over-75 group. Despite all the things he has mentioned, these are the people who do get out to vote. What I am hearing from the many who have contacted me is that they want this House of Commons to get an opportunity to vote on the removal of this and for it not to be done in the way that is proposed.
The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I am very grateful that she has aligned her party to the sentiments in this motion—it is very important.
For millions of these people, television is a lifeline. Four in 10 older people say that TV is their main source of company, and this Government are about to take that away from them. The experiences of older people speak for themselves. A 94-year-old widower who is living by himself, with diabetes and dementia, told us:
“I cannot leave the house and rely on the television for company and entertainment.”
Another pensioner told us:
“I am on a small pension and if it came to a choice between food and TV, I would lose out and become isolated and alone. TV keeps me company.”
The truth is you cannot means test for social isolation; loneliness can affect anyone, anywhere. Any change to the current free licences will cause harm.
In conclusion, we know that the Minister will now give a speech saying this is all the BBC’s responsibility and it is up to them to decide the fate of the free TV licence. We do not agree. We are not fooled by the Government’s attempts to offload and obfuscate their own responsibility. This is austerity by the back door. The public know that and pensioners know that. At the heart of this debate today is the question of what a manifesto promise means. I have always regarded manifesto commitments as one of the most basic and important of political pledges, not something that can be merely cast aside. Today, I urge the Minister to stand by that promise made by her party two years ago. She knows the parliamentary arithmetic; if she and the Member behind her tell the Government Front-Bench team they want to honour that promise, they would do so. So I urge every Conservative MP not to betray their promise to voters, not to betray the word they gave them at the 2017 general election. I commend this motion to the House.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for securing this important debate on the over-75 licence concession.
I wish to take a moment to recognise the hugely important role that the BBC plays in our national debate. As the shadow Secretary of State said so eloquently, as a constant companion for many people—especially older people—throughout the country, the BBC is indeed one of the UK’s most treasured institutions and is a fundamental part of the country’s social and economic fabric. Members will recognise that the BBC is a world-class broadcaster that produces a very high standard of television, radio and online content that is unparalleled in quality.
I will give way in just a moment.
From its impartial news and current affairs coverage of the day’s events to its wide-ranging radio content, the BBC provides something for everyone, every day of the week, every week of the year.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman behind the shadow Secretary of State. [Interruption.] I will just give way to each Member.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, even if I am a bit flummoxed as to quite whether she was giving way to me. I agree with what she has said about the BBC, so does she think it is right that 20% and rising of the BBC’s resource should in effect go towards fulfilling a Government policy on social security? It is just going to impair the BBC’s ability to make classic programmes.
It is important to see the decision that was made in the wider context of the licence fee agreement that was settled in 2015. It included several plus-points for the BBC that it had not had before—I shall come to the detail of them shortly—and it raised the BBC’s income and for the first time put that income on a sustainable footing over a five-year period. In that context, the Government at the time took a reasonable position.
The TV licence concession is seen as a social security concession, so why should it be outsourced to the BBC?
As I said to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), it is a concession taken off the charge that everybody pays to the BBC, so it was thought fitting for the BBC to take responsibility. At the time, the country was in a severe financial situation—a very difficult fiscal situation, but I will not labour the point about the origins of the problems—which necessitated a number of difficult decisions. All public institutions and the whole public sector had to find efficiencies and reduce costs, and the BBC was no exception.
I shall make some progress, then give way in a few moments.
As the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport set out a couple of months ago, the BBC is a powerful example of how our public service broadcasters act as a force for good at home, performing in the national interest to deliver valuable news coverage and hugely popular shows.
To come back to the point I made earlier, if you have given the responsibility to the BBC, why did you include it in your election manifesto? That is the nub of the issue. Can you clarify whether you are going to honour the manifesto commitment or leave it to the BBC to make the cut that you are avoiding?
That was very naughty of the hon. Gentleman. The word “you” is intruding with increasing frequency. I did not have a manifesto and I did not make a promise on this matter, but I think the hon. Gentleman was referring to the Minister, and I am happy to vest the responsibility where it lies.
I acknowledge that the manifesto commitment was made, but draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that Parliament had already voted in favour of passing responsibility to the BBC. The BBC had a responsibility to consult should it wish to make any change to the concession, as it was the Government’s expectation that the BBC would continue to honour the concession.
I recognise the vital public service provided to people of all ages, but Opposition Members are quite right that the BBC is of particular value to older people, who value television as a way of staying connected with the world.
Will the Minister and the Government please honour the pledge on page 66 of their manifesto to stand up for the four in 10 who find this to be a lifeline?
I have already answered that question in other ways, but I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that no decision has yet been made. I was saying to the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) that there was an obligation on the BBC to consult should it wish to make any change to the concession, with the Government’s expectation being that the BBC would continue to honour the concession. The BBC has conducted an extensive consultation, the results of which have not even been published yet, so it is premature to sow all this fear in older people’s minds.
I very much support the continuation of the concession, but is it not important to recognise that when the House passed the Digital Economy Act 2017, which transferred responsibility for the concession to the BBC, Opposition Members supported it?
No we did not!
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will not get involved—[Interruption.]
Order. I say to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) that his volume is almost equal to the volume at which he sings with distinction in the parliamentary rock band. If he wishes to make his point, the conventional means by which to do so is via an intervention, rather than by yelling from a sedentary position.
The key point is that in November 2016, the House passed the Digital Economy Act, including the important element that passed responsibility for the concession to the BBC.
The truth of the matter is that by passing that responsibility on the Government have, if the BBC is to implement the Government’s pledge, taken a vast chunk out of the BBC’s budget. My constituents want to know whether the BBC could do something better with that money—for instance, by making sure that we have a proper digital service across the whole of the valleys of south Wales. Why is it right that after the Government have stopped meddling with it, the national broadcaster ends up with a budget that is a fifth of the size of Sky’s? How is that a national broadcaster?
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman’s asking whether the BBC could find something better to do with the money. Opposition Members have been full of reasons why it would be desirable for the BBC to continue to honour—
Will the Minister give way?
I will in a minute, but I am still answering the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), because the point he raised was rather moot. Let me address some of the other aspects of his intervention. The BBC enjoyed a significant increase in its income following the most recent licence fee settlement: it received the benefit of iPlayer users having to pay a licence fee and built-in year-on-year inflationary increases for the duration of the five-year licence fee agreement, and the number of licence fee payers grew over that time by at least 300,000. All that has increased the income available to the BBC.
I am acting on Mr Speaker’s instructions, because I wish to point out to the Minister and the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), who I do not think was then a Member of the House, that at the time my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) said in the Digital Economy Bill Committee:
“I rise to address new clause 38, which is in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West. I am sorry to say that this is where any cross-party consensus on the Bill ends. We absolutely do not support clause 76 or any of the amendments to it. Not only the Opposition, but the more than 4 million over-75s in this country who currently make use of this benefit oppose the clause.”––[Official Report, Digital Economy Public Bill Committee, 27 October 2016; c. 390.]
I am grateful to the shadow Minister for setting the record straight in terms of who voted for what and when, but the point is that Parliament passed this measure into law through the Digital Economy Act 2017. Of course the Government recognise the importance of providing both this valuable service and opportunities for older people to engage, which is why we launched our loneliness strategy last year. The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), has done a fantastic job in promoting the various services that the Government are funding with new money to enable older people to get connected, whether that be online or through social and sporting events, in 140 hubs across the country. We do take our responsibilities to older people very seriously. We are trying to help combat the loneliness that, as Opposition Members say, is a scourge of the lives of too many older people.
There is one thing that has not transpired in the debate thus far. We fully support the motion, but it seems to have escaped the notice of some people that, at the time the Act was passed two and a half years ago, Lord Hall on behalf of the BBC agreed to the proposal and therein lies some of the problem.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me that Lord Hall welcomed the licence fee settlement, which was so ably negotiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). Indeed, Lord Hall said at the time:
“The Government’s decision here to put the cost of the over-75s on us has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC.”
I draw the attention of hon. Members to that quote. The hon. Member for Rhondda does not need to rise as there are other people trying to intervene.
I want to make a bit of progress, because I know that many hon. Members want to speak in the debate.
The BBC’s brilliant public service and the role that it plays for older people would not be possible without the licence fee. Last year, the BBC received more than £3.8 billion in licence fee income, and it is that income that underpins the BBC’s crucial role in making sure that everyone in the UK can access the content that educates, informs and entertains. The Government recognised the importance of the licence fee when we agreed the licence fee funding settlement with the BBC in 2015. We agreed a five-year licence fee funding settlement, which provided for the first time financial certainty and a sustainable income for the BBC and we committed to maintaining the current licence fee funding model for the duration of this charter period until 2027. We unfroze the licence fee for the first time since 2010 by guaranteeing that, each year, it will rise in line with inflation.
Surely the point is this: we cannot provide financial certainty for the BBC at the expense of the over-75s. Whether or not it was right to give power to the BBC in the Digital Economy Act is not the issue. We have to look at this on the basis of the outcomes, not the processes. Will the Minister not accept that, right now, the outcomes for the over-75s look pretty grim?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am sure that the BBC will listen to those comments, with which I have considerable sympathy. This was part of a fair deal for the BBC. I have already quoted the director-general of the BBC, but he did also say at the time that it was a strong deal for the BBC and that it provided financial stability—that is important for all viewers, whatever their age—and Parliament agreed, which we have already discussed.
As the House will recognise, the Government have been clear about their expectations on this matter. The Government guaranteed the over-75 concession at least until 2020. We agreed with the BBC, and it was approved by this House, that the future of the concession was the BBC’s decision, and the BBC is rightly operationally independent of the Government. Therefore, this matter is for the BBC. Given the importance of the issue, we have made our expectations clear. Let me just point out that the BBC has undergone a significant and extensive consultation, as it was required to do by law through the Digital Economy Act. The consultation closed in February of this year. It set out a number of options for the future of the concession and it is carefully evaluating the many, many inputs as a result of that consultation.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I am fully aware of the BBC consultation, but I am also aware of the volume of correspondence that I am getting from my constituents in Blaydon, who are telling me that this is not a matter for the BBC. They say that it was a promise made by the Government, and that her Government must abide by their commitment in the manifesto. On the impact of loneliness and the measures that the Government are taking, the evidence from my constituency is that people believe it is the Government’s responsibility to fund this measure, because watching the TV is a key way of avoiding loneliness for many older people.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I agree that watching television is a real way of combating loneliness for a lot of people, particularly older people, who live on their own, so she makes a good point. However, the point is that no decision has yet been made. I have also had a lot of correspondence on this matter mostly kindly sent to me by hon. Members from all parts of the House. The main point is that they want the concession to continue. I have not had a lot of comment about whose responsibility that should be.
The deal agreed with the BBC did establish its long-term financial footing, but does my hon. Friend agree that the financial responsibility of the BBC is not just to rely on licence fees, but to fully exploit its massive library of content? It should do so, and we should enable and encourage that commercial exploitation. It is currently worth well over £1 billion a year, but why should it not be £2 billion or £3 billion and therefore help cover some of the cost of this?
I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. He makes a very good point. That is why I am encouraged by Ofcom’s decision to loosen some of the controls under which the BBC has laboured, particularly with regard to iPlayer. There is an excellent opportunity there to sell more subscriptions around the world to watch the fantastic archived content for a lot longer than the very short period that exists at the moment—there was a constraint on the development of iPlayer for far too long.
I will just make a bit of progress and then I will give way again.
The BBC consultation set out a number of options for the future of the concession and it set out that the BBC may choose to keep the concession as it stands—a free TV licence for those aged 75 and above. It also looked carefully at the case for removing the concession entirely. As many Members will be aware, it also had a number of other options in between those two points. They include a change to the eligible age for the concession, a discounted concession, a move from a free licence to that discounted one, and the introduction of means testing. I want to reassure any older people watching that the decision has not yet been made. The BBC has listened carefully to the concerns expressed throughout the consultation. I am thankful that the BBC has consulted so widely on the issue to seek the views of licence fee payers across the country.
Is not one of the cruellest things about this that it is younger people, by and large, who have a far greater choice when it comes to TV viewing, because many of them are now using subscription services, which actually do not require a BBC licence at all and, in many cases, those services are also cheaper? Older people do not have that choice, so is it not very cruel that those are the people we are trying to restrict in their TV watching, which, as others have said, might lead to more social loneliness?
I do not necessarily agree that older people do not have that choice. I agree that many older people rely on the BBC more than any other channel—that is probably true—but older people have access to other channels in the same way as people of other age groups.
Many of my Moray constituents have contacted me, urging me to support this concession for the over-75s remaining in place. The Minister went over a number of options that the BBC is looking at. Does she understand that many people really do not agree that we should be talking about taking this TV licence concession away from the over-75s when there are so many celebrities and pundits on very high salaries?
My hon. Friend makes exactly the same point that was made emphatically to me by a very good friend and constituent of mine. The BBC operates in a tough commercial environment. To our minds, such salaries might seem extraordinary—at times, ridiculous—but these are the salaries for very well-established celebrities, sportsmen and women, and a number of others. The BBC has to compete, but I take my hon. Friend’s point; it is one that has been made well by other people who have written to me.
One of my Colne Valley constituents said to me, “The TV is the companion in the corner of the room for me, and I would be so lonely without it.” Is the Minister happy to take that companion away from 6,750 over-75s in Colne Valley? [Interruption.]
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon has just reminded me that it is a decision for the BBC to make. I am sure that the BBC has listened to the hon. Lady and others across the House. I have also received such letters, and I do understand. I draw her attention to the fact that there is a range of options. I would gently say that not every older person over the age of 75 would be unable to afford to contribute to the future of our great broadcaster. It is important that we remember that, sadly, there have had to be efficiencies and reductions across the public sector, and the BBC has been no exception. The future of the concession is down to the BBC; it is no longer the Government’s decision. I look forward to the BBC’s final decision on the future of the concession, which I anticipate it will announce next month.
Before I call the Scottish National party spokesperson, let me say that colleagues will be aware that this is a very well-subscribed debate, so I expect Back-Bench speeches to be five minutes in length. That will mean that we can get everybody in.
I am delighted to speak in this debate but it feels as though, when I get on my feet in this place, it is increasingly because the Government appear to be completely abrogating their responsibilities towards our older people. Whether they are removing pension credits from mixed-age couples, or failing to keep their side of the bargain and pay the pensions due to women born in the 1950s who received little or no notice of the rise in the state pension age, it seems that this is happening more and more. I wonder whether the Minister is comfortable with the undeniable narrative that is emerging.
Today we are talking about the UK Government’s decision—and it is their decision—to have a go at the over-75s. I have already raised this matter several times in the Chamber and I have written to the Secretary of State, as have others; but I have never had a proper or meaningful response. Today I had been hoping for that response, but sadly we have just heard a wee bit more of the same. It is important to be clear that the Government have maintained—we heard this again today—that they are not scrapping TV licences for the over-75s, and that they are simply delegating responsibility for those licences to the BBC. This is a game of semantics that tells us that the Government want to scrap the free TV licences but do not want to take responsibility for doing so. It simply will not wash.
At the hustings during the 2017 general election campaign, a member of the audience said to me that he felt that the Government were often punishing him for growing old, partly through the measures that the hon. Lady just mentioned. Does she agree that this was an opportunity for the Government to do something to prove that they do take into account the difficulties faced by pensioners and people aged over 75—the loneliness that not having television could provoke—rather than reinforcing the feeling of being punished?
I absolutely agree. The Government have picked a fight with over-75s for no particular reason, and for no particular benefit that I can see. But not taking responsibility for this matter simply will not wash.
I ask the Minister, since when has the BBC become an offshoot of the Department for Work and Pensions? The BBC is a broadcaster. It should not, and must not, be charged with deciding how much support our pensioners should receive from wider society. The UK Government have undoubtedly abrogated their responsibility for TV licences, and have left the BBC to decide whether it will impose this charge on the over-75s. The BBC will have £745 million less to spend annually on programmes—the combined budget of BBC 2, BBC 4 and BBC Radio 3 —if it continues with the free TV licences. Options being considered range across the BBC taking on the funding, seeking partial payment or removing the concession entirely, putting it in an impossible position.
The hon. Lady is making a very good speech. The fact is that this benefit given to elderly pensioners is a benefit—I speak as someone with an interest, because I think I am the only person here who is over 75 and actually receives the free television licence—but a benefit should be paid for out of progressive taxation, whereby the rich pay most and the poor pay least. As everyone under 75 pays for our licences, some of those people are very poor indeed, effectively having to pay some contribution towards broadcasting, which should be paid for by the state.
I agree. When we move away from progressive taxation we move into a system that is extremely unfair, and not the kind of society that most of us want to live in.
Former BBC director-general Greg Dyke suggested that leaving the BBC to pick up the tab would impact on programme quality. He said:
“Let’s not kid ourselves this won’t have an impact on what the BBC will supply. It will.”
As well as the impossible choice that has been foisted on the BBC as the UK Government seek cover, this policy means that the Tories are rolling back on their manifesto pledge to maintain pensioner benefits, including free TV licences. How can older people—indeed, anyone—trust what they say in any future manifesto pledge?
Let us remember that the reason that all households with someone aged over 75 have been entitled to receive free TV licences, funded by the UK Government, is to help tackle pensioner poverty and isolation. The Tories have decided to cease funding completely from next year. If the free TV licences are scrapped, the consequences for my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran, of whom more than 9,000 will be affected, will be far-reaching. Combating loneliness is very important when it comes to health outcomes for older people. To try to contract out that responsibility to the BBC is cowardly, fools no one and sets a dangerous precedent.
According to the BBC’s own figures, scrapping the over-75s concessionary licence will take an average of more than £22,000 a week out of the pockets of over-75s in every single constituency, and we know that many thousands of pensioners already struggle to make ends meet. Age Scotland’s “money matters” project found that four in 10 people over the age of 50 report feeling financially squeezed, and its survey on the housing needs of older people found that six in 10 pensioners who live alone report difficulties paying their fuel bills. We know that 70% of over-75s have a long-standing illness and 29% live below or just above the poverty line. Make no mistake: this Government are effectively asking our older people to choose between switching on the heating or turning on the TV. Having another bill to pay will push many more below the poverty line, or deeper into poverty. As of 1 April, the cost of the colour TV licence increased to £154.50. Age UK has warned that scrapping the concession would push 50,000 over-75s into relative poverty. That should cause the Government to hang their head in shame.
The financial strain can be further exacerbated by any disability or long-term health conditions that an older person may be living with. The proportion of adults with a long-term, limiting health condition is increasing as the population ages. More than four-fifths of people aged 85 or over have reported that their daily lives are limited by a long-term health problem or disability. That is important, as there are numerous extra costs associated with having a disability or long-term health condition, such as having to get taxis more often to get out and about, and extra heating costs. Many rely on their television for companionship and entertainment. For the considerable number who do not have the internet, TV helps them to stay up to date with what is happening in the world.
The Government have told this House repeatedly that they cannot pay women born in the 1950s their pensions because we are all living longer. Well, given that the Government recognise that we are all living longer, they cannot shirk their responsibilities and abandon those who are living longest. The Government cannot have this both ways. The goalposts cannot be shifted depending on which particular group of society they wish to shaft at any particular time; it is simply not good enough.
For many older people, their television is not just a box in the corner—it is company. Television is a lifeline, particularly for those who are most vulnerable and older. If mobility issues mean that someone struggles to get out and about, the TV helps them to stay connected. When money is a constant worry and that is stressful, it is an escape. When people spend their days alone, it gives them something to look forward to, and they often identify closely with TV characters and personalities. Figures show that over-75s watch an average of 33 hours of television each week, compared with eight hours a week for those in their 20s. Imagine the loss of that lifeline for so many of our poorer pensioners, who simply will not be able to afford the cost of a TV licence.
Let us not forget—this has not been mentioned yet—that every year people are fined for non-payment of their TV licence. To potentially prosecute people in their 80s and 90s is completely unacceptable, and it could well happen if these free television licences are abolished. I ask the Minister: is this an example of addressing the “burning injustices” that the Prime Minister once spoke about? I believe it is vital to support our pensioners. Not only is the UK state pension the lowest in the developed world relative to wages; it has been further damaged by the Tory Government’s plans to reduce eligibility for pension credit, leaving some couples out of pocket by £7,320 every year. If we throw in their contempt for women born in the 1950s regarding increases in the pension age, it is clear that the Government have no intention of honouring the contribution that our elderly population have made over the years.
The BBC is a broadcaster. Public welfare is not its remit, and it should not be expected to decide whether older people have free TV licences or not.
I thank the hon. Lady for the very strong speech that she is making. As I said earlier, a lot of older people who have contacted me are deeply frustrated because they see this decision as having no democratic accountability. They want Members in this House to make a decision and then implement it. Because of the agreement made with the BBC some years ago, this decision has been delegated—put out of this place—and that is deeply frustrating. Does she agree that this must change, and that this House must take action on it?
I absolutely agree. We have a worrying trend of Parliament being bypassed. I know that minority government is not a comfortable place to be, but if a party of government cannot come to the Chamber and sell its policies, maybe the policies are the problem, not Parliament itself.
The BBC should not be making this decision. It should not and must not become the responsibility of a broadcaster. Lord Bragg has said:
“The BBC is not an organisation that should collect taxes, of which the licence fee is one, for social purposes. Its money should be used for making programmes.”
Clearly, the UK Government disagree. I urge the Tories—I urge this Government—to honour this extremely important manifesto commitment, to do the right thing and to maintain pensioner benefits, including the TV licence, so that elderly people can continue to watch television for free instead of having to choose between watching television and switching on their heating and/or potentially being criminalised in their twilight years for watching “Coronation Street”.
Some say—I have heard them say it today—that many pensioners could pay for their own TV licence. That is not an argument to impose a charge for free TV licences; it is an argument against universalism that takes us down an extremely dangerous road. It is a distracting diversion that is being used as a tactic to remove essential support. In any case, it does not matter whether one thinks that universalism as a principle is wrong—the fact is that this was in the Tory manifesto, and the back-pedalling and attempt to deflect responsibility on to the BBC is fooling no one.
This policy is perhaps the most mean-spirited policy of this Government so far—and that is saying something. The Government need to get a grip, stop attacking our older people, accord them the care and respect they are due, and stop making life more difficult for them. As we have heard, it is extremely important that this House is allowed to have its say on this policy, because every single MP in this place should have the courage to go back to their older constituents, look them in the eye and explain why they voted—if they voted—to remove free TV licences from them.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. As the Minister pointed out, I was the Secretary of State at the time when the licence fee settlement was agreed with the BBC, so I would like to set out some of the reasons why those decisions were reached.
As the Opposition spokesman said, the concessionary TV licence for over-75s is not a fundamental pillar of the welfare state—it was actually introduced by the previous Labour Government. It was introduced to address an anomaly that elderly people living in sheltered housing did not have to pay the full licence fee whereas others did. However, the Labour Government did not introduce free TV licences for all pensioners, on the basis that it was far too expensive to do so—they restricted it to those aged over 75 at a cost, at that time, of £365 million. It is important to realise that that money was not removed from the BBC—it was given to the BBC by the Department for Work and Pensions. It has always been the case, since then, that the cost of exemption from the TV licence is met out of the Government’s budget. The cost to the Government of doing so has risen steadily, so that by last year it had already reached £660 million.
I had the task of negotiating both the new BBC charter and the licence fee settlement. Personally, I would have much preferred that the licence fee had been included within the charter negotiations, since the licence fee settlement, to some extent, pre-empted decisions that we took as a result of the charter review process. However, as the Minister rightly pointed out, we were in very difficult financial circumstances thanks to the profligacy of the previous Labour Government, and we had to take a lot of very difficult decisions. The then Chancellor was clear that we should seek to achieve savings from the BBC, as a publicly owned institution funded by the Government, in the same way that all other public institutions were being asked to find savings. So we agreed with the BBC that it would take over the cost of funding the licence fee concession. However, we were also clear that we had given a pledge that the concession would be maintained until 2020, and therefore the agreement with the BBC was that it would take it over in 2020.
I have to say to the House that the negotiations with the BBC over that were indeed robust. I remember sitting down with the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, with George Osborne and with Lord Hall, the director-general of the BBC, and we had some good discussions in which Lord Hall argued forcibly that this would have a detrimental impact on the BBC. Therefore, in recognition of that, we also included, as part of the licence fee settlement, agreement to address some of the things the BBC raised as its principal concerns. One was the freeze in the licence fee. The licence fee had not gone up at all for a number of years, and therefore the BBC was looking at a real-terms reduction every year. We agreed that the licence fee should be unfrozen. Secondly, a growing number of people were avoiding paying the licence fee by watching the BBC on catch-up, through the iPlayer. Under the law as it then stood, if someone watched the BBC a mere two minutes after the live transmission, they did not have to pay the licence fee. The licence fee was therefore extended to close what was called the iPlayer loophole.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with the director-general of the BBC, Lord Hall, that the funding arrangements put in place with the BBC by my right hon. Friend and the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, represented a fair deal?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, because he allows me to quote the director-general. As I say, our negotiations were robust, but we emerged from them with the director-general issuing a public statement saying that it was
“the right deal… in difficult economic circumstances”.
He went on to say:
“Far from being a cut, the way this financial settlement is shaped gives us, effectively, flat licence fee income across the first five years of the next charter.”
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend will mention this part of the licence fee deal, but it is worth making the point that the last Labour Government imposed on the licence fee a levy to fund broadband roll-out, and because of the success of the broadband roll-out under our Government, we removed that levy from the BBC. While there was a stick with free TV licences, there were carrots with the removal some of the subsidies the last Government had asked the BBC to provide.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who was also a key player at that time as a Minister in the Department. He is absolutely right. I mentioned two of the BBC’s requests at the time—the unfreezing of the licence fee and the closure of the loophole—but he is correct to point out that the BBC had always been unhappy about the top-slicing of the licence fee to fund broadband, which it saw as far removed from the purpose of the licence fee. That was another agreement we reached with the BBC, which I think was why the BBC felt that it was a fair and proper settlement.
The right hon. Gentleman is implying that the BBC was happy with all this at the time, but in the press statement announcing the consultation, the BBC said:
“The BBC could copy the scheme… but we think it would fundamentally change the BBC because of the scale of service cuts we would need to make.”
That is not the statement of an organisation that thinks it can easily absorb this.
The agreement with the BBC was that it would have responsibility for maintaining or amending the licence fee concession. The right hon. Gentleman quoted the BBC’s view about the cost of maintaining the concession as it stands, and that view is understandable, since the cost next year will be £745 million, rising to £1.06 billion by 2029-30. I am not at all surprised that the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) was unable to give any commitment that a future Labour Government would maintain the concession at the cost of the taxpayer, since that would be a £1 billion public expenditure pledge.
In recognition of that, the BBC has put forward three different options. It has talked about continuation, which, as the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) said, it feels is not realistic, as that would amount to the current cost of BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC 4, the news channel, CBBC and CBeebies all put together. It has also suggested some amendment to the concession, or discontinuing it altogether. Each of the three possible amendments to the licence fee concession that the BBC has suggested has some attraction. It has talked about raising the age limit to 77 or 80, which to some extent would reflect the ageing population and maintain roughly the same proportion. A second possibility is to introduce a discounted fee, so that people over 75 would not have to pay the full cost.
My right hon. Friend, who is an excellent neighbour, is making an excellent speech. Many of my constituents who are over 75 have emailed me to say that they want to continue to watch the TV with a free licence, but they are not necessarily also watching the BBC on multiple other devices, as many younger people are. Can my right hon. Friend see a case for older members of the public still being able to watch the BBC via a single device, while younger people watch on multiple devices? Would that sort of system work?
Order. I reiterate that there is pressure on time, and interventions need to be short.
I will of course take account of your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend raises an interesting point, which I want to touch on as I conclude my remarks.
The third possible amendment would be to limit the concession to those in receipt of pension credit. That would address many of the concerns expressed by Opposition Members about those on very low incomes finding it hard to afford and would introduce an element of targeting, to ensure that those who will struggle to afford the television licence do not have to do so.
There is another change that I ask the BBC to consider, which is not included in its options. At the moment, households are entitled to a free television licence if a member of the household is over 75. It is ridiculous that a household might have four adults of working age who are all bringing in an income, but because they happen to have their grandmother living with them, they do not have to pay for a television licence. I ask the BBC to consider a simple change, to restrict the concession to households that only consist of people aged over 75.
I want to end by saying that this raises fundamental questions about the future of the licence fee. Viewing habits are changing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) indicated. Evasion of the TV licence is rising. It has gone up from 5.2% in 2010 to an estimated 7% now, with the advent of new services such as Netflix and Amazon, and soon possibly Apple and Disney. The old argument that every household needs to pay the licence fee because everybody watches the BBC is, I am afraid, beginning to break down, and we are reaching a position where many households watch the huge range of programmes available and never turn to the BBC.
That is why I have always believed that, in the long term, the licence fee is not sustainable. We addressed that at the beginning of the charter review. It is recognised by the director-general, who has said that the BBC needs to look at alternative models and has mentioned the possibility of introducing subscription services on iPlayer. At the moment, there is no alternative to the licence fee because we do not have a system where people who choose not to pay it can be cut off; that was why we reached the conclusion that the licence fee had to be maintained. But in the longer term, that will not be true. There will come a time when the licence fee cannot be sustained, but that will be the task of the future Secretary of State who has the job of undertaking the next charter review.
Free TV licences for over-75s were introduced in 2000 by a Labour Government—one of the many policies introduced by Labour to deliver a better quality of life for the people of this nation. Many of the people who voted Conservative in the 2017 general election likely did so expecting the Tory Government to continue to provide free TV licences for people over 75, as it was in the party’s manifesto, alongside promises to keep free bus passes, eye tests and prescriptions for the duration of this Parliament. If the Government were one who kept their manifesto promises, I could happily end my speech now. Sadly, as with many of the promises made by this Government, that manifesto pledge has been broken, and it once again falls on Labour and other Opposition Members to explain to the Government why the policy of scrapping free TV licences for over-75s will cause great harm to some of the most vulnerable in our society.
As I expected, the Minister made out that it is not the Government’s decision to scrap free TV licences for over-75s but the BBC’s, and the BBC is now the one in charge of licensing. While that is technically correct, the reality is that this Conservative Government have unloaded their pledge to the elderly of this nation on to the BBC—outsourcing without the funding. Essentially, they are saying to the BBC, “You fund the free licences and decide whether they should continue”. The Tory Government know full well that the BBC will not have the financial capabilities to maintain this programme and eventually will need to cancel the free TV licences. This is not the fault of the BBC. The expected cost of the free licences will be £745 million by 2021-22, but I would add that under this Government, due to austerity, life expectancy is predicted to decline.
To put the outsourcing by this Government into context, it is a fifth of the BBC’s budget and the equivalent of what is spent today on BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC 4, the BBC News channel, CBBC and CBeebies. That would be the cost in funding and programming. A broadcaster should not be expected to take on the role that is clearly within the realm of a Government Department. This is a Tory Government using smoke and mirrors.
If free TV licences were to be scrapped, 2.4 million older people living entirely on their own would lose their TV licence, and a means-tested system would lead to 1.6 million losing their licence. In my constituency alone, 7,100 people could lose their licence, and £1 million would be robbed out of the pockets of those vulnerable people. Age UK estimates that over 2 million over-75s would need to go without a TV licence or be forced to give up essentials such as heating or even food.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
No. I am sorry, but I will not give way.
This callous act has the potential to drive 50,000 pensioners below the poverty line. Age UK has found that 29% of over-75s live in poverty or just above the poverty line. Does my hon. Friend want to come in now?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—eventually. Four in 10 older people say that their TV is their main source of company, and Age UK says that cutting their access to it would be an “unthinkably cruel blow”. Does she agree with me that the Government need to stop passing the buck, and need to honour their promises and keep TV licences free for our over-75s?
I absolutely do. I have mentioned what Age UK has found about 29% of over-75s, and £154.50 out of a fixed income will push those just above the line into poverty.
Television is a bridge to the outside world for the 2 million people over 75, of whom almost half are disabled and many others have serious health conditions. When mobility is difficult and people struggle even to get to the end of their street, the TV will often be the only companionship, entertainment and stimulation available. The United Kingdom is facing a loneliness epidemic among our elderly, and it is not good enough that one in four see a television as their only source of companionship. In fact, the only human voices they hear are from the television, and it is important for our sanity that we hear human voices. It is fundamentally wrong for this Government, through this policy, to take away the little bit that people do have. Many of our elderly in this nation are not online, and those who are may struggle with technology, as I do.
This policy, which will do so much harm, is clear evidence that the Government have not brought austerity to an end, but are driving forward their heartless and unnecessary austerity agenda. The UK is spending less on public expenditure as a percentage of GDP: it has now dropped to just over 40%—40.8%—from 48%. This is one of the lowest in the developed world when compared with similar nations such as Germany and Finland, which spend 4% and 12% more of their GDP than we do. How can this Tory Government justify not continuing to fund the financing required to maintain free TV licences for over-75s?
Labour has a clear alternative, which is not to force the BBC into an impossible position where it has no choice but to scrap or severely cut free TV licences for the over-75s. A Labour Government would commit to delivering free TV licences to the over-75s, providing support and company for some of the most vulnerable of our people.
I call on the Government to step in and to deliver their manifesto pledge and their promise to protect free TV licences for the over-75s to ensure that those people are not forced to make an unacceptable choice between what little companionship they have and living in the cold and having less food on their plates.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), but I have to say that it is a shame this debate has descended into party politics. Actually, it should be about the future of the BBC—how the BBC’s funding can properly abide by the strictures by which it has to abide and how it is to deliver its services in the future—but we seem to be having a debate other than the one that is sensible.
I love the BBC. I worked for the BBC on and off for 20 years, and it is the best broadcaster in the world. I would never support any sort of arrangement for the future funding of the BBC that I thought would do it damage or that I thought would lead to under-serving the people who deserve to be served by the BBC as the best public broadcaster in the world. The BBC produces some of the stand-out TV in what is now a global TV industry—with “Line of Duty”, which had nearly 10 million viewers on Sunday, as well as “Strictly Come Dancing”, “Bodyguard”, “Blue Peter” and “Match of the Day”—and it has its unrivalled news coverage, its radio, its online services, its children’s programmes and all the research and development it does. I am a passionate supporter of the BBC, but we should be debating how we ensure the future security of funding for the BBC and the future security of provision of service for all the people who enjoy the BBC.
Let us be clear: as has been mentioned in the past, the funding deal the BBC accepted in June 2015 gave it financial stability for five years. It was a deal that saw a guaranteed, copper-bottomed, real-terms increase in funding for the BBC. That is the sort of arrangement private commercial organisations can only dream of. They would think it was all their Christmases come at once to have that sort of guaranteed income for five years. In addition, as was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), as part of the deal the contribution that the BBC previously made to the roll-out of superfast broadband—it used to contribute £150 million a year—was cut to zero by 2020, and the iPlayer loophole was quite rightly closed, bringing in an extra £41 million a year.
The BBC was very happy with that deal. It welcomed the deal, and it accepted the deal. I have two quotes for the House, although I will not go over ground that has already been covered. Lord Hall, as I supposed we should properly call him, the BBC’s director-general, said that
“the BBC used this pre-budget window of opportunity to reach a fair deal”.
Furthermore, speaking on the Radio 4 “Today” programme, one of the fantastic institutions that the public quite rightly pay the BBC to produce, he said:
“The government’s decision here to put the cost of the over-75s on us”—
in other words, the BBC—
“has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC. My bottom line was, if I can use this as an opportunity to get back for the BBC things I think are really important—an inflation-set licence fee and an end to top-slicing—then I think that is really important. And that is exactly what we have done.”
The BBC accepted this deal. It accepted this guaranteed, copper-bottomed funding increase and welcomed it, and it now needs to live within its means. I have to say, having worked on and off for the BBC for 20 years, that there are many ways, it is sad to say, in which the BBC does not do so. We have recently seen figures showing that there are now nearly 100 members of BBC staff who earn more than £150,000 a year, and some of them earn a lot more than that.