House of Commons
Tuesday 21 May 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Disguised remuneration is an aggressive and contrived form of tax avoidance that involves a loan, which there is never any intention of repaying, being routed via a low or no-tax jurisdiction and then back to the United Kingdom, to avoid income tax and national insurance. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs takes a measured, proportionate and sympathetic approach to the collection of this tax, which has always been due.
My constituent contacted me about this issue and said that he had no choice in how he was contracted to work on a BP Norway project. Why is he being pursued rather than BP Norway and the other companies, such as NRL, AML and ICS (Salary) Ltd, which all work together to undermine workers’ rights and minimise their own tax liabilities? What action have the Government taken against those agencies?
I refute the suggestion that anybody is forced into making a tax-avoidance arrangement. If something looks too good to be true, it generally means that it is just that. Of the settlements to date, which have been worth more than £1 billion, some 85% have been from employers, not employees, and we are actively pursuing the promoters of these schemes in exactly the way in which the hon. Gentleman would wish.
I understand that the all-party group on the loan charge has been sent evidence of the suicide of three people facing the loan charge. More than 100 people in Edinburgh West have been affected by the charge. Many of them have come to see me at constituency surgeries and are worried about their financial future. They did not understand that this tax was going to be put in place retrospectively. In the light of all the evidence, I am concerned about the wellbeing of those constituents who say that they may face financial ruin. Surely the only responsible thing to do is to pause and announce a delay and an independent review, given that we know that people have already lost their lives.
The loan charge is not retrospective. There has never been a time in the history of our country when the arrangements that I described a moment ago were ever compliant with our tax code. Of course, the loans, which there is no intention of ever repaying—they are simply there to avoid national insurance and income tax—persist into the present. Generous “time to pay” arrangements are available with HMRC; I urge anybody who is involved in avoidance of this kind to talk to HMRC and come to sensible arrangements.
Is the Minister not aware that the people affected by this charge are strivers and people who are just about managing? They are the people who are suffering as a consequence of this decision. How many times are the Government going to hit ordinary working people, including groups like the Women Against State Pension Inequality, without Ministers fulfilling their responsibilities, intervening in such circumstances and ensuring that common sense prevails?
If we include the loans, the average earnings of those who have been involved in this egregious tax avoidance is twice our country’s national average wage. There is no need for people to get involved in these schemes, the sole purpose of which is to avoid tax. Some Members have raised amounts of some £700,000 or £900,000 that HMRC is pursuing in this context; that would equate to a couple of million pounds going through these schemes. I remind the House that these are schemes that take loans from the UK out to an offshore trust in a low or no-tax jurisdiction and route it back into the UK as a loan that is never due to be repaid, simply for the purpose of avoiding tax. We do not believe that is right.
If the Minister is right when he says that the loan charge is not retrospective, how come we have examples like the situation faced by my constituent, who was pursued with an accelerated payment notice back in 2015, in relation to a loan charge scheme? He paid the amount that HMRC asked him for, but now suddenly, out of the blue, a request has been sent to a wrong email address that means he will probably have to pay more money. Does that not show that HMRC has shifted the goalposts and therefore that the loan charge is retrospective?
I entirely stand by my earlier remarks about the measures not being in the least retrospective. Of course, I cannot comment on the tax affairs of the individual that my right hon. Friend has just referred to; it would not be right or proper of me to do so.
I have received increasingly distressed representations from constituents affected by the loan charge. One of their concerns is that in making any settlement with HMRC, they risk giving up their right to review in the event of any subsequent change in Government policy. Will the Minister advise my constituents on what they might do? They currently feel trapped between that prospect and the risk of further financial penalty from HMRC if they do not come to an agreement quickly.
I have made it very clear, as have the Government, over a long period of time—at least since 2016 when these measures were first brought into effect, which is before I arrived in my current position—that our policy is our policy and that we will not change that policy. For those who have been involved in this form of aggressive and contrived tax avoidance, the recommendation is very clear: the best thing to do is to speak to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and come to a sensible and reasonable arrangement for repayment.
I understand the Minister’s sincere desire to tackle disguised remuneration and thank him for always being available to discuss my constituents’ concerns. However, something has clearly gone very wrong with the operation of the loan charge and now, too, I fear with the roll-out of IR35 to the private sector. Will the Minister commit please to pause both the loan charge and the roll-out of IR35 to the private sector until my constituents’ concerns have been fully addressed?
IR35 is often raised in the context of the loan charge, but it is a completely unrelated matter. IR35 is about making sure that those who are effectively employed by other businesses are treated as employees for tax purposes, and that is only right and proper. The loan charge is about putting right the situation of this aggressive tax avoidance.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which is that, when it comes to paying the money that is due, HMRC has a duty to be proportionate and to make sure that appropriate arrangements are in place. There is no maximum limit for the time over which repayments can occur—there are often arrangements that come into place that are well in excess of 10 years. HMRC will continue to approach these matters on that basis.
May I also thank the Minister for the way that he is engaging on this issue? Although I certainly do agree that anybody who has tried to avoid tax in this way needs to be held accountable, I do ask whether it is right that HMRC can go back 20 years to reopen accounts that were accepted. If this tax was due then, why did HMRC not obtain that tax then? Why did it not charge it then? Why has it taken it 20 years to get to this point?
I have already dealt with the issue of retrospection. As to why tax may not have been paid at the time that it was due, there are a multitude of reasons for that not least of which is the fact that many taxpayers simply do not volunteer the correct information or they claim that their scheme works when clearly it does not. HMRC has, over many, many years, pursued these various schemes through the courts, including the Supreme Court, and on each occasion, these schemes have been found not to work.
The statement that the hon. Gentleman has made does not suggest that the CEST tool is inappropriate. The CEST tool is there to determine an individual’s employment status. In 85% of cases, it does give a determination. HMRC will stand by that determination provided the right data was put into the CEST process.
Following a recent case, an individual convicted of benefit fraud was given 900 years to pay off the £88,000 that they had defrauded from the state, but those facing the loan charge have not committed any criminal offence or broken the law, yet they are being hounded by HMRC for unaffordable sums. Can my right hon. Friend please advise me on why HMRC is persecuting innocent people to the point that it is affecting their mental and emotional wellbeing while allowing convicted fraudsters such leeway?
HMRC is not persecuting people, as my hon. Friend suggests. It is collecting the tax that is due. It is also not pursuing people for criminal activities, as he says. However, when it comes to criminality, I can tell the House that very recently, on 16 May, HMRC announced that six promoters of these schemes had been arrested on suspicion of loan charge tax fraud.
Those of us on the Labour Benches have repeatedly asked the Government what they are doing to clamp down on the enablers of the loan charge and we have repeatedly received feeble answers showing inertia and inaction, and we have had more of that today. More broadly, why are the Government not doing more to crack down on lawyers, accountants and others aiding and abetting tax avoidance under the guise of legitimate tax planning?
I think the hon. Gentleman probably composed his question before he heard my last answer, in which I made it clear that we have just recently had six arrests relating to the suspected fraudulent activity around the loan charge. We are also actively pursuing 100 promoters of tax avoidance schemes, including those relating to the loan charge, and have brought in up to £1 million fines for promoters engaged in this activity.
Six? There are thousands of these wheezes going on out there. Let me give the Minister another example. Under existing tax compliance and procurement rules, and public contracts regulations, there is provision for public contracts to be denied to individuals and organisations that do not comply with tax law, possibly including these promoters of loan schemes. Can the Financial Secretary admit that there is evidence of tax avoidance and enabling by organisations winning public contracts while not one single individual or organisation has been banned from securing those public contracts?
Is not the difference between the Government and the Opposition on tax avoidance quite simply that this Government are serious about it, having brought in and protected £200 billion since 2010? The tax gap is at a near historic low. If it was as high as it was under the last Labour Government, we would be deprived of sufficient funds to employ every policeman and woman in England and Wales. This Government are serious about avoidance and evasion, and we have a record of which to be proud.
Local Authority Budgets
I have regular discussions with the Home Secretary and the Local Government Secretary about their budgets and how they are best managed.
Will the Minister at least acknowledge that there is a problem? London boroughs are spending about £50 million a year—which they have to spend, but usually under the Children Act 1989—on families in extremis with no recourse to public funds. Will she acknowledge that that is the case and look at how local authorities are funded?
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the spending review is coming up. If there is a specific issue with London local authorities or other local authorities, I would expect that issue to be raised by the Local Government Secretary, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman to meet him to discuss the issue.
One specific issue in relation to the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham is the reopening of Hammersmith bridge. It is about time that the council got on with repairing and reopening the bridge. The council has a very good financial settlement. Will the Chief Secretary join me in knocking heads together between the council and Sadiq Khan’s Transport for London to get the bridge open?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s efforts to build bridges across London and to improve London’s infrastructure. The London mayoral elections are coming up, and I suggest that people vote for somebody who is going to make change happen much quicker.
Will the Minister commit to ensuring that survivors of domestic abuse with insecure immigration status have safe and confidential reporting systems, without fear of being returned to their country of origin?
The question is actually about the fiscal effects of the no recourse to public funds condition. I think I know what the hon. Lady is driving at, but I hope that other people are as aware of the connection as I am.
I have to agree, Mr Speaker; I am slightly struggling with the link between fiscal policy and the hon. Lady’s question. However, she might be interested to know that in the spending review we are specifically looking at how we can help women suffering domestic violence and how we can take the matter into account when deciding the future of our public spending.
It was great to see the Minister on the Isle of Wight the week before last, although I am sad to say that there are not too many double entendres on her social media. She will be aware that I have written her a letter, asking her to ensure that the Isle of Wight becomes a pilot scheme in order for us to look at how we can better integrate Government services in the One Public Estate programme.
It was certainly a weekend to remember on the Isle of Wight. It was my first ever visit to that great place, and I was impressed. The Isle of Wight provides a good opportunity to look at how we can do things differently, including how we can integrate services to cut down on bureaucracy and put more money on the frontline.
I am sure that the people of the Isle of Wight were most gratified that the right hon. Lady was among their number, even if only for a relatively short period.
NHS Pension Scheme
The NHS pension scheme and other public service schemes are among the most generous pension schemes available in this country today. The tapered annual allowance is focused on the highest-earning pension savers to ensure that the tax relief that they receive is not disproportionate to that of other savers. However, I do accept that there is some evidence that the annual allowance charge is having an impact on the retention of high-earning clinicians in the NHS. I am in discussion with my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary about how to provide additional pension flexibility for NHS doctors affected by the annual allowance tax charge, and he will make an announcement as soon as possible.
I am grateful to the Chancellor for that answer, and particularly to the Government for accepting that the taper contributes to capacity gaps and retention issues in the NHS. Given that the costs of increased waiting times, delayed diagnosis and knowledge gaps far outweigh the tax revenue generated, would not the sensible and fiscally responsible thing be just to scrap the taper altogether?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. However, the overall reforms to pensions allowances that were made in the previous two Parliaments and include the tapered annual allowance are necessary to deliver a fair system and to protect the public finances. These measures affect only the highest-earning pension savers and are expected to raise £6 billion a year. But, as I said, we are monitoring the response of high earners in the NHS, and I expect that my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will be able to make an announcement soon.
A number of hospital consultants who live in my constituency have written to me to express their concern at the implications of the tapered annual allowance. With GP numbers continuing to fall, ongoing shortages across consultant specialties and armed forces doctors currently experiencing a 23% workforce shortfall, how is the Chancellor going to help doctors and patients by resolving the unintended consequences caused by the annual tapered allowance and lifetime annual allowance that are leading to doctors who would otherwise be happily continuing to work having to leave the profession to avoid disproportionate and unfair tax bills?
I think I have answered that question, but it is good to hear Labour MPs focusing on the disincentive effect of high taxation, particularly on professionals in our public services. Someone has to be earning £150,000 a year before the tapered annual allowance affects them. I would suggest that perhaps Labour Members who do understand the detrimental effect of very high marginal tax rates on professionals in our public services make those representations to their right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor, who is intending to raise tax for everybody earning more than £80,000 a year.
One of the constituents I have in Barrachnie is a consultant who has told me that there are concerns about recruitment and retention. Given that a recent survey shows that 40% of doctors have retired early as a result of pension tax changes, I would urge the Chancellor to look again at this and make as strong a case as possible to the Health Secretary so that he can make sure that we have the staff in the NHS to serve our communities.
As I have already said, both the Treasury and the Health Department wish to address this problem. We have to find a mechanism that does it in a way that is fair and appropriate. The right way to do it is through increasing flexibilities within the NHS and, potentially, other public sector schemes. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will make an announcement as soon as possible.
Yesterday I met representatives of Alliance Health Group who were making representations because a number of very experienced surgeons are leaving the NHS due to the problems with the pension. I just wondered how representations would have been made to the Treasury on behalf of consultant groups.
The British Medical Association has been vocal, I think is probably the right word, in making the case around the disincentive effect of annual allowance charges, in particular, but also lifetime allowance charges. The Health Secretary and I have been discussing this for some time, and I think we are close to reaching a conclusion.
The workforce shortfall is the greatest challenge facing the NHS. What discussions has the Chancellor had with the Health Secretary about the combined impact of these changes together with the disastrous consequences for the NHS workforce that would follow a no-deal or WTO Brexit?
As the hon. Lady says, recruitment and retention is one of the big challenges facing the NHS. Clearly, anything that were to impede the NHS’s access to overseas workers coming into the UK to serve in our health service would have an impact on that. But I have also recognised and acknowledged today that the operation of the pension annual allowance charge does have a significant effect—particularly, it seems, on partners in GP practices.
The Government take child poverty extremely seriously and are committed to ensuring that all children have the best life chances. The Government believe that moving into work and progressing in work is the best and most sustainable route out of child poverty, and we have reformed the welfare system to ensure that work pays and working families can keep more of what they earn.
I despair at that predictable answer. There are 1.7 million children in destitution. Reports of children arriving at school hungry, scouring bins and stealing food from dinner halls are commonplace. Child poverty has risen by over half a million since 2010. Yesterday the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty was joined by Human Rights Watch in making it very clear that this Government’s relentless austerity measures and cruel welfare reforms are to blame for growing levels of hunger and poverty. Does the Minister agree with those internationally respected organisations?
No, I do not. I do recognise the diverse needs across this country. When I served with the hon. Lady on the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty and visited South Shields, I acknowledged that there are significant challenges. That is why I am very pleased to see that the employment rate in her constituency is up 20% since 2010.
I wonder whether the Minister and the Chancellor have had a chance to read the west midlands local industrial strategy, drawn up by the Business Secretary and the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street. Is the Minister aware that youth unemployment has reduced by some 50% over the last few years in the west midlands? Is that not a way to take children out of poverty?
It is well known that Andy Street has done a phenomenal amount to invest in the right sort of infrastructure and transform the life chances of many people across his region, and he deserves credit across the House for what he has achieved.
While there are only 300 people registered as unemployed in my constituency, there are nearly 2,500 children living below the poverty line, which tells us that living in a workless household is not the principal or only cause of poverty; low wages are also a cause. Will the Chancellor urgently review the living wage, so that it actually becomes a living wage, rather than giving it an inaccurate label intended only to ease the consciences of the comfortable?
The national living wage has gone up to £8.21 an hour. The Government’s aspiration is to allow it to rise to 60% of median earnings. It is important to acknowledge that in 2010 take-home pay was £9,200 after national insurance and tax. For someone working full time on the national living wage, that figure is now £4,500 more, at £13,700.
Investing in education and skills is a positive, proactive means of promoting aspiration and ensuring that the families of the future are in working households, not in poverty. To that end, what discussions are being had between Ministers in the Treasury and elsewhere in Government about education funding and investment in skills and training?
Conversations are going on among Treasury Ministers. The Chief Secretary has heard that representation, and announcements will be made in the autumn Budget.
In evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, the Child Poverty Action Group said of the two-child cap:
“You could not design a better policy to increase child poverty than this one”.
Will the Minister use the spending review to ditch that policy?
We spend £95 billion on working-age benefits, hardship payments, benefit advances and budgeting loans. Obviously all matters are under review in the context of spending decisions, which will be made clear in the autumn Budget.
That is not good enough. Analysis by Cambridge Econometrics states:
“In all of the Brexit scenarios, real wages for low-pay workers are depressed due to increases in prices and reduced levels of productivity, due to skills shortages and lower industry investment.”
Faced with this child poverty double-whammy, does the Minister agree that it is no surprise that the Tories are set for an absolute drubbing on Thursday?
I listen to the Office for Budget Responsibility, which is forecasting sustained real-wage growth for every one of the next five years. The latest statistics capture household income up to April 2018, but since then we have had a year of real-wage growth.
Child poverty has now reached such an unconscionable level that Members are right to highlight that, this week, the Government were condemned by Human Rights Watch for pursuing what it called “cruel and harmful policies”. Whether or not the Government accept that, the reality is that 4 million British children now live in poverty, that that figure has grown by 500,000 in the last five years and that the majority of those children have parents who are in work. Let me ask the Government: if they do not accept that Conservative policies are creating this crisis, what do Ministers believe is responsible for this humanitarian disaster?
What is important is that this Government continue to focus on creating jobs, and allowing families to experience the value of such a job and receiving more money in their household take-home pay, and that is what we will continue to focus on.
Supporting the High Street
High streets are at the heart of our communities, and they serve a social as well as an economic purpose. To support them, at Budget 2018 I cut business rates for small and medium-sized retail premises operated by independent retailers by a third for two years from April 2019, saving businesses over £1 billion. We have also set up a £675 million future high streets fund.
I very much welcome those measures in last year’s Budget, but for this coming comprehensive spending review, will my right hon. Friend consider offering occupiers of listed premises in town centres with freehold or full repairing lease obligations a VAT exemption on repairs and maintenance of those premises, which is a cost they have to bear but their online competitors and other retailers outside high streets do not?
I have to say to my right hon. Friend that, under EU law, we cannot introduce a reduced rate of VAT that is limited to repairs, maintenance and renovation of listed buildings. In any case, VAT incurred on their properties by VAT-registered businesses may be recoverable from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, subject to the normal VAT recovery rules. However, the good news is that we remain committed to supporting our high streets, and on Saturday we announced a £62 million fund to breathe new life into historic buildings on heritage high streets, which I hope will go some way to helping.
Does the Chancellor agree with me that companies such as St Modwen that buy up town centres such as Kirkby in my constituency do nothing with them—in fact, they leave them to rot—and then simply sell them on to a pension fund? Is that the way we want to run the future of our town centres, and has he not got anything more imaginative that can be done about it?
The £675 million fund that I mentioned is specifically intended to allow local authorities to develop plans for responding to the transformation of the high street that is coming. Retailing is changing, and high streets have to change to reflect that. We cannot hold that tide back, but we can help to support the transition.
Boots the Chemist, one of the most popular high street stores, says that just 22 of its 2,400 stores qualify for the Chancellor’s excellent business rates reduction scheme—not because of anything the Chancellor has done, but because of EU state aid rules. What can the Chancellor do to assist and to get around those rules?
I am a little mystified by this story about Boots, which I too read in the newspapers. When I announced the policy, I said that it was designed to help small independent retailers, and Boots, with 22,000 providers, does not fall within my definition of a small independent retailer. We always understood that this policy initiative was designed to support small independent retailers as they transition to the high street of the future.
I call Anneliese Dodds. [Interruption.] No? I had the distinct impression that the hon. Lady wished to come in on this question, but it is not obligatory.
On the next one I believe, Mr Speaker; I am terribly sorry.
On Mr Brake’s question—oh, very well. We do not want unwelcome contributors. The hon. Lady can choose her own destiny, and we are grateful to her.
Last Friday, I met members of the Chamber of Trade at Newtownards. Of three small shops in the town of Ards, one started off employing 10 and now employs 60, one started off employing six and now employs 30, and one started off employing 20 and now employs almost 100. Would the Chancellor consider rates reduction for those high street shops that increase employment?
As far as I am aware, rates is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland; it is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, which I very much hope will be back in operation very soon.
We have a proud record as a nation, reducing carbon emissions faster than any other G7 country since 2000. We have done that with a combination of spending measures and market mechanisms.
The Liberal Democrats were the first major political party to call for a zero-carbon Britain. We believe that target must be met by 2045. What assessment have the Government made of the climate change mitigation costs that would be incurred by 2045, of the support that would be needed for businesses to help them achieve a zero-carbon Britain by 2045, and of the health and environmental benefits?
We are currently assessing the report of the Climate Change Committee on this subject. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman is a regular reader of the Treasury Green Book on the way we assess investments. Last year, in the new Green Book, we specifically included looking at natural capital as a way of making that assessment. That is one of the lenses through which we shall be looking at the spending review.
I agree with the hon. Lady that Leeds does need flood protection. I remember visiting with her a few years ago to see the scheme. We have already achieved phase 1 with the £32 million for that, and the Government are putting forward £65 million for phase 2. My understanding is that Leeds City Council is keen to work with us on that, and we are keen to make progress.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; take two. The Environment Secretary said to Extinction Rebellion that he, at least, had got the message, but of course days later his Government were panned by the Solar Trade Association for new tax changes that will affect solar and storage schemes. That contrasts with Labour’s announcement last week of plans for 1.75 million households to benefit from the solar energy revolution. So will this Government abandon the damaging changes to VAT, match Labour’s solar investment plans and actually start taking renewables seriously?
As I said, we have an exemplary record in terms of our reduction of carbon. We are the top performer in the G7. It would be good to hear Opposition Members acknowledge the massive progress that we have made. The fact is that we are going to make more progress not by supporting a bunch of anti-capitalists that glue themselves to public transport, but by using market mechanisms instead, helping the economy grow. That is the way we improve the environment.
Fuel Duty Freeze
The price of fuel has only a marginal effect on how much fuel people purchase. That means that fuel duty freezes have a limited effect on emissions. Fuel costs, however, are a major expenditure for both households and businesses, which is why this Government have chosen to freeze fuel duty for nine successive years.
That is not the view of most people who actually know about these things. This Government have gone from climate emergency to climate complacency in just three weeks. There is 4% extra traffic on the roads because of the scrapping of the fuel duty escalator. What fiscal mechanisms is the Treasury contemplating to deal with climate change?
I take it from the hon. Gentleman that he supports increasing fuel duty. He asks who has that opinion. Actually, most economists agree that fuel consumption is highly price-inelastic, because working people do not always have the choice to use public transport or cycle. Not everybody lives in a city like Cambridge, with excellent public transport. We support the working men and women of this country, particularly in towns and rural areas, and we have saved them £1,000 a year on their fuel bills.
I declare my role as vice-chair of the all-party group for fair fuel. As the Minister outlines, it is the Conservative party that has frozen fuel for nine consecutive years. Since 2010, my constituents and people across the country have saved £1,000. As he mentions, the Opposition parties suggest that that was an ill-judged decision. Does he agree with me that it is this Government and this party who are on the side of motorists and hard-working people?
Absolutely. This Government will always support working people. We want to raise living standards. We are particularly conscious of those men and women who work in parts of the country, like the area my hon. Friend represents, where it is not easy to get to work. They need that extra money in their pockets to get on, do their jobs and run their businesses.
I have been saving the hon. Gentleman up for the delectation of the House: Mr Barry Sheerman.
That was a very, very complacent answer to a very important question. Is it not a fact that the house is on fire? We want a radical tax like the one Mrs Thatcher introduced with Geoffrey Howe in 1981. Why do we not have a tax on banks, Amazon and all the other people making profits, and put the money into fighting climate change now, when the house is on fire?
We on the Government Benches are not complacent about climate change; we are leading the world in this area. We are decarbonising faster than any other G20 country and we are investing billions of pounds in this area. If we want to tackle the challenge of decarbonisation, we will need to gather the greatest amount of private investment and innovation from the private sector. We will never be able to do that by going around nationalising industries below market value and making bellicose statements that shareholders are lining their pockets. The shareholders are the savers, the pensioners and the international investors that this country needs to thrive.
May I urge the Minister to reject the representations from the Labour party for a £9 billion tax rise on hard-working motorists? Does he not agree that rather than sandbagging hard-working people, it would be better to invest in more electric charging infrastructure to give people a real choice?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and that is what the Government are doing: investing in ultra-low emission vehicles; increasing the capital allowances budget, now extended to 2023, for EV charge points; announcing a £400 million fund to get private sector investment in getting those charge points rolled out across the country; and, through the plug-in car grant, giving generous subsidies to help people to buy their first electric vehicle.
Business Rates Relief: Music Venues
We announced in the Budget that we were reducing business rates for small retailers and others by one third. Music venues are not specifically included, although local authorities may make some judgments around that. We, of course, keep all tax reliefs and taxes under review.
The music sector contributes billions to the economy and so much more in terms of life enrichment, but the opportunity pipeline is being constricted as music venues close under pressure. Will the Minister agree to just a small tweak to the retail discount scheme guidance to make it clear that music venues are eligible?
Music venues are eligible for many of the reliefs, worth £13 billion over the coming years, we have introduced since 2016, as well as the switch from uprating the multiplier from RPI to CPI. Many benefit from small business rates relief as well. I will of course, as with all representations, take the hon. Gentleman’s comments on board and consider them going forward.
Not all of the small private hotels and guest houses in Cleethorpes are noted as music venues, but they would benefit from additional relief to their business rates. They are finding trading particularly difficult at the moment. Would the Minister look sympathetically on representations from them?
In short, yes. I always look sympathetically on any representations to reduce taxation.
What an agreeable and benevolent fellow the Minister is. We are deeply obliged to him.
Leaving the EU: Scotland
The Government published a detailed set of economic analyses on the long-term impacts of EU exit on the UK economy—its sectors, nations and regions, and the public finances—covering multiple EU exit scenarios. The analysis shows that the spectrum of outcomes for the future UK-EU relationship would deliver significantly higher economic output than in a no-deal scenario in all nations, including Scotland.
The Minister is right to highlight those analyses, which show that every single Brexit will be damaging to our economy and will hit public services. Coming after a decade of Tory austerity, will he rule out a no-deal Brexit and use the comprehensive spending review to start investing in our public services?
Clearly, the best way of avoiding a no-deal Brexit is to look favourably on what the Prime Minister brings back to the House of Commons in the week commencing 3 June.
I will tell the hon. Lady what is causing great concern and instability in the sector that I am responsible for—life insurance and the pensions industry, which is thriving in Glasgow and Edinburgh—and that is the fear of the SNP leadership introducing a new currency.
The result of the referendum was clear in 2016 across the United Kingdom, and we need to get on and deliver it.
The Minister did not quite answer the question from the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins). Is the Government’s default position still that on 31 October, we will leave on a no-deal basis if no agreement has been made?
That is the legal default, but as my hon. Friend will know, the Government hope, even at this late hour, to persuade him of the merits of passing the deal in the week of 3 June.
Is not the greatest threat of uncertainty to the Scottish economy the prospect of a second independence referendum?
Absolutely. Another divisive referendum within 18 months would be completely contrary to what the First Minister said five years ago, which was that it was a “once in a generation” event. It would absolutely be a real crisis for Scotland.
The Government are proud of their record of reducing income taxes to enable people to keep more of what they earn. We have increased the personal allowance by over 90% in less than a decade. We have given 32 million people an income tax cut compared with 2015-16, and thanks to the changes that I made at the last Budget, a typical basic rate taxpayer will pay £130 less income tax this year than last year.
I thank the Chancellor for that answer, and I thank him and his team for getting to grips with the extraordinary annual structural deficit inherited from the Labour party. Bearing that in mind, and given that we are now on a course towards a balanced budget, will he focus with laser-like precision on continuing to reduce income tax for hard-working families, putting clear blue water between us and the socialists in the run-up to the next election?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on the much improved state of the public finances and the direct link between that and our ability to consider further tax cuts. What I said at the spring statement remains the case: for the first time in a decade, this country now has choices—we have headroom because of the improved state of the public finances. We can choose to use that to support additional spending on public services, or we can choose to reduce the deficit more quickly. We can choose to invest in Britain’s future, or we can choose to cut taxes on ordinary working families. The luxury of choice is something that this country has not seen for a decade.
I think there must be an election coming up, because the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) is on the front page of The Daily Telegraph today saying that we should “Cut income tax for a ‘fairer’ Britain”. We do need a fairer Britain, because we have the highest level of inequality in Europe. The so-called living wage does not solve inequality, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the House of Commons Library briefing of yesterday, so when it comes to the choices that the Chancellor is going to make, what is his choice in tackling inequality in Britain?
I am afraid I do not agree with the hon. Lady about the national living wage. We have set out an ambition for it to reach 60% of median earnings by next year, which we will achieve. As I said in the spring statement, we now need to give a new mandate to the Low Pay Commission for the future trajectory of the national living wage, and I want us to be ambitious in doing that, but I do not want us to price low-skilled people out of work. That is why I have started a series of roundtables, the first of which was the week before last, with representatives from industry and the trade unions to decide what our strategy will be to increase the national living wage in this country.
How many people in the west midlands are benefitting from recent increases to the personal allowance and the higher-rate threshold?
The answer is lots. Had I known my hon. Friend was going to ask me that, I would have been able to give him a precise answer. I will write to him.
Put a copy of the answer in the Library of the House—we will all find it most informative.
My party has advocated the raising of the personal allowance, and I am glad that the Chancellor has done that over the past few years, but does he agree that part of the problem now is that part-time and full-time employees on low pay, just below the threshold of £12,500, pay national insurance contributions? Will he consider eliminating that to the same level as the allowance?
We always have to find the most cost-effective way to deliver the effect we are looking for. We have chosen so far to do that by raising the personal allowance thresholds, but the hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly legitimate argument for a different approach in the future. As I have said, we will have choices as a result of the much improved state of the public finances.
My principal focus is to ensure the continued resilience of the UK economy at a time of domestic and international economic uncertainty. By maintaining our balanced approach to the public finances and continuing to focus on investment and cutting taxes for working families, we have ensured that public debt is now falling sustainably, employment is at a record high, wages are rising and Britain’s economy is forecast to grow more than three times as fast as Germany’s this year.
The report by the all-party group on adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse demonstrated the economic impact of not supporting victims: 72% said it had had a negative impact on their career; 65% on their education; and 46% on their financial situation. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury said about survivors that
“it should be government’s responsibility to prioritise support for these people”.
Will the Chancellor prioritise support for these services in the spending review?
I had a very useful meeting with the hon. Lady a month or so ago, and we are now taking forward the work and evidence she presented us with and working with the Home Office on looking at the economic benefits of taking more action to help survivors of child sexual abuse. It is a priority for the spending review to make sure we deal with violence against women and girls.
The clean growth strategy set out our ambition to enable businesses and industry to improve energy efficiency by 20% by 2030. Today farmers in a community such as Ludlow can make use of the rural development programme for agricultural buildings, but we have also announced two new schemes. First, there is the £315 million investment in a new industrial energy transformation fund, and secondly, we have published a call for evidence on a business energy efficiency scheme focused on smaller businesses.
The Chancellor’s speech to the CBI this evening has been much trailed. I welcome his clear warnings to his Conservative colleagues about the hit the economy would face from a no-deal Brexit, especially those who have said there is nothing to fear from a no deal. For the benefit of Members in the Chamber, will he explain what he sees as the impact of a no-deal Brexit and his clear view that with
“all the preparation in the world”
a no-deal Brexit will still damage our economy?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman: I may not have to take the trouble to go and deliver the speech this evening.
The right hon. Gentleman has raised a serious point. There are two separate effects of a no-deal Brexit that concern me. First, there will clearly be short-term disruption, which will have an unpredictable and potentially significant effect on our economy. Secondly, and probably more importantly, all the analysis that the Government and external commentators have published shows that there will be a longer-term effect, meaning that our economy will be smaller than it would otherwise have been. I did not come into politics to make our economy smaller; I came into politics to make our economy bigger, and to make our people better off.
I shall be happy to deliver the Chancellor’s speech this evening. Any time!
The reality is that for many the Brexit vote was, and may well be again, a kick at the establishment: an establishment that has inflicted nine years of harsh austerity on them, and which many feel has ignored them. As has been revealed this week, that austerity programme has meant children going to school hungry, without warm clothes or dry shoes, and single mothers with no food in their cupboards skipping meals so that their children can eat. Does the Chancellor even acknowledge the role that his austerity politics have played in delivering the Brexit vote?
I think the reasons behind the Brexit vote are complex, and it would be trite to stand here and try to identify them simplistically. Let me also remind the right hon. Gentleman of the contribution that his party’s Government made to the situation that we inherited, which caused us to have to make the tough decisions to which he has implicitly referred.
Ten days ago, I met heads and chairs of governors from across my constituency at Corfe Hill School. Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury meet me to discuss their specific concerns about schools funding, and the need for additional funding for our schools in Poole and in Dorset as a whole?
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. We are looking at schools funding, alongside other funding, as part of the spending review. It is a public priority, and we are taking it very seriously.
I am proud that this country will be the first in the world to introduce a new, innovative plastic packaging tax. We are in the process of formulating the tax. We have finished the consultation, and have received a large number of responses. We will be presenting proposals in the forthcoming Budget.
Will my right hon. Friend the Chancellor consider changing the method of assessing a property’s rateable value, so that all shops on the high street pay business rates that reflect their profitability and trading potential, putting them on a level playing field with their out-of-town and online competitors?
I understand my hon. Friend’s wish to ensure the vibrancy of the high street, which is going through a very difficult period. Owing to the way in which the business rate system works, relieving the burden on any part of the system means imposing it somewhere else, so we would have to look carefully at that, but I will take my hon. Friend’s representation as a serious proposal and consider it.
That is a matter for the Departments concerned. As the hon. Lady knows, there is a legal obligation to pay the national living wage, and we have put additional resources into ensuring that that obligation is enforced. We encourage employers to pay higher rates than the national living wage when they are able to, and we will continue to do so.
When Sally Masterton discovered a £1 billion fraud at Lloyds Bank the bank discredited her, constructively dismissed her and prevented her from working with the police investigation. Five years later Lloyds apologised for her mistreatment but nobody at the bank has been formally investigated or sanctioned for this mistreatment. Will the Minister use his powers to instruct the Financial Conduct Authority to carry out that investigation?
As my hon. Friend knows, the FCA is conducting two investigations into the events at HBOS Reading and Lloyds has instructed Linda Dobbs to look into who knew what when. It is absolutely clear now that such circumstances could not be repeated given the action we have taken with the senior managers regime, but I look forward to the outcome of those reviews and we will be taking action accordingly.
We are chasing tax dodgers everywhere. [Interruption.] Yes, we are. We have raised £200 billion of additional revenue since 2010 by clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion. Yet what did I hear when I came into the Chamber today? I heard Labour Member after Labour Member challenging my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury about the loan charge, a clear attempt to deal with a piece of egregious tax avoidance which Opposition Members seem to have a totally different view about.
If we want more renewables and more electric cars we need a more resilient electricity grid, and that needs more investment. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the last thing we need for a cleaner, greener Britain is for the Labour party to wipe billions of pounds off our National Grid’s investment capacity?
What we want is a brief sentence on the Government’s policy. We are not having dilations on the policies of other parties; that is not the purpose of Question Time.
I think the idea that an industry could be nationalised not at market value is completely wrong; that is fundamentally against the principle of property rights on which our entire economy is built.
I am working very closely with the Department for Education, looking at the FE sector and at the new qualifications we are introducing, such as T-levels, and making sure the sector is sustainable in the future. We are also reforming it to deliver the best possible outcome for students.
What estimate has my right hon. Friend made of the effect on national debt of nationalising the National Grid and the effect it would have on the taxes paid by ordinary working people and the public services they receive in my constituency?
We know that the cumulative burden of the commitments made by the Opposition Front Bench would reach almost £1 trillion over a Parliament, and I have heard—[Interruption.] If the shadow Chancellor has a number, no doubt we will hear about it in a moment; I have heard him say that it does not matter because these companies are profitable, so the profits will pay the additional interest costs. But let me tell my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) something: I remember the last time we had widespread nationalisation in this country and—do you know what?—none of the companies the Government owned were profitable. Funny that, isn’t it?
We are simply making sure that the tax that was always due is paid, and that is right and proper. As I have set out, we are taking a front-footed approach to clamping down on promoters, and that has included six recent arrests for potential criminal activities.
Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer acknowledge the important role that the national lottery has played in this country? When he looks at the national lottery, will he ensure that any future lottery that is run on a national basis is taxed at the same rate?
My right hon. Friend raises an interesting question, and I will look carefully at the taxation of the national lottery and any future lotteries.
Anti-idling rules are a good start in reducing air pollution, but local authorities need the legal powers and resources to enforce them. Would the Treasury consider making new money available to local authorities to stop cars idling?
The Government have committed £3.5 billion to improving air quality for the entire population, and I understand that that involves Bath and North East Somerset Council receiving nearly £6.5 million. I understand that the council is also expected to bid for part of the of the £220 million clean air fund, and I wish it luck with its application.
I am pleased to hear that education is going to get a special focus in the forthcoming spending review. Please can Somerset have special consideration, since pupils there get way below the national average in both secondary and primary school funding? With a sound economy, I am sure that we can sort this out.
I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue. The reality is that there is a big gap in funding, with the lowest-funded authorities getting approximately £4,300 per pupil and the top-funded authorities getting £6,800. We are looking at that, because we have to have fairness across the country.
Revenue funding continues to flow to oil refineries in the middle east at the expense of tidal technology, an area in which we are a world leader. When will this Government accept that investing in tidal energy would bring huge benefits to the whole economy?
This Government are investing in innovation in the tidal and marine sector. For example, we have invested in the marine innovation centre in Shetland, and I recently met a delegation to discuss those proposals. However, investments that we make on behalf of the taxpayer have to be the right strategic energy investments for the country and provide good value for money for the taxpayer.
I met headteachers and school governors across Cornwall recently, and they are very concerned about the pressure that their school budgets are under, so can I put in my bid for more money for education in the comprehensive spending review, and can we ensure that that money is fairly distributed so that schools in Cornwall get their fair share?
It sounds like I will not need to conduct any more meetings, because we can just continue this debate in the Chamber. I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I agree that there is unfairness across the system. We are working on that at the moment.
Wherever the Royal Navy deploys, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary deploys alongside it, but instead of getting the 2.9% pay increase that the sailors got, RFA personnel got a below-inflation 1.5% increase. As the total cost of the difference is only £400,000, will the Government think again and give our brave RFA crews the pay rise they deserve?
Royal Fleet Auxiliary personnel are part of the civil service, so this is a matter for the Cabinet Office, alongside the Ministry of Defence, but I am sure that it will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s representations.
As the questions today have demonstrated, the Treasury needs to take a much longer-term view of investing in people and their human capital, just as it does in relation to physical capital. When is the Office for National Statistics’ human capital review finally going to report? It was announced in March 2018, but I cannot even find out whether its consultation has been published yet.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, because it was at her prompting that I originally asked the Office for National Statistics to look at how we measure and value human capital to ensure that there is no systematic bias against human capital in favour of physical capital. The ONS has in fact delivered its draft report, and the question of how we measure and value human capital will be at the centre of the spending review process.
Has the time not come for the Chancellor to heed the call from the Westminster leaders of seven Opposition parties to fund proper compensation for those infected and affected by the NHS blood scandal across the whole United Kingdom?
That is an issue for the Department of Health and Social Care. I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns, and I will pass them on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on the discussions he has had with British Steel regarding its future.
My Department is in regular conversation with a wide range of companies, including those in the steel industry. As the House will be aware, the Government entered into a commercial agreement with British Steel on 24 April, valued at £120 million, relating to the company’s obligations under the EU emissions trading system. The Secretary of State updated the House on that agreement in an oral statement on 1 May—the first available opportunity after market-sensitive elements of the resulting transaction were concluded. The commercial agreement reached with British Steel ensured that the company was able to meet its 2018 EU ETS obligations under a deed of forfeiture. It also ensured that the company did not incur an EU ETS non-compliance fine which, coupled with 2018 ETS liabilities, would have equated to a financial pressure of over £600 million—a sum that would have put the company under significant financial strain.
The speculation regarding the future of British Steel will no doubt be creating uncertainty for those employed by the company. As shown through the ETS agreement, the Government have been willing to act. We have been in ongoing discussions with the company, and I am sure the House will understand that we cannot comment in detail at this stage. We will update the House when more information is available. I can, however, reassure the House that, subject to strict legal bounds, the Government will leave no stone unturned in their support of the steel industry.
Yesterday I signed up to the UK steel charter. We want to acknowledge and support the initiative from the industry, and the charter is one element of that. We have been also been encouraging the UK steel sector to strengthen its engagement with all existing and potential domestic steel consumers, maximising opportunities to benefit from the £3.8 billion a year of high market value opportunities that we have identified by 2030. We recognise that global economic conditions continue to be challenging for the industry, which is why the Government are working with the sector, unions and the devolved Administrations to support a sustainable, productive and modern UK steel sector.
It goes without saying that the UK steel industry is critical to our manufacturing base and that protecting the industry should be of paramount importance to the Government. The industry provides over 30,000 highly skilled, well-paid jobs in the UK, and British Steel directly employs around 4,500 in Scunthorpe, with a further 20,000 down the supply chain. Does the Minister agree the Government should be doing everything in their power to prevent British Steel from entering administration?
It is reported that British Steel had initially asked the Government for a £75 million loan in emergency financial support and subsequently reduced that request to around £30 million following negotiations with the Department. Will the Minister outline the asks of British Steel throughout the negotiations? Have the discussions included just financial support or a wider package of measures to support the site in Scunthorpe and the steel industry more widely?
Will the Minister confirm the status of the negotiations and why they are reported to have stalled in recent days? It has been reported that one of the reasons was the Department’s frustration with Greybull Capital’s apparent unwillingness to put money on the table. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case? What impact did the company’s decision to acquire Ascoval last week have on the negotiations? If no deal can be reached with Greybull, have the Government considered any other options, such as bringing British Steel into public ownership?
Finally, the steel sector is facing myriad issues, from the value of sterling and the uncertainty around future trading with the EU through to US trade tariffs, and the Government could have taken steps to address them, such as greater procurement of UK steel, agreeing a sector deal, as the industry was requesting, and taking action on energy prices. Does the Minister accept that this Government have simply failed to take the steps necessary to ensure that UK steel remains competitive?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the commitment that she and her family have shown to the steel sector over many years. I represent the constituency of Pendle, which is dominated by manufacturing, and I share her passion for the steel sector. I will leave no stone unturned, and neither will the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, in supporting the UK steel sector.
As the House will know, we can only act within the strict bounds of what is legally possible under domestic and European law. I can assure the House that we will continue to do whatever is in our power to support the UK steel industry and those who work in the sector. We are working with the sector, the unions and the devolved Administrations to support all aspects of the UK steel sector.
The Government have taken a number of important longer-term steps, including ensuring that social and economic factors can be taken into account in public sector steel procurement, and providing more than £291 million in compensation to the steel sector since 2013 to make energy costs more competitive. We have also published a pipeline of upcoming national infrastructure projects every year to enable steel businesses to plan for future demand.
As I mentioned earlier, I signed the UK steel charter yesterday, and I will be encouraging other hon. Members and Government Departments to do the same. We want to acknowledge the importance of this industry.
On Friday I had one of my regular catch-ups at the Tata steelworks in Corby, and we specifically talked about support for the steel charter. I was obviously pleased to see the Minister at yesterday’s event, but will he both adopt the charter and action it as quickly as possible so that the industry can rapidly feel the benefit of the course it advances?
My hon. Friend is a huge champion of the steel sector. I was pleased to meet representatives of Tata yesterday, and I have regular engagements with companies across the steel sector to talk about these issues. The UK steel charter is a really good initiative, and I am proud to have signed it on behalf of my Department. I will be encouraging other Departments to do the same.
It was left to the SNP Scottish Government to secure a future for Scottish steel with the transfer of the Dalzell and Clydebridge plants to Liberty. Although Liberty still expects operations at British Steel to continue as normal for the time being, it is preparing and taking the necessary measures to protect the business from a potential shortage of slab, which would affect the Liberty works. Will the support shown to British Steel, not to mention Nissan, be given to any Scottish firms affected? British Steel needed a loan earlier this month to pay its £100 million Brexit fine. Given that British Steel is clear that Brexit-related issues are taking the firm to the brink, how many more jobs will Westminster sacrifice before it gets the message that Brexit must be stopped?
I am very keen to work with the devolved Administrations to support the UK steel sector. Only this week I met the Secretary of State for Wales and a Welsh steel company to talk about support for the steelworks in that part of the United Kingdom. I am very keen to work with the Scottish Government to ensure that we have a thriving steel sector in Scotland as well.
Will my hon. Friend undertake to avoid halving both output and employment? That is what the last Labour Government achieved.
We have taken decisive action to support the UK steel sector. There are more things we could do, and I am keen to explore with industry what more we can do, but I agree that the challenges here have been going on for a number of years. This Government see the steel sector as fundamentally important to British industry, and we will continue to leave no stone unturned in supporting the sector.
Steelworkers and their families in my constituency and across the country are anxious, as the Minister has recognised. Pragmatic decisions in the coming days could still avert another industrial disaster. I have spoken to the trade unions, which are clear from the messages they are getting that there is still a deal to be done. It is important that, across the House and outside the House, we all work to make sure this delivers positively for the future of the British steel industry. Does the Minister agree that the stakes are too high for the Government, for us, to fail?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments; we have discussed this issue over the past few days. When we are in a position to update the House with more information, we will do so. I hope that he will acknowledge that the Secretary of State is one of the most diligent Ministers in coming to the Dispatch Box as soon as information is readily available. At this stage, however, I cannot comment on specifics.
In the past two years, I had the pleasure of dealing with the steel industry in my capacity as Minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I can certainly confirm that the Secretary of State and the ministerial team are very much behind the steel industry.
Does the Minister agree that one of the problems affecting firms such as British Steel, which has an excellent business plan and very good management, is the uncertainty about the trading relationship with the European Union and outside it? Nonsense is talked about World Trade Organisation rules and other things, under which there may be a 20% tariff. Will the Minister, at the Dispatch Box, please ask the Opposition and Members on the Government side who voted against the Prime Minister’s deal to change their minds and get Brexit sorted out very quickly? That will help the steel industry more than anything.
I echo the comments of my predecessor, whose shoes I am still trying to fill only six weeks into the job. All Members should reflect on the real-world impacts of the decisions—or lack of them—that they make in this place on businesses, and how that can affect thousands of jobs and whole towns across the United Kingdom.
The Government have presided over the decline of the UK steel industry: the closure of Redcar in 2016; the lack of assurances obtained from Greybull when it took over British Steel; the chaotic handling of Brexit; and the failure to agree a sector deal with the steel industry, which it has been crying out for. The Government now have a chance to right some of those wrongs. I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to protect jobs, investment and our vital manufacturing base in our steel sector.
In this role, I want to do everything that I can to support the UK steel sector. We were the first country in Europe to take account of socio-economic factors in public sector procurement. We have provided more than £291 million in compensation for high energy costs in the UK. We have provided and published a pipeline of upcoming national infrastructure projects, and last year I signed the UK steel charter. We are doing a lot as a Government, although there is more that we can do. I stand ready to help the sector in any way I can.
I welcome the Minister’s answers today and appreciate that there are limitations on what he can say at this time. I thank him and his team at the Department for all the work I know they are doing to deliver a sustainable future for British Steel. I urge him to impress on Greybull capital its moral and legal responsibility to the hundreds of men and women, in my constituency and elsewhere, to deliver a sustainable future for the industry.
My hon. Friend is a champion of steelworkers in his constituency. We will, of course, update the House when we have more information on any specific discussions with any steel company. That is all I can say.
Today we are rightly talking about British Steel and the strong action needed to save the company. Surely the Minister understands that the situation makes it even more crucial that we have a robust and positive industrial strategy, with steel as a key part, and a sector deal. That is what steelworkers at Orb, Llanwern and Liberty in my constituency want. When will the Government act?
We have a robust industrial strategy and remain open to a steel sector deal. Since I have been appointed, I have been meeting steel industry representatives and discussing that, along with other issues. I have mentioned the steel pipeline, support on energy costs and a range of things that the Government are already doing. We need to see through the steel sector deal whether we can take that further.
As the Minister knows, part of the Scunthorpe site and probably the lion’s share of workers at Scunthorpe live in my constituency. I thank him and the Secretary of State, on my behalf and that of the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for their frequent communication with us over the past week or so.
Certainty is very important to the industry. That is why, with some reservations, I have consistently supported the Prime Minister’s deal, to end the Brexit uncertainty, and I will continue to do so. I hope that other colleagues will also do that, as British Steel has asked it of Members of Parliament.
Will the Minister confirm that, if the company were nationalised, it would be subject to the same rules on Government investment had it remained in private ownership?
Delivering a negotiated deal from the EU remains the Government’s top priority, and I hope Members will vote for the deal. My hon. Friend is exactly correct: nationalisation is not the solution. If the business were nationalised, the exact same domestic and European laws would apply.
According to the BBC, 95% of the rail used by Network Rail comes from the Scunthorpe plant. Instead of bailing out what is essentially a private equity firm, will the British Government not consider taking a direct equity share in the company, or, if it goes into administration, creating an arm’s length publicly owned company to take over the plant?
Any support for any business in the steel sector has to be commercial, to fulfil state aid rules. Whatever support is provided to any steel company has to stack up on that basis. However this is done, and whether we take a stake in the company or not, this has to be done on a commercial basis.
The union convenor from British Steel’s Scunthorpe plant came to Parliament last week and told us that 25% of its order book had been lost through Brexit uncertainty. He summed up their plight as “No deal, no British Steel”. Does the Minister agree that resolving Brexit uncertainty by voting for the Bill next month would offer a lifeline to the company and other manufacturing businesses?
Delivering a deal negotiated with the EU remains the Government’s top priority. It remains the best way to provide security for the future of British jobs and businesses.
Redcar steelworks was closed by the Government three and a half years ago, with the loss of 3,100 jobs. After that biggest act of industrial vandalism, everybody came together and said, “Never again!” The Minister has said that he will leave no stone unturned, but is he willing to accept that if the worst should happen and the company goes into administration, the Government will step in to secure the asset this time—not let it go to waste so that it is still sitting there three and a half years later—and secure the workforce and their livelihoods?
The Government have been willing to act. We provided a £120 million bridging facility to the company earlier this month, which shows that we are fleet of foot and responsive to businesses that approach us with their concerns. I cannot comment on any current negotiations with this or any other company, but the Government are responsive, and, when it comes to this specific company, we have already shown our willingness to act, with that £120 million.
I was born in 1974: in my entire lifetime, unemployment has never been lower than it is today. Should we not remember that picture? It is based not on policies such as renationalisation but on maintaining pro-business policies that keep us attractive and open to inward investment.
I see the steel sector as fundamentally important to the British economy, and we are keen to do everything we can to support it. However, as I have already said and the House will know, we can only act within the strict bounds of what is legally possible under domestic and European law.
It is now nearly two years since the Helm review, yet British steel producers are paying 50% more for energy than their competitors in Germany and nearly twice as much as those in France. Does the Minister accept that that disparity has to be removed? If so, what action will he take to remove it and when will he take that action?
We have already provided £291 million in compensation to the steel sector since 2013, including £53 million in 2018, to make energy costs more competitive. I am particularly keen to see the steel sector benefit from the industrial energy transformation fund, which is backed by an additional £315 million of investment. I have already had discussions with UK Steel about how firms across the sector can make the most use of this transformative funding.
I thank the Government for the action they are taking. Does the Minister agree that, just as our agriculture sector is vital for the national interest in food security, our steel sector is vital for the national interest in defence and manufacturing security?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. His Stafford constituency has, like mine, significant numbers of people who work in manufacturing, and we all know how important the UK steel sector is. In my role as Minister I will do everything I can to support the sector.
British Steel’s service centre for Ireland is located at Lisburn in my constituency, and those jobs are vital for our local economy. I echo the comments of other right hon. and hon. Members in encouraging the Government to look more closely at a sector deal for the steel industry. As the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) said, the sector is vital for the UK economy, and we encourage the Government to go the extra mile.
I remain open to discussions on a sector deal with the steel industry, and I have already met companies. I will certainly do everything I can to ensure that such a deal is reached without delay.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he is handling himself and the Department, having come into his new post with such an issue to deal with. This is a serious matter, but we must remember that steel is an internationally competitive and traded commodity. The industry currently faces the challenge of the US-China trade war and tariffs being imposed on it. Will my hon. Friend inform the House what measures the Government can take to seek to provide some protection from the dumping of Chinese steel in this country?
My hon. Friend is correct that this is a global issue. The 33 countries that are members of the G20 global forum on steel excess capacity have agreed important policy principles and recommendations to tackle unfair subsidies and practices. It is important that all G20 global forum members act on that agreement and are held to account for unfair practices.
People in Barnsley whose jobs depend on industrial supply chains will be astounded if the Government let the owners of British Steel walk away with tens of millions while they suffer the consequences of administration. Will the Minister guarantee that that will not happen?
I cannot be drawn on the specifics, but through our industrial strategy the Government want to work with all businesses, large and small, to ensure the success of British industry. I see the British steel industry as an important part of that and we need to work together to ensure its long-term success.
Scunthorpe produces the long products that are vital for major infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2. Will the Minister assure the House that projects such as HS2 will use British steel? Will he ensure that he does everything possible to ensure that British-manufactured steel is used in major infrastructure projects?
The Government have worked hard to produce a pipeline of the steel products being used in the public sector, and the details were published for the first time this year. Many other large construction projects in the UK, such as Hinkley Point C, are contributing significantly to new orders and future business for the steel sector. We hope that our transparency will lead to better public procurement, and we will work with the industry to ensure that it uses the data to ensure further support and orders for the British steel sector.
The Minister talks about the steel pipeline, but only half the steel that the UK Government buy is from the UK. What steps will the Government take to increase dramatically the share of UK steel that is used in Government projects?
We were the first EU country to implement socioeconomic and environmental factors in public procurement rules on the purchase of steel. For the first time ever, we have published information for not only Departments but their arm’s length bodies on how much steel they have procured over the past financial year and how they have applied the steel procurement guidance. I hope that that will allow greater transparency in the sector so that we can see exactly where steel is coming from and ensure that we can increase the proportion that is bought from UK suppliers.
Some 88% of structural steel used in the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier programme was sourced from UK producers. Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK steel industry is vital to our nation’s defence security, and will he do all he can to support it?
UK steel is incredibly important, not only to our defence sector but to other sectors. The published details on the upcoming steel requirements for national infrastructure projects show that the Government plan to use more than 3 million tonnes of steel, until 2021, for infrastructure projects such as Hinkley Point and for the maintenance and upgrading of the UK’s motorway network. Steel is important not just to defence but across a range of sectors, which is why the Government stand ready to support the UK steel sector.
British Steel has made it clear that Brexit uncertainty is scaring customers away and is a major cause of its problems. There is a simple solution: stop Brexit and stem the flow of job losses and relocations. If the Minister is not willing to take such action, will the Government instead look into the idea of setting up a Brexit support fund, which could be used, where appropriate, to support businesses and sectors that have been damaged by Brexit?
British Steel has been clear that Members of this House should vote for the deal, which I have voted for three times. All Members should reflect on the real-world impacts of the decisions that we make in this place, or the lack thereof, on businesses and the people we represent.
The Minister is right to consider jobs at risk, particularly when they relate to what are hopefully relatively short-term Brexit uncertainties, but to be fair Greybull did buy the business after the referendum and therefore might have expected some volatility ahead. Will the Minister confirm to the House that if he decides to support the business, it will be an isolated case, rather than an ongoing policy of supporting failing businesses?
All support that is provided for businesses has to be compliant with UK domestic law and EU law. It has to pass various commerciality tests to be legal and compliant with state aid rules. We always stand ready to work with UK businesses to protect UK interests and jobs, but any support that we provide has to be legal.
It is almost three years to the day since we were battling to save the entire Tata operation throughout the United Kingdom. It beggars belief that we are here having the same conversation and asking the same questions. The fact is that the fundamental problem is that the British steel industry is not able to compete on a level playing field because of the Government’s complete failure to have an industrial strategy to support it. When will the Government stop leaving stones unturned and give the steel industry the sector deal it urgently needs?
I know the hon. Gentleman is incredibly passionate about this issue. I met representatives of Tata Steel yesterday, and we discussed many issues relating specifically to the Port Talbot site. Rather than a bleak picture, they painted a positive picture of how that site has grown over recent years. There has been significant investment and the company wishes to invest more. The Government will work with Tata Steel to support it in any way possible, and we will certainly work with colleagues in the Welsh Assembly to ensure that if any support is required it is delivered. Across the board, we are working to support the UK steel sector.
The Minister talked about public sector procurement; my understanding is that around 50% of the steel used in public sector procurement is produced here in the United Kingdom. Why is the proportion not higher?
That is a good question. We were the first EU country to implement socioeconomic and environmental factors in public procurement rules, which means we can take into account the impact on carbon emissions and on local communities. This is the first year in which that information has been published and made readily available. Now that it has been published, I have asked my officials to look into how we can consider not only that information but the steel pipeline, to ensure that we support British companies as much as we can. If British companies need to transform some of their processes to supply a greater proportion of UK domestic demand, I am sure my Department will do whatever it can to support them but, as I have said several times, any support that we provide to any businesses in the steel sector has to be compliant with UK domestic law and EU state aid law.
The forthcoming Government project to build the Royal Navy fleet solid support ships will clearly use enormous amounts of steel. Quite simply, why can the Minister not ensure that those ships are built of UK steel?
We are working with industry on a range of projects to ensure that a higher proportion of the UK domestic need for steel is supplied by British companies. As I have mentioned before, the steel pipeline has identified those projects, which means that steel companies can see when the demand is coming many years ahead. Hopefully, we can ensure that a much higher proportion of our domestic steel requirement is supplied from British Steel projects.
To say that the Government have left no stone unturned is, frankly, an insult to an industry that has been sent to the back of the queue when it comes to a sector deal. When will it get the sector deal for which it has been crying out for month after month after month? I ask the Minister to give us a very specific date.
Sector deals are not about value signalling. We are not doing sector deals randomly across the board. We are doing sector deals where we believe that they can deliver a transformation in productivity and enhance production in any sector. The UK steel sector, like the global steel sector, is challenged by global economic conditions, oversupply and a range of other factors. We have taken firm action on sorting out energy costs. We are supplying millions of pounds in compensation. We have launched the industrial energy transformation fund and we have the industrial strategy challenge fund. There is the steel pipeline and now the steel charter. This Government are dong an awful lot to help the UK steel sector.
I wonder whether the Minister might respond to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who said that the stakes are too high to fail for this vital national industry as well as for the regional economy in the Humber area.
The closure of any steel blast furnace or steel mill would have a significant impact on the locality. All the sites across the United Kingdom employ large numbers of people, which is why we are very keen to support all sites across the country. However, as I have said, the Government are willing to take action and intervene where we can. We supplied £120 million bridging facility to British Steel recently, which I hope shows the level of commitment from this Government. We will work with all companies across the sector to support them, but any support we provide to any business has to be judged against British and European law.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) said, the Tory Government have form in failing to support this steel industry. Ministers turned their backs on Teesside in particular when we lost the country’s most efficient blast furnace, leaving thousands of people out of work. Now, more Teesside steel workers face an uncertain future. We need Ministers to act to save those jobs that we have left, but also to accelerate the investment on Teesside to create the well-paid jobs that have been promised but not delivered. When will we get these jobs?
The Government are working to support the sector. As I have just mentioned, a £120 million bridging facility has been supplied to British Steel to support its EU emissions trading system compliance, which demonstrates that graphically. In the past few weeks, we have been working with the sector on high energy costs, we are working with the sector to reduce its carbon emissions and we are working across the board to support all regions of the United Kingdom.
What reassurance can the Minister offer to the many apprentices who work at the Scunthorpe plant from my Great Grimsby constituency and to the colleges that arrange those apprenticeships in the event that the Government’s intervention is not sufficient?
Media speculation about this site and about the financial future of this site is unhelpful. If we have anything to say we will update the House when there is more information available.
Last week, Martin Foster, a loyal long-serving steel worker and the Unite union convenor from Scunthorpe, told Parliament: no deal, no British Steel. In urging, as he did, that a deal be done with a strong customs union at its heart, does the Minister agree that he is right and that British Steel is right? Does he also agree that those who think that we can crash out of the European Union without a deal and rely on World Trade Organisation terms just do not live on the same planet as those Scunthorpe steel workers whose whole future is now threatened?
British Steel wrote to local MPs in the Scunthorpe area to urge them to vote for the Prime Minister’s deal. I have voted for it three times. How many times has the hon. Gentleman voted for it?
Primary steel making in Scotland ended in 1992 with the closure of Ravenscraig, but the two remaining secondary steel plants that process plate are heavily reliant on the Scunthorpe blast furnaces, which supply them with steel and, in turn, the shipbuilding industry in Glasgow. Not only have we seen this Government leading efforts to block action against Chinese dumping at the European Commission, but we have seen them diluting efforts to ensure maximised content for British manufactured products in renewables projects. We have seen them move the goalposts from 60% of manufactured content to 60% of through-life content. When will the Minister understand the reality of the impact that these damaging decisions are having on the British steel industry and reverse them?
We are working with the G20 global forum on steel. There are currently 46 EU trade defence measures in place to protect UK steel producers from unfair trade imports. As we move to leave the EU and operate a trade policy, the UK will continue to champion free trade, but will also take a proportionate approach to trade remedies.
Points of Order
I think I was going to hear a point of order from Mr Blomfield and then I will come to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be grateful for your advice on an urgent matter. One of my constituents is a Zimbabwean national, an asylum seeker, who had an outstanding claim and who, on arrival at Vulcan House immigration centre in Sheffield for a routine interview, was met by officials of the Zimbabwean Government. The immigration rules make it clear that the Home Office should not take steps for the removal of an individual from the UK while a fresh claim is being made as it obviously puts her at greater risk of persecution by the Zimbabwean Government about which there is great concern.
I wrote to the Immigration Minister about this issue on 27 February, seeking an urgent response. Despite repeated emails and calls to the MPs’ correspondence unit, I have not received any response and the latest update was simply that my letter was passed to a director for consideration two months after I sent it on 25 April. This matter has become urgent because my constituent has now been told that her claim has been denied and that she must leave the UK. It appears to me that the Home Office has acted in contravention of the immigration rules.
I would be grateful for your advice, Mr Speaker, on how I can progress this matter urgently with the Minister for Immigration, as my representations to her have been directed to the correspondence unit, and my representations to the correspondence unit have yielded nothing. I would also welcome your advice on how I can be reassured that my constituent will not be removed from the UK until the matter is resolved.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise it.
The hon. Gentleman raises both a general concern about the Home Office’s response to urgent correspondence from Members of Parliament and a specific matter about the possible removal from the UK of his constituent. On the latter point, which is clearly of great importance to his constituent, I hope that what he says has been heard on the Treasury Bench and will be conveyed to the relevant Minister without delay. Traditionally, the Leader of the House under successive Governments—I hope that this continues to be the case, and I have no reason to think otherwise—has accepted some responsibility for chasing Ministers where replies are tardy or, in terms of content, insubstantial—that is to say holding. I very much hope that that will continue to be the case and that the matter will be pursued. There is a responsibility on Ministers, timeously and substantively, to respond both to questions from hon. and right hon. Members and to correspondence from them. Simply to hive the matter off and to subcontract responsibility to some outside agency is not the right way to proceed in terms of courtesy to colleagues who are, after all, the elected representatives of their constituents. On the general point, which will be of concern to Back Benchers across the House, I underline that it is unsatisfactory if there are not prompt and substantive responses. That does need to change.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Apologies that I could not give you advance notice, but this matter has only just come to my attention. Apparently the Prime Minister is going to make a speech at 4 o’clock this afternoon about what is in the withdrawal agreement Bill—announcing new Government policy. It has always been a convention of this House that new Government policy should be announced via a statement on the Floor of the House before it is announced to the media. Mr Speaker, have you been advised whether the Government are going to make a statement today?
I have received no notification of that. As the hon. Gentleman and others will be aware, I have been attending to my duties in the Chair since the start of business at 11.30 am, so I am not aware of this matter. [Interruption.] In fact, I have just had an indication that the Prime Minister may deliver a speech, but I am certainly not aware of any intention to make a statement to this House. Knowing what a fastidious and indefatigable parliamentarian the hon. Gentleman is, I rather imagine that he will not let his concern rest at this point; I fully expect that he will pursue the matter. There may be a statement from the Prime Minister in due course. Members may seek to catch my eye at Prime Minister’s questions tomorrow, and I am sure that there will be full opportunities for proper scrutiny of this and other matters. I hope that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Further to your own stricture during yesterday’s Defence questions, could you assist us further on the position of Northern Ireland veterans? As I understand it, we are due a written statement later today from the Defence Secretary on the position of veterans of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we still have no statement from the Northern Ireland Secretary in respect of those Northern Ireland veterans whose future is now very uncertain, as they do not know whether or not they are likely to be arrested, charged and prosecuted in respect of allegations made during the troubles in Northern Ireland. Surely the Northern Ireland Secretary should not be hiding from the House, but should be coming forward and making her announcement in the proper way.
As the right hon. Gentleman says, I did offer some strictures—as he puts it—to the House yesterday. My impression was that those strictures were not unwelcome, particularly as far as Back-Bench Members were concerned. At this point, I am not aware of any intention on the part of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to come to the Chamber to deliver an oral statement on the matter. However, the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks with very considerable experience and authority in this place, has made his concern clear. That concern was also articulated in the most unmistakable terms by a number of Members yesterday. There must be an opportunity for Members to question and probe the Secretary of State on this matter. If, therefore, an oral statement is not forthcoming, there are other tried and tested means of securing the presence of a Minister in the Chamber. I am quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman does not require a tutorial from me on that matter, and that sooner or later somebody will take advantage of that opportunity—probably sooner, rather than later.
Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection)
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 prohibit making employees redundant during pregnancy, maternity leave and the period of six months from the end of pregnancy; and for connected purposes.
It is a scandal that in 2019 so many women should be fearful of losing their jobs simply because they are pregnant, so I am introducing this Bill to protect pregnant women and new mothers from redundancy. My Bill sets out to strengthen the existing protection that new mothers have under the law by adopting much of the model already in use in Germany. It would stop an employer from being able to make a woman redundant from the point that she notifies them that she is pregnant until six months after the end of her maternity leave; in Germany, that period is currently three months. There would be an exception where the employer ceases to carry on business where the pregnant woman or new mother is employed. The protection is specifically in relation to redundancy. It would not, for instance, apply if a dismissal was put in place for gross misconduct. That would be outside of the scope of the Bill.
There are half a million pregnant women in the workplace every year, and the Government should be applauded for achieving record numbers of women in work. However, many women go on to take a period of maternity leave before returning to work and, shockingly, research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission finds that one in 20 of these women is made redundant while pregnant or on maternity leave. Overall, more than 50,000 pregnant women every year feel that they have no alternative but to leave their job when they are pregnant. The cost of this situation is high for women on so many levels. The EHRC says that pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination results in job losses and a cost to women of between £47 million and £113 million a year. The costs to the taxpayer are also significant, as the Government forgo taxes and pay increased benefits to the tune of between £14 million and £17 million.
This scandal also holds back our economy. The broader economic advantages of encouraging women’s participation in the labour market are well documented. According to a report by McKinsey, encouraging women’s participation in work and ensuring that they are protected from discrimination could add as much as £150 billion to the UK economy. If the Government are to achieve their objective of eliminating the gender pay gap, they need to tackle maternity discrimination at its roots.
So why do we need to protect new and expectant mothers in particular from redundancy? We already legally protect maternity leave for multiple and important reasons. Maternity leave is a time for bonding with a new baby, for recovering from the physical and mental strain of pregnancy and birth, and for learning to handle the significant challenges of parenthood. It is no time to be going for a job interview for a new post, nor to be distracted or driven to distraction by the stress of a redundancy process—a process in which, because she is on leave for a prolonged period, a new mother will simply be unable to participate on equal terms with her other colleagues. In short, it is no time to be made redundant. That is the reasoning behind the existing protections. The problem is that those protections simply do not work in practice.
Keen-eyed colleagues will have noted that this Bill comes on the heels of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy consultation, which is looking at extending the existing protections to six months after maternity leave has ended. The current protections state that if a woman is made redundant during her maternity leave, she must be offered any suitable alternative vacancies. Extending this provision for six months would not be a negative step—I am sure it would be welcomed in some quarters—but it would not solve the problem. The law as it currently stands is too often ignored or circumvented by employers, either because it is poorly understood or due to ingrained stereotypes about new mothers’ place in the workplace, so the existing protection does not work.
This Bill proposes a much simpler and clearer protection, drawing on the proposals of the Women and Equalities Committee in 2016. The Committee recommended that the Government consider the German model. I reiterate that recommendation today because in Germany, where 72% of women are in work—a higher proportion than in the UK—a new or expectant mother cannot be made redundant unless the employer has secured the consent of a specific public authority, which is only given in exceptional circumstances. The Government’s consultation offered a response to that recommendation, objecting on the basis that it would not be appropriate to apply an approach to enforcement that is fundamentally different from that of the rest of employment law.
The Government are already planning to bring forward proposals for a new single enforcement body, so perhaps the novel approach that the Committee put forward may not now be out of the question. But assuming it is, the Bill I propose today answers those criticisms directly. It would not need a new watchdog to enforce it. The upgraded right would simply be enforced through employment tribunals or through the automatic unfair dismissal provisions that already exist in the Employment Rights Act 1996. The proposal would fit seamlessly within existing structures. It would not require a new quango. It is in line with the Government’s aims. It has been shown to work on other shores. The major change it would make is to offer pregnant women the sort of protection that is long overdue. We know that the protection that is currently written into law is not effective. At present, more mothers are made redundant during maternity leave than before or afterwards, despite the current protections in place.
Charities offering legal advice to pregnant women, such as Maternity Action, tell me that employers routinely ignore the existing protections. Take the story of one woman who called the Maternity Action helpline recently. She was booked in to give birth by caesarean the following week. Her employer had just told her that her role had been identified as being at risk of redundancy, along with the rest of her team. She was being asked to apply for one of the remaining roles, in line with the current law, but the assessments and interviews would happen over the next month—the period in which she would be in hospital and at home recovering from the caesarean. The existing regulations should have prevented her employer from demanding that she attend interviews while on maternity leave, but these rules have not been understood or applied by the employer in this case. I am afraid that that is just one of a catalogue of cases that were put forward to us by charities and to the Select Committee when it undertook its inquiry.
Under the current system, the odds are stacked against each of these women, as they are absent from the workplace during their maternity leave. For a woman to challenge her employer’s unlawful behaviour, she would have to go to an employment tribunal—not an attractive prospect for any employee, but particularly one who is looking after the needs of a newborn baby at home. Perhaps unsurprisingly, fewer than 1% of women who have been discriminated against in pregnancy go to employment tribunal.
My Bill would strip out the complexity of the protection available to these women. We would be able to tell a woman that from the time she is pregnant to six months after she returns to work, she cannot be made redundant, unless the employer is closing down all of the business or ceasing the work that she is employed to do. Women who experience a stillbirth or miscarriage would similarly be protected for up to six months from the end of their pregnancy or any leave that they were entitled to. The woman’s employer would also be able to easily comprehend their duty, making it easier to comply and harder to inadvertently discriminate.
The change that I propose has the support of Members across the House and organisations such as Maternity Action and the Fawcett Society, which have been invaluable in helping to draft the Bill. Rather than simply extending the existing protections, which we know do not go far enough, we need robust legislation that takes the onus off women. That is precisely what this Bill will do. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mrs Maria Miller, Eddie Hughes, Vicky Ford, Dominic Raab, Jess Phillips, Sarah Champion, Jo Swinson, Liz Saville Roberts, Angela Crawley, Caroline Lucas, Helen Whately and Antoinette Sandbach present the Bill.
Mrs Maria Miller accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed (Bill 392).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Every single word that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) has just said is, I think, supported by the whole House. Doubtless legislation would sail through the House if there were an opportunity for it to do so, but there is no private Members’ Bill day on which to advance such a Bill, and we cannot even have a ballot for private Members’ Bills until we have Prorogation and a new Session of Parliament. Is it not time we had one?
The hon. Gentleman makes his own point in his own way. It is very clear, it is on the record, and doubtless, as he hopes, it will be picked up elsewhere. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman pessimistically chunters from a sedentary position, “and ignored”. He should have more belief in himself and more faith in the force of his own message. [Interruption.] The former Government Chief Whip chunters from a sedentary position, “No, he should be a realist.” Well, we are always grateful to the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin). It is good at least to see a smile on his face.
Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill
[Relevant documents: First Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Parliamentary Buildings Bill, Governance of Restoration and Renewal, HC 1800, HL Paper 317; Government response to the Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, May 2019, CP 90.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am delighted to be opening the Second Reading debate on the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill. This has been a very long time coming. Today we can move decisively to end inaction and protect our Parliament for future generations. Let us not be under any illusion about the possible consequences if we fail to take action. The tragic fire at Notre Dame has served as a stark reminder of the risks to this historic building. There is no doubt that the best way to avoid a similar incident here is to get on with the job of protecting the thousands of people working here and the millions who come to visit.
Members of this House will be well aware of the problems in the Palace. There have recently been three significant incidents of falling masonry—in Norman Shaw North, outside Black Rod’s Entrance, and at the door to Westminster Hall. It is only through luck that none of them has led to any serious injuries or even fatalities. Operating on luck is absolutely no way to proceed. We would not be forgiven if one of those incidents had caused significant harm to a visitor or a member of staff.
There is an ongoing need for round-the-clock fire patrols, given that there have been 66 fire incidents in the Palace since 2008. That is why, by the way, I have undertaken my fire safety training for the building—and I would strongly encourage all hon. and right hon. Members to do likewise.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about the threat of fire. For a long time now, I have been arguing that we should get on and put in fire doors. I am delighted to see that they are now actually being put in. Can she confirm that all these long corridors, voids and spaces will at least be protected by fire doors? I would have thought that we could do a deal with English Heritage to get that past it. It is better that we are safe than that the place burns down because of the fears of English Heritage.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have taken enormous steps, at great expense, to try to put in place some temporary fire doors to protect this place. But of course he will also know that the way we keep our fire safety licence is by 24/7 patrols of people going around the Palace making sure that fires are not breaking out.
As I say, there have been 66 fire incidents in the Palace since 2008, and over the decades—
The Leader of the House mentions the issue of great expense. I know that this Bill is about the mechanisms and not the plans, but I am concerned that in building a temporary Chamber, we are building a white elephant without any purpose beyond 10 years. Will she look at alternative building techniques like those used in the 1950s and those used for the Olympics in 2012 for buildings that are not built for a 50-year life but for a shorter life, which would be much less expensive to the taxpayer?
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s contribution. She will understand that the House of Commons Commission looked very carefully at the options for a temporary decant, which could mean eight or even 10 years out of this place. She will also understand that, from a security point of view and from the cost-effectiveness point of view, the House of Commons Commission looked at the best combination of both those things. Temporary structures that are not possible to secure, and structures that are by their nature temporary and provide no legacy value, were also looked at carefully, but the decision that was taken to move to Richmond House provides permanent legacy value as well as the cheapest—or at least equally cheap—cost to the taxpayer.
Most people must be in favour of something happening, but I question the timing. There are many people in all our constituencies who are hungry and face destitution. How dare the Government bring forward a Bill before we are out of austerity and have made good those cuts in the living standards of the very poorest? Surely we should not be considering whether this fire door or that fire door works and whether the scheme is temporary until we are out of the age of austerity and have rewarded those who have paid most, which is the poor.
I have the greatest respect for the right hon. Gentleman, and I completely understand his point. He will appreciate that the Palace of Westminster is in the state it is in precisely because Members have made those exact points for more than 150 years. The reality is that it is now costing us a fortune every single day—money is being spent by the taxpayer to patch and mend a building that is beyond patching and mending. Seizing this bull by the horns and doing something proactively about it is designed to give good value for taxpayers’ money, instead of what is happening now, which is spending more and more money to try to restore something while we sit here, which will be much more expensive to do.
On the point about legacy value, would it not be better to have a Chamber that we could use for more constructive purposes? Rather than this adversarial approach, we could have a circular or semi-circular Chamber, with electronic voting facilities, so that we do not build in obsolescence, and we could then use it afterwards—for example, for citizens’ assemblies and other forums where we want to engage with the public.
I hope the hon. Lady will appreciate that the purpose of the Bill is merely to establish a Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority, which will give the best value for money against a professionally run project that seeks to restore the Palace of Westminster. The shape of the decant Chamber and parliamentary procedures for voting can be discussed any day of the week. All Members are encouraged to feed in their ideas and suggestions to the northern estate programme, which is separate from what we are talking about today, and I encourage her to do so.
The Leader of the House will be aware that nine of the 10 poorest parts of northern Europe are within Britain. Are the British Government not missing an ideal opportunity to decentralise power and wealth away from London and the south-east by relocating this Parliament somewhere else in the UK?
The hon. Gentleman raises a point that has been made at various points over the many decades that we have been discussing this work. He will appreciate that Parliament is the home of our democracy. It is a vast building with two Chambers, all the Committee Rooms, all the offices and so on. Moving away from this Parliament permanently to another location would not only involve huge expense, but would require entirely relocating Government, because we in Parliament are within the whole Whitehall set-up, where the Government of the United Kingdom work. The costs would be utterly unbelievable.
May I take my right hon. Friend back to the point made by hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) about the future use of Richmond House? It was not so many years ago that people were saying that all the Committee Rooms in Portcullis House were not really necessary, because we have plenty of Committee Rooms here in the Palace. Actually, they are necessary—they are used a lot, and demand exceeds supply. I think the same will be found with Richmond House: when it is given back, and we move back into this place, it will be well used by not only Parliament but the public.
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly good point. In recognising the importance and the obligation of restoring the Palace of Westminster, we have to look at how the temporary decant, which is for eight to 10 years, can provide a legacy that we can use, that the public can use and that young people can use for Youth Parliament meetings. We can have parliamentary archives and permanent exhibitions, and as he says, Committee Rooms will be available for all-party parliamentary groups or for members of the public to visit their Parliament, so that we have much greater accessibility. Those should be the priorities.
I will make a bit of progress and then take some more interventions.
Over the decades, there have been countless water leaks, floods, sewage leaks, and lighting and power outages, and these incidents are about much more than inconvenience. They demonstrate the rapidly deteriorating state of the Palace and the increasingly urgent need to act. The restoration of the Palace should have started literally decades ago, and the House authorities are now managing far too many serious risks, at great cost to the taxpayer. My concern is that the pace of deterioration is now much faster than our ability to patch and mend.
Only last week, I went on a tour of the basement, and it is clear that the Palace is not fit for purpose in the 21st century. There are widespread mechanical and electrical faults. There are wi-fi issues that disrupt parliamentary business all day long, every day. Paint is peeling off the walls in the basement, revealing the asbestos that it was designed to conceal, at great risk to the health and safety of visitors and Members. There are 15,000 people who work in this place, and we have more than 1 million visitors a year. We have a duty to their health and safety.
There are many mice running freely through the cafés while people are eating. One has even taken up residence in my office and rustles around in my bin of an evening. There is no doubt: we need a cost-effective programme of work to restore one of the most famous buildings in the world and the home of our democracy.
I commend the Leader of the House for grasping this issue, which has been around for many years, and progressing it. Does she agree that it is important for Members to also engage in the northern estate programme, which is a precursor to the restoration and renewal programme? I draw the House’s attention to two sessions coming up on 11 June and 18 June. At the first, Members’ accommodation will be considered, and at the second, Members’ facilities will be considered. We want to hear from Members on that programme as well.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, who is the spokesman for the House Commission and has supported the work to get this Palace restored. He is right to point to the work under way on not only Richmond House as the temporary decant but the northern estate programme. Unfortunately, some of the other buildings used by Members require urgent upgrades to wiring, plumbing, air conditioning, bomb-proofing and so on. He is right to draw the House’s attention to the need for all Members to provide their feedback on our plans to upgrade those buildings.
I thank the Leader of the House for approaching this on a cross-party basis and the way she has engaged so far with the Finance Committee, of which I am a member. She is right to say that this is a moment of decision. We have had reviews, committees, commissions and reports. It is not a case of going back; it is about making a decision today. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) about austerity, but this is not about austerity or restoring this Palace. It is about ending austerity and dealing with this Palace. Is that not right?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman; he makes a very good point. We of course recognise the needs of the poorest in our society, and as a Government and a Parliament, we always seek to alleviate poverty, but this is a very significant issue. We want to preserve for future generations our historic building, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and the home of our democracy. Frankly, we have to work from somewhere, and this building is extraordinarily difficult and complex to review. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the Finance Committee.
This Parliament will have the opportunity to look at the outline business case, which will set out clearly the costs and deliverables during 2021, once we have established the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority in statute. I hope the House will agree to do that today, so that those bodies can get on with the work to ensure that we get the best value for taxpayers’ money.
My concern, putting on my hat as chair of the all-party group on archaeology, is not with what is in the Bill but with what is not in the Bill. The Leader of the House will be aware that when the underground car park was built some decades ago, proper archaeological conservation did not take place, and part of the old palace of Edward the Confessor was probably lost. Given the importance of the UNESCO world heritage site and the working democratic Parliament that this is, will she strengthen the Bill by taking on board the recommendations from Historic England about recognising
“the need to conserve and sustain the outstanding architectural, archaeological and historical significance of the Palace of Westminster”
in the Bill, so that travesties such as that cannot happen during the extensive work we now need to undertake?
I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s point. It did in fact come up during the pre-legislative scrutiny, which I am keen to come on to. The decision was taken that this should be a parliamentary project, and what the Government are seeking to do in bringing forward the Bill is merely to facilitate the will of Parliament. We are setting up a Sponsor Body, which will be made up of seven parliamentarians and five external members, so that it can establish a Delivery Authority. Those bodies—the Sponsor Body in consultation with parliamentarians, and the Delivery Authority in consultation with many external stakeholders—will be able to decide the best way to proceed. It was felt that putting restrictions and specific requirements in the Bill might tie the hands of the Sponsor Body and the Delivery Authority, and we were unwilling to do that. We want them to have the maximum ability to take things forward in the appropriate way, in consultation with all parliamentarians.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a case for extending the scope of the Bill to include the road network outside so that all works can be properly co-ordinated and we can avoid the situation we have now, with the road closed for non-essential roadworks when both Houses are sitting?
I think my right hon. Friend will garner a lot of sympathy across the House for his view. Again, we are trying to keep the scope of the Bill very narrow. It is merely to facilitate the establishment of the Delivery Authority for the purpose of restoring the Palace. However, he may be aware that consideration is going on of how, from a security point of view as well as from that of facilitating parliamentary business, we can ensure that the roads outside and the arrangements going on in Westminster also support Members in going about their business.
I am expecting my right hon. Friend to get to this point, but I may not be around. [Interruption.] Hang on a second; this may be a long way into the future. Once we are decanted, I would like to think we are going to return. I do not want to think that this place could be turned into some sort of museum that members of the public will come through; I want it to be a living piece of history to which we will return. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that that will be the case?
I certainly hope, and I think all of my right hon. and hon. Friends hope, that my hon. Friend will be here when we come back to this place. He is extremely young, and I am sure he will still be around. Yes, it is in the Bill that this is the home of our Parliament and that we will certainly be back here.
The Leader of the House is being very generous in giving way. I agree with much of what she has said. The Bill sets up the Delivery Authority and the Sponsor Body, and we are not going oppose that. She is also right that we need to work from somewhere, and of course we need value for money. May I ask her, however, whether she regrets not going back to look again at a new build in central London, which was of course the cheapest of all the options when the original assessments were done?
I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the House of Commons Commission. He certainly worked very closely with the other Commission members to consider the options available. I can say to him specifically that, since the appalling terror incident two years ago, a security review has been carried out, and it was very clear that parliamentarians, particularly elected Members of Parliament, need to be within the secure perimeter of the Palace at all times during the day, so for reasons of security as well as cost-effectiveness, the decision was taken to go with the Richmond House development.
I would now like to make a bit of progress, and particularly to address the fact that there are some who want to see this place become a museum. That would not of itself absolve us of our responsibility for restoration and renewal. The Palace is part of the UNESCO Westminster world heritage site. It is our obligation to maintain it, and the health and safety concerns of this Palace will need to be addressed regardless. Even if we were to move to a new permanent location, these works would still need doing. We cannot simply wash our hands of it. It is also worth remembering that when the Palace was finished in 1870—with debating Chambers, Lobbies, Committee Rooms and offices—it was purpose-built to serve as the home of Parliament. It would obviously be incredibly expensive permanently to relocate Parliament elsewhere. It would mean uprooting the Government Departments and agencies based around Westminster, and the cost of doing that would, frankly, be eye-watering. That is why the Government are committed to making progress with R and R, and why we have supported Parliament in bringing forward this Bill.
Has the Leader of the House actually done any assessment of the costs of relocating entire Government Departments out of London? Wanting to relocate civil service jobs to other parts of the country has always been the Government policy, and surely that would be a good thing to do. Frankly, this entire country ends up with all its politics being far too London-focused, when we should be having far more of those jobs in other parts of the country. We would certainly love a lot of them in Yorkshire. I am concerned that she seems to be dismissing the idea of moving Government Departments to other parts of the country without actually have done any proper assessment of that.
I am slightly disappointed to hear the right hon. Lady’s intervention. This Bill is about setting up a Sponsor Body and a Delivery Authority to restore the Palace of Westminster, which, as I have just said, we are obliged to do whether or not we stay here. There is always a considerable amount of work going on to assess and analyse the location of various different Government Departments and agencies right around the United Kingdom. Today, however, we are simply looking at the Second Reading of a Bill that enables us to undertake our legal duty to restore this Palace, whether or not we stay here. It is not for us to consider under this Bill to the whole of government. I hope that all hon. Members will appreciate that we are seeking to facilitate Parliament’s decision that we must take very seriously our financial, fiduciary and cultural duties to this place.
The House was very clear in early 2018 that work needed to be taken forward to protect and preserve the heritage of the Palace. I want to pay tribute to the hard work of Members and staff who have got us to this place. In particular, I would like to mention my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and her Committee, which undertook pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill; the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, which recommended that we decant; my predecessors as Leader of the House, my right hon. Friends the Members for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington); the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who eloquently made the case last year for a full decant; the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who agreed to support the Bill; and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who always speaks with such passion on this issue.
I have this horrible feeling that the Leader of the House is winding up or coming to the end, and I just want to raise the issue of planning. One of the biggest threats to the whole project is if the northern estate programme, which is essential to delivering R and R, ends up by being delayed by lengthy judicial review or planning problems. The advice seems to have been given that if we include some kind of planning provision that brings planning into the Sponsor Body or the Delivery Authority, that will make this a hybrid Bill. However, the Olympics Bill was not a hybrid Bill, and that had a planning provision that was granted to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, so why can we not do the same for this Bill?
I am only just warming up—I have hours to go. But the hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. The question whether to take planning into the Bill was certainly considered, but unlike the Olympic Delivery Authority, which I think had four or even five planning authorities to deal with, this project has one, and it was felt that working closely with the local planning authority would be the most effective way of enabling proper scrutiny while facilitating the Bill’s progress.
I give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden.
I am taking my right hon. Friend at her word that she is not near the end of her speech. I thank her for her kind words, but I have not so far heard mention of accessibility for those with disabilities. The scrutiny Committee felt very strongly about that, not least because two members of the Committee themselves suffered from disability, and made us aware of just how inaccessible the present Parliament is for those who are visually or physically impaired.
My right hon. Friend makes an absolutely vital point. First, in planning its consultation the Sponsor Body—as I have mentioned, made up of seven parliamentarians and five external members—will look very carefully at the report she has produced, but at the same time the Bill contains very clear provisions that specific focus on accessibility should be a core part of the work. However, we do not want to force too many strictures on the Sponsor Body, which will legitimately have a requirement to consult all Members and take their views into account before deciding who to consult further.
I want to make a bit of progress, then I will give way again.
I also want to acknowledge the right hon. and hon. Members who, like myself, arrived at this issue with a degree of scepticism, and have since carefully considered the issues that we face and concluded that the right decision, and the bold decision, is to take action before we run out of time. So the Bill’s Second Reading today, and its subsequent passage through both Houses, offers Parliament a unique opportunity to save this iconic and, to many, beloved building.
Since becoming Leader of the Commons, I have been determined to see the restoration project succeed. In early 2018, motions were brought before both Houses that gave the R and R programme its broad direction, with the House agreeing to a full decant over any of the other options. That moved the programme forward in the most substantial way to date, so the Sponsor Body, made up of seven parliamentarians and five external members, was established in shadow form in July 2018. It is currently taking forward the preparatory works needed. The draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill was published in October 2018, to enable the governance arrangements needed for the R and R project to be put in place, and a Joint Committee under the excellent chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden has undertaken diligent work in scrutinising the draft Bill. The Joint Committee reported on 21 March 2019 and we have taken on board many of its recommendations.
In the report produced by the Committee that I served on, we suggested to the Government that there should be a nations and regions capital fund, to make this a truly UK-wide project. I believe that the Leader of the House will struggle to get the support of public opinion if this is another massive London-centric capital project, so will she agree to have another look at that proposal, which I put forward and which was accepted by the Committee?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution to the Joint Committee. As I said to him outside the Chamber, I will happily look at any proposal that he wants to put forward. Just to be very clear, however, the Palace of Westminster is a unique, world-famous building. It is owned by the people of the United Kingdom. It is not a London-centric project. It is one of the most visited and photographed buildings in the world, it has over a million visitors a year, and it is absolutely vital for the entire United Kingdom that we do not allow it to fall to rack and ruin.
I turn my attention to the Bill before the House. It is crucial in establishing the necessary governance arrangements to provide the capacity and capability to oversee and deliver the restoration and renewal of the Palace. Both Government and Parliament are determined to ensure that the R and R programme represents the best value for money for the taxpayer, and that will be a guiding principle as we take the Bill forward. It is imperative that Parliament keeps the costs down.
The Bill will put in place significantly more transparency and rigour around the funding of this programme. As a Government, we are working with Parliament to facilitate the right combination of checks and balances within the governance structure to properly deliver the programme. The Bill creates a Sponsor Body that will act as the client on behalf of Parliament, overseeing the delivery of the R and R programme. The Sponsor Body will form a Delivery Authority as a company limited by guarantee to manage and deliver the programme. The design of the governance arrangements in the Bill draws on best practice from the successful delivery of the London 2012 Olympics.
Will the right hon. Lady give way on that point?
I shall make a bit more progress, if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
However, in formulating the governance arrangements, it has been essential that Parliament as the client has sufficient oversight of the programme. That is why the Bill also establishes how the works will be approved by Parliament. In particular, Parliament will be asked to approve the overall design, timeline and cost of the works, as well as the budget. The Government are determined that the work will deliver the best possible value for taxpayers’ money, so the Bill creates the Estimates Commission, which will be responsible for reviewing and laying before the House of Commons the Sponsor Body’s estimates of expenditure. It is through these annual estimates that the programme will be funded, and approved by Members of Parliament. In addition, the Bill puts in place a number of financial controls. They include requiring the Estimates Commission to consult HM Treasury on the annual estimates for the funding of the R and R programme, and to have regard to any subsequent advice that it gives.
We are confident that the arrangements being put in place will deliver the necessary restoration works, and at the same time protect public money.
I give way to the spokesman for the House of Commons Commission.
The Leader of the House has referred a number of times to the Olympics, which has some similarities to this project. One reason why that project was so successful was that Tessa Jowell did a fantastic job of engaging all the Opposition parties, securing their agreement. Now the Leader of the House is engaging in the same process but, as I understand it, there is about to be a leadership contest in her party. Clearly, if she becomes leader, she will be committed to this project. Has she secured the support of all the other potential leaders of her party, to ensure that the project can reach completion in 2031 or thereabouts?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because of course this project is a parliamentary project; it is not a project for Government. Very specifically, I have taken steps to ensure that the Bill will succeed any changes of leadership, any changes of Government, so that we will be back in here in the 2030s, under the sponsorship and leadership of Parliament as a House. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Consultation—cross-party, cross-House—is absolutely key to the success of this project, because there is no doubt that by the mid-2030s, even the next leader of the Conservative party may still not be around.
I thank the Leader of the House for what she said about estimates being laid, so that at least there will be clarity about how much we intend to spend. However, she will be aware of the difficulty debating the current estimates, when we can talk about anything except for the actual estimate. May we have an assurance that when these estimates are laid, we will be able to discuss the actual sums of money, not simply what they will be spent on?
I think I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. In essence, the Estimates Commission will be made up of parliamentarians, with lay member support, and those estimates will be laid before the House of Commons for debate and approval, with commentary from HM Treasury. Also, the hon. Gentleman should remember that the outline business case, which will be the initial proposal for deliverables and costs, will come before Parliament for it to vote on, and that should take place during 2021. I think I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that this House will have the opportunity to vote on, and debate, the finances; but I will perhaps provide him with further advice on that outside the Chamber, so that I can understand exactly the point that he is trying to solve.
Very briefly, as a correction to the point that has just been made, following a recommendation from the Procedure Committee—again, following a long campaign—we do now discuss estimates on estimates days, so that point is not accurate and we can deal with this during estimates days.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, but I will still respond to the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) specifically on his point.
Several times, the Leader of the House has referred to the seven parliamentarians who will be on the Sponsor Body, but the Bill says no fewer than four and no more than eight. The Joint Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) suggested that they should be elected Members. Should there not be more Members of the House of Commons than Members of the House of Lords, and would it not be a good idea for them to be elected?
This is a matter for the House to decide. I am talking about seven parliamentarians, because that is what is currently on the shadow Sponsor Body. It is, of course, for the House to make such decisions. The parties put forward their nominees, and that is the reason there are four peers and three Members of this House. This is precisely a very good example of where it is for the House to decide what structure it wants. With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall make a bit more progress.
The Bill is not simply about restoring an old building in an urgent state of disrepair. This is about the ambition we have for a 21st century Parliament, which is more family-friendly and a truly modern workplace. The work we are undertaking provides Parliament with the opportunity to consider the daily working of the Palace. It is clear that the programme should seek improvements to the Palace for people with disabilities to gain access, but there is also an opportunity to resolve issues with long queues at visitor entrances and to offer more inclusive access to Parliament across the country by improving some of our broadcasting services.
The work will also provide employment opportunities right across the UK. The programme will require specialist skills, which, especially in the heritage sector, tend to be found in small and medium-sized enterprises. Apprenticeship schemes right across the UK will be able to engage in the work of restoring the Palace. This is already happening on other projects being carried out on the parliamentary estate, such as the encaustic tile conservation project. R and R also offers the opportunity to enhance the experience of students visiting Westminster, whether through improved educational facilities in the Palace or the opportunities of the Richmond House replica Chamber.
As hon. Members across the House know, I passionately believe in making Parliament a more family-friendly place to work. R and R will provide an opportunity to help make our workplace the best it can be in supporting Members to balance the long hours they work in this House with their family commitments and better reflect the public we are here to represent. That is just a run-through of some of my own views, but I recognise that all Members will have opinions on what they want to see delivered as part of R and R. That is why the Bill includes a specific duty on the Sponsor Body to consult parliamentarians on the strategic objectives of the R and R works.
Members across the House will also have views on the decant to our temporary workplace during R and R. In passing the motions in early 2018, Parliament was clear that as part of R and R it would temporarily leave the Palace, so that the restoration and renewal work can be done more quickly and more cheaply.