House of Commons
Tuesday 4 June 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Prison Officers: Suicide
We do not hold the specific information requested by the hon. Gentleman. I fully appreciate that the pressures on prison officers can be considerable. However, we are committed to ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of our staff, and have systems in place where if people are struggling, for whatever reason, including outside-work pressures, they will get the support they need.
Right across the public sector, the Government do not keep enough statistics on people in uniform who are taking their own lives due to physical and mental pressures at work. Will the Minister agree to meet me and members of the Prison Officers Association to discuss how we can record those statistics and, most importantly, how we can prevent prison officers from taking their own lives?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important and sensitive point. I should add that the prison chaplaincy service provides invaluable support for many prison officers who are struggling. I will meet him about this issue. The current figures record deaths in service. Clearly, the issue of mental health and people taking their own lives has to be addressed.
May I start by welcoming my hon. and learned Friend to his post? I think this is the first question time that he has taken in his new role.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is not only important that we pay the highest tribute to the dedication and professionalism of the men and women of our Prison Service, but recognise that the pressures that they face come in no small measure from the difficulty of establishing secure regimes and stability within our prisons? Will he take on board the recommendations of the Justice Committee—in particular, our suggestion for a workforce strategy across the whole of the Prison Service?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I pay tribute to the work of his Committee. We have seen welcome increases in the number of prison officers, and that will help with stability. Retention rates are very important. I will certainly study very carefully the recommendations of his Committee, and work with him and other Members to make sure that we achieve our common goal.
Prison officers do a very difficult job on behalf of the community, but the loss of thousands of staff, leading to the highest-ever number of assaults in prisons last year, has put them under enormous stress. Does the Minister accept that warm words are not good enough in this situation and there needs to be a serious increase in the number of prison staff to alleviate the pressure on officers?
I am pleased to inform the hon. Lady that there has indeed been a significant increase in the number of prison staff. We are now up to over 4,500 extra prison staff from the low point. I take her point that with increasing staff, more constructive work can be done with prisoners. The key worker scheme that we have now rolled out in the majority of adult male closed prisons, where prison officers work with six named prisoners, is already yielding results and making prisons safer places. I very much take on board the point she makes about assaults.
I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on his new appointment.
One of the issues that adds to the emotional stress on prison officers can be a very long commute at the end of a working day, particularly in London and the south-east in very high-cost housing areas. What discussions is the Department having with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to make sure that key worker accommodation is available for prison officers, who are often not that well paid, in high-cost housing areas?
My hon. Friend, as a former prisons Minister, knows this issue very well, and I pay tribute to him for his continued commitment to it. Yes, the question of housing is a difficult one. I am glad to say that recruitment rates in London have proved extremely successful. The extra increments that are paid to certain prison officers to recognise the particular pressures that they are under is a welcome part of the system. However, I will be happy to speak further to him about the issue.
The Minister will know that in Northern Ireland prison officers have been subjected to mental and physical pressures above and beyond—post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues. The Northern Ireland Assembly and Justice Department have been very active in offering support. Has he had the opportunity to speak to those in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Department to find out what is being done for prison officers in Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am always willing to speak to and learn from experiences in other parts of our United Kingdom, most particularly Northern Ireland. Various therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, are available to prison officers should they wish to seek them. There is also a fast-track referral system, which is particularly encouraged where staff have experienced trauma.
Support for Litigants in Family Courts
Clearly, participation in the family court is difficult for all those involved, whatever stage of the process they are at. Through our legal support action plan, we are committed to working with the Law Society to improve delivery of family legal aid, be that in the court or through mediation.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I was pleased recently to join students and staff at Anglia Ruskin University’s law clinic to celebrate the first year of their Support@Court service, which helps litigants in person to navigate the family courts. It is a great initiative, but Sarah Calder, the director, tells me that provision is patchy, and litigants in person all too frequently feel intimidated by facing a lawyer. Do the Government support the Bach Commission’s proposal that legal aid should be brought back into scope for all cases involving children?
I am pleased to hear about that example at Anglia Ruskin University. Our litigants in person strategy is a very important part of what we do. We have been spending £1.5 million a year hitherto. As part of the legal support action plan, we will improve that to £3 million a year and work with judges to ensure that all litigants in person are supported during the court process.
I am sure we were all shocked by the example raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). My first decision was to ensure that the inquiry panel was established, and it will look carefully at what the Children’s Commissioner has to say. The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that children should always be at the heart of the decision-making process in the courts, and I will look carefully at what the Children’s Commissioner has said.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. The Government are rightly reviewing practices in the family courts, including practice direction 12J, which looks at how the court is protecting children and victims. More than 30 expert lawyers, including the Victims’ Commissioner, have voiced their concerns that the review is not in-depth enough to look at the issues in sufficient detail and makes no mention of consulting family court lawyers. Do the Government acknowledge those concerns, and will they act on them?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s initial support. There is a balance to be struck between speed of action, getting the right decision-making process in place and coming up with the right recommendations. We have lawyers who are experienced in family law on the panel, and we have the victims’ voice through the involvement of Women’s Aid. I think we have the right mix on the panel, and a three-month time limit is right for them to reach their conclusions, which we can then seek to put in place.
In children’s matters in the family courts, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service is treated as an expert witness. Is the Minister aware that CAFCASS has no training for the function it performs, has no guidelines, keeps no record of its recommendations and does not give sworn statements, so cannot be held to account for the recommendations it makes?
I am grateful for that interesting perspective in my early days in the job. I will clearly have to go away and look at what CAFCASS says and does, and I look forward to meeting it. It is important to bear in mind that, in these cases, the interests of the child have to be paramount—the Children Act 1989 is very clear about that, and judges are clear in how they interpret that obligation.
If material comes to light that, on the face of it, might cast doubt on the safety of a conviction, the police and prosecuting authorities should disclose it, and where it is alleged that such material may exist, they should co-operate in making further inquiries if there appears to be a real prospect that they will uncover something of real value. Failing that, the function of the independent Criminal Cases Review Commission is to investigate possible miscarriages of justice. Access to information about the cases they investigate is integral to their work, and they have substantial legal powers to secure the disclosure they require.
The Minister will know that I welcome part of what he said warmly, but as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice, I know that in order to challenge a conviction, access to pre-conviction material from the police and the prosecution is very valuable. Most advanced countries have a proper system that makes it much more possible to challenge an unsafe conviction. Can we have further movement on that?
The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights his extensive work in this area. It has been a pleasure to meet him on a number of occasions, and I am due to do so again. As I said, there are considerable statutory powers for the CCRC, but as he knows, the commission can refer only those cases it considers to meet the statutory criteria, and there are no plans currently to review that.
Does the Minister agree with me that forensic science is a major area where a lack of transparency is inhibiting the review of post-sentencing disclosure?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of forensic science in convictions —increasing the number of cases that go through court and result in convictions—and therefore of the role it plays in reviewing cases post-conviction. If he wishes to write to me with further details of specific issues in that context, I will be very happy to write back to him responding to those points.
Both the Charlie Taylor and the Lammy reviews recommended changes to our criminal disclosure system for young people. On each count, this Government decided that they knew better, leaving us with one of the most punitive approaches to youth justice in the western world. Now that the Government have lost their case in the Supreme Court, will they recognise that our current disclosure system for children is outdated, ineffective and cruel?
My shadow is dextrous in bringing in youth justice in the context of the post-conviction disclosure regime. She is quite right to highlight the Supreme Court case and the current regime, which is something we are looking at carefully.
I think we can agree that dexterity is a very important political quality.
Violence against our dedicated staff will not be tolerated. Levels of violence in prison remain too high, but I am pleased to say that the number of assaults from October to December last year decreased by 11% from the previous quarter. We know that positive relationships between staff and prison officers can make a big difference. That is the aim of the new key workers scheme, and 60 of the 92 closed male adult prisons have now completed implementing it.
Prison officers work in what their trade unions calls one of the most hostile environments in western Europe, with assaults on staff quadrupling since 2010. Does the Minister not think it is a bit unfair for a prison officer at 68 years of age to be forced to manhandle people and physically control them? Surely he could do something about early retirement for them.
It is important to remember that for many years prison officers have daily faced that sort of challenge. It is unacceptable, which is why I am glad to say that numbers of prison officers have increased. With that important work with prisoners, I strongly believe that prisons will become safer places. Let us not forget the roll-out of body-worn cameras as well: 6,000 have now been provided. I believe that that will not only protect prisoners, but protect prison officers from false allegations.
HMP Nottingham remains a particularly violent place for staff and inmates. The previous prisons Minister made improving this prison a personal priority. Will the new Minister commit to doing the same, and will he meet me to hear some of our local concerns?
I know from my previous role that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in criminal justice issues in his city. I share the same commitment as my predecessor to reducing violence at Nottingham. A new violence reduction strategy was launched by that prison. We provided funding for physical alterations to set up a new violence reduction landing, and two safer custody leads are now working in the prison to improve physical security. Of course I will meet him as part of that developing progress.
My hon. Friend is quite right to chart the issues at HMP Lewes. I am glad to say that the prison is now fully staffed and performance has begun to improve in the second half of last year, but I accept that things have not recovered to the position that Lewes had been in when the inspectorate made a previous visit. However, the number of assaults has fallen to a level similar to that of three years ago, and work continues to be done. From the centre, both I and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service will continue to support the new governor in her work.
Is the new prisons Minister prepared to repeat the pledge of his predecessor that he will resign if there is not a significant reduction in violence in prisons within 12 months?
As I have said already in this House in an Opposition day debate, I am going to do it my way.
Well, I think we will take that as a no, then.
I have been taking part in the Prison Service parliamentary scheme at HMP Swansea, where over only two days I witnessed one dirty protest and two incidents at height. These were handled professionally by prison staff, officers and management alike, but surely the Minister shares my concern that prison officers are now expected to respond to such physically demanding and risky challenges as everyday workplace hazards? Will he meet the POA to discuss the absolute anomaly of our expecting emergency services officers to work until they are 68?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for taking part in that important and valuable scheme. HMP Swansea was the very first prison I went into, nearly 30 years ago, and I pay tribute to the staff there. I take on board the point she makes. I have already spoken to the POA about that very issue, and I will continue a dialogue on that and many other matters.
How about this as a deterrent to violence in prisons: a prisoner who assaults a prison officer is simply not eligible for early release?
My hon. Friend will be reassured to know that that sort of conduct and criminality is dealt with in two ways. The first is by the criminal courts. The recent Act promoted by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) covers prison officers, and I pay tribute to him for that. The second is via an internal process by which prisoners face consequences such as privileges being removed and categorisation changed.
I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on his appointment. By now, he will know that since 2010 our prisons have been driven into a spiral of violence and a state of emergency as a direct result of his Government’s cuts, leaving staff, prisoners and the public less safe. Will he answer one simple question: when will our prisons return to being as safe as they were in 2010?
I think the work being done to recruit extra prison officers and the extra finance and resource given to my Department by the Treasury are allowing us to return to a position of greater safety. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, but I have to say to him that my experience of prisons stretches back a generation, and I know that many of the issues relating to prisons take a long time to resolve, but that will not stop me having a sense of urgency when it comes to dealing with problems of drugs, violence and safety more generally.
Rehabilitating Prisoners: Role of Sport
Participation in sport and physical activity in custody can have benefits for the physical and mental health of prisoners, as well as building confidence, teamwork skills, discipline and improving prospects of successful rehabilitation and resettlement in the community. We have recently published Professor Rosie Meek’s independent review of the role of sport in youth justice, and our own internal review of sport in the adult estate. Sport is an integral part of our approach to rehabilitation in prison.
I refer to the House to my declaration of interest. The twinning project led by David Dein aims to take football into prisons to improve behaviour and reduce reoffending, and the Football Association referees department is now hoping to run referee courses alongside that, with Lancaster Farms Prison the first to offer the course. I know that the skills referees gain go far beyond officiating at match. Does the Minister agree that that element and the twinning project could have a very positive impact on the prisoners they work with, and will he encourage more prisons to get involved?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I acknowledge his interest as a qualified international referee, with skills that, on occasion, you probably put to good use in this House, Mr Speaker. I completely agree that the football twinning project, brilliantly led by David Dein, is hugely important and can have a positive effect on offenders. We have been working with FA referees to develop a bespoke referee course for prisons. Four pilot prisons have been identified to deliver this groundbreaking intervention, with the first course due to start in late summer at HMP Lancaster Farms, as my hon. Friend said. We all recognise the power of sport and we are determined to harness it.
David Dein is inspirational on this matter, and on many others, as I know from hearing from him directly on this important subject. He also has the great merit of being an Arsenal fan and a former vice-chairman of the club, as the hon. Gentleman is aware.
Last year’s review of sport in prisons shows that reoffending rates were markedly lower among those who had participated in sports-based resettlement programmes than among those who had not, but the report noted a distinct lack of engagement in physical activity among women in prison. What steps will the Minister take to implement Professor Meek’s recommendation of a specific physical activity strategy for women, and what incentives will the Government provide to sports clubs to get involved with rehabilitation schemes?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Our view is that sport can play a crucial role in rehabilitation and resettlement not just for male prisoners but for all prisoners, irrespective of gender. I went to see David Dein in HMP Downview, where we introduced the twinning project in a female prison for the first time, yielding fantastic results. We are very keen on the idea and are continuing to work with Jason Swettenham, the director in the Prison Service with responsibility for the project, to work within the custodial estate and with community organisations focused on engaging women in sport. They are absolutely integral to what we are trying to do.
If the Minister is not already aware of it, may I encourage him to look at the eight-week programme being run at Feltham young offenders institution by the Saracens Sport Foundation, which is obviously linked to the European club rugby champions? It has helped to reduce reoffending rates among participants by more than half by using classroom sessions and mentoring and by focusing on the values of sport and what they can bring.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not know if he is a clairvoyant, but if I recall my diary correctly I am due to visit Saracens at Feltham next week.
Will the Minister broker arrangements with our primary sporting clubs—rugby, football and cricket—to make sure they have the opportunity to pair up with a prison, so that there is a relationship that can evolve over time? Does he think that is a good idea?
I do think that is an excellent idea, which is exactly the principle behind the twinning project and exactly what is happening on the ground. The project is expanding to include more and more prisons. I have focused, given the nature of the question, on football, but the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight rugby, and from my perspective cricket is always a winner. He is absolutely right. The model is there with the twinning project and we want it to continue to expand.
Privately Run Prisons
The Government remain committed to a role for the private sector in operating custodial services. The sector has an important role to play and currently runs some high-performing prisons as part of a decent and secure prison estate.
Publicly run HMP Bedford has been deprived of adequate funding, while public investment has been given to the notorious blacklisting construction firm Kier to build a new supersized prison nearby in Wellingborough, which will be handed straight to the private sector to run. Will the Minister explain why the public sector was banned from bidding for the new prison?
We believe in a balanced estate—the last prison built was HMP Berwyn, which is in the public sector—to maintain a mix of providers. We wanted to ensure that the next two were in the private sector.
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the new Ministers on their appointment.
I am sure everyone across the House was deeply concerned by new research showing that, when comparing like with like, private male local prisons have 42% more assaults than their public equivalents. That is especially worrying given that the Government are planning to build a new generation of prisons run for profit. I am sure the Secretary of State would not wish to be deemed an ideologue who would back private prisons even if they were more dangerous. Before proceeding with those new private prisons, will he back an independent review of safety and overcrowding in private prisons to ensure that corners are not being cut to maximise profits?
The reality is that there are many very successful private prisons where the level of violence is lower than average. Let me give the hon. Gentleman an example. HMP Altcourse in Liverpool has low levels of violence compared with a typical category B local prison, including the public sector category B local prison in the same city where we have faced significant difficulties with violence. It is hard to compare one set of prisons against another on a like-for-like basis. I do not accept the analysis the hon. Gentleman sets out, and I do believe we need to have a mixed sector.
Prison and Probation Officers: Gross Misconduct Charges
The existing process is an internal employment process and is compliant with both employment law and ACAS best practice. It exists to identify where misconduct has occurred and to hold individuals to account. By holding all prison and probation officers to the high standard we expect, we protect the reputation of the entire service.
Napo has called for the scapegoating of probation officers to end, especially with the reviewing of cases that have already been covered by a review. It insists that senior managers are driven by a desire to be seen to be doing something rather than to deal with the root cause, which is the unbearable workload pressures caused by mass vacancies. Does the Minister agree that the probation service should take responsibility for structural failures leading to serious further offences, rather than hanging its workers out to dry?
The hon. Lady makes a very proper point, and I pay tribute to the probation officers I have worked with over many years. They are dedicated public servants who use their professional judgment and skill to help assess risk, which is an onerous task. I do not approve of scapegoating. I expect the service to support probation officers who are under pressure, but for cases where there needs to be an investigation, due process then has to take place.
Probation Supervision: Short Sentences
It is absolutely vital that prisoners get the support they need after release to turn their lives around. It would be premature to reverse reforms that, for the first time, saw those released on short sentences supervised after release, with a period dedicated solely to rehabilitation. We have already looked at ways of making that process more proportionate, but as my hon. Friend will know, I want to look at the broader question of short sentences and measures that actually serve to reduce reoffending.
If I may trespass for one moment on your good will, Mr Speaker, given the previous question, perhaps you would like to join me in congratulating the Nacro winners, who are in the Public Gallery at the moment and who are about to join me for tea in the Pugin Room—where are they? They are putting their hands up so they can be congratulated by all of us in the House today, who appreciate what probation staff and those who work with prisoners do for us.
Does the Secretary of State agree that we should put real resource into alternatives to custody, so that we can end the cycle of reoffending and stop all our constituents suffering from further crime?
I join in the congratulations to the prize winners in the Gallery and welcome them to the House of Commons.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of alternatives to custody, and I am keen to ensure that we make greater use of curfews, exclusion zones and new ways in which we can restrict offenders in the community in a way that can be more effective in reducing future reoffending.
Probation Service: Complaints System
I know that the new Minister—let me take this opportunity to welcome him to his post—would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman.
We will look at the merits of all the bidders for those new contracts, but I am not going to draw up any red lines today. The bids will need to be looked at in their totality.
Management of Offenders: Local Authorities and PCCs
We want to strengthen partnership working between probation and local partners, including local authorities and police and crime commissioners, and the future probation model announced on 16 May will better enable this with a new regional structure led by regional directors responsible for the delivery and commissioning of probation services. They will work with local partners to identify shared priorities and co-commission services that will better support the management of offenders in the community.
Will the Secretary of State commit to exploring co-commissioning so that probation can leverage in wider funding and serve common needs?
The short answer is yes. Our plan is to create a dynamic framework for the commissioning of resettlement and rehabilitative intervention opportunities. To complement this, we will ring-fence £20 million a year in an innovation fund to attract match funding from other Departments and commissioning bodies for innovative cross-cutting approaches.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the transforming rehabilitation reforms had the very sensible goal of reducing reoffending by extending supervision to a group of offenders who previously did not have it?
Yes, I do think that is a very sensible goal, and sometimes that point has been missed in the debate about the transforming rehabilitation programme. My view is that we need to build on those reforms, and that is why on 16 May I outlined the changes we were making. My hon. Friend is right that we need to be ambitious and provide coverage for as many ex-offenders as possible.
I am not sure whether the Secretary of State has had a chance yet to see the report published this morning by Crest Advisory on the management of women offenders. It suggests that police and crime commissioners should develop gender-informed alternatives to cautions and thereby keep women out of the criminal justice system. Will he consider that recommendation and the others in the report, and would he or one of his ministerial colleagues be willing to meet me and representatives of Crest to discuss it?
I confess I have not had an opportunity yet to read the report published this morning, but from what the hon. Lady says it appears to go in a similar direction to the female offenders strategy I set out last year. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), would be delighted to meet her to discuss the matter further.
I also congratulate the new Ministers on their appointment.
Short sentences target the most vulnerable offenders, especially women, with 75% of all women offenders sentenced to less than a year going on to reoffend. Has the Secretary of State made an assessment of the impact of short prison sentences on offenders and communities?
Indeed I am concerned about the impact of short sentences, not just on those who receive them but on society as a whole, because if they are ineffective in reducing reoffending, we are not doing society a favour and we are not reducing crime in the way we want to. As I said a moment ago, we set out our approach in the female offenders strategy—there is a case for looking at alternatives to custody for less serious offences. As a whole, I am ambitious to reduce the use of short sentences, which I do not see as being effective in reducing crime.
There is a strong case for abolishing sentences of six months or less—with some exceptions—and we are working towards having firm proposals by the summer. There is persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences do not work in terms of rehabilitation and helping some offenders to turn their backs on crime, and that community sentences can be more effective in reducing reoffending and therefore keeping the public safe. That said, we must ensure that the public and the judiciary can have confidence in effective community orders that address offenders’ behaviour, meet their mental health and alcohol or drug misuse needs and provide reparation for the benefit of the wider community.
Before his promotion—potentially to Prime Minister—the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said:
“We have a lot to learn from Scotland, specifically on community sentences, and indeed we will be looking at what more we can do to emphasise that a custodial sentence in the short term should be a final resort.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2018; Vol. 639, c. 714-15.]
Given the Secretary of State’s answer just now, will he ensure that there is a continuity of approach within the new ministerial team in the MOJ?
I am sure that there will be; I would certainly expect that to be the case. One thing that we should learn from Scotland is that we need to ensure that community sentences are not ignored, and that drug treatment orders are completed. I know that that has been an issue in relation to some of the reforms in Scotland, and we need to learn from it, because if we are going to make these reforms we must ensure that community sentences are working properly.
The latest generation of GPS tags can monitor the specific movements of offenders rather than simply enforcing home curfews. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that gives courts a powerful tool to punish offenders in the community while keeping victims safe, as an alternative to short sentences?
I very much agree with that. I can tell the House that I wore a GPS tag for a couple of days, and was subsequently able to be informed of all my movements for the period concerned: precisely where I had been, and when. Thankfully I had not been up to no good, but it was a demonstration of how accurate and effective those tags can be. I believe that they have considerable potential for reassuring the public about community sentences, and about our ability to track those who might pose a risk to the community.
The Secretary of State’s moral probity was never in doubt for a moment.
The Secretary of State will know about the terrible legacy of the imprisonment for public protection sentence, and its negative impact on both reoffending and re-incarceration. Will he meet me, and my constituent whose son received an IPP sentence, to discuss ideas for reform of the licence that applies?
The challenge of IPP cases is that the Parole Board must satisfy itself that those who have been sentenced to IPPs no longer pose a risk to society. That can be very difficult, and in many cases there are risks to society, so we must be cautious and ensure that we protect the public. I know that the Minister responsible for prisons and probation, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.
It is now well recognised that a system that pushes offenders through a revolving door of short prison sentences simply does not work. Notwithstanding the riders expressed by the Secretary of State a moment ago, the fact is that the Justice Committee, as well as his Government, has recognised that the system in Scotland is working. The Committee’s recent report recommended that the UK Government follow Scotland’s approach of a presumption against short sentences. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to introducing such a presumption in England and Wales?
I hope to be able to say more about the details of what we want to do in the not too distant future, but in respect of the approach that is being taken in Scotland, it is worth bearing in mind that it is already the case in England that a custodial sentence should be pursued only as a last resort, so there is already something approaching a presumption in the English system. I am interested in seeing whether we could go further than that, but I welcome the hon. and learned Lady’s approach —our shared approach, I think—of scepticism about the effectiveness of short sentences.
As someone who worked in the criminal justice system in Scotland for 20 years before coming to the House, I can assure the Secretary of State that the idea that a custodial sentence should be a last resort existed in Scotland before the presumption against short sentences, so that is an additional presumption.
One of the bodies that gave evidence to the Justice Committee pointed out that diverting those who have been identified as low-risk offenders
“from short custodial sentences to suspended custodial sentences could reduce the prison population”
in England and Wales by about 3,000 places. Does the Secretary of State agree that the presumption against short sentences in Scotland can help to reduce the prison population, and could do so if introduced south of the border?
As I have said, I hope to say more about the approach we want to take, but there is a case that an approach on short sentences along the lines that I have discussed may reduce the prison population, but the principal purpose is not reducing the prison population. It will not be massively dramatic, but I believe it will help to reduce reoffending. That is the big prize, rather than what are likely to be relatively marginal changes to the prison population.
Legal Aid Reform
Access to justice remains a fundamental right and the Government are committed to ensuring everyone can get the support they need to access the justice system. We recently launched our legal support action plan, with a series of changes to enhance the breadth of legal support made available.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new position and his excellent answer. Many are concerned that reductions in legal aid from 2000 onwards have gone too far, meaning that people struggle to get access to justice. Does he agree that the time has come better to fund legal aid, rethink the abolition of conditional fee agreements and ensure the court system as a whole is funded, to make sure we uphold the rule of law?
My hon. Friend is clearly easily pleased by my answers. Last year we spent £1.6 billion alone on legal aid, and that will continue. Our legal support action plan includes such measures as reviewing the means test for legal aid and the criminal legal aid fee scheme, so we constantly look to ensure the level of support is correct and appropriate.
The role of families at inquests is one of the most distressing that they come across. In February the Government said they would look into further options for the funding of legal support for families at inquests where the state has state-funded representation. What progress has the Department made that I can report back to my constituents who have suffered?
The hon. Lady makes a very fair point, and I am concerned about that myself. There has to be equality of arms in the courtroom and in inquests when the state is represented—when the state has a duty of care towards individuals. We are looking into this topic; I have nothing to report at present but I constantly engage with my officials on it. I am interested in it myself and would be happy to meet the hon. Lady if she wishes to share her ideas.
My hon. Friend alights on the pertinent point that not all legal support needs to come in the form of legal aid at the point at which a case reaches a court. Legal support can take many forms and shapes. Indeed, it might consist of a very early conversation to inform someone that their case has no merit and is best dealt with through mediation or some other means in the community.
Two years ago, Taylor Alice Williams died while she was supposed to be under the care of the state in a secure children’s home. Her bereaved mother, who is unable to work due to a disability, was recently told she would have to contribute thousands of pounds for legal representation at the inquest into her daughter’s death. Families should not be forced to mount press campaigns to get the legal aid they deserve.
There are too many families in this desperate situation. The Government’s own review estimates that 500 families a year lose a loved one in custody or state detention, leading to an inquest. Does the Secretary of State regret his recent decision to refuse those families legal aid, and will he revise the decision?
Inquests should always have bereaved families at the heart of the process, and legal aid decisions need to be considered in that light. Our recent review underlined the importance of preserving an inquisitorial, as opposed to adversarial, approach, meaning there ought to be less need for lawyers. None the less, as Dame Elish Angiolini’s report stressed, while the state has a duty of care there is a case for reviewing the thresholds and criteria appropriate for legal aid entitlement as part of a wider review into legal aid entitlement.
Sexual Offences Act 2003: Definition of Positions of Trust
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for this question. Protecting children from the scourge of sexual abuse in all its forms is a top priority for the Government. The law is clear: all sexual activity with someone under the age of 16 is illegal and all non-consensual activity is also illegal. However, the Government recognise that there are concerns about those who might abuse their position of power over a 16 or 17-year-old to pressure them into engaging in a sexual relationship. This is why we are working closely with colleagues across Government to take forward a review of the existing law to check that it is working effectively and protecting young people.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but the truth is that there have been some harrowing situations in which young women in particular, although not exclusively, have been groomed by manipulative coaches, sports instructors or driving instructors who are in a position of care. For some time, the Government have said that they will look at this closely, but have tended to fall back on the line that once people are over 16 there is not much they can do. May I urge the Minister to look at this situation closely? The NSPCC campaign is a good place to start. Will he agree to meet me and representatives of the NSPCC to discuss this issue?
I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and Peter Wanless from the NSPCC. My hon. Friend rightly makes a number of points that need to be borne in mind. We have to give an element of consideration to individuals who are in a position of responsibility in relation to young people with the degree of vulnerability. There is always a balance to be struck so that we do not criminalise behaviour that is currently legal, and the age of consent remains at 16.
People who prey on children often deliberately get themselves into a position of trust, and they know and exploit this legal loophole, as I believe the Minister is aware. Rather than simply carrying out a review, will he do what the previous sports Minister agreed to do, which is to change the law?
This is why we are having a review to ensure that we understand whether the law is working correctly and young people are being protected. I understand the points being made about sports coaches, driving examiners and many others, which is why I am keen to see the results of the review.
Leaving the EU: Assessment of Implications
The Government continue to believe that leaving with a deal is the best outcome for the UK. For my Department, this means seeking a new agreement on civil digital co-operation as well as a future security partnership that protects our shared law enforcement and criminal justice capabilities.
The Minister is doing a great job at the Dispatch Box. Does he agree with the Home Affairs Committee that, in the event of no deal, being forced to rely on the 1957 convention on extradition rather than the European arrest warrant would be a “catastrophic outcome”? Does he therefore agree that the next Prime Minister, whoever that might be, should rule out the UK crashing out of Europe without a deal?
We have always made it clear that we do not seek a no deal. We have also made it clear that any future security partnership with the EU would have to include protecting our shared law enforcement elements as well as the criminal justice capabilities. If this can technically be done and it is lawful, there is no reason why it should be left out of any future security agreement.
Prison Officer Recruitment
Our target to recruit an additional 2,500 officers was successfully achieved in the first quarter of last year, ahead of schedule. From October 2016 to 31 March this year, there was an increase of 4,675 full-time equivalent prison officers.
I welcome that increase in the number of prison officers. What progress has been made with the key worker scheme in prisons?
The key worker scheme is an important part of improving support for prisoners, leading to safer prisons. That work has begun in all 92 prisons in the male closed estate, and 66 of them have completed implementation activities and started to deliver key work. Only last week I spoke to prisoners in two of those prisons who are already receiving the benefits of that interaction.
On 28 May, we announced changes to the release on temporary licence—ROTL—rules, which will allow prisoners to be considered for temporary release earlier. This will provide more opportunities for them to work and train with employers while serving their sentence and increase their chances of securing an immediate job on release. Research shows that time spent on ROTL working in the community or rebuilding family and community ties before release significantly reduces a prisoner’s likelihood of reoffending. ROTL is permitted only after a rigorous risk assessment, and the compliance rate is over 99%. Any non-compliance is dealt with robustly.
I have a lot of time for the Justice Ministers, but will the Secretary of State explain why there are no women in his ministerial team?
It is not for the Secretary of State to appoint his ministerial team, but I am delighted to welcome some strong new team members. They replace two outstanding Ministers who have gone on to higher and, I hope, greater things.
I am grateful for that question, and I am genuinely sympathetic towards those in such situations. Family breakdown always takes a toll on those involved, whether parents or children, but the child’s welfare is paramount in court decisions about their upbringing. The law remains gender-neutral and presumes that a parent’s involvement in a child’s life is beneficial unless there is evidence to the contrary.
I recently met Donna Mooney, the sister of Tommy Nicol, who sadly took his own life in prison while serving an imprisonment for public protection sentence. I am sure that the Secretary of State will also want to meet her soon. It is a cause of regret that IPPs were ever introduced; their Labour author now acknowledges that. They were not reserved for the most serious of offences, too often effectively becoming a life sentence for those who had committed minor crimes. Does the Secretary of State agree that much more needs to be done to provide opportunities for people who are now way over their short IPP tariffs to prove that they no longer pose a risk to the public?
It was right that the coalition Government abolished IPPs, which were brought in by the previous Labour Government, and there is consensus that that was the right thing to do. The difficulty is that the Parole Board now assesses in each case whether someone with an IPP sentence would be a risk to society, and the board must obviously ensure that public protection is put first. It is also right that we seek to do everything we can to rehabilitate IPP prisoners so that they can be released into the community.
This country has a robust tradition of political free speech, and the electorate can and should hold politicians to account. We also have a robust tradition of the courts being capable of determining whether a case is meritorious or unmeritorious.
I think it is because that is unfair. We are looking carefully at how we manage demand in the family justice system. We are ensuring that legal support is offered within the family courts, and that can take many forms, not just legal aid. For example, the personal support unit now operates in 23 courts across 18 cities, so we are looking to make sure that the right support is given to those in the family courts at the right point in the legal process.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. SARCs fall under the remit of the Department of Health and Social Care, but NHS England commissioned a report last year to assess the current state and future needs of the SARC workforce. Alongside SARCs and other victim support services, I have increased the funding available to rape and sexual violence support services by 10%, moving the funding from an annual to a three-year cycle.
We have no plans at present, but I am conscious that England’s age of criminal responsibility is lower than in most western countries. I am sure this matter will be kept under review.
My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of technology in rehabilitation, which is why in-cell telephones have now been rolled out to 18 prisons and work is under way to deliver them to a further 30 prisons by March 2020. The introduction of basic computers, with the necessary controls, can allow prisoners to start managing some of their day-to-day tasks ahead of potential release.
As I mentioned in response to a previous question, I have increased by 10% the funding available to rape and sexual violence support services. The hon. Gentleman highlights a specific case, and I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it.
Both as a constituency MP and when I look at the media, I am concerned by increasing reports of cases being adjourned, often at the last minute, for the lack of a judge being available, particularly in the Crown and county courts. At the same time, courtrooms sit empty and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is not advertising vacancies for recorders—part-time judges who are willing and able to fill those vacancies. Will the Minister urgently investigate what appears to be a lack of joined-up government by HMCTS?
I am very aware of this issue, which I have been discussing with various people at the top end of HMCTS. It is important that we recruit sufficient judges, on which we need to do better. I will happily discuss it with my hon. Friend and provide a fuller answer when I appear before his Select Committee next week.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. She alludes to the fact that this falls more directly within the remit of the Attorney General’s office but, of course, it cuts across a number of Departments. I have already had a number of meetings with my opposite number in the Home Office and with my new colleague, the prisons Minister, when he was Solicitor General. I look forward to further such meetings to get to the bottom of exactly what the hon. Lady highlights.
HMP Leyhill is a category B prison in south Gloucestershire. The number of abscondees is reducing year on year, but there remains significant concern in the community following an incident last year involving a school just half a mile away. Will the Prisons Minister be good enough to visit south Gloucestershire to see this prison and to talk about the emergency mechanisms that need to be put in place?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am more than happy to visit Her Majesty’s Prison Leyhill not just to look at that specific issue but to see the conditions in that category B prison for myself.
In addition to reviewing the Sexual Offences Act 2003, as raised by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), will the Minister look at families who host international students and who are put in a position of trust over young people?
The hon. Lady raises a good example of a position of trust, which is the sort of thing I want to look at. If she wishes to write to me with further details, I will make sure we include it in the review we are conducting.
Patrick Mackay, formerly of my constituency, is one of Britain’s least known but most dangerous serial killers. In 1975, he admitted to three counts of manslaughter, but he is strongly suspected of carrying out a further 10 killings, including that of a four-year-old boy. Mackay is now eligible for parole and may well have already been moved to an open prison. Does the Secretary of State share my deep concern about the potential release of this man, still only in his 60s, and will he enable me to make the fullest possible representations to the Parole Board?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has taken up this issue tirelessly. As he knows, the Parole Board will release a life sentence prisoner only when, in its view, it is no longer necessary on the grounds of public protection for a prisoner to remain in custody. In making its determination, the board will consider reports from those who manage the prisoner and have assessed the risk of harm he presents. The board will also consider all relevant evidence of the prisoner’s risk of harm, and if my hon. Friend has such evidence I am sure it will be listened to closely. We will ensure that it is fully considered for inclusion in the dossier of reports given to the Parole Board.
My constituency is colossal—the second biggest in the UK—and the cost of travel to courts is a big issue. I plead with the Government to look at legal aid with a view to changing it to reflect the hardship that some of my constituents suffer from in paying the cost of getting to court.
I gently advise the hon. Gentleman that in his constituency that would be a matter for the Scottish Government. Beyond that, I recognise that it is an issue across the country. We wish to look at that in our legal services action plan to make sure that, if people are struggling to access justice, we have a new set of guidelines on how we keep open various courts and tribunals that will help to make sure that our courts remain as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.
EU Parliament Elections: Denial of Votes
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on why non-UK EU citizens were denied their right to vote in the European parliamentary elections.
The Government took all the legal steps necessary to prepare for the European parliamentary elections and put in place all the necessary legislative and funding elements to enable returning officers to make their preparations. We worked with returning officers, the Electoral Commission and other agencies, such as the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers and the Association of Electoral Administrators, to support the smooth running of the polls. The Government are greatly appreciative of electoral administrators’ hard work inside and outside election periods, which resulted in a higher turnout than for previous European parliamentary elections.
Electoral registration officers are under a statutory duty to ensure that people who are eligible to vote in elections have the opportunity to do so. For the recent European Parliament elections—as for all previous such elections—that included making sure that EU citizens who are resident in the UK and registered to vote in local elections were made aware that they needed to complete a voter registration and declaration form, commonly referred to as a UC1 or EC6, so they could vote in the UK. The Electoral Commission supported EROs in this and encouraged them to take additional steps to raise awareness of this requirement locally, through social media channels and other means.
The UC1 form implements a requirement under EU law. EU Council directive 93/109/EC requires all member states to send the details of any EU citizens’ declarations to the state they are a citizen of,
“sufficiently in advance of polling day”,
to ensure that an EU citizen does not vote twice in the same European parliamentary election. That is not a new requirement and has been in place for previous European parliamentary elections. Similar provision applies to UK citizens living in other EU member states. The UC1 form was accessible on the websites of the Electoral Commission, local authorities and Your Vote Matters.
On 5 April, the Electoral Commission published guidance for local returning officers and EROs on the upcoming European parliamentary elections. In it, the Electoral Commission reminded EROs to prepare and issue UC1 forms to EU citizens on the electoral register. On 3 May, the Electoral Commission published guidance advising EU citizens to avoid registering to vote using unofficial registration sites. The guidance further stated:
“Any EU citizen who wants to vote in the European Parliamentary election in the UK must also print, complete and return a declaration form stating that they will only vote in the UK.”
The guidance also included a link to the Your Vote Matters website, where the form could be downloaded.
The numbers of non-UK EU citizens who were reportedly denied a vote in the European elections should be a source of shame for the Government. We are talking about people who live and work here and who contribute to our communities, yet for the past three years they have been insulted, exploited, asked to apply to stay in their own homes and now denied a voice in an election that has massive implications for their futures. Have the Government learned nothing from the Windrush scandal about the consequences of shutting citizens out of public life?
After the previous set of European elections, the Electoral Commission warned that we needed to streamline the two-step registration process, like other European countries have done. Why did the Government refuse to listen? They buried their head in the sand in respect of the elections, even at the eleventh hour when it was clear that the House was not going to pass their botched Brexit deal. The Opposition repeatedly warned that EU nationals were not given enough time and notice. We put forward reasonable requests that could have been adopted to mitigate the risks, such as ensuring that EU citizens were handed a copy of the form when they voted in local elections and extending the deadline by a week to ensure that the forms could be returned.
What was the Government’s response? It was to tell EU citizens to vote in their own country. Not only did that add to the anger and sense of exclusion that many felt, but it was asking people to register to vote in a country that they may not have lived in for decades and where voting registration may well have closed. Does the Minister acknowledge how insulting that was? Will he apologise to those affected? Campaign groups have already raised more than £40,000 to fund a legal challenge; have the Government assessed whether their actions were compliant with the law? The failure to act made this democratic disaster sadly inevitable. In the light of the overwhelming evidence, will the Government conduct a full and urgent investigation?
We have to be clear that the process was exactly the same as what was required back in 2014 and 2009. The legal structure for how the vote takes place has not changed.
On the deadlines referred to, I can remember having a discussion with the shadow Minister about whether it would be possible to change the registration date, but that would have run up against the clear requirement that we have to share the declarations
“sufficiently in advance of polling day”.
That means sharing them in advance of polling day, not just a day or two before, to allow registers to be completed in home nation states. To be clear, this process has been in place for some years.
I accept the point that obviously people did not necessarily expect the EU elections to happen, given the result of the referendum and the fact that 80% of the people who voted in 2017 did so for parties that had pledged to respect the referendum result—something we have not seen much evidence of on the Opposition Benches. The Electoral Commission will review the European elections, as it reviews any other electoral event, and will look into any issues raised. As a responsible Government, we will of course consider carefully what the Electoral Commission says.
I thank the Minister for his statement.
I was contacted by a handful of my constituents about this issue. My local authority has confirmed that the relevant paperwork was sent out entirely in accordance with the rules on 12 April, to be returned by 7 May. Several thousand of those forms were returned, so the process was clearly working, but for a handful of people there seems to have been some confusion. Will the Minister confirm from the Dispatch Box that he will look carefully at the Electoral Commission’s report on the election, to understand why that group of people found it so difficult to follow the rules in this instance?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. I am pleased to hear her experience, which is that thousands did return the declaration and were able to take part. We will of course listen very carefully to what the Electoral Commission has to say in its review of the European parliamentary elections. The turnout did go up. In fact it was much, much higher than it was in 1999, which is the last time we had stand-alone European elections, so, again, that gives us some confidence in the system. None the less, we will certainly consider very carefully the points that the Electoral Commission brings forward and look at whether any changes are required.
Whether by accident or design, this Government have presided over the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of our neighbours and friends who wanted to vote in that election but were unable to do so. Frankly, the Minister’s complacency here today is simply compounding the problem. He acts as if this were some sort of surprise. Back in 2014, many people told the Cabinet Office that the system then was inadequate. The Electoral Commission itself called for a review of the UC1 system. Therefore, given the additional dubiety and uncertainty created by this Government about the fact that these elections would take place this year, surely it must have been obvious that something needed to be done in order to improve the situation. At any stage did Ministers approach the European authorities to get a dispensation from the regulations in order to cope with the situation in the United Kingdom? At any stage did Ministers consider bringing forward a statutory instrument to this House in order to truncate the existing system for filling in the UC1 form? Will the Minister promise that there will be a full and public investigation into this debacle?
Let me be clear: the Council directive is a piece of EU law. It is not something from which we can seek derogations or exemptions. I know that, normally, those on the Scottish National party Benches are very keen to see European law there and fully complied with. This is about an election across all 28 member states for one Parliament; this is not about a uniquely British election.
With regard to looking at the options open to us, we did briefly ask for official advice, but on whether it would be possible to consider a statutory instrument, I have to say that that rubs up against our need to implement that exact expression of being sufficiently in advance of polling day. Given that our registration deadline was 7 May—roughly two weeks before—it is hard to see how we could move much more beyond that date. As for how we will look at this matter, the Electoral Commission will comply with its statutory duty to conduct a review of how the elections were conducted. It is a body that has solid election knowledge, is appointed independently and is not under the control of Government. We can all think of views that the Electoral Commission has expressed that we have either loved or loathed. That is our best option. We will therefore carefully consider what conclusions it brings back.
The Minister does not appear to appreciate the Government’s responsibility for this mess. It was not until Tuesday 7 May that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that the UK would definitely be taking part in the European elections. As the Minister has just admitted, Tuesday 7 May was also the closing date for the receipt of UC1 forms. Given that the Government must have known since 11 April, which was the date on which the EU granted us a further extension to 31 October, that we would be taking part in these European elections, why did it take the Government from 11 April to 7 May to confirm that fact? Earlier confirmation would have allowed more EU citizens to get their UC1 forms in in time, and they would therefore not have been denied the right to vote on 23 May.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. As I said in my earlier answer, it was on 5 April that the Electoral Commission published guidance for local returning officers and EROs, and it was on 8 April that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster laid the necessary orders for the poll. There was no restriction on submitting a UC1 application before those dates. There was no need to wait until it was completely confirmed to submit that form. As has been said, a number of EU citizens who are resident in this country made arrangements to vote in this election in the state of which they are a citizen. It is therefore clear that there was no undue delay and that advice was pushed out. By 3 May, there was clear advice published by the Electoral Commission, which has the primary role in promoting how citizens use their electoral rights in this country.
We see shocking complacency from the Minister and a complete denial of any Government responsibility for this shambles. A number of MPs—me included—raised these concerns in advance of the election, saying that EU citizens were going to be disenfranchised. And sure enough they were, as they were in the EU referendum. Is the Minister aware of legal advice that says that the use of the UC1 form is discriminatory, and will he—he has not yet answered this question—support calls for an inquiry into this shambles and the Government’s role in it?
The suggestion that the UC1 form, which has been used in a number of European elections, is now discriminatory is absolutely for the birds. It is a process that we have used for other elections and it is part of implementing a requirement under European law. The Liberal Democrats cannot say that they like the European Union’s laws one day and then demand that we should just ignore them the next, when it suits them. It is clear that the Council directive requires us to complete declarations and to send them sufficiently in advance of polling day.
The right hon. Gentleman may shake his head and dislike what I am saying, but that is the wording of the legislation. The Electoral Commission will conduct a full review, and I look forward to reading and receiving its conclusions.
The Minister said—once again, erroneously—that 80% of voters in the referendum voted for parties that supported a Tory Brexit. He knows that to be completely wrong. What he omitted to say was that the majority of voters who voted in the European elections voted for parties who want another referendum and want to remain in the European Union. The Minister was warned repeatedly about this issue in this House and outside it, yet we all have examples of constituents who came up to us in desperation on election day, having done all the right things but having had their names crossed out when they arrived at the polling station. It is an absolute scandal. Does this not reveal a Government who did not investigate properly the proven subversion and lawbreaking in the referendum, and who have absolutely no interest in the integrity of our democratic process? The Minister should resign.
Oh dear; well, I will not thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. The reality is that we have an independent Electoral Commission and an independent police force which does not—and should not—operate under political guidance. Despite the right hon. Gentleman’s obvious disagreements with the referendum result, the relevant bodies have obviously looked at the evidence and come to their conclusions. It will be a dark day when Ministers at the Dispatch Box instruct the police and the Electoral Commission how to behave.
As I say, the UC1 form implements a requirement under European Union law. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s figures regarding the vote itself, they are not figures that I recognise because they normally imply that my party is somehow supporting remain.
Seven weeks ago, Mr Speaker kindly granted me an urgent question on this exact topic, but the warnings were not heeded. Scores of EU voters were in touch with my busy office and with the electoral registration officer on Haringey Council on the day, just as predicted by many Members in this House on 25 April. Will the Minister lay out exactly what investigations his team will undertake now to put this situation right once and for all?
The Electoral Commission will do a report and present its conclusions—as it does with all major electoral events in this country—and it will do so independently, not under the direction of a Minister. We will then consider its conclusions carefully. To resolve the issue completely, we will look to implement the 2016 referendum result, as we have pledged to do.
I think the Minister has misunderstood his job. He seems to think it is about disenfranchising people who are going to vote the wrong way. After the 2014 European elections, the Electoral Commission warned that the current practice of requiring citizens to complete an additional form needed to be more streamlined, moving to a near automatic system of inclusion as is the case in most other European countries, yet the Minister and his Department did precisely nothing about it. [Interruption.] Perhaps he could get the smirk off his face. We are actually talking about democratic involvement; even though the Minister does not seem to rate it, Labour Members think that it is an important principle.
This is a process that has been used before in elections that actually happened under a Labour Government as well—let us be clear about that. It is a process where we followed the law. We had to comply with the European Council directive in how we held these elections, and that means having a declaration that we send over. If we wanted to talk about disenfranchising people, we could talk about what happened when an arbitrary limit of 15 years was imposed on overseas elections.
Dozens and dozens of my EU national voters were disenfranchised at this election. Given that the election has now gone, would it not be prudent for the Government to re-enfranchise them by holding a public vote on how we leave the European Union, allowing people who live, work and pay their taxes here, and who have done so for decades, to be involved in the future running of this country?
Let us be clear: Britain’s membership of the European Union was first decided by the parliamentary franchise in the form of the elections to this House back in 1972. It was therefore the parliamentary franchise that was used, with the addition of Gibraltar and Members of the other place. That is the one that the House chose for the referendum in 2016, and hopefully this House will actually finally listen to what was said in 2016 and implement that referendum vote.
On 23 May, a significant number of my constituents who are EU nationals were denied their basic human right to vote, despite me and others having repeatedly raised on the Floor of the House the risk that that would happen, including my making a direct appeal to the Prime Minister at PMQs on the day before the elections to use the power of her office to do something about it. Does the Minister appreciate how this scandal has exacerbated the fears of EU citizens that their rights are not taken seriously by this Government? Does he therefore understand why there must be an inquiry into the Government’s failure to act, and will he answer the question posed by so many other hon. Members and commit to that inquiry?
I recall that the hon. and learned Lady’s suggestion at Prime Minister’s questions was about having forms at the polling station. However, that would directly conflict with the requirements of the Council directive, which says:
“sufficiently in advance of polling day.”
We could not have complied with that in having forms at the polling station. In terms of a review of what happened, as I have now said several times, the Electoral Commission, as it always does, will review the conduct of the poll and bring forward recommendations, and it is completely independent in doing so.
Can I say to the junior Minister that I feel sorry for him? Here he is, like the last boy left on the burning deck of the ship. He has no colleagues behind him. There is an absence of Government—where is his boss? The fact is that this is an important issue for democratic responsibility and accountability, and for parliamentary democracy, and we want to know the answer. Yet here we have—I hope it can be seen all over the world—an empty Chamber where this country has no Government and no Back Benchers: it has nothing. When are we going to get a general election to get rid of this ghastly regime?
I think that one is probably slightly beyond the scope of this urgent question. I would always say that it is good to have quality of support, if not necessarily quantity, on the Benches with me. The key issue in elections is that we comply with the law, and the law is as it has been set down for previous European elections. A key part of that is making sure that we comply with European law, given that this is not purely a vote in the UK about UK delegation members—it is ultimately an election of the entire European Parliament.
Listening to the Minister’s initial answer, I wondered, if this was all so good, why did it turn out so badly? The Government claim to have been preparing for “all Brexit eventualities”, yet despite the billions of pounds being set aside, we have still had this blundering democratic deficit. Is there not a real danger that this Government’s reputation for Brexit splits and betrayals will be excelled by an equally deserved reputation for incompetence?
The thing I look at is that the turnout rose for the European elections this time. There may be criticisms about how things are handled, but I always look at how many people turned out and engaged, and it was the highest turnout for 20 years.
The Minister does not seem to have accepted the fact that this vote happened as a result of something that was entirely predictable. The Department for Exiting the European Union has a Minister for no-deal Brexit. Why has it not considered that the third of the possibilities outlined by the Prime Minister might happen, and it should therefore have a Minister for no Brexit?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The reality is that this Government are absolutely committed to implementing the democratic will of the British people expressed in the referendum in 2016, and it is a pity that other parties are not.
I wrote to every single one of my EU national constituents at my own personal cost to inform them of this voter suppression. I wonder whether the Minister will repay me the cost of the postage, and whether he will also reflect on article 9(4) of the directive he cites, which says that Community voters “shall remain” on the register until they are removed. Getting them all to re-sign the form was therefore a breach of Community rules, and he should learn his law better.
I am afraid that this is exactly the same procedure that was adopted in 2014 and in 2009—
And the Commission said it was wrong.
I am interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman’s comments were about the then Labour Government.
Goodness me, man!
Mr Russell-Moyle, you are a person of passionate convictions. You are in some danger of rivalling your hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), who I am inclined to inform audiences across the country and round the world is the noisiest Member of the House. That is a questionable accolade.
Many EU nationals in my constituency were also denied their vote. It is simply unacceptable that registered voters who have turned out to vote were turned away without explanation. As decreed in article 39 of the EU charter of fundamental rights, the right to vote is universal and equal. Does the Minister agree that this fiasco is something that a modern democracy should not tolerate?
As I said, the Government took all legal steps necessary in conducting the European parliamentary elections. That included complying with European law, including the Council directive, which requires details of these declarations to be sent “sufficiently in advance” of polling day. We cannot just assume that people wish to vote in this country, rather than the country where they are a citizen.
The Minister is actually right about two things. He is right that this process has been used before, and he is right that the Electoral Commission makes independent recommendations. But ridiculously, he refuses to acknowledge that Conservative Ministers ignored those recommendations about this process right back in July 2014. Does he acknowledge that the Electoral Commission made recommendations about this process back in July 2014—yes or no?
As I have said in numerous answers, we complied with the legal steps necessary to conduct these polls, following the House’s refusal to back an exit from the European Union which many Members elected to this place had pledged to do. We will of course listen with interest to the Electoral Commission’s review of these elections, but it is our intention that the UK will no longer participate in European parliamentary elections, having implemented the result of the referendum.
If there had been 1 million Conservative voters—yes, I know—threatened with disenfranchisement by uncertainty about whether the elections would take place, the Government would have moved heaven and earth to ensure that they were registered and enfranchised before the vote took place. Is it not a fact that anyone who wants to know about his party’s and his Government’s contempt for the rights of EU nationals does not need to listen to his complacent answers today—they simply need to look at the Benches behind them?
EU citizens can be reassured that there is a huge amount of work going on to ensure that their rights are protected after Brexit, including their democratic rights in this country. Let us be clear: UC1 forms and declarations of their nature are not unusual for UK citizens living in the EU. We have used them before, and we will hopefully not use them again, because we believe in respecting referendums, although I accept that for the Scottish National party, that is a rather unusual concept.
Paloma Luna has lived in my constituency since 1992, and she has voted in every single local and European election until this year. Because of the impossible timetable set by the Government for our electoral services, Paloma never received the UC1 form. Electoral services normally have three months for such things, and this time they had three weeks. What does the Minister have to say to all of those who were denied their fundamental, basic human right to vote? And please do remember that these are human beings.
Starting with local elections and Assembly elections, there is absolutely no need to complete a UC1 form, because there is no requirement to make a declaration to another member state, so those electoral rights are protected and clear, and many used their vote in the local elections three weeks prior. To be clear, this is a process where we did what we could to make sure people were available. The Electoral Commission put out guidance and encouraged local returning officers well before the election—about a month before the actual deadline for registration. Plus, we have moved on in recent years in allowing registration online, something that was not available in the past.
It is disappointing that some areas seemed to accept UC1s on the day of the election, but not those in Scotland, which said they were instructed to do that. The Minister has said that he took “all legal steps”, so can he confirm the percentage of UC1 forms that were forwarded to countries overseas between 7 May and the election?
To be clear, UC1s should not be being accepted on polling day, given that the Council directive is very clear that the information needs to be exchanged sufficiently in advance of polling day. Once information was collated after 7 May, it was then communicated to member states, just as other member states communicated those details to us. That process has existed for many years.
A number of my EU-national constituents were prevented from voting on 23 May, and they are exceptionally angry about it. The issues on polling day were a direct and deliberate result of the failure by the Government—the coalition Government and then the Conservative Government—to address the concerns raised by the Electoral Commission after the 2014 elections. At the very least, my constituents are owed an apology. Are they going to get one?
Again, I can make it clear that the Government took all legal steps necessary to conduct this poll, as we were legally obliged to do. As I say, we will look with interest at what the Electoral Commission’s review of this election states. However, we are clear that we have no intention of taking part in the EU parliamentary elections in 2024, because we intend to leave the European Union and honour the referendum result.
Is the Minister seriously trying to say that nothing went wrong here, and that is why he will not apologise? I, too, have constituents who sent all the forms off in time and who went on the day with an extra form just in case, and they were denied the right to vote. They were disenfranchised by this Government. Surely they are owed an apology. Will the Minister take that opportunity now?
Again, what I would say is that we will ask the Electoral Commission to review that for anyone who did comply with the requirements, although clearly we would need to look at what happened in that particular instance with that particular ERO. Ultimately, at the end of the day the UC1 is not an optional process; we have to comply with the Council directive. That is not something we have an ability just to vary.
First, I would like to thank David Miller and his team at Glasgow City Council for doing their very best in the circumstances this shambolic Government have thrown at them. Those circumstances resulted in one of my constituents, who had registered in time when they moved into their property in Dalmarnock, not having enough time to get the UC1 form back and therefore losing their democratic rights. Will the Minister issue an instruction to returning officers to ask them how many people lost their votes in similar circumstances, and to ask for their advice on what the Government should do in response?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Clearly, it is the Electoral Commission that will be conducting the review of how the election went, and I am almost certain it will be in contact with local returning officers to discuss any issues that were raised. Likewise, at that point it would certainly more than welcome and would probably be quite interested in hearing the experiences of how the process operated in reality.
The Minister knows that the Government were tearing themselves apart on whether or not to participate in these EU elections until 7 May, but what steps did his Department take to talk to other EU countries about extending the deadline? In the age of electronic communication, surely fewer than 16 days is necessary.
The Government were never tearing themselves apart over whether to hold the elections. We were clear that we would fulfil our legal obligation to hold them if necessary as a member of the European Union, and we did. Regarding the exchange of information that already takes place electronically, there is a clear need to finalise registers at a certain point, and to ensure that information is collated and then exchanged with other member states. The timescales now are similar to those put in place in the past, and the UK is one of the first countries to vote, on the Thursday, along with Holland. Even though some countries vote later, we have to be ready for the start of the European elections, not halfway through.
The empty Government Benches will send a powerful message to EU nationals across the country. Many of them in my constituency contacted me to say that they had registered to vote online, after it became clear on 11 April that the elections would be taking place; they told me that the system did not alert them to the need to complete a UC1 form, nor was it available online. Does the Minister accept that the Cabinet Office’s failure to ensure that proper processes were in place denied them their vote?
To be clear, the Electoral Commission website had guidance on registering to vote; the UC1 form was available; and there were links to the Your Vote Matters website, where the form could be downloaded and returned. It was available online. There were some issues with those who mistakenly used unofficial registration sites, and perhaps the Electoral Commission will consider how we can make clearer the differences between unofficial websites purporting to be for electoral registration and Your Vote Matters, the official Electoral Commission site.
My constituent, a Spanish national, had a similar experience: he believed he had returned his UC1 form digitally, but the local authority said it could find no trace of it, and advising him on 3 May on a website that he should have downloaded it, printed it out and posted it back is not reasonable when he had an expectation that his digital form was acceptable. Is it not time there was a proper Government-sponsored inquiry into every stage of the process, so that we can understand exactly what went wrong with both the system and the information available to voters?
I think it right that the Electoral Commission independently looks at the process for the European parliamentary elections and draws its conclusions independent of Government. That seems to me to be a process that builds more confidence in the recommendations that emerge.
The Minister says the legislation is in place, but the processes clearly are not, despite the recommendations from the 2014 investigation, which have not been implemented. Many of my constituents have contacted me to say they were refused the vote on election day, despite their having voted in London and council elections, and even the 2014 European parliamentary elections. Does the Minister not acknowledge that this debacle only adds to the anger and sense of exclusion felt by so many of the 3 million EU citizens in this country since the 2016 referendum? Is it not worried that it will exacerbate the rate at which EU citizens leave our country and so no longer contribute to our society?
One of the handy things of having my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration on the Bench beside me is that I know that there are still more EU citizens coming to this country than leaving. We very much welcome that, given the skills and talents they bring to this country.
The process we follow is similar to the one used in other EU states for UK citizens living abroad. I understand that people have concerns. My big concern would be if turnout had gone down, but in fact turnout went up. One of the biggest threats to European parliamentary elections was the absolutely dismal turnout 20 years ago.
It really does seem that sorry is the hardest word. My constituents have faced all the problems outlined by my hon. Friends, including the situation where the form has been properly filled in but they are still denied the vote—and, of course, denied their vote in their home country, so they are doubly disenfranchised. At the end of these exchanges, could the Minister show some grace on behalf of the Government and apologise not to Opposition Members, but to the people who have been disenfranchised?
As I touched on earlier, we would expect the Electoral Commission’s review to look at issues with local councils where the form was returned in compliance with the law and then not complied with. The Government would not have dealt with that directly. Election turnout rose compared with previous similar elections, and we hope that this election will not take place again following the UK’s exit from the European Union.
“This feels like one big scam”—that is what one citizen I represent told me about his experience of this process. I say to my fellow Devon MP that I think he has got this one wrong. When the Electoral Commission publishes its report, will he now commit to publishing it and bringing it back to this House with a statement, so that he can say sorry, from the Dispatch Box, to all the EU citizens who have been denied a vote, and set out how it will be corrected in future?
I always respect the passion of the hon. Gentleman, my friend from Devon, when it comes to raising issues and campaigning on behalf of his constituents. We will of course see what the Electoral Commission report brings back. It will be a public report, so it will be published. We will certainly then consider what next steps would need to be taken if we were ever to have European parliamentary elections again, although, as the hon. Gentleman will know, my view is that we should implement the referendum result so that we will not be an EU member the next time they take place.
Illegal Seaborne Migration
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if he will prevent illegal seaborne migration across the short straits of the English channel.
The English channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Every crossing attempted by migrants, often in unsuitable and very small boats, is life-threatening for those on board. These attempts not only represent a hazard to other vessels but threaten the safety of the Border Force, coastguard and lifeboat crews who come to their rescue. The Government are committed to preventing migrant crossings in small boats. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary declared a major incident in December last year, and our heightened response remains in place.
In January, the Home Secretary met his counterpart Monsieur Castaner and agreed a joint action plan to tackle seaborne arrivals. He will be speaking to him again later this week. The joint action plan builds on the extensive work we have undertaken in partnership with France over the past few years, including under the 2018 Sandhurst treaty. It demonstrates the strength and depth of our bilateral relationship and both countries’ enduring determination to secure our shared border and prevent illegal migration through France. Through measures such as increased surveillance and co-ordination of our joint response via the joint information centre, the plan enhances our robust border security.
The solution is not all about increased surveillance in the UK but also about preventing vessels from leaving France in the first place. We have recently delivered drones and other surveillance equipment to France, enabling its law enforcement officers to intercept and disrupt attempted crossings. We continue to look at a range of tactical options that work on both land and sea. Those attempting to cross should be aware that their efforts will be in vain. Since January, more than 30 people who arrived illegally in the UK in small boats have been returned to France and other member states under the Dublin regulation. We have many more in the pipeline for return.
Finally, we are tackling the organised crime gangs who are exploiting vulnerable and desperate individuals. Only yesterday, a French court sentenced two men to prison for helping migrants to make the treacherous journey across the channel. The summer months and settled weather will present us with further challenges, but we will continue to work co-operatively with France to secure our borders and seek to prevent further crossings from taking place.
Mr Speaker, I thank you for granting this urgent question and the Minister for her response.
In December 2018, the Home Secretary declared a major incident and said that countering this illegal migration would be an operational priority for the Home Office. That was in response to 40 illegal migrants who were picked up on Christmas day crossing the short straits. The Home Secretary had to rush back from his Christmas holiday to try to deal with the crisis. Despite what the Minister says, the problem is getting not better, but worse. At the end of May, 74 people—a record number—were intercepted on one day in a record number of boats. Some 140 migrants were picked up in the month of May, the highest number since December. I have no doubt that the Government say that this is an important issue and that they want to tackle it. In a Westminster Hall debate that I held on 30 January, the Minister responded that
“we have an absolute duty to protect the border and stop organised crime gangs exploiting vulnerable individuals who want to come here by sending them through the busiest shipping lane in the world. That is why we must stop this incredibly dangerous route becoming the new normal for those wanting to enter the UK illegally.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 424WH.]
The police have said that trying to cross the short straits is like trying to
“cross the M25 at rush-hour on foot”.
It is incredibly dangerous for the families and children involved. We must be able to defend our coastline from this illegal immigration.
We are spending some €50 million—we are giving that amount to the French Government—to try to stamp out this migration flow, but it is not working. In 2018, 543 illegal migrants attempted to cross to this country from France. There were 438 in the three months from October to December. Eighty per cent. of them are Iranian, and apart from Germany, we are the biggest recipient of asylum claims from Iran of any EU country. The way to solve the problem is not to throw money at the French, but simply to take these people back to France when they are intercepted at sea. That will stop them attempting the crossing in the first place. If they know that they cannot come here and that they will be taken back to French ports, it will put an end to the horrible trade of human trafficking, which is driving this illegal activity.
The Government have, I am afraid, introduced largely cosmetic measures to show that we are trying to tackle this problem. We have had the Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel, HMS Mersey, bobbing around in the channel while Border Force cutters were being returned from the Mediterranean. Not one asylum seeker was intercepted by the Royal Navy, despite the best efforts of all the sailors. I have huge praise for all the men and women in the Border Force, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the coastguard and the Royal Navy, who have been doing their best, but the way to solve the problem is for the Government to take a strategic decision that once these people are intercepted at sea they are returned to France. If they make it to our coast, they should be returned under the Dublin regulations. Returning 30 of these poor individuals is simply not enough when over 500 are coming here during any one-year period. Indeed, 35,000 people claim asylum each year and we have returned only 1,186 since 2015. Will the Minister assure the House that we will have not just warm words, but effective action and a change of policy to send these people back to France?
I am sorry, Mr Speaker, but this might be a somewhat lengthy response. I reassure my hon. Friend that gold command still meets on a weekly basis and continues to do so, because we have always been conscious that the summer months may well bring better weather that would further incentivise people to make what is an incredibly risky journey.
My hon. Friend talked about Dublin returns, but I am very conscious that in many cases, these people have fallen prey to organised crime gangs. Their journey through Europe is incredibly rapid. There is very little evidence of them being in any camps around the Calais area before they seek to make a crossing, and there is simply no hit on the Eurodac system to demonstrate that they have been in another EU country before they arrive here. Under those circumstances, one cannot use the Dublin regulation to return them because they have simply not been recorded in another EU member state. More returns are in the pipeline—there have been 30 so far. We continue to work with not just EU member states but countries of origin to make sure that we can make progress in returning people to their home country.
My hon. Friend said that surveillance equipment and resources provided to the French were not doing the job and were cosmetic, but far from it. We have provided significant surveillance equipment, including drones, night vision goggles and high-powered wharf lights, to enable the French to redouble their efforts on the beaches. It is important to reflect that the coastline is very long—120 km—and has many sandy beaches and small tracks that enable vehicular access.
The French disrupt about 40% of attempted crossings before they leave the beaches, which is absolutely where the disruption should be taking place; it should not be taking place in the middle of the channel, which is incredibly hazardous for the lifeboat crews, the Border Force cutters, the coastguard and the migrants themselves, who put themselves at incredible risk. We will continue to use our best endeavours to deny the crossings the opportunity to launch, because once they are mid-channel, it must be about preserving life. I do not want to see in the English channel repeats of the scenes in the Aegean, where people have lost their lives in significant numbers, so I make no apologies for making sure that the efforts in the channel are about rescue.
I query the framing of the urgent question, which talks about “illegal seaborne migration”. We cannot know whether these people are genuine refugees until we have had the opportunity to examine their cases. I am glad the Minister mentioned the risk to life in the busiest sea lane in the world. We all agree that it is tragic that these men and women are the victims of organised crime and people traffickers. I have visited Calais, and although many of these people do not come directly from there, the people one meets in and around Calais are hugely exploited and vulnerable, and Members should show a bit more concern for the risk to life and the vulnerability of these persons.
We need to be careful not to be unduly alarmist. We are not being invaded. There is no comparison to D-day, or whatever flights of imagination some of our media resort to. When the issue of asylum seekers crossing the channel last arose, back in February, the Home Secretary was roundly criticised for his comments. He questioned whether the people apprehended were genuine refugees, and he added:
“If you somehow do make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure you are ultimately not successful because we need to break the link”.
That is not correct. It does not conform to international law. As I said, no one can possibly know whether every one of these cases is not a genuine claim for asylum. That decision must await the application itself and its examination. What the Home Secretary should have said is that we will do everything to uphold the law, and that means not making assumptions about the people crossing the channel but examining all applications impartially, granting asylum where it is justified and denying it where it is not. Each application must be judged on its individual merit, irrespective of how that person reached this country. That is the law. As I said, I query the framing of the urgent question. The Minister seemed to accept it. Does she accept that she cannot be sure—that no one in the Chamber can be sure—whether the people arriving here are doing so illegally until their cases have been examined?
On the wider issue of migration and asylum seekers, commentators and some Members appear to believe that more naval patrols can resolve the issue. That has been tried and has failed spectacularly and tragically. The mere existence of a naval patrol will not deter desperate people. According to the Missing Migrants Project, there have been 543 deaths in the Mediterranean this year alone. A maritime policing approach—let alone just turning back people who might be in British waters—does not work. It is a stain on our humanity and is shameful.
I am sure that the majority of Members understand that these deaths are terrible and unacceptable and that we should do everything we can to reduce their number. The Opposition support the right policies—the legal policies: policies that work, preserve our humanity and uphold human dignity, wherever people are from and however they came to this country. We have long supported the policy that works: the establishment of legal routes for asylum seekers and refugees. This is what all responsible stakeholders propose and meets our obligations under international law. We cannot assume that because of the way in which someone enters the country, that person is necessarily an illegal migrant. We should not dismiss the risk to the lives of people who, as I have said, are crossing one of the busiest sea channels in the world. We want to arrive at a sustainable solution that does not involve suspicion of people because of the way in which they cross the channel, and that means each case is dealt with on its merits.
This is a difficult situation, not least for the people who are so frightened, so desperate and so exploited that they seek to make the crossing in unseaworthy craft. However, we do not want to hear more reactionary grandstanding.
I hope the right hon. Lady is content that she has not heard reactionary grandstanding from me this afternoon, and that I have sought to focus on the efforts that are being made to save the lives of—she used this term herself—exceptionally vulnerable people, who are vulnerable before they take to the water in small and unsuitable craft, and much more vulnerable once they are in the midst of a very busy shipping lane. I hope I can reassure her that members of this cohort are treated no differently from others on receipt of their asylum claims. We study them in relation to our convention obligations under the human rights charter and, of course, EU regulations and directives.
When we have ascertained that Eurodac hits show that people have previously claimed asylum in another country, we will, of course, seek to return them under the Dublin regulation. As I have said, there have been 30 such cases so far, and there are many more in the pipeline. But the important point, which the right hon. Lady also emphasised, is that these are people in a vulnerable position, and it is absolutely our duty under maritime law to ensure that they are safe at sea.
My constituents on the Dover frontline are seeing what was a crisis at Christmas turn into a surge through the summer. We cannot have a summer of chaos on the English channel. May I call on the Minister, and all Home Office Ministers, not simply to pick up the phone to the French and Mr Castaner, but to have a meeting with their counterparts in France and enter into a new compact that will establish the measures we need to ensure the security of the border on both sides of the English channel, and to bring this crisis to an end?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Home Secretary met Mr Castaner earlier this year. Indeed, I accompanied him back to Calais to visit the joint co-ordination centre. There are ongoing weekly meetings between Border Force officials and the police aux frontières, and with the regional préfet and sous-préfet, to discuss precisely this issue. However, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, it is about the border on both sides of the channel. It is much more effective to prevent a small craft from leaving the beach and thereby not risking life and limb than to seek to turn anything around in mid-channel. It is crucial for us to understand the implications of rescue operations in the middle of the channel. There are often children in those boats, and tactics are often deployed to ensure that the migrants are vulnerable. How despicable is it that they are being exploited by organised crime gangs who deliberately put children in those boats? It is far safer and much more desirable for us to prevent the launch of those boats than to take action at sea.
It has been good to hear the Minister acknowledge the vulnerability of many of the people who are making this dangerous crossing, and separate the victims of the traffickers from the traffickers themselves. Many of the people who make the dangerous journey across the channel have survived war, conflict and persecution in countries such as Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Eritrea, so we are dealing with vulnerable adults as well as vulnerable children.
However, it is also important to acknowledge that the number of people trying to reach the United Kingdom by boat is lower than the numbers in 2015 and 2016. To describe this as a crisis, or a major incident, risks creating the perception that the UK is overflowing with people claiming asylum, when the figures show that in the year ending September 2018, Germany, Italy and France all received twice as many asylum applications as the UK.
I echo the shadow Home Secretary’s comments: asylum and claiming asylum is a right, and asylum claims should not be prejudged. The 1951 refugee convention states that neither how people arrive in the country in which they claim asylum nor how many safe countries they have passed through should affect the outcome of their claim, so I look to the Minister for assurance that everyone who arrives, even by these reprehensible methods, is given the proper opportunity to claim asylum if that is appropriate and that due process has been followed.
The best way to address the risk of people making these dangerous journeys is to expand safe and legal routes such as family reunion and to bolster existing resettlement programmes. The resettlement programme introduced after the Syrian refugee crisis saved thousands of lives. I commend the UK Government for that, but we need to see it continue. Will the Minister commit to expanding the programme after 2020?
The hon. and learned Lady is right to point out that many of these people are the victims of organised crime gangs, but I would like to expand on one point, because they are not simply fleeing war. In many cases they are, as we know from the figures, Iranian nationals, who may have paid many thousands of pounds to make that journey and have done so putting themselves, and in some cases their families, at risk of falling prey to the very reprehensible tactics, as the hon. and learned Lady described them, of the organised crime gangs who make them vulnerable by choosing this route.
The hon. and learned Lady is right to point out that the figures are lower than at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, but that does not mean I am complacent in any way, because we do not wish to see the numbers go back to those levels. It is imperative that we seek to ensure our action with the French prevents people from making these perilous journeys.
I reassure the hon. and learned Lady that due process is followed in every case, but, as she will have heard me say, in those cases where there is a previous asylum claim in another EU member state we will seek to return people to those countries.
On the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, the hon. and learned Lady will know that we are on course to meet the 20,000 commitment by the end of 2020 and indeed have so far resettled over 15,000 individuals from the MENA—middle east and north Africa—region.
The hon. and learned Lady speaks about an issue that is a particular passion of mine, and having put in place the processes and structures that have enabled us to take part in the VPRS, working with local authorities and NGOs and various other agencies, I believe it is important that we maintain that commitment. It is wrong in my view to be a world leader in resettlement and to seek to pull back from that, but I am afraid the hon. and learned Lady will have to wait for an announcement, which I am sure will not be too distant.
The safety and security of the Kent coast is of tremendous concern to my constituents as well as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). She is absolutely right: co-operation with the French authorities, which has been carrying on for years, is the key to minimising the terrible trade. Will she reassure me and my constituents that the British Government’s efforts to fight the organised crime gangs that facilitate this terrible trade are being ever-increased, because that is the most effective thing the British Government can do to minimise this dangerous traffic?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question, and I have indeed noticed that there is much interest from Kent MPs this afternoon. He is absolutely right to talk about the levels of investigation and shared intelligence with the French. To date, 14 French investigations have been instigated directly in response to National Crime Agency intelligence, and we have sought to enhance existing French intelligence.
Between them, Immigration Enforcement and the NCA have made 24 arrests in relation to the small boats threat, and there are ongoing inquiries into five persons of interest from the incidents on Saturday. As I mentioned earlier, there was one conviction and imprisonment yesterday in France and we absolutely must make sure we keep up our intelligence-sharing and criminal investigations see off these crime gangs at the outset.
I welcome what I think the Minister was saying about wanting to continue the resettlement programmes. The Home Office is right to want to prevent dangerous journeys across the channel, where lives can be at risk. The Home Office made a big announcement about the deployment of HMS Mersey and HMS Enterprise to the channel, but can the Minister confirm that neither of those vessels was involved in leading any interceptions while they were deployed? Is it correct that the deployment cost the Home Office nearly £1 million? Does she agree that it is important that these measures should be evidence-based and not simply about being able to make big announcements?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we should not seek just to make big announcements, which is why I am not making a big announcement on resettlement today, although I could have been tempted to do so by the previous question. I have always made my position clear, and I have worked closely with non-governmental organisations and Ministers across Government on resettlement. I am conscious that we should be proud of the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, on which we have done, and continue to do, some fantastic work. It is important that we keep our commitment to resettling the most vulnerable individuals from very difficult parts of the world.
On the deployment in the channel, it is a matter of record that we had to bring cutters back from the Aegean. It was important to have a presence in the channel during the intervening period offering coverage in case there was an horrendous incident in which lives were in peril. It was better to have capacity in the shape of a Royal Navy ship than to have nothing. The Home Secretary made it clear that we should make the preservation of life and limb our priority and have the resources in place to rescue people if needed. We should be incredibly thankful that there was no such requirement while the Royal Navy was there in the channel.
I call Tracey Crouch, who is sporting her Spurs lanyard.
It is very good of you to notice that, Mr Speaker. I look forward to watching Tottenham on Wednesday nights next season, whereas you, Sir, will have to watch Arsenal on Thursday nights because, as the chant goes, you’re not very good.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the involvement of the Kent lifeboats, especially the Dover lifeboat, in responding to illegal migration crossings. The crews are mainly made up of volunteers and have been called out on many occasions. Our lifeboats are funded almost exclusively by donations, so these crossings will have impacted on vital funding within the charity. Will she consider requesting extra funding from the Treasury to compensate the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for this particular aspect of its important work of saving lives at sea?
As my hon. Friend knows, I had a really informative visit to the Dover lifeboat over the Christmas period, and it was absolutely at the forefront of understanding the channel, the risks and the crossing patterns that were emerging at the time. I was very impressed by the commitment shown by the brave men and women who crew the Dover lifeboat. She makes a valid point, and I would be absolutely delighted to put that request to the Chancellor, although of course I cannot make any commitments. It is important that we not only thank our lifeboat crews, and I would be happy to make that request to the Chancellor.
Can the Minister categorically confirm that no one who could make a claim for asylum is being sent back to France under the so-called gentleman’s agreement that allows for migrants to be returned within a 24-hour period?
I reassure the hon. Lady that this cohort is being treated no differently from any other.
I cannot be expected to call two Tottenham fans in a row, so I call Huw Merriman.
It is always better to go for the Arsenal fan on that basis, Mr Speaker.
It is very much with the vulnerable people in mind that I ask this question of the Minister. Will she ensure that she continues to apply the full force of the law? If we send out the wrong signal to people that they can make this perilous journey, I am afraid that more and more of them will lose their lives and be taken advantage of by despicable people. I say that because I represent an East Sussex English channel constituency, and I am afraid that we will be left to deal with the aftermath.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. As I mentioned earlier, Immigration Enforcement and the National Crime Agency have made a total of 24 arrests in relation to the small boats threat. It is imperative that we continue to keep up the pressure on organised crime gangs, but he is right to point out that the individuals who make the perilous crossings are, in many cases, both vulnerable and the victims of those gangs. It is important to treat them properly and to ensure that they are safe, but this has to be about disrupting organised crime, because that is where the real threat lies.
I am grateful to the Minister for her emphasis on safety and preventing harm and loss of life and to hear that an announcement is imminent about the expansion, or something, of resettlement. However, returning to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), although the Minister said that people are being treated exactly the same, that is not quite the full answer that I and, I think, my hon. Friend were hoping for, so I will give her one more chance: is she absolutely sure that everyone who was entitled to apply for asylum was offered that chance?
We will seek to return those who have registered on EURODAC because they have previously claimed asylum in a safe country. However, it is my understanding that everybody else who seeks to make an asylum claim will be treated absolutely the same as anyone else who applies for asylum in the UK. I am unaware of anybody who wanted to make a claim being prevented from doing so and returned, but it is right that if someone has previously made an asylum claim in a safe country we will seek to return them.
As the Minister responsible for deploying the Royal Navy off the Libyan coast during Operation Sophia, I am surprised that the crews of HMS Enterprise and HMS Mersey were not able to pick up these people. They may not have been drowning, but the crews have great expertise in dealing with such situations from previous operations. Were they instructed not to intercept unless there was a crisis? What operational orders were given to the Royal Navy?
While Royal Navy vessels were in the channel, it is important to state that Border Force’s coastal patrol vessels and our cutters were also deployed. Although I cannot comment on the operational instructions given to Royal Navy vessels, we should be grateful that there was no loss of life or limb and that they were not needed to rescue people. Several coastal patrol vessels were in the vicinity while the Royal Navy vessels were there, and several are there now.
Does the Minister agree that the development of a hostile environment in Britain pushes people towards criminals, meaning that they cannot get access to services here? The same is true across the channel in France. If we do not provide people with legal means of coming here through managed migration, that pushes them towards criminals. We need to open up better routes for people, so that they are not forced into the hands of criminals.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman missed me talking about the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which has so far resettled in excess of 15,000 people from the middle east and north Africa region. However, he is right to point out that managed routes such as that are far better than making perilous journeys across the channel.
Why has the number of criminal deportations collapsed?
My right hon. Friend will know that we always seek to deport foreign national offenders when possible. Our emphasis continues to be on returns and on ensuring that those who have served criminal sentences in the UK are deported when possible. That is not always the case, so this is about having returns agreements with other countries and ensuring that travel documents are available. However, it is our ambition, under the UK Borders Act 2007, to ensure that foreign national offenders are deported to their country of origin upon the completion of their sentence.
I certainly give a provisional welcome to what the Minister said about the possibility of extending the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, but we will wait to see exactly what is proposed. This is about safe, legal routes, so that people do not have to resort to smugglers if they are coming to the UK for legitimate reasons. Why are so many children having to wait many months in Calais to be transferred under the Dublin III scheme? Why is the Dubs scheme being wound down despite the fact that local authorities are saying that many places are still available for such vulnerable children?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Dubs scheme is not being wound down and that transfers continue. He will be aware that we have removed the date criteria, and we continue to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the best interest test to make sure that we can fulfil our commitment under the Dubs scheme.
The hon. Gentleman might also be aware that, at the end of May—I apologise for not having the precise date —we increased unaccompanied asylum-seeking children funding to £114 per child per night. We have worked tirelessly with the Local Government Association to encourage those who are not taking part in the national transfer scheme to do so, so that we can continue to make progress and fulfil our Dubs commitment.
It is good to hear the Minister accept that the best way to prevent refugees from taking these dangerous crossings is to provide safe, legal routes to sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. Going back to the Dubs amendment, the Government promised two years ago to provide a scheme for 480 unaccompanied refugee children. When will that promise be delivered?
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that, at the beginning of last year, we changed the qualifying date for Dubs children in an endeavour to make sure that we could meet the 480 commitment. We have now removed the qualifying date altogether so that any child who qualifies and meets the UNHCR best interest test can be transferred under the Dubs agreement.
The right hon. Gentleman will have just heard me say that we have increased funding to local authorities, and I continue to encourage individual Members to contact their local authorities to encourage them to work under the NTS to take additional unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
We have 4,500 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in this country, and it is important that we continue to work with our colleagues both in local government and in the wider community to make sure that we meet that commitment. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to talk to his local council to see whether it can add to the UAS children it already takes.
National Minimum Wage Naming Scheme
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make a statement on the suspension of the national minimum wage naming scheme.
Enforcement of the national minimum wage and the national living wage is a priority for the Government, and we take tough action against the minority of employers who underpay. Last year, employers were ordered to repay over 220,000 UK workers a record £24.4 million of arrears. We have more than doubled the budget for minimum wage compliance and enforcement since 2015, and it is now at a record high of £27.4 million.
As part of our enforcement approach, we name employers who have breached the legislation, which raises awareness of national minimum wage enforcement and deters others who may be tempted to break the law. To date, the Government have named almost 2,000 employers who have underpaid the national minimum wage. The Government are reviewing the naming scheme to ensure that it continues effectively to support minimum wage compliance. This is in response to a recommendation made by the director of labour market enforcement, Professor Sir David Metcalf, last year.
In December 2018 we accepted both of the director’s recommendations relating to the naming scheme, specifically to review the scheme’s effectiveness and to consider how to provide further information under the scheme in future. The Government have sought to learn from other naming schemes and other regulatory approaches. We have also discussed the evidence with the director of labour market enforcement and have conducted further analysis to understand the impact that any changes to the scheme would have on the number of employers named.
Naming and shaming remains an important part of our enforcement toolkit, and the review will be concluded in the coming weeks. Any changes to the scheme will be communicated through the national minimum wage enforcement policy documents.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which finally forces a Minister to admit to the House that the Government have quietly dropped one of the few policies they had to protect vulnerable workers. The naming scheme had exposed nearly 2,000 employers who illegally underpaid nearly 100,000 workers by millions of pounds, including household names from TGI Fridays to Marriott hotels, but the last such list was almost a year ago.
As we now know, the Government have privately decided to suspend the scheme, despite the Department’s official guidelines maintaining that the scheme still operates. The Minister claims this was based on a recommendation of the director of labour market enforcement, made over a year ago, yet the director made no such recommendation to suspend the scheme; he simply called for an evaluation and specific improvements. The Government accepted those recommendations, so why have they not simply implemented them and continued with the scheme in the meantime? Can the Minister confirm that as this review has “no set completion date”, this policy has been effectively halted? Can she tell us what progress the review has made in the last year? What evidence has it taken, what research has been commissioned, what work has her Department done, and what proposals will come to the House and when? Or is the so-called review in reality just an excuse to let bad employers off the hook?
This is the latest in a long list of policies that would help working people, from fair tips to equality for agency workers, that have been delayed or dropped by the Government. Time and again, they crack down on the vulnerable and back down before the powerful. When will this capitulation to rogue employers over working people finally end?
I have to say that the hon. Lady is incorrect: the scheme has not been dropped. Given the impact that being named can have on a business, it is right that we properly consider the effectiveness of the naming scheme. We want to make sure that our enforcement approach balances the need to crack down on the most terrible employers, who purposely and persistently break the law, with the need to be fair to and educate employers who try to do the right thing.
We are in no way going soft on employers. Last year, we issued record financial penalties to more than 1,000 non-compliant employers to the value of £17 million. That was part of our commitment to support workers’ rights. Our good work plan sets out a vision for the future of the UK labour market and includes an ambitious programme of work to implement 51 of the 53 recommendations Matthew Taylor made in his review of modern working practice.
I must point out, however, that it was this Government who gave the lowest paid workers the biggest increase in the national living wage in 20 years.
I was reading the report from the Resolution Foundation, an independent organisation, and it says that the proportion of low-paid workers in Britain has dropped to its lowest level since the 1980s, thanks to the national living wage. Why on earth would we not name and shame employers if they were not complying with such an important part of the Government’s policy?
I thank my hon. Friend for outlining that piece of work. It is right that naming and shaming rogue employers is a key part of our enforcement. We have doubled the budget since 2015 for enforcement of the national minimum wage, and one of the key things that I am particularly interested in is making sure that we go after those individual employers or big organisations that are deliberately trying not to pay workers the minimum wage.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) for securing this important urgent question. One of the proudest achievements of the last Labour Government was the introduction of the national minimum wage, safeguarding workers from exploitative pay practices. Sadly, from the Trade Union Act 2016 to their failure to address exploitation through zero-hours contracts or bogus self-employment, this Conservative Government cannot be proud of their record on workers’ rights. The admission today that the naming and shaming scheme has been effectively shelved only adds to that woeful record.
The national minimum wage is effective only if it is adequately enforced. The Government have stated that the naming and shaming element of minimum wage enforcement is vital, alongside other measures such as fines. Has the Minister made any assessment of the impact of the scheme’s suspension on minimum wage avoidance in the last year? Has the Department continued to identify those employers underpaying during that period, and what action has been taken?
The Minister will also be aware that the director of labour market enforcement also criticised the Government not so long ago in respect of their utilisation of the enforcement mechanisms available to them. The director also asked about additional resource, so it would be helpful if the Minister could identify what funding has been made available to enhance enforcement capacity at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
Not only is enforcement of the minimum wage important, but the level at which it is set is crucial. I know the Chancellor of the Exchequer thinks that poverty is a figment of our imagination, but the fact is that in 2017 more than 1.5 million people had less than £10 a day to live on, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Labour is committed to ending the scourge of low pay. We will introduce a real living wage of £10 an hour and end the unfairness of lower rates for those under 18. Will the Minister take this opportunity to improve her Government’s record on poverty and workers’ rights and commit to doing the same?
The hon. Lady says that the Government have nothing to be proud of, but I am absolutely proud to serve in a Government who have put so much focus on enforcing the national minimum wage. As I have already mentioned, this year we increased the national minimum wage by the biggest amount in 20 years, up 4.9%.
It is simply not true to say that we have shelved the naming and shaming scheme. It is absolutely right for me, as the Minister responsible, to evaluate the scheme and make sure that any naming and shaming scheme is meaningful, adds value, acts as a tool to aid employers to make sure that they are able to comply with the national minimum wage legislation, and enables us effectively to communicate exactly what the breaches are and why, and the detriment to the individual worker. We remain absolutely determined to stamp out low pay.
We currently have larger numbers of people in work than ever before, and it is absolutely right that those individuals should get the hourly rates to which they are entitled. As I said in my opening remarks, we doubled the enforcement budget to £27.4 million in 2019-20. That was up from £13.2 million in 2015-16. We are committed to continuing that enforcement. I will not make excuses for reviewing the naming and shaming scheme, because we want to add value and make it more effective, and we want to make sure that we aid employers, help workers to understand their rights and offer routes to recourse.
I entirely agree with the Minister: I, too, am proud of the record that has meant £2,750 more has been put into the pockets of my Redditch constituents since the introduction of the living wage. Will the Minister update us on the progress towards having a single organisation that looks after workers’ rights, which will be valuable in the seeking of redress?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. She is absolutely correct that in our good work plan we announced our intention to consult on a single labour market enforcement body. Our good work plan was a major step forward for the Government. I should point out to Opposition Members that the good work plan is the biggest reformation of workers’ rights for 20 years. It is this Government who are doing it and I am proud to be part of it.
The Government’s wage policy simply is not delivering for those who need it. Under the Tories, FTSE 100 chief executive pay has gone up by two thirds; when will the Minister finally deliver for those who are not rich and match the Scottish living wage? Incidentally, the Scottish living wage is now paid by 1,300 employers in Scotland—more than a quarter of all the living wage employers in the UK. Outside London, that means a wage of £9.55 an hour paid to all workers, including those aged under 25 whom the Tories have left behind. If the Minister cannot commit to that, she should devolve powers so that the SNP Scottish Government can. Given that nearly 370,000 workers on national minimum wage contracts are being underpaid, will she commit to implementing in full the recommendations in the Low Pay Commission’s report on non-compliance and enforcement, including on naming rounds for those who do not comply?
First, let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that we are not dropping the naming and shaming scheme. He was right to mention corporate governance and the issues around executive pay, which this Government take seriously and we are taking steps to address. He will know that the Low Pay Commission recommends national minimum wage levels to the Government. He mentioned the under-25s, but let me point out to him that almost nine in every 10 18 to 24-year-olds are paid above their wage bracket.
My constituency is one of the top 10 constituencies with the highest proportion of workers on the national living wage, so I welcome the fact that we have increased that wage by another £600 thanks to our excellent Chancellor and his Budget. I know that the Minister has come here to help the lowest paid make something of themselves, but may I say to her that it is essential that we make sure that employers do not get away with non-compliance, because it is unfair to other employers and to the employees who will not be protected. She is right to review the scheme, and she is taking great steps, but I urge her to keep the name and shame policy because there is no better way of shaming people into compliance.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will investigate any complaint that it receives about underpayment of the national minimum wage. We also have ACAS, which provides a helpline for individuals who feel that they are not being paid the national minimum wage. Naming and shaming is part of our toolkit of enforcement, but, as I have said, it is only one tool. I want to make sure that when we name and shame organisations, we understand what the detriment is and how much the detriment is. We need to make sure that, when we report these companies, we are reporting not just big names to grab a headline, but meaningful information that helps to advise and educate employers and, really importantly, educates workers so that they understand that, where there is a detriment, they can take action.
With record numbers of people struggling with in-work poverty, this Government should be doing everything they can to reverse this shameful record. Instead, they are removing schemes that expose exploitative employers. Will the Minister think again and not only reinstate the national minimum wage naming scheme, but use the scheme to enforce the law? Will she also provide a date by which she intends to complete the review?
The hon. Lady knows that I have a great deal of respect for her, but she has not listened to what I have said. We have not dropped the naming and shaming scheme. I want a scheme that is valuable and meaningful, that aids compliance and enables workers to get their entitlement, and that makes sure that employers follow the law. I want to focus on enforcement, absolutely making sure that we penalise and reprimand any employer that is underpaying workers who are entitled to the minimum wage. Since the start of the scheme, we have seen 12 prosecutions. Last year alone, there were seven labour market enforcement undertakings and orders where the national minimum wage had been breached. I am committed to this scheme; this Government are committed to this scheme. We have a record number of people in work, and, this year, this Government have overseen the largest increase in the national minimum wage.
Can the Minister confirm that it remains Government policy to increase the national living wage to 60% of median earnings by 2020? If that does remain the case, will that not mean an extra pay rise for millions of workers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. We remain on target to reach our ambition of 60% of median earnings by 2020. That is something that this Government are looking forward to achieving. We are not stopping there. We are looking forward to seeing where we can continue to increase the wages for our lowest paid workers past 2020.
Naming and shaming employers who fail to pay even the basic minimum is one of the strongest ways that society can send a message that such behaviour is unacceptable. The Minister talks about the impact on employers of being named, but I am more concerned about the impact on workers who are underpaid—some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Whether it is deliberate or otherwise, they feel that impact. I recall the opposition that I had to face from the Minister’s Conservative colleagues when I was in her role and introduced this scheme. Will she give the House an assurance today that the review will include no watering down of the scheme to let employers off the hook, and will she name the date when the next round of naming will happen?
Given the hon. Lady’s previous role, I know that she understands well the portfolio, and the naming and shaming system. I reiterate that we have not dropped the naming and shaming scheme. I have tried to be extremely clear that I want the naming and shaming scheme to be meaningful, add value and give us proper information so that we can understand where there is detriment to workers and why. We will still name individuals, but I want employers to comply with the law and workers to get what they are owed. That is not just about naming and shaming; it is also about ensuring that the information that we are publish aids education and helps to stop any detriment to employees. Not all employers are wilfully paying under the national minimum wage, and we have a duty to educate businesses so that they are easily able to comply with the law.
Why was it necessary for the Minister to suspend the scheme while she reviewed it to make it more meaningful and useful?
I decided to do that because I wanted to ensure that I was naming and shaming with meaningful information. I will not make excuses for making sure that we are delivering and reviewing a policy, or for carrying out what the director of labour market enforcement asked us to do.
So can the Minister confirm that those sleazebag employers who rip off the lowest paid in our country are actually going to be named and shamed for the last 12 months?
Naming and shaming is one tool, but does the Minister agree that one of the most powerful tools to increase incomes is to reduce the amount of tax paid by people on low pay? Like me, does she take pride in the fact that instead of people having to pay tax on earnings of above around £6,000, as was the case in 2010, the figure is now closer to £12,000—adding hundreds of pounds to people’s incomes?
Absolutely, and this Government have made great ground in that regard. This is not about grabbing headlines. It is about ensuring that workers get the pay to which they are entitled, which is why we have doubled the enforcement budget and are collecting more arrears than ever before. There were more than 3,000 successful investigations by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in the last year alone. I want that budget to be spent effectively on catching more employers who are underpaying the minimum wage.
It is all well and fine for the Minister to say that some under-25s are paid more than they are legally entitled to receive, but that gives no reassurance to those who are not. May I suggest that she adds to her naming and shaming scheme employers who employ young people on short-term, temporary contracts and then dismiss them when they cost more money?
The hon. Lady raises an issue regarding the incorrect practice of employers. As I have said, HMRC will investigate every complaint and ACAS is available to receive those complaints. We have asked the Low Pay Commission to undertake a review of the structure of the national minimum wage, and it will report back later in the year. We encourage employers always to pay above the minimum wage brackets if they are able to do so.
The Minister has said on a number of occasions that the Government are taking tough enforcement action against employers who fail to pay the minimum wage, but between 2010 and 2018 in Wales there has not been a single successful prosecution resulting in a fine against employers for underpaying. This is not tough enforcement; it is impunity.
The hon. Lady raises prosecutions as the only way of action or enforcement, but that is not true. I have said that since 1999 over £118 million has been paid back—to over 200,000 workers in 2019, so in just one year. It is true that there have been only 14 prosecutions. However, organisations are required to pay back the arrears, and pay a penalty, wherever a breach is found. I would like to highlight the fact that the Government have recently been consulting on salary sacrifice schemes. There have been examples in the media of workers being found to have a detriment through salary sacrifice schemes. This has been a key area in employers being caught under the national minimum wage legislation.
What assessment has the Minister made of the pay discrepancy among cleaners in Whitehall? The Department for International Development pays the London living wage but the Ministry of Justice, which should be seeking justice, pays the national minimum wage. What does she intend to do about it?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point about the differences between Departments. I do not personally have the details of that and I have not looked into it, but I will happily do so, and I am more than happy to write to her with a fuller answer.
Last time I spoke to the Minister about the use of unpaid work trials and the minimum wage, there had not been a single tribunal case anywhere in the UK in this regard that had been successful. Since that time, there has, but it was in Jersey, where a Polish woman took on her employer and won back the £30 that the tribunal said she was entitled to for the trial. What impact will that have on UK employment law? In the 20-odd years of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 we have only just this year had one successful tribunal. Does that not tell her that the law is deficient and needs amending, and that unpaid work trials should be outlawed in their entirety?
The hon. Gentleman is a keen campaigner in the area of unpaid work trials. As I have said on many occasions, in most cases, unpaid work trials, if they are not a small trial that is conducive to the work environment, are illegal. On the back of his campaign and work that had been done before, we issued new guidance in December 2018. As I have said, where a worker feels that they have had a detriment, they are to report it to HMRC or ACAS. HMRC will investigate every complaint. We cannot just judge this issue on prosecutions. We need to judge it on where the detriment to the worker is, and then ensure that they get what is owed to them and that the employer is penalised.
I thank the Minister for the response that she has given. What discussion has taken place with the Chancellor with regard to help for small businesses who struggle to make the payroll, and have a presence on the high street, in order to provide tax relief or other help so that the local economy is helped and that small businesses can survive and pay a correct and fair wage?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of small businesses. It is absolutely true that small businesses are the backbone of our economy—99.6% of all UK businesses are small businesses, and is absolutely right that we are able to help them. A key part of that is making sure that, as the small business Minister, I make representations to the Chancellor and across Government on what small businesses need. The work that is being done on the review of naming and shaming is to make sure that when small employers find themselves in breach of the national minimum wage legislation, we are able to give them the right guidance and advice to enable them to meet their obligations. Many small employers want to make sure that they pay the national minimum wage, and above the national minimum wage. It is our duty not only to penalise but to aid and enable small businesses to meet their obligations.
Post-18 Education and Funding
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s review of post-18 education and its funding—the first review since the Robbins report in 1963 to look at the totality of post-18 education. The Government will carefully consider the independent panel’s recommendations before finalising our approach at the spending review.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the independent panel, led by Philip Augar, for their exceptional work. Alongside Dr Augar were Professor Sir Ivor Crewe, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Professor Edward Peck, Beverley Robinson OBE and Professor the Baroness Alison Wolf. The panel consulted a wide spectrum of experts, leaders and senior figures and received almost 400 responses to its call for evidence. I would like to thank all the stakeholders, including colleagues from across the House, who contributed to the review. We will continue to engage with stakeholders now that the independent panel phase is complete, as we work towards the completion of the review.
A lot of the attention will be on what this report says about higher education, but the majority of students in post-18 education are not at university. The report identifies the importance of both further and higher education in creating a system that unlocks everyone’s talents. As the Prime Minister said last week, further education and technical colleges are not just places of learning; they are vital engines of both social mobility and economic prosperity. Colleges play an essential part in delivering the modern industrial strategy and equipping young people with knowledge and skills for the jobs of today and tomorrow. We are conscious of the need for reskilling and upskilling at a time when we are all more likely to have multiple careers during our working lives.
We are already carrying out a major upgrade to technical and vocational education by introducing T-levels for young people and developing proposals to introduce employer-focused higher technical qualifications, at levels 4 and 5, which will provide high-quality technical qualifications to rival traditional academic options. We have also overhauled apprenticeships, to provide people with the skills and career paths they need for great jobs and great careers. But appropriate attention to our college sector—the backbone of technical education in this country—is required to ensure that technical education is an equally valid path for a young person as a degree route. The principles set out in this report will help lay the foundation for a sector that is stronger and more robust and will help cement its reputation as being among the best in the world.
Our higher education system transforms lives and is a great contributor to both our industrial success and the cultural life of the nation. It can open up a whole world of opportunities and broaden horizons. Whatever decisions we make about how best to take forward the recommendations in the report, it is vital that we support these institutions to continue to offer world-leading higher education to students in future.
The opportunity to study at university should be open to anyone with the talent and potential to benefit from the experience. Gaining a university degree has benefits for both individuals and society—or, in the jargon, both a private return and a social return. On average, doing a degree has strong earning returns, equating to more than £100,000 of extra lifetime earnings per graduate after tax, so we believe it is right that contributions to the cost of higher education need to be shared between the student and the taxpayer.
The scale of the Government subsidy today is in fact much larger than most people imagine—close to half of the total—and it is a progressive system, whereby those on the highest income contribute the most and those on incomes lower than £25,725 make no contribution. We believe it is essential that we provide the right support, to enable people from all backgrounds to access and, most importantly, succeed at university and other higher-level courses.
In 2018, we had record rates of 18-year-olds accepted to full-time university, up 0.4 percentage points to 33.7%. Students from the lowest-income households have access to the largest ever amount of cash support for their living costs. Already this year, we have increased living costs support for the 2019-20 academic year to a record amount.
However, although 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are now 52% more likely to go to university than 10 years ago, there is more progress that we need to make. Disadvantaged students are still less likely than their more advantaged peers to attend the most selective universities, or to have the support they need to successfully complete their degree and to achieve a 2:1 or a first. The panel’s proposals on support for disadvantaged groups are an important contribution to the debate in this area.
I very much welcome the focus that the panel has placed on making sure that all higher education is of high quality and delivers well for both students and the taxpayer. There are very high-quality courses across the full range of subjects—from creative arts to medicine—but there are also courses where students are less well served. I have also spoken in recent months of bad practices not in the student interest, such as artificial grade inflation and so-called conditional unconditional offers.
The panel’s recommendations on student finance are detailed and interrelated, and cannot be considered each in isolation. We will need to look carefully at each recommendation in turn and in the round to reach a view on what will best support students and the institutions they study at, and what will ensure value for taxpayers. In considering these recommendations, we will also have regard to students currently in the system or about to enter it to ensure that any changes are fair to current and new cohorts of students.
I am sure the House will recognise that this comprehensive report, with detailed analysis and no fewer than 53 recommendations, gives the Government a lot to consider. We will continue to engage with stakeholders on the findings and recommendations in the panel report, and we will conclude the review at the spending review. However, I am clear that whatever route a student chooses and whatever their background, post-18 education should set them on a successful path for their future. With this vision, I strongly believe that both the higher education and further education sectors can and should continue to thrive together. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement.
“Augar is the epitaph for Theresa May’s government…slow, wrong-headed, indecisive and, above all, failing in its central objective, to help level up Britain.”
This is not my verdict, but that of the Secretary of State’s Conservative predecessor; nor is it a reflection on the panel and all the recommendations it has put forward, but on this Government.
Let us start with the obvious point: the Prime Minister has welcomed the report, but is powerless to implement it. Never have I seen a sight so pitiful as the Prime Minister lobbying her own Government. Are there any recommendations in the report that the Secretary of State has the power to adopt now or ever, or will every decision be deferred until the spending review or, perhaps more accurately, until the Conservative party has a new leader and presumably a new Chancellor?
As it stands, the Government have now wasted two years on a review to reach the blindingly obvious conclusion that, as the Prime Minister now admits, abolishing maintenance grants was a huge mistake. If only she could have done something about it. Can the Secretary of State at least assure the House that he wants them restored, and guarantee a decision in time for the next cohort of students? The review also proposes extending more maintenance support to lifelong learning across the board—a point that we would echo. Can he guarantee to consider that, and can he tell us whether it would apply to part-time students?
Decisions need to be made on funding. The outgoing Prime Minister promised that austerity is over, but there is every danger it will continue in tertiary education. Presumably, the Secretary of State accepts that a cash freeze in funding for universities means a real-terms cut. Is the tokenistic fee cut pushed by the Prime Minister not the worst of both worlds, as institutions will have their hands tied on funding while students will still be graduating with tens of thousands of pounds of debt? Is there any guarantee that universities will not simply be left to bear the burden of a cut to fees that mostly helps higher-earning, mostly male graduates at the expense of middle earners? Can he assure us that any such proposal will have an equality impact assessment?
Does the Secretary of State really want graduates to spend 40 years—almost all their working life—paying off their student debt? Is that what we want for our young people? What is the Secretary of State doing about interest rates that have increased, under his Government’s watch, to over 6% a year?
What are the implications for the devolved nations? How have they been considered? The Secretary of State spoke about the value of degrees. How will that value be assessed? How does he value, for example, courses that lead to vital public sector jobs that are, frankly, underpaid? Does our society as a whole not benefit from all of us having access to learning? Adult education is vital to our economy and society. Who will decide which courses qualify, and how far will the new funding go given the terrible toll of cuts to adult education since 2010?
The review, rightly, acknowledges as a central point the need to reinvest in further education and to integrate the whole system. Does the Secretary of State accept that the base rate funding cut to further education and funding 18-year-olds at a lower rate than 17-year-olds were both crucial mistakes? Underlying all those issues is the threat that instead of investing in the whole system, the Government will play universities and colleges off against each other—the very opposite of the collaboration and integration that is needed. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that he would not rob Peter to pay Paul by transferring resources, but would instead secure proper investment in both sectors? The report is a missed opportunity to re-examine the failures of the past decade’s free market experiment in education. Can the Secretary of State give us any reassurance that yet more college closures are not on the way?
There is much in the Augar review that is welcome, but its shortcomings go back to the limits that the Government placed upon it. The aspirations that both the panel and the Secretary of State expressed for our education system will always come up against the cold hard limits of the austerity that the Prime Minister once promised was over. Instead, it is the Prime Minister who is over.
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. She asked a number of times whether I would guarantee to consider x, y or z, and I do absolutely guarantee to consider everything in the report. We will come forward with the conclusion of the review at the end of the year, at the spending review. That has always been the plan.
The hon. Lady asked about timing. If she cares to compare the timing of this review of post-18 education and its financing with that of the Diamond review in Wales, under the Labour Government there, she will find that it compares favourably. Regarding the devolved nations, I confirm that if there are any spending implications in the proposals we make at the conclusion of the review, and given that education is a devolved matter, funding for the devolved nations would apply in the normal way, including through the Barnett formula.
The hon. Lady asked me to commit to not playing off further education and higher education. I give her that absolute commitment. That principle is at the heart of the independent panel’s report: both routes of higher learning are essential for widening social mobility, for letting young people fulfil their full potential, and indeed for enabling our economy and our society to fulfil theirs.
We should not lose sight of the fact that we have a successful system in place, particularly for the financing of higher education. The hon. Lady and her Front-Bench colleagues constantly complain about it, but since the 2012 reforms, resource per student has increased dramatically, the living costs support available to disadvantaged students has risen to its highest ever level, more young people are going to university than ever before, and more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university than ever before.
Look at the record of the Opposition. Labour vowed to cancel student debt and to make university free, sometimes appearing to forget that there is no such thing as free. We want a well funded higher education and further education sector in this country, and there are only two types of people who can pay for that: the people who benefit from it and the people who do not. Having made that vow, Labour backtracked on its pledge on student debt. No one will ever trust the Leader of the Opposition again on student fees. People know that talk is cheap, but paying the price of broken promises is not.
I welcome much of the report, particularly its strong emphasis on further education and technical education. Our Education Committee report talked about value for money in higher education and universities, focusing on skills, employability and social justice. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the real engine of those three things is using funds to boost and put more emphasis on degree apprenticeships? They help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain the skills they need, they help us to meet our skills needs and they ensure that people are employed in properly skilled jobs.
My right hon. Friend has been a consistent champion of apprenticeships—specifically, degree-level apprenticeships. I thank him and the Committee for their work on that, including the wider work he mentions on higher education. I confirm that I think degree-level apprenticeships play a very important role in our system.
Elements of the review should be welcomed. It is encouraging that the UK Government finally recognise the barrier that tuition fees can place in the way of a young person’s decision to go to university, but I suggest that the recommended reduction in fees is the bare minimum, rather than a meaningful reduction, for the young people who are considering this pathway. The Scottish Government will study the review’s recommendations carefully to examine the impact on the college and university sectors in Scotland.
UCAS figures currently show that the number of Scots winning a place at university, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, is at a record high. That is a testament to the Scottish Government’s commitment to free education. I therefore welcome the recommendation that students from a low-income background in England will have maintenance grants reinstated, following the example set by the Scottish Government for low-income students.
The reduction in earnings threshold for repayment will hit those on a low income hardest. That, in addition to increasing the repayment time from 30 years to 40 years, will have far greater impact on low earners, who will have little hope of repaying early and will therefore accrue additional loan interest. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on lower earners of the earnings threshold reduction and longer loan repayments?
Universities have raised concerns that unless the income shortfall is made up by Government funding they will pay the financial penalty for these proposals. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will make up the funding shortfall?
Finally, the review was carried out at the request of a Prime Minister now serving her last week in power. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the proposals are to be considered now as firm Government policy, and that they will not be shelved once the Prime Minister departs and a new Tory leader takes over?
No, that is not correct. This is an independent panel report that feeds into the wider process of the Government’s review into post-18 education and its financing. As I said to the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who speaks for the Opposition, we will of course consider very fully all the recommendations.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) asked about repayment thresholds. I might ask her why Scottish students are still waiting—and, I gather, will still be waiting until 2021—for the recommendation made by her independent review into repayment thresholds to be put in place. She talked about barriers to young people going into higher education. I am afraid that the reality is: in England, we have record numbers of people going into higher education. In Scotland, as a direct result of her policy, the number of university places remains capped, which limits the number of young people who can benefit from the opportunity of going to university. The impact of that is that the disadvantage gap, if we look at England, Scotland and Wales, is biggest of all in Scotland.
The Augar review does not mention the teaching excellence framework. What use does the Secretary of State think the TEF will have in assessing which courses offer value for money for students and the general taxpayer?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to pay tribute to all the work he did as universities Minister. The TEF is a very important reform and is part of the framework from HERA—the Higher Education and Research Act 2017—and the OFS that enables a much more holistic view of quality in higher education. It remains a central part of that architecture.