House of Commons
Wednesday 19 June 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU
I should like to begin by wishing Shelley Kerr and the Scotland team all the best in tonight’s women’s World cup match against Argentina. Although results have not necessarily gone the team’s way to date, they have been a credit to Scotland and have transformed people’s views on women’s football.
I have had regular discussions with the Prime Minister on a range of matters relating to EU exit. It is the Government’s position that leaving the EU with a deal is in the best interests of Scotland and the UK.
One thing that the Secretary of State for Scotland and I can agree on is wishing our colleagues well in the football, and, of course, things always go very well for the Scots where Argentina and football are concerned.
It seems clear that the Conservative party is on the verge of electing a new leader and Prime Minister whose primary purpose will be to deliver a no-deal Brexit. Is the Secretary of State prepared to be part of a no-deal Cabinet that will shrink our economy by up to 7% and put 100,000 people in Scotland out of a job?
Obviously, I am answering questions on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government and not on behalf of the leadership candidates, but I am clear that those aspiring to the leadership of the Conservative party want to leave with a deal. Throughout this process, I have voted on every occasion to leave the EU with a deal. The hon. and learned Lady has never done so.
According to every piece of the Secretary of State’s own Government’s analysis, there is no version of Brexit that fails to harm Scotland. New YouGov polling shows that Tory members would prefer Scotland to be an independent country, rather than stopping Brexit. Which choice should the Scottish Secretary make: a devastating no-deal Brexit Britain, or giving the people of Scotland the choice to be an independent European nation?
Mr Speaker, it will not surprise you to hear me say that Scotland has already made its choice on whether to be independent or part of the United Kingdom. The poll to which the hon. Gentleman referred was based on a false premise. This Government are about delivering Brexit and keeping Scotland at the heart of the United Kingdom.
Will the Secretary of State tell us how much money the Scottish Government have given to local authorities in Scotland to prepare for our exit from the European Union?
As far as I understand it, the UK Government have made more than £100 million available to the Scottish Government to help to prepare for Brexit—and, indeed, a no-deal Brexit—but precisely none of that money has been allocated directly to local authorities or to Police Scotland.
Further to the reply that the Secretary of State gave a few moments ago, does he agree that the majority of Scots voted in the 2017 general election for parties that were committed to delivering the 2016 referendum, and that it would be a dereliction of our democratic duty not to do so?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why this Government are committed to respecting the outcome of both the referendums that have taken place in Scotland: the 2014 independence referendum, in which people voted to remain in the United Kingdom; and the 2016 EU referendum, in which people across the UK voted to leave the EU.
This is not just about the five leadership candidates. Both in this House and elsewhere, I have been clear that a no-deal Brexit would be bad for Scotland, and we want to avoid that. We want to leave with a deal and, as I understand it, the leadership candidates are all setting out how we could leave with a deal.
I thought for one moment that the hon. Lady was going to refer to her own leadership campaign, and if I did not think it would stymie her chances I would wish her well. She knows that the current uncertainty is the more serious problem for businesses in Scotland and elsewhere, but we could have ended that uncertainty much earlier by voting for a deal.
My right hon. Friend spoke about the £100 million being given to the Scottish Government to tackle Brexit. Will he confirm that Scottish nationalists have chosen to spend £10 million of it on plugging holes in their own budget?
I fear that there are so many holes in the Scottish Government’s budget that a mere £10 million will not fill many of them.
I join the Secretary of State in congratulating and sending our best wishes to Scotland’s women’s team, particularly to Leanne Crichton. She is from Dennistoun in my constituency, and it was a pleasure to meet her just a couple of weeks ago.
Speaking of team players, the Secretary of State has refused to rule out working with the calamitous former Foreign Secretary, who is prepared to see the United Kingdom leave the EU on disastrous no-deal terms. A majority of Conservative party members would rather see the economy crash, the United Kingdom fragment, and their own party destroyed to secure Brexit. The party is now better described as the “English nationalist party” rather than a party that wishes to preserve the unity of the British people. Has it now dawned on the Secretary of State that he may not have left the Conservative party, but the Conservative party has certainly left him?
I am sure that that read better as a press release. This Government’s position is quite clear: we are about honouring both the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2016 EU referendum. I will take no lessons from the hon. Gentleman on party affairs when his colleague Neil Findlay used his resignation letter to describe the Scottish Labour Party as having a “toxic culture” and “eternal” infighting.
The Secretary of State has been consistent, if nothing else, in denying the Scottish Parliament’s aspirations to offer the people of Scotland a choice between remaining in a Brexit Britain or taking control of their own affairs. Indeed, he made it a central plank of his party’s election campaign last month. In that election, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party received 11.6% of the votes. Given that only one in nine people support his proposals, is it not time to demonstrate some grace and humility and stop behaving like a colonial overlord?
If anyone requires grace and humility, it is the SNP, which still fails to recognise that in the 2017 general election, in which Brexit was a key issue, its vote fell by more than 500,000 and it lost 21 seats.
Many of us appreciate that this may well be the Secretary of State’s last outing in this Chamber in his current role, so his mind may be somewhat distracted, but he must surely recognise that the circumstances have now changed. His party is about to elect a leader and force upon us a Prime Minister hellbent on a no-deal Brexit. If that happens, will he continue to refuse the right of the Scottish Parliament to consult Scotland’s people on their own future?
I understand that the Scottish Parliament will consult via a people’s assembly process, although I do not agree with it. When we have a Scottish Parliament and 129 elected representatives, I feel that is the forum in which these matters should be discussed.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong in how he characterises the Conservative leadership candidates, who have made it clear that their preference is to leave the EU with a deal.
We are helping families to keep more of what they earn by raising the personal allowance, which has gone up to £12,500. As a result, 2.4 million Scottish taxpayers received a cut in their tax in 2019-20 compared with 2015-16.
As well as letting hard-working families keep more money in their pockets—in stark contrast to the Scottish Government, who are taxing 22,000 of my constituents more than they would be taxed if they lived in England—raising the personal allowance also takes some of the lowest paid out of tax altogether. Will my right hon. Friend confirm how many people in Scotland have been taken out of paying income tax by the Conservative Government?
Thanks to this Government’s increases in the personal allowance, 135,000 Scots no longer have to pay any income tax at all. That is the record of this Conservative Government: cutting tax, as opposed to the SNP Scottish Government who are making Scotland the highest taxed part of the UK.
I am always willing to look at specifics. Of course, we are working with the Scottish Government to bring forward the variations in universal credit that they are seeking, and one of those variations relates to the payment of rent. Another point I have made many times at this Dispatch Box is that the Scottish Government also have wide-ranging powers to make additional payments to people in Scotland, if they choose.
Our armed forces serve the whole United Kingdom, and, as an English MP, I am proud that our United Kingdom Government are supporting our armed forces personnel stationed in Scotland to the tune of £4 million. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only the UK Government who can stand up for our armed forces personnel?
The Ministry of Defence again made a very positive announcement this year confirming extra payments to servicemen and women who have been sent to Scotland for operational requirements to ensure that they are not penalised for serving in Scotland by the SNP’s high-tax policies.
I note what the Secretary of State says about taxation. However, people living in remote parts of the UK, such as my constituency, are paying crippling delivery charges for goods. Would we not help the income of those families by tackling this serious problem?
I recognise this issue and, obviously, it has been raised many times in this Chamber by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). The Government are seized of this issue and are looking to try to resolve this inequity whereby people living in remote and rural areas are asked to pay disproportionate delivery charges.
Although the lowest-paid members of the armed forces in Scotland pay less tax than their counterparts in England, can the Secretary of State confirm that the mitigation payments made by the United Kingdom Government to the highest earners in Scotland are subject to tax?
Every payment made is subject to the tax system, as is self-evident, but what these payments do is mitigate the reduced payments that our armed forces personnel are receiving due to the SNP’s high-tax approach.
This is a joint review between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, and it is incumbent on all Administrations to make progress. There are ongoing discussions across the review’s work streams, which will be discussed at the next meeting of Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations), which is next week.
The frontrunner to become the next Prime Minister has published an anti-Scottish poem. He believes that a pound spent in Croydon is of more value than a pound spent in Strathclyde, and that a Scottish MP should never be Prime Minister. Does the Secretary of State agree that if the former Foreign Secretary became Prime Minister, it would be a disaster for intergovernmental relations and a boost for Scottish independence?
At every Scottish Question Time we hear the assertion that this or that will be a boost for Scottish independence—it has got to the stage where if the chicken crosses the road, it will be a boost for Scottish independence. It is for individual candidates in the Conservative leadership elections to answer questions about their own position and background.
During an open session of the Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee on Monday 20 May, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked whether he could give an update on the progress of the review of intergovernmental relations. He replied:
“I cannot put a firm timescale on this. Perhaps, if we were looking towards the end of this year”.
Given the time that has elapsed, and the uncertain political times we are living through, is that good enough for Scotland?
I believe that progress is being made, and I am hopeful that next week’s meeting of the JMC(EN) will provide an opportunity to discuss the principles that would underpin the new IGR agreement. That was discussed with Welsh Government Ministers and Mr Mike Russell at the last meeting of the JMC(EN).
The current frontrunner to become Prime Minister has previously written that
“government by a Scot is just not conceivable in the current constitutional context.”
Does the Secretary of State agree? Does he believe that such an opinion is helpful to intergovernmental relations?
I do not agree, and I am sure that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), should she lead her party, will aspire to the office of Prime Minister. No, I do not agree with that analysis.
The Scottish Affairs Committee should be holding the Secretary of State to account, but he keeps refusing our invitations. As this is his last Question Time before leaving office in the great Tory purge to come, does he agree that the Scotland Office is no longer fit for purpose, that its function as a propaganda unit is unbecoming of a Government Department, and that it needs serious reform and overhauling—or quite simply to be abolished? What is the point of the Scotland Office?
The very simple answer is no.
Like me, the Secretary of State has served as a councillor, an MSP and an MP, so does he agree that we can have political differences within and between the various levels of government, but that that should not be misconstrued as a breakdown in intergovernmental relations?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Many of the disagreements between the Scottish and UK Governments are over political differences, rooted in the fact that this Government want to respect the outcome of the 2014 independence referendum and the SNP Scottish Government want to have another referendum. They are political disagreements.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that £1.3 billion has been allocated to Scotland through the city and growth deals? Lessons learned through the city and growth programmes are being played into the Union strategy and intergovernmental relations, so we take the positives out of the incredible investment that is coming to Scotland through the UK Government.
I have always believed that the city and growth deals are a clear example of the fact that the two Governments can work together constructively for the benefit of the people of Scotland. That is what people in Scotland want to see.
In congratulating the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire on a particularly splendid tie, I call Mr Pete Wishart.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The Scottish Affairs Committee has just released our report on intergovernmental relations. It is an evidenced-based, wide-ranging report on a number of important issues. This cross-party report states that the Scotland Office has failed to keep pace with devolution and that most direct intergovernmental relations are conducted outwith the Secretary of State’s Department. I have noticed in some of the press comments that he is not taking this at all seriously, so will he now agree to a proper review of his Department?
I do not know to which press comments the hon. Gentleman refers, because although we have our political differences, I respect the work of his Committee and have been clear that I welcome the opportunity for a review of the Scotland Office. I am confident that such a review would result in an enhanced Scotland Office, not the loss of it.
First, I associate myself with colleagues’ remarks and wish the Scotland team all the very best in their final match tonight.
Two parliamentary Select Committees have now recommended that the Secretary of State’s role should be abolished. The Secretary of State ignored Labour’s warning about the democratic deficit of the Joint Ministerial Committee, he botched the devolution element of the Brexit Bill and he has failed to secure funding for Scotland as part of the stronger towns fund. Does he accept any responsibility whatsoever for presiding over the mess that has led to the unprecedented step of two parliamentary Committees calling for his head?
I do not know whether the hon. Lady has read the Scottish Affairs Committee report; it might have been helpful, because it does not call for the abolition of the Scotland Office. The SNP obviously wants to see the Scotland Office abolished—the SNP wants to see the UK Government abolished. The report calls for a review, and after 20 years of devolution a review is a perfectly appropriate step to take.
The issue is how we got to this point. The right hon. Gentleman’s handling of all the issues I have outlined confirms why we are in this mess. Given that he is unhappy in his work, his threats to resign may well be fulfilled by the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) in a short period.
Both the Secretary of State and Ruth Davidson have flip-flopped on whether they would work with the former Foreign Secretary if he became Prime Minister. Does the Secretary of State think that if the former Foreign Secretary is elected as Prime Minister, his diplomatic skills will come to the fore and he will improve relations between the Scottish and the UK Government, or would it be another Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe moment?
I am very clear: I respect democracy and will respect the result of the Conservative leadership election. All five of the candidates who are still in the race are clear that they are Unionists, which is what makes them different from the Leader of the Opposition. They will not be cosying up to the SNP to have a second independence referendum.
Strengthening and sustaining the Union is a key priority for the UK Government. The Government deliver for the people of Scotland day in, day out, whether through creating jobs, opportunities and long-term growth, or keeping our citizens safe.
One obvious way further to strengthen the Union is for key Government Departments, such as the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions, to move more jobs and activities to Scotland. What is the Secretary of State doing to pursue that agenda?
My Cabinet colleagues are present, and I am keen to ensure that as many UK Government jobs as possible are in Scotland. Last week, I was delighted to launch the new UK Government hub in Edinburgh, which will house 3,000 UK civil servants.
The Scottish Government have launched an independent review of the joint campus of Buchanan and St Ambrose High Schools in my constituency, after health and safety concerns were raised by parents, pupils and staff. Does the Secretary of State agree, like me, with the concerned parents, pupils and staff, who think that an independent review must properly assess the water quality and the site of both schools, including for air and soil contamination—for the past, present and future of these children?
Obviously, that matter is ultimately for the Scottish Government, but I know that the hon. Gentleman is a real champion for the parents and pupils at those schools, and I will do everything to assist him in taking forward their concerns.
I continue to work closely with colleagues on the Fisheries Bill, which will allow us to manage our fisheries sustainably and deliver on our promise to take back control of our waters. It will allow us to decide who may fish in our waters and on what terms as we become an independent coastal state.
The last time that I asked the Secretary of State about the Fisheries Bill, he deflected the question by saying that
“we will see what happens when the Bill returns on Report.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 1152.]
That was five months ago, and we have still not had the Fisheries Bill on Report. When are we going to get it?
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear me say that it will be in due course.
Oil and Gas Industry
I have regular meetings with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on a range of issues relevant to Scotland. That has included discussions about the support that this Government have provided to the oil and gas sector. The UK Government are committed to ensuring that this key industry has a long future.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. May I congratulate him and the Scotland Office on supporting Scottish industry, when the SNP Scottish Government do not? It is due to his hard work that transferable tax history was delivered to the oil and gas industry. Does he agree that Opposition suggestions that we should divest ourselves of the oil and gas industry would threaten 120,000 highly paid Scottish jobs?
That goes into the matter of Opposition policy. That would be impure, and I am sure the Secretary of State would never knowingly be impure.
Since joining this Parliament, my hon. Friend has become a real champion of the industry, and it disappoints me to hear Opposition Members describing oil and gas as a dirty technology with no long-term future. We can be clear that this party and this Government will always stand up for Scotland’s oil.
Drug Consumption Room: Glasgow
There is currently no legal framework for the provision of drug consumption rooms in the UK. The Scottish Affairs Committee is undertaking an inquiry into drug use in Scotland. As with other inquiries, the Government will consider the Committee’s report.
I am sorry, but that is just not good enough. People in my constituency are dying for want of a safe consumption room. Will he come to meet people in Glasgow to see why such rooms are very much needed to reduce harm and to save lives?
I hear what the hon. Lady says, but I do not think that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) would accept that we would not want to take seriously his Committee’s serious inquiry—the Committee is visiting many overseas examples. We want to look at its report, and that is what we will do.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Today marks two years since the terror attack on the Finsbury Park mosque. It was a truly cowardly and depraved attack that was intended to divide us. Instead, London remains united, and it is London’s diverse communities that make London the world’s greatest capital city.
In recent days and weeks we have seen flooding across the country, which has been particularly severe in Lincolnshire. I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the work of the emergency services, our military, the Environment Agency and all those who have been working on the ground to support the communities affected. The Government stand ready to respond and offer all assistance where required.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I associate myself and the whole House with the comments that the Prime Minister has made about the Finsbury Park mosque attack and the flooding in Lincolnshire.
If our town centres are to survive and thrive, we need more people living in them, more people working in them and more people spending their leisure time in them. I welcome the future high streets fund and commend to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the important bid that has been made by Nuneaton. Will she speak to her Ministers and ask them to look on that bid very favourably?
My hon. Friend is right to say that high streets are changing, and we are committed to helping communities to adapt. He set out some of the things he wants to see if those high streets are to continue to thrive. As he said, we have provided £675 million through the future high streets fund. I am pleased to hear about the Transforming Nuneaton programme, which I understand aims to increase footfall and drive economic growth. Nuneaton’s bid for the future high streets fund is currently under consideration, and we hope to announce the bids that have been successful in going forward to the business case development phase in the summer.
Today does mark two years since the terrorist attack on Muslim people in Finsbury Park outside the mosque, and the murder of my constituent Makram Ali. With the far right on the rise both in our country and across the world, we can all send a message to all those who seek to sow hatred and division in our society that we will not be divided. Our diversity is our strength, and I believe it always will be.
I concur with the Prime Minister about the need to support people who have suffered as a result of the floods over the weekend, and about the work of the emergency services in helping them.
On Friday, I was honoured to join Grenfell residents and survivors to mark the two-year anniversary of that terrible tragedy. With great dignity, they are campaigning for justice and change. Across this House, we have a duty to ensure that such fires can never happen again. That is why I have signed up—I hope the Prime Minister will do so as well—to the “Never Again” campaign, which is run by the Fire Brigades Union with the support of the Daily Mirror. Three days after the Grenfell fire, the Prime Minister said:
“My Government will do whatever it takes to help those affected, get justice and keep our people safe.”
So two years on, why do 328 high-rise buildings—homes to thousands of people from Newham to Newcastle—still have the same Grenfell-style cladding?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we will never be divided and that our diversity is indeed our strength; we should all celebrate that diversity.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to last Friday being two years on from the terrible tragedy of the Grenfell fire. I was very pleased yesterday to welcome, as part of Green for Grenfell, people from the Grenfell community—Grenfell United and others—to No. 10 Downing Street. I was particularly pleased to meet young people, hear their questions and talk to them about their concerns for the future. [Interruption.] I am pleased to see the shadow Foreign Secretary back from her re-education camp of a few weeks ago. She says, “What did you say?” I am about to tell her and the rest of the House what I said—just a little patience.
The issue of justice was indeed raised by one of the young people, which is exactly why I set up the public inquiry within days after the fire. That inquiry has two phases. It will soon be entering its second phase, and we have appointed panel members to sit alongside the judge in that phase. The aim is to find out exactly what went wrong, who was responsible and who was accountable, and to enable that justice for the people of Grenfell.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned cladding. We asked building owners in the private sector to take the action that we believed necessary, but they have not been acting quickly enough. That is why we will fully fund the replacement of cladding on high-rise residential buildings, and interim measures are in place where necessary on all 163 high-rise private residential buildings with unsafe aluminium composite material cladding.
Obviously, the inquiry must go on and we await its response to what actually happened at Grenfell, but the answer that the Prime Minister gave is of no comfort to the 60,000 people living in high-rise tower blocks across the country. They are worried—their communities are worried.
Although Government funding is, of course, necessary and welcome, but not yet available, more than 70 block owners still have no plan in place to get the work done. Will the Prime Minister set a deadline of the end of this year for all dangerous cladding to be removed and replaced? Will she toughen up the powers for councils to levy big fines and, where necessary, to confiscate blocks to get this vital safety work done if the block owners simply fail to do it?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, all affected buildings identified in the social sector have been visited by the fire and rescue services, which have carried out checks and made sure that interim safety measures are in place. Remediation work has started or finished on over three quarters of those buildings. We are fully funding the removal and replacement of unsafe ACM cladding systems on high-rise social housing.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to housing in the private sector. We asked building owners to take the action necessary, and we expected building owners to take the action necessary. They have not done enough; they have not acted quickly enough. That is why the Government have stepped in and said that we will fully fund the replacement of cladding on high-rise residential buildings. As I said, interim measures are in place until that work is done.
The question was: will the Prime Minister ensure that this is done by the end of this year? Under the current rate of progress, it will take three years for even the social housing blocks to be done.
But the issue goes wider: 1,700 other buildings, including hospitals, care homes, schools and hotels, are clad in other potentially combustible materials. If landlords will not act, will the Government step in and act on those buildings as well? The 2013 coroner’s report into the deadly Lakanal House fire recommended that sprinklers should be retrofitted to all social housing. Currently, only 32 of 837 council tower blocks of above 30 metres have sprinklers. Two years after Grenfell and six years after that coroner’s report, will the Prime Minister now accept that recommendation and set a deadline for all high-rise blocks to have sprinklers retrofitted?
First of all, the right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of other cladding. The work is indeed being done to investigate the safety of other cladding. He then talks about the coroner’s report and recommendation in 2013. I think he has inadvertently said something that does not quite reflect what the coroner’s report said. It said that landlords should consider retrofitting sprinklers; it did not say that every building should be retrofitted with sprinklers. As he will know, there are many landlords up and down the country, including Labour councils, that have chosen not to fit sprinklers.
The coroner’s report made it very clear that she thought that sprinklers would make blocks safer; I do not think we should be playing around with semantics—we should be making sure that all the blocks are safe across the whole country. Only 105 of the 673 new- build schools have sprinklers. Labour would make sure that all new schools had sprinklers fitted.
Grenfell survivors say, “We were victims before the fire.” Radical change is needed in our system of social housing. Tenants raised concerns about safety; they were ignored. Two years on from Grenfell, when will we see Government legislation to strengthen tenants’ rights and apply the Freedom of Information Act to all housing associations as well as local authorities?
It is absolutely right that one of the truly shocking aspects of what happened at Grenfell Tower is that, before the fire happened and over a significant period of time, residents of the tower were raising concerns with the tenant management organisation and the council, and their voice was not heard. That is why one of the other things that I did after the Grenfell Tower fire was to initiate work looking at social housing.
The then Housing Minister—and this has been taken on by subsequent Housing Ministers—went around the country meeting people in social housing to see whether that had happened simply at Grenfell or was happening across the country, and to see how we could strengthen the voice of people living in social housing. I believe that should be done, and it is the work that we have been putting in place. It is absolutely right that the voices of those people should have been heard and acted on. We want to ensure in future that social housing tenants’ voices will be heard.
That is all well and good, but just how long does it take to amend the Freedom of Information Act to make sure it applies to social housing run by housing associations as well as local authorities?
The Government spent £1,013 million on fire services in 2016-17. This year, the figure is £858 million— £155 million cut from fire services. Every fire authority across the country, from the 11% cut in Greater Manchester to the 42% cut in Warwickshire, is going through the same experience. We cannot put a price on people’s lives. We cannot keep people safe on the cheap. The Prime Minister told the country at the Conservative party conference last autumn that austerity is over. Will she now pledge that her Government will increase fire service funding and firefighter numbers next year?
Indeed, we are able to end austerity, and we are able to put more money into public services. We are able to do that because a Conservative Government take a balanced approach to the economy. We have been putting right the wrongs of a Labour Government who left us with the largest deficit in our peacetime history. That is the legacy of Labour. We saw fewer people in work and less money to spend on public services, and we will not let it happen again.
The legacy of this Tory Government is 10,000 firefighter jobs cut since 2010 and 40 fire stations closed, including 10 in London under the previous Mayor.
The Prime Minister claimed that action on Grenfell would be part of her legacy, but in two long years, too little has changed. She has met the Grenfell survivors, as have I. Their pain is real and palpable, and it continues. A big test for the next Prime Minister will be to make good the failings of this Government over the past two years—a failure to rehouse all the survivors, a failure to give justice to the Grenfell community, a failure to make safe other dangerous high-rise blocks, a failure to retrofit sprinklers and a failure to end austerity in the fire service. Does the Prime Minister believe that by the third anniversary next year, the Government will be able to honestly say with conviction to the country and to the Grenfell survivors, “Never again.”?
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the rehousing of the Grenfell survivors. All 201 households have been offered temporary or permanent accommodation —[Interruption.] I think that 194 of those households have accepted that, and 184 have been able to move into their accommodation.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about what the Government have been doing in response to the Grenfell Tower fire. We set up immediately a public inquiry. We set up immediately the Dame Judith Hackitt review, which looked at the issues around building regulations and fire safety. The Government are acting on the results of that, and I expect a future Government to act on the results of the public inquiry.
I have met on a number of occasions, including yesterday, people who survived the Grenfell Tower fire—people who lost their homes, people who lost members of their family and young people who lost their best friends. Their pain is indeed great; it will never go away. It is important for us to ensure that we provide support for those survivors into the future. It is not just about buildings and cladding; it is about support for the local community; and it is about mental health services and support for those who have been affected. This Government are committed to ensuring that we provide that support and that we do everything we can to make sure that a tragedy like Grenfell Tower can never happen again.
First, I think we should all recognise Thank a Teacher Day. I am sure everybody across this House remembers a particular teacher who had an impact on them, and indeed helped them to do what was necessary to become a Member of Parliament and to represent a local community in this House.
My hon. Friend makes a point about coastal communities. He will know that school funding is at a record level, and our reforms have been improving education standards. I want to ensure that schools have the resources they need and that reform continues to improve those standards; that we are able to give schools the budgets on a timetable to work for them; and—he mentioned the issue of fairer funding—that we continue to make progress on the fairer national funding formula. I think what my hon. Friend has done in referencing a coastal schools fund is actually a bid into the spending review that will be coming later in the year.
May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks on the atrocity at the Finsbury Park mosque?
This is also World Refugee Week, and I want to commend my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), who brought forward a family reunion Bill some time ago. Will the Prime Minister, in the time that she has got left, please make sure that this comes forward to Committee?
Does the Prime Minister agree with the front runner set to succeed her that the Scottish people are a “verminous” race that should be placed in ghettos and exterminated?
The Conservative and Unionist party not only takes the people of every part of this United Kingdom seriously, but we welcome the contribution from people of every part of this United Kingdom, because that is what makes the United Kingdom the great country it is—and long may Scotland remain part of it.
Well, of course, words matter and actions matter. The Prime Minister thought that the man who published those words in his magazine was fit for the office of our top diplomat, and he has not stopped there. He has said that Scots should be banned from being Prime Minister—banned from being Prime Minister, Mr Speaker—and that £1 spent in Croydon was worth more than £1 spend in Strathclyde. This is a man who is not fit for office. It has been said, “The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.” This is a time of challenge, so does the Prime Minister realise that not only is the Member racist, but he is stoking division in communities and has a record of dishonesty? Does the Prime Minister honestly believe—[Interruption.]
Order. If the right hon. Gentleman is referring to a current Member of this House—I do not know whether he is—[Hon. Members: “He is.”] If he is, he should be extremely careful in the language he uses, and he should have notified the Member in advance, but I would urge him to weigh his words. [Hon. Members: “Withdraw!”] Indeed, I think it would be much better if, for now, he would withdraw any allegation of racism against any particular Member. I do not think that this is the forum, and I do not think it is the right way to behave.
Mr Speaker, I have informed the Member. He has called Muslim women “letter boxes”, described African people as having “watermelon smiles” and another disgusting slur that I would never dignify by repeating. If that is not racist, I do not know what is. Does the Prime Minister honestly believe that this man is fit for the office of Prime Minister?
The right hon. Gentleman has been leader of the SNP in this Chamber and has asked Prime Minister’s questions for some time, so he might understand that the purpose is to ask the Prime Minister about the actions of the Government. That is what he should be asking us about. I believe that any future Conservative Prime Minister will be better for Scotland than the Scottish nationalist party.
My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. I am very pleased to see the announcement today by Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. We continue to work with overseas territories to ensure that they follow those standards and open their books so that people can see who actually owns companies.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we looked at the whole issue of medical cannabis. That is why we changed the approach that was taken. Obviously, individual cases are desperately difficult, and I think that everybody across the House feels with the families and friends of those who are affected. We have ensured that the law has changed and that specialist doctors can prescribe cannabis-based products for medicinal use, where there is clinical evidence of benefit. I think that was the right thing to do. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has heard the testimony of families about the barriers they appear to have faced and has asked NHS England to undertake a rapid re-evaluation and to address any system barriers to clinically approving the prescribing.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is vital that all children with special educational needs receive the support they need. I have been assured that the council will receive the right support. The Department for Education and NHS England have been working closely with the local authority to ensure that the necessary changes take place, and they will continue to do so. My hon. Friend talks about funding. This year, Sutton’s high needs funding allocation has been increased. I understand that Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission will revisit Sutton to ensure that the council is improving its support for children with special educational needs, so that those children can fulfil their potential.
The hon. Lady has campaigned long and hard on this issue and championed the needs of all those who were affected. The victims and families have suffered so much, and it is obviously important that they get the answers and the justice that they deserve. They have been waiting decades for that. In April, as she will know, the Department of Health and Social Care announced a major uplift in the financial support available to beneficiaries of the infected blood support scheme in England. Discussions are now under way between officials in the UK, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Administrations to look, as a matter of urgency, at how we can provide greater parity of support across the UK.
The Conservative party has frequently won the trust of the public over recent generations because of its reputation of economic competence and responsibility. Those qualities have helped to contribute to the Prime Minister’s legacy. She will leave behind a recovery from economic crisis to full employment and economic growth. Does she therefore agree that in the present uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the change of government, it would be extremely unwise for candidates in the leadership election, or the outgoing Government, to start making reckless commitments on tax cuts and promises on spending, which should properly be addressed responsibly in a spending round once those uncertainties are behind us?
First, I commend my right hon. and learned Friend for the work he did in a previous Conservative Administration as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He left a golden economic legacy, which was then completely squandered by 13 years of a Labour Government, and as he says, Conservatives have had to turn that around. I am pleased that we see employment at record levels; I am pleased that we see the deficit down; and I am pleased that we see debt falling. We are able to ensure that we can put more money into public services. We have already committed the biggest ever cash boost for the national health service in its history. I can assure him that in my time as Prime Minister we will not make any reckless commitments, but we do want to ensure that we see our public services supported, as they should be, to provide the services we believe the people of this country deserve.
Immigration has been good for this country, but people want to know that the Government can make decisions about who should come to the country, that there is control over the number of people coming to the country, and that the Government take action against those who are here illegally. That has been the purpose of the policy pursued since 2010, giving people confidence in our immigration system so we can ensure that people continue to welcome immigrants, who make such an important contribution to our life, into this country.
As we build the homes we need across the country, it is essential that we equip young people with the correct practical skills to drive forward our economy. The 45th WorldSkills competition takes place in Russia in August. My constituent, 21-year-old Lewis Greenwood, will be representing the UK in the bricklaying competition. Will the Prime Minister wish Lewis and the rest of Team UK the best of British in the skills olympics?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to reference the fact that we need those skills for our economy and our society in the future. I am very happy to congratulate Lewis on being the UK representative for bricklaying in the WorldSkills competition in Russia. I wish him all the very best and I am sure the whole House will wish him all the very best as he carries the UK standard with him.
It is always said that Winston Churchill was a 60-bricks-an-hour man—a very good bricklayer himself, I must advise the House.
First, we mark Windrush Day on 22 June; that day has been set up to recognise the contribution that the Windrush generation made to our life, our society and our economy here in the UK. What lay behind the issue in relation to the problems that some members of the Windrush generation have faced was the fact that when they came into the UK, they were not given documentary evidence of their immigration status, and, as their countries gained independence, they were not given that documentary evidence of their status—[Interruption.] It is no good shouting “Rubbish”. That is what lay behind it, and there were cases of people in the Windrush generation—[Interruption.]
Order. This is very unseemly behaviour. Members are entitled to ask orderly questions, but having asked the questions, they should then have the courtesy to listen to the Prime Minister’s answer.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
That is what lay at the heart of the issue in relation to the Windrush generation. It is the case that people in the Windrush generation faced these difficulties as a result of not having that documentary evidence both under Labour Governments in the past and, more recently, under this Government. The Home Office is working to put that right. People who are concerned about this should contact the Home Office taskforce and they will get the help and support that they need.
Last week, we learned that a 13-year-old boy who brought his rapist to court received £20 in compensation. A 13-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl received £50 for being abused as children. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is a terrible way to treat the victims of child sexual abuse, that they deserve to be treated fairly and compassionately, and that it sends out all the wrong signals to anybody who is thinking of bringing their perpetrator to justice? Does she agree that it takes huge courage to bring a case such as that, and will she urgently look at a review of criminal compensation orders, so that victims of child sexual abuse get the justice that they deserve?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it takes huge courage to come forward to talk about incidents of child sexual abuse—and not just to talk about that, but to be able to go through that such that the perpetrator of that abuse can be brought to justice. I commend those he has spoken about specifically and all those who come forward to do that. I hope that from the action that this Government have taken, through setting up the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, we make it very clear that we want these wrongs to be righted. We want people to be able to feel that they can find justice. The memory will never go. The memory will live with them, but we can at least give them justice and I urge everybody to come forward, if they have been subject to child sexual abuse, such that justice can be brought.
The hon. Gentleman has raised a very specific case. Obviously I have not seen the details of that case, but I will ensure that the Home Secretary looks at the details of it.
Police officers and firefighters are able to retire at 60, but prison officers cannot retire until they are 66 and they are facing the prospect of having to retire at 68. Does my right hon. Friend believe that that is fair?
My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. Obviously, this has been looked at and considered in the past, but I will make sure that the Ministry of Justice is aware of his concerns.
We have made about £1 billion extra available to police forces this year, and that includes an increase in funding for Cleveland police. How the money is spent is a matter for the police and crime commissioners and the chief constable. We have made funds available, and we have ensured that we are giving the police the powers that they need. Sadly, the Labour party in opposition voted against that extra funding for the police.
Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, but every day parents up and down the country are caring for children with life-limiting illnesses. For those families the children’s hospice and palliative care services are a necessary lifeline, but some of our hospice services are struggling for cash, and Acorns, our largest service, has had to announce the closure of one of its hospices.
Prime Minister, you came to power saying that you would help people who were just about managing, but many of those families are barely coping at all. Please, as your legacy, will you give the £40 million that is needed to provide really good palliative care for all the children in the country who need it?
I recognise the important role played by hospices generally, but by children’s hospices in particular. I have been pleased to be involved in the establishment of the Alexander Devine hospice in my constituency, which was set up after a family tragically lost their son Alexander.
It is important for us to ensure that people have the support that they need as they see a child approaching the end of their life. We have made children’s palliative and end-of-life care a priority in the NHS long-term plan, and over the next five years the NHS will be match-funding clinical commissioning groups that commit themselves to increasing investment in local children’s palliative and end-of-life care services by up to £7 million. That will increase the support to a total of £25 million a year by 2023-24. Those children and their families deserve the very best care, and I commend all who are working in the hospice movement, because they provide wonderful end-of-life care for children and adults.
No one wants to see someone feeling the need to go to a food bank, but what universal credit does is ensure that people are helped into work, and that work pays. As they earn more, they are able to keep more of those earnings. Work is the best route out of poverty, and universal credit is working to ensure that people get into work and can provide for themselves and their families.
I know that the whole House will join the Prime Minister in thanking the emergency services and the armed services when they step up to the mark at times of national or local emergency such as the mosque outrage or the Novichok incident in Salisbury, near my constituency, but will she also do what she has done throughout her time as Prime Minister and pay tribute to a vast army of other people—the volunteers in our society who do so much for us? I am thinking particularly of the Royal British Legion, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Red Cross, and, especially on this important day in its life, the Order of St John and St John Ambulance. Those are truly the big society.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. So much of what happens in our country—so much that is good in our country—does indeed depend on volunteers up and down the country, including those in the organisations that my hon. Friend has mentioned, and those in other community groups and charities too. We should celebrate the work that volunteers do, we should commend them for their work, and, above all, we should say a wholehearted thank you.
The hon. Lady raises an important point about the impact adverse childhood experiences can have on people in later life. It is one of the reasons why we are putting so much support and emphasis on the mental health of young people to help them as they go through their life. I was not aware of this survey; I am happy to look at it, and I am sure all Members of the House will look at it and recognise the importance of this information that increases the knowledge of such adverse childhood experiences and helps to deal with these issues.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that there are already almost 400,000 people employed in the low carbon sector and its supply chains across the country, but can she assure me that more jobs will be created in this industry through our modern industrial strategy, including through the utilisation of carbon capture and storage, which will be critical to our meeting our net zero targets?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend the assurance that as we look to meet our climate change target we will indeed see more jobs being created in this sector, and I was very pleased when I made the announcement about the net zero emissions target to visit Imperial College here in London, which is doing important research and training work on CCS that will be of benefit across this country and the world.
I am aware of the report from the Environmental Audit Committee on this issue. Much of what the Committee wants to achieve is actually already covered by Government policy, and there are a number of areas I could mention—for example, making producers responsible for the full cost of managing and disposing of their products after they are no longer useful, and last week the Government opened a multi-million pound grant scheme to help boost the recycling of textiles and plastic packaging. We have already responded to many of the issues raised by that report.
Unlike local councils, NHS bodies are not legally required to balance their budget on an annual basis. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough sustainability and transformation partnership is facing a deficit of £192 million and other STPs could be raided to bail it out. What would my right hon. Friend say to my constituents—including those in places like Jaywick, an area of deprivation that has extensive health inequalities—when they ask why their services should suffer to meet the deficits of others?
Of course we want to ensure that all health trusts and health services are operating properly within their budgets and are able to balance their books. What I would say to my hon. Friend’s constituents is that I am pleased that this Government have been able to increase the funding available to the national health service, and that will go towards increasing and improving the services his constituents are able to receive.
Ministers obviously always look very carefully at the expert advice they receive, but the whole question of what has happened and the advice that was available will be looked at in the second phase of the public inquiry.
Later today in Westminster Hall Members will have an opportunity to debate the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Thanks to the leadership of my right hon. Friend this landmark legislation has empowered both victims and the police to seek justice, with 239 suspects charged and 185 people convicted of modern slavery offences in 2017-18. What further measures does my right hon. Friend believe will help to strengthen this Act?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised this issue, because it remains an important topic. We have seen not only the first convictions under the Act but thousands of businesses publishing transparency statements and senior business leaders being much more engaged on the issue than ever before. She asks what more we will be doing. We will shortly be publishing a consultation to look at ways to strengthen transparency in the supply chains, and we are expanding transparency laws to cover the public sector and its purchasing power. This is important as the public sector has huge purchasing power, and this could be used to good cause to ensure that we are ending modern slavery.
The Prime Minister is keen to secure a legacy of acting in the country’s very best interests, so will she commit to introducing legislation that will guarantee that this House sits in September and October so that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, all options are available to this Parliament, including revoking article 50?
The dates for recess and the times of the sittings of this House will be published to the House in due course.
The national funding formula for schools is great for underfunded constituencies such as mine, where funding is going up twice as fast as the national average, but village schools and other small schools are still under financial pressure and their numbers have declined over recent decades. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Department for Education to look again at how we can make the national funding formula do more to help village schools, which are so important to our rural life?
I absolutely accept and recognise the important role that village schools play in our rural life. A lot of work went into the national funding formula, and it is right that we are introducing this fairer means of funding. We have yet to reach the end point of the national funding formula, but I want to see us progressing and ensuring that we are putting that national funding formula in place. I am sure that the Secretary of State for Education will have heard the request that my hon. Friend has made.
I am heartbroken, and Tooting is heartbroken. On Friday night, the streets claimed another victim. Cheyon Evans might be just another awkward statistic to this Government, but to us he was a son, a brother and a friend taken too soon. This senseless violence could have been avoided with adequate policing and good youth provision to give our young people a sense of hope. My question to the Prime Minister is simple. Will she use her remaining days in office to leave a legacy that will change the paths for those young people, or can we expect yet more of the same?
None of us ever wants to see a life, particularly a young life, taken before its time by violent crime. These are not difficult statistics; they are people who had a future ahead of them and who have sadly died as a result of the violence of criminal perpetrators. We have introduced our serious violence strategy, and we are working with the police and other organisations to ensure that young people are turned away from the use of violence and the use of knives. The hon. Lady says that this is a question of funding and police numbers, but actually it is a much wider issue—[Interruption.] Anybody who denies that this is a wider issue for our society is simply failing to understand the issue that we have to address, and if she wants to talk to somebody about the police on the streets of London, I suggest she talks to the Mayor of London.
Bearing the sub judice rule firmly in mind, what does the Prime Minister think of the principle of bringing a dying, decorated former soldier before the courts of Northern Ireland on charges based on no new evidence that are unlikely ever to lead to a conviction?
I know this is an issue that my right hon. Friend and a number of other right hon. and hon. Friends have raised in terms of individual cases and the general principle. None of us wants to see elderly veterans being brought before the courts in the way that he has described, but we need to ensure that we have processes and systems in Northern Ireland that ensure that proper investigation is taking place. I understand that my colleagues feel that the state has let down people like the veteran that he cited, but the fact is that previous investigations have not been found to be lawful. That is why we are having to look at the process of investigation. I have said many times standing at this Dispatch Box that I want to ensure that we see the terrorists who cause the vast majority of deaths in Northern Ireland being properly brought to justice. That is what we are working on, and we will continue to work on a system that is fair.
When the Prime Minister took office, she suggested that her mission would be to tackle “burning injustices”, yet this morning a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that, under the Cabinets in which she has served over the past nine years, in-work poverty has risen dramatically. Will that not be the legacy of her premiership?
The hon. Gentleman raises the IFS report, but in fact that report shows that people are better off when they move into work. It shows that under this Government, more people are in work than ever before, that material deprivation rates have fallen by a fifth since 2010, and that the reason for the relative poverty figures is that pensioners are better off. He might think that cutting pensioners’ incomes is the answer, but actually I do not.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Since you took the Chair, you have been a stalwart defender of Back Benchers. You have also stood up to bad parliamentary behaviour like the use of the word “racism”. I am deeply upset that your chairmanship has been undermined dramatically because of the very calm and polite advice you gave to hon. Members—leaders of political parties—that was ignored. Please will you do all you can to ensure that words such as “racist” are not common parlance in this House?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I am always appreciative of kind words and, in so far as he is proffering sympathy for me and expressing concern about my reputation, I am deeply obliged to him, but I am not a delicate flower and I do not feel any concern on that front. I am simply trying to do the right thing by the House. There was originally, as colleagues of long service will know, a list of unparliamentary words, but that list was discontinued, not least on account of its potentially infinite scope. It was therefore discontinued. The word in question is not of itself unparliamentary. The issue is to judge context and to make an assessment of what is seemly in the Chamber, and I made my own assessment and advised the House and the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) accordingly. It was only when I heard the full flow of the words that I was able to make an assessment, and I think it would be wise for colleagues to bear in mind the general principle that one does not impute dishonour to another Member. That is the first point.
The second point is that I know that there is a degree of latitude in respect of questions to the Prime Minister, but I think it would be appropriate, in the remaining weeks before the summer recess and before a new leader of the governing party takes office, to have some regard to that for which the Prime Minister is responsible. She is responsible for her own policies and for the conduct of her Government and their administration of their affairs, and it is important that questions should be put with that overarching consideration and ambit of responsibility in mind. However, I have said what I have said, and the hon. Gentleman has made his point in his question. I have no wish to prolong the argument, and knowing what a naturally good-natured fellow he is, I feel sure that he has no such ambition either. We will leave it there for now.
Breathing Space Scheme
With permission, I will make a statement on supporting people in problem debt. This is an issue close to my heart. As a former member of the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty, I have seen at first hand the hardship that problem debt can cause. Now that I am in a position to bring about change, I am focused on improving the lives of the most disadvantaged.
Problem debt places a heavy burden on households and can lead to family breakdown, stress and mental health issues. The Government have taken steps to prevent problem debt from occurring and to support those who have fallen into it. We have reformed the regulation of consumer credit and widened access to professional debt advice, and we are helping to build individual financial capability. Today, I can update the House on the Government’s plans to go further, with the introduction of a breathing space scheme and a statutory debt repayment plan. I am grateful for the support of the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), whose private Member’s Bill and ongoing work have made a key contribution to the scheme becoming Government policy.
For people who are just getting by, even a small income shock can provoke a cycle of debt dependence that can be difficult to escape. If then faced with invasive debt enforcement, it is no wonder that many people in problem debt simply disengage. The first step to countering problem debt is to ensure that consumer credit firms are properly regulated, because loans should not be made to people who cannot afford to repay them. The Government have empowered the Financial Conduct Authority to ensure that firms lend responsibly, protecting consumers from over-borrowing. At Budget 2018, we announced new measures to increase access to affordable credit by helping foster a larger, more vibrant social lending sector.
In parallel, we have put in place support to help people make good financial decisions. The new Money and Pensions Service brings together three existing publicly funded money and pensions guidance services into one new organisation, providing free support and guidance on all aspects of people’s financial lives. Importantly, it also has a statutory duty to develop and co-ordinate a national strategy to improve people’s financial capability. Despite those preventive measures, I recognise that many people still fall into problem debt. For such people, further support is required.
Seeking professional advice is a vital step in moving towards a sustainable debt solution. That is why we have increased public funding for free professional debt advice to almost £56 million this year, delivering 560,000 sessions in England, but more needs to be done. The Money and Pensions Service estimates there are up to 9 million over-indebted people in the UK, but only a fraction of them access free debt advice each year. That is why I can announce today that, following consultation, the Government will deliver on their manifesto commitment to introduce a breathing space scheme for people in problem debt.
The scheme has two parts which, together, will protect debtors from creditor action, help them get professional advice on their debt problems, and help them pay off their debts in a sustainable way. Breathing space will provide debtors with a 60-day period in which interest and charges on their debts are frozen and enforcement action from creditors is paused. Creditors must not start new court action, communications with debtors relating to enforcement of their debt must stop, and benefit reductions to reclaim debt will pause. During the time, debtors will have to seek professional debt advice to find a sustainable solution to their debt problem. These protections will encourage people in problem debt to seek advice earlier and give them the headspace to identify the right debt solution for them.
The statutory debt repayment plan is a new debt solution that will extend the breathing space protections to debtors who commit to fully repaying their debts in a manageable timeline. Importantly, the payment plans will be flexible to changes in debtors’ life circumstances to remain sustainable over the long term. If someone’s disposable income decreases, their payments will go down, and vice versa.
The breathing space scheme will make a real difference to the most vulnerable families across the country, and I recognise the sense of urgency across the House to deliver this policy quickly. I am committed to delivering the scheme swiftly, working closely with key stakeholders to make sure that it works in practice. The Government will lay regulations on the breathing space element of the policy before the end of the year, and we intend to implement it in early 2021. We will continue to develop the statutory debt repayment plan to a longer timetable.
In addition, I am pleased to announce that the Government will go beyond their manifesto commitment in two areas. As many of us hear in our constituencies, people’s experiences of problem debt are changing. As I have seen at first hand, it is wrong to assume that over-indebtedness is simply a product of taking out too much credit. Many people struggle to meet essential bills and can end up owing money to multiple creditors in the public and private sectors. For the policy to be successful, it must properly reflect the issues that debtors are dealing with. I can therefore announce today that the breathing space scheme will cover a broad range of debts—not just financial services debts, but arrears owed to utility companies and to central and local government, including council tax arrears, personal tax debts and benefit overpayments. That broad protection will make the policy effective for debtors and fair to creditors.
The House will recognise the strong links between mental health issues and problem debt. Up to 23,000 people in England each year struggle with problem debt while in hospital due to mental health issues. The breathing space scheme must work for everyone facing problem debt. In particular, it must be open to the most vulnerable in society. To that end, I can confirm that people receiving treatment for mental health crisis can enter breathing space without seeking advice from a debt adviser, which could be a significant barrier for many.
The protections will last the entirety of an individual’s crisis treatment, followed by a further 30 days to allow them to get back on their feet and decide whether they wish to enter the main breathing space scheme or work out another solution for their debts. As mental health issues often recur, there will be no limit to the number of times that an individual can enter via this mechanism. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Dame Louise Ellman), the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) for their dedicated work on this issue, and I thank the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute for raising this important issue.
Millions of people struggle with problem debt and the burdens that it brings. The Government have committed to helping people take control of their finances and get back on a stable financial footing. The breathing space scheme that I have described today will help to fulfil that commitment, and I commend this statement to the House.
I begin by thanking the Minister for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of this statement, which we broadly welcome. There has been a growing consensus for some time about the need for something less dramatic than formal insolvency proceedings which offers hope to people with problem debts that there can be a way out. That is what the breathing space scheme should be—a space to let people get back on their feet, perhaps overcoming a health issue, a period of unemployment or something else that has adversely affected their lives.
There will always be disagreement between the Opposition and the Government on the necessity of the austerity policies that have blighted the country since 2010, but no one can deny that household debt in the UK is large, growing, and problematic for many people. The big change that I have seen in my constituency is that people are using credit not just to buy a car, a new sofa or a washing machine, but to pay their living costs at the end of the month—for food, dinner money, and children’s clothes. The worst is when people, unable to take control of their own affairs, go from one short-term credit product to another, compounding the costs and liabilities they are incurring and sometimes ending up in hock to illegal moneylenders as the only option they have left. One of my constituents in such circumstances ended up suicidal.
We want this policy to work, and my questions for the Minister are in that spirit. First, can he say why a 60-day period has been chosen as optimal? Going back to the need to let people overcome whatever problems they face, I have always felt that the period may need to be longer.
Secondly, will the Minister confirm my understanding that all debts will be covered, including public sector debts like council tax arrears and benefit overpayments? I very much recognise the obliteration of local government finances over the past nine years and, alongside colleagues, I presented a petition to Downing Street this morning on how bad it has been for councils like mine in Tameside. Council tax arrears are one of the biggest causes of the bailiffs being called, and we need such arrears to be included, too.
In addition, will the Minister look specifically at the issue of guarantor loans? Under such loans another person, typically a family member, accepts joint liability for the debt. I had another case of this type from a constituent in Stalybridge just this week. If the breathing space period does not apply to these loans, the burden will simply pass and offer no relief, which would be counterproductive.
Ultimately, this policy will work only if there are sufficient sources of advice and support for people to access during the breathing space period. It is a reality that such services—citizens advice bureaux, local authority and housing association advice centres, and so on—have been put under massive strain over the past few years. So what strategy do the Government have to significantly improve the capacity in this area? Whatever initiatives have been pursued to date, and whatever merit they have, there is no doubt that we need to go further.
Finally, in the famous words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
As well as a change of economic policy, we believe it is time to regulate further the interest that can be charged on overdrafts and credit cards, to look at the marketing of credit to vulnerable people, and to ensure there is real and effective financial education in schools.
There is a lot to do. This statement is a move in the right direction, but let us make sure we keep going in that direction.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his typically positive and constructive remarks, and I will try to address the five key points he raises.
First, the 60-day time period is longer than our manifesto commitment of six weeks and is the product of listening to the consultation responses and to the experience of the mechanism in Scotland. Overall, it is seen as the right solution.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked which debts are included. I tried to set out in my statement that the scheme is extremely broad, covering public sector debts and arrears. He asked about bailiffs and their role. Of course, the Ministry of Justice completed a consultation exercise in February and will respond in due course. There is also Cabinet Office guidance on the fairness of debt collection. He makes a reasonable point.
Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman asked about guarantor loans, which are an emerging new category of high-cost credit. Such matters are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, and I had a conversation just this morning with its chairman. I spoke to Andrew Bailey, its chief executive, earlier this week on the need to be vigilant across all emerging forms of high-cost credit, which is under ongoing review.
Fourthly, the hon. Gentleman asked about capacity and capability in the area of debt advice. I envisage that the creation of the Money and Pensions Service as a new single entity will bring much better co-ordination of the available advice. As I mentioned, the Government spent £56 million last year, and 85,000 more people were seen than in the previous year. We are looking at how that advice can become consistently of a higher standard.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the long-term causes and the regulation and marketing of high-cost credit products. Following the recent issues at London Capital & Finance, I directed the FCA to examine what happened, and I have asked my officials in the Treasury to conduct a separate review of how regulation works. We have to continue being vigilant on this evolving space, and the increased digitalisation of the availability of high-cost credit means that the regulation and oversight needs to keep pace.
I hope that answers the hon. Gentleman’s questions.
I welcome this statement and the Government going beyond their original manifesto commitment. It gives me a chance to thank my citizens advice bureau, which has done fantastic work on debt rescheduling during my 22 years as an MP.
Does the Minister welcome the Church of England’s initiative to teach financial literacy in its primary schools, and would he encourage rolling out such an approach to prevention more widely?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s observations on the Church of England’s interventions on financial literacy. The ongoing challenge is to develop national consistency in the delivery of financial education and advice. A number of initiatives are under way, one of which is trying to get financial services providers, particularly the banks, to work in a more co-ordinated way. I am happy to endorse the work of the Church of England, which has been a significant partner in improving financial literacy across the country.
I am pleased that the UK Government have decided to put this in place and have set out the mechanism for doing so. In Scotland we have the debt arrangement scheme, which was launched in 2004 and significantly reformed in 2011, and a breathing space is built into that scheme.
Over £200 million of debt has been repaid since the reforms in Scotland, and 6,000 people completed a direct payment plan between 2011 and 2018, so I am pleased to see in the consultation responses published today that the Government have looked at how the system works in Scotland and have learned lessons. It is clear that, where the Scottish system has the powers to do so, we have the ability to trailblaze and lead the way.
In 2016, because of the debt arrangement scheme in Scotland, we had the lowest proportion of over-indebted people of any part of the UK. As austerity continues, we continue to see increases in the number of people suffering under the burden of debt. In 2017 there were 2.4 million children living in families with problem debt in England and Wales. StepChange, the debt charity, has said that 60% of those in problem debt fell into it because of an unexpected life event, and not because of poor money management—something external happened that changed their life, meaning they could no longer manage their debt.
I am concerned about why it will take the Government so long to implement the changes. Surely, as they already deal with a similar system in Scotland, most creditors should be able to take on the changes fairly quickly and roll them out over a wider group of people. Could this be done any quicker than 2021, which is the date I have seen in the papers?
I thank the hon. Lady for her observations, and she is right that the Government have carefully listened to and observed the experience in Scotland. She asks about the timeline, and I have done everything I can to move this forward as quickly as possible. The challenge is to bring the sector along at the same pace and to ensure that we have complete commitment and sign-up to the process so that it will be a success. I am pleased that the chief executive officer of StepChange has said that he is particularly pleased to see the Government’s confirmation that debts owed to the Government will be included in the scheme. We are working very carefully, and this is the timeline to which we have to work.
I thank the Minister for the proposals, which will help some of the most vulnerable and their families and, I believe, save lives. Will he clarify which stakeholders he will engage with to ensure effective implementation, and will they include debt advice charities such as Christians Against Poverty, which does such excellent work in this field?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the excellent work of Christians Against Poverty, which is indeed a key stakeholder. We engage widely with the sector, including the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, StepChange, the Money Advice Trust and the charity National Debtline—it really is a collaborative effort—and I am pleased with their response to where we have got to.
Debt ruins lives. Debt harms health. Debt damages relationship. Debt holds back children. In extreme circumstances, debt kills. When the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018—it established the Money and Pensions Service—was being taken through the House, the Government made a commitment to move on a breathing space scheme. Today’s announcement is therefore welcome, particularly the action being taken to defend the interests of those suffering mental ill health. In welcoming today’s announcement, I urge the Government to ensure that the new arrangements are properly resourced and that there is a sense of urgency in their implementation, because the sooner they are put in place, relieving that terrible burden that afflicts so many people in our country, the better.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He played a significant role in the passage of the legislation that led to today’s announcement. He urges me once again on the timeframe, and I can assure him that my Treasury officials are working as rapidly as possible, but we must also ensure that it actually works. One of the questions he asked me previously, about what is included in the scheme and the range of public sector debts, has been a significant driver in those conversations. I acknowledge and take on board his comments.
I absolutely welcome the breathing space scheme, which will help people facing debts that they cannot repay. I join other Members in thanking citizens advice bureaux and organisations such as the Trussell Trust that help to signpost people to better debt advice. It has told me that young people, in particular, can get enormously concerned about their mobile phones being cut off, because if they lose their phones they lose their communications and any hope of finding work, for example. Will the Minister confirm that this will cover a wide range of debts and mean that people need not worry about losing their homes or their communications while their debts are sorted out?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for those observations and for mentioning the Trussell Trust, which is headquartered in my constituency and has done a lot of work in this area. The principles underpinning the scheme are based on the Insolvency Service’s system and include all debts covered by the system. There are a small number of exceptions—for example, deductions for child maintenance payments—but we have designed this so that it is meaningful. It is not about a holiday from ongoing payments; it is about dealing with arrears and debt. The expectation is that when people join the scheme they will continue to pay for everyday expenses as they occur.
Is the Minister aware of Debt Hacker, a free online tool that I launched here in the House of Commons? It is run by activists and uses FCA rules that are poorly understood by the general public to help consumers to get back their £50—or however much it is—from companies that use extortion to get money out of others. Is he also aware, given his broader role in the Treasury, of the fact that it is mainly NHS and public sector workers who are in this debt trap, because wages have not kept up with housing, energy and other costs?
The hon. Lady raises two points. I was not familiar with the Debt Hacker app, but I will seek it out because it sounds like a very worthwhile initiative. I respectfully say to her that in the fourth quarter of 2018 debt as a percentage of household income was 139%, whereas 10 years previously it was 160%. I recognise that households are experiencing strain, but it is not quite as dire as she makes out.
Loan sharks are the unacceptable face of capitalism, but this is a complex area and the Government should proceed with caution. Confidence in the market, and in capitalism more generally, depends crucially on the payment of debt. I very much hope that the Government will consult widely with the industry, particularly with credit card companies, and consider piloting, because there are unintended consequences of Governments, in their dying days, trying to virtue-signal and regulate more but actually doing more damage than good. Therefore, please may we have piloting and widespread consultation?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his observations. This is not virtue-signalling; it is delivering on a manifesto commitment with the sectors involved, carefully and methodically. We rightly have a robust regulator with powers to deal with exploitative credit providers. As I indicated earlier, we are not complacent. I observe his concerns about ensuring that we implement this appropriately and with the wide assent of the industry.
I welcome the breathing space scheme, which will certainly be helpful in Blaenau Gwent, because we discovered that Wonga lent £1 million a year to our borough’s residents. I suspect that a 60-day period will not be enough. The fact is that although citizens advice bureaux are great, we have insufficient guidance and support in our borough. I think that 90 days might be necessary, or perhaps even more, so I ask the Minister to think carefully about that possibility.
We certainly keep all matters under review, but the 60-day period has not come from nowhere; it has come from deep engagement with the sector. As Joanna Elson, the chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, has said,
“this new scheme could well be a game-changer in our efforts to tackle problem debt as a society.”
I recognise that there are a range of views, but we have looked at what is out there and considered the Scottish experience, and we believe that this is the right policy response.
Order. Unless I am much mistaken, the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) is in danger of being rather a naughty man. I am advised that he beetled into the Chamber halfway through the response from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman—[Interruption.] I was advised that he came through the double doors. I do not know whether he toddled out for some reason and then came back. If he is telling me —[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) is chuntering from a sedentary position, and gesticulating as well, and in a manner not altogether helpful at this juncture to the Chair. If the hon. Member for Harborough says to me explicitly that he was here at the very start of the statement, I am happy to indulge him. Otherwise, I would say that he should count his lucky stars, because after all he did get in at Prime Minister’s questions, so he has had a jolly good day.
I take your advice, Mr Speaker. You think I was not here at the very start, and you are surely correct, so I will sit down.
Well, it is merely a question of remaining seated. After that Socratic dialogue, we will leave it for now. The hon. Gentleman can bank his PMQ. Very well done.
Financial difficulties are considered an adverse childhood experience. Facing problem debt in the family as a child can perpetuate cycles of poor mental health, low achievement, poor employment opportunities, prison, drug addiction and so on. I am very pleased that the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) earlier drew attention to ACEs. Will the Minister assure me that the breathing space scheme will include advisers being trained in adverse childhood experiences and trauma, so that the problems of financial hardships are not perpetuated into the next generation?
The hon. Lady makes a very reasonable point about the nature of the training for debt advisers. I cannot give her a specific commitment on that, because there are so many partners involved, but I will look into it and see what can be done to advance that very reasonable observation about the quality of advice given.
I welcome the proposals, although it has taken us since 2017 to get to this point and it is going to take another two years to get the first part operational. I am glad the Minister is moving swiftly and not dragging his feet.
Two problems for people who get into debt, particularly over tax credits or benefit clawback, are the interest charges that are applied as they try to repay and the management fees charged on top by debt-recovery agencies, which mean that the debt increasingly expands. The Minister could have a direct input on both those things; why does he not put a ceiling on those charges, rather than simply using a freeze?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but that is not an area for which I have direct responsibility. Reclaimed overpayments—for example, from universal credit—will be included in the scheme. I cannot comment on things that are outside my control, but I hear his point about doing this as quickly as possible.
The announcement of the scheme is brilliant news and I welcome enormously the statement, and particularly the parts on the inclusion of Government debt in the scheme. I also welcome the fact that the Government have recognised the effect that debt has on people’s lives and their ability to get out of debt. However, I urge the Minister to look into the Government’s own policies—I suspect he knows what I am coming to. The five-week universal credit wait is a big issue. Advance payments are not the solution because they themselves are a debt and are putting vulnerable people further into debt. As I have said many times, the advance payment for the most vulnerable should be a grant, not a loan. As it is, we are handing out advance payments to around 60% of claimants. We are handing out the money anyway, so it is not going to cost us anything. It is just a cash-flow situation.
The Work and Pensions Committee has recently heard moving and horrendous testimonies from women who have been forced into sex work because they cannot make ends meet. We heard stories of women going into a brothel for around three days, working 20 hours out of 24 and coming out with £150 of earnings, and that gives them a roof over their heads as well. As our Prime Minister leaves office, I cannot believe that is the legacy she wants to leave behind. Please will the Minister look into this issue? It is also a Government debt.
I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s deep interest in and work on this topic over several years. She has raised points to which it is difficult for me to respond because they are outwith my responsibilities. As she will know, in the Budget we announced a £1.7 billion package of additional financial support for universal credit. I acknowledge that the hon. Lady disagrees with one element, but that additional support did involve the reduction of the maximum deduction from the standard allowance, from 40% to 30%. I cannot speak for a policy area for which I do not have responsibility. I am delivering a breathing space scheme that covers a wide range of debts and reaches deep into public sector debts, which I was keen for it to do from the outset.
As I set out in a recent Westminster Hall debate, the amounts being deducted from universal credit are a significant part of the reasons people fall into problem debt. I agree that a lot of that is down to Department for Work and Pensions policy, but I have seen many examples of people whose tax credit overpayments are being deducted from their universal credit, and of people being told that they have overpayments dating from 2006 or 2011, when they were supposed to have been written off. The average of £1,200 being deducted from people’s universal credit is contributing to their not having enough to get by or to pay their bills. Will the Minister and the Treasury please look into this issue as a matter of urgency and allow people to appeal against such deductions?
The hon. Lady will know that, as I said in response to the previous question, that is an issue of the administration of benefits and is the responsibility of the DWP. I will certainly make her observations clear to my colleagues in Government. Universal credit over- payments will be included from day one. I will make sure that I fully address the hon. Lady’s points and write to her on the detail.
I very much welcome the statement and the action that will be taken from today, because research shows that each year more than 100,000 people who are in debt attempt suicide. The scheme has to be helpful in giving them the support they need and improving mental health. One suicide crisis period, particularly for young men, is early adulthood; will the Minister liaise with colleagues to ensure that financial education and support is available not only in schools but in colleges and universities?
The hon. Lady makes a sensible point about the need for appropriate financial education at all levels. It needs to start early and endure through adolescence and into early adulthood. Several initiatives are under way to try to improve the quality of financial advice. The setting up of the Money and Pensions Service and its broader remit in this area is one part of that, but there are other partners, including our banks, through UK Finance, which is keen to do more. I very much take on board the hon. Lady’s observations.
Businesses: Late Payments
With permission, I wish to make a statement about the Government response to the “Creating a responsible payment culture” call for evidence, which I have published today.
The Government are committed to supporting small and medium-sized enterprises to start well and grow, including through a network of 38 growth hubs throughout England that provide advice, guidance and support. As part of our industrial strategy, we have an action plan to unlock more than £20 billion of investment in innovative and high-potential businesses. Where we see practices that unfairly constrain SMEs’ finance choices, we are prepared to act. For example, we recently removed a barrier that was preventing some SMEs from using invoice finance because of prohibitive contract terms imposed by their customers. The new measure is expected to provide a long-term boost to the UK economy worth almost £1 billion.
Last year, we launched a call for evidence asking for views on how to create a responsible payment culture for small business. Although a number of measures are already in place to tackle late payment—from the prompt payment code to the ability to charge interest on late payments and the increased transparency through the payment practices reporting duty—the call for evidence told us that there is more to do to improve the payment landscape. That is why I am announcing today that I will now take further and firmer action to tackle the scourge of late payments while maintaining a holistic approach to cultural change by using all the avenues available to us in this space.
I will shortly launch a consultation to seek views on strengthening the small business commissioner’s ability to assist and advocate for small business in the area of late payments through the provision of powers to compel the disclosure of information. I will also seek views on the merit of the commissioner’s potentially being able to issue penalties for poor payment practices. In respect of large businesses that have poor or unfair payment practices, we want to seek views on whether the commissioner should be able to apply sanctions, such as binding payment plans or financial penalties.
I am also announcing today that responsibility for the voluntary prompt payment code is to move to the small business commissioner and be reformed. This will unify prompt payment measures with the commissioner’s other responsibilities and address weaknesses in the operation of the current code. We have seen the impact of the strengthening of the code since our announcement in October: earlier in the year, we saw the removal from the code of five businesses and the suspension of 12 others. The next compliance round is currently under way.
I will take a tough compliance approach to large companies that do not comply with the payment practices reporting duty. The legislation allows for the prosecution of those who do not comply. I will use this enforcement power against those who do not comply, where necessary. We are already writing to the businesses that we have assessed as being within scope to remind them of their duty.
The Government will launch a business basics fund competition, with funding of up to £1 million, which will encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to utilise payment technology. We have recognised that tech adoption has had a positive impact on the productivity of small businesses. This competition is coupled with the small business commissioner’s strategy to deliver advice, signpost and provide a clear pathway for small businesses when they feel that they need support.
I also intend to establish a ministerial-led group to bring together key Government Departments to act on improving prompt payment across both the public and private sectors. We are working with UK Financial Investments and the financial sector to review the role that supply chain finance plays in fair and prompt payments, including the potential for an industry-led standard for good practice in supply chain finance. This review will report back to the Business Secretary by the end of the year.
We also want to bring greater transparency to how supply-chain finance is reported in company accounts and assessed in audits. Working with the Financial Reporting Council, we want to develop guidance and build that into its sampling of companies’ accounts. Supply-chain finance can provide an affordable finance option for SMEs, but they need to be assured that the terms are fair.
Our modern industrial strategy aims to make Britain the best place in which to start and grow a business, and removing barriers to growth is key to that aim. The response to the call for evidence and the package of measures that I am announcing today will ensure that we will continue to tackle the issue of late payments. I offer great thanks to the Federation of Small Businesses and its Fair Pay campaign, which has campaigned so hard for movement from the Government. I also thank the hundreds of businesses that have taken part and engaged comprehensively with the Department in assessing the call for evidence.
Finally, I thank the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee for its significant work on this issue and the work that it will continue to do. I am sure that it will hold us to account on the improvements that we are announcing today. I will place a copy of the Government’s response in the Libraries of both Houses today. I commend the statement to this House.
Unfortunately, I have only just received a copy of the Minister’s statement. I do not know why there was a delay, but it was not particularly helpful in preparing my response. [Interruption.] The Minister has just graciously apologised.
Late payment is believed to be the cause of 50,000 business failures each year, at a cost to the economy of £2.5 billion, along with thousands of jobs. Those are figures from the Federation of Small Businesses. The Minister is right to pay tribute to that organisation for the brilliant work that it does in advocating for small businesses on this issue and on so many others.
In her press statement, the Minister reported a fall in the scale of the problems facing small businesses, but let me caution her on that. She cited the excellent work of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, but it has suggested that it has evidence that payment terms are growing longer to mask some of these problems. Perhaps she can address that through some of the proposals that she has outlined.
We welcome the steps announced today as an important start in tackling the scourge of late payment. I tabled amendments to the Enterprise Bill that would have given the small business commissioner powers to insist on binding arbitration and fines for persistent late payment. The Government rejected those amendments, so we put the proposals in our 2017 manifesto, along with requirements for anyone bidding for a Government contract to pay their suppliers within 30 days. It is good to see the Government catching up with us today in their proposals.
The small business commissioner does great work with the £1.35 million in his revenue budget and, as I understand it, 12 members of staff at his disposal, but there are limits to what he can do. Although the £3.8 million recovered by the commissioner is important to the businesses affected, it is a fraction of the money withheld by late payers, which is in the tens of billions of pounds on any of the estimates available to us. What extra budget will the commissioner be given to discharge the additional responsibilities that the Minister is proposing, and what is the timescale for the consultation?
Accountability of company boards is a step in the right direction, but it will be important to compare the experience of the supplier with the reported practice in company accounts. How will the Minister ensure that what is reported is the time from the date of supply of goods and services rather than the date of recording the invoice, which any accountant knows can be significantly different and is often subject to delay when invoices are mysteriously lost or queried by accounts departments? How will this add to the existing duty to report? When will the consultation on giving the powers on the duty to report to the small business commissioner take place?
As the Minister told us, a number of companies that are members of the prompt payment code have been found not to comply with the code. The scandal of Carillion is an example of abuse of that code; we saw payment times of 120 to 180 days becoming the norm. Giving the policing of that code to the small business commissioner is a sensible idea, so will the Minister say what additional resources for these powers will be given to him?
The use of project bank accounts would have prevented the £2 billion loss to 38,000 suppliers in the Carillion fiasco. What consideration are the Government giving to extending the use of project bank accounts? I also note that the Government are pledging from 1 September to force bidders for Government contracts of more than £5 million to pay 95% of their invoices within 60 days. That is in line with the prompt payment code, but only with the lower end of its requirements. Why not make it a 30-day requirement?
One complaint of businesses is that the public sector is the source of some of the worst practice. The Minister mentioned the public sector in her statement. Another complaint is that smaller firms are often at fault in delaying payments. When does she expect action to be taken on public sector and other small business delays?
The problems of late payment need significant changes in practice. Today’s statement announces a series of measures which, if properly resourced, could make a significant difference. Businesses deserve a change of culture. The economy and the country need a change in practice. In broadly welcoming these measures, I hope that the Government’s delivery matches the rhetoric.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that he did not receive a copy of my statement in sufficient time. That was not my intention at all. I hope that he will understand, following the many debates that he and I have had in the House, that that is not how I tend to work with him. I thank him for recognising that this statement should have an impact on the late-payment problems of many small businesses. One thing that has been made absolutely clear to me since I became a Minister—and actually prior to being elected, when I was a small business owner myself—is that late payment is always raised by companies that deal with large organisations. I am very pleased to be able to move forward on this matter.
The amount of money owed in late payments has halved. I wish to recognise the work that has been done by the small business commissioner since he took up his role one and a half years ago. He has collected more than £3.5 million in late payments. The hon. Gentleman is right to question his role and when the consultation will take place. We want that consultation to happen quite quickly. One of the key things that came out of the call for evidence was that people wanted more powers to be given to the small business commissioner. They saw his role as, in effect, an umbrella role encompassing a number of enforcement abilities for him to act on behalf of small businesses.
The consultation will happen soon, and I would like it to take place with speed. I reiterate that, as we seek views on whether we should allow the small business commissioner to apply sanctions such as binding payment plans and financial penalties, that would be a massive step change and step forward. The small business commissioner has been very vocal in requesting more powers to enable him to represent and help the small businesses that come to him.
We will also be seeking views on whether the small business Minister should have the ability to refer topics to the small business commissioner for investigation. The small business commissioner will currently investigate only once a complaint has come from a small business, so we are looking at other ways in which investigations could be carried out. Obviously, I am giving hon. Members just a sample of what will be included in the consultation.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right on the matter of boards. On the back of the Chancellor’s announcements in the spring, we are pleased to give audit committees the power to review payment practices and for that to be included in the annual report. We are working with the Financial Reporting Council and the frameworks department at BEIS to work out the best way for that to happen. The new strategic reporting requirement was introduced in January. We are asking the FRC how the payment reporting duty is covered by that new duty, if at all. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will legislate to make that happen if necessary.
The Chartered Institute of Credit Management has worked hard on this issue over recent months, especially on the strengthening of the voluntary prompt payment code in October. We are pleased that cross-examining the data gathered under the payment reporting duty has helped with compliance with the voluntary code. We and the CICM believe that the best place for that duty is with the small business commissioner, so that the commissioner is, in effect, a one-stop shop and an easily identifiable pathway for small businesses.
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about project bank accounts. Some hon. Members present, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), have lobbied me in the past on the matter of retentions. We have told the industry that we expect it to come to a consensus on a way forward, and we will take action if it does not.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have announced that from 1 September any company bidding for Government contracts over £5 million will be expected to pay 95% of their invoices within 60 days. If they do not achieve that target, they will not necessarily be able to bid for further contracts. In April 2019, we announced our new ambition that 90% of undisputed invoices should be paid to small businesses within five days.
Like the Minister, I ran a small business, so I recognise the challenge of late payments for small businesses. It is to the credit of this Government that they created the role of small business commissioner. The Minister said that she is holding a consultation on additional powers for the small business commissioner, who has often said that he needs more powers. Will she be a little clearer about when those powers might be available to him, and whether they will include the power to fine businesses that fail to honour their commitments? The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has heard about many businesses that signed up to the prompt payment code but failed to adhere to its terms, and the small business commissioner needs a little bit more beef to get his teeth into that issue. Finally, will she consider making it mandatory to add interest to overdue accounts, because that would give businesses that are delaying payments a real incentive to get their payments made on time?
Primary legislation would be required to give further powers to the small business commissioner, so we will seek views and consult. We do want to give the small business commissioner further powers—for example, the ability to apply sanctions to businesses that do not comply with requests for information, court orders or financial penalties. Such sanctions could include binding payment plans.
My hon. Friend asked whether we would consider making it mandatory to apply interest to overdue accounts. There is currently low take-up of the application of interest to invoices, so there needs to be an education piece for small businesses, which we very much hope to achieve through the small business commissioner. With all these elements coming under one roof, he can launch an ambitious PR strategy to enable small businesses to understand what powers already exist for them.
I thank the Minister for advanced sight of her statement, which in our case arrived in plenty of time for us to look at. We welcome initiatives to curb late payments, but let us be frank: this does not go nearly far enough. For anyone tuning in to last night’s Tory hard Brexit hustings, it will come as no surprise that the UK Government remain opposed to taking the steps required to protect Scottish business. Does the Minister have the good grace to agree that it is now beyond a joke that, in place of serious policy steps, her statement merely proposes some minor technological measures and platitudes on best practice? And she did not fully answer this question, so can she confirm that she has looked at the Scottish Government’s project bank account scheme? Has she learnt any lessons about how that is protecting smaller contractors and subcontractors on public procurement projects?
With the Federation of Small Businesses stating,
“If all payments were made on time 50,000 more businesses could be kept open each year”,
it is clear that small business needs legal protection, so does the Minister now regret her Government’s failure to support the Construction Industry (Protection of Cash Retentions) Bill, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) aimed to stop late payments in that sector? Indeed, does she regret her Government’s failure to extend that sort of protection across the economy to all small and medium-sized enterprises?
I stand here today and make announcements, but we also need to recognise that this is about culture. We want to use all the tools in the box to legislate and take action where possible, but we also want to work with the industry and businesses to change the culture. It is not right that large firms take advantage of smaller businesses through late payments, so today we bring forward our response to the call for evidence, to stem the scourge of late payments.
The hon. Gentleman mentions project bank accounts. As I briefly outlined in my response to the previous question, project bank accounts and the use of retention is obviously a concern for many people. It is part of the whole late payment arena. That is why, as I have said, we have worked with the industry and heard the views of both sides. A consensus has yet to be found in the industry. The challenge that we have set is that the industry must come to a way forward or we will take action.
To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, I have indeed looked at some of the work that has gone on in Scotland and at what has happened in Northern Ireland. I highlight what the Federation of Small Businesses said today:
“Small businesses will be delighted with today’s announcement. FSB has worked very hard with government to create a whole-board approach to late payment within the UK’s large companies, and empower Audit Committees to look after the supply chain. Together with measures to strengthen the Small Business Commissioner’s powers and reform the Prompt Payment Code, the measures today could finally see an end to poor payment practice.”
The words that my hon. Friend just spoke were those of my constituent, Mr Mike Cherry. There can be no greater praise than that from such an advocate for small business. The FSB supports these measures, so I commend her on them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main challenges is not late but prompt payment? Far too many big businesses continue to extend payment terms—150 days, 180 days or even more. That is simply not acceptable and unfeasible for many small businesses. Will my hon. Friend add that to her to-do list and really make a difference for small businesses?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and recognise his particular interest as my predecessor in this post. He is absolutely correct: prompt payment is a particular concern for small businesses, and some large companies alter their payment terms. We are seeking views on giving the small business commissioner more powers because he acts for small businesses that have struggled with getting prompt payment. Currently, his powers are not binding; we feel that if his powers were binding, that could be part of his suit of armour in tackling late and non-payments.
I call the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Rachel Reeves.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.
When our Select Committee looked into this issue, many small businesses insisted on giving evidence in private, so worried were they about retaliation from the big businesses that they supplied. Larger businesses, including Morrisons, Aldi and WH Smith, are not signatories to the prompt payment code, while Boots pays suppliers at a discount for the privilege of their being paid on time. The power imbalance is so great now between bigger and smaller businesses. I urge the Government and the Minister to look again, make the prompt payment code mandatory and bring down the period to a benchmark of 30 days.
I thank the hon. Lady and highlight again the significant work that her Committee has done on this issue, including with our Department. She is absolutely right to highlight the power imbalance, which is why many small businesses feel that they are unable to speak out. That is why we are seeking views in our consultation on powers for the small business commissioner. We will seek to enable the Small Business Minister to make a referral to the small business commissioner; to give the commissioner investigatory powers similar to those of the Groceries Code Adjudicator; and to empower him to carry out an investigation without the small business involved having had to have reported the issue. There is a suggestion that the process could be anonymised.
The hon. Lady raises an important point, and I am very much aware of it. It will be very much part of my drafting, with the team, in regard to the consultation.
I welcome this statement from the Minister and I know that she is committed to ensuring that small businesses are dealt with fairly.
The project bank accounts introduced by the Northern Ireland Executive have already been mentioned. That measure now applies to hundreds of millions of pounds of Government contracts and ensures that the money goes not to the main contractor but directly to the subcontractors when they have completed the work. That stops the main contractor from holding on to the money or bargaining with the small companies and means that the small companies do not have to take the initiative, which they are sometimes afraid to do. Will the Minister work with Northern Ireland officials to ensure that the lessons learned there can be applied here?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising that. I highlight his particular interest in this area and the fact that he was one of the Ministers responsible in Northern Ireland when project bank accounts were introduced there. He is right that there are absolutely some merits in such accounts; as he knows, I have taken a particular interest in the subject and I will continue to work on it. The Government are clear that where project bank accounts can be used with Government contracts, they will be, although they are not always a suitable measure in some large contracts.
Today, I have announced a suite of tools to tackle late payments. Am I going to stand here and say that in future we will not have to do anything more? Of course not. Part of government and what we need to do in a changing economy and business environment is to make sure that we keep looking at ways to make things easier for small businesses.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. She talked about the challenges facing small businesses. Brexit, of course, will cause huge disruption to small businesses’ supply chains given the added bureaucracy and tariffs.
This statement on late payments is welcome, but may I ask the Minister again the specific question put by the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves)? Why not make the prompt payment code mandatory—compulsory for large businesses? Why is there is further delay with consultations and what have you? She should make it mandatory, as we have been arguing for.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the statement and the moves that the Government have made today. He is absolutely right about the prompt payment code: it is voluntary. As it stands, there are more than 2,000 signatories to it; they sign up and commit to paying 90% of their invoices within 60 days. As he will know, the Government initiated the new duty on companies to report biannually on payment practices. To date, we have had more than 15,000 reports for over 7,000 companies. That data has enabled the Chartered Institute of Credit Management to scrutinise the voluntary code payment data.
We have seen action. Five businesses have been removed from the code and 12 have been suspended. As I have outlined today, when people are not complying with the legislation, we will take action. We are continuing to move forward to strengthen the prompt payment code and close any holes and weaknesses that there are.
When it comes to cash retentions, the Minister said twice that it was up to industry to find a way forward, but they are actually a Government responsibility. It is about 40 years since it was first recommended that the use of cash retentions in the construction industry be phased out. In my time as an MP, the Government have consulted twice on the issue, voted down amendments to the Enterprise Bill, and refused to back both my private Member’s Bill and that of the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). Instead of listening to the large, tier 1 contractors, will the Minister pledge to take action and give a timescale for the phasing out of the use of cash retentions in the construction industry?
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of retentions. He says that this is not for industry, but for the Government. I have spoken to industry representatives and businesses about this issue, and it is clear that the industry has not come to a single way forward to deal with this. We hope that the measures that I have announced today on supply chain finance will make a big difference. With regard to cash retentions, I have been clear that if industry cannot come to a consensus on a way forward, the Government will step in and take action.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I thank her for meeting me after I introduced my Public Sector Supply Chains (Project Bank Accounts) Bill earlier this year. However, the measures she has introduced are actually recommendations from the 2013 inquiry that I led into late payments. Six years on, this is a little late, although I recognise her commitment. These measures will be no comfort to Neil Skinner, who owns a business in my constituency and lost £176,000 when Carillion collapsed. That was not a one-off; we know that there are other Carillions out there. Some 380 small businesses closed directly as a result of Carillion’s collapse. I cannot understand why she is so reticent after decades of this issue and why she will not act on project bank accounts.
I recognise the hon. Lady’s passion and commitment. As I have said to her in previous meetings, I am happy to continue to work with her on this issue. Project bank accounts have value. I have announced the measures we are taking, following the call for evidence. I understand that she is disappointed in the time it has taken to bring these measures forward, but we are taking action. These bad practices have been happening not only in recent years but for decades, and this Government are finally taking action.
The hon. Lady is right to mention her constituent and the losses that his business suffered through the collapse of Carillion. Carillion’s debt was estimated to be £900 million at the end, which excluded £500 million of supply chain finance. That is why we will work with the Financial Reporting Council to find ways to bring transparency to companies’ accounts and reporting, which we hope will address any larger failures in the future.
Nuclear Submarine Recycling (Reporting)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Government to prepare a strategy for recycling out-of-service Royal Navy nuclear submarines and to report annually on progress, to consult on extending decommissioning powers in Part 1 of the Energy Act 2004 to include the recycling of Royal Navy nuclear submarines, and to publish estimates of the taxpayer liability associated with such submarines; and for connected purposes.
Britain still has every nuclear submarine that it has ever had. There are 13 old nuclear submarines tied up in Devonport in Plymouth and seven tied up in Rosyth. When I was elected in 2017, I said that I would make safely, securely and sustainably recycling these submarines one of my priorities. I have asked the Prime Minister two questions at PMQs about the lack of a funded plan to recycle them. I have helped to put together a cross-party campaign with the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan). We have met Ministers, submitted proposals and encouraged the questioning of the Public Accounts Committee, which published an excellent report on the subject today. We now present our arguments and proposals in this Bill. The Bill has cross-party backing from a range of colleagues who are all as passionate as I am to get these nuclear submarines recycled safely and securely, and I am grateful to see so many of them in the Chamber.
Many people are not aware that we still have all the submarines that have served in the Royal Navy. The 13 stored in Devonport and the seven in Rosyth are potentially just the start of many more to enter storage. The oldest submarine stored in Devonport is HMS Valiant, which was launched in 1963 at the height of the cold war. The submarines can be seen on Google Maps—if anyone watching this debate zooms in on Plymouth, on the left-hand side of the city, at No. 3 basin in Devonport, they will see lines of nuclear submarines, many of which have been there for decades.
It would be easy for me to make cheap headlines by saying that these nuclear submarines pose a safety risk, but populism is not my style. I want to be clear that there is no immediate safety risk to our local communities from these submarines. Babcock does all it can to look after the submarines, ensuring that there are no leaks and no risks to our communities. I thank the company and its staff for their work, but Plymouth and Rosyth cannot be asked to look after the submarines indefinitely without a plan for their disposal.
This is a personal matter for me. I am the son of a submariner who served on HMS Swiftsure and HMS Conqueror and worked on refitting and extending the operational lives of many of these submarines as an engineer in Devonport—my family know these subs well. It is a point of curiosity not lost on my old man that one Pollard served on them, and his son is busy trying to chop them up and dispose of them, but both Pollards are doing what is in the national interest.
We already have a civil nuclear programme dealing with the clean-up of our civil nuclear past. The taxpayer-funded Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is working on cleaning up 17 old civil nuclear sites, but its work does not currently cover decommissioned nuclear submarines. The taxpayer has an unlimited liability for the clean-up, as clearly stated in the Energy Act 2004, and rightly so. We know that nine of the 20 submarines retired since 1980 contain nuclear fuel. They are not currently a risk, but they need to be dealt with. My Bill seeks to prepare the ground for the extension of the unlimited taxpayer liability for civil nuclear clean-up to these old Royal Navy submarines. If we extend the line of credit from the Treasury, work can begin, and we can genuinely deal with our nuclear legacy.
These submarines are not only taking up valuable space in our dockyards but costing the taxpayer millions of pounds a year in storage and maintenance costs. The Public Accounts Committee has today released a report that puts the cost to the taxpayer at £30 million a year. That money could and should be used for dismantling and defuelling the submarines and finally dealing with these retired boats.
The report warns that the Ministry of Defence is reaching a “crisis point” in terms of space and will run out of space to store submarines by the mid-2020s. In the next four years, three more Trafalgar class submarines will need to be stored somewhere, as they are replaced by the new Astute class subs being built in Barrow. The Prime Minister told me in this Chamber that they will be stored at Devonport, taking our number of old retired submarines up to 16. A decade later, the four Vanguard class Trident subs will need to be stored when they are taken out of service and replaced by the new Dreadnought class submarines, but where will they go? There is no space at Devonport, and Rosyth is closed for more submarines. That is why we need a funded plan to deal with the ones we have and make space for the ones that will come out of service soon.
Instead of further delaying this decision, it is clear that the Government need to act now. I know that Rosyth has plans for the dock space currently used by the submarines, and I want No. 3 basin in Devonport to be used to enhance the base-porting location for the brilliant new Type 26 frigates we will get, and hopefully the Type 31 frigates in due course.
Over a year ago, I helped to kick off this campaign with colleagues from all parties. We wrote to the Prime Minister urging her to fund a defueling and dismantling strategy. These submarines will not go away on their own. Although they have been hidden out of sight for many years, the longer this recycling project drags on, the more expensive it becomes to deal with them. Retired submarines have been ignored by Governments of all colours for more than 50 years. They need to be dealt with properly—I think all parties can unite on that—to secure a safe and decent future.
A properly funded defuelling and dismantling strategy—broadly, submarine recycling—would present opportunities to invest in skills and innovation. It would also foster greater collaboration between the defence and civil nuclear sectors. The workforce already moves between those sectors, as does the science of decommissioning, but at the moment the Government still deal with them in two distinct silos. There is an efficiency for the public purse in collaborating, and the future really must be more joined up between the ministerial and official level and the work on the ground and in the docks. Decommissioning is highly skilled and technical work that creates good jobs and supports the local economy and community. Above all, recycling these old nuclear submarines is in the national interest. Plymouth and Rosyth cannot be asked to store old nuclear submarines indefinitely. That is why we need a properly funded plan for these submarines, using the same principles as in the civil nuclear clean-up programme, because they must be recycled safely, securely and sustainably.
We know that once people find out about these submarines, they are concerned about what will happen to them. We also know that once people have seen them—whether on Google Maps, in person by driving alongside the docks in Devonport and Rosyth, or on the warship tours in the dockyard in Devonport—they have no choice but to think about what should happen to them. That is why, on behalf of the hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed and for Dunfermline and West Fife, I am presenting this Bill as part of a campaign that will not rest until we win. I am doing so to highlight these subs and to demand—politely, but firmly—that a solution is found. We need to acknowledge that these nuclear submarines exist and need to be dealt with. We need a proper plan from the MOD for recycling these submarines, with a clear timeframe, and we need to extend the unlimited taxpayer liability to ensure that this essential work can be delivered. That is what my Bill will do, and that is why it has cross-party support. I hope Ministers will pick it up and run with it.
Question put and agreed to.
That Luke Pollard, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Douglas Chapman, Dr Julian Lewis, Meg Hillier, Mrs Madeline Moon, Ruth Smeeth, Sir Gary Streeter, Richard Harrington, Dr Alan Whitehead, Jamie Stone and Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi present the Bill.
Luke Pollard accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 408).
Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill
Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
[Relevant documents: First Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Parliamentary Buildings Bill, Governance of Restoration and Renewal, HC 1800, HL Paper 317; Government response to the Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, May 2019, CP 90.]
New Clause 1
Examination by the Comptroller and Auditor General
“(1) The Comptroller and Auditor General may carry out an examination of—
(a) the Sponsor Body; or
(b) the Delivery Authority; or
(c) both the Sponsor Body and the Delivery Authority
under section 6 of the National Audit Act 1983.
(2) For the purpose of an examination of the Sponsor Body or the Delivery Authority, or the Sponsor Body and the Delivery Authority, under section 6 of the National Audit Act 1983, the Comptroller and Auditor General shall have a right of access at all reasonable times to relevant documents held or controlled by a person in circumstances in which that person has or had a contractual obligation to supply goods or services directly or indirectly to the Sponsor Body or Delivery Authority, and the Comptroller and Auditor General shall be entitled to require from such a person holding or accountable for any such document such information and explanation as are reasonably necessary for that purpose.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (2) a person has a contractual obligation to supply goods or services indirectly to the Sponsor Body or Delivery Authority if and only if that person has a contractual obligation to supply goods or services that arises from a contract which is a subcontract in relation to a main contract between the Sponsor Body or Delivery Authority and another person or body.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (3), a contract is a subcontract in relation to a main contract if its performance would fulfil, or contribute to the fulfilment of, an obligation to supply goods or services in the main contract.
(5) In subsection (2) “relevant documents” means documents that relate to the contractual obligation to supply goods or services.”—(Mark Tami.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 1, in clause 2, page 2, line 16, at end insert—
“(f) to require the Delivery Authority when allocating contracts for construction and related work to have regard for the company’s policies on corporate social responsibility, including those relating to the blacklisting of employees or potential employees from employment.”
Amendment 6, page 2, line 21, at end insert—
“(h) to undertake, and publish, an annual audit of the companies that have been awarded contracts for the Parliamentary building works, with a view to establishing their size and geographical location.”
Amendment 7, page 2, line 44, leave out “desirability of ensuring” and insert “need to ensure”.
This amendment requires the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, in exercising its functions, to have regard to the need to ensure that educational and other facilities are provided for people visiting the Palace of Westminster (rather than requiring it to have regard to the desirability of ensuring that such facilities are provided).
Amendment 4, page 2, line 46, at end insert—
“(h) the need to ensure that economic benefits of the Parliamentary building works are delivered across the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, in terms of contracts for works and in any other way the Sponsor Board considers appropriate.”
Amendment 5, page 2, line 46, at end insert—
“(h) the need to conserve and sustain the outstanding architectural, archaeological and historical significance of the Palace of Westminster, including the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage Site.”
Amendment 8, in schedule 1, page 10, line 20, at end insert—
“( ) See also paragraph 7A, which makes provision about the appointment of the first external members.”
This amendment signposts the new paragraph 7A inserted by amendment 9 (which deals with the appointment of the first external members of the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body).
Amendment 9, page 12, line 2, at end insert—
“Appointment of initial external members
7A (1) The person who, immediately before the commencement day, was the chair of the shadow Sponsor Body is to be treated as having been appointed on that day as the chair of the Sponsor Body in accordance with paragraph 2.
(2) Appointment by virtue of sub-paragraph (1) is to be treated as being for a term of 3 years.
(3) A person who, immediately before the commencement day—
(a) was a member of the shadow Sponsor Body (other than the chair), and
(b) was not a member of either House of Parliament,
is to be treated as having been appointed on that day as a member of the Sponsor Body in accordance with paragraph 3 (external members).
(4) Appointment by virtue of sub-paragraph (3) is to be treated as being for a term ending with the last day of the period of 3 years beginning with the day on which the shadow Sponsor Body was established.
(5) An appointment by virtue of sub-paragraph (1) or (3) ceases to have effect at the end of the period of 1 month beginning with the commencement day unless, before the end of that period, the appointment is confirmed by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
(6) Paragraphs 2, 3 and 6 do not apply in relation to a member who is appointed by virtue of sub-paragraph (1) or (3).
(7) In this paragraph—
“the commencement day” means the day on which section 2(1) comes into force;
“the shadow Sponsor Body” means the body, established in July 2018 in connection with the restoration of the Palace of Westminster, which is known as the shadow Sponsor Body.”
This amendment provides for those who were external members of the shadow Sponsor Body immediately before clause 2 comes into force to be appointed as the first external members of the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body.
I rise to speak to new clause 1 and amendment 6 on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and myself, and amendments 8 and 9 on behalf of the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) and myself.
New clause 1 seeks to give statutory powers to the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine the preparedness of the Sponsor Body and the Delivery Authority to undertake the parliamentary building works required. Importantly, that power would come now, rather than looking at the project in the years to come. The new clause would not mandate the Comptroller and Auditor General to do it, but it would give him the power and the opportunity to do so if he considered it appropriate. For public confidence, it is vital that this project delivers and is seen to deliver value for money for the taxpayer. There is clearly uncertainty about what exactly we will find when we start the work on the building. As we have already seen with the Elizabeth Tower, we can actually find some quite large increases in costs.
It is not currently easy for the CAG and the National Audit Office to access a company’s records of contracts. They can look at a contract between the Government and a body in the private sector, but the NAO does not have access rights to such companies’ accounts. While that is not detailed in the new clause, I hope the Government will look at it. Greater access and transparency is vital in this respect. In saying that, we do not want to put extra burdens on small and medium-sized enterprises and other companies looking to tender for work. In fact, as I will explain, we have to do everything to ensure that they actually tender, but I ask the Minister to look at this issue, because it will be important in the future.
Amendment 6 is very straightforward. It calls for an annual audit of all the contracts awarded under the programme so that we can see both the size of the companies and, importantly, where they are and where the money is spent around the country. This project, by its very nature, is based in London, but it should not just be a London-centric project. This is a national Parliament, and the work needs to be spread across the whole of the UK. I know that other amendments also look at that.
I entirely agree that where work has to be done, it should be spread around the country. Is the right hon. Gentleman envisaging that the audit should take into account the policy issues? For example, will it look at whether it is good value to move MPs out of this building, or whether there is some easier way of doing this without something so fundamental?
As someone who has been involved in this from day one, I would say that we have looked at this very carefully, and the decision to decant from here was not taken lightly. A lot of work went into that, and I think we have made the right choice.
The two amendments in my name and that of the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales provide that the external members of the shadow Sponsor Body, including the chair, will be automatically transferred to the statutory Sponsor Body on the creation of that statutory body. As a member of the shadow board, I can say that I greatly value the work and experience that the external members of the shadow board have brought to bear, and I think it is important that that carries on. The amendments cover the members who only last year went through a fair and open competition, based on merit, to be appointed to the shadow Sponsor Body. Given that the shadow Sponsor Body has only recently commenced its work, it is important to retain these members, for now, for the continuity of the restoration and renewal programme. I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing in Committee to work with the right hon. Gentleman and me on these amendments, which I hope the Government will accept.
These amendments will transfer all the external members of the shadow Sponsor Body to the statutory Sponsor Body. The chair will be appointed for a term of three years from the date the Sponsor Body is established in statute. The terms of the other external members of the Sponsor Body will be three years from the date the shadow Sponsor Body was established in July 2018. Once these terms have expired, the chair of the Sponsor Body will be responsible for setting the members’ fixed terms, which cannot exceed three years. The Bill provides that, in doing so, the chair must have regard to the desirability of ensuring that appointments do not all expire at the same time. These amendments are a practical way forward, and I hope the House will accept them.
I am very happy that there should be proper audit and review, and I think the right spirit was struck by the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) in speaking about his proposal. However, I would like to raise the bigger policy issue. The underlying Bill he is seeking to amend says that the Delivery Authority is
“to formulate proposals relating to the design, cost and timing”
of the works, so it is not a done deal. I am very pleased it is not a done deal, because I think a lot of work needs to be done before committing to the plans that this House has not had a great deal of time to consider in this forum. It has been considered elsewhere, but perhaps other MPs have views that ought to be taken into account before we decamp from this important part of the Palace and embark on such fundamental works. When the audit looks into these matters, I hope it will take into account the wider issues of value for money and convenience, and the functions of this building.
I pay tribute to the way in which a number of contractors and their staff are doing fundamental works to the Elizabeth Tower, while enabling us to use this building as if there were no interruption. They have done a remarkable job of not intruding on the work of Parliament. So far they have run a very safe site, which we all welcome. It shows that fundamental works can take place while we are using the buildings in the way that was intended. It is a good model. There are also a lot of roofing works going on at the moment, which again shows that these things can be done without fundamental and expensive change.
Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that because the Elizabeth Tower works are going on while we are sitting here, we could somehow remain in parts of the Palace of Westminster while the works on it are carried out? Will he reflect on which parts of the Elizabeth Tower are used for parliamentary business and which parts we are hindered from accessing as the works are going on?
Of course, when the works need to move on to parts of the Palace that MPs use more often and more directly, alternative arrangements will need to be made. However, I do not think that means that all MPs need to move out of the old Palace for a long period of time, when it has been shown that bits of work can be done around the historic Palace without everybody having to decamp.
The right hon. Gentleman is being kind in giving way. To support my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), in my 14 years in this Parliament, I do not think I have been in the Elizabeth Tower once. I think that strengthens the argument that has just been made from the Scottish National party’s Front Bench.
I do not think it does at all, because I have also pointed out that there are a lot of roofing works going on. The hon. Gentleman is using the parts of the building that are being reroofed without being interrupted in his work. Again, I pay tribute to those who are carrying out the works without the need for fundamental change.
If we want value for money, we need to ensure that before any full plans are adopted, the Delivery Authority has done a proper job of analysing the options.
I also make a more fundamental point about our democracy. I know that there are many Members here who do not want to restore a proper independent democracy in Britain and are doing their best to ignore the wishes of the British people, as expressed in the referendum. It would be doubly ironic if they not only had their way on that, but said that we cannot use the historic Palace in the way that was intended for a long period. That would be a symbol that the public’s wish—
Order. We need to keep to the Bill and the amendments. I know that a man of great stature like the right hon. Gentleman would not wish to lead the House where it is not supposed to go. I think that he was giving way to Mark Tami.
To reinforce your point, Mr Deputy Speaker, I was about to say that we have had these arguments for ever and a day. We could have them again, but this debate is about the governance.
Hence why I am sure Sir John will now go back to where he wanted to be.
I am very willing to do so. As I say, I welcome the principle that where works are conducted, there needs to be a proper audit. However, I go back to the intervention that I made at the start of the debate, when I said that any audit should also look at the policy, because I note that the legislation we are being asked to approve today makes it very clear that the policy has not been finalised. We are setting up authorities and bodies to sort out both the policy and the implementation, so I submit that the audit must apply to the policy as well as to the implementation.
I will speak to amendment 4, which appears in my name and in those of colleagues not just in the Scottish National party, but across the House. The amendment would insert something that presently does not appear anywhere in the Bill, but which is critical for the project to enjoy not only political support, but the support of the public, particularly in the devolved nations.
Nowhere in the Bill is there a commitment that the project will see benefit derived outside London. However, clause 9, which is about spending issues relating to the project, extends and applies to Scotland. That means that taxpayers in Scotland will pay for their share of these works on a project in London but, with the way the Bill is currently drafted, will get nothing in return. We have had warm words, but according to what the Bill actually says, which is what matters, this will be another massive capital project in London, which already enjoys a huge share of UK capital spending—a third of it goes to London and the south-east.
Why is this important? Of all spending, capital spending derives the greatest economic benefit, bringing higher growth and employment to the areas where it occurs. Right now, London and the south-east benefit from a third of all UK capital spending. This multibillion-pound project will widen that gap and, as it has been designated a UK-wide project, there will be no Barnett consequentials. I think that this project should go beyond Barnett and that there should be a capital investment fund, proportionate to the total cost of the project, to be allocated on a shared basis to the nations and regions. Perhaps it could be a requirement that the money is spent on restoring and renewing old buildings in those areas.
If amendment 4 does not pass, there will be nothing in the Bill to mandate the Sponsor Board or the Delivery Authority to ensure that any spending, any procurement or even one single job is gained outside London, where the project will obviously be based.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that some £400 million of common taxpayers’ money was spent on the Edinburgh Parliament, and no equivalent English Parliament has been granted? This is the Parliament of the Union, so we all share in it. His fellow countrymen and women voted to stay in that Union and are proud of their Union’s Parliament.
It is for the former Secretary of State for Wales to promote the idea of an English Parliament, not for a Member of the Scottish National party.
I applaud the hon. Gentleman on his amendment. I will be happy to support it if he presses it to a Division. If we are really serious about dealing with the huge geographical wealth inequalities within the British state, surely we should debate moving this Parliament outside London and the south-east.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. He will be aware that I pushed that idea when I sat on the first Joint Committee that reviewed the options appraisal. Unfortunately, I was outvoted 11 to one on that occasion, but it is something that the SNP has looked on favourably in the past.
Obviously I do not expect any kind of quota system for a nations and regions fund, which would fall foul of procurement law, but I do want something that ensures that the Sponsor Board and Delivery Authority have to at least be cognisant of discernible UK-wide benefit.
Why do we need to have this debate now? Look at what happened with the London Olympics. I am a massive sports fan and a former athlete, although I did not get to such heights as the Olympic games. However, I was a supporter of the London Olympics. As a fan, I watched it with interest. It was a fantastic event. However, it took a massive fight by my colleagues who were here at the time to ensure that there was even a semblance of UK-wide benefit. The Scottish Government received a fraction of what they should have had in Barnett consequentials, and the lottery good causes funding for Scotland was raided to help pay for the games. Only now, seven years on, are we starting to see some of that charity money returning, but it will be spread over several years and many groups needed that money years ago. Estimates at the time put the Scottish contracts won from the London Olympics in the tens of millions, when £7 billion of contracts were up for grabs.
My colleague and good friend is making a powerful speech. In describing the raid on the Scottish lottery budgets at the time of the Olympics, he is highlighting that what is happening here is another not very well disguised London subsidy from the pockets of Scottish taxpayers. This is why the Union is creaking. I say to Scottish Tory MPs who acquiesce in this: “You are not Unionists if you are doing this; you are submissionists. You should be making sure that Scotland gets its fair share of any subsidy that goes to London.”
Order. Come on—let’s stick to what the debate is about.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I thought it was a perfectly reasonable intervention.
I am the judge of that, not you, Mr Gray. Come on!
Returning to the London Olympics, at the time, 4,200 Scottish companies registered their interest in providing services, while fewer than 200 actually secured any business. Most galling of all was that £135 million of legacy funding was made available for grassroots sport, but to be distributed by sports governing bodies south of the border. No extra funding was made available for Scottish sports governing bodies. There is no doubt that that experience left a bitter taste. We are not here to debate the London Olympics, but that is the last major infrastructure project similar in status to the restoration and renewal project, which is London-based, without full Barnett consequentials and with a similar delivery model—I will come back to that.
I was there during the London Olympics and remember only too well the wrangling that went on because of the Barnett consequentials issue. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to want something on the face of the Bill that assures the rest of the UK that it will get some sort of benefit from this project. If it does not, we will have years and years of the type of wrangling we had over the London Olympics, and what a waste of time that was.
I totally agree, which is why I am pushing these amendments.
The hon. Gentleman is making the case that there is too much capital expenditure in London and the south-east on this project. I remind him of the massive expenditure on the two aircraft carriers built in Rosyth in southern Scotland, at enormous expense for the Union’s taxpayers, for the benefit of Scottish companies and Scottish labour.
Order. We have a debate on amendments and Members are meant to be speaking to those amendments. I am not going to let the debate drift to wherever people decide they want it to drift to. We will now go back to Mr Neil Gray. We need to get back to where we should be.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have been referring to a relevant project, which was similar in status to the one under discussion today and one from which we should have learnt lessons. My colleagues and I have done our very best to be constructive in all our dealings on this issue, but there will come a point where we will have to ask for how long we can be ignored on an issue of fundamental importance to us, which is the fair share of resources. I fully expect this project to go beyond £10 billion, when all is said and done. If the project is Barnett-ised, that would mean a transfer just shy of £1 billion to Scotland. Right now, the Government are unwilling to contemplate not only some form of capital investment spin-off, but even a subtle instruction to the Sponsor Board to ensure contracts are secured across the UK. That is not acceptable and there must be a revision of that approach.
On the other amendments, we will support Labour’s amendment 1 on blacklisting companies. Amendment 5 is a little bit concerning for me. I understand the intention from the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), but as I have said before this project will throw up irreconcilable conflicts which will make for very difficult decisions. One will be the conflict between access for members of the public versus heritage. Amendment 5, as well-intentioned as it may be, will make it far more difficult to make this place more accessible to disabled people. Besides, if this is just going to be a project to empty everything out and return it all back as it was but a bit cleaner, then what on earth is the point? The building contributes to the culture here, which is elitist, inaccessible and out of date, and that must change. We support amendment 6 as a way of improving the Bill, but it does not in itself satisfy our desire for greater emphasis to be placed on the Sponsor Board and the Delivery Authority to ensure the project has discernible UK-wide benefits.
In conclusion, I intend to press my cross-party amendment 4 to a Division to test the willingness of the Government to do more than just talk about this being a UK-wide project. We have seen what happens in the past: they are no such thing. We need concrete action to confirm that.
I will do the rather unusual job, Mr Deputy Speaker, of talking to my amendment, which is amendment 5. I am delighted that the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), added her name to it. I am sure that will help to persuade the House that it would be a worthy addition to the Bill.
Amendment 5 adds an additional consideration for the Sponsor Body to have regard to. It is a probing amendment, but if anybody annoys me I will press it to a Division and see what the House thinks. I speak with my hat on as the chairman of the all-party group on archaeology and as a proud, sometime jobbing archaeologist.
There are a lot of fossils around here.
There are certainly a lot of fossils on the Scottish National party Benches. [Laughter.]
I thank the Minister for meeting me on this subject the other day—I know he takes an interest in it—and I pay tribute to the work done by the previous Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), who worked over such a long time to make the Bill possible and put so much of her energy into it.
I support the Bill. I support the arrangements for the status, role and functioning of the parliamentary works Sponsor Body. It is a huge undertaking, as I think we all acknowledge, which we absolutely need to get right. I do not want to do anything to make the Bill in any way unduly prescriptive and impede the flexibility of members of the board, who face a huge and challenging task to help to restore and rebuild the Palace. I get all that and I take no issue with the need to move out of this place as soon as possible for the work to be done. What slightly concerns me, however, is that all the amendments we are considering today, and indeed all the amendments that were considered in Committee and during the other stages, are really about process.
There are lots of perfectly valid considerations about the companies that will undertake the work, the economic benefit that should flow across the nation and the membership of the Sponsor Body. Those are legitimate debates to have, but at no point does any amendment actually refer to the unique archaeological, historical and constitutional significance of the building about whose work and future we are talking. No amendment mentions that. At no point was it even discussed in Committee. I was very surprised, when I read the Committee stage in Hansard, that it did not come up once. That is why my amendment, which is supported by Historic England and the all-party group on archaeology, is necessary. I was specifically tasked at our last meeting to raise this issue. The archaeological community is concerned about the absence of the consideration of heritage in the Bill.
I know that we have moved on, but when the underground car park was built some 40 or 50 years ago archaeological rigour was not quite as thorough as it might have been. It is likely that part of Edward the Confessor’s original palace—a hugely significant building both to the nature of this whole area and its interrelation with Westminster Abbey—was lost in the construction of that car park. That was a piece of archaeological vandalism. We must absolutely make sure that, in the considerable work that will need to take place in this Palace, the full archaeological integrity and importance of the building—what is under it, what is on it and what is next to it—is appreciated and we do not lose the opportunity to investigate more the history of this place or destroy, in our pursuit of getting a building that is more sustainable, user-friendly and so on, all that in the process.
These are very important considerations and I am glad my hon. Friend is raising them. One of the problems in dealing with a building that has 1,000 years of history on its site, as a royal palace and as legal and government buildings, is to know which era or eras one is most concerned about, what one is trying to conserve, and what one can hope to re-use or conserve. Does he have any thoughts on that complexity when there is so much history on site?
I will come on to that in a minute. It is said that all archaeology is destruction, because when you take something out of its context you cannot return it to that context. It is therefore absolutely essential that the context of what we find—part of archaeology is what you do not find and might have expected to—is absolutely respected and recorded in order to fit together the jigsaw puzzle, particularly for such an important building over so many centuries, and, most likely, over 1,000 years.
I reassure my hon. Friend that at the pre-legislative scrutiny stage, which I had the privilege of chairing, archaeological significance was indeed touched on. A number of members of the Committee had the opportunity to tour these premises and it became very clear to us that there is great deal more than one can actually see. The deeper we go in any excavation work the more unknown are the important artefacts that may remain below. There was also the rather tragic but true fact that about 17 chimney sweeps are unaccounted for. When we come to deconstruct and reconstruct the building, we need to be very mindful that there may be human remains deep down or within the building—[Interruption.] It is a fact and we need to be very respectful in how we go about these works.
My right hon. Friend makes a very valid point. I had not considered the prospect of mummified chimney sweeps as part of the archaeological excavations. I am pleased to hear that this issue was considered in pre-legislative scrutiny, which makes it even more surprising and even more of an omission that it did not make its way into the Bill. It is absolutely crucial.
My right hon. Friend and I entered this House on the same day back in 1997 and I have travelled around an awful lot of it, but there are still parts of it that I have not explored. I was privileged enough to go right up into the roof of Westminster Hall during repair work on the beams. I saw the original graffiti when some of them were restored and the ways they had been put together. However, there was a great sadness at that stage. We lobbied through the all-party group on archaeology for a dendrochronology investigation of the beams, because it is likely that when their last major restoration took place in or around 1820, many of them originated from the hulls of ships broken in Portsmouth dockyard, as happened in many cases—an old part of my house is made from beams of ships that, it is thought, came from the 15th century. It is highly likely that some of the ships used here took part in the Battle of Trafalgar. We might have a major part of this country’s long history within the confines of this Palace, yet despite our entreaties no investigation took place when the work was going on, even though that would have made it much easier and given us yet further explanation about how this place was put together. It is really important that we do not miss such opportunities, which we will not have again.
I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s amendment and I understand what he is trying to achieve. However, one of the great conflicts in this project will be between the need to restore heritage and the need to deliver greater access, particularly for disabled Members and disabled members of the public. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his amendment, as it stands, tips the balance in favour of heritage, and where does he feel the balance needs to be struck?
I absolutely do not accept that—the two are not mutually exclusive. The list of considerations that the Sponsor Body must “have regard to”—not “have a veto on” or “be a more important consideration”—includes “value for money”,
“safety and security of people”,
the protection of the environment, being “sustainable”, ensuring that it is accessible to visitors, accessible to people working here with disabilities—absolutely—“improved visitor access”, and ensuring that
“educational and other facilities are provided for people visiting”.
I absolutely agree with all those—they are exceedingly crucial and worthwhile—so why is there a problem with adding that the Sponsor Body should “have regard to” the fact that this is a unique building?
It is not just a UNESCO world heritage site. Probably uniquely among UNESCO world heritage sites in this country, it is a working building where history is still being made. The history of the fabric of the building still has relevance to the ongoing organic development of our constitution and the way we govern this country. That is why it was so important that when people said, “Why don’t we just turn this into a museum and have Parliament move into a purpose-built building?”, the point was made that that would completely ignore the importance of the heritage, history and cultural background of this place, which we could not repeat in a soulless, characterless, heritage-less, new, modern building. It would completely change the whole character of what we do here.
Again, an additional complication is that this is a complete Victorian rebuild of an earlier building, which also reflects the Victorian view of the history that predated the building. We therefore have a double time capsule: it is a piece of Victorian Britain and it is their view of the previous few hundred years.
My right hon. Friend is dealing with the really modern stuff—I will go back a bit further in a minute.
As you know more than many, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Palace of Westminster is one of the United Kingdom’s most famous landmarks for UK citizens and it attracts thousands of tourists every year. The reason Parliament is committed to investing billions of pounds in the restoration and renewal programme is to protect the Palace, which is falling down, and its historical legacy for future generations. Considering that this could well be the whole nation’s most ambitious and costly restoration project ever undertaken, it seems remarkable, extraordinary and bizarre that heritage is not listed as one of the matters to which the Sponsor Body should “have regard to.” It should not “take precedence”, but it should just “have regard to”. That is why my amendment inserts, as an additional regard:
“the need to conserve and sustain the outstanding architectural, archaeological and historical significance of the Palace of Westminster, including the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage Site.”
What could be controversial about that? I am not trying in any way to impede disabled access. I want disabled access to work in a complementary way so that people, whether they are disabled, come here as tourists or are UK citizens, can continue to appreciate this building’s historical importance. By putting an historical and archaeological consideration in the Bill, it would and should mean that people with disabilities have equal access to be able to appreciate the archaeological and historical features of the building. It would not just be that the lift cannot go somewhere, so they will not see some of the building’s features that they might like to.
As I said, this is a living piece of history. Great things have happened in this building, which still shapes our constitution. Last year we celebrated the centenary of women at last getting the vote. The cupboard in which Emily Wilding Davison—[Interruption.] Perhaps I could have a little bit of attention from other Members on these Benches. The cupboard where Emily Wilding Davison hid on the night before the census, in 1911, was one of the most significant wheezes of the whole suffragette movement. It happened here, and the significance of that is that she was able to put the address of this place on the census form. Women were not able to stand for election or become MPs, and they were not even able to access the Public Gallery, bizarrely. That happened in this place, but that cupboard was completely neglected. It was only some years ago when Tony Benn pointed out that that was a really significant part of our history, yet it was just a cupboard full of computer servers. It is still just a cupboard full of computer servers, but at least it has some historical narrative next to it, and it did feature in a rather louche BBC drama, “Apple Tree Yard”, which probably got more interest in it than anything else we might say in this place.
In some ways, the hon. Gentleman is making the point that I referred to about the balance that will have to be struck between what he wishes to see in heritage being protected and people being able to access the building. He will know that access to particular cupboard is by stairs in Westminster Hall. It will not be easy to provide step-free access or a lift facility to get there, so where does he see the balance being struck in preserving heritage—the steps in Westminster Hall and that cupboard—and allowing access for disabled people?
The hon. Gentleman does not know. Access might be provided through the cloisters if there were some compromise between access and—[Interruption.] That is what it is all about. It is impossible to compromise between two things if one of them is listed in the Bill and the other is apparently inconsequential. That is the whole point.
Let us take an example. Last year, as part of the 100th anniversary of the suffragette movement, there was for a long time a very imaginative display in Westminster Hall, part of which involved the reconstruction of the flue gallery from which women had had to listen to the proceedings of an all-male membership. That gallery, where the hot air went out, was reconstructed, and several of us recorded some of the debates that had taken place in those days. I was asked to play the part of William Pitt the Younger, which I think I did with some aplomb, and for many months my voice boomed up through the reconstruction of the flue.
We should recognise and respect the historic significance of objects such as that cupboard. It might even be reconstructed somewhere if it proved completely impossible to facilitate disabled access to it without causing huge architectural damage, but if that is not on the face of the Bill it is not a consideration. It might actually help people with disabilities to be able to enjoy more of the archaeological and cultural heritage of the place as well.
The explanatory notes are quite helpful. Page 3 states:
“Parliament has a clear role in approving the…cost and timing of the R&R Programme.”
However, it also states that Parliament has a clear role in “approving the design”. Does the hon. Gentleman not take any comfort from the fact that all his concerns—and, indeed, the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) about access—can be addressed when Parliament as a whole is considering, and having an input in, the design of the final project?
What is the downside of including the archaeological and historical significance of the building on the face of the Bill as an equal consideration? For some reason, the hon. Gentleman wants to discriminate against the uniqueness and the constitutional historical importance of the building. If anyone is guilty of discrimination, it is him. I just want to see everything on a level playing field because of the significance of the building.
Great things have happened in this building. The hon. Gentleman may not agree about this one, but in 1305 the trial of William Wallace took place here, and we all know what happened to him. In 1649 there was the trial of Charles I, which absolutely changed our constitution. The fact that we are where we are today, and the fact that the only person not allowed into this Chamber is the sovereign, result from an event that took place a few yards from this Chamber. The trial of Thomas More in 1535 is integral to the relationship between England and the Church of Rome, and to the supremacy of the monarch as the head of the Church of England.
Then there is the discovery recently—I say recently; it was in 2005—of the remains of the King’s High Table. I think it is a disgrace that that table is not on display in the Palace of Westminster. In 2005, some work was being undertaken in Westminster Hall because of subsidence on the steps. In the course of an archaeological excavation, people took up some of the flagstones —quite rightly, to explore what was going on—and discovered some table legs, made of perfect marble from Dorset. It transpired that they were part of the sovereign’s High Table, which features in mediaeval tapestries showing the king seated at it, in his High Chair, presiding over banquets in Westminster Hall. That was one of the original purposes for which the Hall was built.
We do not know that.
We do not know that for sure, and I defer to the hon. Gentleman’s expertise, but it is a good story—
It may not be true.
—and we should have part of that story—
Order. It might be more helpful to the Chamber if the hon. Gentlemen had this discussion afterwards.
If the hon. Gentleman turned up to meetings of the all-party parliamentary archaeology group more often, we could have the discussion there.
It has nothing to do with what we are discussing, or listening to, in respect of the Bill.
That table is part of the heritage of this place. It is thought that it may have been broken up by Cromwell to symbolise the fact that the monarchy was over and the new rule had begun. It is a really important part of the Palace’s heritage, and I think that it should be brought back from the museum and displayed here, with a considered explanation of where its origins and historical significance may lie.
If we look at the façade of the whole Palace, we see, for instance, the inspiration that came from the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey, going back to the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
It is remarkable that what I have described in those few vignettes has made this such an important building, and continues to contribute to its importance. People come here not just to see the building with all its wonderful statues, carvings and other features, but to see the living embodiment of a Parliament that is working and doing its daily business in this place. Much of what we discuss is relevant to what we can see in the basement, in the roof, in Westminster Hall or in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft.
After detailed evidence sessions, the Joint Committee concluded that the Bill should
“recognise the significant heritage which the Palace of Westminster embodies.”
The Government welcomed that recommendation in principle, and said that they would look into it further; but alas, since then—as we heard earlier from my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman)—we have heard no new arguments for not listing heritage in the Bill.
I know that the Minister will argue that the considerations that I am trying to insert in the Bill are covered by planning law, and by the various agencies—English Heritage, as was, and others—which will have an input. However, things that have happened in the past have led to the neglect or destruction of major features in the House. I think it is crucial—and sensible—that when the Sponsor Body is carrying out all its other important functions, someone should be able to ask, “And how does that preserve, or promote, or make more accessible or available or better explain, the archaeological, historical and architectural importance of this building?” That is all I am asking. I do not think it unreasonable, and I think that many others, in another place, will advance a similar argument. Many of them have, perhaps, been in the Palace for many more centuries than I have, and will talk with more authority.
I think that mine is a reasonable amendment. I think it is an oversight that it has not been included in the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will come to his senses, agree with the amendment, and add it.
I do not disagree with anything that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has just said. If his amendment were incorporated in the Bill, I would have no worries about it. However, I am not sure that he should have as many worries as he has articulated. I served on the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee. Those who are involved in this project or have taken an interest in it may disagree on many things, but one thing on which they are absolutely agreed is that we must preserve, 100%, the historical and architectural integrity of this building. Indeed, my approach to the renewal and restoration of Parliament is based on that premise. I hope that when we return to this place after the work has been done, we will notice hardly any difference. No doubt there will be better disabled access and no doubt computer systems and lighting systems will all work much better, but in the architectural significance to which my hon. Friend refers, we should notice no difference.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that our ignoring the need for this work and putting it off for 70 or 100 years has led to the loss of important stonework and so forth? It has been allowed to go to rack and ruin.
That is a valid point and I think we all agree with it.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is wrong on one point, however. It is possible at the moment to get a wheelchair into the Crypt chapel and into that cupboard he was talking about through the Cloisters. Incidentally, the Cloisters have lain empty for a long time. They were used just as offices, but they are an extraordinarily interesting part of this building. That area is not on the line of route; the public are totally unaware of it. It is a medieval remnant; it should be open to the public, and should be used as public open space. We could have done that years ago; instead, the Cloisters have been empty since—I think—Conservative or Labour researchers moved out.
I would have mentioned that. The Cloisters are rather interesting because of the bomb damage during the war. The Labour research unit was there, and in one office—I doubt its occupants realised this—is the medieval altar of one of the early Plantagenet kings from when this was a royal palace. Nobody ever sees it; it is not appreciated, and it is not in the guidebooks at all. That sort of thing needs to be flagged up and made accessible.
My hon. Friend has done a service in flagging up these historical vignettes, because they are extraordinarily interesting. I think everybody agrees with him that this place is not a museum; the whole point is that it is a living building. History is being made at the moment in our debates, at a most interesting political time, and all these little historical facts need to be incorporated into the restoration and made available to the public. I am perfectly happy with the amendment. I suspect that the Minister might say that it is not necessary, but this issue has been flagged up and it will be an important part of the debate.
You, Mr Deputy Speaker, will not want me to engage in past controversies about whether we should decant or associated issues, but—this is particularly relevant to new clause 1, and I refer to my days on the Public Accounts Committee—I have long thought that this will be the biggest feeding frenzy in the Exchequer for years and that there is a real risk it will get out of control. This is where the SNP has a valid point. The public will not forgive us if we allow this work to become a feast for the architects, surveyors and all the rest. Without getting into all the controversy over whether we should decant or not—I accept that we have to decant for a time—what has worried me is that once we leave this building and we lose control, it will be possible for the Delivery Authority to become a sort of self-perpetuating institution, spending taxpayers’ money without our having any adequate control, as guardians of the taxpayer. We should always spend this money not as if it is somebody else’s money but as if it is our money. We should always think, “What would we do if it was our money? Would we do this work in this way?” The SNP has a perfectly valid point.
I do not agree with the SNP plan to make this place a museum, however. Even if it became a museum, we would still have to do all the work, because this is a world heritage site. We have to make this building safe from fire and flood and to repair the general dereliction that comes with time. We as parliamentarians should not worry too much about whether we should decant; we should worry instead about the taxpayers and about doing a good job. We are repairing this building and not trying to create anything new and fantastic. I am very happy to improve disabled access and so forth, but that is where we should start, and we should constantly take control of costs, which is where new clause 1 comes in.
I have worked for years with the National Audit Office and I think it is a superb institution, but I hope the Minister can deal with what worries me. New clause 1 says:
“the Comptroller and Auditor General shall have a right of access at all reasonable times to relevant documents held or controlled by a person in circumstances in which that person has or had a contractual obligation to supply goods or services directly or indirectly to the Sponsor Body”.
That is the nitty-gritty; that is key. The mischief will come not from the Delivery Authority; it will come with our contractors and subcontractors. We must have the ability through the NAO to bore down into the detail and hold these people to account.
I will take the advice of the Minister on new clause 1. He might well say that it is not necessary, but I hope that he does not just dismiss it. I know it is an attitude in reserve of Ministers to say, “It’s not necessary; it’s already covered by something else” but we must have some mechanism for holding these people to account, otherwise the taxpayer could catch a tremendous cold.
I am perfectly happy with the other amendments; I am perfectly happy that the Delivery Authority should
“have regard for the company’s policies on corporate social responsibility”,
but it would do that anyway; that is modern procurement practice. I am perfectly happy that it should consider the value of work that comes to the regions, as called for in amendment 4; this again is good modern practice. However, these points in a sense are all subsidiary. We do not want PACs in the 2020s and 2030s informing us time and again that this project has cost not £4 billion, but £5 billion, £6 billion, £7 billion or £8 billion and that we have been out of this building for not four or five years, but for six, seven, eight, nine or 10 years.
We have to take a grip now, and the way to do that is not to hand control to the Delivery Authority. I am not saying that it is in any way wrong, and it is certainly not corrupt, but many of its advisers and experts come from the world of architects, surveyors and builders and they have a certain ethos, and if we tell them we want a gold standard operation and that cost is of no importance, they will take us for a ride. They will not do it deliberately or corruptly, but I firmly predict that we will have PAC hearing after PAC hearing and we will be shocked at the waste of public money.
I hear what my right hon. Friend says about the Comptroller and Auditor General having access to the records under new clause 1, but I am concerned that there is not a sufficient value-for-money assessment and that we might be, to put it in general language, taken for a ride with this project.
Value for money is what the PAC and the NAO are about. That was a very good intervention.
I hope the Minister can convince us that his No. 1 concern is safety—this is a world heritage site and we do not want it burning down or flooding—but the No. 2 consideration must be value for money. That is what worries me—again, without going into past grief—about many of the present plans. We have heard about architectural significance from my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, and I am worried about the proposal to demolish Richmond House. It is an important modern building that has won architectural awards, but I am worried not just that we might be knocking down a listed building but that this would again create an opportunity for waste. I will always look for the cheapest option, and I have been arguing that if we have to leave the Chamber—I accept the decision of the House that we will leave for a time—we should use the courtyards to build a temporary Chamber rather than knocking down large parts of Richmond House.
Unfortunately, we have told the Delivery Authority that there has to be an exact replica of where we are standing, with the same size Chamber, the same height and the same width in the Division Lobbies. I am not sure that that is entirely necessary—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is shaking his head. If I am wrong, I am wrong, but I am saying that if we can have a cheaper option with a narrower temporary Chamber that can be used for other purposes afterwards, and if we have to have electronic voting and not go through wide Division Lobbies, we should consider all those options. This is not a matter for today, but it all comes down to value for money, and it is important that we highlight these matters in these debates.
New clause 1 seems to imply, in answer to a question I was asking earlier, that the Comptroller and Auditor General would have a duty to examine policy value for money with regard to how much work is done, the timing of the work, whether we need to move, and so forth. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely fundamental that that should be part of the process, because the way in which the most money is likely to be wasted is through policy error rather than through contractors slightly overdoing a contract?
Yes; my right hon. Friend has made a worthwhile intervention, and perhaps I have been too unfair on contractors. My experience of public sector contracts over the years is not so much the importance of those in the private sector who work for us, as that it is our fault for treating these projects like a Christmas tree. We have our own prejudices and policies, we constantly change personnel, and we add things on to the Christmas tree. The private sector—either correctly or incorrectly, depending on the way we feel—then takes the opportunity to charge us more and more. We have to grip this now.
I am slightly worried about amendment 9, and perhaps the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), who tabled the amendment, can reassure me that there is nothing in it that takes away the democratic right of us in this Chamber to elect the members of the Sponsor Body and to dismiss them if necessary.
The intention is to avoid a cliff edge, because we could lose their experience at a crucial time. That is why it was felt that we really need those people to carry on and then have a system where they are subject to elections and are replaced. We did not want to have a cliff edge at the start of the project.
I take some reassurance from that. I was trying to understand the amendment. I have no problem with my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales, who is doing a good job, but I do not want us to give away our democratic right to elect the people we think should be on the body.
Just to clarify, the amendments cover only the external members, not the parliamentary members, so parliamentary members will be appointed in the usual way and will not transfer in that way.
I do apologise. I am glad that I raised this matter, however, because that has reassured me that we will constantly have control over who we send on to this body. I think I can end there. I hope the Minister will reassure me that even if he cannot accept new clause 1—I accept that that is often the default position of Ministers—he will be able to argue that the Comptroller and Auditor General really can drill down into all these contracts, because that will be absolutely vital.
I rise to speak to the amendments standing in my name on the Order Paper, and with your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would also like to talk briefly about some of the other amendments. Before I do that, I thank the Minister for the way in which he has conducted himself during this process. I accept that this has not necessarily been a party political process, but he has sought to engage with me and colleagues on my side of the House at every stage of the process. We have not always agreed, but he has always been there to consult, and I am most grateful for the way in which he has conducted himself.
I want to speak briefly to amendment 5, to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) spoke so admirably that it has the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), the shadow Leader of the House. I also want to speak to amendments 8 and 9, tabled by the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), to which the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has just referred.
We believe that these amendments are self-explanatory and straightforward. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned, this is a world heritage site, and the intrinsic value and history of the site must be in our minds throughout the lengthy process. We therefore believe that amendments 8 and 9 are common sense, and I will certainly be supporting them.
Moving on to new clause 1, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier)—I am unsure whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said this while moving the amendment, but I believe that she is currently chairing the Public Accounts Committee and is therefore unable to be in the Chamber—for her work. In basic terms, the new clause aims to ensure that this multibillion-pound taxpayer-funded project gets the most effective scrutiny possible. The hope is to highlight to the public that the utmost efforts have been made to ensure that the strongest possible audit of the project’s value for money has been carried out. Given the value of the contracts involved—we have heard suggestions of a total project spend of between £5 billion and £10 billion—it is particularly important that we set up the necessary scrutiny.
The new clause would ensure that effective access arrangements were in place to allow the Comptroller and Auditor General to scrutinise the relevant information held by contractors, subcontractors and grant recipients of the bodies. To date, there has been no clear commitment that the CAG will be granted value for money access. The current uncertainty could be overcome through the provision in the Bill of a suitable right of access for the CAG, which would be helpful and not at all detrimental
New clause 1 is not prescriptive in defining what the CAG would do, because that would undermine his independence; it simply ensures that appropriate scrutiny is recognised in statute. By writing the new clause into primary legislation, companies would know that the eyes of the CAG were on them and that all their work would be available. That level of audit is vital to ensure true value for money and to keep a lid on overspending.
Amendment 7, which is in my name, relates to the provision of the education centre. Again, the Minister has shown an interest in that particular area. The amendment focuses on securing the future and developing the capacity of our fantastic education centre in the renewed Palace. The Minister made some important points in Committee about allowing a degree of flexibility within the Bill to prevent prescriptive legislation from hindering the creation of future innovative facilities. Indeed, as he stated, facilities that
“we might have considered sensible 30 years ago may not necessarily be the other facilities that we consider sensible today.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Public Bill Committee, 4 June 2019; c. 27.]
The same logic could be applied to the creation of future facilities, so the amendment is intentionally open, allowing for future ideas to develop with the renewed Palace.
However, there is no question but that the creation of an education centre must be unambiguously defined within the Bill. Let us not forget that the current education centre is a temporary building that will no doubt be removed during the resto