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Commons Chamber

Volume 662: debated on Thursday 4 July 2019

House of Commons

Thursday 4 July 2019

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

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

Youth Services

1. When the Government plan to review their guidance on the statutory duty for local authorities to provide youth services. (911737)

We are pleased to announce that we will be reviewing the guidance as part of the civil society strategy published last year, and we still anticipate launching the review before the summer recess. In fact, I hope to do it next week.

Up and down the country, there is less and less for our young people to do. The Government’s own civil society strategy says that youth work and youth services can be “transformational”, so why has funding for them fallen by 70% since 2010?

This Government are committed to supporting youth activities and our young people. In fact, I have had several meetings just this week on the youth charter and our vision for young people over the next 10 years. The National Lottery is supporting positive activities for our young people through £80 million of funding, and of course we have the National Citizen Service.

The Government’s serious violence strategy rightly placed programmes for young people at its heart. Will the Minister assure the House that that strategy is going to start delivering those projects on the ground, to divert young people away from gangs and crime?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. The Secretary of State and I were part of the Prime Minister’s summit on serious violence in April this year. It is right that we take a multi-agency approach to tackling knife crime and serious violence. The Government are investing £200 million in the youth endowment fund to support interventions with young people, and particularly those who are at risk.

On Independence Day, may I congratulate all my American cousins on this fine day when they broke away from Britain? I still have my green card from when I emigrated.

Youth services should learn from what is done in the best cities in the United States. It is high time that we put proper Government resources into youth services and stopped relying on charities, although partnerships are good. The fact of the matter is that in most constituencies, youth services are on their knees.

I thank our charity sector for the work that it does in this area. The hon. Gentleman is right that we should not rely on charities, although we must learn from and listen to them, and listen to young people. In terms of lessons from America, one issue that came up in the knife crime summit was that particular social media platforms are allowing groups to come together, organise and cause more problems on our streets. This Department is determined to ensure that we work together, in both my sector and that of my hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, to support and keep our young people safe.

I agree that local authorities have a role to play in youth services, as well as the charitable and voluntary sector, but does the Minister agree that the private sector also has a role? In my neighbouring constituency of Grimsby, a youth zone is being proposed, funded by local entrepreneurs. Does she agree that that is one way forward?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising entrepreneurship, which seems to be a theme in our party at the moment. Looking again to America, we can and must learn from altruism and philanthropy. I thank people for giving directly back to their community, which we encourage in the civil society strategy.

I am delighted to see so many of my former Whips Office colleagues, including the Chief Whip, in the Chamber to hear me speak at the Dispatch Box for the first time—no pressure.

UK Youth, a leading national charity, estimates that the National Citizen Service underspent by more than £50 million this year. Many organisations are desperate to support our young people. Will the Minister explain what plans the Government have to reallocate the underspend to the many fantastic charities that support our wonderful young people?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her post. I know that she is very passionate about this area and was part of our knife crime summit in April. I met UK Youth and the NCS yesterday as part of our youth charter work. Work is going on with the Treasury to ensure that all our youth sector is supported, including through the underspend of the NCS.

Superfast Broadband: Rural Areas

2. What recent progress his Department has made on increasing access to superfast broadband in rural areas. (911738)

The Government’s superfast broadband programme has met its target and is now providing superfast coverage to 97% of premises, including 94.8% of premises in my hon. Friend’s constituency. In addition, we have just launched the rural gigabit connectivity programme, with £200 million of funding, to begin to deliver even faster, gigabit speeds to the most remote and rural parts of the UK.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, improved access to superfast broadband in places such as Shropshire will reduce the number of car journeys needing to be made. What assessment has her Department made of that improvement in helping us to reach the net zero carbon contribution target we have set?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Although we have not conducted a specific study on the environmental impact of faster broadband speeds, we have considered it as part of a wider evaluation. We have found that the use of cloud computing has an effect in reducing commuting time, and we will be exploring this more specifically in our superfast broadband programme evaluation next year.

May I ask the Minister, in using the word “rural”, not to forget communities in the south Wales valleys that can be quite socially isolated? Will she set out what funding she will put in place to deal with the geography of some of the south Wales valleys, which are still suffering with painfully slow broadband?

I think the hon. Gentleman asked me a similar question last summer, and I am delighted to say that his intervention last year led directly to my recommending to the Chancellor that he include the Welsh valleys in the first pilot of the roll-out of the rural gigabit connectivity programme, so the hon. Gentleman can hold us to that. I also want to mention that the voucher scheme has been enhanced, so that small and medium-sized enterprises in the Welsh valleys will now get access to a voucher worth £3,500 and residents a voucher worth £1,500 to connect on to the public buildings that the programme will connect.

In my hon. Friend’s excellent work in rolling out broadband to rural areas, will she ensure that we do not inadvertently neglect urban and semi-urban areas in the London borough of Bromley? Areas around Down and Farnborough village have woeful access and, sadly, BT does not have plans to roll out the fibre needed to upgrade it. Could she possibly help?

I will certainly help my hon. Friend. He points out that suburban and urban areas have a really worrying lack of access not so much to superfast, but certainly to decent speeds. We are incorporating those via incentives to the private sector to connect. That is now going very well indeed, with Openreach alone connecting 20,000 premises a week.

As more and more of our banks are closing branches across the country, it is becoming vital for people, particularly in rural areas, to have access to online facilities and good broadband. The way this has been rolled out, particularly in Scotland, has not suited rural communities. Can the Minister assure me that there will be discussions with the Treasury, the Scottish Government and the local authorities that will be involved in the future to ensure that our communities in Scotland actually get a better service and are able to access finances?

I sympathise with the hon. Lady. Unfortunately, there have been appalling delays to the procurement system underpinning the Scottish Government’s R100—Reaching 100%—programme. I am reliably informed that they are almost at the end of that process and that they are about to award contracts this autumn. It has been a painful process, but my officials have been discussing it with the Scottish Government, and I am confident that it will be improved. We also have programmes from my Department that are already rolling out in Scotland.

The Minister will be aware that, under the confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist party, the Government have set aside some hundreds of millions of pounds for rural broadband across all of Northern Ireland. What discussions has she had with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland to ensure that that rural broadband roll-out is completed?

I know that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in the rest of Northern Ireland there has obviously been a delay in deploying that budget on account of there being no Government in Northern Ireland. My officials are in discussions with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ameliorate that situation, and I will write to him with the latest details.

Algorithms: Inappropriate Use

3. What steps he is taking to tackle the potential inappropriate use of algorithms in the (a) public and (b) private sector. (911739)

We have asked the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to review the potential for bias in the use of algorithms, and it is considering usage in both the public and private sectors on crime and justice, financial services, recruitment and local government. The centre will publish an interim report later this month, and it will make recommendations to the Government early next year. We will then decide how to proceed.

The past 10 years have seen the most revolutionary and rapid changes in how technology is used in public services, politics, work and leisure, yet the Government have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to implement the most basic digital protections, and they are behind even Google and Facebook in calling for regulation. The Secretary of State talks about another review, but algorithmic bias is a threat to all our citizens in the form of algorithmic rule. Will he take the opportunity to get on the front foot and put in place regulations to protect our citizens?

We are on the front foot, and the hon. Lady’s characterisation is entirely wrong. The world looks to the UK as a leader in this field. I talk to counterparts across the world about the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, and they are interested in a move that we are making that no one else has yet made. As the hon. Lady knows—she has looked carefully at this issue—the online harms White Paper will deal with a range of issues and produce regulation that is, once again, world leading.

TV Licences for Over-75s

The Government are disappointed with the BBC’s decision on the licence fee concession for the over-75s. Taxpayers want the BBC to use its substantial licence fee income in an appropriate way, to ensure that it delivers for UK audiences. The Government expect the BBC to consider further ways to support older people, and I recently met the BBC management to discuss what more it could do.

The BBC is not a benefits agency. Both Tory leadership contenders have condemned the proposal to remove free TV licences from the over-75s, and stated that that must be reversed. The director-general has rightly said that the Government are responsible for the TV licence proposal, and that he would be open to conversations about reversing it. Will the Secretary of State tell the House when further conversations may happen, and when will that benefit cut be reversed?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the decision to transfer that responsibility to the BBC was taken in 2017 by this House in the Digital Economy Act 2017. I assure him that conversations about what more we expect of the BBC will continue, and we expect it to do more.

Without hiding behind the BBC again, will the Minister explain to my constituent, who rang up incensed, why his 86-year-old neighbour, who is a veteran and relies on his TV for company, should have his TV licence taken away? Last week the Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ellwood), who opened the debate on Armed Forces Day, thought that was unfair—does the Minister?

Nobody is hiding behind the BBC. Legislation has now provided that this decision should be for the BBC to take, and if the hon. Lady listens to the BBC, that is exactly its message—it is its decision and responsibility. She makes a good point about veterans, and I have raised that issue with the BBC. I expect it to be able to do more for veterans, and it should.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) the Secretary of State referred to 2017, but in that year his party’s manifesto stated that there would be no cut to free TV licences. On Monday, people in Duke Street were infuriated by that move. There are 6,500 over-75s in my constituency. Will the Minister come and visit and tell them why he is planning to cut their free TV licence?

I am happy to send the message that I share their disappointment, and I have made that clear on a number of occasions. In fact, we can go back further than 2017, because in 2015 the arrangement was made with the BBC that this responsibility would transfer to it as part of the charter settlement. The BBC has known about this for some time, and it had the opportunity to prepare for it. In our view, it needs to do better.

In my constituency of Canterbury, there are some 6,250 households at risk of losing their free TV licence. Why are the Government failing to live up to their responsibility to older residents? Is it simply the case that they are entirely complacent about receiving their support in any upcoming general election?

No, I do not accept that for one moment. The Government’s record on support for older people has been remarkable. We have been able to provide £1,600 more per year for those on the state pension than was managed in 2010 under a Labour Government. We have done more on loneliness than any Government before us. We introduced a Minister with responsibility for tackling loneliness. For the first time, we have a strategy on loneliness and we have put our money where our mouth is with £20 million of investment. I am afraid the Labour party in government did none of those things.

If it was a decision for the BBC, why did the Government put it in their manifesto? Does the Minister not think he has a moral obligation to make up the difference if the BBC has a problem? Many pensioners suffer from loneliness and for them the BBC is a lifeline to the world.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of loneliness, and I will repeat the points I have just made. The Government have done a huge amount to combat this very substantial social problem. The truth is that we still expect the BBC to do better in this area, but it is the BBC’s responsibility. The responsibility was transferred to the BBC in 2017, after it was agreed with it in 2015. The BBC itself has made it clear that this is now its responsibility.

In the London Evening Standard on 11 June, there was a very interesting headline on page two, stating:

“Tax campaigners defend axing of free TV licences for wealthy OAPs”.

Wealthy old-age pensioners? Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the slippery language used by the editor of the London Evening Standard, an architect of this debacle? My 5,000 pensioners who risk losing their free TV licence in Cambridge are not wealthy.

As the hon. Gentleman says, wealthy pensioners are not the only ones who will lose their TV licence. That is certainly right. That is exactly why we continue to say to the BBC that it needs to do better than it is doing at the moment.

There are some very interesting statistics that I should perhaps share with the House at this point. Last year and this financial year, the BBC has been sharing with the Government the cost of the over-75 licence concession. Last year, the cost of the concession was £677 million. The Government paid £468 and the BBC paid £209 million. This financial year, the cost is £700 million. The Government paid £247 million and the BBC paid £453 million. The cost of the concession as the BBC intends to operate it from 2020 onwards is, by its estimate, £260 million. That is substantially less than the BBC is paying towards to the concession this financial year. The BBC would say, and I would agree with it, that it is able to supply a good service this year while still paying £453 million towards that concession. That seems to be an interesting statistic.

Why not get rid of TV licences altogether for everyone and force the BBC to compete for its revenues like every other broadcaster? The supermarket equivalent would be forcing everyone, under threat of criminal sanction, to spend £150 in Tesco even if they shop at Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Co-op or elsewhere.

I cannot agree with my hon. Friend. In previous years we looked carefully at whether this is the right way to fund the BBC, and the conclusion reached was that it is. The Government have no plans to change that fundamental funding model.

Does the law allow the BBC to discriminate? If it does, should it not be the BBC that is responsible for bringing prosecutions, not the state?

My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. As I have said, it is of course a matter for the BBC to decide how this concession should be structured. It is open to the BBC, as it has demonstrated, to choose a model that does not offer a free TV licence to every over-75 year old. The question of enforcement is an interesting one that we will go on considering. I would hope very much that the BBC will take seriously the comments of my right hon. Friend and others about how this obligation should be properly enforced in the future.

Perhaps the most difficult part of growing old is the loss of a husband, wife or partner—the person you have shared your every day and every thought with, often over a lifetime. There are nearly 600,000 widowed men and 1.5 million widowed women over the age of 75. An estimated seven out of 10 widows and widowers will lose their free TV licence. That is nearly 1.5 million people who have lost their life partner who will now be stripped of the comfort of their television by this Conservative Government. Can the Secretary of State live with that?

The decision that has been made is to transfer that responsibility to the BBC. How the BBC chooses to exercise its responsibility is, as it and we say, its responsibility. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is a fair one, and it needs to be heard by the BBC as it decides what more it can do to help those who are in particular need or are particularly vulnerable. That is exactly the conversation that I am having with the BBC at the moment, and that we will continue. The decision for the hon. Gentleman is how he intends to back up the pledges that he has so far made to take that responsibility back to the taxpayer, and how he intends to fund that change.

Youth Services

I am excited and proud to be working cross-Government, with this Department leading, on developing a new youth charter for our young people—the Government’s vision for the next 10 years—and that work has continued this week. The Government invest in the Centre For Youth Impact to support sector-led evaluation and to build evidence of the impact of local youth services, and we are working with the National Youth Agency and partners to renew the youth worker qualifications and review that curriculum.

“Positive for Youth” was the Government’s last comprehensive youth policy document. It contained many good examples of joint project working between local authorities and charities and philanthropic businesses, a pledge to youth-proof Government policy, and a pledge to publish annually a set of national measures to demonstrate progress in improving outcomes for young people. When does the Minister plan to update the House on that progress?

I thank my hon. Friend for his pertinent reminder to the Government and the House to focus on our youth. I believe that the youth charter will reaffirm the Government’s commitment. It will state that our young people should have a strong voice, and that we must listen to it and take note of the issues that they care about. It will set out how we should act on what they tell us and, more importantly, it will state that we are actively involving them in key policy making. It is vital that we do that. I had the youth steering group in with me just this week. So the sector is very much being heard, and will be reported back and listened to.

Commercial FM Radio

6. What steps he plans to take to increase the provision of FM frequencies for commercial radio in (a) the UK and (b) Morecambe Bay. (911745)

The UK’s independent broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, is responsible for radio spectrum planning, and Ofcom’s view is that due to the general scarcity of FM spectrum, the scope for additional frequency resources to be made available to commercial radio is extremely limited. Ofcom’s current priority for the use of remaining FM spectrum is community radio, and I hope that will be of benefit to Morecambe Bay.

Will the Minister carry out an investigation of the audit suitability for FM spectrum in the north of Lancashire as soon as possible, to free up any spectrum service that should be licensed, to facilitate a new local service, as we need more local services in that region?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need more local services, but there is more than one route to that. I cannot undertake to commence a review of the north-west specifically, and it is for the independent regulator Ofcom to distribute remaining FM frequency, but I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that the development of small-scale DAB multiplexes will provide many opportunities for community radio stations, not least in the Lancaster and Morecambe area.

Tackling Loneliness

As we have heard this morning, the UK is a world leader in tackling loneliness, and the first Government loneliness strategy was launched last October. It has been globally recognised, and includes the £11.5 million building connections fund, announced over Christmas, which is a partnership between the Government, the National Lottery and the Co-op Foundation. The first progress report is due later this year. Last month, we launched the Let’s Talk Loneliness campaign, which is all about reducing stigma. The hashtag alone has had 5.5 million impressions globally.

I am proud of the work that the Government are doing on loneliness, but according to Age UK more than 2 million people in England over the age of 75 live alone. Loneliness is thought to be as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In Chichester, we have some fantastic projects such as the Rotary Club’s Building A Generation, in which every two weeks older people go into Chichester College and meet, and share experiences with, college students. What more support is available to encourage such innovative, community-based solutions for tackling loneliness and to help to spread them more quickly across the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work done by all the great charities in her community to tackle loneliness at all ages. Support is available for community-based projects, including two pots of Government funding. There is £1 million for the Tech To Connect challenge—I know my hon. Friend is interested in tech—to address social isolation, and the fund will be managed by Nesta. We also have the Space To Connect fund, which will be part-managed by the Co-op and will have £1.6 million to open up community spaces. Everything happening in Chichester is helping people come together, and I welcome that.

These Chichester people seem very decent folk indeed. I think it is partly the effect of the Member.

Earlier this year, the Minister was good enough to come to a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention and speak to us about the loneliness strategy. What steps will she take in response to the Samaritans’ paper on loneliness in young people, which is a particular concern?

I particularly remember that meeting and I welcomed the opportunity to join her. We currently have 60 different policies across nine Departments, but I would like to point out that loneliness and isolation can affect people at any age and at any time—including young carers and care leavers. We need to support everybody of every age and every gender. I hope that the new policies that we are working on and will announce later this year will have a youth focus.

Commercial Local Radio

10. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the regulation of commercial local radio. (911749)

The regulatory framework for commercial radio on FM and AM set nearly 30 years ago has not kept pace with market changes, and we have taken steps to address that. I welcome Ofcom’s October 2018 changes to the localness guidance, which will reduce the burdens on commercial radio while maintaining requirements for local stations to provide local news and other content.

Given that media giant Global has cut no fewer than 11 local radio studios in England, despite making massive profits, is there not a danger that under those weaker Ofcom regulations commercial local radio will increasingly lose its localness, and broadcasts will be made from London or several regional centres?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but the localness guidelines are strict and tough, and will require large commercial radio corporations to have local studios. They will have to provide a serious amount of local news content, weather, driving information and so on, so I do not share his concern. It is up to Ofcom to police this, and it is doing a good job. We must remember that for local commercial radio, and indeed community radio, to be sustainable, they needed a lighter touch regulatory regime.

May I briefly beg your indulgence, Mr Speaker, to congratulate St Fagans Museum in my constituency on winning the museum of the year award, which was presented last night in a ceremony at the Science Museum?

The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) said earlier that we needed more local radio, but the results of this deregulation have been job cuts and fewer stations in what is a profitable commercial sector. Is it not time for the decision to be reviewed to assess its impact on localness, and to ensure that local radio does not just become national commercial radio?

The localness guidelines were published as recently as October last year, so I think it would be premature to announce a review of their impact, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that they were welcomed by both commercial and community radio stations. Ofcom has received about 700 expressions of interest in the small-scale DAB multiplexes for which we legislated last month. We hope to be able to complete that legislation by the end of the year so that Ofcom will be able to start issuing licences to hundreds of community radio stations up and down the country. I think that we will see a great growth in this fantastic sector.

2022 Commonwealth Games

12. What steps he is taking to ensure that the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham benefit (a) neighbouring boroughs and (b) Walsall. (911751)

The Commonwealth Games in Birmingham will be the biggest sporting event ever held in the west midlands. Last week the Government announced that the region would benefit from nearly £800 million of investment. The venues for the games will extend from Royal Leamington Spa to Coventry and to Cannock Chase. There will be 11 days of sport across the west midlands, along with cultural and business engagement, trade and volunteering. The hon. Gentleman should keep his diary clear, because the event will be showcased at the Walsall shopping centre on 20 July.

I understand that the training venues will be announced later this year. Will the Minister put in a good word for the British judo Centre of Excellence in Walsall?

The available training venues are currently being reviewed. I understand that there has already been an initial meeting with representatives of the British judo Centre of Excellence and the University of Wolverhampton regarding the possible use of their facilities. Many great sporting facilities in the west midlands and, indeed, across the United Kingdom will want to host training events, and I am sure that they will receive a very warm welcome from my hon. Friend.

Five junctions up the M6 from Walsall is the great city of Stoke-on-Trent, which stands ready to play its part. How will the Minister ensure that the benefits to which she has referred are felt throughout our region and not just in the conurbation, and what strategy does her Department have for a long-lasting legacy programme so that those benefits do not disappear once the games have ended?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about the joy that will be felt not only in the west midlands but in the whole of our country. We should bear in mind the economic impact of the games in Glasgow in 2014, which brought more than £740 million to Scotland’s economy, and the £1.3 billion boost for the Gold Coast following the games in Queensland. We expect the Birmingham games to bring jobs and opportunities such as volunteering, with up to 45,000 people involved in delivering the event. This is a catalyst for a legacy in terms of facilities and on the ground, and I am working towards that result as we head towards “three years out”.

Topical Questions

Semi-finals are dangerous places for England’s sports teams. I am sure that the whole House will wish to offer its commiserations to the Lionesses following Tuesday’s result, but also our huge congratulations on their performance throughout the World cup competition. Although it did not produce the result that we wanted, Tuesday’s match attracted the largest live television audience so far this year, and the team has sparked a significant change in the visibility of, and support for, women’s football and women’s sport generally. That in itself is a fantastic achievement. We also send our best wishes to the England men’s cricket team for their semi-final next week in a world cup that has given people around the world another good reason to visit the United Kingdom this year.

Tourism is a significant but often overlooked part of our economy, and last week we launched the tourism sector deal, the first of its kind. The coming together of industry and Government will mean more investment in accommodation, skills and apprenticeships and data to ensure that we attract even more tourists and business visitors. We also intend to ensure that everyone can visit by making the UK the most accessible tourism destination in Europe by 2025. Tourism matters greatly in many of our constituencies, and the sector deal will give it the long-overdue Government recognition that it deserves.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Secretary of State about the Lionesses, and also of course wish good luck to the England cricket team?

The epidemic of appalling online bullying demonstrates that the online world is effectively not abiding by the same rules as the offline world, and people are suffering right now, so now that the consultation on the White Paper on online harms has closed, will the Secretary of State urge the new Prime Minister to prioritise legislative time so that we can sort this law out and protect people who are suffering right now?

Yes. I believe that this is a priority, and I believe that the next Government should see it as such, and I believe that we should see legislation coming forward in the next parliamentary Session. The hon. Lady is right; the consultation on the White Paper concluded yesterday, but as she will have heard me say before, I believe that this is a groundbreaking change that we need to get right, so the Government intend to continue to listen, notwithstanding the fair point she makes about the urgency of the situation.

Order. I want to take this opportunity—I hope the House will join me as I do so—to congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and the other three members of the string quartet known as Statutory Instruments on their magnificent performance in Speaker’s House on Tuesday lunchtime; it was a virtuoso display of outstanding music—stirring, inspiring and admirable in every way. If you haven’t heard them, you haven’t lived.

Yes, particularly the cellist, as the Government Whip on duty chunters from a sedentary position to very considerable public benefit.

Will the Minister update the House on the prospect of the Bayeux tapestry coming to this country on loan after the Bayeux museum is temporarily closed after 2020?

We very much look forward to that prospect. Of course, as my hon. Friend will recognise, there are some technical challenges to be overcome to ensure that the tapestry can be properly displayed and protected, but this is an example of Anglo-French co-operation of which we expect to see a great deal more in the future.

More than 6 million people watched England take on Scotland in the women’s World cup and, as the Secretary of State just said, nearly 12 million people watched England take on the USA, and we send our condolences to the Lionesses. We have had some iconic and memorable moments. Hayley Lauder from my Livingston constituency got her 100th cap, and none of us will forget that magnificent celebration from Megan Rapinoe that made women and girls everywhere across the world say, “You can take up space; you can celebrate and you can be in sport.”

However, a recent study found that 65% of broadcast sport in Scotland was taken up by men’s football alone, and, as the Secretary of State knows, only 2% of print media is about women’s sport. We must do more to capitalise on the incredible results from the women’s World cup to make sure that women’s sport, and particularly women’s football, continues to be recognised in the way it has been.

I agree with the hon. Lady; she has been a passionate advocate for this for as long as she has been in the House, and I am sure long before, and she is right. But I think we should recognise that some significant progress has been made over the last few weeks and months; even six months ago, if we had said in this House that we expected a women’s football match to have the largest live TV audience of the year so far, standing as we are in July, I do not think any of us would have believed it. So significant progress is being made. It was great to be able to see that match on the BBC on Tuesday and for there to be such a large audience for it. It is, as the hon. Lady says, inspiring girls and women to play more sport, and that is exactly what we want to see more of.

Does the Minister agree that one of the crucial aspects of tackling loneliness is raising awareness of the services, support and activities that are available in local communities, and what are the Government doing to achieve this?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point, because it is so important. Nobody walks around with an arrow on their head saying that they are lonely. There are times in our life when we feel lost or isolated and we need someone to turn to, so the 1,000 social prescribers will be very helpful. I know that my hon. Friend has done something directly in his own constituency with an older people’s fair—an event around loneliness—to do just that, and I welcome all constituencies doing this.

On behalf of all my colleagues on the Benches behind me, I would like to wish the very best of luck to the England cricket team. We also wish the best of British to all our British tennis players at Wimbledon, and we would like to thank the Lionesses for inspiring a generation.

Our children are facing a deadly obesity crisis. Obesity is rivalling smoking as a leading cause of cancer. Being healthy is about keeping fit and having a healthier diet, but the sugar tax has also been very welcome in promoting a healthier lifestyle, especially for children and young people. The Sports Minister has a responsible role to play in tackling obesity, so will she today publicly commit to resisting any call to scrap the sugar tax, even from her favoured candidate for Prime Minister?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. She and I share a great passion for getting and keeping our young people active. I hope to announce the school sports action plan, alongside colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education, before the summer recess. We are very close to this. All money that comes into PE and sport from the premium—the levy has doubled this—is important. I hope to see Government investment in school sport continue in any way, shape or form.

As this is 4 July, Independence Day, and despite this week’s football result, will the Secretary of State, who like me has an American spouse, comment—positively, of course —on the very many benefits of our special relationship with the US?

Neither my hon. Friend nor I would dare to do anything else, today or on any other day. He is right to suggest that this remains a very special relationship, not just in our households but across the nation.

T2. I welcome this week’s announcement from the big five gambling companies that they will pay towards treatment in acknowledgement of the harm that they have caused, but given the industry’s track record, I am sceptical about their reliability. Will the Minister please look at a “polluter pays” mandatory levy? (911755)

The hon. Lady passionately believes, as do I, in ensuring that help gets to those who need it. Those who are affected by problem gambling, and whose lives are ruined thereby, need help as quickly as they can get it. The reason that I think it appropriate to welcome the moves that have been made by those five companies, as she has done, is that this will deliver help quickly and in the sort of amounts that a mandatory levy was always designed to deliver. Having said all that, if those voluntary commitments are not met, the Government will reserve the right to pursue a mandatory route instead. But let’s get the help to those who need it as quickly as we can.

Manned by local volunteers, the local heritage centres in Desborough, Burton Latimer and Rothwell in the borough of Kettering do much to encourage an interest in local heritage in small communities that have seen much change as a result of new housing developments. What importance does the Department attach to encouraging the promotion of such venues?

The answer is huge importance. My hon. Friend makes the important point that heritage is local as well as national. We can transform our communities in a number of ways, one of which is to give people clearer insights into the wonderful heritage around them. The heritage high streets fund will do that, as will many of the other measures that have been referred to.

T3. The Secretary of State will know that Coventry will be the city of culture in 2021. However, the Priory Visitor Centre in Coventry has closed through lack of funding. Will he talk to the relevant authorities to ensure that the Priory centre is adequately funded? Equally importantly, the House must remember that, at the time of the Wars of the Roses, the Parliament of Devils was held in Coventry. (911757)

I will certainly look at what is happening at the Priory centre, but I know that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, as I do, that £8 million was found in the Budget to support Coventry city of culture, and we both look forward to it being a tremendous success.

T4. As we head towards the long summer holidays, sports centres are becoming increasingly important for families. Two years ago, Staffordshire County Council pulled the plug on my pool at the Kidsgrove Sports Centre. After lots of false starts and undelivered promises, we are still without a swimming pool. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can actually deliver a pool for my constituents? (911759)

I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady. Sport England is active in communities to ensure that nobody is barred from getting involved in sport, and swimming is crucial as we come to the summer holidays.

T5. Ministers are aware of the nervousness about Brexit in the creative industries. What assurances can they give that the copyright protections in the European directive will be fully preserved? (911760)

We applauded the decision to pass the EU copyright directive, and I have met with bodies from the creative industries to discuss how best to implement it in the UK. That will take a certain amount of time, but we will be looking to protect the intellectual property and artistic creations of our designers and this country’s brilliant creative industries.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Victims and Witnesses in Court

1. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to support (a) victims and (b) witnesses giving evidence in court. (911724)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about how the justice system supports those who come before it, and witnesses and victims are an important part of that. One way in which the CPS supports victims and witnesses is through the pre-recording of cross-examination evidence, which takes considerable pressure off vulnerable witnesses. Following a successful pilot in three locations, the scheme was rolled out last month to a further six courts, including in Chester.

The latest Home Office figures show that only 1.7% of reported rape cases even reach the charging stage, so what measures has the CPS put in place to support rape victims giving evidence? What is being done to support the other 98.3% of victims?

The CPS takes seriously its role in ensuring that prosecutions do come before the courts. As the hon. Gentleman will know, a cross-governmental review into rape and sexual offences is under way and has already completed its first stage of collecting evidence. We are now looking at the whole system for rape and other serious sexual offences to see how we can improve every stage, including getting more prosecutions and convictions.

I will not go into the details, but we have had a sensitive local case in which a victim of child sexual exploitation was not supported. A trial did not take place, through no fault of her own. What further action can the Solicitor General take to ensure that victims are supported at all stages of the process?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Last month, I visited the CPS areas of London North and London South and talked about those very issues. I also visited SurvivorsUK, a charity that deals with male victims of sexual abuse, to talk about how we can support people before, during and after the process, which is a critical time.

It is indeed shocking that 98.3% of reported rapes are not even charged. In a significant number of those cases, further evidence is sought from the police by the CPS, but it simply is not provided. Has the Solicitor General asked the police and her colleagues at the Home Office why that is happening?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of collaboration between the CPS and the police. I know that they work closely together, because I regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions, who is working with the police on matters across the board, including several relating to disclosure. I recently met Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave to ensure that we get people to come forward. The number of recorded serious sexual offences is going up, but we need to improve on that, and steps are being taken by the CPS.

With the greatest respect to the Solicitor General, this is an urgent situation and that is not an answer to the specific question. The reality is that the Crown Prosecution Service is referring matters back to the police, and the police are not coming back to the Crown Prosecution Service with that further evidence.

The Solicitor General mentioned a review in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), but something has to be done about this now. Will she undertake a forensic analysis of why these statistics are so bad, and will she do something about it?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that shows how the CPS and the police are working better together. The CPS is sending cases back to the police because it is reviewing those cases to ensure they are ready and will not fall when they go to court. Having spoken to the assistant commissioner, I know that 93,000 police officers have undertaken disclosure training to ensure they are better trained so that these cases are ready for trial and will secure successful prosecutions.

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

I know my hon. Friend takes very seriously the importance of getting appropriate sentences for those who are convicted, and he worked closely with my predecessor on extending sentences for those who had received lenient sentences. The ULS scheme remains an important part of the justice system to ensure justice for victims’ families.

I can tell my hon. Friend that, in 2018, the Law Officers referred a fifth of all eligible cases to the Court of Appeal and, of those, 73% were found to be unduly lenient. In answer to his question, we are looking carefully at the ambit of the scheme.

It has been a long-standing promise of this Government to extend the unduly lenient sentence scheme to other offences. Apart from a bit of tinkering, they have basically done very little. May I urge the Solicitor General to get on with it and extend the unduly lenient sentence scheme so that we can have appropriate sentences? That would be good for victims and for restoring people’s faith in the criminal justice system.

I assure my hon. Friend that I am looking at this with the Ministry of Justice, but the increase in the number of offences is more than just tinkering. For example, since its inception, the ULS scheme has been extended to some sexual offences, child cruelty, modern slavery and, in 2017-18, a number of terror-related offences. This is something we are looking at.

Can we have clarity on how the scheme works? I have written to Ministers complaining about too lenient sentences and about too severe sentences, and I never hear back. Can we have an explanatory memorandum on how the scheme works and what the follow-up should be?

I am happy to do so. A few hon. Members have referred cases to me, and I always write back, so I apologise if that has not happened. If any cases to do with my responsibilities come to him, I would like to know about that. We can discuss how the system works in more detail outside the Chamber but, in brief, a large number of people write to us about cases, which have to satisfy a number of thresholds. The cases have to be referred within 28 days, the sentences have to fall within the scheme and they have to be unduly lenient, not just lenient. There has to be a prospect of the Court of Appeal considering this to be outwith the range. I am happy to discuss these issues with him in more detail.

Many of my constituents were shocked when a fatal stabbing occurred on a quiet residential street in east Barnet. Will the Government consider whether it is time to introduce a tougher sentencing regime for knife crime?

The Government have taken a number of measures in relation to knife crime, not only on which weapons can be carried but on the consequences of such offences, including restrictions on the use of the internet and curfews. The Government take this issue seriously, and I am sure the Ministry of Justice, which is in charge of sentencing, is considering these issues.

Does the Solicitor General believe this scheme is effective enough? We see that, of 943 applications under the scheme in 2017, only 143 were successful in seeing a change to a sentence. Is she prepared to review the scheme in the light of that?

I admire very much the hon. Gentleman’s American tie. He is auditioning for a new role as a fashion specialist.

I point out to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that 73% of the cases that were referred by the Attorney General’s office resulted in an increase in convictions. The reason for the disparity between the number of cases that are referred to my office and the number that go to the Court of Appeal is that a large number of them do not fall within the scheme in the first place, either because they are out of time or because the offences do not fall within the scheme. We must always remember that the judge has heard the trial, heard the evidence and read the pre-sentence report. Judges up and down the country are doing an outstanding job to ensure that, when crimes have been committed, perpetrators get the sentences that they deserve and victims get the justice that they deserve.

Drugs Gangs

3. What recent progress the CPS has made in prosecuting drugs gangs in (a) Northamptonshire and (b) England. (911727)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the performance of the CPS in prosecuting drugs gangs operating in the UK. (911734)

8. What recent assessment he has made of the performance of the CPS in prosecuting drugs gangs operating in the UK. (911735)

The Crown Prosecution Service is working closely with the police and other Government Departments to prosecute these increasingly complex crimes. In that great county of Northamptonshire, in which the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) is situated, the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted no fewer than 337 defendants for drugs offences and secured 305 convictions in the year to 2018. The conviction rate for drugs offences in England is over 90%, and last year alone 39,000 convictions were secured by the Crown Prosecution Service for these offences.

Northamptonshire police have done much good work in recent weeks in raiding local cannabis farms and breaking up county lines drug operations linking London with Kettering and other parts of Northamptonshire. Does the Attorney General agree that, when the police catch people doing these awful things, it would help if the Crown Prosecution Service pressed for exemplary sentences to be awarded?

I strongly agree that it is necessary for us to bear down on drugs gangs, and on county lines drugs gangs. My hon. Friend will know that the Government’s serious violence strategy makes that a priority. In just one week in May, in a targeted effort of co-ordinated law enforcement activity, there were 586 arrests in connection with county lines drugs gangs, and 519 adults and 364 children were entered into safeguarding measures. That is a particularly fine record. I also agree that sentencing must be commensurate with the gravity of the crimes. We will continue to monitor and follow the drugs sentencing guidelines that are connected with these crimes.

The Attorney General is well aware that drug trafficking is an issue not just for urban areas, but for rural areas, villages and towns. How is he assisting more rural agencies, the CPS and, for example, West Mercia police in tackling drug trafficking?

My hon. Friend asks a good question in relation to rural crime. We must not forget that drugs offending extends into rural areas—quite often from the larger cities—and particularly into coastal communities such as those that I have the honour of representing. It is important that we do not lose sight of the rural dimension of drugs offences. I can assure him that we will be vigilant about ensuring that in the strategies of the Government, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, rural drugs offending is not omitted from our considerations.

In Chelmsford, we have found that the increased number of police on the ground, coupled with the firm use of stop and search, has led to a large number of arrests and then prosecutions. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is vital that all law enforcement agencies work together to tackle drugs gangs?

I completely agree with what my hon. Friend has said, and it applies, if I may say so, not only to law enforcement agencies, but to other agencies as well. We cannot forget that, particularly in county lines offending, there is a wide range of other dimensions at play and safeguarding agencies are also very important.

Leaving the EU

4. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU without a deal on the priorities for his Office. (911730)

5. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the priorities for his Office. (911732)

The priorities of my office are set out in the published business plan for this year. In relation to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, my priority continues to be to support the successful delivery of the Government’s objectives by giving legal and constitutional advice within the Government. I am of course also engaged in the support of preparations for future international co-operation between the Law Officers’ departments, and with prosecution and other criminal justice operations.

I am pleased to hear that the Attorney General is committed to continuing to provide sound legal advice in the face of fantasy politics, which he has a good track record in. Will he confirm that it is the Government’s position that after a no-deal Brexit, article 24 of the general agreement on tariffs and trade cannot be unilaterally invoked to ensure a standstill in current trading arrangements, and that the EU cannot and will not be compelled to trade on that basis?

If, as appears to be the case, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), of whom the Attorney General is a supporter, does become the next Prime Minister, will the Attorney General support the right hon. Gentleman’s refusal to rule out a Prorogation of Parliament for a no-deal Brexit? Does he agree that that would surely be an act of constitutional vandalism?

That question will be reviewed at the time. The circumstances of any application for Prorogation are a matter not for me but for the Prime Minister and Her Majesty.

Will the Attorney General confirm that, with or without a deal, British citizens will still be able to assert their fundamental rights through the British courts after Britain has left the European Union?

Of course, the United Kingdom, in all its jurisdictions, has one of the strongest records for the rule of law in the world. I have no doubt that that will continue.

Further to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), the Institute for Government has noted that if Parliament was prorogued to facilitate no deal, it would not be possible to pass any Bills or the remaining secondary legislation needed to prepare the UK statute book for such an outcome. Does the Attorney General therefore agree that leaving the EU without a deal and with no functioning Parliament would lead the country into a legislative black hole at a time when people throughout the country would be looking to the Government for emergency actions?

The House has been given the opportunity of leaving the European Union with a deal on three separate occasions. I do not recall the SNP ever voting for one of them. The answer is quite simple: we can still pass a withdrawal agreement and leave the European Union in an orderly way, but it is now quite clear that the imperative to leave the European Union is overriding. We must leave, and in my view we must do so this year—on 31 October.

Sexual Abuse Conviction Rates

Sexual offences, especially rape and child sexual abuse, are devastating crimes, and across Government we are looking into how we can improve conviction rates and prosecutions in this area of law. As part of the March 2019 violence against women and girls strategy refresh, we have been collecting evidence to help to inform the making of policy going forward. That collection of evidence is now complete and we are now looking across Government at how we can improve the criminal justice system in this area.

Court business continues to be dominated by historical sex abuse cases, while conviction rates for recent crimes remain depressingly low. Does the Minister agree that the securing of convictions needs more up-front working, with victims, witnesses, social services, Victim Support, the police and other agencies, to make it easier for victims to come forward and to make the court system more user friendly? What discussions does she have with ministerial colleagues to that end?

It is absolutely right that we need to investigate those cases and work closely with stakeholders and inter-agency partners at an early stage, and that is exactly what the CPS and the police are doing. There is an inter-ministerial group on this matter, on which I serve, and we met last month to discuss these issues. A large number of stakeholders are involved in the study we are doing, including Women’s Aid, Refuge, Citizens Advice, the Survivors Trust and the Victims’ Commissioner, and they are all inputting in this important policy area. I am due to meet the Victims’ Commissioner this afternoon to discuss these issues further.

Newcastle’s sexual exploitation hub brings together the police, victim support and social services to provide a wrap-around service for victims of these horrendous crimes, particularly for vulnerable young women who often cannot access the support available for children, which is something that the Spicer review said needed to change. But there is no statutory funding for the hub; at a time when police and local authority funding is under such pressure, it risks losing its funding and ability to provide this remarkable support. Will the Minister look at providing statutory funding for hubs of this kind?

I am very pleased that the hon. Lady has raised the important work that is going on in her constituency and am very happy to discuss that with her. I was very pleased to see some joint working when I went to Wales: I saw how the courts and all the inter-agencies were working together—I attended an inter-agency group that was working collaboratively. Collaborative working is essential. I am very happy to meet and to discuss the issue with her.

The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) is wearing an admirably bookish tie—presumably a commentary on his learning and scholarship.

It is ambition, Mr Speaker.

Fantasists wrongly and unsuccessfully twice accused me of serious sexual offences.

When my hon. and learned Friend attends her inter-departmental group, will she please make sure that each person reads the book “Behind the Blue Line” by Sergeant Gurpal Virdi? It is a deeply shocking account of how one of Britain’s largest institutions brought the apparatus of the state to bear on a campaign to destroy the life of one of its own finest officers.

I would welcome the chance to meet my hon. and learned Friend, the Attorney General, or both, preferably with the Home Secretary there as well, to decide on an investigation into how the CPS and the police did such shocking things.

I am very happy to give a commitment to meet my hon. Friend. I cannot speak for others, but I am very happy to meet him and will look forward to reading a copy of the book that he mentions.

In relation to conviction rates for sexual abuse trials, I would like to ask the Minister whether she can comment further and perhaps in more detail—perhaps in a meeting with me—on how she is pursuing prosecutions, or how she is helping the court to pursue prosecutions, for women who are trafficked here for the purposes of sexual exploitation. They are often among the most vulnerable and often the hardest to reach as witnesses, but often the ones suffering the most egregious and appalling abuse.

I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady. I was with the CPS in Canterbury last week, discussing some of the crimes in the Kent area. I am very happy to discuss this very important matter with her.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and Measure:

Non-Domestic Rating (Preparation for Digital Services) Act 2019

Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Act 2019

Church Representation and Ministers Measure 2019.

Serco Justice System

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the role of Serco in our justice system following the decision of the Serious Fraud Office.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.

We very much welcome the fact that, subject to court approval today, the Serious Fraud Office has reached a conclusion in its investigations of Serco. These historical contracts ended in 2014 and were awarded as long ago as 2004. The agreement allows the parties to draw a line under the matter. Following the successful conclusion of this process, we see no reason why Serco should not continue to be a strategic supplier to Government and to compete for Government contracts.

We conducted an investigation of the matters raised in the agreement announced yesterday, and we are content that matters were resolved in 2013-14, when Serco reached a financial settlement of £68.5 million with the Ministry of Justice and undertook an extensive self-cleaning exercise.

Although we deplore the wrongdoing identified in the deferred prosecution agreement announced yesterday, we have confirmed that, since 2013, Serco has thoroughly overhauled its management, governance and culture and that these changes continue to be effective today. Serco is, and will continue to be, a strategic supplier to Her Majesty’s Government, working across the defence, justice, immigration, transport and health sectors.

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

In 2013, evidence came to light suggesting that Serco may have been fraudulently charging the Government on its offender tagging contract, including for monitoring people who are dead. Serco had to pay back tens of millions of pounds to the Government and lost the tagging contract. A subsequent Serious Fraud Office investigation has seen Serco fined £19 million for fraud and false accounting linked to those prisoner tagging contracts. Does the Minister agree that this is just the latest scandal to hit our justice system involving the private sector in recent months? The private probation contracts were terminated early, HMP Birmingham private prison was returned to the public sector and new research shows disproportionate violence in private prisons. We have also seen the collapse of Carillion, meaning that prison maintenance works were brought back in house. Each time we are told it is an isolated case, so will the Minister finally admit that in reality it is a systemic failure?

Serco has £3.5 billion of current contracts with the Ministry of Justice. Given the findings of the Serious Fraud Office, will the Minister commit to a special audit of all existing Serco justice contracts? Those contracts include running prisons. The Government are currently receiving bids for a new generation of private prisons, so can the Minister assure me that Serco will not be allowed to run these new private prisons?

Finally, there is a current Justice Minister, not here today, who once worked for Serco as its chief spin doctor. Will this Minister guarantee that that Justice Minister has had no involvement in overseeing any current Serco contracts and will have no role in handing over any future lucrative contracts to his former employer?

The hon. Gentleman behaves as though this is somehow a new piece of information that has come to light. In fact, this is a very old piece of news, dating back to 2013-14, that has a very long tail. The SFO has conducted a very complex investigation into the fraudulent aspects of this behaviour, but in 2013-14 there was a vigorous effort on the part of the Government to investigate what Serco was doing and how it was managing these contracts that led to significant cultural change.

I am afraid that all we have heard today is a predictable ideological tirade of hostility towards the role that the private sector plays within our justice system, and it simply does not stand up to scrutiny. The hon. Gentleman raises the spectre of Carillion once again. Carillion was a very different affair; it cannot be compared at all with what is going on with Serco.

The hon. Gentleman also makes a point about the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who has no Serco contracts within his ministerial responsibility—that is a complete red herring. The Ministry has already begun an audit into the contract for prisoner escort and custody services that Serco currently holds. We took action back in 2013-14, and this has transformed not just how the Ministry of Justice conducts its private sector contracts, but Government as a whole. We are confident that the ongoing work will ensure that we continue to deliver high-quality services at the best value for the taxpayer.

Is the Minister aware of whether any of the people involved in the original wrongdoing are still associated with the company?

I am not aware of any potential individual prosecutions arising from this investigation. What I can say is that, since the point of this investigation commencing, Serco has had a complete overhaul of its senior executives: it has a new chief executive officer, a new chief financial officer, a new chairman and an entirely new board. Serco has had a thoroughgoing overhaul and now recognises what went wrong in the past.

I congratulate the shadow Minister on securing this urgent question. He is right that right across justice, home affairs and other Government Departments, ill-conceived and badly managed contracts —on tagging, prisons, secure units, probation, immigration removal centres and asylum accommodation—are leaving vital public services in disarray.

The Government finally saw sense on probation, but elsewhere all that seems to happen is that the same small group of companies keeps getting more and more contracts, based on a race to the bottom towards cut-price service provision. Is it not time for a fundamental review of how these contracts are awarded so that the Government are not fishing repeatedly from the same small pool of companies? Even the auditors in this debacle have been fined for their role, so what steps will the Government be taking to improve oversight of this type of contract?

I always have a regard for the hon. Gentleman, who is a diligent and effective Member of this House, but I have to disagree with him on this occasion. The Opposition seem to have a blind spot regarding the role that the private sector can and should play in the delivery of services within the public sector.

In December 2018, as part of the programme of audits across Government as a whole, the chief executive of the civil service wrote to all Government Departments asking each to include a contract of audit activity in the implementation of the general outsourcing review, focusing on gold contracts—that is, those of high value and high criticality—provided by strategic players. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be aware, even if he looks north of the border, that in many of these very complex areas of public procurement, the pool of potential companies that can bid for them will, by necessity, be small. That means that we, as Government, have to do our bit to make sure that we audit and assess the delivery of these contracts on the part of these suppliers.

What contingencies have the Government put in place for the risk that Serco ceases to operate, partly as a result of the fine?

We have absolutely no indication at all that the fine has had any impact on Serco’s ability to deliver its current contracts to the Government.

I think the Minister deserves a medal for coming here with such a positive outlook on what has been a major catastrophe. In the case of all these strategic suppliers, one of the really key issues is the Government’s oversight and management of contracts where things go wrong but the companies are too big to fail. What is his Department learning, and going to do differently, in making sure that the skills are there in the civil service to oversee these contracts and pick up the problems much sooner?

I am sure that there are few individuals in the House better qualified than the hon. Lady to assess the role of these contracts across Government as a whole, given her work on the Public Accounts Committee. Since 2010, one crucial change has been the introduction of Crown representatives in each of these business areas. That makes sure that Government have someone sitting inside the room making sure that decisions will be taken appropriately.

In my Department, we are reviewing all these contracts carefully, working with Serco and other private providers who work in the public sector to make sure that the quality of what they provide meets their contractual obligations.

In the light of these rulings by the court, will the Minister undertake to review the wider operational activities of Serco in the public sector, particularly in relation to its management of asylum seeker housing projects in the city of Glasgow? Will he write to his colleagues in the Home Office about that, particularly because of the issue of gross intrusions of privacy by Serco housing officers, which is a major problem in Glasgow?

The hon. Gentleman raises an issue of which I personally have no knowledge within my own Department, but I am more than happy to offer to raise it with the relevant Government Department he mentioned, and I am sure that it will then get in touch with him to discuss it.

The Minister has been uncharacteristically defensive and quite strident this morning. Some years ago, I had a hand in using the round robin technique to try to explore just how many of these general service companies were being used by all Departments, and what came out of that involved billions of pounds. That started a real scrutiny of what was happening. Is it not the truth that not just at Serco but at many of these general services companies—I am not ideologically opposed to the private sector providing good services—there was a lack of control and a lack of independent checking? The Serious Fraud Office regularly looks at this company: surely he is not complacent about that.

The hon. Gentleman accuses me of stridency. I think that is the first time that has happened to me in this Chamber—clearly, I must have had my Shredded Wheat for breakfast. I will have to revisit my breakfast diet, it is fair to say.

I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman has no ideological objection to the private sector having a role; he might want to have a chat with his Front Benchers. We often hear the idea that somehow the private sector cannot play a role but the third sector certainly can. I find that very hard to understand given that they are often supplying exactly the same things. We have areas of social enterprise that sit across the two, for example.

I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. He is a very diligent Member of Parliament, as Mr Speaker often observes. I look forward to future round robin parliamentary questions from him that will test the mettle of Government Departments yet further.

It seems that no matter what the specific wrongdoing or general incompetence of a private sector supplier, with a few warm words from the chief executive of the day, they have access to billions of pounds of contracts. Will the Minister put in place an analysis of the costs of private sector provision in terms of tendering, legal wrangling, profiteering and loss of skills versus the benefits of public sector provision? It seems as though it is simply public sector bad, private sector good.

It is never a case of “public sector bad, private sector good”. As I have just pointed out to Opposition Members, a broad range of potential providers—including many in the third sector, such as social enterprises—have a very important role to play in the justice system. [Interruption.] If the hon. Lady listened to the answer I am trying to give her, rather than speaking from a sedentary position, she would get an answer to her question. I never appreciate sedentary chuntering; it reflects badly on the Member conducting it.

The private sector continues to have a role to play, but as a Department we are very careful in inspecting what individual suppliers are doing through the Crown representative system and the work that our commercial officials in the Department do, to ensure that issues like this do not occur again. The hon. Lady acts as though it was all warm words back in 2013-14. It most certainly was not. As I pointed out in my response to the first question, there has been an entire leadership change at Serco. I often hear from the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) that in his own party, it is a case of new times, new management. It is the same with Serco.

In the Public Accounts Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and I have seen all too often good work by the Government, but only after an event has taken place. The Minister mentioned the Crown representative system. Is it not time for that system to be overhauled, so that Government are better at preventing these problems in the first place, rather than learning the lessons after? What is his Department doing across Government to lead on that work?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The role of the Crown representative is relatively new, having been introduced under this Government. It continues to take shape. It looks different in different companies. When I was a rail Minister, I worked with a number of Crown representatives who performed very different roles in the companies that they were involved in. I understand the point, and I will mention it to the Cabinet Office, which has responsibility for this wider policy area.

I thank the Minister for his responses to questions. Can he outline what discussions he has had with the Ministry of Defence, to ensure that the MOD will get service provision at an appropriate price and only for services that are required, to prevent a repeat of this?

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point. I personally have had no contact with the MOD. However, I know that the chief executive of the civil service has contacted all Government Departments to ask them to review the contracts with the most “criticality”—that is the word used; it is not a word I like because it does not really exist. He is ensuring that all Departments are taking careful note of this issue.

Social Security Claimant Deaths

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement to clarify what documents concerning the peer reviews and coroners’ reports into social security claimant deaths since 2010 are held by her Department, and whether all of these were supplied to Professor Harrington and Dr Litchfield, the independent reviewers of the work capability assessment.

The Department holds the original commission and final report for all peer reviews of disability benefit claimants’ deaths up to 2015. All these documents are kept for six years from the date of the final report. In October 2015, we moved from conducting peer reviews to internal process reviews. That change means we now hold more information, including the original commission, all emails relating to the case, the final report and any recommendations resulting from the internal review process.

As the House may be aware, the Welfare Reform Act 2007 committed the Secretary of State to publish an independent report on the work capability assessment each year for the first five years of its operation. In 2013 and 2014, Dr Litchfield led the fourth and fifth independent reviews of the WCA. The Department fully co-operated with the reviews and shared all relevant information as requested. To assist the WCA independent reviews and in response to a freedom of information request, we carried out a robust search to supply all necessary information to the reviewers. The record of the documents requested by or shared with the independent reviewers no longer exists, in line with the Department’s document retention policy.

We take the death of any disability benefits claimant very seriously indeed and always conduct an investigation into the circumstances where we are informed that the claimant committed suicide. As the review contains extremely personal information, it would not be appropriate to declare which individual cases were shared with the reviewers on this occasion.

Thank you so much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

Let me refresh everybody’s memories following the point of order I raised about this yesterday. I have received a response to my letter of 10 May to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in which I expressed my concerns regarding the investigation and the information provided to the independent reviewers. I also asked for information on claimant deaths after being found fit for work following a work capability assessment, as well as on deaths in relation to the personal independence payment, and I still have not received any information on that.

In the reply from the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, nearly two months later, he said that although a

“robust and thorough search was carried out of information held by the Department…the outcome is that the Department does not hold any information”

in relation to what peer review reports were supplied to the independent reviewers. He also said that this was due to

“the length of time since the reviews were carried out, factors such as document retention policies, organisational changes and staff turnover”.

These documents relate to the circumstances of people’s deaths as little as five years ago. The independent reviewers were investigating the work capability assessment process, including the impact of assessments. It is deeply troubling that the Department appears to have no record of what was supplied to the reviews, especially as both Professor Harrington and Dr Litchfield say that they did not receive such documents. In the same response, the Minister tried to suggest that the reviewers did not request these reports. It prompts the question whether the Department’s record keeping systems are fit for purpose or whether these documents were deliberately withheld.

Can the Minister confirm that these documents were not sent to Dr Litchfield in 2013? Why does his Department not hold records on what information was supplied to Dr Litchfield and to his predecessor, Professor Harrington? The Minister said in his response that the retention policy is that the Department does not keep these records. I find that deeply concerning, considering other Departments’ requirements under the law to keep these data.

What steps will the Minister take to ensure any departmental reorganisation or staff turnover does not lead to the loss of such important and sensitive information in the future? Will he commit to an investigation into what happened to these documents, and will he report back to the House on the outcomes of this investigation? The Information Commissioner’s Office spoke to members of staff who were in the Department at the time of the Litchfield review. How many members of staff who were in the Department at that time still remain?

Has the Department approached Dr Litchfield and Professor Harrington about the information they received, and if not, why not? The letter I received yesterday from the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work stated that the Department shared

“all relevant information which was requested by Prof Harrington and Dr Litchfield”.

However, if they were unaware of the existence of these documents, how could they request them? Given that their remit was to examine the work capability assessment and that many of these reviews and coroners’ letters contained grave concerns about the assessment process, why did the Department not provide them?

Since 2015, the Department has undertaken 84 internal process reviews, and six more have been received. The Minister will be aware of the ruling in John Pring v. the Information Commissioner and the Department for Work and Pensions, which led to the redacted publication of peer reviews in 2016. Will he commit to publishing redacted reports of these internal process reviews?

We are talking about the circumstances of people’s deaths, as I have said. A Government’s first duty is to protect their people—all their people—but they are failing the sick and disabled, and this reveals the enormity of that failure.

The Department takes the death of any claimant extremely seriously and always conducts an investigation into the circumstances. The Department is continually working to improve its safeguarding practices, working with partner agencies and local government. The Department is presently undertaking a review of the departmental safeguarding policy and guidance available to staff, which will report in the autumn of 2019. The scope of the review is considering what more we at the Department can do to support vulnerable claimants, with an emphasis both on ensuring safety and on working with partners to provide the necessary support when and where necessary. The review covers all areas of DWP delivery activities.

The last independent review was in 2014. As I said in my opening response, we do not hold emails going back over 12 months, under our document retention policy. My understanding, however, is that the documentation was not requested by the independent reviewers, but we hold such information on the peer review process for six years. I should stress that we would share outcomes and lessons learned. As the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, we have about 20 to 25 internal process reviews a year —they do not all relate to suicides—but I would stress that we are fully compliant with the law when it comes to data.

From my work in the Department, I know that Ministers take this issue extremely seriously, and they will be concerned to hear about the cases that were reasonably and sensitively raised by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). Will the Minister confirm that whenever a claimant dies, a thorough review is undertaken by the Department and that that is the right process to follow?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and the way he put it. We take all cases of this nature incredibly seriously, and the Department has undertaken 84 internal process reviews since 2015. It carries out such reviews for a number of reasons, not only in cases that relate to suicide. I stress that these reviews do not mean that the Department was at fault, and in the majority of cases they contain very personal information that it would not be right to publish. Nevertheless, it is incredibly important to carry out such reviews because, where lessons can be learned, they should be. Indeed, in numerous cases, they have been learned.

It is deeply shocking that the Department for Work and Pensions has not kept documents relating to deaths that could have been related to DWP activity. We know from a freedom of information request that such documents were not passed to Professor Harrington and Dr Litchfield who carried out the statutory review of the work capability assessment. Surely, it was the Department’s responsibility to ensure that those reviewers had all the relevant information.

The Minister’s letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) states that the documents have not been kept for a range of reasons, including document retention policies, organisational changes and staff turnover. Such bureaucratic language is wholly out of keeping with the pain felt by families and friends who are affected by the death of a loved one.

There is a systemic problem at DWP when it comes to meeting the needs of disabled people, and the facts speak for themselves: more than 1 million sanctions have been imposed on disabled people since 2010, and in 2018-19, 73% of PIP and ESA cases that went to tribunal were found in favour of the appellant. The Government are currently carrying out seven reviews into different aspects of the social security system where disabled people were wrongly denied the support to which they should have been entitled.

What action is the Department taking to ensure that any documents relating to deaths in serious and complex cases that were related to DWP activity are retained in future? Will the Government now accede to widespread calls for an independent inquiry into the way that assessments are carried out and demand that medical evidence about the impact of such assessments on the health and wellbeing of claimants is fully considered? Will the Government commit to an independent review into the deaths of ill or disabled people that may have been linked to DWP activity? The Department owes a duty of care not only to those who it assesses for support, but to those families and friends who have lost loved ones in the most tragic of circumstances. The DWP has failed disabled people again.

I am disappointed by the hon. Lady’s line of questioning. As I have had said twice already, we take incredibly seriously the death of any claimant, and we always conduct an investigation into the circumstances. The last independent review was in 2014, and under our data retention policy, emails going back more than 12 months were not retained. However, under the peer review, such emails are held for six years, and we would have shared outcomes and lessons learned. We would have shared further information with the independent reviewers, but my understanding is that it was not requested.

The hon. Lady raises broader disability issues. This year, we are spending more than £55 billion on benefits to support disabled people and those with health conditions, which is around 2.5% of our GDP, and more than 6% of Government spending. This year, spending on the main disability benefits—the personal independence payment, disability living allowance and attendance allowance—will be more than £6 billion higher than in 2010, and disability spending will be higher every year up to 2023 than it was in 2010.

I know that my hon. Friend takes these issues extremely seriously, but I am curious about two things. He said there were 84 internal reviews, but that not all were related to alleged suicides. How many were related to alleged suicides? He said that emails are destroyed after 12 months, and I am surprised by such a short period. Is that in line with the policies of other Departments?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We do not know the number of suicides compared to the overall number of cases investigated under the internal review process. As I said, we carry them out for a number of reasons. Under the previous system, we did not hold emails going back over 12 months under the independent review process. Under the peer review process, however, we hold that information for six years.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing the urgent question.

The Government’s austerity measures have led to a system that no longer considers people as vulnerable individuals in need of support, but views them with suspicion from the outset. It is sickening that, when faced with such serious allegations as people’s deaths, the Government took so long to admit their failure to send their own independent reviewer documents that Ministers knew would have linked the fitness to work test with the deaths of disabled benefit claimants. Why was that not deemed a top priority by the Government?

The Government seem content with private sector providers prioritising profits over people. How frequently does the Department assess the treatment of claimants by private sector companies? Will the Department follow the Scottish Government’s lead and introduce audio recordings of assessments as standard to ensure accuracy and transparency?

The public will struggle to have any trust in the Government to deliver these Government-commissioned assessments for employment and support allowance, PIP and universal credit. Will the Department undertake a review of all commissioned assessments to ensure they do not lead to similar circumstances?

Finally, we very strongly support the hon. Lady’s call for an independent inquiry into all deaths linked to the Government’s social security reforms. Will the Minister commit to starting that immediately?

We take the independent reviews, the peer reviews and the findings of coroners incredibly seriously. Where there are lessons to be learned, the Department absolutely looks at how we can improve our processes and procedures to improve the service we provide to claimants. On reviewing the third parties we work with, we are already trialling audio recording of assessments. We will consider the results and whether it is appropriate to roll that out further in due course. I assure the hon. Lady and other hon. Members across the House that we of course audit and take a very close look at all those who provide services to the Department.

When I raised the death of one of my constituents shortly after he lost his personal independence payment, I asked for an independent inquiry, which the Secretary of State refused. Given our exchanges today, will the Minister take the message back to her that I would like her to reconsider her decision? As the Prime Minister laid down for Hillsborough and the poisoned blood inquiry, it is the duty of Departments to produce information, not for the chair of an inquiry to fish for information crucial to the proper consideration of events that lead to someone’s death.

The right hon. Gentleman knows the huge respect I have for him and the respect the Secretary of State has for him. I understand that she has already taken into consideration what he put to her at oral questions. We take it very seriously indeed.

Before I ask my question, may I remind the House that no one in the United Kingdom commits suicide? People take their own lives. The word “commit” relates to a crime. Suicide is not a crime in this country and has not been for some time.

When seeking information on the removal of the six-month time limit for terminal illness claimants, I asked for information about people who died while waiting for a decision relating to PIP. Between 2013 and 2018, 17,000 people died while waiting for a decision on their PIP assessment. I asked for the same figures in relation to universal credit, but was told that they were not available and could only be provided at disproportionate cost. How can the Minister say that he covers all deaths and takes them seriously when it is not possible to provide hon. Members with information on the deaths of people, many of whom have been found to be terminally ill, who have not been able to access universal credit?

I thank the hon. Lady for what she said on suicide. Language is important, and she was right to pull me and others across the House up for using that language. She raises a hugely important point. We are working closely with stakeholders in that regard, to see what more we can do, and I would be happy to meet her to explain in further detail the written answer that was given to the parliamentary question that she submitted.

Five hundred and eighty of my constituents were displaced in the transition from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment—a loss of £2 million a year. What is the Department doing to track the outcomes faced by those who are not in receipt of Government support? I think particularly of a case of mine, where a young man was forced to rely on his mother’s financial support in the last months of his life before he died of a terminal brain tumour, because the Government rejected his claim for support. What will the Government do to track such cases?

What we are doing is spending £6 billion more, and we will continue to work with stakeholders where possible, to ensure that we can improve our processes.

The Department has, as has been said, given us a number of reasons why this information is not available, but to the public and to those affected, it will seem that there can be only two acceptable or reasonable reasons—that the information was deliberately withheld and covered up, or that it was incompetence. To get to the bottom of this and to reassure the public, will the Minister give those of us who are asking today for that inquiry, the assurance that the Department will do everything it possibly can to get to the bottom of this?

In cases of this nature, our inquiries and investigations nearly always go alongside a coroner’s investigation. So it is important to say that there is already that independent investigation, and we do work very closely with coroners and supply information as required by them.

When we consider the sensitive issue of death by suicide of particular claimants, I want to press the Minister specifically on the issue of assessments being carried out inappropriately. For example, if someone presents for an assessment with a mental health issue, quite often they find that they are being assessed by a physiotherapist. What actions are the Government taking to ensure that assessments are done properly, by those with relevant qualifications?

Under PIP, people with a mental health condition are five times more likely to be exempted than under the legacy benefit system. However, it is important to say that it was the Labour party that introduced the work capability assessment, in 2008, and that we have made significant improvements to the WCA since its introduction. We will continue to work with stakeholders and Members from across the House to improve the process where we can.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 8 July will include:

Monday 8 July—Consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill.

Tuesday 9 July—Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill.

Wednesday 10 July—Motion to approve the draft Environment (Legislative Functions from Directives) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications, Deemed Applications, Requests and Site Visits) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2019, followed by a general debate on tackling climate change, protecting the environment and securing global development.

Thursday 11 July—A general debate on 20 years of devolution, followed by a debate on a motion relating to leasehold reform. The subjects of these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee, on the recommendation of the Liaison Committee.

Friday 12 July—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. He announced the Northern Ireland Bill for Monday. As I understand it, the Bill will be published only later today. Despite a motion allowing amendments, there will be a window of only about half an hour for hon. Members to table amendments. This is a really important Bill, and the Opposition were happy to work with the Government to ensure that they get certainty on the Bill. Will the Leader of the House have discussions with the usual channels to ensure that we get scrutiny of this important Bill? We have always approached Northern Ireland on a cross-party basis, so I ask him to please think again.

Last week, I raised the issue of a debate on the Cox report, and the Gemma White inquiry is coming up. Can the Leader of the House update us on when the House is likely to be able to consider that motion?

I know that the Leader of the House is interested in tweeting: perhaps he could tweet a clarification. Last week, I raised the issue of the Government’s Value Added Tax (Reduced Rate) (Energy-Saving Materials) Order 2019, and he said that it was an EU requirement under its regulations. In his answer to a parliamentary question in 2018, when he was a Treasury Minister, he said that

“it is right that Member States have flexibility in applying VAT on different products”.

Will he look again at whether it is possible for VAT to be changed on those materials, especially given the Prime Minister’s commitment to reduce emissions to zero by 2050? The Leader of the House said that it was not something that he would necessarily have brought forward, so I ask him again whether the Government have any plans to scrap VAT in this important area.

Perhaps the Leader of the House could also tweet the answer to this question. Who said that

“in a disruptive no-deal exit there will be a hit to the exchequer of about £90bn.”?

It was his right hon. Friend and former Treasury colleague, the Chancellor. I do not remember seeing no deal on the ballot paper. We did not get the sectoral analysis until we asked for it in the Chamber. The Leader of the House may say “It’s the will of the people”, but the people did not have the full information when they made their decision. I do not know whether he is aware of the message from the other place about the amazing cross-party support for a motion to set up a Joint Committee to consider a no-deal Brexit, which passed by 245 votes to 99. We all praise Select Committees, and this would be an important Select Committee because it would be a Joint Committee of both Houses. The motion would require the Select Committee to report by 30 September. As I am sure the Leader of the House knows, the first Council meeting will take place on 17 October, which is why it is important for us to have a discussion to decide whether we will sit through the conference recess and whether conferences will go ahead or Members will be here. It is an important time for the EU, so perhaps he will consider having a statement next week on those issues.

The Leader of the House wrote a lovely article in “Red Box” saying that he sees

“a large part of my role as promoting parliament—to do what I can to ensure that people trust and understand its vital role”.

Does he agree with a former Leader of the House, now a Government Whip in the Lords, Lord Young, who has said that he views with alarm the promises made by Tory leadership candidates? The shadow Chancellor has costed those pledges, and the total for the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) is £57 billion and for the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt) it is £43.4 billion—more than £100 billion in total. Paul Johnson from the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that both candidates were misleading people by implying that the Treasury’s Brexit war chest would fund their spending pledges and that if they intended to borrow more, they had not said how much. It is making Parliament look absurd that the candidates can make those pledges to win their election. The people one of them will govern will not even have a say. What can the Leader of the House do to stop candidates misleading people?

It took an urgent question for the House to talk about what happened with Serco. A screaming headline in The Law Society Gazette reads, “Serco subsidiary to pay £19.2m for lying to MoJ about tagging profits”. This is absolutely appalling. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), was very helpful earlier—he is a very helpful Minister—but I think that we need a statement in Government time.

I invite the Leader of the House to visit the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid next Monday, when we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949, along with young legal aid lawyers. I am surprised that there are any left, but it will be good to see them there. The Leader of the House will know, I am sure, that since 2010 the number of cases assisted by legal aid has dropped from 900,000 to 15,000. This is about the rule of law and access to justice. If the Leader of the House could ensure that the Government will automatically fund legal aid for the families of victims of terrorist atrocities—a subject that I raised with him last week—that would be a nice way of celebrating the anniversary of the Act.

I know that you, Mr Speaker, went to see Richard Ratcliffe when he was on hunger strike. I saw “Speaker Bear” sitting on his chair. Both Richard and Nazanin have now ended their hunger strike. I said to Richard that I would raise Nazanin’s case from the Dispatch Box every week until she was freed. Will the Leader of the House please make representations, as the Foreign Secretary seems to have gone missing and is making promises that he cannot keep? I know that great things are in store for the Leader of the House, not least because he has a wonderful mentor in the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). Will he please stand in for the Foreign Secretary and raise the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? She is innocent, and she must be freed.

Earlier this week, Mr Speaker, you mentioned the loss of two of the House’s leading black and minority ethnic officials, Kamal El-Hajji and, of course, our own Speaker’s Chaplain, the Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin. Kamal was the first person with a BME background to be appointed to the role of Serjeant at Arms, and the Rev. Rose is now the Church of England’s first black female bishop. We are sorry that she could not be the Bishop of London, and I know that she was trying to be a Canon of Westminster, but I think that was taken away from her. She has been a great comfort to everyone on the parliamentary estate. She has been here during debates, and she has talked to us one to one. She has been a reassuring presence, and we are grateful for both her presence and her prayers. We wish the two of them well in their future endeavours.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. I shall come to them in a moment, but let me start by saying that I have some bad news. Unfortunately, I have had to cancel the holiday that I suggested last Thursday. The hon. Lady did not, I think, take my offer seriously, as she never replied to it. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) was prepared to join us and provide the musical entertainment, but the appearance fee that he demanded was utterly disproportionate to his talent. Two pounds fifty and a couple of cans of Irn-Bru was a generous offer, and the hon. Gentleman should have accepted it. I mean, who does he think he is, Pete Wishart or something? Perhaps not.

Let me now deal with the hon. Lady’s questions. She rightly raised the business for Monday, and asked whether there would be time for sufficient scrutiny of the Northern Ireland Bill and the tabling of amendments to it. All I will say to her is that we are very aware of the importance of both those matters, and discussions are taking place in the usual channels.

The hon. Lady asked me about a potential debate on the Cox report. We did, of course, have a debate on that report recently, but she also raised the important matter of the Gemma White inquiry, which will be reporting soon. We are at one in respect of the desirability of a debate on that matter, and I am already engaged in discussions with my end of the usual channels with a view to such a debate.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of energy-saving materials again, and asked whether VAT was or was not applicable. More specifically, she asked whether it was a requirement of the European Union that we apply it at a certain level. That is my understanding, but given that the hon. Lady has pressed me again, which may mean that she has some information on this matter that she is keeping to herself—perhaps I am wrong; I do not know—I will check with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General, who I believe is the Minister responsible for that particular issue and tabled the statutory instrument.

The hon. Lady also raised the matter of the £90 billion that the Chancellor has referred to in respect of a potential no-deal exit from the European Union. Of course that is a figure that has been out there for quite some considerable time, not least in the analysis that the Government provided some months ago—an across-Whitehall report on the potential impact of no deal on the Exchequer.

The hon. Lady also raised the matter of the Joint Committee proposed by the House of Lords, and referred to the vote on that. We will of course consider that proposal very carefully when it comes to this House, but I would point out to the hon. Lady that there have been numerous opportunities in the past to debate at length the potential consequences of no deal. None the less, we will take the Joint Committee proposal seriously and have a very close look at that as a potential vehicle for further discussion of that matter.

The hon. Lady referred very generously to my lovely article, which was rather a kind way of introducing her remarks on that, and then she plunged into the costs of the various promises that the two candidates in the Conservative party leadership contest may have been putting forward. At one point she totalled them up to the dizzying heights of £100 billion, which pales into insignificance compared with the £1 trillion that her own party seems to be putting forward in additional borrowing, or indeed in additional tax to be raised from the hard-working men and women up and down our country.

The hon. Lady referred to Serco, but of course we have had an urgent question just this morning on the matter. She made some important points about legal aid. Justice questions are on Tuesday and, as I mentioned last week, the Justice Committee is looking at precisely the issue she has raised around the availability of legal aid to the suspected perpetrators of atrocities compared with its availability to those who have suffered as a consequence of their actions.

I applaud the hon. Lady for raising Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe again, as I know she intends to at the Dispatch Box every week as the shadow Leader of the House. I can once again assure her that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and others have been very engaged in ensuring that somebody who went to Iran simply for the purposes of a holiday and meeting family and friends is not incarcerated in the way she has been.

Finally, may I also welcome the hon. Lady’s comments regarding Rose Hudson-Wilkin and her appointment as Bishop of Dover? She will be much missed by this House, but will be a great asset and of great benefit to Dover.