House of Commons
Wednesday 24 July 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Act 2019
National Insurance Contributions (Termination Awards and Sporting Testimonials) Act 2019
Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019.
Business Before Questions
Standing Orders (Private Business)
That the new Standing Order relating to Private Business stated in the Schedule be made.
“118A Power of Committee of Selection to sit when House adjourned
(1) The Committee of Selection shall have leave to sit at any time on any day on which the House sits.
(2) On days on which the House does not sit, the Committee of Selection may sit only with the leave of the Chairman of Ways and Means, the grant of which shall be entered in the formal minutes of the Committee; and no notice of a meeting on a day on which the House does not sit may be given unless accompanied by a notice of the grant of such leave.”—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
20 Years of Devolution
As there will not be another opportunity for Scottish questions before September, I draw the House’s attention to an issue that was raised in an earlier session of Scottish questions. I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, will join me in looking forward to the Murray trophy ATP Challenger tournament that will take place in Glasgow from 16 to 22 September. We all welcome this positive addition to the tennis calendar, and I particularly look forward to welcoming you, Mr Speaker, to the tournament.
After 20 years, I believe that the current devolution settlement is the right balance, with appropriate decisions being taken for Scotland at Holyrood and for the whole UK in this Parliament. Since the first Scotland Act, Holyrood has become one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world.
On the devolution of powers, my question to the Secretary of State is about Falkirk Council’s growth deal bid to both the Scottish Government and the UK Government. To give him credit, he has taken a keen interest in the proposed deal. As he well knows, it is an ambitious bid to bring together horizontal community and business integration. Will he update my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) and me on the timeline for the investment zone and growth deal bid? Will he assure us on where the business case will sit in respect of the new Government?
I commend the hon. Gentleman and his colleague, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), on their lobbying efforts for the Falkirk deal. The UK Government are committed to taking forward that deal. After a productive meeting with the leader of Falkirk Council earlier this week, we are looking forward to the council’s submitting proposals by the end of August and to a presentation in September.
I am glad the Secretary of State seems to think that constitutional perfection has now been reached on these islands. I wonder whether that means he agrees with his new party leader, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), who told a group of activists that we do not need
“an England-only parliament. We have an England parliament, it’s in Westminster.”
If the Secretary of State does agree with that, does that not make his post and, indeed, all of us who represent Scotland a little redundant? If he does not agree, why has he been so effusive in welcoming his new leader? Is it perhaps because he himself does not want to be made redundant?
If that was a question about a separate English Parliament, I should say that I am clear, as is the new leader of the Conservative party, that England does not need its own separate Parliament.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the incoming Prime Minister must deliver certainty, confidence and prosperity for the whole UK, to counter the politics of grievance and defeat?
Given that, 20 years on, fewer than half the people in Scotland think that devolution has led to better outcomes in education, health or the growth of the Scottish economy, does my right hon. Friend agree that what Scotland needs is a Government who will utilise with full effect Holyrood’s extensive powers, not deflect and delay powers like the Scottish National party has done?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend and it is a message that I get back from my own constituents. They want to see the Scottish Parliament focusing on education, health, and transport—the issues that are important to their daily lives—and not pursuing an obsession with the constitution.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the frustrations that those of us who cherish devolution feel is the SNP’s apparent reticence to use many of the Scottish Parliament’s powers. For example, what a difference they could make to the lives of the 6,000 WASPI women in my constituency of Edinburgh West if they used the powers they had to alleviate the difficulties, rather than using them as another grievance.
May I begin by asking the hon. Lady to pass on my congratulations to her new UK leader? It is very good to see a Scottish MP in that role. I agree wholeheartedly with her sentiment. It is well documented that if, having aligned themselves to the WASPI cause, the SNP Government really wanted to do something for WASPI women, they have the power and, indeed, the capacity to raise the resources to do so.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the benefits of devolution is when our two Governments work together, such as with the Moray growth deal? The £32.5 million from the UK Government was matched by the Scottish Government, which means that it will make a real difference to the whole of Moray. Therefore, devolution delivers when our Governments work together.
I commend my hon. Friend for his tireless efforts to pursue the Moray growth deal, which has been raised at every Scottish questions during his tenure. Yes, the Scottish and UK Governments working together is the best way to deliver for the people of Scotland. Let us see more of it.
Leaving the EU: Effect on the Union
The UK Government’s policy has been to strengthen our Union of nations; it is at the heart of all that we do and has guided our approach to our exit from the EU.
If the Secretary of State were to abide by his promises, it would be his last day in office, so I wish him well and thank him for his unstinting courtesy in that role. The new Prime Minister’s election yesterday means that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party is now the Scottish Conservative and Brexit party, which means that it is abandoning Unionism. Is not the new Prime Minister now as big a threat to the Union, if not a bigger threat to the Union, than any nationalist, and what will the Secretary of State do about it?
That is a bit rich coming from the hon. Gentleman, whom I have always respected in my deliberations from the Dispatch Box. I think that he would agree with commentary this week that one of the biggest threats to the continuation of the United Kingdom is the total and utter collapse of the Scottish Labour party.
More than 100 powers that are currently held in Brussels are to be transferred to Holyrood after Brexit. Therefore, does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from removing powers from Scotland, leaving the EU will give the Scottish Parliament more power?
What my hon. Friend says is absolutely correct. We have been subjected again, as we have so many times during this Session, to hearing about a power grab, but not once have we heard the identity of a single power that is being grabbed. Instead, what is identified is the fact that more than 100 powers and responsibilities are coming to the Scottish Parliament.
What I am interested in is the conversations that the right hon. Gentleman has had with his soon-to-be Prime Minister, because what he has said in the past is that it would be “extremely difficult” to stay in a Cabinet under the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). Will he ever develop anything approaching a backbone, or are Ruth’s Scottish Conservatives now the exclusive property of their biggest electoral liability?
I have always admired the hon. Gentleman’s consistency. Last week, when I appeared before the Scottish Affairs Committee, he said that he hoped I would not resign and that I would be in post for months and years.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that leaving the EU provides many opportunities for the businesses, communities and people across Scotland, not least for the fishing communities in places such as my constituency of Banff and Buchan when we leave the common fisheries policy and become an independent coastal state?
I absolutely do, and I always commend my hon. Friend for being such a champion of the fishing industry. Yesterday, I met the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, which remains excited and upbeat about the prospect of Britain leaving the EU and the hated common fisheries policy.
Politics is about principles. A few months ago, the Secretary of State told us that the threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom was “the principal issue” for him, but he also told us:
“Mr Johnson and I do not agree on a whole range of issues, and I do not see myself able to serve in this way.”
So how far will the Secretary of State allow his principles to be stretched in defence of the Union, just so he can keep his job?
I am not going to take any lessons on the question of leadership from the hon. Lady. Only yesterday, she said that
“we need a serious, mature politician who can be relied upon to keep his promises”
to be our Prime Minister. I am sure she was not referring to Richard Leonard or the leader of the Labour party.
I think that we would find more maturity in both those quarters than we might in the Prime Minister to be. However, those were the Secretary of State’s opinions, although he has obviously traded them in and got some new ones. He wants us to believe and that this Government are guardians of the Union, yet by pandering to the dog-whistle politics of English nationalism, the next Prime Minister has already abandoned the tradition of the Conservative and Unionist party. The Tory party is now a real and present danger to the integrity of the United Kingdom, so will the Secretary of State now confirm that he will not sell out the people of Scotland and that he will not be part of a no-deal Cabinet?
The hon. Lady has a nerve. Her position has been to sell out to the SNP. She told her colleagues that she would gladly give up her own seat to the SNP so that there could be a Labour-SNP alliance that would inevitably lead to another independence referendum. But to give her credit, she is doing a pretty good job of crashing the Scottish Labour party in the polls—losing two MEPs and finishing fifth in the European elections. Only the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party in Scotland will stand up for our United Kingdom, and I will certainly continue to do so.
Leaving the EU: No Deal
The Government delivered on our commitment to provide objective analysis to Parliament of how exiting the EU may affect the economy of the UK and its sectors, nations and regions in the long run.
Previous estimates have indicated that a no-deal Brexit could cost Scotland over 100,000 jobs. On that basis, will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that he will never serve in a Government whose policy is to leave without a deal?
My position on no deal is quite clear compared to the hon. Gentleman’s. On the three occasions that I had the opportunity to vote for a deal, I did so; he and most of his Labour colleagues did not.
Deal or no deal, Scotland faces a £1 billion financial hole, £737 million of which will be bridged by funds from Westminster funded by other parts of the United Kingdom. What analysis has my right hon. Friend done of how deep that hole would be if Scotland was separated from the rest of the United Kingdom?
It is well known that there would be a multibillion-pound funding gap in the event of Scottish independence that could only be dealt with by significant tax rises or cuts in services. Those who propose independence have still not answered the question on where that money is to be found.
A no-deal Brexit will be catastrophic for Scotland’s hill farmers, especially those looking to export sheepmeat to the European Union. That is not just my view but the view of the National Farmers Union Scotland and the NFU across the four parts of the United Kingdom. Can the Secretary of State give me and them some assurance that he will not just sit in Cabinet and watch their livelihoods destroyed?
I have been very clear throughout my time in Cabinet about the importance of agriculture to Scotland and the needs of Scotland’s agriculture industry, and I will continue to be so.
I call Angela Crawley. She is not here.
Drug Consumption Room (Glasgow)
The causes of drug misuse are complex and need a range of policy responses. I am aware that the Home Secretary has offered to meet Scottish Government Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick to discuss a broad range of issues around the tragic matter of drug-related deaths in Scotland.
I am glad that the Home Secretary is finally going to meet the Scottish Government on this. When NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde published its proposals for a supervised drug consumption in 2016, the number of drug-related deaths stood at 257; last year, it was 394. So I ask the Secretary of State for Scotland, how many people would still be alive in the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area if the Home Office had not blocked, for ideological reasons, drug consumption rooms in Glasgow?
As I said in my initial response, issues around drug misuse are complex and need a range of policy responses. I welcome the fact that the summit that my Scottish Parliament colleague Miles Briggs MSP suggested is going to go ahead. I can confirm that UK Government Ministers will take part in that, and I am sure that all the issues will be discussed on that occasion.
Scotland’s drug death rate is three times higher than in the rest of the UK. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that in addition to UK-wide action, the Scottish Government should be using their substantial powers over healthcare, education, housing and criminal justice to tackle this?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. Of course the UK Government want to work closely with the Scottish Government on this. The statistics released last week are shocking to everyone in Scotland and, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom, but it should not be suggested that any of the UK Government’s policy decisions are the sole answer to this issue: it is complex, and the powers that the Scottish Parliament already has will go a long way towards dealing with it.
Two weeks ago, my constituent Chelsea Bruce died in a drugs-related incident. She was just 16 years old. The time for handwringing is over. We know that drug consumption rooms, drop-in testing and even safe clinical prescribing of illicit drugs will save lives. The international body of evidence is unequivocal, yet the Secretary of State has been sceptical and vague on this. If only he would show some leadership in urgently finding a route through the impasse between the Home Office and the Lord Advocate to help to rapidly roll out these facilities in Glasgow and across Scotland. How many more must die before the Secretary of State recognises this public health emergency and acts to save these lives?
That sort of politicking is completely unworthy of this serious debate. The Home Office, the UK Government and, with respect, the Scottish Government take this issue seriously. We are going to have a summit in early course to discuss all the issues around this, and I sincerely hope, because I have had constituents die as well, that we can move forward.
I have regular meetings with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has been unwavering in her passionate support for our Union. We have regularly discussed the UK Government’s continued commitment to the devolution settlement and to a strong Scotland within a strong United Kingdom.
If the Secretary of State is in his place later, what will he do to keep Scotland in its place in the UK?
I will continue to do as I have done for the past four and a bit years, and that is relentlessly to make the positive case for the benefit of Scotland being in the United Kingdom and to the United Kingdom of having Scotland in it.
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. This party and this Government have been committed to the devolution settlement and to making it work. There is one party in this Parliament that would destroy devolution, and that is the SNP.
Leaving the EU: No Deal
I have had regular discussions with the Prime Minister on a range of matters related to exiting the EU. It is essential that we respect the result of the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU.
A no-deal Brexit combined with ending free movement of people, which is the inbound Prime Minister’s prospectus, would restrict Scottish business and the public sector from recruiting the staff they need, yet the Secretary of State has welcomed the appointment of the inbound Prime Minister. Can we conclude then that he is prepared to throw business and public services under a bus simply to protect his own career?
What amounts to throwing Scotland under a bus has been the actions of the SNP throughout the Brexit debates in this Parliament—voting three times against an agreement that would have allowed Scotland to leave the EU on an orderly basis and largely in accordance with its own document, “Scotland’s Place in Europe”.
In recent weeks, I have read reports that house prices in London are falling and job vacancies are down—two classic signs of an economy going into recession—and I can add to this mix the potential for a no-deal Boris Brexit boorach. Given these circumstances, what is the Secretary of State’s plan B for the Scottish economy?
The incoming Prime Minister has been very clear that he wants to leave the EU with a deal, and that is the best outcome for Scotland.
Let me read this for fear of misquoting the Secretary of State. He told the last Scottish Conservative party conference:
“Unfortunately Mr Johnson seems to behave in a way that suggests he is only focused on his own self interest and not on the interests of our country, and I find that very disappointing.”
Has the Secretary of State now overcome his disappointment, and will he continue to serve the new Prime Minister?
Just like the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, everything I have ever said is on the record. What I want to make clear is that my priority remains Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom, and that—in government or out—will be my continuing priority.
The House will observe that that is not actually an answer to my question. The Secretary of State sits besides Cabinet colleagues who have demonstrated integrity and conviction in deciding that they will resign over the question of a no-deal Brexit. If he is against a no-deal Brexit, would it not be a better look for Scotland for him to do likewise, rather than wait to be sacked or abolished?
Of course, the hon. Gentleman’s position is not a deal Brexit or a no-deal Brexit; it is no Brexit. That is what he is seeking to bring about. There is no evidence that the SNP has at any time been serious about getting a deal for Scotland. On each occasion it has had the opportunity to vote for a deal, it has voted against it.
Finally, and briefly, Anna Soubry.
I hope that the Secretary of State will stay in post, but apparently that means he will have to sign the pledge, because in order to serve in the next Government he and others will have to agree to leaving the EU come 31 October, deal or no deal. So will he be at the Dispatch Box again—yes or no—or are these his last questions?
I fear that the hon. Lady’s endorsement will have sealed my fate.
The Prime Minister was asked—
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. Following my duties in this House, this afternoon I shall have an audience of Her Majesty the Queen. I shall then continue with my duties in this House from the Back Benches, where I will continue to be the Member of Parliament for Maidenhead.
I profoundly disagree with many of the decisions that the Prime Minister has made and many of the things she says, but I recognise that she does have a respect for public service and for the future of our country, so how does she feel about handing over to a man who, among many things, is happy to demonise Muslims, is prepared to chuck our loyal public servants and diplomats under a bus, and promises to sell our country out to Donald Trump and his friends?
I am pleased to hand over to an incoming leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister who I worked with when he was in my Cabinet, and who is committed, as a Conservative who stood on a Conservative manifesto in 2017, to delivering on the vote of the British people in 2016 and to delivering a bright future for this country.
First of all, I thank my hon. Friend for all his work on the Homelessness Reduction Act, which, crucially, we are seeing actually having an impact—that is so important for the people who are benefiting from the work he did. I know that he has been doing a lot of work as part of the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health. I agree that we need to start viewing health as an asset to protect throughout our lives. That is why we have taken bold action on smoking and childhood obesity. I am proud that we have delivered not only the biggest ever cash boost in the history of the national health service, but a long-term plan that, as he said, will focus on prevention—as well as on cancer care and mental health—trying to ensure that people do not get ill in the first place. Preventing smoking and obesity are key parts of better lives for people in the future.
Today marks the final day in office for the Prime Minister, and I pay tribute to her sense of public duty. Public service should always be recognised. Being an MP, a Minister or indeed a Prime Minister is an honour that brings with it huge responsibility and huge pressures personally and, I am sure the Prime Minister and probably the whole House would agree, on those very closest to us, who are often not able to answer back for the criticisms made against them. I hope she has a marginally more relaxing time on the Back Benches. Perhaps, like the Chancellor, she will even help me oppose the reckless plans of her successor. [Interruption.] If I may continue—[Interruption.] I am glad the Government party is in such good heart today, for tomorrow it won’t be.
In the past three years, child poverty has gone up, pensioner poverty has gone up, in-work poverty has gone up, violent crime has gone up, NHS waiting times have gone up, school class sizes have gone up, homelessness has gone up and food bank use has gone up. Does the Prime Minister have any regrets about any of the things I have just said?
It is very good to see the Conservative party in good heart; it is more than I can say for the Labour party. But let me just say something to the right hon. Gentleman about my record over the past three years and how I measure it. It is in the opportunity for every child who is now in a better school. It is in the comfort for every person who now has a job for the first time in their life. It is in the hope of every disadvantaged young person now able to go to university. It is in the joy of every couple who can now move into their own home. At its heart, politics is not about exchanges across the Dispatch Box. Nor is it about eloquent speeches or media headlines. Politics is about the difference we make every day to the lives of people up and down this country. They are our reason for being here, and we should never forget it.
Yes, politics is about real life and politics is about what people suffer in their ordinary lives. I did not mention that per-pupil school funding has gone down, police numbers are down and GP numbers are falling. In the 2017 Conservative manifesto, the Prime Minister promised that no school would have its budget cut, that she would protect TV licences for the over-75s and that she would halve rough sleeping. Which of those pledges is the Prime Minister most sorry not to have achieved?
I am pleased to hear that the right hon. Gentleman spent some time reading the Conservative party manifesto from 2017—he has not been known for always reading the documents he stands up and talks about. Had he read the manifesto properly, he would know that we made a pledge on rough sleeping: to halve it by 2022 and to stop rough sleeping by 2027. I am pleased to say that in the past year we have seen rough sleeping going down. In particular, rough sleeping is going down in those areas where this Government have been taking action.
I do not quite know where the Prime Minister gets her figures from on rough sleeping. All I know is that I travel around this country, just like other Members of this House, and I talk to people who have had a disaster in their lives and end up rough sleeping. We are the fifth richest country in the world. It is surely wrong that anyone should end up sleeping on the streets of this country. We can and should do something about it.
I have often disagreed with the Prime Minister and have many criticisms of her policies, but I welcome the reduction in the stake on fixed odds betting terminals, the adoption of the children’s funeral fund and the scrapping of employment tribunal fees. Which of those policies is the Prime Minister most proud of?
I am proud of all the policies that we have introduced that have been improving people’s lives. I am proud of the fact that through the balanced management of the economy that we have done, we now see more people in work in this country than ever before. I am proud of the fact that there are more children in good and outstanding schools. I am proud of the fact that the attainment gap between the disadvantaged and the advantaged has been narrowed under this Government. And I am proud of the fact that we are putting the biggest cash boost in its history into our national health service. We are ensuring that the national health service—the most beloved institution in this country—will be there for people into the future. This is a Conservative Government—my Government—delivering on the things that matter to people in their day-to-day lives.
The Prime Minister may have noticed that none of those things that I mentioned were actually in the Conservative party manifesto in 2017, but every one of them was a Labour pledge in 2017. On Brexit, the Prime Minister’s own red lines ruled out any sensible compromise deal. Only after she had missed her own deadline to leave did the Prime Minister even begin to shift her position, but by then, she no longer had the authority to deliver. Her successor has no mandate at all. Does she have confidence that the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) will succeed where she has not?
I worked tirelessly to get a good deal for the UK, and I also worked hard to get that deal through this Parliament. I voted for the deal. What did the right hon. Gentleman do? He voted against a deal. He voted to make no deal more likely, and when there was a prospect of reaching consensus across this House, the right hon. Gentleman walked away from the talks. At every stage, his only interest has been playing party politics, and frankly, he should be ashamed of himself.
We have had three years of bungled negotiations, and we now have the spectacle of a Prime Minister coming into office with no electoral mandate looking for a Brexit deal that has been ruled out by the European Union, or in the case of a no deal, ruled out by the majority in this House and by anyone who understands the dangers to the British economy of a no deal. The next Prime Minister thought the Isle of Man was in the European Union and that the European Union made rules about kippers that, in fact, were made by the Government that he was part of. He also said that the UK could secure tariff-free trade through article 24 of the general agreement on tariffs and trade, despite the International Trade Secretary, the Attorney General and the Governor of the Bank of England all confirming that that is not possible.
At the start of 2018, the—[Interruption.] It’s coming, don’t worry. At the start of 2018, the Prime Minister herself set up a new unit to counter fake news, charged with “combating disinformation”. How successful does she think that has been?
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I fear that our success has not been what we wanted it to be from the amount of fake news and fake information that he uses at that Dispatch Box.
Maybe the Prime Minister can have a word with her successor on the way out, but let me conclude—[Interruption.] For today. Let me conclude by welcoming some of the Prime Minister’s notable U-turns over the last couple of years. The cruel dementia tax was scrapped. Plans to bring back grammar schools were ditched. The threat to the pensions triple lock was abandoned. The withdrawal of the winter fuel payments was dumped. The pledge to bring back foxhunting was dropped, and the Government binned their plan to end universal free school meals for five to seven-year-olds. The Prime Minister has dumped her own manifesto. Given that her successor has no mandate from the people—no mandate on which to move into office—does she not agree that the best thing that the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip could do later on today when he takes office is to call a general election and let the people decide their future?
My first answer to the right hon. Gentleman is no. If he wants to talk about people ducking manifesto commitments and commitments made during general election campaigns, might I remind him that the Labour party and he said that they would abolish student debt? After the election, he rowed back on that promise. What else did he say during the general election campaign? He said he was committed to Trident. What did he say afterwards? He said, no, he was not committed to Trident at all. He has broken promise after promise to the people of this country.
As this is the last time that the right hon. Gentleman and I will have this exchange across these Dispatch Boxes—[Hon. Member: “Are you going to answer the question?”] I was going to say that it is a strength of our British democracy that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have these exchanges across the Dispatch Boxes every week, two swords’ lengths apart, and that no quarter is sought and none is given. That is as it should be in our adversarial parliamentary democracy. But he and I are very different people and very different politicians and we approach the issues the country faces in different ways. I have spent all but one of my years in the House on the Front Bench trying to implement the policies I believe in, while he has spent most of his time on the Back Benches campaigning for what he believes in, often against his own party, but what we have in common is a commitment to our constituencies. I saw that after the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park mosque in his constituency. Perhaps then I could finish by saying this: as a party leader who has accepted when her time is up, might I suggest that perhaps the time is now for him to do the same? [Hon. Members: “More!”]
I call Glyn Davies.
Don’t be shy, Mr Davies. Assert yourself, man. We must hear from you.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and for highlighting the work the Government have done in Wales. I would add that over 95,000 people in Wales had a pay rise this year as a result of the national living wage and that employment in Wales has risen by 167,000 since 2010. Conservatives have indeed been delivering for Wales. I know the concern about the franchise for overseas voters and I am sure that my successor will wish to look at that.
I discovered a new part of my hon. Friend’s past recently. I believe he was once the bodyguard to the legendary Hollywood actress Lauren Bacall. [Interruption.] I think his red face tells us all.
Prime Minister, it is fair to say that we have had our differences—it has not often been a meeting of minds— but, with her standing down today, the time for holding her to account has passed. The burdens of office are considerable, the loneliness of leadership can be stark. At times we have clashed on points of political difference, but equally we have stood together when it has been right to do so—over Salisbury and other threats to the UK’s national security. She rightly made sure that Opposition leaders were informed at key moments in national security. In particular, her chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, always sought to make sure that I was kept informed of important developments. Prime Minister, I wish you and Philip all the best for the future.
As the Prime Minister departs, is she confident that the office of Prime Minister can be upheld by her flagrant successor?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He is absolutely right: he and I have a difference of opinion on some key issues, but I have been grateful for the position that the SNP has taken on key issues of national security, when it has stood alongside the Government as we have faced the actions of our enemy. I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point about keeping Opposition leaders in touch with things that have happened. I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Gavin Barwell, who was a first-class Member of this House, a first-class Minister, and has been an absolutely first-class chief of staff.
In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question: yes, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) on winning the Conservative leadership election. He will take over as Prime Minister and I look forward to a first-class Conservative Government under his leadership, delivering for the whole of the United Kingdom.
The Prime Minister-elect has no mandate in Scotland. He has no mandate from the people. The Government he is busy forming have no mandate in Scotland. Scotland deserves better. A snap YouGov poll shows that 60% of people in Scotland are dismayed and disappointed by the new Prime Minister.
Those of us on the SNP Benches have tabled an early-day motion, with friends from parties across this House, rejecting the idea of this House being shut down before November. Following Parliament’s overwhelming message in last week’s vote, may I invite the Prime Minister, in one of her first actions as a Back-Bench MP, to sign our early-day motion and join efforts to stop the suspension of Parliament under any circumstances?
As I said in answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s first question, I accept that he and I have differences on a number of issues. We both have a passion for delivering for the people of Scotland. I want to do that with Scotland as part of the United Kingdom; he wants to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom. We have a mandate from the people to form a Government of this country. That is how we run things in the parliamentary democracy that we have in this country. We also have a mandate from the people to deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum. If the right hon. Gentleman is so interested in delivering on mandates from the British people, he should have voted on the deal to take us out of the EU.
I recognise the importance of increasing cycling and walking. It is important for people’s health and the local environment. Schemes such as the Derwent valley cycle way provide significant benefit to the local economy as well as to health and the environment. We have doubled our spending on cycling and walking in England, and our local cycling and walking infrastructure plan enables local authorities to take a strategic approach to planning improvements and to integrate them into wider plans for transport and economic development. I am sure the issue will continue to be supported by Conservatives in government.
We have put £1 billion extra into the pension system, recognising concerns that were expressed by women about the changes to pensions. The hon. Lady references what I am going to be doing in the future, but I thought I had already made that very clear: I will be continuing in this House as the Member of Parliament for Maidenhead.
West Midlands Combined Authority
I am sure my hon. Friend will want to join me in saying how pleased I am with the economic growth that we have seen in the West Midlands Combined Authority area. Output has increased by 27% over five years; productivity increased at twice the national rate last year; and employment has increased since 2011. The record of the West Midlands Combined Authority shows precisely what a local, visible, innovative leadership can do and how it can be the key to building a strong economy and a fairer society.
With the Prime Minister’s active encouragement the Mayor of the West Midlands was elected in May 2017, and she has supported him and the region ever since. Over £2 billion has been given to the region by the Prime Minister in the form of grants and guarantees for transport and so many other worthwhile projects, so on behalf of the people of the west midlands may I thank her and may I also ask that she continues in Parliament as a strong advocate for local devolution?
I remember the conversation I had with Andy Street when I was encouraging him to stand for the mayoralty of the west midlands, and I am very pleased that he did. He has been delivering for the people of the west midlands ever since his election. I also thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the excellent work that we have done for the west midlands: Government working with that combined authority shows the benefits of the very local devolution that my hon. Friend has referred to. This is a very good example of what that innovative and visionary leadership can do at a local level in improving the lives of people.
My successor will continue to deliver the Conservative policies that have improved the lives of people up and down this country since we were elected into a coalition Government in 2010. There is a long list of improvements that have taken place in people’s lives, and I look forward, on the Back Benches, to giving my full support to the next Prime Minister as he takes us forward, delivering on Brexit and continuing to deliver on those Conservative policies.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for the way in which he has conducted herself as Prime Minister of this country, for the dignified way in which she has approached the job and her responsibilities? May I ask her to reflect on the fact that when we both first joined the Government in 2010, for every £4 the Government were spending we were borrowing £1, yet as she leaves office today for every £34 the Government spend we are borrowing £1? She has left an economy that is in a much more stable position than when it was inherited. To do that she has had to make some very difficult choices, and choices we may not have wanted to make, but we have got the economy on a sound footing, and I thank her for that.
I thank my right hon. Friend for pointing out that fact about Government borrowing and for highlighting the work we have done for the economy, delivering that balanced approach. I would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for the work he has done in delivering that. What does that mean? It means borrowing at its lowest level for 17 years; it means the lowest unemployment since the 1970s, wages growing at their fastest for a decade and debt falling. That is what my Government have delivered: more jobs, healthier finances and an economy fit for the future.
Obviously, I always look at Select Committee reports with care. I commissioned the Augar review of post-18 education funding, and that review has been very clear that more money needs to go into further education and into sixth forms. I want to see that happening. Indeed, I think that, just as my Government have given a priority to the national health service in looking at funding for the future, the next Government should give priority to education so that we can see that money going into further education and sixth forms and ensure that for every young person there is an avenue through education and training that suits them and their talents and gives them the best opportunities for their future.
The Prime Minister has always been a great champion of victims of domestic violence, as Prime Minister and as Home Secretary, and she has directed many millions of pounds into improving those support services during her time in office, but does she agree that there is still much more work to be done on prevention and early intervention, and on tackling the ongoing scepticism that still greets many victims when they report violence?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising an important issue. I also thank her for the work for victims of domestic violence that she did in her legal practice prior to coming into this House. This is a very important issue, and I am proud of the Domestic Abuse Bill that has been introduced in this House. I look forward to the debates on the Bill as it goes through Parliament. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to continue to focus on prevention and continue to raise awareness. We must ensure that domestic violence is seen for what it is. These are criminal acts that are being perpetrated and they should not be brushed under the carpet. People should not just say, “Oh, it’s something that happens behind closed doors” or “It’s just a domestic”. We need to take domestic violence very seriously. We need to ensure that we are taking appropriate action in relation to the perpetrators, and that victims are given support and feel confident and are able to come forward at the earliest opportunity to report what has happened to them.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an issue of great concern, and I am sure it will be of concern to Members across the House and of course to the family of his constituent. I will ensure that the Ministry of Defence provides a response to him on this issue.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her work in supporting and overseeing the global health programme that the United Kingdom delivers overseas, particularly in regard to vaccination and most notably the polio eradication vaccination, for which she has been internationally recognised. The programme has saved and safeguarded millions of children’s lives across the world. Does she agree that the need to combat misinformation about vaccination is now as important as it ever has been? Will she, in her memo to her successor, note the importance of this programme and the continuing need for a self-standing Department for International Development?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reference to the work on polio, which enables me to commend the work of my constituent, Judith Diment, with Rotary International in its work against polio. It is important that we combat the disinformation about vaccinations and ensure that people are willing to have those vaccinations, which will change their lives and ensure that they can lead healthy lives, rather than succumbing to diseases and conditions that can have an impact on their lives. I can also say to him that I am proud of the fact that we have a Department for International Development, and proud of the fact that we have legislated for 0.7% of gross national income to be spent on development aid overseas. That is an important element of global Britain and an important element of our standing in the world.
As I have said on several occasions, it behoves all of us as politicians—indeed, everyone in public life—to be careful about the language we use and to ensure that we give a clear a message that there is no place in our society for racism or hate crime. We should all act to ensure that we deliver on those sentiments. I thank Helene for her work at Bletchley Park and thank all those who worked there. Unsung for some considerable time, they played a crucial part in our ability to defeat fascism in the second world war. We should be very proud of their work, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving the House the opportunity to celebrate it.
I begin by commending the Prime Minister for her stamina and courage in her term of office—whatever our views on Brexit and other issues—and also commend the support that she has received from her husband Philip. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] For many of us, our husbands, wives and partners are the unsung heroes. May I now ask her a specific question? She is going to the palace this afternoon, and we assume that she is going to recommend that the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) succeed her as Prime Minister, but will she tell the House one piece of real, hard advice that she would like to give him on being Prime Minister?
Can I—[Interruption.] A number of my right hon. and hon. Friends are suggesting from a sedentary position that my advice should be to read my right hon. Friend’s summer reading list. However, he has also given me an opportunity to do something that I suspect many on my side may not thank me for, but I am taking a lead from you, Mister Speaker, in saying that I am pleased to be able to see my husband in the Gallery today.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and also for his work on modern slavery, because he and I have spoken about it on a number of occasions over the years, and he has also been a great champion. We passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which took action in relation to individuals who could find themselves on the receiving end of criminal charges effectively because they had been forced to act in a certain way because of modern slavery. We have been looking at how we deal with victims and the referral mechanism, It is important that we have had an independent review of the 2015 Act, which proposed a number of recommendations for improving how victims are treated, and we will be taking most of those recommendations on board.
Further to the mention of modern-day slavery by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), it is right to record that my right hon. Friend has long and distinguished service in this House, both in government and in opposition, and her commitment to public service has been outstanding. Her vision and her determination to bring forward legislation against modern-day slavery led the world, and I hope she will continue her fight against slavery with us from the Back Benches so that we stamp out this evil scourge together.
I look forward to joining my right hon. Friend on the Back Benches and continuing to campaign on this issue. I also pay tribute to her for the work that she has done on this issue. She is right: it is an absolute scourge. We must continue to fight it, and we must continue to raise awareness of it, because there are too many people today in this country—not trafficked into this country, but British citizens—who find themselves taken into effective slavery. We must raise awareness of this, and we must constantly work to combat it and to end it.
I recognise the concern that the hon. Gentleman is showing for his constituency, and the worry and concern that there is for those people who are employed in the business that he has referred to. Of course, whenever we see closures of factories and closures of industrial sites, the Government do act to ensure that support is available for those who find themselves losing their jobs, should that be the case.
However, the hon. Gentleman says that I talked of having a modern industrial strategy. We have a modern industrial strategy. It is a modern industrial strategy that is essentially setting the background and the framework that will enable the economy of the United Kingdom to be the economy for the 21st century.
You are in no doubt, Mr Speaker, that I think the Prime Minister is a thoroughly good egg, and it has been an absolute privilege to serve her on the Back Benches.
This Prime Minister’s commitment to mental health has been simply fantastic; it was fantastic when she was the Home Secretary, and it has been fantastic in her time as Prime Minister. We have had the Stevenson/Farmer review of workplace mental health; Sir Simon Wessely’s review into the Mental Health Act 1983; her commitment to reducing the tragedy of suicide, with her putting her office behind that; and the introduction of places of safety for people experiencing a mental health crisis. We have been filling the Prime Minister’s diary up with future commitments as she authors the next chapter of her political life, but can she find space for a few more paragraphs on mental health?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I also thank him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) for the dignified way in which they conducted the Conservative party leadership election. He has been an advocate for the Government doing more on mental health during his time in this House, and he has championed the need for us to do more on mental health. I want to continue to ensure that we do indeed take that forward. We have set the record in putting that record funding into mental health and in having those essential reviews—Stevenson/Farmer and Sir Simon Wessely’s review. We now need to ensure that we implement the proposals and that we take this forward. If we do so, we will make a significant improvement in the lives of those people with mental health problems.
I commend the individual to whom the hon. Gentleman referred for the work that he has been doing. I am not aware of the organisation that the hon. Gentleman referred to, of which the consultant that he mentioned is a member, but I do want a relationship between the United Kingdom and European Union in the future that enables our scientists and academics to continue to work with those in the EU, and around the rest of the world, to do the pioneering work that—as the hon. Gentleman said, speaking from his own experience—is changing people’s lives for the better.
Ah yes, a singular denizen of the House: Sir John Hayes.
The Prime Minister and I first encountered the
“bumping pitch and…blinding light”
of parliamentary life together in 1997, and since then, over many tests, have endured some defeats and enjoyed many victories. As she reflects on her innings on the Front Bench, will she count among her greatest achievements the falling number of workless households, which has succoured personal responsibility, secured family stability and nurtured communal pride? Will she continue that work and, in doing so, unite the whole House in that mission?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that, and also thank him for all the work that we did together when he was a Home Office Minister. He worked very hard to ensure that what I believe is an extremely important and pioneering piece of legislation, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, went through this House. I am very happy to welcome the fact that we now have that low number of workless households in this country. We all know that children brought up in a household where there is work are more likely to do better at school, and more likely to succeed further in their life. Reducing the number of workless households is an important aim, and one that I would have hoped could be accepted and championed across this whole House.
First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment as trade envoy to Israel. He has done a lot of work on antisemitism, and should be congratulated on it. We have been ensuring that we put more money into police forces: around £1 billion extra is available to police forces this year, and many police forces around the country are recruiting more officers. On the theme with which the hon. Gentleman started his question, I imagine that to him and to others it is a matter of great sadness that the Leader of the Opposition took the Labour party through voting against extra money for the police, and against extra powers for the police.
Some 31 people were killed in Idlib yesterday, and many tens of thousands of people were displaced—again. I thank the Prime Minister for her personal commitment to Syria, and to international development more widely. I would like her to join me in reassuring the people of Syria that all of us here will continue to remember them.
First, I commend my hon. Friend’s work in setting up Singing for Syrians, which has been raising funds for people in Syria, and the commitment that she has shown to the people of Syria. We remain, and the Conservative Government will remain, committed to working for a political solution in Syria that can provide the stability and security that the people of Syria deserve.
I join others in thanking the Prime Minister for her years of public service as Home Secretary and as the Prime Minister, for the thoroughly decent, dedicated, honourable way she has carried out all her our duties, and for the very courteous and proper way she has dealt with us as a party. Working together, we have ensured that there actually is a Conservative and Unionist Government of the United Kingdom, which will please many in the House. I will also please Labour Members by saying that we have ensured that there is no early general election.
Now that the Prime Minister has more time on her hands with her dear husband, Philip, I urge her to come to Northern Ireland and avail herself of the many walking opportunities there. She will have seen the wonderful Open championship this weekend in Royal Portrush, which was a credit to Northern Ireland and to the United Kingdom. The warm hospitality of the people of Northern Ireland was on show, and it is open to her as well.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the discussions we have had and the support he has continued to give to the Conservative and Unionist party so that there is a Conservative and Unionist Government in this country. I thank him for the warm invitation to Northern Ireland he has given to me and Philip. I have enjoyed my visits to Northern Ireland. I congratulate all those in Northern Ireland who were involved in putting on the Open championship at Portrush. There was a slight issue with the weather, which may have favoured those who came close to the top of the championship, but it was an excellent championship, and many people will have seen the delights and benefits of Northern Ireland when they attended that event.
As somebody who has not invariably seen eye-to-eye with the Prime Minister, may I thank her for her remarkable public service, for showing that highest of virtues, a sense of duty and, on top of that, for being willing to deal with enormous courtesy with people who must on occasions have been annoying to her? On behalf of many people, I thank the Prime Minister.
Can I say—[Interruption.]
Order. Fortunately, because the hon. Gentleman’s voice carries, I was able to hear his question, but I am at least as interested to hear the answer
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. This place is about debate, argument and discussion about the issues that we all believe in so passionately and that matter to us all. Those debates and discussions are best held when they are held with respect and courtesy. I thank my hon. Friend for the courtesy that he has shown to me in our discussions together. I look forward to probably continuing some of those discussions when I join him on the Back Benches.
When I think of girls growing up in East Dunbartonshire, I know it is inspiring for them to see women in positions of power, whether that is as First Minister of Scotland or as Prime Minister of our United Kingdom. What advice does the Prime Minister have for women throughout the country on how to deal with those men who think they could do a better job but are not prepared to do the actual work?
My advice to all women is to be true to yourself, persevere, keep going and be true to the vision that you are working for. I congratulate the hon. Lady on her election as leader of her party. I am pleased that we have a Member representing a Scottish constituency who is a leader of a United Kingdom party. That goes to show that we are one United Kingdom, and MPs from the four nations of our Union sit in this House on the basis of equality. I also congratulate the hon. Lady on becoming the first woman to lead her party. As I stand down, I am pleased to be able to hand the baton on to another female leader of a political party.
As I look around the Chamber, I have to say that we almost have a full set. My party has had two women leaders, the Liberal Democrats now have a woman leader, and the SNP has a woman leader, as does the DUP, Plaid and the Greens. Even—[Interruption.] Wait for it. Even the independent TIGger group, Change UK, or whatever they are calling themselves this week, are now on to their second woman leader. There is only one party in this House letting the side down: the Labour party.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all she has done for women in Parliament and in this country, from co-founding Women2Win to tackling domestic abuse and modern slavery and legislating to make our society more equal. Will she urge her successor to build on her work and make Britain the best place in the world to be a woman?
I am very happy to urge that commitment for the future. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I am very pleased that under my Government, we have seen the gender pay gap at a record low, female employment at a record high and a record percentage of women on executive boards. With our women’s empowerment road map, we are now looking at how we can empower women in this country from school to retirement. I want women in this country to feel that there are no limits to how far they can go and what they can do with their lives.
We have disagreed on many things over the years, but the Prime Minister knows that I have long respected her resilience, commitment to public duty and seriousness, as well as her work on national security. I assure her that there is much to be done from the Back Benches. She knows that I once said to her that I believed she was not the kind of person who would take this country into a chaotic no-deal scenario, not least because of the advice she had had on the risks to our national security. I am fearful about her successor, so can she reassure me that she really thinks, in her heart, that her successor will take those national security warnings as seriously as she has? If he does not, in October, will she speak out?
First, I have every confidence that my successor will take all the issues that he needs to look at in making these decisions and others across Government as seriously as they need to be taken. I also say to her—I am sorry, but I will say this—that she is absolutely right that I have always said that I believe it is better for this country to leave with a good deal, and I believe we negotiated a good deal. I voted three times in this House for a good deal. I spoke to the right hon. Lady about this issue. If she was so concerned about the security aspect of no deal, she should have voted for the deal.
In every aspect of her public life, the Prime Minister has put her heart and soul into giving people the best chance in life. Without understanding, autistic people and their families, who number 2.8 million in the UK, are all at risk of being isolated and developing mental health problems. In thanking the Prime Minister for all the work she has done in furthering the debate surrounding mental health and removing the stigma, may I ask her whether, after she has left the Front Bench to spend more meaningful time with her husband Philip, she will join the all-party parliamentary group on autism and become a champion and advocate for autistic people throughout the country?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question and for the groundbreaking work she did on the Autism Act 2009. That legislation helped to raise people’s awareness of the issues experienced by those on the autistic spectrum and greatly increased our understanding of what we need to do to enable people with autism to lead fulfilling lives. There are many issues in which I want to take an interest when I am on the Back Benches and this, along with mental health more widely, is something that I will want to continue to look at. I have committed to taking the autism training that the all-party group has made available for Members of Parliament.
Finally, I call the Mother of the House, Harriet Harman.
It is always a historic moment when a Prime Minister leaves office, especially when the country faces such difficult times ahead, as we do, but the right hon. Lady’s departure marks another milestone, because although we are on to our 77th Prime Minister now, she is only the second woman ever to have held that office. She made tackling human trafficking and the horrors of domestic violence a priority at the heart of her Government, and in that respect her legacy is secure, because everyone in this House backs that work and we will all be committed to taking it forward.
Even the Prime Minister’s harshest critics must recognise her integrity, her commitment to public service and her dedication to this country. Those are qualities that none of us should ever take for granted, but may I offer her a word of sisterly advice? Sometimes, you just have to be a bit more careful when a man wants to hold your hand. I thank her for her service as our Prime Minister, and I sincerely wish her all the very best for the future.
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her question. She joined this House in 1982 when there was a female Prime Minister, but there were very few other women in this House. She has played a very important role—one of which she can be proud—in ensuring that more women come into this House as Labour Members of Parliament. She started something that began to change the face of this House, which has been very important. I came here in 1997 as one of only 13 Conservative women—indeed, one Labour Member of Parliament approached me to encourage me to sign a private Member’s Bill list because he assumed that, as a woman, I must have been a Labour Member of Parliament. I am also proud to have played my part in getting more women MPs in this House. I am sure that among the women in this House today there is a future Prime Minister—perhaps more than one.
Later today, as I said earlier, I will return to the Back Benches. It will be my first time on the Back Benches in 21 years, so it will be quite a change from standing here at the Dispatch Box. I am told that over the past three years I have answered more than 4,500 questions over 140 hours in this House—more than I might have expected. In future, I look forward to asking the questions. We are, as the right hon. and learned Lady says, living through extraordinary political times. This House of Commons is rightly at the centre of those events, and that is because of the vital link between every single Member of this House and the communities—the commons—that we represent. That is the bedrock of our parliamentary democracy and of our liberty, and each one of us, wherever we sit and whatever we stand for, can take pride in that. That duty to serve my constituents will remain my greatest motivation. [Applause.]
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I am always deeply obliged to the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known since we jousted at the University of Essex together, but he was not often in order then and I am sceptical as to whether he will be in order now, for the simple reason that points of order come after urgent questions. I think I speak for the House in saying that we look forward with eager anticipation, bated breath and beads of sweat upon our brow to hear with what pearls of wisdom he intends to favour the Chamber.
Meanwhile, we come to the first of our four urgent questions.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on the sale of British Steel.
As hon. Members will recall, I made a statement to the House a few hours after British Steel entered insolvency on 22 May. This was, and still is, an uncertain time for the British Steel workforce, their families and their communities, for the customers and suppliers of the business and for everyone who believes, as I do, in the importance of excellent steelmaking and manufacturing in the UK.
In my statement, I said that, although the independent official receiver is solely responsible for the operation and sale of the British Steel business, I would, both personally and on behalf of the Government, do everything that I possibly could within my powers to help secure a good future for the whole of British Steel’s operations.
Following a visit to the Scunthorpe plant the following day and to Skinningrove and Lackenby on Teesside the day after with local MPs, including the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), we formed a British Steel support group to work together immediately and actively to pursue that aim. I chaired the group with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), which has included British Steel management; trade unions Community, Unite and the GMB; the Mayor of the Tees Valley and the leader of North Lincolnshire Council and their officers; the chairs of the Humber, Greater Lincolnshire and Tees Valley local enterprise partnerships; UK Steel; Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation, on behalf of suppliers and customers; the Federation of Small Businesses; Government officials and other local MPs, including the hon. Lady, my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). The support group has now met eight times, usually in Doncaster, and sub-groups on the supply chain have met separately, as have local partners.
I wish to pay tribute to the hard work, tenacity and dedication of this group and the extraordinary commitment of the workforce who, during this time, have worked magnificently, not only to continue but to increase steel production.
Often in insolvencies, customer orders dry up, suppliers withdraw their services and the workforce drifts away, precipitating a rapid failure. In this instance, the opposite has been the case. The confidence that the support group has built, coupled with a Government indemnity to the official receiver, has allowed trading to continue, orders to be won and production to increase. This is without precedent in my experience.
Although all decisions are for the official receiver, I have been active, as Members know, in visiting prospective buyers in many parts of the world to make it clear that the UK Government will, within our legal powers, work with a good long-term owner of these important assets to see how we can help them to realise their vision for the company.
I am pleased to say that the official receiver has said that he is encouraged by the interest in purchasing British Steel and his special managers, EY, are currently in further discussions with potential buyers. The official receiver has made it clear that, given the complex nature of the operations, any potential sale will take time to deliver.
I said in May that I was determined to see the proud record of steelmaking excellence continue. The world needs steel, and British Steel is among the best in the world. To secure that will require, in my experience, the continued active participation of everyone that I mentioned earlier without interruption during the critical weeks ahead. In particular, whoever stands at this Dispatch Box will need to devote themselves unstintingly to achieve a great outcome for everyone concerned with British Steel, which I believe, although not certain, is certainly within grasp, and that is the flourishing of British Steel’s operations for many years to come.
Let me begin by putting on record my thanks to the Secretary of State—not only for his response just now, but for the way in which he has responded to this crisis. We find ourselves in a fundamentally different position from the situation in 2015, where, either by design or flat-footedness, the Government failed to respond, with devastating consequences. This is a completely different scenario, and I am grateful to the Secretary of State for stepping in and helping to secure the asset, enabling the business to continue and ensuring that the workforce were paid. Through the indemnity that the Government have given to the official receiver, the Secretary of State has given us a very good chance of ensuring the future for British Steel in this country. I also thank him for his efforts in going around the world to help secure a buyer.
Of course, the situation remain precarious. In the past few weeks, we have seen the new Prime Minister running around the country waving kippers in the air; by contrast, 5,000 dedicated, highly-skilled workers in British Steel have been putting their shoulders to the wheel in Scunthorpe, Skinningrove and Lackenby, despite their livelihoods being in the balance. They have been producing at record levels and working with every effort they have to ensure that the business continues to produce the best steel in the world and to flourish. I pay tribute to all those working within British Steel. They deserve a Government who will be straining every single sinew to ensure that the business survives.
I pay tribute to the trade unions, including Community and Unite; every worker in British Steel; everybody in the customer base who has continued to ensure that requests for steel have come through, including some who have even stepped up their demands; everyone in the supply chain who has continued to work so hard to supply the business; and colleagues in the Doncaster round- table. I again pay tribute to the Secretary of State for the inclusive and positive way in which he has responded. However, I do have a number of questions for the Secretary of State—for whoever will be at the Dispatch Box in the coming days, weeks and months ahead.
First, does the incoming Secretary of State understand the implications of failure? We know what 5,000 job losses could be like in areas such as Scunthorpe, Redcar and Skinningrove where there is no alternative employment, and we know the cost of cleaning up the site: £1 billion. Does the future Secretary of State understand the loss of a major industry in Britain that any self-respecting major economy would value and recognise to be essential? Will they recognise the role of steel as a foundation industry for our defence, automotive and construction sectors and what reliance on overseas production could mean for our economy, our independence and our self-reliance?
Secondly, will the future Secretary of State endeavour to ensure that the official receiver continues to receive the indemnity for as long as it takes to find a buyer? Thirdly, will they endeavour to give wholehearted Government support to the bids that primarily keep the business together as one industry across Skinningrove, Lackenby and Scunthorpe? Will they pledge to prevent cherry-picking, to keep asset strippers at bay so that we do not suffer the same issues that we have experienced before and to ensure that the terms and conditions of the workforce are maintained? Will they ensure that any company that the Government support will invest in the assets and ensure that they are modernised for the future of our industry? Will they invest in research and development and be committed to the long-term interests of steelmaking in this country?
Finally, I hope that whoever will be at the Dispatch Box in the weeks ahead will recognise that they have the jobs and livelihoods of thousands of men and women in their hands, as well as the guardianship of a vital, modern, innovative and potentially world-leading British industry.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for asking the question that has given us the chance to talk about these issues. She has been dedicated and devoted to her constituents, as have other Members—starting the week with me in Doncaster with the colleagues I described to ensure that we can work together and join together to ensure that there are no gaps between any of the interested parties. That has had an appreciable effect, as has been noted by many prospective buyers. Certainly, many customers and suppliers have also observed the resolution and the unanimity of resolution behind this.
Many of the hon. Lady’s questions were addressed to whoever might be the Secretary of State under the new Prime Minister, so it would be presumptuous of me to answer on his or her behalf, but she has placed a clear set of requirements on the record and I endorse everything she said. Not only would the consequences of the loss of historical assets—hugely important in all the communities she mentions—be unconscionable; there would also be the loss of a substantial opportunity.
The hon. Lady, like me, believes that there is a strong strategic future for the British steel industry. As I said in my previous answer, the world is going to need steel. Through investing in infrastructure, this country has opportunities to make greater use of UK steel. We export much in the way of our scrap steel to other countries. That could be made better use of, both environmentally and in terms of industrial opportunities. If we invest—as we intend to and are doing through the industrial strategy—in the technologies that will make steelmaking cleaner, more efficient and suitable for new uses, there is every reason to think that the UK steel industry, including British Steel, can be a beacon showing the rest of the world how a modern manufacturing industry can flourish.
May I associate myself with the priorities outlined by my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley)? This is an opportunity to say a big thank you on behalf of the people of Teesside for all the dedication that the Secretary of State—a son of Teesside—has shown to our steel industry. It has not gone unnoticed locally how much he has gone over and above what might be called the ordinary line of duty to secure a positive outcome to this sale, so I pass on a sincere and lasting thank you.
It would be helpful to get on record what the Secretary of State has been doing to leave no stone unturned in these negotiations. In particular, will he talk about the in-principle willingness potentially to invest alongside a future purchaser?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s generous words. He has been assiduous not just in being a member of the support group, but by working in Skinningrove with the customers of British Steel to convey the assurances that are necessary. Buyers will have questions about this extensive and complex set of assets, so it is important—and will continue to be important, especially during the weeks ahead in August—that everyone is available and active in providing the answers to those questions.
Through the industrial strategy, the Government have established programmes to support improvement in energy efficiency, which is very important; to decarbonise industrial clusters, of which steelmaking is a prime example; and to invest in research and development. Through the industrial strategy, we have the biggest increase in R&D in the history of this country. I am making these points to prospective purchasers so that they can see that the environment is a positive one.
It would be wrong for me to comment on the individual bids, as that is legally and strictly a matter for the official receiver, but I have made myself available in this country and overseas to answer questions. I think that I have had more than 25 meetings with bidders, and it has been encouraging—to use the words of the official receiver—that serious bids have been made, but the work must continue to land them and to secure the future.
I do hope that this is not my last exchange with the Secretary of State, but just in case it is, I want to stress my thanks for the amazing Mini Cooper toy that he presented me with last week and to say that he should not worry because there will always be a parking space in my heart for him. We might differ in our approach to many of the structural flaws that our economy faces, but we actually have more in common on most issues than many people would realise, not least on industrial strategy. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) for securing this important update on British Steel.
The Secretary of State shares my opinion that British Steel must be kept as one entity, not splintered off to different buyers who do not have the long-term success of the company at heart. However, there have been reports this week that the Chinese Jingye Group, which was interested in the company as a whole, has pulled out. It was also reported that the deadline for bids has been moved a number of times. Indeed, an email sent from the official receiver is reported to have stated that no deadline has been set to conclude a sale process. Can the Secretary of State confirm how many prospective buyers remain, how many are interested in acquiring the entire the company and what deadlines for the sale have been set? Will he also confirm, as my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, that he will only give his support to bids that support the long-term interests of the company, the workforce, the local community and the steel industry as a whole?
The Secretary of State must recognise that, as Labour has repeatedly stated, action must be taken on electricity prices, business rates, driving investment and, of course, securing a good Brexit deal, because no deal could mean no steel. Will he therefore assure the House that he will be taking steps to ensure that the new Prime Minister urgently takes action on these issues and understands the real importance of the steel industry?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for the generosity of her remarks. I have enjoyed my exchanges and meetings with her. I hope the parking space in her heart has a charging point for the electric Mini—that would be very important.
The hon. Lady invites me to comment on the bids and some of the press speculation as to who is bidding and who is not. First, this is a matter for the official receiver, and secondly, I would not want to prejudice any of the bids by commenting. The discussions, in many cases, take place under confidential terms, and it would be wrong to do anything that might disadvantage that. There is often, in situations like this, speculation in the press, and much of it is misplaced. What I can say—the official receiver has said this publicly—is that several bids have been made and he is looking for bids that consider the whole of the operation. I welcome that, as the hon. Lady does.
On long-term commitments, we do have a long-term commitment to manufacturing, and to steel in particular. I mentioned some of the funds that are available in the industrial strategy. Of course, because they would accompany substantial investments, which I hope will be in place, they require a long-term commitment from any prospective buyer.
The hon. Lady is right to raise the question of energy prices and electricity prices. This is not a new phenomenon, and it is not unique to any particular Government. In fact, the biggest increase in industrial electricity prices took place under the previous Government. In the past five years, we have contributed nearly £300 million to energy-intensive industries as a rebate towards those costs. Through the industrial energy efficiency fund that is available in the industrial strategy, we want to reduce further the costs of energy. It is very important that we should do that.
The hon. Lady asks questions about the incoming Prime Minister. I spoke to both candidates during the leadership contest to impress on them what she and I agree is the crucial role of this industry. I know that she, the Under-Secretary—my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson)—and other hon. Members have communicated not just with the current Prime Minister but with her potential successors to reinforce the resolution across all parts of the House that this is at the top of the new Prime Minister’s agenda.
A very large number of my constituents work at Scunthorpe. Can the Secretary of State assure me that whatever happens, their welfare is at the forefront of his mind? In an international market that is often manipulated by Governments, notably the Chinese, will he assure me that in this case, to quote Sir Keith Joseph, the market is not enough, and there will be an activist and extremely interventionist approach by the Government to ensure that there is a buyer? Lastly, I have always thought that my right hon. Friend was an outstanding parliamentarian ever since our days on the Public Accounts Committee together, and I wish him well in the reshuffle.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. My training under his expert tutelage on the PAC stood me in good stead for ministerial office, and I am grateful to him for that.
I am encouraged by my right hon. Friend’s encouragement to take an activist approach. That is the approach that I have been taking. In my view—and this applies to everyone who has been part of the support group—we let this slip through our fingers if we are not there to make sure that all the questions can be answered, whether through the trade unions, which have been magnificent in this, or through the local authorities, including some of his neighbours in Lincolnshire. Ursula Lidbetter, who leads the Lincolnshire local enterprise partnership, has been very active in the group. I will, in so far as I am still at this Dispatch Box, continue that approach. I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s recommendation of an activist approach will sound with some resonance down the corridors of this place and reach the ears of the new Prime Minister, who I hope will follow his sage advice.
It is disheartening to hear that this process continues to drag on with no idea how long it will take for a deal to conclude. This UK Government must at last stand up for the steel industry and deliver a sector deal. In today’s global world, the uncertainty caused by Brexit is providing businesses with the nudge they need to leave the UK. How many more will leave when it becomes apparent that the new Prime Minister has no plans beyond a no-deal Brexit? Our thoughts are with all those dealing with continued uncertainty—employees, management, unions, and those in the supply chain. What will the Secretary of State, who has shown real commitment to securing the continuation of the British steel plants, do—or, indeed, what will his successor do—in the face of a Brexit that is doing irreparable damage to our manufacturing sector?
I am grateful for what the hon. Lady said about me personally.
I think it would be more disheartening if this process had concluded, as was the wide expectation eight weeks ago, with what happened in Redcar, as the Redcar mentioned, which was the more or less immediate closure of the plant. The fact that the process continues, far from being disheartening, is heartening in that there are several bidders that the official receiver and his agents are working with. It is absolutely vital that those discussions should continue for as long as they prove necessary. That is one of the reasons why my first act on the warning of the insolvency was to commit a Government indemnity to allow an orderly process to take place, and I very much hope it will.
I very much agree with the hon. Lady that having a sector deal with the steel sector is highly desirable. All the sector deals—colleagues have heard me launch different sector deals from this Dispatch Box—require investment by the industry and by the Government alongside each other. That is precisely what we want to do in this case. I hope that this will be a catalyst for the investment that allows such a deal to take place.
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for his work on behalf of the very large number of my constituents who work at Scunthorpe. It is because of his actions, and the actions of our Government, that they have continued to be paid throughout this process and that they continue to have the confidence to commit to the British Steel site at Scunthorpe. Moving forward, does he agree that it is really important that the incoming new Government commit once again to big infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2 and, of course, Northern Powerhouse Rail—HS3—to give the industry the certainty into the future that there is going to be investment from this Government in such vital infrastructure?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his participation in the support group in support of his constituents, which has been very valuable. As I made clear, this is for the official receiver, and I do not want to get ahead of his progress. The situation is still not resolved. He has said that it is encouraging, but we need to work very carefully to ensure that it is resolved satisfactorily. In terms of audit, one of the striking things he has found, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) and the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) will know, is how loyal customers of British Steel have been, in many cases confirming orders well into the future. Network Rail is one such customer, for two reasons—partly for steel reasons but partly because I believe that we should have big upgrades in our national infrastructure. I very much endorse what my hon. Friend said.
I very much welcome the activist approach that the Secretary of State has taken with regard to British Steel. I also welcome the fact that no deadline has been imposed, because the most important thing is that this time we find a buyer who is going to support British Steel, invest in it and see it through to the future, unlike the previous owner. Will he give an assurance that the Government will stand by British Steel until a new buyer is found? He knows full well that if a steelworks is closed, it is incredibly hard to reopen it. I urge him to look again at a sector deal for the steel sector, which is so important for the whole industry’s future. Our Select Committee, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, will be looking specifically at British Steel, but also at the wider steel industry, in our inquiry in September. We will be looking both at the actions that this Secretary of State has taken, which we welcome, and at those of his successor.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, the Chair of the Select Committee, and I welcome the prospect of that inquiry. There is a lot to examine, and she will approach it with her usual forensic attention to detail. I very much hope that the new Prime Minister will continue the commitment that the current Prime Minister was willing to give and the authority that she has given me to act in the way that I have. She and others will hold to account the new Prime Minister and his team on that.
The hon. Lady is right; there is something special about steel assets in many respects, but one is that if they are closed down, it is very hard for them to spring back into life, so continuity is of great importance. That is one of the achievements that, together, we have been able to bring about over recent weeks.
No one is keener than I am to conclude a sector deal. It requires investment. There is an opportunity for the British steel industry to be more strategic than it has been and, as some other sectors have done, align itself to some of the products that we know will be in demand in the future, backed by research and development. That is the approach that the industrial strategy takes, and it applies in spades to steel, so I hope there will be a sector deal to reflect that.
I am pleased to hear my right hon. Friend acknowledge the world’s dependence on steel and the value that he places on British Steel. Does he also recognise that, without coking coal, there would be no steel industry? The privately funded, multimillion-pound Woodhouse colliery being developed by West Cumbria Mining in my constituency is of vital importance and will have economic, social and environmental benefits for our area and, indeed, the country. Will he do all he can to help move that project forward?
As my hon. Friend says, much steel production requires coking coal, so it needs to be provided. I understand that there was broad cross-party support for the operation that she describes. One of the imperatives is to move steelmaking to be cleaner and greener in its energy efficiency and use of other fuels. That feature of the industrial strategy programme applies very much to the steel industry.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) in thanking the Secretary of State for his approach to the industry in general and this issue in particular. He has reminded us today and on previous occasions that we cannot just turn on and off a steelworks like a tap. If it is allowed to go cold, it is very expensive and difficult to set up again. The indemnity has been the key thing in enabling operations to continue while a buyer is found. What assurance can he give the House that that indemnity will continue for as long as it takes to finish the process of finding a buyer?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman; he knows about the manufacturing industry, and he is right in his description of it. I have to report that my request for the indemnity was granted readily; I think the lessons of the Redcar closure have been learned. I have no reason to suppose that the incoming Prime Minister will take a different view—in fact, quite the reverse. I have met with him and his competitor, and during the days ahead I hope and expect that that support will continue to be available. But I should be clear with the House: British Steel is in the hands of the official receiver. Neither I nor any other Minister determines its future, so it will be important to conclude a sale to a long-term investor in it. That is not in the bag yet, but I think it is evident that everyone is doing everything they can to secure it.
I was pleased to hear from the Secretary of State that he has been working tirelessly with British Steel and the official receiver to find a new buyer for the company. Can he tell the House what further plans the Government have to support companies in the supply chain, such as those in my constituency, over the coming days and weeks?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because she gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to Stephen Phipson, the director general of Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation. He serves on the support group and has been present at the meetings, and he has convened a panel of suppliers and customers, to ensure that some of the uncertainty and challenges that they have faced during the insolvency of British Steel have been dealt with. Working with HMRC, the British Business Bank and the official receiver, the panel has had—as I think colleagues on the support group would accept—a positive role in providing help and reassurance to the supply chain across the country.
The Secretary of State has acknowledged that the closure of a major steelworks is an intergenerational blight, as we have seen with the closure of Redcar and of Ravenscraig, which is still a wasteland 30 years on. It is therefore critical that we maintain long-term planning in the sector. That is aided by patient finance. Access to patient finance in this country is very poor compared with some of our peer nations, notably Germany. What will he do to improve patient finance access for the huge capital investment needed in the steel industry, in order to improve the attractiveness of British Steel to potential investors?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Improving the access to and availability of patient capital in this country is a focus through the industrial strategy and some of the work that the Treasury is doing, but there is more work to be done. He is right—a long-term owner of British Steel needs to have the patience required in an industry that is, and always has been, subject to the ups and downs of the economic cycle and sometimes conditions in international trade. It is often not the most stable of industries, and as I think he would agree, any owner needs to be resilient to that.
British-manufactured steel is vital for exporting companies in my constituency, such as General Electric, and across the country and therefore makes a huge contribution to our balance of payments. What is being done to support the export of British steel both directly and through other manufactured goods? Will my right hon. Friend comment on what my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) said about the possibility of the UK Government being a co-investor, alongside others, to ensure that British Steel continues to serve this nation so well?
On the first point, there are great opportunities for exports. The support group has been working with the Construction Products Association, for example, to improve the marketing of British Steel products in this country and to overseas markets. Support is available through UK Export Finance for British exporters in all sectors. When it comes to the requirements of any bidder, strict rules pertain to British Steel, which is one reason why it requires an understanding of the investment plans of prospective bidders. That is something I have been doing, and I hope it will continue in the new Government.
As the son of a steelworker, may I join the Secretary of State in praising the workforce and the trade unions at British Steel? I want to press him: will the Government ensure that the terms and conditions of the workforce are kept high through this difficult time, until a new buyer emerges?
The terms and conditions have continued. The special managers, on behalf of the official receiver, have worked closely with the trade unions. Through the support group, we have no complaints and no reason to think that anything in those terms and conditions has been impaired during the insolvency. Of course, when a company is in insolvency, it is in the hands of the official receiver, but the special managers have shown themselves to be understanding and accommodating of the requirements of the workforce. It is a reflection of the workforce that they have committed themselves to the company and increased production at a time of uncertainty. That is a real tribute to their professionalism and the faith they have in the quality of their product.
I know from friends and colleagues in the trade unions, particularly Community, that they are thankful for the positive approach the Secretary of State has taken to his dealings with this. I am glad that Doncaster is providing the venue for talks, and everybody who is a party to them is welcome to come to my house for beer and sandwiches—or whatever they fancy—if it helps the talks in any way.
The Secretary of State has mentioned securing a steel sector deal a couple of times, and he alluded to one of the issues that the industry should think about. Does he still believe that getting those talks under way again at the earliest possible opportunity is crucial, and what other main headline issues need to be sorted, discussed or broached to get those talks up and running at the earliest opportunity?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, and it has been good to meet in Doncaster. It may seem a surprising place to meet, but it is quite convenient for both Scunthorpe and Teesside, as well as London, so that is where we start our week. The invitation to go to the right hon. Lady’s house is a very inviting one, which I am sure the support group will want to take up.
On the sector deal, we have made good progress, but all sector deals are about investment. It has been a feature of the steel industry in recent years that the investment in the future has not been at the level of some other industries where we have concluded deals—life sciences, automotive, aerospace and others. It is not in any sense that the talks have broken down; it requires investments to be made. I hope that, if there is to be a successful resolution for British Steel, that might provide the ability to do precisely that.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that what the steel industry, including in the Black Country, needs above all else is a long-term strategy, with a pipeline of projects that can create good opportunities for those who work in the sector?
My hon. Friend is right, and he is right, as his neighbour the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) did, to call attention to the role of the Black Country. They have a phrase in the Black Country, “Made in the Black Country, sold around the world”, and that is a proud and accurate boast. However, there are opportunities in the UK for those products, and the Government have published a forward pipeline of infrastructure investments that require steel so that companies can gear themselves up to participate in procurement.
That is very important, and I would like to pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who has responsibility for industry. He has signed the steel charter and is promoting it across all public bodies. Again, it requires and encourages the use of British steel to be taken into account in all procurement decisions.
Following on from the Secretary of State’s answer, he may recall the Defence Secretary saying that
“we can and must buy British.”
Does he agree that one way to do this would be to back a British bid to build the Navy’s new support ships, which could create 16,000 jobs throughout the supply chain in Barnsley and across the country?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. We have published figures for each Department on their use of British steel. It is the case, and the House should be aware of this, that not all types of steel used are actually made in the UK. At least at the moment, it is not possible to supply all of our steel needs from domestic supplies; that is the reality. She mentioned the MOD, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is working closely with the Ministry of Defence so that its support for the steel charter results in increasing levels of procurement of British steel.
We can be incredibly proud of our steel industry. It is of course a primary example of where industrial activism generally, on the part of the Government, is absolutely vital. If we see any form of Brexit, which the Secretary of State knows I oppose, it will of course be even more important that we have industrial activism. I am in no way agitating for his removal, but will he assure this House that if he is replaced in post in the next 24 hours, he will urge any successor not to turn their back on implementing a proper industrial strategy? Now is certainly not the time for a return to the Thatcherite economics that, frankly, saw the destruction of so many great industries in this country.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. He and other hon. Members will know that the approach we took to developing the industrial strategy was to seek, I think successfully, to engage all parts of the country, all parts of the economy, and different firms, business leaders, local leaders and trade unions, to have something that reflects, as far as possible, a shared view of what our priorities should be in the future—whether that is investing in infrastructure, investing in skills, increasing the research and development investments that we make in this country, and identifying opportunities, such as in the future of mobility or the analysis of data, that are great sources of global opportunity for Britain. We did it in that way because I think it is right for an industrial strategy to endure—a short-term strategy is a contradiction in terms. I hope the consensual way in which it has been put together and the content of it will commend the industrial strategy to the incoming Government. It is obvious from what the hon. Gentleman has said that he will play a role from his seat in ensuring that those in government do that.
As chair of the all-party manufacturing group of MPs, may I remind the Secretary of State, whom I have a lot of time for, that it is essential we have steel in this country? I represent Huddersfield, which is a major engineering community, and the community is at the heart of this. Manufacturing, steel and engineering all hang closely together. Will he take a long-term view, but will he also make sure that we do not sell at the weakest time in the market? If the steel industry needed a period of public ownership, what would be wrong with that? This pragmatic Government have done it with London North Eastern Railway, so why not with steel? May I urge him to be totally pragmatic, not ideological, and to make sure that we have a steel industry that is successful in the future?
The hon. Gentleman and I share a view about the importance of steel and manufacturing. At the University of Huddersfield, the national rail testing facility is a very important part of our contribution to increasing standards of technological development, so he is absolutely right. When it comes to the steel industry, the key thing is having an owner that, in my view, is willing and has an ambition to invest for the future. Since the official receiver is encouraged by the level of interest, what we in the support group—I would observe that it is a pragmatic group of people—want to do is to support those bidders to make sure that we have the long-term future we all want.
It is important strategically and for regional employment to maintain a steel industry in the United Kingdom, and I do welcome the efforts that the Secretary of State has made to date. However, does he not realise that high-cost renewable energy plans and costly decarbonisation policies—pursued by this Government and previous Administrations, who, quite frankly, have pandered to a Luddite green lobby in this country—have resulted in energy-intensive industries moving out of Britain, with the aluminium industry being an example? These issues will have to be addressed if we are to maintain a viable steel industry in the United Kingdom in the future.
My experience from conversations with the bidders for British Steel is that there is a recognition in the steel industry—not just in this country, but around the world—that the move to cleaner and greener production is happening globally. Actually, there is an opportunity to get ahead of that, as investing in improved energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions will have to be done everywhere. Again, one of the purposes of the industrial strategy is to advance ourselves as a place where this has been done well and reliably and has been well supported. That, it seems to me, is best for the long-term future of steel making and other manufacturing, rather than attaching ourselves to a model that will be increasingly costly around the world. The future depends on being more energy efficient and greener.
The UK exports 2.6 million tonnes of steel to the European Union every year. It is estimated that a no-deal Brexit would add £70 million of additional administration costs and costs relating to border checks. Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that a no-deal Brexit represents an existential threat to the British steel industry, and will he be conveying that message loud and clear to his successor and to the incoming Prime Minister?
I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that that message should be conveyed to all Members of the House who did not vote for a deal that would have provided, as British steel advised, the ability to trade in that way. My views on the desirability—in fact, the imperative—of having a good deal that allows us to trade without introducing barriers and frictions are well known to the House, and indeed beyond. What I will say is that at this time, when potential purchasers are considering British steel, actually it is not the case that the steel industry would not have a future in the event of different forms of Brexit. It is very important to convey to prospective buyers the fact that the industry that exists, with its opportunities domestically and internationally, and with the quality of its workforce and of its steel production, is attractive in itself and will not be trumped by the Brexit settlement. It is important that those prospective buyers have confidence, as some of them have having done their due diligence, that this is a good investment in all circumstances.
May I first thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) for her advocacy in the Chamber and—those of us who also know her as a friend know this—for her tireless activism on behalf of the steel sector, which has no better advocate? I also thank the Secretary of State; in a time of upheaval on the Government Front Bench, I hope that one point of consistency will be his position there. He has explained in the past, and in many appearances here in the Chamber, that the steel sector does not quite fit the criteria for a sector deal. Does that mean that we need to look at how the sector deals themselves are operating, to see whether they could be tailored to support such a vital industry?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. It is not that the sector deals do not fit at all; it is that that would require investment on behalf of the industry, the players in the sector, and in recent years that investment in the future has not been as readily available or forthcoming as it has been in other industries. I hope that will change. I have a big appetite to invest alongside the sector, as we do in others, so there is absolutely no question but that it is available, and I hope that we will be able to conclude one very quickly.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s work and lament the likelihood that he will not be there to see the deal through and a foundation industry saved, alongside many jobs, many of which are in my constituency. When he leaves a little note for his successor, will he show his true Teesside-born credentials and just tell them that they must do all they can to get the deal across the line, and that they must not fail?
The hon. Gentleman seems to have powers of prediction that are certainly beyond me. I think that Hansard this afternoon will provide the little note—perhaps an extensive note—that he has in mind.
The prize for patience and perseverance goes to Jonathan Edwards.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Madam Deputy Speaker. In February this year the EU put in place a definitive safeguard strategy on steel imports, covering 26 steel product categories. It put in place a 25% tariff once the quota has been surpassed. What analysis have the British Government undertaken of the impact on the UK steel sector of leaving the EU customs union, in terms of exports to our biggest market and imports to the UK?
We have been very clear in the discussions that have been taken prospectively. Obviously, the arrangements are not settled until the Brexit conclusions are settled, but we have been very clear in a number of product areas that safeguards should be available and should be used for precisely the purpose they have been so far and will be needed in future.
Draft Historical Abuse Bill (Northern Ireland)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement on the updated draft Bill on historical abuse, and when the legislation will be brought before Parliament.
The historical institutional abuse inquiry looked into the abuse of children under 18 who lived in institutions in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1995. The Hart report was published in January 2017 and recommended a commissioner for victims of abuse and a redress scheme for victims.
This is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland and, as such, is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. However, in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, the Northern Ireland civil service launched a public consultation on draft legislation, which closed in March this year. The results of the consultation were provided to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in May. Those results were different from the Hart report in some, but not all, areas, so the Secretary of State asked the Northern Ireland political parties to help resolve them. They did that, and I would like to put on the record our thanks on behalf of not just the Government, but victims, their families and all those who responded to the consultation.
The head of the civil service in Northern Ireland provided the Secretary of State with a redrafted Bill late last week. I am happy to confirm that it would establish a commissioner for survivors of institutional abuse in Northern Ireland and a redress scheme, which reflects a cross-party political consensus on the changes recommended following the consultation. That said, I hope that everyone here will understand that, given that the draft arrived only a few days ago, we will not be able to introduce it by tomorrow, but I am sure that everyone here is extremely keen to move forward on this—there is widespread support for action right across the community in Northern Ireland. I am also happy to reconfirm the commitment, made last week in the House of Lords, that in the absence of a sitting Assembly in Stormont, the Government will introduce primary legislation before the end of the year to set up a scheme.
None of us can undo what was done in the past, but I hope that, by getting a scheme under way, as I have laid out here today, we can at least provide some level of support, and perhaps a little closure, for the victims and their families.
I thank the Minister of State for that answer. I also pay tribute to Judge Hart, whom he mentioned, who recently passed away.
Last night I took a heartbreaking call from Marty Adams of the Survivors Together group. On Friday I took a call from Gerard McCann, another survivor of abuse. Last month the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and I met a group of survivors in Belfast and their legal representatives. In the past couple of weeks the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has collectively met a delegation of survivors and victims. These campaign teams are run on a shoestring. The entitlement of these victims is well established, as the Minister of State has now made clear. Indeed, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service has removed every impediment to allow these compensation payments to be made.
Last week, in a day and a half, this Parliament was able to rush through major changes to laws in Northern Ireland that are extremely controversial, and they were waved and cheered on by a packed House, and many of those Members on the Opposition Benches are notable today by their absence. This issue unites political parties—I pay tribute to the shadow Secretary of State, who personally telephoned me and did all he could to ensure that this matter would be raised today—yet still there appears to be this delay.
I do not doubt the sincerity of the Minister of State, the Secretary of State or indeed the team working on this in the Northern Ireland Office, but there can be no further delay. There is nothing to prevent the legislation being introduced this evening and voted on tomorrow and the matter being resolved before we go into recess. If the will is there, it can be done. Will the Minister affirm that there is not one comma outstanding and not jot or tittle out of place in the legislation—that it is ready to go and will be expedited?
I join the hon. Gentleman in his tribute to Sir Anthony Hart. In the past couple of weeks, during the passage of the Bill that he mentioned, tributes were paid to Sir Anthony for his contribution. Sadly he is no longer with us, but I hope he will be looking down and cheering on the progress of the legislation we are talking about today.
The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that the issue unites political parties not just here but in Northern Ireland. I mentioned in my earlier remarks that there have been efforts to get cross-party consensus on the updates to the legislation. He is also right that what happened to what was supposed to be a three-clause Bill is incredibly frustrating. He and others in his party and I at the time all pointed out that it turned into a Christmas tree—I think that was the phrase everyone was using—with other issues added to it. I know that he would therefore not have wanted that Bill to be added to still further.
This important issue has not yet been properly debated in a legislature. It will need primary legislation to be taken through. It is something that is new and it needs to be dealt with carefully. I am afraid that I therefore cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that the Bill is ready to go today. As I said, it arrived with us a couple of days ago. It is being gone through in huge detail. There are also all sorts of supporting documents, explanatory memorandums and so on and so forth that need to be put together. That is being done at pace—I can promise him that—but it will need to be taken forward by the incoming Administration. It may be the two incumbents or others sitting in the Northern Ireland Office who do that, but I do not think there is any shortage of good will, energy or cross-party agreement to take the legislation forward. I therefore hope that we will be able to introduce the legislation at pace and at the very latest by the end of this year.
What estimate has the Minister made of the possibility of meeting the substantial financial costs of the measure by having recourse to the sometimes quite wealthy institutions that perpetrated the abuse in the first place?
The draft legislation that has been sent to us does not go into that level of detail about what might be pursued. What is clear is that in order to ensure that financial probity is maintained, the costs of the scheme will be met from the Northern Ireland block grant. That is important, because the measure should be done, as I mentioned at the start of my remarks, by the devolved Assembly spending the money it is in charge of. It therefore has to be money that the Assembly has control of, and we all obviously hope that it will be back up and running as fast as possible to exercise that control.
I place it on record that I am not a prophet—the Prime Minister has not given me any indication of what the Northern Ireland team will look like—but I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for their courtesy in our mutual dealings. That said, it is now more than two years since Sir Anthony Hart’s report was made available, and virtually seven years since the Historical Institutional Abuse Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 began going through the Northern Ireland Assembly. Since the Hart inquiry report, 40 of the survivors we are aware of have died. They are people for whom there will never be justice, but even for the existing survivors, every day that goes by is not justice delayed, but injustice continued. I therefore strongly support the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) in his plea for real urgency.
It may be that the House cannot see the Bill in the next two days, but we will come back in September. It seems a perfectly reasonable request to see the Bill on the Floor of the House then. As the Opposition, we will expedite this and we will work with the Government and Back-Bench MPs to ensure that the Bill’s passage is as quick and efficient as possible, but I have one specific request for the Minister. Can he think seriously about whether in the interim it would be possible to give some down payments, almost, of compensation to survivors as evidence of good faith and of real intent that we will at last give some sense of justice to the survivors of things that should simply never have been allowed to happen?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments about the Secretary of State and me, but also for the further evidence of the cross-party support and the shared sense of urgency and determination to move forward as promptly as we can with the legislation. That is welcome, and it increases the chances that under the new regime, whoever is in it and however it will be formulated, we will be able to continue the momentum that has only recently developed.
The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that there is a huge sense of frustration, mainly brought about by the fact that the Hart report came out just as the Northern Ireland Assembly ceased sitting. Something that I suspect would normally have been taken forward promptly by MLAs and the Executive there was therefore not taken forward with anything like the same degree of urgency, because they were not there to do so and the matter is properly devolved. Everyone here will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s kind offer, and I hope that that will make any potential imagined obstacles to introducing legislation during the course of this autumn that much lower in the minds of the business managers when we come back in due course later on this year.
Can I just say I find it unacceptable that we are even thinking the legislation should be done by the end of the year? It should be done immediately. Given that David Sterling redrafted the legislation last week, it could have been tabled and introduced this week. It is unacceptable that has not happened, but a commitment for that to happen the first week we return should be on the table. Significant periods between the 1920s and the 1990s were under direct rule, so while the issue is a devolved matter, does the Minister not agree that this place has a responsibility to give compensation to those victims? Does the Minister not further agree that, given that this place has previously passed all stages of Northern Ireland legislation in 24 hours, this Bill should be the top priority when we return from summer recess?
I call the Secretary of State.
I am the Minister of State.
I must make it absolutely clear that I have no crystal ball. I was merely aware of the stature of the hon. Gentleman and was mistaken. I call the Minister.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will briefly respond to my hon. Friend by saying that I think she is tempting me into what is probably a constitutional impropriety by trying to commit the incoming Government, whoever may be in it, and bind their hands. The comments made by her, the shadow Secretary of State and Members from all parts of the House will have created a helpful political fact, which is that there is clearly a great degree of cross-party consensus about the legislation—not only here, but among the parties in Northern Ireland—and a shared cross-party consensus about pace and urgency too. I am sure that message will be heard loud and clear by the business managers, whoever they may be.
I have to say clearly to the Government Minister that the dithering, procrastination and excuses around the delays in compensating the victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland have been absolutely shameful. The dithering must stop. Three months ago, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Sterling, said that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had a moral responsibility to compensate the victims of historical institutional abuse if the Assembly was not up and running by the end of the summer. He was absolutely right: the Government have a moral responsibility to legislate for the issue. I think it would be fitting for the Minister take a few minutes to explain to the victims of historical institutional abuse, 30 of whom have died in the three years since the Hart report—thank goodness we had someone of the stature of the late Sir Anthony Hart to do that inquiry—the wasted three months since the comments by the head of the Northern Ireland civil service.
The hon. Lady is rightly giving vent to people’s frustrations. She and many people on both sides of the House, including me, feel exactly the same way, as do many of the victims’ groups. I make the point that I made in my opening remarks: when the results of the consultation came out, they were different in some detailed, but very important respects from the initial Hart recommendations. It was important to make sure that we had a solid basis of reconciliation between those proposals and the original Hart report proposals, and to make sure that there genuinely was cross-party agreement. That process is difficult and took some time, but I think that we are there now. It seems, therefore, that we have something with which we can go forward. It would be slower if we did not have cross-party consensus, so it has been sensible to take the time to get there. I agree—I think everybody here is in violent agreement—that now we are there, there are very few obstacles to moving forward at pace, and I think everybody wants to do so.
I wish my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State all the best for the discussions that will happen later today or tomorrow. If we stick to the timetable that gets the Bill through by the end of the year, will he confirm when he thinks payments can start being made to the victims?
I am afraid I cannot give my hon. Friend a precise date. The Bill will have to make its way through Parliament—through this Chamber and the one at the other end of the corridor—and there will be clarity at that point about when the payments scheme should be able to start making payments. I suspect that the appetite for a leisurely process will be very thin. I expect that people will want to crack on with this and it is right that we should want to. We would therefore want to start making preparations as soon as the civil servants constitutionally can—as soon as the direction that Parliament will go is clear—and at that point, we can start doing the preparations at an early stage, as I am sure everybody will want them to.
The Minister alluded to the reasons why the legislation cannot proceed today or tomorrow. Setting that to one side, will he give an undertaking that the legislation will be placed before the House on the first day back in September—we have only two weeks back here then—that payments will be made as soon as possible thereafter, and that the period between now and then will be usefully used to see what institutions will pay where the abuse occurred?
I would love to be able to make the commitments exactly as the hon. Gentleman asks, but I am afraid that I cannot, simply because—as I said in response to earlier questions about tempting me into a constitutional impropriety—doing so would bind the hands of the incoming, new Administration. It is clear, however, that there is widespread appetite to move fast on this. This is an important issue, but of course it is not the only important one—Brexit is looming, and so on—so other things will be making bids for parliamentary time as well. However, Members on the Treasury Bench will have heard the widespread support for prompt movement. I therefore hope that the comments from the hon. Gentleman and others will have struck home.
Abuse of children, including sexual abuse of children, is always despicable, wherever it occurs. Many of the cases in Northern Ireland were particularly horrific. Victims deserve care and compensation, but is this not yet another example of why it is so important that the devolved Government can get back up and running in Northern Ireland? Will work to do that continue over the summer period?
I devoutly hope so. The talks have been ongoing—until last night—and I devoutly hope that they will continue. There is a sense of commitment and determination, but there is still further to go. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that had there been a Stormont Assembly, most people here would have expected the MLAs in the Assembly and the Executive to have sorted this out long since, given the horrific nature of the abuse that she rightly pointed out, and that that urgency would therefore have resulted in answers and a redress scheme well before now. That is a good example of why getting the Assembly back up and running is so important.
I thank the Minister for his response today and add my voice strongly to the calls for the Bill to be moved forward as swiftly as possible. There is deep frustration about how this matter has been handled over the last number of years. When we look at such processes all over the world—particularly involving redress—we see that there is a significant contribution from the institutions that are found to have liability. That issue has been raised here. There is concern that those conversations have not yet commenced with the institutions, as far as I am aware. A significant number of the bodies mentioned in the report are non-governmental organisations. Will the Minister outline what he is intending to do? All parties and the all-party group on this matter agreed that this process should commence as soon as possible and that there must be a contribution from the other institutions to help to support victims.
I understand the concern around this matter. Given the need to move this process at speed, we have mainly been focusing on getting the commissioner and the redress scheme outline legislation in-house, and we are going through it at speed now. At the moment, therefore, that issue has not been at the front of priorities. I take the point that it will need to be addressed, but perhaps I can write to the hon. Lady to confirm how we might take that forward. I do not want to make any commitments on what might be the right answer for that at this stage, but I hear the concerns that she and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) raised. This clearly needs to be thought through.
I thank the Minister for his response and his clear commitment. Will he outline how he believes compensation will in practice be available for victims and the proposed timeline for the Bill’s passage and implementation? Is September the date that this will happen? Further, will the Bill enable those who have reluctantly accepted small compensation sums to be able retrospectively to access and receive compensation that truly reflects the horrific abuse that they were subjected to historically?
Let me take that second and crucial point first. The draft Bill, as it has been sent to us, does allow for people who have already received initial compensation payments from other sources—whatever they may be—to apply to the scheme. That is certainly in the scheme proposals as they have come to us. I think that that has cross-party support from the Northern Ireland parties, so I can confirm that that is—as I suspect the hon. Gentleman has been briefed and told—exactly what it says.
I thank the Minister for his responses and my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) for raising this urgent question. The Minister will have heard the sense of frustration that we all have around the delay in this process and our earnest desire to find a solution quickly for victims. I am very conscious that Kincora boys’ home was on a site 400 yards from my constituency office and many of those abused were in its care. The Minister specifically mentioned those who were abused in Northern Ireland. Will he confirm that the proposals being brought forward will include children who were born and entered care in Northern Ireland and were then forced emigrants, passed out to care institutions as far away as Australia, and abused both at home and abroad?
I think that the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s detailed and precise question is yes, but if it is not, I will write to him to put the record straight. However, having followed the train of logic, I think that the answer is yes.
Regarding the time delay, I appreciate that two and a half years ago, this report was submitted to the then Northern Ireland Assembly, which was brought down by Sinn Féin. My hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) alluded to the delay and pointed out that many have passed away while waiting. We are rubbing salt into the wound. It is imperative that we get this Bill across the line as soon as possible. I ask for a commitment that it will be brought back in the first week of September, as a major point of business—as a priority—to get this issue resolved.
I completely sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. He is not the only person to have made that point this afternoon, and I doubt he will be the only person across the communities of Northern Ireland to make it either. There is huge urgency and impatience about this. As I said, I cannot bind the hands of my successors, but I am reassured that the urgency and importance that everyone here attaches to the subject will come across loud and clear to whoever the business managers may be. There are other important issues on the political horizon—he does not need me to tell him that—but that message will come across loud and clear, and I thank him for helping to drive the message home.
I was serving in the Northern Ireland Executive when this issue first came to their attention, and two things were very clear in our discussions. First, perpetrators of abuse should be held culpable for that abuse and for compensation. I hope that over the summer the Minister will have discussions with the civil service in Northern Ireland to ensure that the discussions about contributions from those named in the Hart report can commence. Secondly, any money made available should be made available to those who have suffered; it should not be absorbed by huge legal bills, as often happens in such cases. If that is not explicit in the legislation, I hope that before it comes before the House in September the Minister will ensure that the will of the Executive in that regard is also reflected.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that where any criminal liability is implied, it will rightly be an independent prosecutorial decision taken not by politicians but by investigators in the correct, normal way at arm’s length from Executives of any kind. He made a parallel but equivalent point about potential compensation contributions that has been made by others on both sides of the House. I want to reflect further on that to make sure I hear the concerns on both sides of the House. Clearly, this will need to be considered carefully.
Feltham A Young Offenders Institution
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prison’s recent invoking of the urgent notification process for Feltham A young offenders institution.
At the outset, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), who I gather has recently tendered his resignation as Secretary of State for Justice. I hope that you will allow me to answer in his place, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for tabling this urgent question and for the opportunity to respond on an important subject. I am also grateful to Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons for its work and the scrutiny its inspections provide. I take the safety of all the young people in our custody very seriously, and clearly the urgent notification letter for Feltham A does not make comfortable reading. It is clearly a deeply disappointing and concerning report. Despite the significant efforts of staff at Feltham A, to whom I pay tribute, and the significant support and resources put in by the youth custody service and the Ministry of Justice, it is clear that serious underlying challenges remain. I have been clear that progress to address these issues needs to be swifter to deliver the safe environment that we all wish to see and that, as recent reports acknowledge, we do see in other parts of the youth custodial estate.
In addition to work already under way, we have taken a series of immediate steps, including placing an immediate temporary stop on new placements of young people into Feltham A, alongside additional resources and support for staff. The governor is still relatively new in post and is working hard to drive improvements in an establishment that has one of the highest and most concentrated proportions of violent offenders in the country. She and her team are dedicated to turning Feltham A around, and we will continue to support them in doing that. As required by the urgent notification process, we will formally respond with an action plan within the required 28 days.
I thank the Minister for his response and for notifying me of the letter yesterday.
Feltham young offenders institution was a prison left without a governor for five months last year, and the findings of the recently announced inspection have been distressing for the staff and all those involved with Feltham. There was talk of a dramatic decline in safety, which is a matter of great concern for us all. I extend my thanks to the POA trade union and the staff and management, who have been working at that prison in very difficult circumstances.
The problems at Feltham are long standing and the current situation should have been avoidable. The Government have much to answer for regarding why the decline has been so fast, with a steep rise in violence against staff, allegations of assault and levels of self-harm. The Government desperately need to get to grip with the causes of the rapid decline and to support the staff and inmates in turning the situation around. Given that we are talking about children—140 boys aged 15 to 17 are being held at Feltham A in the care of the state—will the Minister update us on why Feltham was left without a governor for five months last year, what the impact has been, and what assessment he has made of the root causes of the steep decline in performance?
The Minister says he has supplied resources, but why does he believe they have not been sufficient? What additional skilled resources does he intend to provide to support the staff and management to address the culture and behaviour management issues that are so significant? What support is there for those young people living in great distress at Feltham young offenders institution? How fit for purpose does he consider Feltham to be, how quickly does he plan to produce his action plan, and how will he keep Parliament and me informed, particularly over the recess?
I am as ever grateful to the hon. Lady. As she mentioned, I spoke to her yesterday, and we met again this morning. I am grateful for her typically measured tone, not seeking to score points but focusing on what needs to be done to improve the outcomes for young people at Feltham. I know her constituents will be grateful to her as well.
The hon. Lady raised a number of issues that I will address in turn. Her first point was about the gap—the interregnum—between governors. She is right that there was a gap. The previous governor was promoted to a prison group director role and the recruitment process took longer than anyone would have wished. One of the key reasons was that the governor, who has now been appointed, had to serve a notice period in her previous role. The view taken was that she was the right governor to do this job and that therefore it was appropriate to wait. She served her notice and is now in post. I emphasise that I have confidence in her. I believe that she and her team are doing a difficult job very well, as the hon. Lady alluded to. I recognise the constructive and positive relationship between the local branch of the POA and the governor and her team, and I thank them in the same way.
On the root causes, there are a number of challenges at Feltham. As I said, it has a very high concentration of very violent and challenging young people. At present, I believe, there are 110 young offenders in Feltham A, which has an operational capacity of 180. There is, therefore, significant headroom to give the staff greater opportunity to tackle the violence and the underlying challenges faced by those young people. The hon. Lady will be aware, because we met to discuss it earlier in the year, of the violence in April and of the incidents of assaults on other prisoners and on staff. There were a large number of incidents of self-harm and violence but a small number of perpetrators. We have some very challenging individuals.
The hon. Lady was right to mention resources and the need for skilled resource. There has been a 31% uplift in the budget for Feltham A, with £3.5 million going in, and it has an opportunity to draw down further moneys from a second £5 million pot across the youth custodial estate. There are also 90 more staff across Feltham. The experience mix and band mix are broadly the same as they have been over time, but the hon. Lady was right to allude to the importance of experienced staff. We are bringing in extra senior and mid-level experienced resource to help drive change, both at the top level and to support those staff. I believe that seven senior staff have already been seconded, and there will be further changes in the coming days. Andrew Dickinson, the governor of Wetherby, is also taking on a role in supporting Emily, the prison governor. It will be a mentoring role, but he will also play a key role in monitoring the action plan. His institution got a good inspection report and we want to learn the lessons from that.
The hon. Lady raised two other points, which I will address swiftly. On fitness for purpose, current Government policy is to move away from the existing youth offender institution model and towards a secure schools model. Like the Minister who spoke before me at this Dispatch Box, I will not bind a future Government, but that is the current policy. In terms of keeping this House updated, I anticipate that the action plan will be ready within 28 days. I or my successor will write to the hon. Lady and the shadow Secretary of State when it is ready, so that they are kept informed, and we will continue to keep the hon. Lady, as the local Member of Parliament, informed throughout the action plan process.
I was glad to hear the Minister refer to the good report for Wetherby, but may I press him further on what is being done with an equally difficult cohort of individuals at Wetherby? What is Wetherby doing right that Feltham has been doing wrong?
I will focus on what Wetherby has been doing right, as highlighted in the recent report. The governor of Wetherby is doing a lot of work to ensure that his staff and new recruits get not only up-front training but continuous training over a 12-month period, which makes a real difference to them. It has a strong and effective regime and the governor is focused on continued access to that regime; that is hugely important. The Keppel unit also does very important work in helping some of the most challenging people in the prison to tackle the underlying causes of their trauma, offending and behaviour. I believe we have a lot to learn from Wetherby and that Andrew Dickinson will help the governor of Feltham in playing a key role in making progress.
Two years ago we stood here for an urgent question on the crisis in our prisons after the chief inspector warned that not a single establishment inspected was safe to hold children and young people. Does the Minister accept that the chief inspector issuing an urgent notification for the first time in the youth estate highlights how the Government are overseeing a dangerous collapse in safety for children in custody, and that that shows, unfortunately, how little the Government have done in those two years?
The general prison crisis is bad enough, but we are talking about children—children in dangerously unsafe conditions. The chief inspector warns that in Feltham the
“speed of this decline has been extraordinary”,
violent incidents are up by 45% since January 2019, and self-harm has increased fourteenfold in two years. When was the Minister first aware that the situation was spiralling out of control? What has been done since then? Will he agree to report to this House before seeking to end the temporary ban on children being sent to Feltham?
Later today we will get yet another Justice Secretary—the fifth I will have faced in just three years. I am sorry to say that I am sick of the warm words, sick of the speeches giving the impression that something is being done, and sick of the media stunts that serve as a springboard for leadership bids. Does the Minister agree that the chaotic approach to leadership in the Ministry of Justice deepens the crisis caused by unacceptable prison cuts? Finally, does he agree that whoever takes over as Justice Secretary must go beyond empty rhetoric and finally make the safety of young people in custody an urgent priority?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, if not for his tone. This may be the first time I have faced him directly across the Dispatch Box for an urgent question, and it might also be the last time—who knows? He asked a number of specific questions. He will be aware that, following his comments in 2017, the chief inspector said subsequently that it is no longer the case that there is no safe institution. It is important to draw that to the attention of the House and to mention again the Wetherby report. It is clear that this is not a systemic problem in the youth custodial system. That said, none of that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, detracts from the fact that what has been reported from Feltham is a cause of deep concern and must be addressed as a matter of priority.
Since my appointment last summer, I have been following the performance of Feltham and, indeed, all the other youth custodial institutions in my portfolio. I have held a number of meetings both with the governor and with the director of youth custody service, to discuss progress in Feltham and what more needs to be done. As I have made clear, considerable additional resource has been put in, so this is not a matter of spending or resource, and a considerable number of additional staff have been put in, so it is not down to that, either. It is important that we put that on the record rather than indulge in rhetoric about cuts, which do not apply in this case. The smile on the hon. Gentleman’s face suggests that I have a point. I continue to take a very close interest in the issue, particularly in recent months, and I have engaged with the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and kept her up to date.
The hon. Gentleman asked when the temporary ban on placements will be brought to an end and how the House will be involved. That is an operational decision to be made by the director of the youth custody service. I am not able to bind my potential successor to how that is handled, but I am sure that whoever stands at this Dispatch Box with that responsibility will wish to keep the hon. Lady and, indeed, the House informed on that important issue.
The hon. Gentleman concluded with comments about leadership at the Ministry of Justice and the number of Secretaries of State and Ministers. I have to say that his characterisation of how the Ministry of Justice works certainly does not accord with my experience of working there every day. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), who has recently departed the role of Secretary of State for Justice. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the number of Ministers, but I suspect that their departure and the churn rate has little to do with his performance as their shadow and rather more with other factors. This Government and whoever leads the Ministry of Justice are entirely clear in their view that we must do everything we can to ensure that any children detained in custody are accorded care and support of the highest quality and are safe.
Why are young men locked up in their cells for the greater part of the day, with all the pent-up frustration that that gives rise to, when they should enter their cells with relief at the end of the day because they are so knackered, having been involved in vigorous activity?
My right hon. Friend makes his point in his own unique way. Access to a full regime is important. Young people in custody need access to sporting, educational and other facilities. There is more we can do to address that need in Feltham, although I am encouraged by a lot of the work being done there, on sport in particular. I visited four weeks ago and saw “boats not bars”, which is about using rowing machines in the gym, and the work that Saracens rugby club is doing. A whole range of sporting and other activities are undertaken at the prison, but my right hon. Friend is right to highlight that there is always more that can be done.
I visited Feltham with the Justice Committee earlier this year, and I am saddened, although not wholly surprised, by the inspection report. According to the report, self-harm has risen by 218% in the past two years, assaults on staff are up 150% and 40% of children said they felt unsafe during their time in Feltham. There is clearly a rising epidemic of violence at Feltham, and no child should be left in these conditions. I have heard what the Minister said, but what specific and urgent steps will he now take to rectify this situation?
The hon. Lady is right, and I spoke to the Chairman of the Justice Committee this morning to discuss his visits, the Committee’s work and the urgent notification. The hon. Lady is right to highlight the violence and self-harm. I would sound a slight note of caution—it is only a slight one—on the incidences of self-harm; it is also important that we look at the number of individuals involved, because some individuals might be prolific self-harmers who account for a very large number of incidents, so there will be a small number of individuals. That is in no way to detract from its significance, but it is important that we are clear about that.
The hon. Lady asks about specific steps that are being taken. First, as I have made clear, we have placed a temporary block on the further placement of young people in Feltham; its capacity is 180, but about 110 young people are there at present, so there is room within Feltham for the staff to stabilise the situation and work on improving matters. The second step has been an urgent review of cell buttons—call buttons. That was highlighted in the report; it may appear to be a small issue, but it is extremely important that when someone buzzes for help or they need help that call is answered, so we have undertaken a review to check that the buttons are working effectively.
As I have also said, additional senior level resource is already going in, to bring additional experienced resource in, but also to support the governor in delivering on the action plan and driving forward rapid improvements. Andrew Dickinson, the governor of Wetherby, will be playing a key role in that; we have seen the positive inspection report he got at Wetherby and it is important that we draw on those lessons to work with the very able governor we have in Feltham.
In terms of the buildings, a programme is already under way for works to improve showers and other facilities, and I have asked the director of the youth custody service to undertake a review of the overall state of the estate there, to identify if any capital or other works are urgently needed.
Finally, we need to ensure that, as swiftly as we can, we address the challenges the chief inspector highlighted on how particular policies were applied, especially the keep-apart policy; while that has an important role to play in tackling gang-related or other violence, it must not lead to a curtailment of the regime and the active regime, which can play a key part in keeping young people active and keeping a lid on tensions and violence.
Notwithstanding the context my hon. Friend has set out, the high levels of self-harm at Feltham are particularly concerning. What is he doing to improve the mental health of young offenders?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of mental health, and healthcare more broadly, for offenders and particularly young people. The levels of self-harm are deeply concerning, and we need to do more to drive them down. More broadly, we are seeking to have better liaison and diversion services, which divert those who genuinely have a mental health need and, where that can be better treated in the community, to have that option. We are also working on our health and justice plan, which is about improving the mental health and physical healthcare pathways for all those who enter custody.
I thank my fellow Hounslow MP my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for asking this question today. I visited Feltham as the Hounslow lead member for children’s services in around 2003, not long after another murder there. The Howard League has today re-released its July 2018 report on Feltham. For 30 years, there have been critical inspections of the regime at Feltham and nothing has got any better over those 30 years. Does the Minister not agree that to lock up in a prison environment 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, who are children, is fundamentally wrong? We are the only equivalent country that does this. Yes, some them have committed terrible crimes, but they are children with mental health problems or addiction problems, or they may be neurodiverse or have learning disabilities. Should we not learn from other countries and provide a better therapeutic regime to support these children to turn their lives around?
The hon. Lady takes a keen interest in this issue, not just as a local MP but from formerly serving on the Justice Committee, and she highlights the important point that a large number of the young people—female offenders and others—who end up in custody are victims as well as perpetrators of crime and that, as well as justice taking its course, we must make sure that the help they need is available to them, whether mental health help or a range of other interventions, to tackle the underlying trauma. We have seen in the past 10 years roughly a 70% reduction in the number of under-18s being sentenced to custody—the figure is down to about 700 at the moment—so liaison and diversion work. However, it is right that the courts still have the option of sentencing to custody, especially for very serious assaults, violent offences and sexual offences, but the current Government’s approach to this policy is to move towards secure schools: moving away from essentially a prison with some education to an environment that is a school with a degree of security, which is necessary given the nature of some of the sentences and some of the crimes committed. So we are seeking to address this with a cultural change in how we approach dealing with young people who commit these crimes.
A significant proportion of the young people who find themselves in these institutions will have had experience of the care system, so does the Minister agree that councils and the Government should do more as corporate parents to prevent those children from ending up in the institutions in the first place?
My hon. Friend, who comes to this with a considerable degree of knowledge from his previous roles before he was a Member of this House, is absolutely right. A large number of the young people who end up in custody have been in care or in contact previously with the social care services of local councils. Our youth offending teams within councils do an extremely good job, and I recently visited Lewisham’s team who do an exceptional job and I pay tribute to them for their work. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of local authorities taking their corporate parenting role seriously. When I was a councillor before I was a Member of this place, we had an approach in which each councillor became a corporate parent receiving anonymised reports on individual looked-after children to better understand the responsibilities all local authorities and councils have in this respect, and I would recommend taking that level of interest.
The all-party group on the prevention of adverse childhood experiences can state without any doubt that young people who experience adverse childhood experiences are much more likely to end up in prison. Does the Minister agree that many more of our organisations and services need to be trauma-informed, so this does not just start with the Prison Service once young people are in custody but starts much earlier? We might or might not see the Minister again at the Dispatch Box, but will he drive this agenda within his own party because we need many more trauma-informed services across the board?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who I know takes a close interest in this area. Who knows what the announcements in the next day or two will bring, but I assure her that, regardless of them, I will continue in whatever capacity to take a very close interest in it. She is right about trauma-informed services: often by the time a young person ends up in custody in one of the YOIs or secure training centres that I am responsible for, it is almost as though they have got to the end of their relationship with the state; they will have been through a long process and had relationships with many state bodies on the way and each of them will potentially have failed them, resulting in their getting to that point. It is absolutely right that a trauma-informed approach is adopted throughout the voluntary and state systems, so that we do everything we can to address the underlying trauma suffered by those young people and to help them break the cycle of offending and have an opportunity for a productive and positive life.
At Chelmsford Prison, we have also had a high level of violence and some tragic suicides, but when I have spoken to staff recently, they have told me how the situation has improved for a number of reasons: reducing the number of prisoners; more staff; more training for staff; investing in equipment to identify and stop drugs; and investing in improved environments to make the prison a less horrific place to be. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must ensure that the new Justice Secretary has whatever resources they need to ensure that our prison staff can be safe and that violence can be reduced?
My hon. Friend is a strong champion for Chelmsford Prison. I believe that she has visited it on almost a dozen occasions, and I know that the staff there are grateful for the close interest she takes. She will forgive me if I am not at this point tempted into making spending announcements—especially in the absence of a Chancellor of the Exchequer at the moment—but I think both sides of the House would agree that it is important that our prison officers and others who work in our prisons in the custodial estate have the support and the tools they need to do their job effectively.
I understand that the suicide rate for boys aged 15 to 17 in custody is about 18 times greater than the rate for their counterparts in the community. Why is that?
The hon. Gentleman highlights an important point that links in with points made by other hon. Members—namely, that those in the cohort of young people in custody are not only the perpetrators of serious crimes but often the victims of crime who in many cases suffer from mental health challenges or a range of other issues. If we overlay that with the constraints of a custodial environment, that is extremely challenging, which is why we are working hard to divert young people and others, where appropriate, away from custody into community sentences and towards the support and medical support they need. Within custody, were working to improve conditions and ensure that the support is there to drive down the self-harm and suicide rates, but it is also vital that we remain focused on the longer term and on the current Government’s approach to changing the nature of youth custody, where it does have to occur, and moving towards a secure schools model.
The problems at Feltham are nothing new—as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) said, young men were being transferred to Wormwood Scrubs for their own safety or the safety of others 10 years ago—but this is on a completely different scale. The situation has escalated far more quickly, whether in relation to the rise in assaults or to privation, particularly the time spent in the cell. When that was perceived as a problem more generally, the previous Prisons Minister set up the 10 prisons project, which involved regular and active engagement between the Minister and the institutions concerned, and it had an effect. I know that we are short of Ministers at the moment, but will the hon. Gentleman look at that and see whether he or his colleagues can take some responsibility, because this is on another level? People who read these reports regularly will not have seen one as shocking as this for some time.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to mention the 10 prisons project. It involves the adult male estate and is tackling other issues, but we are seeking to learn lessons from it that could be applied to the youth custodial estate as well. Where something works well in that context, it is absolutely right that we should look at it. He is also right to talk about the importance of direct and personal engagement by the Minister and the director of the service in turning round challenged institutions. I hope that I have sufficiently alluded to that fact in references to meetings with the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston and to my regular meetings with the director of the youth custody service, which are almost fortnightly at the moment. I am taking a personal interest in the operation of Feltham, and indeed the whole estate, and I also speak regularly to the governor herself. She leads a dedicated team who are working in difficult circumstances involving violence and self-harm. I have confidence in her and her team, and they know that as long as I am the Minister, I will do everything I can to support them. I am also sure that the Ministry of Justice will continue to do everything it can support her and her team.
I thank the Minister for answering his first urgent question.
TOEIC: Overseas Students
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will announce his decisions on the cases of overseas students falsely accused of cheating in ETS TOEIC—test of English for international communication—English language tests.
Five years ago, “Panorama” uncovered the shocking scale of fraud within the English language testing system. ETS, the company that ran the centres, analysed all the tests taken in the UK between 2011 and 2014—more than 58,000 in all. It identified more than 33,000 invalid results where, in its view, there was direct evidence that somebody had cheated, and a further 22,000 were considered questionable because of irregularities. This fraud was serious and systematic, and 25 people who were involved have been convicted and sentenced to more than 70 years in prison. Further criminal investigations are ongoing, with a further 14 due in court next month. These crimes did not happen in isolation. The student visa system we inherited in 2010 was wide open to abuse. The National Audit Office found that as many as 50,000 people may have fraudulently entered the UK to work using the tier 4 student route in 2009-10 alone.
Following the revelations, the Home Office took prompt action against some of those who were found to have cheated, and that action was endorsed by the courts. Those whose results were questionable were offered the chance to resit the test. Despite this, there are understandable concerns that some people who did not cheat might have been caught up, and that some have found it hard to challenge the accusations against them. So earlier this year my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary commissioned advice from officials. Yesterday he lodged a written ministerial statement updating the House on our next steps. He announced that the Department would change existing guidance to ensure that the belief that a deception had taken place was balanced against other factors, which would normally lead to leave being granted, especially where children are involved.
Furthermore, we will ensure that no further action is taken in cases where there is no evidence that an ETS certificate was used in an immigration application. We will also drop the automatic requirement to interview those linked to a questionable certificate. We continue to look at other options, including whether there is a need for those who feel they have been wronged to be able to ask for their case to be reviewed. It is right that we show concern for those who have chosen to study or make a life in this country, but we cannot allow our concern to undermine the action we must take to tackle what was a widespread criminal fraud. We will keep the House fully informed as our response to this issue develops.
By 2017, more than 35,000 refusal, curtailment and removal decisions had been made in ETS alleged cheating cases. Thousands of those accused and denied visas remain in the UK protesting their innocence. The Home Secretary, who I am delighted to see in his place, told the House three months ago:
“We had a further meeting to make some final decisions just last week”.—[Official Report, 1 April 2019; Vol. 657, c. 799.]
However, there has still been no announcement. He said on Monday last week:
“I am planning to come to the House with a statement to say much more before the summer recess.”—[Official Report, 15 July 2019; Vol. 663, c. 586.]
He has come to the House today, but we have not heard that statement. Thousands of students who have been falsely accused now face grave hardship and need this to be resolved urgently.
ETS’s records are confused, incomplete and often plain wrong. The professor of digital forensics at Birmingham City University told the all-party parliamentary group on TOEIC last month that it was
“unsafe for anyone to rely upon computer files created by ETS…as a sole means of making a decision”,
but those files are the only basis for the cheating allegations. Appeals were not allowed in the UK, but a growing number have convinced a court that they did not cheat. Immigration judge Lucas, dismissing the Home Office’s case of TOEIC cheating against one of my constituents, wrote last month that
“the reality is that there is no specific evidence in relation to this Appellant at all.”
This is a grave injustice that must be brought to an end.
At the Home Affairs Committee on Monday, the Home Secretary suggested a new reconsideration system for TOEIC cases, although yesterday’s inadequate written statement did not even go as far as that. Does the Minister envisage a reconsideration system for those wrongly accused? When will it be set up? How will it operate? When will full details of it be announced? Would it not be better and easier just to allow students to take another secure English language test, and if they pass, to allow them to regain their visa status?
I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his diligence in pursuing this issue. He certainly brought it to my attention very early on in my tenure as Immigration Minister. It is important to reflect on the fact that the courts have said, in separate cases, that the evidence was enough to take the action that we did and that people had cheated for a variety of reasons. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did indeed publish a written ministerial statement yesterday, which gave an indication of the changes so far, but it is important that we continue to work on the issue and find a mechanism to allow people, where necessary, to have some form of review. Unfortunately, I cannot set things out in the detail that the right hon. Gentleman has requested at this time, but I reassure him that I am conscious that we have a new Prime Minister and, should I remain in this post, I will seek to raise the TOEIC issue with him as a matter of urgency, because it is important that we work as a Government to ensure that we find a mechanism for redress for the few cases in which a wrong decision may have been made.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing this urgent question and making a powerful case. His work and commitment on this issue has been tremendous. The TOEIC scandal is another example of the Government’s hostile environment, plunging thousands of lives into uncertainty. This shameful episode, which started in 2014, has led to thousands of students being accused of cheating and the cancellation of some 35,000 student visas. Multiple organisations and court cases have questioned the allegations, uncovering the Home Office’s many shortcomings.
The damage, distress and loss caused to the international students wrongly accused of cheating has been colossal, leaving them feeling like criminals. Likewise, it has damaged our international reputation as a preferred destination for international students. It is evident that the Home Office has not learned key lessons from this debacle and the hostile environment policy, which is obviously still in play. I met students in Parliament and was shocked to learn about the abuse that they have experienced and to learn that they all suffer mental health problems—something not to be taken lightly.
The Home Secretary revealed at Monday’s Home Affairs Committee meeting that a new reconsideration system will be introduced, but the details remained vague in yesterday’s statement. The urgency of this matter must be understood, and the Government must clarify what the new system will look like and when it will be set up. These students have endured serious hardship and deserve answers, and immigration policies and processes must be fair and transparent. Will the Minister confirm that no further students accused of cheating in a TOEIC test will be detained or forcibly removed? Does she also accept that students have faced serious financial losses? If so, what financial support will be provided? This grave injustice must be corrected as quickly as possible.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions, but I point out to him that, far from this being a shameful scandal, what is shameful is that this was cheating on an industrial scale. The latest National Audit Office report confirmed that abuse of the system was widespread, and the 2012 NAO report indicated that “abuse was rife”. Of course, the Home Office also not only sought compensation from ETS, but received it. It is therefore absolutely imperative that we emphasise that this was criminal activity and that people have been imprisoned. As I said earlier, 14 more individuals are facing court action as a result.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the responses that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee, and I want to emphasise his precise words. He spoke of
“a very small number, judging by the cases that have gone through the courts or come to the Home Office since 2014. Nevertheless, even if it is one individual who has been wronged, it is our duty to make sure that we are doing more to help.”
It is our duty, and that is absolutely what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to do.
Yet again, I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and his colleagues on the all-party group for their tireless work on the behalf of probably thousands of innocent people whose lives and aspirations have been ruined by this fiasco. The Minister is absolutely right that shameful cheating was going on but, as the National Audit Office said, the Home Office should have been just as robust about protecting the innocent as it was in pursuing the fraudsters.
It was positive on Monday that the Home Secretary talked about creating a new opportunity for those who have been wronged to have their cases reconsidered, so it is slightly alarming that the Government seem to have moved away from that approach in the past couple of days. He was wrong to talk on Monday as though the burden of proof should still be on those facing allegations of cheating, who should be presumed innocent until proven than otherwise. Thanks to the work of the all-party parliamentary group, we know that assertions of cheating by ETS cannot be relied upon on their own in deciding whether someone is guilty, and the courts have frequently rejected the evidence of ETS, just as they have sometimes upheld it.
I was going to ask when the new mechanism will be up and running, but when will we at least have clarity about whether we are getting such a mechanism? If we are to have a new mechanism, will the Minister undertake that individuals will be presumed innocent unless there is significant evidence beyond a simple and unreliable assertion of cheating by ETS? Finally, to restore credibility and trust in the whole process, will the Minister consider giving responsibility for making decisions on such cases to an independent decision maker—people with the required technical and legal expertise—totally outside the orbit of the Home Office and the ETS?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. I remind him that in 2014, before his time in this House, it was Parliament that insisted that the Home Office took urgent action to address what had been revealed as widespread cheating. It is important to find a mechanism that provides redress for those who may have been wrongly caught up in this. However, the independent expert, Professor French, indicated when he studied the matter that the likelihood of a false match from the voice checks was likely to be less than 1%.
The hon. Gentleman referred to some of the subsequent court cases, and evidence of an article 8 claim of a right to respect for family or private life led the courts to take a balanced decision in many cases that it was right that individuals should be allowed to stay, and that is absolutely what we are saying in the review of the guidance. We want to ensure that the Home Office, which I absolutely believe is the appropriate place for these decisions to be made, is making sensible decisions that properly balance any belief that deception was practiced against the wider circumstances. Where the circumstances are particularly compelling, perhaps when children are involved, it is important that we look to see what more the Home Office can do to help people put their claims forward.
People accused and defamed, detained and deported, visas lost and people left destitute on unsafe allegations on discredited evidence. Yes, there were cheats—nobody is denying that—but many more were innocent. Maybe the reason why so few such cases have become apparent is that most people were not allowed to appeal and very few have been able to get to court. However, some of those who got to court, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said, have had justices making public statements on their behalf.
I note the Minister’s reassurance, and it is welcome that this matter will remain one of her priorities if reappointed. For that reason alone, I hope she is reappointed, because many Opposition Members have invested a lot of time in this Front-Bench team taking things forward. However, this question will remain for whoever is on the Treasury Bench: when will those not guilty of any offence receive justice?
I thank the hon. Gentleman—I think—for his kind words in saying that he hoped I would be reappointed. However, I reiterate that the allegations were not unsafe and that our approach to taking action on students has been endorsed by the courts, which have consistently found that the Home Office’s evidence was enough to prompt the action that was taken at the time. I emphasise that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary published a written ministerial statement yesterday and made it clear in his appearance before the Home Affairs Committee that he is determined to find solutions going forward that are practical for those involved and provide people with the opportunity to explain, potentially through article 8, how they can substantiate their claim to life in the UK.
The truth remains that the Home Office does not actually know how many people were cheating. The truth remains that 35,000 people had their visas revoked as part of the Home Office and the Government’s anti-immigration atmosphere and hostile environment. That is the truth. Lots of people gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, of which I am a former member, and the truth is that the concerns that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) raised are absolutely valid. People have lost their livelihoods. They cannot return home because of the shame and the stigma. They have no recourse to public funds to defend themselves. They have been labelled guilty and as cheats. That is a crying shame, and I absolutely disagree with the Minister when she says this is not a shameful episode. We have had Windrush and the whole hostile environment, and TOEIC is exactly the same thing. Given that the evidence is no longer secure, is it not right that we should not deport anybody else and not force through any more deportations from our detention centres of students who have found themselves the victims of the incompetence of our Home Office and Government?
The hon. Lady was not here in 2014 and perhaps does not remember the pressure from Parliament to address this systematic cheating. I remind her that there have been criminal convictions, with sentences amounting to over 70 years and with more criminal trials to come. It is important to remember that this was a criminal operation on an industrial scale—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady may chunter at me from a sedentary position, but she must remember the criminal facts behind this. However, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has indicated, we have recognised that some people may have innocently been caught up in it. As he said, it is our duty to make sure there is a redress mechanism for those for whom those circumstances prevailed. However, it is quite wrong to suggest that this is something to do with the hostile environment; this was to do with crime.
Let me help the Minister maybe. If she is absolutely confident about what she is saying from the Dispatch Box—I have to say I would be very surprised if she is—can she commit to covering the legal costs of any student who has had to pay for legal representation as a result of Home Office inadequacy? Surely that must be applicable and appropriate for those who win their appeals.
The hon. Lady will know that when it comes to court hearings, judges will decide whether people have a valid claim to remain in the UK. We continue to look at all the options, including whether there is a need for those who feel they have been wronged to be able to ask for their case to be reviewed. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to make further announcements in due course. However, it is right to reflect on the fact that this is a complicated issue, and it is right that we take time to make sure we get it right—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady may chunter at me from a sedentary position, but it is important that we make the right decisions and do not just give blanket promises that we will allow people to stay and will pay their costs, when it may be the case that they have cheated.
The problem is that we are no further on. Although I acknowledge the time the Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister have given to meeting Members, no remedy is being offered to people—people into the whites of whose eyes we have to look in our surgeries—who had no reason whatever to cheat, given their written communication and English language speaking skills. I cannot go back to constituents such as Maruf Ahmed and tell them that we face the prospect possibly of a new Home Secretary and a new Immigration Minister looking at this afresh, and certainly of no action at all until the summer has passed. These people’s lives are being left in limbo.
Acknowledging what the Minister has said about there clearly having been some cheating, and acknowledging what other Members have said about some people clearly having been inadvertently and wrongly caught up in this, surely the best thing to do now, given the passage of time and the numbers of people involved, is just to let those people sit a secure English language test afresh to give them the opportunity to clear their names, and, if they cannot, to politely ask them to return to where they came from.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this evidence of cheating came to light in 2014, and evidence of people’s ability to speak English now may have no relation to their ability to speak English back then, given that we are five years on. However, I absolutely refute his accusation that we are no further forward. The written ministerial statement yesterday made it absolutely clear that the Home Secretary has asked officials to review Home Office guidance. The reviewing of that guidance relates to article 8 human rights claims to ensure that we make sensible decisions that are properly balanced in terms of any belief that deception was practised and of the individual’s wider circumstances. Where there are particularly compelling circumstances, we will also look at whether there is more we can do to help people put forward their claim. Given that this cheating was exposed in 2014, it is absolutely evident that people’s circumstances will have changed; they may well have established families in this country, and those children will have a right to an education here. We must put the priority of the families first. It is right that we should seek a mechanism to support people through an article 8 claim so that they can stay, when there are grounds for them to do so.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for his work on the APPG on TOEIC, which has exposed so much of what has happened. Many people, including some of my constituents, have been left in limbo. They have faced huge financial costs, and I ask the Minister whether it is possible to look at a compensation scheme for those affected and wrongly accused, because their lives have been ruined. Will she also work with higher and further education institutions to ensure that those who were falsely accused can get back to their studies and get their lives back on track?
It is worth reflecting on the fact that many of those caught up in this attended a very small selection of colleges, which have subsequently been shut down. There were very close links between colleges being found to be operating outside their licences and these accusations of cheating. However, I must reflect on the fact that there were over 30,000 cases where there was absolute evidence that people had cheated. There were also 22,000 cases where there were questionable results. All those people were given the opportunity to resit a test. However, it is important to reflect on what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in his statement yesterday: we are looking at the other issues and particularly at whether we can give people who maintain their innocence another opportunity to challenge the finding of deception. However, the independent expert found that the likelihood of false matches was very small indeed and likely to be less than 1%.
I welcome the Minister’s reference to understandable concerns, and I get the sense that she will want to see this issue concluded as quickly as possible. I have been contacted by at least six constituents who are unable to work and support their families as a result of the alleged cheating in TOEIC. They have lost their visas and been threatened with deportation, and their children’s education has been put at risk. They have not had the chance to prove their innocence. Their lives are on hold, and their families are under great strain. They are living in limbo. How reassured should my constituents feel by the Minister’s statement that they will be able very soon to get the chance to clear their name and, indeed, to get justice for what they have been through?
As I have said, those with questionable tests were given the chance to resit the test at the time. We are clearly stating that the route via an article 8 claim to a family life is one that we wish to enable people to pursue, and they should make another claim. Obviously, I cannot stand here and comment on individual cases, but we are giving people the opportunity to make an article 8 claim, and I hope that that provides a mechanism going forward.
I am afraid that I disagree with the Minister, and agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) that this is part of the hostile environment: 35,000 people did not cheat. We do not know how many did, but a large number of people did not, and these are the people who are coming to our constituency surgeries to seek justice. I have met some who have the higher-level IELTS—international English language testing system—qualification, which shows that they have a higher level of English literacy and speech than is needed for the TOEIC qualification, so there is no way they were cheats.
I received an email a couple of years ago from a constituent who had almost completed three years of his degree at London South Bank University, and was not allowed to complete it because of the TOEIC situation. When he applied to complete it, the university would not let him because too much time had elapsed. This situation applies to many. They have paid a fortune in fees and livings costs to be here. What recompense will the Government give those who can definitely be proven not to have cheated? They should be given an opportunity for a further test. Will the Minister, whoever that person is, meet the high commissioners from the countries in which the most people are affected, to try to sort out something positive from this mess, for the sake of the people affected and their families, and for the reputation of this country?
I remind the hon. Lady of the numbers: 33,663 UK tests were invalid and a further 22,476 were questionable, so we are talking about 55,000 tests. The independent expert who carried out the review found that the likelihood of false matches was less than 1%. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, where individuals have wrongly been accused of cheating, it is important that they be allowed to find a means of redress, but it is absolutely not the case that this is part of a hostile environment. These numbers are part of systematic criminal fraud.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing this urgent question following the work that we on the APPG on TOEIC have done. I know how frustrating the process is for the innocent victims inadvertently caught up in this. Professor French’s statement that false matches were less than 1% has been quoted, but he told the APPG just last month that that statement was valid only
“if the results that ETS had given the Home Office were correct”,
and that information is seriously in question. We need to look at that again. People need to be brought out of limbo. They have waited for the Home Secretary’s statement to the House, which did not come; we have had 306 words tucked away in a written statement. We need to know when that limbo will end for them.
The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did not “tuck away” 306 words in a written ministerial statement; it was published yesterday. My right hon. Friend said that he would update the House before recess, and he has. He has also been very clear that we want to go further. That is absolutely a priority for me and my right hon. Friend, or indeed whoever our successors may be. We will take this up as a matter of urgency with the new Prime Minister.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is very rare for this House to find a named individual in contempt of Parliament, and to agree unanimously to admonish them. It would surely be a disgrace for Dominic Cummings to be rewarded, despite being found in contempt, with a post as senior adviser to the incoming Prime Minister. In opening the debate on the motion to admonish on 2 April, the Government stated that they had
“full respect for the privileges of the House of Commons and will continue to uphold them. They are crucial to the independence of Parliament and the strength of our democracy.”—[Official Report, 2 April 2019; Vol. 657, c. 942.]
Together with the Chair of the Committee of Privileges, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who unfortunately had to leave for another engagement, I seek your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, on whether the appointment of Mr Cummings would undermine that commitment to respect the House.
I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order, and for her courtesy in giving me notice of it. She will know very well that the appointment of persons to official positions at Downing Street or elsewhere is not a matter that can be addressed by the Chair, but resolutions of this House are a matter of concern to the Chair. I can confirm that the House passed a resolution on 2 April that said, in terms, that Mr Cummings
“committed a contempt both by his refusal to obey”
“Committee’s order to attend it and by his subsequent refusal to obey the House’s Order of 7 June 2018”—[Official Report, 2 April 2019; Vol. 657, c. 941.]
and the House therefore formally admonished him for his conduct.
The hon. Lady has drawn this important matter to the attention of the House and, indeed, the Government, and although I can give her no further help at this moment, I am quite sure that she will find a way of pursuing her concerns. Not least, the matter is in her own hands when she chairs the Liaison Committee. I am quite sure that she will find a way of taking this matter forward, which would be quite proper.
Dockless Bicycles (Regulation)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give powers to local authorities to regulate dockless bicycle-sharing schemes; and for connected purposes.
The sudden emergence of dockless bike schemes over the last few years has been a tale for our times—a tale of the power of tech to facilitate sharing, and of the massive and cheap production of bikes in China. It has led to new opportunities for travel in our cities, but also the prospect of people waking up to find their streets littered with bikes, with no obvious way of dealing with the issue.
I have been urging the Government to act on this for years, because my city of Cambridge was early to experience the phenomenon. Micro-mobility is a potentially exciting opportunity, and data-driven services are set to change the way we travel, but we cannot let the companies who provide these services litter our towns and cities, because, as ever, it falls to our local councils to pick up the mess—and too often the bill. In London in just the last few weeks, London councils have used byelaws to tackle the problem in the absence of help and support from this place; that help and support is the purpose of this Bill.
Let me start with the good examples—there are some—because proper regulation will foster positive innovation. For instance, healthy living can be championed; I am told that in Cardiff, the bike-share service provider nextbike is working with Cardiff Council and local health bodies to enable GPs to prescribe to patients unlimited free 30-minute hires of their 650 bikes. Cardiff Council has stated that it is
“fortunate and proud to offer this opportunity”.
Other examples of initiatives include Bikeshare4all, which tackles digital exclusion and helps those without smartphones or bank accounts to access these schemes.
Dockless bicycle-sharing schemes are just part of a host of new innovations that look set to change the way we travel locally, with on-demand services linked up by tech, such as electric scooters and car-pooling apps. I shall briefly set out the current problems and then describe the ways in which the Bill and regulation could mitigate them, but first, in passing, I should point out that the concerns about electric scooters, made very real by the tragic death of Emily Hartridge, show why we need a Department for Transport that responds much more swiftly to changing circumstances. As a member of the Transport Committee, I see all too often that under this Administration, it really is the Department not for transport but for failing to keep up. I do not blame the Department; I am afraid the fault lies in lack of leadership.
The striking pictures of the dockless bike graveyards around the world that we saw in the newspapers a few years ago show how quickly the schemes can come and go. That was certainly felt keenly in Cambridge, and on an even larger scale in cities such as Sheffield, Norwich, Oxford and London. Ofo put some 2,000 bikes into Sheffield last year, causing much initial excitement among residents, but six months later they had all been removed.
In Cambridge, I had direct experience of Ofo, which was one of the first movers. Frankly, at the beginning it was very hard to find who to speak to—the bikes had turned up but it was unclear who was running the scheme—and the company’s initial relationship with the council was strained. After management changes, Ofo did engage knowledgeable local people—I visited its premises—and for a while the service seemed sustainable and effective. Sadly, Ofo began to withdraw operations from some areas of the city that it found problematic. I remember seeing an Ofo bike parked on top of a bus shelter in King’s Hedges Road. Suddenly, another operator, Mobike, appeared, adding to the confusion—and to the clutter. Just as suddenly, Ofo was gone, although not all the bikes were gone; some were still around, in various states of disrepair, and in some cases were still being used, but all too often they had been seized and broken by a small number of Cambridge youngsters who were up to no good. Frankly, it has not been a happy experience overall.
Not only do events such as those I have described prevent bike-share schemes from being a real transport solution that people can rely on, but the ending of schemes really disadvantages those who changed their routines to take advantage of the service and made the modal shift that so many in this place are keen to encourage. What message does it send when we exhort people to ditch their car and switch to public transport and bikes, but they then find the service withdrawn just a few months later?
What should be done? Franchising, with local authorities agreeing a timeframe for service provision, could rectify the situation and allow users certainty when they make decisions about their transport options. Currently, a provider can set up a scheme without permission from, or even communication with, the local authority. Franchising would also allow oversight and local authority influence over prices, so that they cannot be hiked overnight, as has unfortunately happened in some parts of the country.
As I have mentioned, bike-share schemes can organise their services to prioritise the most profitable areas and exclude deprived postcodes. I have heard stories that in Manchester one scheme continued to narrow its operational area to squeeze out the highest revenue possible. Regulation would mean that councils could agree the areas that the bikes would serve, making sure they are available in all parts of the city that need the service, not simply the most lucrative. Sustaina