House of Commons
Wednesday 24 March 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Same-sex Couples: Insemination Services
Regulation of fertility treatment services is UK-wide, but policy is devolved. In England, decisions about local fertility services are determined by clinical commissioning groups, taking account of National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines, which include provision for same-sex female couples.
At present, Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority guidance largely prohibits supplying sperm for insemination at home. Same-sex couples who are trying to get pregnant have few options via the NHS other than to access insemination services from a registered UK clinic. That means that couples who live further away from such clinics face further costs in their aspiration to start a family. Will the Minister, working with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the HFEA, explore ways in which this issue could be mitigated?
On the question about the delivery of sperm to residential addresses, that can be done across the UK, but the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority advises against it because the origin of the sample and whether it is undamaged cannot be guaranteed. Undergoing treatment at a licensed UK clinic provides the donor and the patient with legal certainty about their parental status and their future responsibilities, but I am very happy to take up the hon. Lady’s question further with the Minister for Innovation, as this sits in his portfolio.
Covid-19: Female Employment
The latest Office for National Statistics official statistics show the female employment rate at 71.8% at the end of January 2021. The Government recognise that times are hard for many women and men, which is why we have extended the furlough scheme until September, alongside new measures in our plan for jobs, such as our £2 billion kickstart scheme and the restart programme, which launches this summer.
Question 2 is withdrawn, so we now go to Kirsten Oswald.
Covid forced short-term modifications to working practices, which demonstrate that change is possible, but proactive steps are needed to secure long-term improvements in flexible working to support the work and caring responsibilities of women in particular. Does the Minister agree that flexibility should be available from day one of a new job rather than being a possibility six months in, will she ensure that the forthcoming employment Bill provides for that, and will she confirm that that Bill will be in the Queen’s Speech?
The hon. Lady raises something really important. At the Department for Work and Pensions we have been incredibly flexible with our team, and they have been incredibly flexible as a result, so I absolutely agree that flexibility is really important and will be keenly supporting changes to make sure that more women are part of the workforce. It is pleasing that, compared with men’s, the fall in women’s employment has been better through the covid pandemic. As the UK Government, we want to do as much as we can to support women to progress and thrive in the workplace or, indeed, working at home more flexibly.
UK’s G7 Presidency: Role of Women
As part of the G7, we will be hosting the gender equality advisory council. Led by Sarah Sands, it will help women build back better across the world, including on ending violence against women, women’s economic empowerment, and education for women and girls.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her response. Does she agree that flexible working is key, not just to open up more opportunities for more people but to address the UK’s perennial productivity puzzle?
My hon. Friend is right: flexible working should be the standard offer from employers. Recent Government Equalities Office research shows that there are 30% more applicants where jobs are advertised as flexible. That particularly brings benefits to women and those who live outside the major cities, and it can help us level up our country and make it more productive.
Safer Streets for Women
The tragic death of Sarah Everard has reminded us that we need to work together to ensure women do not feel at risk of harm on our streets. Since this senseless tragedy, we have taken immediate action by more than doubling the safer streets fund and building on what works by supporting measures such as better lighting and CCTV. The Minister for Crime and Policing will also hold a summit with police, the violence against women and girls sector, and industry representatives from the night-time economy on preparations to protect women as pandemic restrictions lift.
I thank the Minister for her response. Following that tragic case, a good number of my constituents have been in touch with their concerns over whether their local area is safe. One of them, Courtney Beech, who is an outreach worker for Drop Zone in Barrow, is concerned about the lack of lighting in local parks and the cemetery. What efforts are the Government making to ensure that good practice is being shared with local authorities and other local organisations to keep women feeling safe and secure, especially at night time?
I share my hon. Friend’s concern. No one should feel unsafe walking on the street, least of all those who are doing valuable work in the community like Drop Zone. I hope he can reassure his constituents of the Government’s commitment to this issue. The safer streets fund has been more than doubled so it can support interventions such as street lighting and CCTV, which will make people feel safer, and they are the responsibility of local authorities.
In order to make the streets safer for women, we must tackle the culture underpinning male violence. Does my hon. Friend agree with the conclusion of the February 2020 report of the Government Equalities Office that the use of pornography is an important contributing factor to harmful sexual behaviours? If so, how will she make sure that the Government emphasis is not simply on street lights, but also on the causes of male violence against women?
I think I can certainly say that I personally agree with my right hon. Friend. I do know that these issues have been looked at by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). She is not here today, unfortunately, but she has been looking into this issue and I will follow it up with her to provide a more comprehensive response to my right hon. Friend’s question.
Female Participation in STEM
Science and technology will drive our country’s future and women are brilliant at STEM— science, technology, engineering and maths. There are now more girls taking chemistry and biology at A-level than boys, but we need to continue to make progress in other subjects. Initiatives such as T-levels provide an excellent opportunity for girls interested in STEM.
Could I ask the Minister to encourage young women to utilise options like the South Durham University Technical College in Newton Aycliffe, where every one of last year’s students got an outcome they wanted, whether it was a job or further education? The UTC is supported by companies such as Hitachi and Gestamp, and that can create great STEM-based career opportunities. However, currently only about 20% of the students are female. Does she agree with me that more should consider this educational option? The next time she is in the north-east, will she come to see for herself the opportunities that are being created,?
I thank my hon. Friend for championing women in STEM. I congratulate the UTC in Newton Aycliffe for helping women to gain access to prestigious engineering jobs and higher technical opportunities. It is great to see more women taking up subjects such as engineering, but we would like to see more. A really proper and meaningful conversation with a woman role model who has already broken through STEM barriers can inspire girls and young women to enter STEM careers. Companies, such as those he mentions, have an important role in that.
I welcome the Minister’s reply. Participation in STEM can lead to exciting career opportunities in such sectors as renewable energy, but to ensure that young women have every opportunity to pursue their ambitions there must be a career-long pathway that enables them to realise their full potential. That should include fair recruitment processes, the promotion of alumni networks that ensure skill retention and the development of retention programmes. I would welcome an assurance from my hon. Friend that she is liaising with her ministerial colleagues to put in place a route map that includes such staging posts.
It is really positive that we have more women studying to become doctors and that four out of five students studying to become vets are women, but it is less good that only one in five engineering students are women. Initiatives such as Tomorrow’s Engineers Code, which was launched by EngineeringUK, is bringing together Government, business and academia to increase the number and diversity of young people pursuing engineering codes. As one of many Government organisations who have signed the code, we have pledged to work with the engineering community to improve quality targeting, inclusivity and reach of engineering activities.
Covid-19: Disabled People
The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 outbreak. As part of Access to Work, we have introduced a more blended offer to help disabled people find and stay in work, including prioritising applications from disabled people in the clinically extremely vulnerable group.
The UK’s high and unequal covid death toll includes disabled people, who account for six out of 10 covid deaths. Last month’s Office for National Statistics data showed that both disabled men and women are more than three times more likely to die if they contract covid than non-disabled people. Even when we adjust for various factors including age or pre-existing health conditions, there is still an additional covid risk associated with disability. So I repeat my question from last June: what assessment have the Government undertaken of the covid deaths of working-age disabled social security claimants? Given their additional risk, what are the Government doing to protect them?
I know that the hon. Lady is very passionate about making sure that anybody with barriers, anybody impacted on by this pandemic, is absolutely supported, and that is something that we have been doing at DWP. Through our Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, we are listening to and engaging with charities and hearing from those people who are working, those with learning disabilities, autistic people, and people with complex needs. Of course, this is an incredibly worrying time for people with disabilities. The Minister is looking at this very carefully and will keep it under review.
I am committed to banning conversion therapy. It is an abhorrent practice and I will shortly be bringing forward plans to do just that.
I am grateful for that response. I am absolutely clear that this practice has no place in a civilised society. Being from the LGBT+ community is not an illness to be treated or cured, and I agree with the Prime Minister who calls conversion therapy “abhorrent” and “repulsive”. In the light of this, what can the Minister do to accelerate the ban?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have been working to make sure that the measures that we put in place are enforceable and fully researched. I am confident that we will be able to announce progress on this very soon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) are absolutely right to condemn this dreadful practice. The problem with it is that not only is it cruel, but it does not work—it is absolutely pointless. As well as imposing a ban, what can my right hon. Friend do to educate religions or other groups who think that this abhorrent practice has a purpose?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that practices that harm or try to convert somebody into being something they are not, are not just wrong but completely inappropriate and unacceptable. That is why we will be bringing forward our plans to ban this practice very shortly. He is right that it should be true in all circumstances, including with religious practices. Of course, we must protect religious free speech, but we cannot condone those harmful practices taking place.
It is good to hear the Minister’s words after three years of dither and delay that have cost the Government three members of their LGBT panel. Can she now give us a legislative timetable for when ending this archaic practice of conversion therapy will be on the statute book once and for all?
I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to get on with doing this. I can assure her that since I got this job a year ago I have been working to make sure that the ban we put in place is properly enforceable and has the right measures in place. We have been looking at international experience to ensure that we do this correctly, but I am very keen to get on with it and I can assure the hon. Lady that we are very much on it.
The Minister will be aware that it has been almost three years since the Government committed to ending the practice of conversion therapy. Will she therefore take this opportunity to apologise to all those who have been harmed by these abhorrent practices as a result of the Government’s inaction, and commit today to bringing forward a full legislative ban on practices to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, to give all LGBT people the protection that they deserve?
I am very clear that these practices are utterly abhorrent. I would point out that I have been in this job for a year and I have been working to make sure that the ban we put in place is enforceable. I have also dealt with a number of other long-standing issues, such as responding to the consultation on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to make the process simpler and kinder for transgender people, improving transgender health care and changing the blood donation criteria for gay men donating blood. We are also working on an international LGBT conference, entitled Safe to Be Me, to end discrimination across the world. It is always important with legislation to ensure that we get it right and that it is properly enforceable, and we will be bringing plans forward shortly.
Covid-19: Working Parents
We know that the pandemic has been hard on all families, especially those who have been juggling work and childcare. That is one of the reasons why schools have remained open to the children of key workers throughout this time, and why early years settings have remained open to all since last June. I meet regularly with colleagues across Government to discuss support for families.
Universal credit’s young parent penalty denies single parents under 25 years old the same level of social security as those above that age, pushing those affected—90% of whom are women, and the majority of them in work—into poverty. What representations is the Minister making to her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to fix this arbitrary inequality and discriminatory practice in the social security system and to abolish the young parent penalty?
This UK Government have put unprecedented amounts—billions—into support for jobs and incomes, including the £150 million flexible support fund, which helps women access childcare. The billions that the UK has put into supporting jobs, especially for those on low incomes, are yet another reminder of why the people of Scotland increasingly agree that they are better off as part of the UK.
We have a huge opportunity, as we recover from covid-19, for women across the world to build back better. That is why I am convening a group of leaders in the G7 gender equality advisory council this year under the newly appointed chair, Sarah Sands, with leaders such as Professor Sarah Gilbert, who spearheaded the Oxford vaccine, Ritu Karidhal, who helped to lead India’s Mars orbital mission and Iris Bohnet, who has revolutionised our understanding of fairness in the work- place. Together, we can lead on education for women and girls, women’s economic empowerment, and ending violence against women across the world.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. May I commend her on her choice of Darlington for the newly announced Department for International Trade hubs? I look forward to welcoming her to the Tees Valley. I also welcome her commitment to a ban on conversion therapy. Does she agree that this so-called therapy is abuse and that those who perpetrate such abuse should be prevented in law from being able to do so? As a gay man and a Christian, I believe that such controls must also extend to religious organisations that seek to change a person’s sexuality. Will she ensure that the ban extends to these too?
I was delighted to announce yesterday that we will be bringing a trade and investment hub to Darlington. We are also looking at moving the headquarters of our Equalities Office to the north of England, and no doubt Darlington will be putting in a bid for that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to stamp out coercion and causing people harm wherever it takes place. That is what I am determined to do, and that is what I will be bringing forward shortly.
Over the past 10 days we have seen the Government try to defend their poor record on ending violence against women. They have recently reopened the consultation on this issue, but there is no use in consulting people if the Government are not going to take any action. Take the consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace, which closed 18 months ago. We have seen no response from the Minister and no action from the Government, despite the fact that half of women experience sexual harassment at work. Can the Minister tell the House today when she will respond to this consultation and take the much-needed action to end sexual harassment?
It is quite wrong to say that the Government are taking no action on tackling violence against women. We will be publishing a new strategy in spring 2021, which will help to better target perpetrators and support victims of these crimes. The call for evidence to input into this work has been extended to 26 March, and it is vital that we hear from women everywhere, especially given recent public discussions and concerns.
There is so much that we have been doing, including the end-to-end rape review, which is looking at how every stage of the criminal justice system handles rape cases from police report to the final outcome at court. If the hon. Lady does want to work with us to end violence against women, the way to do it is constructively and not by making accusations that we are not taking any action.
We on this side of the House are very committed to ending violence against women and girls, but there is a pattern with this Government. They consult and they review, but they take very little action.
Yesterday we marked a year since the first national lockdown. The pandemic, as we all know, has had an unequal impact on our black, Asian and ethnic minority people. Last July, the Prime Minister commissioned a review into race and ethnic disparities. It was due to be published in December last year, than they delayed it until February this year, and it is now nearly April and still no report.
Can the Minister tell us when the Prime Minister intends to publish his report, and will it be accompanied by a race equality strategy to tackle the ongoing structural and institutional inequalities?
The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities will be reporting shortly, but it is disappointing that the hon. Lady seems to forget it is an independent commission. It is not the Prime Minister but an independent commission that will be publishing the report. What will happen afterwards is that the Government will provide their response to the commission’s recommendations, and we shall wait and see what the commission recommends.
What I have intended is that the commission has the freedom and the space to provide a set of recommendations that are robust. We are doing this not on dates but on data, and we need to make sure it is something that will stand the test of time and not just be a response to Opposition Members who are not actually interested in solving this problem but want to use it politically.
The Government have taken several important steps to ensure women are able to access the sanitary products they need. From 1 January 2021 the tampon tax has been abolished, with a zero rate of VAT applied to women’s sanitary products coming into effect. The Department for Education is leading a scheme to provide access to free period products in schools and colleges in England, NHS England announced in March 2019 that it will offer free period products to every hospital patient who needs them, including long-term patients, and the Home Office has changed the law to ensure that all people in custody are provided with free health and hygiene products, including period products.
The hon. Lady raises a very interesting question, and this is something the Government are aware of and are looking into. Yesterday, I spoke to Dr Tony Sewell, who is chairing the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities; I am aware that it has researched this extensively and I look forward to seeing what its report says on it.
I am sorry we did not get as many Members in as normal, but we have to move on to questions to the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The last 12 months have been the most difficult for a generation, and I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with all those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. I also want to pay tribute to every person in this country for playing their part, whether working on the frontline, staying at home to prevent the spread of the virus, or working on vaccine development and supply. It is that vaccination programme that has brought hope, allowing us to set out the cautious but irreversible road map out of lockdown.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
Many independent countries, from Switzerland to New Zealand, have bilateral veterinary agreements with the European Union and face lower non-tariff barriers than the UK, despite our very high standards. With the Food and Drink Federation reporting a massive drop in UK food exports—over 90% in some areas—and with sanitary and phytosanitary checks constituting the main challenge for the Northern Ireland protocol, surely the Prime Minister should be making it a priority to negotiate a bespoke UK-EU veterinary agreement?
That is exactly why we put in temporary and technical measures to allow free trade to continue across the whole of the UK. It is very important for those who object to the measures that we have taken that the protocol should uphold the principle of east-west trade, as well as north-south trade, and that is exactly what we are trying to do.
I can certainly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Adam Doyle, Charlotte Luck and Dr Susie Padgham for all their efforts, and my hon. Friend is completely right in what she says about the foundations of the UK’s vaccine success. I had my jab on Friday. I do not know whether you have had yours, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] You certainly have. I know that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has had his. I encourage everybody to get it.
May I start by joining the Prime Minister in his remarks about yesterday’s day of reflection for the 126,000 people who lost their lives to covid? That is a shocking number, and behind every one of those numbers is a grieving family. As soon as restrictions lift, there must be a full public inquiry, because that is the only way we can get to the bottom of the many mistakes that were made during the pandemic and find justice for those who have suffered so much.
Why did the Prime Minister promise at the last election that he would
“not be cutting our armed services in any form”?
That was because what we were going to do was actually increase spending on our armed services by the biggest amount since the cold war. We are investing £24 billion in modernising our armed forces, with no redundancies, and keeping our Army at 100,000, if we include the reserves. I must say that I take it slightly amiss from the right hon. and learned Gentleman given that he stood on a manifesto to elect a man who wanted to pull this country out of NATO.
The Prime Minister is fighting the last war. Is he trying to pretend, hidden in that answer, that the Army stands at over 100,000—the number that the Prime Minister just quoted? When the Secretary of State for Defence made his statement to the House on Monday, he was absolutely clear:
“I have therefore taken the decision to reduce the size of the Army…to 72,500 by 2025.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 638.]
Only this Prime Minister could suggest that a reduction from 82,000 to 72,000 is somehow not a cut.
The Prime Minister did not answer my question, which was: why did he make that promise? He said, before the last election—it is all very well him looking up—that
“we will not be cutting our armed services in any form”.
What did he do this week? He cut the British Army by 10,000; he cut the number of tanks; he cut the number of planes for our RAF; and he cut the number of ships for the Royal Navy. I say “he”—the Prime Minister did not have the courage to come to the House himself to say what he was doing. Let me ask the Prime Minister a simple question, going back to that promise before the election: did he ever intend to keep his promise to our armed forces?
Not only did we keep our promise in the manifesto, but we actually increased spending by 14% more than that manifesto commitment. It is frankly satirical to be lectured about the size of the Army when the shadow Foreign Secretary herself wrote only recently that the entire British Army should be turned into a kind of peace corps, and when, as I say, the Leader of the Opposition stood on a manifesto and wanted to elect a leader who wanted to disband the armed services. We are making a massive investment in our defences and in our future. It is wonderful to hear the new spirit of jingo that seems to have enveloped some of those on the Labour Benches—they don’t like it up ’em, Mr Speaker.
Let’s try this for up ’em. The Prime Minister might want to avoid the promises he made, but I have found an interview that he gave during the general election campaign. Here is the headline: “No troop cuts—Tories will maintain size of armed forces”. The article then goes on to quote the Prime Minister: “Boris Johnson has promised that he will not make any new cuts to the armed forces. He also promised”—the Prime Minister might want to listen to this—“to maintain numbers at their current level, including the Army’s 82,000.” Now, I know the Prime Minister has form for making up quotes, but can he tell us whether he thinks the newspapers have somehow misquoted him? Or does he now remember making that promise?
Yes, because there will be no redundancies in our armed forces and, as I said to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, if we include reserves, we are even keeping the Army at 100,000. On top of that, we are doing what is necessary to modernise our armed forces, taking them into the 21st century. We are building more frigates and investing in cyber-warfare. We are doing all the difficult things that Labour shirked during its time in office, including modernising and upgrading our nuclear deterrent, which half the shadow Front-Bench team would like to remove, leaving Britain defenceless internationally.
I have every respect for our reservists, but the Prime Minister is just playing with the numbers. He knows very well that the numbers have been cut. The trouble is that we just cannot trust the Conservatives to protect our armed forces. [Interruption.] Let us look—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, let us look at their most recent manifestos. These are the manifestos that Conservative Members stood on. The 2015 manifesto—[Interruption.]
Order. I am struggling to hear the Leader of the Opposition, and I will hear the Leader of the Opposition. Please, I want respect for the Prime Minister and I expect the same for the Leader of the Opposition.
The 2015 manifesto said:
“We will maintain the size of the regular armed services”.
The 2017 manifesto:
“We will maintain the overall size of the armed forces”.
In 2019, the Prime Minister said that
“we will not be cutting our armed services in any form.”
The truth is that since 2010 our armed forces have been cut by 45,000 and our Army will now be cut to its lowest level in 300 years. Let me remind the Prime Minister and Conservative Members why this matters. Lord Richards, former Chief of the Defence Staff, has warned that with an armed force of this size now
“we almost certainly…would not be able to retake the Falklands…and stop genocides”.
[Interruption.] He says it is rubbish. That is Lord Richards, Prime Minister. After 10 years of Conservative government, is the Prime Minister not ashamed of that?
This Conservative Government are massively proud of the investment that we made in our armed forces which, as I have said, is the biggest uplift since the cold war. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should look at what the NATO Secretary General had to say about our investment, which is absolutely vital for the future success of the alliance and, indeed, for the security of many other countries around the world. It is a £24 billion investment—investment in the future combat air system, the new Army special operations Ranger Regiment, £1.3 billion to upgrade the Challenger main battle tanks, a massive investment in the Typhoon squadrons and so on.
We are investing in the future. Yes, of course, we have had to take some tough decisions, but that is because we believe in our defences and we believe that they should be more than merely symbolic. It is the Labour party that is consistently, historically—it is hilarious to be lectured about the Falklands, Mr Speaker—weak on protecting this country. It was most visible last week during the debate on the integrated review, when it was plain that those on the shadow Front Bench could not even agree to maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent. That is absolutely true, Mr Speaker.
What is weaker than making a promise to our armed forces just before the election, then breaking it and not being prepared to admit it—not having the courage to admit it? There is a pattern here. The Prime Minister promised the NHS that they would have “whatever they need”; now nurses are getting a pay cut. He promised a tax guarantee; now he is putting taxes up for families. He promised that he would not cut the armed forces; now he has done just that. If the Prime Minister is so proud of what he is doing, so determined to push ahead, why does he not at least have the courage to put this cut in the armed forces to a vote in this House?
I am proud of what we are doing to increase spending on the armed forces by the biggest amount since the cold war. The only reason that we can do that is that, under this Conservative Government, we have been running a sound economy. It is also because we believe in defence. We have been getting on with job. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about nurses and investment in the NHS. I am proud of the massive investment that we have made in the NHS. Actually, we have 60,000 more nurses now in training, and we have increased their starting salary by 12.8%. We are getting on with the job of recruiting more police—20,000 more police. I think that we have done 7,000 already, while they are out on the streets at demonstrations, shouting, “Kill the Bill”. That is the difference between his party and my party. We are pro-vax, low tax and, when it comes to defence, we have got your backs.
Order. I genuinely mean this: I do not believe that any Member of Parliament would support that “Kill the Bill”. We are all united in this House in the support and the protection that the police offer us and nobody would shy away from that.
The question, Prime Minister, is why not have the courage to put it to a vote. That question was avoided, Mr Speaker, like all of the questions. We all know why he will not put it to a vote. Let me quote a Conservative MP, the Chair of the Defence Committee, because he recognises—he has experience and respect across the House—that this review means
“dramatic cuts to our troop numbers, tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and more than 100 RAF aircraft”.
He went on to say—this is your MP, Prime Minister—
“cuts that, if tested by a parliamentary vote, I do not believe would pass.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 644-645.]
Those words are not from me, but from the Prime Minister’s own MPs.
I want to turn to another issue that affects thousands of jobs and many communities across the country. Some 5,000 jobs are at risk at Liberty Steel, as well as many more in the supply chain. The UK steel industry is under huge pressure, and the Government’s failure to prioritise British steel in infrastructure projects is costing millions of pounds of investment. Will the Prime Minister now commit to working with us and the trade unions to change this absurd situation, to put British steel first and to do whatever is necessary to protect those jobs?
Just a reminder—I am, of course, happy to co-operate in any way—that the steel output halved under the Labour Government. I share very much the anxiety of families of steelworkers at Liberty Steel. That is why my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has had, I think, three meetings with Liberty Steel in just the last few days to take the question forward and see what we can do. We are actively engaged. We are investing huge sums in modernising British steel, making a commitment to British steel plants and making them more environmentally friendly.
We have a massive opportunity, because this Government are engaged on a £640 billion infrastructure campaign: HS2, the great Dogger Bank wind farm, Hinkley, the Beeching railway reversals. All these things that we are doing across the country will call for millions and millions of tonnes of British steel. Now, thanks to leaving the European Union, we have an opportunity to direct that procurement at British firms in the way that we would want to, whereas I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would like nothing more than to take this country back into the European Union and remove that opportunity for British steel and British steelworkers.
Yes; my message is just to thank them for what they have put up with and to say that I am sorry about how difficult it has been for their generation. I do not think there is any group of young people who have been put through so much and who have had to sacrifice so much in our lifetimes. We owe it to them to repair their education and get them into work as fast as we possibly can. That is why we have set out the £2 billion kickstart fund and many other schemes that I hope will be useful to my hon. Friend’s constituents.
Yesterday, my brilliant colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), made his final speech to this Parliament. He is standing for the Scottish Parliament and is doing the right thing by stepping down as an MP. By doing the right thing, he will avoid a dual mandate and a separate by-election that would cost the public £175,000. The Scottish Tory leader in Westminster is also seeking a place in the Scottish Parliament, but he is refusing to step down as an MP. As his boss, will the Prime Minister order the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) to resign his seat, avoid a dual mandate and save the taxpayer £175,000—or are dual mandates one more Tory policy where they think greed is good?
My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is doing an excellent job of holding the Scottish National party to account for their manifold failings, not least on education—failing to deliver on crime and failing, in my view, to deliver for the people of Scotland, so caught up as they are in their desire for independence and another referendum for separation. I am amazed that the right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned that so far, but perhaps he will now.
[Inaudible] simply yet again a Prime Minister failing to answer a question and that charge that “greed is good” in Tory policies.
We know that Tory leaders in Scotland have a habit of dodging democracy. Baroness Davidson is fleeing the House of Lords and the current Tory leader is too feart to stand in a constituency. No wonder this morning’s Daily Record declared that the Scottish Tories have
“exposed themselves as shameless…nasty”
and just “plain daft”. It also says:
“They are led by…a man so devoid of imagination that when asked what he would do if he was prime minister for a day, replied: ‘I would like to see tougher enforcement against Gypsy travellers.’”
Does the Prime Minister really have confidence in a Scottish Tory leader who does not even have the courage to put himself before the voters in a Scottish constituency?
Of course. The right hon. Gentleman represents a party that is so devoid of imagination that they cannot come up with any workable solutions to help the people of Scotland improve their education, improve the fight against crime, or cut taxes in Scotland, where they are the highest in the whole of the UK. They are so devoid of imagination that they are a one-track record—all they can talk about is a referendum to break up the United Kingdom. That is their song. I am amazed, actually, that it is twice he has not mentioned it—maybe he is getting nervous of singing that particular song. It is rather curious. He is not coming back now, is he, but next week, or after Easter, let us see if he mentions it again.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a passionate and successful advocate for her constituents and for steelmaking in this country, in which this Government passionately believe. That is why, as I said to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), we are supporting the UK steel industry with more than £500 million of relief, and also with huge investments to make our steelmaking greener and more competitive. We will do everything we can to ensure that we continue with British jobs in producing British steel with the infrastructure investments that I have mentioned and directing procurement at British jobs in the way that we now can.
The Prime Minister talks about restoring freedoms as we emerge from the lockdown, yet he is pushing a Bill that will restrict one of our most fundamental freedoms—the right to peaceful protest and peaceful assembly—and tomorrow he is asking for another blank cheque to restrict everyone’s freedoms until September, even though we now know that the vast bulk of the Coronavirus Act 2020 is not needed to tackle the pandemic. So will the Prime Minister, for once, match his actions to his words, drop these draconian laws, and instead publish a road map to revive civil liberties and freedoms in our country?
I sympathise very much with the right hon. Gentleman’s desire to see freedoms restored, and I want to do that as fast as we possibly can. That is why we have set out the cautious but, we hope, irreversible road map that we have, which I hope he supports—and I hope the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras also supports, although you can never tell. What we also want to do is make sure that we are able to deal with the very considerable backlog that we have faced because of the pandemic: making sure that we have powers still to accelerate court procedures with Zoom courts; making sure that we allow volunteers to continue to help in the NHS and retired staff to come back to the colours; and making sure that we have powers that are necessary in education. It is important to be able to continue with those special measures for the months ahead, and that is why we have set out the Bill as we have.
I certainly understand my hon. Friend’s strong feelings on this issue, and her campaign is shared by many Members across the House. That is why we launched the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, which has made quite fast progress. Yes, we do want to learn the lessons. Yes, we do want to make sure that the right people are held to account for what happened and that the Post Office never repeats a mistake like this.
I knew it would n0t be long—there they are! There are a couple of reasons. First of all, senior members of the hon. Member’s party said that it was a “once in a generation” event in 2014. I think that that point of view is shared across the House, and quite rightly. The other reason, which is absolutely plain to people in this country, is that we are all trying to build back better and get out of a pandemic. That is the priority for the British people—it is the priority for the whole country —and I think people are, frankly, amazed to hear the Scottish nationalist party still, in these circumstances, banging on about their constitutional obsessions.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for raising this important question and for championing research into motor neurone disease, and I thank him also for raising the excellent work of the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation. We have spent £54 million in the last five years towards this cause, and we are looking at ways significantly to boost the research that we are supporting.
I want to say to the hon. Gentleman that I know that the whole House shares my sympathies and my sorrow for his loss, and we sympathise also with his entire family. I know that his experience is one, as he rightly said, that has been shared by far too many families up and down the country. That is why, as soon as it is right to do so, as soon as it would not be an irresponsible diversion of the energies of the key officials involved, we are of course committed to an inquiry, to learn the lessons, to make sure that something like this can never happen again.
Can I just try and push us through to get through the list?
I hope very much that the Football Association will have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said and that they will do what they can. I look forward to 17 May, when spectators, according to the road map, may return.
I am very happy to do whatever we can to meet the hon. Gentleman and take the matter forward, but the Dutch Government, I am told, have confirmed they will allow the continued supply of Bedrocan oil against UK prescriptions until at least the summer—
Until July, as the hon. Gentleman says. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is working to find a permanent solution and I have no doubt that he will be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.
Given the past 12 months I, like many others, would not want the job of Prime Minister, even for all the tea in China. However, the job does give opportunities to directly improve the lives of people who are very, very sick. March is Brain Tumour Awareness Month and over 100,000 people have signed a Brain Tumour Research petition calling for the Government to match brain tumour research funding with that for other devastating cancers. We know from covid that properly funded research really can bring improved care, treatment and a cure. Will my friend the Prime Minister meet me to receive the petition, when it is safe to do so?
Yes, indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he is doing to champion research into brain cancer. I know, from activists in my constituency, where Centre of Hope runs the Hillingdon brain tumour and injury group, how vital it is, because too often people do not appreciate the number of people who are the victims of brain tumours. We have put another £40 million into brain tumour research and we are certainly going to put more. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising the case. My deepest sympathies are with Danielle and her family. I will make sure that the relevant Health Minister meets her to discuss the case as fast as possible.
Forty years on from my predecessor Dame Peggy Fenner’s opposition to the closure of Chatham dockyard, with the loss of thousands of jobs, I am now opposing the closure of what today is Chatham docks, with the loss of over 1,000 skilled jobs. Closing this regionally important asset, home to successful maritime and construction businesses—all growing, in spite of covid—to make way for flats represents short-term profit for the landowner at the expense of long-term economic and environmental benefit. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me, local councillors and the “Save Chatham Docks” campaign that coastal infrastructure plays a significant role in the growth of our local economies, creating jobs and clean maritime technology that contributes to our net zero ambition?
Yes. One of the reasons we put £24 billion into defence alone is that it drives 400,000 jobs around the country, including the building of new frigates and new ships of all kinds. I hope very much that Chatham will benefit from the £100 million funding we put in on 24 December to rejuvenate coastal towns. The planning issue my hon. Friend raises is a matter for the local council, but I do hope a solution can be found that gives the benefits that she describes for the local community.
In addition to the £3.5 billion of investment that we have provided to remediate the cladding and the £1.6 billion that we have already done, we are providing a new scheme for leaseholders in the lower-risk buildings of, I think, the kind that the hon. Gentleman is describing, to pay for unsafe remediation over the long term. There will also be a new levy and tax on developers, so that they also contribute to the remediation costs.
Before the Prime Minister became Prime Minister, we had a discussion to do with the prescribed medical use of cannabis, and how it was helping to save really seriously ill children—not hundreds or thousands, but about 150. We changed the law in November 2018 to make it legal for those prescriptions to be written by top consultants. Today, we have three children who have it free on the NHS, and about 150 children whose families have to beg and borrow and remortgage their homes so that they can pay about £2,000 a month. I say to the Prime Minister that this is wrong. As a father, like I am, we would do everything possible for our families, and these families are doing everything possible for their children. Can we have a follow-up meeting to the one in 2018, where I will bring one of the mothers who gets it free—not to stop her getting it free, but to explain to the Prime Minister how wrong it is that children’s lives are going to be lost if we have to go through the process that the NHS is proposing?
This is the second time I have been asked about this; I thank my right hon. Friend very much, and he is right to raise it. We will make sure that we have a proper meeting with the Department of Health so that we can resolve the issue of how to make sure that the supply of the Bedrocan or the cannabis-based products that are coming from Holland can be made secure, and can continue.
I am very happy to make that commitment.
To paraphrase the late, great, much missed Eric Forth, I believe in individual freedoms and individual responsibility. I believe that individuals make better decisions for themselves, their families and their communities than the state makes for them. I loathe the nanny state, and I believe in cutting taxes. Prime Minister, am I still a Conservative?
Not only was this the first Government to create a Veterans Minister specifically with a charge of looking after veterans, and not only have we invested in them, but we have taken steps to protect our armed services veterans from vexatious litigation, pursued by lefty lawyers of a kind sitting not a million miles away from me today, who pursue them long after they have served Queen and country and when no new evidence has been provided. We tried to protect them, we have protected them and the Labour party voted against it.
The Prime Minister has always enjoyed his visits to my constituency of North West Leicestershire, whether it is Ashby-de-la-Zouch on the eve of the historic referendum or Castle Rock School, Coalville last August. He will therefore be pleased, but not surprised, that Leicestershire County Council for the last three years has been the most productive county authority in the country, despite also being the lowest funded. Can my right hon. Friend assure all the residents of Leicestershire that our Conservative-controlled county council will imminently benefit from fairer funding and the Government’s levelling-up agenda so that it can continue to deliver excellent public services?
Yes. I thank Leicestershire County Council for the way it is conducting itself and for delivering value for money. That is what the elections that are coming up in May are all going to be about, and invariably these Conservatives deliver better value, deliver better services and lower taxes. That is what Leicestershire County Council has done, and I congratulate it on it. I fully agree with what my hon. Friend has said.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, in Ogmore and across Wales, the people of Wales and the Welsh Government will receive an additional £5.2 billion of resource funding, on top of the spring Budget funding of 2020-21; £800 million of the levelling up fund is going to the devolved nations; and each local authority in Wales—each local authority in Wales—will receive £125,000 in capacity funding. I look forward to working with him and with Welsh local government to deliver those improvements.
That was the final question, and I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements before we start the next business.
New Plan for Immigration
I wish to make a statement on our new plan for immigration. The Government have taken back control of legal immigration by ending free movement and introducing a points-based immigration system. We are now addressing the challenge of illegal migration head-on.
I am introducing the most significant overhaul of our asylum system in decades—a new, comprehensive, fair but firm long-term plan—because while people are dying we have a responsibility to act. People are dying at sea, in lorries and in shipping containers, having put their lives into the hands of criminal gangs that facilitate illegal journeys to the UK. To stop the deaths, we must stop the trade in people that causes them.
Our society is enriched by legal immigration. We celebrate those who have come to the UK lawfully and have helped to build Britain. We always will. Since 2015, we have resettled almost 25,000 men, women and children seeking refuge from persecution across the world—more than any other EU country. We have welcomed more than 29,000 close relatives through refugee family reunion and created a pathway to citizenship to enable over 5 million people in Hong Kong to come to the UK. Nobody can say that the British public are not fair or generous when it comes to helping those in need, but the British public also recognise that for too long parts of the immigration system have been open to abuse.
At the heart of our new plan for immigration is a simple principle: fairness. Access to the UK’s asylum system should be based on need, not the ability to pay people smugglers. If someone enters the UK illegally from a safe country such as France, where they should and could have claimed asylum, they are not seeking refuge from persecution, as is the intended purpose of the asylum system; instead, they are choosing the UK as their preferred destination and they are doing so at the expense of those with nowhere else to go.
Our system is collapsing under the pressures of parallel illegal routes to asylum, facilitated by criminal smugglers. The existence of parallel routes is deeply unfair, advantaging those with the means to pay smugglers over those in desperate need. The capacity of our asylum system is not unlimited, so the presence of economic migrants, which these illegal routes introduce, limit our ability to properly support others in genuine need of protection. This is manifestly unfair to those desperately waiting to be resettled in the UK. It is not fair to the British people either, whose taxes pay for vital public services and for an asylum system that has skyrocketed in cost—it is costing over £1 billion this year.
There were more than 32,000 attempts to enter the UK illegally in 2019, with 8,500 people arriving by small boat in 2020. Of those, 87% were men and 74% were aged between 18 and 39. We should ask ourselves: where are the vulnerable women and children that this system should exist to protect? The system is becoming overwhelmed: 109,000 claims are sitting in the asylum queue. Some 52,000 are awaiting an initial asylum decision, with almost three quarters of those waiting a year or more. Some 42,000 failed asylum seekers have not left the country, despite having had their claim refused.
The persistent failure to enforce our laws and immigration rules, with a system that is open to gaming by economic migrants and exploitation by criminals, is eroding public trust and disadvantaging vulnerable people who need our help. That is why our new plan for immigration is driven by three fair but firm objectives: first, to increase the fairness of our system, so we can protect and support those in genuine need of asylum; secondly, to deter illegal entry into the UK, breaking the business model of people smugglers and protecting the lives of those they endanger; and, thirdly, to remove more easily from the UK those with no right to be here. Let me take each in turn.
First, we will continue to provide safe refuge to those in need, strengthening support for those arriving through safe and legal routes. People coming to the UK through resettlement routes will be granted indefinite leave to remain. They will receive more support to learn English, find work and integrate. I will also act to help those who have suffered injustices by amending British nationality law, so that members of the Windrush generation will be able to obtain British citizenship more easily.
Secondly, this plan marks a step change in our approach as we toughen our stance to deter illegal entry and the criminals who endanger life by enabling it. To get to the UK, many illegal arrivals have travelled through a safe country such as France, where they could and should have claimed asylum. We must act to reduce the pull factors of our system and disincentivise illegal entry. For the first time, whether people enter the UK legally or illegally will have an impact on how their asylum claim progresses and on their status in the UK if that claim is successful. We will deem their claim as inadmissible and make every effort to remove those who enter the UK illegally having travelled through a safe country first in which they could and should have claimed asylum. Only where removal is not possible will those who have successful claims, having entered illegally, receive a new temporary protection status. This is not an automatic right to settle—they will be regularly reassessed for removal —and will include limited access to benefits and limited family reunion rights. Our tough new stance will also include: new maximum life sentences for people smugglers and facilitators; new rules to stop unscrupulous people posing as children; and strengthening enforcement powers for Border Force.
Thirdly, we will seek to rapidly remove those with no right to be here in the UK, establishing a fast-track appeals process, streamlining the appeals system and making quicker removal decisions for failed asylum seekers and dangerous foreign criminals. We will tackle the practice of meritless claims that clog up the courts with last-minute claims and appeals—a fundamental unfairness that lawyers tell me frustrates them, too—because for too long, our justice system has been gamed. Almost three quarters of migrants in detention raised last-minute, new claims, or challenges or other issues, with over eight in 10 of these eventually being denied as valid reasons to stay in the UK. Enough is enough. Our new plan sets out a one-stop process to require all claims to be made upfront—no more endless, meritless claims to frustrate removal; no more stalling justice. Our new system will be faster and fairer and will help us better support the most vulnerable.
Our new plan builds on the work already done to take back control of our borders, building a system that upholds our reputation as a country where criminality is not rewarded, but which is a haven for those in need. There are no quick fixes or shortcuts to success, but this long-term plan, pursued doggedly, will fix our broken system.
We know that Members of the Opposition would prefer a different plan—one that embraces the idea of open borders. Many of them were reluctant to end free movement, with Members opposite on record as having said that all immigration controls are racist or sexist. And to those who say we lack compassion, I simply say that while people are dying, we must act to deter these journeys, and if they do not like our plan, where is theirs?
This Government promised to take a common-sense approach to controlling immigration, legal and illegal, and we will deliver on that promise. The UK is playing its part to tackle the inhumanity of illegal migration and, today, I will press for global action at the G6. I commend this statement to the House.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for her statement and for advance sight of it. She said in her statement that the asylum system is broken, and she talked about a persistent failure of the rules. They are stark admissions for a Conservative Home Secretary whose party has been in power for 11 years.
The truth is, we have seen Conservative failure across the board. The Home Secretary mentioned the Windrush generation, while this Government presides over a compensation scheme that their own figures show has helped only 338 people. Then there is the asylum processing system, which is appallingly slow. The share of applications that received an initial decision within six months fell from 87% in 2014 to just 20% in 2019. There is no point blaming others. This is the fault of Conservative Ministers and a failure of leadership at the Home Office, and there has not been the progress we need on the promised agreement with France on dealing with appalling criminal gangs and rises in the horrific crime of human trafficking.
Yes, the Government policy is defined by a lack of compassion and a lack of competence, and I am afraid that the plans outlined by the Government today look like they are going to continue in exactly the same vein. No wonder the plans outlined have been described as “inhumane” by the British Red Cross. They risk baking into the UK system the callousness, frankly, of this Government’s approach. No wonder, either, that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concerns about the Government’s understanding of international law. The Home Secretary spoke today about the importance of safe and legal routes, yet the resettlement scheme was suspended, and the Dubs scheme was shamefully closed down after accepting just 480 unaccompanied children rather than the 3,000 expected. [Interruption.] The Immigration Minister, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), continues to shout at me; he cannot hide from the Government’s record of the last 11 years. And the Government looked the other way last summer; rather than help children stuck in the burning refugee camp of Lesbos, they turned the other way.
At the same time, these changes risk making the situation even worse for victims of human trafficking, as it would be even harder to access help in the UK, helping criminal gangs escape justice. Ministers have abolished the Department for International Development, the very Department that helped address the forces that drive people from their homes in the first place—war, poverty and persecution.
Not only are Government plans lacking in compassion, but the Government do not even have the competence to explain how their plans would work. A central part of the measures briefed out by the Government relies on new international agreements, yet the Home Secretary could not mention one of those agreements that have been concluded this morning. Sources close to the Home Secretary have briefed out ridiculous, inhumane schemes such as processing people on Ascension Island, over 4,000 miles away, and wave machines in the English channel to drive back boats. When the Government recently briefed out plans for Gibraltar and the Isle of Man, they were dismissed within hours.
The proposals also show that the Government have not woken up to the urgent need to protect the UK against the pandemic and support our health and social care system to rebuild. We have heard the Prime Minister this week be dangerously complacent about a third wave of covid from Europe, and the threat of new variants continues to grow, yet none of the UK Government plans includes measures desperately required to protect the UK. We need world-leading border protections against covid, including a comprehensive hotel quarantine system, yet throughout this pandemic the Government have done too little, too late. The proposals do nothing to address the recruitment crisis in the health and social care system, where urgent changes are needed to help recruit the medical and social care staff to deal with covid and NHS waiting lists.
The reality is that the measures outlined today will do next to nothing to stop people making dangerous crossings, and they risk withdrawing support from desperate people. The Conservatives have undoubtedly broken the immigration system over the last 11 years, but the reality today is that they have absolutely no idea how to fix it.
First, let me take the right hon. Gentleman’s distasteful comparisons to Windrush head-on. Members of the Windrush generation came to the UK lawfully to help rebuild Britain, and they were wronged by successive Governments, including Labour Governments. It is simply insulting to attempt to draw parallels between them and those entering our country unlawfully.
Not only are this Government ensuring that Windrush victims receive compensation—the compensation that they deserve—but today I am announcing new measures to fix historical anomalies in British nationality law to ensure that members of the Windrush generation can receive British citizenship more easily. That is a Conservative Home Secretary, and a Conservative Prime Minister and Government, righting these wrongs. As I have set out previously in the House, the Home Office is absolutely committed to supporting victims of the Windrush generation, and that is why today I have launched the biggest and most wide-ranging consultation when it comes to this new plan for immigration.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman commented on the record of Conservatives in government, so let me just set out some facts for him. From the expulsion of Ugandan Asians, such as my own family members, from a repressive regime; to proudly resettling more refugees than any other EU country, as he heard me say in my statement; to supporting campaigners fleeing political persecution in Hong Kong—that is the record of Conservatives when it comes to humanitarianism. Under the Conservative leadership of this Government, the United Kingdom will always provide sanctuary to people who are having the light switched off on their own liberty and personal freedoms, and this new plan will build on that.
Thirdly, I am quite astonished by the tone of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, repeatedly suggesting that we just turn a blind eye to people attempting to come into our country illegally—people being smuggled in small boats and in the back of lorries. He will well know that we in this House have stood too often to hear about the tragedy of people who have died, whether in the channel or the back of refrigerated lorries. I will not apologise for being abundantly clear that an illegal journey to the UK is not worth the risk. That is what this plan is about: tackling illegal migration, protecting lives, and, of course, alongside that creating new routes.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman accuses me and the Government of lacking compassion. He accuses me of taking an inhumane approach. I suggest politely to him that he should not resort to personal attacks of that nature. I, and my own family in particular, understand what oppression is like and, after fleeing persecution, sought refuge in the United Kingdom, just like millions of others who have successfully rebuilt their lives. That lack of substance is not surprising, because the Labour party has no plans to fix the broken system. In fact, I understand that last night, the Labour party’s response to my plan was very much to look at my plan. As long as Labour Members are devoid of a plan of substance, they are defending a broken system that is encouraging illegal migration and supporting criminality. They are defending a system that is enabling an established criminal trade in asylum seekers, and causing human misery. It is a system that disregards the world’s most vulnerable, elbowing women and children to the side. It is a system that all too often, as I have seen, results in the tragic loss of life.
A family of five drowned on their way to this country—our country—only last year; in 2019, 39 victims were found dead in Purfleet in the back of a refrigerated lorry. That is inhumane. If the right hon. Gentleman and the Labour party are prepared to be associated with that criminal trade in asylum seeking and human misery, he is the one who lacks compassion. That is not a position that we will take, and I will not be complicit in defending the indefensible on that basis.
Finally, it is extraordinary to hear lectures about our border from the right hon. Gentleman and the Labour party, when it is still official Labour party policy to maintain and extend free movement rights, as per its party conference motion. In effect, that is to have open borders. We are the only party that is prepared to tackle illegal migration, show compassion to those who have been trafficked in the world, and create safe and legal routes, so that we help to save lives.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement because, just like my constituents, I am angry at the images we are seeing of small boats coming into the channel, and the skyrocketing costs of our asylum system—resources that could be used to tackle inequalities in areas such as the “lost city” in Tipton, and give kids on that estate the chances to succeed. The broader issue is this: our European neighbours need to step up. It is as simple as that. Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton, who have put their faith in her, that she will continue to make the point to our European neighbours that they have got to step up? It is not fair on the United Kingdom to take the lion’s share of protecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are a compassionate nation, and we stand by everything we do when it comes to providing humanity and protection to individuals who are being persecuted. He has made the point incredibly well on behalf of his constituents, and we will continue—as I will today with the G6, our international counterparts, and across European Union member states—to say that they also need to do more. Until they do, people will continue to die. We all have this collective responsibility.
There is so much wrong with these proposals that distilling it into two minutes is impossible. What person and what Government with an ounce of compassion or respect for international law would even consider casting vulnerable people off to an island using an offshoring system that, in Australia’s case, has been described by the UN as an affront to “common decency”? Who, with any regard to the rule of law, would limit the right to appeal? The high success rate of asylum appeals clearly shows that the Home Office is getting these decisions wrong too often.
Are we or are we not still a signatory to the UN refugee convention? Is the Home Secretary aware of article 31, which prohibits penalising someone for the way in which they reached a country or, for that matter, arriving so-called illegally? Does she know that nowhere in there does it say that someone cannot transit through another country to get here? That was never the intention of the convention, and to say it is is simply untrue. Does she remember that Nicholas Winton—rightly hailed as a hero for rescuing hundreds of children from Nazi refugee camps—was reported to have forged documents because the Home Office was too slow? Those children would today be classed as illegal and he would be a criminal, but he was a hero, because he recognised that desperate people have no choice, and the same is true today for many who reach our shores.
The Home Secretary should be ashamed to make this statement today. There is nothing pretty about this—it is ugly dog-whistle politics, and I can tell her that the SNP wants no part in it. More importantly, Scotland will not live with the associated shame of this. Scotland recognises its international and moral obligations, but we also recognise that we are prevented by the UK Government from living up to them. I despair for those having to live under this toxic environment, and I will always offer my solidarity, but I will also work even harder to ensure that Scotland votes yes to independence, so that we at least can continue to treat vulnerable people with compassion and dignity.
First, I refer the hon. Lady to my statement. If she had bothered to listen to it, she would have heard a compelling case for stopping people trafficking, stopping illegal migration and creating safe and legal routes—something that I would have thought she would warmly welcome.
Secondly, it seems to me that the nationalist party in Scotland needs to do much more to walk the talk when it comes to resettling refugees and working with the Government to house individuals who are fleeing persecution. Sadly, that work is not taking place—[Interruption.] I can see that the hon. Lady is making some gestures towards me. If she would like to come into the Home Office and have discussions about resettlement schemes and routes in constituencies, I would be more than happy to look at that. Our Ministers would be delighted to welcome her into the Department for that conversation.
Finally, the hon. Lady speaks about our plans not being in line with the refugee convention. Again, I would like to correct her. Our new plan for immigration is in line with our international obligations, including the refugee convention. She will know that the refugee convention does allow for differentiated treatment where, for example—[Interruption.] she can shake her head, but perhaps she would like to listen—refugees have not come directly from a country of persecution.
I welcome particularly what my right hon. Friend is proposing to deal with people smuggling, but this is a bigger problem than simply the EU. Council of Europe members are dealing with this right across the Mediterranean and from the middle east. Will she join me in sharing her approach with members of the Council of Europe as an example of what can be done?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I commend him for the work that he has been doing with the Council of Europe. In the past, we have had many conversations about this issue and about people, ways of working and upstream issues around illegal migration. He is right to highlight the issue around the Mediterranean. Too many people have died, tragically, under the most appalling circumstances. I would be more than happy to work with him on how we pursue this further.
Safe Passage reports increasingly long waits for child and teen refugees in camps in Greece and elsewhere to be able to reunite with family in the UK who could care for them since the Dublin and Dubs schemes were ended. Ministers promised us that they would put in place safe legal routes in replacement, but they have not done so, and things are not working. Talking about safe legal routes is not good enough if they do not materialise in practice. Does the Home Secretary not accept that, especially when it comes to vulnerable children and teenagers, a lack of safe legal routes to rejoin family will drive more of them into the arms of dangerous people traffickers and make the situation much worse?
If the right hon. Lady had heard my statement, she would have heard some figures about those who are being trafficked right now. They are predominantly single men. She makes a very valid and important point, which supports the case for safe and legal routes, around children in particular. This is not just about camps in Greece, and let us not forget, of course, that we have been in a pandemic, which is part of the reason, as the right hon. Lady knows—we have discussed it at the Home Affairs Committee—and as many hon. Members know, having been reminded of it again and again and again, the Government are absolutely committed, as the record shows, to resettling children, and to family reunion rights.
That is absolutely right, and we are doing that. We are committed to that, but through safe and legal routes. We need to create new routes, and not just from the camps in Greece. The right hon. Lady will know as well—I have been to many myself—that within regions, where there are wars and conflict, we need to create safe and legal routes, and not just from the Mediterranean. Too many people have been smuggled to that Mediterranean route. We need to do much more in-country, and in some of those terrible zones. I hope that she would support this work on that basis.
As my right hon. Friend is aware, many asylum seekers are being housed in hotels in central London, and many hundreds in my constituency. Will she assure me that today’s announcement will speed up the asylum process, that those who are successful will be resettled and those who are not will be quickly returned, and that we can get the numbers in hotels down to zero?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She is well versed in this, in fact, and I thank her for the way she has worked with Ministers, and with me and the Home Office, on this issue of accommodation in her constituency. She and other Members will know that the hotel policy is very much linked to the pandemic, because we have not been able to utilise regular accommodation and dispersal accommodation, and so, along with contingency, we have been using hotels.
There is another point to make here, which is about the processes that we have to look at cases. We are going to change the end-to-end system. There is a reform package in place, including digitalisation of caseworking, faster assessments, and all sorts of work on that basis, so I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.
Can the Home Secretary tell us when the first refugees will be allowed to enter the UK under her new scheme, and how many will be settled each year?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that today’s paper, the new immigration plan, is a consultation document. It is a Command Paper, so we are consulting and we will work with everybody who wants to work with us constructively on this. It will be subject to new legislation, and he will know the processes, but we as a Government are absolutely committed. We are already in discussion right now with partner organisations that we can work with on safe and legal routes. That is essential, because 80 million people are displaced in the world, seeking refuge. We have a moral responsibility and an obligation to do the right thing and stand by those who are fleeing persecution, while at the same time working not only other with partners but with other countries to ensure that they raise the bar too.
This is a fantastic plan to fix our broken asylum system. The plan prioritises help to those most in need with safe and legal routes. It will stop the deaths in the channel and in lorries of people attempting illegal entry, and deter those who abuse the system and jump the queue, particularly with a new age assessment process. It also introduces new life sentences for the real criminals in all this: the people smugglers. However, my constituents will rightly ask, “When?” Can she outline the timetable for the implementation of the plan, and how they can get involved?
I thank my hon. Friend for his constructive tone and comments. The plan is subject to consultation. It should be a people’s consultation. The British public, with the publication today, should absolutely join the consultation, and I encourage all Members to get their constituents on board. At the end of the consultation, we will obviously draft a Bill and bring it to Parliament for a second session.
The 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 protocol state that anyone seeking asylum should be able to claim in their intended destination or another safe country, but the Government’s new plan discriminates by distinguishing between people fleeing the same persecution based on their route or on their mode of transport. Does the Home Secretary realise that, under the new plan, trafficked women, LGBTQ people, and those fleeing political and religious persecution will be left with limited options? Rather than expanding safe and legal routes, the plan could actually leave more of those seeking family reunion at the mercy of people smugglers. The plan does not meet the needs of the most vulnerable, so can she explain how she reconciles this obvious misrepresentation of our obligations under international law?
First of all, I advise the hon. Lady to actually read the immigration plan, because she will see that it is in line with international obligations, including the refugee convention. Secondly, she has spoken about categories of individuals—people seeking to flee who will be persecuted for who they are and for their values. They will, of course, be covered under our safe and legal routes scheme, so she is completely wrong in her misrepresentations.
My constituents and I in Rother Valley welcome strong action in tackling illegal, dangerous migration. I know that my right hon. Friend and her Department are working tirelessly to bring the criminals facilitating the illegal channel crossings to justice, and to tackle this exploitative crime. Does she agree that there is no justifiable reason for migrants to be making this crossing, and putting themselves and our Border Force in danger, when staying in France remains a perfectly safe and right option for them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I thank him for his question. People should claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in. That is the point that we are making again and again. They are currently in the hands of people traffickers and smugglers, and are, quite frankly, being duped into false promises and false hope. There is no doubt whatever that we will be working with our counterparts—I have already mentioned the G6—to pursue this with greater vigour. The principle that my hon. Friend raises is fundamentally correct.
This cynical announcement is built on the availability of safe and legal routes. This morning, the Home Secretary claimed, “We have safe and legal routes, and we have a programme called the Syrian refugee resettlement scheme”. But she will know that the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme actually finished at the end of February, as its quota was filled. There are no details of how the new UK resettlement scheme will work, so could the Home Secretary tell us how many people it will take, explain how it will operate and outline, for example, the process available to a refugee from what is currently the world’s worst conflict, in Yemen?
I will not take any lectures from hon. Gentleman about resettlement schemes, when this Government have successfully resettled 25,000 people through that resettlement scheme—[Interruption.] He shakes his head, but it is true. I have made it quite clear that we are in discussion with partner agencies already. That work is under way. He can shake his head and be as dismissive as he chooses to be, but if he bothered to read the new immigration plan, he would see the details of exactly how we will start to introduce new safe and legal routes through legislation.
Yarl’s Wood detention centre in my constituency was set up under a Labour Government in 2001, and is a manifestation of the historical weaknesses of our immigration processes and, in particular, how they have failed women. As my right hon. Friend knows, women asylum seekers are more likely to be individually targeted as victims of gender-based violence, forced marriage—sometimes to very powerful people—or rape as an instrument of war. Will my right hon. Friend please assure me that her reforms will provide a fairer and more effective assessment of such cases?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and this is why we have to fix the system. We are currently not able to safeguard and protect those who absolutely need that help and support. The categories that the plan covers include women—women who have been treated abhorrently, quite frankly, in conflict zones, as well as those who have been trafficked and who have had had the most awful crimes undertaken against them. Some of these women are also used in modern-day slavery; how we protect victims of that is also a feature of the new immigration plan. My hon. Friend is absolutely right and we will definitely be looking at all of that.
Now that the Home Secretary is planning on deporting even more asylum seekers than previously, will she address the lack of transparency in the content and scope of the UK Government’s existing returns and readmission agreements, as well as those under negotiation? Will she give an undertaking to remedy that lack of clarity and to publish the agreements for scrutiny? Will she also confirm that it is not the Government’s intention to send people back to countries where there is a real risk that they will face torture or inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment?
I am always interested in the hon. and learned Lady’s comments, particularly in the light of the way in which she caucuses and campaigns against flight removals, for example, as we have seen previously when we have tried to remove foreign national offenders—some of the most murderous people, with awful criminal records—from our country. Of course I can guarantee that we will not be removing people to the parts of the world to which she has referred, but I would also say that we are clear on the removal processes that we have, the categories of individuals we remove, and the reasons why we remove them from the UK. They are predominantly those who have failed in their claims, but alongside them are many foreign national offenders, who simply should not remain in our country.
May I start by saying that I, along with the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, warmly welcome this new plan to fix our broken system? Currently, the UK is one of the only countries in Europe not to use scientific age assessment to determine a person’s age when they enter the country. I am sure many hon. Friends and Members from across this House will have heard the stories of fully grown adults coming to the UK but claiming asylum as children. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that this statement will solve a very serious safeguarding risk for our young people?
My hon. Friend raises such an important question. It is sobering, because over the years we have seen too many cases of adults posing as children. That is unscrupulous behaviour, and I say that because of the safeguarding risks that my hon. Friend highlights. He is right about the UK being one of the only countries; in Europe, they use scientific age assessment methods to determine a person’s age. Between 2016 and 2020, where age has been disputed and resolved 54% of the people involved were found to be adults, which presents a very serious safeguarding risk to our young people.
This Government have form for lack of compassion towards those who have fled horrors that we can only imagine, from abandoning the Dubs child refugee scheme to the broken system that is leaving asylum seekers in limbo for months, if not possibly years, and their having to go to food banks because even the minimal support they are entitled to often is not arriving. So how can my constituents have any faith in this Government and whether they have one iota of compassion?
As I have said, I am simply not going to take lectures about the lack of compassion from the hon. Lady or the Labour party at all. I have been abundantly clear about the reasons we have to tackle this system. She may be interested to know that there is not a single solution here; this is about end-to-end reform of the system. I know it might be an uncomfortable truth for her, but this does actually mean tackling the backlog of cases, tackling the people smugglers and stopping the criminal trade in human misery. I am only sorry that she cannot see that, because the way in which we demonstrate compassion is by fixing the system and supporting those who are in desperate need to come here.
I welcome the measures my right hon. Friend has laid out today, which will be warmly welcomed by my constituents, who just want to see a fairer system, both for people in genuine need and for UK taxpayers. The most obvious example of that unfairness is the exploitation of people who are paying human traffickers just to be pushed out into the channel in a dinghy, particularly when they are coming from a safe country. Will she confirm that these measures are intended to ensure that these crossings are no longer worth the risk and that she will be t increasing penalties available to law enforcement to be able to tackle people smugglers head on?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; as I have said in my statement, we need to break this trade. That is vital, because people are being used in such an appalling way and human misery is being created. I have outlined already the increases in sentences that we will be looking at—not only sentences for facilitators and people smugglers, but the new powers we will be looking to give Border Force.
Immigration is the most defining issue of a Government’s character: do they reach out to protect the most challenged people on earth or turn in on themselves? When a Government do not secure safe passage for people seeking asylum to come to the UK, criminal gangs will exploit them. Will the Home Secretary update the House on what steps she is taking to ensure that her policy is not just about building higher walls for people to climb over, but opening safer doors for people to walk through?
I suggest that the hon. Lady reads the “New Plan for Immigration”, because it is spelt out in there.
Our present asylum system is a complete joke. Every young man living in misery in a failed state knows that if he manages to reach our shores, the chances of his being deported are virtually zero. There is no point in introducing more and more penalties and laws unless we are prepared to deport people. Is the Home Secretary prepared to do what Prime Minister Abbott of Australia did? He ensured that all arrivals were put in a secure location and left there until their claims were assessed and then either deported or allowed to stay, and there are now no unsafe arrivals in Australia, no deaths and no criminal gangs. That policy works. Is the Home Secretary prepared to be really tough in order to be kind?
As I have outlined already for my right hon. Friend, this proposal is a long-term plan and it needs to be addressed in the component parts that I have outlined. For example, the legal system that we have here, which frustrates deportations and removals, is a very different system from the one in Australia. This is a fair but firm system because we have to be firm in terms of removing those that have exhausted all their rights and should not be here. This equally applies to foreign national offenders, which is part of the reason that I have outlined already in the new immigration plan.
The Home Secretary has spoken of efforts to strike agreements with countries outside Europe, with the intention of returning legitimate asylum seekers simply because of their method of arrival in the UK. It is likely that those countries will be the same ones that we will seek trade deals with in the post-Brexit environment, so will the Home Secretary tell us what discussions she has had with colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department for International Trade about how those third-country agreements will impact on trade negotiations?
Let me assure the hon. Lady that this is not just a Home Office policy. This is a policy across Government. She will already have heard me speak about the Ministry of Justice and resetting the judicial framework, and we will work with the FCDO on removals. That is always something that we have done in the Home Office, and we will continue to work with them when it comes to our bilateral agreements on returns and removals.
Like the overwhelming majority of my North West Durham constituents, I want to see genuine refugees protected with safer legal routes so that we do not see people dying in the channel or in lorries, but my constituents also want to see the vultures—the people smugglers who peddle in human misery and the lawyers who spin out cases at the cost of hundreds of millions of pounds to the tax- payer every year—stopped. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that this plan will help genuine refugees and also take on those who seek to abuse the current system?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When he looks at the new plan, he will see a chapter in the policy paper on the judicial reset that is required when it comes to the immigration tribunal, immigration bail and the appeals process. We will streamline that and we will also deal with the wasted costs that British taxpayers are paying for. We want to use that resource to ensure that the money is going to those who are in need and not just to those who are gaming the system.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. I agree that those seeking asylum must do so in the appropriate way and that those who smuggle illegal immigrants must face the full extent of the justice system. However, I have a concern over the role of children in these situations. A child has no say over whether they are brought over legally or illegally, so will the Home Secretary outline what special circumstances will be in place when it comes to children and minors, who are totally innocent of deceit or of trying to play the system?
The hon. Gentleman makes such an important point about vulnerability, and children in particular. We need to find the right way in which we can safeguard them, and that is exactly the work that we are going to undertake with partner agencies to look at bringing them not just from camps in Europe, because Europe is a safe continent, but in particular from those parts of the world where we are seeing the most appalling levels of conflict, instability and persecution.
I very much welcome the package of measures that my right hon. Friend has brought forward today, particularly the maximum life sentences for people smugglers. So that there can be no wriggle room in the justice system when these abhorrent criminals face justice, will she also look at introducing a very high minimum sentence so that the message goes out loud and clear that this is unacceptable and that those people will face the full force of the law in this country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, because we have to have the right sanctions and deterrents in place so that these people smugglers’ model is broken up. Of course, that will be part of the consultation and I will absolutely work with my hon. Friend and others on the whole proposal.
It is shocking to see some of the overcrowded and squalid accommodation, including in military barracks, that is used to house asylum seekers. Safe accommodation for vulnerable people is critical in any compassionate and effective asylum system, but particularly in the middle of a pandemic. How does the Home Secretary plan, in her reforms, to improve the quality of housing for people seeking asylum?
The hon. Lady will absolutely know that in terms of the contingency accommodation that we have had to use because of the pandemic we have looked at all sorts of options. On accommodation going forward, we use dispersed accommodation, and I come back to the point about working with local authorities, which will be part of our discussions and consultations going forward. It is vital that we grow that footprint and I would be more than happy for the hon. Lady to work with us in coming up with alternative proposals on accommodation.
I warmly welcome the proposals announced today, as will, I know, my constituents and those of the other south- coast constituencies in particular. I especially welcome the distinction between those people who are wealthy enough to pay to be illegally smuggled into this country and those genuine refugees who go through the right processes.
On safe and legal routes, will my right hon. Friend assure me that the successor to Dublin will be at least as generous as Dublin in respect of the relatives it covers, and that the process will be much more speedy in getting people who are deemed to have a place in the UK here as soon as possible? Will she also consider a Dubs II scheme? The Dubs scheme was so successful in rescuing genuine endangered children from danger spots around the world—it worked so well.
I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that further. We need to get this right in terms of safeguarding children, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Not only that, but we need to learn the lessons of previous schemes and look at how we can strengthen some of the aspects around resettlement, for example, that may not have been strong enough. I would be more than happy to have a conversation with my hon. Friend about it.
Instead of taking action to fix a broken and uncaring immigration system, the Government seem intent on abandoning their long-standing humanitarian obligations, including the 1951 UN refugee convention. Does the Home Secretary accept that the Government’s failure to improve the range of safe and legal routes to the UK will in fact push more people into the hands of people traffickers and increase the likelihood of tragedy in the English channel?
I am quite surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s statements and comments, bearing in mind that he has not even had a look at the plan itself—that is quite clear to see—because to do nothing is not an option, because people are dying. The proposals are in line with the refugee convention, within international law and within the ECHR, so I recommend that rather than shaking his head the hon. Gentleman reads the proposals and joins us in wanting to stop illegal people smuggling and to save lives.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s determination to prevent illegal crossings and tackle the scourge of people smuggling. Does she agree that there is no justifiable reason for migrants to cross the channel and put lives at risk when France remains a perfectly safe option for them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is absolutely the point: France and other countries across the EU member states are safe countries. People are not fleeing persecution in those countries and they should and could claim asylum in those countries. That is effectively what we need to work harder to achieve.
In her statement, the Secretary of State said:
“We celebrate those who have come to the UK lawfully and have helped to build Britain.”
Will she assure us that while those people are awaiting the Home Office processing their claims, they are enabled to contribute to the economy of the United Kingdom by working and paying income tax and national insurance, rather than having to subsist on the meagre handouts that barely allow them to eat?
The hon. Lady will be well aware of the rules in place for asylum seekers currently in the UK. If I may say so, I remind the House that we are in a pandemic, so there are restrictions in terms of accommodation, movements and things of that nature. If the hon. Lady would like to be refreshed on those rules, I would be more than happy to drop her a line.
One of the most common things that I hear on the doorsteps in Carshalton and Wallington is frustration about an immigration and asylum system that simply does not work, so I know that people will warmly welcome the firm but fair plan set out by my right hon. Friend. Will she assure me that this plan will both tackle the criminal gangs that exploit vulnerable people and help to reduce the dangerous attempts to cross the channel in small boats, in favour of safe and legal routes?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know he has raised concerns about this issue in the past. We have to break up the criminal trade in human misery. We will continue to do everything possible through the reforms that we are proposing today, which will go to public consultation, and then we want to bring in new legislation to achieve the outcomes that we are outlining.
I have always believed that we have a duty to meet our international obligations in a fair, firm and humanitarian way, but the current system is failing on all three of those. It is important that we draw the distinction between legal migration, refugees, victims of people trafficking, and illegal immigration: they are all very different things. The Home Office has announced plans to introduce tougher age assessments. Can the Home Secretary confirm to the House that these new assessments will be sensitive to disabilities, trauma and medical needs, as well as being carried out with dignity and respect?
The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points about not just age assessments, but the categories of vulnerability that we are speaking about. We are launching a consultation today that he will be aware of, and it is absolutely right that we give all due consideration to the different needs of individuals, as well as the circumstances and the situations that they are fleeing.
Never before have we had a Home Secretary who has shown such determination to finally get a grip of our failed and broken asylum system, and she deserves immense credit for this statement. The residents of Blackpool are sick and tired of the delaying tactics used by left-wing human rights lawyers to prevent the lawful removal of failed asylum seekers. As a nation, we need to do far more to ensure that those who do not have a right to stay in the UK are deported. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that the measures outlined today will help to achieve that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on this. This is a very significant part of the frustrations with the system, and in fact, far too many predecessors in the Home Office have spoken about this as well. The reforms that we are outlining will mean a reset of the judicial frame- work around not just illegal migration, but immigration: courts, bails, tribunals, and legal aid. We absolutely need to grip this and bring about changes that will give justice to individuals who need the protection and support that we want to give them.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement today, and for responding to questions from the 30 Members on the call list. We will now suspend for three minutes for the usual arrangements.
Liverpool City Council
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement about Liverpool City Council.
Merseyside police have been carrying out an investigation involving a significant link with Liverpool City Council. Last year, this led to arrests on suspicion of fraud, bribery, corruption, misconduct in public office and witness intimidation. On 17 December, I informed the House that, additionally, persuasive evidence had been presented to me regarding the council’s planning, highways, regeneration, property management functions and associated audit and governance arrangements.
In light of that evidence, I commissioned Max Caller to conduct a best value inspection of the council. I want to thank Max and his assistant inspectors, Vivienne Geary and Mervyn Greer, for their thorough and evidence-based review. I have today placed a copy of their report in the Library of the House.
The report paints a deeply concerning picture of mismanagement, the breakdown of scrutiny and accountability, and a dysfunctional culture, putting the spending of public funds at risk and undermining the city’s economic development. The report identifies multiple apparent failures by Liverpool City Council in complying with its best value duty. This includes: a failure of proper and due process across planning and regeneration, including a worrying lack of record keeping—indeed, documentation had sometimes been created retrospectively, discarded in skips, or even destroyed—a lack of scrutiny and oversight across highways, including dysfunctional management practices, no coherent business plan, and the awarding of dubious contracts; a failure of proper process relating to property management, including compliance with the council’s own standing orders, leading to a continued failure to correctly value land and assets, meaning that taxpayers frequently lost out. When selling land, the report states that Liverpool City Council’s best interests were not on the agenda. There were also poor governance arrangements for council-operated companies and an overall environment of intimidation, described as one in which
“the only way to survive was to do what was requested without asking too many questions or applying normal professional standards.”
The review finds that there was a fundamental failure by members to understand and appreciate the basic standards governing those in public service and, with no regular ethics or standards committee and no means of monitoring complaints effectively, there was no established way to hold those falling below those acceptable standards to account.
As a whole, the report is unequivocal that Liverpool City Council has failed in numerous respects to comply with its best value duty. It concludes that the council consistently failed to meet its statutory and managerial responsibilities and that the pervasive culture appeared to be “rule avoidance”. It further concludes that changes need to be radical and delivered at pace, and that there was no confidence that the council itself would be able to implement these to any sensible timescale. There may also be further issues of which we are not yet aware, and the report is careful not to speak to matters that might compromise the ongoing police investigation.
I want to underline that the report is not a verdict on all the staff working at Liverpool City Council. In fact, it commends the hard work and dedication of many. The report is also clear that the current chief executive, Tony Reeves, and statutory officers have taken positive remedial steps, and I wish to thank Tony for his dedication and service. Neither does it comment on the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, Mayor Steve Rotheram, or other councils in Merseyside.
Despite the good work undertaken by Mr Reeves, there is a clear picture showing that there has been a serious breakdown of governance at the council. If unchecked, it will allow improper conduct to persist, further undermining public confidence and putting public services at risk. It will damage the city’s ability to attract investment from reputable developers and investors for regeneration, or to take full advantage of new economic opportunities, such as the recent successful application for freeport status.
Expressed in formal terms, I am satisfied that the council is failing to comply with its best value duty. Therefore, I need to consider exercising my powers of intervention to secure compliance with the duty. To that end, in line with the procedures laid down in the Local Government Act 1999, I am writing today to the council asking it to make representations, both on the inspector’s report and on a proposed intervention package. This package is centred on putting in place commissioners, whom I will appoint to exercise certain and limited functions of the council as required for a minimum of three years.
I am also proposing that the council will, under the oversight of the commissioners, prepare and implement an improvement plan. This would require the following provisions: within six months, to approve a suitable officer structure providing sufficient resources to deliver the council’s functions in an effective way, including the improvement plan and its monitoring and reporting; within 12 months, to review and change the council’s constitution; within 24 months, to conduct a review of the roles and case for continuing with each subsidiary company of Liverpool City Council; to create a detailed structure and strategy for the highways function; to establish a plan to deliver an effective file management system; to implement a programme of cultural change, so both members and officers understand their roles, and so that the council’s activities are regulated and governed, and breaches are rectified swiftly; and to require the consent of commissioners before either member or officer level agrees heads of terms for any property transaction and subsequent consent before any legally binding commitment is entered into.
I also propose to direct that prior agreement of commissioners must be obtained to any dismissal or suspension of statutory officers or the assistant director of governance, audit and assurance, or equivalent. Furthermore, any appointments to positions designated as a statutory officer or the head of internal audit must be conducted under the direction of, and to the satisfaction of, the commissioners.
I hope and expect Liverpool City Council to take the lead in this path to improvement. However, given the gravity of the inspection findings, I must consider what would happen if the council fails to deliver the necessary changes at the necessary speed. I am consequently proposing to direct the transfer of all executive functions associated with regeneration, highways and property management at the authority to the commissioners. These are for use should the council not satisfy the commissioners in their improvement processes. As I say, I hope it will not be necessary for the commissioners to use those powers, but they must, in my view, be empowered to do so to deliver the reforms that are required. The commissioners will report to me at six-monthly intervals on progress being made.
The report also considers the impact of the council’s cycle of elections, where every year is an election year, concluding that this system reduces scrutiny and inhibits long-term focus. It recommends that the council should move to “all-out elections”, and for the council’s size to be reconsidered. Accordingly, I am also proposing to use my powers under the Local Government Act 2000 to provide for Liverpool City Council to hold whole-council elections for the first time from 2023. That will be in addition to proposals for a reduced number of councillors, elected on single-member wards, which the report also recommends. I believe it would be preferable to move to a single-member ward system at the earliest available opportunity.
I am now seeking representations from the council on the report and the decisions I am proposing to take by 24 May. The forthcoming elections will proceed as planned, and the Liverpool City Mayor will be elected on 6 May; the cabinet will then have time to provide its views. If I decide to intervene along the lines I have set out today, I will then make the necessary statutory directions under the 1999 Act and appoint the commissioners, and I will update the House on any conclusions in due course.
This is a rare occasion when central intervention is required. In addition to the measures I propose today, the Government will work closely with the political, the business and the cultural leadership of the city and with the wider region, including with Steve Rotheram, the Mayor of the Liverpool city region. We will do all we can to support the city as it recovers from the covid-19 pandemic, and to give confidence to those who want to invest in the city, to contract with the council and to do business in Liverpool.
As the son and grandson of Liverpudlians, I know Liverpool and I appreciate the sense of humour, the loyalty and the warmth of its residents. I also understand the city’s independent spirit, so I am clear that we are embarking on a partnership—to mend a politics that for too long has been rooted in a pervasive and rotten culture.
I am hopeful that this is the start of a new chapter for Liverpool City Council, because in all of this it is the residents of Liverpool who are being let down, whose regeneration is being undermined, whose taxpayers’ money is being wasted and whose city is being besmirched, rather than cited with municipal pride.
Despite the rare cases like Liverpool City Council, as a whole, councils in this country have a good record of transparency, probity, scrutiny and accountability. It is a reputation worth protecting. I will take whatever steps are necessary to uphold the good name of local government and to weed out practices that do it down. I commend this statement to the House.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and the report and, indeed, for his openness with me throughout the process.
This report raises grave and serious concerns about decision making in key functions of Liverpool City Council. All councils are under an obligation to meet their best value duty to ensure value for money at all times. In these respects, Liverpool City Council has been found severely wanting. Labour, both here and our leadership at the city council, accepts this report in full. The council will respond to the letter from the Secretary of State in detail, but we support his intention to appoint commissioners, not at this stage to run the council, as he says, but to advise and support elected representatives in strengthening the council’s systems.
This is a measured and appropriate approach. I want to reassure people in Liverpool that it does not mean that Government Ministers are coming in to run their city directly. This is not, as some would put it, a Tory takeover. It is about the Government appointing independent people of the highest professional standing to help the council improve as quickly as possible, and intervening directly only if the council’s elected leaders fail to implement their own improvement plan.
Investigations are currently under way into matters raised in the report and I will not pre-empt them. I do, however, want to reiterate my party’s absolute commitment to protecting the public interest at all times and upholding the highest possible standards in public life. Given the concerns raised in this report, the general secretary of the Labour party intends to appoint a senior figure to lead a review, and reassure the people of Liverpool that the Labour party takes these concerns seriously and will take action against anyone in our ranks who was involved in wrongdoing of any kind. Our councillors in Liverpool have already met senior Labour councillors from other parts of the country who will support them in strengthening the city council’s defences against any risk of fraud.
The overwhelming majority of councillors and frontline staff will be shocked by what they read in this report. As the report and the Secretary of State have made clear, the severe institutional weaknesses identified do not obscure the outstanding work they have all done together over many years. The Prime Minister was right to praise the council’s impressive work in getting the city through the pandemic, and I want to add my thanks to everyone who continues to play a part in that. In particular, the report praises the council’s chief executive, Mr Tony Reeves, and I offer my support to him and to the acting mayor, Councillor Wendy Simon, for the work they have already started to put things right. I would also like to put on record my thanks to Mr Max Caller and his team for putting this very important report together.
This is a moment for change, and I know that everyone who cares about the great city of Liverpool and its wonderful people will accept this report and use it to strengthen the council for the future.
Can I thank the hon. Gentleman for the remarks he has just made and for the way in which we have worked together over recent months? He has been most helpful and constructive, and I hope that can continue. I thank him on behalf of the Government for the remarks he has made with respect to the Labour party and the Labour group on Liverpool City Council, which are extremely welcome. The step we have taken today is unusual, and it is better to do it in a cross-party way. We all share the same interests, which are the delivery of public services, ensuring that the people of Liverpool get the value for money and the council that they deserve, and ensuring that the city can attract the inward investment, regeneration and good-quality development that it certainly needs and that we want to see delivered as we come out of the pandemic.
The hon. Gentleman was right—I thank him again—to highlight the praise for the chief executive, Tony Reeves, who has done an outstanding job. In my remarks earlier, I praised his conduct and that of the other statutory officers at the council. The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that this report focuses on particular functions of Liverpool City Council and does not comment on the wider delivery of public services in the city by the council. There is no reason to question the delivery of adult services, children’s services or other important functions that people in the city rely on. He is also right to praise the work of many people in Liverpool, including within the city council, in their response to the covid-19 pandemic.
I would underline my remarks once again that this is a report about Liverpool City Council. It is not about the neighbouring councils across Merseyside, and neither is it any reflection on the Mayor of the Liverpool city region, Steve Rotheram, to whom I extend my thanks once again for his co-operation and support. It is right that we take this action, and I hope that we can continue to work together on it. None of us does this lightly. Localism is our objective, but localism does require local accountability, transparency and robust scrutiny, and that I hope is what we can now achieve.
I would just like to say before I call any other Members that, although a number of individuals are under investigation, I understand that there have been no charges. There is therefore no sub judice involved, but I would caution Members not to compromise any of the ongoing investigations in anything they may or may not say.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today and welcome the steps he has outlined in relation to Liverpool City Council. I welcome the steps he is taking to preserve the good name of local government, too. I regularly hear from constituents with concerns about the level of commercial activity that councils are now undertaking. Does he agree with me that some of the transactions are incredibly complicated and well beyond what councils would have traditionally been involved in, and that external audit and public scrutiny need to be reviewed and greatly improved to protect taxpayers’ interests?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We asked a lot of local councils, and we will do so once again as we come out of the pandemic. We want them to be regenerating town and city centres and investing in new housing, but we want them to do so carefully and not to invest in risky investments or transfer toxic assets from the private sector to the public sector. We have taken action as a Government through reforming the Public Works Loan Board. We are providing further guidance to local councils, including through the work of the report we commissioned from Sir Tony Redmond, to ensure that the sector improves the way it handles this situation. The allegations made against Liverpool City Council are of a different magnitude to the ones that we have seen in other parts of the country, so I do not want to draw direct comparisons, but there is more work to be done with some other local authorities as well.
This is clearly a very serious situation. It is obviously a very major step to take powers away from elected representatives, so I really appreciate and accept the proportionate and correct response from the Secretary of State, as well as from the shadow Secretary of State. I also appreciate the Secretary of State’s comments about the many hard-working staff in Liverpool, including the chief executive, who bear no blame for this crisis, and his comments about the generally excellent performance of local government as a whole. The Secretary of State has set out very clearly his list of requirements from the city council and by when he expects them to be met. How will monitoring against these requirements be undertaken and how will Parliament be updated about them? Of course it goes without saying that if there is anything the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee can do to assist in that process, we stand ready to do so.
I am grateful to the Chair of the Committee. I would be happy to work with him should he require any further information or wish to discuss this matter further. If we go ahead with the proposal that I have made today, then the commissioners, once appointed, would report to me on a six-monthly basis and I would be happy to keep the House informed of the information they provide to me. We will ensure that there is an improvement plan in place for the city that is produced by the newly elected Mayor and their cabinet and supported by Liverpool City Council, but advised and guided by the commissioners. Then it will be absolutely essential that that plan is delivered. It will be for all of us in this House, and particularly for those Members of Parliament representing parts of Liverpool, to hold the council to account for the successful delivery of the plan. Our objective is to restore public confidence in the council as quickly as possible so that residents can have confidence that they have a well-functioning council in all respects, and so that all the legitimate businesses, developers and people wishing to contract with the council have complete confidence that Liverpool is a city open for business and they can work to drive up the city’s prosperity as we come out of the pandemic.
I praise both Max Caller, who is a superb inspector, and the Secretary of State’s decision to send in commissioners. Although the problems in Liverpool City Council are far worse, in 2018 Max Caller was sent into Northamptonshire to do a best value inspection, and subsequently the Government sent in commissioners. Since that point, under the leadership of Commissioner Tony McArdle and the new political leadership of Councillor Matt Golby, the situation in Northamptonshire County Council has been transformed and its performance has been raised beyond all expectations. Is it not the case that if councillors and officers in Liverpool City Council respond positively to the challenge set to them by the Government, public services in the city can be raised once again to the standards expected of them?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. My predecessors have used their powers of intervention very sparingly. They have done so on a small number of occasions, in Doncaster, Rotherham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Northamptonshire. Each occasion was very different, but in most of those cases the intervention has proved successful and has turned councils around. The commissioners will behave sensitively, support the elected leadership of Liverpool City Council, and ensure that confidence is restored, public services are delivered properly, and taxpayer money is spent wisely. This now requires leadership from the politicians in Liverpool—those who will be elected in the local council elections to come. I look forward to working with them, and if we do appoint commissioners, I expect the commissioners to work with them constructively and productively at all times.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I will read the report in full today when I receive it. It has been a great honour to work alongside many Liverpool councillors and council staff who worked so tirelessly to protect the people of Liverpool before and during the pandemic and, indeed, who have been recognised for that work in this Chamber. Will the Secretary of State assure my great city and its people that this crucial work, on which so many of our constituents rely, will continue and that these vital services will be both resourced and protected?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. I share his thanks and his praise for many of the staff of Liverpool City Council, and for the good work over the year done by the wider health and social care sector across the region, which the Health Secretary, the Prime Minister and I have praised on many occasions. We want to ensure they continue to have resources, and we want all of government to see this as a moment in which, far from stepping away, we should redouble our efforts to support the city through a potentially difficult period.
I will be convening my Cabinet and ministerial colleagues in the coming days to reiterate that message and to ask them to do even more to support Liverpool. There has been good news in recent weeks, including from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that Liverpool was successful in its application for freeport status. That is just one example of good news and investment that I hope will take the city forward in the years to come.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. It is clear that too many senior people at Liverpool City Council failed that great city during this pandemic, but it is not just Liverpool. Nottingham City Council has given its councillors a bumper pay rise, even after bankrupting the council. Durham County Council, Labour run for 102 years, is spending £50 million-plus on a new county hall on a floodplain and, at the height of the pandemic last year, it approved a new 3,500 square feet roof terrace for itself. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that shows it is not only in Liverpool that the Labour party has its priorities wrong and Labour councillors are putting themselves above the people they serve?
All councils have a fundamental duty to their residents to provide good value for money. At the heart of our decision to intervene in Liverpool, and to commission Max Caller and his report, was persuasive evidence that it was falling below that standard, and that is what Max Caller has indeed concluded today. All councils need to ensure they are providing good-quality public services and are taking care with the money entrusted to them. I hope we can correct the situation in Liverpool, which has now gone on for too long, and that other councils across the country in different situations also take note and take particular care when spending the public’s money.
I also pay tribute to the incredible staff at Liverpool City Council at this very difficult time. I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House today, and I hope he will agree to meet the five Members representing Liverpool at the earliest opportunity.
I, for one, do not doubt the seriousness of the issues that have been raised today, and I look forward to receiving a copy of the Caller report. That public resources have been put at risk is deeply worrying, because resources are needed for investment in the vital services on which my constituents depend, even more so at a time when funding has been cut year on year. Will the Secretary of State take this chance to reassure my wonderful city, and anyone concerned, that commissioners will be totally independent and their focus will be on working in the interests of the people of Liverpool?