House of Commons
Wednesday 20 April 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Before I answer the question, I would like to convey my condolences to the family of Adrian Ismay, the prison officer who sadly died as a result of a terrorist attack in the period since our last Northern Ireland questions. I would like to extend the same condolences to the family of Michael McGibbon, who was brutally murdered in north Belfast, in an attack that has all the hallmarks of a paramilitary assault.
To encourage inward investment in Northern Ireland, the Government have reduced UK corporation tax to the joint lowest in the G20 and legislated to enable the devolution of rate-setting powers to Northern Ireland. Working with the Executive, we are also making progress on the establishment of a new enterprise zone near Coleraine.
I echo the sentiments of condolence expressed by the Secretary of State, and I thank her for her reply. What benefit does she think this inward investment will bring to the local economy of Northern Ireland? In particular, what steps are being taken to ensure that all communities will benefit from it?
There has been significant investment in Northern Ireland in recent years, and it continues to perform beyond many parts of the United Kingdom. Recent good news includes 110 new jobs for Cookstown from CDE; 74 new jobs in Belfast from HighWire Press; and about 70 new jobs in Fermanagh and Omagh. Invest NI reports that it has promoted 37,000 new jobs since 2011 and delivered £2.6 billion of investment to the local economy, benefiting all parts of Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for her answers so far. She will be aware that key Northern Ireland companies such as Allstate and Almac have had to look outside Northern Ireland to recruit suitably skilled staff in recent times. Has she any suggestion as to how we might ensure a suitable supply of potential staff who are skilled up to take advantage of opportunities offered by inward investment?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a skilled workforce is crucial for attracting inward investment. Northern Ireland has an excellent workforce, with many highly-skilled individuals, but there is always more that can be done. The UK Government have invested significantly in apprenticeships, which is reflected in Barnett consequentials to the block grant. I know that apprenticeships are also something the Northern Ireland Executive take very seriously, and they are delivering many of them.
Does the Secretary of State agree that airport connectivity is a vital tool in attracting inward investment? Given that Dublin has announced that it will be increasing its airport capacity by 2020, is it not time Her Majesty’s Government took a decision on airport capacity in the south-east of England?
May I personally thank the Secretary of State for the efforts she made in helping to secure a £67 million contract for the Wrights Group in Ballymena, which was very well received there, and for the work she did behind the scenes in securing that contract? Like me, is she appalled, however, by the scare stories and scare tactics being deployed by the remain campaign, which are turning people away from investment because they are scared of the consequences and all this hate activity that is going on? Will she, like me, ensure that, irrespective of the outcome on 23 June, every effort is made to make sure that moneys released to the United Kingdom will be used to attract inward investment in Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his comments on my role in relation to the Wrightbus contract. I did press Transport for London hard to go through with that contract, because I think it is important for job opportunities in Northern Ireland and so that we can have great buses for my constituents. On his question about the referendum, I think it is important for all sides to address the facts of the debate in a measured way, so that on 23 June the people of this country can make a judgment based on the objective facts of the situation.
The threat level from terrorism in Northern Ireland continues to be severe. Although many attacks are disrupted and prevented, the callous murder of prison officer Adrian Ismay highlights the lethal nature of the continuing threat. The UK Government remain vigilant on combating terrorism, giving our full support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and MI5 in their crucial work to keep people safe in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend will appreciate that that is a Home Office lead, but it is something that I discuss regularly with the Home Secretary, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Ireland Justice Minister and other relevant people. The Government take the matter extremely seriously, as the threat from international terrorism is severe. That is one reason why the strategic defence and security review made such a strong commitment to investing in our intelligence services and counter-terrorism spending, which includes a 30% real terms increase in counter-terrorism spending over the course of this Parliament.
I join the Secretary of State in her words about the killing of Adrian Ismay and also in relation to the brutal slaying of Michael McGibbon, a father of four who was shot on Friday in my constituency. Clearly, that was an atrocious event. Will she join me in commending the courageous words of Mr McGibbon’s widow who has called for people to stand together against these paramilitary terrorists who carried out this atrocious attack? Does she agree that it is vital that we all unite against terrorists from all sides and that we get on with implementing the provisions to tackle paramilitaries in the “Fresh Start” agreement?
I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s statement, Mr McGibbon’s widow is an incredibly brave woman. The circumstances of Mr McGibbon’s death are deeply tragic and heartbreaking. I know that the whole House will feel for his family at this time, and it is utterly unacceptable that, in modern Northern Ireland, there are still people who believe that they can take the law into their own hands and administer this violent, brutal treatment of individuals such as Mr McGibbon. It is utterly unacceptable. I agree with him that everyone in Northern Ireland should join the widow in this case and condemn that horrific and brutal murder.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her answer. Will she also take on board the fact that a number of prominent republicans have been arrested in North Belfast recently, including some out on licence? It is important that she reassures the community that she is keeping under review the terms in which people who are under licence are out on the streets, particularly Sean Kelly, the Shankill bomber. Does she also agree that there is great concern in Northern Ireland about the Attorney General’s decision to order a review into the actions of the Royal Ulster Constabulary when it stopped a terrorist from carrying out a terrorist attack? Will she look carefully at that and speak to colleagues about it?
I agree that it is very important to take seriously revocation of licences. There is a very clear legal framework for doing that. Where there is evidence that a licence should be revoked, it is considered with the greatest seriousness. I also agree that it is vital that we press ahead with full implementation of the “Fresh Start” programme to eliminate the lingering influence of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. The time for those groups has passed. They were never justified under any circumstances and any tolerance of them in Northern Ireland today is to be condemned. In relation to the last point about the public prosecutor’s direction, that is a matter for the independent prosecutors.
The threat level is not as severe as it is in relation to Northern Ireland. It continues to be the case that dissident republican groupings have aspirations to mount attacks in Great Britain, but the indications are that their main focus continues to be Northern Ireland, and the Government will remain vigilant in doing everything they can to protect people, both in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom.
I am deeply sorry that Adrian Ismay became the 31st prison officer to be murdered in Northern Ireland, and I do hope that a memorial garden for prison officers will soon be completed in Northern Ireland. The question I want to ask the Secretary of State follows on from the second question of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). The Secretary of State will know that I have already written to her requesting a meeting to discuss why Sean Kelly’s licence has not been revoked. Gina Murray, a very dignified lady, whose only daughter was murdered in the Shankill Road bombing, wishes to have a meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss the reasons why his licence has not been revoked. Will the Secretary of State consent to that meeting?
I am certainly happy to have that meeting. In terms of timing, we might have to be careful about the interaction with the decision that I might need to make over the coming days and weeks, but I am sure that we can have a meeting on this matter at some stage.
Despite much progress in Northern Ireland, there remains a terrorist threat, as we saw with the shocking murder of prison officer Adrian Ismay, whose funeral the Secretary of State and I attended. I associate myself with the remarks of the Secretary of State and we send our sincere condolences to Adrian Ismay’s family and colleagues. The Secretary of State will also know that there have been explosives found, bomb-making equipment discovered and murders north and south of the border. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether, in her opinion, these individuals are acting alone or as part of a more organised and co-ordinated terror group?
A number of groupings are active in relation to the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. They tend not to be terribly cohesive and are subject to increasing and regular splits. They have connections both north and south of the border and, were it not for the dedication and effectiveness of the PSNI and its partners in MI5 we would see these individuals mounting attacks resulting in tragedies such as that which has befallen the family of Adrian Ismay in such despicable circumstances.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. She will know that in recent days in Northern Ireland there have been two terrible shootings, one with fatal consequences—that of Michael McGibbon. I associate myself with the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and with the words of the widow. Our hearts go out from this House to all the families and those affected. The PSNI says that the attacks have all the hallmarks of paramilitary assaults, so on the streets of this United Kingdom we have shootings and murders linked to paramilitary activity. It is both sickening and totally unacceptable. Will the Secretary of State tell us more about what happened, and what action she, the PSNI and others will take against those who have no respect for human life or the rule of law?
The hon. Gentleman chooses his words correctly; this is absolutely sickening. I feel that this case could be like a number we have seen over recent decades in Northern Ireland and be the point at which people there say that this is completely and utterly unacceptable. The police investigation is progressing, with an individual charged with murder, but it is also imperative, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said, that we implement the “Fresh Start” agreement proposals, including progress on the strategy that the panel is coming up with. We need to ensure that people have the confidence to come forward and give evidence against these individuals. That has been a persistent problem in gaining convictions, as people are afraid to give evidence in such cases. As a society, we need to do all we can to support and encourage people so that they are able to come forward and give evidence to bring these people to justice.
Export Licences: Agricultural Producers
Too often the biggest barrier to exports of agricultural goods are health and inspection regimes in destination countries. One of our main efforts involves trying to develop the market to China and other countries and that is why the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been working closely with Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials and industry to collate information and to address any concerns from destination countries, hopefully cutting out the delays in gaining export health certificates for Northern Ireland suppliers.
Does the Minister agree that although getting an export licence and getting approvals for Northern Ireland food produce already takes too long, the wait for Northern Ireland farmers would become ever longer if we were to leave the European Union and had to renegotiate our trade relationships with some of our nearest neighbours within the European common market?
It is certainly in the interest of Northern Ireland farmers and all farmers across the European Union that they have access to new markets across the rest of the world. That is one reason why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is, as we speak, in Washington lobbying hard for more access for UK farmers to sell their beef into the United States. We should recognise that the United Kingdom can do it, but if we do it alongside the EU in things such as the EU-US trade treaty we will gain more markets for our farmers and they will go from strength to strength.
The Minister will know that one obstacle for the agri-food sector, especially the meat industry, is BSE and swine flu certificates. Will he ensure that his Department works hard with the veterinary division to achieve that? We sometimes put all our eggs in one basket with China, but there are many other countries out there with which we can do business.
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is right. That is why, as I said earlier, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is in America, trying to get the BSE legacy issues removed so that we can access American markets to sell our beef, which will be great for our beef price. We need to learn from the Republic of Ireland, which has managed to forge ahead with milk exports around the world, which is why it has a better milk price than our dairy farmers.
Ministers have regular discussions with the Northern Ireland parties on a range of issues. The Government’s position on the EU referendum is clear: the UK will be stronger, safer and better off remaining in a reformed European Union.
Many of us were interested to see a survey by a highly reputable Northern Ireland business organisation which suggests that 81% of businesses support continuing EU membership. Why does the Secretary of State think she is right on that issue and those businesses are wrong?
The CBI Northern Ireland, 81% of the membership of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, and the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association all believe that remaining in the European Union is good for Northern Ireland business and good for the economy. That is why the Government believe we are better off in.
May I join in the condolences that have been expressed by the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State, and may I add condolences to the family of Sister Clare Theresa Crockett, the nun from Derry who was tragically killed in the earthquake in Ecuador? Has the Minister heard how many of us are so appreciative of the difference that EU membership has made to the border economy and not just to funding in Northern Ireland under programmes, but to funding models? Has he heard others say that that will be dwarfed by the bounty that we will receive as money is redirected to Northern Ireland instead of Brussels? Does he believe there is a crock of gold at the end of the Brexit rainbow?
Northern Ireland benefits extremely well from money that it receives from the European Union. There is no pot of gold at the end of the Brexit rainbow, so I suggest that we get on and focus on what is right for Northern Ireland, which is remaining in the European Union.
If the UK does decide to leave the EU, there will be an annual £9 billion hole in the EU finances. As other eastern bloc nations look to join to get more slices of a diminishing financial cake, what opportunities does the Minister believe Northern Ireland companies would have in those circumstances to export to Europe and beyond?
The first thing we should recognise is that Northern Ireland business does not agree with the hon. Gentleman and believes that it should remain in the European Union. If people voted to leave the European Union, from 24 June Northern Ireland businesses would unfortunately have to deal with instability for the next two years, which would damage their market.
It will not have escaped your gimlet-eyed gaze, Mr Speaker, that those of us on Opposition Front Bench are united on the subject, but for months we have had uncertainty about what will happen to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the tragic event of Brexit. Two Sundays ago Lord Lawson popped up on the “The Andrew Marr Show” to say we would have a border. Leaving aside the irony of that coming from a French resident whose policy was to shadow the Deutschmark, may we have some clarity on what will happen to the border? Are there any revelations that the Minister would care to share with us?
On 24 June the border will still exist. However, if the United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union, it would step outside the customs union, which would inevitably affect trade across that border on which Northern Ireland is significantly dependent, because of more bureaucracy, more checks and a slowdown of trade.
I appreciate that the Secretary of State must feel quite lonely in Belfast these days, given that her views on Europe are not shared by the overwhelming majority of the population of Northern Ireland. Can we get to the bottom of the question of Brexit and the border? Her colleague, Nigel Lawson, the former Chancellor, said that leaving the EU would mean rebuilding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Three days ago she said that that was not the case. They cannot both be right.
One thing myself and my right hon. Friend are completely united on is that there will be no return to barbed wire and watchtowers should we leave or remain in the European Union. What there will be, however, is a Northern Ireland that steps outside the customs union, and that would inevitably affect the free flow of trade across the border.
Fixing the public finances to keep interest rates low and deliver economic stability is a crucial part of the Government’s efforts to promote exports. We are also using our diplomatic network around the world to promote exports from Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that UK Trade & Investment and Economist Intelligence Unit information shows that the career aspiration young people want to fulfil most by 2020 is to run their own business? What steps are being taken to help them achieve their aspirations and to become first-time exporters in the UK and Northern Ireland?
To do that, we are delivering economic stability, and we are cutting national insurance contributions for 3.4 million self-employed people. We are also working with the Northern Ireland Executive through the economic pact to deliver things such as our start-up loans programme for young entrepreneurs and through the taskforce on access to banking, which has delivered £60 million in business finance.
At a meeting yesterday involving the oil and gas group, Harland and Wolff from my constituency railed against the religious observance of EU regulations that is required of it, unlike its competitors across the European Union. How can we redress the balance so that it can compete equally with its competitors across the European Union?
The Government are certainly doing all they can to ensure that the UK, including Northern Ireland, is one of the most competitive places in the world to do business, which is one reason why we have reduced corporation tax. We are bearing down on unnecessary regulation. I will certainly look into the matters the hon. Gentleman raises in relation to the industry.
Voluntary Sector: Legacy of the Past
In working to build consensus for the Stormont House agreement institutions on the past, I have held a number of very constructive meetings with voluntary groups who support and represent victims, as well as with victims themselves.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the reconciliation work performed by the Peace Centre, which is based in Warrington. Support is given to those on both sides of the Irish sea affected by terrorism, although the majority of the funding is provided by the Irish, not the UK, Government. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and members of the Foundation for Peace to discuss whether we can do more on this issue?
I have met a wide range of groups representing victims in Northern Ireland. It is very important that we listen to their point of view in attempting to reach a consensus on how we best address the legacy of the past and establish the Stormont House institutions.
The promotion of tourism to Northern Ireland is primarily a devolved matter, but the Secretary of State and I take every opportunity to support it. The new British-Irish visa scheme in China and India will enable visits to both Ireland and the UK, including Northern Ireland, on a single visa of either country, thus encouraging tourism, business links and inward investment.
According to Lord Lawson, the chair of the increasingly absurd Vote Leave campaign, a British vote to leave the European Union would result in the return of border posts and passport controls between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. What modelling has the Minister done on how that might affect the £750 million tourism industry in Ulster?
I do not think I need to do much modelling; we should let the businesses of Northern Ireland speak for themselves. They believe it would be wrong to leave the European Union. The free flow of tourists between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is good for Northern Ireland, good for the island of Ireland and good for the United Kingdom economy.
Whenever I visit the Milwaukee Irish Fest, I hear that when people travel to Dublin and to Shannon airport, they holiday only in southern Ireland. What discussions is the Minister having with Tourism Ireland to ensure that people come to Northern Ireland and enjoy our tourism facilities, which are much better than those in the south?
The single biggest challenge for Northern Ireland tourism is advertising its great offerings. The British Open golf championship will be held in Portrush in 2019, and other events include the North West 200, the Ulster Rally, the Giro d’Italia cycling event and the Balmoral show. If we can tell people that those events are out there and that they are on, more people will come north from the south.
In all tourism, the best thing to do is to play to our strengths. I will certainly explore that option, and I am also keen to make sure that tourism in the Republic of Ireland dovetails with the offering in Northern Ireland, so that we can encourage people into both Dublin and, indeed, the north of Ireland. We also look forward to, I hope, capitalising on the next series of “Game of Thrones”, which is due out very soon and was filmed in Northern Ireland, north of the wall.
The Prime Minister was asked—
On her 21st birthday in 1947, a young woman declared that her whole life, whether long or short, would be dedicated to the service of our nation. Nobody could possibly argue that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has done anything other than fulfil her promise to the nation with dignity and grace.
People across the country will be marking the Queen’s 90th birthday tomorrow in many different ways. Many right hon. and hon. Members will have joined their women’s institutes in the Clean for the Queen initiative, tidying up our neighbourhoods. Some will raise a small glass and many will have a proper knees-up tomorrow.
When the Prime Minister next has an audience with the Queen, will he pass on my best wishes and those of the whole House to our remarkable monarch? Long may she reign.
I am very glad that my hon. Friend has raised this matter. I will certainly pass on his best wishes and those from right across Yorkshire. Tomorrow is an important landmark, not only for Her Majesty the Queen, but for our country and for the Commonwealth as a whole. She has served our nation with such dignity and ability for so many years—64 years —on the throne. It is right that the House will have the opportunity tomorrow to pay tribute to what she has done, and I know that the whole country and the whole House will want to join me in saying, “Long may she reign over us.”
I am also looking forward to wishing her a happy birthday tomorrow, but until then, could the Prime Minister explain why he is intent on forcing good and outstanding schools to become academies against the wishes of teachers, parents, school governors and local councillors?
The short answer is that we want schools to be run by headteachers and teachers, not by bureaucrats. That is why we support the policy. We also support it because of the clear evidence of academies. If we look at converter academies, we will see that 88% of them are either good or outstanding, and schools started by academies see a 10% improvement, on average, over the first two years. The results are better, education is improving and I say let us complete the work.
The Prime Minister has not managed to convince the former Chair of the Education Committee, his hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), who said:
“Current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children.”
Why is the Prime Minister ignoring evidence of Select Committee Chairs, and so many others, on this issue?
The results speak for themselves. Under this Government, 1.4 million more pupils are in good or outstanding schools. Let me take the right hon. Gentleman to a school near where he lives. Let us try the Downhills primary school, which is not far from his constituency. It was in special measures and taken over by an academy, and two years later it was a good school. The question I put to the Leader of the Opposition, and to so many other Labour MPs, is this: why do you want to stand on a picket line under a banner saying “Save our failing school”?
As the Prime Minister well knows, every teacher, parent and pupil wants the best that they can get for their schools, and a good education system. Many are concerned about top-down reorganisation. If he will not listen to the former Chair of the Education Committee, will he listen to his hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince)? He said this:
“if a school is well governed, well run and performing well, it should be left alone and allowed to do its job.”—[Official Report, 13 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 445.]
Will the Prime Minister explain why good school leaders should focus their time and resources not on educating children but on arbitrary changes imposed from above?
Let me make two points on that specific issue. I would say to outstanding or good schools that they have nothing to fear from becoming academies, but a huge amount to gain, and we want even outstanding or good schools to be even better. In truth, academies and greater independence, and letting headteachers run their schools, has been hugely effective. This is something that was started by the Labour Government and given rocket-boosters by this Government. We have seen massive improvements in our schools because of academies, and we say, “Let’s get on with it, finish the job, and give all our children a great opportunity.”
I am sure the Prime Minister is aware of the views of people in Oxfordshire on this issue. Councillor Tilley, the Conservative cabinet member for education in the Prime Minister’s county, said:
“I’m fed up with diktats from above saying you will do this and you won’t do that.”
The Prime Minister claims to be an advocate of devolution. Is he not concerned about criticisms from his hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), who says that
“there is little accountability or parental involvement”?
Does the Prime Minister understand the anger that so many people feel because a system that they do not want is being imposed on them and on what are often already very good if not outstanding schools?
It is always good to get a lecture on diktats from someone whose press secretary is an avowed Stalinist, but I will pass over that. Creating academies is true devolution because we are putting power in the hands of headteachers and teachers. Of course we will find people in local government who want to keep things exactly as they are, but one of the reasons I so strongly support academies is that when they fail, they are intervened on so much faster. Local authority schools are often left to fail year after year after year, and I think that one year of a failing school is one year too many. Let us encourage academies, build a great education system, and have opportunity for all our children.
Last week, I spent an interesting afternoon at a local school in my constituency. I visited Duncombe primary school, which is a good to outstanding school, and I had a long discussion with the headteacher, parents, parent governors, and year 6 pupils. The year 6 pupils were very interesting. Hawan, Tasnia, Eamon and Maryanne asked me to ask the Prime Minister: why are you doing this? They love their school, and they like it the way it is. They do not want any top-down reorganisation. He has not even convinced the former Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, who said that he does not “quite know why” the Government are doing this. What is the Prime Minister’s answer to those smart pupils in year 6?
My answer to those pupils in year 6 is very much the answer that the right hon. Gentleman gave. I have been following his tour of the school, and this is what he said:
“I want to see a family of schools and I want to see them properly funded.”
Of course, with our reform to the national funding formula, there will be fair funding right across the country. With our plans for academies, there will be genuine families of schools that choose to group together. Here is the point about outstanding schools. Not only will they be able to get better, but in groups of academies, they will be able to help other schools to improve. That is why we need this reform: to make good schools even better and to help to raise the aspiration of all. That is what it is all about.
We appear to be heading into some kind of fantasy land. The Institute for Fiscal Studies states that school spending
“is expected to fall by at least 7% in real terms”
in the next four years—the biggest cut since the 1970s. So why on earth is the Prime Minister proposing to spend £1.3 billion on a top-down reorganisation that was not in his manifesto? Teachers do not want it, parents do not want it, governors do not want it, headteachers do not want it and even his own MPs and councillors do not want it. Can he not just think again and support schools and education, rather than forcing this on them?
Let me answer the question about spending very directly. We protected spending per pupil all the way through the last Parliament and all the way through this Parliament. We are spending £7 billion on more school places to make up for the woeful lack of action under the last Labour Government. That is the truth on spending.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about fantasy land, and I think the Labour party this week entered fantasy land. The Labour party is abandoning Trident in Scotland and it has selected in London someone who sits on platforms with extremists. When I read that the Labour party was going to ban McDonnell from its party conference, I thought that was the first sensible decision it had made, but it turns out that it was not the job destroyer that the Labour party wanted to keep away from its conference; it was one of Britain’s biggest employers. No wonder Labour MPs are in despair. Frankly, I’m lovin’ it.
Q3. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he agrees with the Treasury forecast issued on Monday, which warns that if we stay in the European Union, there will be 3 million more migrants by 2030? Last year, my right hon. Friend and I were elected on a clear manifesto pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. How will we be able to deliver on that pledge unless we leave the European Union? (904564)
The point about the Treasury forecast is that it takes the Office for National Statistics figures and the Office for Budget Responsibility figures and it does not alter them; it is trying to make a very clear and pure argument—backed by the Governor of the Bank of England yesterday—that shows what would happen if Britain left the EU. There is a demand out there for independent and clear statistics, and that is exactly what the Treasury has provided.
It is believed that the recent murder of Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah was religiously motivated. This week, Christian, Jewish, Sikh and Ahmadiyya Muslim faith leaders launched a campaign across Scotland entitled United against Extremism. Will the Prime Minister join me and colleagues from all parties in supporting the aims of that campaign to support and foster understanding and stand up to extremism?
I will certainly join the right hon. Gentleman. This was an absolutely shocking murder. What it demonstrates, and what his question hints at, is that we need to stand up not only against acts of appalling violence such as this, but against the extremist mindset that sometimes tries to justify such events and other such outrages.
I am in total agreement with the Prime Minister. The murder of Asad Shah is just the most recent example of sectarian extremism targeting the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the UK, including reports of Ahmadiyya being refused employment, businesses being boycotted, schoolchildren being bullied and shunned, and people such as Aamer Anwar who have worked to bring faith leaders together facing death threats. Does the Prime Minister agree that such extremism is totally unacceptable in a country where we believe in free speech and religious tolerance? The time has come for all community and all faith leaders of all religions to stand up against extremism.
I certainly agree that faith leaders can play a huge role in standing up against extremism and I welcome what they do, but we need to be very clear about what we are facing. The attack on Ahmadiyya Muslims by other Muslims demonstrates once again that what we face is not some clash of civilisations between Islam and Christianity or Islam and Buddhism. What we are seeing is a small minority within one of the great religions of our world, Islam, believing that there is only one way—a violent, extremist way—of professing their faith. This is a battle within Islam, and we have to be on the side of the moderate majority and make sure that they win it. We have to really understand what is happening, otherwise we will take the wrong path.
Q6. The future of services provided by Paignton hospital has been thrown into doubt this week by news that the clinical commissioning group and the local trust are about to launch a consultation that could see it closed with no replacement. Does the Prime Minister share my concerns, and does he agree that it is vital that services are replaced and that the trust and CCG justify their actions? (904567)
I am aware of the draft proposals concerning Paignton hospital. I understand that no decision has yet been made. The plans are due to be considered by the clinical commissioning group’s governing body. Let us remember that these bodies are now, by and large, clinically-led, and I think that is important. Decisions about what services are required will be taken by that group, but if there are significant changes, they still have to meet four key tests: support from clinical commissioners, strengthened public and patient engagement, clarity on the clinical evidence base and support for patient choice. All those things have to be satisfied.
Q2. The air in our cities is both toxic and illegal, with diesel fumes contributing to 800 deaths a week—that is 40,000 a year—so why is the Prime Minister, instead of removing the most heavily polluting vehicles from our streets, lobbying the EU in Brussels, with the Mayor of London, to weaken plans to improve our air quality and save lives? (904563)
We are investing in better air quality. Since 2011, we have committed over £2 billion to help bus operators upgrade their fleets. We have seen air quality improve between 2010 and 2014, with emissions of nitrous oxides coming down by 17%. When it comes to these standards that we all have to meet, we are working with our car industry. I want a strong car industry in Britain. I am proud of the fact that it has recovered so strongly that the north-east of England now makes more cars than the whole of Italy and that we are a major investor in and builder of diesel engines, but we are going to make sure that it has the resources it needs to meet the higher standards that are set out.
Q7. It is a truth universally acknowledged that fish and chips taste best on the beaches of Skegness, and that is why 4 million people visit those beaches every year. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should work with the Environment Agency, the local enterprise partnership and local councils, build on the work of this Government that has brought jobs and growth, and extend the tourist season and build a billion-pound coastal economy by the end of this decade? (904568)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why I announced the five-point plan for tourism last year to encourage people to visit UK resorts—both people from overseas and British people—and that is exactly what is happening. Is it not interesting that in the week when we on this side of the House are supporting fish and chips, those on the other side of the House are banning McDonald’s?
Q4. More than 2,000 people have signed a petition, started by Allisons Chemist in Cockermouth in my constituency, calling on the Government not to cut the funding of community pharmacists. Given the major reports last week regarding the actions of Boots, which now faces investigation by the regulator, is it not time that the Prime Minister and his Government supported independent pharmacists, such as Allisons, which are a vital lifeline for our community and help to keep our high streets alive?
We are supporting rural pharmacies —there is a specific scheme to help there—but in the last five years there has been a massive increase in pharmacy spending. As we make sure that as much of the NHS’s resources as possible go to the frontline—the doctors and nurses, the operations and the A&E we want—we have to make sure we are getting value for money in pharmacy, while also protecting the rural pharmacies the hon. Lady speaks about.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we are going to condemn not just violent extremism but the extremism that seeks to justify violence in any way, it is very important that we do not back these people or appear on platforms with them. I am concerned about Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London, who has appeared again and again and again—
The leader of the Labour party says it is disgraceful, so let me tell him: the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) has appeared on a platform with Suliman Gani nine times; this man supports IS. He even shared a platform—[Interruption.] The Opposition are shouting down this point because they do not want to hear the truth. Anyone can make a mistake about who they appear on a platform with, and we are not always responsible for what our political opponents say, but if someone does it time after time after time, it is right to question their judgment.
Q5. News overnight of a management and worker buy-out at Tata Steel Port Talbot will bring hope to the 18,000 people whose livelihoods are supported by the company across the supply chain. It is critical that the UK Government provide all the support they can. Will the Prime Minister become the company’s head of sales and meet personally with Port Talbot’s 20-biggest customers, who make up about 50% of its sales, to ensure that no orders for Welsh steel are lost? (904566)
We will certainly do everything we can to help the company, including with its customers, during this difficult time. Right now, we are talking with the board of Tata to make sure we answer all the questions it needs answered, because we want to have a proper sales process, with proper buyers coming forward. We want to be very clear that the Government are prepared to support that process and the outcome, and that is exactly what we will do.
Q14. The EU’s security is only as strong as its weakest border, so does the Prime Minister share my concerns not only over Chancellor Merkel’s apparent legitimisation of President Erdogan’s reservations about freedom of speech but crucially over her decision to liberalise restrictions on Turkish visas, given that that country has such a porous Syrian border and such booming identify fraud? Is he concerned that currently Chancellor Merkel seems to be outstripping everyone in making the case for Brexit? (904576)
First, it is certainly true that a country in the Schengen zone is only as strong as its weakest border—that is absolutely right—but we, of course, are not in the Schengen zone. Secondly, the Schengen zone has decided to offer visas to Turkish nationals, but we have not made that decision, and will not be making that decision. Let us remember, however, that a visa is not a right to go and live and work or reside; it is a right to visit, so let us also be clear that Turks with visas visiting Schengen countries do not have those rights or the right automatically to come to Britain. It is very important to get this clear.
Q8. In the last hour, we have had the devastating news that British Gas proposes to close its Oldbury site, with the loss of 700 jobs. Will the Prime Minister instruct his Ministers immediately to contact the company and the unions and to arrange urgent meetings either—preferably—to save these jobs or, if that proves impossible, to establish a taskforce to create alternative opportunities for this loyal and hard-working workforce? (904569)
I can certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. I heard the news shortly before Question Time. We will make sure that a ministerial taskforce is available to talk to the company and the local community and to provide assistance in terms of retraining and other things.
Mrs Thatcher used occasionally to organise seminars for Ministers, with senior academics, for colleagues like me whose knowledge of modern science, she thought, needed to be improved. Will the Prime Minister contemplate similar seminars for some of his senior and very respected Cabinet colleagues with businessmen on the nature of international trade in today’s world, because some very respected figures appear to believe that one simply turns up and sells goods and services that comply with British-made rules, and that they do not have to comply with any rules agreed with the country to which one is selling. Will he include some of the many businessmen who are putting investment decisions on hold now because of the uncertainty about Brexit after 23 June, which illustrates the dangers we would run if we made our whole future trading arrangements with the outside world as uncertain as some people are trying to make them?
I always listen very carefully to my right hon. and learned Friend and will consider such seminars. I hope they will not be as frightening as seminars sometimes used to be under Margaret Thatcher. I remember that one of the very first times I met her, I was responsible for trade and industry research. She asked me what the day’s trade figures were and I did not know. I have never wanted the floor to open up and swallow me any more than at that moment.
The point my right hon. and learned Friend makes, which is absolutely right, is that just because we have friendly relations with a country does not mean that we automatically get good trade relations. We are very pleased that President Obama is coming here this Friday, but it is worth noting that even though we have the friendliest relations with the United States of America, we currently cannot sell beef or lamb to it. The point is that we do not just need good relations; we need nailed down trade arrangements.
Q9. At the Budget, the Chancellor announced the creation of a northern schools strategy, which I broadly welcome. However, I am concerned that all the progress that that might make could be reversed by the forced academisation plans. Why are the Government pushing those plans, which parents in my constituency do not want—plans that even a former Tory Education Secretary describes as plain daft and unnecessary? (904570)
The hon. Gentleman should wait for the outcome of the review that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set up. The point I would make is that some schools that have been failing for year after year have been left in that state by local authorities. We have found that the way to help succeeding schools fly and failing schools to improve is to have academies. The evidence is right there in front of us. That is why we are so keen on progressing this.
One reason why my right hon. Friend led this party to victory at last year’s general election was our pledge to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands. Can he therefore tell us, further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), why the Office for Budget Responsibility projects immigration to be above 200,000 a year for the rest of this decade? By what assumptions did it reach that figure, and can he give us some details?
To give my right hon. Friend some details, the OBR did not take into account, for instance, the agreements we have just reached with the European Union over welfare and other immigration restrictions. The Treasury document is very clear that it is not about making all sorts of different assumptions about variables, but takes a very clear set of statistics established by the OBR. That is why it was interesting when the Governor of the Bank of England came out and said that it was an analytically robust process. As for the detail, it does not take into account the agreement that we reached in Europe.
Q11. In 2009, Michelle Samaraweera was brutally raped and murdered in Walthamstow. Since 2011, a man who is wanted in connection with that crime and seven other counts of sexual violence in my constituency has been evading extradition from India. There have been more than 30 court appearances to date and another one is planned for tomorrow, yet despite the severity of the crime and the delay in those proceedings, there is no record of any ministerial or diplomatic representations from either the Foreign Office or the Home Office. Will the Prime Minister personally commit today to putting that right and to raising the matter directly with his counterpart, Narendra Modi, so that we can finally seek justice for Michelle? (904572)
I am very happy to give the hon. Lady that assurance. The British Government always raise all these individual cases if that is what the victims want us to do, just as we raise cases where there are British people stuck in the Indian justice system. I was not aware of the specific case, but if she gives me the details I will make sure that we raise it appropriately.
With the President of the United States visiting the UK later this week, may I ask my right hon. Friend to raise the issue of the Chagos islanders? In a report last year, the Government rightly concluded that the islanders have a right of resettlement. Given the US military presence on Diego Garcia, will he raise the case of US assistance for the right of return of the Chagos islanders to the British Indian Ocean Territory?
I will certainly discuss that issue, and it is right that my hon. Friend raises it, because many Chagossians live in his constituency of Crawley. What he said is not entirely correct; the National Security Council and the Cabinet have been looking at the situation of the Chagos islanders and reviewing all the options for how we can help with their future. Those discussions have taken place and obviously we need to come to a conclusion about the best way forward.
Q12. Some people think that the worst case that has been made so far to vote to leave the EU is the claim that England is an island. Will the Prime Minister tell the House the worst argument that he has heard from the Brexiters?
I think it is probably that we would get out of the Eurovision song contest. Not only would that be incredibly sad, but given that Israel and Azerbaijan, and anyone anywhere near Europe seems to be able to enter—[Interruption.] Australia, too, so we are pretty safe from that one.
Will my right hon. Friend point out to President Obama that in a series of European Court judgments such as those in the cases of Davis and of Schrems, using EU data protection laws and the EU charter of fundamental rights, the EU has established its jurisdiction over our intelligence data and sought to prevent our intelligence sharing with the United States? Will he therefore warn the President that if we vote remain, far from gaining influence in the EU the United States will lose control and influence over her closest ally?
I am sure that the President will take all of these calculations into account before saying anything that he might have to say. Let me just make two points. First of all, this decision is a decision for the British people, and the British people alone. We are sovereign in making this decision. Personally, I believe that we should listen to advice from friends and other countries, and I struggle to find a leader of any friendly country who thinks we should leave. My second point is that, when it comes to the United States, it is worth looking at what so many Treasury Secretaries have said, going back over Republican or Democrat Administrations. It may not be the determining factor for many people—or indeed for any people—but listening to what our friends in the world say is not a bad idea.
Q13. The average property price in my borough of Hackney is £682,000, the median lower quartile rent for a two-bedroom flat for a month is £1,500, and overcrowding and demand for social housing are the highest I have seen in 20 years. Will the Prime Minister tell my constituents how on earth the Housing and Planning Bill is going to help them? (904575)
It is going to help them because we are building starter homes for the first time for people to buy, we are extending the right to buy to housing association tenants so they can buy homes—[Interruption.] I notice Lady Nugee giving us the benefit of her wisdom, but many people in her constituency would love to buy a council house or a housing association house. We also have the Help to Buy scheme, which is helping many people get on the housing ladder, and shared ownership as well. All of those things will help. Since 2010, 101,000 homes have been built in London, including 67,000 affordable homes. We need to build many more and to make them accessible to people who work hard and do the right thing. That is whose side we are on.
On a slightly environmental note still, woodland is much valued—not least for recycling much of our hot air—and ancient woodland is especially valued. With only 2% remaining, it is as precious as the rain forests and its biodiversity cannot be replaced. The Prime Minister has 331 ancient and veteran trees in his constituency; does he agree that this precious habitat ought to be protected in line with heritage sites and national monuments?
I am very lucky to have in my constituency an ancient forest, the Wychwood forest, which probably contains many of the trees that my hon. Friend mentions. I shall look carefully at what she says. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to make sure that we plant more forests, trees and woodland, on which this Government have a very good record.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said recently and rightly that politics in Northern Ireland was on a more stable footing than it has been for some time. For our part, we will continue to offer strong leadership for a better future in Northern Ireland. People in Northern Ireland are, however, concerned about a two-sided approach to the past, as exemplified by the decision taken this week to investigate a police officer who bravely stopped an IRA bomber from trying to kill police officers at a police station 25 years ago. Does the Prime Minister agree that we have to get behind our security forces, praise them for the work they did in Northern Ireland and not persecute them as we go forward?
Let me first pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and his Members of Parliament and Assembly Members. It is right to say that politics in Northern Ireland is more stable and, frankly, more productive than it has been for many years. Obviously, these issues around the acts of the past still cause a huge amount of pain and difficulty on all sides of the debate. One thing we have to hold on to is the fact that we have an independent and impartial justice system.
Border Force Budget 2016-17
The first priority of government is the safety and security of its citizens, and the Government have always made the integrity of the UK border a priority. We will never compromise on keeping the people of this country safe from terrorism, criminality and illegal immigration.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will publish the Treasury main supply estimates in just over an hour’s time, setting out estimated budget allocations for the whole of government, including Border Force, for the financial year 2016-17. In advance of those figures being laid in the Library, I can inform Members that these estimates will show that the indicative budget for Border Force is £558.1 million in 2016-17—a 0.4% reduction in overall resource spending compared to the supplementary estimate for 2015-16. At the same time, we will increase capital spending at the border by just over 70%, from £40.1 million in 2015-16 to an estimated £68.3 million in 2016-17. That means that Border Force spending is, to all intents and purposes, protected compared to 2015-16, with increased capital investment to improve the technology at the border, to improve security and intelligence and to strengthen control.
Over the next four years, we will invest £130 million in state-of-the-art technology at the border. Since I became Home Secretary six years ago, we have pursued an ambitious programme of reform at the border to keep this country safe. In the last Parliament we abolished the dysfunctional UK Border Agency, set up by the last Labour Government, and made Border Force directly accountable to Ministers within the Home Office. Since then, Border Force has transformed its working practices, command and control and leadership, and we have invested in new technology such as e-gates at airports and heartbeat monitors at freight ports to improve security, prevent illegal entry to the UK, benefit passengers and deliver efficiencies.
At the same time I have worked closely with my French counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve, to secure the juxtaposed controls in Calais and Coquelles, reduce the number of migrants attempting to reach the United Kingdom, and safeguard UK drivers and hauliers travelling through those ports. We have developed a robust, intelligence-led approach to organised crime at the border, working closely with the National Crime Agency, which we established in 2012. We have supported greater collaboration between counter-terrorism police and Border Force, while increasing counter-terrorism budgets to prevent foreign fighters from returning and dangerous terrorists from travelling to the UK.
These reforms are working. Border security has been enhanced. Border Force continues to perform 100% checks on scheduled passengers arriving at primary check- points in the UK. When passengers are deemed a threat to public safety, we can and do exclude them from the UK, and 99,020 people have been refused entry to the UK since 2010. We are disrupting more organised crime at the UK border than ever before. In the past year, Border Force has seized nearly 8 tonnes of class A drugs, more than 2.5 times as much as in 2009-10. Meanwhile, legitimate passengers and hauliers of goods continue to be provided with excellent levels of service.
The Government remain committed to making further investments when necessary to exploit new technology and strengthen controls. As a result, Border Force will grow more efficient year on year, while improving security for the safety of citizens, businesses and the country as a whole.
Finally, an answer—and yet another U-turn—from the Home Secretary. Let us be clear: it is Labour pressure that has brought her to the House today, and Labour pressure that has made her back down on her planned deeper cuts in the UK border. Just as we forced her to U-turn on police funding, we have now forced her to U-turn on the Border Force budget. She has spent the last two weeks ducking and diving, refusing to answer questions that I put to her in the House and that the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), put to her senior officials—I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his determination. Why could the Home Secretary not answer our questions? Because she has been furiously back-pedalling for the last two weeks, and patching up holes in the Border Force budget.
Let us be clear about what has just been announced to the House. The Home Secretary has announced a revenue cut in the Border Force budget. Let me put that into context. She has announced a budget of £558 million. In 2012-13, the budget was £617 million. It has fallen by more than £50 million on her watch. That is this Home Secretary’s record on border funding. How can she justify it when the terror threat has been increasing all the time? Will she guarantee, on the back of the budget that has been announced today, that there will be no cuts in the number of front-line immigration officers, and that officers will not be replaced by less-trained staff?
The bigger question, however, is whether the budget that the Home Secretary has announced is anywhere near enough. Today, a group of the most eminent police and counter-terrorism experts have written an open letter saying that attacks in Paris and Brussels must be
“a wake-up call for the British Government”
on lax border security.
Worryingly, the letter reveals that the National Crime Agency has evidence that people-traffickers are now specifically targeting weaker sea ports. I have repeatedly warned the Home Secretary about that. Will she accept the call from the group of experts for a review of border security, and for extra resources to plug the gaps?
Those gaps are very real. A whistleblower working at the port of Immingham, the country’s largest freight port, has been in touch with me to reveal that the staff of ferry companies, who are carrying out the Home Secretary’s border exit checks, are simply not trained to do it; that the passports of lorry drivers are not checked on arrival by anyone; and, worst of all, that school leavers are now being recruited to check passports, replacing experienced border officers. Border security on the cheap: that is the reality of what is happening at Britain’s borders today, under this Home Secretary. It is the direct consequence of the cuts that she has already made in the UK border during her time in office—and, unbelievably, she wanted to make even further cuts in the border before we in the Labour party stopped her.
The Home Secretary has spent the last two weeks running scared, scrabbling for loose change behind the back of the Home Office sofa; but, worse, she has weakened our borders, has damaged our security, and is only now pledging to stop the cuts. On an issue of such importance to the British public, she is going to have to do a lot better than this.
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that in so much of what he said he simply does not know what he is talking about. He talks about U-turns on funding, but the only such U-turn we have seen is from a Labour Front-Bench team that now claim to have wanted police funding to remain steady and not to be cut when they actually suggested that police funding could take a 10% cut.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about border security and the National Crime Agency, but I remind him that it was the coalition Government and me as Home Secretary who set up the NCA. The reason why we have a border command that is looking at serious and organised crime across our borders is because of what the Conservatives have done in government. Labour did none of that in 13 long years.
I remind the right hon. Gentleman, who was of course at one time a Home Office Minister, that it was under Labour that we saw the creation of the dysfunctional UK Border Agency that we had to abolish. We had to change how we dealt with such issues. Under the last Labour Government, there was no operating mandate at the border, and as people came through the primary checkpoints, they were not all getting the necessary 100% checks. We have enhanced security and will continue to do so.
My constituents in Kettering are concerned that we should have the most secure and safest borders possible. While it is true that many illegal immigrants are stopped in lorries in France and on arrival in Britain, far too many illegal immigrants are still in the backs of lorries when they go down the A14 past Kettering towards the north of England or wherever. What more can the Home Secretary do to reassure my constituents that we are going to get even tougher on and stop illegal immigration, which also has a security implication?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is important that we continually review our processes for screening people as they cross the border, and that we ensure that we are stopping people who want to come here as illegal immigrants. That is one reason why we have invested tens of millions of pounds in security at Calais and Coquelles to ensure that it is harder for people to get into lorries to come across the border and harder for them to access the channel tunnel. It is also why we continue to look at improvements in technology that may enable us to put in place equipment that is even better at detecting people when they try to stow away in such vehicles. However, we cannot do that once and expect it to cover everything; we have to keep going at it, which is exactly what we are doing.
This has been a sorry saga, and it is still not quite clear why the senior civil servant was so evasive before the Home Affairs Committee. What exactly was the hold-up? The Border Force budget requires careful scrutiny and attracts significant public interest. What will the Home Secretary do to make the process for deciding the budget more transparent in future?
What lies underneath the issue is that a fantasy net migration target and budget cuts are leading the Home Office down the path of targeting exactly the wrong people, using the wrong policy levers. Unable to enforce existing immigration rules properly, the Home Office introduces ever more draconian rules, clamping down on skilled workers, students, spouses and refugees. It is using landlords and landladies as border officials and giving immigration officers police powers. Meanwhile, other SNP MPs and I saw with our own eyes in Calais and Dunkirk at Easter how vulnerable children who have family here in the United Kingdom are left in the most disgraceful of conditions. It is immigration control on the cheap.
When will the Home Secretary fix her Border Force budget not to satisfy the ideological pursuit of austerity, but at the level necessary to command public confidence? When will she abandon the fantasy net migration target and set immigration policies in accordance with evidence instead of political expediency?
The hon. and learned Lady mixes up border security and checks with immigration. They are two different issues. She commented on the appearance of a senior civil servant before the Home Affairs Committee. When asked whether the director general of Border Force had been told what his budget was for this year, the individual replied:
“We know what funds the Border Force needs in order to deliver the plan for this year and Charles has them.”
On a related immigration issue, the hon. and learned Lady referred to the question she has raised previously, as have other Members, about the speed at which children in Calais who have family members here in the UK are being processed. We recognised that there was an issue, which is why we seconded somebody to the Ministry of the Interior in Paris to work on this and why we are now seeing people being processed in weeks, rather than months, and in some cases in days .
There is nothing worse in this House than manufactured rage at a problem such as this, and I note that the shadow Home Secretary made not a single mention of praise for the excellent job our Border Force staff are doing, which members of the Home Affairs Committee saw in our visit to Calais and Coquelles—it is not through a lack of thoroughness that any drugs or people are getting through. Will she also acknowledge the need to be more flexible, given the increasing number of cases of independent vessels coming across the channel to the Sussex and Kent coasts, in particular? We need to be mindful of that, too.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I echo the comments he has made; our Border Force staff are working day in, day out to protect our border and they do an excellent job. He is right, however, that we always need to be flexible in looking at where people will try to enter the UK as we make ports such as Calais more secure. That is exactly what we are doing. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration has been talking to our Belgian and Dutch counterparts about access from ports in those countries into the UK. The whole point of some of the changes we have made in Border Force has been precisely to make it more flexible, in order to respond to need as it arises.
I thank the Home Secretary for the detail she has provided to the House today and I join others in praising the work of Border Force, especially the leadership provided by Sir Charles Montgomery. Will she deal with the practical points mentioned last week by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and today by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone)? Will she confirm that there are 100% checks on every lorry entering this country, in order to deal with the security and immigration issues? Does she agree that although we have spent a huge amount of money in Calais, we have displaced this problem further into other ports in Europe, and without the co-operation of European partners—without them doing their bit—we will still get people coming into this country who should not be here?
The right hon. Gentleman referred particularly to the questions from not only my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) this afternoon, but my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). The point I made subsequently, outside this Chamber, to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough is that we do undertake checks on lorries but that they vary, so different sorts of checks may be done. Different technologies are used, and in some cases we use dogs. A variety of types of check may be undertaken at the border for the lorries. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that, as I have just indicated in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), it is necessary for us to be looking at where there may be displacement of people trying to enter the UK illegally. That is precisely what we have been doing, particularly, as I said, with the Governments of Belgium and the Netherlands.
Cuts were made in January by Border Force to the maritime aerial surveillance capability. Has my right hon. Friend been able to reinstate that capability, which is crucial in detecting people who are trying to smuggle into our country and was instrumental in ensuring some of the successes to which she referred earlier?
I reassure my hon. Friend that we are maintaining the capabilities he talked about, but we are delivering them in a different way. He and I have discussed a particular contract that is no longer in place. What Border Force has done is look to see how it can work in a variety of ways to provide that capability, including, obviously, by working with the Royal Navy.
Last year, an asylum seeker was located in my constituency because the courts said it would be unsafe to relocate him in London. He subsequently committed a number of crimes and is now in prison. My constituents have had the burdens on our health service and on our schools of taking 500 asylum seekers and many others over the years. Will the Home Secretary tell me what moves she is making to ensure that there is a fair distribution throughout the UK of asylum seekers, given that there are 500 in my constituency and I believe there are none in either the Prime Minister’s or Chancellor’s? How many are in her constituency?
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, my constituency is not somewhere that normally takes asylum seekers, but I am pleased to say that it is taking some of the Syrian refugees under the resettlement scheme that has been put in place. The point is that we talk regularly with local authorities about where it is appropriate for asylum seekers to be dispersed to. Those conversations are continuing and I am pleased to say that a number of new local authorities have come on board. I also gently remind him that we have not changed the system of asylum dispersal; this is exactly the same system that was run by the last Labour Government.
Millions of pounds could be saved for the Border Force budget by having a more efficient removals system. What steps will my right hon. Friend be taking in the light of the findings of the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration in his report issued last month?
I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that we continually look at how we can improve our ability to remove people from this country. That is why we have brought forward changes in a variety of immigration Bills to enhance our ability to do that and, in particular, to make it harder for people to live illegally in the UK. The decisions put through in the Immigration Act 2014 to deal with people’s access to driving licences, bank accounts and rented property are all having an impact in improving our ability to identify illegal immigrants and remove them.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to ensure the security of this country and have illegal immigrants removed from it, he should know that the measures we have put in place in the Immigration Act to ensure that people who are renting property are here legally are having an impact.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK has the strongest borders in Europe, partly because of the Government’s investment in technology at our borders and partly because of the Conservative party’s firm position that we should not join the Schengen system?
Constituents who work on the docks in Grimsby have contacted me in the past few weeks because they are concerned about the level of security around the large transporter ships that arrive into Grimsby bringing millions of pounds worth of goods into the country. They raise those concerns from a humanitarian perspective, but can the Home Secretary assure my constituents that Grimsby’s ports are adequately protected?
As I have indicated, we look at the border security at ports regularly to ensure that it is appropriate for the nature of the business those ports are undertaking. The hon. Lady refers to the humanitarian issue of people who may be being smuggled across the border in transporters, and I say to her that the people who are responsible for that issue are the traffickers who put illegal immigrants into those containers.
There was indeed praise for my right hon. Friend from the shadow Home Secretary, although it was so below the radar that she might not have noticed it. She was accused of both back-pedalling and performing a U-turn, and I am not aware that it is physically possible to do both—although she has done neither. In praising the work that Border Force does on behalf of all of us in keeping our country safe, what role does she see the Investigatory Powers Bill, which is currently before the House, playing in assisting and strengthening the work of Border Force?
It is important that all our law enforcement agencies and those who are responsible for enforcing laws around security at our borders are able to access the various tools and powers that they need. That is why the Investigatory Powers Bill is so important, not just to our security services, but to a variety of law enforcement agencies. I note that one of the points in the letter in today’s Daily Telegraph to which the shadow Home Secretary referred was the importance of access to communications data, which is precisely what we are trying to protect in that Bill.
I recently flew back into Gatwick from overseas, and it took me almost 25 minutes to get through the border. There were 15 desks for staff, only eight of which were open. As you know, Mr Speaker, I am a relaxed and patient kind of guy, and I am always happy to wait my turn, but families with children, business people and tourists from all over the world were there. What kind of a message does that send about the welcome to the United Kingdom and the efficiency of our Border Force, and how will this budget help to remedy those kinds of inefficiencies?
There are service standards for people coming through the border at our airports, and we meet those standards. These proceedings are very interesting because, on the one hand, people are calling for more border security, and, on the other, the hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants to get through the border rather more quickly.
I can confirm that the shadow Home Secretary was quite right when he drew attention to the port of Immingham in my constituency because border staff there do have worries. The concerns of residents in the town and neighbouring areas have been heightened following reports last week that the National Crime Agency acknowledged that Humber ports were being targeted. Can my right hon. Friend give an absolute assurance that resources will be moved to protect the Humber ports if the NCA’s analysis is correct?
My hon. Friend’s point is important and one that I have responded to in reply to a number of questions, including that of the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. When we created Border Force and took it out of the dysfunctional UK Borders Agency, we introduced more flexibility in Border Force’s ability to move resources around the country. That is absolutely crucial so that we do not just have static forces at a number of ports and we are able to move them when there is a need to do so, which is exactly what we are doing in relation to the ports on the east coast, of which Immingham is one.
As the Home Secretary knows, Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom with a land border with another country. As both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland lie outside Schengen, co-operation is key. Last week, a representative of Garda Siochana said that they felt hopelessly ill equipped and ill resourced to stand against the threat of terrorists entering the United Kingdom through their borders. Will the Home Secretary address the issue, and can she given any comfort about whether the budget involves proposals or resources to make that access point to the United Kingdom less vulnerable?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are in regular discussions with the Irish Government about how to improve security at their external border because, obviously, there is the common travel area between Ireland and the United Kingdom. We have already done a lot of work with the Irish Government on data sharing and the sorts of systems that might support improved security, and we will continue that work.
In contrast to some hon. Members who have spoken, I wish to pay tribute to the hard work and dedication of Border Force officers at Gatwick, especially with regard to their recent apprehension of terror suspects. May I have an assurance that they will continue to get the support that they need from the Home Office?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. As I have said, we now have a Border Force that is more flexible and that is able to use its resources appropriately. The director general is continually looking to ensure that resources are appropriate at ports and commensurate with the traffic that they are experiencing. He rightly praises the Border Force officers at Gatwick who, along with those elsewhere, do an excellent job.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that, of course, in terms of border security and stopping people crossing the border, what is important is not just that we have a border control, as we do by not being a member of the Schengen border-free zone, but that information is exchanged between the parties when that is available. That is exactly what we are working on to ensure that information is available at our borders when we want to be able to stop people.
May I put it to the Home Secretary that I do not think that she has yet fully answered the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee about 100% checks on trucks? I accept the issue about flexibility, as we might have different situations in different places, but does she accept that there is genuine concern about security in ports up and down the country? How is the cumulative cut to the revenue budget of the Border Force compatible with providing the necessary level of security?
On that last point, I must say to the Labour party, as we have said before regarding a number of other areas, that it is about not how much money we have, but how we spend it. It is about ensuring that we are using money as effectively and efficiently as possible. Ensuring that we have an operating mandate that means that 100% checks on individuals are undertaken at primary checkpoints is something that this Government have introduced and that the previous Labour Government failed to do. All the trucks going through the juxtaposed controls are indeed screened.
Over Easter, a number of my constituents were incredibly frustrated at Manchester airport when they were queuing to go through passport control solely because that passport control was significantly under-resourced. What reassurance can the Home Secretary give that Manchester airport, which after all is our largest international airport outside London, will have adequate resources at its passport control? While she is looking into that, will she also look at the loophole at terminal 3 whereby passengers who transit from Heathrow and have their baggage sent directly through to Manchester do not have to go through a customs check?
The hon. Gentleman asks about the resources at Manchester airport. I can assure him that we regularly have discussions with Manchester airport about the traffic that is going through it and its requirements, and we judge the appropriate resources that are needed by Border Force. We fully recognise the significance of Manchester airport to which he refers.
A recent watchdog study into Border Force at Manchester airport showed that one in four passengers from the sample taken got through the border inappropriately, that a whole Ryanair flight was recently missed, with 159 passengers receiving no checks whatsoever, and that £1.5 million was spent on sniffer dogs that—guess what?—sniffed out no class A drugs or terrorists. Meanwhile, business passengers and tourists are suffering interminable delays. The airport is suffering because of a lack of investment in Border Force. The Home Secretary might have protected the budget, but it is not making any improvement whatsoever to a very poor existing service. What does she say about that?
I will say to the hon. Gentleman exactly what I said to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). As Manchester airport expands, we will talk to the officials there and discuss what resources they consider necessary. The issue of a misdirected flight to which he refers is something that we have taken up with Manchester airport with regard to the staff whom it has on the ground to deal with these flights. This is an important issue and we are very serious about how we deal with it.
Order. A rather unseemly exchange is going on between the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), who has just put a question and was dissatisfied with the answer, and the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) who, in the exercise of his duties as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary, always feels compelled to display a level of fealty unsurpassed and indeed unequalled by any other Member of the House of Commons. That is not necessary. We all know of the fealty bordering on the obsequious that is on evident display from the hon. Gentleman on a daily basis, but it must not be allowed to interrupt the eloquence of the flow of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins)—or even the flow of his eloquence.
I will endeavour to re-find myself, Mr Speaker.
The Prime Minister received a report from experts saying that 30,000 was the right number of Border Force members to protect our borders. Does that still reflect the policy of the Government, and can the Home Secretary tell us how many border staff we currently have?
The report to which the hon. Gentleman refers proposed the creation of an entirely new police force at the borders. When we came into government and looked at what was necessary, we decided to approach the issue in a slightly different way, creating the National Crime Agency and a specific border command within it. The staff operating at borders are not just Border Force, but border command from the NCA and special branch at the ports, and, of course, they also work with immigration enforcement. For the first time in this country, we have a specific border command within the National Crime Agency.
Property Ownership in London (Registration) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Frank Field, supported by Mr David Lammy, Andrew Rosindell, Mr Gareth Thomas, Tom Brake, Siobhain McDonagh, Wes Streeting, Stephen Timms, Jon Cruddas, Stephen Pound and Mr Virendra Sharma, presented a Bill to require the creation of a register of owners of property in the Greater London area, including details of the name of the owner of each property and the name of the beneficiary owner in the case of properties owned by a trust or similar body; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 May, and to be printed (Bill 163).
Forensic Linguistics (Standards)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to place a duty on the forensic science regulator to establish a code of practice and conduct for the providers and practitioners of forensic linguistics in the criminal justice system; to make provision about the required scientific quality standards for the discipline; and for connected purposes.
Our children and young people face an enormous threat from being groomed by radical extremists and paedophiles, facilitated by the internet, social media and mobile technology. The Bill is therefore about the protection of vulnerable people, and it is about the monitoring and analysis of communications between people about whom we need to be really concerned: people who plot and scheme to do others harm; people such as paedophiles and extremists; and people who use modern technology as a tool in their evil business.
Last October, I led a Westminster Hall debate on the use of children as suicide bombers. We know that many of the techniques used in recruiting and grooming such children are the same as those used by paedophiles. We also know that there is software available that will identify the messages and language of groomers, and that, using a variety of tools, security agencies can match those to the voice and language patterns of known individuals. Forensic linguistics is a complicated and relatively new field. Linguistic evidence can involve science, social science and interpretation, and forensic linguistic analyses require a complex set of knowledge and skills. Presently, however, anyone—including you or me, Mr Speaker—can proclaim themselves an expert in forensic linguistics. Consequently, there is a considerable danger of substandard analysis being offered in a court of law.
We need a standardised qualification for analysts and a standardised set of techniques to give the courts confidence that such evidence can be accepted as more than just interesting background. The Bill does not represent sophisticated legislation, as compiling a statutory register would be relatively straightforward. The register called for by the Bill would not need its own regulator, as one already exists: the forensic science regulator. She is already working on including speech and audio analysis as a recognised speciality area, but as textual linguistic analysis draws on interpretative as well as scientific methods, it falls outside her current remit.
I would also draw attention to current codes of practice and conduct for forensic science providers and practitioners, and more generally for expert witnesses in the criminal justice system, that could be adapted to include the practice of forensic linguistics. For setting the accredited qualifications, there are academic institutions with evident authority in this area, such as the centre for forensic linguistics at Aston University. I personally thank the director of the centre, Professor Tim Grant, for his help in developing the Bill. I am also grateful for encouragement from the president of the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences and the director of forensic services in Scotland, Mr Tom Nelson. The standard of specialist witnesses and forensic scientists themselves is inherently protean—I know of some people who call themselves forensic scientists, but cannot tell the difference between the sensitivity of a test and the specificity of a test, let alone calculate its predictive value.
I have already said that speech and audio analysis and textual analysis are two different things. The problem for textual forensic linguistics is that many aspects of the work—the determination of meanings in messages, profiling the background of a writer and so on—are a long way from the laboratory-based paradigm. The closest we get to laboratory-based science is in comparative authorship analysis, for which methods are published and tested. The diversity of questions that forensic linguists address and the approaches that they take to those questions means that the forensic science regulator does not cover their work, so there is no way for high-quality practitioners to be identified and used and low-quality practitioners avoided.
There is a need for a mechanism to recognise what should count as quality work in textual forensic linguistics. That could be a register of individuals or methods, or both. The obvious person to hold that would be the forensic science regulator, but that would definitely represent an extension of her current role, hence the need for the Bill.
Where is the proof, however, that forensic linguistic analysis can work? In those cases in which forensic linguistic evidence has been allowed in court, it has proved particularly valuable. For example, it was used in the appeals of Derek Bentley and the Birmingham Six. In many instances across the UK, it has been used to determine the authorship of SMS text messages in murder cases. It has been used to extract the meaning of coded texts and slang terms used in internet chatrooms, often involving conspiracies to murder and child sex abuse conversations. Good forensic linguistic evidence has withstood appeal, yet this excellent work could be undermined due to substandard analysis by poorly qualified and unqualified practitioners.
Although it has strong roots in the UK, textual forensic linguistic evidence is increasingly accepted internationally. Examples of its use include successful appeals against murder convictions in Australia and cases of disputed wills in South Africa. In 1996 in the United States, textual forensic linguistic analysis was used to identify the writer of the Unabomber’s manifesto as Ted Kaczynski, and he was subsequently convicted of running a bombing campaign across the country.
In the United Kingdom, too, textual forensic linguistics has been used in investigations of serious counter-terrorism cases. In 2004, for example, Dhiren Barot was arrested in London and charged on the basis of linguistic evidence linking him to the writing of a conspiracy document. He later admitted to plotting to bomb the New York stock exchange, the International Monetary Fund headquarters and the World Bank, among other targets.
The United Kingdom’s forensic science regulator role was created in 2007 by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). It is good that some progress has been made, but on this issue, Mr Speaker, it is time to put the regulator to work. The Bill would enable the statutory agencies to use information and evidence that they gather through the medium of forensic linguistics to protect more children from predatory adults, and to protect the British public from the likelihood of events such as those that happened recently in Brussels, Paris, Istanbul, Kabul and Pakistan. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Roger Mullin, Ian Blackford, Drew Hendry, Lady Hermon, John Mann, Michelle Thomson and Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg present the Bill.
Roger Mullin accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 May, and to be printed (Bill 164).
Energy Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Energy Bill [Lords] for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 18 January 2016 (Energy Bill [Lords] (Programme)) and 14 March 2016 (Energy Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 2)):
Consideration of Lords Message
1. Any Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
2. Proceedings on that Message shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement at today’s sitting.
3. The Message shall be considered in the following order: Commons Amendment No. 7, Commons Amendment No. 6, Commons Amendment No. 8, Commons Amendment No. 2.
4. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
5. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement. (Stephen Barclay.)
Question agreed to.
Energy Bill [Lords]
Consideration of Lords message
After clause 79
Onshore wind power: circumstances in which certificates may be issued after 31 March 2016
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 7A.
With this we will consider the following:
Lords amendments 7B to 7S.
Lords amendment 7T, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 7U to 7W, 6A and 6B, 8A to 8C and Lords amendment 2A.
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendment 2A. If the House agrees it, I will cause an appropriate entry to be made in the Journal.
To deliver on our manifesto commitment, the Government remain determined to bring forward the closure of the renewables obligation to new onshore wind in Great Britain. This commitment is based on plans that were signalled well before the general election last year, and that should not have come as a surprise to hon. Members or to industry.
Back in March 2015, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), then Minister for Energy and Climate Change, stated in this House:
“We have made it absolutely clear that we will remove onshore wind subsidies in the future”.—[Official Report, 6 March 2015; Vol. 293, c. 1227-28.]
Prior to that, in December 2014, the Prime Minister, speaking of wind farms, stated in the House of Commons Liaison Committee:
“we don’t need to have more of these subsidised onshore. So let’s get rid of the subsidy”.
We have been absolutely clear all along. The Government’s policy is to bring forward the closure of the renewables obligation to new onshore wind.
To protect investor confidence, the Government have proposed a grace period for those projects meeting certain conditions as at 18 June last year, as outlined in the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on that date. The grace period provisions are intended to protect those projects that, at 18 June last year, already had relevant planning consents; a grid connection offer and acceptance of that offer, or confirmation that no grid connection was required; and access to land rights.
As my hon. Friend said before setting out that list of warnings, and as we discussed in Committee, the proposals were in our manifesto, which commanded the support of the British people. Does she agree that we are again on thin ice, with the other place trying to interfere with the Government’s agenda, which has already been voted on by the British people?
Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right. This is a manifesto commitment. Peers should listen to the manifesto commitment of this Government and respect it; that is normal practice, as I understand it.
The Government have taken action on a key concern raised by industry about an investment freeze. The clauses are therefore intended to ensure that projects that meet the core grace period criteria, and which were intended to be able to access the grace period as proposed, are not frozen out of the process. Since proposing this measure, the Government have continued to receive representations from industry suggesting that it supports and welcomes the proposals to address the investment freeze. The Government have also put in place a provision to ensure that an existing grace period for delays caused by grid or radar works will continue to apply.
We now need to get on and complete this Bill. As the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) said in Committee, speaking for the Scottish National party:
“We agree that swift passage of the Bill with clear and consistent RO grace period provisions is needed in order to provide certainty to investors in the onshore wind sector as quickly as possible. The renewables industry fears that the longer legislative uncertainty over RO closure persists, the greater the risk of otherwise eligible projects running out of time to deliver under the proposed grace periods.”––[Official Report, Energy Public Bill Committee, 2 February 2016; c. 217.]
He is right.
In addition, these clauses give the Secretary of State a power to make regulations that would prevent electricity suppliers in Great Britain from using Northern Ireland renewables obligation certificates relating to electricity generated by new onshore wind stations and any additional capacity added to existing wind stations after the onshore wind closure date. This is a backstop power that would be used only if Northern Ireland did not close its RO to new onshore wind on equivalent terms to Great Britain.
Since our last debate on this issue, I am pleased to say that the RO in Northern Ireland has closed to large-scale new onshore wind stations with a capacity above 5 MW with effect from 1 April 2016. The Northern Ireland Executive are currently consulting on closing to stations at 5 MW and below.
On the response of the Northern Ireland Executive, we are going into Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, so will the Minister confirm that this is almost too late for the present Northern Ireland Executive? She wants the Bill to be rushed through and completed, but we will not have a running Executive in Northern Ireland until at least a fortnight after the Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
I do not agree that we are rushing the Bill through; there has been an enormous amount of time for consultation and discussion. As I said, the Northern Ireland Executive are consulting on closing the RO to stations at 5 MW and below. I can assure all hon. Members that the Government continue to engage with Northern Ireland with a view to effecting closure on equivalent terms to Great Britain.
Since our last debate on this policy in this House, the Government have introduced two further small changes to the Bill. These will provide for the provisions on the early closure of the RO to new onshore wind in Great Britain, the related grace period provisions, and the backstop power relating to the RO in Northern Ireland to come into force on the date that the Bill receives Royal Assent. Amendments 6A to 6B, 7A to 7S, 7U to 7W and 8A to 8C adjust the early closure date, previously 31 March 2016, to the date of Royal Assent. These changes are made in various places throughout clauses 79, 80 and 81, and to both the grid or radar condition and the investment freeze condition.
I was very clear in our last debate on this issue, as was the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the other place, Lord Bourne. The Government do not intend to backdate these provisions.
Before I speak to Lords amendment 7T and the Government’s motion to disagree, let me again say that the Government remain committed to delivering our manifesto pledge to end new subsidies for onshore wind. The final policy, which was agreed at our last debate in this House, strikes the right balance between protecting consumer bills and addressing the concerns of the industry.
The Government do not agree that it is appropriate to include the provision in Lords amendment 7T. The Government want this part of the Bill returned to the state in which it left this House last month. The amendment inserted into the Bill in the other place would allow projects that did not have formal planning consent as of 18 June last year into the RO beyond the early closure date. That would include projects that had an indication from a local planning authority that they would receive planning consent, subject to a section 106 or section 75 agreement being entered into. It would also include projects where the local planning committee was minded to approve the planning application before 18 June 2015, but planning permission was not issued until after that date. To be clear, those projects did not have planning permission as at 18 June last year, so they do not meet the grace period criteria proposed by the Government.
Mr Speaker, 18 June was set out as a clear, bright line, and we have continued to maintain that it is important as a clear cut-off and statement of intent to industry. Tampering with such an integral part of the early closure policy at such a late stage in its development simply will not do. Such a change would lead to an increase in deployment—an increase that runs counter to the intent of the early closure policy. The Government have a mandate to protect consumer bills from rising costs, and we must continue to maintain the clear, bright line that is so carefully set out in the Bill’s provisions.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the amendment is likely to reduce the predicted savings from early closure by something in the region of £10 million per annum, which is a significant figure, given that early closure of the RO is expected to save around £20 million a year in a central scenario, and as much as £270 million a year in the high scenario.
Does the Minister agree that this was one of the most popular policies in the pretty popular manifesto we put to the electorate? We therefore need to get on with implementing it, and the other place should recognise that this issue arose out of the election.
My right hon. Friend is exactly right: this is a key, popular manifesto commitment, and we are determined to implement it, as we promised the voters of this country we would last May.
Let me turn briefly to amendment 2A, which was agreed in the other place. The amendment simply seeks to ensure that the function of determining whether an oil field project is materially complete can be transferred to the Oil and Gas Authority. That function sits outside chapter 9 of the Corporation Tax Act 2010 but elsewhere within part 8, so it does not fall within the definition of “relevant function” under clause 2(6) of the Bill. It therefore cannot be transferred from the Secretary of State to the OGA by regulations made under clause 2(2). The amendment simply removes the reference to “Chapter 9 of” from the reference to part 8 of the 2010 Act in clause 2(6), ensuring that this important function can be transferred to the OGA. The amendment is purely technical, and seeks to put beyond doubt that all key oil and gas taxation functions can be transferred to the OGA once it becomes a Government company, as we have always intended.
The amendments we have received from the other place make a number of changes to the Bill. In most instances, as the Minister mentioned, those relate to the commencement of the closure of the RO. That is essentially because of the Bill’s progress through Parliament and the potential charge of retrospectivity against the Bill. It is good that the issue has been rectified, and that the Government have confirmed that they do not intend to backdate the closure of the RO.
However, those changes point to the issue raised in amendment 7T, with which the Government have a motion to disagree. We need to be clear that the amendment is not saying that changing the closure date for the RO for onshore wind is wrong, although I continue to contend that it is. Contrary to the impression the Minister has given this afternoon, developers of projects did not realise that the closure date would be earlier than previously thought. Indeed, the so-called warnings before the general election, which she mentioned, were not about the early closure of the RO, but about future funding for onshore wind in general. Developers of projects knew that the RO would come to an end in March 2017, and many had spent several years—a long period—in the development process before the warnings were issued, and before the policy was put forward in the manifesto and, subsequently, the Bill. Having planned on the basis of the notion that the RO would come to an end, they found out very late in the day that the goalposts had been arbitrarily moved, and that their investment was lost overnight as a result.
Nor is the amendment in any way contrary to manifesto commitments; it is not about the principle of the early closure of the RO, but about the grace periods that follow from that closure process. It is not saying that there should not be grace period exceptions for schemes that, for various reasons, might fall foul of the new, arbitrary cut-off date. By highlighting a small number of projects that have fallen foul of the cut-off date for very specific reasons, it is saying that grace-period schemes should be built on a reasonable level of equity and fairness, and should work within an understanding of proper reasons for exemption; they should not simply impose a few extended, but nevertheless still arbitrary, cut-off dates for projects.
Lords amendment 7T highlights a particularly egregious inequity in the grace-period scheme. This involves schemes that have, even according to the new guidelines laid down in the Bill process, done the right thing throughout by seeking and securing local support. As the Government said earlier in the passage of the Bill, it was to be the sine qua non of permission for the development of any onshore wind in the future that local communities should have the final say in decisions; schemes, it was said, should obtain support, perhaps through local planning approval, and should not, for example, seek to win an appeal on the basis of national determination, having been turned down at local level.
The schemes covered by the amendment fit exactly that description. They have determinedly gone through the local process and engaged with it, rather than standing back and waiting to progress through an appeal. They have won local community support, in each instance through the granting of a planning decision by the local authority. The only issue is that, having gone through that often lengthy process of local consultation, they find that the successful, locally supported outcome has, at the stroke of a pen, effectively been turned into refusal. That has happened because the final planning certificate has not arrived by the cut-off date because of issues relating not to the permission, but to details of section 106 agreements on community benefit or similar issues, or to section 75 agreements in Scotland—that is, issues that arise not as part of the agreement process, but because the agreement has been reached. As these schemes could not produce a final, formal planning certificate by the arbitrary date of 18 June, the scheme as a whole was lost.
Here is the timetable of one such scheme, the Twentyshilling Hill wind farm in Dumfriesshire. The planning application was initially made on 15 March 2013 —a long time ago. It was approved by a planning committee, subject to a section 75 agreement, on 16 December 2014. It was not the fault of the wind farm applicant that the council took a few months to settle the section 75 application. Even so, the application was agreed on 17 June—again, before the cut-off date. However, despite the agreement being public and on the council website, the final certificate did not arrive until 1 July, making it null and void in the Government’s eyes, as the Minister has stated.
In retrospect, it might have been wiser for those and other developers not to take too much time on, or give too much attention to, local agreement, but to instead precipitate an appeal that they might have won. Indeed, when developers have done just that and the appeal decision has arrived after the cut-off date of 18 June 2015—we heard of such instances during the passage of the Bill—it has been accepted because of a provision relating to the grace period. The projects are deemed to have been okay all along and are allowed to proceed. That is frankly perverse, and it falls seriously short of the test of reasonableness and equity that ought to inform any grace period arrangement.
Lords amendment 7T relates to a small number of cases and seeks to restore a semblance of equity to the process. It is based on the principle that the Government themselves promoted as the basis for decisions on onshore wind applications. It is a principle for the future that, incidentally, Labour supports.
I shall explain the equity. If a local planning committee found in favour of a planning decision before 18 June, and the decision was arrived at via a process of consultation and community acceptance of the application, it should be covered by the grace period provisions. This small amendment would affect only about half a dozen schemes. In the overall scheme of things, it would make an insignificant inroad into levy control framework financial provisions, as far as the RO is concerned. It would, however, place a much-needed patch of equity on the grace period structure, and perhaps point the way to addressing seriously a future issue. That issue is this: are the Government intent on ensuring that onshore wind will be built in the future—it is, after all, the cheapest and most cost-effective renewable available—if local communities support the proposals, or do they intend to use national clout to override local wishes in pursuit of an overall closure of onshore wind, at least in England?
Accepting the amendment and finalising the Bill in this way would go a long way to restoring a principle that was supposedly central to the process for the future, and it would demonstrate to local communities that they really will be able to decide and not have their local wishes snuffed out by a fiat from the centre.
I hope that the other place will not delay this Bill further, because many people and parties in this House, and in the other place, wish it to go through to provide measures to help our oil and gas industry, which is struggling with the collapse in the world oil price and the consequent threat to jobs and prosperity that we would like to help alleviate.
I have two main reasons for strongly supporting the Government. First, they are absolutely right to say that our energy is too dear and that their measures are a contribution to tackling the problem of very expensive energy. A tragedy is unfolding in several of our industries, most recently in the steel industry, where the consequences of very high energy costs compared with those of our competitors around the world are manifest, especially the impact on output, profit, loss and loss of jobs. We desperately need to do more to tackle the problem of very expensive energy, so I admire the Government’s urgency in tackling one of its sources. The subsidy withdrawal is entirely appropriate.
One of the problems with wind energy—this makes it a very high-cost way of offering generating capacity—is that back-up capacity needs to be built to generate the power by some other means, because there will be times of the day, days of the week and weeks of the year when there is no wind. At such times, we are entirely reliant on the back-up power, and that requires a full range of back-up. There will always be extra costs involved with such an unreliable renewable source of energy.
On cost grounds, it is vital that we make rapid progress. I think that good notice was given—the election was notice enough, I would have thought. It was a prominent and popular policy. None of us was shy about debating it and we got a lot of support from many people.
The second main reason why I think the Government are right to take this action is that wind is so intermittent and unreliable. Therefore, if there is too much wind, the problems of managing and balancing the system become that much greater. As the Member of Parliament who represents the control centre on Bearwood Road in Wokingham, I am only too well aware of how its task is made much more expensive and complicated the more interruptible and unreliable energy there is on the system. The Government’s measure will be a welcome check on that. It will help it to manage the system better and to provide more reliable power for industry.
If there is too much unreliable power on the system and that power goes down, it is industry and commerce that will take the hit. They will be asked to forgo the use of power when there is no wind, but when we are desperately trying to compete in a very competitive world, surely it is important not just to keep the lights on in people’s households, but to keep the factories turning over.
For those two powerful reasons—there are many others, but I will not detain the House with them— I strongly support what the Government are doing. I urge the other place to recognise how important it is for our national energy security and for the sake of the prices charged to our consumers, and, above all, to remember that it was an election pledge.
As is so often the case with learning about the workings of this place, sometimes I do not know whether something is a formal rule or a convention. I had assumed that “ping-pong” was a mere colloquialism, but I was surprised to learn from the Order Papers online that it is the formal name for this process. I was never very good at ping-pong when I was younger—I kept taking my eye off the ball, which could also be said of the Government, whose dogmatism in pushing this issue and continuing with ping-pong means that they are taking their eye off the bigger picture. I agree with the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) that the bigger picture for the Energy Bill, at every stage of the process, has been the establishment of the Oil and Gas Authority.
If we simply accept the Lords amendments, which I support, we could finish our deliberations on this Bill and be done with it. They are balanced and sensible and would deliver the pragmatic response that it is beholden on the Government to deliver.
Sometimes it is better to know the answer to a question before asking it. A number of my colleagues are meeting constituents down from Scotland who suffer from motor neurone disease. Given the hugely debilitating impact that that illness can have on people, and given the impact that Westminster can have on welfare, it is important that a number of our folks are there.
I started by saying that at one point in my youth I was guilty of taking my eyes off the ball. With these diversionary tactics, Conservative Members are well and truly taking their eyes off the ball. We could discuss who is here. It is disappointing that there are not many Members in the Chamber, and I am not sure proportionately how many Tories are present. I could do some back-of-a-fag-packet sums—that might appeal to them—but instead I shall persevere.
We are talking about 90 MW of onshore wind. The Minister said in Committee on 2 June that
“it is absolutely our intention to give local communities the final say on wind farm developments.”––[Official Report, Energy [Lords] Public Bill Committee, 2 June 2015; c. 76.]
Six of the seven schemes that have received planning consent are in Scotland. The committee dates were 24 November 2014 for West Benhar in North Lanarkshire; 11 December 2014 for Twentyshilling in Dumfries and Galloway; 3 June 2015 for the Chruach extension in Argyll and Bute; 15 September 2014 for the Barlockhart Moor extension; 27 January 2015 for Poniel in South Lanarkshire; 24 February 2015 for Crookedstane in South Lanarkshire; and 5 June 2015 for the Melton Common wind cluster in Hull. Those were all before the Government’s cut-off date of 18 June 2015.
As the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) suggested, if we are to put local consent at the heart of this issue, we must respect the outcome and will of local councils that decided to proceed with these schemes, but which through no fault of their own—or indeed of the developers—were not granted planning consent and a decision notice until after this decision. For the Twentyshilling Hill wind farm, evidence to the Committee from the provost and chair of the Royal Burgh of Sanquhar and District Community Council, and the chair of Kirkconnel and Kelloholm Community Council stated:
“Our two Communities number nearly 5000 inhabitants, and, since the closure of the coal mines nearly 50 years ago, have stumbled from crisis to crisis. Despite the problems affecting our area, we are not dependent communities, and both Kirkconnel and Sanquhar can boast good public initiatives and an earnest desire to improve our lot through self-help. Windfarm monies will, at least allow local people the ability to take decisions which will improve the area in which we live.”
Twentyshilling Hill wind farm has the potential to offer life-changing improvement to the lives and living conditions of the populations of Upper Nithsdale. That is local empowerment. We are talking about local consent and support, and Twentyshilling Hill wind farm has unmistakeably got the support of the communities in which it will be set. For the sake of a few points of dogmatic principle from the Government, we are seeing that taken away through no fault of the community or the developer, but purely to persevere unnecessarily. I urge the Government to put their eyes back on the ball and allow the Energy Bill to proceed. If we go back and forth with ping-pong we risk delaying that further.
The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. Let me make a point that I also raised in Committee. I accept that there may not be time for this with some of these schemes, but on a point of principle, if the Scottish Government and the SNP wish to continue these schemes in Scotland, why will they not pay for them themselves?
Because there is no mechanism. We discussed that in Committee, and the hon. Gentleman voted against the mechanism that would have allowed that to happen. I do not see how that question focuses on the issue. If we want Scotland to receive support for such projects, that could have been provided.
There were two different aspects, and we had a number of debates. The hon. Gentleman asked how we would do something, but we cannot do it—pure and simple. Let me return to the nub of the matter. People would like pragmatic government, but we are seeing dogmatic government that dismisses the views of communities.
It is a pleasure to listen to a message from the other place and to disagree with it wholeheartedly. A few hours ago the German Government decided that they want to withdraw subsidy from onshore wind schemes, for exactly the same reasons that we in this country are doing so. In previous debates and in Committee, I described my campaign to get this clear manifesto pledge from my party. I will not go through that again—I had only half an hour last time to describe the process and some of the things that I was after, and we are time-limited today—but it all stemmed from the Kelmarsh decision in my constituency.
Members in this place understand how important it is to represent their constituents, but I wish to tell some of those in the other place that it was not only one small village in my constituency that was affected by an onshore wind decision—Hanging Houghton, Brixworth, Draughton, Maidwell, Hazelbeach, Kelmarsh, Yelvertoft, Winwick, Crick, Lilbourne, Badby, Kislingbury, Guilsborough, Watford, West Haddon, East Haddon, Ravensthorpe, Great Oxendon and many more villages in my constituency were all affected by proposals for unwanted onshore wind farms. That is why at the end of the previous Parliament, a letter to the Prime Minister was signed by 101 Members of Parliament in order to get this change. There was a long battle across the Floor of the House about whether we should be subsidising onshore wind, and a clear manifesto pledge by the Conservative party to stop funding it.
The hon. Members for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) and for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) have highlighted small factors within the grace period, but this is a clear manifesto pledge and principle that people in my constituency wanted and expected me to fight for. I will not listen to those in the other House who are determined to bring party politics into this.
There are no Lib Dems in the Chamber today—there are too many anyway, but none of them is here today. Those Lib Dems who fought to reform and get an elected Chamber up the other end of the corridor are now using that Chamber to abuse the democratic process of this country. They know full well what they are doing. When Lord Wallace of Tankerness decided that he wanted to interpret the Conservative party manifesto, it was interesting that many Liberal Democrats who supported him had been defeated by people who supported that manifesto. They lost their seats partly because in their communities they could not defend the onshore wind turbines that the Conservative party had made a clear commitment to get rid of.
I know the hon. Gentleman said that he had a bit of trouble with conventions, and so, obviously, do some Members of the House of Lords. I am trying to remind them of a long-standing tradition and convention in this place, which is that when a party has a manifesto commitment to enact legislation, that legislation should not be overturned by those who are unelected down the other end of the corridor. If we consider who tabled the amendments and voted for this message to be sent to the Commons, we see a whole list of former MPs who lost their seats because of the manifesto that they are now trying to overturn from an unelected place.
I was involved with this manifesto pledge through to the point of delivery, and I sat on the Energy Bill Committee. I am pretty sure that I know what our manifesto pledge was, as did those who voted for it in my constituency—it was on my leaflets and plain for all to see. I wish to send a message to those down the other end of the corridor that they are dabbling with democracy. They are not just fighting for the principle of a grace period for six wind farms; they are determinedly fighting against a clear manifesto pledge by a governing party.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman had in his election leaflet details of the grace periods that would have been put in place as a consequence of the manifesto commitment. If those details were not in his leaflet, does he agree that the question of grace periods is not about the manifesto commitment, but about how that commitment might be made more palatable, as far as the transition is concerned? That is what we are debating today.
That is the sort of thing that I probably would have had etched into a stone for people to laugh at. The hon. Gentleman knows the answer. Of course, I did not have anything about grace periods in my local campaign leaflet that I sent to my constituents, because I thought that people would understand exactly what we meant when we said that there was no subsidy for onshore wind. I did not think that it was necessary to dance on the head of a pin for the sake of a simple party political point.
I end where I began. My constituents are desperate for the measure, and they are desperate for the measures to help the oil and gas industry. They are surprised that Liberal Democrats down the other end of the corridor are willing to play politics with the elected Chamber on a point in a manifesto on which they were heartily defeated. My constituents are annoyed by the fact that the matter has not become law already.