House of Commons
Thursday 7 March 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
Social Media Platforms: Harmful Content
More needs to be done to tackle harmful online content and to make it clear that social media platforms have responsibilities to their users. Our forthcoming White Paper will set out those responsibilities, how they should be met and what should happen if they are not.
On this issue, the Health Secretary said in January:
“It would be far better to do it in concert with the social media companies, but if we think…that they’re refusing to do so, then we can and we must legislate.”
What legislation is the Culture Secretary planning, and will he confirm whether this includes plans for an independent social media regulator?
I agree with the Health Secretary, and I have made it clear on a number of occasions that I believe the era of self-regulation must come to an end in this space. But the hon. Gentleman will understand that this is not just a complex matter, but a subject on which it is important to put forward our proposals in the round. We will do that in the White Paper that he will see shortly, and in that he will see what proposals we make for further legislation.
The Select Committee on Science and Technology heard chilling evidence about the impact that social media can have on young people’s mental health. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Committee’s recommendation that social media companies should have a duty of care towards young people, and if so, how does he intend to legislate for it and by when? If he does not agree, what other route does he suggest taking?
The Science and Technology Committee report to which my hon. Friend refers makes an important and worthwhile contribution to this debate, and I am grateful to her and her colleagues for it. Again, I hope she will forgive me if I do not set out at this Dispatch Box now precisely what the White Paper will say, but perhaps I can reassure her by saying that we are strongly considering a duty of care as part of the proposals we seek to make, and we believe it is important that responsibilities are taken seriously to protect not only young people but everyone from the harms that the internet may provide.
The Secretary of State mentions the duty of care applying to platforms. Is he aware that there are gaming platforms similar to social media platforms which are circulating material such as the rather horribly named “Rape Day” game, and will he extend any legislation he is planning for social media to game platforms?
I believe it is not what a company calls itself that matters, but what it does. What we will seek to do in the White Paper and anything that follows it is make sure that we can tackle the harms we define as in scope of that White Paper, wherever they may lie on the internet. I understand that the game the hon. Lady mentions has now been withdrawn; quite right too—I think all of us would have been horrified had any other course been taken.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee report that if social media platforms host harmful contact and fail to act against it, they should have liability for it?
Again, my hon. Friend will have to wait for the detail of the White Paper, but I have made it, I hope, very clear, and am happy to make it clear again, that I believe that social media companies have responsibilities in this space. They should take those responsibilities seriously, and if they do not there should be consequences.
Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) from the Labour Benches about “Rape Day”, the game was created by developer Desk Plant. For the benefit of the Secretary of State, those in the Chamber and those watching, I should say that the game enables players to
“verbally harass, kill, and rape women”,
and its contents include
“violence, sexual assault, non-consensual sex, obscene language, necrophilia, and incest.”
A game of this nature has no place in our society. I am glad it has been pulled by gaming site Steam, but its statement was woeful; it did not even accept or acknowledge the risk that it could pose. At a time when one in five women will experience sexual violence in their lives, and in the week when International Women’s Day falls, will the Secretary of State work with me and others to launch a review of how this game even got to the development and approval stage and make sure that it appears on no other platforms?
Yes. The hon. Lady makes a good point, and I think that we should ask questions about this. It is profoundly unacceptable that material such as this should be available to young people, and older people, and we must worry about the sense it creates of proper relationships and the way in which these types of activity should be regarded by any fundamentally decent society. Of course, we must understand exactly how it has got to this point in relation to this game. As I have said, I welcome the fact that the game has been withdrawn. I think we would all have been having a very different conversation this morning if it had not been.
Every major social media platform other than YouTube has taken down Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s profile because of his hateful conduct. Late on Monday night, Yaxley-Lennon turned up at a journalist’s home and banged on the doors and windows demanding to be let in. After being escorted away by the police, he returned at 5 am and continued his intimidation. The incident was live-streamed. He later warned journalists in a YouTube video to expect a “knock on the door”. Does the Secretary of State think it is right that YouTube and its parent company Alphabet are continuing to give this man a platform?
In this House, we all believe in freedom of speech, but we also believe that that freedom of speech has limits, and that when people seek to intimidate others, and potentially to break the law—the description that the hon. Gentleman has given the House this morning is potentially a description of criminal behaviour—it is unacceptable. It is beyond the reach of the type of freedom of speech that we believe should be protected. As I have said, all internet companies and all platforms for this kind of speech need to take their responsibilities seriously, and I hope that YouTube will consider carefully what the hon. Gentleman and I have said, and reconsider its judgment.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Those who have expressed their opinion online will know that doing so can unleash a torrent of abuse designed to make them wonder whether they should speak out at all. This week we have heard of female colleagues having panic buttons installed in their homes because of the death and rape threats they have received. This culture of abuse, intimidation and threats undermines our democracy and the principles of free speech. Will the Secretary of State consider, and even guarantee, that the online harms White Paper will introduce measures to prevent hate figures, extremists and their followers from turning the online world into a cesspit of hate?
I will of course consider what the hon. Gentleman has said, but we must ensure that we preserve our ability, online as everywhere else, to debate and discuss issues that are sometimes uncomfortable and certainly controversial. I repeat, however, that no freedom of speech can survive in this country if we do not protect people’s ability to feel free to say what they think, free of intimidation and free of the threat of violence. Those who engage in intimidation or threats of violence should not find succour online or anywhere else.
The Government have invested £1.8 billion of public money to ensure that 95% of the country has access to superfast broadband. Broadband UK operates voucher schemes, and the Government are introducing a universal service obligation that will give everybody the right to a minimum speed of 10 megabits per second. These interventions are particularly designed to help people in rural areas.
I thank the Minister for her response. The Scottish National party has been boasting about the £600 million that the Scottish Government have supposedly invested—past tense—in the R100 broadband scheme. That money has not been invested; more than a year and a half after the funding was promised, they have still not got round to awarding the contracts. This so-called investment remains just a promise, and the ambition of 100% superfast access by 2021 is looking less realistic than ever. Can the Minister assure me that when she next meets Scottish Government Ministers, she will remind them of the importance of sticking to their timetable?
Order. The Minister’s responsibility is for the UK Government’s policy. She has no responsibility for the policy of the Scottish Government—a fact of which I am sure she is fully aware.
I am indeed aware of that, Mr Speaker, but it is crucial that Governments stick to timetables when delivering an essential utility that is a fundamental part of public need. I will of course be happy to discuss this when I am next in communication with Scottish Government Ministers, who should be held to account for the unacceptable delay in even getting started on this vital work.
The Government’s shift to fibre investment is very welcome, although the levels of fibre in this country for delivering essential infrastructure are very low. North Wales has put forward an impressive bid to support our strong local economy. Will the Minister look closely at the bid and accelerate investment in fibre?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to catch up on fibre. The Government have exciting plans and funding to accelerate fibre roll-out, with a £200 million programme, which was announced in the last Budget, starting this April and a further £300 million before 2022. I will look at the north Wales proposal with great interest.
I thank the Minister most warmly and sincerely for her announcement yesterday of £1.91 million to get superfast broadband into Unst and Yell in Shetland. That money truly has the potential to be transformative for those communities. If she would like to come and see that for herself, she would be very welcome. If she does so, she will also be able to see the remaining communities in Shetland and Orkney where such investment could make a massive difference.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his positive input, and I am planning to visit Scotland in April. I draw his attention to the excellent 5G testbed pilots that we are running in rural areas in his part of Scotland.
Sport is a devolved matter in Scotland, but through Sport England we fund 45 different sporting governing bodies that support grassroots participation and talented athletes. When people watch broadcast sport, they should see women and disabled people, too. Although progress has been made over the last few years, especially in women’s sport, there is scope to do better. I met broadcasters and sporting organisations recently to discuss with them what more they can do.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for golf, I am proud that we were one of the first signatories to the R&A women in golf charter, which commits to the development of a more inclusive culture in the sport. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming that initiative, and will he meet me and major golfing bodies to discuss what we are doing and what can be done to encourage more women and girls to enjoy the sport?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in offering congratulations on that significant step forward, and we want to see more. I am sure that I or my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), who is the Minister responsible for sport, will be happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.
With the decline in print media, and in sports coverage in some local news programming, minority sports struggle to be noticed and they face challenges in attracting new participants. The problem is infinitely more acute in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have much smaller media and broadcast markets than England. I back the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport contestable fund, which supports children’s TV, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State or the Minister with responsibility for sport will meet me to discuss what we can do to support minority sports coverage.
Again, I am happy to agree to that proposal. It is worth our understanding more clearly the exact picture in Scotland, as the hon. Gentleman says. Broadcasting is a reserved matter and sport is a devolved matter, so we must make sure that the two work in sync. In England, we support a range of sports—I am sure that the same thing happens in Scotland—and we want to see whether we can give such sports greater prominence so that people can find a sport that they get on with, that they want to do and that they enjoy, in order to promote greater participation in sport more broadly.
This lunchtime sees the official launch at Lord’s of the women’s parliamentary cricket team, which will attract media coverage. Will the Secretary of State, on International Women’s Day, wish the venture all success? Will he perhaps offer a word of congratulation to my senior parliamentary assistant, Megan Williams, who has gone to huge efforts to make this happen and will be captaining the side?
I am very happy to do that, and I wish Megan and the rest of the side the very best of luck. My hon. Friend is a doughty champion of women’s cricket. He makes the case for it very well and often, and we hear him. We are also talking about the broadcast of women’s sport, and I know that he will recognise that it is a step forward that the first stand-alone women’s world T20 competition this year will be broadcast on British free-to-air television.
Let me join in the congratulations to Megan Williams, the senior parliamentary assistant to the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight). I am aware, courtesy of a letter from her to me dated yesterday, of the inaugural event, which I am advised will take place from 11 am onwards. I gather that as a result of co-operation with the England and Wales Cricket Board, they will be joined by Lydia Greenway, a top England women’s cricketer—lending real weight and ballast to this very welcome initiative. I think Megan deserves huge plaudits from across this House.
Thanks to Sky Sports, the women’s Six Nations has received much wider coverage since 2017 than ever before. However, Sky Sports is a subscription channel. Can the Minister tell us whether the conversations he has mentioned extend to conversations with the rugby unions of the home nations and free-to-view channels about getting this competition on a free-to-view channel before the next International Women’s Day?
We are certainly having conversations with all the broadcasters about what more they can do.
By the way, I should correct myself: I think it is in fact Sky that will be broadcasting the women’s world T20, not a free-to-air broadcaster as I suggested. Sky is doing a good deal, and we welcome that. We hope it will do more. I am having conversations about how we can broaden the scope of women’s sport and disability sport that people see on television so that they can see a variety of different sports, perhaps including in the highlights packages they may see. That is an important way of engaging people with a broader understanding of what is happening in the sporting environment.
Society Lotteries Reform
I am carefully considering the evidence submitted during the consultation, and I hope to respond in the first half of this year.
Despite many warm words stretching back over several years, the Government have shown a distinct lack of urgency in considering the future of society lotteries. It has now been six months since the consultation closed and, all the while, charities and good causes are losing desperately needed funds. Will the Minister now confirm that the Government’s preferred option of a £100 million annual sales limit will be applied and implemented, as previously stated, on 6 April? If not, why not?
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that there is a real strength of feeling on this matter. The fact that I am still regularly meeting colleagues and hearing from the sector shows that we want to get this right. I understand the sense of urgency, but I appreciate that we need to get the balance right. Society lotteries are important, and they make a huge contribution to the fundraising landscape, with £296 million raised for good causes last year alone. Of course we need to balance that alongside supporting the national lottery, too.
In concurring with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), does the Minister agree that the request by society lotteries to raise the maximum prize to £1 million is both popular and reasonable, and that there is no evidence this would damage the national lottery? She will be aware that society lotteries do untold good in our constituencies, so will she now stand foursquare behind them?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and it is right to admit and react to the fact that we consulted on the £1 million prize, but we need to balance it with any potential impact on the national lottery. There is a balance to be made. Society lotteries, as we well know, are widely used as a fundraising tool across our communities to support local charities and hospices. To my mind, if we find this balance, we will grow the pie and help all lotteries to survive.
The players of the People’s Postcode lottery, based in my constituency of Edinburgh North and Leith, have raised an amazing £400 million for good causes, but achieving that incredible fundraising milestone has been greatly hindered by this outdated legislation. The Government said last June that a £100 million annual sales limit is their preferred option. Why has that not been implemented? When exactly will they bring forward the legislation to do just that?
I know that the People’s Postcode lottery does a huge amount in the hon. Lady’s constituency. In fact, it recently brought George Clooney to her constituency to celebrate this success. I am very disappointed not to have been able to accept the invite—can’t think why!
The work of the People’s Postcode lottery has supported our building connections fund, with £11.5 million going to tackle loneliness. It is right that we balance all these great but competing opportunities to support charities across the country.
Free TV Licences: Over-75s
I discuss a range of matters with my Cabinet colleagues, and we know that older people across the country value TV as a way to stay connected with the world. That is why we have guaranteed the over-75s licence concession until June 2020, at which point responsibility for it will transfer to the BBC. After that, it will be for the BBC to decide on the future of that concession, but the Government have made it clear that we would want and expect the BBC to continue with it.
A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that one in six of our pensioners are now living in poverty, so the last thing they need is an extra £150.50 added to their bills. I know that the Minister and his Government are keen to shift responsibility for this on to the BBC’s shoulders, but will the Secretary of State accept that having promised in his party’s manifesto that licences for the over-75s would be maintained, he must either fulfil that promise or admit that his party and his Government have let pensioners down?
First, the responsibility has been transferred—that happened by statute in 2017. The deal was done with the BBC in 2015. What we do not yet have are the proposals that the BBC intends to make. My suggestion is that we all wait to see what the BBC actually decides to do, and then we can comment upon it.
The Secretary of State is right: it is in statute. We opposed it, and right now the National Pensioners Convention is protesting outside DCMS—not outside the BBC. That is because this policy was invented by this Government. It is about transferring social policy to the BBC, which should not have happened. Should this not be up for the prize for the most cynical policy this Government have ever created?
No, but what is truly cynical is to criticise the Government for the transfer of a financial liability without any hint whatsoever from Her Majesty’s Opposition that they would be prepared to take it back. So I would be very interested to hear whether it is the policy of the Labour party, in government, to take this responsibility back into the Government’s hands, and exactly what would be cut, what extra would be borrowed or what taxes would be raised to pay for it. Otherwise, it is just hot air.
The Charity Commission performs a vital role as the independent regulator and registrar of charities in England and Wales. The National Audit Office conducted a review of the commission as recently as November 2017 and was positive in its findings. The commission continues to regulate robustly to ensure that the public can support charities with confidence.
Some £43 million of public money going on a bridge across the Thames on which zero construction occurred has led us all up the garden path and now we know that the trust is being wound up. The Charity Commission says it will do no further investigation, so will the Government instigate an independent inquiry so that lessons are learned and no project like this ever has the same fate? Frankly, to have a regulator that is not regulating feels useless.
The hon. Lady raises the specific issue of the Garden Bridge Trust, which is concerning. The commission has rightly scrutinised the trustees’ conduct and management, and the charity itself, carefully, and it continues to monitor the charity’s progress on winding up. I understand that the commission intends to publish a concluding report on the running of the trust and to learn those wider lessons, setting them out for policy makers so that we can learn from them. I am happy to hear from the hon. Lady if she has further concerns.
The Minister will be aware that public trust in charities was shaken to the core by the revelations of the sexual abuse and harassment that occurred not only in the UK and Europe but around the world. What work is the Charity Commission doing to make sure that that issue is addressed, and that emerging concerns about the role of overseas orphanages in issues of modern-day slavery are looked into? These are important issues involving charities.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue; she is a doughty campaigner for women around the world and it is absolutely right that we will have the debate later today ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow. People have been horrified by what has been allowed to be done around the globe under the watch of charities, and it is absolutely right that we learn lessons. I am due to talk to Ministers from the Department for International Development about this matter, and I would be happy to speak to my right hon. Friend about particular issues if she feels that anything has not been picked up on. We must make sure that we learn further lessons. Nothing can be left alone on this issue.
I want to press the Minister further on the garden bridge issue. It has been a total fiasco. We have seen £40 million of public money wasted; public tendering and procurement processes bypassed; contracts awarded before the business case was even drawn up; and a cosy relationship—to say the least—between the chair of the trustees and senior figures at the Charity Commission itself, as well as the former Mayor of London. How can the public have trust in charity regulation if the Charity Commission will not properly investigate a scandal of this magnitude? What is the Minister going to do herself to make sure that a full investigation—not just a report—into this scandal is conducted?
As I said, there has been an investigation and lessons will be learned. I am due to meet the Charity Commission fairly shortly. The Government increased the commission’s budget by £5 million in January 2018 so that it could increase its core regulatory functions. I admit that I have had issues in my own constituency relating to concerns about the Charity Commission, so I am happy to take the matter further. I am the charities and lotteries Minister and, as we heard earlier, if we do not have confidence in our charities’ ability to make sure that they look after other people’s money properly, we need to carry on and do more.
Mobile Phone Coverage
Our ambition is to have good mobile coverage where people live, work and travel. I welcome the coverage obligations that Ofcom recently proposed ahead of the 700 MHz and 3.6 GHz to 3.8 GHz spectrum auctions. We have reformed the electronic communications code and made changes to planning laws, all to encourage the roll-out of digital infrastructure by making deployment cheaper.
People living in part of North Walsham in my constituency have been waiting years for any signal at all. They thought their wait was over when a mast was erected in November 2017 but, despite constant pressure on BT Openreach, it still has not been connected. Openreach needs to lay cables across land owned by Anglian Water. Should we not be able to compel these monopolies to provide a service to local people?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. We are looking to improve and strengthen the requirements on landowners to allow access to their land for vital infrastructure.
Leaving the EU: Tourism
The UK has a thriving tourism landscape. Both 2016 and 2017 showed all-time record numbers of visitors and spend, and we want that to continue. The UK and EU have proposed reciprocal visa-free travel for tourism, and the use of e-passport gates will be expanded to seven countries this summer. An additional 6.5 million passengers per year will benefit.
The B&Bs and caravan parks in Pembrokeshire are looking forward to another good season, but the concern I hear time and again is that poor broadband and mobile phone signals are a real hindrance. In 2019, who wants to go on holiday to a place that does not have a decent signal? Does the Minister agree that these 21st-century essentials are vital for a healthy tourism industry?
They are vital. Everyone wants to go on holiday in Pembrokeshire. We need broadband to work well. The Government have allocated £66 million to Welsh regions to support the roll-out of superfast broadband, and we will continue to work in partnership with the Welsh Government to support that roll-out. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to promote Pembrokeshire’s wonderful assets, including its beaches and tourism vista.
Is the Minister aware that Huddersfield has more listed buildings that either Bath or York? Does he also realise that we have just launched as the first gigabit town, which gives us superfast broadband right through the town and makes us one of the most attractive towns in Britain?
The hon. Gentleman is welcome. We are very pleased to have supported his area in the way that we have, and we will continue to do so.
Public Libraries: Northamptonshire
Northamptonshire County Council is responsible for the delivery of a comprehensive and efficient library service. The Department is aware of its plans for changes to the service. Officials have been in regular discussions with it, as I have too.
Against a very challenging financial background, will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the county council on finally coming up with sensible plans to keep all the libraries open?
Yes, I will, and I thank my hon. Friend for his work in this regard over many months. I have been in touch with the council leader and the chief executive. I am pleased to confirm that their plan is not to close any libraries in Northamptonshire. They are working towards that end, and he, I and others in Northamptonshire have worked and lobbied in that regard, but we will continue to monitor the situation carefully.
Gagging Orders: Charities
It is vital that charities feel free to speak on behalf of everyday people and continue to develop the right policy with Government. Government contracts will include provisions to ensure that providers adhere to the high standards that we expect. However, those provisions are in no way gagging clauses.
In my constituency, we have a large number of charities and advice agencies dealing with the fallout of Government cuts, universal credit, and, of course, the after-effects of Grenfell. Does the Minister truly believe that those frontline organisations should be silenced rather than being able to share their justified concerns, which could then be rectified? I draw particular attention to some of the groups involved in Grenfell that have been told, “Play nice, and you’ll get what you need.” They should be allowed to speak out.
I reiterate that this is not a gagging clause. I repeated that when I met the charities group in December and spoke at its event here in Westminster, and the Prime Minister wrote to Sir Stuart Etherington and reaffirmed the point. If the hon. Lady wishes to meet me to discuss those who feel that they cannot speak out, I would be very happy to do so. It is absolutely right that we should be able to hear the sector’s voice and to hear its expertise, its insight and everything that it can bring to Government to tackle burning injustices. As I say, I am very happy to meet her to discuss the matter.
On the eve of International Women’s Day, I am sure that the whole House will join me in congratulating the England women’s football team on winning the SheBelieves Cup this week. I also congratulate all our outstanding British winners in this year’s Oscars, particularly Olivia Colman for her Best Actress award. We are proud of them all, and they remind us of how sport and culture can unite us.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. I am a former employee and a huge supporter of our public service broadcaster, but on the issue of TV licences for those over the age of 75, is it not the case that the BBC accepted responsibility for this concession when it made an agreement with the Government? Should it not now deliver that in full, and do so without the threats of cuts to services?
My hon. Friend correctly relays the history of this. As I said earlier, it is right for us to await the conclusions of the BBC’s review of this matter. It is far more sensible to comment on something when we have seen it rather than before we have seen it. Once we have seen it, we will all be able to reach a judgment. It is the Government’s clear expectation that this concession should continue.
Will the Sports Minister comment on whether English Football League football fans were consulted on the “fans fare” scheme to protect the fares of away travelling fans?
My hon. Friends in the Department for Transport have been working strongly with fans to ensure that travel is appropriate. My understanding was that the issue had been dealt with, but I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman if he still feels that there are concerns in this area.
My hon. Friend is quite right. There is a mounting body of evidence that women in public life—in an elected capacity or as journalists—face a disproportionately high level of abuse online compared with men. If we are to protect free speech and open debate, it is vital that our White Paper on online harms addresses all types of abuse, harassment and intimidation online.
Last week the Government admitted that only a fifth of FTSE 350 boards had a grasp on cyber-security. Only 4% of businesses recalled using any Government sources of information, and there is a growing skills gap of 50,000 specialists. May I politely ask the Government to wake up to their failing strategies and urgently get a grip on the growing cyber threat?
I assure the hon. Lady that the number of FTSE 350 companies—which I met representatives of to discuss this subject earlier in the week—prioritising cyber-security is growing. The Government have committed funding, through the cyber-security high impact skills fund, to helping industry close the skills gap.
The Department has just launched the digital inclusion innovation fund, which has been specifically designed to tackle digital exclusion among older and disabled people. A few weeks ago I visited a 5G test bed in the Kensington part of Liverpool, where I saw at first hand how we are harnessing this technology to improve social care and tackle loneliness among older people.
The Offensive Weapons Bill bans the online sale of offensive weapons to residential addresses, but it has revealed a significant gap in the legislation around the sale of offensive weapons on platforms. Will the Secretary of State address that gap in the upcoming White Paper?
I will look carefully at the issue raised by the hon. Lady. Of course it is important that we closely keep track of where these weapons are being sold and the methods being employed. She would expect me to say that the online harms White Paper will focus on the responsibilities of the online platforms to keep people safe from harm. Harm varies, and we are concerned about a variety of different harms, but we will certainly pay close attention to the point that she has raised.
Yes. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the Law Commission’s work in this area, and we are looking at the issue carefully. May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to her, as she has played a significant part in the development of the law in this area? Whether on upskirting or revenge pornography, she and other Members have done a great deal to put the law in a better place.
Bearing in mind the dwindling pipeline of musical talent coming through from state schools, does the Minister agree with the chair of UK Music that music education should be seen as an intrinsic good, just as sporting education is?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government take music and other creative arts education very seriously. The Minister for School Standards has introduced a hub scheme across the country, with substantial funding to enable state school pupils to access music, as they deserve.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that issue. Northumberland is, of course, a county that millions want to visit, and should do. I am hoping, in fact, to visit myself; I commend it to everyone. I have addressed the issue of Airbnb with its representatives in person, and I see the Bed and Breakfast Association regularly. In my discussions with Airbnb representatives, I have made it clear, and cautioned them, that they need to work to satisfy all concerned about health and safety issues, and they assure me that they are doing that. We will continue to monitor the situation.
What discussions has the Minister had with Tourism Ireland to ensure that visitors from the United States of America who come to the Republic of Ireland are encouraged to go to Northern Ireland to enjoy its attractions as well?
I am delighted to say that Northern Ireland tourism is doing extremely well with visitors from North America and elsewhere. The Titanic exhibition, for example, is extremely popular and has been winning awards. The “Game of Thrones” television programme also draws people to Northern Ireland. There are myriad reasons to visit—not least, of course, the warm welcome from the people of Northern Ireland. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his question.
Could I draw the Minister’s attention to an initiative that I launched a couple of weeks ago—“Derbyshire, the County of Culture”—to try to bring tourism to Derbyshire and make it a cohesive county? Would he like to comment on that initiative?
I commend my hon. Friend for what she does for her county of Derbyshire. I previously referred to her as the prima ballerina assoluta of this House when she asked a question about ballet, and she is absolutely an advocate for her county as well. There is also a major call from across the House for towns of culture, and we are working on and discussing that matter. I will continue to consider her suggestions.
When are the Government going to crack down on ticket reselling websites? A constituent of mine was scammed by being charged over £600 for tickets that should have cost £130 at the box office. Viagogo refused to take any responsibility even though it facilitated and profited from this rip-off transaction. The Government have to haul these companies in and get it sorted out.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have taken many measures to bring these ticketing companies into better standards. StubHub, GetMeIn and Seatwave have all complied with the law during discussions with the Competition and Markets Authority. Unfortunately, Viagogo has, for the second time, refused to do so. The CMA announced yesterday that it will be undertaking proceedings for contempt of court against Viagogo. I would urge all Members to make their constituents aware that there are alternatives to Viagogo and that they should use them.
CPS: Serious and Organised Crime
The Crown Prosecution Service has a crucial role in tackling serious and organised crimes such as human trafficking, money laundering and child sexual exploitation. It works with other criminal justice agencies to support the Government’s serious and organised crime strategy.
How effectively does the CPS work with other law enforcement agencies to fight serious and organised crime?
My hon. Friend is right to talk about international co-operation. I am happy to remind him of the important network of up to 27 specialist prosecutors who are based abroad and who work closely with other jurisdictions across international boundaries. Recent examples are the successful conviction of Matthew Falder for child sexual exploitation offences and the conviction of Keith Morris for multiple counts of rape and sexual assault against victims in Kenya. I am happy to say that the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate has reported that the international justice and organised crime division has a conviction rate of over 90% and undertakes high-quality work.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his answers thus far. One of the most insidious aspects of serious and organised crime is the modern slave trade. What action is he taking to bring those criminals to justice, so that we can smash these rings once and for all?
My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention once again to the grim reality of modern-day slavery. The importance of the CPS in providing early investigative advice in all cases has been underlined, because solely relying on the testimony of victims, who are often vulnerable, can lead to challenges. I am happy to say that in the last year, there was a 119% increase in cases where that vital early advice was provided to the police.
What steps is the CPS taking to better prosecute county lines offending?
Rightly, we are hearing a lot of concern about the existence of organised county lines, which are affecting our towns and cities across the country. The CPS has developed a particular approach and typology to help the police and other agencies deal with county lines, concerning in particular the balance between the need to safeguard the vulnerable persons—often young—who are being used and the proper investigation and prosecution of criminal offences.
Does the Solicitor General remember replying to me when I said that it was a great concern for those of us who represent towns where there have been dreadful grooming gangs that a senior police officer—not in my patch, but another part of the country—said that the under-resourcing of the CPS meant that it was unable to proceed when it found new evidence about perpetrators?
I assure the hon. Gentleman, who has long been properly concerned about this serious offending, that resource will not be a barrier to the prosecution of offences. We have seen an important sea change in attitudes to the complainants and victims of child sexual exploitation. Gone, I hope, are the days when young victims are disregarded or ignored by the authorities. The message has to go out that we will listen and act to protect victims.
Does the Solicitor General agree with the Chancellor that, rather than new money being spent, knife crime and serious and organised crime should simply be prioritised? If he does, which area does he think should be de-prioritised?
I assure the hon. Lady that it is not a question of choice when it comes to the prosecution of offences. I am happy to say that in the last year, more than 27,500 cases involving possession of a knife or bladed article were commenced in our courts. That is an important testimony to the seriousness with which the prosecuting authorities take the possession and use of knives and offensive weapons.
Can the Solicitor General outline how long it takes for proceeds of serious crime to be administered to communities through the safer communities fund and other grants?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. I do not have the detail of that administration, but I know that in the last seven years, £1.5 billion has been collected in proceeds of crime. That is shared out between the police and other enforcement authorities, and I can write to him with more information about how it is then administered.
CPS: Disclosure Obligations
I have frequent conversations with ministerial colleagues about this issue and all issues relating to the criminal justice system. In November last year, the Attorney General published his review of disclosure, which examined the efficiency and effectiveness of the current system.
The disclosure process is a fundamental cornerstone of the criminal justice system. Can the Solicitor General outline his priorities to combat its shortcomings?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the Attorney General and I, as criminal litigators, have a long and deep interest in this issue. One of the newer challenges has been the rise of technology and the proliferation of telephones and other instruments that have to be examined in many cases. I will chair a digital summit in the months ahead, to try to develop innovative new ways in which we can assist the process. The disclosure issue, I am afraid, is a cultural issue of long standing. Not only the CPS but the police and other agencies have to change their ways and improve the position.
What steps is my hon. and learned Friend taking to ensure that victims do not feel afraid or concerned about reporting crimes?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She knows, in the context of disclosure, that we must be very careful to strike a balance so that it does not become a box-ticking exercise. In particular, in every case the necessity to seize telephones and other items from victims should be assessed very much on the evidence, rather than as a matter of course. I think we must do everything to make it clear to victims that they will get support and encouragement, rather than feel that the process is working against them in a way that can be just as traumatic as the crime itself.
EU Withdrawal Agreement: Northern Ireland
I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest, including matters relating to the United Kingdom’s exit from the Union. I am unable, I am afraid, to talk about the legal content of those discussions because, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) will know, the Law Officers are bound by the Law Officers’ convention to disclose neither the fact nor content of that advice.
I remain committed to considering what assistance I personally can provide to this House on the legal implications of the backstop, to ensure that Members have what they need to make an informed decision. We have been engaging in focused, detailed and careful discussions with the Union, and we continue to seek legally binding changes to the backstop that ensure it cannot be indefinite. These discussions will be resumed shortly.
I am most grateful to the Attorney General for that very full reply. On 29 January, the Prime Minister told the House:
“What I am talking about is not a further exchange of letters but a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement...It will involve reopening the withdrawal agreement”.—[Official Report, 29 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 678.]
Given the response that the Attorney General has had in Brussels and the remarks of the French Minister on the radio this morning, is it still Government policy to seek a reopening of the withdrawal agreement?
It is Government policy to achieve the necessary change in the backstop that will cause me to review and change my advice. That is Government policy; that is the subject of the discussions that we are having. I would say that it has come to be called “Cox’s codpiece”. What I am concerned to ensure is that what is inside the codpiece is in full working order.
Well! I hope everybody heard that. In the interests of the accessibility of our proceedings—in case anybody did not hear it—the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to Cox’s codpiece. I have repeated it so that the alliterative quality is clear to all observers.
Thank you for that breather, Mr Speaker.
They say that the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting different results. Given that the Attorney General has not and will not be able to change a single word in this withdrawal agreement, how exactly would he describe the Government’s plans to put it to a vote again in this House next week?
The plans for next week are not mine to decide, but what I can tell the hon. Gentleman is this: we are discussing detailed, coherent, careful proposals, and we are discussing text with the European Union. I am surprised to hear the comments that have emerged over the last 48 hours that the proposals are not clear; they are as clear as day, and we are continuing to discuss them.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give Parliament 48 hours’ notice or, at any rate, properly full notice of the outcome of his discussions with the EU? Will he provide to Parliament a draft of the withdrawal and implementation Bill, so that my European Scrutiny Committee, and others in Parliament and others outside, can assess how the withdrawal agreement will be enacted in domestic law, as obliged by article 4 of the withdrawal agreement; how the Bill would ensure the statutory manner in which the express repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 will be dealt with; and how the question of disapplication by the courts—by the Supreme Court—will be handled under that enactment?
We will endeavour to give as much notice as we possibly can. Of course those discussions are running. They will resume very shortly and continue almost certainly through the weekend. We will endeavour to give the House notice as early as we can, if and when we have something to report. My hon. Friend made a second point about the Bill. That is not for me to decide, although I will certainly discuss the matter with those who will make that decision. We will endeavour to give the European Scrutiny Committee, and my hon. Friend, the earliest possible notice.
The Attorney General is now in the interesting position of leading on these negotiations, which means that—to follow his nomenclature—he will end up examining his own codpiece in front of the House of Commons. How can he provide the objective advice to the House on which we rely when he will, in effect, be marking his own homework?
The law is the law. The question of whether whatever is negotiated with the European Union affects the legal risk of the indefinite duration of the backstop is a matter that I shall judge entirely impartially and objectively. If I did not, I would be conscious that there are many lawyers—
The hon. Gentleman may be right. There are many lawyers who are eminently capable of deciding whether I have got my judgment right or wrong.
Article 175 of the withdrawal agreement which, as the Attorney General knows, deals with resolving disputes about the interpretation of the agreement, states that rulings of the arbitration panel shall be binding on the EU and the UK. In his letter to the Prime Minister of 13 November, the Attorney General stated that although the withdrawal agreement does not
that the backstop review mechanism
“is intended to be arbitrable…I consider that the better view is that it is.”
In his recent discussions with the EU, has it confirmed that it shares that better view—in which case, why would one need to consider another separate arbitration mechanism for dealing with the backstop? Or has the EU said that it does not regard binding arbitration as applying to the backstop itself?
That is a question I would have expected from such a sophisticated Select Committee Chair. The problem is that although the arbitration system applies to the protocol, the question that one asks the arbitrator is at the heart of the effectiveness of any arbitration. Although I am not at this stage able to disclose to the right hon. Gentleman the question that has been proposed by the United Kingdom to the Commission, the question is everything. He may very well need to take that into account, because the question about when the protocol would end is likely to be determinative of whether the mechanism is effective.
I am glad to see that the Attorney General’s powers of alliteration have not dimmed since we first appeared in court together, and I know that neither have his independence, rigour, and respect for his constitutional position, which should never be questioned. Does he agree that when dealing with important matters of textual analysis and detail, it is unhelpful to attempt a running media commentary? Such commentary will inevitably be partial and inaccurate, and these matters are best pursued with care and rigour, and with the overall objective that he has just given to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn).
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and of course he is right. Any negotiation of this kind involves dealing with complex legal questions and matters, and a running commentary that is partial and often based on hearsay and rumour is not helpful to the analysis of the question, or conducive to the success of the negotiations.
Order. I am sensitive to the fact that this issue is of enormous, and for some consuming, importance. I therefore want to let the question run, but colleagues must ask short questions of one sentence, and the Attorney General will treat them as he sees fit.
I understand that the Attorney General’s conversations with the Cabinet are privileged, but has he turned his mind to the concerns that, should the backstop be indefinite, it is likely to breach the commitments under the Belfast agreement, and indeed the commitments that are given to me as a Northern Ireland citizen under article 3?
The hon. Gentleman knows that if I were to answer that question, I would be breaching the Law Officers’ convention. All I can say is that I turn my mind to a great many of the legal implications of the treaty, and those that he has mentioned have not escaped me.
The withdrawal agreement contains many issues that we all agree on, such as citizens’ rights and a transition for business. Is it still the EU’s negotiating position that in order to reach agreement on our long-term relationship we need to agree a withdrawal agreement first?
The Northern Ireland protocol is there primarily to protect the peace process. Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made some rather unfortunate comments that killings during the troubles at the hands of the security services were “not crimes”. Has the Attorney General advised her that her comments were ill-informed, insensitive and seriously potentially contemptuous of the current legal process, wherein the Director of Public Prosecutions is shortly to announce whether prosecutions will be brought against soldiers for unlawful killings on Bloody Sunday? Will he please tell his colleagues to be more mindful of these conventions in future?
I think the hon. and learned Lady knows that the Secretary of State has corrected those comments. I do not think it is necessary for me to advise her on the various matters that she suggests. I believe firmly that the Secretary of State will not have intended any offence and she has, in any event, corrected those remarks.
It is widely reported that, should the Attorney General have a more successful trip to Brussels tomorrow than he has managed so far this week, he will be putting any concessions that he receives on the backstop to a star chamber of Eurosceptic lawyers—one QC, six Tory MPs and one Democratic Unionist party MP. Why are there no MPs from other parties in the star chamber?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall be putting them to the star chamber of this House. I am delighted that there are eight very distinguished Members who are going to sit in judgment on my opinion, but I expect and welcome the judgment of all Members of this House, on both sides of it.
I really hope the Attorney General appreciates the fundamental concerns here, because it now seems that as well as being part of the negotiating team he is advising the Government on the outcome of the negotiations. It seems he will then bring his proposals to the star chamber and then he will have to answer to this House. First, will he commit to publish any advice that he gives the Prime Minister on any concessions that he receives? Secondly, will he record what he has said in the star chamber, so that all MPs can make a decision on Tuesday on exactly the same information?
The hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misconception. I am not appearing before any star chamber, either on this side of the House or the other. The star chamber I am appearing in front of is this House. I will account to this House. I am not going to be appearing in front of any star chamber, although it is composed, as I say, of exceptionally distinguished people. Any Member of this House can come and see me if they like and I shall account to this House. I say to the hon. Gentleman: do not grieve because I shall, I assure him, be wholly open about my advice. He asks me whether I will commit to publishing it. I will commit now to saying to this House that I shall publish my legal opinion on any document that is produced and negotiated with the Union.
Leaving the EU
The priorities of my Office are published in the business plan. In relation to the UK’s withdrawal from the Union, my priority continues to be supporting the successfully delivery of the Government’s objectives by giving legal and constitutional advice within the Government, and, in particular, by contributing to international negotiations. I take a keen interest in the programme of Brexit-related domestic legislation and I am of course involved in supporting preparations for future international co-operation with the Law Officers’ Departments and the prosecution agencies.
Order. We are running late, but I am willing to accommodate colleagues. I know that the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), notwithstanding any advance text that she has penned, will express herself with admirable succinctness, which reflects the urgency of the situation.
I will attempt to be pithy, Mr Speaker. We now know that the Department for Transport’s botched tendering process for ferry contracts has already cost the taxpayer £33 million to settle legal action. Will the Attorney General tell us whether similar tendering processes across Government could mean further litigation, and how much public money has been set aside for the contingency of such court action?
The hon. Lady knows that she is asking me questions that belong to the Department for Transport, not to me. These matters do not come to the Law Officers unless they have a Law Officers’ point, so the reality is that I am afraid I must direct her to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
Will the Attorney General therefore confirm whether or not he provided any legal advice to the Department for Transport in relation to that contract and settlement with Eurotunnel; and if he did, given the huge public concern about this, will he publish it?
It grieves me to have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he knows I will be bound, and am bound, by the Law Officers’ convention not to disclose either the fact or content of my advice, if any were given on that subject. I am sorry.
The Attorney General and I are the pro bono champions of Government. As part of that, I work closely with those involved in public legal education, supporting initiatives to increase its profile and to reach more members of the public.
It is important that all citizens have the opportunity to learn about the law and their basic criminal legal rights, so will the Solicitor General explain his vision for the public legal education committee?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the work of my public legal education committee, which released its vision statement in October 2018. Among the goals that we have set, we are looking at scaling up the delivery of PLE via the legal profession, using on and offline methods, and we are looking to embed it in public services as an aspect of early intervention in health advice and community settings.
The most recent prosecution for what is sometimes known as high treason was that of William Joyce, also known as Lord Haw-Haw, in 1946. Treason remains an offence that can be prosecuted. However, its provisions are somewhat archaic. Modern criminal and terrorism offences are more likely to be applicable and provide sufficient sentencing power, and usually offer a better chance of a successful conviction.
Will the Solicitor General strongly encourage the Law Commission to revise its 2008 guidance that the Treason Act 1351 has ceased to be of contemporary relevance, so that the law may be applied to British nationals who betray our country by going abroad to join a jihad against Her Majesty’s armed forces?
My hon. Friend is right to remind us that the 1351 Act is very much on the statute book. The question of who the sovereign’s enemies are is perhaps easily answered when we have clearly defined state actors who are clearly acting against the interests of our country. It is somewhat more difficult when it comes to returning foreign fighters, but I assure him that when people come back to this country who have committed atrocities abroad and where there is evidence, we will prosecute them.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the crisis of knife crime.
Mr Speaker, the Home Secretary flew to Brussels last night to participate in the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council, the significance of which at this time I am sure colleagues across the House will recognise. He Home Secretary asked me to respond to this urgent question on his behalf.
The senseless killings in recent days, and the too many others before them, have rightly shocked the country. Our thoughts and sympathies are with the families of all the victims and everyone affected. There is no denying the urgency of this issue. Day in, day out, we are acting to end the bloodshed. At the start of the week, the Home Secretary came to the House to set out our approach to serious violence. He said there was no single solution and that we had to unite and fight on all fronts to stop the slaughter.
We are taking a tough law enforcement approach with our Offensive Weapons Bill, which is going through Parliament, and we have listened to what the police tell us they need and at their request are introducing knife crime prevention orders in that Bill. We are also increasing police funding by up to £970 million next year, including council tax, and police and crime commissioners are planning to recruit hundreds of new officers as a result.
We recognise, though, that we cannot arrest our way out of this. In the serious violence strategy, we announced a multi-agency approach, and we will consult very soon on a statutory public health duty of care to ensure that all agencies that can and must work on this play their part. We are also investing more than £220 million in early intervention projects to stop the most vulnerable being sucked into a life of violence and addressing the drivers of crime, including the drugs trade, with the launch of our independent drugs review.
Day in, day out, we, the police and others are acting across the country to try to stop the bloodshed. We continue to look for new ways to tackle this epidemic. Yesterday, I attended a serious violence summit with senior police officers hosted by the Home Secretary as part of our continuing work under the serious violence strategy. Consulting those on the frontline is vital to making sure our next steps are effective. While lives are being lost, we are determined to do even more to stop knife crime and serious violence. We owe it to our young people and our communities to get this right.
We have had several days of newspaper headlines on knife crime, but does the Minister accept that for families and communities up and down the country this is not just a few days of newspaper stories; this is their lives? It is every mother’s worst nightmare: they say goodbye to their son in the morning and the next call they get is from the emergency services telling them their child is the victim of violent crime.
On police numbers, does the Minister accept that it is a question not just of police officers on patrol, but of community policing, safer school partnerships and police officers working with our diverse communities? Does she agree with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, who says there is a clear correlation between the fall in police numbers and the rise in violent crime, including knife crime, or does she agree with her Prime Minister, who denies any such correlation? Does she agree with the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who said of the Prime Minister:
“I don’t think she listens, quite frankly, to what she’s being told”?
Does the Minister accept that many people will find the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s suggestion that the police only have to move resources from other areas to fight knife crime, monstrous and an insult to grieving families? The police are under pressure in nearly every area. Our constituents know this from the delays in responding to 999 calls—not just a few hours, but sometimes the next day—and they know when they ring up to say they have seen people selling drugs or other criminality on the street that the police do not have the resources to respond. We need more resources for the police, and we need them now.
Yesterday, the Home Secretary met police chiefs from seven forces and others. Since 2010, Tory Governments have cut more than 9,000 officers from those forces alone. Did the Home Secretary apologise to them? Did he offer them extra resources? Is the Minister able to tell us?
In 2009, the Home Affairs Committee published a comprehensive appraisal of what needs to be done to fight knife crime. We know about the success of what has been done in Glasgow. Does the Minister accept that what frightened communities, families and mothers need is not more hand-wringing, not more summits, not more committees, and not more reviews? They want the Government to put the necessary resources into the youth service, into work with excluded children, into strengthening mental health services for young people and adolescents, and, above all, into the police service. Only then will the public believe that the Government are taking the knife crime epidemic seriously.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. She knows from the many debates that we have had on this matter, and the many occasions on which she and I and Home Office Ministers have discussed it, that we all recognise the great fear, worries and concerns of mums and dads in certain parts of the country that have been suffering from these crimes for some time. That is precisely why we issued the serious violence strategy last year. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady is chuntering at me. I am trying to answer her questions.
It is because of that fear that we are putting so much effort into supporting local charities, through both our anti-knife crime community fund and our early intervention youth fund, to help young people and children and their families. We are also working on the youth endowment fund, which will invest some £200 million over 10 years to support projects to intervene on young people and protect them from being ensnared by gang leaders.
The right hon. Lady was right to raise the issue of resources. Only a couple of weeks ago we voted to increase police resources by nearly £1 billion, and I am sorry that she did not feel able to vote for that. Police funds were increased last year, and will be increased again next year.
The right hon. Lady talked about summits and meetings and so on. The point of those is getting the right people into the room to tackle this issue together. As we all know, there is no single simple solution. I wish that there were, but the issue is very complex. That is why there are both short-term and longer-term measures in the strategy, which meets with the approval of the police and others with whom we engage to try to crack this problem.
I very much hope that today we will yet again hear fruitful, constructive and non-partisan comments about this topic, because it is affecting every single one of our constituencies. We need to work together to get it right, because when I meet victims and their families they want to hear what we are doing, not what our conversations across the Dispatch Box are about.
Many police in London now use body-worn video cameras. Does the Minister agree that that should help to give them the confidence to use stop-and-search in all circumstances within the law as part of a concerted effort to end the terrible tragedies that are afflicting our city?
My right hon. Friend has made a very important point. The use of body-worn cameras enables officers to use their stop-and-search powers with even greater confidence than they had before. Interestingly, the chief constable of Merseyside told us yesterday that since his officers have started using body-worn cameras, the volume of complaints about stop-and-search has decreased dramatically: I think he said that there were about seven last year. This is the point of stop-and-search. If we target it correctly and officers are stopping people when they believe that a search meets the test of being proportionate and necessary, that will not just help them to catch those who are carrying knives, but will, I hope, give confidence to communities.
I thank the Minister for explaining why the Home Secretary is not here to answer this question, but there can be no doubt that the Home Secretary faces a massive crisis on his doorstep. We have heard repeatedly in recent weeks about how the public health approach to knife crime has worked not just in Glasgow, but across Scotland, where knife crime has greatly reduced and crimes of handling an offensive weapon have decreased by 64% over the last 10 years. The evidence speaks for itself, and the World Health Organisation has commended this approach, so I want to know why there is not more of a sense of urgency on the part of this Government about following the public health approach.
The Prime Minister’s comments that police numbers on the streets have not been a factor in this crisis have been met with significant criticism and fly in the face of what experts such as Cressida Dick have told us. By contrast, Scotland has a better record on police numbers: in 2018 in Scotland there were about 32 officers per 10,000 of population, compared with only 21 officers per 10,000 of population in England and Wales. So does the Minister agree that the Home Secretary should take immediate steps to match the ratio of police to population figures that we have in Scotland?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her question. I understand there are reports of a stabbing in Glasgow last night, and I am sure the condolences of the House are with the families and those concerned.
We are determined to act on the public health multi-agency approach. It was in the strategy published a year ago, and we are due to consult very soon on whether we should put into law that relevant agencies have the duty to collaborate and work together on this. One listens to doctors working in A&E departments talking about the data they can gather and provide to the police, which will then help the police target particular houses on streets in huge cities; precision policing is what it is called in New York and Chicago and places overseas. This sort of data can really help to protect those who may be victims, but also frankly help go after those who may be perpetrators and the gang leaders we are all determined to crack down on.
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her support on this. We talk a great deal about the Glasgow model, and I for one am very pleased to be learning from it, and also from the experiences in Wales, where great work is being done on adverse childhood experiences.
A national newspaper this week featured a smirking criminal outside court having been given a suspended sentence for a second knife offence. Will this Minister, whose tenacity is matched by her talent, disregard those who are blinded by the soft soap of self-righteousness and see what in the eyes of those living on the frontline of crime is as clear as crystal: that more of the thugs and gangsters who, through their criminality, punish the innocent, should be stopped, searched, charged and locked up for as long as possible?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind words, and I am reminded of the many comments made about him in celebration of his recent knighthood. He makes an important point about sentencing. Of course, it is the judiciary who decide the sentences they impose on defendants as they appear before them in court, but we really must emphasise the importance of the public message on this for local communities living in the sorts of circumstances outlined by the shadow Home Secretary, where people fear for their sons and daughters. That is why we have introduced mandatory minimum sentences for those caught in possession of a knife on more than one occasion. We have asked judges to apply a minimum of six months’ imprisonment to such people to send out that very clear message that holding a knife is not acceptable, is not normal, and if you hold a knife in a public place not only do you put other people at risk, you put yourself at risk as well.
I do not doubt the Minister’s good intentions on this, and I think the whole House would agree on many of the things that can make a difference. The problem is that she could have been saying most of these things about a year ago. There is no real sense that the Government are doing anything on the scale that is needed or with the urgency that is needed, whether that is on extra policing, early intervention, youth intervention or tackling exclusions from schools. One summit is just not enough. We want to know what the Home Secretary is doing. Is he holding weekly meetings, either in Cobra or in the Home Office, to pull everyone together and get some action by the end of next week or by the end of the month? Let us see something that actually makes a difference and saves lives.
I take the right hon. Lady’s point about meetings and summits and so on. As she knows, the way in which we get things moving in Whitehall and then across local government and local areas is through drawing everybody together into rooms. We have been working on this day in, day out since the serious violence strategy was launched. We are already funding 29 projects through the early intervention youth fund and working with police and crime commissioners to reach those young people who need help. We have already funded many programmes through the anti-knife crime community fund, which involves smaller projects, and I hope that many Members of Parliament will have received letters from me about the projects in their constituencies that have benefited from it. We have a media campaign called #knifefree, which we in this place are probably not aware of because frankly we are not the people that the campaign is targeting. It is targeting young people in a very direct way on social media, through catch-up television and elsewhere, and it is supporting the message that it is not normal for people to carry knives.
I want to put out this plea: there is more that we as a society can do to press this message home. I am due to meet representatives of the Premier League to ask whether they can encourage their football legends to do even more as role models to get the message out there that carrying a knife is not normal, that people do not have to do it, and that if they do, they are putting themselves at enormous risk. There is a great deal more that we as a society can do to get that message out there to young people about carrying knives, but there is also a huge amount of work going on involving police officers. We have weeks of intensive activity in which police forces across the country make tackling knife crime the priority for that week. I went to an operational briefing on Friday where the plans for the following week were being laid out. Those weeks have extraordinary rates of success: in the last one, 9,000 knives were taken off the streets of our country. The more of these surge operations we can have, the greater benefit there will be in the immediate term on this very complex issue.
So, with a suspended sentence for a second offence, it is self-evident that we cannot rely on the judges, can we?
My right hon. Friend yet again attempts to skewer a Minister with a short, direct question. He knows that I must, and will, defend the independence of the judiciary, but my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and I do emphasise the point to the judiciary about the public messaging of sentences. We impose mandatory minimum sentences for those who are found in possession of knives precisely to get the message out there that this is simply not on.
Can I tell the Minister what the country is saying to the Government? It is saying, “Get a grip of this, and get a grip of it urgently.” Let me give her an example of what I mean. We had a crisis meeting yesterday where the police chiefs demanded emergency funding. The Home Secretary supported that and said that he wanted £15 million of emergency funding. The Chancellor then went on the radio this morning and said that it was a question not of additional resources but of re-prioritisation by the police. Absolutely pathetic! It is about time the Government listened to what the police chiefs are saying. This should not be a matter of debate. They want emergency funding so that they can surge police numbers into those areas where there are real problems. In the short term, that is what works, although of course we need a public health approach in the longer term. Surging police numbers into those areas requires emergency funding, so the Chancellor should be told where to go and the Home Secretary should be supported by the Prime Minister. The whole of this House will say, “Give the police the money they need to tackle this scourge.” The public of this country will have no idea what we are doing if we do not do that, so get a grip and give the police the money they need.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, although I might not have employed all the language that he used. Yesterday’s meeting was not a crisis meeting; it was part of a programme of meetings that the Home Secretary has regularly with chief constables, precisely as one would hope.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about resourcing, we voted recently to provide just under £1 billion to police forces, with the help of police and crime commissioners. We are actively looking at what the chiefs are saying and what more they need. We are conscious of the need to ensure, over the long term, that in the surge exercises that they conduct regularly as part of their operational policing powers, they can get their officers to the places where they need to be. So I do not think there is any disagreement here about operations; about how the police can crack down on this. The Home Secretary discussed that in detail yesterday with the chiefs precisely because we want to listen to their needs and take the matter forward.
We know that, when children go into care, they are more likely to join gangs. In Essex, we know that early intervention works; the number of children in care has fallen from 1,600 to 1,000. We also know that stop and search works. We have put 390 more police on the streets in Essex, and the number of stop and search encounters in my constituency has risen from 80 to 500. That is resulting in arrests, which mean that those at the top of the gangs are being taken off our streets. Will my hon. Friend congratulate all those in Essex and look at whether some of the lessons we have learned in our county can help the rest of the country?
I note that some 50 officers were recently sworn in to serve the good county of Essex. We are all learning about, and determined to do something about, the link between exclusions and participation in or victimisation by gangs. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is sitting next to me, is awaiting delivery of the Timpson report on exclusions. We need to make sure that if children are excluded—if that is what a headteacher believes to be appropriate not just for the child, but for the wider school community—they have excellent provision of services outside mainstream schooling.
Is it not now beyond dispute that the Government’s cuts to police officer numbers have gone much too far?
I think we all recognise that the demands on policing have changed and intensified in recent years, not just in the realm of serious violence but, for example, in the investigation of historical sexual abuse. There has been a rise in the recognition of modern slavery cases, and in the reporting of domestic abuse cases. That is happening because we are trying to help people to understand when they have been victims of crime, and it has added to the existing pressures on the police. That is precisely why the Home Secretary has said that police funding is his priority for the next spending review, and it is why we have increased the funding to police forces for next year by nearly £1 billion with the help of police and crime commissioners.
The Minister has already mentioned the link with exclusions and the report by the former children’s Minister, Ed Timpson, which I gather has been completed. When will it be published, and when will the lessons be learned? What lessons have been taken away from the “Positive for Youth” report, published in 2011 by the then children’s Minister, about better engagement with young people?
We expect to publish the Timpson report shortly. There are lessons to be learned on youth engagement. When I talk to youth workers and former gang members, I find it is about listening to people with lived experience; it is about former gang leaders and former gang members explaining to young people who may be at risk or already ensnared in criminal gangs, listening to them and advising them about their life chances. That has huge benefit.
Yet again, I ask role models in the sporting world and the music world to help us to send out the message that carrying a knife is not right.
The Home Secretary has tried to use the threat of prison to stop young people carrying knives, and it clearly has not worked. I passionately disagree with the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes): short-term prison sentences do not work, and I include six-month sentences in that. Why are the Government creating more mandatory short-term prison sentences in the Offensive Weapons Bill, including for breaches of the new knife crime prevention orders?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising knife crime prevention orders, because it gives me an opportunity to explain what they are. Some of her colleagues in the other place may have misunderstood, because this is not about criminalising young people. We have put these prevention orders in the Bill at the request of the police to help to provide wraparound support to a small cohort of young people who have not yet been convicted of a criminal offence, and who have not yet entered the youth justice system.
Where the police receive intelligence from teachers, families or friends that they think a young person is carrying a knife, and where one of these civil—not criminal—orders is obtained, we will have the structure to wrap services and support around that young person. That might include, if appropriate, banning them from entering a certain postcode—the hon. Lady will know of the sometimes competitive nature of postcode gangs—or from using social media to incite violence. All these requirements can be included in an order to make sure that that child does not continue down the path of criminality, blighting not only their life with the harm they may cause but their life chances by having a criminal record.
I am glad the Minister sees this as not just a London problem. The number of people carrying knives in Thames Valley has doubled in the past five years. Has she considered what role MPs can play in this process so that we are not just observers but participants?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are leaders within our communities. If colleagues would like to speak to me afterwards about how they can help to lead the message on knife-carrying in their constituencies, I would be delighted to work with them. If Members google our #knifefree social media campaign, it provides all sorts of information about what one can do if one is worried about a young person or if a young person wants help and advice. There is so much that we as a community can and must do to tackle this.
We know that the rise in knife crime is multifaceted and multi-layered, we know that we need to adopt a public health approach—increasing community policing, youth work and early years intervention—and we know we need it to be a long-term approach. How will the knife crime summit be determined? Who will attend? Will it be long term, sustainable and cross-party, like the work of the Youth Violence Commission? How will the Government report back to the House?
As I say, the Home Secretary has his meetings with the chief constables. I hesitate to give the House a diary of my engagements in the next couple of weeks, but I am meeting police and crime commissioners. We also have the serious violence taskforce coming ahead of that—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is not letting me finish. I am about to get there. I am just trying to lay out the plan of work. I am meeting PCCs, because they are obviously vital. We have the serious violence taskforce, which, as she knows, is a cross-party body that brings everyone who can help nationally and locally into the same room. The Prime Minister has announced her summit, which will involve not just Ministers, but external stakeholders—victims, youth workers and others—to help to cement the work that is happening under the serious violence strategy.
Does my hon. Friend think the time has come to have a fresh look at sentencing for those caught carrying knives?
We looked at this issue in detail in the preparation of the Offensive Weapons Bill and we have maintained the mandatory minimum sentence of six months. There are colleagues across the House who do not agree with that approach, but we think it is absolutely right to send out the clear public message that carrying a knife more than once will get you into very serious trouble. I should say that on the first occasion when someone is found carrying a knife it is of course open to judges to imprison them if that is appropriate. Through the Bill, we also wanted to make sure that the law on corrosive substances mirrors that on knives, so that we do not have gangs swapping knives for corrosive substances—we know they have done that in some circumstances—because the law simply is not up to date on that.
Three stabbings have occurred in my constituency since Monday. Two young men were stabbed last night in Queen’s Park, just yards from where I live. We have lost a third of our police since 2011. London policing is at its lowest level for two decades. Three years ago, Westminster City Council pulled all funding from the youth service, after school and holiday schemes. Whatever the debate about the causes of the current escalation in serious youth violence, can we agree that that is a catastrophic decline in our capacity to respond, and that we need an urgent intervention to help these authorities to intervene with young people and stop this tide of violence before it gets worse?
The hon. Lady will know that London is seeing a reorganisation at operational level of how it is policed. I am sure she has made those representations to the Mayor of London, who is accountable for the operation of the police in London, as the PCC. On youth services, my understanding is that Westminster City Council has brought forward a programme called “family hubs”, where it is putting all the services together in one hub to try to make them as easy and accessible as possible for members of the public. I repeat that at the central level we are working to help charities across London and further afield through the early intervention youth fund and the anti-knife crime community fund—I am sure I have written to her about local funds that have benefited from that. These are charities that use youth workers, many of whom have lived experience of the problems they are trying to counteract. That sort of work is very effective in trying to steer young people away.
The Minister’s answers are comprehensive, and that comprehensive character of answer and her commitment to the House are hugely appreciated. However, may I gently say to her that we are, in productivity terms, making very slow progress? So if she could speed up a bit, that would be enormously appreciated, but I respect her commitment on this subject, as well as her unfailing courtesy, which I think everybody acknowledges.
Nineteen people have lost their lives to this in London alone this year, which comes after a record number last year. Clearly, we need to send the message that carrying a knife is unacceptable, and I agree with what has been said about the increased use of stop and search. Will the Minister talk about an amnesty for knives, so that we can take them off the streets, they can be turned into the police and they are therefore taken out of circulation?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. One of the most successful parts of Operation Sceptre, the national weeks of action to which police forces throughout the country sign up, is exactly what he mentions: amnesties and knife bins. As I said, in the most recent week of Operation Sceptre, more than 9,000 knives were taken off our streets.
This is now a national crisis, with young people losing their lives not only on the streets of major cities but even in towns like Dudley. In the west midlands we have lost 2,000 police over the past few years. The police urgently need more resources so that we can get more police on the streets to deal with this problem. We have also lost youth services, sports clubs and all the other projects that keep young people off the streets and out of trouble. Will the Minister support the police and crime commissioner’s bid for more funding for the West Midlands Violence Prevention Alliance? Finally, when people are caught with knives they should be locked up. That is what the Conservatives promised in their 2010 manifesto, but that promise has never been upheld.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have often raised on the Floor of the House the use of reserves, because police reserves are made up of money that the taxpayer has given to police forces to spend on policing. In March last year, West Midlands police’s reserves were £85 million. I am sure the police and crime commissioner would be able to explain why that money is sitting in reserves and, indeed, he may have spent some of it in the past year, but the issue with funding is how it is spent as much as how much is given. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about sentences, we have put the legislation in place, and although it is open to any judge or magistrate to imprison someone who is found in possession of a knife once, it is then mandatory on the second occasion of their being caught. If that is not being followed by judges, it is a decision of the judiciary.
I appreciate that the focus is on cities at this difficult time, but will my hon. Friend reassure my constituents in Erewash that measures will be put in place to make sure that this epidemic does not spread to our towns?
I very much will. I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s Erewash constituency recently to see the use of a scheme called Radio Link, which helps to co-ordinate the activities of people in the local town centre with the police. Those types of schemes are not huge in terms of resources or their public impact, but they can make a real difference in helping the police to police our streets.
On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), I am sure the House will want to send condolences for the young man who was murdered in Leyton yesterday.
Tackling knife crime requires an effective criminal justice system. With a damning National Audit Office report out last week highlighting the failures of the privatised probation services, it is clear that the system is not working. A joined-up approach is clearly required, so what discussions has the Home Office had with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the probation service is fit for purpose?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady, and we of course echo her condolences to the grieving family. She is absolutely right that probation needs to be part of the answer. We have talked about imprisonment, but effective probation can steer children and young people away from criminality. I am in discussion with my ministerial counterparts in the MOJ about that, but we need to ensure that the criminal justice system is able to respond quickly and robustly to those who take the very bad decision to carry a knife or, indeed, to use one.
I agree with the Minister that there is no one single solution to knife crime. As we heard earlier, knife amnesties are used right across the country, but there are often press reports questioning whether they are actually useful or working. Surely every single time we take a knife off the street, that is a good thing. Will the Minister confirm that knife amnesties do work?
I most certainly can confirm that, and I encourage all constabularies that are taking part in Operation Sceptre events in the coming weeks to use amnesties as part of their toolbox against knife crime in their local area.
Since the Minister’s party came to power in 2010, knife crime in Wales has risen by 50% and in north Wales by 86%. Yesterday, the Chancellor told the Home Office that extra emergency policing resources would need to be found within the Department. Will she state today that she will not be finding those resources from rural forces, because knife crime is affecting communities everywhere?
The hon. Lady knows that I represent a rural constituency. She is absolutely right to emphasise the fact that this issue not only affects the larger urban areas, but is reaching out across our rural and coastal areas through county lines. I am afraid that I cannot comment on resources or ongoing discussions, but I very much take on board her observations.
Following on from the previous question, one issue that affects all of us who represent rural parts is that though our police community support officers do a phenomenal job, they are not trained to the level of a police officer and they do not have the same defensive equipment as a police officer. Will the Government explain what they will do to make sure that PCSOs across the United Kingdom are adequately protected and adequately backed up for the vital jobs that they do?
My hon. Friend understands the value that PCSOs can bring to their local communities, not least because they can often be a very good way of engaging with young people who may be at risk, or who may know others who are at risk. He will be pleased that police and crime commissioners have pretty much universally said—there may be one or two exceptions—that they intend to use their increased funding to recruit more officers. Some have also said that that includes PCSOs. We leave it to local police and crime commissioners and chief constables to work out what works in their local area, and I welcome and support those plans.
We already know what works in tackling violent youth crime because we have done it before. For instance, the public health-type approach that I and others introduced in Lambeth in 2008, more than 10 years ago, dramatically cut violent youth offending at the time. It included services such as better family support, tackling school exclusions, better youth provision, more community engagement and leadership, support for the voluntary sector and better mental health care targeted at young people. This Government came in and cut the funding for all those services, and now we see more young people dying on our streets. Will the Minister finally acknowledge the scale of the Government’s mistakes in cutting funding, think again about the fair funding formula, which will target precisely those services and precisely those community for further cuts, and urgently restore funding so that we can tackle the complex root causes of violent youth crime?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is supporting our multi-agency approach under the serious violence strategy. He will, I am sure, welcome the fact that part of the troubled families programme, which he knows funds a great number of vital projects across the country to help those who are most deprived, has been apportioned by the Secretary of State specifically to tackle knife crime. It is exactly that sort of approach that will not just commend itself to the House, but have real, real effect on the ground.
The Minister knows that this is not just a London problem. In cities and towns across the country, including in Nottingham, people want practical answers on this, not politicking across the Chamber. Yes, it is about police officer numbers and, of course, a public health approach is necessary, but may I ask her about the availability of knives and how people, young people in particular, are purchasing them, possibly evading age verification by buying online. There was a time when the Government promised action on that. Will she commit to report to the House on how the Government have cracked down on the online purchasing of knives?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, it was a pleasure to open the services of Redthread in Nottingham’s hospital recently. Youth workers are situated in the A&E services so that they can reach out to young people at the teachable moment when they come into A&E with injuries. The Offensive Weapons Bill is in the other place at the moment, and it is through that Bill that we are cracking down on those online retailers who are not conducting proper checks as they should be. It has been the law for 30 years and they should be abiding by that law. It is precisely through that Bill that we are addressing the matter, and I look forward to discussing it with the hon. Gentleman when the Bill comes back.
It is all very well the Minister referring to attending meetings and summits, but police bosses this week demanded an extra 10,000 police officers to deal with this absolutely dreadful problem. More children may well die this weekend. If the Government refuse to provide the 10,000 extra officers that the police bosses demand, it prompts the question: what price do this Government attach to a child’s life?
I hope the hon. Lady recognises how seriously the Government take this issue. We are carefully considering the requests from chief constables and others. This is on top of the work that we do day in, day out to improve the life chances of those who may fall victim to these gangs and who may be ensnared in this criminality, or who may just be carrying knives because of the fear they have when they leave their front door. I encourage the hon. Lady to send out the message loud and clear in her constituency—as I am sure she already does—that carrying a knife is not right and not normal.
In her opening remarks, the Minister said that knife crime is particularly an issue in our larger cities, but as we have been hearing, it is also a real issue in our towns. In the last year, there have been two stabbings in Rugby in Warwickshire, one in Nuneaton, one in Bedworth and, just recently, one in my town of Leamington Spa. Does the Minister accept that when the Prime Minister was Home Secretary, she was wrong to cut the number of police officers by 21,000, which meant a reduction in the number working in our schools and, most importantly, in the intelligence that we get from community police officers?
The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise that knife crime happens not just in large urban areas, but in rural and coastal ones. I am afraid that I must just pull him up on one detail, which is that it was not the Home Secretary who made decisions about police numbers. That is the responsibility of police and crime commissioners, who manage budgets locally. That is the case precisely because they live in their local community so they can set their policing priorities, and they are voted in or out by the local electorate.
The Minister must accept the reality, which is that funding cuts to police forces across Wales and England since 2010 have directly contributed to the rise in knife crime. In my constituency last year, 131 knives were seized inside Cardiff magistrates court—inside a court! What are the Government doing to reassure my constituents that they will be safe on the streets?
We have launched the serious violence strategy, and we are doing a great deal of work in Wales. As I have said in previous answers, we are funding the early intervention youth fund, the youth endowment fund, knife-free campaigns in the media and small anti-knife crime charities. We are about to consult on a public health duty; we are taking the Offensive Weapons Bill through the House to strengthen the powers of the police; and a couple of weeks ago we voted to increase the police budget by up to £970 million with the help of police and crime commissioners.
May I bring the Minister back to the matter of school exclusions, and encourage her to talk to the Department for Education about adopting an assumption that there should be zero school exclusions, as advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and Siobhan Benita, the Lib Dem mayoral candidate in London? Does the Minister understand concerns over the borough command unit mergers that have seen Sutton, Croydon and Bromley merge, and the risk that a one-size-fits-all approach will be adopted in relation to knife crime when what is really needed is a targeted borough or ward-based approach?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the matter of exclusions. As I have said, we are awaiting the report from Ed Timpson. Instinctively, I would want to give headteachers the flexibility to exclude if they feel that a child is a danger to the wider school community, but I accept that this is for headteachers to decide, so we are very much listening to the evidence. The decisions on the borough command unit set-up are taken by the commissioner. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has made representations to the Mayor if he is concerned about this issue, because obviously the Mayor is the police and crime commissioner for London.
The Government were warned about cutting police numbers. Had the 20,000 police officers we have lost still been in place and enabled one stop and search per week, there would have been 1 million stop and searches. Had there been one a day, which is not a lot to ask, there would have been over 7 million stop and searches. If we add to that the intelligence-based use of resources, would that not have had a major impact on knife crime?
The hon. Gentleman rather highlights the reason we changed the voluntary guidance for police officers, in that we do not believe that a one-size-fits-all approach helps. Listening to communities where young people have been stopped and searched without reason—as they see it—we are very conscious that that can harm relations between the police and the community. That is why we have encouraged the use of intelligence-led, targeted stop and search. I refer to the answer I gave earlier about the huge benefit of body-worn cameras in this space, because the public and the police have that extra reassurance that searches being conducted are in fact lawful.
Why are the Government not making a real and substantial funding commitment now to address this issue, as requested by the Home Secretary? If it is a matter of priorities, why have they agreed to give £20 million of taxpayers’ money to test alternative arrangements to the Brexit backstop—a fool’s errand—while refusing to give our police an extra £15 million to tackle the knife crime crisis and save lives? We need visible neighbourhood policing at the heart of our communities. There should be a one-off fund for a surge in temporary officers targeted at knife crime hotspots, as police forces are requesting.
I assure the right hon. Lady that when we have spoken to the commissioner and her commanders about this, they say that that is exactly what they are doing on the streets of London. They are surging numbers where they are needed in hotspot areas. If she has particular issues, she should please let me know or speak to the Mayor of London. On the wider point about funding and resources, I am afraid that, as I say, I cannot comment further at this stage, but we are very clear that, with the help of police and crime commissioners, the extra £970 million next year will help with some of the issues that she raised.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the light of Attorney General’s questions this morning, I thought it would be convenient—
Order. I probably ought to say that is not the norm to take points of order at this stage, but in deference to what I would describe as the celebrity status of the hon. Gentleman, and the salience of his inquiry to earlier exchanges, of which he has recently notified me, I am willing to take his point of order now, and I think the House should listen with bated breath. I mean that most sincerely.
I am extremely grateful, Mr Speaker. Tomorrow, as recorded on page 12 of today’s Votes and Proceedings, the European Scrutiny Committee will be publishing a unanimous report—“The draft EU/UK Withdrawal Agreement: key legal and political questions”—and written evidence entitled “Ministerial Correspondence”. I thought it would be convenient for the House, and for those who pick up on these things in the press and otherwise, to know that that would be available as of tomorrow.
The hon. Gentleman is ever solicitous towards the House, protective of its interests, and periodically keen to secure its attention for what I might describe as a helpful public information notice. I feel sure that he would work on such a basis in any event, but given his additional status as a highly respected and experienced Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, we are, if I may politely say so, doubly grateful to him.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to raise a point of order regarding another Member. I attempted to ring his office and give notice, but I could only leave a message.
Earlier, at Attorney General’s questions, I asked the Attorney General about the sensitive issue of how, if he is now negotiating the Government’s potential deal on the withdrawal agreement and specifically the backstop, he would get round the problem that he would then have to give advice to the House and would therefore, in effect, be marking his own homework. I appreciate that that is a controversial question, but given the seriousness of the matter, I think it was a fair one. As I was leaving the Chamber, the Attorney General’s Parliamentary Private Secretary ran down the corridor and asked to speak with me. I said that I was in a hurry and needed to go, but he insisted. He remonstrated with me about my question and said it was “indecent” of me to ask that question in the House.
I realise that feelings are running high; I am inured to that. Those in the House who know me know that I am not a snowflake. I am used to being disagreed with, but I suggest that for a Government aide to attempt to intimidate a Back Bencher for asking a difficult question is wrong, because if we are not going to ask the Government difficult questions in this place, what is the point of us? I would like to know your opinion, Mr Speaker, on how I should take this further.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Let me say to him, for the avoidance of doubt, that there was nothing in procedural terms disorderly about his inquiry, and from my recollection of what he posited to the Attorney General, there was nothing that I would regard in any way as indecent. A little light-hearted fun was had on the subject of a codpiece, but if memory serves me correctly, it was the Attorney General who introduced the concept of “Cox’s codpiece” and the merit of it being in full working order.
He brought it up.
The Attorney General did indeed raise that matter, and he delivered his point in his usual magnificent baritone and with considerable eloquence. There was nothing improper in procedural terms about what the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) had to say.
If I can, in a light-hearted spirit, say something else to the right hon. Gentleman, it is this. I know that he is not a notably delicate flower, and the reason why I can say that with absolute certainty is that I was myself very disobliging—indeed, I would go so far as to say rude—to him long before he came into this House. It was on the occasion when first we met, at a student conference in September 1983—[Interruption]. I do not remember the time of day, but I will check. I very wrongly suggested that he was intellectually knee-high to a gnat.
It was a grasshopper.
Oh, a grasshopper. All I can say is that thereafter, his career went from strength to strength, and he certainly did not seem to take umbrage.
The right hon. Gentleman is in perfectly good order. I am sorry if there is some ill feeling, but there is no way that anybody is going to intimidate him; I have known him long enough to know that that is simply not going to happen. I am sure the PPS was doing his duty as he thought fit. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) is a decent man, and I make no criticism of him, but the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford is not the sort of person to be pushed around, and we need to be absolutely clear about that.
The Leader of the House has been extremely patient, so if there are no further points of order, we come now to the business question.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
The business for next week will be:
Monday 11 March—Remaining stages of the Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 12 March—Debate on a motion relating to section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.
Wednesday 13 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his spring statement, followed by a general debate on housing.
Thursday 14 March—Debate on a motion relating to the NICE appraisals of rare diseases. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 15 March—Private Members’ Bills.
On Tuesday 26 February, the Prime Minister made three clear commitments to this House. I have just confirmed that the meaningful vote will take place on Tuesday 12 March, and I hope that the House will support the Prime Minister’s deal. However, in the deeply regrettable case that the House does not support the deal, I will make a further business statement on Tuesday 12 March in order to fulfil the Prime Minister’s commitments to allow the House to vote next week on whether we should leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement on the 29 March or extend article 50.
On World Book Day, we can all agree with the words of Frederick Douglass, the American social reformer and abolitionist, who said:
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
World Book Day’s campaign aims to provide every child and young person in the country with a book of their own. It also offers a great opportunity for many children to go to school dressed as their favourite character. If this Chamber were to join in this morning, my choice would be for the Mad Hatter’s tea party as a theme, with my friend the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) taking the leading role.
Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is “Balance for Better”—promoting a more inclusive world, where equality for women is a right, not a privilege. A balanced world is a better world, and the UK has some way to go until we have a 50:50 Parliament. This is something I hope all MPs will push for so that future Parliaments look more like the society they represent.
Speaking of balance and equality, I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) is the first male Member to take up proxy voting for baby leave. I am sure we all congratulate him and his family on the arrival of their new baby. We also send our warmest wishes to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and her family on the birth of their baby.
Last but by no means least, it is Apprenticeship Week, so I want to thank the many apprentices working in the House to support the work of MPs and of Parliament. I am lucky enough to have the support of apprentices in my brilliant Leader of the House’s office, as well as having my ninth annual parliamentary apprentice who is doing a superb job for my constituents.
I thank the Leader of the House for the very short business for next week and her very long speech on various other matters. I thought this was business questions.
I am absolutely staggered to hear what the Leader of the House says about the business next week. It would have been more appropriate to fulfil what the Prime Minister set out in her statement to this House on 26 February, rather than doing it the other way around and putting in debates that then have to be moved. That would have been more appropriate in the light of the utmost seriousness of what is going to happen to the country in the next few weeks.
The Leader of the House seems to be openly in defiance of the Prime Minister. We also see that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs appears to be announcing that the Easter recess will be cancelled. Will the Leader of the House confirm that he said to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that
“there may not be an Easter recess”?
More Government chaos: the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill was pulled before it was debated on Monday. May I ask the Leader of the House why, because a very important cross-party amendment was going to be put to the House? Will she say why, and when is it likely to come back?
Something else that needs to come back to this House is the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union—[Interruption.] I am really sorry, but the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), has had her go. I need to ask the Leader of the House some questions, so would she mind not speaking so loudly?
Something else that has to be brought back to the House is the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. I do not know whether the Leader of the House heard the point of order from the Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee yesterday, but he suggested that the Secretary of State is meeting individuals privately and has not said when he is coming to the Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) has made it absolutely clear that the Committee wants to hear from the Secretary of State before the vote on Tuesday. Will the Leader of the House please ensure that the Brexit Secretary—with or without his other half, the Attorney General—appears before the Committee, particular as one of the Government’s red lines was lost in the House of Lords yesterday?
We know that the Government have paid £33 million to settle a lawsuit. Labour Members have totalled up the amount of money that the Secretary of State for Transport has cost the taxpayer, including in his previous guises, and it amounts to £2.7 billion. Imagine if all that was given to police officers, bringing them back on the beat. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner said that there is “some link” between violent crime on the streets and police numbers. Of course there is—everybody can see that. It does not matter whether the Prime Minister is in Cabinet Office briefing room A, B or C, the fact is that west midlands police and crime commissioner David Jamieson has asked for £964,000 to set up a violence reduction unit. All PCCs should be given funds straight away, before another young person dies this weekend. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) raised a point of order to ask when the Home Secretary or Prime Minister will come to the House to update it on knife crime.
There has been yet another defeat in the courts—yesterday the High Court ruled that the Government’s fracking guidelines were unlawful. Mr Justice Dove said that the consultation was
“flawed in its design and processes”.
May we have a statement on the Government’s policy—well, lack of policy—on fracking, given that High Court judgment?
It may be the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act 1968, but the Government’s “hostile environment” policy has caused immeasurable misery for ethnic minorities. A challenge by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that the Government’s right to rent scheme is “discriminatory” and in breach of human rights laws, and that evidence “strongly showed” that landlords were discriminating against potential tenants because of their nationality and ethnicity. That, again, is a judgment of the High Court, so may we have a statement on the change in policy following that ruling?
The Public Accounts Committee has published its report on the Windrush generation and the Home Office, and stated that the Home Office has failed to take ownership of the problems it created. The Home Office considered 11,800 Caribbean cases, but failed to renew around 160,000 non-Caribbean Commonwealth cases. When will the Government end their discriminatory polices?
Last week the Leader of the House said that the United Kingdom is doing extremely well, and that we are well prepared for exiting the European Union. I think she needs to correct the record, because the Institute for Government identified eight red areas where the Government will not be able to mitigate fully the major negative impacts of a no-deal scenario in 2019. On Tuesday, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs warned that businesses in Northern Ireland will not be ready for new border procedures if there is no deal. Which is it? The Leader of the House mentioned World Book Day—is she “Alice Through the Looking Glass” or is she going through the cupboard into Narnia?
It is with sadness that we remember Lord Bhattacharyya, founder of the Warwick Manufacturing Group—never has his advice been more important than it is now.
I thank Sir Amyas Morse for all his public service. He said that not enough Ministers “sweat blood” over how they spend public money. That lesson needs to be learned by us all, and particularly the Secretary of State for Transport.
We are celebrating International Women’s Day. It was women’s pay day yesterday, which means that as of today women will start being paid for the work they do—they will not be paid for the work they did in the first 65 days because the current pay gap stands at 17.9%. May we have a statement on how the Government will close that gap? We also celebrate the next generation of young women activists, including Greta Thunberg who started a movement to combat climate change. Our young people are getting ready for their day of action on 15 March. They know that climate change and equality know no boundaries, and that such matters are not about the ego of the few, but that the compassion and co-operation of the many will change the world.
Just before the Leader of the House responds, I thank her very much, as will other colleagues, for what she said about World Book Day, and I report that my daughter has today gone to school dressed as Pippi Longstocking. I am sure other Members will have examples with which they can regale the House.
That is very reassuring, and not at all surprising, Mr Speaker. I am sure the whole House will celebrate the fact that maths A-level is now one of the most popular subjects for students to take, and the whole country can be proud that more children are getting a serious and good education. Thank you for sharing that, Mr Speaker—I shall not share what my children have gone to school, as because they have not dressed up. That is mainly because they are 23, 20 and 15—[Laughter.] It would be a little odd! They used to go as things like Peter Pan. It used to be fun. I remember making many a costume, but sadly those days are behind me.
The hon. Lady raised a number of extremely important questions. She asked about next steps. She will appreciate that the Prime Minister’s commitments mean that I have had to announce the business as we know it today. As she appreciates, it is the Government’s intention to seek to win the meaningful vote on Tuesday. Should it be the case that the Government do win it, I would then need to come forward—if I had already announced contingent business, I would have to come forward to change it. What we are expecting, and what the Government are working towards, is winning that meaningful vote on Tuesday. As the hon. Lady will know, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and the Prime Minister herself are very carefully seeking agreement from the European Commission and the EU27 to resolve the outstanding issues on the backstop. It is very important that she understands the reason why the business has been announced as it has.
On recess dates, the hon. Lady will appreciate that for decades, if not longer, Leaders of the House have had to say that recess dates are announced and will then take place subject to the progress of the House. I am sure she appreciates that I will have to make that comment to her again.
On the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill and the fact that that business did not go forward, as the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), said on Monday, it is right that we take the time to look properly at the proposed amendments and consider their impact with the Crown dependencies, which are separate jurisdictions with their own democratically elected Governments. Taking the time to review those amendments was therefore extremely important.
The hon. Lady asks if the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union will appear before the Select Committee. I understand that he has agreed to do so. As she will appreciate, his absolute priority is to seek the support of the European Union for the changes that the UK Government are looking for to the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. He always shows himself willing to appear before this House for scrutiny. He has been absolutely assiduous in his determination to be open to scrutiny at all times.
The hon. Lady asks about the two debates earlier this week, on Eurotunnel and the Standing Order No. 24 debate. She will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Transport Secretary have both been to the House this week to provide updates on this very important matter. She will know that leaving the EU with a deal remains the Government’s top priority, but it is important that we prepare for all scenarios. The agreement with Eurotunnel secures additional freight capacity and helps to ensure that the NHS has essential medicines in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The hon. Lady asks about fracking. She will be aware that the Government are determined that, as we move towards a carbon-free future, we will need to continue to rely heavily on gas for some years. Gas is the cleanest carbon fossil fuel and it is essential that we take our gas security seriously. Fracking offers not only a UK-grown source of gas security, but huge opportunities for economic growth in those areas that have it.
On the right to rent, the hon. Lady will be aware that the Government are challenging the judgment. The Government do not agree with the findings and that will continue to be looked at.
Finally, the hon. Lady made a point about the pay gap for women. She will be aware that the Government have brought in mandatory reporting on the pay gap for large employers, with unlimited fines for those who do not comply. The official overall gender pay gap in the UK is 17.9%, which is a record low. There is much more to do, but on the Government side of the House we are committed to reducing and eliminating the gender pay gap.
For years I have waited, with a degree of patience that verges on indulgence, for any glimmer of insight or glint of inspiration from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). Finally, listening to the wireless this week, the eureka moment came, when she persuasively backed a campaign for all children to be taught something of natural history—our native trees, birds, flora and fauna. One might describe it as “the wind in the willows”. Will the Leader of the House bring an Education Minister to this Chamber to say how schoolchildren will learn about those things, not because they are useful but just because they are lovely?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend that learning about natural history—and, indeed, the history of our country and of the world—is absolutely vital for the education of young people. In particular, in the context of the extraordinary peace that has broken out between him and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), I am sure that there is a campaign there somewhere. If they perhaps wanted to seek a Westminster Hall debate, I am sure that that would be widely welcomed across the House.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. I, too, welcome International Women’s Day and join the celebrations around World Book Day today. If we are looking for further Lewis Carroll characters, perhaps we should look at the Government to find out who is the mad March Hare, and possibly who are Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
I suppose this is about the closest that the business statement will ever come to being a work of fiction—it is sort of Walter Mitty meets “Waiting for Godot”. What it is not is a tablet of stone. I do not think that anyone in the House believes that the statement will survive the rigours of next week, because Tuesday is when the Prime Minister finally faces her Waterloo, and it is not going to end well. With 22 days left before we leave, on Tuesday the road finally runs out and we approach the end of these chaotic, clueless Brexit days. In the intervening weeks, the Government have wasted all their available time by trying to make their rotten deal more palatable to their Back Benchers while hoping beyond hope that the EU somehow bends to their will. Neither of those things looks like it is going to happen, and the Government will go down to another glorious defeat.
There has been lots of talk about postponing that vote, and there is even more talk that this fiction could indeed be the business for next week, and that if the Government are defeated on Tuesday, they will renege on their commitment to hold consecutive votes on taking no deal off the table and extending article 50. We have been here before with the Leader of the House, when she said to me categorically at business questions that the last meaningful vote would go ahead, only for it to be pulled a couple of days later. While we are grateful for all the reassurances that this will go ahead next week, will she write to party leaders today with a cast-iron commitment that the sequence of events, as put forward by the Prime Minister, will be honoured in full? We need to have it written down that under no circumstances will the meaningful vote be pulled and the subsequent votes taken away.
If there is a defeat on the meaningful vote, we must have those other motions. The Leader of the House must say to the House that they will all be amendable, and that the Government will fully honour the outcome as determined by the membership of this House, without any equivocation. If she will do that today, we can take this work of fiction off the table and have it as nothing other than a little, depressing footnote to the bounties of World Book Day.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his very precise and specific question. I am very pleased to be able to confirm to him that each of the motions that the Prime Minister has committed to next week would be amendable. The Prime Minister has committed to a second meaningful vote by 12 March. I have just announced that the debate on that motion will take place on 12 March. It will be a motion under section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which will be tabled on Monday. It will be an approval motion as required by the Act and, under the normal procedures of the House, it will be amendable.
Under Standing Order No. 16, any debate under an Act of Parliament—which this is—is limited to 90 minutes, so I expect to bring forward a business of the House motion in order to provide more than 90 minutes. The exact details of that will in due course be discussed through the usual channels, and will ultimately be for the House to agree. Only if the Government have not won the meaningful vote on 12 March will the other debates follow. The motions for the House to approve leaving the EU on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement, and on whether Parliament wants to seek a short, limited extension to article 50 will be tabled by the rise of the House on the day before debate, as is the usual practice. I have given the hon. Gentleman as much clarity and assurance as I possibly can.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on re-establishing a new town building programme in the UK? When I represented the new town of Basildon, I found the development corporation and the new town commission to be extremely effective in delivering affordable homes in large numbers and in building a vibrant community, certainly while I was there. Can we have a programme started again?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about new towns—although I would have expected him to talk about new cities, which is what he usually does. I had the pleasure recently of visiting the new Bicester garden town with my excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who is sitting just in front of him. The Government have backed new towns through their garden communities programme, with 23 towns and villages in the current plans and more to be considered. We have also committed a new £10 million fund to help local areas prepare proposals for development corporations, because we recognise the need for strong delivery vehicles for significant new developments. He will have opportunities to put his views on those proposals in due course.
I was aware before I left the house that it was World Book Day, but I was still glad to be joined on the bus by the Cat in the Hat, Harry Potter, Snow White and Princess Elsa from “Frozen”—some were not readily recognisable, but I certainly recognised the Cat in the Hat.
I am aware that Back-Bench business can be a moveable feast, but if it comes to pass that the debate scheduled for next week has to move, we would look to get repeat time as early as possible, because it is an important debate about the appraisal process for the treatment of rare diseases, and the obstacles to funding for appropriate treatments for muscular dystrophy, phenylketonuria, cystic fibrosis and so on.
I would like to give notice of another matter. We have had on the stocks for some time now an application from the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and friends for a debate on world autism awareness, this year being the 10th anniversary of the Autism Act 2009, and we would prefer a debate before World Autism Awareness Week, which is on 1 to 7 April.
As ever, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me prior notice of upcoming debates. He mentions the Back-Bench debate proposed for next week on rare diseases. I have two young people in my constituency with cystic fibrosis who are both desperate for access to the Orkambi drug, so it is my very dear wish that that debate go ahead. It will not surprise him to know that I am also extremely keen that it go ahead because that will mean that the House will have passed a previous motion. I will take careful account of what he is asking for.
Can we have a debate in Government time to discuss the breakdown of the voisinage agreement between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland? The impounding of two Northern Ireland fishing vessels recently shows the Republic of Ireland imposing a hard border while its vessels are still allowed to fish in UK waters off the coast of Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend raises a very important matter, and I know she is very knowledgeable in this area. The voisinage arrangement has been in place since 1965 but was suspended by Ireland following a decision by the Irish Supreme Court in October 2016, as she knows. On 26 February, two Northern Ireland fishing vessels were detained, but on 1 March the skippers were not convicted under the Probation Act and the vessels were released. Since the suspension of the arrangement, the UK Government have raised this issue several times and have been clear that we cannot accept continued unequal application indefinitely. We continue to explore solutions to reinstate a level playing field as quickly as possible for the benefit of all our fishermen.
Unfortunately, skin cancer is very much on the rise in the UK, partly because lots of us have skin like mine with freckles and fair hair and are not really built for the sun, but still go on holiday to Spain and other places and do not cover up properly when the sun is out.
May we have a debate on skin cancer, so that more people can be made aware that if they have a dodgy mole, going to the doctor can save their life if it is caught very early; so that everyone covers up their kids, particularly when the sun comes up; and so that no one uses a tanning machine, because, frankly, those things are death machines?
While I am here, let me say this. I am nobody special—I am just one of the many, many hundreds of people who have received diagnoses of skin cancer in the last few weeks, including other Members—but I am enormously grateful for the love that many people have shown in the House, some of them people to whom I have been phenomenally rude across the Chamber. I am not going to stop the being rude, but may I just say thank you to those who have been truly, truly lovely, including the Leader of the House herself?
Let me say first to the hon. Gentleman that he is very special to me, and he is very special to many other people both in the House and outside it. He has made some incredibly important points, not the least of which was that his own skin cancer was under his hair. We often put sun cream on the exposed bits, but not necessarily in our hair, because that would be slightly odd. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to wear a hat.
I have a hat.
I am pleased to hear it. I hope it is one of those Foreign Legion hats with the collars that we make our five-year-olds wear.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an extremely important point. I will look very carefully at whether we can provide Government time for a debate, but in the meantime I urge him to seek a Westminster Hall debate. I think that sometimes when one of us in the House has a very personal experience we can send a clear message to which people will listen, and I commend him for raising his experience here.
The whole House sends good wishes to the hon. Gentleman. It is good to see him back in his place—and it would not do if there was nobody being rude to people; it just would not do at all.
As someone who has not always agreed on everything with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) since we have been in the House together, I too join the chorus of welcome. It is fantastic to see him in his place, and we all admire him for the courage with which he has spoken up to warn others of the dangers of this dreadful disease. Now, that is it for 18 years.
I understand the argument that the Leader of the House has advanced, but the truth is that the Government’s Brexit policy is in chaos. Collective responsibility has disintegrated, junior Ministers run amok—some of them threaten to resign about 27 times, but never have the guts to go through with it—senior Ministers blackmail the Prime Minister in Sunday newspapers and nothing happens to any of them, but a popular parliamentary private secretary is sacked for having the temerity to table an amendment that was in line with Government policy, which the Government then adopted with a Division in the subsequent debate. This is a farce.
May I make a positive suggestion? Given that the Cabinet members are so divided, would they like to come down to Rayleigh and sit in on a meeting of its town council? It is well run, its members are all on the same side—pretty much—it does not leak, it makes decisions, and by God it sticks to them.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving us both barrels. Mr Speaker said earlier that my right hon. Friend was no retiring delicate flower, and I think that that is absolutely the case. He is right to raise his concerns in the Chamber, but I must say to him that I remain absolutely committed to supporting the Prime Minister, to delivering on the referendum, and to ensuring that we leave the European Union on 29 March. That is all I am prepared to say on the subject. The entire Government are united in that respect, and we are putting everything we can into getting that motion passed next Tuesday.
On 4 April 1949, 12 states signed the Washington treaty that founded NATO. They agreed to collective defence, to living in peace with all Governments and peoples while living under the rule of law, to democracy, and to individual liberty. May we, in Government time, celebrate being one of those 12 early signatories, and also the fact that, hopefully by the end of the year, 30 Governments will have signed up to those policies and principles under the articles of the North Atlantic treaty?
I think that the hon. Lady will have heard a number of Members agreeing with her that we should celebrate our membership, and being one of the original signatories, every day. We have enjoyed the protection—the mutual protection—of NATO for many decades, and it is right that we continue to support it as a core part of the UK’s mutual defence. As the hon. Lady will know, we are committed to meeting our NATO pledge to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence in every year of the current Parliament, and the UK remains completely committed to NATO. I will certainly take away her request for a debate and see what can be done.
I feel that before I say anything else, I must put on record that I found out today that my daughter—although she did not dress up as a fictional character for World Book Day—is adorned from head to toe in Peppa Pig paraphernalia, which does not surprise me in the slightest.
May I associate myself with the Leader of the House’s earlier comments about apprenticeship week? The international engineering business Score Group plc, whose headquarters is in my constituency, is the largest private employer of apprentices in Scotland. It has 30 facilities around the globe, including one in Brighouse, Calder Valley, where an apprenticeship open evening was held on Tuesday. A similar event is to be held this evening in Peterhead, in my constituency, and I hope to arrive home in time to attend it. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the award-winning efforts of Score Group in this respect, and may we have a debate on how we can encourage more young people to embark on engineering and technical roles through apprenticeships?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Score Group on its brilliant efforts to encourage more people to take up apprenticeships. He is absolutely right to highlight the fact that, particularly when it comes to the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and the gaining of technical skills, apprenticeships are often a good choice for young people. As he will know, there have been more than 1.6 million apprenticeship starts since May 2015, and we can all be proud of that, because they are giving more and more young people a good start in life. Apprenticeships are devolved in Scotland, but I welcome my hon. Friend’s request for a debate, and thank him for expressing his desire to see more young people enter the engineering and technical industries.
My constituent Connor MacLeod, who is 23, has Asperger’s and type 1 diabetes. He cannot monitor his own blood sugar levels, and has issues with understanding written and oral questions and requests. He cannot prepare or cook a meal or plan a journey without supervision, and is heavily dependent on his parents. Ewan Lamont, who is 47, suffered brain damage at the age of three weeks as a result of meningitis, and now lives in supported accommodation. He has issues with comprehension, reading, writing and planning journeys, and relies on his elderly mother. Both were awarded zero points in their assessments for the personal independence payment. The changes announced this week are welcome, but they are not good enough. May we have a debate on the wide-ranging issues relating to PIP, as a matter of urgency?
The hon. Gentleman has raised very concerning constituency issues, and he is absolutely right to do so. I am glad that he welcomes the announcement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that we are improving the system by scrapping regular PIP reviews for those with the greatest needs, but he is right to cite cases in which there is concern about the assessment itself. If he will write to me following business questions, I will take up those specific points with the Department on his behalf.
The coroner of north Staffordshire, Mr Ian Smith, who is retiring—I congratulate him warmly on his work and thank him for it, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash)—has raised the problem of the lack of availability of pathologists to coroners conducting inquests. May we have an urgent debate on the matter? It means that funerals are being delayed, sometimes for weeks, which is causing huge concern and distress to families whose loved ones have passed away.
My hon. Friend has raised a very concerning issue. I pay tribute to the amazing work done by coroners: I have had something to do with them myself in connection with constituency matters, and I know that they do an incredible amount of work that is often quite stressful and harrowing. It would probably be best for my hon. Friend to raise the issue in an Adjournment debate, so that he can discuss it directly with Ministers.
Last week I asked the Leader of the House when the review on expulsions would be brought forward to the House. The Leader of the House, surprisingly, said that I needed to give advance notice of this question, so I have written to the Leader of the House and will ask her again this week: when will we be getting the Timpson review into exclusions? This is extremely important.
I did see the hon. Lady’s tweet saying that she did not know she had to give prior notice. Of course she does not have to give prior notice. My point was merely that she was asking a question about a particular date, and since I am not a mind-reader, if she wanted a specific answer she could have asked me and I could have come to the Chamber well prepared. So the specific answer I can give her now is exactly what the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), said in the urgent question: it is expected that the Timpson review into exclusions will come soon, but my hon. Friend does not have an exact date for it. [Interruption.] Well, the reality is that there is not an exact date for that report. When I see the hon. Lady’s letter I will try to find out if there is any further clarity on when that can be brought to the House, but I absolutely accept her desire to see urgent evidence on the issue of a link between exclusions and what happens to young people. She is absolutely right to be so passionate about the problems with serious violence, and I commend her for that.
I was pleased to support the ten-minute rule Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on low-level letterboxes, and I am delighted that that has come to fruition and that there will be changes. However, I was shocked yesterday to receive a letter from Royal Mail informing me that no mail would now be delivered to one estate in my constituency and that the residents would have to go to the Royal Mail depot to collect their post. The reason for this is that the postie who delivers that part of the round was threatened with a knife at his throat on the estate and, as a result, Royal Mail has withdrawn postal services. May we have a debate or a statement in Government time on the threats our posties face in carrying out their duty to the wider public?
My hon. Friend raises a really concerning case; it is appalling to hear that a postal worker would be threatened with a knife in that way. That is appalling when they are doing their best to give a good service to all residents. It equally seems very harsh on the residents of that estate to have the entire postal service withdrawn. I encourage my hon. Friend to raise that matter directly on 19 March at Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions or perhaps to submit a parliamentary written question to BEIS asking what more can be done.
Depression amongst men and women is one of the hidden ailments in society in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The smile often hides the true fact that the life and soul of the party is in reality empty, exhausted and perhaps even hurting physically. People can be active socially but inside are depressed, numb and self-loathing. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement or debate on this matter?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue and is absolutely right to do so. He will be aware that the Government are putting a record £12 billion into mental health issues to try to achieve parity of esteem between mental health and physical health issues, and at the heart of the NHS long-term plan is the biggest expansion of mental health services in a generation. It will see 350,000 more children, at least 380,000 more adults and, very dear to my own heart, 24,000 more new and expectant mothers able to access mental health services; that is very important. It will also see 24/7 mental health crisis care for adults, children and young people rolled out through NHS 111, giving them access to vital support when they need it, and for the first time ever we will have comprehensive access standards for mental health. So we are seeing change; it is absolutely vital that we do, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue.
On the day before International Women’s Day will the Leader of the House join me in recognising that there are currently almost 4,000 women in prison in this country, many of whom have been victims of domestic abuse or require support for mental health or drug and alcohol addiction? Will she also recognise that at least 17,000 children are affected each year by maternal imprisonment? May we therefore have a debate in Government time on the female offender strategy?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this important issue. Of course, quite often those women have very young children so the impact of being in prison is not just on them; it is on their families, with the breakdown of the family that ensues. The hon. Lady will be aware that the Government have prepared a draft Domestic Abuse Bill that will be receiving pre-legislative scrutiny. That will radically change the way that women are protected from the kind of domestic violence and abuse issues that all too often wind up with them being imprisoned because of retribution or lack of access to justice. The hon. Lady is right to raise the Government’s strategy on women prisoners, and I will certainly see whether Government time can be found for that.
May we have a debate—another debate—on Home Office incompetence? I have a constituent who is going to become an overstayer in the country today because she cannot sit her Home Office life-in-the-UK test as the same Home Office has failed to return her expired passport. We have had no progress via the hotline, so may we at least have a Minister come to the House and take some responsibility for this shambles?
I am very sorry to hear that; I, too, have had cases where passports have not been returned in good time. I am also sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman has not had any success with the MPs’ hotline, which is designed to enable MPs to intervene on behalf of constituents. I recommend that the hon. Gentleman raises this directly with the Home Office and if he wants to write to me after business questions I can do that for him.
It is nice that the Leader of the House talks about World Book Day, but 700 libraries have closed since 2010 under this Government. May we have a debate about that, because earlier this week the National Literacy Trust released research showing that a quarter of eight to 18-year-olds now read daily, compared with 43% back in 2015? That is a pretty shocking statistic; is not the loss of our libraries a lot to with that?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s love of libraries, and he will be aware that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport works with the Libraries Taskforce to support libraries, and the Government are committed to seeking a sustainable future for them. He will no doubt appreciate that the change in the reading levels has a lot to do with social media and so on—I am constantly struggling to get my own daughter to read a book rather than go on Instagram, for example—so there are challenges. The hon. Gentleman is also right to raise the importance of libraries not just for reading books, but also as community hubs. Many other activities take place in libraries, and it is vital that we ensure that local authorities in England keep up their statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.
May we have a debate in Government time on postcode discrimination? The Leader of the House will know that I have raised many times the issue of unfair delivery surcharges which result in £38 million of additional costs for Scots citizens every year. Is she content that her Government’s latest dismissive response to my MSP colleague, Richard Lochhead, is to tell Scots that they will just have to “shop around”, rather than taking action on this outrage?
I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s concern at the postcode lottery around delivery charges to different locations. He will appreciate that there are obviously different costs incurred in delivering to more remote areas, but the principle of a single charge where that has been agreed should be upheld. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to perhaps seek an Adjournment debate so that he can discuss this properly directly with Ministers, who could then see what more can be done.
Today is indeed World Book Day, and I am sure we all want to thank teachers, parents, mentors and schools in our constituencies for their efforts in delivering quality literacy education to young and old alike. Shockingly, the UK ranks 17th for literacy out of 34 OECD countries, and one in five children in the UK cannot read well by the age of 11. Today sees the release of the incredibly moving documentary “H is for Harry”, described by The Sunday Times as
“casting a spotlight on one of the biggest education scandals in Britain”,
It was filmed at Reach Academy in my constituency and tells the story of 11-year-old Harry’s struggle to learn to read, and indeed that of his father and grandfather. Following the release of that documentary, may we have a debate about intergenerational illiteracy, which is more widespread than we realise, its impact on social isolation, life chances and wellbeing, and the increasingly urgent need for much more early intervention?
I am really sympathetic to the hon. Lady. Through the work that I have been doing for the Prime Minister in an inter-ministerial group looking at early years, I have found that one of the challenges that parents often face is their child having delayed speech. That has an impact on the child’s ability to learn, and therefore to learn to read. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we need to look at earlier interventions. On the other hand, I am sure she will join me in celebrating the fact that 1.9 million more children are being taught in good or outstanding schools than was the case in 2010, that 86% of all schools are rated as good or outstanding, up from 68% in 2010, and that the gap between disadvantaged pupils and others is narrowing. All these outcomes represent a good direction of travel, but she is absolutely right to raise the importance of literacy at an early age.
I have engaged in extensive correspondence with successive Secretaries of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to urge them to introduce a cap on the price of resale tickets on online platforms, as that is the only way to protect consumers from the extortion and sharp practice of big business. I have been told repeatedly that imposing such a cap would not work, but I have been given no explanation as to why it would not work. Will the Leader of the House make a statement acknowledging that the current system is not working and explaining why such a cap on the price of resale tickets would not work? Will she work with me to stand up for consumers?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to stand up for consumers, and we are all aware of issues relating to the unfair resale of whatever it might be—it is often concert and theatre tickets. I recommend that she seeks an Adjournment debate, so that she can put her points directly to Ministers to see what more they can do.
Will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming the announcement today by the Welsh Labour Government of a new specific fund for university student mental health services? Will she also commit to a debate in Government time on student mental health services?
I certainly join the hon. Lady in welcoming that new strategy from the Welsh Government. It is incredibly important that we do everything we can to protect the mental health of young people. It is pleasing to see that individual universities right across the United Kingdom are doing more to try to support the mental health of their students. It is right that they should do that. Equally, I am sure that she will welcome the fact that the Government are putting a record £12 billion of investment into mental health and that we are developing a 24/7 health crisis care service that will be accessible to adults, children and young people. It will be rolled out through the NHS 111 service and give people access to vital crisis care whenever they need it.
May we have a debate in Government time on the importance of, and investment in, cervical cancer charities? Local charities such as the Michelle Henderson Cervical Cancer Trust in my constituency and Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust play a huge role in reducing the rates of cervical cancer, but the uptake of cervical cancer tests is at a 20-year low. Many years ago, when I was in my teens, I was unfortunate enough to contract the human papilloma virus. I went on to give my cells to develop the new vaccine, and I am very proud of that. That vaccine is saving lives, but young women are still contracting cervical cancer and dying because they are not going to get their cervical smears. May we have a debate in Government time to discuss this important issue?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that having a cervical smear is a critical thing that every woman can do to protect herself. I am sure all hon. Members would encourage every woman to please go and get that smear and not to let time go past, because there are often no symptoms until it is too late. I would also like to commend the hon. Lady for her own personal contribution to ensuring that others do not have to go through what she went through. I encourage her to seek a Westminster Hall debate so that all hon. Members can contribute their thoughts on this important issue.
The prize for perseverance and patience goes to Sarah Jones.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to raise the issue of knife crime, which has been the subject of much debate this week. Yesterday, the officers of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime, which I chair, wrote to the Prime Minister with a range of suggestions and asking for a meeting. They suggested that, alongside her summit, she should host an event with young people who have been affected by knife crime, so that they could put their point of view across, as that is also important. Will the Leader of the House convey that message to No. 10? Will she also tell us whether she can guarantee that the Offensive Weapons Bill, which has been through the Lords and is due to come back to this place, will come back before the Easter recess?
I commend the hon. Lady for her efforts. There is huge concern across the House about the recent spate of knife crimes and the loss of so many young lives. What a terrible waste. I will certainly draw the Prime Minister’s attention to the letter that the hon. Lady has written asking for a meeting with young people. She will be aware that the Prime Minister will be holding a summit in Downing Street with community leaders, including the police, in the coming days to look at what more can be done. She will also be aware that we have published a serious violence strategy and established the serious violence taskforce. With regard to the Offensive Weapons Bill, we will be bringing it back to the Commons as soon as possible. I cannot absolutely commit to that happening prior to the Easter recess, simply because we do not know what the course of events will be following next week’s votes, but I will certainly take her request back to the business managers with real urgency, and we will see what can be done.