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House of Commons

Thursday 10 April 2014

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Living Wage

1. Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to encourage firms to pay a living wage. [903648]

5. Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to encourage firms to pay a living wage. [903653]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The Government support a living wage and encourage businesses to pay it when it is affordable and not at the expense of jobs. We recognise that these have been challenging times and we applaud companies that have chosen to pay higher wages.

Heidi Alexander: The UK’s largest supermarkets, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons, together make billions of pounds in profits every year, but they still do not pay all their staff a living wage. Will the Secretary of State look at amending the corporate governance code to require all publicly listed companies to report annually the number of individuals they employ who earn less than a living wage?

Vince Cable: That is an interesting suggestion for nudging companies in the right direction, and I will certainly have a look at it. I am certainly very opposed to coercive measures because those would simply add to unemployment, but I will reflect on that suggestion, which is a new one.

Chris Williamson: I am pleased that the Secretary of State says that he supports the living wage, but as he will know—my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) has already pointed this out—that of the 4.8 million people who are paid less than the living wage, many work for multinational, highly profitable companies. What specific steps is he taking to encourage those highly profitable companies to pay the living wage? The people deserve to know that.

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Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman’s constituency is a good example of what is happening in the labour market. The claimant count is down to about 2.5%, which is much lower than it was when we took office. Many engineering companies are short of labour and wages are going up. We have been through a difficult period, but one of the success stories is that employment has massively increased—465,000 during the last year. His constituency is a very good example of the policies working.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that retailers would find it easier to pay higher wages if they were allowed to open all day on Sunday?

Vince Cable: I suspect that it would make relatively little difference. We had a modest experiment at the time of the Olympics. The results did not show a great deal of real economic consequences, but we are always open to new evidence.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): Provided that it does not undermine fair trade or UK competitiveness, a significant increase in the minimum wage would clearly be both desirable and the right thing to do. But will my right hon. Friend look particularly at the care sector, where I fear there is a race to the bottom as a result of there simply being a floor where the minimum wage has been set?

Vince Cable: I remind my hon. Friend that, based on the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission, the Government announced recently the biggest increase in cash terms since the financial crisis—a 3% increase, which is an increase in real terms. I suspect that with the central problem in the care sector, which is with domiciliary care workers whose travel times are not properly counted, we are dealing with an abuse of the minimum wage system, and it needs to be pursued in that context.

Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): A KPMG study found that the introduction of a living wage increased productivity and reduced sickness absenteeism and staff turnover. In fact, its introduction was cost-neutral for all these firms. As it makes such a good business case, why are the vast bulk of local authorities that have introduced a living wage Labour ones?

Vince Cable: The process that the hon. Gentleman described is the right one: if it is good business practice, good businesses will follow it and out-compete their competitors, and I hope that that is what will happen.

Student Loans

2. Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): What recent estimate he has made of the resource accounting and budgeting charge on student loans. [903649]

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): We currently estimate the RAB charge to be around 45%. The estimate changes frequently in the light of new economic forecasts and will continue to change.

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Paul Blomfield: Back in the days when the Minister was confidently predicting that the RAB charge would not rise above 32%, writing in The Independent in October 2012 he described an RAB charge of 38% as the worst outcome for the taxpayer. How does he describe an RAB charge of 45%?

Mr Willetts: What we have achieved with our higher education reforms is significant savings to the taxpayer and extra income going to our universities. That is the right combination.

Mr Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): The whole House will want to join me in congratulating Toni Pearce on her re-election as president of the National Union of Students. Figures this morning from the Sutton Trust and the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that Toni’s generation will now be paying off their student loans into their 50s. Will the Minister get to the Dispatch Box and confess that this student debt system is now not only unsustainable, but unfair? Does the Conservative party have any plans to raise the £9,000 fee in the next Parliament?

Mr Willetts: Let us be absolutely clear what today’s IFS report shows. It shows that people on lower earnings throughout their working lives are going to pay back less. That is a deliberate feature of our reforms which means that they are fairer and more progressive than the system we inherited from the Labour Government. Meanwhile, people who earn a lot during their working lives as a result of going to university will pay back more. That is what we intended with these reforms, and that is what the IFS shows we are delivering.

Economy (Rebalancing)

3. Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What progress he has made on rebalancing the economy across the UK. [903650]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The regional growth fund plays a key rote in stimulating private investment and employment in areas dependent on the public sector. Today, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has announced 50 further projects and programmes that have been awarded regional growth fund support in round 5. Together they will share £300 million of RGF support and have pledged to deliver £1.9 billion of private sector investment and to safeguard or create 37,000 jobs. We have also increased resources under the strategic direction of local enterprise partnerships to at least £20 billion until 2020-21.

Diana Johnson: In 2011, Hull voters kicked out the Lib Dem councillors who had delayed setting up the Humber LEP. From then on, the Labour council, MPs, local businesses and the LEP took the lead in working together to bring to the city Siemens, City of Culture, and rail electrification. Does not that show the potential of real devolution to the regions? Why does the Secretary of State block the plans that are set out in the Heseltine review?

Vince Cable: I certainly welcome devolution and the cross-party approach that we have adopted to attracting Siemens. I remember going to Hull in 2010 and 2011,

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when an excellent Liberal Democrat council was laying the foundations for the bid for Siemens that is now happily realised.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): May I praise the Government for the role of agri-tech funds in rebalancing the economy in the north? One of the issues holding back growth in the north is badly congested and unsafe roads such as the A64. Will my right hon. Friend use funds from his Department, working with the LEP, to improve the A64?

Vince Cable: One of the joys of the new pots of funding that are available for local enterprise partnerships is that LEPs can decide for themselves what their priorities are. I am aware, because I grew up in the region, that there are serious infrastructure bottlenecks, and I am sure that that will be high in its priorities.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The Secretary of State and the whole House will no doubt welcome this morning’s excellent news that 1,000 new jobs have been created in Belfast by US software company Concentrix. That is very good news in terms of rebalancing the economy. Will he continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive on matters such as corporation tax to ensure that the number of private sector jobs continues to grow in the Province?

Vince Cable: The Northern Ireland Executive is doing an excellent job in attracting inward investment. I have been to see some of these high-tech companies. The Titanic quarter is a good example of the growth that is taking place. I am delighted to hear the news that the right hon. Gentleman has announced. We are certainly happy to continue to work with the Executive.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): My constituents in Kettering were very worried when told by the Opposition that 1 million jobs would be lost in this country as a result of the Government’s attempt to rebalance the economy. Does the Secretary of State therefore share my delight in the latest figures from HM Treasury showing that since 2010 an extra 4,800 jobs have been created in Kettering—a massive 11% increase?

Vince Cable: My hon. Friend describes a trend that is apparent across the country. As I said a few moments ago, almost half a million new jobs were created last year, and I am delighted that Kettering is sharing in that positive story.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Every week when Parliament is sitting, I get on the train in one of the poorest parts of the European Union and get off in the richest, with a twelvefold difference in wealth per head between west Wales and inner London. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the only way to address this record of shame is to fiscally empower the nations and regions of the UK and have a deliberate strategy, as in Germany, to redistribute wealth between the wealthiest and the poorest parts?

Vince Cable: In many respects, the Welsh economy is sharing in the wider picture. Its unemployment rate is slightly lower than the national average. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who represents

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that area of Welsh Wales, is very active in promoting that part of the country, which benefits substantially from European assistance.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): The trend across the UK that the Business Secretary has just described is undermined by a report that shows it is 100 times easier to get a job in Cambridge than in Salford and that describes the gap as widening “dramatically”. The Public Accounts Committee exposed the incompetence and delays with the regional growth fund. Does not the Secretary of State know that every Tory Government leads to the imbalance in our economy not shrinking, but growing?

Vince Cable: Actually, the Greater Manchester local enterprise partnership is one of the best and most active and it is resulting in considerable improvements in that region. On the regional growth fund as a whole, we now have a formidable accumulation of results. We are talking about approaching £3 billion of commitments, 427 projects, more than 500,000 jobs safeguarded and created and, most important, £16 billion of private sector investment that has been brought in alongside Government money.

UK Trade & Investment

4. Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the performance of UK Trade & Investment in supporting exports. [903651]

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): The most up-to-date independently audited figures show that in the 12 months to September 2013, UKTI supported nearly 35,000 businesses. The value of additional sales attributed to UKTI support over that period was more than £50 billion. UKTI is on track to meet its target to assist 40,000 businesses in 2013-14.

Daniel Kawczynski: In export week, I welcome that news, but what concrete steps are being taken by UKTI to reform its structure, personnel and strategy in order to ensure that we meet the Government’s £1 trillion target for exports?

Michael Fallon: My hon. Friend will be aware, because I know he takes a strong interest in this area, of the reforms to UKTI, which is now working closely with British businesses. This week, I attended the world’s leading trade and industrial technology fair in Hanover and saw UKTI working with the Birmingham chamber of commerce to provide support for 40 UK companies. It is estimated that from that fair alone some £5 million-worth of orders are in the pipeline.

Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): In February, UK exports actually fell. Given the fact that last year only a fifth of the total amount of money available for financing exports was actually used, what more can the Minister do to increase the uptake of UK export finance in order to boost our exports?

Michael Fallon: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There are schemes to assist companies with their export finance, but only large companies have taken

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advantage of them in the past. We need to do more to market those schemes. I do not think it is fair to take one month’s particular trade figures. We are increasing our trade, particularly with the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): The fact is, though, that exports are at their worst and lowest level since 2010. It is interesting that the chief economist of the British Chambers of Commerce has said:

“We need to match resources committed by our major competitors if we are to compete on a level-playing field when exporting overseas.”

What is the Minister doing specifically to ensure a level playing field for the chemical industry?

Michael Fallon: The trade deficit actually narrowed in 2013, so I repeat that I do not think it is right to take just the figures from February. We have specifically been helping the chemical sector recently. The energy package announced in the Budget will make a significant difference in freezing the carbon price floor. We are giving the chemical industry more help by exempting it from the renewables obligation and the feed-in tariffs. The energy taxes are being cut, which will significantly help both the chemical and the steel industry.


6. Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to ensure that universities remain financially sustainable in the long term. [903656]

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): Our higher education reforms have increased university income and reduced costs to taxpayers. In 2011, universities received £7.9 billion of income for teaching. Next year, they will receive £9.9 billion. Universities are now well funded, on a sustainable basis for the long term.

Mr Sheerman: The Minister will be surprised to hear that I do not agree with relative complacency. I am a member of the Higher Education Commission and we are taking evidence on the long-term financial viability of our higher education sector. Time and time again, the Higher Education Policy Institute, the vice-chancellors, Lord Baker, Charles Clarke and everyone else who gives evidence to the commission say there is a serious, deep problem. We are not getting any British post-graduates as a result of the £9,000 a year. Something is deeply wrong. Will the Minister act before it is too late?

Mr Willetts: We now have record numbers of people applying to university. The funding is going to the courses that students choose. We are getting rid of controls on numbers of students. This system is financed by graduates—not students, but graduates—paying money back. That is the right way to finance our higher education. It is the system that all three parties have ended up proposing when they had to confront the realities of financing higher education. It is the right way forward for our young people.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Universities in Scotland—in Edinburgh, in particular—contribute substantially to the UK’s research

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community, as most spectacularly exemplified recently by Professor Higgs. At the same time, universities in Scotland receive 15% of UK research funding, as is right and proper given their achievements. Would it not be a tragedy if that support and co-operation were put at risk by Scotland becoming independent from the rest of the UK?

Mr Willetts: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Although Scotland has about 8% of the nation’s GDP, it gets about 15% of the public research income that is allocated across institutions, because of the excellence of the research in institutions in Scotland. That works to the advantage of Scotland and to the advantage of the entire United Kingdom, and that is why we are better off together.

Small Businesses

7. Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): What recent support he has provided to small businesses. [903657]

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): We passionately support small businesses. Just this week, the new employer allowance has cut £2,000 from the national insurance bill of small companies to help them to grow and create jobs. That builds on the more than 15,000 start-up loans, the £1 billion saved by cutting red tape and the 32,000 businesses helped to export this year alone.

Mel Stride: Last Friday, I spent valuable time with some very hard-working high street traders in Chagford, an important town in my constituency. Many of the people there were very worried about the level of business taxation, yet they were unaware of the £2,000 reduction in charges for national insurance contributions and the reduction in rates to which the Minister has just referred. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that companies up and down the country are aware of these important incentives?

Matthew Hancock: My hon. Friend is a constant advocate for small businesses locally in Devon. He has raised the issue of business rates and business taxation with me. He will know that the £1,000 off business rates for retailers has been welcomed across the board; it is a small step towards addressing the challenges that business rates pose. This is all part of our long-term plan.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that one of the smallest businesses in Britain now is the mining industry? There are three pits left, and 1,300 miners are due to be sacked at two of those pits. That will make it a minuscule small business. Instead of helping those pits to stay open and give them tax breaks, as they do to the oil companies, what have this Government done to that small business? They have just stolen £700 million out of the mineworkers pension fund this February. What a story to tell those miners. Come on—help ’em out!

Matthew Hancock: This morning, we announced a package of support for the mining industry, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to go and look at it before raising any further questions.

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Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Is it not interesting that no Conservatives or Liberal Democrats are standing up to ask a question about small business? I saw a small business in Wrexham and spoke to Mr Phil Jackson of Fotofire, who told me that the Jobs Growth Wales scheme has enabled him to employ young people in a rapidly expanding media business. Will the Minister do something positive by looking at a scheme that is providing jobs for more than 9,000 young people in Wales, with 75% employment for those who go on the scheme in the first place?

Matthew Hancock: I am very glad to say that unemployment is falling throughout Wales as part of our long-term economic plan across the country. I am sure that in Wrexham, as elsewhere in the country, small businesses will be celebrating the fact that they are getting £2,000 off their jobs tax, which the Labour party has proposed to put up.

High-growth Markets

8. Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): What steps he is taking to promote trade opportunities for UK business in high-growth markets. [903658]

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): UK Trade & Investment’s strategy confirms its continued focus on China, India and other high-growth markets, including some in Africa and central America. UKTI has identified more than 60 high-value opportunities in those markets, and with the help of our trade envoys, it promotes those opportunities to business. The £4 million announced by the Chancellor to support mid-sized businesses will enable UKTI to introduce such companies to those opportunities in high-growth markets.

Mr Walker: In export week, will the Minister congratulate Worcester firm Waste Spectrum, which is exactly one of those mid-sized companies that has recently achieved its first sale to China and will be dispatching one of its specially designed incinerators, built in Worcester, to that high-growth market at the end of this month?

Michael Fallon: I congratulate Waste Spectrum and the Worcester ambassadors, and I thank my hon. Friend for his work to promote trade with China. I know he visited China with the trade mission and was involved with an inward delegation from China, and understand that he is planning to visit China again. We need to thank him for his work in promoting links with that particular country.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): Yesterday I held a meeting with a range of British businesses on their experience of support for trade in India. They did not have a good story to tell about the signposting and advice of UK Trade & Investment and other agencies. Is the Minister concerned about UKTI’s budget plans and the support that it provides if the experience of British businesses is not positive?

Michael Fallon: I am sorry to hear that. If the hon. Lady lets me have the details, I will certainly ensure that that is followed up with UKTI. We have allocated a bigger budget to UKTI and it has sharpened its focus.

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If there are improvements that we can make to the service that UKTI offers, I would be happy to consider them.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Does the Minister agree that our future prosperity as a country depends on trading with China, India, south America and emerging economies in Africa—that is where all the future growth in the world economy will be—rather than being part of a backward-looking, inward-facing protection racket called the European Union?

Michael Fallon: I do not wholly agree with my hon. Friend. There are high-growth opportunities the world over, but the single market to which our businesses have access through our membership of the European Union is still an important part of our trading relationships.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It may not be a high-growth market, but we had a reception here last week that introduced the fishing, oil and construction opportunities in the Falkland Islands. Has the Minister had an opportunity to discuss those matters with the Falkland Islands to develop those areas and give job opportunities to people from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Michael Fallon: In my capacity as Minister responsible for oil and gas, I am aware of the opportunities for developing the oil and gas fields off the Falklands. The hon. Gentleman will know that a considerable amount of initial exploration is taking place in the waters just to the north of the Falkland Islands, and of course we stand ready to help the Falkland Islands if that exploration can be turned into significant production.

Women in Business

9. Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): What recent steps he is taking to support women in business and encourage more women to enter business. [903660]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jenny Willott): The Government offer a wide range of support to new businesses, for example through the growth accelerator, the new enterprise allowance and mentoring. The latest figures show that over 37% of start-up loans have gone to female entrepreneurs and one in five FTSE 100 board members are now women. We will continue to work closely with the Women’s Business Council and others to help ensure that more women see starting and growing their own business as a real option.

Rehman Chishti: I thank the Minister for that answer. Over the past couple of years, we have seen one of the fastest rates of new business creation. Does she agree that we need to encourage more female entrepreneurs such as Tracy Wilson and Emma Brown in my constituency who have launched their new child product business, Dribble Stop Tops? What support are the Government giving to help to sustain such businesses in the short and long term?

Jenny Willott: As the hon. Gentleman highlights, record numbers of women are setting up their own businesses. Female self-employment is growing at four

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times the rate of male self-employment. More than 6,000 female mentors are available to support entrepreneurs, such as his constituents, who want to set up and grow their own business. The Government have a wealth of information and advice available on gov.uk and the great business website to support people in the situation that he highlights.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister mentioned in passing the latest figures on women in boardrooms. In responding to those figures, the former Minister for Women, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), said that we need to be honest that the culture in Britain is not neutral to women and is still “white, male and heterosexual.” Does the Minister agree? If so, what message does she believe the reshuffle sends about changing the situation?

Jenny Willott: We would probably all agree that the gender and ethnic balance in boardrooms is not as we would like. However, significant progress is being made. At the start of this Parliament, about 12% of FTSE 100 board members were women. The figure is now more than 20% and we are on target to make that a quarter by the election. The Government are taking the matter seriously and working hard to change the culture throughout companies by introducing measures such as flexible working and shared parental leave, which send out the message that the Government think this issue is extremely important. We are working with employers to change the culture in businesses from top to bottom.

Life Sciences

10. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): What estimate his Department has made of the contribution of life sciences to the UK economy. [903661]

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): The life sciences industry contributes more than £13 billion a year to the UK economy. Since the launch of our life sciences strategy, industry has been investing £1 billion a year in Britain.

Paul Burstow: Sutton is home to the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden. Together, they have a formidable global reputation in the fight against cancer. As part of its Opportunity Sutton programme, my council has a shared plan with those two organisations to develop a life science cluster. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of those organisations to discuss how the Department can facilitate the co-ordination of policy across Government to secure that vision and the 4,000 extra jobs that will come with it?

Mr Willetts: I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend. That is exactly the kind of initiative that the Mayor of London envisaged when he launched his MedCity initiative earlier this week. We look forward to a golden triangle that links Oxford, Cambridge and Sutton.

Exports (SMEs)

11. Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): What steps he is taking to help small and medium-sized businesses to export. [903662]

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17. Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What steps he is taking to help small and medium-sized businesses to export. [903671]

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): Last year, we supported more than £4 billion of export finance, which is more than in any other year for a decade. This week, we announced additional funding to enable UKTI to support 3,000 more medium-sized businesses.

Julian Smith: Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), will the Minister agree that the best way to exploit emerging markets is often through EU free trade agreements? In the light of that, will he support the all-party parliamentary group on European Union-United States trade and investment to ensure that small and micro businesses are front and centre in the proposed free trade agreement with America?

Matthew Hancock: I am a strong supporter of the transatlantic trade and investment partnership. The trade deal between the EU and Canada is a big step forward and provides a basis on which we can build TTIP. The involvement of small businesses in TTIP will provide them with extremely valuable support in creating jobs.

Sir Tony Baldry: We have some excellent exporters in north Oxfordshire, such as Norbar Torque, E. P. Barrus, Crompton Technology and Prodrive to name but a few. Those companies generate jobs themselves and through the contracts that they give to local SMEs. What is my hon. Friend doing to support SMEs in the export supply chain?

Matthew Hancock: Across the Department, we work to support supply chains. Specifically, UKTI’s high value opportunities programme targets 100 projects that are based globally. That programme supports not just the primes, but their supply chains in Oxfordshire and across the country.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): One area of export growth has been in recyclate of glass and plastics. Unfortunately, that has had a perverse effect because the packaging recovery note system, which is supposed to direct money into the creation of infrastructure for our own recycling industry, has been denied the feedstock that the industry needs if it is to grow. Will the Minister look at what more he can do to expand our recycling industry, rather than export it?

Matthew Hancock: I would be delighted to speak to the hon. Gentleman to understand more about the packaging recycling industry and to see whether we can tackle that problem.

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): If we are to grow the economy and increase exports, we need to ensure that there is support for SMEs. In the last quarter, net lending to small and medium-sized enterprises fell by more then £1 billion. When will Ministers get a grip and start backing our wealth creators to take on employees and develop greater opportunities for exports?

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Matthew Hancock: Of course, the economy is growing, jobs are being created and the amount of gross lending is rising, but we are recovering from an extremely difficult situation. We all know what the causes of that were, and many of them came from those on the Labour Front Bench. Turning around our economy to support small businesses, whether through access to finance, support for exports, which are going up, or otherwise, is the Government’s central task. It is a huge job, because we were left in a huge hole.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is absolutely essential that we encourage more small and medium-sized businesses to export, but does the Minister agree that the term “SMEs” is often unhelpful? There is a huge difference between the needs of medium-sized and small businesses, and between the range of small businesses, from the largest to single proprietor? Will he recognise those differences and tailor accordingly?

Matthew Hancock: I strongly support my hon. Friend. In fact, as part of our long-term economic plan I am trying to banish the term “SMEs” and instead use “small businesses”. A business with, say, 10 employees is very different from a business with 249 employees, so an end to the acronym “SME” would be a valuable step forward.

Royal Mail

12. Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the value for money for the public purse of the recent sale of shares in Royal Mail. [903664]

13. Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the value for money for the public purse of the recent sale of shares in Royal Mail. [903666]

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): The National Audit Office’s report on the Royal Mail share sale published last week confirms that we achieved our key objective of achieving the sale and allowing Royal Mail access to the private capital it needs to invest and thrive. It was a successful transaction, raising £2 billion for the Exchequer, and has reduced the risks to the taxpayer of having to provide future financial support to the universal six-day-a-week service.

Karl Turner: The Secretary of State recently described me as “tribal” for my opposition to the fire sale of the Royal Mail. What does the Minister say about Peter Davies of Lansdowne Partners, the Chancellor’s best man and best pal, who is set to rake in millions from this dodgy deal? Will he say how many of the 12 lucky immediate winners are Tory party donors?

Michael Fallon: More than half the shares allocated to priority investors are still held by those investors, and six of them remain among Royal Mail’s largest shareholders.

Jessica Morden: Most people listening to the Minister’s response will think that it was particularly lame, to put it mildly. Can he justify the fact that consumers and businesses have faced hikes of up to 30% in stamp

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prices, while hundreds of millions of pounds have been squandered because of the Secretary of State’s disastrous decision at a time when families are really struggling?

Michael Fallon: Nobody has lost anything. Britain has gained a top-100 company in which 10% of the shares are owned by the staff themselves. Nearly three quarters of a million individual investors also have shares in Royal Mail. We achieved our objective of realising nearly £2 billion of receipts for the Exchequer, ensuring that Royal Mail has been put on a sound commercial footing.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): The Minister can spin this as much as he likes, but he shamefully lost the taxpayer £750 million from the sale of Royal Mail. At that time, the Business Secretary dismissed the loss, saying:

“We wanted to make sure that the company started its new life with a core of high-quality investors who would be there in good times and bad”.

Given that the core long-term investors that the Business Secretary championed have used the good times to sell the majority of their shares at huge profit, is it not right that the Government tell us who those priority investors are, so that the taxpayers know where their lost millions went?

Michael Fallon: Nobody has lost anything from the sale of Royal Mail. More than half the shares allocated to priority investors remain with those investors, and the share price has fluctuated wildly. I do not think the hon. Gentleman has been in touch with his broker recently; otherwise he would know that the share price closed last night at 17% down on its post-float peak.

Business (Young People)

14. Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): What recent steps he has taken to encourage young people to get involved in business. [903667]

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): Building links between the worlds of education and employment is a vital part of our reforms. I can announce to the House today that we are publishing the revised statutory guidance for schools on careers guidance and inspiration. This will drive links between schools and colleges and employers to inspire and mentor pupils, and there will be no excuse for schools and colleges not to open their doors to employers and no excuse for employers not to engage with schools and colleges. I will place a copy of the guidance in the Library.

Adam Afriyie: I thank the Minister for that response and very much welcome the Government’s commitment to increasing access and exposure to, and experience of, business in schools, because it is through business and enterprise that people access social mobility, jobs and opportunity. Does he agree that we need constantly to seek better ways of connecting businesses with schools and ensuring that proper careers advice is provided by people with experience of business, rather than merely from teachers?

Matthew Hancock: Exactly. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does in bringing together employers and schools and colleges so that young people know

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what it takes to succeed in work. The strengthened statutory guidance that we are publishing today will help to drive that, alongside league tables that include not just exam results, as before, but pupils’ destinations.


15. Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve productivity. [903668]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The Government’s approach to raising productivity is to deliver macro-economic stability through a combination of monetary activism and fiscal restraint, while implementing a programme of long-term structural change through the industrial strategy. This is giving firms and individuals the confidence they need to invest.

Neil Carmichael: In my constituency, we have several modern and forward-thinking firms, such as Renishaw, Delphi and ABB, which are all keen to make sure that they can recruit skilled engineers and a skilled work force—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State has sat down now. Does he agree that the long-term economic plan is pivotal because it deals with the need to make sure there is a pipeline of well educated young people entering the labour market?

Vince Cable: I apologise for remaining standing; I was so gripped by the question, I could not tear myself away.

I commend my hon. Friend for establishing what I think he calls the Carmichael commission in his constituency to look at ways to improve growth. He is right that having a pipeline of skilled staff is essential. I am familiar with Renishaw and I shall see the company tomorrow at the MACH exhibition in Birmingham. The crucial requirement is a long-term train of apprenticeship, at graduate and sub-graduate levels.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State at all worried that the current economic picture is being driven so much by consumer spending, and why does our productivity remain so poor?

Vince Cable: The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast for 2014 is that business investment will rise by 8%. Given the depth of the crisis to which we have had to respond, this is a slow process, but business investment is now overtaking consumer spending as the driver of the recovery.

Energy-intensive Industries

16. David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): What steps he is taking to support energy-intensive industries. [903670]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The Government have in place several measures to address energy costs for these industries. The Budget announced a further £7 billion package of support including: extending the existing compensation scheme to 2020, under which we have distributed £30 million to 53 companies; new compensation for costs of the renewables obligation and feed-in tariff; qualified

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exemptions to the carbon price support mechanism for combined heat and power; and capping the CPS at £18 per tonne of carbon.

David Mowat: The Secretary of State will be aware that even after the welcome changes in the Budget, the carbon price floor in the UK is four to five times higher than in the rest of the EU, where the emissions trading scheme is more or less defunct. In addition, the EU has a system of more direct subsidy in countries such as Germany for these industries. Can he assure the House that he will be active in ensuring that our industries are supported in the same way as those in the EU are, and that the 900,000 jobs in energy-intensive industries are protected?

Vince Cable: Indeed, it is a major industry. My figures suggest that we have some 600,000 jobs directly or indirectly affected. It is a massive industry. We believe in it, and it is important that it is able to compete on a level playing field. That was the purpose of the changes announced in the Budget and we are now actively pursuing state aid clearance to make sure that these compensation mechanisms go through.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State now recognise that the Government’s ill-thought-through carbon floor tax was a mistake?

Vince Cable: Absolutely not. The only concern from the industrial point of view is that energy-intensive industries should have those costs offset. Under the mechanism the Chancellor has proposed, which we are now pursuing through the European Commission, they will be offset.

Topical Questions

T1. [903639] Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): My Department’s objectives are to pursue economic growth and recovery by investing in skills and innovation.

Paul Maynard: As we have just heard, the carbon floor price in the UK remains significantly higher in the EU, despite the welcome changes in the Budget. What specific assessment has the Secretary of State made of the investment decisions taken by international energy-intensive companies, such as those that operate in my constituency?

Vince Cable: I think I largely answered that question a few moments ago, but the point I would emphasise is that despite the disadvantage of costs, albeit with the compensation we are now proposing, we have had very substantial investment in our energy-intensive industries. The steel industry, in particular, has been an exemplary example of long-term investment by Tata.

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): In export week, will the Secretary of State tell us what he is doing to garner support among Cabinet colleagues for our

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seventh-largest export industry, a sector that generates more than £10 billion of income for our country?

Vince Cable: My colleague the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) has given a comprehensive answer on how we are promoting exports across the board. The industrial strategy is, of course, maximising our export potential.

Mr Umunna: I am talking about higher education. The fact is that the right hon. Gentleman’s Government’s net migration target has done immense damage to higher education, contributing to a 51% fall in postgraduates coming from India and a 49% fall in those coming from Pakistan. Jim O’Neil, on the Department for Education’s board, agrees, saying that the Government are sending out a message that they are “not serious” about exporting education. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) at No. 10 has argued, as we do, that legitimate students should be taken out of Government net migration targets, but is it not the truth that for all the talk from that Minister and the Business Secretary, both have let the sector down by failing to get their intransigent Home Secretary to see sense?

Vince Cable: The simple truth of the matter is that, as a result of discussions across the Cabinet and with the Minister for Universities and Science and myself, there is no cap on the number of overseas students. [Hon. Members: “There is.”]There is not. We want to maximise the number. We actively encourage them, and only this week there was a £1 billion contract signed with Saudi Arabia for higher education training in which we are a participant.

T2. [903640] Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): With the excellent news that manufacturing output year on year has increased by 3.8%, and with export week in mind, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to improve productivity so that we can further enhance the innovation of cutting-edge products and penetrate new export markets?

Vince Cable: That is a suitable rejoinder to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier question. The key point he made in his earlier question is that to drive productivity we need an adequate supply of trained people. I would add to that the emphasis we are placing on innovation and the establishment of the Catapult centres across the country. This is a new approach based largely on the German model and it is succeeding admirably.

T3. [903641] Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): I am concerned that the Secretary of State has been told that the current redevelopment of Swan Hunter’s yard in Wallsend is not appropriate. Will he meet me, the elected mayor of North Tyneside and others from North Tyneside to learn exactly how external funding is being used to develop the site and how his Department could support the creation of thousands of jobs in advanced manufacturing at Swan’s?

Vince Cable: I am certainly very happy to give the hon. Lady an assurance to meet her in the House and to visit her constituency. I have been to Tyneside on several

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occasions and I am aware that it is a centre for advanced manufacturing. In many respects it is doing very well on the back of the growth of the oil and gas industry in the North sea. We clearly need more jobs on Tyneside and I am happy to work with her to deliver them.

T5. [903643] Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): Twenty-five years ago the then Government intervened in the pubs market, recognising that it was failing consumers and small brewers. However, as a result of industry lobbying, they failed to place a limit on the number of pubs, which led to the development of the large pubcos. Twenty-five years on, will the Secretary of State assure me that he will listen to the majority of MPs in the House of Commons rather than giving in to industry lobbying, and that he will introduce the market-rent-only option which is the solution offered by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jenny Willott): As my hon. Friend knows, we have had a number of debates about this issue in the House, and the House has expressed its view. The Government recently held a consultation, to which thousands of responses were received. We are now considering those responses, and will issue our own response as soon as we can.

T4. [903642] Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): Last week, the Prime Minister said on the BBC that he would do everything he could to keep the pits at Kellingley and Thoresby open. This morning, the Minister of State issued a written statement confirming that the Government were facilitating a “managed closure”. Given that people will begin to lose their jobs on 23 May, there is now a very short period in which it is realistically possible to secure alternative investment to keep the pits open. Towards the end of last week, a private operator suggested that it might be interested. Has the Minister of State, or his officials, had any discussions with it about whether it is possible to find a way of securing a commercial future for those pits and those communities?

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): In my ministerial statement, copies of which are available in the Vote Office and the Library, I confirmed that we were prepared in principle to contribute a £10 million loan—alongside contributions from other private sector investors—to support a managed closure of the two collieries, which would avoid the significant losses and liabilities that would have materialised in the event of the immediate and uncontrolled insolvency of UK Coal. That does not exclude any further private sector interest, and I have been meeting others who have expressed an interest, as has UK Coal.

T8. [903647] Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Given that sales increased by 2.8% in London and by 6.2% outside London during the Olympic games as a result of the relaxation of the Sunday trading laws, will the Minister consider a further relaxation—perhaps during the World cup, the Commonwealth games and the run-up to Christmas—or, better still, abolish the restrictions altogether, in order to help bricks-and-mortar retailers to compete with those that trade online?

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The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): We now live in a world in which an increasing amount of trade is carried out online at times that are convenient to consumers and others. We relaxed the rules during the Olympics, and said at the time that we would assess the impact of that relaxation. A debate about the issue is undoubtedly taking place.

T6. [903644] Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): The latest report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England shows for the first time in 29 years a decline in the number of overseas students studying in the United Kingdom. Let me now give the Secretary of State another opportunity to admit that the inclusion of students in the net migration target is hindering the growth and international competitiveness of our British universities.

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): There is no cap on the number of legitimate overseas students coming to Britain, and we will not introduce any such cap. The Secretary of State and I work with the Prime Minister and others on trade missions around the world to encourage young people with the necessary aptitude and qualifications to benefit from study in Britain to apply to come here. We can be proud of our universities.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Elekta Oncology Systems, a leading manufacturer and exporter of oncology systems which is based in my constituency, on its plan to expand by about a fifth in Crawley, and also on its involvement in the Government’s regional growth fund?

Mr Willetts: I do congratulate that company. As part of our life sciences strategy, we are supporting high-tech medical companies large and small, and it is great to hear that they are prospering.

T7. [903646] John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): The Secretary of State said earlier that investment in businesses would go ahead next year, but today we have heard about the closure of coal mines. Will the Minister explain why, according to figures from Bloomberg New Energy, investment in clean energy in the United Kingdom is due to hit a five-year low this year? What is happening to that investment?

Michael Fallon: There has been a wave of investment in energy, not least the commitment last week by Siemens to invest £300 million in two plants on the Humber that will create 1,000 new jobs. We have seen a series of projects come forward for assistance under our renewables regime, and we will be running a capacity market later this year to secure more energy investment in four years’ time.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): The Budget invited universities and others to bid to develop the new Alan Turing institute for big data, an invitation enthusiastically embraced in Wiltshire and Swindon’s economic plan. How can we now work with the Minister to make this bright idea a reality?

Mr Willetts: My hon. Friend indeed represents an area with, shall we say, some very distinctive skills in cyber and big data, and yes, absolutely, it is very important

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that places like his have the opportunity to apply to have the Turing centre. We will be running a consultation on its best location.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): In answer to a written question I was told that the Government know next to nothing about the number of jobs they claim to have created, not even how many of them are new jobs rather than simply a transfer from the public sector, so why will the Secretary of State not tell us how many of these jobs are minimum wage, unpaid or zero-hours?

Vince Cable: We are perfectly happy to provide information where it is available. It is obviously easy to quantify jobs created in projects. Collecting a vast inventory of information on fluctuating wages is a much more difficult proposition.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May I commend to the Secretary of State “A Blueprint for Britain: openness not isolation” by Iain Mansfield who is a former employee of his Department? It was the winner of the prestigious Brexit prize by the Institute of Economic Affairs, and it concludes that

“if the right measures are taken the UK can be confident of a healthy long-term economic outlook outside the EU.”

Vince Cable: To correct the hon. Gentleman slightly, I think the gentleman concerned is employed by UK Trade & Investment, and he wrote this in his personal capacity, and it is perfectly reasonable to do so. I look forward to responding to his essay, which seems to me fundamentally mistaken, but no doubt we will argue about that.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): When I visit schools in my constituency I ask them about the careers information, advice and guidance they receive and, without exception, they say that it is totally dreadful. To be fair to the Government, it was not much better under the previous Government. This is very important for social mobility, so what is the Minister intending to do to make face-to-face guidance available to everybody?

Matthew Hancock: That is a very fair question. It is true that careers guidance has not been good enough in Britain for an awfully long time under Governments of all stripes and the new publication today, which I am sure the hon. Lady will want to get a copy of and I am happy to send to her, will strengthen the statutory duty on schools and also, crucially, open schools and colleges up to employers and encourage, and make it easier for, employers to get involved in schools, to inspire and mentor and give guidance to young people.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Farmers are the backbone of the £97 billion agriculture

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and food sector. How are the Government helping them take advantage of the latest science and innovation supporting our world-class agricultural technology sector?

Mr Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the significance of this sector, and that is why we have a £160 million agri-tech strategy, which is aimed at promoting exports and investment in high-tech agriculture for the future.

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), refused to answer me, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State could estimate how many of the 12 immediate beneficiaries of the fire sale of the Royal Mail are Tory party donors?

Vince Cable: It is not my job to collect information on the Conservative party’s funding. All I can tell the hon. Gentleman is what the Minister of State has already told him: that a majority of the shares allocated to priority investors are still held by them and a substantial majority of the shares in Royal Mail that were issued through the initial public offering are being held by long-term institutional investors.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The start-up loan scheme is one of the most inspirational business policies that this Government are pursuing. Can the small business Minister confirm that we are right behind it, we are putting more money into it and we will do everything we can to grow the scheme as much as possible?

Matthew Hancock: Yes, I will. Only this week, we took through the statutory instrument to expand the start-up loans scheme and ensure that the funding is available. Fifteen thousand people have now had the benefit of using the scheme, but it is not just about the money; it is about the mentoring and the wider support that come with a start-up loan, and I commend everyone to have a look at the scheme and commend it to their constituents.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State share my concern that, following the closure of the Insolvency Service office in Hull, there will be a gap between Newcastle and Ipswich with no Insolvency Service offices between those two areas? Will he agree to meet me to discuss this matter?

Jenny Willott: I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this issue. The Insolvency Service is having to look at the way in which it manages its estate. The number of insolvencies has been dropping significantly year on year, and it has to make the best use of its resources.

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Asylum Seekers (Support)

10.30 am

Sarah Teather (Brent Central) (LD) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if she will make a statement on support provided to meet the essential living needs of asylum seekers under sections 95 and 98 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.

The Minister for Security and Immigration (James Brokenshire): Asylum seekers are supported by the Home Office if they are destitute. The support package usually consists of accommodation, with gas, electricity, water and other utilities provided free, plus a weekly cash allowance to cover essential living needs. The cash allowance is currently £36.62 a week for a single adult, but it is higher in cases where there are children in the household. A family of two adults and two children would receive approximately £180 a week.

The Government completed a full review of payment levels in June 2013. The review concluded that the levels were sufficient to meet essential living needs. That decision was challenged in the courts by Refugee Action, a group that campaigns for asylum seekers, and the court issued its judgment yesterday. It decided that there were some errors in the way in which the 2013 review had been conducted. It found, for example, that items such as household cleaning products and non-prescription medicines should have been considered as essential and therefore factored into the overall assessment of the adequacy of the payment levels. The court did not decide that the current payment levels were too low. That question will be considered by the Government in a fresh review of the payment levels. We are of course considering the full implications of the judgment, and whether or not to appeal.

Sarah Teather: The Minister is correct to say that yesterday’s judgment did not comment on the generosity of the levels, but it was absolutely damning about the process that the Home Secretary had used in order to come to her decision. It found that she had misunderstood or misapplied information, that she did not know, or ignored, basic aspects of her Government’s education policy, and that she had failed to gather sufficient information. She has been told to go away and do the whole thing again.

Is not the problem that this decision is a personal fiefdom of the Home Secretary, driven entirely by base political motives? She can and does ignore detailed representations by other Ministers across the Government. She can and does ignore parliamentarians, including the findings of a cross-party inquiry that I chaired last year. She can and does ignore the pleas of those who work with victims of torture, who say that she is exacerbating their trauma and forcing them into severe poverty. It is an indictment of the current process that Refugee Action and the Migrants Law Project had to take the Home Secretary to court to get any kind of oversight of the process.

Is it not simply time for Ministers to accept that the Home Office cannot be trusted to make a rational or humane decision alone on this matter, and to submit to a transparent process with cross-government oversight, which might improve its data and force the Home

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Secretary to come to Parliament to announce them? Finally, does the Minister accept that half this agony would be avoided if the Government allowed asylum seekers to work and pay their own way, as many of the highly skilled individuals who come here seeking sanctuary are desperate to do?

James Brokenshire: The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it, and the Government are committed to providing support to those who would otherwise be destitute while their claims are being considered. The payment levels to asylum seekers need to be considered as part of the overall support package. Accommodation—plus utilities such as gas and electricity —is provided free.

I do not accept my hon. Friend’s characterisation of the assessment process. A detailed assessment was concluded last June and, indeed, we will carry out a further assessment of levels this year to take into account relevant factors and to assess whether there should be any change. I can certainly assure her that we will consider these matters very carefully.

My hon. Friend makes various comments on the judgment itself. It is a very detailed judgment—it runs to about 90 pages and the Home Office is analysing the detail carefully and, indeed, whether we will be appealing it.

The Home Office takes its responsibilities in respect of asylum support extremely seriously in setting the rates and considering what is appropriate. We believe that it does provide support to enable those who seek asylum and who are destitute to see that their claims are decided, and that support is given to them during that process.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for raising the issue, which, as she mentioned, is about the basic level of support given to those fleeing torture, rape or oppression and who seek asylum in the United Kingdom.

Given that the rate was frozen in 2011 and has now been frozen through to 2013-14, yesterday’s judgment was damning. The Home Secretary was ordered to review the amount of money given to support asylum seekers after the High Court ruled that she had used insufficient evidence in deciding to freeze those payments. In his judgment the judge said the decision was “flawed” and that the Home Secretary

“misunderstood or misapplied information which she treated as important in reaching her decision.”

He added:

“In my judgment the information used by the Secretary of State to set the rate of asylum support was simply insufficient to reach a rational decision to freeze rates.”

In the judge’s view, the rates involved

“a reduction in real terms from what was regarded in 2007 as the base minimum level necessary to avoid destitution.”

Remember, Mr Speaker, that these are individuals who cannot work. In the light of that, will the Minister—he has hinted at this—indicate whether he intends to appeal that decision? If he does intend to, will he tell the House how much has been spent to date on legal costs in defending the decision to freeze the rates and how much he expects to spend on any appeal? Will he estimate the

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number of individuals who are involved? The judge yesterday mentioned some 23,000, but I should welcome confirmation. I should welcome confirmation also on how many of those 23,000—if that is the figure—have children who now face destitution because of the freeze.

If the appeal is made and is not successful, will any new rates be applied from today, or from 2011? What estimate has the Minister made of the impact of any unsuccessful appeal on the level of rates?

Does the Minister agree with what the hon. Member for Brent Central asked for, which is what Refugee Action and, indeed, the Refugee Council, which I spoke to this morning, have asked for, namely a wider examination of the review of and support for asylum seekers—not failed asylum seekers, but asylum seekers fleeing torture, oppression, fear or intimidation, and who cannot, I remind the House, work?

What assessment has the Minister made of those currently in receipt of assistance who now face this freeze? Has he made any assessment, in particular, of the impact on children? Will he ensure that he urgently reviews recommendation 82 of the Home Affairs Committee’s unanimous report of 11 October last year, which asked for a review of section 4 support? How many asylum seekers does the Home Secretary’s Department believe cannot now buy enough food to feed themselves, as referred to in that report? How many asylum seekers does her Department believe missed a meal because they could not afford to eat? How many asylum seekers does her Department believe do not have money to buy clothes?

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Is this a speech?

Mr Hanson: Before the hon. Lady says any more, I have a right to ask those questions of the Minister. The Home Secretary’s decision making has proved to be flawed. Will the Minister now address that issue, or will there be a return to what a Minister—a Minister in her Government—described as the Conservative party being the nasty party on these issues?

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. I just say for the record that the right hon. Gentleman certainly has the right to ask those questions, and I would not for one moment seek to stop him, but we all have to operate to time limits. I say in the most charitable possible way to him that his intervention was longer both than that of the hon. Lady who put the urgent question and of the Minister, so there does need to be some trimming on these occasions. Two minutes is allowed, not four.

James Brokenshire: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we do not think the value of cash and non-cash support is ungenerous when taken as a whole. He talks about the position of children and families. A family of four on section 95 support would receive £178.44 per week to spend on essential needs, with their accommodation, utility bills, council tax, household equipment, health care and schooling provided. In that context, we believe the support given is appropriate.

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The right hon. Gentleman asked me a number of detailed questions. On the support provided under section 95, accommodation is provided to 22,372 people and the cash-only payments are provided to about 2,688 people. He sought to press me on whether we would seek to appeal this judgment. The judgment was handed down yesterday, it is lengthy and detailed, and it is right that the Home Office should reflect carefully on it to determine whether or not an appeal is appropriate.

The judgment does not seek to challenge the current levels of support provided; it simply seeks to comment on the detail of the review undertaken last year. I maintain that that review was properly assessed and took into consideration relevant details and matters for an assessment of the level of support. It concluded that the support should be frozen at its current level. The right hon. Gentleman gave a churlish characterisation of the steps that the Government take in their support on asylum. We work to uphold this country’s proud tradition in ensuring that those fleeing persecution can receive support and humanitarian assistance in this country. That is long standing, and we should welcome and cherish it. His comments were entirely ill-judged.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): The level is clearly too low—it is about half that of income support—and of course we are talking about people the Minister will not allow to work for themselves. Is not the big problem simply that the Government are too slow to make decisions? Some 36% of asylum seekers wait more than six months for an initial decision—surely that should be speeded up, which would save the Government a lot of money in supporting them.

James Brokenshire: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments on the process on asylum claims. It is important to recognise that there has been a growth in the number of people seeking asylum in this country—the increase has been about 8%, although that is not as big as has been seen in some other European countries because of continuing crises in various parts of the world. Some decisions do take too long, but the Government are addressing the problem: most decisions are dealt with quickly. In 2012-13, 78% of decisions were made within six months. I agree that decisions should be taken more quickly. Our visa and immigration command is looking at this work carefully and is putting more caseworkers in place to support that activity, which is important.

My hon. Friend makes a connection in respect of the rate of support and Department for Work and Pensions levels, but asylum support is provided for different purposes. It is provided to meet essential living needs only and is temporary in nature. I highlight the fact that there are other services—accommodation and utilities—that are provided free which other benefits would seek to take into account.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): This ought to trigger a review by the Home Office of its asylum policy, given the points raised by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and others about the very slow response to initial applications and in dealing with those who wish to appeal against an initial refusal—many of these appeals are granted. Will the Minister look at the misery, destitution and waste of human resources

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that comes from keeping asylum seekers in desperate poverty, and not allowing them to work and contribute to our society and economy?

James Brokenshire: I agree that it is important to take decisions as speedily as possible to ensure that those who are entitled to the full humanitarian protection of this country receive that support and can continue with their lives, and that those who are not entitled can then be removed from this country so that the system is seen to be upheld.

We judge that the levels of support are appropriate, but we keep them under review. We will be reviewing the level of current support in the coming months, as I have committed to do in this House.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Given that one of the most basic needs of any asylum seeker is to have a roof over his or her head, will the Minister explain a little bit more about emergency accommodation, or is it the case that asylum seekers are among those to be found sleeping rough?

James Brokenshire: The support that is provided to those seeking asylum includes accommodation. There are provisions relating to temporary support as well as to the section 95 support that has been referenced in this urgent question. The Government have put in place a new contract arrangement, the COMPASS contract, to provide those services. Obviously, we believe that that is now delivering more effective service and more effective value for money. Clearly, we keep such matters under review.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): The Minister identified that a family of four would be in receipt of £178 a week, which equates to about £44.50 per person. Does he understand that many children who attend schools—certainly in my constituency in Brent North—will undertake one and often two bus journeys each day to get to their school? Many of them will have medical problems from the country from which they have fled, which means that they have to attend hospitals, and have travel costs associated with that. Has he taken that into account when considering that each day, for five days a week, they may be paying £10 of the £44.50 that they have for food simply on transport?

James Brokenshire: Obviously, we understand the differing needs of families as opposed to individuals, which is why the rates are set at different levels depending on individual family circumstances. The need for additional support is recognised and provided for in respect of children, and the rates are adjusted to take their needs into account. None the less, we keep such matters under review. I can confirm again that we will be reviewing the levels of support provided in the months ahead, and we will be reflecting on a range of factors in conducting that review.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): When I was elected four years ago, I inherited a huge case load of immigration cases. To my horror, we had asylum cases that went back more than 10 years. These people who are not allowed to work in this country were on the point of destitution. Does my hon. Friend agree that good progress has been made in resolving those cases,

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but the most important thing is to ensure that cases are resolved quickly so that people know whether to stay or go?

James Brokenshire: I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of ensuring that proper decisions are taken at the earliest practical opportunity. It is the uncertainty he highlighted that causes some of the challenges that we have to face if people reside in this country for long periods. That is why UK Visas and Immigration is putting additional caseworkers into the asylum area to see whether decisions can be taken more swiftly, and to bring matters up to service standard by March next year to deal with these cases. That is to ensure that there is roughly only two months’ intake outstanding. It is right that we continue to focus on this matter.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): If the level of support was right in 2011, it is hard to believe that, given the increase in basic living standard costs over the past three years, it is still right in 2014. Would it not be sensible to agree an interim increase at this stage, pending the review that, as the Minister said, will take at least some months?

James Brokenshire: As I have indicated, the court judgment does not state that the current levels are incorrect. It is important that we reflect carefully on all current matters in conducting the review that we will undertake in the next few months. I certainly would not want to prejudge the outcome of that or our decision about whether we appeal the court judgment.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Despite what has been said by Opposition Members, does my hon. Friend not agree that the recently launched scheme to help refugees fleeing Syria and the atrocities there underlines our country’s proud record of helping asylum seekers and those in need?

James Brokenshire: We have accepted a significant number of people who have fled persecution in Syria. As at September last year, the number of asylum claims that had been received in the year was about 1,100. We also have the vulnerable person relocation scheme, which underlines our humanitarian support for those fleeing an appalling conflict in which people have been displaced across the region. The UK can be proud of the contribution that we are making.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): If the Home Office is truly committed to the welfare of asylum seekers, why have the Government this very month withdrawn face-to-face advice for asylum seekers in Wrexham, a dispersal centre, through the awarding of the contract to Migrant Help? What kind of message does that send to these vulnerable people?

James Brokenshire: Yes, we have changed the arrangements for support and guidance, but we continue to maintain that that provides appropriate support and help. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman might take a different view of the services given, but, on Migrant Help, I believe that our relationship with the voluntary sector continues to be important. We want to continue to work with the voluntary sector, and the new service

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model, which is being introduced from 1 April, is aimed at testing the marketplace and gaining value for money. UK Visas and Immigration will closely monitor development to ensure a smooth transition to the new arrangements and we are committed to ensuring that asylum seekers have access to quality advice and support.

Dame Angela Watkinson (Hornchurch and Upminster) (Con): My hon. Friend has just referred to refugees and asylum seekers from Syria and he will know that neighbouring countries have reached absorption point when it comes to the numbers they can help, so this is now a problem for the whole of Europe and this country. What impact is that increased demand having on the level of funding for asylum support?

James Brokenshire: We have seen an increase in the number of people seeking asylum from different parts of the globe. Syria is one of those and my hon. Friend is right to highlight the dire humanitarian situation there. The UK can be proud of the £600 million that has been invested to provide direct support for those in need in the region. We are continuing to see increased intake levels, which will, I am sure, feed through in terms of additional support that might be required.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister is right: we have a proud tradition in our country, a tradition that is often kept alive by the third sector—by the charities and by the Churches, the Quakers in particular. It is not just a question of value for money. Can we have a change of attitude today so that we see those groups as partners and incentivise them, work with them and value them?

James Brokenshire: As I have said, we see an important and valuable role for the voluntary and non-governmental sector. Indeed, many fantastic organisations provide support services to migrants and asylum seekers, which I want to encourage and to see supported. It is important that the system delivers effective services and, ultimately, value for money.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Very few direct links exist between asylum sources and this country, yet we seem to be a temporary home for many asylum seekers from all over the world. Why is that?

James Brokenshire: In 2013, the number of asylum applications in the EU was the highest since 2002. The UK has experienced a rise, but countries such as Germany and France saw increases of 164% and 37% respectively between 2010 and 2013. We are committed to resolving cases more quickly, and we provide direct assistance to regions in crisis, such as Syria, so that people do not need to travel to the UK or elsewhere to seek that assistance.

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Will the Minister not acknowledge that to replace services provided in my area by the North East Refugee Service with a simple telephone call is detrimental to the cohesion of services that work together in that locality?

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James Brokenshire: Again, I hear the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but we believe that the new support arrangements are appropriate and provide assistance to those who require that direct help. We keep this matter under review, and UK Visas and Immigration will continue to monitor developments.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): We should, of course, provide support to genuine asylum seekers in genuine need, but most of my constituents take the view that there are too many asylum seekers in this country. It takes too long to process their claims and deport them when they are not genuine, and no one should be granted asylum if they have travelled through another safe country to get to this country. What happened to the Dublin convention whereby we returned asylum seekers to the last safe country that they left?

James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the Dublin convention, and the fact that those in need of humanitarian protection should seek assistance in the first country that they arrive in. That is something that we make clear in our discussions at EU level. He is also right about ensuring that decisions are made quickly, which is why we have made changes to the old architecture of the UK Border Agency that existed under the last Government and introduced visas and immigration to make decisions more quickly and the immigration enforcement command to see that people are returned.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): My hon. Friend will be proud of the UK’s record in providing a safe haven for those genuinely fleeing persecution. I am sure that we do not want to see people destitute, but what representations has he received from the Opposition or the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) on what increases to the rate they would wish to introduce?

James Brokenshire: I have received no representations to date that I am aware of, but I will check when I get back to the Home Office to see whether there is anything to which I can alert the House. Clearly, we are reflecting carefully on the court judgment and will determine what next steps may be appropriate.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Providing support to refugees in the region is nothing new. It was put forward by the previous Government, by the then Minister, Clare Short, in relation to the Kosovo crisis. Does my hon. Friend agree that, on that basis, what we are doing is in line with what has been done before?

James Brokenshire: This country has a proud tradition of providing humanitarian assistance in regions that are in need, and I have highlighted the support that has been given as part of the Syrian crisis. All Governments have a proud record on consistently upholding our asylum system and ensuring that protection is provided to those fleeing persecution who come to this country, and that those who are destitute are given appropriate assistance, which is what this Government are doing and will maintain.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): My hon. Friend is right not to be bounced into an early decision on yesterday’s complicated judgment, because

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we need to get the right balance between fulfilling our humanitarian responsibilities and ensuring that the system is not open to abuse. What representations has he had from respected children’s charities about their assessment of the impact these measures may be having on the welfare of children involved?

James Brokenshire: Representations are made on a range of different issues, and clearly we pay particular attention to the welfare of children. I understand and recognise my hon. Friend’s continuing interest in and focus on these matters. We keep these matters under consideration, but as I have already said, the level of asylum support provided to children properly recognises their additional needs and requirements, and we will keep our focus on that.

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Business of the House

10.59 am

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House give us the business for the post-Easter week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr Andrew Lansley): The business for the week commencing 28 April is as follows:

Monday 28 April—Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill.

Tuesday 29 April—Motions relating to the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Defence Reform Bill.

Wednesday 30 April—Motion relating to section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, followed by consideration in Committee of the Wales Bill.

Thursday 1 May—A debate on a motion relating to cervical cancer screening tests and the case of Sophie Jones, followed by a general debate on freedom of thought, conscience and religion around the world. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 2 May—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 5 May will include:

Monday 5 May—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 6 May—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the Wales Bill.

Wednesday 7 May—Consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 8 May—Consideration of Lords amendments, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 9 May—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 1 May will be:

Thursday 1 May—Debate on the Second Report of the Welsh Affairs Committee, on the impact of changes to housing benefit in Wales, followed by a debate on the Third Report of the Welsh Affairs Committee, on the Work programme in Wales.

Ms Eagle: I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for after the Easter recess. I also thank him for finally providing, in a written ministerial answer earlier this week, what I hope will be the actual date for the Queen’s Speech. Perhaps he can now confirm that Prorogation will be at least a week, or even two weeks, early owing to the Government’s chronic lack of business. Could I make the Leader of the House an offer? If he cannot think of anything to do with the acres of spare time the Government have left free, he can always give us more Opposition days.

On the first two days back after the recess, we will have the chance to debate the Second Reading of the High Speed Rail Bill. Will the Leader of the House explain how he plans to schedule the day and a half allocated to the Second Reading and the subsequent motions? Given the fate last night of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who was unceremoniously sacked as a Tory vice-chair for opposing HS2 and for his overly honest tweets, is the Leader of the House expecting any more trouble on his own side?

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This week, the other place voted to introduce in the Immigration Bill legal guardians for victims of child trafficking. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether the Government accept this amendment, and when he expects the long awaited modern slavery Bill, which ought to have a bearing on this matter, to have its Second Reading?

I have here a copy of a blatantly party political letter sent out by the Prime Minister to millions of businesses across the UK days before election purdah. It is perfectly possible to keep businesses informed of tax changes cheaply and cost-effectively via a Government website. It is certainly not appropriate for Lynton Crosby’s Tory election soundbite to be posted directly to millions of voters on a No. 10 letterhead signed by the Prime Minister, at the taxpayer’s expense, just ahead of elections. Will the Leader of the House tell us how much producing, printing and posting this blatant Tory propaganda has cost the public purse? Why did the permanent secretary at the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, tell the Public Accounts Committee on Monday that he had absolutely no knowledge of it? Can we expect the Communities and Local Government Secretary to admonish the Prime Minister for this blatant example of propaganda on the public purse?

The past week has done serious damage to the reputation of this place and demonstrated the Prime Minister’s total lack of judgment. It was clear to everybody but him that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), had to go from her post as Culture Secretary. On Friday, he wanted the matter to be left at that 31-second apology; on Monday, he was dismissing rising public anger, saying it was his job to pick the Cabinet; and by yesterday he was claiming it was all the Leader of the Opposition’s fault for not demanding the Culture Secretary’s resignation soon enough. After this fiasco, it is little wonder that the Prime Minister’s judgment is being openly called into question.

The number of women in the Cabinet is now at its lowest since the Tories were last in government. We have a Minister for Women who did not vote for same-sex marriage, and we have a Department for Women and Equalities that does not appear to exist any more. Perhaps they should just come clean and rename it the Department for very low Tory priorities. Will the Leader of the House tell us who now has overall responsibility for the Government Equalities Office? Can he tell us which Department the new Minister for Women will sit in and who she will report to? Will he now tell us which Minister is ultimately accountable to Parliament on these extremely important issues, as the Prime Minister’s official spokesman could not do so yesterday. May we have a debate in the acres of Government time on what has happened to the Prime Minister’s pre-election promise to ensure that one third of all his Ministers would be women? It is no wonder that women just do not trust this Government.

As this will be the last business questions before the recess, may I thank all the staff of the House and Hansard for the work they do and wish them a happy Easter? I wonder if the Leader of the House will ensure that while we are in recess, the House authorities conduct the necessary repairs to the roof in Portcullis House which, like this Government, appears to be well

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on its way to caving in. I am sure he would not want anyone to think he did not fix the roof while the sun was shining.

Mr Lansley: I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her response to the statement of business, and I am pleased to join her in wishing all the staff of the House a happy and restful short recess over Easter.

I was able to confirm this week the date of the state opening of Parliament. It will be Wednesday 4 June. As I think the House will understand, this was consequent on the change arising from the cancellation of the G8 summit. The adjusted timing of the meeting of G7 Ministers allowed us to have the state opening on Wednesday 4 June.

I cannot announce the date of Prorogation. It will be subject to the progress of business. I am surprised at the hon. Lady’s argument that we are not busy. We are busy. This week we considered the Finance Bill in Committee on the Floor of the House. On Monday, at the request of Members, including three Select Committees of the House, we provided time for a debate on the justice and home affairs opt-out. We concluded two hours early because there were not sufficient Members who wanted to debate it. The Government are happy to make available the time that the House is looking for, but it has been notable on a number of occasions, as I have told the shadow Leader of the House before, that her colleagues will not take the time available to scrutinise the Government. Perhaps they find it embarrassing to come to the House and attempt to criticise the Government, when they know perfectly well that they have no credible alternative. That may just be the way it is.

As it happens, when we return from recess, we have a busy two days, as the shadow Leader of the House correctly—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is disparaging the Wednesday. As I recall, we are considering in Committee the Wales Bill. I am sure that Members from Wales will note that the shadow Leader of the House thinks that consideration of the Wales Bill is not important, but there we are. There will be an opportunity on the Wales Bill to see whether Labour Members will turn up and criticise our proposal for further tax devolution in circumstances where they do not appear to have any policy. They are at sixes and sevens about whether they are in favour or against our plans for further tax devolution in Wales. We shall see.

The shadow Leader of the House rightly asked about the Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill. I can confirm that on Monday 28 April I will table a motion, the effect of which will be to allow that Second Reading to take place until 11 pm on that day, so a maximum amount of time will be made available. The maximum of seven and a half hours will, of course, depend on whether there are requirements for a statement or an urgent question, but that means it will be a very full debate on the Monday. On the Tuesday, I can confirm that we will allocate up to four hours for consideration of the motions which I think Members can see on the Order Paper today relating to the hybrid Bill procedures, including petitioning and instructions to the Select Committee and the establishment of the Select Committee. I hope that that will allow Members to have the maximum time for the discussion of the principles of the Bill on the Monday and additional time to debate the processes of the hybrid Bill on the Tuesday.

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In total, we are giving more than a day and a half for Second Reading, and not trying to push through all those issues of process and principles in the course of one day. I heard, as did my colleagues in the usual channels, that Members wanted additional time to debate the Second Reading of the HS2 Bill, and I think that makes a very good outcome.

I am not sure what point the shadow Leader of the House was trying to make about yesterday’s Government appointments, because we are very clear about them. The Equalities Minister and the Minister for Women are supremely qualified to speak on those subjects. They are senior Ministers who will have an opportunity to represent those interests at the Cabinet table. If anything, having two Ministers will strengthen the voice of women and equality issues for the future. The Minister for Women will report to the Prime Minister and the Equalities Minister is also the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I think that is all very clear.

The shadow Leader of the House mentioned the Standards Committee report, which was published this time last week. Everyone in this House has a collective and individual responsibility. The process is transparent. We have not got across to the public the way in which this House’s expenses system works in this Parliament. There are more than 200 Members who were not in previous Parliaments, but none the less they are having to argue with their constituents about an expenses system to which they were never party. We have to fight a battle in order for the public to understand that we have reformed the expenses system. It is overseen and enforced independently by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. If there is an appeal, it goes not to Members of Parliament, but to a lower-tier tribunal, which is a judicial process. I think that that is what the public have wanted from the expenses system since May 2010 and that it is what they want for the future.

We know that there are legacy cases. Fundamentally, any sanctions under the standards process must come back to this House and we must be accountable for the quality of the enforcement of the Members’ code of conduct. When I responded to an urgent question on Tuesday, the Chair of the Standards Committee made it clear that it will announce shortly the terms of reference for an inquiry into the current system that will draw on the report that its lay members published on Tuesday. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, we should work with the Committee on a cross-party basis, in whatever way we can, to strengthen the independence of the system of scrutiny of legacy expenses cases, the independent input into any investigation, and the enforcement of the Members’ code of conduct.

We have also committed to introducing a recall Bill, which will provide for constituents to sign a petition in order to force a by-election in cases where a Member has been found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing. I hope we can work together on the issues, to give the public reassurance. I was disappointed that earlier this week the shadow Leader of the House sought to turn the decision of the Standards Committee into a partisan matter. I think that got the tone wrong. We need to work together to restore trust in the political system. That is a responsibility for the whole of this House, and individual political parties should not try to score political points.

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Baroness Butler-Sloss’s amendment to the Immigration Bill was passed in the House of Lords and it raises important points. I listened to her speech, and at the end of it she said she wanted the issues to be addressed by the modern slavery Bill. The draft Bill has undergone pre-legislative scrutiny and the Joint Committee has produced a report on it, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will respond to that.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about the vice-chair of the Conservative party and a letter. Those are matters for the Conservative party, and I answer for the coalition Government at this Dispatch Box. I will ask the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), to write to the shadow Leader of the House about the issues.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): The Leader of the House will know that a number of the Procedure Committee’s fabulous reports are gathering dust at the moment, particularly those relating to programming and private Members’ Bills, while a couple of others are equally deserving of time in this place. Will he find an occasion in the next few weeks to allow me to introduce those reports for debate on the Floor of the House in this Session?

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend the Chair of the Procedure Committee makes a very good point. I assure him that the reports are not gathering dust; as he knows from our conversations, we are actively seeking to take forward his Committee’s recommendations—not least in relation to private Members’ Bills and programming—on the basis of consensus, as we always seek to do in this House. My hon. Friend has highlighted that there is pressure for business that we need to transact before the conclusion of this Session. I hope that I can satisfy him on that matter before the end of this Session.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, have received a letter from No. 10 Downing street this week. What is most alarming is that the information can have come only from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. At the Public Accounts Committee on Monday, the permanent secretary of HMRC acknowledged that it sometimes shares information with other Departments. Will the Leader of the House take more seriously the issue of how No. 10 and the Conservative party can send out letters to people using information from the HMRC database?

Mr Lansley: I will simply repeat what I have said. I will ask the Minister without Portfolio to respond to the hon. Lady and the shadow Leader of the House. I am not aware of any such transfer of data in relation to the letter. I was not even party to the process of preparing the letter.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): Why are the Government so frightened of giving Members of Parliament a decent time to debate the HS2 Bill on Second Reading? Quite frankly, giving us an extra hour, with an extra half day for the other motions on the Order Paper, is all well and good, but may I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to item 35 on the list of remaining orders and notices, which is a motion in my name asking for two full days of debate on HS2? After all, for the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken

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by a Government and after our constituents have been blighted by it for four years, that is not too much to ask, and not granting it will bring our procedures in this House into disrepute.

Mr Lansley: I am sorry that my right hon. Friend feels that I have not responded positively to the representations that she and our other hon. Friends made at business questions last week. We have, indeed, responded positively. Up to seven and a half hours are available on Monday 28 April for a debate on the principles of the Bill, and four hours are available on Tuesday 29 April for the further hybrid Bill procedures, which are themselves important and form a substantial part of the overall debate on Second Reading. I acknowledge that had it all been done in one day, that would have meant a very congested debate, but I think that that is pretty positive.

A Second Reading debate on a normal sitting day very often takes not the full amount of time, but sometimes—with statements and urgent questions—perhaps five hours or even down to four and a half hours. On this occasion, if we can minimise statements and urgent questions on Monday 28 April, we can have seven and a half hours of debate that day, with four hours the following day, which I calculate is broadly equivalent to two days of debate.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): Yesterday, the Prime Minister said:

“What we are trying to do with the personal independence payment is to introduce it gradually”.—[Official Report, 9 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 264.]

My constituent Thomas O’Donnell originally made his claim eight months ago. He has only just had an assessment, and he is still not receiving any payment. He has serious epilepsy, and he cannot afford to eat. I have many other constituents who have waited months for an assessment. Please may we have an urgent statement from the Department for Work and Pensions about what it will do to ensure that my constituents and people everywhere get the support that they desperately need?

Mr Lansley: The hon. Lady is no doubt aware that a written ministerial statement on the independent review of personal independence payment assessment is on the Order Paper to be made today, so she will have the chance to look at that. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, the old system was broken: most claimants were getting indefinite awards without systematic reassessments. It was important to bring in a system that better reflects today’s understanding of disability and targets support to those who need it most. Last month’s National Audit Office report acknowledged that the reform started on time and on budget, and we have reduced risk during its introduction by rolling it out in phases.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): As we approach the centenary of the great war, will the Government find time for a debate on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which does a wonderful job across the world of looking after the fallen of the first and second world wars? Unfortunately, military personnel

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who have died in the past 68 years are covered not by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but by the Ministry of Defence, through which funding is at a much lower level.

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend raises an issue that I and colleagues on both sides of the House are keen to discuss. A large amount of impressive work, not least by Members, is going into securing a commemoration of the events 100 years ago, including the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission since then, which was celebrated wonderfully in a recent book. I hope we will have an opportunity before the summer recess for a further debate that enables Members on both sides of the House to raise issues relating to that commemoration.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): There are serious concerns about air pollution in our cities, notably London, and there is particular concern about the effect of diesel particulates on human health. It is now a matter of urgency to reduce diesel emissions, which could be achieved through a substantial modal shift of freight traffic from road to rail. Such a modal shift cannot happen unless there is major investment in large-gauge rail freight capacity capable of carrying lorries on trains. Will the Leader of the House seek to find Government time for a debate on this important matter?

Mr Lansley: I cannot immediately promise a debate. The subject might lend itself to an Adjournment debate or a debate through the Backbench Business Committee, as Members on both sides of the House, on a non-party basis, are rightly interested in these issues. HS2 affords a substantial opportunity to increase freight capacity on the railways, which should be part of the debate when we come back. It is not simply about a transfer from road to rail; it is about trying to introduce some of the new technologies that may dramatically reduce the impact of road traffic on air quality.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): This is two for the price of one, because I am asking this question with the strong support of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who cannot be here this morning. Given that women’s rights are currently so much in the minds of the Government and the Opposition, may we have an urgent statement on the continuing scandal of the cancellation of service widows’ pensions when they remarry or cohabit? The cost to the Ministry of Defence of removing this archaic rule would be £250,000—less than that when we take away the cost of policing the rule. This is an anachronism that ought to be removed as soon as possible.

Mr Lansley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. I will, of course, ask my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence to reply in detail. He will understand that if service personnel die as a direct result of service, their widow still receives their pension, even if the widow were to remarry or cohabit. The treatment of widows where the spouse’s death is not as a result of service is broadly the same as for other public service pension schemes. The armed forces pension scheme 2005, and the new pension scheme to be introduced in 2015, will continue to pay widows a pension irrespective of how their spouse died. There are

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further detailed points that I know my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence will want to convey to him and other Members.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): Issues to do with the past in Northern Ireland are matters for this place as they are not devolved. May we have a debate in Government time on issues to do with victims of the troubles in Northern Ireland so that legislation accurately reflects what most people would reasonably regard as what constitutes a victim? This is particularly pertinent given that today the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland announced that Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein councillors in Newry breached equality rules by naming a children’s play park after an IRA terrorist.

Mr Lansley: I am not familiar with the issue in Newry, so I will refer it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I will ask her to respond to the right hon. Gentleman in more detail. I entirely understand the responsibility that we have in relation to victims. I hope that she will be able to give him some reassurance on that matter.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) made a very good point. The problem in this House is that we have a dictator who decides the timings, even if it is a benevolent dictator in the form of the Leader of the House. Surely meeting the commitment in the coalition agreement to a House business committee would remove all these concerns. Will the Leader of the House make a statement next week to say that we will have a House business committee very soon?

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend will be aware of the evidence that I gave to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on the difficulties associated with the proposals for a House business committee. In a sense, we are a Committee of the whole House on business. Last week, I received representations about how much time should be available on Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill. As I have explained to the House, the time available is not just a day and a half, but more than a day and a half. It could amount to close to the equivalent of two days’ debate on Second Reading and the other motions.

Mrs Gillan: One hour!

Mr Lansley: My right hon. Friend is saying that there is one hour. There will be an additional hour on the Monday for Second Reading and there will be four hours on motions relating to the hybrid Bill on the Tuesday. That is a substantial addition. This has been discussed through the usual channels and we have listened to the voices in this House.

Mr Speaker: I say gently to the Leader of the House that, in extending the Monday sitting by an hour, I feel sure that he was taking pity on the Chair and did not want the Chair to be occupied beyond 11 o’clock. For my part, I would be quite happy to sit in the Chair until at least 3 or 4 in the morning if it facilitated the contribution of Back-Bench colleagues to the debate. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I mention that point purely in passing, but these are matters for him.

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Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that the Leader of the House will have heard that there was a slogan after the first world war, which I think came from Lloyd George, that promised “homes fit for heroes”. When we get back to our constituencies, all of us in this House will hear people say time and again over the recess, “When will so many people get the opportunity of a home of their own, whether it is a privately rented home, social housing or a home that is bought with a mortgage?” This is a national crisis. May we have a debate on it as soon as we get back?

Mr Lansley: That matter came up a number of times in the Budget debate. An important point in that debate was that this Government are putting more and more effective resources into measures such as the Help to Buy scheme and the efforts of housing associations to lend to support additional house building. House building in this country hit a low under the last Government in the wake of the collapse in 2008 and in the midst of the Labour recession. We have built up the number of starts. If the hon. Gentleman would like to take a detour on his way to Huddersfield, he could see houses being built all over South Cambridgeshire.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Will the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport make a statement to the House on the provision of high-speed broadband in very rural areas? I fear that the success of the roll-out in Somerset and Devon will be undone by the failure to reach the last 10% of properties. That is partly because of the requirement for match funding, which is difficult to meet for sparsely populated areas, and partly because of the effect of the over-reliance on BT on areas to which it clearly does not want to or cannot provide a service.

Mr Lansley: I will raise the matter with the Secretary of State and I think that he will want to take it forward. The former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), is to be congratulated on the steps that she has taken to bring our broadband programme to where it is, with 10,000 homes a week getting access to broadband and an investment of more than £1 billion in our broadband and mobile infrastructure. It will deliver a lot of additional connectivity.

My hon. Friend is right, as I know from the rural areas in Cambridgeshire. The Connecting Cambridgeshire programme will get us to 98% of homes, but it has required significant local authority funding to establish the contract with BT and attract the additional Government funding. I know that the Secretary of State will want to respond to him about these matters.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): May we have a debate in Government time on the Government’s plans to fully privatise search and rescue? That would provide us with the opportunity to discuss moving search and rescue headquarters from the base in my constituency to Caernarfon airport, where according to the Environment Agency it will be built on a floodplain. We need to have such discussions before the Government rush ahead with their plans.

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Mr Lansley: I cannot promise a debate immediately when we return, but I will discuss the matter with the relevant Ministers, particularly the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman raises, so that they might respond to him.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): At the end of last month the Education Secretary announced a list of more than 20 children’s institutions to be investigated for links with Savile. That is on top of the growing list of more than 30 NHS institutions being investigated, with no date for the publication of the review, and the reviews of the BBC, the Church and so on. Given the Government’s continued refusal to have an overarching inquiry into historical child abuse, may we at least have a debate on what exactly has been happening and what is being done to restore public confidence in child protection in the United Kingdom?

Mr Lansley: I know my hon. Friend will understand that we have continued to believe that establishing an overarching inquiry, far from speeding up the process of finding out what happened so that we can ensure that it does not happen again, would delay it. It is important to make progress, because shockingly widespread evidence is emerging of the extent to which Savile obtained access to hospitals, schools and care homes. We need to get to the bottom of it, and I know that Kate Lampard is doing so in the health service. There is more to be done in the case of education, and the BBC is approaching two and a half months late in publishing the Dame Janet Smith inquiry. There is a lot to be done, and I will of course talk to the Ministers concerned about how we can ensure that as much as possible is done as quickly as possible.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. May I gently point out to the House that Members are supposed to be present at the start if they wish to participate in business questions? An hon. Member who happened to toddle into the Chamber, let us say, 32 minutes after the start—I mention that figure arbitrarily and in passing—would be indulging in a triumph of optimism over reality if they expected to be called.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): As we approach the wedding season, many British citizens who have extended family abroad will become increasingly concerned about visa arrangements to ensure that their relatives, particularly from India and Pakistan, can be here to participate. Will the Leader of the House speak to both the Foreign Office and the Home Office to ensure that the consular arrangements are in place and that there is good staffing of entry clearance officers to cope with the influx of visa applications for that purpose?

Mr Lansley: I will of course be glad to do as the hon. Gentleman asks, recognising how strongly people feel about the opportunity for their family to be with them on special occasions. I hope that the Foreign Office and Home Office will be able to respond positively to him.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): As this is export week, will the Leader of the House grant time to discuss the value of local export drives such as the one

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that I am organising in Tamworth with UK Trade & Investment, and the help that local retail banks can provide in sponsoring and promoting those events? We often hear about the less attractive side of banking, but retail banks can help small businesses to export, and a debate would help to even up the balance.

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend is quite right, and I pay tribute to UKTI, which, with the Government’s active support—not least that of our excellent trade Ministers—has dramatically improved the level of support available to small and medium-sized businesses in particular. I know that the Government are pushing hard for many medium-sized businesses to be given one-to-one tailored support that enables them to be active exporters. I hope we can achieve more of that, and I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend is doing with his colleagues in Tamworth to help to make that happen.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): After four years of a Government who promised reform, we still have an election system that cheats all but the two main parties. We have peerages that can be bought by political donations, lobbyists who are free to buy favours and influence, and one civil servant who negotiated a £5 billion reduction in Deloitte’s tax bill retired months later and took a job with that company. Can we have a debate on whether the epitaph for this sorry Government should be, “They multiplied and allowed corruption to flourish”?

Mr Lansley: I think the hon. Gentleman is wrong in several respects. In particular, it is not possible to buy peerages, and the House of Lords Appointments Commission is clear about its responsibility to make sure that that does not happen. Additionally, the hon. Gentleman should recognise that the coalition Government had a coalition programme that included giving the public the opportunity to make a decision on changes to the electoral system, and the public—the people whom we represent—chose not to do so.

Sir John Randall (Uxbridge and South Ruislip) (Con): Sometimes my motives are misconstrued, but I always strive to be helpful, and I would like to help the Leader of the House. He has been very generous in allowing an extra 60 minutes for the HS2 debate, but if he were happy to test our stamina by lifting the 10 o’clock rule and having the vote the following day, those Members who did not want to stay until the early hours for a vote could come back then, while those of us who really want to push the case for or against HS2 would have ample opportunity to do so. That may be a way forward.

Mr Lansley: I am always grateful to my right hon. Friend, not least when he is being helpful. The additional hour—if we are able to avoid urgent questions or statements—would give us substantial time for debate on that Monday. As a matter of principle, and especially on important matters, we should try to avoid separating the vote on an issue from the debate on it. It is also important for the House, notwithstanding your generosity, Mr Speaker, to try to achieve the conclusion of a debate and the vote at a time when our constituents might reasonably expect to be watching it.

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Mr Speaker: The point is made: as long as right hon. and hon. Members are standing to speak in that debate, I shall be in my Chair.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): We now have a women’s Minister who could not also have the equalities brief because she voted against gay marriage, and an equalities Minister who said that there were no women members of the Monetary Policy Committee because it was appointed on merit. May we have the novel innovation of a joint statement by the women’s Minister and the equalities Minister so that we can find out whether they are singing from the same song sheet?

Mr Lansley: I know both the new equalities Minister and the new women’s Minister very well, and the hon. Gentleman is on a very sticky wicket in attempting to criticise them.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): May we have an urgent statement on internet security? Several experts have called for everyone to change their internet passwords because of a virus that has infected many websites. Indeed, earlier today I tried to change my password to “Labour’s economic policy”, but it was judged to be too weak.

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend makes both a good comment and a good joke. I saw the press reports and we still have more to do to understand and combat the risks to security on the internet. I note that police forces need constantly to think about how they can acquire the expertise themselves. He makes a very important point.

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Could provision be made for a debate on the performance of category B railway stations? Luton railway station is in desperate need of refurbishment and investment. It has actually gone backwards, not forwards in terms of disability compliance, because of the Thameslink programme.

Mr Lansley: The hon. Gentleman will know that we have the largest investment programme in the railways since the Victorian era. Network Rail is investing £38 billion, which includes a substantial upgrade to many of its railway stations. If I may, I will ask my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport, in consultation with Network Rail, to reply on the specific points relating to Luton.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Noting the fact that HS2 is of course an impressive flagship for infrastructure, we must not forget smaller-scale activities. May I therefore commend to the Lord Privy Seal a bridge over the River Severn and moving Stonehouse station? Those two things would be a real boost to my constituency.

Mr Lansley: Despite the considerable financial difficulty the Government inherited, we have none the less been able to prioritise capital infrastructure projects that will deliver our potential for growth. As my hon. Friend will know, towards the end of this year the Chancellor will publish the long-term capital plan. I will direct his points on those particular projects to my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport and the Treasury.