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House of Commons

Tuesday 19 January 2016

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Long-term Economic Plan

1. Craig Williams (Cardiff North) (Con): What progress he has made on his long-term economic plan. [903099]

The First Secretary of State and Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr George Osborne): Britain is in a much stronger economic position than five years ago, with employment up and the deficit down. However, as I set out in my speech to business leaders in Cardiff, we face a dangerous cocktail of economic risks from around the world this year. That situation is reflected in the International Monetary Fund forecasts that were published one hour ago, in which world growth is revised down but the positive forecast for the UK is unchanged. That shows that the best thing that we can do is to continue to fix our public finances, back business and deliver our long-term economic plan.

Craig Williams: The Chancellor was very welcome when he visited Cardiff two weeks ago. He brought a sense of urgency to the Cardiff city deal process with the deadline of the Budget and a clear sense of direction with the compound semiconductor catapult. If we are to maximise the potential of Cardiff and the Welsh economy that our long-term economic plan presents, do we not need tangible partnership plans from the Labour Assembly Government? Is it not time that they came up with them, given that they have had 16 years to do so?

Mr Osborne: It was very good to meet my hon. Friend and business leaders in Cardiff; to back them and the brilliant work that is being done at the university there with the investment in the new semiconductor catapult; and to commit to additional capital investment. I hope that we can agree a Cardiff city deal with the Welsh Government and the authorities in Cardiff before the Budget. He poses the right question, which is if, after 16 years in power, the Labour party in Wales has not delivered a credible economic plan for Wales, is it not time for a change?

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Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): If the Chancellor keeps shrugging off the threat to the very existence of some of Britain’s core strategic industries, such as steel, is there not a danger that when our country really needs those resources and that extra capacity for our national security no less, they might not be there at all?

Mr Osborne: Of course the redundancies that have been announced at Tata Steel and elsewhere in the steel industry are a real matter of regret. We are providing all the support we can to the families who are affected and helping them to get into work. We are backing the steel industry by responding to its requests that we cut energy bill costs—that policy comes into effect today; change the rules around procurement so that companies and the Government buy British steel; and take action internationally against cheap imports from China. Not one of those things was done when there was a Labour Government and during that period, the number of steel jobs in this country fell by 50%. We will not take lectures from the Labour party, but we will back our steel industry.

Mr Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Does the Chancellor think that the stamp duty surcharge that was announced in the autumn statement for the buy-to-let market will inhibit or advance labour mobility?

Mr Osborne: I think that it will help to promote home ownership, because it will mean that there is a more level playing field between an owner-occupier who wants to buy a house, a first-time buying family and a buy-to-let landlord. There is nothing wrong with people investing in property, but there should be a level playing field so that we reverse the decline in home ownership in our country.

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): A long-term economic plan means supporting small businesses across the country. On 26 December, 250 businesses in my constituency that employ 2,500 people were inundated by floodwater. Will the Chancellor take this opportunity to commit to a full flood defence scheme in Leeds so that this sort of disaster cannot happen to businesses in my constituency again?

Mr Osborne: I certainly commit to looking personally at what can be done to improve flood defences in Leeds. The Environment Agency and the Government are conducting a review after what was the highest level of rainfall in Yorkshire in modern history. Of course, having committed the additional £2 billion to flood investments, we are able to afford these things. We would not be able to afford any of this sort of thing if we had wrecked the economy like the last Government did.

17 [903116]. Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that as part of his long-term economic plan, the Help to Buy ISA will help people in my constituency, where housing is priced at a premium, to own their own homes—a dream that the Labour party wishes to quash?

Mr Osborne: My hon. Friend is right, and the Help to Buy ISA has been a spectacular success. In the few weeks since its launch, 170,000 families have taken it up,

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and it is helping people to get on the property ladder and save for that deposit. We are doing everything that we can to support the aspirations of the families of Britain.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): The Government’s plan requires the doubling of exports by 2020 to £1 trillion —a promise repeated in “Fixing the Foundations”, which was published in this Parliament. Does the Chancellor still hold to the intention and promise to see UK exports rise by £100 billion a year every year for the next five years?

Mr Osborne: We hold to that target, but frankly it will be very challenging to meet. We have been improving exports, but many of our main export markets have been weak, and we would like further economic reform on the continent of Europe. Some of the big emerging markets are struggling at the moment, but a good economic dialogue is taking place today with India, and British exports to India are increasing. Only recently has the United States economy started to grow. There are many challenges, but I do not think we should duck those challenges or ditch the target. Increasing exports is a key priority for the UK.

Stewart Hosie: I agree that we should set ambitious targets, but they must be credible. Given that the British Chambers of Commerce states that the export target will be undershot, and the Office for Budget Responsibility states that it will fail to be met by some £350 billion, is it better to set a realistic and achievable target, rather than risk losing credibility as the Chancellor did when he failed on debt, deficit and borrowing targets in the previous Parliament?

Mr Osborne: It is right to set and to try to meet a stretching target, even if that will be challenging. The hon. Gentleman talks about realistic and credible numbers. If Scotland had listened to the Scottish nationalists, it would be separating from the United Kingdom in two months’ time. The Scottish Government based their claim for independence on an oil price of $115. Scotland would now be heading for economic catastrophe if it had listened to the hon. Gentleman and Scottish National party members. Before they talk about credible and realistic economic policies anywhere else in the United Kingdom, they should get one themselves.

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): Motor manufacturing is crucial to our long-term economic plan and to exporting. The Land Rover Defender will soon stop production in Solihull. Will the Chancellor praise the workers of Solihull for producing that iconic brand and driving exports for the past 60 years?

Mr Osborne: My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to workers at the Jaguar Land Rover plant in Solihull. The iconic Defender that they have produced over all those decades has been seen around the world and used in peacetime as well as during war. It is good news for Solihull, the west midlands and the whole country that Jaguar Land Rover will continue to produce brand-new models of great cars. It is one of the real success stories of the British economy, and in general, while Conservatives have been in the Treasury and in Downing Street, car production in this country is up by 50%.

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John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Only eight weeks ago the Chancellor promised

“an economic recovery for all, felt in all parts of our nation”—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1358.]

On the day that the International Monetary Fund warned about the global economy and called on Government to increase their investment spending—something that Labour Members have consistently called for—will he now reconsider his economic plan, and particularly his investment plans?

Mr Osborne: The economic plan has seen employment rise and unemployment fall, and it has meant that for the IMF forecasts that the hon. Gentleman mentions, the UK’s forecast has not been changed and remains one of the strongest among all advanced economies in the world. Perhaps I may gently suggest that the hon. Gentleman might want to change his own economic policy, since in the last week he has called for the return of flying pickets, and said that he wants to ban companies from paying dividends and spend billions of pounds on nuclear submarines without any nuclear missiles. Today he said that he is going to tour the country with the former Greek Finance Minister, Mr Varoufakis, to educate us all about economics—the one thing they have in common is that they have both lost their marbles.

John McDonnell: If the Chancellor will not reconsider his investment plans, can he at least appreciate how angry the families of steelworkers in south Wales are this morning? They know that when the bankers’ bonuses were threatened, he immediately shot across to Brussels with an army of lawyers to defend them and that he will jump into a helicopter for a Tory fundraiser. It has taken him four months to lift a finger to save steelworkers’ jobs. Does that not prove that he is actually the bankers’ Chancellor?

Mr Osborne: We want a successful financial services industry, because hundreds of thousands of people across the country work in it. We also want a successful manufacturing and steel industry, which is why we have taken action to reduce energy costs—something that had not happened previously and which comes into effect today—and why we are taking action to change procurement rules so that the British Government and others are encouraged to buy British steel. Again, that never happened when the Labour party was in office. We are acting internationally to deal with the dumping of Chinese steel. That is what we are doing. Of course it is an incredibly difficult situation, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, and everyone in this House knows, steel jobs are being lost in every single country in the world at the moment. The question is: what can we do nationally to defend and protect our steel industry? We are doing everything we can. If the hon. Gentleman has constructive suggestions, he should put them to me.

Banking Culture Review

2. Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Financial Conduct Authority on its decision to end its review of banking culture. [903100]

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13. Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Financial Conduct Authority on its decision to end its review of banking culture. [903111]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): The Financial Conduct Authority is an independent regulator. No Treasury Minister or official had any discussions with the FCA before it took the decision to discontinue the review.

Dr Huq: Given that the popular image of bankers right now is probably on a par with used car salesmen or MPs even, does the Minister not agree with the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) that to abort the review now, which could have looked at regulating challenger banks as well as historical mis-selling, is a missed opportunity?

Harriett Baldwin: I find it hard to take lectures from the Labour party on regulating the financial sector. In fact, since my right hon. Friend became Chancellor, we have set up the Financial Conduct Authority and moved on from the failed regulatory system under the Labour Government. We made it a criminal offence to manipulate the UK’s key benchmark, we brought in the toughest rules on bankers’ pay of any financial centre and we are bringing in a new criminal offence so that senior managers whose reckless decisions bring down banks can face up to seven years in jail.

Jo Stevens: With the terrible impact of bad banking practices highlighted in the Tomlinson report, particularly in commercial lending to small businesses, still unresolved for one of my constituents, does the Minister agree that both the public and small businesses still have significant concerns about the behaviour of many individuals within the banking sector?

Harriett Baldwin: I completely agree with the hon. Lady that we need to see the highest levels of conduct from the banking sector. We also need to continue to take steps in terms of our long-term economic plan to secure access to funding for small businesses. That is why we have taken steps to back peer-to-peer lending and extended funding for lending for another two years. We continue to benefit from record low interest rates thanks to our prudent economic management.

Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con): There has been speculation that the Treasury has influenced the decision by the Financial Conduct Authority. While I think that such speculation is certainly fanciful, it is important to remind the House that the FCA was set up in 2012 as an independent organisation. Does my hon. Friend agree that one way we could underpin the independence of the FCA would be to adopt a similar process to the one we have with the Office for Budget Responsibility, whereby the Treasury Committee can have power of veto over the appointment of the chief executive?

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend, who is a very constructive and engaged member of the Treasury Committee, will have the opportunity to ask questions of the acting chief executive and the chair of the FCA

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on Wednesday. I agree that it is very useful for such a Committee to have pre-appointment hearings with any executive of the FCA.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): The Symphony interbank communications software, which allows for the permanent deletion of emails, advertises itself as being able to save banks billions of pounds in fines. Will the Minister join my campaign, in conjunction with the Business Secretary, to ensure that the FCA retains the encryption codes for the Symphony software system for seven years, as happens in America?

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend asks a salient question. The FCA is investigating this matter, and he will be aware that new rules—the markets in financial instruments directive II—will require firms to keep information for a considerable period, but this is the subject of ongoing discussions.

23.[903122] Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Will the Minister agree that one of the biggest problems with the banking culture is that banks are too big to fail, and will she consider the issue of diversity in the sector, including, for instance, new lending platforms and market disruptors? In particular, will she consider new primary duties on the FCA to consider the issue of diversity?

Harriett Baldwin: I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the announcement we are expecting on Wednesday from the Bank of England, the FCA and the Prudential Regulation Authority about their working together to back innovation in the financial sector. A key part of our long-term economic plan is to back competition in the banking sector, which is why I am pleased there were eight new entrants to the banking sector in the last Parliament. In this Parliament, we are aiming for 15.

Richard Burgon (Leeds East) (Lab): Mr Speaker,

“interventions by HM Treasury and other bodies have raised questions…regarding the board’s independence”—

not my words but those of an FCA-commissioned external report on the FCA board published last week. How will the Chancellor demonstrate that the appointment of the new chief executive will not be yet another example of an overreaching Chancellor trying to get his own way?

Harriett Baldwin: It was good of the hon. Gentleman to turn up for Treasury questions this time—I guess there was not a Stop the War march or a picket line to join today. I can assure him that the Treasury has the power to appoint both the board and the chief executive and to set its remit, but from then on it has operational independence.

Wage Growth/Inflation

3. James Heappey (Wells) (Con): What comparative assessment he has made of the trends in the levels of wage growth and inflation. [903101]

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Damian Hinds): The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that real average weekly earnings were up 2.4%,

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year on year, in the three months to October; wage growth has outstripped inflation for 13 consecutive months—the longest period of real wage growth since before the recession; and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts wages to grow faster than inflation over each of the next five years.

James Heappey: I welcome the Minister’s reply. Does he agree that the key to delivering further wage growth, particularly in rural areas such as Somerset, is improving productivity, infrastructure and the skills base, all of which underpin the Chancellor’s long-term economic plan for the south-west?

Damian Hinds: My hon. Friend is quite right. Last year, the hourly pay of the average Somerset employee grew well in excess of CPI inflation, and of course the south-west has a particularly strong employment rate. To keep on driving real wage growth, however, we must have productivity gains, hence the focus on the “Fixing the Foundations” strategy for skills and infrastructure and on making sure we have an attractive tax regime that encourages investment and brings jobs to that region and the country as a whole.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): Some 400,000 fewer people earn more than £20,000 than they did in 2010, because the Chancellor has been cutting full-time jobs and replacing them with more part-time, low-paid jobs. What is he doing to lift productivity and research and development to raise average and median wages?

Damian Hinds: The lowest earners experienced the fastest growth in median earnings last year, and recent growth in employment has been dominated by full-time workers, in contrast to what the hon. Gentleman says. We have a comprehensive plan for driving productivity in the “Fixing the Foundations” strategy, and the national living wage is a dramatic, long-term structural change.

Northern Powerhouse

4. John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): What progress he has made on the establishment of the northern powerhouse. [903102]

The First Secretary of State and Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr George Osborne): Our long-term plan is to turn around the decades-old economic divide between the north and south by building a northern powerhouse. We said we would create powerful new elected Mayors, and that is happening; we said we would speed up transport connections across the north, and we have committed £13 billion of investment; and for my hon. Friend’s Cumbria, there is a new enterprise zone, new air routes and nuclear research. The north is growing under this Government, and, with our plan, we will do everything we can to keep it growing strongly.

John Stevenson: I, like many of my constituents, want Carlisle and Cumbria to be part of the northern powerhouse. This is partly about ensuring the private sector invests and grows and partly about skills and infrastructure, but then there is the proposed Cumbrian deal. Will the Chancellor assure me that everything is being done, from the Government’s perspective, to achieve this deal, and will an elected Mayor be part of it?

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Mr Osborne: As my hon. Friend knows—he is a real champion not just of Carlisle, but of Cumbria and the Cumbrian economy—we are working with local authority leaders and other elected representatives on whether we can have a new governance arrangement in Cumbria, which might include an elected mayor. This is a decision for Cumbria, of course, but it has come to us with this proposal, and we are working hard with the people of Cumbria to see whether we can get an arrangement that boosts jobs, boosts investment and makes sure that decisions that affect Cumbria are taken in Cumbria.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does the northern powerhouse occur in Redcar where the steel industry has been closed because of the Chancellor allowing the Chinese to dump steel? Are they talking about the northern powerhouse at Scunthorpe, where they have lost more than a thousand jobs? Are they talking about it at Port Talbot, where they are going to lose a lot more jobs? The truth is that they do not talk about the northern powerhouse in the coalfields where the Tories have shut the last three pits. They call it the northern poorhouse. That is its real name.

Mr Osborne: The hon. Gentleman seems to forget that the Redcar works first closed under the Labour Government that he supported. It is also the case that during that Government, which he supported from the Government Benches, the number of steel jobs lost in this country was 30,000. We are doing everything we can to preserve the steel jobs that remain. We are working with the steel industry. We have acceded to almost all its requests, and we are looking at the last remaining one, which is changes to business rates—again, something that never happened under a Labour Government. We will report on that at the Budget. We are working to make this the competitive place to do business, and if we adopted the policies of the Opposition, where dividends are not paid to investors and flying pickets are reintroduced, do they really think that a single overseas investor, such as Tata Steel, would be expanding their business in the United Kingdom?

UK GDP: EU Membership

5. Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): What assessment his Department has made of the potential effect of leaving the EU on UK GDP. [903103]

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): The Government are fighting hard to fix aspects of our EU membership that cause so much frustration in the United Kingdom, so that we get a better deal for our country and secure our future. We are confident that the right agreement can be reached.

Emma Reynolds: Jaguar Land Rover recently announced that it will double investment in the brand-new engine plant on the outskirts of my constituency, creating hundreds and hundreds of additional jobs on top of the 1,400 already announced. Does the Minister agree that unfettered access to the single market drives this sort of investment and that if we were to walk away or sacrifice that access, those jobs and that investment could well be put at risk?

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Mr Gauke: I also welcome the new jobs being created in and near the hon. Lady’s constituency by Jaguar Land Rover. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor visited that site recently. On our relationship with the European Union, the Government’s position is very clear: we want the benefits of access to the single market, but there are aspects of our relationship with the EU that can be improved. That is what we are seeking to do in our renegotiation.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Given that we had a £62 billion trade deficit with the European Union last year, and given that if we left the EU the UK would be the EU’s single biggest export market, does the Minister think we could have a free trade agreement with the EU from outside it, without handing over £19 billion a year in membership fees?

Mr Gauke: I am sure that will be one of the issues discussed at length during the referendum debate. The point is that under this Government the British people will have an opportunity to express their views on where our future lies.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): Britain has been a significant and, in recent years, a substantial net contributor to the EU budget. For over 40 years, this has had a negative impact on UK economic growth and GDP, the cumulative effect of which has been very large. Would not leaving the EU take that particular brake off UK GDP growth?

Mr Gauke: One point I would make is that thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s renegotiation of the rebate and thanks to the current Prime Minister’s negotiation of the EU budget resulting in a real-terms cut, we are paying less than we otherwise would have done.

Departmental Pay: Living Wage

6. Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): How many staff in his Department earn less than £7.85 per hour. [903104]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): None.

Alison Thewliss: I thank the Minister for that answer, but does she not agree that it is important to pay the real living wage, which is £9.40 an hour in London and £8.25 in the rest of the United Kingdom? It is paid by the Scottish Government and by more than 400 employers in Scotland, so it is fair to all employees, particularly those under 25.

Harriett Baldwin: I am glad the hon. Lady welcomes the fact that, from April this year, all employees in the United Kingdom who are over 25 will receive a significant pay rise. That is thanks to the strength of employment throughout the United Kingdom, which in turn is thanks to our long-term economic plan.

Rishi Sunak (Richmond (Yorks)) (Con): According to my calculations, someone who earns £7.85 an hour today will benefit from rises in the personal tax allowance and the national living wage, and, by the end of this

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Parliament, will be more than £1,500 better off. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that proves that this Government are committed to making work pay?

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. In fact, it has been stated that not only will 2.5 million people benefit directly from the change in the national living wage in April, but up to 6 million whose salaries are very close to that hourly rate will benefit as well.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): When will the Chancellor, and in particular the Minister, give public sector workers a decent pay rise that reflects some of the jobs that they do for us?

Harriett Baldwin: We believe that every worker in the country will benefit from the change in the national living wage, which is an important part of the long-term economic plan, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, this year public sector workers received pay rises that were above inflation.

Mr Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire) (Con): The Minister has made important comments about the principle of making work pay. Will she give further consideration to extending the married couples’ tax allowance, so that more families can keep more of what they earn?

Harriett Baldwin: I will take that as a Budget submission.

Support for Businesses

7. Mr Alan Mak (Havant) (Con): What fiscal steps he is taking to support businesses. [903105]

11. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): What fiscal steps he is taking to support small business owners. [903109]

The First Secretary of State and Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr George Osborne): The Government are backing businesses by cutting their taxes. We have given Britain the lowest corporate tax rate in the G20, and we are cutting it further. To support small businesses, the employment allowance will rise by 50% in April, and we are doubling small business rate relief. This Government understand that we create jobs and raise money for public services by backing companies, not by punishing them with the kind of anti-business, anti-enterprise nonsense that we hear from the Labour party.

Mr Mak: Manufacturers in my constituency, such as Innova Design, are growing, thanks to the rise in investment allowance tax relief which takes effect this month. Will the Chancellor join me in congratulating Innova Design on its growth and success, and will he also continue to support the British manufacturing sector, an industry that was neglected by Labour for 13 years?

Mr Osborne: Absolutely. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Innova Design on the work that it is doing. We are investing in transport infrastructure on the south coast, and we are also backing companies—not just there, but around the country—with a permanent annual allowance of £200,000, which is the highest that it has ever been.

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Andrew Rosindell: What steps does the Chancellor intend to take to ensure that the quarterly tax returns that are made in 2020 will not harm small businesses in constituencies such as mine by affecting their productivity and their ability to make profits?

Mr Osborne: My hon. Friend is right. Our objective is to make it easier for businesses, and indeed individuals, to complete their tax returns by making use of modern digital technology, and we are introducing a simple and secure personalised digital tax account. We estimate that that will reduce the administrative cost to businesses by £400 million.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): The best way to support manufacturing businesses in the midlands would be to free the region from London’s control, because it has been stifled by Whitehall for far too long. If the Chancellor gives us the powers and the funds that we need to strengthen the economy, develop brownfield sites and tackle congestion, we will deliver more jobs, better skills, quicker transport and new homes.

Mr Osborne: We have a deal, because that is exactly what we are doing with the west midlands. We have worked with different political parties: I have met both Labour and Conservative authority leaders and Members of Parliament in the region, and we have collectively agreed to have an elected mayor and to hand significant powers from this place and the Government to the people of the west midlands. I think that that is one of the most exciting steps that have been taken in the devolution of power in this country.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): What further discussions have taken place with the devolved Administrations about the introduction of fiscal incentives to pump-prime apprenticeships and economic growth?

Mr Osborne: We are in discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive about what we can do to support the economy, and it is great news that we are now moving forward with the additional resources for capital investment there. Of course, one of the things that we would really like to see is the devolution of corporation tax rates, for which we have legislated, and provided that we can reach agreement on the budget implications of that measure, it would provide a massive boost for Northern Irish businesses.

21. [903120] Mims Davies (Eastleigh) (Con): I welcome the Chancellor’s reduction in corporation tax, which has helped to create many jobs. Does he agree that some businesses cannot grow, despite that measure, because of local infrastructure constraints such as the one that needs addressing in my constituency at the Chickenhall Lane link road?

Mr Osborne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are investing in transport infrastructure in the Southampton area and along the south coast, as I was just saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Mak). We understand that all parts of the country can benefit from additional investment in transport infrastructure, and that is why we are increasing the transport budget

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even at a time when public budgets are tight. None of these things would be affordable if we crashed the economy.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): The introduction of quarterly reporting and tax returns has been described by the Institute of Chartered Accountants as an additional burden for business. Does the Chancellor understand the very real anger among businesses in my constituency and around the country that they are being penalised while many of the largest corporations are allowed to avoid tax altogether?

Mr Osborne: We have increased our action against large-scale corporate tax avoidance and evasion, and the new diverted profits tax is designed to deal with the very real anger that people feel, particularly in the small business community, when they see large businesses not paying tax. We are also dealing with the burdens of tax administration, and we are consulting small businesses. I would just make the point that we would be crazy as a country not to make use of new digital technology and the internet to update and modernise our tax collection system, and we would regret not taking those steps today and letting other countries power ahead in reducing the burdens on business.

Trade Deficit

8. Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): What fiscal steps he is taking to reduce the trade deficit in order to reduce the reliance of the economy on domestic spending. [903106]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Greg Hands): The Government have taken a range of steps to reduce the trade deficit. Since 2010, UK Trade & Investment has more than doubled the number of businesses supported, and UK Export Finance has provided more than £15 billion of support. Earlier this month, I saw some of the results of that support when I met entrepreneurs at ESpark’s new hatchery in Edinburgh. Many start-ups and exporters in Scotland greatly appreciate UKTI’s assistance. I welcome the Government’s announcement this morning of an improved UKTI approach to exporters across the whole of the UK.

Dr Cameron: It is incredible for the Minister to continue with a policy that has failed and that resulted last year in a horrendous £123 billion deficit in the trade of goods. We all want to see reduced dependence on consumer debt, but is it not time for him to admit that the UK Government’s policy has failed? I gently suggest revision.

Greg Hands: The trade deficit is actually improving as a share of GDP, and it is projected to continue to do so in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast. What would be an absolute disaster is the Scottish National party’s policy of full fiscal independence, which would cost Scotland £10 billion a year, added to which the collapse in the oil price would, according to the OBR, result in revenues this year being down by a staggering 94%. That would be a disaster for Scotland.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I welcome the Chancellor’s earlier comments about export initiatives to India. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming

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the excellent work that is being done by businesses in the north-west and the northern powerhouse to boost exports?

Greg Hands: I join my hon. Friend in very much welcoming that, particularly with reference to exports to China and India, which have been a great success. UKTI is doing what it can to support that, with a doubling of funds in China over the spending review period and providing tailored support for first-time exporters, with an additional £20 million in 2015-16. It is supporting northern powerhouse trade missions on that specific basis, on the terms mentioned by my hon. Friend.

22. [903121] Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP): The British Chambers of Commerce is forecasting that the much-heralded doubling of UK exports will take not another four years, as the Chancellor had promised, but another 18 years—it will happen in 2034. Does the Chancellor accept that this is clear evidence that his efforts to reduce the UK trade deficit are failing and will continue to fail?

Greg Hands: As I mentioned earlier, the UK has a good future in terms of the trade deficit and improving statistics. UKTI will also be playing an important role here. On the announcements we made today on trade policy, one of the most important things we can do is adopt a whole-of-government approach to improving the approach we take to trade and boosting our exports.

Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) (Con): My constituency contains a niche amusement machine manufacturer, Harry Levy Amusement Contractor Ltd, which supplies global export markets. What help and support can my right hon. Friend offer to exporters so that we can really achieve the new, cross-government approach to exports launched today by the Business Secretary and Trade Minister Lord Maude?

Greg Hands: I have been to my hon. Friend’s constituency quite a few times over the past year and a half, but I do not think I have had the particular pleasure of meeting the company he mentions. I am very happy to meet him and that company, or perhaps to meet Lord Maude, if that is more appropriate, to see what could be done to help exporters in South Thanet.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The concrete products industry used to have a surplus on the balance of payments but it now has a deficit of hundreds of millions of pounds. That is due to the imposition of the aggregates levy on products made in the UK but not on imported products, which has put thousands of jobs in jeopardy. Will the Minister consider imposing the same tax on goods produced abroad as is imposed on goods produced here in the UK?

Greg Hands: I am happy to look in detail at the points the hon. Gentleman raises. My understanding is that there have been legal challenges to aspects of the aggregates levy and that has prevented us from addressing some of these issues, but I am happy to engage with him on an ongoing basis to see what could be done better.

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Manufacturing Exports

9. Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab): What fiscal steps the Government are taking to support manufacturing exports. [903107]

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Damian Hinds): Since 2010, we have cut corporation tax from 28% to 20%, which is the joint lowest rate in the G20—we will cut it further to 18% by 2020; we have set the annual investment allowance at its highest ever permanent level, at £200,000; and we have made research and development credits more generous and above the line, available in the early loss-making phase for the first time. In addition, UKTI has announced today enhanced support for exporters.

Catherine West: Is the Minister concerned about recent figures showing that the manufacturing sector is back in recession? What does he intend to do about that?

Damian Hinds: We have to get behind the manufacturing sector. That is at the heart of this Government’s approach, of the long-term economic plan and of the productivity plan, through giving enhanced access to leading technologies in the catapult centres; the apprenticeships levy; making sure that we build up our skills base by attracting more teachers into the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths; and a range of other initiatives.

Amanda Solloway (Derby North) (Con): With Derby being named as one of the No. 1 places to start a small business, may I ask the Minister what steps are being taken to assist and encourage small businesses to become expanding, exporting businesses?

Damian Hinds: UKTI has an ambition to increase the number of exporting businesses by 100,000. There are a number of aspects to that: moving to more direct support as well as advice; learning from some of the leading export promotion agencies in the world; and, as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary was saying just now, making sure that we leverage existing Government relationships with firms and sectors through a whole-of-government approach to supporting exports.

19. [903118] Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): The slump in manufacturing exports at the end of last year has to be proof that the UK economy is still too dependent on consumer spending to drive growth, and the Government must stop being so complacent and so self-congratulatory in sessions such as this. With the risk of Brexit this year only making things worse, what are they going to do to expand manufacturing exports?

Damian Hinds: Exports are a challenge; there has been a long-term change in the UK’s share of world trade, the majority of it coming before 2010. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about investment expenditure and consumption expenditure, business investment has grown by two and a half times that of consumption since 2010.

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Michelle Donelan (Chippenham) (Con): Does the Minister agree that supporting engineering and manufacturing is absolutely essential to our economy and productivity, and that we must do all we can to address the skills gap that is threatening local jobs and businesses in my constituency and around the country?

Damian Hinds: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of engineering. The evidence of that was shown in the spending review and the autumn statement, with enhanced support for science as well as the apprenticeship levy, which is an important structural change in the way we invest in our skills base.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): Five years ago, the Chancellor said that he would rebalance the economy towards manufacturing, exports and the regions. The director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce recently said:

“None of those things have actually transpired in practice yet.”

Will the Minister tell me why not?

Damian Hinds: We are rebalancing the economy, but it is a long-term and sustained programme—indeed, it is our long-term economic plan. We have talked already today about some of the enhanced support for science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the skills base, the apprenticeship levy, and the catapult centres, which give British business access to the best in leading- edge technologies. Of course there are some things in international trade that we cannot control; for example, there was bad news again today from China. Nor can we control the world exchange rates. However, we are absolutely doing the things that we can when it comes to supporting British exporters.

Seema Malhotra: There we go again—it is everybody’s fault but this Government’s. Here is the truth: the Chancellor promised to boost manufacturing, but instead it is in recession. Manufacturing output is now 6.1% below its pre-crisis peak and falling. The British Chamber of Commerce’s survey of firms found manufacturing close to stagnation, with export sales and orders falling. Instead of helping the sector, the Chancellor closed the Manufacturing Advisory Service in November without so much as a mention. Is it not true that British businesses and families are now paying a heavy price for this Chancellor’s failures?

Damian Hinds: That is not true. The enhancement of manufacturing is absolutely at the heart of this Government’s approach, but we should not forget that services are also a very large part—in fact a bigger part—of the economy. The overall performance of the British economy is such that we had the highest growth rate in the G7 countries in 2014 and the joint highest in 2015. We have rising real wages and more people in jobs than ever before.

Employment Trends

10. Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con): What assessment he has made of recent trends in the level of employment. [903108]

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The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Damian Hinds): Employment stands at 31.3 million, which means, as I have just said, that more people are in work than ever before. In the past year, growth has been driven by full-time employees in high and medium-skilled jobs, showing that we are now moving to the next phase of our recovery, with high-quality employment, and a boost in productivity and living standards nationwide.

Lucy Allan: I thank the Minister for his reply. In my constituency, youth unemployment has halved in the past year and it is now lower than on the whole of the west midlands and the country. Does he agree that this excellent news for Telford shows that the economic plan is working?

Damian Hinds: I am delighted with that news from my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I do indeed agree with her. Across the west midlands, youth unemployment has fallen by almost a quarter on the year, with the rate now returning to pre-recession levels. The west midlands saw the fastest growth in full-time average earnings among all the English regions, and there are some 140,000 more people in work since 2010.

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): One of the leading employers in Stoke-on-Trent is the ceramic industry, and part of the growth in recent years has been due to the anti-dumping ruling by the EU on subsidised Chinese imports. Shamefully, the British Government opposed that. Will the Minister now commit the Government to supporting the renewal of that anti-dumping ruling when it comes up?

Damian Hinds: The Government do of course raise all issues to do with dumping and unfair trade practices as and when they come up. I will be happy to look in further detail at what the hon. Gentleman says about ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent.

HMRC Regional Centres

12. Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con): What recent representations he has received on proposed changes to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ regional centres. [903110]

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): HMRC announced its future location strategy on 12 November. As I have previously stated, delivering that strategy will help HMRC to deliver more for less and reduce its estate costs by £100 million per year by 2025. Both HMRC and I have received a number of representations from interested parties, most recently from my hon. Friends the Members for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) and for Southend West (Sir David Amess).

Sir David Amess: Following my hon. Friend’s meeting with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), will he reflect further on the points made about Southend becoming a regional centre? Whatever changes are made in the future, will he ensure that the hard-working, dedicated and loyal staff of Alexander House are treated well?

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Mr Gauke: Of course, my hon. Friend made his representations in a robust and forthright way in our meeting yesterday. I am sure that HMRC will be reflecting on that. Assuming that staff are relocated from Southend to Stratford, they will be compensated for their additional transport costs for up to three years and will benefit from London weighting, given that they will have moved to Stratford.

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): How exactly is any of this reorganisation going to do anything about the depressing call handling statistics of HMRC? Will the Minister guarantee an improvement?

Mr Gauke: At the moment, call handling is at a higher level than it has been for many years. It was certainly the case that in spring of last year call handling standards were not at an acceptable level, but HMRC has made significant improvements and I hope it will continue to make progress.

Illegal Money Lending

14. Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): What his plans are for future funding of illegal money lending teams. [903113]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): The Government are exploring options to ensure that the England and Wales illegal money lending teams have the funding they need to ensure that consumers continue to be protected from illegal loan sharks, and are confident of transitional arrangements being agreed.

Nick Smith: Too many of my constituents are victims of loan sharks. The illegal money lending team has helped nearly 24,000 victims across the country, yet the Government have treated the service with disdain. Will the cuts to this vital team and to local employment standards not make the poorest more vulnerable?

Harriett Baldwin: Far from agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, I must say that the Government are finding ways to put the team on a sustainable basis to continue the valuable work it does to protect people from illegal money lending.

Topical Questions

T1. [903090] Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The First Secretary of State and Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr George Osborne): The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability and prosperity of the economy.

Gareth Johnson: High exit fees act as a disincentive for people to take advantage of flexible pensions, so does the Chancellor agree that tackling these high fees is essential to give people freedom over their own pensions?

Mr Osborne: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The pension freedoms we have introduced have been widely welcomed, but we know that 700,000 people who are eligible face some form of early exit charge.

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The Government are not prepared to stand by and see people being either ripped off or blocked from accessing their own money by excessive charges. We have listened to the concerns and the newspaper campaigns that have been run. Today, we are announcing that we will change the law to place a duty on the Financial Conduct Authority to cap excessive early exit charges for pension savers. We are determined that people who have done the right thing and saved responsibly should be able to access their pensions fairly.

Rebecca Long Bailey (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): Recent statistics show that household debt is now at a record high, but back in 2010 the Chancellor promised to move from an economy built on debt to one that saves. Will he confirm today why the figures contradict his original promise?

Mr Osborne: Household debt as a proportion of household income was 168% in 2008 and today it is 142%, so it has fallen.

T3. [903092] Johnny Mercer (Plymouth, Moor View) (Con): This Chancellor has given more than any before him to the cause of looking after our armed forces veterans in this country, and for that I thank him wholeheartedly. Does he agree that although the charity sector has a key role to play, ultimately veterans’ care is a state responsibility and we must ensure that the money coming from Government is used for evidence-based, empirically measured professional treatments for our veterans and their families?

Mr Osborne: My hon. Friend obviously has huge experience in this area, personally and because he represents a constituency that has given much to the defence of our nation. He is right: as well as the LIBOR fines, which we use for specific one-off causes to help military charities, we have the armed forces covenant and the annual commitment to support our veterans. I am always happy to look at either specific projects in which we can invest or ongoing concerns we can deal with.

T2. [903091] Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP): The collapse of UK manufacturing has in fact been going on for some 50 years—it has gone from 30% of the economy in the 1970s to less than 10% today, and from more than 20% of all jobs in the 1980s to only 8% today. Given the scale and length of this decline, why have the Government not made manufacturing and exports one of their top priorities?

Mr Osborne: We have backed our manufacturers and exporters. We have cut corporation tax and other taxes that affect those businesses, and we have reformed UK Trade & Investment. As a result, the manufacturing sector accounts for a larger share of our economy than when I became Chancellor, but there is still a huge amount more to do. One thing I would say to the hon. Lady and the Scottish Government is that we want to work more closely with the Scottish Government on overseas trade missions, where we can promote Scottish businesses. We do not always get that co-operation, but we hope it will be forthcoming in the future.

T4. [903093] Kelly Tolhurst (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Although I welcome the Government’s move towards digitisation of tax, a number of self-employed

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people and small businesses across my constituency, approximately 74% of which employ fewer than four people, have voiced concern about how quarterly tax reporting might have a negative effect on their human and financial resources, depending on their reliance on an accountant. What support will be provided to our small businesses to help them to adapt to the proposed changes?

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): First, may I reassure the House that there are no plans for quarterly tax returns, as has been reported? What HMRC is considering is making greater use of digital technology and ensuring that information is provided to HMRC more frequently. My hon. Friend raises an important point about ensuring that businesses are supported as they adapt to new ways of record keeping, and HMRC is determined to do that.

T9. [903098] Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase) (Con): The midlands engine has been turbo-charged, with recent figures showing four Staffordshire constituencies in the top seven ranked by the extent of the fall in the claimant count between May 2010 and November 2015, with Cannock Chase ranked fourth. What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to make sure that we maintain the positive momentum?

Mr Osborne: There has been good news in Cannock and across the midlands. Employment is up by 6% in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Since entering Parliament, she has been a great champion of the businesses in her area. We are working together to give more power to people in the west midlands to take control of the decisions that affect them, and I welcome her support for that; and we are investing in major transport infrastructure and backing science in the west midlands as well. We are introducing a whole set of measures, but if my hon. Friend has specific ideas to help businesses in Cannock, my door is open.

T5. [903094] Steven Paterson (Stirling) (SNP): How on earth will a £42 million cut over the next four years to the UK Trade & Investment budget enable it to become

“a world class export and investment promotion agency”?

Mr Osborne: We set out today the strategy to give more direct help to our exporters across the United Kingdom, and Lord Maude presented to the Cabinet the proposals to do that. On getting lectures on public finances from Scottish nationalists, I have to say that we would be heading towards the break-up of our country in two months’ time if the people of Scotland had listened to the arguments of the Scottish nationalists, whose calculations were based on an oil price of $115, which at the time the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) described as “quite a conservative estimate”. The oil price is now less than $30. It would have been an absolute catastrophe for the people of Scotland if they had listened to the figures and economic advice given by the Scottish National party.

Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): What efforts are the Government making to widen access to basic bank accounts?

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The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): I am delighted to tell my constituency neighbour that at the end of last year we announced that all the major banks are now able to offer a basic bank account to customers who require one.

T6. [903095] Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West) (Lab): Many of my constituents who watch “Coronation Street” will be following the story of Tyrone Dobbs’ struggle with debt with keen interest. Unsecured lending reached a record high last year, with more than 3 million people in problem debt. The Government promised a review of what breathing space creditors should give to people who are engaged with a debt charity or agency, so that their debts do not continue to spiral out of control while they are working to resolve them. The review was due by the end of 2015. When do the Government now plan to announce it?

Harriett Baldwin: In answer to earlier questions I referred to the importance that we place on the team that will tackle illegal money lending. We have continued to support funding for debt advice, including through excellent organisations such as Christians Against Poverty, StepChange and Citizens Advice, to help individuals such as those mentioned by the hon. Lady.

James Berry (Kingston and Surbiton) (Con): On Friday I visited Barclays bank in Kingston to hear about the fantastic Barclays life skills course, which teaches young people financial literacy, among other things. I can see some candidates for the course here today. Does the Minister agree that by making financial education more accessible, we can ensure that the financial sector itself supports young people and people throughout every stage of their lives?

Harriett Baldwin: I am delighted that my hon. Friend found his visit to Barclays in his constituency to be so helpful. I know that he, too, will welcome the fact that since 2014 financial education has been part of the national curriculum.

T7. [903096] Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): The Conservative leader of Essex county council has told the Prime Minister that the 2% social care precept will cover only half the council’s increased costs. He has suggested bringing better care funding forward to 2017 and asked a for a fairer redistribution of funds. Even Conservative councils cannot wait till 2019 for the funding that the Chancellor has allocated, so will he act now to avoid a further crisis in social care?

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Greg Hands): In advance of the spending review, the Conservative leaders of the Local Government Association came to see me. One of their specific proposals was to introduce the social care precept to help address the shortfall there may otherwise have been. We have also put a lot more money into the better care fund to make sure that local authorities and the NHS working together are able to meet the challenges of social care over the next years.

Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): One of the key tools that the Chancellor has deployed to boost the economy has been the creation of enterprise zones.

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Will he lend his support to the creation of an enterprise zone at Thoresby colliery in the northern part of Nottinghamshire?

Mr George Osborne: I know Thoresby colliery and have been to the site with my hon. Friend. We were not able to give the go-ahead to the enterprise zone because the business case did not quite stack up, but I have committed to work with him and the local community to try to get that over the line and get an enterprise zone in place in Thoresby colliery.

T8. [903097] Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I have just chaired a packed meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on carbon capture and storage with the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change. There was a lot of anger in the room over the Chancellor’s decision to axe the funding for the CCS competition projects. What funding will the Chancellor provide when DECC comes up with its new CCS strategy in the autumn?

Mr Osborne: We have set out our capital budget and our energy policy, which will see a doubling of the investment in renewable energy over the next five years.

Mr Speaker: Robert Jenrick—I am calling you, man; don’t leave the Chamber.

Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker. You are very kind. My superb hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) had already asked the question, but I will ask it again as that is not unusual in this place. My parents formed their small business in the first enterprise zone created by Margaret Thatcher in Telford in 1984. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has carried on in that great Conservative tradition. Will he afford the same opportunities to get on in life and create jobs to my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood by backing Thoresby colliery as the next and best enterprise zone?

Mr Osborne: My hon. Friend has just demonstrated that he is a very smart thinker on his feet. He is always ready to stand up for the interests of his Newark constituents. As I said to our hon. Friend and his neighbour the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), I would love to get the Thoresby colliery enterprise zone into a condition where we can give it the go-ahead, and I give him and my hon. Friend his neighbour my personal commitment that we will try to do that over the next year or two.

Mr Speaker: Of course, as colleagues know, the fact that a question has been asked does not stop others asking the same question. Repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Chancellor ponder the fact that we still have not tackled productivity? May I guide him and ask him and his Department to look at the way in which we further invest in manufacturing skills? Surely he will agree that what we want in this country are high skilled, high paid jobs, which are to be found in manufacturing.

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Mr Osborne: The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that the UK has had a productivity challenge for many decades, and the financial crisis caused a significant impairment that had an impact as well. Productivity is improving, but the key weakness in the British economy, consistently identified by everyone who looks at it, is the weakness of our skills. I hope that the apprenticeship levy and the expansion of the apprenticeship programme will go some way towards addressing that historical weakness for Britain.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): Credit unions can play a vital role in improving financial inclusion and creating a stronger savings culture. As I know from my work with the all-party credit unions group, they have support in all parts of this House. With the opportunity of the World Council of Credit Unions coming to the UK—to Northern Ireland—later this year, will the Chancellor commit to making sure that we continue to build on the work of the credit union expansion programme and back this vital group?

Harriett Baldwin: My other constituency neighbour is a fine advocate for the excellent credit unions industry. As he will know, we have backed the industry with £38 million of investment through the credit union expansion project, and we will continue to seek ways to back credit unions.

Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): Given that manufacturing remains at 6.1% below pre-crisis levels, with worrying trends in the manufacture of plant and machinery and of pharmaceuticals, will the Chancellor accept that his domestic policy agenda has just as much impact on our performance as the global factors that he is so very keen to blame, and that if the march of the makers is now going backwards, he must bear a measure of responsibility and come forward with proposals to halt the decline?

Mr Osborne: As I said, manufacturing makes up a larger sector of the economy than when I became Chancellor, but there is a huge amount more to do to make the UK more competitive, to make our businesses more competitive, and to improve skills for our manufacturers and the like. I have to say, and I suspect the hon. Lady agrees with me, that the idea of banning manufacturers from paying dividends would not be a particularly sensible way forward. Unfortunately, that is now the policy of the Labour party.

Chris Philp (Croydon South) (Con): Is the Chancellor aware that since he took office in May 2010, the claimant count in my constituency has fallen by 62% and the youth unemployment count has fallen by 67%? Does he agree that reducing corporation tax, increasing the personal allowance and reforming welfare has caused these fantastic figures, and will he confirm that his long-term economic plan will continue?

Mr Osborne: We will absolutely deliver the plan in these more difficult economic conditions. As I say, the IMF has not revised down the UK’s growth forecast even though it has today revised down the global economic forecast. In Croydon and south London, we will continue with important transport infrastructure, and, indeed,

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do everything we can to back homeowners in my hon. Friend’s constituency—a group of people he particularly champions.

Mr Speaker: Last but not least, I call Alison McGovern.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): May I return the City Minister to the issue of the cancelled FCA inquiry into banking culture? The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards chaired by the right hon. Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) pointed to the “Murder on the Orient Express” excuse where everyone was partly responsible but no one was really to blame. The Minister said before that Ministers had no role in

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the cancellation of that inquiry. Will she say, yes or no, whether any civil servants did?

Harriett Baldwin: No.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: We must move on—demand always exceeds supply.

Kate Osamor (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Points of order come after urgent questions, so I will await the hon. Lady’s inquiry with interest.

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Ebola: Sierra Leone

12.38 pm

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will make a statement on the death from Ebola virus disease of a 22-year-old student in Sierra Leone on 12 January 2016.

May I wish you a very happy birthday, Mr Speaker?

The Secretary of State for International Development (Justine Greening): Many happy returns to you, Mr Speaker.

The House will be aware that, as my hon. and learned Friend said, a new case of Ebola has been confirmed in Sierra Leone. A 22-year-old female student from the Tonkolili district sadly died on 12 January. This latest case of Ebola in Sierra Leone demonstrates that we need to stay vigilant. Indeed, the news came just as the World Health Organisation formally declared the Ebola outbreak in west Africa over following Liberia reaching 42 days without a new case, but it is not unexpected given the context of this unprecedented outbreak.

The new case was identified from a swab taken after death and is currently being investigated. The Government of Sierra Leone have activated their national Ebola response plan, and rapid work is under way to identify and quarantine people who have had contact with the young woman and to establish her movements in the final few days and weeks before her death. Teams in five districts are acting on that information. No other cases have been confirmed to date.

The speed of the process reflects the work that the UK has undertaken with the Government of Sierra Leone to develop their national response plan. As today’s International Development Committee’s report says, the UK has been at the forefront of the global response to the Ebola outbreak in west Africa and has from the very start led in Sierra Leone, working hand in hand with the Government of Sierra Leone. We took on this deadly disease at source by rapidly deploying the best of British military personnel and NHS and Public Health England staff, building treatment centres in a matter of weeks and mobilising the international response more broadly. We have worked with the Government of Sierra Leone to build up their health systems and strengthen all aspects of society, including civil society, to allow them to be prepared.

We continue to stand by Sierra Leone because, as we have always been clear, there is the potential for further cases. That is precisely why our response now is focused on assisting Sierra Leone in isolating and treating any new cases of Ebola before they spread.

Stephen Phillips: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer and, indeed, for coming to the House urgently today to answer questions on this subject. I am also grateful to her for the leadership she demonstrated during the Ebola outbreak of 2014-15, as I am to the brave military and civilian personnel who travelled to Sierra Leone to help west Africa during that period.

On 7 November 2015, the World Health Organisation declared Sierra Leone free of Ebola following a period of 42 days during which no new cases had been reported. Just last week, as my right hon. Friend has said, the

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WHO made a further declaration to the effect that, all reported transmissions having ended, the outbreak of Ebola in west Africa was over.

My right hon. Friend and the whole House will therefore have been dismayed at yesterday’s reports of the death from Ebola of a young woman in the northern Tonkolili district last week, particularly given that she appears to have travelled in three other provinces during the infectious stages of the disease.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking, together with her colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the staff of our high commission in Freetown, to determine the source of this latest outbreak? Is she confident that the outbreak can be contained, given that the burial customs observed do not appear to have followed the procedures necessary to prevent further contamination? Are the quarantine measures adopted by the Government of Sierra Leone sufficient to ensure that widespread transmission of the virus is unlikely?

The assistance provided by the UK during the last outbreak cost the British taxpayer £427 million. My right hon. Friend will remember that I first asked about that outbreak in the House on 18 June 2014, at a stage when the number of cases was in the tens, rather than the thousands. None of us wishes to see a further significant outbreak, but is she working with her officials, the Government of Sierra Leone and the WHO to ensure that we get on top of the problem at a stage when relatively few individuals are likely to have been exposed?

It is fair to say that the worst epidemiological predictions during the previous outbreak did not materialise, but across west Africa more than 11,300 people died of Ebola in 2014-15. Many more died of preventable disease, which an overburdened and fragile health care system was incapable of addressing at the same time as dealing with Ebola.

What funding will my right hon. Friend make available to the Government of Sierra Leone and non-governmental organisations working in the region to deal with this latest outbreak and to establish long-term resilience in healthcare systems for dealing with a disease that may well now be endemic in the region? Has she held discussions with her colleagues in the Ministry of Defence about the potential for assistance to be given to ensure that the disease does not spread further? Does she have confidence that the failings demonstrated by the WHO in the past will not be repeated? To what extent is she confident that there are no further cases of Ebola present in Liberia and Guinea?

Retesting of samples taken from individuals who died in the 10 years prior to the 2014-15 outbreak indicated that Ebola may well have been present in west Africa for more than a decade. To the extent that Ebola is now endemic, what measures will my right hon. Friend and the Government support leading to the development of an effective vaccine for the virus? When does she expect that vaccine to be available?

The previous outbreak of Ebola and its spread across an interconnected world indicated the threat faced by the United Kingdom from the spread of hitherto unheard of diseases. Direct flights have recently recommenced from Sierra Leone to London, but my right hon. Friend will know that the previous ban on such flights was unnecessary and, indeed, counterproductive. Will she

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assure the House and the Sierra Leonean diaspora in this country that the mistake of banning direct flights in the past will not be repeated?

Finally, the long-term prognosis for those previously infected with Ebola is not well understood by the medical profession. From cases such as that of Pauline Cafferkey, we now know that the virus can hide in the body for lengthy periods. Is the NHS aware of the risks of Ebola re-emerging in patients who have previously survived the disease? What assistance are the Government giving to non-governmental organisations and Governments in west Africa to ensure the long-term health of those who have survived Ebola and may still be able to pass it on to others? Specifically, what, if any, monitoring project does her Department intend to fund so that the disease is stamped out both for individuals in the region and to secure the biosecurity of the United Kingdom and those of us who live here?

Mr Speaker: Order. Before the Secretary of State responds, let me say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that his erudition, which is never in doubt, has been equalled today only by his length. He is a very sophisticated denizen of the House, and he has treated of a very serious matter. I am aware, and the House will also be conscious, that on top of that he is an illustrious Queen’s counsel. Perhaps I can express the hope that he does not charge his clients by the word, for if he does he will be a great deal richer and they, I fear, will be a great deal poorer. From now on, we must try to stick to the time limits allocated for this purpose. I say that in a good spirit, because he has raised a very important issue and done so in an extremely intelligent way. If we operated within the time limits from now on, the House would greatly appreciate it.

Justine Greening: I must say, however, that my hon. and learned Friend achieved amazing value for money in the number of questions asked during the time spoken, for which I commend him.

To respond to the very serious issues that my hon. and learned Friend raises, from the very beginning this has been an unprecedented outbreak. We are seeing that even now, given the length of time that the virus appears to stay in the body of survivors after they have fully recovered. That is one reason—as we are still learning, frankly, about the implications of the virus’s persistence in survivors—why part of the work we are doing in Sierra Leone is to mitigate the risks of its being passed on. We are doing so through verifying survivor registers so that we know who should be on the list to be tested; offering safe sex counselling; establishing semen testing; ensuring access to free healthcare; and combating survivor stigma. It is critical to work with the people who may be most at risk of passing on a disease that they have themselves have survived. There is now a national semen-testing programme for male survivors aged 15 and above. Indeed, DFID and Public Health England are working with the Government in Sierra Leone to make sure that it works effectively.

We saw the same in Liberia, a country that also passed its 42-day Ebola-free point, but subsequently had other cases. That is precisely why we have been so vigilant. Indeed, it was the processes, systems and testing

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that we put in place with the Government in Sierra Leone that have picked up this particular case and enabled us to go through the processes of contact tracing and quarantine. As my hon. and learned Friend pointed out, it is known that this student had travelled extensively, which makes our task all the harder. We are therefore working at district level. One thing we have set up is a mobile field hospital that can rapidly get to a particular district if an outbreak takes place. He asked about the quarantine measures. They are indeed being put in place, and the contact tracing is happening.

My hon. and learned Friend asked about funding in relation to the latest outbreak and about how we are working more broadly to help get to what I call “resilient zero”. Having got past the maximum period of the main outbreak, which was incredibly difficult, we all expected that sporadic cases would continue to appear. We are now in that phase. As he says, getting on top of such cases is the way we will reach “resilient zero”, when we can be more confident that there will not be any future cases. There is funding for the latest outbreak, to cover some of the things I have mentioned and for work in schools to make sure that issues of water and sanitation are understood and that the basic steps that can be taken at community level are put in place to minimise the risk of passing on diseases, including Ebola. The district-level response mechanism that we used so successfully to get over the major outbreak when it was at its peak is still there. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimated that we saved more than 56,000 lives through the work that we put in place with the Government of Sierra Leone to get on top of the outbreak.

My hon. and learned Friend asked about the vaccination process. Prior to the crisis, DFID was involved in the development of early stage vaccines, which can now tackle Ebola. He will know that there are some promising candidates, which give us the prospect of being able more readily to clamp down on future outbreaks.

My hon. and learned Friend spoke about health system strengthening. One of the key messages that came out of the Ebola outbreak was that countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia that, in the scheme of their histories were newly emergent from civil war, were less able to cope, simply because their health systems were at an earlier stage of development due to those conflicts. Other countries in the region, such as Nigeria, were better able to clamp down on the outbreak simply because they had stronger health systems, although there is even some way for that country to go.

To reassure the House, it is not a surprise to see these sporadic additional cases, but the people, processes and systems are in place on the ground in Sierra Leone to identify them and respond rapidly.

The final thing that my hon. and learned Friend mentioned was flights. We felt that the decision that we took on direct flights was in the interests of our national security. I think that it was the right decision to take.

Critically, the way in which we got on top of the outbreak in the end was by working with our fantastic Foreign Office as one team to bring the best of British—our military, our doctors and nurses, Public Health England—and working hand in hand in partnership with the Government of Sierra Leone to provide a platform that the rest of the international community could work through to combat the disease. I again put on the record

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my huge thanks not only to the many DFID staff I am privileged to lead, but to all the other people across Government and all the public sector workers who in many cases put their lives on the line to help Sierra Leone get to grips with this terrible crisis.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute not just to the British health workers and military who went to help the people of west Africa in the last Ebola outbreak, but to all the local health workers who bore the brunt of the campaign against Ebola and the brunt of the deaths.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the International Development Committee report says that the Government were too reliant on the World Health Organisation, which eventually declared an emergency in August 2014, and should have listened to other groups, such as Médecins sans Frontières, which had been warning about Ebola months earlier. Does she agree with the Committee’s Chairman that:

“The international community relied on WHO to sound the alarm for an international emergency on the scale of Ebola. The organisation’s failure to respond quickly enough is now well documented”?

Does the Secretary of State agree that Ebola cannot be seen in isolation and that we have to look at the general issue of access to healthcare in the region and building a resilient health system?

Justine Greening: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for those questions. As she clearly sets out, the key to success in tackling Ebola was, of course, the response of the Sierra Leonean people and their willingness to run towards tackling a disease which, instinctively, many people would have wanted to run away from. Many Red Cross volunteers from across Africa also went into the region to help tackle it. They very much led the effort. The UK’s role was to work hand in hand with them and to ensure that our resources and know-how could be brought to bear to finally get on top of the disease.

Everybody recognises that there are serious lessons to be learned by the international system from the response to the crisis. Indeed, WHO reform is taking place. The Secretary of State for Health and I have talked directly to Margaret Chan about that. It is vital that we learn lessons from the crisis so that we understand how the international system can mobilise far more speedily when a crisis hits. This outbreak spread rapidly, but it started in a part of the world that was one of the least able to respond to it initially.

The UK actioned the Ebola response much earlier than the official declaration of the outbreak by the WHO. As early as June and July, we were supporting MSF, which played a key role alongside many other non-governmental organisations.

There are lessons to be learned. Today’s International Development Committee report goes through the initial response and what happened subsequently in a systematic way. It is important that the WHO is reformed. It must not only look at its processes and how it responds, but ensure that the emergency response fund that it is setting up, which the UK helped to fund initially, is adequately resourced so that it has the means to respond, as well as the strategy.

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Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): The International Development Committee report, which was issued today, commends the strong leadership of DFID and the UK Government in co-ordinating the response to Ebola in Sierra Leone, but is very critical of the WHO’s delay in designating the outbreak as a public health emergency of international concern. Will the Secretary of State give us more of an insight into her discussions with Margaret Chan and confirm that the Department is ensuring that the WHO treats this matter as a priority among its radical reform needs?

Justine Greening: There are various aspects, but one that is particularly key is the regional response of the WHO. It is important to ensure, at that level, that emerging outbreaks are clearly identified in a depoliticised way. They must be identified as outbreaks simply from the facts on the ground, as Governments are sometimes understandably reticent about declaring a health emergency. Those are the key changes that we will steadily see in the WHO over time.

Critically, we need to be able to mobilise people. One aspect of the WHO reform is the setting up of an international register of healthcare responders, much like the one the UK has, which we were able to draw on to tackle Ebola. That will enable us to ensure that we rapidly have the right people in the right places the next time that a crisis hits. Having said all that, this was an unprecedented outbreak. It was the first time that an Ebola outbreak spread across borders. Nevertheless, we clearly need the WHO to reform and to respond far more quickly and effectively going forward.

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP): We echo the dismay at the new case and the tributes that have been paid to those involved in the response.

Bearing in mind the International Development Committee report, what more can the Secretary of State say about the steps DFID is taking to monitor the situation in the wider region? What contact does she currently have with service providers such as MSF on the ground to pick up early warnings? What consideration will she give to the recent report from the US National Academy of Medicine’s commission on creating a global health risk framework for the future, which called for WHO reform, including a permanent emergency centre and global investment of £3 billion a year in pandemic response?

Justine Greening: The work that is under way on the ground aims to ensure that the whole framework that we put in place to tackle the major outbreak swings into action again at the local level. That means the isolation of potential Ebola sufferers. That sits alongside ongoing surveillance work, which was how we picked up this case in the first place. We must continue to emphasise the need for safe burials so that this case does not spread more broadly, and work with communities to deliver that.

I mentioned the hospital and treatment centres that provide the isolation units we need to treat Ebola sufferers effectively, and the lab testing. Those things are legacies of the UK’s work with Sierra Leone, which means that it is now better placed to deal with this case. I emphasise that as we go through the contact tracing period and the quarantine period for high-risk contact, it is inevitable

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that further cases may emerge. That is all part of the steady eradication of Ebola, and getting to what is called “resilient zero”. Unfortunately, we do not expect it suddenly to switch off overnight, which is why we were keen to ensure that some of the underlying processes remained, as well as having the right people and surveillance in place to deal with such situations.

The hon. Gentleman asked about WHO reform and the emergency response, and he is right about that. We must ensure that resourcing is funded internationally, to enable the WHO to put into practice the new strategies it is now developing. The UK was one of the initial contributors to a fund that was set up to do that within the WHO, and we are strongly lobbying other countries to join us.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): Our thoughts are very much with the people of Sierra Leone. The Secretary of State said last July that the United Kingdom will stay the course until Ebola is defeated. Will she confirm that the UK will stay the course until Sierra Leone, in partnership with its Government, has health systems that are as strong as they need to be to tackle such outbreaks—and indeed all other diseases—in future?

Justine Greening: We will certainly stay the course, and my hon. Friend will be aware that part of our work with Sierra Leone over a number of years has been to strengthen healthcare systems. That has been vital for Sierra Leone and in the context of this outbreak, because there was a point at which people were extremely concerned about the potential of the disease to arrive here in the UK. It is not just in Sierra Leone’s interest that we do this work; it is in our interest to have a WHO that is able to respond effectively to international health emergencies.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) on securing this important urgent question, and I particularly welcome the emphasis on reform of the WHO. One of the central recommendations of the International Development Committee report published today is that the UK and DFID take the lead in reform efforts. Will the Secretary of State say more about the timescale for reform, so that we do not lose that opportunity this year?

Justine Greening: Reform is under way, and comparatively recently I met Margaret Chan, who heads up the WHO, to speak about that. Changes are already being made across the board, and the key thing that remains to be worked on is bottoming out the overall strategy for improving an emergency response from the WHO, and ensuring resourcing. We must work with the countries that are most at risk if a health emergency occurs, so that they are able to deal with it more effectively. This is not about having better systems and resourcing in place; it is about targeting what we know are potentially the greatest holes in an international response.

James Cleverly (Braintree) (Con): The Department, our medical professionals and armed forces can be proud of the assistance they gave to Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak of 2014-15. I am a Member of the House with a Sierra Leonean mother, so will the Secretary

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of State assure the House, my family and the wider Sierra Leonean diaspora that support for Sierra Leone will continue until local facilities are able to withstand further health difficulties such as this? Will she also assure the House that our future economic and diplomatic relationship with Sierra Leone will not be defined by this darkest period in the history of such a wonderful country?

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend makes his points extremely well, and the role of the diaspora and the links that people naturally have with Sierra Leone is critical. I remember meetings that I held with the diaspora in this country to ensure open lines of communication between the work being done by DFID and the Foreign Office, and that done by people on the ground. He speaks about the need and hope that Sierra Leone will bounce back from what it has been through. It was a terrible, terrible outbreak, and I visited three times in a short period. Only on my third visit did I feel that I got to see some of the country and its spirit, because the first two times were so embedded in crisis that it was really a different place.

Before this crisis hit, Sierra Leone was one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and our hope and ambition must be that it will now bounce back. The challenge is to bring the same urgency as we saw in the response to Ebola to the rest of that country’s development. We saw in that response that when we work together and there is a country-owned strategy, and when all different stakeholders pull in the same direction—when there is the political will—we can cover a lot of ground quickly. That has much broader lessons for development progress internationally, and we will try to ensure that that momentum is kept up in Sierra Leone, even though the outbreak is steadily being eradicated.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Further to that welcome point, will the Secretary of State ensure that support for resilience will not just involve support for the infrastructure of a fragile healthcare system that clearly needs such support but support for village development committees in Sierra Leone? They have proved themselves to be an effective and important network of mobilisation, and their capacity will be relevant to other challenges, including those diseases that lost priority during the Ebola crisis.

Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman mentions a number of different but related points, and the work that happened at community level proved pivotal in enabling us to tackle Ebola, both by steadily ensuring that victims of Ebola were buried safely and did not pass the virus on, and by improving surveillance. Surveillance is now a key plank of ensuring that no other case of Ebola romps away in the way it did when it took hold in 2014. There is a lot more work to be done, and improving district and community level healthcare is vital. Indeed, the lack of a strong district and community level healthcare system enabled the virus to take hold—I spoke about the legacy of Ebola, and if we were able to put one thing in place, it was good command and control that went from the Ministry of Health and the President right down to the most remote communities. That was put in place to deal with the crisis, but as a structure it can help us to drive improvements in community healthcare, and to build on the back of that skeleton to improve health more generally in Sierra Leone.

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Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) for asking this urgent question, and I congratulate the Secretary of State on the way she has responded. My constituents in Kettering are hugely proud of the fantastic deployment of armed forces and civilian NHS personnel to tackle this crisis, but I do not think that the full extent of the good news about this country’s involvement in the crisis is out there—most people do not know that this country saved 56,000 lives as a result of our intervention. Will she share with the House some more good news about the involvement of this country as the world’s leading responder to this huge crisis?

Justine Greening: The number of lives directly saved because of work that the UK was able to do is staggering —we can actually see the epidemic curve bending upwards, and then our steadily working with the Government to wrestle it down over a period of months. It was extremely difficult work that required a huge effort.

As part of our response, we had 1,500 military personnel. We provided six UK treatment centres in a matter of weeks. We trained over 4,000 Sierra Leonean healthcare workers. We deployed 150 NHS volunteers, who worked on supporting over 1,500 treatment and isolation beds. That was more than half of the beds available to treat Sierra Leoneans. As I said, we now have a 36-bed mobile field hospital. One hundred Public Health England staff helped to set up three laboratories. We delivered 28,000 tonnes of aid. We delivered more than 1 million protective equipment suits for people working in the red zone and dealing directly with people who had Ebola. We supported over 140 burial teams. We had RFA Argus, the Royal Navy support ship and Merlin helicopters out there. It was a phenomenal response across government and I am very proud to have been part of it.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. After a crisis has been responded to, it is easy to move on and lose sight of the important and valuable role we played.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I very much support the Secretary of State’s efforts so far and I agree with her comments about the need for economic reconstruction in Sierra Leone. She will have heard the comments of the chief medical officer of Sierra Leone, who is reported as saying that in the case in Magburaka, the patient showed

“no signs or symptoms that fitted the case definition of Ebola”.

Given that very disturbing fact, what are the wider public health implications for us in the United Kingdom, and what discussions has she had about this specific issue with Public Health England, the Department of Health and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

Justine Greening: We continue to have a substantial team in Sierra Leone working directly on the ground as part of the response to this latest case. That response is, of course, led by the Government of Sierra Leone. The real test of whether we have worked effectively is if, in time, we can step back and see its health system strengthened and able to take care of these sorts of outbreaks. We are investigating this particular case right now. The hon. Gentleman talks about some of the challenges of identification. This is why surveillance is so important. Indeed, it was the following of some procedures on

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taking swabs of all deaths that picked up that this was Ebola. At each stage of the response, we have had steadily to work out the most effective route forward. We continue to do that as we confront new challenges, such as the one seen in recent days. The House can be assured that we are working hand in hand and have resources in place. We have fantastic medical experts to help us ground any new strategy in terms of the science and of how we take the facts on the ground and respond to them effectively.

Wendy Morton (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): We should be very proud of the role played by the British military, health workers and volunteers, under the leadership of DFID, in tackling Ebola in Sierra Leone. This latest incident, which sadly led to the death of someone in Freetown, highlights the fact that we must remain vigilant with this terrible disease. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that DFID will continue to press the World Health Organisation and the international community to continue to play a part in not just monitoring but strengthening and further developing the public health system in Sierra Leone?

Justine Greening: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. We are playing that role already and will continue to do so. Much of it is pushed forward by our Department of Health and its very close working relationship with the WHO. It is vital we fix some of the underlying problems that led to Ebola taking hold in the first place. Essentially, this means strengthening the health system on the ground and having a better international responder system to deal with crises when they inevitably emerge around the world.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Further to the Secretary of State’s comments about supporting Sierra Leone, Hull is very proud to have been twinned with Freetown for over 35 years. There have been many reciprocal visits, especially by teachers. In the light of what has happened recently, is the Department considering what more it can do to strengthen such reciprocal visits to ensure that support, especially for education, is given to that country?

Justine Greening: I will take the hon. Lady’s ideas and thoughts away and respond to her following the urgent question today. She is right to highlight education. One of the key issues we now face and are working on is getting children, in particular girls who may have been out of school, back into school. We have to ensure they go back to school, and that is not always easy. There are a number of orphans as a result of the Ebola crisis, too. Education matters not just in terms of broader public health but schooling for children, many of whom were out of school for a year. I will reflect on the point she makes about the important links between her local community and Freetown.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): The Secretary of State’s actions have undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. I pay tribute to the efforts of the UK Government. Kids in Kailahun, a small Pendle-based charity, does fantastic work in the Kailahun district of Sierra Leone and did so throughout the Ebola crisis. It describes the in-country response to Ebola orphans as too patchy across the country. What more can the Secretary of

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State do to make it easier for small sums of aid funding to be provided directly to charities such as Kids in Kailahun, which can make such a difference on the ground?

Justine Greening: We had a particular fund to enable us to provide funding to some of the smaller charities. As my hon. Friend will probably be aware, at the beginning the main challenge was putting in place the key planks of a successful strategy, which we were able to do. Smaller NGOs played a key role and I pay tribute to the charity he highlights. DFID worked to support orphans, many of whom would have otherwise been in an incredibly vulnerable position throughout the crisis. We continue that work because, as he will be aware, many survivors of Ebola suffer stigma as a result of having had the virus, and some of them are children. Work is under way to try to ensure we reintegrate people into their family. Wherever possible, we help orphans to get back in touch with their extended family.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I warm to the Secretary of State’s words about the broad, holistic approach to reconstruction in Sierra Leone. Ebola knows no boundaries, however, and affects the whole of west Africa. That is why reconstruction in that part of west Africa is so important. She paid tribute to our troops and all the efforts they made, but many individuals were involved, too. We all remember the wonderful and moving diary on Radio 4 by the doctor from Huddersfield. The voluntary work of aid agencies, such as Save the Children, Médecins sans Frontières and the International Rescue Committee, where my own daughter works, was tremendous. We have to learn the lessons, however. I used to work for the World Bank. On many occasions, I had deep reservations about the effectiveness of the WHO. This is a time to reflect on whether the WHO is fit for purpose. If it is not, the UK should try to do something about it.

Justine Greening: A number of NGOs, many British-based, played a vital role in helping to respond successfully to Ebola in Sierra Leone and in other affected countries and communities. In particular, Save the Children was pivotal in enabling us to open Kerry Town, the first treatment hospital we were able to put in place, and save lives. For many NGOs, it was a step into the dark to have their volunteers working in such a dangerous environment, with all the training that needed to go alongside that. I pay tribute to the volunteers who went out, not just from our own public sector, as I set out, but from all walks of life. They did an amazing job and saved lives. The hon. Gentleman said that the international response and system needed improving, as we have heard in other questions today, and he is absolutely right. We must learn lessons from this crisis. There were some positive lessons about what it took to confront Ebola, but there were also some negative lessons about how a better job could have been done.

Finally, looking forward to reconstruction and recovery, I represented the UK at a UN conference midway through last year, hosted by the Secretary-General, that was all about mobilising resources and the effort around country-owned plans in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea

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so that we can get behind one strategy that helps them get back on their feet. DFID’s bilateral programme in Sierra Leone is part of delivering that on the ground.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State’s responses so far. As touched on several times, the work of our armed forces in Operation Gritrock is about not just saving lives in west Africa but protecting and saving lives in this country, and demonstrates that maintaining military capability and delivering on our international development objectives are complementary, not exclusive, to each other. Given the re-emergence of Ebola, what discussions has she had with the MOD about the potential for further support, if it proves necessary?

Justine Greening: We hope that the procedures and framework we have left on the ground will be the most effective way of responding to this latest incident, but we can also learn from Liberia’s experience—it was Ebola-free and then saw fresh cases. I hope we can use the existing structures to respond. If we have learnt one thing over the past one or two years, it is that our fantastic MOD stands ready to be part of the UK humanitarian response, as we have seen in relation not just to Ebola, but to Typhoon Haiyan and Nepal. It plays a unique role in enabling this country to mobilise as effectively as any in the world and to play its part in helping save lives when disaster hits.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): I commend the work of everyone involved in tackling Ebola. Given the key issues highlighted in the Select Committee report, will the Secretary of State outline what lessons have been learnt about engaging cultural leaders and working with cultural norms to provide a cohesive and fully implemented response?

Justine Greening: The hon. Lady’s constituency is home, of course, to our Scottish DFID headquarters, whose staff played a key role in helping us to shape our response. I would like to say a huge thank you to them.

The issue of social norms and working with communities is vital. We had to work with the cultures already there —we cannot impose on people—and the leadership from the top down, from the President down to district-level community and religious leaders, made a real difference, particularly on safe burials. Only when we got the percentage of safe burials up towards 100% did the number of cases peak and did we stop the onward spread, and only after we got treatment beds in place did we start to improve survival rates. By working with communities, with the assistance of community leaders, we helped people to understand how to stay safe and not catch the virus and how quarantining was in their interest—if difficult—in saving their families. Bringing communities with us and the role of community leaders and mobilisers—often young people going into communities to talk about these issues—were a key plank in helping us turn the corner on Ebola. But it took time.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that had it not been for the commitment, initiated under a Labour Government and delivered under the coalition, to the 0.7% GNI target, it might have been more difficult, at the very least, to deliver on the scale and at the speed with which

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the Government responded to Ebola in Sierra Leone, and that it would have restricted their ability to negotiate with the WHO had we not been able to stand up in front of other countries and say, “We have delivered on our 0.7% commitment”?

Justine Greening: There is no doubt that our having finally delivered on the promise we made many years ago to meet the 0.7% commitment gives us huge credibility, but our influence goes beyond that. We consistently help, constructively and positively, to shape the response. Ours is not just a significant but a thoughtful response that helps to shape strategy and ensure that the money, wherever it is from in the world, has the biggest impact on the ground. Whether that is leading on Ebola, our work on women and girls and tackling female genital mutilation or our work on protracted crises-—most recently, in Syria, shaping job creation, employment and education, which refugees need if staying in the region is to be a viable option—the UK’s work goes far beyond simply doing a lot; what we are doing is also smart and helping to ensure that the international community’s response more broadly is also smart.

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Points of Order

1.26 pm

Kate Osamor (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Treasury questions, the Chancellor said that the shadow Chancellor had lost his marbles, which I feel was unparliamentary. This comment comes in the week when the Government have been exposed as leaving mental health services underfunded. I just wanted to put it on the record that this comment goes to the heart of their callous attitude towards vulnerable people.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I did not make the immediate judgment that the Chancellor’s remark was unparliamentary. I think it was intended in a jocular spirit, although, of course, we all have to weigh our words carefully in this place and think of the possible implications of the language chosen. I stand by the judgment I made, but equally she has taken the opportunity to make her own point and to make a wider point about an important public policy issue in the process. I thank her for putting her comments on the record.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have certified that the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 relate to England only and are subject to double-majority voting. Thousands of English students study at Bangor University and are constituents of mine. Can you advise me on how I might fully represent their views in the Lobbies?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and his characteristic courtesy in notifying me in advance of its thrust. He asks how he can represent the interests of his constituents in relation to the education regulations before the House. This gives me the opportunity to explain the situation. Although I have certified the instrument as relating exclusively to England, the prayer to annul it requires a majority both of all Members and of Members representing English constituencies, so he is perfectly entitled to vote on it. The test that the Standing Order sets is that every provision of the instrument relates exclusively to England and is within devolved legislative competence. I am satisfied that the instrument meets that test. In forming my judgment, I am guided by advice from Speaker’s Counsel and from the Public Bill Office. Our exchange is now on the record and will, I hope, be useful to him in such exchanges or communications as take place.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab) rose—

Mr Speaker: I am not sure whether this will be further to that point of order, but I shall discover whether that is so, courtesy of the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson).

Mr Hanson: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I fully accept your interpretation of this matter, Mr Speaker, which is right and proper. My further point of order is about the opportunities available to Members who believe that they have an interest in Wales to make representations to you prior to your certification. As my hon. Friend

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the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) will point out, there are implications concerning the impact of budgets on communities such as ours. For example, I have only just learned in the last few moments, prior to entering the Chamber this morning, of your certification on this particular matter, and I am interested for future reference in what process is in place for us to make those representations. Self-evidently, we Members with Welsh seats believe that we have a constituency interest in this matter.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order, but if my memory serves me correctly, I announced my decision on this matter on 6 January. There has therefore been a period of no fewer than 12 days in which it was open to right hon. and hon. Members to make representations. Moreover, in relation not, I concede, to instruments, but to Bills, the House will be conscious or will start to become conscious that it is my frequent practice to make a provisional certification, which is subject to review during the passage of the piece of legislation, depending on the sequence of events. If, during such periods, Members feel that their point of view has not been heard and that if I heard it I might reach a different judgment, they should take the opportunity to make that known.

The right hon. Gentleman looked rather sceptical when I said that a judgment had been made about this matter several days ago, but I emphasise that there is no intention at all to deny Members the opportunity to make representations. Indeed, it is rather the contrary. I would also very politely point out to the right hon. Gentleman and the House that this procedure is one that the House has decided I should operate. I am seeking to operate it to the best of my ability and extremely fairly. It is not, however, the Speaker’s procedure; it is a judgment that the House has made, and I am making the best job of it that I can. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman is intimating from a sedentary position that his facial expressions were those not of scepticism, but of gratitude. I am grateful to him for that helpful clarification—as an expectant nation will also be, I am sure.

Ian C. Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am particularly grateful that you pointed out that this appalling procedure is not your procedure, Mr Speaker, but a procedure that, unfortunately, the House authorised you to implement, and one subject to Standing Orders, which you are, of course, acting upon.

I think the difficulty is that the notification and notice are very late for those of us, such as me, who have constituents in Glyndwr University who are directly affected by this measure. In a spirit of being helpful, I would like to point out that the Procedure Committee, of which I am a member, is undertaking an inquiry into this appalling procedure and will be reporting on it. May I suggest that those who are motivated, such as my very good hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who actually attended Glyndwr university and can vote today in a way that other MPs from Wales cannot, should make representations to the Procedure Committee?

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Mr Speaker: First, I must emphasise that all Members can vote on this matter today. The hon. Gentleman can vote on it; I do not want him to develop—it would be sad and worrying if he did—a persecution complex. I would not want him to feel that he is excluded. The hon. Gentleman says that he is making his point of order by way of being helpful, and I cannot think I would doubt that for a moment; I do not think he ever intends anything other than to be helpful to me, to the House, to the nation and, of course, to his constituents. He certainly can vote on the matter.

The House will have been struck by the hon. Gentleman’s use of his adjective in relation to the procedure. I, of course, did not make any evaluation of the procedure. I simply made the factual point that it is not something introduced by the Speaker; it is something that the House has said the Speaker shall do. I am the servant of the House, and I am doing it to the best of my ability. The hon. Gentleman has made his own assessment of the procedure and he is, of course, as he has pointed out using other words, a distinguished ornament of the Procedure Committee. Members who wish to make representations to that Committee and to its illustrious Chairman, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), should, of course, do so. That opportunity has been helpfully advertised.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On a separate matter, I was astonished on Friday lunchtime to be told by a constituent that the Prime Minister was visiting the wonderful Makkah mosque in my constituency on Monday morning. Having followed that up, I received an e-mail at 4.57 saying that that was the case, but those sending it refused to tell me where the visit was—even though I had already told them that I knew! Only on Monday morning was I finally told where the visit was going to be, given that I was not told in the first place.

Apart from the “Keystone Cops” attitude to national security, given that a sitting Member of Parliament was not told about a visit that constituents did find out about, I ask your advice on parliamentary protocol, Mr Speaker. On this occasion, I did not have the opportunity either to liaise with the wonderful Makkah mosque, which does marvellous work on integration, or to speak to the Prime Minister’s Office to give him my thoughts and advice on the work the mosque does before his visit.

Mr Speaker: I rather imagine that the Prime Minister thinks of little else in the course of planning his day than of the merits of receiving, in such terms as the hon. Gentleman thinks fit and at such length as is necessary, the hon. Gentleman’s advice. It occurs to me off the top of my head that it would have been open to representatives of the mosque to notify the hon. Gentleman in a timely way.

On the matter of the protocol whereby Members should be notified of visits, I would say that it is best for colleagues to interpret their responsibility in this matter broadly. That is to say—I do not refer to any particular case—that rather than taking a narrow view and thinking that notification would take place at a very late stage, it is better to notify a colleague well in advance of an intention to visit his or her constituency. My own personal view is that where we are dealing with

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colleagues who are right hon. and hon. Members, it is a courtesy to give more information rather than less. I hope that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman and to the House. These sorts of matters tend to arise from time to time.

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Freedom of Information (Public Interest and Transparency)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

1.37 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I beg to move,

That leave be given for me to bring in a Bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to remove provisions permitting Ministers to overrule decisions of the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal; to limit the time allowed for public authorities to respond to requests involving consideration of the public interest; to extend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to cover private companies, social enterprises and charities contracted to carry out work for public authorities; and the Royal Household; and for connected purposes.

I am no stranger to freedom of information ten-minute rule Bills; this is the third Bill on this subject that I have promoted in Parliament. I am hoping—without any real justification, I confess—that today will be a case of three times lucky. A country’s commitment to FOI is a clear indicator of the strength of its democracy. For that reason, I totally reject what one of Tony Blair’s former advisers in Downing Street said to the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum: that

“FOI was the worst thing the Labour government did”.

I also think Tony Blair was far too hard on himself when he said about FOI:

“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

Instead, he should have saved those words to describe his decision, on the flimsiest of evidence, to drag the UK to war in Iraq.

Tony Blair’s views on the imbecility—or the alleged imbecility—of FOI legislation are well known, as indeed are those of Jack Straw, who used the ministerial FOI veto twice—once to block Cabinet minutes from the run-up to the Iraq war—and has condemned FOI legislation in the following terms:

“We’ve ended up with a freedom of information act with more access to documents than any comparable jurisdiction.”

Personally, I consider that to be something to celebrate, not denigrate. I welcome the current more enlightened view on the subject in the Labour party, and I hope that, once completed, its review will disregard the views of its dinosaur tendency and back FOI to the hilt.

Just as strong FOI legislation is a good barometer for the health of any democracy, any attempt to dilute FOI legislation represents a threat to it. With the number of MPs falling, hundreds of thousands of voters dropping off the electoral register, Short money being slashed and the Trade Union Bill being rammed through—all of which hurt the Opposition parties much more than the Conservatives—the Opposition parties’ ability to challenge the present Government is being severely curtailed. I therefore contend that we are more dependent on FOI and the Freedom of Information Act than ever before when it comes to holding the Government to account.

What, though, are the present Government’s views on FOI? In July, they established an independent commission to review the Freedom of Information Act. That “independent” commission includes Jack Straw.

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There is no need to submit an FOI request to Lord Burns to demonstrate that there is nothing independent about it. The Justice Secretary claims that the review is necessary because the Government needed to revisit FOI to ensure that officials could speak “candidly” to Ministers in the “interests of good government”. He spoke of a

“worrying tendency in our courts and elsewhere to erode the protections for that safe space”.—[Official Report, 23 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 753.]

Some of those officials, including Sir Gus O’Donnell—as recently as this weekend—and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, dubbed “Sir Cover-up”, have made their positions known too. Sir Gus suggests that civil servants will not be writing down Brexit plans, but is that because senior mandarins have scared them into thinking that they cannot write things down because they will be exposed through FOI—when there is no such risk—or because it serves the Chancellor’s interests to require them not to? I know from my involvement with the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 that a “chilling” effect can be achieved because someone repeats the fact that a law or measure is “chilling” often enough for people’s actions to be curtailed. In effect, people self-censor, rather than their actions being curtailed because the measure is actually chilling.

Sir Jeremy has spoken of the “chilling” effect of the Freedom of Information Act. In the interests of fairness, I should point out that now Sir Jeremy simply wants to make the FOI rules clearer, without making any substantial changes. If I can paraphrase Vince Cable, in the last few weeks we have witnessed his transformation from “Sir Cover-up” to the “Sir Lancelot du Lac” of FOI. Which incarnation is likely to have the longer shelf-life? I know where my money is.

Many legal experts point out—and the statistics confirm this very convincingly—that information tribunals that hear challenges against disclosure allow policy discussions to be revealed only in very limited circumstances, or when the arguments for disclosure are overwhelmingly in the public interest. It should also be borne in mind that the Justice Committee has already conducted a much wider post-legislative scrutiny, stating that FOI

“has contributed to a culture of greater openness across public authorities, particularly at central Government level”,

and that it

“is a significant enhancement of our democracy”.

I am disappointed by the commission’s limited scope. Its remit does not cover which types of body should be covered by the Act, which is, in my view, a major failing. As we have seen with the activities of companies such as G4S and Serco, Southern and Thameslink, and charities such as Kids Company, a growing proportion of work that was previously undertaken by the public sector, which is subject to FOI, is now undertaken by other organisations, which are not. How many Medway Secure Training Centre scandals could be prevented if FOI applied to private sector companies doing public sector work? We need to act on the Public Accounts Committee’s 2014 recommendation, and include those private contractors in its scope.

The commission should have considered the question of bringing the Royal Household into the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. It is difficult to understand

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why it should not be within the scope of the Act, and why FOI requests to it should not be treated like any other—subject, of course, to the public interest test. The Royal Household is surely the most public of our public authorities.

The ministerial veto must be scrapped. In the words of Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information,