Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): As chairman of the all-party kidney group, may I say welcome to World Kidney Day? Autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease accounts for one in four kidney dialysis patients and kidney transplants. I know that the Leader of the House is allergic to anything to do with Brussels, but a Brussels declaration calls for a debate on the need for a national co-ordinated approach to polycystic disease, clear funding of research, patient-centred care pathways,

10 Mar 2016 : Column 443

and information about, as well as access to, nephrologists, who are knowledgeable about polycystic kidney disease. May we have a debate on this urgent and important matter?

Chris Grayling: I absolutely understand the need to provide high-quality services for patients affected. That is one reason why we continue to push up the budgets for the national health service. The important thing is to take the right decisions in the right ways for patients in this country, and that is what this Government are doing through the investment in healthcare.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate urgently on English votes for English laws? The farce yesterday, when we learned that the SNP stands for “Scottish, no principles” rather than anything else its Members claim, made it abundantly clear that we do not actually have English votes for English laws. May we have a debate, so that we can get this straightened out once and for all and deliver what the English public think is meant by English votes for English laws? In the meantime, may we have a policy whereby every time the SNP vote on an issue that is devolved to them in Holyrood but affects only England, we transfer those powers back from Holyrood to this Parliament, so that if SNP Members want to vote on these issues in Westminster, we deliver the decision for them?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend, as ever, has innovative ideas about how to deal with the situation. He is absolutely right to talk about principles and the SNP. We stood for election on a manifesto that stated that we would provide the English with the ability to say no to a measure being imposed on them by Members of Parliament from other parts of the United Kingdom. The SNP has argued all along that we should get rid of that reform, which we stood on and implemented, and yesterday we learned why. Not only does the SNP want to interfere in matters such as those that were discussed yesterday, but it clearly also wants to team up with the Labour party and impose on England solutions that the English do not want.

Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), I have been approached by small businesses in my area regarding the Chancellor’s decision to end the business rate relief scheme for small businesses from April 2016. From next month, around 1,000 small shops in the borough of Rochdale will face extra bills of up to £1,500 a year. To many of those small shops, £1,500 is the difference between survival and going bust. May we please have an urgent debate in Government time on that important subject?

Chris Grayling: The answer to that question is yes, and that debate will start next Wednesday. The Labour party will have the chance to speak on those matters and to vote on them if they choose to do so.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Following yesterday’s deliberations on Sunday trading, may I congratulate the Government on the precedent they have set in the publication of the family test alongside new legislation, even though it was published too late, coming as it did just a few hours before Report? It helpfully

10 Mar 2016 : Column 444

conceded the negative impact of the proposals on the family. Will the Leader of the House confirm that for all primary and secondary legislation, a family test will be published at the beginning, rather than at the end, of proceedings? In addition, will he inform us of what will happen if legislation does not pass the family test?

Chris Grayling: The purpose of impact assessments and things such as the family test is to enable the House to take an informed decision. Such tests are less a bar over which a measure needs to jump than a package of measures on which the House can form its decisions. The Government’s intention remains to keep the House as fully informed as possible so that it can take those decisions.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Last month I raised the case of Islam al-Beheiry, who was convicted in Egypt of contempt of religion under article 98 of the penal code and sentenced to five years in prison with hard labour. Only a few weeks ago, a teacher and four Christian schoolboys aged only 16 were sentenced to five years in an adult prison for making an obnoxious mock Daesh video. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement on the steps that the Government are taking to stem the worrying rise in blasphemy and contempt of religion charges in Egypt, and on the efforts that are being made to call for clemency for the four Christian schoolboys, their teacher and Islam al-Beheiry?

Chris Grayling: As always, the hon. Gentleman is an important champion for members of the Christian faith, and I commend him for that. I do not know about the specific details of the case that he has raised, but I will make sure that the Government give him a proper response and that the relevant Minister is aware of the concerns that he has raised.

Chris Davies (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con): Following astronaut Tim Peake’s inspirational call to pupils in Brecon and Radnorshire’s excellent high schools of Builth Wells, Gwernyfed, Brecon and Crickhowell last weekend, may we have a debate on promoting the sciences as an option to pupils, so that Britain can capitalise on pupils’ Peake-ing interest in science, and so that we can continue to lead the world in scientific research and development for generations to come?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We celebrated the moment when Tim Peake went into space, but I think we should also celebrate the contribution that he has made since. We have had regular interactions with the international space station. He has talked about the work that he is doing, and he has talked to young people to inspire them about the potential of science. Long may that continue, and long may there be role models such as him to encourage people to create an exciting, innovative scientific future.

Steven Paterson (Stirling) (SNP): Contact the Elderly is a small national charity in Scotland, which aims to alleviate the loneliness felt by many older people who live alone by organising monthly afternoon tea get-togethers. I will be joining one on Sunday in Kippen in my constituency. Such community support initiatives are

10 Mar 2016 : Column 445

excellent and inspiring. May we have a debate to discuss the range of such initiatives across the country, so that we can all learn from them?

Chris Grayling: As I said earlier, I very much support the idea of having such a debate, and there is a real opportunity to do so. In the past, we tended to have fixed times in the calendar to debate things such as veterans issues. Such debates are now in the gift of the Backbench Business Committee, which has a real opportunity to provide time for a debate to mark volunteering across the United Kingdom.

On the Backbench Business Committee, I forgot to say earlier that I hope it will give due consideration to providing at least part of the time available on the Thursday before the recess for a traditional pre-recess Adjournment debate.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I join the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) in welcoming the Premier League’s announcement on capping the price of football tickets for away matches next season. Is the Leader of the House aware that my team, Huddersfield Town, will offer a season ticket for just £179 next season, or £7.80 a game, which is great value in the championship? Will he allow time for a debate on the cost of football tickets, which is so important for fans across the country?

Chris Grayling: I absolutely applaud what Huddersfield Town are doing. The point about clubs such as Huddersfield Town is that they play such an important community role as well. I know Huddersfield Town are very involved in charitable activities across the town. I pay tribute to everyone at the club for ensuring that they play such a role in the community and for doing what they can to give fans the opportunity to go to see the team play on an affordable basis—and may it succeed on the pitch as a result.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): May I wish my daughter Siobhan a happy birthday next Tuesday? On the matter of Wales against England, I hope that the better team—not the “best” team—wins, and let it be Wales.

On EVEL, I have had an idea while sitting in the Chamber. Could we not use the Annunciator to have subtitles while we go through the EVEL procedure, which we did last night, so that Mr Deputy Speaker would not have the impossible task of explaining what in EVEL’s name is going on?

Chris Grayling: I think that the process is fine. We will review it after 12 months. If the hon. Gentleman has ideas about how to improve it, I will be very happy to listen to him. What I will not do is reverse the gesture we have made to the English of saying, “You have a part of the devolution package as well.” I do not think a position under which the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish can have devolution while the English are left out is remotely acceptable. We have no intention of going back on it.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): West Berkshire Council is a very well run authority, but it has been forced by a bizarre funding formula to do the very

10 Mar 2016 : Column 446

un-Conservative thing of raising taxes and cutting services for people in need. Alongside that, there are the perverse actions of the Valuation Office Agency. At the click of a bureaucrat’s button, it can wipe millions of pounds of business rates on large sites away from a small unitary authority. May we have a debate about the actions of the Valuation Office Agency to try to get some common sense on how small local authorities are funded?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will draw his concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. My hon. Friend may also wish to raise that matter in the Budget debate next week. As I said earlier, it is likely that the issue of business rates will be raised then.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): On 2 December, the Prime Minister promised the House that he would make quarterly statements on the involvement of British military forces in Syria. There should therefore have been a statement by 2 March, but there has not been one. May we please have an urgent statement? When are we going to have the first of these vital quarterly updates?

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman was clearly not in the Chamber last week, because I said that there would indeed be such a statement before the Easter recess.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): May I add my voice to the calls for a debate on having genuine English votes for English laws? Despite the recent reforms, yesterday proved that the votes of Scottish MPs can still stop my constituents enjoying the same freedoms that their constituents enjoy.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We should remember that, when we debated English votes for English laws, the Scottish National party said, “You don’t need this. When there is an England-only measure, we don’t take part anyway.” Yesterday, we discovered that that promise was paper-thin.

Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab): On Tuesday, we celebrated International Women’s Day with a superb debate in the Chamber. I pointed out the grave inequality that only fathers’ names, not mothers’ names, appear on marriage certificates. The Prime Minister agrees that mothers’ names should be added, but does not have legislative time to do so. I have a nifty little private Member’s Bill to add mothers’ names to marriage certificates at little cost, which is up for its Second Reading again tomorrow. May I urge the Government to adopt my Bill or to give it the heave-ho into Committee, where they can amend it, or please can we have a debate in Government time?

Chris Grayling: I am afraid that the hon. Lady is running into a long queue at the end of the Session for private Member’s Bills, but the Government’s commitment stands.

Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): This week is English Tourism week, so will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the important contribution made by tourism to the UK economy? A record 35.8 million

10 Mar 2016 : Column 447

visitors came to the UK last year, but we need to get people outside London and visiting other areas of the country such as Worcestershire, where perhaps they could visit the Fleece Inn, which this week was named pub of the year.

Chris Grayling: We absolutely want more tourism in Worcestershire, and although hon. Members will spend much of the recess hard at work in their constituencies, I hope there will be a moment for them to pay a visit to Worcestershire and take advantage of the fine hospitality that they will find. I am sure my hon. Friend would be delighted for the whole House to visit.

Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): The Leader of the House will know that I have been calling for support across the House to address the root causes of serious youth violence. We had a Backbench Business Committee debate on that issue last week, and earlier this week the Justice Secretary confirmed that he will report back to the House on progress made by his Department. Will the Leader of the House explain how that will happen, and when we can expect that report?

Chris Grayling: My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary has these matters under review all the time, and we have already taken tangible steps and made significant changes to the laws on knife crime. The Home Office has been doing significant work to try to break up gangs, and the Justice Secretary comes before the House regularly and will provide regular updates on his work.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): May we have a debate on the importance of raising the profile of dyslexia teacher training, which many people are concerned is not getting the focus that it needs?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Many young people who struggle at school do so because they are dyslexic. I have already discussed that with the Secretary of State, who assures me that part of the training module for teachers now contains work to help them to build an understanding of dyslexia. My hon. Friend will no doubt continue to ask questions on that subject, and ensure that we do whatever we can to enhance that work to help those young people.

Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP): I am sure that the Leader of the House will join me in welcoming the Government’s two other defeats last night in the other place on the Immigration Bill. Will he encourage the Immigration Minister to confirm in a statement whether the Government will use last night’s vote as motivation to start treating asylum seekers with the respect and dignity that they deserve?

Chris Grayling: That is a first—I cannot remember the last time that I heard the Scottish National party praise what has happened in the House of Lords. I think that our record of treating asylum seekers bears comparison with any in the world, and I will not hear anybody say otherwise.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent contribution on Radio 4, and his excellent speech? May we have a speech

10 Mar 2016 : Column 448

in Government time on the merits of leaving the EU, which I suggest be entitled “Project Hope”?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend tempts me, but he must bear in mind that the Government’s formal position is to recommend that Britain stays in the European Union. We will, of course, have lively debates in the House and the country about what should happen, and in June the British people will decide.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware that, three days ago, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, which represents £13 trillion of assets under management, wrote to the Chancellor to press for regulation to ensure mandatory corporate disclosure of climate risks. May we have a debate in Government time on the mandatory reporting of climate risks, so that there is transparency about the financial health of our corporate sector, and so that the confidence of such an enormous body of investment funds can be increased?

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman is another person for us to wish a happy birthday. This country is at the leading edge of combating climate change, and we have adopted targets that stand comparison with any in the world. However, there is a point at which simply putting additional reporting requirements endlessly on to business leads to us having fewer jobs in the country, rather than more, and that is not something I support.

Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con): Last year, £10 million of funding for essential upgrades to Cheltenham Spa railway station was announced. As tens of thousands of people arrive in Cheltenham for the superb jump racing festival, we are reminded how necessary those upgrades are. May we have a debate on the delivery of railway station funding pledges, to establish what more can be done to get work started?

Chris Grayling: We have just missed Transport questions, which took place earlier this morning, but I am sure my hon. Friend will be able to secure an Adjournment debate to press that issue if he wishes to do so. May I wish him and his constituents well for what is one of the best racing events in the country, although it is perhaps not quite as good as the Epsom Derby.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): Tomorrow, I will be visiting my constituent Walter Brown from Dukinfield, who is 90 years of age and has just been awarded the Légion d’honneur by the Government of France in recognition of his role in the liberation of France in 1944 as a Royal Marine Commando. We are supposed to request a debate in this part of our proceedings, so may I simply request a debate on what a privilege it is to represent somebody such as Walter Brown in the House of Commons? May I also request that the whole House puts on the record its thanks and congratulations to him?

Chris Grayling: I absolutely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says; I have a gentleman in my constituency who is in the same position, and it is a real tribute to the Government of France that they have seen fit to honour in this way a group of people who risked their lives to try to save France from the Nazis and did so successfully.

10 Mar 2016 : Column 449

We should always remember them and be grateful to them, and I am very glad the French have recognised that.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that on previous occasions I have raised the issue of hundreds of causal labourers congregating outside B&Q in Queensbury, on the border between my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). I am pleased to say that Harrow Council and Brent Council have introduced a public space protection order, under which anyone who picks up those casual labourers will be liable for a fixed rate penalty of £100. Can we find time to debate the matter in this House, because we find this problem across the country and public space protection orders could be put in place to stop that unauthorised activity?

Chris Grayling: That is an important issue. The Business Secretary will be here on Tuesday and I will ask him to be prepared to address it then. All too often, the people who are to be found looking for work in these places are operating within a gangmaster culture that is below the radar and not within the legal framework of work in this country, and it is likely that they are being exploited.

Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab): Last year, Sir Nicholas Macpherson said that he would not hesitate to call in the police if the Budget were leaked. Should any stories about this year’s Budget appear in the papers this weekend, will the Leader of the House join this most senior of officials in calling for the police to investigate, and will he give time for this House to debate it?

Chris Grayling: I am sure that, if the civil service and the permanent secretary at the Treasury think anything untoward and illegal has been done, he will take appropriate action.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): Last Saturday, I joined hundreds of residents at the only municipal golf course in Pendle, Marsden Park, to protest against plans by Pendle Borough Council to close the facility. The Labour and Lib Dem-run council claims that shutting the course would save £50,000 a year and blames cuts in central Government funding. However, in the same month the council voted through that cut, it spent an estimated £300,000 buying the former—now unused—Colne health centre, which needs a further few hundred thousand pounds spending on it. The council has admitted that it has no plans for what to do with it. May we have a debate on the shocking mismanagement by my local council?

Chris Grayling: As ever, my hon. Friend is a very articulate representative of his constituents and a very appropriate critic of his local Labour council. The truth is that around the country, where difficult decisions are having to be taken by councils, one finds Conservative ones taking a thoughtful approach and finding new ways of delivering services well, while Labour councils are taking dumb decisions such as the one he has just mentioned.

Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): As my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) and for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes)

10 Mar 2016 : Column 450

have mentioned, the Chancellor’s decision on retail rate relief is causing great consternation, with small businesses now having to find an extra £1,500 a year. In the Cheshire West and Chester area alone, some 1,472 businesses will have to find an extra £1.8 million next year. Given the Chancellor’s warnings of impending storm clouds, can the Leader of the House assure us that there will be sufficient time over the next few weeks to debate whether this is really the right time to start clobbering small businesses with more taxes?

Chris Grayling: I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that time will be available, because there will be four days for the post-Budget debate. He talks about clobbering businesses. I just remind him that for 13 years businesses suffered at the hands of a Government who did not understand them and regulated in a way that caused them deep problems, halving our manufacturing sector.

Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con): Ministers have been very willing to engage on the steel issue, but, in advance of the Budget next week, will there be an opportunity to put the case for a business rates holiday for the industry to the Chancellor on the Floor of the House?

Chris Grayling: There will be an opportunity to put that to the Chancellor. However, the Business Secretary, who has been working very closely with the steel industry, will be here on Tuesday. I suggest my hon. Friend raises that point with him then. I will make sure his concerns are drawn to the attention of both Departments today.

Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP): I apologise for leaving the Chamber earlier on, Mr Speaker. It was somewhat ironic when I came back. I am now the only SNP Member who has actually got a cheer from Conservative Members in the past two days.

Will the Leader of the House make a statement outlining why his title is not a complete misnomer? The Enterprise Bill was farcical from almost start to finish. On Second Reading, the House was asked to vote on amendments that had not been seen. The Government took an assumed view on the SNP position, which we now know was wrong. A late manuscript amendment was tabled but not taken. Then the Government Minister pleaded with the House to vote with him, because he was not going to implement what was in the Bill. As I say, it was a farce from start to finish. May we have a statement outlining when leadership was shown by the Leader of the House and the Government?

Chris Grayling: I am sorry, but the only farce around here is the approach the SNP has taken to all of this. SNP Members did not vote against the measure in Committee, but then decided to vote against it later. They tell us that that was for reasons of principle, but we know it was for reasons of opportunism.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): May we have a debate on openness and transparency in the disbursal of EU funds to local government? My right hon. Friend may know that this week we had a serious outbreak of Stockholm syndrome in the east of England, as eight local authority leaders backed the EU remain campaign in the pages of the Eastern Daily Press. Is it not important that voters know what level of funding,

10 Mar 2016 : Column 451

from all forms of the European Union, has induced this self-interested plea to hand more powers and money to Brussels?

Chris Grayling: In this country, we have well-established principles of transparency in our political system. In the coming months it will be important that people who have a financial link to the European Union, whichever side of the argument they may be on, make that clear as they make their arguments.

10 Mar 2016 : Column 452


11.57 am

The Minister for Skills (Nick Boles): With permission Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about apprenticeships. As you know, Mr Speaker, I am evangelical about apprenticeships. We do not always agree with each other on every question, but I know that to a woman and to a man, all my right hon. and hon. Friends share this passion.

We believe in apprenticeships, because they are one of most powerful motors of social mobility and productivity growth. An apprenticeship represents opportunity, aspiration, ambition—things that we Conservatives cherish. Apprenticeships make our companies more competitive. Some 70% of employers report that apprentices help to improve the quality of their product or service. They offer people a ladder to climb, with both higher pay and a sense of personal fulfilment at the end of it. A level 2 apprenticeship raises people’s incomes by an average of 11% three to five years later. A level 3 apprenticeship delivers a 16% boost.

Apprenticeships improve the diversity of the workplace: 53% of the people starting an apprenticeship in 2014-15 were women; 10.6% were from a black or other minority ethnic background, up from 8% in 2009-10; and 8.8% had a disability or learning difficulty. An apprenticeship can take you anywhere. Sir Alex Ferguson did one. So did Jamie Oliver. And Karen Millen. And Sir Ian McKellen. So, too, did the chairmen of great businesses such as Crossrail, WS Atkins and Fujitsu.

The Government have great ambitions for our apprenticeships programme. In the previous Parliament, 2.4 million people started an apprenticeship; by 2020, we want a further 3 million to have that opportunity. We do not just want to see more apprenticeships; we want better apprenticeships in more sectors, covering more roles. The first thing we need to do is persuade more employers to offer apprenticeships. At the moment, only about 15% of employers in England do. In Germany, the figure is 24% and in Australia 30%.

We are therefore introducing a new apprenticeship levy that will be paid by all larger employers—those with an annual payroll bill of £3 million or more. This will help us to increase our spending on apprenticeships in England from £1.5 billion last year to £2.5 billion in 2019-20. Employers who pay the levy will see the money they have paid for English apprenticeships appear in their digital account. They will be able to spend it on apprenticeship training—but only on apprenticeship training—and as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has emphasised, employers will be able to get out more than they put in.

We are also making sure the public sector pulls its weight and follows the fantastic example of our armed forces, which, between them, employ 20,000 apprentices at any one time. We plan to introduce a new target for public sector organisations employing over 250 people in England. They will be expected to ensure that at least 2.3% of their staff are apprentices. We are using the Government’s power as a customer too. Procurement rules now stipulate that bidders for central Government contracts worth more than £10 million and lasting over 12 months must demonstrate their commitment to apprentices.

10 Mar 2016 : Column 453

We are not only committed to greater quantity; we want to see better quality too. We have already stopped the short-term, low-quality, programme-led apprenticeships developed by the last Labour Government. They made a mockery of the concept and tarnished the brand. We are now asking groups of employers to develop new apprenticeship standards that will help them fill the skills needs created by new jobs and new industries. Some 1,300 employers are involved in this process, and we have published 210 new standards so far. A further 150 are in development. We are also establishing a new employer-led institute for apprenticeships to approve these new standards and ensure that quality is maintained.

Sixty of these new standards are higher and degree apprenticeships. We want everyone making a choice about their next steps after the age of 16 or 18 to know that the decision to do an apprenticeship is not a decision to cap their ambition or turn down the chance of a degree. It is simply a decision to progress in a different way—to learn while they earn and to take a bit more time, to bring home a wage and avoid large student loans. Next week is National Apprenticeship Week. I hope that the House of Commons will today speak with one voice. Apprenticeships are for everyone and can take you anywhere. I commend this statement to the House.

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): I thank the Minister for limited advance sight of the statement. I suppose we should all be grateful, after the turmoil of yesterday, that it did not just turn up in manuscript.

What has turned up—if I can put it this way—is a dance of the seven veils. The Minister’s statement is simply a rehash of much of what was already said in the “English Apprenticeships” document. That is what concerns the sector: fine words butter no parsnips. The procurement rules he mentions are a pale shadow of what Labour proposed in its 2010 manifesto. Most crucially, there is no further clarity for universities, other areas and large employers about what their responsibilities will be. They want to know whether the levy will be extra money or a substitute for Government funding. Will it be extra resources or simply an Osborne payroll tax?

Will the Minister confirm how much he expects the levy to raise, and whether it will be more or less than the £1 billion he said he hoped to add to spending on apprenticeships in England? The Department was supposed to respond to the consultation on the targets for apprenticeships in public sector bodies by 4 March. Has it done so? When will he do so? There is confusion and concern among local government and others about who will be affected. Will he spell out in far greater detail how small and medium-sized enterprises will benefit from the process, and what does he have to say to the Chartered Institute of Taxation, which worries that smaller businesses will be unable to use their full £15,000 allowance?

The Minister has told us that he is evangelical about apprenticeships, but Members and the business sector want to know whether he will be too catholic in the definition. Perhaps he should avoid tarnishing his own brand by cheap politicking about the Labour Government, who set up both National Apprenticeship Week and

10 Mar 2016 : Column 454

the National Apprenticeship Service, and stop sounding like some old Soviet five-year planner on his tractor targets.

With concerns about the quality of these apprenticeships, will the Minister tell us who will supervise the operation of the apprenticeships levy? Will it be the Apprenticeships Delivery Board or the board of the institute for apprenticeships? What has he to say to the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), who, I am told, said this morning, “No one knows what the apprenticeship levy is going to look like. It’s coming in in a vacuum of darkness, and I am concerned that it’s just a numbers game.”

What will the Minister tell the Public Accounts Committee, which is so concerned about the direction of his Department that it has recalled the Secretary of State and the permanent secretary for a second grilling before Easter? Finally, perhaps he would like to tell us how he expects to deliver the 3 million target and implement the levy over a very short period with the number of Skills Funding Agency staffing down by 40% since 2011, more cuts to come and an accelerated decline in the number of people in the National Apprenticeship Service?

Nick Boles: It is amusing to be accused in a relatively short statement from the hon. Gentleman of being a Catholic, a Soviet planner and a dancer with seven veils. I will want to put that in my epitaph.

I will try to answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions. First, to be clear, in the last year of the last Labour Government, public spending on apprenticeship training was £1 billion. It is now £1.5 billion. By the end of this Parliament, it will be £2.5 billion in England. That is extra money in anyone’s book. Not a single education budget or, indeed, other public service budget is increasing as fast.

The apprenticeship levy will raise £3 billion in 2019-20, and £500 million will be needed to make adequate and fair contributions to the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to fund, I hope, their apprenticeship programmes, but that is, of course, for them to judge. All the remaining £2.5 billion will be spent on English apprenticeships.

The hon. Gentleman asks how small and medium-sized businesses, which will not pay the levy, will nevertheless benefit from Government funding for apprenticeships. We expect them to carry on receiving Government money for apprenticeships in the same way as they do now. We do not expect all companies that pay the levy to use up all the money in their digital accounts, and there will be a great deal more money to go around, so we are absolutely determined that the level of apprenticeships provided by SMEs will continue as now.

The operation of the levy as a tax is obviously in the hands of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The operation of the digital system used to give employers control of the apprenticeship levy that they have contributed will be the Skills Funding Agency’s responsibility. The institute for apprenticeships will, as I have described, have complete responsibility for overseeing standards and quality control.

10 Mar 2016 : Column 455

The hon. Gentleman and, indeed, the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee—I look forward to hearing from him, no doubt—would like answers to many more questions. They will have to wait just a little. The Chancellor will make his Budget statement next week, after which more technical details will be provided, so that everyone knows well in advance how the levy will work.

Wendy Morton (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s statement today. Since the election, more than 4,000 apprenticeships have been created in my constituency, Aldridge-Brownhills. Will the Minister join me, particularly in the run-up to National Apprenticeship Week, in thanking all the businesses, organisations and our local colleges that have helped to deliver those apprenticeships? Will he assure me that we will continue to ensure that the public sector plays a greater role in giving new opportunities to young people and women?

Nick Boles: It is excellent news to hear how many apprenticeships have been created in my hon. Friend’s constituency. She is right that the public sector to date has not been pulling its weight—its proportion of apprentices is not the same as that among employees as a whole—so we will impose the target on larger public sector employers. Public sector organisations will discover what private sector ones know: apprentices help them to do a better job.

Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP): I thank the Minister for an advance copy of his statement. I am a little surprised at the timing, given that apprenticeship week in Scotland was last week rather than next week, so it would have been beneficial for us to have the statement then. The Scottish Government have recognised the importance of apprenticeships for some time. Indeed, the Scottish Government are committed to creating 25,000 modern apprenticeships a year, which encompasses 80 different types of modern apprenticeships.

With that in mind, I would be interested to hear what consultation has taken place with the Scottish Government on this important issue. I do not doubt the Minister’s good intentions to create apprenticeships—we should all welcome that—but I question the method used to raise the money and its sustainability. The introduction of an apprenticeship levy remains a matter of fundamental concern for us. It encroaches on our devolved responsibilities and is causing concern for employers; it has also come under criticism from a wide number of organisations, including the CBI and the Chartered Institute of Taxation. The levy will have a knock-on effect for apprenticeships in Scotland, so we call on the UK Government to consider the economic impact that this measure will have.

I would like the Minister to reflect on the fact that Police Scotland will have to pay out up to £4.5 million a year on the UK Government’s plans for an apprenticeship levy, prompting warnings that finding extra cash savings will be “virtually impossible”. The UK Government have still to provide clarity on how Scotland’s share of the levy raised will be calculated and transferred to the Scottish Government. When will we get that clarity from the UK Government?

10 Mar 2016 : Column 456

Nick Boles: It is, of course, great news to hear about the Scottish Government’s commitment to apprenticeships. Because they will now receive substantial extra revenue from their share of the revenue raised by the apprenticeship levy, I hope they will be able increase from 25,000 apprenticeships a year to a rate that is more equivalent to the one that we have an ambition for in England. The hon. Gentleman mentions the problems faced by Police Scotland. On the whole, it would be fair to say that the level of the apprenticeship levy is not the greatest problem facing Police Scotland.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for agreeing to come down to Weymouth shortly to open our third apprenticeship fair at Weymouth College. The new principal, Nigel Evans, has just been appointed, and I greatly look forward to seeing him. May I add one slight note of caution? As a Conservative, I do not like levies—instinctively—so let us call it a tax. Has the Minister had any response from big business about its fears for the future if, heaven forbid, a socialist Government ever took over, because this could be an area of taxation that they might want to increase for other reasons?

Nick Boles: Any excuse to go to Weymouth—and I am your man, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for inviting me. Like him, I feel an innate scepticism about a new levy on business, but if we talk to large businesses, particularly the ones that are investing in apprenticeships, we find that they say that some of their competitors do not, which restrains the overall level of investment in apprenticeships, because some are taking a free ride on the rest. We are introducing this levy to ensure that all large employers are making this investment, but we are giving them control of the money, so that they can spend it on the apprenticeships that benefit them. If we have to have a new levy—I agree that we should do so only as a last resort—it is best to have one that employers control and from which they can benefit.

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is always nice to see the Minister and it is always welcome to discuss apprenticeships in this place. The Enterprise Bill mentions the public sector apprenticeship targets. Given that we discussed that Bill both yesterday and the day before, why was not the public sector apprenticeship target mentioned then? Will there be a need for new legislation? The statement referred to the need to persuade more employers to offer apprenticeships, and the levy will be the means by which this happens. Will the Minister provide more information—any information—about the 98% of employers who will not pay the levy? In a previous response, he seemed to suggest that nothing would change or that large employers would somehow benevolently give away this levy receipt. Clarity is crucial for the success of the 3 million apprenticeship target. Will he provide more clarity, and if not, what is the point of his statement?

Nick Boles: First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for returning to the subject of the public sector target, because it gives me an opportunity to respond to one of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden). It was not the case that we were due to respond to the consultation on the public sector

10 Mar 2016 : Column 457

target by 4 March; rather, it was that the consultation closed on 4 March. The hon. Gentleman will understand that it takes more than six days to go through all the consultation responses and decide on our response.

We do not need legislation—I mean primary legislation —to create that target, which is why it was not necessary to include provisions in the Enterprise Bill. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s impatience—to some extent I share it—to get the details on how exactly the levy will work and the new digital accounts system will work as it goes out to all employers. I can assure him that more than 12 months’ notice will be given to everyone. We will publish very soon, but he will be aware that there is a Budget next week and he will also know that it would be a career-limiting move for me to anticipate the Chancellor in his Budget statement.

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): The Prime Minister came to my constituency last August to launch the consultation on the apprenticeship levy. I would like to support the Minister in looking to increase quality by asking employers to make their own choices through the Digital Apprenticeship Service. Will he update us on progress towards making that system ready?

Nick Boles: Yes, and this provides an opportunity to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is unfortunately not able to be with us today, but who is the Prime Minister’s adviser on apprenticeships. He has a great deal of experience in business of leading major technology projects. He has been immensely helpful in working with the Skills Funding Agency and officials in my Department to create a system that will be simple and user-friendly for businesses, providing them with absolute transparency over how much money they have contributed and what they can spend it on. This will also enable training providers to continue to take responsibility for ensuring that the training they have promised to deliver is in fact delivered.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): As the Member responsible for the Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement Contracts) Bill in 2013, let me welcome the Government’s conversion to using the benefits of public procurement to secure additional apprenticeships. I note that it was Conservative Back-Bench Members who talked out my Bill when it was going through the House of Commons. The Minister said in his statement that the public procurement rules now stipulate that bidders for Government contracts must demonstrate their “commitment to apprenticeships”. Precisely what does that mean?

Nick Boles: I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s leadership on this issue. Sometimes Government Members take a while to be persuaded of the merits of an intervention, but once persuaded, we are absolutely determined to fulfil it. The hon. Gentleman is right to ask about the mechanics. We have been advised—not least by Terry Morgan, the chairman of Crossrail, who led the way by instituting a similar sort of expectation for all subcontractors to Crossrail— that given the variety of public procurement such as

10 Mar 2016 : Column 458

infrastructure projects and services, it was dangerous to impose a single mechanism of either a number of apprentices per £1 million-worth of spend or a percentage of employers on a project. We thus decided to mix and match to make the right requirement depending on what the procurement process is. We will be transparent about how we are going to achieve that.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his statement and I agree with him. I, too, am an evangelical supporter of apprenticeships. We in the office have an apprentice, young Jake Carruthers, who is doing an amazing job. Does my hon. Friend agree that apprenticeships perform a valuable role in protecting our country, not only in maintaining and enhancing our sovereign defence capability, but through the large number offered throughout the armed forces?

Nick Boles: The armed forces really are leading the way on this, and they have done for a very long time. I would like to put on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who takes a particularly keen interest. The armed forces are confident that, between them, they will be able to create 100,000 apprenticeships in the life of this Parliament, contributing massively to our target. As so often, where the armed forces lead, we should follow.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): The Minister should have the grace to acknowledge that it was a Labour Government that saved apprenticeships from the oblivion to which his party’s previous Governments had consigned them. Apprenticeships are certainly an example of the kind of intervention whose value his party has been slow to acknowledge, and I am glad that he is now doing that. He will be aware of the concern among employers that his 3 million target will be achieved only if the quality of what is on offer is reduced further. Can he give the House some reassurance on that point?

Nick Boles: I am happy to place it on record that it was, mainly, Lord Mandelson who reintroduced the idea of modern apprenticeships, but I will not shy away from pointing out that some of Labour’s policy measures led to programme-led apprenticeships in which the apprentice did not need to have an employer and which lasted only a few months. That rather undermined the quality and the brand of the programme, but we have got rid of those apprenticeships. We have now introduced some simple minimum standards. An apprenticeship must be a job: the apprentice must have an employer. It must last for at least 12 months, and it must have at least 20% off-the-job training content. That is why in some categories we had a short-term dip in the number of apprenticeship starts at the beginning of the last Parliament: we were getting rid of some of the slightly Mickey Mouse apprenticeships that had been on offer.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): When will the Institute for Apprenticeships be up and running, and will it have a role in resolving any problems that might arise with apprenticeships?

Nick Boles: The Institute for Apprenticeships will come into being in a kind of shadow form this spring, after which it will have 12 months to start taking over its

10 Mar 2016 : Column 459

responsibilities before formally taking over in April 2017. Specific complaints about training provision, which sometimes occur, will continue to be dealt with in part by Ofsted through its inspections and in part by the Skills Funding Agency, which will manage the relationship with training providers. However, broader complaints about employers or particular apprenticeship standards will indeed be the responsibility of the Institute for Apprenticeships.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Last month, it was announced that 1,080 jobs were to be lost at Bombardier and that its three-year modern apprenticeship programme would suffer as a result. That programme involves a level 3 NVQ and it is one of the most impressive apprenticeship schemes in Northern Ireland, if not in the whole of the United Kingdom. The Minister has indicated that some money has been set aside. Can he tell me what discussions he has had with his Northern Ireland counterpart on establishing some kind of co-operation between Northern Ireland and the mainland UK on apprenticeships in the engineering and manufacturing sectors?

Nick Boles: This is a devolved matter, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but I am happy to reassure him that I have had meetings with the Ministers responsible for apprenticeships in all the devolved Administrations. We have made a commitment to meet every six months to talk through the issues, to learn from each other what works and what does not work, and to ensure that the introduction of the levy actually boosts apprenticeship activity in all parts of the United Kingdom, not just in England.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend for his statement. Last Friday, I was pleased to host an apprenticeship and jobs fair in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking employers based in Crawley, including Virgin Atlantic, CGG and B&CE the People’s Pension, for sponsoring the apprenticeship fair and for all that they do in this sector?

Nick Boles: I am delighted to do that, not least because the employers that my hon. Friend has mentioned demonstrate that apprenticeships are no longer narrowly confined to the traditional industries of construction or engineering. People can be apprentice lawyers, apprentice accountants or apprentice digital creators. Some day, they will probably even be able to be apprentice politicians.

Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): The Minister will know that 96% of apprenticeships are delivered at levels 2 and 3. Clearly it is very good that young people and others are getting those qualifications, but is he confident that enough apprenticeship opportunities exist at level 4 and above, to provide clear apprenticeship progression routes for the young people who want them?

Also, I want briefly to point out to the Minister, whom I have some time for, that a lot of us on this side of the Chamber—not least my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), who is now the Chair of the Select Committee—worked very hard under the previous Labour Government to rescue apprenticeships from oblivion. We created some very

10 Mar 2016 : Column 460

good quality apprenticeships, which the Minister can now build on, so perhaps it would be better not to make this a party political issue.

Nick Boles: Funnily enough, I was an apprentice politician to the hon. Lady when she was the Planning Minister and I was shadowing her. I learned a great deal in the process. She is right to say that there are currently too few higher and degree apprenticeships; we would like to see many more of them. We are making reasonably good progress, however. There were 19,800 starts on higher apprenticeships in 2014-15, which was 115% up on the previous year. Degree apprenticeships are a relatively new concept, but we are making progress and more than 1,000 people have now started such apprenticeships. We have much further to go, and there will always be more level 2 and 3 apprenticeships, but we want everyone who is doing those apprenticeships to be able to look up and see the higher and degree apprenticeships that they could move on to. I am happy to pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s role, and that of the Chairman of the Select Committee and the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) in reviving the idea and the practice of apprenticeships.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): I thank the Minister for meeting me and colleagues from the Humber region, along with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, to discuss the establishment of a national wind college in the region. Will he reaffirm the Government’s commitment to giving our young people in the region the maximum opportunities to take advantage of the jobs that are being created in the offshore wind sector?

Nick Boles: Absolutely. One of the reasons that we have established the national college programme is to have colleges that can teach the higher and degree apprenticeships, in particular, for which we are so ambitious. The only reason that there is not already a national college for wind energy in my hon. Friend’s region is that the partners were not quite ready, but we are very happy to work with them on bringing a proposal to the Chancellor once they are ready.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I should like to start by paying tribute to my apprentice, Callum Morton. If the Minister is doling out praise for those who have contributed to apprenticeships, I hope that he will add Vince Cable to the list, because he played a fantastic role in government. This Government have decided to include in the definition of payroll the bonuses paid to employee owners, although dividend payments to shareholders are not covered. Will this mean that companies such as John Lewis and other employee-owned companies will end up paying more in the levy? If that is the case, will it not act as a disincentive to that model of enterprise?

Nick Boles: I am happy to pay tribute to the work of the former Secretary of State, with whom I worked. He managed to increase the budget for apprenticeship training at a time when most other budgets were not increasing, and that was an admirable feat. I can give the right hon. Gentleman a general answer to his specific question, but I do not want to tread on the territory of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs so I will write to him

10 Mar 2016 : Column 461

with further details. The general answer is that the levy will be applied to all PAYE pay, but I will get a further answer to him, either from me or from an HMRC Minister.

Kelly Tolhurst (Rochester and Strood) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s statement this morning. I am a big fan of apprenticeships and I am extremely proud of the fact that in Rochester and Strood we have produced 7,410 apprenticeships since 2010, the fourth highest figure in the south-east. This week, I was at MidKent College, which has had more than 100 new engagements with employers since last September. Can the Minister assure me that the Government will continue to work with our colleges, especially in places such as Rochester and Strood, to ensure that we have the correct provision in place and that we continue to develop it in order to keep up with the demand in constituencies such as mine?

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I had a meeting with college leaders just the other day. At the moment, colleges secure only one third of the money that is spent on apprenticeship training. As we have heard, that money is going to increase substantially. I have challenged college leaders on this and I will do everything in my power to help them to secure two thirds of that funding, because a great further education college can be the heart of a community that is investing in young people and local employers.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I welcome the statement from the Minister. We need to encourage companies to take on more apprentices. I am sure that he will welcome the fact that the further education colleges in my constituency are moving to a level 3 apprenticeship right through to diploma level, which is very welcome. Will the Minister tell us just how often his Department meets business and FE colleges to encourage more apprenticeships across the UK?

Nick Boles: Obviously I meet English business, employers and colleges a great deal, but many of those employers are also employers elsewhere in the United Kingdom and want to be able to have integrated apprenticeship programmes, so it is extremely important—I give a commitment to the hon. Gentleman about this—that I work with the devolved Administrations to ensure that apprenticeship standards are recognised in all parts of the UK and that we learn from each other.

Rishi Sunak (Richmond (Yorks)) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s clear passion for using apprenticeships to spread opportunity and to raise aspiration in our nation. Tomorrow I am attending an event hosted by the ancient company of fellmongers. Will he join me in commending the fellmongers for returning to their medieval roots and supporting the creation of dozens of local apprenticeships, thus helping Richmond to become one of the best-performing constituencies anywhere in the United Kingdom?

Nick Boles: One of the curious things about this job is that one discovers occupations that one has literally never heard of. I have to admit that I still do not know

10 Mar 2016 : Column 462

what a fellmonger is. I am sure that I will find out, and perhaps one day I can join an apprentice fellmonger and understand the trade that he has learned.

Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab): I thank the Minister for his statement. May I point him to a survey that was released not so long ago by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that showed that only 9% of young people doing a level 2 qualification were doing so for the first time? He said that most of his agenda was about social mobility, but how can that be compatible with the fact that so few people are doing that level qualification for the first time, and that so few of them are coming out with a higher level qualification than they went in with in the first place?

Nick Boles: The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there is a problem with people starting courses and not completing them, fundamentally because those courses were inappropriate for them. It is something that we need to tackle, but it is more a subject that we are tackling through the panel that Lord Sainsbury is chairing, which is looking at establishing much clearer and more directive routes through technical education so that a person at 16 starts a course that is right for them, that they will complete and that will lead them—I hope—on to a great apprenticeship.

Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase) (Con): A total of 370 new apprenticeships were started between August and October last year in Cannock Chase, which put us at the top of the tables in Staffordshire and shows that local businesses are really embracing apprenticeships. Does my hon. Friend agree that involving employers in the design and standards of apprenticeships will mean that apprentices get the skills that businesses are looking for? Will he confirm that the employers involved are from a broad range of sectors so that everyone’s requirements are met?

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. It is extremely important not only that employers are in charge of developing standards to ensure that those standards are directly relevant to current occupations, but that we do not involve just the large employers that have human resources departments and senior managers who can go to meetings to help to develop those standards. Before every standard is approved, we insist that small and medium-sized employers in the industry support it.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I welcome the Minister saying that he meets his colleagues in the devolved Administrations on a six-monthly basis. Can he provide us with an estimate of how much money is likely to be allocated to the Northern Ireland Executive on a proportionate basis as a result of the increase in the apprenticeship levy?

Nick Boles: The hon. Lady tempts me towards the edge of the abyss, but I can point out to her, because it is a matter of public record, that the apprenticeship levy is due to raise £3 billion in 2019-20, £2.5 billion of which will be spent on English apprenticeships, with the rest going to the devolved Administrations. I cannot tell her how that divides up, but the Chancellor will have more to say on the subject quite soon.

10 Mar 2016 : Column 463

Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con): I wholeheartedly support the Government’s promotion of apprenticeships. I have been in discussions with many local businesses, schools and colleges about the value of apprenticeships and the opportunities that they offer young people. Although many businesses, such as the huge accountancy firm Albert Goodman, get it, many really do not. To address the lack of understanding about the matter, I am holding an event, to which I invite the evangelical Minister so that he can spread his passion to help the economy.

Nick Boles: I would be delighted to come. This afternoon, I am going to Keighley so that I can attend an equivalent event tomorrow morning that has been organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins). I would be delighted to return to the west country, where I am from.

Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab): As part of my apprenticeship as an MP, I have just discovered that a fellmonger is a dealer in hides and skins. Is that right?

Rishi Sunak indicated assent.

Liz McInnes: On to the serious stuff. The Minister said that deciding to take on an apprenticeship was a way of avoiding large student loans. Given that it is his Government who have imposed these large loans, would not another way of helping our young people to avoid them be for the Government to rethink replacing student maintenance grants with loans, or will he simply accuse me of shroud waving?

Nick Boles: Now that I know what a fellmonger is, I trust that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) will be able to procure a sheepskin coat for me when I come to visit his local fellmongers.

On the hon. Lady’s question, we want young people to have the choice of taking a full-time university course, with the understanding that they will have to fund that through student loans, which they have to pay back only if they earn more than £21,000, but they get all the university experience and the enrichment that comes from that. We want to place no cap on the number of people who decide to go down that route, but we also want another route for those people who find that they learn better by combining study and work, who want to earn a wage and who do not want that full-time university experience. This is about not telling people what to do, but offering them a choice.

Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): I, too, welcome the great progress that has been made on apprenticeships to date and the overall positive tone from across the parties in support of them. The Minister mentioned broadening out apprenticeships. Can he tell me what progress has been made in encouraging apprenticeships in highly seasonal industries, such as farming and tourism?

Nick Boles: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, not least because I have been working with him and others on the possibility of establishing a pilot. Our minimum requirement that an apprenticeship has to last 12 months poses problems for very seasonal

10 Mar 2016 : Column 464

businesses, which will employ people for perhaps six or nine months, but not a continuous 12-month period. With the tourism industry, in which he is particularly interested, we are looking at establishing a pilot whereby an apprentice may be employed for 12 months out of a 15-month period. Hopefully, such an approach would encourage more apprenticeships in that and other sectors.

Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP): When the contracts were agreed for the £97 million Titanic signature project in east Belfast 10 years ago, social contracts and clauses for apprenticeships were novel—and welcome—but it quickly became increasingly clear that while the developer was happy to satisfy the required number of apprentices, it did nothing to sustain them. When apprentices became less inclined to remain in their apprenticeships or fell away, their numbers were not refilled, so the end result was that the apprenticeships were not completed as promised. How will the Minister ensure that, although an apprenticeship must last 12 months, those who enter the system go through and complete the process?

Nick Boles: The hon. Gentleman raises an important concern. The truth is that most industries are telling us that they have a huge skills need, so unless an employer loses a big contract or does not find a new contract to replace another that comes to an end, it is relatively unlikely that they would want to lose an apprentice in whom they had invested quite a lot of training. Most apprentices do not reach their maximum productivity until after they complete their apprenticeship. I am hopeful that employers, and particularly those that are paying the levy every year, will want to create apprenticeships and invest in them, because they will want to use these skills for the long term.

Karin Smyth (Bristol South) (Lab): Bristol South sends the fewest young people to university in the country, so I view apprenticeships as the key to aspiration and share the Minister’s evangelicalism. On his way back from Taunton in the west country, if he wants to stop off in Bristol South to see some of the work that we are doing, he will be most welcome.

Yesterday I asked the Prime Minister whether he had a delivery plan or was making up the policy as he went along; others have described it as iterative and agile. We await the details of the levy, of how the targets will work in practice, and of how colleges and other providers will be supported in their important work. Given that there is a desire to speak with one voice across the House on this subject, will the Minister please say a little more about when the delivery plan will be forthcoming?

Nick Boles: The hon. Lady is right that we have many questions to answer, because we are making substantial policy interventions to try to ensure that we meet our targets for both numbers and quality. If those questions are not fully answered in April, I will be severely disappointed.

Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood) (Con): The Government are doing fantastic work in promoting apprenticeships. The Minister has been supportive in my constituency, having visited apprenticeship providers in the area, and he is welcome to come back. I am facilitating a meeting with local businesses to set the ambitious target of creating 50 new apprenticeships in

10 Mar 2016 : Column 465

50 days. Apprenticeships represent a fantastic opportunity for young people to earn while they learn and make it far more likely that they will secure future employment. Will the Minister support me in my ambitious plan to get more people into good apprenticeships locally?

Nick Boles: I congratulate my hon. Friend on embracing the cause and on setting herself and local businesses the target of creating 50 new apprenticeships in 50 days, which will be of vast benefit to the people of Morley and Outwood.

Royston Smith (Southampton, Itchen) (Con): I am probably fairly unusual in this place in that I am a former apprentice. Indeed, I am now also a current apprentice, along with some of my new colleagues. I therefore welcome the Government’s commitment to creating another 3 million apprenticeships during this Parliament, in addition to the 2 million created in the previous Parliament. Businesses in my constituency are doing their bit. Will the Minister join me in congratulating and thanking some of the businesses that are creating opportunities for my constituents, such as Redroofs nursery, Rosegarth nursery, the Royal Southampton Yacht Club, and Crest Nicholson?

Nick Boles: I am delighted to do that. My hon. Friend’s list included a house builder, which gives me the opportunity to point out that there are some fantastic apprenticeships at all levels of construction—not only bricklaying and site carpentry, but project management, architecture and the like—as well as in childcare and a whole range of industries. Apprenticeships are a solution to almost every skills need.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Finally, I call Mims Davies.

Mims Davies (Eastleigh) (Con): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—and then there was one.

I welcome the Minister’s statement ahead of National Apprenticeship Week. Does he agree that it is vital that we encourage the participation of young women in traditionally male-focused apprenticeships? Will he join me in commending the 800 employers that are already working with Eastleigh College, which we have both visited and where I will be this evening? Such businesses are employing talented young women such as Maisie, who visited Parliament this week and is undertaking an advanced apprenticeship in construction and the built environment.

Nick Boles: That is a great note to end on: a young woman who has decided that the opportunities for her future career lie in the construction industry and an advanced set of skills. Last week, when I visited Doosan Babcock, I was introduced to two young apprentice riggers who were moving unbelievably heavy pieces of power plant equipment, and both those young women were absolutely delighted with what they were doing.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I thank the Minister for his evangelical statement.

10 Mar 2016 : Column 466

Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Bill

Considered in Committee

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

Clause 1

The Commission

12.44 pm

Tom Elliott (Fermanagh and South Tyrone) (UUP): I beg to move amendment 1, page 1, line 10, leave out

“First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly have”

and insert

“Northern Ireland Policing Board has”.

This amendment provides for two members of the Independent Reporting Commission to be appointed by the Northern Ireland Policing Board instead of jointly by the First Minister and deputy First



The Temporary Chair (Mr David Crausby): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 7, page 1, line 10, leave out

“First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly have”

and insert

“The Justice Minister, after consultation with the First Ministers and subject to the approval of the Executive Committee, has”.

This amendment provides for two members of the Independent Reporting Commission to be appointed by the Northern Ireland Justice Minister following consultation with the First Ministers, subject to the approval of the Executive Committee, instead of jointly by the First Ministers.

Clause 1 stand part.

Government amendment 3.

Clauses 2 to 5 stand part.

Tom Elliott: Amendment 1 relates to the independent reporting commission on paramilitary activity, the function of which is to examine general paramilitary activity within Northern Ireland, and its report will hopefully see a move away from terrorist activity. We have made huge and significant progress over recent years, but we want a total end to the terrorist campaign and paramilitary activity.

Murders have happened both recently and in the distant past. We have heard about loyalist paramilitary activity and killings, and the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has made many representations about the disappearance of Lisa Dorrian, which has clearly had a major impact not only on her family, but on the community. We have also seen IRA murders in recent times—Robert McCartney, Denis Donaldson, Paul Quinn and more recently Kevin McGuigan in Belfast. What strikes me is the brutality and the clinical way in which those murders were carried out—the hallmark of the IRA in the past. The murders were not carried out by amateurs; they were carried out by professional terrorists and remind us of the IRA and other terrorist organisations. We want to bring an end to that. We must not forget that the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said recently that the IRA and the army council still exist. We need to

10 Mar 2016 : Column 467

deal with that and to ask whether the IRA and the army council are still inextricably linked to Sinn Féin, which is in government in Northern Ireland.

Amendment 1 relates to the appointment of two members to the independent reporting commission by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I accept that the “Fresh Start” document states that the Executive will appoint those two members, but we are seeking a move away from political appointments because it would be helpful if the appointments were made by a more independent body. When Northern Ireland parties were progressing aspects of the Stormont House proposals last year, it was suggested that the appointment of the proposed historical investigations unit director would also be done by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. During the many discussions on that process, there was some level of agreement that there could be other, better ways of making that appointment. The Ulster Unionist party put forward suggestions for an independent process, but given others’ concerns about that, the option of the director being appointed by the Northern Ireland Policing Board carried some weight among all the parties involved in the talks.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the Policing Board was established by the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. In tabling amendment 1, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has checked that it would be within the Policing Board’s powers to make appointments to the independent reporting commission.

Tom Elliott: I thank the hon. Lady for that helpful intervention. We discussed the matter at length during the talks last year, into which all parties had input, including officials from the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Justice. We felt that the Policing Board could be such a mechanism. I suppose that, in fairness, some people might say that it is still semi-political, and it is, but it has independent members so it can cross the political divide towards independents and lay people. That is why we felt that it was a good option for making appointments in this process, particularly given the fact that the Deputy First Minister has, by his own admission, said in the past that he was a senior member of the Provisional IRA. Obviously, there is still a question mark over whether he is still a member of the IRA army council.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Will the hon. Gentleman accept that on the Policing Board there will be members such as Gerry Kelly and Caitríona Ruane who have terrorist backgrounds as well? The situation will therefore be no different from the one he is describing with the Deputy First Minister.

Tom Elliott: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I agree with the first aspect of it. Yes, there are members of Sinn Féin and members who were former terrorists on the Policing Board, but the difference is that it is an organisation with a much broader base. There are independents, and it is likely that there will be only one member of Sinn Féin on an appointment panel with seven, eight or even nine lay members. Obviously, as things stand, there would be just the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. There is a significant difference, I think, but I take the point.

10 Mar 2016 : Column 468

Sammy Wilson: Will the hon. Gentleman also accept that when the decision rests with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister there is a power of veto by one of the Ministers, which would not be the case if members were appointed by the Policing Board?

Tom Elliott: I have not seen the option of veto exercised to a great degree with other appointments, so I would have concerns about whether that would work in this case.

By and large, there was a degree of support for the historical investigations unit director possibly being appointed by the Policing Board, but if that appointment was to be made by another independent body, we would be quite happy to consider that. In fact, the Ulster Unionist party initially proposed that the decision should be made by an independent body, not the Policing Board. The proposal to use the Policing Board came from another political party and we said as a compromise that that could be an option, which seemed to engender support.

That is our view. I should have thought that it would have received broad support, but perhaps that is wrong. In general, I think it is important that we try to move away from that political appointment process into a more independent one, because clearly we are dealing with very sensitive issues and material, so it is important that we have people of the right ability and calibre. The Policing Board has a track record, I know, and although I take the point made by the hon. Member for South Antrim about members of Sinn Féin being on the Policing Board, it has appointed the past three Chief Constables, the past three Deputy Chief Constables and a significant number of Assistant Chief Constables. Clearly, the board has done a lot of work on the appointment process for significant police officers and high-profile police officers, so I would argue that as they are well-versed in making such appointments the process might have been better and more independent if they made the decision rather than just the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): We are unable to support the proposition behind amendment 1. We are not against the concept of moving towards greater independence for such appointments, but in the context of getting a political agreement that was not possible, as the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) rightly acknowledged. The Stormont agreement therefore gives the responsibility for making the appointment to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said and would echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson)—East Antrim, not South. We have not yet redrawn the boundaries in Northern Ireland, although we are going to.

We have two difficulties with the proposal to use the Policing Board. May I say that having served on the Policing Board, I fully support it as an institution. It does a good job on the whole question of accountability in policing. Our objection is not on the basis that the Policing Board is somehow deficient, but the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone revealed his true objective and motivation when he talked about the

10 Mar 2016 : Column 469

suitability of the Deputy First Minister to be involved in this appointment because of his alleged past in the IRA.

I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but the difficulty I have is twofold. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim rightly pointed out, we have three Sinn Féin members on the Northern Ireland Policing Board: Gerry Kelly, Pat Sheehan and Caitríona Ruane. At least two of those members have past convictions for IRA terrorism, so passing responsibility to the Policing Board does not resolve the difficulty the hon. Gentleman refers to, in terms of victims and survivors of the conflict in Northern Ireland having a problem with anyone from Sinn Féin being involved in the appointments process—a concern I have much sympathy with.

I depart from the hon. Gentleman on the second point made by my hon. Friend, on the question of the veto. The current arrangement that gives us a veto in the office of the First Minister over who is appointed is surely a far stronger safeguard to ensure that the people who are appointed to this very sensitive role are people that the victims and survivors community can have confidence in. If we go to the Policing Board, there is no such veto. Indeed, the political influence on the Policing Board is outweighed by the independent influence. I emphasise that I have nothing against the current structure of the Policing Board; I am merely making the point that if you want to exercise a degree of accountability on this issue and ensure that the people who are appointed to this very sensitive role are appropriate for that role, having a veto gives you the leverage to ensure that that happens, whereas if you pass it to the Policing Board you lose that veto.

For those reasons, we will not be able to support the amendment.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I rise to speak in support of amendment 7.

On Second Reading, I said that we must cast our minds back to the reasons for the independent reporting commission. This all emerged in the violence and terrorism of last year when two people lost their lives: Gerard Davison at the beginning of May, in the Lower Ormeau and Markets area of south Belfast; and Kevin McGuigan, somewhere in that same location. As a result of those deaths and the breakdown of relationships around the Executive table, we had negotiations on the Stormont House agreement. During those negotiations, the SDLP circulated papers to the three Governments and all parties on a whole enforcement approach, and a whole community approach. We believe that the answers and the solution must come not only from Government and from political parties but from the wider community. There must be a buy-in to a solution, to the eradication of terrorism, violence and antisocial behaviour and to an upholding of democratic principles. We also believe that, although “Fresh Start” was designed and managed to be a two-party deal, there should have been all-party work on the membership of the independent reporting commission. How can the work of that commission and its mandate, which includes the Irish Government and Dublin representatives, be reconciled with that approach by Sinn Fein?

10 Mar 2016 : Column 470

During the Second Reading debate, I asked the Secretary of State to state precisely what new moneys would be made available to the National Crime Agency and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, when those moneys would be released and what the split between the two would be. That set some of the background for our amendment. Like the Ulster Unionist party, we feel that the credibility of the independent reporting commission would be enhanced if it involved the Executive more widely rather than just the First and Deputy First Ministers. We believe that it is not a Policing Board matter, which is why we have specified that the two members will be appointed by the Justice Minister in consultation with the First and Deputy First Ministers, subject to Executive approval, hence providing the transparency and accountability that are required in this particularly vexatious issue. All of us on these Benches are agreed on one point. We want to see an end to violence, paramilitarism and terrorism. Above all, we want to see the upholding of democratic principles of government and in the wider civic community.

I support our amendment 7 in this group.

1 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): In following my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) in speaking to our amendment, I want to deal with a few of the points that have been made about this group of clauses on the independent reporting commission.

At the original Stormont House talks in late 2014, the SDLP proposed that the agenda should include paramilitarism and organised crime. It did not take the murders that subsequently happened to tell us that that was still a serious issue that should not be ignored in any serious negotiations. Unfortunately, we were not supported by other parties, who seemed to believe that that would somehow not be a problem. So we are now addressing an issue that other parties chose to ignore. Whenever the murders happened last year, a political crisis was created over issues that parties chose to ignore and then dramatically tried to advertise.

Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson: The hon. Gentleman will forgive us if we take his comments as tongue in cheek, given that we were told after the Good Friday agreement in 1998 that these problems were all being dealt with, and the agreement was a comprehensive approach to resolving the issues relating to our conflict in Northern Ireland. We are still dealing with them 18 years later so he should not point the finger at those of us who warned in 1998 that the agreement was deficient in that regard.

Mark Durkan: Without getting drawn too far away from the subject of the Bill, none of us pretended that the 1998 agreement would absolutely solve the problems or dissolve any of the paramilitary organisations. We committed to a framework for decommissioning and a number of other changes. We consistently supported the existence of the Independent Monitoring Commission to deal with the questions of ongoing paramilitary activity. In this House, whenever the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), announced that the IMC was being wound up, some of us said, “You are taking away the monitoring commission because Sinn Fein has made a

10 Mar 2016 : Column 471

political issue of it, but the issue of paramilitarism has not gone away, and it will come back.” We pointed out that something like the IMC would end up being needed. That is exactly what happened last year.

Some of us have been consistent about recognising where there are problems and that they need to continue to be addressed. We were right about the questions arising when the IMC was wound up with no procedure to deal with ongoing concerns. We were right to say that the issue needed to be addressed in the Stormont House agreement. We were right in the proposals that my hon. Friend the Member for South Down has described when we said that we needed an enforcement approach and a whole community approach to secure an end to paramilitarism, as well as all the other changes that were needed to achieve a wholesome society. We were the only parties that advocated such proposals. To an extent, some of the sentiment of that is reflected in the agreement, but in a highly edited, partial and incomplete way, and that is why we have tabled our amendments.

We used to have an Independent Monitoring Commission that reported. Now we have an independent reporting commission. The legislation does not seem able to say “monitor”. The “Fresh Start” agreement refers to the term “monitoring”, but for some reason “monitoring” is not in the Bill. It is as though the legislation has carefully to avoid saying anything that the commission will actually do. So we have to look at the “Fresh Start” agreement to see what the commission might actually do. For some reason, it is avoided in the lengthy clauses of the Bill.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) said that under the “Fresh Start” agreement the appointments, as well as the one appointment by the British Government and the one by the Irish Government, were to be made by the First and Deputy First Ministers. They were not. The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) is correct. The “Fresh Start” agreement said that the Executive shall nominate two members. Therefore, our amendment is consistent with what is in the “Fresh Start” agreement. It says that the appointment should be made, rather than by the First and Deputy First Minister, by the Justice Minister after consultation with the First and Deputy First Minister and in agreement with the Executive. So our amendment is more consistent with the “Fresh Start” agreement than the clause or the right hon. Gentleman’s amendment.

Tom Elliott: The hon. Gentleman is right that the “Fresh Start” document says that the Executive are supposed to make the appointment. Perhaps the Secretary of State or the Minister of State will tell us why the legislation did not say that the Executive as opposed the First and Deputy First Minister were to make the appointment so that there could be a collective decision by the Executive rather than a decision by just two Ministers.

Mark Durkan: I fully accept the point, and I hope that the Secretary of State and the Minister have heard it. It would be useful if they could address it.

It is unfortunate that, every time something is referred to as a role of the Executive it ends up becoming an appointment by the First and Deputy First Minister. With all that can be said about their acting jointly, people know that the habit has been that distinct and

10 Mar 2016 : Column 472

separate appointments have been made. There is not the trust in the appointments system. It is very like what Macaulay said about Disraeli and Gladstone. One of them is a charlatan and knows it; the other is a charlatan and doesn’t know it. So people do not have full confidence in the appointments system when something wider is required.

The “Fresh Start” agreement specifies that a number of things will be done by the Executive. The work towards an end of paramilitarism and a lot of other commitments in the “Fresh Start” agreement are put in the name of the Executive. I will be addressing the limitations of that in subsequent amendments and new clauses. We are meant to have an approach that is about all the parties, and all the parties may not be on the Executive. If this is about an all-party approach, we should be creating mechanisms that involve all the parties and we should not pretend that these issues will become the sole responsibility or property of the Executive. Nor should we pretend that the due responsibility of the Executive is discharged simply by the First and Deputy First Minister making appointments. I do not believe that any of that is adequate.

The fact that we needed to be back in Stormont House for talks on the negotiations after the crisis showed it was not sufficient that things were done between the First and Deputy First Minister. We had a crisis and needed all-party talks to bring us back from the brink. The First and Deputy First Minister’s positions and parties had brought us to the brink. Now we seem to be ending up with mechanisms that mean that everything will be done by the First and Deputy First Minister in future. So none of the lessons has been learned. None of the mistakes in the scoping of past negotiations, the scoping of the agenda or the politics of how these things are managed has been learned from.

I know that the amendment has been tabled by the Ulster Unionist party in respect of the role being conferred on the Policing Board. As the party which argued most in the Stormont House negotiations that the key roles in the Historical Investigations Unit should be appointed by the Policing Board, I do not agree with the amendment. After all, the HIU has a role which will involve constabulary powers. If there is a policing element to it, the evidence can be gathered, investigated and referred for prosecution. The role of the reporting commission is quite different. Nobody saw that there would be huge tension—apart from dealing with some of the cases that have already been looked at by the Historical Enquiries Team—between the role of the Chief Constable and the PSNI, and the role of the HIU.

There could, arguably, be difficulties between the reporting commission and the Chief Constable. For example, last year in the aftermath of the two murders, when the Chief Constable made a assessment that shared publicly the police’s working theories in relation to that murder, something of a political crisis was created and a panel was set up to look at those issues, including to say whether it accepted what the Chief Constable had said. It would be odd if the reporting commission, which was in part appointed by the Policing Board, had to look at issues that had been the subject of comment by the Chief Constable. That might be a dilemma for the Policing Board and might raise tensions. I do not believe that the Policing Board appointment answers the question.

10 Mar 2016 : Column 473

Tom Elliott: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his party was to the fore in proposing that the Policing Board would be instrumental in the appointment of senior members of the HIU? There could easily be a conflict between the HIU director or directors and the police. If the proposed arrangement will work for the HIU, I do not see why it should not work for the reporting commission.

Mark Durkan: I do not think the potential conflict would be the same. Obviously, there is the issue that was considered in the talks that some of the cases that had already been dealt with by the HET are currently the subject of PSNI investigation. Whether they will be referred to the HIU or reopened by the ombudsman is a factor in that. The prospect of any potential tension around the Chief Constable’s role was among the reasons why we said that appointment by the Policing Board would be a sensible way forward.

A different issue arises in relation to the role of the reporting commission. If we take the example of the controversies last year, the panel, which was a proto make-do version of the reporting commission, had to examine issues on which the Chief Constable had spoken, and rightly spoken. Obviously, there was argument and tension about that.

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): I think the hon. Gentleman was arguing that in future the Executive may not consist of all five parties and there will be parties in Opposition. In that situation, would it not make sense for the commission, whose job is to hold the Executive and the two Governments to account, to have its members appointed by the Assembly and the Parliaments, rather than the Executive?

Mark Durkan: There is a wider possibility in that, which may take us further away from what was said in the Stormont House agreement. The hon. Gentleman is right. We need to ensure an all-party approach and we will address that problem in future amendments and new clauses, which I will not venture into now.

We believe that the way in which the Government have taken matters forward and the way in which the “Fresh Start” agreement has been framed do not recruit and keep engaged the span of cross-party interest that there should be both in the Assembly and beyond. It mistakenly shorthands too much to the Executive, then translates that as meaning simply First and Deputy First Ministers, with all the limitations and difficulties that that brings.

Furthermore, with the Commission appointed in that way by the Assembly, the process for doing that would become more complicated, and it is complicated enough at the Policing Board level. We think that appointment by the Justice Minister, following consultation—properly to give them their due—with the First and Deputy First Ministers, in agreement with the Executive, would be a way of reflecting some of the wider interests without creating difficulties for the Policing Board, adding to the list of appointments that it makes, and maybe creating tensions with some of its other appointment roles.

It should be recognised that the issues that have been highlighted by both the Ulster Unionist party and ourselves in respect of the appointments are not the

10 Mar 2016 : Column 474

only questions that should be asked in respect of the ill-defined role of the reporting commission, and how well that sits with the wider responsibilities that the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) referred to. If we are serious about the whole community approach alongside the enforcement approach, there needs to be something much more collective and better defined than the Government have provided for in the Bill.

1.15 pm

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): It is appropriate that I place on record at the outset our appreciation for the independent reporting commission, the creation of which is important. I think I speak for the whole Committee in welcoming it.

Our debate on amendments 1 and 7 illustrates one of the great problems faced by any of us involved in the politics of Northern Ireland: the search for independence. With a population of 1.7 million, where, as is often said, everybody knows everybody, it is almost impossible to find anybody who is completely Simon-pure and separated from any accusation of community bias. The search for that person who is completely independent has in the past taken us to Finland, to South Africa, to Canada, and to Canada and back to Canada, and it will probably continue to do so.

It is intensely important that we realise that we are dealing with a conflict between aspiration and actuality. Everybody wants a completely independent nominating system, but nobody whom I have yet heard can come up with a mechanism to achieve that beyond peradventure and beyond criticism.

Lady Hermon: In his comments, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to cast any sort of aspersions on the composition of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which did monitor and did report. The proposed body will do both and will be called the independent reporting commission. We had Lord Alderdice, John Grieve, a retired senior member of the Garda Siochana and a retired American police officer, who did a fantastic job on the Independent Monitoring Commission. I am sure the hon. Gentleman meant to add a sentence to say that we had full confidence in their independence in the IMC.

Stephen Pound: That is precisely what I was about to say. The point I was making is that we may succeed. Quite often we succeed, but sometimes it is against the odds. The search for that additional independence continues. The hon. Lady is, as ever, completely right in this matter.

When the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) introduced amendment 1, he was right to mention some of atrocities—not just the recent atrocities, but the murders of Paul Quinn and Robert McCartney. I spent a great deal of time with Paul Quinn’s parents, and it is important that we never forget that horrific murder. Even though it was some years ago, the memory is still raw.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) focused the debate by talking about the veto safeguard that exists in the current system. It is immensely important that we realise the significance of that. If we are trying to find a mechanism for a nomination process, the

10 Mar 2016 : Column 475

proposed process is about as close as we are going to get. I will listen with interest to what the Government say, but we also need to pay attention to amendment 7, which was tabled by the SDLP. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) pointed out, rightly, that the predecessor to the current Secretary of State had some of these issues pointed out to him at the time. It would have been better if we had considered them then, instead of now.

Just as these amendments illustrate one of the problems of finding people to appoint who are beyond criticism, they also illustrate one of the great strengths of Northern Ireland politics. Even when politicians are elected from a particular community, and may even be from a particular community, there has never been, in my hearing, any suggestion that they have failed to represent every aspect of their community. That is noteworthy, and we say it far too rarely on the Floor of the House. That aspect of life in Northern Ireland gives me great hope for the future.

The Opposition support the Government on this issue, which is an unusual position for me to be in. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and I would like to hear more about these issues, and particularly about the points made in amendment 7, but for the time being, we think that the clause is about as good as we are going to get.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Ben Wallace): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank hon. Members for their contributions and for the suggestions that they have made in the amendments.

As we have discussed, the first five clauses of this short Bill concern the independent reporting commission. This new body is one of a raft of measures set out in November’s “Fresh Start” agreement to tackle the ongoing impact of paramilitary activity. The commission, which is to be established through an international agreement between the United Kingdom Government and the Irish Government, will have an overriding objective to promote progress towards ending paramilitary activity.

Although the IRC has different functions from the Independent Monitoring Commission, it builds on the precedent set by that commission, which was in operation between 2004 and 2011, monitoring activity by paramilitary groups and overseeing implementation of security normalisation measures.

I will now speak about the clauses and related amendments. Clause 1 makes reference to the functions of the new independent reporting commission, as set out in the “Fresh Start” agreement. Those will be: to report annually on progress towards ending paramilitary activity; to report on the implementation of the measures of the Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government to tackle paramilitary activity, including overseeing implementation of the Executive’s strategy to end paramilitarism; and to consult a wide range of stakeholders, including law enforcement agencies, local councils, communities and civic society organisations.

The reports of the commission will inform the Executive’s programme for government through to 2021. The commission will be independent of the sponsoring Governments and will have significant discretion in fulfilling its functions. That independence will help to

10 Mar 2016 : Column 476

ensure the credibility of its reports and its success in engaging with the necessary range of stakeholders. The Secretary of State may provide the commission with such resources and funding as she considers appropriate.

Finally, in line with the “Fresh Start” agreement, the commission will be made up of four members—one nominated by the UK Government, one by the Irish Government and two by the Executive. Clause 1(4) confers on the First and Deputy First Ministers the power to jointly nominate the Executive members.

Two amendments have been tabled to that subsection. In amendment 1, the hon. Members for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) propose that the power to nominate two members be conferred on the Northern Ireland Policing Board instead of the First and Deputy First Ministers. The “Fresh Start” agreement provides that two members of the new commission will be nominated by the Executive. The Northern Ireland Policing Board is not, however, part of the Executive, and the amendment would therefore not be consistent with the terms of that agreement.

In amendment 7, the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan), for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) propose that the power to nominate be conferred on the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, following consultation with the First Ministers, and subject to the approval of the Northern Ireland Executive Committee. While the Government recognise the interest that the Justice Minister, in particular, will have in the nominations, it is our view that the First and Deputy First Ministers, acting jointly, are the most appropriate office holders to nominate members on behalf of the Executive as a whole, in view of the objective and functions of the commission.

We would of course encourage the First and Deputy First Ministers to consult their Executive colleagues—in particular the Justice Minister—before making nominations. It is also open to the First and Deputy First Ministers to refer the nominations to the Executive Committee and, indeed, to consult more widely. For example, amendment 1 proposes a role for the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and that could certainly provide helpful recommendations regarding candidates for nomination. I also noted that the hon. Member for Foyle highlighted the difference between the HIU and the IRC—two different bodies with very different functions. His point is well made when it comes to the reference to the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Nigel Mills: Does the Minister think the appointment by the UK Government should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee?

Mr Wallace: I am all for parliamentary transparency and scrutiny of the Government’s decisions. We will take my hon. Friend’s suggestion on board and reflect on it—that is the best way to proceed. All four stakeholders will hopefully be serious and respected figures to ensure that the public believe that the commission’s reports are credible and that the commission really is a proper step towards reducing paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

Nigel Mills: I am grateful to the Minister for considering the idea, but as we are appointing somebody who needs to be seen to be impartial and whose role is to hold the

10 Mar 2016 : Column 477

Government to account, having that independent oversight of the appointment to show that Parliament has confidence in it would help the credibility of the post.

Mr Wallace: The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is certainly not prohibited from examining the appointment by the UK Government, and it will no doubt be able to make recommendations or to make its views known. As to whether that is formally part of the process, the best thing, as I said, is to reflect on that. If my hon. Friend would like, I will write to him with a response or, hopefully, get back to him before the Bill’s stages are completed.

I turn now to clauses 2 to 5. Clause 2 deals with the exercise of the functions of the new commission. The clause provides that the objective of the commission is to promote progress towards ending paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland. The commission will be required to exercise its functions in the way it considers most appropriate for meeting that objective.

The commission will also be under the duties not to: prejudice the national security interests of the United Kingdom or Ireland; put at risk the life or safety of any person; have a prejudicial effect on the prevention, investigation or detection of crime; or have a prejudicial effect on any actual or prospective legal proceedings. With the exception of the duty not to have a prejudicial effect on the prevention, investigation or detection of crime, those were all duties to which the Independent Monitoring Commission was subject. The new duty is now considered necessary given the shift in investigative responsibility for paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. Its intention is to ensure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland can engage fully and meaningfully with the commission.

Lady Hermon: The Minister cites clause 2, which says the independent reporting commission’s objective is to

“promote progress towards ending paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland.”

For the record, will the Minister confirm that the commission is absolutely free—actually, that it will be called on—to report that paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland may well be initiated, instigated or supported from within the Republic of Ireland?

Mr Wallace: The IRC, obviously in conjunction with the duties I mentioned, will be free to report on anything of that nature. It is not only the UK Government who are keen to pursue this, but the Government of the Republic of Ireland. I think that both Governments recognise that this cannot be done in a vacuum, with Northern Ireland entirely carved out of paramilitary activity on the island of Ireland.

In respect of the duties not to prejudice national security interests and not to put at risk the life or safety of any person, the Secretary of State must issue guidance to the commission about the exercise of its functions, in so far as the commission’s functions touch on the disclosure of information that might be prejudicial to those duties.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): Will the Minister say a little more about the guidance that he mentioned? Clause 2(8) says the Secretary of State must publish the

10 Mar 2016 : Column 478

guidance. When is that expected to happen? When will Parliament get a chance to look at the guidance and comment on it? I want to be a little clearer about whether it is just that the guidance will be published, or whether Parliament will get a chance to look at what the guidance is or is not.

Mr Wallace: Parliament will certainly have an opportunity to scrutinise the guidance as published. As for the timescale, that will be dictated by how quickly the nominations of the commissioners are made. However, we do not take this lightly. The guidance is very important and everyone needs to know where they stand with it, which is why I welcome the fact that it is going to be published. I will get some clarity for the hon. Gentleman on whether the guidance will be done by regulation.

The guidance referred to in clause 2(5)(a) is intended to assist the commission in the discharge of its duty under clause 2(3)(a), which is not to do anything that would prejudice national security. However, we recognise that, while many of the same principles may apply to the protection of national security interests in Ireland as in the United Kingdom, it is not appropriate for the Government to issue detailed guidance about national security matters in another jurisdiction, and it was never the Government’s intention to attempt to do so.

1.30 pm

To avoid any doubt about the matter, we propose to remove the reference to Ireland in clause 2(5)(a). The practical effect of the amendment will be that the Secretary of State will be required to issue guidance to the commission in respect of its functions in relation to information that, if disclosed, might prejudice national security, but the guidance will not deal with information that might prejudice the national security interests of Ireland. The guidance will continue to cover information that might put at risk the life or safety of any people.

As provided in the Bill, the commission will still be required to have regard to the guidance, and the Secretary of State will remain able to amend or replace the guidance as necessary. The guidance will still be published when issued. I can also confirm that the guidance will be published and a copy will be placed in the Library of each House. The guidance will be made available to the commission before it begins its operation.

Clause 2, as amended, seeks to secure an appropriate balance between the provision of important safeguards in relation to the exercise of the commission’s functions, and ensuring that the commission has the independence and discretion it needs to deliver effectively on those functions.

Clause 3 confers on the independent reporting commission immunity from suit and legal process, and inviolability of its official archive and premises. In practice, that means that the commission will not be subject to legal challenge or process, including civil claims and judicial review. It also means that its premises and archive cannot be subject to search of requisition, as is the case with a diplomatic mission.

Those legal privileges are routinely given to international organisations and, indeed, there are a number of recent examples in the Northern Ireland context, including the Independent Monitoring Commission, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

10 Mar 2016 : Column 479

The legal privileges serve two key purposes. First, they ensure that the commission cannot be compelled to disclose material it holds, including the identities of those who have provided information. That is crucial to ensuring that the commission is able to reach out to a wide range of sources in pursuit of information on paramilitary activity and thus fulfil its role in promoting the ending of it. IMC commissioners recognised that point in their final report, stating:

“These immunities were fundamental to our ability to operate.”

In addition, the legal privileges are essential to protecting the independence of this new body. They ensure that it cannot be challenged by those who may be the subject of its reports, or by the sponsoring Governments.

Clause 3 also enables the commission to waive its legal privileges where it deems appropriate. That is key to the proportionality of the provisions.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The Minister has been very specific in what he has said about archives. For the sake of clarification and Hansard, will the provision affect access to the Boston tapes, on which there is some very significant information, and the important evidence that could put away for a very long time IRA terrorists who have been involved in activities?

Mr Wallace: It does not affect that at all. The independent commission will be able to draw on sources from wherever it needs to in order to construct its report and carry out its monitoring purposes. There is nothing more I can say about that, other than that we hope that it will be a proactive body that uses open source and every other area of information possible to come up with robust and respected reports.

On the appropriateness of the legal privileges, if a staff member wished to make a claim to an employment tribunal, the commission could waive its immunity from legal process to allow that person to pursue the claim.

Finally, clause 3 also confers on the Secretary of State the power to confer by regulations certain further privileges on the commission itself, commissioners and staff, and members of their households. Conferring such immunities in secondary legislation will allow flexibility in making decisions on the exercise of this power on a case-by-case basis. In line with similar provisions in the Acts establishing the IMC and ICLVR, the power is subject to the negative procedure.

Clause 4 is a short clause setting out the key terminology used in the Bill for the new independent reporting commission. It includes a reference to the

“agreement relating to paramilitary activity”,

which is the international agreement between the UK and Irish Governments that will establish the commission. Work on the agreement is at an advanced stage, but hon. Members will understand that the timing of the Irish general election has meant that it is not yet formally agreed. The agreement will, of course, be laid before Parliament for scrutiny, in accordance with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

Danny Kinahan (South Antrim) (UUP): The Minister said in our previous debate that the definition of “paramilitary activity” would be determined by the commission, but does he have any idea what the Republic of Ireland’s definition is of that term?

10 Mar 2016 : Column 480

Mr Wallace: I cannot answer for the Irish Government; we have to leave that up to them. Our purpose is to allow the commission to come up with a definition and to prosecute it in the pursuit of making its reports.

It is our clear intention to lay the treaty before Parliament before, or at the same time as, the regulations to be made under clause 4. As will be clear, the Bill sets out the broad framework for the commission. It references the functions in the “Fresh Start” agreement and sets out the key duties to which the commission will be subject.

Further details will be required in secondary legislation to give full effect to the international agreement. Clause 4(2) therefore provides such a power, which may be used to make provision about accounts and audit, for example, or about majority decision making, or other key aspects of the agreement. I recognise that that is a relatively broad power and that the regulations to underpin the new commission are likely to be of interest to hon. Members. The regulations will, therefore, be subject to the affirmative procedure.

Clause 5 makes provision about the conclusion of the commission’s work. The “Fresh Start” agreement provides that the work of the commission will inform future Northern Ireland Executive programme for Government priorities and commitments through to 2021.

Mark Durkan: The Minister said earlier that the Government would encourage the First and Deputy First Ministers to consult the Executive when they exercise appointments to the commission. Clause 5 states that

“the Secretary of State must consult…the First Minister and deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland…the relevant Minister in the Government of Ireland, and…any other person the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”

Will the Minister give a guarantee that all the parties that were meant to be involved in the negotiations that brought about the creation of the commission will be consulted, rather than leaving it to just the First and Deputy First Ministers yet again?

Mr Wallace: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. We have decided that the First and Deputy First Ministers are the most appropriate officers to make the final decision. It is, of course, up to them, as the leaders of the Executive, to consult all their members, and more broadly, if necessary. The Government decided that the most appropriate officeholders are the First and Deputy First Ministers.

Mark Durkan: Clause 5(2)(c) mentions

“any other person the Secretary of State considers appropriate”,

so what is wrong with the Minister giving an assurance that that should include other party interests? That is hugely important if we are going to maintain the broad span of support to confront paramilitarism.

Mr Wallace: The clue is in the word “appropriate”. We want to set up the commission and make sure that it carries the momentum of public opinion to resolve the issue of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. Our view is that the best way to do that is to assign to two officeholders—the First and Deputy First Ministers—

10 Mar 2016 : Column 481

the authority to nominate two members of the four-member commission. That is the decision the Government have taken.

I have read the hon. Gentleman’s amendment 7. The First and Deputy First Ministers do not operate in isolation in the Executive; they consult and speak to Ministers on a daily basis. That may not be his experience, but it has certainly been mine since I was appointed. I want to place on the record my admiration for the current Justice Minister, David Ford, and what he has done over the past few years, and I am sad that he has said that he will not continue in that role. He is incredibly well respected in the Executive, and it is our view that the First and Deputy First Ministers do speak to him and regularly consult him. Perhaps they do not do so as much as the hon. Gentleman might like, but they would be unwise to not consult that office in any future debate.

Lady Hermon: It might assist the Minister if he took the Bill off the Dispatch Box and looked at the clause that we are discussing. The point that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) is making is a good one. I am not talking about the amendment about who appoints whom to the Independent Monitoring Commission—I mean the independent reporting commission; it is hard to think that it is not a monitoring commission. I am talking about clause 5, on the conclusion of the commission’s work, about which the Minister has been speaking. The hon. Gentleman has made the point that before the Secretary of State makes the regulations that the Minister has referred to, clause 5(2)(c) specifies not only that the Secretary of State must consult, quite rightly, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, but that she must consult

“any other person the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”

As the hon. Gentleman said, it would be helpful if the Minister put on record this afternoon, in Hansard, the fact that “any other person…appropriate” includes the other Executive Ministers.

Danny Kinahan rose

Mr Wallace: I will give way to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan).

Danny Kinahan: On the same point, the definition of “appropriate” should be expanded. It should be appropriate to talk to anyone in opposition, because we have Opposition legislation going through the Assembly. If we change it in future, that should also be added as an appropriate person to speak to.

Mr Wallace: Before I move on, I refer hon. Members again to the word “appropriate”. The winding up of the commission is some years hence. What the commission looks like, how it behaves and the importance that is attached to it at the time of winding up will dictate the most appropriate people, office holders and agencies to consult in that winding up. I do not intend to restrict the Government to commitments about specific individuals other than those set out in the subsection about whom we must consult. It is clear that we would consult the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and the relevant Minister in the Government of Ireland, because of the nature of the international treaty with the Irish Government. Indeed, the leaders of the Executive in Northern Ireland,

10 Mar 2016 : Column 482

the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, would have to be involved, given that they are involved in the set-up of the body.

However, when it comes to what is appropriate at the time, I do not think I should hold to hostage a future Government, a future Minister or anybody else on something that may or may not happen in five, six, seven, 10 or however many years’ time. That is why the Bill states quite clearly: as “appropriate”. If I were winding up the commission right now, I would consult a range of stakeholders, including the Justice Minister, but I am not going to prescribe in legislation individual people whom it may not be appropriate to consult in a few years’ time.

Mark Durkan: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Wallace: I want to move on. We have fought a bit, and I know that hon. Members are keen to get on to the next group of amendments. Clause 5 provides that the Secretary of State may make regulations to wind up the commission, as I have said. Before making such regulations, we will confer with all the stakeholders. The clause provides that regulations to wind up the commission may amend, repeal or revoke an enactment. Similar provision was included in the Act that founded the IMC, the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission etc.) Act 2003, which granted the Secretary of State the power to provide, by order, that key provisions of that Act would cease to have effect. That power was exercised in 2011, effectively winding up the IMC. The clause also provides that such regulations may confer functions on the Secretary of State or any other person, and may make provision about the destruction of information or records held by the commission.

The new independent reporting commission will fulfil an important role in tackling paramilitary activity, in furtherance of the Government’s commitment to challenging all paramilitary activity and associated criminality. I hope that the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone will withdraw the amendment.

1.45 pm

Tom Elliott: It is quite clear that neither the Government nor other parties support amendment 1, so it would be difficult for us to win a vote on it. I am disappointed that none of the parties has dealt with the implications of having a more independent appointment process, and moving away from the direct political appointment process. We are where we are with the Bill, however, and the UUP broadly supports it. We would like to have seen some changes, but by and large we want the process to move on.

Mark Durkan: Obviously, my hon. Friends and I believe that amendment 7 takes forward the terms of the agreement in a better spirit than does clause 1, but we do not want to press the point to a Division. I want to put it on the record that that does not mean that we are content with the proposals. Equally, we think there are some questions about the other clauses in the group, which the Government should continue to address. In his response to our points about the limitations of clause 5, the Minister did not reinforce the sort of encouragement that he has said the Government want to give the First Minister and Deputy First Minister about consultation. If the Minister had been more forthcoming, we might have believed in the worth of his

10 Mar 2016 : Column 483

encouragement to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. On that basis, we do not intend to press the amendment to a vote.

Tom Elliott: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Exercise of functions

Amendment made: 3, in clause 2, page 2, line 17, leave out “or Ireland”.—(Mr Wallace.)

This amendment limits the Secretary of State’s duty to give guidance about the exercise of the Commission’s functions in relation to disclosures of information which might prejudice national security. As amended, the duty will cover only the national security interests of the United Kingdom.

Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 3 to 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Extension of period for appointment of Ministers

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Temporary Chair (Mr David Crausby): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 8, in clause 7, page 4, line 13, at end insert

“including agreed support measures for those who are evidently making the transition away from paramilitarism;”

This amendment seeks to prevent a possible tension between two parts of the Pledge, which may be interpreted divergently.

Amendment 9, in clause 7, page 4, line 20, leave out paragraph (cj)

See Member’s explanatory statement to amendment 8.

Amendment 10, in clause 7, page 4, line 22, at beginning insert “subject to paragraph (e)”

This amendment maintains the primacy of the requirement in the existing pledge of office in Schedule 4 to the 1998 Act to support, and act in accordance, with, all decisions of the Executive Committee and Assembly.

Amendment 11, in clause 7, page 4, line 24, at end insert—

“( ) After section 16A(9) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, insert—

(9A) The First Ministers shall each make their pledge of office orally in full at a sitting of the Assembly.”

This amendment provides for the First Ministers to make their pledge of office in full at a sitting of the Assembly.

Amendment 12, in clause 7, page 4, line 24, at end insert—

“( ) The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints—

(a) will receive any complaints of any breach of the pledge of office, and take whatever action in regard to that complaint the Commissioner considers appropriate, which may include investigating, resolving or publishing conclusions on the outcome of any complaint.