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House of Commons

Wednesday 4 September 2013

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Government Estate

1. David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): What progress the Government have made in response to the 2010 report on use of the Government estate. [900026]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): We are committed to saving money by, among other things, cutting our occupancy of property in London and elsewhere. We are consolidating into freehold space wherever practical. Since the general election, the central civil estate in London has been reduced by about 22%. Across the country we have cut estate costs by nearly £500 million and we are on track to deliver a further £80 million by the end of the current financial year.

David Mowat: I thank the Minister for that answer. The Smith report identified that 15,000 jobs could be moved from London to the English regions by 2015. That would first of all save money, but also correct the spending imbalance by which London has the highest current spending per head of any English region. Is there more we can do to make swifter progress?

Mr Maude: The Smith recommendations were, so far as I can see, made on an assumption of stable public sector employment. Owing to the size of the public sector deficit that the coalition Government inherited, public sector employment has been falling since then by more than 400,000, and the size of the civil service is down by about 73,000 since the election, so the priority has been to reduce the amount of property we occupy, rather than moving employment from one part of the country to another.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The problems with finding savings from the Government estate are that many Departments are finding it difficult to surrender leaseholds early and to find private sector businesses to take up surplus accommodation, and are even having problems with selling freeholds because of

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the state of the property market, meaning that it is very unlikely that the full potential savings of £830 million will be met before 2020.

Mr Maude: I do not think the hon. Gentleman is right on that. Actually, vacant space in the central Government estate is running at about 2.5%, compared with the national average of over 10% across the public and private sectors, so in fact Government Departments and agencies are not finding it impossible to surrender leases—they are doing so very effectively—or to sell properties where that makes sense, although our preference is to occupy the freeholds and get out of the leaseholds.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con) rose

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con) rose—

Mr Speaker: Ah, a Northamptonshire choice. I call Mr Philip Hollobone.

Mr Hollobone: What does the Minister expect the footprint of the Government estate to be by the end of the present Parliament compared with May 2010?

Mr Maude: Certainly, so far as the central Government estate in London is concerned, it will be down by well over a quarter, but that is only the beginning, because obviously property disposals and vacancies take time, for some of the reasons that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) just referred to; that cannot be done literally overnight. We have made considerable progress already, however, as it is down by nearly a quarter and there will be much more to come.

Mr Bone: I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) did not have the nerve to suggest that Government should relocate to Kettering, because he knows the place to come to is 50 minutes from London and it is Wellingborough. Will the Minister encourage Departments to move to Wellingborough, especially the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister?

Mr Maude: I can imagine that no relocation destination would be more popular with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister than my hon. Friend’s constituency—or failing that, perhaps the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone).

Government Statistics

2. John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): What steps he is taking to promote public trust in Government statistics. [900027]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): Public trust in Government statistics is incredibly important. As the hon. Gentleman knows, all official statistics in the UK are now subject to independent scrutiny by the UK Statistics Authority. As he also knows, that is now independent of Government and directly accountable to Parliament, rather than through Ministers.

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John Robertson: I thank the Minister for that answer, but have the Government not failed to respond to the Public Administration Committee recommendations because of the Prime Minister’s numerous breaches of the code of practice for Government statistics?

Mr Hurd: I am not aware of any failings in communicating with the Committee. The Prime Minister has responded to those suggestions directly and to the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority very vigorously, which is the right and proper way of approaching it.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): May I tell my hon. Friend how much I agreed with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General when he said in opposition that we should end the practice of pre-release—the release of statistics to Ministers and officials hours or even days before they are released to the public, so that they can be spun? Would it not increase trust in statistics if the Government adopted the views of the UK Statistics Authority and the Public Administration Committee and ended this practice, as they have in many other jurisdictions?

Mr Hurd: I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about this, as does the Committee he chairs. He will know that we inherited a regime that had, rightly, been tightened up, with arrangements embedded in legislation. He will also know that we reviewed the arrangements when we came into power and took the view that the right balance had been struck. The arguments are well rehearsed and although I know that he does not like the message, we are not going to change the arrangements and I do not think that that message is going to change.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): Let us look at cyber-statistics. In answer to my parliamentary question, the Minister put the cost of cybercrime at £27 billion, but that turns out to be a 2010 “guestimate” from defence company Detica. The National Audit Office misused Cambridge university figures, managing to confuse pounds with dollars. We all know that online crime is rising, but the Government rely on outdated third-party figures. Is he surprised that the public do not trust the Government’s efforts to fight cybercrime, given that they clearly cannot even measure it?

Mr Hurd: The Government take the whole issue of cybercrime incredibly seriously. I am not sure that we are going to take any lectures on trust in public statistics from the Labour party; the reason the UK Statistics Authority is in place is because public trust in Government statistics cratered after 13 years of Labour, for ever associated with the dark arts of spin and media manipulation.

Government Contracts: SMEs

3. Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that more small and medium-sized companies win business from Government. [900028]

4. Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that more small and medium-sized companies win business from Government. [900029]

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6. Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): What steps he has taken to address barriers to small and medium-sized enterprises participating in Government procurement. [900031]

12. Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to open up central Government Departments to partnerships with small and medium-sized enterprises. [900039]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Miss Chloe Smith): It is this Government’s policy to dismantle the barriers facing small and medium-sized companies to ensure that they can compete for contracts on a level playing field and grow. I refer the House to the letter I sent last month to all hon. Members, in which I set out some of the progress we have made and the further steps we will be taking to ensure that Departments continue to increase their spend with small companies.

Nick de Bois: I am grateful for the Minister’s answer and I welcome her reforms to Government procurement processes, which are a marked improvement on the previous Government’s efforts. However, will she share her Department’s best practice with local government, which is still issuing cumbersome and complicated tenders that are excluding so many SMEs from competing for business because of the amount of time that they have to put into them?

Miss Smith: I welcome that support from my hon. Friend, who is extremely active on these matters in trying to secure more jobs, particularly in his constituency. He rightly says that we have a clear job, which we will do: to transfer the successful procurement reforms that we have made in central Government to the wider public sector. We are accepting the recommendations made in Lord Young’s “Growing Your Business” report, which deals with the complexity, cost and inconsistency that can face small businesses in the wider public sector.

Julian Sturdy: The Minister will doubtless be aware of the success of Redfern Travel, from my constituency, which saw off French competition to win a billion-pound contract. How will the Government’s reforms help other British businesses to achieve similar David and Goliath-type victories over multinational corporations?

Miss Smith: I also welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment in his constituency to SMEs. I note that support has come from, for example, the Federation of Small Businesses, which says that Government policy continues to move in the right direction in this area. The forthcoming consultation, to which I referred, will make that public sector procurement market more accessible to SMEs, by requiring all contracts over £10,000 to be listed in one place—on Contracts Finder, for example. I also draw his attention to an SME friendliness tool that we published in June. I urge all colleagues to use that to hold contractors in their constituencies to account.

Mrs Glindon: What is the Minister doing to promote the use of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 to help small businesses and social enterprises to win public sector contracts?

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Miss Smith: I am glad that the hon. Lady has raised that point and she will know that we have asked my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) to act as an ambassador on this matter; it is very important. The message that we need to get through to contractors, who are of course the ones making such arrangements, is that they must have regard to the taxpayer and value for money at all times, but that other such issues might also be used to benefit those for whom they are contracting.

Mr Sheerman: Is the Minister not aware that the truth is that the Government are becoming more and more dependent on big companies—private sector companies such as G4S, Serco and Capita? Is she aware that a recent Fujitsu-sponsored poll of small and medium-sized enterprises showed that 26% find it more difficult to get contracts with the Government and that 6% think that it is easier?

Miss Smith: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s focus on this matter. He will welcome our review on some of the companies he has named, but it is most important to say that the Government are on track to deliver our aspiration of awarding 25% of central Government business to SMEs by 2015. We look for that directly and through the supply chain, and that is what helps us to procure for growth in this country.

Michael Dugher (Barnsley East) (Lab): In a recent speech at an event called “Transforming Technology Procurement through SMEs”, the Minister for the Cabinet Office said with typical understatement that the Government were

“entering a new world for government technology procurement”

and launching

“radical reforms to increase opportunities for SME suppliers”.

Why, then, according to freedom of information requests submitted by ComputerWeekly, has only 0.52% of all the IT procurement spend for the Government’s beleaguered universal credit programme gone to SMEs?

Miss Smith: It continues to be pretty rich for the hon. Gentleman to come to this Dispatch Box when he and his Government did absolutely nothing to count the spend with SMEs when they were in government.

National Citizen Service

5. Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): What assessment he has made of the work of the National Citizen Service. [900030]

7. Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): What assessment he has made of the work of the National Citizen Service. [900033]

8. Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): What assessment he has made of the work of the National Citizen Service. [900034]

9. Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): What assessment he has made of the work of the National Citizen Service. [900035]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): We published an independent evaluation of the National Citizen Service in July and I am delighted to say that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. It proved that NCS is boosting young people’s confidence, helping them to develop valuable skills, as well as inspiring them to make a difference in their communities. Return on investment is estimated at almost three times the cost of delivery.

Caroline Nokes: Mountbatten school in my constituency runs the NCS for the whole of Hampshire. This summer, more than 160 young people benefited from the experience. The feedback from them has been overwhelmingly positive, but what reassurance can the Minister give that the scheme will continue into the future so that many more young people can benefit?

Mr Hurd: I am delighted that my hon. Friend’s young constituents got so much out of the experience. She will be delighted to know that 26,000 young people took part in NCS last year and our public intention is to make 150,000 places available in 2016. I hope that reassures her of our intention to make this fantastic experience available to many more 16 and 17-year-olds.

Gavin Barwell: Over the summer I had the opportunity to meet three groups of young people from my constituency who took part in the programme, which is run so well by The Challenge Network in my part of the country. What more can the Government do to encourage even more schools to get their pupils to take part in this excellent scheme?

Mr Hurd: I am delighted that my hon. Friend also had such a good experience with his local NCS. I am delighted to have it confirmed regularly that young people are now recommending it to each other, which, as he knows, is the way that it will grow. We continue to evangelise in schools, but it is fantastic that young people are now talking to each other on Facebook and Twitter and saying, “You should do this.”

Glyn Davies: My hon. Friend has told us how successful and popular the scheme has been. What plans does he have to extend the scheme more widely so that it can have an impact in Wales?

Mr Hurd: I am delighted to say that we have managed to persuade the Administration in Northern Ireland to adopt a very successful pilot there, which we are delighted with. I am very happy to confirm that we are continuing to talk with the Scottish and Welsh Administrations to try to encourage them to work with us to structure some pilots to make the scheme available to young people across the United Kingdom.

Rehman Chishti: Will the Minister join me in congratulating all the young people who took part in the scheme in my constituency, which was delivered by the Medway Youth Trust? The scheme was completely filled this year and the trust wants to see it continue to grow next year.

Mr Hurd: I continue to be enormously impressed and proud of all NCS participants and how the experience raises their confidence and sense of what they can

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achieve. I would like to place on the record my thanks to all providers for the way in which they are delivering a very challenging programme so well and so consistently across the country.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that cuts to year-round services for young people have directly contributed to 6,000 NCS places not being filled this summer? What is he going to do to save the Youth Service, the year-round service that is now his responsibility?

Mr Hurd: The Cabinet Office is not devoting any money from local authorities. Every week the hon. Lady pops up to talk about cuts in her constituency, but she never asks any tough questions of her local authority about the priorities it sets. The Cabinet Office has taken over responsibility for youth policy, and part of what we will be doing is working with local authorities across the country that want to think creatively about how they continue to deliver really value-added youth services.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): It was a privilege to meet participants in the National Citizen Service in Wiltshire last month. They told me that they got the opportunity to work with people on social action projects whom they would not otherwise have met. Does the Minister agree that the value of the initiative depends on its ability to continue to draw participants from all backgrounds?

Mr Hurd: My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. The social mix is fundamental to the value of NCS, because it is about giving young people opportunities to meet and spend time together that they would not otherwise have, and they value that enormously. We pay by results when it comes to providers delivering that, and we monitor it obsessively.


10. Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of implementation of the Government’s procurement reforms. [900036]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Miss Chloe Smith): As a result of the Government’s procurement reforms, we have made the way we do business more competitive, more transparent, better value and far simpler than ever before.

Nic Dakin: I thank the Minister for that answer. Are the Government still allowing large corporations that are being investigated for fraud to bid to run our probation services while excluding small businesses and organisations from doing the same?

Miss Smith: The hon. Gentleman will find that the contracts he might be alluding to were all let by the previous Government, and I have already informed the House of the progress we are making in shifting Government business to SMEs.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): The Public Administration Committee’s report on procurement stated that the Cabinet Office should work with all Departments, and especially the Department for Business, Innovation

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and Skills, to ensure that UK business is prepared to deliver UK contracts. What progress is being made on that?

Miss Smith: The most important thing to remind the House about in that regard is how the pipelines we have published show British firms, and indeed firms around the world that have a good piece of value to offer the British taxpayer, where they can find contracts.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): Britain has a massive trade deficit with the European Union, and it could be reduced if British companies were employed to provide for the Government. How much are the Government doing to ensure that public organisations purchase from British companies, rather than those from the continent of Europe?

Miss Smith: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to make. What we seek is best value for the British taxpayer and to use the British Government’s procurement spend to allow for growth as far as possible in this country. We are of course bound by certain EU procurement rules, with which I am sure he is very familiar. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. There are a lot of very noisy conversations taking place, including on the Opposition Benches, but I am sure that Members will wish to be quiet to hear Stella Creasy.


11. Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to increase information-sharing between Government and businesses on cyber-attacks. [900037]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): As part of our £860 million investment in the national cyber-security programme, earlier this year I launched the cyber information-sharing partnership. It provides a secure online and face-to-face environment for Government, law-enforcement agencies and business to share information on cyber-threats and how best to combat them. Already over 150 firms and other organisations have joined, and it is our intention to expand the membership to include SMEs.

Stella Creasy: I thank the Minister for that response. Given the important role that the police will play in helping small businesses tackle cybercrime, can the Minister tell us precisely how much of the £650 million cybercrime budget has been allocated to the police, and how much of it has been spent and on what?

Mr Maude: I cannot give the hon. Lady the exact figures off the top of my head. Obviously a considerable amount is being spent with the law enforcement agencies to combat cybercrime, about which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) was complaining earlier. This is a very wide-ranging problem. There is a huge issue about awareness in the business community and we are working hard to promote it.

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Topical Questions

T1. [900100] Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): My responsibilities are for the Efficiency and Reform Group on the public sector, civil service issues, industrial relations strategy in the public sector, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

Glyn Davies: Will my right hon. Gentleman give us an update on how he plans to take his very valuable reform forward?

Mr Maude: We are making some progress on civil service reform. It was absolutely essential that we published in July our one-year-on report on progress. The head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, and I were very forthright in saying that progress had not been as fast as we would have hoped, but we are stepping up the pressure and the pace.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): While there are now rumours of significant concessions, Ministers still need to explain why charities were not consulted before the lobbying Bill was published. Why could not even the junior Minister be bothered to pick up the phone to the Royal British Legion, cancer charities or the National Council for Voluntary Organisations before producing a Bill that will have such a chilling impact on the work of charities?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Miss Chloe Smith): The hon. Gentleman knows very well that we spent a significant amount of time on this in the House yesterday and that there is more opportunity to discuss it next week. He will also know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I met charity leaders on Monday and will continue to do so. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. There is still far too much noise in the Chamber. I understand the general excitement, which I am sure is in anticipation of the question from Mr Henry Smith.

T3. [900102] Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the £10 billion- worth of efficiency savings that his Department has made on behalf of the taxpayer in the past year. What ambition does he have for the coming year?

Mr Maude: We hope that those savings will rise to £15 billion in the current year, and potentially to £20 billion the following year, with a further £5 billion, at least, after that. If only the Leader of the Opposition had started to do this when he held my job, perhaps we would not have inherited quite the size of public sector deficit that we did, but I am afraid that he was showing weak leadership even then.

T2. [900101] Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): The Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West

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(Mr Thomas) was to say that she had met charities on Monday. What was she doing all summer while the ramifications of this dog’s breakfast of a lobbying Bill became clear?

Miss Chloe Smith: We were doing more over the summer to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists than Labour ever did.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Does the Minister share my concern that too many charities spend too much money on lobbying and on inflation-busting pay rises and bonuses for the boardroom, and that they ought to be concentrating more on the front line of helping people in need?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): I hear my hon. Friend. I happen to think that campaigning continues to be an entirely legitimate activity for charities as long as it fits with their charitable objectives. That has always been the Government’s position and I do not see this legislation affecting that.

T4. [900103] Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): Leading human rights lawyer Helen Mountfield QC said this week that the transparency of lobbying Bill will put

“small organisations and their trustees/directors in fear of criminal penalty if they speak out on matters of public interest and concern.”

Will the Minister finally wake up and do something about this appalling Bill?

Miss Chloe Smith: That leading QC’s advice in fact bears out that those concerns exist under the current legislation. Furthermore, we see a great show of displacement activity among Labour Members because they are afraid of some of their friends coming under scrutiny.

T5. [900104] Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): Is it not the case that the transparency of lobbying Bill would not stop lobbyist Lynton Crosby advising the Prime Minister on tobacco policy, but could stop an organisation such as Cancer Research UK campaigning about it? Is that acceptable?

Miss Smith: We explained at length yesterday that the Bill would not affect or change the law concerning the political activity of charitable organisations in the sense of when they support, promote or procure electoral outcomes. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has answered the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question too many times to count.

T6. [900108] Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): But the Government’s lobbying proposals would apply only to third-party consultant lobbyists, who make up a small minority of the industry. The Association of Professional Political Consultants estimates that this means that only 1% of ministerial meetings organised by lobbyists will be captured by the legislation. Does the Minister agree with Iain Anderson of the APPC that this Bill is so bad that it

“would be difficult to produce a worse Bill”?

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Miss Smith: If that was an attempt at lobbying it was rather too long-winded. The point is that we are doing more to introduce a statutory register than Labour ever did, and we are clearing up a specific transparency gap that arises, because we are the most transparent Government ever and I think the hon. Gentleman knows it.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [900010] Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 4 September.

The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron): Before listing my engagements, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their son, His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge. I am sure I speak for the whole nation in sending our congratulations and wishing them and Prince George a very happy and healthy life. I assure hon. Members that they will be able to offer their own congratulations next Monday when the formal motion is moved in the proper way.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.

Christopher Pincher: May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s congratulation to their Royal Highnesses?

Since we last met there has been a spate of good economic news, both in Tamworth and around the country. Unemployment is down and the economy is growing. Manufacturing is up, exports are up and construction is up. Is it not time for those who still propose it to stop messing around, give it up and abandon plan B?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have had welcome news over the summer: exports are up 5.8% on a year ago, business confidence is at its highest level since January 2008, consumer confidence is up and all the figures on construction, manufacturing and services are going in the right direction. We must not be complacent—these are early days—but it is because of the tough decisions that this Government took that we can now see progress.

We ought to remember that Labour Members told us that unemployment would go up, but it has come down, and that the economy would go backwards, but it has gone forwards. It is time for them to explain that they were wrong and we were right.

Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab): I join the Prime Minister in congratulating the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of Prince George. I wish all of them all the happiness in the world.

At the G20 summit in St Petersburg tomorrow, will the Prime Minister do everything he can to get other countries to match the UK’s important aid commitment to alleviate the humanitarian emergency in Syria, given

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that almost one third of Syrian families have been forced to flee their homes and yet the United Nations has less than half the resources it needs?

The Prime Minister: Of course I will be taking that action. Britain has a very proud record on humanitarian aid, not just in this conflict, but in many previous conflicts. In this one we are the second largest aid donor. We have spent more than £400 million. At the G20 it will be very important to make a number of points clear: our absolute revulsion at the use of chemical weapons, our desire for a peace process and, above all, the need to get donor countries together and make sure that they live up to their responsibilities and that we do everything we can to help the Syrian people in their hour of need.

Edward Miliband: The civil war in Syria and the refugee crisis are having profound consequences not just in that country, but across the middle east, specifically in Jordan, Turkey and Iraq and especially in Lebanon, where the population is up by 25% since the civil war began. What specific support, beyond the welcome humanitarian assistance that the Government are providing, can Britain give to those countries to help them deal with the burden on their infrastructure, economies and wider societies?

The Prime Minister: I have seen for myself, having been to a refugee camp in Jordan, how great the pressures are. That refugee camp is now one of the biggest cities in that country. We have well-funded embassies and diplomatic networks, and very close relations with Lebanon and Jordan, as well as with the Turks. We are doing everything we can to help and advise them. We are well placed to do so, because we are spending serious money on the humanitarian aid programmes.

However, at the end of the day, what we need is a solution to the Syrian crisis. We need a peace process to be put in place. We also need to be absolutely clear about our revulsion to chemical weapons and should ensure that our aid programme is giving the Syrian people protection from the appalling chemical weapons attacks that they have suffered.

Edward Miliband: The revulsion at the chemical weapons attacks is shared in all parts of this House, as the debate last Thursday made clear.

I want to come on to an issue that the Prime Minister raised, which is getting the talks going between the warring parties. The opposition Syrian National Council is meeting the Foreign Secretary in the next couple of days. Will the Prime Minister tell us what work he is doing with the Syrian National Council to make the talks in Geneva happen?

The Prime Minister: What we are doing with the Syrian National Council is twofold. First, we want to support those elements of the Syrian opposition that support a pluralistic, democratic and free Syria. That is what our engagement with them has been all about. We go further than that, however, because we recognise that the so-called rebels who back those views also deserve our support through training, assistance and advice. The truth is this: we will not get a peace process in Syria unless President Assad realises that his regime is under

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some sort of pressure and threat not just from the rebels, but from the millions of Syrians, whom we must stand up for, who want democracy, freedom and a better future for themselves and their children. It is those people whose side we should truly be on.

Edward Miliband: There is no difference across this House on the need to stand up for the innocent people of Syria. The question at issue—[Interruption.] The House has approached this issue, so far, in a calm and measured way, and we should carry on doing that. The point at issue is how to stand up for those people. There are big barriers, as we have found out over the past year or more, to the Geneva II peace talks happening. Is there not a case for immediate talks between those countries that are backing the rebels and those countries that are backing the regime? That happened during the civil war in Lebanon and it would at least provide a basis for discussions.

The Prime Minister: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that Britain should use all its diplomatic muscle in discussions with those countries that have backed the regime and by joining with countries that back the rebels and the opposition to try to bring those talks about. That is why I have had repeated discussions with President Putin, for instance, most recently last Monday, and why I travelled to Sochi to see him specifically to discuss this issue.

However, I come back to this point: it is all very well the countries that support either side wanting peace talks to take place, but we also need those involved in the conflict in Syria to recognise that it is in their interests for a peace process to begin. I think that we can convince the Syrian National Council that it is in its interests, because a transition could lead to genuinely free elections and change for Syria. However, we need Assad himself to realise that it is in his interests, because there is no victory that he can win against his own people. For that to happen, we need to take, and the world needs to take, a very tough response to things such as chemical weapons attacks. I accept that Britain cannot be and will not be part of any military action on that front, but we must not in any degree give up our utter revulsion at the chemical weapons attacks that we have seen and we must press that point in every forum of which we are a member.

Edward Miliband: Nobody disagrees about our revulsion at the use of chemical weapons. As I say, the question is how to deal with it. What I said to the Prime Minister was, given the difficulty of getting direct talks moving between the Syrian Government and opposition, is there not a case for getting the regional partners involved? We all know the role that Iran has played in fuelling this conflict. However, given that successful diplomacy involves talking to those with whom we profoundly disagree, what is the Government’s position on Iran participating either in a contact group or as part of the Geneva process?

The Prime Minister: As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, he will be meeting the Iranian Foreign Minister when he is in New York for the UN General Assembly. However, let us not forget what Iran has done to our embassy and to our country. We should not put that on one side.

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The point I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that of course we all want these peace talks to take place and we all want Geneva II to happen, but we cannot want it more than the participants in Syria’s bloody conflict. We have to make sure it is in their interests that the talks go ahead. That is why, although diplomacy is important, the work we do with the Syrian opposition who support democracy and a pluralistic, fair and free future for Syria is also important. They are standing up for millions of Syrians who have been bombed and blasted out of their houses. Those are the people we need to talk to, in the refugee camps in Jordan and elsewhere, to see how they feel and how badly the rest of the world is currently letting them down.

Edward Miliband: Nobody disagrees with that, or indeed about the view we take of Iran’s behaviour. The question is, how are we going to bring the parties together, including the regional parties?

Finally, does the Prime Minister accept that there remains support across the country for Britain taking every diplomatic, political and humanitarian effort to help the Syrian people? Last week’s vote was not about Britain shirking its global responsibilities, it was about preventing a rush to war.

The Prime Minister: Last week the House of Commons voted clearly, and I have said that I respect the outcome of that vote and will not be bringing back plans for British participation in military action. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must bring to bear everything we have in our power—our diplomatic networks, our influence with other countries and our membership of all the key bodies such as the G8, the G20, the UN, the EU and NATO. My only regret from last week is that I do not think it was necessary to divide the House on a vote that could have led to a vote, but he took the decision that it was.

Q2. [900011] Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): We hear today that the UK services business activity index is at its highest level for six and a half years. Does that not show that the Government’s economic policies are working, and will the Prime Minister commit to ensuring that our increased prosperity helps to pay for Shrewsbury’s north-west relief road?

The Prime Minister: I will certainly look at the proposal my hon. Friend makes. I know that he wants Shrewsbury to be a connected hub in our country, and he puts that case regularly. The good news about this economic recovery, early days though it is, is that we are seeing it through more people in work. There are 935,000 more people employed than there were when this Government came to office and 1.3 million more private sector jobs, and we need to see further progress on that, because the best route out of poverty and the best way to improve living standards in our country is to see an increasing number of our men and women in gainful work.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): May I press the Prime Minister on the issue of relations with Iran? With respect to him, his previous answer sounded as if he had taken no account of the fact that since our embassy was outrageously sacked by Ahmadinejad and his thugs,

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there has been an election in Iran, however imperfect, that has led to a different individual becoming President, Hassan Rouhani, who to my certain knowledge is someone the west and the British Prime Minister can deal with. May I ask him to look very carefully, with the Foreign Secretary, at how we can take steps now to improve relations with Iran, identify matters of common interest and try to get it involved in solving Syria?

The Prime Minister: I agree that the election of a President who has a greater commitment to reform is a positive step, and I have written to President Rouhani to raise a series of issues that need to be settled between Britain and Iran. Above all, we need to see progress on what President Rouhani himself has said is important, which is trying to come to an agreement whereby Iran gives up the idea of nuclear weapons and in return we see some relief on sanctions. That would be major progress, but we should not just do that from a position of hoping for the best. We have seen what Iran has been capable of in the recent past, so we should go into such discussions very cautiously.

Q3. [900012] Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that accuracy of statistics is vital to inform public debate? Is he aware that 4% of people believe that Elvis is still alive? That is double the number we hear today who think that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) is a natural leader.

The Prime Minister: I can see that my hon. Friend has certainly put his summer to very good use, and I am grateful for his question. Obviously, we need to see a run of opinion polls before we can see a true trend.

Margaret Beckett (Derby South) (Lab): Why does the Prime Minister believe that his plans to restrict lobbying are opposed by organisations from the Salvation Army, the Countryside Alliance, Oxfam, the British Legion, and so on, right through to “ConservativeHome”?

The Prime Minister: I was listening to the exchanges before I came in for Prime Minister’s questions, and it seems to me that a concerted lobbying campaign is being run by the trade unions, who have mysteriously managed to convince Member of Parliament after Member of Parliament on the Opposition Benches to raise this problem. We all know what is going on—they do not want the trade unions brought within the law; they want the trade unions to go on spending millions after millions trying to alter an election campaign, rather than having them properly controlled by the law. That is what the lobbying Bill is about.

Q4. [900013] Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): The UK economy is set to benefit from around £50 million by hosting the epic Clipper round the world yacht race, which kicked off this week. Will the Prime Minister come to Gosport to see for himself one of the UK’s top marine and sailing hubs, and personally congratulate Clipper Ventures, which is literally flying the flag for Britain’s tourism, trade and watersports?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have seen a model of this incredible vessel and I join her in welcoming the fantastic contribution that

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Clipper Ventures makes to the British economy. It was great to see the race leave London for the first time, and even better to see that the flotilla was led by a British boat and superbly supported by the great campaign. I will certainly take into account my hon. Friend’s kind invitation to come to Gosport, and I wish Sir Robin Knox-Johnston well, and all those taking part.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): May I take the Prime Minister back to the answer he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) a few minutes ago? Can he be more positive about building better relations urgently with Iran, as one of the keys—one, not all—to bring about a peace process in Syria and across the whole region? Simply attacking Iran all the time will not bring it to the negotiating table, and it is better if the Prime Minister is more positive about it.

The Prime Minister: I do not know about the hon. Gentleman, but if we are trying to build a relationship with someone, it depends on the actions that they take. Given that the Iranian Government were complicit in the complete smashing of our embassy and residence in Tehran, we will want to see some action so that we can build that sort of relationship. I have reached out by writing to President Rouhani, congratulating him on his accession to power and wanting to discuss those issues. As I have said, however, if we believe there is just some magical key to the Syrian conflict by suddenly adopting a totally different posture towards Iran, I do not think we will be making a very good decision.

Q5. [900014] David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): Last week we saw the proportion of households with no one in work fall to the lowest level since records began. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is further evidence that the Government’s welfare reforms are working, all of which have been opposed by the Labour party?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. In the second quarter of 2013 there were 3.5 million workless households in the UK, which is down 182,000 on the year and down 425,000 since the election. Each one of those statistics tells a story about people who will be able to get into work, provide for their family and make something of their lives. We should be proud of our welfare reforms, every single one of which was opposed by the Labour party. We have not just saved £83 billion in welfare measures that Labour Members opposed; we have given hope to millions of families in our country.

Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Like the Prime Minister, I condemn the chemical attacks in Syria, but is it not time for some joined-up thinking? Surely an American strike now would squander the opportunities offered by the new Iranian leadership and by the new US initiative in Palestine. Will the Prime Minister do what the British people want and insist that the G20 searches for a way to bring about a ceasefire, rather than a new bombing raid?

The Prime Minister: As I have said, I respect fully the decision the House came to after the debate last week and Britain will not play any part in military action, but

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I ask the right hon. Lady to put herself, for a moment, in the shoes of the President of the United States and others. He set a very clear red line that, if there was large-scale chemical weapons use, something had to happen. We know that the regime used chemical weapons on at least 14 previous occasions. To ask the President, having set that line and made that warning, to step away from it, would be a perilous suggestion to make. In response, I believe we would see more chemical weapons attacks from the regime.

The right hon. Lady has a long track record of supporting peace and peace talks, which I respect. I will do everything I can to try to bring the Geneva II peace talks together, but I do not believe there is a contradiction in taking a tough line on the use of chemical weapons, which are revolting in our modern world, and wanting the peace talks that could bring the crisis to an end.

Q6. [900015] Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): Cancer funding per head in Herefordshire is half that in Birmingham. Academic research suggests that the current NHS funding formula discriminates against rural areas and older people. Does the Prime Minister share my view that the NHS should move as quickly as possible towards fairer funding for rural areas?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point, but he will know that we have taken a lot of those decisions away from Ministers and given them to NHS England, which has said that it is looking at a fairer funding formula. I am sure it will look at the arguments he has made. In addition, I ask him to look at the Cancer Drugs Fund, which has been a phenomenal success in England. Sadly, it has not been copied by Labour in Wales, but I am full of hope. The fund has helped many of our constituents to get the treatments they badly need.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Can the Prime Minister tell the House what he is doing to support food banks in the UK?

The Prime Minister: We have done something that the food bank movement had been asking for for years, but that the Labour Government did not grant because they were worried about the public relations—namely, the ability to say to people in Jobcentre Plus who needed help that they could go to a food bank. The Labour Government might not have wanted to do that because it was bad publicity; we did it because it was the right thing.

Q7. [900016] Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that the combination of the good weather, our deficit reduction and our control of public spending has given confidence to business and individuals to create 1.3 million jobs? However, given those encouraging figures, is he somewhat surprised that the Leader of the Opposition still believes that the Government’s policy will cost 1 million jobs?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend could add to the good weather the fact that Andy Murray won Wimbledon and England retained the Ashes—much good news was to be had over the summer. It is important that we recognise what brought about the good news to which

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he refers. Parties had to make a key judgment on whether, in this Parliament, to get to grips with the deficit and take the tough decisions we needed to turn our country around. The Government parties made those tough decisions; the Labour party ducked every single one of them.

Q8. [900017] Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): The Government are right to extend free nursery provision to disadvantaged two-year-olds, but figures show that four in 10 councils will not have sufficient places. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that all those children promised a place will have one?

The Prime Minister: We have put in place the funding to provide that for the disadvantaged two-year-olds and I am confident that they will receive the services they deserve.

Q9. [900018] Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Unemployment in my constituency is lower than at any time since the 2010 general election. Locally, I have organised two successful jobs fairs and we are organising a third. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that goes to show that the Government are right to stick to the economic plan, despite calls to abandon it by Opposition Members?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The figures on employment are encouraging. There are more people in work in our country than ever before and more people in private sector employment than ever before; there is a record number of women in work in our country; and there are almost 1 million more people in work compared with the situation we inherited. At some stage, Labour Members will have to get off the fence and admit they got it wrong. They were wrong, but even today, the shadow Chancellor is saying he will borrow even more, even when we have started turning round the economy. He has learnt absolutely nothing.

Q10. [900019] Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Energy companies have enjoyed a £3.3 billion profit windfall while ordinary families face energy bills going up by £300 a year. Why has the Prime Minister failed to stand up to energy companies and get a better deal from the energy market for ordinary families?

The Prime Minister: I do not know where the hon. Lady was during the debate on the Energy Bill, but this Government have legislated to make sure that people are put on the lowest tariffs. This Government have done that, but when the leader of the Labour party was Energy Secretary—when, incidentally, bills went through the roof—there was no such action.

Q11. [900020] Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): The Office for National Statistics has revised its figures for growth upwards by 0.7%, there is a record number of apprenticeships and very low unemployment in the Cotswolds, and there are very good conditions for young people to get into work. Does my right hon. Friend think that all that would have been achieved if he had taken the advice of the shadow Chancellor?

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The Prime Minister: What my hon. Friend says is very interesting. Every time there is a question about the economy—that more people are in work, more businesses are being established and the economy is growing—the Opposition do not want to hear a word of it. They know what the whole country can see—Britain is succeeding and Labour is failing.

Q12. [900021] Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Prime Minister accept any responsibility for the fact that it is now forecast that by the time of the election working people will have lost, on average, £6,660 of wages in real terms while he has been in No. 10?

The Prime Minister: Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that there is only one sustainable way to get living standards up, and that is to get the economy growing, which we are doing; to cut taxes, which we are delivering; and to keep mortgage rates low, which we are doing. The fact is that if we listened to the Opposition—who only have one plan, to spend more, borrow more and build up more debt—we would be back to where we started.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): As the Syrian tragedy has unfolded, I have always had the armageddon question in the back of my mind, which I shall now, in an understated form, put to the Prime Minister, if I may. If the Americans illegally bombard the Assad forces and Assad legally invites the Russians in to degrade the rebels, what will NATO do?

The Prime Minister: The first point that I would make to my right hon. Friend is that we would never support illegal action. We debated this at some length last week, and it is not the case that the only way action can be legal is a UN resolution. We would only support action that was legal and proportionate. As I have said, Britain would not be taking part in any of this action. In a way, we have to put the armageddon question round the other way, which is that if no action were taken following President Obama’s red line and this appalling use of chemical weapons, what sort of armageddon would the Syrian people face?

Q13. [900022] Mr Jim Hood (Lanark and Hamilton East) (Lab): The Prime Minister says that he does not support a mansion tax for people living in mansions worth more than £2 million because, he claims, some people living in them are capital rich and cash poor. How does the Prime Minister square that with his support for the bedroom tax, which punishes people who are capital poor and have no cash?

The Prime Minister: First, the hon. Gentleman has to be clear about what is and what is not a tax. Before our changes, there was a subsidy for people who had additional rooms they were not using, and we believe that it is fair to have the same rules in private sector rented accommodation and in council accommodation. The question is now for Labour. You have ranted and raved about the spare room subsidy. Are you going to reverse it? Just nod. Are you going to reverse it? Yes or no? Absolutely nothing to say, and weak with it.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): It is no trivial decision for people to up sticks and leave their home and country, fleeing for their own safety. How many

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people must have left Syria before it is impossible for its regime to declare any kind of moral entitlement to govern that country?

The Prime Minister: I do not believe that the regime has any legitimacy. The way it has treated its own people—bombing and maiming its own citizens, and now the use of chemical weapons—means that I see it as a completely illegitimate regime. What we now have to do is bring every pressure to bear for a transition so we can end up with Syria in totally different hands. That is what is required.

Q14. [900023] Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): The cost of secondary school uniforms has spiralled to £285 this year, as new free schools and academies insist on branded clothes. In fact, at one new academy 70% of parents had to take out loans to pay for uniforms. Why has the Prime Minister failed to act? His schools policy is now leading to loans that can only add to the profit of loan companies, such as Wonga.

The Prime Minister: First, like many people and many parents, I think it is absolutely right for schools, if they want, to choose to have a tough and robust uniform policy. I was at the opening of a new free school in Birmingham yesterday where all the parents in the room were grateful for the school’s policy. I have to say that what I see is the hon. Lady trying to find a way to oppose free schools. The fact is that we now have 194 free schools. [Interruption.] The Opposition do not like it because parents think it is a good education. The Opposition are going to have to listen to the figures: two thirds of these schools are either “good” or “outstanding”. At some stage, just as it got it wrong on the economy, the Labour party will have to admit that it got it wrong about free schools, too.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): It cost the Ministry of Defence £1.4 billion to extend the life of the four Trident submarines so that the Liberal Democrats could study alternatives. Now that that study has shown there is no alternative to Trident, will the Prime Minister consider signing the main-gate contract for the first two submarines, so that we can never again be blackmailed by the Liberal Democrats in a hung Parliament?

The Prime Minister: I have to credit my hon. Friend with remarkable consistency on this issue, on which, basically, I agree: we have Trident, it is the right approach and we need to renew Trident. Actually, the delay of the main-gate decision has saved us money, rather than cost us money. His point about the review is absolutely right. It shows that if we want a proper functioning deterrent, we need to have the best, and that means a permanently at-sea submarine-based alternative. That is what a Conservative-only Government, after the next election, will deliver.

Q15. [900024] John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Is it not the case that—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is something of an exotic creature in the House and I think that that excites interest on Government Benches, but I do wish to hear what he has to say and he must be heard.

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John Mann: Is it not the case that real wages have fallen by nearly £1,500 a year since the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: Of course we live in tough times because of the incredible mess we have had to clear up from the Opposition. I have to say that the Opposition complaining about the economy and living standards is like the arsonist complaining to the fire brigade. It is this Government who are turning the economy around, and that is the way we will get living standards up.

Gordon Birtwistle (Burnley) (LD): Burnley was recently awarded, by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the prestigious award for the most enterprising town in the UK. Does my right hon. Friend wish to

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congratulate the many businesses in Burnley who are members of the Burnley bondholders scheme on their achievement?

The Prime Minister: I certainly congratulate businesses, large and small, in Burnley for the enterprise they have shown. The fact about this recovery is that it is a private sector-led recovery. That is what we needed after massive and excessive Government spending, and it has been very good that businesses up and down the country, including in Burnley, have done so much to take people on and to get our economy moving.

Mr Speaker: We will move in a moment to the urgent question from Yvette Cooper. Perhaps Members who are leaving the Chamber could do so quickly and quietly.

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Border Force

12.35 pm

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department to make a statement in response to the National Audit Office’s borders report.

Hon. Members: Where is she?

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): I hear Opposition Members shouting out about where the Home Secretary is. I know that the shadow Home Secretary has no confidence in the shadow Immigration Minister, after his extraordinarily successful summer, but I am responsible for these matters in the Home Office and I am dealing with the urgent question.

Early in 2011, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration—

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Where’s the Home Secretary?

Mr Harper: It is no good Members complaining. They ought to remember that this Government inherited from Labour a border system that, like many other parts of government, was not functioning very well at all. This is another area where we have had to put things right.

In 2011, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration reported that border security checks were often suspended without ministerial approval, and found poor communication, poor managerial oversight and a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities in Border Force. In response, the Home Secretary removed Border Force from the old UK Border Agency and brought it back within the direct command of the Home Office. Since then we have seen a considerable improvement in performance. As the NAO recognises, all passengers are now checked and queue times are reduced. Indeed, as set out in its last report, targets for detection and seizure of harmful goods and substances are being met and exceeded.

The UK operates one of the most secure borders in the world, with more than 200 million people crossing the border and hundreds of billions of pounds of goods imported and exported. The capability delivered by our border systems is one of the most advanced in Europe and among the best in the world. We are one of only a handful of countries that operate a pre-departure checking system, preventing those who would do us most harm from even boarding aircraft, but of course there is some way to go. Border Force has carried out extensive works on its systems, including the warnings index, which ensures that dangerous persons are identified at the border, to ensure that it continues to operate effectively. We will continue to drive up the performance and resilience of the warnings index and other key systems to ensure that they fully support our officers’ efforts to protect the border.

The culture and morale in Border Force are very important. We are dedicated to ensuring that every member of staff is motivated, trained and developed. Challenges remain, but I and Sir Charles Montgomery, the new permanent director-general, a former Second

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Sea Lord, have visited many staff at the border to speak to them. I have found a work force proud of the work they do, committed to the task in hand and always keen to tell me about their successes and the challenges that exist.

People have said that we are not checking everyone who comes into the country, but the report is clear that that is not the case. Since we introduced the ministerially endorsed operating mandate last year, full checks are being delivered at our ports. Last year, more than 135 million passengers and crew were screened even before they reached the border, resulting in more than 2,880 arrests, including for murder, rape and kidnap.

As well as checking all passengers arriving, we continue to perform intelligence-led checks on goods and freight coming into the country. The National Audit Office confirms that Border Force is meeting and exceeding targets for seizures of some of the most dangerous and harmful materials that criminals attempt to bring into the country. Our class A drugs and firearms targets are being met and exceeded, as are our targets for illegal entrants at our juxtaposed border controls in France and Belgium. Last year we detected 6,000 clandestine attempts at Calais alone and this year we are running ahead of that rate.

Since its establishment last year, Border Force has been working to ensure that the chief inspector’s recommendations have been addressed. During last year’s Olympics, Border Force received significant recognition for its work ensuring that athletes, VIPs and visitors from across the world entered the country without delay, in order that the UK could deliver a world-class games. I am delighted to say that the NAO’s report confirms that we have improved against every one of the recommendations in the chief inspector’s report. I commend this statement to the House.

Yvette Cooper: That was a very complacent response from the Minister, with no explanation of where the Home Secretary is. Today’s National Audit Office report reveals that customs examinations, including for drugs and firearms, are being suspended to cope with passport controls, that checks for illegal migrants hiding in lorries are frequently being stopped, and that staff are reducing the questioning of those with suspect visas in order to meet other pressures. The report also reveals a culture of fear and low morale, as well as leadership problems, with five different directors-general in the past 18 months, staff shortages, understaffing at countless ports even after the latest recruitment, and a funding gap. It states that the Department’s internal auditors have confirmed that the Olympics and wider resourcing issues have had an impact on the security of the border. Will the Home Secretary now publish that internal audit report, so that we can find out how many times checks were stopped?

The NAO report also states:

“In Calais, we observed officers being taken off controls to detect clandestine illegal entrants to the UK concealed in lorries in order to deal with passenger queues”.

That was seen to happen three times in three days, and freight searching was suspended on a further 19 occasions due to understaffing. So, if checks were stopped 21 times in three days, how many times have they been stopped in the past year? At that rate, it would have been

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2,500 times at Calais alone. It is no wonder that officers stopped trying to fingerprint stowaways; it seems as though they stopped trying to catch them at all.

It also seems as though the Home Secretary’s only answer to illegal immigration is to get a man in a van to drive round in circles with a poster asking people if they would mind going home. People do not want gimmicks; they want the Government to get the basics of border security right. The Home Secretary cannot duck her responsibility for that. She ignored the warnings and cut 500 staff from the Border Force before the Olympics. She is just shunting the problem round in circles. First the passport checks, then hours of queues, and now drops in checks on stowaways, guns and drugs and, still, a big drop in the number of illegal migrants being stopped at our border.

The Government are not sorting out the fundamental problems. Each time, the Home Secretary blames someone else, reshuffles the deckchairs and sends someone else to answer the questions. So, will this Minister answer the questions? How many times have the checks been stopped? Will he publish the internal report? And will the Government stop ducking their responsibility and sort the fundamental problems out?

Mr Harper: First, the right hon. Lady is not right to say that checks were suspended. That is not what the report says. As she will know, there is a layered approach at Calais. Checks are done by Border Force officers, and searching by the port authorities also takes place, using equipment supplied by us. We also have contractors, who were absolutely excellent and very successful when I visited in the summer. The day I was there, one of our contractors with detector dogs had that morning found 24 people attempting to enter—[Interruption.] Well, with the greatest respect, I know that labradors are intelligent, but I do not think that that labrador was aware that a Minister was arriving to observe the search for clandestine immigrants. I believe that that level of performance is sustained every day. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has not had a great summer for well-researched thought-through speeches, as everyone in the House is well aware. Perhaps it would be welcome if we heard a little less from him. It is not the case that checks were suspended, even if Border Force officers were dealing with queues. Freight searching was still being carried out, both by our contractors and by the port authorities.

The shadow Home Secretary also referred to the decision not to fingerprint clandestines. I remind her that that decision was actually taken by the former Government of whom she was a member. It was taken early in 2010, which, if I remember rightly, was before the last general election. As I said in response to the chief inspector’s report, that is something that we are reviewing to see whether the decision remains sensible.

On the issue of a culture of fear, all I can say is that I have visited a number of our ports—both airports and seaports—and our juxtaposed controls and, in my experience, the officers I met were, as I said in my statement, dedicated staff. I did not find any reticence on the part of officers in either saying what they were good at or stating where they thought there were issues. They raised their concerns directly with Ministers, and my experience was also the experience of the director-general. I say simply, then, that what the right hon. Lady mentioned was not my experience.

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I think I have dealt with the shadow Home Secretary’s point about leadership, as we have now appointed a permanent director-general who, in his capacity as Second Sea Lord, has a record of achievement from outside the Department. I believe that he has already started to lead the organisation in a very powerful way.

Finally, the right hon. Lady made a last throwaway remark about our pilot of publicity on vans. I would point out here that most of the public support the tough stance we have taken on illegal immigration and that the majority of voters of all parties—72% of the public—support the vans. They want to see our tough approach continue and they do not want the weak approach of the Labour party.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I would like to thank the Minister for a very visible improvement in the performance of the Border Agency over the last year or so, and urge him to work with his staff to ensure that ever-higher standards are achieved by promptly and courteously allowing the legal people in and by ensuring that we find all the illegals at the first point of entry.

Mr Harper: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I know from a conversation we had that he has seen the work that our border officers do in our juxtaposed controls, where attempted illegal entries are prevented from even getting to the United Kingdom. He makes a good point, too, about the rest of the UK Border Agency after the agency’s split into the two component parts of UK visas and immigration and immigration enforcement. It is doing exactly what my right hon. Friend said, which is to welcome those who come to Britain to contribute—skilled workers and students, for example—while deterring those who do not and ensuring that those who overstay their welcome are removed from the country.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Ministers were right to respond to public concern and the recommendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee by putting in additional staff to check passports, but it appears from this report that that came at the expense of those who should have been checking vehicles and people before they entered the country. Will he confirm whether that was, in fact, the case; and will he further confirm that the legal loophole, mentioned in the report by John Vine, has now been closed? Does he agree that co-operation with our EU partners is essential, given that the UK border is actually the border between Turkey and Greece—that is where illegal migration enters the EU—and that unless the French are prepared to work with us in furthering that co-operation, we will not be able to stop people entering our country?

Mr Harper: I welcome the remarks of the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. He raised three questions, which I shall endeavour to answer. The first was about resources, and given that the checks were not being conducted as they should have been in all cases, it would be fair to say that in responding to the chief inspector’s report and implementing the operating mandate, it was clearly necessary to increase the resources going into the Department. As to whether we have the balance right, it is obviously something that we keep under review, and it is a challenge for all operational managers.

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I refer back to the National Audit Office’s last report, not the one published today, that looked into our detection and seizure of serious goods—class A drugs, firearms and so forth—that people were attempting to get through the border. The report said that in all those cases we were meeting and exceeding our seizure and detection targets. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I think that we are succeeding.

I do not have time to go in detail into the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the legal loophole, but I can say that we are making considerable progress and that his general point about the importance of partnership working is absolutely true. I recall a visit last autumn when I met the new French Interior Minister, and I visited Calais and Coquelles this summer in order to see for myself the co-operative work going on between the French port authorities and our Border Force officers. Such co-operation is excellent and we need to keep it in that good shape as we go forward.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Does not the report demonstrate that endless headline-grabbing reorganisations and legislation—with four Acts coming from the last Government alone—were always less important than ensuring that the system we have is effective, efficient and well managed? Is that not something on which we should all be able to agree, instead of turning this serious issue into a party political football?

Mr Harper: I agree with my hon. Friend and Gloucestershire near-neighbour. It was clear from the chief inspector’s report that we had inherited an organisation that was not doing the day job properly, and was not checking everyone who was coming into the country. The whole point of splitting Border Force from the UK Border Agency was to improve that situation. The NAO report has made it clear that we have made progress in regard to all the chief inspector’s recommendations, that we are dealing with the issues that have been raised, and that Border Force is in better shape. However, we are not complacent. There is always more to do, and we now have an excellent director-general who is leading that important job of work.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): Will the Minister confirm that he and the Home Secretary have been receiving monthly reports about the length of queues? If that is the case, will he tell us whether those reports have included details of the number of checks carried out in relation to illegal entry and, indeed, items such as drugs and firearms?

Mr Harper: As the report says, there was a period when there was a real problem with queues and the Home Secretary and I were receiving frequent reports every day, but I am pleased to say that that is no longer necessary, because the organisation is now in much better shape. We focused very much on that problem, but it has largely been fixed, and I think more than 99% of passengers entering the country are now dealt with through our service level agreements.

As I said to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), we are meeting and exceeding our targets in relation to the detection of firearms and substances such as class A drugs which people attempt to bring into the country. Border Force is delivering on that.

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Yvette Cooper: That is not what it says.

Mr Harper: If the right hon. Lady looks at the NAO’s report, which it compiled specifically on this issue for the 2012-13 financial year, she will see that during that period we were meeting and exceeding our targets on class A drugs and firearms. [Interruption.] It is true. I will be frank and admit that we were doing less well on tobacco and counterfeit goods, but in relation to the really important things such as class A drugs and firearms we were meeting and exceeding our targets. I think that that should reassure Members.

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): The key question must be whether Border Force has the capacity to carry out both the customs checks and the passenger checks that are necessary to protect our national security. The NAO report expresses concern about that. Does the Minister think that Border Force’s current recruitment process will deal with any concerns that he may have?

Mr Harper: I thank my hon. Friend—who is also a member of the Home Affairs Committee—for her question. As I explained in my response to the shadow Home Secretary, there was a problem to start with when we introduced the operating mandate. Full checks of people coming into the country were not being carried out. We accordingly provided more resources, and, as my hon. Friend acknowledged in her question, we are now hiring new Border Force staff in a number of ports. Our best assessment is that both funding and manpower are sufficient to enable us to do the job, and, although of course we keep the position under review at all times, I think that the balance is right at the moment.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): If everything is fine, why is the National Audit Office so critical of so many aspects, including what it describes as “a culture of fear” and “low morale” among Border Force officers? Incidentally, should not the Home Secretary, rather than the Minister, be here to respond to my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary?

Mr Harper: I think I explained that in my response. I am the Immigration Minister, I am responsible for these parts of the Home Office, and the Home Secretary is content for me to deal with this. [Interruption.] The shadow Immigration Minister should stop chuntering from a sedentary position. He has not had a great summer. I can understand why the shadow Home Secretary—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. Let the point be made from the Chair that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has exercised his vocal cords very fully, should now cease to do so. Let us hear from the Minister.

Mr Harper: I am very pleased, on this occasion, to agree 100% with that sentiment, Mr. Speaker. I think I speak for most Members when I say that.

Let me respond to the serious point made by the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick). I do not think I said in my response that everything was rosy. I said that we had inherited an organisation with problems, that we were tackling the problems and that there was more to do. I also said that in response to the question

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from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), and I pointed out that we had a new director-general.

My experience in the Home Office is that there is always more to do. We have to keep on top of the task of dealing with people who try to come into the country and should not be doing so—while welcoming those who should—and we have to deal with the ever-changing security threats. That is a challenge that I think we are meeting, and meeting every day. I should add that our front-line officers do an excellent job in keeping the United Kingdom safe.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Should not the Border Force, like any organisation that has to deal with pronounced peaks in customer demand, be allowed the flexibility that would enable it to transfer staff from other activities to assist when there are such peaks in demand? Obviously, if we are given intelligence that drugs are coming through, we shall not want to transfer the staff who will deal with that, but is not transferring people who are carrying out fewer random checks than others an example of sensible management?

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend has made a sensible point about intelligence. Obviously, as I said in my response, we use it to guide the efforts that we put into freight checking. My hon. Friend has also made the sensible point that there are peaks and troughs in the number of passengers crossing the border. As well as our permanent work force, we have staff on whom we can call at those peak times to ensure that we continue to deliver a secure border, but we are also mindful, of the need to deliver value for money, which the National Audit Office mentions in its report. Of course, all Departments have to deal with the appalling financial legacy that we were left by the Labour party.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The Minister has laid much stress on the quality of border checks. As he will know, at the end of the last Session I was privileged to be elected chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking, and in that role I have been meeting groups who work with trafficked people. Kalayaan tells me that it has yet to meet a holder of an overseas domestic worker visa who, under the new visa system, has actually carried his or her own passport through the passport check. The passport is always held by the visa holder’s employer. What will the Minister do about that?

Mr Harper: The operating mandate specifies that everyone who crosses the border must have his or her passport checked and must have the necessary documents. On the basis of what I know, I do not think that what the hon. Lady says is correct, but I will make inquiries and then write to her. I think that that is a reasonable way to approach the matter. In the meantime, given her position as chair of the all-party group, I shall be happy to maintain a sensible dialogue with her on human-trafficking issues.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): UK Border Force did an excellent job during the Olympics, welcoming millions of new visitors. We hope that they will come back, in which case we will welcome them warmly again. However, is it not time that there were separate

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streams at our airports and ports—one for UK nationals with UK passports who are returning to the country, one for EU entrants and one for everyone else? Would that not enable us to streamline the whole process?

Mr Harper: First, as my hon. Friend knows, one of our obligations as members of the European Union is to deal with European passport holders together with those from the UK. Secondly—this is a practical point—adopting his suggestion would require us and the airports to spend an extraordinary amount of money on remodelling all our airports and ports, which I do not think would be very sensible at present.

The basis of my hon. Friend’s point, however, is the need to ensure that British citizens returning home, EU nationals coming to Britain and people coming here from outside the EU all have a good experience at the border. The NAO report suggests that we are performing the necessary checks to make certain that the border is secure, while processing people within the provisions of our service level agreements and enabling them swiftly to enter the United Kingdom, where they will be able to work and spend some of their hard-earned money to benefit our economy.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): There may well be an argument for some staff flexibility, but can the Minister positively assure us that there is no danger that some officials are more worried about television pictures of queues than about the risks at our borders?

Mr Harper: I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that. I make it very clear on my visits, as does the director-general, that we must deal with both those challenges—people crossing the border and freight. As I said in response to the shadow Home Secretary, there was no suspension of freight checks at Calais. We adopt a multi-layered approach. Even when Border Force officers are not searching vehicles, the staff at the port and our contractors are doing so. I am confident that there are proper checks on people coming into the United Kingdom, and proper intelligence-led checks on freight and goods as well.

Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that the Border Force team in Tilbury, in my constituency, has been reporting much higher morale since being spun out from the Border Agency? Does not the report also confirm that that was exactly the right decision?

Mr Harper: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comment. I had the great pleasure of visiting Tilbury with her early in my time as Immigration Minister, and was very impressed with the engagement of staff there. As she says, the report confirms making Border Force a stand-alone organisation in the Home Office was the right thing to do. It has enabled the organisation to focus on delivering on the operating mandate, and I think that under the new permanent leadership of Sir Charles Montgomery, that process will continue.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Is the substance of what is reported in the national newspapers accurate or inaccurate, and what challenges does the Minister think still remain?

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Mr Harper: Having gone through the report very carefully, I think that it is probably fair to say that not all the national newspapers over-egged the pudding in how they reported the report. I thought that the report was very balanced. The interviews that the National Audit Office did this morning were very balanced. It made the point that Border Force is doing lots of things very well, but it recognises that there are still challenges. I think that I echoed that tone in my remarks. We have made significant improvements, but there is still more work to be done. That, in a nutshell, is what the NAO said in its report, and we are grateful for the work that it does.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): My hon. Friend said that last year Border Force detained some 6,000 people at Calais trying to enter the UK. Presumably, all of them were already illegal immigrants in France. Following on from the comments of the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), can my hon. Friend tell the House what the French are doing to remove from their jurisdiction illegal immigrants who are intent upon entering our jurisdiction?

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend asks a two-part question. The first part was whether everyone trying to enter the UK illegally is necessarily in France illegally. That is not necessarily the case. France is in Schengen, of course, and there are people who are entitled to be in France but who do not have the right to enter Britain illegally in the back of a lorry, so we stop them entering. Some of them are, of course, in France illegally, however, and we work with our French colleagues by doing what we can to help them to make sure they are removed from France. Not all of them will be in France illegally, however, and I reiterate what I said in response to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee: partnership-working with our colleagues in France is very important and works very well, and we want to make sure that that strong relationship continues because it is how we keep our border secure.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): Did I hear the Minister right when he said we are doing less well on illegal cigarettes? That is very noticeable in Coventry, which has become a centre nationally for massive trafficking in cigarettes. Does he agree with the NAO director, Louise Bladen, that—despite all the reassurances he has given us, with great politeness and courtesy—it is just not the case that the resources are there to deal with cigarettes, for example, which are continuing to flood in?

Mr Harper: We do a very good job in intercepting hundreds of millions of illegal cigarettes every year, bur I was making a point about the relative focus. The last NAO report found that we were meeting and exceeding our targets on class A drugs and firearms. On cigarettes, we were doing less well, but we are still intercepting hundreds of millions of cigarettes. We work with our colleagues overseas to intercept where they are being manufactured and brought into the country. I have seen lots of examples from visits of where our officers have intercepted considerable volumes of cigarettes. That work needs continuous attention. I was simply making the point that, clearly, if we are going to focus our resources, I would prioritise dealing with class A drugs,

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firearms, illegal immigration and people who put weapons together above cigarettes, but that was in no way to say that dealing with the illegal smuggling of tobacco was in any way unimportant.

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): I congratulate the Minister because it is clear that the Department under his leadership has been doing much—

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Under his leadership?

Michael Ellis: Under his leadership on the immigration issue, the Department has done extremely well to improve UKBA over the last year, because is it not true that we inherited a massive pig in a poke from the last Labour Government, including massive net immigration, uncontrolled transitional arrangements for eastern Europeans, the Human Rights Act 1998, a 450,000 asylum backlog and all the rest of it? The Minister inherited a complete mess from the Labour party, and does he agree that we are doing everything to improve that position?

Mr Harper: I agree with my hon. Friend, and let me say two things. On the cigarette point, despite the fact that the last report found that we were not hitting the target for cigarette seizures, cigarette seizures were still up by 7%, so Border Force was improving its performance; it just was not improving it fast enough to hit our very ambitious targets. In answer to my hon. Friend’s general point, what he said provides me with a good opportunity to say that I am glad to be able to report that that huge asylum backlog was largely sorted out before I became Immigration Minister by my excellent ministerial colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), so I had a much better inheritance than the one that he inherited from the Labour party.

Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): The NAO report and the Minister’s answers today have made it clear that freight checks were adversely affected as a result of staff shortages and policy changes. Can he tell us how many illegal migrants have been found on freight this year and in previous years?

Mr Harper: I do not think I acknowledged that at all. In terms of the figures that I set out for Calais, 6,000 attempted illegal migrants were intercepted last year and so far this year we are running ahead of that rate, so I am confident that the full-year total will be ahead of it. The performance is improving, therefore. I saw that myself when I visited, and our officers do an excellent job in stopping people even getting to the UK. That is why the juxtaposed controls are so important.

Mr Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my constituents’ anger about the last Labour Government’s record on immigration? They allowed net immigration to rise from about 35,000 a year to over 200,000 a year in the Labour years. May I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Home Secretary on reducing net immigration by a third in just three years in office?

Mr Harper: My right hon. Friend is right; that is certainly the view that I get, too. There is one thing that Labour never acknowledge when criticised on this. They

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happily acknowledge that they made mistakes on immigration from eastern Europe, but they forget to tell the public that, under their watch, immigration from outside the EU went up by far more. They have never apologised for that.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Will the Minister assure me he will not bring these xenophobic “go home” hate vans to Scotland, and will he remove the unwanted, disgraceful “go home” materials from the UKBA office in Glasgow?

Mr Harper: I do not think the hon. Gentleman reflects the views of the public in the way that he characterises those vans. The majority of people in this country want a very robust stance. Asking people who have no right to be in the UK—who are here unlawfully, taking the mickey out of everyone else—to go home, as they should do, rather than forcing the taxpayer to spend up to £15,000 on arresting, detaining and enforcing their removal, is a very sensible thing to do, and I am not going to apologise for it.

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): I represent the port of Heysham, where we have had success in stopping tobacco smuggling. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is good news under your tenure, and would you like to come to the port and see how it does it?

Mr Speaker: Order. I have no plans to do so, I must say, and I am not aware of any tenure of mine, but the Minister may seek to address the matter.

Mr Harper: Mr Speaker, you are, of course, always welcome to visit any of our ports if you want to do so. I would be very pleased to take you on a conducted tour if ever you have a moment and are willing to do so.

In answer to my hon. Friend’s question, I will look at my schedule of visits. I am always happy to visit our operations around the country to see what our officers are doing on the front line. I find those visits very illuminating, and as I have said, officers take advantage of them to share with Ministers and the director-general both the things that are going well and the things that they think we ought to focus more on.

Mr Speaker: The Minister’s public-spirited generosity is truly boundless.

Mr Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): What checks have been made on individuals with serious criminal records from eastern Europe entering the UK?

Mr Harper: Checks are made, but to some extent we are dependent on what other countries tell us. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the second generation of the Schengen information system will hugely improve our ability to share criminal record information with our European partners, and when that comes online in the next year or so, it will give us a much greater ability to stop known criminals entering the UK and therefore enable us to protect the border better.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to what the NAO had to say about the improvements that Border Force has made at

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Gatwick? Does he agree that that is illustrative of the wider picture, which is that there is absolutely no room for complacency and further improvements are needed, but today our border is more secure than it was under the last Government, when hundreds of thousands of people were allowed to come into this country illegally?

Mr Harper: I am pleased to agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments. He might be interested to know that, as announced just today, our Border Force officers seized 8 kg of cocaine, with a street value of up to £800,000, at Gatwick airport. That demonstrates the sort of work that they carry out every day to keep the country secure, both from those who come here who should not be here and from harmful goods that people try to bring into the country.

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): A week after the Home Office’s racist “go home” vans had been touring English cities, I visited the mosque in Corby and was appalled to find outside it the words “go home” in very large letters. That was the act of a tiny minority of people in my community, spurred on by the Government’s racist attack on people in this country.

Mr Harper: I simply do not agree with the hon. Gentleman and, if the polling is to be believed, neither do the British people. Most people in this country do not agree with that characterisation of our pilot. It was clearly aimed at people who have no right to be in the country, not at British citizens or people who are here lawfully. We were asking people who were here illegally to leave the country. We are running a pilot and we will look at its results to decide whether or not it should be rolled out. I simply do not agree with him, and I do not think the British public do either.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Massive net immigration, 450,000 asylum seekers in a backlog, no transitional controls and the Human Rights Act—that is the shambles we were left by the Opposition. May I say how brilliant it is that the Government are sorting it out?

Mr Harper: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. As I have said, it is a bit rich listening to the Labour party moan about all the things that it left us and we are fixing—that constant refrain applies across all Departments. May I say, in answer to a previous question, that the second generation of the Schengen information sharing system will be online, under the current plan, at the end of October 2014? That will very much improve our ability to deal with criminals from elsewhere in the European Union.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Cigarette smuggling through the airports in Northern Ireland is excessive; there is also some indication of paramilitary involvement. Border Force staff have told me that, if there were more staff, they could combat the issue clearly at the airports. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that extra staff are made available in Northern Ireland to take on this issue?

Mr Harper: Obviously, we look at the intelligence available to us, particularly on freight. I am well aware of the potential paramilitary implications in Northern

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Ireland of cross-border smuggling and the fact that organised crime may be funded in this way. So we look at that information on organised crime. We have also created the National Crime Agency, albeit with restrictions on its actions in Northern Ireland in the criminal justice sphere. In the border field, however, the border policing command, the improved intelligence that we get and the increased ability to combat crime will be helpful in combating both the crimes the hon. Gentleman has mentioned and others that cross our borders.

Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): The London Gateway port is opening this autumn, so my constituents will welcome the improvements identified by the NAO and the tightening of our border controls. Does the Minister agree that it is time for the Labour party to just say sorry for the chaos that it left us to sort out?

Mr Harper: I agree with my hon. Friend. I have looked at some of the plans for the London Gateway, which is an excellent development; it is a really important port. I sense that London Gateway and Felixstowe will be competing with each other as to which is the largest port in the United Kingdom. We work closely with the port operator, and we will properly resource the checks at the port. He can have confidence that we will do that.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): My constituents, many of whom work at the controls in Dover and Calais, think that the Government have had real success in stopping illegal entry into this country, after years when people could basically just wander in. However, my constituents do have concerns about smuggling and trafficking, so will the Minister seek to prioritise lorry checking at Dover and investment in smashing international supply chains for traffickers and smugglers?

Mr Harper: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. Again, I had the pleasure of visiting the port in his constituency and talking to officers, who raised some of the points that he has just raised with me about getting that balance right across Border Force between checking people and checking goods. We keep that under review, looking at the intelligence about the threats to the United Kingdom. We deal with that on a daily basis, and I hope that I can give him that reassurance.

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Point of Order

1.14 pm

Fiona O’Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During today’s Prime Minister’s questions, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) about Government support for food banks, the Prime Minister said that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions had enabled Jobcentre Plus staff to make referrals to food banks. The Trussell Trust has informed me that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has actually stopped that happening now and has advised staff that they can no longer make referrals, and that this is causing chaos for hundreds of people in need. I have tabled a parliamentary question on this issue, which should have been answered yesterday—I am still waiting for an answer. Can you assist me by advising how we can ensure that those in this House, volunteers in food banks, Jobcentre Plus staff and, most importantly, those in need have the correct information?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, both for her point of order and for her courtesy in giving me advance notice of her intention to raise it. She believes that she has identified an inconsistency between what the Prime Minister has told the House and what the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said. Those on the Treasury Bench have now heard what the hon. Lady has to say. If Ministers agree with her, no doubt the position will be clarified. Each and every right hon. and hon. Member in this House is responsible for his or her own words. Beyond that, the hon. Lady has identified the fact of the question she wishes speedily to be answered. She is a persistent and assiduous Member, and I am confident that she will soon get an answer, perhaps aided and abetted in pursuit of it by her point of order. If she does not get one, she can table further questions, and I have a sense that this is a bone that she will cling on to for as long as she judges to be necessary.

Bill Presented

Executive Pay and Remuneration

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Thomas Docherty presented a Bill to require that companies’ remuneration committees have employee representation; to require that companies hold an annual binding shareholder vote on executive remuneration; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 13 September, and to be printed (Bill 105).

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Parental Bereavement Leave (Statutory Entitlement)

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

1.16 pm

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for statutory entitlement to leave of absence from employment for bereaved parents; and for connected purposes.

I seek leave to introduce a Bill to amend the Employment Rights Act 1996 to give all parents who have suffered the loss of a child a statutory right to paid leave. May I begin by thanking Members from all parts of the House, many of whom are present, for their support for this Bill? First, I wish to highlight the work of Lucy Herd and the Jack’s Rainbow campaign she established after the loss of her 23-month-old son, Jack, in tragic circumstances in August 2010. After his son’s death, Lucy’s partner was given just five days’ compassionate leave before having to return to work. Like many Members of the House I have spoken to, Lucy was surprised that parents did not already have a legal right to paid leave after the loss of a child, and I want to pay tribute to her for working tirelessly to get paid bereavement leave for grieving parents on to the statute book.

Most of us can imagine nothing more distressing than losing a child. Yet at this traumatic juncture in a parent’s life, there is no guarantee of paid statutory leave in the event of a child’s death. The physical and emotional toll on parents demands such a provision. In the immediate aftermath of a child’s passing, bereaved parents must cope not only with their own grief, but with that of their family. Siblings must be comforted, and family and friends informed. To add to the burden, a great deal of administrative work and other arrangements must be undertaken: a funeral needs to be organised, and schools and benefit offices must be notified. And in the case of a sudden or accidental death, a post-mortem or inquest is required. That may take many months to conclude, prolonging the anguish.

At present, all employees have the right to take immediate “time off for dependants” under the Employment Rights Act 1996. That is a legal right to unpaid leave to cope with family emergencies. However, there is no set limit on how many days can be taken, only a vague definition of a “reasonable amount of time”. Each employer will have their own bereavement policy, which typically provides for just three to five days’ leave.

In response to an e-petition calling for statutory bereavement leave, which has received almost 23,000 signatures, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills stated that all requests for leave related to bereavement are best left to employers and their employees to decide between themselves. I understand that the amount of leave needed can vary from one individual to another: some parents will not be able to face going back to work, whereas others may find returning to work a welcome distraction. Grief is not uniform—it affects people in different ways—and each person will need a time specific to them to deal with it.

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Many employers act admirably and offer significant amounts of paid bereavement leave. Regrettably, however, some do not. In a large number of cases, employers have fallen far short of their duties. In one case that was recently televised on an episode of Channel 4’s “Undercover Boss”, a driver for the waste disposal company Biffa was forced back to work just a day after the loss of his daughter. In another tragic case a father, a builder, was expected back to work five days after he lost his daughter to sudden infant death syndrome. Despite feeling unready to return to work, having barely slept, the man was told to resume work or lose his job. On yet another occasion, a parent was given just three days off after the death of his four-year-old son. The funeral was arranged on the fourth day, leading to the man having to use up his paid holiday leave to attend. I wish those were isolated events, but they are not, and I could list many more.

In their response to the e-petition, the Government stated that they

“would expect any employer to respond to”

the loss of a child

“with sensitivity and flexibility”.

I find it difficult to believe, given the tragic cases I have just highlighted, that any Minister could find any merit in that statement. All grieving parents should be treated with dignity, and I hope the Government will acknowledge that under the current system that is not happening.

The Government have stated that it would be difficult to specify statutory bereavement leave entitlement because “limits, standards and definitions” would need to be put in place. The Government have also argued that it would be difficult to define

“what family relationship would qualify for such leave”

and that it would be

“impossible to legislate for every circumstance”.

I find that argument disingenuous. What limits, standards and definitions would be too complicated to establish in the case of a parent losing a child? Surely the Government should start from the moral case that parents should be afforded time off if their child passes away, and not finding obscure excuses not to act.

Again, I am under no illusions that the time needed varies from one individual to another, but instead of absolving themselves of all responsibility and leaving this to employers, Ministers should be working towards guaranteeing best practice. That can only be achieved through legislation.

The government have also argued it would be “impossible to legislate” for

“every family relationship that would qualify for such leave”.

How about a simple provision whereby only the parents of the deceased child are afforded statutory leave? That is a straightforward, common-sense way to proceed. I fully acknowledge that long-term staff absenteeism can hit productivity, particularly for small companies, but considering that parents are given paid maternity and paternity leave, it is difficult to argue why grief-stricken parents should not be afforded similar statutory rights. A mother is afforded up to 12 months’ leave for the birth of a child, but is given just three days for her loss. How can that be? On what moral basis can we give precedence to one and not the other?

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I do not intend the measure to place unaffordable costs or unwanted regulation on employers. In fact, the circumstances that would give rise to such leave are as rare as they are tragic, and as I have said, most employers already choose to recognise their responsibilities to their workers. I know the current economic climate is pushing many businesses to the edge, but that also goes for ordinary families across the country. With the cost of living rising, grieving parents should never be forced to choose between meeting their responsibilities to their families and putting food on the table.

Parents who suffer the loss of a child must be allowed to grieve with dignity. That can only be guaranteed by a statutory right to paid bereavement leave, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr Tom Harris, Stella Creasy, Dr William McCrea, Mr Stewart Jackson, Kwasi Kwarteng, Andy Sawford, Mr David Anderson, Iain Stewart, Tracey Crouch, Natascha Engel, Sheila Gilmore and Greg Mulholland present the Bill.

Mr Tom Harris accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 October, and to be printed (Bill 104).

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Opposition Day

[6th Allotted Day]

Living Standards

1.24 pm

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House believes that the Government is failing to turn things around for the UK’s hard working families; notes that this has been the slowest economic recovery on record, and that the Government is out of touch with the difficulties faced by ordinary families; recognises that average earnings are almost £1,500 a year lower in real terms than they were in 2010; notes in addition that tax and benefit changes since 2010 are costing families an average of £891 in 2013-14 according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies; further notes that the Government is making hard-working families pay more than their share to bring down the deficit while cutting income tax by an average of £100,000 for the 13,000 people with incomes over £1 million; and calls on the Government to ensure that the recovery is strengthened, sustainable and its benefits fairly shared by getting more people into work, bringing forward capital investment, as recommended by the IMF, introducing a compulsory jobs guarantee, backing fair taxes by reintroducing a 10p rate of income tax, paid for by a mansion tax on houses worth over £2 million, taking action on rip-off rail fares and soaring energy bills, standing up for families in the private rented sector, reforming the pensions industry, curbing payday lenders and implementing long-term reforms to banking, infrastructure planning and the skills system.

During the 2010 election campaign, the Conservative party made the rather bold claim that it would strive to

“see an economy where not just our standard of living, but everyone’s quality of life, rises steadily and sustainably”.

Looking back more than three years on, time has served that particular Tory manifesto pledge disastrously, as it has so many others. It is no wonder that people are feeling let down. Today, average earnings are almost £1,500 a year lower than they were when that pledge was made.

Since the end of 2010, the UK has seen the biggest fall in workers’ income of any country in the G7. Prices have risen faster in the UK than in any other major economy. It is another broken promise from this out-of-touch Prime Minister.

Mr Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Does the shadow Chief Secretary accept Labour’s responsibility for its catastrophic stewardship of the public finances, which left this country with a budget deficit in excess of 11% of GDP?

Rachel Reeves: As the hon. Gentleman knows, there was a global financial crisis that hit every country in the world, and all countries are now dealing with the aftermath. As the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have said, budget deficit reduction has now stalled, not because the Government have not cut public services or put up taxes for ordinary people but because unemployment remains too high and economic growth too weak to get the deficit down.

This Prime Minister is ripping up the record books when it comes to overseeing falling wages for ordinary workers. Average wages have been falling behind prices for 37 of the 38 months of David Cameron’s prime ministership. Which month is the odd one out? It is

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April of this year, when the bankers reaped the rewards of deferring their bonus until George Osborne’s cut to the top rate of tax was implemented. That tax cut resulted in 13,000 people with an income of more than £1 million receiving a tax cut worth on average £107,000. That is four times average earnings in this country.

The rest, ordinary people, will be on average £6,660 worse off by the end of the Parliament. That is enough to have paid for the family weekly shop for more than a year and a half. Although he has said repeatedly, “We’re all in this together” and “Those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden”, how can families trust this out-of-touch Prime Minister, who has prioritised millionaires over millions of working people?

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would like to welcome her back from her maternity leave. Does she share my concern that 4.8 million people are now earning below the living wage? Does she agree that that is a concern not just for them, because of their low living standards, but for the state and the Government? Social security benefits are having to rise to compensate for that low pay, so the number of in-work claimants of housing benefit alone has gone up to 1 million, with a 50% rise since 2010.

Rachel Reeves: As my hon. Friend will know, the number of people earning less than a living wage has gone up from 3.4 million in 2009 to 4.8 million today, which means that 20% of the work force in this country is now earning less than a living wage. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that that means more pressure on the Treasury, more money spent on tax credits and more money spent on housing benefit. As I said in answer to the earlier intervention, the budget deficit reduction plan has stalled because those payments are going up as the economy is not growing in the way that it was supposed to.

Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): The Labour motion contains a long list, including a lot of things that the Government are already doing. I also note that it does not call for a temporary cut in VAT, which was one of Labour’s flagship policies. I know that Labour is a policy-free zone at the moment, but is that another abandoned policy?

Rachel Reeves: The list of the Government’s failures could have been an awful lot longer, but we wanted a motion that would fit on the Order Paper. He talks about VAT—[Interruption.] I would be grateful if he listened to my answer. Two years ago the shadow Chancellor said that as an emergency measure VAT should be cut to stimulate the economy. In the two years since, the economy has flatlined. The shadow Chancellor also said that as the economy gradually moved into the recovery stage, the emphasis should be on infrastructure investment, which I think is important. It is because the economy has flatlined for two years that family finances are in the state they are in today.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend not struck by the fact that the interventions from Government Members seem to be addressing everything

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but living standards? The TUC has shown today that Flintshire, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) and I represent, has suffered the biggest fall in living standards in Wales.

Rachel Reeves: It is interesting that the interventions from Opposition Members refer to the challenges their constituents face owing to falling living standards. It is a shame that hon. Members on the other side of the House want to talk about anything but that.

I would like to talk about a family I met this week. On my first day back from maternity leave, I visited a family in Thurrock who told me what they were up against. The father, once a partner in a thriving small business, lost his livelihood three years ago during the recession. Desperately trying to keep up their mortgage repayments, he has spent the past three years taking whatever work he could get through employment agencies, often on the minimum wage and often on zero-hours contracts. He recently found a permanent job as a driver which, topped up with evening shifts doing deliveries, gives the family a bit more security, but it falls far short of making full use of his talents and experience.

The wife abandoned her dream of training to be a primary school teacher so that she could hold on to her relatively secure but modestly paid job in retail. Their daughter is studying for university and should do well, but she worries about fees. All of them pointed to a gaping and growing disconnect between their rates of pay and the costs they face for travel, housing and other basic necessities. Under this Government, the situation is getting worse for such families—families who want to get on in life.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Greg Clark): It is possible that the hon. Lady has said something significant: that the Labour party has dropped its commitment to the temporary VAT cut. Given that as recently as June the shadow Chancellor said that he was committed to it, what has happened since then to cause it to be dropped?

Rachel Reeves: The shadow Chancellor said in his conference speech two years ago that VAT should be reduced from 20% to 17.5% as an emergency measure to stimulate the economy. The reality is that since then the economy has flatlined and we have continued to argue for that, but he has also said that as the economy slowly begins to move into recovery mode—we hope that the growth over the past two quarters will continue—the emphasis should move to infrastructure investment. Were we in government today, our priority would be the £10 billion of infrastructure investment that the International Monetary Fund has called for.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): May I bring my hon. Friend back to the real-life situations that real people face? Is she aware that in Islington the cheapest subsidised place for full-time child care costs £164 a week? The minimum wage is £212 a week and the London living wage is £272. Is that reality not why it is so hard for so many people in Britain today to make ends meet?