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House of Commons

Wednesday 16 October 2013

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Voluntary Sector

1. David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): What assessment her Department has made of the role of the voluntary sector in dealing with the legacy of the past. [900418]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I begin, Mr Speaker, by offering my apologies for the absence of the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan). He is recovering from an operation and looks forward to returning to the House soon.

The voluntary sector plays an important role in supporting those whose lives have been affected by the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. I pay tribute to organisations such as Wave and the Warrington Peace Centre, which do such valuable work.

David Mowat: The Secretary of State will be aware that nearly 20% of the victims of the troubles reside on the UK mainland, whereas funding is restricted largely to the island of Ireland. For example, the Peace Centre, based in Warrington, has no access either to EU PEACE III funding or UK funding. Are there any plans to review the criteria by which this works?

Mrs Villiers: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I very much enjoyed my visit to the Warrington Peace Centre, which does a fantastic job. I have heard directly from it about its concerns regarding its inability to access the funding that supports victims in Northern Ireland. I know that is a concern for it, but it is for the Northern Ireland Executive to decide whether they open up those funds to any organisations in Great Britain and outside Northern Ireland. However, I welcome the work that the Warrington Peace Centre does for the UK Government on the Home Office’s Prevent scheme to counter radicalisation.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The voluntary sector had an unfair burden in the past, particularly in dealing with sex abuse victims. Will the

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Secretary of State comment on information I have received about a fixed committee that existed within the republican movement in 2000, which dealt with almost 100 sex abuse victims and in which some very prominent republicans were involved, and will she join me in calling for those people to come forward and help those many innocent victims deal with the nightmare they are still dealing with 13 years on?

Mrs Villiers: The hon. Gentleman raises some very grave matters, and I would certainly encourage anyone who has been the victim of abuse to approach the police with that information, and anyone who has knowledge of such cases to do so too. It is obviously crucial that this scourge of society is eliminated and that the voluntary sector, the police and the Government give all the support possible to victims of abuse.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): The Secretary of State rightly recognises the role of the voluntary sector in helping victims, but does she recognise that the ludicrous restrictions in the Government’s lobbying Bill will prevent these very groups from carrying out important advocacy work on behalf of victims and others because the Government say that they will not be allowed to engage with politicians in the year up to a general election? Will she ask her colleagues to reconsider this aspect of the lobbying Bill?

Mrs Villiers: I think I can provide the hon. Lady with some reassurance. The lobbying Bill will continue to permit the voluntary sector to campaign on general issues, but if a voluntary organisation seeks to campaign for particular candidates in a general election, it will be asked to account for its finances and spending and will be subject to limits. I think that that is a fair reform.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): I urge the Secretary of State, in dealing with the legacy of the past, to ensure that the case of my young constituent Lisa Dorrian is not forgotten. She was murdered and then disappeared by those with loyalist paramilitary connections eight years ago. Her body has never been recovered, her family need closure and she certainly needs a Christian burial.

Mrs Villiers: The hon. Lady is right to raise one of the greatest tragedies of the troubles: people lost their lives, and some families still do not know what happened to their loved ones and still have no body to bury and no funeral to attend. It is a continuing tragedy, and the Government are very supportive of all efforts to try to locate them and get answers for victims, including her constituents.

National Crime Agency

2. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with the Justice Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive on the remit of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland. [900419]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): My most recent discussion with the Justice Minister concerning the remit of the National Crime Agency took place on 9 October. The NCA will provide

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support and expertise to partners in Northern Ireland in a number of areas. We are keen to extend its remit to cover crime falling within devolved responsibilities, if agreement can be reached on this within the Northern Ireland Executive.

Paul Goggins: Does the Secretary of State agree with my reading of yesterday’s debate in the Assembly that there is a willingness to explore a way forward on this issue, and will she therefore facilitate urgent discussions between Home Office Ministers, the Justice Minister and the political parties in Northern Ireland to ensure that the NCA, with proper accountability and in partnership with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, can get on and do its job properly?

Mrs Villiers: I can give the right hon. Gentleman that undertaking. He assesses the current situation correctly. There is a genuine willingness to reach a solution across the political parties in Northern Ireland. Further discussions with the Justice Minister and Home Office Ministers would be a good idea, and I will try to facilitate them as soon as possible.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I thank the Secretary of State for acknowledging the progress on understandings about accountability and primacy that have affected this issue, but will she also address the concerns that we have put to her directly about MI5 potentially using and abusing the future role of the NCA—as it abused the role of the Serious Organised Crime Agency—in nefarious ways and ways that have affected the performance and perception of the PSNI?

Mrs Villiers: The Home Secretary has always been clear that she will make every effort to ensure that the NCA’s role in Northern Ireland is completely consistent with the devolved settlement on policing and justice and the primacy of the Chief Constable. She has made a number of concessions along those lines to provide that assurance, and she and her colleagues at the Home Office are keen to continue the discussion on how to provide the reassurance asked for by the Social Democratic and Labour party and others in Northern Ireland.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): May I welcome the new shadow Secretary of State to his post and wish the outgoing shadow Secretary of State well in his new post? I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) in the same way as I did with his predecessor.

Will the Secretary of State cut to the chase and tell us the estimated cost, in lost revenue to the Treasury and human misery, of the decision by Sinn Fein and the SDLP to block the full establishment of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland?

Mrs Villiers: The NCA’s current remit in Northern Ireland will provide useful assistance on criminal matters that fall within the responsibilities that have not been devolved, such as fuel smuggling, international smuggling of drugs and firearms. The NCA will also be able to provide advice and assistance on matters within the devolved sphere, such as child protection. However, it is important for Northern Ireland’s political parties to look carefully at this issue. I believe that extending the NCA’s remit to devolved matters would considerably

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assist the fight against serious crime in Northern Ireland, and I hope that the current discussions result in an agreement on these matters.

Mr Dodds: Does the Secretary of State agree with the assessment of the Northern Ireland Justice Minister—who has been quite unequivocal in his denunciation of the current situation—in which he said:

“We are effectively asking some law enforcement agencies to operate with one arm tied behind their backs”?

This is an outrageous situation that can be of benefit only to drug smugglers, human traffickers, cyber-criminals, fuel launderers and all the rest. Apart from convening talks, can the Secretary of State tell us what the Government will do to ensure that the citizens and taxpayers of Northern Ireland are not subject to this criminal empire building?

Mrs Villiers: A huge amount of work has been done to provide the reassurance that Northern Ireland political parties have asked for on consistency with the police and justice settlement. Productive work has also been done between the Home Office and the Justice Minister on transitional arrangements—for example, on the cases that SOCA had taken on that can be continued by the NCA within the provisions for the current purposes. We will continue to work hard to make the case for the NCA’s full operation in Northern Ireland as a potent fighting force to bring to justice those responsible for organised crime and other serious criminal activities.

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I strongly support the Secretary of State’s efforts to persuade all those involved, including in her discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland, to ensure that the remit of the National Crime Agency is extended. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the hesitancy about that from Belfast so far, everybody will want to see every possible effort made to tackle these issues—particularly after two executions attributed to dissident republicans last week and 12 security threats recently—and she ought to make sure that happens.

Mrs Villiers: I agree and will continue to do everything possible to make the case for the extension of the NCA’s activities in Northern Ireland. It is also worth bearing it in mind that there were some ways in which the legislation on the NCA would have strengthened accountability in Northern Ireland, because it would have extended the remit of the police ombudsman to proceeds of crime matters, which are not currently covered by the policing and justice settlement. In many ways, the legislation, which does not currently have agreement in Northern Ireland, would have enabled us to strengthen accountability on police activities in Northern Ireland.

13. [900431] Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): The Secretary of State cannot be happy with the current situation relating to asset recovery, which affects England, Scotland and Wales as much as it affects Northern Ireland. The situation has been known about for at least nine months and it has been raised in the Committee, but it has still not been resolved. Will she take personal ownership of convening a meeting with the political parties—not just with the Justice Minister—to get the matter resolved?

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Mrs Villiers: The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the proceeds of crime is one of the most serious issues resulting from the gap left by the failure so far to agree a legislative consent motion. I am keen to convene as many meetings as possible to get the matter resolved, but the reality is that the devolution settlement gives the Executive a choice and, unless there is consensus across the political parties in Northern Ireland, that choice will be to reject the extension of the NCA’s remit. I will continue to make the case for that extension because I think that the NCA will be an asset to fighting crime in Northern Ireland.

Public Order

3. Lorraine Fullbrook (South Ribble) (Con): What discussions she has had with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland about recent disturbances in Northern Ireland. [900420]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I meet the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Justice Minister on a regular basis. Discussions at those meetings cover a wide range of security-related matters, including the outbreaks of public disorder that occurred in Northern Ireland during the summer.

Lorraine Fullbrook: I am sure that the whole House will join me in condemning the street violence that we saw in Belfast over the summer. Does the Secretary of State agree that such disgraceful behaviour damages the economy of Northern Ireland, and that it is essential that the determinations of the Parades Commission should be obeyed and the rule of law respected?

Mrs Villiers: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The scenes that we witnessed in Belfast over the summer were disgraceful. It is utterly unacceptable for the police to be attacked as they were during the several days of sustained rioting following the 12 July parades, and such scenes do significant damage to the Northern Ireland economy because they deter inward investment.

Mr Ivan Lewis (Bury South) (Lab): I should like to begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) for his excellent work as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I should also like to thank the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) for his kind remarks about my appointment. I say to the Secretary of State that we will continue to work in a bipartisan way whenever possible, and that peace and stability for the people of Northern Ireland must always take precedence over any party political differences. In the context of the recent disturbances and the need for peace and stability, the Haass talks are crucial. Will she tell the House how many times she has met Ambassador Haass, and when their most recent meeting was?

Mrs Villiers: I have met Ambassador Haass twice and had a number of telephone conversations with him as well. My officials have met Dr Haass and his team on a number of occasions. I have also had a series of meetings with the political parties, business representatives and members of civil society to determine what they want from the Haass process. This Government are entirely engaged in the process because, like the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), I believe it represents

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an important way forward in resolving the continuing tensions. I thank him for his reiteration of the bipartisan approach taken by his predecessor, and I welcome him to his new post.

Mr Lewis: I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. It is incredibly important that she and her counterparts in the Irish Government—as well as the five Executive parties—remain totally engaged in every stage of the Haass process. Will she give the House an assurance that that is going to happen?

Mrs Villiers: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, and he will be delighted to hear that Dr Haass is expected to visit No. 10 tomorrow. I am also staying in close touch with Eamon Gilmore on these matters, because working together with the Irish Government and across the community in Northern Ireland is an important way of building consensus to resolve the problems that Dr Haass is looking at.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Ind): I am sure that the House will agree that we can only admire the way in which the Police Service of Northern Ireland handled the crowd disturbances during the summer, but is the Secretary of State convinced that the PSNI would have the resources to deal adequately with any armed disturbances that might occur, as they could do at any moment?

Mrs Villiers: Yes, I believe the PSNI does have the means and resources to deal with street violence in Northern Ireland. We keep these matters under constant review, but we supplemented PSNI funding by £200 million in the last spending review and will supplement it by £31 million in the next spending review. The provision of expensive mutual aid from GB police forces proved to be extremely successful during this summer’s parading season.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): During discussions with the Chief Constable on matters relating to civil disturbance and terrorist attack, was the demand for additional resources included to enable the Chief Constable to employ officers on the ground to deal with other criminal activity, such as the despicable attack on an 81-year-old man in my constituency at the weekend in which he was tied up, beaten and terrorised in his own home?

Mrs Villiers: I am very concerned to hear about what happened to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent and I hope he will pass on my sympathies to him. Yes, I am afraid that one consequence of street disorder and extensive demonstrations night after night is that police resources get tied up with those matters, which makes it more difficult to fight crime across Northern Ireland. That is why I urge those who are contemplating street violence not to proceed with it. That is not the way to further their cause and they are likely to end up with a prison sentence if they continue on that course.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is it not the case that more police officers would have been injured and that it would have taken longer to quell the disorder were it not for the effective deployment of water cannon? Will my right hon. Friend use her best endeavours to ensure that the lessons learned are understood by police forces here on the mainland?

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Mrs Villiers: These are clearly operational matters for the PSNI, but I agree that its job would have been made more difficult if it had not been able to access water cannon. I am sure that the Home Secretary and her colleagues will be interested to learn from the experience of using this equipment.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): The Secretary of State will be aware that the security situation in Northern Ireland has deteriorated not just in respect of civil disorder, but in respect of an increase in paramilitary activity both from dissident and republicans and from loyalists. Will the right hon. Lady ensure that everything she can do to ensure that those who are responsible for those attacks, murders and attempted murders, including in my own constituency, are brought to justice and that the police have the resources to deal with them?

Mrs Villiers: The Government and I are fully supportive of all the efforts being made by the PSNI and its partners to bring to justice those responsible for dissident republican violence, those responsible for criminality and those responsible for the disgraceful punishment shootings that have taken place. I am particularly concerned about the situation in the hon. Lady’s constituency and the continuing protests and intimidation to which she and her staff are being subjected. The threats that she, along with other elected representatives in Northern Ireland, has received over recent months are utterly disgraceful, and I urge anyone with knowledge about who is responsible for this kind of criminal behaviour to bring it to the attention of the PSNI as soon as possible.

Economic Policy

4. Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to strengthen the Northern Ireland economy. [900421]

5. Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): What her policy is on the Northern Ireland economy; and if she will make a statement. [900422]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): The Government are working closely with the Executive to promote growth and rebalance the Northern Ireland economy. Last week, we published an update on progress made on the economic package signed in June, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister attended a very successful investment conference at Titanic Belfast.

Andrea Leadsom: Does my right hon. Friend agree that access to finance is critical for small businesses in Northern Ireland, and does she welcome as I do the Government’s decision to bring forward an independent payments regulator to promote more competition in banking and better access to finance?

Mrs Villiers: I am happy to give that assurance. I, too, welcome the setting up of an independent payments regulator, and I pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend and the Treasury Select Committee in bringing that about. It is crucial to the success of banking in Northern Ireland that we encourage new entrants into that market. This regulator will help to achieve that. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. These exchanges are of very great importance to people in Northern Ireland and beyond, and I feel strongly that these questions and the Secretary of State’s answers must be heard.

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Karl Turner: With almost half of the population of Northern Ireland in fuel poverty and 90,000 pensioners suffering because of the granny tax, does the Secretary of State agree that Northern Ireland is in the clutch of a cost of living crisis?

Mrs Villiers: We are concerned on both sides of the House about cost of living pressures. That is why the Government have taken steps to cut income tax for more than 600,000 people in Northern Ireland, have taken 75,000 people there out of income tax altogether, have halved the income tax bills of those on the minimum wage and are freezing fuel duty. Above all, our deficit reduction strategy is keeping mortgage rates low, which is crucial for the cost of living in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Republic of Ireland has announced the scrapping of its equivalent of air passenger duty. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact that could have on airports in Northern Ireland? Will she reconsider the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s proposals that attention should be given to removing the tax on flights to and from Northern Ireland?

Mrs Villiers: I know that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has a strong view on air passenger duty. I understand the concerns about competitiveness and the recent announcements by the Irish Government. The Government have not had a request from the Northern Ireland Executive to devolve short-haul APD. We would consider such a request seriously, but it would be an expensive change to make.

Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The Secretary of State will join me in welcoming the visit to the House today by the Northern Ireland Assembly and Business Trust, an effective organisation that brings political and business leaders together. How does it strengthen the Northern Ireland economy to centralise jobs in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea, resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs and millions of pounds from our local economy?

Mrs Villiers: The issue is a difficult one. The Government must look carefully at proposed efficiency measures. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) is looking with care at the proposal, and I have had a lengthy conversation with him, as I did with his predecessor. He is very much aware of the issues, and I have made it plain that it is important to consider the onward economic impacts in Coleraine of the decision that he will be making in due course.

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): Now that Northern Ireland has the second highest per capita inward investment of any region in the UK after London, what can the Minister do to ensure that that investment is spread across the whole of Northern Ireland and not concentrated in Greater Belfast?

Mrs Villiers: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The investment conference that the Prime Minister attended last week was incredibly successful. There was

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huge interest from current investors in expanding, and from new investors in setting up business, in Northern Ireland, which is a great place to do business. Several investors at the Belfast conference were interested in the whole of Northern Ireland, and we will do our best to ensure that the benefits are spread throughout Northern Ireland, as we did in bringing the G8 to County Fermanagh.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): May I say to the Secretary of State, as one survivor to another, that I agree with her analysis of last week’s investment conference, which provided an excellent opportunity to showcase Northern Ireland’s potential? But all is not sunny optimism in the land. What steps does she plan to take to support the small businesses in Northern Ireland that are struggling to get credit?

Mrs Villiers: We have introduced an allowance for employer’s national insurance, which will make it cheaper to employ people and create jobs; we are keeping interest rates low through our deficit reduction programme; we are freezing fuel duty; and we are cutting corporation tax to boost business. We are determined to make Northern Ireland a fabulous place to do business in, and to help small businesses.

Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) (SDLP): I welcome our new shadow Secretary of State and pay tribute to his predecessor for the great work he did. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that an economic boost would do a lot to defuse the current community tension? Will she commit herself to helping us to achieve some of the measures, such as the maintenance of low VAT and others that have been mentioned, announced in yesterday’s Irish budget? That would be a major achievement.

Mrs Villiers: I am afraid that EU rules mean that we cannot have a different level of VAT in one part of the country, but we will certainly look at the measures introduced by the Irish to see what lessons can be learned. We are also determined to help rebalance and boost the Northern Ireland economy, which is why we signed the economic pact in June. Last week I announced an update, which demonstrated real progress on start-up loans, research and development, support for Bombardier, and a ministerial taskforce on banking to ensure that businesses get the access to finance they need.

Northern Ireland Grand Committee

6. Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): What assessment she has made of the recent meeting of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. [900424]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): The Northern Ireland Grand Committee is a valuable forum for the debating of Northern Ireland issues. The recent meeting in Belfast on 9 September provided an opportunity to reaffirm the importance that the House of Commons ascribes to Northern Ireland matters.

Neil Carmichael: Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government were absolutely right to extend the start-up loan scheme to Northern Ireland, and that the scheme will provide a huge number of opportunities for young entrepreneurs by giving them access to £117 million?

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Mrs Villiers: The start-up loan scheme has been one of the most successful of the schemes that the Government have introduced to support businesses and help them to gain access to finance. It was extended to Northern Ireland within weeks of the signing, in Downing street, of the commitment to do so. I am sure that it is providing great benefit for young entrepreneurs, and is helping us with our efforts to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): As the Secretary of State will know, at the Grand Committee meeting I asked how the Government could make it easier for young people to gain access to apprenticeships and training centres without needing sponsorship from various companies. She agreed to refer my question to the Minister. Has there been any progress since then?

Mrs Villiers: I have no further developments to report, but these matters are of course very important. I am sure that enhancing skills in Northern Ireland is a high priority for the Northern Ireland Executive, as it is, of course, for the United Kingdom Government in areas that are not devolved.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [900498] Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 16 October.

The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron): I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating the England football team on their excellent win last night, which has enabled them to qualify for next year’s World cup competition. I send my commiserations to the other home nation teams, including Scotland, who delivered an impressive win over Croatia last night, but I am sure that everyone in the United Kingdom will now swing behind the English team—you can always dream and hope, Mr. Speaker.

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

Paul Blomfield: May I associate myself with what the Prime Minister said about the English football team? I only hope that Sheffield United will follow their lead.

We will all have heard from constituents who, while struggling to make ends meet, have taken out payday loans and then found themselves trapped in spiralling debt owing to excessive charges and escalating interest. Yesterday all the major national consumer and debt advice organisations came together in Parliament to launch a charter calling for the tough regulation of payday lenders, which has been backed by Members representing every party in the House. Will the Prime Minister add his support to it?

The Prime Minister: Let me first commend the hon. Gentleman for the work that he does in relation to payday loans and the need for tough regulation. I think it absolutely right for us to look at the issue, and to ensure that we get things right.

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Earlier this month, the Government published two reports which showed that the problems in the payday market persist, and that consumers continue to suffer. As a result, the Financial Conduct Authority has made a series of proposals, all of them worth while. They include proposals to use powers to ban loans and advertisements of which it does not approve, to ensure that lenders cannot roll over loans more than twice, and to limit the number of attempts that a payday lender can make to take money out of accounts.

We are still considering the issue of a cap, and I do not think we should rule it out, although we must bear in mind what has been established in other countries, and by our own research, about whether a cap would prove effective. It is absolutely right for us to regulate this area properly.

Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con): May we have a full and transparent assessment of whether The Guardian’s involvement in the Snowden affair has damaged Britain’s national security? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is bizarre that from some the hacking of a celebrity phone demands a prosecution, whereas leaving the British people and their security personnel more vulnerable is seen as opening a debate?

The Prime Minister: I commend my right hon. Friend for raising the issue. I think the plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security, and in many ways The Guardian itself admitted that when, having been asked politely by my national security adviser and Cabinet Secretary to destroy the files that it had, it went ahead and destroyed those files. It knows that what it is dealing with is dangerous for national security. I think that it is up to Select Committees in the House to examine the issue if they wish to do so, and to make further recommendations.

Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab): I join the Prime Minister in sending warmest congratulations to the England team on its victory last night and on getting to the World cup finals next summer, and I add my commiserations to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Today’s economic figures show a welcome fall in unemployment. They also show that prices have risen faster than wages, and that is 39 out of 40 months that living standards have fallen since he became Prime Minister. Will he confirm what everybody knows: that there is a cost of living crisis in this country?

The Prime Minister: First of all, let me welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the unemployment figures. Not everyone in the House will have been able to study them, but it is good news. The number in work is up 155,000, unemployment is down 18,000, women’s unemployment is down, youth unemployment is down, long-term unemployment is down and vacancies are up, and crucially the fall in the claimant count is 41,000 this month alone. That is the fastest fall in the number of people claiming unemployment benefit since February 1997. These are welcome figures. Of course we all want to see living standards improve, and last year disposable income increased, but the way to deliver on living standards is to grow the economy, keep producing the jobs and cut people’s taxes.

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Edward Miliband: There are almost 1 million young people still out of work and record numbers of people working part-time who cannot find full-time work. That is no cause for complacency from this Government, and I think the British people will be very surprised to hear the Prime Minister telling them that their living standards are rising when they know the truth: under him, living standards are falling month upon month upon month. There is a cost of living crisis, and one of the reasons is rising energy bills, which one leading charity reports today is one of the things driving people to food banks. In the light of that, does the Prime Minister think that the energy company SSE’s decision to raise its customers’ energy bills by 8.2% is justified?

The Prime Minister: Let me come back to the right hon. Gentleman on the youth unemployment figures which he mentions, because the youth claimant count—the number of young people claiming unemployment benefit—is down 79,000 since the election. There is absolutely no complacency—we need more young people in work, we need more jobs—but one of the remarkable things about today’s figures is that they show for the first time that there are 1 million more people in work than there were when this Government came into office.

Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of something he predicted. In October 2010 he said this—[Interruption.] I think people will want to listen to this. He said the Government clearly

“have a programme which will lead to the disappearance of a million…jobs.”

That was his prediction. He was 100% wrong, and he should apologise to this House of Commons. Of course we all want to see energy prices come down. That is why we are putting people on the lowest tariff, but the one thing that will not work is a price con, and that is what he is recommending.

Edward Miliband: The person who should be apologising is this Prime Minister, for the cost of living crisis facing millions of families. Let us talk about SSE. It says on its website—and I quote—that it has just one strategic priority and it calls it its “dividend obsession”: it is not to get bills down; it is not to be on the side of the consumer. So it is make-up-your-mind time for the Prime Minister. Whose side is he on: the energy companies’ or the consumers’?

The Prime Minister: We are on the side of hard-working families, which is why we have cut income tax for 25 million people, why we have frozen the council tax, why we have lifted 2 million people out of tax. Let me make this simple point about living standards: if we want to help with living standards, the best way to do that is to cut people’s taxes. Now, we can only cut taxes if we cut spending. The right hon. Gentleman has opposed every single spending cut that we have proposed; even now he still wants to spend more money. That is the truth: more spending, more borrowing, more debt. It is the same old Labour.

Edward Miliband: Is it not striking that the one thing the Prime Minister does not want to talk about is energy prices? He cannot talk about that because he has no answer. Let us have an answer on the energy price freeze. Can he confirm that in opposing the freeze he

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has on his side the big six energy companies, and in supporting a freeze we have on our side consumer bodies such as Which? and small energy producers such as Co-op Energy and the vast majority of the British people?

The Prime Minister: If an energy price freeze was such a great idea, why did the right hon. Gentleman not introduce it when he stood at this Dispatch Box as Energy Secretary? The fact is that it is not a price freeze; it is a price con. He is not in control of worldwide gas prices, which is why he had to admit the next day that he could not keep his promise—that is the truth. The reason why he does not want to talk about the economy is because he has not got a credible economic policy. He cannot explain why the deficit is falling, the economy is growing and unemployment is coming down. I have to say to him that given that his problem is having no credible economic policy, he does not help himself by having a totally incredible energy policy.

Edward Miliband: I thought that the right hon. Gentleman might get to the record of the last Government, because his Government have found a new tactic; they have been floundering all over the place and they blame the last Government and green levies. Let us talk about green levies, because who said, “Vote blue, go green”? I think it was this Prime Minister. Who said, as Leader of the Opposition:

“I think green taxes as a whole need to go up”?

It was him. He has been talking about my record as Energy Secretary, so I looked back at the record on the Energy Bill of 2010. Did he oppose that Bill? No, he supported it. You could say, Mr Speaker, that it was two parties working together in the national interest. Does he not feel faintly embarrassed that in five short years he has gone from hug a husky to gas a badger?

The Prime Minister: Oh dear! The only embarrassing thing is this tortured performance.

The right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the record of the last Labour Government. Let me remind him, on the cost of living, that they doubled the council tax; they doubled the gas bills; they put up electricity bills by half; they put up petrol tax 12 times; they increased the basic state pension by a measly 75p; and then when it came to the low-paid, they got rid of the 10p income tax band altogether. Labour has absolutely no economic policy, and that is why the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), said on 9 September:

“I’m waiting to hear what we’ve got to say on the economy”.

We have all been waiting, but I think we should give up waiting because they are a hopeless Opposition.

Edward Miliband: I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what happened, because he talks about the last Labour Government: living standards went up by £3,700 over the 13 years of the last Labour Government; living standards are down by £1,500 under him. This is the reality of Britain under this Prime Minister: food bank use on the rise; energy bills soaring; even if you are in work, you are worse off; and a Prime Minister in total denial about the cost of living crisis facing millions of families.

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The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman wants to debate the last Labour Government, I say, “Bring it on.” They crashed the economy; they bust the banks; they doubled the national debt; and they bankrupted this country. I have to say to him that today we can see that 1 million more people are in work in our country, and that is 1 million reasons to stick to the economic plan that we have, it is 1 million reasons to keep on getting the deficit down, delivering on education and delivering on welfare, and it is 1 million reasons to say, “More borrowing, more spending, more debt—that is the same old Labour.” Never again.

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): Last night, Mr Speaker, you presented an Attitude magazine award to the nieces of Alan Turing, the gay world war two code-breaker who helped this country to win world war two. The Government indicated in July that they would move to give a pardon to Mr Turing for his conviction for gross indecency which led him to take his own life. Can my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tell us when that pardon will be granted?

The Prime Minister: Let me pay tribute to what Alan Turing and all the people who worked at Bletchley Park did for our country—it was absolutely remarkable and it was crucial in winning the second world war. Clearly what happened to him was completely wrong and now, looking back, everyone can see that—everybody knows that. I am very happy to look at the specific issue of the pardon and respond to the hon. Gentleman, but above all what we should do is praise Alan Turing and the brave people who worked for him.

Q2. [900499] Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Today is world food day. The Prime Minister embraced the IF campaign, including the need to cut pseudo-green biofuel mandates, which in effect hijack food productivity for the world’s poor for fuel consumption by the rich. Today the EU presidency is proposing a 7% cap, as opposed to the 5% cap advocated by the European Commission. That difference could feed 68 million people a year. What efforts is the Prime Minister making actively to avert EU Governments compromising the fight against world hunger?

The Prime Minister: First, let me pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the campaign that he has waged on this issue. We are absolutely clear that the production of biofuels should not undermine food security, and on some occasions in some countries it clearly does. A 5% cap on biofuels made from crops was one of the key asks of the IF campaign. I support the IF campaign and pay tribute to what it did. That is exactly what we are pushing for in current EU negotiations, and I hope we will be successful.

Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con): The use of contaminated blood products by the NHS in the 1970s and 1980s exposed 5,000 people to hepatitis C and some 1,2000 included in that number to HIV as well. Of those 1,200, only just over 300 are still alive. There has never been an apology or a public inquiry. Will my right hon. Friend, who has an outstanding record in seeking to close historic wrongs, meet me and one of my affected constituents, look again at the possibility of public acknowledgement of perhaps this

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last historic health scandal, and ensure that those who survive now are treated equally and fairly by a state that wronged them in the first place?

The Prime Minister: I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue in the way that he has. I, too, have constituents who have been affected by this appalling thing that happened in our country. In January 2011 we announced a package of measures to provide additional support for those affected, not least because there has been a change in the potential outcomes for people with HIV compared with those with hep C. I am very happy to meet my right hon. Friend, consider all the issues that he raises and see whether there is more we can do to bring this very sad chapter to a close.

Q3. [900500] Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): The Prime Minister will know of the many injustices that have been meted out by Atos in the past few years. They were mentioned again on Monday at Department for Work and Pensions questions. The latest victim was a farmer and a butcher in Bolsover who went to Atos in December 2012 and was stripped of his benefit. For 11 months he waited for an appeal and then his aggressive cancer took his sight, took his hearing, and then last Friday took his life. Is it not time that we put an end to this system whereby people who are really suffering should not be allowed an appeal, having to live on £70 a week, for him and his widow? There are two things the Prime Minister should do: first, with immediate effect, make an ex gratia payment to his widow to cover the suffering, the pain and the loss of income, and secondly, abolish this cruel, heartless monster called Atos—get rid of it. It is not fit for purpose.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman rightly raises what is clearly a desperately sad case and I am very happy to look at the specifics of it. Everyone who has constituency surgeries and talks to constituents knows that we have to improve the quality of decision making about this issue, but where I take issue with him is that I think it is important that we carry out proper assessments of whether people qualify for benefits or do not qualify for benefits. [Interruption.] That is why, before Members on the Opposition Benches shout about this, they started to look at work capability—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The question was heard, and heard, I think, with great courtesy, and the answer must be heard.

The Prime Minister: That is why the previous Government did look at the issue of work capability assessments and making sure that we have a proper way of judging who should be receiving benefits and who should not. As I say, we can always improve the system. There are appeals in the system, but I am very happy to look at the individual case.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): The Arctic 30 include six British citizens, including Alexandra Harris, a friend of my daughter. I am really concerned that their ecological protest about Sakhalin Island and the grey whales is being misinterpreted as piracy because nobody wants the scrutiny of the environmental work they are doing. Will something be done?

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The Prime Minister: I share my hon. Friend’s concern. One of the people involved is a constituent of mine. We need to follow this case extremely closely, and that is exactly what the Foreign Office is doing. A Foreign Office Minister had a meeting, which I am sure my hon. Friend attended, and we are daily seeking updates from the Russian Government about how those people are being treated.

Q4. [900501] Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Last week, in answer to a question on his marriage tax policy, the Prime Minister said that

“all married couples paying basic rate tax will benefit from this move.”—[Official Report, 9 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 151.]

That was not correct, was it? Will he confirm that?

The Prime Minister: What I said was that the married couples tax allowance tax is available to all couples who are on basic rate tax. Anyone who has unused tax allowance is able to transfer it between the husband or the wife. It comes back to a very simple principle: we want to back marriage in the tax system. We do not want to do so only in the inheritance tax system, as the Labour party did; we want to back marriage for less well-off couples. If the shadow Chancellor wants to raise another point of order, I am very happy to stick around and hear it out.

Q5. [900502] Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I had originally intended to raise the A14 with my right hon. Friend, but a really important announcement has been made today by the Supreme Court. It has unanimously turned down the appeal on prisoners’ voting rights and, importantly, reasserted that it is the role of this Parliament to make the decision, rather than others. Will he ensure that we will not be voting for prisoners’ voting rights in this Parliament?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for forsaking the A14 to raise this very important issue. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General on this excellent result. He fought this case himself in front of the Supreme Court and made a compelling and forceful argument. This is a victory for common sense. My views on the issue are well known: I do not believe that prisoners should have the vote, and I believe that that is a matter for this House of Commons. The Supreme Court has today stood up for common sense and democracy and made it clear that this issue has nothing to do with the European Union, and I think that we can all rejoice at the result.

Q6. [900503] Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): The number of people helped by food banks in 2012-13 was triple what it was the previous year. Is the Prime Minister proud of that achievement?

The Prime Minister: Food bank usage went up 10 times under the previous Labour Government. Of course, I want all families being helped with their living standards. That is why we should recognise that we are getting more people into work, we are growing our economy, we are keeping interest rates down and, crucially, we are cutting taxes—four things that are vital to living standards and four things we would never get from a Labour Government.

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Q7. [900504] Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): In September Solihull’s ambulance service moved to a make ready system, and today there are no two-man ambulances based in the borough. Several of my constituents have already been left for totally unacceptably long periods waiting for an ambulance to take them to hospital. Talking to ambulance chiefs is like a dialogue of the deaf, so will the Prime Minister agree to meet me to see what can be done before a constituent dies waiting for an ambulance to arrive?

The Prime Minister: I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concern about the importance of ambulance response times. I think that we then have to task the NHS with how best it meets those targets, because what matters most of all is swift attendance for people who need it. I am very happy to arrange a meeting with her and Health Ministers to look at this. I know that the West Midlands ambulance service is looking at ways of improving its service, and clearly she will encourage it to do just that.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): The Prime Minister will know that yesterday the Independent Police Complaints Commission published a damning report on an event involving the former Government Chief Whip. The report goes to the heart of the integrity and ethics of the police. Does he agree with the Home Secretary, who said in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee yesterday that it would be right for the relevant chief constables to apologise to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and wrong if the relevant officers did not face disciplinary proceedings?

The Prime Minister: I agree 100% with what the Home Secretary said yesterday. We should be clear about what we are discussing here. The whole case of what happened outside No. 10 Downing street is with the Crown Prosecution Service and we have to leave it on one side until it makes its decision. What is being discussed here is the fact that my right hon. Friend the former Chief Whip had a meeting with Police Federation officers in his constituency where he gave a full account of what had happened. They left that meeting and claimed that he had given them no account at all. Fortunately this meeting was recorded and so he has been able to prove that what he said was true and what the police officers said was untrue. That is why the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is absolutely right: my right hon. Friend is owed an apology. The conduct of these officers was not acceptable. These things should be properly investigated, as the Home Secretary has said. Crucially, it is absolutely right for the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee to discuss this with the chief constables concerned and try to get to the bottom of why better redress has not been given.

Q8. [900505] Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): May I congratulate the Prime Minister on taking 2 million people out of income tax but note the 1.3 million earning salaries of about £40,000 who have been sucked into the higher rate? As he pursues the Tory mission to take the low-paid out of tax, may I urge him to deliver it by cutting Government spending so that we can also ease the squeeze on the middle classes?

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The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. We have taken 2.7 million people out of income tax altogether because we have lifted the first £10,000 of what you can earn before you start paying taxes. This means also that someone on the minimum wage working full-time—the Leader of the Opposition asked about the working poor—has seen their tax bill come down by something like two thirds. Yes, I want to see taxes cut for all, but the only way we can do that is to continue to get the deficit down, to bear down on public spending, and not listen to Labour Members, who even today are making massive commitments to more welfare spending and more public spending, which would mean higher taxes, higher borrowing, and more of the same old Labour.

Q9. [900506] Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister consider it a source of shame that on his watch the Red Cross has announced that it will be distributing food to British families for the first time in 70 years?

The Prime Minister: What the Red Cross is choosing to do, and it is its choice, is to work with FareShare, which is an excellent charity that makes sure that supermarkets do not waste food but make that food available to people who need it. I think that is thoroughly worth while. But what we need to see—I repeat it again—is a rise in living standards which we will get if we keep growing the economy, keep getting more jobs, keep cutting people’s taxes, and keep interest rates and mortgage rates low. Those are the four things this Government are delivering—four things that we never would have delivered if we had listened to a word from Labour Front Benchers.

Q14. [900511] Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): Yesterday I presented a petition to the Department of Health calling for a £420 million hospital redevelopment in Brighton, Kemptown. Does the Prime Minister agree that this money would make a real difference to patients right across Sussex and to the hard-working staff at my local hospital?

The Prime Minister: I understand that the business case for the £420 million redevelopment of the regional centre for teaching, trauma and tertiary care at Royal Sussex County hospital in Brighton is currently being considered. Let me make the point that obviously we can only consider it because this Government decided not to cut the NHS but to put extra resources into it. I am sure that when it is considered an announcement will be made.

Q10. [900507] Mr Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): Tax cuts for millionaires, tax cuts for the wealthiest companies in this country and a bonus bonanza in the City, while millions are denied the right to work and people who are hard working in work have had their pay cut by £1,500: when are this Government, made up of privileged, privately educated millionaire Ministers, going to do something and get in the real world instead of being the political front of the hedge funds and the bankers in the City?

The Prime Minister: Well, we all know who did the most for the hedge funds and the bankers—it was the people who allowed the banks to go bust in the first place. It is this Government who are cutting taxes for

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working people, taking 2.7 million people out of tax, compared with the disgrace of the Government the hon. Gentleman was in, who scrapped the 10p income tax rate.

Q11. [900508] Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): We all appreciate that government requires hard choices about priorities. Does the Prime Minister agree that a generous basic state pension based on a triple lock should have greater priority than more generous benefit payments?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I am proud of the fact that, last year under this Government, the basic state pension went up by £5.30 a week. We have the inflation figures for September, so we can say that, because of our triple lock, the basic state pension will go up by the rate of inflation—2.7%—next year. Of course, the Labour party’s commitment to an earnings increase in the basic state pension would not see anything like that, and yet at the same time it is choosing to uprate welfare by 2.7% when we think it should go up by 1%. We have the priorities to stand up for people who have worked hard, done the right thing and saved during their lives and who deserve dignity in retirement. Unlike the Labour party, we will never let our pensioners down.

Q12. [900509] Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): This week the Office for National Statistics reported that house price inflation in London was running at 8.7%. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is inevitable that his mortgage guarantee scheme will simply feed this property price bubble at the expense of individual, low-cost home buyers?

The Prime Minister: I do not accept that for a moment. It is interesting that Labour has now come out against the Help to Buy scheme. Whereas we want to help people get on the housing ladder and own a place of their own, the Labour party is, as ever, standing against those people. If the hon. Lady looks at house price increases outside London and the south-east, she will see an increase of 0.8%. Mortgage activity is still way below what it was before the recession struck. We want to help people get on the housing ladder and achieve their dream of home ownership. Clearly, the Labour party does not care for them.

Q15. [900512] Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): The Prime Minister will know that in my constituency some businesses are paying almost as much in business rates as they are in rent. What steps will he take to persuade local councils to use the powers this Government have given them to reduce those rates and make the right choices to support hard-pressed retailers?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a real champion on this issue for small business.

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Obviously, the first thing we need to do is get passed through the House of Commons the Bill that will cut the national insurance bill of every business in the country, helping Britain’s small businesses in particular. It will mean that single traders will be able to take on three people earning the minimum wage without paying any national insurance. That is the most important thing we can do. We should continue to look at the business rate system and encourage councils to make sure that they do everything they can to apply the discounts where they are available and to continue to work on this issue.

Q13. [900510] Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): Under this Government, wages in real terms have fallen in every region of the UK. Given that those in Harrow and across the rest of London are, on average, £2,200 worse off each year, when will the Prime Minister take personal responsibility for this?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman has to look at disposable income as well as wages. Because this Government have cut people’s taxes and because we are allowing people to keep £10,000 of what they earn before they pay taxes, disposable income went up last year and is rising as we speak. This is important for the Labour party, because if it goes on attacking spending cuts and asking for more and more spending, everyone will know that with Labour you get—repeat after me—more borrowing, more spending and more taxes. It is the same old Labour.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that unemployment has fallen in Harlow and jobseekers are encouraged by lower tax for lower earners? Will my right hon. Friend go one step further and look in the long term at raising the threshold at which low earners pay national insurance?

The Prime Minister: I am very happy to look at what my hon. Friend says. He is a real champion of the low-paid and people who want to work hard and improve their circumstances. Clearly, taking people out of tax is hugely helpful. We should always look at national insurance. The priority there is to help small businesses take people on. It is worth recognising in the figures announced today that there are 1 million extra people in work and that three quarters of those jobs are full-time jobs, not part-time jobs. What I think we can see is that the country is getting stronger, the economy is improving and more people are getting into work. We need to encourage that, rather than set it back.

Mr Speaker: I know that the substantial throng of colleagues who are leaving the Chamber will do so as quickly and quietly as possible. An expectant House can now hear Mr David Morris.

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Gibraltar (Maritime Protection)

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

12.35 pm

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to protect the seas around Gibraltar; and for connected purposes.

I thank colleagues from both sides of the House who have agreed to sponsor the Bill. I received offers from many more Members than the 11 I was allowed to use. I am sure that the people of Gibraltar will take great pride in the amount of support that there is in this House for their interests. Many right hon. and hon. Members have great affection for the people of Gibraltar. That is vital at a time when Gibraltar needs the support of the British Government.

The Bill would define the territorial waters of Gibraltar in primary legislation as 3 nautical miles from the coast of Gibraltar. I do not wish to anger Spain by introducing this Bill. Spain is a key ally, friend and neighbour of the UK. I therefore believe that we should be polite, clear and firm in our approach to this sensitive issue. I believe that cementing in our statute book a definition of the Gibraltan territorial waters would be the most agreeable way forward.

I decided to introduce the Bill after visiting Gibraltar and seeing at first hand the frustration of its people that their waters are not being protected. In the summer, various news reports showed scores of people waiting at the border to enter Spain. That stemmed from an argument that the Spanish were having with Gibraltar over their territorial waters. In July, Gibraltar dropped 70 concrete boulders into the waters around its coast to create an artificial reef. The purpose of the reef was to protect marine life in the area and to ensure that fish stocks improved. The Spanish press were strongly against the reef and claimed that the boulders were stopping Spanish fishermen being able to fish, as their nets were being destroyed. In fact, only one Spanish fisherman was affected by the reef.

Spain has used the same kind of concrete reef in its waters as part of an EU project to protect and improve fish stocks. It has received millions of pounds in EU funding to produce that reef. I do not know why Spain has turned on this kind of reef, nor why it decided to use the reef as an excuse to hold up Gibraltan people who were passing into Spain at the border.

What I do know is that the Gibraltan people are proud of their membership of the EU and want to work with Spain to their mutual financial benefit. That does not take away from the fact that they are immensely proud of their Gibraltan heritage. During the recent tensions, Gibraltarians have begun to treat the artificial reef as a hero and have affectionately named it “Reefy”. It has become a symbol of their national identity and an unofficial logo for their national day celebrations.

It is clear that Spain is choosing to flout the historically recognised boundaries of Gibraltan waters. It is time for Britain to stand firm and make it clear to Spain what the legal boundaries should be. I do not want to see a repeat of the incident in which a British jet skier was hounded and fired at with plastic bullets by the Spanish Guardia Civil while in Gibraltan waters.

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The Bill has become even more relevant in the past week because a Spanish navy patrol boat has again been found sailing 2 miles off Gibraltar without the relevant permissions. The vessel, which was carrying out fisheries and coastal patrol duties, was challenged by the Royal Navy as it sailed in the waters south of the Rock of Gibraltar. The Spanish ship lingered in Gibraltan waters for 30 minutes before moving off. I understand that the Gibraltan Government will be launching a diplomatic protest about that incident, which showed that the Spanish are not letting up their campaign. We must step up a gear and legislate to define Gibraltar’s waters.

Gibraltar was formally ceded to the British in article 10 of the treaty of Utrecht 1713. At the time no mention was made of its territorial waters, and some have made much play about that. In reality, however, the right of every country to define its territorial waters is clearly defined in international law, and 18th-century international treaties provided for a claim of up to 3 nautical miles. In 1982, the UN convention on the law of the sea gave us the right to 12 nautical miles, or the middle of the sea where the two waters overlap. That treaty was ratified by the United Kingdom and Spain. Admittedly, the Spanish issued a statement at the time, but—critically—they signed the convention anyway, making the Spanish claim to Gibraltan waters baseless in international law. The British and Gibraltarians have never chosen to take 12 nautical miles. We have long believed that three are enough, and it would be wrong to claim more territorial waters than are needed, especially given the sensitivity of the issue. Nevertheless, the Bill does not close the door for Gibraltar to claim 12 nautical miles in future should it wish.

My Bill aims to enshrine in law a position that has already been formally adopted for many years and that recognises a 3 nautical mile stretch of water as Gibraltar’s. Indeed, questions have been raised in the past about why Gibraltar does not stake its legal claim to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters. That issue was the subject of a Foreign Office question on 14 February 2006, when the then hon. Member for Hereford asked why we do not claim the full 12 nautical miles. The shadow Foreign Secretary, then a Minister in the FCO, stated:

“Under international law, States are entitled, but not required, to extend their territorial sea up to a maximum breadth of 12 nautical miles. Where the coasts of two States are opposite or adjacent, the general rule is that neither is entitled, unless they agree otherwise, to extend its territorial sea beyond the median line. The UK Government considers that a limit of three nautical miles is sufficient in the case of Gibraltar.”—[Official Report, 14 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 1902W.]

Of course Gibraltar could at some point in future claim the full 12 nautical miles, but the aim of the Bill is to claim 3 miles of territorial water in legislation, making the greatest effort to keep a good working relationship with Spain while supporting the interests of the Gibraltarians. Should the Bill be passed, it will complement the work of Gibraltar’s coastguard agency, which has been protecting 3 miles of territorial waters since 2011. The dedication of that team who, among other tasks, conduct general patrols of territorial waters and enforce shipping laws and port rules, should be applauded. By backing the Bill we are supporting the hard-working team who work tirelessly to protect Gibraltan waters.

I was lucky enough to visit Gibraltar recently, along with other Members of the House, many of whom are sitting on these Benches today. The overwhelming feeling

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we received was the pride that the Gibraltarians feel for their country, and their independence was astounding. We as a country should never forget the Gibraltan people and their right to decide their own destiny, and I fully support my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary when they say that we must never enter into any discussions about the sovereignty of Gibraltar without its say so.

It is also important that when the Gibraltarians are crying out for assistance and assurance, we act in the clearest and strongest way possible. Let me be clear: Spain is our ally and friend, but we must not let Gibraltar be bullied by Spain for that reason. Spain should embrace Gibraltar as Gibraltar could be the financial powerhouse of that region. It could be similar to what Hong Kong is to China, but with one crucial difference—it will not be claimed back. I hope the whole House will back this Bill and send a resounding message of our support to our brothers and sisters in Gibraltar. Gibraltar has a right to its territorial waters, and this House supports that right.

Question put and agreed to.


That David Morris, Alec Shelbrooke, Andrew Rosindell, Bob Stewart, Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil, Mr Graham Brady, Mr Nigel Evans, Caroline Dinenage, Ian Paisley, Sir Gerald Kaufman, Jim Dobbin and Sir Peter Bottomley present the Bill.

David Morris accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 February 2014, and to be printed (Bill 115).

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Opposition Day

[7th Allotted Day]

Zero-hours Contracts

12.45 pm

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House notes the marked rise in the use of zero hours contracts with recent estimates that as many as a million employees are employed on them and that they are used in over a quarter of workplaces, contributing to growing insecurity for families across the UK; and therefore calls on the Government to initiate a full consultation and formal call for evidence on the use of zero hours contracts and on proposals to prevent abuses by employers of such contracts, for example, by stopping employees on zero hours contracts being required to work exclusively for one employer, stopping the use of contracts that require zero hour workers to be available on the off-chance they are needed but with no guarantee of work, banning the use of zero hours contracts where employees are in practice working regular hours and putting in place a code of practice on the use of zero hours contracts.

We are in the midst of the biggest living standards crisis in a generation, a crisis that is affecting every community in the country. We know that at its heart is the issue of pay. People are working harder than ever before but earning less: they have on average suffered a £1,500 pay cut since the Government came into office. We know that at the same time as wages have been falling, costs have been increasing, with prices rising faster than wages in 39 of the 40 months of this Government.

We also know that insecurity goes to the heart of this living standards crisis, too. Those in work now feel less secure and more pressurised at work than at any time in the past 20 years, according to the most recent UK skills and employment survey. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which co-funded the survey, says that what we have now is a climate of fear. Indeed, research shows that double the number of people feel insecure at work today compared with three years ago.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the biggest collapse in living standards occurred from 2008 to 2010 under the Labour Government, when they bankrupted the country and drove people out of work? We are trying to recover from that position.

Mr Umunna: The right hon. Gentleman talks about us bankrupting the country. He knows, because I have heard him talk about this many times before, that the problems we had in 2008-09 found their gestation in the banking sector, which is ultimately where responsibility lies.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab) rose—

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that wages have been cut by about 5% in the three or four years since this Government came to power, and that it was the bankers who started it? More importantly, does he agree that zero-hours contracts are a throwback to the 1930s when miners and dockers had to turn up to work not knowing whether they would get a job. This is a modern veneer on an old, tried and tired system that was chucked out many years ago.

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Mr Speaker: Order. Just before the shadow Secretary of State responds to that intervention, may I gently say that it is helpful if everybody is clear to whom the Member who has the floor is giving way? The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) is sorely pained as he thinks the intervention was supposed to be his. I know not, but the shadow Secretary should make it clear.

Mr Umunna: I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) too.

Ian Lucas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I just wanted to correct the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood). In my constituency, the average male wage in real terms was £530.80 in 2010. That fell to £453.50 in 2011, the first year of the Tory-Liberal Democrat Government.

Mr Umunna: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and he is right to point that out. We are in the fourth year of this Government and blame is continually attributed to the Labour party. This Government ought to look at what they are doing to our country and our economy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) made a point about insecurity at work. That insecurity is not just born out of three wasted years of a flatlining economy following the Government’s 2010 comprehensive spending review which caused confidence to fall and demand to nosedive; it is also because the nature of work has changed in recent years. Half the rise in employment since 2010 has been in temporary work, driven primarily by people doing temporary jobs because they cannot find permanent work—more than 500,000 people fall into that category—while record numbers of people are in part-time work who would prefer to be working full time, meaning that there is huge underemployment.

But perhaps the most shocking symptom of the changing nature of work is the proliferation of the use of zero-hours contracts, under which a person is not guaranteed any work, is usually expected to be around whenever the employer wants them to be and is paid only for the work he or she gets, meaning, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South said, that individuals engaged under these contracts never know when work will come and therefore whether they can sustain themselves and their families week to week.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): Is it not tough to listen to the Prime Minister giving answers about rising employment, given the type of employment that that represents, as we have just heard? Should the Government not come clean about the falling claimant count and listen to what my hon. Friend is saying about the type of work people are having to go into?

Mr Umunna: This is a key point. Will any job do? We are clear that any old job will not do. We want to ensure that people have decent work that is paid a salary they can live off and which is secure too. That has to be our ambition for the country.

I do not deny that these contracts have been in use for many years—I will turn to their use in the House a bit later—but until recently they were very much the exception to the rule. The problem is that now they are becoming

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the norm in some sectors, with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimating that up to 1 million people are on such contracts.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): The hon. Gentleman will understand that across the House there is concern—or there should be—about this issue, and I am glad that we are debating it. He touched on the point I wanted to ask him about. Will he confirm, however, that the Labour Government never addressed this issue by making it illegal, so it remained possible throughout the whole period of their Administration? Neutrally, does he have any objective, accurate statistics on the number of people affected by zero-hours contracts during the last Government and the number of people affected since 2010 under this Administration?

Mr Umunna: I will come to both those points in the remainder of my speech.

Some Government Members trumpet this insecurity and talk about it as evidence of flexibility in our labour market, and it is true that some workers like these arrangements, but for most working families they mean insecurity for them and their families and leave them subject to the whim and demands of their employer to work at short notice, so the flexibility is not a two-way street; it is a one-way street in favour of the employer, and that is insecurity writ large and totally unacceptable.

Mr Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): On Friday, a heavy goods vehicle driver for Royal Mail and his wife came to my surgery and told me that one week he works two nights, the next he might work three, and his wife explained what that meant for them as a family. What does that say about companies such as Royal Mail that use this practice continually?

Mr Umunna: Some argue that we should not point to bad practice in the business community because to do so is to fuel anti-business rhetoric. I think that it is important that we call out people who are systematically exploiting and abusing others under these contracts. For example, Sports Direct uses these contracts across the board, whereas others, such as Asda, acknowledge that they could use them if they wanted, but do not want to treat their people in that way, and if that means that they have to spend more time drawing up rotas and using overtime arrangements in contracts, so be it; they do not want to treat people in that way.

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that firms that exploit people by using zero-hours contracts are undermining good employers who institute flexible working and annualised contracts, meaning that we are in danger of the bad driving out the good?

Mr Umunna: I completely agree with my hon. Friend; of course, it means they can undercut others, so hers was a point well made.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent points he is making in support of good companies that recognise, as I know from my time in business, that those with insecure jobs will never deliver for their companies the same quality of work or be as motivated as a well-paid, secure employee.

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Mr Umunna: That was exactly the point I was just about to make. Of course, insecurity at work lowers a person’s standard of living and makes managing their family commitments impossible. As my hon. Friend says, insecurity is bad for business because insecure, poorly paid workers are less committed and less productive. It is also bad for the public finances, because if people are not getting the hours or earning a decent wage, that means less income tax and national insurance going to the Exchequer and more being paid out in credits, so everybody loses out.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): A few weeks ago, I was talking to a constituent of mine on a zero-hours contract with the Co-operative group. Is the Co-operative group exploiting its workers?

Mr Umunna: I will come to that point very shortly.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): My hon. Friend referred to the impact on families. Will he expand on that? What is the impact of zero-hours contracts on a mother’s or father’s ability to plan picking their children up from school in a week’s time, to plan family holidays or Christmas or to plan whether they can afford a mortgage?

Mr Umunna: I will come to that point shortly and tell the House the story of a zero-hours contract worker I met recently in exactly that position.

The Government and policy makers can acknowledge the problem, but the question is this: at a time when people feel more insecure than ever, will they just heap further insecurity on them, or will they act to do something about the situation? What have the Government done? First, we have their failed economic plan. Thanks to the policies they have pursued, unemployment and underemployment remain stubbornly high, with almost 2.5 million people still out of work, including, tragically, almost 1 million young people. I do not think that that is cause for celebration. It is welcome that growth has returned, but for all the talk of rebalancing, in the fourth year of the Government, that rebalancing looks as elusive as ever. We just have to look at the statistics that came out this morning. In today’s employment figures, of course it was good to see unemployment fall in parts of our country, but in many regions—London, the north-west, the east midlands and the south-west—it increased.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con) rose—

Mr Umunna: I will give way shortly.

Secondly, what are the Government doing to the protections for working people in the workplace? They are watering them down left, right and centre. They have increased from one to two years the length of service required before someone can enforce their right not to be treated unfairly at work and they have introduced employment tribunal fees of £1,200. The Minister for Skills and Enterprise described that as a moderate charge, but for low-income workers it is the equivalent of several weeks’ pay. The Government have also reduced the consultation period for collective redundancy. I could go on.

Thirdly, what have the Government done on zero-hours contracts? They have done little, if anything at all. Has a full consultation and call for evidence been issued? No. To date, there has been none, despite promises at

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the Liberal Democrat conference by the Secretary of State to do so. Has the Office for National Statistics been asked to clarify how many of these contracts might be in use, given that research suggests there are far more than in the ONS estimates?

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon) indicated assent.

Mr Umunna: I don’t think so, because Ministers keep quoting statistics from the ONS to me, despite its having conceded that there is a real risk that they do not reflect reality.

Have the Government devoted the same energy and time to protecting people from the exploitative use of these contracts as they have to implementing the recommendations of the Prime Minister’s employment law adviser, Adrian Beecroft, for watering down people’s rights at work? No, they have not.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the insecurity that zero-hours contracts can create, which happens in three ways: by insisting on availability even when there is no work; by requiring workers to work exclusively for one business; and by using zero-hours contracts to erode and water down the basic rights in the workplace of employees who work regular hours. Is that not what we need to clamp down on?

Mr Umunna: Absolutely, and I will come to how we intend to do that shortly, but I give way to the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who has been waiting patiently.

Guy Opperman: The hon. Gentleman was talking about the unemployment figures. Does he accept that in the north-east they have fallen by 17,000 since February this year and are now lower than when we came into office in May 2010, and that youth unemployment is down since February by 7,000, from 12% to 9.2%? Is that not evidence that things are changing for the better?

Mr Umunna: I do not deny that it is welcome to see anybody who is out of work getting into work, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) put it, the question is: what is the nature of that work?

In fairness to the Secretary of State, I think he wants to act. I know, for example, that he has hit out at people in his Government who want to slash away employment protections, describing them as “head bangers” who see liberalising the labour market as “an aphrodisiac”. Who on earth could he be referring to? I suspect that he is prevented from acting by the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon)—who is sitting next to him—who has described his boss as “slipping his electronic tag” for daring to speak about the need for a more responsible capitalism, which I would argue includes companies treating their workers fairly. In any case, the Secretary of State has allowed what has happened to go on and has therefore been complicit in watering down people’s rights at work in the way I have described.

Where this Government have failed, we will act. To pick up on the point made earlier, there are few firm data on the extent of the use of zero-hours contracts, partly because many people do not realise that they are

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on them. However, over the summer months, the Office for National Statistics produced revised figures, putting the number at more than 250,000. That is likely to be a severe underestimate, given that others have estimated that more than 300,000 employees in the care sector alone are now on such contracts. Consequently, I, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford), who has campaigned hard on this issue, wrote to the chair of the UK Statistics Authority asking whether the ONS would clarify the data and publish new figures in the light of the evidence that has arisen. He said that the ONS was reviewing the way it collects the data and looking at whether it can include the data collected by organisations such as the CIPD. However, finding out how many of these contracts are in use is one thing; looking at how they are used is another.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I do not like zero-hours contracts because of the insecurity they create for people, and we should have planning, but they are a fact of life. Somehow or other, this House and all of us have to find a way to reduce them. There are still six Labour-controlled councils in London using zero-hours contracts, and we have to try to stop it. It is not easy: I like to see people employed, but I also like people to have some security in their lives, and zero-hours contracts sometimes do not give that.

Mr Umunna: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I think there is some common ground. The issue is not necessarily the use of such contracts per se; it is the exploitative use of them. That is what we have to outlaw, and I will come to that.

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): My constituency has the 10th highest unemployment in the country. In the main, the people who come to my surgeries would prefer to be on full-time contracts rather than zero-hours contracts, which they are all too often forced into. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must try to stop unscrupulous employers taking advantage of those who are less able to support themselves because of their personal circumstances?

Mr Umunna: I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who, as it happens, intervenes just as I was about to talk about Merseyside. I was talking about collecting data on the number of zero-hours contracts being one thing and the evidence about their use being another. He will know that our hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Wirral South and our right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) produced an excellent report in June detailing the use of zero-hours contracts in the Liverpool area. In that report they told the story of a care worker, whom I have subsequently met and spoken to myself, as I mentioned earlier. She told me that she had to be available to visit clients at their homes at least six days a week, including evenings. Her rota could change in a flash. If visits were cancelled at late notice, she would often not be paid. If visits were added at the last minute, she would have to manage her child care commitments as she best could—a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). That is the reality of life for people under these contracts.

In July, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) held a Westminster Hall debate on this issue. Seventeen Opposition Members contributed

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to that debate, giving further testimony about people’s experiences on such contracts. In fact, my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon)—I do not know whether she is here today—talked about how she had been employed on a zero-hours contract for two years in the retail sector. I note that not one Government Back Bencher spoke in that debate—save for the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), who was chairing it—but it is good to see a few more Government Members here today.

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I was one of the Members who spoke in that debate. I raised the case of my constituent who had to leave her children locked in a car while she undertook home visits that were given to her at short notice under threat of not getting any work in future. In response to that debate, the Under-Secretary of State said that that was clearly “not right”, but since then we have seen absolutely nothing from the Government on how they will protect constituents such as mine and others, to whom my hon. Friend has referred. Does he agree that that is an absolute disgrace?

Mr Umunna: I do agree, and I read my hon. Friend’s speech from that debate. She talked about what the Government are doing. The Secretary of State said he was carrying out an informal review, but given that that consisted of just three officials spending part of their time “speaking informally” with stakeholders—as he told me in answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled on this issue—that is clearly insufficient. Therefore, in August, I and the shadow employment relations Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), formally convened a summit, involving more than 20 different organisations representing employers, employees, legal experts and people employed on zero-hours contracts, to hear evidence and consider what action should be taken to clamp down on their exploitative use.

Two things arose from the evidence we heard and the consultations we have been carrying out. The consensus across all stakeholders and groups was that the exploitative use of such contracts is a problem—everybody agreed with that—particularly in the care sector. Those looking after some of the country’s most vulnerable people are themselves vulnerable under these contracts. Given that it is important for those whom they are looking after to have stable and continuous care from people with whom they are familiar, I cannot see how that state of affairs can have anything other than a detrimental effect on the quality of care received.

That state of affairs creates issues for many local authorities because of the way in which social care services are commissioned. Many of them will tell us that it is helping to drive the use of zero-hours contracts in the care sector. They say—some would say that this is not an excuse, but an explanation—that they are left with no option but to commission in that way because of the huge funding cuts they have been subjected to under this Government. I understand the challenges that local authorities face—I think we all do—but I urge them to follow the example of Southwark council, which is working with providers to eliminate the use of zero-hours contracts, particularly in the care sector.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time, and I am grateful to him for giving way on that point, which is directly relevant. He said he would come back to whether there were statistics on the incidence

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of this form of employment before 2010. To reinforce the point he is making, to my knowledge, the care sector has used zero-hours contracts for many years, under the Labour Government and this Government, and under local authorities of all political colours contracting services. There are real abuses, and if we can reach consensus, without partisanship, that one of the sectors in which we need to address them most urgently is the care sector, that will be a great service to some of the lowest-paid people doing the most difficult face-to-face jobs.

Mr Umunna: I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree that what Southwark is doing is a good thing. I note that he is agreeing with me.

The Office for National Statistics suggests that the numbers under the previous Government were around 140,000 across all sectors, although I acknowledge that the way it has collected those data has been somewhat faulty, in part because it relies heavily on people understanding what their contractual situation is. It is fair to say, however, that there has been a significant proliferation of zero-hours contracts over the past few years. The right hon. Gentleman talked about the care sector. The use of these contracts in that sector might have been a niche arrangement before, but it is certainly now becoming the rule. That is what we need to act on.

I do not believe that there is consensus on advocating an outright ban on these arrangements. There are people who want them, and there are employers who use them responsibly, but, as I said to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), the key is to outlaw them where they are exploiting people. In doing that, we need to acknowledge the people who are doing the right thing as well as draw attention to those who are doing the wrong thing.

We should also acknowledge the need for this House to get its own house in order in respect of the use of zero-hours contracts. We know that there are people who look after us here and help us to do our jobs here who are engaged on those contracts. That is unacceptable. We should be setting an example. I know that this is being looked into at the moment, but we have not yet had a clear commitment from the House authorities not to use such contracts. I think that everyone would agree that we want to see their use in the House stamped out.

Mr Redwood: I want my constituents to have well paid, decent jobs, and I have a lot of sympathy with those who do not wish to see exploitative contracts. Will the shadow Secretary of State say a little more about how he would define an exploitative contract, and whether there is more we could do by way of leadership? He is an influential and talented man. Surely there is more that he could do with Labour councils and trade unions, just as those on the Government Benches can do more with the Government.

Mr Umunna: One of my colleagues has just said to me that being praised by the right hon. Gentleman will spell the end of my career. People will point to examples of Labour-controlled local authorities, but we do not care who is using these contracts. We simply do not want them to be used exploitatively, and I will explain how we can stop that happening.

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Chris Ruane: My hon. Friend has mentioned the use of zero-hours contracts in the Palace of Westminster. I have contacted the Speaker about this matter, and I commend him for his positive response. The problem also exists across the way in Lambeth palace, and I have tabled parliamentary questions to the Church Commissioners about it. The number of zero-hours contracts in Lambeth palace has gone up from five in 2008 to 34 today. Their proliferation is rampant around the country. The problem is out there, and without proper monitoring it will continue to progress. I congratulate my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State on securing this debate, which is shining a torch into those dark places and establishing that this is a big political issue that affects millions of poor people out there.

Mr Umunna: I completely agree with my hon. Friend.

In answer to the question of how we should deal with the problem, our motion proposes four measures that we hope the Government can support or, at least, commit to properly consult on. First, we would ban employers from insisting that zero-hours workers be available to work—be on call, effectively—even when there was no guarantee of work to give them. Secondly, we would stop zero-hours contracts that required workers to work exclusively for that employer. The Secretary of State has talked about that aspect of the matter before. Thirdly, we would prevent the misuse of such contracts when employees were, in practice, regularly working a number of hours a week. We would ensure that they became entitled to a contract that reflected the reality of their regular hours. Finally, alongside those measures, we would introduce a code of practice for the use of the contracts that would ensure, for example, that an employee recruited on a zero-hours contract would know that those were their terms of employment. We have announced the appointment of the former head of human resources at Morrisons, Norman Pickavance, to lead an independent consultation on how we could best implement those measures.

In conclusion, I want to say something about where this will fit with the future of our economy. We need to reform our economy so that it is fit for purpose, and so that it delivers better and fairer outcomes for people. We consistently hear from some people that the best way to do that is further to liberalise our labour market, which is already the third most liberal labour market in the OECD. That is why they recoil from taking action on exploitative zero-hours contracts, but that approach amounts to a global race to the bottom in which we seek to compete with China, India and the other emerging economies by screwing down the pay and terms and conditions of working people in the name of growth.

That is not the way in which we should be competing, because it will not deliver better outcomes for the people we represent. We will deliver better outcomes for them, ultimately, by growing those industries that can provide more of the better paid, secure jobs that they want. Of course that means promoting innovation and ensuring that our people have the skills to do those jobs. That is why I am always banging on about the need for an industrial strategy. We must act to protect those who continue to work in low-income, insecure jobs in the less internationally competitive sectors. Heaping insecurity on them is not the right thing to do.

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Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Umunna: No, I will wrap up now as I want to give others time to speak in the debate.

In short, we on the Labour Benches do not think that any old job will do. We aspire to full employment, and to secure and decent work that pays a wage that people can live on. That is our ambition for this country, which is why I hope that Members on both sides of the House will support our motion today.

1.16 pm

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): We very much welcome this opportunity to debate this issue. It has had a lot of media coverage, and we have already had several debates on it in the House. I am happy to engage with it. I realise that the purpose of Opposition day debates is to generate opposition, but the truth is that there is quite a lot of common ground on this issue. None of us wants to see employers abusing their employees.

The thrust of the motion seems to be to ask me to do what I am already doing. I made it clear a month ago that we were going to have a consultation on this matter, and I can tell the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) that we are aiming to clear the process through government by mid-November in order to launch the consultation formally. There is no disagreement about that.

There are elements in the motion that I could pick holes in and disagree with. There is a call for evidence, but also, slightly oddly, a series of concrete action points that have been put forward regardless of any evidence that might emerge. That seems to be making slightly odd use of evidence-based decision making. That is a quibble, but I do not have an enormous problem with the basic thrust of the motion. I guess the hon. Gentleman has to criticise the Government, however, as this is an Opposition day debate, and I will take head-on the three specific points that he has made.

First, he talked about our failure to act, but the problem has been around for many years, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) has pointed out. The trade unions repeatedly told the last Labour Government that there was a problem in this area. The 1998 White Paper drew attention to it and suggested possible courses of action, but no action was ever taken. I know that several of my Labour predecessors looked into the matter, because concern had been expressed, and while acknowledging that there was abuse in some areas, they broadly took the view that the benefits outweighed the costs.

The second criticism was that I did not mobilise a small army of civil servants to look at the problem earlier this summer, but what would be the point of mobilising the civil service to reinvent the wheel? A lot of sensible research has already been done. We have talked to 10 trade unions, all of which have done quite a lot of in-house work. We have also talked to several think-tanks, including the Resolution Foundation and the Work Foundation, both of which have done good work in this area. We did not need to reinvent anything; the evidence and the anecdotes are there and we are drawing on them. That is the direction in which we are proceeding.

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Finally, the hon. Gentleman criticised the statistics. The problem is that we have one basic official set of statistics from the Office for National Statistics, suggesting that there are about 200,000 zero-hours contracts. That statistic is drawn from the labour force survey, and the hon. Gentleman was right to say that this is quite a narrow definition. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development came out with a figure of 1 million, using a different measure—in other words, what employers judge the number of zero-hours contracts to be—while the union Unite has come up with a figure of 5 million. Different people are obviously measuring this in different ways. What I have done is write to the head of the Office for National Statistics, asking him to take this problem on board. We have a very serious problem of definition and numbers, so I have asked the head to pull together the relevant people so that, from now on, we can have a proper database on the basis of which to make rational decisions.

Ian Lucas: Is not the difficulty the fact that the Government have acted by removing the rights of employees to enforce their employment rights by doubling the qualification for unfair dismissal and by introducing what appear to my constituents to be huge fees to initiate industrial tribunal or employment tribunal proceedings? The right hon. Gentleman is undermining the taking of such action by legislating to take away employees’ rights. How liberal is that?

Vince Cable: There are still significant opportunities for people who are subject to unfair dismissal. We reformed the system because we considered that it provided a very significant barrier to small and medium-sized growth companies and thus to employment opportunities with them. We think we have got the balance right.

Alison McGovern: Let me take the right hon. Gentleman back to the statistics for one minute, if the House will forgive me, because they really matter. The statistics provide the only way of finding out what is going on in our economy from the Government’s point of view. The care Minister told me that 300,000 people working in the care sector were on zero-hours contracts, so that is what the Government say; yet the Office for National Statistics—and therefore the Government again—have reported that there are 250,000 such workers in that sector. That discrepancy cannot stand. In a recent parliamentary answer in October, one of the Secretary of State’s Ministers said that his review did not seek to collect any statistics, but the Department is now reporting an inconsistency in them. Does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that his Department can do better than that?

Vince Cable: That is precisely why I am in touch with the head of the ONS, so that we can get some high-quality and consistent data. That is the whole point of the exercise.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that the problem is exacerbated when zero-hours contracts are taken in combination with the decreasing value of the minimum wage? That has created conditions under which, either consciously or inadvertently, rather large companies have developed business models that rely on top-up benefits to subsidise

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a work force whose take-home pay is not large enough to cover their monthly bills. That means we end up with a multinational company such as McDonald’s, with up to 83,000 staff on zero-hours contracts, being subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of about £200 million a year. We need to find a way of dealing with these contracts in order to deal with the taxpayer interest in the situation.

Vince Cable: That depends on what the hon. Gentleman means. I think he is merely saying what is obvious, although it may need restating—that we are dealing in the wake of the financial crisis with very weak labour markets, and not just in the UK. This has had impacts on wages and on the nature of contracts. The question for the Government and legislators is whether the problems around zero-hours contracts are the symptom or the cause. The hon. Gentleman is right that the problem interacts quite powerfully with the minimum wage issue. I have made it clear that I want the Low Pay Commission to look at the minimum wage in a more positive way, but it is, of course, an independent commission and it is not my job to tell or prescribe to it how the minimum wage could evolve. I want to respect the institution that the hon. Gentleman and his Government set up.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Let me take the right hon. Gentleman back to his earlier point when he was, as ever, berating Labour for not taking action. Has he not chosen his own priorities? If he thinks that the previous Government were dilatory on the issue, why has he not taken it up sooner? Other legislation, including to take away people’s employment rights, has been passed, so he has had time to do this if he wanted to.

Vince Cable: To help us move on from this point, let me say that I am the first Business Secretary out of the last seven or eight—I cannot remember exactly when the issue first came to the surface—who is actually taking action on the issue. Action will emerge from the consultation. We recognise that there is a problem and we recognise that there are some abusive situations, but we also recognise some positive things about zero-hours contracts, which I shall come to in a moment. We have determined to take action, and I am the first Secretary of State to have done so for a long time, after a whole series of Labour predecessors who, for whatever reason, decided not to.

Simon Hughes: I applaud my right hon. Friend for that. It is evident to people outside that there has been no action for many years and that now there will be. Before he completes his speech, will my right hon. Friend not only set out the timetable beyond the consultation plan, as far as he can envisage it, but say whether we can find a way of linking the discussion and review of the minimum wage with the zero-hours contracts issue? It is obvious from how the labour market works that these issues are interconnected, so it would be worth trying to bring those considerations together.

Vince Cable: Yes, and I hope that happens. I have made it clear to the Low Pay Commission that we want to look at the minimum wage in a somewhat more holistic way than has been the case in the past. Of

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course I cannot guarantee what the commission will conclude; that is not my job.

Before considering the advantages and disadvantages of zero-hours contracts, let me make a basic point that will probably explain why my Labour predecessors did not deal with the problem: it is intrinsically tricky. There is an issue about what zero-hours contracts actually are; they are not clearly defined. As the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) said a few moments ago, we do not have a definition of exploitation, and we do not even have a definition of what a zero-hours contract is. There are a whole lot of contractual arrangements, which have two basic conditions attached to them. One is that there is no guarantee of work and no requirement under British employment law for an employer to provide a minimum number of hours. Equally, however, an individual is not required to accept an offer of work. Those are the two defining characteristics of a zero-hours contract.

A wide spectrum of practices has come out of that. At one end of the scale, we have casualisation of different forms—we have heard about the history of the docks and other similar traditions, many of which were highly undesirable. Equally, at the other end of the scale, however, there are large numbers of traditional systems of freelance-type employment—in the creative industries and education, for example. When I started thinking about this subject, I realised that my late wife spent much of her working career on a zero-hours contract working for a further education college. She taught music to sixth formers, depending on how many turned up for their classes. It was effectively a zero-hours contract. Many people in FE and adult education worked on the same basis, and this is established practice in many other industries. In these cases, it has not been viewed as a problem before.

I make that point to stress that the definition of a zero-hours contract is not precise. Hundreds of thousands of people—and if we believe the shadow Secretary of State, millions—are on these contracts, which vary enormously. Some people carry the rights attached to being a worker—[Interruption.] Well, Unite think it is 5 million people. Some people in these contracts have basic employee statutory rights attached to them as well. They are enormously varied.

Guy Opperman: To add to the list of contexts and sectors in which this type of contract is the norm and is welcome, let me cite rural Northumberland—represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) as well as myself. Zero-hours contracts are in place there, and because of the nature of rural employment, neither of us has found anyone complaining about them.

Vince Cable: There are many industries of that kind, and I shall shortly enumerate them. I do not want to eulogise this system of employment because there clearly are problems in many sectors, but it has worked well in other sectors. That is why when it comes to rushing to prohibitions, we need to be careful about the unintended consequences.

Nick de Bois: The Secretary of State gives me the opportunity of raising the point that I was hoping to raise with the shadow Secretary of State. I would never

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have knowingly employed someone on a zero-hours contract, because I do not like such contracts and do not think them appropriate, but it is clear that many managerial, technical and education people are working on them. However, the suggestion in the Opposition motion of

“banning the use of zero hours contracts where employees are in practice working regular hours”

will catch people who are quite content to work on that basis, when, I imagine, the target is those who are abusing the system. That is why I would find it difficult to support the motion. I would welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on that.

Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is why a rush to ban certain forms of general practice could have serious negative unintended consequences. That is not to say that we should not do something, but a commitment to ban without having obtained the evidence would be highly premature.

Mr Umunna: First, of course people will not want to complain about being on such contracts, because they worry whether they will get the hours of work if they do so. Secondly, the evidence suggests that such contracts were not used during our time in government to the same extent as they are being used now. That is why action was not taken. The right hon. Gentleman said he would do something about the issue back in June. Why was a consultation not started then? Why has he waited until October?

Vince Cable: After years of waiting and a long discussion about the technicalities, the idea that we are somehow failing in our duty because we did not rush to act within weeks or months is utterly absurd. We are taking action. A proper consultation will be launched, we hope, in mid-November. On the back of that, all the organisations that have not yet had an opportunity to make representations to me can do so, and we can proceed to the appropriate action.

Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the tone and content of the Secretary of State’s comments. As he may be aware, the Scottish Affairs Committee has also started an inquiry into zero-hours contracts, and I hope we will have co-operation from the Government. Will he clarify the timetable, on which he was asked for information earlier, for the consultation? When will it start and finish? When does he envisage making decisions? When does he envisage bringing forward legislation?

Vince Cable: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a concrete date. The consultation will be launched in the middle of November, and such consultations normally take several months. The level of feedback will determine how quickly the Government can respond, and that in turn will dictate how quickly we can introduce legislation, if that is what is required. I am happy to co-operate with him and his Committee, which I am sure has specific Scottish insights.

I want to enumerate some of the positive and negative aspects of zero-hours contracts that our review has revealed so far. There are some groups of people for whom such contracts provide a useful and appropriate kind of employment, regardless of sector. For many people, for example, who are at or beyond retirement

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age and want to keep in touch with the labour force but do not want permanent employment or even an agreed part-time employment contract, such contracts are quite an attractive proposition. There are other people, in industries that are subject to quite a lot of volatility, who want to remain connected with the labour force but do not want to be in a position where they have taken on permanent employment and are then made redundant. The car industry provides a good example. One reason the car industry is successful is that our labour market has a mix of people, some of whom are on zero-hours contracts. When I went to the United States to negotiate with people in General Motors, who were deciding whether to come to Britain or Germany, one factor that weighed heavily in favour of the UK was our flexible approach to employment, including zero-hours contracts, along with the fact that the unions, mostly Unite, had been constructive in putting those arrangements in place.

Ian Lucas: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Vince Cable: I will finish my list of points.

Another group is students, some of whom are looking for work experience, and most of whom want to be in a flexible arrangement that reflects the fact that their timetable varies. Another group—a very important one—is people with family and caring responsibilities. For someone in that position, the most important attraction of a job is to be able to say no when work is offered, without facing disciplinary procedures, and to be on a contract that explicitly acknowledges that work can be declined.

Sheila Gilmore: Does the Secretary of State not realise that there is a huge difference between someone who wants to work part-time and to know what part-time hours they have, and a situation where they do not know and have no control over the hours they work? The notion that it is easy for people on such contracts to say, “I won’t take those hours because they do not suit my child care arrangements this week” is not the reality that many people are facing.

Vince Cable: I am going on to explain some of the problems and, sometimes, abuses that we encounter, some of which are of the kind that the hon. Lady describes. I am trying to set out both sides of the argument. The arguments are quite complex, and the more we dig into the evidence, the more it becomes clear that there is not a simple black-and-white approach to these problems. Let me take her challenge. Clearly, there are abusive situations, and I will go through some of the most obvious ones.

The first was mentioned by the shadow Secretary of State: exclusivity arrangements, where people are bound into a contract with one employer and are not offered any hours, but cannot take employment from someone else. At first sight, that is a very unsatisfactory arrangement. We discovered that that kind of arrangement operated, for example, with the staff at Buckingham palace. When we pursued it, we discovered that one reason is security vetting, as the arrangement prevents people from being able to pop in and out of different firms. I do not know whether that is the justification in the case of Buckingham palace; there is some complexity to the argument. In general terms, however, I would accept that exclusivity is a very, very undesirable practice.

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Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): It is exactly that practice that happens in railway maintenance, only because certification is needed. Surely in such circumstances it should not be legal for people to be forced into a situation in which they do not get any work for weeks on end.

Vince Cable: I am sure the hon. Gentleman has given a totally genuine example. I am not a lawyer, but there is at present a common law defence against exclusivity. I can see the practical problems of bringing a legal case against big companies, but none the less some legal protection exists. I accept that in many cases exclusivity may be highly undesirable, and in our consultation we will try to establish what concrete action, if any, we can take about it.

Mr Redwood: When the Secretary of State holds his consultation shortly, will he consult on the extent to which there is a problem and try to get a definition of it, or will he consult on possible remedies to the abuses he has identified?

Vince Cable: Such abuses are highly relevant, but people may come forward and explain, as I have done, that for certain contexts, groups of workers and sectors, such a contractual arrangement is necessary and positive and it would be unhelpful to take action. We have an open mind. We are not trying to close down the debate.

Mr Watson: On remedies, the Secretary of State raises an important point. He referred to the success of the Low Pay Commission earlier. Could one outcome be a new and enduring institution—a triumvirate model that involves employers, trade unions and Government—to resolve the complex issues that will continue to face industry in years to come, after the consultation is over?

Vince Cable: It could be, but I know from my interaction with them that setting the minimum wage is a complicated enough issue in itself, but I will certainly bear the suggestion in mind.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Vince Cable: I will enumerate a few more points and then take further interventions.

Exclusivity is a serious issue. The second point, which I think one or two Labour Members have been trying to make, is that there are cases where the simple lack of predictability is damaging for families trying to manage their personal finances responsibly, especially those who are employed on a regular basis for a long period of time and are then, in the jargon, zeroed down. A problem would flow from that. Then there are people who are on zero-hours contracts for many years and for whom it becomes a way of life. There may be good sectoral reasons for it, but in some cases it is a way of keeping them out of regular employment with the various obligations that are attached to it. In our gathering of evidence, we have encountered two specific instances. There are people who sign up to a zero-hours contract in good faith, because it gives them and the employer flexibility, but they then take advantage of their right to reject work and are discarded because they are allegedly inflexible, defeating the whole purpose of the contract in the first place. We found that other people were

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indeed pressurised into taking zero-hours contracts against their better judgment and against their preference. All those things happen, and they must be weighed against the undoubted advantages that some individuals and some industries gain from having the option to make such arrangements.

Jim Shannon: At a time of economic squeeze, when those who tender or apply for contracts find that their prices must be lower, they are forced to apply the minimum wage and to restrict working hours, and that has an impact on those who are on zero-hours contracts. Does the Secretary of State feel that the Government have a duty to ensure that the tender process gives workers rights, whether it takes place at Government level, at council level or at regional level?

Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman is right to view the matter in that broader context. Several Members, including the hon. Member for Streatham, have already given the example of domiciliary visits in the care sector. I have encountered cases in my constituency involving people whose working conditions are very poor, who are on zero-hours contracts, whose pay is very low, and for whom there is no chance of progression. When we dig into such cases, as I did on one occasion, we may discover that the companies concerned are not profit-making companies but charities, and that the real cause of the problem is the very poor price at which they took the contract. The origin of the problem therefore lies in local government. The zero-hours contracts and, indeed, the minimum wage issues are symptoms rather than causes.

Let me list some of the matters that we will be considering in the consultation, and explain how we will approach them. It is important for us not to close down options. First, there is the issue of exclusivity. We could do nothing, and rely on existing law; we could ban it; or we could provide effective information and guidance requiring employers to justify it. A number of legal interventions are possible.

Secondly, we must consider the cases of people who are employed on zero-hours contracts for very long periods when they do not choose to be. Should we introduce a system requiring employers to offer permanent employment at some stage?

Thirdly—and probably most important—there is the issue of transparency. We can argue in favour of fairness, and we can also argue that, for the economic purposes of a flexible labour market, if rational people know what they are doing, that is a considerable improvement. The problem that we have discovered, and to which many Members have already referred, is that when people accept a job offer they are often not clear about the obligations and limitations that are involved. Should we introduce a code of conduct requiring proper transparency and information? Should it be voluntary, should it be a Leveson-style code with statutory underpinning, or should it be controlled by a stronger sanction-based body? We have a range of options, and we will view them with an open mind and act accordingly.

Mr Donohoe: Given that many employees have recently been denied access to tribunals, what the Secretary of State has said is surely illogical.

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Vince Cable: I think that the hon. Gentleman is exaggerating the problem. It is true that we have reformed the tribunal system, and access is less easy than it was. As I have explained, we are trying to create a framework within which small and medium-sized enterprises can expand and take on workers.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Much has been made of the potentially exploitative nature of the contracts, but if an employer is up against it, is it not more likely that a zero-hours contract will become an exploitative contract? Should not the Secretary of State consider ways of squeezing and squeezing to make zero-hours contracts not the norm, but very difficult for any employer to enter into such contracts with employees?

Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman has made, in his own way, a point that I have made several times, namely that a zero-hours contract may be a symptom rather than the cause of the problem. Many employers are indeed up against it, on the margin of survival—those in Northern Ireland probably more than most—and use such contracts in order to survive. That presents challenges of its own.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I think that the overall issue of enforceability is critical. Without trade union rights, these commissions and contracts become unenforceable.

I should also like the consultation to consider a public interest issue. The example of track maintenance was given earlier, and it is a matter that I have raised on previous occasions. Network Rail, for instance, has contracted out a large amount of work to subcontractors, who have then subcontracted it themselves. Some track maintenance workers are now employed by as many as eight or a dozen employers, and are all on zero-hours contracts. That has undermined the safety regime that we introduced following the disasters at Southall, Paddington and elsewhere.

Vince Cable: I was not aware of that particular detail. I hope that the rail regulators and the Health and Safety Executive are taking it fully into account.

An issue that has not been mentioned today, but which arose several times during our discussions, is the relationship with jobseeker’s allowance. Many people feel that if they decline a zero-hours contract there will be a sanction, and they will lose their benefits. I can make it absolutely clear that that is not the case, but during the consultation we will examine the processes that are being followed just to reassure people that there is no hidden sanction.

We recognise that zero-hours contracts present a real problem. We also recognise that it is a very difficult problem, which may be why our predecessors did not engage with it. There are issues of definition, and there are enormous gaps in the database. However, I can assure the House that if, as a result of the consultation, we identify serious issues for which there are practical remedies, we will take action.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: There is no formal time limit, but approximately 10 Members are seeking to catch my eye, and we have just under two hours left for Back-Bench speeches. Members can do the arithmetic for themselves.