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House of Commons

Wednesday 29 January 2014

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Offshoring Services

1. Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): What his policy is on offshoring of services which have been contracted out by the Government. [902233]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): Our policy on offshoring is unchanged from that pursued by the previous Government. Our procurement policy is to award contracts on the basis of value for money, which means the optimum combination of costs and quality.

Mrs Glindon: Cabinet Office document ISSC2 states that back-office jobs and functions in the Departments for Work and Pensions and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be privatised and offshored in a joint venture with the Government and Steria UK. Which functions and jobs will be offshored and to where? Does he agree that any threat to offshore jobs, particularly those handling sensitive personal data, should be given urgent attention by the Government?

Mr Maude: Concerns about data security are taken very seriously, and certainly inform our approach to offshoring. But as I say, the approach that we take to offshoring is exactly the same as that followed by the previous Government. The hon. Lady may know that the shared business services joint venture, also with Steria, which was set up by the last Government, has some elements that are offshored, and the same will be the case with this joint venture.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Will my right hon. Friend encourage contractors to recognise that where there is a very cost-effective office in a rural community providing shared services, such as the DEFRA office in Alnwick, retaining jobs there makes sense?

Mr Maude: I know my right hon. Friend’s concern about that office and I know that Steria and the management of the shared services centre will be looking at that very carefully. They will want to make sure that the service is provided at an improved quality—the

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quality has not been optimal up to now—and at a much lower cost. There will be many different ways of doing that, but I know that they will want to look very carefully at the service provided by their colleagues at Alnwick.

Civil Service (Commercial Skills)

2. David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve commercial skills in the civil service. [902234]

6. Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve commercial skills in the civil service. [902239]

7. Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve commercial skills in the civil service. [902240]

9. David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve commercial skills in the civil service. [902242]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): The Government have been working for the past three years to drive up the level of commercial skills across central Government. There is still a long way to go, given the shortcomings of where we started. The need to press ahead with redoubled speed was highlighted in our recent cross-Government review of contracts. We are creating the Crown Commercial Service, which will come online later this year.

David Rutley: I welcome the important steps that my right hon. Friend is taking to improve these skills. I believe that more needs to be done to continue to upgrade skills in commercial areas, particularly relating to project management and commissioning. Is he satisfied that sufficient civil servants will be going through the new commissioning agency really to make a difference to the skills base in Whitehall and beyond?

Mr Maude: I recently attended the one-year-on event of the new Commissioning Academy, which we set up a year ago. It has achieved a good deal. During the next 18 months, we want 1,500 senior public sector commissioners to have participated in the academy. It is part of a wider programme to improve commercial skills not only in Whitehall but right across the public sector.

Mark Menzies: What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the work of the Crown representatives in driving value for money for taxpayers through procurement reform?

Mr Maude: Our Crown representatives, who come predominantly from the private sector with a huge amount of commercial experience, have helped us to generate significant efficiencies. We buy better if we act as a single customer in Government, to maximise our buying power and improve our performance as a customer. We are renegotiating contracts with a number of suppliers, and by centrally renegotiating we have saved the taxpayer £800 million in each of the financial years during this Parliament.

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Andrew Selous: When does my right hon. Friend expect that all those in charge of major Government IT contracts will have gone through the programme at Oxford Said business school, and is he satisfied that that is the very best place to send these people?

Mr Maude: I am absolutely satisfied with the Major Projects Leadership Academy, which was set up to address what was identified by everybody as a major deficiency in Government and is now approaching its second anniversary. There is a requirement for all major project leaders to be alumni of the academy by the end of 2015, and all of them will have at least started training by the end of the current year. We started with a real deficiency of skills and experience, but we are building those with civil servants, which has been very much welcomed.

David Mowat: Just before Christmas, the cross-Government review of major projects identified a number of serious weaknesses in the way contracts with Serco and G4S had been administered. Will the Minister confirm that the review’s conclusions will be implemented in full? Will he also consider requiring senior civil servants to spend three years in a commercial environment before becoming permanent secretaries?

Mr Maude: I can confirm that we have accepted the recommendations, and Departments are producing their plans for implementing them imminently. With regard to the requirement for senior civil servants to get commercial and operational experience, we have already set out that someone looking to be appointed as permanent secretary of a delivery Department must be able to show at least two years of commercial or operational experience before being considered.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): May I push the Minister on that? Is it not a bit wishy-washy to refer to “commercial” skills? I am co-chair of the all-party management group. What we want across the civil service are pure management skills. Moreover, we want Ministers with some ability to manage a Department. The fact is that most of the Ministers who appeared before me when I chaired a Select Committee could not manage the proverbial in a brewery.

Mr Maude: The hon. Gentleman may have more experience of the latter activity than I do, but the truth is that Ministers are not actually required to manage Departments; that responsibility sits very clearly with the civil service leadership. I think that they would be the first to accept that he makes a valid point. We have a deficiency in leadership and management skills as well as in commercial skills, and we need to address that. Concerns about the quality of the leadership and management of change come up consistently in the civil service staff survey, and as great organisations are always changing, we need to rectify that deficiency.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): Of course we agree that we want greater commercial skills, and indeed management skills, in the civil service, but with the fiasco over the west coast main line, botched contracts over rural broadband roll-out and the lamentable implementation of the universal credit, with the Minister squabbling publicly with the Secretary of State for

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Work and Pensions, when will Ministers, rather than blaming officials, take some responsibility for their own shambles?

Mr Maude: On that last point, the hon. Gentleman will know that it was my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State who spotted that things were not right with the implementation of the universal credit and commissioned the review that disclosed the problems to the Department for the first time, as the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee report makes absolutely clear. Far from evading responsibility, it was my right hon. Friend who spotted the problems and set to work solving them.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the widespread appreciation of his personal commitment to improving skills in the civil service, which is truly commendable? Will he also take this opportunity to welcome the fact that the Public Administration Committee has just announced a new inquiry into skills in the civil service, and will he encourage people to send us as much evidence as possible?

Mr Maude: I absolutely welcome the inquiry that my hon. Friend is leading and will certainly encourage a lot of evidence to be given. We have to be open about the problems that exist. Otherwise, there is no chance whatsoever of solving them. The first stage in finding solutions is being honest about the problems.

Youth Services

3. Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): What steps he is taking to maintain the level of youth services provision. [902235]

10. Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab): What steps he is taking to maintain the level of youth services provision. [902243]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): We are strong believers in the value of high-quality youth services. We will shortly publish a report on what local authorities are doing to comply with their statutory duty, along with our plans to support those who want to deliver high-quality services in an innovative way.

Julie Hilling: As the Minister says, local authorities have a duty to secure sufficient educational leisure-time activity for the improvement of well-being and the personal and social development of young people, but the average cut to youth services has been 27%, with some local authorities cutting their youth service budgets completely. What measures is he taking to ensure that local authorities meet their statutory responsibilities, and how is he measuring the impact of the cuts on the well-being of young people?

Mr Hurd: The statutory duty exists. We are concerned about the vulnerability of youth services, as is the hon. Lady. It is a mixed picture: boroughs such as the London borough of Hillingdon in my constituency, for example, are investing more in youth services now because they fixed the roof when the sun was shining, but there are cuts. We are finding out an accurate picture of what is

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happening, because we did not have one, and we will shortly publish the offer we can make to local authorities that want to commission services in an innovative way.

Sarah Champion: Following on from that last answer, does the Minister agree that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to provide a fair start to all young people in Rotherham, given the £970,000 cuts to the youth service with which the council is now forced to deal?

Mr Hurd: I fully accept that there are very challenging pressures on local authorities as a result of the cuts. Each of them is dealing with the cuts in different ways. What we sitting in the centre can do is map what is happening, help local authorities by signposting other sources of funding, help them to look at examples of good innovative practice around the country and help them if they are really committed to commissioning high-quality services for young people. We know the value of those services, and we are absolutely committed to them.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Will the Minister be mindful of the Youth Commission report on the role of youth workers in schools, which I chaired? It highlighted the value of qualified and empathetic youth workers supporting young people in school settings on healthy living and engagement issues. Will he urge colleagues in the Department for Education to make sure that Ofsted take that into account in their inspections?

Mr Hurd: I am certainly very happy to raise that with colleagues in the Department for Education. Over the years, I have developed a deep admiration for the work of youth workers, who can have an extraordinary impact on young people. I will therefore raise that point with other Departments.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): These questions tend to ignore the enormous amount of voluntary work already done by youth organisations in our constituencies—people helping young homelessness projects, street pastors, sea cadets, air cadets, Army cadets, scouts and guides. Huge numbers of youth organisations are run or assisted by adult volunteers, and they do not need the intervention of the state to thrive and prosper.

Mr Hurd: I fully agree with my right hon. Friend’s points. A huge number of organisations seek to help and develop young people. Part of the challenge for us is to try to connect them with local authorities, which have a statutory duty, to see whether services at local level can be joined up more effectively for the benefit of young people in the area.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Will the Minister hold discussions with the relevant Ministers in the devolved legislatures to ensure that best practice in youth service provision right across the United Kingdom is replicated to the benefit of young people throughout the UK?

Mr Hurd: Such provision is a devolved matter, but we are having active conversations with devolved Administrations, specifically about the opportunity to develop the National Citizen Service in other areas. I am absolutely delighted that we have been able to run

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very successful pilots in Northern Ireland, and we are in active conversations with other Administrations to follow that lead.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the remarkable start that the National Citizen Service has made and on all that is happening. May I urge him to meet the Marine Society to talk about what sea cadets and other parts of its very successful existing portfolio can deliver for it?

Mr Hurd: I would be delighted to have such a conversation. We have had very constructive conversations so far with the cadets about links that could be made with the National Citizen Service. As we look to expand it very ambitiously, we are obviously open to conversations with any organisations that can help.

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): The Minister has previously said that youth services are too easy a target for cuts, and he was right. In fact, his Government have squeezed councils so hard that they have presided over £300 million- worth of cuts to youth services, but at the same time they have squandered £241 million on free school places in areas where they are not needed. Ministers’ pet projects or young people—will he tell the House which he thinks are more important?

Mr Hurd: The hon. Lady totally ignores the reason why there are cuts in the system, which is to get control of the deficit that we inherited. We passionately believe in the value of youth services for young people. That is why we have developed the National Citizen Service, which has an evidence base to support the value that it gives to young people. As I have said, we are now prepared to work with local authorities to see how they can commission, in an innovative way, really effective youth services in their area.

Social Finance

4. Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): What progress he has made on developing social finance. [902237]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): Britain is proud to lead the world in developing the emerging market of social investment. Big Society Capital has already committed £140 million, and the number of social impact bonds has risen sharply. Grants are flowing to help social entrepreneurs to become more investment-ready, and a new tax relief will go live in April.

Mr Allen: I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Having properly evidenced early-intervention programmes is the biggest known deficit reduction programme. In order for such programmes to start up, we need effective social finance. Will the Minister meet me to discuss what more his Department and, above all, Big Society Capital can do to maximise that possibility?

Mr Hurd: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his leadership in setting up the Early Intervention Foundation and on the work that it published today on domestic violence. He is entirely right that part of the value of social investment is its ability to create space to finance

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early intervention. That is where a lot of the social impact bonds that I mentioned are focused. I know from my conversations with Big Society Capital that it is very interested in engaging with What Works centres, including the Early Intervention Foundation. Following the hon. Gentleman’s question, I will write to the chief executive, asking him to update me on his engagement with the Early Intervention Foundation and other What Works centres.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the social impact of the delivery of public services should be taken account of during the procurement process, as well as the purely economic impact?

Mr Hurd: Yes, the Government agree with that. That is why we put the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 on the statute book. Later this month, we will publish a one-year-on review of that Act, because it matters to us. We are keen for commissioners—the people who spend public money—to think intelligently about how money can be stretched as far as possible.

Privatised Shared Services

5. Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the efficacy of privatised shared services across central Government Departments. [902238]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): The Government’s first priority is to drive down costs for the taxpayer and cut the massive budget deficit that we inherited. There has been cross-party agreement on the need for shared services for the past decade, but very little had been achieved until over the past 12 months. That is why I am pleased that last year we launched a joint venture with Steria that will save taxpayers at least £400 million and create a new, dynamic UK business services company.

Jessica Morden: The announcement in December that the Ministry of Justice’s shared service centre in Newport could be privatised has caused huge fears and uncertainty among the work force, who fear that their jobs will be outsourced and potentially offshored, which could happen under this model. Given the Prime Minister’s commitment to onshoring jobs last week, will the Cabinet Office reassure the workers in Newport that the plans will be shelved?

Mr Maude: We will certainly not shelve any options that could bring improved services and cut the cost to the taxpayer. I am aware of the uncertainty. That will be resolved as soon as possible so that people know where the future lies. To give a bit of reassurance, I remind the hon. Lady that the first shared service centre in Swansea, which has been fully outsourced rather than being a joint venture, is taking on more staff.

National Citizen Service

8. Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): What plans he has for the National Citizen Service in 2014. [902241]

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The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): A new, independent organisation called the NCS Trust has been established to lead the programme in 2014. We are delighted that more than 70,000 young people have had this hugely positive experience since 2011. The trust will build on that success. In 2014, more young people than ever will have the opportunity to take part in the National Citizen Service.

Mark Pawsey: In September last year, I joined 40 young people on Big Challenge Sunday. Guided by the park ranger, Trevor Hoyte, they painted fences and picked litter in Rugby’s Caldecott park. That was appreciated by local people and the young people gained valuable life skills. Should not Members from across the House encourage more people to take part in the National Citizen Service?

Mr Hurd: Yes, we should. I thank my hon. Friend for his support for the National Citizen Service. The NCS has a twin value: it gives young people the chance to do something in their community and, as he said, it helps them to develop confidence and skills that will make them more employable. That is why we are so ambitious for it and why there is cross-party support for it, led by the Leader of the Opposition.

Topical Questions

T1. [902263] Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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

Mr Speaker: Order. There is still rather a lot of noise in the House. What is required is an air of respectful expectation for Karen Lumley.

Karen Lumley: Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Does my right hon. Friend the Minister share my concern at the reports that a trade union is threatening to use so-called leverage tactics against our NHS staff? Can he confirm that those allegations fall within the scope of our review of trade union activities?

Mr Maude: I share my hon. Friend’s concerns at those suggestions. It is appalling that hard-working staff in our NHS should be subjected to the threat of such bullying and intimidation. I can confirm that the review that we are establishing will be fully empowered to investigate those suggestions.

Michael Dugher (Barnsley East) (Lab): In light of the newly released Cabinet papers about the 1984 miners’ strike, and given the continued sense of injustice that prevails across the coalfields, will the Minister agree to publish all the documents and the communication between the then Government and the police at the time of the strike; to a full investigation into the events surrounding Orgreave ahead of the 30th anniversary; and to make a formal apology for the actions of the then Government?

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Does he agree that it is only through full transparency and reconciliation that we will finally see justice for the coalfields?

Mr Maude: The documents will be released in the usual way under the law that was passed under the last Government. I was representing a coal mining constituency during the miners’ strike and saw at first hand the violence, intimidation and divided communities in a dispute that took place without a proper national ballot being held. The hon. Gentleman asks for an apology—no.

T5. [902267] Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): As well as reversing the previous Labour council’s cuts to youth services and taking trade union money and putting it into apprenticeships, North Lincolnshire’s Conservative council has adopted dynamic purchasing systems such as e-tendering to support local businesses. Are the Government evaluating the benefit of such systems to the wider public sector? If so, will the Minister look at the North Lincolnshire examples?

Mr Maude: There is huge scope for councils to give more business to smaller businesses, and my hon. Friend gives a good example that many more local authorities should copy.

T2. [902264] Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): Sunderland has a great record on technology start-ups, but these small companies still find it difficult to compete and bid for Government work. What more can the Minister do across Government to support this growing industry in the north-east?

Mr Maude: We can do more, and we are already doing much more than was previously the case. The amount of Government business going to small businesses, both directly and indirectly, has risen to nearly 20%. I am afraid that the last Government were not even measuring how much went to smaller businesses. There is much more that we can do. We have streamlined the procurement processes, which previously seemed almost deliberately to exclude small businesses from being able to bid. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: The Minister has ploughed on, to his credit, but it has been difficult for him to be heard. His words should be heard, and I hope that there will be some courtesy from Members.

T6. [902268] Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s offering IT procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises through the G-Cloud. Is he aware of a local constituency company called The Bunker secure hostings, which offers data for SMEs to access G-Gloud?

Mr Maude: I am glad that G-Cloud, which we set up, now has 800 suppliers on it, two thirds of which are SMEs, and that an increasing amount of business is being awarded through it. I hope that the business in my hon. Friend’s constituency will be successful in winning business through that innovative way of enabling the purchase of IT services.

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T3. [902265] Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/ Co-op): Last week, the Information Commissioner said that there were “serious shortcomings” in the Cabinet Office’s handling of freedom of information requests and called the Department’s poor performance “particularly disappointing”. Why is the Minister setting such a bad example, given that his Department is supposed to lead on openness and transparency across Government?

Mr Maude: It will be clear to the hon. Lady that the Cabinet Office deals with some of the most complex and difficult freedom of information requests, a lot of them involving previous Government papers, for which a long consultation process has to be entered into before any decision can be made. The situation will be better in some quarters than others, but in general our record is good.

T8. [902270] Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): Given that a fifth of Government procurement spend now goes to SMEs, will the Minister redouble his efforts so that these engines of growth further boost our long-term economic plan?

Mr Maude: We have made massive progress. Under the previous Government there was no attempt even to measure how much business was going to SMEs, but we are now measuring that and improving it. We have cut out a lot of the bureaucratic nonsense that often prevented small businesses from even being able to bid for business, let alone win it. The result of that, as my hon. Friend says, is that nearly one fifth of Government business goes to SMEs one way or another. It is our ambition for that to rise to 25%, and I am optimistic we can achieve that.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [902248] Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 29 January.

The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.

Chloe Smith: Figures now show that the UK economy is growing at its fastest rate since 2007, which is further proof that our plan is working. But there is a choice: stick with it, or abandon a plan that is delivering a better economic future and jobs for my constituents in Norwich North. Does the Prime Minister agree that the long-term decisions we are taking matter most for the future of Britain and our children? After all, who is an economic plan for if not the next generation?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: that should be the test of the decisions we are taking—will they secure a better future, more stability

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and more peace of mind for our children and grandchildren? Last week we saw the biggest number of new jobs in a quarter since records began, and this week we see the fastest growth in our economy for six years. There should be absolutely no complacency. The job is nowhere near complete, but if we stick to our long-term economic plan we can see our country rise and our people rise too.

Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab): All sides of the House will welcome the Government’s significant change of heart on the issue of Syrian refugees, which I raised with the Prime Minister last week, and we look forward to the Home Secretary’s statement. Now that the decision has apparently been taken, will he reassure the House that he will act with the utmost urgency, because we are talking about the most vulnerable people in refugee camps who need help now?

The Prime Minister: What I can assure the right hon. Gentleman is that we will act with the greatest urgency, because when it comes to Syria, we have acted with the greatest urgency throughout. We have made available £600 million, which makes us the second largest humanitarian donor. We have provided food for 188,000 people, clean water for almost a million, and medical consultations for almost a quarter of a million. As the Home Secretary will make clear, we will be coming forward with a scheme to help the most needy people in those refugee camps and offer them a home in our country. We want to make sure that we particularly help those who have been victims of sexual violence—a cause that the Foreign Secretary has rightly, on behalf of the whole country, championed across the world.

Edward Miliband: I welcome the Government’s decision to accept Syrian refugees; it is a very important cause.

Let me turn to another subject. Can I ask the Prime Minister who, just before the election, said that

“showing that we’re all in this together…means showing that the rich will pay their share which is why…the 50p tax rate will have to stay”? [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. A question has been asked and the answer must be heard.

The Prime Minister: Under this Government the richest will pay more in income tax in every year than any year when the right hon. Gentleman was in office. That is the truth. I want the richest to pay more in tax, and under this Government they are, because we are creating jobs and growth, and we are encouraging investment. What we have heard from Labour Members over the past 48 hours is that they want to attack that growth and attack those jobs; they want to attack those businesses. We now have in Britain an anti-business, anti-growth, anti-jobs party.

Edward Miliband: No, Mr Speaker; what we have is a policy with the overwhelming support of the most important people of all—the people of Britain. That is what the 50p rate is. The Prime Minister is obviously rather coy in telling us who said those words. Of course, it was him, in 2009, just before the election. He said that the 50p tax rate was a symbol of us all being in it together, and now it has gone. Can he now tell us whether he rules out cutting the top rate further to 40p?

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The Prime Minister: The Chancellor set out yesterday exactly what our priorities are. We want to cut taxes for the lowest paid and for middle income people. I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman did not hear the Chancellor, because like the rest of the Labour party, he was not here yesterday—they left the shadow Chancellor all on his own.

While we are in the business of who has said interesting things in recent days—[Interruption.] Let me ask him this—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. Mr Robertson: calm yourself, man. The lion must get back in its den.

The Prime Minister rose—

Hon. Members: More!

The Prime Minister: There is plenty more. While we are on the subject of interesting quotes, who in the last 48 hours said this:

“do I think the level of public spending going into the crisis was a problem for Britain? No, I don’t, nor our deficit, nor our national debt”?

In fact, he even said that in

“in some areas we’d spend more”.

That was the shadow Chancellor. We were talking earlier about our children. When our children in future turn to the dictionary and look up the definition of denial, it will be right there: Balls, Ed.

Edward Miliband: It is hard to remember now, but a long time ago I asked a question. The Prime Minister failed to answer it, so let us try him again and give him another go. Does he rule out—[Interruption.] The Chancellor should keep quiet for a second. Does the Prime Minister rule out giving another tax cut to the richest in society by cutting the top rate to 40p—

The Prime Minister rose

Edward Miliband: Calm down. Yes or no?

The Prime Minister: There is so much good news I cannot wait to get up and tell it. Our priority is to cut taxes for the lowest paid in our country. That is why we have taken 2 million people out of tax. Let us look at the reaction to the right hon. Gentleman’s 50p announcement. Businesses have said it would cost jobs, Labour Ministers whom he served alongside have queued up to say that it is economically illiterate, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that it would raise hardly any money. It has been an absolutely disastrous policy launch from a disastrous Labour economic team.

Edward Miliband: With every answer, the Prime Minister shows who he stands up for: a few at the top, not the ordinary families of Britain. That is the truth.

It is a very simple question. I know the Prime Minister does not love answering questions at Prime Minister’s questions, but that is the point of these occasions. We are asking him a very simple question. We have a clear position. We would reverse the millionaires’ tax cut and put the top rate of tax back to 50p. I am asking him a very simple question. Does he rule out reducing the top rate to 40p—yes or no?

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The Prime Minister: The simple answer is that I have told him our priority: tax cuts for low earners, tax cuts for middle earners, freezing the council tax, freezing the fuel duty and helping people in our country. What have we seen from him so far this year? We have seen a banking policy that the Governor of the Bank of England says would increase risk to the banking system, an employment policy that the CBI said would cost jobs, and a tax policy that business leaders said would be a risk to our recovery. There is a crisis in our country— a crisis of economic credibility for the Labour party.

Edward Miliband: The whole country will have heard; he had three opportunities to answer and he could not give us a straight answer to the question. This is a country where, after four years of this Government, people are worse off. This is a Prime Minister who has already given those at the top, millionaires, a £100,000 tax cut, and he wants to give them another one. He can only govern for the few; he can never govern for the many.

The Prime Minister: I will tell you who we are governing for: the 1.3 million people who got jobs under this Government; the 400,000 new businesses under this Government; the 2 million people we have taken out of tax under this Government; the people on the minimum wage who have seen their tax bills come down by two thirds under this Government. That is who we are governing for. The fact is we have more factories producing more goods, more people taking home a pay packet and more security for hard-working families. Now we can see the risks. Labour—a risk to jobs, a risk to the recovery and a risk to the future of Britain’s security.

Mr Jeremy Browne (Taunton Deane) (LD): The severe flooding on the Somerset Levels is causing acute distress to the people who live in that area. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment today both to take immediate action to try to clear the flood water from the Somerset levels as soon as possible, and to put in place a long-term plan to try to make sure that this does not happen again?

The Prime Minister: I can give my hon. Friend both those assurances. Cobra will be meeting again this afternoon to explore what more we can do to help the villagers in the Somerset Levels. The current situation is not acceptable. I can tell him that it is not currently safe to dredge in the Levels, but I can confirm that dredging will start as soon as it is practical, as soon as the waters have started to come down. The Environment Agency is pumping as much water as is possible given the capacity of the rivers around the Levels, but I have ordered that further high-volume pumps from the Department for Communities and Local Government’s national reserve will be made available to increase the volume of the pumping operation as soon as there is capacity in the rivers to support that. We are urgently exploring what further help the Government can give to local residents to move around, and I rule nothing out in the days ahead to get this problem sorted.

Q2. [902249] Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): Can I invite the Prime Minister to visit my constituency and spend a day working with a rogue employment agency

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on a zero-hours contract and being paid sometimes less than the minimum wage, so that he can get an insight into the world of work for many people on his watch?

The Prime Minister: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will be visiting his constituency in the next 16 months. I absolutely agree with him that it is unacceptable when people pay below the minimum wage. We want to see more enforcement and action to make sure that that does not happen. It is not acceptable, we have a minimum wage for a good reason and I want to see it properly enforced.

Sir James Paice (South East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Is it not the case that we have learned over successive years during the past two or three decades that a responsible economic policy to maximise tax yields is one that sets the tax rates at the rates that will yield the most? Tax rates set too high are the politics of envy and actually raise less in taxes.

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend makes a sensible point. The point of setting tax rates is to raise revenue, not to make a political point. What the Opposition want to do is make a political point because they believe in the politics of envy, not in raising money for public services. In the end the truth is this: the top 1% of taxpayers in our country are now paying 30% of the total income tax take. As I said, the richest taxpayers are actually going to be paying more in every year of this Government than when those two on the Opposition Front Bench sat in the Treasury and made such a mess of our economy.

Q3. [902250] Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): More than 300,000 people are reported to be paid less than the minimum wage. I was heartened by what the Prime Minister just said, but if that is the case and he really is committed to the minimum wage, why have there been only two employers prosecuted in the past four years and half the level of investigations?

The Prime Minister: We have seen, I think, about 700 penalties issued for not paying the minimum wage, so we are taking enforcement action, but we need to take more enforcement action. As the Chancellor has made clear, we also want the opportunity for the minimum wage to rise. As our economy recovers, it should be possible, listening to the Low Pay Commission, to restore the value of the minimum wage. We are keen to see that happen.

Q4. [902252] Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con): I know that the Prime Minister deals in facts, and the facts are that we have more jobs in this country than ever recorded before and a growth prediction higher than anybody would have thought a year ago. Will we now consider whether the level of the minimum wage could be raised to ensure that everyone benefits from this recovery?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is extremely good news that more than 30 million people—a record number—are in work. Under this Government, the minimum wage has gone up by 10%, and our tax cut for low earners is equivalent to another 10% increase in the minimum wage, but as I have said I

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hope it will be possible to restore the real value of the minimum wage. We should listen and allow the Low Pay Commission to do its work—I do not want this issue to become a political football—but everyone agrees that as the economy recovers it should be possible to restore that value.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Mohammad Asghar, who lived in the UK for 40 years and has family in my constituency, has recently been convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death in Pakistan. Mr Asghar was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2010 and was treated in Edinburgh, but the judges refused to take that into account. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary yesterday, but can the Prime Minister now assure me that he and his Ministers are doing everything they can to support this man and see him returned to the UK, where he can get the treatment he needs?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly give the hon. Lady the assurance she asks for. I, too, am deeply concerned about this death sentence passed on Mr Mohammad Asghar. As she knows, it is our long-standing policy to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, and the Pakistani authorities can be in no doubt about the seriousness with which we view these developments. Baroness Warsi spoke to the Chief Minister of the Punjab on Monday, our high commission in Islamabad continues to raise this case with the relevant authorities and Foreign Office officials are meeting Pakistan high commission officials in London today to discuss his and other cases. We take this extremely seriously and are making that clear at every level.

Q5. [902253] Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): Portsmouth is an entrepreneurial city, delivering a drop of 25% in jobseeker’s allowance claimants over the past year. With this in mind, is the Prime Minister aware of a commercial plan put forward to the Department of Energy and Climate Change to build a number of specialist vessels designed to revolutionise and facilitate the industrialisation of the tidal energy sector? Does he agree that Portsmouth would be an excellent place to build those ships?

The Prime Minister: First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on everything she has done in recent weeks to highlight the importance of Portsmouth and all matters maritime, in the broadest sense of the word?

I am aware of this interesting project, and I understand there will be a meeting with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shortly. It is testament to the excellent reputation of Portsmouth that there is so much interest in this commercial sector, which my hon. Friend, I and the whole Government want to see expand. The appointment of a Minister for Portsmouth, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), will make a big difference. It is good news that the youth claimant count has fallen so quickly in Portsmouth, but we must stick to the economic plan and keep delivering for Portsmouth.

Q6. [902254] Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Increasingly in London, young people are finding it impossible to afford to rent or buy a home, so why, under this Government, are we seeing the lowest number of housing starts since the 1920s and a housing bubble driven by wealthy overseas buyers?

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The Prime Minister: On the last point, it is this Government who are introducing capital gains tax for overseas buyers—something that the Labour party did not do in 13 years. On housing, nearly 400,000 new homes have been delivered since 2010 and huge amounts of money are going into social housing. It is also this Government who are reforming the planning system, often opposed by Labour, to make all these things happen.

Q7. [902255] Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the Public Administration Committee inquiry into police recorded crime statistics has uncovered serious deficiencies in the reliability of those statistics? While crime is undoubtedly falling overall, would he agree that the Home Office should work urgently with police chiefs across the country to restore the authority of these statistics, and that police chiefs should concentrate on leadership based on values and service to the public, not on discredited targets?

The Prime Minister: In fact, we have scrapped all targets apart from the target of reducing crime, which is the most important thing that the police do.

Statistics must be as robust as possible. That is why we have transferred responsibility for crime statistics to the independent Office for National Statistics and have asked Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to carry out an audit on the quality of crime recording in every police force. Moreover, the Home Secretary has written to all chief constables emphasising that the police must ensure that crimes are recorded accurately and honestly.

Let me also point out to my hon. Friend, and indeed to everyone, that what is notable about the recent crime statistics is that, whether we look at crimes recorded by the police or at the British crime survey, they both show that crime is falling, and has already fallen by more than 10%.

Q8. [902256] Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the Prime Minister for his comments about Mohammad Asghar, from Edinburgh, and endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore). Dozens of the Prime Minister’s own Back Benchers have said that tomorrow they will support an amendment to the Immigration Bill which everyone knows to be totally incompatible with the European treaties, and 95 Tory MPs have demanded that the British Parliament should be able to veto every single European Union law, which, as the Prime Minister knows, is totally unworkable. The Prime Minister has given concession after concession to his anti-Europeans. When will he finally learn that they will never be satisfied with anything but British withdrawal from the European Union?

The Prime Minister: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that we need to correct—and we will correct, in the Immigration Bill—the fact that it has been so difficult to deport people who do not have a right to be here, and who should be facing trial overseas or deported overseas, but advance spurious arguments about the right to a family life. It is right that we are changing that. There is nothing anti-European about it.

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It is a very sensible step that the Government are taking, and we should pass the Immigration Bill with all speed.

Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): Last year, the Government successfully deported the radical cleric Abu Qatada. The new Immigration Bill will crack down on illegal immigrants and will make it easier to deport foreign criminals. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that immigration law also applies to political parties and their gurus?

The Prime Minister: I can, but I am sure that I should not comment on a case that is, I believe, currently being investigated. [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] No, don’t tempt me.

It is an important piece of law that we will be discussing on Thursday. We do not just need to have control at our borders; we need to ensure that people cannot come to Britain and abuse our health service, or get rights to council or other housing, or bank accounts or driving licences, if they have no right to be here. The Immigration Bill makes all those important changes and many more besides, including making it possible for us to deport people before they have appealed if they do not face a risk back in their own countries. They can then appeal from overseas. Those are all very good changes, and I hope that we will not delay too much before passing this important Bill.

Q9. [902257] Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): People in my constituency, and throughout the country, are working harder and harder just to make ends meet, as their pay is consistently outstripped by prices. Does the Prime Minister agree with the Business Secretary, who said this week that a property-fuelled recovery was the wrong sort of recovery? May I be helpful to the Prime Minister, and inform him that the answer is on page 37 of his folder?

The Prime Minister: I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the Business Secretary said that it was welcome that—in terms of our GDP growth—we have seen strong growth in manufacturing and industrial production, and not just in services. I think that is important.

If we are to ensure that we genuinely help people as our economy grows, we need to cut people’s taxes. The point is that we have cut people’s taxes because we have made difficult decisions about public spending. Every single one of those decisions has been opposed by the Labour party, but if we had listened to them, people would be in a more difficult situation in respect of the cost of living, rather than a better one.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I thank the Prime Minister, on behalf of all the people of Somerset, for his announcement about the dredging of the Parrett and the Tone, where an area larger than the size of Bristol is under water and has been under water for a month. I also thank all those who are working so hard on the ground. Can I take it from the Prime Minister that he is committing the whole of the Government, including the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Transport and the Treasury, to working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to deal with this situation, not just for now but for future years?

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The Prime Minister: I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. This does need to be a whole Government effort, because what I do not want to see is dredging work being held up by arguments in other Departments. We have to crack this problem. I join him in praising all of those—the emergency services, the Environment Agency, local flood wardens—who have done such valuable work, including in the Somerset Levels, but we now need to move more rapidly to issues such as dredging, which I think will help to make a long-term difference.

Q10. [902258] Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): Mount Pleasant in my constituency is a massive development site that used to belong to Royal Mail, and therefore to all of us. It was sold for an absolute song. Is it not morally right for at least half the site to be used for local people? Independent valuers have said that the developers could build 50% genuinely affordable housing and still make a huge profit. In those circumstances and given the level of local opposition to the current plan to develop the site, would it not be outrageous for the Mayor of London to approve it? How can 12% affordable housing help with the cost of living crisis for Londoners?

The Prime Minister: I am happy to look at the site that the hon. Lady mentioned, but it is important that we allow the Mayor of London to carry out his planning responsibilities. What is important is that, when there are redevelopment opportunities, they are not endlessly blocked, because we need the development, the growth and the housing.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Holocaust memorial day took place on Monday. Would the Prime Minister join me—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is talking about Holocaust memorial day. Please let us have some respect on both sides of the House.

Graham Evans: Holocaust memorial day took place on Monday. Would the Prime Minister join me in commending the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust in educating future generations about the holocaust? Would he comment on the Holocaust Commission that he formally launched this week?

The Prime Minister: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Holocaust memorial day is a very important day in our annual calendar and it gave me enormous pleasure to welcome to Downing street no fewer than 50 holocaust survivors, who talked about their stories—incredibly moving and brave stories. We should thank them for the work they have done in going into school after school, college after college, to remind people of the dangers of what happened and how we should drive out hate and prejudice from every part of our national life. The Holocaust Commission has been set up—it is cross-party, with representatives from all parties—to ask the question: as, tragically, these Holocaust survivors come to the end of their lives, what should we do as a country to ensure that the memory of this never fades? Should that be a new museum, a new way of remembering, or a way of recording their memories?

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All those things will be looked at and I look forward to getting the commission’s report. I am sure it will have support across the House.

Q11. [902259] Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Despite the rhetoric, for most ordinary people the reality is that child poverty is up, food bank usage is up, payday lending is up, energy costs are up and wages are down. The Prime Minister once said that he wanted the top job because he thought he would be good at it, so when will he start to govern for all the people in all the country?

The Prime Minister: Just to correct the first thing that came out of the hon. Gentleman’s mouth, under this Government child poverty is down, on the measure that he prefers. Frankly, I am not satisfied with the measure. I think we need a better measure, but what I would say to him is that employment is up, growth is up and the number of businesses is up. Yes, we have a long way to go to restore our economic fortunes, but we have a long-term economic plan. It is delivering for Britain’s families. We have got to stick at it.

Q12. [902260] Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con): I am very pleased to report that large companies are finding Watford a very attractive place to do business. I would like to mention Wickes in particular, which is setting up its headquarters in Watford, with 200 new jobs, next week. I am very pleased about that, but I must report that at a recent meeting at Wenta, the enterprise hub in Watford which I visited last week, I saw quite a few small businesses such as AC Solutions and Pocketfit Training, and they told me that they were very frustrated by the amount of bureaucracy and red tape that is hindering their business. I would like to ask the Prime Minister what his Government intend to do about that.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says about the business environment in Watford. We have helped businesses with taxes. We are helping with red tape. We are helping them with their exports. On red tape, this is going to be the first Government in modern history who at the end of the Parliament will have less regulation in place than at the beginning. I commend the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for its work, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy for his heroic efforts to get that legislation and those regulations on to websites so that people can tell us what we can remove. We are on target for scrapping 3,000 regulations under this Government, something of which we can be proud.

Q13. [902261] Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): This month, Cabinet papers have revealed that the Thatcher Government sought to escalate the miners’ strike, close pits and undermine solidarity. The scars from that dispute run deep in communities such as Wigan, where some families have never recovered and where people have died while waiting for justice. Thirty years on, those communities deserve the truth and an apology. Why are they still waiting?

The Prime Minister: As the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General said, we now have a system for releasing paperwork from 10, 20 and 30 years

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ago, and we should stick to that. I have to say that if anyone needs to make an apology for their role in the miners’ strike, it should be Arthur Scargill for the appalling way in which he led that union. While we are at it, if we want to ask about other people’s roles, there was the role of the then leader of the Labour party, who at the time never condemned the fact that they would not hold a ballot. So I think there are lessons for Labour to learn, and judging by their performance today, they have not learned any of them.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): The Prime Minister is an ex officio Church Commissioner, and he will be aware of the plans to house the new Bishop of Bath and Wells outside the city. Will the Prime Minister do everything in his power to postpone the loss of the bishop’s palace in Wells, which has served perfectly well as the residence of the bishops of Bath and Wells for 800 years?

The Prime Minister: That might well be a question for the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who guides me on these important issues, but I will go away and look into the issue of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. I shall try to put the image of Blackadder out of my mind and to come up with the right answer.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): If we are to have a Parliament that reflects the people that it serves, the Prime Minister must be disappointed that one in 10 of his women MPs who came into Parliament in 2010 have indicated that they will not stand again, and that one of his most senior women Select Committee Chairs is now facing deselection. What is the Tory party’s problem with women?

The Prime Minister: I am immensely proud of the fact that, while in the last Parliament we had 19 women Conservative MPs, the figure has risen to closer to 50 in this Parliament. That is progress. Do I want us to go further and faster? Yes I do, and we will start by targeting the hon. Gentleman’s seat at the next election.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am sure that the whole House will wish to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on sticking to their economic guns, which is producing prosperity for the kingdom, not least in Aldershot, where the number of JSA claimants has decreased by a third over the past year. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that it would be a huge and foolish mistake if the British people were to place their trust in the shadow Chancellor, who has never owned up to the last Labour Government’s responsibility for the catastrophic budget deficit and who now sticks to the unreconstructed socialist policy of tax and spend, which would ruin Britain?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes his point with characteristic strength and clarity. The fact is that the Labour party has learned no lessons from the past and says that it would do it all over again. It has tax and employment policies that would cost jobs, and businesses are now saying that it has not got a clue. I do not know whether Members have seen the film “Gravity”, but the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor remind me of two people who have stepped out into a

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void with absolutely no idea of what to do next. Like that great film, this is a tragedy made right here in Britain.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Last but not least, Caroline Lucas.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): In the light of the Prime Minister’s welcome recognition at last week’s PMQs that Brighton is indeed a superb and sunny place, will he come and visit the Brighton Energy Co-operative in my constituency, which demonstrates the real potential of community renewables, particularly solar power? Will he also acknowledge that if the Government’s new community energy strategy were to include the provision for energy providers to sell directly

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to consumers, it would have far more potential? Will he pursue that strategy instead of his evidence-free fantasies about fracking?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that I will be in Brighton before long, and I look forward to hearing the renewable energy story there. I would say that we need both of those things. We have now set out the strike prices and brought in the Energy Act, so that we can be a real magnet for investment in renewable energy, but I also think that we should take advantage of shale gas, because it provides an opportunity to have clean gas, helping to keep our energy bills down. I would say to those in the green movement who oppose shale gas simply because it includes carbon that that is a deeply misguided approach. We want to have affordable energy as well as green energy. That should be our goal.

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Syrian Refugees

12.35 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement regarding the Government’s proposal to relocate some of the most vulnerable refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria. The whole House will join me in deploring the appalling scenes of violence and suffering that we have witnessed in Syria. More than 100,000 people have been killed, and the credible reports of systematic use of torture and starvation are simply sickening. Millions of innocent people have fled their homes. There are now more than 11 million Syrians in desperate need, including 6.5 million people displaced inside Syria and more than 2.3 million refugees in neighbouring countries, at least half of whom are children. The numbers are staggering and the scale of the crisis is immense. The Prime Minister has rightly called it the greatest refugee crisis of our time.

The greatest contribution we can make is to work to end the conflict altogether, using UK diplomacy and our international influence to support the negotiations taking place in Geneva at this moment, and that is precisely what we are doing. Our goal is a peaceful settlement that enables a political transition and an end to the violence in Syria. That is the only way to create the conditions for all Syrian refugees to do what they most want to do, which is to return to their homes and livelihoods in peace.

We are also leading the world in responding to the humanitarian disaster. Britain is the second largest bilateral donor in the world after the United States. We have provided £600 million for the Syrian relief effort so far, of which £500 million has already been allocated to support refugees and the internally displaced. We are helping Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey to support those who have sought refuge there. As a result of our assistance, 320,000 people a month are being given food, 900,000 a month have drinking water, and we have enabled almost 316, 000 medical consultations to take place. This is the UK’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis, and it comes on top of our efforts to secure humanitarian access inside Syria and to provide essential materials such as shelter, blankets and stoves to help vulnerable Syrians to survive the winter.

The greatest need is in the region and it is there that the United Kingdom can make the largest impact. The Prime Minister made it clear last week that our country has a proud tradition of providing protection to those in need, and where there are particularly difficult cases of vulnerable refugees who are at grave risk, we are ready to look at those cases. Following consultations with the London office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in recent days, I can tell the House that the Government will be launching a new programme to provide emergency sanctuary in the UK for displaced Syrians who are particularly vulnerable.

The programme—the vulnerable person relocation scheme—will be based on three principles. First, we are determined to ensure that our assistance is targeted where it can have the most impact on the refugees at greatest risk. The programme will focus on individual cases where evacuation from the region is the only option. In particular, we will prioritise help for survivors

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of torture and violence and for women and children at risk or in need of medical care who are recommended to us for relocation by UNHCR. That is where we, as the United Kingdom, can make a distinctive contribution. For example, some of the worst abuses in the Syrian conflict involve the use of sexual violence, including in regime detention centres. The UK’s preventing sexual violence initiative is working to end those crimes globally. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has deployed teams of experts to train Syrians to document and investigate crimes of sexual violence and enable future prosecutions. The Department for International Development is prioritising the protection of women and girls, including providing clinical care for 12,000 Syrian refugee survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Jordan. Looking at examples such as these through our resettlement scheme, without excluding any others, will help promote our wider goal of ending war-zone sexual violence. That is an approach co-ordinated across the whole of Government.

Secondly, the scheme will be run in addition to the two resettlement programmes the Home Office operates in partnership with the UNHCR: the gateway programme, which settles 750 refugees from a small number of targeted locations every year; and the mandate resettlement scheme, which is designed to resettle individual refugees who have been recognised as refugees by the UNHCR and have a close family member in the UK who is willing to accommodate them. It will also be in addition to the asylum claims that we have been considering—and will continue to consider—under our normal rules. Since the crisis began, we have taken in nearly 3,500 Syrian asylum seekers, the fourth highest number in the European Union, with 1,100 Syrian nationals recognised as refugees in the year to September 2013.

Thirdly, because we want to focus our assistance on the most vulnerable people, we do not intend to subscribe to a quota scheme. I want to make it clear to the House, therefore, that this programme will run in parallel with the UNHCR’s Syria humanitarian admission programme and we will work in close consultation with UNHCR offices in London, in Geneva and in the region.

The United Kingdom has a deep and strong working relationship with the UNHCR built up over many years and £61 million of UK humanitarian assistance to Syria is being delivered through UNHCR programmes. Our approach is entirely consistent with the wider UNHCR programme, is supported by it and will allow us the control to make the best use of our capability to help these cases.

This House and our whole country can be proud of the role we are playing in supporting the Syrian people at a time of great crisis. British money is helping to provide food, water and shelter to hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians every day. We are granting asylum to those who need it, consistent with this country’s proud tradition of giving help to those who need it most, and through the relocation scheme that I have announced today we will be providing emergency sanctuary to the people who are most at risk, including victims of torture and violence. But the only way for the violence and suffering to end is with a negotiated political transition and the Government will spare no effort in working to find a peaceful solution to the crisis that will allow refugees to return home. I commend the statement to the House.

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12.42 pm

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement today. We have long had cross-party agreement about humanitarian aid for those suffering in the region as a result of the dreadful conflict and crisis in Syria. I believe that now we can come together with cross-party support for helping the most vulnerable civilian refugees, too.

Compassion and common sense have prevailed over the Government’s resistance last week. Britain is rightly providing help and assistance to the majority of refugees that have claimed sanctuary in the neighbouring countries—Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—and is rightly leading international efforts, but the Opposition and many others have argued for some time that a minority of refugees are too vulnerable to cope or survive in the camps: the abandoned children, torture victims, women who have been abused and those who need medical help.

We have all heard the heart-rending stories of children burnt by chemicals, families torn apart, fathers executed and mothers raped, so when the UN asked us and other countries across the world to provide sanctuary to the most vulnerable refugees and 18 other countries stepped forward to help it was simply wrong of Britain to refuse. It is a tribute to the support of Members from all parties in this House, to the charities that have campaigned on the subject and to the UN that the Home Secretary has bowed to the pressure before the Opposition day debate this afternoon. It is a reversal of her position last week, but she is right to have listened and I am glad that she has done so.

I particularly welcome the Government’s commitment to helping the survivors of torture and violence, women and children at risk and those who have suffered sexual violence. Let me now ask the Home Secretary a series of questions about her announcement today. First, I welcome her announcement that these places will be in addition to the places provided by the UN to the existing UN gateway and mandate programmes. Countries such as France, Finland and Austria have each agreed to take about 500 refugees, and the Netherlands 250. The right hon. Lady has not set a specific figure, but can she confirm that she expects Britain to provide similar levels of sanctuary?

Secondly, can the Home Secretary confirm that the refugees to whom Britain offers sanctuary will also have access to specialist help and support—for example, working with many of the excellent charities that help those who have suffered great trauma and abuse?

The right hon. Lady says that much of the programme will in fact be delivered by the UNHCR, and she will know that all the things she says she wants to do—the three principles she set out—are possible within the UN Syria programme. Some countries within it have set specific figures; some, such as the US, have not set what she would call a quota, but are still operating within the UN programme. So my third question is: is what she has announced effectively the UN programme, but with a different name?

Fourthly, will the Home Secretary agree to look again at her net migration target? I am sure she agrees with me that there is a world of difference between immigration policy and border control on the one hand, and giving

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sanctuary to those fleeing persecution on the other. Refugees are included in her net migration target; does she agree that they should no longer be?

I believe that there is now cross-party agreement in support of helping the vulnerable refugees whose lives have been wrecked by the Syrian conflict, and I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement today. Britain has a long history of helping those who are fleeing terror and persecution. We should stand together in this House and support that tradition now.

Mrs May: I think this is an issue on which Members from all parties across the House can genuinely come together and welcome the steps—all the steps—taken by the Government to provide aid and support to those suffering from the terrible humanitarian crisis resulting from the conflict in Syria.

The right hon. Lady asked several questions, the first about the numbers. We have not set a figure. As the Deputy Prime Minister made clear earlier today, we expect several hundred refugees to come, but we have not set a quota precisely because we want to look at particular needs.

It is particular needs that drive the answer to right hon. Lady’s second question, about specialist help and support. We will of course look to the arrangements we have used for the gateway programme, for example, to see the extent to which we will be able to relocate refugees in line with our existing structures and relationships with local authorities, but there will be people, identified on a case-by-case basis, who need very particular assistance—perhaps very particular medical assistance. We will of course seek to ensure that that is provided for those individuals.

The scheme I have announced is, I think, in the spirit of the UNHCR programme, but it is not technically part of it. The UNHCR has welcomed what we are doing—[Interruption.] I have to say to the Opposition Front Benchers that I think they are trying to make an argument where we do not need to have one. We took a very simple decision. We wanted to create a scheme that gives us greater flexibility and enables us to focus clearly on the issues on which the Government as a whole have been focusing, particularly women and girls at risk and preventing sexual violence. I hope that the whole House accepts that the scheme will offer genuine benefit to some of the most vulnerable people who have been displaced from Syria, and that it will welcome the scheme.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): As one who was critical earlier this week, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement—although I cannot conceal my belief that perhaps it would have been better had we been a part of the overall UNHCR programme.

My right hon. Friend knows that I have previously emphasised the need to deal properly with the children who have suffered so grievously in Syria, and I hope that she will ensure that that is given due regard in applying any criteria.

If anyone is moved to challenge the decision my right hon. Friend has announced, I remind her of the wise words of her noble Friend Lord Hurd, who on a similar occasion said, “The fact that we can’t do everything does not mean that we should do nothing.”

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Mrs May: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his comments. I am pleased that he is pleased that I have been able to respond rather more fully on this issue today than I was able to do in oral questions on Monday. We will give priority to survivors of torture and violence, women and children in need and at risk, and particularly those in need of medical care. I hope that the priorities that we are setting will incorporate his concerns on this issue. The flexibility that we have within the scheme will be of benefit to us.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): In the early 1990s, the Major Government accepted under humanitarian programmes about 3,000 refugees from Bosnia, and in the late 1990s, when I was Home Secretary, we accepted a slightly larger number from Kosovo, because of the terrible crises that existed in both those territories at those times. Will the Home Secretary look carefully at the experience of both the Bosnian and the Kosovan refugees to see what lessons can be learned, including about support within the UK, for these vulnerable people, and the contribution that these people, who often did not have go through the awful hoops of seeking access to this country, were able to make subsequently to our prosperity?

Mrs May: I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the contribution that has been made by many groups of refugees who, over the years, have found sanctuary here in the United Kingdom. We will, of course, look at past experience. When the scheme was introduced by the right hon. Gentleman there was no limit on numbers, so it was not a quota system. The circumstances in Syria are slightly different from those in Bosnia in terms of the scale of the numbers involved. That is why the focus must continue to be on helping the maximum number of people by aid being given within region, which, as I have said, is where the UK has a very proud record.

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for the statement. It is unquestionably right that we should offer refuge to the most vulnerable refugees, and I particularly welcome the focus on survivors of torture and sexual violence, many of whom remain at risk even in refugee settlements. But the effectiveness of this scheme will depend on early identification and access to the right package of specialist support in the UK. How will she ensure a seamless transition between identification in country and access to those specialist services in the UK?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend makes an important point. This will depend very much on the relationship that we have built up and will be exercising with the UNHCR in terms of identifying those cases that it believes it is appropriate for the UK to take, and in doing so to work with it to ensure that we understand the nature of the case and the particular needs of the individual. The transition will depend on that relationship and us working with UNHCR.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I, too, warmly welcome what the Home Secretary has done. She has done absolutely the right thing. On the question of resettlement, will she ensure that she involves the British-Arab diaspora? There are 10,000 Syrians living in this country. I do not

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know what the formal structure will be— it will certainly not be as big as the resettlement of the Gurkhas—but their involvement could be helpful for those who are vulnerable.

There is £90 million sitting in bank accounts in London that has been frozen that belongs to the Syrian Government. Will she speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer as to whether we can access some of those funds, as other EU countries have done, to help with our humanitarian efforts.

Mrs May: The right hon. Gentleman makes two very good points. On the first issue, as I have said, we have some existing relationships with local authorities, for example, which we work with in resettling through existing resettlement programmes. He makes an important point that refugees coming into this country being able to be welcomed into an environment by people with a similar background can make that transition easier, particularly for someone who is vulnerable. We will be looking carefully, on a case-by-case basis, at how we deal with individuals.

I am certainly willing to talk to the Chancellor about the right hon. Gentleman’s second point. My understanding was that there are strict rules about these frozen accounts and whether it was possible to access money within them. If there is an opportunity to do so, I will certainly be talking to my right hon. Friend.

Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con): I very much welcome this thoughtful and tailored extension of what the UK is already doing in relation to Syrian refugees, not least in relation to the situation of women, who will need special care bearing in mind the circumstances from which they come and the impact upon them. In view of the need for us to stay close to the UN, for whom no country could have done more than ourselves, will my right hon. Friend confirm that this does have its endorsement as the right thing for the UK to do, and that her approach will remain flexible should circumstances require it?

Mrs May: I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. He has long been promoting the needs of Syrian refugees, particularly women and children who are at risk. I can confirm that the UNHCR has endorsed and welcomed the scheme. The UNHCR’s representative to the UK, Roland Schilling, said:

“We welcome the announcement of the UK government to provide refuge to some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, in cooperation with UNHCR. This decision will help to provide much needed solutions for vulnerable Syrian refugees…Today’s decision is an encouraging and important step, reaffirming the UK’s commitment and contribution to international relief efforts in support of more than 2.3 million Syrian refugees and the countries hosting them. UNHCR also recognises the UK’s generous contribution towards massive humanitarian needs in the region.”

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): What about the 560,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, marooned by a conflict that is not their conflict and with no homes to go to? In the Al Yarmouk camp, they are dying of starvation and their food consists of grass and animal food. What precisely and specifically is being done for the Palestinian refugees?

Mrs May: We are, as a country, helping Palestinian refugees who have been able to leave Syria. But the problem with helping those who are in Syria is the lack

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of access to them, which is the result of the action taken by and the attitude of the Syrian Government. Obviously, some recent steps have been indicated in terms of possible humanitarian access in Syria. We all want to ensure that we can have access to be able to provide support to those people who are suffering inside Syria as a result of this conflict.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I warmly welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement today. Saving the life of even one woman or child or person who has been tortured or starved in Syria is well worth doing. Does she agree that these people will not necessarily come here for ever? Many of them will come for treatment of one sort or another or for rehabilitation, and we look forward to the time when they may be able to return to their homeland at some stage in the future.

Mrs May: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The vast majority of Syrian refugees want to be able to return to their homes and live in peace. Under the scheme, we will be offering a temporary residence here in the UK, but we will consider each individual case as the situation in Syria evolves.

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): Will the Home Secretary kindly confirm that asylum seeker status and refugee status are entirely different things in international law? Will she also confirm that she will liaise closely with the Welsh Government on resettlement?

Mrs May: I am very happy to liaise closely with the Welsh Government, and any opportunities or support that they can give on the relocation of individuals who come to the UK as a result of this scheme will be welcomed. There are different types of status for individuals. We will consider the matter further, but we currently propose that these individuals will be given temporary residence here, but with access to the labour market and other benefits in the same way as refugees would have.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): As someone who was critical of the Government’s position on this, I congratulate the Home Secretary on this announcement. Will she confirm that, when looking at the criteria, children will not be separated from parents?

Mrs May: I assure my hon. Friend that there is no intention to separate children from parents.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I welcome what the Home Secretary has announced today, but I do not quite understand why we are not working hand in hand with the UNHCR resettlement scheme. Is it because under that scheme Germany has committed to taking at least 10,000 refugees? Will we be able to match that figure?

Mrs May: We are working hand in hand with the UNHCR, but we are doing so with very particular priorities and with a degree of flexibility that we feel being part of the programme to which the hon. Lady refers would not give us.

Sarah Teather (Brent Central) (LD): Having visited Jordan and seen the conditions in which Syrian refugees are living, I am absolutely delighted that the Home

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Secretary has made this statement—I hope that it gives her heart to think that doing the humane thing for refugees is often popular and not always unpopular. I am a little disappointed that we are not signed up to the UNHCR’s scheme, but so long as we are working hand in hand with it to identify the vulnerable people, that is what is most important. I ask her to keep under review the priorities she has set as the crisis unfolds, because the people who are the most vulnerable may well change over time. If we are to have our own programme, rather than the UNHCR scheme, that might be important.

Mrs May: I take the hon. Lady’s point about continuing to look at the priorities we have set. As I have said, those priorities tie in with other work we are doing in the region. I think that it is important to have that degree of flexibility, which is what having our own scheme gives us. However, I reiterate the point I made in answer to the previous question: we are working alongside and hand in hand with the UNHCR.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): While I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and share her pride in the way this country has acted so positively in furnishing humanitarian aid to the refugees, will she clarify who will be responsible for defining what constitutes the most vulnerable? I welcome her earlier response that children will not be separated from their parents, but will she also ensure that they are not separated from their siblings?

Mrs May: The intention is that responsibility for determining that will be with the UK and the UNHCR, working together. The UNHCR will identify cases and we will work with it to identify whether the UK could provide the necessary support in those cases and therefore take them on board. The intention is not to separate families. Obviously there might be children with particular needs, such as particular medical needs, but the intention is not to separate families.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): The organisation that goes into the greatest danger and is often best placed to identify victims of torture and sexual misconduct is the International Committee of the Red Cross, which in my view is often much better than the UNHCR. What is its involvement with the UNHCR in deciding who should come to this country?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have made it clear that we will be looking at the issue primarily with the UNHCR, which I think is appropriate, because it is on the ground and identifying vulnerable individuals, but I hope that the International Committee of the Red Cross will work with it to ensure—

Bob Stewart: It is better at doing that.

Mrs May: I hear what my hon. Friend says and recognise his experience when it comes to people who are displaced and vulnerable as a result of conflict. We will of course look to ensure that the Red Cross and the UNHCR work together to identify the cases that are appropriate for the UK.

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): I welcome the decision that the Home Secretary has taken today, but surely she recognises that we also have a proud record of championing multilateral responses to international crises. If every country demanded the

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flexibility to set up parallel and unilateral schemes, the entire effort would be undermined to some degree. Does she not at least recognise that? Why is the flexibility she is asking for so important? It undermines our ability to be part of the multilateral effort to help those refugees.

Mrs May: I take a slightly different view from the right hon. Gentleman. I do not think that countries that take a separate route, working with the UNHCR to identify vulnerable cases, undermine the international community’s ability to provide support, aid and help to those who are vulnerable as a result of the Syrian conflict. I think that what we are doing is absolutely appropriate. We will be working with the UNHCR, as I have said, but we have identified a bespoke scheme that will allow us to focus on particular groups of people, such as victims of sexual violence and women and children who are at risk or in need of medical assistance. We will be able to prioritise those groups within the scheme in a way that would not have been fully possible under another scheme.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I certainly support the Home Secretary’s statement. I visited a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey only recently, and they were very thankful for the support Britain is providing, but I have to tell her that in three days not a single refugee told me that they wanted to relocate to Britain, or indeed any other country; they wanted to go home and to be free from a murderous regime. I think that we need to keep that in mind when prioritising our resources.

Mrs May: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I commend him and the other Members of the House who visited the refugee camp in Turkey, led by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). They not only talked with the refugees there, but did some constructive work to support them. He is absolutely right that the vast majority of refugees want to be able to return home to a Syria that is not in conflict. That is why our first priority must be to try to ensure that there is a political resolution and a smooth transition in the government of Syria. Our second priority must be to help those who are “in region”, which means that they will be able to return home when the time comes.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement and welcome the Government’s decision to receive the most vulnerable refugees from Syria. It is also vital that the humanitarian aid that we are sending reaches those most in need. However, on the point that the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) made, is it not most important that the Government strengthen their efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement that will finally end the nightmare that is happening in Syria and meet the needs of the people of Syria?

Mrs May: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that our first focus must be on trying to ensure that we see that political transition taking place so that the refugees can return home and Syria can return to peace. That is why the efforts being made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary are so important. He has

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been one of the leading figures in the international community trying to secure the Geneva II negotiations and ensure that we get positive results from them.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. A large number of colleagues wish to participate, but there is also a debate on this very subject to follow. Therefore, my normal practice of calling everybody might not apply today. What is required is brevity, and I think that the textbook on succinctness can be written by Dr Julian Lewis.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I was afraid that you would choose me for that, Mr Speaker.

Like hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, I strongly endorse any help that can be given to vulnerable victims of war, but with regard to the second category that the Home Secretary mentioned—people who have received political asylum—can she assure the House that they are being properly screened so that we do not store up trouble for the future for our security services, as we are already worried about jihadists of our own going out to Syria and coming back?

Mrs May: I can assure my hon. Friend that all the appropriate checks are made.

Mr Speaker: I hope that others will have studied that textbook.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I commend the Secretary of State for International Development for her regular updates to MPs. I ask the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary to work together so that we get regular updates on what is happening, including the total number of refugees and the progress of the scheme so that hon. Members who are concerned about what is happening can be kept up to date regularly.

Mrs May: I am happy to ensure that regular updates are available for Members, working with not only the Foreign Secretary, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who should be commended not only for her updates to the House, but for the leading role she has played in providing humanitarian aid in the region.

Dr Phillip Lee (Bracknell) (Con): I of course very much welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. There is a good history of orphans from war-torn countries growing up to be much-valued citizens in their adopted countries. Will she consider prioritising Syrian orphans and perhaps increasing the number that Britain will take? Such a policy would be both morally right and of great benefit to this country’s future.

Mrs May: I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but I say to him that we will work with the UNHCR, which will identify the cases that are most vulnerable and most appropriate in terms of the support that the UK can provide.

Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Non-governmental organisations, such as the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and Christian Aid, very much welcome the Government’s humanitarian

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contribution to these awful problems and will no doubt welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. However, they are puzzled, as I am, that the Government have not thus far associated themselves with the UNHCR’s programme, and therefore with 18 important countries. That lack of solidarity seems to be a wee bit intransigent and hardly fits in with the rest of the Government’s approach. Have I missed an obvious explanation?

Mr Speaker: I see that the right hon. Gentleman has put in to speak in the debate as well. We are grateful to him. He will have made two speeches by the end of it.

Mrs May: I refer the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) to the quote I gave earlier from the UNHCR’s representative to the UK, who has welcomed our announcement. He said that it

“will help to provide much needed solutions for vulnerable Syrian refugees”,

and that it reaffirms

“the UK’s commitment and contribution to international relief efforts”.

I think that what matters is whether we are providing help and support for vulnerable refugees in Syria. We are showing solidarity through the humanitarian aid effort that we are providing. As I have said, we are providing the second largest contribution in the humanitarian aid effort in the world, after the United States, which is a very big step in showing solidarity.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I warmly welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), I do not think that the word “orphans” was mentioned by her in the statement or, indeed, by the shadow Home Secretary. Is it not right that, by definition, vulnerable children and children at risk must include orphans?

Mrs May: As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), we will look at this case by case. We have said that children at risk are obviously one of the categories that we will prioritise. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has reminded me that our work on orphans is not just what will happen as a result of this scheme, because we are doing very specific work to support them in the region.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I still do not understand why we cannot be part of the UNHCR programme, which seems the obvious thing to do? May I take the Home Secretary back to the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman)? Many of the Palestinian refugees in Syria are themselves refugees from Iraq or, before that, other countries in the region. I hope that she will look very carefully and sympathetically at the plight of people driven from pillar to post by the travails and history of the whole region, and at least give them a place of safety here.

Mrs May: The hon. Gentleman is correct in his identification of the particular problem for many individuals who have been displaced not just once, but many times. That is why we have done specific work with Palestinian refugees who, as I understand it, are in the refugee camps. As I said in response to the right hon. Member

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for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), the problem about working with people inside Syria is of course the lack of access for humanitarian aid efforts in Syria.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): This is a good announcement and an appropriate way to mark the 75 years since the Kindertransport, when this country saved 10,000 children from the horrors of the holocaust.

I note that the Home Secretary said that the Government do not intend to subscribe to a quota scheme. Will she therefore confirm that there are no targets or limits on how many people can be taken, and that the number can be expanded if necessary?

Mrs May: We have not set a target or quota for the number of people who will be taken. The Deputy Prime Minister indicated earlier today that, as I have confirmed, we are probably looking at several hundred people, but we have not set a target.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, which follows this country’s honourable tradition of supporting refugees. Will she consider giving support to effective charities, such as Asylum Link, to enable them to play their part, too?

Mrs May: I understand the hon. Lady’s point. As I have said, we are obviously looking at a number of asylum cases. The UK has taken the fourth highest number of asylum seekers of those taken into countries in the European Union. We of course look at every one of those cases on the right and proper basis of the need presented.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), the refugees we spoke to told us some horrendous stories about how they got there. Will my right hon. Friend say exactly who will decide, and on what criteria, that one heart-rending case is given refuge here over another heart-rending case? Perhaps that should be done according to the specific medical skills that we can offer.

Mrs May: There will be a combination of factors: the UNHCR will identify individuals who are particularly vulnerable or at risk, but we will have to consider whether the UK can provide the particular support that they need. That will be discussed with the UNHCR, but it will initially identify the most vulnerable cases.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Like the UK, Germany is among the largest bilateral humanitarian aid donors in Syria, but Angela Merkel’s Government have announced that they are prepared to take 10,000 refugees. The Government’s statement about hundreds of vulnerable people receiving refuge in the UK is welcome, but how does the Home Secretary account for the difference in the scale of ambition between the UK and Germany?

Mrs May: All countries look at how they are best able to give the support that they feel is right. As a country, we have put a particular focus on the amount of money and support that we give to people in the region. As

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several of my hon. Friends have said, most of the refugees in the camps want to be able to return to Syria. We believe that it is right to focus on humanitarian aid to support those in the refugee camps. It is also right to welcome some particularly vulnerable people to the United Kingdom, and I have set out that scheme today.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend share my pride that only one country, whose economy is six times the size of ours, is giving more help to Syria than Britain?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The United Kingdom can be very proud of its record on the humanitarian aid that it is giving refugees from the Syrian conflict. As he says, it is the second highest amount in the world—second only to the United States—so we can hold our heads high and recognise the tremendous support that we are giving to Syrian refugees.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): When does the Home Secretary expect the first people to arrive in this country under the scheme, and has she already had discussions about that, particularly with NHS trusts that will have to provide the capacity to deal with them?

Mrs May: I cannot give the hon. Lady a date for when the first people will arrive. We obviously have to ensure that we can provide individuals with appropriate accommodation and support. That process can be done generically at the start, but individuals will then have to be considered case by case.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I appreciate the Home Secretary’s measured response to this dreadful tragedy, for which the United Kingdom has absolutely no responsibility whatsoever, but may I invite her to consider seeing it in the context of the overall impact of migration to this country in recent years? While Germany and France have population densities of 235 and 119 people per square kilometre, England and Wales have 374 people per square kilometre. I therefore suggest two things: first, that we should limit the scheme to hundreds and not thousands; and, secondly, that as a Christian country, we should prioritise Christians who are being persecuted in Syria. Does she agree?

Mrs May: I say to my hon. Friend that I am often very happy to debate and discuss immigration matters with him, but today our focus must be on the help that we are providing to the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. I have indicated the categories of vulnerability that we will prioritise, but I repeat that they are survivors of torture and violence, women and children at risk and those in need of medical care.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Home Secretary’s emphasis on those who have faced sexual violence. Is she aware of the work of Human Rights Watch in respect of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Syrian refugees? Will such refugees have access to the programme?

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Mrs May: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the comment that he has made. In putting the priorities together, I decided that although we will have a focus on women and children at risk, the survivors of torture and violence will include not only women and children, but people of both genders. It is therefore quite possible that individuals who have been subject to the sort of violence that he raises will qualify within that category.

Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. Emphasis has correctly been placed on helping people who have been subjected to the worst abuses of the Syrian conflict, including sexual violence and being detained in regime detention centres. Will she confirm that when people are brought to this country, the evidence collection will not end? It is vital that when people are taken away from the refugee camps, the UK Government continue to co-operate with the evidence collection so that the perpetrators of crimes can be prosecuted.

Mrs May: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said earlier, this country is helping with the process of evidence collection by training Syrians to collect evidence. It is important that in bringing people to the UK, we do not lose the possibility that evidence can be collected and break that chain. I entirely accept the point that he has made.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and particularly her focus on vulnerable groups. I want to return to the question that was raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). LGBT groups have experienced particular victimisation, stigmatisation, violence and so forth. I urge her, in looking at vulnerable groups with the UN, to focus on LGBT communities. She said that it was “quite possible” that such people would qualify. That was not as reassuring as I had hoped.

Mrs May: I hoped in my answer to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby to make the point that the first category will be the survivors of torture and violence, and that we have a particular concern about those who have been subjected to sexual violence. I did not intend to suggest that this was only a “might possibly”. We will work with the UNHCR and it will make the initial identification of the most vulnerable cases and identify those for whom the support that is available in the UK would be most appropriate.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: I trust that the appetite of the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) was satisfied by one question. I know that there is an instinctive element to rising to ask questions and that people often do so automatically.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) has said that we need to learn the lessons from Kosovo. Has the Secretary of State seen the comments that were made by the then Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short? She said that Britain refused to take a quota:

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“We are not working on numbers. We are working on vulnerability and need”.

She went on to say:

“We believe that the refugees should be cared for in the region”.

Does the Secretary of State agree that our approach is very similar to that of the previous Government to the refugees in Kosovo?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend makes a very good point and he is absolutely right. The important thing is that the United Kingdom asks what is the most appropriate way to support refugees who have been displaced by conflict, as in Syria. First and foremost, it is humanitarian aid in the region that is needed, but it is also right for us to take vulnerable cases and we have set no quota.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: I am sorry. Last but not least, I call Geoffrey Robinson.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): The Home Secretary will have been aware of the widespread unease across the House earlier in the week about the Government’s position on this issue. I therefore congratulate her, as others have, on the change of tone and spirit in her statement today, which has largely dispelled that unease. However, it is puzzling that Britain—a founding and permanent member of the Security Council—is running parallel with the UN on this matter. If we are working so closely with the UNHCR on this matter, surely we could take a leading role as we have on all other issues.

Mrs May: We are taking a leading role in providing aid and support to refugees from Syria in a variety of ways. We just do not happen to be signing up to a particular programme of the UNHCR. We are not working in parallel with the UN, but are working hand in hand with the UNHCR on a parallel scheme.

Mr Speaker: I appreciate the understanding of colleagues. The debate on this matter will follow relatively shortly and I am sure that there will be opportunities not only for speeches, but for interventions if Members still feel inclined to make them.

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Local Government Boundary Commission (Public Representations)

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

1.24 pm

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 to require the Local Government Boundary Commission to respond to public representations requesting principal area boundary reviews; and for connected purposes.

We will discuss many solemn and important matters today, including Syria, and a ten-minute rule Bill perhaps sits a little oddly among them. It falls to me to add a little bathos to the day. Such is the relaxed and indifferent way in which the ten-minute rule is regarded, I could probably propose any legislative change without the House demurring much or even noticing. Were I to move the expropriation of the means of production and the institution of the dictatorship of the proletariat or the establishment of a theocracy, I think that the House might passively and unknowingly assent.

It would be foolish of me to pretend that the boundaries of principal local authorities preoccupy many people. People care about many things, but local authority boundaries are some way down their priorities. MPs, however, get somewhat nervous at talk of boundaries. We can all recall the recent debacle of the misconceived legislation on parliamentary boundaries and the panic that surrounded it. Many an MP has a love-hate relationship with his or her local council, irrespective of whether the party that controls it is of his or her persuasion. Indeed, it is sometimes better for the MP if the controlling party is not the one to which he or she belongs.

None of that should persuade us that everything in the garden is beautiful and that we should put up with the local government boundaries that we have. Boundaries are neither uncontentious nor inevitable. There has been a constant process of revision and evolution since the Redcliffe-Maud proposals ushered in the modern age. We have seen a range of things: the establishment of unitaries, the disappearance of counties and councils, the abolition of the metropolitan counties, the creation of the Greater London authority, and sundry minor tweaks.

Many of the objections to boundary reviews have disappeared. At one time, it was held that a primary local authority must be of a given size. That requirement made a fair deal of sense when the local authorities ran all the schools before the legislation on academies and the like. We now live in an age when local authorities are losing control even of social services, as social care merges with health care and presumably comes under health and wellbeing boards. We also live in an age when councils share back-office functions and chief executives; outsource many of their functions; and co-operate in city region councils that look like the old metropolitan counties. The priority now is not size or scale, but local effectiveness and responsiveness.

Where the council is not the best or most appropriate local voice, there will be demand for reconfiguration, the establishment of new councils, the reassignment of communities to neighbouring authorities or changes to the boundaries. The problem is not whether that should

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happen, but how it is to happen. The remit of the Local Government Boundary Commission is covered by two recent Acts: the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. Under the current legislation, there are three ways to engineer change: the Local Authority Boundary Commission can unilaterally decide to conduct a review, although it has no responsibility for implementing any review that it deigns to recommend; a council can ask for a review; or the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government can initiate a review by asking the Local Government Boundary Commission to act.

The first two steps are unlikely. Councils do not vote for the change, just as turkeys do not vote for Christmas, and civil servants on commissions do not usually rock boats. Sadly, the Secretary of State has made what is almost a policy decision that he is not minded to recommend further reviews in this Parliament. In effect, no major boundary review of a major authority is likely to take place any time soon. I would therefore argue that the public voice is silenced, which is not in the spirit of the times.

The public have been given many new powers—to thwart council tax increases, to bid to take over council services, to decide whether they want an elected mayor and to establish parish councils. However, they have absolutely no power to contest who runs their community. My Bill would change that by obliging the Local Government Boundary Commission to respond to public petitions, on the condition that the petition passes the same threshold as is necessary to force a vote on an elected mayor, which I believe is 10% of the electoral roll. Most people would accept that as an appreciable hurdle. A further condition could be put in place that it is the clear will of 20% of the wards making up a local authority. That, too, would count as reason to get the commission to respond. The mandatory response required from the commission would normally be to initiate a review or, in rare circumstances, to give clear and compelling reasons for not doing so.

I will briefly give the example of my own local authority, Sefton, one of the Merseyside authorities, which is named after a hard-to-find little village in the middle of it. It has two very different centres of gravity and power—Bootle in the south and Southport on the Lancashire border in the north. After more than a quarter of a century of being a hung council, Sefton

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council passed into Labour control in 2011. Even now, the contrast between the two parts of the borough is extraordinarily stark. In the last election, in 2012, six of the seven Southport wards returned Liberal Democrats, with the Tories holding one. Southport has never elected a Labour councillor, a situation that I hope will be perpetuated. However, Sefton now has a ruling cabinet composed entirely of Bootle councillors. All the chairs of the scrutiny committees are also Labour appointments. I think we would accept that Bootle is incorrigibly Labour. It had the distinction of having the lowest amount spent by political parties per elector at the general election—it amounted to 14p per elector among all parties. It is fair to say that the floating vote sank a long time ago in Bootle.

Understandably, when the council has to make cuts, Bootle councillors look favourably on their own patch. In the recent review of library services, three libraries were closed in Southport but none in Bootle, even though demand for those services was greater in Southport. Time has made a dysfunctional local authority appear more dysfunctional, which is why my local residents’ long-standing concern requires investigation. I personally favour the division of Sefton into two local authority units.

Such scenarios are not uncommon, but in Sefton we have the advantage of having had a review in the past in response to public demand and petitioning. It was parked for a while—the Local Government Boundary Commission promised that it would reopen the issue if the council could better demonstrate that the interests and voices of the diverse communities in Sefton were not being well served. It was able to do that, but no solution is currently available, basically because the commission could not even respond to a timely reminder to return to unfinished business, no matter what the groundswell of public opinion. That problem clearly occurs in many places, but it is one with a solution, and I commend my Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That John Pugh, Annette Brooke, Sir Malcolm Bruce, Mr Frank Field, Sir Bob Russell, Andrew George, Nic Dakin, Heather Wheeler, Dr Julian Huppert and Tim Farron present the Bill.

John Pugh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 February, and to be printed (Bill 165).

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Opposition Day

[19th Allotted Day]