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House of Commons

Wednesday 3 September 2014

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker’s Statement

Mr Speaker: I must inform the House that, owing to a misunderstanding, the two Opposition day debates today were put on the Order Paper in the wrong sequence. I am content that the order in the debate should be reversed, as the Opposition intended. The House will therefore debate the motion relating to energy company licence revocations first and the motion relating to infant class sizes second.

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Humanitarian Situation (Northern Iraq)

1. Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): What recent assessment her Department has made of the needs of people affected by the humanitarian situation in northern Iraq; what steps her Department is taking to help people affected by that situation; and if she will make a statement. [905124]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Justine Greening): Before I reply, may I welcome the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), to his role? May I also pay tribute and give warm thanks to his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who did an outstanding job in that role and is well known across the House for his expertise on the middle east?

The Department for International Development is deeply concerned about the situation in northern Iraq; the UN’s latest estimate is that 1.8 million people are displaced across Iraq. My Department has played a leading role in the response. I visited both Baghdad and Erbil last week and announced a further £10 million of funding, bringing our total UK support now to £23 million.

Paul Flynn: I did not hear an answer, but I would have been grateful if I had. I am sure we look forward to seeing the new Minister, and I hope we appreciate his performances as much as we have appreciated his silence over the past years.

The NATO summit will start tomorrow in the splendid city of Newport, and it will be followed by a Newport declaration. Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that although the Newport declaration will contain some military recommendations, there will be

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an emphasis on soft power? Military power leaves a legacy of antagonism; soft power—the one she is mainly responsible for—leaves a legacy of good will.

Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Clearly, in dealing with ISIL we need to look at all the measures necessary to make sure we can tackle the threat it poses. Alongside that work on stability in Iraq, not only does political progress need to be made in forming an inclusive Government, but, as he says, there needs to be humanitarian support for people who have been affected by this crisis on the ground. I met many of them last week, and many of them have awful tales of how they have had to leave their homes overnight, with almost none of their possessions. We are doing our best to support them, but that work has to line up with a military and a political strategy.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is keen to give humanitarian help to the Kurds in the north of Iraq but is finding great difficulty in getting aid through. In particular, it took a month and a half to get a field hospital to the north of Iraq, which is a ridiculously long time. What can the Secretary of State do to bring pressure to bear on the Iraqi Government to allow Jordanian overflight above the Kingdom of Iraq?

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend rightly points out that co-ordination between the Government of Iraq—I had the chance to meet the Prime Minister-designate when I was there last week—the Kurdistan Regional Government and the UN agencies is crucial. One sticking point has been on making sure we can transport supplies and equipment quickly; many flights need to stop in Baghdad, and that is part of the delay. We are seeking to make sure that those operations run smoothly.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Quite rightly, there was a huge fuss in this Chamber a few months ago about the abduction of the Nigerian schoolchildren. I have continually asked about the plight of the Yazidi women, nearly 3,000 of whom have been gang-raped and sold into sexual slavery. I do not have a clear idea what we are doing to help those women or why we are not making it a strong issue that we should be doing something about.

Justine Greening: I could not agree more with the right hon. Lady’s raising of this issue. As she will know, we worked hand in hand with the Ministry of Defence to make sure that we could get humanitarian supplies to Yazidis who were trapped on Mount Sinjar. When I was in Iraq last week, I announced £10 million in extra support, part of which was specifically allocated to making sure that we can support women and girls, not only by protecting them from violence, but by providing the trauma counselling and support they need to help them after those experiences.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s visit to Iraq. What DFID, official and diplomatic presence do we have in the country to ensure that we are well informed about the developing situation there after her return?

Justine Greening: First, when this crisis commenced, we quickly embedded an official humanitarian adviser in the Kurdistan Regional Government. I had a chance

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to ask the Regional Government for an assessment of the work that they are doing. Secondly, we have also had somebody working on the ground with UN agencies, ensuring that the initial work setting up the operations was well organised. Thirdly, we will now look to provide further official support as the team and operation on the ground in northern Iraq get going. As my hon. Friend will be aware, most of our work happens through UN agencies and non-governmental organisations, but, as I have just outlined, we also provide technical assistance and support.

Mr Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) on his promotion. He has a tough act to follow in the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who brought real passion and commitment to the job.

The murder of Steven Sotloff and the reports of the taking of a British hostage remind us of the bravery and dedication of those who go to the region to save people’s lives or to report the news. Over recent months, there has been a move of 850,000 internally displaced civilians into Kurdistan. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about what has been done to support the Kurdistan Regional Government, and to make sure that public services do not collapse under the strain?

Justine Greening: The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. When I visited Iraq last week, I was keen to ensure that I went to Erbil, and I had the chance to meet both the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Deputy Prime Minister. I was impressed by the work and the team that is in place to respond to the crisis. I met not just those at a senior ministerial level, but the mayor of Erbil who, alongside having to continue to provide basic services to people in that city, is now coping with around 100,000 displaced people who have arrived there. The camps and facilities are now being set up to cope with them. The teams are well organised, and we have a humanitarian adviser working alongside them, and we will look to see what more we can do over the coming weeks and months to support the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Mr Murphy: The whole House will look forward to hearing those updates and how we are supporting the Kurdistan Regional Government. Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen Shi’a have lived side by side in that region for centuries, and yet ISIL is now targeting non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim populations and communities. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that in the distribution of life-saving aid that sort of discrimination is not unintentionally repeated and that all minorities have equal access to life-saving aid and support?

Justine Greening: I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that in co-ordinating our humanitarian assistance, we do it solely on the basis of need.

Relief Effort (Gaza)

2. Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): What her Department’s role is in the relief effort for people affected by the situation in Gaza. [905125]

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3. Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): What her Department’s role is in the relief effort for people affected by the situation in Gaza. [905126]

5. Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): What her Department’s role is in the relief effort for people affected by the situation in Gaza. [905128]

6. Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): What recent work has been undertaken through programmes of her Department in Gaza. [905129]

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr Desmond Swayne): The United Kingdom is one of the largest donors. We have spent some £17 million in emergency aid. We are providing food and essential supplies to families in desperate need. We are repairing the water infrastructure and providing counselling to those who have been traumatised.

Helen Goodman: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his promotion and thank him for his answer. As the House knows, children have borne the brunt of the recent conflict: 500 have died, 1,000 are permanently disabled and half a million cannot go to school. Yet the UN’s appeal is only half funded. What is the Department doing to get other members of the international community to play their part?

Mr Swayne: The hon. Lady is quite right. From our rapid reaction facility, we have specifically earmarked funds for the assistance of children. With respect to encouraging others to step up to the plate as we have done, there will undoubtedly be a donors’ conference soon, but that will be immeasurably assisted by a meaningful peace process.

Ian Lavery: The conflict in Gaza has displaced almost 1.8 million people—one quarter of the inhabitants of Gaza—and they are of all ages. Will the Minister say what his Department is doing to provide relief for the mainly disabled and elderly people in Gaza who have been displaced?

Mr Swayne: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Some 58,000 people are currently sheltering in UN relief agency schools, and 100,000 people have no home to return to. Clearly, there must be a rebuilding effort, but that will require substantial movement on access into and out of Gaza, and that will require a peace process that can proceed.

Alex Cunningham: The answer to that question was helpful, because the people of Gaza have been denied the right to the essentials of daily life for many, many years because of the illegal blockade, and they now depend on the Israeli Government or the tunnels in order to get aid. Does the Minister agree that it is a necessity to end the blockade, and what will his Department and others do to achieve that?

Mr Swayne: The hon. Gentleman is right. The UN report suggested that even before this latest round of hostilities, Gaza would become uninhabitable by 2020—before it had started to be smashed to smithereens. Clearly, there must be movement on access if Gaza is to have a viable economic future. What are we doing about

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that? We are contributing to a peace process, and our primary aim in this Department is to bring relief to those who are in want.

Graham Evans: Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the work that his Department is doing with the Foreign Office to help address the underlying causes of the conflict in Gaza, and to work towards a two-state solution?

Mr Swayne: We believe that a two-state solution is the only realistic game in town, and to that end we are spending considerable sums of money in support of the Palestinian Authority, in order to get it into the habit of good governance, so that democratic institutions can flourish. We are also investing considerably in private sector development so that there will be economic growth, in order that a future state should be both stable and prosperous.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The Minister mentioned the UN relief agency schools. Is he as appalled as I am that those so-called safe havens were bombed and people within them killed, and what is his Department doing with others in the international community to ensure that those are safe havens?

Mr Swayne: As I said, some 58,000 people are now sheltering in these schools. It is absolutely right that breaches of international law on both sides be investigated, and we will be vigilant in that process.

12. [905135] Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I very much welcome the Minister’s comments about the provision of aid, but has any consideration been given to the fact that much of the damage may have been caused by weaponry, or parts of weapons, that were sold to Israel with UK Government approval?

Mr Swayne: As the Prime Minister made clear in his statement on Monday, there has been a thorough review of export licences and proper procedures have been put in place. In fact, 12 licences were identified where a component part could possibly have been used in an offensive capacity. Those licences will be suspended if there is a return to significant hostilities.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): May I press the Minister a little more on the question of the blockade? If I understood him correctly, he said that a peace process needs to be got going in order to lift the blockade, but my understanding of the ceasefire is that an easing of the blockade, at least, comes first. That is a way of getting to the peace process. The aid needs to be going in now. What is the Government’s position? Is it pressing for the blockade to be lifted now?

Mr Swayne: My understanding of the ceasefire arrangements is that they, in effect, restore the status quo ante with respect to the Rafah crossing. But if we are to see a significant easing of the restrictions and economic development, there must be much greater access, and that means that Israel’s legitimate security concerns must be taken into account and allayed.

10. [905133] Sir Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): My right hon. Friend has rightly highlighted that even before the latest Israeli action the people of Gaza faced a pressing humanitarian crisis, caused, for example, by

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the salination of the aquifer, with all drinking water becoming undrinkable quite soon afterwards. Is there anything that his Department can do now of a practical nature, not dependent on the peace process, to improve the longer-term situation in Gaza?

Mr Swayne: We are taking action now: we have deployed funds from our rapid reaction facility precisely to deal with the water issue. But in the long term, the salination and desalination has to be taken into account, and that will require a very substantial investment in the infrastructure.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new role and pay tribute to his predecessor. The 3,000 injured children in Gaza and the 100,000 Palestinians made homeless whom the Minister mentioned need uninterrupted help from humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross. The situation is still urgent. What specific steps has he taken with the Foreign Office and others to encourage both Israeli and Palestinian actors to ensure safe, continuous access for those working to aid the recovery in Gaza?

Mr Swayne: We continually make representations to the Israelis with respect to making access easier. The hon. Lady is quite right: many of those children have life-changing injuries. The NGOs who have to negotiate access to Gaza currently incur costs of some £6 million a year to do so, and that is not acceptable.

13. [905137] Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Although I recognise that both the Israelis and the Egyptians have offered humanitarian aid during the crisis, I am keen to press the Minister on what his Department could do immediately to ensure supplies of medicine and medical aid to the people of Gaza.

Mr Swayne: We have supplied emergency aid to the International Committee of the Red Cross, to which we gave £3 million, and through our rapid reaction facility to other NGOs.

Humanitarian Situation (South Sudan)

4. Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the humanitarian situation in South Sudan. [905127]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Lynne Featherstone): I returned from South Sudan early this morning and have seen that the humanitarian situation there remains precarious: 1.8 million people have been displaced by the conflict, 1.3 million of them within the country. Although aid has helped to ameliorate the food security situation in some areas, there is still a high risk of famine in early 2015.

Sir Tony Baldry: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for updating the House on her recent visit to Juba. The House wants reassurance from her that the international community has got a grip on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in South Sudan and will, as far as possible, be able to abate what looks as though it could turn into a humanitarian disaster.

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Lynne Featherstone: My right hon. Friend is right to be worried about the food security situation. There are 3.9 million people facing alarming levels of food insecurity, and the UN estimates that up to 50,000 children could die this year from malnutrition. Humanitarian access is impeded, but I can assure the House that the international community is together on this issue, and I press Ministers in South Sudan most strongly to allow humanitarian access. It will depress the House, however, to learn that there is a lack of will from the leaders of South Sudan to care about the people of the country rather than themselves.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The Minister said that 1.3 million people have been internally displaced in South Sudan. What steps is she taking to ensure that whatever assistance we can make available there is being specifically targeted at helping that very large number of at-risk people?

Lynne Featherstone: I flew up to Ganyiel myself to see the internally displaced people. They are being accommodated although there is an issue between the host community and the IDPs. We have given £12.5 million to those refugees who have gone to the region, and we work with international partners to ensure that food and assistance reach them.

11. [905134] Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Twenty-three Members of Parliament in South Sudan have recently been removed. What can the Government do to help to support the parliamentary process in South Sudan?

Lynne Featherstone: I met Ministers, and it is quite clear that the Government of South Sudan is not functioning in a manner that we would recognise. They are closing down radio stations and inhibiting access to humanitarian agencies. As I said, the case is extremely depressing, but we urge them to observe the new 45-day deadline that they have to put in place a transitional Government because only peace can help the people of South Sudan.

Ebola Epidemic

7. Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): What humanitarian relief efforts the UK is undertaking in connection with the Ebola epidemic. [905130]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Justine Greening): The UK is playing a leading role and working with the international community to combat Ebola. In total, around £25 million of British funding is supporting the global effort to contain this disease. That includes £5 million of direct funding to help partners working on the ground such as Médecins sans Frontières and the Red Cross.

Mark Menzies: Many of us have been shocked by the devastation that Ebola has brought to west Africa. Will the Secretary of State update the House on how closely we are working with the United States and France?

Justine Greening: We are working very closely with other UN agencies, but also with the US and France. The UK is very much leading the efforts to respond to

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Ebola in Sierra Leone, with the US leading in Liberia and France in Guinea, but we continue to encourage other international partners to join those efforts.

Topical Questions

T1. [905138] Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for International Development (Justine Greening): After visiting Zambia in July to see its work in tackling child marriage, my Department led the successful Girl Summit and #YouthForChange event with the aim of helping to end female genital mutilation and child early and forced marriage in a generation. My Department has also been focused on the UK’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, Gaza and Syria, and the spread of the Ebola virus in west Africa.

Richard Graham: I have heard young constituents talk about the National Citizen Service programme and its transformational effect on their lives, and I believe that the International Citizen Service proposals will have an equally transformational impact on people who might otherwise never have such an opportunity. Will the Secretary of State tell us more about how this programme will evolve, and how we can spread the word about its opportunities to people?

Justine Greening: More than 5,600 UK volunteers aged between 18 and 25 have now taken part in the International Citizen Service. It is a fantastic scheme giving young people wonderful opportunities, and we plan to expand it and grow those places.

T2. [905139] Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): In the Central African Republic, the humanitarian situation remains dire. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to help there, including the situation for refugees to Chad, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of the Congo?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Lynne Featherstone): The UK has provided £23 million in humanitarian assistance to the Central African Republic crisis since mid-2013, as well as £2.5 million in development funding through central programmes. We are the second largest bilateral donor and some of that money goes to the region for refugees.

T4. [905141] Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): What humanitarian assistance has DFID afforded to the Iraqi town of Amerli, which until recently was surrounded by ISIL militants, resulting in thousands of Shi’a Turkmen being threatened with starvation and death?

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend will be aware that the UK supported international efforts to deliver aid to thousands of people trapped by ISIL in the Iraqi town of Amerli during the weekend. DFID provided supplies of 8.5 tonnes of water and 3 tonnes of food, which were dropped from the air by the RAF C-130 aircraft. I would

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like to take this opportunity to thank our RAF personnel for doing such an outstanding job in providing those life-saving supplies.

T5. [905142] Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): World Vision has told me that half a million children did not begin a new school year last month because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. How does the Department intend to support efforts to ensure that we do not see another lost generation and that these children get to school?

Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. One of the challenges has been that many of the people displaced within Gaza went to schools that were empty because of the school holidays. I recently spoke to the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency about how we can ensure we create the homes and the refuges for people to leave the schools so that the children can get back to school. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; we need to make sure that they do not lose their education.

T6. [905143] Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): What are the British Government’s plans for development goals as part of the UN General Assembly later this month?

Justine Greening: We will be pushing our vision for a compelling new set of development goals in relation to post-2015, and in our August presidency of the UN Security Council, we have been focusing on conflict prevention.

T8. [905145] Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State confirm that Ministers of both parties will be voting in favour of the Bill enshrining our 0.7% commitment to development in law?

Justine Greening: The most important thing is that for the first time ever, this country and this Government have met their pledge to hit 0.7%, which is an achievement that we should be proud of, and we support the Bill.

T7. [905144] Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): Many people are still stuck in camps on the Burma-Thai border, unable to return home and in a precarious situation, without enough food or supplies. Will the Minister meet Kidz in Kampz in my constituency, which does a wonderful job helping people to understand the problems on the ground?

The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr Desmond Swayne): I will undoubtedly do so.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Mr Speaker: I call Eric Joyce. Not here.

Q2. [905149] Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 3 September.

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The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron): I am sure that the whole House and the whole country will join me in condemning the sickening and brutal murder of another American hostage, and share our shock and anger that it again appears to have been carried out by a British citizen. All our thoughts are with the British hostage and his family: their ordeal is unimaginable. But let me be very clear: this country will never give in to terrorism. Our opposition to ISIL will continue at home and abroad. It is important that we are clear about the nature of the threat we face. It makes no distinction between cultures, countries and religions; there is no way to appease it. The only way to defeat it is to stand firm and to send a very straightforward message: a country like ours will not be cowed by these barbaric killers. If they think that we will weaken in the face of their threats, they are wrong—it will have the opposite effect. We will be more forthright in the defence of the values that we hold dear—liberty under the rule of law, freedom and democracy—and I am sure a united message to that effect will go forward from this House today.

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.

Mr Cunningham: I endorse what the Prime Minister has just said about the American hostage.

Some years ago, the Prime Minister said he wanted to stop the Conservatives “banging on about Europe”. What has happened?

The Prime Minister: A lot of things have changed in Europe, not least the eurozone crisis, which had eased but is beginning to reappear, creating an enormous tension within the European Union—those countries within the eurozone that need further integration, and those countries outside the eurozone that want a more flexible relationship with Europe. It is absolutely right that we debate and discuss these matters in this House, but above all it is right that we include the British people, and under my plans they will have the decisive say before the end of 2017.

Q3. [905150] Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating all the businesses in Basildon and Thurrock that over the last year have reduced unemployment by 36% in my constituency? Does he agree that this is evidence that our long-term economic plan is working?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in that way. Unemployment is coming down right across the country. In the east of England, the number of people in work is up by 400,000 since the election; private sector employment is up; the number of businesses is up; and investment is up. The news today about the GDP figure revisions shows that since 2010 this country has grown faster than France, faster than Germany, and faster than any major economy apart from Canada and the United States of America. There should not be any complacency, because the job is not yet done, but our long-term economic plan is working and it is the way to secure a better future for our country.

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Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab): I join the Prime Minister in expressing the universal sense of revulsion at the barbaric murder of Stephen Sotloff, and deep concern about the British hostage being held, for whose family this will be a terrible time, and people across the country will be thinking of them. This is a pattern of murderous behaviour by ISIL towards the innocent: Christians; Yazidis; Muslims—anyone who does not agree with their vile ideology. And I agree with the Prime Minister: events like this must strengthen, not weaken, our resolve to defeat them and he can be assured of our full support in standing firm against them.

The Prime Minister: I thank the Leader of the Opposition for what he has said and the way in which he has said it. I think this House should send a united message. What has happened to the two hostages so far and what may happen again in the future is utterly abhorrent and barbaric. These people need to understand that we will not waver in our aim of defeating terrorism. That is not something that divides this House politically; it is something that everyone, and I suspect the entirety of our country, agrees with.

Edward Miliband: ISIL’s pattern of killing will shock people not just in Britain but across the world. Does the Prime Minister further agree with me that we and countries in the region have a vital humanitarian and security interest in overcoming ISIL? Can I ask him what progress is being made to mobilise other countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and regional bodies, especially the Arab League, against ISIL?

The Prime Minister: If I may say so, the way the Leader of the Opposition is approaching this is entirely right. We should see this crisis as one where we are there to help the people on the ground and the countries in the region that want to solve this crisis. We should not see it as somehow a western-led intervention. We have the Kurds that are defending communities, including minority communities, from the horrors of ISIL. We have the Government in Baghdad, which badly needs to get itself together so it can represent all of the country. Then we, with allies and neighbours, can do more to make sure that this appalling organisation, ISIL, feels the full pressure of international, regional and local condemnation. That is what should be done. As he says, we should be using all the assets that we have, focusing first on humanitarian aid and saving people from persecution, hunger and starvation; using our diplomatic and political pressures to make sure there is a Government in Baghdad who can represent all the country; and marshalling, working with others, so that the maximum amount of pressure is put on. If we continue in that way, always asking ourselves, “How can others in the neighbourhood do their work, how can we help them, and how do we best defend our national interest and keep our people safe at home?”, that is the right approach.

Edward Miliband: I agree with the Prime Minister, and building that partnership is vital in the weeks and months ahead. Work through the United Nations is obviously a key part of building the legitimacy and effectiveness of the alliance against ISIL. In addition to the UN Security Council resolution passed in the last

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few weeks, can he tell us what plans he has to use the UK’s chair of the Security Council to build the international consensus that he talked about?

The Prime Minister: So far, as the right hon. Gentleman says, we have used the United Nations to put pressure on ISIL by making it clear that people should not be providing resources or sanctuary to these people; indeed, they should be cut off. That has been the approach so far. But we do have an opportunity, through the UN, to marshal international support and backing for the view that this ISIL so-called Islamic caliphate is unacceptable and needs to be squeezed out of existence. That is what we should do, and we should aim to get the maximum support through the UN for the measures, right across the board, that are being taken.

Edward Miliband: Turning to the threat we face in Britain, people will have been shocked and disgusted that there were British voices on the video and that British citizens are part of ISIL. On Monday, the Prime Minister announced that he would reintroduce relocation powers for suspected terrorists. He has our full support for this change. Can he confirm that this will go ahead, and can he give an indication of the timetable for bringing these powers forward?

The Prime Minister: I can confirm that it will go ahead, and it is going to require legislation. The key is, I think, to put the desires and advice of David Anderson, who is the independent reviewer of terrorism, into action. What he has spoken about is some combination of exclusion and relocation, and it is that that needs to be introduced into the terrorism prevention and investigatory measures. I think we should try to do this on a cross-party basis to send the clearest possible message, and urgency is the order of the day.

Edward Miliband: The best way to deal with terrorists is of course criminal prosecution or, where that is not possible, strict restrictions on their activities and movements. On Monday, the Prime Minister also proposed the possibility of blocking British citizens from returning to the UK. Given that there has been some doubt cast on this, can he say a bit more about whether he believes that it is legally permissible, and, again, whether there are plans to take this forward?

The Prime Minister: The short answer is that I do believe it is legally permissible, but it is going to take some work, for this reason. We already have the power when people are trying to return to the United Kingdom. If it is a foreign national, we can exclude them, even if they have lived in this country for any number of years. If it is a dual national, we can strip them of their British citizenship and exclude them from the country. If it is a naturalised Briton, we can, under our new laws passed recently through this House, strip them of their British nationality. But I do believe there is a gap where you have someone born and raised as a British citizen, rather like the individual from High Wycombe we discussed on Monday saying he wanted to return in order to do harm to our country. Of course, the best thing to do is to gather evidence, prosecute, convict and imprison, but there may be occasions when we need to exclude, and so therefore we should fill that gap in our armoury, and I believe it is legal and possible to do it.

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Edward Miliband: Of course, we will look at the practicality and legality of any proposals the Prime Minister comes forward with.

Finally, may I ask the Prime Minister to revisit the case for strengthening the Prevent programme in terms both of resources and of community engagement? After all, that is essential to stop people being indoctrinated into this poisonous ideology. We need swift action to build alliances across the world against ISIL and strong and considered action here at home. It is what the world needs; it is what the British people expect; and in pursuing this course the Prime Minister will have our full support.

The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. On the Prevent programme, what we have done is try to divide up the different elements of it. One part is about community cohesion, which is best led by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the other part is best run by the Home Office through the Prevent programme. That is what we have done.

What we need to be absolutely clear about, however, is that it is not enough to target those who preach violent extremism. We need to go after those who promote the extremist narrative and life view that gives the terrorists and the men of violence support for what they do. It is not unlike the cold war, where we pursued not just those who wanted to do us such harm; we also had to challenge all those who gave them succour. That is what we need to do in this struggle, which, as I have said, I think will last for decades, and we need to show resilience and, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, unity in pursuing it.

Mr Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): In this Parliament, our coalition Government have increased health spending in England by more than £17 billion a year. As a direct consequence of that, the block grant to Scotland, which supports NHS funding in Scotland, has increased by £1.7 billion a year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that gives the lie to Alex Salmond’s propaganda about the NHS?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Because of the decisions we took—long-term decisions after a careful assessment—to increase spending on the health service, that has given extra money for Scotland to spend on the NHS. That gives the lie to one of Alex Salmond’s claims. His second claim that, somehow, a Westminster Government could privatise parts of the NHS in Scotland is complete and utter nonsense. The only person who could privatise parts of the NHS in Scotland is Alex Salmond. You can tell someone has lost the argument when they start having ludicrous ideas about what they would do themselves.

Q4. [905151] Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): There have been worrying reports over the past week about a rise in malnutrition, the return of rickets and children going back to school hungry after the school holidays. I know the Government are rolling out free school meals, but that alone will not solve food poverty. When I have asked the Prime Minister about this before, I have really felt that he is not taking it seriously.

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Will he acknowledge that it is a real problem? It is actually a national scandal and it is his job to do something about it.

The Prime Minister: First, it is welcome that all infants will have free school meals as they go to school this week. That will be welcome to many families up and down the country. The evidence is that 99% of schools are providing those free school meals, but I have to say that the best way we can help people is to get more people into work—and we are—and make sure that our economy continues to grow and that it delivers for hard-working people.

I know the Labour party wants to get this narrative about inequality up and running, but let me give some statistics to show why it is not true. There are 300,000 fewer children in poverty than when Labour was in office. Inequality in our country has gone down, not up. One of the most serious causes of poverty—long-term youth unemployment—is now lower than when this Government came to office. That is how we are changing people’s lives and their life chances.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Does the Prime Minister agree that our friends in the middle east who share a basic commitment to pluralism, democracy and peaceful change—from the Syrian National Coalition to Mahmoud Abbas in Palestine and the elected Governments of Kurdistan, Libya and, we hope, Iraq—must by now be finding British support inconsistent, fragmented and unstrategic, and is it not time for a more consistent strategy?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that I do not agree at all with the hon. Gentleman. This Government have massively increased our engagement with Gulf and middle eastern states. Everybody knows that our view is one in favour of democracy, human rights and the building blocks of democracy. We are not naive interventionists who believe you can drop democracy out of the back of an aeroplane—it needs to be built. They know that is our view. We engage with all of those states in order to maximise not just our influence, but the chance of regional stability in that vital area.

Q6. [905153] Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister share public concern that terrible abuse can happen to children—most recently, the 1,400 sexually abused girls in Rotherham—yet directors of social services and other senior officers pay no penalty and often move on to even higher paid jobs? Surely, if the contracts of the people at the top mean they cannot be sacked in such circumstances, the contracts need looking at.

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with what the hon. Lady has said. First, what we have seen in Rotherham is deeply shocking, and as I have said, I think it demonstrates a failure in the local government system there, in the children’s services department and in policing. All those issues need to be addressed, which is why I have asked the Home Secretary to chair a group of Ministers to look at how we learn the lessons even before we get our child abuse inquiry fully under way.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that local authorities, when they employ these people, should look carefully at their contracts and make sure that if people do not do the job properly they can be removed. It is absolutely

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vital: you cannot police all of this from Whitehall; local government has responsibility for the people it employs and should hold them to account.

Q7. [905154] Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): May I concur with the Prime Minister’s earlier comments on this appalling, barbaric behaviour, and say that we all stand right behind him? If net migration into the UK continues at its present level, we can fill a city the size of Leeds every three years. This is not only unsustainable, but potentially destabilising to the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the sooner we adopt a visa-only system for all foreign nationals, including those from the EU—thus allowing a sovereign Parliament to decide who settles here—the better?

The Prime Minister: First, I thank my hon. Friend for what he says about the stand we must all take against terror and terrorism, and against ISIL.

On immigration, we have done a huge amount to restrict migration from outside the European Union—the figures are down by almost 30% since this Government came to office; we have closed down 700 bogus colleges; we have introduced an economic limit—but I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do more. Of course, freedom of movement is an important principle, but it is not an unqualified right, and it should not be the freedom of movement to claim benefits. We should also make sure that when new member states join the European Union we do not necessarily have transitional controls that simply last for a number of years, but transitional controls that ensure they will not have full access to our markets until their economies are of a radically different size and shape.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The most recent UK ambassador to NATO, Dame Mariot Leslie, has today said that an independent Scotland would be welcome in NATO, and that she is voting yes in the referendum, just like so many other undecided voters who want a better Scotland. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister gave a commitment on Scottish Television to take part in a programme with undecided voters before the referendum. Will he be doing that or running away, just as he ran away from a debate with the First Minister?

The Prime Minister: On the television programme on Scottish Television, I offered them a date and, indeed, a format, but they seemed to run away themselves, which is a great pity.

On NATO, I prefer to listen to Lord Robertson, the former Secretary-General of NATO, who is absolutely clear that Scotland will be better off inside the United Kingdom and that the United Kingdom will be better off with Scotland. The problem with the hon. Gentleman is that when it comes to all of the big questions—what currency would a separate Scotland use, what would be its position in NATO, what would be its position in the European Union?—they have not been able to provide a single, credible answer.

Q8. [905155] Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that although it is acceptable to hold opposing opinions, it is not acceptable to promote boycotts of goods produced in

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Israel or kosher goods as this conflates the policies of the Israeli Government with Judaism and in turn leads to a rise in anti-Semitism? What reassurance can the Prime Minister give my constituents that this Government will address both boycotts and anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister: We have been very clear that we do not support boycotts and we do not support measures that are intended to delegitimise the state of Israel, which has a right to exist and which we argue has a right to peace within its proper borders. My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that we should be absolutely clear that you can criticise Israel and the Israeli Government for their actions without being anti-Semitic, but in recent weeks we have seen a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in our country, and as I said on Monday, that is completely unacceptable.

Q9. [905156] Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) (SDLP): I refer the Prime Minister to events in Rotherham. Does he agree that a common thread between the awful picture from Rotherham, which was referred to earlier, and the dreadful plight this week of Ashya King is that the relevant authorities are all too often driven by considerations other than the best interests of the child? To reflect that sad lesson for all of us, will he agree to amend the Modern Slavery Bill to provide for independent child guardians who are charged with reflecting the best interests of the child to all the relevant authorities and services?

The Prime Minister: I am very proud that the Government are introducing the Modern Slavery Bill. It is a Bill that I strongly support and I will look carefully at the specific suggestion that the hon. Gentleman makes. Let me make a brief comment on his other points. To be fair to the authorities involved in the case of Ashya King, they all want to do the best thing for the child—that is what they are thinking of—but decisions have been taken that were not correct and that did not chime with common sense. Fortunately, that has been put right. All of us in public life and public offices have to examine what the legal requirements are, but we also have to make judgments, and those judgments can sometimes be all important.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): If even the respected Hampshire police can use the European arrest warrant to create an injustice, can my right hon. Friend have any confidence that other member states with less well developed legal systems will not use the arrest warrant for worse purposes?

The Prime Minister: I respect my hon. Friend’s arguments, but the police have to make judgments and, as I have just said, they do not always get those judgments right. Those of us in this House have to think about a potential situation in which a terrorist has attacked our country and is on the run through Europe to other countries, and about how quickly we want to be able to get that person back in front of our courts to face British justice. That is not an imaginary set of circumstances; it is exactly what happened in 2005 after the dreadful London bombings, so we need to think about it. I am all for making sure that powers flow from Brussels to London, and they have done in the case of justice and

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home affairs, where we have repatriated more than 100 measures. However, I also want to be a Prime Minister who can look the British people in the eye and say, “We will keep you safe from serious crime and terrorism, and we will get people back in front of British courts as soon as possible.”

Q10. [905157] Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): We now know that, in the event of separation—

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Ha, ha!

Lindsay Roy: That was a good laugh. We know that in the event of separation, we would no longer have a formal currency union with the rest of the UK. In response, the First Minister has said that an independent Scotland would default on its share of the national debt. Prime Minister, what would be the consequences of such a reckless approach for the people of Scotland?

The Prime Minister: I think one of the most chilling things that has been said in the referendum campaign is that a separate Scotland would consider defaulting on its debts. We all know what happens if you do not pay your debts—no one will lend you any money unless you pay a punitive interest rate. We all know what that means for home owners—much, much higher mortgage rates. For businesses, it means crippling interest rates. Those are the consequences of what the separatists are proposing. We need to get that message out loud and clear in the coming days.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): For all the reasons that have been given, if we were to lose the Union, it would be not only a disaster for Scotland, but a national humiliation of catastrophic proportions. I say gently to the three party leaders that perhaps we have been a bit complacent up to now. I urge them, over the next two weeks, to drop everything else and stand shoulder to shoulder to fight for the Union that we love and believe in. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. Mr MacNeil, you are a thoroughly decent chap, but you are a very over-excitable individual. You should calm down. You aspire to be a statesman; try behaving like one.

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the referendum. The leaders of the parties in this House have all put aside their differences and said that, in spite of the political differences we have, we all agree about one thing: not only is Scotland better off inside the United Kingdom, but the United Kingdom is better off with Scotland inside it. As well as being leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister, I am the Member of Parliament for an English seat and I say on behalf of everyone in England and, I believe, in Wales and Northern Ireland, “We want Scotland to stay.”

Q11. [905158] Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): We are all aware of the Prime Minister’s interest in the middle east and particularly Iraq, and of what has happened since the last Prime Minister’s questions, particularly in the past 24 hours. In Mosul and the plains of Nineveh in Iraq, Christians have been displaced,

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threatened with beheading, and told “Convert or die.” Is it time to consider further supportive action for Christians, and additional sanctions against ISIL?

The Prime Minister: We should do everything we can to protect persecuted minorities—including not only Christians but also the Yazidi communities—and that is where we have been using our resources. Up to now, we have mostly been giving humanitarian aid, which we have been delivering through our military assets and RAF planes, and working with others to ensure people are protected. We should also, as part of that strategy, work with the Kurds and others so that ISIL can be beaten back and Christians and others are not persecuted.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Increasing numbers of British families are leaving the UK, like the Ashya King family, because they believe they will get a fairer trial in family courts abroad than in the UK. Does the Prime Minister agree that Parliament should look at the reasons for that?

The Prime Minister: We regularly debate family law in this House, and the Government have made some amendments to family law, after long debates within Government and in this House. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that there should be further such debates, there are Backbench Business days and other parliamentary opportunities to raise such issues.

Q12. [905159] Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): Given the birthday present given to the Prime Minister by the former Member for Clacton, how many more birthday surprises is he expecting from his Tory Back Benchers?

The Prime Minister: I am sure I will be getting all sorts of pleasant surprises on my birthday. Please do not spoil it by letting me know what they are.

Q13. [905160] Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): Scotland is important to many businesses in Fylde, and many are rightly concerned that Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign have failed to provide a plan B for the currency should Scotland become independent. Does the Prime Minister agree that the voters of Scotland need to know what plan B is before they vote, and if they cannot get a clear answer, they should say “No thanks” to separation on 18 September?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Those of us who believe in the United Kingdom can answer all of those questions. We can answer on what the United Kingdom will look like in the future, but those arguing for separation have not answered those questions. Their most recent effort to say that somehow Scotland would go on using sterling but not be part of a monetary union got a rebuff yesterday from the European Commissioner, who said that on that basis they would not be able to be members of the European Union. Yet again, another piece of the puzzle completely falls away.

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Is not the truth that ISIL will not be beaten without air strikes in Syria as well, and that means engaging with the Assad regime and Iran—however unpalatable—as well as with the

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Saudis? Perhaps that is also a route to resolving the bitter and dangerous Shi’a-Sunni conflicts in the region, because ultimately ISIS poses a bigger threat to nations in the region than it does to us.

The Prime Minister: I will make two points to the right hon. Gentleman, whose views on this matter I respect. First, I would argue that Assad’s brutality has been one of the things that has helped generate the appalling regime that ISIS represents. Secondly, what we want to see—we are consistent across the piece on this—is democratic Governments that are pluralistic and represent all their people. We want to see that in Iraq, which is why we support Prime Minister al-Abadi in his attempts to build an inclusive Government, and we should support attempts in Syria to have a democratic transition to a regime that can represent everyone in Syria.

Q14. [905161] Chris Kelly (Dudley South) (Con): Jihadi crimes committed in the name of the Islamic State are completely incompatible with the British way of life, so I welcome the plans announced by my right hon. Friend to seize British passports from dual nationals, and to remove rights of residency in the UK from foreign nationals known to have been fighting with ISIL in Iraq and Syria, in order to keep such people from committing terrorist atrocities in the UK. What progress have the Government made concerning jihadis with only British citizenship, whom my constituents believe have forfeited their right to return to the UK, even though they may be rendered stateless if deprived of citizenship?

The Prime Minister: First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his great work representing the people of Dudley South for the past four years and all the work he has done. He is absolutely right that people in Dudley South—indeed, people across our country—take the basic view that if someone leaves this country, travels to the heart of Iraq, declares they are in favour of some so-called Islamic state, and that is the country they want to be part of, they should effectively forfeit their right to come back and live in Britain. That is what people feel, and they feel it deeply, which is why it is right to consider how we can have legal powers not just to strip dual nationals of their British citizenship or to exclude foreign nationals, but to prevent British citizens who make those statements from coming back to our country.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): My constituent Kristian Nicholson is trapped in northern Iraq unable to travel home. In the light of the threat from ISIL, will the Prime Minister look at his case and see what more can be done to expedite his return home as soon as possible, including by issuing new travel documents, if necessary?

The Prime Minister: I am very happy to look at the hon. Lady’s case, and I am sure the Foreign Secretary was listening. Let me take this opportunity to commend the work that Foreign Office officials do, often unthanked, supporting those who get stuck in different countries and families whose loved ones have been taken hostage. Obviously we are focused on Iraq today, but since I have been Prime Minister, hostages have been taken in countries

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such as Nigeria and Somalia. We often do not hear about that work because it is better to keep people’s names and identities from the public, but it is important that people know that when this happens, meetings of Cobra are held—I take a personal interest in each and every one of these cases—to work out what we can do to help their families, to help bring people home and to resolve these dreadful, complex situations.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): We have seen chaos in Iraq and Syria, appalling events that have just passed in Gaza, Libya in some disturbance, and the appalling, illegal annexation of Crimea by President Putin, yet this House has had no proper opportunity to discuss these matters. Is it not time that the Prime Minister allowed us a full and substantive, preferably two-day debate, and certainly before the House rises for the party conference recess, to discuss these matters?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We live in a very troubled and difficult world, with huge changes taking place, some of which he mentioned. In consultation with the Leader of the House, there will be a full day’s debate as soon as next Wednesday, I think, which will give hon. Members the chance to speak about these issues, and I am sure there will be subsequent opportunities perhaps to consider some of the individual questions he raises.

Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab): The horrific, vile and disgusting abuse suffered by children in my constituency should never have been allowed to happen. The victims still have not got the support they deserve and the criminals are still on the street. Child sexual exploitation is not only a Rotherham issue, but a national issue, so when will the Prime Minister appoint the chair to his inquiry into child abuse so that no child will be let down by statutory agencies again?

The Prime Minister: First, may I commend the hon. Lady? She is absolutely right to speak as she does. This has affected not just Rotherham; of course, there were the dreadful cases in Oxford, near to my constituency, of a very similar nature, with similar failings in the systems. As I have announced, the Home Secretary will be leading a committee of Ministers to draw together the Government’s response, and the announcement of the person to lead the broader child abuse inquiry will be made in the coming days. These are all vital issues. We have to ask ourselves a series of questions about how these individual services failed. Yes, of course there is the issue about whether these problems were ignored because of concerns about racism and political correctness. But there is also a big concern that sometimes the police and other agencies ignored these people because they felt they were beyond the pale, which offends all our senses of human decency. None of these children and young people should be ignored or left behind by our society.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): May I take my right hon. Friend back to the issue of hostages? He will be aware that often when these cases arise, there is a suggestion that ransoms should be paid. Should those who advance that case take account of the fact that the money achieved by ransom is not distributed, for example, among the impoverished citizens of Gaza,

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but used to purchase weapons, to finance the training and maintenance of those willing to use them and otherwise to advance the malevolent objectives of terrorism?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely, 100% right. There is no doubt in my mind that the many tens of millions of dollars that ISIL has raised from ransom payments is going into

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promoting terrorism, including terrorism affecting our own country. At the G8, I launched an initiative to try to get other countries to sign up to a very clear doctrine that in the case of terrorist kidnap, no ransom should be paid. Britain continues with this policy; America continues with this policy; but we need to redouble the efforts to make sure that other countries are good to their word.

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Points of Order

12.35 pm

Mr Simon Burns (Chelmsford) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the light of your statement on Monday, I would be very grateful if you could clarify something, and that is the status of the letter that you sent to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Given that there is a pause and we cannot anticipate the outcome of that pause, what are you going to do, Mr Speaker, about that letter? Will you be withdrawing it until after the pause has been completed and decisions have flowed from that, or will it just float around in No. 10 until some relevant point?

Mr Speaker: I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The answer is very straightforward. It is not for me to withdraw a recommendation that was agreed by a panel, but as I made abundantly clear on Monday afternoon, in the presence of the right hon. Gentleman, I am seeking a modest pause in the recruitment process. I am not pressing that recommendation, and that point has been—or will be—conveyed to the Prime Minister with crystal clarity; and I am sure that that clarity is something, in a spirit of good will, public interest and the pursuit of consensus, that the right hon. Member for Chelmsford will warmly welcome.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Why were the recruitment consultants Saxton Bampfylde prevented from telling the advisory panel, which you referred to, that the candidate Carol Mills was under two investigations by the Senate? And is it not the case that Saxton Bampfylde did not—I repeat: did not—originally recommend that Carol Mills be considered?

Mr Speaker: Unfortunately, but fairly predictably, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. He is wrong on both counts. I set out the position very clearly on Monday afternoon. It was my responsibility and privilege to respond, with courtesy and in detail, to points of order on that occasion. Sadly, it was a disadvantage to the House that the hon. Gentleman was not present at that time—

Michael Fabricant: I was.

Mr Speaker: Not during points of order in my recollection, but if he was, he chose not to rise to his

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feet. He has done so now; I have given him an answer. It is very clear; I think that the House will want to proceed with its business.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week in his column in The Guardian, Andrew Sparrow stated that a source close to you, Mr Speaker, said that most Members of this House do not understand the role of the Clerk and that many MPs believe that the Clerk is just a man in a wig who sits at the Table in the Chamber—

Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. It is not normal practice to expect the Speaker to comment on any and every media report. I did not see the report, I am not responsible for the report, and I do invite the hon. Gentleman and Members of the House as a whole to rise to the level of events. I think perhaps we can leave it there.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In my experience, if a democratic assembly is to function properly, it is absolutely vital to uphold the authority of the Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I simply put it to the House that there have been many questions, perfectly properly, on this matter, both on Monday and today, and those questions have been properly answered. There will be further opportunities—very properly so—for the House to debate this matter as and when it so wishes. Let us proceed in an orderly way.

Bill Presented

Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Tim Loughton, supported by Mr Graham Brady, Mr Frank Field, Charles Hendry, Caroline Lucas, Charlotte Leslie, Greg Mulholland, Mr Rob Wilson, Craig Whittaker and Mark Durkan, presented a Bill to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to provide that opposite sex couples may enter into a civil partnership; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 September, and to be printed (Bill 86).

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Wild Animals in Circuses

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

12.39 pm

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the use of wild animals in circuses; and for connected purposes.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue once more. I am told that the matter was first raised by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) when he was chair of the all-party group on animal welfare in 1997. It was addressed by the last Labour Government when they passed the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which laid provisions to return to the issue, as we did in 2009 when we stated we were minded to introduce a ban but ran out of parliamentary time. As detailed by the former DEFRA Minister, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), in a debate last year, in this Parliament, the issue had commanded 120 parliamentary questions, over 16,000 items of correspondence, five early-day motions and a Backbench Business Committee debate, ably led by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). That was based on last year’s summary of interests and statistics, and there has been continued interest this year.

I wish to place on record my thanks to Animal Defenders International, which has campaigned strongly on the issue in various countries, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Born Free Foundation and the British Veterinary Association, among others, for their encouragement to pursue the matter, which is unfinished business for many of us.

This is not a party political issue, as my list of sponsors and the early-day motion list of supporters show. Neither is it only a Back-Bench issue. I am grateful to the DEFRA Minister, Lord de Mauley, for meeting me yesterday to discuss it. He indicated that the Government would consider support for the Bill once seen. That should not be a surprise: as he will see when he reads it, it is his Bill, or DEFRA’s Bill. As the hon. Member for Newbury stated last year, he wanted to draft a Bill to survive “any challenge”. He wanted, he said,

“a coalition of the whole House”.—[Official Report, 18 January 2014; Vol. 556, c. 1214.]

I think that DEFRA officials, with Ministers, have succeeded in that regard, but to prove the point, we need to get the Bill into Committee.

Over the years, the measure has been blocked for various reasons: because of a lack of time, because it was considered to be too much about red tape, because it was subject to a legal challenge in Europe or because it was believed to be either unworkable or unnecessary. The Government thought that a licensing system might address the concerns raised in this place and in the country, but the solution is incomplete.

In answer to my parliamentary question of 4 November 2013, DEFRA reported that there were still 28 wild animals, including four tigers and two lions, performing for human entertainment in the UK. The animal welfare issues have been well documented, but for some they are not strong enough to warrant a ban. Most of us would

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say they are, but let us look at the ethics of performing animals and compare their conditions and treatment with what we expect for animals in our great zoos and wildlife parks. The contrast between their living conditions, the space they have and the environment they occupy could not be clearer.

Our zoos and parks engage not only in scientific research, but in preservation and conservation. It is well documented how much effort is applied by zoos and parks to recreate the natural habitat of the animals they keep so that they can display their normal and natural behaviour as much as possible. We should compare that experience with that of big cats, reindeer, zebra and other animals that have limited space, have to travel in lorries between sites and are afforded an existence that is in complete contrast to any natural or artificially recreated habitat.

Earlier this year, a written ministerial statement of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) introduced a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. The foreword by the new Minister in charge, Lord de Mauley, says:

“For many years wild animals were an integral part of the circus experience: the only chance that most people would have to glimpse exotic beasts from distant lands. Today, by contrast, we are fortunate to enjoy world-class zoos, a wide-reaching education system and internationally renowned wildlife documentaries, which together give children and adults an appreciation and knowledge of wild animals and the environments they come from…This legislation will end the use of wild animals and travelling circuses in this country. It will also help ensure that our international reputation as a leading protector of animals continues into a new global era.”

The explanatory notes could not be more explicit about the arguments in favour of a ban. They state:

“The use of wild animals in travelling circuses reflects a traditional but outdated view of wild animals...Captive wild animals have much the same genetic makeup as counterparts in the wild and retain their wild nature and natural instinctive behaviours. Their wild nature and innate value should be recognised and respected. Using wild animals solely for circus performance is unbefitting to their wildness and potentially harmful.

There is little or no educational, conservational, research or economic benefit derived from wild animals in travelling circuses that might justify their use and the loss of their ability to behave naturally as a wild animal.”

The notes also state:

“the Government does not believe it is appropriate to continue to use wild animals in travelling circuses because:

It is not necessary to use wild animals in travelling circuses to experience the circus; wild animals are just that and are not naturally suited to travelling circuses and may suffer as a result of being unable to fulfil their instinctive natural behaviour; we should feel duty-bound to recognise that wild animals have intrinsic value, and respect their inherent wildness and its implications for their treatment; and the practice adds nothing to the understanding and conservation of wild animals and the natural environment.”

I believe that the case has been made for a ban. I find it disappointing that, as Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I was unable to complete that work, but, given that the coalition has done so much more on the issue—even publishing an excellent draft Bill—it is disappointing that time has not been found for it in the Government’s programme for this last year of the current Parliament. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne

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and Redruth (George Eustice), who is present and for whom I have a high regard, would be happy to lead the Bill into Committee himself.

The solution is for Parliament to have an opportunity to do what the last Labour Government and the coalition have so far failed to do, but we must get the Bill into Committee. Some Members may still be unconvinced, but I hope that a proper examination of the short clauses in the Bill and the explanatory notes will change that. I know that time is short and that important private Members’ Bills are on the Order Paper to be dealt with in the next three weeks, but I should like my Bill to move quickly into Committee, so I shall propose that it should receive a Second Reading this Friday. I know that it is unlikely to secure the House’s approval on 5 September. I should therefore appreciate it if Members who have other important priorities—the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), for instance, has a private Member’s Bill, which is due on 17 October—would allow the Bill to be passed on a subsequent Friday. That would still allow more than enough time for the measure to be scrutinised properly, and to pass into law by next April if the House so chooses.

This issue has been around for at least 20 years. A minority, including circus owners, may not accept the welfare issues, but they are there, and most people do accept them. The world has moved on, and it is time to bring circuses into the 21st century, because wild animals have no place in them. We need to use this Bill to achieve that objective, and to ban further use of wild animals in travelling circuses.

Question put and agreed to.


That Jim Fitzpatrick, Jim Dowd, Sir Roger Gale, Mr Philip Hollobone, Dr Julian Huppert, Caroline Lucas, Naomi Long, Paul Flynn, Kerry McCarthy, Hugh Bayley, Mr Russell Brown and Thomas Docherty present the Bill.

Jim Fitzpatrick accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 September and to be printed (Bill 87).

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Opposition Day

[5th allotted day]

Energy Company Licence Revocation

Mr Speaker: I remind the House that, owing to a misunderstanding, the two Opposition day debates were put on the Order Paper in the wrong sequence.

The motions will be taken in the order that the Opposition intended: the House will debate the motion relating to energy company licence revocation first, and the motion relating to infant class sizes second. We shall begin, therefore, with the Opposition day motion relating to energy company licence revocation.

12.49 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House believes that consumers have a right to be treated fairly and be confident that energy companies will meet their obligations and provide good services; further believes that where companies breach these obligations, decisive action should be taken to put things right and prevent further breaches; notes that since 2001 Ofgem has imposed at least 31 fines totalling at least £90 million; further notes that despite these financial penalties energy companies face another 11 investigations with four additional cases at informal review stage; further notes that the regulator already has the power to revoke energy companies’ licences in certain limited circumstances, but not where energy companies comply with a penalty notice and then commit further breaches of their licence; and therefore calls on the Government to provide the energy regulator for Great Britain with a new statutory power to revoke energy companies’ licences where there are repeated instances of the most serious and deliberate breaches of their licence conditions which harm the interests of consumers.

The Minister for Business and Enterprise is not in his seat, but I do want to welcome him and the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), who is present, to their new posts and wish them well for what I hope and expect will be their remaining eight months in office.

This summer, while those who occupy the Government Benches succumbed to infighting and some introspection, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friends in the shadow Cabinet set out the choice facing the British people at the general election in 2015. We set out a picture of a Britain where public service is valued, but reform is ongoing; where fiscal discipline is matched by fairness; where aspiration is embraced, while no one is left behind; where individuals can thrive and excel, but community solidarity is not forsaken; and where new businesses and new jobs are encouraged, in markets that have fair rules, obligations and rewards. It is to that theme, and to the announcement I made in my speech on the energy market in August, that I wish to return today.

The facts speak for themselves. Under this Government, energy bills have risen by over £300—twice as fast as inflation, four times faster than wages and faster than in almost any other country in the developed world. It is faster, too, than under the previous Government; in fact, the rate of increase since the last election has been three times faster compared with the period between 1997 and 2010. Now I know the Secretary of State likes to cherry pick the dates when he compares our record

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with his, but even when we only look at the final five years of the last Government, in real terms energy bills have still risen by a greater amount in each year under this Government. The reason why bills have risen—and will continue to rise, unless something is done about it—is that the energy market is broken.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will not the right hon. Lady admit that one of the main reasons why our bills are higher than those in many other parts of the world and have risen more is the policies introduced by the last Labour Government to over-green our energy and leave us short with dear energy?

Caroline Flint: No, I do not accept that. We can clearly see that where wholesale costs have fallen the public as the bill payers have not seen a reduction in their bills—this has nothing to do with other aspects asked of these companies in terms of helping to tackle fuel poverty or helping to support the renewable sector—but when wholesale costs have gone up, the energy companies, and in particular the big six, are quick to remind everyone that is because their costs have risen. We expect the reverse to happen when wholesale costs go down.

As I said, the reason bills have risen is that the energy market is broken. We have already set out a number of proposals that we will put in place if we are elected in eight months’ time: an energy price freeze until 2017, saving the average household £120; all those over the age of 75 put on the lowest tariff; a ring fence between the generation and retail arms of vertically integrated energy companies; a pool for all electricity to be traded in, and greater transparency for trades in the gas market; and a tough new regulator with new powers to police the market and protect consumers, including new powers to protect off-grid households and small businesses, and to force energy companies to cut their prices when wholesale costs fall if they do not do it first. All of these proposals have been put before the House, but Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members have voted against each and every one of them.

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr Edward Davey): If Labour were to be elected at the next election, would it make the changes the right hon. Lady mentions ahead of the reporting of the investigation by the independent Competition and Markets Authority?

Caroline Flint: Of course some of the issues the CMA is looking at are the very issues we have been raising for the last two to three years, so I have welcomed the CMA review. As I have said in public already, it is working out quite well, because the CMA review is, in terms of when the clock started ticking, scheduled to finish around December 2015; it has 18 months in which to do its inquiry. If we get elected next year, our plan is to publish a White Paper, having taken through emergency legislation on the price freeze, and we can see a very good way that our White Paper and proposals can dovetail with the discussions happening with the CMA. In fact I am very open to the fact that the CMA may come up with further proposals that need to be addressed. So I do not fear the CMA; I welcome it. But what I do believe very strongly is that whatever reviews are being

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undertaken by the CMA, that should not paralyse politicians and those in government from doing the right thing.

Mr Davey: If the CMA suggests the right hon. Lady’s proposals are not the right ones and it proposes other ones, will she ignore the CMA and just do what she thinks best?

Caroline Flint: I really think the Secretary of State is clutching at straws here. We believe very strongly—this is why we set out a Green Paper for energy market reform—that we have identified and tapped into some answers as to how to reform this market. I have to caution the Secretary of State. He may be surprised, if he asks his advisers, and perhaps speaks to some of the energy companies, how in a number of areas they welcome some of our reforms. So he needs to be a little more cautious about putting down Labour’s proposals. A number of them command respect across this House—even though it might not be said publicly—and, actually, in the energy sector as well.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Would the right hon. Lady not concede, however, that part of the problem with competition in the energy market was the creation of the big six energy suppliers, which of course took place under the last Labour Government?

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman should also be aware that it was John Major as Prime Minister who took through the changes that enabled those who generate and those who supply to merge their businesses. The result was we saw a number of companies—14, I think—decide they wanted to generate and supply and the big six arose out of that. However, whatever has happened under Labour or previously under the Conservatives in terms of privatising this market, I hope we can all agree that the ambitions for how that market would work after it was privatised have not been realised in the way some of the architects of privatisation perhaps thought they would. As I have said, we cannot let the past paralyse us from changing what needs to change. That is why we have put forward a number of very practical recommendations, which, sadly, have been voted down by the coalition Government time and again.

As to today’s motion, we propose one measure on which I personally find it hard to believe we cannot agree: a new power for the regulator to revoke energy companies’ licences where there are repeated instances of the most serious and deliberate breaches of their licence conditions which harm the interests of consumers. As the motion notes, consumers rightly expect to be treated fairly and to be confident that energy companies will meet their obligations and provide good services. Where companies breach those obligations, decisive action should be taken to put things right and prevent further breaches. So where the regulator has taken action, we have supported it, and where the Government have introduced sensible new measures, such as criminal sanctions for market manipulation and consumer redress orders, we have supported them. Indeed, in the case of consumer redress orders, we urged the Government to go further, because at the moment if any malpractice that happened before 2013 comes to light, the regulator will have no legal power to impose a consumer redress order.

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Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that in addition—I repeat, in addition—to strengthening the powers of the regulator, we need some simple consumer protection law so we can make reference to it and do not have to have 18-month inquiries? People are getting ripped off every single winter and these often long inquiries do not help those people.

Caroline Flint: I absolutely agree. One of the problems with the lengths of these inquiries, and a reason why we need greater clarity—and, I would suggest, greater deterrent factors within the conditions under which these companies operate—is that time gets lost. By the time all the lawyers have got together and everything else—and by the time, perhaps, that the company is found guilty of the offence—we lose momentum in making the change that needs to happen.

The timing of the inquiries is important, but a culture change is also needed. We need to address whether the inquiries are hampered by the energy companies responding too quickly by setting their lawyers on to the matter and deterring effective action and preventing justice from being seen to be done.

It is in a spirit of constructiveness that we present our proposals today. We believe that they are eminently sensible, and we hope that the Government will offer the same constructive approach as we have offered on numerous occasions in the past. The best way of protecting consumers is not to provide a redress framework—much needed though that is—but to prevent companies from ripping people off in the first place. At the moment, too many energy companies operate at the margins of what the rules allow, because they know that they will often not be caught. Even if they are caught, the penalties do not present enough of a deterrent. Too often, energy companies seem to view the regulator’s fines as a cost of doing business, and not as a warning that they should get their act together.

Information provided to me in answer to a written parliamentary question shows that, since 2001, Ofgem has issued at least 31 fines totalling at least £90 million. On top of that are the informal cases that the regulator has dealt with, in which, even though no formal fine or notice was issued, action was taken and in some cases financial measures ensued. If we were to add on those cases, the total would be in excess of £100 million. For companies with annual global turnovers running into tens of billions, that is still some way from the maximum fine that the regulator could have imposed. Nevertheless, it is clearly not an insignificant amount.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, no matter how large the fines might be, they are likely simply to be passed on to consumers through their bills and that they therefore do not act as a deterrent to the energy companies at all? In fact, fining companies penalises the customer, so we need to find an alternative to the fining regime.

Caroline Flint: I could not have put that better myself. There is no evidence that the shareholders or managers of the companies take a hit in terms of the benefits they receive; the cost of the fines is often absorbed back into the pot that the bill payers have to pay.

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We have heard about the 31 investigations and about the fines that have been imposed. The Secretary of State might claim that this is a sign of success and evidence of a tough new regulatory environment, but that would be true only if there were evidence that companies had changed their ways and that the fines had deterred them from breaking the rules again. The evidence shows that they have not learned their lessons despite all the previous fines and penalties. Information that I have obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that those firms are now facing another 15 probes into poor customer service, incorrect billing and other bad practice. No company has a God-given right to be in the market, to charge its customers and to make a profit just because it has always done so—least of all, those that inherited millions of customers from before the industry was privatised and opened to competition.

Today’s motion proposes a new power for the regulator to revoke energy companies’ licences when there have been repeated instances of the most serious and deliberate breaches of their licence conditions that harm the interests of consumers. Of course, any decision to revoke a licence would have to be subject to due process and to be consistent with the regulator’s overriding objective of protecting consumers and promoting a competitive, transparent and fair energy market.

This proposal would build on best practice from regulators overseas. In some parts of the United States, energy regulators already have the power to revoke an energy supplier’s licence. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, for example, has the power to revoke a supplier’s licence if it breaks consumer protection law or transfers customers without their consent. That sends out the clearest possible message to energy companies that if they carry on mistreating their customers, their licence will be on the line. That strikes me as a pretty common-sense measure.

I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to support our motion today. I say that because when I announced this proposal in August, it was telling that the Government did not put anyone up to discuss it on television or on the radio, and that no Minister commented on the proposal. All we had were anonymous quotes from a Conservative spokesman and a Liberal Democrat source, and between them they could not muster a single good reason not to support the measure. All they seemed to suggest was that Ofgem already had this power, which is simply not true. I have discussed the issue of non-financial penalties with Ofgem and written to it about our proposal, and it has made it absolutely clear that this would be a new power. Indeed, the statement that it issued on the day of my announcement began

“Ofgem is always interested to work with government on any new powers or refinements to existing powers which would help to further protect consumers.”

As today’s motion notes, the regulator has limited powers to revoke licences in certain specific cases, but they are largely of an administrative nature—for example, if a company goes into administration, if it gets a licence but does not supply any gas or electricity in the following year, or if it does not pay a fine.

Mr Davey: The right hon. Lady is making an interesting speech, and I will respond in detail to her proposal. Does she think that any energy company in the British market has done anything that would warrant its licence being revoked?

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Caroline Flint: I will come to that in the next part of my speech, and I am sure that I shall be able to answer that question. That would be a matter for the regulator, given its present powers to revoke a licence. At present, it can revoke a licence only in certain conditions, and I do not believe that those conditions are sufficient to meet today’s challenge of making the market more consumer-focused and more competitive.

Crucially, at the moment companies can break the rules and get punished for it—in the form of either a fine or an order to change their behaviour in some way—and as long as they comply by paying the fine or following the order, the slate is effectively wiped clean. At no point can the regulator say, “Enough is enough; you’ve broken the rules too many times and now your licence will be revoked.”

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Is this not precisely where the Secretary of State is missing the point? My right hon. Friend will know that since 2001, 31 fines totalling around £90 million have been imposed, and that another 11 investigations are in the pipeline. Is this not precisely the reason that we need to give additional powers to the regulator—to stop this bad practice?

Caroline Flint: Absolutely. As I have said, the regulator cannot at any point say, “Enough is enough.” That is the key difference between what we are proposing and the status quo. Our proposal would deal with the problem that we have seen in the past, wherein companies are allowed to get away with repeatedly breaking the rules in slightly different ways, or breaking different rules, without fear of losing their licences.

Clearly, the intention behind this policy is to encourage companies to treat their customers better, and the best outcome would be if the power never needed to be used. But if the regulator did decide to use it, the provision would need to have a clear legal basis, almost certainly set down in legislation, in order for it to be exercised with confidence. Otherwise, the threat of legal challenge would probably prevent it from ever being used. That is why it is important that this new power should be clearly put into law, just as the existing power to fine a company up to 10% of its global turnover has a clear basis in law. This would undoubtedly represent a significant addition to the regulator’s powers, and there are important questions about how it would work and about its implications, which I want to address before I finish.

I want to make it clear from the outset that the regulator would remain operationally independent and free from any interference from Ministers. Any decision about whether to revoke a supplier’s licence would be made by the independent regulator alone, but, like all economic regulators in the UK, its functions and powers are defined in statute. What we are debating today, therefore, is not whether any particular company deserves to lose its licence, but whether the regulator should have the power to make that decision, if it thought it necessary. We think that it should have that power.

The process itself would also be very similar to the existing enforcement process, except that, at the end, the regulator would have the power to revoke a supplier’s licence. In practice, an investigation of an allegation of a breach of the rules would begin and the normal process would follow, with a period of information gathering, investigation and notification of the supplier

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concerned. If the regulator believed at the end of the process that there had been a breach of the rules that had been serious and deliberate and had harmed consumers, and if there had been repeated instances of such behaviour in the past, under our proposals it would have the power to revoke a supplier’s licence in the same way as it has the power to impose a financial penalty or make a consumer redress order. Within the existing enforcement framework there would be clear guidelines for energy companies and a system for appeals.

In the event that a supplier lost its licence, it would mean in practice that it was no longer able to operate as an energy supply company. Let me make it clear that at the moment, companies wishing to supply and generate energy or supply and distribute energy require separate licences for each activity. We have already proposed that vertically integrated energy companies would have legally to separate their generation business from their supply business, and that as a result any decision to revoke the licence would apply only to the licence in question and not to other licences the parent company had. There would be a notice period between the decision to revoke a licence and its coming into force that, by law, must be no less than 30 days. During that period, the company would have to arrange for a trade sale for another supplier to take on its customers.

Energy companies already market and compete to win new customers. Acquiring new customers in such a way would represent a valuable commercial opportunity and avoid the normal acquisition costs. Small suppliers might wish to expand, and if a significant number of customers were available, new entrants might enter the market. In the event that a trade sale is not arranged, the regulator has the power to appoint a supplier of last resort and the rules are in place to ensure that any consumers who are moved to another supplier are protected. Either way, the supply of energy would continue as normal.

This is what I mean by a tough new regulator overseeing a market that works for consumers, not just the companies in it.

Mr Davey: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. She is explaining her policy and asking the House to say that this is needed because of things going wrong in the market and because energy companies keep treating their customers badly. I have some sympathy with that observation and shall make some comments about it. However, as she is asking for a new power, surely she has to give an example of where the power would have been used in the past. She is saying that the power is needed because companies are getting away with things at the moment and that the power would have been used in certain circumstances, but can she give us an example?

Caroline Flint: It is already on the statute book that the regulator has the power to fine up to 10% of the global turnover of any company. I might need to go back and check, but I believe that nobody had to prove that that had been used anywhere else before the power was put on the statute book. The Secretary of State is following a ridiculous line of argument. In recent years, a number of instances have led to investigations and fines and have shown repeated evidence of ways in which customers have been let down. We are saying that

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that is not good enough and that there has to be the ultimate sanction of companies losing their licence. That is the proposition. The detail needs to be discussed before it is put into law. I have been up front and honest about that, but I find it hard to believe that the Secretary of State has seriously set his face against the proposition.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend as perplexed as I am about why the Government seem to have a problem with the ultimate sanction that we can impose against any company, which is to take away its licence? There is no point in asking what examples we can give, as the Opposition are saying that the power should be there so that if the regulator finds that the breaches are sufficient, the ultimate sanction is available to it. I am surprised, and I am sure that my hon. Friends are, too, that the Government are resisting.

Caroline Flint: I absolutely agree. I can hear the Secretary of State saying over and over that it is already available—[Interruption.] Obviously, he has his brief and has not been listening to my speech. As I have outlined clearly and as has been confirmed by Ofgem, the regulator can revoke a licence when a company is going into administration or is insolvent or when it fails to supply gas or electricity, but what is missing at the moment is the ability when there are repeated offences that act against the interests of consumers to take the ultimate sanction and revoke the licence.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I want to try to assist the Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend has rightly said that this will very much be an option of last resort—an ultimate sanction—that we hope will never be used, but the fact that the sanction is available should influence the behaviour of the companies and their investor backers. When an investor community sees that the credit rating of a company that has to gear itself appropriately in the market is jeopardised by a series of serious breaches, we can bet our bottom dollar that they will be banging on the doors of the corporate boardroom saying, “Get your act in order.” It is not a case of when the sanction will be used, as we hope that it will not be. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is important is the deterrent effect, the cooling effect on reckless decisions in the boardroom, and the good behaviour that that will drive through the investor community into those companies?

Caroline Flint: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The question we should be asking the energy companies is, “Why would you be afraid of this?” The question we have to ask the Secretary of State is, “What is his problem?” [Hon. Members: “What is he afraid of?”] What is he afraid of? It is quite ridiculous.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): I thank the shadow Secretary of State for giving way and applaud the concern for the investor community shown by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). Apparently, in the past 10 years the venal behaviour of energy companies has not been sufficient for this power to have been exercised. For the purposes of clarity, will the right hon. Lady give an example of what behaviour

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she believes should cause a licence to be revoked? I am sure that the investor community, which we are so concerned about, will be interested, and I and others would be interested in examples of the sort of thing that would cause this power to be used.

Caroline Flint: Of course, Ofgem already has codes of conduct in which it outlines ways in which it would investigate a company. For example, let us consider some of the investigations over the past few years. We have had investigations of mis-selling, billing systems, predatory pricing and disadvantaging certain customers, such as those who have prepayment meters, and situations where people had been inhibited from changing supplier. Ofgem already has set thresholds and codes of practice that enable it to launch a formal investigation and set out clearly what areas it is considering, but the problem is that if a company is found guilty of any of the examples I have just given, that can basically result in a fine or some sort of consumer redress order. What Ofgem cannot do is revoke the licence. When there are repeated examples of companies failing to take action, when they might have been fined, and when they have put their hands up and said that they would do the right thing only for it to happen again, Ofgem cannot say, “I am sorry, the slate will not be wiped clean. You must account for your activities and that includes when you have repeatedly undermined your customers.”

As I said earlier, and I repeat this sincerely to the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), it seems to me that the problem is that when we look at the fines—£90 million over the past few years is no small amount of money to most people, but it is a pittance by comparison with the overall amount of money these companies make—it sometimes comes across as though paying the fines is just the cost of doing business. That is not good enough.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Surely the real deterrent for any company operating in the energy market is the loss of customers. We should be encouraging Ofgem to up the fines and increase the publicity, because the loss of customers will have an effect on investors.

Caroline Flint: I think there has been quite a lot of publicity about the fines, but what the hon. Gentleman says is interesting. The rules currently allow Ofgem to fine up to 10% of the company’s global turnover, which is a lot of money. I am not against Ofgem looking at whether it should be increasing the amount it fines, but I do think the ultimate sanction is about revoking a licence, because in such circumstances customers would have to be found a new supplier for their energy. Currently, that is exactly what Ofgem can do if a company goes into administration or if it fails to deliver gas and electricity to people’s homes. Is it not bizarre, however, that it cannot do this where there have been repeated offences against consumers through harmful customer practices that not only undermine trust in the energy market but, more important, make customers pay a heavy price?

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I commend my right hon. Friend for her leadership on this issue, because that is what this is about: leadership in shaping the future, not looking back to the past, as such an approach

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is failing our business and domestic energy customers. I commend her for the way in which she has set out this case so clearly, and I am looking forward to the answer from the Secretary of State.

Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. Friend for his support on so many occasions when we have tried to put forward common-sense, constructive solutions to some of the problems that all in this House know exist in this energy market. Some will wrongly try to characterise our proposal as somehow anti-business—it is not. For one thing, businesses, especially small firms, have often been as much on the receiving end of the energy industry’s sharp practices as households. For another thing, if energy companies do not want to be at risk of losing their licences, all they have to do is treat their customers fairly and properly. More importantly, there is no such thing as a market without rules. It is difficult to think of a more vigorously free-market capitalist economy than the United States, but regulators there understand that a free market works only when there are proper rules to ensure competition and fair play. As Matthew D’Ancona said recently in his article in The Sunday Telegraph, capitalism must be

“tempered by the recognition that markets exist within a structure of laws and a social order.”

That is what I want for households and businesses in Britain.

Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): I compliment my right hon. Friend on an excellent speech. I disagree slightly with my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), in that this is about the past. When the landed aristocracy of the Conservatives in the 1860s were controlling the bushels of wheat, it took a Mancunian MP, Richard Cobden, to form the Anti-Corn Law League, which eventually brought in free trade and a free market so that working Mancunians and working people across this country could afford bread to eat. I also remind Government Members that that eventually led to Peel falling.

Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, and I have two points to make. First, I have found it incredibly helpful, in undertaking this brief for the Leader of the Opposition, to take a little time away from the day-to-day things and have a look back at some of the decisions made over many decades, both before and since privatisation. That is why I believe our proposals in so many areas meet the test of what we need today, learning from both what worked and what did not work in the past. That is good politics as far as I am concerned.

The second point relates to what is so exciting about the future of the energy market. There was a time when many local authorities were more involved in the delivery of energy, and the exciting thing is that as well as having new entrants from other parts of the business community, there is the opportunity to open up much more the roles for local authorities and other community organisations to supply and generate energy in the future. To get that right, we have to sort out the corporate problems that we are facing today. That is the choice today’s motion puts before the House.

We have debated energy prices and the energy market many times in this Parliament. There have been times when we have agreed across these Dispatch Boxes and

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others when we have disagreed, but I hope the Secretary of State will put aside the areas where we do not agree and do us the courtesy of engaging constructively with this specific proposal. If he does so, I believe he will see that it is worthy of support and would be to the benefit of consumers in this country. I commend the motion to the House.

1.24 pm

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr Edward Davey): I thank the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) for calling a debate on an important subject: how best can we protect energy consumers from unfair treatment by their suppliers? Although there are examples of good customer service—energy companies that are treating their customers properly—it is hardly controversial to say that there are far too many cases where energy firms have let their customers down badly—the mis-selling, the poor complaints handling, and the poor billing. This is not new; it has been going on for many years and can just take different forms. Right hon. and hon. Members who have served in this House for a few Parliaments will recall all the scandals of doorstep mis-selling. I recall an elderly constituent coming to my local surgery in 2003 having been appallingly treated and conned by a representative of one of today’s big six. So this is a serious matter and, despite efforts by the previous Government, this Government’s focus on this issue and the work of Ofgem, it is clear that there are still energy firms that are treating their customers unacceptably.

Yasmin Qureshi: The right hon. Gentleman gave the examples of mis-selling and the mistreatment of customers. Are they not the type of repeat offending by energy companies that should mean that their licences could be revoked?

Mr Davey: I will explain to the House that under current rules licences can be revoked, and I will deal with these issues. I am admitting that this a good debate to have, because there is a problem—nobody is suggesting otherwise. But, as always, the question is: what is the best way to deal with that problem? What is going to work? What is the best way to crack down on this to punish firms that get it wrong? In essence, we can use three tools: competition; regulation; and technology. The right hon. Member for Don Valley has focused on regulation, and I want to address her proposal in detail, for tough regulation certainly has a vital role to play in holding companies to account. However, I regret that her motion and her speech totally failed to mention competition and technology—those were not even mentioned once. That is a serious mistake, which the Opposition keep making. For many of the smaller suppliers now competing—

Caroline Flint: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that in different ways the Opposition have put forward motions for debate in this House where we have engaged with competition? In my speech I mentioned a number of our proposals to create a pool to separate the energy generation and supply side. Today, we have tabled a motion that tries to identify a particular problem. We have done that because we think it is the right thing to do, and we find it hard to believe that we could not get the full support of the House on this one issue.

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Mr Davey: I am going to deal with the right hon. Lady’s proposal, as I have said. However, she failed to deal with one of the comments made by a Government Member about the importance of competition. Competition does drive good customer service, as I hope she will recognise. I wish she had done so in her intervention on me, but she did not.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): The Secretary of State has given himself the power to change the contract for difference allocation framework, which is part of his regulation on competition, and the budget notice as close as 10 days before an allocation round begins. Can he assure the House that the European Commission regards 10 days as a sufficient period to determine whether the round is state-aid compliant? If he cannot, what assurance can he give that delays will not result from this? Crucially, what impact might this likelihood of change and delay have on investor confidence to create the very competition he is talking about?

Mr Davey: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting that question into this debate. I say gently to him that on CfD and state aid we have clearance, so presumably the Commission has examined that matter. I have not specifically asked it that question, but it has given us state-aid clearance. The way we have proceeded with the allocation proposals for CfD is to ensure that we get just that investor confidence, and the fact that we are seeing such interest and such investment is tantamount to showing that we have it right.

Failing to focus on competition is a serious mistake by the Opposition, because many smaller suppliers competing against Labour’s big six are doing so not just on price but on the basis of better customer service. If we talk to the independents about their business model, we hear some of them say that higher quality customer service is their main competitive edge. The growth of competition since 2010 suggests that they are right and that competition has a key role to play here. From less than 1% of the market, the small suppliers now have more than 7% and it is still growing. Customers now have more choice than ever, with 25 suppliers competing for their custom.

Small suppliers provide electricity to 2 million customers, and they have gained more than 1 million customers in the past 12 months. Clearly, customers are voting with their feet when they are not happy with the service they are getting. Yes, we need to make the competition rule work more effectively, which is why we support the independent Competition and Markets Authority in the most profound investigation of British energy markets ever seen.

It was telling to hear that the right hon. Lady does not intend to wait to hear the result of the Competition and Markets Authority investigation. She will prejudge the authority’s report. That is quite a revelation, which is worthy of more debate. We are not simply waiting for that report from the Competition and Markets Authority. We have already done so much to encourage new suppliers and to make switching easier, simpler and quicker. We believe that we must continue to sharpen the competition tool for consumers, so that when they are poorly treated, they can vote with their feet.

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I am acutely aware that competition has not always worked for the most vulnerable in society, such as elderly people who might not be internet savvy. During my time as Secretary of State, I have placed a focus on new business models and new ways of helping such people—from collective switching to developing, with the voluntary sector, citizens advice bureau, Age Concern and so on, new forms of advice with the big energy saving network. Ofgem is also increasingly focused on how we can ensure that energy markets better serve the fuel poor and the less well off.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): The implication of what the Secretary of State is saying is that he accepts that competition is imperfect at the present time. If we have a situation in which competition improves and there is better service all round, is he saying that when an energy company behaves in an appalling fashion they should be able, in all circumstances, to continue to supply energy to consumers and that there should not be the ultimate sanction of saying, “Your behaviour is so appalling that you no longer have the right to deliver gas and/or electricity in this country”?

Mr Davey: No, I am not saying that. If the hon. Gentleman waits for a second, I will put a lot of emphasis on tough regulation, but there needs to be a balance. There needs to be competition as well, because it can often work more quickly and more effectively, and it really hits the firms that are losing customers. Some of the big six have lost tens of thousands—in some cases, hundreds of thousands—of customers because we have enabled competition. I accept that things are not perfect yet, which is why we are working so hard.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The right hon. Gentleman is making a good point in that competition can drive improvement in a number of areas. But badly regulated competition leading to market failure is an issue not just with the big six but with potential new entrants, which could be doing well at the moment but they could fail or overstretch themselves. May I suggest to him that there is a straightforward analogy that any football or rugby supporter will understand? As rules are imposed on that game, players know that if they do something stupid, they will end up in the sin bin for 10 minutes on a rugby pitch. If they do it again, they will be off the field. If they do a spear tackle, they will be red-carded and could be banned for months. If they assault somebody on the field, they could end up in jail. We are not saying that these things should not be used. Companies will want to avoid them being used. The fact that they are there drives good behaviour.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman intended to be brief.

Mr Davey: When a Welsh MP gives a rugby analogy, one should be careful. However, I will address that point, because I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I am grateful that he at least recognises that competition has a role to play. Technology also has a key role to play. The smart meter roll-out, for example, will be crucial in tackling some of the issues that consumers complain most about, especially inaccurate bills. Smart metering will help us to address even more problems faced by prepayment meter customers and

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it will enable 24-hour switching. So technology and competition are important in addressing these matters, and we need to have them on the table.

Despite those differences, there is no disagreement between parties over the importance of the regulation tool. Strong regulation has a vital role to play in protecting consumers. The previous Labour Government recognised that, and set up Ofgem. Indeed the Leader of the Opposition, when he was doing my job, reformed Ofgem to give it more powers to protect the consumer. He chose not to give it the power that the right hon. Lady wants, but we will leave that aside for the moment. This Government recognise the role regulation has to play for customers, which is why we have strengthened it. We have ensured that when an energy firm is fined and punished, the money does not just go to the Treasury. Customers who have been wronged are now properly compensated; we have put money in their pockets. We are even introducing criminal sanctions into the regulatory armoury. In the future, if an individual is found guilty of manipulating the energy market, they could go to prison.

Caroline Flint: Will the Secretary of State admit that even when fines are imposed, the money does not always go back to the victims? In some cases, it has gone to other groups of customers. Will he now correct himself and say that it does not always go to the victims of the problem under investigation?

Mr Davey: Before the implementation of the powers in the Energy Act 2013, some redress schemes were on a voluntary basis and the money did not always go to the individual customers who were wronged. The real intention of the new powers is that money will go to the customers. There will be proper consumer redress. That did not happen before. Under us, it is now happening. I repeat what I was saying before the right hon. Lady intervened. This Government are passing rules that stipulate that people who manipulate energy markets could go to prison. No one can accuse this Government of being unwilling to use the regulatory tool in the toughest way possible on behalf of consumers.

The right hon. Lady’s motion is focused not on regulation in general, where there is agreement, but on one new regulation. No, that is not quite true. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. Her motion states quite clearly that it is focused on reforming an existing regulation—changing an existing power. Currently, Ofgem can remove a company’s licence. In other words, the regulator can now shut down a company. The regulator already has the power effectively to say to a company—its employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders—“What you have done is so bad that you can no longer trade.” It is a tough power, and rightly so. It is what we might call the “nuclear” option, because the consequences are severe for the customer as well as for the company.

Let us imagine that the nuclear option is taken by the regulator. It does not matter whether we use the current carefully designed system, which I will describe later, or the more arbitrary system being proposed by the right hon. Lady. The time spent preparing to use this nuclear option will be critical. Under the current situation, because of the ratcheting up, contingency arrangements could be put in place. If things are done more quickly and directly, as the right hon. Lady wants, there could

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be chaos. It would be bad for the staff, as there would be a significant loss of jobs. It would be bad for consumers, as they would have to be switched to another company or companies very quickly. That is not easy, not even in 30 days, without real difficulties and challenges. If it were a large firm that was being closed down, it is likely that only other large firms would be able to absorb that number of customers quickly. The result is that Labour's big six would become Labour's big five—genius!

Caroline Flint: Does the Secretary of State agree that the grounds on which Ofgem may revoke a licence do not contain any mention of consumers, or even the word “consumer”, or tackle the issue of repeated offences of harmful, abusive behaviour in customer practice?

Mr Davey: I am going to describe the current system. On the law, the right hon. Lady might want to look at the point where it says—this is where Ofgem may revoke a licence—

“if the licensee fails…to comply with a final order”.

I am going to explain that process.

Caroline Flint: Does the Secretary of State remember that I said that of course Ofgem can revoke a licence if there is a failure to pay a fine? The problem is that, once the fine is paid, there is nothing in the revocation terms to enable Ofgem to find against the company if there are repeated offences. That is the clarity that we need in law—not to wipe the slate clean.

Mr Davey: The right hon. Lady should allow me to explain the current system, because I think she will find that a failure to comply with a final order can result, in extreme circumstances, in revocation. It is the process leading up to the issuing of the final order that she does not seem to understand, so let me deal with it.

Under the right hon. Lady’s proposals, the nuclear option has considerable—potentially large—negative consequences for competition. Just think how the customers would feel. Would the confusion and hassle of a forced move make them feel any better? Other companies would need to take on those customers, and that means changing tariffs, with consumers possibly paying more. All those issues would need to be worked through at a chaotic moment. It is quite right that the current rules limit the circumstances in which the nuclear option can be used, and the process that Ofgem would effectively have to go through before it can be invoked. Indeed, Parliament, under the previous Government, set the bar for the nuclear option quite high. The list of circumstances in which the power can be used includes a variety of things, from the failure of a company to comply with a final order from the regulator, to a company’s making false statements when applying for a licence, to a firm’s not paying a financial penalty.

The right hon. Lady is proposing to lower the bar for the nuclear option. Labour now wants to amend the existing power, so that the regulator can close down a company for—I quote from the motion—

“repeated instances of the most serious and deliberate breaches of their licence conditions”.

How does that differ from the existing situation? Well, at the moment Ofgem cannot explicitly close down a firm for persistent behaviour; that is true. It cannot go quickly or directly to the nuclear option, as the right

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hon. Lady wants. Ofgem would instead have to ratchet up its sanctions: first, higher fines, and regulatory orders requiring specific improvements in performance by specific dates—ever-tougher, and increasingly damaging for the firm.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Is it not financially attractive to these energy companies to rip the customers off, as they have been, and take the rap on the fingers from Ofgem, pay the fines that Ofgem imposes on them, wipe the slate clean and start all over again?

Mr Davey: That may have been the case in the past, but increasingly it is not because the companies are losing customers, the fines are getting heavier and Ofgem is getting tougher. I wish it had been tougher in the past. Just look at the fines that have been levied and can be levied. We have seen fines of £3 million, £4 million, £10 million, £15 million. Indeed, under the coalition we have seen Ofgem fine more companies than ever before, and by higher amounts. In the nine years after Ofgem was established, it took enforcement action in just 10 cases. Since 2010, in four years, we have seen 27 cases, with fines totalling nearly £51 million. Moreover, because the current Government wanted to ensure that it was not just the Treasury that benefited from enforcement action against energy firms that misbehaved, there is now money for consumer redress as well—since 2010, nearly £60 million has already been paid out directly to consumers, the people who have suffered. Nothing like that happened under Labour. So under us, as the fines on a persistently poorly performing firm went up and up, so could consumer redress; so could the consumer compensation.

What is the maximum that could be levied? Well, if a firm continually failed to comply, the fines and redress could be increased up to 10% of a firm’s turnover, as the right hon. Lady said. For a huge energy company such as British Gas, that could equate to a whopping £1 billion —not a figure that any company, however large, can take lightly. That is what the law currently allows for, and these fines are being used, under this Government, far more than they were under the softies opposite.

Caroline Flint: Does the Secretary of State agree that if Ofgem investigates a company and the company pays the fine, and later the company breaches again the rules relating to fairness to customers in the way that I have outlined, what Ofgem cannot do is revoke the licence? It has to do another investigation, which may result in a fine, but what it cannot do is take into account past history on these issues and revoke the licence where there is persistent abusive behaviour to the customers. Does he support the recommendation that we are making or not?

Mr Davey: When Ofgem has another breach put to it, it has to look at that breach; it has to look at what has happened in that breach. It does not, as I am about to say, only have the fine/penalty option; it may issue improvement orders, as we are seeing. Let me come to the process, because I think the right hon. Lady’s policy will not stand up, and she will see that we have lots of powers to help consumers.