All 42 Parliamentary debates on 20th Mar 2024

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Data Protection and Digital Information Bill
Grand Committee

Committee stage & Committee stage: Minutes of Proceedings & Committee stage: Minutes of Proceedings & Committee stage & Committee stage
Wed 20th Mar 2024
Wed 20th Mar 2024
Royal Assent
Lords Chamber

Royal Assent & Royal Assent & Royal Assent & Royal Assent
Wed 20th Mar 2024
Wed 20th Mar 2024
Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage & Committee stage: Minutes of Proceedings & Committee stage: Minutes of Proceedings part one & Committee stage & Committee stage & Committee stage: Minutes of Proceedings part one & Committee stage

House of Commons

Wednesday 20th March 2024

(4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Wednesday 20 March 2024
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

Wednesday 20th March 2024

(4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Prayers mark the daily opening of Parliament. The occassion is used by MPs to reserve seats in the Commons Chamber with 'prayer cards'. Prayers are not televised on the official feed.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Wednesday 20th March 2024

(4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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1. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on implementing a definition of Islamophobia.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
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12. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on the work of the anti-Muslim hatred working group.

Felicity Buchan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Felicity Buchan)
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We will not tolerate anti-Muslim hatred in any form, and we will seek to stamp it out wherever it occurs. We are appointing an independent adviser to tackle the scourge of anti-Muslim hatred, to join our independent adviser on antisemitism. We have a programme for tackling anti-Muslim hatred, which includes the consideration of definitions. It also includes £117 million of funding to protect Muslim places of worship and faith schools until 2028.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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Despite what the Minister says, many believe that the Government’s two-year delay in coming up with a definition on Islamophobia—the Conservatives are the only political party in the UK to have taken so long—reflects their indifference to the fear, discrimination and hatred that thousands of Muslims experience. Why has it taken so long?

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan
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We do not agree with the all-party group on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia; we believe the most appropriate term is “anti-Muslim hatred”. Let me explain why. In this country, there is freedom of religion, and also freedom to criticise a religion. What someone cannot do is discriminate against or show hatred to me because of my religion.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Alex Cunningham is not here. I call the shadow Secretary of State.

Anneliese Dodds Portrait Anneliese Dodds (Oxford East) (Lab/Co-op)
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A senior Conservative who went on to become Prime Minister said that Muslim women “look like letter boxes”. A Conservative candidate for London Mayor said that she wants to defeat her Muslim opponent to make things safer “for our Jewish community”. A former Conservative deputy chairman said that Islamists have “got control” of the Mayor of London. Are those incidents of anti-Muslim hatred the kind of incidents that the Minister just said will not be tolerated?

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan
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We have made it very clear that a number of these comments we just do not accept—we think they are wrong—but before the hon. Lady throws abuse at Conservative Members, she should take a look at what is happening on the Labour Benches. Hers is the only party that has been sanctioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for institutional racism. Her party has now given the Whip back to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), even though the Labour party said that his comments were deeply offensive. The right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has also had the Whip suspended because of antisemitism.

Anneliese Dodds Portrait Anneliese Dodds
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It is important that we do not trade abuse about these very serious issues. [Interruption.] With respect, that was the tone that I adopted. Where there are issues with political parties, rather than laughing about them, we should take action. That is what the Labour party did after the EHRC investigation. Sadly, the Conservatives have not acted to develop a definition of anti-Muslim hatred. We have changed, but the Conservatives have not. A definition was promised, and an adviser was appointed to develop one five years ago—perhaps the Minister is unaware of that—but today there is still no definition. There is no adviser now, no active anti-Muslim hate crime working group, no hate crime strategy, and minimal action on tackling online hate. When are the Government going to wake up to this problem?

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan
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As I said, this Government are completely committed to supporting our Muslim communities. We have said that we will appoint an independent adviser. We have made more money available to protect mosques and Muslim faith schools. I am visiting my local mosque, al-Manaar, this afternoon/early evening to attend an Iftar. If one looks at the composition of the Conservative Front Bench and at how diverse the people there are, one can see clearly that our party is committed to diversity and equality.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
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2. What recent steps the Government have taken to implement the HIV action plan.

Maggie Throup Portrait Maggie Throup (Erewash) (Con)
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11. What recent steps the Government have taken to implement the HIV action plan.

Stuart Andrew Portrait The Minister for Equalities (Stuart Andrew)
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Our 2021 HIV action plan sets out actions to achieve no new HIV transmissions by 2030 in England. To deliver that, the Department of Health and Social Care is investing more than £4.5 million between 2021 and 2025 to deliver the HIV prevention programme.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson
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Happy St Cuthbert’s day, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all the work done in the fight against HIV, but does he agree that if we are to reach our commitment of zero transmissions by 2030, we need a four-pronged approach that includes improved sex education, an expansion of opt-out testing, better availability of pre-exposure prophylaxis, and finding the 13,000 people with HIV who are lost to care?

Stuart Andrew Portrait Stuart Andrew
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My hon. Friend’s suggestions are right. Through opt-out testing, we have identified 1,000 cases of undiagnosed and untreated HIV. We have expanded that testing to a further 47 emergency rooms, so that we can find even more people. On the availability of PrEP, we are gathering evidence to understand why some population groups who would benefit from it are not accessing it; this is still an important area of work for us as a Government.

Maggie Throup Portrait Maggie Throup
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Since the funding has been secured for opt-out HIV testing in very high prevalence areas as part of the HIV action plan that I published when I was Minister for public health in 2021, the scheme has far exceeded expectations; over 4,000 people were newly diagnosed with HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C in just four cities in 21 months. The scheme also disproportionately identified women, people of black African ethnicity and older people with those blood-borne diseases. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on progress in expanding the programme to an additional 47 hospitals across England, including in Derby and Nottingham, and confirm that work is under way to ensure that opt-out testing will continue beyond April 2025?

Stuart Andrew Portrait Stuart Andrew
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I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend for the amazing work she did in the Department; the initiative has been a great success story. It is amazing that we have been able to find more cases, which is precisely why an extra £20 million has been allocated to increase the testing. I will write to colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care about what will happen post 2025, but we are doing lots of other work with partners, such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, to ensure that we do everything we can to make this important goal a reality.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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In Northern Ireland, we have a proactive HIV action plan, but it is always good to share information about the work that is done here, and the work that is done back home. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland on extending the HIV action plan guidelines to Northern Ireland? Let us exchange good ideas and move forward together.

Stuart Andrew Portrait Stuart Andrew
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I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should always share information and best practice. I will make sure that colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care hear his request and ensure that happens. At the end of the day, it is in all our shared interests to get to that goal by 2030.

Nicola Richards Portrait Nicola Richards (West Bromwich East) (Con)
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3. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for Israeli victims of sexual abuse by Hamas.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Women and Equalities (Kemi Badenoch)
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I thank my hon. Friend for her tireless campaigning on behalf of Israeli victims of Hamas. This Government are appalled by reports of sexual violence since 7 October in Israel and Gaza. I am working closely with Cabinet colleagues on the issue. It is important to continue to highlight the fact that many hostages, both male and female, have still not been released, and they face the daily threat of rape, sexual assault and violence. Across Government, we have been meeting with their families. Just last week I met with the Hostage and Missing Families Forum, and I know that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have also done so in recent months.

Nicola Richards Portrait Nicola Richards
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A United Nations report recently confirmed that sexual violence was used against Israeli women on 7 October. Last week I raised concerns with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office that women did not feel that they could trust the UN enough to speak about their experiences. Victims of sexual violence deserve a voice and to be treated with respect, so what can my right hon. Friend do to encourage the international community to unite in calling out sexual violence and those who seek to deny that it happens?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the issue. She will be pleased to know that just last week, following calls from the UK, Lord Ahmad, the Minister in the other place, attended the UN Security Council to express deep concerns about the findings of the UN special representatives of the Secretary-General on their recent visit to the region. The UK is leading work internationally through our preventing sexual violence initiative, and through dedicated funding, totalling £60 million, to prevent conflict-related sexual violence and to strengthen justice and support for all survivors.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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4. If she will make an estimate of when the gender pay gap will be closed.

Maria Caulfield Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (Maria Caulfield)
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It was this Conservative Government who introduced mandatory gender pay gap reporting for large employers, to shine a light on the gender pay gap and promote action to close it. As a result, the gender pay gap has fallen by approximately a quarter over the past decade.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Campbell
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I thank the Minister for her response. Can she indicate whether the narrowing of the gender pay gap over the past 10 years has been less pronounced, in percentage terms, among women on lower incomes than among those on larger salaries?

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
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Actually, the results from our gender pay gap reporting are slightly different: it is in higher-paid professions that the gender pay gap seems to exist, but that is because women are often in low-paid work. The hon. Member is absolutely right to raise the issue. Next month, we are introducing a pay rise of 10% for the lowest paid through an increase to the national living wage. After the national insurance cut, added on to the cut in January, people will be almost £900 better off in work.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con)
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The issue is not just the gender pay gap; there is also the gender pension gap, the lack of women on boards, and the importance of making sure that we have a pipeline of talented women at every level. Yesterday, I was with the community interest company, Women on Boards, and its clear message to the Minister is, “Please can we have more action and fewer initiatives, to ensure that we make real progress in getting women in our companies, at every level?”.

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
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We absolutely are taking action. We are planning to introduce the pay transparency pilot, because in high-paid jobs, salaries are often not advertised, and women end up being paid less than men for the same role. It is such action that will make a difference to women across the country.

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
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5. What steps the Government are taking to help support women experiencing menopause at work.

Mims Davies Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Mims Davies)
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In March 2023, I appointed Helen Tomlinson as the Government’s first menopause employment champion. We are working across Government and with employers to increase awareness and develop policies to support women experiencing the impact of menopause at work. We recently launched new guidance on the Help to Grow portal to empower businesses to educate their organisation about menopause.

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones
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Last July, we saw the introduction of the British Standards Institution standard on menstruation, menstrual health and menopause in the workplace. Earlier this month, the International Organisation for Standardisation voted to develop an international version. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the BSI, countless grassroots organisations, individuals including my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), and the menopause all-party parliamentary group, who have all worked tirelessly to ensure that menopausal women in this country are given the support that they so deserve?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I am absolutely delighted to welcome all of that work. I also welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) was able to join us in a roundtable discussion at Gower College. In fact, Jane from the BSI was one of a number of women to join our first menopause roundtable for International Women’s Day at No. 10, where we celebrated the BSI and its international achievements. Helen Tomlinson, too, has been recognised internationally.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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6. What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to help reduce faith-based discrimination and harassment.

Felicity Buchan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Felicity Buchan)
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All forms of religious hatred have absolutely no place in our communities, and we work with police and community partners to monitor and combat it. We are taking a broad approach to tackling religious hatred, and are engaging extensively with experts to explore how religious hatred is experienced by British communities and how it affects different faiths and individuals.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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There has been an appalling surge of antisemitism and Islamophobia in recent months, but the anti-Muslim hatred working group has been suspended since March 2020, and the hate crime strategy is four years old; we clearly need a new one to tackle the hate crime in our communities. Will the Minister commit to restarting the anti-Muslim hatred working group and bringing forward a new hate crime strategy?

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan
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As I said in answer to previous questions, we will appoint a new adviser on anti-Muslim hatred. We are engaging with the Muslim community at senior levels. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities have recently met Tell MAMA, which plays a very important role in tackling hate crime. This Government are completely behind our Muslim communities, and we will absolutely do the right thing for them.

David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
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I welcome the Minister’s comments. We are all behind her, and endorse what she said, but can she give me some idea of recent progress she has made on delivering the Inclusive Britain action plan?

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan
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We have been doing lots of work on that, and will releasing the report today.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
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With permission, Mr Speaker, I will briefly pay tribute to my constituent Henry Wuga, whose funeral took place earlier today. Henry, who came to Glasgow on the Kindertransport, was a truly remarkable man. He and his late wife Ingrid made an enormous contribution to Scotland and the world through their work as holocaust educators. His legacy is truly immense, and I am sure that the House will join me in sending our thoughts to Henry’s family. May his memory be a blessing.

The increase in antisemitism and Islamophobia is eye-watering. It should be of serious concern to us all. Urgent action is needed on both fronts, and community cohesion and dialogue must be a priority. In recent months, there has been a 335% increase in Islamophobic hate cases in the UK. None the less, and despite our just having had the International Day to Combat Islamophobia, the UK Government have not convened the anti-Muslim hatred working group in more than four years. Now that the next anti-Muslim hatred adviser has quit over extremist threats, we need concrete answers. When will the Government take tackling Islamophobia seriously?

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan
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On behalf of the Government, I pass on my condolences. We have made it incredibly clear that the Government are completely committed to tackling anti-Muslim hatred. We have upped the amount of money going towards the protection of mosques and Muslim faith schools. We are about to appoint a new anti-Muslim hatred adviser. This is an effort across Government. I completely agree that the levels of both anti-Muslim hatred and antisemitism that we see at the moment are not acceptable. That is why we are dealing with it.

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi (Dudley North) (Con)
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7. What steps she is taking to help increase inclusivity and accessibility at work for disabled people.

Mims Davies Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Mims Davies)
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The Government have a programme of initiatives to support disabled people and people with health conditions in starting, staying and succeeding in work. That includes Access to Work, Disability Confident, and a digital information service for employers, which aim to increase inclusivity and accessibility for disabled people in the workplace.

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi
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The Beacon Centre for the Blind in Sedgley does amazing work. Meeting Kaydee and Nathan, who are partially sighted employees, was an inspiring experience. My visit to the centre served as a strong reminder of the significant day-to-day challenges that vulnerable people experience in doing things that able people take for granted. What more can the Minister and her Department do to raise awareness and better support charities such as the Beacon Centre and its users?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I met representatives from the Disability Charities Consortium yesterday, and some of those matters were discussed. We have invested £2 billion in improving inclusivity and accessibility at work for disabled people and people facing health barriers. We have hundreds of jobcentres across the country, and fantastic work coaches are tapping into extra support through our network of disability employment advisers to assist people just like Kaydee and Nathan.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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Adjustments are often vital for helping disabled people in their job, but Scope says that disabled workers face many issues with the Access to Work scheme, including a long wait for an assessment, a cap on costs, and low awareness of the scheme among disabled people. Only 40% of them know about it. Will the Minister work with her Cabinet colleagues to improve the Access to Work scheme and prevent the disability employment gap from widening?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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The Access to Work scheme is a demand-led personalised discretionary grant, but working with employers, looking around occupational health and other interventions to support people are equally as important. I can assure the hon. Lady that I met my officials yesterday about the Access to Work scheme. I am looking at any delays, any impacts and any changes every couple of weeks to ensure that people who want to work and need support can get it in a timely fashion.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Women and Equalities (Kemi Badenoch)
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I am pleased to announce today that the independent inclusion at work panel has launched their report on achieving fairness and inclusion for all in the workplace. The report, part of our inclusive Britain agenda, sets out how employers can do away with ineffective, divisive and poor-quality diversity and inclusion practices. It notes that the UK employs almost twice as many diversity and inclusion workers per head as any other country. Instead, we should focus resources on interventions backed by evidence, which will benefit all people. I thank the panel for their hard work and thoughtful consideration on this issue.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby
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My young disabled constituent Ella Wakley in Braunton goes to college, but her blue badge is accepted on buses only after 9.30 am, which is too late, so she has to pay for herself and her travel assistant. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that improve accessibility for people such as Ella, who are trying to get on with their everyday lives?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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As ever, my hon. Friend is a great advocate for her North Devon constituents. In the national bus strategy, the Department for Transport committed to conducting a wholesale review of the English national concessionary travel scheme. That will include reviewing eligibility and extensions to travel times for older and disabled people.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Ashley Dalton Portrait Ashley Dalton (West Lancashire) (Lab)
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Last week, the Minister for Women and Equalities rightly called the comments of Conservative party donor Frank Hester about the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) “racist.” It has since emerged that Mr Hester has said that a group of Indian members of staff should

“climb on the roof, like on the roof of the train”

and has made reference to “Asian corner.” Does the Minister agree that those comments are racist—yes or no?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I understand why the Labour party insists on bringing this issue up over and over again, but Mr Hester has apologised for his comments, we have welcomed his apology, and we are drawing a line under it. We are focused on what matters to the people of this country. I had letters last week from people telling me that we were wasting time focusing on issues that were not relevant to them. We need to focus on what matters to the British people.

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
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Boys lag behind girls at every level at school, creating a gender attainment gap that has been in place for some 30 years. Will the Minister meet headteachers and a working group to see what we can do to reduce that gap?

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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I should be happy to. We want all children to reach their full potential.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
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T2. Will the Minister clarify when the right moment is to move on from a Tory donor calling for an MP to be shot in the context of hating all black women? Is it when there is an apology for rudeness? Is it when £5 million more has arrived in Tory coffers? Is it when she tires of explaining racism to her party? Or is it when the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) says that justice has been done?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I am not going to take any lectures whatsoever from Labour Members. This is a good time to remind the House that it is only the Labour party that has been sanctioned for institutional racism by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It continues to disappoint its members. Where is the Forde report? Why is the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) complaining that nothing has been done about racism in the Labour party? We will take no lectures from them.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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Despite an overwhelming consultation response and promises from the Government, caste as a protected characteristic still hangs over the Hindu community. We have now established that the current provision could be removed via statutory instrument. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to remove it once and for all before the general election?

Stuart Andrew Portrait The Minister for Equalities (Stuart Andrew)
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I commend my hon. Friend, who has been working diligently on this important issue. Our view is that we need to do that through primary legislation. I recognise that it is important to many of his constituents and others, so I would be more than happy to meet him to see whether we can discuss a way forward.

Sarah Dyke Portrait Sarah Dyke (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
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T3. Compassion in Care’s helpline received 486 reports of homophobic abuse in care homes over the past four years, yet 481 of the service providers accounted for in those allegations are still rated as good by the Care Quality Commission. Will the Minister work with Cabinet colleagues to end discrimination against LGBTQ residents in care homes to ensure they are safe in the care system, and would she support the development of a “Pride in Care” quality mark and an LGBTQ+ care champions scheme? [Interruption.]

Stuart Andrew Portrait Stuart Andrew
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If only that cheer was for me.

The hon. Lady raises a really important point—it is something I feel really passionately about myself, and it is going to increase in prevalence as we get generations becoming older, because people have been more out in recent years. I have been speaking to people about this important area of work, and will continue to raise it with colleagues in relevant Departments.

The Prime Minister was asked—
Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling (Clacton) (Con)
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Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 20 March.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister (Rishi Sunak)
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I know the whole House will join me in congratulating Vaughan Gething on his election as Welsh Labour leader and expected election as First Minister of Wales, and also in offering Mark Drakeford our best wishes on his retirement. The Government I lead will always work tirelessly to benefit the lives of people across the United Kingdom, and I look forward to working constructively with the new First Minister to deliver for the people of Wales.

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

Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling
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The people of Clacton have had a tough time with the cost of living, and I am doing everything I can to support them. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that cutting inflation is the very best way to do that, and that today’s statistics are very welcome? Can he reassure my constituents that he will continue working hard to get inflation as low as possible, in order to protect their savings, help with their bills and give them the financial security they deserve?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Today’s figures show that our plan is working. Inflation has fallen to 3.4% from its peak of over 11%, down by almost 70%—the steepest fall since the 1980s, and now at the lowest level since September 2021—and people’s pay packets are going further, with real wages growing for eight months in a row and taxes being cut by £900 for the average worker. That is why we need to stick to the plan to deliver a brighter future for our country.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We now come to the Leader of the Opposition.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab)
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I thank the Prime Minister for his words in welcoming Vaughan Gething to his post as First Minister of Wales. As the first black leader of any European Government, it is a historic moment that speaks to the progress and values of modern-day Wales. I also pay tribute to Mark Drakeford for his long, steady service in Wales.

With violent prisoners released early because the Tories wrecked the criminal justice system, 3,500 small boat arrivals already this year because the Tories lost control of the borders, the NHS struggling to see people because the Tories broke it, millions paying more on their mortgages, a Budget that hit pensioners and a £46 billion hole in his sums, why is the Prime Minister so scared to call an election?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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As I said in January, my working assumption is that the election will be in the second half of the year. I must say, I thought that out of everybody, the Leader of the Opposition would be the most grateful, because he has now actually got time to come up with a plan for Britain. We are all looking forward to finally seeing it.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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Oh, we are ready—just call it.

Let us just take the Prime Minister’s Rwanda policy. When the Tories first announced this gimmick, they claimed it would settle tens of thousands of people. The Home Office then whittled it down to a mere 300. Four times that number have already arrived this month, and the backlog stands at 130,000. Can the Prime Minister see any flaw in his plan to deport less than 1% of that backlog?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Since I became Prime Minister, the number of small boat crossings is actually down by over a third. That is because we have doubled National Crime Agency funding and we have increased illegal immigration enforcement raids by 70%. We have closed 7,500 bank accounts, deported 24,000 illegal migrants and processed over 112,000 cases—more than at any point in the last two decades. It is crystal clear, as we are seeing from the Labour party’s opposition in this House, that while we are committed to stopping the boats, the Labour party would keep them coming.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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The tragedy is we know the Prime Minister does not even believe in the Rwanda gimmick. He tried to stop funding it, but he is now so diminished that his entire focus is stopping his MPs holding the sword of Damocles above his head—perhaps even literally in the case of the Leader of the House. His great hope is to placate those in his party with a couple of empty planes, praying they will not notice when the flights stop going, the boats are still coming and the costs keep mounting. How has he managed to spend £600 million of taxpayer money on a gimmick to deport 300 people?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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It is crystal clear that not only does the Labour party not have a plan to fix this issue, but the truth is it does not actually care about fixing this issue. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about gangs. When we gave the police new powers to crack down on the people-smuggling gangs, he spent months campaigning and voting against it. But thanks to our new laws, 900 criminals have been arrested and 450 have been convicted, serving over 370 years behind bars. If it was up to him, those criminals would still be out on our streets. The truth is that, if he was not the Labour leader, he would still want to be their lawyer. [Hon. Members: “More!]

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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I have prosecuted more people smugglers than the Prime Minister has had helicopter rides, and that is a lot. [Interruption.] I have done it. This Rwanda gimmick is going to cost the taxpayer £2 million for every one of his 300 people that they deport. I know the Prime Minister likes to spend a lot on jet-setting, but that is some plane ticket. It is the cost of Tory chaos, and it is working people who are paying the price. The man he made his Immigration Minister let the cat out of the bag when he said the Prime Minister’s

“symbolic flights…will not provide a credible…deterrent”.

We know the Prime Minister himself thought it would not work. If the people selling this gimmick do not believe in it, why should the country?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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The right hon. and learned Gentleman is very keen to talk about who he prosecuted. He is a bit less keen to talk about when he defended Hizb ut-Tahrir. But when it comes to this question of how to deal with people who are here illegally, his values are simply not those of the British people. After all, this is the person who campaigned to stop the deportation of foreign dangerous criminals. A dangerous criminal was jailed for dealing class A drugs after he fought to keep him here. A gangmaster was convicted of carrying a knife after he fought to keep him here. So whether it is representing terrorists or campaigning for criminals, it is clear whose side he is on, and it is not the British people’s.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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It is genuinely sad to see the Prime Minister reduced to this nonsense. Let us take another example, which I started with. [Interruption.]

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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After 14 years of Tory chaos in the prison system, the Justice Secretary was reduced to begging the Prime Minister either to send fewer offenders to prison or to release them even earlier. I must say I have sympathy for anyone trying to get an answer out of the Prime Minister. So what is it going to be: fewer criminals behind bars in the first place, or more released early on to our streets? Which is it?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Thanks to our record and plan, violent crime has fallen by 50%. We have recruited more police officers, given them more powers and kept serious offenders in prison for longer. What is the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s record? He voted against greater protection for our emergency workers, opposed tougher sentences for violent criminals and failed to give police the powers they need. It would be back to square one with Labour—soft on crime and soft on criminals.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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You can see why he doesn’t want an election, Mr Speaker, why his party have lost faith in him, and why half his Cabinet are lining up to replace him—no answers, no plan, no clue. The Prime Minister has never had the courage to stand up to his party, so let me help him out and say to them what he wishes he could say: the mortgage mayhem, the waiting lists, the criminals walking free—they are the cost of Tory chaos. And if they cannot bring themselves to stop the endless games and gimmicks, and stop putting themselves before country, they should pack up, go home, and waste somebody else’s time. It wasn’t that difficult, was it, Prime Minister?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about his ideas, but we are two weeks on from the Budget. The shadow Chancellor found time to make a one-hour speech last night, and we still do not know how Labour is going to pay for its £28 billion black hole. But while he tries to talk down Britain and the progress we are making, today’s news shows that the plan is working—inflation down, energy bills down, wages up, pensions up, and taxes cut by £900. That is the choice: higher taxes and back to square one with Labour, or tax cuts and real change with the Conservatives.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie  Aiken  (Cities  of  London and Westminster) (Con)
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Q2. The UK birth rate is falling, the while numbers of those requiring fertility treatment to conceive are rising. There are no employment rights attached to those undertaking fertility treatment, and no paid time off work. Will the Prime Minister join me in encouraging employers, large and small and across the United Kingdom, to sign up to the fertility workplace pledge that I have launched with Fertility Matters at Work, LGBT Mummies, Fertility Network UK and many others, to support those undertaking fertility treatment when they are in work?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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May I start by thanking my hon. Friend for her excellent work campaigning on this issue? She is right: employers should offer their staff understanding, support, and flexibility while they are undergoing fertility treatment. The best way to improve the experience of those undergoing treatment, both women and their partners, is through voluntary approaches. That is why I join my hon. Friend in encouraging all companies to sign up to the fertility workplace pledge.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP leader.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
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With his Back Benchers looking for a unity candidate to replace him, which of the now numerous born-again Thatcherites on the Labour Front Bench does the Prime Minister believe best fits the bill?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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It was surprising, Mr Speaker, to hear all this talk about the 1970s from the shadow Chancellor in particular, but if you see what is happening in places like Birmingham, where taxes are going up by 21% and services are being cut—whether that is social care, children’s services, or in some streets the lights literally being turned off—it is unsurprising why they are talking about the ’70s. I just say that what they have done to Birmingham, the Conservatives will never let them do to Britain.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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Of course there is a serious point to be made here, because the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned of the conspiracy of silence that exists between the Labour party and the Conservative party when it comes to £18 billion of looming public sector cuts. Indeed, just last night it outlined that the fiscal rules of the Labour party and the Conservative party are, in effect, identical. With such continuity on offer, the public are right to be anti-Westminster, aren’t they?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman quoting the IFS, because it also described the recent SNP Budget as, in its words, “misleading”, and said that

“pain is almost certainly coming”.

It is a savage tax and axe budget, because here is the reality: while NHS spending in England is going up in real terms, in Scotland it is going down; while taxes are being cut by the UK Government, the SNP Government are putting them up. That is the contrast, and where the SNP or indeed Labour are in charge, it is working people who pay the price.

Sheryll Murray Portrait Mrs Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con)
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Q3. The Prime Minister rightly often criticises the Scottish Government for the extra tax they put on residents. In my part of Cornwall, we have an extra tax called the Tamar toll. I have been working on a petition with my constituency neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). Will the Prime Minister make our part of the country more competitive by losing this extra tax and helping our community to level up?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important local issue. Any application for a toll revision will be considered by the Transport Secretary at the right opportunity when it has been received, but I am told that there are plans in place to create a new locally led focal group of key stakeholders to ensure that there is a real opportunity for them to make their views about crossings heard, and I know that she will play an active role in that group.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
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Yesterday saw the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in its history exercise its new veto powers to prevent the application of new EU law that would harm our ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is something that the DUP campaigned to achieve when others were calling for rigorous implementation of the protocol. To his credit, the Prime Minister was able to work with us to deliver the real changes to the protocol that will help to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market.

Will the Prime Minister now assure me that the Government will continue to faithfully implement the measures outlined in the Command Paper, “Safeguarding the Union”, including fully restoring our place within the United Kingdom and its internal market and ending the unnecessary checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I want to congratulate my right hon. Friend again on his leadership of Unionism. I agree that it has been an encouraging few weeks, and I salute the work of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in representing the future of Northern Ireland. I assure him that we will implement our commitments at pace, including further regulations to be laid before this House in the coming days to take power to deliver those commitments on UK internal trade. We are also hosting the first meeting of the UK East-West Council and establishing Intertrade UK, but it comes down to this fundamental point, and I know that he will agree: Northern Ireland’s place is stronger in the Union, with locally elected politicians in place representing the needs of all parts of the community.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)  (Con)
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4. Noting the National Audit Office report today on the spiralling costs of using ex-military bases for migrants, and noting that the Home Office has announced this week that it is to reduce the projected numbers at RAF Scampton down to 800, will the Prime Minister ensure that an immigration Minister meets West Lindsey District Council and me urgently, so that we can release most of this iconic RAF base— the home of the Red Arrows and the Dambusters—for regeneration?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I pay tribute to the way that my right hon. Friend has engaged with the Government on this important issue for his local community. As he acknowledged, our plan is working to cut the use of asylum hotels, and we will have closed 100 hotels next week, on top of cutting small boat arrivals. I know that he is talking to the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), about how best to accommodate a smaller number of asylum seekers safely at RAF Scampton, while recognising the council’s ambitious plans for regeneration. I fully support those discussions, and the Government are committed to the site being used for accommodation for the shortest possible time and then released for the benefit of the local community.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
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Q5. Our NHS is at breaking point. My constituent was told that he needed a gall bladder operation after a visit to accident and emergency. He waited all day in hospital, nil by mouth, and had no operation. He was then told to stay overnight or risk his place on the list, so he sat in a hot, smelly, windowless waiting room for eight hours on a plastic chair. Then a gurney came with no pillow, and that is where he slept. The next day, the nurses said, “No operation. There just aren’t any beds.” His wife told me that the Conservatives are running the NHS into the ground. Given his experience, which so many others across the country share, how can he say otherwise?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I am very sorry to hear about the experience of the hon. Lady’s constituent, and I am sure she will be raising it with the local NHS trust as well. The NHS is, of course, recovering from a difficult two years, but it has received considerable backing from this Government, including record investment, as was acknowledged by the NHS chief executive officer just the other week, and a plan to improve productivity in the future. We have invested in 5,000 new beds over the last year and more ambulances. All of that is contributing to lower waiting times, waiting lists coming down and an improved A&E performance over the last year.

Angela Richardson Portrait Angela Richardson (Guildford) (Con)
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Q8. The people of the eastern villages of Guildford—the Clandons, the Horsleys, Effingham, Ripley, Send and Ockham—have had enough. Unwanted development and villages taken out of the green belt without promised infrastructure is why I have been calling for an immediate review of the local plan for the last three years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Labour’s promise of concreting over the green belt, even against the wishes of local MPs, would simply add insult to injury?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Unlike both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party, who believe in top-down targets that decimate the green belt, we believe in local people having a say over their local communities. That is why we are committed to protecting and enhancing the green belt. The national planning policy includes strong protections to safeguard this important land. I note that my hon. Friend’s local plan is currently under review by the council, which has indicated that it will be updating it, and I hope my hon. Friend and her constituents engage with that process to help shape Guildford for future generations.

Mark Hendrick Portrait Sir Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op)
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Q6. The EU High Representative for foreign policy, Josep Borrell, said on Monday that Israel is provoking famine in Gaza and using starvation as a weapon of war. President Biden has said that there should be no attack on Rafah without a plan to ensure the safety of the more than 1 million people living there. Does the Prime Minister agree with High Representative Borrell and President Biden? Because I do, and we need a ceasefire. If he does agree, will he say so here in the Chamber today?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have explained to the Opposition repeatedly that the findings from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification initiative are gravely concerning. It is clear that the status quo is unsustainable, and we need urgent action now to avoid a famine. The UK is doing all it can to get more aid in and prevent a worsening crisis. Two thousand tonnes of UK-funded food aid, including flour and hot meals, is being distributed by the World Food Programme in Gaza today, as we speak, and it is enough to feed more than 275,000 people. We will continue to do everything we can to alleviate the suffering that people are experiencing.

Bill Wiggin Portrait Sir Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con)
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Q9. Whether the Government plan to intervene in the running of children’s services by Herefordshire Council.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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The Department for Education is mounting a significant intervention in Herefordshire’s children’s services, including expert improvement advice, a commissioner with statutory powers to direct the council, and a two-year improvement partnership with Leeds. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Department is closely monitoring the council’s progress.

Bill Wiggin Portrait Sir Bill Wiggin
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I thank my right hon. Friend for taking this terrible situation so seriously. The permanent secretary at the Department for Education visited Hereford recently, so he will know that the new Conservative council is trying to mend the damage done by the previous Green and independent authority to far too many young people and their families. As a father, does my right hon. Friend agree that progress is still far too slow? Will he meet me to discuss what more we can do?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Like my hon. Friend, I am concerned to hear that children in Herefordshire are not receiving the level of service that they should expect. I know that Ministers have revisited the commissioner’s latest report, and while some improvements have been made, I agree that it is very clear that the pace of change is not what it should be. My hon. Friend has been right to campaign tirelessly on this. I assure him that Ministers continue to hold the local authority to account, but I will be happy to meet with him to discuss his concerns further.

Mohammad Yasin Portrait Mohammad Yasin (Bedford) (Lab)
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Q7. Bedford renal unit is closed until further notice while investigations into the water treatment unit are carried out. This is a major incident for the nearly 100 patients in Bedford whose lives are now severely disrupted by the need to travel around 50 miles up to four times a week to access lifesaving kidney dialysis. Will the Prime Minister commit all the necessary resources needed by East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust renal services to urgently fix this major issue?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I am sorry to hear about that specific issue in the renal unit. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not being familiar with the details, but I will make sure that the Department looks into it and that the NHS is provided with all the support that it needs to rectify the situation.

Liam Fox Portrait Sir Liam Fox (North Somerset)  (Con)
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Q11. Tomorrow is World Down Syndrome Day. We have made huge innovative strides in this country, with the unanimous passing in this House of the Down Syndrome Act 2022 and initiatives such as yours, Mr Speaker, to provide work placements here in the Palace of Westminster for people with Down syndrome. However, there is an outstanding issue that we must deal with. The time limit on abortion in the UK is 24 weeks’ gestation, but due to an anomaly in the law, for Down syndrome it is 40 weeks —up to full term—which many Members may not understand. With cross-party support I will table an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to equalise the time limit in line with our disability and equality legislation. Surely, in the 21st century we cannot accept that people with Down syndrome are second-class citizens in our country. Will the Prime Minister support the change?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his dedicated work to pass the Down Syndrome Act. I thank him also for highlighting World Down Syndrome Day, and we will host a reception in No. 10 to mark the occasion. As he knows, when the grounds for abortion were amended, Parliament agreed that doctors were best placed to make those difficult decisions with women and their families. He also knows that it is a long-standing convention that it is for Parliament to decide whether to make any changes to the law on abortion. These issues have always been treated as an individual matter of conscience.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)
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Q10. Some of my Livingston constituents in Broxburn and Craigshill have the misfortune of living in houses built with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. Many cannot get insurance or mortgages, and one constituent told me very emotionally that he cannot even afford a survey. Will the Prime Minister arrange for his Ministers to meet me to discuss how his Government can fund local authorities and devolved Governments—which did not even exist when these houses were built—and give the support that was promised? We need action now.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I will happily look into the issues that the hon. Lady raises, but in the first instance I am sure that that would be a question for the SNP Government in Scotland to answer, to ensure that they are providing for their constituents. We have a strong track record of investing in local communities right across Scotland with our levelling-up funding and investment partnerships. She will know that housing is a devolved area, but I will happily look into the issue.

Andrew Rosindell Portrait Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con)
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Q13. The Prime Minister should be aware that the people of Romford are appalled by the catastrophic reign of the current Mayor of London. Does he agree that traditional boroughs such as Havering should have more independence from City Hall? In the meantime, to save London, should we not sack Sadiq and elect Susan Hall as the next Mayor of our capital?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I pay tribute to the hon. Member for his championing of his area and for his passion to preserve its character. Although there are no current plans to redraw the boundaries, I understand his desire, especially with London being run by the Labour Mayor. With nightlife decimated, crime increasing and the Mayor raising taxes on hard-working people by more than 8%, London can certainly do better. The only way for pride to be restored in London is with Susan Hall as its new Mayor.

Dan Carden Portrait Dan Carden (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)
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Q12. Sunday was the second anniversary of P&O Ferries’ illegal sacking of 786 British seafarers. Despite what Ministers have said, P&O has faced no sanction, and this Government’s new code of practice on fire and rehire would not stop it happening again. This Parliament will be the worst on record for living standards, and real wages are still worth less than in 2008. After 14 years, why have this Government failed to deliver a better deal for workers across Britain?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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As the Chancellor recently pointed out, living standards are £1,700 higher in real terms than in 2010. If the hon. Gentleman wants to protect working people in this country, perhaps he should have a chat with his shadow Chancellor about her plans to impose £28 billion of tax rises on everyone in our country.

Sarah Atherton Portrait Sarah Atherton (Wrexham)  (Con)
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15. After decades of a Labour MP, Wrexham was known as “spice town”. But not any more: in the last four years, we have become a city with a £160 million investment zone, £20 million from the towns fund and £23 million from the shared prosperity fund. We are soon to have the largest trading estate in Europe, with more jobs than jobseekers. We have secured the future of Hightown Barracks and Hollywood has boosted our football club! Does the Prime Minister agree that it is this Conservative MP and this Conservative Government who are delivering for Wrexham? [Hon. Members: “More!”]

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend has been an excellent campaigner for Wrexham, putting it on the map after years of decline under the Labour party. It is the heart of one of Wales’s investment zones, with our plan for towns helping to regenerate the local high street and improve public safety. I can tell my hon. Friend that with a great campaigner like herself, the next five years will only look brighter for Wrexham.

Ashley Dalton Portrait Ashley Dalton (West Lancashire)  (Lab)
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14. Last week, the Prime Minister rightly called Conservative party donor Frank Hester’s comments about my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) racist. It has since emerged that Mr Hester has made comments that a group of Indian members of staff should“Climb on the roof, like on the roof of the train” and made reference to “Asian corner”. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that those comments are racist— yes or no?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I addressed this last week, and the Minister for Women and Equalities addressed it just half an hour ago.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Father of the House.

Peter Bottomley Portrait Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con)
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Mr Speaker, you and the Prime Minister will be welcome in the Arun district of my constituency, where developers are trying to build over every vineyard, horticultural nursery and piece of agricultural land. Will he point out that the last place to build homes is prime agricultural land, especially in an area where developers have enough permissions to meet the council’s targets for the next five years?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is right that sustainable development must be at the heart of our planning system. That is why we are committed to meeting the housing needs of our communities by building the right homes in the right places, making sure that everyone makes best use of brownfield land, conserving our countryside. That is also the point he makes, which is important. I have been crystal clear: we must protect agricultural land. Food security is incredibly important and we need our farmers to produce more Great British food.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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We know the Prime Minister has received advice about the legality of the Israel-Gaza war, that he has had time to consider it, and that Governments can and do publish such advice. Will he tell the House what steps he is taking to act on that advice in reviewing UK arms sales, in supporting the proceedings of the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court, and in exercising the UK’s vote at the UN Security Council?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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We continue to call for Israel to respect international humanitarian law and for civilians to be protected. Too many civilians have been killed and we want Israel to take greater care to limit its operations to military targets. Those are points that both I and the Foreign Secretary have made repeatedly to Prime Minister Netanyahu. We have previously assessed that Israel is committed and capable of complying with international humanitarian law, and of course we always keep that under review.

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con)
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The Prime Minister will be aware of plans by National Grid to build a network of 50-metre-high pylons through much of rural Lincolnshire. This is causing much consternation, particularly in rural villages. Can my right hon. Friend assure my residents that when Ministers finally consider the consultations that come forward from National Grid, they will give sympathetic consideration to putting some of the sections underground?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the concerns of his constituents. He will recognise the balance we need to strike by making sure that we give our country the energy security it needs but doing it in a way that is respectful of the impact on local communities. I will make sure that Ministers take into account the concerns he raised and that all the views of local constituents are taken into account.

Tahir Ali Portrait Tahir Ali (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)
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Given that the Prime Minister’s and his Government’s days are numbered and that they will soon be in opposition, will he use the small amount of time available to him to join 138 United Nations member states in recognising the state of Palestine?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Our position has been consistently clear. We will recognise the state of Palestine when it makes the most beneficial sense for the overall peace process. Of course we are committed to an ultimate two-state solution, but in the here and now what we are calling for is an immediate, sustained humanitarian pause that would allow for the safe release of hostages, including British nationals, and would allow more aid to reach Gaza. We urge all sides to seize the opportunity, and continue negotiations to reach an agreement as soon as possible.

HMRC Self-Assessment Helpline

Wednesday 20th March 2024

(4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

12:35
James Murray Portrait James Murray (Ealing North) (Lab/Co-op)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a statement on the Government’s decision to close the HMRC self-assessment helpline every year between April and September.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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You have good news, Minister.

Nigel Huddleston Portrait The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Nigel Huddleston)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I thank the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray), and others, for raising the important issue of HMRC’s customer services and its plans to provide better services for taxpayers.

As Members probably know, His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has announced that it is halting planned changes to its helplines, but aims to encourage more taxpayers to self-serve online. It has listened to the feedback and recognises that more needs to be done to ensure that all taxpayer needs are met, while also encouraging those who can to make the transition to online services. Making the best use of online services allows HMRC to help more taxpayers, and to get the most out of every pound of taxpayers’ money by boosting productivity. HMRC helpline and webchat advisers will always be there for taxpayers who need support because they are vulnerable or digitally excluded, or have complex affairs. I recognise that such reassurances were not communicated clearly enough yesterday.

Of course, the pace of this change needs to match the public’s appetite for managing their tax affairs online. The changes in the self-assessment VAT and PAYE helplines announced by HMRC will therefore be halted while it engages with stakeholders, which means that the phone lines will remain open as usual. HMRC will now work with stakeholders—including me—while continuing to encourage customers to self-serve and gain access to the information that they need more quickly and easily by going online or to the HMRC app, which is available 24/7.

James Murray Portrait James Murray
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I thank the Minister for his response, but the question that I am tempted to ask is, “Who on earth is running the Treasury?”

This morning, just after we had requested the urgent question, we found out that the Chancellor had told HMRC to “pause” this change. That is a U-turn of quite extraordinary speed and indignity, following HMRC’s announcement yesterday that it would be permanently closing its self-assessment helpline altogether for half the year, from April to September. This morning a Treasury source said

“ministers have halted this change immediately”,

implying that those Ministers had been taken by surprise by the announcement. Can the Minister tell us whether any Treasury Ministers had any involvement in the decision announced yesterday, or whether HMRC’s announcement was made without any ministerial involvement?

In announcing the closure of the helpline, HMRC’s second permanent secretary and deputy chief executive said that the changes would

“allow our helpline advisers to focus support where it is most needed—helping those with complex tax queries and those who are vulnerable and need extra support.”

Can the Minister confirm that HMRC’s plans to help those who are vulnerable and need extra support are now in tatters after the Chancellor’s chaotic U-turn? I note that reports of the Chancellor’s position refer to a “pause” of the change, rather than a scrapping of it altogether. Can the Minister confirm that the self-assessment helpline will now remain fully open this year? If this plan is merely paused, will HMRC still be looking at months-long periods of closure of the helpline in the future?

It is clear that yesterday’s announcement of the helpline’s closure came not as part of a comprehensive, orderly or effective plan to help customers to move online, but rather as a panicked response to the collapse of HMRC’s service levels to an all-time low; and it is clear from today’s chaotic U-turn that this Government are fundamentally unstable, and have given up on serious governing.

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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I am sure the hon. Member is aware that HMRC is a non-ministerial Department. Ministers set strategy and work closely with the Department on operations and communications. It is important to recognise that 67,000 people work for HMRC. They go to work every day and try to do the right thing, and it is important to recognise that many people there work very hard.

The overall strategy is absolutely right and I completely support it, and I will give the hon. Member an example of why we need to encourage and support the move to online services. In 2022-23, HMRC received more than 3 million calls on just three things that can easily be done digitally: resetting online passwords, getting one’s tax code and getting one’s national insurance number. That involves almost 500 people working full time to answer just those calls, and such resources could be redeployed. The hon. Member can be reassured that those who are not digitally savvy and those with difficulties will always be able to access services, including telephone services.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Treasury Committee.

Harriett Baldwin Portrait Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con)
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May I thank the Financial Secretary and the Chancellor for listening to the howl of pain that came from ordinary taxpayers when they saw the announcement yesterday? Those who contact the HMRC hotline are the most law-abiding, tax paying people across this land.

This morning, the Treasury Committee has published more data showing that it is increasingly difficult to contact HMRC by telephone. While I fully endorse what the Minister has just said about the long-term strategy to move people online, it cannot be done by randomly shutting down HMRC’s telephone lines.

The Minister had an excellent digital track record in the private sector before he came into Parliament. May I urge him to use that experience to make this much more of a gradual transition for those law-abiding citizens of ours?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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I thank my hon. Friend and the Select Committee for their work in this area. I know that HMRC customer service has been an area of focus for her and others for some time, and we appreciate the input. I recognise that she acknowledges the potential opportunities and the upside to encouraging more people to go online, but the point she makes is really important. HMRC has taken the feedback with good grace, because it is important that we move at the speed at which the public are willing to move. Of course, some people are not willing or able to move to purely online services.

I am sorry for not responding earlier to the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) on whether the telephone lines will stay open. Yes, of course they will.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP)
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This is absolute chaos. The proposal to permanently close the self-assessment helpline for half the year was truly half-baked and irresponsible, as were the planned restrictions to the VAT helpline. The reversal is welcome, but the fact that the announcement was made at all highlights the disconnect at the heart of HMRC’s customer operations. As the Federation of Small Businesses has pointed out,

“customer service levels are at an all-time low”—

a view backed up by the Public Accounts Committee. At a time when the Chancellor’s policies are fiscally dragging more people into PAYE, the proposal was typically tone deaf to people’s needs.

Fran Heathcote of the PCS union has said that

“the combination of low-pay and micro-management”

is “rife across the whole” of HMRC’s customer service department. The Minister said that HMRC is a non-ministerial Department, but we know that it has been told what to do by the Chancellor overnight. When did the Government get notice of the announcement? Was it a reaction to the Chancellor’s decision to cut HMRC’s budget by £1.6 billion next year? Will he now ensure that the cut is reversed and order HMRC to recruit more customer service staff, and will he now instruct HMRC to make the reversal permanent?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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As I outlined a few moments ago, I think we can all appreciate that in order to serve customers, and particularly those who most need support, we need to ensure that those who do not need to go online have alternative channels—by the way, the customer service levels are higher in online channels—and the use of the app, which I encourage all individuals to use. Those who can go online will find a very effective and efficient service, so this is absolutely the right strategy and one that I completely and utterly support. We have also previously had a trial closure of the lines, and the report released yesterday showed that it worked quite well.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about redeployment. HMRC is proactive in notifying people who, for example, do not need to provide a self-assessment form. I think more than 1 million people were notified last year that they did not need to do so. Following other changes in Government policy, we have also communicated that those on high incomes—up to £150,000, for example—but do not have complex tax affairs do not need to provide a self-assessment return. There is a broad package going on here to enhance and improve customer service, but we recognise that many people like and would prefer a telephone service.

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Sarah Dines (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)
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Despite extensive Government investment in rural broadband in my constituency, there remains a lack of connectivity, with small businesses, the elderly and the vulnerable still having difficulty going fully online. What can the Minister do to ensure that nobody will be left behind in Derbyshire Dales?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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My hon. Friend makes the really important point that there are still people in this country, including in her constituency, who are not digitally aware or who are digitally excluded for a variety of reasons. That is why an important part of our strategy is to ensure that those who are digitally excluded, and those who are vulnerable or have particularly complex affairs, can always reach a human being.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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This is another chaotic Government U-turn, with the Chancellor taking the decision this morning to scrap plans to close HMRC phone lines less than 24 hours after the measures were announced. A Treasury source admitted this morning that closing HMRC’s helplines would be to

“the detriment of the general public and the vulnerable who need access to the helplines to support them with tax matters. ”

This is part of a wider malaise within Tory broken Britain where many of my Slough constituents cannot speak to a doctor when they want to, cannot register for an NHS dentist and much worse besides. So why was this decision taken in the first place?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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I mentioned in my opening comments—I will stress it again because it is important that nobody scaremongers about this—that it was never intended, and never would have been the case, that the vulnerable, the digitally excluded or those with complex affairs would be unable to access these services, even with the proposals set out yesterday. On that particular point, the hon. Gentleman is just wrong.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, which I welcome. Last September, in this very place, I raised the issue of heavy fines being imposed on self-employed constituents for late submission of self-assessment forms, even though no moneys were owed. I met the Minister in post at the time, but will the current Minister please write to me with an update on progress?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter. I reiterate that there is a very good reason why HMRC’s structure and relationship with Government is as it is, because it would be inappropriate for Ministers to interfere with individual tax affairs. However, I would be more than happy to raise his point with HMRC and respectfully ask that it pays it due attention. Of course, the Government set broader policy.

Helen Morgan Portrait Helen Morgan (North Shropshire) (LD)
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As a former financial controller of a small business in a rural place, I have used those helplines extensively, not least in sorting out disputes when HMRC has got its data wrong. Given that our own experience is that the website’s process is byzantine, that the waits on the phone lines are inordinately long, and that £36 billion of tax goes uncollected by HMRC every year, how can anyone have any confidence that the Treasury is working effectively?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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Very simply, we have one of the lowest tax gaps reported in the world, at about 4.8%, precisely because of the clarity of the tax system and the efficiency of HMRC in gaining the tax that is owed. Of course there are customer service challenges, and I am having conversations with HMRC about that. HMRC is also held to account in the Chamber, the Treasury Select Committee and elsewhere, as appropriate. It is important that we recognise that HMRC received 38 million telephone calls and 16 million pieces of correspondence in 2022-23. If it were a private sector business, we can see how it would make sense strategically to move, where appropriate, as much of that activity as possible online, where it can be dealt with more appropriately and often more quickly.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con)
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The Women and Equalities Committee, which is currently carrying out an inquiry on the rights of older people, this week met Independent Age and a range of stakeholders in Andover. They made the point that older people need to be able to access all services on the telephone, as people who are disabled or have a visual impairment find online services difficult. To be able to communicate effectively, people who are hard of hearing need websites with a British Sign Language overlay. Independent Age and the stakeholders I met were horrified at yesterday’s announcement on the closure of the helpline.

What consultation has there been with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), in her expanded role as Minister for Disabled People, on the potential impact of these changes? When Members of Parliament deal with HMRC on constituency casework, it now tries to push us into using the telephone rather than email. Can the Financial Secretary assure me that vulnerable people will still be able to use telephone services? Will he comment on the contradiction between how Members of Parliament and the public are dealt with by HMRC?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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I assure my right hon. Friend that we are having live conversations with HMRC about how it communicates with Members of Parliament on behalf of our constituents. Some Members tell me that they would prefer a telephone call, whereas others would prefer email. It is important that we have both. I am more than happy to communicate views and opinions from across the Chamber on that point. I am well aware that one of the biggest areas of concern about yesterday’s announcement, and one of the reasons why the feedback has been so loud, is that vulnerable people, including those with disabilities, might not be helped. It was never the intention or the plan that such people would be unable to access online, webchat or other channels.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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The Minister has spoken about members of the public who are willing and able to access services online. Members have to complete our own self-assessment form. I am willing and able, but I still need access to a telephone helpline. He said that 500 people are needed to answer the same three questions, which obviously cannot be handled by the online system. Following this announcement, is he confident that HMRC has the digital tools necessary to cater for more than 12 million self-assessment taxpayers?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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I need to correct the hon. Lady, as the vast majority of the points I raised could be handled online, including through the app. One of the things we must do is communicate far more clearly. A fair point has been raised in the Chamber today, and I will continue to discuss it with HMRC, because there are clearly some challenges with communicating what is available, where help exists and so on, but there is a wealth of information on the digital offerings, particularly the app, and I encourage people to adopt them, where possible. The hon. Lady makes a valid point that people who cannot adopt them will need other help, and we are listening.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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It is clear that HMRC made a serious mistake, and the Government acted commendably quickly in intervening to put matters right. I am sure they will now take a close interest in what happens next. As a matter of policy, will the Minister ensure that, whatever the future holds, it will not be anything so sudden or brutal, and that there will be a trial period before anything so dramatic is implemented across the board?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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As I mentioned a few moments ago, there has been a trial closure of telephone services. The recently reported results show that the trial worked quite well. As we heard overnight and are hearing again in the Chamber today, the important challenge is that the confidence behind that has not been effectively communicated. The reassurances that I personally received on what will happen to help those who are not able to access online services—including the disabled, those without digital access and those with particularly complex cases—were not communicated. That is important to making sure that, as HMRC moves forward and policy is developed, we move at a pace with which people are comfortable.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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I hope that HMRC’s screeching U-turn is a result of the Minister’s action. If it is, I congratulate him on stepping in so quickly. Does he agree that, at a time when more and more people are being dragged into complex tax returns because of fiscal drag, when 1 million people had their calls to HMRC unanswered in January and when a record number of people are putting in their tax returns late because they cannot get information, HMRC should not have adopted such a policy? Will the Minister give us an assurance that this is not temporary and that whatever help income tax payers require to pay their tax will be made available?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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I give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance on the latter point. As I have outlined several times today, I think we can all recognise that the move to digital, where appropriate, will relieve the burden on the people answering telephone calls and on some other services, allowing them to deliver precisely the end goal that he describes. Simplifying the tax system is a goal of Government policy. I gave an example of people on high incomes with relatively simple tax affairs—those who pay through PAYE, for example—and we are trying to remove as many of those people as possible from self-assessment. I completely understand the right hon. Gentleman’s points.

James Wild Portrait James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con)
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Although decisions on individual tax cases are rightly managed independently by HMRC, political and public pressure saw this ridiculous decision squashed. What steps will Ministers take to improve the accountability and performance of HMRC?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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There are a variety of channels and tools, including my ministerial oversight. The Treasury Select Committee and other bodies also play an important part. I am not suggesting in any way, shape or form that I am removing myself from responsibility for HMRC, as I have ministerial oversight. If colleagues have concerns, they can always raise them with me. It is my job to raise those concerns with HMRC.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I chair the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group.

Does the Minister accept that one of the more disgraceful aspects of this episode is that neither the trade unions nor the staff appear to have been consulted prior to yesterday’s announcement? Does he accept that this is no way to conduct industrial relations or to deal with staff? How does he see yesterday’s announcement in the light of the Public Accounts Committee’s comments that the Department has to improve its ability to reach out to taxpayers and that it needs additional resources? Why are the Government now restricting customer access to the Department?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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HMRC and I have heard and respect the views of the PAC and other bodies, including their recommendations and suggestions for improvement. Of course, many of these bodies suggest that the continuing move towards digital and online is an important part of that process. As I have said, I do not have day-to-day operational responsibility for HMRC, but I do have oversight. I proactively requested a meeting with the unions several weeks ago, and that is what I have tended to do in all my ministerial roles.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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This is a welcome U-turn, but does my hon. Friend accept that one of the problems is HMRC’s chronic lack of productivity? Is that not made worse because so many people are working from home?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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My hon. Friend is correct that a focus on productivity is key, and I can assure him that these are exactly the kinds of conversations that I am having. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury is leading a cross-Government review of productivity. HMRC staff are required to work in the office for 40% of the time. I have asked HMRC to assess and monitor the productivity of staff who are working from home versus staff working in the office, and there is very little difference. Because of the concern expressed by my hon. Friend and others, I will keep an eye on it.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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The reprieve is welcome, but if we are to keep these helplines open, can we at least resource them properly and make them work? I spoke to a chartered accountant in my constituency this morning, and he tells me that when he recently phoned HMRC with a complex query on behalf of a client, it took 40 minutes to get an answer. When the phone was answered, there was an acknowledgment of the problem. He suggested that the answer might lie in his client’s wife’s data being incorrectly ordered, at which point he was told that the staff were allowed to handle only one case per call, and that he would have to hang up and phone back, with another 40-minute wait for an answer. Surely that is no way to treat a customer.

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point, and I am happy to raise it with HMRC.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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I am regularly contacted by constituents who have had poor services from HMRC, as I am sure many of my colleagues are. These people are pretty certain that they would still be waiting had they not got their MP involved. My constituent Mr McCall retired to care for his terminally ill wife in 2021, but has since been chased repeatedly by HMRC to provide a tax return for 2022-23. He does not use email and has described the diabolical experience he has had with the phone line; he waited 50 minutes for an automated voice, and the line then went dead. Does the Minister accept that that service level is not acceptable at all, and things must improve? Would he like to take the opportunity to apologise to Mr McCall for the distress that HMRC has caused him?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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Yes, I am sorry to hear about those circumstances for the hon. Lady’s constituent. As I said, I have to be careful given the need to keep at arm’s length in individual cases, but she also raises a broader policy point. A lot of training and work goes on. I repeat that some 60,000 people work for HMRC, many of whom are dedicated, hard-working and well-trained individuals, and they often do a thankless job, but she makes a valid point, and I will happy raise that issue. I spoke incorrectly a few moments ago, so may I take the opportunity to correct what I said, Mr Speaker? HMRC staff are required to work in the office 60% of the time, not 40% of the time.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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The Government were forced to extend the state pensions top-ups through to April next year because of unacceptable delays on the Department for Work and Pensions/HMRC helpline for that issue. The Minister has mentioned that a review will take place; will that helpline be in its scope? It is a concern to many, many constituents.

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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As I say, I have ongoing engagement with HMRC. It is operationally independent, but I do have some oversight, and ministerial guidance is appropriate. I appreciate all the comments made by hon. Members today. These will be live conversations, and HMRC is listening to the conversations today. I will be happy to raise with it the points that she makes.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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First, let me thank the Minister for a positive response, and for trying to solve the problems; we appreciate that. Constituents have told my office about their struggle to get through to HMRC on the phone lines. There is no doubt that people still rely on services that allow them to speak to an individual. That is so important, as it is for us as MPs. We had 1 million calls unanswered in January alone, which illustrates clearly the problem that the Minister is trying to address. Does he not see that there must be an enhanced service for all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to ensure that all calls are answered and dealt with? The better option of a personal phone call is right, and we need a drastic change to be made.

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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It is important that HMRC commands respect—to a broad degree, it does—across the House and among our constituents, because that is how we can ensure that we comply with tax requirements. Where there is confusion, uncertainty or a valid question, it is important that people can get help, advice and support. For some people, it is appropriate to go online to get that, but that is not the case for everybody. As I said, the comments made today are very much appreciated. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that, as I have said many times, it is important that all of us encourage and support the digitisation of these services, and the adoption of the app by our constituents, because that will help ensure that the time available is focused on those who most need help and support.

Royal Assent

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that His Majesty has signified his Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2024

National Insurance Contributions (Reduction in Rates) Act 2024

Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Act 2024

Bishop’s Stortford Cemetery Act 2024.

Hong Kong Security Legislation

Wednesday 20th March 2024

(4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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13:04
Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the security and human rights implications of Article 23 in Hong Kong.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Mr Andrew Mitchell)
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his urgent question. Yesterday, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council passed new national security legislation unanimously under article 23 of the Basic Law. The Bill, which rushed through the legislative process, and is likely incompatible with international human rights law, will come into force on Saturday. Since 2020, we have seen Hongkongers’ rights and freedoms deliberately eroded as a result of the Beijing-imposed national security law, and this law continues that pattern.

Yesterday, His Majesty’s Government made it clear that the law’s overall impact will be to further damage the rights and freedoms enjoyed throughout Hong Kong. It will enable the authorities to continue their clampdown on freedoms, including freedom of speech, assembly and the media. It will further entrench the culture of self-censorship dominating Hong Kong’s social and political landscape. It fails to provide certainty for international organisations, including diplomatic missions, operating there. Broad definitions will negatively affect those who live, work and do business there.

Although Britain recognises the right of all jurisdictions to implement national security legislation, Hong Kong is also required to ensure that laws align with international standards, rights and norms as set out in UN treaties, the Sino-British joint declaration and its Basic Law. Hong Kong is an international city. Respect for the rule of law, its high degree of autonomy and the independence of its well-respected institutions have always been critical to its success. The British Government have urged the Hong Kong authorities to respect rights and freedoms, uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rule of law, and act in accordance with its international commitments and legal obligations.

Let me conclude by welcoming the contribution our growing Hong Kong diaspora make to life in the UK; they are safe to live here, and exercise the rights and freedoms that all other British residents enjoy. We will not tolerate any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK. This law has no effect in the UK, and we have no active extradition treaty with Hong Kong.

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith
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I welcome the Government’s statement, but it does not go far enough. Article 23 allows sentences of up to 14 years’ imprisonment if an individual fails to disclose that another person indicated an “intention to commit treason”, which includes peaceful protest or voicing discontent. If a journalist discloses information deemed to be a “national secret”, they will be jailed for 10 years. Since the passage of the national security law in 2020, the people of Hong Kong have endured relentless oppression, in contravention of the Sino-British agreement, yet the UK has done very little to hold those responsible to account. I remind my right hon. Friend that the United States, which did not sign that agreement, has sanctioned 42 people, including senior individuals, in Hong Kong, whereas the UK has sanctioned none.

I have two questions as a result. This legislation harmonises Hong Kong’s and China’s national security systems, with devastating consequences for human rights; it also changes business and legal arrangements. Last year, the US Government warned US businesses that they can no longer rely on the protection that the rule of English common law affords in Hong Kong. Why have the UK Government not done the same for our businesses? Secondly, we now know that Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office internal documents show that the Department paused targeted sanctions against Chinese officials in November 2023. One document states:

“FCDO has paused consideration of this work indefinitely”.

As one of the parliamentarians whom China has sanctioned, I must say that that is a terrible decision, and it flies in the face of the evidence. Will the Government publish those documents, and make a statement explaining why they no longer wish to sanction Chinese officials?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments, which I will deal with as best I can. He indicated just two or three of the defects in this appalling legislation. He was right to identify them. He did not ask me whether the legislation is in breach of the Sino-British joint declaration. In fact, it is not; the Hong Kong Government are legislating for themselves. The British Government declared in 2021 that China is in ongoing breach of the Sino-British joint declaration.

My right hon. Friend asked about the rule of English common law and the warnings given by the Government of the United States. The British business community is extremely experienced and well able to reach conclusions for itself, but if ever the British Government’s advice were sought, we would always give it. He talked about targeted sanctions. I know that he is sanctioned; I hope that he will bear that with the necessary fortitude. It is outrageous that he and others should be sanctioned in that way. We do not discuss our approach to sanctions on the Floor of the House, but my right hon. Friend may rest assured that we are keeping all such matters under regular review.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I call the shadow Foreign Secretary.

David Lammy Portrait Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab)
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Hong Kong’s new national security law is the latest degradation of the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong. It is causing fear and unease not only to Hongkongers, but to UK and other foreign nationals living and working in Hong Kong, as well as international businesses and organisations operating there, and many outside Hong Kong. Article 23’s provisions apply to Hong Kong residents and businesses anywhere in the UK. We have seen where that can lead; there was the frankly appalling attack on a protester in Manchester in December 2022. What steps are the UK Government taking to counter the threat of transnational repression, especially towards the 160,000 Hongkongers who have come to the UK via the British national overseas passport route? Many will feel unsafe and unprotected, and are denied access even to their own pensions. I ask on their behalf, does the Minister accept that the law not only “undermines” the legally binding Sino-British joint declaration, as the Foreign Secretary put it, but represents a clear breach? If so, will he say that to his Chinese counterparts?

The Minister says that he does not talk about sanctions, but it is of concern that although the US thinks sanctions are appropriate, the UK Government seem to be sitting on their hands. In the constant absence of the Foreign Secretary, can I ask the Minister whether the Foreign Secretary accepts that his “golden era” with China was a strategic mistake that undermined British influence over Hong Kong, set us on a rodeo of inconsistency towards China and failed to stand up for the UK’s national security interests? Can we expect the Foreign Secretary to deliver the strong, clear-eyed and consistent approach that is needed?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for his comments. I agree entirely with what he said about article 23. He chides me for not saying more on the issue of sanctions. The point I was making—I hope that he will accept that this is common to both parties when in government—is that we do not discuss our application or consideration of sanctions, or sanctions policy, on the Floor of the House, but when we feel it is necessary to act, we certainly do.

The right hon. Gentleman asks me about the view of the Foreign Secretary, given his long career and understanding of China from his time as Prime Minister. The Foreign Secretary has spoken out very clearly on the change that has taken place since he was Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman asks me whether the legislation is a breach of the Sino-British joint declaration; as I have said, we decided in 2021 that China was in ongoing breach of that. On the issue of whether it is a breach of international law, the Bill specifically says that it will be compliant with international law. I suspect that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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The shadow Foreign Secretary slightly stole my script about the “golden era” of Sino-British relations trumpeted by then Prime Minister Cameron. While the Minister says that things have changed since then, one thing has not changed: communist China was a totalitarian state then, and it is a totalitarian state now. Is it not about time that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office learned that lesson?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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My right hon. Friend speaks with great experience on these matters from his time on the Intelligence and Security Committee. I agree with him about the nature of China. The question was whether China would respect the Sino-British joint declaration and recognise the uniquely brilliant features of Hong Kong as an international trading city. It is a matter of great regret that politics have trumped economics in that respect, as perhaps it always will in the case of China.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.

Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
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I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing the urgent question. Let me try to get some answers from the Government about a response to what communist China has done, and critically what we can do in the UK about Confucius Institutes. Back in May 2022, the Open University bragged about being the first online Confucius Institute. Until 2023, the Government were allocating at least £27 million to Mandarin-language teaching, channelled through university-based Confucius Institutes. Will the Minister confirm that that has stopped? There is some confusion about that.

In relation to the comments made by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the Governments of countries such as the United States and others believe that sanctions are possible. The Netherlands and Germany have discouraged their universities from engaging with the Confucius Institutes; Sweden has gone as far as I would, by banning them. On providing answers, there are practical things that the United Kingdom can do about what is going on in Hong Kong. Will the Government consider ending the rights of Confucius Institutes in the UK? And will the Minister clarify the Government’s allocation of funding to Mandarin-language teaching through those institutes?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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We are very much aware of the Confucius Institutes and the way in which they operate. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we always keep such matters under review. If we have any changes to make to what we are doing, we will be sure to announce them in the House.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab)
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There is no doubt that article 23 will have a chilling effect on freedom and human rights in Hong Kong. It is designed to further stifle all criticism of the Chinese regime and its policies, both inside and outside Hong Kong. Given the number of UK dual nationals in Hong Kong, what plans do the Government have to protect UK citizens from political persecution by China, both here and in Hong Kong? Will the Minister look again at extending the BNO passport scheme to children born before 1997?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I thank the Chair of the International Development Committee for her comments. As she knows, we created the British national overseas route in 2020, which creates a pathway to permanent citizenship for British national overseas passport holders. It is working extremely well. Of course, we always keep it under review, but we have no current plans to change it.

Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
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It was supposed to be “one country, two systems”, but that has clearly disappeared. The bigger picture is that it is increasingly clear that China is openly pursuing a competing interpretation of the international rules-based order. Nowhere is that more evident than in Hong Kong. The independence of the judiciary has disappeared, along with freedom of speech and of the press. Hong Kong’s own democratic structures have been severely challenged and eroded. The new national security legislation will see the introduction of closed-door trials, detention for up to 16 days without charge, and the lowering of the bar of when life sentences can be imposed. I believe my right hon. Friend the Minister has business experience in Hong Kong, so what impact does he think these new draconian measures will have on the international community doing business with Hong Kong in the future?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I thank the former Chair of the Defence Committee for his question. During my business career, I was in and out of Hong Kong very regularly. It is quite extraordinary how Hong Kong’s brilliant pre-eminence in business is being undermined by this legislation and, indeed, by much other legislation and acts by the Chinese Government. Hong Kong was built on independent institutions, a high degree of autonomy and openness to the world. All those things help to increase the economic activity, the living standards and the wealth of a country or a city, and it is deeply regrettable that this does not appear to be recognised by the Government of China.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
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This is yet another nail in the coffin of Hong Kong democracy, and I cannot believe that we are here yet again talking about the matter. My thoughts are with the families of Hongkongers who are here. They must be looking at this and wondering what it means for them. The Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Bill was passed in this place yesterday, and, given that China is next in line to join, we did not get a cast-iron assurance during the debate that Britain would stop it from joining the CPTPP. In his role as Foreign Minister, would the right hon. Gentleman care to give that assurance now? Should China be joining the CPTPP while it is doing things such as this?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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The hon. Lady is an extremely experienced parliamentarian and knows that I will not add to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business and Trade said here yesterday. She did, however, talk about the threats to citizens in Hong Kong and here. I will add to what I said earlier that we suspended our extradition treaty with Hong Kong in 2020, and that was absolutely the right thing to do.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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Why are the Government continuing with their policy of continuous appeasement of China?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I do not recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes. We have relations with many regimes whose values and views we do not share. That is the nature of international diplomacy and international business. None the less, I can assure him that British Ministers are forthright in their interactions with their Chinese counterparts, as he would expect.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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I have some sympathy for the Minister, because I think he shares my sense of shame. I was one of the parliamentary delegations that went to Hong Kong after the one country, two systems deal went through. Our job as parliamentarians was to find out what local people thought of the agreement. I can remember these all-party groups assuring the people of Hong Kong that they would be safe and secure in their democracy and that it would not be challenged. What the Minister says is not very encouraging. This is not just a totalitarian, communist dictatorship, but a ruthless dictatorship. There are sanctions that we could be taking. Some of us in the House have begged the Government to do an audit of the extent of Chinese influence in this country, including how many companies they have taken over. How big is their influence? It is massive. The whole of the electrical distribution in London and the south-east is directly owned by a Chinese company. Surely we can take real sanctions against that country, which has gone back on everything it promised over Hong Kong.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening sympathy and support, which is always very welcome. In respect of the audit of Chinese involvement, much of that work is effectively done by brilliant British investigative journalists. He will have read, as I have, many of the reports that they have published. It is one of the differences between China and Britain: we have an open, free and democratic system, which enables us to scrutinise and pursue these matters in a way that is not possible in China.

Edward Timpson Portrait Edward Timpson (Eddisbury) (Con)
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The message that this legislation sends out is that political control trumps all else, including the economy. Bearing that in mind, what assessment has the deputy Foreign Secretary made of this national security law both in relation to economic stability, competitiveness and performance in the city of Hong Kong, not least in relation to the confidence of foreign investors, and the potential impact on social cohesion?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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My hon. and learned Friend makes an extremely shrewd point. The impact of this legislation is, of course, devastating in the areas that he identifies. This is not legislation that is scrutinised in the way that we understand legislation to be scrutinised. It is not subject to consultation or scrutiny by genuinely democratically elected Members, but that is merely one of the defects that has been identified during this session.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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The all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong, which I chair, heard very powerful testimony this morning from a young Hongkonger who had been a political prisoner in Hong Kong. We will now see more people enduring the indignity of political imprisonment, and the BNO passport visa can be withheld on the basis of the applicant having been in prison. Surely that is something that must be reviewed.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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That is not a matter, as the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, only for us. But he is right in his fundamental understanding, as he has set out, about the breach of the law that is going on. As he might have seen, Volker Türk, the UN human rights lead, has said that it looks, on the face of it, incompatible with international humanitarian law.

Tom Randall Portrait Tom Randall (Gedling) (Con)
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Having also been at the Hong Kong all-party group meeting this morning, I, too, heard the powerful testimony given by those pro-democracy activists who have suffered so much in advocating their cause.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. In his opening, he said that the law does not apply here; of course it does not, but that is not how the Chinese see it. It is for them an extraterritorial law. It outlaws external interference that intends to interfere in Hong Kong affairs, bans the work of non-governmental organisations advocating for human rights and civil liberties and might also affect those Hongkongers in the UK who are working in the UK civil service or the UK armed forces. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that active discussions are happening across government, with the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and others, to ensure that Hongkongers living in the UK have the protections necessary against any future Chinese prosecution?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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My hon. Friend knows a great deal about these matters and speaks with great wisdom on them. He is right to speculate that these discussions are taking place across government. They take place through formal mechanisms most of the time. But I suspect that he is concerned about the possible misuse of Interpol, which is an issue that has been raised, and which we take extremely seriously in the requirement to protect individual rights and uphold article 3 of Interpol’s constitution. He may rest assured that we continue to watch over these matters with all possible concern and rigour.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister, as always, for his answers. As has been stated today, the action is in clear breach of the Sino-British joint declaration and of human rights laws, in which I and others in this House take a particular interest. I have heard clearly what the Minister has said, but a number of concerned Asian constituents in my area have contacted me about the message that this sends to those who have left the Chinese regime. They raise concerns about the protection of those who live and work here. If we cannot hold the Chinese to their word, we have to ask whether anyone is safe. What message does the Minister have for my constituents?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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At the end of his interesting contribution, the hon. Gentleman asked a philosophical question, and I think he seeks a rhetorical answer. By the very way in which he expressed his question he made clear precisely what the dangers are. We have seen throughout the trial of Jimmy Lai that this is a political prosecution. Once again, we call for his immediate release. Finally, the hon. Gentleman talked about this being a breach of the Sino-British joint declaration, a point that was made earlier. As the Hong Kong Government are legislating for themselves, it may or may not be a breach technically, but we have been perfectly clear since 2021 that China is in ongoing breach of the declaration.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I thank the Minister for responding to the urgent question and the questions of others present.

Bills Presented

Tobacco and Vapes Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Victoria Atkins, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Oliver Dowden, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary James Cleverly, Secretary Gillian Keegan, Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, Secretary Alister Jack, Secretary David T. C. Davies, Michael Tomlinson, Andrea Leadsom and Gareth Davies, presented a Bill to make provision about the supply of tobacco, vapes and other products, including provision prohibiting the sale of tobacco to people born on or after 1 January 2009; and to enable product requirements to be imposed in connection with tobacco, vapes and other products.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 189) with explanatory notes (Bill 189-EN).

Private Parking (Regulator) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Emma Hardy presented a Bill to establish a regulator of privately-owned car parks; to make provision about the powers and duties of that regulator; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 14 June, and to be printed (Bill 185).

Standards in Public Life (Codes of Conduct)

A Ten Minute Rule Bill is a First Reading of a Private Members Bill, but with the sponsor permitted to make a ten minute speech outlining the reasons for the proposed legislation.

There is little chance of the Bill proceeding further unless there is unanimous consent for the Bill or the Government elects to support the Bill directly.

For more information see: Ten Minute Bills

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
13:31
Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a statutory code of conduct for Ministers of the Crown; for a statutory code of conduct for Members of the House of Commons and Members of the House of Lords; for a statutory code of conduct for councillors in England; and for connected purposes.

We are here today in the mother of Parliaments: a place that is steeped in our country’s history, from passing Acts of Union to overthrowing a tyrannical monarch; a place that Chartists and suffragettes fought for the right to be in; and a place that has approved our country’s most important human rights and equality legislation. However, many people across our great country and nation states feel that the MPs and Ministers who sit in the UK Parliament and make new laws on their behalf no longer represent them. People across the country feel that while they play by the rules, too often too many of us do not. They are engaged every five years or so in a general election, but rarely in between. While they struggle to make ends meet, public money is treated by some as a personal fiefdom to bestow on their chums and benefactors.

When people lose faith in democracy, they seek political extremes. Polling from the Institute for Government recently showed that two thirds of our constituents said that

“they do not think the current government behaves to high ethical standards”.

Likewise, polling from the UK Anti-Corruption Coalition found that two thirds of voters believe that UK politics is becoming more corrupt. Our democracy is fragile, and the reputation of those of us in this place as being in it for ourselves will, if not tackled, lay the groundwork for some of the country’s most abhorrent forces. That is what I seek to address in the Bill. While I am proud to be a Labour MP, the Bill is not party political. The reality is that when one party is seen as behaving in a way that lacks integrity, it affects not just that party but the reputation of politicians on both sides.

In the context of the cost of living crisis and the flailing economy, some might describe attempts at political reform as somehow ephemeral, but that misunderstands that our political and economic crises are two sides of the same coin. The failure to provide political stability has deterred the private sector investment that we need to supercharge economic growth. Taxpayers’ money is being wasted on scandals as wide-ranging as Carillion, Greensill and personal protective equipment procurement, precisely because the seven principles of public life, commonly referred to as the Nolan principles—selflessness, honesty, integrity, leadership, objectivity, accountability and openness—are not at the heart of public life.

My Bill sets out proposals to address the current gaps in achieving those principles by defining what is needed to promote, adopt and regulate the expected standards of behaviour of MPs, Ministers and councillors. First, my Bill would put the ministerial and Members’ codes of conduct on to a statutory footing, and introduce a national statutory code of conduct for local councillors. Secondly, it would establish a new commissioner for ministerial standards: a fully independent office protected by statute. Thirdly, to mirror that arrangement for MPs, it proposes that the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, which currently oversees the code of conduct for MPs, is established as an independent statutory office. Finally, it would establish a new ethics commission to review how our parliamentary system can develop to reflect the modern, inclusive, empowering democracy that we want to become in the 21st century and beyond.

I will take each measure in turn. My Bill proposes that the ministerial code, including the seven Nolan principles, be put on to the statute book. That would bring us in line with the code in Northern Ireland and add both greater credibility to, and awareness of, the code. This measure has received cross-party support. Even the former Chancellor George Osborne told the “Leading” podcast that

“it would be a great…agenda to put the ministerial code on a statutory footing”.

I wholeheartedly agree, and that is what my Bill would do. It is absolutely right that the Nolan principles, which are currently guiding principles, would also be codified. Right honourable and honourable and lay colleagues on the Committee on Standards have stated:

“Though the Independent Adviser has not, historically, launched investigations into breaches of process or constitutional principle, neither the code nor the Adviser’s terms of reference make this clear.”

My Bill would address that lack of clarity by empowering the new commissioner for ministerial standards to act independently from the Prime Minister and launch their own investigations into allegations of breaches of the code and/or the Nolan principles.

As an independent and statutory office, the office of the new commissioner for ministerial standards would also be protected from the vagaries or displeasures of Prime Ministers. We have very recently seen prominent examples of decisions not to ask the current adviser on ministerial standards to conduct investigations—decisions made by the Prime Minister on the whims of the day. The fact that in the last four years Parliament has seen two holders of the role resign indicates the tensions regarding those decisions. I know that this measure also enjoys deep and widespread support, including from the Institute for Government.

Furthermore, my Bill proposes that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should also become a statutory office and that, under its purview, in addition to Members being investigated for potential breaches of code of conduct rules, Members could be investigated for serious and serial breaches of the Nolan principles. Paragraph 17 of the Members’ code expressly prohibits the commissioner from investigating allegations solely about breaches of the seven principles of public life.

Reform of our politics also needs to extend to town halls across the country. We all know from our constituencies that the vast majority of councillors work tirelessly trying to make a difference in their communities, but unfortunately a minority use their positions for their own purposes and threaten our democracy as a result. My Bill would also apply to local councillors, who are often a member of the public’s first contact with an elected official. If we rightly want to empower councils and communities to do more, and because, as US Congress Speaker Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local”, we must strengthen codes of conduct in local government. My Bill proposes a standardised national councillor code of conduct, which includes the Nolan principles and is accompanied by a statutory accountability system.

Finally, I turn to how we address the issue that I raised at the beginning of my speech: the disengagement of people from the political process and the dangerous decline of our democracy. My Bill would set up an independent ethics commission of constitutional and legal experts to advise Parliament on system-wide reforms. The ethics commission would work alongside a citizens assembly to come up with recommendations to restore confidence and rebuild engagement in our political system, securing our democratic future. I urge Members on both sides to support my Bill, to strengthen our standards in public life and to restore the public’s trust in us as their elected representatives in Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Debbie Abrahams, Dr Dan Poulter, Layla Moran and Caroline Lucas present the Bill.

Debbie Abrahams accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 April, and to be printed (Bill 188).

Point of Order

Wednesday 20th March 2024

(4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
11:59
Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab)
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On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on dentistry and oral health.

When launching the NHS dentistry recovery plan exactly six weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care repeatedly assured the House that the plan was backed by £200 million of new funding. She said:

“There is £200 million on top of the £3 billion that we already spend on NHS dentistry in England.”

She made that very clear, adding:

“this is additional money. I have prioritised dentistry across the board, but this is £200 million of additional money—in addition to the £3 billion that we spend in England.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2024; Vol. 745, c. 264-66.]

We were all therefore very surprised to hear the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), explain to the Health and Social Care Committee yesterday that the plan to deal with the crisis in NHS dentistry was not in fact backed by any additional investment. She explained that it was all coming out of the £3 billion that is currently so underspent.

As those two statements stand in direct contradiction with one another, I fear that either the Secretary of State or the Minister may have inadvertently misled the House. As we celebrate World Oral Health Day, I hope that you may be able to advise me, Mr Deputy Speaker, on how we can seek clarity on this issue and have the record corrected on the Floor of the House.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I thank the hon. Member for her point of order and for giving forward notice of it. She will know that Ministers are responsible for the accuracy of what they say in the House, whether in the Chamber or before Select Committees. Although it is not a matter for the Chair, those on the Treasury Bench will have heard her concerns, and if the Minister or the Secretary of State thinks that a correction is necessary, I am sure that one will be forthcoming.

Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill

Second Reading
[Relevant document: Third Report of the Business and Trade Committee, Post office and Horizon redress: Instruction to deliver, HC477.]
13:42
Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Secretary of State for Business and Trade (Kemi Badenoch)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am pleased to present the Bill for its Second Reading. It will quash the convictions of those affected by the Post Office Horizon scandal in England and Wales—one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history. The legislation will clear the names of sub-postmasters whose lives were ruined because of the Horizon scandal: those wrongly convicted of or cautioned for offences of false accounting, theft and fraud, all because of a faulty IT system that the Post Office had implemented.

Instead of listening to whistleblowers such as Alan Bates when they raised concerns, the Post Office viciously pursued them for the shortfalls. Some were suspended or dismissed; hundreds were prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned; others were harried as thieves by their local communities. Several were driven to suicide. The Government cannot turn back the clock or undo the damage that has been done, but we will seek to right the wrongs of the past as best we can by restoring people’s good names and ensuring that those who have been subject to this tragic miscarriage of justice receive fair and full redress. The Bill represents a crucial step in delivering that.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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The whole House appreciates the efforts that the Government are making to rectify this problem at last, but I appeal to them to listen to the cross-party representations made from both sides in this House and all sides in Northern Ireland, including by the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Justice Minister for Northern Ireland, who have appealed for the fewer than 30 people in Northern Ireland who have been affected by the scandal to be included in the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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We are working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive. We have carefully considered the territorial extent of each piece of legislation, and we are rigorous in our commitment to devolution. The hon. Gentleman should be assured of the amount of work that is taking place to ensure that we get the Bill done properly in a way that will not have unintended consequences. I thank him for that point.

This new legislation will quash all convictions that meet the clear and objective conditions laid out in it. We recognise that postmasters have suffered too much for far too long, which is why convictions will be quashed automatically when the Bill receives Royal Assent, removing the need for people to apply to have their conviction overturned.

Jeremy Wright Portrait Sir Jeremy Wright (Kenilworth and Southam) (Con)
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I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I understand entirely why the Bill is necessary. She will agree that it is important that we do not, through the Bill, set any precedent for the interference of this House in individual convictions, unless there are exceptional circumstances such as these. That means that the Bill must be tightly drafted. At the moment, condition E—the last of the conditions that she has mentioned—is that

“at the time of the alleged offence, the Horizon system was being used for the purposes of the post office business.”

Why is that not phrased differently to say that Horizon-based evidence was presented in the case against the person convicted? There is a material difference between those two things. I just seek to understand why she has chosen that formulation rather than the alternative.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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My right hon. and learned Friend makes a good point about the final condition in the Bill. That is something that we considered, but it would likely have required a case-by-case, file-by-file assessment of each prosecution. That would have added significant time and complexity, which is what our solution avoids. One thing that I have been keen to emphasise is that speed and pace are critical. This has taken far longer than I would have wanted, and I would not have gone for a solution that would have impeded this and created complications.

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab)
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I put on the record my thanks to and commendations for the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), for the way in which he has approached the groundwork for the Bill.

Among those excluded from the scope of the Bill are those who went to the Court of Appeal and lost their case, or were not given leave to appeal to the Court. What we now know would have been quite useful in many of those cases. Should we enlarge the scope of the Bill to include those who lost their case at the Court of Appeal or were not given leave to appeal in the first place, as many of them may well be truly innocent?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point. That is also something that we considered carefully. It is part of the trade-off that we had to make in doing something unprecedented: Parliament overturning convictions. We respect the judgment of the Court of Appeal—it has gone to an appellate judge. We are willing to consider some of those cases individually just to ensure that nothing has been missed, but the Bill has been drafted in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary. We want to ensure that we are bringing everyone with us. Concerns such as his have been raised, but this is more or less the consensus that we think will get the Bill done, and allow redress, as quickly as possible.

David Davis Portrait Sir David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
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I will elaborate on this point further when I speak—hopefully, if I catch Mr Deputy Speaker’s eye—but there is already data about the cases that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) referred to, those that are outside the Horizon case itself but were attempting to get themselves exonerated on the basis of other data. As far as I can see, they failed precisely because they were not part of the Horizon case, so I ask the Secretary of State to return to this issue before Report and look at whether we can solve that problem.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. That is something we can look at again at further stages of the Bill. We understand the issue that hon. Members are trying to resolve, and agree with them that we need to make sure that everybody who deserves justice gets justice, but we also have to be careful to make sure that we are not exonerating people who we know for a fact have committed crimes.

Mary Robinson Portrait Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con)
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I commend her work and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), not only in recognising the plight of these people and putting in place compensation for their suffering, but in ensuring that these criminal convictions are expunged from their record. It is really important for these people that they regain their standing within their communities.

As my right hon. Friend has rightly said, so many of these whistleblowers were failed by the current law: the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. It is really vital that we not only put that right, but have a good look at the law again. I know that a framework review is going on, and have spoken to my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend about what more can be done. I have tabled a whistleblowing Bill that will sort this problem out. It lands within the Department for Business and Trade—it is something that is within my right hon. Friend’s gift. Will she support my private Member’s Bill on Friday?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I thank my hon. Friend for all the work she does in chairing the all-party parliamentary group for whistleblowing. She is right that this issue needs consideration, and we are going to look again at the whistleblowing framework—it is something that comes up time and time again in many respects. I will not comment yet on her private Member’s Bill, because I have not seen it, but I thank her for all her work on this issue.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
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I welcome this Bill. I know that it is groundbreaking and possibly sets some nerves off with the judiciary, but I think the judiciary need to look at themselves and how they have dealt with some of these cases.

On the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) raised, a small number of cases are not within the scope of the Bill. I perfectly understand why, but we have to get those cases looked at again, because evidence has come out in the Sir Wyn Williams inquiry that was not available at the time. Will the Secretary of State commit to at least sit down with the judiciary to look at these cases and emphasise the fact that there is new information, and that responsibility for some of this injustice has got to lie with the justice system?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The courts dealt very swiftly with the cases before them—perhaps a bit too swiftly. That is why the sub-postmasters suffered so many miscarriages of justice, and it is right that we make their exoneration as simple and quick as possible, so while my priority is passing this Bill for the bulk of the people who have suffered, that does not mean we will not be able to look at other scenarios later and see if we can find solutions where we genuinely believe that there has been a miscarriage of justice. That is not for me to do at the Dispatch Box—it will not be up to Ministers. There will be caseworkers who will carry out that work, but we have to be careful to make sure that we are exonerating the right cohort.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Jones
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I hear what the Secretary of State says, but I would just say to her that this is a small number of people and they have to be looked at. Can I ask that she shows the same zeal that her hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) has shown in his approach to this process? We need a commitment, not to get these cases sorted today—I accept that the Secretary of State cannot do that—but that the Department will look at them. I think that will send quite a strong message out to people.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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The Department can always do that. This is something that we believe is so critical in order to make sure everybody gets the justice they deserve, and we need to make sure that we carry out the process in such a way that everyone has confidence in it. We can continue to look at cases and see if there are other solutions, but as the right hon. Gentleman has rightly said, that will be outside the scope of this Bill.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and I also pay tribute to the exceptional work of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and the way in which he has engaged in what is a sensitive issue, not least constitutionally. Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is not ideal under any circumstance for this House to trespass upon the legitimate preserves of the independent courts? It should only do so under the most exceptional circumstances. There is a case that this is one of those instances, but while we can legitimately criticise failings in the criminal justice system—such as in disclosure, which is part of the system—it is important that we do not get into the territory of impugning the individual decisions of judges made in good faith on the evidence properly before them.

One thing we could do to emphasise the exceptional nature of the Bill would be to introduce a sunset clause, so that at an appropriate time when the Bill has served its purpose—perhaps some way in the future, once those who need to be found and contacted have been able to come forward and have their convictions quashed— it would no longer be the constitutional anomaly that it might otherwise be if it stayed on the statute book indefinitely.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I am very happy to consider a sunset clause. My hon. and learned Friend makes a very good point, and I really appreciate the fact that he can see the tightrope that we are walking: getting justice for postmasters while not interfering with judicial independence.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
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I think it is important that we emphasise the wholly exceptional nature of this legislation, but we are dealing with wholly exceptional circumstances—we hope. The point about disclosure is one that I cannot make strongly enough, and we have to look again at our presumptions about machines and what they produce when it comes to criminal litigation.

Can I press my right hon. Friend to reiterate the wholly exceptional nature of this legislation? I think we need to be careful when it comes to a sunset clause, because we do not want to end up frustrating the purpose of the Bill, which is to deal with the hundreds of people who have lost faith in the system and might be difficult to track down and identify. I am not particularly in favour of a sunset clause, but we do need to emphasise the exceptional nature of this legislation.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his intervention. I am very happy to emphasise that, and will do so again later in my speech. I do enjoy it when we have two lawyers who disagree on a particular point; I will be taking this as their application to join the Bill Committee.

The Bill includes a duty on the Government to take all reasonable steps to identify convictions that have been quashed. It also creates a duty to notify the original convicting court, so that records can be updated and people’s good names can be restored. Other records, such as police records, will be amended in response. The Bill makes provision for records of cautions for relevant offences relating to this scandal to be deleted. While the financial redress scheme will be open to applicants throughout the UK, the Bill’s measures to overturn convictions will apply to England and Wales only.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con)
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We on the Business and Trade Select Committee heard absolutely harrowing accounts from postmasters of what they had gone through as a consequence of the Post Office’s actions, but many of those cases took place many years ago. Can the Secretary of State be confident that the audit process in an organisation such as the Post Office will in future identify what has happened at an earlier stage, and does s