Madeleine Moon MP

Labour Member of Parliament for Bridgend

This Week in Parliament 9th - 13th June


This week was dominated by the Queen's Speech, which was unveiled at the State Opening of Parliament last Wednesday. As such, debate in the House of Commons was focused on various issues around the Speech, including "Home Affairs", "Jobs and Work" and "Economy and Living Standards."

It was a busy week elsewhere, as the Home Secretary and Education Secretary came under scrutiny for their conduct over extremism in Birmingham schools, there was an Urgent Question over the passport fiasco, and there was Prime Minister's Questions as usual. 


As part of a new feature for This Week in Parliament, I will be including details of any public consultations that the Government are launching over issues that are of relevance locally. Recently the Government launched a consultation over the franchising for the Great Western Main Line, and their plans to electrify the line and provide hundreds of new trains and carriages from September 2015 to September 2020. 

Submissions to the consultation close on 26 June; I have attached a link below to the submission page. It would be helpful if constituents could let me know of any responses they submit to the consultation. 


Urgent Question on Extremism

Yvette Cooper (Shadow Home Secretary): Will the Home Secretary make a statement on her conduct regarding the Government’s action on preventing extremism?

Theresa May (Home Secretary): The Government take the threat of extremism—non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism—very seriously. That is why, in line with the Prime Minister’s Munich speech in 2011, I reformed the Prevent strategy that year, and it is why, in response to the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby, the Prime Minister established the extremism taskforce last year.

The Prevent strategy we inherited was deeply flawed. It confused Government policy to promote integration with Government policy to prevent terrorism. It failed to tackle the extremist ideology that undermines the cohesion of our society and inspires would-be terrorists to murder. In trying to reach those at risk of radicalisation, funding sometimes reached the very extremist organisations that Prevent should have been confronting. Ministers and officials sometimes engaged with, and therefore leant legitimacy to, organisations and people with extremist agendas.

Unlike the old strategy, this Government’s Prevent strategy recognises and tackles the danger of non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism. Unlike the old strategy, the new strategy addresses all forms of extremism. Unlike the old strategy, there is now a clear demarcation between counter-terrorism work, which is run out of the Home Office, and the Government’s wider counter-extremist and integration work, which is co-ordinated by the Department for Communities and Local Government. 

Turning to the issue of the unauthorised comments to the media about the Government’s approach to tackling extremism and the improper release of correspondence between Ministers, the Cabinet Secretary undertook a review to establish the facts of what happened last week. As the Cabinet Secretary and Prime Minister concluded, I did not authorise the release of my letter to the Education Secretary. Following the Cabinet Secretary’s review, the Education Secretary apologised to the Prime Minister and to Charles Farr, the director general of the office for security and counter-terrorism. In addition, in relation to further comments to The Timesmy special adviser Fiona Cunningham resigned on Saturday.

Yvette Cooper (Shadow Home Secretary): The Education Secretary will shortly make a statement about Birmingham schools, but last week the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary turned this instead into a public blame game about the Government’s approach to tackling extremism. There are important questions about the oversight and management of these schools, which the House will debate shortly. There are also real and separate concerns about the Government’s failure to work with communities on preventing extremism and about the narrowness of the Home Secretary’s approach.

Both issues are complex and require a thoughtful, sensitive approach and for Ministers to work together, just as Departments, communities, parents, local councils and the police need to do. Instead of showing leadership on working together, the Home Secretary and Education Secretary chose to let rip at each other in public, making it harder to get the sensible joint working we need. That is why the Home Secretary needs to answer specific questions about her conduct in this process, particularly about the letter she wrote to the Education Secretary, which the Home Office released and which has made it harder to get that joint working in place.

The Home Secretary has said that she did not authorise the publication of the letter on the Home Office website, but why did she not insist that it be removed, rather than leaving it in place on the website for three days? She wrote that letter and sent it after she had been advised that The Times newspaper had briefing from the Education Secretary. Did she write that letter in order for it to be leaked, and did she authorise its release to the media? Section 2.1 of the “Ministerial Code” makes it clear that “the privacy of opinions expressed in Cabinet and Ministerial Committees, including in correspondence, should be maintained.”

Did she and her Department breach the “Ministerial Code”? Secondly, the Home Secretary made it clear in her letter that she disagreed with the Education Secretary’s approach. She said: “The allegations relating to schools in Birmingham raise serious questions about the quality of school governance and oversight arrangements in the maintained sector”. Does she stand by her claim that the oversight arrangements for Birmingham schools under the Education Secretary were not adequate?

Thirdly, the Home Secretary’s strategy on preventing extremism has been criticised from all sides—not just by the Education Secretary—for failing to engage with local communities and for having become too narrow, leaving gaps. She now needs to focus on getting those policies back on track, because it matters to communities across the country that there is a serious and sensible approach to these issues and joint working at the very top of the Government.

The reason why the Home Secretary needs to answer these questions about her decisions last week is to assure us that she and the Education Secretary will not put their personal reputations and ambitions ahead of making the right decisions for the country. We cannot have a repeat of the experiences of last week. It is shambolic for the Government, but it is much worse for everyone else.

Theresa May (Home Secretary): On the specific allegations of extremism in schools in Birmingham and the wider question of how we confront extremism more generally, there are very important issues that I will come on to, but I should perhaps first remind the Shadow Home Secretary of a few facts.

Under this Government, foreign hate preachers such as Zakir Naik and Yusuf al-Qaradawi are banned from coming to Britain. Under her Government, they were allowed to come here to give lectures and sermons, and to spread their hateful beliefs. In the case of al-Qaradawi, he was not just allowed to come here; he was literally embraced on stage by Labour’s London Mayor, Ken Livingstone.

I have excluded more foreign hate preachers than any Home Secretary before me. I have got rid of the likes of Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada. The Government do not give a public platform to groups that condone, or fail to distance themselves from, extremism. For the first time, we are mapping out extremists and extremist groups in the United Kingdom. We make sure that the groups we work with and fund adhere to British values, and where they do not, we do not fund them and we do not work with them. None of these things was true when the Labour Party was in power.

The Shadow Home Secretary asked about the “Ministerial Code”. I can tell her that, as the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister concluded, I did not break the code. As she has no evidence for suggesting I did, she should withdraw any allegation of that sort.

The right honourable Lady asked about the letter, its presence on the website and why action was not taken, but action was taken immediately, because the Prime Minister asked the Cabinet Secretary to investigate, and he did.

The right honourable Lady referred to schools in Birmingham. I am afraid she will have to wait for my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary to make his statement; he will do so shortly, and answer questions about school inspections and oversight arrangements.

I would just say this to the right honourable Lady: I am responsible for the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy and, within that, the Prevent strategy, but she seems to misunderstand how the Prevent strategy works, so I think I should perhaps explain it to her. The Home Office sets the Prevent strategy and it is up to the rest of Whitehall, including the Home Office, as well as the wider public sector and civil society, to deliver it.

There is always more to be done, things we can improve and lessons we can learn, but we have made good progress under this Government. Yes, we need to get to the bottom of what has happened in schools in Birmingham, but it is thanks to this Education Secretary that the Department for Education has, for the first time, a dedicated extremism unit to try to stop this sort of thing happening.

The Shadow Home Secretary repeated her complaint that Prevent has become too narrowly drawn under this Government, but she does not seem to realise that we took a very clear decision back in 2011 to split Prevent into the bit that tackles non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism and counter-terrorism, and the Government’s integration strategy, which is quite consciously run out of the Department for Communities and Local Government. If what she is suggesting is that Prevent and integration work should go back to being together and being confused, she needs to think again because her Government’s approach was damaging and caused a lot of resentment among many British Muslims.

What has happened in Birmingham is very serious indeed, and the Education Secretary will set out his response in due course. We need to do everything we can to protect children from extremism and, more generally, to confront extremism in all its forms. The Government are determined to do that. However, it is quite clear from what the Shadow Home Secretary has said today that on extremism, like on so many other things, the Labour Party would take us backwards, not forwards.

Statement on Birmingham Schools

Tristram Hunt (Shadow Secretary of State for Education): The events in Birmingham reveal an education policy in disarray, a Government more concerned about warring egos than school standards and a Prime Minister unable to control his Cabinet. But while Ministers carry on their briefings, sackings and apology, the education and safeguarding of children in the great city of Birmingham must be this House’s priority.

I appreciate the anxiety which parents and pupils are feeling in the midst of this debate. Our focus now has to be on ensuring successful futures for the schools identified today, because what the recent weeks has shown is that the Education Secretary’s vision of controlling every school from behind a desk in Whitehall does not work; that Ofsted has to think much more carefully about the nature of its inspection system; that Birmingham city council has, as Sir Albert Bore acknowledged, some tough questions to ask of the quality of leadership in its children and young people’s directorate; that current systems of schools governance are open to abuse; and that there is a broader debate to be had about education and faith, underperformance among minority ethnic groups and the limits of communalism in multicultural Britain. In an age of multiple religions, identities and cultures, we need to be clearer about what a state education means for children of all faiths and no faiths.

Having read the Ofsted reports, Sir Michael Wilshaw’s letter and the report of the Education Funding Agency, for advance notice of which I thank the Education Secretary, I share the Education Secretary’s concerns about the provision of education and the safeguarding of children in certain schools in Birmingham. It cannot be right that children have been at risk of marginalisation from mainstream society, cultural isolation or even radicalisation. Similarly, the focus on narrow attainment at the expense of students’ personal and social development is a cause for concern. Some of the other Ofsted reports highlight invitations to inappropriate speakers, the downgrading or elimination of sex and relationship education, gender segregation, staff intimidation and a failure to prepare pupils to live in a multicultural society.

Sir Michael reports governors “trying to impose and promote a narrow faith-based ideology in what are non-faith schools.” He says: “They do not ensure that a broad and balanced curriculum equips pupils to live and work in a multi-cultural, multi-faith and democratic Britain.” This is an issue for faith schools as well as non-faith schools. We cannot have such situations in any English schools, and the report by the Education Funding Agency on the culture, ethos and governments of Oldknow academy has raised similar concerns about a restricted curriculum and the furtherance of conservative Islamist views.

We now have at least four investigations into what is occurring in Birmingham schools and today the Education Secretary has announced yet another, but this is an attempt to evade his own responsibility as Secretary of State. It seems to be everyone else’s problem—the Home Secretary’s, Charles Farr’s, the city council’s—but not his own. The truth is that if he had been in charge of the management of his Department, these issues would not have arisen in recent years. The Secretary of State has said that he has acted with speed on the issue, but the truth is that Ministers have been ignoring it for four years. In 2010, the respected Birmingham head teacher Tim Boyes made a presentation to the Department for Education highlighting the risk of a radical agenda infiltrating Birmingham schools, but nothing was done.

Will the Secretary of State confirm today which Ministers were present at Mr Boyes’s presentation, when he was first informed of the details of Mr Boyes’s presentation, when Ofsted was informed of the details of Mr Boyes’s presentation and when the Government’s extremism task force met to discuss Mr Boyes’s presentation? Or, as the Home Secretary has put it, is it true that the Department for Education was warned in 2010 and, if so, why did nobody act?

The Education Secretary speaks of requiring all schools to promote British values; all well and good. Among the greatest of British values is an education system that welcomes and integrates migrant communities, builds successful citizens in a multicultural society and secures safety and high standards for all, and the Education Secretary is failing to do so.

Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education): I thank the honourable Member for his comments and I agree that we need to focus on successful futures for these schools. I also agree that we need a broader debate, to ensure that all schools—faith and non-faith—make sure that children are integrated into modern Britain. But I regret the fact that in his comments he was not able to let us know the Labour party’s position on no-notice inspections. I am grateful to the honourable Member for Birmingham Perry Barr for stressing that he believes that no-notice inspections are right; I am also grateful to the right honourable Member for Dulwich and West Norwood for stressing that. But I am still none the wiser about the position of the honourable Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central. I am afraid that I am also none the wiser about his position on whether or not it is right to promote British values in schools and right to take the other steps that we have taken.

The honourable Gentleman asks about meetings between the Department for Education and the Birmingham headmaster, Tim Boyes, in 2010. I can confirm that I was not at that meeting, nor was I informed about its content. That is why I have asked the permanent secretary to investigate, and I have also asked him to look at other occasions before 2010 when warnings were reportedly given. The honourable Gentleman has previously alleged that I was warned by Mr Boyes in 2010 and did not act; that is not the case and I hope that he will make it clear in the future, and withdraw that allegation.

The honourable Gentleman asks about local oversight of all these schools. It is important to stress that when Tim Boyes raised these issues in 2010 all these schools were facing local oversight from Birmingham city council, and as Sir Michael Wilshaw has concluded, Birmingham City Council failed. As Ofsted makes clear, repeated warnings to those charged with local oversight were ignored. Indeed, it was only after my Department was informed about the allegations in the Trojan horse letter that action was taken, and I thank Birmingham City Council for its co-operation since then.

The honourable Gentleman asks what action was taken overall since 2010. It would be quite wrong to allege, as he does, that the Department has taken no action on extremism since 2010; the opposite is the case. As the Home Secretary pointed out, we were the first Department outside her own to set up a counter-extremism unit. Unreported and under-appreciated, it has prevented a number of extremist or unsuitable organisations from securing access to public funds.

The honourable Gentleman asks about academies and free schools, and the autonomy that they enjoy. First, I must correct him: none of the schools that Ofsted inspected are free schools and all the evidence so far is that free schools in Birmingham are proving a success. I must also correct him on the matter of oversight of academies. Academies are subject to sharper and more rigorous accountability than local authority schools. They are inspected not just by Ofsted but by the Education Funding Agency.

The problems identified today are serious and long-standing. They require us all to take action against all forms of extremism. I have been encouraged throughout my career by support from Opposition Members—the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr, among others—for a non-partisan approach to fighting extremism. I hope that, after his comments today, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central will reflect on the seriousness of these charges and recognise that this is not an appropriate vehicle on which he should make wider criticisms of the school reforms with which he and his party disagree. I hope that, in the future, we can count on him and others working across party boundaries to keep our children safe.


Work and Pensions Select Committee

Evidence was given to the Department for Work and Pensions Select Committee by the Senior Vice President, Clinical Director and Head of Communications of Atos, on the subject of Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments. Following a very controversial year for Atos, during which they pulled out of several contracts to continue providing these Capability Assessments for the Department, the executives were given a tough time by the Select Committee.


Prime Minister's Questions

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): Everyone will have been concerned by what has been happening at certain schools in Birmingham—including girls being forced to sit at the back of the class and the forced removal of head teachers. At the heart of this story is a failure of accountability—locally and nationally—but the key question for parents is this: if there is a serious problem at their children’s school, where do they go to get it sorted out?

David Cameron (Prime Minister): Let me echo what the right honourable Gentleman said about how important it is to get a grip on this issue. The problem of Islamist extremism in our schools is serious—the situation, not just in Birmingham but elsewhere, is extremely serious—and I am absolutely determined, as are the Home Secretary, the Education Secretary and, indeed, the whole Government, to ensure that it is unacceptable in our country. People should be being taught in our schools in a way that ensures that they can play a full part in the life of our country. As for where people should go if they are concerned about what is happening in their schools, they should go first to the head teacher and the chair of governors.

While I hope that we can forge real unity across the House of Commons on the issue of combating Islamist extremism in our schools, I hope that that will not be used as an agenda to try to knock down successful school formats, whether they are academies created under the last Government or free schools created under this Government.

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): There is certainly a degree of common ground on what our kids are taught in schools and on the need for a proper upholding of values, but the Prime Minister said that people should go to the head teacher or the chair of governors. In certain cases, the head teacher was removed and the governing body was part of the problem. The truth is that the question of who parents can go to is a very hard question to answer, because we have an incredibly fragmented school system in which no one is properly responsible. Some of the schools involved were local authority schools and some were academies, but what parents want is for someone who is responsible on a day-to-day basis to be able to intervene quickly when things go wrong. Does there not need to be one system of accountability for all schools to safeguard the education of our children?

David Cameron (Prime Minister): As I said, the first port of call is the head teacher and the chair of governors. However, if people believe that there is a real problem, there is one organisation that has responsibility for checking standards in all these schools, and that, of course, is Ofsted. That is why what the Education Secretary has said about no-notice inspections is so important. The Leader of the Opposition asked how intervention could happen quickly; well, it will happen quickly if we have the no-notice inspections.

What I would say to the Leader of the Opposition, because this is an important debate, is that if we are saying that there is only one model of accountability that will work—and some Members believe that the only model of accountability is local government accountability—it is worth making the point that Birmingham city council failed in its duty to these parents. Indeed, when we look at what caused action to happen, we see that it was only when the Department for Education was contacted that proper action was taken. So yes, let us learn the lessons, and let us listen to the permanent secretary to the Education Department when he reports, but let us learn the right lessons.

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): It is definitely worth making the point about local authorities and academies, and that is why I made the point. As for Ofsted inspections, they may happen only once every five years, and that is not the kind of system of accountability that we need.

Here is the thing on which I think we should be able to agree. No one, surely, believes that the Department for Education can run 20,000 schools from Whitehall. Perhaps the Secretary of State believes that, but I do not think that anyone can possibly really believe it. However, no one is arguing that we should go back to the old local authority system either. Is it not time—[Interruption.] Will Government Members just listen to the question? Is it not time that we had a proper system of local oversight, separate from councils and responsible for standards in all schools, to prevent what happened in Birmingham from happening elsewhere?

David Cameron (Prime Minister): I always listen very carefully to the right honourable Gentleman’s proposals, but I have to say that that sounds like creating a new local bureaucracy at a time when we need to ensure that resources are going into schools for the teachers, the computers, the books and the equipment.

The right honourable Gentleman says that an Ofsted inspection can take place only every five years. The point about the no-notice inspections, if we are going to give this issue the attention that it deserves, is that a report and a suspicion expressed to Ofsted about these problems could result in an instant inspection and instant action.

Let me make just one more point. It is often said that some of the schools with new formats, namely free schools or academies, which I thought that Labour Members supported—well, they used to when they were still sensible—do not act as fast as local authority schools. In fact, completely the opposite is the case. When there has been a problem in free schools or converter academies, they have taken far faster action than many of the local authority schools that have been left in a state of failure for far too long.

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): I have to say to the Prime Minister that he has no answer on the question of accountability because it is not realistic to do it centrally and Ofsted inspections are not going to do the job. Everyone knows that.

I want to turn from the failures in the Department for Education to the failures in the Home Office. Can the Prime Minister update the House on his latest estimate of the backlog of people waiting for their passport applications to be processed?

David Cameron (Prime Minister): It is extremely important that we get the situation with the passport agency right. I understand people are anxious. They want to get their passport. They want to be able to go on holiday. Let me give the right honourable Gentleman the facts. We have 300,000 more applications than is normal at this time of year. We have massively increased the staff. The level of applications outside the normal three-week limit is less than 10% of that 300,000.

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): The truth is that tens of thousands of people are finding that their holidays are being cancelled because they are not getting a passport. The Prime Minister says that the Government have increased the resources of the passport agency. That is not the case. Since 2010, there have been greater responsibilities for the passport agency and fewer resources. When did the Government first know about the problem and how has it been allowed to develop?

David Cameron (Prime Minister): The Government have taken action to deal with this problem not today but in weeks gone past. We have 250 staff already redeployed to the front line, prioritising all outstanding applications. That will allow for an extra 25,000 examinations weekly. The Government have made sure, as I said, that 250 extra staff have been deployed, that there are longer opening hours at the Passport Office—and it is now working seven days a week—and that there are 650 extra staff on the helplines to support customers. The Home Secretary has announced today that new offices will be opened in Liverpool next week, with an additional 100 staff. The Home Office has been on this from the very start, but it all begins with 300,000 extra people applying for passports compared with this time last year. Those are the actions that are being taken. I hope that the right honourable Gentleman will be careful not to try to frighten people in the way he did in his opening question.

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): The Prime Minister says that the Government are sorting out the problem, but tens of thousands of people, we understand, are waiting for their applications to be processed and are finding that their holidays are being cancelled. The truth of the picture of this Government is that we have the Home Secretary fighting with the Education Secretary but not paying attention to the business of government. Here is the thing. To add insult to injury, people are being told that, if they want their applications to be processed within the three-week target, they will have to pay £55 extra. Can the Prime Minister get a grip on this situation and tell families when the backlog will be cleared?

David Cameron (Prime Minister): We will be clearing the backlog not least because we are not wasting time with the national identity card scheme that we inherited from the Labour Party. Is it not interesting that there was not a word about the unemployment figures? The right honourable Gentleman simply cannot bear the fact that in our country we now have 2 million more people in work in the private sector. He cannot stand the fact that unemployment has fallen yet again. The claimant count has come down. He is absolutely allergic to good news because he knows that as our economy gets stronger he gets weaker.

G7 Statement

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): Let me begin where the Prime Minister ended by paying tribute to the commemorations of the 70th anniversary of D-Day that we attended last week. They were a reminder of the incredible bravery that tens of thousands of our servicemen and women who left our shores 70 years ago showed, risking their lives to fight for the freedom that we so often take for granted today. I echo the words of the Prime Minister: it was deeply moving to hear the stories from the Normandy veterans we met and to hear about the sheer courage they showed for our country on that day. Our job is to ensure that those memories and stories continue to be told so that future generations know about the service and sacrifice of those who went before us.

Before turning to the G7, let me also take this opportunity to echo the Prime Minister’s comments about the European Commission President. The message from the European elections was clear: we need reform in Europe, and we need people in top jobs in Europe willing and able to pursue that agenda. The appointment of a new Commission and President provides a vital opportunity to pursue the much-needed European reform that we need, and it must be seized, not squandered.

Turning to the G7, we welcome the G7’s commitment to open trade. What discussions did the Prime Minister have with EU leaders and President Obama on whether the TTIP—transatlantic trade and investment partnership —negotiations for the free trade agreement are on track and when they are likely to be completed? Can he specifically reassure the House—this point has been raised by a number of people—that there will be no impact on our public services, particularly the NHS?

On tax and transparency, the Government must ensure that the bold promises made at Lough Erne are not watered down. In particular, last year we welcomed the OECD work on tackling tax avoidance, and it was promised that developing countries would be part of that process. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that that will be the case going forward? We support the conclusions on international development. In the spirit of consensus, any time the Prime Minister wants to bring forward the promised law to enshrine the 0.7% aid target, the Opposition would of course offer him our support. It was promised in the coalition agreement, but it seems to have mysteriously disappeared.

The agreement of a new international framework for tackling climate change is very important, and the talks in Paris will be key to that, as will making good on the promise made in Copenhagen on climate finance for developing countries. Can the Prime Minister inform the House how the UK’s preparations for playing a part in that are going and assure us that he is working to secure timely contributions from the other G7 members, because we have tended to be at the front of the pack on this, while others have been less so.

Finally, let me turn to Ukraine. First, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, it was absolutely right for G7 countries to boycott this year’s G8 summit, which would have taken place in Sochi. The crisis has been the west’s most serious confrontation with Russia since the end of the cold war and there had to be consequences for Russia’s actions.

Secondly, we welcome the swearing in of President Poroshenko and his first act of offering talks with the Russian-speaking east. I join the Prime Minister in welcoming the initial engagement between President Putin and President Poroshenko. However, can the Prime Minister assure us that in his discussions with President Putin, and following the Ukrainian President’s commitment to signing an association agreement with the EU, there was an assurance that there will be no further Russian aggression in response to that action?

Thirdly, it is with growing concern that we see the volatile situation in eastern Ukraine continuing and rising violence in the south-east of the country. During the Prime Minister’s conversations at the summit, did he seek assurances from Russia that it will accelerate its withdrawal of troops from the border with Ukraine and stop the flow of weapons and pro-Russian insurgents into the country?

The G7 meeting was a demonstration of the unity of international action. It was right for the G7 to call for a de-escalation of the situation in Ukraine, the need to work towards a diplomatic solution and continuing to maintain the pressure on Russia. In taking that action, the Government have our full support.

David Cameron (Prime Minister): I thank the right honourable Gentleman for his response, particularly what he said about D-day, which I think for both of us, and indeed for the Deputy Prime Minister, was an extremely moving occasion. When it comes to the principle that the European Council should decide who is the leader of the Commission and that it should not be determined by some electoral process in the European Parliament that many people did not take part in, I am very grateful for the fact that this is a common British position that is held by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party. I also thank him for that. It is very important for others in Europe to know what an important issue of principle it is for all three parties.

On TTIP and the deal between the EU and the US, I can report that there have been five good meetings on progressing it. We are pushing very hard and trying to set some deadlines for the work. No specific deadline was agreed, but it was agreed at the G7 that further impetus needed to be given to the talks and, specifically, that domestic politicians needed to answer any specific questions or concerns from non-governmental organisations, or indeed public services, that can sometimes be raised and that do not always, when we look at the detail, bear up to examination. Perhaps I will do that with regard to the NHS and write to the right hon. Gentleman about that.

On tax and transparency, we want not only to make sure that countries sign up to the tax tool we have created so that we can see where profits are being earned—that is going very well, with a number of countries signing up—but to find the best way of sharing that information with developing countries so that they can make sure that they are not being ripped off by these companies.

On the 0.7% target, I would say that what matters more than legislation is doing it—actually showing the political will and making the arguments about protecting our promises to the poorest people in the world. On climate change, the right hon. Gentleman is right that Britain and the EU can play a leading role in helping to achieve a deal. We need to make sure that the EU has the political will to get to the right position on this. That should happen in September, and there will be important discussions between now and then to make sure that it happens.

On Ukraine, the right hon. Gentleman asked about how we would respond to further aggression. The agreement at the G7 was, first, that the status quo in terms of aggression and destabilisation in eastern Ukraine is not acceptable. That has to be fixed, plus the fact that Russia must not respond to the trade elements of the agreement between Ukraine and the EU by taking unfair steps against Ukraine. If those things happen, that is how sanctions could be put back on the table.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the withdrawal of Russian troops and the issue of weapons. I said to President Putin that it was welcome that a number of troops had been withdrawn from the borders and that we wanted to see more of that happen, but crucially we have got to see action to stop weapons getting into eastern Ukraine, because it is noticeable that the so-called rebels have, for instance, very technical, high-tech weapons such as MANPADs—man-portable air defence systems—and it is hard to believe that they could be coming from anywhere else.

I hope that that answers the right honourable Gentleman’s questions. I think that in a lot of these areas there is a good measure of cross-party agreement.


Urgent Question on Passports

Theresa May (Home Secretary): Her Majesty’s Passport Office is receiving 350,000 more applications for passport applications and renewals than is normal at this time of year. This is the highest demand for 12 years. Since January, HMPO has been putting in place extra resources to try to make sure that people receive their new passports in good time, but as the House will know there are still delays in the system. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, the number of straightforward passport applicants who are being dealt with outside the normal three-week waiting time is about 30,000.

Her Majesty’s Passport Office has 250 additional staff who have been transferred from back-office roles to front-line operations, and 650 additional staff to work on its customer helpline. HMPO is operating seven days a week and couriers are delivering passports within 24 hours of them being produced. From next week, HMPO is opening new office space in Liverpool to help the new staff to work on processing passport applications.

Despite those additional resources, it is clear that HMPO is still not able to process every application it receives within the normal three-week waiting time for straightforward cases. At the moment, the overwhelming majority of cases are dealt with within that time limit, but that is, of course, no consolation to applicants who are suffering delays and are worried about whether they will be able to go on their summer holidays. I understand their anxiety and the Government will do everything they can—while maintaining the security of the passport—to make sure people get their passports in time.

There is no big-bang single solution so we will take a series of measures to address the pinch points and resourcing problems that HMPO faces. First, on resources, I have agreed with the Foreign Secretary that people applying to renew passports overseas for travel to the UK will be given a 12-month extension to their existing passport. Since we are talking about extending existing passports—documents in which we can have a high degree of confidence—this relieves HMPO of having to deal with some of the most complex cases without compromising security.

Similarly, we will put in place a process so that people who are applying for passports overseas on behalf of their children can be issued with emergency travel documents for travel to the UK. Parents will still have to provide comprehensive proof that they are the parents before we will issue these documents, because we are not prepared to compromise on child protection, but again this should relieve an administrative burden on HMPO.

These changes will allow us to free up a significant number of trained HMPO officials to concentrate on other applications. In addition, HMPO will increase the number of examiners and call handlers by a further 200 staff. Secondly, HMPO is addressing a series of process points to make sure that its systems are operating efficiently.

Thirdly, where people have an urgent need to travel, HMPO has agreed to upgrade them: that is, their application will be considered in full; it will be expedited in terms of its processing, printing and delivery; and HMPO has agreed to upgrade those people free of charge. All these measures are designed to address the problem that is immediately at hand. In the medium to long term, the answer is not just to throw more staff at the problem but to ensure that HMPO is running as efficiently as possible and is as accountable as possible. I have therefore asked the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, to conduct two reviews.

As I said, in the medium to long term the answer is not just to throw more staff at the problem but to ensure that HMPO is running as efficiently as possible and is as accountable as possible. I have therefore asked the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, to conduct two reviews: first, to ensure that HMPO works as efficiently as possible, with better processes, better customer service and better outcomes; and, secondly, to consider whether HMPO’s agency status should be removed, so that it can be brought into the Home Office, reporting directly to Ministers, in line with other parts of the immigration system since the abolition of the UK Border Agency.

Yvette Cooper (Shadow Home Secretary): This has been a sorry shambles from a sorry Department and a Home Secretary who cannot even bring herself to say that word. Government incompetence means that people are at risk of missing their holidays, their honeymoons and their business trips. Every MP has been inundated with these cases and it seems that she has not even known what was going on.

There has been a huge turnaround in the things the Home Secretary has to say from two days ago, when we asked her the same questions. On Tuesday, she told us that the Passport Office was meeting all its targets; on Wednesday, she told us that maybe it needed more staff; and today she says that maybe it needs some changes in policy too. On Tuesday, she told us there was no backlog; on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said there was. On Tuesday, she said, “it is not true” that staff numbers have been cut; on Wednesday, her own figures showed that they have been cut by 600; and now she is having to put them back.

On Tuesday, the Home Secretary told us the only problem was rising summer demand, but now we find out that she took over passports for foreign residents from the Foreign Office in April, even though diplomats warned that it was not working. On Tuesday, the Minister for Security and Immigration said that security was not being compromised, and now we find out that on Monday security checks on addresses and counter-signatories were dropped; and Ministers claim that they did not have a clue what was going on. Well, that much is certainly true.

Can the Home Secretary tell us now how bad the situation is, not only for the straightforward cases but for all the other cases, and what does she mean by “straightforward” cases anyway? How long will it take to get the system back to normal? When all her changes are in place, what can families across Britain expect? When did she first know there was a problem? MPs have been warning about this issue for ages. Why did she not know that those security checks were being dropped? Surely she has spent the past week asking for details about everything that has been going on. Or perhaps she has not, because the truth is that she did not know what was going on. She has come to this late. She has not had her eye on the ball. She has been distracted by other things.

It is really unfair on people who have saved up everything for their holiday, only to see it wrecked by the Home Secretary’s incompetence. Will she now apologise to those facing ruined holidays, business trips or trips back to Britain? Will she get a grip on her Department and sort it out?

Theresa May (Home Secretary): The Shadow Home Secretary has raised a number of issues. The Passport Office started to receive increased numbers of applications not just in recent weeks, but from the beginning of the year, so it took action to increase the number of staff available to deal with them. From January to May, over 97% of applicants in straightforward cases received their passport within three weeks, and over 99% received them within four weeks, but of course that means there were applicants who did not receive their passport within the normal expected time. That is why the Passport Office has been increasing the number of staff throughout this period and will continue to do so, as I have indicated.

The Shadow Home Secretary asked about the difference between straightforward and more complex cases. A case is straightforward when all the information is there and the application form has been properly filled in, signed and so forth. In those cases it is possible to deal with a straightforward renewal very quickly. [Interruption.] The problem comes when the right information is not there or the correct forms have not been sent in. A case ceases to be straightforward if it is necessary for the Passport Office to go back to the individual to request other documents, which of course delays the process. We are looking at part of the system to ensure that that is being done as efficiently as possible.

The Shadow Home Secretary asked about taking over the process of passport applications from British nationals overseas. Before March this year that was done by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at processing centres worldwide. The change was made to provide better value for the fee-payer and greater consistency in how overseas passport applications are assessed, and to use our expertise to better detect and prevent fraud. The checks needed for applications from overseas can take longer than those for applications in the UK. Security is our priority and we will not issue a passport until the necessary checks have been completed. However, as I said in my statement, for those applying for a renewal from overseas, where we can have confidence in the documents that they have already had and the process they have been through, we will be offering an extension of 12 months.

Finally, the Shadow Home Secretary raised the issue of staff numbers, as did other Members earlier this week. Here are the figures: in March 2012 the Passport Office had 3,104 members of staff—[Interruption.] Opposition Members talk about 2010, so I will make one simple point: when we took office there were staff in HM Passport Office who had been brought in to deal with the new identity card. This Government scrapped the identity card. Over the past two years the number of staff in the Passport Office has increased from 3,104 to 3,445. That is the answer. People might say that this is about reduced staff numbers, but actually staff numbers have been going up over the past two years.

Business Questions

Angela Eagle (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons): I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business, and may I also take this opportunity to congratulate my honourable Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire on her unopposed re-election as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee? She is doing such a good job that no one even thought she should be replaced. We could not say the same about many Government Ministers.

In future business there is an eerie silence on the recall Bill, and the Deputy Prime Minister managed, in true Lib Dem fashion, to disagree with his own draft Bill only last week. Can the Leader of the House tell us when the Government’s latest version of the recall Bill will actually be published?

A report from the National Audit Office has revealed that the Government’s armed forces restructure is in chaos. The plans are already six years behind schedule, and instead of making savings of nearly £11 billion, it looks like these changes are going to cost the public purse more. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee has rightly described the additional cost as scandalous. The changes risk exposing a dangerous capability gap in the nation’s defences, so will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement from the Defence Secretary so he can explain these failings in his Department?

After yet another weekly session where the Prime Minister focused on the rhetoric and ignored the reality, I have decided that we need a regular “mind the gap” watch to highlight the Government’s failure to live up to their PR hype. This week alone we have had the news that the housing benefits bill is set to soar by yet another £1 billion despite the Government promising to make work pay and provide enough affordable homes, food bank use is up by 54% last year alone despite the Government saying they would face up to the cost of living crisis, and, despite matching our promise to end child poverty by 2020, this week a report from their own Child Poverty Commission said that was not remotely “realistic”.

The Government’s Whitehall farce continues to run and run. The Conservatives are blaming their multiple failures on the civil service, their special advisers, the last Labour Government, and now they are even trying to blame Oxfam. The Prime Minister wanted to reshuffle his deck, but has now realised that he has got a pack of jokers. The Liberal Democrat headquarters managed to tweet: “we didn’t go into govt because it was the right thing to do, we went into govt because it was the right thing to do”.

[Hon. Members: “Where are they?”] There is not a single Liberal Democrat Member here; they are all at a lesson on how to tweet properly. Only the Liberal Democrats could change their minds halfway through a tweet. After their disastrous election results, the Deputy Prime Minister has finally had some good news this week. They have finally topped a ballot—but it was only the ballot for private Members’ Bills. Meanwhile, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has declared that the Liberal Democrats could be the biggest party in 2025, and William Hill has pulled its sponsorship from the Liberal Democrats’ closest rivals, the Monster Raving Loony party. This clearly demonstrates that there is only one joke party left in British politics.


Madeleine Moon (Bridgend, Labour): On average, 7,500 people are on the waiting list for transplants and each year 1,000 people die because an organ is not available. May we have a debate on why we cannot co-ordinate transplant week with the transplant games? That would allow us to raise the profile of the Donate Life campaign and then, we hope, three people a week would not die waiting for an organ to become available.

Andrew Lansley (Leader of the House of Commons): I very much share the honourable Lady’s sense of the priority and importance of this issue. I was the sponsor in this House of transplant week some years ago, because more transplants take place in my constituency than anywhere else in the United Kingdom; it contains Papworth hospital, a leading heart and lung transplant centre, and Addenbrooke’s hospital, which deals with livers, kidneys, and pancreatic and other organs. If I may, I will ask my honourable Friends at the Department of Health, who work with the charities concerned, about the timings of these important charitable events and what possibilities there might be, as we do want to make further progress. The number of people on the organ donation register has increased by 50%, which is having a big impact on the availability of organs, but we need to do more. I hope we will be able to co-ordinate things in the way she describes.

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