Ministers do give accurate answers, and that is always important. What Mr Speaker said at the end of the urgent question was absolutely right: Members have a right to seek redress of grievance for their constituents, and Ministers have an obligation to respond as helpfully and efficiently as they can. Every day since 24 August, the call handlers have answered more than 94% of the calls that were made, and the average wait time since 20 August has been under a minute. The FCDO replied to all emails from MPs received by 30 August asking for an update by Monday evening—[Interruption.] Well, that is the information that is collated: emails received by 30 August have been replied to. [Interruption.] I would say to people who have not received a reply: resend your email—[Laughter.] I am appealing to people’s sense of realism. We all know from our own constituency email inboxes that emails do not always get through, so if anyone is in any doubt about an email, I would say that they should resend it. Hon. and right hon. Members have a right to a response, and the Foreign Office is working very hard to get those responses, but if Members are not getting a response, they should resend their emails, and if they do not get a response to that, they can come to my office and I will help them to get a reply. I have said many times that, as Leader of the House, I will always do my best to facilitate Members’ correspondence.
The dangerous and unnecessary small boat crossings that we saw again last weekend are wrong, and the Government are determined to crack down on the criminal gangs that drive that activity and profit from it. I can tell my hon. Friend that there have been nearly 300 arrests and 65 convictions, and that we have prevented more than 10,000 migrant attempts. I was pleased to see that efforts are going to be made to send the boats back. That policy has been used very effectively by our friends in Australia. It took the profit away from the people smugglers, who are the real cause of the problem and who trade on the distress of unfortunate people.
There is a full legislative programme, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and Bills are being brought forward and processed rapidly by the House. We are doing well at achieving our constitutional obligations. In relation to the online harms Bill, the absence of the Bill does not remove the responsibility from the providers of these services to ensure that they are run and provided properly and that antisemitic material has no place on any properly run website.
Indeed. What is being done is ensuring that things open up in a progressed way so that the lowest risk activities open first and the higher risk ones open later to ensure that it is safe to do so. The programme being followed is being followed very safely and seems to be working. I said earlier that some further openings will happen in mid-July and that is now not very far off, so there is good news coming. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to be championing those businesses. They want to get back to business. The Government want them to be able to get back to business, but it has to be safe.
First, may I say good luck to all those taking part in the Great Exhibition of the North? It sounds like an amazing opportunity for local businesses and the community to come together. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Transport Secretary is doing everything possible to sort out the appalling situation with Northern Rail, and he believes and is reporting that the situation is improving. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that the great north rail project means an investment of more than £1 billion designed to deliver space for 40,000 more passengers and over 2,000 more services a week, but nevertheless there can be no excuses for what has happened in recent weeks, which has been just appalling. I also heard his bid for a Back-Bench debate on tobacco on 19 July, and I particularly commend the Backbench Business Committee for this afternoon’s very important debate on Windrush.
I know my hon. Friend will have plenty of support from across the House for his suggestion, which originally came from my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I am sure the Minister will come to the House in due course, once the consultation is closed, with further ideas on what more can be done. I draw the attention of hon. Members to Housing, Communities and Local Government questions on Monday, where they may wish to raise this issue directly with Ministers.
“A foothold” is a difficult thing to specify, but some people have said, for instance, that we should keep the Chamber functioning—I guess that is what most people mean. The difficulty with keeping the Chamber running is that the Chamber is not just the Chamber. It is not a hermetically sealed unit; the air conditioning, the heating, the electricity and all the rest of it come from somewhere. The public have to have access through large parts of the building. We would also have to access from somewhere, and it could not just be through some kind of polytunnel. It is actually phenomenally difficult to achieve that.
There was one other option, which was for us to sit in Westminster Hall. I love the idea of sitting in Westminster Hall. The hon. Member for somewhere down in the south-west—the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)—and I were joint advocates of that. The problem is that the floor is not solid—there are no solid foundations—and we would have to put something inside the roof, which could destroy it, so there are real problems.
I am giving to give way but then I must make some progress, because so many people want to speak.
I could not have said it better myself. My hon. Friend is absolutely right and puts his finger on the heart of these reforms. They are fair and sensible. Whatever Opposition Members say today, I am entirely comfortable, as a Unionist, in presenting them to this House.
I know the hon. Gentleman was in his place during Energy and Climate Change questions just now when these issues properly were raised. I cannot endorse the point he makes. It is important for people to be aware of the fact that the pension fund for any set of employees is designed to give them the maximum financial security in their old age. It is not intended necessarily to be an investment to be used simply in relation to their existing employment. Considerable risks are associated with that. None the less, these are matters for the trustees of any individual pension fund, but as he has raised these issues I will raise them once again with my hon. Friends at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, who are in continuing discussions with the trade unions and the businesses concerned.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and it allows us further to reinforce the point my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made about paying tribute to those who have campaigned and welcoming what has been offered now by Ford. I particularly pay tribute to my hon. Friend for leading the debate on 12 December last year on these issues. It is something of a novelty to be invited to have a debate not in order to ask for something, but to celebrate that something that has been asked for has been achieved. It leads us into new and happier territory for debates in this House. I cannot immediately promise that, but it is an engaging thought.
The hon. Lady raises an important issue. I know that there has been a dialogue between Ministers and the Association of British Insurers to ensure that adequate household insurance is available to those who live on flood plains. I will ask the appropriate Minister—I think that it will be a Treasury Minister—to write to the hon. Lady to bring her up to date with the discussions that are taking place, which I think are related in some way to the investment that the Government are making in flood protection measures in the areas concerned.
I understand my hon. Friend’s disappointment at the plans to close the Coryton oil refinery. It is disappointing that, so far, an alternative buyer has not been found. I understand that inquiries are still being made by the administrators, who are looking at a range of options for the future of the facility. I am not sure that keeping the refinery open indefinitely at public expense would be the best use of resources, but we are working with Thurrock council’s taskforce, which was set up in the light of the announcement, and I will ensure that my ministerial colleague at the Department of Energy and Climate Change does all that he can to achieve a satisfactory outcome. Of course I understand the concern of those who are losing their jobs.
I doubt that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House ever forgets that fact.
The Government conducted an experiment with a public reading stage on the Protection of Freedoms Bill. Following an evaluation of the experiment, we intend to conduct trials in the second Session to determine the best ways for members of the public to comment on specific details of legislation. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I will update the House on our detailed plans early in the next Session.
It is very important that, before we undertake further pilots of public reading stages, we have an opportunity to reflect on any improvements that could be made to the technology and the processes involved. That will involve talking to many people. Hon. Members may have seen the recent announcement that Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has agreed to advise the Government on improving open government, and we will want that work to influence how we proceed with public reading stages.
I very much hope that the Chancellor will take on board what my hon. Friend has said. We are consulting on integrating the operation of income tax and national insurance contributions, but I am sure that that would be a step in the right direction.
We have just had Transport questions, when my hon. Friend might have had an opportunity to raise that matter. It would be up to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to propose such a piece of legislation and it would have to take its place in what, I have to tell my hon. Friend, is a rather long queue.
I met President Obama’s copyright tsar, Victoria Espinel, when she was in this country last week. We had a meeting with the IP crime group, which is very effectively taking forward the enforcement of measures to tackle IP crime. The Minister, Baroness Wilcox, is also an extremely effective champion of the IP industry.
In an earlier answer, I praised Bournemouth university. One of the first things that I did as a Minister was to commission the Livingstone-Hope report on skills in the video games industry to ensure that our courses were fit for purpose, and I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate Sir Alex Hope on his well-deserved OBE for that work.
I dispute the premise on which the hon. Gentleman bases his question. The OECD report published yesterday states:
“The government is pursuing a necessary and wide ranging programme of fiscal consolidation and structural reforms aimed at achieving stronger growth and a rebalancing of the economy over time.”
That is a somewhat different position from the one that he suggested. If there are surplus assets that can be returned to the Treasury, I am sure they would be gratefully received.
I announced in the forthcoming business two days of Report stage on the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, and my hon. Friend may have an opportunity either to table amendments or to take part in the debates so that he can ventilate his concern and urge the Government to do even better.
It is a pleasure to start this debate, particularly on this day, which is seeing another first for Parliament.
In 1948, a tired world, exhausted after two world wars, did the right thing when it came together to proclaim the universal declaration of human rights. The concept was simple: it was to reaffirm the faith
“in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women”,
and to state:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
In 1998, the United Kingdom passed the Human Rights Act, which merely enshrined the European convention on human rights in British law. We were one of the first nations to sign the convention in 1950. The Foreign Secretary stated at the weekend that he wants to increase Britain’s influence in the world, but we cannot take our place on the world stage while making a commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act.
Members will also be aware of the doctrine of the margin of appreciation that applies to interpreting the convention. It provides for a range of discretion, under which the convention can be interpreted differently in different member states, to take into account cultural, historical and philosophical differences between Europe and the nation in question, so there is no need to be fearful of the Act.
I am sure that the whole House will agree that the dignity and worth of a person is important, and that equality is a goal worth pursuing, yet there are millions of men and women who struggle silently for equality at great personal cost. In Iran, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is still awaiting her fate. The signatories to the open letter in The Times to the president and supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and a letter from 119 Members of this House to the Iranian Government have called on them to free her. The charges against her have changed. Her lawyer has had to flee. Her son has been arrested, as have German nationals. The German Bundestag has now passed a resolution to engage with the Iranian Government to lift the death penalty. Ashtiani’s human rights, like her testimony, count for less than a man’s. The man who was her co-accused is free and does not face the daily torture that she does of not knowing whether she is to live or die. We call on the Iranian Government to start the new year by resolving to free her.
Men and women both suffer human rights violations, but the position is more difficult for women, because 70% of the worlds illiterate people are female, and 75% of the world’s refugees and internally displaced persons are female. Women also face barriers, which give them less access to legal institutions, for example. In Burma, the recent release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was internationally welcomed and celebrated, but with the failing economic situation there are high volumes of human trafficking, especially of women and girls. These are the 21st century slaves, and we should be outraged in the same way as William Wilberforce was in this House. The enslavement of girls and women into prostitution is demeaning, offensive and undertaken by coercion.
Women are routinely subjected to genital mutilation in countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, and the effect is now being seen here. This is not a religious issue; it reflects deep-rooted inequalities between the sexes and extreme discrimination against women. Worst of all, it is carried out on the voiceless: babies and young girls. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 must be enforced, but other techniques should also be used to educate people and to explain to those countries that this is not an acceptable practice.
In 1990, the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote of the 100 million missing women. He noted that women lived longer than men in most circumstances. Even poorer countries in Latin America and Africa have more females than males. In places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they disappear. China has 107 males for every 100 females; in India, the figure is 108, and in Pakistan, 111. Kerala, which has championed the education of women, has the same excess of females as the United States, however.
In 2001, the World Bank argued that promoting gender equality was crucial to combating global poverty. The Self Employed Women’s Association was founded in India in 1972, and, by supporting women who are starting businesses, has achieved staggering success in raising living standards. Other initiatives, such as the “Because I am a Girl” campaign—Members may be aware that it organised a display in the Committee Corridor—are attempting to break the cycle of gender discrimination and poverty through education and targeted support. Such projects and initiatives help women to achieve their rightful place in societies that put them at risk following conflicts that render them victims. The transformation of those women's lives also transforms destabilised societies.
The principles of the universal declaration of human rights can be implemented through the empowerment of women through education and the use of micro-finance to give them equality. I believe that the struggle for gender equality is the moral challenge of this century, and that the future of the world depends on it.
I take this opportunity to talk about an important issue that affects the economic welfare of my constituency and the north-east of England.
The Government recently postponed a decision on the intercity express programme. A final decision is to be made in the new year. The intercity express programme will replace the rolling stock on the east coast main line and the great western line. The previous Government appointed Hitachi as the preferred bidder, and Hitachi selected Newton Aycliffe in my constituency as its preferred site at which to build a new fleet of trains if the contract goes ahead. That means the creation of British jobs, a much-needed boost to the private sector in the north-east of England and the arrival of a major manufacturer in the region.
The Government are also considering an alternative train system that would entail coupling diesel engines to electric trains, an option that would more than likely mean that the trains would be imported from abroad, offering none of the benefits to the UK economy and adding further delays as the whole project would have to go out to tender again.
If there was ever a reason why the existing rolling stock needs to be replaced, it is evident today. The east coast main line is suspended between King’s Cross and Peterborough, with trains breaking down here, there and everywhere. The trains rely on overhead electric cables, and when they are down the trains stop. The Hitachi trains are bimodal, which means that they can switch from diesel to electric and vice versa when the need arises. Southeastern operates such Hitachi high speed trains, which have an excellent record in the current bad weather. That is a ringing endorsement of the technology and work force.
Given the combination of the weather and poor rolling stock, the journey home to the north-east for me and many others will not be a very pleasant experience over the next 48 hours. But what is more important is the economic impact of Hitachi’s desire to move to the north-east of England. The move to Newton Aycliffe would create 800 direct jobs and more than 7,000 jobs in the supply chain, many of them in the region.
Hitachi’s investment would be the biggest investment in the north-east of England since Nissan back in the 1980s. It would also tick many other boxes for the Government. It would grow the private sector. There would be a £48 return on every £1 of public investment. There is no requirement for public sector investment until after the next election, well after the scope of the present CSR. More important is the additional income to the Exchequer from the creation of so many manufacturing jobs, the average wage being between about £25,000 and £27,000. The northern TUC has published a study by the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn, Germany, which revealed that such jobs at such rates of pay would generate about £13,000 per employee. In the case of the 800 jobs at Hitachi, that is £10.4 million a year in saved benefits and lost sums raised through direct and indirect taxes. If we consider the supply chain too, it has been estimated the figure would rise to over £100 million a year, a sum not to be sniffed at when we all want the deficit to be cut in a careful and structured way.
In Sedgefield, unemployment stands at 1,935. According to Government figures published last week, every unemployed person costs the Exchequer £7,800 in benefits and lost taxes. Therefore, unemployment in Sedgefield is costing the country about £15 million a year. That estimate is based on someone leaving jobseeker’s allowance and earning £12,200 a year. I have two issues with that. The average wage is higher than £12,200, so the cost to the Exchequer per person unemployed will be higher. Secondly, it shows what a great paucity of ambition the Government have for those who are out of work that they believe a person will leave JSA and earn just £12,200 a year. We need real jobs with real wages and a real future. Hitachi would offer the area that, and that is why this is so important to my constituency. Hitachi coming to Newton Aycliffe would help the town fulfil its ambition. If the intercity express programme does not go ahead or the programme is ordered in from abroad, thereby exploiting British jobs, the people of the north-east will feel as if the door is being slammed on the region and on their future.
Finally, I want to thank the thousands of constituents who signed the petition supporting the Hitachi bid and the Northern TUC for its help, along with the North East chamber of commerce, Unite the Union, the Federation of Small Businesses, The Northern Echo and well over 100 companies in the region who have leant their support to the Hitachi campaign. The intercity express programme must go ahead if we are to see private sector growth in the north-east of England. The economic case has been made—more jobs, greater tax income, and the biggest investment in the region for 30-odd years. Hitachi has shown great faith in the north-east. It is time for the Government to do the same by giving the go-ahead to the intercity express programme originally proposed by the last Government and by allowing Hitachi and the north-east to get on with the job.
On that note, I wish everybody a merry Christmas.
Absolutely. I visited the event in Leicester last year, and, as the hon. Lady will be aware, the Special Olympics GB team has already been to No. 10 Downing street to meet the Prime Minister before going off to the games in Warsaw. I am absolutely behind the team and would be delighted to meet them. If the hon. Lady would just give me a month while we get the 2018 bid out of the way, I should be absolutely delighted to do anything I can to help.
I am happy to answer that question. As part of the licence fee negotiation that we concluded, the BBC has committed to put £150 million into broadband roll-out for every year of the new BBC licence fee settlement. That is how we shall get the nearly £1 billion of secured investment for the broadband roll-out, and I hope it will benefit my hon. Friend’s and everyone else’s constituency.