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Volume 596: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2015

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.

The great British jobs boom has earned the Prime Minister and the Chancellor the admiration of leaders the world over and the support of my constituents. Does my right hon. Friend agree that businesses in Kingston and Surbiton could create even more jobs if we had better train services and, particularly, Crossrail 2?

First of all, let me start by welcoming my hon. Friend after his excellent election result. He is right to say that we have had something of a jobs boost in this country, with more than 2 million more people in work. In his constituency, for example, the claimant count has fallen by 48% since 2010. Our manifesto made it clear that we will push forward with plans for Crossrail 2 and we are working with Transport for London on a detailed business case. Let me take this opportunity to praise everyone who has been involved in Crossrail 1. The Secretary of State for Transport and I were in those tunnels a week ago. The tunnelling phase is complete. It runs for 26 miles across London. It is a feat of great engineering and it is going to be brilliant for our economy.

Last night, the House agreed that there should be an EU referendum, but it has to be done in the right way and it has to be fair. First, on the issue of who can vote, why will the Prime Minister not let 16 and 17-year-olds vote? This is about the future of our country. They did in the Scottish referendum. It is their future too.

First, may I thank the right hon. and learned Lady and all those Labour MPs who joined us in the Division Lobbies last night? After five years of opposing a referendum, to watch them all trooping through was like seeing the biggest mass conversion since that Chinese general baptised his troops with a hosepipe. It was very impressive.

On 16 and 17-year-olds, I believe this House should vote on that issue. The Conservative manifesto is clear and my position is clear: I think we should stick with the current franchise at 18, but the House of Commons can vote.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s initial response to my question, may I just say that the right hon. Gentleman won the election and he is the Prime Minister, so he does not need to do ranting and sneering and gloating. He can just answer the question. Frankly, he should show a bit more class.

The right hon. Gentleman and I both want to see a yes vote, but it is essential that the referendum is fair and seen to be fair, so why are they changing the law to exempt the Government from the rules which are there to ensure the Government do not inappropriately use public funds or the government machine in the short campaign. Will he think again on this?

The right hon. and learned Lady is right that it was an excellent debate last night. A lot of important issues were raised, and they can be discussed in Committee. Let me answer directly this issue of purdah, because all the concerns raised can be addressed. There are two reasons for looking at this carefully and taking the proposals we put forward. First, as the Europe Minister said, because the European issue is so pervasive, I do not want a situation where, in the four weeks before a referendum, Ministers cannot talk about the European budget, make statements about European Court judgments, respond to European Councils and all the rest of it. That seems a very real danger, as the Europe Minister set out last night.

The second issue is a bigger one. When the negotiation is complete and the Government have taken a clear view, I do not want us to be neutral on this issue; I want us to speak clearly and frankly. In the last few weeks before the Scottish referendum, the UK Government were often being advised that they could not take a view on the future of the UK. I think that was a ridiculous situation, which is why we have proposed changes to the purdah rules. However, the right hon. and learned Lady raises an important question, and it will be debated in the House, but I have set out the position as I see it.

The problem is that it is not a change in the rules, but a blanket exemption. We must have a legal framework in the Bill. We cannot rely on ministerial restraint.

The Electoral Commission said that the referendum should not be on the same day as any other election, and we strongly agree. This is an important constitutional issue that should be considered on its own. Will the Prime Minister guarantee a separate voting day for the referendum?

Again, the right hon. and learned Lady raises an important issue of process and procedure that should be debated and discussed in the House. [Interruption.] I will tell you exactly my view in two seconds. My view is that the timing of the referendum should be determined by the timing of the renegotiation—when the renegotiation is complete, we set a date for the referendum. I do not think it should be determined by the timing of other elections. For instance, it was possible to have the AV referendum and other elections on the same day. I think people are capable of making two decisions, but, as I say, the timing of the referendum should be determined by the timing of the renegotiation; that is the clear principle.

Apropos the negotiations, we are talking about whether the referendum should take place on the same day as other elections. The Prime Minister mentioned the AV referendum. We agree with the Electoral Commission that it was not right that it was held on the same day as other elections, but we will have the opportunity to consider these issues further in the G7 statement coming next.

I would like to turn to an issue important to many families across the country. Before the election, the Prime Minister promised that his tax-free childcare policy would be launched this autumn. Is he on track to meet that promise?

It is an important principle we are introducing: if families spend up to £10,000, they should be able to get £2,000 back. This is a Government for working people that want to help people with the cost of childcare. Not only are we doing that—the Chancellor will set out the timing of the introduction in his Budget—but we are doubling to 30 hours the number of hours people will get if they have three and four-year-olds. The Government are determined to act for working people.

It does not help working people to make promises and then not meet them.

Let me ask the Prime Minister about another election promise. We know that childcare providers already have to increase their fees to parents who pay for additional hours above the 15 hours they get free. Given that the free entitlement is going up to 30 hours, how can he guarantee that families will genuinely benefit and will not just end up being hit by increased fees elsewhere?

First, we will have a review of the fees being paid by the Government to childcare providers, because I want this to be quality childcare. Secondly, there is the increase from 15 to 30 hours, which will be of real benefit to working families. Thirdly, we have this new tax relief coming in, so if someone spends up to £10,000, they will get £2,000 back. That means that families under this Government will have far greater choice and resources on childcare. The right hon. and learned Lady said the other day that a

“greater number of people…feel relieved that we are not in government.”

I suspect that those parents will feel the same way.

He just cannot help but gloat, can he? He can go right ahead and gloat, but why can he not just answer the question about childcare? Perhaps we could have an answer to the next question rather than a gloating session.

I will try again. We know that grandparents often help out. Most parents say they just could not manage without the grandparents, but increasingly those grandparents are not retired but are themselves working. Will the Prime Minister agree to look at how we can help grandparents get flexibility at work by allowing them to share parental leave?

I am certainly happy to look at that because the right to request flexible working has been championed by this Government. I am sorry if the right hon. and learned Lady thinks I am gloating. It must be the first time someone has ever been accused of gloating while quoting the Leader of the Opposition. For instance, she said the other day:

“People tend to like a leader who they feel is economically competent”.

I think she has been talking a lot of sense, and I shall be quoting her as often as I possibly can.

I was pleased to hear the announcement in our manifesto that there would be a review of business rates. This is something that came across loud and clear over the election period in St Albans. My businesses want assistance with this. Can I ask the Prime Minister, through his good offices, to get the Chancellor to get a move on, as this is so important for good business across the country?

The Chancellor will have heard my hon. Friend’s instructions loud and clear. We do want to get on with this review of business rates. Like all Members, my hon. Friend and I will have listened to the complaints of high street stores that sometimes feel they face unfair competition from internet retailers who do not face the same sort of business rates. Let me give this warning, however. Business rates raise a large amount of revenue—revenue that is necessary—and it will not be possible to come up with a review that will satisfy everybody.

The UK remains in the top 10 most unequal societies in the world. Helping people on low incomes receive the living wage can be transformational for them and their families. Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity to praise all employers who deliver the living wage?

I am very happy to praise all those employers who deliver the living wage. That has long been the Conservative position and it is set out in the manifesto. I am proud to say as Prime Minister, and I hope this is not gloating, that No. 10 is a minimum wage—a living wage—employer, too.

However, the Scottish Government are the only Government in the UK as a whole that are an accredited living wage employer. Will the Prime Minister tell us when he will ensure that all UK Government Departments, all agencies and all employees will receive the living wage?

We want to make progress. The Scottish Government obviously have the advantages of the additional funding they have been getting under this Government. I notice that consensus in the Scottish National party has rather broken down over full fiscal autonomy. Of course, if they got full fiscal autonomy, they would probably not be able to afford to be a living wage employer. I have been following these things closely. The new hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan) has called the policy “economic suicide”, while the new hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) has called full fiscal autonomy “a disaster”. It seems that the SNP’s new approach is to demand something they do not want and then complain when they do not get it.

Q2. A far-right neo-Nazi group is planning to stage a demonstration in Golders Green, an area with a large Jewish population, on Saturday 4 July. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on the police to use all their public order powers to combat this anti-Semitic demonstration? (900201)

I think that my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House. I can tell him that the Home Secretary recently wrote to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner about that specific demonstration, and has said that when any criminal offences are committed and when individuals have demonstrated anti-Semitic hostility, they should face the full force of the law. We do have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in our country, but people should not feel free to extend those freedoms to harassment or threatening behaviour. That is not permitted, and it should be prosecuted.

Q3. As a new Member of Parliament, I am still wondering whether the Prime Minister ever actually answers a question during Question Time, but if he does, can he explain why my city of Bradford—which was “the” northern powerhouse—continues to be neglected in his regional plan? (900202)

First, on behalf of the whole House, I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. She replaces someone who had, I think, the unique distinction of always speaking with immense power, but always being completely wrong. I am sure that she will take a different approach.

What I will say to the hon. Lady about Bradford is that it should be part of the northern powerhouse, because the concept means linking the great cities of the north of England and making the most of them. As for Bradford’s being neglected, I would say quite the opposite. The spending power per dwelling of the hon. Lady’s local authority is nearly £2,300, which is nearly £300 more than the average for England.

Q4. The long-term economic plan—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—is working in Worcestershire, which has the third fastest economic growth rate in England. Moreover, unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 62% since 2010. Does the Prime Minister agree that the further redoubling of the Cotswold line would provide additional economic benefits for my constituents, and for all who live along the route? (900203)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on winning his constituency. He has got off to a tremendous start by not only mentioning the long-term economic plan, but mentioning a railway line that goes straight through the middle of my constituency. I want to see the further redoubling of that line, so he is already my new best friend.

As my hon. Friend will know, we plan to operate intercity express trains between London and Worcester from 2017 onwards, and new and updated trains are planned for every part of the Great Western franchise. However, as my hon. Friend says, further investment in the redoubling of the railway between Oxford and Worcester really is necessary if we are to deliver the extra and more reliable services that both his constituents and mine would like.

Q5. As a Back Bencher, the Prime Minister campaigned for group B strep awareness. I am sure that he is aware of Northwick Park hospital’s highly successful programme of universal GBS screening, which proves the very case that he used to make. Will he now encourage Ministers to roll out GBS-specific testing as a routine offer to all pregnant women in all our health services? (900204)

May I say how grateful I am to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue? Two of my constituents, Craig and Alison Richards, came to my surgery and raised it with me, and that is what caused me to become interested in it in the first place.

We have made some big breakthroughs. The national health service is doing much more screening and taking much more action to help those who potentially have the infection, although there are difficulties with national programmes because of the whole issue of anti-microbial resistance and the use of antibiotics. However, I am happy to take this opportunity to look into what has been achieved so far and what more can be done, and then write to the hon. Gentleman.

In my constituency, where the average wage is far lower than the national average, cutting the taxes of the lowest paid and helping them to stand on their own two feet is the most effective poverty-tackling measure there is. Will the Prime Minister explain how the Conservatives will reward hard work and benefit those who earn the minimum wage, not only in Plymouth but throughout the country?

First, may I welcome my hon. Friend to this place and praise him for his maiden speech which moved all those who heard it or have subsequently read it? He is absolutely right that the best way to tackle poverty is to get people into work, then make sure that there is a decent minimum wage that rises over time, and then cut people’s taxes by taking those earning minimum wage out of income tax. Our plan to raise the personal allowance to £12,500 will make a real difference and I want to see progress on the minimum wage going on at the same time as that, but all the while we have to recognise that the absolute foundation is a growing economy that is producing jobs. Getting into work is the greatest way to combat poverty.

Q6. Can the Prime Minister reassure me that press reports that he is going to cut funding support to household energy efficiency programmes are wrong, and that instead he is committed to maintaining support for programmes to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society have warm homes to live in? (900205)

We made some very big progress in the last Parliament with home insulation programmes and support for solar panels. There are now almost 1 million homes in the UK with solar panels. We want to carry on with those programmes and make sure there is value for money.

I hope it will not be seen as gloating to welcome the hon. Gentleman back, because he is quite a rare bird: a Labour MP in the south of England.

Q7. In my constituency of Morley and Outwood one issue that is constantly raised on the doorstep is economic migration from within the EU. The Government have already taken steps and clear action to reduce incentives that draw migrants from within the European Union, but what further steps are being taken to tackle economic migration from outside the EU? (900206)

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. I have to say that her election result was one I was dreaming of, and am very grateful for. She is absolutely right to raise this issue. In the past it has been too easy for some businesses to bring in workers from overseas rather than to take the long-term decision to train our workforce here at home. We need to do more to change that, which means reducing the demand for migrant labour, and that is part of our plan. So I can tell the House today that the Home Secretary has written to the Migration Advisory Committee asking it to report back on how to significantly reduce work-related migration from outside Europe. It is going to advise on restricting our work visas to genuine skills shortages and specialists. It is going to look at putting a time limit on how long sectors can claim to have a skills shortage, because frankly they should be dealing with that. We are going to look at a new skills levy on businesses who recruit foreign workers so that we can boost the funding to UK apprenticeships, and we are also going to look at raising salary thresholds to stop businesses using foreign workers to undercut wages. All these steps, combined with the measures we are taking within the European Union, can help bring migration under control, but also, more to the point, make sure that hard-working British people who get the skills and training can find the jobs that will help them build a better life.

Q8. Six young boys with the devastating disease of muscular dystrophy will be in Downing Street this afternoon, supported by Muscular Dystrophy UK, to make a plea to the Prime Minister to help them access the Duchenne drug Translarna that they need now to stop them losing their mobility. Will the Prime Minister make time to see them and will he tell the House that these children can expect the positive answer they so desperately need now? (900207)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. Muscular dystrophy is a terrible disease and I hugely admire the courage shown by the sufferers and their families. Unfortunately, I will not be able to hold that meeting this afternoon because I have to go from the statement after Prime Minister’s questions straight to an EU summit in Brussels. I do remember meeting Archie Hill, who is one of the group, back in January. He is an amazing young boy—incredibly brave. The situation is that NHS England has now completed a consultation on how it prioritises investment in these specialised services, including drugs for rare conditions. It closed at the end of April and a decision can be expected in the near future. I recognise how vital it is to give those affected and their families a decision as soon as possible.

Q9. Thank you colleagues, and thank you Mr Speaker. On Monday, I attended the formal opening of the Magna Carta Centre in Lincoln—a magnificent vault built in our city’s beautiful castle to showcase Lincoln’s original Magna Carta as it celebrates its 800th year. Having visited Lincoln on various occasions, would the Prime Minister like to join me in recommending that other Members and their constituents should visit the city to see for themselves our original Magna Carta and our majestic cathedral, as well as Lincoln’s myriad other attractions, especially as we move towards a new British Bill of Rights? (900208)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to take this opportunity—in this, the 800th anniversary year of the signing of Magna Carta—to advertise the fact that there is an original copy in the great city of Lincoln, and that people can go and see that and all the other advantages that Lincoln has to offer. But this is not just a point about British history. There are so many countries and peoples around the world that do not have the rule of law and do not have protections against arbitrary arrest, and that document, which was signed 800 years ago, is not just important in Britain; it is important that we promote its values around the world.

Q10. Most working people aspire to decent, sustainable jobs—indeed, thousands of my constituents work at Nissan or in the automotive supply chain in east Durham—so when will the Prime Minister publish the Treasury’s assessment of the cost to the British economy of withdrawal from the EU? (900209)

First, let me praise the hon. Gentleman’s many hard-working constituents who work in the Nissan factory in the north-east. Nissan in the north-east is now producing more cars than the whole of the Italian car industry. It is a great example of the manufacturing renewal that is taking place in this country. I want the widest possible debate about Britain’s future in Europe and I would encourage all organisations to bring forward ideas, facts and figures so that this debate can be formed, but above all let us remember that this is not going to be a decision made by politicians; it is going to be a decision made by the British people.

If northern Lincolnshire is to obtain maximum benefit from the northern powerhouse initiative, further improvements to transport connections will be required. One such improvement would be a direct rail service to London King’s Cross from the Grimsby, Cleethorpes and Scunthorpe area. Alliance Rail has submitted an application to the rail regulator, and it has been with the regulator for more than a year. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that an early decision is made?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the importance of direct connectivity between his constituency and London. We are investing at least £6.4 billion in Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire in this Parliament for that very reason, and I can reassure him that we are listening. Only late last year, the Transport Secretary announced that we would be retaining the direct connection between Cleethorpes and Manchester airport, which is something that my hon. Friend has been campaigning for, and I will look very closely at what he has said today.

Q11. At the time of the Bloomberg speech, the Prime Minister promised that he would seek the repatriation of power from Brussels, saying that “power must be able to flow back to Member States”. He specifically promised that social and employment law would be returned to Britain. Why is he not even asking for this any more? (900210)

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to this place. He has made some history because, as a party of one, he has managed to have a Back-Bench rebellion, which is something to be admired. What I have set out in terms of the renegotiation is a whole series of things that need to change: making sure we deal with the problem of ever-closer union; making sure we deal with the issue of competitiveness, which, yes, does impinge on some of the issues, under what was called the social chapter, that have never been acceptable to the United Kingdom; and making sure that we have a better balance and proper fairness between those countries that are in the euro and those that are outside it—the Chancellor will be setting out more detail on that this evening. All these areas in our negotiation, and more, are very important.

We have just heard from the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) the ridiculous scaremongering, which we are getting used to, that if we left the EU we would end free trade with the EU. Will the Prime Minister confirm that last year the UK had a £56 billion trade deficit with the European Union? Will he also tell us whether, in any of his discussions with Angela Merkel, she has indicated that if we were to leave the EU, she would want to stop trading BMWs, Mercedes, Volkswagens and Audis free of tariff into the UK?

My hon. Friend makes his case with his characteristic vigour and clarity. The only issue that I would add is that, of course, Britain’s relationship with Europe is not just about a trading relationship; it is about having a say over what the rules of the single market actually are. It is that that we are going to have to discuss and think about over these coming months before the European referendum—the difference between a trading relationship and actually having a say over the way a market works.

Q12. Under the Prime Minister, British productivity has plummeted. It is 30% behind Germany, the US and France—the widest gap since 1992 and another Tory Government. But in the north-east, thanks to our manufacturing and technical prowess, we have the highest productivity growth in the country. Is it not time that he gave us the powers that we need to build an economy that matches our values, without a Boris—I mean, a mayor—attached? (900211)

First of all, the hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue. There is a huge challenge in terms of raising productivity and the productive potential of the United Kingdom. I would be the first to say that we have had the success of getting 2 million more people in work and we have had the success of paying down half the deficit and getting the economy growing. But the challenge for the years ahead is to increase levels of productivity in Britain. How are we going to do that? I would argue that we will do that by reforming planning, by encouraging entrepreneurship, by making sure we invest in success, by investing in science—these are the things that we have been doing as part of a long-term economic plan, mostly opposed by the Labour party.

Any move to legalise assisted suicide is viewed with the utmost concern by disability groups and others, who fear that it could put pressure on the vulnerable to make decisions that are not in their best interests. Will the Prime Minister inform the House of his view on this issue?

On this issue I very much agree with my hon. Friend, which is that I do not support the assisted dying proposals that have come out of the other place. I do not support euthanasia. I know that there are imperfections and problems with the current law, but I think that these can be dealt with sensitively and sensibly without having a new law that actually brings in euthanasia. As she says, I think the problem is the pressure that is then put on frail elderly people to take a decision that they might not want to go ahead with.

Q13. The Prime Minister will be aware of Tata Steel’s decision to close its British Steel pension scheme. This will have a devastating impact on steelworkers and their families. Can I urge the Prime Minister again to demand that Tata get back around the negotiating table and re-engage in meaningful consultation with the trade unions, and to stop Tata from playing fast and loose with its own employees’ pensions? (900212)

Of course I hope that the parties will return to the negotiating table to find a solution as quickly as possibly, but ultimately this is a matter for Tata Steel and for the trade unions, and I would urge them to do as I have said.

We need a country where every city, town, village and region benefits from the growing economy. Will the Prime Minister kindly explain how the measures in this Queen’s Speech will bring that about, particularly in relation to my area of the south-west and even more particularly to Taunton Deane, which I would like to make the gateway to the south-west?

What I would say to my hon. Friend, after congratulating her on her magnificent election victory, is that there are some very important infrastructure proposals that need to go ahead—for instance, the A358, which, during the election campaign, the Labour party pledged to cancel. We must make sure that that expressway to the south-west is built, including the tunnel under Stonehenge, and, crucially for Taunton and the whole of the south-west, we must make sure that we deliver on our promises on high-speed broadband. For businesses, that is as important as being connected to the road or rail network, and we really have to make sure that we get to those final businesses and homes that want to see high-speed broadband.

We benefit hugely from having Boris’s wisdom now back in this House. The baton that I am interested in seeing is the moment at which Boris passes the baton to another Conservative Mayor of London.

Manor Park primary school in Sutton has just received a well deserved “outstanding” rating from Ofsted, but can my right hon. Friend tell me how the new education Bill will benefit and improve all schools?

Where schools get to outstanding we should, first, be singling them out and praising them, because we want to see many more children taught in good or outstanding schools. Where we need to focus is on schools that are either failing or coasting. The education Bill in the Gracious Speech will make sure that we intervene more quickly, because if you have children at a state school, as I do, one extra term in a failing school is a term that is wasted. We should not let bureaucracy get in the way of taking over failing schools and turning them around.

Q15. Last week, the High Court ruled that severe delays in assessing disabled people for benefits were unlawful. Given that, will the Prime Minister personally take charge to ensure that these distressing delays do not happen again? (900214)

First, let me welcome the hon. Gentleman to this place. He is absolutely right to raise this issue. Some of the delays have been unacceptably long for people getting their new benefits, particularly when we are transitioning from disability living allowance to personal independence payments. Those delays are coming down, and I give him my assurance that we will keep on this and make sure that the delays come down still further.