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Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2015

The Prime Minister is in Italy and I have been asked to reply. This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House I shall have further such meetings later today.

Under this Government’s leadership, the construction of social rented homes has fallen to a 20-year low, but since 2010 the amount of housing benefit paid to private landlords has risen by £1.5 billion. Does the Chancellor understand the connection, or would he like to come to my next advice surgery so that my constituents can explain it to him?

Of course we are aware that there is an acute housing shortage in London, which is why we need to build more homes, but I can tell the hon. Lady that we built more council housing in the last five years than was built in the entire 13 years of the last Labour Government. I am very happy to come to Lewisham, where we will talk about the fact that today the claimant count is down by 25% over the year and long-term youth unemployment is down 45% in the last year. The economic plan in Lewisham is working.

Q2. Pensions are a really important issue to my constituents, and the Government have delivered on their side of the bargain by giving savers the freedom to access their pensions. Will the Chancellor do all he can to ensure that the industry lives up to its side of the bargain and delivers on those freedoms? (900371)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The pension freedoms that we introduced in April are delivering the fundamental Conservative principle that people who have worked hard and saved hard all their lives should be trusted with their own money, and 60,000 people have accessed their pension savings. There are clearly concerns, however, that some companies are not doing their part to make those freedoms available. We are investigating how to remove the barriers, and we are now considering a cap on charges. I am asking the Financial Conduct Authority to investigate. People who have worked hard and saved hard deserve a better deal.

May I begin by congratulating the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment as First Secretary of State?

It was reported this week that Talha Asmal, a 17-year-old from Dewsbury, blew himself up in an ISIL attack that killed 11 people. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree that we need to do everything we can to prevent our young people from travelling to Iraq and Syria, so will he tell the House whether the Government now have an agreement in place with all the airlines to raise alerts when unaccompanied minors travel to known Syrian routes, and whether our police are being notified by the Turkish authorities when British citizens arrive at transit points to Syria?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome, and I welcome him to his place. I think his father would have been extremely proud to see him leading for the Labour party today. Speaking for those on this side of the House, we are extremely relieved to see that there is no Benn in the Labour leadership contest but plenty of Bennites.

The right hon. Gentleman raises the very serious situation around ISIL, and I think everyone in this House is shocked that a 17-year-old citizen of our country can become radicalised and, apparently, become a suicide bomber on the other side of the world—of course, we also have had the distressing reports of the families from Bradford. So we are taking a number of steps. First, we want to work with schools, mosques and other community institutions to help prevent the radicalisation—there is a new statutory duty to do that. Secondly, we are working with the airlines, including getting in place those agreements that the right hon. Gentleman talks about and providing training at the borders, to stop people travelling to countries such as Syria and to remove their passports if they attempt to do so. Thirdly—this will be an issue in this Parliament—we also need to make sure that our security and intelligence services have the powers they need to track people who are trying to get back into this country. I look forward to cross-party support on that issue.

I am grateful for that reply. I think the House would appreciate an update on the progress of those discussions with the airlines, and I noted that the right hon. Gentleman was not able to respond to the question I asked about the Turkish authorities. This is a very serious matter and we need to know where things have got to.

We know that, for some time, a growing number of young people have been groomed to travel to Syria and Iraq. Last November, the Intelligence and Security Committee criticised the Government for not giving the Prevent programme sufficient priority and concluded that

“counter-radicalisation programmes are not working.”

Why does he think that is?

Frankly, I do not accept all those conclusions, and there has been a disagreement about the Prevent programme. In the past, there was a confusion between the programmes that supported integration and the programmes that tried to prevent radical extremism. As a result, certain organisations that should never have got public money did so under the last Government.

The Prevent programme is doing its work, but we have also passed a very important law in this Parliament that now ensures there is a statutory duty on public authorities such as a schools, universities and the police to develop the Prevent strategy and the counter-radicalisation strategy. Where I think we agree—after all, on an issue such as this let us try to find areas where we agree—is on the need to try to do more in these communities to prevent this radicalisation from taking place in the first place.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that he will, of course, have the full support of Members on the Opposition Benches on measures that are taken to try to deal with this problem. But can he assure us that community-led Prevent programmes are now actually being implemented in places such as Dewsbury and elsewhere, including by providing appropriate training to teachers and other workers in the public sector, as the new public sector duty to which he has just referred comes into force in two weeks’ time?

I can confirm that that training is taking place—indeed, we have provided additional resources. In the spirit of this constructive conversation, may I say that we have an extremism Bill in the Queen’s Speech which goes further in seeking to disrupt groups that are plotting either to commit offences here in this country or to travel abroad and become further radicalised? I hope the Labour party looks seriously at that Bill and offers its support to the Government.

It is now clear that right across the middle east and north Africa, the common enemy is ISIL. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that our strategic objective must be to continue to bring together all of the countries affected, in the region and internationally, to put aside other differences and co-operate to confront ISIL?

I of course completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that. Britain plays a leading role in bringing together the various allies that are delivering the impact against ISIL. Indeed, we have had some welcome news of prominent terrorist leaders, not necessarily in ISIL but in other organisations, who have been killed in the past couple of days. If those reports are correct, it is a very welcome step forward in the global fight against terrorism.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; ultimately, the Iraqi Government and the Syrian people are going to have to find a way to take greater control of their own security. In Iraq, we work with the legitimate Government there. In Syria, we support the moderate Opposition, continuing to support and train them in the tasks that they undertake.

Turning now to how we resolve that crisis, which, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, has seen the largest movement of refugees since the end of the second world war, can he tell the House what expectations he has for the new round of talks that UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura is holding in Geneva?

First of all, the right hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the displaced persons, particularly in countries such as Jordan and Turkey, which are bearing an enormous burden. That is why Britain has such a massive aid contribution. Across this House, we can be incredibly proud that the parties in the recent general election stood on a commitment to deliver 0.7% of our national income in development aid. That is not just a humanitarian effort but to make sure that we are able to help in situations such as this. When it comes to burden sharing across the region, of course we want to help, but we must be realistic. We cannot take large numbers of Syrian refugees into our country.

Finally, as more and more people gather in Libya to try to cross the Mediterranean, HMS Bulwark is doing an extraordinary job in rescuing frightened people. But we learned yesterday that its deployment is under active review. Having made a grave error last October in withdrawing support from the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operations, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that the Government will continue to save the lives of those in peril on that sea?

Of course I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that we will continue to play our full part in the search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. As I understand it, essential maintenance needs to be carried out on HMS Bulwark, which is clearly an operational issue, but no one should doubt Britain’s determination to play its role in helping with this situation.

May I end on this point? Taking people out of the water and rescuing them is essential—we are a humanitarian nation and we need to deal with those issues—but, in the end, we must break the link that enables someone to get on a boat and then claim asylum in Europe and spend the rest of their lives on the European continent. That is what draws these people. They are aiming for a better life, but circumventing proper immigration controls on the European continent. We should work across Europe to break that link. I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman’s role in helping us do that.

Businesses in Kent need capable school leavers and graduates to employ. Will my right hon. Friend explain what the Government are doing to ensure that pupils study the most important academic subjects, such as maths, which employers value?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary set out really important education reforms yesterday. The introduction of the EBacc, which will increase rigour in our schools, will ensure that children are learning the essential subjects they need to get great jobs. Of course, today—this has not been much talked about yet, but perhaps will be later in this Session—we should reflect on the fact that unemployment is down again in our country, employment is up, and long-term unemployment is down. For the first time, wages are growing faster than since the great recession. That shows that our economic plan is working.

The Iraq war a decade ago and its aftermath have been an unmitigated disaster. The Chilcot inquiry into the causes of that war has now been running for six years at a cost of £10 million. Is it true that the Chilcot report has been delayed until next year?

The Chilcot inquiry is completely independent of Government, and we do not determine when it publishes its conclusions. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it has been a long time coming, and people are running out of patience, as they want to see that report. I make a broader observation, which is that there was a cross-party alliance between the Scottish nationalists and the Conservative party when we called for that inquiry to be set up earlier than it actually was. If it had been, we would have the conclusions now.

It is worth remembering that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister both voted for the war that we were led into by the then Labour Government. Does the Chancellor feel that he has no moral or political responsibility to get to the bottom of the reasons why we went into this catastrophic war in the first place, and what is he going to do about it?

That responsibility was fulfilled when we voted to create an independent inquiry. We want to see the results of that independent inquiry. Those involved in Chilcot will have heard the view of the House of Commons today, and indeed the public concern, about how long the inquiry is taking, but ultimately it is an independent inquiry. If it was not independent, people would question its motives and the basis on which it had been set up. It is independent, but it should get on with it.

The tunnel boring part of the Crossrail project is now completed. The route will run through my constituency at Harold Wood. Will the Chancellor join me in congratulating everybody who has been involved in this most amazing feat of engineering, of which this country must be truly proud?

My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to one of the great engineering marvels of the world—the fantastic Crossrail tunnel that has been built under one of the oldest capital cities on the planet. [Interruption.] Hon. Members ask, “How much did it cost?” It did cost money, but I tell you what: this Government are investing in the infrastructure to provide the jobs in the future, and if we were not making the savings in the Government budget elsewhere, we would not be able to provide for our children. [Interruption.]

Mr Campbell, it is all that hot curry; it is getting to you. Calm yourself, man! Calm down! A bit of yoga would help.

Q3. It is both sad and disturbing that the number of reported rapes in Greater London has risen by 68% in the last 10 years. Sexual crime is up by 35% in the last year. Will the Chancellor commit the extra resources to the police to ensure that they catch and jail the perpetrators, and that they continue to support organisations working with women in the most sensitive manner? (900372)

Of course we continue to provide that support. Indeed we have, through the operational independence of the Metropolitan police, seen the police focusing more on these heinous crimes. One of the better pieces of news is that there has been increased reporting as well, and women coming forward who have been victims of this horrific crime, but I am always prepared to look at extra requests for resources if there is more we can do to help.

Q4. In my constituency, in Watford, in one year alone in the last Parliament, the number of apprenticeships doubled. They were among more than 2 million apprenticeship starts in the country as a whole, and clearly very beneficial to businesses and young people alike. Would my right hon. Friend confirm that a further growth in apprenticeships is an important priority for this Government? (900373)

I can confirm that 3 million apprenticeships is the objective of this Government in this Parliament, building on our success of providing 2 million apprenticeships in the last Parliament. I think the whole House will want to congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming the apprenticeships adviser to the Prime Minister. He has a very important role to play, because there are many great companies who run great apprenticeship programmes, but not enough companies do have apprenticeship programmes. I hope they will receive a knock on the door from my hon. Friend.

Q5. Will the Chancellor confirm that the waste water from fracking will be properly treated, so that it is safe to drink again? (900374)

We will have the proper environmental standards around the exploration of shale gas, but I think for this country to turn its back on one of these great natural resources, which other countries are using, would be to condemn our country to higher energy bills and not as many jobs. Frankly, I do not want to be part of a generation that says, “All the economic activity was happening somewhere else in the world, and was not happening in our country, and was not happening on our continent.” So we should get on with the safe, environmentally protected exploration of our shale gas resources.

Q6. In recent months, Jodrell Bank successfully secured the future of the globally significant Square Kilometre Array telescope project at its site, and over £12 million in heritage lottery funding to highlight its unique science heritage. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is further evidence of the importance of science in his compelling vision of a northern powerhouse? (900375)

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the success that Manchester University and Jodrell Bank have had in securing the international headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array experiment. I visited Jodrell Bank in the middle of the election campaign—I dropped in to congratulate them on the achievement, which was achieved during the purdah period but under instructions issued by the previous Government. It is the world’s largest science experiment. It is an incredible collaboration across nations, and I am extremely proud that its headquarters are in the northern powerhouse.

Today sees a mass lobby here in Westminster of people who are demanding urgent action on climate change. Since coal is the most damaging of the fossil fuels, does the Chancellor agree that as well as phasing out coal, we in this House have a responsibility to divest our parliamentary pension fund from fossil fuels, as has been done in Norway very recently?

It is way above my pay grade to interfere with the parliamentary trustees of the pension fund here, and I leave the decisions on investments to them. I agree with the hon. Lady that the lobby of Parliament today is important and the Paris talks at the end of the year are a real opportunity to get a global commitment to binding standards and carbon targets. Britain will play its full part. What we want to achieve is dealing with those greenhouse gas emissions and meeting our international obligations on climate change, but doing so in the cheapest way possible for the consumers of electricity here in Britain.

Q7. After years of undeserved neglect my city, Plymouth, is beginning to enjoy some infrastructure investment and realise its brilliant potential. We can see that from today’s jobs figures, which show an unemployment fall of almost half since this Chancellor came in. A most important step in that is our Hitachi trains deal. Will he please clarify where we are today with that? (900376)

My hon. Friend is already doing a great job in speaking up for the city of Plymouth, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), and as a result we have major investments in transport in the south-west, such as the upgrade of the A303 and the new trains on the Great Western line down to the south-west. I can confirm that we are in active discussions to provide those new trains and we hope to have further good news later this summer.

Q8. According to the Women’s Aid annual survey last year, on one single day there were 132 women aged 18 to 20 living in refuge after being attacked, assaulted and in some cases raped. Will the Chancellor guarantee for me and those women that those living in supported accommodation like refuge will not be included in his Government’s plans to remove housing benefit from those aged 18 to 21, or will he see 132 women who have been abused return to their violent partners every day? (900377)

We made it very clear when we set out our proposals on housing benefit that we would protect particularly vulnerable people, such as those that the hon. Lady refers to, and I welcome her to the House.

I would make a broader argument about welfare reform. This country faces a very simple choice. We have 1% of the world’s population and 4% of its GDP, but we undertake 7% of the world’s welfare spending. We can either carry on on a completely unsustainable path or we can continue to reform welfare so that work pays and we give a fair deal to those on welfare and a fail deal to the taxpayers of this country who pay for it.

Does the Chancellor agree that today’s elections to chairmanships of Select Committees are a great success story for Parliament as a whole? [Interruption.] Particularly for me—[Interruption.] I am very grateful for that further gesture of support from the whole House of Commons. Since those elections are a success, and particularly if the Prime Minister is going to miss a few Wednesdays, will my right hon. Friend suggest to the Prime Minister that he appear before the Liaison Committee more than three times a year?

I will certainly pass on the request. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the success of these elections, which did not exist before the Conservatives came into office. I am not sure that his own election is the best possible example, as I think he is unelected and unopposed in his own election.

Q9. I, too, want to add my tribute to CAFOD, Christian Aid and the thousands of others who are outside today making the case for a tough deal on climate change. Will the Chancellor explain what the Government are doing diplomatically to support a tough global deal and to ensure that there is a level field for carbon-efficient companies in the UK, such as Celsa Steel UK in my constituency, so that global emissions are not simply increased by being offshored to places such as China? (900378)

That, of course, is why a global deal is so important. We are actively engaged in these negotiations; indeed, the Prime Minister was speaking to the French President about the matter only last week. We are absolutely determined that Britain should play a leading role along with our colleagues in Europe in delivering that binding global target so that individual parts of the world cannot opt out.

Q10. Employment in Crawley is at a record high level, with companies such as Creative Pod having created extra jobs. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what additional policies the Government can introduce to ensure that small and medium-sized companies can flourish further still? (900379)

Small and medium-sized businesses, of which around three quarters of a million have been created in the past five years, are the engine of growth in our economy, and they are one of the reasons why the claimant count in my hon. Friend’s constituency is down by almost two thirds. Even more encouragingly, the long-term youth claimant count is today down by 75%. We will go on doing things such as providing the employment allowance, which helps small businesses to employ more people. Of course, what would be disastrous would be to abandon the economic plan and borrow and spend more, because the worst thing for a small business is economic instability that puts them out of business.

The Chancellor will be aware of the appalling incident last Thursday at Dixons Kings Academy in my constituency, where a pupil is accused of stabbing his teacher, Mr Vincent Uzomah. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing its shock at this horrifying incident, and in wishing Mr Uzomah a swift and full recovery. Will the Chancellor tell the House what steps he is taking to tackle knife crime in our schools?

The hon. Lady speaks for the whole House in sending our sympathies to Mr Uzomah and to the pupils and staff at the school. Our hearts go out to them. The leadership in the school dealt with the situation incredibly well, and I know my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary has spoken to the headteacher. What we have done is to give teachers powers to search pupils’ bags and the like, but if there is more that we can do as we learn the lessons of this incident, of course we will.

Q11. Figures released today show that the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in my constituency has dropped over the past five years by nearly 60%. May I thank my right hon. Friend for his recent letter, and may I ask him to agree that further rail investment to Weymouth and Portland will increase jobs and prosperity in my constituency? (900380)

My hon. Friend has raised with me the case of the particularly slow rail service to Weymouth and Portland, and we will look into it. We are making a massive commitment to the south-west—a £7 billion programme, which is the biggest ever commitment of infrastructure to the south-west—and I will look to see what we can do to improve the rail service for his constituents so that we properly connect up the south-west.

The Chancellor will be aware that under the coalition, £219 million was allocated to rebuilding St Helier hospital. Will he restate the commitment to that funding so that we can save St Helier?

We did commit to that hospital project, and provided that it continues to represent value for money, which I am pretty clear that it does, we will go on providing that support. What we have done is to commit to the Simon Stevens plan for the national health service—an additional £8 billion of NHS spending —which we can only do if we have our public finances in better order and we are growing our economy, which is precisely what we are doing.

Q12. Since my right hon. Friend became Chancellor, unemployment in Derby has fallen by 64%, and our city recently topped a list of 138 cities, towns and counties as the fastest-growing economy in the UK. This will come as no surprise to the Chancellor, who recently visited my constituency and spoke about the midlands being Britain’s engine for growth. Does he agree that we should do even more to support small business across the midlands to create more jobs and better skills, and boost our economy even further? (900381)

I very much enjoyed visiting the engineering firm Garrandale in my hon. Friend’s constituency a couple of weeks ago. It is an outstanding example of a successful medium-sized business growing in the east midlands and exporting around the world, and we want to see more of that in our country. That is why we have a policy that delivers economic security for our nation in uncertain times, more jobs, more infrastructure, and more support for small businesses—all so that we can back the working people of this country.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to Talha Asmal from my constituency, who is alleged to have become the UK’s youngest-ever suicide bomber. Will he agree to convene a meeting between myself and Home Office Ministers to discuss a review of counter-terror policy, particularly with reference to tackling radicalisation?

Home Office Ministers will be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and her constituents. Of course, we want to work together to try to prevent other tragic cases like this one; and of course, let us not forget the victims of the suicide bomb as well as the suicide bomber. That is going to be a great generational task for us. It is clear that Islamic extremism and the radicalisation of our young people is not going to be something that we solve in space of a week or a month, or even, potentially, in this Parliament. We need to work across party divides. We also need to work with all the different public services to make sure that we prevent these young people from thinking that somehow their life, or their death, is better on the other side of the world.

Q13. Today’s employment figures are good news for my constituency of Havant, where the number of people out of work is down by 895. During the election, the Chancellor set out his plans for the south coast. Will he update the House on what steps he is taking to deliver on those commitments, which will deliver aspiration and growth for my region? [Interruption.] (900382)

First, I very much welcome my hon. Friend to the House. Is it not extraordinary that after 32 minutes of this session there has been not a single question from Labour on jobs, and when an hon. Member stands up to talk about the good news in his constituency, he gets shouted down by the Opposition? The truth is that the long-term youth claimant count in his constituency is down by 50%. We are going to go on investing in the south coast. At the general election, Labour wanted to cancel the improvements to the A27; that spoke volumes for its long-term vision for our country. We are going to go on investing in that vital road on the south coast and the other key infrastructure we need—road and rail and broadband—across the south of England.

Q14. Is the First Secretary aware of the concern among authors that the calculation of public lending rights is being distorted by the increasing number of public libraries being run by volunteers because of the huge cuts in local council spending? Will he ask the Culture Secretary, who is extremely knowledgeable in these matters, to ensure that this is rectified and that writers can reasonably expect the rewards to which they are entitled? (900383)

We have been able to address some of the concerns about lending rights in the past couple of years. I am very happy to look specifically at the issue the hon. Gentleman raises to see if there is more we can do.

Today’s unemployment figures provide further compelling evidence of the strength of the United Kingdom’s economic recovery, thanks in large measure to the long-term economic plan for this country. But given the strength of that recovery, may I lodge an appeal to my right hon. Friend that we now commit to spending 2% of GDP on our defences, both to plug the military capability gaps we have had to sustain and, in these troubled times, to assure our principal ally, the United States of America, that so long as we have a Conservative Government, defence of the realm will be the No. 1 priority of this Government?

First, I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for the economic plan that is delivering those jobs in Aldershot. Of course, the military and defence industries are an incredibly important employer in his constituency. He is absolutely right that we cannot have strong defence without a strong economy, and he is right to link the two. We are spending 2% of our GDP on defence. We have made a big commitment to the future equipment programme for defence, and we will set out our future plans at the spending review.

Since my hon. Friend raises a military matter, I will, if I may, Mr Speaker, at the end of this session, say that this is the 75th anniversary of the sinking of HMT Lancastria. It was the largest loss of British lives at sea in the history of this maritime nation. Some of the survivors are still alive today, and many of course mourn those who died. It was kept secret at the time for reasons of wartime secrecy. It is appropriate today in this House of Commons to remember all those who died, those who survived and the families who still mourn them.