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Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2015

I am sure that the whole House wishes to join me in celebrating Armed Forces Week. Our armed forces are the best in the world, and this week is an important opportunity to pause and reflect on their dedication and sacrifice in keeping the country safe.

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

I, too, welcome the Prime Minister’s comments about Armed Forces Week, and there is a major event in my constituency to mark the occasion. I thank him for agreeing to meet me and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) following the announcement yesterday of significant job losses by Young’s Seafood, which is the largest employer in the area. It is particularly disappointing after a run of good news. Much investment has been attracted with the help of the regional growth fund. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that additional help and support may be given to the area through the RGF. It is important to retain Young’s presence in the area.

First, I am happy to meet my hon. Friend. As he says, the recent reports surrounding Young’s are concerning, and I know that this will be a difficult time for employees and their families. The company will be talking to employees, and the Government stand ready to assist in any way they can. He is right that the broader picture is more positive. We have the Able UK Marine Energy Park creating up to 4,000 jobs, and also the Siemens’ project nearby, which is a major investment for the region. We will continue to provide support for the regional growth fund; 49 awards have been made in Yorkshire and the Humber area. We will keep up with that and with the long-term economic plan to create the jobs we need.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our armed services, including the Reserves. We honour those who are serving today, and we remember the sacrifice of those who have served in the past. Let us never forget them when we think of the freedom and democracy that we have today. I also pay tribute to the families’ federations—the Army Families Federation, the Naval Families Federation, and the RAF Families Federation. The great work they do supporting service families contributes so much to the strength of our services.

We have all seen the chaotic scenes at Calais where British travellers and lorry drivers are facing harassment and intimidation as 3,000 migrants try to get illegally into the UK. The French should be assessing them as soon as they get to Calais to decide whether they are genuine refugees or migrant workers who should be removed. How confident is the Prime Minister that the French are going to start taking effective action? What is he doing to put pressure on them, and will he raise the matter at the EU Council this weekend?

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for what she said about forces’ families. She is absolutely right. This Saturday, when many of us will be attending Armed Forces Day celebrations and commemorations, is a moment to talk to those families and thank them for what they do when they are missing their loved ones.

The right hon. and learned Lady quite rightly asked about Calais. We have all been witnessing totally unacceptable scenes there over the past day. Of course, a key role was played by the strike that took place in France. She asked specifically about what should be done. Let me answer very clearly that of course we want to see migrants better documented and fingerprinted, but much of that needs to happen in Italy, where they land, rather than in France. There are three things on which we must act. First, we need to work with the French to achieve better security at Calais. We have already invested £12 million, and I am happy for us to do more if that is necessary. Secondly, we must work with our European partners to stop this problem at source—to break the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe. Thirdly, we must do more to ensure that Britain is a less easy place for illegal migrants to come to and work in, and that is what our Immigration Bill is all about.

The Prime Minister is right that the problem is the responsibility of the Italian authorities and the French authorities, but as he acknowledges, it is also about the security of our border at Calais. Can he say a bit more about what steps he has taken to strengthen security at the UK border in Calais?

The right hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right that the juxtaposed border controls on the French side are a good thing for our country, and we should be prepared to invest in them. That is what the £12 million has been about, but in talks with the Home Secretary this morning, we have been looking at whether we can put more personnel and, indeed, sniffer dog teams on that side of the channel to make a difference. Also, more work is being done on installing fencing, not only around the port at Calais, but around the Eurostar and Eurotunnel entrance. All those things can make a difference, and we should work very closely with the French. There is no point in either side trying to point the finger of blame at the other. This is a strong partnership that we have in place and we should keep it that way.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Efforts on all sides will need to be stepped up.

On another issue, in his speech on Monday the Prime Minister said:

“There’s…nothing progressive about robbing from our children”,

but is it not inevitable that cuts in tax credits for working families, unless employers raise their wages immediately, will mean that children are worse off?

First, what I said in that speech about robbing from our children was about the importance of getting our deficit down and not asking them to pay debts that we were not prepared to deal with ourselves. What we need to do is make sure we go on with a plan that is seeing 2.2 million more people in work. Crucially for children, compared with when I became Prime Minister, there are 390,000 fewer children in households where no one works. My programme for tackling poverty is to get more people in work, get them better paid, and cut their taxes.

Well, I am asking about robbing from children in families who are facing tax credit cuts. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that cutting £5 billion from tax credits would mean working families losing, on average, £1,400 a year. Now I know the right hon. Gentleman does not have to budget, but many families do—[Interruption.] That is the truth—[Interruption.] It is the truth. If hon. Members will just for a moment think about a lone parent working part time: to compensate her for that loss of £1,400, the minimum wage would have to go up overnight by 25%. That is not going to happen, is it?

The problem with what the right hon. and learned Lady says is that the last Government did not budget for the country—[Interruption.] She asks—[Interruption.]

Order. I am very worried about the health of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West). She must calm herself. We are at a very early stage in the proceedings. A period of calm must descend upon the House.

Because the last Government did not budget for the country, the whole country was plunged into poverty, which is what we have been dealing with. Let me explain what we are going to do. For those who are out of work, we want to get them a job—a well paid job. That is the best route out of poverty. For those in work, we want to see higher rates of pay and lower taxes. Our programme is simple: let us have an economy with higher pay, lower taxes and lower welfare. What the right hon. and learned Lady seems to want is the current failure of low pay, high taxes and high welfare. That is what we need to move on from.

You see, Mr Speaker, you do not get higher pay by cutting tax credits. The Prime Minister seems to be saying that low income families will not lose out because, somehow, on the day that he cuts tax credits, every employer in the country will rush to put up pay immediately. To compensate for the loss of tax credits, employers would have to put up pay overnight by twice what the Office for Budget Responsibility has said they will do over a full year. That is not going to happen, is it?

We are seeing rates of pay in our economy go up because we have a strong and successful economy due to the decisions we took. What the right hon. and learned Lady does not seem to understand is that if you do not get people back to work and reduce welfare, you will have to make deep cuts in the NHS, which we do not want to see, or put up taxes, which we do not want to see. If the Labour party wants to spend this five years arguing against any change in the welfare system, I say let it; it will end up with the same result.

What the right hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand is that these are people who are in work. They are going out to work, providing for themselves and their children. The truth is that the Prime Minister will cut tax credits, and will not make up for that loss by putting up the minimum wage overnight. Employers will not make up for that loss either, so millions of families with children will be worse off. He says that he is tackling low pay; he is not. He is attacking the low-paid. So much for the party of working people.

The party of working people is the party that has got 2 million more people into work and almost 400,000 more children in households where people are working. That is why people see a party that believes in work up against a party that, according to one of its leadership contenders, is now the anti-worker party—that is what the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said. I say to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) that in the week when Greece teeters on the brink, we should learn the lessons of what happens when debts spiral and a country loses control of its economy. Labour is stuck with the same answer: more borrowing, more welfare, and more debt. It is the same old Labour, and it will lead to the same old failure.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the best ways of tackling the cycle of child poverty is ensuring that we deal with persistent educational under-achievement, so that children get the best start in life, particularly in schools, universities and—just as importantly—vocational education? (900511)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we really want to tackle the deep and entrenched poverty that we have in our country, we need to go after the causes of poverty: sink schools, high unemployment, debt, addiction and family breakdown. Those are the things that can make a difference. I was at a school this week on the outskirts of Runcorn with 65% free school meals, yet that school was able to achieve almost two thirds of pupils getting five A to Cs at GCSE. That is a better record, frankly, than that of many schools in leafy, well-off constituencies, so it can be done. Let us go after the causes of poverty; then we can really lift people out of that entrenched poverty.

We join in the tributes to the armed forces, and to all those people who have organised and will attend Armed Forces Day events across the UK.

The Prime Minister and other UK party leaders made a vow that more powers would be delivered to the Scottish Parliament. The people were promised home rule; they were promised

“as close to federalism as possible”.

Why does the Prime Minister’s Scotland Bill not even deliver the limited Smith commission proposals?

The Bill that we put in front of this House does deliver the Smith commission; it fulfils the vow that all of us have kept. Of course, what it does not fulfil is the full fiscal autonomy that the hon. Gentleman’s party would like, which would land Scottish taxpayers with a bill of thousands and thousands of pounds. If that is his policy, when he gets up to speak, he should say so.

The House of Commons Library says that important parts of the Smith commission proposals are not in the Scotland Bill that the Prime Minister has proposed. The Bill’s shortcomings have been identified by an all-party committee in the Scottish Parliament—a committee on which the Scottish Conservative party sits. Are all these people wrong? Will the Prime Minister now commit to delivering the Smith commission proposals in full, and all the powers that were voted for by the people of Scotland in the general election?

We addressed precisely the points made by the Scottish Parliament committee to which the hon. Gentleman refers. This goes to a larger truth, which is that the Scottish National party only wants to talk about process. It does not dare talk about which of the powers that it is being given it would like to use. If you do not like the way that things are fixed, why don’t you put up taxes and spend more money? Is it not time that you started talking about the policies that you want to put in place, and the outcomes? The truth is that full fiscal autonomy has become FFS: full fiscal shambles.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister investigate why some Labour-controlled councils, including Leeds, are ramping up their charges to schools wishing to become academies? A good example of this is Woodkirk Academy in Morley and Outwood. (900512)

I am delighted that Woodkirk Academy and its feeder primary schools have applied to set up a multi-academy trust. It often really works if secondary schools work with primary schools to improve the results in those primary schools. I am also convinced, from looking at the figures, that converter academies are performing better than the local authority main schools. That is why the change is so necessary. I would say to the Labour party: do not stand in the way of this change; help to bring these academies about.

The Sunday Times reported over the weekend that the Department for Transport is planning to scale back and axe rail electrification projects. Will the Prime Minister inform the House, and the people of Wales, whether it continues to be the policy of his Government to complete the electrification of the great western line to Swansea by 2018 and part-fund the valley lines?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are absolutely committed to electrifying the great western main line to Cardiff and through to Swansea. We are also contributing £125 million to the costs of the wider valley lines electrification. It is vital that this work goes ahead. We need to make sure that Network Rail gets its costs under control and has strong leadership in place, and we will make sure that those things happen.

Q4. Unemployment is down by 61% in Thirsk and Malton since 2010—a strong endorsement of this Government’s policy to make work pay and of the hard work and investment of business people in my constituency. What further support will the Prime Minister offer to help with much-needed investment in the A64, superfast broadband, and mobile phone coverage, all of which would further help job creation in my area? (900513)

Let me welcome my hon. Friend to this place and the work that I know he will do on behalf of his constituency. He is absolutely right. In rural areas like the one he represents, better transport, better broadband and filling in the “not spots” on the mobile phone network are absolutely vital. The mobile infrastructure project is providing more homes and businesses with mobile coverage, but we need to make sure that we build the masts. I am pleased to say that the A64 is part of our £3 billion investment in roads in the north-east and Yorkshire. As for broadband, I think that 130,000 homes and businesses are getting access in North Yorkshire, but there is more to be done.

Q5. Historically, 500 babies per year are damaged in the womb by sodium valproate, a drug prescribed for epilepsy. Although GPs are now more aware of the risks, the national archives show that the risks were well known by drug companies and Government as far back as 1973, yet mothers were kept in the dark. Will the Prime Minister urge his Health Secretary to meet me and a delegation of mothers who are affected by this issue to discuss their case? (900514)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this case. I am not aware of the specific drug she mentions, but I will look at it very closely. As someone who had a son with very severe epilepsy and knows how little we really know about many of these drugs, I will certainly fix the meeting between her and the Health Secretary so that they can make progress on this issue.

Q6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a northern powerhouse requires proper transport infrastructure? Can he update me on my campaign to get the A6 Hazel Grove bypass to reduce congestion and increase growth in my constituency? (900515)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we are increasing transport levels in the north-west. We are investing £4.3 billion on the strategic road network. As he knows, the A6 to Manchester airport relief road is going ahead. I am pleased to confirm that we have provided Greater Manchester combined authority with £350,000 to fund a feasibility study for the next stage of the bypass route around Stockport and Hazel Grove that he refers to. I do understand that if this could go ahead it would really make a lot of difference in relieving congestion.

With the death of yet another cyclist—again, a young woman commuter, beneath the wheels of a tipper truck—will the Prime Minister meet a small delegation from the all-party parliamentary cycling group to discuss what more can be done to protect vulnerable road users, including the call by the acting leader of the Labour party for a ban on these killer lorries in our towns and cities at peak times?

I am very happy to have that meeting. It seems to me that although a lot has been done in London to try to make cycling safer on our roads with the cycling strategy—money is being invested and cycle lanes are being introduced—the number of fatalities is still very high, and it is extremely depressing that young lives are being snuffed out in this way. I am very happy to have that meeting and perhaps keep in contact with the Mayor about this important issue.

Q7. As the Prime Minister mentioned, access to high-quality broadband is essential in today’s digital economy. Will my right hon. Friend tell us about his plans to get broadband to my rural constituents and those in rural areas across the country? (900516)

First, let me welcome my hon. Friend to this place. He has the job of following in the footsteps of William Hague, which a number of us have found very difficult in all sorts of different ways, but I am sure he will do it very well.

The figures on superfast coverage are encouraging. We went from 45% in 2010 to over 80%, but obviously there is a real challenge getting to the remaining bits of the country, including the most rural areas. We have the £8 million investment fund and are piloting a number of solutions, one of which, run by Airwave, is testing new technology in the Upper Dales communities, near my hon. Friend’s constituency, so he is on the cutting edge of this digital technology, and if it works we can obviously boost it faster.

Last week, this Government sent out a message to the world that Scotland was closed for business when it comes to future investment in the renewable energy sector. Today, the Cole report on exports estimates that this Government are set to miss their target for exports by up to £300 billion. Will the Prime Minister confirm when he is going to stand up for the best interests of the Scottish economy?

If Scotland was not part of the United Kingdom, there would not be the access to the UK energy market—but I suppose we can leave that on one side. I say to the hon. Lady that we have had a huge increase in renewable energy right across the United Kingdom in recent years. We have removed some of the subsidy from onshore wind—we are going to reach 10% of our electricity generation from onshore wind—so now it is right that it should be for local communities to make that decision. Interestingly, before they got into government, that was a position that the SNP agreed with.

Q8. Last year, the £75 million mis-selling of cashback warranties by Scottish Power, including to thousands of my constituents, was raised with the Prime Minister. A year later, very little has happened, with Scottish Power dodging its responsibilities to 625,000 people across the United Kingdom. In the light of the most recent evidence, will my right hon. Friend urge Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to look again at this issue, to get people back the money they are owed? (900517)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. I understand that the liquidation of the companies involved in the scheme is still under way. As a result, the creditors of the companies have not yet received the reports from the liquidators to see whether that money can be extracted—[Interruption.] Before Labour Members get too excited, most of this happened between 1997 and 2001. I have asked the Business Secretary to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his concerns directly.

The great Englishman John Donne said:

“No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main”.

With reference to vulnerable child refugees, does the Prime Minister agree?

Yes, I do, and that is why Britain fulfils its obligations in taking asylum seekers from all over the world and having a system that many other countries see is robust and fair. It is also why we are playing our role in the Mediterranean—first with HMS Bulwark, now with HMS Enterprise—rescuing people who are desperately in need. It is also why, uniquely among the large, rich countries, we have kept our promise about funding overseas aid and are investing in the north African countries from which these people are coming. I am quite convinced that we are doing what we should to fulfil our moral obligations as a nation.

Q9. In the last comprehensive spending review, the clever wheeze of transferring expenditure on the BBC World Service from the Foreign Office budget to the BBC helped to prevent a calamity in our foreign policy capacity. Five years on, foreign policy making and analysis have got considerably more challenging. Will the Prime Minister ensure that a siloed savings requirement is not applied to our capacity to direct the overseas element of our national security strategy or our ability to represent the country abroad? (900518)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election as the Chairman of the vital Foreign Affairs Committee of this House. I know that he will always speak out without fear or favour, and that he is vigorously independent.

My hon. Friend is right that the soft power that we have as a country, whether through the British Council, the BBC, the Foreign Office or our overseas aid budget, which I was just talking about, is vital not just to fulfil our moral obligations but to project power, influence and British values in the world. I want to ensure that those things continue. He talked about the BBC funding being a wheeze. I am not sure that I would call it that. It was part of the BBC making sure that it found efficiencies, as other parts of the public sector were.

Yesterday, we heard that early referral for cancer tests could save 10,000 lives a year. Siobhan Galbraith, a 21-year-old Erdington mother of a three-year-old son, suffered in agony for six months. Three times, she was refused a referral; she was told that she was too young. Now, she is battling cervical cancer and will never have another child. Will the Prime Minister ask the Secretary of State for Health to investigate what happened and to meet me? Will he act to ensure that in future we have early referral so that never again are people denied treatment that could be the difference between life and death?

I quite understand why the hon. Gentleman raises that individual case, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will look at it specifically. He is right that early referral is the key to improving cancer outcomes. Although I will not stand at this Dispatch Box and say that the problem has been solved, I would say that we are now making sure that about 650,000 more patients are being referred in respect of cancer. Crucially, we are seeing many more of the diagnostic tests that can find out whether someone has colon cancer or bowel cancer—about 400,000 more of those tests are being carried out. The key is to ensure that GPs get the training and information that is necessary to identify cancer early so that they can onward refer rapidly.

Q10. The Prime Minister made two promises before the general election that were especially important to the people of mid-Wales. He has fulfilled one of them by scrapping onshore wind farm subsidies. When he fulfils the other by visiting the Royal Welsh show in three weeks’ time, perhaps he will call in on Montgomeryshire to see the wonderful landscapes that will now not be desecrated. (900519)

It was a privilege to keep the first promise to the people of mid-Wales in respect of wind farms, and it will be a pleasure to keep the second promise by going with my hon. Friend to the Royal Welsh show.

This morning’s “Today” programme on Radio 4 was partly recorded at Brompton bicycles in my constituency. The concern of Brompton, an award-winning company, and other employers of good quality staff producing good quality goods for export is that the apprenticeship scheme in this country is not fit for purpose to meet their needs. What plans does the Prime Minister have to meet those employers and to develop an effective, quality apprenticeship scheme, rather than the cheap and cheerful scheme that is currently in place?

I welcome the hon. Lady to this House. I, too, have visited Brompton bicycles. It is an absolutely excellent firm. I seem to remember that I recorded a party political broadcast while I was there, so it is obviously an equal political opportunities employer, which is very good. It is important to ensure that we have really good apprenticeship schemes. We must focus on the quality as well as the quantity. We are committed to working with employers, and to making sure that those employers work with local colleges, to ensure that the standard of the qualifications is very good.

Q11. Last week my constituents were very pleased to hear the news that, as part of the measures the Prime Minister is introducing to boost mobile coverage in rural areas, three of our very worst “not spots” have been selected for consideration for new mobile masts, in Boxford, Bildeston and Assington Green. Does he agree that better mobile coverage has an important role to play in improving rural economic growth, and will he continue to do all he can to ensure that we spread the benefits of this technology as far and wide as possible? (900520)

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to this place and congratulate him on winning his constituency. He is absolutely right that if we are to have the productivity revolution that the Chancellor and others have spoken about, we must improve broadband coverage in our country. The mobile infrastructure project can make a difference. Three potential sites—[Interruption.] Hon. Members should calm down a little. Three potential sites have been identified in South Suffolk that will make a difference. It is important that all Members of the House recognise that while there are often very strong campaigns against masts, we need to see them built if we are to crack the problem of “not spots.”

The Prime Minister has repeatedly been reported as saying that he wants to create “a new era of transparency in government.” Given that desire, why is the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions refusing to release the statistics relating to the deaths of people who have been declared fit for work, which he has been instructed to do by the Information Commissioner? Will the Prime Minister intervene and get the Secretary of State to comply with the spirit of his desire and the instruction of the Information Commissioner?

First, let me reassure the hon. Lady that the data will be published; they are being prepared for publication as we speak. I think that it is important that we publish data, and this Government have published more data about public spending than any previous Government.

Q12. Over the past few years we have seen some horrendous examples of children being sexually exploited. As a mother, I ask my right hon. Friend what he is going to do to tackle the exploitation of children. (900521)

Let me welcome my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right to raise this. What we saw happen in Rotherham, Rochdale and in my own city of Oxford was absolutely horrific. Steps are being taken by the police and social services to deal with it much better in future, and there have recently been some very important prosecutions, for instance in Oxfordshire. But I am not satisfied with the progress, so I have asked the Education Secretary to chair a new child protection taskforce to drive fundamental reforms to improve the protection of vulnerable children. I want us to bring the vigour and emphasis on quality that we have brought to education to the area of social work.

Q13. This month’s International Monetary Fund report shows how unequal the UK has become, with 15% of all income in the UK going to just 1% of top earners while over 5 million people earn less than the living wage. Given the evidence showing that increasing the income of the poorest 20% will lead to an increase in growth, why is the Prime Minister contemplating a cut in tax credits to people on low pay? (900522)

What I would say to the hon. Lady is that the statistics show that inequality in Britain has gone down, not up. One of the reasons for that is that we have 2.2 million more people in work. As I said to her right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), what we want to see in Britain is an economy in which we create well-paid jobs, cut taxes and keep welfare down. The alternative, which is a low-pay, high-tax and high-welfare economy, is what we had under Labour, and it has not ended extreme poverty.

Q15. Every week, 15 babies die or are stillborn, which is devastating for the families who suffer that loss. In half the cases no cause of death is established. Will my right hon. Friend facilitate a meeting between the Secretary of State for Health and the charities the Lullaby Trust and Sands so that we can try to reduce those figures? (900524)

I welcome my hon. Friend to this place. She served in the Welsh Assembly and I know she will serve her constituents and this place with great dedication and ability. She proves that by raising such a difficult and heartbreaking case. The death of every child is a tragedy and no words can do justice to the loss felt by parents in such cases. We have made some steps forward with more midwives and, crucially, more health visitors, which can make a lot of difference in the run up to those vital days before birth, but I can tell her that NHS England is going to fund a project to develop a national child death review information system to try to drive more information. The Health Secretary will keep everyone informed and I am sure that he will want to discuss the issue with my hon. Friend, given her knowledge in this area.

Q14. Why has the Prime Minister promised local people the final say on onshore wind farms but denies local people in Blackpool and Lancashire the final say over local fracking applications? Why are there double standards on renewable energy and fracking? (900523)

The hon. Gentleman is making a slightly odd comparison. We have taken away the unnecessary subsidy for onshore wind, given that it is now a mature technology, and we have a sensible planning system so that unconventional gas can go ahead under very strict environmental conditions. I will tell him what I want for Blackpool. I want Blackpool to be the centre of expertise and excellence for this industry. I want the jobs, the apprenticeships and the training rather than to see things stuck, which is what he wants.