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Volume 599: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2015

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

Seventy-five years ago, Spitfires and Hurricanes were flying over Sittingbourne and Sheppey in the battle of Britain, defending our country from Hitler’s aggression. It is particularly appropriate that the Royal Air Force protected the Isle of Sheppey, because it is the birthplace of British aviation, something of which we islanders are immensely proud. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to those courageous RAF airmen who helped to ensure the freedoms we enjoy today?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in doing that. There was a very moving service in St Paul’s yesterday, where many of us were able to pay tribute to those brave pilots, to the ground crews and to all those involved in what was not just an important moment in British history, but a vital moment in world history as Britain stood alone as the only thing that could stop Hitler and Nazism. It is a reminder of how proud we should be of our armed forces then, today and always.

I want to thank all those who took part in an enormous democratic exercise in this country, which concluded with me being elected as leader of the Labour party and Leader of the Opposition. We can be very proud of the numbers of people who engaged and took part in all those debates.

I have taken part in many events around the country and had conversations with many people about what they thought of this place, our Parliament, our democracy and our conduct within this place. Many told me that they thought Prime Minister’s question time was too theatrical, that Parliament was out of touch and too theatrical, and that they wanted things done differently, but above all they wanted their voice to be heard in Parliament. So I thought, in my first Prime Minister’s Question Time, I would do it in a slightly different way. I am sure the Prime Minister will absolutely welcome this, as he welcomed the idea in 2005, but something seems to have happened to his memory during that period. So I sent out an email to thousands of people and asked them what questions they would like to put to the Prime Minister and I received 40,000 replies.

There is not time to ask 40,000 questions today—our rules limit us to six—so I would like to start with the first one, which is about housing. Two-and-a-half thousand people emailed me about the housing crisis in this country. I ask one from a woman called Marie, who says, “What does the government intend to do about the chronic lack of affordable housing and the extortionate rents charged by some private sector landlords in this country?”

First of all, let me congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his resounding victory in the Labour leadership election. I welcome him to the Front Bench, and to these exchanges. I am sure that there will be many strong disagreements between us during our exchanges, but when we can work together in the national interest we should do so, and I wish the right hon. Gentleman well in his job.

If we are able to change Prime Minister’s Question Time and make it a more genuine exercise in asking questions and answering questions, no one will be more delighted than me. Last week, when we discussed a substantial issue with substantial questions and proper answers, I felt that that was good for our House and good for our democracy, and so I welcomed it.

Let me now answer, very directly, Marie’s question. We do need to see more affordable housing in our country. We delivered 260,000 affordable housing units during the last Parliament, and we built more council houses in our country than had been managed in the previous 13 years, but I recognise that much more needs to be done. That means carrying on with our reform of the planning system, and it means encouraging the building industry to come up with innovative schemes like the starter homes scheme, but, above all, it means continuing to support the aspirations of people to be able to afford their own homes, which is where schemes such as Help to Buy come in. But I say this to the right hon. Gentleman: we will not get Britain building unless we keep our economy going.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, and I thank him for his commitment that we are going to try and do Prime Minister’s Question Time in a more adult way than we have done it in the past.

The effects of Government policy on housing are obviously enormous, and the decision to cut, for example, 1% of the rent levels in councils and in housing associations without thinking about the funding issues that those authorities face is a serious one. I have a question from Steven, who works for a housing association. He says that the cut in rents will mean that the company that he works for will lose 150 jobs by next March because of the loss of funding for that housing association to carry on with its repairs. Down the line, that will mean worse conditions, worse maintenance, fewer people working there, and a greater problem for people living in those properties. Does the Prime Minister not think it is time to reconsider the question of the funding of the administration of housing, as well as, of course, the massive gap of 100,000 units a year between what is needed and what is being built?

What I would say to Steven, and to all those who are working in housing associations and doing a good job, is that for years in our country there was something of a merry-go-round. Rents went up, housing benefit went up, and so taxes had to go up to pay for that. I think it was right in the Budget to cut the rents that social tenants pay, not least because people who are working and not on housing benefit will see a further increase in their take-home pay, and will be able to afford more things in life.

I think it is vital, though, that we reform housing associations and make sure that they are more efficient. They are a part of the public sector that has not been through efficiencies and has not improved its performance, and I think it is about time that it did.

I thank the Prime Minister for that, but it leads me neatly on to what happened yesterday, when the House sadly voted for proposals that will cost families who are affected by the change in tax credits £1,300 per year. That is absolutely shameful. I received more than 1,000 questions about tax credits. Paul, for example, asks this very heartfelt question: “Why is the government taking tax credits away from families? We need this money to survive and so our children don’t suffer. Paying rent and council tax on a low income doesn’t leave you much. Tax credits play a vital role and more is needed to stop us having to become reliant on food banks to survive.”

What we need is a country where work genuinely pays, and that is why what our proposals do is reform welfare, but at the same time bring in a national living wage which will mean that anyone on the lowest rate of pay will get a £20-a-week pay rise next year. That is why the figures show that a family—[Interruption.] I thought that this was the new Question Time. I am not sure that the message has fully hit home.

I do not want to blind the House with statistics, but I will give just two. First, after all our changes, a family where one of whose members is on the minimum wage will be £2,400 better off. Secondly—and I think this is really important—between 1998 and 2009, in-work poverty went up by 20%, at the same time as in-work benefits rose from £6 billion to £28 billion. The old way of doing things is not working, and we should not go back to it. What we must do is tackle the causes of poverty: get people back to work, improve our schools, improve childcare. Those are the ways in which we can create an economy in which work pays and everyone is better off.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies says there are 8 million people in paid work eligible for benefits or tax credits. They are on average being compensated for just 26% of their losses by the so-called national living wage that the Government have introduced. So I ask a question from Claire, who says this: “How is changing the thresholds of entitlement for tax credits going to help hard-working people or families? I work part-time; my husband works full-time earning £25,000”—they have five children—“This decrease in tax credits will see our income plummet.” They ask a simple question: how is this fair?

The country has to live within its means and we were left an unaffordable welfare system and a system where work did not pay. We see today the latest set of employment statistics where the rate of employment in our country has yet again reached a record high—more people in work, more people in full-time work—and we are also seeing unemployment fall in every region of the country except the south-east, and the sharpest falls are in the north-west, the north-east and the west midlands. What we are doing is moving from an economy with low wages, high tax and high welfare to an economy where we have higher wages, lower taxes and less welfare. That is the right answer: an economy where work pays, an economy where people can get on. Let us not go back to the days of unlimited welfare. Labour’s position again today is to abolish the welfare cap; I say that a family that chooses not to work should not be better off than one that chooses to work.

Many people do not have that choice; many people live in a very difficult situation and rely on the welfare state to survive. Surely all of us have a responsibility to make sure that people can live properly and decently in modern Britain; that is surely a decent, civil thing to do.

I received over 1,000 questions on the situation facing our mental health services and people who suffer from mental health conditions. This is a very serious situation across the whole country and I want to put to the Prime Minister a question that was put to me very simply from Gail: “Do you think it is acceptable that the mental health services in this country are on their knees at the present time?”

As I mentioned before the first question, there will be areas where we can work together, and I believe this is one of them; we do need to do more to increase mental health services in our country. We have made some important steps forward in recent years. Mental health and physical health now have parity in the NHS constitution. We have introduced for the first time waiting time targets for mental health services so they are not seen as a Cinderella service, and of course we have made the commitment—a commitment I hope the right hon. Gentleman will back, undoing previous Labour policy—to back the Stevens plan for an extra £8 billion into the NHS in this Parliament, which can help to fund better mental health services, among other things. There are problems in some mental health services and it is right that we make that commitment.

But I make this one point to the hon. Gentleman: we will not have a strong NHS unless we have a strong economy, and if the Labour party is going to go down the route of unlimited spending, unlimited borrowing and unlimited tax rates, printing money, they will wreck the economic security of our country and the family security of every family in our country. We will not be able to afford a strong NHS without a strong economy.

May I take the Prime Minister back to the situation of mental health in this country, which is very serious? I agree with him absolutely on parity of service, and I hope the spending commitments are brought forward, rather than delayed to the end of this Parliament, because the crisis is very serious. We know this from our constituents, we know this from people we meet, we know this from the devastation that many face—and indeed some have taken their own lives because of the devastation they face.

I ask a question from Angela, who is a mental health professional, so she knows exactly what she is talking about. She says this: “Beds are unobtainable with the result that people suffering serious mental health crises are either left without adequate care or alternatively admitted to facilities many miles away from their homes, relatives and family support systems. The situation is simply unacceptable.” What does the Prime Minister say to Angela and people like her who work so hard in the mental health services, or people going through a mental health crisis who may well be watching us today on Prime Minister’s Question Time and want to know that we take their conditions seriously, and take seriously their need for emergency beds and to be near their homes and support system, and that we as a society take seriously their plight and are going to help them and care for them? What does the Prime Minister say to Angela?

What I would say to Angela, and all those working in mental health—and indeed all those suffering from mental health conditions—is that we need to do more as a country to help tackle mental health. That is obviously about money into the health service, which we will deliver, but it is also about changing the way the health service helps those with mental health conditions. The right hon. Gentleman rightly talks about mental health beds, and they are important, but frankly so is the service that people get when they visit their GP. Many people going into their GP surgeries have mental health conditions, but they are not treated for those conditions and do not get access to, for instance, the cognitive behavioural therapies that are increasingly being made available. So my argument is, yes, put in the resources, change the way the NHS works and change public attitudes to mental health—that is vital—but I say again that we will not be able to do any of those things without the strong economy that we have built over these last five years.

Q15. The Isle of Wight zoo is having difficulty importing a tiger. She was cruelly treated in a circus and has now been kept in isolation for nearly two years, despite Belgium being wholly free from rabies. Will my right hon. Friend assist in breaking through this bureaucratic logjam? (901370)

I want to hear about the tiger, and we will help those at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Animal and Plant Health Agency, because they are the ones who are working on this. I had a constituency case exactly like this, when the Cotswold Wildlife Park wanted to bring in a rhino. I intervened, and I am delighted to say that the Cotswold Wildlife Park named the rhino Nancy, in honour of my daughter. Nancy has been breeding ever since she arrived in Burford, and I hope that the tiger will be just as effective.

May I begin by congratulating the new leader of the Labour party? We in the Scottish National party look forward to working with him to oppose Tory austerity, and we hope that Labour MPs will join him and us in opposing Trident when the time comes. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] One year ago to the day, the Prime Minister made a vow to the people of Scotland. Promises were made to deliver home rule and an arrangement as near to federalism as possible. However, the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, now says that the UK Government are

“falling short on the delivery of the recommendations of the Smith Commission on Scottish devolution”.

When will the Prime Minister deliver on the promises that he made to the people of Scotland?

We have delivered on all the promises that we made—[Interruption.] We said that we would introduce a Scotland Bill, and we introduced a Scotland Bill. We said that there would be unprecedented devolution on taxes, and there has been unprecedented devolution on taxes. We said that we would provide those welfare powers, and we have given those welfare powers. The question now for the SNP is this: when are you going to stop talking about processes and start telling us what taxes you are going to put up? What welfare changes are you going to make? Or, when it comes to talking about the issues, are you frit?

That is very interesting. Whatever happened to the new style of PMQs? One of the architects of the vow says that it is not being fully delivered, as does the Scottish Trades Union Congress. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Carers Scotland and Enable Scotland all say that not enough welfare powers are being devolved. Only 9% of people in Scotland believe that the vow has been delivered, and not one amendment to the Scotland Bill has been accepted by the Government. Tory bluster and condescension will not go down well in Scotland. So, for the second time, may I ask the Prime Minister to tell us, in his new style of answering at Prime Minister’s questions, when he will deliver on the promises that were made to the people of Scotland?

Of course this is going to take a bit of getting used to, but let me try to answer the right hon. Gentleman very calmly. What I notice from his question is that he has not given me one single example of where the vow was not delivered. If he can point to a tax we promised to devolve but have not devolved, I would accept it. If he can point to a welfare change we promised to devolve but did not devolve, I would accept it. He has not done those things. All he is doing is continuing an argument about process, because he does not want to talk about the substance. You give me a list—sorry, he should give me a list—of the things that were promised and were not delivered, and then we can have a very reasonable conversation. Until then, it is all bluster from the SNP.

Q14. The Prime Minister has a lot to be pleased with Corby for—that is Corby, not Corbyn. Not only did Corby help him back into No. 10, but it gave to him and the world the DVD case, which was designed and first produced in the town. This week, we continue that entrepreneurial spirit, with our bid for a new enterprise zone being submitted. Does he agree that areas that are taking significant housing growth should also benefit from new jobs and new infrastructure? (901369)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; there is a lot that is very positive happening in Corby—we got the claimant count down by 29% over the last year and long-term youth unemployment is down. The point he makes about areas that take extra housing getting the opportunity for more infrastructure is right. So, yes, ever since his election I have been feeling a sense of Corbymania.

Q2. Public sector workers like nurses, health workers, local government workers, teachers and public service workers have not had a pay rise for five years, and they are being told by the Chancellor that they are going to get 1% for the next five years. What is it with these hard-working, good tax-paying people that means this Tory Government will not give them a decent rise? (901357)

First, what we have been most keen on is trying to protect the services and the jobs, and it has a direct impact if you simply have larger pay rises. But of course today inflation is 0% and there are pay increases in the public sector, and what the hon. Gentleman completely fails to mention are the progression payments that, for instance, in the health service, have delivered year-on-year pay increases for many hard-working people in our NHS whom I want to see rewarded. But there is something else we can do, which is to cut their taxes. By keeping public spending under control and by growing our economy, we are able to say to everyone in our public sector, “You can earn £11,000 before you start paying any income tax at all.” That has been, in effect, a pay rise for 29 million working people.

Q13. Following the Prime Minister’s visit to Yorkshire last week, peace, love and harmony has broken out right across the county. Members on both sides of the House have expressed their support for a “Greater Yorkshire” bid, encompassing north, east and west Yorkshire and Hull. Will he agree to meet me and other Members to discuss the merits of the bid, and the central role we believe it can play in the northern powerhouse and our economic security? (901368)

I will obviously take great care with my answer. I think it is excellent that we have got these devolution proposals, and it is very good that a number of different ideas have come forward from Yorkshire. The most important thing now is for people to try to come together and get behind a plan for Yorkshire. But be in no doubt: this devolution is coming, in terms of real powers and real ability to drive that economy as part of our northern powerhouse.

Q3. My constituent Enola Halleron-Clarke, who is 11 years old, suffers from Morquio syndrome. This distressing disease stunts her growth and leads to abnormal development of the bones, and at the moment there is no cure. Enola would like to be able to use the drug Vimizim to help alleviate her condition, but the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has yet to decide whether the drug should be available on the NHS. Will the Prime Minister do all he can to encourage NICE to come to a speedy decision for Enola and people like her? (901358)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the case about this illness and this drug; other Members have raised it as well. She is right to say that NICE is still looking at the matter. I will continue to do all I can to ensure that it reaches a speedy decision. We also need to have a dialogue with the drug companies, because of the vast prices that are being charged for some of these drugs. There are resource implications, and we need to bring down those costs to make the drugs more available, more quickly.

After a Care Quality Commission inspection at Medway hospital, a two-day diversion of ambulances has been put in place, starting this morning. Will the Prime Minister assure me that all will be done to turn things around at our hospital so that my constituents can have a fully functioning A&E swiftly and urgently?

I well remember discussing that with my hon. Friend. Obviously, her hospital has faced difficulties, and, instead of trying to push that under the carpet, we have decided in these circumstances to send in a team to turn things around and improve the hospital’s performance, but more work needs to be done. The pledge I can make is that we will continue investing in that hospital and working on it to ensure that it can provide the service that her constituents deserve.

Q4. At the general election, the Prime Minister promised an extra £8 billion a year for the national health service. This week, the chief executive of one of our leading hospitals in the country, Addenbrooke’s hospital, which serves my constituents in Cambridge, resigned, not least because of the financial crisis that is engulfing our health service, as indicated by the King’s Fund yesterday. How much more damage has to be done to the NHS before the Prime Minister coughs up? (901359)

With the danger of introducing too much politics into this answer, I have to say that at the general election our party stood on the proposal of £8 billion more for the NHS—effectively, it was £10 billion more for the NHS—and we have set out where every penny piece of that is coming from. At that election, the Labour party did not support an extra £8 billion for the NHS; it did not back the Stephens plan. The truth is if we want proper reform for a seven-day NHS and the resources that go with a successful NHS, it is the Conservative party that will deliver.

Q5. In a world in which we have a nuclear North Korea, a rampant and aggressive Russia and the pure evil of the so-called Islamic State, will the Prime Minister agree that, to protect our security and way of life, we simply must have an independent nuclear deterrent? (901360)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Defence is the most important duty for a Government and for a Prime Minister. The cornerstone of our defence will remain the 2% spending to which we are committed with the increased defence budget in this Parliament, the membership of NATO and Britain’s own independent nuclear deterrent as the ultimate insurance policy in what is a dangerous world. The fact that the Labour party is turning away from those things is deeply regrettable. National security is the most important thing a Government can deliver and we will never fall short.

The plaques at the entrance door to this Chamber in memory of Airey Neave, Robert Bradford, Ian Gow and Sir Anthony Berry—serving Members of this House who were murdered by terrorists as they stood up for democracy and the British way of life—are a reminder of the savagery and brutality of terrorism, as are the gravestones and the headstones in Northern Ireland and right across this land. The Opposition Leader has appointed a shadow Chancellor who believes that terrorists should be honoured for their bravery. Will the Prime Minister join all of us, from all parts of this House, in denouncing that sentiment and standing with us on behalf of the innocent victims and for the bravery of our armed forces who stood against the terrorists?

From the reaction he has just heard, the right hon. Gentleman will know that he has spoken for many in this House and, I think, the vast majority of people in our country. Airey Neave is the first Member of Parliament I can remember, because he was my Member of Parliament. Ian Gow was one of the first politicians I ever wrote a speech for, and there never was a kinder or gentler public servant in this House. He was cruelly murdered and his family had that life taken away. My view is simple: the terrorism we faced was wrong. It was unjustifiable. The death and the killing was wrong. It was never justified, and people who seek to justify it should be ashamed of themselves.

Q6. Schools in Poole are in the bottom five and schools in Dorset are in the bottom 11 when it comes to local education authorities and funding per pupil. I welcome this Government’s commitment to a fairer funding formula. Does the Prime Minister recognise the importance of fairer funding for our schools in Poole and Dorset, and the need for that to be implemented as quickly as possible to ensure a world-class education for our children, including respect for our traditions, and perhaps even learning the importance of our national anthem? (901361)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. There are very strong calls on all sides to ensure that we address fairness in funding. In the last Parliament we allocated £390 million extra for fairer funding, and his own authorities, Dorset and Poole, benefited from that, receiving £3.1 million and £3.2 million respectively. I can tell him that that money is included in the baseline for schools funding in 2016 and 2017. But I know that there is unfairness in the current system and I want us to do everything we can to make the funding formula fairer.

Q7. Nissan in my constituency has just reached the half-a-million production mark for its new Qashqai model, breaking all UK records. I am sure that the Prime Minister, and indeed the whole House, will wish to join me in congratulating Nissan on that great achievement. Nissan’s constructive unionised workforce has helped achieve that fantastic outcome, so why is the Prime Minister attacking workers’ rights when in many cases, as at Nissan, trade unions are an overwhelming force for good? (901362)

First, let me agree with the hon. Lady that the achievements at Nissan are absolutely remarkable. One of the great privileges of my job is being able to go and meet people there and see what they are doing. I think that I am right in saying that the north-east of England now produces more cars than the whole of Italy, which is something that I think we can be proud of. Of course, with the new Hitachi factory we will now be manufacturing trains in the north-east as well. Look, the Trade Union Bill is not what she says it is; it is to make sure that we do not have strikes based on very low turnouts. Let me give her one example. A couple of years ago we had school strikes that shut schools right across our country. The ballot was two years out of date and only 27% of people had turned up to vote in it. Working parents across the country had to keep their children at home when they should have been getting the public service they paid for. That is what our Bill is about, and I hope that it will have support across the House.

The bravery of all our servicemen and women is beyond question, but does the Prime Minister agree that the bravest of the brave must be those who faced the invisible bullets of Ebola in the recent crisis in west Africa? Will he take the opportunity to join me, along with Members of both Houses, at the great north door of Westminster Hall straight after Prime Minister’s questions to welcome back 120 soldiers, sailors and airmen, together with aid workers, medical workers and others, who did our bidding in west Africa?

I will be delighted to join my hon. Friend. One of the great privileges of this job was being able recently to hold a reception at No. 10 for people who had served in west Africa tackling Ebola. They are some of the bravest and most remarkable people I have met, whether the nurses, the volunteers or members of Britain’s brave armed forces. It really is remarkable what they have done. We are almost in a position to declare Sierra Leone Ebola-free. Great work has been done by the people of Sierra Leone, but I think that Britain was able to take on this task because we have good armed forces that are properly funded, and having an aid budget at 0.7% of our GNP is something the whole country can be proud of. That is exactly the sort of use of our aid budget, where we are doing it with moral force and with our moral conscience but also keeping our country safe at home. To those who sometimes wonder what are the uses of British troops, I say, “Get a map out and have a look at Sierra Leone.”

Q8. The SSI steelworks in Redcar are facing serious and imminent challenges. UK steel is of vital strategic importance to the British economy. Will the Prime Minister urgently meet me, my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) and the steelworkers’ union community so that we can look at more positive ways of supporting our industry in order to protect it in much the same way that other European Governments do? (901363)

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise this, and everyone is concerned about the steelworks in Redcar. Obviously, we have taken the action of voting with others in Europe against Chinese dumping. We have also provided over £30 million of support in respect of high energy users. Also, by setting out our national infrastructure plan, we are giving steel producers a sense of the demand in our country in the months and years to come. I will certainly consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovations and Skills about the best sort of meeting we can have in order to make sure we do everything we can to keep steelmaking in Redcar.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree that this Government’s commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence protects our national and economic future, while giving our 21st century armed forces the moral and financial support they need to protect our nation’s security? (901364)

We have had to make difficult decisions in the spending review and we will have to make further difficult decisions, but on the decision to increase our defence spending in a very dangerous and uncertain world, when we face threats in Europe with the behaviour of Russia and the threat from ISIL in the middle east, combined with all the other threats, including cyber, it is absolutely right to increase this spending and to make sure that membership of NATO remains the cornerstone of our defence. National security will always be the top priority of this Government.

We have a statement. It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Gentleman. We will save him up and keep his point of order until a little later. The statement comes first.