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Volume 600: debated on Wednesday 14 October 2015

I know the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Flight Lieutenant Alan Scott of 32 Squadron and Flight Lieutenant Geraint Roberts of 230 Squadron. Both men died along with three other coalition personnel when their Puma helicopter crashed on Sunday in Kabul, Afghanistan. They gave their lives serving our country and making our world more secure, and our deepest sympathies are with their families and friends at this very difficult time.

I also wish to pay tribute to Police Constable David Phillips, who was killed in the line of duty last week. His death is a stark reminder of the very real dangers our police officers face daily and my thoughts—and, I know, the thoughts of the whole House—are with his family and friends during these tragic circumstances.

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.

The British Medical Association has raised concerns about what it calls the chronic undermanning of Defence Medical Services. We cannot have sufficient medical and mental health provision for the armed forces without properly resourced services. Will the Prime Minister address this issue urgently, prioritise the treatment of our armed forces and lend support to my Adjournment debate this evening highlighting these concerns?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing that Adjournment debate and raising this very important issue. Defence Medical Services do an outstanding job. I was just speaking about Afghanistan, and I have seen in Afghanistan year after year what an amazing service they provide. At times it was almost the equivalent of a district general hospital accident and emergency on the back of a Chinook helicopter; it is extraordinary. There is an opportunity for us to look at this whole area in our strategic defence and security review, and we will approach that review with a rising defence budget during this Parliament.

Q3. Today we have seen the claimant count in Lincoln fall by 20% on last year’s figures, with a 44% drop in those claiming since 2010. Does my right hon. Friend believe this is down to having local job fairs and a clear long-term economic plan to secure our national recovery, and that it would be put in jeopardy by the shambles that is the party led by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)? (901523)

Let me congratulate businesses in Lincoln on their record in providing people with jobs. The unemployment figures out today are extremely good. We see 140,000 more people in work, we see the employment rate at a record level since records began, unemployment has come down, vacancies have gone up, and youth unemployment and long-term unemployment have both come down. In all of this, yes, the job fairs are important and the apprenticeships are important, but above all what matters is having a long-term economic plan that is about a strong and secure economy and getting the deficit down and running a surplus. That is what we should be focused on, but I am sure the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) will welcome today’s fall in unemployment.

I echo the Prime Minister’s tributes to the two RAF airmen killed in Afghanistan, Flight Lieutenant Geraint Roberts and Flight Lieutenant Alan Scott, and also the sadness at the death of David Phillips in the line of duty, as many police officers do face danger. I absolutely concur with the Prime Minister’s remarks about that.

I am sure the Prime Minister and the whole House would also join me in expressing sympathies and sadness at the more than 100 people who died in a bomb blast in Ankara last Sunday, attending a peace rally of all things, and our sympathies must go to all of them.

I want to ask the Prime Minister a question about tax credits. I have had 2,000 people email me in the last three days offering a question to the Prime Minister on tax credits. I will choose just one. Kelly writes:

“I’m a single mum to a disabled child, I work 40.5 hours each week in a job that I trained for, I get paid £7.20 per hour! So in April the Prime Minister is not putting my wage up but will be taking tax credits off me!”

So my question is: can the Prime Minister tell us how much worse off Kelly will be next year?

First, let me welcome what the hon. Gentleman has said and join him in what he said about the terrible bomb in Ankara, where over 100 people were killed. Our thoughts should be with the families of those who suffered and with that country as it struggles against this terrorism. Let me answer him directly on the question of tax credits. What we are doing is bringing in the national living wage, which will be a £20 a week pay rise for people next year. Obviously, Kelly will benefit as that national living wage rises to £9—[Interruption.] Sorry, what happened to the new approach? I thought questions were going to be asked so that they could be responded to. Right, so there is the introduction of the national living wage, which will reach £9 by the end of the Parliament. This will benefit Kelly. In April next year, we will raise to £11,000 the amount that you can earn before you start paying taxes. If Kelly has children, she will benefit from the 30 hours of childcare that we are bringing in. I do not know all Kelly’s circumstances, but in addition, if she is a council house or housing association tenant, we are cutting her rent. All those things are important, as is the increase in employment and the increase in wages taking place today.

I thank the Prime Minister for that. I can tell him, in case he is not aware of it, that Kelly is going to be £1,800 a year worse off next April, that there are another 3 million families in this country who will also be worse off next April, and that after housing costs, 500,000 more children are now in poverty compared with five years ago, in 2010. On top of that, his new tax credit policy will put another 200,000 children into poverty. Is not the truth of the matter that this Government are taking away the opportunities and limiting the life chances of hundreds of thousands of children from poorer or middle income families in our society? Should he not be aware of that when he makes these decisions?

The fact is that since I became Prime Minister there are 480,000 fewer children in households where nobody works. There are 2 million more people in work and almost 1 million more women in work. There are 250,000 more young people in work. The best route out of poverty is to help people get a job. Even though the unemployment figures came out today and we can see 140,000 more people in work, the hon. Gentleman still has not welcomed that fall in unemployment. The point he needs to focus on is this: all these people benefit from a growing economy where wages are rising and inflation is falling, and where we are getting rid of our deficit to create economic stability. It is that stability that we will be voting on in the Lobby tonight.

The Prime Minister is doing his best, and I admire that, but will he acknowledge that people in work often rely on tax credits to make ends meet? He and his party have put forward a Budget that cuts tax credits and gives tax breaks to the very wealthiest in our society, so that inequality is getting worse, not better. Should he not think for a moment about the choices that he is making, and the reality that results for the very poorest people in our society?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the reform of tax credits; let me tell him why that is necessary. Between 1998 and 2010, the bill for tax credits went from £6 billion to £30 billion, yet at the same time in-work poverty went up by 20%. The system of taking money away from people and giving it back to them in tax credits was not working. We say it is better to let people earn more and then take less from them in taxes. In this country, we now have 2 million more people in work. The figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes for inequality are simply wrong. There are 800,000 fewer people in relative poverty than in 2010, and there are 300,000 fewer children in relative poverty since 2010. If he wants to know why, it is because we took difficult decisions to get our deficit down, to get our economy growing and to deliver the strongest growth anywhere in the western world. Tonight, Labour Members have a choice. A week ago, they were committed to getting the deficit down and running a surplus, just like us, but for some reason—I know not why—they have decided to do a 180°-turn and vote for more borrowing for ever. Is that now the position of the Labour party?

The reality is that 3 million low and middle-income families will be worse off as a result of the tax credit changes. If the Prime Minister wants to change his mind on tax credits, he is very welcome to do so. He will have an opportunity at next week’s Opposition day debate, which is on this very subject. I am sure that he will want to take part in that debate and explain why it is such a good idea to make so many people so much worse off.

I have had 3,500 questions on housing in the past few days. I have a question from Matthew. [Interruption.] This might be funny to some Members, but it is not funny to Matthew or to many others. Matthew says:

“I live in a private rented house in London with three other people. Despite earning a salary well over the median wage, buying even the cheapest of properties will be well beyond my reach for years.”

Does the Prime Minister really believe that £450,000 is an affordable price for a new home for someone on an average income to try to aspire to?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of housing, particularly the affordability of housing in London. I say to Matthew that we are doing everything we can to get councils to build more houses, particularly affordable houses that he can buy. The hon. Gentleman quotes the figure of £450,000, but what we are saying is that that should be the upper limit for a starter home in London. We want to see starter homes in London built at £150,000 and £200,000, so that people like Matthew can stop renting and start buying. What have we done for people like Matthew? We have introduced Help to Buy, so for the first time we are helping people to get their deposit together so that they can buy a new home. We are also giving people like Matthew the right to buy their housing association home. [Interruption.] That is interesting. We hear groans from the Labour party, but the entire housing association movement is now backing our plan and telling people that they will be able to buy their home. I say to the hon. Gentleman: let us work together and get London building to get prices down so that people like Matthew can afford to buy a home of their own.

May I bring the Prime Minister back to reality? The past five years have seen a low level of house building—fewer than half the new buildings that are needed have been built—rapidly rising rents; rising homelessness; and a higher housing benefit bill. Even his friends at the CBI say we need to build at least 240,000 homes per year. Will he now address the problem that local authorities face in accessing funds to undertake the necessary and essential building of council housing? The Government appear to have a growing obsession with selling off publicly owned properties rather than building homes for people who desperately need them so that children can grow up in a safe and secure environment, which is what we all want for all of our children.

Let me deal with all the hon. Gentleman’s points in turn. First, now that the housing association movement is backing the Right to Buy scheme, there will be up to a million extra homeowners, with the money going back into building more homes. Secondly, over the past five years that I have been Prime Minister, we have built more council homes than the previous Labour Government built in 13 years. [Interruption.] That is a bit of reality that the hon. Gentleman might want to digest. The most important point is that if we want to build homes, we need a strong and stable economy. We will not have a strong and stable economy if we adopt the new Labour position, which is borrowing money for ever. I urge Opposition Members who believe in a strong economy, paying down our deficit, and ensuring that we deliver for working people to join us in the Lobby tonight.

It would be very nice if the Prime Minister actually answered the question I asked. [Interruption.]

Order. These proceedings should be conducted in a seemly way, and chuntering from a sedentary position, from either Front Bench, is not helpful. Members must remain calm. Be as good as you can be.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am totally calm, I assure you, and I do not intend to engage in any chuntering.

The question I put to the Prime Minister was this: what is he doing to allow local authorities to build the homes that are necessary for people who have no opportunity to buy and who cannot afford to remain in the private rented sector? I realise that this might be complicated, so I would be very happy for him to write to me about it. We could then share the letter with others.

I want to turn my attention to another subject in my final question. I realise that the Prime Minister might not be able to give me a full answer today, but he might like to write to me about it. As I am sure he is aware, yesterday was secondary breast cancer awareness day. In Brighton last month I met two women who are suffering from terminal breast cancer, Frances and Emma. Apparently the Prime Minister met their organisation in 2010. They raised with him a serious problem with the collection of data in all hospitals across the country on the incidence of secondary breast cancer, its treatment and the success rates, or otherwise, of that treatment. As I understand it, that information is not being collected as efficiently as it might be or centralised sufficiently.

I would be grateful if the Prime Minister could follow up on the promise he made to those women in 2010 to ensure that the data are collected and centralised in order to help every woman going through the trauma of not only breast cancer, but secondary breast cancer, knowing that it is terminal, but also knowing that there might be some treatment that could alleviate the pain and possibly extend their lives. Will he undertake to do that and reply to me as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this matter. At my party conference I met the same campaigners whom he met at his, and I had a good discussion with them. We all know people who have had the tragedy of having breast cancer, and one can only imagine what it must be like to survive primary breast cancer and recover, only to find out that one has a secondary cancer, and often one that is completely incurable. The campaigners are asking for better information, not least because they want to ensure that we spread best practice to every hospital so that we really do treat people as quickly as possible. I had a conversation with them and relayed it to the Health Secretary. I am very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about it. Making sure that people get the right diagnosis quickly and that we then use the information to tackle secondary breast cancer is absolutely essential for our country.

Q4. The Prime Minister recently spoke movingly and shockingly about the life of despair that still lies ahead for too many of our looked-after children. Notwithstanding the vital work that has been done in recent years, will he expand on the reforms that he proposes for these, our most vulnerable citizens? (901524)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who knows a lot about this from the work he did in London when working for the Mayor. I think that there are two areas we need to look at most of all. First, we need to speed up adoption processes. We should be reducing the number of children in care by ensuring that they can find loving family homes. We have made some progress, but frankly we have had set-backs, not least because of some of the judgments in our courts, so we need to get the level of adoption back up again. Secondly, we need to take some of the knowledge from our education reforms and use it to reform social services. For example, we need to see the best graduates going into social work. Frankly, those social services that are failing need to be taken over far more quickly.

We on the SNP Benches associate ourselves with the condolences expressed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

The UK has been involved in three major military interventions in recent years, and in all cases there have been very severe unintended consequences: sadly, the Taliban control much of Afghanistan again; in Iraq the fanatics of Daesh terrorise about half the country; and in Libya there has been total anarchy and chaos. What assurances can the Prime Minister give that he has learnt the lessons from past mistakes and will not repeat them?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I would make two points to him. One is that, of course, intervention has consequences, but frankly non-intervention can have consequences too, as we see from the vast numbers of Syrians fleeing the appalling situation in that country, not least the barrel bomb chemical weapons attacks by Bashar Assad. It is worth making that point.

In terms of the lessons learned, I cannot wait for the Iraq inquiry to come out so that further lessons can be learned, but we have already learned a number of lessons: for instance, setting up the National Security Council, which is working well; making sure that we act on the basis of clear legal advice and the Attorney General attends all the important meetings; and working with allies and local partners. So while what is happening in both Iraq and Syria is frustrating, one of the lessons is to work with local partners. In Iraq, it is Iraqi troops that are the boots on the ground, and that is why we should give them all the support that they need in the war they are fighting against ISIL.

More than 450 UK service personnel have died in Afghanistan, but sadly the Taliban are back. The UK spent 13 times more on bombing Libya than on rebuilding the country, and there has been anarchy. The US has just dropped a $500 million programme to support the Syrian opposition, Russia is bombing Syria, and the UK has no plan to help refugees from Syria who are now in—[Interruption.] The UK has no plan to help Syrian refugees who have made it—[Interruption.]

Order. I think the right hon. Gentleman is reaching the conclusion of his question, but he must be allowed to do so.

It is a shame that Members on the Government Benches do not acknowledge that the UK has no policy to help Syrian refugees who have made it to Europe. There is no surprise that there is growing scepticism about the drumbeat towards war. Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that he has learned the lessons of Iraq, of Afghanistan and of Libya, and that he will never repeat them?

I would say a couple of things to the right hon. Gentleman. I cannot remember a question with so many errors in it: first of all, there is the idea that Britain is not helping Syrian refugees when we are the second largest bilateral donor to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, in Lebanon and in Turkey, and that is because we are spending 0.7% of our gross national income on aid. We have done more than almost any other country in the world to help Syrian refugees. Frankly, I do not recognise the picture he paints of Afghanistan. The fact is that we have supported an Afghan national army and police force and an Afghan Government who are in control of that country.

The final point I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that it is all very well standing on his high horse and lecturing about the past, but would he be happier with an Afghanistan that had a Taliban regime, and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? Would he be happier with Gaddafi running Libya? Would he be happier with that situation? So, as I said, the consequences of non-intervention are also worth considering.

Q5. My midlands constituency is already benefiting from infrastructure investment such as the significant improvements to the M5 motorway. Does the Prime Minister agree that the recently announced and independent National Infrastructure Commission will play a key role in improving and securing our nation’s long-term economic prosperity? (901525)

I am delighted that we are establishing the National Infrastructure Commission. I hope that it can put some of these questions about infrastructure beyond party politics; I think that would be a thoroughly good thing. I am delighted that Lord Adonis, who made a great contribution in government, will be running it. I know that my hon. Friend and I will want to make sure that the Cotswold line is looked at very carefully by the infrastructure commission as it does its work. [Interruption.] Someone is shouting out “Labour policy.” Where we find a good Labour policy, we implement it. Funnily enough, do you know what we are doing tonight? We are implementing what was, a week ago, a Labour policy—

Order. The Prime Minister had finished his answer, for which we are extremely grateful, but progress has been very slow and I want to get Back Benchers in—and I will do so.

Q2. The Scottish Government have estimated that the apprenticeship levy introduced by the Chancellor in the July Budget will raise £391 million from Scotland, with £146 million of that coming from the public sector. As yet, there has been no confirmation that a single penny of that will come to Scotland to fund our distinct modern apprenticeship programme. Will the Prime Minister confirm today that Scotland will receive our fair share of this funding, or are we seeing another pig in a poke from this supposed one nation Government? (901522)

We have not yet set the rate of the apprenticeship levy or, indeed, set what size a business has to be before it starts paying it. The guarantee I can give the hon. Gentleman is that Scotland will be treated fairly and will get its full and fair share of any apprenticeship levy, but, as ever with SNP Members, they invent a grievance before it even exists.

Q6. Work has started on site at the Rushden Lakes development at Skew Bridge, which will bring 1,900 new jobs, new shops—such as Marks & Spencer—and new leisure facilities to east Northamptonshire. Does the Prime Minister agree that we simply do not get £50 million of investment without economic confidence, and would he like to join us at the opening in due course? (901526)

I have already made a visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency to see one of his excellent academy schools, but I look forward to coming back. This does look like a very exciting development. I would make the point that, yes, of course we need a strong and stable economy to make sure we get this investment and housing going, but we also need councils to complete their local plans and put them in place, because in that way we can deliver extra housing.

Q8. During the general election campaign, the Prime Minister came to my constituency and promised to keep Calderdale Royal’s A and E department open and sort out the financial mess that our hospital was in. Since then, the Government have backtracked on both promises, saying that these are matters for the local NHS trust and for the clinical commissioning group. Will the Prime Minister show that he is a man of his word by meeting me to discuss ways in which he can honour his election promises? (901528)

We certainly have not backtracked on what we promised. We said we would put more money into the NHS. We talked then about £8 billion; we are actually delivering £10 billion more. We believe that these decisions should be made locally. The Calderdale hospital is an absolutely vital service.

Q7. Bicester is blossoming into a garden town that welcomes sustainable growth. Does my right hon. Friend, who knows our area well, agree that the promised funding for infrastructure must be provided in step with development? (901527)

Let me welcome my hon. Friend to the House. She replaces a very good friend, my former neighbour Tony Baldry, who worked so hard for the people of Banbury and Bicester. When people say there are not councils in the south of England that want to build houses and new developments, they should look at Bicester and see the thousands of houses, new schools and new infrastructure being put in place. Of course, investment and infrastructure have to go together, but I think Bicester shows that we can build, and build sensitively, and provide the homes that young people want to live in.

Q9. Can the Prime Minister help to clear up something for the House and the country? It concerns the recent biography of him by Isabel Oakeshott. In it, Lord Ashcroft says that he told the Prime Minister about his non-dom tax status in 2009; yet, in 2010, the Prime Minister said that he did not know the detail of Lord Ashcroft’s tax status. Clearly, someone is telling porkies. Is it him, or Lord Ashcroft? (901529)

I can think of many better uses of the hon. Gentleman’s time than reading that book. I managed to procure a free copy, and in order not to give anyone royalties, I will gladly lend him a copy, if that is what he would like. I think he will remember that, in this House, Labour and the Conservatives agreed to legislate so that non-doms could not sit in either House—legislation I fully supported, indeed suggested, at the time.

Q12. I am delighted to tell the House that Burton has set a new record: unemployment is at its lowest since records began. Does the Prime Minister agree that a return to the bad old days of more borrowing, more spending and higher taxes would not only put those important jobs at risk, but be a complete and utter shambles? (901532)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are 2 million more jobs and almost 1 million more women in work in our country. Youth unemployment is down and long-term unemployment is down. That is because British businesses are taking people on. They are doing that in the context of a strong and stable economy. Tonight we will vote on whether, after eight or nine years of strong economic growth, we should have a surplus rather than a deficit. If the Labour party does not believe in having a surplus then, when will it fix the roof when the sun is shining? I say to Labour Members who believe in a strong and stable Government and a strong and stable economy: come and join us in the Lobby this evening.

Q10. Whatever happened to the Government’s proposals for a highly skilled economy? If one looks at further education in Coventry, for example, there will be a 24% cut in the skills budget. The maintenance grant has been abolished and now the Government are even talking about abolishing the disablement grant for students. What will the Prime Minister do about that? (901530)

What I will do is deliver on the promise of 2 million apprentices in the last Parliament and 3 million in this Parliament. What one can see, because of the changes that we made in respect of skills and higher education, is a record number of students going to our universities, including a record number from low-income backgrounds. We will build on that record in this Parliament as we uncap student numbers and encourage people to study and make the most of their talents.

Q13. My right hon. Friend will remember meeting my amazing 10-year-old constituent, Archie Hill, who has a devastating condition, Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Archie has campaigned tirelessly to get access through the NHS to a new drug, Translarna, which could help him and about 50 other children with Duchenne. The drug has recently been prescribed in Scotland. With the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence due to make its decision on Friday, will my right hon. Friend assure me that children in England will receive the drug and that Archie’s fantastic campaigning has not been in vain? (901533)

I well remember meeting Archie, with his incredible spirit and his way of campaigning. As my right hon. Friend says, a decision will be made by NICE on Friday. As well as making sure that such decisions are made by clinicians, rather than politicians, we need to talk to the drug companies about getting the cost of these drugs down. This drug and others like it can cost over £400,000 per patient per year. The cancer drugs fund has helped to reduce the costs that the companies charge. We need to see that in other areas, too.

Q11. For many years, pensioners and disabled people in Fleetwood have enjoyed free access to the local tram service that connects the town to Blackpool. That free travel has been withdrawn due to funding cuts. Will the Prime Minister consider extending the national concessionary travel scheme to not just buses, but trams, which are often easier for older and disabled travellers to use? (901531)

I will look carefully at the point that the hon. Lady raises. We are very proud to have kept all our promises to pensioners, not least the triple lock promise. With such low inflation—the figures out yesterday put it at less than 0%—the triple lock will be vital in giving pensioners a better standard of living. I will look carefully at what she says, but I suspect that it is a decision by Lancashire County Council, rather than a decision for me.

The brutal murder of Telford teenager Georgia Williams led to a serious case review that was published today. The review makes it clear that there was a catalogue of failings by numerous agencies, including social services, schools and the probation service. We can see from the report that Georgia’s horrific death need not have happened. Will the Prime Minister join me in offering heartfelt condolences to Lynette and Steve Williams, Georgia’s parents, and in asking all the agencies involved to ensure that they learn from this tragic case?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this matter. I send my condolences to the Williams family for the appalling loss and tragedy that they have suffered. What matters now is that the police and the other agencies study the report and learn the lessons so that these mistakes are not made again.

Q14. Trade union members in Heywood and Middleton and across the country, including school cooks, shop workers and carers, cannot currently cast their votes in a trade union election either at their place of work or electronically. If the Trade Union Bill is passed, will they be able to do that? (901534)

First, what matters is that we have proper ballots and do not have strikes unless a proper percentage of people support them. I notice that Len McCluskey now supports our position. The problem with electronic voting, which the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy looked into, is that it is not yet clear that we can guarantee a very safe and secure ballot. I do not think it is too much to ask people who are potentially going to go on strike to fill out a ballot paper.

Recently, I received a letter from Transport for London, informing me that in the last year it has spent more than £1.4 million with suppliers in Erewash, including Progress Rail Services, which is fantastic news for our local economy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that by investing in Britain’s infrastructure, this Government have re-energised manufacturing and engineering, safeguarding our economic security?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Big infrastructure decisions, wherever they are made, can benefit every part of the country with jobs and manufacturing. Obviously, in the past five years London has seen huge investment because of Crossrail—the biggest infrastructure project anywhere in Europe—but I think we will see a better balance in the coming years, not least with the massive electrification and other programmes around the country. That is vital, but we cannot have infrastructure investment without a secure and strong economy, and that is what we will be delivering.

Q15. Recently I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are facing real hardship as a consequence of the current payment of child support. It is not compulsory for parents to declare changes that may impact on the amount that they should pay, and if it is found that a parent did not make their altered financial circumstances known, there are no penalties and no requirement to make backdated payments. What action will the Prime Minister take to close these loopholes, which have a detrimental effect on vulnerable families in Motherwell and Wishaw and beyond? (901535)

We are extremely grateful to the hon. Lady, but questions and answers must be somewhat briefer. We are making much slower progress than in the last Parliament.

The hon. Lady raises something that we have all seen in our constituency surgeries and the problems with the system, and we know that the old system with the Child Support Agency also had many imperfections. We have tried to introduce more voluntary arrangements and to encourage parents to seek ways to ensure that fair payments are made, but I will look closely at her question and perhaps I can write to her about it.