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Volume 603: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2015

The Prime Minister is visiting Poland and Romania, and I have been asked to reply.

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

The Chancellor will know that, as Christmas draws closer, people who are having difficulty in making ends meet will not experience much good will in the season of good will if they fall into the clutches of loan sharks as they try to buy presents for their families, so why is he choosing now to cut the budget of the Birmingham-based England illegal money-lending team by a third, although it has helped 24,000 loan shark victims to get £63 million of illegal debts written off? Will he have a word with his friend the Business Secretary, who seems to be refusing to answer questions from the Daily Mirror on the subject?

Of course we take very seriously the issue of illegal loan sharks and, indeed, that of excessive interest charges on payday lending, which is why it was Conservatives who introduced the first ever cap on payday lending. As for the hon. Gentleman’s specific question about funding for illegal money laundering and loan shark teams, we are considering the imposition of a levy on the industry to meet the requirements that he has identified.

Q2. Following last week’s vote, can my right hon. Friend give us an update on action against the genocidal jihadists who not only attack Christians, Yazidis and Muslims, but pillage their churches, shrines and mosques? I welcome the announcement of £30 million to protect cultural heritage, but can we also ratify the Hague convention sooner rather than later? (902484)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. Let me briefly update the House on the military action that has taken place since we met last week. We have 16 aircraft conducting strikes, as well as our Reaper drones. The Royal Air Force has flown 11 missions and conducted four strikes, principally against the oilfields, and we are also supporting Iraqi security forces. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be in New York next week for talks on trying to bring an end to the horrendous conflict in Syria. As for the damage that is being done to the cultural artefacts in the area, we are providing £30 million as part of the cultural fund—I have discussed that with the director of the British Museum—and as for the Hague convention, that process is now moving apace.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is nice to be given such a warm welcome.

Our hearts go out to all those who are suffering the consequences of the severe flooding in the north-west this week. Given that thousands of families are affected, the priority must be for the Government to give immediate help to all of them. Yet one year on from the 2013-14 floods, it emerged that only 15% of those affected had received payments from the Government’s repair and renew scheme. Does the Chancellor agree that that cannot possibly be allowed to happen again? These people need urgent help now, so will he today give the House a guarantee that people will receive the help they need, and quickly?

First, let me welcome the hon. Lady to her place and the warm support she has on the other side. I join her in expressing the sympathy of the whole House to those who have been affected by these terrible floods. A record rainfall has hit Cumbria and Lancashire. The update is that we have just one severe flood warning still in place, power has been restored to 168,000 homes and the west coast main line is open, but we have to be there for the long term for these families.

We continue to support the immediate rescue efforts, and the military have deployed. On recovery and the question the hon. Lady asks, I can today announce a £50 million fund for families and businesses affected in the area. That will be administered by the local authorities to avoid some of the administrative problems to which she alluded in her question. When it comes to rebuilding the infrastructure of Cumbria, Lancashire and other areas affected, we are assessing now the damage to the flood defences and to the roads. Funds will be made available. One of the benefits of having a strong and resilient economy is that we can help people in need.

I thank the Chancellor for that answer but, from listening to him, you would not think that he has cut flood defence spending by £115 million this year. After visiting the floods in the Somerset levels in 2014, the Prime Minister told this House that

“money is no object in this relief effort”——[Official Report, 12 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 840.]

and that whatever money was needed would be spent. I welcome the announcement that the Chancellor has just made, but will he confirm that the same will apply this time?

Absolutely. The money will be made available to those affected and to the communities who have seen their infrastructure damaged. Up to £5,000 will be made available to individual families to repair their homes and protect them against future flooding, and we will provide money to businesses that have seen their businesses ruined. There have been heartbreaking stories—we have all seen them on television—about businesses that have been affected. That money is available.

Because we have a strong and resilient economy, we are increasing the money we spend on our flood defences. It is just not the case that that has been reduced. The last Labour Government spent £1.5 billion on flood defences, and we will be spending £2 billion on flood defences and increasing maintenance spending. It is something we can do and we can help these communities precisely because we took the difficult decisions to fix our economy and public finances.

I thank the Chancellor for that, and we will hold him to account on the promises he has made today. However, I note that the Government’s own figures show that their planned capital investment in flood defence will only protect one in eight of those households at risk.

I see that the Prime Minister cannot be with us to answer questions today because he is visiting Poland and Romania on the latest leg of his seemingly endless European “renegotiation tour.” He has been jetting all over the place. No wonder we had to buy him his own aeroplane. So can the Chancellor tell us: how is it all going?

The good news is we have a party leader who is respected abroad. The Prime Minister is in central and eastern Europe because we are fighting for a better deal for Britain, something that never would have happened if there had been a Labour Government.

I have to tell the Chancellor that many of his own Back Benchers are pretty unimpressed with how it is going so far. The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) has described the Prime Minister’s renegotiation efforts as “pretty thin gruel”, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) has called them “lame” and “trivial”, and yesterday the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) told the Press Gallery they were “not all that impressive”. The Chancellor is well known for cultivating his Back Benchers, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, so may I ask him the question his own side want answering: given that the Prime Minister has pre-resigned, does he really aspire to be Britain’s first post-EU Prime Minister?

I am not sure I would be quoting the views of Back Benchers if I was speaking for the Labour party at the moment. Most opposition parties are trying to get momentum; they are trying to get rid of it. We are fighting for a good deal for Britain in Europe, we are fighting to make the European economy more competitive for everyone and we are fighting to make sure that Britain, as a country that is not in the euro, gets a fair deal from the eurozone. That is what we are fighting for, but in the end this is something that we will put to the people of Britain in a referendum. The only reason that referendum is happening at all is that the Conservative party won the general election.

Instead of obsessing about issues in the Labour party, the Chancellor should be condemning the appalling activities in Conservative Future and attacking the Tory bullying scandal. I notice he did not answer the question about his own prime ministerial activities; I am not sure, but he might be worried about somebody a few places down from him on the Treasury Bench. [Interruption.] She knows who she is. If the Chancellor will not listen to the doubts of his own Back Benchers, perhaps he will listen to someone who has written in. I have got here a letter. It is from Donald of Brussels. He writes:

“Uncertainty about the future of the UK in the European Union is a destabilising factor.”

He’s right, isn’t he?

Since the Conservative party announced its policy on a referendum, we in this country have received the lion’s share of investment into Europe. That is because we have built a strong economy, we stand up for Britain’s interests abroad and we have made this a competitive place to grow and build a business. While we are quoting missives, let me tell the House that someone called Tony has been writing today. He happens to be the most successful Labour leader in history, and he describes the current Labour party as a complete tragedy. May I suggest that the hon. Lady asks some serious questions, about the health service, the economy, social care? She can ask any of these questions. She has got one more question; let’s hear it.

I prefer this quote from Tony:

“Just mouth the words ‘five more Tory years’ and you feel your senses and reason repulsed by what they have done to our country.”

We all know that the Chancellor is so preoccupied with his own leadership ambitions that he forgot about the day job, and that is why he ended up trying to slash working families tax credits in the Budget. Is it not about time that he focused on the national interest rather than his own interest? Three million UK jobs are linked to trade with the EU. Half our exports go there. That is what they are putting at risk by flirting with Brexit, and that is why we on this side of the House know that Britain is better off in.

I thought that the Labour party voted for the referendum when it came before the House of Commons. We are fighting for a better deal for Britain in Europe. The truth is that this week we have shown that we have an economic plan that is delivering for Britain. Whether it is well-funded flood defences, putting money into our national health service, backing teachers in our schools or introducing a national living wage, we are delivering security for the working people of Britain. Their economic and national security would be put at risk if the Labour party ever got back into office.

Q4. I recently visited the apprentice workshop of David Wilson Homes and saw at first hand the work the construction industry is doing to support apprenticeships in Hampshire. What more can schools do to promote apprenticeships as a valuable alternative to post-16 academic study? (902486)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Schools have a legal duty to provide pupils with information on the full range of training and education available. Schools in her constituency can tell their pupils about the increase in the number of apprenticeship places—3 million in this Parliament—we are funding. That is a huge commitment to young people in this country and a big commitment to the construction industry. We want homes to be built. One of the challenges is getting skilled people into that industry, and no doubt that was raised by the business she spoke to, but the 3 million apprentices will help.

Occasionally, highly toxic and dangerous materials are transported around the country. Are not the public right to expect the highest safety standards and full co-operation between the responsible public agencies?

Absolutely—that co-operation is expected. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is talking about the transportation of nuclear materials from the Faslane base on the Clyde. I have met the local teams and seen how they transport the nuclear materials. If he has something else he wants to ask me about, go ahead.

There are growing reports in the north of Scotland about plans to transport on public roads dangerous nuclear material, potentially including nuclear weapons-grade uranium, from the Dounreay nuclear facility to Wick airport. It is believed that from there it will be flown to the United States. What will that nuclear material be used for, and has the Chancellor or any of his colleagues spoken with a single Minister in the Scottish Government about this?

The transportation of nuclear materials across this country has happened over many decades. There are established procedures for that, and the Royal Marines and the police service in Scotland provide the security. If the right hon. Gentleman has specific concerns about the plans for that transportation, he can raise them with us. As I say, arrangements are in place to ensure that we protect the public.

Q5. The Chancellor will know that the Prime Minister said in his recent conference speech that we have to get away from the “lock ’em up or let ’em out” mentality in respect of prison reform. That has to be right because the prison system is costing our constituents a fortune. Does the Chancellor agree that the time for rehabilitation that works is now, and that we should not be afraid to look at other jurisdictions to find examples and new ideas to tackle this ongoing state failure? (902487)

My hon. Friend is right to raise prison reform. People who commit crimes should go to prison, but prisons should be suitable places to rehabilitate prisoners. Some of our Victorian prisons are not suitable, which is why we will close them, knock them down, build desperately needed housing in our cities, and build modern prisons on the outskirts of our cities. I am incredibly proud that a Conservative Government are taking on this progressive social reform.

Q3. They are a great British institution and earn billions for our economy, so I am sure the Chancellor will share my concern that two curry houses a week are closing due to Government policies and the fact that the proposed specialist colleges have failed. As a fan himself, will he review the situation? He once likened the elements of a strong economy to those of a good curry, so will he take action to head off the coming curry crisis? (902485)

We all enjoy a great British curry, but we want the curry chefs to be trained in Britain so that we can provide jobs for people here in this country. That is what our immigration controls provide.

Q12. My right hon. Friend is well aware, from my repeated representations to him and his colleagues, of the need for a southern relief road and eastern bypass for Lincoln, which have been delayed by bureaucracy for nearly 100 years. He and his Government colleagues are well acquainted with the need to drive growth and local economic wellbeing by utilising appropriate infrastructure improvements to fuel the midlands engine. What would he say to my constituents, should he visit the beautiful city of Lincoln, other than to tell them that any new road is eventually better than no road? (902494)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing £50 million of extra funding for Lincoln and ensuring that a bypass will go ahead. I have spoken to him. I know he has concerns that the bypass will not be big enough and that it should be a dual-lane bypass. Let us continue to have those conversations. We both need to ensure that local authorities agree with his assessment, and I am happy to help him with that task.

Q6. Since the Chancellor’s Budget in July, I have asked time and again how he intends to make women prove, in order to qualify for tax credits, that they had their third child as a result of rape. Will he now admit that his abhorrent, vile policy is completely unworkable, and will he drop the rape clause? (902488)

It is perfectly reasonable to have a welfare system that is fair not just for those who need it but for those who pay for it. We have identified the specific cases that the hon. Lady refers to in her question, in which women have been victims of domestic abuse—or, indeed, rape—and that is why we are consulting and discussing changes to protect vulnerable women.

Q14. More than 4,000 apprenticeships have been created in my constituency since 2010, and I recently met representatives of In-Comm Training and a group of small local businesses to discuss skills and apprenticeships. What are the Government doing to help small businesses to help people into training and employment, thereby securing the economy of the midlands engine for future generations? (902496)

The great news is that jobs are being created in the midlands engine, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and we are investing in infrastructure there as well. We are also investing in the skills of the next generation through the apprenticeships she mentions, and we are backing small businesses by cutting the corporation tax they pay and by increasing employment allowance so that they can take on more people without paying the jobs tax.

Q7. Médecins sans Frontières reports that despite giving GPS co-ordinates several of its hospitals have been bombed by coalition and, in particular, Assad forces in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, killing medics as well as patients. With so many forces involved in airstrikes, will the Chancellor explain how the Government propose to avoid this happening in future? (902489)

The hon. Lady mentions the tragic bombing of the hospital. A review is going on to ensure that the coalition has accurate information for its strikes. When it comes to Yemen, we are working with the Saudi Government to make sure that they can review this information and that it is accurate. I am afraid we have no control over the Syrian Government and Assad, which is one of the reasons we would like to see Assad go.

Q15. The regeneration of Dunsbury Hill Farm in my constituency will create up to 3,500 new jobs, which is good news for an area where unemployment has halved since 2010. Will the Chancellor commit to continuing investment in the Solent regional economy, an area that much prefers his big Red Book to any other type? (902497)

I am delighted to hear about the regeneration of Dunsbury Hill Farm. It is part of the good news in my hon. Friend’s area, where, thanks to local businesses and to his work as a new MP in attracting infrastructure and investment into his constituency, the claimant count is down by 25% in the past year alone. I am glad he likes the Red Book of the Government and does not have so much time for the little red book brandished by Opposition Members.

Q8. During the autumn statement, the Chancellor casually removed vital bursary support from student nurses. I have since spoken to a number of nurses and some of the 4,000 nursing students at my local university, all of whom say that they would not have been able to study nursing without vital bursary support from the Scottish Government. What will he say to the aspiring nurses across the rest of the UK who may be prevented from pursuing their dreams of becoming a nurse? (902490)

Currently, two thirds of people in England who apply for nurse training courses are turned down. That cannot be right, as it means hospitals increasingly rely on agency staff or overseas nurses. We are reforming the education of nurses so that those who apply for nursing places are much more likely to get them.

Carlisle and Cumbria have experienced a traumatic few days, with the devastating floods. It was good that the Prime Minister saw at first hand the tremendous work of the emergency services, the issues relating to the flood defences and of course the direct impact of those floods on local families. As part of the recovery, Cumbria Community Foundation, a highly respected, county-wide charitable organisation, has launched a flood appeal. I wrote to the Prime Minister asking for the Government’s support for the appeal, as it would help many affected people right across the county. Would the Chancellor be able to offer such support from the Government towards this much-needed fund?

First, everyone here would pay tribute to the people of Carlisle, the extraordinary resilience they have shown and the acts of friendship that neighbours have shown to those affected by the terrible floods. Before the Prime Minister left for central Europe this morning, he asked me to make sure we would be able to help on the specific point my hon. Friend raises, and did raise with the Prime Minister, and I can say that we will support the work the Cumbria Community Foundation does and we will match, by up to £1 million, the money it is raising for its local flood appeal.

Q9. When the Chancellor tripled student tuition fees, he set the repayment threshold at £21,000. He has now frozen the threshold, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies tells us that many students will bear many extra thousands of pounds in repayments. Given that he has broken his promise, will he send students an apology or just the bill? (902491)

There seems to be collective amnesia among Labour Members: they introduced tuition fees and the payment threshold was £15,000. We have increased it to £21,000, which enables us to fund the lifting of the cap and more people who are qualified to go to university. I would have thought, and I would have hoped, that on this day the hon. Gentleman welcomed the big investment we are making in Cambridge, not least with the renovation of the famous Cavendish laboratory.

The Bexhill-Hastings link road will finally open this month, delivering a business park, new homes for a new labour market and a countryside park. The road has been talked about for decades but it has been commissioned and built in the past five. Will the Chancellor join me in welcoming new business to relocate to Bexhill and Hastings, and to expand?

I would certainly encourage businesses to relocate to my hon. Friend’s area. He is right about the link road: for decades people called for it, and although for all those years there was a Conservative MP for Bexhill, there was a Labour MP for Hastings for many of those years and nothing happened. Now that we have Conservative MPs in both Bexhill and Hastings, we are getting the investment the local area needs.

Q10. On 7 September, the Prime Minister told me that he could not remove refugees from the migration target because of the requirements of the Office for National Statistics, but I wrote to the ONS and it told me that in fact this would be possible. Can the Chancellor therefore demonstrate that Britain will do its bit and remove refugees from the migration target? (902492)

Let me say something surprising: we talk to each other in this Government! The Cabinet actually gets round the table and has meetings. We discuss things, we agree, and then we move forward—the Labour party should try it.

The Office for National Statistics is independent, but Britain is doing its bit by taking 20,000 refugees from the Syrian refugee camps. We have always provided a home for genuine asylum seekers.

Under current toy regulations, small children can be engulfed in flames by 3 cm in one second. Will the Chancellor encourage my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to intervene to see whether the Business Secretary can introduce a statutory instrument to improve the flammability of children’s play and dress-up costumes?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that case. We all saw the tragedy that befell the family of the “Strictly Come Dancing” presenter and the campaign that her family have undertaken to change the regulations. It is true that we do not have the same flame-retardant regulations for children’s fancy dress costumes. That seems wrong. I know that my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is looking at the matter and will ensure that that changes.

Q11. Will the Chancellor take this opportunity to correct the bizarre claim made yesterday by Donald Trump about parts of London being no-go areas for the Metropolitan police? Will he point out to Mr Trump that relationships between the Muslim communities of London and the police are in fact excellent? (902493)

The right hon. Gentleman speaks for everyone in this House. The Metropolitan police do a brilliant job, and they have fantastic relations with British Muslims. British Muslims have made a massive contribution to our country. Donald Trump’s comments fly in the face of the founding principles of the United States, which have proved such an inspiration to so many people over the past 200 years. The best way to defeat such nonsense is to engage in robust, democratic debate and make it very clear that his views are not welcome.

Cornwall Hospice Care, which has one hospice on the border of my constituency, is well appreciated and respected by my constituents, but it cannot run to capacity because it receives only 11% of its funding from the NHS. Will the Chancellor work with me and my other colleagues in Cornwall to see what more money can be put into our hospices, and Cornwall Hospice Care?

I know that my hon. Friend is a strong champion of his community and of the hospice he mentions. We have taken steps to help the hospice movement, not least by removing the VAT it paid in the previous Parliament. We want to get the right balance. It is good that our hospices are funded in part by local charities and supported so strongly by the local community, but they also need the backing of the NHS. Of course, as we have a strong economy, we are now putting that money into the NHS so that it can help the hospice movement.

Q13. If business rates are localised without equalisation, my own authority of Gateshead will lose £9.4 million a year on top of the proposed severe cuts to the revenue support grant. The seven north-east local enterprise partnership authorities will lose £186 million a year and the combined 12 authorities in the north-east £223 million a year. Meanwhile, the City of London will gain £222 million and Westminster £440 million. How does that help the Chancellor’s vision of the northern powerhouse? (902495)

The top-up and tariff system will apply as we devolve business rates to reflect the discrepancies the hon. Gentleman identifies. I would have thought that the Labour party supported the devolution of business rates. It is a massive opportunity for local areas to grow and to see the benefits of that growth. When it comes to the northern powerhouse, we have the fantastic announcement today of the new train franchises, which mean more than £1 billion going into new trains, faster journeys, and better journey experiences for people in the north of England. He should get behind it.

An important report was published today showing that the TV debates at the general election were a great success, engaging people who are not normally interested in politics, particularly young people. Will the acting Prime Minister—I know he might have a personal interest in this matter—encourage TV debates at the next general election?

The TV debates are decided in discussions between the political parties and the broadcasters. I think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did exceptionally well in them last time.

I understand that the Home Secretary has banned 84 hate preachers from entering the UK. Will the Government lead by example and consider making Mr Donald Trump the 85th?

I think that the best way to confront the views of someone like Donald Trump is to engage in a robust, democratic argument about why he is profoundly wrong about the contribution of American Muslims, and indeed British Muslims. That is the best way to deal with Donald Trump and his views, rather than trying to ban presidential candidates.