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Volume 603: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2015

I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing Major Tim Peake well as he begins his six-month stay at the international space station. We all watched his exciting take-off yesterday and as he is the first Briton to visit the international space station it signals a landmark in this country’s involvement in space exploration. I am proud that the Government took the decision to fund it, and we wish him the best of luck.

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.

May I welcome today’s fall in unemployment to 5.2%, the lowest level in almost 10 years?

Stalking is a horrible crime. Dr Eleanor Aston, a GP in Gloucester and resident of Cheltenham, was harassed for several years by a stalker who slashed her tyres, hacked her water pipe, cut off her gas supply and put foul items in her letterbox. She and her family suffered dreadfully. The judge, in sentencing, said that if he could have given more than the maximum of five years, he certainly would have done. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has raised the issue of sentencing guidelines with the Justice Secretary. Will the Prime Minister today give his support for greater flexibility and longer sentencing where it is clear that a stalker is a real menace?

First, let me say how much I agree with my hon. Friend that stalking is a dreadful crime. That is why we have introduced two new stalking offences during this Parliament. I will certainly make sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham has his meeting with my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary. I cannot comment on the individual case without looking at it in more detail, but we are taking the action necessary and we will continue to do so.

On unemployment, I am sure that the whole House will want to welcome the fact that there are half a million more people in work in our country in the last year alone. We have had wages growing above inflation every month for a year and the claimant count is at its lowest level since 1975. I am sure that will have a welcome right across the House.

May I start, Mr Speaker, by wishing you, all Members of the House and all staff here, and Major Tim Peake, who is not on the planet at this time, a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year?

The number of days that patients are being kept in hospital because there is nowhere safe to discharge them to has doubled since the Prime Minister took office. On 4 November, I asked him if he could guarantee that there will be no winter crisis in the NHS this winter. He did not answer then, so I wonder whether he will be able to help us with an answer today.

First, let me join the right hon. Gentleman and be clear that I do not want to wish him the season’s greetings; I want a full happy Christmas for him and everyone in the House. He specifically asked about the NHS, so let me give him a specific answer. The average stay in hospital has actually fallen since I became Prime Minister from five and a half days to five days. One reason for that is that we kept our promises on the NHS. We put in an extra £12 billion in the last Parliament, and will be putting in £19 billion in cash terms in this Parliament.

For the record, I did say happy Christmas. Perhaps the Prime Minister was not listening at the time. If he is so happy about the national health service, will he explain why he has decided to cancel the publication of NHS performance data this winter? There was a time, not that long ago, when the Prime Minister was all in favour of transparency. It was in 2011 when he said:

“Information is power. It lets people hold the powerful to account, giving them the tools they need to take on politicians and bureaucrats.”

Is it because the number of people being kept waiting on trolleys in A&E has gone up more than fourfold that he does not want to publish those statistics?

First, the data that the right hon. Gentleman quoted in his first question were not published before this Government came into office. Let me quote some data about the NHS: on an average day, there are 4,400 more operations and 21,000 more outpatient appointments than there were five years ago when I became Prime Minister. Yes, there are challenges in A&E, but there are 2,100 more people being seen within four hours than there were five years ago, and there are more data published on our NHS than there ever were under Labour.

There are huge pressures on the NHS, and they are largely due to the pressures on the adult social care system, which is under enormous stress at the moment. Indeed, there have been huge cuts in adult social care because of cuts in local government funding. The NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens, has called for a radical upgrade in prevention and public health. Does the Prime Minister agree that cutting these crucial services is a false economy?

We are increasing the money that councils can spend on social care through the 2% council tax precept. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Simon Stevens, but our NHS plan is Simon Stevens’s plan. For the first time, the NHS got together and wrote its plan. It asked for £8 billion, and it asked for the money up front. We committed to that plan, unlike Labour at the last election, and we funded it up front, which is why we see a bigger and better NHS. None of that would have been possible, including the action that we are taking on social care through the better care fund, without our having achieved a growing economy and an increase in jobs.

The problem is to do with adult social care. This morning on BBC Radio 4, the NHS Confederation said that

“cuts to social care and public health will continue to pile more pressure on hospitals and will worsen deficits in the acute sector.”

What was announced on social care in the autumn statement falls well short of what is needed. The Health Foundation estimates that there will be a funding shortfall of £6 billion by 2020. How will the Government meet that shortfall?

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman listens to the “Today” programme. Perhaps he might even bother to go on it one of these days. A bit of transparency and sunlight would be very welcome. If he wants to swap quotations, this is what the chairman of the Local Government Association says:

“The LGA has long called for further flexibility in the setting of council tax… Today’s announcement on council tax will go some way to allowing a number of councils to raise the money needed…The £1.5 billion increase in the Better Care Fund announced today is good news”.

It is this Government who funded the NHS; Labour did not. It is this Government who set up the better care fund; Labour opposed it. It is this Government who have the strong and growing economy. I note that we are on question four and there is still no welcome for the unemployment figures.

The issue of adult social care and cuts in local government spending is very much the responsibility of central Government. Will the Prime Minister confirm that NHS trusts are forecasting a deficit of £2.2 billion this year? I understand—and he, as part of the Oxford anti-austerity movement, will be concerned about this—that his own local healthcare trust is predicting a £1.7 million deficit. There is a problem of NHS funding. Has he forgotten the simple maxim that prevention is cheaper and better than cure?

How can the right hon. Gentleman possibly complain about NHS funding when his party did not commit to fund the Stevens plan? We are spending £19 billion more on the NHS—money that would not be available if we had listened to the Labour party. Now he says that social care is a responsibility of Government; everything is a responsibility of Government, but in fact, local councils decide how much to spend on social care, and with the better care fund, they have more to spend. But I challenge him again: how do we pay for the NHS? We pay for it by having more growth, more jobs, more people having a livelihood. Is he going to welcome that at Christmas time, or does he not care about the reduction in unemployment?

I have a question from Abby, who wants to train to be a midwife, and she says:

“I am 28 years old. This year I left my successful career to go back into university to re-train as a Midwife. I already have a debt of £25,000 from my first degree.

Well over half of my cohort have studied a first degree in another subject and many of my fellow colleagues have children and partners and elderly parents and mortgages.

Many people will be put off by the lack of financial support and massive debts.”

In the spirit of Christmas, will the Prime Minister have a word with his friend the Chancellor, who is sitting next to him—it can be done very quickly—to reverse the cuts in the nurse bursary scheme, so that we do get people like Abby training to be midwives, which will help all of us in the future?

First of all, I want Abby to train as a midwife, and I can guarantee that the funding will be there for her training, because there are thousands more midwives operating in the NHS today than when I became Prime Minister. Now the right hon. Gentleman mentions the question of nurse bursaries. The truth is that two out of three people who want to become nurses cannot do so because of the constraints on the system, and our new system will mean many more doctors and many more nurses. Since I became Prime Minister, we have already got 10,000 more doctors in the NHS and 4,500 more nurses. But all of this is happening because the economy is growing, the deficit is falling, unemployment is coming down, you can fill up a tank of gas at £1 a litre and wages are going up. Britain is getting stronger as we go into Christmas, because our economy is getting stronger, too.

Q5. Yesterday, colleagues from both sides of the House formed a new all-party group on the armed forces covenant, which aims to scrutinise and support the fulfilment of the Government’s pledges to service personnel and their families. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising the incredible dedication of our armed forces and their families, especially those in my constituency at RAF Boulmer, at this festive time, when many are separated from their loved ones? Will he reaffirm his personal commitment to the House to delivering his armed forces covenant in practice and in full? (902727)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question; she is absolutely right. As all of us get ready hopefully to spend time with our families this Christmas, there will be many in our brave armed services who cannot because they are serving abroad or at home, so we wish them the very best as Christmas comes. On the military covenant, one of the things of which I am proudest in the last five years is that we put that into law, adding to it every year by giving veterans priority in healthcare, increasing funding for veterans’ mental health services and prioritising school places for children. Every year we have made progress on the armed forces covenant, and every year I stand at this Dispatch Box we will continue to do so.

The Prime Minister will shortly meet the Heads of State and of Government of the European Union. Will he heed the advice of former Prime Minister John Major and stop “flirting” with leaving the European Union, which would, in his words, be

“very dangerous and against our national interests”?

What I will be doing is getting the best deal for Britain. That is what we should be doing. This Government were the first to cut the EU budget, the first to veto a treaty, the first to bring back substantial powers to Britain. We have a great record on Europe and we will get a good deal for the British people.

We were reminded this week that there is a very strong majority in Scotland to remain within the European Union, and the Prime Minister has failed—[Interruption.] I know his side does not like to hear it, but the Prime Minister has failed to give any guarantees that Scotland will not be forced out of the EU by the rest of the UK. Does he have any idea of the consequences of taking Scotland out of the EU against the wishes of voters in Scotland?

This is a United Kingdom and this is a United Kingdom issue. Why is the right hon. Gentleman so frightened of listening to the people and holding this historic referendum, passed through both Houses of Parliament in the past week? I say get a good deal for Britain and then trust the people.

Q6. The Prime Minister has previously visited RAF Waddington in my constituency and I am sure he will, like me, wish all the service personnel and their families well as they carry out operations during the Christmas period. Given that the United Kingdom is now conducting airstrikes over Syria as well as over Iraq, and in the light of the Leytonstone attack, why is our country still not at the highest level of threat? (902728)

First, let me join my hon. Friend in praising those at RAF Waddington who work round the clock to keep us safe in our country and are doing such vital work. As he will know, the threat level in this country is set not by politicians but by the joint terrorism analysis centre, JTAC, which currently sets it at “severe”, the second highest level. I can confirm what I said to the House on 26 November: the UK is already in the top tier of countries that Daesh is targeting. I can also confirm that that part of my statement was cleared in advance by the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The threat level today is “severe”, which means that a terrorist attack is highly likely; that has been the case since August. The highest level is “critical”, which means that an attack is believed to be imminent. Were we to go to that level, it would be for JTAC to advise, not for Ministers.

Q2. I am proud to represent a constituency that boasts seven synagogues, four mosques, over 35 churches and two temples. However, last night Donald Trump reiterated that members of one of those communities would not be allowed into America simply because of their religion, seemingly unaware how divisive this is. In our country we have legislation that stops people entering the country who are deemed not to be conducive to the public good. Does the Prime Minister agree that the law should be applied equally to everyone, or should we make exceptions for billionaire politicians? (902724)

Let me join the hon. Lady in being proud of representing a country which I think has some claim to say that we are one of the most successful multiracial, multi-faith, multi-ethnic countries anywhere in the world. There is more to do to build opportunity and fight discrimination. I agree with her that it is right that we exclude people when they are going to radicalise or encourage extremism. I happen to disagree with her about Donald Trump. I think his remarks are divisive, stupid and wrong, and if he came to visit our country I think he would unite us all against him.

Q7. By the time the House next meets for questions, many people will have started their new year’s resolutions. For many, one resolution will be to give up smoking. Given that Public Health England recently stated that e-cigarettes are 95% safer than tobacco and half the population is unaware of that fact, will the Prime Minister join me in highlighting the role that e-cigarettes can play in helping people give up tobacco for good? (902729)

Certainly, speaking as someone who has been through this battle a number of times, eventually relatively successfully, lots of people find different ways of doing it, and clearly for some people e-cigarettes are successful. We need to be guided by the experts, and we should look at the report from Public Health England, but it is promising that over 1 million people are estimated to have used e-cigarettes to help them quit or have replaced smoking with e-cigarettes completely. We should be making it clear that this a very legitimate path for many people to improve their health and therefore the health of the nation.

Q3. During the referendum the Prime Minister pledged to deliver carbon capture and storage at Peterhead, something he reiterated in the Tory party manifesto, yet on the eve of the Paris climate talks he pulled the plug. Which does he see as the greatest betrayal—that of Scotland, that of his manifesto, or that of the entire planet? (902725)

Of course the greatest success is the Paris climate change talks. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who was one of the key negotiators who helped to deliver this global goal, which is so much better than what happened at Copenhagen and better even than what happened at Kyoto.

Let me answer the hon. Gentleman directly on carbon capture and storage. In government you have to make tough choices. You have to make decisions about technology that works and technology that is not working. We are spending the money on innovation, on energy storage, on small nuclear reactors, and on other things such as energy heat systems for local communities that will make a difference. To govern is to choose, and we made the right choice.

Q10. This Friday sadly sees the closure of Britain’s last deep coal mine at Kellingley in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in thanking the hundreds of workers who will be working their last shift this Friday, and praise the thousands of workers whose bravery and hard graft over the past 50 years has helped warm our homes, power our factories, and keep our lights on? (902732)

My hon. Friend speaks very strongly for his constituents. I am very happy to join him in thanking people who have worked so hard at that mine and elsewhere. Obviously it is a difficult time. As part of the closure process, the Government have put in nearly £18 million to ensure that the workers receive the same package as the miners at recently closed Thoresby. That finance has allowed the mine—[Interruption.] It is all very well Opposition Members shouting, but may I just tell them something? This is the official policy of the Labour party:

“We must take action…to keep fossil fuels in the ground”.

That is their policy. They have also got a policy, by the way, of reopening coal mines, so presumably what they are going to do is dig a big hole in the ground and sit there and do nothing. What a metaphor for the right hon. Gentleman’s leadership of his party!

Q4. The Prime Minister promised during the election campaign that he would not restrict child benefits to two children. Since then, he has not only reneged on that but, as a result, brought in the rape clause for women in order for women to receive child benefits. Since July, I have asked a number of his Ministers a number of times, and nobody has been able to tell me how this will work. Will he now drop the two-child policy and the rape clause? (902726)

First of all, we have made it absolutely clear, and let me make it clear again, that there is no question of someone who is raped and has a child losing their child tax credits or their child benefit—no question at all. But is it right for future claimants on universal credit to get payments for their first two children? I think that it is.

Q12. Is my right hon. Friend aware that thanks to the Chancellor’s protection of the police budget, 108 more police officers are being recruited to protect the people of Hampshire? While there is more to do in tackling crime in more rural areas, does he agree that this is an important step in prioritising the frontline, and that the Home Office and the Hampshire constabulary have made real progress in making our police more effective, more efficient, and more resilient? (902734)

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in saying that it was the right decision to make sure we have this extra funding for the police. By the end of the spending settlement, it is actually an increase of £900 million in cash terms by 2019-20. I am delighted that there will be more officers on the streets in Hampshire. I come back to the same point: you cannot fund the NHS, you cannot fund the Home Office, and you cannot fund the police unless you have a growing economy with more jobs, people paying their taxes, and making sure you have got a strong and stable economy, and that is what is happening in Britain today.

Q8. In his farewell speech, the outgoing director of the British Museum said:“The British Museum is perhaps the noblest dream that parliament has ever dreamt. Parliament decided to make a place where the world could be under one roof, where the collection would be free to all native or foreign, where every citizen would have the right to information and where all inquiry would be outside political control.” Does the Prime Minister agree that the partnership working of the British Museum, such as that with the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for its multi-faith gallery next year, is important, but that such work will not happen unless our museums and galleries continue to be funded properly? (902730)

Let me join the right hon. Lady in paying tribute not only to the British Museum, which is an absolute jewel in the British cultural crown, but to Neil MacGregor, who gave it such extraordinary leadership. Given her heritage, perhaps she will be amused by the fact that I took Chancellor Merkel to the museum to show her the brilliant exhibition about Germany—it was fantastic—but the next thing I knew, the Germans had poached Neil MacGregor to run their cultural institute in Germany. None the less, in the spirit of European co-operation, which is going to be vital this week, I am happy to see that happen. I want to see the British Museum complete all its partnerships, not just across the United Kingdom but internationally. The right hon. Lady will have seen in the autumn statement that the British Museum got a funding settlement with which it was, rightly, very pleased.

Q13. According to Oxfam, the UK has donated a generous 229% of its fair share of aid in support of Syrian refugees —the highest percentage of the G8—yet worldwide only 44% of what is needed by those refugees has been donated. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is critical that other countries step up to the plate, as the UK has more than done, and will he update the House on progress in support of Syrian refugees? (902735)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Britain is doing its moral duty in terms of funding the refugees and the refugee camps. We are going to hold a conference in February, bringing the world together to make sure there is more funding in future. That is going to be absolutely vital. In terms of the number of refugees that we have resettled, I made a promise that we would resettle 1,000 by Christmas and I can confirm today that we have met that commitment. The charter flights that arrived yesterday at Stansted and Belfast mean that over 1,000 have been settled. Another charter flight is coming today. The Government have provided funding so that all those refugees get housing, healthcare and education.

I thank all the local authorities and all those who have worked so hard, including the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who has led the process so ably. I said that Britain would do its duty, and with those 1,000 we have made a very good start.

Q9. Three years ago, the Prime Minister could not have been any clearer: his EU renegotiation would mean returning control over social and employment law. Is he still seeking that? (902731)

I always find it hard to satisfy the hon. Gentleman: he joined the Conservative party when we were not committed to a referendum and he left the Conservative party after we committed to a referendum, so I am not surprised that he is giving his new boss as much trouble as he used to give me. With that, I wish them both a very festive Christmas.

Q15. The triumphant “Star Wars” saga began life at Elstree studios in my constituency, which continues to produce hits such as “The King’s Speech” and “Suffragette”—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman is banging on very eloquently about “Star Wars” and I want to hear him. Will the Prime Minister join me in pledging support for our thriving British film industry, which makes such a valuable social, cultural and economic contribution in Hertsmere and across the United Kingdom? (902737)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. This film is not only very exciting for children—I have to say that quite a lot of parents are looking forward to it, too—but it was made in Britain, with many British actors and some brilliant British technicians, showing the strength of the British film industry. I would say this, but it is also backed by the British Government and British taxpayers with the excellent resources we provide. As I have worked with my hon. Friend for so many years and in so many different ways, I know that he will never join the dark side.

Q11. Despite the ongoing efforts of the Scottish steel taskforce, my constituents at the Dalzell steel plant and the neighbouring Clydebridge works are starting to receive redundancy notices. Given the urgency of the situation, will the Prime Minister put pressure on the EU now to reach a quicker decision on permitting the energy intensive industries compensation scheme? If such permission is granted, will he also commit to implementing the scheme as soon as possible to provide a much needed breathing space for our steel sector and to give some hope to my constituents this Christmas? (902733)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this. We are working as hard as we can in Europe to try to get the energy intensive industries plan cleared. I can confirm to her that as soon as it is cleared, the money will be available for British steelmaking companies. We expect this to be in place no later than April 2017, but it should be much earlier than that, and we are working round the clock to try to get that done.

The tragic stabbing in Abingdon Poundland last week has shocked local residents. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our condolences to the family of father of two Justin Skrebowski, who was killed in the attack, and to honour the bravery of those who overpowered the attacker with no thought of the risk to themselves. In the light of this attack, does the Prime Minister agree that it is now time for the Government and retailers to work together to make it more difficult for offenders to get hold of offensive weapons in the first place?

As my hon. Friend’s constituency neighbour, I was very shocked by what happened in Abingdon, and my heart goes out to the family of those who have suffered. She is right to ask the question about offensive weapons and how available they are, and I am very happy to look at that. Given that attack and the, although unrelated, Leytonstone attack, it is right to look at the resources that our police have in terms of their equipment—there is a very different usage pattern for Tasers, for instance, across the country—and this is something that the Home Secretary, the Metropolitan police and I are discussing.

Q14. There is nothing I believe in more passionately than the Union. With Scottish nationalism, English votes for English laws, various powerhouses and city deals, and the creation of numerous other measures that may threaten the Union, what is the Prime Minister’s vision of that Union and holding the four countries together? Will he come to speak to the all-party group on the Union at some stage, and even more important, will he help with the campaign throughout the Union because we are better together? (902736)

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am passionate about our United Kingdom. I believe we can make it stronger by accepting that it is a partnership of nations, and a partnership of nations where we should treat each other with respect. [Interruption.] I do not want to listen to SNP Members: they do not want a partnership; they want a separation. Actually, one of the things that is so strong about the United Kingdom—I think other countries, frankly, are quite envious of this—is that we have demonstrated that you can have multiple identities: you can be proud of being an Ulsterman and a Brit; you can be proud of being a Hindu and a Scot; you can be proud of being both Welsh and British. We have solved one of the problems that the rest of the world is grappling with, and that is why we should keep our United Kingdom together.

Order. There was some noticeably eccentric gesticulation taking place, Mr MacNeil, but you should desist. Calm yourself, man. Go and celebrate if you wish, but we must hear the hon. Gentleman—and he will be heard.

As we approach the festival marking the birth of Jesus Christ, may I invite the Prime Minister to send a message of support to the millions of fellow Christians around the world who are suffering persecution? May I also invite him once again to remind the British people that we are a country fashioned by our Christian heritage, and which has resulted in our giving refuge to so many of other faiths over so many centuries, but that we will not tolerate those who abuse our freedom to try to inflict their alien and violent fashions upon us, particularly in the name of Islam?

I join my hon. Friend in saying that we should do everything we can to defend and protect the right of Christians to practise their faith the world over. That is an important part of our foreign policy. Let me commend Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for the excellent work he does in that regard.

Yes, Britain is a Christian country. I believe that the fact that we have an established faith and that we understand the place of faith in our national life makes us a more tolerant nation and better able to accommodate other faith groups in our country. That is why, as I said earlier, we should be proud that this is one of the most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-religion democracies anywhere in the world. That is not in conflict with our status as a predominantly Christian country; that status is one of the reasons why we have done it.

I know that the Prime Minister is aware of the flooding that has taken place in my constituency and the damage to the town of Cockermouth. I had a call from a constituent this morning who said that insurance companies are refusing to help my constituents until they have paid the excess in full. Does he agree that that is absolutely outrageous? Some of the excesses are up to £10,000. What can be done to ensure that insurance companies fulfil their obligations to my constituents?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that matter. First, the Minister for Government Policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), has had meetings with the insurance companies to make sure that that sort of practice does not happen. Secondly, we have announced that we are putting money into the community funds that will form hardship funds that will potentially help people who do not have insurance. The third vital thing is the establishment of Flood Re, which will mean that, in future, all homes are able to get that insurance. That was a decision made by the last Government and we are putting it in place.

We will come to points of order, but we have an urgent question and a statement. Thereafter, I will be happy to entertain points of order from the hon. Lady and others.