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Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2016

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.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, while he is Prime Minister of this country, condemning terrorist attacks will not be a bar to holding high office?

Condemning terrorist attacks is an essential component of aspiring to high office in this country, and that should be the case whether one is a shadow Minister or a Minister of the Crown. It is worth recalling what the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) said, which was that

“terrorists are entirely responsible for their actions, that no one forces anyone to kill innocent people in Paris, blow up the London Underground, to behead innocent aid workers in Syria”.

He was absolutely right to say that, and it speaks volumes that he cannot sit in the shadow Cabinet with the Leader of the Opposition.

I would like to thank the firefighters, mountain rescue services, police, armed services, engineers, workers at the Environment Agency, local government workers, and all the volunteers for all the work they did in keeping safe thousands of people from the floods that have affected this country. Two years ago, in January 2014, following devastating floods, the Prime Minister said:

“There are always lessons to be learned and I will make sure they are learned.”

Were they?

First, let me join the Leader of the Opposition in thanking the emergency services, the police, and the fire service. I also thank the search and rescue teams who went from around the country to areas that were flooded. May I thank the military for all the work that they did? As he says, we saw communities coming together and volunteers carrying out extraordinary work.

Let me deal directly with the issue of lessons learned. Having seen my own constituency very badly flooded in 2007 and having had floods while being Prime Minister, a number of lessons have been learned. This time, the military came in far faster than ever before. The Bellwin scheme was funded at 100%, not 85%, and more money was got to communities more quickly. A lot of lessons have been learned. Are there more to learn? I am sure there are; there always are, which is why I will review everything that has been done. Let us be clear that, as we do that, we will make money available because we have a strong economy to build flood resilience in our country.

In 2011, a £190 million flood defence project on the River Aire in Leeds was cancelled by the Government on cost grounds. One thousand homes and businesses in Leeds were flooded in recent weeks, and the Government are still committed only to a scaled-down version of the project, worth a fraction of its total cost. This from a Prime Minister who claimed that “money was no object” when it came to flood relief. When he or his Secretary of State meets the Leeds MPs and Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds City Council, in the near future, will he guarantee that the full scheme will go ahead to protect Leeds from future flooding?

First of all, let me make one point before answering the right hon. Gentleman’s points in detail. It is worth putting on record before we get on to flood defence investment—and I will cover it in full—that this was the wettest December for over 100 years, and actually in Leeds and in Yorkshire it was the wettest December ever on record. That is why rivers in Yorkshire flooded, including the Aire in Leeds, which was a metre higher than it has ever been in its history.

No flood defence schemes have been cancelled since 2010. The investment in flood defences was £1.5 billion in the last Labour Government, £1.7 billion in the Government I led as a coalition Government, and will be over £2 billion in this Parliament. It has gone up and up and up. It has gone up because we run an economy where we are able to invest in the things that our country needs. And one more point—let us not forget this. We inherited the Darling plan for our economy. That was a plan for a 50% cut in capital spending, and DEFRA was not a protected Department. We protected that flood spending and we increased it—something Labour would not have done.

Of course the rainfall was excessive, of course the river levels were high, but the Prime Minister has still not answered the question on the Leeds flood protection scheme—I will give him an opportunity to do so in a moment. In 2014, Cumbria County Council applied for funding for new schemes in Keswick and Kendal—both were turned down and both areas flooded again in the last few weeks. Does the Prime Minister believe that turning down those schemes was also a mistake?

We are spending more on flood defence schemes and stacking up a whole series of schemes that we will spend more on. Let me make this point to the right hon. Gentleman: if he is going to spend £10 billion on renationalising our railways, where is he going to find the money for flood defences? The idea that this individual would be faster in responding to floods when it takes him three days to carry out a reshuffle is frankly laughable. Since I walked into the Chamber this morning, his shadow Foreign Minister resigned and his shadow Defence Minister resigned—he could not run anything.

It is very strange that when I have asked a question about Leeds flood defence, then on Cumbria flood defence, the Prime Minister still seems unable to answer. Can he now tell us if there is going to be funding for those schemes?

In October, Professor Colin Mellors, the head of the Yorkshire regional flood and coastal committee, warned the Government about funding cuts leading to flood defences in Yorkshire being “formally discontinued” in the future. Would that also be a mistake? Can the Prime Minister now tell us: is he going to reverse the cuts in the defences that have taken place to make sure that those cities and areas are protected in the next round of floods which will no doubt come?

As I have told the right hon. Gentleman, we have increased and continued to increase the spending on flood defences. We are spending more in this Parliament, and for the first time it is a six-year spending perspective, which is £2.3 billion extra on flood defences—money that would not be available if we trashed the economy in the way that he proposes. Of course, after every incident of flooding, you go back and look at what you have spent and what you have built, you look at what you are planning to spend and what you are planning to build, and you see what more can be done. The head of the Environment Agency was absolutely clear that he had the money necessary to take the action that was necessary, but we can only do that with a strong economy—an economy that is growing, where more people are in work and more people are paying taxes. We have got the strength to solve this problem of floods, and we will do it in a proper way.

The Prime Minister has not answered on Leeds, he has not answered on Cumbria, and he has not answered on the warning from Professor Mellors.

Like the Prime Minister, last week I met people in York who had been affected by flooding. I met a young couple, Chris and Victoria, whose home had been flooded over Christmas—[Interruption.] It was not very funny for them. This young couple lost many of their possessions, including photos and children’s toys and school work, and they have the foul stench of floodwater in their home, as have many families all over this country. They are asking all of us wholly legitimate questions. Why was the insufficient pump capacity at the Foss barrier—which, again, we were alerted to in 2013 by a Government report—not dealt with or the pumps upgraded? That meant that people in York were flooded and their possessions and homes severely damaged. Those people want answers from all of us, and in particular from the Prime Minister.

I have the greatest sympathy with anyone who has been flooded. We have to do what it takes to get people and communities back on their feet. That is why we have put record sums in more quickly to help communities in Cumbria, in Lancashire and now in Yorkshire. We will continue to do that. Specifically on the question of the Foss pumps, that was about to be tendered for extra investment, and that investment will now go ahead, because the money is there.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we are putting in the money and doing so more quickly, and the military got involved more quickly. For that couple who got flooded, we are also doing something that previous Governments have talked about but never achieved, which is to have an insurance scheme—Flood Re—so that every single household can get insured. That has not been done before.

Have lessons been learned? Yes, they have. Are there more lessons to learn? There always are, but frankly we do not need a lecture from Malta from the right hon. Gentleman.

The reality is that flood defence scheme after flood defence scheme has been cancelled, postponed or cut, many more homes have been flooded and too many lessons have been ignored. Why cannot the Prime Minister support our calls for a co-ordinated, cross-party approach to flooding that looks at everything, including upland management, making people’s homes more flood resilient, and more properly funded protection schemes?

Does the Prime Minister at least agree that the fire and rescue service, which has done such a great job over the past few weeks in all parts of this country, should now be given a statutory duty to deal with floods, to help us through any crisis that might occur in the future?

I think the best I can say is that when the right hon. Gentleman has worked out how to co-ordinate his own party, perhaps he could come and have a word with me.

On the issue of a statutory duty, everybody knows what they have to do when floods take place. That is why there was such a magnificent response from the emergency services, the fire services and the emergency rescue services. They have our backing to do the vital work. We will go on investing in flood defences. We will increase the money we are spending on flood defences, because we have got a strong economy and a strong country that can back the action that is needed.

Q6. In 2016 we will mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s passing away. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our country should unite to commemorate his works? rose There are special events at the Royal Shakespeare Company; the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is renovating the site of his home, New Place; and King Edward’s School is opening his original classroom. May I invite my right hon. Friend, the whole House and the world to come and celebrate our greatest bard? (902808)

My apologies for almost interrupting my hon. Friend’s soliloquy—I am very sorry about that. The 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare is a very good moment for us to celebrate everything he has given to our language and our culture and, indeed, to the world. It is going to be a fantastic moment for people to visit Britain and come to see Stratford and all the other places that have such a great association with Shakespeare.

I find that Shakespeare provides language for every moment. Let us consider what we are thinking about at the moment. There was a moment when it looked like this reshuffle could go into its twelfth night. It was a revenge reshuffle, so it was going to be as you like it. I think, though, we can conclude that it has turned into something of a comedy of errors—perhaps much ado about nothing. There will be those who worry that love’s Labour’s lost.

Thank you very much for the warm welcome. The health service is devolved, but junior doctors in Scotland are not planning to strike next week. Why does the Prime Minister think the Scottish Government have good relations with junior doctors and his Government do not?

And now for the Scottish play! The right hon. Gentleman raises an important question. We have taken a different approach from the Government in Scotland. We have increased spending on the NHS by more than the Government in Scotland, which I think is the right approach. We are determined to have a genuine seven-day NHS. Everybody knows—doctors know it, patients know it, the management of the NHS know it, the BMA knows it—that there is a problem with the NHS at the weekend.

One way to correct that is to make sure that we have new contracts, including with junior doctors. That is not to make them work longer hours. In fact, under our plans, many will work many fewer hours. It is not to reduce doctors’ pay. No one who works legal hours will see a cut in their pay. Indeed, 75% of doctors will see a pay rise. We think that this is a good deal for a good advance in the NHS. I am sure that Scotland will be looking at it too.

The Scottish Government have been investing record levels of funding in the NHS in Scotland and they work very hard to have the best possible relations with doctors, nurses and all NHS staff. Will the English Health Secretary speak to his Scottish colleague, Shona Robison, to learn how to resolve the situation in England and stave off strike action that no one wants, least of all junior doctors?

There should always be good relations and discussions between the Health Secretary in the United Kingdom Government and Health Ministers in the devolved Administrations. Importantly, when we make a decision to increase funding in the NHS, as we have done with the £19 billion more in this Parliament, it has consequences for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland under the Barnett formula. Of course, I find it very depressing that the Welsh have decided, under Labour, to spend less than we are planning to spend, and that Scotland has done the same thing.

Q9. The local economy in my constituency of Bolton West continues to strengthen, with great businesses such as Eventura and LLaborate both relocating to and growing in Westhoughton; Heritage Trade Frames investing £1 million in equipping a new factory in Lostock; and Trojan Utilities winning new contracts and recruiting more staff in Horwich.—[Interruption.] Does the Prime Minister agree that the northern powerhouse is about not just our great northern cities, but our great northern towns? (902811)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is instructive that Opposition Members do not want to hear good news about the businesses, jobs and investment in our economy. Sometimes, it can sound as if the plan for a northern powerhouse is all about the cities of the north of England. Our view is that by linking up the cities, we will help the towns in the north-west and across our country. It will also help rural areas because we are rebalancing the economy and increasing opportunity in the north of our country.

Q2. In 2014, in response to the flooding of the Thames valley, the Prime Minister said that money would be “no object”. In the light of his cuts to the flood defences, his cuts to the fire and rescue service and his cuts to the Environment Agency, can he say the same to the people of Leeds, Rochdale, York, Whitby and Teesside, or is it one rule for his constituents and another for ours in the north? (902804)

The hon. Lady is completely wrong about the funding figures. As I have explained in great detail, they have gone from £1.5 billion to £1.7 billion to £2 billion. What this Government have put in place is funding under Bellwin of not 85% of what a council spends, but 100%, so what I said absolutely stands good.

Q10. The Prime Minister has always been a staunch supporter of the Welsh TV channel S4C, which was set up under the Thatcher Government. Will he use this opportunity to reinforce his support for the channel and the commitment that we made to safeguard its funding? (902812)

I am very happy to do that. S4C is a very important part of our broadcasting structure. It is very popular and well-liked in Wales. I want to ensure that we meet both the wording and the spirit of our manifesto promise to make sure that it continues to be a very strong channel.

Q3. With home ownership down to its lowest level in a generation, and down every year since the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister, why did Tory MPs vote against Labour’s amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill last night, which would have protected the publicly funded discount for new starter homes for future buyers? Is that not better value for money for first-time buyers and for the taxpayer, yes or no? (902805)

The proposal for starter homes is a Conservative party proposal put into our manifesto and opposed throughout by the Labour party. This is only happening because we won a majority and put a housing Bill through the House of Commons. We are taking every step we can to help more people to get on the housing ladder. In London, part of which the hon. Gentleman represents, we are seeing Help to Buy now funding 40% of the homes people want to buy, rather than 20%. We are going to see 200,000 starter homes built during this Parliament. We are managing our economy properly so interest rates are low and it is now easier for people to get a mortgage. With our help to save scheme, there is now every opportunity for people to put aside money to help them with their deposit. We are absolutely on the side of the homeowner, but above all those people who want to get on the housing ladder. We are helping with jobs, helping with tax cuts, helping with Help to Buy, helping with help to save and, crucially, helping by building more homes.

Q13. On Boxing Day, the village of Croston in my constituency suffered the worst floods in living memory, with damage to schools, homes and businesses. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the efforts of everybody in Croston who pulled together to protect their community? Will he ask the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) to review the decision by the Environment Agency to switch off the pumps at Alt Crossens? (902815)

First, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituents, who worked around the clock to help each other in appalling floods and an incredibly high level of rainfall. Let me join her in thanking the emergency services again for all the work they did.

After floods like this, there are always questions about which pumps were used, which floodgates were opened and what decisions were made by the experts on the ground. It is very important, having seen many communities flooded in my own constituency, to hold meetings with community after community; to go through those decisions, to work out what lessons can be learned and to work out whether the right decisions were made. I absolutely pledge that that should be done. We have announced £40 million for the work across Lancashire and Cumbria to help people out, and we will ensure that the flood alleviation money for households and businesses, the schemes we set up after 2013, is paid out as quickly as it can be.

Q4. In the light of last month’s Paris climate agreement, at which all countries agreed to progressively increase their ambition and to keep global warming well below 2°, does the Prime Minister agree that we must now urgently begin the process of strengthening the EU’s 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target to 50% below 1990 levels at the very least, a position he argued for, I am glad to say, at the European Council? (902806)

First, let me join the hon. Lady in once again recognising that Paris was a very big step forward. Previous agreements, such as at Kyoto, did not include action by China or America. Now we have all the big countries and big emitters as part of the deal. We argued that the EU should go further. We achieved, I think, a very aggressive package for the EU, but that was the best we could do in the circumstances. I think the EU agreement helped to bring about the general agreement. No one should be in any doubt that Britain is playing a very major role in bringing that about. Let me give the House one statistic. I know there is a great deal of interest in the House about solar panels. The other day I asked what percentage of solar panels had been installed in Britain since this Government took office in 2010. I expected the answer to be 50% or 60%; the answer is 98%.

Yesterday, it was announced that the Foxhill housing zone in Bath would receive £313,000 of Government funding to help to kick-start work to build thousands of new homes in the city. Does the Prime Minister agree that that funding will help to reverse the lack of housebuilding under the Labour party and enable struggling families to get on to the property ladder?

I am delighted to hear about the development in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The fact is that we have built 700,000 houses since the Government came to office in 2010, but a lot more needs to be done. Sometimes it is specific bits of transport infrastructure, specific planning permissions or disagreements between district councils and county councils that need to be sorted out. We should not forget the fact, however, that the developers and housebuilders will go ahead with housebuilding only if they believe that there is a benign economic environment with a strong and growing economy and stable interest rates, and all the things we need. That is the key to the success in housing.

Q5. The Prime Minister promised to cut the number of Government special advisers, and the Chancellor wants to limit pay increases for public sector employees to 1%. How does he square that with his now having 26 more special advisers than in 2010 and the 42% pay increase for the Chancellor’s own personal image consultant? (902807)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is more than a matter of regret that the new shadow Defence Secretary has seen fit to take a donation from the immoral, thieving and ambulance-chasing lawyers Leigh Day, who, together with public interest lawyers, specialise in hounding our brave service personnel in Iraq with spurious claims? Is it not time we removed the latter from the pernicious clutches of the Human Rights Act and honoured our manifesto commitment to a British Bill of Rights?

Yes, we should honour our commitment to a British Bill of Rights, on which I look forward to making progress. I do think that this organisation, Leigh Day, has questions to answer, not least because it was deeply involved in the al-Sweady inquiry, where a lot of claims completely fell apart and there was, it seems, evidence that could have shown that those claims were false. It is instructive that we have lost a shadow Defence Secretary who believed in strong defence and our nuclear deterrent, and instead we have someone who apparently takes funds from Leigh Day. I think that that raises serious questions. Frankly, it goes to a bigger truth: one day, I suppose this reshuffle will be over, and we will be left with a collection of politicians—be in no doubt about this—who have signed up to unilateral nuclear disarmament, racking up taxes, debt and spending and one of the most left-wing programmes in living memory. This is a collective act in which they have taken part. We should not be asking, “Is the Leader of the Opposition happy to have the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) in his shadow Cabinet?”; we know he is not. The question is: “What on earth are the right hon. Member for Leeds Central and others doing in this Labour party shadow Cabinet?”

Q7. The Prime Minister might know that Knowsley also has a Shakespeare connection? For example, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, among other plays, was written there. Will he lend his support to the proposal for a Shakespearean theatre of the north to complete the triangle—the Globe theatre, Stratford-on-Avon and Knowsley—in a celebration of Shakespeare’s work? (902809)

That sounds like an excellent proposal. We should not try to constrain Shakespeare to Stratford, but make sure that this is a national—indeed, international—celebration, so I shall look carefully at the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal.

In Derbyshire, the county council has announced plans to cut four care homes, including Hillcrest in my constituency, as well as to axe sheltered housing wardens from March. This is clearly an attack on the elderly and vulnerable of Derbyshire by an authority with a proven track record of wasting taxpayers’ money. Will my right hon. Friend look into this dismal situation to ensure that all Derbyshire residents have access to good levels of care?

I am very happy to look at the problem my hon. Friend raises. Obviously, it is a Labour-controlled council taking these decisions. I urge it to consider our proposals in the spending review and the fact that councils can now use a surcharge on council tax to fund additional social care, and then recognise that its job, instead of playing politics, should be to serve local people?

Q8. Last year, the International Monetary Fund warned that income inequality was “the most defining challenge of our time”,was getting worse and slowed economic growth. By last night, FTSE 100 chief executives had been paid more for five days’ work than the average UK worker will be paid for the whole of 2016. They got a pay rise of nearly 50% last year, while the average worker got one of less than 2%. Will the Prime Minister support the High Pay Centre’s recommendations for organisations to publish data on the ratio of top pay to average pay? (902810)

I am a great supporter of transparency in these things, as we have proved in government. Let us be clear that since I have become Prime Minister income inequality has fallen whereas it went up under Labour. Those are the facts. One of the biggest things we are doing to help with income inequality is, for the first time ever, to bring in a national living wage. This is the year in which we will see people paying no tax until they have earned £11,000. This is the year in which we will see a national living wage at £7.20. Those are big advances in helping the low paid in our country.

I, too, would like to pay tribute to the countless number of people and organisations that helped out during the recent floods. Yesterday, I spoke with the chairman of the new Flood Re insurance scheme. I know that people who have been hammered by the floods will welcome the fact that their premiums will be quashed and that they will not meet eye-watering excesses. The chairman told me, however, that the scheme will not cover any houses built since 2009 or any businesses. Will the Prime Minister look again at the scheme to ensure that it is properly comprehensive?

We are looking very carefully at the scheme, particularly on the issue of businesses. What we have heard so far is a number of anecdotal stories, with small businesses saying that it will be difficult to get insurance. Meanwhile, the insurance companies are telling us that they will not turn down any small businesses, so we need to get to the bottom of this. That is absolutely key before we get to the final introduction of Flood Re in April this year.

Q11. It was good to welcome the Prime Minister and his excellency the President of China to Manchester airport in my constituency recently to talk about investment. What is in the north’s interest and the nation’s interest is extra runway capacity in the south-east. Why does the Prime Minister continue to procrastinate? (902813)

Let me first thank the hon. Gentleman and everyone in Greater Manchester who helped to welcome President Xi at the excellent lunch held in Manchester and then at the very good visit to Manchester airport. Let me respond to the hon. Gentleman’s question. The Environmental Audit Committee and the author of the original report, Sir Howard Davies, have both said that the problems of air quality raise new questions that the Government have to answer, and I am in favour of answering those questions and then making a decision.

Order. Two years ago tomorrow, I believe, the House lost a superb parliamentarian and a colleague much loved in all parts of the House. I refer to the predecessor of the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), Paul Goggins. We remember him with affection and respect, and we also remember and think fondly of his widow, Wyn, and their children Matthew, Theresa and Dominic. They are all wonderful human beings, and we wish them well for the future.

As the Prime Minister knows, my constituency was decimated by the recent floods. It was reported in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus earlier this week that the Bradford district would not receive any of the extra funding that the Prime Minister announced for flood defences in Yorkshire. Will he take this opportunity to confirm that that is not the case, that whatever money is necessary to protect my constituency from future flooding will be spent—and if he is struggling to find the money, perhaps he could use funds from the overseas aid budget, because I am sure he believes that victims of flooding in Shipley should not be discriminated against when it comes to victims of flooding in other parts of the world?

We will do what it takes to make sure that families, communities and businesses can get back on their feet. That is why we have invested record sums more quickly into the affected areas. We have learned the lessons of previous floods, where sometimes the schemes were too bureaucratic and too much time was taken. Whether it comes to building new bridges, repairing roads, building the flood defences, examining where the water went this time or what more can be done, we will make sure that that work is carried out—in Bradford, as everywhere else.

Q12. Is the Prime Minister aware of the valuable work done by the National Wildlife Crime Unit in enforcing the law, promoting animal welfare and contributing to the international effort against the trade in endangered species? Is he further aware that the funding for the unit expires in just a couple of months’ time and that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office are yet to make a decision to continue it? Will the Prime Minister prevail on his right hon. Friends to ensure that this extremely important and valuable work is continued? (902814)

My understanding is that we have kept the funding for this organisation, which does important work both domestically and overseas, but I will look very carefully at what the hon. Gentleman suggests. I think that there is a decision still to be made about the future, although up to now we have backed the organisation very fully.

My right hon. Friend knows that the legacy of thalidomide still hangs over more than 500 people in our country today. In the last Parliament, he signalled strong support for the securing of a fair and just solution to their problems. May I invite him to renew that pledge in this Parliament, and to work with the all-party parliamentary group on thalidomide to bring about a just outcome?

I am very happy to make that clear. In the last Parliament, I met some of my own constituents who had been affected by thalidomide. There were a number of things that they wanted parliamentarians to do, and I think that a lot of people got behind their campaign. I shall be happy to continue to work with them in this Parliament.