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Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 13 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.

The Royal College of Midwives has called the Government’s plans to cut nurses’ student grants “appalling” and the Royal College of Nursing says it is “deeply concerned”. Meanwhile, the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who is a nurse, says she would have struggled to undertake her nurse training, given the proposed changes to the bursary scheme. So why does the Prime Minister still think he is right to scrap grants for student nurses?

For the simple reason that we want to see more nurses in training and more nurses in our NHS. We believe there will be an additional 10,000 nurses because of this change. The facts are that two out of three people who want to become nurses today cannot do so because they are constrained by the bursary scheme. Moving to the new system, those who want to become nurses will be able to become nurses.

Q2. The No. 1 responsibility of any Government is the protection of their people. Does the Prime Minister agree that Britain’s nuclear deterrent and our membership of NATO are key to our defences and that any moves that would put that at risk would jeopardise our national security? (902990)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It has been common ground on both sides of this House that the cornerstone of our defence policy is our membership of NATO and our commitment to an independent nuclear deterrent, which must be replaced and updated. They are necessary to keep us safe, and at a time when we see North Korea testing nuclear weapons and with the instability in the world today we recommit ourselves to NATO and to our independent nuclear deterrent. I think the Labour party has some very serious questions to answer.

This week the Prime Minister rather belatedly acknowledged there is a housing crisis in Britain. He announced a £140 million fund to transform 100 housing estates around the country, which amounts to £1.4 million per housing estate to bulldoze and then rebuild them. [Interruption.] My maths is perfect. This money is a drop in the ocean. It is not even going to pay for the bulldozers, is it?

We have doubled the housing budget and we are going to invest over £8 billion in housing, and that comes after 700,000 homes having been built since I became Prime Minister. We have a quarter of a million more affordable homes. Here is a statistic that the right hon. Gentleman will like: in the last Parliament, we built more council houses than in 13 years of a Labour Government.

The Prime Minister has not thought this through very carefully. Every estate that he announces he wishes to bulldoze will include tenants and people who have bought their homes under right to buy. Will those people, the leaseholders, be guaranteed homes on the rebuilt estates he proposes?

I accept, of course, that this is not as carefully thought through as the right hon. Gentleman’s reshuffle, which I gather is still going on—it has not actually finished yet. We want to go to communities where there are sink estates and housing estates that have held people back and agree with the local councils and local people to make sure that tenants get good homes and that homeowners get rehoused in new houses. That is exactly what we want. Let us look at what we have done on housing. We reformed the planning rules, and Labour Members opposed them; we introduced Help to Buy, and they opposed it; we introduced help to save to help people get their deposit, and they opposed it. They have absolutely nothing to say about people trapped in housing estates who want a better start in their lives.

I notice that the Prime Minister did not give any guarantee to leaseholders on estates. I have a question to ask on behalf of a probably larger group on most estates. A tenant by the name of Darrell asks:

“Will the Prime Minister guarantee that all existing tenants of the council estates earmarked for redevelopment will be rehoused in new council housing, in their current communities, with the same tenancy conditions as they currently have?”

We are not going to be able to deal with these sink estates unless we get the agreement of tenants and unless we show how we are going to support homeowners and communities. Is it not interesting to reflect on who here is the small “c” conservative who is saying to people, “Stay stuck in your sink estate; have nothing better than what Labour gave you after the war.”? We are saying, “If you are a tenant, have the right to buy; if you want to buy a home, here is help to save; if you are in a sink estate, we will help you out.” That is the fact of politics today—a Conservative Government who want to give people life chances, and a Labour Opposition who say “Stay stuck in poverty”.

The Prime Minister does not seem to understand the very serious concerns that council tenants have when they feel they are going to be forced away from strong communities in which they live and their children go to school. Perhaps the Prime Minister will be able to help us with another issue. His party’s manifesto said:

“Everyone who works hard should be able to own a home of their own”.

Will families earning the Prime Minister’s so-called national living wage be able to afford one of his discount starter homes?

I very much hope they will. As well as starter homes, we have shared ownership homes. When I became Prime Minister, a young person trying to buy a home needed £30,000 for the deposit—

Order. I apologise for interrupting. [Interruption.] Order. I say to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) that her shrill shrieking from a sedentary position is not appropriate behaviour for a would-be stateswoman. I want to hear the Prime Minister’s answer.

When I became Prime Minister, people needed £30,000 for a deposit on a typical home. Because of the schemes we have introduced, that is now down to £10,000. I want people to own their homes, so let us consider this issue. We are saying to the 1.3 million tenants of housing associations, “We are on your side: you can buy your own home.” Why does the right hon. Gentleman still oppose that?

I hope that that word “hope” goes a long way, because research by Shelter has found that families on the Prime Minister’s living wage will be unable to afford the average starter home in 98% of local authority areas in England—only 2% may benefit. Rather than building more affordable homes, is the Prime Minister not simply branding more homes affordable, which is not a solution to the housing crisis? Will he confirm that home ownership has actually fallen since he became Prime Minister?

There is a challenge in helping people to buy their own homes. That is what Help to Buy was about, which Labour opposed. That is what help to save was about, which Labour opposed.

Is it not interesting that the right hon. Gentleman did not answer the question about the 1.3 million housing association tenants? I want what is best for everyone. Let us put it like this. The right hon. Gentleman owns his home; I own my home. Why should we not let those 1.3 million own their homes? Why not? What is the right hon. Gentleman frightened of?

I thank Conservative Back Benchers for their deep concern about the housing crisis in this country. It is noted.

The Prime Minister has given no assurances to tenants, no assurances to leaseholders, and no assurances to low-paid people who want to find somewhere decent to live. May I ask him one final question? It is a practical question that is faced by many people throughout the country who are deeply worried about their own housing situation and how they are going to live in the future, and it comes from Linda, who has been a council tenant for the last 25 years. She says:

“I will eventually look to downsize to a property suitable for our ageing circumstances. Due to the housing bill being debated at present, if we downsize we will have to sign a new tenancy agreement. If we stay, we face having to pay the bedroom tax and debt. If we downsize, we lose our secure home.”

Linda and many like her are facing a real problem. If she were in the Prime Minister’s advice bureau, what advice would he give her?

The first thing I would say to Linda is that we are cutting social rents in this Parliament, so she will be paying less in rent. The second thing I would say, if she is concerned about the spare room subsidy, is that of course it is not paid by pensioners, which is a point that the right hon. Gentleman failed to make. Another thing I would say to Linda, and to all those who are in council houses or housing association homes, is “We believe in giving you the chance to buy your own home, and are helping you to do that.”

Is it not interesting what this exchange has shown? We now have a Labour party whose housing policy does not support home ownership, just as its defence policy does not believe in defence, and just as we now have a Labour party that does not believe in work and a Labour leader who does not believe in Britain.

Q5. As someone who grew up in social housing, I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to tearing down poor-quality, soulless high-rise estates and replacing them with affordable homes. Will he seize this opportunity to make sure that those new homes are attractive, well-designed places in which people will want to live for generations to come? (902993)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If Labour wanted to have a constructive opinion, they would come along and say, “How can we help knock down these sink estates, rebuild new houses, help people to own their own homes?” That is what we want to do, and that is what we are going to see in this Parliament: one side committed to opportunity, life chances, helping people get on, and another side wanting to keep people trapped in poverty.

The economic and intellectual contribution of college and university graduates to the UK is immense. The Smith commission said that the UK and Scottish Government should

“explore the possibility of introducing formal schemes to allow international higher education students graduating from Scottish further and higher education institutions to remain in Scotland and contribute to economic activity for a defined period of time.”

Why did the UK Government this week unilaterally rule out a return of a post-study work visa without stakeholder discussions and before key parliamentary reports?

We have an excellent scheme that covers, of course, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and it is this: to say to the world’s students that there is no limit on the number of people who can come and study in British universities as long as they have two things—an English language qualification and a place at a university. That is an incredibly generous and open offer. The second thing we offer is that there is actually no limit on the number of people who can stay after they have graduated, as long as they have a graduate-level job. Again, I think that is an incredibly clear message that all of us—whether we are involved in the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Administration, the Welsh Administration or the United Kingdom Administration—should get out and sell around the world. It is a world-beating offer; we want the world’s brightest graduates to come here, study here and then work here—what a great deal!

The return of post-study visas is supported by, among others, all of Scotland’s 25 publicly funded colleges, Colleges Scotland, Universities Scotland, the representative body for Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions, many other organisations and businesses, and all parties, including the Scottish Conservative party, so why does the Prime Minister think they are all wrong and he is right?

For the reason I have given, which is that the clarity of our offer is world beating. There is a disadvantage to inventing a new post-work study route, where we are effectively saying to people coming to our universities, “It’s okay to stay with a less-than-graduate job.” Frankly, there are lots of people in our own country desperate for those jobs and we should be training them up and skilling them up. We do not need the world’s brightest and best to come here to study and then to do menial labour jobs. That is not what our immigration system is for. What we want is a system where we can advertise to the world—“Come and study here. Come and work here”—and that is the system we have and should keep.

Q6. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the fact that Aldi is in the process of building a distribution centre in my constituency, bringing the prospect of another 400 jobs to local people? That distribution centre is situated just off the A249, which is one of the busiest trunk roads in the south-east of England. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Department for Transport to undertake a review of the A249 to ensure that it can cope with the increased traffic generated by the expanding business activity in my constituency? (902994)

I certainly join my hon. Friend in welcoming the investment in his constituency, where the claimant count has fallen by 39% since 2010. That is obviously welcome news. I will take up the point he makes, because obviously we are only going to continue to attract investment if we make sure our road and rail networks are up to date.

Q3. The Prime Minister will be aware that last week this House discussed the equalisation of the state retirement age between men and women. Does he feel the outrage of a generation of women born in the 1950s who feel robbed and cheated out of their state pension, and will he give an undertaking to look at further improvements to transitional arrangements, given the unanimous decision of this House to ask him to do so? (902991)

I know that many colleagues have been written to on this issue, and there are some important cases to look at, but what I would say is that we looked very carefully at this at the time and decided that no one should suffer more than an 18-month increase in the time before they were expecting to retire. What I would also say is that what we are putting in place—with the single-tier pension starting at over £150 a week, combined with the triple lock—is a very good settlement for pensioners. It is affordable for the taxpayer and it is generous into the future.

Q7. By 8 January—after just eight days—parts of London had exceeded the annual limit for nitrogen dioxide pollution. Given this medically serious news, will the Prime Minister ensure that the Department for Transport’s current consideration of airport expansion prioritises air pollution concerns, and will he pledge never to expand Heathrow airport while nitrogen dioxide levels are risking the health of millions of people? (902995)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this point. There are problems of air quality and pollution not just in London but elsewhere in our country. That is one reason we decided to delay the decision about airport capacity expansion—because we need to answer the question about air quality before we do so. That is what the Environmental Audit Committee recommended to the Government. It said:

“On air quality, the Government will need to re-examine the Commission’s findings in the light of its finalised air quality strategy.”

So the point she makes is directly being taken on by the Government.

Q4. The Prime Minister’s answer to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) about transitional arrangements for women born in the 1950s was nothing like good enough. I was going to say that his own Ministers seem to have no idea how to rectify the injustice they have caused, but I do not think he does either. As he is talking to other EU leaders, will he ask why some countries are not implementing the changes until 2044, and will he also look at what transitional arrangements the Netherlands, Italy and Germany put in place to protect the people affected? (902992)

What other European countries do is a matter for them. We have the ability to make sovereign decisions on this issue, and that is entirely right. We have decided to put in place a pensions system that is affordable for our country in the long term and which sustains a very strong basic state pension right into the future. The single-tier pension is going to make such a difference to so many people in our country. We also have the triple lock, which was never put in place by Labour. We all remember that miserly increase to the pension under Gordon Brown. That can never happen again under our arrangements.

Q8. Since 2010, my constituency has seen the generation of more than 200 new businesses, while the claimant and youth unemployment rates have fallen to below 1%. With the £240 million investment in Bracknell town centre regeneration, full employment in the area is a genuine possibility. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is the Government’s sound stewardship of the economy that has led to this economic success in my constituency? (902996)

I am delighted to hear the news from Bracknell. In Britain today, we have low interest rates; inflation right on the floor; real wages growing, meaning people are feeling better off; people investing inwardly in this country in huge numbers; and business investment going up, because people are confident about the future of our economy—and all that is based on a long-term economic plan of dealing with our debts, getting our deficit down and making this a country where people can start, run and expand a business and therefore create jobs and prosperity for all our people.

Q10. Over the past four years, according to excess winter death figures from the Office for National Statistics, a staggering 117,000 people have died unnecessarily as a result of the cold. Some 43,000 people tragically died last winter. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is not only appalling but avoidable? Why does he think so many people are dying needlessly in our country, and what will he do to stop it happening? (902998)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this point. The figures on winter deaths, which are published every year, are a standing rebuke to all Governments about what more needs to be done. First, we have maintained the cold weather payments. They are vital and may kick in if the cold weather continues. There are also the winter fuel payments, which we have maintained, and the increase in the pension, which will go up by prices, earnings or 2.5%. We also now have falling energy prices, because of the falling oil price, but I agree they are not falling as fast as I would like, which is why it is right we have this Competition Commission inquiry into the energy industry to ensure that it is a fully competitive industry. But the industry has come a long way in the last few years. When I became Prime Minister, the independent energy companies comprised just 1% of the market, but they now comprise 15%, so the big six are being broken down through competition. All those changes, plus home improvements and making sure people have good insulation, can make a difference.

Q9. The implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, in which British diplomacy was crucial, is imminent. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps are being taken to ensure that Iran abides by its side of the deal? (902997)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. Let me pay tribute to Secretary of State John Kerry for the incredible work that he did, and also to the Foreign Secretary, who was by his side all the way through the negotiations of what was a very tough and difficult deal. The adoption day for the deal was in October. Since then, Iraq—sorry, Iran—has started shipping 12.5 tonnes of enriched uranium to Russia. Now we are getting close to what is called the implementation day for the deal. The key point is that Iran has granted the International Atomic Energy Agency unprecedented access to ensure that it is doing all the things it said it would do in this deal. As I said at the time, it is a good deal, in that it takes Iran away from a nuclear weapon, but we should enter into it with a very heavy heart, a very clear eye and a very hard head in making sure that the country does everything it said it would.

Q11. When the Government pushed through their changes to undergraduate funding four years ago, they said that providing maintenance grants for the poorest students was key to those students’ participation in higher education. No mention was made in the Conservative manifesto of ending those grants. Is it not therefore completely unacceptable to make that fundamental change tomorrow in Committee by the back door without a vote in this House? (902999)

This issue has been fully debated and discussed in this House, and it is absolutely right because our changes have shown, despite all the warnings from the Labour party, that more people are taking part in higher education and that more people from low income backgrounds are taking part in higher education. I am confident that that will continue to be the case.

Q12. Thanks to this Government’s long-term economic plan, unemployment in North West Leicestershire now stands at an all-time low of 522. This Saturday, East Midlands airport will host a jobs fair with 350 more positions available. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing all the businesses in North West Leicestershire more success with recruitment and retention than the Leader of the Opposition has had? (903000)

I am delighted to hear that there are only 522 people unemployed in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Let me praise him and the other Members on both sides of the House who have run jobs fairs in their constituencies. These have made a huge difference in terms of people being able to find opportunities. The truth is that, since 2010, 64% of the rise in private sector employment has taken place outside London and the south-east. Indeed, Scotland, the east midlands, the east of England, the south-west and the south-east all have higher employment rates than London. In growing terms, this is a balanced recovery, and we need to keep working at it to make sure that it is.

Q14. Last year, the Energy Secretary scrapped support under the renewables obligation for new onshore wind projects. This will impact Nissan’s £3 million investment in its wind farm in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister realise that his attacks on clean energy are detrimental to pro-green businesses such as Nissan? Will he look at this immediately and rectify the matter in the Energy Bill next week? (903002)

We had extensive exchanges about this in the Liaison Committee yesterday, and I can tell the hon. Lady that we are going to see another 50% increase in onshore wind investment during this Parliament. Also, Britain has the biggest offshore wind market anywhere in the world. The Leader of the Opposition raised the question of solar. Britain has the fourth largest solar installation of any country anywhere in the world. Indeed, my new favourite statistic is that 98% of those solar panels have been installed since I became Prime Minister. This is all good news, and it means that we have a genuine claim to be leading a renewables revolution. However, every single subsidy that is given to these technologies is extra money that we put on to people’s bills, making their energy more expensive. So it is right that we seek a balance between decarbonising our economy and making sure we do it at a low cost to our consumers and the people who pay the bills. That is what our policy is all about.

Q13. With the number of workless households in the United Kingdom at an all-time low and with 1.4 million more children being taught in schools ranked good or outstanding since 2010, does my right hon. Friend agree that the mark of a one nation Government is not the amount of money we spend on benefits, but what we do to tackle the root causes of poverty? (903001)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and it is what the exchanges earlier on proved. As far as I can see, Labour’s only answer to every single problem is to spend more money, so it ends up with more borrowing, more spending and more debt—all the things that got us into this problem in the first place. Our approach is to look at all the causes of poverty—all the things that are holding people back. Let’s fix the sink estates, let’s reform the failing schools, let’s give people more childcare, and let’s deal with the addiction and mental health problems that people have. In that way, we will demonstrate that this is the Government and this is the party helping people with their life chances, while Labour just want to stick you where you are.

The draft Wales Bill contains provisions that reverse the 2011 settlement, which was overwhelmingly endorsed at the last Welsh referendum. Unless it is amended, the National Assembly will unanimously—this will include Tory AMs—oppose the Bill during the legislative consent motion process, sparking a constitutional crisis. The veto and consent clauses do not apply in the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland, so why are this Government treating Wales like a second-class nation?

What this Government have done is, first, hold a referendum so that the Welsh Assembly has those law-making powers, Secondly, we are the first Government in history to make sure there is a floor under the Welsh level of spending—this is something never done by a Labour Government. And now, in the Wales Bill, we want to make sure that we give Wales those extra powers. That is what the Bill is all about. We are still listening to the suggestions made by the hon. Gentleman and by the Welsh Assembly Government, but this Government have a proud record, not only of devolution for Wales, but in delivery for Wales.

Thirty dollar oil is great for petrol prices, but it is potentially catastrophic in other respects. If it goes on like this, we risk seeing regimes under pressure, dramatic corporate failures and financial default, enormous financial transfers out of our markets to pay for other countries’ deficits, a possible collapse in share prices and dividends for pensions, and a liquidity problem in our banking sector. May I invite the Prime Minister to initiate an urgent review across Whitehall to assess the effects of continuing low oil prices on our economy and beyond, and, in particular, to work out how we can avoid the destruction of our own oil industry in the North sea?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about this very big move in the oil prices. It of course has a highly beneficial effect for all our constituents, who are able to fill up their cars for less than £1 a litre, which is a very big increase in people’s disposable income and wholly welcome. I think that a low oil price basically is good for the British economy as an economy that is a substantial manufacturing and production economy, but of course there are other consequences and he named many of them. We need to look very carefully at how we can help our own oil and gas industry. Of course, as we are coming to the end of Prime Minister’s questions, I should say that he did mention one other calamity that the low oil price brings about, which is that it has led to a complete and utter collapse of the Scottish National party’s policy.

Recent press reports suggest that although some on the Government’s Back Benches would agree with me—despite the fact that my background would be what the Prime Minister would consider to be “menial”—in calling for a reduction in the stake from a maximum £100 a minute on fixed-odds betting terminals, the Cabinet Office seems reluctant to review this £1.6 million industry and refuses to bring it under scrutiny. Can the Prime Minister assure the public that his Government will undertake a review of this dangerous, addictive and ever-growing problem?

We have looked at the problem and at the industry, and we have made a series of changes, including planning changes, but we will keep that important situation under review.

Although the floods over Christmas were bad for many areas in the north of England and in Scotland, Calder Valley residents were hit the hardest, with 2,100 homes and 1,300 businesses flooded, three bridges lost, four schools either flooded or part-flooded, and an old tip with asbestos that slid, keeping a further 20 families out of their homes. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss how we can help with the £20 million infrastructure damage, the shortfall in future flood defence schemes and the rebuilding of Todmorden High School?

My hon. Friend and I have discussed Todmorden High School on many occasions, and I think that we should meet again and discuss it again and try to make some progress on the matter. First, let me say that my sympathies, and the sympathies of the whole House, go out to those people and those businesses that were flooded, many of which were in his constituency, at that particular time of year. We will do everything we can to help communities get back on their feet. The very large flood investment programme is in place, and the maintenance programme has been protected in real terms, but there is a number of other infrastructure pieces of work that need to be done. I commend the Highways Agency for being so quick to examine roads and, in some cases, to take over the repairs to local authority roads because it has the capacity to act quickly. That is what we need to do in these situations. As I said last week, this time the Army was in faster, the money was distributed faster, and the Environment Agency worked even harder and even more round the clock, but there are always lessons to learn to demonstrate that we want to get these communities back on their feet as quickly as possible.