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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2016

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Economic Development

Last week, the Secretary of State and I met the Executive parties to review the implementation of the Stormont House and fresh start agreements, and the economic pact. Commitments include devolving corporation tax and rate-setting powers, if sustainable Executive finances are secured. This has the potential to have a truly transformational impact on the local economy.

I congratulate the ministerial team and the Department on their success in the creation of the economic pact, which has such a direct impact on Northern Ireland. What further steps can be taken to ensure that the Executive remain focused on how they can deliver those objectives?

The best thing we can do is to celebrate the fact that, under the recent spending review, the Chancellor put in place measures to see a 12% rise in real-terms funding for capital projects by 2021. That will mean over £600 million more will be available than if we had frozen funding at 2015-16 levels. That is good news for Northern Ireland infrastructure. Hopefully, it will mean the A5 and the A6 will start to progress and we can open up Northern Ireland for more foreign investment.

9. Does the Minister agree with the CBI and the trade union movement that the UK’s exit from the European Union would be damaging to economic development in Northern Ireland? Will he encourage his colleague the Secretary of State to argue for a yes vote? (903083)

There is a temptation in front of me. What I would say is that to date membership of the European Union has been good for Northern Ireland. I support the Prime Minister’s efforts to achieve reform. A reformed EU is where the United Kingdom wants to be: an EU that works for the benefit of everyone in the United Kingdom. If we can achieve that, we can take advantage of being neighbours of Ireland, one of Northern Ireland’s biggest economic partners, to make sure that the economy goes from strength to strength.

Later this week I will have the pleasure of visiting Royal Portrush golf course in Northern Ireland, which has been awarded the 2019 Open golf championship for the first time since 1951. Does the Minister agree that this is a tremendous achievement and opportunity for Northern Ireland? Will he work closely with the Executive and the golf club to ensure that it is a success similar to that in Scotland last year, which brought £140 million into the economy?

I am struck by how much effort Northern Ireland has made in trying to secure becoming the new home of golf. The marketing and promotion of golf courses in Northern Ireland is a real strength. [Interruption.] I know Scottish nationalists are so insecure about everything that they may take issue with that, but what is good for Northern Ireland and golf is also good for golf in Scotland. It will go from strength to strength. Major sporting events, whether horse-racing or golf, bring in real money in today’s economy.

I am sure we all look forward to visiting the Open in 2019.

Further to the Minister’s answer on infrastructure, will he undertake to speak to the National Infrastructure Commission and Treasury colleagues about transport links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? This is an important issue. Infrastructure spending is vital for the development of Northern Ireland’s economy. This would be a very good way to ensure that more investment came to Northern Ireland.

I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are determined to maintain air links. For example, when British Airways purchased Aer Lingus, we both had conversations with it over the past few months to ensure there was no degrading of the service provided to people at both main airports in Northern Ireland. We will work very hard, in partnership with the Executive, to maintain it. We should also point out that today’s economic figures for Northern Ireland are tremendously successful. It is the eighth successive month of growth, according to the Ulster bank purchase managers’ index. Over the year, the claimant count is down by 11,000 in Northern Ireland, a fall of 22.1%, outstripping the rest of the United Kingdom.

I join the Minister in welcoming that news, and I certainly pay tribute to colleagues on the Northern Ireland Executive for their excellent work on the economy and the new First Minister’s commitment to making economic growth her first priority.

At the last Northern Ireland questions, the Secretary of State undertook to speak to the Chancellor about linking Northern Ireland to the northern powerhouse. This is a very important initiative, and I would welcome any news of progress on that front. Will the Minister update the House?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has spoken to the Chancellor, who I think is considering the matter as we speak. I fully support the initiative. As a Lancashire MP, I certainly know the importance of our links with the west, including the Isle of Man and Belfast, via the ferry at Heysham, for example. I think we can both work to our mutual advantage on the northern powerhouse.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) about EU membership, would the Minister care to comment on a study by an Irish think-tank last year that said:

“Estimates…suggest that a Brexit could reduce bilateral trade flows between Ireland and the UK by 20 per cent.”

and that

“the expected impact of Brexit is likely to be more significant for Northern Irish exporters to Ireland”?

The Minister will know that there is very real concern in Northern Ireland about the impact of withdrawal from the EU on trade, investment and funding for various projects, as other Members have already mentioned. An Economic and Social Research Institute report at the end of 2015 said that a Brexit would have “very serious consequences” for the Northern Ireland economy. Has he discussed this matter with the Northern Ireland Executive?

Obviously I have regular discussions with Ministers in the Executive and the south of Ireland. Of course, an economic free zone in the EU, which we are part of, is important to our trade, not only for England but in Northern Ireland. The ability of the 34,000 businesses in Northern Ireland to trade without barriers across the border to the south is very important to its economy. That is why the Prime Minister wants Britain to remain in a reformed EU. The first thing we can do is wait to see what those reforms are.

Notwithstanding that, the Minister will know there are very serious concerns in Northern Ireland about a possible Brexit, particularly because it is the only part of the UK with a land border with another EU country. Will he reassure the Executive and the people of Northern Ireland on this matter, in view of the mixed messages on Brexit emanating from the ministerial team? In particular, I am talking about his views, as opposed to the Secretary of State’s.

There is no mixed message. Both I and my right hon. Friend are keen for the EU to produce some reforms, as is the Prime Minister in his strategy. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows—perhaps he has a special hotline—what reforms the EU will agree. When those reforms are presented to the House, we will be able to make a decision. For my part, I believe that in the past membership of the EU has been good for Northern Ireland.

Legacy Issues

The cross-party talks in 2014 and 2015 have brought us closer than ever to a consensus on the best way to deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. I will work with the Northern Ireland parties, representatives of victims and survivors and the Irish Government to try to build the support needed to enable legislation to be brought forward to establish the bodies envisaged in the Stormont House agreement.

Former Eastbourne MP Ian Gow, who was murdered by the Provisional IRA, was remembered last year at a public speaking competition organised in my constituency to remember and celebrate his life and legacy, his courage and his conviction. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking with schools in Northern Ireland to deal with the legacy of the past and bring about change in community relations?

My hon. Friend’s predecessor was a great parliamentarian, and I am sure the whole House will join her in thinking sadly of the atrocity that led to his death. The UK Government strongly support the programmes in Northern Ireland designed to build a shared society, many of which impact on schools and colleges. As a way of addressing the remaining difficulties, it is vital that we do all we can to break down past divisions so that sectarianism becomes entirely a thing of the past in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State will be aware that, sadly, there was no agreement on how to move the legacy issue forward, but money has been set aside, particularly for the proposed historical investigations unit. We have 3,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State at least make some of that extra resource available to the PSNI’s legacy unit to enable it to re-examine some of the pressing cases? People are getting older and they deserve justice.

As the right hon. Gentleman points out, the UK Government have committed significant sums to support dealing with the legacy of the past as we have in relation to shared society projects, to which I referred earlier. Our starting point is that the £150 million for bodies to deal with the past is intended for new bodies such as the historical investigations unit or the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, but we remain open to a dialogue with the Executive on whether it would be possible to use any of those moneys in advance of those new bodies being set up. It is vital that they are set up.

Will my right hon. Friend update us on what is happening to Soldier J and other former soldiers who were involved in the events in Londonderry on 30 January 1972, and tell us whether they continue to face prosecution? Let me impress it on my right hon. Friend that this is not simply a matter for the judicial authorities; it is a matter for her, and it is a matter of public policy for it is contrary to the interests of natural justice that men who have served their country should still, 44 years on, be facing possible prosecution.

I fully appreciate my hon. Friend’s grave concerns about this case. He will appreciate, however, that matters relating to police investigations and prosecutions are taken independently of Government and independently of politicians. My understanding is that that investigation continues.

Referring to the Secretary of State’s earlier answer, I have to say that it is all very well—I do not for a minute doubt her good intentions; nor would any other Member—but when will we actually hear some dates and some details? When will the legislation she mentions be brought to the Floor of the House, particularly in respect of those aspects of fresh start where there is agreement? How long must the victims continue to wait?

We hope to bring forward legislation fairly soon on those aspects of the fresh start and Stormont House agreements that have been agreed. The timing is less certain in respect of the legacy bodies because we were not able to build the consensus necessary for legislation. We did, however, close the gap on many issues. A key issue still to resolve is how the veto relating to national security will operate. I am determined to work with all sides to find a way forward. We have to protect our national security interests, but we will do all we can to ensure that that veto is exercised fairly in all circumstances.

As well as asking the Secretary of State to recalibrate her fixation on the national security issues, may I also ask her to consider using the current delay at least to allow for qualitative pre-legislative scrutiny of what will be sensitive legislation when it comes forward?

It is important to use this period constructively to engage with victims groups in particular. I had very useful discussions with the Victims’ Commissioner and with the Victims and Survivors Forum. We will consider in due course whether publication of documentation is appropriate. It is vital that we press ahead and build consensus to get these bodies set up and running.

Corporation Tax

3. What progress has been made on implementation of the proposed reduction in corporation tax in Northern Ireland. (903077)

The fresh start agreement reaffirmed the Government’s support for devolution of corporation tax powers, so long as the Executive are able to demonstrate that their finances are on a long-term sustainable footing.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when tens of thousands of additional jobs and increased productivity and economic output over the medium and long term are at stake, we must not squander that opportunity?

I fully agree that the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland provides huge opportunities to attract new business and inward investment and to boost the economy. My hon. Friend is right, however, that it needs to be accompanied by broader economic reform, such as a focus on skills, universities and infrastructure.

While the devolution of corporation tax will be important in growing the Northern Ireland economy, does the Secretary of State agree that a vote to leave the EU would help the Northern Ireland economy insofar as it would release £18 billion every year for expenditure on public services, enable us to enter a trade agreement with growing parts of the world and release us from the stifling bureaucracies of Europe?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is tempting me to engage in arguments which will rightly be a matter for everyone in the country when they have an opportunity to vote in the referendum. We promised a referendum in our manifesto, and that is what we are going to deliver.

Does the Secretary of State agree that existing cuts in university funding, followed by further cuts, and a consequent significant reduction in the number of graduates who are suitably qualified to become employees of the inward investment companies that we are trying to attract, will frustrate much of the benefit that is expected from the reduction in corporation tax?

There is no doubt that the Northern Ireland Executive face difficult decisions, as do all Governments at a time when budgets are constrained. I believe it is important to focus on crucial economic areas such as skills, university and infrastructure. Perhaps there is a debate to be had about the way in which higher education is funded in Northern Ireland, but that, of course, is a devolved matter for devolved representatives.

Cross-border Crime

Along with the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, the United Kingdom Government recently announced the creation of a joint agency taskforce to tackle cross-jurisdictional organised crime. It will enhance law enforcement co-operation in relation to, for instance, crime linked to paramilitaries.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement about the taskforce, but will she confirm that the fresh start agreement provides for additional funds from the United Kingdom Government to help to tackle continuing paramilitary activity?

It does. The fresh start agreement allocates £25 million for tackling paramilitary-related crime and £3 million for a new monitoring body, but it provides substantial additional funds for more widely based shared society initiatives, which are also crucial to ending the influence of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland once and for all.

We all know that, unfortunately, many organised crime groups on the island take advantage of the land border and commit the classic cross-border crimes of smuggling and excise evasion. The proceeds of those activities often go towards funding dissident groups. What efforts are my right hon. Friend and her ministerial team making to introduce preventive measures to eradicate such activities?

In Northern Ireland, huge efforts are being made by the PSNI to prevent the border from being exploited by criminals, and those efforts will be enhanced by the new joint agency taskforce, building on the excellent work already done by the police services both north and south of the border in recent years.

How concerned is the Secretary of State about the lack of convictions for fuel smuggling and, in particular, fuel laundering in Northern Ireland and the border regions?

Obviously, everyone would like to see more convictions. A crucial aspect of the fresh start agreement is the Executive’s commitment to measures that will reduce the time that it takes to bring people to trial, because convictions are more likely to be secured if trials take place in a timely manner. I am sure the Executive will take the implementation of that crucial part of the agreement very seriously.

Order. This is a very serious discussion of cross-border crime in Northern Ireland. We must hear Lady Hermon.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State will know that the Treasury has already announced the closure of a number of HMRC offices throughout Northern Ireland. Given that HMRC does a very valiant job in tackling cross-border crime, what guarantees can the Secretary of State give the people of Northern Ireland that those efforts will not be reduced if the offices are closed?

I am entirely confident that the changes relating to HMRC offices will not affect HMRC’s ability to tackle cross-border crime. Indeed, we will see an enhanced effort, not least because, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the proceeds of that kind of crime can end up in the hands of terrorists.

VAT: Tourism and Hospitality

6. What discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the potential effect of a reduction in rate of VAT on the tourism and hospitality sector in Northern Ireland. (903080)

The Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Treasury Ministers, including the Chancellor. The Government have concluded that a VAT cut for the tourism and hospitality sectors could not produce sufficient economic growth to outweigh the revenue shortfall. It would need to be funded either by additional borrowing or by the raising of other taxes, both of which are likely to have a negative effect on the economy.

The case was successfully made for corporation tax, and rightly so, to attract investment into Northern Ireland. Surely a case could be made, for tourism and hospitality in Northern Ireland, to reduce VAT, especially in respect of the golf clubs, where there is an anomaly across the board?

I do not think there are many Members who would not like to see a reduction of the tax burden. Because of our long-term economic plan and the lifting of burdens on businesses elsewhere—the small business rate relief that is also available in Northern Ireland, the corporation tax cut, the freezing of national insurance contributions and employer contributions—we hope that, at least for tourism businesses and the hospitality sector, the cost of employing people and the other burdens can be lifted. That would help businesses to make their prices more competitive to encourage more people to take up the great offering of tourism in Northern Ireland.

I would also—[Interruption.]. I would also like to ask about VAT. Will he perhaps look at the thresholds—[Interruption.]

Order. I wanted to hear Mr Foster’s thoughts on VAT on tourism and hospitality, and it is very difficult to hear them. I hope the Minister heard; if not, blurt it out again man.

We will try again, Mr Speaker; thank you. I have heard what the Minister said about the rate of VAT. Does he agree that it might be worth having discussions about the thresholds, which may help smaller businesses in the hospitality and tourism sector in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I will write to the Chancellor and make his points clear to him.

Sexual Health and Family Planning

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the adequacy of women’s access to sexual health and family planning services. (903081)

Northern Ireland Office Ministers have had no discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive on the adequacy of women’s access to sexual health and family planning services. However, Department of Health officials discuss sexual health matters with their counterparts in the Northern Ireland Departments as appropriate. Sexual health advice and services in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter.

The Minister will be aware that women in Northern Ireland can, and do, travel to England for abortions on the NHS. However, they cannot access NHS abortions; they have to pay to go privately. Does he agree that this is an inequality issue between women in Northern Ireland and women who live in, say, England?

The hon. Lady points out an interesting anomaly, and in advance of today I have asked my officials to provide clarity. I do know that there is a court case pending—or before the courts—in Northern Ireland on that very issue. It is important that we get to the bottom of the differences between living in one part of the UK and another and what NHS services are available.

In the 11 years since 2004 Northern Ireland has seen a 47% increase in new cases of HIV while on the mainland it has fallen by 20%. The same situation applies to other sexually transmitted diseases. What discussions has the Minister had—or what discussions will he have—with Health Ministers here on the mainland and in Northern Ireland to ensure that there is an overall regional strategy to address this?

I am very happy to have discussions with UK Ministers on that subject and certainly will write to my counterpart in the Executive to make sure that both we and the Executive are doing our fair share to make sure that we prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.


8. What recent discussions she has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on increasing exports. (903082)

The Government continue to work with the Executive towards rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy, including through collaboration on increasing exports and trade co-operation. Northern Ireland exports were valued at £1.62 billion in the third quarter of 2015, the highest quarterly value since 2008.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Can she confirm that the Government will continue supporting stronger trade links between Hampshire and Northern Ireland, particularly given both regions’ strong manufacturing and maritime traditions?

We will certainly do that. Our long-term economic plan is working to boost trade within and outside the UK, as illustrated by the fact that the claimant count is down again in Northern Ireland in figures announced today. In total, since February 2013 there has been a fall of 40.2% in the claimant count in Northern Ireland.

This morning the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister in Northern Ireland announced over 50 jobs in my constituency, which is a start in an area of high unemployment. Will the Secretary of State use her influence in the Cabinet to ensure that, when there are overseas development and trade visits, Northern Ireland companies are included, to bring inward investment to Northern Ireland?

I can certainly do that. It is vital that UK Trade & Investment, in its work overseas to bring investment to the UK, champions the benefits of investing in Northern Ireland. It is a great place in which to invest, it has a tremendous record on inward investment and the UK Government are determined to see that continue.

Battle of the Somme: Commemoration

The Government’s events to mark the centenary of the battle of the Somme will be held in Thiepval, France and in Manchester on 1 July 2016. Other regional events, including in Northern Ireland, are a matter for the local authorities and local communities. [Interruption.]

Order. We are discussing an important centenary of the battle of the Somme. The question from the hon. Lady must be heard and so must the answer.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. In 1916, men from the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division displayed great courage at the Somme, despite suffering huge casualties, with almost 2,000 men killed in the first hours of 1 July. Does the Secretary of State have any plans to liaise with the Government of the Republic of Ireland to commemorate the sacrifice made by those from both sides of the border?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is committed, along with the Taoiseach, to commemorating our past with mutual respect and understanding. The Secretary of State and I are working with Ministers in the Irish Government to mark the events of this decade. I have discussed these issues with a number of officials, and I regularly meet the culture Minister, Heather Humphreys; we often attend events together, as representatives of both Governments, in remembrance of those people who died. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has visited the Somme to remember what happened there, and it is important to note that both the south and the north had a shared experience and a shared history in the first world war, with both suffering while fighting for the cause of defeating the Kaiser.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. As we reflect on the Somme and move towards the centenary of the conclusion of the first world war, will the Secretary of State or the Minister engage across government with the Prime Minister to think of a suitable national memorial restoration fund to allow us fittingly to bring our cenotaphs and memorials across this country up to standard for the centenary?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and collectively the whole of the Government have heard his suggestion. It is important to remember the end as well as the beginning of the tragedy that was the first world war.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

If you have worked hard for a company and helped it succeed, surely you should be allowed to benefit a little from the profits that the company makes. Does the Prime Minister therefore think it is now time for companies such as Sports Direct to follow the example of the best British businesses and allow people to benefit from a small percentage of the profits?

We have encouraged companies to have profit-sharing arrangements, and we took action in previous Budgets to do that. But we are going further than that, of course, by making sure that there is, for the first time in our country, a national living wage, which will come in in April of this year. That means the lowest-paid people in our country—people on the minimum wage—will have a 7.5% pay rise coming this April, under a Conservative Government.

Q3. With mounting global economic uncertainty, it was comforting to see this morning’s figures showing record UK employment. In this new age of kinder, consensual politics, does my right hon. Friend agree that every Member of this House should welcome the news that from North Yorkshire to north London, Britain is back in work? (903126)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; over the past year, we have seen more people in work in every region in our country, and that is welcome. This morning’s unemployment figures, which the House might not have had time to see, are very welcome. The unemployment rate is now the lowest in nearly a decade, at 5.1%; the unemployment rate is now lower than it was at the start of the recession; the latest figures show unemployment falling by another 99,000; and we have today in our country the record number of people in work ever in our history and a record number of women in work. Since I became Prime Minister we have 2.3 million more people in work, and I am sure that is something the whole House can welcome.

It is nice to get such a warm welcome. [Interruption.] If Members will allow me for one moment, let me ask the Prime Minister this question. Where in his election manifesto did he put his plan to abolish maintenance grants for all students?

First of all, people will recognise that there is no welcome for the thousands of people who have found work in our country. What a depressing spectacle. In our manifesto, we said that we would cut the deficit and uncap student numbers, and we have done both.

There is not such joy in Port Talbot and other places that have lost steel jobs. They want a Government who are prepared to support their industries. The Prime Minister has form when it comes to student maintenance grants because, in the Conservative manifesto, there was no mention—[Interruption.] Are you done?

I gently say to the Prime Minister’s dedicated Parliamentary Private Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson)—[Interruption.] Calm yourself, man. Auditioning to be a statesman does not include chuntering from a sedentary position.

As I was saying, the Prime Minister has form here, because there was no mention of tax credit cuts in the manifesto either. This proposal will affect half a million students, which is not mentioned anywhere in his manifesto. I have a question from a student by the name of Liam, who says:

“I’m training to be a mathematics teacher, and will now come out at the end of my course to debts in excess of £50,000, which is roughly twice as much as what my annual income would be”.

Why is Liam being put into such debt?

What I say to Liam is that he is now in a country with a university system that has more people going to university than ever before, and more people from low income backgrounds going to university than ever before. In addition, I say to Liam—and I wish him well—that he will not pay back a penny of his loan until he is earning £21,000. He will not start paying back in full until he is earning £35,000. Our policy will put more money in the hands of students such as him, which is why we are implementing it. By contrast, the Labour policy, which is to scrap the loans and the fees, would cost £10 billion and mean going back to a situation where people went out and worked hard and paid their taxes for an elite to go to university. We are uncapping aspiration; the Leader of the Opposition wants to put a cap on it.

I am pleased to say that Liam is trying to be a maths teacher, and that might help the Prime Minister as Liam did say that he was earning £25,000, which is more than £21,000—if that is a help. In 2010, the Prime Minister’s Government trebled tuition fees to £9,000, and defended it by saying that they would increase maintenance grants for students from less well-off backgrounds. They are now scrapping those very same grants that they used to boast about increasing. Where is the sense in doing that? Why are they abolishing those maintenance grants?

The sense in doing that is that we want to uncap university places, so that as many young people in our country who want to go to university can go to university. That is what we are doing. Before we have too much shouting from the Opposition, let me say that when they were in government, they introduced the fees and loans system. Given that this is the week that we are meant to be learning the lessons of the past election, let me read a lesson from somebody whom I rather miss. In the Times Higher Education, Mr Ed Balls wrote that

“we clearly didn’t find a sustainable way forward for the financing of higher education… If they”—

the electorate—

“think you’ve got the answers for the future, they’ll support you.”

In all honesty I say to the Labour party that, when it was in government, it supported fees and loans. When we were in opposition, we made the mistake that they did. If we want to be on the side of aspiration and of more university students, and if we want to help people make the most of their lives, the system that we have is working and the numbers prove it.

That is from the very same Prime Minister who is taking away the grants that are designed to help the poorest in our society to access higher education. I want to ask him about one particular group who are now being targeted by this Government: student nurses. They were not mentioned in the Government’s manifesto. The repayments that student nurses will now have to make when qualified amount to an effective pay cut of £900 for each nurse. Why is he punishing those nurses when we need them in our NHS?

First of all, there are now 6,700 more nurses than there were when I became Prime Minister. I know that the Labour party does not want to face up to difficult decisions, but let me just give the right hon. Gentleman one statistic. Two out of three people today who want to become a nurse cannot do so because of the bursary system. By introducing the loans, nurses will get more money and we will train more nurses and bring in fewer from overseas. It is good for nurses, good for the NHS and good for our country, and it is only a Labour party that is so short-sighted and anti-aspiration that cannot see it.

The Prime Minister and I would probably agree that we need to spend more and direct more resources towards dealing with the mental health crisis in this country. I have a question from somebody who wants to help us get through that crisis by becoming a mental health nurse. Vicky from York has a very real problem. She says:

“I would not have been able, or chosen, to study to be a mental health nurse without the bursary for the following reasons… I am a single mum and need support for childcare costs. I have debts from a previous degree. I am a mature student at 33. I would not take on further debts which would be impossible to pay back, and would not be fair on my daughter”.

She is somebody we need as a mental health nurse in our NHS. We are losing her skills, her dedication and her aspiration to help the entire community.

But two out of three Vickys who turn up wanting to be nurses are sent away by our current system, which means we are bringing in people from Bulgaria, Romania and the other side of the world to do nursing jobs for which we should be training British people. The British people want to train as nurses, the NHS wants more nurses, and this Government will fund those nurses, so let us help them train and improve our health service.

The problem is that the Prime Minister is expecting Vicky and others like her to fund themselves by paying back a debt or paying back from their wages in the future. I do not think that she will have been very reassured by his answers today; they will have been unconvincing to her. He was not very good at convincing the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), a nurse herself, who said:

“I would struggle to undertake my nurse training given the proposed changes to the bursary scheme.”—[Official Report, 5 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 15.]

The Prime Minister will be aware that nine out of 10 hospitals currently have a shortage of nurses. Is not what he is proposing for the nurse bursary scheme going to exacerbate the crisis, make it worse for everybody and make our NHS less effective? What is his answer to that point?

I will give the right hon. Gentleman a very direct answer: we are going to see 10,000 extra nurse degree places as a result of this policy, because we are effectively uncapping the number of people who can go into nursing. I have to say that this week has all been of a piece, with a retreat by the Labour party into the past. We have seen it with the idea of bringing back secondary picketing and flying pickets, with the idea of stopping businesses paying dividends, and with the absurd idea that nuclear submarines should go to sea without their missiles. Anyone watching this Labour party—and it is not just the leader, but the whole party now—will see that it is a risk to our national security, a risk to our economic security, a risk to our health service and a risk to the security of every family in our country.

Q5. Leicestershire and the east midlands continue to be a powerhouse of jobs and growth, attracting investment from the UK and beyond, and we are rightly proud of the success of our local businesses in Charnwood. Does my right hon. Friend believe that their continued ability to attract external and foreign investment would be helped or hindered were secondary picketing to be reintroduced? (903128)

First of all, let me say that the east midlands is a powerhouse of our economy, and in the last year we have seen employment in the east midlands go up by 17,000. I think that when businesses look at whether to invest in Britain, whether they are overseas businesses or indeed British businesses, they want to know that we are going to have good labour relations and not a return to the 1970s of secondary strikes and flying pickets. It is extraordinary that a party that spent so long trying to cast off the image of being in favour of these appalling industrial practices has now elected a leader and is backing a leader who would take us right back to the 1970s.

World attention on the conflict in the middle east is focused on Syria and Iraq, and much less so on the catastrophe in Yemen, which has caused thousands of people to lose their lives and millions of people to flee their homes. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what the UK Government are doing to support peace in Yemen?

We are doing everything we can with all the people taking part in this conflict to encourage them to get round a negotiating table, as they have done recently, in order to bring about what is necessary in Yemen, which is a Government who can represent all of the people. We have got to make sure that both Sunni and Shi’a are properly represented in that country. That is the only way that we will meet our key national interest, which is to back a Government in Yemen who will drive the terrorists, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—AQAP—out of Yemen, because they have been, and are, a direct threat to the citizens of Britain.

Thousands of civilians have been killed in Yemen, including a large number by the Saudi air force, who have done that using British-built planes with pilots who are trained by British instructors, and who are dropping British-made bombs and are co-ordinated by the Saudis in the presence of British military advisers. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to admit that Britain is effectively taking part in a war in Yemen that is costing thousands of civilian lives, and that he has not sought parliamentary approval to do that?

The right hon. Gentleman started in a serious place but then seriously wandered off. It is in our interest that we back the legitimate Government of Yemen, and it is right to do that. We have some of the most stringent arms control measures of any country anywhere in the world. Just to be absolutely clear about our role, we are not a member of a Saudi-led coalition. British military personnel are not directly involved in the Saudi-led coalition’s operations. Personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen, or selecting targets; and we are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process; but do we provide training and advice and help in order to make sure that countries actually obey the norms of humanitarian law? Yes, we do.

Q7. The recent floods in the north of England have caused untold misery to people, to householders, to farmers, and to livestock. What we need is a long-term strategy for floods. I know that the Prime Minister has done a lot of work in Somerset and across the country. Some rivers need to be dredged and some need to be slowed down, and we need to manage our floodwaters in a better way. Along with our long-term economic plan, can we have a long-term plan on floods? (903130)

We absolutely can and we do. That is exactly what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is doing. We have got an unprecedented six-year commitment of £2.3 billion, but as important as the money is making sure that we have an absolutely joined-up approach, as my hon. Friend says, to dredging in some places, to building flood barriers in others, and to managing the water in our landscape, including through farming practices, in a holistic way so that we are using all the resources we have to reduce the likelihood of floods.

Q2. There is concern on all sides about the recent rather patchwork approach to constitutional reform. We need a new Act of Union that sets out the rules and responsibilities so that the process of devolution by consent will be both fairer and more comprehensible. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and other members of the Constitution Reform Group to discuss a new Act of Union? We come from all the major political parties and include experts such as Lord Lisvane, better known to this House as the former Clerk, Robert Rogers. (903125)

I am very happy to meet the right hon. Lady, who has great expertise in this area. I think there is a common interest in it. What we are trying to do as a Government is to find a devolution settlement that works for all of the devolved nations of the United Kingdom, including, importantly, for England as well. We have made some very good progress with the further devolution measures in Scotland and Wales and with the maintenance of the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland. If there are further measures we can take, I am very happy to see them, but I do not necessarily believe that simply writing things down in one place will solve the problem. I am, however, happy to meet the right hon. Lady.

Q8. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our nuclear deterrent works against our nation’s enemies only if our nuclear submarines are actually equipped with nuclear missiles, and that the defence policy of those who do not believe that, such as the Leader of the Opposition, is inspired by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”, which shows that, while Labour Members may twist and shout, their current leader certainly needs help? (903131)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenious question. There is a comic element to sending submarines to sea without missiles, but this is in fact an absolutely serious issue, because the deterrent has been, on a cross-party basis, an absolutely key part of our defence and making sure that we have the ultimate insurance policy, which we on this side of the House support and which we should vote on. All I can say when it comes to Beatles’ songs is that I suspect that the Leader of the Opposition prefers “Back in the USSR”.

Just under two weeks ago, a 16-year-old boy was murdered in a knife attack in my constituency. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest condolences to Charlie’s friends and family. Given that knife crime in London rose last year and that the number of teenage deaths as a result of it peaked at its highest level in seven years, what action will the Government take to make sure that we do not return to the days when knife crime in London affecting young people in particular was merely a fact of life?

The hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole House, which I am sure will want in spirit to be with the family and friends of Charlie Kutyauripo, who lost his life in that attack. There is nothing anyone here can say that will give them the comfort they seek. What I will say is that we have toughened the law on knife crime offences and the custodial sentences people are getting for those crimes. The police have done a huge amount to crack down on knife crime, which is why overall it has fallen by something like 17% since 2010, but there is still more to do in educating children and young people about the dangers of carrying a knife. In so many of these cases, the carrier of the knife ends up the victim of the knife attack so, as well as tough penalties and strong policing, we also need better education.

Q11. Does the Prime Minister agree that encouraging people in this country to learn the English language has a unifying effect? It aids integration and helps to create national identity and social cohesion, and should therefore be promoted. (903134)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The most important thing in our country is that we make sure that everybody can take advantage of the opportunities to work, get training and go to university. This is an opportunity country, but there is no opportunity for people if you do not speak the language. That is why we are going to target money at those people—they are very often women—who have been stuck at home, sometimes by the men in the house, and make sure that they can get the English language skills they need.

Let me make one other additional point, because this is so important. When I was sat in a mosque in Leeds this week, one of the young people there said how important it is that imams speak English, because if some young people can speak English but not Urdu or Arabic they need someone to guide them away from ISIL and its poisonous rhetoric. Speaking English is important for all, imams included.

Q6. Over the past few months, young people in Southampton have seen themselves frozen out of the living wage and housing benefit, and faced the downgrading or closure of the further education and sixth-form colleges from which many of them get their qualifications. We now see the ending of maintenance grants for those young people who want to go to university. What has the Prime Minister got against young people trying to make their way in life? (903129)

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what we are doing for young people: record numbers going to university; record numbers who are taking on apprenticeships; and record numbers in work. Actually, today, the unemployment figures show a record low in the unemployment rate among those people who have left school. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that one of the reasons why a Labour MP in the south of England is as rare as hen’s teeth is that they talk down our country and talk down opportunity in it.

Q12. I thank the Prime Minister for launching the apprenticeship delivery board on Monday evening at No. 10. These men and women, who are expert in their sectors, are coming together to deliver 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020. Does the Prime Minister agree that it will be a great thing if, when students across our country log on to the UCAS website, they are informed about the opportunities for degree apprenticeships, as well as about more traditional degrees? (903135)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point for two reasons. One is that if you become an apprentice, that does not lock out the chance of doing a degree later in your career. Indeed, the opportunities for earning and learning are getting greater in our country. The second reason it is so important is that, in our schools, all our teachers are of course very well equipped to tell people about degree opportunities, because that is the route that they have taken—A-levels, the UCAS form and such like—but we need to improve the information in our schools so that people can see the opportunities for apprenticeships, in some cases then leading on to degrees.

Q9. My 24-year-old constituent Lara is in urgent need of a stem cell donor. Her family’s campaign, Match4Lara, is attracting global support. On Saturday, the O2 Centre in my constituency will run a spit drive to get as many people as possible on to the bone marrow register. Will the Prime Minister join me at that event on Saturday, and will he send a message of support to those working to keep Lara alive? (903132)

I certainly will join the hon. Lady in supporting Lara’s campaign. I have had meetings with bone marrow organisations in No. 10 Downing Street to support their matching campaign. I am sure that, by her raising it at Question Time in this way, many others will want to come to this event on Saturday and support Lara in the way she suggests.

Q13. The Prime Minister is aware that a number of colleagues and I await his response to our request, made in November, for a meeting regarding his EU renegotiations to discuss the importance of this Parliament—by itself, if necessary—being able to stop any unwanted taxes, regulations or directives, which goes to the core of issues such as control of our borders, business regulation and so on. Will he now meet us prior to the next EU meeting? (903136)

As my hon. Friend can imagine, I am having a range of meetings with colleagues about the European issue. I am sure that I will be covering as many in our parliamentary party as possible. I have always felt, with my hon. Friend, that he has slightly made up his mind already and wants to leave the EU whatever the results, and I do not want to take up any more of his time than is necessary.

Q10. The UK Government are a cheerleader for China to be awarded World Trade Organisation market economy status, because they want the City of London to become a major trading centre for the Chinese currency. MES for China would make it nigh on impossible to impose tariffs on Chinese steel, despite its dumping strategy. Is this not a classic case of the Westminster Government once again putting the bankers of London before manufacturing workers in Wales and the rest of the UK? (903133)

I have to say that the hon. Gentleman is wrong both on content and on approach. The two issues are separate. There are market economies that Europe still puts dumping tariffs on—we actually did that recently with America, and we have done it in the past with Russia—so I think we should take these two issues separately. We should continue to pursue robust action against China, which is exactly what we are doing, based on the merits. In terms of a closer relationship with China—a trading relationship—I want to help those Welsh businesses, including companies such as Airbus, break into Chinese markets and to make sure we get the best for British jobs, British manufacturing and British exports. That is what we want in our relationship with China.

Q14. Speaking of Airbus, the Mersey-Dee region, which straddles the England-Wales border, is one of the most dynamic industrial areas of the country. Does my right hon. Friend welcome the establishment of the all-party Mersey-Dee group, which has been formed to promote the economic success of the region? Will he urge his ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Government to co-operate with the group in its work? (903137)

First, let me join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the new group. It is important, when we look at the development of the Welsh economy, to think about how north Wales can benefit from growth in the north-west of our country and about the links between the north-west and Wales, which the group will examine. Clearly, HS2 and what happens at Crewe will be a vital part of that process. I am very happy to talk further with him.

Will the Prime Minister reiterate, not just on behalf of the Government, but speaking for the whole House I believe, the unconditional and unequivocal support of the British people for the people of the Falkland Islands and their right—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—their inalienable and British-held right to self-determination? Will he confirm that that will not be undermined in any way by some kind of accommodation or negotiation in which the people of the Falkland Islands may have an enormous say, but have no veto? They should have a right to determine their own future.

The right hon. Gentleman has put it better than I ever could. The people of the Falkland Islands spoke as clearly as they possibly could in the referendum. They want to maintain the status quo. As long as they want that, they will have it guaranteed from me. I find it quite extraordinary that the Labour party wants to look at changing the status and giving away something people absolutely consider to be their right. That will never happen as long as I am in Downing Street.

Q15. As a former cub scout leader and Queen’s scout, I am pleased to say that scouting is thriving in Harrow. This year marks the centenary of the formation and founding of cub scouting across the UK. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the 150,000 young people who participate in cub scouting every week in the UK, congratulate and thank the leaders who give up their time voluntarily to enable young people to gain a sense of adventure in a safe environment, and call on more people to volunteer as leaders as part of the big society movement? (903138)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The scouts are a great part of the big society. We have provided them and other uniformed youth groups with more than £10 million of funding since I became Prime Minister to help them do their excellent work. I had a letter recently from Bear Grylls, the chief scout himself, looking at what we could do to welcome the centenary and give this fantastic organisation a big centenary boost.

The Prime Minister may be aware, and should be aware, that Sheffield Forgemasters announced this morning the loss of 100 jobs in this crisis-hit industry, many of which will be in my constituency. We have had lots of warm words and hand-wringing and some crocodile tears from the Prime Minister and Ministers in this Chamber about the tsunami of job losses across the steel industry. Can he tell me when he will actually do something to support world-class companies such as Sheffield Forgemasters?

We have taken action, including action on energy bills that will save these industries £400 million in this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman chose to inject a bit of politics into this, so let me inject some back. When the Labour party was in power, what happened to employment in the steel industry? It was cut by 35,000—cut in half. Where were the carve-outs from the energy bills then? Where were the special arrangements for taking votes in Europe that we have put in place? Where were the rules to make sure that we buy British steel when it comes to public procurement, as we will for HS2 and the carrier programme? If he is interested in Sheffield Forgemasters, he might want to have a little word with his leader about something called a Trident submarine.

We do not yet know who will headline at Glastonbury this summer but we do know that, as things stand, they will not have anywhere to do their banking, as this world-famous town is to lose all three of its remaining banks within 12 weeks of each other. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging those banks to think again and to ensure that they meet their responsibilities under the banking protocols?

I will certainly make sure that that happens, and I will arrange for my hon. Friend to have a meeting with a Treasury Minister to discuss this issue. We are seeing huge challenges, partly because of the growth of internet banking, but it is important that in market towns such as the ones that he and I represent, banks continue to have a physical presence on the high street.

The Prime Minister might be aware of the tragic case of Julie Pearson, a young Scottish woman who died in Israel in November and who was allegedly beaten and raped before her death. I met her family recently, and I hope that the whole House will join me in offering their condolences to them. They are struggling to get answers from the Israeli Government and authorities; in particular, they are struggling to get her autopsy report. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss putting pressure on the Israeli Government and authorities to look into Julie’s death, so that her family can get the answers that they want and ultimately get justice for Julie?

I am not directly aware of this case, but I will certainly take it up with the Israeli authorities on the hon. Lady’s behalf, because it is important that her constituents get answers on this matter. Perhaps I could arrange for her to have a meeting with Foreign Office Ministers so that they can discuss this. We have good relations with Israel, and we should use those good relations to make sure that when people need answers, they get them.

We have a number of urgent questions—two, to be precise—after which we will deal with points of order. I look forward with eager anticipation to hearing from the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) at that point.