Skip to main content


Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 20 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.

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.