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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 605: debated on Wednesday 3 February 2016

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

UN World Humanitarian Summit

Our country has bold ambitions for the world humanitarian summit, which comes at a critical time given that there are currently more displaced people globally than at any time since the second world war. We are working with a range of partners, including UN agencies, Governments, non-governmental organisations and the private sector, to ensure that the summit delivers transformative change to crisis response.

Child protection has been desperately underfunded in global humanitarian efforts. One in 10 children now lives in conflict-affected areas, and UNICEF warns that at least 3 million children are caught up in emergencies and need psychosocial help. Will the Prime Minister be part of the UK delegation, and will he commit to making child protection one of the UK’s key priorities at the summit?

We have not finalised the UK delegation yet, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the issue of child protection has been very much at the core of all our humanitarian responses, not least, most recently, in Syria. The UK worked with UNICEF to put in place so-called safe zones in many of the refugee camps to enable children to be reunited with their families if they had got lost.

What discussions does the Secretary of State expect to take place at the summit on support for those fleeing violence and persecution? Will she support efforts at the summit to ensure that lower and middle-income countries hosting refugees and displaced people have long-term, predictable financing, and that refugees themselves have the right to work and contribute to the society and economy to which they move?

The hon. Gentleman asks a very pertinent question. The Syria conference in London tomorrow will look at this very issue of respecting the fact that refugees are, on average, a refugee for 17 years. We need to go beyond providing traditional lifesaving support to meet such broader needs—not just jobs, as he says, but getting children into schools. The Syria conference tomorrow is a key moment not just to respond to that crisis, but, more broadly, to show a new model of responding to protracted humanitarian crises around the world. I hope we can then take that forward at the world humanitarian summit.

Given that many humanitarian crises are caused by conflict, will my right hon. Friend make sure that the UK delegation presses the United Nations at the humanitarian summit to be more effective in conflict resolution and prevention, thus solving a lot of the problems that many women and children in our world are facing?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, when I had the privilege of chairing the UN Security Council last October, the issue we talked about was the need for the international community and the Security Council itself to look at fragile countries before conflict hits and perhaps to have better early warning systems, whether on human rights or any other area, to highlight where we need to do work in advance to keep peace and stability, rather than having the costly after-effects of responding to war.

What work is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that humanitarian aid is joined up with longer-term development aid?

The world humanitarian summit is a key opportunity for us to knit these agendas together clearly. At the moment, I would describe the humanitarian system as a hospital that only has an accident and emergency department. From the start of such crises, we need not only to think ahead about how we can deal with the day-to-day challenges that refugees and people affected face, but to begin to build in long-term solutions so that they can get their lives back on track. That is why the issues of jobs in particular, getting children into schools and helping host communities—the communities that host the refugees—to cope are so important.

Where is Mr Hendry? The fella has just asked a question and has beetled out of the Chamber. We are still having exchanges on that question. I know the hon. Gentleman is a new Member, but he must learn that a Member must not ask a question and then leave. There are continuing exchanges on the matter, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman is at least as interested in the opinions of others as he is in his own. It is quite extraordinary behaviour.

May I press the Secretary of State to advocate a presumption of denial of arms exports to countries of concern as a UK innovation that could help to save lives around the world?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have one of the strictest arms control regimes in the world. We should make sure that those processes are working effectively. My Department provides leadership in ensuring that when crises hit, the UK plays a leading role in making sure that the affected people have the adequate, long-term support they need. That is important because, as the humanitarian high-level panel said, 125 million people in the world now live through humanitarian support. That is the equivalent of a country, but they do not have a Head of State at the UN speaking up for them. That is why the rest of us need to work as hard as we can to make sure not only that they are listened to but that their needs are met.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the biggest humanitarian crisis we face is the refugee crisis. The House respects the work that the Government have done on the Syria conference and investing in the camps, but what about the refugees, particularly child refugees, who are not in the camps? We heard this week that for the first time since the crisis began women and children make up the majority of the refugees who are travelling to Greece. How many child refugees who are not in the camps do the Government propose to take?

On the broader issue, the hon. Lady will know that the UK and UNICEF set up the “No Lost Generation” initiative, which has enabled half the children affected by the Syrian crisis to be in school. More broadly, on the relocation scheme we have put in place, this is the right way to help vulnerable refugees to relocate out of the region if they need to. We are working with UN agencies to identify the most vulnerable people and are talking to them about how that can be extended to unaccompanied children. The good news is that because of the hard work of agencies such as UNICEF, which are funded by the UK, the overwhelming number of children—more than 85%—who arrive in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon unaccompanied are reunited with their families.

Energy Access: Africa

Two-thirds of Africa does not have access to electricity. The Department for International Development wants to play a leading role in changing that, including through the Energy Africa campaign, which will accelerate the market for transformative household solar systems and so contribute to the global goal of universal access by 2030.

Will the Minister outline for the House what opportunity he sees for British entrepreneurs and companies to help the Department achieve its ambition of ending fuel poverty in Africa?

One of the things we are most excited about in the Energy Africa campaign is that some of the most effective leadership on the continent is coming from companies that are British, that were set up by British people or that are backed by British people, such as Azuri Technologies and M-KOPA. DFID’s commitment to ongoing research through the Mission Innovation initiative, which is worth about £100 million, will create opportunities for many British companies to be involved in that important research.

Will the Minister confirm whether discussions are taking place with African nation states to ensure that solar energy becomes a high priority in those states, so that we can assist them in providing the much-needed energy supplies to their residents?

I certainly can confirm that. I have had a number of bilateral meetings with African Ministers and have signed up seven countries to the Energy Africa campaign, which is all about accelerating their citizens’ access to household solar systems. In my experience—I have seen this in Ethiopia—such systems can transform the prospects of a family. It is a high priority for those countries and for us.

Will the Minister broaden his horizons? This country has so much expertise in our universities and our big energy and waste companies. There are also a lot of social enterprises that know about this stuff. Will he bring them together and give us the opportunity to help people in Africa to set up these things for themselves?

I am absolutely with the hon. Gentleman on this, as on so many things. There is a huge amount of expertise in this country that we can, should and want to connect to leaders in African countries. Those leaders know that making it easier for their citizens and businesses to access energy is fundamental to development. It is a top priority for us.

DFID’s inclusive growth diagnostic identifies energy access as a major blockage to inclusive growth, and the research by the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development on small businesses in developing countries identifies a lack of access to reliable electricity as one of the top 10 barriers to development. I welcome DFID’s support for household solar power, but how does it plan to expand that—for example, through clean cooking technology—and what steps is it taking to prioritise clean energy across the board in developing countries, rather than carbon-intensive and fossil fuel generation, to ensure that we do not undermine the climate change targets?

Yes, I mentioned the Energy Africa campaign, and that and the household solar system is just one piece of DFID’s offer to Africa, which totals more than £1.5 billion of investment. A contribution to the African renewable energy partnership of around 2GW will connect about 20 million people through that initiative alone. The DFID offer is broader than just the household solar system, and it encompasses a wide range of renewable technologies.

Yemen

Eighty per cent. of Yemen’s population are in need of humanitarian aid, and 7.6 million people face severe food shortages. Some 320,000 children under the age of five are severely malnourished, there are 2.5 million displaced people, and there were 8,000 civilian casualties last year. Yemen must be one of the least eligible places to be.

I thank the Minister for setting out the worrying situation in Yemen. There are other problem areas of the world, such as Syria, but Yemen is one of the world’s hidden problems. What can the Government do to enable NGOs to at least get food aid and clean water into Yemen to those who are so desperately in need?

We started by doubling our aid last year, and last week the Secretary of State announced that that aid would increase by a further £10 million to £85 million. In September, she led a side event at the UN General Assembly, at which she secured from other donors a further £85 million. We are working on the UN verification and inspection mechanism to ensure that more food and shipping get into Yemen.

That additional aid is welcome, but at the same time we are supplying arms to one side in the conflict. Is it time that this country supported an international, independent inquiry into concerns about the abuses of international humanitarian law, and in the meantime suspended all arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

We have supported the UN Human Rights Council resolution that requires the Government of Yemen to investigate those matters, with the support of the UN.

What undermines UK aid, and what makes that aid ever more necessary yet harder to deliver, is the violent and unlawful removal of the Government of Yemen. Only a peace process to restore that will end the suffering.

If we are concerned about arms exports to Saudi Arabia, which fuel the conflict in Yemen, why are the Government not pressing ahead with setting up the cross-party quadripartite committee on arms exports, so that Parliament can control that better?

As the Prime Minister pointed out, we have the most stringent and robust arms export regulations in the world. We have supported the UN Human Rights Council resolution, and we are committed to the investigation of every abuse or abrogation of international law.

The Minister will be aware that Saferworld, Oxfam, UNICEF, and Save the Children take the position that DFID’s work in Yemen is being undermined by UK arms sales. How can the Minister continue to insist that a UK-replenished Saudi arsenal being dropped on Yemen is not an impediment to development?

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), the undermining of our ability to deliver aid is a consequence of warfare. That warfare arises because of the violent removal of the lawful Government of Yemen, not because we have sold arms to the Saudis.

Female Economic Empowerment: Poorest Countries

No country can develop while half its population is locked out of that process, which is why I have placed improving the prospects for girls and women around the world at the heart of DFID’s work. I am honoured to have been appointed recently by the UN Secretary General to the new UN high-level panel on women’s economic empowerment, joining leaders of the World Bank, the IMF, the private sector and civil society to drive that agenda forward.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there needs to be a particular focus in the poorest countries on rural development and agriculture? It is women who produce most of the food and who are responsible for its security. Does she agree that if we can improve the productivity of women and empower them, we can reduce poverty and see growth in the countries that need it?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. Agriculture is a key economic sector of most of those countries. A recent McKinsey report states that the achievement of gender parity at a regional level, so that each country matches the best progress of the best country in its region, would add 11% of global GDP by 2025—a huge economic lever for all of us to pull.

The Zika virus crossed the Pacific and went from French Polynesia to Brazil in May last year. Since then, 4,000 children have been born with microcephaly. What analysis has the Secretary of State made of the risks to the poorest women and girls in the world if the virus crosses the Atlantic from Brazil to sub-Saharan Africa? Will she promise to keep a very close eye on that and use all British scientific knowledge to ensure that it does not happen?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We had an urgent question earlier this week and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), set out the research that we are now kicking off. She will also be pleased to hear that Chris Whitty, the DFID chief scientist who led our work on Ebola and helped us to shape our response to it, is currently in Brazil talking to the authorities there to ensure we manage the various risks she sets out.

Will the Secretary of State commend the work of Tearfund in Bangladesh among women in rural areas, which helps them with business start-ups and works with the Bangladesh Government to provide mobile phone banking to cut out the middle man?

My right hon. Friend mentions a number of very innovative pieces of work. I commend Tearfund for its work. Healthy economies need everybody to be able to be a part of them. That is why women’s economic empowerment matters so much.

What efforts is the Secretary of State making to ensure that other donor countries, the EU, the UN and the World Bank integrate gender into their humanitarian efforts?

The fact that we now have global goal 5 on gender equality means that, for the very first time, this is formally on the world’s to-do list. The world humanitarian summit is a key moment where we can make sure the vulnerabilities of girls and women in particular are properly pulled into the humanitarian system in terms of a response on the ground. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that two years ago the UK held a conference on this very topic to drive that forward.

Yemen

6. What support her Department has given to organisations investigating alleged breaches of human rights and international law in Yemen. (903409)

DFID funds a number of organisations in Yemen to deliver aid, some of which have reported alleged breaches of human rights and international law.

The Government have so far approved £5,600 million of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which several independent reports have connected to the bombing of civilian targets in Yemen. Given that figure and the independent reports, does the Minister believe that £75 million of aid delivered by the UK Government to Yemen represents a balanced approach to the conflict?

Actually, it is £85 million—£85 million of life-saving aid. Warfare makes it more difficult to deliver that aid and that warfare is a consequence of the violent removal of the lawful Government of Yemen—not anything the United Kingdom has done.

May I invite the Minister to reiterate that point? The greatest breach of international law in Yemen has been the removal of a legitimate Government by force. Although it is very, very easy to focus only on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and blame it, it is that initial use of force which has caused this problem and must be seen in the context of the solutions we now want to see around the negotiating table.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to his work as the Prime Minister’s special representative, and to the enormous amount he has done to bring peace and prosperity to Yemen.

Topical Questions

Two weeks ago at the World Economic Forum, alongside the UN Secretary-General and the president of the World Bank, we launched the UN’s high-level panel on women’s economic empowerment. Last week, I joined my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and Bill Gates to set out our new commitments on malaria, which will save lives and build a safer, healthier world. Finally, tomorrow, the UK will co-host the Syria conference, bringing together world leaders to resource the life-saving humanitarian support, create jobs and provide an education for millions of people and children whose lives have been torn apart by this devastating civil war. All this—women’s economic empowerment, the steady eradication of malaria, supporting Syrian refugees to stay where they want to in their home region—is firmly in the UK’s national interest.

If the refugee crisis in Syria is not to become a permanent exodus, its people must be given hope of a better future. Can my right hon. Friend say what hope she is giving for greater job opportunities in the region?

We hope that we will be able to take a big step forward by announcing agreements with both Jordan and Lebanon that, in return for their taking political steps forward on enabling Syrian refugees to work legally, we will be able to mobilise international finance to create jobs in those countries—not just for Syrian refugees, but for host communities, too. That will be in everyone’s interest.

Malawi is the poorest country on the planet, yet our 1955 tax treaty between the UK and Malawi severely limits the country’s ability to raise taxes on UK companies based there. Will the Secretary of State commit to looking at this issue of the treaty and to making it fit for the 21st century?

This issue of domestic resource mobilisation and taxes is something that we have very much ramped up in DFID’s work over the last few years. I set up a joint unit with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that sees HMRC officials working with countries to help drive their tax revenues up. We will continue that support, particularly in Africa, over the coming months.

T6. DFID does a brilliant job in Pakistan on education and health. Will the Minister meet the excellent UK charity, the Noor Foundation, which helps 1,000 people in Pakistan every year with kidney dialysis? (903439)

We would be delighted to have this group coming to visit us at DFID. As my hon. Friend sets out, we have a big programme with Pakistan, which is steadily enabling that country to make sure that its people are educated and healthy—two of the strongest foundations for aid independence in the longer term.

T2. In response to an earlier question, the Secretary of State said that she is working to protect Syrian children in refugee camps in the region, yet she is aware of the Europol report that 10,000 children of Syrian extraction registered in Europe have disappeared and are at risk of sexual and other criminal exploitation. What is she doing to protect them? (903435)

The right hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that we work directly with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on improving registration, so that we do not lose people, including children, who have arrived. Then, of course, we have done a huge amount of work with the Red Cross to make sure that people have access to some of the basics they need when they make it over to Europe. She can be proud of the work the UK is doing, but the bulk of it is, of course, in the region itself, which is overwhelmingly where people and refugees want to stay—close to home.

T8. Following the new Parliament in Myanmar, what plans do the UK Government have in place to help that country move forward and develop? (903441)

The elections are an important step towards greater democracy and provide a chance to support inclusive growth in Burma. We are supporting improvements in the business climate, including in the financial sector, and we are helping to increase agricultural productivity, to diversify livelihoods and encourage more private sector investment in infrastructure.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Having a viable economy in Gaza is one of the best ways to enable people living there to face many of their challenges effectively. In the meantime, the UK provides key support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and more directly with the Palestinian Authority. It is critical for those blockades to be removed in the end, so that we can restore a normal situation that would enable the Gaza strip to get back on its feet.

T10. Does the Secretary of State agree that, as the civil war in Syria continues, we should not only be using our aid budget to support refugees, but should be urging countries in the region to issue work permits so that refugees can rebuild their lives there rather than making the perilous journey to Europe? (903443)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People deserve the dignity of work wherever they are, and that goes for refugees. I have met people who were in the middle of studying for economics degrees and then suddenly found themselves living in camps in Lebanon or Jordan. Those people want to support themselves. If we can take a big step forward tomorrow in enabling them to work legally, we shall not only be helping countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, but helping the refugees who are currently in those countries.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Is that it? Is that the best that the Prime Minister can do? There is nothing for British pensioners and nothing for British workers, and, as both the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Treasury have confirmed, the Prime Minister’s long-term economic plan relies on more than a million new migrants entering this country before 2020. Has he got the bottle to confirm that inconvenient truth?

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what we are doing for pensioners, and that is putting a triple lock on pensions. Never again will they get the 75p rise that they got from Labour; their pensions now rise either in relation to prices or wages, or by 2.5%. I will tell the hon. Gentleman what we are doing for people who want to work hard in Britain, and that is creating the 2.3 million more jobs that have been created since I became Prime Minister. But yes, of course I believe that we will succeed more as a country if we get a good deal in Europe and stay in a reformed Europe. That will be good for jobs, good for investment, and good for growth, and that is what I am fighting for.

Q2. People in my constituency are rightly proud of their contribution to the defence of our country, whether through the skill and readiness of the Fleet Air Arm at Yeovilton or through the local high-tech industry that makes and maintains helicopters and equipment for our ships, submarines and aircraft and those who bravely serve in them. At a time of increasing security challenges and responsibilities and a worrying lack of commitment to defence in many European countries, I welcome the leadership that the Government have shown in committing themselves to spending 2% of GDP on defence. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss my ideas for building on our local capabilities? (903420)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Yeovil makes a huge contribution to the defence of our country, not least through AgustaWestland, which is a great British business. We are committed to spending £178 billion on defence equipment over the next decade, which we are only able to do because we have a strong economy. We have also committed ourselves to that 2%, and we will make sure that the money is well spent so that we have the right equipment for our brave armed forces.

Tomorrow is world cancer day. Cancer is a disease that almost every family in the country has been affected by in one way or another: 2.5 million people in the country have cancer, and Members on both sides of the House have received cancer treatment or are receiving it at the present time. A thousand people a day are diagnosed with cancer, and they go through a trauma as soon as they are diagnosed. In the last year, however, there has been a 36% increase in the number of people waiting more than six weeks for vital diagnostic tests. Can the Prime Minister do something to bring that down?

First, I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the fight against cancer is one of the great fights of our time, and it is one that we are determined to win. On treating cancer in our country, we are putting an extra £19 billion into our NHS, and specifically—he is absolutely right to say that everyone in the House and every family in the country will know someone affected by cancer—we are treating more patients. I will give him the figures. Compared with 2010, over 645,000 more patients with suspected cancers have been seen, which is a 71% increase, and almost 40,000 more patients have been treated for cancer, which is an increase of 17%. We have more doctors, more nurses and more cancer specialists, but we need to continue with the fight against cancer.

Early diagnosis is absolutely essential to dealing with cancer, as we all know from personal experience. The Government’s independent cancer taskforce reported last year:

“We currently have a serious shortage of radiologists in England”.

We need more of them, so will the Prime Minister explain why we are cutting by 5% the number of training places available for therapeutic radiographers?

We need more radiologists, and we are getting them, because we are putting more money into the NHS. He is absolutely right, however, that waiting times—[Interruption.] A minute ago the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) was shouting about waiting times, so I will answer the question about waiting times. There are three key targets on waiting times. The first is that, on 93% of occasions, people should be seen by a specialist within two weeks of an urgent GP referral; the figure is currently 94.7%. We also need to make sure that the first treatment comes within 31 days of diagnosis—that is extremely important—and on that there is a 96% standard; we are meeting that by 97.7%. I accept, however, on the first treatment being within 62 days, the standard is 85%, but we are at 83.5%, so we need to improve our performance.

On training, we are increasing the number of training places in our NHS. We discussed nurses last week. We are opening up nurse training by training an extra 10,000 nurses, but the crucial point is that the money is in our NHS—£19 billion more—because we have a strong economy. That money would never be there if we followed the right hon. Gentleman’s crazy economic plans.

The Prime Minister did not answer my specific question about therapeutic radiographers. Without an improvement in the numbers available, there will be a problem over treatment. That must be obvious to absolutely everybody.

The cancer taskforce also asked for

“a radical upgrade in prevention and public health”.

Programmes such as on stopping smoking and anti-obesity are essential to stop the spread of cancer and to help people live better lives so they do not develop cancer at all. If we cut £200 million from the public health budget, as the Prime Minister proposes, surely it will lead to an increase in cancer, with all the trauma that goes with it and a greater cost to the rest of the community. Will he explain why he is making this cut?

First, there are actually 1,800 more diagnostic radiographers than when I became Prime Minister in 2010. That is a 15% increase. The reason for the increase is that we said we would put more money into the NHS—a real-terms increase—which we were told by the then shadow Health Secretary was irresponsible. We ignored Labour, and we put money into the health service, and as a result, there has been a 15% increase in the number of diagnostic radiographers.

On the rest of the cancer plan, the money is being invested, but there is a key difference between England and Wales—the right hon. Gentleman can help with this—which is that there is a Labour Government in Wales. Whereas we have a cancer drugs fund, Wales does not. He needs to sort that out with that Labour Administration. As for public health, under this Government, real advances have been made, including with smoking rules for the backs of cars and plain-paper packaging and ring-fencing public health budgets—all done under the Conservatives, not Labour.

The Prime Minister is responsible for the health service in England—Wales is a devolved matter—but he must be aware that cancer survival rates are improving better in Wales than in any other part of the UK.

My question was about the cuts in public health budgets and the effect on cancer care. Will the Prime Minister tell us the last time the NHS target for starting cancer treatment within the 62 days required was actually met?

As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman, of the three big targets, we are meeting the specialist within two weeks target and we are meeting the target for the first treatment within 31 days of diagnosis. We are currently falling short of the 62 days target, something I said in the answer to question two, but he has not got round to it until question five. I think the cogs need to turn a little faster.

The right hon. Gentleman cannot wash his hands of the situation in Wales. Labour runs Wales, and what has Labour done in Wales? Labour has cut the NHS in Wales. What Labour’s great plan is is now emerging: it wants to cut the NHS in Wales and put up income tax on hard-working people in Scotland. That is right. What are Labour going to do to radiographers in Scotland? Put up their taxes. What are they going to do nurses in Scotland? Put up their taxes. What are they going to do to dentists in Scotland? Put up their taxes. We now know Labour’s plan: higher taxes for more welfare. They have learned nothing in the last decade.

The last time the two-month target was met was 19 months ago. The Prime Minister must be aware of that, and I am pleased if he is taking action to make sure that does not continue or get any worse.

I want to turn to another issue that affects cancer patients: the recently deleted provisions in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill that would have taken £30 per week from employment and support allowance claimants in the work-related activity group. Martin contacted me this week. He says—[Interruption.] Okay, it is very funny for many Conservative Members, but it is not funny for Martin. Martin says he has a close friend who has breast cancer who

“is obviously too unwell to work and cuts will put her into hardship at a time when she is most vulnerable.”

There are 3,200 people with cancer hit by this cut to ESA. Will the Prime Minister now confirm that when that matter returns to the Commons, he will ensure the Lords position is upheld and people like her do not suffer the cut he wanted to make in the first place?

Let me explain the situation to the right hon. Gentleman and the House. As everybody knows, there are two sorts of employment and support allowance: there is the work-related activity group who are able to train for some work, and then there is the support group who go on getting employment and support allowance indefinitely. That is the situation, and what we have said is that in future the work-related activity group should be paid at the same rate as jobseekers allowance, but that is for future claimants, not existing claimants, who continue to be paid at the same rate. Of course if someone has cancer and cannot work they should be in the support group. We have had this issue looked at again and again, and if someone cannot work they go on getting the welfare payments they need. That is what a compassionate Conservative Government do.

But I have to come back to the right hon. Gentleman because he cannot wash his hands of the situation in Wales. Hip operations in England have 75 day waiting times on average; in Wales it is 197 days. Diagnosis of pneumonia takes two weeks longer, and treatment of cataracts and hernias and heart operations take two months longer than in England. Labour are running Wales; he is responsible for Labour. Pick up the phone, tell them to stop cutting our NHS.

It is very interesting that the Prime Minister did not answer the question I put, which is whether he will proceed with a cut in ESA to 3,200 people with cancer at the present time. I hope he thinks seriously about this and does not proceed with this proposal. He will find that Macmillan Cancer Support, Rethink Mental Illness and Parkinson’s UK are all united in opposing this cut because of the effect it will have on people with a range of serious conditions. The Prime Minister used to say that “those with the broadest shoulders should bear a greater load”. Can it be right that cancer patients and those with disabilities on £102 per week really are those with the broadest shoulders who should bear this cut? Please Prime Minister, think again and don’t try and reverse the decision of the House of Lords on this important matter.

The people with the broadest shoulders are the highest earners in this country, and they are paying a higher share of tax than they ever did under Labour. That money is paying for our NHS and for our welfare system. I answered the right hon. Gentleman’s question very directly: if you are an existing claimant on employment and support allowance, your welfare is not changing, but in future, we should help those people who are able to get back to work to do so. That is what a compassionate country does, but it is quite clear what Labour’s policy is: cut the NHS in Wales and put up taxes in Scotland to pay for more welfare. That is not the approach that this country needs.

Q3. My right hon. Friend will of course know that the west country is becoming ever more the envy and the engine room of the rest of the country, with dozens of companies moving from the dark recesses of London to the bright sunlight of the west, so will he keep supporting what people are now calling Somerset’s silicon gorge by maintaining investment in our roads, our rail and of course our digital infrastructure? (903421)

I am certainly keen to support silicon gorge. For a moment, I thought my hon. Friend had said “silicon George”; I was a bit worried about that. It is absolutely essential that we have a balanced economy, and that means a strong economy in the west of our country as well as in the south and the north. We are investing in vital transport infrastructure, not least the vital roads to the west country, and improving rail links as well, as I saw for myself yesterday in Chippenham. We also need to ensure that broadband roll-out is really effective across the country, and there needs to be a big focus on getting to that last 10% of homes in so many rural areas. It is absolutely crucial to make sure that they are not left out.

The timing of the forthcoming European Union referendum is extremely important. Today, the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have jointly called for a commitment by the UK Government not to hold the EU referendum in June as it would clash with elections to the devolved legislatures. Will the Prime Minister give that commitment today?

First, there is no agreement and so no date has yet been fixed for the referendum. We have discussed this a lot in this House of Commons and we legislated to ensure that we would not hold the referendum at the same time as the Scottish or Welsh elections. The former First Minister of Scotland—the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), who is not in his place today—has said that it would be wrong to hold the referendum within six weeks of those elections, and I can guarantee that that will not happen.

The First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have written today saying that they believe that holding a referendum in June

“risks confusing issues when clarity is required”

and they call on the Prime Minister to

“defer the EU referendum at least until later in the year”.

Why will the Prime Minister not respect the electorates and the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and give that commitment today?

First, I do respect the former First Minister of Scotland, who said that six weeks was what was necessary. I also respect the electorates of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the basis that I think people are perfectly capable of making up their minds in a local election, a Scottish parliamentary election or a Welsh Assembly election and then, a period of some weeks afterwards, making up their minds all over again on the vital question of the European Union. So, no date has been fixed, and there must be a six-week gap. Frankly, I think that the right hon. Gentleman is looking for something to complain about. This House has voted for a referendum, and it would be pretty odd if, having voted for a referendum, we then spent ages debating about not having one.

Q4. The Prime Minister will be alarmed to hear that a shop in Gillingham selling illicit tobacco was making £25,000—[Interruption.] (903422)

Order. There is excessive chuntering from a sedentary position from a number of Scottish National party Members, who wanted an orderly hearing for their leader. The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) is entitled to be heard, and I appeal to him to start his question again. Let’s hear it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister will be alarmed to hear that a shop in Gillingham selling illicit tobacco was making £25,000 a week, destroying the local economy and damaging people’s health. Nationally, this trade is costing the economy £2 billion a year. Will the Government look at increasing the statutory maximum penalty for this offence to bring it in line with that of supplying class C drugs?

I will certainly look at the issue my hon. Friend raises. As far as I can see, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, working very closely with Border Force, has been highly effective at reducing this tax gap of people selling illegal tobacco and has closed off about £1.3 billion of the tax gap since 2000. They do have a wide range of sanctions to deal with illicit sales, including seizure, penalties and criminal prosecutions—they prosecuted almost 800 different people in the past two years. So I think the powers are there, but I will have a check to see whether more is needed.

Q6. My constituent works for the Department for Work and Pensions and he tells me that the Government are correct when they deny that staff have targets set for sanctioning benefits—they are not called “targets”; they are called “aspirations”. With the roll-out of in-work benefit sanctions, how many of the Prime Minister’s own low-paid DWP colleagues does he think my constituent should aspire to sanction this year? (903424)

What I say to the hon. Lady is that sanctions in a benefits system are important. We want a benefits system that is there for people who cannot find a job and need support, but it not should not be a lifestyle choice and if people can work, they should work. That is why we have a sanctions system, and I believe that the sanctions system is fairly applied.

Q5. May I share my right hon. Friend’s disappointment that despite all his hard work, the European Union is forcing him to abandon our manifesto pledge to change the benefits system for migrants? Will he confirm that, sadly, the only way in which we are going to be able to regain control over our own borders is by leaving the European Union? (903423)

I have great respect for my hon. Friend, but we do not agree on this one. We said in our manifesto that anyone coming to Britain from the EU searching for work should not get unemployment benefit, and we have fulfilled that promise. We said that if within six months they do not have a job, they should go home—we have fulfilled that promise. We said that people should not be able to come here and send British child benefit back to their families, and we have secured that they will only get child benefit at a local rate. And we said no more “something for nothing”; the idea that someone could come here and claim immediately from our in-work benefits system without paying in was not right. I said we would secure a four-year gap and we have. People said that would be impossible, but that is what we have put in place. It is a negotiation, but these are good proposals that I think will have the backing of the British people, because they mean no more something for nothing, and that is a vital value for Britain.

Q8. More than 2,500 people are directly employed by the ceramics industry in Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove. These and tens of thousands of other British manufacturing jobs are at risk if China is granted market economy status. The Prime Minister is very happy to sell off the family silver, but can he guarantee that he will not sell off the family crockery? (903426)

We want to support industry in the potteries, and that is why we are helping manufacturing with research and development tax credits and with apprenticeship schemes; we are helping with a whole range of measures, not least the energy-intensive industry measures, which are very important for the constituency the hon. Lady represents. That is what we want to see. The issue with market economy status is a separate one, as I have said before. Even if China gets that status, it cannot dump steel products or other things into European markets, and it can be fined. What we should be doing is making sure that we are driving open markets for us to sell to China. The Chinese are the ones with a massive growth in the middle class taking place—hundreds of millions of people are joining that—and there are many great products made in Stoke that should be sold in China.

Q7. Isle of Wight Council can balance the books this year but fears it will be unable to do so next year. Would my right hon. Friend confirm the Government’s willingness to work with the council in the coming months to help it to access existing sources of finance or find new ways to address the island’s unique circumstances? (903425)

We are very happy to work with the authorities on the Isle of Wight. I think that I am right in saying that the spending power will increase slightly in the next year. As it is a relatively flat cash settlement overall over the five-year period, this local government settlement allows councils to use their reserves and also to sell unwanted property and use the money directly to provide services to bridge that period. Although I am happy to look at the circumstances of the Isle of Wight, I do believe that it is a fair settlement.

Q9. The Prime Minister has told us today that more money is going into the NHS, but let me tell him that my local hospital trust is spending £1.5 million a week on interest payments alone to Innisfree for its private finance initiative deal. [Interruption.] Wait for it. The Prime Minister eventually saw sense about the need to deal with the damage that high-cost credit was doing to individuals, but when will he deal with these legal loan sharks of the public sector? (903427)

Sometimes it takes a long time to unwind the damage done by a Labour Government. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. One of the first things that we did in Government was to launch a review of Labour’s PFI and begin an initiative to extract savings and give better value for money for all of the projects, including Barts. In her own health economy, there are more GPs in the NHS, and next year, because we are putting more money into the NHS, the NHS Waltham Forest clinical commissioning group will get a cash increase of 3.7%.

Q10. A lone parent in my constituency has described as “appalling” her experience of the Child Maintenance Group. She talked of a lack of communication, being passed from pillar to post, a failure to act on evidence and not progressing with enforcement. Will the Prime Minister arrange for the Secretary of State to meet my constituents to discuss the particular issues around the enforcement of child maintenance when non-resident parents are gaming the system and depriving children of the support to which they are entitled? (903428)

I am happy to help arrange that meeting. I know that many of us in our own constituency surgeries hear about the behaviour of the non-resident parent and how they give everyone the runaround and do not fulfil their duties by helping to pay for the children for whom they are responsible. As she knows, we introduced a new statutory child maintenance service for parents who are unable to make a family-based arrangement. It should be bringing speedier processing of applications, simpler calculations and faster enforcement action, but I will ensure that she has the meeting that she needs to straighten out that case.

Will the Prime Minister comment on recent events in Northern Ireland regarding the investigations into Stakeknife, the alleged informer? Will he ensure that there are equal investigations into the Enniskillen bomb, the Teebane bomb and other major atrocities by terrorist organisations?

I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says. We must ensure that we look at all of these things in a fair and reasonable way, and perhaps I will write to him about the issue.

Q11. A total of £38 billion a year is currently spent on pensions tax relief, with three quarters of that going to higher-rate taxpayers who need it the least. Does the Prime Minister agree that it will be a huge boost to social justice in this country if pensions tax relief was reformed to a single flat rate, which will benefit millions of hard-working Britons? (903429)

I know that my hon. Friend speaks on this issue with considerable expertise because of the career that he had before coming to this House, and that he brings a lot of knowledge about this sector. He is right that there are great costs related to pension tax relief, which is why the Chancellor published a consultation last summer to see whether the system should be reformed. As the saying goes, taxes are a matter for the Chancellor and his Budget.

I welcome the Government’s announcement last week, as far as it went, of further support for child refugees. A nine-year-old girl who lives in my constituency has recently asked me what we are doing to help refugee children. Of course what a child refugee needs the most is a home. When will we offer a home to 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe?

First of all, let me tell the hon. Lady what we have done so far. Obviously, she knows about the 20,000 relocation scheme, under which we got 1,000 people in by Christmas, including many vulnerable children. That is going well. Fewer people are aware of the fact that, through our normal asylum processes, we took around 2,500 unaccompanied children last year. Kent social services are looking after about 1,000 children and facing great pressures. Another point that people do not always recognise is that if unaccompanied children in Europe claim asylum in the country they are in, and if they have direct family in Britain, under the Dublin regulations they can come to Britain. We think that is the right approach—taking some more people from the region, but being very cautious because all the evidence shows that even an orphan child may well have some broader family that they are connected to and it is better to keep the child with them.

Q12. Given the security threats faced by this country, whose policies are most dangerous—those in Scotland who want to scrap our nuclear deterrent completely, or those in the Labour party who want to keep Trident submarines without nuclear missiles? (903430)

It is hard to choose between the wrong or the bizarre. You can take your pick. Labour’s latest plan is to use Trident submarines to transport military personnel around the world. It is the most expensive Uber service that anyone has ever thought of. You do wonder what on earth they will think of next.

The Prime Minister may be aware of the case of my constituent, Lisa Brown, whose family were notified by Spanish police authorities on 10 November 2015 that she was being treated as a missing person, though she could have been missing since 6 November. Lisa’s mother Catherine, her sister Helen and brother Craig have visited Spain several times since and have met Spanish authorities and UK consular staff. Although the Spanish authorities state that they are actively working on this case, there have been various pieces of misinformation in the Spanish media which we know not to have been helpful. May I call upon the Prime Minister to seek assurances on behalf of Lisa’s family from the Spanish authorities here in London and in Madrid, as well as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that everything possible is being done to ensure that Lisa’s family can get the answers they so desperately need?

I will certainly look into this case and, after the hon. Gentleman has raised it so clearly, make sure that the Europe Minister meets him to try to make sure everything possible is done for Lisa’s family.

Q13. Further to the question from the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), Sherwood Forest Hospitals Trust is also wrestling with a disastrous PFI signed under the Labour Government. Luckily, there is light at the end of the tunnel as Nottingham and Derby trusts look to take over Sherwood Forest hospitals, but can the Prime Minister assist them in any way in solving this enormous mess left by the Labour Government? (903431)

PFI contracts are extremely difficult to solve because, of course, they were entered into and signed. My understanding is that Monitor and the Care Quality Commission are clear that Sherwood needs a long-term partnership, and I understand that, as my hon. Friend says, the trust plans to announce its preferred partner in mid-February. That, hopefully, will help it to support the services we need, and but I will look carefully, and make sure the Health Secretary looks carefully, at the suggestion my hon. Friend makes.

Following the shocking official report into the murder here in London of Alexander Litvinenko, when will the Prime Minister and his Chancellor take some meaningful action to tackle the dirty Russian money and property here in London that helps to sustain the Putin regime?

The report was shocking, although as the Home Secretary said at the time, this confirmed what the Labour Government understood to have happened. None the less, when one reads the report all over again, what happened is deeply shocking. That is why we have taken action in the form of asset freezes and the other measures described by the Home Secretary. On the problem of so-called hot money coming into London, I made a speech recently explaining that we are doing more than other countries in respect of transparency and beneficial ownership—who owns what in terms of companies, and we are going to do the same with property. That is one of the best ways not just to make sure that we do not have illegal Russian money, but to make sure that corrupt money stolen from African taxpayers and other continents does not end up in London.

Q14. When I first came to this House, I spoke of the great stain upon this nation when it comes to our care of our armed forces veterans and the need to do our duty towards those who have done our bidding. Here is a sentence from an email I received at the weekend: “I have not had any letter or any warning. I was told after al-Sweady that was it and not to think about it anymore, but now I dread the post every day.” My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already intervened to tighten up the historical allegations process, and for that I think him, but will he pledge to look even more closely at the support we are giving, so that what we want to deliver and what is actually delivered are the same thing? (903432)

I am very happy to look at that specifically. On al-Sweady, I have been very clear about what went wrong and how unacceptable it was. Let me repeat that we will continue to provide our fullest support to those going through investigations, including by providing legal advice. Also, we will crack down on any legal firm that we find has abused the system. Because we now have the military covenant written into law, and a covenant group that meets under the excellent chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), we have an opportunity not only to raise these issues, but to try properly to tackle them in a systematic way.

The dumping of Chinese steel is crippling the British steel industry. The granting of market economy status to China would dramatically reduce the scope for taking anti-dumping measures. Why, then, is the Prime Minister supporting market economy status for China? Is it because he puts cosying up to Beijing ahead of protecting British industry?

I put helping British industry first. That is why we have cut taxes for British industry. That is why we are cutting energy bills for British industry, helping with apprenticeships, busting open markets abroad so that British industries can succeed and, crucially for the steel industry, why we are investing in our infrastructure and trying to ensure that there is a real forward order book for British steel. I think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong and that we should take these two issues separately. If there is illegal dumping, we will support action in the European Union, and that can be done in spite of the status that a country has; we have actually put those sorts of burdens on America before today. I do not think it is right to connect the two issues in the way he does.

Q15. Mental health issues take many forms. Services for those suffering from eating disorders are often overlooked, yet they cause intolerable distress and suffering. As health devolution in Manchester gathers pace, does the Prime Minister agree that it is an important opportunity to secure better mental health service provision, particularly for children and young adults in Cheadle? (903433)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I see no reason why the devolution of resources to Greater Manchester under this landmark deal will disadvantage mental health. If anything, it will probably lead to even greater priority being given to mental health, as people can see the connections between mental health and holding back opportunity for so many people. We are investing more in children’s mental health and giving greater focus, particularly on eating disorders, as tragically we are seeing a real growth in this problem. The money is there and the devolution should help.