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Volume 605: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2016

I know the whole House has been deeply saddened by the death of Harry Harpham last week from cancer. After a distinguished career as a miner, an adviser to David Blunkett and a Sheffield councillor, he was returned to this place last May, succeeding David Blunkett himself. Although he was in this place only a short time, he quickly became a popular MP, recognised for his commitment to his constituents and his beliefs. It is a measure of the man that he continued to carry out his work as an MP throughout his treatment. We offer his wife Gill and his five children our profound condolences. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

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.

First, may I associate myself, alongside colleagues, with the sentiments expressed at the sad loss of the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough? He came to this House with an excellent record in local government and will be greatly missed. I am sure the whole House sends our condolences to his family at this sad time.

Housing is the No. 1 issue in my constituency—a workable local plan that looks after our green spaces while offering that pure Conservative value, the right to buy. Does the Prime Minister agree that our Help to Buy ISAs, one of which is currently being taken out every 30 seconds, is the right way to promote savings and encourage home ownership?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. One of the most difficult things for young people is to get that deposit together for their first flat or their first house. That is where Help to Buy ISAs, where we match some of the money they put in, can make such a difference. Some 250,000 first-time buyers have opened a Help to Buy ISA, so under this Government we have seen 40,000 people exercise the right to buy their council house. Now we are extending that to all housing association tenants, and we have seen 130,000 people with Help to Buy getting their first flat or house. There is more to do—mostly, building houses—but helping people with their deposits is vital for our country.

I join the Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) in paying tribute to Harry Harpham, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, a former miner, who passed away last week. Just a short time ago, Harry used his last question here to ask the Prime Minister about Sheffield Forgemasters and the steel industry. I hope the Prime Minister will reflect on his diligence in representing that industry and his constituency.

Yesterday, I had a chance to have a very nice conversation with Harry’s widow, Gill, and his family. I asked them to say how they would like to remember Harry. She gave me this message, which I will read out:

“We have admired the bravery and courage he showed in his life which was formed during the miners’ strike, and carried him forward for the rest of his life”.

I am sure the whole House and many in the much wider community will remember Harry as a decent, honourable man absolutely dedicated to his community and his constituents. We are very sad at his passing.

Also following the hon. Member for Eastleigh, I have a question on housing. I have an email from Rosie. She is in her 20s—[Interruption.] Unfortunately, the Rosie who has written to me does not have the same good housing that the Chief Whip of our party does, but aspiration springs eternal. The Rosie who has written to me is in her 20s, and she says:

“I work incredibly hard at my job, yet I am still living at home with my parents”.

The lack of housing options is forcing her to consider moving—even leaving the country. She asks the Prime Minister what action he is going to take to help young people and families suffering from unrealistic house prices and uncapped rents to get somewhere safe and secure to live.

First, let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that when you get a letter from the Chief Whip, that normally spells trouble. What I would say to Rosie—the Rosie who wrote to him—is we want to do everything we can to help young people get on the housing ladder. That is why we have got these help-to-save ISAs, and I hope she is looking at that. We are cutting Rosie’s taxes, so this year she will be able to earn £11,000 before she starts paying any taxes. If Rosie is a tenant in a housing association home, she will be able to buy that home, because we are introducing and extending the right to buy. And, of course, she will have the opportunity to register for Help to Buy, which gives people the chance to have a smaller deposit on owning their own home. If Rosie is not earning that much money, but wants to be a homeowner, shared ownership can make a real difference. In some parts of the country, you will only need a deposit of some £1,000 or £2,000 to begin the process of becoming a homeowner. But I recognise, in this Parliament, building more houses, following those schemes, we have got to deliver for Rosie.

I am very pleased that the Prime Minister wants to help deliver decent housing for Rosie. She lives and works in London, and as the Prime Minister knows, London is very, very expensive. He talks about people getting on the housing ladder, but the reality is that home ownership has fallen under his Government by 200,000—it actually rose by 1 million under the last Labour Government. His record is one, actually, of some years of failure on housing. He said that council homes sold under the right to buy would be replaced like for like. Can the Prime Minister tell us how that policy is panning out?

First, let me start with what happened under Labour with right-to-buy sales. What happened was one council home was built for every 170 council homes they sold. That is the record. We have said that we will make sure that two homes are built for every council home in London that is sold. That is because my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) insisted on that in an amendment to the housing Bill. Now, these take some years to build, but they will be built, or the money comes back to the Treasury.

The Prime Minister ought to be aware that just one home has been built for every eight that have been sold under his Government. People are increasingly finding it very difficult to find anywhere to live. The Chancellor’s crude cuts in housing benefits for those in supported housing are putting at risk hundreds of thousands of elderly people, people with mental health conditions, war veterans, and women fleeing domestic violence who need support. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what estimate housing providers have made of the impact of this policy on supported housing?

First, we are going to increase housing supply in the social sector through an £8 billion housing budget during this Parliament that is going to build 400,000 affordable homes. When it comes to our reforms of housing benefit, yes, we have cut housing benefit because it was completely out of control when we came into government. There were families in London who were getting £100,000 of housing benefit per family. Think how many people—think how many Rosies—were going to work, working hard every day, just to provide that housing benefit for one family. We support supported housing schemes, and we will look very carefully to make sure they can work well in the future, but I make no apology for the fact that in this Parliament we are cutting social rents, so that the Rosies who are living in social houses and going out to work will have lower rents under this Government.

I am pleased the Prime Minister finally got on to the question of supported housing. Housing providers estimate that nearly half of all supported housing schemes will close. One in four providers is set to close all their provision. This is a very serious crisis. I assume the Prime Minister is not content to see the elderly, people with mental health conditions and others with nowhere to live, so can he assure the House now that the warm words he has just given on supported housing will be matched by action, and that he will stop this cut, which will destroy the supported housing sector?

We will continue to support the supported housing sector. The report that the right hon. Gentleman quotes from was an opinion poll with an extremely leading question, if he actually looks at what he was looking at. The changes that we are making are reducing social rents by 1% every year for four years. That is good news for people who go out to work, who work hard and who would like to pay less rent. That goes with the lower taxes that they will be paying and the more childcare they will be getting. The other change that we are making, which does not actually come into force until 2018, is to make sure that we are not paying housing benefit to social tenants way above what we would pay to private sector tenants. The simple point is this, and this is where I think Labour has got to focus: every penny you spend on housing subsidy is money you cannot spend on building houses. So let us take this right back to Rosie, in the beginning. She wants a country where we build homes. She wants a country where you can buy a home. She wants a country with a strong economy, so you can afford to buy a home. All those things we are delivering, and you will not deliver them if you go on spending more and more money on subsidised housing and housing benefit. One day Labour has got to realise that welfare bills have to be brought under control.

Shelter estimates that the measures in the housing Bill will lose 180,000 affordable homes over the next four years. The Prime Minister is actually overseeing a very damaging housing crisis. It is pricing out people from buying and it is not providing enough social housing. Therefore, many people are forced to rely on the private rented sector. Those on the Benches behind him recently voted against an amendment put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) for homes to be fit for human habitation. Labour invested £22 billion in government in bringing social homes up to the decent homes standard. There are now 11 million people in this country who are private renters. Does the Prime Minister know how many of those homes do not meet the decent homes standard?

In the last five years, we built more council houses than the previous Labour Government built in 13 years. Where was the right hon. Gentleman when that was going on? Thirteen years, and an absolutely hopeless record on housing. What we are doing is this: an £8 billion housing budget that will provide 400,000 new affordable homes, a target to build a million homes during this Parliament, getting housing benefit down so we can spend money on housing, and having a strong economy that can support the housing we need.

I was asking the Prime Minister how many of the 11 million renters are living in homes that do not meet the decent homes standard and are, therefore, substandard. I will help him. One third of homes in the private rented sector do not meet the decent homes standard. Shelter has found that six out of 10 renters have to deal with issues such as damp, mould and leaking rooves and windows. It is simply not good enough.

Millions are struggling to get the home that they deserve. More families are slipping into temporary accommodation. The elderly are threatened with eviction. Homelessness is rising. Too few homes are being built. Social housing is under pressure. Families are being forced into low-standard, overpriced private rented accommodation. Young people are unable to move out of the family home and start their own lives. When is the Prime Minister going to realise there is a housing crisis in Britain? His Government need to address it now so that this dreadful situation does not continue.

Let me just take one of the figures that the right hon. Gentleman mentions. Homelessness today is less than half what it was at its peak under the last Labour Government. There is a simple point here. You can only invest in new houses, you can only restore existing houses, you can only build new houses and you can only support people into those houses if you have got a strong economy. We inherited mass unemployment, an economy that had completely collapsed and a banking crisis. Now we have got zero inflation, wages growing, unemployment at 5%, an economy growing and people able, for the first time, to look to their future and see that they can buy and own a house in our country.

Q2. Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman, was 19 years old when Daesh came to her village. They killed most of her family, they tortured her, they raped her and they made her their slave. Nadia’s story is the same as those of thousands of Yazidi women, except that thousands of Yazidi women are still held in captivity and Nadia managed to escape. In fact, she is in the Public Gallery today. Will the Prime Minister join me in acknowledging Nadia’s resilience and her bravery—the essential qualities that have allowed her to triumph over Daesh—and will he do everything in his power to redouble his efforts to support Yazidi women and to eradicate Daesh? (903570)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue in such a way. Let me welcome Nadia Murad, who is here with us today. She and the Yazidi community have suffered appallingly at the hands of this murderous, brutal, fascist organisation in Syria and in Iraq. We must do everything we can to defeat Daesh and its violent ideology. We are playing a leading role in this global coalition. In Iraq, where so many Yazidis have suffered, Daesh has lost over 40% of the territory that it once controlled. We are making progress, but, as I said at the time of the debate about Syria, this is going to take a long time. Building up Iraqi security forces, working with Syrian opposition forces, building the capacity of Governments in both countries to drive this evil organisation out of the middle east—however long it takes, we must stick at it.

We on the SNP Benches join in the condolences expressed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in relation to Harry Harpham, and we pass on our best wishes to his family at this sad and difficult time.

The Prime Minister made a vow, and his party signed an agreement, that there would be no detriment to Scotland with new devolution arrangements. Why is the UK Treasury proposing plans that may be detrimental to Scotland to the tune of £3 billion?

We accept the Smith principles of “no detriment”. There are two principles: first, no detriment to Scotland, quite rightly, at the time when the transfer is made in terms of Scotland having these new tax-raising powers; and then, no detriment to Scottish taxpayers, but also to the rest of the United Kingdom taxpayers, whom we have to bear in mind as we take into account this very important negotiation.

I have had good conversations with the First Minister, and negotiations are under way. I want us successfully to complete this very important piece of devolution in a fair and reasonable way, and these negotiations should continue. But let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that if we had had full fiscal devolution—with oil revenues having collapsed by 94%—the right hon. Gentleman and his party would be just weeks away from a financial calamity for Scotland.

In the context of the referendums, whether in Scotland or across the UK on EU membership, do not voters have a right to know that what is promised by the UK Government can be trusted and will be delivered in full? Will the Prime Minister tell the Treasury that time is running out on delivering a fair fiscal framework, and that it must agree a deal that is both fair to the people of Scotland and fair to the rest of the United Kingdom?

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman everything that has been committed to by this Government will be delivered. We committed to this huge act of devolution to Scotland, and we have delivered it—we committed to the Scotland Bill, and we are well on the way to delivering it—with all the things we said we would, including those vital Smith principles.

There is an ongoing negotiation to reach a fair settlement, and I would say to the Scottish First Minister and the Scottish Finance Minister that they have to recognise there must be fairness across the rest of the United Kingdom too. But with good will, I can tell you that no one is keener on agreement than me. I want the Scottish National party, here and in Holyrood, to have to start making decisions—which taxes are you going to raise, what are you going to do with benefits? I want to get rid of, frankly, this grievance agenda and let you get on with a governing agenda, and then we can see what you are made of.

Q3. The skills shortage in engineering in Wiltshire is a particular problem. It is threatening and undermining all the work we have done in job creation and also in supporting businesses. It is, quite simply, a ticking time bomb. May I ask the Prime Minister what more he can do to remove the stigma, misunderstanding and problems associated with STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects and STEM careers? (903571)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. There are special circumstances in Wiltshire, because it has the enormous success of Dyson, which is hiring engineers and skilled mathematicians and scientists from every university in the country, and long may that continue. What we will do is help by training 3 million apprentices in this Parliament, and we are giving special help to teachers of STEM subjects and encouraging them into teaching. I think there is a lot that business and industry can do to help us in this by going into schools and talking about what these modern engineering careers are all about—how much fulfilment people can get from these careers—to encourage people to change the culture when it comes to pursuing these careers.

Q4. Young people afraid of losing their homes, women denied the pensions that they were expecting and, increasingly, the needy left exposed without the social care they need to live a decent life: when will the Prime Minister address these scandals? (903572)

What we are doing for pensioners is putting in place the triple lock so that every pensioner knows there can never be another shameful 75p increase in the pension that we saw under Labour. They know that, every year, it will increase either by wages, prices or 2.5%, and that is why the pension is so much higher than when I became Prime Minister. Of course we need to make sure there is a fair settlement for local government, too—we will be hearing more about that later today—but the ability of local councils to raise special council tax for social care will help an area where there is great pressure.

Q5. The Spitfire was a crucial element in our winning the battle of Britain 75 years ago and keeping our country free from tyranny. However, there are some who fear that our independent nuclear deterrent could be as obsolete as the Spitfire. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister assure the House and the country that that is not the case? (903573)

It takes quite a talent for a shadow Defence Secretary to insult Spitfire pilots and our brave submariners all in one go. Another week, another completely ludicrous Labour position on defence. The last word should go to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon)—thank you Twitter for this one—who, as she came out of the parliamentary Labour party meeting, tweeted:

“Oh dear oh dear omg oh dear oh dear need to go rest in a darkened room”.

I expect that she will find the rest of her party there with her.

Q7. At the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee today, the Business Secretary confirmed that the Government will not support the European Commission in raising tariffs on dumped steel from countries such as China. Why will the UK Government not stand up for UK steel? (903575)

We have repeatedly stood up for UK steel, including by supporting anti-dumping measures in the EU, but that is not enough. We need to get behind public procurement for steel, and that is what we are doing. We need to get behind reducing energy bills for steel, and that is what we are doing. We need to support communities, like the hon. Gentleman’s, that have seen job losses, and that is exactly what we are doing. We recognise what a vital part of Britain’s industrial base the steel industry is, and that is why we are backing it.

Q6. Julian Assange is accused of rape and is on the run. Despite that, a United Nations panel that nobody has ever heard of declared last week that he has been “arbitrarily detained” and is somehow deserving of compensation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that was a nonsensical decision, that Mr Assange should hand himself over to the Swedish prosecutors and that if anyone is deserving of compensation, it is the British taxpayer, who has had to pay £12 million to police his Ecuadorian hideout? (903574)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was a ridiculous decision. This is a man with an outstanding allegation of rape against him. He barricaded himself in the Ecuadorian embassy, yet claims that he was arbitrarily detained. The only person who detained him was himself. What he should do is come out of the embassy and face the arrest warrant against him. He is being asked to stand trial in Sweden—a country with a fair reputation for justice. He should bring to an end this whole sorry saga.

Q8. Women’s aid groups, including my own in Angus, have raised the serious concern that changes in housing benefit may force the closure of many refuges. Will the Prime Minister undertake to specifically exclude refuges from the changes and to protect this vital service for vulnerable women and children? (903576)

As I said in my answers to the Leader of the Opposition, we want to support the supported housing projects that work in many of our constituencies. We have all seen how important they are. The changes to housing benefit that we are talking about will not come into place until 2018, so there is plenty of time to make sure that we support supported housing projects.

Q10. Next month, Milton Keynes will host the first ever national apprenticeship fair. We have a strong record in expanding apprenticeships, but is there not still a need for a cultural shift in careers advice to show that high-level apprenticeships and university places are equally valid? (903578)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The careers advice that we need to give young people is that every school leaver has the choice of either a university place, because we have uncapped university places, or an apprenticeship, because we are funding 3 million of them in this Parliament. We need to go on to explain that if someone becomes an apprentice, that does not rule out doing a degree or degree-level qualification later on during their apprenticeship. The option of earning and learning is stronger in Britain today than it has ever been.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree that how we protect human rights in the legal systems of the United Kingdom deserves full and careful consideration? Will he give an assurance that his consultation on the repeal of the Human Rights Act will not conflict with the pre-election purdah periods in Scotland and the other devolved Administrations? (903577)

We will look very carefully at all those issues, but I say to the hon. and learned Lady and Opposition Members that the idea that there were no human rights in Britain before the Human Rights Act is ludicrous. This House has been a great bastion and defender of human rights, but we will look carefully at the timing of any announcement that we make.

Q15. I have spent most of my working life in children’s hospices, which rely heavily on donations from organisations such as Children in Need, which has a long and proud association with the town of Pudsey. Last week, Children in Need’s most famous celebrity sadly passed away. Will my right hon. Friend join me and the people of Pudsey in paying tribute to Sir Terry Wogan, who did so much to inspire millions of pounds to be donated to these causes? (903583)

I am very happy to do that. My hon. Friend, who represents a constituency—Pudsey—which has such a connection with Children in Need, is absolutely right to raise this. Terry Wogan was one of this country’s great icons. Like many people in the House, I felt almost as if I had grown up with him, listening to him on the radio in the car, watching him present “Blankety Blank” or all the many other things he did. Perhaps many people’s favourite was the “Eurovision Song Contest”, to which he brought such great humour every year. You did not have to be a “TOG” to be an enormous fan. I think that we were all fans, and he will be hugely missed. His work with Children in Need was particularly special.

Q11. On Monday, I attended the Work and Pensions tribunal appeal hearing for my constituent, Mrs Jackie Millan, a brave, inspiring woman who has dwarfism. Despite being unable to climb staircases except on all fours, she was awarded zero disability points by her assessor. Has the Prime Minister, as a constituency MP, attended any tribunal hearings? If so, did he find the process fair, dignified and compassionate? (903579)

I am very happy to look into the specific case that the hon. Gentleman raises. As a constituency MP, of course I have people coming to my surgery with inquiries about either employment and support allowance or indeed, disability living allowance. I also have the experience, having had a disabled son, of filling out all the forms myself. I am looking forward to the new system, which I think, with a proper medical check, will work out better. I have listened to the arguments, but we have to have an adjudication system that is independent of politicians.

When I was growing up, I always knew I was nearly home when I saw the iconic cooling towers of the Rugeley power stations on the horizon. On Monday, the owners of the remaining power station announced its likely closure this summer. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to meet me to discuss further the Government support that can be given to the 150 workers, and the provision that can be made to ensure that the site is redeveloped as quickly as possible?

I will certainly arrange for that meeting to take place. We should thank everyone who has worked at power stations that come to the end of their lives for the work that they have done to give us electricity to keep the lights on and our economy moving. My hon. Friend is right: as coal-fired power stations come to the end of their lives, we must ensure that proper redevelopment takes place so that we provide jobs for constituents like hers.

Q12. The Football Supporters Federation is considering calling on fans to hold mass walk-outs to get their voices heard about ticket prices. Will the Prime Minister act to give fans a place at the table in club boardrooms so that their voices can be heard when issues such as ticket prices are discussed? (903580)

I will look very carefully at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion because there is a problem whereby some clubs put up prices very rapidly every year, even though so much of the money for football comes through sponsorship, equipment and other sources. I will look carefully at what he says.

The vital debate and vote on the Trident successor submarine should have been held in the last Parliament, but was blocked by the Liberal Democrats. Given the fun that the Prime Minister had a few moments ago at the Labour party’s expense over Trident’s successor, it must be tempting for him to put off the vote until Labour’s conference in October. However, may I urge him to do the statesmanlike thing and hold that vote as soon as possible because everyone is ready for it and everyone is expecting it?

We should have the vote when we need to have the vote, and that is exactly what we will do. No one should be in any doubt that the Government are going to press ahead with all the decisions that are necessary to replace in full our Trident submarines. I think the Labour party should listen to Lord Hutton, who was Defence Secretary for many years. He says:

“If Labour wants to retain any credibility on defence whatsoever, it had better recognise the abject futility of what it’s leadership is currently proposing”.

I hope that when that vote comes, we will have support from right across the House of Commons.

Q13. In the light of today’s damning National Audit Office report on teacher shortages, will the Prime Minister take urgent steps to help excellent schools such as those in my constituency to recruit and—crucially—to retain the best teachers, including by extending the so-called inner-London weighting to all Harrow schools and other suburban schools in London? (903581)

Obviously we will look carefully at the report. There are 13,100 more teachers in our schools than when I became Prime Minister, and our teachers are better qualified than ever before—[Interruption.] People are shouting about increased pupil numbers, but they might be interested to know that we have 47,500 fewer pupils in overcrowded schools than in 2010, because we put the investment in where it was needed. Where I agree with the hon. Gentleman is that we need schemes such as Teach First and our national leadership programme, which are getting some of the best teachers into the schools where they are most needed.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister deserves great credit for the results of the Syria replenishment conference that was held under his co-sponsorship in London. He will be aware, however, that that can only address the symptoms, and not the causes, of the catastrophe that is Syria today. Will he tell the House what more he thinks the British Government can do to try to promote the political track and ensure that it reaches the most speedy possible success?

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he says about the Syria conference, and that gives me the opportunity to thank my co-hosts, the Norwegians, the Germans, the Kuwaitis, and the United Nations Secretary-General. In one day we raised more money than has ever been raised at one of these conferences—more than $10 billion—and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development who did a lot of the very hard work. That money helps because it will keep people in the region, feed and clothe them, and make sure that they get the medicine they need. But we do need a political solution and we will go on working with all our partners to deliver that. That requires all countries, including Russia, to recognise the need for a moderate Sunni opposition to be at the table to create a transitional authority in Syria. Without that, I fear that we will end up with a situation with Assad in one corner, and Daesh in the other corner—the worst possible outcome in terms of terrorism, and for refugees and the future of Syria.

Q14. I am sure that the Prime Minister is looking forward to visiting Hull next year, and as the UK city of culture, we are already backed by many prestigious organisations such as the BBC and the Royal Shakespeare Company. However, we could do much more to make this a real national celebration of culture. Will the Prime Minister join me in urging the many London-based national arts organisations to do their bit and contribute to the success of Hull 2017? (903582)

The hon. Lady makes an important point, which is that our national cultural institutions have an immense amount of work and prestige that they can bring out to regional galleries and centres when there is a city of culture event, or indeed more broadly, and I talk to them about that. I am looking forward to visiting Hull, and as it is the city of Wilberforce, I am sure my hon. Friends will want to join me. Hull is a city of poets, including Andrew Marvell, and it was home to Philip Larkin for many years, and, of course, Stevie Smith—sometimes one might want to contemplate what it looks like “not waving but drowning.”

Order. Before large numbers of hon. Members file out of the Chamber, I remind them that the election for the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee is now taking place in Committee Room 16. Voting will continue until 1.30 pm. Voting on a deferred Division is taking place in the No Lobby, and that will continue until 2 pm.