Skip to main content


Volume 606: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2016

The House will be aware of the dreadful accident that occurred at Didcot power station yesterday afternoon, in which one person died and three are missing. I know that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of the victim and our best wishes to those who are still missing or injured. I pay tribute to the quick and incredibly brave actions of our emergency services, who dealt with the incident with typical professionalism. The Health and Safety Executive will carry out a full investigation to find out what led to the tragedy.

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

I would like to associate myself and the people of Wiltshire with the Prime Minister’s sentiments about the occurrence in Didcot.

Wiltshire has successfully integrated a number of Syrian refugees, including babies and children, who might otherwise have frozen or starved to death in the camps. However, there has been a serious delay by the Home Office, despite Wiltshire Council’s claims to have tried to introduce more refugees into the area. Will the Prime Minister tell us what more he can do on the matter? Will he look into it? Will he also outline what we can do to fulfil our moral duty to those desperate people?

Let me pay tribute to Wiltshire Council and to the many councils up and down our country that have done a magnificent job of integrating and taking in Syrian refugees and their families, finding them homes, finding them schools and, I hope, in time, finding them jobs, too. If we look at what has happened across Europe with the relocation and resettlement programme, we see that Britain has done far better than any other country. We said 1,000 by Christmas, and we have delivered 1,000 by Christmas.

My hon. Friend asked what more we can do. First of all, I will make sure that she can meet the Home Office to talk about how we can make sure the system works well. We will continue to invest in the Syrian refugee camps, not least with the $11 billion that we raised at the landmark London conference. We will continue to do what we can to deliver the 20,000 Syrian refugees we said we would take into our country.

I want to echo the Prime Minister’s tribute to all the emergency services in dealing with the major incident in Didcot. Our thoughts are with the families of the person who died and those who are missing or injured. We rely on our emergency services and we should make sure they are always there for all of us.

The NHS staff survey published yesterday shows that nine out of 10 junior doctors already work extra hours beyond their normal contract. The survey also showed falling morale among that vital group of staff. What does the Prime Minister think the Health Secretary’s veto of a deal and the imposition of a contract will do to their morale?

First, the Health Secretary did not veto a deal. For four years we have had discussions about how important it is to have an NHS that works on a more seven-day basis. Let me pay tribute to the fact that so many in the NHS work so hard already at the weekends, but what matters is making sure we can have a genuine seven-day NHS.

What I would say to junior doctors is that no junior doctor working legal hours will receive a pay cut. This contract will not impose longer hours. In fact, it has tougher safeguards to make sure it reduces the hours that are worked. We are not seeking to save money from the new contract. Nights, Saturday evenings and Sundays continue to attract unsocial hours payments. This is a good deal from a Government putting £10 billion more into our NHS.

This dispute with the junior doctors has been on the basis of misrepresented research about weekend mortality. I will read the Prime Minister what the researchers themselves say:

“It is not possible to ascertain the extent to which these excess deaths may be preventable; to assume that they are avoidable would be rash and misleading.”

Are the Prime Minister and his Health Secretary being “rash and misleading” with these figures?

Let me agree with the right hon. Gentleman about something, which is that this dispute has been plagued by scaremongering and inaccurate statistics. The British Medical Association, in its first intervention, said that this was a 30% pay cut. That was completely untrue. In fact, it was so untrue that it had to take its pay calculator off its website, and it never put it back up again.

Let me answer very directly the question about excess deaths. The 6,000 figure for excess deaths was based on a question asked by the Health Secretary of Sir Bruce Keogh, the medical director of the NHS. Now that we have had time to go into these figures in more detail, I can tell the House this: the Health Secretary was indeed guilty—he was guilty of an understatement. The true figure for excess deaths at the weekend are 11,000, not 6,000. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will now withdraw his totally unjustified attack on the Health Secretary. Will he withdraw it, now he knows the figures?

It is just worth reflecting for one moment that there is no dispute with the junior doctors in Scotland or in Wales, because their Governments have had the sense to reach an agreement with the junior doctors. The Prime Minister must also be aware that the vast majority of the public in England are on the side of the junior doctors, not the Secretary of State.

The situation actually gets worse. A freedom of information request by the BBC today reveals that, when asked for the source of the Health Secretary’s statistics, civil servants in the Department of Health decided to

“offer up the most bland statement possible, that would neither confirm not contradict”

the Health Secretary’s


Is it not time that the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary actually apologise for what they have done and correct these statements, and indeed, while they are about it, reach an honourable settlement with the junior doctors?

I think the best that can be said is that the right hon. Gentleman wrote that question before he heard my answer. I have given the fullest possible description of how the figure of 6,000 excess deaths was arrived at—the true figure being 11,000—but I note that there is absolutely no withdrawal of his accusation against the Health Secretary, even after he gets those figures.

The right hon. Gentleman says there is no dispute in Scotland and Wales with the junior doctors. The reason for that is that Scotland and Wales are not trying to create more of a seven-day NHS. That seven-day NHS was not only in our manifesto—I want to make sure that hard-working people can access health services at an equal rate right through the week, because they do not just get ill on weekdays; but if he reads his own party’s report on its election defeat, he will see that it admits that the concept of a seven-day NHS was a very popular concept, and it is.

The right hon. Gentleman can see that in England, we are putting £10 billion more into the NHS, we have got 10,000 more doctors and 10,000 more nurses, we are treating more patients, we have a settlement of the GP contract and we now have a settlement of the junior doctors contract. We are building a strong NHS for patients—that is what this is about.

We all want a strong and successful NHS, but that will not be achieved by provoking industrial action, misrepresenting research or failing to get a grip on the cost of agency staff in the NHS, which now amounts to £4 billion. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s own local NHS trust has overspent on staffing costs by £11 million this year, yet has managed to spend £30 million on agency staff. Will the chair of the Oxford anti-austerity campaign be writing another letter to himself on behalf of his constituents, asking for the Health Secretary to intervene to support his local NHS?

I am very proud of the NHS in Oxfordshire and everyone who works in it. Having met the head of the Oxford Radcliffe trust recently, I know that he supports the move towards more seven-day services. That is absolutely vital.

Ask my mother? I know what my mother would say. She would look across the Dispatch Box and say, “Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem.”

If we are talking of motherly advice, my late mother would have said, “Stand up for the principle of a health service free at the point of use for everybody.” That is what she dedicated her life to, as did many of her generation.

We are more than three quarters of the way into this financial year. The NHS deficit is already £2.26 billion, and 53% of NHS trust finance directors say that the quality of care in their local area has worsened this year. What will the deficit be by the end of next month?

We will get deficits down because we are clamping down on the staffing agencies and expensive management consultants, and introducing better public procurement.

The right hon. Gentleman has to recognise that we said we would back the Simon Stevens plan, which meant at least £8 billion more going into the NHS, but we have put £10 billion more into the NHS. At the last election and subsequently, Labour has refused to back that extra money. My mother is as proud of the NHS as I am, and she would be pleased to know that in the NHS today, there are 1.9 million more people going to A&E, 1.6 million more operations, 10,700 more doctors and 11,800 more nurses. I think that if Nye Bevan were here today, he would want a seven-day NHS, because he knew that the NHS was for patients up and down our country.

Nye Bevan would be turning in his grave if he could hear the Prime Minister’s attitude towards the NHS. He was a man with vision who wanted a health service for the good of all. I tell you, Mr Speaker, our health service is run by brilliant people—brilliant doctors, brilliant nurses and brilliant staff. I have a question for the Prime Minister from one of those brilliant doctors, whose name is Ashraf:

“As a doctor I know full well the stresses on the NHS and the shortcomings. We already have a 7 day emergency service. How does increasing elective work improve safety at the weekend? If a truly 7 day NHS is wanted, we need more nurses, admin staff, porters, radiographers, physios”—

all the other vital workers. Will the Prime Minister today commit to publishing the Department of Health’s analysis of the real cost of introducing a seven-day NHS? Is he prepared to pay for it, rather than picking a fight with the junior doctors who want to deliver it?

What I think is not clear is whether or not Labour supports a seven-day NHS. We support a seven-day NHS and that is why we are putting in £10 billion, 10,000 more doctors, and 11,000 more nurses. Crucially, yes, that is why we are looking at the contracts in the NHS to ensure that it can work on more of a seven-day basis. The truth is that there are hospitals today in our country, such as the Salford Royal in the north-west of England, that already operate on a seven-day basis within existing budgets. That is good, because they are using all the equipment on a seven-day basis, they are carrying out consultations seven days a week and they carry out some operations seven days a week. That is good for the hospital, good for the staff working in it and, above all, good for patients. We do not just get ill Monday to Friday. I want a world-class NHS. We are funding a world-class NHS. We have world-class people working in our NHS and together we will build that seven-day NHS.

Q3. With such a large number of schools in Brecon and Radnorshire facing the prospect of closure, what can my right hon. Friend do to encourage the Welsh Assembly to convert state schools into free schools and academies so that my constituents can benefit from the improvements to education that English pupils are seeing and so that we hopefully save these excellent schools from closure? (903646)

Obviously, education is devolved in Wales and the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government. I urge them to focus on how a good education depends not only on the finance, which is there because of the way that the Barnett formula works and because of the decisions we have taken about funding the NHS in England, but on high standards and the publication of league tables, so that people can see how their children are doing. Crucially, it requires structural reforms—free schools, academies—introducing some diversity and competition in getting organisations that are passionate about education to provide state education. We want all the best organisations in there providing the best education for our children.

May I begin by associating the Scottish National party with the comments made by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party about the tragedy in Didcot? Our thoughts are with all those who have been affected.

Will the Prime Minister congratulate the Scottish Government and his own colleagues who secured a deal on financial arrangements for the next phase of Scottish devolution? The Treasury position initially endangered £7 billion of public funding in Scotland. At the beginning of this week, that was reduced to £3 billion and yesterday morning it was £2.5 billion. What changed the mind of the Treasury and helped it agree to a deal that will make Scotland no worse off?

Let me agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is an excellent deal. It is an excellent deal for Scotland, but it is also an excellent deal for the United Kingdom. For those of us who want to keep the United Kingdom together, we have just demonstrated that we can have full-on devolution with a powerhouse Parliament and a fair fiscal settlement inside the United Kingdom, and that is something to be celebrated. Now we will move to a situation in which the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament will have to start talking about policies and decisions rather than processes. I am happy that the negotiations went as they did, I am happy that we have a good outcome, and I am happy that Lord Smith, who is responsible for so much of this work, put out a statement saying that this delivers Smith and the principles “in full”. No more grievance, no more fussing about process, no more arguments about the arrangements: now is the time to get on and govern.

We are indebted to Scotland’s Finance Secretary, John Swinney, and to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for securing a no-detriment deal for Scotland. The Prime Minister is right that all parties will have to lay out their plans in advance of the May election, so will he answer this question? Is it true that in this time of austerity his party, the Conservative party, is planning tax cuts for higher earners in Scotland?

It will be Ruth Davidson, who is the only proper Opposition figure in Scotland, who will be sending out the plans. If someone in Scotland is worried about having a bit of a one-party state and a lack of accountability, and if they think that the Labour party in Scotland has lost its way, there is only one choice, and that is Ruth. I think there are opportunities to cut taxes, sharpen incentives and attract businesses and people into Scotland, and I am sure that Ruth will be making those arguments. As she does, and whatever she decides, she will have my full and unequivocal support.

Q5. A recent survey undertaken by Blaby District Council showed that 96% of the 1,100 residents surveyed were satisfied with my council’s services. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the Conservative leader of the council, Terry Richardson, his councillor colleagues, and all the officers in Blaby District Council who, while making savings that are necessary, are continuing to deliver a first-class service to the residents of South Leicestershire? (903648)

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in doing that, and he makes an important point. Yes, we had to make difficult spending decisions, not least over the past five years, but satisfaction with local government services actually went up. I think that proves a larger point, which is that we can reduce spending levels, find efficiencies, and provide better services at the same time.

Q2. My constituent Frank Wason is on long-term sick leave due to severe depression, but he is no longer entitled to sick pay. He was turned down for employment and support allowance, and he cannot claim jobseeker’s allowance due to his job being kept open for him. Mr Wason cannot leave his highly skilled job as a chef due to the threat of punitive sanctions, leaving him with no income. Will the Prime Minister consider Mr Wason’s case specifically, as well as the wider issue of expecting people with mental health issues who are unable to work to live on fresh air? (903645)

I am happy to look at the individual case, because the way that our benefit system should work is clear: if someone is unable to work, but with help could work, they should go on to employment and support allowance and the work-related activity group and get that help. If they are unable to work, they go on to the support group and get a higher amount of money that is not means tested or time limited. For people who have mental health issues and difficulties there is the new personal independence payment system, which can address some of those issues. Quite rightly for a generous and compassionate country, we have a benefit system that supports those who cannot work, while ensuring that those who can work are encouraged to do so.

Q6. It is fantastic news that unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 62% since 2010, but I am committed to helping even more residents back into work as we work towards our target of full employment. That is why on 18 March I will be holding a community and jobs fair, bringing together employers and the voluntary sector, for residents to find out the many ways that they can get suitable employment and support from charities. I invite the Prime Minister to come along to that event and see for himself the resources that the residents of Erewash have. (903649)

I thank my hon. Friend. I am sure I will be touring the country quite a lot in the weeks to come, and perhaps a visit to Erewash would be very worth while. I have visited her constituency before. We now have a much lower unemployment rate, and looking across Europe, our rate of just above 5% is one of the lowest in Europe. Even at that rate, there is still a lot more to do to match the jobs that are being created to the people who want to work, and jobs fairs, apprenticeships and training programmes are absolutely essential so that we deliver on what we promised, which is full employment.

Q4. The Prime Minister likes to go on about the importance of returning sovereignty to this House. May I remind him that on 7 January we debated the women’s state pension and the fact that women are being discriminated against by the pace of the state pension increase. The House divided that day with 158 votes to zero, and it asked the Government to mitigate the effects of that measure. Why have the Government not respected the sovereignty of the vote of this Parliament? (903647)

First, I would argue very strongly that we are not discriminating against women. We are ensuring that there is an equal age of retirement, which is right. Women have been discriminated against in the pension system in the past, and the single-tier pension means that many more women will be retiring with a full pension. As they do so, they have the triple lock of knowing that pensions will always go up by wages, prices or 2.5%, whichever is the highest. That is why pensioner poverty is at a record low, and why pensioners know that they can live in security and dignity in our country.

Q7. South Thanet lags behind much of the south-east across very many indices. I have launched a new body locally, the Ramsgate regeneration alliance, which brings together businesses and community groups. May I invite my right hon. Friend and the Minister responsibility for coastal communities to this gem on our doorstep to see for themselves what it could and indeed should be? (903650)

I am very happy to put Ramsgate on my tour list for the coming months. We all remember the historic battle my hon. Friend fought in that constituency. We have set up the coastal communities fund and have a dedicated Minister in the Government to try to help coastal communities. I will make sure that officials from his Department meet the new alliance and the Ramsgate coastal community team to see what they can do to help.

Q8. For two years, my constituents and I campaigned against the development of a luxury skyscraper. The local councillors listened and rejected the plans, but then the Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government called in the decision and overturned the wishes of the community, showing utter disrespect for local democracy. The Prime Minister preaches localism, but will he finally admit that his Government believe only in the devolution of blame for cuts, not the devolution of actual power to local communities? (903651)

We have a long-standing system not only for local planning but for being able to call in decisions. That system operated the whole time under the previous Labour Government. If anything, our local planning system is actually putting more power in the hands of local people, because once they have completed their local plan it is then much easier to say yes to developments that are within that plan and no to developments that are outside it.

Q9. Last Friday, I made separate visits to three families, all of whom have a child suffering from acute mental health difficulties that the families felt had not been adequately assessed at the early stages by child and adolescent mental health services. Colleagues from across the Chamber will be all too familiar with such visits. I welcome the Prime Minister’s recent commitment to reform mental health provision for young people. Will he consider reviewing the provision of initial stage treatment and continue to be the champion for these vulnerable and brave children? (903652)

Let me thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right that children and young people’s mental health is a priority for the Government. I think we can all agree across this House that for many years this area has not had adequate attention or adequate investment. I would highlight in particular the problems of psychosis, sometimes caused by drug use. I would also raise the huge problem of eating disorders; we are seeing a rapid increase in the number of people suffering. We have gone a long way in increasing the number of talking therapies. Something like 740,000 more people are accessing those therapies than when the Government came into office. We recognise that there is more to be done and that is why we are investing £1.4 billion in system-wide transformation across child and adolescent mental health services.

Q10. Last week, Scottish Power refused to attend an evidence session with the all-party parliamentary group on Scottish Power cashback mis-selling, where crucial new evidence was uncovered. As a former consumer litigator, I am utterly convinced that more than 2,000 of my constituents and more than 500,000 people in the UK are owed cashback from Scottish Power. Given that this is potentially a scandal of huge proportions, will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and the cross-party group to discuss how we can ensure that these ordinary hard-working people receive the cashback they were promised from Scottish Power? (903653)

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised this. It has been raised on previous occasions by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) and I know the cross-party group has done some very useful work. My understanding is that any alleged wrongdoing should be fully investigated. Ofgem can impose fines if it finds companies have breached their licence. I am very happy to arrange for a meeting between him and other members of the all-party group with the relevant Ministers in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, so that we can try to get this fixed.

Q11. Does my right hon. Friend agree that with the NATO summit in Warsaw pending, the threat of expansionism from Putin’s Russia and the national security threat from Daesh, the Government are right to support putting 2% of our GDP towards defence? Is he not shocked at the failure of the Labour party to do likewise? (903654)

My hon. Friend makes an important point—we face an insecure and unstable world, particularly given what Putin has done in the Ukraine and particularly in view of what we see in Syria. That is why I think 2% spending on defence and making sure we renew our nuclear deterrent is the right answer.

To be fair to the Labour party, it has an answer. It is not going to spend 2% and it is not going to renew our Trident submarines, but it has come up with a really brilliant answer. They are bringing back as their spokesman and spin doctor Damian McBride. Six months ago, the Leader of the Opposition said:

“We can win in 2020, but only if we spend the next five years building this movement and putting forward a vision for the new kind of politics: honest, kinder and more caring.”

Six months on, Damian McBride is back. That says it all. [Interruption.]

Q12. Last week, together with several of my hon. Friends, I visited Palestine, where we went to the home of Nora and her family, who have lived in the old city of East Jerusalem since 1953. Israeli settlers, however, are now trying to force Nora from her home of over 60 years. There are many other cases like that. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that illegal settlements and constructions are a major roadblock that hinder peaceful negotiations? What are this Government doing to help prevent these infringements into Palestinian lives and land? (903655)

The hon. Gentleman’s question is incredibly important. I am well known as a strong friend of Israel, but I have to say that the first time I visited Jerusalem, had a proper tour around that wonderful city and saw what has happened with the effective encirclement of East Jerusalem—occupied East Jerusalem— I found it genuinely shocking. What this Government have consistently done and go on doing is to say that we are supporters of Israel, but we do not support illegal settlements and we do not support what is happening in East Jerusalem. It is very important for this capital city to be maintained in the way it was in the past.

Q14. One of my constituents, Alex Bagnall, is fighting to have his son brought back to the UK after he was taken to Poland by the mother illegally, as per The Hague convention. Will the Prime Minister outline what interventions the Government can make on the EU and Polish authorities with regard to The Hague convention in order to help British families with the safe return of their abducted children, offering hope to devastated families such as my constituents, the Bagnalls? (903657)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise a case like this. Sadly, there are far too many of them in our country. The straight answer is that the return decision is, of course, for the Polish court, and Governments cannot interfere in the decisions or processes of another country’s justice system. However, we have the International Child Abduction and Contact Unit at the Ministry of Justice, and it has been in constant touch with Mr Bagnall. It is processing his paperwork and chasing its counterparts in Poland for information. I will make sure that the Foreign Secretary is made aware of this case and does everything he can to help my hon. Friend and her constituent.

Q13. Oil and gas has contributed over £300 billion to Treasury coffers. The Scottish Government, trade unions and Oil and Gas UK are calling for reductions to the headline rate of tax to support the industry in its hour of need. Yet instead of the so-called “broad shoulders” of the UK, what we see are the slopey shoulders of the Prime Minister, repeatedly dodging his responsibilities. Will he commit to reduce the tax level on oil and gas, and support this vital industry? (903656)

In the Budget last year, we reduced the burden of tax on oil and gas—something that we were able to do because of the broad shoulders of the UK. Now let us just examine what has happened since that time. Oil and gas revenues are down by 94%. If it were not for the broad shoulders of the UK Government and if instead this was a genuinely fiscally independent Scotland, there would be a massive black hole in its budget, and it would be cutting welfare, cutting spending, putting up taxes and facing a financial catastrophe.

Q15. Every week two women are killed in England and Wales by a current or former partner. The perpetrator is the problem: the question is not “Why doesn’t she leave?” but “Why doesn’t he stop?” The Sussex police and crime commissioner is piloting a programme called Drive, which aims to change the behaviour of offenders. In advance of his new strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Katy Bourne on tackling domestic violence throughout Sussex? (903658)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have got better at tackling the crime of domestic violence, but there is still so much more to do. Katy Bourne, whom I know, does an excellent job as the police and crime commissioner. I think that police and crime commissioners, who have a higher profile than police authorities ever had, can give a real lead on this sort of thing, and I urge others around the country to do exactly that. We also need to make sure that we are policing these incidents properly, and we need to change the culture, but I think that police and crime commissioners such as Katy Bourne can help to lead the way.

As the Prime Minister knows, resources were ring-fenced following the fresh start agreement in November to help Northern Ireland to deal with legacy cases. Will the Prime Minister consider releasing some of that money—this has been hinted at by the Secretary of State—to help the Police Service of Northern Ireland as it faces increasing pressures on front-line policing? Will he also take this opportunity to reaffirm that there will be no rewriting of the past in Northern Ireland to legitimatise terrorism, or to promote a pernicious narrative that tries to make the security forces equivalent to terrorists?

The fresh start agreement was a good agreement, and an important part of it was dealing with legacy cases and ensuring that they were dealt with more quickly. To me, it has always been about trying to heal the hurt of the legacy cases rather than trying to write new narratives.

I shall consider carefully what the right hon. Gentleman has said about resources. We need to make sure that the policing of Northern Ireland continues to be properly resourced, not least because we still face a terrorist threat today.

The United Kingdom endorses the Code of Good Practice on Referendums, published by the European Commission for Democracy through Law, which states:

“Equality of opportunity must be guaranteed for the supporters and opponents of the proposal being voted on.”

It also states:

“Equality must be ensured in terms of public subsidies and other forms of backing.”

Yesterday, Sir Jeremy Heywood sent a letter to Departments preventing Ministers from having access to civil service briefings. Has the Prime Minister checked whether that letter was compatible with the guidelines on neutrality?

I am very happy with the letter that was sent out, for this reason. The Government have a position on this issue: the Government’s position is that we would be better off in a reformed European Union. Ministers are able to depart from that position, and campaign in a personal capacity. That is, I think, a very important statement. It is right in terms of how we go about it, but it does not mean that the Government are neutral. It does not mean that the civil service is neutral. The Government have a policy from which people can depart.

As for the funding of the referendum campaign, we now have very clear laws and rules in place—and the Electoral Commission—to make sure that both campaigns are funded properly, and I think that that is good for our democracy.