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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 606: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2016

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent discussions she has had with Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive on increasing the level of exports from Northern Ireland. (903780)

The Secretary of State and I hold regular discussions with Executive Ministers on a range of issues impacting the Northern Ireland economy. I welcome the recent visits to Northern Ireland by the Prime Minister, the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise and the Mayor of London to see at first hand the businesses and people who make the country’s strong export record a reality.

I welcome the Government’s ambition to increase the number of companies in the UK that export by 100,000 by 2020. What steps are being taken, alongside the Executive, to ensure that Northern Ireland plays a major role in achieving that target?

As a consequence of both the Northern Ireland Executive’s efforts and this Government’s long-term economic plan, I am delighted to report that Northern Ireland’s exports have grown 4% over the year—higher than those of any other country in the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland employs about 100,000 people. Will she assure us that she will work alongside Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to try to find new markets, which are essential to the agri-food sector, such as India, Mexico and Brazil?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of the agri-food business. Indeed, on Monday night my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met Moy foods, one of the biggest employers in Northern Ireland. New markets around the world are key to growing the agri-food business, not only in the EU but in China and elsewhere. That is why I am delighted that in May the GREAT campaign to promote Britain and United Kingdom exports will be visiting Northern Ireland. I look forward to working with the Northern Ireland Executive to help that promotion to go from strength to strength.

Will the Secretary of State commit to commissioning research into the possible effects of leaving the EU on Northern Ireland’s exports and wider economy? Will she further commit to making a statement to the House on the economic effects on Northern Ireland of a UK withdrawal from the EU thereafter?

The Government are very clear that being in the EU makes us better off, stronger and safer. I do not think that we will be diverted by commissioning external reports about what may or may not happen. The United Kingdom knows exactly what being in the EU looks like, because we are in it now. The reforms that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has got will achieve that goal.

Earlier this week, a Cabinet Office report was published that stated that leaving the EU would result in the imposition of customs checks at the Irish border. Do the Minister and the Secretary of State accept the assessment of the Cabinet Office? What impact do the Government expect customs checks to have on Northern Irish exports to the south—and this is being positive?

Of course, as a member of the Government, I accept the Cabinet Office’s views. We should not forget that Ireland and the United Kingdom have a long-standing agreement, the common travel area, which would mean that certain barriers would not be in place. However, should we leave the European Union, we will be outside the customs union, and that will inevitably lead to some form of extra barriers to trade.

I do not know how the Minister keeps a straight face in some of his answers. It is no wonder that the Secretary of State is again avoiding answering these questions on the economy. Has the Minister discussed with Executive Ministers the survey by the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce, which showed that 81% of businesses in Northern Ireland support continued EU membership? Is it the case that there is little surprise in that finding, given that 60% of Northern Ireland’s exports—a higher percentage than in any other part of the UK—go to the EU?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I discussed that with the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce at a reception on Monday night in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know how I keep a straight face, let me tell him that I look across the Dispatch Box at two Labour Members who are in favour of replacing Trident, and I remember that their leader has no intention whatsoever of using it or replacing it. [Interruption.]

We are all amazed by the Minister’s response. That really was going to the bottom of the barrel to try to find something to say.

Building on the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), has the Minister discussed with Ministers in the Executive the fact that more than a third of exports to the EU—well over £1 billion a year—go to the Republic? She referred to a report. The Government report was published today, and her remarks are supported by the Newry chamber of commerce. There are very real concerns about customs checks having to be put in place at the border, because that would be a border between the UK and the EU. I discussed that last night in Belfast with Nigel Farage. We had a big debate about it. Let me say to the Minister that it deserves a better answer than, “It’ll be all right on the night.”

I think I would rather have seen Adele last night, who is playing in Belfast, than Nigel Farage.

The United Kingdom Government believe that we are better off, stronger and safer if we stay in the EU. Of course we do not want barriers to further trade. We recognise the importance of trade across the border to the Republic of Ireland. I can say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are absolutely united in making sure that Northern Ireland business prospers and does the best it can, because this Government’s long-term economic plan will ensure that exports and domestic trade flourish.

Organised Crime

The UK Government are supporting the fight against organised crime through the police funding delivered through the Northern Ireland block grant, the £25 million to tackle paramilitarism due to be provided under the fresh start agreement, and the work of bodies such as the National Crime Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The £160 million of additional security funding will support efforts on organised crime because of the involvement of terrorist groupings in that form of criminality.

In the fresh start agreement, the Executive committed to undertake a public awareness campaign to increase public understanding of the harm done to all communities by paramilitarism and organised crime. Given the impact that that has on businesses, will my right hon. Friend encourage the Executive to proceed quickly down that path?

A theme that came out strongly from the fresh start talks was the need for a whole community approach to tackling the problems of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland in order not only to continue the excellent work of the police and their security partners, but to ensure that the public are well aware of the harm done by organised crime and are supported in their efforts to give the evidence necessary to bring individuals to justice and put them in prison, where they deserve to be.

Since the National Crime Agency has, at long last, become operational in Northern Ireland, what efforts have been made to seize the assets of those involved in organised crime and reinvest them in community projects in Northern Ireland?

The NCA takes its duty to seize criminal assets very seriously. In that work, it will be assisted by the new joint agency taskforce on cross-jurisdictional crime, which will be established from April. It will consist not only of the NCA, Border Force, the immigration service and HMRC, but of the Irish Revenue Commissioners and the Criminal Assets Bureau. That will significantly enhance the excellent efforts already being made in Northern Ireland on these matters under the Organised Crime Task Force.

Fuel laundering and smuggling is part of organised crime. What recent assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the fuel marker that has recently been introduced, and is she convinced that it will be effective enough?

The fuel marker Accutrace was introduced in April 2015. A six-month report on its use was deposited in the Library of the House in November. The review suggests that the new marker is having a very positive effect. It is too early to say whether the reductions are sustained and to establish causality, but the results are positive so far.

With the number of police officers halving over the years, the number of groups involved in organised crime has more than doubled to 150, or possibly more. Does the Secretary of State see any significance in that?

I would emphasise that Belfast, and Northern Ireland, is one of the safest places in the world. There is a significant problem with criminality related to paramilitarism and of course a lethal threat from terrorists, but the UK Government are absolutely determined to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the brilliant work it is doing. The PSNI is assisted by the very strong co-operation with An Garda Siochana in bringing to justice those who seek to exploit the border for criminal purposes.

Organised Crime

3. What discussions she has had with Ministers of the Irish Government on cross-border efforts to tackle organised crime. (903782)

In December, I attended a trilateral cross-border ministerial meeting with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government. We agreed new measures to enhance law enforcement co-operation. A joint agency task force to tackle cross-jurisdictional organised crime has been created in line with the fresh start agreement.

While accepting that there are political uncertainties in the south as a result of the elections, does my right hon. Friend agree that the north and south face similar difficulties in combating crime, managing offenders and supporting victims, and that it is in everyone’s best interests that the Administrations of the north and south work closely together?

I agree entirely. Security co-operation between the UK and Ireland is better than it ever has been. I believe that it is saving lives every day in the fight against organised crime and terrorism.

It is a stain on our efforts to frustrate cross-border crime that, after decades of fundraising for and running the Provisional IRA, it took the Irish Republic to secure an Al Capone-style conviction on Thomas “Slab” Murphy. Does that not highlight the fact that much more needs to be done to frustrate not only those who proliferate across the border, but those who support and fundraise for ongoing terror in Northern Ireland?

The work that has been done by the Organised Crime Task Force and the PSNI over recent years in Northern Ireland is exceptional and very effective. I am convinced that the new strategy for paramilitaries in the fresh start agreement, in which the political parties went further than ever before in condemning paramilitary activity in the most forthright terms, and the cross-jurisdictional arrangements that were set up in the agreement will make Northern Ireland an even safer place than it is today.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the introduction of plain packaging for tobacco products could lead to an increase in cross-border organised crime?

It is hugely important that the police do all they can to tackle tobacco smuggling and I know that it is taken very seriously. It may be something that can be considered by the new joint agency task force on cross-border crime. It is a serious crime and those who buy illegal cigarettes are supporting and funding evil criminals who are involved in significant violence. It is not a victimless crime and I urge everyone to avoid purchasing such products.

There was clearly a cross-border dimension to the horrific events of August 1998 in Omagh. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and I, and I am sure the whole House, extend our profound sympathies to the friends and families of those who lost their lives on that terrible day. The Secretary of State has referred to cross-border co-operation and said that the relationship between An Garda Siochana and the PSNI is at an historic high. Will she commit, here and now, to bend every sinew to extend and solidify that relationship, because we must never, ever allow an intelligence breakdown to occur again?

I can, of course, give the commitment that the UK Government and, I am sure, the Northern Ireland Executive will do everything in our power to enhance the co-operation between north and south, which is crucial. I associate myself with the comments of sympathy, support and condolence to the victims of one of the vilest atrocities that has ever taken place.

Economic Development

4. What recent discussions she has had with Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development in Northern Ireland. (903783)

I hold regular discussions with Executive and Government Ministers on a range of economic issues. Our long-term economic plan continues to deliver for Northern Ireland: the economy is growing, there are 46,000 more people in employment today than in 2010 and wages are up by more than 5% over the year.

I welcome the recent news that 10,300 fewer people in Northern Ireland were claiming jobseeker’s allowance last month than in January 2015. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a clear indication that the economic pact is working?

The economic pact that was signed between the Executive and the Government means that we are working more closely than ever before to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and boost jobs. Unemployment is down by more than 40% from its peak in February 2013 and progress is being made towards implementing the devolution of corporation tax, which shows that working together between our two Administrations is effective in delivering for Northern Ireland.

I welcome the very good news on the economy in Northern Ireland, but in the light of the recent job losses in the manufacturing sector in Northern Ireland, with companies identifying high energy costs as one of the impediments to manufacturing growth, will the Secretary of State say what she is doing, along with the Executive, to tackle that issue?

I have discussed that matter with the Executive and companies such as Michelin on many occasions, and I appreciate their concerns. It is also right to acknowledge the grave concern that people affected by redundancies at Bombardier will have. It is important to acknowledge that Bombardier is clear that that was part of a global restructuring, and that there was nothing that the Government or the Executive could have done to change its decision. However, it is also worth noting that manufacturing in Northern Ireland is strong and growing.

For our part, as leaders in the Northern Ireland Executive, we will continue to drive forward economic growth in conjunction with the Government here. Tourism is a major and important factor in driving that growth, and the Executive have invested heavily in, for example, Titantic Belfast and bringing major events to Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State help us by reducing VAT on tourism and air passenger duty? That would really drive forward our region economically.

The right hon. Gentleman will, of course, know that EU law constrains us from reducing VAT on those matters. However, I am committed to doing all I can to bring more tourists to Northern Ireland, which is a fabulous place to visit. In particular, the Executive’s investment in Titanic Belfast has been an outstanding success.

13. I thank the Secretary of State for her answers so far. However, although she can speak eloquently, and we are all very pleased about the economic development that has taken place, does she agree about the need to work more closely with Northern Ireland MPs and the Executive to establish a much more robust economic strategy to regenerate the economy and stimulate job creation, rather than a series of disconnected policies?


Closer working between Ministers and MPs is always desirable. The economic pact gives us a strong platform for doing that. We have brought the economic pact implementation into line with the process for implementing the fresh start and Stormont House agreements, and that gives even more scope for working closely with the hon. Gentleman’s party and others to ensure that the Northern Ireland economy thrives into the future.

Executive: Sustainable Finances

5. What steps she is taking to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive's financial position is sustainable. (903784)

The Stormont House and fresh start agreements set out a number of measures to assist with the sustainability of the Executive’s finances. These include packages of financial support of around £2.5 billion, implementation of welfare reform, and measures to improve the efficiency of the public sector.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a major threat to the sustainability of the Executive’s finances if her view prevails and the UK leaves the European Union?

My colleague the Minister has stated the Government’s position on those matters. The Northern Ireland Executive’s finances are on a more stable footing than they have been for many years. As a result of the fresh start talks, we have settled a budget crisis that was threatening to collapse the institutions. The Labour party should support us in maintaining that financial sustainability.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on Northern Ireland’s financial position of leaving the European Union? What assessment have her civil servants made of it, and is she allowed to see it?

The Government are publishing several documents setting out their position on the European Union. As I have said, we should welcome the dedicated work of the UK Government and the Northern Ireland political parties to settle a budget crisis that was threatening to collapse the institutions and a return to direct rule, which would have been a major setback.

The question was supposed to be about the financial position of the Northern Ireland Executive. The hon. Gentleman is, as he knows, a very cheeky chappie.

The Federation of Small Businesses indicates that some 32,000 jobs will be created by the corporation tax provisions, which the fresh start agreement secured. Sixty per cent. of those jobs in Northern Ireland are in the small and medium-sized business sector. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to ensure that small and medium-sized businesses benefit from the corporation tax reduction?

I have had many discussions over the years with the Executive and Invest NI on those matters. We believe that the devolution of corporation tax could have a hugely positive impact on the Northern Ireland economy, including for small businesses.

Disadvantaged Children

6. What discussions she has had with Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive on programmes to support the most disadvantaged children in Northern Ireland. [R] (903785)

This Government are committed to improving the life chances of disadvantaged children by addressing worklessness and improving educational attainment. These are largely devolved issues in Northern Ireland, where the Executive have the powers to address child poverty in areas such as health, education, housing and childcare.

The hon. Gentleman does not need to declare his interest in the context of a question. In any case he has already done so, so he can bang on with his question.

Is the Minister aware of the Shankill children and young people’s zone in Belfast, a programme embedded in the community that aims to address generational disadvantage in the area? Is the Minister willing to meet the zone organisers and share the lessons being learned more widely?

Yes, I am aware of that organisation. I was on the Shankill yesterday visiting two business parks, the Argyle business centre and Duncairn Gardens, in that very sensitive part of north Belfast. I would be delighted to meet them, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to come along too, he would be welcome.

Does the Minister accept that the changes to the welfare system will mean even more disadvantaged children in Northern Ireland?

No, I do not accept that. The changes to the welfare system have proved that what we should do is make work pay. It is having a positive effect, as we see an increase in employment in Northern Ireland. More people and families are going out and securing a wage. That is the best way to lift people out of poverty.


7. What steps the Government are taking to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security services in tackling terrorism in Northern Ireland. (903787)

10. What steps the Government are taking to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security services in tackling terrorism in Northern Ireland. (903791)

Keeping people safe from terrorism is one of the Government’s highest priorities. The PSNI and its security partners have our fullest support. Funding for the intelligence services will increase significantly over the course of this spending review. The PSNI will also receive an additional £160 million to combat the security threat. [Interruption.]

Order. I remind the House we are discussing terrorism in Northern Ireland. These are extremely serious matters and I hope Dr Offord will be heard.

I welcome the new commitment to a pledge of office, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the passive acceptance of values is not sufficient, and that there must be an active fulfilment of them?

I agree that both the pledge of office and the fresh start agreement itself will be judged on implementation. Experience in Northern Ireland says that making a declaration or getting an agreement is only part of the journey. We are determined to see the fresh start agreement implemented in full. Implementation is going well, not least with the establishment of the panel to set out the strategy against paramilitarism.

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to recognise the tireless work of the PSNI and MI5, whose efforts continue to ensure that the vast majority of the people of the Province of Northern Ireland remain unaffected by dissident threats?

I can certainly do that. They have our fullest support, as set out in the Conservative manifesto for Northern Ireland. Their courage and dedication is saving lives in Northern Ireland on a daily basis. They remain one of the main targets for attacks by dissident republican groupings, but they put their own safety on the line to defend the whole of the community.

12. If, as the Secretary of State wants, we withdraw from the European Union, what assessment does she think the PSNI will make of the loss of the use of the European arrest warrant? (903793)

The Government’s position on these matters is clear and has been set out in a number of documents published in recent days. What we are all agreed on is the essential nature of the co-operation on security matters between the UK and Ireland, and the crucial importance of that continuing, whatever the result of the referendum.

Will the Secretary of State do what she can to unite the community in support of the police against terror? Does she agree that that job would be made much easier if senior police officers, who this week took a decision to relocate memorials to murdered colleagues away from public-facing positions in police stations into back offices, reconsider that decision and relocate them, and ensure that the campaign against terror gets support right across the community?

I will certainly reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s point about the location of police memorials, but it is crucial to build support for the PSNI across the community. Support is at one of its highest ever levels and I welcome that fact.


The Government remain committed to working with the Executive and rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy. The Government’s long-term economic plan is working and delivering for Northern Ireland: the economy is growing; there are 46,000 more people in employment than in 2010; and wages are up more than 5%.

The Government recently set up an independent National Infrastructure Commission to ensure a long-term view on key infrastructure projects. What work is the Minister doing to ensure that the infrastructure commission is of benefit to the Northern Ireland economy, and can he name some specific infrastructure projects that it will undertake?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been in touch with Andrew Adonis to ensure that the commission is UK-wide. I am also delighted that, because of the efforts of the Government and the Northern Ireland parties through the fresh start agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive are well on their way to investing in new infrastructure for Northern Ireland, including hopefully work on the A5, the M2, and the A6 up to Derry, and Northern Ireland will get a 21st century road network that will improve economic development.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to confirm that the UK Government intended to take £7 billion from Scotland over a decade through the fiscal framework? Will he take this opportunity today to explain why that was the case?

Only the SNP could try to maintain a grievance after a settlement has been put in place. We have built a powerhouse Parliament for Scotland that will have more powers, more ability to set tax rates, more ability to determine benefits for its citizens. Now it is time for the SNP to stop talking about grievances and get on with government.

Q2. The Csa Group in my constituency has recently taken on six new apprentices, and across South Ribble we have had more than 1,000 apprenticeship starts since 2014. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this suggests that the Government should stick with their plans so that even more companies have the opportunity to take on apprentices? (903841)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have this very stretching target for 3 million apprentices to be trained during this Parliament. We will do our bit by funding those programmes. We want business to do its part by contributing to the apprenticeship levy, but we need small businesses such as Csa in my hon. Friend’s constituency and, indeed, the public sector to get fully involved in training apprentices to give young people the chance to earn and learn at the same time.

It is three years since the Government announced a policy of tax-free childcare. Can the Prime Minister tell us what the hold-up is?

We are introducing the tax-free childcare, along with the 30 hours of childcare, for everyone with three and four-year-olds, with a £6 billion commitment. The start of the 30 hours will come in through a pilot scheme this year.

The Treasury website describes it as a “long-term plan”. Well, it is certainly that, because it was announced in 2013 and is apparently not going to be introduced until next year. Why is the Prime Minister’s promise of 30 hours free childcare for three and four-year-olds not available for one in three working parents who want their children to be cared for in a pre-school?

First, on tax relief on childcare, we lost a court case against some of the existing providers, so there was a delay. The tax-free childcare will come in in 2017. As for the 30 hours, as I have said, there will be some pilot schemes this year and full implementation next year, which is in line with what we said in our manifesto. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman is helping me to promote Government policy. When I became Prime Minister, of course, I think we had only 10 hours of childcare; then it went up to 12, then 15 and now to 30. Those are the sort of things you can do if you have a strong economy with a sound plan. If you are getting your deficit down and your economy is growing, you are able to do all those things. I am glad that we are able to talk about them.

A National Audit Office report published today confirms that one third of the families who were promised 30 hours of free childcare will now not receive it. That is a broken promise. The report also warns that many childcare providers are not offering the new entitlement owing to insufficient funding. As a result, 41,000 three-year-olds are missing out on free early education. Will the Prime Minister intervene, and ensure that those children are given the start in life that they deserve?

We want all those children to have the start in life that they deserve. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the National Audit Office report. Let me read to him some of the things that it says. For instance, it says:

“The Department has successfully implemented the entitlement to free childcare for 3- and 4-year-olds, with almost universal take-up of hours offered to parents.”

I think that we should be congratulating the Secretary of State. It also says:

“The Department has made significant progress in providing free entitlement to early years childcare… parents and children are clearly benefiting from these entitlements… Stakeholders are…positive about increasing the entitlement to 30 hours”.

We are able to do all those things because we have a strong and sound economy. What a contrast it would be if we listened to the right hon. Gentleman. Because I regularly subscribe to the Islington Tribune, I can announce to the House that his latest economic adviser is one Mr Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek Finance Minister who left his economy in ruins. That is Labour’s policy in two words: Acropolis Now.

That is not much help to the 41,000 children who are not benefiting from what they were promised by the Government.

Let us look further on in the educational life of children. According to the Government’s own figures, half a million children in primary schools are in classes of more than 31, and 15,000 are in classes of more than 40. We are all aware of the importance of both pre-school and early-years education to giving all our children a decent start in life, yet half a million are living in poverty, and many are in oversized classes. Is it not time for a serious Government intervention to sort this problem out?

Let me bring the right hon. Gentleman up to date with the figures relating to all those areas.

Introducing the extra hours of childcare is obviously a huge operation for the childcare providers, but although the National Audit Office report said that only 58% of disadvantaged two-year-olds were accessing the free childcare offer, the latest information shows that over 70% are doing so.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of teachers, and overcrowded classes. There are 13,100 more teachers than there were in 2010, because we have invested in Teach First and in bursaries, and we have made sure that teaching is a worthwhile career. As for school places, I want to answer the right hon. Gentleman, because there are actually 453 fewer schools that are full or over capacity than there were in 2010—so that is progress—and there are 36,500 fewer pupils in overcrowded schools.

Why have we been able to do that? We have protected education funding. We have protected the money that followed every pupil into a school. We introduced the pupil premium, and that was the first time that any Government had recognised the extra needs of children from the poorest backgrounds. We have done all that, so our school system is growing, there are more places, and there are fewer overcrowded schools—all because we have a strong economy and the right values in place.

The problem is that class sizes are growing. The problem is that there is a crisis of teacher shortages as well. I have been talking to many teachers, as, I am sure, have the Prime Minister and others. I have a question from one, Tom, who says:

“I have been teaching for 10 years, and am currently head of D&T”

—design and technology—

“at a successful secondary school. With increasing numbers of teachers leaving the profession, will the government now accept that there is a crisis in recruitment and retention?”

Will the Government accept that there is that crisis in this crucial profession?

I have just given the right hon. Gentleman the figures. There are 13,000 more teachers in our schools than there were when I became Prime Minister. However, if he is worried about teacher recruitment, perhaps he can explain this. His party proposes to put up the basic rate of tax, starting in Scotland. How will that help? It means that classroom teachers, nursery teachers and secondary teachers will all pay more tax. What we are doing is helping teachers by saying, “You can earn £11,000 before you pay any income tax at all.” I do not think that recruiting teachers is simply about money—it is also about having a good school system, which we have in our country—but it certainly will not help if we listen to Labour and put up people’s taxes.

The Prime Minister seems to be in a bit of denial here. Ofsted and the National Audit Office have confirmed that there is a shortage and a crisis of teachers. Ensuring that there are enough excellent teachers in our schools is obviously fundamental to the life chances of children. When 70% of headteachers have warned that they are now having to use agency staff to staff their classrooms, is it not time that the Government intervened and looked at the real cost of this, which is the damage to children’s education and the £1.3 billion spent last year on agency teachers? We have this agency working situation in the national health service and also in education. Are we not moving into an era that we could term “agency Britain”?

The right hon. Gentleman has to look at the facts, rather than talking down the people who are working so hard to teach children in our schools. The facts are these: our teachers are better qualified than ever, with a record 96.6% of teachers in state-funded schools now having a degree or higher qualification. Those are the facts. On those going into teaching, Teach First is the most popular destination for Oxbridge graduates—something that never happened under a Labour Government. If you want to encourage people to go into teaching, you have to know that you have a good school system with more academies, more free schools and higher qualifications, and make sure that we have rigour and discipline in our classrooms, all of which has improved. All of that is possible only if you have a strong and growing economy to fund the schools that our children need.

Q3. Fiddlers Ferry in my constituency is one of several UK power stations announcing closure this year. However, Germany and Holland, both of whose carbon emissions are higher than ours, are building brand new mega-coal power stations from which we will be importing coal. It is hard for me to explain the logic of this to my constituents. Could the Prime Minister review the pace of our closure programme, particularly in the context of next year’s energy crunch? (903842)

My hon. Friend raises a very important question and he is right to say that there is big change in this industry. We want to see an increase in gas capacity and in renewables capacity, and of course the restarting of our nuclear programme, which I hope to be discussing with the French President this week. My hon. Friend is also right to say that security of supply must be our No. 1 priority, and that is why we have announced that we are going to bring forward the capacity market to provide an extra boost to existing stations, and this could indeed help Fiddlers Ferry itself. I would say to him and to everyone across the House that all these decisions we take about energy have consequences for people’s bills. He mentioned Germany, but German electricity prices are 40% higher than those of the UK; the level of subsidy makes up about 30% of German bills. Ours is less than half that level, and I think we have to think through these decisions and their consequences for energy consumers.

We all have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of age, gender, sex, sexual orientation, disability or ethnicity. Parents have rights to maternity and paternity leave entitlement. Workers have the right to paid holidays and the right to work for no more than 48 hours each week. All those rights are guaranteed through the European Union. Does the Prime Minister agree that there are huge social benefits from being members of the European Union?

The point I would make is that in recent years what we have done, including under this Government, is to add to the rights that people have, including maternity and paternity rights. The emphasis in Europe now needs to be on making sure that we expand our single market and make it more successful for our businesses, recognising that social benefits matter as well, but principally I believe that they are a matter for this House.

Millions of UK citizens live elsewhere in the European Union. European decisions have helped the environment by reducing sulphur dioxide emissions by nine tenths. Relations between the 28 EU member states are often imperfect but they are maintained through dialogue and agreement, which surely is a huge improvement on the confrontations and wars of the past. Will the Prime Minister concentrate on the positive arguments for EU membership and reject the approach of “Project Fear”?

My arguments about being stronger in the reformed European Union, safer in the reformed European Union and better off in the reformed European Union are all positive arguments. I would add to that the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes, which is that things such as pollution cross borders and so it makes sense to work together. The fundamental point he makes is one worth thinking about. He and I are both post-war children, but we should never forget, when we sit around that table, that just 70 years ago these countries were murdering each other on the continent of Europe. For all the frustrations of this institution, and, believe me, there are many, we should never forget that fact—the fact that we talk, the fact that we work together and the fact that we resolve our disputes around that table.

Q7. Those who foster children deserve our full support. To mark fostering February, last Friday I visited Jay Fostering in my constituency, which since its establishment in 2003 has helped more than 1,250 children to find a loving and caring home. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the team at Jay Fostering, as well as the carers? Will he also agree to look into how the currently complex funding arrangements for over-18s could be considerably simplified to ease the transition of children into adulthood? (903846)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which we started to address in the last Parliament because 18-year-olds were almost being automatically ejected from foster parent homes. We all know, as parents, that it is very important to give people the support they need. That is why we changed the law in the last Parliament so that local authorities are under a duty to support young people who choose to remain with their foster carers beyond the age of 18. We have put in place the “staying put” arrangement, we are providing £44 million over three years, and in the first year of its roll-out almost half those eligible to stay put have decided to do so. This is a real advance in our fostering arrangements.

Q4. As this is my first ever question to the Prime Minister, I do hope that my suit and tie match his mother’s high expectations. In September last year, 16-year-old Mohammed Dura-Ray was stabbed to death in my constituency. His mother Mariama discovered last week that the Crown Prosecution Service will not be prosecuting the man arrested for his murder. Sadly, she joins the 84% of people in Southwark who experienced knife crime last year who have seen no one held to account. The Home Office blames local police for that low prosecution rate, and I resent the accusation that my local police are not up to the job. Will the Prime Minister commit to ensuring that my local police have the resources to investigate knife crime fully and bring more killers to justice? (903843)

The hon. Gentleman uses his first question to raise an incredibly important issue: knife crime in our country. The good news is that knife crime has come down by about 14% since 2010, but he makes an important point about the level of prosecutions. Last year there were some 11,000 prosecutions, and the rate of prosecution is similar to that for other areas, but clearly everything we can do to help the police and help the CPS to increase the rate of prosecution is wholly worth while. We need to give the police the resources they need—and we are, through the spending round; we need to educate young people on the dangers of knife crime, and we need to make sure that those who commit these crimes are properly punished.

I call Mr Bernard Jenkin. [Interruption.] Where is the fellow? He is not here. We shall hear from someone who is here. I call Mr David Davis.

Order. I know the House is in a state of some perturbation but we must hear from the right hon. Gentleman. When he has composed himself, we will hear from him.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. For five or six years, the number of national insurance numbers issued to EU migrants has been hundreds of thousands higher than the official immigration figures. That implies that the official immigration figures may be a dramatic underestimate. We can know the truth of the matter only if Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs releases its data on active EU national insurance numbers, but HMRC has refused to do so. Will the Prime Minister instruct HMRC to release those statistics immediately so that we can understand the truth about European Union immigration?

I am glad that we have the single transferable question, if not the single transferable vote! It is very good to hear from my right hon. Friend. The reason why the numbers do not tally is that a person can get a national insurance number for a very short-term visit, and people who are already here but without a national insurance number can apply for one, so the numbers are quite complex. HMRC has given greater information, and I will ensure that that continues to be the case.

Q5. The proposed changes to Sunday trading are causing great concern to many retailers, shop workers, their families, faith groups and all who want to keep Sunday special, yet before the election the Prime Minister said that he had no plans to change Sunday trading laws. When did he change his mind, or was it always his plan to scrap this great British compromise as soon as the election was safely out of the way? (903844)

I thought it was right to bring forward these proposals because they are genuinely new proposals—new in that we are devolving to local authorities the ability to make that decision. Secondly, and crucially—I am sure that Opposition Members will be interested in this—we will be introducing new protections not only for new workers on Sundays, but for all workers on Sundays. The House should look carefully at this idea not least because our constituents are able to shop online all day, every day, including on Sunday. All the evidence shows that these proposals will be welcomed by customers and will create more jobs. We have nothing to be scared of in moving into this new arrangement.

Q9. At the weekend, I visited a young enterprise trade fair where teams from across local Staffordshire schools, including Rugeley sixth-form academy, were showcasing their entrepreneurial skills. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing good luck to all the teams, and does he agree that initiatives such this are key to inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs? (903848)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that for years not enough was done in our schools to encourage enterprise and entrepreneurship. When we know that so many of the jobs of the future will come from start-up businesses, small businesses and rapidly growing start-ups, it is absolutely right that we should be promoting enterprise in our schools, not only through teaching but through exercises and enabling young people to start businesses by giving them small grants.

Q6. Yesterday, Five-Quarter Energy, a north-east small and medium-sized enterprise, ceased to trade. Its goal was the extraction of gas from coal deep under the North sea. The Government failed to provide a supporting statement to secure foreign direct investment owing to their inability to comprehend that underground coal gasification would not only secure our energy supply but provide feedstocks to grow our industries, and that all that would be totally decarbonised. Will the Prime Minister look into that appalling loss of opportunity and urgently change course and develop a meaningful industrial energy strategy that British industry, workers and the planet so badly need? (903845)

I shall certainly look at the case the hon. Gentleman raises, because we back all energy projects that can create jobs and growth in our country, and we have a very active industrial strategy for that. I know that he is disappointed about our decision on carbon capture and storage, but I say to him that that is an extra £1 billion capital investment, and even after that there is no sign yet that carbon capture and storage can be even close to competitive with nuclear power or offshore wind. None the less, I will look carefully at the case that he mentions.

Q11. A very large proportion of the fish caught by British vessels and landed in the UK are exported to Europe, mainly to EU countries, and, under reforms that were led by the British Government, a great many of our fishermen fish in the sovereign waters of other European Union countries. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our seas, those that exploit them, and the communities that they support are better off in a reformed European Union? (903850)

I do agree with my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to him for the huge amount of work he did to reform the common fisheries policy from what was a very poor policy to one that is now working much better for our fishermen. When it comes to fishing and farming, the key issue will be ensuring that Europe’s markets remain open to the produce that we land and grow. That will be vital to the debate that we have in the months ahead.

Q10. When more than 1,600 families are on York’s housing waiting list; when care workers are forced to leave the city owing to the cost of renting, thereby delaying hospital discharges; when young families are placed in a single room in homeless hostels; and when supported housing schemes will have to close because of benefit changes, can the Prime Minister specifically state why up to 2,500 predominantly high-value homes are being planned for development on public land in York central, without a single home being built for social rent? (903849)

The decisions made in York about planning are for York City Council and the local plan. One of the things that we did in the previous Parliament, which was specifically designed to help York, was to alter the change of use provisions so that empty offices could be used to build flats and houses for local people, which is happening in York and will help to make sure that that city continues to thrive.

Q12. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and my constituent William Laurie, a brilliant young farmer whose business has been put at risk because the Rural Payments Agency has not paid his basic payment scheme money? Will my right hon. Friend also confirm that the figures that the RPA keeps putting out are fictional, or does he agree with his Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that it is the European Commission’s fault for making the common agricultural policy so complicated? (903851)

The system is complicated, and we need to make sure that the Rural Payments Agency does the very best that it can. To date 70,000 farmers have received their 2015 payments, which is 81% of all claims paid, but there is always room for improvement. Indeed, we should look at all the devolved areas of the United Kingdom to see how they are coping with the problem, but more broadly it is very important that we maintain the access that our farmers have without tariff, without tax, without quota, to produce the cleanest and best food anywhere in the world and export it unhindered to 500 million people in the European single market.

Yesterday the chair of the board of the International Campaign for Tibet, Mr Richard Gere, came to the House of Commons to meet Members of Parliament as well as you, Mr Speaker. Will the Prime Minister follow the example set by the United States, Canada, Germany and Japan and write to the Chinese authorities to express his concerns about the oppressive counter-terrorism laws introduced in Tibet?

I was not aware of the visit by Richard Gere. I will look closely at what he said and perhaps get back to the right hon. Lady about the issues he raises.

Q13. In 2004 the 16-year-old son of my constituent Lorraine Fraser was murdered by a gang, and the conviction of four of them was secured through joint enterprise. The recent ruling in the Supreme Court has caused Lorraine and many other victims’ families a great deal of anxiety. Will my right hon. Friend agree to facilitate a meeting to enable these families to discuss their concerns with Ministers and understand what the ruling might mean in cases such as theirs? (903852)

Through my hon. Friend, may I extend my sympathy to his constituents? He is right—we should begin by remembering the families of all those who have lost loved ones to dreadful crimes and who are worried about that judgment and what it might mean for them. I am very happy to facilitate a meeting between him and one of the Justice Ministers to discuss it. I think we should be clear that that judgment referred only to a narrow category of joint enterprise cases, and it would be wrong to suggest that everyone convicted under the wider law on joint enterprise will have grounds for appeal. It is very important that that message goes out, but I will fix the meeting that my hon. Friend calls for.

People in the midlands are furious to learn that the Government have awarded a contract to make British medals to some French company. Imagine opening your Distinguished Service Order or your CBE to find “Fabriqué en France” on it. I have visited midlands medal manufacturers in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter, and they are the best in the world. The Prime Minister should go back to Downing Street, call in the Cabinet Office Minister and get this scandal sorted out.

The only point I would make is that I am sure that all those in the Royal Mint in Wales would want to contest that claim and argue that they make the final medals in the United Kingdom. I am sure the competition between them and Birmingham is intense. I will certainly take away what the hon. Gentleman says. I was not aware of the issue, but where we can make something in Britain, we should make it in Britain.

Q14. A recent investigation by my local newspaper, the Derby Telegraph, uncovered reports of alleged experiments carried out on children by medics at a medical facility in Derbyshire during the ’60s and ’70s. Will the Prime Minister ensure that a thorough investigation is now undertaken? (903853)

I am very happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. She is absolutely right to raise this matter; they are very serious allegations and it is vital that the full facts are considered. My understanding is that the police, the local authority and the NHS are working together and that there is an inquiry process under the Derby Safeguarding Children Board, in line with is procedures. I encourage anyone who knows anything about this to come forward and give their evidence to the board.

The Syrian ceasefire is extremely fragile. There are reports that Russia is continuing to attack anti-Assad rebels, not Daesh, and that Islamic terrorists and weapons continue to pass into Syria across the Turkish border. What are the British Government doing to ensure that the ceasefire is properly monitored and, in particular, to reduce serious tensions between Russia and our NATO ally Turkey?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this matter. The cessation of hostilities is an important step forward, imperfect though it is, and it does enable the possibility of political negotiations starting next week. She asked specifically what we are doing to try to ensure that it is properly enforced. We are working with the Americans and the Russians to make that happen—I have a European conference call with Vladimir Putin later this week to reinforce these points. Even though the ceasefire is imperfect, the fact that we have it is progress. Not every group is included in the ceasefire, but basically we are not seeing the attacks that were taking place on the moderate opposition, which is welcome. It has also enabled us, with others, to get aid to communities that desperately need it, including through air drops and convoys. I would not put too much optimism into the mix right now, but this is progress and we should work on it.

Q15. Two weeks ago I visited the Zaatari refugee camp and the surrounding area on the Jordanian-Syrian border, primarily to assess healthcare services. I was struck by the remarkable generosity of the Jordanian people. However, the local system is under significant pressure. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss further what Britain can do to enhance healthcare services on the ground, both for the Syrian refugees and for the wider Jordanian community? (903854)

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the situation. That refugee camp is an extraordinary sight, because of the scale of the endeavour under way. I think that Britain can be proud of what we have done, in terms of the direct aid that we have given and the London conference, which raised $11 billion for the refugee camps. I know that he has a long-standing interest in what we can do to ensure that facilities are delivered quickly, including, on occasion, using military facilities, and I think that there might be opportunities for that. We also need to ensure that the emergency response from non-governmental organisations and the United Nations is as fast as it can be when such crises happen in future.

As the Prime Minister struggles with certain elements in his party over Europe, does he ever think back to an inspirational and visionary Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who faced similar difficulties but stood up to the rebels in his own party and secured a yes vote for staying in Europe? Will he join me in celebrating the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth next week? Across all parties we should celebrate that great, innovative Prime Minister.

I do feel a natural sympathy for anyone who has had this job, irrespective of the side of the House they were on. I think that Harold Wilson did some very important things for our country. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a particular connection to him. I wish his family well on this important centenary. I am sure that we approach things in different ways, but one thing that we would have agreed on is that Britain’s future is better off in a reformed European Union.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to Neil and Jennifer Burdett, the parents of two-year-old Faye, who died on Valentine’s day of meningitis B. Since Faye’s death, 815,000 people have signed the petition calling on the Government to vaccinate more children against meningitis B. I am proud that the UK is the first country to have a vaccination programme for meningitis B, but could my right hon. Friend ensure that the Government look at what more could be done to prevent more children like Faye dying from this horrid disease?

On behalf of the whole House, let me extend our sympathies and condolences to Faye’s parents and to all those who have had children suffering from this terrible disease. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we were the first country in the world to have this vaccination programme. The programme was based on the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, who recommended targeting the vaccine to protect the infants at highest risk. The incidence of highest risk does occur in babies of five months, and of the 276 children contracting meningitis B last year, over 100 were under one year of age. But my hon. Friend makes important points. We need to look at all the evidence carefully, as do the expert bodies that advise us, recognising that Britain has already taken some very important steps forward by being the first country to vaccinate in this way.