Adrian Ismay, a Belfast prison officer, died last week as a result of injuries caused by a bomb placed under his vehicle. A murder investigation is under way, and one man has been charged in connection with the attack, but we should today offer our condolences to the family and friends of Mr Ismay.
Let me also update the House on yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels. Details are still emerging, but our understanding is that at least 34 people were killed and many others injured. Daesh claimed responsibility for the attacks, which follow the horrific suicide bombing that they carried out in Istanbul on 19 March. We are aware of four British nationals who were injured in the attack, and we are concerned about one missing British national.
We face a common terrorist threat, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing our full solidarity with the people of Belgium following these terrible attacks. I spoke to the Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, yesterday to pass on our condolences. Our police and agencies are doing everything they can to support the investigation. In this country, we have increased police patrols and border screening. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will make a statement later setting out all the steps that we are taking.
Britain and Belgium share the same values of liberty and democracy. The terrorists want to destroy everything that our two great countries stand for, but we will never let them.
Mr Speaker, this morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that. These people packed their explosives with nails in order to kill as many innocent people, including women and children, as they possibly could. We should unite in condemnation of them, and we should stand with the people and the Government of Belgium and with all countries that are being afflicted by this appalling terrorist menace, and say that they shall never win.
I support the words that have just been said by the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and the Prime Minister, in solidarity with the people of Belgium and the victims of the horrific attacks that have taken place in Brussels, and also in Ankara, in the last few days. We pay respect and tribute to all their families and friends, and we pay enormous respect to the emergency services of all denominations for the huge amount of work that they have done to try to save life. We must defend our security and values in the face of such terrorist outrages, and refuse to be drawn into a cycle of violence and hatred. We take pride in our societies of diverse faiths, races and creeds, and will not allow those who seek to divide us to succeed.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) will respond, on behalf of the Labour party, to the statement that the Home Secretary will make at 12.30 pm.
I also join the Prime Minister in sending my deepest condolences to Mr Ismay’s wife, Sharon, and his three daughters. The people of Northern Ireland made a profound choice to follow the path of peace when they widely adopted the Good Friday agreement. The actions of an unrepresentative few should not be allowed to change a course that is supported by the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland.
Let me now raise a different subject altogether. Last week, I received a letter from Adrian. He wrote:
“I’m disabled and I live in constant fear of my benefits being reassessed and stopped…and being forced onto the streets”.
Will the Prime Minister do what the Chancellor failed to do yesterday, and apologise to those who went through such anguish and upset while there was a threat of cuts to their personal independence payments?
Let me first thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the terrorist attacks in Belgium, and about Northern Ireland and the fact that we have achieved so much peace and progress in that valuable part of our United Kingdom.
Turning to the issue of disability benefits, as I said in this House on Monday, when you are faced with having to take very many very difficult decisions—including many spending reductions—as we were after becoming the Government in 2010, you do not always get every decision right. I am the first to accept and admit that, and on every occasion that that happens it is very important that you learn the lessons, but as we do so, we will continue to increase spending on disability benefits, which will be more than £46 billion a year by the end of this Parliament, compared with £42 billion when I became Prime Minister.
Government figures published only this morning show that the number of people with disabilities and who are homeless is now up by 39% since 2010, and that 300,000 more disabled people are living in absolute poverty. That is why people like Adrian are very worried. There has been big disarray in the Cabinet over the last few days, so can the Prime Minister now absolutely and categorically rule out any further cuts to welfare spending in the lifetime of this Parliament? Simply: yes or no?
Let me respond to all the points that the right hon. Gentleman has just made. First, he talked about the number of people in poverty. We have actually seen poverty fall during this Parliament. The second thing he referred to was the regrettable rise in homelessness, with figures out today, but homelessness is still 58% below the peak that it reached under Labour. That is important. He talked about the number of disabled people. This is a Government committed to supporting the disabled, but it is worth making the point that in the last two years an extra 293,000 disabled people have got into work. We want to continue to close the disability gap, as we have set out in our manifesto.
As for the question about further welfare reductions, let me repeat the statement that the new Welfare Secretary made on Monday and that the Chancellor made on Tuesday. I am happy to make it again. I dealt with these issues on Monday. I turned up and gave the answers even though the Leader of the Opposition had not asked the questions. We are very clear that we are not planning additional welfare savings other than the ones that we set out in our manifesto and that are in train.
My question was actually about the poverty of people with disabilities, which the Prime Minister did not answer. In his failure to explain how he would fill the hole in his Budget left by the change of heart on personal independence payments, the Chancellor said:
“We can afford to absorb such changes”.—[Official Report, 22 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 1394.]
If it is so easy to absorb changes of this nature, why did the Chancellor and the Prime Minister ever announce them in the first place? Will the Prime Minister now listen and learn, and withdraw the £30 per week cut to disabled employment and support allowance claimants that his Government are pursuing?
The changes to employment and support allowance have been through both Houses of Parliament. It is important to note that employment and support allowance for the most disabled—that is, those in the support group—is up by almost £650 a year under this Government. We have increased the higher rate of attendance allowance, we have increased carers allowance, and we have increased the enhanced rate of PIP because we believe that a strong economy should support the most disabled people in our country, and that is exactly what we have legislated to do.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to get on to discussing black holes, I say bring on the argument. We inherited an 11% budget deficit from the Labour party, and under this team of Ministers and this Chancellor of the Exchequer we have cut that deficit by two thirds since we became the Government. From Labour, all we have had is more proposals for more spending, more welfare, more taxes and more debt—all the things that got us into the biggest mess with the biggest black hole in the first place.
If it is all so fine and dandy, the question has to be asked: why did the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) feel it necessary to resign as Work and Pensions Secretary, complaining that the cuts being announced were to fit arbitrary fiscal targets? He said that they were
“distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest”.
In the initial announcement, he proposed cuts to PIPs then changed his mind. Is not the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green right when he says that this was a political decision rather than one made in the interests of people in this country?
I believe that after seven or eight years of economic growth it is right to be targeting a surplus, because a responsible Government put aside money for a rainy day. I do not want to be part of a Government that do not have the courage to pay off our debts and leave them instead to our children and grandchildren. That is the truth. What is dressed up as compassion from the party opposite just means putting off difficult decisions and asking our children to pay the debts that we were not prepared to pay ourselves. [Interruption.] I do not know why the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), is shouting at me. We have a very interesting document today: the spreadsheet showing which Labour MPs are on which side. The hon. Lady is shouting, but it says here—[Interruption.] No, no, it says she is “neutral but not hostile”. On the other hand, the Opposition Chief Whip is being a bit quiet. There are five categories. We have “core” support—[Interruption.] I’ve got all day, Mr Speaker. We have “core” support—I think you can include me in that lot very strongly. We have “core plus”. The Opposition Chief Whip is being a bit quiet because she is in “hostile”. And I thought I had problems!
Let me invite the Prime Minister to leave the theatre and return to reality. The reality is that he has presided over a Budget that unravelled in two days and now contains a £4.4 billion black hole. He may wish to consult the Chancellor on yet another change of heart on this matter. Will he now consult the Chancellor and tell the country who is going to pay for the black hole? Will it be through cuts or tax rises? Where will the cuts fall? Where will the tax rises take place, as £4.4 billion has to be found from somewhere?
Suddenly the king of fiscal rectitude speaks. The right hon. Gentleman may have noticed that the Budget passed last night. It is a Budget that cuts the deficit in every year of this Parliament. It is a Budget that delivers a surplus by the end of this Parliament. None of that is going to change. He talks about this Budget—[Interruption.] The “hostile” shout, but the “neutral but not hostile” have to be quiet, I think. I want to know: hands up, who is “core plus”?
I will tell you what this Budget did. It took a million people out of income tax. It saw more money for our schools. It helped the poorest people in our country to save. It cut taxes for small businesses. It cut taxes for the self-employed. It made our economy stronger. It made our country fairer. It is a Budget that will help this country do better.
The truth is that it was a Budget that fell apart in two days. The truth is that many people with disabilities went through the most unbelievable levels of stress and trauma after the PIP announcement was made. There are many people who are still going through stress and trauma in our society. There are still—[Interruption.] I am not sure that the Government Members who are shouting so loudly have any idea what it is like to try to balance a budget at home when you do not have enough money coming in, the rent is going up and the children need clothes.
Order. There is too much shouting on both sides of the House. Stop it. The public are bored stiff by it. The right hon. Gentleman will finish his question and we will have an answer. There will be no shouting from Members of any grouping. That is the message.
The Budget has to mean something for everybody in our society, however poor and however precarious their lives are. This Budget downgraded growth, downgraded wage growth and downgraded investment. The Chancellor has failed on debt targets and failed on deficit targets, as the official figures have shown. The fiscal rule is quite simply failing. The Treasury Committee scrutinised the Government’s fiscal rule and could not find any credible economist who backed it. Can the Prime Minister find anybody who backs a policy and a Budget with a big hole in it which downgrades every single forecast the Government set themselves before the Budget was made?
The right hon. Gentleman is just a bit late, because the Budget passed through this House with large majorities on every single vote. Let me remind him: this Government are spending more on the disabled than in any year under the last Labour Government. We are spending more on the most disabled, including the most disabled children in our country. We have got more disabled people into work than ever happened under Labour. What we see with this Budget is the background of an economy that is growing, where employment is at a record high, investment is rising and businesses are creating jobs in Britain, which is the envy of other European economies. It is because we have a strong economy that we are able to provide this support. That is what we see: Britain getting stronger and the Labour party a threat to the economic security of every family in our country.
Q2. I am sure the Prime Minister is as appalled as I am that incidents involving anti-Semitism are on the rise. Does he agree that all organisations, public and private, should root out anti-Semitism, without hesitation? (904276)
I completely agree with my hon. Friend; anti-Semitism is an absolute cancer in our societies and we should know that when it grows it is the signal of many even worse things happening to ethnic groups and different groups all over our country. There is, sadly, a growth of anti-Semitism in our country and we see it in attacks on Jewish people and Jewish students—it absolutely has to be stamped out. We should all, whatever organisation we are responsible for, make sure that happens. I have to say that we do see a growth in support for segregation and indeed for anti-Semitism in part of the Labour party, and I say to its leader that it is his party and he should sort it out. [Interruption.]
When terrorists attack Brussels or Paris or London or Glasgow, we are as one in our condemnation of the atrocities, as we equally condemn the killings of Yazidis, of Kurds, of Syrians and of Iraqis by Daesh and others extremists. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who work here and abroad to protect us in the face of the ongoing terrorist threat, so will the Prime Minister confirm that absolutely everything is being done to help the Belgian authorities and the people of Belgium in the wake of the Brussels attacks?
I can certainly confirm that. In my conversations with the Belgian Prime Minister I made a number of offers of policing and intelligence assistance that we could give, particularly on high-end, expert and technical capabilities. There are already some intelligence officers embedded with the Belgian authorities and there is strong police-to-police co-operation. Clearly, the Belgians are coping with an unprecedented situation in their country. We stand ready to do anything more we can and we are also, clearly, examining all the capabilities and things that we have here to see what more we can do to safeguard our own country.
A defining characteristic of a democratic society is our trust in our institutions and democratic oversight by parliamentarians of those who work so hard to keep us safe. We have that oversight with our police and with our security services, but we do not yet have it with UK special forces under the Intelligence and Security Committee or the Defence Committee. Will the Prime Minister address that?
I am afraid that I just part company with the right hon. Gentleman on that one. We have put in place some of the most extensive oversight arrangements for our intelligence and security services. Our services do a remarkable job, and the police are regularly called to account both locally and nationally. The work that our special forces do is vital for our country. Like everyone else in this country, they are subject to international law, but I do not propose to change the arrangements under which these incredibly brave men work.
Q6. In England, this Government have delivered better GCSEs, better A-levels and a better chance of getting into university than Labour has in Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Labour Members have no right to criticise our education policies when their own Education Minister in Wales has had to issue a public apology for the failure of his own? (904280)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. What we have seen in England—and we should praise the teachers who have worked so hard to deliver those results—is a result of rigour in standards, independence in our schools and accountability for results. When we look at Wales, we do not see those things in place, so I urge the Welsh Assembly Government to look at that, and I urge the Welsh people, when they have a choice at the coming elections, to ensure that they vote for parties that put education reform, education standards, education rigour and education accountability first.
Q3. In 1992, the oil tanker Braer ran aground off the south coast of Shetland. It was carrying 85,000 tonnes of Gullfaks crude, which then spilled into the sea and on to our shoreline. It caused economic and environmental devastation. Since the Donaldson report into that disaster, we have had an emergency tug stationed in the Northern Isles. It is our protection against ever being blighted in that way again. The Maritime Coastguard Agency now wants to take that tug away. There will be no finance for it after September. Will the Prime Minister look again at that decision, and repeat the undertaking that he made to the people of Shetland in 2014 that he will not leave them exposed in that way again? (904277)
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. My understanding is that the one tug that has been sustained off the coast of Scotland has played an important role in the past. The cost is between £2 million to £3 million a year. It is currently used very sparingly, so it is right to look at the right way to deliver the service in the future. Alternative options would clearly take time to develop and implement, which is why we have announced that this will be funded until 30 September 2016, and we will have to make a decision on provision in due course. I will keep him in touch with those developments.
Q7. We believe in doing the right thing—[Interruption.]—which is why it is absolutely right that the proceeds of crime are returned to the local communities that have been the victims of crime. Staffordshire’s police and crime commissioner, Matthew Ellis, is calling on community groups in Cannock Chase to apply for grants from his commissioner’s proceeds of crime fund. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that shows that our excellent Conservative police and crime commissioner is delivering real value for the people of Staffordshire? (904281)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Police and crime commissioners have really bedded in properly as a means of bringing our police to account. The Home Affairs Committee, an all-party Committee, reported recently that those PCCs provide greater clarity of leadership for policing and are increasingly recognised by the public as accountable for the strategic direction of their police force. That is an important reform, and when PCCs bring forward ideas such as using the proceeds of crime in the way that she suggests they should be rewarded at the ballot box.
Q4. The list of Ministers and advisers who have resigned after the Prime Minister expressed his full confidence in them is extensive, so may I ask him this: does he still have full confidence in the Chancellor? (904278)
Of course, and I will tell the hon. Gentleman why. The Chancellor is the one who, as part of a team, has delivered the fastest growing economy in the G7. We have 2.4 million more people in work; inflation that is virtually zero; wages that are growing; and an economy that is getting stronger.
Q8. The House of Commons Library confirms that this year our net contribution to the EU will increase by more than £2.6 billion—I think it is actually £2,627 million. Should that money be spent on supporting people in Bulgaria and Romania, or should it be spent in this country, supporting our vulnerable and disabled people? (904282)
I say to my hon. Friend that our net contribution accounts for just over one penny in every pound paid in taxes, so as we enter this vital debate we have to work out whether we believe that that sort of investment—one penny out of every pound—is worth the jobs and the investment, the growth and the security, and the safety and the solidarity that we get through working with our partners. I will be on the side that thinks it is, and clearly he will be on the side that thinks it is not, but we should have a polite and reasonable debate as we go through this. What I will say, which I am sure he will welcome, is that we have limited our contributions to the EU budget because we set an overall EU budget that is falling over the next six years. The reason our contribution varies is that part of it is determined by the success of a country’s economy and—to return to the questions I have just been answering—because our economy has been growing faster than others in Europe, we will make a slightly larger contribution than we otherwise would.
Q5. Not only has my constituent Susan Sutovic suffered the death of her son, but the unexplained circumstances of his death have led to a 12-year battle with the authorities in Belgrade, where this happened in 2004. The UK coroner has now ruled that the death was murder. Will the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary meet the family and do what can be done to get a proper investigation, to resolve the questions that remain and to achieve justice for Petar? (904279)
Q9. JPMorgan Chase, Sunseeker, Cobham, Lush and many other local businesses are supporting the inaugural Mid Dorset and North Poole apprenticeships and jobs fair. If he happens to be free on 15 April, I know the Prime Minister would be warmly welcomed at Queen Elizabeth's school in Wimborne. I know that he will welcome the news that unemployment in my constituency is down by more than 60%, but will he ensure that we are not complacent and that we secure the vital infrastructure needed to get good-quality jobs in Dorset and across the south-west? (904283)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the reasons we have managed to get our unemployment rate down to about 5% and 2.4 million more of our fellow countrymen and women into work is that businesses have recovered using apprenticeships. Events such as the one in his constituency will play a part in reaching our 3 million target for apprenticeships in this Parliament.
Q10. Academics, civil society and the Scottish Government have all condemned the Government’s anti-lobbying clause in new grant agreements. How can the Prime Minister promote transparency, democracy and freedom of speech overseas when that clause is clamping down on those principles here in the UK? (904284)
I would answer simply that I want taxpayers’ and charities’ money to go to good causes, rather than to lobbying Ministers and MPs and spent here. That is what they should be spending the money on. It is worth making the point that we are only one day away from what would have been separation day for Scotland. Had that happened, there would not be money for charities—there would not be money for anything.
Q13. Pubs are the beating heart of many communities across the UK. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the support given to our pubs in successive Budgets by joining me for a duty-frozen pint in the Crown Hotel in Colne, and tell the House what more he can do to support this vital part of our economy? (904287)
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind invitation. In Budget after Budget, we have seen this Government supporting the pub industry, which is such an important part of our economy and particularly of rural communities. I can make an announcement today that, subject to the usual conditions, we will be extending pub opening hours on 10 and 11 June this year, to mark Her Majesty the Queen’s 90th birthday. I am sure that that will be welcomed across the House.
Q11. If I compare my constituency with the Prime Minister’s and the Chancellor’s, I find that I have four times the number of youths unemployed, more than double the disabled claimant count and an average weekly wage that is 20% less. Are those the reasons why the Prime Minister and the Chancellor never understood and never had the compassion to realise, as everybody else did, that the disabled cuts were so obviously wrong? I give the Prime Minister one more opportunity: will he apologise to my constituents, who have been scared witless over the past week? (904285)
Obviously, there remain challenges in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but the claimant count is down by 16% in the past year alone, the claimant count has fallen by 50% since 2010, and the youth claimant count that he specifically mentioned has fallen by 12% in the past year. That has been delivered because we have a strong economy, businesses want to invest in our country, we are supporting apprenticeships, and we are making sure that that growth is delivering for people. In just two weeks’ time, the national living wage will come in, giving the poorest people in our country a £900 a year pay rise, and that will be tax-free because we are lifting the tax threshold in our country.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the remarks this morning by the Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergei Lavrov—that we should put aside our differences and that terrorists should not be allowed to run the show? Does my right hon. Friend agree that we would be stronger if we could work together, but to do that we will have to have a better understanding of Russia’s security needs?
Of course, we want to work with everyone we can to combat terrorism, but particularly when it comes to what is happening in Syria it is vitally important that the Russians stop any attacks and do not restart any attacks against moderate Sunnis and moderate Syrian opposition, which clearly have to form a part of that country. We cannot in the end defeat terrorism simply through the use of guns and missiles. We defeat terrorism through governance and good working democracies, because in that way people can see their own interests being represented by the countries in which they live.
Q12. The former Work and Pensions Secretary described the cuts to personal independence payments for the disabled as divisive, unfair and against the national interest. The Chancellor’s U-turn suggests that he now agrees. Can the Prime Minister explain how on earth he allowed this to happen in the first place? (904286)
It is good to have an intervention from someone who, I think, is “neutral but not hostile”. If the hon. Lady keeps going, she could join “core group plus”, with the rest of us. She would be very welcome in “core group plus.” Let me tell her what this Government have done: they have increased spending on disability benefits, and seen 293,000 more disabled people into work in the past two years and 2.4 million more people in work. That is bringing the country together, because we have a growing economy that is delivering a fairer society.
My right hon. Friend will have seen the recent OECD report on literacy and numeracy in England. Based on data from 2012, it ranked our teenagers bottom out of 23 developed countries for basic maths and reading—a damning indictment of 13 years of Labour’s education policy—[Interruption.]
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that it is worth while benchmarking our education system against those of other advanced countries. What we have seen in recent years is that the competition is very tough. When we look at the countries that are succeeding, whether it is the Republic of Korea or Finland, we see that they have well-paid teachers, proper accountability systems for results and rigour in terms of discipline, and that is exactly what we are introducing in our country with the new curriculum coming in right now.
Q14. The women of this country are tired of waiting—waiting for equal pay, waiting for an end to maternity and pregnancy discrimination, and waiting for a fair deal for WASPI pensioners. It is 2016. How much longer? (904288)
The hon. Lady is right to raise these issues. It is good that the pay gap is now at an historic low. It has almost evaporated for under-40s but there is more to be done in the public sector and in the private sector to bring that about. On pensions, we have introduced a pensions system which will benefit many, many women in years to come, because we have a single-tier pension without a means test, uprated by prices, earnings or 2.5%. We were able to do that only because we raised the pension age, saving over the long term something like half a trillion pounds—a difficult decision but the right one, because it means that we can look our pensioners in the eye, knowing that they are getting dignity and security in old age.
Two hundred and sixty thousand new apprenticeships have been created since the election, but the whole public sector needs to play its part if we are to meet the 3 million target to which the Prime Minister has referred. Will he ensure that every part of the public sector invests in training our young people so that we have the skills the country needs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that. Getting 3 million apprentices trained during this Parliament is a very stretching target. We will have to see those large companies that have really put their shoulder to the wheel on this agenda continue to do so, but there are two sectors where we need to do better. One is the public sector; we need more public sector organisations to get behind apprenticeships. We also need to make it simple and attractive for small businesses to start training apprentices again. That is absolutely what the Minister for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), is doing with the skills agenda. We all need to work very hard to deliver this by the end of the Parliament.
It is a very difficult question to answer. We should not be naive, were we to vote to leave, in believing that other countries would automatically cut us some sort of sweetheart deal. Just take one industry as an example: farming. Our farmers know now that they have duty-free, quota-free and tax-free access to a market of 500 million people. Were we to leave, could we really guarantee that French, Italian or Spanish farmers would not put pressure on their Governments to give us a less good deal? I do not think that we could. That is one of the many reasons why I think we are safer, more secure and better off in a reformed European Union.
In April 2015 the Prime Minister said that there should be a new Carlisle principle to ensure that other parts of the UK do not lose out as a result of Scottish devolution. Can he confirm that that principle will apply, who will review the position, when it will report, and who it will report to?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is particularly important for constituencies, such as his, that are close to the border, to make sure that decisions that are made, quite sensibly and rightly, by the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies do not disadvantage the rest of the United Kingdom. That was the principle set out, and the Chancellor will report regularly on that as he updates the House on his fiscal plans.
I trust that the Prime Minister will be aware that there is a critical meeting of the board of Tata in Mumbai on Tuesday. I will be flying out to Mumbai with the general secretary of the Community union to make the case for British steel. That meeting will decide the future of the Port Talbot steelworks in my constituency. Will the Prime Minister join me in exhorting Tata to stand with that plan and secure the future of the Port Talbot steelworks?
I absolutely give the hon. Gentleman my backing on that. A team of Ministers met yesterday to discuss all the things that we can do to get behind the steel industry at this vital time. It is an extremely difficult market situation, with massive global overcapacity and the huge fall in steel prices, but there are areas where we have taken action already and we will continue to look at what more we can do: state aid compensation so that we can secure the energy costs; greater flexibility over EU emissions regulations. We have done a huge amount in terms of public procurement, which I think can make a big difference to our steel industries. We are doing all those things and more, and we are making sure that Tata and others understand how valuable we believe this industry is to the UK and that the Government, within the limits we have, want to be very supportive and very helpful.