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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 614: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2016

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Government Estate (Modernisation)

Working collaboratively with Departments and local government, we are delivering a public sector estate that is cost-effective, supports the delivery of better-integrated public services, and exploits surplus land and property to help build homes and create jobs. In so doing, since 2010 we have raised £1.8 billion in capital receipts and reduced running costs by £750 million.

I welcome the Minister to his place and congratulate him on his well-deserved promotion. Does he agree that at a time when the country needs to build more housing on brownfield sites, it is essential that the Government lead the way in this? Have the Government done any audit that has ascertained the amount of land available and the number of houses and flats that could be built on it?

We have done some partial work, as my hon. Friend suggests. It is in the nature of the work that we are doing that there is not sufficiently good-quality understanding of public sector land, and that is why we are seeking to make it better. Despite that, we delivered 100,000 homes on public sector land in the previous Parliament, and we aspire to build 150,000 in this one. I shall provide him with further details as and when we discover them.

I welcome the Minister to his post. He will know that in 2010 a report said that the changes to the civil service—the regionalisation of the civil service—would require political leadership. We have seen a reduction in the size of the estate in London but an increase in the number of top officials and civil servants in London. Under his tenure, will we finally see that political leadership and the regions actually having a voice?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. In my previous ministerial post, it was a great pleasure for me to work with civil servants, especially in Yorkshire, including senior civil servants working there. I saw myself how it is possible to have senior civil servants around the country. I completely agree that the more we can get senior positions of all kinds around the country, the better we will be able to serve the people whom we were elected to serve.

The speed with which the new Brexit Department has been established from scratch since 24 June has been truly impressive. Is not the key to a modern Government who can respond to modern needs to have as much flexible, open-plan office space as possible?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The way in which we have been able to set up the new Department and the other Departments of State so rapidly is a tribute to the work done by my predecessors as Ministers at the Cabinet Office in reforms to the civil service and to the Government Property Unit. He will have heard the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of State for Exiting the European Union about the very significant support that he has received, in number and in quality, from the civil service so far.

Electoral Law Reform

The Government are committed to ensuring that our electoral system is as transparent, accurate and effective as possible. We are working closely with the Law Commission to consider what reforms might be brought forward in the light of its report on electoral law published earlier this year. The Government are also considering the review by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) of electoral fraud, and we will respond to his proposals in due course.

Smaller parties received almost a quarter of the votes cast in the 2015 election. While once 97% of the country voted Labour or Tory, that number is now less than 70%, and indeed falling, but none of that is reflected here. Is it not now time for a very serious and mature discussion on how we can make every vote count in UK general elections?

The Government believe that first past the post is the best system for electing a Government at the same time as ensuring that the vital constituency link between a Member of Parliament and their constituents is retained. This is clearly in line with the public mood, reflected in the overwhelming majority support for first past the post at the referendum held in 2011.

Many 16 and 17-year-olds feel disfranchised by Westminster. In 2007, Austria lowered its voting age to 16, and has found that turnout among 16 and 17-year-olds is higher than for older first-time voters. Will the Minister now commit to seriously examining the evidence for extending the franchise to our young adults?

The Government believe that it is absolutely vital to our democracy that young people should be engaged in the democratic process, and we will continue our commitment to increasing participation. The current voting age of 18, however, is widely recognised as the point at which one becomes an adult and gains full citizenship rights. I note that the question of lowering the voting age has been debated in this House on several occasions, when it has been repeatedly defeated, including three times during proceedings on the European Union Referendum Bill. The Government therefore have no plans to reduce the voting age.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box, and I thank him and his predecessor for the help that they have given in the compilation of my report. Is my hon. Friend alarmed by the fact that it is harder to take out a library card or collect a parcel from the post office than it is to vote or obtain a postal vote in our trust-based system? That places our ballot boxes at a peculiar risk. When will the Government respond?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he has undertaken in producing his report on electoral fraud, which was published in the summer. It made an excellent summer read. The Government take electoral fraud incredibly seriously. His report highlights that important issue, and as a result we are currently considering his proposals and will formally respond to his report in due course.

I join in warmly welcoming the Minister to his new position. In the EU referendum The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore voted twice, spoiling the ballot paper from his second home, to show how the system could, in theory, be cheated. As the Minister considers proposals to strengthen electoral law against voter fraud, would he therefore also consider a new legal requirement for people with more than one residence to choose one of them in advance as the only place where they wish to be legally registered to vote?

I hope you do not mind, Mr Speaker, but I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor for the work he has undertaken. He has left me with a rich inheritance.

The incident involving Charles Moore is the subject of an investigation, and therefore it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it. I note, however, that the Law Commission report includes recommendations on electoral residence, which the Government will respond to in due course.

I welcome the Minister to his position, and I look forward to working with him. I think there has been a frightening complacency in the answers to this question so far. The Prime Minister spoke recently on the steps of Downing Street about the disfranchised. Does the Minister not realise that the voting system itself disfranchises many of our citizens, particularly 16 and 17-year-olds and those who vote for minor parties? Will he now commit, in this new Government, to reviewing our system to make it more fair and democratic?

The Government are committed to ensuring that we have a democracy that works for everyone. Already, the introduction of individual electoral registration has made it easier to register to vote than ever before, with 20 million applications to register to vote online since 2014. The Electoral Commission’s report from July 2016 found that thanks to IER, electoral registers are not only more complete than ever before, but, critically, more accurate than ever. The Government recognise that there is always more to do, and we are committed to a programme of boosting registration among certain vulnerable groups in order to build a more engaged democracy.

Constituency Boundaries

3. When he expects the Boundary Commission to publish its initial recommendation for new constituency boundaries. (906121)

The Boundary Commissions for England and Wales will be publishing their initial recommendations on Tuesday 13 September, and the Boundary Commission for Scotland will do so later this year. The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland published its recommendations yesterday. The conduct of the boundary review is a matter for the independent Boundary Commissions. The initial proposals will be the subject of extensive consultation with political parties and local communities, after which revised proposals will be published at a later date.

I thank the Minister for his response, and I warmly welcome him to his position, where I am sure he will do an excellent job. I represent a rapidly growing new town with low voter registration, where an additional 5,000 new voters have hit the electoral roll in the past six months. Does the Minister agree that if the boundary review is to achieve constituencies of equal size by the next election, those factors need to be taken into consideration?

During every previous boundary review, Parliament has accepted that there must be a defined date and a set of registers to access. That was set down as a result of the delay to the 2013 review, which was voted for by Labour Members. Not only do those who now seek to delay the boundary review even further seek to overturn the accepted will of Parliament, but to delay the boundary review again would ensure that we have constituencies that are of dramatically unequal size, and that are based on data more than two decades old.

The boundary review next week is going to be a sham. Nearly 2 million voters have not been counted. Why does the Minister not start again, so that our democracy is not undermined by next week’s partisan gerrymandering?

Without the implementation of the reforms, legislated for by a majority in the previous Parliament, Members will continue to represent constituencies that were drawn up on the basis of data collected over 20 years ago, disregarding significant changes in the population since that happened. The status quo cannot and must not be an option. In future, boundary reviews will take place every five years to ensure that constituencies remain up to date, as they should be.

10. The number of electors in Welsh parliamentary constituencies varies hugely: Cardiff South and Penarth has more than 72,000 electors; Arfon has fewer than 40,000. My constituency of Montgomeryshire sits roughly in the middle, with about 48,000. Does the Minister agree that it cannot be right for each of these constituencies to elect one MP when the number of voters within them is so radically different? (906129)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot continue with the historical injustice of allowing such unequal representation. That representation currently allows for the electorate of one seat to be twice the size of another’s or, to put it in other words, allows one elector’s vote to be worth twice that of another. This injustice, long recognised, must be resolved.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his well-deserved promotion to the Treasury Bench. In the past, Ministers have argued that cutting the number of MPs will save the taxpayer £12 million. That is exactly the same amount of money that the previous Prime Minister has just spent on his lavender list of resignation honours. Is it not the case that this boundary redistribution is proceeding on the basis of a register from which 2 million people are excluded, and is that not an absolute affront to democracy?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to recognise that cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600 will not just save £12 million, but save £66 million over the course of a Parliament. At a time when many areas of public life have found savings, it is right that we should put our own house in order. Equally, it is right that we should finally establish the democratic principle of constituencies with an equal number of voters, which was first called for by the Chartists back in 1838 and recently endorsed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Cross-Government Departmental Resourcing

5. If he will make an assessment of the effect on cross-Government resourcing of Departments of recent machinery of government changes. (906124)

All Departments are currently reviewing their own structures and resources to ensure that we get the best deal for the whole of Britain. The Cabinet Office is helping to co-ordinate that effort.

The shake-up of Whitehall comes as insiders fear that Whitehall may simply be unable to face up to the scale of the Brexit negotiations if resources stay as they are. With the negotiations looming, rather than laying off civil servants and slashing budgets, is it not now time that our civil service was properly resourced and able to fight for the best deal for Britain?

I reject the hon. Lady’s assertions. The civil service is one of the finest in the world. It has already risen to the challenge of the immediate opportunities that, with Brexit, face us as a country. That is why I am delighted that we have been able to resource the two new Departments so successfully, and their Secretaries of State are very content with the support they are receiving.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Parliamentary Secretary on their appointments, and say how much we on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee look forward to working with them? As well as focusing on resourcing and machinery, our inquiry into the civil service will focus on civil service leadership. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to develop stronger leadership in the civil service to inculcate the right values, the right attitudes, and the trust and openness on which a high-functioning organisation depends?

I, too, look forward to continuing my long-standing relationship with the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, my near constituency neighbour. I agree with him entirely on his point about senior talent. We need to get as much talent as possible into the civil service at all levels. I have recently met the senior talent team in the civil service, a very impressive outfit, who have their work cut out to make sure that we can do even better.

In the context of the recent machinery of government changes, when will we know—or can the Minister tell us now—who will have responsibility for cross-Government co-ordination in respect of the work of the British-Irish Council, which relates to all eight Administrations in these islands?

I retain responsibility for the constitution as a whole, as does the Cabinet Office. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with a detailed reply so that he can have the satisfaction of that.

Anonymous Voter Registration: Domestic Violence Victims

The Government are determined that those whose personal safety would be at risk if their details appeared on the register should be able to register anonymously. I have arranged to meet representatives from Women’s Aid to discuss concerns they may have over the process of anonymous registration and have also written to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities to set out our plans to look at regulations on this important policy.

I thank the Minister for the information he has just given me and am pleased with what he has said. He has to acknowledge that some domestic violence victims choose not to go to the police and do not have easy access to the qualifying officers or registrars at present. I am pleased that he is having meetings and look forward to his announcing the steps he is going to take—[Interruption.]

Order. This is very unfair. The hon. Lady is asking a question about help for victims of domestic violence who wish to register to vote anonymously. I really think the House should be attentive to this matter.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am pleased that the Minister has acknowledged some of the difficulties these women have in registering. They are victims. I look forward to hearing the steps he will announce in the future. A very real barrier to registering to vote at present is the limited number of officers. The women do not have easy access to those people, which disfranchises them.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue with me. I recognise what she says. Those who have left domestic violence to seek a new life may be seen as some of the most vulnerable in society, but I believe that they are also some of the bravest. As I said, today I can announce that the Government will look closely at representations from Women’s Aid and other domestic violence charities. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady, since we are determined that no one should be denied the opportunity to vote.

I warmly welcome the Minister to his position. He will find that his letter is a reply to one I wrote on this topic when I was Minister for Women and Equalities. I warmly welcome what he has said, but he could speed things up by adding domestic violence protection orders and domestic violence protection notices to the list of evidence needed. I urge him to do that speedily.

I appreciated receiving my right hon. Friend’s letter. It was one of the first things in my inbox that I was determined to act on straightaway. The situation is slightly more complex, because changing the regulations would require a change to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, but the Government will review all aspects of the policy.

Most victims of domestic abuse never report the abuse to the police. Will the Government commit to reviewing the regulations, so that those women are able to register anonymously?

Digital Technology

7. What progress the Government are making in using digital technology to transform delivery of public services. (906126)

The Government are investing £2.25 billion in digital services over the next four years in order to recast the relationship between the people we seek to serve and the state. There is more to come. We are doing a lot, but there is a lot more to do.

May I join in the congratulations to the Minister on his new role? How could we better use digital sharing services to reduce the number of events never and serious untoward incidents in the NHS?

My hon. Friend is entirely right that it will be a digital solution that brings the most advantage to the area of the health service that she identifies. I am glad that the close working of the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, NHS Improvement and the NHS Litigation Authority, enabled through digital, will mean that we can reduce never events and serious untoward incidents.

In ensuring that use of digital technology proceeds at a pace, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that hacking of digital technology decreases and is eliminated?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that hacking poses a serious threat to our national infrastructure. I will be able to make more announcements in the next few weeks that I hope will colour the detail that he is seeking.

Topical Questions

The Cabinet Office is responsible for delivering a democracy that works for everyone, supporting the design and delivery of Government policy and driving efficiencies and reforms to make government work better.

At a time when the Government are reducing the number of elected Members of this elected House of Parliament by 50, is it right that we keep 100 hereditary peers in another place when they owe their place in Parliament to patronage in the middle ages?

It is not for me to revisit the arguments over the House of Lords, and as our manifesto made clear, that is not a first priority of this Government. The right hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that, over the past few years, we have reduced the cost of the House of Lords quite considerably. [Interruption.]

Order. If the House were as courteous to the Minister as the Minister is to the House, that would be a great advance for all of us.

T3. Our electoral system needs to be both user-friendly and watertight if it is to command the respect of the British public. The Minister previously alluded to the report produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles). Will the Minister commit today to implementing at least the broad thrust of the report, so that trust in our system can continue? (906047)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must take electoral fraud very seriously. The April 2015 election court judgment in Tower Hamlets exposed worrying electoral fraud and corruption. The Government are currently considering the recent review by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), which provides a range of measures to tackle electoral fraud, and will give a full response in due course.

I welcome you back, Mr Speaker, and give a very warm welcome to the new ministerial team. I congratulate them all on their appointments. We look forward to a positive working relationship with them, holding them to account and making a difference where we can.

I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, for my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), a new member of my team. She is on her honeymoon and cannot be with us today, but I am sure we wish her well in her marriage to Ben. My colleague may be on her honeymoon, but let me reassure the ministerial team that the honeymoon period for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is well and truly over. I have asked a series of questions about his responsibilities, but they have not been answered after 56 days in office. I therefore ask any member of the team: where is he today and what does he actually do?

The hon. Gentleman has asked a number of questions and I will ensure that I relay them to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but I can say that he is responsible for the chancellery of the Duchy of Lancaster.

What departmental responsibilities does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster have, and how is he carrying them out?

The Chancellor the Duchy of Lancaster sits on a number of very important Cabinet Committees and has a number of responsibilities, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will find out in due course.

T4. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Cabinet Office will play an important role in co-ordinating and helping to co-ordinate the Brexit negotiations and the activities of the three Brexiteers? Will the Cabinet Office ensure that it helps them to reach agreement, perhaps playing the role of a latter-day d’Artagnan, helping them with their exploits and their mission? (906048)

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that my job is merely to serve. I will ensure that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary, the International Trade Secretary and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union have all the resources they need to do their important job of work to ensure that we make a success of Brexit.

T2. The Bathgate office of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which serves my constituency, is to close by 2020 as part of the modernisation programme, with services moving online. [Interruption.] (906046)

Order. The situation is intolerable. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to be heard and Ministers are struggling to do so. I want to hear the hon. Gentleman—he can be assured of it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

During the recess, the Government Digital Service lost its second director general within a year and the Government received the resignations of the chief digital officers of two other Departments. As services are removed from local communities, what steps is the Minister taking to get the Government’s digital provision under control and to ensure that people have access to reliable online services?

I am very proud of what the Government Digital Service has achieved in the past few years. That is why it is rated the foremost digital service in the world connected with a Government. I am pleased to welcome Kevin Cunnington as the new director general—it is the first time the office has had a director general. He has a fine pedigree in the private sector and will bring his expertise to the Government Digital Service.

T5. The Prime Minister set her Government on the right track with her very first words outside 10 Downing Street, with a determination to stand up against injustice and inequality. What progress has been made on the audit of racial disparities in public service outcomes? (906049)

I am very glad to hear my hon. Friend endorse the words, on the steps of Downing Street, of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. She will be glad to know that we have already had a substantial meeting to discuss the remit of the racial disparity audit. It will uncover uncomfortable truths, but unless we do that we will not be able to face up to the burning injustices that remain in our country.

T6. Does the Minister agree with the Lord’s Speaker that membership of the House of Lords should be less than that of the Commons? (906050)

The other place has an important role, as a revising chamber, in scrutinising and improving draft legislation. The Government are clear that an unelected chamber should not seek to block the will of the Commons. The Conservative manifesto is clear that reform of the House of Lords is needed and we have seen significant reforms, including the retirement of peers. Over 150 peers have left the Lords since 2010 and the Chamber is 400 Members smaller than in 1998. The operating costs of the Lords have also fallen by 14% since 2010.

T7. The Government recognise how vital small and medium-sized enterprises are to our nation’s fortunes. They are increasingly looking to see how they can open up Government contracts to them, last month launching a new webinar resource. What more can the Minister and I do, with the Government, to seal the deal for local businesses in Eastbourne and Willingdon? (906051)

My hon. Friend is entirely right: small and medium-sized enterprises power this nation. I hope that in the negotiations we are soon to begin we will unleash them even further into the global markets that Britain will now be able to exploit. She is also right to say that we should be giving more central Government contracts to small and medium-sized enterprises. We beat our target in the previous Parliament. We have an ambitious target of a third of all projects to go to SMEs in this Parliament. I hope to work with her to make sure we achieve that target, too.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know the whole House will join me in congratulating the British Olympic team on a truly magnificent performance in Rio: the record medal haul, second in the table ahead of China and so many memorable moments. We can say they did themselves and their country proud. I know the whole House will wish to give our very best wishes to our Paralympic athletes and wish them the best of success. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

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

May I add my warm wishes to those of the Prime Minister to all Paralympians, in particular Bristolians? I know they will do us proud.

I am sure the whole House will be delighted that this country hosts a disproportionate number of the world’s finest universities. However, some of them are saying that they are already being shut out of important collaborations with other fine universities in the European Union, in anticipation of Brexit. They are very important for scientific, medical, engineering and other research, as well as for our economic prosperity. In view of this, will the Prime Minister please tell us what her strategy is?

May I first of all say to the hon. Lady how very good it is to see her in her place in this House? Of course we agree on the importance of our universities and the work they do and the research collaboration they have with a number of other countries, both within the EU and elsewhere. That is why, earlier this summer, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made an announcement giving certain guarantees to universities in relation to funding decisions that are being taken by the European Union. We are standing behind our universities because we recognise the value they bring to the country.

Q2. I very much welcome the statement from the Chancellor on support payments for farmers up to 2020 to give confidence to farming and the countryside. British farmers produce some of the best welfare-friendly and environmentally friendly food in the world. We need to make sure that both farming and the food processing industry are protected in any trade deals we make. I seek that reassurance from my right hon. Friend. (906105)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The announcements by the Chancellor, to which I referred in answer to the first question, provided guarantees to the farming industry about the support available to it up to 2020. We need to recognise the significant role that the food and farming industry plays in the United Kingdom, and we will of course look to working with the sector—my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary will be doing this—to see how to develop those industries with a view to the trade deals that will play their part as we look to the future.

May I join the Prime Minister in congratulating the entirety of the Olympic team on their fantastic achievements at the Olympics in Rio and wish the Paralympic team all the very best? Did our Olympic success set off the visit to China in a good way, or was there a bit of tension there, when bragging rights were allowed?

The average house price in Britain is now £215,000—over eight times the average wage. The average price of a first-time buyer’s home has risen by 12% in the past year. Is not the dream of home ownership for many people just that—a dream?

In response to the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, President Xi actually congratulated me on the United Kingdom’s success in the Olympic games.

The right hon. Gentleman mentions housing, which he has raised on a number of occasions both with my predecessor and with me before we broke for the summer recess. Let me simply say this. Of course it is important for us to look at helping people to get their first step on to the housing ladder and ensuring that people are able to have the home that they want. That is why I am pleased that house building has been up under a Conservative Government by comparison with a Labour Government. We are not complacent, however, which is why we will do more to see more houses built under this Conservative Government and continue to provide support for people to ensure that they have the financial support that helps them to own their own homes.

Actually, house building under this Government is 45,000 fewer a year than it was under the last Labour Government, and many people are desperate to get their own place. Let me refer the Prime Minister to a note I received from a lady called Jenny whose partner and herself work in a supermarket earning £7.37 an hour each. They are trying to get a mortgage and have been told that they can borrow £73,000—not much hope for them, then. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) promised a one-for-one replacement for every council house sold under right to buy. Sadly, the reality is that there is only one for every five that are sold. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment and tell us when the one-for-one replacement will be a reality?

Let me first say to Jenny that I fully understand and appreciate the concerns individuals have about wanting to be able to set up and have their own home. I fully recognise the difficulties some people face in doing that. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that he is wrong about the figures on council houses. We have delivered on the one-for-one replacement under right to buy.

I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman had asked all his Twitter followers what questions he should ask me this week, so I thought I would look to see what sort of responses he had received. I have to say that the first one was quite good. In fact, he might want to ensure that he stays sitting down for this. Lewis writes, “Does she know that in a recent poll on who would make a better Prime Minister, ‘Don’t Know’ scored higher than Jeremy Corbyn?” What we do know is that, whoever wins the Labour party leadership, we are not going to let them anywhere near power again.

The number of first-time buyers has halved in the past 20 years, and their average age has increased a great deal. There is a housing crisis in Britain. Ten million people now live in the private rented sector, and many are forced to claim housing benefit to cover the costs of rents. Devastating figures released over the summer show that £9.3 billion of public money is paid through housing benefit directly into the pockets of private landlords. Does the Prime Minister think that that £9.3 billion going into the private rental market is really money well spent?

The right hon. Gentleman starts off talking about the importance of people being able to be in their own homes, and then challenges one of the measures that actually help people to get into their own homes, through housing benefit support in the private rented sector. It may be that he just has an ideological objection to the private rented sector, but I say to him that this Government are looking across the board to ensure that more houses are being built. We are seeking to ensure that there is a diversity of opportunity for people who want to be in their own homes.

Everything that the right hon. Gentleman says tells us all that we need to know about modern Labour: the train has left the station, the seats are all empty, and the leader is on the floor. Even on rolling stock, Labour is a laughing stock.

The Prime Minister’s predecessor, when discussing this issue, said:

“The simple point is this…every penny you spend on housing subsidy is money you cannot spend on building houses.”—[Official Report, 10 February 2016; Vol. 605, c. 1569.]

“If landlords rent out houses in a very bad state, such as heavy damp, wet walls, no working toilet…they need to be getting a fine. The government has to regulate”.

That is what Joyce wrote to me. The Citizens Advice Bureau says that one sixth of housing benefit goes to private sector landlords who are letting unsafe homes. Does the Prime Minister really think that that is a satisfactory state of affairs?

If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that housing benefit is such a bad thing, why is it that, when we changed the rules on housing benefit, the Labour party opposed those changes? He talks about bad landlords. We are making changes. We have changed the rules on selective licensing. We think that giving councils free rein to impose burdensome bureaucracy on landlords would cause problems in the market that would actually lead to higher costs for both tenants and landlords. We are introducing new regulations in relation to houses in multiple occupation. We are looking at all those issues. I recognise, as will every Member in the House, the problems that people sometimes experience when they are living in accommodation that is not up to the standard of the accommodation in which we would all wish people to live. That is why we are changing the rules and ensuring that the regulations are there.

That is extremely interesting, because only a year ago the Prime Minister voted against a Labour amendment to the Housing Bill that said, quite simply, that all homes for rent in the private sector should be fit for human habitation. Just over a year ago, the Treasury estimated that it was losing half a billion pounds a year in tax unpaid by private sector landlords. So there we have it: £9.5 billion in housing benefit, half a billion pounds not being collected and a very large number of homes that are not really fit for human habitation. Does that not require Government intervention on the side of the tenant and those in housing need?

The right hon. Gentleman asks for the Government to intervene. The Government have, through the Housing and Planning Act 2016, introduced further tough measures such as civil penalties, banning orders for serious offences and the extension of rent repayment orders. We have provided money so that local authorities can conduct more inspections of people’s homes, and we have seen more properties being inspected. Thousands of landlords now face further action. Far from not taking action in this area, the Government have done so.

But I say this to the right hon. Gentleman: he may have a model of society where he does not want to see private landlords, and where he wants to see the Government owning everything, deliberating on everything and doing everything for everybody. That is not what we want: we want opportunities for people; we want to help them to take those opportunities. That is a big difference between him and me.

Of course we all recognise that there is a mixed housing economy, but we want to make sure that those living in the private rented sector are properly treated and not having to pay excessive levels of rent.

Women’s Aid has said that two thirds of women refuges are going to close because of the benefit cap when it comes into force and that 87% of women and children in those refuges will suffer as a result, and that most of those refuges require an income level that comes mainly from housing benefit—90% of their income comes from it. Does the Prime Minister recognise that the women in those refuges are very vulnerable and that closure of those refuges would be devastating for them—very dangerous for the most vulnerable people in our society? Will she take action to make sure that the cap does not apply to Women’s Aid refuges in any part of Britain?

The right hon. Gentleman raises the very important issue of domestic violence. We should across this House be doing all we can to stop these terrible crimes that are taking place and obviously to provide support to the victims and survivors. That is why we are working on exempting refuges from the cap in relation to what he speaks about, but I would also remind him of the very good record we have on domestic violence. It was a Conservative Government who introduced the new offence of coercive control that put into practice the domestic violence protection orders, who introduced Clare’s law, and who are putting £80 million into support for domestic violence victims in the period up to 2020. We are listening and responding to these problems, and we all take this very seriously indeed.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman as well that it is 50 days, I think, since he and I last met across this Dispatch Box—

Well, it is very good to see him sitting in his place. Let us just look at the contrast in what has been done over this summer. The Conservative Government have been working tirelessly to support everyone in this country: £250 million of loans to small businesses, the introduction of the racial disparity audit looking at public services and how they treat people, and of course setting the groundwork for new trade deals around the world. What a contrast with the Labour party, divided among themselves and incapable of uniting our country. What we do know is that there is only one party that is going to provide a country, a Government, an economy, a society that works for everyone, and that is the Conservative party.

Q4. Last week the Children’s Society published a report which showed that 10% of children feel their lives have little meaning or purpose. I know that the Prime Minister understands the importance of tackling mental health because she raised it in her Downing Street speech. What further action does she propose to increase mental health support in our schools? (906107)

My hon. and learned Friend raises an important point, and there has, I think, been a collective concern about the way in which mental health is dealt with. That is why we have put a record £1.4 billion into transforming the dedicated mental health support that is available to young people across the country. That includes £150 million for services to support children and young people with eating disorders. There are various other things, too: we are publishing a blueprint for school counselling services, because my hon. and learned Friend is right that the role that schools play is very important, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary will be looking very closely at the “Good Childhood Report” to see what more we can do.

I join the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party in praising all Olympians. This is the first day of the Paralympics, and I wish all Paralympians from all parts of these islands well. They are an inspiration to us all.

There is real concern and worry about the prospects for Brexit, especially in Scotland, where the majority of people voted to remain within the European Union. The UK Government have had all summer to come up with a plan and a strategy, but so far we have just had waffle. I want to ask the Prime Minister a simple but important question. Does she want the UK to remain fully within the European single market?

What I want for the UK is that we put into practice the vote that was taken by the people of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, that we get the right deal for trade in goods and services with the European Union in the new relationship that we will be building with it, and that we introduce control over the movement of people from the European Union into the United Kingdom. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we can approach the vote that took place on 23 June in two ways. We could try to row back on it, have a second referendum and say that we did not really believe it, but actually we are respecting the views of the British people. More than that, we will be seizing the opportunities that leaving the European Union now gives us to forge a new role for the United Kingdom in the world.

We on these Benches respect the views of the people of Scotland, who voted to remain in the European Union. The European single market—[Interruption.]

Thank you Mr Speaker. The European single market is the biggest market in the world and it really matters to our businesses and to our economy. I asked the Prime Minister a very simple question, to which there is either an in or an out answer. Let me ask it again. Does she want the United Kingdom to remain fully part of the European single market? Yes or no?

The right hon. Gentleman does not seem to quite understand what the vote on 23 June was about. The United Kingdom will leave the European Union and we will build a new relationship with the European Union. That new relationship will include control over the movement of people from the EU into the UK, and it will include the right deal for trade in goods and services. That is how to approach it. I also say to him that, in looking at the negotiations, it would not be right for me or this Government to give a running commentary on them—[Interruption.]

Order. Just as I said that the right hon. Gentleman must be heard, so must the Prime Minister’s answer be heard, and it will be.

And it would not be right to prejudge those negotiations. We will be ensuring that we seize the opportunities for growth and prosperity across the whole of the United Kingdom, including growth and prosperity in Scotland. As we saw from the figures released this summer, what really gives growth and prosperity in Scotland is being a member of the United Kingdom.

Q5. Last week, hundreds of local residents and businesses attended my faster broadband fair, and many of those with the very slowest speeds claimed a £500 voucher from Connecting Devon and Somerset to fund an alternative broadband connection capable of delivering at least 10 megabits per second. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Somerset County Council on this excellent scheme and confirm that the Government remain committed to delivering a universal service obligation of at least 10 megabits per second by 2020? (906108)

I am very happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance and also to join him in paying tribute to his council and the work that it is doing, and indeed to all those involved in that innovative scheme. High-speed broadband is an important part of 21st-century infrastructure, and we will be doing everything we can to ensure that it is available for people, because that will enable us to develop jobs and to grow prosperity in this country.

Q3. Penman Engineering, which was established in my constituency in 1859, was forced into administration this week by one debtor, which is the recipient of huge public sector contracts. I cannot name that debtor. This is an impossible position: Penman has to continue to trade with the debtor as well as pursuing the debt. Will the Prime Minister please put me in touch with the Business Secretary so that we can discuss any potential export support that could be given? How can we ensure that companies that receive enormous amounts of public money pay their bills on time and do not hold our supply chains to ransom? (906106)

Of course, our thoughts are with all the families affected by what has happened to Penman Engineering. The administrator has a role in ensuring that any sale of the business protects the maximum number of jobs, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has made it clear that that is his priority. I hope that the Scottish Government will offer their support to this long-standing business. As I said, our thoughts are with all those who have been affected, and the administrator will obviously be looking to ensure that the best possible options are found for the company.

Q7. In adding my congratulations to the many that the new Prime Minister has received on her appointment, may I comment that following the EU referendum and under her leadership I feel more confident about the future of this country than ever in my lifetime? Will she beware of those who are trying to make leaving the European Union ever more complicated and protracted? To that end—[Interruption.] (906110)

Order. Progress is very slow and there is far too much noise. The hon. Gentleman will be heard. It is as simple as that.

To that end, will the Prime Minister confirm that there is no basis in law to require the Government to seek the permission of Parliament before invoking article 50?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right and the Government’s position is clear. This is a prerogative power and one that can be exercised by the Government. As he alluded to in his question, no one should be in any doubt that those who are trying to prolong the process by their legal references in relation to Parliament are not those who want to see us successfully leave the European Union; they are those who want to try to stop us leaving.

Q6. The Prime Minister seems less keen than her predecessor on the northern powerhouse, but she also says that post-Brexit Britain is open for business, so where would be better than the great city of Manchester to host the World Expo in 2025? Where better than the home of the world’s first programmable computer, where the atom was split and where graphene was invented to showcase the best of Britain to the world and the best of the world to Britain? Will she back our bid? (906109)

I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s lobbying for Manchester and will of course seriously consider what he says. May I also say how pleased I am that Manchester will host the parade for our Olympic athletes?

Q8. In this post-Brexit world, does the Prime Minister agree that NATO is a more important than ever cornerstone of the nation’s defences, particularly article 5, which lays down that an attack on one member is an attack on all? Does the Prime Minister agree that any politician who will not sign up to that commitment or, even worse, tells NATO to“give up, go home and go away”is recklessly risking the defence of the realm? (906111)

I absolutely agree with all my hon. Friend’s points. We must never forget the importance of NATO. It is the cornerstone of our defence and security, and that strength is based on the fact that all NATO partners have committed to article 5 and to operating on the basis of article 5. Anybody who rejects that is rejecting that security and that defence. They would be undermining not only our national security, but the national security of our allies. What we know from the Labour party is that far from delivering stronger defence, it would cut defence spending, undermine NATO and scrap the nuclear deterrent.

Q11. Prime Minister, I have just had a debate in Westminster Hall on the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland’s report into the Loughinisland massacre, in which six men were shot dead by the Ulster Volunteer Force in a period of direct rule in my constituency. I received a letter from her predecessor in which he acknowledged this unspeakable evil and assured me that the Government accept the police ombudsman’s report and that any allegations of police misconduct will be taken seriously. Will the Prime Minister detail what action she will take to ensure that prosecutions are pursued, that an apology is forthcoming from the Government and that compensation is provided for the lives lost? (906114)

The hon. Lady is right: what happened at Loughinisland was a terrible evil. I am sure everybody across the House will want to join me in expressing our sympathies to all those affected by the appalling atrocity. As she has said, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) said, the Government accept the police ombudsman’s report and the Chief Constable’s response. It is important that where there are allegations of police misconduct, those are taken seriously and are properly looked into; if there has been wrongdoing, it must be pursued. Obviously, this is now a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, although I would remind the hon. Lady that the Chief Constable has made it very clear that he is determined to ensure that where there has been wrongdoing, people will be brought to justice.

Q9. A long-running review of hospital services in Bedford and Milton Keynes was an abject failure that lost all credibility with local people, for example, by publishing recommendations for significant changes to services and then refusing to answer any questions. Will the Prime Minister assure me that the sustainability and transformation plans for Bedfordshire and elsewhere, to be released by NHS England, will be subject to proper local accountability and full local decision authority? (906112)

It is absolutely the point of these plans that they are locally driven. They will be considered locally and should be taking into account the concerns and interests locally, not just those of the clinical commissioning groups, but those of the local authorities and of the public. These plans must be driven from the locality, so I give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Q12. Nearly 2 million people signed up to vote in the European Union referendum earlier this year. It is surely right that constituencies are based on the actual electorate who want to vote, so is the Prime Minister not concerned that the boundary review is going ahead next week without including those 2 million voters? (906115)

Parties from across this House supported the proposal that the Boundary Commission would follow this timetable and would bring forward these proposals, and that by 2018 those Boundary Commission proposals would be put in place. All parties supported that, and I continue to support it.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister share my anger that on the weekend of 23 July up to 250,000 people on the roads to Dover were stuck in gridlock in the sweltering heat for up to 17 hours, without food, water or even being able to go to the loo? Will she support my campaign to make sure that we get better infrastructure to the channel ports, starting with the lorry park and car park on the M20, dualling the A2 and getting some proper motorways to Dover? (906113)

My hon. Friend has been a passionate advocate for support for his local area, given some of the pressures Dover finds itself under as a cross-channel port. This is an important issue and we are committed to providing support. The money for the lorry park was, of course, announced last November, the site was announced in July and I believe that consultation is now taking place on the potential design for that site. On the possible dualling of the A2, he is right to say that we want to support local infrastructure to be able to handle the growth in traffic, particularly given that there are expansion plans for the port. I assure him that Dover will be considered as part of the planning for the next road investment strategy.

Q14. As many children return to school this week, I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in wishing them all the best for the school year ahead. Will she also provide reassurance to my constituents and to children across London that the objectives of the changes to the schools funding formula will be achieved by levelling up, not by levelling down, and that funding for schools in London will not be cut by up to 20%? (906117)

I join the hon. Lady in wishing all those going to school, many for the first time, well in their education. We will be aiming to ensure that every child has the education that is right for them and the opportunities that are right for them. It is right that we look at the national funding formula, but that will be done carefully to see what the impact will be across all parts of the country.

Q13. Our world-leading universities are one of our country’s great assets, so when I next meet the vice-chancellor of York University to discuss Brexit and higher education, what assurances can I pass to him from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that our universities will continue to receive the vital funding they need to thrive beyond 2020? (906116)

Again, my hon. Friend raises an important point about the relevance and significance of our universities. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was able to give confidence and reassurance to universities in the summer about the funding arrangements that will continue while we are still a member of the European Union. While we are a member of the EU, we will maintain our full rights and obligations of membership, and expect others to deal with us on that same basis. Of course, looking ahead, we have a higher education Bill going through this House, which is about how we can ensure that we have the university places available in this country to provide the education that we want to provide. We have a great record on higher education in this country. We want to build on that and develop it for the future.

Q15. I wish to put to the Prime Minister a request that I know she will think is reasonable. St Helier hospital, which is a high-performing local hospital that delivers excellent care, was built in the 1930s and is in need of very substantial investment. Will she agree to earmark the first two weeks of the £350 million that will be available each week post-Brexit to spend on the reconstruction of my hospital? (906118)

The right hon. Gentleman’s question tempts me to go down a number of routes in answering him. What I will say is that I recognise the importance of his local hospital trust, and I am pleased to say that, over the past six years, we have seen more doctors and more nurses in that trust able to provide more services and more facilities. Indeed, since 2010, the capital spend in the trust has been £72.7 million. We will be looking to ensure that we provide the health service that is right for everyone in this country.

At the moment, there are 80 vulnerable elderly patients in Kettering general hospital awaiting delayed transfer to social care. The national guidelines say that there should be 25. In the next few weeks, the number is likely to rise to 200—the highest in the country—with a similar number at Northampton general hospital because of proposals by Northamptonshire County Council to extend social care assessments from three days to four weeks. To prevent this crisis, will the Prime Minister authorise a joint meeting of local government and Health Ministers, county MPs, the local NHS and the county council to bang heads together to prevent this crisis from happening?

I will ensure that the Health Department is aware of the requests that my hon. Friend has put forward. I think that everybody in this House is well aware of the challenge that we face in relation to the interaction of social care with hospitals. We have already looked at this issue. We have put money into the better care fund, and we have been considering the better working together of health services and social services under local authorities, but it is one of the challenges that we face. There are some areas where this interaction has been done very well, and it is right that we look at those and try to spread that good practice. I will make sure that the Health Department is aware of his concern.

Nine months after signing the Paris climate agreement, the Government still have not ratified the treaty. According to the Committee on Climate Change, they lack half the policies they need to meet their climate targets. With the delayed carbon reduction plan and the very real risk of missing our renewable energy targets, will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to reassure people that the Government remain committed to climate action? Will they follow the example of the 26 states that have already ratified the treaty, including the US and China? Will they give us a firm date for ratification before the follow-up negotiations in November?

I am happy to assure the hon. Lady that we will be ratifying the Paris agreement. Indeed, it was my right hon. Friend the current Home Secretary who, as Energy Secretary, played a very key role in ensuring that the Paris agreement was achieved. We have been identified as the second best country in the world for tackling climate change, and I had hoped that the hon. Lady would want to congratulate us on that.

Today is World Duchenne Awareness Day, which is designed to draw attention to a terrible muscle wasting disease that affects a small number of young men. On this day, will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the recent announcement that the drug Translarna will now be available to these young boys in NHS England, and will she congratulate my constituent Archie Hill, Muscular Dystrophy UK, and all those colleagues in this House and some former Ministers who have worked so hard to make this life-changing drug available in this country?

I am very happy to join my right hon. Friend in congratulating all those who were involved in making sure that that innovative drug is available, and I thank her for raising awareness of this very important issue. I know that, as Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) met Archie, the young man with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and was inspired by him. I am sure that all Members across the House will welcome the fact that this innovative drug is now available on the NHS. We are committed to ensuring that patients with rare conditions get access to the latest medicines and we are taking some bold steps to speed up that process.

Will the Prime Minister join me and, I am sure, the whole House in sending our deepest sympathy and sincere condolences to the family and friends of Rozanne Cooper and her 10-year-old nephew, Makayah McDermott, who were mown down by a stolen car in Penge last week? May we also send best wishes to the three young girls who were involved, all family members? While other inquiries, including those by the police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission, are being undertaken and the matter is before the courts, I shall say no more about the specific case. However, is the Prime Minister aware of the widespread public concern that the law on causing death by dangerous driving is wholly inadequate? Will she undertake a review of both its suitability and its applicability as the courts implement it?

First, I join the hon. Gentleman in expressing our sympathies to all those who were involved in that terrible accident—the terrible tragedy that took place when, as he said, a stolen car mowed down two people and affected others as well. I am aware of the concern that there is about the law on dangerous driving. The daughter of constituents of mine was killed as a result of dangerous driving, and they have raised concerns with me specifically about their case. This is a matter which, I believe, the Ministry of Justice is looking at.