Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 616: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2016

Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Voter Registration: Young People

The Government are building a democracy that works for everyone, including young people. Online registration has made it easier and faster to register to vote, and since its introduction a record 4.2 million applications to register have been made by people aged 16 to 24.

That was a very interesting answer. How can the Government be building a democracy when they have excluded nearly 2 million people who were allowed to vote in the referendum, and are going ahead with boundary reviews that will particularly affect young people in universities?

We are absolutely committed to taking account of the issues that matter to young people. As for the boundary changes, it is right for us to ensure that every seat is of equal value. It cannot be right for some constituencies to contain 95,000 people and others 38,000. We will ensure that every vote is equal, and that includes those of young people.

As my hon. Friend will know, next week the Youth Parliament will sit in this place. Does he agree that many 16, 17 and 18-year-olds are taking a growing interest in public affairs and what we do in the House—that is certainly what I find when I visit schools in my constituency—and that such initiatives will help youth registration?

It would be remiss of me not to note that the Youth Parliament will be sitting in this very Chamber on 11 November under your command, Mr Speaker. I am sure that we all look forward to hearing young people discuss the issues that matter to them. When it comes to “every vote matters”, we should bear in mind the fact that young people are interested in issues such as mental health and a curriculum that works for everyone, and those are the issues that are being debated in the Chamber. We look forward to working with young people to ensure that their voice is heard.

I hope that the Youth Parliament will be sitting under my encouraging chairmanship rather than under my command, but I am extremely grateful to the Minister for the sentiment that he has expressed.

The Minister will be aware that 16-year-olds in Scotland are able to vote for Members of the Scottish Parliament and for councillors, and that the plans for devolution under the Wales Bill might mean that 16-year-olds are allowed to vote for Welsh Assembly Members and councillors. Will he now give proper consideration to a full and positive report on the need to ensure that 16-year-olds can vote for Members of the House of Commons so that there can be full democracy for people aged 16 and over?

We discussed this issue at the previous session of Cabinet Office questions. We will not be lowering the parliamentary voting age, because since the general election Parliament has debated the proposal a number of times and repeatedly voted against it. It is important to recognise that most democracies consider that 18 is the right age to enfranchise young people. A person must be at least 18 to serve on a jury for similar reasons.

My hon. Friend referred to the need to ensure that every vote is equal. In the light of the number of spoiled ballot papers in elections for police and crime commissioners, will he think again about reintroducing the first-past-the-post system for elections of that kind in England?

My hon. Friend is right that we need a clear and secure democracy if we are to continue to have confidence in our system. In the elections for police and crime commissioners, about 8 million people voted and there were more than 300,000 spoiled ballot papers. For the EU referendum, in which 35 million people voted, there were just 25,000 spoiled ballot papers. There is clearly an issue that the Government will want to look into.

Has it occurred to the Minister that if the Government were not so aggressively making it difficult for millions of people to be included in the register, and if the previous Prime Minister had not so arrogantly dismissed the case for enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds, the referendum result would have been different, and he would still be Prime Minister?

It is important to recognise that in the referendum a record number of people voted on one side—17.4 million voted for the UK to leave the European Union—and that a record 46.5 million people were registered to vote, of whom 3 million registered using the individual electoral registration system online. That shows that people have full confidence in the future of our new system.

Does the Minister agree that more young people might register to vote if they thought that it would make a positive difference to their lives, and that decisions such as trebling tuition fees, abolishing the education maintenance allowance and restricting young people’s housing benefit only act as a disincentive for them to become involved in politics?

The hon. Lady is right, but there is a problem with young people’s registration: we allow 16-year-olds to register to vote, but only 37% of them choose to do so. As I said earlier, we need to take account of the issues that matter to young people. Such issues will be debated by the Youth Parliament next Friday, but none of those to which the hon. Lady refers are on the agenda.

Voting Rights: Overseas UK Citizens

On 7 October the Government published a policy statement setting out our detailed proposals for votes for life, and explaining how we plan to meet our manifesto commitment to scrap the 15-year time limit for overseas voting. We intend the system to be in place before the next scheduled UK parliamentary general election.

I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply, but may I return to the subject of cutting the cost of politics? Can he tell us when the Government will be able to equalise the size of constituencies?

We are determined that by the time of the 2020 general election, the historic principle of equal seats will be in place. If we do not introduce that reform, we will be fighting our seats on the basis of data that go back to the year 2000, meaning that they are 20 years out of date. That is completely unacceptable, which is why we must press ahead with boundary reform.

Does my hon. Friend agree that by including British citizens living abroad who have previously been resident to vote, as well as those who have previously been registered, the Government are enabling more people to participate in our politics and delivering a democracy that truly works for everyone?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Our proposal to scrap the requirement that an overseas elector must have been previously registered to vote when they were resident in the UK will mean that even more Brits abroad can vote if they so choose.

How will the Minister ensure that UK citizens living overseas in the EU have not only the right to vote, but the right to remain in EU countries?

We will ensure that we have a democracy that works for everyone, which is why we are determined to ensure that Britons living abroad will, regardless of which country they live in, be able to participate in our democracy, especially those who have lived abroad for more than 15 years, such as Harry Shindler, a Labour voter who lives in Italy and fought in world war two, but is unable to vote at the moment. It is right that we give these people who have served their country the right to vote.

Alongside extending suffrage for UK citizens living abroad, what consideration has the Cabinet Office given to extending suffrage in general elections to all EU and non-Commonwealth immigrants permanently living in Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

In terms of local government suffrage, EU citizens can already vote. For parliamentary suffrage, we are extending the franchise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) rightly says, to an extra 3.7 million Brits abroad. When it comes to the question of those living in this country, obviously that is subject to future negotiations.

At a time when the Government are failing in any serious way to address the democratic deficit in the UK, they are, as has been mentioned, pursuing plans to remove the 15-year time limit for overseas voters and to hand a vote for life to an estimated 1 million expats. Will the Minister explain how that might affect Electoral Commission guidelines on “permissible donors”, and will he assure the House that under no circumstances will the proposed changes allow unlimited political financial donations from non-UK taxpayers abroad to be funnelled into the coffers of any UK political party?

First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place? It is great to see him across the Dispatch Box.

On the issue of overseas electors and ensuring that those living abroad for more than 15 years have a vote for life, the principle is clear: we must ensure that those who were born in this country, who have often paid tax in this country and have moved abroad are given a right to participate in our democracy. These include people such as Harry Shindler, a Labour voter who fought in world war two. We want to ensure that these people who have given something to our country are allowed to participate in our democracy.

House of Lords: Membership

3. If he will bring forward proposals to limit the size of the membership of the House of Lords. (906979)

The Government agree that the House of Lords cannot grow indefinitely. However, comprehensive reform is not a priority for this Parliament, given the growing number of pressing priorities elsewhere. Nevertheless, when there are measures that can command consensus, we would welcome working with peers to look at taking them forward.

A simpler answer would have been, “No, we will kick that into the long grass.”

It is clear that the House of Lords needs radical reform. In fact, we should listen to the new Lord Speaker, who said only last week:

“I don’t think we can justify a situation where you have over 800 peers at the same time as you’re bringing down the Commons to 600 MPs”.

Does the Minister agree?

This was raised at an important debate on 26 October, when the House agreed with the Government that this is not a priority. The Government agree that House of Lords reform is not one of the priorities of the British people: a recent YouGov study showed that just 18% of the public think House of Lords reform is a priority. I am amazed that the Scottish National party has chosen this issue to campaign on. Why not campaign on education or on health—why not campaign on the issues that matter to the Scottish people?

What an outrage to democracy that answer from the Minister was. We have the ridiculous situation that there are more unelected Members of the House of Lords than MPs living in the highlands of Scotland, yet this Government want to cut democratic participation. We will be left with three Members of Parliament for half the landmass of Scotland and the highlands. That is not democratic accountability. Cut the Lords, not MPs.

It was difficult to detect a question there, but the intellectual dexterity of the Minister will enable him briefly to reply.

We have proposals on boundary changes in Scotland, and there is a consultation that I commend to all Members. Some seats in Scotland are twice the size of others, and that historical injustice must be rectified.

The Minister is absolutely right that reducing the size of the House of Lords is not a priority, but neither is reducing the size of the Commons. As we are abolishing goodness knows how many MEPs and taking on their workloads, should not the Government look again at their proposal and equalise seats, which is quite correct, but keep the same number of Members of Parliament?

The previous Parliament passed a law to ensure that we could reduce the number of seats from 650 to 600, but a delay occurred because Opposition Members decided to kick this can down the road. The reduction in the number of seats will save £66 million over the course of a Parliament. It is right that we should make savings and put our own House in order.

It is absolutely right that there should be equal votes and that we should cut the cost of politics in the House of Commons. It is absurd that there are no Scottish National party peers in the House of Lords while the party has 56 Members in this House, and that there are 100 Liberal Democrat peers but a pathetic rump of only eight Members here. Does the Minister agree that this shows the need to rebalance membership of the House of Lords?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The historic campaign for the equalisation of seats was initiated by the Chartists in their people’s manifesto back in 1838, and this Government are determined to ensure that this historic wrong is righted.

13. There has been much speculation that a certain Nigel Farage will be joining the swarm of unelected bureaucrats in the House of Lords. Is Mr Farage to be rewarded with a peerage, or have the Government done enough damage already? (906989)

All appointments to the House of Lords are scrutinised by an independent Committee, and it is right that that process should be followed.

Does my hon. Friend recall the words of Sir Winston Churchill when he said that democracy was not a particularly good system but the best that we had? Does he agree that, until someone comes up with a better idea, the House of Lords is perhaps not that bad?

As I have said, House of Lords reform is not a priority in this Parliament; nor is it a priority for the general public. We want to establish a consensus with the House of Lords, and it must be for the House of Lords to come up with that consensus.

Could we not at least get rid of the by-elections for hereditary peers? Earlier this year, the House of Lords decided to remove the second Baron Bridges because he had not turned up for five whole years. There was then a by-election, in which the 15th Earl of Cork and Orrery defeated the 12th Lord Vaux of Harrowden and the eighth Viscount Hood. Under the alternative vote system, the Earl of Limerick was bottom of the list. Does not this bring the whole system into disrepute? Is this “Blackadder” or Gilbert and Sullivan?

When it comes to “Blackadder”, this was a Labour policy introduced by a Labour Government, so this is yet another U-turn from the Corbynistas.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I think that people watching this debate will be terrified by the complacency of this Government. Does the Minister not realise that the twin actions of increasing without limit the number of unelected Members of Parliament while reducing the number of elected lawmakers is seriously damaging this institution in the eyes of our own electorate and lowering the esteem in which we are held abroad?

The Government agree with the primacy of the House of Commons. The hon. Gentleman made those points in a debate on 26 October, and at that time the House agreed with the Government that this was not a priority and that our priority should be to equalise seats and to ensure that the historic principle of boundary reform occurs.

Departmental Efficiency Savings

The Government are striving towards their manifesto commitment to achieve £20 billion of annual efficiency savings by 2020. Cabinet Office functions are supporting Departments by providing expert support and advice in all areas, including commercial property, infrastructure, fraud and error, and debt. In addition, I will be leading a review with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to see whether further savings are possible over that period.

I know the House will want to join me in congratulating the Minister on the recent arrival of his second child, a brother for Wilfred.

May I add my congratulations as well? I thank the Minister for his answer. How much did the Government deliver in efficiency savings over the last term and how much is to come?

I thank my hon. Friend and you, Mr Speaker.

We saved £18.6 billion in the previous Parliament. We hope to do better than that over this Parliament. We have made a good start with more than £1.5 billion saved by transforming how Government works, but there is more to do. It is a hard task, but we will complete it.

May I first congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your energy efficiency saving this morning, on the bicycle in Portcullis House, for the poppy appeal? Is it possible for hon. Members and the wider public to track savings in various Departments to see the practical benefits of those savings?

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible suggestion. As we evolve the single departmental plans, I hope to be able make the savings in individual Departments far more transparent. He is right to touch on that subject; it is something that I want to do more with.

15. Government efficiency savings can be achieved through greater use of new technology, such as GOV.UK Notify. Will the Minister encourage its greater use by Whitehall Departments? (906991)

GOV.UK Notify is another excellent Government Digital Service product. We are putting more money into the GDS, which we are using more across Government. I hope that that will be one of many applications brought forward as a result of its success.

Given that the cost of special advisers has almost doubled in 10 years and that the Tory Government are spending more on special advisers than the new Labour Government, would not dealing with that be a simple cost-cutting measure?

On the contrary, we have kept the cost of special advisers under review and fairly flat. The list of responsibilities has been published recently and the hon. Gentleman will see that that cost is fairly constant.

Voting Fraud

The Government are committed to tackling fraud in UK polls. We have already taken steps to improve the security of polls through the introduction of individual electoral registration. We are currently considering the findings and recommendations of the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) into electoral fraud. The Government will provide a full response in due course.

In a democracy, we want as many people to vote and register as possible. In some constituencies, however, there is still too much electoral register fraud. What more can the Minister and Government do about that?

For democracy to work for everyone, we need to ensure that it is clear and secure. The Government are determined to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible. We note that the Electoral Commission has also made recommendations about ID in polling stations. We will reflect on the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar and respond in due course.

Does the Minister believe that lessons can be learned from the additional measures to tackle voter fraud in Northern Ireland?

Obviously, the electoral system in Northern Ireland is separate and has seen advances when it comes to security around polling stations and the electoral process. The Government are interested in all such examples and will be happy to respond when we publish our findings following the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar.

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 the Government work better.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the work of the Minister for the constitution, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), with my constituent Mehala Osborne and the domestic violence charity Survive, to reform anonymous registration to ensure that women silenced by the current registration process will no longer be denied the chance to express their democratic will?

I will indeed join with my hon. Friend. His commitment to the cause is well known, as is the commitment of my hon. Friend the Minister for the constitution, who has really taken this on as something that he wants to achieve in his post. For survivors of domestic abuse, voting is more than just a cross on a ballot paper; it is a renewed statement of the freedom that is rightfully theirs.

Let us take the Minister back to the boundary review, because interestingly the Government payroll is not being cut in this process. Ministers should therefore listen to the Members sitting behind them, such as the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who has said:

“We are talking about reducing the number of people we elect at the ballot box, whilst stuffing the House of Lords with yet more people”.

If this is really not a partisan process, and in view of Brexit and the fact that we are removing 73 MEPs, is it not now time to have a fresh review, based on having 650 seats in this place?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will start as he means to go on. I see that he has five Members on the Opposition Front-Bench, compared with our very modest two, which shows how we can cut the cost of politics just by being in power.

T3. After the referendum, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee wrote to the Government suggesting that they should conduct a review of civil service capacity in view of the extra workload being piled on Whitehall. Can the Minister give any indication of whether such a review is being conducted? Would he consider conducting such a review? (906994)

The review is going on at the moment, and I am leading it. We have started by looking at senior civil service capacity, but it will go through the entire civil service. It is a very thorough process, and I am making sure that I am talking to all the Ministers leading Brexit-affected Departments to make sure that they are happy with the capacity of their offices.

T2. I do not disagree with the Minister on equalising constituencies, but if we want equal constituencies based on proper data, surely the 2 million newly registered voters should be taken into account in that equalisation. (906993)

The hon. Gentleman talks about data, so let us go back to the fact that if we delay boundary reform even further, we will be drawing up the seats on the basis of data, in England and Wales, from 2000—20 years ago. That is clearly unacceptable, which is why we must ensure that boundary reform takes place. [Interruption.]

Far too many noisy private conversations are taking place, which is very unfair to Members who want to ask questions and Ministers who want to answer them. Let us hear the voice of the Vale of Clwyd, Dr James Davies.

T4. One benefit of devolution was meant to be that it would allow the comparison of different policy approaches to the same problems. With that in mind, will the Minister consider legislating to ensure the provision of comparable data across the UK? (906995)

My hon. Friend makes a sensible point. We are learning a lot from the devolved Administrations, just as they are learning from us. His point is well made, which is why we signed a concordat on statistical evidence a few months ago, ensuring that we are sharing the same methods of evidence gathering across all the Administrations.

Instead of using the single example of an expat war veteran to justify extending the franchise to UK citizens abroad, should the Minister not concentrate on those who live here and pay their taxes—EU citizens—and those who will have to live with the consequences, the 16 and 17-year-olds?

Giving votes for life to those Britons who have lived abroad for more than 15 years was a manifesto commitment that will be delivered by this Government. We are determined to ensure that British people who live abroad are given the right to participate in our democracy, which is absolutely the right thing to do.

T5. I welcome the speech by the Minister for the Cabinet Office to the Reform think tank, in which he made the powerful case for public service reform, to make it more tailored to individual needs. May I urge him to be careful to ensure that, in delivering it, Whitehall does not end up exposing or misplacing personal data, as has happened in the past? (906996)

I will, and I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. It is of course important that we take people with us on this, but at its core we must remember that the state is there to serve people, not the other way round. That is why this Administration are putting themselves at the service of the British people, and I intend to ensure that public services reflect that fact.

T8. This Department has estimated that cutting the number of MPs to 600 will save £15 million a year. Library figures collated for me have shown that House of Lords allowances alone cost £20 million a year, so does the Minister not accept that the cuts and savings to be made should be applied to the unelected House, not the elected Chamber? (906999)

This Government are proud of the fact that the cost of the House of Lords has been reduced by 14% since 2010.

T6. It is good to see the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in his place. Will he perhaps set out what his priorities will be? (906997)

As Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I oversee the administration of the estates and the rents of the Duchy of Lancaster. I contribute to the Government’s policy and decision-making process by attending Cabinet and attending and chairing Cabinet Committees. This role is not without precedence under both Labour and Conservative Governments.

I am pleased that the Government plan to audit racial disparities in public service outcomes, but may I ask Ministers that, in doing so, they ensure that every Department and agency uses the 2011 census classifications, which differentiate Gypsies and Travellers?

It is absolutely right that we make the system as efficient as possible and less expensive. To address both those aims, we are undertaking three pilots this year to test new approaches to conducting a canvass. I am also pleased to announce today that there will be 18 more pilots in England and Wales in 2017.

Latest assessments suggest that only 51% of 16 to 17-year-olds are registered to vote, compared with 85% of adults. In Neath, we have had successful voter registration awareness events to encourage under-18s to register. Will the Minister please explain the Government’s plans to promote young people’s registration?

As part of a democracy that works for everyone, we are determined that young people’s voices will be heard, which means going around the country, as I am doing in the coming weeks, to places such as Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool to talk to young people about their priorities and how we can ensure that they are fully involved in the democratic process.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

We have no clarity on access to the single market, huge disadvantages still in energy costs, and foreign steel being used in our key defence projects. We know that the Prime Minister likes to try to channel the Iron Lady, but when will she show some mettle in standing up for British-made steel?

This Government have stood up for British-made steel, and we have taken a number of measures that have improved the situation for the steel industry. The hon. Gentleman says that there is no clarity in relation to Brexit. I am very clear that what we want to achieve is the best possible deal for businesses in the United Kingdom, so that they can trade with, and operate within, the single European market.

Q2. I applaud the Government’s continued commitment to infrastructure development, with 6,000 projects in the pipeline worth £480 billion. Will the Government quickly and speedily take forward the lower Thames crossing and extra investment in Kent roads, which will help to provide more homes, jobs and businesses, and help people in Kent, Medway and the Thames Gateway area? (906963)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and for recognising the contribution that the Government have made in increasing investment in infrastructure, and the importance of that investment. We have consulted on proposals around a lower Thames crossing. There were more than 47,000 responses to that consultation. Those are now being considered, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will respond to that consultation in due course.

May I take this opportunity to welcome Neasa Constance McGinn? I hope that the evidently effective crash course in midwifery undertaken by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) is not a sign to the Government that we believe in downgrading midwifery training.

Just a few months ago, on the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister promised to stand up for families who are “just managing” to get by. However, we now know that those were empty words, as this Government plan to cut work allowances for exactly those families who are just getting by. Is it not the case that her cuts to universal credit will leave millions worse off?

First, may I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the birth, I understand, of his granddaughter? [Interruption.] No? I am sorry. In that case, I am completely mystified. [Interruption.] In that case—[Interruption.] Wait for it. In that case, perhaps one should never trust a former Chief Whip. [Interruption.]

On the point that the right hon. Gentleman raised in relation to universal credit, the introduction of universal credit was an important reform that was brought about in our welfare system. It is a simpler system, so people can see much more easily where they stand in relation to benefits. Crucially, the point about universal credit is making sure that work always pays. As people work more, they earn more. It is right that we do not want to see people just being written off to a life on benefits and that we are encouraging people to get into the workplace.

It is a bit unfair to blame a former Chief Whip for some little bit of confusion—very ungallant. Can we not just admire my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North for his work? [Interruption.] It is extremely rude to point.

The Prime Minister’s predecessor abandoned those same cuts to working people through the tax credit system. Now the right hon. Lady as Prime Minister is enacting them through universal credit. The Centre for Social Justice says that these cuts will leave 3 million families £1,000 per year worse off. Why is the Prime Minister slipping the same cuts in through the back door?

At least my former Chief Whip has a job. On the serious point that the right hon. Gentleman raises about universal credit, I repeat what I have just said. I think it is important that we look at why universal credit has been introduced. It was introduced because, with the benefits system under the Labour Government, we saw too many people finding that they were better off on benefits than they were in work. What is important is that we value work and we value getting people into work if they are able to work, but we want a system that is fair both to those who need the benefits and to those who pay for the benefits through their taxes. There are many families struggling to make ends meet who are paying for the benefits of others. I want a system that is fair to them as well.

This week, an Oxford University study found that there is a direct link between rising levels of benefit sanctions and rising demand for food banks. A million people accessed a food bank last year to receive a food parcel; only 40,000 did so in 2010. I welcome the Government’s promise to review the work capability assessment for disabled people, but will the Prime Minister further commit to reviewing the whole punitive sanctions regime?

It is absolutely right that in our welfare system, we have a system that makes sure that those people who receive benefits are those for whom it is right to receive benefits. That is why we have assessments in our welfare system. But it is also important in our welfare system that we ensure that those who are able to get into the workplace are making every effort to get into the workplace. That is why we have sanctions in our system. What the right hon. Gentleman wants is no assessments, no sanctions and unlimited welfare. That is not fair to those who are accessing the welfare system, and it is not fair to the taxpayers who pay for it.

According to a Sheffield Hallam University study, one in five claimants who have been sanctioned became homeless as a result. Many of those included families with children.

Could I recommend that the Prime Minister support British cinema, and takes herself along to a cinema to see a Palme d’Or-winning film, “I, Daniel Blake”? While she is doing so, perhaps she could take the Work and Pensions Secretary with her, because he described the film as “monstrously unfair” and then went on to admit that he had never seen it, so he has obviously got a very fair sense of judgment on this. But I will tell the Prime Minister what is monstrously unfair: an ex-serviceman like David Clapson dying without food in his home due to the Government’s sanctions regime. It is time that we ended this institutionalised barbarity against often very vulnerable people.

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that, of course, it is important that, in our welfare system, we ensure that those who need the support that the state is giving them through the benefits system are able to access it. But it is also important in our system that those who are paying for it feel that the system is fair to them as well. That is right; that is why we need to have work capability assessments—it is why we need to have sanctions in our system. Now, the right hon. Gentleman has a view that there should be no assessments, no sanctions and unlimited welfare. I have to say to him that the Labour party is drifting away from the views of Labour voters; it is the Conservative party that understands working class people.

The housing benefit bill has gone up by more than £4 billion because of high levels of rent and the necessity of supporting people with that. Is that a sensible use of public money? I think not.

In response to the March Budget, I asked the Chancellor to abandon the £30 cut for disabled people on employment and support allowance, who are unable to work, but who, with support, may be able to work in the future—they want to be able to get into work. What evidence does the Prime Minister have that imposing poverty on people with disabilities actually helps them into work?

I am pleased to say that what we have seen under this Government is nearly half a million more disabled people actually in the workplace. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has launched a Green Paper on work, which is starting to look at how we can continue to provide and increase support for those who are disabled who want to get into the workplace. But the right hon. Gentleman started his question by asking me about the increase in the money that is being spent on housing benefit. If he thinks that the amount of money being spent on housing benefit is so important, why did he oppose the changes we made to housing benefit to reduce the housing benefit bill?

As the Prime Minister well knows, my concern, and that of my party, is about the incredible amount of money being paid into the private rented sector in excessive rents, and that could be brought under control and handled much better.

Many people in this House will have been deeply moved by the article by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) about the tragic death of her son and having to take out a bank loan to cover the funeral costs. The Prime Minister may be aware that the Sunday Mirror, with the support of the Labour party, is calling for an end to council charges for the cost to parents of laying a child to rest. It would cost £10 million a year—a very small proportion of total Government expenditure—to ensure that every council could ensure that those going through the horror of laying a child to rest did not have a bill imposed on them by the local authority to put that child to rest. I hope the Prime Minister will be able to consider this and act accordingly.

I recognise the issue that the right hon. Gentleman has raised. There are, of course, facilities available through the social fund funeral expenses payment scheme for payments to be made available to people who qualify and meet the eligibility conditions. Of course it is difficult for anybody when they have to go through the tragedy of losing a child and then face consequences of the sort that the right hon. Gentleman mentions. We are making sure, of course, in relation to local authorities, that they now have the extra revenues available to them through business rates and other local revenues. It is up to councils to consider what they wish to do on this, but I say to the right hon. Gentleman that there are facilities available through those social fund funeral expenses to deal with the issue that he raises.

Q3. Northamptonshire has for a long time had a growing population without the right level of funding for our public services. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the current reviews of the funding formulas for schools, policing and health will properly reflect the population growths in Northampton and the rest of the county so that our services get the funding they need? (906964)

We have protected the schools budget in relation to funding paid per pupil, and we are protecting the police budget. But of course, as we look at the various ways—the various funding formulas—through which we are funding public services in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in the county of Northamptonshire, we will be looking at the very issue of what is right in terms of the needs of the local area and the numbers of people there.

It is with sadness that we learned of the death of a serviceman in a live firing exercise at the range in Tain. No doubt the Prime Minister and right hon. and hon. Members across this House will extend their condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of the serviceman who has died so tragically.

The Prime Minister says that she wants to tackle international and domestic tax avoidance and serious criminality. SNP Members support this. If she were told that specific UK financial vehicles were being used for tax avoidance and other serious criminality, what would she do about it?

First, I am sure that, as the right hon. Gentleman says, the whole House would wish to pass on our condolences to the friends and family of the serviceman who has died at the Tain range.

The right hon. Gentleman mentions tax avoidance. Yes indeed, we have done a significant amount in relation to tax avoidance. He asks what anybody should do if they have evidence of people actually avoiding tax. I suggest that he speaks to HMRC.

Scottish limited partnerships were established by this House in 1907, and they are being aggressively marketed internationally, especially in eastern Europe. The International Monetary Fund has warned of the risk posed by SLPs in the fight against global money laundering and against organised crime. It is now a matter of public record that SLPs have acted as

“fronts for websites peddling child abuse images, and…have been part of major corruption cases”

in Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Latvia and Moldova, including in the arms industry. Given the seriousness of this issue and the Prime Minister’s commitment to dealing with criminality, but the lack of progress on SLPs, will she agree to meet me to discuss a joint way forward?

The right hon. Gentleman raises issues around criminality and investigations into criminal activity that is taking place, and talks about the issue of websites peddling child abuse and child sexual exploitation. It is precisely in order to increase our ability to deal with this criminal activity that we created the National Crime Agency and have been ensuring that we are working with the City on other issues such as money laundering. We are looking at the whole question of how we can ensure that we are taking effective action on criminal activity. I am pleased to say to the right hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] He keeps asking me to meet him. As he knows, I do meet him on occasion—I am always happy to do so—but if he wants to talk to me about dealing with criminal activity, then I will be able to tell him about the work that has been done over the past six years under this Government in terms of the National Crime Agency, working with the City on money laundering, and enhancing our ability to deal with exactly the sort of criminal activity he is talking about.

Q5. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is disappointing that we did not hear from the Leader of the Opposition any welcome for the huge boost to manufacturing and employment that has come from Nissan’s decision to produce two new models at its factory? Does she agree that that decision demonstrates great confidence in the UK, with benefits throughout the supply chain, which includes companies such as Automotive Insulations in my constituency? (906966)

My hon. Friend is right in two senses. First, it is extremely disappointing that the Leader of the Opposition has not welcomed this, unlike his colleague, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who has welcomed the fact that these jobs have been saved in her constituency and in the supply chain around the country—that supply chain is every bit as important. I know that Automotive Insulations in my hon. Friend’s constituency is receiving money as part of a project funded through the Advanced Propulsion Centre, and I wish it all the very best for the future.

Q4. What assurances can the Prime Minister give to the agri-food sector right across the United Kingdom that it will be given the important status required in Brexit negotiations? (906965)

I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that we are determined to get the best possible deal for the British people on exiting the European Union. We are looking at the various sectors and we are very conscious of the importance of the food and agricultural sector across the United Kingdom, particularly in Northern Ireland. We will do everything we can, including listening to representations made by the Northern Ireland Executive, to ensure that we get the best deal possible for our agri-food sector.

Q8. Last week’s announcement on the report on accelerated access to medicines will have a positive impact on the lives of children and adults with a rare genetic or undiagnosed condition. For decades, patients have struggled to get access to medicines in a timely fashion, and the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) made massive progress. Will the Prime Minister confirm that if the programme is successful with the first five to 10 drugs in the first year, it will be extended to further drugs in following years? (906969)

My hon. Friend is right to welcome the accelerated access review and to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who has done so much to place life sciences in the UK on the agenda and to ensure that the UK develops as the best possible place to develop new drugs, which is exactly what we want to see. The Department of Health will look at the review’s recommendations and respond to them shortly. This is an important development in our ability to accelerate access to drugs, which is to the benefit of patients.

Q6. In recent weeks, three Government Ministers have expressed three different views on what will happen, while industry cries out for clarity. I am talking not of Brexit, surprisingly, but of the oil and gas industry. Will the autumn statement provide additional support for the industry, or is the Prime Minister happy to sit back and see thousands more jobs lost? (906967)

We understand the challenges faced by the UK oil and gas industry and we take them very seriously. That is why we established the Oil and Gas Authority and why we have taken action, with the £2.3 billion package of measures in the last two Budgets, to make sure that the North sea continues to attract investment, and to safeguard the future of that vital national asset. We have taken a range of measures. We understand the concerns about the oil and gas industry, which is why the Government have already taken action.

Q11. Rochester airport and Medway city industrial estate in my constituency are home to a growing number of successful science and tech SMEs that are doing wonders for innovation and our economy. Ahead of my right hon. Friend’s trade mission to India, I congratulate her on her decision to take with her a cohort of SMEs to help to increase trading relationships with emerging economies. Will her delegation continue to ensure that all parts of our economy are able to seize the opportunities that present themselves as we leave the EU? (906972)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of small and medium-sized businesses, particularly in the technology industry. That is why I am pleased that I will take leading small and medium-sized businesses from the life sciences and technology sectors with me on my forthcoming trip to India. It is important to enable them to forge trading links with India, and I assure my hon. Friend that, as we look at the arrangements for leaving the European Union, we will take the interests of all sectors into account.

Q7. Tata Speciality is a big employer in my constituency and its workforce are worried by the long period of uncertainty enacted by Tata Steel. Will the Prime Minister use her trade visit to India to secure from the company the future of steel production in Britain, and to convey the importance of Tata acting as a responsible owner and, in the case of Tata Speciality, seller of its UK steel assets? (906968)

I can assure the hon. Lady that we recognise both the importance of steel and the importance of Tata in the United Kingdom. That is why, as a Government, we have had discussions with Tata on the future of steel here in the United Kingdom, and we will continue to do so.

Q12. As I am sure the Prime Minister is aware, my constituency apparently contains more cows than any other. That means world-class cheese, from Godminster and Barber’s to Montgomery’s Cheddar, Wkye Farms and many more. Can my right hon. Friend assure the west country’s farmers that in negotiating the best deal for Britain in the coming weeks and months, the interests of our agricultural industry and farming community will be uppermost in her mind? Will she pop down to Somerset soon for a chunk of Cheddar and perhaps a drop of cider? (906973)

My hon. Friend’s invitation to some west country cheese and cider is difficult to refuse, so I look forward at some stage to coming down to Somerset and being able to sample those products. He is absolutely right, as others in this Chamber have been, about the importance of our agricultural sector to economies across the UK. Particular parts of the UK rely heavily on the agricultural sector, and we will be taking their needs and considerations into account as we negotiate and deliver the best possible deal for this country in leaving the EU.

Q9. This morning the High Court ruled that the Government have comprehensively failed to tackle air pollution properly. Which does the Prime Minister feel is worse: the Government losing in the High Court for the second time, or the 40,000 early deaths that result from air pollution every year in the UK? (906970)

I have been asked about air quality in this Chamber previously at Prime Minister’s questions, and I have always made it clear that we recognise that there is more for the Government to do. We have been doing a lot in this area. We have been putting extra money into actions that will relieve the issues around air quality, but we recognise that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs now has to look at the judgment that has been made by the courts, and we have to look again at the proposals that we will bring forward. Nobody in this House doubts the importance of the issue of air quality. We have taken action, but there is more to do and we will do it.

The Prime Minister will remember visiting the Witney constituency recently. I am pleased to report that Chipping Norton has been shortlisted for the Great British High Street awards. Will she join me in congratulating the small businesses of Chipping Norton, and can she tell me what support Government offer to the small businesses in our market towns?

May I take this opportunity, which is my first, to welcome my hon. Friend to this Chamber? I congratulate him on his excellent result in the by-election.

My hon. Friend’s question brings back many happy memories for me, because when I was a child Chipping Norton was our local town. I used to go there and spend my pocket money assiduously in the shops, so I have done my bit for his high street in Chipping Norton. We are very clear, as a Government, that the action we have taken on issues such as business rates is there to help to support small businesses.

Q10. This Government’s record on immigration detention is disgraceful, with the UK being the only country in the EU that has no time limit on detention. Amid concern over plans to replace Dungavel with a short-term detention facility near Glasgow airport, the people of Renfrewshire want no part in these inhumane and ineffective practices. Will she use the closure of Dungavel as an opportunity to rethink detention policy and end this stain on our human rights record? (906971)

The hon. Gentleman will know that a lot of work has been done by the Government on the whole question of immigration detention, and a number of changes have been made. An independent review took place about a year ago on the whole question of detention of people in the immigration estate. It is important to realise that where people are due to be removed from this country and there is the prospect that they could be lost to the system if they are not detained, there are circumstances in which it is right to detain them in the immigration estate. We need to make sure we have got that estate right, and that is why a lot of work has been done on this. The fundamental point is that I suspect he does not think we should detain anybody in relation to immigration enforcement, but we believe there are those who are rightly detained before we remove them from this country.

When people make fun of Christianity in this country, it rightly turns the other cheek. When a young gymnast, Louis Smith, makes fun of another religion widely practised in this country, he is hounded on Twitter and by the media and suspended by his association. For goodness’ sake, this man received death threats, and we have all looked the other way. My question to the Prime Minister is this: what is going on in this country, because I no longer understand the rules?

I understand the level of concern that my hon. Friend has raised in relation to this matter. There is a balance that we need to find. We value freedom of expression and freedom of speech in this country—that is absolutely essential in underpinning our democracy—but we also value tolerance of others and tolerance in relation to religions. This is one of the issues we have looked at in the counter-extremism strategy that the Government have produced. Yes, it is right that people can have that freedom of expression, but that right has a responsibility too, which is the responsibility to recognise the importance of tolerance of others.

Q13. Today’s Daily Record leads on DWP issues. Is the Prime Minister aware that a telephone call to the Department for Work and Pensions by a severely disabled person or their carer can cost up to 45p a minute, which, with an average length of a call of 13 minutes, is a considerable sum from their social security entitlement? Should a disabled citizen pay this price, or does the Prime Minister agree with me that we should end this telephone tax on the most vulnerable in our society? (906974)

The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that has been raised on a number of occasions in this House. That is why the Government are implementing new guidelines in relation to the operation of these telephone lines. The number of lines that are costing people in the way to which he refers is being reduced, so the Government have recognised the issue and are taking action.

The past 18 months have been hell for commuters in my constituency of Lewes using the Southern rail network. Last night, a journey that should have taken just over an hour took over four hours. May I beg the Prime Minister to intervene on the Southern rail network? While we have a country that works for everyone, in Sussex we have a railway that works for no one.

I feel for my hon. Friend in relation to the journey she had to go through last night and the extended time that it took. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has been taking action in working with Southern rail and Network Rail in relation to the improvements that are necessary. We have stepped in to invest £20 million specifically to tackle the breakdown on the Southern rail network, which is proving so difficult for passengers. I recognise the degree of concern about this. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is on the case, and is working to ensure those improvements.

Q14. Has the Prime Minister spotted the ludicrous refusal by FIFA, the footballing federation, to let our players wear poppies at the forthcoming Scotland-England game? Will she tell the respective associations that, in this country, we decide when to wear poppies and that we will be wearing them at Wembley? (906975)

I think the stance that has been taken by FIFA is utterly outrageous. Our football players want to recognise and respect those who have given their lives for our safety and security. I think it is absolutely right that they should be able to do so. This is for our football associations, but I think a clear message is going from this House that we want our players to be able to wear poppies. I have to say to FIFA that before they start telling us what to do they jolly well ought to sort their own house out.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her recent announcement of a taskforce to stamp out the vile business of modern slavery? Will she join me in congratulating my constituent Mike Emberson and the Medaille Trust on their 10 years of work with the victims and the 70 places they now provide across their homes for these most unfortunate women?

I am very pleased to endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. I have met representatives of the Medaille Trust and talked to some of the victims they have helped. It is absolutely right that we continue the momentum in our fight against modern slavery. This country is leading the world and we should continue the fight because, sadly, too much slavery is still taking place on the streets and in the towns and villages of this country. That is why the taskforce I have set up will continue that momentum. We will be relentless in our pursuit of eradicating modern slavery.

Q15. In July, the armed forces charity SSAFA published an in-depth survey of nearly 1,000 working-age veterans. Some 85% of them thought the UK did not give them enough support and only 16% thought the armed forces covenant was being implemented effectively. What is the Prime Minister doing personally to change that? (906976)

We absolutely recognise the debt we owe to our veterans. That is why, through the armed forces covenant and throughout the work the Ministry of Defence is doing, we increasingly recognise the support that is necessary for veterans. The hon. Gentleman talks about what we can do. One thing we can do is to help people who come out of the armed forces to find their way into the world of work. That is why it is important both that we have a system that helps them to find the support that is necessary to get into the world of work and that we have an economy that is providing the jobs that people need.

This week is Offshore Wind Week. The development of the offshore wind sector is vital to my Cleethorpes constituency. Will my right hon. Friend assure the industry and my constituents that the Government will continue to work with the industry to develop future jobs for young people, with a particular emphasis on training?

I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to work with the industry. It has been an important development for the United Kingdom and makes up an important part of the energy we generate from renewables. As he says, it does provide jobs and we need to ensure that we look at the training that will enable people to take up those jobs. That is why skills form part of the work we are doing on our future industrial strategy.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is highly irresponsible and, indeed, dangerous for people to talk up the prospect of increased violence in Northern Ireland as a result of our leaving the EU, and that people should use the agreed institutions that were set up under the various agreements, not stand outside them or create new ones? Does she also agree that Brexit will not result in any change, alteration or impeding of the way in which the regions, countries and people within the UK connect with one another?

I am very happy to give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance in relation to movement around the United Kingdom. No change will take place. We will ensure that Brexit is a good deal for the whole of the United Kingdom. Those who wish to encourage violence off the back of that should, frankly, be ashamed of themselves. It is essential that we all work together to make a success of this and get the best possible opportunities for people across the whole of the United Kingdom.

Will the Prime Minister join me in praising Henley-on-Thames for receiving its first tranche of community infrastructure levy money at the higher rate because it has a neighbourhood plan? Will she join me in praising neighbourhood planning generally as the best means of giving communities a say over the planning system?

I am very happy to congratulate my neighbouring MP and Henley-on-Thames on that achievement. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that neighbourhood plans are a crucial part of the planning system. That is how local people can have a real say over what is happening in their local area.

May I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn)? Moving swiftly from midwives to doctors, is the Prime Minister aware that doctors in Doncaster face a crisis in primary care, because as GPs retire, it is proving almost impossible to get new ones to take over their practices? Because of restrictions in the Health and Social Care Act 2012, NHS bodies cannot take the necessary action, for example putting in salaried GPs. Will she do something about this matter quickly? Otherwise, many of my constituents will be left without a doctor.

After my unfortunate mistake earlier about the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), I failed to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), so am happy now to do so.

It is important to have GPs coming through, so that we can replace those who are retiring. Over the past six years we have seen thousands more GPs in our NHS. That is why the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health are ensuring that we have a programme to bring more doctors into training, so that places such as the right hon. Lady’s constituency, and those of other Members across the House, have GPs in the numbers needed.