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Volume 616: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2016

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.