The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to the families and friends of the seven people who lost their lives and to those who were injured in the tragic tram incident in Croydon last Wednesday. We all thank those involved in the rescue operation.
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.
Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming today’s news that the unemployment rate has fallen to an 11-year low? Will she join me in thanking all those businesses that create jobs, such as Jennifer Ashe & Son, whose funeral home on Brownhills High Street in my constituency I was kindly asked to open last weekend?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I am pleased to say that in the last year, employment in her constituency of Aldridge-Brownhills has gone up by 88,000. It is good to hear of companies that are providing new jobs. The employment figures show the strength of the fundamentals of our economy: the employment rate has never been higher and the unemployment rate is lower than it has been in more than a decade. I am sure that Members from all parts of the House will welcome yesterday’s news that Google will create another 3,000 jobs.
I concur with the remarks the Prime Minister made about the disaster in Croydon last week. We send our sympathies to all those who lost loved ones and express our solidarity with the emergency workers who went through such trauma in freeing people from the wreckage.
It appears from press reports that the Chagos islanders who were expelled from their homes over 40 years ago will suffer another injustice today with the denial of their right of return. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary told European media that Brexit would “probably” mean leaving the customs union. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether that is the case?
I think the right hon. Gentleman was trying to get two issues in there. On the issue of the Chagos islanders, there will be a written ministerial statement to the House later today, so everybody will be able to see the position the Government are taking.
On the whole issue of the customs union and the trading relationships we will have with the European Union and other parts of the world once we have left the European Union, we are preparing carefully for the formal negotiations, but—[Interruption.] We are preparing carefully for the formal negotiations. What we want to ensure is that we have the best possible trading deal with the European Union once we have left.
I asked the Prime Minister, actually, about the Foreign Secretary’s remarks about leaving the customs union. He is only a few places down from her. Mr Speaker, would it be in order for the Foreign Secretary to come forward and tell us what he actually said? I am sure we would all be better informed if he did.
Earlier this week, a leaked memo said that the Government are
“considerably short of having a plan for Brexit…No common strategy has emerged…in part because of the divisions within the Cabinet.”
If this memo is, as the Prime Minister’s press department says, written by ill-informed consultants, will she put the Government’s plan and common strategy for Brexit before Parliament?
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that, yes, we do have a plan. Our plan is to deliver the best possible deal in trading with and operating within the European Union. Our plan is to deliver control of the movement of people from the European Union into the United Kingdom. Our plan is to go out there across the world and negotiate free trade agreements around the rest of the world. This Government are absolutely united in their determination to deliver on the will of the British people and to deliver Brexit. The right hon. Gentleman’s shadow Cabinet cannot even decide whether it supports Brexit.
Well, the word does not seem to have travelled very far. I have to say, I sympathise with the Italian Government Minister who said this week, about the Prime Minister’s Government:
“Somebody needs to tell us something, and it needs to be something that makes sense.”
Is not the truth that the Government are making a total shambles of Brexit, and nobody understands what their strategy actually is?
Of course those in the European Union whom we will be negotiating with will want us to set out at this stage every detail of our negotiating strategy. If we were to do that, it would be the best possible way of ensuring that we got the worst result for this country. That is why we will not do it.
Talking of worst results, the Foreign Secretary has been very helpful this week, because he informed the world that “Brexit means Brexit”—we did not know that before—and that
“we are going to make a titanic success of it.”
Taking back control, if that is what Brexit is to mean—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister is getting advice from the Foreign Secretary now; can we all hear it? Taking back control clearly requires some extra administration. Deloitte has spoken, saying:
“One Department estimates it needs a 40% increase in staff to cope with its Brexit projects”,
and that overall expectations are of an increased headcount of between 10,000 and 30,000 civil servants. If that estimate is wrong, can the Prime Minister tell the House exactly how many extra civil servants will be required to conduct these negotiations? Her Ministers need to know—they are desperate for an answer from her.
I repeat for the right hon. Gentleman that we are doing the preparations necessary for the point at which we will start the complex formal negotiations with the European Union. I have set up a Department for Exiting the European Union, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is doing an excellent job there in making those preparations.
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that from the confusion that he has on his Benches in relation to the issue of Brexit, it seems to be yet another example from Labour of how where they talk, we act. They posture, we deliver. We are getting on with the job, he is not up to the job.
Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. I say to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry), calm yourself, man. You should seek to imitate the calm and repose of your right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is setting an example for all Members of the House.
I do not wish to promote any further division on their Benches, Mr Speaker.
These are the most complex set of negotiations ever undertaken by this country. The civil service has been cut down to its lowest level since the second world war. The Prime Minister’s main focus surely ought to be coming up with a serious plan. May I ask her to clarify something? If, when the Supreme Court meets at the beginning of December, it decides to uphold the decision of the High Court, will the Lord Chancellor this time defend our independent judiciary against any public attacks?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there have been two cases in the UK courts on the prerogative power and its use. The Northern Ireland court found in favour of the Government; the High Court found against the Government. We are appealing to the Supreme Court. We have a good argument, and will put the case to the Supreme Court. I believe and this Government believe in the independence of our judiciary, and the judiciary will consider that decision and come to their judgment on the basis of the arguments put before them. But we also believe that our democracy is underpinned by the freedom of our press.
My question was on defending the independence of the judiciary. We should all be doing that. We have an International Development Secretary who is opposed to overseas aid, a Health Secretary who is running down our national health service, a Chancellor with no fiscal strategy, a Lord Chancellor who seems to have difficulty defending the judiciary, a Brexit team with no plan for Brexit and, as has just been shown, a Prime Minister who is not prepared to answer questions on what the actual Brexit strategy is. We need a better answer than she has given us.
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what we have got. We have an International Development Secretary delivering on this Government’s commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international development, a Health Secretary delivering on £10 billion of extra funding for the health service and a Chancellor of the Exchequer making sure we have the stable economy that creates the wealth necessary to pay for our public services. And what we certainly have got is a Leader of the Opposition who is incapable of leading.
Before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, may I wish his wife all the very best in the treatment she is going through at the moment? The thoughts of the House are with her.
My hon. Friend is right. We have a manifesto commitment to increase the personal allowance. By increasing it from £6,475 in 2010-11 to £11,000 in 2016-17 and £11,500 next year, we have cut income tax for more than 30 million people and have taken 4 million people out of paying income tax altogether. That is important. It has helped people at the lower end of the income scale.
We join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in extending our condolences following the tragedy in Croydon and in paying tribute to the emergency services.
The Institute for Government, which has close ties to the civil service, has published a report saying that the UK Government’s approach towards Brexit is “chaotic and dysfunctional”, that Brexit poses an “existential threat” to operations in Whitehall Departments, that the Prime Minister has a “secretive approach” towards Brexit, and that the present situation is “unsustainable”. Does the Prime Minister plan to carry on like this regardless?
The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised when I tell him what the Government are doing in relation to Brexit. As I said earlier, the most important thing for the Government to do is calmly and carefully to get on with the job of preparing for complex negotiations. One of the most important things we can do is to make sure that we are not giving a running commentary on those negotiations and on our stance, because that would be the best way to get the worst deal for this country.
On the day we hear that “post-truth” has become the international word of the year, we have a running commentary from the Foreign Secretary. He is prepared to tell the media in the Czech Republic that the United Kingdom is likely to leave the EU customs union post-Brexit, but that it still wants to trade freely afterwards. In response, his colleague from the Netherlands said that that option “doesn’t exist” and is “impossible”. Both those things cannot be correct, so will the Prime Minister confirm today, to Parliament and to the country, whether the UK is likely to leave the EU customs union post-Brexit—yes or no?
The right hon. Gentleman does not actually seem to understand that the customs union is not just a binary decision, but let us set that to one side. Let us look at what we need to do: get the best possible deal for access to, trading with and operating within the single European market. He stands up time and again in Prime Minister’s questions and says to me that he wants access to the single European market. I might remind him that it was only a couple of years ago that he wanted to take Scotland out of the single European market by making it independent. [Interruption.]
I thank my hon. Friend for raising an issue that is very important for everybody in the House. Certainly the Government will do all they can to support police and crime commissioners such as Roger Hirst, who is already doing an excellent job in Essex. Since 2009, knife crime figures have fallen overall, but I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns. That is why the Home Office has been supporting police forces such as Essex in conducting weeks of action against knives under Operation Sceptre. We have legislated to ban dangerous knives, including zombie knives. We are putting tough sentences in place and making sure that offenders are punished. We should send a very clear message that we will not tolerate knife crime in this country.
I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that our special relationship with the United States is, I think, very important to both the United States and the United Kingdom. We will continue to build on it, as was clear from the conversation that I had with President-elect Trump shortly after his election, and of course we want to ensure the dignity of our citizens. It is up to the United States what rules it puts in place for entry across its borders, but we will ensure that the special relationship continues, and does so in the interests of both the UK and the US.
Last Tuesday, I attended an infection prevention and control summit that highlighted the great work done by the Department of Health, the NHS and other organisations dramatically to decrease MRSA infection rates, yet also raised the growing threat of E. coli and sepsis. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending such events and outline the Government’s strategy for combatting superbugs?
I absolutely join my hon. Friend, who raises a very important issue, in commending such events. It true that the DOH, Public Health England and the NHS are doing vital work to decrease infection rates. We have already seen some very good results—a 57% reduction in MRSA bloodstream infections since 2010 and a 47% reduction in C. diff infections—but of course there is more to do, which is why we are setting bold objectives to halve gram-negative blood infections by 2020, and why last week we announced a new national infection lead to champion and oversee this effort. This is an important issue and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for free trade. He is absolutely right that as we leave the EU we will be looking for opportunities to develop flexible trading relationships around the world that suit the United Kingdom. Given the strength of our economy, I believe that we can go out there and be a global leader in free trade, and I welcome his support for that.
Last Wednesday, seven people tragically died and 50 were injured in a tram accident in Croydon. I am sure that the whole House will join the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the SNP in extending our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families. Three investigations—by British Transport Police, the Office of Rail and Road, and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch—are under way. Will the Prime Minister assure the House and the families that any recommendations to improve safety on trams in Croydon and across the country that are made by those investigations will be rapidly implemented by the Government?
I join my hon. Friend in once again sending our condolences to the families and friends of the seven people who died in this terrible incident, in expressing our sympathies for those injured and affected, and in thanking our emergency services. It is important that we allow these investigations to continue and that they can come up with recommendations in due course; we will, of course, look very seriously at them. We can never be complacent about safety and security regarding such issues, so we need to make sure that if there are lessons to be learned, they are indeed learned.
Employment and Support Allowance/Universal Credit
The Government are committed to protecting the most vulnerable in society, including disabled people and those with health conditions, and people currently receiving employment and support allowance will continue to receive the same level of financial support. We are ensuring that the support is concentrated on those most in need, and that it is available not just through benefits, but as part of a wider package to help those who could get into the workplace reach the point where they can get into the workplace.
This week, the Prime Minister said:
“Change is in the air. And when people demand change, it is the job of politicians to respond”,
so how does she respond to the 70 disability organisations that want these cuts stopped, or indeed to Conservative Members who have supported my cross-party motion calling for these cuts to be halted, which will be debated tomorrow? Surely she must respond accordingly.
As I have said, we are focusing support on those most in need. For those in the support group for ESA, support has gone up, and we are giving extra support to help those in the work-related group who could at some stage get into the workplace to do so. It is important that we do not view this solely as an issue of benefits; it is about the whole package that is available, which includes the personal independence payments that provide for the living costs of disability. Let me gently remind the hon. Gentleman that if he is concerned about the levels of payment in Scotland, he might wish to talk to the Scottish Government about the new powers that they have, whether they intend to use them and how they would fund them.
Following the election of Mr Trump, and given the very welcome progress made in our society by women and those from ethnic minorities, what message of reassurance does the Prime Minister have for fat, middle-aged white men, who may feel that we have been left behind?
I note that the Social Mobility Commission has recorded today that more working- class youngsters are benefiting from higher education than at any point in our history. The Government have invested record amounts in childcare and the early years, and the attainment gap, as the report acknowledges, has actually narrowed. The hon. Lady refers to the education system and the reintroduction of grammar schools, so I refer her to the report commissioned by a Labour council in Knowsley to look at how it could improve educational achievement there. That report said:
“Re-introducing grammar schools is potentially a transformative idea for working class areas”.
Today the BBC World Service announced its biggest expansion since the 1940s, including 11 new services in different languages, bringing the total number of languages covered around the world to 40. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is an excellent example of soft power and a lifeline to many people around the world?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The service that the BBC provides through its World Service and the independent journalism that that brings to millions of people around the world is very important, including by bringing that to people in places where free speech is often limited. It is important to support the BBC World Service, which is why we are investing £289 million over the next four years so that it can provide accurate and independent news to some of the most remote parts of the world.
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have already given guarantees about the research funding available from the EU and those contracts that will be signed. He will know, too, that within the immigration rules for people outside the EU, we are already able to ensure that the brightest and the best can come to the United Kingdom. I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, as I reminded his right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), that it was not that long ago since he was campaigning to come out of the European Union and come out of free movement.
In a Committee yesterday, I learned that the Iraq Historic Allegations Team had placed serving members and veterans under surveillance in this country. I also learned that, despite everything we have said, we have paid for chasing lawyers to go out and collect evidence in theatre. I know of the Prime Minister’s commitment to this agenda. Does she agree that we need to work harder to close the gap between what we say and how things actually feel for our servicemen and women?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I recognise the concern that has been expressed by a number of my hon. Friends about the impact of the IHAC on servicemen and women. It important that we ensure that it conducts its inquiries within a reasonable timescale, which it is now set to do, and that it weeds out what could be described as the more frivolous cases. I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that credible allegations of criminal activity should be investigated properly, but I am conscious of the need to ensure that our servicemen and women, who do such a good job for us around the world and keep us safe and secure, have the support that they need.
Ministerial Meetings (First Minister)
I recently met the First Minister and leaders of the devolved Administrations at the Joint Ministerial Committee. Its next meeting is planned for early in the new year. Of course, the United Kingdom Government engage regularly with the Scottish Government on a range of issues.
There is a question that is, I am sure, vexing not just the First Minister but the whole of Scotland. On 22 June, Ruth Davidson stated that those supporting the leave campaign
“won’t tell us what they will replace the single market with.”
Now that the Prime Minister is part of a Government who are dragging Scotland out of the European Union against its sovereign will, can she answer Ruth Davidson?
It is right that the Prime Minister has latitude to enter into negotiations with the EU. However, the Vote Leave campaign was very clear that the rights of EU citizens would not be affected if this country voted to leave. My parents are Italian. They have never naturalised and have been in this country for 50 years. Can the Prime Minister assure me that she will never instruct me to vote in the Lobby to take away the rights of my parents and those of millions of other EU citizens?
I recognise the personal passion with which my hon. Friend raises this issue. I want, intend and expect to be able to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom, but I also want the rights of UK citizens living in EU member states to be guaranteed. As I have said previously, I hope that this is an issue that we shall be able to discuss with my European colleagues at an early stage.
I commend the hon. Lady for raising an issue that I know is a personal concern for her. It affects the constituents of Members in all parts of the House. We have set ourselves the ambitious target of 4 million dementia friends by 2020; we already have 1.6 million. We have doubled research spending on dementia and invested in the development of a dementia research institute. We are determined to transform end-of-life care, which is why we have created the national end-of-life care programme board, which will help to implement the commitment to high-quality, personalised end-of-life care for all. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this important issue and assure her that it is something on which the Government are focusing.
At the same time as the Government are rightly restoring hundreds of millions of pounds of funding to the BBC World Service, there are no current plans to restore the very modest £20 million a year it costs to run BBC Monitoring. Former members of the Intelligence and Security Committee such as Lord Menzies Campbell and I are dismayed that the BBC is proposing to cut the monitoring service further, to close Caversham Park and to break the colocation with its American counterparts. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet us and have a discussion before this disaster is visited on an incomparable source of open-source information on which so many Government Departments and intelligence agencies depend?
My right hon. Friend raises an important issue. Of course the staffing and provision for the monitoring service are matters for the BBC, but we are clear about the importance of the service. It provides high-quality reporting for the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and other parts of Government, and of course for the BBC itself. As part of the charter renewal process, we are talking to the BBC about a new agreement in relation to the BBC monitoring role that we believe will result in an improved service for Government, not a reduced one.
I recognise the importance of this issue to the hon. Lady. It is one on which she has campaigned, and she champions the cause of the victims and survivors. Of course, like her, it is the victims and survivors whom we must always keep at the forefront of our minds. That is why it is important that this inquiry is able to continue, and I agree. This point was made this morning by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the new Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. We owe it to the survivors and victims for the inquiry to continue. I have to say that, having seen the work that Professor Alexis Jay did in the Rotherham inquiry, I have absolute confidence in her ability to undertake this inquiry.
During the United States election, President-elect Trump stated that Britain should not be at the back of any trade queue, but should be at the front. Now that he has been elected President, what action will the Prime Minister’s Government be taking to ensure that the already very good trading conditions between the USA and the United Kingdom further improve?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I mentioned earlier the special relationship between the UK and the USA. We now have an opportunity in our trading relationship with the USA, and that is something I will want to discuss with President-elect Trump at a very early stage.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. Social media is overall a good that is used for good intents—it is even used by political parties for campaigning and in other ways—but it can also be abused and ill-used by people who wish to bully others, and there are Members of this House who have suffered significantly as a result of bullying and trolling on social media. The Home Office is well apprised of this issue. Over the years—I did this when I was Home Secretary—it has been talking to the companies about their responsibilities. The issue is best addressed through the terms and conditions of the companies themselves, and I am sure that the Home Secretary has listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s point.
In the teeth of opposition from the Conservative party, the last Labour Government changed the law to make sure that all prisoners were released halfway through their sentence, irrespective of whether they had misbehaved in prison or still posed a threat to the public—[Hon. Members: “Rubbish!”]
That must have contributed to the upsurge in violence in our prisons. Does the Prime Minister agree with the previous Labour Government that prisoners should be released halfway through their sentence, irrespective of how badly they have behaved or the threat they pose to the general public, or does she agree with me that this is an outrage that flies in the face of public opinion and must be reversed?
The important point, as my hon. Friend indicates, is that when decisions are taken about the release of prisoners, proper consideration is given to the impact of that release on the wider community. That is why this issue has been looked at, and I can assure him that it was an issue of concern when I was Home Secretary. But this is not just about the conditions under which prisoners are released; it is actually about how we ensure that we have measures in place to rehabilitate ex-offenders. That is why the work that has been done by previous Justice Secretaries, which is being continued by the current Justice Secretary, is important to ensure that we reduce reoffending by prisoners when they are released.
Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the announcement of phase 2 of High Speed 2 from Crewe to Manchester airport and into Manchester Piccadilly, bringing jobs and prosperity to Weaver Vale, to Cheshire and to the north-west region including north Wales, thereby closing the north-south divide?
I know that my hon. Friend has championed the cause of HS2 for a long time, and he is absolutely right. I welcome the Government’s announcement about this. It shows that we are willing to take the big decisions that will help to support our communities and our economy. Crucially, as he says, HS2 will support the economy in the part of the country that he represents.
The hon. Gentleman refers to free movement arrangements being in place since 1973, but the common travel area was actually started 50 years earlier, in 1923, so it existed for some considerable time before we were in the European Union. I repeat what I have said in the House before when asked about this issue: we are working with the Government of the Republic of Ireland and with the Northern Ireland Executive, and we are very clear that we do not want a return to the borders of the past. We recognise the importance of movements of trade and people to those on both sides of that border.