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Volume 617: debated on Wednesday 30 November 2016

I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing people across the United Kingdom and, indeed, the whole world a very happy St Andrew’s day.

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

May I suggest to the Prime Minister that “having your cake and eating it” is not a serious strategy for Brexit and that Britain deserves better that having to rely on leaked documents to know the Government’s plans? How on earth can she expect MPs to vote to trigger article 50 when she refuses to give any clarity on what kind of Brexit she is pursuing and whether it will involve us still being members of the single market? Is it arrogance, or is it incompetence?

I have answered this question many times in this House. The hon. Lady asks specifically about the single market and trading with the European Union, and I have been very clear that we are ambitious in getting the best possible deal for trading with and operating within the single European market.

Q2. I welcome last week’s autumn statement announcement of £556 million for infrastructure in the north of England, but despite that and years of hard work, the M55 Lytham St Annes link road is still not assured. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister do everything she can to ensure that this vital local project for jobs and employment in my constituency is delivered without further delay? (907565)

I commend my hon. Friend on the hard work he has put in in relation to this project. I understand that there is to be a significant sum of funding from a developer and that my hon. Friend has been working with the developer and the county council on this issue. The local enterprise partnership has submitted a linked bid to Highways England that is being actively considered, and I understand that my hon. Friend is meeting my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Transport this afternoon to discuss this in more detail.

May I join the Prime Minister in wishing everyone a very happy St Andrew’s day wherever they are celebrating it, all around the world?

Last week, the autumn statement revealed the abject failure of this Government’s economic strategy. Economic growth was revised down; wage growth was revised down; business investment was revised down; and borrowing and debt were revised up, yet again. Surely now the Prime Minister accepts that her predecessor’s long-term economic plan was actually a failure.

I will give the right hon. Gentleman some facts. The IMF says that this will be the fastest-growing advanced economy in the world this year. Unemployment is down. We have record numbers of people in employment and we have companies such as Nissan, Jaguar Land Rover, Honda, ARM, Google, Facebook and Apple investing in the UK, securing jobs here in the United Kingdom. That is what a good economic plan does.

The Government did tell us that the deficit would be eradicated by 2015. That was then advanced to 2020, and now it has been advanced to whenever in the future. The right hon. Lady quotes the IFS, but she is being a little selective. It went on to say that the prospect for workers over the next six years was “dreadful”, creating

“the worst decade for living standards certainly since the last war and probably since the 1920s”.

Is it not fair to say that those who are just getting by are suffering all the pain for no gain?

Given that the right hon. Gentleman cannot distinguish between the IMF and the IFS, it is probably a good job that he is sitting there and I am standing here. Let me tell him what we are doing for those people, and let us think about those people who do find life difficult, who are struggling to get by, who have a job but worry about their job security, who have a home but worry about paying the mortgage, and who are worried about their children’s education and whether their children will be able to buy a home. What measures have we taken? We have increased the national living wage—we introduced the national living wage. We are increasing personal tax allowance, taking more people out of paying tax altogether. We are increasing the number of affordable homes being built. But we can only do this if we have a strong economy, and it is our plan that delivers that strong economy.

Wages have stagnated; home ownership is falling; homelessness has doubled; and queues at food banks are rising every day. If the Prime Minister really believes the economy is doing well, why are her Government forcing through £2 billion of cuts to in-work support, cutting the incomes of working people and leaving many households over £2,000 a year worse off?

The right hon. Gentleman starts his question by talking about home ownership. Let us be very clear what is happening in respect of housing. House building starts fell by 45% under Labour in 12 years. They have increased by over two thirds since the Conservatives were in government. Yes, we are making changes to the welfare system. He and I have a fundamental difference of opinion about the welfare system. I think what is important in the welfare system is that we remember those who are benefiting from it and we remember those who are paying for it. The universal credit system is there to ensure that work will always pay. I believe in a welfare system that does help people to get into work, that does encourage people into the workplace. He believes in a welfare system where people are able to live on benefits.

The last Labour Government took 800,000 children out of poverty. Under the right hon. Lady’s Government, child poverty is rising and now covers 4 million children across this country. Our people are suffering because of the policies of her Government. People are paying the price for her failed economic experiment. The Government have even now abandoned the previous Chancellor’s pledge that their so-called national living wage would be paying at least £9 per hour by 2020. What is the new pledge on living wage?

The pledge on living wage is set out in the autumn statement and is as it always has been. The right hon. Gentleman talks about poverty. Actually, we are seeing fewer families in absolute poverty and fewer families in relative poverty. I come back to the point I have been making in answer to his previous questions: it is only possible to do these things by having a strong economy. The one thing we know is that the policy that would not deliver a strong economy is Labour’s policy to increase borrowing by £500 billion. He talks about the impact on people in work. Let me remind him of what the former shadow Treasury Minister said: Labour’s policy to increase borrowing would lead to double the income tax, double council tax, double VAT and double national insurance. That will not help anybody who is in the workplace and just about managing.

I am not entirely sure where the Government’s credibility lies on borrowing, since they are borrowing even more, the deficit is increasing and people are suffering. When the Prime Minister talks about children in poverty in response to my question, I simply remind her 4 million children are living in poverty—children going hungry to school in this country because their parents do not have enough money to feed them properly. It is a disgrace and should be addressed.

In the autumn statement last week, the Chancellor spoke for over 50 minutes. During that time, he did not once mention the national health service or social care. Some 1.2 million people are lacking the care they need. Why was there not one single penny more for social care in the autumn statement?

There is absolutely no doubt that the social care system is under pressure; we recognise that. If we just look at the fact that there are 1 million more people aged over 65 today than there were in 2010, we see the sort of pressures on the social care system. That is why the Government have already acted to put more money into the social care system: more money through the better care fund—£3.5 billion extra through the better care fund—and more money through the social care precept. But it is also important that local authorities and the NHS work together to ensure, for example, that people have the social care they need, so they are not ending up blocking beds in hospital. There is some very good practice up and down the country, and sadly there is some not so good practice. What we need to do is make sure everybody is giving the best possible service to people who need it.

There is a tragic parallel going on between an underfunded NHS and an underfunded social care system all over the country, and the Prime Minister knows it. Indeed, she might care to listen to the Tory leader of Warwickshire Council, Izzi Seccombe, who says that her council has been “cut to the bone”, and who says on social care:

“right now we have a £1.3 billion gap which is not being funded.”

It is a real crisis in every social services department all over the country and, indeed, in almost every NHS hospital.

Next year, this Government are handing back £605 million in corporation tax cuts, rising to £1.6 billion the year after that and £7.5 billion over the next five years. So could the Prime Minister explain to the more than 1 million elderly people not getting the care they need, to the 4 million people on NHS waiting lists and to the millions of pensioners worried about losing the protection of the triple lock why there is not one penny extra for the NHS or social care? Just what is this Government’s real sense of priorities?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about funding social care and funding the national health service: £3.8 billion extra is going into the national health service this year. Under Labour’s plans, we would have seen £1.3 billion less going into the national health service. Social care funding is going up under this Government. At the last election, the shadow Chancellor—lately of “Strictly” fame—said local authorities would get not a penny more. Conservatives are putting money into the NHS and social care—Labour would deny it.

Q4. On a cross-party basis, Jo Cox and I were establishing the National Commission on Loneliness when she was brutally murdered. This work is now being continued by the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) and me. Does my right hon. Friend agree that loneliness is an issue for all our communities, and will she urge her Ministers to engage with the commission as it carries out its work and reports next year? (907567)

First of all, may I just say that I am sure the whole House would want to join me in commending Jo’s family for the very dignified way in which they dealt with matters as the court case was going through. It must have been very harrowing for them.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) are taking forward the work of the commission on loneliness. Earlier this week I was able to support the “Good Morning Britain” 1 Million Minutes campaign, which is encouraging individuals to give 30 minutes of their time to help—to be with—somebody who is lonely. We have, over the years, I think, failed to understand the impact that loneliness has on people’s psychological health but also their physical health. Ministers will look forward to receiving the results from the commission and to working with my hon. Friend and others.

A very happy St Andrew’s day to everybody celebrating in Scotland and throughout the world.

There is literally nothing to celebrate about the humanitarian catastrophe befalling the people of Syria at this time. The situation in the besieged city of Aleppo is described as so bad that it

“could be one of the biggest massacres of civilian population since World War II”.

What can the UK and the international community do to end the suffering of the people of Syria?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the appalling situation in Syria, and particularly the indiscriminate attacks that we see on civilians in Aleppo. The United Kingdom has been working with France to bring forward an emergency discussion on this issue at the UN Security Council; that will take place later today. We want to see a cessation of hostilities. We want to see an opportunity for humanitarian aid to have access to Aleppo, and we will be pressing for that at the Security Council.

It is extremely welcome that the discussions are taking place in the United Nations, and we wish success to all those who are supporting a humanitarian solution to the crisis. However, things are so bad that the agencies are saying that in Aleppo the situation is a “descent into hell”. Time is absolutely of the essence. I know the Prime Minister is seized of this matter; we are in agreement. Can I please appeal to her: can absolutely everything be done now to alleviate the situation of the poor people of Aleppo and of Syria?

The right hon. Gentleman is right about the horrific situation in Aleppo. I can assure him that the Government are pressing hard and we are doing everything that we can in relation to this. We have consistently looked at what the possible solutions might be, to see whether there are other avenues that we can press for. I think the Security Council debate is very important. There is an important message to send to Russia: that it use its influence with the Assad regime to stop these appalling atrocities in Aleppo and let humanitarian aid through.

Q5. Comments this week by the equalities commissioners about not being worried about talking about Christmas at work were important, because many Christians are now worried, even fearful, about mentioning their faith in public. Will the Prime Minister therefore join me in welcoming the recent Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship publication “Speak Up!”, which confirms that in our country the legal rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech to speak about one’s faith responsibly, respectfully and without fear are as strong today as ever? (907568)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue which matters both to her and me. I think the phrase that was used by the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship was “the jealously guarded principle” of that ability to speak freely, as she says, respectfully and responsibly about one’s religion. I am happy to welcome the publication of this report and its findings. Of course, we are now into the season of Advent. We have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech, and our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of. I am sure we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith, and also feel able to speak quite freely about Christmas.

Q3. Thirty years ago, I conducted my first funeral as a young curate. It was for a young teenage boy who was an enormous fan of Paul Simon, so, as the crematorium curtains closed, we listened to “The Sound of Silence”, and many people cried. The average cost of a child’s funeral today is £3,675. Some councils do not charge anything, but some charge a lot, and the social fund is means-tested. I ask again: will the Prime Minister please listen to the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), sign up to her campaign and put an end to both the means-testing and the postcode lottery, so that no parents who lose a child have to deal with the fear of hardship as well as their grief? (907566)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I know that the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) spoke very movingly from personal experience in the debate that she called on this issue. I do not think that anybody who has not been through the death of a child can possibly understand the pain that that brings, not just immediately but thereafter, as parents see others grow up while their child will not.

I recognise the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised about the cost of children’s funerals. As he has said, there are measures in place for families who have particular hardship cases, where money can be given. It is open to local authorities to waive fees, and some local authorities do that. We have left this as a decision for local authorities, and some do, indeed, waive those fees.

Q6. Grammar schools across the Medway towns have provided good education and opportunities for hard-working young people from a range of backgrounds, helping social mobility and intervening to improve recent Ofsted results in local primary schools, particularly in Rochester and Strood. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our current grammar schools’ contribution to education ought to be valued and given every support, as part of the educational mix up and down the country, to help children to achieve their full potential? (907569)

I agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that there are now nearly 11,000 more children in good and outstanding schools in my hon. Friend’s area than there were in 2010. We want to provide a good school place for every child. She references the good work being done by grammar schools in her area to improve the quality of education in primary schools, which is one of the issues that we are looking at in our consultation on education. We want to remove the legal ban on expanding or opening new grammar schools, but we also want to see grammar schools working to improve standards across the education system generally.

Q7. The sustainability and transformation plan for Cheshire and Merseyside aims to develop accountable care organisations. It is a model from America, where it is used to deliver private, insurance-based healthcare. Can the Prime Minister assure me that STPs will not be used as a means of introducing insurance-based private healthcare into the NHS? (907570)

The STPs are about local people determining the shape of health services in a local area, to deliver the best service for local people. Obviously, every area will be looking very closely at the plans that are being brought forward. It is important that we see, in those STPs, health services increasingly working with local authorities to ensure that they are providing the right, holistic level of care for people in their area.

Q8. As the Prime Minister leads us towards a smart and smooth Brexit—as I like to call it, a “smexit”—I am sure she shares my view that the flexibility of Britain’s labour market is one of this country’s great strengths. However, she will be aware that the growth of new business models as part of the so-called gig economy is causing real concern that employment rights could be eroded. Indeed, the news that Uber is seeking a licence to operate in my constituency has left local people concerned about what their jobs could look like in the future. What reassurances can the Prime Minister give to me and my constituents that the Government are working to make sure that employment rights and employment regulations keep pace with this sort of innovation? (907571)

As I mentioned earlier, we have seen a significant rise in the number of people in employment in this country, and that is because we have got the strong economy that we have. However, I recognise that employment and types of employment are changing. Technology is the driver in many cases. That is why I have asked the chief executive of the RSA, Matthew Taylor, to conduct a review of and report on modern employment practices, so we can ensure that the legislative framework is absolutely the right one for the economy of the future and the jobs of the future. That shows that it is now the Conservative party that is the party of working people.

Q10. The Conservative election manifesto promised to halve the disability employment gap by 2020. Ministers justified their plan to cut the benefit from next April by promising to recycle some of the savings into improving employment support for benefit claimants. It has now become apparent that funding for employment support is not being increased; it is being cut. The target for halving the gap—2020—has been completely abandoned. Surely the only honourable course now is for the Government to abandon the benefit cut as well. (907573)

I am very pleased to say that, over the past three years, nearly 600,000 more disabled people have got into the workplace. I think that is very important. Of course, we want to ensure that all those disabled people who are able to get into work are given the support needed to do that. That is why we have been ensuring not just that this is about benefits, but that this is about the support package in total that people are given. They do have individual support through the personal independence payment for the particular long-terms costs that they have incurred because of their disability. It is also the support package that is provided to people in the work group in employment and support allowance that enables them to get into work. Nearly 600,000 more disabled people in work—that is something the right hon. Gentleman should be celebrating.

Q9. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s eagerness to give EU citizens living and working lawfully in this country the assurance that they will be able to remain here after Brexit and to obtain reassurances for British citizens living and working in the EU. Does she therefore share my disappointment that Mr Tusk, in response to a letter from 80 Members of this House about resolving this issue speedily, has intransigently put EU processes ahead of common humanity? (907572)

I can assure my right hon. Friend that, as I said earlier, I would hope this is an issue we can look at at an early stage in the negotiations, and of course there will be two years of negotiations. I think it is right that we want to give reassurance to British citizens living in the EU and to EU citizens living here in the UK, but I think the reaction that we have seen shows why it was absolutely right for us not to do what the Labour party wanted us to do, which was simply to give away the guarantee for rights of EU citizens here in the UK. As we have seen, that would have left UK citizens in Europe high and dry.

Q12. I know the Prime Minister is handed happy briefs to read out, but can I tell her that she has been wrong on the national health service for weeks now? If she came to South Tyneside hospital, she would see services closing, she would see patients worried and she would see staff demoralised, so when is she going to get a grip of those bean counters who are committing criminal damage on the people’s cherished service in her name? (907575)

There are nearly 30 more doctors and over 950 more nurses in the South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust compared with 2010. This year, the South Tyneside clinical commissioning group will be getting increased funding. Health funding in the hon. Gentleman’s area is going to be £2.7 billion this year, and that will be increasing by 2020-21. It is this Government that are putting more money into the national health service; it is the Labour party—a former shadow Health Secretary from the Labour party—who said that more money for the NHS was “irresponsible”.

Q11. Warwick and Leamington contains many of the elements of a successful industrial strategy—great schools, a skilled workforce, strong infrastructure, manufacturing, creative industries and being surrounded by world-class research and development facilities, to name but a few. Will the Prime Minister outline the Government’s progress in developing this policy, which is so important to our nation’s prosperity? (907574)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says about his own constituency and the midlands engine in relation to the development of jobs and for the strong economy of the future. That is why we will be developing the industrial strategy for the whole of the United Kingdom, which is an important part of the Government’s plan for the future. It is looking at issues such as infrastructure and skills, ensuring that we can build on the best and encourage the growth that we need for the economy of the future. The midlands engine and the part of the country that my hon. Friend represents will be an important part of that growth for the future.

Q14. Guests from the Hyderabad diocese have twice been refused visas to visit the Church of Scotland presbytery of Glasgow as part of a twinning initiative, the suggestion being that the visit was not genuine, despite the paperwork being correct and the Church bearing the costs. When I raised this with the Leader of the House, he spoke of the need for people to return home after visits, and then the Immigration Minister told me in a patronising letter how to apply for a visa. Will the Prime Minister tell the Church why its visitors are not welcome and what messages she thinks it sends to our faith communities? (907577)

We have a very clear visa system, and decisions are taken according to its rules, but as the hon. Lady will have seen, the Home Secretary has heard her comments. I suggest that if she sends her the details, she will look at the case.

Q13. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, once the will of the British people, including the residents of Fareham, is delivered and we break free from the shackles of the EU, Britain stands to benefit from the fantastic opportunity to forge new trade deals with countries such as India and the USA, and will she meet me and members of the Legatum Institute special trade commission, which has projected a 50% increase in global world product over 15 years as a result of Brexit, which will enable trade to boost jobs, growth and hope? (907576)

I am interested in the results of the Legatum Institute commission’s report on this issue. I believe absolutely that free trade is the right way to go—it is through free trade that we increase growth and prosperity—which is why I have said I want this country to be a global leader in free trade and why we will not just look to forge new trade deals with other countries as we leave the EU but see how we can improve trade with other countries before we leave it, so that we will continue to strengthen our economy. I am sure that the Secretary of State for International Trade will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the results of the commission’s report.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I’ll be able to tell you more about it next week, when I meet my consultant.

What plans does the Prime Minister have to make super-economic zones? The Blyth estuary was given an economic zone by the last Tory Chancellor, as we have acres and acres of land around that river. I hope that that is in her mind.

I join you, Mr Speaker, and others in welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his place. It is good to see him back in his usual position, and I wish him all the very best.

As part of our industrial strategy, we are looking around the country at where there are opportunities for economic growth and how we can encourage them to be taken up. It is important that economic growth and prosperity be spread across the whole country to ensure an economy that works for everyone.

Q15. The digital and creative industry is an important part of the UK economy, and Leeds is an important hub in the sector. In welcoming the £1 billion investment in better broadband in the autumn statement, may I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that Yorkshire gets its fair share, so that we can build on this success and make Leeds the capital of this industry? (907578)

I assure my hon. Friend that I recognise the role played by the creative and digital industries in our economy, the excellent example of Leeds and the vibrancy they bring to the economy there. I am pleased that we are able to invest a further £1 billion in gold standard broadband, which will bring better connections to 2 million more homes and businesses, and I am sure that Yorkshire will have a very central role to play in this.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister’s Government published a Green Paper on corporate governance, emphasising the importance of gender and race diversity. I congratulate her on that, but why has her Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport blocked the appointment of a black woman to the Channel 4 board? Does she not think there is a woman or a black person in the country worthy of being on the board of Channel 4?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the welcome he has given to the corporate governance Green Paper that we have produced, which of course covers a great deal more than simply issues of gender and diversity in corporate governance and on corporate boards. I am not aware of the particular case that he mentioned. In looking at public appointments, however, I would say that a very careful process is undertaken to ensure that the people who are appointed have the skillset and the requirements needed to carry out the role. I will look into the issue he raised, but this is always a question of the right person for the job. Issues around the sort of question that he has raised do not come into it; it is about who is right for the job.

Mr Donald Tusk’s response to my letter on reciprocal rights has already been mentioned. I congratulate the Prime Minister on her work with individual member states in this important matter, but does she share our disappointment and will she join me in calling for this important matter to be raised in two weeks’ time at the next European Council meeting?

I recognise the concerns of my hon. Friend and other Members on the particular issue of the rights of EU citizens and UK citizens variously living here in the UK and in the other member states of the European Union. I hope it is something that we will be able to address at an early stage. We have not yet triggered article 50 and the negotiations will have up to two years to run, as set out in the Lisbon treaty. As I say, I hope we will be able to address this at an early stage to give people the reassurance they need.

A year ago this week, my constituent Deborah Pearson lost her niece Julie, who is believed to have been unlawfully killed in Eilat, Israel. A year ago, the Prime Minister’s predecessor was good enough to give me support, as was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but after a year of writing letters, having meetings and putting pressure on the Israeli authorities, the family is no closer to having justice for Julie. Will the Prime Minister meet me and my constituent to understand what further pressure can be brought to bear so that the family can get answers and understand who brought this terrible crime against their family member?

I understand the concern that the hon. Lady rightly shows for her constituent, and obviously her constituent’s deep concern to find out what happened in this terrible tragedy. I understand that the appropriate Minister in the Foreign Office is actively working on this question. I will ask him to respond to the hon. Lady and to meet her to discuss what more can be done and to set out exactly what the Foreign Office is doing on this issue.

Bill Presented

Withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Peter Bone presented a Bill to require Her Majesty’s Government to notify the European Council by 31 March 2017 of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 December, and to be printed (Bill 104).