The Secretary of State was asked—
UK development assistance has helped to reduce poverty and promote stability in Tajikistan since 2002. Between 2011 and 2016, DFID’s work has improved rural lives, promoted women’s economic empowerment, and delivered an important investment climate and managed public financial reforms.
I am grateful for that information. During a recent visit to Tajikistan, I saw the good work that DFID had been doing, but many people have expressed concern about the fact that certain projects have been quite slow to be approved. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the Department’s commitment to Tajikistan and on when those projects might be signed off?
I thank my hon. Friend, both for his question and for going to see DFID’s work in-country. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), is overseeing new international development programmes, details of which will be published in due course.
Central Asia, including Tajikistan, represents an important strategic imperative in terms of our wider development objectives. We are, of course, committed to ensuring that commitments are implemented and that we start to deliver on those programmes later in the year.
As the hon. Lady will know, a variety of challenges exist in this part of central Asia. Dealing with climate change is one, but others are economic security, financial management and performance issues. DFID’s combined approach will help to deliver greater economic security in the long run.
Occupied Palestinian Territories
The Department’s assessment, in line with long-standing British Government policy, is that demolitions are illegal under international humanitarian law, and that they undermine the credibility and viability of a two-state solution.
The Bedouin village of Umm-al-Hiran remains under threat from a demolition that would cast out 800 villagers, and the number of demolitions in the occupied territories in the first two weeks of January is almost four times greater than the number at this point last year. What support is being given to the people who are being driven out of their homes, and what message is being sent to the Israeli Government that such demolitions are completely unjustifiable?
The hon. Lady raises two important issues, the first of which is long standing. Along with our international partners, we continue to lobby the Israeli Government, who are undertaking the demolitions, to stop doing so, both because they are illegal and because they undermine the two-state solution.
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), had a meeting with the Israeli Defence Minister, Mr Lieberman, just before Christmas and raised the issue of demolitions with him directly.
We are absolutely focused on supporting NGOs, but above all we are focused on investment in health and education. It is getting the natural capital right, and providing opportunities and hope for the Palestinians, that will lead to security and stability for both sides in the conflict.
As I have said, DFID is focusing on health and education, but the Foreign Office has legal support programmes. This issue goes to the heart of the Israeli planning system and involves controversies with the Israeli Attorney General. As my hon. Friend says, it is very difficult to obtain planning permission, which is one of the reasons why settlements are built and demolitions then take place.
The British taxpayer has not funded any structures that have been demolished by the Israeli Government. The European Union has funded structures that have been demolished by the Israeli Government, but so far it has not decided to seek compensation.
Will the Minister confirm that DFID, notwithstanding the efforts of a senior Israeli diplomat to “take down” a Minister, will continue to fight against collective punishment, demolitions in the OPTs and the expansion of the illegal settlements?
We are conflating two different issues here. As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, the Israeli ambassador has already apologised for that incident, and the diplomat concerned has been removed from his post and sent home. I think I have dealt with the overall questions of settlements and demolitions in my answers to the other questions.
The central story is that DFID is doing three types of things for Palestinian people. First, we are supporting Palestinian state structures, in particular health and education—doctors, teachers and nurses. Secondly, we are working on making sure that we can create a viable economy and employment, particularly through support to small businesses. Thirdly, we invest in human capital; in other words, we invest in making sure that the Palestinian people are educated, healthy and have opportunities for security and stability in the region in the short term. But in the long term there cannot be a two-state solution unless we address the needs of the Palestinian people.
What has happened in Aleppo is a tragedy and underlines the regime’s callous tactics of siege, starvation and indiscriminate bombardment. Through the UK’s humanitarian leadership and diplomatic efforts, we are doing all we can do to support the protection of civilians and, importantly, ensure that they receive the aid they so desperately need.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question on this important issue, which gives me the chance to restate to the House the British Government’s commitment to, and long-standing support for, Syria. We have surpassed that pledge of £510 million made at the Syria conference last year. It is fair to say not only that the UK can be proud of its support, but that we have ensured that there is the right support in terms of humanitarian supplies and the focus for the region, while at the same time using our international convening power to work with others globally to ensure that we do everything we possibly can to support Syria and the region.
At the world humanitarian summit in Istanbul last year, the United Kingdom committed to the centrality of protection as a fundamental principle. How has that guided DFID’s approach to the situation in Aleppo, and what lessons will we learn from the tragedy of Aleppo for future civilian protection?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point in relation to the conference last year and how the humanitarian community can come together and not just learn lessons, but understand ways of working in times of severe crisis and of conflict. There are a number of lessons we can learn, including on agencies working together, the pooling of resources, and making sure that Governments across the world are working together strategically in terms of both resource allocation and, importantly, our convening power—the leverage we all have collectively in the international space to challenge Governments where they are inflicting harm and causing grief and devastation, and to make sure that we stand shoulder to shoulder and are united in how we tackle the challenge.
First, I commend my hon. Friend on her work on, and leadership in, Singing for Syrians; it is an incredible organisation and has been very successful in raising important funds. On making sure that the money is not wasted and goes directly into the region and in-country, we not only support, fund and collaborate with trusted partners, but, importantly, measure the outcomes that we are delivering in these essential humanitarian policies.
The Secretary of State is already talking about Aleppo in the past tense, but the besiegement is still happening right now, and the British Government must do more. What representations has she made to the Foreign Secretary about putting in place more and harder sanctions on Russia?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The situation not only in Aleppo but in Syria full stop is beyond comprehension. She asks about representations. The Foreign Secretary and I work hand in hand on international issues, and the Government are calling for greater collaboration on access to humanitarian routes into besieged areas. This is not a case of one Department versus another; it is the voice of the British Government working together to make public representations and representations behind the scenes.
Before the war, Aleppo had Syria’s largest population of Christians. Now it is estimated that 90% of them have fled. In Parliament today, Open Doors will launch its World Watch List, which shows that religious persecution is one of the key drivers of migration. What can my right hon. Friend’s Department do to help the poor, persecuted Christians of Aleppo?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the plight of persecuted Christians, especially in the context of Aleppo and Syria. She asks what we can do. This is not just a matter for DFID; the whole Government must speak out on the issue and constantly make it clear that the persecution of minorities and religious groups is totally unacceptable. That is the right thing to do. We also need to make that case within the international community and work collaboratively with donor countries and other countries across the world.
Following the announcement during the Christmas recess that DFID would be piloting the use of drones to deliver medical supplies in Tanzania and to map weather damage in Nepal, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with Ministers in the Ministry of Defence about how drone technology could be used to deliver aid or assess humanitarian need in Aleppo and other parts of Syria?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that we have been innovating and looking at new technology in relation to aid provision via drones. A lot of work is taking place in that space, and we have had a number of debates in the House about other ways of delivering humanitarian assistance, particularly in besieged areas. In the specific context of besieged areas in Syria, work is taking place and there have been discussions. I can assure the House that we are actively pursuing this issue, not just in DFID but across the Government.
The Secretary of State’s heart is very much in the right place, as we all know, but the fact is that the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of modern times is taking place in Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul today. In contrast to the warm words that we have heard in the exchanges of the past few minutes, should we not now admit that there is precious little that we in the liberal west can do to alleviate the appalling circumstances in Aleppo unless we have the support of the United Nations and Russia?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In terms of the work that the Government are doing, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are leading in humanitarian assistance and support. People are in desperate need, and we have the right focus on giving them all the necessary support. The other point is diplomacy. It is the job of the Government to carry on putting on the pressure, and we must use all the avenues of international diplomacy to put that pressure on, where it is needed.
I should like to focus on Idlib in north-western Syria, where civilians who have fled Aleppo are the main target of Government strikes. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how DFID is supporting those wounded and displaced civilians?
I thank the hon. Lady for her focus on the humanitarian issue in Syria, which is of course associated with Idlib as well. She asks about the work that is taking place. There are extensive humanitarian efforts in terms of relief, food and shelter in what is a desperate situation. As she and the whole House will know, I have spent a great deal of time working with all the agencies that we are directly supporting and funding to ensure that supplies are getting through, and they are. I would add the caveat that this is taking place in a challenging environment and climate. We are getting supplies through, but it is increasingly difficult to do so.
Energy Access: Africa
Access to energy is a prerequisite driver of economic growth and development. Over 620 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to energy. When able to secure it, the world’s poorest people can pay up to 80 times what we pay. That is why the UK and this Department are playing a key role in providing both on and off-grid energy access, such as through the Energy Africa campaign, which will help to secure energy supplies for over 4.5 million of the world’s poorest people.
I know from my visits to east Africa that providing access to reliable, sustainable, clean energy is crucial for economic growth and prosperity in Africa. Does the Minister agree that the CDC and its investment in Africa present one of the best opportunities to provide that?
I absolutely agree that the CDC can play a key role. I am pleased that the House showed support for its work only yesterday in a debate led by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), with support from the Secretary of State. A good example is Globeleq, in which the CDC has a majority stake, which will drive forward energy provision of 5,000 MW in Africa—1,000 MW can support 800,000 jobs. That is the scale of the difference we can make when and where we get this right, and that is why we are doing it.
I have set out some of the reasons why energy supply is so important in driving development. Of course, it is also important that that supply is sustainable and environmentally friendly. In all the projects that DFID pursues, we seek to ensure that that is the case, including in our discussions with the World Bank. Given our contributions and their impact, we recognise that it is particularly important that the World Bank appreciates and works towards that agenda.
Middle-income Countries: Aid Withdrawal
Programme sustainability is crucial, and all DFID programmes are designed with long-term sustainability and impact in mind. No decisions have been made to exit countries in the context of my hon. Friend’s question. When and where that happens, we want to ensure that a positive legacy is left and that the “leave no one behind” agenda is adhered to, so that some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world receive the protection and support that they ought to be able to expect.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Marginalised groups, particularly in countries that are not the poorest, are sometimes the most vulnerable. We rightly focus our efforts and attention on the world’s poorest countries with the largest number of people in greatest need of support, but other groups elsewhere also need support. We must always be aware of that and ensure that our programmes have a sustainable impact. I will be delighted to have further discussions with my hon. Friend about his idea.
The Department will always consider what we need to do to ensure sustainable and long-lasting transition, and programmes must be designed in that way. That is a common thread that runs through every programme that DFID supports and every decision that Ministers make. We will continue to work in this area and are happy to consider further proposals for what might improve the quality of the work that is done.
Whether by giving to Syrian refugees, providing access to food or clean water, or creating jobs across Africa, UK aid helps us to meet our obligations to the world’s poorest. Such investment is also firmly in Britain’s national interest because it tackles the root causes of global problems while focusing on delivering world-class programmes that deliver value for money for UK taxpayers.
The Secretary of State has previously said that she is looking at allocating DFID funding to peaceful co-existence projects, including Save a Child’s Heart, whose valuable work brings Palestinians and Israelis together. Can she update the House on that very worthy project?
I am pleased to confirm that we are indeed working on a range of co-existence programmes in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to support tangible improvements, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State has said. The programme is now in its final design phase and will be launched at the beginning of the financial year. [Interruption.]
The protection of civilians in Aleppo must remain our absolute priority, but if we are to provide food, water, shelter and humanitarian relief to civilians who, for four years, have faced the horrors of an inhumane war, we need to ensure that the ceasefire, although currently holding, remains more than a brief pause. Can the Secretary of State therefore say what efforts the Government are making to ensure that conflict does not reignite in Aleppo? What contingency plan does DFID have in place to continue providing aid to civilians should the conflict reignite? We must not see humanity in meltdown again.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the UK will do everything it possibly can to support the current ceasefire and, importantly, to safeguard humanitarian support in the region, too. That is down to our diplomatic tools and diplomatic efforts, but, importantly, we are also making sure that all agencies work together to deliver the vital humanitarian support that is required.
Like all Conservatives, I, too, want to focus on making sure that every penny of taxpayers’ money goes to helping the world’s poorest, which is exactly the mission of our Department. At the same time, my hon. Friend will know that overseas development assistance saves lives and transforms lives. He specifically refers to money spent on consultants, which is something that my Department is currently reviewing. [Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman makes a fundamental point. We have talked a great deal about demolitions and settlements, but the only long-term stability in that region requires protecting the security of Israel as an absolutely essential plank, along with guaranteeing an autonomous, independent Palestinian state.
My hon. Friend will know that our priority is, of course, economic development and making sure that, through our aid, we are delivering long-term sustainable economic development and prosperity in everything we do. He is also right to note that DFID is working across the Government as we leave the European Union to look at unilateral trade preferences and the work we can do to grow our trade footprint across the world.
We have been unequivocal in our commitment to 0.7% and, in addition, it is a manifesto commitment. Let me restate again, for the benefit of the House, that the focus of my Department is on poverty reduction and on ensuring that that money is spent to drive taxpayer value and deliver programmes for the poorest in the world.
I am here. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. The Select Committee visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo last year and saw the amazing work done by the CDC, which is creating not only more energy for millions of people, but a lot of jobs. May we encourage the CDC to do even more schemes like that?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for paying tribute to the incredibly important role of the CDC. By bringing the rigour of the private sector with the genuine values of the public sector, we have demonstrated in the DRC the ability to provide hydro power that benefits thousands of people. I also wish to pay testament to the Chair of the International Development Committee for his tribute to that project in particular.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will have heard in the previous responses our commitment to co-existence programmes and how they will not just drive the right values, but help to bring the two communities together in a very constructive way—this is in addition to our focus on targeted spending on public schemes such as health and education programmes within the region.
The Prime Minister was asked—
A very happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and I would like to extend that to everyone in this House.
It has been more than six months since the European referendum. Embarrassingly for the Prime Minister, the Scottish Government are the only Administration on these islands to have published a plan on what to do next. Has she read it yet? When will she be publishing her own plan?
I join the hon. Gentleman in wishing everybody in the House, not only Members, but all the staff of the House, a very happy new year.
As I said to the Liaison Committee when I appeared in front of it before Christmas, I will, in a matter of weeks, be setting out some more details of our proposals on this issue. I would like just to remind the hon. Gentleman, when he talks about the Scottish Government’s plan, that of course it is his party, the Scottish nationalist party, that wants to leave the United Kingdom and therefore leave the European Union.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that new nuclear does have a crucial role to play in securing our future energy needs, especially as we are looking to move to a low-carbon society. The industrial strategy that the Government will be setting out will have a strong emphasis on the role of regions in supporting economic growth and ensuring that the economy works for everyone. Like him, I very much welcome the proposals from NuGen and Toshiba to develop a new nuclear power station at Moorside in Cumbria. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy continues to work closely with NuGen and other developers as they bring their proposals forward.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is nice to get such a warm welcome, and may I wish all Members, as well as all members of staff in the House, a happy new year?
I hope the whole House will join me—I am sure it will—in paying tribute to 22-year-old Lance Corporal Scott Hetherington, who died in a non-combat incident in Iraq last Monday. I am sure the whole House will also join in sending its heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of seven-year-old Katie Rough, who tragically died in York earlier this week. I think it is right that we send condolences to her family.
Last week, 485 people in England spent more than 12 hours on trolleys in hospital corridors. The Red Cross described this as a “humanitarian crisis”. I called on the Prime Minister to come to Parliament on Monday, but she did not—she sent the Health Secretary. But does she agree with him that the best way to solve the crisis of the four-hour wait is to fiddle the figures, so that people are not seen to be waiting so long on trolleys in NHS hospitals?
First, may I join the right hon. Gentleman in sending our condolences to the family of Lance Corporal Hetherington, who, as he said, died in a non-combat incident in Iraq? From everything I have seen and read about Lance Corporal Hetherington, he was a very fine young man. He delighted in being in the armed forces, and we are proud that such a fine young man was in our armed forces. I also join the right hon. Gentleman in expressing condolences to the family and friends of little Katie, who died so tragically.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the pressures on the NHS, and we acknowledge that there are pressures on the national health service. There are always extra pressures on the NHS during the winter, but, of course, we have at the moment those added pressures of the ageing population and the growing complex needs of the population. He also refers to the British Red Cross’s term, “humanitarian crisis.” I have to say to him that I think we have all seen humanitarian crises around the world, and to use that description of a national health service that last year saw 2.5 million more people treated in accident and emergency than six years ago was irresponsible and overblown.
Some 1.8 million people had to wait longer than four hours in A&E departments last year. The Prime Minister might not like what the Red Cross said, but on the same day the British Medical Association said that
“conditions in hospitals across the country are reaching a dangerous level.”
The Royal College of Nursing has said that NHS conditions are the worst ever. The Royal College of Physicians has told the Prime Minister that the NHS is
“under-funded, under-doctored and overstretched.”
If she will not listen to the Red Cross, who will she listen to?
I have said to the right hon. Gentleman that I of course acknowledge that there are pressures on the national health service. The Government have put extra funding into the national health service. The fact is that we are seeing more people being treated in our NHS: 2,500 more people are treated within four hours every day in the national health service because of the Government putting in extra funding and because of the hard work of medical professionals in our national health service. It is not just a question of targets for the health service, although we continue to have a commitment to the four-hour target, as the Health Secretary has made clear. It is a question of making sure that people are provided with the appropriate care for them, and the best possible care for them in their circumstances.
The right hon. Lady seems to be in some degree of denial about this. She will not listen to professional organisations that have spent their whole lifetimes doing their best for the NHS, but will she listen to Sian, who works for the NHS? She has a 22-month- old nephew. He went into hospital, but there was no bed. He was treated on two plastic chairs pushed together with a blanket. Sian says that
“one of the nurses told my sister that it’s always like this nowadays”.
She says to us all:
“Surely we should strive to do better than this.”
Do the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary think that is an acceptable way to treat a 22-month-old child in need of help?
I accept that there have been a small number of incidents in which unacceptable practices have taken place. We do not want those things to happen, but what matters is how you deal with them, which is why it is so important that the NHS looks into the issues when unacceptable incidents have taken place and learns lessons from them. I come back to the point that I was making earlier: the right hon. Gentleman talks about the hard-working healthcare professionals, like Sian, in the national health service, and indeed we should be grateful for all those who are working in the NHS, but on the Tuesday after Christmas we saw the busiest day ever in the national health service, and over the few weeks around Christmas we saw the day on which more people were treated in accident and emergency within four hours than ever before. That is the reality of our national health service.
We all thank NHS staff and we all praise NHS staff, but the Prime Minister’s Government are proposing, through sustainability and transformation, to cut one third of the beds in all our hospitals in the very near future. On Monday, she spoke about mental health and doing more to help people, particularly young people, with those conditions, which I welcome, except that last night the BBC revealed that, over five years, there had been an 89% increase in young people with mental health issues having to go to A&E departments. Does she not agree that the £1.25 billion committed to child and adolescent mental health in 2015 should have been ring-fenced rather than used as a resource to be raided to plug other holes in other budgets in the NHS?
If we look at what is happening with mental health treatment in the national health service, we see 1,400 more people every day accessing mental health services. When I spoke about this issue on Monday, I said that there is of course more for us to do—this is not a problem that will be resolved overnight. I have set out ways in which we will see an improvement in the services in relation to mental health, but it is about the appropriate care for the individual. As I mentioned earlier, that is not just about accident and emergency. When I was in Aldershot on Monday, I spoke to service users with mental health problems who said that they did not want to go to A&E. The provision of alternative services has meant that the A&E locally has seen its numbers stabilising rather than going up. It is about the appropriate care for the individual. We want to see that good practice spread across the whole country.
Nobody wants people with mental health conditions to go to A&E departments—the A&E departments do not want them to go there. Under this Government, there are 6,000 fewer nurses and 400 fewer doctors working in mental health. It is obvious that these people will go somewhere to try to get help when they are in a desperate situation. Our NHS is under huge pressure. Much of that is caused by cuts to social care, which the Royal College of Physicians says
“are pushing more people into our hospitals and trapping them there for longer.”
Will the Prime Minister do what my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) has called for and bring forward now the extra £700 million allocated in 2019 and put it into social care, so that we do not have this problem of people staying too long in hospital when they should be cared for by a social care system?
The right hon. Gentleman asked me those questions in the last PMQs before Christmas. [Interruption.] He may find it difficult to believe that somebody will say the same thing that they said a few weeks ago, but we have put extra money into social care. In the medium term, we are ensuring that best practice is spread across the country. He talks about delayed discharges. Some local authorities, which work with their health service locally, have virtually no delayed discharges. Some 50%—half of the delayed discharges—are in only 24 local authority areas. What does that tell us? It tells us that it is about not just funding, but best practice. If he comes back to me and talks to me about funding again, he should think on this: we can only fund social care and the NHS if we have a strong economy, and we will only have that with the Conservatives.
I am sorry to have to bring the Prime Minister back to the subject of social care, which I raised before Christmas. The reason I did so, and will continue to do so, is that she has not addressed the problem. The Government have cut £4.6 billion from the social care budget. The King’s Fund says that there is a social care funding gap of almost £2 billion this year.
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister said that she wanted to create a “shared society”. Well, we certainly have that: more people sharing hospital corridors on trolleys; more people sharing waiting areas in A&E departments; and more people sharing in the anxiety created by this Government. Our NHS is in crisis, but the Prime Minister is in denial. May I suggest to her that, on the economic question, she should cancel the corporate tax cuts, and spend the money where it is needed—on people in desperate need in social care and in our hospitals?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about a crisis. I suggest he listen to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), a former Labour Health Minister, who said that, with Labour,
“It’s always about ‘crisis...the NHS is on its knees’… We’ve got to be a bit more grown up about this.”
And he talks to me about restoring the cuts in corporation tax. The Labour party has already spent that money eight times. The last thing the NHS needs is a cheque from Labour that bounces. The only way that we can ensure that we have funding for the national health service is with a strong economy. Yesterday, the right hon. Gentleman proved that he is not only incompetent, but that he would destroy our economy, and that would devastate our national health service.
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. One of the things I spoke about, when I spoke about mental health on Monday, was trying to ensure that we can provide some better training for staff and teachers in schools to identify the early stages of mental health problems for young people, so that those problems can be addressed. Something like half of all mental health problems start before the age of 14, so this is a real issue that we need to address. We are going to look at how we can provide that training. We will also review the mental health services provided for young people to ensure that we can identify what is working and make sure that good practice is spread across the country.
May I begin with a tribute to Father George Thompson, who died shortly before Christmas? He led a remarkable life as a teacher, as a priest and as the Scottish National party Member of Parliament for Galloway. We extend our sympathies to his family.
All of us in this House and across these islands care about the peace process and about the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland, so may I wish the Prime Minister well and the Taoiseach, the Northern Ireland Secretary and the political parties all the best in trying to resolve the serious political difficulties there? Will the Prime Minister tell us what the consequences will be if no agreement can be found?
First, may I join the right hon. Gentleman in offering condolences to the family and friends of the Rev. George Thompson, who, as he says, was the MP for Galloway between 1974 and 1979 and, I believe, was the first former MP in modern times to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest.
On the issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises about the political situation in Northern Ireland, we are obviously treating this with the utmost seriousness. As he will know, my right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary made a statement in the House earlier this week on this issue. He has spoken to the First Minister and the former Deputy First Minister, and he is urging all parties to work together to find a way forward. I have also spoken to the Taoiseach about this issue, so we are putting every effort into this. The legislation says that if, within seven days, we do not have a nomination for a Deputy First Minister, the matter would go to an election.
The Prime Minister has indicated that she wants to take the views of the elected representatives and the devolved institutions on Brexit seriously. So it stands to reason then that if there is no Northern Ireland Assembly and no Northern Ireland Executive for much of the time before the March timetable that she has set for invoking article 50, she will be unable to consult properly, to discuss fully and to find agreement on the complex issues during this period. In these circumstances, will the Prime Minister postpone invoking article 50—[Interruption]—or will she just plough on regardless?
As the right hon. Gentleman says, we want to ensure that we do hear the views from all parts of the United Kingdom. That is why we have established the JMC European committee specifically to take views and the JMC plenary, which is also obviously meeting more frequently than previously. I am clear that, first of all, we want to try to ensure that, within this period of seven days, we can find a resolution to the political situation in Northern Ireland, so that we can to see the Assembly Government continuing. But I am also clear that, in the discussions that we have, it will be possible—it is still the case that Ministers are in place and that, obviously, there are executives in place—that we are still able to take the views of the Northern Ireland people.
Economy/Public Services (Staffordshire)
The fundamentals of the UK’s economy are strong, including in Staffordshire and the west midlands. Employment in Staffordshire has risen by over 20,000 since 2010. We have protected schools and police budgets. We see more doctors and more nurses in the Burton hospitals trust. Of course, we are going further than this in the west midlands by giving new powers to the west midlands with the devolution deal and with the election of a directly elected Mayor. I have to say that I think Andy Street, with his business and local experience, would be a very good Mayor for the west midlands.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for that answer. Unemployment in my constituency—my beautiful Lichfield constituency—is around 0.7%, and that is fantastic, but I want it even lower. I found out that 24% of my constituents work in the area of the West Midlands Combined Authority, so can I press my right hon. Friend just a little further about what she thinks is needed in the West Midlands Combined Authority to improve employment still more?
I thank my hon. Friend, and, of course, I have had the advantage of having visited his beautiful constituency. But in relation to the midlands, we have a very strong ambition to make the midlands an engine for growth in the UK. That is why we have plans for the midlands engine that demonstrate that, when we say we are going to build an economy that works for everyone, we actually mean it. In the autumn statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirmed things such as the £5 million for a Birmingham rail hub and a £250 million midlands engine investment fund, and we will shortly be publishing a strategy for the midlands engine. But I repeat the point that I made: for the west midlands, having the devolution deal, having the Mayor and having the right person elected as Mayor, who I think will be Andy Street, is absolutely crucial.
The hon. Gentleman will be very well aware that I want to see the best possible trade deal for the United Kingdom with the EU and the best possible deal for trading with and operating within the single European market. When we enter the negotiations, obviously, that is one of the issues that I have said that I want to see, and we will be out there and be delivering on it. Unlike the sort of downplaying that the hon. Gentleman does about the approach that we are taking, I have to say that it is this Government who are ambitious for the opportunities that are available to this country once we leave the European Union.
I think everybody recognises that the way that schools have been funded in the past has been unfair and many pupils have been missing out. That is why I think it is right for us to look at bringing forward a new fair funding formula, making sure that funding is attached to children’s needs. Of course we recognise the particular issues of rural areas in this, and that is why, within the fair funding formula, additional funding for such schools has been included. But, of course, the Department for Education has this out for consultation at the moment, and I would urge my hon. Friend to make her representations as part of that consultation.
I return to the point, Mr Speaker. Decisions about services in the local area are rightly taken by the local national health service, because we believe that it is local clinicians, and also local patients and leaders, who know what is best for their areas. So it is about trying to tailor the services to provide the best possible services for the needs of local people, modernising the care and facilities and making services appropriate to the local area. This trust has an extensive improvement plan to ensure that both hospitals within it can care for patients attending accident and emergency in as timely a way as possible.
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that commitment. What is important is that the industrial strategy will be looking to the economy of the future—what sort of economy we want in this country. Crucial to that will be the growth that is generated by entrepreneurs and by small businesses—by the very passion that he has spoken about. We want to see an environment in which those who can grow can emerge and develop to provide future jobs for people and contribute to the strength of our economy. That is what the industrial strategy is about; I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. I am very happy to join him in paying tribute to these two campaigners. Indeed, I am sure that the whole House would want to pay tribute to the work that they are doing. As he says, I remain committed to ensuring that the voices of victims are heard. That is what I did when I was Home Secretary, if we look at issues such as introducing new measures to tackle modern slavery, strengthening the Independent Police Complaints Commission and legislating in relation to police complaints and discipline systems to strengthen public confidence in policing, and a number of other actions that I took. I am very pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the current Home Secretary is taking that same passion to ensuring that the voices of the victims of crime are heard and is taking that forward.
The issue of bank branches and, indeed, of the accessibility of bank services is one that is for individual banks themselves to take and consider, and of course there are many ways in which people are now accessing bank services other than by going physically into an actual bank branch, but I will certainly look at the issue that the hon. and learned Lady has raised.
I welcome the establishment of the north Wales and Mersey-Dee rail taskforce and the work that it is doing. The plan that my hon. Friend mentions sets out an ambitious programme of improvements for the area, and I am sure it will be prioritising the most promising options. I can say to him that the Department for Transport will continue to work closely with the taskforce and with the Welsh Government to consider what can be jointly accomplished.
Action has been taken on the issue in relation to women’s pensions. The Government took action to ensure that the number of people who were affected and the period for which they were affected would be reduced, and money was put in to ensure that that was possible. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the new structure that is being put in place for pensions, he will see that women will actually be some of the greater beneficiaries of the new structure.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which was of course alluded to earlier in this session of Prime Minister’s questions. We are investing more in mental health than ever before—we are spending a record £11.4 billion a year—and it was of course the Conservative-led Government that introduced parity of esteem between mental and physical health, but as I said earlier, there is more for us to do in ensuring that appropriate care is available for people. I cited an example earlier of where I saw excellent work being done to provide care and support for people in the community, which was relieving pressure on accident and emergency, but also ensuring that people were getting the best possible care for them, and that is obviously what we want to see.
The problems that are facing the health service in Cumbria are widely recognised, and I do understand the concerns of local people about the services that will be available for them. We have put robust national support in place to address some of the long-standing challenges in Cumbria, and we are developing a lasting plan to deliver the high-quality, sustainable services that patients rightly expect.
The hon. Gentleman is right that these specific decisions are being taken locally, and no final decisions have been taken. I recognise the concern that he has raised previously, particularly about services at West Cumberland hospital. There will be considerable involvement in taking those decisions, but as I say, we do recognise the local concerns about some of the long-standing challenges for health service provision in Cumbria.
I know from my career in medicine that the men and women of our East Midlands ambulance service do a brave and sterling job for the people of Sleaford and North Hykeham and others, saving people’s lives every day. East Midlands ambulance service responded to a total of 11,662 999 calls over the Christmas bank holiday weekend alone, 2,500 of which were in Lincolnshire. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to their dedication, particularly over the busy winter period, and tell the House what more the Government can do to support our ambulance services and improve response times in rural areas such as Sleaford and North Hykeham?
May I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and also for bringing her personal experience as a medical professional to this issue? I am very happy to join her in paying tribute to the men and women of the ambulance service for the dedication and commitment that they show. She asks what the Government have been doing. We recognise that ambulance services are very busy, which is why we see over 2,000 more paramedics now compared with 2010, and we are increasing paramedic training places by over 60% this year. Also, the Department of Health, NHS Employers and ambulance unions have agreed changes to the compensation for paramedics, potentially giving them a pay increase of up to £14,000 as they progress. We recognise the excellent work that they do.
May I commend the Prime Minister for her considered statement last night and, indeed, for the words that she has given this afternoon? She knows our commitment to the institutions in Northern Ireland, but does she agree that nothing can be, or should be, gained from threatening the peace process, the progress that we have made or the institutions that we have fought so hard to sustain in Northern Ireland?
The progress that has been made in Northern Ireland has been hard won, and we must all recognise that we do not want to put that progress in jeopardy. That is why it is so important for the Government, and for all parties, to work as hard as we can to see a resolution to this issue, so that we can see a return to the power-sharing institutions and ensure that the hard-won progress can be continued.
I warmly welcome what my right hon. Friend said about children’s mental health earlier this week, but may I draw her attention to another burning injustice? My constituent, Paula Edwards, has been battling cancer for four years. She is recovering from an operation and has taken 28 weeks off work. She is still employed and is on half pay, yet her working tax credits have been stopped, which means that she is worrying about how to make ends meet rather than focusing on her recovery. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Treasury to look at this, perhaps in the course of Budget preparations?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments about the mental health announcements that I have made. I am sorry to hear of the particular difficulties that her constituent is experiencing and the distress that they have caused her. Of course, working tax credits provide support for low-income families in work and are designed to incentivise people to increase their working hours. With the new universal credit system, we will obviously have a system of benefits with single, streamlined payments that encourages work, but I am sure the Financial Secretary to the Treasury would be happy to look at the individual case that my right hon. Friend has raised and the issue that she has set out.