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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
28 February 2017
Volume 622

House of Commons

Tuesday 28 February 2017

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

New Southgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]

(By Order)

Third Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 7 March (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Department of Health: Funding

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1. If his Department will increase the level of funding provided to the Department of Health. [908948]

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12. If his Department will increase the level of funding provided to the Department of Health. [908959]

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Annual funding to the Department of Health is already being increased by £17 billion by 2020-21. This reflects the priority that the Government put on investing in the NHS.

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OECD statistics show that the Governments of Germany, France, Holland, Sweden and Denmark spend an average of 9% of GDP on health compared with 7.7% in the UK—a massive difference of £23 billion a year. The NHS is desperately underfunded and it is no surprise that it is suffering, so is the Chancellor really going to take this seriously in the Budget?

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I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the OECD has more recently put out revised numbers to show that the UK’s expenditure on health is very close to some of those other countries. The fact is that we can only have a properly funded NHS if we have a strong economy, and only the Conservative party can deliver it—a point that the people of Copeland may have noticed.

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When lives are on the line it is imperative that we as parliamentarians get it right. We need some honesty about what the current NHS crisis means: cuts to staff, longer waits, and hospitals at risk of closure. Does the Minister agree that the Government need to provide a long-term, sustainable financial package to guarantee NHS services for the future?

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It was this Government who announced a long-term, financially sustainable package, which is why, in real terms, funding for the NHS will increase by £10 billion above inflation by 2020-21. Let us remember that since 2010 there are 2,300 more people attending accident and emergency departments within the four-hour A&E standard, 5,000 more operations every day, and 1,400 more people every day treated for mental health conditions, and the NHS is conducting 16,000 more diagnostic tests every day.

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For the past two years the Department of Health has cut its capital budget by 20% and used that for running costs and to pay for salaries. Did the Treasury press for these cuts in capital spending—I hope not—and does the Chief Secretary agree that raiding the capital budget is no way to find efficiency savings?

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The switch from capital to resource was actually made at the request of the health service and the Department of Health. In terms of finding efficiencies in the NHS, and indeed in the public sector as a whole, it is important that we deliver sustainable efficiencies, embed a culture of efficiency, and ensure that we get value for money for the taxpayer.

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While I welcome this Government’s commitment to health, may I invite my right hon. Friend to take a leaf out of President Trump’s book and increase defence expenditure by 10%, funded from the bloated overseas aid budget?

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Splendid idea.

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It is quite a naughty idea, not because of its merits or demerits but because it has nothing to do with the Department of Health budget, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) is perfectly well aware. However, the Minister is a dextrous fellow and I am sure he can answer in an orderly way.

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Although, as you say, Mr Speaker, there may perhaps have been a slightly tenuous link with the question, it was still a predictable question from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). We are delivering on the 2%-plus expenditure commitment on defence, and we are increasing defence spending in real terms. Again, it is important that we have a strong economy so that we can properly fund our defence.

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The shocking revelation that NHS Shared Business Services Ltd misplaced more than 500,000 pieces of sensitive medical data is a direct result of a health service that is being squeezed by the Chancellor’s purse strings. The Tory Government are clearly putting patient safety at risk through lack of resourcing and a targeted savings drive. Will the Chancellor immediately reassess the situation and the level of NHS funding?

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On the level of NHS funding, the hon. Lady will find that expenditure has gone up more in England than it has in Scotland. Given that it is a devolved matter, she might want to raise her concerns with the Scottish Government.

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Will the Chief Secretary confirm that record amounts of money are being spent on the NHS, that record numbers of patients are being treated and that he will give clear incentives to local authorities and health services to join up the delivery of NHS and social care?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. He is absolutely correct about the resources that we are putting in, but if we want to improve the quality of healthcare, particularly in the context of social care, it is also important that there is greater integration. That is why we announced the better care fund, which is making an important contribution to supporting social care and improving integration.

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The Chair of the Treasury Select Committee is absolutely spot on. If the Chancellor does discuss with the Department of Health any increase in levels of funding, will he point the Health Secretary in the direction of the Public Accounts Committee report, which says that he should stop “plundering” NHS funds? In particular, it asks him to stop his “repeated raids” on NHS capital funds, with £950 million having been taken out of £4.5 billion.

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First, may I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his promotion to the post of shadow Chief Secretary? He is my eighth shadow as a Treasury Minister, so I look forward to sparring with him over the weeks ahead.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: the agreement on the budget settlement for the NHS and the balance between resource spending and capital spending was reached with the Department of Health. Indeed, that switch towards more on resource was very much pushed by the Department of Health.

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So I am the eighth shadow Minister,

“How very promiscuous of you”,

as I said in my tweet to the Chief Secretary.

Some 4,000 urgent operations have been cancelled, 18,000 people a week waited on trolleys in January, 3,000 community pharmacies are going to be lost and £4.6 billion has been cut from social care. When those funding levels are discussed with the Department of Health, will he tell his colleague that he should be caring for the NHS, not giving it a lethal injection?

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If the Labour party’s policy could move beyond the level of placard design, that might help. Let me be clear: we are putting more money into the NHS and it is providing more support and help to people than ever before. I have listed some of the achievements since 2010. This Government remain committed to the NHS, which is why it has been a priority in our public spending plans for the past seven years.

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We do need to speed up in terms both of questions and of answers.

Economic Growth: Yorkshire

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2. What steps he is taking to support economic growth in Yorkshire. [908949]

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The Government will drive productivity and economic growth in Yorkshire by investing in its infrastructure, developing the skills of its people and supporting its companies. At autumn statement we announced that the four local enterprise partnerships covering Yorkshire will receive £156.1 million from the local growth fund to back local priorities and support new jobs, as well as £3.7 million extra investment to bolster its resilience to flooding.

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Will the Chancellor join me in welcoming recent investments by the likes of Boeing and McLaren in Yorkshire? Will Yorkshire continue to receive investment through the northern powerhouse investment fund, which is backed by the British Business Bank?

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Yes. I welcome those investments by large companies, which will bring a large number of jobs to the area. It is also important that we support small and medium-sized enterprises, and the northern powerhouse investment fund will have a specific remit to target and support smaller businesses across the north.

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Fourteen months after the devastating Storm Eva floods, it is welcome news to people in Kirkstall that the Sheesh Mahal restaurant will reopen tomorrow. However, many other businesses in my constituency are still struggling with astronomical increases in the costs of insurance and we still do not have a date for having proper flood defences in my constituency. What assurances can the Chancellor give businesses in my constituency that he has not forgotten about us?

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As I have said, we have put additional money into flood defence spending, but—notwithstanding the reopening of the Sheesh Mahal restaurant—I take on board the hon. Lady’s comments about the delay that others are experiencing and I will look at the facts.

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Purely in relation to Yorkshire—Michael Fabricant.

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Absolutely, Mr Speaker. By the way, I would love to visit that restaurant.

My right hon. Friend will know that Boeing is a major employer in the United Kingdom. The opening of Boeing Sheffield, as it will be known, means that a major manufacturing plant—the only one of its type—will be introduced into Europe. Is that not a major endorsement by Boeing of post-Brexit Britain?

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Yes, that is two things: it is a major endorsement by a global company and a major vote of confidence in the British economy. It is also a reflection of this Government’s policy that where we place large contracts for military equipment, as we have done with Boeing, we insist on some compensating investment in our economy, so that the investment in our military capability pays for jobs, skills and technology in the UK.

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The Chancellor referred to local enterprise partnerships. Will he undertake to bring the LEPs across Yorkshire together to look at what further powers can be devolved to them to decide priorities on regional infrastructure investment and on the skills agenda? Will he also bring them together to talk about what needs to be done to prioritise their potential for inward investment in terms of Brexit?

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We are very keen on LEPs working together across regions so that these very large pots of devolved funding, including some of the money in the national productivity investment fund that I announced in the autumn statement, can be used to maximum effect across a coherent economic geography. I am not so sure that it is within my power to bring them together, but I would certainly encourage them to work together.

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Yorkshire is of course home to some of the country’s finest financial institutions, such as the Yorkshire Bank and the Yorkshire Building Society—

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And the Skipton.

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Like all financial institutions in the UK, they will be desperately keen to understand what the Government’s Brexit plans will mean for financial services. The Treasury still has not replied to my letter in January asking for some basic clarity, but we need to know how the Government intend to achieve equivalence, how it will be made certain and how we will avoid becoming just a rule taker from the rest of the EU. Chancellor, these are reasonable questions, so may we start to have some answers, please?

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They are perfectly reasonable questions. I am not sure that the Skipton Building Society is holding its breath on how equivalence will work to allow it to carry on marketing complex financial instruments across the European Union. These are matters for negotiation. If we end up with an equivalence regime to allow financial services businesses to continue to trade into the European Union, it will be important that that equivalence regime is based on objective criteria, not political criteria, so that as long as our regulatory regimes are in fact equivalent, we can be confident of continuing to be able to trade.

National Insurance Revenues: Health and Social Care

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3. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of ring-fencing national insurance revenues for spending on health and social care. [908950]

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As hon. Members will know, although national insurance contributions are primarily used to fund state pensions, a proportion of NICs is already allocated directly to the NHS, but beyond that, the Government do not have any plans to ring-fence national insurance contributions to fund health and social care.

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I thank the Financial Secretary for that answer, but with a view to the long-term sustainable financing of health and social care, will she look into this as a means of depoliticising the debate and ensuring long-term funding for health and social care not just for today, but for decades to come?

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I understand my hon. Friend’s core point. The Government have taken action to ensure that the NHS has the funding it needs by increasing its annual budget by £10 billion above inflation by 2020-21. We are mindful of the long-term challenges. The issues were recently highlighted by the Office for Budget Responsibility, which laid them out quite starkly in its latest fiscal sustainability report. On depoliticising the debate, I would say that backing the NHS’s own plan for its own future in the way we have done is the best way of doing that.

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Back in 2010, to meet the rising costs of social care I proposed a compulsory care levy on all estates. From memory, the Conservatives produced an election poster with gravestones on it and called it a death tax. I read in The Times today that Ministers are now considering exactly the same proposal. Can this possibly be true?

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There is, however, an emerging consensus that we need to better integrate our social care and health system. We already have the better care fund and the Chancellor’s prudent management of the economy, but if he has any wriggle room in the forthcoming Budget may I ask him whether we can have some transitional relief for social care until we can work out the best model?

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The Government have been very clear on a number of occasions that we recognise the pressures in the system and additional money has been made available through the social care precept. We are well aware of the pressures in the system and, as my right hon. Friend says, the long-term need for more integration—the Chief Secretary has already referred to the better care fund—but his point is well made.

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How can it be right that the local authorities under the most pressure in terms of social care can raise the least amount through the council tax precept, when that precept is the basis of the Government’s social care policy? East Riding Council, next to my own, can raise 56% more than Hull even though it has less demand.

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As the hon. Lady knows, the better care fund, which we have already referred to, adjusts for that. We are responding to the pressures, which we acknowledge, in the social care system in a range of ways.

Regional Infrastructure Development

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4. What steps he is taking to support regional infrastructure development. [908951]

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We recognise the need to enhance public infrastructure across all regions of the UK. That is why at autumn statement 2016 we committed additional capital to fund new productivity-enhancing economic infrastructure through the national productivity investment fund. We are committed to putting local and regional needs at the heart of the fund. For example, we are spending £1.1 billion on local projects to improve our existing transport networks.

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As the UK automotive sector continues to embrace new technologies, ensuring the necessary energy supplies are in place is of increasing importance. What support can the Government give to the midlands, so that our region can lead the transformation of the sector, not least with electric vehicles?

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My hon. Friend is right that the midlands is home to some of the world’s leading automotive manufacturing. It is also home to cutting edge battery technology research, including by the Warwick Manufacturing Group at Warwick University. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we are going to electrify the vehicle fleet, we have to ensure that clean, sustainable and reliable supplies of electricity are available to meet the needs of the 21st century economy. Our national infrastructure plan does exactly that.

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On leaving the EU, areas like Yorkshire will no longer benefit from EU structural funding. How will the Chancellor meet the shortfall?

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As we have made clear, the arrangements we have with the European Union, and with any of the organisations and funds the EU operates, remain to be discussed during the negotiation phase. If the hon. Gentleman is right and we end up not participating in such arrangements in the future, we will clearly have to make separate similar arrangements on a UK-only basis—or, indeed, on an individual nation within the UK basis.

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14. Does the Chancellor agree that alongside large-scale investment in infrastructure, such as the Thameslink upgrade, relatively small amounts of money on local roads and station facilities can rapidly improve journey times and therefore boost productivity? [908961]

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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is often the smaller local projects that deliver the greatest benefit. They do not have the same kind of grandstanding possibilities around them and therefore are not always quite as favoured, but they are often the most effective way of intervening. They have another benefit: they can often be delivered very quickly by local levels of government, rather than having to go through many years of planning.

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The Chancellor simply did not answer my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). The UK Government’s funding and investment in London has always far outstripped that for any other region. The OECD says that we have had no regional policy since 2010, so will he answer my hon. Friend? What will happen to investment in the north when Brexit occurs?

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We will continue to invest in our economy, and the distribution of that investment will be in accordance with the Government’s priorities. The hon. Lady should look at the industrial strategy paper that we have published and at statements the Government have made, including on the national productivity investment fund we announced in the autumn. We are committed to infrastructure development in all the regions of the UK. It is a key element of our productivity agenda.

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23. In order to support infrastructure investment effectively, we will need to upskill our workforce to deliver the projects we need, especially hi-tech projects. Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer agree that we need investment in the post-16 arena quite quickly to ensure we fill that skills pipeline? [908971]

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I will take that as a Budget representation, and yes I do agree with my hon. Friend. We set out in the autumn statement how we would increase investment in infrastructure. That is one of the challenges we face in raising this country’s productivity. Skills is another.

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The Swansea Bay city region deal has the potential to boost infrastructure development in the west of my country. The board’s proposals, which have been presented to the Treasury, have the support of the relevant local authorities and universities and of the Welsh Government. When can we expect the Treasury’s response to them?

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This discussion is still ongoing. I hope we may bring it to a conclusion within, let’s say, the next eight days.

Beer Duty

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5. What recent representations he has received on the level of beer duty. [908952]

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question and note the constructive meeting we had just yesterday with representatives from across the beer and pubs sector. In addition, the Treasury has received representations from several other organisations and individuals with suggestions for what should be in the Budget, including measures on beer duty.

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My hon. Friend will be aware of the great contribution that the great British pub and great British beer make to local economies, employing nearly 1 million people and contributing £10 billion in tax. The Government have a proud record: in the last three years, we have scrapped the hated beer duty escalator and cut beer duty for three consecutive years. Will she seriously consider continuing the good work by cutting beer duty?

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As the Chancellor just said, I will take that as a Budget representation. Of course we recognise the contribution of the beer and pubs industry across the UK—I am particularly aware from my previous job of the role pubs play in promoting responsible drinking— but it is worth noting that the public finances assume that alcohol duties rise by retail prices index inflation each year, meaning that there is a cost to the Exchequer from freezing or cutting alcohol duty rates. As I say, however, we consider all representations carefully.

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When considering beer duty, will the Minister maintain, or at least not further erode, the differential with cider duty? Labour’s lower cider duty has led to a fantastic renaissance in both cider drinking and orchard planting in England, but if the differential is narrowed any further I am afraid it will do untold damage to our cider makers.

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I am well aware of the sensitivities around the duty bands, on which we have received a number of representations, and of the renaissance not just in the industry to which the right hon. Gentleman refers but, for example, in respect of the number of microbreweries and the flourishing investment in that area. There have been a number of good news stories in this sector in recent years.

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24. The Minister has also received representations about a wholly different kind of cider that has not seen much of a real apple, and that is super-strength white cider, which is very harmful and cheap. Will she consider using the new freedoms following Brexit that will enable the Government to take seriously the evidence in favour of a minimum unit price of alcohol, given its consequences for the health of young and vulnerable people? [908972]

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I am extremely well aware of the points my hon. Friend makes, not least, as I say, because of the role I last held in government. We look carefully at all these things, particularly the issue of white cider.

Small Businesses

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6. What fiscal plans he has to support small businesses. [908953]

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The Government continue to support small businesses to access the finance they need to grow through the British Business Bank, which supports almost £3.4 billion of finance to 54,000 smaller business. In the autumn statement, I announced an additional £400 million of funding for the bank. We also reaffirmed our commitment to the business tax road map, including the permanent doubling of the small business rates relief and the extension of the thresholds for the relief, so that 600,000 small businesses—occupiers of one third of all business properties—will pay no rates at all.

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Federation of Small Businesses research says that over a third of small businesses expect their business rates to increase from 1 April. Small shops will be hit hard, while large supermarkets are set to gain. In Hounslow, the estimated 12% increase has led worried businesses to tell me that they expect to see jobs and investment cuts. The Chancellor would not want his fiscal decisions adversely to impact on growth and prosperity, so will he now commit to righting this wrong in his Budget? Will he also support Labour’s five-point plan to help small businesses through the revaluation?

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I think the last thing small businesses need is any help from the Labour party. From what I have seen of Labour’s plans, that would be the final straw for most of them.

As we have said, we recognise that some small businesses are facing very substantial percentage increases, even where the actual amounts might not be very large, and that that can be difficult for businesses to absorb. We have committed to coming forward with a proposal that will address those who are hardest hit by that phenomenon.

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In Stow-on-the-Wold in my constituency, the actual business rates payable by Tesco, which is five minutes’ walk from the centre, is £220 per square metre, whereas a delicatessen in the centre of the town will pay £500 per square metre. Does not my right hon. Friend think that the system of rating valuation needs to be re-examined?

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The rating system is what it is; it reflects the rental value of properties. I readily acknowledge that in an economy that is changing shape rapidly, where the digital economy plays a much larger role and where some of the biggest businesses are not based on bricks and mortar, there are some very significant challenges for us, which we need to look at. In the short and medium term, business rates play a vital role in providing revenue to the Exchequer—and from 2020, of course, they will be used wholly to support local authorities.

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16. In York, many businesses are paying inflated rents from overseas and local landlords, pushing up the rateable value, so business rates are sky high. The revaluation has caused some businesses a 600% increase, which is detrimental to the local economy and the high street. Will the Treasury work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to carry out an urgent review on the whole business rate system, because the model is broken? [908963]

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I will say something more about the medium and longer-term challenges to business rates when I deliver my Budget next week. The hon. Lady would not want to alarm anybody in her constituency and she will know that nobody will see their rates bill go up by 600%.

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They have.

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Nobody will see their rates bill go up by 600%, and the damping mechanisms make that clear. Of course rateable values may go up by very significant amounts. I shall have more to say about this next week.

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I welcome the Chancellor’s promise to explain more about what he is going to do about business rates in the Budget next week. Does he recognise, however, that in taxing our towns and villages around the UK, especially the beautiful ones in west Kent, he is in danger of changing the culture that is at the heart of our community, not just raising money for the Exchequer?

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Yes, I absolutely recognise my hon. Friend’s concern. It is for that reason, as well as for reasons connected to the economic sustainability of individual businesses, that we have said that we will look at how best to help those most seriously affected.

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20. Excellent businesses such as Dunn’s Bakery, the Railway Tavern and Elsie Café in high-value areas such as Crouch End and Muswell Hill have made representations. Will the Chancellor please confirm that he will look again at the business rates revaluation? [908968]

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What I cannot do is look again at the business rates revaluation, which is an independent statutory exercise undertaken by the Valuation Office Agency. As the hon. Lady will know, if experience is anything to go by, of the 2 million business properties revalued, about 1 million will lodge appeals, so there will be a process of reviewing the way in which the valuations have been conducted. I have said I will look at those small businesses facing the largest increases and see how best to help them.

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I strongly welcome the Chancellor’s commitment to look again at small business rates taxation in the Budget. The big four supermarkets are being given, on average, a 6.9% cut in their business rates. Will the Chancellor consider setting that rate at zero so that it is becomes “upward only”, and using the extra money to soften the blow for smaller businesses?

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I do not think that that is the right way to proceed. The business rates revaluation reflects the underlying value of premises, and I am afraid it is an inconvenient fact that some large organisations have premises in low-value areas and some small organisations have premises in very high-value areas.

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The Chancellor was right to talk about access to finance, but most small businesses depend on lending from safe high street banks. What discussions has he had with the banks to ensure that they remain safe and continue to fund small businesses so that they can benefit from the other fiscal measures?

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Different high street banks have different models, but it is certain that some high street banks are aggressively pursuing small and medium-sized enterprises. When I say “aggressively pursuing”, I mean actively seeking their business. However, it is also important for us to diversify the range of financing options that are available to small and medium-sized enterprises, which is one of the reasons why we have pushed money, through the British Business Bank, towards other intermediaries that can provide equity and debt finance for SMEs.

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The other part of my question was about the banks staying safe, which is vital to small businesses and the whole economy. The Chancellor will have observed the worrying signals from the United States that the new President intends to roll back some of the regulation that was introduced to make banks safer. Will the Chancellor assure us that he does not intend to play follow my leader and deregulate the banks unnecessarily in this country?

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Our banking system in the United Kingdom ensures that our banks are safe, and is tackling the “too big to fail” culture. We have a high level of confidence in our banking system. The reserve ratios of our banks are improving consistently, and we do not want to do anything that would undermine them.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to join my former team today to discuss this important issue.

As we have heard, the FSB has found that more than a third of small businesses will see an significant increase in business rates, whereas the big four supermarkets may see a 5.9% reduction. Crucially, more than 55% of those small businesses plan to reduce, postpone or cancel further investment. If the Chancellor is serious about productivity, will he tell us what additional transitional relief he will provide for businesses that are facing a cliff edge?

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The hon. Lady is only repeating what I have already acknowledged. Many very small businesses will see big increases because they are coming out of small business rates relief and facing the full rates regime for the first time. We understand the stress that they will experience at that point, and we will be considering how best to deal with those that are worst affected by the phenomenon.

Digital Infrastructure

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7. What fiscal steps he is taking to support the development of digital infrastructure. [908954]

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The Government are taking action to give the United Kingdom the world-leading infrastructure that it needs. The Government-led £1.7 billion superfast broadband programme will extend coverage to 95% of UK premises by the end of 2017.

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From artificial intelligence to mechanisation, we live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and the Government should foster it in rural and urban areas. Can the Economic Secretary confirm that he will resist the calls of a new generation of Luddites for robots to be taxed?

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I was going to make a joke about the Liberal Democrats, but as there are none in the Chamber I will merely reassure my hon. Friend that the Government have no current plans to introduce a robot tax.

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Current tax rules do not allow companies to set the cost of mathematical research against tax. That is obviously very out of date in an era of data science, and it does not apply to science and engineering. Will Ministers take this as a Budget representation, please?

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We have significantly increased R and D tax credits; and, as a mathematician, I agree with the hon. Lady that maths is always important.

Long-term Infrastructure

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8. What fiscal steps he is taking to support the development of long-term infrastructure. [908955]

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13. What fiscal steps he is taking to support the development of long-term infrastructure. [908960]

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We recognise that the need to increase public spending on infrastructure is at the heart of our productivity agenda. That is why, at autumn statement 2016, we committed £23 billion of additional capital to fund new productivity-enhancing economic infrastructure through the national productivity investment fund. Coupled with the commitments made at spending review 2015, that means that between 2016-17 and 2020-21 central Government investment in economic infrastructure will rise by almost 60%, from £14 billion to £22 billion.

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After a 40-year wait, I am delighted that the Chancellor has announced a £25.7 million investment in the Stubbington bypass—vital infrastructure that will ease the terrible congestion between Fareham and Gosport. I commend my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), for her work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a great example of partnership between Hampshire County Council and Solent local enterprise partnership and that it will be the catalyst for a boost in jobs and the creation of growth?

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I think the Stubbington bypass was well worth waiting for. It will indeed support growth and development by improving access to both the M27 and the A27, allowing much needed business investment, creating new jobs, but also enabling the development of 900 new homes. Where we can get transport infrastructure investment to perform its transport function but also to help to open up land for development for new homes, that is a double hit.

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My right hon. Friend will be aware of the appetite for non-Government sources to provide funding for UK infrastructure. Can he confirm whether the Government are considering regional, national or project-based infrastructure bonds? Will he agree to meet me and a group of funders to discuss the attractions of such bonds?

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The most economical way for the Government to fund infrastructure investment is through conventional gilts—that is the lowest cost to the public purse. However, the Treasury backs infrastructure bonds and loans issued by the private sector through the UK guarantees scheme. At autumn statement, I announced that that scheme would be extended until at least 2026. It has played a vital role not just in underwriting and guaranteeing finance for projects, but in allowing a large number of projects to go ahead without the Government guarantee, simply by having underwritten the financing during the programme phase.

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What steps is the Chancellor—I agreed with his answer on clean-energy long-term projects—taking to support and facilitate with the Welsh Government and with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project, following the Hendry review?

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We have received the Hendry review report and we are considering the merits of the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project, including discussions with the Welsh Government.

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Does the Chancellor believe that the balance of infrastructure spending between the north and the south-east is fair?

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First, I should say that the Government are committed to addressing infrastructure needs across the UK. We will look at how best to use the available infrastructure funds based on the value for money of the projects that are brought forward, and different regions of the country will receive different allocations according to the projects that are available for development. The hon. Gentleman’s constituency has done well out of infrastructure funding.

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Order. We have to be sensitive to the fact that lots of other Members are trying to get in. It is a matter not just of giving the answer but of knowing that other people want to take part. It is a fairly elementary point.

Social Care Funding

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9. What discussions his Department has had with the Department for Communities and Local Government on the potential effect on the economy of the level of social care funding. [908956]

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The Treasury regularly discusses social care funding with the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government. We have introduced a new social care precept and additional grant funding for social care. Taken together, those provide an additional £7.6 billion of dedicated funding for social care over the four years of the current settlement. That means that councils can afford to increase spending on social care every year.

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The lack of funding for social care is having a devastating impact on people requiring care, carers and workers themselves. The 3% levy raises only £2.8 million for Rochdale. That does not even cover the cost of increasing the minimum wage for care workers. Does the Minister accept that?

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As I say, it is not just about the council tax precept. We also have the better care fund coming in. We should also accept that this is not just about money. There is very variable performance around the country. It is worth pointing out that 50% of the delayed discharges attributed to social care take place in only 24 local authority areas.

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Some areas, including the island, have taken the difficult decision to increase council tax by 3% to protect social care. Would the Chief Secretary to the Treasury consider finding ways of ensuring that councils have done all that they can to help themselves as well as ensuring that any Government support is made available now?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is a considerable amount of discretion for local authorities in regard to how much they want to prioritise social care, and the Government have given them greater flexibility in relation to the council tax precept.

Ayrshire Growth Deal

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10. What progress the Government have made on assessing the potential merits of the Ayrshire growth deal. [908957]

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The Government have focused on taking forward city deals with Edinburgh, Stirling and Tay cities and we are looking to agree city deals with all of Scotland’s great cities. The Government have also published their Green Paper on the industrial strategy and are engaging closely with the Scottish Government and local partners on how the strategy can work for all parts of the United Kingdom.

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We heard earlier about investment in Yorkshire. Would the Chief Secretary to the Treasury acknowledge that the Ayrshire growth deal would provide a much-needed economic boost to the area and reflect the Government’s promise to drive growth throughout the whole country, as outlined in their recently published industrial strategy?

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As I said, we are focusing the city deals on cities. If the Scottish Government wish to take forward projects to enable growth in Ayrshire, they are able to do so.

British Wine Industry

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11. What fiscal steps he is taking to support the British wine industry. [908958]

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The UK’s wine industry benefited from a duty freeze at Budget 2015, which means that the price of a typical bottle of wine is 7p lower since the end of the wine duty escalator in 2014.

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The English wine industry is going from strength to strength, particularly in Sussex. I have five award-winning vineyards in my constituency. The Wine and Spirit Trade Association estimates that a 2% reduction in duty would not only boost the industry but generate an extra £368 million for the Treasury. Will that be considered in the Budget next week?

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I heard those arguments directly from the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, alongside representatives from the all-party parliamentary wine and spirit group, recently. The issue of English and Welsh wine was raised, and I listened carefully to their Budget representations.

UK Financial Services: Passporting into the EU

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15. What options he is discussing with the City of London to secure passporting for UK financial services into the EU. [908962]

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We are ambitious for a deal, and it is clear that it is in the interests of both sides to maintain reciprocal market access. The important thing, however, is the end result, rather than the mechanism.

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A lot of jobs in the UK depend on EU banking passports. For example, US banks can locate subsidiaries in the UK and then trade freely across Europe. In the Minister’s view, what are the prospects for keeping all those jobs in the UK after Brexit?

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We want to ensure that British companies have the maximum freedom to trade and operate within European markets, and financial services are one of the areas in which we will be seeking a bold, ambitious agreement.

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As the Minister continues his discussions on passporting, will he ensure that he maintains a dialogue with business associations and trade bodies such as TheCityUK, to ensure that we get the best possible settlement?

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I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Treasury is very much in listening mode. We definitely want the best possible deal and we are clear that it is the end result, rather than the mechanism, that is important.

Depreciation of the Pound: Disposable Income

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17. Whether his Department has made an assessment of the effect of the depreciation of the pound on levels of disposable income. [908964]

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I am pleased to say that the Government are taking action to support the level of real disposable income per head, which is forecast to be 2.8% higher by 2021 than it was in 2016.

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There can be few things more tragic than a Treasury in denial. As sure as night follows day, the collapse of the pound will lead to higher prices, particularly for food and household technology, so when will the Minister’s Department get its head out of the sand and bring forward proposals to boost disposable income, to help people to meet these rising costs?

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Average earnings growth has now outstripped inflation for 27 consecutive months, and the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast that real disposable income will be 2.8% higher in 2021 than it was in 2016.

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Recent Office for National Statistics figures show that exports have grown and imports have fallen. Is that not good for jobs, the economy, and employment?

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Yes, it is good for jobs, the economy and, indeed, the Scottish whisky industry.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [908973]

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As we approach the beginning of the UK’s negotiations with the European Union, my principal responsibility remains delivering near-term measures to ensure stability and resilience in our economy, while also addressing the UK’s long-term productivity challenges. The package that I will announce at spring Budget next week will address both objectives.

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Not replacing teachers, scrapping subjects, and even going to a four-day week are just some of the measures that our hard-pressed schools are having to take given what the Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed are the first cuts to schools’ budgets in over 20 years. Will the Chancellor use his Budget to invest in our future, reduce the productivity gap, and ensure a high-skilled, high-wage economy?

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Yes. There was a slight disconnect in the hon. Lady’s question, but I will certainly do those things. Investing in our future, addressing the productivity challenge, and dealing with the skills gap will be at the centre of the Budget.

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T2. What steps are the Government taking to support economic growth in Medway through investment in transport infrastructure, such as the lower Thames crossing and roads, and help for small businesses? [908975]

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The Government are taking forward plans for the lower Thames crossing and major road upgrades, such as at junction 5 on the M2. We are also establishing a Thames estuary 2050 growth commission, which will set out a vision for development in the area.

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Last week, the Government snuck out a statement on regulations denying 150,000 disabled people access to personal independence payments awarded by the upper tribunal. That was brutal. Last year, the previous Chancellor absorbed the costs when the Government were forced to halt cuts to personal independence payments to disabled people. In this case, are those disabled people being denied benefits because the Chancellor has refused to absorb the costs resulting from the upper tribunal decision?

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What we are doing is restoring Parliament’s original intention for the payments, ensuring that they go to the people to whom they were intended to go and that the benefits cap, which is in place as part of our fiscal rules, is able to be met.

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One of those people contacted us. She has type 2 diabetes, fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety. As a result of the Government’s action, she will now not be extended the support that the courts awarded her. It is clear from last night’s announcement of further austerity measures for Departments that the Government are all about forcing Departments to meet the Chancellor’s spending targets so that he can pay for further tax giveaways to the wealthy. Will he rule out further unfair tax giveaways, such as cutting the top rate of income tax to 40p in this Parliament? Otherwise, it is clear that he wants tax giveaways for the wealthy few and austerity for the most vulnerable in our society.

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The right hon. Gentleman will have to wait until next week to find out what my proposals are, but let me be clear that we have no plans for further welfare reforms in this Parliament. However, the reforms that we have already legislated for must be delivered, and Parliament’s original intent in legislating for those reforms has to be ensured.

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T3. In constituencies in London suburbs such as mine, ordinary family homes are caught by the upper levels of stamp duty land tax, and estate agents regularly tell me that that is creating cirrhosis in the market. If people are not moving at that level, people are not moving further down, meaning that others are unable to get on to the housing ladder. Is it not time to look again at the unintended consequences of the upper levels of that tax on home ownership and mobility? [908976]

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It is worth noting that the SDLT reforms in the 2014 autumn statement reduced the tax for the vast majority of homebuyers and that all transactions up to £937,000 now pay the same or less in SDLT. As a London MP, I am obviously aware of the phenomenon to which my hon. Friend refers, but from the available data we do not yet have a clear consensus on the market impact of the higher rates of SDLT for additional residential properties or those at the upper end. We will continue to look carefully at that.

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T7. The systemic maltreatment of businesses, as exemplified by the Royal Bank of Scotland’s dash for cash, requires action. Does the Chancellor accept the case for imposing a duty of care on the banks, particularly in their dealings with small and medium-sized enterprises? [908980]

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The Financial Conduct Authority has published a summary of the main findings of its skilled persons report on RBS’s global restructuring group. The FCA is carefully considering that, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment while the process is ongoing.

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T4. I have been conducting a survey in my constituency with local campaigners Peter Booth and Nick Craker, and many people have raised concerns about road safety in our towns and villages. Can my right hon. Friend inform me of any additional funding for road safety improvement? [908977]

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My hon. Friend makes an important point, and road safety is a key priority for the £15.2 billion road investment strategy. In November 2016 we announced an additional £175 million to improve the 50 most dangerous roads in the country. As she will be aware, Cornwall has received £78 million from the local growth fund, including for investment in local roads.

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Our biggest businesses are already benefiting significantly from the cut to corporation tax, yet today we find that profit-making Caffè Nero has paid zero in corporation tax. Given that the Chancellor is trying to balance the Budget on the backs of the disabled and the ill, what more will he do to stop profit-making companies avoiding tax on his watch?

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As the hon. Lady will know, I cannot discuss the affairs of an individual taxpayer in this House, but this Government and their immediate predecessor have taken more steps over seven years than the previous Labour Government did over their whole 13 years in office to address the abuse of the tax system and aggressive tax avoidance and evasion.

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T5. In the past year international tourist rates and spend grew faster in the south-west than in London, and the south-west also attracted more domestic tourists than any other region. Given the Mayor of London’s plans for a hotel levy, will the Chancellor look again at cutting the rate of VAT on tourism? [908978]

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I agree that when a man is tired of London he should visit Somerset. Although tourism growth across the UK is indeed very welcome, and the Government will look at all opportunities to support it, reducing VAT would cost up to £10 billion, which is money that is needed to underpin our public services and to help to deal with our deficit.

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I am glad that the Chancellor is in listening mode on the mess created by the Government on business rates. Can I urge him similarly to be in listening mode on the potential mess that will be created by the provisions of the Local Government Finance Bill on funding local authorities?

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I will take the hon. Gentleman’s comments as a Budget submission, and I will pass them on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

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T6. Does the Chancellor share my concern about reports that billions of pounds in VAT and customs duties are not being accounted for? Will he look carefully at the role of fulfilment houses such as Amazon and eBay to ensure that we get the money that is due to the Exchequer? [908979]

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My hon. Friend raises an important point, and at Budget 2016 the Government announced new measures to better enable Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to tackle just such activity. The measures are forecast to raise £875 million in total by 2021. Over the past year, HMRC has already seen a more than tenfold increase in online non-EU businesses applying to register for VAT.

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A week before the election, the Chancellor’s predecessor came to Sussex and pledged support for infrastructure improvements to the rail line between London and Brighton. He commissioned a £100,000 study that has never been released. When will the Government release the south coast and London main line upgrade programme report?

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Shortly.

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T9. For many of my constituents in Kettering even a small amount of household debt can turn out to be unaffordable and can turn into a personal financial nightmare for them and their family. When will the Treasury respond to the excellent “Breathing Space” proposals to help people who are trying to get on top of their household debts by giving them statutory protection from unscrupulous, ruthless lenders? [908982]

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The “Breathing Space” proposals are being carefully considered by the Government and we will report on them shortly.

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Unsecured consumer credit is rising at a level last seen before the banking crisis. Does the Chancellor accept that that is unsustainable?

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Clearly, it cannot go on forever, but households do have some capacity for debt, and consumer borrowing and consumer spending have been an important component of the robustness of the economy over the past few months. What I hope to see is business investment and exports providing a greater share of the growth during 2017.

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I very much welcome this Government’s healthy commitment to scientific spending over several years, but it seems that our business investment in research is below the OECD average. May I urge the Chancellor to examine measures that will increase private company business expenditure on research?

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As the Chancellor announced at the autumn statement, the Government are significantly increasing investment in research and development, rising to an extra £2 billion a year by 2020-21. We have also made the R and D tax credit regime much more generous. We want to ensure that the UK remains an attractive place for business to invest in innovative research.

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Given the shameful neglect of social care spending in the autumn statement and straws in the wind about how that is going to be put right in the Budget, will the Chancellor take account of the fact that authorities such as ours in Wirral are having to deal with £45 million-worth of pressure due to the number of our older people who are needing help, and that a 3% increase in council tax will deliver us only £22 million?

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I generally find it best not to comment on straws in the wind, but I recognise the pressure that many authorities are under from underlying demographic trends. As we have said before, we are alert to that concern and will seek to address it in a sensible and measured way.

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For people moving into a residential care home the means test takes into account the value of their home, whereas it does not do so if they are applying for care in their own home. Does the Chancellor agree that there should be one simple system of means-testing, for whatever state funding people are applying?

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The system that my hon. Friend refers to has been around for many years and predates the deferred purchase agreements which all local authorities now offer to people contributing to their care. We do not just need to look at individual, specific aspects of this challenge; we need to look broadly at the question of how to make social care funding sustainable for the future, in the face of a rapidly ageing population.

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Since 1994, the Government have received £10 billion of pension cash which could have benefited miners. A Treasury written answers says that a further £153 million will be pocketed in the next three years. Will the Chancellor use the Budget to look again at the injustice of the mineworkers pension scheme?

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I do not recognise the numbers the hon. Lady has given the House, but I will look at them and write to her accordingly.

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Estate agents report that the number of transactions of so-called “prime properties” in London and elsewhere fell by 50% last year and that at the beginning of this year the situation is even worse than it was the year before. If it were proven that tax revenues had fallen as a result of policy, would the Chancellor be willing to review and change it?

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As we have mentioned, it is not really clear that there is a consensus on what the data are saying. However, as with all taxes, we keep this one constantly under review.

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Oil and gas received only a passing mention in the industrial strategy and was classed as a low priority for the Brexit negotiations. Will the Chancellor commit to actually doing something to support the future of the oil and gas industry in next week’s Budget?

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The hon. Lady will have to wait and see, but I am well aware of the concerns that the industry is expressing. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary met industry representatives last week and we understand their principal asks.

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Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer give a guarantee to the House that the details of the Budget will be first revealed to this House, and that we will not find out about them in this weekend’s press?

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What I can do is give my hon. Friend a guarantee that I will follow all proper procedures. Unfortunately, I cannot give him a guarantee that that will necessarily lead to the outcome that he seeks.

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The former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), has said that withdrawing from the single market would be

“the biggest single act of protectionism in the history of the United Kingdom”

and that the Government have chosen not to make the economy the priority. Is the former Chancellor launching a soft coup, or has he got this Government absolutely bang to rights for their economic vandalism?

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The hon. Gentleman understands very well that being a member of the single market was not an option for the UK given the clear views expressed by the electorate in the referendum, but having comprehensive access to the single market will deliver the great majority of the benefits that he seeks from single market membership.

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Some 100,000 UK businesses have already registered companies in the Republic of Ireland to hedge their bets given the policy and regulatory uncertainty caused by the vote to leave the European Union. Will the Chancellor urge his Cabinet colleagues, when they are negotiating around the table, to give policy and regulatory certainty to industries such as the chemical industry, which are not waiting to see what the Government are doing, but are simply haemorrhaging jobs and investment out of this country?

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I agree with the hon. Lady that certainty as soon as possible is important, as are understanding of what implementation arrangements will look like and over what timescale. However, I urge her not to be hysterical about these things. [Interruption.] Many companies are making contingency plans, including setting up and incorporating subsidiaries in other European Union countries. It is another step altogether to be moving jobs and enterprises abroad. Most of the companies that we talk to have made it clear that there is more time yet for them to be reassured during this process before we see irrevocable moves.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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We will come to points of order.

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The Treasury supported the launch of the National Needs Assessment’s infrastructure report, which clearly states that carbon capture and storage is required as part of energy policy going forward. When will the Treasury do the right thing and reinstate the funding for carbon capture and storage?

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I think the hon. Gentleman was talking about carbon capture and storage. That is a matter for my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and I will raise with him the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Point of Order

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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If it flows from discussions, which I think that it does, I will take it.

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In response to my recent Treasury question, the Chancellor of the Exchequer accused me of being hysterical. May we have a ruling from you in the Chair, Mr Speaker, about that sort of sexist language, which is used to diminish women who make a perfectly reasonable point? That sort of language would not have been used had I been a man. My question on the registration of companies in Ireland had nothing to do with the condition of my womb travelling to my head, as in the traditional rhetoric about hysterics. I expect that sort of language from the sketch writers of the Daily Mail, not from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I did not accuse the hon. Lady of being hysterical; I urged her not to be hysterical. [Interruption.]

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Order. A point of order has been raised. The Chancellor is responding. Before anybody else says anything, we must hear what he has to say.

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If my comments have caused the hon. Lady any offence, I of course withdraw them unreservedly.

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I think that we should leave it there. I thank the Chancellor for what he has said. There is a difference between order and taste. People will have their own view about taste, but the point has been raised, and the Chancellor has made a gracious statement in response. For today, we should leave it there.

Prison Officers Association: Withdrawal from Voluntary Tasks

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(Urgent Question): The prisons Minister told the Select Committee on Justice this morning that he has the number of the chair of the Prison Officers Association on speed dial.

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Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting a little ahead of himself. At this stage, all he needs to do is put the urgent question in the very simple terms in which it was put to me, by saying, “To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if she will make a statement on the Prison Officers Association instruction to withdraw from voluntary tasks.” I have just done the hon. Gentleman’s work for him. If he wants to say it again, he may, but that is the way to deal with it. He will have his opportunity to speak in a moment. He is ahead of himself, which I suppose is better than being behind the curve.

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Mr Speaker, thank you for asking the urgent question on behalf of the Opposition. I am grateful for the chance to update the House on this important issue.

Strike action is unlawful, as we have said to the Prison Officers Association. It will seriously disrupt normal operations in prisons and, although we will of course take any actions we can to mitigate the risks, we are clear that action of this nature by the POA poses a risk to the safety of prisons and prison staff. The duties that the POA refers to in its bulletin are not voluntary but a fundamental part of a prison officer’s role, and essential to running a safe and decent prison. They include: assessment of those at risk of suicide; first aid; restraint training and intervention; and hostage negotiation. The instructions by the POA are clearly designed to disrupt the safe and decent running of prisons.

We have made the maximum pay offer that we could to all operational staff in prisons. In addition, we offered a £1,000 retention payment to all operational staff and a reduction in pension age to 65, fully funded by the Government. We were disappointed that the offer was rejected by the POA membership, despite being endorsed by the POA leadership. This year’s pay award is now a matter for the independent Prison Service Pay Review Body, which will take evidence from all parties and report to the Government in April. The POA, of course, has the opportunity to make its case to the pay review body, but we are not waiting for the pay review body to respond.

In the past week, we have outlined progression opportunities that will take earnings to more than £30,000 a year for more than 2,000 staff across the country. We have also introduced allowances in areas in which the cost of living is higher to take basic rate prison officers up to £30,000 a year. We understand that prison officers do a difficult job in very challenging circumstances, so we are making these moves on pay to recognise their effort and hard work. In addition, the Government are investing £100 million to increase the net number of prison officers by 2,500 in the next two years. I urge the shadow Minister, if he has good sense and cares about the safety and order of our prisons, not to put prison officers and prisoners at risk, but to condemn this unlawful strike action.

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The prisons Minister told the Justice Committee this morning that he has the number of the chair of the Prison Officers Association on speed dial. If the Minister is dialling, it is clear that he is not connecting because the situation could easily have been avoided. Ministers could have spoken to the POA before imposing a pay policy that has proven to be so divisive and unpopular. They need to sit down and talk to the POA, rather than threaten legal action and claim the action is unlawful before any court has made any such determination. In order to fix a prison system currently relying on staff doing extra work voluntarily—for no extra money—to keep our system running, Ministers need to focus on the real problems.

At the Conservative party conference back in October, the Justice Secretary announced 400 more officers to work in 10 challenging prisons, but the staffing shortfall at those prisons has grown in the last quarter. After the White Paper announcement of 2,500 additional officers, there was a fall of 133 staff in the last quarter of 2016. That 2,500 is now further away than it was in November.

So where is the Justice Secretary? Why have some prisons with no recruitment and retention problems received the pay award, while some prisons struggling most on that front have received nothing? How much additional money has been earmarked for this recruitment drive? What discussions have taken place with the POA leadership today?

To turn around this mess, we need a Justice Secretary who is serious—serious about working with prison officers—and we need a prisons Bill that will deliver serious reform. Sadly, at the moment, we have neither.

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In relation to the additional allowances that were announced for staff last week, and also the pay progression opportunity for 2,000 prison officers across the estate, the POA was consulted. If the hon. Gentleman had read its press release in detail, he would have noticed that the POA actually welcomed those things; its issue was that it wanted them to apply to all the country. However, it is not novel to have a pay allowance in areas where it is difficult to recruit and where the cost of living is too high—it is not novel in the Prison Service, and it is not novel in the public sector.

The hon. Gentleman talked about extra money that is going into the Prison Service. I made it absolutely clear that we have £100 million for a net 2,500 officers. He referred to data relating to December last year, following our announcement in November, so let me update him briefly on where we are on prison officer recruitment. We are on track to recruit the 400 new officers the Secretary of State announced in October for the 10 most challenging jails. We have more people in training today to be prison officers than ever before. We are also investing £4 million in marketing to attract new prison officers.

The Labour party, I am afraid, is confused on prisons. Last year, it told us that it wanted the prison population cut from 80,000 to 45,000. Last Sunday, we heard from the shadow Attorney General that prisoners should be allowed to keep mobile phones so that they can carry on their life of crime in prison. Until the Labour party has sorted out its position, it is in no position to question us.

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The Justice Committee has always made it clear that it recognises that there are great pressures on our prisons, and that includes pressures on the dedicated men and women who work in them. However, does the Minister accept that it is not helpful, given the efforts that are being made to turn the situation around, which takes time to achieve, to embark on a course of action that, legal or otherwise, creates further restrictions on the regime and, therefore, further tensions in the prison population? That makes it harder to deliver rehabilitation and, sadly, makes the job of prison officers harder in the long term.

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The Chairman of the Justice Committee makes an important point. We have made progress on pay with the Prison Officers Association, and we have had progress on health and safety; indeed, today we were to meet the POA to discuss pensions. I absolutely agree with the Justice Secretary that today’s action only puts prisoners and prison officers, who work very hard, at risk.

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As we have heard, prison staff in England and Wales have been demoralised by understaffing, underpayment and overcrowding in prisons. While the Government have offered a pay rise to prison staff to encourage further recruitment and retention of current staff, as we have heard, that will apply only in the south-east and London. The Minister said that that is not novel, but it does not address the issue of morale across the board.

This is a matter for England and Wales, but I am here to encourage the Minister to look at the Scottish Government’s attempts to reduce the number of people in prisons by moving away from ineffective, short-term prison sentences and making more use of community alternatives. Does he agree that he should concentrate efforts on such schemes? Never mind the marketing budget he spoke of to recruit people, what will he do to ensure that newly recruited prison officers are retained and that the morale of all prison staff, who already have a very stressful job, is restored?

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The hon. Lady is right—the morale of prison officers is important to us. However, let me be clear: we had a pay deal endorsed by the Prison Officers Association towards the end of last year that was rejected. That pay deal is now a matter for the independent pay review body. We have submitted evidence and the POA can submit its evidence, so we are taking action on pay for the Prison Service as a whole. We have also put in place additional allowances for 31 jails where it is particularly hard to recruit. Further to that, we have created a new progression opportunity for 2,000 prison officers across the country, and today we were due to be in talks about pensions. We value prison officers and the work they do, and we want to support them, but unlawful strike action is not the way to progress. It would actually achieve the opposite, which is to put prison officers at risk.

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While strongly regretting the strike action announced by the POA, I welcome the reduction in retirement age to 65 that the Minister has told the House about. In his further discussions on pensions when this strike is over—I hope he will be able to get back around the table soon—will he bear in mind the comparison with the pension offers for the police and the armed services, in that members in those schemes have to pay more?

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I will certainly bear that in mind, although the pension deal offered to the POA and prison officers would have been fully funded by the Government.

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Last year 119 prisoners took their own lives in our prisons—the highest level of suicides on record. The POA instruction urges members to withdraw from ACCT—assessment, care in custody and teamwork. While I have every sympathy with the 7,000 POA prison officers who now face these challenges in our prisons, what impact will that withdrawal have on the already dismal mental health support available in our prisons?

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As I said earlier, involvement in ACCT processes and ceasing suicide and self-harm are fundamental to a prison officer’s duty. I would encourage and urge all prison officers to carry on with their tasks as they should.

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May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work that he is doing with a difficult pack of cards? Does he agree that a prison officer joins to serve, and that that means to serve in whatever guise without striking?

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I certainly do agree. In fact, the legislation on this was introduced by the previous Labour Government, so I was surprised that the shadow Minister would not condemn this unlawful strike action.

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When prisons are in crisis and staff are on strike, every available penny should be spent on making prisons safe. Is the Minister aware that last year £500,000 of compensation was paid to serious criminals because they were released late from prison? When will he get that under control and provide prison officers with a safe working environment and prisoners with a safe and drug-free environment in which to be detained?

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The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we published a White Paper last year, and only last week introduced the Prisons and Courts Bill—the first Bill in 65 years that not only puts turning around our prisoners’ lives at the centre of our work but improves safety and security in our prisons. We are taking action.

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Will the Minister update the House on some of the measures in the Bill that should help to resolve the situation and ensure that our prisons are places of safety and reform?

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The central aspect of the Bill is to make it very clear that the fundamental purpose of prisons is to turn around offenders’ lives. If prisons are focused on that, we will reduce reoffending, and the £15 billion reoffending bill, but also help to make our prisons places of safety and reform.

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To avoid any doubt, will the Minister say today that he will accept the recommendations that the independent pay review body makes?

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We will obviously look at its recommendations. Let me make this clear: we value prison officers and the hard work they do, and we have already taken a lot of action to recognise that. The right hon. Gentleman cannot ask me to commit at the Dispatch Box to results that I do not know.

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I agree with the Minister that it is wrong for this strike to go ahead, particularly given the services that it affects. I know he will share my concern at the 6,000 assaults on prison officers up until June 2016. Will he reassure me on the actions being taken to tackle this and to ensure that those who commit these assaults are held to account?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Prison officers work in a very challenging environment, and our job is to keep them safe in that environment. We are looking at a number of things, including making sure that any crime scene is preserved, working with the local police forces that attend the scene, and making sure that impact statements are well prepared and admissible in court. We are also ensuring that when someone assaults a prison officer and is convicted, the sentence is consecutive rather than concurrent with their existing sentence. I agree that it is vital that we keep prison officers safe.

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This dispute is, on the surface, about pay, and the Minister has said an awful lot about that, but he must realise that it is also about unhappiness that has been developing in the Prison Service for many years now, principally about safety at work. The levels of assaults on prison officers, suicide and self-harm are unprecedented. Fixing that is how the Government are going to resolve this in the longer term. When are we going to start to see safety in prisons improve?

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I have said right from the start that the levels of violence in our prisons are too high. We have been working very closely with the Prison Officers Association on health and safety and have made progress—for example, on regime management plans that the POA would accept. We are also investing £100 million to add 2,500 officers to the frontline, in addition to the points on pay that I have already made. These problems were long in the making, and yes, it will take time to resolve them, but we have the resolve to do so and we are doing it.

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The job of prison officers is made more difficult by the presence in our prisons of drugs and mobile phones. Can my hon. Friend tell me by what date will we have at least one prison—just one—that is free of drugs and mobile phones?

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My hon. Friend will have noticed measures in the Bill that we introduced last week to make it easier to test for drugs and deal with the problem of drugs in our prisons, and we are taking a lot of action on mobile phones. For example, new legislation under the Serious Crime Act 2015 has allowed us to turn off 160 mobile phones in our jails in the past few months. We are also working with mobile network operators so as to be able to switch off mobile phones in our jails. A lot of work is being done, but it will take time.

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These are worrying developments. Does the Minister share my concern that this action will have an impact on family visits? As he knows, the ability for prisoners to meet their families and see their children—there are 200,000 children of prisoners—is extremely important for rehabilitation. Can he confirm that this will not be affected?

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As I have said, strike action is unlawful. If prison officers withdraw their labour, that will make the regime even more restrictive, as the Chairman of the Justice Committee suggested. That is why we are urging hard-working prison officers to go back to work and make sure that prisoners can carry on with these regimes, whether in continuing important rehabilitative work or in making sure that our prisons are safe.

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It is concerning that this action could lead to Tornado teams being withdrawn. Will the Minister confirm that contingency measures are in place to ensure that prison order can be maintained at all times?

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I am sure that our prison officers will always do their duty if there is disorder in prisons, even at this difficult time. We are obviously urging the POA to withdraw its bulletin, but we also make sure that we have contingency plans for times like this.

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The Minister does not need me to tell him that staff morale in our prisons is extremely low, which is not helped by very low staff numbers. In my constituency since 2010, the numbers at Frankland have gone down by 32%, at Durham by 48% and at Low Newton by 17%. When does the Minister think that he will be in a position to produce a pay offer that recognises the difficult and dangerous job that prison officers do?

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We are already doing that; we are recognising that difficulty. As I have said, pay packets will go up to about £30,000 as a result of the measures we have introduced in the past week. The independent pay review body will report in April, after which we will take further action.

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The Government’s commitment to opening new prison places in fit-for-purpose buildings, including in north Northamptonshire, is very welcome news. What impact does the Minister think that that will have on prison officer safety?

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Modern, fit-for-purpose prisons will have a huge impact on prison officer safety, not least because they will not have all those corners where people can hide. They will also be good for rehabilitation. Today we have opened Her Majesty’s Prison Berwyn, which is the largest prison in Europe and is taking its first prisoners today. That is a huge step in our efforts not only to reorganise the estate, reduce overcrowding and improve safety in our prisons, but to ensure that they can be places of rehabilitation.

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I have listened carefully to the Minister. He said that he thought that this action was designed to disrupt the safe and decent running of prisons. Does he not understand that the whole reason why prison officers are withdrawing from these tasks is that we do not have safe and decent prisons? We have intolerable and dangerous prisons; I would not want to work in them, and I am sure that the Minister would not either.

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As I have said, our prison officers do an incredibly difficult job. I visit prisons almost every week and I know how hard the officers work. The POA has decided to make a stand on pay, as we have seen in today’s bulletin. I urge it to withdraw its bulletin because it will not do anything to improve safety in our prisons.

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What steps has the Minister taken in the past few months to improve the career prospects of prison officers?

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In addition to the workforce strategy that we will publish later this year, which will focus on the professionalisation of the workforce, last week we announced a progressive promotion opportunity that will allow band 3 officers to do roles relating to safer custody, mentoring and hostage negotiation, and to get a pay rise. That is a huge step not just in professionalising the workforce and allowing people to operate in more senior roles, but in improving the pay packets of our hard-working prison officers.

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Does the Minister accept that his precipitative action will be counterproductive and that any lockdowns are likely to lead to a lot more trouble in prisons?

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The precipitous action, if I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, is unlawful strike action, which will do nothing to make our prisons safe.

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It would be easier to manage the 85,000 prisoners in our jails if we did not have to incarcerate 10,000 foreign nationals who should be in prison in their own country. This week Jamaica rejected the Government’s offer of returning its foreign nationals. What steps are the Government taking to get these people back to secure detention in their own countries?

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Since 2010 we have deported 33,000 prisoners —5,810 in 2015-16 alone—to their home country. There is a lot more work that we can do, and I am engaging directly with the Governments of the top 10 countries from which foreign national prisoners come in order to speed up the process.

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Our prisons are unsafe and dangerous, and the Minister inherited that situation. We must not forget that we have lost 7,000 experienced prison officers. When Spice, which is a very cheap drug, came on the market, prisoners who were recalled within 28 days of being released were able to expand their business on the next landing. The steps that are being taken are a sticking plaster rather than major surgery. We need to recruit massive numbers of prison officers. We need proper pay and proper skills, not adverts for 18-year-olds with no experience.

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We lost 6,000 or 7,000 prison officers, as the hon. Lady has said, but during that period we also closed 18 prisons. The key change in our prisons, as she has rightly says, is the advent of drugs such as Spice and Black Mamba, which have a huge value in prisons and make prisoners violent. In addition, our cohort of prisoners has become more violent: three fifths of people in our prisons are there for dangerous or drug-related offences. That is why we face a game-changing situation. More staff is part of the answer, but dealing with drugs and mobile phones is a key part of it, too.

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Is not improving working conditions for prison officers part of the solution to the problem, and are not the Government wholly right to close old Victorian prisons and open modern ones, such as that in Wellingborough?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the working conditions for prison officers and the estates in which we house prisoners are important to improving safety in our prisons. I look forward to the new prison in Wellingborough opening shortly.

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Given that 15 of the most dangerous prisoners have been transferred to Hull following the Birmingham riot earlier this year, that prison officers are saying that they fear for their safety, and that the prison was in lockdown in December, does the Minister understand why morale is so low, especially when the pay award is not going to areas such as Hull? Will the governor there have the flexibility come April to give these hard-working prison officers that pay increase?

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Yes, prison governors will have control over their budgets and will be able to make decisions about staffing and how their staff are deployed from this April. We have to be absolutely clear. The POA says that this unlawful strike action is about pay. However, only last week we announced not only promotion opportunities but increased pay for vast numbers of prison officers across the country.

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Having had an in-depth conversation with a constituent who has just left his role as a prison officer, I understand that the prison population is getting younger, that Spice and mental health issues are on the rise, and that morale is at rock bottom. Given the POA instruction urging its members to withdraw from detached duties such as Tornado work during prison riots, what is the Minister doing to reassure the families of vulnerable people in prison that they will not suffer during this dispute?

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The best reassurance we can give to the families of prisoners is for the Prison Officers Association to withdraw its bulletin and not to pursue unlawful strike action.

Personal Independence Payments

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make a statement on the cuts to entitlement to personal independence payment.

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Recent legal judgments have interpreted the assessment criteria for PIP in ways that are different from what was originally intended by the coalition Government. We are therefore now making amendments to clarify the criteria used to decide how much benefit claimants receive in order to restore the original aim of the policy previously agreed by Parliament, which followed extensive consultation.

I want to be clear about what this is not. It is not a policy change, and nor is it intended to make new savings. I reiterate my commitment that there will be no further welfare savings beyond those already legislated for. This will not result in any claimant seeing a reduction in the amount of PIP previously awarded by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Mental health conditions and physical disabilities that lead to higher costs will continue to be supported, as has always been the case. The Government are committed to ensuring that our welfare system provides a strong safety net for those who need it. That is why we spend about £50 billion to support people with disabilities and health conditions, and we are investing more in mental health than ever before, spending a record £11.4 billion a year.

Personal independence payments are part of that support, and they provide support towards the additional costs that disabled people face. At the core of PIP’s design is the principle that support should be made available according to need, rather than a certain condition, whether physical or non-physical. PIP is also designed to focus more support on those who are likely to have higher costs associated with their disability. PIP works better than disability living allowance for those with mental health conditions. For example, there are more people with mental health conditions receiving the higher rates of PIP than there were under the old DLA system.

This is about restoring the original intention of the benefit, which has been expanded by the legal judgments. It is entirely appropriate for the Government to act to restore clarity to the law, as Governments have done before and will no doubt continue to do in the future.

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In a written statement published without warning on Thursday, Ministers announced the cuts to which the Secretary of State has just referred, which will take effect in two weeks’ time. Over the weekend, another Member in government said that this was to stop the payment of benefits to people

“taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety”.

Why is so little notice being given, with no opportunity at all for parliamentary scrutiny of these substantial cuts? Will the Secretary of State confirm, as stated in the impact assessment published with the regulations, that people suffering from schizophrenia, learning disability, autism and dementia will be among those worst affected by the cuts? The cut is being achieved by taking the benefit away from people whose mobility impairments are the result of “psychological distress”. According to the wording of the regulations, they will no longer be entitled to benefit. Does that not directly contradict the Prime Minister’s commitment to treat mental health on a par with physical health?

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I thought every part of that question was based in error, if I may say so. Nobody is losing money compared with what they were originally awarded by the DWP, so that part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question is simply factually incorrect.

Far from being slipped out, the Department made a huge effort to let people know that this was happening. I left a message for the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), and I spoke to the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work also spoke to a number of colleagues, so the idea that this was slipped out is simply ridiculous.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about individual conditions, and I can only repeat what I said earlier: PIP is awarded not for conditions, but for the living or mobility difficulties that result from such conditions. All that the regulations do is to restore the situation to what it was in late November, before the two court judgments. This is not a new policy or a spending cut; this is simply restoring the benefit to what was intended when it was first introduced under the coalition Government.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that any welfare payment, especially one providing a tiered range of cash payments to people living with enormously diverse physical and mental conditions, requires clear assessment criteria and clarity in law? The new regulations will restore precision to the law, which will benefit all users of the system.

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I completely agree with my right hon. Friend, who obviously has huge expertise in this area, that we need clarity. In particular, the vulnerable people receiving PIP deserve clarity. I reassure them and the House that all the regulations will do is to restore us to the situation that everyone knew they were in late last year, and in which they have been ever since PIP was introduced.

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As we have heard, on Thursday the Government issued the new regulations by which disabled people or people with a chronic condition will be assessed for eligibility for personal independence payments. PIP helps disabled people to fund their living costs and, in particular, the additional costs that they face because of their condition. The regulations will come into force in just over two weeks’ time, but they were issued without any consultation with the Social Security Advisory Committee. The Government have said that this is because of the urgency of the issue.

The Government are in effect overturning two tribunal rulings that allow chronic “psychological distress” to be included in the PIP assessment. However, if the Secretary of State was so unhappy with the tribunal rulings, why did he not use his powers under sections 25 and 26 of the Social Security Act 1998 and regulations 21 and 22 of the Social Security and Child Support (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations 1999 to challenge those rulings in the courts?

The Secretary of State’s actions not only undermine the judicial process, but reduce eligibility to PIP support for over 164,000 people with debilitating mental health conditions, including those not able to go outside their own homes. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with disabled people’s organisations ahead of bringing forward these regulations? What is his assessment of the effects on the health and wellbeing of the people affected by the cuts? Given that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people as a result of the extra costs they face, how many disabled people will be driven into debt or face poverty as a result of these cuts? What is the cumulative effect of these cuts along with the employment and support allowance work-related activity group cuts that are due to come into effect in April, which will affect 500,000 disabled people? Finally, why are the Government contradicting their earlier argument in the 2015 upper tribunal case of HL v. the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in which they argued that “psychological distress” should be included in PIP assessments?

We have been arguing for parity of esteem for mental health with physical health for some time now. Indeed, the Prime Minister famously said that people with mental health conditions need more support. Why will the Government not honour that?

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Let me deal with some of the detailed points raised by the hon. Lady. Incidentally, we are appealing the judgments, but because of the lack of clarity that would be caused by leaving the current regulations in limbo following the upper tribunal’s decisions, it is better to move quickly. I should also say that the tribunal has itself said that the assessment criteria are not clear. If the tribunal believes that, I am more than happy to accept it—indeed, I am grateful to it for telling us that the criteria are not clear—so I am now taking the opportunity to clarify the existing regulations.

The hon. Lady talked about the effect on disabled people. I absolutely agree with her that that is the central core of what we are trying to do. I point out to her that over two thirds of PIP recipients with a mental health condition get the enhanced rate daily living component, compared with just 22% who used to receive the highest rate of DLA care. That is why PIP is a better benefit than DLA. That happened previously under the existing regulations, and I am now restoring that situation.

The hon. Lady’s questions were predicated on this being a cut. It is simply not a cut; it is not entirely honest of her to say that it is a cut. If she looks at the facts of the case, she will recognise that people claiming PIP—specifically those with mental health conditions—have been and are better off with PIP. We are making the benefit clear. We are making the change so that the benefit is paid as it has been since it was first introduced, which is better for people, particularly those with mental health conditions.

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Order. I respect the cut and thrust of debate, but there can be no accusation of dishonesty in this Chamber.

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I will happily withdraw—

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Order. That is quite sufficient. No further explanation is required. I am very grateful to the Secretary of State, and deeply obliged to him.

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I welcome the fact that the Government are now, rightly, spending a record amount to support those with long-term health conditions and disabilities. If the Government were to decide to increase that amount yet further, surely that should be done in conjunction with charities and stakeholders, utilising their expertise, rather than on an ad hoc basis dictated by the courts?

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My hon. Friend, who also has huge expertise in this area, is exactly right. There was very extensive consultation when PIP was first introduced about the design of what is, inevitably, a very complex benefit. As I have explained, we have seen a considerable improvement in awards, particularly for those with mental health conditions. The Government’s changes will restore that situation, which was better than people ever knew in the past.

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The changes will, despite what has been said, exclude disabled people from vital financial assistance. They send a dangerous message to the public that people suffering from mental health conditions are less worthy of support than those with physical disabilities. We cannot and should not pit one disability against another. With condemnation across the spectrum, I urge the Secretary of State to rethink these callous changes. Can the Secretary of State offer any explanation as to why those with mental health conditions are not entitled to the same levels of support as others? Will he clarify whether this matter will be brought to the House? Finally, I ask that a debate takes place as a matter of urgency to give the House the opportunity to scrutinise the proposals fully and to put forward the concerns of disabled people across the UK.

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The hon. Lady will know that what is considered for debate are matters for the usual channels. It ill behoves any Secretary of State to try to interfere in the actions of the usual channels.

The hon. Lady’s first question is based on the misapprehension that people with mental health conditions are doing worse under PIP as it is currently run. That is simply factually not the case. I am proud of the fact that overall the Government are spending £11.4 billion on people with mental health conditions—more than any previous Government have paid out. Overall, we are spending £50 billion a year on disability benefits. In every year of this Parliament we will be spending more than was spent in 2010. That is how we are meeting our commitments to disabled people, which I take very seriously and the whole Government take very seriously.

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Are there lessons for the framers of the regulations to avoid them effectively being rewritten by the tribunals?

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There are always lessons for anyone who writes regulations. By necessity, benefit regulations are complex, particularly because they need to be very sensitive. We are dealing with vulnerable people. In this case, we are dealing with disabled people who have extra living costs or difficulties with mobility. Inevitably, the framers of regulations try to make them as exact as possible. It is one of the roles of the courts to point out where that has gone wrong. In this case, the courts have said that they were not clear. What the Government are doing is clarifying them. That is to everyone’s benefit.

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The Prime Minister has said that there should be parity of esteem between mental and physical health conditions. By overriding the courts on this matter, 160,000 people who would otherwise have been receiving support through PIP will not now receive it. Did the Prime Minister agree with the decision to overrule the courts and deprive these people of the support they desperately need?

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The hon. Lady is wrong to say that 160,000 people will not get PIP because of the decision. She knows the details well enough to know that this is not about whether or not people receive PIP. There are two different cases and two descriptors—[Interruption.] She keeps treating me as though I am the Prime Minister. I am grateful, but I am not. I am the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The hon. Lady is simply wrong when she says that this will deny people PIP. As she knows, PIP is given on the basis of the difficulty of living costs or mobility costs. It is not a binary case. Twelve different attributes are considered and each attribute has a large number of descriptors. The court case affects two descriptors. It is not as she paints it.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his clarification. Can he assure my constituents who are affected by PIP that the Government are committed to ensuring that PIP assessments are high quality and that people are properly supported throughout the process?

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We are engaged in a PIP improvement project. My hon. Friend is right to ask the question about consistency of assessments. That is one matter we are certainly addressing. The other matter, which I know is of concern across the House, is delays. I am glad to report that because of the PIP improvement plan, claims are now being cleared at over five times the rate they were in January 2014. The delays in the system are being reduced and we are addressing the issue of consistency.

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Has the Secretary of State forgotten that one of his predecessors resigned a year ago because of cuts to the disabled? Does he understand—it does not seem that he really does—the strong feeling among so many of the vulnerable that they will again be in the firing line for cuts? There is so much anxiety. We receive emails constantly from those affected, and from organisations, about the way the disabled are hit time and time again.

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I am happy to assure them and the hon. Gentleman that what I am talking about today is not a cut. We are not going to have any new welfare cuts in this Parliament, apart from those that have already been legislated for. The decision we have taken is not—not—a cut.

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It is clear that different medical conditions will have different impacts on people’s living and mobility. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must recognise this simple fact if we are to continue to target resources on those who are most vulnerable and most in need?

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I do. Indeed, that was the purpose of the original design of PIP. It is better than disability living allowance, which it replaced, precisely because it reflects the reality in individuals’ lives that some will have more difficulty in going about their daily business because of a disability. The PIP benefit is specifically designed in a very careful, and therefore complex, way to achieve that and it does. Ministers have to ensure that the rules are completely clear and that is what we are doing today.

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If everything is working so well, why are my advice surgeries full of people who have been waiting for their PIP assessments for a very long time? Long-term disabled people are being denied them and being caused massive amounts of distress by the process. They feel utter despair at having to have anything to do with it.

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As I say, an improvement plan is in place, which lets the hon. Lady know that things need to improve. They are being improved, as I explained in answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst). I hope the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) can be reassured by the fact that we are recruiting a team of health professionals to help us to scrutinise the suppliers’ training and assessments. Both suppliers have their own improvement plans in place as well. We will be trialling audio recording of selected assessments from the beginning of next month to understand better how assessments can be improved.

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As part of the improvement plan the Secretary of State refers to, will he ensure that those who need assessments in their own homes will be able to get them from both providers?

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Yes. That point has been made by a number of non-governmental organisations, as well as colleagues on both sides of the House. We are looking at it very seriously.

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Some of my constituents are unable to leave their homes without assistance due to a physical disability and some are unable to leave their homes because of a mental disability. Why should one be entitled to receive support via PIP, but not the other?

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They will both be entitled to PIP at the level that will be assessed. Each individual is different and has different levels of difficulty. It is often the case that for people who are blind, with visual or cognitive impairments, they will not have a fluctuating condition. It will clearly be less amenable to treatment than some other conditions. It is the level of difficulty in a person’s daily life, whether they have a physical or a mental health problem, that matters in terms of the PIP assessment.

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The Secretary of State will be aware that since joining this place I have been a strong campaigner for parity of esteem between mental and physical health. Is not one of the key points he is making that this is not a binary decision between mental and physical health? The point of PIP is that it promotes targeted help for people with mental health conditions. Is it not also the case that more people are receiving payments under PIP for mental health conditions than ever was the case under DLA?

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the very good work he has done in his time in the House on mental health. He is absolutely right. A core tenet of PIP’s design is the principle of equivalence between physical and non-physical conditions. The whole House ought to welcome this move. It is why, as he has explained, it is a better benefit than DLA. Rolling PIP out in this way and attempting to improve the assessment process in the way we are is the best way for us to help people with all kinds of disabilities, specifically those with mental health conditions.

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I received an email following the remarks of the No. 10 adviser over the weekend. My constituent wrote:

“As someone who has been diagnosed with PTSD and phobic anxiety, I am deeply distressed and angry about his remarks. Considering the current lack of funding and social stigma that mentally disabled people already have to suffer, this is beyond the pale.”

Do the Government recognise the offence these remarks caused, and will they dissociate themselves from and apologise for them?

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The hon. Gentleman talks about a Government adviser. I assume he is talking about my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who has apologised for his remarks and who has, as it happens, also done a lot of work on mental health issues. As he has explained, he has a personal and family history that makes him particularly sensitive to mental health issues. I hope that the House can accept his apology.

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For those of us who deal with vulnerable constituents, it is frustrating to hear these matters described as cuts when they are clearly not. Where in the £50 billion disability budget would savings have to be made to pay for this increase?

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Since the purpose of the announcement and the regulations that the Government are introducing is not to have to look for cuts elsewhere, I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that we can avoid those, but he is quite right. We have a welfare budget and are spending more on disability benefits than any previous Government, and we are proud of that fact.

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The Liberal Democrats have tabled a prayer on this to try to force a debate, and I thank the Leader of the Opposition for supporting it. A constituent, Katherine, has contacted me concerned about how the amendments will impact on her when she is transferred from DLA to PIP. She currently receives the lower rate mobility component and suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, generalised anxiety and social phobia. Her life is severely affected by her mental health. She cannot plan the route of a journey or follow the route of a familiar journey. Why do the Government want to deny her the mobility component of PIP?

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Katherine will see no change to the rules that have applied to her in the past. I gently point out to the right hon. Gentleman that these rules were passed by a Government of whom he was a member.

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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for providing some helpful clarity on this issue. Will he confirm that people who need help managing their medication will continue to receive that support?

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Yes. Not only will they come under the appropriate descriptor for PIP, but—this has not been mentioned yet—they will receive support from the NHS as well. We have a healthcare system precisely to advise people on issues such as medication, so the state is already doing something to help them. Clearly that is necessary and will continue to be an important part of the system.

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Mind says that the proposed changes will affect about 160,000 people and could prevent people from accessing the financial support they need to get to health or job appointments and from getting out to pay for fuel and heating, take their children to school or see friends and families—things essential for their daily lives and recovery. If the Secretary of State is so confident that he is right and Mind is wrong, will he meet representatives from Mind to discuss who is right and who is wrong, and then come back to the Chamber and give the same assurance?

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I am always happy to meet representatives from Mind. As it happens, the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), has already spoken to Mind on this matter, and it is coming into the Department to speak to us again soon.

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On this issue?

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On this issue, yes. As I have already pointed out, nobody is losing any benefit originally awarded to them by the DWP. That is the fact that most needs to be conveyed to those receiving the benefit.

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I read the media reports on this change with some alarm, until I read into the detail of the regulations. To that end, will the Secretary of State confirm my understanding that far more people with mental health issues will be eligible for PIP than were ever eligible for the old DLA?

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Yes, my hon. Friend makes a correct point, and one that I have made several times in the past few minutes. PIP is a better benefit than DLA for several reasons, perhaps the most important being that it is more available to those with mental health conditions. It always has been. The rules we are putting in place will make sure that it continues to be.

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Why are the Government contradicting their argument in the 2015 upper tribunal case of HL v. SSWP, where they argued that psychological distress should be included in PIP assessments?

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I am happy to assure the hon. Lady that psychological distress is included in PIP assessments. It always has been. Nothing changes as a result of these regulations.

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I thank the Secretary of State for the reassurances, given the correspondence I received after the media coverage. Will he go further and confirm that the regulations will not result in anybody receiving less money than they were awarded by the DWP and that there is no intention to make new savings?

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I am happy to repeat—yet again—that nobody will receive less money under PIP than they originally received in their award from the DWP as a result of the regulations we have introduced.

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People with learning disabilities, schizophrenia and autism—the conditions highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms)—are more likely to feel anxious about their assessment and experience greater difficulty in conveying information about their condition and, according to my constituents, are increasingly subjected to a more hostile and aggressive assessment process. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that these people will be particularly vulnerable if the proposals are not introduced very carefully?

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We are introducing them very carefully. I completely agree that people likely to suffer from anxiety should not be made unnecessarily anxious, which is why I am at pains to reassure them, the House and everyone else that this is not a policy change or a cut. Nobody will receive less benefit than they were originally awarded by the DWP.

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I commend the Secretary of State for his response. Through the PIP improvement plan, can he assure constituents of mine who find it difficult to travel to assessments that they will be supported?

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Yes I can. Assessors already visit people who need that particular service, and obviously that will continue.

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Is not the reality of the situation that the disability benefits system, whether PIP or its predecessor benefits, has never been sufficiently sensitive or flexible when it comes to the needs of people with mental health illnesses, and that the court ruling was one small step in interpreting existing regulations—not new ones—to make the system just a little better? Does the Secretary of State not recognise that by rushing out these new regulations, he is changing the interpretation of an existing one, and in doing so will make people with mental health problems and illnesses a lot more anxious and unfairly treated?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but I do not agree with his assessment. The upper tribunal said that the regulations were not clear enough, so we are clarifying them in a way that restores the original intention of the benefit. That should provide certainty to people, not uncertainty.

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I recognise that the Government are retaining the scope of PIP and the funds for it, but does not the focus on vulnerable people with the most challenging needs highlight the need for more integration and more funds for social care?

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As ever, my hon. Friend makes a good point. He is right about greater integration, which is precisely why we created a work and health unit. For the first time, my Department and the Department of Health are working together daily for the many people whose needs fall partly under health and partly under the benefits system, so that we can provide a more integrated, personal and sensitive service.

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So many of my constituents have had to go through the mandatory reconsideration process all the way to a tribunal to be awarded the number of PIP points they should have been awarded in the first place. Alongside these regulations, does the Secretary of State have any plans to introduce support for disabled people who are awaiting the outcome of tribunal decisions?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a point about people who appeal, but only 6% of PIP judgments are appealed—a very low number. We are seeking to improve the system by making sure that more health information is available earlier in the assessment process, which I am sure will help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

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I have been following exchanges closely, and my constituents will want to know that their MP has understood things correctly. Can the Secretary of State confirm my understanding from what has been said that 25% of PIP claimants now get the highest rate compared with 15% under DLA, and that more people with mental health conditions qualify for PIP than ever did before under the old DLA system?

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Yes, my hon. Friend is right in both those assumptions, and I am happy for him to share them with his constituents. Let me add a more specific assurance—that more PIP claimants with mental health conditions claim the mobility component, which stands at 27% as compared with 9% of those on DLA, which is another improvement.

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In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who has just left her place, I have had surgeries at which constituents are increasingly anxious about these changes. Can the Secretary of State please confirm what assessment the Government have undertaken on the impact of these cuts on the already vulnerable mental health status and well-being of claimants, and will he make that assessment available to the House?

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The equality analysis is available. I can only emphasise to the hon. Lady’s constituents—[Interruption.]—and indeed to those of the shadow Secretary of State, who is chuntering from a sedentary position, that this is not a change in policy or a cut. Nobody will receive less benefit than they were originally awarded by the DWP. [Interruption.]

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There are people on both sides who are chuntering from a sedentary position, which is certainly not something I ever remember doing myself when I was on the Back Benches.

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I remember that you sat next to me on those Benches, Mr Speaker.

We have an excellent Secretary of State, probably one of the most caring in the Government, and I am sure that what the Government are doing is correct. As the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) said, however, Members have the opportunity today to highlight the fact that the process of assessment is not working for a number of our constituents. I am fed up with seeing every week a constituent who clearly should have been awarded PIP but is not getting it. Will my right hon. Friend say a little more on how we are going to improve that situation?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and indeed for your remarks, Mr Speaker, about the fact that you never chuntered from the Back Benches. This means that I will be able to correct my own memory of those circumstances, having sat next to you on the Back Benches for many years as well.

We are obviously trying to improve all aspects of the PIP process—the accuracy and the speed of the assessments—and, as I have said, the early provision of more objective health information will improve the situation hugely, not least for my hon. Friend’s constituents and others who find the process stressful.

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I challenge the assertion that PIP is better for people with mental health conditions. One of my constituents has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and used to receive DLA on the grounds of a need for continual supervision. This procedure is not recognised under PIP, and my constituent has lost not only her entitlement to PIP but consequently her working tax credit, which was passported via DLA. She is now considering leaving her job. What reassurance does this announcement give to my constituent and others in similar situations?

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I can only repeat the facts to the hon. Lady. Over two thirds of PIP recipients with a mental health condition get the enhanced rate daily living component, which compares with just 22% who received the highest rate DLA care. As I have just explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), for the mobility component, which is the other part of PIP, the relevant figures are 27% and 9%. The facts are incontrovertible. More people with mental health conditions are receiving PIP than used to receive DLA. It is a better benefit for people with mental health conditions than DLA.

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My South Dorset constituents will be relieved to hear what my right hon. Friend said about looking at the assessment process, which goes horribly wrong far too often. Would he give more consideration to home visits and take into account information not only from health officials and GPs but from relatives, families or friends?

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As I explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), we already do home visits. If there are cases where my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax ) thinks people should have had home visits but did not, I encourage him to get in touch with me so we can look at the details of them.

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Of the many constituents who have come to my surgery with problems over PIP, one particularly sticks in my mind: a man whose long-term mental health issues meant he simply could not get out to work, yet PIP was refused for him. This was not somebody who wanted to sit at home and take pills; he was simply unable to get out there. How can the Government possibly claim to want parity of esteem for mental health when they are trying to enshrine disparity as a result of this change?

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It is impossible for me to comment on an individual case when I have not seen the details, but the parity between mental and physical disabilities is embedded in PIP. It is the whole point of PIP. I shall not weary Members by repeating the figures, but far more people with mental health conditions are receiving PIP than used to receive DLA. It may be an uncomfortable truth for Opposition Members, but it is still true.

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Why was the Social Security Advisory Committee, in effect, bypassed when this regulation was put through? What consultations has the Secretary of State had with organisations that represent disabled people? What does he say to those organisations that are concerned about his Department’s repeated attempts to award people with mental health conditions who cannot follow the route of an unfamiliar journey alone the lower and not the higher mobility rate?

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I spoke to the chairman of the SSAC and explained why I was invoking the urgency procedure, which is allowed. He and his committee still have the power to look at these regulations and make recommendations. The hon. Gentleman will have observed that many Members of all parties have talked about the problems of uncertainty and how they particularly affect many of those people with mental health conditions whom we have been discussing. What we are doing as quickly as possible is removing the uncertainty, meeting the upper tribunal’s desire for greater clarity in the system and restoring it to where it was before, so that everyone understands it. These are the rules under which people have claimed for a long time, providing quick certainty for people, which is what many people want.

Points of Order

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you advise and guide me on the appropriate step I should take? At last week’s Prime Minister’s questions I asked about a petition being handed in at 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister said that she did not understand what I was talking about, because a petition had been received. My question, however, was very specific. The petitioners said that they had made an appointment to hand in the petition, which usually means going outside Downing Street and knocking on the door to hand the petition in. I subsequently contacted one of the petitioners on Twitter, and found that they had made an appointment to go into 10 Downing Street, but that they had not been allowed to hand the petition in, and the security officer or policeman had taken it in.

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I am bound to say two things to the hon. Lady. First, I have no responsibility for arrangements for the delivery of petitions, and certainly no responsibility for any security or other arrangements in the immediate environs of, or anywhere near, 10 Downing Street. The hon. Lady may think it very satisfactory that I have no such responsibility, or she may be gravely dissatisfied by that fact, but it remains a fact none the less.

Secondly, I think that the hon. Lady has found her own salvation in this matter. She has registered her discontent very forcefully on the Floor of the House, as she is privileged to be able to do as a Member of Parliament. I feel sure that she will communicate that point to her constituents, but I do not myself think that the argument need run any further, and even if it does, it certainly should not involve the Chair.

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rose—

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We will leave it there for now, at least as far as the hon. Lady is concerned, but the day would not be complete without my taking a point of order from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope).

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 9 February a group of councils in Dorset made a submission to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, seeking to abolish Christchurch and two other councils that are strongly resisting abolition. A week ago, I asked the Secretary of State whether he could give a closing date for the receipt of objections to that submission, and also a closing date for the receipt of alternative proposals. Those seemed to me to be reasonable requests.

My question was due to be answered on Friday. I received a holding reply. I assumed that I would receive a full reply yesterday, but I did not. I have still not received a reply. I wonder what could be done, Mr Speaker, to ensure that such a modest question can receive a timely response from the Secretary of State, because a great many of my constituents want to know how much longer they have in which to register their objections.

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