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Prime Minister

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 8 March 2017

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure that Members across the House will wish to join me in marking International Women’s Day, as we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women both here and around the world. We are also redoubling our efforts to tackle the problems that women all too often still face.

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

I join the Prime Minister in celebrating International Women’s Day. Since 2010, Conservatives in government have a proud record of protecting and supporting both the victims and those at risk of domestic violence and abuse. I saw that myself when I visited my local police, and I thank them for the difficult job that they do. The evil is that far too many women are still at risk and are still suffering. What more can the Prime Minister do to tackle this abhorrent crime?

My hon. Friend raises a serious issue. It is one in which I have taken a particular personal interest, and I attach great importance to the issue. Tackling domestic violence and abuse is a key priority for the Government. What we have already done in government has the potential to transform the way in which we think about and tackle these terrible crimes when they take place. We have already committed to bringing forward new legislation, and I have confirmed today an additional £20 million to support organisations working to tackle domestic violence and abuse. This means that the total funding available for our strategy to end violence against women and girls will be over £100 million in this Parliament.

May I start by wishing all women a very happy International Women’s Day today? I am proud that the Labour party has more women MPs than all other parties in this House combined and a shadow Cabinet of which half the members are women.

A month ago, I raised the question of the leaked texts between the leader of Surrey County Council and Government officials about social care. The Prime Minister’s response was to accuse me of peddling “alternative facts”. Will she explain the difference between a sweetheart deal and a gentleman’s agreement?

First, the right hon. Gentleman references women in this House, and I point out to him that, actually, the Conservative party has recently taken a further measure in relation to women in this House by replacing a Labour male MP with a female Conservative.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the issue in relation to Surrey County Council. The substance of what he asks is whether there has been a particular deal with Surrey County Council that is not available to other councils, and the answer is no. As I have said before, the ability to raise a social care precept of 3% is available to every council. The ability to retain 100% of business rates will be available to a number of councils in April. Let us look at them: Liverpool, Manchester and London. What do we know about those councils? They are all under Labour control. So what he is actually asking me is why a Conservative council should have access to an arrangement that is predominantly currently available to Labour councils.

My question was about the arrangement between the Government and Surrey County Council. A recording has now emerged showing that the leader of Surrey County Council, David Hodge, said that there was a “gentleman’s agreement” between him and the Government that meant that the council would not have to go ahead with a referendum. My question is: what deal was done with Surrey County Council? There is an acute social care crisis affecting every council, with £4.6 billion of cuts made to social care since 2010. Can the Prime Minister tell every other council in England what gentleman’s agreement is available for them?

On today of all days, if the right hon. Gentleman could just be a little patient and wait half an hour for the Budget, he will find out what social care funding is available to all councils. If he is asking me whether there was a special deal for Surrey that was not available to other councils, the answer is no. If he is looking to uncover a conspiracy, I suggest he look behind him.

If all the arrangements are so clear and above board, will the Prime Minister place in the Library of the House a record of all one-to-one meetings between the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Chancellor and any council leader or chair of social services anywhere in England? If there is no special deal, can she explain why Surrey is the only county council to be allowed into the business rates retention pilot when it has been denied to others?

The business rates retention pilot will come into force for a number of councils this April, and that includes, as I have already said, Liverpool, Greater Manchester, Greater London and others. In 2019-20, it will be available to 100% of councils. Councils will be able to apply to be part of a further pilot in 2018-19, and that goes for all councils across the country.

The text said that there was a memorandum of understanding, and the Prime Minister said that there was no deal. She is now unclear about that. Did she actually know what arrangement was made with Surrey County Council? She is not keen to answer questions about that.

There is another area of deep concern across the whole country. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many new school places will be needed by 2020?

The right hon. Gentleman really should listen to the answers I give before he asks the next question. He said I did not answer the question about a special deal for Surrey; I think that I have now answered it three times, but I shall do it a fourth time: there was no special deal for Surrey that was not available to other councils.

The Prime Minister was also asked just a moment ago about the number of new school places needed by 2020. Perhaps she could explain why we have a crisis in school places and class sizes are soaring, thanks to her Government. What is the answer on the number of new school places needed, Prime Minister?

This Government have a policy that is about not only increasing the number of school places but doing more than that. I want to increase the number of good school places, so that every child has an opportunity to go to a good school. That is what the money we are putting into education is about. It includes money for new free schools, which will be faith schools, university schools, comprehensives, grammar schools and maths schools. There will be a diversity, because what I want is a good school place for every child and for parents to have a choice. What the right hon. Gentleman wants is for parents to take what they are given, good or bad.

The National Audit Office tells us that a very large number of new school places are needed—420,000. Nothing the Prime Minister has said gets anywhere near to that. Instead, she proposes a flagship scheme to build the wrong schools in the wrong places, spending millions on vanity projects such as grammar schools and free schools, while at the same time per-pupil funding is falling in real terms. Is it not time that this colossal waste of money was addressed? It is doing nothing to help the vast majority of children and nothing to solve the crisis of school places and soaring class sizes. That is what every parent wants, not vanity projects from her Government.

It is no vanity project to want every child to have a good school place. The majority of free schools that have been opened have been in areas where there is a need for school places, and the majority have been opened in areas of disadvantage, where they are helping the very children we want to see have the opportunity to get on in life. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that this is about a fairer society. On this Budget day, we see that we are securing the economy; Labour wants to weaken it. We are working for a fairer society; Labour opposes every single reform. We are fighting for the best deal for Britain; Labour Members are fighting among themselves. That is Labour: weak, divided and unfit to govern this great country.

Q2. This week in Erewash, it is likely that, sadly, four people will suffer a stroke. With that in mind and given that the current highly successful stroke strategy expires later this year, will my right hon. Friend commit her Government to publish an updated strategy that includes advances in stroke treatments, such as mechanical thrombectomy, which dramatically improves outcomes for one in 10 patients? (909122)

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. I assure her that the NHS wants to continue to build on the successes of the current stroke strategy. We all recognise that there have been huge improvements in stroke care over the past decade, and we want to deliver our ambition for truly world-leading care. On the particular treatment to which she refers, I understand that the NHS has already approved the use of mechanical clot retrieval in specific cases. The NHS rigorously audits the quality of stroke care throughout the country, so that we can ensure we are delivering on our commitments. We have some of the fastest improvements in hospital recovery rate for strokes and heart attacks in Europe.

On International Women’s Day, we wish all campaigners for equality well, including those from the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. The cross-party Brexit Committee has recommended that the UK must guarantee the status of EU nationals living in the UK and act unilaterally, if necessary. The Committee went on to say:

“The current process for consideration of permanent residency applications is not fit for purpose and, in the absence of any concrete resolution to relieve the anxiety felt by the estimated three million EU citizens resident in the UK, it is untenable to continue with the system as it stands.”

Given the massive positive contribution that European nationals make to this country, what concrete plans does the Prime Minister have to deal with this matter?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we want to have an early agreement that will enable us to guarantee the status of EU citizens living in the UK, but also we need to guarantee the status of UK citizens living in the European Union. On the process of application, the Home Office is looking at that and at how it can improve the systems and simplify them, which it regularly does.

Since 2010, the Home Office has seen its full-time equivalent staff cut by 10%, so, at current rates of processing applications for permanent residency, it would take the Home Office more than 50 years to deal with 3.2 million European nationals living in the UK. That is clearly totally and utterly unacceptable. Will the Prime Minister tell us how quickly she hopes to be able to guarantee all European nationals permanent residency?

The right hon. Gentleman cannot just stand up and say that because the Home Office is getting more efficient, it will take longer for answers to be given. Yes, the Home Office is getting more efficient at dealing with these things. I do not know whether he has ever heard about technology, but these days people apply online and they are dealt with online.

Q3. Following the recent findings of a study of terror convictions in Britain, it is clear that there are serious problems with how communities integrate into society and a danger that that lack of integration leads to acts of terror. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the Government’s counter-extremism strategy and response to these findings? (909123)

Again, this is a very serious issue that my hon. Friend has raised. The Government are taking a comprehensive approach to tackling terrorism and violent extremism at source, but also, through our counter-extremism strategy, we are looking at extremism more widely. We want to defeat not just terrorism and violent extremism but extremism wherever it occurs. We will shortly be publishing a new counter-terrorism strategy. In the coming months, we will be responding to Dame Louise Casey’s report on integration. That is backed up by additional investment in our security and intelligence agencies—£2.5 billion over five years—and I am clear that the Government are doing everything they can to tackle issues around integration, extremism and terrorism.

Q5. I come from a Westminster Hall debate on behalf of my young constituent Sam, who is 11 years old. He developed narcolepsy as a result of receiving the Pandemrix vaccine to protect him from the swine flu. Sam’s mum, Di, is in the Public Gallery today. In these rare and devastating cases, the link between Pandemrix and narcolepsy is proven, yet families like Di’s face long legal battles with the Government. Will the Prime Minister today promise that no more of these disabled children will be hounded through the courts, apologise to the families concerned and oversee payments to support the children’s long-term care needs? (909125)

May I first congratulate the hon. Lady on securing a Westminster Hall debate on this important topic? At the end of her question, she refers to the issue of payments. I am sure she realises that the vaccine damage payment scheme is not a compensation scheme, but a one-off tax-free lump sum that is paid to help to ease the burden of those who are disabled as a result of vaccination, and it is part of a range of support that is provided. She has raised a very specific case. Obviously she has had that Westminster Hall debate, but we want to ensure that the process is open and fair at every stage. The Department for Work and Pensions does look at every claim based on its own facts. If she wants to write with the details, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work will look into the specific case that she has raised.

Midlands Engine

Q4. What recent assessment she has made of the (a) performance of the economy and (b) adequacy of provision of public services in the Midlands Engine region; and if she will make a statement. (909124)

Although I will not speculate on the statement that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will make very shortly, I can assure my hon. Friend that the fundamentals of our economy are strong. Since 2010, employment in the west midlands has risen by 215,000 and private sector employment alone grew by 80,000 in the past year. We have also seen schools and police budgets being protected, and more doctors and nurses in his local hospitals.

And of course we have also witnessed the post-Brexit vote of confidence from Nissan, Boeing and Dyson investing in other parts of the country, but will my right hon. Friend say a little bit more about firms like Jaguar Land Rover in the west midlands?

I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that in the wider sense, of course, our plans for the midlands engine show that we want an economy that works for everyone. We have already confirmed over £330 million in the growth deal funding and money is going into the midlands engine investment fund and the Birmingham rail hub, but it is also important to recognise the investment that is being made in the UK by companies like Jaguar Land Rover, which will be building its new Range Rover model in Solihull. That is very good news for the west midlands and also for the British economy. It is a sign of the confidence that Jaguar Land Rover has in the UK for the future.

Engagements

Q7. My Blackpool casework is now full of the anxieties that the DWP and the Home Office are imposing on vulnerable constituents, including officials’ attempts to overturn tribunal decisions protecting benefits and residents. That includes a family settled here for eight years and a man with a severe brain injury. If the Prime Minister wants people to respect the idea that “Brexit means Brexit,” should she not respect the idea that tribunals mean tribunals and not try to block them with grubby regulations affecting 164,000 disabled people? (909127)

If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the decision that has been taken in relation to the courts and personal independence payments, as I explained to the House last week, and as has been explained by the Secretary of State, this is about restoring the system to the state that was intended when Parliament agreed it. It was agreed by the coalition Government and by Parliament after extensive consultation.

Q6. In National Apprenticeship Week, it is important to recognise this Government’s commitment to investment, apprenticeships and skills. Will the Prime Minister look at encouraging a greater commitment to degree apprenticeships as part of the Government’s strategy, as championed by businesses in my constituency such as BAE Systems, which has been at the forefront in developing these new programmes through its engineering degree apprenticeship scheme? (909126)

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. As we look to the future, we want to ensure that people here in the UK have the skills they need for the economy of the future, and degree apprenticeships will be an important part of that. Companies such as BAE System, which he referred to specifically, have been right at the forefront of developing these new programmes. I am pleased to say that the apprenticeship levy will take the total investment in England to £2.45 billion, which is double what was spent in 2010. That means more opportunities for young people to gain the skills they need for their future.

Q8. Tomorrow a memorial will be unveiled to those men and women who served our country in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should all pay tribute to their service and commemorate their sacrifice, not just with a memorial but with a commitment to learn from the past and do better in the future? (909128)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. The unveiling of the memorial will be a very significant ceremony. I think that all of us across this House should pay tribute to those recognised by the memorial for the sacrifice they made—those in our armed forces and all those civilians who worked to deliver aid, healthcare and education. It is important that we recognise the sacrifices made by our armed forces and by their families. That will be a significant moment tomorrow. We are very clear that we do need to learn lessons from the past, and that is exactly what we will do.

Q11. I was delighted by the Prime Minister’s intervention in mental health in January, which I still feel has not had the attention it deserves. In Plymouth we are completely reconfiguring our mental health services, because we understand that parity of esteem means nothing without parity of provision. Will the Prime Minister visit Plymouth to see some of the pioneering work that we are doing, perhaps during national Mental Health Awareness Week in May, when I am hoping that Plymouth will take a national lead? (909131)

I thank my hon. Friend, because I know that this is an issue that he has championed and that is very close to his area of concern—he has done a lot of work on mental health. He talks about parity of esteem, which the Government have introduced, which is very important. More money is going into mental health provision than ever before. I would certainly be delighted to see the work being done in Plymouth, provided my diary allows for that.

Q9. In my constituency of Burnley, primary and secondary schools are severely underfunded, and maintained nursery schools are struggling to survive. Why, then, at a time when we cannot adequately fund the schools we already have, is the Prime Minister suggesting spending millions of pounds to create new grammar schools that will help only a minority of children? That is unfair as a new funding formula, and will do nothing to help social mobility. (909129)

Let us be clear about what the Government have done. Record amounts of funding are going into education. It was a Conservative-led Government that introduced the pupil premium and it is a Conservative Government that has protected the core schools budget. The new money that will be going into schools as a result of today’s announcements is not about a return to a binary system of grammar schools and secondary moderns. That is not what we are going to do. What we are doing is ensuring that there is a diversity of provision—so, yes, some grammar schools, but also comprehensives, faith schools, university schools and maths schools. I want a good school place for every child and, more than that, the right school place for every child.

Q12. On this International Women’s Day, it is absolutely fantastic that we have the highest female employment rate and the highest percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards on record, that the gender pay gap is at the lowest on record, and that we have an amazing female Prime Minister. However, I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that there is still much more to do, particularly in supporting women back to work after a career break. Will my right hon. Friend outline what more the Government are going to do to level the playing field? (909132)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. When I stood on the steps of Downing Street back in July and talked about a country that works for everyone, I meant that. That is why we are taking a number of measures, including on International Women’s Day today. We are setting up a new fund to help mothers returning to work after a long career break. Returnships are important. They are open to men and women, but we should all recognise that the majority of those who take time out of a career are women who devote themselves to motherhood for a period. Getting back into employment is often very difficult for them; they find that it is closed off. That is why, as well as making economic sense, it is right and fair for those women that we provide for returnships to enable them to get back into the workplace.

Q10. Everyone agrees that early years education is crucial for the welfare and future of our children. However, nurseries in my constituency tell me that the funding for 30 hours of free childcare is not sufficient, and many of them will be forced to close. What steps will the Prime Minister take to ensure that those nurseries do not close? (909130)

The hon. Lady talks about the 30 hours that is being introduced, but let us look at what we are doing on childcare. We have already introduced 15 hours of free childcare a week for all three and four-year-olds, 15 hours of free childcare a week for disadvantaged two-year-olds, help with up to 70% of childcare costs for people on low incomes, and shared parental leave. We will spend a record £6 billion on childcare support by the end of this Parliament. That is a Conservative Government, and it is Conservatives in Government who have a record of supporting parents with childcare needs.

Q15. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is indefensible for the Labour police and crime commissioner in West Yorkshire to be raising the council tax precept when he has £120 million in reserves and underspent this year’s budget by £4 million? (909135)

As my hon. Friend knows, it is of course for the directly elected police and crime commissioner for West Yorkshire to decide what to do about the police precept of council tax, as it is in every area that has a police and crime commissioner, but I would always encourage those commissioners to look at ways to introduce efficiencies into their forces before looking to increase local taxes. Over the past six years, we have seen that police forces can find sensible savings and reduce crime at the same time.

Q13. Mr Speaker, you will know that the Royal College of Physicians has found that 40,000 people die prematurely each year from diesel pollution, at a cost of £20 billion to the economy, and that YouGov has found that 45% of diesel drivers are willing to switch, given the right scrappage or tax incentive schemes. Will the Prime Minister commit today to a fiscal strategy and a new clean air Act to put us on a new, cleaner, healthier trajectory and to take global leadership, rather than being dragged into the courts to fulfil basic EU air quality standards? (909133)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are looking at the measures that we need to introduce to improve air quality. There have been improvements in recent years, but we do need to go further, and that is what the Government are looking at across Departments, obviously with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs paying most attention to that, because it is within its remit. We will be bringing forward proposals on air quality in due course.

International Women’s Day is a chance to reflect on how Governments and democracies across the world serve women. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, when it comes to female Prime Ministers, it is 2:0 to the Conservatives?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having pointed that out, which I refrained from doing earlier in response to questions. I think it is very telling that the Labour party spends a lot of time talking about rights for women, giving support to women and getting women on, whereas it is the Conservative party that is the party in this House that has provided two female Prime Ministers.

Q14. Will the Prime Minister give an undertaking that any new Scotland Act will be drafted only after full consultation with the people of Scotland and with the consent of the Scottish Parliament? (909134)

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is referring to discussions that are currently taking place about the powers that might be available to the devolved Administrations once we have left the European Union, but she knows full well that we undertake full discussions with the Scottish Government on measures that are reserved matters and on measures where we are negotiating on behalf of the whole of the United Kingdom.

Crowdcomms, a business in my constituency, operates out of the small market town of Sturminster Newton; it also has offices in Seattle and Sydney. It employs 24 people, providing high-quality IT jobs, and it avails itself of high-tech, fast rural broadband and mobile telephone communication. That is the recipe for growing our rural economy. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to ensure that her Government do all they can to fill the blackspots in our rural areas?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we very much want to ensure that we are doing that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is looking at our digital strategy and ensuring that broadband is available in rural areas and, indeed, at good speeds in other areas, which might be less rural than my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Finally, Mr Tim Farron. [Interruption.] Order. I do not know whether Members are cheering because it is “finally” or because of the popularity of the hon. Gentleman, but he is going to be heard.

You are all so very, characteristically, kind.

On International Women’s Day, we stand with women and girls across the world and note with resolve that we must not take for granted the progress we have made towards equality over the last few decades.

Yesterday, we heard that hundreds of families of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan have been denied seats at tomorrow’s unveiling of the memorial to our fallen troops. Inviting a relative of each of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan would have taken up fewer than a third of the 2,500 seats at that event. Will the Prime Minister now apologise to those families for what I assume is a careless oversight and rectify that mistake immediately so that bereaved families can come and pay their respects to their fallen loved ones?

May I reassure the hon. Gentleman that charities and groups representing the bereaved were asked to put forward names of attendees, and we look forward to welcoming them so that we can publicly acknowledge the sacrifice that their loved ones made on our behalf? Over half of those attending tomorrow are actually current or former members of the armed forces. No one from the bereaved community has been turned away, and everyone who has applied to attend has been successful, but I have been reassured that if there are any bereaved families who wish to attend, the Ministry of Defence will make every effort to ensure that they are able to do so.