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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
15 March 2017
Volume 623

House of Commons

Wednesday 15 March 2017

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Middle Level Bill

Second Reading opposed and deferred until Wednesday 22 March (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked

Judiciary

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1. If he will make an assessment of the implications for his policies of recent statements by Gerry McGeough on the judiciary. [909171]

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I condemn the irresponsible and disgraceful comments made by Gerry McGeough. I strongly support the work of the judiciary in Northern Ireland. Any attack on it is unacceptable.

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I thank the Minister for his response, but I call on him to contact the Public Prosecution Service to find out why a man who was convicted of the attempted murder of my colleague Councillor Sammy Brush and released on licence following his conviction, and who is known to have a lengthy history of violence, is not being pursued by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the PPS for his recent threat against Catholic members of the judiciary, whom he named as traitors. What will the Minister do to ensure that action is taken?

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I reiterate our condemnation of the comments made by Gerry McGeough. Our responsibility, if we are given the relevant information, is to consider whether we can suspend the licence. It is up to the independent commissioners to discuss that. It would be wrong for us to seek to fix the system further down. I trust our police service and the PPS to make the right decision.

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The Minister will know that Mr McGeough did not receive a comfort letter, apparently because of an internal feud within Sinn Féin. The scheme for issuing comfort letters to those on the run—a scheme operated by Labour and Conservative Governments—was utterly deplorable, completely immoral and wrong. Will the Minister confirm for the record that no such scheme, or anything akin to an amnesty, is on the table for negotiation with Sinn Féin in dealing with legacy issues? That would be very helpful.

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Power-sharing Agreement

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2. What progress has been made on a power-sharing agreement following the recent elections in Northern Ireland. [909172]

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The Government are committed to the resumption of devolved government in Northern Ireland, and I believe that the parties and the Irish Government share this commitment. Later today, I will return to Belfast to continue intensive discussions to establish a partnership Executive within the short timeframe available. Progress has been made but it needs to continue, with urgency, if we are to achieve a positive outcome.

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As a nurse, I am acutely aware of the need for the Northern Ireland Executive to set a budget to ensure that public services, particularly health services, are adequately funded. Without an Executive in place, that is almost impossible. Does the Secretary of State share my fear that the failure to restore the Executive is putting Northern Ireland at severe financial risk?

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My hon. Friend highlights some of the issues surrounding setting a budget for Northern Ireland, which is a key priority. She highlights the health service, and I pay tribute to all those who work in the health service in Northern Ireland. They do an incredible job. There is a sense of the real potential and opportunity that a new Executive can take forward, and we must equally reflect on the £120 million identified in last week’s Budget that an Executive could invest, through to 2021, to really take Northern Ireland forward.

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May I, on behalf of my colleagues, express my condolences and sympathy to the families of the crew of the Irish Coast Guard helicopter that has crashed? I am certain that everyone in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic will be deeply sympathetic to the families at this time. I also extend my sympathy to the family of George Gilmore, who was murdered in Carrickfergus in recent days. It appears that this appalling and terrible crime was carried out by loyalist paramilitaries. Will the Secretary of State reiterate the determination of all of us to move forward on the Stormont House agreement in relation to the provisions to tackle paramilitarism, both republican and loyalist?

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I join the right hon. Gentleman in his comments and thoughts about the crew of the Irish helicopter. That is a terrible tragedy and I know that the whole House will share that view. I also join him in condemning the appalling murder that has taken place. I spoke to the PSNI about the case this morning, and I know that it is actively pursuing lines of inquiry. He also highlights the issue of paramilitarism, and I stand absolutely four-square behind our continuing work to confront that scourge. There is no justification for it at all. We are also providing funding to the tune of £25 million in support of that important work.

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Further to that, the Secretary of State will be aware that the DUP is absolutely and totally committed in the current talks to getting devolution back up and running in Northern Ireland. We did not tear down the institutions or create the present crisis; others walked away. We are determined to restore the Executive as quickly as possible. What the Prime Minister said yesterday about ruling out a border poll was good, but will the Secretary of State confirm that the Irish Republic’s involvement in the strand 1, 2 and 3 talks is limited to strands 2 and 3 on the relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and that the Republic also has a role to play in answering questions about legacy issues?

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I can certainly confirm that that is the approach that is being taken, which is consistent with the Belfast agreement. The contribution that the Irish Government are making in that context is positive, and we all feel a responsibility to see devolved Government back in place, delivering for Northern Ireland. I know that all the parties recognise that and are working hard to achieve it.

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11. Having been a Member of Parliament for many years prior to devolution, I am acutely aware of the total inadequacy of direct rule. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he is undertaking the negotiations with the utmost urgency and intensity to get a deal on devolved government? [909181]

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I can confirm to my hon. Friend that devolved government is the only thing that I am working towards. That is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for and that is what they want to see delivering change for Northern Ireland and having a positive impact on people’s lives. We are approaching that with urgency.

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I am pleased to hear that the Secretary of State rules out the direct rule option, but what contingency planning is he doing? Is he prepared to extend the negotiation period if no agreement is reached?

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The UK Government take their responsibilities seriously in providing political stability, but the focus—the real intent—is on securing an outcome and an agreement in that three-week period. I believe that that is doable and achievable, and it is with that approach, and with good will, that I hope the parties will engage to achieve that outcome. Speculating on alternative approaches is not helpful.

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I echo the comments of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on those who recently lost their lives.

Hard-working people in Northern Ireland will be staunchly behind the Secretary of State in his efforts to re-establish a new Administration following the elections. However, in order to concentrate minds, if local politicians are unwise enough not to form an Administration, will he consider taking measures to cease paying salaries and expenses to those who have been elected?

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My right hon. Friend highlights a report that was published on that issue over the past week or so. My focus is on getting the parties together to reach an agreement within the three weeks. As I said, I think that that is doable with urgency and a sense of good will. That is what we need to focus on.

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Today is a rather sombre day in that it marks the Ides of March, but this Friday we will have the opportunity to hail glorious St Patrick. If you will allow me, Mr Speaker, I will wish you and the House the happiest St Patrick’s day in advance.

Like many Members, I cannot remember a more serious time since the Good Friday agreement was signed, and I say on behalf of my Opposition colleagues that normal hostilities are suspended. We will be offering unequivocal support to the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Government. The time for internecine dispute in this place is over; the time for constructive engagement and working together is here and now. In that tone, and with reference to the talks the Secretary of State mentioned earlier, has there been a roundtable plenary involving any or all of the parties?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. I think we share a cross-party approach on the serious issue of ensuring that we get an Executive back in place, delivering for Northern Ireland and following through on commitments and, indeed, the expectations of the public. I hope he will understand that I will not provide a running narrative on the talks, but I can say that I believe progress is being made. Some significant issues still need to be resolved, but we are none the less approaching this with good will.

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I entirely accept that there is good will, but I am slightly concerned about the statement by the leader of one of the Northern Irish parties that some meetings have been cancelled. I wish to give the Secretary of State a fair following wind, as do we all. Has he received any representation from the charitable sector within Northern Ireland about problems it is facing due to the budgetary impasse?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it goes back to the fact that a budget has not been set, which has created uncertainty. We need to see the Executive in place within the three-week timescale, because there could be implications for a range of different issues within Northern Ireland. That is why the community and voluntary sector, the faith community and the business community have been firmly underlining the clear need to get devolved government working, stable and back, and that is where our focus needs to be.

Good Friday Agreement: Institutions

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3. What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Republic of Ireland on the future of institutions established under the Good Friday agreement. [909173]

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The Government stand firmly behind the institutions of the Belfast agreement and its successors. I have regular discussions with the Irish Government on a range of issues. Our immediate focus, consistent with the Belfast agreement, is working with the parties to resume the devolved Administration.

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The Secretary of State will know that, at the time of the Good Friday agreement nearly 19 years ago, the European Union played a role alongside the Irish and British Governments. Does he envisage any role for international support to maintain the institutional frameworks, particularly the all-Ireland institutional co-operation that has been so important over recent years?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the strong relationship between the UK Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of the Republic of Ireland. We stand four-square behind our commitments under the Belfast agreement and its successors, and at EU level I have picked up strong support for the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. We are determined to get the best possible deal for Northern Ireland, recognising our commitments and recognising the Belfast agreement.

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15. On the Good Friday agreement, will the Secretary of State ensure that the disgraceful treatment of my constituent Corporal Major Dennis Hutchings and others will be addressed as part of any further discussions on legacy issues? [909185]

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My hon. Friend has raised the issue of her constituent on a number of occasions, and I pay tribute to her for her work as a constituency MP. She will understand that I am unable to comment on individual cases, but I can say that the current system for dealing with a range of issues related to legacy is not working for anyone. It is not working for service personnel and it is not working for victims, which is why it is important that we move forward with the Stormont House bodies to create the balanced, proportionate and fair system that everyone recognises is needed.

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Does the Secretary of State not understand that Brexit could have implications for the standing and currency of some of the implementation bodies that were created under strand 2 of the agreement? Also, does he appreciate that strand 2 offers an ambit of north-south co-operation and common implementation that could help to answer some of the problems that Brexit creates?

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Before Christmas there was a good discussion at the North South Ministerial Council on the EU and other related issues. It is important to recognise the institutional framework that we have under the Belfast agreement. That is something we support, and I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the White Paper, which highlighted that support and our recognition of it.

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The Secretary of State will have heard the belligerent utterance of the former Sinn Féin director of Unionist engagement, who said that the Prime Minister can stick a hard or soft border

“where the sun doesn’t shine”.

I invite the Secretary of State to remind Martina Anderson and all those in Sinn Féin that it is the Good Friday agreement that sets the terms for the future of Northern Ireland, that it is based on the majority will of the people and that it has not changed.

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We stand behind the Belfast agreement and the principle of consent that is contained within it. The hon. Gentleman will have heard what the Prime Minister said on that issue yesterday. Of course we recognise that there are significant issues, which is why we have said that we do not want to see a return to the borders of the past and that we recognise the desire for an expansive free trade agreement with the EU. It is important that we continue that dialogue and discourse and that we focus on these serious issues in that way.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) is right to refer to the role of the Irish Government, and I praise the Secretary of State for the good working relationship he has established with Minister Flanagan. I thank him for the statements made by his Minister yesterday at yet another of the many St Patrick’s day celebrations, when he paid tribute not only to the role of our co-guarantor of the Good Friday agreement, the Dublin Government, but to Ambassador Dan Mulhall, who will be leaving us in London for Washington. Does the Secretary of State agree that Ambassador Mulhall has been a perfect example of how we can work together in the interests of all?

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I have very much enjoyed and appreciated working with Ambassador Mulhall, whom we wish well in his new and perhaps challenging and exciting role. It is important to underline the strong relationship we have with the Irish Government on a range of issues. We want to see that continuing into the future, and that engagement will be continued with that spirit in mind.

Political Developments

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4. What assessment he has made of recent political developments in Northern Ireland. [909174]

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7. What assessment he has made of recent political developments in Northern Ireland. [909177]

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9. What assessment he has made of recent political developments in Northern Ireland. [909179]

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10. What assessment he has made of recent political developments in Northern Ireland. [909180]

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Nearly 65% of the Northern Ireland electorate voted for continued devolved government. I have seen that endorsed over the past 10 days in a shared willingness among the parties to engage in intensive discussions, acknowledging what is at stake if an Executive are not formed. These are still significant challenges, but I believe that with continued positive intent we can secure a resolution that sees devolved government resumed.

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I welcome that answer from my right hon. Friend, just as I welcome the economic success story that is the Northern Irish economy over the past few years. Does he agree that a key part of that success has been effective, stable power-sharing government, which is another reason for all parties to resolve this situation as swiftly as possible?

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I do recognise that, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight some of the important successes in the Northern Ireland economy. The labour market survey statistics that are out today show 56,000 more jobs since 2010 in Northern Ireland, which highlights what has been achieved and what can be achieved in future with a strong Executive in place.

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I wish my right hon. Friend well in the discussions taking place in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that, whatever issues need to be overcome, devolved government within the UK remains by far and away the best option for Northern Ireland?

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I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. The public voted overwhelmingly and clearly, with that increased turnout, for devolved government be put back in place, delivering for Northern Ireland, and I am determined to see that, too.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the result of the Assembly election demonstrates the desire of the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland for strong and stable devolved government?

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Yes, I do. That stability is able to bring about further positive change in Northern Ireland, with further foreign direct investment and more jobs being created. That is what I strongly support, and I know that vision is also shared by the parties.

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Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in all their discussions the Government will maintain their full support for the Belfast agreement and its successors, including, crucially, the principle that Northern Ireland’s position within the Union will always be determined by the principle of consent?

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I am happy to confirm that. We stand four-square behind our commitments under the Belfast agreement, with the principle of consent being a firm part of that. I am also clear about the support that we see for the continuing institutions and structures, and giving effect to that.

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13. May I offer my condolences to those who lost their lives this week, particularly those in the Irish Coast Guard, who do so much good work in the north, particularly in my constituency? Brexit is a crucial factor in the current political landscape in Northern Ireland and should be part of the ongoing talks process. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the issue of single status, where we do not go back to any borders of the past, is a feature of these talks? [909183]

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I echo the hon. Lady’s comments about those who lost their lives. We recognise Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances—its economy, geography and history—and will ensure that they are properly taken into account as we prepare for EU exit. We want to ensure that those issues are properly reflected in the negotiations ahead so that we get the best possible deal for Northern Ireland.

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What does the Secretary of State see as the greatest stumbling blocks in the current talks? How confident is he that a deal will be established by 27 March?

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As I have indicated, I think a deal can be achieved with good will and a real sense of urgency in the discussions ahead. Issues still need to be overcome, and as I have already said, it would not be constructive to provide a running narrative. I urge people to continue to engage and to be involved in those intensive talks, because that is how we will get a positive result.

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I too express my condolences to the family of my constituent Mr Gilmore, who was murdered by paramilitaries this week. Given the attitude Sinn Féin have adopted regarding whom they will accept as First Minister, the role of the Secretary of State in talks and their desire to have soldiers and policemen prosecuted in the courts, does the Secretary of State believe there is much chance of success in the talks? If not, will he move quickly to fill the budget gap left by the Sinn Féin Finance Minister?

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This remains doable—that is the important message we need to underline. Yes, of course, time is short, and yes, there is a range of issues that still need to be discussed and agreed on, but there is need for positive intent on all sides, which will be the best way to get the right outcome.

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Order. These are extremely serious matters affecting Northern Ireland, the people of which might think it a tad discourteous if we do not have an attentive hearing for colleagues. Let us have an attentive hearing for Theresa Villiers.

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The Government and the police have disclosed unprecedented amounts of information about the troubles, some of it extremely sensitive. Does the Secretary of State agree that some information is so sensitive that it can never go into the public domain because if it did, it would put lives at risk?

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I agree with my right hon. Friend. With all her experience as the previous Secretary of State, she knows the sensitivity and importance of issues of national security, which remains the primary responsibility of the UK Government. In our actions, we will certainly continue to have that at the forefront of our mind.

D’Hondt System

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5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the d’Hondt system in Northern Ireland. [909175]

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rose—

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Hear, hear!

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The Minister should bask in his own popularity.

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I take it that reaction was not for me.

The use of the d’Hondt system is a stipulation of the Belfast agreement, as it ensures cross-community representation in the Executive. The Government are committed to upholding Northern Ireland’s constitutional settlement, as outlined in the Belfast agreement and its successors.

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The priority must of course be to persuade all the parties back into government in Northern Ireland to avoid the prospect of direct rule. Given the recent instability, in the longer term is it worth having a discussion about a new form of government involving a Government and an Opposition?

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I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, but we are not considering a review at this moment in time. What is important now is to help the parties to come back together and form an Executive, and that is the Government’s focus.

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Does the Minister agree that, as the talks develop over the next few weeks, a likely consensus is going to emerge around the Stormont House agreement and all the contents therein? We should base progress, and hopefully agreement, on that, rather than on wish lists with no chance of success.

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It would be appropriate to build around the common consensus that is currently out there. There have already been agreements on Stormont House, so obviously that should be the centre point of the current talks.

Tourism

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6. What steps his Department is taking to promote tourism in Northern Ireland. [909176]

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The Government will continue to use every possible opportunity to promote Northern Ireland as a world-class tourist destination.

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Tourism in Northern Ireland currently generates a revenue of £764 million and attracts 4.5 million visitors a year. In the light of Brexit, what steps will be taken in partnership to ensure that even further tourist growth is delivered?

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We have a commitment to an industrial strategy, engagement with all sectors in Northern Ireland, and additional funding of some £600 million a year for the GREAT Britain campaign.

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14. Does the Secretary of State accept that tourism has the potential to make an even more significant contribution to the Northern Ireland economy, particularly in deprived rural areas? Will he take steps to ensure that adequate resources are invested in the Northern Ireland tourist board and in Tourism Ireland to ensure that we have a product and that we market it? [909184]

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Just last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor committed additional money to funding in Northern Ireland. There is a responsibility to get the Executive back to offer leadership in this matter. I urge every Member in this House to visit Northern Ireland—take a weekend break—as it is an amazing place to visit.

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Finally, constraints of time are against us, but Sir Jeffrey Donaldson must be heard.

Operation Banner

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8. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the provision of legal protection to veterans of the armed forces who served in Northern Ireland under Operation Banner. [909178]

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This Government are unstinting in our admiration for the role that our armed forces have played in Northern Ireland in securing democracy and consent. The current process for addressing the past is not working, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, and we will ensure that the new legacy bodies will be under legal obligations to be fair, balanced and proportionate. [Interruption.]

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Order. Let us hear from Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

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Given the scrapping of the Iraq inquiries and the judgment today in the case of Alexander Blackman, is it not time that the Government provided legal protection to the men and women who serve this country on the frontline?

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This Government never move away from their obligation to care for their veterans. We have put in huge resources to do that. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very passionate about looking after our armed forces personnel. I am more than happy to meet him to discuss this matter further.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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Q1. If she will list her official engagements for Wednesday 15 March. [909256]

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I am sure that Members will want to join me in wishing people across the UK and around the world a happy St Patrick’s day this coming Friday.

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.

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With my Irish blood, may I also wish people a happy St Patrick’s day?

I welcome the Government’s announcement that we will abide by the letter of our manifesto and also the spirit. Does the Prime Minister agree that, as we move towards balancing the books, we must ensure that we have a fair and sustainable tax system?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We made a commitment not to raise tax, and we put our commitment into the tax lock. The measures that we put forward in the Budget last week were consistent with those locks. As a number of my parliamentary colleagues have been pointing out in recent days—[Interruption.]

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Order. This is intolerable. [Interruption.] I take no view on the matter, but I do take a view on the importance of hearing the questions and the answers.

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As a number of my parliamentary colleagues have been pointing out in recent days, the trend towards greater self-employment does create a structural issue in the tax base on which we will have to act. We want to ensure that we maintain, as they have said, fairness in the tax system. We will await the report from Matthew Taylor on the future of employment; consider the Government’s overall approach to employment status and rights to tax and entitlements; and bring forward further proposals, but we will not bring forward increases to national insurance contributions later in this Parliament.

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First, may I wish everyone in my constituency, in Ireland and all around the world a very happy St Patrick’s day on the 17th?

We have just heard that the Prime Minister is about to drop the national insurance hike announced only a week ago. It seems to me that the Government are in a bit of chaos here with a Budget that unravels in seven days, a Conservative manifesto with a pensive Prime Minister on the front page saying that there would be no increase, and a week ago an increase being announced. If they are to drop the increase, as they are indicating, the Prime Minister should thank the Federation of Small Businesses and all those who have pointed out both how unfair the increase would be and how big business evades an awful lot of national insurance through bogus self-employment.

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I do not think the right hon. Gentleman listened to the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). I normally stand at this Dispatch Box and say I will not take any lectures from the right hon. Gentleman, but when it comes to lectures on chaos he would be the first person I turned to.

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I think the Prime Minister should offer an apology for the chaos that her Government have caused during the past week and the stress they have caused to the 4.8 million self-employed people in this country. Will she offer that apology? Her hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales did so a week ago; it is time she joined him. This measure, if carried through, will create a black hole in the budget. What is she going to do to fill that black hole?

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If the right hon. Gentleman is so concerned about balancing the books, why is it Labour party policy to borrow half a trillion pounds and bankrupt Britain?

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Given that this Government propose to borrow more between now and 2020 than the entire borrowing of all Labour Governments put together, we do not need lectures from them on that.

I hope that in his statement later today the Chancellor will address the question of injustice to many people who are forced into bogus self-employment by unscrupulous companies, many of which force their workers to become self-employed and thereby avoid employer’s national insurance contributions. It is a grossly unfair system where those in self-employment pay some national insurance, but employers do not and benefit from it. That is a gross injustice that must be addressed.

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The right hon. Gentleman obviously has not noticed that one of the first things I did when I became Prime Minister was commission Matthew Taylor of the RSA to conduct a review of the employment market and employment rights and status, precisely because we recognised that the employment market is changing. He talks about the self-employed, so let us look at what we have done for the self-employed. Our increase in the personal allowance means that they now keep more of their earnings. They will have access to both tax-free childcare and 30 hours of free childcare a week, just like employees, and now they have access to the new state pension, worth over £1,800 more a year. What we know is that the Labour party’s policies would bankrupt Britain and put firms out of business and people out of jobs.

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We have a Government U-turn, no apology, and a Budget that falls most heavily on those with the least broad shoulders, with cuts to schools, cuts to social care and cuts to support for people with disabilities. That is the agenda of the right hon. Lady’s Government, and everybody knows it.

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I do not think the right hon. Gentleman has got the hang of this. He is supposed to ask me a question when he stands up—[Interruption.]

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Order. Let us hear the answer.

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The right hon. Gentleman talks about schools. What have we done? We have protected the core schools budget and introduced the pupil premium. This Budget delivers money for more than 100 new schools, ensuring good school places for every child. This Budget delivers on skills for young people; we want them to be equipped for the jobs of the future. The Budget delivers £500 million for technical education. We also recognise the pressure on social care. This Budget delivers £2 billion more funding for social care—funding that would not be available with Labour’s economic policies.

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It would be a very good idea if the Prime Minister listened to headteachers all over the country, who are desperately trying to work out how to balance the books in their schools, but are losing teachers, losing teaching assistants and losing support for their children because school budgets are being cut. She knows that. We all know that. Everybody out there knows that. They also know that, according to figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, average working families will be £1,400 worse off as a result of her Budget that was produced last week. What is she doing to help the worst off and poorest in our society, rather than continuing to cut local government and schools expenditure, and to underfund social care?

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I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what we have delivered for the low paid. We have frozen VAT and fuel duty, and every basic rate taxpayer has had a tax cut worth £1,000. We have taken more than 3 million people out of paying income tax altogether. That is what we have done for the low paid. On schools, 1.8 million more children are now in good or outstanding schools. I want a good school place for every child. We have done it with free schools and academies, and with our changes to education—all opposed by the Labour party. Now it wants to oppose our giving every child a good school place. What do we know about the Labour party’s policies? Well, the former shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), said that Labour’s policies would mean doubling national insurance, doubling VAT and doubling council tax. That would not help the low paid or ordinary working families.

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The difference is that we want a good school and a good place for every child in every school in every community. Selective education—the reintroduction of grammar schools—does not achieve that. We want a staircase for all, not a ladder for the few, which is what Conservative policies actually are. The Prime Minister has also not addressed the unfairness of a Budget that cuts tax at the top end, continues to reduce corporation tax and encourages bogus self-employment. She has to address the issues of injustice and inequality in our society, and of a Government who are dedicated to widening the gap, not helping the hard-up or those who are working as self-employed, trying to make ends meet and not getting access to any benefits at the same time.

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Inequality has gone down under this Government. The Budget shows that the top 1% of earners will actually contribute 27% in terms of the income that they are providing.

Let me address the issue of schools. The problem with what the right hon. Gentleman says is that the Labour party has opposed, and continues to oppose, every single education policy brought forward by this Government, delivering more good school places for children. The Labour party’s approach is that parents shall take what they are given, good or bad. We believe in listening to parents.

Let us look ahead to what the right hon. Gentleman’s policies would produce for this country: half a trillion pounds of borrowing—£500 billion more borrowing under the Labour party—more taxes, more spending and more borrowing. It would be a bankrupt Britain that would not give money for public services or help ordinary working families. It is the Conservative party that is helping ordinary working families. It is the Labour party that is failing to address the needs of the people of this country. We are delivering. He is just sitting there or going on protest marches.

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Q3. As the facts change, I change my question. May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on proposing the most radical reform of technical education in a generation and delivering fair funding for all our schools? However, may I ask her, as part of the consultation, to ensure a minimum level of appropriate funding for all schools? [909258]

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I thank my hon. Friend, because he has raised an important point. One of the issues we have addressed in the Budget is putting more money into skills training—into further education and technical education—for young people. I think that one of the most important things we can do is equip young people for their futures, and for the jobs of the future, so that they can get on in life. We are investing an extra half a billion pounds a year, as I said earlier, in England’s technical education system to do this.

My hon. Friend referred to the issue of a minimum funding level. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary confirmed last month that the Department for Education has heard representations on this issue. It is considering these issues, but the funding formula is a complex issue that has needed addressing for some time, and we will be looking at it carefully.

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We once had a Prime Minister who said,

“The lady’s not for turning.”

My goodness, is it not welcome that the Prime Minister has today admitted that she is for turning, with her screeching, embarrassing U-turn on national insurance contributions?

Only days remain until the Prime Minister is going to invoke article 50 on leaving the European Union. Last July, she promised to secure a UK-wide approach—an agreement between the devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the UK Government—before triggering article 50, so when will the Prime Minister announce the details of the agreement?

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As I said to the right hon. Gentleman yesterday, and to others asking me questions on the timetable yesterday, we will trigger article 50 by the end of March. There will be an opportunity for further discussions with the devolved Administrations over that period. On the issue of membership of the European Union, and his view on Scotland not being a member of the United Kingdom, I say this to him: he is comparing membership of an organisation that we have been a member of for 40 years with our country. We have been one country for over 300 years; we have fought together, we have worked together, we have achieved together, and constitutional game-playing must not be allowed to break the deep bonds of our shared history and our future together.

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The Prime Minister can wag her finger as much as she likes; last year, she made a promise: she promised an agreement. I asked her about it yesterday; she did not answer. I have asked her about it now; she has not answered. When will she reach an agreement—not discussions—with the Scottish Government before triggering article 50? She has another opportunity. [Interruption.]

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Order. I recognise the passions—[Interruption.] Mr Wishart, calm yourself, man. I am perfectly capable of doing this without your beneficent assistance. The right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) will be heard, however long it takes. [Interruption.] Yes, he will; he will continue, however long it takes. Carry on, Mr Robertson.

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The Prime Minister promised an agreement; there is not an agreement. When will there be an agreement? Does she not understand that if she does not secure an agreement before triggering article 50 —if she is not prepared to negotiate on behalf of the Scottish Government and secure membership of the single European market—people in Scotland will have a referendum, and we will have our say?

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We have been in discussions with the Scottish Government and with the other devolved Administrations about the interests that they have as we prepare, as the United Kingdom Government, to negotiate a deal on behalf of the whole of the United Kingdom—a deal that will be a good deal for not just England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the people of Scotland as well. As we go forward in negotiating that deal, I think the right hon. Gentleman should remember this: Scotland will be leaving the European Union, either as a member of the United Kingdom or if it were independent, as it is very clear from the Barroso document that it would not be a member of the European Union. What we need now is to unite, come together as a country, and ensure that we can get the best deal for the whole of the United Kingdom.

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Q5. This Government are working with local enterprise partnerships, councils and other partners to grow the economy, but despite being in the prosperous south-east, the Isle of Wight is 339th out of 379 in the UK competitiveness index. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that more growth funding is targeted at rural areas such as the island, with its many small and microbusinesses, to deliver a country that works for all? [909261]

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My hon. Friend speaks well on behalf of his constituents, and he is right to do that. I know that he has consistently put forward the unique characteristics of the Isle of Wight. We have already been able to support the island’s economy through the local growth deal for the Solent—that is £183 million—and the Solent local enterprise partnership has been supporting the Isle of Wight rural small and medium-sized enterprise programme; my hon. Friend particularly referred to rural funding. I want to make sure that we make the best of the diverse strengths of all Britain’s cities, regions and islands. I am sure that on the island, the business community and the council will work together to create the best possible conditions for growth and competitiveness in the future.

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Q2. Our two single markets are the backbone of our economy, yet the Prime Minister wants to rip us away from one, and the Scottish National party wants to break up the other. Is the risky and reckless approach she is taking to Brexit really a price worth paying to foster the break-up of Britain? [909257]

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The hon. Gentleman is wrong when he says that I want to rip the United Kingdom away from the single market. What we want to do—[Interruption.] I am sorry to say to hon. Members on the Labour Benches that this is the same answer that I have given consistently in this House. We want to ensure that we get a good free trade agreement that gives us the maximum possible access to the single market, to enable us to trade with the single market and operate within the single market.

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Q7. I welcome the support on business rates being given by the Budget to local high streets, which are so crucially valued in places such as my constituency of Barnet. Does the Prime Minister agree that we can give more help to small businesses if we secure the international agreement we need to ensure that all big businesses pay their taxes? [909263]

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This is a very important issue, and one on which I think this Government have a record of which we can be proud, but of course there is more to do. Since 2010, through the work we have done on tackling tax evasion, avoidance and non-compliance, we have secured an additional £140 billion in compliance yield. Internationally, we have driven the global agenda. We have now got 100 countries signed up to the automatic exchange of financial account information, and we have pushed G7 and G20 partners to establish registers of beneficial ownership, but my right hon. Friend is right: there is more to do. We will continue to crack down on big companies not paying their tax. I want to see an economy that works for everyone, and that means that big companies should be paying their tax as well as everybody else.

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Q4. In answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), the Prime Minister called for respect, but that is a two-way street. Where is her Government’s respect for the Scottish Government’s compromise proposal, which has just been ignored in these negotiations? [909259]

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The compromise proposal has not been ignored; it has been discussed by Ministers with Ministers from the Scottish Government. There are many areas within that proposal on which we agree, as I have said before, such as on ensuring our security from crime and terrorism, and maintaining and protecting workers’ rights.

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Q8. Colchester hospital’s A&E department has excellent staff, but suffers from poor layout and patient flow. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the £100 million set out for triage in the Budget last week will enable hospitals such as mine to address this issue and improve patient outcomes? [909264]

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My hon. Friend is right to recognise, and we should all recognise, the hard work and dedication of our excellent staff throughout the NHS. What we are seeing in the NHS is that A&Es are treating more people than ever before. We are spending half a trillion pounds on the NHS in England during this Parliament, and the NHS is going to see an increase in its funding of £10 billion in real terms, but there is sometimes an issue, as my hon. Friend says, about the configuration of A&E and enabling changes to take place to help the flow, and to help in dealing with potential patients as they come in. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced last week £425 million in new capital investment in the NHS, which includes £100 million to help manage the demand on A&E services, enabling hospitals to make changes to ensure people are treated in the most appropriate way possible.

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Q6. Over 200 staff at the Cwmbran pension centre in my constituency face an uncertain future, as they have been told they have to relocate to other areas over the next few years. Does the Prime Minister realise the impact this has on staff and the local economy, and will she meet me and representatives of the workforce to see what can be done to save Cwmbran pension centre? [909262]

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I recognise the concern that the hon. Gentleman has raised for staff at that particular pension office in—

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Cwmbran.

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Cwmbran. I recognise this is an issue. I am sure it is an issue that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will look at very closely, but of course the Government are looking to ensure both that we use our resources effectively, and provide the proper and appropriate service for the recipients of those particular benefits.

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Q10. Last weekend, thousands of people from across Lincolnshire came to the Revesby races in my constituency to enjoy the racing and the delicious local food, including award-winning Lincolnshire sausages. As the Government prepare to strike new international trade deals, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the high standards we expect of our food producers and farmers will be met and maintained in these deals, and will this Government continue to back British farming? [909266]

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I can assure my hon. Friend that we will certainly do that. I remember, when I visited her prior to the general election in 2015, sampling some of the excellent Lincolnshire sausages that come from her constituency. We have an opportunity to build a new future for our food and farming industry when we leave the European Union. We will maintain the UK’s high standards of food safety and of animal welfare; that will be a priority for us. Any trade deals we enter into will need to be right for consumers, for businesses and for farmers, and will need to ensure our food safety and environmental protection, and of course the animal welfare standards I have just referred to. We recognise the need for certainty for businesses. We have already provided guarantees on support for farmers up to 2020, and I can assure her that we will continue to back British farmers.

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Q9. The UK has one of the worst performing currencies in the world, and it has a trade deficit of £133 billion and a national debt approaching £1.7 trillion. May I ask the Prime Minister: does she really believe that the UK could afford to be an independent country? [909265]

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If he wants—[Interruption.]

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Order. There is too much noise in the Chamber. Hon. Members on the SNP Benches are very over-excited individuals. I want to hear the Prime Minister’s reply. Let us hear the reply.

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If the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) wants to talk about figures in relation to the UK economy, it is the world’s sixth largest economy, and this Government have reduced the deficit by two thirds. If he would care to look at today’s employment figures she will see that employment is at a record high and unemployment has not been lower since 1975.

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Q11. Today is the Ides of March—and, yet again, Brutus opposite missed badly—so will the Prime Minister take the opportunity to stick the knife into the ridiculous Court of Justice of the European Union, which ruled yesterday that employers can ban their staff from wearing signs of religious or political belief, and reiterate that reasonable freedom of expression should never be snuffed out by insidious political correctness? [909267]

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We have, as my hon. Friend knows, a strong tradition in this country of freedom of expression. It is the right of all women to choose how they dress and we do not intend to legislate on this issue. He raised the broader issue of symbols, but this case came up particularly in relation to the wearing of the veil. There will be times when it is right to ask for a veil to be removed, such as at border security or, perhaps, in court. Individual institutions can make their own policies, but it is not for Government to tell women what they can and cannot wear. We want to continue that strong tradition of freedom of expression.

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Q13. Our First Minister was elected with the largest vote in Scottish parliamentary history, on a manifesto that stated that the Scottish Parliament—[Interruption.] [909269]

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Order. The question will be heard.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will start again. Our First Minister was elected with the largest vote in Scottish parliamentary history, on a manifesto pledge that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold an independence referendum

“if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances…such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”

My question to the Prime Minister is simple: does she agree that Governments should stick to their manifesto promises? If so, she cannot object to the First Minister sticking to hers.

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I of course recognise that a vote took place for the Scottish Parliament, and that the First Minister was returned as the First Minister of a minority Government, but I refer the hon. Lady to two other votes that took place. In September 2014, the Scottish people were given the opportunity to vote on whether or not they wished to remain in the United Kingdom. They chose that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. That was described by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) as a “once in a generation” vote. The other vote to take note of was on 23 June last year, when the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and that is what we are going to do.

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Q12. With 80% of small and medium-sized enterprises reluctant to export, does my right hon. Friend agree that the prospect of Brexit gives those firms—particularly those from Scotland—a golden opportunity to use the great British entrepreneurial spirit to go out into the world and succeed? [909268]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Small businesses and entrepreneurs are essential to an economy that is working for everyone. The opportunity that comes from Brexit is to see those firms go out and export across the world, and to do those trade deals that will be of benefit to them, to their communities and to our economy. We want to encourage more businesses to go out there and export. That is exactly what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade is doing. This is an important part of building a stronger, fairer Britain for the future.

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Q14. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs employs more than 1,000 vital staff in my Livingston constituency. Despite widespread criticism from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, and despite Livingston having the most engaged and productive staff, the Prime Minister’s Government are determined to move jobs from Livingston to Edinburgh. Staff do not want to move there and rental costs will be higher. To compound that, last week Ethicon announced that 400 jobs are set to go at its Livingston site. Will the Prime Minister therefore change her mind on HMRC jobs in Livingston, and meet me to ensure that public sector jobs that are vital to Livingston stay in Livingston? [909270]

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HMRC is indeed relocating from 170 outdated offices to 13 large, modern regional centres. The new centres will be equipped with the digital infrastructure and facilities that are needed to build a more highly skilled and flexible workforce, to enable the modernisation of ways of working, make tax collection more efficient and effective, and bring significant improvements to HMRC’s customer services.

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The people of Sleaford and North Hykeham voted strongly in favour of Brexit, and I was very proud to be here in the House on Monday to vote in support of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirm that she shares my commitment to a Brexit that works in the best interests of everyone in our country?

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I have to say—[Interruption.]

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Order. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) was shouting from beyond the Bar, which is very disorderly. On top of that, a few moments ago he was gesticulating in a most eccentric manner. I am becoming concerned about the hon. Gentleman, who must now calm himself.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) is absolutely right. As she says, her constituency voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. The point is that the people of the United Kingdom voted by a majority to leave the European Union. As we do that, we will ensure that the deal we achieve in our negotiations is the right deal for the whole of the United Kingdom—for people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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The Prime Minister has just made a £2 billion Budget U-turn in the space of a week. Last year, the Government made a £4 billion U-turn in the space of five days. Is that why they want to abolish spring Budgets—because they just keep ripping them up?

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I welcome the measures in the spring Budget to improve school places for children, and to ensure that we put money—[Interruption.]

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Order. The hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) is another very eccentric fellow shouting very loudly. You must not shout down your own Prime Minister! Let us hear the Prime Minister.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the measures in the spring Budget to ensure we put money into schools, skills and social care. I would have thought the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) would accept that putting money into schools, skills and social care is good for this country.

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Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the news today that Sergeant Blackman’s murder conviction has been downgraded to manslaughter, in part thanks to the release of previously unheard evidence? That is fantastic news for his wife Claire, who lives in my constituency and who has campaigned so unstintingly. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), who I believe is returning from chambers, proved a very worthy advocate in this case, and I commend his hard work. Does the Prime Minister agree that, within the correct legal framework, those who defend our peace and protect our world from evil should be treated with fairness and understanding and given the adequate resources, including mental health support, that they deserve?

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Of course we respect the court’s decision. The Ministry of Defence will be looking very closely at the judgment. I assure the House that the Ministry of Defence has co-operated fully at each stage of Sergeant Blackman’s case. It will continue to provide support to the family, as it has done since the charges were first brought. I would just say, on the general point, that our Royal Marines have a worldwide reputation as one of the world’s elite fighting forces. They make an incredible contribution to our country and we should pay tribute to them all.

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The Disasters Emergency Committee has launched its east Africa crisis appeal. In the context of that crisis, does the Prime Minister share my concern that President Trump is considering major cuts to spending by the US on aid? Will the Government take every opportunity to press the Americans to remain fully part of the global humanitarian system?

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I assure the hon. Gentleman that we recognise the severity and urgency of the crisis taking place in east Africa. More than 20 million people face the risk of dying from starvation because of war and drought. Again, it is this country that is leading the way in delivering life-saving support. We have announced that we will match, pound for pound, the first £5 million donated by the public to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s new east Africa crisis appeal, to which he referred. I assure him that we take every opportunity to ensure that countries around the world recognise the importance of international aid, and of supporting countries when we see terrible disasters such as this famine coming into being. The UK’s record, and what we do, enable us to say to others that they should do more.

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It is my honour to chair the all-party parliamentary group on blood cancer. Today we launched an inquiry into greater awareness of the condition and the patient experience. I seek assurances from my right hon. Friend that the additional £10 billion going into the NHS in this Parliament will in some way be spent on ensuring that we tackle this third-biggest cancer killer.

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My hon. Friend is right to raise this subject. Many people have not heard much about this particular cancer, and are probably not much aware of it as an issue. I can assure him about what the NHS is doing. Over the last few years, we have seen a significant improvement in cancer survival rates. We have seen an increase in the number of people being referred on because of potential cancer cases, and an increase in the number of people being treated for cancer. This is a record on which we want to build.

Personal Independence Payments

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make a statement regarding the recommendations of the Social Security Advisory Committee on the new Personal Independence Payment (Amendment) Regulations 2017, which are due to come into force tomorrow.

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(The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions): Recent legal judgments have interpreted the assessment criteria for personal independence payments in ways that are different from what was originally intended. The Department presented regulations, which clarify the original policy intent, to the Social Security Advisory Committee. I welcome the SSAC’s careful consideration and we are looking closely at its suggestions.

Let me be clear. The SSAC decided that it did not require the regulations to be formally referred to it and would therefore not consult publicly on them. I believe it was right to move quickly to clarify the criteria, and it is clear that the SSAC is not challenging that decision.

I want to make it clear again that this is not a policy change and nor is it intended to make new savings. This is about restoring the original intention of the benefit, which has been expanded by the legal judgments, and providing clarity and certainty for claimants. I reiterate my commitment that there will be no further welfare savings beyond those already legislated for. This will not result in any claimants seeing a reduction in the amount of PIP previously awarded by the Department for Work and Pensions.

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You will recall, Mr Speaker, that on 23 February the Government issued these new regulations by which disabled people or people with a chronic mental health condition would be assessed for eligibility to personal independence payments. These regulations were laid down without any consultation with the Social Security Advisory Committee and without any debate.

As the Secretary of State said, the Committee examined this issue on 8 March and sent a letter with its recommendations to the Secretary of State, which was published yesterday. The Committee made a number of recommendations, including the need to consult more widely on the proposed changes and to test or pilot them before they come into force, so will the Secretary of State commit to implementing these recommendations in full before the regulations come into force?

Parliament has had no opportunity to debate the regulations fully, or to vote on them. When will it be able to do so? The Committee found that

“it is possible that some claimants may have been awarded the mobility component or a higher rate of mobility component…following earlier decisions by the Upper Tribunal on this issue.”

That directly contradicts statements by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work that no one would see a reduction in their PIP award. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to correct the record? Will he guarantee that that will not be the case when claimants are reassessed?

The Government’s decision to change the law on PIP is a clear demonstration of the fact that people with mental health conditions are not given equal treatment. Does the Secretary of State agree with his Department’s new guidance, issued yesterday, which states that mobility impairments caused by psychological issues are “not relevant”? An analysis published today by Scope shows that 89% of PIP cases resulted in successful decisions for claimants following either mandatory reconsideration or appeal. Will the Secretary of State now review the flawed PIP process as a matter of urgency?

We have argued for some time in favour of parity of esteem for mental and physical health. The Prime Minister famously said that there needed to be more support for people with mental health conditions. Will not the Government finally honour that pledge?

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Let me deal with the hon. Lady’s questions in turn.

We will of course respond to the letter from the Social Security Advisory Committee. Obviously, we take everything that it has said very seriously. We will also maintain the practice—in which the Government have always engaged—of continuous improvement in the PIP guidance. The assessment guidance is freely available, and can be viewed on gov.uk. We are constantly changing it, and the way to do that is to make parliamentary regulations, which is precisely what we are doing in this case. I am conscious that the hon. Lady has personally prayed against these regulations, which gives Parliament a chance to scrutinise them. That process will go through the normal channels, as it always does.

The hon. Lady asked a number of other detailed questions. I can only repeat what I have said before, and what has been said by my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work: no claimants will see a reduction in the amount of benefit that they were previously awarded by the DWP. The Committee says that a tribunal may have lifted the awards of some people, and it is indeed possible that that has happened. We will not claim back money that those people have received during the period before the new regulations come into force, and no one will receive less than they were awarded by the DWP. That is what I have said all along. [Interruption.] As the hon. Lady knows, reassessment happens regularly in the case of PIP and other benefits.

Let me now respond to a very serious point made by the hon. Lady. I want to clear up the position and reassure people, because I think that millions would be put into a state of unnecessary distress if they thought that PIP was not fair to those with mental health conditions. The truth is that PIP is a much better benefit for people with such conditions than its predecessor, disability living allowance. Under the regulations, people with a cognitive impairment alone can receive the highest rate of the mobility component of PIP. It is simply not the case that people with mental health conditions will not be able to do so. If the hon. Lady reads the regulations, she will see why that has happened.

Even if the hon. Lady and other Opposition Members are not willing to accept what I have said, may I please ask them to go away and look at the facts? The facts are these: 65% of PIP recipients with a mental health condition received the enhanced-rate daily living component, whereas 22% used to receive it under DLA. As for the specific mobility aspect, to which the hon. Lady referred. 27% of PIP recipients with a mental health condition receive the enhanced-rate mobility component, whereas 9% received it under DLA. It is perfectly clear from the facts that the regulations restore PIP to its original policy intent, and that that policy intent is better for people with mental health conditions than earlier benefits were.

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Can my right hon. Friend name any other country that spends as much in direct cash payments for people living with as wide a range of physical, mental and psychological disabilities and illnesses as we do here in the UK? Is that not something we should be proud of?

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We should indeed. My right hon. Friend previously did this job, and he and I share the passion to make sure that the benefit system is as fair as possible to those who deserve to receive these benefits. That is why we spend £50 billion a year on disability benefits and why PIP is an improvement on previous benefits, particularly for people with mental health conditions.

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The Government continually trot out the line that serious mental ill health should be treated in the same way as any other illness, but their response to these rulings betrays the old attitudes and stigmas towards mental illness. They cannot keep shifting the goalposts every time they lose a battle at court. If a person needs help, he or she needs help regardless of the nature of their disability or health condition.

The Scottish Parliament is in the process of taking over responsibility for personal independence payments, and until that time the UK Government need to be consistent and stop mucking people about. So many of the people becoming destitute in our communities, being sanctioned, falling through the safety net and becoming dependent on food banks are people with mental health problems. Why will the Government not acknowledge that? Will the Minister back away from this ill-judged move, or are they intent on bulldozing this through regardless of the opinions of this House?

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I can only say to the hon. Lady that the premise on which she based that question—which is that those with mental health conditions, as opposed to physical disabilities, are in some way being treated unfairly under this benefit—is simply and demonstrably wrong. I will not weary the House by quoting again the facts I have just quoted, but if we are to have an intelligent discussion about the details of benefit policy—this House deserves to have such a discussion—we have to base it on the facts, and the facts are that PIP is a better benefit for people with mental health conditions than the old disability living allowance.

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The Government are rightly spending an extra £3 billion a year supporting those with long-term health conditions and disabilities. Does the Secretary of State agree that if we are to continue to improve the system, that should be done in conjunction with the expertise of charities, stakeholders and users, and not be based on ad hoc legal decisions?

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My hon. Friend, who obviously has great personal expertise in this area, is precisely right. There is a continuous dialogue between the Department and the charities. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we do not agree, but that dialogue is very important and I am determined to maintain it precisely so that when we make changes they are practical ones that make sure that the original good intent of the benefit is maintained.

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Despite what the Secretary of State says about the current benefit favouring those who do not have physical disabilities, the evidence coming to the Select Committee which is inquiring into PIP shows that those with other disadvantages find it difficult to qualify. Might he look carefully at the form and at the way his staff interpret it for people who do not have physical disabilities and who have difficulties in qualifying?

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The right hon. Gentleman knows that there is a review going on precisely to address the points he very reasonably makes. Clearly, there is a degree of complexity with any benefit and we will need to keep working on it. We are waiting for the review carried out by Paul Gray, chairman of the SSAC. Knowing Paul, I am sure he will have some trenchant recommendations, and we will obviously look at them very carefully and use them as the basis for further improvement of this benefit.

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While I agree that PIP is indeed a big improvement on DLA and that nobody stands to lose from this change, for me the court ruling has highlighted the fact that there are still flaws in the PIP process and that more can be done for mental health claimants; I know that as I have sat through two PIP assessments myself. Therefore, rather than just legislating to ignore this ruling, should we not use it as a catalyst to look at the whole PIP process from the beginning?

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My hon. Friend is right that we need continually to look at improvements, and I think they are done better as part of a coherent process rather than as a result of individual court judgments. I am sure that she will agree that the improvements in the benefit system need to go hand in hand with the many improvements we are now beginning to see in the health service’s treatment of people with mental health conditions. All of this must be tackled as a coherent whole across government so that we improve all the services available to people with mental health conditions.

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I have to say that I am finding an increasing discrepancy between the way that the Secretary of State is describing the PIP benefit and the people who are coming to my advice surgeries in tears, having been completely let down by the system. We all want to see a society where we give support to the most vulnerable, and that is who we are talking about here. Will the Secretary of State now undertake to ensure that some of his highest officials come and visit us in our advice surgeries and look at how this system is actually working out on the frontline, because it is not remotely like how he is portraying it today?

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We all know from our own constituency surgeries that there are individual cases that might need to be taken up, sometimes simply because people disagree with a decision, or if there are delays. I am absolutely aware of that. [Interruption.] I point out to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), who is characteristically chuntering from a sedentary position, that the appeal rate against PIP is extremely low, so actually the facts again do not suggest those kind of problems. But we are absolutely keen to improve this. That is why in the coming weeks we will be setting up service user panels precisely so that we get the real world, on-the-ground experience available to the Department that the hon. Lady wishes us to have.

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It is odd to be asked to pilot something that merely restores the status quo ante—or have I misunderstood the committee’s recommendation?

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I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s concern. The committee makes a number of recommendations, and, as ever with the SSAC, I will take all of those recommendations very seriously and respond to them fully.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) has tabled an early-day motion signed by 143 Members, including the Leader of the Opposition. Why are the Government so keen on ignoring this place and Parliament and on bulldozing this unpopular change through? Will the Secretary of State agree to a proper debate in this House on this unpopular measure?

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Since, I think, this is the second time that we have discussed this issue in a week, it is hard to argue that Parliament is not having a say. We have followed the usual procedure: we have tabled a statutory instrument, which the hon. Gentleman and his party leader, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), are free to pray against, and which then goes through the usual channels. This is a perfectly normal procedure.

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There appear to be two frequent misunderstandings about the legal judgments: first, that the Government amendment amounts to a cut, and, secondly, that people with mental health disabilities get less under PIP than under DLA. So will my right hon. Friend confirm again that actually there is no cut at all to people who previously had an award through PIP, and, secondly, that actually those with mental health disabilities get more under PIP than they did under DLA?

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I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that nobody who had an award from the Department for Work and Pensions will have that award reduced, and indeed that PIP is demonstrably a much better benefit than DLA for people with mental health conditions. Is there room for improvement? There is always room for improvement in life.

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This is a cut and it directly targets people with mental health problems. The regulation, which is taking effect tomorrow, inserts into the qualifying conditions for PIP, in the section about planning and following a journey, the phrase

“For reasons other than psychological distress”.

Why is psychological distress being carved out in this way, and a cut made as a result?

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I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is simply wrong in his premise. A person

“with cognitive or sensory impairments who cannot, due to their impairment, work out where to go, follow directions or deal with unexpected changes in their journey ”

even when the journey is familiar, would score 12 points under descriptor F on mobility activity. I apologise for getting into the technical weeds here, Mr Speaker. Hence, that person would be entitled to the enhanced rate of the mobility component. That is the situation that pertains now, and that is why more people with mental health conditions are getting the higher rate of PIP—three times as many as did so under DLA—so it is simply not the case that this discriminates against people with mental health conditions.

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Will the Minister ensure that the mobility factor in PIP is maintained? It is important to all of us in the community. It is vital for all of us that our friends and family who have mental health problems, dementia or cognitive problems from strokes are out and about and visible in our community. Can he assure me that the descriptors and assessments are formulated according to need, and that no condition is ever excluded?

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My hon. Friend’s last remark is precisely right, and I can give her the assurance that she seeks. PIP is about the effects on daily life or on mobility. It is not based on the underlying condition. That was the key change when PIP was introduced, and of course we are maintaining that.

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I want to understand exactly what the Secretary of State said a few moments ago when he said that nobody would face a cut in their benefit. Did I understand him correctly when he said that, while people would not see their initial DWP benefit award cut as a result of these regulations, they could see their benefit reduced to the original award level when the benefit has been increased by a tribunal and these regulations now supersede the judgement of that tribunal?

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That is indeed what I said. We think that there may be a handful of people whose appeals have gone through the courts in this very small period, and that money will not be clawed back from them. That is what I said earlier on.

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Will the Secretary of State make it crystal clear that the Government’s original intention for PIP, as outlined in the Welfare Reform Act 2012, remains? It was stated:

“The PIP assessment will look at disabled people as individuals and not just label them by their health condition or impairment.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 148W.]

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I am happy to confirm that to my hon. Friend. I think that he and I would agree that that was a significant step forward when it was introduced, and I am determined that we maintain progress in that direction so that people who have a disability—whether a physical or mental impairment—can lead as full a life as possible.

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I agree with the Minister that we need to have a discussion on this whole issue. However, these changes have been introduced without such a discussion, and the assessment has been made that 160,000 current claimants will be ruled out as a result of the changes. Does the Minister dispute that? Is he contesting his own Department’s assessment?

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No. I think that the hon. Gentleman has slightly misunderstood the effect of the court case. I am not changing anything; I am just putting forward regulations that restore us to where we were in November. The court case said that the regulations were unclear and suggested changes that would indeed, conceivably, apply to very large numbers of people. So what we are doing with these regulations is simply returning to the position that was there before.

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It is appropriate to be discussing this on the day on which the Devon Partnership NHS Trust’s mental health services have been rated “good” by the Care Quality Commission. This marks some improvement. Given the erroneous comments that we keep on hearing about cuts, will the Secretary of State confirm that the constituents who are getting in touch with me who have had an award from the DWP will not see any reduction in what they are receiving?

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I extend my congratulations to the Devon Partnership NHS Trust. I am glad to hear that mental health services are good in my hon. Friend’s part of the world and yes, absolutely, those who have had an award from the DWP will continue to get that award in the normal way.

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Further to the Secretary of State’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), will he confirm that he is saying that some people who have been awarded additional resources by a tribunal will see their income cut as a result of these regulations? Will he also confirm that an extraordinary number—89%—of the relatively low number of appeals relating to PIP are overturned? Does that not show that there is something deeply wrong with the system?

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I think the problem that the hon. Gentleman identifies with the system as it is running at the moment is that a huge number of the very small number of people who go to appeal introduce new evidence during the appeal process. That is the main reason why the figures are as he says. It is clearly better all round—not least for the avoidance of delay for claimants—if we can get all the medical evidence in at the start of the process. That might well preclude the necessity of any kind of reassessment or appeal in the first place.

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the clarification that he has provided today. What steps is he taking to meet and engage with charities and other stakeholders to clarify the impact of these regulations?

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The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work and I are in constant contact with charities and other groups concerned with this area, precisely because we want to improve the system in a systematic and coherent way so that we are not simply responding to individual cases in front of the courts. I am sure everyone would agree that that is a more sensible way to proceed in continuing the improvements we have seen under PIP.

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I asked the Secretary of State this question two weeks ago. If he is arguing that the purpose of PIP is to cover the extra costs that people incur because of a disability, why are those with mental health conditions being paid a lower rate than someone with a physical disability if they struggle to plan or follow a journey?

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They are not. I can only repeat what I have said before, and if necessary, I will quote the facts again, or the detailed case that I gave to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). I could go into the details, but I suspect that your patience would be tested by that, Mr Speaker. Do you want me to read the descriptors out again? [Interruption.] But seriously, the point is that it is perfectly possible to qualify for the standard rate or the enhanced rate purely with a mental health condition, so it is not the case that people with mental health conditions are discriminated against.

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You have just indicated, Mr Speaker, that your patience would not be tested were the Secretary of State to give a detailed example that might clarify the situation for the House. May I invite him so to do?

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Let me read it out again. A person

“with a cognitive impairment who cannot, due to their impairment, work out where to go, follow directions or deal with unexpected changes in their journey”,

even when the journey is familiar, would score 12 points under descriptor F on mobility activity 1, which covers planning and following journeys, and hence be entitled to the enhanced rate of the mobility component. Examples of such conditions could include dementia or a learning disability such as Down’s syndrome. I hope that that reassures you, Mr Speaker, and the whole House.

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I want to press the Secretary of State on the question of assessments. Will he look again at the quality and professionalism involved? I just cannot understand why some of the people who come to see me have not been awarded their benefit. I have had experience of cases such as these over a number of years now, and I have never come across such difficult cases as those I have seen recently.

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I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am already doing that. As I said in answer to a previous question, the chairman of the SSAC is doing one of his regular reports on PIP as a whole, and that will focus very much on the quality of assessments. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and we are all concerned to ensure that the assessments are not only of high quality but consistent across the country. That is an important improvement that I want to see in the system.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm that this Government are investing more in benefits for disabled people and more in mental health than ever before?

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I can confirm that, and I have already quoted the specific figure for disability benefits. We now spend £11.4 billion on mental health services every year, and we will be spending more on disability benefits in every year of this Parliament than was spent in 2010.

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In the view of the mental health charity Mind, the new regulations and guidance contradict the stated aims of the primary legislation. What information has been transferred to the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland, where parity applies, regarding the new guidance? Will the Secretary of State ensure that the regulations are taken off the table to allow a full debate in Parliament and to ensure that nobody with a mental health impairment is financially penalised in any way?

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I can only repeat that the regulations, which are being returned to their original state, do not discriminate against people with mental conditions. If anyone observing these proceedings is unnecessarily worried by that assertion, I regret that. I am happy to assure the hon. Lady that the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work has made direct contact to ensure that information is flowing properly.

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The only clarity and certainty that PIP is bringing to my constituents is real distress every day. At 12.14 pm today, I received an email that said:

“I would be grateful if you would contact PIP and address my complaint about taking PIP off me. I do fear that this has caused me to consider taking my own life”.

Complaints of that type come in to our constituency surgeries on a daily basis. The system is broken. It needs to be completely revisited and reconstructed. It cannot be mended.

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I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Any benefits system will obviously have difficult individual cases, and decisions have to be made, but to say that the whole system is broken is going much too far. I can only point out that just 3% of all PIP claims are overturned on appeal, which suggests that the benefit is largely working for the vast majority of people who receive it, but there will always be individual cases where people disagree with the assessment.

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It is clear from the Social Security Advisory Committee’s letter to the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work that there is some confusion outside the Department about the policy intent and the psychological distress of planning and following a journey. We need much greater communication from the Department, so when we can expect an updated version of the PIP assessment guide?

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As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, we redo the assessment guide on a regular basis, and the next changes will be available in the next couple of months. It is freely available on the internet for hon. Members to view. It is not some secret guide that goes out to assessors from the Department; all the guidance is public.

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Only last week, I was contacted by a constituent who has been refused PIP despite having previously been in receipt of DLA. She managed to get to her assessment only because her daughter took her and supported her through it. However, the physiotherapist who did the assessment said that her mental health issues were insignificant because she had managed to attend and to communicate with him. Does the Secretary of State agree that for the process to be fair, the person doing the assessment should, as a bare minimum, be qualified in the appropriate medical specialty?

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It is obviously impossible to generalise from one case, but if the hon. Lady wants me to look at that case, I will be happy to do so. We are determined to maintain the highest levels of professionalism among the healthcare professionals who do the assessments.

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The transition from DLA to PIP has been incredibly distressing, and the new assessment criteria and the number of Motability cars that have been returned only to be reissued on appeal are just two examples of why. Now there is this rushed, unscrutinised decision. Given the repeated questions from Members on the Opposition Benches about constituency cases, is the Secretary of State concerned about the erosion of our constituents’ trust in the system?

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No, because I do not believe that to be the case. Of the many people who receive PIP, vast numbers find it satisfactory and a better benefit than DLA. Specifically on mental health conditions, far more people receive PIP than received DLA, so I just do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s basic analysis of the situation.

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Will the Secretary of State guarantee that no PIP assessors are required to turn down a quota of their assessments? I find it impossible to understand some of the decisions they make. There can be an arm’s length of medical evidence in front of them, but they turn some people down, particularly those with mental health issues. If he does not know the answer, will he go away and investigate the situation? Something is wrong. So many examples have been given to him that he cannot dismiss them as the odd case.

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I absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that no pass or fail quota is given to any assessor.

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I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, people from across the UK continually contact me to say that the process contains little assessment of psychological problems and does not seek information from mental health practitioners. The Secretary of State must be aware that a cognitive impairment is just not the same as a mental health problem. In fact, neither dementia nor a learning disability, the examples he gave, is a mental health problem, so he should go back, do his homework and find out what a mental health problem actually is.

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I can give other examples that do include mental health issues, but I understand the hon. Lady’s point that there are obviously different forms of condition. Cognitive impairment is not necessarily the same as a mental health impairment, which covers a much wider and, in many cases, different range of conditions. However, all of them are covered fairly by PIP, so the contention from Opposition Members that the benefit is somehow bad at source is wrong. I can see that when I look at the number of people receiving it, particularly those with mental health conditions, who have not received any benefit in the past. I hope that the House will acknowledge that fact.

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I have been listening to these exchanges, and I am trying to judge to what extent there is controversy over PIP. There clearly is controversy in this Chamber, and I do from time to time get letters from constituents regarding PIP. However, will my right hon. Friend indicate what percentage of total claims are disputed?

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As I have just said, 3% of all claims are overturned on appeal. Now 3% represents many cases, and as I have said various times today, I am always looking to improve the situation and ensure that assessments are better and more consistent. However, having only 3% overturned does not give rise to the picture painted by many Opposition Members that the system is in some way broken.

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Does the Minister accept that many people with mental health issues who apply for PIP are so distressed by the whole process that they never even go to appeal when they are turned down? Also, far from spending more on this, we are actually spending less as a proportion of our GDP.

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I am not entirely clear about the hon. Lady’s last point. I am unsure whether she wants a target percentage of GDP for particular benefits, which seems a slightly odd way to run the welfare state. On her first point, I do not want to weary the House by repeating what I have said before, but ensuring that people with mental health conditions have proper access to benefits is and always has been extremely difficult. We are spending so much money across Government—£11.4 billion this year—on mental health conditions precisely to remove some of the barriers preventing people from claiming benefits to which they are entitled.

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Earlier, the Secretary of State blithely said that there would be further updates and guidance in a couple of months. A couple of months is not good enough. What is he doing now to make sure that assessors have the correct information to properly assess claimants and provide them with the support they need?

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Assessors work from the PIP assessment guide, which is available for scrutiny by Members and the public. Assessors are given that guidance in the most transparent and public way possible.

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The Royal College of Psychiatrists, charities including Rethink Mental Illness and Scope, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions and many of our constituents all tell us that the Government are failing properly to support all disabled people who need help. Now the Social Security Advisory Committee has said that the Government should not proceed with the changes without further testing and consultation. What does it take to get the Secretary of State to listen?

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I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation of what the SSAC said. The SSAC has the power to consult if it wants to recommend that we should not proceed, and it has specifically decided not to do that kind of consultation. Her characterisation of what the SSAC has said is off beam.

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Thousands of disabled people who rely on the Motability scheme have had their car removed by this Government. In November 2016 the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work said that the Government were looking at allowing PIP claimants to keep their car pending appeal, and possibly at widening access to the scheme. Three weeks ago the Prime Minister was unable to answer my question and update the House on the progress of that review, and she promised to write an as-yet undelivered letter to me. Can the Secretary of State update the House today?

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Not with any detail. We are conducting a review, and when that review is finished I will update the House.

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rose—

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rose

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I call Mrs Mary Glindon.

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Further to a previous question, Muscular Dystrophy UK has said today that figures show that 900 mobility vehicles a week are being removed from people due to the PIP reforms but that many of the vehicles are subsequently returned on appeal. Will the Government ensure that a mobility vehicle cannot be taken away from any individual until there is a final decision on their eligibility for the enhanced rate?

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We constantly work closely with Motability and, as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), we are currently reviewing the whole scheme, so I beg the House’s patience while we conduct that review.

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Thank you very much for spotting me, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State seems to think—he has said it several times now—that just because we prayed against the statutory instrument, we are bound to have a one-and-a-half hour debate and a vote. That is completely untrue. The only person who can guarantee a debate and a vote is the Secretary of State. I promise not to tell anyone else, but if he could stand up now and be completely unambiguous in telling us that we will have a debate and a vote in this Chamber, we would be very grateful.

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In his long and distinguished career, the hon. Gentleman has been shadow Leader of the House, so he knows perfectly well that such things are a matter for the usual channels. It is therefore somewhat above my pay grade.

Visible Religious Symbols: European Court Ruling

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities if she will make a statement on the recent Court of Justice of the European Union ruling allowing employers to ban workers from wearing religious dress and symbols in the workplace.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this important issue and for giving the Government an opportunity to inform and, I hope, reassure the House about the two Court of Justice of the European Union judgments issued yesterday. The Government are completely opposed to discrimination, including on grounds of gender or religion, or both. It is the right of all women to choose how they dress, and we do not believe that the judgments change that. Exactly the same legal protections apply today as applied before the rulings.

In both the Achbita case and the Bougnaoui case, the judgment was that there was no direct discrimination, but that there was some discrimination. A rule is directly discriminatory if it treats someone less favourably because of their sex, race, religion or whatever. A rule is indirectly discriminatory if, on the face of it, it treats everyone the same, but some people, because of their race, religion, sex and so on, find it harder to comply than others do. Indirect discrimination may be justifiable if an employer is acting in a proportionate manner to achieve a legitimate aim.

The judgments confirm the existing long-standing position of EU and domestic law that an employer’s dress code, where it applies to and is applied in the same way to all employees, may be justifiable if the employer can show legitimate and proportionate grounds for it. Various cases show that such an employer needs to be prepared to justify those grounds in front of a court or tribunal if need be. That will remain the case and that is the case with these judgments, which will now revert to the domestic courts.

I am aware of some concern that the judgments potentially conflict with the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, particularly in the case of Nadia Eweida, the British Airways stewardess banned from wearing a small crucifix but whose case the ECHR upheld. We do not believe that the different judgments are in conflict. Both the CJEU and the ECHR were trying to assess the balance in each case between the religious needs of the employee and the needs of the employer. In Eweida, the assessment favoured the employee; in another ECHR case, and also in the Achbita case, the assessment favoured the employer. We will still take action to ensure that the current legal position is set out. We will be working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to update guidance for employers on dealing with religion or belief in the workplace. The guidance will be revised to take account of the CJEU judgments, too. We will make it absolutely clear to all concerned that the Equality Act 2010 and the rights of women and religious employees remain unchanged.

Like any judgment of the CJEU, for the time being, Achbita and Bougnaoui need to be taken into account by domestic courts and tribunals as they consider future cases. The law is clear and remains unchanged. However, because of our absolute commitment to ensuring that discrimination and prejudice are never encouraged or sanctioned, we will keep the issue under very close review.

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In this country, we have a long tradition of respecting religious freedom and, frankly, many people will listen in disbelief to the Court’s ruling that a corporate multinational such as G4S risks having its corporate neutrality undermined by a receptionist in Belgium wearing a headscarf. At what point did the law decide that expressing religious belief through a cross, a turban or a headscarf is a threat to organisational neutrality? Here in the House of Commons, our staff pride themselves on their neutrality, but will such organisations be forced to consider this new ruling? If not, in what circumstances could an organisation legitimately require such neutrality from its workers? Surely there are serious potential implications for those who deliver public services.

One group is specifically affected—Muslim women, who already experience twice the unemployment rate of the general population. The Government need to monitor the situation carefully to ensure that employers do not use the ruling to effectively exclude thousands of Muslim women from the workplace.

We are leaving the EU soon, but the ruling will potentially continue to influence the way in which the Equality Act is interpreted by the courts. Parliamentarians need clarity, workers need clarity and employers need clarity, and we want to ensure that this ruling does not have damaging consequences for freedom of religious belief in our country.

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My right hon. Friend is right to raise this case. As I said, the UK has some of the strongest equality legislation in the world and our laws give people robust protection from religious discrimination in the workplace. It is and remains unlawful to directly discriminate against someone because of their religion or to create spurious rules that would prevent them from wearing religious clothing or jewellery. Employers can enforce a dress code, but it must be for proportionate and legitimate reasons, and must apply equally to all employees. If an employer wants to have a neutral dress code with no religious symbols being worn, it must apply equally to all employees and all religions.

Dress codes are a matter for individual employers and will depend on the particular type of work involved, the environment and the safety considerations, above all. The CJEU has found that these cases would constitute indirect discrimination and has referred them back to the national courts to consider whether, based on the specifics, they would be unlawful. The UK’s legal position has not changed. The EHRC has already published guidance for employers on religion and belief in the workplace, and we will work with it to update that guidance to take account of these rulings and to carefully explain how they should be interpreted in UK workplaces. But I must reiterate that this Government are absolutely committed to supporting people into work whatever their background, making Britain a country that works for everyone and not just the privileged few.

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I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for raising this important issue. The ruling is not as clearcut as press articles would have us believe, but it does raise real concerns about religious freedom in the workplace, including for Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab. When making their ruling, the judges relied on the concept of workplace policies that require neutrality. Neutrality has specific cultural significance in Belgium and other European countries, based on their particular meaning of secularism, which does not resonate in Britain. Does the Minister agree that this concept of neutrality is illogical, as a customer, patient or service user could not make a valid assumption as to the religious persuasion of a company, or perceive that a company is particularly favouring one religious group or another, by virtue of how its employees dress?

Women and men must be allowed to choose their expression of faith. Simply put, this judgment is not consistent with the British liberal and human rights tradition. Of real concern are the implications that this may now have for faith communities. Already, the far right across Europe is rallying on the judgment. I thank the Minister for making a clear statement today that people can express their faith, in a professional manner, in the workplace, but can she confirm that this Government believe that preventing women from wearing the hijab, as exampled in this case, is simply and unconditionally wrong?

What is the Government’s position on the concept of a dress code for staff that requires neutrality in the workplace? I am pleased that the Minister has confirmed that she will be working with the EHRC on updating the guidance to employers on this ruling. Will she confirm that it will reinforce the rights of employees in the UK to express their religious freedom?

G4S holds a number of Government contracts. Has the Minister reinforced with G4S, the employer in this situation, its employees’ rights to wear clothing necessary for their religious practice in the UK?

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It would be helpful if I were to talk a little about the background to this, in order to aid our wider understanding. We are dealing with two cases here. The first, Achbita, was about whether a dress code banning the outward expression of personal belief was directly or indirectly discriminatory against a female Muslim who was sacked for wearing a headscarf. The second, Bougnaoui, concerned the same point, but it also raised the issue of whether a customer’s request not to be served by an employee wearing a headscarf can be a genuine occupational requirement. The ruling confirmed the current position under EU and domestic discrimination law: that a dress code that applies and is applied in the same way to all employees does not constitute direct discrimination but may constitute indirect discrimination. However, importantly, an employer’s willingness to take account of a customer’s wishes about staff wearing religious dress does not constitute a genuine occupational requirement. It is very important to point that out.

As I have stated, employers can enforce a dress code, but it must be proportionate and legitimate, and must apply equally to all employees. If an employer wants a neutral dress code with no religious or political symbols being worn, that must equally apply to all employees and religions. However, it remains unlawful to directly discriminate against someone because of their religion and to create any kind of spurious rules that will prevent the wearing of religious clothing or jewellery. The Government take this very seriously. Hate crime of any form will not be tolerated. The Government will not stand by and let that happen. We are very clear about where we stand on this. People will be protected in their workplace and, as I said, we will be reinforcing the guidance on religion and belief in the workplace which the EHRC has published. We will be making sure that employers are well aware of their responsibilities in that way.

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I am very pleased to hear that the Government are going to issue new guidelines. I hope that they will reflect British values, which demand that Muslim women should be able to wear the hijab, that Sikhs should be able to wear the turban, that Jewish people should be able to wear a kippah and that Christians can wear a cross. If we remove that basic right, the nature of British values changes. Any company that wants to be neutral and to deny its employees the ability to express their religion takes away from those employees and is fundamentally not British.

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; the Government believe, and I believe, that people need to be able to feel strong in their religious identities, and we are ensuring that the voices of people of faith can be heard up and down this country. As now, any dress code or dress ban that an employer imposes must be for legitimate and proportionate reasons, and the employer must be prepared to defend it before a court or tribunal if necessary. Ultimately, those dress codes are for individual employers to decide on, but we are clear that any form of discrimination on the grounds of religion or faith will not be tolerated and is unlawful.

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This is an incredibly sensitive issue which will cause concern across these isles. It is clear that right-wing leaders across Europe have already attempted to misrepresent the ruling for their own ends, so I hope that we will see clear leadership from the UK Government to counter that rhetoric and ensure that it does not take hold here.

What the Minister has already said and what the Prime Minister said earlier is a good start. We should be absolutely clear that women and men should be free to choose what they wear, and we certainly should not be discriminatory on the basis of religion. The Court of Justice judgment ruled that uniformity is key in any workplace policy on religious or political neutrality, and that this cannot be applied on an ad hoc basis. However, there are concerns about the potential for this to be hijacked by some for the purpose of anti-Muslim or similarly intolerant sentiment. If Police Scotland can decide to include the hijab as part of its uniform, what action will the UK Government take to ensure that discrimination against individuals of any religion will not be tolerated in the workplace?

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The Prime Minister was very clear that what a woman wears is her choice and no one else’s. Obviously, there is a clear difference in the following respect: it would be ridiculous to presume that, if someone wanted to wear loose clothing or dangling jewellery when working in or around machinery, it was sensible to allow them to do so in contravention of any health and safety considerations. But in normal day-to-day jobs it would seem to be very ill-advised to prevent people from wearing the items of clothing that reflect their religious faith or belief.

On what the hon. Gentleman says about the far-right response, let me say that we have one of the strongest legislative frameworks in the world to protect communities from hostility, violence and bigotry. We keep these policies under review all the time, as we want to ensure that they remain effective and appropriate in the face of any kind of new and emerging threats. He must be assured that those who perpetrate hate crimes of any kind will be punished with the full force of the law.

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I am heartened by the Minister’s robust response to this. My experience in France has been that the attitude there towards the wearing of the hijab has exacerbated problems between different sections of the community. Just the other day, I saw a Sikh police officer wearing a turban, which just demonstrates our tolerant attitude in this country. So I commend the Minister and ask—as I must do to keep in order—that she maintains this position.

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Multiculturalism and the multiplicity of different faiths and religions in this country is one of our great strengths. We should recognise that many people follow their faith and that some people follow none, but we want a society that treats people equally and with respect, whatever their faith happens to be, or if they have none.

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The Minister will appreciate how distressing the ruling is, not only for British Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab but for many other faith communities. She will be aware that G4S, the British company involved, has form. It presided over a shambolic temporary jobs arrangement during the Olympics, when the British Army had to be brought in. First, will G4S’s Government contracts be reviewed, because what it has done is unacceptable and un-British? Secondly, once the Government have worked with the EHRC to reform the guidance, will the Minister report to Parliament to reassure us that, as Members on both sides of the House have stated, British values, which are distinct from the ruling, are upheld, and that the right of women to wear what they wish to wear in the workplace, within reason and with reasonable accommodation, is upheld?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point out that women should be respected; indeed, all workers and their religious individuality should be respected. Employers have a right to enforce a dress code, but she is right to point out that certain employers interpret that right differently from others. We certainly take religious tolerance, and tolerance more generally, into consideration when considering Government contracts. This situation is a shame, because we are very tolerant in this country and we are making massive progress. Some 45% more Muslim women were in work in 2015 than in 2011. We know that there is much more to do to ensure that no one is left behind, but we are committed to supporting people in their workplace, whatever their background, which is why it is so important that this issue was brought to the House today.

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Will the Minister confirm that in this country a member of an airline’s cabin staff or a receptionist has the right to express their faith freely by wearing a cross or a headscarf, and that that cannot be supressed by any so-called neutral dress code?

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Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that people are entitled to express their religious thoughts or beliefs in what they wear. It becomes an issue only if there is some kind of health and safety aspect. As I have said before, companies are entitled to enforce their own dress code, but it is very clear that that dress code must apply equally to all employees, whatever their faith, religion or gender, and the Government are keen to promote that.

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I am very troubled by the judgments. If the provisions of the CJEU’s judgments are held to be directly effective, they can be relied on by employers in the UK without further ado. In my estimation, that would be deplorable. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are keeping open the option of legislating—and, indeed, the option of introducing emergency legislation—to make sure that the United Kingdom’s very fine laws on discrimination, which uphold one’s right to manifest one’s views and religion, are not undermined by the CJEU? The assurance that the Government will turn to legislation, should the need arise, would be very helpful.

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It is important to point out that the CJEU judgement is advice that goes back to the nations that brought forward the cases. Each country has the right to enforce the judgment in the way it sees fit. I am confident that the UK has some of the strongest equalities legislation in the world, including the Equality Act 2010, which enshrines equality in domestic law. Nevertheless, we will always keep that under review to ensure that people continue to be protected in the best possible way.

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Mr Lefroy, what has happened? The feller was standing earlier. The House wants to hear him.

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Mr Speaker, I apologise: my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) asked the question I was going to ask, and I did not want to detain the House any longer.

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Extraordinary self-effacement; the hon. Gentleman is setting a very dangerous precedent.

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Although the judgment applies to men and women, does the Minister agree that it sends an appalling message, particularly to Muslim women in places such as my constituency? Will she reassure me that she will take tangible action to reassure specific faith communities that the United Kingdom certainly will not go down this route?

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Yes, that is really important, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to point it out. The Government are working so hard to tackle the barriers faced by different black and minority ethnic groups. We are engaging Muslim communities through a number of faith and integration projects; we are developing a new English language offer that will be targeted at Muslim women but available to other groups; and we are trialling new and innovative ways for Jobcentre Plus to engage with and tailor their services to BME communities. I hate to think that all the good work we are doing to build trust and faith in communities would ever be undermined.

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I do not like this word “tolerate.” In this country, we do not tolerate people; we respect and embrace all cultures. Despite that, we know that Islamophobia is not only widespread but rampant. As a solicitor, for the best part of a decade I advised employees and employers on employment law. My worry is that those who read the reports on the CJEU decision will see it as a green light to engage in further discrimination in the workplace. What specifically will the Government do to ensure that employers do not take from the judgments the idea that they can carry on discriminating, particularly against Muslim women, who are more likely to be discriminated against in the workplace than many other groups?

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As I have already made clear, we are working closely with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to update guidance for employers on dealing with religion or belief in the workplace. Nevertheless, we will continue to revise the guidance so that it takes account of the judgment. We want to be absolutely clear to all concerned that the Equality Act remains unchanged, as do the rights of women and religious employees, which we will continue to protect.

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I am sure I am not alone in seeing a big difference between a headscarf, crucifix or turban, and the burqa or niqab. How will the judgment affect the two police forces of which I am aware that currently state they are willing to consider applications from female police officers who might want to wear a full niqab or burqa?

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The Government wholeheartedly support the invaluable work being done by people throughout the country who are inspired by that faith. If it is safe for them to continue to wear their religious garments while doing their job, we very much feel they should be encouraged to do so.

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This ruling sends an appalling message to faith communities in our countries, and many visibly religious people at work today will feel more scrutinised and more insecure as a result. The ruling also creates a lower threshold for religious freedom than we enjoy under UK legislation. Many thousands of people in my constituency are affected; they need a clear and continuing signal from the Government that they will support our national legal settlement. I am grateful for what the Minister has already said on that, but how will she and the Government monitor the ruling’s impact on employees currently in the workplace? What steps will she take to prevent any further marginalisation of visibly religious people in the workplace?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that issue. The Government believe that people need to be able to feel strong in their religious identities. We have to continue to ensure that the voices of people of faith are heard in Government. We should recognise that people are completely free to follow their faith. We want a society that treats people equally and with respect, so we will always keep this matter under review and take the necessary action if and when it becomes apparent that we need to.

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This is a complicated issue, but my constituents in Kettering would view it as yet another inappropriate judgment from a European court, telling us what to do when we have not sought its advice in the first place. Will the Minister clarify what power the ECJ will have over this country once we have left the European Union?

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We know we are leaving the European Union. We are committed to a successful withdrawal and to forming a new relationship with Europe, and at that stage the court will have no power. We will preserve all the rights that employees currently enjoy and ensure that the robust protections that European legislation affords them are enshrined in domestic law.

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The Minister talks about neutral dress codes applying to both genders, but does she accept that even if a no-headscarves rule applies to both genders it effectively discriminates against only women, and that a no-turbans rule effectively discriminates against only men? Is not something more robust required?

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It is absolutely clear that a no-headscarves rule or a no-turbans rule would be illegal, as it would constitute direct discrimination. The only form of discrimination that is allowed is a blanket ban on any form of religious clothing or symbols, under the legislation referred to in yesterday’s court case.

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Many of my constituents feel that the ban clearly targets Muslim women who wish to wear the hijab. Given the improving but still below-average employment rate among Muslim women, does the Minister not feel that the ruling sends out completely the wrong message as we try to build a country that works for everyone?

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It does send out an unhelpful message, particularly as this Government take really seriously discrimination in any form. We will renew our efforts to ensure that no one is held back by any outdated attitudes or practices.

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A person’s ability to do 99.9% of jobs, including that of security guard, is not affected by whether they wear a skull cap, headscarf, turban, cross, mangalsutra or tilaka. Can this ECJ judgment be rejected in domestic law to prevent confusion among employers about its having any bearing on this country? As G4S receives public funding and is discriminating against people, can its contract be reviewed?

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Domestic equality legislation is very clear. Employers do not need to change any legitimate policies on dress code in the workplace, but it is vital that employers and employees understand what the law allows them to do, and that is what this is about. We do not want any employers mistakenly thinking that this ruling gives them any authority to sack public-facing staff who wear headscarves or any other religious symbols. Those protections are already clear in domestic law, and we will always make sure that they are most strongly enforced.

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At a time when many Members of this House—both across parties and in the Government—are working to promote the principles of freedom of religion or belief internationally, does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we work hard to protect long-standing religious freedoms here at home?

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Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have one of the strongest legislative frameworks in the world to protect communities from hostility, violence and bigotry. We continue to promote that on the world stage, as it is fundamental to everything this country stands for—tolerance and the embracing of other cultures as we make them part of our national identity.

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This is a worrying judgment for all people of faith. Has the Minister seen that the Church of England this morning described the judgment as “troubling”? Will she confirm that she understands why the Church of England has taken that view, and that it is right to do so?

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The right hon. Gentleman is right to bring that up, because the judgment applies to religious symbols, whatever the faith of the individual who happens to be wearing them. The ruling will be equally troubling for the Church of England, for people of Muslim faith, for people of whatever faith and indeed for people of none.

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Sophia Dar, a Muslim woman in my constituency, was attacked in broad daylight on Oxford Street, one of the busiest shopping streets in the world, let alone London, by a man who forcibly tried to remove her hijab from her head. Do not these judgments reinforce a sense that other people have the right to tell people of faith what they can and cannot wear and how they choose to practise or not practise their faith? In addition to the very welcome guidelines to which the Minister has committed today, will she look at what we can do to enforce existing laws that protect people from religious discrimination so that the attacker of my constituent is brought to very heavy justice?

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I am very sorry to hear about the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. That sounds like a very distressing thing to happen. Those who perpetrate hate crimes of any kind will be punished with the full force of the law. We are committed to tackling hate crime and have produced a new hate crime action plan that focuses on reducing hate crime, increasing reporting and increasing support for victims.

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We have all heard about hijabs being ripped from girls’ heads by people emboldened by the referendum result—admittedly, that was an unintended consequence of the result. I am encouraged by the Minister’s words. Will she do all she can to ensure that this illiberal judgment, which has nothing to do with workplace performance, does not have its own unwelcome by-product? Apparently, Muslim women are 70% more likely to be unemployed than non-Muslim women. The judgment could be a recruiting sergeant for Islamic extremist groups. Will she have a word with colleagues about proposed cuts to provision for English for Speakers of other languages.

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The hon. Lady is right: hate crime, whatever form it takes, should never be tolerated. It should be punished with the full force of the law, and the Government take that very seriously.

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I am heartened to hear the Minister’s comments and her very clear guidelines, but I am still concerned that this ruling may allow intolerant employers to ban symbols such as the hijab or even a cross on the forehead. How are the Government planning to monitor employers, and how will they make it possible for employees to report problems without fear of repercussions?

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That is an important question. We are very clear that employers do not need to change legitimate policies on dress codes in the workplace, but it is vital that employers and employees understand what the law allows. Employers cannot act unscrupulously in some mistaken interpretation of the law, and employees must not feel that they cannot report any incidents of this kind.

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When I was married, as part of the service my husband gave me a ring. We all know that that is culturally loaded. Wedding rings are allowed, but headscarves on young Muslim women are a problem. I ask the Minister for the fifth time—unlike the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy)—what she will do about G4S.

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Ironically, my husband did the same—I have a ring, too. The hon. Lady makes a valid point, and it is one that we keep under consideration. This is not a domestic issue and it has not happened with G4S in the UK, but we take it very seriously and will keep it in mind when making any decisions.

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I welcome the tone of the exchanges in the House and I know that they will be very well received by the many Muslim and Sikh constituents whom I have the honour to represent. I also welcome what the Minister said about new guidance to be produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. May I ask her to ensure that the EHRC has the resources necessary to carry out its enforcement function, about which, as she knows, there are significant concerns?

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Let me be clear: this is existing EHRC guidance, but we will work with the commission to make sure that in the light of the most recent judgment it is updated and entirely fit for purpose. I am confident that the EHRC has sufficient funds to do its job efficiently. The hon. Lady might be interested to know that even after some recent changes in its workforce, the commission still has four times more staff than we have in the Government Equalities Office.

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I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for British Sikhs. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for again this year hosting the Vaisakhi celebration, on 18 April in Speaker’s Rooms. I welcome the Minister’s statement today, but will Her Majesty’s Government make representations to the Governments of France and Belgium, which overtly have state-sponsored discrimination against Sikhs, including British Sikhs who move to France or Belgium?

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That is a matter for my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but we will have that conversation with them. We take discrimination seriously and will continue to ensure that no one is held back by any outdated attitude or practice.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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We tend to come to points of order after statements. We can hear from the hon. Lady at that point.

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It pertains to this statement.

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The spirit of generosity gets the better of me. If the hon. Lady is extremely brief, we will hear her point of order.

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I am enormously grateful to you, Mr Speaker. This is a very important point. The great repeal Bill will incorporate all existing EU law at the moment of Brexit. It will therefore incorporate the two judgments of the European Court of Justice that we have just discussed. Will you seek confirmation from the Prime Minister and her Government, if possible, that the two judgments will not be allowed to remain part of our domestic law one moment past Brexit?

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I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady, but I fear she invests me with a power that I do not possess. It is not for me to ask the Government to take a position one way or the other. All I would say is that I have no reason to dissent from her interpretation of the legal and, in a sense, parliamentary position. However, the whole point of that upcoming Bill to be introduced by the Government is that it imports from Europe into our law a body of material with the option then to preserve, to amend or to repeal, case by case, as the Government propose and ultimately the House decides. On the basis of the hon. Lady’s expression of interest in this important matter, I feel certain that, when any such matter comes up for consideration, she will leap from her seat to acquaint the House with her views, and we all look forward to that.

Class 4 National Insurance Contributions

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on national insurance contributions paid by the self-employed.

As I set out in the Budget last Wednesday, the gap between benefits available to the self-employed and those in employment has closed significantly over the last few years. Most notably, the introduction of the new state pension in April 2016 is worth an additional £1,800 to a self-employed person for each year of retirement. It remains our judgment, as I said last week, that the current differences in benefit entitlement no longer justify the scale of difference in the level of total national insurance contributions paid in respect of employees and the self-employed.

Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that there has been a sharp increase in self-employment over the last few years. Our analysis suggests that a significant part of that increase is driven by differences in tax treatment. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs estimates that the cost to the public finances of this trend is around £5 billion this year alone, and the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the parallel increase in incorporation will cost more than £9 billion a year by the end of the Parliament. That represents a significant risk to the tax base, and thus to the funding of our vital public services.

The measures I announced in the Budget sought to reflect more fairly the differences in entitlement in the contributions made by the self-employed. The Government continue to believe that addressing this unfairness is the right approach. However, since the Budget, parliamentary colleagues and others have questioned whether the proposed increase in class 4 contributions is compatible with the tax lock commitments made in our 2015 manifesto.

Ahead of last year’s autumn statement, the Prime Minister and I decided that however difficult the fiscal challenges we face, the tax lock and spending ring fence commitments we have made for this Parliament should be honoured in full. I made that clear in my autumn statement to this House. As far as national insurance contributions are concerned, the locks were legislated for in the National Insurance Contributions (Rate Ceilings) Act 2015. When the Bill was introduced, it was made clear by Ministers that the lock would apply only to class 1 contributions. The measures I set out in the Budget fall within the constraints set out by the tax lock legislation and the spending ring fences. However, it is clear from discussions with colleagues over the last few days that this legislative test of the manifesto commitment does not meet a wider understanding of the spirit of that commitment.

It is very important both to me and to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that we comply with not just the letter but the spirit of the commitments that were made. Therefore, as I set out in my letter this morning to the Chair of the Select Committee on the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), I have decided not to proceed with the class 4 NICs measures set out in the Budget. There will be no increases in NIC rates in this Parliament.

For the avoidance of doubt, and as I set out in the Budget, we will go ahead with the abolition of class 2 national insurance contributions from April 2018. Class 2 is an outdated and regressive tax, and it remains right that it should go. I will set out in the autumn Budget further measures to fund, in full, today’s decision.

I undertook in the Budget speech to consult over the summer on options to address the principal outstanding area of difference in benefit entitlement between the employed and the self-employed: parental benefits. We will go ahead with that review, but we now intend to widen the exercise to look at the other areas of difference in treatment, alongside the Government’s consideration of the forthcoming report by Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, on the implications for employment rights of different ways of working in a rapidly changing economy. Once we have completed these pieces of work, the Government will set out how we intend to take forward and fund reforms in this area.

Reducing the unfairness of the difference in the tax treatment of those who are employed and those who are self-employed remains the right thing to do, but this Government set great store in the faith and trust of the British people, especially as we embark on the process of negotiating our exit from the European Union. By making this change today, we are listening to colleagues and demonstrating our determination to fulfil both the letter and the spirit of our manifesto tax commitments. I commend this statement to the House.

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This is chaos. It is shocking and humiliating that the Chancellor has been forced to come here to reverse a key Budget decision announced less than a week ago. If the Chancellor had spent less time writing stale jokes for his speech and the Prime Minister less time guffawing like a feeding seal on the Treasury Bench, we would not have been landed in this mess.

Let us be clear: this was a £2 billion tax hike for many low and middle earners, and a clearcut and cynical breaking of a manifesto promise. Sickeningly, at the same time as the Chancellor was cutting taxes for the rich and corporations, large numbers of self-employed people have been put through the mangle over the past week, worried about how they would cope with this tax increase, yet today there is not a word of apology. Nobody should be too arrogant to use the word “sorry” when they blunder so disastrously.

Let me thank all those who helped to force this reversal. My right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party was the first to raise the matter in his response to the Budget. Labour MPs, many other Members across the House, the Federation of Small Businesses and several trade unions forced the Chancellor to see sense, but this blunder has consequences that he now has to address. The £2 billion that would have been raised was to go some way to tackling the social care crisis. We need to know where these desperately needed funds will come from now. We need guarantees from the Chancellor that no working people will be hit, either now or in the autumn statement, with stealth or other tax rises, and that there will be no further cuts to public services to pay for this blunder.

The Prime Minister and the Cabinet would have been briefed on the contents of the Budget in advance. Did the Prime Minister or any Cabinet Member raise their concerns with the Chancellor before he announced the measure? The Chancellor has announced a review. We need him to set a clear deadline for that review, and to give a commitment that its findings will be reported and debated on the Floor of this Chamber. We need him to address the real issues facing the self-employed: the scourge of bogus self-employment; the exploitation that goes on under that guise; the pressure from large corporations to reduce costs relating to the self-employed unrealistically; the problem of late payments; the lack of access to maternity pay; no paternity pay; no adoption pay; no sick pay; no compassionate leave; and no carer’s leave. That is the real agenda that should have been addressed last week, not tax hikes.

We welcome this reversal, but we now need an honest and forthright commitment that the self-employed agenda will be addressed. These people are the engine of our economy. They deserve to be respected, not attacked in the way they were seven days ago.

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To echo what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in Question Time, I am rather reluctant to take lessons from the right hon. Gentleman on anything except, perhaps, chaos theory; he certainly knows something about that. He talks about being forced to make a decision. We have listened to our colleagues and the voices of public opinion. In my view, that is how Parliament should work. We listen to what our colleagues say and make our decisions based on that. As I said to the House a few moments ago, we remain clear that the issue needs to be addressed. We have recognised that there is a legitimate view that the commitments that were made need to be interpreted widely; we have said that we will interpret them in that way and not go ahead with any national insurance contributions increases in this Parliament.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the leader of the Labour party, who, apart from in his performance today at Prime Minister’s questions, has scarcely mentioned class 4 national insurance contributions; he scarcely did so in his response to the Budget. I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) is even aware of this, but the Labour party actually has a self-employment commission, which it established last November. At the time it was established, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, acknowledged the need to address the discrepancies in access to entitlements and the contributions that pay for them. Despite the understandable tone of the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, I hope that he agrees that, on the substantive underlying issues, there is a significant degree of agreement across the House that there is a discrepancy and a threat to the tax base that will have to be addressed over time.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about additional benefits for the self-employed. Of course we will review the issues around parental benefits, as I said in the Budget—we will actually take the review wider than that—but I hope that he agrees that if additional benefits are to be made available, we will have to look at how to pay for them, and it will not be done by borrowing half a trillion pounds that the country cannot afford and our children will be left paying for.

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This announcement bolsters trust in the Government’s other commitments, and removes the perception of a cigarette paper between No. 10 and No. 11, so it is doubly welcome. Does the Chancellor agree that a differential should, none the less, remain in the long run to reflect the additional risk taken by the self-employed when they are doing their job?

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In the Budget speech last week, I made it very clear that we were seeking to close the gap a little. We were not seeking to equalise the contributions treatment of the employed and self-employed, as there are very good reasons why there may well need to be a gap. That is why we will look at this in the round—contributions, entitlements and the way the whole package works for the self-employed. Let us come back to this once we have completed the review, have the Matthew Taylor work and can look at the problem in the round.

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I said last week that this decision would come back to haunt the Chancellor, and it has, but little did I expect that when it did, No. 10 and No. 11 would be briefing against each other. It is almost as if the halcyon days of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair never really went away. However, I welcome the U-turn today, not least because about 140,000 Scottish self-employed people would have been affected by the proposal, and many of them would have earned slightly below, on or only slightly more than the average wage. I am delighted that the Scottish National party went in to bat for the squeezed middle against this Chancellor.

Today’s U-turn has all the characteristics of the pasty tax, the caravan tax and the omnishambles Budget. The Chancellor said that he would fill the gap in the autumn, and I will listen carefully to what he says then, but will he give us an assurance today that he will not simply find another clever way of dipping into the pockets of modestly paid self-employed people? More importantly, if he changes the tax or national insurance regime for self-employed people in the future, will he have proper consultation in advance with their representatives, so that they are not hit with the uncertainty that they have faced over the past week?

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On the last point, we will, of course, consult people widely over the course of the summer as we carry out the review. The hon. Gentleman will know that it is intrinsic in the Budget process that it is difficult to have any kind of proper consultation when preparing a Budget. He asked about measures in the autumn Budget. I said that all spending measures in the spring Budget would be fully funded by revenue raises or reductions in spending elsewhere in that Budget, so that it was broadly fiscally neutral. As a result of the decision I have announced today, the spring Budget is no longer broadly fiscally neutral, but I am committed to addressing that issue in the autumn. The intention remains to balance the measures that we are delivering between spending and taxation.

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I thank the Chancellor for listening to the voices of colleagues and deciding to reverse the proposals. The genuinely self-employed carry real financial risk by working for themselves. I know that a Conservative Government really want a tax system that will support risk-takers and growth-creators, so will the Chancellor commit to working over the coming months with colleagues who believe it is time to take a holistic and simplifying view on personal taxation for the self-employed that will support wholeheartedly those who build new businesses and take a risk?

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Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that this Government will always be on the side of those who genuinely strive to take risks, to innovate, to grow businesses and to contribute in that way to the economy. However, the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, in his response to the statement, addressed the issue of bogus self-employment, and he is right: there is a problem of bogus self-employment. There is a problem of employers who are refusing to employ people, requiring them to be “self-employed”. There is a problem of individuals being advised by high street accountants that they can save tax by restructuring the way they work. We do believe that people should have choices, and we do believe that there should be a diversity of ways of working in the economy—we just do not believe that that should be driven by unfair tax advantages.

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Order. I remind the House that colleagues who arrived in the Chamber after the start of the statement should not stand or expect to be called. That is a very long-standing convention of the House.

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This is obviously an acutely embarrassing episode for the Chancellor, but will he not acknowledge that it is also quite embarrassing for those of his colleagues, including the Prime Minister, whom he sent out there to defend this breaking of the manifesto commitment? Has he already apologised to the Prime Minister and to his colleagues, or will he take this opportunity to say sorry to them from the Dispatch Box?

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I find it a bit extraordinary that that should be the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He, after all, is the one who said that Labour would fund its £500 billion plans by doubling income tax, doubling national insurance, doubling council tax and doubling VAT. He is the one who sounded the alarm on the Opposition side.

Look, I have had extensive conversations with colleagues since the Budget, over the weekend, and in the Lobby last night and on Monday. I have had lots of discussions with the Prime Minister over the last few days, as the hon. Gentleman would expect. As he would also expect, I am not about to give the House the full detail of those private conversations.

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I commend my right hon. Friend for his statement today and for recognising what colleagues and others have been saying to him. I also commend him for recognising that the employment market in this country is changing: there are more people who are self-employed, and that needs to be addressed. Does he not think it is right that it is the Conservative party that is asking those questions about how we balance our books, rather than the Labour party, which has no clue whatever about how to pay off the deficit or pay off our debt?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We have, absolutely, recognised the view of colleagues on the crucial issue of the manifesto commitment. However, on the substantive issue of the differences in treatment of people who are employed and people who are self-employed, there is a fundamental structural challenge that will have to be addressed, and that includes the question of how we extend appropriate benefits to people who are in self-employment, so that they get the full range of entitlements, as well as contributing in an appropriate way. We are clear that the right thing to do now is to rule out any increases in national insurance contributions during this Parliament, but that does not mean that we should not do the work, carry out this review and present our findings in due course, and we will do so.

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Of 28 measures in this Budget, the Chancellor has had to come in a humiliating fashion to the House today to cast away the one that actually raised money. He has just told us that £14 billion of tax revenue is at risk because of the way national insurance is encouraging people to become, apparently, self-employed, and encouraging other abuses. He has told us he is not going to deal with that in this Parliament, so what is he going to do to safeguard the tax base in the meantime, while he does his review and belatedly puts into effect the manifesto commitment on which he fought the last election?

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I have to say that that was an extraordinary contribution, because the hon. Lady cannot have it both ways or, to put it another way, have her cake and eat it. She wants me to adopt a broad interpretation of manifesto commitments and to adhere to it, and she wants me to protect the revenue base by addressing the difference in contribution treatment between the employed and the self-employed. I say to her, as I have just said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), that we will have to address that difference in due course. However, given the interpretation that is clearly out there of the manifesto commitment that was made, our priority now is to show that we will deliver on the spirit as well as the letter of that commitment, and we will not increase national insurance contributions in this Parliament.

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I am sure my right hon. Friend is right to deal with this issue in the round, but I hope he will not allow that in any way to deflect him from the very sensible Budget judgment he made in respect of fiscal neutrality or from the need for the structural reforms he is putting forward. Did he notice, as I did, that the shadow Chancellor asked him to fill the gap without reducing spending or increasing taxes? Does he know how that could be fulfilled?

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The straight answer to my right hon. Friend is that only in the la la land that the Labour party occupies is that trick possible. Of course, my right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the issue, and I emphasise again my commitment in this Budget to fiscal neutrality—the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, of course, does not believe in fiscal neutrality.

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Oh, dear me. You just, in a week, reversed a decision—

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The right hon. Gentleman says, “Dear me”. I repeat: he does not—[Interruption.]

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Order. We cannot have these shouting matches across the Chamber. [Interruption.] It is not for me to tell anybody to do anything. I am asking people not to do things that they should not do: shouting across the Box. I now exhort the Chancellor to continue with his response.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The right hon. Gentleman does not believe in fiscal neutrality—that is a fact. He believes in borrowing £500 billion of additional money, and saddling our children and our grandchildren with that debt. However, I very much take my right hon. Friend’s advice on maintaining fiscal neutrality and dealing with the structural issue that underlies this statement.

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