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Commons Chamber

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2017

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

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

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.

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?

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.

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.

Power-sharing Agreement

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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?

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

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.

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?

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.

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.

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

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?

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.

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)

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.

Operation Banner

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)

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.]

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?

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

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.

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?

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.]

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.]

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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.]

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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.

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?

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

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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

(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.

(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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.]

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.