Skip to main content


Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2017

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.