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Volume 624: debated on Wednesday 29 March 2017

I would like to update the House on last week’s terrorist attack. Since my statement on Thursday, the names of those who died have been released. They were Aysha Frade, Kurt Cochran, Leslie Rhodes and, of course, PC Keith Palmer. I am sure that Members of all parties will join me in offering our deepest condolences to their friends and families. The police and security services’ investigation continues; two people have been arrested and remain in custody.

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

I echo those sentiments and congratulate the Prime Minister on all the good work done last week and since that time.

I also congratulate the Prime Minister and the Government on triggering article 50 today. I know that this is a momentous action for the whole United Kingdom. Although I, in common with the right hon. Lady, campaigned to stay in, we recognise that the people have spoken, and we offer the Ulster Unionist party’s full support in ensuring that the negotiations deliver the best for the whole of the United Kingdom, and particularly for Northern Ireland.

I ask the Prime Minister to confirm that, in the extremely improbable event that a border poll should take place regarding the future of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom during her premiership, her Government would fully support any official remain campaign, just as the Government have done in regard of the EU and indeed Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that today we give effect to the democratic decision of the people of the United Kingdom, who voted for us to leave the European Union. It was a call to make the United Kingdom a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. We are, of course, fully committed within that to ensuring that the unique interests of Northern Ireland are protected and advanced as we establish our negotiating position. Our position has always been clear—that we strongly support the Belfast agreement, including the principle of consent that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to determine. As our manifesto made clear, we have a preference for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and we will never be neutral in expressing our support for that, because I believe fundamentally in the strength of our Union.

Q7. Pupils and parents deserve good schools and real choice in education, including schools that are focused unashamedly on academic rigour. Will my right hon. Friend tell us when the Government will open applications for the new wave of free schools, and will she confirm that they will be genuinely free to be run as they wish, serving the local community and creating schools that work for everyone? (909562)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I believe that schools should be free to be run as best suits them. We are putting autonomy and freedom in the hands of strong leaders and outstanding teachers so that they can deliver an excellent education. We want to get out of the way of outstanding education providers so that they can set up the types of schools that parents want. That is why we have set out our new plans to remove the ban on new grammar schools and restrictions on new faith schools. It is a complex area, but we expect to announce the detail of the next wave of free school applications following the publication of our schools White Paper.

I want to begin by paying tribute, as the Prime Minister did, to the emergency services across the country, and especially to all those who responded to the Westminster attack last Wednesday and those who turned out to help the victims of the New Ferry explosion last Saturday. Our thoughts remain with the injured and those who have lost loved ones, and we especially thank the police for their ongoing investigations. Will the Prime Minister assure us that the police will be given all the necessary support and resources to take them through this very difficult period of investigating what happened last Wednesday?

I join the right hon. Gentleman in praising the work of our emergency services, who, as he has pointed out, have to deal with a wide range of incidents. Our focus in the House has most recently been on the attack that took place last Wednesday, but we should never forget that, day in and day out, our emergency services are working on our behalf and often putting themselves in danger as a result of the work that they do.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have, of course, been keeping in touch with both the security services and the Metropolitan police—as has my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—about the current investigation of the attack last week, and about future security arrangements. I can also assure him that they have the resources that they need in order to carry out their vital work.

Of course we all pay tribute to the police for the work that they do, but there are some problems. Between 2015 and 2018 there will be a real-terms cut of £330 million in central Government funding for police forces. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that police forces all over the country have the necessary resources with which to do the job?

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we have protected the police budget in the comprehensive spending review. I also remind him that the former shadow Home Secretary, his colleague the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), said during the 2015 Labour party conference that

“savings can be found. The Police say 5% to 10% over the Parliament is just about do-able.”

We did not accept that. We have actually protected the police budget. I have been speaking to police forces, as has my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and they are very clear about the fact that they have the resources that they need for the work that they are doing.

A survey undertaken recently by the Police Federation reveals that 55% of serving police officers say that their morale is low because of how their funding has been treated. Frontline policing is vital to tackling crime and terrorism, but there are 20,000 fewer police officers and 12,000 fewer officers on the frontline than there were in 2010. I ask the Prime Minister again: will she think again about the cuts in policing, and will she guarantee that policing on the frontline will be protected so that every community can be assured that it has the police officers it needs?

As I said to the right hon. Gentleman, we have protected police budgets, including the precept that the police are able to raise locally. But let us just think about what has happened since 2010. Since then, crimes that are traditionally measured by the independent crime survey have fallen by a third, to a record low. That is due to the work of hard-working police officers up and down the country, and they have been backed by this Government. Yes, we have made them more accountable through directly elected police and crime commissioners, and yes, there has been reform of policing—including reform of the Police Federation, which was very necessary—but we have ensured that they have the resources to do their job, and we now see crime at a record low.

Q8. The Royal Air Force is preparing to fly Typhoons from RAF Coningsby in my constituency to Romania to support our NATO allies on the border with Russia. That is happening as President Putin is locking up his political opponents and crushing calls for democracy. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, as we leave the European Union, the United Kingdom will continue to lead NATO in defending that vital border, and will she pay tribute to the members of the armed forces who safeguard our democracy at home and abroad? (909563)

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the men and women of our armed forces. They are the best in the world. They work tirelessly to keep us safe, and we owe them every gratitude for doing so. I can also assure her that our commitment to collective defence and security through NATO is as strong as ever. We will meet our NATO pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defence in every year of this decade, and we plan to spend £178 billion on the equipment plan to 2025.

My hon. Friend referred to the work being done by the Royal Air Force in relation to Romania. With NATO, we are deploying a battalion to Estonia and a reconnaissance squadron to Poland, and I think that shows our very clear commitment to our collective security and defence.

We associate ourselves with the condolences given by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party and their praise for the emergency and security services during and in the wake of the appalling terrorist atrocity last week.

Last year, the Prime Minister promised that before she triggered article 50 on leaving the European Union she would secure a UK-wide approach—an agreement—with the Governments of—[Interruption.] Last year, the Prime Minister did make that promise: she promised that there would be an agreement with the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland before she triggered article 50. The Prime Minister has now triggered article 50, and she has done so without an agreement; there is no agreement. Why has she broken her promise and broken her word?

I have been very clear throughout, since the first visit that I made as Prime Minister to Edinburgh last July, that we were going to work with the devolved Administrations and that we would develop a UK-wide approach, but that it would be a UK approach that was taken into the negotiations and that it would be the United Kingdom Government who took forward that position—and I would simply remind the right hon. Gentleman that Scotland is part of the United Kingdom.

People viewing will note that the Prime Minister did not deny that she said she would seek a UK-wide approach and agreement with the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and there is no agreement.

The Scottish Government were elected with a higher percentage of the vote—a bigger electoral mandate—than the UK Government. Yesterday the Scottish Parliament voted by 69 to 59 that people in Scotland should have a choice about their future. After the negotiations on the European Union are concluded, there will be a period for democratic approval of the outcome. That choice will be exercised in this Parliament, in the European Parliament and in 27 member states of the European Union. Given that everybody else will have a choice at that time, will the people of Scotland have a choice about their future?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we are taking forward the views of the United Kingdom into the negotiations with the European Union on the United Kingdom exiting the European Union. The Scottish nationalist party consistently talks—[Hon. Members: “National.”]

Order. Ms Cherry, this is very unseemly heckling. You are a distinguished QC; you would not behave like that in the Scottish courts—you would be chucked out.

The SNP consistently talks about independence as the only subject it wishes to talk about. What I say to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues is this: now is not the time to be talking about a second independence referendum. On today of all days we should be coming together as a United Kingdom to get the best deal for Britain.

Q9. Improving vocational and technical education is vital in closing our productivity gap, so can the Prime Minister assure me that vocational education will enjoy equal status with academic education, so that as we leave the EU our young people can be equipped to build the high-skilled economy of the future? (909564)

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. It is essential for young people that we give vocational and technical education the right esteem and focus, because that is essential in addressing our productivity gap. We want to deliver a world-leading technical education system and create two genuine options for young people that are equal in esteem. At the Budget my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a significant package of investment to implement the most ambitious post-16 reforms since the introduction of A-levels 70 years ago. We are going to be investing an extra half a billion pounds a year in England’s technical education system and introducing maintenance loans to support those studying high-level technical qualifications at prestigious institutes of technology and national colleges.

Q2. The Treasury Committee says that for many small companies, having to fill in a tax return every three months will mean facing disaster, and the Federation of Small Businesses says that the extra annual cost is likely to be at least £2,700 a year—yet another burden on business from this Government. The Prime Minister got it wrong on national insurance; is she going to backtrack on tax returns as well? (909557)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have listened to the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made in the Budget, when he indicated that he would delay the introduction of the change for a year for the smallest businesses below the VAT threshold. It is right that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs tries to move to a greater digitisation of how it operates, enabling it to provide a better service to those who are completing their forms. We should always remember that aspect of what is being proposed.

Q10. I welcome the additional money that the Government have given for adult social care, but it is important that we also look at long-term solutions. As part of the long-term review, will the Prime Minister look at some of the cases in my constituency, and at the issues with how the system works for Northamptonshire County Council and Northampton general hospital? (909565)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s welcome for the extra money—the £2 billion that was announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget—that is going into social care. That shows that we have recognised the pressures and demands on social care, but it is also important that we ensure that best practice is delivered across the whole country. It is not just about money, so we are also trying to find a long-term, sustainable solution that will help local authorities to learn from each other to raise standards across the whole system. We will bring forward proposals in a Green Paper later this year to put the state-funded system on a more secure and sustainable footing.

As Home Secretary, the Prime Minister clearly did not protect police budgets. Last week, she told me four times:

“We have protected the schools budget.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2017; Vol. 623, c. 854-855.]

Does she still stand by that statement?

Today, the Public Accounts Committee says of the Department for Education:

“The Department does not seem to understand the pressures that schools are already under.”

It goes on to say that

“Funding per pupil is reducing in real terms”,

and that school budgets will be cut by £3 billion—equivalent to 8%—by 2020. Is the Public Accounts Committee wrong?

What we will see over the course of this Parliament is £230 billion going into our schools, but what matters is the quality of education in schools. An additional 1.8 million children are in good or outstanding schools, and this Government’s policy is to ensure that every child gets a good school place.

The daily experience of many parents who have children in school is that they receive letters asking for money. One parent, Elizabeth, wrote to me to say that she has received a letter from her daughter’s school asking for a monthly donation to top up the reduced funds that it is receiving. This Government’s cuts to schools are betraying a generation of our children. If the Prime Minister is right, the parents are wrong, the teachers are wrong, the Institute for Fiscal Studies is wrong, the National Audit Office is wrong, and the Education Policy Institute is wrong. Now the Public Accounts Committee, which includes eight Conservative Members, is also wrong. Which organisation does back the Prime Minister’s view on education spending in our schools?

As I have just said to the right hon. Gentleman, we said that we would protect school funding, and we have; there is a real-terms protection for the schools budget. We said that we would protect the money following children into schools, and we have; the schools budget reaches £42 billion, as pupil numbers rise, in 2019-20. But I also have to say to him that it is about the quality of education that children are receiving, with 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools than there were under the Labour Government.

Time and again, the right hon. Gentleman stands up at Prime Minister’s questions and asks questions that would lead to more spending. Let us look at what he has said recently: on 11 January, more spending; on 8 February, more spending; on 22 February, more spending; on 1 and 8 March, more spending; and on 15 and 22 March, more spending. Barely a PMQs goes by that he does not call for more public spending. When it comes to spending money that it does not have, Labour simply cannot help itself. It is the same old Labour: spend today and give somebody else the bill tomorrow. Well, we will not do that to the next generation.