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House of Commons Hansard

Commons Chamber

19 April 2017
Volume 624

    House of Commons

    Wednesday 19 April 2017

    The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

    Prayers

    [Mr Speaker in the Chair]

    Business before Questions

    Faversham Oyster Fishery Company Bill [Lords]

    Bill, as amended, considered.

    Oral Answers to Questions

    Scotland

    The Secretary of State was asked—

    Scotland’s Contribution to the UK

  • 1. What assessment he has made of the contribution of Scotland to the future of the UK. [909641]

  • As the Prime Minister has said,

    “at the heart of the United Kingdom is the unity of our people: a unity of interests, outlook and principles. This transcends politics and institutions, the constitution and the economy. It is about the values we share”

    and our “solidarity”. I will never stop making the passionate and positive case for our United Kingdom, and I look forward to having the opportunity to do so during the forthcoming general election.

  • With the Defence Secretary confirming a £1.7 billion investment in Scottish military bases, does my right hon. Friend agree that Scotland plays a crucial role in defending my constituents in Eddisbury and those throughout the whole United Kingdom from growing threats at sea, in the air and on land, and that the divisive policies of the nationalists threaten that crucial role?

  • I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend—Scotland is on the frontline of defending the United Kingdom from growing threats at sea, in the air and on land. It is the home to essential defence capabilities, and our commitment to the future of defence in Scotland is underlined by increasing investment in better infrastructure for our armed forces, which is helping them to keep the whole of the United Kingdom safe.

  • Given that in the last quarter the Scottish economy contracted by 0.2%, is it not about time we got off the independence referendum—and, indeed, the general election—merry-go-round, and got the Prime Minister and the First Minister to concentrate on what is important, which is the economy of Scotland?

  • The hon. Gentleman would have a lot more credibility in making that statement if he was not standing on the ticket of a leader who has said that he has no problem with another independence referendum and who clearly would do a deal with the Scottish National party to get the keys of No. 10.

  • Will the Secretary of State confirm that Scotland’s membership of the single market of the United Kingdom is more important to Scotland than its membership of the single market of the European Union?

  • My hon. Friend is correct. It is absolutely right to highlight the fact that the market for Scottish goods and services in the rest of the United Kingdom is four times greater than that market in the EU. The UK is the vital Union for Scotland.

  • In the last few years, Iceland and Ireland have leapfrogged the UK in terms of growth and deficit reduction, and they have always had a higher GDP per capita over the last 10 years. Norway’s oil fund is now $920 billion, having grown by $105 billion from $815 billion. The equivalent figures for the UK are zero, zero and zero. Does the Secretary of State not agree that Scotland could be as good as tiny Iceland, as good as Ireland and even as good as Norway with our independence? What is he scared of for Scotland?

  • I well remember when the SNP advocated the “arc of prosperity” for Ireland, Scotland and Iceland. I very much doubt that the people of Scotland would want to endure the pain that the people of both Iceland and Ireland have endured to ensure that their economies are back on a stable footing.

  • Perhaps all of us on this side of the House can agree that Scotland’s greatest contribution has been to show that there is actually an alternative to the destructive policies of this UK Tory Government. It is worth remembering that in Scotland we have free prescriptions, free eye tests, free childcare and free university tuition. We have scrapped bridge tolls, reopened railways and invested in infrastructure, and we are building more council houses than any UK nation. That is what the SNP has delivered in government in Scotland. Does the Secretary of State not agree that that stands in marked contrast to the Tories’ mismanagement and destruction of public services south of the border?

  • What I see in my constituency is falling educational standards, with Scotland’s once-proud education system having the lowest international ratings ever. What I see is my constituents experiencing increasing waiting times for the health service and having to deal with inadequate infrastructure. I do not believe that the SNP Government in Scotland are focusing on the day job. They are focusing on their obsession—independence.

  • Quotes about doing the day job when the Government are calling an early general election are a bit cynical. Let us rest on a neutral observer, not a Tory party research officer. What about the director of the Institute of Health and Society, who said:

    “Scotland is in a much stronger position than England with respect to both health and social care”?

    He went on to say:

    “The problem is at the moment that the English government is not committed to a national health service”.

    Is not that another example of the fact that the real alternative to the Tory UK Government is the progressive policies of the SNP?

  • Absolutely not, and I look forward to debating these subjects over the next six weeks. The right hon. Gentleman was very careful not to mention education standards in Scotland, which the latest international figures demonstrate are the lowest ever on record. That is not a proud record of the Scottish Government. I look forward to holding them to account over the next six weeks.

  • Joint Ministerial Committee

  • 2. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Joint Ministerial Committee in ensuring that the needs of all regions and nations of the UK are taken into account in negotiations on the UK leaving the EU. [909642]

  • In our negotiations with the EU, we will be seeking the best deal for all parts of the UK. The Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) was established to facilitate engagement between the UK Government and devolved Administrations, and has had regular substantive and constructive discussions.

  • If the Secretary of State is so keen on and supportive of the JMC, why did the Government vote against putting it on a statutory footing for Brexit negotiations during the passage of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017? Secondly, when was the last time a positive idea—I am sure that there have been many from the devolved Administrations—was taken on board to form part of the Brexit negotiations to improve the exit from the EU for the devolved nations?

  • We have been very clear about “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, the Scottish Government’s contribution to the discussions. There have also been constructive contributions from the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. They have set out many things that formed part of the White Paper and the Prime Minister’s speech. They will be part of the discussions as we negotiate our exit from the EU.

  • The role of the machinery of government in helping to hold together the United Kingdom is an important issue. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a priority for the new Government should be to take a long, hard look at developing new ways of working between Ministers and civil servants across the devolved Administrations to strengthen our United Kingdom?

  • I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, who has considerable experience. Despite what we hear at Question Time and in the media, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations are able to work together very closely and constructively on a range of issues. That is the element that we should support and promote.

  • The Prime Minister told the Scottish Parliament that

    “now is not the time”

    when it wanted to let Scotland decide its own future and relationship with Europe, but now is the time for a screeching U-turn and this opportunistic general election. Does the Secretary of State therefore also believe that it is time for the Scottish people to reject the UK Government’s austerity obsession, their assault on the poor, the obnoxious rape clause, and their desire to drive Scotland over the cliff edge of their hard Brexit?

  • I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman is an expert on screeching, but the Prime Minister’s proposal to have a general election in six weeks’ time, to ensure certainty, clarity and security for the period of the Brexit negotiations, is different from a proposal to have a disruptive referendum campaign during the period of those negotiations.

  • Common commercial policies for the UK to pursue as we leave the EU, for example in animal health and food safety, are as essential to Scotland as they are to Somerset. How can the JMC help to ensure that they will be adopted?

  • I would certainly hope that the JMC(EN) will be involved in the discussion on the repatriation of important powers from the EU to the Scottish Parliament and the other devolved Administrations. I recognise more than anyone how important it is to have common animal welfare arrangements, as the main livestock market for my constituency is a mile south of the Scottish border in England.

  • Scotland voted to remain in the EU and the single market, but the Scottish Government’s paper that would have kept Scotland in the single market and the UK was roundly ignored by a Tory UK Government intent on pursuing a reckless hard Brexit. Will the Secretary of State tell us what personal action he took to convince the Prime Minister to take account of the views of the people of Scotland, and can he provide an explanation for why he failed?

  • I have been clear that Scotland’s place in Europe did play an important part in the Government’s thinking—[Interruption.] Just so that the hecklers on the Opposition Benches are clear, the Government formally responded to the Scottish Government in relation to Scotland’s place in Europe. Surprisingly, the Scottish Government asked us not to publish our response.

  • In the Secretary of State’s assessment of the effectiveness of the Joint Ministerial Committee, did he share my conclusion that it would be much more effective if all parties were focused on building a strong UK after Brexit, not separatist agendas?

  • As we head into unprecedented peacetime negotiations with the EU, it is vital that all parts of the United Kingdom pull together to take a Team UK approach. By doing so, we will get the best possible deal for Scotland and the whole UK.

  • The JMC is supposed to be the platform through which the devolved Administrations have their voices not just heard but responded to. The Secretary of State paints a rosy picture, but he is not listening to those voices. Northern Ireland voices are not being heard at the moment, because they are not allowed to attend. From what we have heard this morning, the Scots are saying clearly that their voice is being ignored. The Welsh feel, at best, less than impressed. Will the Government give this body the teeth it needs, put it on a statutory footing and let it do its job properly?

  • The purpose of the JMC is to bring together the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, and to work together to formulate our position as we go forward in the negotiations. I very much regret the fact that the Northern Ireland Executive have not been able to be politically present in recent times—we all want that situation to be brought to a conclusion—but the meetings have been robust and, I believe, certainly in terms of the actions that have flowed from them, constructive.

  • Tax

  • 4. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on their new tax powers. [909644]

  • 8. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on their new tax powers. [909648]

  • The UK and Scottish Governments continue to engage closely on the devolution of new tax powers. The Scottish Government are now responsible for setting the rates and thresholds of income tax. It is of course incumbent on them to use their powers to make Scotland an attractive place to live and work.

  • Now that the Scottish Government have unprecedented power to shape the economy of Scotland, will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on the Scottish National party to start delivering jobs and economic growth in Scotland, rather than focusing on a second independence referendum? [Interruption.]

  • The shouts from Opposition Members just highlight the complacency of the SNP in relation to the Scottish economy, which contracted by 2% in the fourth quarter of 2016 while the UK economy grew by 0.7%. No Scot can be proud of that comparison.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is terrible that middle earners in Scotland are being penalised £400 this year by the Scottish Government, and by up to £1,400 by 2020-21, compared with England, where we have higher tax thresholds to help hard-working families?

  • My hon. Friend is right to highlight that point. I might not like the plans to make Scotland the most taxed part of the United Kingdom, but I acknowledge that that is a matter for the Scottish Government. They will have to account for their taxation policies, and the forthcoming general election will no doubt highlight these issues.

  • The average band D council tax bill in Scotland is almost £400 lower than it is in England. Will the Secretary of State’s discussions consider how local authorities in England can learn from Scotland’s successes in providing local and national services while maintaining the lowest council tax rate in the UK?

  • The hon. Lady may have spoken to the SNP press office, but she certainly has not spoken to councils throughout Scotland, which are uniform in their negativity in respect of the Scottish Government’s approach to local government funding.

  • As a last act of kindness, and while he still has his seat and his position, will the Secretary of State address the closure of the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office in my constituency, which threatens 1,000 job losses and a move to Edinburgh? A cross-party group of politicians, including members of his own party, has written to him, but he has ignored that. As his swansong, will he come to Livingston and save those jobs?

  • As the hon. Lady knows, I have set out clearly, in correspondence with all who have been in touch with me, the rationale for the move and the changes in the arrangements for HMRC. Many of those changes were called for by Members on both sides of the House on the grounds of efficiency and effectiveness, but obviously no Members like to see significant changes in employment patterns in their constituencies, and I commend the hon. Lady for the way in which she has pursued the issue.

  • Leaving the EU: Private Sector

  • 5. What discussions he has had with Scottish businesses on opportunities for the private sector after the UK leaves the EU. [909645]

  • 7. What discussions he has had with Scottish businesses on opportunities for the private sector after the UK leaves the EU. [909647]

  • The UK Government’s plan for Britain is intended to help businesses throughout the United Kingdom to trade beyond Europe, and to make Britain a leading advocate for free trade all over the world. Scotland Office Ministers have held more than 70 meetings with businesses across Scotland since last summer’s referendum, and only last month my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade was in Glasgow to meet innovative Scottish businesses that are trading with the world.

  • What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support international trade and investment in the devolved nations?

  • We in the Department for International Trade are clear about the fact that ours is a Department for the whole United Kingdom. All our services are accessible to companies in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, including the GREAT campaign and its portal GREAT.gov.uk, and the Tradeshow Access Programme. In recent months, there have been major announcements about more overseas investment in all parts of the UK.

  • Will my right hon. Friend tell us his view of the damage that would be caused to Scottish business if Scotland left the United Kingdom?

  • My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. If Scotland were to leave the UK, the potential damage to Scottish business and Scottish trade would be huge. The Scottish Government’s own figures show that 64% of goods and services leaving Scotland go to the UK, whereas only 15% go to the rest of the EU. That is £49.8 billion versus £12.3 billion.

  • What assessment has the Minister made of Scotland’s contribution to the EU single market?

  • I think the hon. Gentleman is missing the point. The point, surely, is the centrality and importance of the UK single market as we go forward from here. I will give the House the figures again: £49.8 billion goes to the rest of the UK; only £12.3 billion goes to the EU. It is clear that the Union that matters most is the United Kingdom.

  • The Secretary of State has said previously that he supports the European single market and that being part of the single market is clearly the best possible deal for Scotland. Will he tell his constituents whether he will now stand on a manifesto to take Scotland out of that single market?

  • The Prime Minister and the whole Government are absolutely clear about the fact that our objective is to secure a comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union as we leave the EU. That will be in the best interests of all parts of the UK, including Scotland.

  • What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the opportunities for increasing whisky exports across the world as part of a free trade agreement once we leave the European Union? [Interruption.]

  • The hon. Gentleman was asking about whisky exports; let us hear the Minister.

  • My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Whisky is a vital part of our export mix: whisky exports reached £3.999 billion in 2016—a big increase—and whisky has been at the heart of quite a few of our trade missions. Notably, when the Secretary of State for International Trade, the Prime Minister and I visited India in November, we took with us the Scotch Whisky Association, and we have seen big increases in exports to India.

  • It is useful to have a bit of information, I find.

  • Former Prime Minister David Cameron promised he would not resign if he lost the EU referendum; he reneged on that promise within hours. The current Prime Minister said on seven occasions that she would not call an early election; she reneged on that promise yesterday. Will the Minister, answering on behalf of the Secretary of State, give him the chance to break the mould and renew the commitment given to this House on at least three occasions that whatever support is put in place for businesses in the north-east like Nissan will be put in place for Scotland?

  • We have been absolutely clear that our support for Nissan and the rest of the automotive sector will be enduring. That is the most important point, and I am sure it will be an important point in the general election campaign. I look forward to the Conservatives being competitive in the north-east in this coming general election, and we look forward to taking the fight to the official Opposition there.

  • The question was whether the Secretary of State will renew the promise given to Scotland that it would have the same deal, and, if he will, will he tell the people in the oil and gas supply chain, given the report from Robert Gordon University which last week found that Brexit would cost them £200 million, that that money will be sorted and they will be looked after in the same way as Nissan—or will he ignore that and break another promise?

  • I am certainly glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the question of oil and gas in Scotland: I know that he and I will agree that what would be most disastrous for the Scottish economy, including the oil and gas sector, would be Scottish separation, leading to an overnight budget deficit of around 9% of GDP. That would be a disaster.

  • UK Single Market

  • 6. What assessment he has made of the contribution of the UK single market to Scotland. [909646]

  • 9. What assessment he has made of the contribution of the UK single market to Scotland. [909649]

  • 10. What assessment he has made of the contribution of the UK single market to Scotland. [909650]

  • 11. What assessment he has made of the contribution of the UK single market to Scotland. [909651]

  • Sales from Scotland to the rest of the UK are now worth nearly £50 billion, an increase of over 70% since 2002 and four times the value of exports from Scotland to the EU. There is no doubt that the United Kingdom is the vital Union for Scotland.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best deal for Scotland is to stay part of the United Kingdom and to work with the UK Government to do all it can to support a new free trade agreement with the EU?

  • I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

  • The International Monetary Fund predicted dire consequences for the UK economy if we voted Brexit, yet it upgraded our growth yesterday, for the second time in three months, to 2%. Much of the confidence about the growth in the UK economy is deserved under the leadership of our Prime Minister. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when people look to buy British, as a quality marque “made in Scotland” is very important?

  • My constituency has a long and proud tradition of textile companies, many of which trade with all parts of the United Kingdom. How will those companies be helped by Scotland leaving the hugely successful UK single market?

  • Obviously, they will not, because, as my hon. Friend will know, in 2015 Scotland exported £49.8 billion to the rest of the UK, four times more than exports to the EU and three times greater than sales to the rest of the world.

  • The benefits to Scotland of full access to the UK market are clear. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Scottish representation in this Parliament must focus on what benefits the whole of the UK single market?

  • Absolutely. That is why I can confirm to my hon. Friend that when Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives go into the general election, it will be on the basis of keeping Scotland at the heart of our United Kingdom.

  • 12. Seventy-five per cent. of Canada’s exports go to the US, whereas only 63% of Scotland’s exports go to the rest of the UK. Canada is a successful, independent country. Does the Secretary of State agree that neighbouring countries can have close trading relations while still maintaining their sovereignty? [909652]

  • Of course countries can have close trading relationships, but Scotland benefits from being part of the United Kingdom because there are no barriers to trade, and there is freedom of movement between Scotland and the rest of the UK. That is good for Scottish business and the hon. Lady should support it.

  • 15. The value of Scottish exports of food and drink has doubled in the past 10 years, to £5.5 billion in 2016. This week, the chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, James Withers, said that he was afraid that the consequences of leaving the European Union without a trade deal would result in tariffs. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the Scottish food and drink sector will not have to deal with such a situation? [909655]

  • From my discussions with the Scottish food and drink industry, I understand that its greatest concern is that the Scottish National party would seek to drag Scotland out of the United Kingdom.

  • Does the Secretary of State stand by his comments last year, when he said:

    “My role is to ensure Scotland gets the best possible deal and that deal involves clearly being part of the single market”?

    Will he be honest with his constituents in a few weeks’ time? Will they be voting for an MP who supports being in the single market, or for one who wants to go along with a damaging hard Brexit, whatever the cost to families and businesses in his constituency?

  • When I contest my constituency in the next general election, I look forward to knowing exactly what the SNP position is on the EU. Is it for taking Scotland back into the EU, or is it not? I hope we will find out in the next six weeks.

  • The Tories’ strategy worked a treat against the Liberal Democrats in the south-west of England at the last election. Will the Secretary of State be urging his colleagues to export that strategy to Scotland in the coming election?

  • Ruth Davidson has already made it absolutely clear that her stance in the forthcoming general election will be to stand up for Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom and against a divisive second independence referendum.

  • Prime Minister

    The Prime Minister was asked—

    Engagements

  • Q1. If she will list her official engagements for Wednesday 19 April. [909674]

  • I am sure that Members across the House will wish to join me in offering our condolences to the families and friends of Andreea Christie, who died following the London attack, and of Chris Bevington, who was among those killed in the terrorist attack in Sweden. Our thoughts are also with the family and friends of Hannah Bladon, who was murdered in Jerusalem last week.

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

  • I would also like to join the Prime Minister in offering the condolences of the people of South Leicestershire and myself to the families of those individuals.

    Strong countries need strong economies. Strong countries need strong defences. Strong countries need strong leaders. As the nation prepares to go to the polls, who else in this House, apart from my right hon. Friend, can provide the leadership that is needed at this time?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are three things that a country needs: a strong economy, strong defence, and strong, stable leadership. That is what our plans for Brexit and our plans for a stronger Britain will deliver. That is what the Conservative party will be offering at this election, and we will be out there fighting for every vote. The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) would bankrupt our economy and weaken our defences and is simply not fit to lead.

  • I concur with the condolences that the Prime Minister just sent to the families of the three people who so sadly and needlessly died. It is important that we recognise that as a cross-party proposal today, and I thank the Prime Minister for it.

    We welcome the general election, but this is a Prime Minister who promised that there would not be one—a Prime Minister who cannot be trusted. She says that it is about leadership, yet she refuses to defend her record in television debates. It is not hard to see why. The Prime Minister says that we have a stronger economy, yet she cannot explain why people’s wages are lower today than they were 10 years ago or why more households are in debt. Six million people are earning less than the living wage, child poverty is up, and pensioner poverty is up. Why are so many people getting poorer?

  • I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that I have been answering his questions and debating these matters every Wednesday that Parliament has been sitting since I became Prime Minister. I will be taking out to the country in this campaign a proud record of a Conservative Government: a stronger economy, with the deficit nearly two thirds down, a tax cut for 30 million people, with 4 million people taken out of income tax altogether, record levels of employment, and £1,250 more a year for pensioners. That is a record we can proud of.

  • If the Prime Minister is so proud of her record, why will she not debate it? Wages are falling and more children are in poverty. Page 28 of the Tories’ last manifesto said:

    “We will work to eliminate child poverty”.

    They only eliminated the child poverty target, not child poverty. In 2010, they promised to eradicate the deficit by 2015. In 2015, they promised to eradicate the deficit by 2020. Austerity has failed, so does the Prime Minister know by which year the deficit will now be eradicated?

  • I know that it has taken the right hon. Gentleman a little time to get the hang of Prime Minister’s questions, but he stands up week in, week out and asks me questions and I respond to those questions. With a stronger—[Interruption.]

  • Order. The Leader of the Opposition must be heard, and the Prime Minister must be heard.

  • We have a stronger economy, with the deficit two thirds down, but people will have a real choice at this election. They will have a choice between a Conservative Government who have shown that we can build a stronger economy and a Labour party with an economic policy that would bankrupt this country. What voters know is that under Labour it is ordinary working people who pay the price of the Labour party. They pay it with their taxes, they pay it with their jobs, and they pay it with their children’s futures.

  • Only this year the new Chancellor pledged to eradicate the deficit by 2022. I admire Tory consistency: it is always five years in the future. Another Tory broken promise.

    The Prime Minister leads a Government who have increased national debt by £700 billion, more than every Labour Government in history put together. Debt has risen every year they have been in office. We know their economic plan was long term. Does she want to tell us how far into the long term it will be before we get the debt falling?

  • The right hon. Gentleman stands up and talks about debt. This is a Labour party that will be going into the election pledged to borrow an extra £500 billion. What does that mean for ordinary working people? Well, I will tell him what it means. We know what Labour’s plans would entail because we have been told by the former Labour shadow Chancellor. He said that if Labour were in power,

    “you’d have to double income tax, double National Insurance, double council tax and you’d have to double VAT as well.”

    That is Labour’s plan for the economy.

  • All her Government have delivered is more debt and less funding for schools and hospitals. Schools funding is being cut for the first time in a generation. The Prime Minister is cutting £3 billion a year from school budgets by 2020. She says that the Government have created a stronger economy, so why are there tax giveaways to the richest corporations while our children’s schools are starved of the resources they need to educate our children for the future?

  • The right hon. Gentleman talks about levels of funding for schools and the NHS. There are record levels of funding going into schools and record levels of funding going into the NHS, but let us just talk about schools. It is not just a question of funding; it is actually a question of the quality of education provided in schools. Some 1.8 million more children are in good or outstanding schools under this Conservative Government, which is 1.8 million more children with a better chance for their future. What would Labour give us? It would be the same old one-size-fits-all, local authority-run schools: “No choice, good or bad, trust your luck.” We do not trust to luck, and we will not trust the Labour party. We will provide a good school place for every child.

  • Many parents taking their children back to school for the summer term will receive a letter begging for funds to buy books and fund the school. The Conservative manifesto promised

    “the amount of money following your child into school will be protected.”

    It is not. It is another Tory broken promise.

    For the first time in its history, NHS funding per patient will fall this year. The NHS has been put into an all-year-round crisis by this Government. Why are more people waiting in pain, with millions of elderly people not getting the care and dignity they deserve?

  • I am proud of our record on the NHS. We saw more doctors, more nurses, more midwives, more general practitioners and more people being treated in our national health service last year than ever before, with record levels of funding going into our national health service. We can only do that with a strong economy. What do we know we would get from the Labour party? Bankruptcy and chaos.

  • That is a very good reason for why we should have a debate about it, because it is another Tory broken promise. A broken promise of the Tory manifesto, which said that they would continue to

    “spend more on the NHS, in real terms”.

    Say that to those waiting in A&E departments and to those who cannot leave hospital because social care is not available.

    Is it not the truth that, over the last seven years, the Tories have broken every promise on living standards, the deficit, debt, the national health service and school funding? Why should anyone believe a word they say over the next seven weeks?

  • I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will be out campaigning and taking to voters the message of not only the record of this Conservative Government, but, crucially, of our plans to make Brexit a success and to build a stronger Britain for the future. Every vote for the Conservatives will make it harder for those who want to stop me getting the job done. Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the European Union. And every vote for the Conservatives will mean we can stick to our plan for a stronger Britain and take the right long-term decisions for a more secure future for this country.

  • Q2. For years I have been campaigning for fairer funding in Wiltshire schools. Will the Prime Minister please reaffirm her commitment to this and to a review of the pupil premium to encompass other forms of key disadvantage, such as being a young carer, having mental health problems and dealing with bereavement? In this way, we can create a country that will work for everyone. [909675]

  • My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and I know she has campaigned long and hard in her constituency and worked hard for her constituents on this and other issues. We want to ensure that young people, irrespective of their background, have the opportunity to make the most of their talents, and the point of our reforms is to try to end the postcode lottery in school funding and to support our plan for a fairer society, where success is based on merit and not on privilege. She refers to the pupil premium, and that is of course worth £2.5 billion a year. It is an important part of our policy because it gives schools extra support for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, but I think it is right that schools are best placed to prioritise the needs of their pupils and can use their funding to ensure that they are supporting any pupil facing disadvantage, financial or otherwise.

  • May I join in the condolences extended by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party?

    The tone and content of democratic debates, including in a general election, are very important to all of us, so does the Prime Minister agree that political opponents are not “saboteurs”, and that all elected mainstream parties and parliamentarians have a mandate and that that should be respected?

  • In this House and in this Parliament it is right that we have proper debate and scrutiny of proposals put forward by the Government, and that arguments on both sides of the House are rightly challenged and those discussions take place. But I say to the right hon. Gentleman that what the British people—what the people of the United Kingdom—voted for last year was for the UK to leave the European Union. We have set that process in motion; there is no turning back. But it is clear from statements made by the Scottish nationalists and others that they want to use this House to try to frustrate that process. I will be asking the British people for a mandate to complete Brexit and to make a success of it.

  • It is disappointing that the Prime Minister did not take the opportunity to condemn intemperate language in describing other democratic politicians as—[Interruption.] There is heckling from the Government side, and I think the Prime Minister should take the opportunity to underline something that we should all agree on: that describing people in the way we have seen them described in some daily newspapers by some leading politicians is not acceptable.

    Most people know that the reason we are having a general election is because of the woeful state of the Labour party. If the Prime Minister is so confident that her hard Brexit, pro-austerity, anti-immigration case is right, she should debate it with Opposition leaders during the campaign. We look forward to the straight fight between the Scottish National party and the Tories. Will the Prime Minister tell the people why she is running scared of a televised debate with Nicola Sturgeon?

  • First, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that one of the crucial things we have in this country that underpins our democracy is a free press? I believe that is important and I believe that people in this Chamber should stand up for the freedom of the press. As to the TV debates, I can assure him that I will be out there campaigning in every part of the United Kingdom, taking out there our proud record of a Conservative Government that has delivered for every part of the United Kingdom.

    I might also suggest to the Scottish nationalists that now is the time for them to put aside—[Interruption.] Wait for it: now is the time for them to put aside their tunnel vision on independence and actually explain to the Scottish people why the SNP Government are not putting as much money into the health service as they have been given from the UK, they are not exercising the powers they have been given and Scottish education is getting worse. It is time they got back to the day job.

  • Q4. I too welcome the announcement from the Prime Minister yesterday, and I look forward to the general election and to taking my positive message to my constituents in Cheadle in June. Over the past two years, I have pressed for first-class transport infrastructure for Cheadle, and this week I launched my transport survey so my constituents can have their say on what is needed to keep Cheadle moving and be at the heart of the northern powerhouse. Does my right hon. Friend agree that residents in Cheadle need to vote Conservative on 8 June to ensure that we get continued investment in transport and infrastructure, not only in Cheadle but across the north-west? [909677]

  • I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that point. I know she has been working very hard for her constituents in Cheadle on transport and other issues. Of course, it is under this Government that the Department for Transport is investing £290 million to improve transport links to Manchester airport through Cheadle, and £2.1 million has been committed to improving walking and cycling routes around the Cheadle Hulme district centre. That is why the choice is so clear. As my hon. Friend says, if she wants to see that funding for infrastructure, we need a strong economy, which only the Conservatives can deliver.

  • Q3. Because of the Prime Minister’s changes to education funding, every school in the country will face real- terms cuts. Manchester will be hit harder than anywhere outside London—[Interruption.] It’s true. Chorlton High School and Parrs Wood High School in my constituency will each lose the equivalent of more than 30 teachers. I ask the Prime Minister the same question a headteacher asked me: what would she cut to balance the books and what subjects would she choose to sack teachers from? [909676]

  • As the hon. Gentleman knows, record levels of funding are going into our schools. Everybody across this House has recognised for many years that the current funding formula is not fair across the country, and it is necessary for us to look for a fairer funding formula. We have consulted on that and will obviously be responding to that consultation. As the hon. Gentleman faces up to the election, I note that last year he failed to back—he opposed—the leader of his party. If the hon. Gentleman was not willing to support him as leader of his party then, why should his voters support him as leader of the country?

  • Q6. The only way to fund crucial infrastructure is with a strong economy. To that end, does my right hon. Friend agree that the St James Mill link road in Northampton would help with traffic flow in the town and unlock development in the enterprise zone? Will the next Conservative Government continue to support me, as the MP, in backing the scheme? [909679]

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to have a strong economy if we are to be able to fund that crucial infrastructure. That is why, since 2015, we have increased our annual investment in economic infrastructure by almost 60% to £22 billion per year by 2021, including £2.6 billion for improvements in transport projects. I am happy to see the link road proposal being put forward by his local enterprise partnership; it will improve access to business and unlock development in the area. My hon. Friend has worked hard to see it happen, and I am sure he will continue to campaign on issues like that which matter so much to his constituents.

  • Q5. Recent changes to housing benefit entitlement for 18 to 21-year-olds will affect 195 young people in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. The Government are constantly challenging young people to train and leave benefits for the world of work, but homelessness charities such as Llamau are concerned that the changes will be a major barrier to learning and training for youngsters who do not have a safe and secure environment at home. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should be doing everything we can to help young people in the job market, including by offering financial support for housing? Will she pledge to strengthen the guidelines so that no more young people risk falling through the net and ending up on the streets? [909678]

  • The principle behind the changing of housing benefit is the right one, which is to say that it is only fair that people are not able to make decisions when they are on benefit that they would not be able to make if they are actually in work. However, it is right that we ensure that those young people who have a particular difficulty with staying at home are supported through the system, which is why significant exemptions are in place. We recognise that need and have taken it on board.

  • The next question is a closed question.

  • Kettering

  • Q8. If she will visit Kettering constituency. [909681]

  • I would be happy to visit the Kettering constituency in the future if my diary allows. In fact, I suspect that I will be visiting quite a few constituencies across the country in the next few weeks.

  • Life for ordinary working families is harder than many people at Westminster realise: “You have a job, but not necessarily job security. You are just about managing, but you are worried about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school. You are doing your best, and a Conservative Government will do all it can to make sure that you have more control over your life.” These were the inspiring words of the Prime Minister when she took office last July. Will she come to Kettering, Britain’s most average town, and repeat these, her core beliefs? If she does so, I know she will be warmly and widely acclaimed as the Prime Minister this country needs for the next five years.

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight ordinary working families who do rely on the Government to provide stability and certainty for them, and that is what this Conservative Government have done. Looking at what we have done, we see that we have supported jobs through significant new investment in skills, we have invested in public services such as childcare and the NHS, and we have enhanced consumer protections. I am happy to repeat the words that I said outside Downing Street on 13 July last year, but it is Conservatives in government who have delivered strong and stable leadership, and that is the message I will be taking out to the country during this election.

  • Engagements

  • Q7. Does the Prime Minister support the people of Darlington who oppose the downgrading of their A&E and maternity services? They want an answer they can trust, Prime Minister. Is it yes or no? [909680]

  • The proposals for the configuration of health services in local areas is a matter that is being determined by local commissions in the best interests of services in the local area.

    I am interested that the hon. Lady refers to the views of her constituents in Darlington. She has said of the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of her party:

    “My constituents in Darlington have made it clear to me that they cannot support the Labour party under your leadership.”

    How can they possibly support him as leader of the country?

  • Q9. May I welcome the fact that, because the Conservatives have managed the economy so well, there is record school funding this year? East Sussex, for example, has some of the best performing schools in the country, and they are set to receive an increase of 3%. However, in Lewes, in my constituency, many of my small rural primary schools are set to see a reduction. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that she will look at the issue of rural primary school funding so that we can even out the distribution of money? [909682]

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the record levels of funding that are going into schools. It is also the case, as I said earlier, that over the years there has been a general acceptance across this House that the current system of funding is not fair in certain parts of the country. That is why we want to end that postcode lottery and look at a system that is fairer and more up to date and that will support our plan for a society where progress is based on merit and not on privilege. I am very happy to look at her concerns. I recognise that small rural schools have particular issues, and I am happy to look at them to ensure that we get the funding formula right and that we can spread the money as fairly as possible.

  • Q13. Every school in Hyndburn is facing a massive budget cut. Why is a child in Hyndburn worth less than a child in Tory heartlands in the south? [909686]

  • Currently, significant sums of money are going to children in certain schools, sometimes double the amount going to a child in another school. We need to find a fairer system. We have consulted on that system and we will be responding to that consultation.

    I note what the hon. Gentleman has said about the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of his party. He said:

    “He’s not fit to rule. The public see this is a man who doesn’t take responsibility seriously and that he can’t take the party forward other than in a divisive way.”

    If he cannot take the party forward, how can he hope to take the country forward?

  • Q10. Small businesses provide the lion’s share of jobs in Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly. The difficulties of attracting credit, rising operational costs and red tape make running a small business an increasingly difficult task. What can my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister do to help small businesses so that they can continue to be the engine of rural economies like West Cornwall’s? [909683]

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right that small businesses are the engine of the economy. I know that he has been a champion of small businesses in his constituency. He recognises that if we are to ensure that we can create those jobs, we have to encourage small businesses. That is why in the Budget my right hon. Friend the Chancellor provided £435 million to support businesses in England facing the steepest business rate increases, why we will cut business rates by nearly £9 billion over the next five years, and why we have listened to small businesses and given more than 3 million of them an extra year to prepare for Making Tax Digital. I recognise the importance of small businesses in Cornwall, and I look forward to visiting in the next few weeks and being able to talk my hon. Friend and others about the importance of small businesses in the county.

  • I join the Prime Minister in the expressions of condolence that she led earlier.

    This election can change the direction of our country, from the consequences of a potential hard Brexit outside the single market to the future of our NHS and social care, our schools and our environment. The British public deserve to hear the party leaders set out their plans and debate them publicly, but the Prime Minister has refused to take part in televised leaders debates. Back in 1992, when she and I were both candidates, we debated publicly, forcefully and amicably. Indeed, she called out the then incumbent for not showing up for some of those debates. Why will she not debate those issues publicly now? What is she scared of?

  • I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will be debating these issues publicly across the country, as will every single member of the Conservative team. We will be taking out there the proud record of a Conservative Government, but, more than that, we will be taking our plans for the future of this country, for making Brexit a success and delivering a stronger Britain. He talks about the possibility of changing the future of this country. What do we know that the leader of the Labour party, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and the leader of the Scottish nationalists have in common? Corbyn, Farron and Sturgeon want to unite together to divide our country, and we will not let them do it.

  • Q11. The Government wish to pursue a national industrial strategy. Cumbria has some specific strengths, such as tourism, agriculture and nuclear, but it also has some weaknesses. Will the Prime Minister agree that any industrial strategy in the next Parliament must take into account regional and sub-regional factors, and will she be receptive to a Cumbrian industrial strategy that works within a national one? [909684]

  • My hon. Friend points to a very important part of our plans for a stronger Britain for the future, which is the modern industrial strategy that we are developing, because we want an economy that works for everyone, delivers good, high-skilled, high-paid jobs and creates conditions for competitive world-leading businesses to prosper here in the United Kingdom. But he is right to say that as we look at that industrial strategy we also need to look at particular factors in particular parts of the country. He has long been a champion not just for Carlisle but for Cumbria. I recognise the need, as does the Business Department, to tailor the industrial strategy according to the needs of particular areas of the country.

  • The Prime Minister yesterday said that she was calling a general election because Parliament was blocking Brexit, but three quarters of MPs and two thirds of the Lords voted for article 50, so that’s not true, is it? A month ago, she told her official spokesman to rule out an early general election, and that wasn’t true either, was it? She wants us to believe that she is a woman of her word. Isn’t the truth that we cannot believe a single word she says? [Interruption.]

  • Order. The House is rather over-excited. The question has been heard. The answer will be heard.

  • This House and this Parliament voted to trigger article 50, but the Labour party made it clear that it was thinking of voting against the final deal, the Scottish nationalists have said that they will vote against the legislation necessary to leave the European Union, the Liberal Democrats say that they are going to grind Government to a standstill, and the House of Lords has threatened to stop us every inch of the way. I think it is right now to ask the British people to put their trust in me and the Conservative party to deliver on their vote last year—a Brexit plan that will make a success for this country and deliver a stronger, fairer, global Britain in the future.

  • Q12. I have seen rats and fly-tipping as a result of bins not having been emptied for up to three weeks across Lib Dem-run Sutton following a shambolic change to refuse collections. [Interruption.]When bin collections get into the national headlines, you know something has gone wrong. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in accepting greater delegated powers, elected councillors must consult residents properly, plan major changes carefully and take full responsibility as accountable representatives when things go wrong? [909685]

  • I do not know why there are howls of derision from the Opposition Benches, because my hon. Friend raises an important point about an issue that actually matters to people up and down the country. It is our goal to reduce littering and litter in England to ensure that our high streets, villages and parks are the cleanest and most pleasant places that they can be. We have published the first ever national litter strategy for England, and we are supporting comprehensive and frequent bin collections. But what my hon. Friend says the Liberal Democrat-run Sutton Council is doing shows not only that the Liberal Democrats charge the highest council taxes, which we already knew, but that under the Liberal Democrats you pay more and get less.

  • Will the Prime Minister join the Scottish Government, North Ayrshire Council and all Ayrshire local authorities by today pledging to support the Ayrshire growth deal, which requires £350 million of targeted investment to regenerate Ayrshire and improve the lives and prospects of all its people?

  • As the hon. Lady will know, we have already shown our commitment to growth deals in Scotland with the deals that have already been agreed. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has met the Scottish Government to discuss the growth deal for Ayrshire. We are in discussions about that deal, but we have shown our commitment through the deals that have already been struck—for example, for Aberdeen.

  • Q14. As part of Southend’s celebrations as the alternative city of culture, stilt walkers will walk non-stop from Southend to No. 10 Downing Street on the morning of Monday 1 May to raise money for the Music Man Project to help people with learning difficulties, and for a charity for child refugees. Will my right hon. Friend arrange, on the morning of Tuesday 2 May, for someone on her behalf to receive the stilt walkers and accept from Southend’s town crier the proclamation that in this, the 125th anniversary of the founding of the borough, Southend be declared a city? [909687]

  • When I first heard about the stilt walkers, I thought it sounded a bit of a tall order, but I am sure they will be making great strides as they approach Downing Street. I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend says about the Southend celebrations, but also about the efforts that are being made to raise funds for very, very important causes. We will certainly look very carefully at what can be done in Downing Street when the stilt walkers arrive.

  • Will the Prime Minister give a guarantee that no Tory MP who is under investigation by the police and the legal authorities over election expenses in the last general election will be a candidate in this election? If she will not accept that, this is the most squalid election campaign that has happened in my lifetime.

  • I stand by all the Conservative MPs who are in this House and who will be out there standing again, campaigning for a Conservative Government who will give a brighter and better future for this country.

  • Q15. I am proud that my party in government has ensured that in this country we fulfil our commitment to NATO to spend 2% of GDP on defence and our commitment to the UN to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid. Will my right hon. Friend please commit the future Conservative Government to do the same? [909688]

  • My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Obviously we have committed to meet our NATO pledge of 2% of GDP being spent on defence every year of this decade. We are delivering on that. We have got a £36 billion defence budget that will rise to almost £40 billion by 2020-21—the biggest in Europe and second largest in NATO. We are meeting our UN commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas development assistance. I can assure him that we remain committed, as a Conservative party, to ensuring the defence and security of this country and to working for a stronger world.

  • Finally, Christian Matheson.

  • Schools in Cheshire West and Chester were already underfunded by about £400 per pupil on average before the new national fair funding formula came in, and now every school in Chester is cutting staff and raising class sizes. That is how the Government have protected the education budget, so will the Prime Minister explain to the House why the national funding fair formula provides neither fairness nor funding?

  • As I have said in this Chamber before, we need to look at the funding formula. We have published proposals for fair funding, we have consulted on those proposals, and in due course the Government will respond to those proposals.

    I was very interested to see the hon. Gentleman being interviewed yesterday and being asked whether he would put a photograph of the Leader of the Opposition on his election literature. Sadly, he said that the only photographs he wanted on his election literature were his own; he was not prepared to support the leader of his own party.

  • Child Maintenance (Assessment of Parents’ Income)

    Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

  • I am sure the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) is greatly encouraged by the interest in his ten-minute rule motion.

  • I beg to move,

    That leave be given to bring in a Bill to equalise the assessment and enforcement of child maintenance arrangements of children of self-employed parents with that of children of other employed parents; and for connected purposes.

    I welcome the great interest and attendance of hon. Members for my Bill, but I feel somewhat like the filler in the Prime Minister’s sandwich. I guess that hon. Members’ attention will be focused on the next motion rather than on my Bill. However, many parents have waited all too long for fair child maintenance for their children, and they will not let a general election get in the way of their campaign. The campaign message at the heart of my Bill, to use the Prime Minister’s parlance, is that we need a child maintenance service that works for everyone, not just for a privileged few. [Interruption.]

  • Order. Stop the clock, please. I appreciate the interest in other matters, but the subject matter of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill is of very great importance to huge numbers of parents and children around the country. I think it is, to put it mildly, unseemly that while the hon. Gentleman is speaking to his Bill, there are a number of rather animated private conversations taking place, including those being conducted by normally immensely courteous Members of the House. If the House can settle down and listen to the eloquence of the hon. Gentleman, I think we will all be grateful for that.

  • This is an issue of great importance and interest to the public. It is a cross-party issue, but it has been a Conservative cause since the Thatcher Government recognised the principle that all parents have a continued responsibility to contribute reasonably to their children’s upkeep. When parents cannot agree about a child’s maintenance, the state steps in to protect the child’s interests. It is there for parents who are in need of child maintenance and have nowhere else to turn. As such, it must cater for all children, including those whose parents are self-employed and who have complex financial affairs.

    My interest in this issue has arisen from the case of my constituent Elizabeth, who is in attendance today, as well as those of four equally brave and determined women whom my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) refers to as her supermums. Similarly like-minded, brave and determined women will have come to the surgeries of other hon. Members.

    Elizabeth, Melissa, Jo-Anne, Sue and Kate have for years relentlessly pursued their cases with the Child Support Agency, and they could write the textbook on how non-resident parents can easily evade the system by claiming self-employment. The ability to challenge on the grounds of assets or “lifestyle incompatible with earnings” that existed in the CSA system has been removed from the replacement Child Maintenance Service process. Those flaws have led me to introduce this Bill, and they have encouraged my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire and the Select Committee on Work and Pensions to hold an inquiry into the CMS; that inquiry is due to report imminently.

    The fact of the matter is that a child whose non-resident parent is self-employed is at risk of being financially disadvantaged in comparison with a child whose non-resident parent is employed. Non-resident self-employed parents are being indulged by the CMS. The Government’s defence against the charge of injustice is that closing the loopholes that make possible such child maintenance avoidance is “expensive and time-consuming”.

    However, the Government do not take such a relaxed attitude towards individuals who avoid paying their benefits or taxes. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a 56,000-strong tax collecting department with an annual budget of more than £4 billion, but even with that money it fails to get a grip on non-resident parents who hide their income from the CMS by exploiting legal loopholes.

    It is welcome that HMRC has beefed up its financial investigations unit to a 50-strong team. It is good that, as the Minister for Welfare Delivery, my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes)—she is here today to listen—told the Work and Pensions Committee, the team has the power to look at bank accounts and tax records and seek clarification when things

    “just do not add up”.

    I do not believe that is good enough, however. Children should not be paying the price for the ongoing injustice of unpaid child maintenance. Unpaid maintenance is estimated to total £52.5 million, which means that more than half of eligible children do not receive anything at all. Elizabeth’s son should not be paying the £40,000 price—that is what he is owed for more than six years of child maintenance—simply because his father has a clever accountant who can help to hide his assets in non-income-bearing accounts, businesses and property.

    That maintenance liability would not have been uncovered without Elizabeth’s determination in taking the case through to tribunal hearings under the old CSA system and in relying on the old rule, which allowed for an assets variation. The hearings eventually revealed that the other parent had assets to the value of some £800,000 from the sale of various businesses and from inheritance, and found that he could regularly pay CSA maintenance to support their teenage son.

    Yet the problem my Bill seeks to resolve is that, under the 2012 CMS scheme, the same parent is held legitimately to have a nil child maintenance liability—it was £40,000, but it is now nil—based largely on gross taxable income figures provided by HMRC. I accept that this model works in the majority of straightforward cases, where a paying parent’s sole income is from pay-as-you-earn employment. It works less well where the paying parent takes income in other forms, such as dividend or rental income. It does not work at all where the paying parent’s living costs are met from income that does not show up at HMRC—for example, income from ISAs, or from venture capital trust fund dividends. There are also some non-resident parents who do not support their lifestyle from income at all—they may have substantial assets, such as from capital gains or property transactions, but no apparent income—and such paying parents may have no child maintenance liability at all.

    Parents are now left with a limited child maintenance support system that may be cheap and more efficient for simple cases, but for more complex cases is weak and leads to injustice. This injustice is compounded by the 2012 rules, which not only abolished the grounds for challenging assessments, but cut off the avenue for redress through the courts. The Government’s response to my constituent Elizabeth was that the

    “assets grounds for variation proved difficult to administer...and difficult for our clients to understand.”

    However, what has proved difficult for my constituent Elizabeth is to obtain justice for the maintenance of her son, and what is difficult for her to understand is why the state has chosen to prioritise its own administrative convenience above the interests of her child.

    The Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into this issue has heard evidence from parents about other non-resident parents whose lifestyles do not match their declared income. The CMS advised them to contact HMRC’s fraud hotline, only for them to be left in limbo, because non-resident parents are not committing tax fraud, only avoiding child maintenance, which means that they can hide behind their self-employed status. They have organised their financial affairs in a tax-efficient manner by taking income in forms other than earnings, which that are beyond the reach of the CMS. One mother told Mumsnet how the CMS advised her

    “to ‘accept’ my £100 pcm payment from my ex as he was self-employed and it was the best I could hope for”.

    That was regardless of her evidence that he was capable of paying more because he had a very successful business, multiple properties and, in her words,

    “more physical assets than you can imagine.”

    Fiona Weir, the chief executive of Gingerbread, which I commend, has said:

    “Britain’s child maintenance system is contributing to a culture where too many parents think it’s optional, rather than obligatory, to pay their child’s maintenance.”

    It cannot be right—can it?—that a haulier can avoid paying child maintenance because his relevant tax return year removed his liability. Why was that? Because during that year he had bought a truck. The CMS should not allow the financial interests of a truck to come before a child. The state should not be an accessory to child maintenance avoidance. The Government rightly have their eye on the self-employed in wanting to make the tax system work for everyone, and they should include the child maintenance system in that.

    My Bill will reform the CMS to correct its current failure to cater for the children of traders, company directors and those with financially complex affairs. The variation ground previously available in the CSA scheme, whereby a notional income could be assumed where a paying parent’s lifestyle was inconsistent with income, should be made available in the new CMS scheme. A new variation ground should be made available in the new scheme whereby a notional income at a fair rate of interest can be assumed from an asset or assets capable of producing a reasonable level of return, where a paying parent has chosen to forgo such income without good reason, bearing in mind their maintenance responsibilities for their children. My Bill will also grant the court jurisdiction where the non-resident parent has assets or a lifestyle inconsistent with income and the CMS is unable to determine, or incapable of determining, the child maintenance and support.

    My Bill admittedly comes at the very end of this Parliament, but it may just help to prompt the publication of the Government’s spring report setting out the conclusions of the 30-month review into the progress of the CMS and a statement on future policy. Back in 2012, the noble Lord Freud said that

    “we will make clear our intentions, including a specific view on the position of the poorest parents.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 February 2012; Vol. 735, c. 778.]

    No doubt that will include the impact on poor families of the £20 fee from which my Bill would seek to exempt them. Gingerbread, which has led the campaign on behalf of single-parent families, has found that child maintenance can lift a fifth of parents on low incomes out of poverty. The lack of child maintenance should be seen as another burning injustice for the Government to tackle.

    Given the next motion, I appreciate that this Bill is probably the least likely ever to become law during its parliamentary Session. Some may think, “Well, what’s the point? Sit down, and let’s get on with the general election motion.” As my hon. Friends who are supporting the Bill know, however, there is every point in highlighting —on behalf of our constituents and, more importantly, their children—the unfairness of the present child maintenance system. If you will indulge me, Mr Speaker, let me make a bid for this issue to be in the Conservative manifesto, and let me make an early and most public bid for its inclusion in the next Queen’s speech. Either way, I look forward to the return of a Conservative Government who will deliver social justice with an improved and fairer child maintenance system for all.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Ordered,

    That Mr David Burrowes, Heidi Allen, Suella Fernandes, Antoinette Sandbach, Mrs Cheryl Gillan, Dame Caroline Spelman, Stephen McPartland, Dr Tania Mathias, Mr Ranil Jayawardena, Nusrat Ghani, Nigel Adams and Kit Malthouse present the Bill.

    Mr David Burrowes accordingly presented the Bill.

    Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May, and to be printed (Bill 169).

  • Early Parliamentary General Election

  • I beg to move,

    That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.

    I rise to speak to the motion on the Order Paper in my name and those of my right hon. Friends. The motion confronts every member of this House with a clear and simple opportunity—a chance to vote for a general election that will secure the strong and stable leadership the country needs to see us through Brexit and beyond. It invites each one of us to do the right thing for Britain and to vote for an election that is in our country’s national interest.

    My priority when I became Prime Minister was to provide the country with economic certainty, a clear vision and strong leadership after the long and passionately fought referendum campaign. This Government have delivered on those priorities.

  • In the time-honoured fashion, my right hon. Friend has called this election in what she considers, and I consider, to be the national interest at this moment. It would be a brave man or woman who voted against this motion. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is therefore seen to be an emperor without clothes—it serves no purpose, and many of us have questioned it for many years. Will the first line of our manifesto be to scrap it?

  • My hon. Friend tries to tempt me down that road. What is clear is that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act gives us an opportunity, notwithstanding the fixed-term element of it, to have elections at another time, but it is of course for this House to vote for such an election. Like him, I think it is very clear that every Member of this House should be voting for this election.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • I will take one more intervention and then return to my speech.

  • The Prime Minister pledged time and again not to call an early election. In her Easter message, she talked greatly of her Christian values, so will she explain why she has such a loose and complicated relationship with telling the truth?

  • Order. The Prime Minister is perfectly well able to fend for herself, but what the hon. Gentleman has said is a breach of order and I must ask him to withdraw it. He is versatile in the use of language—he used to pen articles for newspapers; he is a journalist—so withdraw, man, and use some other formulation if you must. At the very least, however, withdraw it.

  • I am very happy to withdraw and reformulate what I said. Why does the Prime Minister have such a complicated and loose relationship with giving the country a clear indication of her intentions?

  • I say to the hon. Gentleman that yesterday I gave the country a very clear indication of my intentions. If he has a little patience, he will hear the reasons why I did that.

    As I was saying, the Government have delivered on the priorities that I set out last year. Despite predictions of immediate financial and economic danger, since the referendum we have seen consumer confidence remain high, record numbers of jobs and economic growth that has exceeded all expectations. At the same time, we have delivered on the mandate we were handed by the referendum result by triggering article 50 before the end of March, as we pledged to do. As a result, Britain is leaving the EU and there can be no turning back.

  • Does it not take some brass neck to call a general election when you are facing allegations of buying the last one?

  • That intervention was not worthy of the hon. Gentleman.

  • Will the Prime Minister just clarify for us whether she supports fixed-term Parliaments?

  • We have a Fixed-term Parliaments Act that enables us to have fixed-term Parliaments. I believe that at this point in time, it is right for us to have this debate and this vote in this House, and I believe that it is right for Members of this House to vote—I shall explain why—for us to have a general election at this stage.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • I will not take any further interventions for a while. This is a limited-time debate and hon. Members wish to make their contributions.

    Today we face a new question: how best to secure the stability and certainty we need over the long term in order to get the right deal for Britain in the Brexit negotiations and make the most of the opportunities ahead. I have come to the conclusion that the answer to that question is to hold a general election now in this window of opportunity before the negotiations begin.

    I believe it is in Britain’s national interest to hold an election now. A general election is the best way to strengthen Britain’s hand in the negotiations ahead. Securing the right deal for Britain is my priority and I am confident that we have the plan to do it. We have set out our ambition: a deep and special partnership between a strong and successful European Union and a United Kingdom that is free to chart its own way in the world. That means we will regain control of our own money, our own laws and our own borders, and we will be free to strike trade deals with old friends and new partners all around the world.

  • I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. I can understand that she wants to give the House the opportunity to determine whether there should be an election, but if the House determines that now is the time, why is it that the Prime Minister stands in the face of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, which have voted for a referendum on Scotland’s future? If it is right that the people here have a voice and a vote on the future of this country, why should not the Scottish people be given a vote as well?

  • Now is the time for a general election because it will strengthen our hand in the negotiations on Brexit. Now is not the time for a second Scottish independence referendum because it would weaken our hand in the negotiations on Brexit. Strength and unity with the Conservatives; division and weakness with the Scottish nationalists.

  • Will the Prime Minister give way?

  • I will just make a little more progress.

    I believe that our plan for Brexit delivers on the will of the British people. It is the right approach for Britain and it will deliver a more secure future for our country and a better deal for all our people. But it is clear that other parties in this House have a different view about the right future for our country, while Members of the other place have vowed to fight the Government every step of the way.

  • In the referendum, the people of Rossendale and Darwen gave my right hon. Friend and the Government a mandate to exercise article 50. She has done that and we are now grateful to have the opportunity to strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand so that she can go out there and get the best possible deal for people who live in Rossendale and Darwen, manufacturers in Rossendale and Darwen, and every family in Rossendale and Darwen.

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should be united in this Parliament in wanting to get the best possible deal not just for the country as a whole, but for everybody across the whole of this country. I commend him for the work that he has done in Rossendale and Darwen to support his constituents on this matter.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, and then I will make progress.

  • I can see how it suits the Prime Minister’s purposes to make this election all about Brexit, but does she accept the possibility that it may just become a referendum on her brutal cuts, which have left older people without care, schools sending begging letters to parents and a record number of homeless people on the streets of Greater Manchester?

  • Of course when we come into the general election campaign, people will look at a wide range of issues. They will look at the fact that pensioners are £1,250 a year better off because of the actions of the Conservative Government. They will look at the fact that 1.8 million more children are in good or outstanding schools. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about impact on the economy, I suggest he searches his memory for the time he spent as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when Labour were trashing the economy of this country and leading us to virtual bankruptcy.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • No, I am going to make some progress.

    I have set out the divisions that have become clear on this issue. They can and will be used against us, weakening our hand in the negotiations to come, and we must not let that happen. I believe that at this moment of enormous national significance, there should be unity here in Westminster, not division. That is why it is the right and responsible thing for all of us here today to vote for a general election, to make our respective cases to the country, and then to respect the result and the mandate it provides to give Britain the strongest possible hand in the negotiations to come.

  • In the last election, the Conservatives made a manifesto commitment to stay in the single market. Will the Prime Minister withdraw that commitment from the new manifesto and, if she does, will that not weaken her negotiating position, as well as removing two months from the negotiation window?

  • We gave a commitment in the last manifesto to provide the people of the United Kingdom with a vote on whether or not to leave the European Union. We gave them that vote, with the support of Parliament, and they gave a clear message that they want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. That is exactly what we are going to do.

  • I fully support the fact that the Prime Minister needs a stronger hand going into the negotiations as we leave the European Union. Does she not think it perverse that some people who did not want a referendum in the first place now want a second referendum at the very end of the procedure, just in case the British Government do not get a good deal from Brussels? Does she not believe that if we were to have that second referendum, it would deeply weaken her position in the negotiations she will have with the European Union?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right in his description of what would happen. Those who say that they want a second referendum would actually be denying the will of the people, because people voted for us to leave the European Union. We are going to go out there and get the best possible deal.

    Waiting to hold the next election in 2020, as scheduled, would mean that the negotiations would reach their most difficult and sensitive stage just as an election was looming on the horizon. A general election will provide the country with five years of strong and stable leadership to see us through the negotiations and ensure we are able to go on to make a success of the result. That is crucial. That is the test. It is not solely about how we leave the European Union; it is what we do with the opportunity that Brexit provides that counts.

    Leaving the EU offers us a unique, once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape a brighter future for Britain. We need the leadership provided by a strong and stable Government to seize it: a Government who have a plan for a stronger Britain, a Government with the determination to see it through, and a Government who will take the right long-term decisions to deliver a more secure future for Britain. The Conservative party I lead is determined to be that Government.

  • Is the Prime Minister at all concerned that, having tried her best to build a reputation for political integrity both as Home Secretary and Prime Minister, she is now seen, after all the denials that there would be a snap election, simply as a political opportunist?

  • I have not denied the fact that when I came into this role as Prime Minister, I was clear that what the country needed was stability and a Government who would show that they would deliver on the vote people had made in the referendum on leaving the EU. We have provided that over the last nine months. Now it is clear to me that if we are to have the strongest possible hand in the negotiation, we should have an election now. As I have just said, leaving the election to 2020 would mean that we would be coming to the most sensitive and critical part of the negotiations in the run-up to a general election. That would be in nobody’s interests.

    I have said that the Conservative party I lead is determined to be that Government who have the determination to see through our plan for a stronger Britain. We are determined to provide that leadership, and determined to bring stability to the United Kingdom for the long term. That is what the election will be about: leadership and stability.

  • Does the Prime Minister, like me, appreciate decisiveness? Does she agree that voting yes to the motion signifies strength, whereas abstaining is a symbol of weakness?

  • Absolutely: voting yes is a sign of strength, but I would say a little more about abstaining. Anybody who abstains and thinks we should not have a general election is presumably endorsing the record of the Conservative Government, so we are happy both ways.

  • Does the Prime Minister agree with Lord Hill, who was a European Commissioner? When asked by the Foreign Affairs Committee what was the best strategy for negotiation, his response was that we have to come together, because our interlocutors will be watching this place and will exploit any weakness in our political system.

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am grateful to him for reminding us what Lord Hill, with his experience, said. It is important that we come together, that we do not show the divisions that have been suggested in the past, and that we are able to show a strong mandate for a plan for Brexit and for making a success of it.

    We are determined to bring stability to the United Kingdom for the long term. That is what this election will be about: leadership and stability. The decision facing the country will be clear. I will be campaigning for strong and stable leadership in the national interest with me as Prime Minister. I will be asking for the public’s support to continue to deliver my plan for a stronger Britain, to lead the country through the next five years, and to give the country the certainty and stability that we need.

  • On the timetable before yesterday, the Prime Minister would have concluded her negotiation by 2019. We would have gone into the general election in 2020, a year later, talking about her deal. That would have given the country an outlook as to what it would be voting for. She is asking the country to strengthen her hand, but does she agree that she is asking the country to vote for a blank cheque?

  • No, I am not asking the country to write a blank cheque. We have been very clear about what we intend in terms of the outcome of the negotiations. I set that out in my Lancaster House speech in January, it has been set out in the White Paper, and it was set out in the letter we submitted to the President of the European Council to trigger article 50.

    The choice before the House today is clear. I have made my choice to do something that runs through the veins of my party more than any other. It is a choice to trust the people, so let us vote to do that today; let us lay out our plans for Brexit; let us put forth our plans for the future of this great country; let us put our fate in the hands of the people; and then let the people decide.

  • We welcome the opportunity of a general election because it gives the British people the chance to vote for a Labour Government who will put the interests of the majority first. The Prime Minister says she has only recently and reluctantly decided to go for a snap election. Just four weeks ago, her spokesperson said

    “there isn’t going to be an early general election”.

    How can any voter trust what the Prime Minister says?

    Britain is being held back by the Prime Minister’s Government. She talks about a strong economy, but the truth is that most people are worse off than they were when the Conservatives came to power seven years ago. The election gives the British people the chance to change direction. This election is about her Government’s failure to rebuild the economy and living standards for the majority; it is about the crisis into which her Government have plunged our national health service; and it is about the cuts to our children’s schools, which will limit the chances of every child in Britain, 4 million of whom now live in poverty. It is a chance of an alternative to raise living standards. More and more people do not have security in their work or their housing.

  • I give way to my Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent.

  • Hon. Members

    Which one?

  • I try not to take it personally that, having arrived so recently, the Prime Minister is that desperate to get rid of me that she is calling an election.

    Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister, in calling this election, has essentially said that she does not have confidence in her own Government to deliver a Brexit deal for Britain? One way in which she could secure my vote and the votes of my hon. Friends is to table a motion of no confidence in her Government, which I would happily vote for.

  • I congratulate my Friend on his election to the House and on his work. I agree with him: I have no confidence in this Government either.

  • Will my right hon. Friend give way?

  • In the interests of unity in Stoke-on-Trent, what else can I do?

  • Don’t forget that there are five towns.

  • Six.

    My right hon. Friend highlighted the fact that the Prime Minister for 12 months dithered over whether she wanted an election, and all the time said that she did not want one, but is not the reality that her mind was focused by the fact that she may well lose some of her Back Benchers if the Crown Prosecution Service has its way?

  • The timing of the election and the role of the CPS is extremely interesting, and it is interesting that the Prime Minister did not mention it in her contribution.

  • The Leader of the Opposition talks about trust in leaders. What trust can the public put in a leader who has no confidence from his parliamentary colleagues, and who is put in place not by people inside Parliament, but people outside?

  • I was elected leader of my party by 300,000 votes. I do not know how many people voted for the Prime Minister to be leader of her party. I suspect it was none whatsoever.

    To the 6 million people working in jobs that pay less than the living wage, I simply say this: it does not have to be like this. Labour believes that every job should pay a wage people can live on, and that every worker should have decent rights at work. To the millions of people who cannot afford a home of their own, or who have spent years waiting for a council home, I say that this is their chance to vote for the home their family deserves. Labour Members believe that a housing policy should provide homes for all, and not investment opportunities for a few. To the millions of small businesses fed up with the red tape of quarterly reporting, hikes in business rates and broken promises on national insurance, I say that this is their chance to vote for a Government who invest and who support wealth creators, not just the wealth extractors.

    The Prime Minister says that she has called the election so that the Government can negotiate Brexit. We had a referendum that established that mandate. Parliament has voted to accept that result. There is no obstacle to the Government negotiating, but instead of getting on with the job, she is painting herself as the prisoner of the Lib Dems, who have apparently threatened to grind government to a standstill. There are nine of them and they managed to vote three different ways on article 50, so it is obviously a very serious threat. The Tories want to use Brexit to turn us into a low-wage tax haven. Labour will use Brexit to invest in every part of this country to create a high-wage, high-skill economy in which everyone shares the rewards.

    The Prime Minister says this campaign will be about leadership, so let us have a head-to-head TV debate about the future of our country. Why has she rejected that request? Labour offers a better future. We want richer lives for all, not a country run for the rich.

  • I thank the right hon. Gentleman for—

  • Order. Is the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) giving way? [Interruption.] No, he has finished. [Interruption.] Order. I have known the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) for more than 30 years, since we stood against each other in a student election. He is not going to take it personally, but the right hon. Member for Islington North has finished his speech. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford wants to raise a point of order, I will hear it with courtesy.

  • On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is that it?

  • It is very generous of the right hon. Gentleman to seek to invest me with additional powers, but the question of whether it is “it”, as he puts it, is a matter not for me but for the right hon. Member for Islington North, and he has completed his contribution.

  • I accept entirely the logic laid out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in her statement yesterday in Downing Street. I reached that conclusion somewhat earlier, but I did not believe it was possible to deliver. Indeed, I found myself discombobulated by a reversal in Government policy for the second time in a few weeks, having told the readers of the Forest Journal in terms that there was no question of there being an early general election, because it was not in the Prime Minister’s gift to deliver it. Because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, that decision lies with a two-thirds majority of the Members of the House of Commons and, as I told those readers with absolute confidence, turkeys will not vote for Christmas. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having achieved the impossible and secured the fact that today those turkeys will indeed vote for that.

    I first reached the opinion that an election was necessary during the passage of the article 50 Bill. Opposition Member after Opposition Member got up to announce their recantation that, notwithstanding having voted to remain, they were now going to abide by the will of their constituents. Yet at every opportunity they cheered to the rafters those few who spoke out to say that they remained with the 48% and believed that, as events unfolded, the 48% would become a majority. They pursued a strategy of desperation: a strategy of “Hang on, something might turn up”, whether that was the long-promised economic shock or whatever. The “hang on” strategy, however, requires an essential ingredient: delay. Delay was the tactic they clearly pursued through their amendments to the Bill and they promised there would be more.

    The other place is currently not bound, in respect of the Government’s policy, by the Salisbury convention. The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and I were invited to debate in front of a City audience the motion “That the United Kingdom is leaving the EU”. Two highly respected peers—Lord Butler, the former Cabinet Secretary, and Lord Lester, one of our premier human rights lawyers—argued the case that we would not leave the European Union because they were in a position to prevent it and would do so. The policy the Prime Minister announced, of pursuing a general election and securing a mandate in this House and a mandate to bind the other place to the Salisbury convention, is therefore essential.

    I am confident that the Prime Minister will achieve that majority, because I am confident that she will be backed by the overwhelming majority of this nation. She will know that last year I voted for every other possible candidate for the leadership of the Tory party. I have to tell her that I have become her greatest fan. As my constituents recognise and tell me continually, she is doing magnificently. May she long continue to do so.

  • The Prime Minister says that she wants unity and an end to division; she intends to achieve that by crushing opposition, with political opponents described as “saboteurs”. I invited her earlier to distance herself from that, but she was not prepared to do so. This is not a vision or an understanding of mainstream democracy that I share with the Prime Minister.

    For months we have heard from the Prime Minister that

    “now is not the time”

    for the public to vote, that “no one wants it”, and that it is important to

    “get on with the day job”.

    We have been told that the Prime Minister needs to concentrate all her time on the Brexit negotiations and that nothing should get in the way. In the past 24 hours, however, we have learned that that was all empty rhetoric.

    There are two key reasons why there is going to be an early general election. The first is total political expediency—it is about the woeful, unelectable state of the Labour party, and not wanting to repeat the political error that Gordon Brown made. The Prime Minister wants to receive her own electoral mandate and to crush political opposition in England. The second reason for holding an early general election is that it has finally dawned on the UK Government that the Brexit negotiations are going to be very difficult and the realities of the hard Brexit that the Prime Minister is pursuing have not yet fully dawned on the public. As one commentator wrote today:

    “The EU is not going to roll over and give the UK free and ‘frictionless’ access to the internal market. The Prime Minister is cutting and running; getting a vote in before the reality of hard Brexit hits home”.

    The Prime Minister might think she can get her way with all this against the Labour party in England, but she will not get away with it in Scotland.

  • On the subject of hard Brexit, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is incumbent on those who advocate it to set out very clearly their assessment of the impact on jobs of our coming out of the single market and the customs union?

  • In a normal general election campaign, there would be an opportunity to do just that when the party leaders debate issues on the record. There has been an interesting development since this debate began—I notice colleagues looking at their mobile phones—because ITV has confirmed that there will be a leaders debate. I am looking around at a number of the other party leaders in the Chamber. Does the Leader of the Opposition intend to take part in the debate? I suspect that he probably will take part in a television debate as, no doubt, will the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Green party. It is unsustainable in the multimedia age of the 21st century to go to the country but not debate with the leaders of the other parties. The notion that the UK Prime Minister might be empty-chaired because she was not prepared to stand up for her arguments is just not sustainable.

  • Perhaps she would wish that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley might take her place.

  • As I said in the House yesterday, I hope that the Prime Minister will go head to head with the leaders of other parties, and the reason is quite simple: she would floor them all.

  • I do not think that the Prime Minister would manage that with Nicola Sturgeon. However, I am surprised by, and welcome, what the hon. Gentleman has to say in encouragement to the Prime Minister. I think that the public deserve a debate—indeed, more than one debate—during the election campaign, and I think that the Prime Minister should have more confidence in herself. She should be prepared to address the country, and to debate the ideas presented by all the different political parties in the United Kingdom. We in Scotland, of course, have already learnt that the Prime Minister is prepared to ignore the mandate and wishes of the Scottish electorate, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, so why would anyone in Scotland vote for such a dismissive and disrespectful party and Prime Minister?

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • I need to make some progress as time is limited. I will try to take some interventions later.

    The Prime Minister promised that she would establish a unified approach with all the devolved Governments—an agreement—before triggering Brexit. She did not: she broke her word. As we have learnt in recent weeks in connection with the appalling rape clause, the one thing that the Scottish Tories do not like talking about is Tory policy, but this election will highlight the dangers posed to Scotland by unfettered Tory Westminster Governments. We live in one of the most unequal countries in the developed world, but the Tories want to make it even more unfair. Experts say that their policies will cause the largest increase in inequality since the days of Margaret Thatcher.

  • Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

  • I am happy to give way to the leader of the Greens.

  • Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if this election is, as the Prime Minister says, about a more secure future for the country—if it is an election of such national significance—there should be, as a matter of urgency, a change in the law to give Britain’s 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds a say in what will be very much their future on 8 June?

  • As one who made a maiden speech about enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds, I totally agree with the hon. Lady. It is, again, unsustainable that young people should be given the vote in some elections and referendums, but denied it in others.

  • As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear—the judges decided unanimously—that issues concerning Brexit negotiations should be determined by this House, which represents the whole United Kingdom, and were not to be decided by any of the devolved institutions. Which bit of that does the right hon. Gentleman have a problem understanding?

  • What I have difficulty understanding is the commitment that the Prime Minister gave when she went to Edinburgh. On the front page of the house journal of the Conservative party, The Daily Telegraph, it was stated in terms that the Prime Minister wanted to seek a UK-wide approach and an agreement with the devolved Governments. The hon. Gentleman may wish to rewrite history, but the Prime Minister gave a commitment to reach an agreement, and she did not reach an agreement.

    The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was supposed to stop political parties abusing their position and putting party before country. Today the Tories are going to do just that, and, sadly, the Labour party is going to vote with the Tories and make life easy for them. We on these Benches will not vote with the Tories but, given the reality—the Labour party will be voting with the Tories—there will be a general election, and boy, we look forward to that contest—[Interruption.]

  • Order. Mr David Morris, you normally have a very emollient manner. You are a very restrained individual, bordering on the cerebral, but you have become rather over-excited. Calm yourself. Take some sort of soothing medicament; it will have a beneficial impact upon you.

  • In Scotland, the general election will be a two-horse race—a straight fight between the SNP and the Tories. Do I think that mainstream Scots, regardless of whether they voted remain or leave, will vote for a hard Tory Brexit? No, I do not. Do I think that most mainstream Scots will vote for more austerity and cuts in public services? No, I do not. Do I think that most Scots will vote for a party that is actively undermining the mandate already given by the voters in a Scottish general election for people in Scotland to determine their future? No, I do not. We on these Benches will work hard for every vote in every seat in Scotland, and we look forward to defeating the Tories in this general election.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Order. At least 10 Members want to speak and we have less than an hour left. Members can do the arithmetic for themselves. It would be appreciated if each Member would help others by tailoring his or her contribution accordingly.

  • I welcome the courage that the Prime Minister has shown in taking to the public this question: who do they expect to lead the country for the next five years? Having listened to the speech made by the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), I can honestly assure them that it will not be him. I think that the public will have to think long and hard, because Brexit is happening.

  • Will the hon. Lady give way?

  • No. The debate is time-limited, and I want everyone to have a chance to speak.

    This not about us in here; it is about delivering to the British public the future that they deserve. It is about delivering the best possible outcome for this country as we leave the European Union. I know that when the election takes place on 8 June, individual Members may well find themselves in difficulties with their constituencies because of whatever views they have expressed about leadership, but I am proud to be standing behind a Prime Minister who has made it brutally clear that this is about not making gains in this place, but delivering a Brexit that is for the good of the European Union, that is not just for—[Interruption.] Well, it is for the good of the European Union as well, because our future relationship with the European Union will be hugely important.

    The question that will be posed in our constituencies is this: which of the party leaders who could be Prime Minister should be Prime Minister after the election? That is what we will be asking the country. Does the country believe that the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) could lead it? I suspect that a large number of the right hon. Gentleman’s Back-Bench colleagues would say no, and that the businesses in my constituency would say no as well. Does the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron)—his voting record and attendance in the House, along with those of his colleagues, is generally pretty low; two Liberal Democrats are present today, but none were here to vote on the Budget yesterday—really believe that he can lead the country? I suggest that the answer is no.

    I suggest that the British public, when deciding who to vote for on 8 June, will look forward with confidence to a Prime Minister with an increased mandate to take us through the next five years, and I am delighted that she is giving the country this opportunity to examine our record. Since 2010, there has been a 73% drop in youth unemployment in St Albans—[Interruption.] I hear the Liberal Democrats again. I have to say that I hear nothing from the third-placed Liberal Democrat who stood as a candidate in my constituency to defend St Albans. It is surprising that the Liberal Democrats should be more interested in campaigning than in running the country.

    Our party and our Government have taken a strong stance. As I said, youth unemployment in St Albans has fallen by two thirds since 2010, and there has also been a 76% increase in the number of young people taking up apprenticeships. That is the record that we will be putting to the public. Brexit is happening and we are going to make the best of it. Our Prime Minister should not have to suffer 100 unelected Liberal Democrats in the other place, and nine in this place who rarely turn up, trying to tug her tail.

  • Will the hon. Lady give way?

  • No. I am about to finish my speech.

    We need to make the future secure for all our young people and all our families. The game-playing in this place does a disservice to the British public. They are probably fed up with having elections anyway, but let us get on with it and get a mandate for our Prime Minister—[Interruption.] May I say to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) that the public do not respect the fact that people yell from the Back Benches? She can speak up for her own leader, her own manifesto and her own party, and she can explain why she believes her leader, the right hon. Member for Islington North, is the right person to take the country through the next five years. I do not share her conviction, but she obviously has a lot of confidence in his capabilities.

    I know that this Government, who have delivered so much already and have so much more to deliver, will have resonance with the British public when they look at what is on offer from the other parties, which are divided, wrangling, scaremongering and in Brexit denial. This Government will give us the best deal for all our businesses and all our constituencies.

  • This is an appropriate time to be called. I noticed a tweet earlier from David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, whom I am sure we all remember fondly, welcoming the Prime Minister’s decision to call an early election. Given that in one sense the country is in this mess because in calling the referendum David Cameron put party before country, it is hardly surprising that the current Prime Minister should follow him and choose to put party before country once again.

  • Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

  • Give me a moment.

    From the moment the Prime Minister took office, she has ignored the closeness of the referendum vote and has pursued the hardest form of Brexit, driving division instead of cohesion. She has ignored the British people, British businesses, the British public sector and the national health service, and now, in another clear act of putting party before country, she has chosen an early election. We must not buy the nonsense that she needs a mandate to deliver Brexit; the Labour party has given her that mandate. She is acting upon the narrow majority of the 2016 referendum.

  • Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

  • Not for the moment.

    Let us all be very honest and clear about this: the Prime Minister has chosen this election because she looked across the Dispatch Box and could not resist the temptation of doing the political equivalent of taking candy from a baby, and facing this Labour party in a general election. She expects a coronation, not a contest. That is why the Liberal Democrats relish the challenge of a general election.

  • Given what the hon. Gentleman says about a coronation, will he rule out a coalition with the Conservatives—yes or no?

  • The great problem we face is that the Prime Minister is running on the expectation that there will be no need for any form of coalition with anybody. The Prime Minister has called this general election—

  • In good time.

    The Prime Minister has called this general election to take advantage of what she sees as a clear opportunity for a majority of 100 or more.

  • I have responded to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. It is very clear that we are not talking about balanced Parliaments. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister takes the view that calling this general election gives her an opportunity to have a 100-seat majority. [Interruption.] She takes the view that this gives her an opportunity to drive through not just a hard Brexit, but her agenda to slim down the national health service, to slim down—[Interruption.]

  • Order. The atmosphere in the Chamber is rather disorderly. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) is undertaking an apprenticeship to become a statesman, but he has several modules and some years to go. He must calm himself. He is listening to a statesman: Mr Farron.

  • To answer the heckles from my friend of many years, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), the reality is that we are not looking at the prospect of a balanced Parliament.

  • Is the answer a yes or a no?

  • I have given the hon. Gentleman his answer. The Prime Minister has clearly called this election on the understanding that she can reap swathes of the Labour numbers and give herself a majority that will allow her to deliver not just—

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • I will not give way for the time being.

    The Prime Minister thinks this will allow her to deliver the hardest form of Brexit, shrink our national health service, undermine the support for our education and, indeed, take us out of the single market.

    If people want to avoid a hard Brexit and keep Britain in the single market, and if they want a Britain that has a decent opposition, then only the Liberal Democrats will give them the final say. There is only one route to the Prime Minister losing this general election, and it is a Liberal Democrat route, and I am happy to explain why that might be the case.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • I will not give way now as there is not much time.

    Let me move on and explain why the only route through which the Prime Minister could lose her majority is a Liberal Democrat one. Unless my friends and colleagues here on the SNP Benches are about to launch an aggressive foreign policy, they can gain only one seat from the Conservative party, and nobody, not even the Labour party, believes that the Labour party will be gaining seats at this general election, so the only outcome that will not lead to a Conservative majority is the Liberal Democrats’ revival and growth in every part of this country.

    The Government have already stated that they will not outline their negotiating stance any further than the damp rhetoric we have already heard. We say that that is not good enough. If they will not tell us what they are pursuing, they must instead entrust the people with their say on the final deal. The Prime Minister has already confirmed that she will not do any TV debates, preferring to cower behind the hard-right pages of the Brexit press than stand up and present her case to the British people.

  • I rise to help the hon. Gentleman. I think he may have misheard my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), who asked him a straight question. We have a word in Scotland: feartie. I say to the hon. Gentleman, “Don’t be one. Give us a straight answer: will you rule out a coalition with the Tories, yes or no?”

  • The outcome of this general election is uncertain, and in the days and weeks to come we will no doubt talk about what will happen—[Interruption.] SNP Members are pushing me; they need to be a little patient, and their patience will be rewarded.

  • And so, too, will that of the hon. Gentleman, my constituency near-neighbour.

  • I do not think the hon. Gentleman gave a straight answer to that question, so let us try another question. His views will be examined over the next seven weeks. He was asked one question to which he refused to give an answer, so will he do so today: does he think being gay is a sin?

  • I do not, and I tell the hon. Gentleman this: I am very proud to have gone through the Aye Lobby in the coalition Government when the Liberal Democrats introduced gay marriage and equal marriage, and, indeed, did not go as far as they should have in recognising transgender rights. There is much more to be done, and if we campaign in this election, as we will, for an open, tolerant, united society, we will need to make sure we are not in any way complacent about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, and not just here, but in other parts of the world, particularly given what is going on in Chechnya at the moment.

  • Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

  • I will not, as other Members wish to speak. I am flattered that so many Members wish to know my views. I will put myself up for a leaders debate with the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), the Leader of the Opposition and others, even if the Prime Minister does not do so, and people will have more of a chance to scrutinise me then.

    Last June’s referendum was a vote to start the process and it gave a mandate to the Prime Minister to negotiate Brexit, but it did not give her a mandate to enact any old deal at the end of the process.

  • Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

  • I will not.

    What the Prime Minister is asking for now is a blank cheque to allow for the British people to have to put up with whatever stitch-up she and the Brussels bureaucrats put together over the next two years. That is not democracy. An election taking place on 8 June will not decide the outcome; it will be about imposing upon the British people a deal that nobody voted for.

    So, yes, the Liberal Democrats welcome this opportunity to show the British people that there is another way, and that the values of tolerance, openness and fairness can help build vibrant and successful communities and opportunities across the whole of the United Kingdom and beyond. The Government have made it clear that this is not the Britain they believe in; they have chosen isolation over co-operation, and meanness over fairness. I believe in a better Britain, and that is why we will support this motion.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Order. On account of the level of interest, and given that there are only about 37 minutes to go, I am going to impose a three-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches with immediate effect.

  • I hope that I can take up less time than that, Mr Speaker.

    It is a great honour to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats. I had hoped to hear him rule out coming into a coalition with us, because I can tell him that there is no chance that those on the Conservative Benches would want him in our coalition or in any Government.

    Party politics are in full swing today, but really this is a good day for Parliament. This is another slight step towards parliamentary democracy and away from diktat by the Executive. The Prime Minister has not called a general election; it is this House that will decide whether there will be a general election. I do not think for one moment that this election has been called for party political reasons. Previous Governments have decided to go early to the country; they were able to choose to go to the country for reasons of political advantage. This gave great power to the Executive. However, a strange set of circumstances has come about. We have had a change of Prime Minister and a change of all the senior Ministers. We have moved from having a Government who were anti-Brexit to one who are pro-Brexit.

    That is why I will cast my vote today in support of the Government motion. It is up to each Member to make their own decision. I believe that this proves that the Fixed- term Parliaments Act 2011 is working—[Interruption.] If Members disagree, they can vote against the motion.

  • The hon. Gentleman says that Parliament will decide on this question, but the Prime Minister went on television yesterday and staked her reputation across the world by declaring that there would be a general election. If she does not get the support of 422 MPs and a two-thirds majority today, would such a public humiliation mean that she had to resign?

  • This illustrates the advantage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. If the House does not agree to a general election, it will not happen and the Government will continue in office. Any Opposition Members who did not want a general election would be very strange creatures indeed. Any Opposition Members who sat on their hands and did not vote would be regarded as impotent Members of Parliament. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make his mind up and cast his vote one way or the other.

  • But does this not demonstrate why the Fixed-term Parliaments Act can never work? No Opposition can sensibly say that they would prefer a Government they oppose to continue in office, rather than having a chance to defeat them. The Act does not therefore fit within our constitution, and it ought to go.

  • I rarely disagree with my hon. Friend, but I believe that these events are proof that the Act is working. I believe that we will have the required majority. I understand, Mr Speaker, that if no one objects when the vote is called, and if you decide the matter according to the voices, the motion will be carried without a two-thirds majority being required. That is a strange anomaly, and I hope that someone will shout “No” so that we get a vote. I will not be doing that today, however, because our vote has to follow our voice and I would never dream of doing anything other than that. Despite the party politics, this is a great day for Parliament and a small step forward for parliamentary democracy.

  • I want to address three issues in the short time available to me. First, this election is happening in the midst of political discussions in Northern Ireland about the formation of an Executive. That is unfortunate. I want to make it clear that, as far as our party is concerned, we are responding positively to the Secretary of State’s request for discussions to continue in Northern Ireland. We have made it clear—along with the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Ulster Unionists—that we are ready to form an Executive. We do not believe in setting red lines or preconditions about important matters such as health and education funding and the future of public services in our Province. Those things are far more important than some of the issues that are now said to divide us, so we are ready to get the Executive up and running today, next week or whenever. We do not need prolonged negotiations.

    Secondly, on Brexit, Northern Ireland’s position is different from that of the rest of the United Kingdom. That has been made clear in the Government’s paper, which recognises our special circumstances. It is absolutely imperative that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard very strongly. That is why it is such a tragedy that Sinn Féin has walked away from the Executive, collapsed the Assembly and forced us into an unnecessary Assembly election, while boycotting this place and demanding special status, which has been rejected by the Irish Republic, the European Union and even the European Parliament when it set out its negotiating position. Nobody accepts the need for special status, although we agree with the need for special arrangements that recognise Northern Ireland’s special circumstances. It is essential that, in the forthcoming general election, the people of Northern Ireland recognise that they have a clear choice between a party that has walked away and abandoned its responsibilities on a number of fronts and a party that will enter Government in Northern Ireland, that takes its seats here and that contributes and raises its voice to stand up for Northern Ireland.

    Finally, this election will provide clarity on the big issue of how this country is to go forward. It will provide clarity on the Union that really matters: the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Again, the people of Northern Ireland will have a clear choice on that issue. They will have a clear choice on whether to rally round and state firmly that they want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom or to go down the route presented by Sinn Féin, whose Marxist-Leninist concept of a republic has been rejected even by most of those who accept its nationalism. They reject the party’s economic outlook. The only way to support the Union is to rally behind the Democratic Unionist party on 8 June.

  • The Prime Minister presents herself, to adapt a phrase from Mr Tony Blair, as a pretty straight sort of a person. She is a former Home Secretary—I am glad to see that the present Home Secretary is in the Chamber today—and she well knows the value of evidence as it is proved. She was initially in favour of leaving the European Union, which was an honest and honourable stance, even if it is one with which I disagree. Then she was in favour of remaining in the EU, although she was something of a shrinking violet in her support for that argument. Now she is again resolute in her determination to leave.

    The Prime Minister was also utterly opposed to holding an early general election, saying that it would be a distraction, turning us in on domestic matters when she had important and time-limited international negotiations to conclude. And now, hey-ho, she is equally determined that a general election we must have. She was against the European Union, then for the European Union, then against it again. She was against holding a general election and is now determined to have one. Her record is about as straight as the legendary European Union banana.

  • The Prime Minister has said repeatedly today that she wants an early election in order to produce a larger Tory majority. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that she is treating the electorate of the United Kingdom with contempt by assuming that the election will result in a larger Tory majority, and that she is thereby admitting that she has no plan at all for this country if she does not get that result?

  • I have no crystal ball. Unfortunately, however, I can see the disarray in the Labour party, but who knows what the outcome will be?

    I am suspicious of the Prime Minister’s motives and her reasoning. She says that the general election will enhance her status among the other 27 EU member states, for example, but I cannot see how that can be the case. Her motives are in fact pretty clear and straight. This is not only about the destruction of the Labour party as a credible Opposition for the next decade or so—I am afraid that Labour is doing a pretty effective demolition job on itself without her help—or about raising a challenge to my friends from Scotland, although in this I think her case is already lost. No, this election is about seeing off not her opponents on our side of the House but her enemies behind her. As ever with the Tories, desperate disunity is being papered over while it suits.

    Plaid Cymru welcomes the opportunity that this election presents to the people of Wales to change our long-term course away from Labour’s leaden Government in Cardiff and away from this hyper-centralised and heedless Government in London, cutting our own path towards economic regeneration and prosperity, social justice, and a proper, confident place for Wales in the world.

  • If the Prime Minister had said when she took office that her Government wanted a general election, there would have been less controversy than there is now, but there has been denial at every opportunity. The Prime Minister or those who speak for her denied that there would be a general election. “When is the general election?” they were asked, and the answer, which was quite clear, was “2020.” There is no great public demand for a general election. How many Members have received letters and emails in the last few days or weeks clamouring for a general election? Hands up! No, it is clear from Members on the Tory Benches that there has been no such demand.

  • Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

  • I will not, due to the lack of time. The reason given by the Prime Minister for the general election—Brexit—is a feeble, flimsy excuse that is taking in no one.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) said that the Government should not be complacent about getting a large majority. Indeed, hopefully they will not get a large majority. When we consider the harm done to people in need—the disabled, the vulnerable, the low-paid—by this Government with a small majority, just imagine what will happen if there is a large Tory majority. It would be an absolute nightmare for the people we represent and for the millions of people in this country who need the Government to protect them, not harm them, but that protection will not come from a Tory Government with a small or large majority. I was here during the Tory Government of the 1980s and saw the harm that was done to my constituents and so many others.

    The motion before us is murky, completely opportunistic, and certainly reflects badly on the Prime Minister. Many people are cynical about politics in this country, and that trend has unfortunately increased, for which perhaps all of us in the political class are responsible. The motion and the coming general election, which is happening purely for opportunistic reasons, will increase that cynical feeling, which is damaging to the democratic process.

  • I, too, will be voting against the motion today, because it is totally unnecessary. I say that as somebody who voted leave on 23 June last year and who has had a grudging respect for how the Prime Minister has conducted herself since she took over. However, her justification for holding a general election is quite frankly disingenuous. To suggest that she needs a mandate to negotiate Brexit is ridiculous. She was given that mandate on 24 June by a majority of the British people, and it is now up to her to carry it out. If she wants to have another election or referendum at the end of the process, so be it, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) said, to justify it now is purely opportunistic.

    Furthermore, the Prime Minister says that she needs a larger majority because the business of the House is likely to be disrupted by Opposition parties or by the House of Lords. She ought to look back to what happened when the Wilson Government were in power between 1964 and 1966. He had a majority of four. The Callaghan Government governed for five years in the 1970s without any majority. If she fears what could happen in the House of Lords, she should do exactly what Tories have done in the past and flood the place with her own people to ensure that she gets her way. There is no justification for her argument that she needs a larger majority in order to get business through the House.

    To take the arrogant view that the electorate should concentrate purely and simply on one narrow issue is to treat the electorate with contempt. I can speak only for my constituents, but when they consider the issues, they will be asking questions. Why is every school in my constituency losing out under the new funding formula? Why is the city council having to make horrendous cuts? The Government have cut the support grant. Why are waiting times at local hospitals increasing? There are just not enough staff.

  • In my hon. Friend’s questions about why things are happening in his constituency, will he ask Ministers why my children’s school, which is in his constituency, now has classes of 32 children? I do not remember that happening under a Labour Government. Does he agree?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under the Labour Government, we had the Building Schools for the Future programme and Sure Start centres. Under this Government, that programme was stopped and Sure Start centres are being closed left, right and centre.

    My constituents will ask other questions. Why is it that more and more hard-working families are being forced into the humiliation of having to use food banks? They just do not have enough money at the end of the week to feed and clothe their families. Why are energy consumers paying ever-increasing prices? Utility firms are ripping them off in the sacred name of competition. Why are young people, married and unmarried, unable to acquire proper housing, often having to stay with in-laws and parents? Those views will be echoed throughout the country. There is no justification for this election, and I will certainly oppose it.

  • I support the motion because, as a Government Member said earlier, it seems rather bizarre that the Opposition should say, “We want to keep a Tory Government in power.” That just makes no sense. We have to put our case to the British people and see what happens. We have arrived today at a point that I always thought was inevitable. This was bound to happen. I never bought all that guff about “no election”. There is a political dynamic at work here that has made this decision almost inevitable.

  • Given that the hon. Gentleman is going to support the Government motion, is he confident that a Tory Government will not return after the election with two more years in power? What does he think will happen? What is the follow-through on his actions?

  • The follow-through is to do whatever we can to get rid of a Tory Government as soon as we can. That is always the case. It might not work, but that is up to the British people in an election. It is their choice.

    In saying why I think this position is inevitable, I want to pay a minor tribute to Mr David Cameron—late of this parish. When the history of this country in the early part of the 21st century comes to be written, he will have probably one of the most prominent roles in it, and it will not be a particularly glorious tribute. Decisions that he took will, over time, damage this country immensely.

    I remember serving on the Public Bill Committee on the original European Union (Referendum) Bill, which was known at the time as the “Wharton Bill” after the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), who picked it up from No. 10. I remember sitting in the Committee one evening and the then Prime Minister David Cameron actually came into, I think, Committee Room 7 or 8 and sat in the Public Gallery simply to pay obeisance to the hard right wingers of the Tory party who were on that Bill Committee. I have never seen or heard of a Prime Minister faced with such ignominy as having to pay obeisance to those to whom he is in thrall. Of course, he gave them the guarantee of an in/out referendum. He did not say, “I am going to renegotiate the terms of our EU membership and then put it to you.” He said, “I am going to renegotiate the terms and then have an in/out referendum,” and this is the consequence.

    Mr Cameron will go down as one of the most damaging Prime Ministers, but prominent none the less. He has not just jeopardised the whole future of the United Kingdom as a trading nation and in our relationship with the European Union; he has jeopardised the future of Scotland as part of the United Kingdom, and people have all kinds of views on that. It was he who granted the referendum that set in train the dynamic that has, frankly, destroyed the Labour party in Scotland and given the Scottish National party the prominent role it enjoys today. He also jeopardised our relationship with the Republic of Ireland and, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) mentioned, put at risk the very stability of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

    All those things add up, and the damage done will be with us for decades. The people who pay the greatest price, as others have mentioned, will be the young—the next generation, and those who come after. It will permanently damage this country. I will vote for the general election, but it will not change anything. The landscape will essentially remain much the same after the election, and it all follows from the calamitous decision of last June to leave the European Union. I understand the party political reasons for calling the election, and there is a certain amount of sanctimony and hypocrisy here today. Politics is neither science nor art, and it is certainly not religion. People do things for their own political advantage, and every Prime Minister has always done so.

  • I did not intend to speak in this debate, but the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) would not let me intervene to respond to the question he posed. I have, in fact, received emails from constituents over the past few weeks asking me to encourage the Prime Minister to call a general election and go to the country once again. The hon. Gentleman seemed to imply that nobody in the country was asking for a general election, but some of my constituents were.

    When the Prime Minister made her announcement yesterday, I was initially in shock because, like my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), I was boldly telling people that there was no chance of a general election. I was not quite so bold as to put it in the local paper, but I told people both verbally and in emails that I did not believe it would happen. Having listened to the Prime Minister’s reasons yesterday, I am happy to say that I have come to a position where I believe it is right for the country that we obtain a new mandate to go into the negotiations to leave the EU and put the Prime Minister, and the others who will be negotiating our terms, in the strongest possible position.

    I am happy to stand on the Government’s record of delivering for this country. The election is not just about the Brexit negotiations; it is about a Government who have delivered growth, one of the world’s best performing economies, record numbers of jobs and great investment in our NHS. I am proud to go to the country and say, “Let us continue with the job we are doing to deliver what our country needs and to continue putting us in the strongest possible position.”

    Finally, we take nothing for granted, but if the Conservative party is returned to government with a substantially increased majority, will the leader of the Liberal Democrats accept that it is the will of the British people to return the Conservative party with a clear mandate to press on and take us out of the European Union on the grounds that the Prime Minister has set out? Will he then drop his opposition and game playing to thwart the democratic will of the British people?

  • As someone who believes that the Prime Minister has presented the case for this election on an entirely false premise, I, too, will be voting against the motion. I was not asking for an election last week or the week before; I was arguing that any move to an election in the near future would not help the negotiations in Northern Ireland. My mind has not changed, so why should I pretend that it has?

    I will not be gamed or goaded into voting differently by the Prime Minister’s actions and stances. She has accused others in this Parliament of playing games. In essence, her argument is that she has no confidence in Parliament. We have this bizarre situation in which, after having a referendum about taking back control and parliamentary sovereignty, the Prime Minister has pronounced that she has no confidence in Parliament. She does not trust the Opposition parties, on which she confers all sorts of exaggerated powers to block and correct. Then, of course, she has her complaints about the House of Lords. If Tory Members are concerned about the House of Lords, they should move to abolish it or to introduce competent, coherent and democratic reform, but they should stop using it as a prop in this argument.

    This is also a false premise because the Prime Minister is pretending that she needs an election now so that she has a strong hand in the short term, but we know that what she is really after is a free hand in the longer term. She wants wriggle room on the periods of adjustment, the transitional arrangements and other things on which too many of her colleagues have been too strident.

  • Does my hon. Friend appreciate that the nearest parallel to what is happening now in this campaign for an election—

  • Order. I am interested in hearing the hon. Gentleman, but I would like him to face the House.

  • You were busy talking.

  • I was being spoken to by an illustrious member of the Opposition Whips Office, no less, so I would put it rather differently.

  • The nearest parallel is the election of 1974, when the miners were on strike and Ted Heath, the then Prime Minister, decided that the election would be on a very narrow argument about who ran the country. Most general elections are about a lot of things, but that one was about a specific thing. What happened in effect was that the Labour party finished up with the largest number of seats and the Queen asked Ted Heath to try to form a coalition with the Liberals, and the Liberals ran away.

  • I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. While we are making comparisons with the election of 1974, an unforeseen casualty of that election was the Sunningdale agreement. The power-sharing Executive formed in Northern Ireland out of the 1973 Assembly ended up falling as a consequence of the 1974 general election because of what was seen to be the balance of forces.

    Of course, this general election has been called without regard to the sensitive ongoing negotiations in Northern Ireland, and it is hard to see how it will not have an impact on those negotiations. First, it will probably colour the parties’ attitude to some of the issues we are dealing with, and it will certainly colour their attitude towards each other and their level of trust. Also, the British Government will not be in a position to give undertakings or commitments in the context of those negotiations as purdah kicks in, so how will we get any sort of comprehensive agreement in such circumstances?

    As someone who worked with might and main for the Good Friday agreement and its implementation, I do not take those issues lightly. I cannot dismiss them. I want to make sure that we fully protect the agreement, which is why I am no saboteur when it comes to anything endorsed by a referendum, least of all what the Irish people endorsed by referendum when they voted for the Good Friday agreement.

    I worry about the implications of Brexit for the Good Friday agreement, and I worry that the Government are in denial about the Brexit process having implications for the agreement. Of course, I also recognise that the agreement gives us the machinery to answer many of the questions and challenges for the whole island of Ireland in terms of Brexit. Strand 2 gives us the material to ensure that, in future, we can operate on a north-south basis in ways that continue to be supported and funded by the EU. We can treat the island as a common market—a single market—in sector after sector under the auspices of the Good Friday agreement.

    We go forward in this election positively, but we have no pretence that the election is necessary or that the Prime Minister is justified in the terms she has used. Nor do we buy the sham fight that the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) is having yet again with Sinn Féin.

  • I believe this is the sort of thing that gets politics a bad name in our country and it is what is leading to the alienation of many of our citizens from the political process. There is only one reason the Prime Minister wants a general election on 8 June: she figures she has a better chance of winning it now than she does in the future. It is therefore the most blatant abuse of the democratic procedure for party political advantage, and as this campaign goes on it will be seen as that.

    This election has nothing to do with the country’s interests and everything to do with the management of the Conservative party, and I give two clear reasons why that is the case. The Prime Minister has suggested that she needs to have a majority, but she has not won any vote on Brexit over the past year with a majority of less than 30, so the majority is already there. She also says that this election will give clarity to the Brexit process, but we on these Benches have been trying for 10 long months to get clarity on the Brexit process, and every question we have asked has been met with silence and with a refusal to say what Brexit does indeed mean. I do not believe for one minute that the Tory party manifesto for 8 June will spell out exactly what the plan for Britain is post-Brexit, so who is kidding who? We will not be any clearer after this election as to what Brexit means than we are right now.

  • The media are reporting that up to 30 sitting Tory MPs face being prosecuted for electoral fraud and that the Crown Prosecution Service will announce very soon whether it intends to press charges. Does my hon. Friend think that might have anything to do with the Prime Minister’s change of heart?

  • Yes, I do; I think that is remarkably suspicious. But my concern is that the Prime Minister wants to silence dissent and disagreement in this House and in this country. Therefore, her instincts are not democratic, but authoritarian, and that is a great worry for our country.

    May I just turn to the situation in Scotland? There are two reasons why the people of Scotland should be given another choice on their self-government. The first is not because the people who lost the referendum in 2014 do not respect the result, but because the people who won that referendum changed the deal afterwards; the United Kingdom that people voted to be part of in 2014 will no longer be there in the future. The second is that although the Scottish Government took a compromise position, which neither challenged the Brexit deal nor argued for independence, it was thrown back in our faces. So there is no option now but to offer people in Scotland the opportunity of the choice between a hard, Tory, isolationist Britain or taking control into their own hands. This election is not required as a mandate to have that second referendum, because the Scottish Government already have that mandate, but this will be a judgment, Prime Minister, on your refusal to agree to the wishes of the Scottish Parliament. I would like to ask this in finishing: if the Conservative party loses the general election in Scotland, will you stop blocking the right of the Scottish people to have the choice in the future?

  • I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate, Mr Speaker. As we all know, Northern Ireland is in a brittle state at the moment. We have no Executive and no Government, and I wonder whether the Prime Minister fully considered what may happen to us. Before the recess, I was given an excellent answer as to our position in the Union, and I was very grateful for it, but I want to get three points across now.

    Although the first is not about this election, because we fully support today’s motion, I must say that the public in Northern Ireland are fed up to the back teeth with elections. They have had so many and they see no point in another Assembly election. Secondly, people who watched what was going on at Easter may have seen paramilitaries—I believe this was in west Belfast and somewhere else—marching and carrying the European Union flag as if it were their banner. Brexit for us is a very different and brittle world. Ulster Unionists fully support the need to find the right way forward, but this is going to be used by Sinn Féin to try to break up the Union and we need that support. So I ask that in their manifesto the Government look not only at how they deal with Northern Ireland’s special status, but at how they ensure we have a workable Government in the future. We need change, which is what the Ulster Unionists have been all about; we need to get back to the central parties running Northern Ireland.

    My last point is about making sure that that manifesto looks after our armed forces and our ex-servicemen. Legacy is playing its way out and it is not protecting the people who should be protected for doing their duty. We will support today’s motion.

  • Two colleagues wish to speak. They can help each other.

  • As several hon. Members have pointed out, the Prime Minister heads up a party with a majority gained partly by it cheating in the last general election, and it has been fined by the Electoral Commission as a result. Yet today she had the brass neck to stand there and give a speech all about leadership, so I want to know, what leadership is the Prime Minister showing on this issue? She refused to answer the questions from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) about election cheating and some of her current MPs participating again in this forthcoming general election. What leadership intervention has she made within her party to make sure that this spending cheating does not happen again?

  • On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

  • If the hon. Lady must.

  • On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Twice the hon. Gentleman has accused Members of cheating. There is no proof of cheating and he should withdraw the remarks.

  • I think it is a matter of taste rather than of order, but the hon. Lady has made her point with force and alacrity, and it is on the record. Had the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) concluded his oration?

  • I have a bit more—about further non-leadership interventions by the Prime Minister. She consistently said that there would be no general election, but she has now done a massive U-turn. She could not answer why she has changed her mind on the single market. We have heard no evidence as to what this hard Tory Brexit is going to mean and what it would mean compared with Scotland staying in the single market. She has consistently ignored the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament, so I ask her to show some real leadership now.

  • The right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) goaded Labour Members over not being turkeys voting for Christmas, but they will be more than turkeys voting for Christmas if they follow the Prime Minister and dance to her tune—they will be turkeys ready to jump into the baking tin. That is exactly what they are doing. The Prime Minister needs 433 MPs to support her today. She has gone on television and told the world that there will be a general election. If Parliament does not back her—if Labour MPs do not dance to her tune—and she does not get the 433, will she resign? The answer on that could change the views of Labour Members as to whether to dance to her tune.

  • One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Speaker put the Question (Standing Order No. 16(1)).

    Division 196

    19 April 2017

    The House divided:

    Ayes: 522
    Noes: 13

    Question accordingly agreed to.

    View Details

    Resolved,

    That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.

    Technical and Further Education Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

    Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

    That the following provisions shall apply to the Technical and Further Education Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 14 November 2016 (Technical and Further Education Bill (Programme)):

    Consideration of Lords Amendments

    (1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.

    (2) The proceedings shall be taken in the following Order: Lords Amendments Nos. 1, 6, 2 to 5 and 7 to 18.

    Subsequent stages

    (3) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

    (4) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Mark Spencer.)

    Question agreed to.

    Technical and Further Education Bill

    Consideration of Lords amendments

  • I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendment 1. I also remind the House that certain of the motions relating to the Lords amendments will be certified as relating exclusively to England or to England and Wales, as set out on the selection paper. If the House divides on any certified motion, a double majority will be required for the motion to be passed.

    After Clause 1

    Financial Support for Students Undertaking Apprenticeships

  • I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.

  • With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

    Lords amendment 6, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.

    Lords amendments 2 to 5 and 7 to 18.

  • This Bill was introduced to transform the prestige and culture of technical education, providing young people with the skills that they, and our country, need. It provides necessary protection for students should colleges get into financial difficulty, and ensures that the most disadvantaged are able to climb the ladder of opportunity. It left this House after thoughtful scrutiny and, after similar diligence in the other place, I am delighted that it returns for consideration here today.

    I ask hon. Members to support the Government on all amendments made to the Bill in the other place except amendments 1 and 6, where we have tabled an amendment in lieu. Amendment 1 impinges on the financial privilege of this House. I urge the House to disagree to that amendment and will ask the Reasons Committee to ascribe financial privilege as the reason.

    The amendment, costing more than £200 million per year by financial year 2020-21, would mean that the parents of apprentices aged under 20 would continue to be eligible for child benefit for those young people as if they were in approved education and training. It is an issue in which I have a great interest. Apprenticeships provide a ladder of opportunity, and we should seek to remove obstacles to social mobility wherever we can.

    A young person’s first full-time job is a big change for them and for their family, and it marks a move into financial independence that should be celebrated. I know that the adjustment can be challenging for the young person learning how to manage a starting wage and new outgoings and for parents who may experience a fall in income from the benefits they previously received for that dependent child. One of the core principles of an apprenticeship is that it is a job, and it is treated accordingly in the benefit system. It is a job that offers high-quality training and that widens opportunities. Moreover, more than 90% of apprentices continue into another job on completion. Most apprentices are paid above the minimum wage. The 2016 apprenticeship pay survey showed that the average wage for all level 2 and 3 apprentices was £6.70.

  • Although what the Minister is saying is correct, in that those apprentices will be paid, taking child benefit away from low-income families will be a disincentive for them to take up apprenticeships. Those families will be pressed to stay in education so that they can continue to get child benefit. Is that not the case?

  • The crucial point is that the vast majority of level 2 and 3 apprentices are paid more than £6.30 an hour, and 90% of them go on to jobs or additional education afterwards.

    The apprenticeship programme already supports low-income groups. The funding system gives targeted support to the participation of care leavers, and this year we are making £60 million available to training providers to support take-up by individuals from disadvantaged areas. We are committed to ensuring that high-quality apprenticeships are as accessible as possible to people from all backgrounds. We will take forward the Maynard recommendations for people with learning difficulties and our participation target for black and minority ethnic groups.

    With regard to the amendment’s suggestion of a bursary for care leavers, I understand that some young people have greater challenges to overcome. That is why we are providing £1,000 to employers and training providers when they take on care leavers who are under 25. We will also pay 100% of the cost of training for small employers who employ care leavers. There is scope for apprenticeships to benefit social mobility even more. We are working across Government to use the apprenticeship programme to extend opportunities.

    I am grateful to Lord Storey for tabling Lords amendment 6, which introduces a new clause into the Bill to require Ofsted to take into account the quality of the careers offer when conducting standard inspections of further education colleges. I welcome the work that Ofsted has already done to sharpen its approach. Matters relating to careers provision feature in all the graded judgments made by Ofsted when inspecting FE and skills providers. Destination data—published in 16 to 18 performance tables for the first time this year—are also becoming an established part of college accountability. Those are important steps.

    I pay tribute to the good work that is already being done throughout the FE sector to prepare students for the workplace. Ofsted’s annual report for 2015-16 cites the excellent work of Derby College, which has set up employer academies so that learners benefit throughout their course from a range of activities, including workplace visits, talks from specialist speakers, masterclasses and enterprise activities. However, Ofsted noted in the same report that the quality of information, advice and guidance in FE providers can vary and does not always meet the full range of students’ needs. That is why I want us to take this opportunity to go further.

    Lords amendment 6 signals our determination to ensure that every FE student has access to good-quality, dedicated careers advice, which I know this House supports. That is vital if we are to tackle the skills gap and ensure that we make opportunities accessible to everyone. We have proposed some drafting changes to the amendment to ensure that it achieves its intended effect. The amendment makes it clear that in its inspection report Ofsted must comment on the quality of a college’s careers provision. I urge hon. Members to accept the amendment. FE colleges are engines of social mobility, and this is our chance to ensure that students from all backgrounds can access the support they need to get on the ladder of opportunity and to benefit from the best skills education and training.

    I will now turn to the amendments that the Government are asking the House to accept without any further amendment. The Government support Lords amendment 2, which requires schools to give education and training providers the opportunity to talk directly to pupils about the approved technical education qualifications and apprenticeships they offer. I would like to place on the record my significant gratitude to Lord Baker of Dorking for tabling the amendment, and for his unstinting support for the Government’s technical education reforms. As I have explained, high-quality careers advice is the first rung on the ladder of opportunity and will play a key part in realising our ambition for high-quality skills education and training. The amendment will strengthen the Bill by ensuring that young people hear much more consistently about the merits of technical education routes and recognise them as worthy career paths. I urge the House to agree to it. I hope that never again when I go around the country will I meet an apprentice who was refused access to the school they were taught in to talk about apprenticeships.

  • I actually welcome that proposal. We have heard lots of evidence that schools are not allowing FE colleges and apprenticeship providers to access their students and to tell them what the options are post-16. That, of course, is because of the “bums on seats” funding regime for post-16 studies in schools. How are we going to get around the deep-seated culture in schools that prevents careers advisers and others from providing that independent, impartial advice to young people in schools?

  • The hon. Gentleman speaks a lot of sense on this issue. Every time I meet an apprentice, wherever I am in the country, I ask them, “Did your school encourage you to do an apprenticeship?” Nine times out of 10, they say that their school taught them nothing about apprenticeships and skills. We have already changed careers advice so that schools have to offer advice that includes apprenticeships and skills. I believe that Lords amendment 2 will make a huge difference, because technical bodies, apprenticeship bodies and university technical colleges will be able to go into schools, and schools will publish policy guidance on this.

    I agree that a huge part of this is about cultural change. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State always talks about parity of esteem. Until we ensure that we have parity of esteem between skills and technical education and going to university—that is also a wonderful thing to do—we will not achieve the cultural change that the hon. Gentleman talks about.

  • There is a problem with that, because training providers themselves have a vested interest—just as much as the schools do—in securing those students for their courses or apprenticeships. Is it not true that we need a much more robust process for the provision of impartial advice and guidance that does not include anyone’s vested interests?

  • We are looking at careers guidance in the long term, and at how we can make it more independent and skills-focused. I think that the work of the Careers and Enterprise Company in getting more people to do work experience, along with the money we are investing in these things, will help, but there are no easy answers. There are some great private providers, FE colleges and university technical colleges that I would love to see going into schools. However, I think that this is an important step forward to change the culture and ensure that pupils have the access to learn about apprenticeships and the technical education and skills that they need.

    Lords amendment 3 introduces a new clause specifically providing for regulations to be made about the delivery of documents about an insolvent FE body to the registrar, and how those documents are kept and accessed by the public. Essentially, the new clause allows for the proper management of the paperwork of an insolvency procedure for an FE body.

    I am pleased that the Government were able to accept amendment 4 in the other place, which deleted the words “if possible” from clause 25(2). The original drafting of subsection (2) was intended to offer reassurance to creditors and the education administrator that the education administration would not continue indefinitely while we waited for the education administrator to achieve the impossible. Instead, it caused concern, both in this House and in the other place, that student protection was in some way lessened. That was not our intention. Having sought the confirmation of lawyers that there was no change to our policy objectives, we were content to delete the words in order to address those concerns.

    Lords amendment 5 replaced the original clause in the Bill with a new version in order to fully apply, rather than replicate, the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 to further education bodies in England and Wales. The new version of clause 40—formerly clause 37 —still allows the court to disqualify any governors whom it finds liable of wrongdoing from being governors, and now also from being company directors in any part of the UK. It fully prevents disqualified individuals from being able to repeat the mistakes they have made in a different way, potentially at the expense of another FE institution. We have amended the clause to close a potential loophole in the Bill and more fully protect learners at FE institutions from the potential actions of any governor who acts recklessly.

  • The existing CDDA regime is effective as a finely balanced deterrent for company directors. It is rare that directors are found liable, and its existence in insolvency legislation does not inhibit people from choosing to become company directors, but helps to prevent poor financial management. The presence of the CDDA regime causes company directors to reflect carefully on their financial decisions and the potential consequences of acting wrongfully in relation to creditors. We want to ensure the same deterrent effect for college governors. Governors might not appreciate the full consequence of disqualification if they are still able to act as company directors and could set up a company to run a college. They might be prepared to operate with a greater degree of risk. The amendment ensures that governors of FE bodies are on a par with governors of academies, to whom the CDDA also fully applies.

    Lords amendment 7 to clause 47, formerly clause 43, inserts an additional provision, in so far as it relates to section 426 of the Insolvency Act 1986, to the parts of the Bill that extend to all parts of the UK. That does not change the application of the FE insolvency regime only to FE bodies in England and Wales. It ensures co-operation, if necessary, between the courts of the different parts of the United Kingdom in matters regarding insolvent FE bodies. We expect cases where co-operation is needed to be very rare.

    I turn to Government amendments 8 to 10. The Bill as introduced allows the Institute for Apprenticeships to share data with Ofsted, Ofqual and the Office for Students, and vice versa. The amendments will enable the Secretary of State to extend the information-sharing gateway to other persons not stated in the Bill. The provision is necessary because the bodies with which the institute will co-operate and share information are expected to change over time. The amendments ensure that the institute can function effectively.

    Lords amendments 11 to 18 were prompted by the helpful discussions we had in this House. It was clear then that we shared a common concern to ensure that care leavers receive appropriate help and support should their college become insolvent. Opposition Members, including the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), were very clear that care leavers are particularly vulnerable. I agree, which is why I undertook to reflect on how we might best support such individuals. I am pleased that we were able to table these amendments to schedules 3 and 4, requiring the education administrator to send a copy of their proposals to the director of children’s services at the relevant local authority. That will ensure that the director of children’s services is formally notified of a college insolvency and can take appropriate action to provide support for any of their care leavers affected by the proposals.

    I ask hon. Members to support the Government on these amendments.

  • I am grateful to the Minister for his considered exposition of the Government’s position, particularly regarding the amendments, with which we are not in dispute. I shall say something about Lords amendment 2 after turning to Lords amendment 1. We welcome the Government’s changes, particularly those to the technical parts of the Bill. The devil is in the detail, and we do not always get these things right first time around. I am grateful to the Government for reflecting on that.

    I particularly take on board what the Minister said about care leavers and local authorities. Without straying outside the narrow confines of today’s discussions, may I say that I hope that the recent debates in the House on the Children and Social Work Bill, in which my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) played a strong, positive and constructive part, have been a useful focus for the Minister and his Department in tabling the amendments that he has spoken to today. I am grateful to him for that.

    I am also grateful for the widened information sharing in schedule 1. As the Minister knows, I have described the present structure as a bit of an alphabet soup. To strain the analogy, I hope that this change will enable us to fish some of the letters out of the soup and make them work together a little easier than they would otherwise have done.

    As the Minister says, the issue in Lords amendment 1could be regarded as one of financial privilege. I accept that he has great interest in matters of financial support and the rest of it. I hope that he understands that I have never, in any shape or form, and in any of the Committee sittings in which we have debated, disavowed his good intentions and commitment to issues of equality. But, of course, warm words of themselves do not necessarily carry through the projects that we all want to see. When he says that most apprenticeships have benefits, one has to ask about the fate of people who do not get those benefits. He says that this proposal will cost £200 million but, as he said, we are already committing £60 million to training providers, so I am not sure that that is a strong or powerful argument.

  • Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

  • I will give way in a little while. I want to make some progress on the main issue before giving way to the hon. Gentleman.

    I am proud of the fact that the noble Lords considered the matter addressed in amendment 1, which I support, in considerable detail. In doing so, they revealed how much further the Government needed to go and, in my view, still need to go. In February, The Times Educational Supplement published an eloquent chart that spelled out in graphic detail the current gap in support between students and apprentices. It showed that apprentices have no access to care to learn grants, and that their families have no access to universal credit and council tax credit. Most trenchant and relevant when it comes to amendment 1, they have no access to child benefit.

    Amendment 1 would enable families eligible for child benefit to receive it for children aged under 20 who are undertaking apprenticeships. The Opposition understand, as I am sure Government Members do, that it is not simply about the benefit itself, but the doors that that benefit opens to other benefits.

  • I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s argument, which seems to involve a spending commitment of £200 million. How would he pay for that?

  • First, we do not recognise that figure of £200 million. Secondly, as I have said, the Government are already committing £60 million to training providers, so I really do not know why the hon. Gentleman is raising the issue of £200 million, which would be aggregated over a period of time.

  • Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

  • No, I will not give way again. The hon. Gentleman has had one go. I want to make progress.

    The amendment calls for the Secretary of State to use regulations to make provision to ensure that apprentices are regarded as being involved in approved education or training. The Government’s apprenticeships programme has seen the introduction of the Institute for Apprenticeships and the apprenticeship levy this month, while setting the target of 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. However, many commentators have continued to raise real question marks about the potential quality of those new apprenticeships. It is really important that in reducing the growing skills gap in this country apprentices are not given a raw deal. My noble Friend Lord Watson spelled this out vividly in the House of Lords when he said:

    “Why should families suffer as we seek to train young people desperately needed to fill the skills gaps that I mentioned earlier?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 March 2017; Vol. 782, c. 361.]

    We simply ask that question.

    I am well aware—we discussed this in Committee in this place and it was also discussed in the other place—that apprenticeships are not currently classed as approved educational training by the Department for Work and Pensions. That is one of the reasons we have raised this issue so many times. The Minister needs to reflect on the situation of apprentices who live with parents and whose families could lose out by more than £1,000 a year through not being able to access child benefit, and could lose more than £3,200 a year under universal credit. If the Government want to reach this target, it cannot be in anyone’s interest for doors to be closed to young people keen to take up and embark on an apprenticeship.

    The predecessor Government—perhaps this has not been heard so much under this Government—were very fond of the concept of “nudge” to achieve results, but, as I have said on other occasions, people can be nudged away from things as well as towards them. In some circumstances, parents may prevent young people from taking up apprenticeships because the economic consequences for the family of loss of benefit payments in various forms could be considerable. Their lordships made this point in their debate on 27 February. Baroness Garden noted that

    “only 10% of apprenticeships are taken up by young people on free school meals”,

    adding that

    “the loss of child benefit”

    was

    “a significant penalty.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 February 2017; Vol. 779, c. GC99.]

    Baroness Wolf spoke very strongly when she said, echoing the Minister, that there needs to be genuine parity if the Government want to fulfil a holistic vision.

    As I have said, the exclusions printed in The Times Educational Supplement justify the anger and disappointment of the National Union of Students and apprenticeship organisations, which feel that they are being treated like second-class citizens. I accept that, as the Minister said, some apprentices are being paid well above the minimum rate, but research has shown that some apprentices earn as little as £3.50 an hour.

  • Since the hon. Gentleman is talking about financial matters again, will he return to my earlier intervention when he said that he did recognise the figure of £200 million? How much would his policy cost?

  • As I say, those issues would be taken forward over a five-year period. The £200 million figure that the Minister quoted has not been recognised, and I do not intend to engage with it any further because no further detail has been given to us on this point.

  • No, I am sorry, but I am not going to give way again. The hon. Gentleman has had two shouts and he is out. [Interruption.] I am going to continue, so he can stop chuntering.

    This will inevitably have a negative effect on the family income in circumstances where the household budget is not covered by the earnings in an apprentice’s salary, given that the apprentice minimum wage is barely over £3 an hour. The National Society of Apprentices made that point in its submission to the Committee, saying:

    “It seems inconsistent that apprentices are continually excluded from definitions of ‘approved’ learners, when apprenticeships are increasingly assuming their place in the government’s holistic view of education and skills”.

    If apprenticeships are to be seen as a top-tier option, then the benefits should be top tier too. University students receive assistance from a range of sources, from accessing finance to discounted rates on council tax. Apprentices currently do not receive many of those benefits. Their lordships believe, and we agree, that the system must be changed so that both groups are treated equally.

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he is approaching these amendments. He mentioned that some apprentices were paid more than the apprentice minimum wage. Is he aware that 82% of apprentices are paid at or above the appropriate level of the national minimum wage or national living wage?

  • Those figures come from the Minister’s Department, and I am not going to dispute them on this occasion. We are trying to set, in legislation, provisions that will be valid for five, 10 or 15 years. It seems far more appropriate to have a principle under which everybody has equal access. We can trade figures all day about whether this is acceptable or whether it is 10%, 15%, 20% or 25% of apprentices who are not in this position. I do not believe that we should go down this route, and Members of the House of Lords agreed when they passed this amendment.

    Shakira Martin, the NUS vice-president for FE, says:

    “If apprenticeships are going to be the silver bullet to create a high-skilled economy for the future, the government has to go further than rhetoric and genuinely support apprentices financially to succeed.”

    In support of this amendment, the Learning and Work Institute has said:

    “There are currently participation penalties for low income and disadvantaged young people who take an apprenticeship compared to an academic pathway. This amendment would help towards treating apprentices and students in further and higher education equally in the support and benefits system.”

    The Government’s decision to exclude apprenticeships from the category of approved education or training will serve as a deterrent to young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Together with that, and without any change to the category that apprentices are placed in by the DWP—FE has to accept that, as things stand at the moment—the Government are providing a severe financial disincentive for young people to enter into an apprenticeship as opposed to other routes of education. The National Society of Apprentices agrees.

    In the other place, the Minister’s colleague, Baroness Buscombe, said that there would be discussions about this issue with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, but that did not happen. The Minister has told me on previous occasions that this needed to be addressed and discussed with other Departments, but that has not happened. This is a Government who are long on rhetoric but short on delivery, and it is young people and their families who are suffering. The Government are now blocking a modest proposal from the House of the Lords to begin to remedy their inability to do joined-up government.

  • The hon. Gentleman will know that, as I have mentioned before, we are carrying out a social mobility review of a whole range of issues, from benefits to incentives to providers and employers, to get more apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is entirely wrong to say that we are not doing so, as a significant amount of work is going into these areas.

  • I am grateful to the Minister. The broader perspective of social mobility is a perfectly reasonable way of going forward. However, to be honest, particularly at a time such as today when we are moving to a general election, I think that most people would be interested in some movement—some jam now rather than a promise of jam possibly in future from the social mobility study. I will come on to talk about other areas where, I am afraid, the Government have moved at, to put it at its kindest, a reasonably glacial pace. That is one of the reasons I am not terribly impressed by the Minister’s argument, although, as I say, I understand and appreciate his commitment to trying to do something.

    I want to speak in support of the second part of the amendment, which talks about opening benefits to care leavers by opening up access to a bursary that has traditionally been available only to university students. Young people in local authority care who move into higher education can apply for a one-off bursary of £2,000 from their local authority, and the amendment would enable care leavers who take up apprenticeships to access the same financial support.

    I remind the Minister of what the Children’s Society has said. Every year, around 11,000 young people aged 16 or over leave the care of their local authority and begin the difficult transition out of care and into adulthood—to be fair to him, he recognised that in his opening remarks—and my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields tabled an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill to provide such a local offer to care leavers. The Government have a golden opportunity to follow up on that by focusing on support that could be provided by the DWP. I am at a loss to understand why the Government are ignoring this possibility. They could make provision from the apprenticeship levy for local authorities to administer a £2,000 grant to all care leavers.

    When care leavers move into independent living they often begin to manage their own budget fully for the first time, and that move may take place earlier for them than for others in their peer group. Remember that a care leaver in year one of an apprenticeship may be, and often is, earning as little as £3.40 an hour before being able to transition to a higher wage in the second year. Evidence from their services and research has revealed how challenging care leavers may find it to manage that budget, because of a lack of financial support and education. As a result, young carers frequently fall into debt and financial difficulty. The Minister really needs to put himself in their shoes. The Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Edward Timpson), could tell us all, from his own family’s perspective, how vulnerable young people who come from disturbed and difficult family backgrounds can be.

    The question remains: why are the Government not prepared to retain this amendment? Fine words are all very well, but you may know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that according to the old Tudor proverb, “Fine words butter no parsnips”. Just what are the bureaucratic arguments for doing nothing to support hard-working young people and their families—and, even more so, those who do not have families to support them—to fulfil their hopes of better times via an apprenticeship? We talk about parity of esteem between HE students and apprentices, but some of these young people, because of their circumstances, struggle to have a strong sense of self-esteem.

    Why have the Government not moved on this? Once again, why have the consultations with the DWP not taken place? Was the Minister nobbled by No. 10 trusties or by those in his own Department, in the same way as Department for Education Ministers seem to have led us down the garden path of reforms to GCSE resits only to slam the door shut? I say as gently as I can to the Minister that if the Government do not retain the amendment, people will know that the Government’s rhetoric has been somewhat hollow, and apprentices and their families will suffer.

    I join the Minister in supporting amendment 2, which was carried in the Lords, and I also want to talk about amendment 6. The lack of parity of esteem for apprentices starts at an early age, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) illustrated in his useful and constructive exchange with the Minister, the rhetoric on careers advice still does not match the painful reality that faces many young people.

    The reality is that careers advice has been devastated over the last Parliament and since 2010, certainly at a local level, and young people who want to take a vocational and apprenticeship route are in danger of being short-changed again in their careers advice. Despite the work of the Careers & Enterprise Company, which is still in its infancy, support in schools remains poor. Careers England—the trade body for careers advice and guidance—and the Career Development Institute have confirmed to me recently that in their view, nothing has greatly changed. They estimate that only a third of schools can adequately deliver careers advice. Taken alongside the shortage of careers advisers and the fact that the remaining advisers earn far less than they used to, it adds up to a very difficult position.

    That is one of the reasons why last November the co-chairs of the Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy, the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), said that the Government had been complacent over careers advice. They said:

    “The Government’s lack of action to address failings in careers provision is unacceptable and its response to our report smacks of complacency.”

    I know that the Minister challenges that strongly, and I know that he has put on record that the Government are working towards a thorough careers strategy in that respect. But we have to deal with the situation as it is today, not with what it might be under a careers strategy developed by whatever Government are around at the end of the year.

    In the survey conducted by the Industry Apprentice Council last year, just 42% of respondents found out about apprenticeships from school or college, and using one’s own initiative remained by far the most common way for a young person to discover apprenticeships. The council also said that there needed to be a change in careers information, advice and guidance because the proportion of respondents who said that theirs had been very poor remained high across the three surveys.

    That is why the House of Lords has produced these two quite detailed and comprehensive amendments; those overall issues are not being addressed. Strong careers guidance is critical to promoting apprenticeships in schools. If we are to make a success of the institute, it is crucial that young people are alerted early enough in their school life to the importance and attraction of technical routes. That is one of the things that amendment 2 from the other House, which we supported, makes very clear.

    If the Minister does not think that the Lords amendment on careers advice is necessary, perhaps he would like to explain just how and when the Government are going to get a grip on the existing fractured landscape of careers advice revealed by his own Department. Last month—it was not bedtime reading, so I will not be surprised if hon. Members have not read it—the Department for Education published a research report, “An economic evaluation of the National Careers Service”. The report was produced by London Economics, which was originally commissioned by the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to evaluate the impact of the National Careers Service.

    The National Careers Service has changed considerably during the five years since it was introduced by the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes). I had the benefit of discussions with him at the time, and he was very clear when it started that the National Careers Service would principally be for the over-24s. That process has changed. I am not necessarily criticising that, but the process has certainly migrated in an unplanned fashion. The National Careers Service website says that anyone aged 13 and over can have access to the data, and that adults aged 19 and over can have access to one-to-one support. The problem is that only 15% to 22% of the customers—again, I am taking statistics from a report that the Government have commissioned—were referred by Jobcentre Plus, while the remainder were self-referring. Does that not speak volumes about the lack of joined-up government between the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions?

  • In some respects, my hon. Friend is actually being generous to the Government. I do not believe that the careers service as it existed has been decimated; I believe it has been laid waste by the Government’s policy since 2010. We really need to get back to youngsters having independent and impartial advice and guidance on their future career available to them. Without such independence and impartiality, we could unfortunately get back to having those with vested interests giving advice to young people. I remember the late Malcolm Wicks referring to this in the 1990s, when he said that much of the advice given to young people about their future careers was akin to pensions mis-selling because the service was packed with vested interests.

  • My hon. Friend makes a very important and valuable point, as he did earlier to the Minister, and we certainly need to think very hard about those things.

    As I have said, the National Careers Service process has migrated substantially, which may not in itself be a bad thing. I genuinely want to know from the Minister what connectivity there is between the National Careers Service and the Careers & Enterprise Company if the coverage starts as early as age 13. I would really like to know what the connectivity is in that process.

    The very disappointing fact is that, as the impact report says, researchers were

    “unable to identify a positive impact of the National Careers Service on employment or benefit dependency outcomes”.

    Arguably, those outcomes are its main purpose. This is another example of why it is essential for the Government to act on the careers strategy, and of why their failure so far to do so makes Lords amendments 2 and 6 so important. With the expansion of apprenticeships and the addition of technical education to the institute, it will be even more important for students and apprentices to have all the information that they need to make informed decisions.

    Young people who get the best careers advice in college or schools are more likely to be able to seek out the better apprenticeships. That is why I warmly welcome Lords amendment 2, Lord Baker’s amendment, which had our support and cross-party support. It would ensure that schools have to provide access to advice about apprenticeships. Why does that matter? It matters because, as my hon. Friend has said, knowledge in general is power, and unbiased knowledge is very important indeed. Incidentally, that is also why my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to require schools to give access to their premises to representatives of post-16 education institutions to enable them to provide pupils with advice and guidance.

    All of that is why Lords amendment 6 is also important. I am encouraged by the fact that the new chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, to whom I have spoken recently, is sympathetic to Ofsted making a much stronger case for ensuring that apprenticeships rate more highly in the information provided in schools. Incidentally, the Lords have already pointed out that that will require Ofsted to have more resources; my noble Friend Lord Watson pointed that out on Report on 27 March. If we do not get integration between the Careers & Enterprise Company and the National Careers Service, what we ask Ofsted to do will not work. Just what is the Minister’s response to these arguments? Why are the National Careers Service and the Careers & Enterprise Company apparently working on different lines? If he does not want to accept Lords amendment 6, what guarantees can he give to this House or to noble Lords that the necessary work will be done?

  • I want to speak very briefly on the Government motion to disagree with Lords amendment 6 and Government amendment (a) in lieu, as much as anything else to probe what amendment (a) will achieve. As a preface to that, let me give an impression of what the noble Lord Storey sought to achieve with Lords amendment 6. We have all acknowledged during the course of the debate so far that careers advice is incredibly variable and has been for some considerable time. Lord Storey tried to set in place a mechanism for monitoring careers advice so that we know precisely how good or how bad, and how valuable or useless, it actually is.

    In Committee stage in the Lords, Lord Nash described careers advice as always having been “pretty poor”. There was, of course, an Ofsted report in 2013 that established that three quarters of schools were not providing effective advice or, as the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) pointed out, impartial advice. It said that the guidance given to schools was not sufficiently explicit, employers were not engaging in many cases and the National Careers Service was not effectively promoted. A key conclusion of the Ofsted report was that schools’ advice should be assessed when taking into account general school leadership, or sector leadership in the case of further education—Lords amendment 6 also applies to the FE sector.

    I think that the Minister accepts all that, and I know that he has produced a variation on Lords amendment 6. I would like him to satisfy me and the House that it complies with what the Lords intended in their amendment.

  • I thank the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) and the shadow Minister for their speeches. I understand that the hon. Member for Southport is stepping down. He is an experienced Member of the House, and I send him every good wish for the future.

    To answer the hon. Gentleman we are essentially accepting de facto Lords amendment 6, which was suggested by Lord Storey. We have just made it tighter for legal reasons and, in fact, stronger. Ofsted will now be required to comment on college careers offers in its reports. However, we accept the principle of Lords amendment 6.

    I set out earlier the Government’s position that the majority of the Lords amendments serve to strengthen the measures in the Bill and ensure their success in practice. I urge hon. Members to accept all the amendments made in the Lords, with the exception of Lords amendment 1. As I explained earlier, that amendment is subject to financial privilege and I ask Members to reject it on that basis, while noting the work I have set out, which demonstrates our commitment to finding the most effective ways to address barriers and support the disadvantaged into apprenticeships.

    The shadow Minister said, in essence, that we should put our money where our mouth is. It is worth remembering that we have 900,000 apprentices at the moment, which is the highest on record, and that 25% of apprentices come from the poorest fifth of areas. The Careers & Enterprise Company has more than 1,300 enterprise advisers going into schools, and they are set to target something like 250,000 students in 75% of the career coldspots in the country. The National Careers Service is there to give careers advice and CV advice, and to provide personal contact either face to face, over the telephone or on the internet. The bodies have different roles.

    I ask Members to accept our amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 6, on which many noble Lords spoke. I spoke earlier of the positive activity at Derby College. It is by no means the only college taking active steps to provide high-quality careers advice to students. I have seen incredible work in my own college in Harlow and in Gateshead in the north-east of England. We want to ensure that all young people can access such support, and I ask Members to support that ambition by accepting the amendment in lieu.

  • I know that the Minister is determined and full of good intentions, but good intentions do not provide sound careers advice and guidance to young people who are in the system now. We need to see more urgency from the Government in backing up his decent intentions, to make sure that young people get the impartial advice and guidance they so deeply need as soon as possible.

  • Let me give the hon. Gentleman our intention. Given the financial climate, £90 million is no small sum of money to spend on careers, predominantly with the Careers & Enterprise Company, which has enterprise advisers going into schools. There is £20 million for mentoring services in schools. As I mentioned, enterprise advisers are going up and down the country to coldspots. The National Careers Service alone is getting more than £75 million this year to advise on careers. That is real financial backing for two very important services.

  • I am listening to the Minister. I was a member of the National Careers Service national association board prior to the invention of Connexions. I seem to remember that the national budget for careers at that time was something like £130 million. That was more than 15 years ago. In the current climate, the figures the Minister is talking about are inadequate.

  • Given the financial climate, the £90 million to be spent predominantly with the Careers & Enterprise Company and the £77 million that is going to the National Careers Service this year alone are sizeable sums of money. As I have said, we are developing a careers strategy. Obviously the election is occurring, but I hope very much that we will see careers with much more of a skills focus, and do much more work in schools on mentoring and on work experience.

    I have said that the Bill is a Ronseal Bill. It is very much part of our reforms to create an apprenticeships and skills nation and to give millions of young people the ladder of opportunity to get the jobs, security and prosperity that they need. It is a Bill to ensure that technical education is held in the regard it deserves. In the unlikely event of a college insolvency, students will be protected. The measures in the Bill make vital changes to support young people to build the essential skills that our nation needs, and they provide the right support to enable young people to climb that ladder. Many Members on both sides of the House and in the other place have spoken in support of that ambition, and I take this opportunity to thank them for their ongoing commitment to the Bill and for supporting all our young people to reach their potential.

    Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.

  • Division 197

    19 April 2017

    The House divided:

    Ayes: 298
    Noes: 182

    Question accordingly agreed to.

    View Details

    Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.

    Lords amendment 6 disagreed to.

    Government amendment (a) made in lieu of Lords amendment 6.

    Lords amendments 2 to 5 and 7 to 18 agreed to.

    Ordered, That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendment 1;

    That Robert Halfon, Michelle Donelan, Chris Heaton-Harris, Gordon Marsden, Henry Smith and Karl Turner be members of the Committee;

    That Robert Halfon be the Chair of the Committee;

    That three be the quorum of the Committee.

    That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Christopher Pincher.)

    Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.

    Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993

  • I beg to move,

    That this House approves, for the purposes of Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, the Government’s assessment as set out in the Budget Report and Autumn Statement, combined with the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Economic and Fiscal Outlook and Fiscal Sustainability Report, which forms the basis of the United Kingdom’s Convergence Programme.

    The legal requirement to give the European Commission an update of the UK’s economic and budgetary position—our convergence programme—means there is a welcome opportunity for a wider economic debate, should we want one. [Interruption.] Clearly, since last year’s—[Interruption.]

  • Order. If Members leaving the Chamber do so a little more quietly, we can hear the Minister. Thank you.

  • Clearly, since last year’s convergence programme debate there has been a momentous change in the UK’s relationship with the European Union. The article 50 process is now under way and the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. There cannot, as some suggest, be any turning back from that. In accordance with the outcome of the referendum, we are leaving the European Union and will make our own decisions, take control of the things that matter to us and seize every opportunity to build a stronger and fairer Britain.

    Given our decision to leave, some Members might find it odd that we are debating the UK’s convergence programme here today. It is right that we should do so, however, because we continue to exercise our full membership of the European Union until our exit and because to do so is a legal requirement that we must take seriously. I should, however, remind the House that the content of the convergence programme is drawn from the Government’s assessment of the UK’s economic and budgetary position. This assessment is based on the spring Budget report and the Office for Budget Responsibility’s most recent economic and fiscal outlook. It is that content, rather than the convergence programme itself, that requires the approval of the House.

    I should also remind the House that although the UK participates in the stability and growth pact, which requires convergence programmes to be submitted, we are required—by virtue of our protocol to the treaty opting out of the euro—only to endeavour to avoid excessive deficits. The UK cannot be subject to any action or sanctions as a result of our participation.

  • On that point, would my right hon. Friend like to comment on how much influence he thinks the convergence criteria and the deficit reduction requirements have had on successive UK Governments to drive more austerity and cuts?

  • In the seven years that I have been a Treasury Minister, I have not noticed the convergence programme having an influence on the decisions that we have taken. We have taken decisions to reduce the deficit because we believe that that is in the long-term interests of the United Kingdom, rather than because of any requirements under the EU treaties.

    Let me provide a brief overview of the information that we will set out in the UK’s convergence programme. Members should note that this does not represent new information; rather, it captures the Government’s assessment of the UK’s medium-term economic and budgetary position, as we set out in the spring Budget. It is fair to say that in March 2017, we were in a better position economically than many had predicted. Growth in the second half of 2016 was stronger than the OBR had anticipated in the autumn statement. In fact, the UK economy grew faster last year than most other advanced major economies, and employment remains at a record high. So, following a period of robust economic growth, record employment and a falling deficit, we sought to safeguard that economic stability in the Budget. That is particularly important as we prepare our country to leave the European Union.

    The OBR forecasts that business investment will remain subdued as we begin the period of negotiation with our EU friends and partners, and it continues to judge that, in the medium term, growth will slow due to weaker growth in consumer demand as a consequence of a rise in inflation. Accordingly, putting the public finances in good order will remain vital for the foreseeable future, and all the more so given that the deficit remains too high and that there is a range of potential risks in the global economy. That is why we are getting ourselves into a position of readiness to handle difficulties of any kind that might come our way. Our fiscal rules, which enable us to do that, strike the right balance between reducing the deficit, maintaining flexibility and investing for the long term.

    Overall public sector net borrowing as a percentage of GDP is predicted to fall from 3.8% last year to 2.6% this year. This means that we are forecast to meet our 3% stability and growth pact target this year for the first time in almost a decade. Borrowing is forecast to be 2.9% in 2017-18 and then to fall to 1.9% in 2018-19 before reaching 0.7% in 2021-22, which will be its lowest level in two decades. The economic forecasts are broadly unchanged since the autumn, but the OBR has substantially revised down its short-term forecast for public sector net borrowing. As a consequence, we are within sight of bringing to a halt the increase in the national debt as a proportion of GDP. Debt is forecast to peak at 88.8% of GDP in 2017-18, and then to fall in subsequent years.

  • On that point, it is important to remind the House that £435 billion of the debt is now owned by the state, so the state owes the money to itself, meaning that it is not a debt in any normal sense.

  • My right hon. Friend is correct about where the debt is owed, but as a country we must none the less be wary of a debt that is high by recent historical standards. It is right that we show determination to set out a plan for how the debt to GDP ratio can be reduced to ensure that the UK is in a more resilient place to absorb the shocks to our economy and to the public finances that occur from time to time.

    Beyond our fiscal rules to protect the public purse and prepare our economy, the Budget also set out a wide range of things that this Government will be doing to invest in our future. That includes giving our children the chance to go to a good or outstanding school that sets them up to succeed; helping young people across the country get the skills they need for the high-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future; and investing in cutting-edge technology and innovation, so that Britain continues to be at the forefront of the global technology revolution—three things that will be at the heart of our efforts finally to address the country’s long-standing productivity challenges.

    The Budget also promised greater support for our social care system, with substantial additional funding so that people get the care they deserve as they grow older. The Budget works to strengthen our public services over the long term, too, in our determination to bring down the deficit and get the UK back to living within its means, and to fund our public services for the long term through a fair and sustainable tax system. The spring Budget, therefore, was one that made the most of the opportunities ahead by laying the foundations of a stronger, fairer and better Britain.

    Following the House’s approval of the economic and budgetary assessment that forms the basis of the convergence programme, the Government will submit the convergence programme to the Council of the European Union and the European Commission, with recommendations expected from the Commission in May. The submission of convergence programmes by non-euro area member states, and stability programmes by euro area member states, also provides a useful framework for co-ordinating fiscal policies. A degree of fiscal policy co-ordination across countries can be beneficial to ensure a stable global economy, which is in the UK’s national interest.

    The UK has always taken part in international mechanisms for policy co-o