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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 626: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2017

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Belfast Agreement: Impartiality

1. What steps the Government are taking to comply with the requirement for rigorous impartiality set out in the Belfast agreement. (900001)

5. What steps the Government are taking to comply with the requirement for rigorous impartiality set out in the Belfast agreement. (900005)

The Government remain steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast agreement and its successors. We will continue to govern in the interests of all parts of the community and to work in partnership with the Irish Government, in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach, as we have done for the past seven years.

In the past few days, the deal with the Democratic Unionist party has been described as grubby, dangerous and desperate. Obviously, the situation in Northern Ireland is at a very sensitive point. Can the Secretary of State outline in a clear and cohesive way the steps that his Government are taking to ensure impartiality?

I say at the outset that I do not recognise the characterisation that the hon. Lady has given the agreement, which is about providing stability here for the UK Government and governing in the best interests of all parts of the UK. But in response to her important question about the Belfast agreement and its successors, I say to her that the Government remain steadfast in their commitment to those agreements and we continue to work with all parties, as I have done over recent days and will continue to do, so that the Government act in the best interests of all parts of Northern Ireland and continue to listen to the concerns of all parts of the community.

Over the past few days, a lot has been made about the extra money for infrastructure spending. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that that extra funding will be spent across all communities in Northern Ireland, especially the rural communities in the west? What can he do to help make sure that that happens?

The additional funding that has been outlined is for an inclusive Executive to be able to utilise those funds in the best interests of Northern Ireland. That is the most powerful, effective way to deliver on that. That is why I have been using all my time, energy and efforts to see that the Executive are restored. That is absolutely the best way to ensure that the points that the hon. Gentleman rightly makes are seen.

Is it not the case that in September 2015 there was a crisis in the institutions in Northern Ireland—long before any deal between the Conservative party and the DUP was struck? Is it not also the case that this particular crisis started long before any deal between the Conservative party and the DUP was struck?

My hon. Friend highlights the challenges that we have in seeing the Executive restored and the challenges that have emerged over the course of this year. He is right: it is so important that we focus on that task at hand and see that the time available is used so that the Executive are restored and perform in the best interests of Northern Ireland and all communities across Northern Ireland.

Surely the point is that, given the additional funding for Northern Ireland, the imperative will be on the Executive to reform and deliver for all people there, and to kick-start more private industry there to make the people of Northern Ireland less dependent on the state and to get better receipts back to the UK Treasury.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, who makes such an important point about the real opportunity that there is for Northern Ireland. We want to see jobs, growth and prosperity—to see investment in infrastructure and that enterprise-driven economy. There is that opportunity here, and we as a Government want it to be seized and to see Northern Ireland continue to move forward.

I wish the Secretary of State well in his efforts in the coming days to restore the Executive to Northern Ireland. For our part, we are absolutely committed to getting the Executive up and running again. We did not collapse the Executive and we are not setting any red lines or preconditions for a reformation. Will he be assured that our focus is on ensuring that money for infrastructure, health, education and the rest of it is spent equally and fairly across Northern Ireland, as has been our record in office over the past 10 years in the Northern Ireland Executive?

I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s statement of his party’s determination to see an Executive restored and, equally, that funds made available are seen across the whole community. This is about infrastructure, including investment in the digital infrastructure that provides the mechanism for prosperity to continue to grow in Northern Ireland.

On the issue of rigorous impartiality, of course we are committed to the agreements that we have entered into, as are Her Majesty’s Government. I particularly welcome the statement in the policy agreement that

“the Conservative Party will never be neutral in expressing its support for the Union”,

and that it

“will never countenance any constitutional arrangements that are incompatible with the consent principle.”

We are united on the great principle that we want to strengthen the United Kingdom, and the Secretary of State will have our full support in measures to achieve that.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that we will never be neutral in our support for the Union. The Government are proud to take that approach. Equally, we uphold the principles of those agreements, particularly the principle of consent, which has underlined and underpinned the activities of Governments over so many years. It is about the rightful balance between support for the Union and, equally, upholding the principle of consent.

12. I have seen the troubles at first hand, so I know that the peace process has been integral to progress since then. I very much welcome the agreement with our friends in the Democratic Unionist party, but what more can the Government do to reassure all the people of Northern Ireland that the agreement will not jeopardise this process? That is the chief concern at the moment. (900013)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point. This agreement underlines our steadfast commitment to the Belfast agreement and its successors. Indeed, I have been working with all major parties in the Executive in recent days to see the restoration of that Executive—one of the key bodies under the Good Friday agreement. That remains such an important outcome to achieve.

It is clear that other parties in Northern Ireland have serious concerns about the Good Friday agreement as a result of the deal that the UK Government have done with the DUP. What guarantees can the Secretary of State offer that the confidence and supply agreement does not threaten the impartiality of the UK Government? What assurances can he give us that the Prime Minister’s reliance on DUP votes to remain in power does not compromise his position? Finally, given the sword of Damocles clause—offering support on a case-by-case basis— how can any of us be sure that the UK Government will not be compromised when it suits the DUP?

The agreement relates to what happens here at Westminster. I am not part of those discussions or the envisaged committee, but there are important reasons for the role I play in Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady makes various assertions and characterisations. It is worth underlining that I have been working closely with the Irish Government in recent days as part of the restoration of the Executive, and they noted in their response that they welcomed the British Government’s commitment to

“govern in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland.”

That principle will guide our actions.

Notwithstanding the commitment to parity in the Good Friday agreement, does my right hon. Friend agree that the military covenant needs to be applied throughout the country, regardless of where servicemen and women live?

I do uphold the military covenant. The Conservative party has made great strides in rolling it out across the UK, and the Government remain committed to that. We will work with the Executive and all the parties so that the benefit of the military covenant is felt in all parts of the UK.

May I begin by paying tribute to Northern Ireland Members from all parties who lost their seats at the election? I pay particular tribute to Mark Durkan, who served this Parliament and Northern Irish politics with such distinction for so long. I also welcome all new Members from Northern Ireland to the House.

I do not doubt for a minute the good faith of the Secretary of State, and I wish him well in trying to bring about the power-sharing Executive, but he must acknowledge that his desire to look impartial has been compromised by the arrangements with the DUP. I would like to know what advice he gave the Prime Minister. Did he tell her that she was making his life that much harder?

May I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place? I know the role that he has played previously in Northern Ireland, and I welcome his experience on to the Labour Front Bench. I join him in recognising those who served previously in the House. I pay tribute to his predecessor, Dave Anderson, for the very constructive approach that he took. I would also like to recognise my colleague Kris Hopkins, who, as my Minister, played an extraordinary role. I also recognise my colleague Lord Dunlop.

The hon. Gentleman makes the point about Mark Durkan—another colleague who has served in the House—and it is notable that Mark Durkan is reported as saying that there is nothing in the Good Friday agreement that prevents agreements between parties in Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic of Ireland or the UK Government. It is the principles of those agreements that we continue to uphold in the actions that we take, and we see nothing inconsistent with the agreement that was reached this week in terms of our actions and the role that we play in Northern Ireland.

I acknowledge all the points the Secretary of State has just made, but he knows from his experience and mine that trust is absolutely vital in Northern Ireland, and there is a danger that that trust between parties and in the Governments will be eroded over time if one party is seen as having the ear of the Government. Transparency is the key to avoiding that, so can he commit that, in addition to being transparent in the initial agreement, all subsequent agreements and all the minutes of the DUP-Tory co-ordination committee will be published so we know exactly what is going on?

This issue of impartiality, and the principle of working across all communities and with fairness to all communities, is one that we steadfastly uphold. That is why I will continue to work and engage with all parties and, indeed, community groups and sectors across Northern Ireland in the role that I uphold. I think the hon. Gentleman has seen from the actions that we have taken in publishing the confidence and supply agreement and the financial statement that sits alongside it that that transparency has been provided.

Power Sharing

The overriding priority for the UK Government in Northern Ireland remains the restoration of devolved power-sharing government in Stormont. The UK Government are working with the main Northern Ireland parties and, in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach, the Irish Government to restore a fully functioning inclusive Executive and Assembly. But time is short. I would urge all concerned to use the narrow window that remains to look beyond their differences and to see that an Executive is formed.

Like many Members, I have been assisting constituents who are former members of Her Majesty’s armed forces and who served in Northern Ireland with distinction during the troubles. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House the extent to which disagreement over reforming the unfair legacy case process is a sticking point in restoring power sharing?

I think that there is a growing consensus that the next stage needs to be the publication of a consultation around the Stormont House agreement bodies, which are founded on the principle of fairness and proportionality, and it is that that has come through from the discussions that we have had.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any return to direct rule in Northern Ireland would be a huge backward step and that devolution is really the only good way forward?

I do agree with the comments of my hon. Friend. An Executive—an inclusive Executive—acting in the best interests of Northern Ireland is profoundly what Northern Ireland needs and what the people voted for, and that is where our focus must lie.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the armed forces covenant has been the subject of talks in Northern Ireland because of the lack of full implementation. Does he agree that the party blocking that implementation talks a lot about rights and respect? It needs to do the right thing and stop being a barrier to the support that the veterans in Northern Ireland need.

May I welcome the hon. Lady to her position? I am sure that the experience she has—over legacy, and over so many parts of Northern Ireland—will enrich the debate in the House.

We obviously stand by our commitments in relation to the military covenant—wanting to see that felt in all parts of the UK—and we look forward to working with all parties and all communities across Northern Ireland and the UK to see that that happens.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the vast majority of the public in Northern Ireland are very interested to see who actually pays and funds the political parties in Northern Ireland? As part of his ongoing discussions, will he therefore have the courage of his convictions and make sure that there is an end to the anonymity of political donations in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point, which she has made on a number of occasions in the House. I think she will have seen the commitment in my party’s manifesto over the transparency of political donations. I look forward to moving ahead and seeing that that is actually implemented.

13. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the disgraceful treatment of my constituent, Major Dennis Hutchings, and other ex-service personnel will continue to be an important element of his discussions? (900014)

I recognise the way in which my hon. Friend has championed the cause of her constituent. I know she will appreciate that there are legal proceedings outstanding that mean that I cannot comment in detail, but I hope she appreciates the Government’s desire to see fair, balanced and proportionate mechanisms put in place for dealing with the issues of the past.

May I associate myself with the generous comments the Secretary of State made about Kris Hopkins, who is a good and decent man? I welcome the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), my seventh opponent, to the Government Dispatch Box. Unlike all her predecessors, she lacks a little close combat experience, except, of course, from her time in the Whips Office.

We all hope that there is a re-establishment of the Executive tomorrow, but should that not happen, Ministers must obviously be undertaking some contingency planning. What structures would they like to see in place to ensure impartiality in the disbursement of the additional money?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments about Kris Hopkins, who served in the House with distinction, including in the role that he played in the Northern Ireland Office.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that our focus is on seeing that an Executive is restored. I have been clear on not wanting to pre-empt what may happen should that not be the case. Obviously, there would be profound and serious implications in that context. I can assure him that we will work with all parties, and indeed have discussions with his party and others across the House, to see that these issues are considered very carefully, but our focus—

Security Situation

The terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland remains unchanged at “severe”—namely, an attack is highly likely. The need for vigilance remains, and I pay tribute to the brave men and women who work to keep communities safe. They will always have this Government’s fullest support.

Last December, the Secretary of State assured me in the Chamber that he would be unswerving and unstinting in underlining the huge contribution of our armed forces, so will the Minister join me in welcoming the commitment in our manifesto that the bodies envisaged in the Stormont House agreement will be fair, balanced and proportionate to former soldiers?

Yes, I do reiterate that commitment in our manifesto. We continue to focus on implementing the Stormont House agreement and creating new bodies that will be fair, balanced and proportionate. The next phase, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has outlined, is to consult publicly on the detail of those bodies’ workings.

As the Member of Parliament in the west of the Province who takes his seat, may I ask the Minister whether she is aware of the fact that security has been getting worse in the west of Northern Ireland, particularly the north-west? Will she review the problems associated with the bomb disposal team in getting them to the places where problems have occurred?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s experience in this area and would be more than delighted to meet him to hear more about his specific concerns. As a new Minister, I have endeavoured to be in touch straight away with all the Northern Ireland MPs and those in the House with an interest. We must be vigilant, as I said earlier, and I look forward to further detail from him.

Will the Minister ensure that she and the Secretary of State play a full part in the Government’s forthcoming review of counter-terrorism strategy to reflect the lethal nature of the domestic terrorism threat in Norther Ireland? [Interruption.]

There is far too much noise and too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. There has been extensive interest in all parts of the House in Northern Ireland in recent weeks; there ought to be interest in these matters being treated of in the Chamber today.

The short answer is yes. Both I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will endeavour to ensure that security is at the forefront of all that we do.

The Minister will know that many terrorists have been brought back to Northern Ireland to face justice under the European arrest warrant. Will she commit today from the Dispatch Box that this Government will keep that arrest warrant post-Brexit?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that all such matters are for negotiation and are in the hands of my right hon. Friend the Brexit Secretary. We enjoy strong working relationships with our counterparts in the Irish Government. We intend to continue that, in the service of all the communities of Northern Ireland.

Leaving the EU: Free Movement of People

4. What assessment he has made of the implications of exiting the EU for the free movement of people between Northern Ireland and the (a) Republic of Ireland and (b) rest of the UK. (900004)

The Government want to protect the ability to move freely between the UK and Ireland, which is an essential part of economic integration and daily community life. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed in this House last November, there will be no change, alteration or impediment to movement within the UK.

The simplest way to ensure that free movement continues unimpeded across these islands is to accept that there will in reality be no increased border checks or in-country controls on EU nationals after Brexit—any controls occurring in-country. That is what the Home Secretary has previously suggested. Will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland confirm that that remains the Government’s thinking?

We want to maintain the common travel area, which has served us so well over so many decades. Equally, we want to work with the Irish Government to ensure that the external border is upheld and strengthened. That remains our focus.

Leaving the EU: Border

6. What steps he is taking to ensure that there is no hard border with the Republic of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (900006)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in her letter to Donald Tusk that we want to avoid a return to a hard border—nobody wishes to return to the border of the old days— and to maintain the common travel area. That desire is shared with the Republic of Ireland and the European Union, and we shall work tirelessly to achieve it.

Northern Ireland is as much part of the United Kingdom as Dartford, but does the Minister agree that, given Northern Ireland’s unique situation, it is essential that there is a frictionless border between it and the Republic, without ever compromising the security of the whole of the United Kingdom?

Yes, I do agree. We all want to see people and goods moving as freely as possible across the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, in the service of a strong economy for those who need it.

Mindful of the worryingly high levels of radicalisation of people in the Republic of Ireland, what assurances can the Minister give DUP Members that the soft border that is important for trade will not become an unsafe border in terms of security?

I value the strong working relationship between this country and the Republic of Ireland, which will allow us to focus on the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman. We need to preserve the common travel area and to maintain tariff-free trade with Europe. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

Economic Development

The fundamentals of the Northern Ireland economy are strong, with growth last year at 1.6%. Unemployment has fallen and employment has risen, but there is much more we must do.

I welcome the additional investment in Northern Ireland’s economy, to address structural weaknesses. May I urge the Government to reinforce their efforts to secure private sector and foreign direct investment?

I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do that, using our relationships across the globe. It is clear that, despite the progress made in recent years, special circumstances still apply to Northern Ireland. We want a strong economy for all communities there.

The industrial strategy and the national shipbuilding strategy give two key opportunities for the Minister and this Government to assist in building and growing the Northern Ireland economy. Will she facilitate discussions with us and Ministry of Defence colleagues so that we can advance those golden opportunities for our Province?

Under the terms of the Azores agreement and legislation passed through this House, only a devolved Administration can use their powers to reduce corporation tax, which would have an overwhelming beneficial impact on every citizen in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister guarantee that that will be raised in the talks over the next two days?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will do everything he can to ensure that those talks come to a successful conclusion. The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) simply underlines the need to make the reaching of that agreement a priority.

Confidence and Supply Agreement

8. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the peace process of an agreement on confidence and supply between the Government and the Democratic Unionist party. (900009)

9. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the peace process of an agreement on confidence and supply between the Government and the Democratic Unionist party. (900010)

This agreement provides stability at a vital time for our country and is in the interests of all of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. It in no way changes the UK Government’s commitment to the Belfast agreement and its successors.

We are now in the slightly odd position that each DUP Member is worth more than Ronaldo: I do not know what that says about their footballing skills. Does the Secretary of State agree with Jonathan Powell that it is now impossible for the UK Government to be even-handed in Northern Ireland?

Can the Secretary of State not see that the UK Government’s credibility with the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom has been destroyed following the £1.5 billion bribe for Northern Ireland, subverting the Barnett rules, as the price of staying in office?

14. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the Government’s commitment to use our high commissions and embassies to promote Northern Ireland as a place to do business, to ensure that Northern Ireland is fully included in any UK-wide initiative to boost exports and prosperity? (900015)

I strongly support the point that my hon. Friend makes. Northern Ireland is a great place to do business and as a Government we will continue to support that in all ways that we can—and in all other parts of the UK.


The Prime Minister was asked--


The House will be aware that today the Crown Prosecution Service announced charging decisions in relation to Hillsborough. I know from working closely with the families when I was Home Secretary that this will be a day of mixed emotions for them. The House will understand that I cannot say anything further on matters that are now subject to criminal prosecution.

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

Over the past months I have had swastikas carved into posters; social media posts such as “Burn the witch” and “Stab the c***”; people putting Labour party posters on my home, photographing them and pushing them through my letterbox; and even someone urinating on my office door—hardly kinder, gentler politics. Can my right hon. Friend suggest what can be done to stop such intimidation, which may well put off good people from serving in this place?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue and she was not the only person to experience such intimidation during the election campaign. This sort of intimidation was experienced—I am sorry to say—by female candidates in particular. I believe that such behaviour has no place in our democracy. She is right: it could put good people off serving in this House. We want more people to become engaged and to want to stand for election to this House. As I stand here and see the plaque dedicated to the late Jo Cox, I think we should all remember what Jo said, that

“we are far more united and have far more in common”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]

—with each other than the things that divide us.

I welcome the announcement by the Crown Prosecution Service this morning that it will prosecute six people in relation to Hillsborough. The prosecution, the inquiry and this development happened only because of the incredible work done by the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and other colleagues. We should pay tribute to all those who spent a great deal of time trying to ensure justice for those who died at Hillsborough.

Seventy-nine people died in Grenfell Tower. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who have died, those still unaccounted for and those who will live with the trauma of this horrific and utterly avoidable tragedy for the rest of their lives. Last Thursday, the Prime Minister said she expected to appoint a judge to chair the inquiry within the next few days. We have not had any further news on that. Will she now update the House on when an appointment will be made, and what will be the timetable for the inquiry?

There have been many years of waiting for the Hillsborough families and the different groups who came together, not just the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. The work done by Margaret Aspinall and others has been absolutely exemplary. As I said, today will be a day of really mixed emotions for them, but we all welcome the fact that charging decisions have been taken. That is an important step forward.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me for an update on Grenfell Tower. If I may, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on a number of aspects. We all know what an unimaginable tragedy this was, and our thoughts will continue to be with all those affected by it. As of this morning, the cladding from 120 tower blocks across the country, in 37 local authority areas, has been tested and has failed the combustibility test. Given the 100% failure rate, we are very clear with local authorities and housing associations that they should not wait for test results; they should get on with the job of the fire safety checks—indeed, they are doing that—and take any action necessary. The Government will support them in doing that. The Communities Secretary has set up an independent expert advisory panel to advise on the measures that need to be taken. The panel is meeting this week.

On the housing offer, 282 good quality temporary properties have been identified, 132 families have had their needs assessed and 65 offers of temporary accommodation have already been made to families. The payments from the discretionary fund we have made available continue. As of this morning, nearly £1.25 million of payments have been made. In addition, we are giving an extra £1 million to the local consortia of charities, trusts and foundations that have been doing such important work.

On the public inquiry, I expect us to be able to name a judge soon. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the process is that the Lord Chief Justice recommends the name of a judge. We want to ensure that, as the process goes forward for that inquiry, the survivors and the families concerned are involved. That is the work we are currently doing.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, but I hope she is able to stick to her promise of everyone being rehoused within three weeks. At the moment, it does not look anything like that target will be achieved. I hope she understands the fear that so many people have living in tower blocks at the present time all around the country. In 2014, the all-party fire and safety group wrote to the Department for Communities and Local Government, warning:

“Today’s buildings have a much higher content of readily available combustible material”.

There have been contradictory messages from the Government. Can the Prime Minister give a categorical answer: is cladding with a combustible core, such as polyethylene, legal for use on high-rise buildings, and was the cladding on Grenfell Tower legal?

The building regulations identified the cladding that is compatible with the building regulations and that which is non-compliant. My understanding is that this cladding was not compliant with the building regulations. This raises wider issues, as the House will recognise. It is important that we are careful in how we talk about this. A criminal investigation is taking place, and it is important that we allow the police to conduct that criminal investigation and to take the decisions they need to take.

There is a much wider issue here, as we have seen from the number of buildings where the cladding, from the samples already sent in by local authorities and housing associations, has failed the combustibility test. This is a much wider issue, with cladding having been put into buildings for decades. There are real questions as to how this has happened, why it has happened, and how we can ensure it does not happen in future. That is why I am clear that in addition to the inquiry that needs to identify the specific issues for Grenfell Tower—what happened in relation to Grenfell Tower and who was responsible—we will also need to look much more widely at why it is that over decades, under different Governments and under different councils, material has been put up on tower blocks that is non-compliant with the building regulations. There is a very wide issue here. We need to make sure we get to the bottom of it and that is what we are going to do.

Last Thursday the Prime Minister told my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) that she would make the results of the Grenfell Tower cladding testing public within 48 hours, and I am not sure she has actually done that with her statement today. As of yesterday—the Prime Minister has just confirmed this—120 high-rise blocks across Britain have had fire safety tests and failed them. What timetable has the Prime Minister set for such tests to be completed, including on schools and hospitals, in every part of the country? What plans does she have to compel the testing of high rise buildings such as private sector office blocks and hotels, which may also have combustible cladding material on them?

What I said last week in the statement is that my understanding is that the police were going to make a statement about the cladding material within 48 hours, and I think the police then did make a statement about the position. In relation to the tests, my message is a very simple one. As I said in my answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s first question, what we are saying to people is that this is not a question of waiting for the tests: do not wait until you have a sample in and you know the result of the test; so far, 100% of the samples that have come in have proved to be combustible, so work on the assumption that you should be doing the fire safety checks now. That is what we are telling people to do. We know that parts of the private sector are also doing their work on fire safety checks, but my response to all those who have buildings that are covered by this is: do the fire safety checks with the fire service, take any measures that are necessary to ensure fire safety and the Government will support you in doing that.

Since 2010, only a third of new schools have had sprinkler systems installed, so parents are rightly concerned about the safety of their children. In 2013, the Lakanal House coroner’s letter formally recommended that the Government encourage providers of housing and high-rise residential buildings to consider retrofitting sprinklers. Two years later, Inside Housing reported that only 1% of council tower blocks had sprinklers fitted. Can the Prime Minister let us know what the Government actually did to encourage retrofitting during the past four years?

The Government did indeed ensure that those local authorities were aware of the recommendation that came from the coroner and they did act on that recommendation. However, if we look at what has happened and the identification of the issues in a number of tower blocks so far, there are various issues that lead to concern about fire safety. If we look at what has happened in Camden, for example, where one of the five blocks was considered to be habitable but four were not, that was not just because of the cladding; it was because of other issues, in relation, for example, to the gas riser.

All these issues raise wider questions about the inspections that have taken place and about residents’ complaints and residents’ voices not being heard. That is an issue that has been raised at Grenfell Tower and it has also been raised in Camden. This is a much wider question. A terrible tragedy took place. People lost their lives who should never have lost their lives. We need to look at what has happened over decades in this country that has led to this position, and that is exactly what we will do.

There have been two coroner’s reports. Building regulations have not been overhauled and local authorities, while asked to act on them, have had their budgets cut by 40% during the same period. Under the Prime Minister’s predecessor, fire safety audits and inspections were cut by a quarter and fire authority budgets were cut by a quarter. Can the Prime Minister give an assurance to the House that the further 20% cuts to the fire service planned by 2020 will now be halted?

I think that, in his reference to the building regulations, the right hon. Gentleman missed part of the point. It is not just a question of what laws we have; it is a question of how they are being applied. That is the issue. We have building regulations about compliant materials. The question is, why, despite that, have we seen, in local authority area after local authority area, materials being put up that appear not to comply with those building regulations? That is what we need to get to the bottom of. Why is it that fire inspections and local authority inspections appear to have missed that essential issue?

I think I can help the Prime Minister with that issue. When you cut local authority expenditure by 40%, you end up with fewer building control inspectors—[Interruption.]

Order. It is pretty bad when people shout. For someone sitting right by the Speaker’s Chair to shout displays, let us say, a lack of wisdom, which should not be repeated. [Interruption.] Order. Every Member in the Chamber must and will be heard, however long the session has to run.

I was simply making the point—which seems to have upset a lot of Conservative Members—that when you cut local authority budgets by 40%, we all pay a price in public safety. Fewer inspectors—fewer building control inspectors and fewer planning inspectors—and we all pay a price. Moreover, those cuts in the fire service have meant that there are 11,000 fewer firefighters, and the public sector pay cap is hitting recruitment and retention throughout the public sector.

What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed are the disastrous effects of austerity, a disregard for working-class communities, and the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners. I urge the Prime Minister to come up with the resources that are needed to test and remove cladding, retrofit sprinklers, and properly fund the fire service and police so that all our communities can truly feel safe in their own homes. This disaster must be a wake-up call.

The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this Government. It did not start under the previous coalition Government. The cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair Government.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about local authority resources, and about changes in regulation. In 2005, it was a Labour Government who introduced the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, which transferred the requirement to inspect a building on fire safety grounds from the local fire authority, which was usually the fire brigade, to a “responsible person”. The legislation governing fire safety in tower blocks—and this was commented on in the report on the Lakanal House fire; it criticised that 2005 order, which had been put in place by the Labour Government—[Interruption.]

Laws that took effect in 2006 ended the practice of routine fire service inspections, passing the responsibility to councils. That is why I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we should recognise, across the House, that this is a matter that has been developing over decades, and has occurred under Governments of both colours and councils of all political persuasions. I hope we will say that we should come together and ensure that we get to the answers to the questions about why this has happened over many years, what has gone wrong, and how we can stop it happening in the future.

Order. Understandably, on this most solemn and sensitive of matters, the Front-Bench exchanges have, perhaps inevitably and perhaps rightly, been very comprehensive. I am now keen that all Back Benchers scheduled to take part should have the opportunity to do so.

Q2. Businesses in my constituency share the Prime Minister’s desire to provide certainty for trade arrangements in the years immediately following our exit from the EU. Can she confirm that any transitional arrangements will be for a strictly limited period and that any suggestion of ever-retreating deadlines or a perpetual status quo would fall short of honouring the decision made by the people of this country to leave the EU? (900052)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For very practical reasons, when we know what the future relationship will be, we may need implementation periods—we made that point in our article 50 letter—to ensure that the practical arrangements can be put in place for that new relationship. But I am very clear that this does not mean an unlimited transitional phase. We are going to leave the European Union. That is what people wanted and that is what we will deliver.

I welcome the announcement of the prosecutions on Hillsborough, and I congratulate the families and all those involved in the many years of campaigning to achieve justice.

The Scottish Secretary insisted that Scotland would see increased funding if the Democratic Unionist party secured money for Northern Ireland as part of a confidence and supply deal. He insisted:

“I’m not going to agree to anything that could be construed as back-door funding to Northern Ireland.”

Did the Prime Minister receive any representations from her Scottish Secretary about the DUP deal, either before or after it was signed?

When we look at what has happened in terms of funding for the rest of the United Kingdom, we see that in the autumn statement last year, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set aside an infrastructure fund of £23 billion. We are putting more money into our NHS and more money into our schools. And of course there is an impact on Scotland as a result of that autumn statement: £800 million extra spending is going to Scotland and, as a result of the Budget, £350 million extra is going to Scotland. I do not remember, when that money for Scotland was announced, the hon. Gentleman complaining that more money should be going to Northern Ireland—but then of course, he is a nationalist and not a Unionist.

The Prime Minister’s failure to give a straight answer to that question speaks volumes—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister’s failure to give a straight answer to that question speaks volumes and has succeeded only in piling more pressure on the Scottish Secretary, whose position now looks less secure with every day that passes—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman’s question—I think he is reaching his peroration—must be heard.

I will give the Prime Minister one more opportunity: did she receive any representations about the DUP deal from the Secretary of State for Scotland-yes or no?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I regularly receive representations from the Secretary of State for Scotland about matters relating to Scotland, including regular representations pointing out that if the Scottish nationalists actually had the interests of Scotland at heart, they would want to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Q9. Given that rail passengers in my constituency are once again facing rail misery with an overtime ban and strike action looming, does the Prime Minister agree that the only way to end the 18 months of rail misery for my constituents and for all passengers on Southern rail is for the unions to stop their strike and get back round the table to resolve this once and for all? (900059)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Southern rail passengers have been experiencing unacceptable delays and disruption to their service. An expert report has found that the main cause of widespread disruption was union action, so I say, “For the sake of the passengers, get around the table and solve this dispute.”

Q3. May I thank the Prime Minister for coming to my constituency during the general election campaign and for making her widely welcomed U-turn on the dementia tax? May I invite her back to Wrexham to make another announcement, reversing her appalling cuts to police budgets, which my constituents want to see the back of? (900053)

We are protecting police budgets—[Interruption.] Yes. But we are of course making reforms to policing. That is why I introduced the National Crime Agency to deal with serious and organised crime, which actually relates to crime on the streets. That is why we have put money into a new national cybercrime unit to ensure that the police can deal with the new sorts of crimes they are having to deal with. Yes, we are reforming policing, but the key thing is not the number of police on the streets; the key thing is what happens to crime, and crime has fallen to a record low.

Q12. The Grenfell Tower tragedy shocked so many of us because we all believe that there is much that should never have happened. However, to claim ahead of any inquiry, as an Opposition Front Bencher did, that residents were “murdered” by politicians is grotesquely inappropriate. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that our Government will get on with helping to rebuild lives and homes and with progressing critical inquiries with urgency and, above all, non-partisan calm? (900062)

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. What all of those affected by Grenfell Tower deserve is an inquiry that gets to the truth and provides them with the truth and with the knowledge of who was responsible. We need to do that in a careful, calm and determined way. We also need to use that same calm determination to ensure that we get to the bottom of the wider issue of why materials that have been used in tower blocks around the country appear to be non-compliant with the building regulations. There are real issues here. We are not going to get to the truth by pointing fingers, but we will by calm determination.

Q4. On the deal that the Prime Minister has done with the DUP, is it true that, on the one hand, she is shelling out all this extra money to secure its support while, on the other hand, she is still giving it taxpayers’ cash in the form of Short money to be in opposition? Is that what we get from this Prime Minister: no pay rise for the nurses, but a double bubble for her friends in the DUP? (900054)

Let us be clear about what the Government have done in the agreement with the Democratic Unionist party. As a result of the election, no party had a majority in this House—[Interruption.] Yes. The party with the largest number of seats and the only party that can form an effective Government is the Conservative party. That is the right thing to do, and that is what we have done.

Q13. Does the Prime Minister share my concern that 50,000 people were stopped at the controls in Calais last year? That is 150 people every single day, which underlines the fact that we should keep the controls in place. Will she consider the case for investing more in state-of-the-art technology and in more border officers, so that we can win the war against the people traffickers and keep our borders safe and secure? (900063)

Our Border Force officers are doing an excellent job at the juxtaposed controls and the work they do in his constituency, in particular the work to stop illegal immigrants and human traffickers. We have been investing in the system capabilities, with £108 million invested in new technology in the past two years and with a further £71 million earmarked for that in this current financial year. Of course, there are particular pressures on Dover, which is why we have also invested more money to maintain security there and to ensure that the Calais camp remains closed. We are also making efforts upstream to ensure that we reduce the number of people who are trying get to the United Kingdom illegally. The Department for International Development is now putting extra focus on the central Mediterranean route, and, as I announced last week, an extra £75 million is going towards humanitarian support there.

Q5. I know the Prime Minister is well aware of the misery and suffering caused by reckless gambling. Following her own recent experience and the turmoil it has caused to her friends and colleagues, will she now commit to legislating on fixed odds betting terminals, the cause of so much hardship across our communities? (900055)

As the hon. Lady knows, a consultation was undertaken on that particular issue, which the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is considering. It will announce a response in due course.

In Fareham 63% of voters chose the Conservatives, a share of the vote not seen since 1935. Will my right hon. Friend join me in reminding the Chamber that this side won the election and the other side lost? Will she join me in thanking the good people of Fareham for placing their trust in the Conservatives and reassuring them that she is the best person to deliver a prosperity-led and successful Brexit?

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking the good people of Fareham for re-electing a first-class Member of Parliament to this House to represent them. She is absolutely right, of course, that it was the Conservative party that got the highest percentage share of votes in this election, the Conservative party that got the most seats—56 more seats than the Labour party—and the Conservative party that got more votes. That is why we are an effective Government.

Q6. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, last week, Britain’s four most senior police officers—the commissioner of the Met and the heads of counter-terrorism, the National Crime Agency and the National Police Chiefs Council—all wrote to the Government saying that the counter-terrorism policing and protective security grant is being cut by 7.2%? Does that not show, contrary to what she just told my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), that her promise to protect police budgets is not being kept? (900056)

No. As I said earlier, we have protected counter-terrorism policing. We have also put money into an uplift in armed policing. The commissioner of the Metropolitan police has made the point that the Metropolitan police are well resourced and has a wide diversity of tools that it can use in countering terrorism. That is the point. It is not just about the funding; it is about ensuring they have the powers they need to deal with the terrorists—that is what we are determined to ensure.

As the Member for Aldershot, the home of the British Army, I was deeply alarmed to hear of the Leader of the Opposition’s reported announcement at the Glastonbury festival that, if in power, he would abandon Trident and utterly undermine the security and safety of our country. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that it is only her Government and the Conservative party that can provide the safety and security that our great country needs?

First, I welcome my hon. Friend to his place in this House. I am sure that he is going to be, as was his predecessor, a fine representative of the people of the Aldershot constituency. I join him in saying that I think people were shocked to hear that the Leader of the Opposition, who appears to support Trident in public, in private said that he wanted to scrap it. Only the Conservative party is clear about retaining our nuclear deterrent. In the case of the Leader of the Opposition, it appears that he says one thing to the many and another thing to the few.

Q7. After he was fairly defeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), this Government have nevertheless seen fit to reward the defeated candidate by giving the unelected Ian Duncan a peerage and a job in the Scotland Office. Instead of this affront to democracy, and in the light of the need for a legislative consent motion at Holyrood, does the Prime Minister not think she should stop treating the Scottish people with contempt, do the right thing and give the Scottish Government a seat at the Brexit negotiations table? (900057)

We have, throughout the time we have had so far on the Brexit issue, been working with and talking to the Scottish Government, and indeed other devolved Administrations, and we will continue to do that. I hope and trust that the nature of the hon. Gentleman’s question means that from now on the Scottish nationalists are going to be focused on issues that matter to Scotland other than independence.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the current crisis in Venezuela, and is it an example of how an experiment in socialist revolution can go horribly wrong?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, and I hope the Leader of the Opposition has heard what he had to say. When we are talking about trade deals in the future, I sometimes think that the Leader of the Opposition and his shadow Chancellor think that the only good trade deals are with Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.

Q8. The brave men and women in our emergency services have consistently put the safety of others first, especially in response to the terrible events we have seen in recent months. We all pay tribute to their professionalism, which is why I believe it is important that we give them all the resources they need to do their vital job. It is outrageous that in Scotland the police and fire services are required to pay VAT, which has cost front-line services £35 million— (900058)

Order. Mr Cleverly, you are usually the embodiment of calm repose and potential statesmanship —take some sort of tablet, man! Mrs Fellows must be heard.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I shall repeat what I said. It is outrageous that our police and fire services should pay VAT, when that has cost the front-line services £35 million last year alone. Now that the Prime Minister has found the magic money tree, will she extend the VAT exemption to Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and—[Interruption.]

When the Scottish Government took the decision to merge Scottish police forces into a single force, Police Scotland, they were told that it would lead to VAT being paid by Police Scotland. They were advised that that was the position and they chose to go ahead with the merger.

Today is the festival saint’s day of St Alban, and his pilgrimage was celebrated on Saturday. What more can be done to protect all persons of faith who are being persecuted for their faith, particularly our students on campuses who are suffering large amounts of anti-Semitism?

I am happy to recognise St Alban’s day, as my hon. Friend has. She is absolutely right that this is important. Sometimes we talk a lot about people who are being persecuted for their faith in countries abroad, but actually we need to be very clear that, sadly, we do see people here suffering attacks, particularly anti-Semitic ones, on campuses. The Community Security Trust does a lot of work with students to provide support, and I am happy that the Government are supporting them. We are also supporting Muslim communities that are suffering from Islamophobia. There is no place for such hate in our society, and we must all work to stamp it out.

Q10. The current Prime Minister recently visited my constituency. Upon being asked about the precarious situation facing both Dewsbury and District hospital and Huddersfield royal infirmary, she stated that people were “scare-mongering”. Will she therefore use this opportunity today to reassure my constituents that all services will be retained at both hospitals, including full accident and emergency provision? (900060)

Yes, I was asked about Dewsbury A&E, and I can confirm that it is not closing. The service will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the majority of patients will see no change to their service.

The repeated claim that spending ever increasing amounts of money on overseas aid keeps this country safe has been shown by recent events to be utter nonsense. May I tell the Prime Minister that spending more and more money on overseas aid each year makes us look not compassionate to the public, but idiotic when that money is much needed in the United Kingdom? Will she promise to slash the overseas aid budget and spend it on priorities in the UK? I hope that she does not have a strange political aversion to pursuing any policies that might be popular with the public.

I can assure my hon. Friend that I do not have that aversion, but on this issue I do take a different view. It is important that, given the position that we hold and the fact that our economy is one of the largest in the world, we recognise that we can help those around the world. We are seeing millions of people, particularly girls, being educated as a result of the action that we are taking. That is important. I recognise what my hon. Friend has said: we have suffered from terrible terrorist attacks here in the United Kingdom, and our services have also foiled a number of terrorist attacks in recent months and years. It is important that we are able to use our aid money to help ensure good governance in countries so that we do not see the creation of spaces where the terrorists are able to train and incite others.

Q11. I must thank the Prime Minister and most of the Cabinet for visiting Ealing during the election, because my majority went up by 50 times. Some 53,000 EU nationals reside in the London borough of Ealing, and they would now like some clarity on this “fair and generous” offer, such as how much extra their settled status applications will cost them and why they will not be able to vote in local elections, as they can now. (900061)

I am grateful that the hon. Lady has described this as a fair and generous offer, as indeed it is a fair and generous offer, ensuring that people can stay here in the United Kingdom and that they will have rights here in the United Kingdom just as UK citizens do.

A significant number of charities, including those looking after the most vulnerable disabled people in our society, are in fear of imminent closure due to the application of the national living wage to sleep-in shifts and the fact that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is insisting on six years’ back pay despite the advice changing only last year. Will the Prime Minister ask HMRC to suspend any actions until we can find a workable solution?

My hon. Friend has raised a very important issue, and I know that it is one that he particularly cares about. Of course, it is through the national living wage that we are making sure that pay is fair in all sectors, including in social care. On the specific point he has raised, the Department of Health and other relevant Departments are looking at this issue very carefully, because they want to ensure that enforcement protects low-paid workers in a fair and proportionate manner. We have invested more money in social care—as he will know, there was £2 billion extra in the Budget. We do need to look at this issue on a longer-term basis, but I can assure him that Departments are looking carefully at the specific issues that he has raised.

Q14. Does the Prime Minister think, like her Brexit Secretary, that it will be simple to deliver a free trade deal with the European Union? (900064)

The Brexit Secretary and I have both said over the past few months that a comprehensive trade agreement will be not just possible but easier than for other third countries negotiating trade deals, precisely because at the moment we are operating on the same basis as other countries in the European Union. Therefore, we are not negotiating from the same position as Canada and other countries from outside the European Union. So yes, I think we can achieve that comprehensive free trade agreement, and it will be good for the United Kingdom and good for the European Union.

Does the Prime Minister agree that an Opposition leader who claims to be all things to all men and says one thing to remain voters in London and quite the opposite to leave voters in constituencies such as mine is actually no kind of leader at all? Perhaps that might be why voters in my constituency rejected his leadership in the recent election.

First, I welcome my hon. Friend to his place in this House. I was very pleased to visit his constituency during the election campaign, and he is absolutely right: what people want to know is what the position of the parties is on the question of Brexit. We are very clear that we want to see the country coming together, because we want to deliver on the will of the British people, which was that we should leave the European Union. It is precisely what this Government will do.

Q15. I beg the Prime Minister, at this crucial time in our country’s history, to listen to the many friends that we have in Europe and in the rest of the world who fear that we are sleepwalking zombie-like to a disastrous deal with Europe. They have no confidence in the three Ministers in charge of the deal and believe that our country will be deeply damaged, in terms of both our economy and our role in the world, if we do not get our act together. (900065)

Formal Brexit negotiations have now started. There was a very constructive and positive start to those negotiations, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and the Commission’s appointed negotiator, Michel Barnier. We have set up three working groups dealing with key issues initially, including citizens’ rights—I am pleased about that—and we have also started a dialogue on the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and that relationship, which is important for Northern Ireland but also for the whole of the United Kingdom. We have set out our objectives. We have published our White Papers. We will be bringing the repeal Bill before this House. We know the plan we have got. The party that does not know what its plan is for Brexit is the hon. Gentleman’s party.

The Prime Minister was crystal clear on Monday that the reciprocal agreements we seek on citizenship should include the people of Gibraltar. On Tuesday, the Spanish Foreign Minister sought yet again to suggest that Spain should have a unilateral veto on that. Will she make it quite clear that this posturing and game-playing is pointless and counterproductive, and that our commitment to Gibraltar is absolute, and perhaps send him a hearing aid?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. This Government’s commitment to Gibraltar has not changed and it will remain.

Suicide rates in Northern Ireland, particularly in my constituency, and issues of severe mental health are some of the worst in Europe, and indeed the developed world, and clinicians and others have pointed to the legacy of 30 years of terrorism and violence and the awful effects of that. Part of the money that we are investing this week will go to mental health care—extra investment in the health service. Is it not time that people recognised that this is delivery for all the people of Northern Ireland, across all sections of the community, and that it is going to help some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in Northern Ireland? People should get behind it and welcome it.

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point on this. It is the case, as we said in the agreement, that we recognise the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, which have arisen as a result of Northern Ireland’s history. As he says, there will be mental health issues that arise as a result of that. It is important that we put more into mental health generally across the United Kingdom, which we are doing; yesterday I visited a school in Bristol to see some of the first training that is taking place of teachers in schools to help them identify mental health issues among young people and deal with those. But as he says, that money is for the good of all people in Northern Ireland, across all communities.

I wonder whether the Prime Minister has had an opportunity to see the British attitudes survey published today, which stated that 75% of British people wanted to leave the EU—up 20% from last time. She will, of course, know that more than 80% of the British electorate voted for parties that want to leave the EU. She will also know from her extensive canvassing—and I know personally from mine—that thousands and thousands of people tell us, “The referendum decided the issue. Just get on and leave the EU.” Will she assure the House that she will make that her priority?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What I have seen across the whole of this country is a real unity of purpose of people. For most people, regardless of how they voted in the referendum, their view is, “The decision has been taken—just deliver it,” and that is what this Government will do.

With 9 million people in our country lonely all or most of the time, and given that loneliness is as bad for someone’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, will the Prime Minister join the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) and me in encouraging Members across the House to attend the event organised by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness in Speaker’s House immediately after Prime Minister’s questions to find out what we can all do in our communities to tackle this blight in our society?

The hon. Lady has raised a very important matter, and I commend her and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) for the work that they have both done as co-chairs of the Jo Cox commission. I indeed encourage hon. Members to do exactly as she has said. She has raised an important issue. We all increasingly recognise the impact that loneliness has on health. We have been able to put some support into the dementia-friendly communities programme, and the Cabinet Office is doing more by putting money in grant funds, particularly to help to tap the skills of volunteers over 50, to look at the issue of loneliness. It is an important issue, and hon. Members should recognise that and the work of the Jo Cox commission.