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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 629: debated on Wednesday 11 October 2017

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Devolved Administrations: Brexit

1. What steps he has taken to engage with the devolved Administrations on the matter of the UK leaving the EU. (900872)

14. What steps he has taken to engage with the devolved Administrations on the matter of the UK leaving the EU. (900886)

I met the Deputy First Minister of Scotland and the First Minister of Wales to initiate a full programme of engagement with their respective Administrations. Engagement continues at official level with the Northern Ireland civil service. I look forward to reviewing cross-departmental progress at the forthcoming Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and I welcome the recent announcement of the new civil service hub in Cardiff, which will bring 4,000 civil service jobs from across Wales into one hub. Llandrindod Wells in my constituency was named this morning as the happiest place to live in Wales. Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment to continuing to see the whole of Wales as a target for future civil service collaboration?

I add my congratulations to the people of Llandrindod Wells on selecting an MP who will make them happy, too. My hon. Friend is quite right about the civil service hub in Cardiff. The UK Government have a significant footprint in Wales and the hub will deliver a range of benefits not just to people in Cardiff but across Wales, demonstrating the impact we can make through greater collaboration.

It has to be said that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) always looks a very happy chappie and we are delighted to know it.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that once we leave the EU we will have total control over our internationally recognised fisheries limits, that fishermen from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England will benefit from any new management regime, and that this will not be bargained away during any negotiations?

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that when we leave the EU we will be fully responsible under international law for controlling UK waters and the sustainable management of our fisheries. Through the negotiations we will of course work to achieve the best possible deal for the UK fishing industry as a whole.

Will the First Secretary of State please explain what consultation there was with the Welsh and Scottish Governments before the publication of UK Government papers on Brexit issues, including customs, Northern Ireland and research and development?

The position papers we have published over the past couple of months go to the devolved Administrations before they are published. As I said in my answer to the original question, we have regular consultation—indeed, later today I will be meeting the First Minister of Wales.

We are told that the UK Government are preparing for a no-deal Brexit scenario. Will the First Secretary of State detail the preparations his Government have made for a scenario in which the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill fails to gain the legislative consent of the devolved Administrations?

The Government are, as the hon. Gentleman and the House would expect, preparing for all eventualities. That is the only responsible thing for a Government to do and that is what we are doing. The House will have a considerable amount of time during the Committee stage, which is coming up shortly, to debate the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. I hope, partly through the re-institution of the Joint Ministerial Committee, to make sure that the legislative consent motion will be agreed.

Given that there is no devolved Executive in Northern Ireland at present, how are views from Northern Ireland being fed into this process?

As I said in reply to the original question from my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies), at the moment views from Northern Ireland are being fed in through the Northern Ireland civil service, which is currently doing administrative tasks. I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in hoping that we will soon have a Northern Ireland Executive back doing their job.

A lot of us are concerned about the shenanigans going on here and would prefer it if the Government gave a straightforward commitment to transferring relevant powers to the devolved Administrations instead of foutering around. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, when referring to UK-wide arrangements after Brexit, he is talking about co-decision between the UK Government and the devolved Governments—or does he mean that this Government will tell the others what to do?

No, the spirit and letter of the devolution settlement is that there are areas of responsibility for this Parliament and the Westminster Government, and areas of responsibility for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. We have said that these have to be UK-wide frameworks. I think the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the Scottish Government accept that we do not want to break up the UK single market, but that there are responsibilities that will remain with Scotland.

The Chancellor has written today that the Government must be prepared for every outcome from Brexit, but that he will not make resources available for a no-deal scenario. As well as managing the civil service, the Cabinet Office is responsible for co-ordinating Government policy. Whatever the Chancellor’s views, will the Minister now indicate that there is sufficient civil service resource currently working on the potentially disastrous no-deal Brexit scenario and its impact on the devolved Administrations?

I commend to the hon. Gentleman what the Chancellor actually said. I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that, yes, the Government are preparing for all eventualities, as any responsible Government would.

The truth is there is no contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit, and that explains the breakdown of policy co-ordination, for which the Minister is supposedly responsible, right at the heart of Government. The Government are a shambles and wholly divided. We have a Prime Minister who said that no deal was better than a bad deal, a Chancellor who now says he will not fund a no-deal scenario and a Foreign Secretary who seems perfectly happy with a no-deal arrangement. The stakes could not be higher, but the Government are a shambles. Is it not time they either got their act together—it is the Minister’s job to make sure that they do so—or stood aside and prepared the way for a Government who will act in the national interest?

I am happy again to assure the hon. Gentleman that the appropriate arrangements for all eventualities are being prepared, and of course the Government are working hard to make sure we get the best Brexit deal for this country—one that will ensure the future prosperity of this country for decades to come.

Electoral Registration

2. What steps the Government are taking to support the integrity of the electoral registration process. (900873)

3. What steps the Government are taking to support the integrity of the electoral registration process. (900874)

According to the Electoral Commission, the register used for June’s general election was the most accurate for years. The identity of applicants is verified by electoral registration officers using digital services provided by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, and we have seen record levels of engagement. Recommendations in Sir Eric Pickles’ report have been accepted by the Government and will be used to improve the integrity of electoral processes further.

Given concerns about students having the opportunity to vote twice, will my right hon. Friend consider joining me in supporting the private Member’s Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)?

Although being registered at more than one address is perfectly legal, voting more than once at a general election is a crime that currently carries an unlimited financial penalty. The Government are reviewing a range of measures to prevent people from voting twice at general elections, and I also understand that the police are investigating allegations in several local authorities on this issue. I remind hon. Members that any evidence that individuals might have voted twice must be reported to the police.

I recognise the fines that my hon. Friend has drawn to the House’s attention, but is it not time to consider custodial sentences for election fraud?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. At the moment, there is an unlimited fine, but the Government are considering a range of other measures, including in relation to criminal proceedings, in order to move forwards.

11. Rather than focusing on the very few cases of fraud and the limited number of convictions—the same issue the Trump Administration have raised to discredit the democratic process—why does the Minister not worry about the millions who are not registered and consider using national insurance numbers and automatic registration in order to ensure both an accurate and a complete register? (900882)

The Government are committed to ensuring individual voter registration. A complete register means nothing unless it is underpinned by accuracy, and we have the most accurate register. On electoral fraud, I make the point, as I have done repeatedly before, that it is the perception of fraud that is so corrosive to our democracy. The Electoral Commission’s report published today shows that 38% of people recognise that electoral fraud is an issue at general elections.

The integrity of the electoral register suffers while millions of British citizens are unregistered. What specific measures is the Minister taking to register the millions of young people who remain off the register, and what specific funds has he allocated to that worthy cause?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that at the last general election there were more people on the electoral register, and more people voting, than there have been since 1992. We should bear in mind the state of the Labour Government between 2001 and 2005, when there were far more people off the register. We are determined to have a democracy that works for everyone, and we are introducing a range of measures to that end. They include the publication of a democratic engagement strategy later this year, which I hope the hon. Gentleman will read.

Is the Minister aware of the massive change in Northern Ireland constituencies in terms of proxy votes between the 2015 general election and this year’s election, when thousands of people applied for and received proxy votes, which, in some constituencies, resulted in a virtual usurping of the election result? What plans has the Minister to address that?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, electoral policy in Northern Ireland is dealt with by the Northern Ireland Office, but the Cabinet Office is working closely on how individual electoral registration can be introduced in Northern Ireland. I will refer the hon. Gentleman’s point to the Northern Ireland Office, but proof of identity has been required in polling stations in Northern Ireland since 1985, and the Labour Government introduced photo ID in 2003. Northern Ireland has led the way when it comes to ensuring that we can crack down on electoral fraud.

Electoral Fraud

We are committed to providing a clear and secure democracy. Following our manifesto commitment, we are working with four local authorities to pilot voter ID in polling stations, and working with Tower Hamlets to pilot changes in postal voting in 2018, as part of a developing programme to strengthen electoral integrity.

I welcome the fact that the Government are piloting voter ID. I had the privilege of being in Iraqi Kurdistan for the recent independence referendum, when voter ID was used with apparently few difficulties. Which local authority areas are involved in the Government’s pilot, and how can the system be rolled out to further authorities in due course?

I am pleased to be able to confirm that the four local authorities that have agreed to take part in the voter ID pilot are Woking, Gosport, Bromley and Watford; and, as I have said, Tower Hamlets is involved in the postal vote pilot. We had an agreement with Slough as well, but at the last minute Labour councillors voted against joining the pilot, against the advice of their own officials. As we have heard this morning, the Labour party does not seem to take electoral fraud very seriously.

Is it not a fact that in 2015, when more than 50 million votes were cast, the number of convictions for electoral fraud was in the low double figures? Is not the truth that this is a Trojan horse, introducing voter suppression methods to enhance the electoral prospects of the Conservative party?

If the hon. Gentleman wants to be taken seriously on this issue, he should listen to the Electoral Commission, which in 2014 urged the Government to adopt the kind of measures that we are adopting now. He should also persuade Labour councillors, in Slough and elsewhere, to take it seriously. If Labour is seen as the party that is soft on electoral fraud, that will not be a very good look for Labour.

Government Procurement: SMEs

5. What assessment he has made of recent trends in the level of Government procurement from small and medium-sized enterprises. (900876)

We will shortly publish the latest small and medium-sized enterprises’ spending performance figures. The Government remain committed to a challenging target to ensure that a third of their procurement spending is with small businesses by 2022, and we are continuing to take action to achieve that.

Following a recent report by the Federation of Small Businesses, will the Minister tell the House whether she intends to issue guidance requiring local authorities to increase their use of dynamic purchasing systems so that small businesses are not locked out from lists of potential suppliers to those authorities?

The hon. Lady has always been a doughty champion of the spreading down of procurement practices to local government so that it, too, encourages more SMEs to take part in the process. We have issued guidance to local authorities on how local government can support SMEs, and have legislated to ban burdensome pre-qualification questionnaires for low-value contracts.


6. What steps he is taking to ensure that the lobbying of Government is carried out in a transparent and fair manner. (900877)

The Government are committed to transparency in lobbying. In 2014 we created a statutory register of consultant lobbyists to increase transparency among those seeking to lobby Ministers and permanent secretaries on behalf of third parties. That legislation complements the existing framework of industry-led regulation.

The Minister has restricted trade unions and charities with regard to lobbying; can he tell us when he will properly regulate big business lobbying to Government?

The Government are of the view that the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 increased transparency around the work of consultants and lobbyists and therefore we will not be undertaking any future review. The Act confers powers on the register of lobbyists to remove an organisation from the register if that organisation seeks to undertake any work in future.

Voting Age

The Government have stated in their manifesto a clear commitment to maintain the voting age of 18, so the Government have no plans to lower the voting age in elections.

The Labour Welsh Government are currently making provision in Wales for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in local and Welsh Government elections. Will the Minister urge his Government and other Conservative Members to support the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) on 3 November, to prove that this Government do not disregard the views of young people?

As the hon. Gentleman has made clear, this Government have given powers to the devolved Assemblies to make decisions in respect of their local government and regional elections, but the position of the Government remains clear: on the parliamentary franchise, the age will remain at 18. Of course, I look forward to the many contributions that will be made in the debate on that.

The voting age is one thing, but has my hon. Friend given any consideration to the issue of education in schools around electoral fraud—for example, double voting?

The Government are of course determined to engage the many young people in schools in the democratic processes. Recently I established a national democracy week, in which I hope all Members will take part. It is vital for democratic participation that we encourage young people to get involved as early as possible, and to be educated in our democratic processes.

Does the Minister agree that sometimes young people make mistakes, and that it cannot be right that a teenager at the age of 16 can make the mistake of joining the Conservative party and voting in the inevitably upcoming leadership election, yet would be denied a vote at the forthcoming general election?

We have had many debates on the franchise, and I have sat as a Back Bencher through several debates in my parliamentary career so far; I think Parliament has voted three times on the issue and has consistently decided not to introduce votes at 16. We will be having future debates, and I look forward to engaging with the hon. Lady in them in due course.

Relocation of Government Functions

12. What plans he has to relocate civil service jobs to cities, towns and regions outside London. (900884)

The Government’s industrial strategy will help to create a more balanced economy by moving arm’s length public bodies out of London and the surrounding areas, and into clusters in the regions and devolved nations of the UK. Our hubs programme is also expected to save £1.78 billion over 20 years, as well as providing state of the art buildings from which civil servants can deliver world-class services to our citizens.

I am delighted at the announcement of 6,000 more jobs at a Government hub in Leeds, but does the Minister agree that infrastructure spending is also critical to delivering greater prosperity for the north?

The Leeds hub will be a catalyst for growth in the surrounding region. We continue to do more to connect our communities and drive productivity. The Chancellor recently announced a further £300 million investment for HS2 and £100 million for the road network—significant investments for the northern powerhouse. That will be crucial for driving growth and regeneration in the north and midlands.

Torbay has not only beautiful beaches, but direct rail connections to London, Manchester and Birmingham, improved road links, and sites ready for regeneration. Which of the plans the Minister listed does she believe present the greatest opportunity for relocating jobs to Torbay?

My hon. Friend has, as ever, emphasised the stunning attributes of his constituency. Our commitment to the public bodies relocation programme seeks to move significant numbers of public servants out of London. I assure my hon. Friend that I have heard his advertisement for the English riviera and the potential it certainly brings.

Topical Questions

This month we celebrate the first year of our world-leading national cyber security strategy. A major milestone has been successfully establishing the National Cyber Security Centre. [Interruption.] It has shown that it plays a vital role in providing cyber security to keep our country safe. The NCSC responded to 590 significant incidents, more than 30 of which were sufficiently serious to require a cross-government response. Our five-year national cyber strategy is working to defend our people, businesses and assets, deter our adversaries, and develop the skills and capabilities we need. [Interruption.]

Order. There is a very large number of intense private conversations taking place in the Chamber, but the voice of Braintree must be heard. I call Mr James Cleverly.

The vast majority of private sector employment in my constituency of Braintree is in small to medium-sized enterprises. What steps are the Government taking to make it easier for SMEs to bid for and successfully win Government contracts?

My hon. Friend is completely right about the importance of SMEs, which is why we have taken a number of steps to enable them to access Government contracts more easily, including by putting in place the Contracts Finder website and a requirement for all public sector buyers to have 30-day payment terms in their contracts.

T2. Yesterday’s race audit made clear the barriers that exist to black people and other ethnic minority groups in our society today. We all want to see those barriers broken down. Can the Minister explain why, in the civil service fast stream recruitment process for which his office is responsible, black men and women represent one in 20 of the total applicants but only one in 100 of those offered a job? When is he going to put his own house in order? (900938)

That is a perfectly reasonable challenge, and the hon. Gentleman asked about that when I made my statement yesterday. One area where we absolutely need to do better is inside the civil service, and specifically in fast stream recruitment, and we will certainly do that.

T3. What assessments have the Government made of the east midlands, and specifically Leicestershire, as a place to relocate Government services outside of London? (900939)

We will ensure that Government functions are increasingly spread throughout the UK and not just in the capital. The Government are reviewing the location of all arm’s length bodies to help to drive growth across the nation, and we will ensure that the east midlands is fully considered as a possible location.

T4. Next week, the Government’s consultation on the contaminated blood scandal will close. As the Department of Health is an implicated party, many people are refusing to take part in the consultation. Will the Cabinet Office now take immediate control of the consultation, because otherwise the rules of natural justice will be offended? (900940)

Order. I remind the House that we are discussing the contaminated blood scandal, upon which, despite very heavy noise, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) has made her thoughts very clear. We must now hear the Minister. I ask the House to think of the people affected by this scandal, who would expect the House to treat respectfully of it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I am aware that the hon. Lady has played a significant role in the investigation of this terrible scandal. As she said, the consultation on how we proceed ends on 18 October. I know that she and the all-party parliamentary group that she co-chairs have written to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the matter. When we have all the responses to the consultation, we will obviously take a decision as soon as possible.

I call Jeremy Quin. [Hon. Members: “ Hear, hear!”] Order. I am so glad that the hon. Gentleman, who until recently was my constituent, is quite so popular.

T5. I, too, am delighted to hear it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the race disparity audit provides invaluable data to not only the Government, but charities, in focusing their resources for maximum impact? (900941)

I agree that it is an extremely important development. It is a world first to provide this amount of information in that form. It is true that it holds a mirror up to the whole of society, and not just central or indeed local government and public bodies, but all other bodies, including charities, will need to respond positively to some of the disturbing findings exposed in the race disparity audit.

T6. The recent Public Accounts Committee report on cyber-security emphasised the considerable skills gap that the Government and wider society face in tackling the issue. Is it still the case that there is no minimum standard of competence for civil servants entrusted with a cyber-security role? What steps are the Government taking to increase the number of suitably qualified experts? (900942)

We are working hard with the National Cyber Security Centre to improve competency not only within the civil service and across Government, but among our young people. Our CyberFirst programme, which I visited in Portsmouth this summer, shows that there is a massive range of really enthusiastic young people who are determined to learn the skills that they will need to help us.

T7. The young people with whom I engage in schools are increasingly aware of the world around them. They are economically and socially liberal, and they do not expect the state to pay for everything because they will have the longest repayment terms if it does. Given the Conservative party’s proud record on extending the franchise, I again ask the Minister to consider votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. (900943)

I am afraid that my hon. Friend and I will have to agree to disagree on that point. The Government’s position remains as it was in our manifesto: the franchise will be retained at 18. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to participate in future debates on this issue through private Members’ Bills on Fridays.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

The Prime Minister will know that yesterday was World Mental Health Day. Mental health problems affect one in four people, but only £1 out of every £8 in clinical commissioning group budgets is spent on mental health services. Newcastle Gateshead CCG is set to cut its budget by a further 1.1% next year, bringing the total spend for mental health to less than 10% of its entire budget. If parity of esteem for mental health is to be achieved, the Government will have to match their words with more strong and stable, ring-fenced funding. With those cuts and with increasing demand, when will the Prime Minister end the talking and promise to increase and ring fence funding for mental health and specialist psychological services?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance that we should attach to mental health. Giving that parity of esteem is an important step that this Government have taken, but we are also doing much more on mental health. In fact, more money overall is going into mental health. More people are able to access NHS talking therapies and receive treatment for their mental ill health, but we also need to look at the issue more widely. That is precisely why I have set up a scheme to train staff in schools to ensure better awareness of mental health problems and to enable them to know how to deal with individuals in schools who are suffering from mental health problems. There is more for us to do, but this Government are putting more money in and are taking more action on mental health than any previous Government.

Q2. The Prime Minister will know that financial and professional services are the UK’s largest source of tax revenue and our largest driver of trade surpluses. Yesterday I met representatives of that sector, who wanted me to pass on to the Prime Minister their warm support for the pragmatic, sensible arrangement that she has made to ensure the critical legal and contractual continuity that the sector needs as we leave the European Union. As well as recognising that, will she perhaps build on that positive approach by considering issuing a White Paper on our future vision for trade in services, as we have done for other sectors? (900923)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He is right that we need to build a bridge from our existing partnership to our future partnership to allow time for practical adjustments to be made. That is exactly what we are doing when we talk about the implementation period, which I set out in my speech in Florence, together with our vision for our future partnership. I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that we published a White Paper on our future trade policy earlier this week, and we will continue to publish papers in the coming months.

I hope that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the late Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former general secretary of Unison who died last week. He will be remembered for his warmth and the esteem in which he was held throughout the Labour movement and throughout the community. More than that, he, almost more than anyone else, made sure that the national minimum wage happened in this country. Millions of workers are better off due to the great work that Rodney did during his life. Can we say, “Thank you, Rodney, for everything you did in your life”?

The roll-out of universal credit is already causing debt, poverty and homelessness. Does the Prime Minister accept that it would be irresponsible to press on regardless?

Of course we offer our condolences to Rodney Bickerstaffe’s friends and family on his death. He and I would probably never have agreed on very much in politics, but obviously he played his role with commitment and dedication through his life.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about universal credit. It is perhaps worth our recognising why we brought in universal credit in the first place. What we want is a welfare system that provides a safety net for those who need it, and that helps people to get into the workplace, earn more and provide for their families. The system that we inherited from Labour did not do that. It was far too complicated, there were far too many different sorts of payment and, crucially, too many of those who earned more found themselves with less money in their pockets. Under Labour, too many people were better off on benefits. That is not the system that we want. We want universal credit, which is simpler and more straightforward, and makes sure that work always pays.

I wonder which planet the Prime Minister is on. Citizens Advice describes universal credit as

“a disaster waiting to happen”.

It has made that conclusion based on its work assisting tens of thousands of claimants with debt. Housing associations report an increase of up to 50% in the eviction of tenants in rent arrears due to universal credit. Can the Prime Minister and Department for Work and Pensions not wake up to reality and halt this process?

As I have explained, we have very good reasons for changing the system. Yes, the DWP has been—[Interruption.] We have been listening to concerns raised about the way in which universal credit has operated. Changes have been made; performance has improved, for example. At the beginning of this year, only 55% of people were getting their first payment on time. Now that is more than 80%. Of course there is more for us to do, and that is why the Secretary of State and the Department for Work and Pensions continue to monitor this and to ensure that performance improves. Underlying this is a need to ensure that we have a system that ensures that work pays and that people are not better off on benefits.

The Halton Housing Trust reports a 100% year-on-year increase in the number of evictions. Half of all council tenants on universal credit are at least a month in arrears in their rent. This weekend, the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, described universal credit as

“operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving.”

He is right, isn’t he? It is years behind schedule. It is forcing people to food banks, driving up evictions and leaving families in debt. Can the Prime Minister not see it? If the former Prime Minister can understand it, why can’t this one?

In fact, research shows that after four months the number of people on universal credit in rent arrears had fallen by a third. As I said in my previous answer to the right hon. Gentleman, of course we recognise that there have been some issues to address in the rolling out of this benefit, and that is why we have been taking our time doing it. The underlying reason for moving to universal credit is still the right one. We see more people getting into work on universal credit than on jobseeker’s allowance, and there is the possibility for those people who cannot wait for their first payment to ask for an advance if they are in need, and the number of people getting an advance has increased.

At last the Prime Minister recognises that there are problems. The Institute for Public Policy Research and the Child Poverty Action Group estimate that universal credit is going to put another 200,000 children into poverty. Last month, apparently, a dozen Conservative MPs wrote to the Work and Pensions Secretary calling for a pause. Perhaps they should have listened to people like Georgina, who contacted me this week. She says:

“All summer we were left with no money to survive as it just stopped abruptly. We would have lost everything if it weren’t for my family.”

Others cannot rely on family and are facing eviction. I urge the Prime Minister: show some leadership, pause universal credit, and stop driving up poverty, debt and homelessness, because that is what this does.

First, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I would be happy to look at the case of Georgina if he would like to send me those details?

As I have just said—once again, I referred to this in my previous answer, had the right hon. Gentleman listened to it—it is possible for those who are in need to get advance payments. The number of those getting advance payments has increased from 35% to just over 50%—the majority. So we are seeing the system being improved and performance improving. But let us just think about the Labour party’s record on this whole issue of welfare. Under the Labour party, 1.4 million people spent most of the last decade trapped on out-of-work benefits. Under the Labour party, the number of households where no—[Interruption.]

Under the Labour Government, the number of households in which no member had ever worked nearly doubled. The welfare bill went up by 60% in real terms, which cost every household an extra £3,000 a year. That is not the way to run a system; that is the way to have a system that is failing ordinary working people.

The last Labour Government lifted a million children out of poverty. Gloucester City Homes has evicted one in eight of all of its tenants because of universal credit. The Prime Minister talks about helping the poorest, but the reality is a very, very different story. Not only are people being driven into poverty but, absurdly, the universal credit helpline costs claimants 55p per minute for the privilege of trying to get someone to help them claim what they believe they are entitled to. Will the Prime Minister today show some humanity, intervene and make at least the helpline free?

I have made it very clear that we continue to look at how we are dealing with this and ensuring that we get this system out in a way that is actually working for people. The performance is increasing, and it is working because more people are getting into work on universal credit than were doing so on jobseeker’s allowance. [Interruption.] I do want people to be able to find work. I want people to be able to get better jobs, to earn more and to get on without Government support. That is why it is so important that we help businesses to create jobs. Perhaps when the right hon. Gentleman stands up he would like to welcome the fact that 3 million more jobs have been created due to a strong economy under a Conservative Government.

Sadly, universal credit is only one of a string of failures of this Government. Everywhere we look we see a Government in chaos. On the most important issues facing this country it is a shambles: Brexit negotiations that have made no progress; Bombardier and other workers facing redundancy; most working people worse off; young people pushed into record levels of debt; 1 million elderly people not getting essential care; and our NHS at breaking point. This Government are more interested in fighting among themselves than in solving these problems. Is it not the case that if the Prime Minister cannot lead, she should leave?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what the record of this Government is: the deficit is down by more than two thirds; 3 million more people are in jobs; 1.8 million more children are in good or outstanding schools; more people are visiting A&E; more people are getting operations than ever before; there are record levels of funding into the NHS; and there are record levels of funding into our schools. What did we see about the Labour party from its conference? [Interruption.] Wait for it.

What did we hear from Labour’s conference? What happened at Labour’s conference? First, Shelter said that the Labour party’s housing policy would end up harming people on low incomes; Labour’s flagship Haringey Council rejected another of Labour’s policies; the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that Labour

“needs to…establish that it is not a racist party”;

and the Labour leader of Brighton Council threatened to ban Labour conferences because of freely expressed anti-Semitism. That was all before the shadow Chancellor admitted that a Labour Government would bring a run on the pound and ordinary working people would pay the price.

Hon. Members: “More!”

Q3. I fear that that “more” was not for me. I am afraid I must return to the subject of universal credit, but perhaps the difference between Government Members and Opposition Members is that we believe in universal credit’s transformative properties and want it to work. And work it will, but we have to get it right. I thank the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for promising on Monday to advertise more widely that advances are available to claimants, but many of us on the Government Benches feel that more people taking up those advances must surely mean that the in-built six-week wait just does not work. Will the Prime Minister please consider meeting me so that I can explain to her why, if we reduce that six-week wait, we will do a better job of supporting those just about managing families who are struggling to make ends meet and who have no savings to cover them over that period? (900924)

My hon. Friend makes the important point about the fundamental benefits of universal credit, but she is of course right, and that is why the DWP is continuing to look at the performance of universal credit and how it is operating. I am happy to meet her to look into the issue. She mentioned the advance payments; as she said, it is important that those who need those payments are aware of them, so it is about not only advertising but making sure that jobcentre staff are trained and are being retrained to ensure that they are aware of what they can do to help people. The advance payments can be with people within five days or, in an emergency, on the very same day. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss them.

If there was another European Union referendum now, I know that I would vote to remain. Why has the Prime Minister not been straightforward about how she would vote?

There is no second referendum. The people of the United Kingdom voted and we will be leaving the European Union in March 2019.

The Prime Minister cannot answer a simple question. [Interruption.] I am quite happy to wait. The reason why the Prime Minister cannot answer a simple question is that she is hamstrung by the parliamentary majority and a divided party of right-wing Brexiteers. This morning—[Interruption.]

This morning, Chancellor Philip Hammond admitted that a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the UK economy. The Scottish National party is the only party in this House that is united on the issue. We know that crashing out of the single market and the customs union will cost 80,000 jobs in Scotland and £2,000 per person. Now is the time for leadership. Will the Prime Minister come off the fence and recognise that, if we are to save this economy, we need to stay in the single market and the customs union?

Now is the time for the SNP leadership to accept that, to save jobs in Scotland, it needs Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Q7. Following yesterday’s announcement of almost 2,000 job losses at BAE Systems, many hundreds of which are in Warton in my constituency where very dedicated and highly skilled people work, can the Prime Minister assure me that she and her Government will continue to do everything they can to support export orders to Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as supporting those dedicated workers in finding alternative employment and the wider Lancashire economy? (900928)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is obviously a very worrying time for workers at BAE Systems, including those at Warton in his constituency. He raises two issues. I can reassure him that the Department for Work and Pensions will ensure that people have all the support they need to look for new jobs. That will include the rapid response service, which will help with CVs, training and information about benefits. We will also continue to promote our world-leading defence industry right across the globe, so that companies like BAE Systems can secure contracts for UK-made equipment. Just last month, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary signed a statement of intent with Qatar, committing the country to the purchase of 24 Typhoons and six Hawks from BAE. We will continue to promote these first-class products from first-class manufacturers such as those in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We will also ensure that support is given to those who lose their jobs.

Q4. Prime Minister, last week you announced that you would fund 25,000 extra socially rented homes over five years. The waiting list in Brighton is already that. Along with Brighton, my other local authority, Lewes District Council, is wanting to build more council houses, but your policies will not help them, because they are limited not by the open market, but by the Government’s arbitrary cap on borrowing and financing against housing stock. Will the Prime Minister agree with me, the Conservative-led Lewes District Council and the Labour-led Brighton that the cap on the housing revenue account must be lifted to get councils building for Britain again? (900925)

I just point out to the hon. Gentleman that I have made no announcement and have no policy on this matter.

The hon. Gentleman is referring to our announcement that we are putting £2 billion extra into our successful affordable housing programme, bringing the amount dedicated entirely to creating affordable homes to more than £9 billion. For every pound the Government put in, housing associations raise a further £6, which means that thousands more families get the homes that they need and can afford every single year over the next five years. This is a good announcement from the Government. It means that more people will get the homes that they need. I would have expected him to welcome it.

Q13. In my constituency of Monmouth, children as young as 12 have been labelled as transgender and prescribed potentially life-altering sex change drugs. Does the Prime Minister agree that the law needs to be tightened to prevent this potential mistreatment of vulnerable young people? (900934)

My hon. Friend raises a very sensitive issue. As he will be aware, health is a devolved matter in Wales. The NHS in England has strict guidelines regarding the prescriptions of these sorts of medications to young people. They can be prescribed only with the agreement of a specialist team after a careful assessment of the individual, and generally only to patients who are 15 or older. I recognise the concern raised by my hon. Friend.

Q5. In her radio interview yesterday, the Prime Minister was pressed three times on the position of EU nationals in the UK in the event of no deal. She was unable to answer, suggesting that this was a “technical” issue. But people do not live technical lives. Their lives involve relationships, jobs and their children’s schools. With the clock ticking and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit looming nearer, will she reassure my 10,000 plus constituents who are EU residents exactly what their rights will be if there is no deal? (900926)

First, let me re-emphasise—I have said this before in this House—that we value the contribution that EU citizens have made in this country and we want them to stay. That is why we made citizens’ rights one of the key issues, and one of the early issues that is being discussed in the negotiations that are currently taking place. We are working to ensure that we get a good deal. If there is no deal, we will obviously have to have arrangements with other member states regarding not just EU citizens here, but UK citizens in those member states. But we are working for the best deal for the United Kingdom. We are very close to agreement on citizens’ rights. We want EU citizens to stay here in the UK because we value the contribution they are making.

On Monday, my right hon. Friend was clear about her negotiations, saying that it remains the Government’s priority to get a very good free trade arrangement with our European friends and partners before we leave. She also made it clear that, alongside that, we would make plans and all necessary arrangements to depart under World Trade Organisation terms should no such agreement be available. Will she confirm, then, that all moneys necessary will be allocated to this project as and when required?

I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that confirmation. We are preparing for every eventuality. We are committing money to prepare for Brexit, including a no-deal scenario. It might be helpful if I update the House. The Treasury has committed over £250 million of new money to Departments such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Home Office, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Transport in this financial year for Brexit preparations. In some cases, Departments will need to spend money before the relevant legislation has gone through the House. The Treasury will write to Departments and to the Public Accounts Committee explaining this process shortly. Where money needs to be spent, it will be spent.

Q6. My constituent, Mr Geoffrey Ellwell, was transitioned from disability living allowance to personal independence payment in October 2016. He previously had the higher rate mobility and the standard rate for care. His PIP assessment gave him zero points. He appealed that decision in January 2017. Six months later, on 21 June, he passed away without his appeal being heard. The appeal that took place two days after his death posthumously awarded him the higher rate for both elements, backdated to January. What message would the Prime Minister like me to take back to Geoffrey’s partner, Carol, about the way in which this Government treated Geoffrey when he most needed help, compassion and support? (900927)

The message that I would like the hon. Gentleman to take back to his constituent’s partner is that we offer our condolences at the death of her partner. We are working to ensure that there is greater consistency in the judgments that are originally given on PIP assessments. We introduced PIP in order to ensure that we are able to focus payments on the most vulnerable. I completely understand how she feels about the position she is in. We offer her our deepest condolences.

HS2 Ltd continues to fail my constituents living along the line of route for HS2, with some being offered tens of thousands of pounds less than the true value of their homes. Will the Prime Minister now personally intervene to ensure that my residents living in the affected areas of Erewash do not lose out as a result of this major national infrastructure project?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and it is right that she is speaking up on behalf of her constituents. I know that the Department for Transport is looking carefully at these issues and that my hon. Friend the rail Minister is determined to see that fair and comprehensive compensation for those directly affected by the route is paid, and it will be paid as if HS2 did not exist, plus the 10% and reasonable moving costs. We are committed, as ever, to infrastructure investment—we are investing in infrastructure—but it is important with a major infrastructure change such as HS2 that we do ensure that those compensation payments for people are being paid properly. As I say, my hon. Friend the rail Minister is focusing on this issue.

Q8. This week, the public have witnessed the most extraordinary spectacle: the Prime Minister ramping up the no-deal rhetoric on Brexit and backtracking on her commitment to stay in the single market and customs union for transition, all because she is afraid of the most right-wing, rabid elements in her own party. When prices are going up in our shops, when the country’s credit rating has been cut and when businesses are actively considering moving jobs overseas, do the British people not deserve better than a Prime Minister simply running scared? (900929)

The hon. Lady could not be more wrong. First of all, we are not ramping up a no-deal scenario; we are actively working in negotiations with the European Union to ensure that we get a good deal—the right deal for Britain—for a brighter future for this country, which is what I believe we can and will achieve. It is what I set out in my Florence speech. I recommend the speech to the hon. Lady.

On the second point, I made very clear—perhaps I need just to explain it again to members of the Opposition—that when we leave the European Union in March 2019, we will cease to be full members of the single market and the customs union. That will happen because you cannot be full members of the single market and the customs union without accepting all four pillars—free movement; continued, in perpetuity, European Court of Justice jurisdiction. During the implementation period, we will be looking to get an agreement that we can operate on much the same basis as we operate at the moment—under the same rules and regulations—but that will not be the same as full membership of the customs union and the single market.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Royal Marines, supported by a specialist amphibious fleet, have served our country with great distinction for many, many years? Does she share my concern that one of the proposals currently being considered by the Royal Navy is to downsize the amphibious fleet? In an uncertain world, is this not both short-sighted and dangerous, and will she please intervene?

First, I absolutely agree that we can commend and applaud the contribution that the Royal Marines and our amphibious fleet have made to the defence of this country and, indeed, the defence of others. It is absolutely right that, as we look at how threats are changing, we look at how we should best spend the rising defence budget to support our national security. We have committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence every year of this Parliament. We are spending £178 billion between 2016 and 2026 on equipment for our armed forces. Naturally, we do not always discuss the specific operational details, but if I might just say to my hon. Friend, I understand that the claims he has referred to are pure speculation at this stage.

Q9. In the past 18 months, two students from St Brendan’s Sixth Form College in my constituency, Izzy Gentry and George Zographou, tragically died from meningitis B, and only this week we heard reports of the death from suspected meningitis of another Bristol pupil, from Orchard School. The free vaccinations for babies, introduced two years ago, are of course very welcome, but they came far too late to save Izzy and George, so will the Prime Minister do more to raise awareness of meningitis and extend free vaccinations to today’s teenagers, which is the group, after babies, that is most at risk? (900930)

First, of course we send our deep condolences to the families and friends of all those students in the hon. Lady’s constituency who have died as a result of contracting meningitis. The point she raises about raising awareness of meningitis is a very valuable one, and it is something that we do need to continue to do. Very often, when decisions are taken by the Government, such as on the vaccination that is already in place, it is very easy to think that that is a job done, but, actually, we need to continue to look at see how we can ensure that we do not see these deaths from meningitis in the future.

I was shocked the other week to hear the shadow Chancellor predicting a run on the pound if Labour took office. For my constituents that would mean an increase in their household bills and in the cost of their weekly shopping. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the biggest risk to this country would be letting the shadow Chancellor into No. 11 Downing Street?

I absolutely agree; my hon. Friend is right that a run on the pound would mean higher prices and that it would make life much more difficult. It would mean job losses, businesses leaving the country and people being poorer. The one thing that we absolutely must do is ensure that the shadow Chancellor gets nowhere near the Treasury. The Leader of the Opposition asked me earlier what planet I was on. Well, we all know what planet he and his shadow Chancellor are on: Planet Venezuela.

Q10. Is it the Prime Minister’s intention that the United Kingdom should remain part of the common fisheries policy during any transitional period after we leave the European Union? (900931)

When we leave the European Union, we will be leaving the common fisheries policy. As part of the agreement that we need to enter into for the implementation period, obviously that and other issues will be part of that agreement. But when we leave the European Union, we will leave the common fisheries policy.

It has been assumed that triggering article 50 means that on 29 March 2019 we will come out of the EU if there is no agreement, but is it not the case that the negotiations can be extended if the Government and the EU agree to do that? Will the Prime Minister assure the House that under no circumstances will the negotiations be extended?

My hon. Friend is accurate in his interpretation of the treaty, which does allow for an extension of negotiations. I have been very clear that by March 2019 we want not only for those negotiations to have ended but to have an agreement on the future relationship and on our withdrawal, and we will leave the EU in March 2019.

Q11. The Prime Minister will be aware that last month Jaguar Land Rover announced that it was ending its contract early, putting 640 jobs at risk. She has scrapped rail electrification and is flip-flopping on delivering the tidal lagoon, so will she now step up, work with the Welsh Government, Ford and the trade unions, help to save the jobs, and help to ensure a positive future for the south Wales economy? (900932)

Of course we want to work to see a positive future for the south Wales economy. That is what the United Kingdom Government are doing across the whole United Kingdom: working for that brighter and more positive future. With regard to the tidal lagoon, we will publish our response to the Hendry review in due course.

I recently visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, which was truly harrowing. It can only be described as a humanitarian disaster. I am immensely proud of the work that the United Kingdom Government are doing through UK aid, but what pressure can my right hon. Friend put on the Myanmar Government to end the persecution, so that the Rohingya people can go home?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. We remain deeply concerned by what is happening to the Rohingya. We know that there are now over 500,000 refugees in Bangladesh. It is a major humanitarian crisis. We have been providing support through our international development and aid, and we have provided money to the Red Cross in Burma and bilateral donations to support the refugees who have crossed into Bangladesh. We have raised the matter three times at the UN Security Council. The international community has delivered a clear message that the Burmese authorities must stop the violence, allow the safe return of refugees and allow full humanitarian access. We have also suspended any practical defence engagement that we had with Burma because of our concerns.

Q12. I make no apologies for the fact that my question is similar to that asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). Layla-Rose Ermenekli, from Oldham, was just six years old when she contracted meningitis and later died in hospital. There were failings by the Royal Oldham Hospital, which did not spot important signs of meningitis, and those failings will be addressed. But, fundamentally, Layla would be alive today if she had received the MenB vaccination. Will the Prime Minister meet Layla’s parents, Ricky and Kirsty, and campaigners to discuss expanding the meningitis B vaccination programme to cover all children? (900933)

The hon. Gentleman again raises a very serious case, and our condolences go to the family of his constituent. This is an issue on which, as I have said, we need to raise awareness. He raises the question of the response by medical professionals. This is not just about individuals—about parents—recognising the symptoms, but about ensuring that healthcare professionals are identifying them. I will ask the Health Secretary to meet the hon. Gentleman and people who are anxious about this to hear directly from them their concerns regarding vaccinations.

On Monday, at the start of Baby Loss Awareness Week, this Conservative Government launched 11 pilot projects for a national bereavement care pathway. This groundbreaking pathway will look at support for parents who have lost a child from conception to the age of one. May I ask the Prime Minister to congratulate the parents, the charities and the health professionals who have worked so hard to develop this project, and to make sure that it is rolled out more widely once the lessons from the pilots have been learned?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating all who have worked so hard on this issue, which, sadly, brings such distress to too many people—including, I know, Members of this House. I am sure that everybody will want to join me in marking Baby Loss Awareness Week. There was a debate on the matter yesterday, and I pay tribute to Members from across the House who spoke very movingly about their own experiences.

I am happy to welcome, as my hon. Friend has done, the pilot of the national bereavement care pathway this week. The Department of Health is also providing funding to Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, to work with other baby loss charities and royal colleges to improve the quality of bereavement care in the NHS. We expect the pathway to be rolled out nationally in October 2018. As my hon. Friend says, it is important to conduct a pilot, so that we can learn from it as we come to the national roll-out.

Q14. A woman came to my office fleeing domestic violence. We rang round every women’s refuge in London, but we were unable to find her a place because of Government budget cuts. What advice would the Prime Minister give to my constituent? (900935)

I fully understand the hon. Lady’s concern about her constituent, who is fleeing domestic violence. We do not want anybody in this country to be subjected to domestic violence and abuse. That is why the Government have actually been putting more money into supporting refuges across the country. It is why we have ring-fenced money for domestic violence support across the country, and it is why we have introduced new legislation. But we are also going to look at what more we can do, through a domestic violence Act, to provide the support that is necessary to ensure that we deal with the perpetrators, support survivors and, as all of us across the House should want to do, end domestic violence.

May I commend my right hon. Friend for her pledge to build hundreds of new free schools? Does she agree that they are critical to drive up standards and increase parental choice, and is it not true that we are committed to creating a school system that works for everyone, while the Opposition want to hold everyone back?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Free schools have performed a very important function in raising standards in education in this country, and I am pleased that we have so many more children now in good or outstanding schools. Free schools have done something else as well, as I see in my own constituency, where one of the free schools is specifically for children who are on the autistic spectrum. That is very important, and it is a service that was not available previously. Free schools have enabled that to happen. They are providing for people up and down the country, and we should welcome them.

Q15. Vascular services in my constituency are to be moved to an as yet untested centre, while in Bangor we already have a facility with an international reputation. Does the Prime Minister share my concern that, due to bungling over health by the Labour Government in Cardiff, seriously ill Welsh patients will have to travel further and even, like the late Irfon Williams, have to move to live in England just to access proper treatment? (900936)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I am obviously not aware of the details of the particular services and of the transfer that he has referred to, but the overall point he makes is that people living in Wales are often seeing that they are getting a less good service from the Labour Government NHS in Wales—[Interruption.] Oh, yes. Yes, this is the case. As the hon. Gentleman says, there are people who will travel from Wales to England to get the service that is available in the NHS in England, and the Labour Government in Wales need to take a hard look at what they are doing to the NHS in Wales.