I am sure that Members throughout the whole House will wish to join me in marking Anti-Slavery Day. Slavery is an abhorrent crime and I am determined to bring it to an end.
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.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The importance of the north will be heard.
Will the Prime Minister set out the schemes that she seeks to prioritise, and does she agree that the only norths that are in tune with the Leader of the Opposition’s political correctness and Marxism are Islington North and North Korea? [Interruption.]
My right hon. Friend referred to the voice of the north being heard, and it has indeed been heard by the Conservatives in government. It is a Conservative Government who committed—and remain committed—to the northern powerhouse, and it is a Conservative Government who are putting investment into skills and transport infrastructure for the northern powerhouse. We are backing business growth across the north, as I saw when I visited the north-west last week. We are putting £60 million into Transport for the North for looking at northern powerhouse rail; that is part of £13 billion of infrastructure investment. It is the Conservatives in government who recognise the importance of a country that works for everyone and of growth across the whole country.
I join the Prime Minister in recognising Anti-Slavery Day. The slave trade was one of the most grotesque times in the history of this planet and we must all be resolved to drive out slavery in any form whatsoever. I hope that the Prime Minister will join me in expressing sympathy to, and solidarity and support for, the people of Somalia following the horrific terrorist atrocity in Mogadishu last weekend.
I welcome today’s fall in unemployment—[Interruption]—but the same figures show that real wages are lower today than they were 10 years ago. Most people in work are worse off. Does the Prime Minister really believe that falling wages are a sign of a strong economy?
I join the right hon. Gentleman in expressing our concern about the terrible terrorist attack that took place in Mogadishu, killing nearly 300 people and injuring many hundreds. Terrorism in Somalia undermines the stability of the horn of Africa. We will continue to work with the international community to try to bring stability to Somalia and that part of Africa. Of course, an aspect of that involves dealing with the terrorist threat that people face there.
The right hon. Gentleman might have done a first in the House of Commons today, because I think this is the first time—certainly since I became Prime Minister—that he has actually welcomed a fall in unemployment. It is good news that more people are in work and that unemployment is at its lowest rate for more than 40 years. That means that people are taking more money in wages to their families.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about the cost of living. I will tell him what we have done in relation to that. Some 30 million people have been given a tax cut that is worth £1,000 to a basic rate taxpayer every year. We have given the low-paid the highest pay increase for 20 years through the national living wage. For those who take the full entitlement, the doubling of free childcare is worth £5,000 per child per year to every family. That is what we are doing to help people with the cost of living.
I wonder whether the Prime Minister could do a first—answer a question. The question I asked her was about falling wages. Christine, a worker in a village shop, wrote to me this week to say:
“I am worse off. I cannot afford to keep my car, which I struggled to buy, on the road. I need my car to attend appointments, job hunt for a better position, and take my son to activities. We don’t have a luxurious lifestyle and don’t want one. We just want to feel secure.”
When millions of workers are having to rely on the benefits system just to make ends meet, is not that a sign of not a strong economy, but a weak economy?
I have recognised since I came into this role that there are people in this country, like Christine, who are finding life difficult. That is why it is so important that the Government take steps to help people with the cost of living—the costs they find themselves facing week in, week out. It is why the measures that I just listed to the right hon. Gentleman, including tax cuts and the national living wage, are important, and it is why it is important that we have frozen fuel duty. We have ensured that we take some of the lowest paid people out of paying income tax altogether. We are going to introduce an energy price cap—[Interruption.] Yes. It is all about helping people with the cost of living, but you can only do that if you have a strong economy, and you only get a strong economy with a Conservative Government.
People struggling to make ends meet; private sector rental evictions up; wages down; universal credit in a shambles. Is Christine wrong or is she just an example of what it is like to live in modern Britain?
Last week, I asked the Prime Minister to scrap the unfair charges on the universal credit helpline. Today she has finally bowed to that pressure, but the fundamental problems of universal credit remain: the six-week wait, rising indebtedness, rent arrears and evictions. Will the Prime Minister now pause universal credit and fix the problems before pressing ahead with the roll-out?
I suggest that Opposition Members listen to the whole sentence.
Yes, it is absolutely right that we have announced this morning that we will change the telephone charge. I said last week that we were listening to a number of proposals that have been made—we have done that. It is right to do this now because there is a lot of emphasis and a lot of publicity about universal credit at the moment, and I want people to know that they can ring in and get advice without being worried. That is exactly what we are going to do.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about universal credit and pausing it. Why have we introduced universal credit? It is a simpler system. It is a system that encourages people to get into the workplace. It is a system that is working, because more people are getting into work. Pausing universal credit will not help those people who would be helped by moving to universal credit, getting into the workplace and bringing home more pay for their families.
There is a very long list of people urging the Prime Minister to pause universal credit, including Citizens Advice, the Trussell Trust, John Major and, I understand, two dozen of her own Back Benchers, who have a chance this afternoon to vote to pause universal credit and show that they are representing their constituents.
The public sector pay cap is causing real suffering and real staff shortages. Last week, the Health Secretary announced that the NHS pay cap was scrapped, but when asked if the NHS was going to get extra money to fund any agreed pay rise, he replied:
“That is something I cannot answer right now”.—[Official Report, 10 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 163.]
Well, this is right now, and the Prime Minister is here right now. How about an answer right now?
As I have explained to the right hon. Gentleman and the House in the past, the way in which we approach the whole question of public sector pay is through the work of the pay review bodies. They have all reported for the current year, and they did their work against the remit set by the Government of a blanket cap of 1% on public sector pay. For the 2018-19 year, we have changed that remit to ensure that there is flexibility in the system for that period.
Perhaps I could just explain something else to the right hon. Gentleman, because I fear that for all his years in Parliament there is one thing that he has failed to recognise—Government has no money of its own. Government gets money—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr MacNeil, you are becoming over-excitable again, young man. Calm yourself. There is no need for excessive gesticulation; it serves no useful purpose whatsoever. Let us hear the Prime Minister’s reply. The Prime Minister will be heard, however long it takes.
Government has no money of its own. It collects money in taxes from businesses and people to spend on the NHS and on the services that people need. If businesses are not being set up, if businesses are not growing, and if people are not in work, Government does not have the money to spend on NHS pay, on schools, and on hospitals. Of course, the only way we ensure that those businesses are growing, and the only way we ensure that people are in jobs and that Government has the money to spend on schools and hospitals and NHS pay, is with a Conservative Government.
The Prime Minister seemed to have no problem finding £1 billion in a couple of days for the DUP. She needs to make it clear to the NHS workers what pay rise is being offered, when they will receive it, and what funding is being provided—and what cuts she is proposing to make elsewhere in order to deal with that.
Young people are in record levels of debt. This week, the Financial Conduct Authority warned of
“a pronounced build-up of indebtedness amongst the younger age group”
to fund “essential living costs”. Is not this yet another sign not of a “strong economy” but of a weak economy?
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that we have heard from the OECD that the deficit that the Labour Government left us was unsustainable. Since then, we have indeed found money for the people of Northern Ireland. We have also found, as I explained earlier, £20 billion to give a tax cut to 30 million people and £38 billion to freeze fuel duty. That is about helping ordinary working people, day in and day out. When it comes to students and young people and their fear about debt, there is one thing we know, and that is that we should not be racking up debts today, like Labour proposes, that those young people would have to pay off tomorrow.
It is very interesting that the Prime Minister talks about what happened 10 years ago. Her former friend George Osborne said earlier this week:
“did Gordon Brown cause the sub-prime crisis in America? No.”
He went on to say that “broadly speaking” the Government
“did what was necessary in a very difficult situation”.
Under this Prime Minister, we have a weak economy. UK growth is currently the worst among the 10 largest EU economies. We are the only major economy where wages are lower today than they were 10 years ago. Even without the risks posed by this Government’s bungled Brexit negotiations—it is very interesting to see that the Home Secretary is necessary to keep the two protagonists apart—we now have weak growth, falling productivity, falling investment, and falling wages. How does the Prime Minister have the nerve to come here and talk about a “strong economy” when the figures show the exact opposite?
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that the OECD says about the United Kingdom that we have the most efficient, accessible healthcare system, that fiscal sustainability has improved, that important steps have been taken to improve educational outcomes, and that jobs and earnings are good. That is what the OECD says about the strong economy under this Conservative Government. The way to get a weak economy is to borrow £500 billion like the Labour party is proposing. The way to get a weak economy is to ensure that you are promising spending after spending after spending and people are going to have to pay for that. The only way we get money to put into public services, and the only way we can give people tax cuts to help them with the cost of living, is to ensure that we deal with the deficit, get our debts down, and deal with Labour’s great recession which put us into this position in the first place.
I am very happy to confirm that, and it is useful to be able to do so. My right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary announced this morning that we have taken the decision to change the universal credit helpline to a freephone number. I can also tell my hon. Friend that by the end of the year, DWP will extend freephone numbers to all its phone lines. I think that that will be welcomed and will be helpful to all who use them.
May I point out to the Prime Minister what her Home Secretary said yesterday—that a no deal scenario is “unthinkable”? I agree with the Home Secretary. Brexit has contributed to a fall in the pound and a subsequent rise in inflation, squeezing household budgets. Folk are getting poorer in Britain today. It has been reported that Government analysis shows that Scotland and the north-east of England would lose out from breakfast—I mean Brexit—but the Government responded to an FOI by saying that such analysis—[Interruption.] Well, there is hilarity on the Government Benches—
Members on the Government Benches are engaging in hilarity, but the reality is that the people of this country are going to pay an economic price for a hard Brexit. The Government analysis, which has remained secret, points out that people in Scotland and the north-east of England will suffer from a hard Brexit. What is the Government’s analysis of the impact and what will be the impact—[Interruption.]
Order. I must tell the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) that I know what I am doing. I am trying to help the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), but he must help himself by asking a brief question. [Interruption.] Order. I think the right hon. Gentleman has completed his question.
Once again, the right hon. Gentleman stands up and talks about the Scottish economy and makes reference to issues such as jobs in Scotland. I am sorry that in his rather lengthy question he did not make any reference to the fact that since 2010, nearly a quarter of a million more people in Scotland are in work. That is the result of the actions of this Government.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this, and I recognise and understand that ambitious regeneration plans are being developed by the Greater Grimsby project board. I welcome that because it is based on a very strong private-public sector approach and partnership that is being put forward, and I know my hon. Friend is himself playing an active role in that. I believe there have been some positive meetings with my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary and my hon. Friend the Northern Powerhouse Minister, and I would encourage the board to continue engagement with officials about the details of their plans.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady says she and others on the Labour Benches will support the legislation that the Government have—[Interruption.] No, it was not. It is important that we take action to deal with energy prices: the draft legislation will see those rip-off prices being capped for millions of households—all standard tariff customers—and while this will initially run to 2020, we will be able to extend it on an annual basis until 2023, on the advice of Ofgem. I think we have sent an important message to the industry, which I would hope is actually going to make changes even before we get the legislation on the statute book.
Does the Prime Minister share the great concerns that were expressed in this House yesterday, including by Ministers, about the implications for the one country, two systems principle in Hong Kong of the recent refusal of the authorities there to allow Ben Rogers, a UK national, entry? Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will work with the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to ensure that the democratic freedoms in the one country, two systems principle are honoured and preserved?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we want to ensure that the principle of one country and two systems is preserved and continues to operate. On the specific case and the specific issue that she has raised, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary informs me that the Foreign Office has raised this issue at various levels in relation to Hong Kong and China, and we will continue to do so.
Of course, we never want to see people in the position of losing their jobs, and if people do lose their jobs, support is available to them through the DWP to help them to get back into the labour market and to get back into work. We are in the process of a negotiation on Brexit. We will leave the European Union in March 2019, and we are negotiating for the best possible deal we can get for the United Kingdom. We have also indicated that we want an implementation period after that deal has been negotiated to ensure that businesses do not face a cliff edge but can have certainty about the rules under which they are going to operate in the future. If there is one thing that is certain it is that we will leave the EU in March 2019.
Given that the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 is now on the statute book—it is a very good piece of legislation—will the Prime Minister confirm that the community home building fund, available last year for group housing projects, is still available, and does she agree that providing service plots of land at scale is a good way to fix our broken housing market?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I know that he has campaigned long and hard on the particular area of self-build and of course has a great deal of expertise in it. He is absolutely right: if we are going to fix our broken housing market, we do need to build more homes. That is why we have made bold proposals in our housing White Paper—to make more land available, to build homes faster and to give local authorities the tools they need. I had a roundtable with house builders and others earlier this week, looking at how we can ensure that we unlock the potential of our housing market. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will be happy to discuss with him the very specific issues that he has raised.
As I have indicated, changes have been made to the phone line. I repeat to the hon. Lady that the evidence shows that on universal credit, more people are getting into the workplace than on jobseeker’s allowance. Universal credit is about helping people get into the workplace and ensuring that, as they earn more, they keep more of what they earn. That is exactly what universal credit does.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the wonderful work at Twycross zoo in my constituency, breeding endangered species? Is she also aware of the critical problem of the demise of African elephants, which are being slaughtered at the rate of 20,000 a year? What will she do about banning ivory sales in London?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I commend those in his constituency who are doing that valuable work. Earlier this month, we set out proposals for a ban on ivory sales that we believe will help bring an end to poaching elephants. That would put the UK front and centre of global efforts to end the trade in ivory. I am sure that Members across the House are concerned about that issue. Ivory should not be seen as a commodity for financial gain or a status symbol. I think our proposals will make a real difference.
It is no good the hon. Lady shaking her head. The figures show that the performance in getting payments to people on time has improved substantially—more people are getting advance payments. We want to ensure that all those who need advance payments can get them. The fundamental reason for moving to universal credit—a simpler, more straightforward system—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady may not want to listen, but there is a reason for universal credit. [Interruption.]
Order. Colleagues know that I am determined to get through the list to help Back Benchers, but when questions are asked, the answers must be heard. Today is exceptionally noisy, and we are not setting a very good example to our Dutch friends. I am sure that they do it much better. The questions, and the Prime Minister’s answers, will be heard.
It is great to have the Prime Minister back in her usual fine voice. Will she join me in encouraging Members, who have demonstrated what good voices they have, to hold events in their constituencies for Singing for Syrians? The situation on the ground in Syria gets ever more desperate, and I am sorry to say that the Hands Up Foundation, which does great work, has an ever increasing list of prosthetic limbs that are needed.
I think we all recognise the desperate situation in Syria, which is why we continue to be proud of our country’s record of giving humanitarian aid to Syria and to refugees from Syria: £2.46 billion has been committed since 2012, our largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis. I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in encouraging Members of this House to support the Singing for Syrians initiative and various events throughout the country. This is another important initiative focused, as is our humanitarian aid, on helping those people who are in a desperate situation in Syria.
Since Grenfell, much has been said in this House about sprinklers. There are a number of aspects that have to be looked at in relation to the safety of tower blocks. It is not the case that sprinklers are the only issue that needs to be looked at or addressed; nor is it the only solution to ensuring their safety. On expenditure by the hon. Lady’s local council, it is of course up to the council to make decisions about what it wishes to do. We have been very clear that discussions have taken place with the Department for Communities and Local Government and local authorities.
The mental health of our servicemen, servicewomen and their families is rightly gaining the attention it deserves. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the initiative between the Royal Foundation and the Ministry of Defence to ensure targeted support across the whole armed forces family?
I am very happy to welcome the initiative to which my hon. Friend refers. We know we need to address mental health more carefully and with greater attention across the public in general, but mental health concerns for those in the armed forces and those who have left the armed forces are a very real challenge that we need to face, because they have put themselves on the line for us and we owe it to them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that with the death of Sir Teddy Taylor the country has lost an outstanding parliamentarian, a great constituency Member of Parliament and a true patriot? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that if Sir Teddy were alive today he would be delighted to learn that the outgoing Labour mayor of Southend, plus three unaligned councillors, have all joined the Conservative party?
I join my hon. Friend in recognising the great contribution Sir Teddy Taylor made in his time in this House as a Member of Parliament for different seats, including Southend, although I have to say to my hon. Friend that one of my abiding memories of Sir Teddy is the number of times we had to evacuate Portcullis House because he had set the fire alarm off by smoking where he was not supposed to—in his office. I am very pleased to welcome the former Labour mayor and the unaligned councillors who have now joined the Conservative party. We welcome them to the Conservative party and look forward to working with them.
I will tell the hon. Lady what is helping with standards and aspirations: first, the record funding that the Government are putting into our schools, and secondly, our reforms to the education system which mean already that over 150,000 children are at good or outstanding schools in her area, which is an increase of nearly 40,000 since 2010. More children are in good or outstanding schools—that is what the Government are providing.
Earlier this year, I opened a state-of-the-art manufacturing training facility at Braintree’s further education college. On Friday, I opened a new training centre for Contracts Support Services, a family-run business. Now that unemployment is at a record low and employment at a record high, will the Government commit to supporting both public and private sector trainers to increase productivity in the British economy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Increasing productivity is a key aim of our Government—it is very important for the economy and the future—and investing in skills is a key part of that. I am pleased to hear that he has been so active in opening new facilities in his constituency. The changes we are making—our support for FE colleges, the new T-level, the emphasis we are putting on technical education and the £500 million we are putting into it—will all help to increase the skills levels of young people in this country.
I will tell the right hon. Lady what hope we are giving to people. It was precisely why I sat with house builders, housing associations and others in No. 10 Downing Street earlier this week—to encourage a faster rate of building houses and homes in this country so that more people can reach their aspiration of having a safe and secure home—and it is why we are putting £500 million over a period of years into dealing with homelessness. It is all very well, however, her standing up in the House and asking the Government what they are doing. We are putting more money into house building. She should ask the Labour Mayor of London what he is doing.
Yesterday, the director general of MI5 said that internet companies had an ethical responsibility to deal with terrorist material online. The Prime Minister has previously indicated that if they do not meet this challenge she will consider regulation. Will she confirm that if regulations are necessary they will be robust and enforced?
I am very happy to give my hon. and learned Friend that confirmation, but there is work to be done before we get to that stage. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has done important work, for instance, with the tech companies, which have come together and formed a global forum looking at how to deal with terrorist material on the internet. It is a real issue that we need to address. I was pleased to hold an event on exactly this issue with President Macron and Prime Minister Gentiloni at the margins of the UN General Assembly this year attended by representatives of more than 70 countries and representatives of all the major tech companies. We need to work together, but I want those tech companies to recognise their social and moral responsibility to work with us to do something about this material.
Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that I think the constituents of Moray will be very pleased that they have a Conservative Member of Parliament who is looking after their interests in the House. Let me also say to him that the Scottish Conservative Members are doing more for the interests of Scotland in this Parliament than the Scottish nationalists have ever done. [Interruption.]
Mr Spencer, what is the matter with you? My dear fellow! You eat home-produced food, you are a very respected farmer, and you are normally of a most taciturn disposition. I do not know what has come over you. Perhaps you should go and have a rest later. You must cheer up. Cheer up!
Along with the Scottish National party, the Labour party has said that it will not accept no deal with the European Union in any circumstances. That means that Labour will pay whatever final bill the EU demands, and accept any conditions on which it insists. Does the Prime Minister agree that no one with even an ounce of common sense would enter into a negotiation making such an announcement in advance, and does she agree that the stance proposed by the Labour party and the SNP is not a negotiation, but a capitulation?
My hon. Friend has put it very well indeed. We cannot enter the negotiations taking the stance that the Labour party and the SNP have taken. As my hon. Friend says, their rejection of a “no deal” means that they would accept a deal at any price to the British taxpayer, whatever the damage it would do to our economy, and we will not do that.
As I said earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), the Government are committed to the northern powerhouse, and, indeed, are putting money into it to encourage economic growth, particularly through our investment in infrastructure. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of cases, and the issue of Vauxhall was raised by one of his hon. Friends earlier. We are continuing to work with Vauxhall throughout the process to do all that we can to protect United Kingdom jobs, as we have done with BAE Systems and as we are doing with others. What matters, however, is ensuring that we have an economy that can enable more jobs to be created, and 3 million more people are in work today than in 2010.
Respectful and committed family relationships reduce poverty, improve wellbeing, and help the Government to live within their means. They are a key part of a country that works for everyone. Will the Prime Minister therefore implement the proposals of the recently published family manifesto?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are, of course, looking into what more we can do to ensure that we see those stable families, which lead to the benefits that he has described. He has campaigned on this issue since he came to the House, and I welcome the valuable contributions that he has made.
I am sure that the issue will be properly looked into, but underlying it is the question of ensuring that we are able to have a secure and safe supply of energy in the future. That is why the fracking is continuing, and that is why we are supportive of the Shell gas exploration. There are opportunities there for the United Kingdom. As I have said, however, I am sure that the specific issue raised by the hon. Gentleman will be looked into appropriately.