The Secretary of State was asked—
Swansea Main Line: Electrification
Before I respond to questions, I would like to convey the thoughts and prayers of the whole House to the families and community in Llangammarch Wells following the tragic fire earlier this week.
The Government are delivering the biggest rail investment programme for more than a century. The Great Western modernisation programme includes £5.7 billion of investment in new trains. It will cut journey times from south Wales to London by 15 minutes, which will make south Wales more attractive to investors, and bring significant benefits to our economy and passengers alike.
May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments? I offer my deepest condolences.
The Government’s decision not to go ahead with electrifying the main line to Swansea has been a bitter blow to south Wales. My constituency is less than 20 miles from north Wales, and many of my constituents have written to ask me what steps the Government are taking to electrify the north Wales coast line. Can the Secretary of State provide any clarification today?
The hon. Lady will be well aware that advances in bimodal technology mean that electrification between Cardiff and Swansea would not save passengers any significant journey time. She makes an interesting point about north Wales, and I hope that she is aware of the £43 million of signalling improvement that has taken place in north Wales to improve speed and reliability along the line. In addition, the Crewe hub offers great potential for bringing the benefits of HS2, a major UK rail investment programme, to north Wales as well as to the north of England.
A major multibillion investment programme is benefiting rail passengers in Wales. Earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee asked us to reassess the electrification programme on a stage-by-stage basis, and that was what we did. We are therefore using the latest advances in modern technology to ensure that passengers in Swansea and west Wales get the benefits of the most modern trains on the network immediately, rather than perhaps waiting for the traditional technology of electric-only trains.
On 16 May, the Transport Secretary said that electrification was definitely happening and that he wanted to see an end to “smelly diesel trains”, so there was widespread disappointment on 20 July when electrification was cancelled between Cardiff and Swansea, and also for the midland main line, with Ministers citing the fact that new technology made electrification unnecessary. Can the Secretary of State satisfy the House that this is not another cynical broken election promise by outlining what technological breakthrough was made after the ballot boxes closed?
One of the strong advocates for electrification was Professor Mark Barry, but he said that the bimodal fleet neutralised the case. The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about diesel trains because these bimodal trains will use the latest and most environmentally friendly diesel generators. The latest trains can even exceed the maximum speed that could be achieved between Cardiff and Swansea. Of course they will stick to the maximum speed along that route, but that demonstrates their flexibility.
The benefits of the Crewe hub station rely on a business case of five trains an hour to deliver improvements to not only to my constituents in Eddisbury, but north Wales. What is the Secretary of State doing to support that case?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I meet regularly to discuss the whole range of rail infrastructure programmes in Wales. The integrated way in which the network works via the Crewe hub offers potential not only to my hon. Friend’s constituency, but to north Wales, because bringing the benefits of high-speed rail to Crewe will benefit north Wales as well.
I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee when it came up with its cross-party recommendations in February, so I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State cite them. Does he agree that any future electrification needs to be based on a robust assessment? It is worth bearing in mind that the bimodal trains that he proposes for Swansea are exactly what most other parts of the Great Western network, including Plymouth and Torbay, will be getting anyway.
My hon. Friend makes a logical, reasonable and helpful point in recognising that by using the latest technology we are offering more capacity and much faster trains, which is a major benefit to Swansea and to west Wales. Criticising the decision to use the latest technology on the line to Swansea does nothing more than undermine investment in the city.
Clearly the Swansea metro is a different proposal, but I am keen to meet Professor Mark Barry to discuss its potential. It is an interesting addition to a wide-ranging debate in which there are also proposals to improve the frequency of trains to Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. At the moment, passengers from west Wales often drive to Port Talbot to get on the train, but I think that we can come up with much more imaginative solutions. The metro is an additional solution to consider as part of that debate.
The Secretary of State will be aware that in addition to deep concerns about the failure to electrify beyond Cardiff, there is a worry that Great Western Railway will apparently not offer a bilingual service on main line trains operating into Wales. Has he had a discussion with GWR about that? Other rail companies, such as Arriva, have been offering a bilingual service even on trains that go between Wales and England.
I have noted the public statements that have been made by the Welsh Government and the comments that the hon. Gentleman has made, and I suggest that he raises the matter with First Great Western. Arriva is also making a change. Clearly this is a matter for the operators, but I think that the proposal is positive.
I associate myself and the Opposition with the condolences paid by the Secretary of State to those affected by the fire—our thoughts are with them.
Does the Secretary of State for Wales agree with Andrew R. T. Davies, the leader of the Welsh Conservative party, who said this week that electrification of the line to Swansea would be beneficial to Wales and should still take place? He said that he had not
“given up the ghost of fighting that campaign”,
and I assure the Secretary of State that neither have Labour Members.
I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that we are using the latest technology so that we have more capacity and faster trains going to Swansea. She needs to consider the fact that the original plans involved 15-minute savings between Swansea and Paddington, but the bimodal trains will still bring about 15-minute savings. We are bringing in the most modern technology and the most modern bimodal trains on the network now, rather than waiting another couple of years and causing Swansea additional disruption.
With reports that HS2 will cost more than £100 billion, alongside £15 billion for HS3 and another £30 billion for Crossrail 2, it is an absolute scandal that the British Government have broken their promise to electrify the main line to Swansea, despite the fact that that would cost only £400 million. Given the priorities of the British Government, is it not the case that the only way to ensure that Wales gets its fair share of rail investment is to devolve full responsibility for rail infrastructure?
I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s tone because the bimodal trains will improve connectivity to his constituency and west Wales. His constituents would not have benefited from the previous proposal for electric-only trains to Swansea. Of course, the network in Wales is part of the UK network, and when he compares spending, he needs to think logically. For example, he has been supportive of the Halton curve, which is in England but will bring major benefits to the network between north Wales and Liverpool.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of different UK investment projects, including the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport. Estimates suggest that Heathrow’s proposed expansion would require 370,000 tonnes of UK steel, securing 700 British steel jobs, which would be welcome news for communities such as Port Talbot.
In addition to the benefits to Wales from construction related to the expansion of Heathrow, does my hon. Friend agree that there are opportunities for Welsh industry to support the ongoing operation of Heathrow when the expansion is complete, as many of my constituents in East Ren do for nearby Glasgow airport?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The development of Heathrow offers significant opportunities for Wales and for the supply chain in Wales. That is why the Wales Office, working with the Welsh Government, have been involved in ensuring that we have roundtable discussions and “meet the buyer” events with Heathrow in Wales—south Wales and north Wales—so that Welsh companies will be in a position to benefit from investment in Heathrow.
Hub airports are more important than ever, so will the Minister join me in congratulating the Welsh Government on purchasing Cardiff airport, which has led to a great increase in passenger numbers? Should not the Tory party back that as well?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. The Wales Office is very proud of its involvement in the Qatar decision to have direct flights from Cardiff airport. The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of hub airports, and a recent meeting I had with Heathrow highlighted the possibility of direct flights from Liverpool to Heathrow, which would be a significant advantage for businesses in north Wales.
Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. The importance of hub airports is understood by businesses across the United Kingdom. It is therefore imperative to have regular flights into Heathrow, which is one of the reasons why we need the expansion of Heathrow. That expansion will be good not only for the United Kingdom, but for regional economies, as connectivity into a major hub airport such as Heathrow will be beneficial to our local economies.
Trade unions, the CBI and local authorities all support the potential £6.2 billion of investment that Heathrow expansion will bring, but that depends on two things: the extension of HS2 to the Crewe hub; and a final decision on Heathrow. When are they both going to happen?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. I hope that the decision on Heathrow will be forthcoming very soon. I agree entirely with him about the Crewe hub. A development in Crewe that links HS2 services into the north Wales main line represents a real opportunity for north Wales. We in the Wales Office have been involved in that with our colleagues in the Department for Transport.
I hold regular discussions with Government Departments and the Welsh Government about infrastructure investment in Wales. We have invested £212 million in the new HMP Berwyn and committed more than £600 million to city deals in Cardiff and Swansea. Just last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was in Swansea to announce our £800,000 investment in important innovative infrastructure—the UK’s first energy-positive office, which is capable of generating more energy than it uses.
Lasting economic success will come only from a long-term approach to major economic decisions, which is why it is so great that the Welsh Labour Government are supporting strategic investment in infrastructure. A Labour Government will ensure that they work with rather than against the devolved Governments. Is that the same for the Conservatives and, if so, will the Minister assure the House that Wales will get its full Barnett consequentials funding from HS2?
The hon. Lady raises an interesting point, but I regret to say that it probably shows that she does not really understand the relationship between the Wales Office and the Welsh Government. It is fair to say that infrastructure investment in Wales does depend on a partnership approach, which is why the growth deals secured for Swansea and Cardiff have been crucial examples of co-operation, and why I am working so closely with the Economy Minister to develop a north Wales growth deal.
Like many constituencies across Wales, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney has seen huge benefits from European structural funds, but there is great uncertainty about the future. Will the Minister assure the House that the level of financial benefits that we currently enjoy from structural funds will be replicated when we leave the European Union?
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about structural funds, but the reality is that structural funds in Wales did not make the difference that we anticipated. This Government are committed to a shared prosperity fund for the entire United Kingdom. Communities such as Merthyr Tydfil want good long-term jobs—the type of jobs I saw when I visited General Dynamics, which is recruiting apprentices and creating quality jobs in Merthyr Tydfil. That is exactly what the south Wales economy needs.
The excellent History of Parliament website yesterday tweeted a link to a 1606 Bill to build a new bridge at Chepstow. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a pity that those involved did not add an amendment calling for a M4 relief road, because by now the Welsh Assembly Government might have got their act together and actually built one?
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. It is indeed disappointing that we are still waiting for a relief road for Newport. I understand that the Welsh Government are going for another consultation, but it is imperative for the sake of the economy of south Wales and the south Wales valleys that we see action on a relief road for Newport sooner rather than later.
The hon. Gentleman is a key supporter of better transport links in north Wales, and his work on Growth Track 360 is appreciated by the Department. The north Wales growth deal is a key priority for the Wales Office. Cross-border connectivity is crucial to that growth deal, and I agree that we need to improve transport links, whether road or rail, as part of the development of the north Wales growth deal.
I would like to add my condolences, and those of Labour Members, to all those affected by the heartbreaking tragedy at Llangammarch.
Wales is one of many areas in Europe that have received EU structural funds to help to improve their infrastructure. After 2020, will Wales receive the same funding as those comparator regions of Europe or will there be a reduction in funding to Wales by this Conservative Government?
The hon. Gentleman raises the question of EU structural funds as if they were a success story in the Welsh context. They were actually a failure: £4 billion of investment, yet our comparative economic performance fell. This Government are committed to the UK shared prosperity fund, which will work for the benefit of the Welsh economy, rather than being wasted in the way in which the Welsh Government wasted our structural funds over the past 18 years.
I am afraid that the Minister did not answer my question, so I will come back to it. There is a lack of clarity about what will happen in Wales after 2020. I thank the Secretary of State for meeting me to discuss these issues, but will he and the Minister convene a meeting of the Wales team, the shadow Wales team and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to sort these issues out so that there is absolute clarity for the people of Wales?
The offer of a meeting is something I would always be happy to accept, but it has to be at the right time. In the context of structural funding, the key thing is that, for example, a strategic approach across north Wales was not possible because four counties were receiving European structural funds and two were not. We now have an opportunity for a strategic approach across north Wales, which will be supported by a UK shared prosperity fund in due course.
Leaving the EU: Inward Investment
Wales remains a great place to invest. As we leave the EU, we will continue to support existing investment relationships and work to attract new projects. I am working closely with the Department for International Trade to deliver this.
The Secretary of State will know that the Welsh Labour Government have been very successful in attracting businesses such as TVR, Aston Martin and General Dynamics. All that foreign investment could be at risk if there is a no-deal Brexit. What is he specifically doing to reassure the business community that Wales is still open for business?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that Wales is a great place to invest. Last year, 85 foreign direct investment projects came to Wales, 95% of which were supported and facilitated by the Department for International Trade. I have been to Qatar and Japan to talk to investors, and I am encouraged by their optimism and the flexibility that the Welsh economy can bring.
As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), I am encouraged by their interest and commitment. Japanese companies, by tradition, make long-term investments. The first was in Bridgend—Sony was one of the first—in 1973, and they have similarly committed that they want to remain with us for the long term to come. [Interruption.]
Order. There are very many private conversations taking place, but I think it is fair to the Secretary of State if we are able to enjoy the product of his lucubrations. He spent a lot of time preparing for this session; it seems a very great sadness if his observations cannot be properly heard. Liz Saville Roberts.
Diolch yn fawr. A report earlier this year found that foreign direct investment to Wales declined by 44% during the EU referendum year, with what are described as “geographically peripheral” regions lagging even further behind. What will it take for the Secretary of State to admit that the only way to protect jobs and wages is to maintain economic links with the EU by staying in the single market and customs union permanently?
As I mentioned, last year was another successful year: 85 projects came to Wales, creating 2,500 new jobs. I would also point to the latest export data: exports to the EU were increased by 15%, but exports outside the European Union increased by 20%. That demonstrates the great flexibility of businesses in Wales, keen to explore the new opportunities that exiting the European Union brings.
For a meaningful vote on the final deal to be exactly that—meaningful—we must not allow Parliament to be threatened with the prospect of condemning the UK to a no-deal scenario, should that final deal prove unsatisfactory. Would it not be more prudently conservative and economically wise of the Government to explore any legal flexibilities surrounding article 50, to appease businesses across Wales and avoid a damaging cliff edge?
I hope the hon. Lady will take great reassurance from the fact that we are doing everything we can to get a good deal for the whole United Kingdom as we leave the European Union. Of course, it is also prudent—that is the word that she used—to prepare for all outcomes, and we have to prepare for every potential eventuality because we need to preserve the integrity of the UK market, a relationship with Europe and the new opportunities, as we leave the EU, with markets around the world.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question. I think the Department for International Trade is already doing that, but there is always more that we can do. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade and I met the First Minister on Friday to consider the trade White Paper, as well as the new opportunities, and the establishment of the UK Board of Trade, which includes strong representation from Wales, is an important part of that work.
Leaving the EU
Since the referendum, the Secretary of State and I have discussed the impact of the UK’s exit from the European Union in meetings with stakeholders across Wales. We have met businesses, universities and farming unions, among others, and the next meeting, the Secretary of State’s expert panel on EU exit, will take place on Monday.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but does my hon. Friend agree that this needs to go even further as negotiations with the EU continue? Will he encourage other Cabinet Ministers to come to Wales to hear the views of Welsh business, Welsh farmers and Welsh universities first hand?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a champion for the agricultural industry, which is no surprise in view of the constituency he represents. I can assure him that the discussions with the farming unions will intensify, and I am very pleased to announce that the Secretary of State for International Trade will be in Wales this week.
I am very pleased that the Prime Minister is here to listen to my question, because on a number of occasions I have asked her about the importance of the port of Holyhead in my constituency to Irish trade. Last week, a company from Ireland suggested a new route to Holland and Belgium, circumnavigating Britain. Stakeholders in my constituency are concerned about that. The Irish Government are concerned about that; so are the Welsh Government. When will the UK Government wake up?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the port of Holyhead and the concern is shared by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, who visited the port with him. These concerns have been heard in the Wales Office; we have met stakeholders and Irish businesses. I can assure him that our intention is to ensure a frictionless border in Holyhead, in the same way as in Ireland.
EU students contribute upwards of £130 million to the Welsh economy, and thousands of academic staff from across Europe have been vital to the success of Welsh institutions. Given that we already know of an 8% decline in applications from EU students to Welsh universities, what discussions has the Minister had with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that visa arrangements do not further harm our higher education sector?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the universities sector in Wales. I recently visited Bangor University and Aberystwyth University and discussed these matters. I can assure him that the Wales Office is in constant discussions with other Departments on the issues raised by the sector, including EU visas.
I welcome the fact that the UK and devolved Administrations have agreed the principles on which the common frameworks will be constructed, which will be of particular interest to business groups, universities and the National Farmers Union of Wales. I encourage the Minister to continue these exchanges with the devolved Administrations, so that we can reach agreement on how the common frameworks should be established.
Leaving the EU: Balance of Powers
Following the last Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations meeting of Welsh, Scottish and UK Governments, an agreed set of principles on areas where EU law currently intersects with that of devolved competence was published. Will the Secretary of State please update the House on what tangible actions the UK Government have taken to institute those principles?
There are 64 areas of law that intersect with the Welsh Government, and I think that there are 111 that relate to Scotland. There is an awful lot of technical work going on between officials in the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the UK Administration. There are many functions beneath that, but we are working positively to establish which of them can be devolved as quickly as possible when powers are returned from the European Union to the UK.
I have mentioned that officials are working on 64 areas, and we want to move forward so that the powers of the Scottish and Welsh Governments will be extended, but we also need to maintain the integrity of the UK market. We need to remember that everything we are doing needs to suit business, because we want business in Scotland to continue to export and work throughout the UK, but we also want business in Wales to have the opportunity perhaps to take some of the Scottish market.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I know that Members across the House will have been appalled by last night’s cowardly terrorist attack in New York. Our thoughts are with all those affected, and we stand united with the people of New York.
Members on both sides of the House have been deeply concerned about allegations of harassment and mistreatment here in Westminster. This demands a response, which is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has been meeting with her counterparts, and we are hopeful that all sides can work together quickly to resolve this. I have written to all party leaders to invite them to a meeting early next week so that we can discuss a common, transparent and independent grievance procedure for all those working in Parliament. We have a duty to ensure that everyone coming here to contribute to public life is treated with respect.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Is the Prime Minister aware that some very powerful research has been done on the question of High Speed 2? It shows that for the first 140 miles, in the leafy suburbs of the south, nearly 30% of the line will be in tunnels to avoid knocking down houses, yet now we are told that the figure is only 2% for the whole of the north. Why? It is because HS2 says, “It is too costly; knock the houses down.” Will she arrange for a meeting with people from my area, to avoid another 30 houses being knocked down in Newton, which is part of Bolsover? Is it not high time that this Government stopped treating our people like second-class citizens?
I am sure that the Department for Transport will be happy to look into the question the hon. Gentleman has raised, but of course the reason why we are doing HS2 is that it is important to increase the capacity of the railway lines going through to the north. This will be a very important contribution to the United Kingdom economy, and I assure him that if he looks at everything this Government have done, with the northern powerhouse, the midlands engine and the significant investment in infrastructure across all parts of the country, he will see that this is a Government who want to ensure that this is a country that works for everyone.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and it is important that we ensure that we have a complete response to this issue of the threat of terrorism. That involves dealing with the problem at source, and it also involves dealing with terrorism wherever it occurs. But our message is very clear: our values will prevail and the terrorists will not win. However, as we do this, we need to ensure that, as my hon. Friend has said, we work with international partners. We want to develop safe spaces in Syria and Iraq as they re-emerge from this terrorist threat that has been on their streets, but that has also, obviously, affected us here and others elsewhere across the world. Crucially, we have done a lot of work in helping those in situ to gain evidence that can be used to ensure that anybody who is involved in the horrors of the attacks that we see can be properly brought to justice.
I put on record that I am happy to meet with the Prime Minister and all party leaders to discuss the sex harassment allegations that the right hon. Lady rightly referred to. We need better protections for all in this House, and the House must involve workplace trade unions in that, but it is also incumbent on all parties to have robust procedures in place to protect and support victims of sexual abuse and harassment.
I also join the Prime Minister in sending our solidarity to the people of New York and their mayor Bill de Blasio following yesterday’s appalling terrorist attack.
I hope the whole House will join me in paying tribute to two former Labour colleagues who, sadly, passed away this week: Candy Atherton, the former Member for Falmouth and Camborne, and Frank Doran, former Member for Aberdeen North. Both did enormous good work, at opposite ends of the UK, to diligently represent their communities and constituencies. They will be sadly missed by us all, particularly in the Labour party, which they served so well for their entire lives.
In 2010, the Labour Government intervened through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to shut down an Isle of Man scheme used to import yachts into the European Union and thus avoid tax. A similar scheme has recently been exposed relating to the import of business jets into the Isle of Man, so can the Prime Minister assure the House that HMRC will investigate these new allegations diligently?
The right hon. Gentleman referred to a number of points in his question, and I will address them all.
On the first point, the right hon. Gentleman is right that it is absolutely essential that political parties have processes to deal with allegations of misconduct. We also have the ministerial code, and proper investigations must take place against it where that is appropriate. But I believe that it is also crucial for everybody working in this Parliament—be they working for a Member of Parliament or the House authorities, or a journalist working in this Parliament—that there are proper processes in this Parliament for people to be able to report misconduct and for that to be dealt with. That is very important and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for saying he will meet with me, and I hope with other party leaders, to look at this issue; I see that the leader of the Scottish National party, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), is nodding.
I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Frank Doran and Candy Atherton. Frank Doran was first elected in 1987 and served two separate terms as the MP for Aberdeen. He chaired the Administration Committee for five years and was a tireless campaigner for safety in the oil and gas industry. I am sure that everybody will recall the commitment with which he served in this House, and join me in offering condolences to his family and friends. Candy Atherton was first elected in 1997, when I was first elected. She served for eight years as a Member of Parliament and was a strong campaigner for women’s rights and disability issues. She continued to champion those causes on Cornwall Council after she had left this House. Once again, I am sure that Members across the House will join me in offering condolences to her family and friends.
The right hon. Gentleman also talked about tax avoidance. I can assure him that, when cases are referred to HMRC in relation to tax avoidance, it takes them seriously and looks into them seriously. We have taken action collectively as a Government over the last few years since 2010, when we first came in, and we have secured almost £160 billion in additional compliance revenues since 2010 through a number of measures that we have taken to ensure that we clamp down on tax evasion and avoidance.
There are 957 business jets in the Isle of Man, and that seems a bit excessive for any island, anywhere. I hope that that will be investigated and that due tax is collected from those people who are trying to avoid it. Estimates of the scale of tax dodging range from £34 billion, which is around the size of our schools budget, to £119 billion, which is the size of the NHS budget. The Isle of Man VAT avoidance allegations are part of a wider leak from a Bermuda-based law firm said to be on a similar scale to the Panama papers. Will the Prime Minister commit HMRC to fully investigate all evidence of UK tax avoidance and evasion from this leak, and prosecute where feasible?
I have given the right hon. Gentleman an assurance in my first answer that HMRC does take these issues very seriously, does investigate and does take action, and that, where appropriate, tax loopholes are closed. What is important is to look at the record, and I have mentioned the additional £160 billion of compliance revenues since 2010. We have announced or implemented more than 75 measures since 2010 to tackle tax avoidance and evasion. The right hon. Gentleman referred to one that had been done by the Labour Government, and we have continued to act on this issue. We will be raising billions of pounds more as a result of that. I want to reassure him: I think most people would recognise that HMRC actually wants to collect tax. That is its job, and it looks to make sure that it can do so as much as possible.
Well, it is rather strange then that Britain has reportedly blocked a French-led proposal that would have placed Bermuda on the European Union tax haven blacklist. Perhaps the Prime Minister could explain why that would be the case. The Panama papers exposed many wealthy individuals and big businesses who avoided tax through offshore trusts. Labour backs any necessary changes to toughen our laws against aggressive tax avoidance. Just yesterday, we tried to strengthen legislation on the beneficial ownership of trusts, through amendments that we tabled to the Finance Bill. Why did the Government vote against them?
The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the British overseas territories. In fact, this Government have taken action in relation to those territories—action that was not taken by the previous Labour Government. If he is saying to me that the whole question of tax evasion needs constantly to be looked at and that the Government need to be prepared to act, my answer is, yes, we are and we will.
There is a strange pattern here. In 2015 alone, Conservative Members of the European Parliament voted against five reports that would introduce methods of fighting tax avoidance and evasion, and HMRC admitted last week that multinational companies avoided paying £5.8 billion in taxes in 2016. Despite that, HMRC is currently cutting another 8,000 staff. So will the Prime Minister assure the House that, instead of more cuts, HMRC will get more resources in the upcoming Budget to tackle the scourge of aggressive tax avoidance and evasion?
I have reassured the right hon. Gentleman that HMRC is acting, has been acting since this Conservative party came into government in 2010, and will continue to act. In asking these questions, the right hon. Gentleman might want to reflect on why, before the Dissolution of Parliament earlier this year, the Labour party refused to support anti-tax avoidance and evasion measures brought forward by this Government. His party stopped them.
My question was about why Conservative MPs opposed what Labour was proposing yesterday. Last month’s European Parliament committee of inquiry, set up in the wake of the Panama papers scandal, claimed that the UK is obstructing the fight against tax dodging and money laundering. Just last week, the EU’s Competition Commissioner announced an inquiry into UK taxation rules that may have institutionalised tax avoidance by multinational corporations. Is the Prime Minister not concerned that vital revenue to fund schools and hospitals is being lost? Will she change the rules in the Budget?
We have taken an extra £160 billion in compliance revenue since 2010. The right hon. Gentleman comments on measures that were proposed this week but, as I said in my previous answer, we would have had more anti-tax evasion measures in place if the Labour party had not blocked them before the last election. This party in government has not just been acting in the UK; we have been working with the Crown dependencies and with the British overseas territories, and we have been leading the world. It was a Conservative Prime Minister who put this on the agenda at the G7 and the G20 for international action against tax avoidance and evasion.
If we are leading the world, perhaps the Prime Minister could explain how the amount of income tax paid by the super-rich has fallen from £4.4 billion to £3.5 billion since 2009. Earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee said that HMRC’s record of getting multi-millionaires to pay their taxes was “dismal” and that the super-rich were getting
“help with their tax affairs that is not available to other taxpayers.”
Our schools’ budgets are being cut, more people are waiting longer for treatment—[Interruption.]
Order. We tend to have large doses of this over-excitement every week, but I just give notice that, as usual, I would like to get to the end of the questions on the Order Paper and to facilitate Back-Bench inquiries as well. Members are eating only into their own time; I have all the time in the world.
Since Conservative Members get so excited, I must say it again: our schools’ budgets are being cut, more people are waiting longer for treatment on the NHS, and more elderly and disabled people are not getting the social care they need. When it comes to paying taxes, does the Prime Minister think it is acceptable that there is one rule for the super-rich and another for the rest of us?
The top 1% of earners in this country are paying 28% of the tax burden. That is the highest percentage ever, under any Government. Once again, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong. Over the next two years, £2.5 billion extra is being put into our schools as a result of decisions taken by this Conservative Government.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about spending on schools and hospitals, and I will tell him where the real problem lies. Today we spend nearly £50 billion in payments on interest to those we have borrowed from as a result of the legacy of the Labour party. That is more than we spend on the NHS pay bill, and it is more than we spend on our core—[Interruption.]
Order. The Prime Minister’s answer will be heard, as I indicated that the question from the Leader of the Opposition would be heard. Mr Gapes, you are a senior and cerebral denizen of the House. This excessive gesticulation is not good for you, man. Calm yourself.
We spend £50 billion every year on debt interest payments to people we have borrowed from. That is more than the NHS pay bill, it is more than our core schools budget and it is more than we spend on defence. That is the result of the economy we were left by the Labour party in government. And what does the Leader of the Opposition want to do? He wants to borrow £500 billion more, which would make the situation worse and would mean even less money for schools and hospitals.
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, and I fully understand the concerns of the families. He talks about the timetable for decisions, and the Department for Transport has accepted the air accidents investigation branch’s recommendation to commission an independent review. The Department is working with the air accidents investigation branch to determine the exact scope of the review. The Civil Aviation Authority has accepted all the recommendations. Considerable work is going on to learn the lessons from this disaster, and obviously we are also committed to ensuring that, where there is a public disaster, people are able to have proper representation. I will ask the Lord Chancellor to look at the questions raised by my hon. Friend.
May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the zero tolerance there has to be for bad sexual practices and behaviour? I certainly commit my Members to working with the Government to make sure that we have a system that we can be proud of and that will protect all members of the Houses of Parliament.
I also pass on my condolences to the family and friends of Frank Doran on his untimely and sad death this week.
Can the Prime Minister tell the House how much a working single parent can expect to lose because of the roll-out of universal credit?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for agreeing to work across the House on this important issue. He refers to sexual misconduct, but it is important that any processes that are put in place not only look at sexual misconduct but look at issues such as bullying—that is also important.
The right hon. Gentleman has raised the roll-out of universal credit with me before. As he knows, the reason why we have introduced universal credit is to ensure that people are encouraged into the workplace and that when they are in the workplace they are able to keep more of the money they earn. I believe that that is an important principle. It underpins what we are doing and will continue to do so.
The reality is that new research shows that working single parents could lose an average of £1,350 a year because of the cuts to work allowances. Universal credit is fast becoming Theresa May’s poll tax. The Prime Minister has a habit of U-turning, so will she U-turn one more time and fix the problems with universal credit?
I have underlined the principle that lies behind universal credit, which I believe is a very important one. That is why when we look at the support that is given to people it is not just about the support they receive in financial terms on universal credit; it is also about the support they receive to help them to get into the workplace to ensure that they can actually meet the requirements of getting into the workplace and that when they are in the workplace they can keep more of the money they earn. That is an important principle. We will continue to roll out universal credit, looking carefully at its implementation as we do so, because we are doing this in a careful way, over a period of time. But the important principle is that universal credit is a simpler system that ensures people keep more as they earn more.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we want to ensure that we take the advantages offered by modern technology. That is why these issues have been addressed in our industrial strategy and will continue to be addressed. We recognise that when we talk about infrastructure in this country, increasingly the IT infrastructure—the broadband infrastructure—is part of that; this is not only about the physical road and rail infrastructure. So we are investing £790 million in improving broadband, taking our public investment to £1.7 billion. We are also, as she says, leading the world in the development of electric cars, and we need to ensure that we have those vehicle charging points. So we have put in place, and are putting in place, grants and policy measures to ensure that we see those charging points so that people can take advantage of those new vehicles.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point. We all recognise the value of stable and strong families, and this is a cause she has championed, not only through her time in this House, but outside it. I am happy to join her in welcoming the development of family hubs, and I will certainly encourage Conservative mayors and councils across the country to be champions of them.
I am afraid I did not hear the end of the question. The hon. Gentleman stands up and waxes lyrically about his city of Dundee. He will recall that I was asked about Dundee’s city of culture bid last week, and I made the point that a number of places throughout the UK might put in bids. On the creative industries, I am pleased to see the development of the V&A in Dundee. The Tay cities deal will be important for Dundee and the whole Tay area, as other city deals in Scotland have been for the areas in which they have been agreed.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. We are clear that proposals should be developed at a local level by local clinicians, while taking account of and listening to the views of local residents and local constituents on the relevant matters. It is important that local people are heard and know that decisions have been taken in the light of any concerns they have raised. I understand that any proposals for urgent care that are developed by the Gloucestershire STP will be subject to full public consultation in due course.
Over the past few years, both when I was Home Secretary and under my right hon. Friend the current Home Secretary, we have taken steps to ring-fence certain domestic violence funding over a period of time so that there can be greater certainty for organisations that work in this area. There is much for us to do, because sadly we still see domestic violence and abuse. One of the other steps we are taking is of course to bring in new legislation on domestic violence, which I hope will clarify the situation. Nevertheless, we need to address this through a wide variety of action.
First, I agree with my hon. Friend that we are proud to have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. We want to continue to have a reputation as a country with those high standards, so leaving the European Union is not going to change that. We remain committed to high animal welfare standards. Indeed, as he says, we may have the opportunity to enhance those standards so that we can further demonstrate to people this country’s reputation as a place where they can be safe and secure in the knowledge of the conditions in which their food has been prepared.
I am pleased to see that the number of children in absolute poverty has actually come down under this Government, but of course we need to be aware of the impact of decisions that have been made. We are looking carefully at the implementation of universal credit. Let me repeat what I said in response to the question asked by the leader of the Scottish National party, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, which is that the point of universal credit is that it is a more straightforward and simpler system, but also it helps people to get into the workplace and ensures that they keep more of the money that they earn. I think that that is important.
My hon. Friend stands up well for his county and constituency on this matter. I am very happy to confirm that we will maintain that commitment in our forthcoming industrial strategy White Paper. We do want to see a fairer distribution of infrastructure spending across the country because we know that infrastructure investment is important to unlocking economic opportunities, economic growth and productivity in our towns, villages and cities. We have backed that with ambitious commitments to increase our spending on infrastructure by 50% over the next four years, but I can assure him that we will be looking at that infrastructure spending across the whole country.
I will, of course, look back at the questions that the hon. Lady said that she raised with me in this House. I assume that she raised those with me when I was Home Secretary. I am very clear that the Whips Office—I hope that this goes for all Whips Offices across the House—should make it clear to people that, where there are any sexual abuse allegations that could be of a criminal nature, people should go to the police. It is not appropriate for those to be dealt with by Whips Offices; they should go to the police. That continues to be the case.
As I say, I will look at the questions that the hon. Lady raised with me, but I am very clear that we will take action against those where there are allegations that we see and the evidence is there that there has been misconduct. I say to her that I hope that we will all send a message from this House today that we want people in this place to be able to feel confident to bring forward cases, and we need to ensure that those cases are dealt with in a way that people can have confidence on both sides that they will be properly investigated. That means I want to see a good process in this Parliament, so that people do not feel that they have to go through a party political process to have their allegations considered.
I assure my hon. Friend that we recognise that the men and women of our armed services serve with great distinction and loyalty, and we are all grateful to them for the service that they give to this country. That is why we are committed to maintaining 2% of our GDP being spent on defence. He very kindly invites me to visit his constituency, and I will be very happy to do so if my diary allows.
A few days ago, the Chancellor told the House that the Government could not afford to borrow £50 billion to invest in housing because of the burden on the next generation. The Communities Secretary says that the Government must borrow £50 billion because of the burden of unaffordable housing on the next generation. Will the Prime Minister adjudicate?
There is no need to adjudicate. The Government absolutely agree that it is necessary for us to ensure that we are building more homes across the country. We have already announced policies to enable that to happen. A number of proposals were set out in the housing White Paper. I was very pleased to announce the extra £2 billion for affordable housing at our party conference, and the extra £10 billion for the Help to Buy scheme, which genuinely helps people to get their first foot on the housing ladder. We are seeing, and will continue to see, more houses being built under this Government.
Earlier this week in Llangammarch Wells in my constituency, a horrific farmhouse fire claimed the lives of a father and five young children. This has had a devastating effect not just on the family, but on the tight-knit community that surrounds them. Will my right hon. Friend join me and this House in sending our sympathies to the bereaved family and to everyone in Llangammarch? Will she also praise the outstanding work of our emergency services, who dealt with this appalling tragedy with true dedication and professionalism?
My hon. Friend has raised a very tragic case. I am sure that everybody across the whole House will want to join him in sending condolences to the family and friends of those affected by the fire. This was, indeed, a terrible tragedy. As he said, it is not only the family, but the local community who have been affected. The emergency services did sterling work. I am pleased to commend their bravery and professionalism in dealing with the issue. The Secretary of State for Wales has spoken to the police and they will remain in touch over the coming days. Once again, our emergency services do an amazing job protecting us, as we see in so many instances. They never know when they are going to be called out to such a tragic incident.
Given today’s news that the Electoral Commission is investigating Arron Banks, the main financial backer of Brexit, and given the significant British connections being uncovered by the American Department of Justice’s special counsel Robert Mueller in investigating Russian interference in the US presidential election, will the Prime Minister assure me that the UK Government and all their agencies are co-operating fully with the Mueller investigation or will do so if asked?
We take very seriously issues of Russian intervention, or Russian attempts to intervene in electoral processes or the democratic processes of any country, as we would with any other states involved in trying to intervene in elections. We do, of course, work closely with our United States partners. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that, as part of that relationship, we co-operate with them when required.
Last month I was in the Kurdistan region of Iraq—I refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—where I saw people’s enthusiasm for independence and a fresh dialogue with Baghdad. The subsequent military actions against the peshmerga by Iranian-backed militia and the Iraqi army are wholly unjust and completely unacceptable. Will the Prime Minister accept that the peshmerga and the Kurdistan region, to whom we owe so much both for resisting Daesh when the Iraqi army dumped their weapons and ran and for helping to keep our own streets safe, remain vital to our security? Will she do all she can to encourage a resolution based on full respect for the Iraqi constitution and the democratic will of the Kurdish people?
It is right that we are working with our international partners in the region to defeat Daesh together with the global coalition. Daesh is losing territory. The action being taken is having an impact on it; its finances have been hit, its leadership is being killed and its fighters are demoralised. But we do want to see political reconciliation in Iraq and a political settlement to the Syria conflict to deny Daesh safe space and prevent its re-emergence. My hon. Friend raises a particular point about Iraq and the Kurdistan region. The Government have always been clear that any political process towards independence should be agreed with the Government of Iraq. We want political reconciliation in Iraq and we have been urging all parties to promote calm, to pursue dialogue and to take this issue forward through dialogue.
An hour ago, the Government published a report by the Right Reverend James Jones, “The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power”, which the Prime Minister commissioned to ensure that the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated. Given what we have heard in this session and given the events surrounding the Grenfell Tower disaster, I worry that the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is already being repeated. Will the Prime Minister commit her Government to supporting both a duty of candour for all public officials and, as the report requires, an end to public bodies spending limitless sums to provide themselves with representation which surpasses that available to families?
Obviously, the House will appreciate that I have to be careful about what I say in relation to Hillsborough because of ongoing criminal proceedings, but I want to pay tribute to the work of Bishop James Jones throughout: in chairing the independent panel, as my adviser on this issue and with the family forums. He has done an excellent job once again. His report into the experiences of the Hillsborough families, which has been published today, as the hon. Lady says, is important. The Government will need to look very carefully at the, I think, 25 points of learning that come out of it and we will want to do so. I have always been very clear that the experience of the Hillsborough families should not be repeated. That is why we have looked at and are committed to the concept of the public advocate. We want to ensure that people have the support they need and it is important that we learn the lessons of Hillsborough. As she knows, I was involved in making the decision that enabled the Hillsborough families to have legal support on a basis that I felt was fair in relation to the other parties involved in that inquest. I assure her that we will not forget the Hillsborough families, who have been dignified throughout the many years they have been waiting for justice. We will not forget them, we will not forget their experience and we will ensure that we learn from it to improve the experience of others in the future.
May I cheekily make a diary suggestion to the Prime Minister? If she could remain in the Chamber for just a few moments after questions, she will hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) introduce the Armed Forces (Statute of Limitations) Bill, which would provide protection to those brave service personnel who served in Northern Ireland during the troubles. Like her, and I am sure the whole House, I want to see the setting up of the Northern Ireland Executive, but does she agree that we cannot do that at the price of pandering to Sinn Féin and allowing a witch hunt for those people who served so bravely for so many years to uphold the rule of law?
I am not sure I am going to be able to satisfy my right hon. Friend on the first point he raises, but I can assure him that I am aware of the proposed legislation my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) is bringing forward. We all want to see the Northern Ireland Executive restored. We recognise that the question of legacy issues has been there throughout the discussions in Northern Ireland and continues to be. What I want to ensure is that any investigations that take place in the future take place in a fair and proportionate way. Our soldiers did serve bravely, as my right hon. Friend says, in upholding the rule of law. It is important that we never forget all the people who lost their lives at the hands of the terrorists in Northern Ireland and it is important that any investigations are conducted fairly and proportionately.
As the Prime Minister will be aware, self-employed people are not eligible for shared parental leave. This places the burden of childcare on the mum, and denies fathers financial support and bonding time with the child. Has the Prime Minister seen the demands of the March of the Mummies, and can she give us assurances that she is prioritising this very urgent issue?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue and I am happy to look at the point that has been made, but I remind her that the reason we have shared parental leave for anybody is because when I was Minister for Women and Equalities I ensured it was introduced.
In my constituency, one of the big challenges as we leave the European Union is the uncertainty about the seasonal migrant workforce. Angus produces 30% of Scotland’s soft fruit and welcomes over 4,000 seasonal workers every year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need clarity on the new migration framework— for the benefit of these loyal workers, for the prosperity of our British soft fruit industry and to support the overall rural economy of our United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend raises an important point about the importance of supporting the rural economy across the whole of the United Kingdom. In relation to the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which she has referred to, obviously we will, as we leave the European Union, be bringing forward new immigration rules, which will enable us to have that control that we have not had in the past for those coming from the European Union. We recognise that we need to do that in the national interest. We need to look at the needs of the labour market, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to look at the needs of the UK labour market and to further inform our work as we bring those new immigration rules in. The issue my hon. Friend has raised is one they will look at.