Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the duchy of lancaster
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Public Sector Cyber-security
Our national cyber-security strategy, supported by £1.9 billion of transformational investment, sets out measures to defend our people, businesses and assets, deter our adversaries and develop cyber-skills. These include the creation of the National Cyber Security Centre and direct investment in central and local government, the health sector and the defence sector.
Yes, indeed. That is the whole point not just of the National Cyber Security Centre, but of the very significant investment I have just mentioned—£1.9 billion—which is set to transform defences against cyber-attack across the public sector, for central and local government, particularly the health and defence sectors, as well as advising the private sector, because our defences obviously need to be mutually dependent across the public and private sectors.
Does my right hon. Friend not accept that none the less there is a slight lack of clarity on who within the Government has ultimate responsibility for cyber-security, both offensive and defensive? Is not it time we had a cyber-department that would be responsible for defending this nation against cyber-attacks and thinking about ways it could possibly be used abroad?
My hon. Friend is right that we need proper co-ordination. That co-ordination role falls to the Cabinet Office, but clearly there are important areas where the Home Office has direct responsibility for operational matters, and obviously the Ministry of Defence has responsibilities in purely military terms. I am happy to reassure him that the co-ordination comes through the Cabinet Office.
As we have just come to the conclusion that a cyber-influence was entirely invisible and beyond any mechanisms that the electoral college has to control it, and as the Prime Minister has said that there was cyber-influence in the elections and probably in the referendums, is it not time we decided that we should have no faith in those two results and that we should look for another referendum, because second thoughts are always better than first thoughts?
The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. There is no evidence of any successful attempt to interfere with our electoral processes. Indeed, it is particularly difficult to have a cyber-attack against an electoral system that requires voters to put crosses on pieces of paper using small pencils, so that undoubtedly old-fashioned system is very effective against cyber-attack.
To defend ourselves against cyber-attack, it is essential that we recruit and retain people with the necessary skills to take up the cudgels on our behalf in the cyber-arms race. What steps are the Government taking to recruit and retain people with those skills in the public sector?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The National Cyber Security Centre, along with GCHQ, has established a programme of assessment and certification. Some 20 degrees have been certified, most of which are one-year postgraduate master’s degrees in cyber-security, and 14 universities are now academic centres of excellence in cyber-security research, precisely so that we can maintain a pipeline of skilled people to help our cyber-defences.
We have learnt today that Uber’s suppression of a database hack involving tens of millions of people is to be investigated, but there were 9,000 data breaches by the Government in a single year, according to the National Audit Office, although they notified the Information Commissioner’s Office of only 14 of them. Such contraventions clearly pose questions about our personal privacy and security. Given the scale of what is happening with the internet, action is clearly needed for further protection of the public. But last year the Government spent only—
We are absolutely getting on with spending the money to protect our citizens in the ways I have just set out. The hon. Gentleman will realise that that £1.9 billion is to be spent over five years, so the fact that we have spent £230 million-odd in the first year is about what we would expect. It is a continuous programme of continuous improvement.
The Queen’s Private Estate: Ethical Investment
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
I congratulate Her Majesty the Queen, Duke of Lancaster, and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh on their platinum wedding anniversary, and I pay tribute to their decades of public service to our country.
Her Majesty voluntarily pays tax on all income received from the duchy. The duchy’s investment strategy is based on advice and recommendations from its investment consultants.
One of the revelations we saw in the Paradise papers was an investment by the royal estate in the shambolic and exploitative company BrightHouse, which preys on and exploits many of my constituents. Does the Minister understand the absolute anger in Glasgow East at that revelation, and what is he going to do about it?
Bearing in mind what the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), said when a statement was made on the Paradise papers, perhaps he should have checked that out, because I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the last investment of this sort was made in 2005.
Donations to political parties show stark differences between our party and the Government’s. They are dependent on the ultra-wealthy few, while our party is powered by the many. In the light of the revelation in the Paradise papers that key Tory donor Lord Ashcroft was using offshore tax havens to shelter his wealth, will the Minister and his colleagues be accepting his donations to the Conservative party?
Leaving the EU: Civil Servants
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
The whole Government are preparing for the UK to make an orderly and successful exit from the European Union. We are equipping ourselves with the right people and the right skills across the Government to make that happen. Although workforce planning is primarily the responsibility of each Department to determine, the civil service constantly reviews its capabilities in this respect.
After a decade of austerity, it seems that £400 million and 8,000 new staff, including 5,000 for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, can be found to deal with Brexit. Will the Minister tell Treasury and HMRC bosses that it is more ludicrous than ever to propose to close Cumbernauld tax office, with its experienced and dedicated workforce?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Cabinet Office works closely with HMRC on workforce planning and, indeed, on Government hubs, with which we are seeking to make sure that we make the best possible use of our resources to provide an effective civil service that provides the best service for his constituents.
Given the additional burdens on civil servants from Brexit, does the Minister agree that the civil service people survey is important to Ministers for judging the working conditions, training and skills of our civil servants? Does she share my surprise that yesterday, in his evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the Public and Commercial Services Union representative said that he actively encouraged members not to reply to that survey? Will she reaffirm how increasingly important the survey is, so that we can get feedback and ensure we have the right capacity and capabilities in the civil service?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct to say that the survey is crucial to Ministers, and I greet it with relish when it arrives on my desk. It provides invaluable information about our workforce, their attitudes and how they feel about working for us. I am very surprised at the PCS comments, but I reassure all unions that I continue to leave my door open to them and that I am as interested in their views as I am in everybody else’s.
Has the Minister seen the remarks made by the eminent former senior civil servant, Sir Martin Donnelly, who set up the new Department for International Trade? Will she take heed of his warning to the Government:
“We are now just 16 months from Brexit—the biggest shock to the UK economy in living memory”?
I am sure that it will come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that the Cabinet Office works closely with those Departments most affected by exit from the EU, including the Department for International Trade as well as the Department for Exiting the European Union and, of course, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I have seen those comments, but I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are making sure that we have the right people in place to deliver the successful transition we need.
The Cabinet Office is supposedly co-ordinating this country’s exit from the European Union, so it really ought to know this stuff. The Minister has not answered the question. Will she clarify whether that is because she does not think that Parliament is entitled to the information about how many staff are working on it and how much it costs, or is it because the process is such a shambles that she is unable to provide that information?
The Government are currently considering the 256 responses to our call for evidence on the accessibility of voter registration and voting. I will soon lay draft legislation to improve the accessibility of the anonymous registration scheme for survivors of domestic violence, and I recently implemented the findings of an accessibility review on the “Register to vote” website.
A 2014 survey by Mencap found that 60% of people with a learning disability found the process of registering to vote too difficult. Registration forms are often complicated and not accompanied by an easy read guide. The Electoral Commission report, “Elections for everyone”, published earlier this month, agrees and calls on the Minister to act. Will he commit to improving the Government’s online registration process, and will he ensure that every local authority provides easy read information and a good helpline, so that no one with a learning disability is disenfranchised?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising the report by Mencap, which has been working closely with the Cabinet Office and is a member of the “accessibility to elections” working group. I do not disagree with the premise of her question: we need to do more, in the 21st century, to make sure that our elections are accessible for everyone and that we remove barriers for those who are disabled. I am absolutely committed to doing that. It is right that we now consider all the responses and we will publish our report later next year.
Millions of people are missing from the electoral registers, but there are high levels of support for reforming our electoral registration system—in particular, for automatic voter registration when a person receives their national insurance number. When will the Government implement the necessary reforms to ensure that our democracy works for the many, not just the few?
We believe that we need a democracy that works for everyone, which is why we are determined to introduce a democratic engagement strategy, which will be published in December. When it comes to those on the electoral register, a record 46.8 million people are now registered to vote. Actually, since the introduction of individual electoral registration, 30 million people have registered to vote, 75% of them using the online system. That is a remarkable success.
Any form of electoral fraud will be taken extremely seriously by this Government. We have already stated that we intend to implement a number of recommendations made by Sir Eric Pickles’s report, “Securing the ballot”. Double voting is obviously a crime and we encourage anyone who has evidence of it to report it to the police. I recently met the Electoral Commission and the National Police Chiefs Council, and we will meet every six months to look at a strategy for tackling double voting. By introducing future reforms to postal voting, we hope that we will be able combat the issue.
The Electoral Commission estimates that some 40% of those who applied late to vote through the online system were actually duplicate registrations. Will my hon. Friend make sure that there is no unnecessary duplication of applications? That would also minimise bureaucracy.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The registration website has been incredibly successful: there were nearly 3 million applications to register at the last general election. Of course, there will be people who register having been registered locally already. There are local solutions to the issue. Local authorities such as Hackney have a look-up tool, and it is right that we explore further what solutions there may be, but I believe that a centralised database may be too costly.
According to figures published by the Electoral Commission, nearly 11,000 people tried to vote on 8 June but found that they were not registered to vote once they reached the polling station. Will the Government examine the use of Government data to place electors on the roll automatically and pilot the idea of polling day voter registration to ensure that every eligible voter is entitled to vote?
The Government sincerely believe in the principle of individual elector registration; we will not be returning to automatic voter registration. We want a register that is complete and accurate as possible. I am delighted that the Electoral Commission has demonstrated in a recent report that the accuracy of the register has risen from 87% to 91%.
We are committed to providing a clear and secure democracy, and we continue to work with local authorities to deliver voter identification pilots for the May 2018 local elections in areas such as Woking, Gosport, Bromley, Watford and Tower Hamlets, as part of our programme to strengthen electoral integrity.
I believe that the UK electoral system is one of the most robust in the world. It is difficult to manipulate through a cyber-attack, as we operate a manual counting and manual voting system. As the First Secretary mentioned in his earlier answer, that may be seen as old-fashioned, but it ensures that our system is protected and our democracy safeguarded.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, which I will be interested to go away and consider. We are already looking at issues of tenant security deposits, for example—one of the largest groups not on the register are movers and renters, which causes that churn. That is why we are determined to ensure that we have better data to identify where we need to focus our attention and ensure that everyone is able to register to vote.
Is the Minister aware that at the general election in June, there was a 300% increase in proxy votes in the Foyle constituency, resulting in Sinn Féin winning the seat by 169 votes? Many people are specifically saying that that was a clear case of electoral fraud and the theft of a constituency in this House. What will the Minister do to ensure that that does not happen again?
On the general principle of electoral fraud, it is absolutely right that we look at future measures to tackle electoral integrity. It is important that we should have confidence in our democratic system going forward. We will be looking at absent voting arrangements and postal vote harvesting, and we will introduce legislation in future to tackle these issues.
Following the Prime Minister’s July announcement that a public inquiry will be held into the contaminated blood scandal, the Government sought views from the affected community on how that should operate. I announced on 3 November that the inquiry will be statutory and sponsored by the Cabinet Office. My Department has now taken receipt of more than 800 consultation responses, which it is analysing thoroughly. I have agreed to meet the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood and will make a further statement before the House rises for Christmas.
I am delighted to. We are developing a system called Contracts Finder—a free, online source for current and future public sector contracts above £10,000 in central Government and above £25,000 in the wider public sector. We are improving the visibility of supply chain opportunities available to SMEs via that site.
The Prime Minister has committed to reviewing the ministerial code to ensure that it remains fit for purpose, and she will update the House in due course.
The Government are committed to having greater diversity on the boards of public bodies so that they better represent the public they serve, and that includes moving public bodies out of London when appropriate. We will shortly publish a diversity action plan that will focus on encouraging candidates from the widest range of backgrounds, including from outside London.
Our small business panel, which I met on 1 November to celebrate its first birthday, is working on a number of key issues to further break down barriers to entry for SMEs. It was pleasing to hear that Contracts Finder, and the mystery shopper service in particular, are, in the panel’s words, “stonkingly good”.
I recognise the individual case. The hon. Gentleman has written a letter to me on this matter and I hope he has received my response. The Government obviously update freedom of information arrangements regularly, so we will keep this matter in mind. There is a consultation on various points in the freedom of information code, which the hon. Gentleman is welcome to be involved in.
Ministers, like me, are absolutely passionate about making sure that people get to the ballot, whether at parish, town or district level. Do Ministers agree that it is really important that we continue to have polling cards at every election so that everyone can play their part in the electoral process?
As I have said, the Government are committed to ensuring that as many people are engaged in the democratic process as possible, and this includes ensuring electors are equipped with the information they need to vote. As a result, we have no plans to change the current arrangements for poll cards.
Departments will publish new gender pay gap figures before the end of the year to meet the requirements of the Government’s new gender pay gap regulations for all large employers. The new requirements will provide unprecedented transparency, generate wider debate, and encourage employers to take the action required to close that gap.
The Union needs Scotland’s two Governments to work together to get things done. One proposal in the Stirling city region deal is to co-locate all customer-facing public services in Stirling to a public sector innovation hub. Will my right hon. Friend commit to working with the Scottish Government and Stirling Council to bring that about?
I was delighted to be lobbied hard by my hon. Friend on this and other matters when I visited Stirling recently. He will be pleased to hear that the Department for Work and Pensions is committed to maintaining its current estate in Stirling for at least the next five years, and we can obviously discuss future options. I also hope to agree heads of terms for the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city deal early next year.
In his written statement on the contaminated blood inquiry, the Minister for the Cabinet Office simply said that:
“a further announcement will follow before the end of the year on the setting up of the inquiry.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2017; Vol. 630, c. 35WS.]
Those affected by this tragedy have not been given any information about what that means. Will he clarify whether he intends to appoint an inquiry chair by the end of the year?
The hon. Lady raises a very serious point. The contaminated blood scandal of the ’70s and ’80s was an appalling tragedy that should not have happened. She will, I am sure, appreciate that not only did we receive 800 responses to the consultation but, at the request of the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, the end of that consultation was delayed until the end of October. All the decisions on the chair and the other things that need to be determined will, as I have already committed, be set out to the House before the Christmas recess.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will wish to join me in congratulating Sarah Clarke on her appointment as Lady Usher of the Black Rod. She will be the first woman to hold this role in its over-650-year history, and we offer her our best wishes.
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 BBC is currently broadcasting “Drugsland”, a documentary series shot in my Bristol West constituency showing the catastrophic impact of drugs and drug laws on not just users, but the police and innocent bystanders. Will the Prime Minister commit to watching “Drugsland” and to setting up a royal commission on our drug laws, which are plainly failing?
I am pleased to say that the Home Office, under my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, launched the Government’s drugs strategy only a matter of weeks ago. We recognise the importance of this issue. Drugs significantly affect people’s lives. Sadly, we also see people dying as a result of not only taking drugs, but the criminal activity that takes place around drugs. We take this very seriously; that is why we have launched our strategy.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that grandparents do play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren. We can all, I am sure, sympathise with those who experience the anguish of being prevented from seeing their grandchildren if a parental relationship ends. Of course, when making decisions about a child’s future, the first consideration must be their welfare, but the law already allows family courts to order that a child should spend time with their grandparents. I understand that my hon. Friend has recently seen the Minister of State for Justice, and I am sure that the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education will consider these points carefully.
I join the Prime Minister in congratulating the new Usher of the Black Rod. I am really pleased that it is at last a woman who has got that position.
I hope that the whole House will join me in sending solidarity following the atrocious suicide bombing that killed 50 people in eastern Nigeria. We should express sympathy to those who have lost loved ones for the obvious trauma they are all going through.
The Irish Prime Minister, who has discussed Brexit with the British Government, says:
“Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they have thought all this through”,
so can the Prime Minister reassure him by clearly outlining the Government’s policy on the Irish border?
First, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has welcomed the new Lady Usher of the Black Rod. I hope it will not be 650 years until the Labour party has a female leader. He also referred to the attack that has taken place in eastern Nigeria. Of course, I am sure that the thoughts and condolences of the whole House are with those who have been affected.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me to outline our policy in relation to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I am very happy to do so; I have done so on a number of occasions. We are very clear that in relation to the movement of people, the common travel area will continue to operate, as it has done since 1923. On trade, and the movement of goods and services across the border, we will not see the introduction of a hard border. We have been very clear that we will not put physical infrastructure at the border.
Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said:
“There can be no hard border. That would be unthinkable”.—[Official Report, 21 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 848.]
Maybe, but the Government have had 17 months to come up with an answer to this question, and there still is no answer, because they have not engaged with the negotiations properly.
There is another person who does not think that the negotiations are going too well: the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood). He was a very enthusiastic campaigner for Brexit, but he also—he is a busy man—finds time to be the chief global strategist for Charles Stanley investments. He recently advised clients to invest elsewhere, as the UK is hitting the brakes. Does the Prime Minister take advice from the right hon. Gentleman, and does she agree with him?
On the first issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises, we have been engaging fully in the negotiations in relation to Northern Ireland and other issues, and indeed significant progress has been made. That is why, for example, I have said that we have got agreement on the operation of the common travel area for the future. He says that we have not put out any ideas about the border, but I have to say to him that we published a paper back in the summer on possible customs arrangements. We are very happy to move to further detailed discussions of the customs and trading relationship that will exist not just between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but between the United Kingdom and the European Union. That does mean moving on to phase 2, so the question for the right hon. Gentleman is: if he thinks that is so important, why did his MEPs vote against it?
The EU’s chief negotiator said this week that the UK financial sector will lose its current rights to trade with Europe. It seems as though neither EU negotiators nor the Government have any idea where this is going. Last week, the Brexit Secretary said that he would guarantee free movement for bankers post Brexit. Are there any other groups to whom the Prime Minister believes freedom of movement should apply? Nurses; doctors; teachers; scientists; agricultural workers; careworkers—who?
I am very interested that the right hon. Gentleman has found that his appearances at Prime Minister’s questions have been going so well that he has had to borrow the question that the leader of the Liberal Democrats asked me last week. Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition should pay a little more attention to what happens in Prime Minister’s questions.
We have been absolutely clear that we will introduce new immigration rules. As we introduce those immigration rules, we will take account of the needs of the British economy. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to advise, as it always does, on the areas in which we need to pay particular attention to migration into the United Kingdom.
We want to get on to deal with the question of our future trading relationship with the European Union. I am optimistic about the opportunities that will be available to this country and about the deal that we can get from the negotiations. The right hon. Gentleman cannot even decide whether he wants to be in the customs union or out of it, and whether he wants to be in the single market or out of it. He needs to get his own act together.
In April, the Brexit Secretary was confident that the European Banking Authority would be staying in London; now he cannot even guarantee that banks will have a right to trade with Europe. Last week, the Government voted down Labour amendments to protect workers’ rights. The Foreign Secretary has described employment regulation as “backbreaking”, and has repeatedly promised to “scrap the social chapter”. Why will not the Prime Minister guarantee workers’ rights—or does she agree with the Foreign Secretary on these matters?
The record is clear: this Government voted down our amendment to protect workers’ rights. The Environment Secretary said he wanted a “green Brexit”, but yet again Conservative MPs voted down Labour amendments to guarantee environmental protection.
On 5 December, the European Finance Ministers summit will address the issue of tax dodging, as exposed by the Paradise papers. There are three proposals on the table: blacklisting tax havens like Bermuda; new transparency rules for tax intermediaries; and mandatory country-by-country reporting for profit. Will the Prime Minister back those proposals, or is she still threatening to turn Britain into a tax haven?
I will take no lectures from the Labour party on dealing with tax avoidance and tax evasion—£160 billion more has been taken as a result of action taken by Conservatives in government; there are 75 new measures to deal with tax avoidance and tax evasion; and recently, I am pleased to say, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs won an important case on tax avoidance in the Supreme Court, which means a further £1 billion coming to the United Kingdom. The right hon. Gentleman may talk about tax avoidance and tax evasion; it is this Government who take action and make sure we collect it.
Order. Far too many Members on both sides of the House are gesticulating in a frenetic and, frankly, outlandish fashion. [Interruption.] Order. I say to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) that he should seek to imitate the Zen-like calm and statesmanship of the Father of the House.
I have much in common with Zen, Mr Speaker.
Seventeen months—[Interruption.] I understand that these days the Tory Whips are choreographing who shouts at whom in the Chamber—they are making a very bad job of it.
Seventeen months after the referendum, the Government say there can be no hard border, but have not worked out how. They say that they will protect workers’ rights but then vote against it. They say they will protect environmental rights but then vote against it. They promise action on tax avoidance, but vote against it time and time again. Once again, the Foreign Secretary has offered his opinion, as has the Environment Secretary, saying that “insufficient energy” is going into these Brexit negotiations—their words, not mine. Is not the truth that this Government have no energy, no agreed plan and no strategy to deliver a good Brexit for Britain?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about voting against tax avoidance measures, but it was the Labour party that refused to allow tax avoidance measures to go through in a Bill before we called the general election, so he should look at his own record.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about people having different opinions. I might remind him that on Monday, in the Bill—[Interruption] Perhaps the shadow Chancellor would like to listen to this. On Monday, when we were putting through that important piece of legislation on customs, taxation and Europe, 76 Labour MPs voted in a different Lobby from his and the Leader of the Opposition’s Front Benchers. The party in this Commons that has no clue on Brexit is the Labour party. But week in, week out, the right hon. Gentleman comes to this House and talks down our country and is pessimistic about our future. Well let me tell him that I am optimistic about our future. I am optimistic about the success we can make of Brexit. I am optimistic about the well-paid jobs that will be created. I am optimistic about the homes we will build. That is the Conservatives building a Britain fit for the future—all he offers is a blast from the past.
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that commitment. As she and others will know, we already have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and as we leave the EU, we should not only maintain, but enhance them. We have already set out our proposals to introduce mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses; to increase sentences for animal cruelty to five years; to ban microbeads, which damage marine life; and to ban the ivory trade to help bring an end to elephant poaching. We also recognise and respect the fact that animals are sentient beings and should be treated accordingly. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 provides protection for all animals capable of experiencing pain or suffering which are under the control of man. But I reaffirm to her that we will be ensuring that we maintain and enhance our animal welfare standards when we leave the EU.
Of course, we are seeing those two agencies leave the UK and go elsewhere in the European Union. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the number of jobs being created, and under this Government we have seen 3 million jobs being created. That is a record I would have thought even he would be willing to welcome.
But of course the Prime Minister refused to answer the question. Let me tell her, just so that she is aware of the cost of the hard Tory Brexit, that losing the EMA and EBA means losing more than 1,000 jobs. The Bank of England has told us that the City will lose 75,000 jobs. Jobs are already gone and jobs are going; Brexit is already biting. Will the Prime Minister recognise that exiting the EU is losing jobs and sector excellence from the UK?
I recognise, as I said, that those two agencies are leaving the UK. The right hon. Gentleman talks about numbers of jobs being lost, so I repeat: since the Conservatives came into government 3 million jobs have been created—that is 3 million more people in work. That is 3 million more people able to provide an income for themselves and their families.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He has campaigned strongly on the whole issue of housing, and on homelessness in particular. That approach is already taken by housing associations. As they are non-profit organisations, their surpluses are reinvested in the business, often in the next year. For example, in 2015-16 their investment in new and existing properties was more than double the surpluses they generated.
I recently announced an additional £2 billion of funding for affordable homes, including those for social rent. Last week, housing associations were reclassified to the private sector, taking £70 billion of debt off the country’s balance sheet and meaning greater certainty for housing associations in getting on with the job that my hon. Friend and I both want them to do, which is building more homes.
That is an important point for people not just in my hon. Friend’s constituency but elsewhere. We do want more homes to be built, because I want young people to have the prospect of the future that their parents and grandparents were able to have through owning their own homes. We will go further in building more homes, but she is absolutely right that, as we do that, we need to make sure that the infrastructure is in place. We are putting in billions of pounds from central Government for economic infrastructure in every year up to 2021. That includes transport projects and fibre broadband connections. We recognise the importance of making sure that homes are supported by the right infrastructure.
Far from the way in which the right hon. Lady has portrayed the situation, since 2010 we have seen 600,000 fewer people in absolute poverty—a record low—300,000 fewer working-age adults in absolute poverty, and 200,000 fewer children in absolute poverty. We have also seen families getting into work: there are nearly 1 million fewer workless households as a result of the actions of this Conservative Government.
I am very happy to confirm that to my hon. Friend. She will know that we are making progress on this in Scotland, but we need to go further. Programmes such as local full fibre networks and 5G will allocate funding directly to local projects, based on the quality of the bids put forward. The Minister for Digital, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), recently confirmed in the House that we will deliver the next generation of technology directly to local authorities in Scotland, rather than going through the Scottish Government. We will make sure that Scotland is not left behind.
I know this is an issue that a number of Members have been concerned about and I recognise that the result of the review was not what some Members and families were hoping for. It was a comprehensive, independent scientific review of the available evidence by experts. All the meetings of the expert working group were attended by Nick Dobrik, as an invited independent expert from the Thalidomide Trust and at the request of the patient group, the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests. I am informed that the overall conclusion is that the scientific evidence does not support a causal association, but that does not detract from the very real suffering experienced by the families. I recognise that these conclusions are hard to accept, but the Department of Health is focused on implementing the review’s recommendations which will strengthen detection and better communicate the risk of medicines during pregnancy.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I set out in my speech in Florence that the UK will honour the commitments we have made during our period of membership. We do not want our European partners to fear that they will have to receive less or pay more during the current budget plan as a result of our leaving the European Union, but we can only resolve the financial implications of the UK’s withdrawal as a part of the settlement of all the issues I spoke about in Florence. Once that is done, of course, the days of Britain paying vast sums of money to the EU every year will end.
The British Prime Minister does not appoint judges to the International Court of Justice. There is a process that is undertaken in the United Nations. We wish all the judges who have been appointed by the votes through the United Nations to the International Court of Justice well.
The point my hon. Friend raises is very important. Scotland had a referendum in 2014. That referendum was legal and fair, and the result was decisive: the people of Scotland voted clearly to remain part of the United Kingdom. At the election, they sent a message that they did not want a second referendum on this issue. I say to the Scottish Government, as we prepare to leave the EU, that they should be working with the UK Government to get the right deal for the whole of the UK, not taking Scotland back to the divisive constitutional debates of the past. I agree with my hon. Friend that the SNP should take its unwanted proposal off the table once and for all.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about steel. Of course, the Government have done a considerable amount over the last few years to support the steel industry here in the United Kingdom, and I was very pleased earlier in the year to visit and meet steelworkers to talk about the prospects for steel in the UK. We will, of course, look carefully to ensure that the arrangements in place are in the national interest, and we have supported steel in the past.
May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question from the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire)? Quite apart from commending the quality of the BBC programme she mentioned, may I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that global policy on drugs prohibition is beginning to change, in the face of the evidential failure of the policy since the 1961 UN single convention on narcotic drugs? Will she look at the evidence that will emerge from the United States and Canada on the legalisation and regulation of cannabis markets there, as well as decriminalisation in Portugal and elsewhere—
When I was Home Secretary, work was undertaken by the Home Office on the experience in a number of countries and the different ways they approached the issue of drugs, but I am afraid that I have a different opinion from my hon. Friend on drugs, as would those dealing with people affected by drugs. I think of my constituent Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, who set up DrugFAM after the suicide of her son, who was a drug addict. I think of the work she is doing with families affected because a family member is on drugs, and of the incredible damage it can do to families and the individuals concerned. I am sorry but I take a different view from him. It is right that we continue to fight the war against drugs.
We spend more than £50 billion a year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions—that has increased by more than £7 billion since 2010—and spending on disability benefits will be higher in every year to 2020 than in 2010. As regards universal credit, as I have said in the Chamber before, it is a simpler, more straightforward system, but, crucially, it is helping people to get into the workplace and making sure they keep more of the money they earn.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Leigh-on-Sea branch of the British Legion and local artists Beth Hooper and Mary Lister on using a lottery grant for school children in Southend to make 7,500 ceramic poppies and displaying them on Southend’s cliffs? Does she agree that that is a further good reason to make Southend-on-Sea a city?
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Leigh-on-Sea branch of the Royal British Legion on its work in ensuring that young people recognise the importance of remembrance and the sacrifices made by previous generations for our safety and security. As to his second point, he puts in a very interesting bid. I know that Southend-on-Sea is close to his heart and that he champions it all the time. I am sure that his bid will be looked at carefully.
My constituent Hayley Crawley is receiving palliative care for bowel cancer, and she needs a specialist cancer drug that is available for other cancers. She waited for months to hear that her case for funding had been rejected by NHS England, and we are now waiting again for a reply to her appeal. Please will the Prime Minister write to NHS England to ensure that Hayley’s case is treated as a priority?
Obviously I am aware that that will be causing distress to Hayley while she is waiting for the appeal decision, and I am sure that the Secretary of State for Health will look closely at the case that the hon. Lady has raised. We were of course able to introduce the Cancer Drugs Fund, which has allowed some patients to have access to drugs that would otherwise not be available, but I recognise the concern and distress from which the hon. Lady’s constituent will be suffering while she waits for the decision.
The Prime Minister will be aware that under President Mugabe, British citizens living in Zimbabwe, especially landowners, suffered considerably. Can she assure the House that as we see a new regime coming to Zimbabwe, the British Government will do all they can to persuade that new regime to treat British citizens living lawfully in that country with respect, and to give them the safety and security that they should have, along with all other Zimbabwean citizens?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point as we see that change taking place in Zimbabwe. I think that the resignation of Robert Mugabe gives Zimbabwe an opportunity to forge a new path, free from the oppression that has characterised the past. We want to see a democratic, free, secure Zimbabwe, where people across communities throughout Zimbabwe are able to lead their lives without fear and oppression, and we want to see the country rejoin the international community. We have obviously given Zimbabwe some support in the form of UK aid, and, as the country’s oldest friend, we will do everything we can to support its change into a country that is free and democratic, and free of all oppression for all communities.
Clean Air Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Geraint Davies, supported by Hilary Benn, Eleanor Smith, Tim Farron, Derek Thomas, Wera Hobhouse, John Mc Nally, Mr David Lammy, Sir Edward Davey, Rosie Duffield, Chris Evans and Preet Kaur Gill, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to set, measure, enforce and report on air quality targets; to make provision about mitigating air pollution, including through the use of clean air zones; to make provision about vehicle emissions testing; to restrict the approval and sale of vehicles with certain engine types; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 December, and to be printed (Bill 130).