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Volume 633: debated on Wednesday 20 December 2017

May I start by wishing all Members and staff a merry Christmas and a happy new year? I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in sending our warmest Christmas messages and wishes to all our armed forces who are stationed overseas. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for the sacrifices that they make on our behalf.

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.

In 2009, the Prime Minister said it was

“a tragedy that the number of children falling into the poverty cycle”

was “continuing to rise.” Every child deserves to have a roof over their head and food on the table, yet on her watch, in Wandsworth alone, the number of families forced to survive on food banks is continuing to rise, and 2,500 children—yes, children—will wake up homeless on Christmas day. So my question is simple: when will this austerity-driven Government say enough is enough and put an end to this tragedy?

The hon. Lady should note that, in fact, this Government have lifted hundreds of thousands of children out of absolute poverty. But it is important for all those who have heard her question to be aware of this: she talks of 2,500 children in Wandsworth waking up homeless on Christmas day; anybody hearing that will assume that what that means is that 2,500 children will be sleeping on our streets. It does not. [Interruption.] It does not mean that. [Interruption.]

Order. Hon. and right hon. Members are accustomed to these exchanges taking somewhat longer. So be it. The questions will be heard, and the answers from the Prime Minister will be heard. I am in no hurry at all.

It is important that we are clear about this for all those who hear these questions because, as we all know, families with children who are accepted as homeless will be provided with accommodation. I would also point out to Opposition Members that statutory homelessness is lower now than it was for most of the period of the last Labour Government.

Q4. Perhaps I could draw my right hon. Friend away from Brexit, which is about to crop up, I suspect. I believe it is common knowledge that the Conservative party is the party that strives to protect our green belt. It was therefore a shock to me and a vast number of my constituents in the Guildford wards of Mole Valley when Guildford Borough Council submitted its draft local plan. The council seeks to build 57% of the houses in its plan on green belt. Does my right hon. Friend agree that local authorities should focus their imaginations on developing buildings of sufficient height, density and imagination on brownfield sites, not green belt? (903051)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue on behalf of his constituents. As he will know, a local authority may alter a green belt boundary only in exceptional circumstances. In our housing White Paper, we were very clear that this means

“when they…have examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting…identified development”

needs. Of course, that includes looking at and building on brownfield sites. In the case of Guildford, I understand that the local plan was submitted for examination earlier this month, and of course it will be examined by an independent inspector for soundness in due course. I can assure my hon. Friend that he is absolutely right that we want to ensure that green belt is protected.

Could I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, to wish you, all Members of the House, all our public servants and all our armed forces a very happy Christmas and all best wishes for 2018?

I pay tribute to our very hard-working national health service staff, many of whom, unlike us, will not get a break this Christmas. Is the Prime Minister satisfied that the national health service has the resources it needs this winter?

First of all, I join the right hon. Gentleman in his comments about those NHS staff who will not get a break a Christmas and will be working very hard. Of course, it is not only our NHS staff who will be working hard this Christmas; it is also those in our emergency services and many others who go to work on Christmas day so that others can enjoy their Christmas day. We thank all of them.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about preparations for winter. I can say this to him:

“The health service has prepared more extensively for this winter than ever before. These plans are helping to ensure safe, timely care for patients”.

As it happens, those are not my words—they are the words of the chief executive of NHS Providers.

Well, Simon Stevens did say that the NHS needs £4 billion next year just to stand still, and the reality is that the Government have given the NHS less than half of what he asked for.

The Prime Minister talks about the money that the NHS needs, but 50,000 people were left waiting on trolleys in hospital corridors last month. Last week, more ambulances were diverted to other hospitals because of A&E pressures, and 12,000 patients were kept waiting in the back of ambulances because there was no room at the A&E. So I ask the Prime Minister again: has the NHS got the resources it needs this winter to deal with this crisis?

The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that NHS funding is at record levels, and in the autumn Budget we put some extra funding into the NHS for this winter, in addition to the £6.3 billion extra that is going into the NHS over the coming years.

Time and time again, the right hon. Gentleman comes to this House and complains about what is happening in the health service. Can I just tell the House what is happening in the health service? We see now 7 million more diagnostic tests than seven years ago, 2.2 million more people getting operations, and survival rates for cancer at their highest ever level. Those are figures, but what does that mean? It means more people getting the treatment they need. It means more elderly people getting their hip operations. And it means that today there are nearly 6,500 people alive who would not have been if we had not improved our cancer care.

In the first three weeks of this winter, 30,000 patients were left waiting in the back of ambulances for more than half an hour. These delays risk lives. If the NHS had the resources it needed, we would expect it to be meeting its key treatment and waiting time targets. Can the Prime Minister give us a cast-iron pledge that all those targets will be met in 2018?

In 2018, we are looking, yes, to improve the standard of care that we provide in our health service, and to ensure that we improve on the figures that I have just given the right hon. Gentleman so that more people are treated in our health service and we have better survival rates for cancer. That is why we have been putting the extra money into the national health service. But it is not just about putting extra money into the national health service; it is about the proper integration of health and social care at grassroots level. That is what the sustainability and transformation partnerships in many areas are about—opposed by the Labour party. That is why we have lifted the cap so that there are more nurse training places—opposed by the Labour party. It is about ensuring that our NHS has the staff and the capability to deliver the first-class, world-class service that is our NHS. We should be proud of our NHS. We are, and we are going to make it even better.

A&E waiting time targets have not been met for two and a half years. Cancer treatment targets have not been met for two years. Our A&E departments are bursting at the seams because the Government have failed to ensure that people can get a GP appointment when they need one. The Government promised to recruit an extra 5,000 GPs by 2020. Where are they?

We are seeing more training places for our GPs. The right hon. Gentleman talks about A&E, and if he wants to look at targets, let us talk about what has happened in Wales. The standard on A&E in Wales was last met in 2008. Let me just think: which party is in government in Wales? Is it the Conservatives? No, it is the Labour party. On cancer care, the standard was last met in June 2008 in Wales. The right hon. Gentleman should look at what the Labour party is actually delivering before he comes to this House and complains.

The Welsh Government rely on a block grant from England that has been cut by 5% to 2020. Despite that, 85.5% of cancer patients in Wales start their treatment within 62 days, which is a rate higher than that achieved in England.

My question was about GPs. Perhaps the Prime Minister is not aware that there are 1,000 fewer GPs than there were on the day she became Prime Minister. It is not only the lack of GPs; another issue that is driving people into A&Es is the £6 billion of cuts made to social care budgets. Some 2.3 million older people have unmet care needs. Does the Prime Minister regret the fact that the Chancellor—he is sitting right next to her—did not put one penny in his Budget into social care?

We put £2 billion of extra money into social care in the spring Budget. The right hon. Gentleman started his question by referencing the record of the last Labour Government on health. The last Labour Government’s NHS legacy was described as a “mess”, and we are clearing that up and putting more money into the NHS. Who described Labour’s NHS legacy as a “mess”? It was the right hon. Gentleman. When he is running for leader, he denounces the Labour party, but now he is leader of the Labour party he is trying to praise it.

I can quote something the Prime Minister might be familiar with:

“If government wants to reduce the pressures on the health service and keep people out of hospital in the first place, then it needs to tackle the chronic underfunding of care and support services in the community, which are at a tipping point.”

Who said that? Izzi Seccombe, the Conservative leader of Warwickshire County Council.

The question was on social care, but the issue is about the NHS as a whole. It is there to provide care and dignity for all if they fall ill, but our NHS goes into this winter in crisis: nurses and other workers—no pay rise for years; NHS targets—not met for years; staff shortages; and GP numbers falling. The reality is mental health budgets have been cut, social care budgets have been cut and public health budgets have been cut. The Prime Minister today has shown just how out of touch she is. The truth is our NHS is being recklessly—I repeat, recklessly—put at risk by her Government. That is the truth.

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong because NHS funding has gone up. He is wrong because social care funding has gone up. But not that long ago, he was saying that he would be Prime Minister by Christmas. Well, he was wrong; I am, and the Conservatives are in government. Not that long ago, he said we would not deliver on phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations. Well, he was wrong; we have made sufficient progress and we are moving on to phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations. And not that long ago, he predicted that the Budget would be a failure; in fact, the Budget was a success, and it is delivering more money for our national health service. Labour—wrong, wrong, wrong; Conservatives—in government, delivering on Brexit, with a Budget for homes and the health service: Conservatives delivering a Britain fit for the future.

Q7. Gloucestershire College is building a brand-new campus in my constituency, made possible by millions of pounds of Government support. May I thank the Prime Minister for that investment, and does it not show that this is a Government committed to investing in the skills necessary to make this an economy and a country fit for the future? (903054)

I am very pleased to welcome the development that is taking place in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, and I am also pleased to agree with him—I know he believes very strongly in this—on the importance of skills and training for the future; and that is a good commitment of this Government. It is more important than ever that people in this country are developing the skills they need to get the highly skilled, well-paid jobs of the future. That is what we are doing with our money going into technical education, and the college in his constituency will play an important part in that.

May I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, all Members, staff and of course our armed forces and emergency personnel a merry Christmas and a good new year when it comes? We also, I am sure, wish for a peaceful election tomorrow in Catalonia.

In 2013, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, when reflecting on his position in representing the majority interest in the Royal Bank of Scotland on the departure of its then chief executive, said that

“of course my consent and approval was sought.”

Was the Government right to intervene in the departure of the chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland?

Obviously, decisions have been taken in the past in relation to Royal Bank of Scotland; the key decision was taken at the time of the financial crisis in relation to the support that the Government provided to Royal Bank of Scotland. If the right hon. Gentleman is going to raise branch closures, as he did last week, I am afraid I have to tell him that he will get the same answer as he got last week. This is a commercial decision for Royal Bank of Scotland, but the Government do ensure, through the protocol that is in place and the work that has been done with the Post Office to provide extra services, that services are available for people.

It is supposed to be Prime Minister’s questions; the Prime Minister is supposed to at least try to answer the question. If it was right in 2013 for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to intervene on the departure of the chief executive officer, then of course it is quite right that the Government shoulder their responsibilities when the last 13 branches in town are going to be closed in Scotland. Prime Minister, show some leadership: stand up for our communities. Bring Ross McEwan into 10 Downing Street and tell him that you are going to stand up for the national interest and stop these bank closures.

The decision on individual bank branches is, of course, an operational decision for the bank. The right hon. Gentleman talks about standing up for communities and standing up for people across Scotland. I have to say to him, that is a bit rich, coming from an SNP which, in government in Scotland, is going to increase taxes for 1.2 million Scots. The Conservative Government are reducing tax for 2.4 million Scots. There is only one clear message to people in Scotland: “Conservatives back you; SNP tax you.” [Interruption.]

Order. I wish the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) and his hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) all the best for their wedding on Friday of this week, which I look forward to attending.

Q9. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I look forward to seeing you there. I am sure the Prime Minister agrees that defence of the realm and the protection of our people is the first duty of the Government. Would she further agree that any future Government who failed to support our armed forces, who wanted to abolish our nuclear deterrent and who sympathised with terrorists, would endanger our security as well as placing hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk up and down the country, as well as 12,000 in my constituency? (903056)

Mr Speaker, I join you in congratulating my hon. Friends on their forthcoming wedding, which unfortunately, because of my travels, I will not be able to attend. I wish them all the very best.

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, and I absolutely agree with him that defence is the first duty of the Government. That is why we are committed to our NATO pledge to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence every year. We have a £36 billion defence budget, which will rise to almost £40 billion by 2020-21, and we are spending £178 billion on equipment over the next 10 years. He is absolutely right: a party like the one opposite, which wants to get rid of our nuclear deterrent, cut our armed forces and pull out of NATO, would not strengthen our defences; it would weaken them.

Q2. The Prime Minister will be aware of the strong affection and support for Gibraltar across this House. In the light of the guidelines published this morning, will she give a commitment not to enter into any agreement with the European Union that excludes Gibraltar from the transitional or implementation arrangements and periods? (903049)

We and the EU have been clear that Gibraltar is covered by the withdrawal agreement and our article 50 exit negotiations. Just to confirm what I said on Monday, as we negotiate this, we will be negotiating to ensure the relationships are there for Gibraltar as well. We are not going to exclude Gibraltar from our negotiations for either the implementation period or the future agreement. I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance.

Q12. As the Prime Minister will be aware, dairy is very important for growing children and as part of a healthy diet. The sector is integral to Great British food and drink. As the chairman of the dairy all-party parliamentary group, may I ask whether she will support our campaign next year to rebrand milk, to ask supermarkets to include it as part of their meal deal selections and as part of a healthy diet to promote drinking milk in schools? Will she join me this Christmas in raising a glass to our fabulous dairy farmers? (903059)

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in commending the work of our dairy farmers. He talks about the importance of dairy. He is, rightly, a great advocate for rural issues. It is one of the most efficient, innovative and high-quality dairy industries in the EU. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary will be very happy to discuss the particular points he raises, but I join him in recognising the importance of our dairy industry.

Q3. Eight European countries, plus Australia and Canada, have introduced drug consumption rooms. The result has been a reduction in the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, and a reduction in crime. It is also worth noting that while drug-related deaths have in the past four years continued to increase in the UK, there has never been a drug overdose in a supervised drug consumption room. In the interests of public health, will the Prime Minister introduce DCRs in the United Kingdom, or, if not, will she devolve the relevant powers to the Scottish Parliament, so that the Scottish Government can do so? (903050)

First, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Home Office recently published the Government’s updated drugs strategy. I have a different opinion to some Members of this House. Some are very liberal in their approach to the way that drugs should be treated. I am very clear that we should recognise the damage that drugs do to people’s lives. Our aim should be to ensure that people come off drugs, do not go on drugs in the first place and keep clear of drugs. That is what we should focus on.

Q14. May I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for listening to me so carefully on issues relating to women’s health and in particular pregnancy, including Primodos, valproate and mesh implants, all of which have been raised by my constituents? Like my right hon. Friend, they feel very strongly about tackling female health issues and are very grateful to be heard. Will she assure me that she will continue to listen, so that women do not feel they are left behind or forgotten when it comes to health equality? (903061)

I was very happy to meet my hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members to discuss these important issues that have a real impact on women’s lives. Women want answers to what has happened, and I can assure her that the Government and I will continue to listen on these issues. We will continue to look to see what we can do to ensure that women do not suffer in the way that they have in the past. We will keep that clear focus on women’s health.

Q5. Mr Speaker, happy Christmas. Last year, the Prime Minister told the Radio Times that on Christmas day she likes to prepare and cook her own goose. In the spirit of Christmas, may I suggest that to extract the maximum pleasure from the messy job of stuffing her goose, she names it either Michael or Boris? [Interruption.] (903052)

On Thursday last week, there was a very important local referendum in Christchurch. The result was that 84% of the people of Christchurch want to keep it as an independent sovereign borough and are against its abolition. [Interruption.]

Order. I cannot understand this atmosphere. I want to hear about the views of the good burghers of Christchurch.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Government respect the views of the people of Christchurch and give sufficient time—indeed, extra time—for the council to draw up alternative proposals that properly reflect the wishes of the people of Christchurch?

As my hon. Friend obviously knows, being very close to this, local councils have been considering this issue over a significant period, as has the Department for Communities and Local Government.

As an hon. Friend says from a sedentary position, other councils in the area support a change to the governance structure. Of course, DCLG will be looking very carefully at the views of the councils to ensure that the best result is achieved for the people of Dorset.

Order. It might be moderately good natured, but nevertheless it is disruptive. The hon. Lady is entitled to be heard. For as long as she is in the House and I am in the Chair, she will be heard, and that is the end of it.

We in North West Durham have some of the very best schools, but whatever the new funding formula, they are dealing with deficits after years of real-terms cuts and feeling the corrosive effect of academisation. On collaboration, school staff are working for longer for less pay. Please, Prime Minister, do not say there is more money in our schools. The fact remains that a significant proportion of schools in North West Durham will see totally unjust reductions in their funding. We have run out of ways to meet the Government’s cuts. Will she tell us what they should do next?

The hon. Lady asks me not to say that there is more money going into our schools, but of course there is more money going into our schools. That is the reality. The figures are that funding for our schools will rise by over £1.4 billion next year and almost £1.2 billion the year after, and we have protected the pupil premium, which is worth nearly £2.5 billion to support those who need it most. If we listen to the Labour party, education seems only to be about the amount of money put in, but actually parents are looking at the quality of education provided, and I notice that there is an increase of over 12,000 children in the County Durham local authority now in good or outstanding schools. That is because of this Government.

The year 2017 has been an excellent one for Fareham College: rated outstanding by Ofsted, shortlisted by The Times Educational Supplement for college of the year and successful in its bid to the local enterprise partnership to deliver its civil engineering provision. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing the principal and his staff a happy Christmas, congratulating them on supporting our young people into work and—because it is Christmas—creating a Britain fit for the future?

I am very happy not only to send Christmas wishes to the principal, staff and students at Fareham College, but to congratulate them on working hard to achieve such excellent results. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about ensuring that young people have the skills, training and education they need for the jobs of the future. It is about building a Britain fit for the future.

Q8. For many terminally ill people on universal credit, this will be their last Christmas. Does the Prime Minister agree that it can never be appropriate for terminally ill people to be forced to meet work coaches or to fit into an arbitrary six-month prognosis to claim support? Will she listen—finally—to the experts at the Motor Neurone Disease Association and Macmillan CAB and remove these conditions to allow these people some dignity as they, with their families, face the end of their lives? (903055)

The hon. Gentleman is right that we have to deal with cases where somebody has a terminal illness with the utmost sensitivity. These issues have been raised before. The conditions and principles applied to terminally ill people claiming universal credit are in fact the same as those for people claiming employment and support allowance, and have remained the same for successive Governments. A number of approaches can be taken, and there are several options for how people progress through the system, but he is right that we should deal with terminally ill people with sensitivity. That is what the system intends to do.

This morning I met Liam Allan, the young student whose life was put on hold for two years and who had to endure torture until his case collapsed last week. This week another case collapsed because of a lack of disclosure. Does the Prime Minister agree that when allegations are made there should be a full investigation, and that full disclosure should be made to the Crown Prosecution Service and to both lawyers?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. The issue of disclosure has come to a focus of concern as a result of the case that he has cited and, I understand, another case which is in the press today. I can tell him that, even before these cases arose, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General had initiated a review of disclosure. I think it important that we look at the issue again to ensure that we are truly providing justice.

Q10. According to the Prime Minister’s own Social Mobility Commission, social mobility in Britain is stalling, and for many it is “getting worse not better.” According to her former chief of staff, the social mobility action plan released last week was “disappointing. Full of jargon but short on meaningful policies, it would have been better left unpublished.”Does she agree with him? (903057)

The social mobility action plan

“will play an important role in enabling less advantaged young people to get on in life.”

That is not what I have said; it is what the Sutton Trust has said, and the Sutton Trust has a fine record in helping disadvantaged young people to get on in life. If the hon. Lady wants some more quotes, the Association of Colleges has said:

“The plan sets out an ambitious agenda to tackle longstanding and deep-seated inequalities which the education system struggles to overcome.”

It is a good plan, and it will make a real difference to young people’s lives.

Order. This is very discourteous, and very unfair on the hon. Gentleman. Let us hear the fella.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As I was saying, in the 1980s Mrs Thatcher famously asked why, if Vietnam was so wonderful, millions of people were getting into boats to leave it. With that in mind, may I ask my right hon. Friend, as she enters the second phase of the Brexit negotiations, “If World Trade Organisation rules are so wonderful, why do so many countries seek WTO trade agreements?”

Of course countries around the world can trade. The question is, on what terms are they trading? We want to see a free trade agreement negotiated with the European Union. We also want to see free trade agreements negotiated with countries around the rest of the world. We are believers in free trade, because we believe that it brings growth, prosperity, jobs and a secure future to this country.

Q11. May I wish the Prime Minister a merry Christmas? As she sits down to her Christmas dinner, will she spare a thought for the 1 million youngsters who, the Children’s Society calculates, are set to lose their school dinners because of the Government’s universal credit plans? In the season of good will, why does she not offer to fix that? (903058)

I wish the hon. Gentleman a merry Christmas too, and a happy new year. In fact, the introduction of the Government’s proposed arrangements for free school meals under universal credit will lead to more children having access to them.

May I wish you and everyone else a very happy Christmas, Mr Speaker?

Does not Michel Barnier’s claim that UK banks will lose their passporting rights post-Brexit—as opposed to the Bank of England’s statement that EU banks will be able to continue to operate here—vindicate my right hon. Friend’s principled and strong stance in negotiating reciprocity for EU and UK citizens?

We value the important role that the City of London plays, not just as a financial centre for Europe but as a financial centre for the world, and we want to retain and maintain that. Mr Barnier has made a number of comments recently about the opening negotiating position of the European Union. Both the Bank of England and the Treasury have today set out reassurance about ensuring that banks will be able to continue to operate and the City of London will continue to retain its global position. That will, however, be part of the negotiations on phase 2 of Brexit, and we are very clear about how important it is.

Q13. Mr and Mrs Walker from Great Harwood in my constituency have a son with learning difficulties. In August, Mr Walker was knocked down by a driver who was over the limit, had taken drugs, had no lights and was speeding. Mr Walker is 69, and he is now quadriplegic. He is not entitled to the personal independence payment, he cannot access Motability, and he and Mrs Walker are now paying £400 per calendar month for a hire car. I wrote to the Department for Work and Pensions about this case on 21 November and have not heard a reply. It is shocking that this country and this Government cannot look after the elderly and the disabled. Will the Prime Minister look into this case urgently? (903060)

First, may I give our best wishes to Mr Walker and his family and say how sorry we are to hear of what has befallen him? The hon. Gentleman references a letter to the DWP and I will ensure that case is investigated and he receives a response.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the work of Fortalice, which has provided domestic abuse support in Bolton for 40 years? Will she consider under the current reforms the benefits of a new funding structure for domestic abuse refuges separate from the supported housing sector, so that refuges can continue to deliver their specialist support?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the question of refuges, and I am also very happy to join him in praising the work of Fortalice and services like it across the country. He mentions the reforms that we are putting in place. Indeed, that is because we feel that at the moment the system is not responsive to the needs of vulnerable women in local areas. That is why we want to put the funding in the hands of local authorities, but bring in new oversight to make sure we are delivering the right support for the right people. It is trying to ensure that we are focusing the support on those who need it and that the system is more responsive to the needs of vulnerable women.

Q15. The inappropriate treatment of smaller businesses by the Royal Bank of Scotland destroyed businesses, ripped families apart and saw people take their own lives. RBS is owned by the Government, so will the Prime Minister set up the full independent inquiry which is needed to deliver justice for the victims? (903062)

My understanding is that this issue is being properly looked into. Of course, I recognise the concerns that have been expressed by the hon. Gentleman, and indeed will have been expressed by other Members of this House, and the Government are looking into that.

Does the Prime Minister share my dismay that the Scottish National party Government are planning on raising taxes on hard-working Scots when they could raise the same amount, if not more, by just getting their own house in order and improving efficiencies?

What the Scottish Government are proposing means that there are 1.2 million Scots earning over £26,000 who will be paying more tax than people in England. [Interruption.] I was not aware of the fact that my hon. Friend has given this House, which is very important—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Prime Minister, but may I ask her to face the House, because some of us cannot hear fully, and I would like to hear fully?

I was making the point that my hon. Friend has made an important addition to the knowledge of this House, which is that if the SNP Government got their own house in order, they could save the same amount of money that they will be raising by raising taxes, and not put that extra tax burden on people earning over £26,000.

In light of the very loose, inaccurate and misrepresentative language coming from politicians outside Northern Ireland who should know better, will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to repeat to the House and the public in Northern Ireland—both sides of the community—the well established three-stranded approach to Northern Ireland, which makes it clear that the internal arrangements and decisions on Northern Ireland are a matter for the United Kingdom Government and the parties in Northern Ireland?

I am very happy to make that clear to the right hon. Gentleman, and to confirm what he says. We are very clear about the position and the decisions that will be taken about Northern Ireland. What we of course want to see is a Northern Ireland Executive restored so that devolved decisions can be taken by that Northern Ireland Executive. The right hon. Gentleman also wants to see that Executive restored, and we will continue to work with his party and other parties across all communities to see that happen.

As one of the signatories to amendment 400 to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, may I seek an assurance from the Prime Minister that its provisions to change the date of our leaving the EU will be invoked only in extremely exceptional circumstances, if at all, and only for a very short period?

I am happy to give my right hon. Friend and others that reassurance. We are very clear that we will be leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 at 11 pm. The Bill that is going through does not determine that the UK leaves the EU; that is part of the article 50 process and a matter of international law. It is important that we have the same position legally as the European Union, which is why we have accepted the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), but I can assure my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and the House the we would use that power only in exceptional circumstances for the shortest possible time, and that an affirmative motion would be brought to the House.

The Government, the Ministry of Justice, NHS England and the Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust should be thoroughly ashamed of their part in the national disgrace that is HMP Liverpool. Will the Prime Minister assure the whole House that those responsible for the deplorable conditions, for the lack of care and harm that has led to the suicide of some prisoners, and for the harm that has been caused to staff and prisoners will be held to account, that proper disciplinary action will be taken, and that they will not be allowed simply to move to other jobs? We need accountability for this tragedy.

As I understand it, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) said yesterday that he expects the report on HMP Liverpool to be published early in the new year. I understand that a number of actions have been taken, including changes to prison management. Overall, of course, we are increasing frontline staff in our prisons by putting more money into that, and we are increasing the support available to vulnerable offenders, especially during the first 24 hours of custody. We have also invested more in mental health awareness training for prison officers. But of course my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary will look carefully at the report when it is published.

I am sorry if I was keeping the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) awake, or perhaps he has some other pressing business. I want to hear the fella!

And a merry Christmas to you as well, Mr Speaker.

The Prime Minister has just given an assurance that amendment 400 will be used only in extremis and for a very short period of time. May I press her to be more specific? Will she assure the House that if the power is used at all, it will be used only for a matter of weeks, or for a couple of months at most? There is a concern that it could indefinitely extend our stay in the EU.

I thank my hon. Friend for seeking further clarification on that point. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, we are going to leave on 29 March 2019. That is what we are working to, but we want to ensure that we have the same legal position as the European Union, which is why amendment 400, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, has been accepted. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay that, if that power were to be used, it would be only in extremely exceptional circumstances and for the shortest possible time. We are not talking about extensions—[Interruption.]

Order. We would hear better if the Prime Minister faced the House, but we would also hear better if Members did not keep wittering from a sedentary position. Let us have a new year’s resolution that there will be an end to sedentary chuntering, wittering and hollering.

Mr Speaker, I apologise for not facing the Opposition, but I was hoping to ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay heard my response. I can assure him that we are talking about the shortest possible time, should that power be used. I am clear that we are leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019.

Last Friday, Jo Cox’s sister Kim, the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) and I published the Jo Cox loneliness commission manifesto. Will the Prime Minister join us in urging everybody to look out over Christmas for neighbours, family and friends who are struggling with the pain of loneliness? Will the Government also play their part by publishing a strategy on loneliness and by responding fully to our recommendations in the new year?

I know that the hon. Lady has worked extremely hard on this important issue together with my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). We are getting more and more awareness of the impact of loneliness on people, and we all recognise that social isolation is an issue. The matter is of importance to the Government, and we are looking at a number of things that we can do to help reduce loneliness. However, this is not just about what the Government can do; as the hon. Lady says, it is about what communities and neighbours can do. In my constituency of Maidenhead, I am pleased to say that the churches work together on Christmas day to bring elderly people who would otherwise be on their own together for a community lunch. That is just one small example of what we can all do in our communities to help to overcome the problem of loneliness.

It is very welcome that the Prime Minister is taking personal charge of building the homes that this country needs, which is such an important social justice issue for our country’s future. How does the Prime Minister see our doing that at the necessary scale and speed?

My hon. Friend is right that we need to build more homes and that we need to build them at scale. I am pleased to say that we saw 217,000 new homes built last year, which is a level of house building that has not been seen, apart from in one year, over the past 30 years, but we need to go further. That is why we have proposed several changes in terms of support for affordable housing, for councils and for people trying to get their foot on the housing ladder. We are also working with local authorities in a number of ways to ensure that land is released and that builders build out the planning permissions that they have.

Order. That was not a very seasonal response from the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) from a sedentary position. I expect better of the hon. Gentleman.

Thank you for your characteristic greeting, Mr Speaker. I wish everyone a merry Christmas, especially the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson).

The Prime Minister will be aware that NHS England has extended the deadline for its consultation on the allocation of radiotherapy services into the new year. Will she therefore take this opportunity to ensure that one of the criteria is shortening the distances that people have to travel—travel time has a massive impact on outcomes—so that people who live in places such as south Cumbria can access this life-saving, utterly urgent treatment safely and quickly?

We are of course all aware of the need to ensure not only that people are able to access the treatment that they need, but that they can access it in an appropriate way. We recognise that in some rural areas that means travelling longer distances than in other parts of the country. As the hon. Gentleman says, there is a consultation, and NHS England will be looking closely at the issues. I am sure that he will have made representations.