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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 634: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2018

Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Local Authorities: Voting Services

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that local authorities have sufficient resources to deliver an effective service for voters at elections. (903186)

Before I answer the hon. Lady’s question, Mr Speaker, I hope that you will allow me briefly to thank and pay tribute to my predecessors in these roles, in particular my right hon. Friends the Members for Ashford (Damian Green) and for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin). They have done great service for their constituents, this House and their country during their time in office and I want to put my thanks to them on the record. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for the work that they did in the Cabinet Office before moving on to other responsibilities.

The Electoral Commission’s report shows that, overall, the 2017 general election was successfully delivered by a committed community of electoral administrators. We work with the commission, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Association of Electoral Administrators to ensure that returning officers are effectively supported to run polls.

I thank the Minister for that response and welcome him to his new role. As well as the snap general election last year, my local authority of Rochdale Borough Council presided over the Greater Manchester Combined Authority mayoral elections, for which it received no central funding, which is surprising considering that one of the Mayor’s functions is to replace the police and crime commissioner’s role, which did receive central funding. What action will the Government take to help local authorities such as mine to deliver well-run elections for these new roles?

The responsibility of the Cabinet Office lies in reimbursing local authority returning officers for the costs incurred in the administration of national elections. The responsibility lies with local authorities for the costs arising out of local elections. Local authority resources will be more than £200 billion over the current spending review period, including real-terms increases for both 2018-19 and 2019-20.

May I be the first Member also from the 1992 intake to offer my right hon. Friend congratulations on his latest appointment? Is he aware of the landmark ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States, which has said that the boundary changes in North Carolina are unconstitutional and gerrymandering? Will he join me in praising the work of the boundary commissions—despite their appalling recommendations for Lichfield—for at least being transparent, quasi-judicial and non-partisan?

It has always been an accepted strength of our constitutional arrangements that we have a parliamentary boundary commission for each part of the United Kingdom that is wholly independent of party politics and party influence. I hope, therefore, that all parties in this House will rally behind the recommendations of the parliamentary boundary commissions.

On behalf of Opposition Front Benchers, I welcome the Minister to his new role.

The chair of the Electoral Commission has warned that our electoral system is facing a “perfect storm” due to funding pressures, and 43% of local authority election teams have experienced real-terms cuts since 2010. Will the Minister outline why the Government’s democratic engagement plan fails to address these concerns, and will he ensure that a full and comprehensive review of the delivery and funding of electoral services is implemented as a matter of urgency?

I thank the hon. Lady for welcoming me to my new responsibilities. I repeat to her what I said in my initial response: the Electoral Commission concluded that, although there were problems in a number of specified constituencies, overall the 2017 general election was successfully delivered. The Government are committed to strengthening our electoral processes. As part of that, we are planning to run pilot schemes in a number of local authorities later this year to test requirements for voters to present ID before voting. We will look seriously at recommendations to us from the Electoral Commission on these matters.

Electoral Registration Process

2. What steps the Government are taking to maintain the security and integrity of the electoral registration process. (903187)

Every application to the electoral register is now subject to identity verification checks, making our system more secure than before. In late December, the Government laid draft legislation aimed at further improving the registration process, including addressing recommendations from the Pickles review of electoral fraud.

Last month, a 21-year-old man was convicted of voting twice—first by post, and then by varying his name and voting in person. He then bragged about it on Twitter. I understand that more than 1,000 similar complaints are being dealt with by the Electoral Commission, mostly relating to students. What steps are the Government taking to deal with this distortion of our democracy?

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns and am glad that he has brought those examples to light. I understand that, following the examination of these reports—or perhaps of reports other than those to which he refers—the Electoral Commission has stated that there is

“a lack of evidence of widespread abuse.”

None the less, we will continue to work with the police and the Electoral Commission to reduce the risk of double voting.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her position. Does she agree that the electoral process, particularly in Northern Ireland, was severely corrupted some eight months ago by thousands upon thousands of proxy vote applications? The previous Member for Foyle, Mr Mark Durkan, lost his seat as a result of thousands of proxy vote applications that were approved without any electoral or photographic identification.

I struggled to hear the hon. Gentleman owing to some noises off. As he knows, and as he knows I know, the electoral system in Northern Ireland is devolved. I am sure that my new ministerial colleagues at the Northern Ireland Office will be taking his concerns very seriously and working with the devolved Administration, where appropriate, to look into them.

I, too, welcome the Front Benchers to their new responsibilities. I am delighted to see the strong team in the Cabinet Office.

Is the Minister giving any consideration to restricting registration for national elections to one address, which may help with the problem of double voting raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen)?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her views. I refer to the breadth of the Pickles review of electoral fraud, which gave us the basis for a number of reforms of our electoral system, all designed to reduce fraud and improve security. In that context, I will look carefully at all its recommendations. As you will know, Mr Speaker, the Government have already accepted and will be moving forward with a number of them. I would be delighted to discuss any issue further with my right hon. Friend.

One of the ways in which the Government could look to give more security to the electoral register is by moving to automatic registration when national insurance numbers are given out. Will the Minister comment on the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), which would resolve any issues with individual registrations?

I am very well aware of the arguments, although I confess that at this point, 24 hours into my role, I have not yet had a chance to study that particular private Member’s Bill. I shall be happy to do that and take up the conversation from that point.

May I, too, welcome the Minister to her post? She is the fourth I have had the privilege of facing in the past two years.

The biggest threat to the integrity of the electoral registration process is the fact that millions of our citizens are not on the electoral register. All the Minister’s predecessors promised that they would bring forward proposals to address this problem. We were told that there would be a plan at Easter last year, then in the summer, then in December, but still nothing. When will she bring forward proposals to make sure that we can increase the number of people on the register?

The hon. Gentleman will know that in fact we have near-record levels of participation in our democracy. Voter turnout has risen. The completeness and accuracy of the electoral register have improved. There have been 30 million new registrations to vote since the introduction of IER—individual electoral registration—in 2014. Seventy-five per cent. of those used the “Register to vote” website, which I am sure he will agree is an important reform. The electoral register for the 2017 general election reached a record level of over 46 million electors. I do not agree with his assessment.

Government Contracts: SMEs

3. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises can access opportunities to secure Government contracts. (903188)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and hon. Members for that very warm welcome.

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and this Government are committed to supporting them in securing Government contracts. To that end, we have already streamlined our procurement processes to assist small businesses. Our small business panel is working to improve accessibility of Government contracts, and we continue to focus on breaking down the barriers that might deter SMEs.

I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome him to his position. He will know that many small businesses are put off trying to get contracts by the amount of information they need to supply and the bureaucracy they have to go through. What more can the Government do to reduce that bureaucracy and amount of information?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. It really is vital that small businesses can access Government contracts as simply as possible, so to achieve this we have already taken action to ensure that bidding processes are simplified across the public sector, with complex pre-qualification questionnaires abolished for low-value contracts. We will continue to look at ways to reduce burdens for business, particularly small businesses.

Given what the Minister has said, what information does he have that there has actually been an increase in the number of small and medium-sized businesses accessing Government contracts?

I would point to three pieces of information: direct spend with SMEs is up 80% since the Conservatives came to power in the coalition in 2010; more small businesses than ever are bidding for Government business; and the Government now spend about £5.6 billion directly with SMEs.

As a fellow Hertfordshire MP, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on his well-deserved new role? Does he agree that it may be possible for prime contractors with Government contracts to do more to bring in small and medium-sized businesses, particularly in specialist areas, where Hertfordshire is of course so strong?

I thank my right hon. and learned Hertfordshire Friend for his welcome. He raises an important point. There are two aspects of this: there is the direct spend—as I have said, it is about £5.6 billion—but we also need to ensure that we get spend into contracts lower down, with people who have Government contracts then spending with small businesses, which is something we are committed to doing as a Government.

Too often, rather than outsourcing to SMEs, very large companies are employed. In this respect, despite being under investigation by the Financial Conduct Authority and reportedly having debts of £1.5 billion, the massive outsourcing company Carillion remains a major supplier in terms of Government procurement. If it were to collapse, it would risk massive damage to a range of public services. Do the Government have a contingency plan for such an eventuality, and what is the likely cost to the taxpayer?

As the hon. Gentleman would expect, we of course make contingency plans for all eventualities. If I could briefly update the House, Carillion, as Members will know, is a major supplier to the Government, with a number of long-term contracts. We are committed to maintaining a healthy supplier market and working closely with our key suppliers. I can tell the House that Carillion’s operational performance has continued to be positive. For example, it advanced its work on Crossrail over the Christmas period.

The truth is that the Minister has failed to answer the central question. The Government have been outsourcing public services to large outsourcing companies on an industrial scale. When these massive outsourcing companies fail, as too often they do, does the Minister really think it is fair that the costs stay with the taxpayer, while the profits are creamed off by the shareholders?

I do not think there is anything wrong with profit. Profit is a reward for investment made by businesses. Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman had listened to my answer, he would not have had to read a pre-scripted question. I gently suggest to him that this is something the Government take very seriously. We, for the first time, as a Government—this had not been done for 13 years previously—started measuring the number of small and medium-sized enterprises that have Government contracts. We set a target of 25% in the last Parliament, and we have delivered on that, so I think that is a record of success for this Government.

Democratic Processes: Foreign Influence

4. What steps he is taking to ensure that democratic processes are protected against foreign influence. (903189)

The first duty of the Government is of course to safeguard the nation, and we take the security and integrity of our democratic processes very seriously. Although we have not seen evidence of successful foreign interference, we are not complacent, and we will continue to do what is necessary to protect ourselves.

In order to protect ourselves, the chair of the Electoral Commission has said that we need new rules for online political advertising to combat external influence, particularly via Facebook and Twitter. When will the Government bring forward the legislation we need?

One of the very first things for me to do in my new role is to meet the Electoral Commission, and I look forward to discussing that with it.

I welcome the new Minister. Does she agree that one of the ways of reducing foreign influence in our democratic processes would be for Members of this House not to go on Russia Today and Sputnik, and indeed be paid money for doing so?

Hearing from the right hon. Gentleman reminds me of the heady days during the coalition Government when we served in and around the Cabinet Office together. His question reminds us that there are hon. Members who seem to feel the need to do as he says. I think it would be more helpful if we recalled the words of the Prime Minister in her Mansion House speech, which were that we should be well aware of what Russia seeks to do and should seek to protect to the UK from it.

Electoral Registration: Disabled People

5. What steps the Government are taking to support people with disabilities to access the electoral registration process. (903191)

8. What steps the Government are taking to support people with disabilities to access the electoral registration process. (903198)

The Government are considering the responses to our call for evidence on the accessibility of the voter registration system. We have recently released the Government’s plan for democratic engagement, which includes strategies for disabled electors. The Government have also implemented the findings of an accessibility review of the website “Register to vote”.

For those who are disabled physically and visually who want to carry out a normal role in voting like the rest of us, will the Minister confirm that those who have disabilities and are in wheelchairs can gain access to polling stations and that ballot papers in Braille are available for those who are visually disabled?

Notwithstanding the caveat that in Northern Ireland the system is devolved and in some ways different from that in Great Britain, we certainly should not regard people with disabilities as in some way restricted in using the voting system in one way or another. Polling stations are equipped with, for example, tactile voting devices. More broadly, there are arguments around whether Braille brings some opportunity to identify a voter, but I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question and would look forward to any further conversation he would like to have.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her new role. In my constituency of Southport, three excellent schools specialise in teaching children with autism as well as behavioural and learning disabilities. Does she agree that encouraging children with those conditions to learn about our political structure will make them more likely to engage with the electoral systems as adults?

I agree with my hon. Friend and I am glad he has raised those points. My predecessor in this role, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), did excellent work in the Every Voice Matters project where he focused on this as a matter of social justice. Of course, the citizen—any citizen—should be at the heart of voting and able cast their vote as a matter of public service.

Government Procurement: Small Businesses

In November 2017, we published the 2015-16 figures for central Government Departments. The Government are fully committed to supporting our small businesses, which are the engine room of our economy, so we are continuing to take action to meet our target of a third of procurement being with small businesses by 2022.

Those 2015-16 figures show procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises to be falling, from 27% to 24%. The majority goes through indirect procurement, so is not the truth that wholesale changes are needed in a Government procurement system that just delivers crumbs from the table of large contractors to SMEs?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that this is a challenging target, but, as I said previously, we set a challenging target in 2010 and we met it by the end of the Parliament. I am confident that we will meet our target again. In particular, we will be taking further measures in relation to SMEs. We will use transparency to encourage large businesses to employ more SMEs and make prompt payment part of the selection process for larger suppliers, which is the point that he raised. I can tell the House that we will be bringing forward proposals on that very shortly.

Social Mobility

7. What steps his Department has taken to co-ordinate the Government’s work on social mobility. (903197)

The Cabinet Office is responsible for co-ordinating action to increase socioeconomic diversity in the civil service. We are delivering on all recommendations made by the Bridge Group in its 2016 report.

The recent Social Mobility Commission report found that the worst-performing areas on social mobility are no longer inner-city areas but remote, rural and coastal areas and former industrial areas. What steps will the Government take to redress the funding imbalance that the north faces and to tackle social mobility issues in post-industrial towns such as Leigh?

The Social Mobility Commission report identified action on education, housing and employment as the key steps needing to be taken, and those are the exactly the things to which the Prime Minister and the Government are giving priority. For example, we have 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools than we did in 2010.

I am absolutely delighted to see that the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (David Evennett) has been promoted from the Whips Office and can now speak.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that social mobility is essential to maximise the potential of individuals and our country, and that while the Government have achieved a great deal so far, there is still more to be done?

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. The Government look forward to delivering in full on the social mobility action plan for education that my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) announced just before Christmas.

Cyber-security: Public and Private Sector Organisations

9. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on ensuring the cyber-security of public and private sector organisations. (903199)

Cabinet Office Ministers and officials meet regularly with colleagues across the Government to discuss the cyber-security of public and private sector organisations. We are investing £1.9 billion in that work, as detailed in our national cyber-security strategy.

What resources are available for organisations to better protect themselves against cyber-attacks?

The National Cyber Security Centre gives direct help and advice to public sector organisations and also offers private sector organisations advice, guidance and help in responding to attacks. I encourage all to use its services. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber, with very loud and persistent private conversations going on. Let us have a bit of order at Topical Questions.

Topical Questions

I intend to continue the work of the Cabinet Office to deliver its purpose: to maintain the integrity of the Union of the United Kingdom, to co-ordinate the security of the realm, to sustain a flourishing democracy, to ensure the delivery of the finest public services, and to help to implement the Government’s policies and the Prime Minister’s priorities.

The Government have withheld a dozen documents relating to the Government’s European policy in the early 1990s. What are they trying to hide? What embarrassment is the Tory party trying to cover up? Will the Minister release those documents?

I am happy to look at the particular case, if the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me, but I can assure him that documents are not withheld lightly. Sometimes individuals are named, or documents contain information that is still diplomatically sensitive. [Interruption.]

T2. One of the Minister’s new responsibilities is the important negotiations with the devolved Assemblies and Parliament. When will my right hon. Friend undertake meetings for those important discussions on the future of our country? (903202)

It is true that the Prime Minister has asked me to continue with my predecessor’s responsibilities of overall supervision of intergovernmental relations within the United Kingdom. I spoke yesterday evening to the Deputy First Minister of Scotland and the First Minister of Wales and assured them that I hope to visit both Scotland and Wales in the near future. I hope also to visit Northern Ireland.

T3. Earlier, the Minister remarked that the 2017 snap election had been well run, but following that election the Association of Electoral Administrators felt the need to provide its members with a free counselling service. What action will the Government take to address the significant staffing pressures and unsustainable workloads experienced by our election staff? (903203)

One of the challenges facing electoral staff this year was an unprecedented number of people taking advantage of the opportunity to register online, and administrators had to sort out duplicate registrations. We are looking at the lessons to be learned from that, but we should not fail to acknowledge the fact that online registration has made it easier for people to register and has been a great boon to many of our citizens.

T5. With over 25% of overseas development money being spent outside the Department for International Development, is there a role for the Cabinet Office in encouraging more cross-departmental spend and better reporting across all Departments? (903205)

My hon. Friend, with his expert knowledge of Africa, makes an important point. The national security adviser based in the Cabinet Office is responsible for roughly £3.2 billion of cross-departmental overseas development aid spending. I look forward to discussing with him how that money can best be spent and will certainly take account of my hon. Friend’s views.

T4. Lewisham has over 2,000 residents in temporary accommodation, and three quarters of those who have contacted me are not on the electoral register. I am not happy with this. Are the Government? If not, what will they do about it? (903204)

Despite the success of online registration, we accept that there is more to do. It is important that we encourage all our citizens to take advantage of their democratic right to cast a vote, both locally and nationally.

A number of my constituents have suffered terribly as a result of the contaminated blood scandal. Will my right hon. Friend please update the House on the progress towards the appointment of a chair and the timescales for the inquiry?

The contaminated blood scandal was an appalling tragedy from which individuals and their families are still suffering. I regard this as a very high priority for me. We have asked the Lord Chief Justice to nominate a judge to chair the inquiry, and I hope to announce the name of that judge soon.

T6. After the Prime Minister’s painful and protracted reshuffle clearly failed to ensure that the Cabinet reflected diverse and modern Britain, what steps is the Minister taking to increase diversity in the civil service? (903207)

We are implementing in full the recommendations in the report to which I alluded earlier and are encouraging all Departments to step up their work in making sure they recruit people and seek to recruit people from groups in society that have been harder to reach than others in the past. It is important that that work continues. The Prime Minister’s commitment to the racial disparity audit, which in 13 years of Labour Government we never saw from the party opposite, is an indication of the Government’s seriousness of purpose on this point.

The Minister will be aware that personal assurances were given to me and colleagues that the Government would bring forward amendments to clause 11 of the repeal Bill, but they have failed to do so. Will he assure me that the Government remain committed to working with the devolved Administrations to find a form of words that will be agreed and will allow a legislative consent motion to be passed?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that commitment. When I spoke to the Deputy First Minister of Scotland last night, I said that we were disappointed that we had not been able to reach agreement with the devolved Administrations on an acceptable form of words for such an amendment but that I was committed to intensifying our discussions with the devolved Administrations to seek to reach an agreed form of words in time for proceedings in the House of Lords.

T7. On new year’s eve, another four young people lost their lives to knife crime. We have failed to tackle this epidemic because we have failed to recognise that the solution—[Interruption.] (903208)

Order. There is a lot of noise in the Chamber. The question is about knife crime. This is a matter of the utmost gravity. Please, it is the last question—let us hear it and the answer.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

On new year’s eve, another four young people lost their lives to knife crime in London. We have failed to tackle this epidemic because we have failed to recognise that the solutions span health, education, poverty and aspiration. What can the Minister do in his role to get Departments working together to find a long-term solution?

On behalf of myself and, I am sure, the whole House, may I send our unreserved sympathy and condolences to the families of those four young people, who must be going through hell at this time? The hon. Lady will be aware that the Government’s stance on knife crime is tougher than ever—we have increased the punishments for repeat offenders and banned cautions for the most serious offences—and the latest figures show that more people are being sent to prison for knife crime than in the past. I accept that this has to be cross-departmental work. It has to involve local government and the Mayor of London in a big way. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is very committed to seeing further action taken to drive down the rates of these appalling crimes. I promise the hon. Lady that I will give what support I can from the Cabinet Office to the Home Secretary’s work.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I hope that it is not too late to wish all Members and staff in the House a very happy new year.

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.

I, too, wish members of staff a happy new year.

At least 1.4 million households across the UK have been victims of unfair practices in the leasehold market, including my constituent Emily Martin. In advance of any intended legislation, what commitment will the Prime Minister make to ensure that Emily and thousands of people tied into this PPI-like scandal are compensated by developers now?

We are concerned when we hear of unfair practices taking place. I am sure that the Housing Minister will be happy to hear of this particular case as an example. We are looking to see what action the Government can take to ensure that people are secure in their homes and are not subject to practices that they should not be subject to.

Q3. In December, when the Brexit Secretary met Michel Barnier, they hugged. In that spirit, would my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister passionately embrace—not me, Mr Speaker; don’t worry—the agenda that she set out last year to build a Britain fit for the future, encourage home ownership, improve education, health and life chances, and leave this country in a better place than we found it? (903173)

My hon. Friend talks about passionate embraces; I do not think that he has ever had the kiss that he once asked for. He is absolutely right: we are determined to deliver a Britain that is fit for the future. That means that we need to get Brexit right and do a lot more. He references house building; yes, we are committed to building the homes that this country needs. That is why we have made £15 billion of new financial support available over the next five years, and why we scrapped stamp duty for 80% of first-time buyers. We are also improving school standards—there are 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools today—and we are protecting our natural environment. We are building a Britain that can look to the future with optimism and hope.

Mr Speaker, may I wish you, all the House and all our staff a very happy new year? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Everybody is agreed? Yes? Thank you. I know it seems a long time ago, but just before Christmas, I asked the Prime Minister about the 12,000 people left waiting more than half an hour in the back of ambulances at A&E departments. She told the House that the NHS was better prepared for winter “than ever before.” What words of comfort does she have for the 17,000 patients who waited in the back of ambulances in the last week of December? Is it that nothing is perfect, by any chance?

I fully accept that the NHS is under pressure over winter. It is regularly under pressure at winter time. I have been very clear: I apologised to those people who have had their operations delayed and to those people who have had their admission to hospital delayed, but it is indeed the case that the NHS was better prepared this winter than ever before. [Interruption.] Yes. It might be helpful if I let the House know some of the things that were done to ensure that preparedness. More people than ever before are having flu vaccines, and 2,700 more acute beds have been made available since November. For the first time ever, urgent GP appointments have been available across the Christmas period across this country, and more doctors are specialising in treating the elderly in accident and emergency.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the last exchange we had in this House. In our last exchange, he said mental health budgets have been cut; that is not right. Simon Stevens from the national health service has made it clear that mental health spending has gone up both in real terms and as a proportion of the overall spending. So will the right hon. Gentleman now apologise for what he previously said?

The Prime Minister knows full well that child and adolescent mental health services budgets have been raided and many people who need help are not getting that help. We saw on “ITV News” the other night that nurses are spending their entire shift treating people in car parks because of backed-up ambulances. We know the Prime Minister recognises there is a crisis in our NHS because she wanted to sack the Health Secretary last week but was too weak to do it, and if the NHS is so well resourced and so well prepared, why was the decision taken last week to cancel the operations of 55,000 patients during the month of January?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] Members on the Labour Front Bench say “Apologise”; if they had listened to the answer I gave to their right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, they would have heard me make it clear that I have already apologised to those whose operations have been delayed, and we will make sure they are reinstated as soon as possible. We are putting record funding into the NHS and record funding into mental health, but the right hon. Gentleman keeps on about the preparations for the NHS and I was very pleased last week to be able to go and say in person a thank you to staff at Frimley health trust from both Frimley Park and Wexham Park hospitals for the work they have been doing to deliver for patients across this period of particular pressure across the winter. Our NHS staff—not just doctors and nurses, but support staff such as radiographers, administrative staff, porters: everybody working in our national health service—do a fantastic job day in and day out, and they particularly do that when we have these winter pressures. In terms of being prepared, this is what NHS Providers said only last week:

“Preparations for winter in the NHS have been more extensive and meticulous than ever before.”

We all thank all NHS staff for what they do, but the reality is that the 55,000 cancelled operations mean that those 55,000 people join the 4 million already waiting for operations within the NHS.

Perhaps the Prime Minister could listen to the experience of Vicki. Her 82-year-old mother spent 13 hours on a trolley in a corridor, on top of the three hours between her first calling 999 and arriving at hospital. Vicki says:

“A volunteer first responder from Warwickshire heart service whose day job is in the Army kept mum safe until paramedics arrived.”

Her mother had suffered a heart attack just a week before. This is not an isolated case. Does the Prime Minister really believe the NHS is better prepared than ever for the crisis it is now going through?

Nobody wants to hear of people having to experience what Vicki and her mother experienced. Of course we need to ensure that we learn from these incidents, and that is exactly what we do in the national health service. I am very happy to ensure that that particular case is looked at, if the right hon. Gentleman would like to provide me with the details. But week in and week out in the run-up to Christmas, and now today, he has been giving the impression of a national health service that is failing everybody who uses it. The reality in our NHS is that we are seeing 2.9 million more people going to accident and emergency, and over 2 million more operations taking place each year. Our national health service is something that we should be proud of. It is a first-class national health service that has been identified as the No. 1 health system in the world. That means that it is a better health system than those of Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Germany and the United States of America.

We on this side of the House are all very proud of the principle of the national health service—healthcare as a human right—but the reality is that, in the past year, 565,000 people have spent time on trolleys when they should have been being treated. The number of elderly people being rushed into A&E from care homes has risen by 62% since the Tories took power, and Care Quality Commission figures suggest that nearly a quarter of care homes need improvement. This is not only robbing older people of their dignity, but putting pressure on A&Es and ambulance services. So why, instead of dealing with the social care crisis, has the Prime Minister rewarded the Health Secretary with a promotion and a new job title?

There are many voices across the House, including from the right hon. Gentleman’s party, who have been encouraging me to ensure that we have better integration between health and social care. I am pleased that we have recognised this by making the Department of Health now the Department of Health and Social Care. That has been recognised by Age UK, which has said that this is a

“welcome and long overdue recognition of the interdependence of health and social care”.

I saw for myself last week at Frimley Park the good work that is being done by some hospitals up and down the country, working with GPs, care homes and the voluntary sector, to ensure that elderly people can stay at home safely and do not need to go into hospital, with all the consequences of them coming into hospital beds. That is the way forward, and we want to ensure that we see the integration of health and social care at grassroots level. From the way in which the right hon. Gentleman talks, you would think that the Labour party had all the solutions for the national health service—[Interruption.]

If the Labour party has all the answers, why is funding being cut and why are targets not being met in Wales, where Labour is responsible?

The Prime Minister leads a Government who are responsible for the funding of national Governments, such as the one in Wales, and she knows full well what has been cut from Wales. She is also directly responsible for the NHS in England, and giving the Health Secretary a new job title will not hide the fact that £6 billion has been cut from social care under the Tories. Part of the problem with our NHS is that its funds are increasingly being siphoned off into private companies, including in the Health Secretary’s area of Surrey—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Shelbrooke, calm yourself, man! You are supposed to be auditioning to become an elder statesman, but on present evidence, there will be many more auditions to come. Calm yourself; it will be good for your health.

Even more money is being siphoned out of our NHS budgets into private health companies. In the Health Secretary’s area of Surrey, a clinical commissioning group was even forced to pay money to Virgin Care because that company did not win a contract. Will the Prime Minister assure patients that, in 2018, less NHS money intended for patient care will be feathering the nests of shareholders in private health companies?

First, this Government have given more money to the Welsh Government. It is a decision of Labour in Wales to deprioritise funding for the national health service in Wales. On the issue of the private sector and its role in the health service, under which Government was it that private access and the use of the private sector in the health service increased? [Interruption.] No, it wasn’t.

Order. I say to the shadow Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), that he, too, is supposed to be auditioning for something. He is normally a very amiable fellow, but he is gesticulating in a very eccentric fashion. He must calm himself. It is not necessary and not good for his image.

First of all, we have put more money into Wales, but the Labour Government in Wales have decided to deprioritise funding for the national health service. Secondly, the increase that was seen in private sector companies working in the health service did not happen under a Conservative Government; that was under a Labour Government of whom the Leader of the Opposition was a member.

My hon. Friend the shadow Health Secretary is auditioning to be Health Secretary, and he shows real passion for our NHS.

Under this Government, Virgin Care got £200 million-worth of contracts in the past year alone—50% up on the year before. The Prime Minister needs to understand that it is her policies that are pushing our NHS into crisis. Tax cuts for the super-rich and big business are paid for—[Interruption.] Yes, Mr Speaker, they are paid for by longer waiting lists, ambulance delays, staff shortages and cuts to social care. Creeping privatisation is dragging our NHS down. During the Health Secretary’s occupation of the Prime Minister’s office to keep his job, he said that he would not abandon the ship. Is that not an admission that, under his captaincy, the ship is indeed sinking?

This Government are putting more money into the national health service. We see more doctors and nurses in our NHS, more operations taking place in our NHS, and more people being treated in accident and emergency in our NHS, but we can only do that if we have a strong economy. What would we see from the Labour party? We have turned the economy around from the recession that the Labour party left us with. What do we know about the Labour party’s economic policies? Well, we were told all about them in a description from the shadow Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who I see is not in her place on the Front Bench today—

I do apologise. I did not realise that the shadow Education Secretary was undergoing medical treatment, so I apologise unreservedly for that comment. However, I have to say that she described the economic policies of the Labour party in unparliamentary terms, which included the word “bust”, saying that the Labour party’s economic policy was “high-risk”. That means high risk for taxpayers, high risk for jobs and high risk for our NHS. That is a risk that we will never let Labour take.

Q5. Moving on to a positive note about the NHS, my NHS trust, Morecambe Bay, has turned around from being one of the worst in the country—it was safe to say that five years ago—to one of the best. That happened due to injections of huge amounts of cash, but the staff were amazing and turned the hospital around. Jackie Daniel, the chief— (903175)

Order. I gently invite the hon. Gentleman to be sensitive to time. We want not a long spiel, but a short question with a question mark at the end of it.

Jackie Daniel has received a damehood for turning around the Morecambe Bay trust along with the staff, which is very positive. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister look forward to working with Jackie Daniel’s successor to carry on turning the trust around, and will she wish Jackie well?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work of staff at the Morecambe Bay trust. I particularly wish Dame Jackie well, and I recognise and pay tribute to her work in turning that trust around. This is just another example of the huge gratitude we owe to our NHS staff, who work so tirelessly on our behalf.

Mr Speaker, I wish you, all staff and all Members a guid new year.

The Government’s European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is quite simply

“not fit for purpose and must be changed.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2017; Vol. 632, c. 731.]

Those are not my words; they are the words of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton). Does the Prime Minister agree with her colleague that we must amend clause 11, which is nothing more than a power grab from Scotland?

The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that we have said we will look to improve clause 11. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made it very clear when he was answering questions earlier that we continue to look to amend clause 11. However, as I discussed with the First Minister before Christmas, we are looking to work with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we put the right frameworks in place so that, when we come to bring forward any amendment, it is done in the best possible way in the interests of all concerned. I thought that had been accepted by the Scottish National party, but we will be looking to bring forward amendments in the Lords.

That is simply not good enough. The Secretary of State for Scotland promised a “powers bonanza” for Scotland and that, crucially, amendments would be tabled ahead of next week’s debate. Yesterday it was revealed that no amendments will be tabled. The Tories always promise Scotland everything and deliver nothing. The Prime Minister has one last chance. Will she assure the House that amendments will be tabled ahead of next week, as promised?

The SNP says it wants to work with us on the future frameworks; we are doing exactly that. It says it wants clause 11 amended; we are doing exactly that. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is intensifying his discussions with the Scottish Government and, indeed, with the Executive in Wales as part of that. We will be bringing forward amendments. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) says this is a Government who never deliver for Scotland. An extra £2 billion as a result of the Budget—that is delivering for Scotland.

Q10. Speaking of delivering for Scotland, the Stirling and Clackmannan- shire city region deal is a massive investment in Scotland’s economy and a huge vote of confidence in Scotland by a Conservative and Unionist Government. With projects such as the UK Institute of Aquaculture and the national tartan centre, which will have UK-wide impact and global reach, will the Prime Minister now confirm that the UK Government are ready to sign off the heads of agreement with the Scottish Government and the local councils so that we can get to work? (903180)

I am very happy to give that commitment to my hon. Friend. This is another example of how this is a Government who are delivering for Scotland. I know the importance of the Stirling and Clackmannanshire deal, which will be transformative. He has championed this cause since he was elected, and he is doing a great job for his constituents. We are all working to get an agreement as soon as possible.

Q2. I have been contacted by 11 constituents who are frightened, many of them suicidal, because they have been told either by Hull clinical commissioning group or by East Riding of Yorkshire clinical commissioning group that their desperately needed pain infusion treatment will be stopped. This is the cruel reality of the NHS having to ration treatment due to funding cuts. Will the Prime Minister personally intervene to ensure that the Hull and East Riding CCGs review their decisions and guarantee my constituents the additional funding that will allow this treatment to be delivered? (903172)

We are putting extra money into the national health service. We are not cutting funding for the national health service. CCGs will be taking individual decisions about how they apportion their funding, but to stand up here and suggest that we are cutting funding for the national health service is plain wrong.

Q11. Telford is a rapidly growing new town where thousands of new houses are built every year. People come to Telford to buy their home on a new-build estate and live their dream, but for far too many the reality is unfinished communal areas, unadopted roads, non-compliance with section 106, developers failing to take responsibility and the local council passing the buck. Colleagues on both sides of the House see similar problems in their constituencies. Will the Prime Minister agree to strengthen the rights of home owners on new-build estates so that people can come to Telford, or to any other new-build area, and buy a new-build home confident that they can live their dream? (903181)

I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that of course we recognise the concern she has raised; this is a similar issue to the one raised by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury). I understand that it is Telford’s 50th anniversary, so I congratulate it on that. We are committed to legislating in relation to the unfair practice my hon. Friend has identified, because it is only fair that freeholders should have the same rights as leaseholders to challenge the reasonableness of the service charges they are being submitted to.

Q4. On a scale between one and 10, how does the Prime Minister think her Brexit is going, with 10 meaning everything is going perfectly, we know what we want to achieve and we know how to get it; and one being chaotic cluelessness? I know what I would give the Prime Minister, but what would she give herself? (903174)

Order. Let me just say to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), whom I have known for a long time, that when he comes to reflect on his conduct, he will know that he can do better than that.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I say to the hon. Gentleman that anybody who saw the success we had in negotiating phase 1 of Brexit, and getting that sufficient progress, will say that this Government know what they are doing, and that they are getting on with the job and doing well.

Q12. Environmentalists across the UK were delighted with the announcement of co-operation with the Woodland Trust to develop the new northern forest, but will the Prime Minister assure us that plans to create new landscapes will not obscure the need to protect existing areas of outstanding natural beauty? Will she confirm her commitment to protecting the Chilterns AONB as we pursue the Government’s economic and housing development plans? (903182)

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on becoming a Dame in the recent new year’s honours—it is very, very well deserved. I assure her that we are committed to maintaining the strongest protections for AONBs and other designated landscapes. As regards the Chilterns AONB, I have to say to her that I enjoy walking in the Chilterns. I recognise the value of that particular environment, and we are committed to protecting AONBs.

Q6. I was a teacher and a headteacher for 34 years, so I know that I speak on behalf of thousands of teachers and support staff when I ask the Prime Minister this: in the light of the recent announcement of a fall in teacher training application numbers by a third, will the Government listen to professionals and fully and fairly fund our schools and colleges; end the toxic culture of targets and tests; deliver a broad and balanced curriculum; and, most of all, return the joy of teaching and learning to our classrooms? (903176)

We are putting record sums into our schools. More than that, we are ensuring that we are seeing increasing standards in our schools. That is why today there are 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools than there were in 2010, and I hope the hon. Lady would welcome that.

Q13. The Prime Minister will be aware that there is great potential in the south-west to increase prosperity and productivity. Will she therefore confirm how her Government will be backing the south-west, in particular on the need to invest in our vital road, rail and digital infrastructure? (903183)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and he is a great champion for the needs of the south-west. We do want to increase prosperity and productivity in the south-west—and indeed right across the country—and we are taking some particular steps. Across the country we are committing significant sums in relation to infrastructure investment and the road investment strategy. We are committed to creating an expressway to the south-west, which will be part of an important development. We are investing more than £400 million into the rail network in the area. I am pleased to say that more than 600,000 homes and businesses in the south-west now have access to superfast broadband as a result of our superfast broadband programme. There is more we can do for the south-west, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend in doing that.

Q7. The Secretary of State for Health said that the Government wanted the UK to be the best in the world for cancer diagnosis, treatment and care. Today, according to a memo from the head of chemotherapy at Churchill Hospital in Oxford, terminally ill cancer patients will have their chemotherapy cut because of a massive shortfall in specialist nurses. Will the Prime Minister apologise to cancer patients and their families for this appalling situation? (903177)

That trust has made it clear that there are absolutely no plans to delay the start of chemotherapy treatment, or to reduce the number of cycles of treatment given to cancer patients. Simon Stevens has said that over the past three years the NHS has had the highest cancer survival rates ever. The latest survival figures show that over 7,000 more people are estimated to be surviving cancer after successful NHS treatment, compared with three years prior. There are 3,200 more diagnostic and therapeutic radiographers than in May 2010. We will continue to look at this issue and we are continuing to put in the funding that is enabling us to improve treatment for cancer patients.

Q14. With record funding, our NHS is doing more than ever, but when the UK is in the bottom third of countries for heart-attack deaths, when we have significantly worse survival rates for stroke than France and Germany, and when our closest matches for cancer survival are Chile and Poland, is it not time to act on calls from all parts of the House, backed this week by the Centre for Policy Studies, to establish a royal commission on health and social care in this, the 70th anniversary year of our most cherished national institution? (903184)

My hon. Friend is right that we need to continue to look at the national health service and ensure that we continue to improve its performance in a variety of areas. The independent Commonwealth Fund has been clear that the national health service is the best healthcare system in the world, and that it is better than systems such as those in Germany, France and the other countries I listed earlier, but of course we need to look at what more we can do. That is why we are putting more funding into and looking at the better integration of health and social care on the ground. It is about making sure that we are making a change and doing that integration now, because that is when it is going to make a difference to people.

Q8. The Prime Minister said that she had reshuffled her Ministers so that they look more like the country they seek to represent. I am not sure about that, but in that spirit, will she acknowledge the massive problems in the private rented sector with absentee private landlords? Will she commit to come to visit Easington to gain her own appreciation of the scale of the problems that face many working-class communities? In the spirit of good will, will she support and give free passage to the Bill on homes fit for habitation that my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) is promoting? (903178)

I have many fond memories of the time I spent in the north-east when I was a candidate up there. We do need to ensure that we have a good private rented sector in this country, but the one set of policies that would damage the private rented sector are the policies put forward by the Leader of the Opposition.

I was delighted last week to hear the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirm the Government’s commitment to supporting farmers after we leave the European Union. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the unique needs of Scottish farmers and, indeed, crofters will be taken into account in the design of any new system?

My hon. Friend is right that as we leave the European Union, we will of course be able to put in place our own policy of support for farmers. We want that policy to recognise the particular needs of farmers in all parts of the United Kingdom, and that will of course include the particular needs of farmers in Scotland.

Q9. My constituency office and local citizens advice bureau are receiving ever-increasing complaints about personal independence payment claims. Assessments are being refused and 65% of decisions are currently overturned on appeal at tribunal. The growing number of appeals means that the tribunal process is taking longer—anything from four to seven months. Does the Prime Minister agree that the PIP assessment process is fundamentally flawed? What action can she take to avoid the unnecessary expense of going to court and, more importantly, the undue stress and hardship being caused to my constituents and others throughout the country? (903179)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about ensuring, as we want to, that these assessments are being conducted as well as they can be, and that people are getting the awards that they should be getting and that they are entitled to. Since we introduced the personal independence payment, we have carried out around 2.9 million assessments, 8% of which have been appealed, but only 4% of those decisions are changed following an appeal. In the majority of cases, that is because new evidence is presented at the appeal, which was not presented when the original case was put forward. The Department for Work and Pensions continues to look at ensuring that, when these assessments are made, they are done properly and that people get the right results.

My constituent, Justin Bartholomew, was just 25 when he committed suicide late last year. His family is convinced that his intake of high-energy drinks—more than 15 cans a day—increased his anxiety and contributed to his death. Given the increased safety concern around the high-energy drink market and the actions of people such as Jamie Oliver and Waitrose, will the Prime Minister consider introducing a national ban on the sale of these energy drinks for the under-16s?

My hon. Friend has raised a tragic case, and I know that the thoughts and the sympathies of the whole House will be with the family and friends of Justin Bartholomew. We have introduced the soft drinks industry levy. We recognise that there are issues around drinks that are high in sugar and we know that energy drinks high in sugar can be damaging to children’s health. We are supporting schools and parents to make healthier choices and to be able to identify those through clearer labelling and campaigns. Of course this is an issue that the Department of Health and Social Care will continue to look at, and it will continue to look at the scientific evidence in relation to these drinks.

Q15. I have a constituent who escaped an abusive relationship and has been passed from pillar to post between the old Child Support Agency and the new child maintenance service. After four and a half years of that, she has now been told by the CMS that she has to start the whole process all over again. On top of that, it is insisting that she passes on her personal and her bank details directly to her ex-partner to receive payment. Will the Prime Minister agree to help to resolve this problem and to look at the system that has allowed this abuse to continue? (903185)

The hon. Lady raises what is obviously a distressing case; I recognise that. Arrangements are in place that ensure, as I understand it, that an individual does not have to pass on their bank details directly. The fact that her constituent has been asked to do so is something that should be looked into. I am sure that if she passes those details to the appropriate Department, it will look into the matter.

Does the Prime Minister welcome the findings of the Social Research survey that the majority of Scots believe that the rules on trade and immigration should be the same in Scotland as in the rest of the UK? It looks like they agree that we are better together.

My hon. Friend has raised a very important point. People across the UK want to see controlled immigration—that is people in Scotland as well as people in the rest of the United Kingdom. As we leave the European Union, we will be able to introduce our own immigration rules and to control that immigration to Britain from Europe. The only point of differentiation is that, of course, we do have a Scotland-only shortage occupation list to recognise the particular labour market needs in Scotland. For the most part, that actually matches the UK-wide shortage occupation list, which shows that this is an issue for the whole of the UK, and that we need the same policy approach.

In a March 2005 interview, the Prime Minister said:

“Not getting things done; and seeing people’s lives hurt by government bureaucracy”

makes her depressed. In the light of that comment, can the Prime Minister tell me whether she considers it reasonable and acceptable for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to withhold the licence of my constituent, Mr Coleman, for more than 18 months despite evidence showing that he was fit and able to drive, as she has not responded to my letter of 5 December?

I will ensure that the hon. Lady receives a response to her letter. She has raised a particular case in this House. I will need to look at the details of that case and I will respond to her letter.

Last week, Cleveland Potash announced 230 job losses at Boulby mine in my constituency, which is devastating for Loftus and the wider east Cleveland community, where the mine is by far and away the largest employer. Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) and I all agree that it would be incredibly helpful if some of the funds remaining from the 2015 SSI rescue package could be repurposed to support people leaving Boulby. Will the Prime Minister agree to look into that with the Business Secretary, and will she make a commitment that Government agencies will do everything they can to support people affected by this dreadful news?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this case. It is obviously a worrying time for the workers who are affected by the announcement by Cleveland Potash. We will help people to find other work, and support those affected through the rapid response service of the Department for Work and Pensions. We will co-ordinate with the Tees Valley combined authority to ensure that we work together to make the best possible support available and ensure that it is aligned. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will look at the situation and the specific issue that my hon. Friend has raised.

Ava has been a foster-carer for years. When her privately rented home failed the inspection for an electrical certificate, which she needed to continue fostering, her landlord evicted her because he did not want to do the repairs. Now Ava and the kids are living in temporary council accommodation in a converted warehouse in the middle of a working industrial estate in Mitcham. The council that placed her there is going to withdraw her right to foster because her accommodation is not good enough. Can the Prime Minister tell Ava, kids in care who need foster-carers and the overworked British taxpayer how that makes sense?

As the hon. Lady has set it out, that does not appear to make sense: as a result of what has happened, we will lose someone who has been a foster-carer. I would like to pay tribute to the work that her constituent has done in foster-caring. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to those who care for people as foster-parents. As the hon. Lady has raised this in the House, I am sure that the local council will want to look at it again.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. While most of us were celebrating on new year’s eve, the crews of the Poole-based tug, Kingston, and the Swanage and Weymouth lifeboats were battling mountainous seas and 70 mph winds off the coast of Dorset to prevent a cargo ship from being blown on to the rocks. Thanks to the skill of the tug’s crew the tow was fixed and a disaster prevented. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the professionalism, courage and determination of all those involved, not least the volunteers of the RNLI?

I am very happy to do that, and to praise all those involved in averting a disaster—both the tug crew and the RNLI. Indeed, I would like to go further. RNLI volunteers do a fantastic job around our coastline day in, day out, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.