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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 635: debated on Wednesday 7 February 2018

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: Cross-border Trade

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Irish Government on cross-border trade after the UK leaves the EU. (903756)

I have regular conversations with the Irish Government on a range of issues. We both recognise the importance of the trade that takes place across the island of Ireland, which is worth some £4 billion to the Northern Ireland economy. Equally, though, we must not forget the importance of the GB markets to Northern Ireland, where sales are worth some £14.6 billion. We are committed to protecting both these vital markets.

Scottish Government analysis has shown that a no-deal scenario could cost Scotland up to 8.5% of its GDP. Government analysis suggests that Northern Ireland could be cost up to 12% of its GDP. Does she believe any analysis she has seen, and is this too high a price to pay to keep a Tory civil war from breaking out?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has dealt with the issues concerning the leaked report. It is important to state that the UK Government want to achieve a good deal for the whole United Kingdom that protects the economic integrity of the United Kingdom.

If this Government are so determined to take us out of the customs union and the single market, how do they see us avoiding a hard border on the island without having a hard border in the Irish sea?

The United Kingdom Government have been clear that we do not want to see a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Irish Government have said the same, as has the European Commission. I think it is clear that we will make sure there is no hard border.

The voice of Wales and Scotland is being heard loud and clear in the current Brexit negotiations. That of Northern Ireland most certainly is not, because of the impasse. In answer to Questions 4 and 5, the Secretary of State will no doubt say that the solution is the restoration of the Executive, but if the Executive is not restored, what will she do to make sure the voice of Northern Ireland is heard in the current negotiations in Brussels?

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. He will know that I have been working extraordinarily hard over the last few weeks on talks, and I will address those matters when I answer Questions 4, 5 and others. The important point is that for Northern Ireland’s voice to be heard in the way the Scottish and Welsh voices are heard, we need a devolved Government in Stormont. That is what we are working towards.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her place and the fact that she is in discussions with the Irish Government. In her discussions, has she reflected with the Irish Government on what would happen to cross-border trade if one part of these islands that was in the common travel area joined Schengen, as the Scottish National party keeps arguing for? That would see a border not just in the Irish sea but across this island.

We are clear that the economic and constitutional unity of the United Kingdom is fundamental to all we are doing, and we are determined to ensure that the UK single market—the most important single market to Scotland and to Northern Ireland—is retained.

Bearing in mind that the United Kingdom is Ireland’s largest trading partner and that 30% of all employment in Ireland is in sectors that are heavily related to UK exports, will the Secretary of State outline what discussions have taken place to ensure that this mutually beneficial partnership continues unhindered by the petty point scoring, statement making, headline grabbing whims of EU leadership?

Given that the Irish Republic would lose out most if there was not a good deal with the European Union, is the Secretary of State making it clear to all the Irish Ministers she is meeting that they have a role to play with the European Union and that they should be standing up for their country’s attitudes and making sure we get a good deal, which is to their benefit?

The reality is that a good deal is a win-win for everybody—not just Ireland but all the EU27 member states. Not having that is a lose-lose; nobody benefits from not having a good deal.

The Prime Minister has been clear that there will be no continuing customs union between the UK and the EU. Does the Secretary of State agree that that means a divergence of regulations between Ireland and Northern Ireland and that paragraph 49 of December’s agreement must be activated? In that case, will she tell us what

“specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland”

she is proposing?

The hon. Lady makes the point that there are unique circumstances in Northern Ireland—unique anywhere across the whole of Europe—and those unique circumstances have to be reflected. The UK Government’s intention is to resolve the matter of north-south trade—and east-west trade—through the overall UK-EU agreement, but we are absolutely determined to make sure that we respect the integrity of the north-south border and that we respect the agreements that were made in Belfast nearly 20 years ago.

May I welcome the glistening new team to the Front Bench? I am sure the whole House agrees with me in saying how pleased we are—we are absolutely delighted—that the Secretary of State’s predecessor is recovering so well from his surgery. May I particularly welcome the Parliamentary Under-Secretary? He is the eighth Minister that I have had the privilege of shadowing; I do not know whether this attrition is anything to do with my personal behaviour, but I plead not guilty.

Now that the new team have had a chance to find their way around, particularly on the border, and they have studied the issue of the electronic border, do they believe that such a frontier is feasible or is it just a fantasy?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words. I too pay tribute to my predecessor, who I am pleased to say is recovering well at home. I know the whole House wishes him well, wishes him a speedy recovery and looks forward to welcoming him back to this Chamber.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the matter of the border. We are determined that there will be no new physical infrastructure at the border, and we will maintain things such as the common travel area, which has been in existence since well before the EU.


I too thank the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) for his kind words of welcome. He and I have worked together on a number of issues, but this is the first time we have met across the Dispatch Boxes, and I look forward to constructive engagement with him and his team.

On my hon. Friend’s question, this Government are committed to reaching our pledge of 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. Through our industrial strategy, we are committed to helping young people across the country to develop the skills they need for the future. My hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that delivering apprenticeships in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. As such, that is another reason why we need to see a restored Executive up and running.

Employers in Northern Ireland recently told members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that while there is no Northern Ireland Executive in place they are having to pay the apprenticeship levy but have no access to the funds to take on apprentices, because without an Executive the block grant is not being distributed. The apprenticeship levy in Northern Ireland is turning into a stealth tax for businesses. Does the Minister agree that this is another reason why we urgently need a Northern Ireland Executive in place?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and gives an excellent example of why it is so important that we have a devolved Assembly up and running again. Important decisions, such as the one she mentioned, need to be taken, and that is why we need the Assembly up and running as soon as possible.

It is worrying that we hear of the loss of apprenticeships, and yesterday we had an announcement that Williams Industrial Services in my constituency has actually gone into administration. What help will the Minister give us to ensure that we retain manufacturing and the apprenticeships there?

May I say at the outset that I am very sorry to hear about the position of the company in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency? I very much hope that the employers will follow all the legal processes by way of consultation and everything else that needs doing as far as the employees are concerned.

On the promotion of more jobs, it is clearly important that the devolved Assembly is up and running because it has a critical role to play. In the absence of such a devolved Assembly, however, I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are doing all we can. Indeed, only recently we met Invest NI with a view to seeing what is happening in Northern Ireland and what we can do to help.

One of the best apprenticeships programmes is run by Bombardier. Does the Minister agree it is fantastic news for those apprentices that the complaint against Bombardier has been soundly rejected?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments. It is very welcome news that the United States International Trade Commission unanimously agreed with Bombardier, and we very much look forward to working with Bombardier, which plays such a critical role in the UK economy, particularly in Northern Ireland.

Devolved Government

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the talks, so I ask for your forbearance while I give an answer that is slightly longer than usual. Over the past weeks, the political parties—particularly the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin—have engaged in discussions on the key issues that remain to be resolved. They have done so with the continuous support of the UK Government and, in accordance with the three-strand approach, the Irish Government. Those discussions have built on the progress that was made in previous talks to reduce further the gaps between them. An accommodation between the parties has not yet been reached, but there is no doubt as to their collective commitment towards the restoration of devolution. I firmly believe that an agreement in the coming days, while not certain, is achievable. That remains my focus.

In welcoming the Secretary of State to her new post, may I gently say to her that she should have been making a statement on this today? Every party in Northern Ireland says that it wants a deal, but significant gaps remain. Can she outline what those gaps actually are, and what she is doing to try to resolve them and bring people together?

I gently say to the hon. Gentleman, who is greatly distinguished in this area and knows Northern Ireland politics well, that we are at a very sensitive stage in discussions. I have been committed to making no running commentary on the talks while they are ongoing. There have been very intense and detailed discussions. I believe that we can reach an outcome, but I will do nothing that might jeopardise that.

Will the Secretary of State set a deadline for the talks so that the people of Northern Ireland know when they will have some government back, either in Northern Ireland or via direct rule from here?

I was clear at the outset that the talks would take weeks, not months. We have been in intensive discussions for two weeks now, and I hope to see the matter resolved as soon as possible.

Does the Secretary of State agree that in normal civil society a party that wins an election comes together and forms a Government, and parties that do not win an election and do not want to be in government go into opposition and hold that Government to account. Have we not now reached the stage in Northern Ireland where normal civil society ought to be operating?

I firmly agree that, after almost 12 months without devolved government, we absolutely need to have the Stormont institutions back up and running. The people of Northern Ireland voted for their politicians, and it is incumbent on those politicians to deliver. However, we respect the fact that this is a cross-party and cross-community resolution, as set out in the Belfast agreement. As I have said, I am determined to do everything possible to give this the best chance to succeed and to get devolved government back up and running, and I will do nothing to jeopardise that.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to ensuring that devolved government is restored as soon as possible. Does she agree that one of the stumbling blocks is that certain parties—namely, Sinn Féin—keep coming forward with new demands that were not part of the original aim of forming the Executive?

I apologise; I would very much like to give Members much more explicit and detailed answers, but that would simply not be appropriate at this stage. However, as before, I commit to returning to the House as and when I have something concrete to say on the matter.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State to her new post—and the Under-Secretary of State—and wish her well in her continued efforts to facilitate talks in Northern Ireland. She knows that we are not the stumbling block to the restoration of the Executive. In the meantime, will she give a clear commitment to the people of Northern Ireland, and to this House, that the budget for Northern Ireland will be set as soon as possible, given that the head of the civil service has said

“we cannot go much beyond the beginning of February without clarity about how much departments and various public bodies are going to have to spend next year”

because the lack of a budget is affecting services, including health and social care? The current position is intolerable. We need a budget and we need it now.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments—he and I have discussed this issue. He will know that my predecessor took action on the matter, and obviously I have had discussions with the civil service in Northern Ireland. I have met some very dedicated public servants who are doing their best to deliver, but in the absence of devolved government that is becoming increasingly difficult. That is why we need devolved government, and we need it quickly. I understand the point he makes. My predecessor took action on the matter and I am sure that he will be assured by that.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State, in so far as that goes, and I look forward to her bringing forward proposals, without prejudice to the ongoing negotiations, so that we do not have a situation in which Departments, people and services are suffering. Does she agree that the recent statement by Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin about Northern Ireland being a “putrid little statelet”, justifying IRA murder in order to bring about rights, shows the sheer disgrace, irony and hypocrisy of Sinn Féin preaching rights and equality by justifying murder and disrespecting the state of Northern Ireland? Does she agree that that sort of attitude must stop? If respect is to mean anything, it has to mean Sinn Féin showing respect towards Unionists and those who believe in the Union.

I think this shows that it is incumbent on everyone in public life to think very carefully about the words they use in public and the way they may be interpreted.

I too welcome the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary. I look forward to working with them and of course wish the Secretary of State’s predecessor a speedy recovery.

We understand that the Secretary of State will not want to give a running commentary on the talks, but there is enormous frustration in Northern Ireland after a year in limbo, with successive Secretaries of State telling us exactly the same thing. Can she at least confirm that one of the big sticking points in the talks is rights—not just language rights, but marriage equality rights? Can she tell us whether she will consider taking that issue off the table by legislating for equal marriage rights in Northern Ireland, which are enjoyed in Staffordshire?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As I said, I do not wish to say anything at this stage—I know it is frustrating for all that I cannot say more, and I am frustrated too—but I will come to this House and make a full statement as and when I am able to. Equal marriage is clearly a devolved issue and quite rightly should be legislated for in Stormont. That is the right place for this legislation to be enacted, and I look forward to a devolved Government being in place that can do that. He will recall that when the matter was debated in this Chamber for our constituents in England and Wales, these Benches were entitled to a free vote and Members of Parliament voted in line with their conscience.

And the right hon. Lady will know that Northern Ireland did have a vote in the Assembly on this issue in November last year. It voted in favour of taking forward marriage equality for Northern Ireland, so she could show leadership on this issue and respect devolution, and potentially bring forward the prospect of devolution being resolved. Will she answer a very simple question that I think many people in Northern Ireland will want me to ask: what is she going to do differently in the weeks and months ahead to show leadership and break the deadlock?

The talks have resumed. They are detailed and intense. The parties are engaged and are working late into the night most nights to reach a resolution. I think that the politicians in Northern Ireland understand the frustration of the people of Northern Ireland and want to deliver for them, but there are differences that need to be overcome. I am doing everything I can to try to get a resolution so that accommodation can be found and devolved government can be restored.

I would like the Secretary of State just to take a few moments to explain to the House and the people in Northern Ireland the level of engagement with the smaller parties in Northern Ireland—the Alliance party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, and the Ulster Unionist party—in the recently resumed talks. I have had it reported to me that they had a cup of tea and a bit of a chat, and said, “Thank you and goodbye, see you on Thursday.” I cannot believe that that was the level of engagement, so would the Secretary of State give some reassurance about the level of engagement with smaller parties, please?

All parties have been included within the talks process since 24 January. I have met all the main party leaders on a number of occasions, including at the roundtable on Monday, and we are due to hold another one later this week. The hon. Lady will understand that unless the two big parties—the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin—can reach an agreement, we are not able to achieve devolved government, so it is right that there is detailed, bilateral discussion between those two parties. Yesterday, for instance, I spoke to or met all the party leaders.

Frictionless Border

6. What discussions she has had with the Irish Government on maintaining a frictionless border on the island of Ireland. (903762)

11. What assessment she has made of progress on maintaining a seamless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (903767)

We speak regularly with our counterparts in the Irish Government on a range of issues. In the joint report agreed with the EU at the December European Council, we reached an agreement that will maintain the common travel area. We also agreed that any future arrangements agreed between the UK and the EU must be compatible with the UK Government’s commitment to avoiding any physical infrastructure on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We will continue working closely with the Commission to agree a legally binding text for the commitments made in December.

If the Government are committed to regulatory alignment on both sides of the Irish border, has it made it easier that the Prime Minister has declared that there will be no membership of the customs union or single market?

Let us be absolutely clear: we have said we will be leaving the customs union and single market. We hope in phase 2 of the negotiations to secure the best possible trade deal with the EU, but we are committed to a frictionless border.

Does the Minister agree that once the UK leaves the EU we will have a duty to protect the rights of Irish citizens under UK law, through the common travel area, which predates Britain’s membership of the EU?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and is right that the reciprocal rights under the common travel area between the UK and Ireland predate either country’s membership of the EU. I can assure him that the joint report from last December contains a commitment to maintaining the common travel area arrangement.

A recently published European Parliament report has indicated that it will be possible to have a frictionless border after we leave the EU, but is the Minister not concerned about the friction in relations between the UK Government and the Irish Republic? Will he comment on the threat issued by the Irish Foreign Minister yesterday that he will block negotiations unless legislation is introduced to force the Northern Ireland Assembly to introduce EU regulations?

All the parties involved recognise that this is a difficult negotiation, but we are all committed to being flexible and coming up with innovative solutions. Our relationship with Ireland goes back centuries: trade, geography, history and so on. We have an excellent working relationship with Ireland. We hope to continue that relationship to secure the best solution possible to the issue of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Will the Minister confirm that whatever arrangements are needed to achieve a frictionless border between north and southern Ireland will apply to the whole UK?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK. That will stay as it is currently.

Leaving the EU: Transitional Arrangements

7. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiating a transitional arrangement with the EU that benefits Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (903763)

14. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiating a transitional arrangement with the EU that benefits Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (903770)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has regular conversations with Cabinet colleagues on a range of EU exit issues, including on an implementation period. We recognise the importance of negotiating an implementation period that benefits the whole UK, including Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] We welcome the EU’s agreement to negotiate an implementation period. The precise terms should be agreed as quickly as possible to provide vital certainty to businesses and citizens. [Interruption.]

Order. It is most unfortunate that neither the Minister’s mellifluous tones nor the content of his answer could properly be heard because of the number of private conversations. I think he deserves a more attentive audience.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I grasped the word “negotiation” in there. Has the Secretary of State agreed a concession in those negotiations with the Brexit Secretary that will allow Northern Ireland to remain part of the single market and customs union, while the UK leaves, to avoid a hard border—yes or no?

I say again that the United Kingdom is committed to leaving the single market and customs union and to the integrity of the constitution and our economy.

I think that we are all a little confused about how the Government intend to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. The Minister’s Cabinet colleagues are falling over themselves to secure the maximum possible separation from the EU and the least possible realignment. Has he ruled out the idea of separate arrangements for Northern Ireland governing trade and commerce, or not?

Let me say again that the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom remains. We are in phase 2 of the negotiations, and these matters are currently being discussed. I am sure that all the parties—Ireland, the United Kingdom and the European Union—recognise the difficulty of the issue and will be as flexible and innovative as possible.

Does the Minister agree that it is about time the Government demonstrated a “no surrender” attitude to the EU bureaucrats who try to blackmail us and bully us over flights, passenger duty and everything else? Stand up to them, man! Stand up to the EU, and let us get on with leaving it. [Interruption.]

Let me just say—[Interruption]—that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will stand up to anyone and everyone when it comes to maintaining the best interests of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]

The Good Friday agreement was one of the greatest legacies of the last Labour Government. Is the Minister content that messing up the border issue could make destroying the Good Friday agreement one of this Government’s legacies?

I assure the hon. Lady that the joint report published in December this year by the European Commission and the United Kingdom makes it absolutely clear that the Belfast agreement remains intact, and all of it will remain intact.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to Captain Dean Sprouting, who died in a road traffic accident in Iraq on 31 January. His death was not the result of enemy activity. I know that Members in all parts of the House will want to join me in offering condolences to his family and friends at this difficult time.

One hundred years ago yesterday, women won the right to vote. [Hon. Members: “Some women.”] Indeed: some women. I am pleased to say that universal suffrage did come for women 10 years later, under a Conservative Government. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in marking the heroic and tireless struggle that led to women having the vote, because it forever changed our nation’s future.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

My constituent Natasha Dudarenko suffers from Fanconi anaemia, a debilitating disease that carries a high risk of cancer. Natasha was receiving lifetime disability living allowance, which was removed following an assessment for the personal independent payment. When she appealed, she was told that because she had a degree, she did not need as much support. I am sure the Prime Minister is aware that diseases, including cancer, are no respecters of qualifications. What urgent action will she take to improve the quality and standard of PIP assessments?

Obviously, the Department for Work and Pensions is constantly looking at the standard of the PIP assessments that are being made. I am sorry to hear of the case that the hon. Lady has described. I think that most people will be very concerned after hearing about it, and I am very surprised at the judgment that was made in relation to that individual. I suggest that the hon. Lady sends us the details of the case, and we will ensure that it is looked into.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of UKIP-led Thanet Council’s broken election promise to support the reopening of Manston as an airport. On the basis that the Manston site was to be redesignated as “mixed use”, with thousands of houses, local councillors sensibly rejected the plan, and I salute them for doing so. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that Thanet will now be given as much time as is reasonably necessary—perhaps under a new administration—to get our local plan right?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this matter on behalf of his constituents. I understand that Thanet District Council has not adopted a local plan since 2006, which is why my right hon. Friend the Housing Secretary has written to the district council to begin the formal process of considering intervention. This is a very serious step that shows that the council has not been doing what it should be doing in relation to a local plan. So my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is now considering whether to intervene, and he will make an announcement in due course.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Dean Sprouting from Jarrow on his death and in offering our condolences to his family on the terrible incident that happened.

It is of course the anniversary of women first getting the right to vote in 1918, and I pay tribute to all those who campaigned all over the country to achieve that right. We should understand that our rights come from the activities of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to bring about democracy and justice within our society, and those women who suffered grievously, being force fed in Holloway prison in my constituency, and those who suffered so much need to be remembered for all time. Working-class women as well as many other women fought for that right, and it is one we should all be proud of.

With crime rising, does the Prime Minister regret cutting 21,000 police officers?

May I first say to the right hon. Gentleman that we should be saluting all those who were involved in that struggle to ensure that women could get the right to vote? I was very pleased yesterday to have the opportunity to meet Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, and to see that that memory is being kept going. As I said yesterday in my speech, I heard about the suffragettes’ fight from my late godmother, whose mother was a suffragette and both of whose parents knew the Pankhursts.

The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of police numbers and crime. What we actually have seen from the crime survey is that crime is now down at record low levels. That is what has been achieved, and it has been achieved by a Conservative Government who at the same time have been protecting police budgets.

Recorded crime is up by one fifth since 2010 and violent crime is up by 20%, and during the period when the Prime Minister was Home Secretary £2.3 billion was cut from police budgets. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary warns that neighbourhood policing risks being eroded and the shortage of detectives is a “national crisis”. Does the Prime Minister think the inspectorate is scaremongering?

The right hon. Gentleman mentions the issue about recorded crime, and one of the challenges we have seen in the police in recent years is ensuring we get proper recording particularly of certain types of crime. I am pleased to say that we have seen improvements over the past seven to eight years in the recording by the police of certain types of crime.

The right hon. Gentleman also talks about the issue of police budgets. As I have said, this is a Government who are protecting police budgets, and I might remind him that the Labour party’s former shadow Home Secretary, now the police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester, himself said that the police could take an up to 10% cut in their budgets.

The inspectorate also found that the police are failing to properly record tens of thousands of offences, and in addition to cutting 21,000 police officers, the Government have cut 6,700 police community support officers. The chief constable of Bedfordshire says:

“We do not have the resources to keep residents safe... The position is a scandal.”

Too many people do not feel safe, and too many people are not safe. We have just seen the highest rise in recorded crime for a quarter of a century. The chief constable of Lancashire said the Government’s police cuts had made it much more difficult to keep people safe. Is he wrong?

On the issue of recording crime, the right hon. Gentleman mentions HMIC, and when I was Home Secretary, I asked HMIC to look at the recording of crime to ensure that police forces were doing it properly. Indeed, some changes were made as a result, so we now see better recording of crime. We also see £450 million extra being made available to the police. Over the past few years, we have also seen the creation of the National Crime Agency, and our police forces are taking more notice of helping to support vulnerable victims and doing more on modern slavery and domestic violence—taking seriously issues that were not taken seriously before.

If you ask the inspectorate to look at unrecorded crime and it tells you what is going on, the least you could do is act on what it tells you. I want to quote something that may sound familiar to the Prime Minister:

“The first duty of the Government is to protect the public and keep them safe, and I have to say to the Government that they are not putting enough focus on police resources.”—[Official Report, 18 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 5.]

If she casts her eyes to the far Conservative Back Benches, she will see the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), and that is what he said about her Government and what they are doing. Gun crime has increased by 20% in the past year, and the chief constable of Merseyside recently said:

“So have I got sufficient resources to fight gun crime? No, I haven’t.”

Does the Prime Minister think he is crying wolf?

The right hon. Gentleman cannot get away from the fact that the Government are protecting police budgets. In fact, we are not just protecting police budgets, but increasing them with an extra £450 million. We are also ensuring that our police have the powers that they need to do the job that we want them to do. I seem to remember that the right hon. Gentleman does not have that good a record when it comes to increasing the powers for the police to do their job.

Since 2015, direct Government funding to the police has fallen by £413 million, and Chief Constable Dave Thompson of West Midlands police said:

“The current flat cash settlement for policing means force budgets will fall in real terms.”

In addition to police cuts, other public service cuts are clearly contributing to the rise in crime: 3,600 youth workers have lost their jobs; 600 youth centres have been closed and boarded up; the probation service has been cut and privatised; and reoffenders are committing more offences. When it comes to tackling crime, prevention and cure are two sides of the same coin, so why are the Government cutting both of them?

We have put in place various pieces of work on anti-knife crime, on serious violence and on issues such as domestic violence. But I come back to the point I made in my last response: the right hon. Gentleman voted against changing the law so that anyone caught carrying a knife for a second time would face a custodial sentence. He has called for much shorter sentences for those who break the law. He might want to reflect on the fact that knife crime fell when there was a Conservative Mayor in London, but knife crime is going up now that there is a Labour Mayor in London.

I am very clear that crime is of course wrong. The way to deal with it is by having an effective probation service, by community service orders and by the rehabilitation of offenders. What the Prime Minister said goes to the heart of her record: she was Home Secretary for six years, but crime is up, violent crime is rising, police numbers are down and chief constables are saying they no longer have the resources to keep communities safe. After seven years of cuts, will the Prime Minister today admit that her Government’s relentless cuts to the police, probation and social services have left us all less safe? The reality is that we cannot have public safety on the cheap.

The right hon. Gentleman really needs to reflect on what Labour would be doing if it was in government. You can only pay for our public services if you have a strong economy. What would we see with the Labour party? We do not need to ask ourselves what we would see, because the shadow Chancellor’s adviser told us at the weekend:

“We need to think about the obvious problems which might face a radical Labour government, such as capital flight or a run on the pound”.

That is what Labour would do: bankrupt Britain. The police would have less money under Labour than under the Conservatives.

Q3. While I have been travelling around the country to meet people from diverse communities, members of the Jewish and the Muslim communities have raised the point that the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 should specifically take into account people’s faith considerations, because in their faiths, loved ones must be buried within 24 hours. Will the Prime Minister join me, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and faith communities in looking at this very important matter? (903808)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point on behalf of communities across the country, which he does from the unique position of his own experience and understanding of these issues. It is important that we take account of specific requirements of someone’s faith, especially when they have lost a loved one and are grieving. Although, as he will be aware, coroners are independent judicial office holders, I understand that the Ministry of Justice is speaking to the Chief Coroner about this point to see what more can be done. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue further.

Yesterday it was announced that 10 Royal Bank of Scotland branches in Scotland that had been earmarked for closure are to be reprieved. I am grateful for that news, which comes on the back of community pressure and the leadership that has been shown on this issue by the Scottish National party.

On three occasions, I have asked the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions to call Ross McEwan into No. 10 Downing Street. Will she accept her responsibilities, given that we own RBS? Now that we have saved 10 branches, will she call in Ross McEwan and join us in calling for all the branches to remain open?

As I have said before, it is of course important that customers, especially those who are vulnerable, can call on the services they need. Obviously I welcome the Royal Bank of Scotland’s decision, which is a commercial decision for the bank. If the right hon. Gentleman is so keen on ensuring that people, including perhaps those in remote communities, have access to the services that they need, he should ask himself why the Scottish Government have been such a failure in ensuring that people in remote communities have broadband access to online banking. The Scottish Government need to get their act together because, quite simply, Scotland under the Nats is getting left behind.

That was pathetic. The Prime Minister has not lifted a finger; we saved the banks.

Yesterday we celebrated the achievements of the suffragette movement, which was about democracy, equality and fairness for women. However, today in the United Kingdom, 3.8 million women are not receiving the pension to which they are entitled. A motion in this House last November, which received unanimous cross-party support—the vote was 288 to zero—called on the Government in London to do the right thing. Will the Prime Minister do her bit for gender equality and end the injustice faced by 1950s women?

As people are living longer, it is important that we equalise the pension age of men and women. We are doing that, and we are doing it faster. We have already acted to give more protection to the women involved. An extra £1 billion has been put in to ensure that nobody will see their pension entitlement changed by more than 18 months. That was a real response to the issue that was being addressed. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about equality, he has to recognise the importance of the equality of the state pension age between men and women.

Q5. I never thought I would see the day when where I lead, the Leader of the Opposition follows—there is clearly hope for him yet. Last year, the Government advertised for the post of disability commissioner. My noble Friend Lord Shinkwin applied for the position and was appointed to it, yet only a few weeks later he was told by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that the post had been abolished altogether. Was the Prime Minister consulted about that decision? Does she agree with the decision to abolish that post? If not, may I ask her to urge the Equality and Human Rights Commission to reinstate the post of disability commissioner and reinstall Lord Shinkwin to his rightful place? (903810)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point. I have known Lord Shinkwin for many, many years. He has been a valiant champion of the rights of disabled people over those years. His own experience and his work in public life, particularly in the other place, are a fine example of how disabled people can be standing up, speaking up and ensuring that they take their rightful place in public life.

On the issue of the disability commissioner, the EHRC is an independent body, and it was its decision to abolish the disability commissioner. The question is: what is being done to help disabled people and how can we ensure that we are helping them? That is why we are committed to tackling the injustices that they face. We are spending more than £50 billion a year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions—that is a record high. But, of course, we do want to ensure—I urge the commission to do this—that the EHRC pays proper attention to the needs and rights of disabled people, because that is an important part of its remit.

Q4. My constituents’ son was killed by a learner driver who was taking a lesson. With one in four young drivers being involved in an accident within the first two years of starting to drive, and 400 deaths or serious injuries on our roads involving young drivers each year, will the Prime Minister meet me and my constituents to hear their story, and consider introducing a graduated licensing system for the UK, as other countries have done? (903809)

Obviously, the hon. Lady raises an important issue. I will certainly look at her request and I will also ask the Department for Transport to do so. As she says, too many people suffer loss and tragedy at the hands of learner drivers in these circumstances, and we will certainly look at that.

Q7. The Royal Marines are the most adaptable of our elite infantry. They are central to our amphibious capability and provide much of our special forces. Does the Prime Minister agree that reducing them further at this stage would be inconsistent with this Government’s strong record on defence and security? (903813)

The Royal Marines do indeed play a vital role in defending our country and I pay tribute to them for all that they do. Protecting the UK is, of course, our priority. As my hon. Friend will know, we have in place a review—a modernising defence programme—that is about ensuring that our defence capabilities meet the rapidly changing and evolving threats that we face. That is the right thing for us to do. Of course, any comments and suggestions that have been made about cuts to defence are purely speculative, and I remind him and other hon. Members that in fact we are committed to increasing our spending on defence.

Q6. I didn’t know about that. I don’t celebrate things like that—I don’t think you should celebrate age.Anyway, there is another group of people who need help, and they are the people who work in the national health service. What they told me last week was that the best period they ever experienced was under a Labour Government when they had the money increased from £33 billion in 1997 to £100 billion in 2010. That was a golden period. Why did that Government do it? How did they do it? The then Chancellor of the Exchequer put 1% on national insurance and, in hypothecation terms, that went directly to the health service. It is called long-term stability. Under this Government, people do not know whether they are coming or going. It is high time that this Government did the same as we did between 1997 and 2010—get weaving! (903811)

And happy birthday, Dennis.

The hon. Gentleman asks why the Labour party was in a position of being able to spend more on public services. I will tell him why: because a Conservative Government had left a golden economic legacy.

I call Alberto Costa. [Hon. Members: “More!”] Order. Mr Costa, I do not think you knew how popular you are.

Q9. Conservative-led Harborough District Council has recently refused IDI Gazeley’s proposed expansion of the enormous Magna Park logistics park in my constituency. Given the Prime Minister’s recent welcome remarks about sustainable developments, will she please arrange for me to meet the relevant Ministers to discuss the creation of a national planning framework for the future location of these enormous logistics parks? (903815)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and this matter is obviously of considerable interest to his constituents. Of course we need to get the right balance between enabling development to take place, and therefore growth, and continuing to protect and enhance our natural environment. The purpose of the planning system is to contribute towards achieving that sustainable development. On the specific issue of logistics parks, I am sure that a Housing, Communities and Local Government Minister—indeed, perhaps my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that issue.

Q8. Is the Prime Minister aware that if a universal credit claimant forgets their username or password, they must attend a face-to-face interview at a jobcentre to have it reset? The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions cannot give a date for when that will be fixed, so will the Prime Minister commit to no further jobcentre closures until universal credit claimants can access basic online functions, as are available for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and for banking? (903814)

I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to look carefully at ensuring that a date is identified for when that change will be made.

Q10. According to Library statistics, around 3,400 people in my constituency were diagnosed with cancer last year. Cancer survival rates have meant that 7,000 people are alive today who might not have been if the 2010 survival rates had stayed the same. Does my right hon. Friend see that as a testament to the NHS and the Government’s investment in it, and does she welcome that news while recognising that we need to do more? (903816)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is very good news that there are 7,000 more cancer sufferers alive today than there would have been had we simply continued with the way we were in 2010. I am very happy to join him in welcoming that news. Cancer survival rates have increased year on year, but of course we want them to increase even further. Last year, there were 7 million more diagnostic tests than in 2010, and 290,000 patients started treatment for cancer—that is 57,000 more than in 2010. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that although we should welcome the improvements that have been made and congratulate and thank the NHS staff for all they have been doing, there is more for us to do. That is why we are backing up our plans for cancer with a further £600 million to implement the cancer strategy for England.

Q12. As we heard earlier, the Prime Minister continues to be in denial about rising crime and falling police numbers. Despite her repeated assurances, budgets have not been protected for my local police force, which has already lost £80 million and 1,000 police officers. Will she meet me and a delegation of Portsmouth small businesses, which do so much for my local economy yet have seen significant rises in break-ins and crime as a result of Tory cuts? (903818)

Obviously I will look at the hon. Gentleman’s request, but those who are concerned about the way in which policing is being undertaken in their area should actually speak to their local police, who make operational decisions about what is happening. We have protected overall police spending and continue to do so. Indeed more money is being put into the police. I remind him that it was a Labour shadow Home Secretary who said that police budgets could be cut by 10%.

Q11. NHS figures show that, in the south-west, the growth in NHS funding is 2.2% less than the national average. It is also true that the situation is more challenging in the south-west because of an ageing demographic and issues due to sparsity. Does my right hon. Friend agree that providers in the south-west, including NHS Kernow, deserve their fair share of NHS funding? Will she take action to address this inequality? (903817)

The national formula, which is the basis for calculating the funding for clinical commissioning groups, takes into account a large number of factors, including rurality and demographics, which are the factors that my hon. Friend suggests need to be considered. NHS Kernow did see an increase in its funding this year and it will see a further increase next year, taking its funding to more than £760 million. That is part of our commitment to ensuring that we put extra funding into the NHS, but of course we continue to look at ensuring that the distribution of that funding takes account of all the factors that it needs to.

Q13. Under the Vagrancy Act 1824, rough sleeping is illegal. The Act was used nearly 2,000 times last year to drag homeless people before the courts. Scotland and Northern Ireland have already repealed it, so will the Prime Minister support my Bill to consign this heartless, Dickensian law to the history books across the whole United Kingdom? (903819)

We recognise that we need to take action in relation to rough sleeping, which is why we are putting more money into projects to reduce rough sleeping. That includes projects such as Housing First, which are being established in a number of places to ensure that we can provide for those who are rough sleeping. None of us wants to see anybody rough sleeping on our streets, which is why the Government are taking action.

Today is the anniversary of the signing of the Maastricht treaty, and we have come a very long way. May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her approach to the customs union? May I also mention the fact that, in the Liaison Committee last December, I warned her about ultimatums from the EU, as I did again in my urgent question only last week? Will she be good enough to be very robust when discussing these matters in the Brexit Committee, as I am sure that she will be, so that we ensure that we repudiate any of these EU threats?

At the time when the Maastricht legislation was going through this House, I suspect that there would not have been many thinking that my hon. Friend would stand up to recognise the anniversary of the signing of the Maastricht treaty. I suspect that he feels able to do so only because we are coming out of the European Union. I assure him that we will be robust in our arguments. As I have said right from the very beginning, we will hear noises off and all sorts of things being said about positions, but what matters is the position that we take in the negotiations as we sit down to negotiate the best deal. We have shown that we can do that; we did it December and we will do it again.

Q14. Kirklees Council, which serves my constituency of Colne Valley, has already had its budget cut by nearly £200 million, with a possible £45 million of cuts still to come. Which of the following things would the Prime Minister recommend that it cuts next: care for an older person with dementia; emptying the bins; providing hot school meals for vulnerable children; libraries, leisure centres and museums; or supporting the 24% of children living in poverty? Your choice, Prime Minister. (903820)

I would have thought that the hon. Lady should be welcoming the improvements that have taken place in her constituency, welcoming the many more children who are in good or outstanding schools as a result of this Government, welcoming the extra health funding, welcoming—[Interruption.]

Order. The Prime Minister is in the middle of giving her answer—perhaps she has concluded it—and Members must not shout at the Prime Minister when she is doing so. The Prime Minister has concluded; I call Chris Philp.

Recent reports have suggested that the European Commission is asking that we enter into certain limited, legally-binding agreements in relation to bits of our exit in isolation. Will the Prime Minister confirm that it remains the Government’s policy that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and that we will therefore only enter into a legally-binding agreement in relation to the entire exit agreement, not just parts of it?

My hon. Friend is right. It was reflected in the joint report published in December that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. The negotiations that are now taking place are to put greater detail into the definition of the implementation period, and we expect to do that by the March European Council. Alongside side that, the negotiations will look at the legal basis of the withdrawal agreement. Of course, both the withdrawal agreement and the implementation Bill will have to come to this Parliament for agreement in due course. At that stage, I would expect to have the future relationship set out in a way that means people are able to look at the whole package when they come to make that decision.

The Prime Minister knows that one of the key objectives of American trade negotiators in any future deal after Brexit is to secure access for American companies to do business in the NHS. Will she give an absolute guarantee that the NHS will be excluded from the scope of those negotiations? Will she also confirm that she has made it absolutely clear to President Trump in her conversations with him that the NHS is not for sale?

We are starting the discussions with the American Administration, first of all looking at what we can already do to increase trade between the US and the United Kingdom—even before the possibility of any free trade agreement. The right hon. Gentleman does not know what the American Administration are going to say about their requirements for that free trade agreement. We will go into those negotiations to get the best possible deal for the United Kingdom.

A recent report by Open Doors highlights the top countries where Christians suffer horrific persecution. We need to take action and send a signal to other nations. These countries are often associated with luxury holidays. Will the Prime Minister consider earmarking a specific fixed percentage of international aid to go towards tackling religious persecution?

I know that this is an issue of concern to many Members of the House. I was pleased, a matter of weeks ago, to meet Father Daniel from Nineveh and Idlib, who talked about the very real persecution that his congregation were suffering and had suffered in the past. He presented me with a bible that was burnt; it had been rescued when a church had been set on fire. This is a real issue. All our aid is distributed on the basis of need in order to ensure that civilians are not discriminated against on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion. We are working with Governments, the international community and the United Nations to support the rights of minorities and to ensure that our aid reaches those in need. We will, of course, further explore what more support we can give to ensure that we address the persecution of religious minorities.

The Prime Minister will be aware that all free trade agreements involve some customs checks and, therefore, infrastructure at frontiers, which would be completely incompatible with maintaining an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. As the Cabinet Sub-Committee will apparently finally get around to discussing this today, will the Prime Minister explain to the House why she is so opposed to the UK remaining in a customs union with the EU? Not only would this be better for the British economy than a vague “deep and special partnership”—whatever that is—but it would help to ensure that that border remains as it is today, which is what we all want.

The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. That means that we are leaving the single market and the customs union. If we were a full member of the customs union, we would not be able to do trade deals around the rest of the world. And we are going to have an independent trade policy and do those deals. The right hon. Gentleman asks about customs arrangements. Well, I suggest that he looks at the paper published by the Government last summer.

The brain injury charity, Headway, says that a family recently had to pay £1,500 over 15 weeks in hospital car parking charges. CLIC Sargent says that families who visit their children who are sick with cancer have to pay hundreds of pounds in parking charges. Despite Government guidelines, 50% of hospitals charge for disabled parking, and staff—from nurses to hospital porters—have to pay hospital car parking charges. Given the unanimous support for the motion in the House of Commons last week, will the Prime Minister address this social injustice and abolish hospital car parking charges once and for all?

I recognise that my hon. Friend has been campaigning on this issue for some time. As he says, we have set strong guidance for hospital trusts on the issue of car parking charges, and we do of course look to ensure that it is being met. Individual hospitals are taking their own decisions on this matter, but it is right that the Government have set very clear guidelines for those hospitals as to how they should approach this.

The Prime Minister has done much to tackle modern slavery. My constituent was trafficked here as a child, sold at least once on the long journey, and then forced to work in the dark in a cannabis factory for years. Now the Home Office is proposing to send him back to Vietnam. Will the Prime Minister intervene not just in this case but in this complex and confused area of the law?

I recognise that, as the hon. Lady says, there are cases that are complex in terms of the legal application. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has heard the case that the hon. Lady has set out and will, I am sure, look at that particular issue—both the individual case and the wider point that she is making. As we know, the best possible solution to this, which we all want to ensure, is for people like her constituent not to be trafficked into the UK in the first place to work in these cannabis factories.

Like many, I am delighted to note the good progress in lifting the ban on beef exports to China. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that we are able to export Scotch beef and other Scottish products such as whisky to other parts and all parts of the world?

I was very pleased that when I was in China last week we were able to work with the Chinese Government towards the opening up of the Chinese market, particularly to beef products and dairy products, which are two key issues for the United Kingdom. I am also pleased to say that the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association was on the business delegation with me, and was doing everything that she does, most ably, to promote the interests of Scotch whisky. Of course, the answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that we are making sure that we can have an independent trade policy, developing trade deals around the rest of the world, which means that good Scottish products, and indeed good products from the rest of the UK, can be sold around the world.

Centuries- old GKN, a world-class company and Britain’s third-biggest engineering company, is facing a hostile takeover by Melrose, leading to break-up, sell-off, closures and redundancies. That would make a mockery of industrial strategy. The Government have the power to intervene because of the defence work carried out by GKN. Will the Prime Minister act in the national interest and block this unwanted takeover?

Of course, the Business Department will be looking closely at, and has been following closely, the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I can assure him that I, and the Government as a whole, will always act in the UK national interest.

With one of the largest undeveloped brownfield sites in the country located in my constituency in Stanton, will my right hon. Friend explain to the House how the new housing infrastructure fund will help Erewash residents to buy a new home?

The housing infrastructure fund is a very important development. One of the major complaints that constituents—residents—often have when they see the possibility of development in their area is lack of infrastructure. The housing infrastructure fund enables that infrastructure to be put in place so that it can support developments in a way that helps to support local residents. I am very pleased by the Housing Secretary’s announcement of nearly £900 million last week. We are seeing real interest in the housing infrastructure fund. It is making a difference. It is enabling more homes to be built and more of my hon. Friend’s constituents to buy their own home.

My constituent is 58. She has COPD, four pins in her leg, and a walking frame, and is just out of hospital after having blood clots in her lung. She got a taxi to Bridgeton jobcentre yesterday, only to find the doors locked because the Government closed it on Friday. Will the Prime Minister apologise for not having told my constituents in Bridgeton, or any of the constituents, apparently, whose jobcentres are being closed; will she refund my constituent the £10 she spent on a taxi; and will she apologise for this absolutely ridiculous situation?

I say to the hon. Lady that, yes, we are seeing some jobcentres being closed in Scotland. There is not going to be any decrease in the level of service that is offered to the people of Scotland. We are increasing the number of work coaches across the country. What we are doing is ensuring that we can continue to provide a good service to the people of Scotland.

Intimidation on social media is a growing issue for many people across the country, especially for women standing for election, as yesterday highlighted. Can my right hon. Friend update us on the progress that is being made and does she agree that we should take no lessons from a party whose shadow Chancellor has called for violence against women on this side of the House?

May I say to my hon. Friend that I think this issue is a particularly important one? I said yesterday, as indeed my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said at the weekend, that we are consulting on a new offence of intimidation of election candidates and campaigners. That follows the report from Lord Bew and his committee about the degree to which there was intimidation at the last general election, particularly intimidation of women, BME candidates and LGBT candidates. This is an absolute disgrace and it has no part in our public life. I would urge the shadow Chancellor, once again—he keeps refusing to do this—to apologise to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for saying that she should be lynched.