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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
21 March 2018
Volume 638

House of Commons

Wednesday 21 March 2018

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Political Parties: Loans and Donations

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1. For what reasons the decision was made to publish information about loans and donations given to Northern Ireland political parties dating back to July 2017 rather than 2014. [904409]

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The recent publication by the Electoral Commission of donations and loans data for Northern Ireland parties is a positive step that should be welcomed by the whole House. The decision to backdate transparency was taken on the basis of broad support from the majority of political parties in Northern Ireland.

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It has recently been revealed that a portion of the largest ever political donation given to a party in Northern Ireland was spent on services linked to Cambridge Analytica. In the light of that, should not the Secretary of State backdate transparency regulations to 2014, so that we can finally have full disclosure about where that cash came from?

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As I say, the decision to backdate to July 2017 was taken due to the broad support of the majority of parties in Northern Ireland. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), took time to consult the parties, and July 2017 was the date that they wished to start the transparency from.

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I think that my right hon. Friend has already answered the question I wanted to ask: did all the parties agree not to take it back to 2014?

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As I say, my predecessor consulted all the parties, and this position was supported by the broad majority of them.

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The Secretary of State will be able to confirm that even if the regulations did go back to 2014, no information would be published that has not already been published. Will she also confirm that there is a disparity when there is no mention in this Chamber or elsewhere of the dark money received by Northern Ireland parties from foreign jurisdictions? This is the only place where that is allowed to occur, and it should stop.

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I firmly believe that transparency is the important thing that we have here. We should all know where money is coming from, and I understand the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

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I am very interested to hear the Secretary of State’s explanation of why the Northern Ireland Office deliberately and wilfully ignored the advice and recommendations of the Electoral Commission that the publication of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland should be backdated to 2014, not 2017.

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There was no wilful ignoring or anything else. My predecessor consulted all the parties in Northern Ireland and there was broad support for July 2017.

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We know about one questionable donation that was channelled from Scotland through the Democratic Unionist party to be used in the Brexit referendum. People are rightly asking what the original source of that money was and whether there are others that we do not know about. If the Secretary of State will not consider revising the recent decision to limit transparency by taking it back to 2014, will she bring forward legislation to allow the individual parties to instruct the Electoral Commission to reveal their donation data?

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As I have said, we are keen to ensure that there is transparency, but the question the hon. Lady asks is a matter for political parties themselves, not the Government.

Leaving the EU: Discussions with Political Parties

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2. What recent discussions she has had with Northern Ireland political parties on the UK leaving the EU. [904410]

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8. What recent discussions she has had with Northern Ireland political parties on the UK leaving the EU. [904416]

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The Secretary of State and I have regular conversations with the Northern Ireland political parties on a range of issues. This includes matters relating to the UK’s departure from the European Union. As we have said repeatedly, these conversations are no replacement for a fully functioning, locally elected and democratically accountable Executive. That is what the people of Northern Ireland need, and that is what we are focused on.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that as we leave the EU, it is essential that current levels of security and co-operation between the UK and Ireland, which are so important in the fight against terrorism, are maintained and enhanced?

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I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. All parties have been clear that there will not be any disruption to north-south security co-operation when it comes to policing and tackling the terrorist threat. I applaud the incredible work done by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda to keep us safe. That will not change after our EU exit.

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Will my hon. Friend assure the House that as the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU, this Government’s commitment to the Belfast agreement remains steadfast?

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Yes. I can categorically provide my hon. Friend with the commitment that he seeks. Our negotiating strategy puts our support for the Belfast agreement at the heart of our approach to the Northern Ireland-Ireland dialogue. As the Prime Minister and others have said on numerous occasions, we will continue to abide by the UK’s commitments in the Belfast agreement.

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Given the meeting on Monday between the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Michel Barnier, will the Minister confirm that it remains the Government’s clear position that the so-called backstop arrangement proposed by the EU Commission is something that no British Prime Minister or Government could ever agree to?

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The Prime Minister has made her views absolutely clear on that. Our country’s economic and constitutional integrity will not be harmed.

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I thank the Minister for debunking the notion that, as a result of the transition arrangements, somehow the Government have reneged on that pledge and for confirming that the Government remain firmly committed to the constitutional, political and economic integrity of the UK. Will he ensure that industries such as the Northern Ireland fishing industry are protected after we leave the EU and that we will take back control of our territorial waters, including our rights for our fishermen?

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The right hon. Gentleman makes some very good points. I can confirm that the agreement reached in December in the joint report remains, and that Britain will do all that it can to ensure that all our industries, particularly fisheries, are maintained and that our fishermen and the industry are well looked after.

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I am sure that one issue the Minister and the Secretary of State will have discussed with the political parties in Northern Ireland is the problems they see with a hard border returning in Ireland. What are those problems and what does the Minister suggest that we do to avoid them?

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The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and many others have made it absolutely clear that there will be no hard border.

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That is not much of an answer. The Government should acknowledge that the parties all think that there would be problems with a hard border, as do the Chief Constable, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Irish Government and many Conservative Members. Should he not therefore acknowledge the problems and tell the House that the only way to avoid a hard border is for us to stay within the customs union and the single market?

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The people of Britain—England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales—collectively agreed to leave the single market and customs union, and that will be the case. As for the border, the December joint report made it absolutely clear that there will be no physical infrastructure and no hard border. There will be a frictionless border, and that is what is being negotiated and discussed.

Leaving the EU: Cross-border Trade

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3. What recent discussions she has had with the Irish Government on cross-border trade after the UK leaves the EU. [904411]

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5. What recent discussions she has had with the Irish Government on cross-border trade after the UK leaves the EU. [904413]

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6. What recent discussions she has had with the Irish Government on cross-border trade after the UK leaves the EU. [904414]

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7. What recent discussions she has had with the Irish Government on cross-border trade after the UK leaves the EU. [904415]

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I have regular conversations with the Irish Government. We both recognise the importance of the trade that takes place across the island of Ireland, which is worth £4 billion to the Northern Ireland economy. Equally, Great Britain markets are fundamental to Northern Ireland, with sales worth some £14.6 billion. As the Prime Minister reinforced in her Mansion House speech, we are committed to protecting both these vital markets.

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The Tánaiste told the Dáil yesterday that there would be no formal withdrawal agreement between the EU and the UK if the Irish border issue was not resolved. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), has already said this morning that there will be no hard border, but will the Secretary of State explain how that will come about?

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I do not think that the hon. Lady has said anything that is news to anybody. We are committed to the agreement we made in the joint report and to the Belfast agreement and all that it stands for. We will ensure that there is no new physical infrastructure at the border and that there is frictionless trade.

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Simon Coveney also told the Dáil yesterday that the UK Government had provided a cast-iron guarantee that there would be no physical infrastructure, checks or controls at the border post Brexit. Will the Secretary of State confirm this—yes or no?

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I think that I just answered that question. There will be frictionless trade and movement at the border, and no new physical infrastructure.

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Last week, the Prime Minister spoke quite favourably about the “Smart Border 2.0” report from Dr Lars Karlsson. Yesterday, in evidence to the Brexit Committee, Dr Karlsson confirmed that the report was not tailored to the needs of Ireland and that it was incompatible with the December agreement that there would be no hard border in Ireland. Can the Government confirm that Dr Karlsson’s report will not form the basis of any future negotiations or agreement with the EU?

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I confess that I am not familiar with that particular report. I will look into it.

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Yesterday, the Irish Foreign Minister suggested that the EU-UK transition arrangements could be extended beyond 2020 if better arrangements were not in place for the Irish border. Do the problems with dealing with the border mean that the UK could stay in the single market, the customs union and the common fisheries policy for longer, but without having any say?

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I presume that the hon. Gentleman wrote his question before the announcement in Brussels by Michel Barnier and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. The transitional arrangements will end in December 2020. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and leaving the European Union means leaving the single market and the customs union—that is what we will do.

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I am sure that my right hon. Friend has every sympathy with the Irish Government. They did not want Brexit, and there are lots of risks for Ireland and no upside. Will my right hon. Friend nevertheless impress on her interlocutors in Dublin that the option presented in the draft withdrawal agreement is wholly unacceptable and that they should work with us to ensure that option 1 in the December joint report goes ahead?

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Both the UK Government and the Irish Government have stated that they would like to address the issue of the Irish border through the overall UK-EU relationship, as set out in option 1 in the joint report.

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A competitive free trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union is clearly in the interests of both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Will my right hon. Friend therefore take the opportunity to suggest to the Taoiseach and others that it is in their interests to put pressure on the European Union to negotiate just that deal?

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I would sum it up by saying that this is either a win-win or a lose-lose; there is no win-lose option whereby one side loses and the other wins. We will all benefit if we secure free trade arrangements and deal with the Irish border through the overall UK-EU relationship.

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Does my right hon. Friend share my confidence that we will find a satisfactory solution to such trade issues in the negotiations before we leave the EU?

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I do share my right hon. Friend’s optimism. I believe that we can negotiate a deal that works for all sides.

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Does the Secretary of State think that it would be a good idea to ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Mr Barnier to come to the border—not for a press conference, but for a full day—to see the hundreds upon hundreds of crossing points and to debunk the nonsense and myth of a hard border, which would be irrelevant and impossible to enforce?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There are more crossing points in the 310 miles of land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic than there are on the whole eastern land border between the European Union and non-member states. However, I think that it will reassure the hon. Gentleman to know that both Mr Barnier, who was working in the European Commission at the time of the Belfast agreement, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union are very familiar with that border.

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Now that spring has come and there is a lightness and warmth in the air, may the equinoctial optimism extend to all politicians in Northern Ireland!

I know that the Secretary of State is well aware of the important role played by the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, particularly during the previous period of direct rule, when there were 18 meetings between 1999 and 2007. With no devolution, and with the horrors of Brexit looming ever larger, what plans does she have to reconvene the BIIGC, and when and where will it be reconvened?

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It seems ironic that on the day when there are exactly 12 hours of daylight, we have scheduled 12 hours of programmed time in which to debate Northern Ireland legislation.

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Not enough.

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It may well not be enough; it will depend on how the shadow Secretary of State feels.

I regularly discuss with both the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach issues relating to our commitments in the Belfast agreement, and I continue to reflect on those matters.

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I am bound to say that I am a little disappointed that there was a less than fully attentive audience for the legendary thespian performance of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), to which many of us have become accustomed over the last two decades, but there are always other occasions on which people can listen more closely—and should.

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Shall I do it again?

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Another time. Let us keep it for the long summer evenings that lie ahead. I call Tom Pursglove.

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How do you follow that, Mr Speaker?

Leaving the EU: The Economy

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4. What steps the Government are taking to identify opportunities to strengthen Northern Ireland’s economy as the UK leaves the EU. [904412]

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I am not even going to try to follow that.

The Government are committed to building a stronger economy fit for the future right across the United Kingdom. That is clear from our industrial strategy and the Chancellor’s spring statement, where we continue to identify further opportunities for investment in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, however, a key requirement for stronger growth is political stability. That is why it is essential that a restored Executive are in place to take forward strategic decisions to deliver for Northern Ireland’s economy.

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Tayto has operations not only in Corby, but in Northern Ireland, and it is very good news that in recent times the operation has expanded considerably. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that such UK-wide manufacturing industries continue to grow and prosper?

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Tayto Group is the third largest snack manufacturer in the UK. It employs some 1,500 people right across the country—from Tandragee to Corby, and from Scunthorpe to Devon—and is one of the many success stories for growth. Through our industrial strategy, we are creating conditions in which successful businesses such as Tayto Group can thrive, helping them to invest in the future of our nation. We are shaping our business environment to take on the challenges and opportunities of new technologies and new ways of doing business, especially as we leave the EU, and to develop new trade relationships and expand our global trade networks.

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The Institute of Export and International Trade says that if Northern Ireland is not in the single market or customs union, it will face 350 million new product codes. How many tens of thousands of administrators would Northern Ireland need to continue its current trade, let alone expand it?

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I can rebut such pessimistic claims with actual fact. The employment figures that we will publish this morning say that there are 66,000 more jobs now than in 2010, with 15,000 of them created in the last year. Since 2010, we have 12,300 new businesses.

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When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, this House will no longer be prohibited from reducing the rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland. If the institutions are not up and running by that time, would the Minister consider taking that step?

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We very much hope that the devolved Assembly will be up and running, because it is for the Assembly to take the decision of reducing corporation tax. We are very committed to it doing that on the basis that it can show sustainable finances.

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Despite the ongoing political situation, Northern Ireland has had a very positive business environment this year, particularly in relation to foreign direct investment. Will the Minister consider establishing a formal and regular business forum to include Invest NI and organisations and local businesses in Northern Ireland, to ensure that they can maximise opportunities that arise from the UK leaving the EU?

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The hon. Lady makes a good point. I have just been assured by my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary that he would be happy to participate in such a venture.

Police Recruitment and Overtime

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9. If she will hold discussions with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland on recruiting more officers and reducing its overtime budget. [904417]

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Policing is a devolved matter and should be overseen by a restored Executive at Stormont. The Chief Constable continues to engage extensively with the Northern Ireland Department of Justice on operational and financial issues. Both the Secretary of State and I have met the Chief Constable to discuss various issues. The PSNI does a superb job and will always have the fullest possible support of this Government. We have committed an extra £32 million a year to support its response to Northern Ireland-related terrorism.

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I thank the Minister for his response. Bearing in mind the fact that the potential overtime bill for the PSNI is £48 million, will he further outline his perception regarding recruitment, as it would be better to have a recruitment policy involving more feet on the ground, because that would adjust the overtime bill and ensure that police officers would not be burnt out because they have to work overtime? Will Ministers agree to do that?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but he will be aware that PSNI operational matters such as staffing levels are a matter for the Chief Constable. I hope that he will take on board what the hon. Gentleman says.

Leaving the EU: Healthcare

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10. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that healthcare provision in Northern Ireland is maintained after the UK leaves the EU. [904418]

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There is ongoing positive engagement between UK Government officials and the Northern Ireland civil service to ensure that the current provision is maintained as part of the common travel area, as agreed in the joint report in the December Council.

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At the moment, children from Northern Ireland can access emergency heart surgery in Dublin, cancer patients from the Republic can have treatment in Derry and ambulances cross the border to attend emergencies. Can the Secretary of State give an absolute guarantee that that will continue post Brexit?

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I visited the hospital in Derry and saw for myself the excellent treatment that patients from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland receive there. About a third of the patients at that hospital come from the Republic. It is essential that we maintain that situation by maintaining the common travel area, as agreed in the joint report in December. [Interruption.]

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Order. There is a considerable hubbub in the Chamber, which is arguably discourteous to the people of Northern Ireland and certainly unfair on Members from Northern Irish constituencies. Let us have a respectful hearing for Mr David Simpson.

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The Secretary of State will be aware of the European health card system. Does she envisage that system continuing when we leave the European Union, or will there be some other arrangement?

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The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that that was one of the early matters to be settled as part of the negotiations with the European Union. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union was able to ensure that that will continue.

Live Animal Exports

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11. What steps she is taking to prevent the unnecessary suffering of live animals exported from Northern Ireland. [904419]

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The Government are committed to improving the welfare of all animals. We expect animals across the UK to be transported in conditions that comply fully with welfare requirements, and would prefer animals across the UK to be slaughtered close to the point of production. Animal welfare is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland; it would be for a future Northern Ireland Executive to determine their own policy.

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May I seek assurances that, as we leave the European Union, in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the United Kingdom we will use the opportunity to enhance animal welfare standards?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government share the public’s high regard for animal welfare, and we are proud to have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. He will appreciate, however, that animal welfare is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and it would be for a future Northern Ireland Executive to determine their own policy. We have been clear that when we leave the EU, we will not only maintain the existing rules on animal welfare but, where possible, look to strengthen those requirements.

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As the Minister has said, Northern Ireland has very high animal welfare standards, and surely we can do better than what the EU offers in terms of animal welfare standards.

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It is our intention not only to stay at the same level but to continue to improve our levels of animal welfare.

Devolved Government

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12. What progress has been made on restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland. [904420]

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I set out—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] It is nice to be welcomed so loudly—[Interruption.]

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Order. It is impossible to hear the Secretary of State. She did not realise just how popular she was, but now she knows.

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I set out the Government’s approach to restoring devolved government in my statement to the House on 12 March. As I said then, the UK Government remain determined to see devolved government re-established. We are continuing to work with all the Northern Ireland parties—and with the Irish Government, as appropriate—towards restoring the Executive and a fully functioning Assembly.

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What progress has the Secretary of State made on involving Assembly Members in scrutiny? Has she had discussions with the political parties, and does she expect them to be involved in the scrutiny of the budget proposals announced yesterday?

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Specifically on the budget, I made sure that all the main political parties represented in Stormont had sight of it before I announced it, because I sincerely hope that they will be the parties that will actually deliver that budget. The right hon. Gentleman will also know from my statement of 12 March that I have had a number of representations and that I continue to receive suggestions about how we might get some form of functioning Assembly working in Stormont, and I am considering all those approaches.

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Does the Secretary of State realise that so long as Sinn Féin refuses to enter the Stormont Assembly without laying down pre-conditions and continues to create a toxic political atmosphere in Northern Ireland, there is little chance of restoring devolved government, and that she must consider ways of ensuring that Northern Ireland is governed properly in the meantime?

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As I have said, several suggestions and representations have been made to me about what the next steps might be, and I am considering all of them. I am looking at what we can do to ensure that we get something that gets us back on the road towards having a fully restored devolved Government.

Youth Commonwealth Games

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13. What support the Government is providing for the hosting of the 2021 Youth Commonwealth games in Belfast. [904421]

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Under the terms of the devolution settlement, responsibility for sporting events such as the Commonwealth youth games is a matter for the devolved Administration. The Government are continuing to work towards the restoration of a devolved Government in Northern Ireland for precisely that reason. [Interruption.]

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Order. There is still too much noise in the Chamber. Let us hear the voice of Vauxhall.

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I am afraid that that is really not good enough from the Secretary of State. Northern Ireland has won the right to host this hugely important sporting event, and the Secretary of State must make these decisions. We cannot wait until we get another Executive, which could be a very long time coming. The decision must be made, and the Secretary of State must actually show that she is in charge.

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I feel as if I were answering questions in my previous role at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, because this issue crossed my desk there. My officials have met the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council to discuss whether the option of holding the 2021 games in Northern Ireland could be sustained until such times as the devolved institutions are restored and in a position to consider the decisions required.

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Northern Ireland is heavily dependent on tourism, including event-driven tourism. Our work is linked with that of Tourism Ireland, but unfortunately, we do not believe that we are getting a fair crack of the whip in terms of delivery for our contribution to that body.

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Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman had in mind a particular focus on the games and just accidentally neglected to say so.

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The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the 2021 games would bring tourists to Northern Ireland, and I have had discussions with both the Tourism Minister and others about tourism in Northern Ireland. He will welcome the call for evidence announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor last week with regard to specific tourism issues in Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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Q1. If she will list her official engagements for Wednesday 21 March. [904494]

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Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of the Westminster terrorist attack. It was a sick and depraved attack on the streets of our capital, but what I remember most is the exceptional bravery of our police and security services, who risked their lives to keep us safe. I know that Members will be attending events tomorrow and over the weekend to mark this tragic anniversary.

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our sincere condolences to the family and friends of the Red Arrows engineer who tragically died in the aircraft incident at RAF Valley yesterday.

Members across the House will also wish to join me in congratulating Andria Zafirakou, who recently won the global teacher prize. It is a fitting tribute to everything that she has done, and I look forward to meeting her shortly to congratulate her in person.

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.

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I am sure that the whole House will want to be associated with the condolences and congratulations that the Prime Minister has just expressed.

Since 2010, Merseyside police has lost 1,084 police officers. In 2017, crime in Knowsley went up by 18.5%, and there were 21 firearm discharges, one of which resulted in a fatality. Across the force area, there were 94 firearm discharges, with four fatalities. Local MPs have met Home Office Ministers, but no extra resources have been provided. Will the Prime Minister arrange for the Home Secretary to meet local MPs to discuss what additional support can be given to deal with that serious problem?

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I say to the right hon. Gentleman that with the Knowsley safety partnership with Merseyside police, crime statistics in his constituency have fallen by 9% since the year ending June 2010. He mentioned some incidents that are of real concern, and I am sure that the police are giving their full attention to them. We are ensuring that overall—[Interruption.] He points at the Home Secretary, but my right hon. Friend is ensuring that overall, in the next year, not only will we protect police budgets but we will see, with precept, £450 million extra available to police forces across the country.

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Q3. May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s earlier comments? Britain’s ability to trade with the world has been curtailed by the EU for over 40 years, but we have now won the ability to sign our own trade agreements around the world. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is Brexit’s greatest opportunity and ensures that we can embrace the globe as a truly proud international country once again? [904496]

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. He is absolutely right—I agree with him that this is an important opportunity for the United Kingdom post Brexit, because for the first time in 40 years we will be able to step out into the world and forge our own way by negotiating our own trade agreements and signing trade deals with old friends and new allies alike. We will, of course, be able to do that. As he knows, from next March we will no longer be a member state of the European Union, and in due course we will be able to bring into force new trade arrangements around the rest of the world—a truly global Britain.

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I, too, join the Prime Minister in commemorating the attacks that took place in Westminster a year ago, and I, too, will be at some of the events tomorrow. We should all remember this as an attack on democracy within our society.

I also join the Prime Minister in sending condolences to the friends and family of the Red Arrows engineer who sadly died yesterday. We wish the pilot well in his recovery.

I had the pleasure of meeting Andria Zafirakou, who won the global teacher award, just before she went off to receive it, and we should all congratulate her and Alperton School in Brent on the great work that she does there.

Today is the Kurdish new year, Newroz, so can we wish all Kurdish people around the world a happy new year and, particularly for those who are suffering so much in the conflict in Syria, a hope of peace in the year to come?

Does the Prime Minister believe that the collapse of Northamptonshire Council is the result of Conservative incompetence at a local level, or is it Conservative incompetence at a national level?

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May I first join the right hon. Gentleman in wishing all those who are celebrating a very happy Newroz?

If we are looking at what is happening in relation to local councils, obviously there has been a report on Northamptonshire County Council, but let us look at what we see across the board in councils. [Interruption.] Yes, yes—if we look at what is happening in councils up and down the country there is one message for everybody: Conservative councils cost you less.

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My question was actually quite specific to Northamptonshire. The Tory leader of the council said:

“We have been warning Government from about 2013-14…we couldn’t cope with the level of cuts that we were facing”.

Three years ago, that council bragged that it was pioneering an “easy council” model. It then proceeded to outsource 96% of council staff, and transferred them to new service providers, which were run like private companies paying dividends. Now that council has gone bust. Does the Prime Minister really believe that the slash and burn model for local government is really a good one?

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I say to the right hon. Gentleman, first, that it would be helpful if he accurately reflected the independent statutory inspection, which concluded last week. The report was clear that Northamptonshire’s failure is not a case of underfunding. Indeed, Northamptonshire’s core spending power is set to rise by £14.5 million, so the attack he is making—that this is all about the amount of money the Government are providing—is not correct. What we are ensuring is that councils are able to provide good services up and down the country, and that is what we see with Conservative councils up and down the country—they are costing people less than Labour.

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But the problem is that Northampton- shire has gone bust, and this is caused by the Conservative Government and a Conservative council. It is a model still being used by Barnet Borough Council, which, until very recently, was run by the Conservatives—they lost control of it this week. Capita holds contracts there with an estimated value of £500 million. What has Barnet done? It has cut council staff every year and increased spending on consultants every year. Government cuts mean that councils across England are facing a £5.8 billion funding gap by 2020. So with hindsight, does the Prime Minister really believe it was right to prioritise tax cuts for the super-rich and big business? [Interruption.]

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Order. The House is becoming rather overexcited. I said a moment ago that the Prime Minister’s answer must be heard. The question from the Leader of the Opposition must also be heard, and it will be, however long it takes. [Interruption.] Mr Snell, you are behaving in a most undignified manner—compose yourself, man.

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There seemed to be a lot of concern among Conservative Members about my suggestion that the Government had prioritised tax cuts for the super-rich and big business, and put them as more important than funding for social care, libraries, repairing potholes, bin collection or street cleaning.

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The right hon. Gentleman talks about bin collection. Well, people living in Birmingham under a Labour-run council saw thousands of tonnes of waste on the streets because the council was failing to collect the bins. He talks about tax, and we all know that the top 1% of taxpayers are paying a higher burden of tax than they ever paid under Labour. And we all know what Labour would mean for council tax payers, because just this week the shadow Communities Secretary—[Interruption.] “Oh”, he says. Could that be because he does not want people to know what he is supporting? He has supported a plan to stop local taxpayers having the right to stop tax hikes; he is supporting a plan to introduce a land value tax—a tax on your home and your garden—and he wants to introduce a new hotel tax. We all know what would happen under Labour: more taxes, and ordinary working people would pay the price.

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The shadow Secretary of State supports councils, thinks they should be properly funded and does not think they should be a vehicle for privatisation.

The leader of Surrey County Council, who happens to be a Conservative, has said:

“We are facing the most difficult financial crisis in our history.”

He did not mince his words, because he went on to say:

“The Government cannot…stand idly by while Rome burns.”

Council funding has been cut by half since 2010. Households in England now face council tax rises of £1 billion. The Tory leader of the Local Government Association says that

“councils will have to continue to cut back services or stop some altogether”

due to Government cuts. So as people open their council tax bills, is it not clear what the Conservative message is—pay more to get less?

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The average council tax for a band D property is £100 less under Conservative councils than it is under Labour councils. The right hon. Gentleman says that his shadow Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is supporting councils, but I wonder whether he supports these councils: Haringey, where the Labour leader was forced out; Brighton, where the Labour leader was forced out; and Cornwall, where the Labour group leader was forced out. What had these people done? They had supported building more homes, providing good local services and tackling anti-Semitism in the Labour party. The message is clear: if you believe in good local services, want to see more homes built and want to tackle anti-Semitism, there is no place for you in the Labour party.

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Labour councils build houses; Conservative councils privatise—[Interruption.]

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Order. There is a very raucous atmosphere. I have said it before and I will say it again: Back-Bench Members should seek to imitate the zen-like calm of the Father of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is an example to us all.

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We all admire zen, Mr Speaker.

Pay more for less is the Conservative message. In Leicestershire, the county council is pushing through £50 million-worth of cuts and council tax increases of 6%. Its deputy leader blamed chronically low Government funding. That is the Tory message: pay more to get less. It is not just households: the average small shop will see its rates bill increase by £3,600. Empty shops suck all the life out of our high streets and local communities, so why is the Prime Minister presiding over a Government who are tearing the heart out of our local high streets?

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First of all, we have provided extra support for small businesses in relation to business rates. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman talks about Labour councils building homes, but we have seen more council homes being built under this Government than under 13 years of a Labour Government. He talks about what councillors are saying at a local level; I am pleased to say that yesterday two Labour councillors from Ashfield District Council joined the Conservatives, and what did one of them say? He said:

“Both locally and nationally”

the Labour party

“has been taken over by the hard-left who are more interested in fighting internal ideological battles than standing up for the priorities of working men and women.”

Conservatives will always welcome people who care about their local area and we will always stand up for people in their local area.

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Half a million businesses will see their rates rise this year, some by 500%. Even Mary Portas, who led the Government’s “Save the High Street” campaign, said that it was simply a

“PR campaign which looked like ‘hey, we’re doing something’ and I hoped it might kick-start something—but it didn’t.”

The Conservative Government have slashed public services. They cut funding and expect councils to pick up the pieces. The result is that children’s centres are closing, schools are struggling, there are fewer police on the streets, older people are being left without care or dignity, and refuges are turning women away. The Tories’ own head of local government says it is unsustainable. Doesn’t it tell us everything we need to know about the Government that they demand that households and businesses pay more to get less?

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This Government are spending more on our schools and on our NHS than ever before. We are able to do that because of the balanced approach we take to our economy and because of the strong economy we see under the Conservatives. I notice that in his six questions the right hon. Gentleman did not mention today’s unemployment figures. Employment is at a joint record high. Unemployment has not been lower since 1975. Economic inactivity is at a record low. That is a strong jobs market. Who benefits from a strong jobs market? Labour staffers, Labour council leaders and moderate Labour Members of Parliament.

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Q4. I can only assume that the Leader of the Opposition has not read the report about Northamptonshire County Council; I commend it to him. But I want to focus on a different issue today. Worldwide, every minute, millions of throwaway paper coffee cups go to landfill. To solve that, we need industry, consumers and the Government to work together. In that spirit, Amaray, a company in my constituency, has developed a fully recyclable alternative cup; it can be easily recycled, unlike the current option. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming that innovation? Perhaps if she is around afterwards, I might be able to give one to her. [904497]

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I am very happy to say to my hon. Friend that, if he would like to come along and see me afterwards, I am very happy to do that. He has raised an important point. As he knows, we are committed to wanting to leave our environment in a better state than we found it. I congratulate Amaray and welcome the innovation that it has shown. This is an important example of working with industry to ensure that we are dealing with this issue of plastic waste. We were clear in our 25-year environment plan that that is what we want to do, and Amaray is a very good example of exactly that.

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May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister about the terrorist atrocity in Westminster a year ago? Our thoughts are obviously with those who gave their lives and, of course, with the emergency services. I also want to associate myself with the remarks about the loss of the engineer.

Does the Prime Minister agree that subverting the democratic political process of any country is totally unacceptable?

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We certainly believe in ensuring that democratic processes are able to continue and that people see free and fair elections. I think that is what everybody in this House would recognise and would accept.

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I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. May I point out to her that the parent company of Cambridge Analytica is Strategic Communications Laboratories? It has been run by a chairman of the Oxford Conservative Association. Its founding chairman was a former Conservative MP. A director appears to have donated more than £700,000 to the Tory party. A former Conservative party treasurer is a shareholder. We know about the links to the Conservative party: they go on and on. Will the Prime Minister confirm to the House her Government’s connections to the company?

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The right hon. Gentleman has been talking about two companies: the parent company, SCL, and Cambridge Analytica. As far as I am aware, the Government have no current contracts with Cambridge Analytica, or with the SCL group. The allegations are clearly very concerning, and it is absolutely right that they should be properly investigated. It is right that the Information Commissioner is doing exactly that because people need to have confidence in how their personal data is being used. I would expect Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and all organisations involved to comply fully with the investigation that is taking place. I am pleased to say that the Bill that we are bringing forward on data protection will strengthen legislation around data protection and give the Information Commissioner’s Office tougher powers to ensure that organisations comply. I hope that it will be supported by everybody across this House.

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We now have a lot of Back Benchers’ questions to get through.

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Q7. Some London boroughs are renting houses in Kent, including in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, for use as temporary accommodation for homeless families. My local authorities are then expected to provide those families with the support they need. That is putting a strain on Kent’s schools, hospitals and social services, which receive no extra funding to provide that support. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the London Mayor and the London boroughs should be providing more homes in the capital, so that London families can be looked after by them, instead of placing the burden of care on hard-pressed council tax payers in Kent? [904500]

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My hon. Friend is right to speak up on behalf of his constituents on this issue. London authorities must secure temporary accommodation within their own borough, as far as is reasonably practical. We have also changed the law so that councils must take into account the impact that a change in location would have on a household. However, he is absolutely right: we do want the London Mayor and London boroughs to be able to build more homes. Money has been provided to the Mayor of London to build affordable homes. It is a pity that he has not been building as many as we would like.

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Q2. School cuts in Portsmouth under this Government will reach £3.3 million by 2019, meaning that classrooms are being starved of the resources that they need, including textbooks and basic stationery. At the same time, approximately 40,000 children in the south-east are relying on food banks. If the Prime Minister were a teacher who had been under a pay cut for eight years, what would she buy a struggling child in one of my city’s classrooms—a textbook or a square meal? [904495]

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The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of school funding. As I said in response to the Leader of the Opposition, the amount of money that we are spending on schools is greater than it has ever been before. What matters is the quality of education provided in schools, which is why I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not welcome the fact that over 20,000 children in his area are now at a good or outstanding school; that is 9,000 more than in 2010.

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Q8. I am sure that we all recognise and welcome the employment figures announced today, but given the latest report that there are still unacceptably high levels of youth unemployment among ethnic communities in Britain, will my right hon. Friend explain to the House what the new £90 million fund will do to help young people into work? [904502]

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. We know these figures because of the race disparity audit that I commissioned when I became Prime Minister. The audit shows that there has been progress, but we need to do more because 16 to 24-year-olds in other ethnic groups are twice as likely as their white peers to be unemployed. The £90 million that I announced will help to tackle those inequalities in youth employment. The initiative will be run by the Big Lottery Fund, and it will identify the barriers to employment for those young people and help them to overcome those barriers. That is incredibly important. I was very pleased to visit Street League in Birmingham, which is already doing excellent work in this area.

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Q5. The war in Syria has now entered its eighth year. In recent weeks, over 1,000 people have been killed in eastern Ghouta. In Afrin, hundreds of Kurds lie dead and 200,000 civilians are desperately fleeing for their lives; even the hospital has been attacked. What will the Government do to help to bring urgent humanitarian relief for those in such despair? [904498]

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We take the situation in eastern Ghouta very seriously indeed, which is why we have raised the issue at the United Nations Security Council. The Foreign Secretary has also raised this matter with others. We have been very clear about what needed to happen to ensure that people could be protected, that humanitarian aid could get in and that safe passage could be given to those for whom it was necessary due to their condition. We will continue to press this case.

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Q9. The Select Committee on Education recently interviewed a panel of university vice-chancellors who failed to recognise that their salaries are outrageous, being twice that of the Prime Minister and mainly funded by the taxpayer and student debt. Given that these outrageous salaries are paid in even the poorest performing universities, will the Prime Minister confirm that this situation will be looked at in the post-18 education review? [904503]

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My hon. Friend has raised a point that others are concerned about as well. Of course, universities are autonomous from the Government, so it is up to them how they set the pay of their vice-chancellors and what level they set it at, but they should recognise that students and taxpayers are all contributing to our higher education system and expect value for money. The Office for Students, which has now been set up, will be acting to ensure greater transparency in relation to senior staff pay and requiring a justification for the total remuneration package that is awarded to the head of the provider and the provider’s most senior staff, so we will now start to see a light being shone very clearly on the issue that my hon. Friend raises.

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Q6. Last week, the Agriculture and Fisheries Secretary and Ruth Davidson said:“The Prime Minister has been clear: Britain will leave the CFP as of March 2019.”Now, the UK is staying in the common fisheries policy but with no say on quotas—the worst deal imaginable. What changed between last week and this week? [904499]

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We will be working with the fishing industry, both fishermen and fish processors, to ensure that we do see a bright future for the fishing industry. I want to see three things: we will take back control of our waters, we will ensure that we do not see British fishermen unfairly denied access to other waters, and we want to rebuild our fishing industry. But it is the Conservative party that is committed to coming out of the common fisheries policy; the hon. Gentleman’s party wants to stay in the common fisheries policy.

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Q13. Cherwell is really proud to be building three houses a day but construction traffic is playing havoc with our road services. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss what more national Government can do to help with inevitable growing pains? [904507]

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First of all, I am very happy to congratulate Cherwell on the homes that it is building, but I recognise that this brings with it other challenges. At Budget, we more than doubled the housing infrastructure fund with another £2.7 billion, and earlier today my right hon. Friend the Housing Secretary, I am pleased to say, announced a further 44 areas shortlisted for funding for major infrastructure projects worth £4.1 billion, with the potential to deliver 400,000 more homes. I recognise the important role that infrastructure plays, and that is why the Government are delivering it.

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Q10. The Prime Minister was right to prevent members of the royal family and Government Ministers from attending the football World cup in Russia, but what is being done to safeguard everyday football fans in what was, in my view, already a dangerous place to watch football, even before the incident in Salisbury? What advice will be given to travelling English supporters, many of whom have already bought their tickets, and is she confident that adequate co-operation between our police and the Russian police will protect English fans? [904504]

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I recognise the important issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised, because we want British football fans to be able to be safe when they are enjoying watching the England team. We are currently working very closely with the police in looking at what arrangements will be in place to support the England football fans who travel to Russia. The Foreign Office will be carefully monitoring the situation and ensuring that advice is available to football fans, so that they are aware of the circumstances there will be in Russia and what support will be available.

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Q14. My right hon. Friend will be aware that I have mentioned Jacci Woodcock, a terminally ill constituent of mine who set up the Dying to Work campaign. Santander, her mortgage broker, has been incredibly helpful in freezing her payments and will take them from her estate when she dies, but now it has gone even further—it is not increasing the interest payments either. Does my right hon. Friend agree that other banks should follow the caring and compassionate example set by Santander and that we should encourage them to look after terminally ill people in the same way? [904508]

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My hon. Friend has raised an issue that I know she cares about very deeply. I am certainly happy to join her in congratulating Santander on the support that it has provided to Jacci Woodcock. Obviously, my hon. Friend has raised a wider issue. It is important for employers to be aware of and to fulfil their legal obligations to their employees, including terminally ill employees, and I am sure that others will look at the excellent example that Santander has set.

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Q11. The Sunday Times said this week that Bedford’s relatively affordable housing and easy access to London have made it one of the best places to live in the UK, but Bedford constituents are concerned about the school funding cuts, court services cuts, the impending closure of our only walk-in centre, the big increase in homelessness and the loss of fast peak-time rail services to London. My question to the Prime Minister is, why are her Government ruining the prospects of our great town? [904505]

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The prospects of the hon. Gentleman’s great town are being improved. They are being improved by the fact that we see thousands more children in good or outstanding schools in Bedford local authority than when we came to power. They are being improved by the fact that extra funding is going into the health service in Bedford. They are also being improved by the fact that this Government are ensuring we have a strong economy, providing jobs for people in his constituency.

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Financial services are critical to thousands of my constituents and to the country as a whole. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to update the House on the progress made on ensuring that our future trade deal with the European Union includes an agreement on financial services?

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I am well aware of the importance of financial services for the United Kingdom, in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere, and also the important role that the City of London plays in the financial sector for the whole European Union. We are in discussion with the European Union about this matter, and there is a recognition of the significant role that the City of London plays and the importance of ensuring that we maintain access to finance across the European Union.

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Q12. Mental health issues affect one in 10 children, who on average have to see their GP three times before a referral, with many waiting up to 18 months for treatment. I acknowledge the Green Paper on this issue, but at a time when national funding in this area is being constantly cut, including a 5% reduction in funding to Lewisham child and adolescent mental health services, is this not another example of the Government saying one thing but doing another with our NHS? [904506]

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The Government are putting more funding into mental health provision. We have already committed to making available an additional £1.4 billion to improve children and young people’s mental health services, and we have committed that, by 2020-21, 70,000 more children and young people each year will have access to high-quality NHS mental health care. The hon. Lady rightly raises mental health as an important issue for us to deal with, and particularly the mental health of children and young people, but across the board we need to give more attention to mental health. We are putting money into it, and we are clear that we want to see parity of esteem between mental health and physical health in the national health service. That is something the Labour party in 13 years of government failed to do.

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The EU agreement published this week has sadly left my fishermen in Amble and the north-east very anxious. While it is great news that we will regain control of our fishing grounds at the end of the implementation period, there is real concern that our EU colleagues might try to take advantage of our losing our voice in the CFP by altering discard rules or quota rules during the implementation period. Will the Prime Minister consider asking the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to prepare a financial mitigation plan to protect our fleet until 2021 should we need to do so?

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The implementation period is there so that people have the certainty of being able to operate on the same basis until we reach the new partnership that we are negotiating. As I said earlier, in that new partnership, we want to take back control of our waters but ensure that British fishermen are not unfairly denied access to other waters and that we can rebuild our fishing industry. That is important. My hon. Friend mentioned quotas. It has been agreed that the stability key will not be changed, so the quotas that British fishermen will be operating under will not be changed. I know that DEFRA is looking actively at how we can ensure that we not only maintain our fishing industry, but enhance and rebuild it after we leave.

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This week, every party in Westminster took part in an international summit to challenge violence against women in politics, and online abuse dominated the discussions. Last year, the Prime Minister’s Government considered a statutory code of practice for social media corporations, holding them to account for the abusive content they publish. Will she confirm whether she remains content with a toothless voluntary code, or will she now give us a digital guard dog that both barks and bites?

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The hon. Lady raises an important point. On all these issues, we have taken the view that we should first sit down with those in the industry and work with them to see what they are willing to do on a voluntary basis, but they know that if that does not actually work, we will look at legislation. She raises an important point about the abuse that takes place. She refers particularly to the abuse that takes place within political campaigning, and I am afraid we have now reached a very sorry state of affairs in this country. We want to see free and fair elections and people having the confidence to be able to go out and put their views forward without fearing that they are going to be abused for it.

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The clinically led Future Fit programme for Shropshire seeks to improve and modernise hospital services across the county of Shropshire. We have been waiting for a decision on this issue for many years. Will the Prime Minister use her good offices to ensure that this vital scheme is supported in the coming weeks, so that we can secure this vital investment for Shropshire NHS?

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My hon. Friend is right to speak up for the NHS in Shropshire in the way he has done. He will be pleased to see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care heard his comments, and I think will be contacting him about this issue.

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The Bercow review made a big difference in improving services for children with communication needs—communication is the key life skill for children to learn and thrive—yet, a decade on, the latest report shows that much more needs to be done. Will the Prime Minister commit to a cross-Government strategy that puts this issue at the heart of policy and gives all our children the best possible start in life?

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The hon. Gentleman has raised a very important issue. We welcome the report, and the Department for Education is going to be considering it carefully. We do not want to see any child held back from achieving their potential, and that includes ensuring that children with speech, language and communication needs are given the support they need. There has been particular training for teachers to support children who require additional help to communicate, and we will be introducing the education, health and care plans to make sure that children with additional needs receive the right support to succeed in school in the future, but we will look very carefully at what the report has said and obviously respond to it in due course.

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Unlike the SNP, I do not want to see Britain rejoin the disastrous common fisheries policy, but I do have some concerns about the fisheries aspects of the transitional agreement that has been provisionally agreed with the European Union. Before she travels to the European Council, will the Prime Minister reassure the House, and indeed fishing communities around the United Kingdom, that we will absolutely and unequivocally take back full control of our waters from 2021?

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As I said earlier, the point about the implementation period is that it is the period during which people are able to make the changes necessary for the new partnership we will have. It ensures that businesses, fishermen included, do not face two cliff-edge changes in the way they are operating. By definition—because it is maintaining, as far as possible, the status quo, so that people do not have to make those extra changes—I recognise that it is not the same and will not be the same as the end state when we are able to have a future economic partnership and have a new relationship. As I said earlier, one of the elements that we will be looking for in reassuring the fishing industry and providing for the fishing industry is to ensure that we do take back control of our waters.

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May I associate myself with the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the SNP in offering condolences to the family of the Royal Air Force engineer who was tragically killed in my constituency yesterday? The RAF has been part of my constituency for over 75 years, with a tight-knit group of aircraftmen and support staff on the ground. While they are grieving, will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the RAF as it commemorates its century of dedicated service to our country?

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I am very happy to join the hon. Gentleman in saying what a great job the Royal Air Force does for us; of course he sees it at first hand, given its connection with his constituency. We should recognise the valour of all those who are serving in our armed forces—particularly, in this 100th year of the Royal Air Force, those who serve in the Royal Air Force. We thank them for it.

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May I welcome the Government’s decision to create a medical school at Canterbury in east Kent, which was fought for by all Kent’s MPs—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who has been indefatigable in that fight? Does this not underline the importance of training more doctors and nurses, to ensure that our health services in the regions are well staffed and looked after?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am pleased to welcome the new medical school in Canterbury, but also the four other new medical schools being set up around various parts of the country. He is also absolutely right that this is about ensuring that we are training a workforce for our national health service. We have raised significantly the number of training places—I think it is probably the biggest increase in training places that the NHS has seen for some considerable time.

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Given that mesh can shrink, degrade or twist in a woman’s body, may I ask the Prime Minister whether she will support proposals to “sling the mesh”?

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I recognise that this is a very real, important issue that has been raised. It is one of a number of women’s health issues that have been raised in this House that are causing concern to women. I will look in detail at it. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady about this, but I recognise the concern that there is about this particular issue. I am happy to write to her about what the national health service will be doing on it.

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Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the remarkable staff of Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, who have ensured that the hospital is out of special measures today, following a report from the Care Quality Commission? Will she support our campaign for a new hospital to ensure that the staff have a hospital fit for the 21st century?

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I congratulate the local hospital in Harlow that my right hon. Friend has referred to on coming out of those special measures. I think that is very important and I know it will give added confidence to his constituents. He tempts me to support a new hospital in his area. As he will know, the Secretary of State has heard his request, but what we do know is that we are putting more money into the national health service to ensure that we do get the best possible services provided to people through our national health service.

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Thank you. Before we proceed to next business, I take this opportunity to remind the House that tomorrow we will be commemorating the Westminster terrorist attack of a year ago, reference to which was made earlier. I propose that we begin our proceedings tomorrow after prayers with a minute’s silence in memory of those who died. There will also be, colleagues, a commemorative event in Westminster Hall at 12 noon and services in the chapel of St Mary Undercroft at 10 am, 2 pm and 6 pm. I hope that is helpful to colleagues.

Although points of order ordinarily come after urgent questions or statements, I understand that this inquiry appertains to exchanges with the Prime Minister. I am not sure whether that was today or on a previous occasion, but let us hear from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh).

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It does particularly relate to today’s session because police funding was referenced by the Prime Minister today. You may have seen that the UK Statistics Authority issued a statement yesterday reprimanding the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House and the Home Office for making statements that

“could have led the public to conclude incorrectly that central government is providing an additional £450 million for police spending”

this year. Given that the “Ministerial Code” requires that Ministers correct

“any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity”,

would it not have been appropriate for the Prime Minister to apologise to this House and the public for inadvertently misleading us in Prime Minister’s questions?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I confess that I had not seen the UK Statistics Authority communication to which she referred, but obviously her beady eye has focused on it. What I would say to her in respect of the conduct of Ministers is that, as applies to all right hon. and hon. Members, those Ministers are responsible for their own conduct. If they judge that they have made a mistake—communicated incorrect information to the House that has given an incorrect impression—it is incumbent on them to correct the record, but it is not for the Speaker to be the arbiter of whether that is required. To judge by the puckish grin on the hon. Lady’s face, I think she is well familiar with that point, but she has registered her point with her usual force. Doubtless it will be communicated to the people of Sheffield, Heeley and elsewhere.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, and to your wise words and guidance, you will recall that in business questions last week I specifically said to the Leader of the House that there was growing concern that although Ministers are properly accountable to this place and can be called if they have said anything that is not accurate, that does not extend to Opposition Members.

Yet again in Prime Minister’s questions, we have had assertions from right hon. and hon. Opposition Members of facts that are disputed. Mr Speaker, I do not expect you to give any ruling now—you cannot—but would it be in order for the House to consider how we ensure that we report things factually and that any means of challenge extends to the Opposition as well as to the Government?

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I shall always profit by the right hon. Lady’s counsels and I am grateful to her for offering them. Off the top of my head, I would say that the assertion of disputable facts is the very essence of politics. The assertion by one Member of something as fact that is contradicted or questioned by another Member is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons. I think we will have to leave it there for today.

The right hon. Lady raised a wider point appertaining to social networking sites, at or after business questions last Thursday, to which I gave a fairly comprehensive reply that can always be consulted by Members in the unlikely event that they have nothing better to do.

NHS Staff Pay

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if he will make a statement on NHS pay.

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The whole House will want to pay tribute to the hard work of NHS staff up and down the country during one of the most difficult winters in living memory. Today’s agreement on a new pay deal reflects public appreciation for just how much they have done and continue to do, but it is much more than that. The agreement that NHS trade unions have recommended to their members today is a something for something deal that brings in profound changes in productivity in exchange for significant rises in pay.

The deal will ensure better value for money from the £36 billion NHS pay bill, with some of the most important changes to working practices in a decade, including a commitment to work together to improve the health and wellbeing of NHS staff to bring sickness absence in line with the best in the public sector. We know that NHS sickness rates are around a third higher than the public sector average, and reducing sickness absence by just 1% in the NHS will save around £280 million. The deal will put appraisal and personal development at the heart of pay progression, with often automatic incremental pay replaced by larger, less frequent pay increases based on the achievement of agreed professional milestones. It includes a significantly higher boost to lower-paid staff, to boost recruitment in a period when we know the NHS needs a significant increase in staffing to deal with the pressures of an ageing population. Pay rises range from 6.5% to 29% over three years, with much higher rises targeted on those on the lowest and starting rates of pay.

As part of the deal, the lowest starting salary in the NHS will increase by more than £2,500, from £15,404 this year to £18,040 in 2020-21, and a newly qualified nurse will receive starting pay 12.6%—nearly £3,000—higher in 2020-21 than this year. But this deal is about retention as well as recruitment. It makes many other changes that NHS staff have been asking for—such as shared parental leave and the ability to buy extra or sell back annual leave—so they can better manage their work and family lives, work flexibly and balance caring commitments.

The additional funding that Chancellor announced in the Budget to cover this deal—an estimated £4.2 billion over three years—cements the Government’s commitment to protecting services for NHS patients, while recognising the work of NHS staff up and down the country. This is only possible because of the balanced approach we are taking—investing in our public services and helping families with the cost of living, while getting our debt falling. Rarely has a pay rise been so well deserved for NHS staff, who have never worked harder.

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The Secretary of State has finally given the lowest-paid NHS staff a pay rise. Staff, royal colleges, trade unions and the Labour party have today been vindicated in saying that a pay rise is long overdue. But when we have seen nurses, paramedics and midwives losing thousands of pounds from the value of their pay, heard stories of NHS staff turning to food banks, have 100,000 vacancies across the service, seen more nurses leaving the profession than entering and seen trusts spending billions of pounds on agency staff, this pay cap should have been scrapped years ago.

In the general election, Ministers said that scrapping the pay cap was nonsensical. When a nurse pleaded with the Prime Minister for a pay rise on national television, she was told that there was no magic money tree. Can the Secretary of State tell us how this pay rise will be paid for? Have the Prime Minister’s horticultural skills grown said magic money tree? We have heard that there will be additional money. When will trusts get the allocations, and if the money is additional, will it be paid for by extra borrowing or extra taxation? Public servants deserve reassurances that the Government will not give with one hand and take with the other.

Given the projections for inflation, can the Secretary of State guarantee that staff will not face a real-terms pay cut in any single year of the deal? We note that he has backed down on docking a day’s holiday. Will he commit to not tabling that proposal again? We also note that he will not block the transfer of hospital staff to wholly owned subsidiary companies. Will he at least guarantee that all staff employed by such companies will be covered by “Agenda for Change” terms? Can he tell us when the rest of the public sector will get a pay deal?

NHS pay has been held back for the best part of a decade. Today is a first step, but the NHS remains underfunded and understaffed. We urgently need a plan to give the NHS the funding it needs for the future.

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If the hon. Gentleman wants a plan to give the NHS the funding it needs, can he explain why Labour in Wales has deprived the NHS of £1 billion of funding that it would have had if funding had increased at the same rate as in England? Far from Labour being vindicated, the House will remember that the pay restraint in the NHS for the past eight years was caused by the worst financial recession since the second world war, caused by a catastrophic loss of control of public finances.

The hon. Gentleman asks for some details. Today’s pay deal means that someone starting work in the NHS as a healthcare assistant will see their rate of pay over the next three years go up by 26%, nearly £4,000. A nurse with three years’ experience will see a 25% increase, which is more than £6,000 over three years. A band 6 paramedic with four years’ experience will see a £4,000 rise. On top of that, we are putting in a huge number of things that NHS staff will welcome, including, for example, statutory child bereavement leave and shared parental leave. Yes, we are asking for important productivity changes in return, but this is about the modernisation of NHS staff terms and conditions, which is good for them and good for taxpayers.

The hon. Gentleman asks where the money is coming from: it is additional funding from the Treasury for the NHS. It is not coming from extra borrowing. If he had been listening to the autumn statement, he would have heard that debt as a proportion of GDP is starting to fall this year for the first time. That is possible because we have taken very difficult decisions over the past eight years—they were opposed by the Labour party—that have meant 3 million more jobs and have transformed our economy out of recession into growth. None of that would have been possible if we did what his party is now advocating, which is to lose control of public finances by increasing borrowing by £350 billion. Let us just remind ourselves that countries that lose control of their finances do not put more money into their health services—they put less. In Portugal, the amount is down 17%, and in Greece, it is down 39%. The reason that we can announce today’s deal is very simple: this country is led by a Government who know that only a strong economy gives us a strong NHS.

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I warmly welcome today’s announcement of a well-deserved pay rise for NHS staff and, in particular, that this will be additional funding of £4.2 billion over three years, rather than it coming out of existing resources. I particularly welcome the focus on staff health and wellbeing, which was raised by the recent Health Committee inquiry into the nursing workforce. In particular, I ask the Secretary of State to go further and talk about what will be done on continuing professional development for NHS staff, because this was identified as a key factor in retention. He referred to it partially in his comments, but I wonder whether he could go further.

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I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. Underneath this agreement, there is a very important new partnership between NHS employers and the unions to improve the health and wellbeing of staff through mental health provision and the implementation of the Stevenson-Farmer review, taking on board a number of points raised by the Health Committee, and through improved support for people with musculoskeletal conditions, because a lot of NHS work is very physical. However, she is absolutely right: professional development is also very important. By reforming the increments system that we have been using for many years, we will give staff the chance to see their pay go up in a way that is linked to their skills going up as well. That is something that many staff will welcome.

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May I associate myself with the comments made by the Secretary of State in paying tribute to our NHS staff? It is good to have not just warm words today, but substantive action. He has referred to devolved nations elsewhere in the UK, and I hope that he will acknowledge that the Scottish Government were the first Government in the UK to lift the public sector pay cap.

Although this announcement is welcome, we have committed to using any additional funds that come to Scotland through consequentials to go into the Scottish pay agreement. However, the Office for Budget Responsibility has projected that average earnings will go up by 7.7% in the next three years, while the retail prices index goes up by over 9%. Has the Secretary of State taken that into account, or are the Government ignoring the OBR on average earnings? Committing to a three-year deal could stagnate wages and lower the standard of living, and none of us in this House wants that to happen.

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The majority of NHS staff will see that their pay is protected against the cost of living, but many NHS staff, including the lowest-paid, will see increases that are substantially higher than inflation rates, because, first, that is the kind of society that we believe in. Conservative Members want everyone to be given decent rates of pay, and there are many parts of the country where the cost of living is very high and this will make a very big difference. We also recognise that there will be 1 million more over-75s in 10 years’ time, so we need to expand the number of staff in the NHS and its capacity to deal with those pressures. We therefore need to attract more people into working for the NHS and social care systems.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend; I know of his huge personal commitment to the NHS and how he has battled for it over the years—I have seen that personally. I unashamedly, absolutely agree that this is a very good deal, and I congratulate nurses and others on this pay rise, which they deserve and for which they have worked very hard. Is it not also right to recognise and remember that back in 2008-09, Labour’s great depression plunged the economy into the biggest and most difficult economic trench that it has faced? As a result of our stewardship and our support of the NHS through that period, unlike many other countries that cut their health spending, we secured 200,000 jobs in the NHS, and now we can start rewarding staff for their hard work.

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I thank my right hon. Friend and commend him on his courage in putting through some incredibly challenging and important reforms to our welfare state, when many people said that it was nigh on impossible. He is right: the biggest and most misleading thing that we hear is the charge that in austerity Britain, the NHS budget has been cut. In fact, the countries that cut their health budgets were Portugal and Greece—countries that are following precisely the policies that are advocated by the Opposition. In this country—so-called austerity Britain—NHS spending has gone up by 9%.

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On the vexed question of how to pay for the NHS, has the Secretary of State been in any way influenced by the testimony of the recently retired permanent secretary to the Treasury, who at last acknowledged that the only way to do it was to have some form of earmarked taxation?

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The former permanent secretary to the Treasury is an extremely wise and experienced public servant, and I always listen to what he says with a great deal of interest.

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I have met many nurses from Taunton Deane to press their case for a rise in salary, and I have passed that on not just to the Department of Health and Social Care, but to the Chancellor. I welcome today’s pay rise; I think these hard-working nurses all deserve it, and we congratulate them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that today’s £4 billion commitment demonstrates that this is a listening Government who are taking investment in the health service extremely seriously?

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I very much enjoyed meeting nurses and staff at Musgrove Park Hospital when my hon. Friend invited me there recently. I know that they will welcome today’s deal and they would welcome even more investment in their operating theatres, which she is campaigning for assiduously.

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We have lost over 5,000 nurses working in mental health since 2010. As a result of this announcement on pay, when does the Secretary of State expect the number of mental health nurses to return to 2010 levels?

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We would have more nurses in mental health if we had not had to deal with the crisis at Mid Staffs and pronounced short staffing in our acute hospitals. Since I have been Health Secretary, we have 15,000 more nurses in the NHS and we are also finding more money to go into mental health. It is time that the hon. Lady recognised that, rather than trying to paint the opposite picture.

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I add my voice to those congratulating the Secretary of State and his ministerial team on a tremendous achievement in discussions with the Treasury to secure this additional funding. I invite him to comment on the work that has been done by the health unions and the Royal College of Nursing, in particular, in helping to deliver this agreement and particularly to give many of the people on starting salaries a significant uplift, which he referred to earlier. This will make it easier to attract people to the vital starting roles for future generations.

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I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend because, when he was working in my Department, he laid a lot of foundations for this deal. He chaired some very important meetings. In particular, one of the most important areas of consensus that has emerged, which he should take enormous credit for, is that we are saying today that the minimum salary for anyone working in the NHS will go up by £2,000. That is going to make a huge difference—100,000 people will benefit from that important change—and he should be very proud of that.

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NHS trusts are spending £3 billion a year on agency staff to plug gaps in the workforce. Has the pay cap not been totally self-defeating and led to huge amounts of public money going to private staffing agencies?

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What led to the mushrooming agency fee was the realisation, post Mid Staffs, that we needed a lot more nurses. Nursing staff numbers were going down until the Francis report was published, but the report created huge demand among hospitals, which realised they needed to improve patient safety by recruiting more staff. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know, however, that we are bringing down the agency bill, and I expect it to be significantly lower this year.

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It is disappointing to see the lack of welcome from Labour Members for this pay rise for NHS staff in England—one day after the announcement of five new medical schools across the country. Has the Secretary of State had discussions with the Labour Government in Wales to see if they will be replicating this pay rise for NHS staff in Wales?

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First, I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend as one of the practising nurses in the House and someone who always makes sure that the voice of nursing is heard loud and proud in this place. I very much hope that the devolved Governments will follow suit with this deal, although for every additional pound per head we have put into the NHS in England, Labour in Wales has put in only 57p.

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Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), we all know how much agency nurses cost the NHS, and the same goes for private finance initiatives. These companies are making £1 billion in profits, which is money that will not touch any of our hospital budgets, including that of my own, Whipps Cross Hospital, which has a 17% agency rate and tried to deal with its PFI debt by downgrading the pay of nurses to save money. What is the Secretary of State doing to cut the PFI bill for our hospitals and prevent them from balancing their books off the backs of hard-working staff?

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The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to that problem. We have certainly stopped doing any new PFI deals of the disastrous kind that lead to the consequences she talks about. We have given some relief to a number of hospitals in that area, but I will look again at her local hospital, because it is clearly totally unacceptable if that is happening.

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Colchester General Hospital has recently come out of special measures, and the staff there have worked so hard to turn our hospital around, so I welcome wholeheartedly this announcement of extra money, which means that our staff will get a well-deserved pay rise. I will always champion our hospital, however, so will my right hon. Friend commit to continuing to invest in our hospital and its people? In particular, will he look at the accident and emergency department?

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I will happily do that. The hon. Gentleman has championed his hospital, which has been on a rollercoaster journey during his time in this House but which has now turned a corner. The staff have worked incredibly hard to improve safety standards for patients, but I know that, like many places, they would like more investment in their A&E, and I will certainly look at it.

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I, like many others, welcome the fact that NHS workers in England will finally receive a pay rise they deserve. Of course, health is devolved to the Welsh Government, so could the Secretary of State clarify how much of this additional funding is new funding and what the Barnett consequential will be for the Welsh Government?

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This constitutes an investment by the Treasury of £4.2 billion, and the normal Barnett consequentials will apply, so it is perfectly possible for the Labour Government in Wales to replicate this deal if they choose to, but we know, of course, that had they replicated the increases in funding to the NHS in England, the NHS in Wales would have had an additional £1 billion spent on it over the past five years.

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rose

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rose—

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I see that two doctors are standing on the Government Back Benches. I am sure that the House will understand if I call the medic rather than the military strategist.

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I warmly welcome this announcement and congratulate my right hon. Friend, the trade unions and NHS Employers on reaching this deal. One problem facing our NHS is that of people not returning to work after they have had caring responsibilities. What elements of the deal will encourage more people to consider coming back into the workforce? I am thinking, in particular, of the non-pay elements and the reform of pay structures that he has mentioned.

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The most important thing about the deal is that it will discourage people who might be reaching breaking point, because of personal circumstances, from packing it all in and leaving the NHS family. There is a particular proposal to allow much greater flexibility in the buying and selling of annual leave, so that people who need to work less because of things that happen at home, and perhaps people who want to work more, find it much easier to do so. This is therefore part of a much bigger shift towards the flexible working that we know everyone wants these days.

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I absolutely appreciate the Secretary of State’s announcement on pay. As a nurse who has worked for more than 40 years, I know that it is greatly welcomed by everybody across the patch, including porters. I want to ask, however, about wholly owned subsidiary staff. I believe that some of them are not under “Agenda for Change” terms. Will they get the pay rise as well?

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First, I thank the hon. Lady for welcoming the deal. I think she is the first Labour Member who has done so, and it is not insignificant that she is a nurse. A wholly owned subsidiary is a legal structure that was made possible by a change in the law introduced in 2006, under her party’s Government, and is actually an alternative to outsourcing. Employees would be far more likely to benefit from “Agenda for Change” pay rates within such a structure than if they were outsourced, which the last Labour Government tried so hard to encourage.

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When I met Devon’s secretary of the Royal College of Nursing recently to discuss nurses’ pay, she made the obvious point that she was getting a bit fed up with politicians saying that they valued nurses while not actually adding to their pay packets. Does my right hon. Friend agree that from today not only will we be saying that we value nurses, but that that will be reflected in their pay packets? I congratulate him and the RCN on achieving such a good deal.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that, and I pay tribute to Janet Davies, the boss of the RCN, who has worked very hard to make this deal happen and in the best interests of her profession.

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My healthcare economy was held together over the winter solely by the good will of NHS workers, yet they have had a 14% pay cut in real terms since 2010. This announcement is a drop in the ocean. How does the Secretary of State think that it will help retention rates?

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I cannot agree that this is a drop in the ocean. If the hon. Lady does not want to hear it from me, let me point out what was said by the Unison head of health, Sara Gorton, who is also the head negotiator for the NHS unions. She said that the deal

“would go a long way towards making dedicated health staff feel more valued, lift flagging morale, and help turn the tide on employers’ staffing problems.”

That is not a drop in the ocean.

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I strongly welcome the measures that my right hon. Friend has announced. He will have heard my question to the Prime Minister earlier, and he will acknowledge that Harlow Hospital is out of special measures and that this pay award is much deserved by staff. In the future, will he look at the particular problem we face—we are just outside London, and a lot of staff work in London, which makes it harder for Harlow Hospital to recruit—and perhaps think again about the pay scales?

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I am happy to do that and to congratulate the staff at my right hon. Friend’s hospital, which he has long championed and whose pressures and needs he has highlighted assiduously. To come out of special measures is a huge achievement. I have recorded a video message, but I am happy to say in the House how proud we all are of what the staff have achieved. I also recognise the capital issues at the hospital and the fact that the building is not fit for purpose.

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The minimum amount that nurses in south Cumbria will have lost since the pay freeze is £4,306. Given that the average house price in my constituency is 10 times the value of the average nurse’s salary, Members will understand the huge impact that there has been on retention and recruitment. The rise is therefore deserved, welcome and overdue, but without a long-term plan for funding health and social care, this announcement will not be trusted, so does the Secretary of State not agree that we need a new deal to refresh Beveridge’s vision for the 21st century, and should we not be prepared to be honest with the British people and say that this will involve a modest but clear increase in taxation?

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I disagree that the deal will not be believed—it is a concrete deal. NHS staff still have to vote for it, but the Government have committed to significant rises in pay. I agree, however, that we will need to find the best way of getting more money into the NHS and social care system as we face the pressures of an ageing population.

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Will the Secretary of State expand a little on what he briefly said about flexibility of working hours and family bereavement among NHS staff? After this urgent question, will he kindly give a short tutorial to those of us with an interest in defence on his successful techniques for extracting £5 billion from the Treasury for a Department that urgently needs it?

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I would not dare to talk about an area outside my own Department’s responsibilities, even to such an eminent person as my right hon. Friend.

Flexible pay is at the heart of what we need to do differently in the NHS. This is really about two types of NHS worker. First, many people find that the shift patterns in the NHS are very unpredictable. Every six weeks their lives are turned upside down as they are given a new set of times when they have to work. People want regularity and predictability, and we do not offer that at the moment, which makes life much tougher for those who are trying to achieve a work-life balance. Secondly, we make life hard for people who want to do extra shifts at the last minute. Both those factors are important, and they will be helped by this new pay deal.

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We have already heard about the 14% real-terms fall in NHS staff pay since 2010. There have been eight long years of pay restraint, and this deal does not go far enough to offset that historic deficit.

The Secretary of State is having to deal with the massive problem of an ageing population and the need to increase the capacity of the NHS to deal with it. Does he agree that alienating an entire generation of junior doctors was not a productive way of achieving that?

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We do not recognise the figures that the hon. Gentleman has given but, in any event, he cannot say that the deal does not go far enough without asking why that has happened. It happened because in 2008 we had the worst financial recession since the second world war, which was made an awful lot worse by the Labour Government’s loss of financial discipline. What I think is most disturbing for people in the NHS is that the hon. Gentleman’s party seems set on repeating the same mistake.

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I join colleagues in welcoming my right hon. Friend’s announcement. Will he join me in congratulating the nurses and doctors at the Alexandra Hospital in Redditch on their incredibly hard work in keeping people safe and well cared for throughout the winter? Following yesterday’s announcement about new medical schools and nursing apprenticeships, his announcement today represents a real, solid investment in our NHS workforce that will enable us to open the urgent care centre at the Alex for which I have been campaigning.

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I certainly recognise my hon. Friend’s strong argument for an urgent care centre, and I commend the very hard work of the staff at the Alex. I know that the new leadership at the trust is making progress and turning things around, and I hope that what has happened at Harlow today will be an inspiration.

What we are doing today is significant. The extra doctors and nurses whom we are training, and a pay deal that is intended to boost recruitment in the NHS, demonstrate our recognition that we need a significant increase in capacity in the NHS and the social care system if we are to ensure that every older person gets the care that they really need, which is what the Government want.

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May I press the Secretary of State a little further on Barnett consequentials? Will he confirm that there will be consequentials for each of the three years of the pay rise? Will he also welcome the Welsh Government’s introduction of a living wage in the NHS in 2014, and does he recognise that NHS and social care spending is higher in Wales than it is in England? That is a matter of fact.

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What is a matter of fact is that the NHS in Wales would have £1 billion more if the Welsh Government had matched the increases that have taken place in England and that Welsh patients waiting for both elective and emergency care are 40% more likely to wait too long.

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I have the great good fortune to be married to a former renal nurse, and she tells me regularly that much of retention is about work-life balance, training and interactions with management. Will the Secretary of State tell us what progress he is making in those areas?

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I am happy to do so. Work-life balance is something that we need to handle a lot better. I think we have been slow to recognise that today’s NHS staff are likely to live in households in which both partners are working and that juggling life and work has therefore become much more complex than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The reform of the increments system means that there will be more focus on training and skills, which will be much more motivating for NHS staff, so I hope that my hon. Friend’s wife is pleased.

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I welcome the Government’s change of heart in awarding a pay rise to our hard-working NHS staff. May I pursue the point made by the Chair of the Health Committee, the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston)? Our Committee’s report emphasised that continuing professional development was key to the retention of nurses. It was not clear to me from what the Secretary of State said whether money would be ring-fenced—sadly, the amount has been cut—to ensure that nurses can access CPD not only in the NHS, but in social care settings.

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I recognise that there have been pressures on the CPD budget, and that is because we have made increasing the number of nurse training places our main priority. We have increased that by 25%, which has meant that difficult decisions have had to be made about other parts of the budget. I can reassure the hon. Lady, however, that I think that CPD will continue to have a vital role, and we will need to return to the issue.

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Efficiency and productivity deserve to be rewarded, and, given the 16% increase in emergency admissions, NHS professionals have certainly earned that. In the light of this new working relationship, does the Secretary of State envisage staff and the Government working in partnership to challenge patients to be more respectful to those who work in the health service?

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I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. He often raises difficult issues that need to be talked about in this place. We all know that the vast majority of patients are incredibly grateful for the care that they receive from NHS professionals, but occasionally that does not happen. Occasionally, people use services that they do not need to use, which creates pressures and denies other patients what they do need. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that as we start to expand NHS capacity, we need the public to understand their responsibilities as well.

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I am happy to welcome the statement, but let me take a moment to remind the Secretary of State that we in Northern Ireland have not had a functioning Assembly for 14 months, and we have had no Health Minister for 14 months. How can the hard-working staff members of the NHS in Northern Ireland benefit from the new pay deal? Will the Secretary of State commit himself to speaking to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, whom I am delighted to see sitting on the Front Bench, to ensure that NHS staff in Northern Ireland see the benefits of the deal?

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The hon. Lady speaks eloquently and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was listening to her comments. It is a matter of great sadness that nurses’ pay has fallen behind in Northern Ireland, not because the money was not available, but simply because the Administration were not in place to implement changes. I know that my right hon. Friend will do everything she can.

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I welcome the proposed pay rise, especially the increase for the lowest paid in the NHS. Nurses at my local hospitals tell me that as well as a pay rise, what they really want is flexibility in relation to things that happen in their lives, so I particularly welcome that aspect of the proposal. Does my right hon. Friend agree that flexibility and investment in training will enable NHS employers to show their appreciation for the valuable contribution that each individual member of staff makes to the care of patients?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right and speaks with a great deal of knowledge. Let me give an example of something we are doing that is not part of this deal, but that backs up what she says. We are prioritising the use in every hospital of an effective e-rostering system that enables people to book the shifts that they want on their phones and to change them very easily through a modern IT system. That makes an enormous difference to the control that they have over the hours they work, and I think that, in combination with the new deal, that will make a big difference.

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The NHS is now short of 100,000 staff because of the Government’s neglect of the NHS workforce. When the Government scrapped the nursing bursary, they said that that would lead to the training of more nurses, but UCAS data shows that since then the number of applications has fallen by 15,000. Will the Government now commit themselves to reintroducing the bursary?

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What the hon. Lady chose not to tell the House was that since the time of the last Labour Government, we now have 5,500 more nurses and 15,000 more doctors in the NHS, and there has been a 9% rise in NHS funding. [Interruption.] I hear the shadow Secretary of State talking about vacancies from a sedentary position. I hope that he will also welcome the 25% increase in the number of doctors and nurses whom we are training precisely so that we can fill those vacancies.

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I welcome the announcement, and it was great to see the Secretary of State meeting staff at my excellent local hospital, the George Eliot, recently. What will be particularly welcomed is the hugely progressive nature of this deal, with its focus on the lowest paid. What exactly does it mean for those at the very bottom of the pay scale?

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For people starting off in nursing, there will be a rise of about £2,000, which will make a very big difference, and we are increasing the minimum starting salary for anyone working in the NHS by about £2,500. This is completely in line with the Government’s policies over a whole range of areas. We have prioritised increasing the amount people can earn tax-free before paying any income tax at all. We have taken millions of people out of income tax. That is because this Government are committed to helping the lowest paid.

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It has taken six years, but finally the Health Secretary has come to the conclusion that Labour Members reached many years ago: the pay cap is a folly. I thank Sara Gorton and the team at Unison and the GMB for campaigning on this matter for years, standing up not just for clinical staff, but for the support staff without whom our NHS simply would not function. Given that the offer in the second and third years of the pay deal is below inflation, what guarantees can the Secretary of State give that this is not a one-off deal to hide the fact that he is failing in his job, and is instead a long-term engagement to achieve proper pay in our NHS?

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If the hon. Gentleman thinks the pay freeze was a folly, why does he support policies that would increase borrowing by £350 billion and potentially lead to another financial crisis and pay freeze?

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I welcome the announcement and believe that it is a further obvious commitment by the Government to the NHS and NHS staff. I will continue to have a debate on whether the record spending is enough, as, personally, I would support more spending, but does the Secretary of State share my disappointment and anger that there continue to be campaigners and campaigning organisations that, for whatever reasons and motivations, spread the untruth that there have been cuts in spending in the NHS?

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My hon. Friend is right. Just to reassure him, I do not think that any Health Secretary would ever say the NHS does not need additional funding. He makes an important point, and the truth is that at the 2010 election there was one party that wanted to cut funding for the NHS. It was the Labour party, and we stopped it.

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When my sister broke her neck only weeks ago, I saw at first hand the pressures that NHS staff are under. They start shifts early and finish shifts late, and there are not the right staffing levels on wards. Those staff were amazing, however. The NHS is now short of 100,000 staff because of this Government’s neglect of the NHS workforce. Will the Government apologise to all NHS workers for undervaluing them for so long?

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The hon. Lady needs to look at the facts before making those kinds of claims. Let us look at what has happened in the last five years—the period during which I have been Health Secretary. The numbers of qualified clinical staff have not gone down, but have gone up by 43,000. We are doing everything we can to increase the capacity of the NHS, and the hon. Lady should be welcoming that.

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I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I met representatives from the Royal College of Nursing in my constituency recently, and I am sure that they, too, will welcome this statement. Does this not show that, contrary to the assertion so often made by Labour, it is this Government and Secretary of State who are committed to long-term investment in our NHS?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that. The truth is that there is probably one thing that those on both sides of the House agree on: the long-term future of the NHS depends on long-term funding for the NHS. Sadly, there is one thing that only Conservative Members understand: to do that, we need a strong economy.

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I welcome the statement. Has the Secretary of State had time to assess the impact on retention and recruitment of EU citizens who work in the NHS? If he is feeling generous, may I remind him that St Helier Hospital is in need of £400 million?

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I am aware of the estate issues at St Helier Hospital. I have seen them myself and know that that building is, in many areas, not fit for purpose. On EU citizens, the picture is mixed. We have seen a small decline in the number of EU nurses, but overall the number of EU citizens working in the NHS has gone up by 3,200 since the referendum. That has happened because the Government and NHS staff have made a huge effort to reassure them of just how valued they are and that we want them to stay.

Points of Order

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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In a parliamentary written answer on 12 January 2018 the Minister for the Armed Forces stated:

“The UK will remain completely committed to European defence and security after we leave the European Union”,

yet 48 hours ago it was announced that the UK is withdrawing from providing the battle group in 2019. Is there a way in which I can hold the Government to account on what appears to be a substantial policy change, which has not been announced in this place but has in fact been announced as a result of a leak to a newspaper?

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me notice that he planned to raise this matter, and I know that he has been vigorous in pursuing the issue through parliamentary questions. As he knows, there are many other routes that he can pursue, including, I am sure, forthcoming Government statements on, for example, the European Council, but his concern will have been heard on the Treasury Bench and I am sure it will be taken back to the Department concerned.

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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. While we are on the subject of the European Union and defence, may I seek an assurance that Mr Speaker will not be emulating the example of the President of the European Commission, who has just sent a grovelling letter of congratulations to Vladimir Putin on his election victory, and that he will note instead how fortunate we are to be able to depend on NATO when the security and defence of this country is at stake?

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I suspect that Mr Speaker will have very firm ideas, no doubt taking some advice from the right hon. Gentleman himself, about how he will respond to that election.

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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. At Health questions yesterday, I asked the Secretary of State when the independent reconfiguration panel report about the future of Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, our local hospital, would be presented. The response was that it would be produced “in due course”, and the same response was given to my written question of last month. May I have clarification about the definition of “due course”: is that within a week, within a month, or after the next local elections?

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I thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice that she wished to raise this matter, which I will answer now rather than in due course. I know that it can be rather frustrating for Members when Ministers say no more than “in due course” when asked when something is going to happen; however, I am afraid that the content of Ministers’ answers is for Ministers, not the Chair, and I cannot attempt to define what was meant by that. Again, though, I would say that the hon. Member has made her dissatisfaction clear, and it will have been heard on the Treasury Bench and, I hope, will be reported back.

BILLS PRESENTED

Northern Ireland (regional Rates and Energy) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Karen Bradley, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Attorney General and Mr Shailesh Vara presented a Bill to make provision about the regional rate in Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2019; and amend the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time today, and to be printed (Bill 188).

Northern Ireland Assembly Members (Pay) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Karen Bradley, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Attorney General and Mr Shailesh Vara presented a Bill to confer power on the Secretary of State to determine salaries and other benefits for Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly in respect of periods when there is no Executive.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time today, and to be printed (Bill 187).

Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Welfare of Women)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 to make provision about the welfare of women undergoing any medical, surgical or obstetric treatment services provided for the purpose of assisting such women to carry children; and for connected purposes.

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I would like to begin by thanking right hon. and hon. female Members from throughout the Chamber for supporting the Bill, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), my hon. Friends the Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck), for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), my right hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee), who herself worked in a fertility clinic before joining us in the House.

Madam Deputy Speaker, 26 years ago the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was established to regulate the new frontier of medicine brought forth by in vitro fertilisation. The sector has subsequently transformed into a multimillion-pound industry, with more than 5 million children having been conceived thanks to IVF. Because of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, the HFEA rightly works to protect the welfare of children before providing IVF treatment, and it is fundamental that this should continue. Notably, however, there is an absence of provisions in the Act regarding the welfare of the women who are undergoing the treatment. As a result of the huge increase in the use of IVF, not only by women who have problems conceiving but by those such as single women and same-sex couples, we have a dawning understanding of the prevalence of cancer diagnosis among women who have gone through IVF. In the light of the overwhelming evidence that drug protocols can cause women extremely adverse health effects, including a risk to life, I believe that there is a clear case for amending the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act to ensure the welfare of women.

One of the main health risks to women undergoing IVF is ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, or OHSS. It is triggered by the over-stimulation of the ovaries caused by hormones injected during IVF treatment. However, as the Act does not explicitly make stipulations about the welfare of the woman, the HFEA is unable to monitor or regulate guidelines on clinical practices relating to the administration of drugs and dosages during IVF treatment. There is therefore a total lack of monitoring and control of the drugs given to women.

One third of women undergoing IVF suffer from some form of OHSS. In severe cases, there is clinical evidence of fluid in the abdomen and chest, a reduction in urine output, a significant disturbance of blood biochemistry and a thickening of the blood, with an imbalance of the clotting system. It can even be critical, causing a woman to have renal shutdown and the fluid in her abdomen and chest to be so severe that it causes her to have respiratory distress syndrome. I have chosen to describe the symptoms graphically because I believe that all Members should be aware of the devastating nature of this preventable condition. A staggering 3% to 8% of women will suffer from moderate to severe OHSS during a cycle of treatment, and it can be life-threatening. Scientific studies have even indicated about three deaths per 100,000 cycles of stimulated IVF treatments. Let me clarify that: critical OHSS has caused women to die right here in the UK, but the outdated measures in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act prohibit us from understanding the true scale of the issue and preventing it in the first place.

It is accepted that almost all women with critical or severe OHSS, and some with moderate OHSS, will require hospital admission, and current regulation dictates that this should be reported as an adverse incident to the HFEA. The HFEA should then work in collaboration with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency on dealing with the adverse effects of drugs used in IVF treatment. So clinics are required to report to the HFEA any cases of severe OHSS occurring as a result of treatment, but there is powerful evidence of wholesale under-reporting. More than 67,000 cycles of IVF are carried out in the UK each year. A shocking investigation by the Daily Mail last year found that 836 emergency hospital admissions for severe OHSS had occurred during 2015, even though the HFEA database reported just 60. Furthermore, the evidence is clear that collecting more than 15 eggs during IVF indicates a significant risk of OHSS, yet the HFEA recorded that in 2012 more than 3,400 women had more than 20 eggs collected.

Such widespread evidence of the welfare of women being compromised is deeply disappointing, because OHSS is a preventable condition. There are reliable predictors that allow the adjustment of the dose of stimulation to prevent the vast majority of cases, with such treatment being equally successful in terms of live birth rates. Lowering the stimulating dose is a win-win situation for the woman, whose wellbeing is protected, and for the NHS, which does not have to foot the bill for treating emergency admissions.

When I brought this issue to Parliament in 2016, the then Under-Secretary of State for Health stated that women were warned of the potential risks before starting treatment. However, we are dealing with a vulnerable group of women who are desperate for a family and who are easily exploited by being told that the side effects of high ovarian stimulation are the price of success. That simply is not true. These are completely avoidable side effects that changes to the Act can and must prevent.

OHSS is not the only danger to women undergoing IVF. The use of off-label intravenous immunology drugs, which are potentially harmful and of no proven benefit, comes with a health warning from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The HFEA collects no data on what drugs and drug dosages are administered to women undergoing IVF because the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act gives it no authority to do so. Furthermore, because of restrictions based on confidentiality for couples undergoing fertility treatment, the HFEA has no power to monitor the consequences of current treatments on the short-term and long-term health of the women. That has to change, because a voluntary reporting system simply does not work. Let me make this clear: this condition is life-threatening, and it is entirely preventable for the tens of thousands of women undergoing fertility treatment every single year. The lack of concern about the welfare of women during IVF treatment is a scandal that cannot continue to exist.

I should like to summarise the crucial amendments that I believe must be made to the Act. There should be an explicit added commitment to safeguard the welfare of women. The HFEA should be required to collect information about all drugs and dosages administered to women during IVF treatment and early pregnancy. Finally, the Act should be amended to link the HFEA registry with hospital, cancer and death registers, to enable the accurate recording and publication of the links between IVF treatment and incidences of severe OHSS, cancer and mortality among women. I sincerely hope that the House will recognise its duty to ensure that IVF continues to enable the celebration of new life, but not at the expense of the women who are undergoing it. It is 26 years since the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was created, and it is high time that its inadequacies were reformed and the welfare of women recognised.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Siobhain McDonagh, Joan Ryan, Karen Lee, Emma Hardy, Layla Moran, Dame Caroline Spelman, Julie Elliott, Caroline Flint, Rosie Cooper, Ms Karen Buck, Dame Margaret Hodge and Liz Kendall present the Bill.

Siobhain McDonagh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed (Bill 189).

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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance on a matter relating to Northern Ireland. Ordinarily, it is ruled out of order for Members to raise devolved issues, such as schools, hospitals and other important matters. However, given that the Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland have not sat for more than 14 months, would it be in order to raise such matters in the Chamber in future during questions or debates?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice that he wished to raise that matter. In the first instance, I suggest that he discuss the issue with the Table Office. While the fundamental principle is that questions must relate to ministerial responsibilities, how that is interpreted is affected by the pattern of ministerial answers, and it may be that the changing circumstances mean that there will be some further changes.

Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill (Business of the House)

Ordered,

That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill:

Timetable

(1) (a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be taken at today’s sitting in accordance with this Order.

(b) Notices of amendments, new Clauses or new Schedules to be moved in Committee of the whole House may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.

(c) Proceedings on Second Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

(d) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) six hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put

(2) When the Bill has been read a second time:

(a) it shall, despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;

(b) the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.

(3) (a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.

(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.

(4) If, following proceedings in Committee of the whole House and any proceedings on Consideration of the Bill, a legislative grand committee withholds consent to the Bill or any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill or any amendment made to the Bill, the House shall proceed to Reconsideration of the Bill without any Question being put.

(5) If, following Reconsideration of the Bill—

(a) a legislative grand committee withholds consent to any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill or any amendment made to the Bill (but does not withhold consent to the whole Bill), and

(b) a Minister of the Crown indicates his or her intention to move a minor or technical amendment to the Bill, the House shall proceed to consequential Consideration of the Bill without any Question being put.

(6) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (1), the Chairman or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply—

(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;

(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;

(c) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;

(d) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded;

and shall not put any other questions, other than the question on any motion described in paragraph (17)(a) of this Order.

(7) On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.

(8) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (6)(c) on successive amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Chairman or Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions.

(9) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (6)(d) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chairman shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions, except that the Question shall be put separately on any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out.

Consideration of Lords Amendments

(10) (a) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(b) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.

(11) Paragraphs (2) to (11) of Standing Order No. 83F (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (10) of this Order.

Subsequent stages

(12) (a) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(b) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.

(13) Paragraphs (2) to (9) of Standing Order No. 83G (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on further messages from the Lords) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (12) of this Order.

Reasons Committee

(14) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of Standing Order No. 83H (Programme orders: reasons committee) apply in relation to any committee to be appointed to draw up reasons after proceedings have been brought to a conclusion in accordance with this Order.

Miscellaneous

(15) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply so far as necessary for the purposes of this Order.

(16) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.

(17) (a) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.

(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.

(c) Such a motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.

(e) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on such a Motion.

(18) (a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.

(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

(19) No debate shall be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) at today’s sitting after this Order has been agreed.

(20) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

(21) No private business may be considered at today’s sitting after this Order has been agreed.—(Karen Bradley.)

Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill

Second Reading

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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I start by wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) an early happy birthday because I know that it is coming up. I am afraid that I will not be able to celebrate with him, but I wanted to wish him a happy birthday in the Chamber. I am sure that we will all join in wishing the former Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee a happy birthday.

As with the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill that we introduced yesterday, I stand today to ask the House to give a Second Reading to legislation that is a necessary intervention to safeguard public services and finances in the ongoing absence of a Northern Ireland Executive and sitting Assembly. I covered the broader political situation in my statement last week, but it will be helpful to remind the House of the context in which we are taking forward this Bill today.

During the past 14 months, in the absence of an Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland, the UK Government have worked tirelessly to facilitate the restoration of devolved government. It had been my firm hope that a new Executive would be in place to complete its own 2017-18 estimates process and to set their own budget for 2018-19, as well as to extend the current cost capping on the renewable heat incentive scheme. It was therefore with disappointment that I had to bring forward yesterday’s Bill to put 2017-18 public spending on a legal footing.

As I set out in my statement on 8 March, there are acute pressures across public services to be addressed in 2018-19, which is why I took steps that day to provide clarity and certainty on Northern Ireland’s finances for 2018-19. The Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill seeks to build on that certainty, delivering on this Government’s commitment to protect public services and to ensure good governance in Northern Ireland. Today, the focus is on taking forward key steps to provide support for public services and sustainable finances in Northern Ireland as we move into the next financial year.

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Will my right hon. Friend elaborate on something that the public may not be aware of? There are key decisions that ought to be taken and priorities that ought to be set, but that cannot happen because there is no ministerial grouping in Northern Ireland to make such decisions.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are decisions that ideally would be taken by Ministers sitting in Stormont as part of a devolved Government, but that has not been the case for 14 months. I am therefore taking steps today, reluctantly, and it is pressing that we are able to proceed. I hope that we can get devolved government in Stormont again in the near future, because that is the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland to be able to take advantage of the available opportunities.

Clause 1 addresses the collection of the regional rate, which represents more than 5% of the total revenue available to the Northern Ireland Executive. With a devolved Government in place, it would be set via an affirmative rates order in the Assembly, enabling bills to be issued in 10 instalments, providing certainty to ratepayers and allowing various payment reliefs to be applied. Last year, it fell to the UK Government to take that step in the absence of an Executive. When I took office as Secretary of State earlier this year, I had sorely hoped that it could be one of the first acts of a new devolved Government and Assembly and would not fall again to this Government and this Parliament to set the regional rates. That will not be possible before the next financial year, and it would be unacceptable to allow uncertainty to linger in the meantime until a new Executive are formed.

While we are clear that it is a devolved matter, we are also clear that only the UK Government and Parliament can take such action to secure the interests of individuals and businesses in Northern Ireland. This Bill therefore sets out rates, in pence-per-pound terms, for both domestic and non-domestic properties. For non-domestic properties, the rate reflects a 1.5% inflationary increase. For domestic properties, the rate would be raised by inflation—1.5%—plus 3%, as I set out in my budget statement on 8 March.

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I am sure the Secretary of State would like to confirm that she is well aware that the general public in Northern Ireland will not be one bit pleased that, when rates are going up in Northern Ireland, it is expected that Members of the Legislative Assembly will get a salary increase from 1 April, unless the Secretary of State exercises the power that she will take later this afternoon. Will she confirm that she will cut their salaries and eliminate any increase before 1 April?

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The hon. Lady is pre-empting the speech that I will make later—I hope not in six hours’ time—when I will be legislating to bring powers to this Parliament to vary the rates of MLA pay. I am doing so this week to ensure that it happens before the start of the new financial year, so that no pay increases go through. I well understand her strong feeling, which is one that has been expressed to me by many in Northern Ireland.

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The Secretary of State will know that the Assembly Commission, which comprises all the parties, recommended that she should take a power to ensure that the pay increase would not go ahead. That is the view of all the political parties in Northern Ireland. It is a sensible step, and we welcome what the Secretary of State is saying.

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman. He is right that it was cross-party, cross-community view that the pay rise should not go ahead, which is why we are legislating today.

Returning to domestic rates, I well understand the concerns that people will have, but this important measure will address a hole in the budget for 2018-19, so that public services can still be delivered. In my view, the measure represents an important contribution to delivering a sustainable budget picture for 2018-19. As the budget consultation launched by the Northern Ireland civil service last year pointed out, there are important conversations to be had about the right balance in Northern Ireland between revenue raising and spending efficiencies, and that document discussed rises in regional rates of as much as 10% above inflation. Having reflected on conversations with the parties and stakeholders more broadly, and having understood the pressures on key services, I concluded that it was right that we ask households to pay a little more to help to protect and preserve public services.

However, I also considered that we had to balance that increase at the right level. That is why I propose a 3% on top of inflation rise—less than £1 a week for the average household—to help to address pressures in health, education and elsewhere. It is also why I have held business rates in line with inflation—within a broader budget envelope that allows the safeguarding of the small business rate relief—to keep a focus on the growth that Northern Ireland needs to see. That forms an important part, along with the flexibilities that we set out in last week’s budget statement, of helping Northern Ireland to live within its means at a challenging time, maintaining the UK Government’s responsibilities to uphold good governance in Northern Ireland.

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Does the Secretary of State agree, in addition to the information that she is imparting to the House, that the onus falls on district councils as well because they set a district rate? If they are effective and efficient, the increase will be even less than she has indicated.

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We all know that local government finances operate at both district and regional levels, and he is absolutely right to make the point that some of the regional rates paid by households go to district councils. It is important that they reflect the efficiencies that we are asking the rest of the civil service to reflect. As the Bill makes clear, nothing that we do would cut across the continuing right of the Executive to set a rate by order in the usual way. Should a devolved Government be restored in Stormont, they would therefore be able to make an Executive decision about the regional rate.

Clause 2 deals with the administration of Northern Ireland’s renewable heat incentive scheme, which was established in 2012 to support efforts to increase uptake in the use of renewable energy. However, owing to incorrect assumptions about boiler size and usage, tariff levels and lack of cost controls led to substantial excess payments. Over the 20-year lifespan of the scheme, the projected overspends were well over £500 million, with £27 million of overspend in the 2016-17 year alone, putting the sustainable finances of the Northern Ireland Executive at significant risk.

As colleagues will be aware, the administration of the scheme and the circumstances that led to errors in its administration are subject to an ongoing public inquiry. One of the final acts of the last Executive was to introduce regulations in January last year that put in place robust cost controls. Those made sure that the costs were sustainable. They were put in place only for a year, to allow for longer-term consideration of the scheme as a whole.

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Again, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Will she confirm for the benefit of people in Northern Ireland in particular the savings to the public purse as a result of the Bill? How much would it cost without a cap on the RHI scheme for another 12 months, compared with the measures in the Bill?

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As I have said, the estimated saving for 2016-17 was £27 million. I assume a similar sort of saving this year. The total saving as a result of the cost capping is in the region of £450 million.

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The Secretary of State rightly said that this was a continuation of measures that were put in place by Simon Hamilton, the DUP Economy Minister, and which saved money last year. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Bill replicates the excellent legislation introduced by Mr Hamilton?

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I can confirm that that is the case. We are following the same cost capping as was put in place by the Executive and Simon Hamilton as Economy Minister. The right hon. Gentleman will know the restrictions placed on this Parliament in terms of what we can do with changes, and we are very much guided by decisions taken in the last Executive. He will also know that since then there has not been an Executive to undertake that broader consideration of the right energy policy for Northern Ireland. We are now at the point where the existing cost controls are due to expire. If that happened, there would be no legal basis, not only for maintaining the current cost cap but for paying all those who receive payments under the scheme and whose installations were accredited before November 2015. Neither of these would be acceptable outcomes, nor would it be suitable for the Northern Ireland civil service to administer payments on an extra-statutory basis, which would create unnecessary legal uncertainty for all concerned.

That is why clause 2 ensures that the present cost controls, and the legal basis for payments, can continue for the 2018-19 financial year. As with the 2017 regulations, there is a sunset provision that expires after one year. This is a devolved policy matter, and it is right that the longer-term approach is one for a restored Executive to decide. In the meantime, I am assured that the Northern Ireland civil service will undertake detailed analysis to enable a new Executive to consider the right course for the future.

In summary, this is a modest Bill doing two discrete things. In setting a regional rate and extending the cost controls of the RHI scheme, it upholds our responsibilities to ensure good governance and to safeguard public services and finances in Northern Ireland. It does so in a way that continues our approach of intervening only as necessary to meet those aims, and only at a point at which it is critical that the measures are taken forward. I hope that colleagues across the House agree that it is important we now make progress to see these measures passed into law to put Northern Ireland on its strongest financial footing for the year ahead. The UK Government shall continue to meet our responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland. To that end, I commend the Bill to the House.

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The Secretary of State is right that this is a modest Bill with relatively few clauses and few substantive measures. I thank her and her office for providing me with a draft copy yesterday evening, but it is a pretty poor showing that the rest of the House had precisely 10 minutes to look at the Bill before debating its contents, however modest they are. That does not strike me as a terribly long time to look at a measure that increases taxes on 1.8 million people in this country.

We support the Bill. As the Secretary of State said, it is a necessary measure to allow councils to raise the regional rate. It legislates in an area of clearly devolved competence, and it sets the regional rate at about 4.5%, which is above inflation. My first question—I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to answer it at the end of the debate—is, how did the Government arrive at that figure? Was it discussed with political parties or with the Northern Ireland civil service, or, indeed, with local councils in Northern Ireland? The Secretary of State could have set a lower or a higher rate. How did she reach that figure?

Will the Secretary of State explain the cash impact on households in Northern Ireland? The explanatory notes are scant, so we do not have an impact assessment, and I do not think that anyone in Northern Ireland knows the net effect on average households. It would be useful to learn that.

The RHI measure was a poorly drawn piece of legislation. It is right that we are extending the cap again today. As the Secretary of State said, the liabilities for the taxpayer were potentially £500 million—some people have even said £700 million—so it is absolutely right that we should legislate to mitigate that figure. We are amending the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012, which were laid in the Northern Ireland Assembly, passed and amended there. It is Northern Ireland legislation, and we support its further amendment today. However, that raises an important question relating to yesterday’s debate that is vital in the halfway-house period—the limboland—for Northern Ireland. We have had 14 months without an Assembly or Executive, during which Ministers have not been accountable to people, either in Northern Ireland or in the House. We have legislation on issues that fall squarely within the devolved competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly when the Government choose to introduce them, but there are other issues on which the Government choose not to introduce measures. Yesterday, I mentioned the historical institutional abuse inquiry compensation scheme and the prospect of a pension for people who were severely disabled and injured in the troubles.

I was troubled by the answer that the Secretary of State gave to my question, in which she explained why she could not legislate on those things:

“Constitutionally, the inquiry”—

the HIA inquiry—

“was set up by the Executive and reported to the Executive. Unfortunately, the Executive were unable to take decisions on the recommendations before they collapsed…he”—

meaning me—

“will understand that the constitutional implications of the Westminster Parliament or Government taking a decision about something set up by a devolved institution mean that such decisions are not to be taken lightly.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2018; Vol. 638, c. 204.]

I completely accept that, but the Secretary of State is taking a decision—I presume not lightly—to legislate in other areas of devolved competence, including MLA pay, later today. We need to understand why it is deemed permissible to legislate in certain areas but not in others.

To that end, yesterday evening I commissioned the House of Commons Library and an independent Queen’s counsel to provide legal advice to the House, and I will happily place those items in the Library later today. I asked them to explain what the difference might be, constitutionally and legislatively, between those two areas. The Library agreed with what I assumed would be the fairly standard interpretation, which is that there is no constitutional reason why the Secretary of State cannot legislate on historical institutional abuse or on the victims’ pension—the pension for the severely injured and disabled. The Library says:

“As a matter of constitutional law, the UK Parliament can legislate with regard to any matter whatsoever in relation to Northern Ireland, relying on the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty.”

It goes on:

“If the Assembly is unable to introduce legislation, UK Government Ministers may decide that it is either necessary or expedient to ask Parliament to do so.”

Of course, they may decide it is not politically expedient to do so or not timely to introduce those things. That is what we are dealing with here—

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rose—

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I hope that when the Secretary of State intervenes she will explain that.

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I wanted to make the point that although, constitutionally, this Parliament can legislate on any matters regarding the United Kingdom, where a matter had been devolved we would be undermining the devolution settlement—that is the point. It would be extraordinary for this Parliament to decide to legislate, unilaterally, where, for example, such an inquiry was set up by the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Government. We do not take these things lightly and we need to give them great consideration, although I have enormous sympathy with the victims, in both cases.

The hon. Gentleman will know that I was in the Home Office at the time we set up the inquiry on institutional abuse across England and Wales. We carefully considered, and had many debates in the House on, whether the issues in Northern Ireland and the existing Hart inquiry should be brought into that inquiry, but the decision was taken that they should not, because the Executive had already set up the Hart inquiry.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that intervention, but she cannot have her cake and eat it. She cannot argue that it would undermine the devolution settlement to intervene and legislate in areas of devolved competence—for example, on the HIA or the pension for those who have been severely disabled—and then do so. She is doing precisely that today on the renewable heat incentive scheme, which was introduced in the Assembly, by the Assembly, for Northern Ireland, and on the regional rates, which is an area to do with local government that is entirely devolved to the Assembly in Belfast. One cannot have one’s cake and eat it. One cannot speak out of both sides of one’s mouth on this issue, and I fear that that is what the Government are seeking to do.

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I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks with great interest. Where would he draw the line? Does he appreciate the dilemma the Government face in respect of the micromanagement and microgovernance of Northern Ireland, and dealing with the discrete and modest legislative vehicles—the Secretary of State made that clear—that we have to have to ensure that there is decent governance there? He has not said where he would draw that line and perhaps it might be timely if he did so.

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I am glad I gave way to the hon. Gentleman because he understands Northern Ireland and understands fully that this is delicate. I completely accept that the Secretary of State is in an invidious position on these conventions, but to an extent they are just that—conventions—with the key one being the Sewel convention, whereby, ordinarily, this Westminster Government do not legislate on areas of devolved competence. However, there are instances where it is morally or fiscally necessary to intervene and the Government do intervene.

It is, in essence, for the Government to choose where the line is set, but there are moral and fiscal imperatives in respect of those people who are in the HIAI and those who have been severely injured, and who ought to see the Government intervene on their behalf. If the Government were to do that, it would in no way undermine the devolution settlement because the precedent is already set, as we are seeing today on the RHI and as we have seen on other areas of legislation. Nor would it undermine the peace process and the talks process, because there is widespread support for those things. Legal counsel supports my opinion—

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rose

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I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, because I want to complete this point. I sought some support from KRW Law, a firm of lawyers at the Bar in Belfast. Its view is:

“There are three significant points which would support a conclusion that Parliament should in fact legislate”

particularly in respect of the HIA. It continued:

“(i) The Sewel Convention is a…convention, not a rule of law, and can be departed from for good reasons;

(ii) The constitutional obligation to avoid a vacuum in governance clearly has more weight in the present constitutional circumstances”

where we do not have an Assembly.

The hon. Gentleman raised that second point. The third was that the HIAI made a clear case for intervention. Therefore, I put it to the Secretary of State that there is clear precedent and legal support for her intervening to support some of the most vulnerable and damaged people, either under the terms of the abuse inquiry or in respect of those who have been physically disabled.

I raise the pension for those who were disabled and injured because they are here today—some are in the Gallery for today’s debate and some are meeting hon. Members from across the House. I think they would want to hear from the Secretary of State that she understands the nature of the issues they face.

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rose

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Before the Secretary of State intervenes, let me quote her own words to her. She has said that the Government have responsibilities to

“provide better outcomes for victims and survivors—the people who suffered most during the troubles.”—[Official Report, 20 February 2018; Vol. 636, c. 33.]

She has an opportunity to make good on those words and legislate, and I hope she is going to tell us right now that she will do so.

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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am at a loss to understand what the point being made has to do with the RHI or rates in Northern Ireland.

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The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) is speaking to the Second Reading, and I am sure he is consistent and will ensure he sticks to that.

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I give way to the Secretary of State.

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I want to clarify the difference between the two issues the hon. Gentleman is talking about. The HIAI—the Hart inquiry—was set up by the Executive and therefore, constitutionally, it is a matter for the members of the Executive to make a decision on its recommendations. The Hart inquiry reported to the Executive after they had collapsed and therefore they were unable to do that. That therefore gives a legal difficulty: what would the Executive have decided on those recommendations for this Parliament to try to second-guess?

On the victims of the troubles, the hon. Gentleman will know that I have made it clear that this Government are committed to setting up the institutions that were agreed under the Stormont House agreement. We are committed to consulting on how that is done, and as part of that, we will deal with all the issues regarding the victims of the troubles, because I agree with him that those people have been waiting far too long to see remedy for what they went through.

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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the intervention, and let me answer it and the point made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). She makes my point for me. She asks what the Executive decided in respect of the HIAI and the answer is we do not know. We know that they said they thought they ought to implement its findings in full—they said that just before the Assembly went down—so we have some clarity on that. Crucially, we do not know what the Executive would have decided in respect of the regional rate and we do not know whether the Assembly would have decided to change the terms of the cap on the RHI, yet we are legislating in this place, in this Bill, to change those things, without any knowledge of what the Assembly would have done. So it precisely relevant to the business at hand—

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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I will give way in a moment. It is precisely relevant to the business at hand that we could be legislating under the same terms on these two issues but are choosing not to do so for some reason, be it political expediency, timeliness or the fact there are less pressing financial reasons for doing so. Those people who are here today—there are people who were injured by either side in the troubles—having been in paralysis, having lost limbs or having lost livelihoods for a long, long time now, are in need of our support.

I know that the Secretary of State wishes to give that support, so I cannot understand, and do not think she has yet explained to the House, why it is not a moral imperative—and a financial imperative for those people—to introduce legislation to implement a pension for the severely injured and to enact at the very least the relatively minor compensation arrangements that Sir Anthony Hart agreed under the HIAI.

The Secretary of State has the extra £1 billion that she managed to find for the Democratic Unionist party under the confidence and supply agreement, and part of that money could be allocated either to the victims of historical institutional abuse or to those who have suffered injury as a result of the troubles. That would be time well spent in the House, and nobody would reject or resent it. I do not believe for a moment that it would undermine either the Secretary of State’s efforts to get the peace process and the talks back on track, the Sewel convention or our desire to get the Assembly back up and running.

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I shall confine my remarks to the Bill.

Yesterday, we were doing here what should have been done in Stormont, and today, we are doing here what should have been done in Stormont. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Bill will not be the most exciting legislation passed in this Session, although I also suspect that politicians in Northern Ireland might regard the renewable heat incentive scheme as a little contentious here and there. The scheme has produced a lot of heat—a fair amount of it political heat—and I am sure it will not fade into nothingness just yet. It is almost tempting to submit an amendment to the tariff to get a bit of debate going and get some heat up—almost, but not quite.

As we are where we were yesterday, I shall be very brief. I reiterate what was said yesterday: these decisions should be taken at Stormont; decisions on devolved issues should be taken in a devolved legislature or by Ministers in the devolved Administrations, rather than here or in Whitehall; and Stormont politicians should get their collective act together and get back to work.

My comments on the rationale for the fast-tracking of this legislation should be taken as read as being the same as my comments on yesterday’s legislation, although I again accept that there should be no further delay. We knew this was coming and the Bill should have been prepared and started in good time for it to be considered properly.

This Bill and the Northern Ireland Assembly Members (Pay) Bill, which we will consider later, will pass serenely by, while we all watch with benign smiles. That is really not how legislation should be passed. My contribution today is short because this is something that we have to do, rather than a matter for policy debate.

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I am very sorry that the Bill has had to come before the House, but it is clearly necessary for the good governance of Northern Ireland for it to be passed. The Secretary of State was right to describe it as modest and discrete, which it clearly is, but I am concerned about incremental drift, which was why I was testing the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith). He sat down before I could intervene on him again, but the Opposition have certainly not said where their red line would be. He cited two examples, and there will be a lot of sympathy with his remarks—

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In case I did not, I meant to make it clear that I do not propose that we pursue other matters but absolutely do advocate that we legislate on historical institutional abuse and a pension for the injured.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I think he has established his red line. I therefore assume that he would not wish to make decisions on, for example, the Commonwealth youth games, which has been cited by a Back Bencher from his own party. I am thinking that the Opposition red line on governance in Northern Ireland, in the absence of an Executive, exists somewhere between those options. That is extremely helpful and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

I, too, am interested in the metrics that have gone into making the recommendations in the Bill. It would be useful to know how the figures were arrived at. The House is de facto responsible for the scrutiny of these tax rises. Of course, imposing or levying taxes is a defining feature of any system of governance, and that is what we are doing today with the greatest of reluctance, notwithstanding the fact that we did with the same thing last year. We need to do everything we can to ensure that this does not become a habit.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I chair, is currently considering the future-proofing of the governance of Northern Ireland and how its governance can be made more robust. In our consideration of the Bill, it strikes me that we might like to think about how district rates and regional rates operate and whether some other body might be able to levy them both. Of course, that rather unusual and peculiarly Northern Ireland feature does not apply in the rest of the United Kingdom, where the council tax prevails. Has the Secretary of State given any thought to how taxes of that sort might be invested in local government? Given that local government in Northern Ireland has changed dramatically recently and the number of councils has been reduced, we might possibly be able to levy such taxes for particular purposes through local government, rather than the Assembly—that is, if Stormont is going to continue to be unstable, which is an eventuality that I regret we will have to allow for in our thinking.

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Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although it would be interesting to find a way to democratise the taxes, the regional rate is really used to finance central Government services, while the district rate is set by councils and used to finance local government? It might not be an accountable way to levy taxes if councils levy a rate for services that they do not deliver.

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I note that we voted earlier to allow six hours to debate these matters, so I am more than happy to hold forth at great length. The right hon. Gentleman will have to await my Select Committee’s report on this matter, which will deal partly with how, as an option for future-proofing governance in Northern Ireland, powers might be given to local government in future rather than to a body that I am afraid has shown itself to be unstable. It would clearly be inappropriate for any body to levy taxes for services for which that body was not responsible. That is the burden of the point that he was trying to make: the two clearly have to go together. I hope that my Select Committee report, which will be published in the next few weeks, will make that clear.

Although we have six hours to debate these matters, I am sure that we do not want to take that length of time.

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indicated dissent.

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Well, if the Secretary of State wants me to go on, I certainly will, but I think I would rapidly lose the House’s sympathy. I clearly support the Bill, which is completely uncontroversial, given the grave situation.

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rose

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The hon. Lady will lengthen my speech, but of course I give way to her.

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I am delighted to lengthen the speech of a distinguished chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and, indeed, former Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. In both those capacities, the hon. Gentleman will have built up expertise on and a considerable body of knowledge about inward investment into Northern Ireland. The second part of the Bill is on the renewable heat incentive scheme. Has the hon. Gentleman come to any conclusions about the negative impact on inward direct investment into Northern Ireland as a consequence of the continued uncertainty and bad publicity surrounding that scheme?

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The straight answer to the hon. Lady’s question is no, I have not formed a view on that. The absence of the institutions at Stormont is most definitely acting to reduce confidence in Northern Ireland as a place to invest. Indeed, the hon. Lady will recall our discussion of the electricity market earlier. All I can say—it has been repeated at length in this place and will continue to be—is that the solution is clear, and it is the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly.

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