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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
12 September 2018
Volume 646

Cabinet Office

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

Intimidation of People in Public Life

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2. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of intimidation experienced by people in public life. [906829]

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Intimidation can do real damage to our democracy and has no part to play in healthy debate. The Minister with responsibility for the constitution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), has launched a consultation on a new electoral offence of intimidating candidates and campaigners. I encourage anyone who has experienced this sort of unacceptable intimidation to respond and to take part in that consultation.

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I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that those who seek to interfere with the course of an election through criminal intimidation should face electoral sanction?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. He is absolutely right. An electoral offence has a higher tariff. It is right that we are clear that our democracy is precious and important. We must do everything we can to protect robust debate with respect.

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Does the Minister agree that more work needs to be done in tackling social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter? Does he think that the Government should not just introduce voluntary charters to govern social media platforms but look at legislation, because too many Members of this House, the devolved institutions and councillors, and indeed candidates and activists, are facing unparalleled levels of abuse through social media platforms? That cannot be allowed to continue.

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The hon. Gentleman makes the very good point that this should not be allowed to continue. We must look at all options on how we can ensure that. We have said we want to work with those companies and platforms to ensure they see proper debate but with respect. I encourage the hon. Gentleman’s party to adopt, as the Conservative party has, a respect pledge to behave properly in the social media world.

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Earlier this year, all the Conservative councillors on Desborough Town Council resigned in protest at the abuse, harassment and intimidation suffered by the Conservative female chair of the council. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, when he reviews standards of conduct in public life, that applies not just to elections but to serving councillors during their term of office?

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My hon. Friend highlights a worrying problem that we are seeing across public life: people are seeing this kind of abuse. It was raised at last week’s Prime Minister’s questions. We all have a duty to stand up against this. The criminal bar on this is in place all year around. We are looking at elections as a separate issue in the consultation, but he is right: we all have a duty to call this out to ensure that people can have proper debate and fulfil their public duty with confidence that it will be respected.

Technological Innovation

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3. What steps he is taking to encourage technological innovation in tackling social challenges and delivering public services. [906830]

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4. What steps he is taking to encourage technological innovation in tackling social challenges and delivering public services. [906831]

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I am determined that the public sector embraces the huge opportunities for better public services at lower cost provided by technology. That is why last week I announced five new public sector challenges from the GovTech innovation fund and why I am also leading the development of a public services innovation strategy to be published next spring.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. Over the summer I wrote to all my 37 care homes and GP practices and visited most of them. They are facing unprecedented challenges with recruitment and retention. How will technology help in that regard?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I know that she is committed to this issue. We, too, are committed to using emerging technologies to improve the quality of care for patients and to empower staff. Under one of the GovTech challenges last week, we are working with a healthcare trust to ensure prescriptions are not interrupted when people move between care providers and, as Members will have seen, my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is also very much committed to this agenda.

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I welcome what my hon. Friend is doing in this area, but what steps are the Government taking to harness the power of technology to help to tackle the problem of loneliness, which the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, the Prime Minister and Members across this House have done so much to highlight?

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My right hon. Friend raises an important point. Under the GovTech innovation fund, in collaboration with Monmouthshire County Council, we are working to investigate a solution to identify vehicles with spare capacity to tackle loneliness and rural isolation. That is another example of the great potential of technology to help to alleviate loneliness across society and to support people in having meaningful social relationships.

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At the weekend, I visited the Clipper, a converted pub on Union Street in Plymouth that is using crowdfunding technology in conjunction with the local authority, Plymouth City Council, to raise money for a refit. What support is the Minister giving to local authorities and communities to use new technologies to raise funds, especially in a time of austerity?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I would be happy to discuss the example that he has raised. Local authorities have frequently bid for these GovTech funds. As I said, Monmouthshire County Council has been successful, as have local authorities in Northern Ireland, and I encourage others to make a bid when the next round opens shortly.

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What progress is being made to ensure that my constituents can claim universal credit online through the medium of Welsh?

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The Government Digital Service is committed to ensuring full accessibility to all public services, including in our home nation languages, and it will certainly look into that point.

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My hon. Friend will be aware that, across the public service, appointments are being missed with experts including general practitioners, consultants, nurses and employment advisers. Is there a role for technology in prompting members of the public to attend these expensive and important appointments?

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My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely correct, and this is a perfect example of how we can use technology. Indeed, in my experience many GP surgeries already use methods such as text messages to prompt people not to miss their appointments. He will have seen from recent announcements that the Health Secretary is genuinely committed, as are the Government, to investing large sums in the greater use of technology in healthcare.

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The Government’s record on technical and digital innovation is appalling. Their flagship Verify system is so flawed that the NHS and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have both rejected it. Having spent six years and £130 million of public money developing the system, the Government cannot even convince their own Departments to register. Judging by this dismal record, does the Minister agree that the only technological innovation this Government can stimulate will be overdue, over budget and under-performing?

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Specifically on Verify, I would urge the hon. Lady not to read everything that is being speculated on in the newspapers. The Government are committed to ensuring secure online digital identities, and Verify has already delivered for 2.7 million people. More broadly, let us take the example of gov.uk, which has had 5.1 billion sessions and 15.2 billion page views. That did not happen when the Labour party was in power. Let us also take the example of Notify, which is used by hundreds of organisations. The Government Digital Service is a genuine innovation of this Government, and it is delivering seamless services across Government Departments.

Leaving the EU: Contingency Plans for No Deal

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5. What contingency plans his Department is making for no deal being reached on the UK leaving the EU. [906832]

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8. What contingency plans his Department is making for no deal being reached on the UK leaving the EU. [906836]

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The Cabinet Office has developed contingency plans for exit-related policy areas that are within our remit, such as public procurement, and we also work with other Government Departments on their plans. These preparations are a sensible precaution in case of the unlikely event that the UK should leave the European Union with no deal.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. If our country is not ready for a no-deal scenario, we are simply not in a position to credibly negotiate with the EU, so will he ensure that colleagues across Government work as hard as they can to maximise the completeness and credibility of their plans?

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Yes. A no-deal scenario is not what we expect, and it would certainly be an unwelcome outcome. It is not what we want, but it is right that we should take these sensible precautions. All Ministers around the Cabinet table and their teams are working hard to ensure that those plans are developed and ready.

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As the chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover has said, a deal is vital for west midlands, and indeed UK, manufacturing. What plans do the Government have to ensure that the funding currently provided by the European Investment Bank to UK manufacturing businesses and infrastructure projects will continue after we leave the EU?

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We are looking at various proposals, including the creation of a UK prosperity fund, to replace those funds that are currently disbursed via the European Union. My hon. Friend reminds us of the importance, in our negotiations, of seeking to achieve frictionless trade so that the just-in-time delivery systems that cross national frontiers can be sustained to the benefit of business here and in the EU.

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Does the contingency planning that the right hon. Gentleman’s Department is doing include warning Departments what they would need to do if Parliament were to vote for a final say on the deal?

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I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, in voting for the referendum Bill and supporting the article 50 process, the great majority of Members of this House accepted that the decision of the British people in 2016 should be final. However we campaigned, I think that that remains the case.

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Does the Minister agree that the difficulties of contingency planning should not be added to by this obsession with a mythical hard border, which no one wants, cannot be implemented and could be circumvented with ease by everybody in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic?

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As the Prime Minister has repeatedly said, ensuring that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland is a fundamental principle of this Government’s negotiating strategy, along with ensuring that there is no customs barrier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

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Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what work has been undertaken to ensure that UK-wide frameworks are ready in the event of no deal?

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We are continuing intense discussions at official level with the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland civil service. It is in the interests of every part of the United Kingdom that those frameworks are ready, so that the benefits of the UK single market can continue to be felt by consumers and businesses in Scotland and everywhere else in our country.

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Following on from that question, what are the implications for the proposed common frameworks of not having a deal on exiting the European Union? No matter how complicated and chaotic the discussions become, will the Minister give an assurance that they will not be used as an excuse to force through arrangements without the consent of the devolved Administrations?

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On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, it remains our intention to do everything that we can to work with the agreement of the devolved Administrations and not to have to use the powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 unless necessary. However, whether there is a deal or no deal, there will still be a need for UK-wide frameworks to ensure that the UK single market is preserved when powers have returned to this country from Brussels.

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With just weeks to go until the negotiating deadline, it is clear that the Government are putting more and more focus and effort into planning for a no-deal scenario. Will the Minister therefore tell the House when the Government plan to put the interests of the country ahead of the interests of the Brexit extremists in the European Research Group?

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Anyone who has worked with this Prime Minister knows that what motivates her every single working day is the interests of the people of every part of the United Kingdom. In publishing the technical notices and the guidance to business on a no-deal scenario, we are doing exactly what the European Commission and other EU Governments have done. It is the responsible course of action to take.

Voter ID Pilots

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6. Whether he has made an assessment of the operation of recent voter ID pilots; and if he will make a statement. [906834]

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10. Whether he has made an assessment of the operation of recent voter ID pilots; and if he will make a statement. [906838]

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The Cabinet Office and the independent Electoral Commission published their respective findings in July that the pilots worked well. The overwhelming majority of people were able to cast their vote without a problem, and there was no notable adverse effect on turnout. The success of the pilots proves that the measures are reasonable and proportionate.

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Can the Minister confirm that concerns about ethnic minority communities being adversely affected did not come to pass during the pilots? Is that not yet another reason why voter ID should be rolled out across the whole country as soon as possible?

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My hon. Friend is correct. Our surveying alongside the pilots found no indication that the ID requirements changed the reasons for not voting for any specific demographic group across the participating authorities. That is important evidence.

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My hon. Friend knows well that elections are expensive to conduct. Sevenoaks District Council and Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council do excellent jobs of conducting elections not just for themselves, but for this place and for the county council. Is she planning to consider ways of speeding up payments to those borough and district councils?

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Yes, I am working with the Association of Electoral Administrators to see how the process can be improved. I take this opportunity to thank all the electoral staff in my hon. Friend’s council and elsewhere, who work so hard. The fact is that they have six months in which to submit an account. These things can sometimes be left to the last minute, which creates a bulge in the process, but we want to improve that.

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In terms of this so-called success, the Electoral Reform Society’s report says:

“The government must have a strange definition of success.”

It confirms that this is a waste of money and that it disenfranchises voters. When will the Government tackle the real electoral fraud issue, which is the spending breaches by the Labour, Lib Dem and Tory parties?

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The Electoral Reform Society and people who quote from it have a strange definition of mathematics. The number that they put out on polling day was wildly inaccurate and scaremongering about this policy and they have some explaining to do.

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Out of 45 million votes cast last year, there has been only one conviction for voter fraud, yet the Government seem determined to pursue voter ID, which stopped hundreds of people voting last year. When faced with real threats to our democracy, in the form of violations of campaign rules and finance laws, the misuse of voters’ personal data, and foreign interference in our elections and referendums, the Government have done almost nothing. Will the Minister tell us when the Government will get their priorities right and stop penalising honest voters while turning a blind eye to electoral abuses by the powerful?

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There is an incredibly important principle at stake here, which seems to be missing from the Labour party. Either you want to stamp out electoral fraud or you do not. This policy is about that. Regardless of the number and the levels of the crime, we should tackle it and ensure it does not rob people of their votes. Furthermore, the hon. Gentleman entirely forgets what his own party did in government by making this policy a fact in Northern Ireland.

Steel Procurement

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7. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s steel procurement policies. [906835]

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The Government are clear that we will do all we can to support our steel industry. The publication of indicative pipelines of Government steel requirements, alongside revised procurement guidance, ensures that United Kingdom steel producers have the best possible chance of competing for major public sector contracts. We will be reporting on our performance later this year.

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The UK steel industry continues to face challenges. The Government promised in their 2016 guidance on steel procurement that they would publish individual Departments’ performance on steel procurement. When will they publish that information and be transparent about this?

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I am happy to update the hon. Gentleman on that point. I have consulted the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington). He has written to Departments over the summer reminding them of that duty. We are reiterating our commitment to produce that information before the end of the year.

Hereditary Peer By-elections

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9. What assessment he has made of the merits of the by-election system used to elect hereditary peers in the House of Lords. [906837]

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The Government are clear that comprehensive reform of the House of Lords that requires legislation is not a priority for this Government. We would welcome working with peers on measures that could command consensus, so we welcome the work of the Lord Speaker’s Committee, chaired by Lord Burns.

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It should be a priority. Forty-three hereditary peers just elected another hereditary peer to a seat in Parliament with 43 votes. That is nonsense on sticks. It should be scrapped and the Government should bring forward proposals.

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I am not sure there was a question there that I can answer. I say with great respect to the right hon. Gentleman that he assiduously raises this issue at oral questions time after time. I understand his arguments, but the Government’s position is as I put it.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no place for hereditary legislatures and that they should not be supported by a party that claims it wants to build a meritocratic Britain?

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I respect my hon. Friend’s argument just as much as I respect that of the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), but the answer remains the same: there is an enormous amount of work in front of both Houses of Parliament at this time and this is not a priority.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [906843]

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Over the recess, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who is Minister for the constitution, announced that the Government have been able to save the taxpayer more than £300 million since 2016 through the national fraud initiative—a record amount. This clampdown on fraud and error in the public sector has helped us to divert more money to frontline public services.

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Will the Minister join me in welcoming the Scottish Government’s proposed electoral franchise Bill, which will protect the voting rights of EU citizens and refugees for Holyrood and local government? Does he agree that we should protect people’s rights and extend the Westminster franchise for EU citizens and refugees?

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The Government have put forward a package of measures that give enhanced rights to EU citizens lawfully resident in the United Kingdom. We believe that that is a fair and generous offer, and it is currently the subject of negotiations.

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T2. When considering the relocation of civil service jobs outside London, will the Minister please remember that the south-west is a great place to live, work and do business, and that the best place is North Devon? [906845]

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My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a strong case for his region. The Places for Growth programme demonstrates our commitment to rebalancing the economy by moving Government jobs away from London and the south-east, and the One Public Estate programme is supporting this collaboration. I am pleased to say specifically that the Devon and Torbay partnership expects to deliver 288 jobs and land for 201 homes by 2020.

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T3. We know that the Cabinet Office is preparing for the very real threat of no deal, with secret Cobra meetings and civil contingency planning. Business leaders are warning of the disaster of a no deal or a bad deal. Is it not about time that we put this decision—the biggest facing our generation—back to the people for a people’s vote? [906846]

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There was a people’s vote in 2016 that, at the time, both the hon. Lady’s party and mine said would be the decisive moment. It is perfectly right that the civil contingencies secretariat in the Cabinet Office takes an active part in contingency planning for all eventualities.

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T4 . The Government have identified £1 billion that could be saved through procurement by hospitals. What work is the Cabinet Office doing to support that £1 billion saving so that we can release £200 million of it to scrap hospital car parking charges? [906847]

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I know my hon. Friend’s long-standing commitment to this cause. We are committed to delivering value for money for the taxpayer by extending best procurement practice into the wider public sector. The Crown Commercial Service, which manages procurement of common goods and services for both central Government and the wider public sector, including the NHS, has already delivered more than £600 million of savings this year.

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T5. The Minister chairs the cross-departmental homelessness reduction taskforce. Rough sleeping is a huge concern to my constituents in Sheffield, but the voluntary and statutory sector tells me that it is held back from tackling it by disproportionate cuts to local government. The recent Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government strategy provided no new money, so will his taskforce look at the issues so that we can actually do something? [906848]

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The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. The homelessness and rough sleeping implementation taskforce, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and on which I serve, supports the Government’s cross-Government strategy, which was announced earlier this summer. The taskforce is also monitoring the implementation of the new Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the proposals he raises directly.

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Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), I am pleased to advise the House that we are joined today by the former Speaker of the Canadian Parliament, the longest serving Speaker in his country’s history, Peter Milliken. Welcome, Peter, to the House of Commons.

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Recent figures show that almost £200 million of taxpayers’ money was spent on trade union activists last year. Would not Transport for London, for example, be better advised to spend the £5 million that it spent on trade union activities on transport for London?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although trade unions of course play an important role in the modern workplace, facility time in the public sector must represent value for money, which is why we have taken a transparent approach to it. We estimate that more than £120 million is being spent on it. Departments and Government agencies must seek to reduce that spending, as I am pleased to say the Cabinet Office has done; we are spending less than 0.01% of our budget on it.

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T6. Will the Minister tell the House what steps he has taken to tackle the gender pay gap in the civil service? [906849]

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The Government have required all public bodies and large private sector employers to make public their gender pay gap, so that action can then be taken to ensure that that gap is reduced and closed. We are determined that the public sector will set an example.

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T7. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, thanks to his efforts and those of the Department of Health and Social Care and of Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust after the collapse of Carillion, work on the Midland Metropolitan Hospital will resume later this year, and the west midlands will get another world-class hospital? [906850]

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I am pleased to confirm that the Government and the local trust have reached agreement that the Midland Metropolitan Hospital will be completed by 2022. It will be equipped with state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment, 15 operating theatres and at least 669 new beds. That is a further demonstration of the Government’s commitment to investment in our national health service.

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Since 2010, the central civil service has been cut by 20%, which has severely reduced overall effectiveness and specialist knowledge. In the light of the demands placed on Departments by Brexit, do the Government agree that they are paying the price for that short-sightedness?

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The Government remain strongly committed to having an effective civil service. Thanks to funds provided by the Government, we now employ 7,000 more civil servants to deal with Brexit. With the pay settlements that we are reaching on a Department-by-Department basis, we are ensuring that civil servants are properly rewarded.

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Ministers were right to listen and act on public sector steel procurement. How are the new procurement regulations bedding down, what is their effect and what benefit are they bringing to the UK steel industry?

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We are clear that we will do everything that we can to support our precious steel industry. All central Government Departments are now required to evaluate the social and economic benefits of procurement decisions, alongside price. That has meant that the UK’s steel producers are now in the best possible position to compete for Government work, and UK steel suppliers are able to compete effectively with international suppliers.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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Q1. If she will list her official engagements for Wednesday 12 September. [906851]

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I am sure that Members across the House will wish to join me in congratulating Alastair Cook on his fantastic service to English cricket. As England’s highest-ever-scoring batsman, his incredible career had many highlights, including the magnificent 147 in his last innings, against India. We wish him the very best for his future.

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 know that the Prime Minister appreciates the significance of fishing communities around the UK, not least my own constituency of Banff and Buchan. What steps will my right hon. Friend take to support our fishing communities during the implementation period? Will she look into ways to support the expansion of the catching fleet, infrastructure, processing capacity and other businesses that are reliant on the sector?

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I fully recognise the importance of the fishing industry to my hon. Friend’s constituency and to other constituencies represented in this House. I reassure him that we want to secure a sustainable and profitable fishing industry that will regenerate coastal communities and support future generations of UK fishermen. Leaving the EU means taking back control of our waters, setting our own fisheries rules and exclusively determining who fishes what in our seas. It is a priority of the Government to make sure that we have an innovative, productive and competitive food supply chain. Work is under way to consider the long-term future of all funding programmes that are currently managed by the EU.

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I, too, join the Prime Minister in congratulating Alastair Cook on a fantastic achievement and both teams on what has been an absolutely brilliant series, which I really enjoyed.

The National Farmers Union, the Federation of Small Businesses, the National Audit Office, the National Housing Federation, Gingerbread and the Royal Society of Arts—does the Prime Minister know what these organisations have in common?

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Yes, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that what those organisations all have in common is that, across a variety of areas of activity, they give excellent service, they promote the interests of those whom they represent, and they are bodies with which this Government interact and to which this Government listen.

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I am truly grateful to the Prime Minister for that answer, the first part of which I wholly agree with. What they also have—[Interruption.] It’s all right. What they also have in common is that they are telling this Government that their flagship benefits policy, universal credit, is flawed and failing hundreds of thousands of people both in work and out of work. In 2010, the Government declared that universal credit would lift 350,000 children out of poverty. Does the Prime Minister stand by that figure?

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We introduced universal credit because we needed a system of welfare in this country that encouraged rather than discouraged people into work, that made sure that work always pays and that was a simpler system than the legacy system that we were left by the Labour party—remember the legacy system of the Labour party. It meant that we had individuals being paid £100,000 a year on benefits—all paid for by hard-working taxpayers earning a fraction of that sum.

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The Child Poverty Action Group says that, far from taking children out of poverty, universal credit will now increase the number of children in poverty. Since 2010, half a million more children have gone into poverty relative to that time. The Government know that this policy is flawed and failing. Their own survey on universal credit found that many were in debt, a third were in arrears with their rent and half had fallen behind with their bills. Does the Prime Minister dispute her own Government’s survey, or dispute the experience of the claimants?

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Let us look at the experience of some of the claimants. Roberta said, “My work coach helped turn my life around. He tailored his support to my situation and thanks to him I have found my dream job.” Ryan said, “I am happy with the new universal credit. My work coach has been great—I didn’t expect to have a job so soon.” Nayim said, “Universal credit gave me the flexibility to take on additional hours without the stress of thinking that this might stop my benefits straight away.” We have gone from a situation under the Labour party where 1.4 million people spent most of a decade trapped on benefits. We are helping to get people into work, which is why, earlier this week, we saw unemployment yet again at a record low.

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We are all constituency MPs, and I think that most of us are well aware of the pain that universal credit is causing when people come into our advice bureaux. Some 60% of families facing cuts owing to the two-child policy are in work. Universal credit is not making work pay; it is taking money away from families and putting more children into poverty. The National Audit Office report found that universal credit is creating hardship, forcing people to use food banks and could end up costing the system even more. Does the Prime Minister dispute the National Audit Office findings?

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The right hon. Gentleman talked about constituency cases. I remember—[Interruption.]

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Order. We are at a very early stage of the proceedings. We have got a long way to go, but questions must be heard and the answers must be heard, and as usual I want to get through the Order Paper.

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The right hon. Gentleman started his question by talking about constituency cases. I remember the single mother who came to see me as her Member of Parliament when Labour was in government who told me that she wanted to get into the workplace and provide a good example to her child, but the jobcentre had told her that she would be better off on benefits. That is the legacy of the Labour party.

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My question was about the National Audit Office. The Trussell Trust backs the NAO. It says that food bank usage in areas where universal credit has been rolled out is four times higher than in areas where it has not been introduced. But, without resolving any of those failings in the next year, the Government propose to inflict this on another 2 million people. As part of that transfer, hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities and on employment and support allowance, jobseeker’s allowance and tax credits will receive a letter telling them that their support will be stopped. They will have to make an application for universal credit. Does the Prime Minister think it is the responsibility of the Government who are changing the system to ensure that people retain the support that they need, or is it down to the individual, many of whom are very vulnerable people who need help and support?

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What the Government are doing is delivering a system that does give support to vulnerable people, but encourages people to get into the workplace, because we know that work is the best route out of poverty. However, if the right hon. Gentleman believes that universal credit needed some change, why, when we made changes such as reducing the waiting days for payment and bringing in a housing benefit overlap to help people, did Labour vote against those changes?

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It is Labour that has been speaking up for the poorest in this country. It is Labour that has been challenging this Government. It is Labour that wants a decency within our society that this Government are incapable of delivering. [Interruption.]

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Order. Mr Spencer, I always thought you were a good natured, laid-back farmer. You seem to be a very over-excitable denizen of the House today. Calm yourself, man.

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The mental health charity Mind says that there is a real possibility

“that many people with mental health problems could see their benefits stopped entirely”.

It is outrageous that vulnerable people risk losing out because of these botched changes.

The Government’s Brexit negotiations are an abject failure. I can see that by the sullen faces behind the Prime Minister—and that is not just the European Research Group; it is the whole lot of them. But everywhere you look, Mr Speaker, this Government are failing— 1 million families using food banks; 1 million workers on zero-hours contracts; 4 million children in poverty; wages lower today than 10 years ago; and on top of that there is the flawed and failing universal credit. Disabled people at risk of losing their homes and vital support; children forced to use food banks—and the Prime Minister wants to put 2 million more people on to this. The Prime Minister is not challenging the burning injustices in our society. She is pouring petrol on the crisis. When will she stop inflicting misery on the people of this country?

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The right hon. Gentleman talks about challenging the burning injustices. That is about setting up the race disparity audit, which says what public services do and how people from different communities in our country are treated by them. It means saying that nobody in this country should be stopped and searched on our streets because of the colour of their skin—that was me as Home Secretary, never the Labour party. We are seeing 3.3 million more people in jobs as a result of our balanced approach to the economy.

And what have we seen from Labour over the past few days? Iranian state TV broadcasting no-confidence votes against Labour Members of Parliament; police investigating anonymous and threatening letters about the deselection of Labour MPs sent to Labour offices; and, most shamefully of all, the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) saying that the Labour party is now an institutionally racist party. That is what the Leader of the Opposition has done to Labour—just think what he would do to this country.

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rose—[Interruption.]

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Order. No gesticulation is required, Mr Brake—calm yourself. You are a former Deputy Leader of the House—behave in a statesmanlike manner. [Interruption.] Order. Let us hear the questions and the answers.

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Q3. We quite rightly spend quite a lot of time in this place talking about crime, criminals and prisons, but perhaps we do not spend enough time talking about the victims of crime. So I warmly welcome the Government’s announcement this week of a victims strategy. Can the Prime Minister assure me that this will not be some kind of dry document but a genuine effort to boost support for the victims? [906853]

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I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We know that nothing can take away the trauma and distress of being a victim of crime, but we need to ensure that people get the support they need as they rebuild their lives. This is absolutely vital. It is our duty to keep people safe but it is also our duty to ensure that victims are properly protected and listened to. That is why we are taking steps to enshrine their entitlements in law—to strengthen the victims code. This first ever cross-Government victims strategy will ensure that victims of crime receive the care and support they deserve at every stage of their interaction with the justice system. I commend my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary, and also the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), for the work they have put into the victims strategy.

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A decade on from the financial crisis, the poorest in our society are still paying a price. The bankers were bailed out, but ordinary people paid the bill. Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis shows that real wages are, on average, £800 lower. A decade on and people are poorer: a damning indictment of the UK Government’s leadership. Tell us, Prime Minister: why have you abandoned millions of families—those just about managing?

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What we have done is created an economic environment where 3.3 million people are in work. We now see the number of children in workless households at the lowest level ever. We now also see, through what we have done, an increase in the national living wage. We have ensured that we have taken 4 million people out of paying income tax altogether. Over 30 million people have received a tax cut. That is what this Government have been able to do through a balanced approach to the economy, keeping taxes low, putting money into public services, and reducing our debt.

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That, I am afraid, simply ignores the reality that people are poorer. It has been the worst decade for wage growth in over 200 years. Households are struggling, and it is reported that a no-deal Brexit will increase the annual cost of living for low-income households by hundreds of pounds. Yet this Prime Minister still wants to walk off the Brexit cliff edge. The Prime Minister is unfit to govern. She is incapable of leadership. We know it, her Back Benchers know it, and the country knows it. Ten years after the economic crash, the poorest are still bearing the brunt. It is as simple as this: the Prime Minister should end her austerity programme or admit that her party is unfit for government.

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The right hon. Gentleman mentions Brexit. Of course, we are working to get a good Brexit deal for the whole United Kingdom, including Scotland. I suggest that he might listen to the views of the Scottish National Farmers Union, which said this week that the plan the Government have put forward is one that

“certainly the agriculture and food and drinks sectors can work with”,

and that politicians from

“all sorts of parliaments and assemblies”

should get behind it.

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Q5. My constituency is a mere 69 miles from London, as I am sure my right hon. Friend remembers from her visit a few years ago. You are lucky to cover that tiny journey in an hour and 40 minutes, and that is if you avoid the Network Rail works. Our sunshine coast has a lot to offer economically, a lot of which remains untapped. We could attract new homeowners, doctors and businesses to the area. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what this Government are doing to improve our rail services and speed up the journey to Clacton? [906855]

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I do indeed remember the visit that I made to Clacton in 2014, where I was very pleased to meet Caroline Shearer and hear about the anti-knife crime work she had done and the charity she had set up in memory of her murdered son, Jay Whiston.

On the issue of rail, Greater Anglia will indeed be introducing a whole new fleet of trains, which will be delivered from the middle of next year. They will be state of the art, with much improved acceleration, my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear. Greater Anglia needs to work with Network Rail to ensure that it can deliver those improved journey times. There are infrastructure constraints on the line, but we will engage with Network Rail to understand what plans it has to renew the infrastructure, so that we can see the improvement on the Clacton branch that my hon. Friend wants to see.

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Q2. The Prime Minister just said that work is the best route out of poverty. Without repeating the response that she gave to the leader of the SNP, can she explain why, after eight years of a Conservative Government, the Living Wage Foundation reports that 40% of people in Grimsby do not earn enough to live on? [906852]

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The figures show that the proportion of the workforce on low pay is actually at its lowest level. That is a result of the changes we have made in relation to the economy and the balanced approach we have taken. If the hon. Lady if worried about people living in Grimsby, the answer is not a Labour Government, with £500 billion of extra borrowing, fewer jobs, higher taxes and people suffering the cost.

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Q6. Given what we know about the Russian state’s involvement in the Salisbury poisoning, does the Prime Minister think it appropriate when parliamentarians, both current and former, appear on Russian state television? [906856]

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I am sure we all have doubts about the objectivity of the reporting on Russia Today, which remains a tool of propaganda for the Russian state. Decisions about appearing on Russia Today are a matter of judgment for each individual, but they should be clear that they risk being used as propaganda tools by the Russian state. I know that that view is shared by other Members of this House, including the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who has made clear that he does not think people should appear on that station. The same also applies to Press TV, which has had its licence to broadcast revoked in the UK by Ofcom.

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Q4. The Prime Minister refused to answer my written question about AggregateIQ visiting Downing Street, so I will ask her here. Why did Jeff Silvester and Zack Massingham of AggregateIQ visit No. 10 last autumn? Who did they meet? Who invited them? What was the purpose of the meeting and, most importantly, why was the meeting not recorded in the transparency data? [906854]

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The hon. Lady’s letter has not been drawn to my attention. I do not have—[Interruption.] Following her question, I will ensure that she receives a reply in writing.

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Q7. When it comes to Brexit, the joint statement of 8 December last year said that“nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.Does the Prime Minister agree that this means that the payment of the £39 billion exit payment and the Northern Irish backstop are dependent on agreeing satisfactory final-state trade arrangements? Does she also agree that payment of that money should be locked into the legally binding withdrawal agreement, which also requires those final-state trade agreements to be fully agreed and implemented by 31 December 2020 in a form acceptable to this House? [906857]

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We are very clear that we need to have a link between the future relationship and the withdrawal agreement, but we are a country that honours our obligations. We believe in the rule of law, and therefore we believe in abiding by our legal obligations. However, my hon. Friend is right that the specific offer was made in the spirit of our desire to reach a deal with the European Union and on the basis, as the EU itself has said, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Without a deal, the position changes.

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Q9. The Prime Minister was right yesterday to be promoting electric vehicles, but she also needs to focus on electricity production. Investment in renewable energy has halved as a result of the Government’s policies. Instead of encouraging carbon-emitting technologies such as fracking, which is deeply unpopular in Sheffield and across the country, will she recognise that our future depends on serious investment in wind, solar, tidal and other renewables? [906859]

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I believe that in the provision of energy across the United Kingdom we need to have a diverse range of supplies. That is why, yes, we do support, we have supported and we will continue to support renewable energy, but it is also why we are ensuring, for example, that we have a supply of energy in the future from nuclear and that we look across other forms of energy as well—for example, ensuring that we see an increase in the number of interconnectors with Europe. A diverse supply is what we need in our energy sector.

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Q8. Jean-Claude Juncker this morning accepted that Britain will always be a close trade and security partner for the EU. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this means that giving Britain a good deal is in the interests of both sides? [906858]

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I have always said to this House that I believe a deal that is right for the UK will be a deal that is right for the European Union. I note not only that President Juncker said what my hon. Friend has commented on, but that he went on to say that

“after 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom will never be an ordinary third country for us…I welcome Prime Minister May’s proposal to develop an ambitious new partnership for the future, after Brexit. We agree with the statement made in Chequers that the starting point for such a partnership should be a free trade area between the United Kingdom and the European Union.”

Let me be very clear: when we leave the European Union, we will be an independent sovereign state—we will have control of our money, our borders and our laws—but I want to say to our closest allies in Europe, “You will also never be an ordinary third party for us.”

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Q10. There is huge concern over proposals to take decisions on fracking away from local councils. This concern is seemingly shared by a prominent Conservative MP, who has a number of statements on her website, including that“local planning decisions should be returned to locally elected councillors”,and“local councils need the power to stop unsuitable developments”.The Prime Minister will I hope recognise these comments. She made them. Does she still agree with them? [906860]

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It has always been the case, across the planning structure that we have here in the United Kingdom, that there are decisions taken at local level, but there are also decisions—sometimes those local decisions are referred—at a national level.

Strength of the Economy: West Midlands

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Q12. What recent assessment she has made of the strength of the economy in the west midlands; and if she will make a statement. [906862]

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I was indeed very pleased to be in the west midlands yesterday at the world’s first zero-emission vehicle summit, where I made clear my determination to put our manufacturers in the west midlands and across the UK at the forefront of the design and manufacture of zero-emission vehicles. The midlands has a very strong automotive industry. The growth of high-tech manufacturing across the region continues to drive investment: it is creating high-skilled jobs; it is boosting economic growth. The latest employment statistics, released yesterday, show there are now over 320,000 more people in work in the west midlands than in 2010.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Also based in the west midlands is silicon canal. Silicon canal is like silicon valley, but without the sunshine. It employs some 40,000 people working in computer science and there are some 6,000 different companies—the second largest cluster of its kind in the whole of Europe. With the announcement last week of 5G being based in the west midlands as a test bed, what more will the Prime Minister do to promote high-tech in the west midlands?

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I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the silicon canal. I am sure that, like me, he was delighted that the west midlands bid, which was pulled together by the Conservative metro Mayor Andy Street, was chosen as the winning location of the Urban Connected Communities project. As my hon. Friend mentioned, that will see the development of a large-scale 5G pilot across the region.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is also working closely with the West Midlands combined authority to develop and deliver a region-wide digital skills partnership, which will bring together key sectors in the region, working on improving the digital skills of individuals, small businesses and charities. Ensuring strong Government engagement and support for these sectors will be critical to the success of the Government’s industrial strategy.

Engagements

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Q11. The Secretary of State for Education announced a pay award for teachers recently, which, as the Prime Minister will know, is not yet a devolved responsibility. The Government have outlined how they will fund the award for teachers in England, but as yet they have not done so for Wales. Will the Prime Minister intervene to put right this oversight and ensure that Welsh teachers and Welsh pupils are not the ones left to foot the bill? [906861]

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To reassure the hon. Gentleman, I should say that the Treasury will be setting that out shortly.

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Back in July, in Prime Minister’s questions, I pressed the Prime Minister on the possible publication of Sir Alex Allan’s report on the Windrush affair and she confirmed that the Home Secretary of the time was considering publication very carefully. Two months later, nothing has come from the Home Secretary or the Home Office. Could she as Prime Minister, in the interests of transparency and accountability, which I know she believes in, now personally authorise the publication of this long-awaited report?

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I reassure my right hon. Friend that the Home Secretary has been looking at this issue, and the Cabinet Secretary is looking at this. We are committed to publication, but the form of that is currently being considered.

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Q13. Yesterday, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation issued a devastating report on its findings relating to the murder two years ago of my constituent Lisa Skidmore. The report sets out catastrophic failures on the part of the probation service to act on warnings about the behaviour of her killer, Leroy Campbell—a lifelong violent sex offender—and concludes that Lisa’s murder was entirely preventable. Lisa Skidmore was a young woman with her whole life in front of her. Her family have been left completely heartbroken by her loss. She was let down in the most appalling way by a service that is there to monitor offenders and protect the public. In this case, it failed to do so, with the most devastating consequences. Can I ask the Prime Minister what she and the Ministry of Justice can do in response to this report, to prevent something like this from happening again? [906863]

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The right hon. Gentleman has raised what was an absolutely devastating case—it was a horrific crime, and devastating for Lisa’s family. I understand that my hon. Friend the prisons Minister has met the family of Lisa Skidmore and apologised for the failings in this case. But as the right hon. Gentleman says, this should not have happened.

I understand that some action has already been taken and that two members of the probation service have been suspended. While nothing can be done to bring back Lisa or minimise the impact that this has had on her family, Dame Glenys Stacey has been asked to conduct an independent review to look at what can be done to prevent such tragedies from happening again—to do as the right hon. Gentleman has said: make sure that this never happens to anybody else.

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Cumbria and the Lake district are among the most beautiful parts of the UK, and our farmers play such a unique role in maintaining the landscape. On Back British Farming Day, will my right hon. Friend ensure that our Cumbrian farmers will be able to export their world-class meat after we leave the European Union?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to recognise the beauty of the area she represents, Cumbria and the Lake District, and the important role farmers play in that part of the country, as indeed our farmers do elsewhere. When we leave the European Union, we are looking to ensure we have trade deals that enable our farmers to continue to be able to export their very important product, which is enjoyed by people elsewhere. By leaving the European Union, we are able to do something else: come out of the common agricultural policy and develop a policy for farming in this country that is right for our farmers, not for others’.

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Q14. Last year, 183 people were returned to this country to face justice because of the European arrest warrant. If we leave the EU without a deal, the European arrest warrant will not be available to us. Would the Prime Minister be happy with that? [906864]

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The hon. Gentleman will know full well that as Home Secretary I stood at this Dispatch Box and led a debate in which we ensured that when we exercised the powers available under protocol 36 we went back into the European arrest warrant. The European arrest warrant is one of those instruments that we have identified in our Chequers plan as one that we wish to discuss with the European Union, with a view to being able to continue to use it.

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Leah Aldridge was killed by her father in 2002. After the coroner and Greater Manchester police finished their investigation, the body was returned to the family for the funeral. Last year, the police discovered that they had retained some of Leah’s body parts, and these were returned to the family for a second funeral. Only a few weeks ago, yet more body parts were discovered by the police and the family had to go through the ordeal of a third funeral. They have no confidence that Greater Manchester police or the police and crime commissioner, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, now have finally allowed the family to lay their daughter Leah to rest. Will the Prime Minister hold an inquiry into this matter for the sake of Leah’s family and for other families across Greater Manchester?

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This is an absolutely terrible case. I am sure, as my hon. Friend will have felt from the reaction of Members across the House when they heard him set out the details, that we all want to express our deepest sympathy to Leah’s family for the prolonged trauma they have had to endure as a result of the way that this has been handled.

I understand that the deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester has been in touch with the Human Tissue Authority about the case. The authority is advising on ensuring that the establishment concerned does the necessary work to evaluate what went wrong in this case and puts in place measures to minimise the chance that this can ever happen again. Officials in the Home Office will meet both the Greater Manchester police and the National Police Chiefs’ Council to further address the issue of historically held human tissue. I will ensure that the relevant Home Office Minister updates my hon. Friend on the outcome of those meetings.

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Q15. The Windrush scandal continues to affect my constituent who, despite receiving his British passport, has been told he is ineligible for employment and support allowance as he has not made enough national insurance contributions over the past two years—an impossible task, since he has been prevented from working by the Home Office. Will the Prime Minister take responsibility for ensuring that the Department for Work and Pensions has special measures in place to deal with Windrush applicants, and will she confirm that my constituent will now get the support he deserves? [906865]

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The Home Office, of course, set up a special taskforce to deal with the Windrush cases to provide help and support to the individuals—[Interruption.] Yes, I know the shadow Foreign Secretary is mentioning the DWP. I am coming on to the DWP. What is important for the individuals concerned is that they are able to interact with one Government body that is then able to give them support and take on the issues for them. I believe that the individual concerned should get in touch with the taskforce, and the Home Secretary will make sure that the necessary inquiries are made.

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Will the Prime Minister visit my constituency to open Airbus’s new wing integration centre in Filton, which is a £40 million investment that will secure hundreds of jobs and good- quality apprenticeships for the future? Will she join me in thanking and paying tribute to Airbus for its strong and enduring commitment to the UK?

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My hon. Friend has issued a very interesting invitation. I cannot give him an instant response from the Dispatch Box, because I will need to look at diary commitments. It is absolutely right that we thank and congratulate Airbus on the commitment it has made to the United Kingdom and the high-quality jobs it provides here. When I went to the Farnborough airshow, I was very pleased to meet Airbus executives to look at and talk about some their latest products.

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In a meeting on Monday, the aluminium and steel industry told leaders of Opposition parties—with the exception of the leader of the Labour party, who refused to attend—that thousands of jobs are to be put at risk by the British Government’s Brexit policies and threadbare industrial strategy. Is it not the case that the Prime Minister is prepared to dole out P45s to manufacturing workers simply in order to appease the Brexit extremists in her own party?

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The hon. Lady’s portrayal of the situation could not be further from the case. What we have put forward in the Chequers plan is a plan that delivers on the result of the referendum and ensures that we take control of our money, borders and laws, but that does so in a way that protects jobs and livelihoods across the United Kingdom. The Government have given support to the steel industry in a number of ways, and the industrial strategy is about ensuring that we have a healthy manufacturing industry in this country, but also a manufacturing industry for the future, providing the high-skilled jobs and skills for people for the future.

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The Prime Minister will be aware of not only my feelings but those of pretty much everyone in this House and the vast majority of this country when it comes to seeing our veterans dragged through the courts in Northern Ireland to appease political differences. What is she as Prime Minister personally doing—how is she personally investing of herself in this process—to bring to an end something that the vast majority of her country find completely abhorrent?

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I am well aware of the degree of concern about this issue, which is why I have held a number of discussions about it with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We owe a vast debt of gratitude to the heroism and bravery of the soldiers and police officers who upheld the rule of law and were themselves accountable to it. That is something that has always set them apart from the terrorists, who during the troubles were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of members of the security forces. But as I have made clear, the current system in Northern Ireland is flawed. It is not working; it is not working for soldiers, for police officers or for victims—a group, in fact, that includes many soldiers and police officers as well. Although a number of terrorist murders from the troubles are actively under investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other police forces, under the current mechanism for investigating the past there is a disproportionate focus on former members of the armed forces and the police. We want to ensure that all outstanding deaths in Northern Ireland are investigated in ways that are fair, balanced and proportionate.

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Since the life-changing spinal muscular atrophy treatment Spinraza was rejected by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in its first guidance last month, families affected, including that of young Sam Mckie in North Tyneside, have been left heartbroken. Will the Prime Minister meet me and Muscular Dystrophy UK to discuss the urgent need to make progress on the managed access agreement so that patients can access Spinraza as soon as possible?

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I am very happy to look at the specific issue in relation to the decision taken by NICE, and I will ensure that Health Ministers look into it and have a meeting with the hon. Lady to discuss the details.