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Volume 646: debated on Wednesday 12 September 2018

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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?

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?

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.]

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.

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?

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.

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.”

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)

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.