House of Commons
Wednesday 31 October 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
My Department has no role in the allocation of any savings resulting from the reduction in MLA pay. The budget for the payment of salaries to MLAs is held by the Assembly Commission. Any savings would be returned to the central Consolidated Fund for redistribution within the Northern Ireland civil service, and their reallocation would be for that civil service to determine. I can also advise that the Secretary of State has today written to the Assembly Commission to bring the pay reduction into effect.
In their LGBT action plan, the Government allocated £4.5 million for an implementation fund that will be available to voluntary sector groups in England, but when I was in Northern Ireland recently, I met people in similar groups facing even greater challenges who have never received Government support from Stormont or Westminster. I have already asked the Secretary of State about that and I wrote to her on 7 September, and I have not had a reply. Will the Secretary of State consider supporting funding for these groups—if not from MLA pay, from another source?
Thank you for clarifying that, Mr Speaker; it is much appreciated. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will receive a response from the Secretary of State very soon.
Any unspent money or savings would be returned to the central Consolidated Fund, for redistribution within the Northern Ireland civil service, and it is for civil servants to allocate as they feel appropriate.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the vast majority want to get on with doing their job; but we have to recognise that some of their duties have lessened, so we are making a reduction but recognising that they still have constituents to look after and are still voices within their communities.
I would be fascinated to know how much it has cost to pay the MLAs their full salary since the collapse of the Assembly and the Executive in January 2017. Is it £12 million, £13 million, £14 million? Does the Minister honestly believe that was money well spent, when our education budgets and our health budget in Northern Ireland are so overstretched?
I do not know what the precise sum is, but I fully appreciate and am happy to put on record the hon. Lady’s commitment to this issue, on which she has spoken regularly. When the talks collapsed, there was an element of good will and we hoped that the parties would return and form the Executive again. There has to be an element of good will, rather than instantly saying, “Right: we are making reductions.” We had that element of good will; we had to introduce legislation for the cuts, and we also had to have the review conducted by Trevor Reaney.
Last week, the Secretary of State said she wanted to see action on victims’ and survivors’ pensions. May I press the Minister, because legacy is a Northern Ireland Office responsibility? Will the Government pledge the considerable savings from MLA pay to those pensions and make good on the UK Government’s promise to the victims and survivors of the troubles?
As I said earlier, as far as any savings are concerned, the unspent money will be redistributed to the central Consolidated Fund for redistribution to the civil service, who can then reallocate. As far as legacy issues are concerned, the pension issue is actually a devolved matter.
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill, which we debated last week, has now been taken through both Houses. It provides for a period in which an Executive can be formed at any time, allowing for time and space for talks to take place without an election having to be called. I continue to engage with the main parties to discuss the implementation of the Bill and next steps towards the restoration of devolution, and I have called a meeting for that purpose tomorrow, in Belfast. I am also continuing to engage with the Irish Government, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I will be in Dublin on Friday for a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Additionally, I am actively considering how and when external facilitation could play a constructive role in efforts to restore political dialogue. This will form part of my discussions with the parties. I am also extremely keen to support grassroots and civil society efforts to facilitate political dialogue following a productive meeting with Church leaders earlier this month.
I thank the Secretary of State for her response. As Conservatives and as Scottish Conservatives, we respect devolution—[Interruption]—unlike others. How best can we ensure that the people of Northern Ireland continue to have the ultimate say on what laws are passed on their behalf?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend: as members of the Conservative and Unionist party, we know that devolution is the best way to strengthen our precious Union. That is why it is absolutely vital that decisions that are rightly devolved should be made by politicians elected by people in the nations and regions of our country, as appropriate under the devolution settlement.
The point of the legislation is that it provides the space and the time for the parties to come together and put the best conditions in place for those parties to come back around the table, do the right thing by the people who elected them, and form an Executive and get back into the Assembly.
In the continuing absence of devolved Government, the Secretary of State will be aware that a further 1,044 neurology patients have been recalled following the further revision of the notes of Dr Michael Watt in the Belfast trust area. That brings the total number of patients recalled to 3,544. Has the Secretary of State spoken to the Health Department in Northern Ireland about this issue, and what can she say today to provide assurance and relieve the anxiety and worry that many of these people will obviously have at the present time?
My Department’s officials and the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), speak regularly to the permanent secretary and other officials in the Department of Health. I also meet the permanent secretary to discuss various matters, including those we discussed in terms of the Bill last week, which, when it becomes an Act of Parliament, will give civil servants the ability to make decisions, as they rightly should. But that is not a substitute for devolved Government, and we need to have Ministers in place to make important decisions, because these are devolved matters that should be dealt with by devolved Ministers.
I hear what the Secretary of State says, but these are people living with real anxiety and real worries at the present time, and she has an opportunity to do something about it now. Rather than wait, can she not say something to these people that will provide them with real hope that the inquiry will proceed quickly and that action will be taken to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman, who as a constituency MP represents many people affected by this, cares deeply about this matter and wants to see action taken. I, too, want to see action taken, and I will be happy to discuss this with him separately in terms of what actually can be done under the devolution and constitutional arrangements in place.
If the Executive are not restored by the end of the year, will the Secretary of State use the powers she is about to get under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill to issue guidance to ensure that Northern Ireland gets a proper cancer strategy, since it is the only part of the UK that does not have one, and I am afraid that outcomes are reflecting that?
My hon. Friend, who served as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office and is Chair of the Select Committee, understands the devolution settlement and constitutional arrangements better than many people. He will know that it will be for Ministers to make the decision on the implementation of the cancer strategy, but clearly the guidance that accompanies the Bill will be issued after Royal Assent, and I would hope that civil servants will take the decisions that they can take within that guidance.
I think the House will want to recall that this is the 25th anniversary of the Greysteel massacre, and our thoughts go out to the victims and their families.
The Secretary of State makes the point that devolved matters should be dealt with by the Assembly, and she will recognise that social security is a devolved matter. She probably cannot tell the House how many people will lose as they transfer to universal credit, but what she can do is give guidance to civil servants saying that the roll-out will stop in Northern Ireland until there is an Assembly competent to make that decision.
I join the hon. Gentleman in marking the 25th anniversary of the Greysteel attack. It was a horrific and totally unjustified attack that killed eight and wounded a further 19, and 25 years on, we must not forget the sacrifices that were made or the huge progress that Northern Ireland has made since the Belfast agreement was signed 20 years ago.
The hon. Gentleman asks about welfare in Northern Ireland. Again, I refer him to the constitutional and devolution settlements. He knows how they operate; the guidance will be issued and civil servants will make appropriate decisions.
Last month, I travelled to the United States where I promoted Northern Ireland to politicians, business leaders and academia. I set out, as I regularly do, the fact that Northern Ireland is a great place to invest and do business, with much to offer, including a diverse and talented workforce.
As we leave the European Union, we clearly need to promote all parts of the United Kingdom and their fantastic trade potential. How does the Secretary of State intend to harness Northern Ireland’s potential, building on the success of the “Great” campaign, of which Northern Ireland is clearly an important part?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Great Britain and Northern Ireland truly are great, and the “Great” campaign helps to promote exporters from across the whole UK. It is complemented by UK Export Finance, which has provided nearly £33 million of support for exporters in Northern Ireland, resulting in more than £46 million-worth of overseas sales.
For business to export and grow, it needs adequate support. What actions will the Secretary of State to take to ensure that Northern Ireland’s businesses can benefit from some of the initiatives announced this week, including in relation to the high street?
The hon. Lady is a doughty campaigner for her constituents, and I know that she cares a great deal about ensuring that Northern Ireland is an economic success. I am sure she welcomes the £2 million that has been secured for in-year spending in Belfast to deal with the regeneration following the Primark fire earlier this year. The city deals also play an incredibly important part, but I repeat that devolved government is the way to give Northern Ireland the best opportunities and success, which is why we need to see Ministers in Stormont.
As the Secretary of State champions Northern Ireland’s businesses around the world, will she remind the European Union negotiators that, in the December joint report, they signed up to Northern Ireland businesses having unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom? She should remind them of this, because they seem to have forgotten.
I regularly remind many people about this. Paragraph 49 of the protocol is one that many focus on, but paragraph 50 of the joint report is equally valid. It deals with unfettered access to the markets of Great Britain and the United Kingdom and the fact that there should be no new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. These are incredibly important for ensuring the economic success of Northern Ireland.
On behalf of the Scottish National party, I should like to echo the comments made by both Front Benchers about the Greysteel massacre. Our thoughts are very much with those who were involved. Is the Secretary of State aware of recent comments made in Northern Ireland by the CBI president John Allan, when he said that business would always prefer a backstop to a no-deal Brexit? He added that the backstop could be an opportunity to open up frictionless trade between the EU and UK markets. Given that widely shared opinion, why is her supposedly pro-business Government seeking to undermine the backstop and therefore undermine business in Northern Ireland?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Greysteel massacre, but I have to correct him on his second point. This Government are completely committed to all the commitments that we made in the joint report before Christmas. We are looking at how to put a backstop into legal text to ensure that the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom is respected and that there is no border on the island of Ireland.
Police: Border Funding
We have said categorically that there will be no physical infrastructure or related checks and patrols at the border. We are committed to a future partnership on security, policing and justice with the EU, including Ireland, that will allow the Police Service of Northern Ireland to continue to tackle national security threats and serious and organised crime. The PSNI has submitted its case for additional resources, and that bid is currently being considered.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that the use of the arrest warrant is very important in Northern Ireland, and we have been clear that we need to have access to the same instrument or an equivalent for that to continue. I was a Minister in the Home Office when we were debating the 2014 opt-outs and opt-ins, and at that time I was determined that we would retain access to the European arrest warrant.
With more than 250 crossing points between Northern Ireland and Ireland, does the Secretary of State not agree that policing such a border would need a massive injection of cash and that the technological solutions for patrolling the border will not work and in fact do not exist?
This Government have never shied away from the need to ensure proper funding for policing in Northern Ireland. Together with our security services, the PSNI does incredible work to keep us all safe. However, the threat level remains severe, which is why it is vital to ensure that proper funding for the PSNI continues.
The funding application now rests with the Treasury, so will the Secretary of State ensure that it is treated quickly? Will she also assure us that recruitment to the PSNI will not be blocked as a result of Sinn Féin’s closing down of the Northern Ireland Assembly?
I speak regularly with the Chief Constable, the assistant chief constable and others, and I am as committed as the hon. Gentleman to ensuring that the PSNI has the funding it needs. The bid is going through the proper processes, as it rightly should, and I am determined to ensure that the PSNI can continue to recruit as necessary.
Mr Speaker, you can scarce imagine how unbounded my joy was when I heard that austerity was over, or at least coming to an end. In view of that, will the Secretary of State confirm the lifting of the pay cap affecting the PSNI and the countless other public sector workers who feel, with some justification, that they have been abandoned by this Government?
I hope that I do not require the hon. Gentleman’s services again in mopping up water, which he so ably did for me last week. Many of his questions will be dealt with through the police funding settlement and the spending review next year, and the Minister for Policing and the Chancellor will quite rightly be making those announcements.
The Executive and Legislative Assembly
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill provides for a period in which an Executive can be formed at any time without an election having to be called. I have remained in contact with the Northern Ireland parties during the passage of the Bill and will discuss its implementation and next steps in a roundtable meeting with them tomorrow.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the Independent Reporting Commission concluded last week that key factors in bringing paramilitarism to an end were political leadership and the re-establishment of political structures in Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State agree? If so, can she explain the absence of formal talks between the political parties since February?
As I said earlier, the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland would be if the politicians whom they elected come together to form an Executive, get back into the Assembly and make decisions on their behalf. As a member of this Government, I support devolution across the whole United Kingdom, and I want to see it operating properly.
Does the first report of the Independent Reporting Commission not illustrate that the political parties of Northern Ireland must choose one of two sides at this point? They are either on the side of getting the Executive back up and running, or else they are on the side of growing paramilitarism and all the attendant dangers that that brings.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The Independent Reporting Commission’s first report is clear that the decisions that would benefit everybody in Northern Ireland must be made by Ministers. We have passed a Bill that will enable civil servants to make decisions to allow the continued running of public services, but they are clearly no substitute for elected politicians and Ministers in Stormont.
Political Parties: Loans and Donations
The publication by the Electoral Commission of donations and loans data for the Northern Ireland parties from 1 July 2017 is a positive step that should be welcomed by the whole House. The decision to publish data from July 2017 was taken on the basis of consultation and broad support from the majority of political parties in Northern Ireland.
How can it be right that the very party that would come under investigation if donations dating back to 2014 were published essentially gets a veto? We know that the leave campaign is now under investigation for donations during the referendum. Surely Northern Ireland deserves that kind of transparency, too. Why are this Government ignoring the recommendations of the Electoral Commission?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady seeks to make political capital out of this. The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), wrote to all the political parties in January 2017 regarding transparency and a date. With the exception of one party, they all agreed on the way forward. As for any other issues, I am sorry that the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) cannot accept the broad view of the majority of parties in Northern Ireland.
Does the Minister agree that the loophole that allows millions of pounds of donations, including money from America, to be channelled to Sinn Féin through the Irish Republic drives a coach and horses through the UK’s financing rules that seek to prevent foreign influence on elections in the UK? This loophole needs to be closed for Northern Ireland to be brought in line with the rest of the UK.
I appreciate that this is a long-standing issue and a matter of concern. What I will say is that we have just introduced measures for transparency. It is important that we have some data as we move forward. Then, as with many other things, there is no reason why there cannot be a review. When that review takes place, there will be consultation with the Northern Ireland parties and the Electoral Commission.
IRA and INLA Victims
I have been deeply moved by the personal stories of pain and suffering endured by the families of the victims and survivors of the troubles. That is why we have consulted on how we best move forward and address the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to be heard, and over 17,000 responses have been received. It is right that we take the time to consider those responses carefully. We will set out how we intend to move forward in due course.
I met the Home Secretary yesterday on behalf of Airey Neave’s family to discuss his brutal murder on these very premises almost 40 years ago. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland join me in saying that the victims of the IRA and the INLA on mainland Britain also deserve information and closure on the troubles?
My right hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for the family of Airey Neave, some of whom live in his constituency. We have spoken about the issue, and he will know that this matter is dealt with by the Home Office, as are all terrorist atrocities in Great Britain. I will work with him to get that closure.
I thank the Secretary of State for her response. The victims of the Irish Republican Army and the Irish National Liberation Army in Northern Ireland deserve recognition. What discussions has she had with the police to set aside money for those investigations to take place?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Today the Police Service of Northern Ireland, through its legacy investigations unit, is investigating far too many troubles-related crimes, and proportionately more killings relating to the military and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. That is not right, and that is why we want to change the system. [Interruption.]
The legacy consultation ran for 21 weeks and, during that time, representatives from the Northern Ireland Office engaged with a wide range of stakeholders, victims’ and survivors’ groups, political parties, community groups and others.
The witch hunt against our brave veterans is unacceptable. My constituent, who lives opposite the surgery where I used to work, has reportedly refused much-needed medical treatment so that he can get to court. Many will not forgive us, and nor should they, if he is lost due to disease once this case continues. When will the Government stop consulting and bring an end to these ridiculous cases?
We all owe a vast debt of gratitude for the heroism and bravery of the soldiers and police officers who upheld the rule of law during the troubles in Northern Ireland. The current system under which my hon. Friend’s constituent is being investigated is not working well for anyone, which is why we consulted on how we can improve it as quickly as possible. We are reviewing the thousands of responses received and we will set out in due course how we intend to respond.
Does the Secretary of State accept that someone must cut the Gordian knot that is preventing us from ensuring that our armed forces veterans are not persecuted and pursued in the courts decades after they have faithfully served us?
My right hon. Friend has done significant work in this area, and I agree with him that the current system is simply not working for anyone and we need to change it. I look forward to working with him to find a way of changing the system that works for people.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I know that the whole House would like to join me in sending our deepest condolences to the families of those who were killed in the horrific attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday. The UK stands shoulder to shoulder with our Jewish friends across the world.
This is the last Prime Minister’s questions before Armistice Day, and this year’s is particularly poignant, as it marks 100 years since the end of the first world war. It is right that we remember all those who have served and continue to serve, those who have been injured and those who have given their lives in the service of this country.
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 concur with the condolences about the horrific massacre and about those who have served in our armed forces.
My Italian-born constituent Laura Nani has resided here since 1984, has attended school here, has had two children and has a British mother, yet the Department for Work and Pensions has just decided that she
“does not have a right to reside”.
That is partly because she cannot prove she has had five years of continuous work, a situation that many European Union nationals, including my wife, will find themselves in when formally applying for settled status. So what message does the Prime Minister have for Laura, for my wife and for other EU nationals who face rejection by this heartless UK Government?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that. He is absolutely right: the Budget did cut taxes for 32 million people, and the rise in the personal allowance will leave a basic rate taxpayer more than £1,200 better off next year than they were in 2010. Helping people with the cost of living is not just about those income tax cuts: the rise in the national living wage next year will give a full-time worker an extra £2,750 in annual pay since its introduction; and of course by freezing fuel duty we have saved the average driver £1,000 compared with pre-2010 plans. We will continue to help with the cost of living with our balanced approach to the economy.
I join the Prime Minister in sending our sympathies and solidarity to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The attack was disgusting, depraved and appalling, and I am sure that every single Member of this House would completely and unreservedly condemn it for what it is.
I will be joining the Prime Minister to commemorate Armistice Day and remember all those who lost their lives in the first world war and, indeed, all the other wars since.
“If I were a prison governor, a local authority chief executive or a head teacher, I would struggle to find much to celebrate”
in the Budget.
“I would be preparing for more difficult years ahead.”
Does the Prime Minister think that that analysis is wrong?
If the right hon. Gentleman looks at what we set out in the Budget, he will see that we set out more money for schools, more money for prisons—[Interruption.] Yes, more money for prisons. What we have set out in the Budget is that austerity is indeed ending. What does that mean? Ending austerity is about continuing to bring debt down and putting more into our public services. We will set out further details in the spending review. Ending austerity is not just about putting more into public services; it is about putting more money into people’s pockets, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) just made clear. What we are doing in this Budget is giving the NHS the biggest cash boost in its history. The Leader of the Opposition used to ask me what taxes would go up to fund the rise in NHS funding; the answer on Monday was that it is fully funded without putting up taxes.
Just for the record, the words that I quoted in my previous question were from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Non-protected Departments face a real-terms cut of £4.1 billion. The Prime Minister promised that austerity was over; the reality is that it was a broken-promise Budget, and she knows it.
With violent crime rising, police numbers slashed and conviction rates down, why did the Government fail to find a single penny for neighbourhood policing in the Budget?
First, we did put extra money into counter-terrorism policing in the Budget. That was on top of the £460 million extra that has been made available for policing this year. That is in sharp contrast to what the Labour party was saying at the 2015 election, when it said that the police should take 10% cuts in their budgets.
“This is just another example of the contempt in which the Government holds police officers.”
Who said that? Not me; the Police Federation. No wonder the Police Federation and police chiefs are taking the Government to court over their pay.
With school funding cut by 8% per pupil, do the Prime Minister and her Chancellor think that the “little extras” are enough to end austerity in our schools?
What we actually see happening, as I said earlier, is more money for schools announced in the Budget. That is on top of the £1.4 billion extra that has already been announced for schools this year, and a further £1.2 billion will go into schools next year. The right hon. Gentleman is wrong, because overall per pupil funding is being protected in real terms by this Government. What do we see in the Budget? We are ending austerity, bringing debt down and putting more money into our public services. We are taking the country forward. What would he do? His policy would mean borrowing more, taxing more and wasting more, and taking us back to square one.
“Many schools, including mine, have had to resort to asking students and their parents for funds.”
That is not me but Sasha, a parent, worried about the future of her school, because this broken promise Budget means that headteachers will still be writing begging letters to parents. Can the Prime Minister explain why she chose not to end the benefit freeze for 10 million households, but, instead, brought forward a tax cut for higher earners?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have put extra money into universal credit in the Budget. Importantly, universal credit is a welfare reform that ensures that people are encouraged to get into the workplace and that, when they are there, they earn more. I am interested that he chose to raise the question of tax cuts. On Monday, he said that cutting taxes for 32 million people was frittering money away on “ideological tax cuts”. Yesterday, the shadow Chancellor said that Labour would support the tax cuts. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] On Monday, the Leader of the Opposition, talked about tax cuts for the rich. Yesterday, his shadow Chancellor said what we have always known, which is that the tax cuts were for “middle earners”—
“head teachers and people like that”.
When the right hon. Gentleman stands up, perhaps he can tell the House whether he will back the tax cuts and vote for the Budget—[Interruption.]
Order. It does not matter; I have all the time in the world. It will take as long as it takes. The right hon. Gentleman will address a House that has the manners to listen. The same goes for when the Prime Minister is speaking. There will be a decent display of respect, and we will go on for as long as necessary, as the public would expect, to ensure that that is the way we operate. That is all there is to it.
The benefit freeze takes £1.5 billion from 10 million low and middle-income households. A low-income couple with children will be £200 worse off. For them, there is no end to austerity. Labour would have ended the benefit freeze. As the Prime Minister well knows, Labour policy is to raise taxes for the top 5% and for the biggest corporations in the country. That would be a fair way of dealing with financial issues facing this country. Will she kindly confirm that there is still another £5 billion of cuts to social security to come in this Parliament—if it lasts until 2022—hitting the incomes of those with the least? Will she confirm that—yes, or no?
Of course, what the right hon. Gentleman fails to mention from the Budget is that, as a result of the changes that we have made on universal credit, 2.4 million people will benefit by £630 a year. When he talks about helping those who are on low incomes, I say, yes, we are helping people on low incomes—we are saving people money by freezing fuel duty. That has been opposed by the Labour party. We are letting people keep more of the money that they earn by cutting income tax. That has been opposed by the Labour party. He keeps claiming that he is backing working people, but I say to him again that if he wants to put more money into people’s pockets, and if he wants to take care of working people, he should vote for the Conservative Budget on Thursday.
I am really not very clear whether that was a yes or a no.
The Prime Minister once claimed to be concerned about “burning injustices”—well, that concern has fizzled out, hasn’t it? This was a broken promise Budget. The Prime Minister pledged to end austerity at her party conference, and the Chancellor failed to deliver it in this House. The cuts continue. Those on lower incomes will be worse off as a result of this Budget. Austerity has failed and needs to end now. It is very clear: only Labour can be trusted to end austerity, end the cuts for those on the lowest incomes and invest in our country again. Now we know: councils, schools, police, prisons—[Interruption.]
Order. Members may shout as long and as loudly as they like, and if they feel that they want to indulge themselves doing that, so be it. The right hon. Gentleman’s question will be heard—[Hon. Members: “When it comes.”] Yes, when it comes, but it will be heard in full, so do not waste your breath and damage your voices.
Mr Speaker, I am sure that some Conservative Members will not have heard what I was saying, so I shall repeat it for their benefit. Now we know: councils, schools, police, prisons, public sector workers and people reliant on social security still face years of austerity. Will the Prime Minister apologise for her broken promise that she was going to end austerity, because she has failed to do that?
First of all, the right hon. Gentleman talked about my commitment to tackle burning injustices. [Interruption.] “Yes”, they say from the Opposition Front Bench. Indeed. Was it Labour that introduced the Modern Slavery Act? No, it was not. Was it Labour that ensured that people in mental health crisis were not being taken to police cells as a place of safety? No, it was me. Was it the Labour party that introduced the race disparity audit, so that for the first time we can see what is happening to people from across our communities in this country? No, it was me and this Government. And I will tell him what else this Government have done—by taking a balanced approach to the economy and careful financial management, what do we see? Borrowing down, unemployment down, income tax down—[Interruption.] “Up”, Opposition Members say. I shall tell them what has gone up—[Interruption.]
Labour Members want to know what has gone up. I shall tell them what has gone up—[Interruption.] As long as it takes, I am going to tell them. Support for public services up, growth up, wages up—but debt is falling and austerity is ending. Under the Conservatives, the hard work of the British people is paying off.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He raises a very important issue. Obviously, our thoughts are with those children and their families at what must be a really difficult time for both the children and their families. We continue to look at what we can do to help them. I believe that when he talks about children from his constituency going to the nearest specialist treatment centre, that is Great Ormond Street, which does wonderful work in this country for children. We have a healthcare travel cost scheme that allows patients to receive reimbursement for their travel costs if they are in receipt of a qualifying benefit and on a low income, but we absolutely recognise that there is more to do, particularly on the cost of living for cancer patients, including children and young people, as my right hon. Friend said. I know that the relevant Minister from the Department of Health and Social Care will be very pleased to meet him and the charity to discuss that further.
May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks regarding the Tree of Life massacre and, of course, Armistice Day?
Can the Prime Minister guarantee the supply of medicines to the NHS in the light of a no-deal Brexit?
First of all, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are working for a good deal for Brexit. As he will also know, all Departments—indeed, we have issued technical notices to businesses and others—are making contingency arrangements should no deal occur.
Of course, that was no answer to the question, “Can the Prime Minister guarantee the supply of medicines in the light of no deal?” Why did this Government, last week, quietly begin a dramatically truncated tender process to try to stockpile medicines, at a cost of tens of millions of pounds—funds that should be spent on frontline health services? The Prime Minister has only been concerned about how Brexit might harm the Conservative party; it is time that she woke up to the real harm her Brexit policies could cause to patients. Is it not the truth that this Government are in a blind panic trying to cover for a blind Brexit?
No. Let me just say to the right hon. Gentleman, first of all, that if he had been listening and paying attention over the last months, he would have known that actually in the Budget last year the Chancellor made it clear that there was money available for no-deal planning. We stepped up the no-deal planning in the summer. Departments like the DHSC are ensuring that they are making the responsible contingency decisions that any Government Department would make. What we are doing is working for a good deal for Brexit, and we are working for a good deal that will benefit the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland.
In overall terms, we have been closing the tax gap over the years. As I think my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said in his Budget on Monday, since 2010, through the work we have been doing to close the tax gap to ensure that we deal with tax evasion and avoidance, we have actually collected, or protected, £185 billion of revenue for the Government.
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. He is, as I would expect, championing the cause of Cornwall, and one or two of my other hon. Friends from Cornwall are supporting him. We have awarded grants worth £31.5 million to enable satellites to be launched from UK soil, and we have also announced a £2 million fund, subject to business case, to help boost airports’ ambitions to offer horizontal space flight. That includes sites such as Newquay, Glasgow Prestwick and Snowdonia. The UK space flight programme continues to consider these leading proposals, and I am sure it has heard my hon. Friend’s championing of the request for Cornwall.
The hon. Lady raises a very important issue. I am pleased that I was able to set up the inquiry into child sexual abuse. As I said at the time, I think people will be shocked to know the extent to which children were being abused in this country in many different environments and circumstances. She has raised a particular issue in relation to Nottinghamshire. When the independent inquiry’s report comes forward, we will look at its recommendations very seriously. I will ask the relevant Minister to look at the issue that she raised about survivors’ groups. We have worked with survivors’ groups —I did so when I was at the Home Office. It was talking to them and hearing from them that made me realise exactly how terribly badly people have been treated, the appalling crimes committed and the appalling abuse they have suffered. That is why it is important that this independent inquiry gets to the truth.
Following the welcome call overnight from the American Administration for the ending of the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, will my right hon. Friend use Britain’s undoubted authority at the United Nations to press for a new Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire and meaningful and inclusive negotiations, to end what is the worst and most terrifying humanitarian catastrophe on the planet?
I thank my right hon. Friend, who I know has been consistent in pressing on the needs of the people of Yemen. We certainly back the US’s call for de-escalation in Yemen. He references our role in the United Nations Security Council. In fact, in March we proposed and co-ordinated a UN Security Council presidential statement, which called on the parties to agree steps towards a ceasefire. That remains our position, but as the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), said in the House yesterday,
“a nationwide ceasefire will have an effect on the ground only if it is underpinned by a political deal between the conflict parties.”—[Official Report, 30 October 2018; Vol. 648, c. 775.]
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed that matter last night with Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy. They agreed that the UK will continue to encourage all parties to agree to de-escalation and to a lasting political deal that will ensure that any ceasefire will hold in the long term.
I recognise the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. It is one that has been raised before. Of course, on issues like this, it is important that we take clinical guidance, but issues about the future of the NHS and how it operates are matters that those in the NHS are themselves considering as part of their long-term plan for the future.
Will the Prime Minister welcome the acquittal this morning by Pakistan’s Supreme Court of Asia Bibi, a young Christian, a wife and mother of five, who has spent over eight years in prison—mostly in solitary confinement—facing the death penalty on blasphemy charges merely for drinking water from a communal supply? Will the Prime Minister in particular commend Chief Justice Saqib Nisar for his courage and integrity in the message he has sent out regarding religious freedom for those of all faiths and none in delivering this judgment, setting Asia free and rectifying a great injustice?
The news out of Pakistan of the release of Asia Bibi will be very welcome to her family and to all those who have campaigned in Pakistan, and indeed around the world, for her release. Our long-standing position on the death penalty is well known: we call for its abolition globally.
We recognise that we need to take action in relation to rough sleepers. We have a commitment to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and to end rough sleeping by 2027. That is why we have already published a strategy to deal with this; we have put initial funding of £100 million into it, and there are pilot projects being worked on in various parts of the country. If he is interested in this issue of rough sleeping, I hope he will support the proposals that the Government have put forward, which were confirmed in the Budget, for increasing stamp duty on those purchasing properties in the UK who do not live or work in the UK, with that money to go into supporting people who are rough sleeping.
Will my right hon. Friend join me, when she goes to the Cenotaph next Sunday, in paying tribute not only to our own war dead from this country, but to the 3 million who came from the Commonwealth to serve in the cause of freedom? I will, sadly, not be in Tonbridge this weekend; I will be laying a wreath in Delhi, paying my own tribute—and, I know, paying tribute on behalf of the whole House—to those who suffered and died.
Will the Prime Minister join me also in wearing a khadi poppy at some point, the reason for which is that the homespun cotton remembers Gandhi’s and India’s contribution to the effort? It is a vital reminder to all of us here of our links around the world, but particularly to India.
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the vital contribution that was made by soldiers from around the Commonwealth—he has highlighted particularly those from India. I also pay tribute to him for his own military service. We must never forget that over 74,000 soldiers came from undivided India and lost their lives—eleven of them won the Victoria Cross for their outstanding bravery—and he will know they played a crucial role in the war across multiple continents. I would also like to congratulate the Royal British Legion and Lord Gadhia on their efforts in recognising this contribution with the special khadi poppy, honouring the sacrifice of everyone who served a century ago.
I am certainly interested in wearing a khadi poppy at some stage over the period as we lead up to Armistice Day, just as I am pleased to be wearing—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who is on the Front Bench opposite, says she is wearing one, which I am very pleased to see. I would also like to say that I am very pleased to wear the ceramic poppy today—I see a number of hon. Members are wearing them, and they were created by children at a school in the north-west. [Hon. Members: “St Vincent’s.”] St Vincent’s, indeed. It is very important, at this centenary, that we all recognise and that younger generations understand the immense sacrifice that was made for their freedom.
As I said earlier in response to the Leader of the Opposition, we were already putting £1.4 billion extra into schools this year, we are putting an extra £1.2 billion into schools next year and the £400 million announced in the Budget comes on top of that £1.4 billion this year. Crucially, overall, per-pupil funding is being protected in real terms.
Prime Minister, you quite rightly referenced the centenary of the first world war. Would that not be a very fitting time to end another burning injustice—namely, the legal scapegoating of brave Army veterans by others for political or financial gain? Last week, 104 of your Conservative colleagues, Opposition Members and over 50 Members of the other place, including four previous Chiefs of the Defence Staff, wrote to you and asked you to join with us in defending those who defended us. I know that there are only 104 of us—but nevertheless, are you with us?
I recognise the passion with which my right hon. Friend has championed the interests of our brave soldiers; we owe so much to them across so many different areas and so many different fronts—for their heroism, their bravery and everything they have done to maintain our freedom.
My right hon. Friend has raised particularly, in the past and now, the issue that was raised in Northern Ireland questions as well: the legacy concerns in relation to what happened during the troubles and the cases being taken against not just soldiers, but police officers, who also bravely defended freedom in Northern Ireland and acted against the terrorists.
We are committed to making sure that all outstanding deaths in Northern Ireland should be investigated in a way that is fair, balanced and proportionate. The current mechanisms are not proportionate: there is a disproportionate focus on former members of the armed forces and the police. We want to see these deaths being investigated in ways that are fair, balanced and, as I say, proportionate.
I associate myself with the fine words of the Prime Minister and others about the armistice. May I invite her to warmly welcome the choir of the Bundestag and its President, who will join our own Parliament’s choir this evening at a commemorative concert in Westminster Hall to mark this historic occasion?
I am very happy to join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the choir of the Bundestag and the German Vice-President to the concert taking place this evening—a fitting way to recognise the centenary of the armistice. As my right hon. Friend may also know, the German President will be laying a wreath at the Cenotaph this year. What armistice gives us is an opportunity to come together to remember the immense sacrifices made in war, but also to join with our German friends to mark reconciliation and the peace that exists between our two nations today. The concert this evening is part of that, as will be the German President’s presence at the Cenotaph.
The hon. Gentleman has named a number of sectors. We have heard from those sectors their concern about frictionless trade. The proposal we have put forward to the European Union would provide for that frictionless trade as part of a free trade area.
BD Foods in Hastings is a successful food manufacturer that supplies hotels and restaurants. It recently made a very good breakfast sauce called the Full English Brexit, which I think will be appreciated by many of my colleagues although it is a little hot for me. The chief executive, John Davis, has been in touch with me. He would like to invest £2.5 million, securing jobs and further investment in the business, but he is concerned about continued access to the single market as we leave the European Union, either through the single market or the common rulebook. Will the Prime Minister bear in mind, as she concludes the negotiations, the importance of protecting investment in jobs all over the country?
I think our hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) might well like to put the hot English Brexit sauce on his breakfast sausages. I reassure my right hon. Friend that the plan we have set out recognises the importance of protecting jobs in this country. We want a business-friendly customs model with the freedom to strike new trade deals around the world, but also a good trade deal with the European Union, with a free trade area—that common rulebook for industrial goods and agricultural products. That will be good for jobs and we are working towards that good deal.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important people understand their pensions and what they are entitled to. That is why the Department for Work and Pensions is working with the pensions industry on this issue. We are not just working with them; we have actually put some money forward as part of the project to ensure that that information is there and is available to people.
Will the Prime Minister give reassurance to those of us in this House and in the country who voted to leave the European Union that under no circumstances will she recommend or agree to any alteration in the exit date of 29 March next year?
I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said to his colleagues, that we are protecting EU citizens’ rights. That was one of the key issues we put at the forefront of the discussions before the December joint report was agreed. But we are actually going further than that. I was pleased to be in Norway yesterday and to discuss with European economic area and European Free Trade Association countries the protection we will give to EEA and EFTA citizens when we leave the European Union.
There are 50,000 amputees in Syria. Will the Prime Minister join me at the “Singing for Syrians” flagship concert in St Margaret’s to hear parliamentarians from across the House sing like they can hear us, and remind the people from Syria, the civilians, that we have not forgotten them?
I will look at my diary. I cannot guarantee, standing here, that I will be able to attend the concert, but I commend my hon. Friend and the parliamentarians who will be taking part in it for the work that they are doing. “Singing for Syrians” is a great movement. It is a great thing that not just raises money, but reminds people of the importance of remembering those civilians in Syria. As she says, we want to ensure that they know they have not been forgotten.
During a recent meeting with primary school heads in Chichester, I was shocked to discover that every single one of them had been subject to violent attacks by pupils or parents. As the Government launch their NHS violence reduction strategy today, will my right hon. Friend consider what else we can do to protect our teachers in the valuable work that they do?
I am certainly happy to look at the issue that my hon. Friend has raised. She refers to what I assume is physical violence or attacks that teachers have been under. I have also seen cases where teachers have come under considerable, I would say, harassment and bullying on social media as well, so I think this is an issue that we do need to look at.
Black Cultural Archives, based in Lambeth—I am a patron of it—is the only national heritage centre dedicated to preserving and celebrating the histories of black people in this country. However, unlike other national institutions such as the National Gallery or the British Museum, which get over 40% of their funding from central Government, BCA currently receives none and is under threat of closure. The Prime Minister talked about the race disparity audit. Can I ask her to explain the differential treatment of BCA and in this Windrush year, of all years, to right this wrong and provide it with the funding that it desperately needs?
I say to the hon. Gentleman that a difference of approach is taken between those museums that are considered to be national museums and those that have developed in other circumstances. I recognise what he is saying about the importance of this particular organisation and the relevance of what it is commemorating and reflecting, and I will ask a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Minister to look at the issue that he has raised.
High streets are the centres of our communities, and they have a social as well as an economic function, but the internet has changed everything. That is why I welcome the levelling of the playing field announced in the Budget this week through the cut in business rates and through the future high streets fund, but will local businesses in Harrogate and Knaresborough be able to work with the local council to decide how that money is spent?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the help that we are providing to the high street through our future high streets fund. As he says, this will enable local areas to develop and fund plans to make their high streets and town centres fit for the future. We will be supporting local leadership with a high streets taskforce, giving high streets and town centres expert advice on how to adapt and thrive, and it will be possible for local businesses to work with their local authorities to develop the plans that will indeed ensure that we continue to have plans for the high street that are fit for our towns and cities.
Last week, the Prime Minister inadvertently misled the House in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) over police pensions. This week, it has emerged that the National Police Chiefs’ Council has taken the unprecedented step of threatening legal action against the Government over their £165 million raid on pensions. Is it not the case that, under the Prime Minister’s leadership, this Government have destroyed relations with the police so considerably that they have risked public safety?
The hon. Lady is wrong in her portrayal of what has happened. I said that the pensions issue had been known about for a number of years, and indeed it has been known about for a number of years. We are committed to public sector pensions that are fair to public workers but also fair to the taxpayer. It is important that the costs of those public sector pensions are understood and fully recognised by the Government. The Budget has made it clear that £4.5 billion is available next year to support public services in managing these increased pension costs, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is working closely with the police to understand the impact of the pension changes and to ensure we make the right funding decisions to support frontline services.
Can the Prime Minister tell the House why she and her Government believe that Government spending should be increased faster on overseas aid than on hard-pressed schools and police and fire services in the UK? While this House might be typically out of touch with public opinion on this issue, will she accept that the vast majority of the British people think that that warped priority is crazy crackers?
I continue to believe it is right that the UK maintains its commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on international development. I suggest that my hon. Friend look at the speech I gave in South Africa in August when I explained how we wanted to ensure that international development aid not only helped the most vulnerable people across the world but helped countries to provide the economies, good governance and jobs that would take them out of needing that aid in the future. It is right that we continue with our commitment to the poorest people across the world and to helping countries to secure a long-term, sustainable future.
Points of Order
In helping my constituent C to push the Child Maintenance Service to pursue the well-off but self-employed father of her two young children, I tabled a written parliamentary question about the difference in maintenance recovery between self-employed and employed absent parents. The Department told me that it held the data but that it was too expensive to provide. What guidance can you give me, Mr Speaker, on how I can push past this brick wall in pursuit of feckless dads failing to pay their maintenance and letting down their children?
I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. My answer, off the top of my head, is twofold. Traditionally, the member of the Government who has felt a particular responsibility to chase answers from Ministers if they are not forthcoming, or to seek a substantive answer if it has not been provided, has been the Leader of the House. That has been the tradition over a very long period. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has approached the Leader of the House, but she is on the Treasury Bench and will have heard her point of order. It manifestly and incontrovertibly is the responsibility of Ministers to answer questions. I must advise the hon. Lady that there are circumstances in which it can genuinely and credibly be claimed that the provision of an answer would be disproportionately expensive, although that sounds rather unlikely in this case, given that the material is retained. She might seek to enlist the assistance of the Leader of the House. Alternatively, I would advise her to write to the extremely distinguished Chair of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), who may well wish to assist her in the way he has assisted Members across the House pretty much throughout his tenure as the distinguished Chair of the Committee. I hope that that is helpful.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a sensitive issue, and I hope that I phrase it correctly. We are all alert to the scourge of drugs in our towns and cities. I think the House would agree that if the sins of the father or the mother cannot be visited upon the sons, the same is true in reverse, but there is a case, as you will be aware, Mr Speaker, currently alive in the media involving a passholder in this place—and being a passholder is an honour, not a right—who has been found guilty of a drugs-related crime. In preserving what I hope all quarters of the House would agree is an important aspiration—namely, public confidence in this place and in those people who carry passes—what role do the Commission and other House authorities have with regards to Members of this place and those to whom they issue passes?
I am immensely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, though I am mildly disappointed that he did not furnish me with advance notice either of his intention to raise it or—better still—an indication as to its content. I say in all courtesy to him—I have known him for 30 years and he is a very decent chap—that it has absolutely nothing to do with the House of Commons Commission; it is a matter for me. I am very clear about that. If that matter is brought to my attention, ideally privately, I will discharge my responsibilities on the subject. I hope that my bona fides in such matters over a long period are unarguable. I hope that he feels satisfied that he has raised the point. I will deal with it sensibly.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It has come to my attention that this week is Living Wage Week, but it was not raised this morning in Prime Minister’s questions. Can you advise me how I can further highlight the question of Whitehall cleaners and their massive pay disparity? They serve the House of Commons as well as anyone else.
Yes, they may well serve Ministers, who are Members of the House of Commons, but they do not serve the House of Commons as an institution. The hon. Lady has achieved her objective in raising this issue. I will just say, not least for the benefit of Members who came into this place in 2017—and I say it with considerable pride—that this House is a living wage employer, as it should be. I was determined that it should secure its accreditation from the Living Wage Foundation. Absolutely everybody who works here should be paid at least the London living wage. If there are examples of people working within the Government service who are not receiving that remuneration, that is a matter of considerable concern, but that concern will have been heard by a Treasury Minister on the Treasury Bench. I can advise further the hon. Lady that if she feels that it has been inadequately aired in this Chamber and she wants a debate on the matter, she might find she is successful.
I hope that the point of order appetite has been satisfied, at least for today, and on the assumption that it has, perhaps we can move on.
Banking and Post Office Services (Rural Areas and Small Communities)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require banks to provide certain services in rural areas and small communities; to make provision for access to Post Office services in such areas and communities; and for connected purposes.
The Bill would amend the law relating to banking and Post Office services; make provisions to strengthen access to banking for rural and small communities by placing the access to banking standard on a statutory footing; place a duty on banks that received taxpayer funds to establish a community investment fund for when those banks leave a community; and strengthen the provision of Post Office services for rural and small communities across the UK.
As a liberal Conservative, I believe in the free market. However, many banks and financial institutions must shoulder a considerable burden of responsibility for the 2008 recession and their subsequent actions. They have endangered customers and taken money from the Government and they are now happily abandoning some of the most vulnerable communities they claim to support.
I think very few people in this House would argue that the digital revolution is not having an impact on the way people bank. However, it is the speed at which banks are withdrawing those services, the uneven distribution of the services that remain, and the incredibly weak substitutes that those banks are offering that is so completely unacceptable to our constituents. According to Retail Banker International, the number of bank branches in the UK dropped by 37% between 2007 and 2017. Meanwhile, in 2015, the Campaign for Community Banking Services produced an estimate of the number of “unbanked communities”, which stated that there were 840 communities with only one bank left, and 1,500 communities that had lost all access to their banks.
Since 2017, the Royal Bank of Scotland, for example, has announced the closure of 603 branches across the United Kingdom since 2017, 60 of which were in Scotland and three of which were in my constituency. Scant regard has been given to the impact on rural communities of closing these branches. In the case of Comrie and St Fillans in my constituency, the elderly are expected to make a 50-plus mile round trip, taking approximately two hours by bus—a journey that will hardly become more bearable as we head into the cold, winter months in Perthshire.
It is also the profile of the closures that grates. As the University of Nottingham identified, the
“largest decline in branch numbers are characterised by...the least affluent third of the population bearing the brunt of two thirds of net closures”.
That analysis was further reinforced by the Reuters news agency, which, in its 2016 analysis of Office for National Statistics figures, found that more than 90% of the 600 closures between April 2015 and 2016
“were in areas where median household income was below the British average of £27,600”.
At a time when financial inclusion and the need for enhanced social mobility is more important than ever, banks are pulling up the ladders of financial advancement for our poorer communities.
Meanwhile, despite justifying the closures on the grounds of the movement in consumer behaviour from branch to digital, these retail banks are still opening branches—opening branches in the oh-so rural and disconnected wards of Chelsea, Canary Wharf and Clapham, areas with 99%, 96.2% and 99.9% superfast broadband connectivity respectively, versus the 85.5% in my constituency. They are serving the customers they want, not those who need their services.
In the meantime, these retail banks have come to Select Committees here in this House and told us that they have done enough to cater for our communities—providing mobile banks for the elderly in some of the coldest and most geographically challenging parts of the UK, driving banking online in constituencies that struggle with mobile signal, let alone superfast broadband, and providing single community bankers as a substitute for a full-service branch. It is simply not good enough, especially when many of these institutions took British taxpayers’ funding 10 years ago.
So, when the banks refuse to listen to their local customers and their elected representatives from across the House, I ask the House to do what it was intended for: to legislate and stand up for the rights of small communities and vulnerable individuals. The Bill I present today proposes to do three things. First, it would formalise the access to banking standard, making it a legal requirement for all banks. It would also strengthen the access to banking standard, adding a requirement for a “rural weighting” to be taken into consideration as part of the impact assessment that is included within the standard. These further considerations would be in addition to the criteria, and would take into account local geography and winter weather patterns; local public transport links, including frequency and routes; and broadband and mobile coverage—benchmarked against the national average
The Bill will also make it a requirement, if a bank branch is to be closed early, to state clearly what consultation has taken place with the local Post Office as an alternative provider of banking services. It will also include a requirement for an ATM and a deposit service to be maintained as a basic level of service in a town or village. That is not a criticism of the access to banking standard as it currently stands—indeed, quite the opposite; I believe it holds some excellent standards of best practice. It is simply that giving the standard a statutory footing would give it additional heft to hold the banks to account.
Secondly, the Bill will seek to establish a community fund of £100,000 for each branch closure of banks that have had Government funding, or have Government as a significant shareholder. It is widely recognised that bank branches not only provide vital services to local individuals, businesses and community groups, but often occupy key positions in a town or village, contributing to the vibrancy of the high street and providing an indicator of local economic dynamism. However, the banks’ movement towards cities and out of the settlements that they support creates a responsibility for them to provide ongoing services and support the communities and customers that they are abandoning.
According to figures provided by the Library, bank branch closures dampen lending growth to small and medium enterprises by an average of 63% in those postcodes that lose a bank branch. The figure grows to 104% in postcode areas that lose their last bank in town, where there is an average of £1.6 million less lending as a result of that branch leaving town.
Therefore, £100,000 would not only help address the loss of business, but would go some way in supporting the local community, to be allocated to projects that help boost local high street activity and fund provisions for vulnerable people to access banking services, such as the extension of broadband to rural properties—which could of course be used in conjunction with the Government’s gigabyte voucher scheme. The community funds follow a precedent established by many energy firms, where they create community funds and profit-share agreements as part of local deals to install onshore wind farms.
Thirdly and finally, the Bill will strengthen the provision of Post Office services, which are having to pick up the pieces of the banks’ abandonment of our rural and small communities. Building on the Government’s capital fund to modernise the Post Office, under the Bill a closing bank must, before leaving a small town or village, deliver a direct mail to all affected customers, detailing the alternative banking measures provided and what services will be available through the Post Office, funded by the UK Government, including solutions for more substantial cash deposits for small businesses.
Between 2010 and 2018, the Government invested over £2 billion in the post office network, allowing the Post Office to modernise its network and protect more than 3,000 “last shop in the village” community branches. The Post Office currently offers services on withdrawals, deposits, cheques and balance inquiries for both personal and business banking customers, meaning that it is already well set up to deal with the increase in cash transactions when a decision is taken for a local bank branch to close. These services are provided for virtually all banks.
Although the Post Office does not currently have specific provisions for rural branches, it does recognise that bank branch closures will be felt more keenly in rural locations. Currently, the postmaster is remunerated in line with the value of cash deposits and withdrawals made. While the existing framework with the banks has an agreed fee for that, the fee often does not reflect the true cost in time taken to undertake that work—a point that will only be exacerbated in rural branches. Therefore, if banks are closing their branches in rural areas and post offices are picking up the pieces of bank branch closures, it would be only fair that the fee be adjusted to a more competitive rate, which allows for a weighting that more fairly reflects the costs for a rural post office branch, especially as the banks are seeing savings in the closing of branches. This would go a long way to secure further the post office network in such rural areas.
I am a fervent believer in the market economy, but in a time of great change, Government must ensure that no community is left behind. When banks and institutions have accepted public funding, they must accept that it comes with public responsibilities. We cannot have rural and small communities being abandoned; we cannot have a two-speed United Kingdom, so I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Luke Graham, John Lamont, Kirstene Hair, Scott Mann, Kevin Hollinrake, Jamie Stone, Caroline Flint, Martin Whitfield, Pete Wishart, Stephen Gethins and Ben Lake present the Bill.
Luke Graham accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 281).
Ways and Means
Income Tax (Charge)
Debate resumed (Order, 30 October).
Question again proposed,
That income tax is charged for the tax year 2019-20.
And it is declared that it is expedient in the public interest that this Resolution should have statutory effect under the provisions of the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968.
The measures taken in the Budget position Britain as one of the nations on earth that can take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities that are transforming every economy, every trade and every industry in the world. During the past few years, much of the economic debate has centred on two big subjects. The first is how to repair the economy from the ravages of the financial crisis and the previous Labour Government, when borrowing soared to 10% of national income and nearly one in every four pounds of what the Government spent was borrowed. Through eight years of fiscal discipline, involving sacrifice by the British people but backed in three general elections, the public finances have now been transformed so that this year borrowing will be not 10% but 1.9% of national income, and our national debt will fall in every year ahead, falling over the period of the forecast by over 10% of our national income. Sound money is the foundation of a sound economy, and the Conservative party has once again restored it to Britain.
Secondly, much of the recent debate has of course been about Brexit, and the Chancellor was clear that we are looking to secure a good deal with the European Union in the weeks ahead, and that achieving that will provide a further boost to the economy as growth will be revised upwards and, with it, revenues, jobs and wages. Our modern industrial strategy, reinforced by measures in the Budget, can see us enhance the prosperity of every part of the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State mentioned Brexit. Has he seen the Office for Budget Responsibility document that says that because of the uncertainty caused by his Government’s handling of Brexit, the economy was between 2% and 2.5% smaller by mid-2018 than it would have been otherwise?
If, as I hope and expect, we secure a good deal, those figures will be revised upwards, with consequent benefits right across the economy.
This is one of the most exciting times in the history of business, technology, science and commerce. From farming to retail, from manufacturing to the creative industries, the analysis of previously unimaginable quantities of data is changing lives. Doctors can diagnose diseases and treat them successfully even before we display any symptoms. As Members with interests in the automotive sector will acknowledge, there will be more change in the cars we drive in the 10 years ahead than since the invention of the internal combustion engine, as electric motors replace engines and navigation by satellite and sensor replace human control.
As the Secretary of State knows, a lot of developments are taking place in the automobile industry, for example in Coventry on electric cars. He will also know that there are a lot of concerns in companies including Jaguar Land Rover in relation to the diesel tax on the one hand and Brexit on the other, and the Secretary of State has been very good in meeting us on those subjects.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he says. I am a regular visitor to the west midlands and to Coventry, and of course it is vital for one of our proudest and most successful industries that we should be able to build on that success by seizing the initiative in the years ahead. Every country in the world is moving to electric and autonomous vehicles and, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, we have some of the best brains on the planet in developing that new technology. I am absolutely determined that we will not do what happened in the past—we invent the technologies yet see them deployed elsewhere—but that instead we will manufacture these batteries and these vehicles, and that we will do so in every part of the country.
Will the Secretary of State recognise the real concerns expressed to him by the automotive industry about the contradictory and confused signals coming out of Government in relation to fiscal policy and vehicle excise duty? Is there not something wrong when the system as it is at present penalises most the cars that are the cleanest and most CO2 efficient? In the next few months, as he and his colleagues consult the industry on the introduction of the worldwide light vehicle test procedure, will he ensure that such perverse incentives do not continue into the next financial year?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The next generation of diesel engines are much more environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient than their predecessors, so to replace an existing old-style engine with a new one is a step in the right direction, and I have been very clear, as I think he knows, that diesel will have a role to play as we transition to a 100% emissions-free world. That is captured in the “Road to Zero” strategy on which we consulted the industry, and I know that he was involved in those discussions.
The Secretary of State talked about not losing our ideas. He will know that there are great ideas now in the marine energy technology sector, but they are at an early stage and companies need help and support before they can manufacture in this country. Will he have a word with the Chancellor so that we can have proper ring-fenced finance for this industry, as we had for wind energy under a Labour Government and for solar? Those sectors are now successful, but marine energy is lagging behind.
We have an expanding innovation budget and we will have more to say about that in the weeks ahead, because our industrial strategy recognises the importance of seizing the opportunities that we have in clean growth, in which we are a world leader in many cases. I want to do with clean growth just what we are doing in the automotive sector, and marine and tidal energy is an important part of that.
This is not just about manufacturing. If we are going to be successful, we are going to need the raw materials. As the Secretary of State will be aware, there is great potential in Cornwall for lithium mining, which will become ever more important with all the electric vehicles we are going to have. So does he share my enthusiasm for that potential, not just for the Cornish economy but in securing a domestic supply of this ever more important metal for the UK?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and it is his second chance in the space of an hour to talk about Cornwall’s place in our industrial future, whether through lithium for batteries or as a centre for the launch of satellites and space vehicles. He makes his case passionately, and of course we want to make sure we can source the materials for this new technology. Cornwall is a good place for that.
On clean growth, last year was the first time since the industrial revolution, forged in this country, in which a day passed in Britain with no coal being used to provide our power supply. This revolution is gathering pace, and the most exciting thing about these transformations is that Britain—British businesses, British scientists, British designers, British inventors, British workers—can lead the world in every one of them. Of the satellites that gather and transmit information for cars to navigate, a quarter—[Interruption.] I am surprised that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who I thought had an interest in science and technology, would not want to acknowledge the fact that a quarter of all the communications satellites orbiting the Earth today were built in Britain. We have over half the entire world market in the booming small satellite market. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) pointed out to the Prime Minister today, we will have the first satellite launch pad in Europe. We are not just manufacturing and inventing the technology, therefore; we will be the go-to place to launch it as well.
I did not know that, but I will add it to my repertoire of boasts about our national capability, and I am very pleased to learn it.
We are now the leading country not just in Europe but in the world for deploying offshore wind energy. The cost of production has fallen by half since 2015, and factories and jobs are springing up all around our coasts, from Belfast to Hull, from Machrihanish to the Isle of Wight. I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) is present; he played an important role in setting the strategy that has resulted in that investment.
Also, having been the place where the genome was sequenced, we are the place where the secrets that it unlocked are being discovered and applied to the benefit of patients.
Our modern industrial strategy reinforces Britain’s future as a place of competition, innovation and challenge where new ideas can take flight and where any incumbent can be challenged by the newest start-up. Monday’s Budget pressed home the advantages and continued the progress we are making, including in addressing areas in which we need to improve. We have the biggest increase in public investment in research and development that this country has had in its history, with £1 billion more for the industrial strategy challenge fund.
This morning, leaders in genomics met in the House of Commons. They are world leaders based in Britain, and they told us how cures and treatments are being delivered to patients in the NHS today. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is this Government’s investment in science and research that has led to us being a world leader in this area?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I had a good meeting with the global chief executives of some of the most important life sciences companies around the world, in which it was readily acknowledged that the strength of our science base, and the visibility of our commitment to reinforce it, to invest in it and to apply it in manufacturing, is causing investment to be made here. The global pharma and life sciences company MSD has announced that its new research centre is going to be here in the UK, and I had the pleasure of opening the Novo Nordisk facility just a few months ago. It is evident that there is more to come. One of the benefits of a long-term strategy and commitment is that it can have short-term results because people invest on the back of it.
The Secretary of State is talking positively about the future of the life sciences sector, but does he recall that just last week the head of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry told the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union that without full membership of the European Medicines Agency, the future of the life sciences industry was not tenable in this country?
I do not agree. I think that the future of the industry is strong in all scenarios. I regard our ability to participate in institutions and research networks as being of great importance, and that is why I hope that the deal that is being negotiated will succeed and that we will be able to move forward based on that confidence.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that carbon capture, utilisation and storage has enormous potential? I had a meeting with the Carbon Capture and Storage Association this morning, in which it emphasised clearly that a development pathway in 2019 would have enormous benefits for our ability to deliver a net zero target by mid-century.
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is a good example of how a strategy to integrate different strands of policy and work can be of great benefit to many of the industries on Teesside that he represents so well. We will have more to say about that.
Building on the success of the Faraday challenge, which aims to make Britain a place for the design and manufacture of new battery technologies, the Stephenson challenge referred to in the Budget will support innovation in electric motors. We are emphasising the “D” side of R&D: development as well as research. The “Made Smarter” review, which was championed and led by Juergen Maier, the chief executive of Siemens in this country, is spreading the take-up of new manufacturing technologies to businesses small and large. A national quantum computing centre will scale up quantum systems into workable machines. An industrial energy transformation fund will help many energy-intensive businesses to reduce their energy costs as they transition to a low carbon future, at the same time as making them more competitive.
New fellowships in artificial intelligence will attract the world’s best research talent to our shores, building on our success with institutions such as the Turing Institute. On infrastructure, the Budget ensures that the digital revolution will extend to all parts of the country, through new funding for new ways of deploying full fibre broadband in rural locations.
The one thing that goes across all the areas that my right hon. Friend has been talking about is our investment in fusion technology. He might be about to say something about that, but I was really pleased to see £20 million being given to that area in the Budget. Will he confirm that the Euratom issue is now over, and that we can look forward to a successful fusion technology industry continuing in this country?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, which gives me the chance to confirm that there will be £20 million of investment—and it is investment—in the centre of excellence in fusion research. It will pay dividends for many years to come. The discussions on the successor arrangements to Euratom have gone as I hoped they would—that is, cordially and expeditiously—and good progress has been made on all the issues under discussion. We have made the necessary agreements with most of our major counterparts.
On places, the Budget announced extra funding for the Strength in Places fund, supporting local collaborations between business and research across the UK. This was also an important Budget for Britain’s small businesses. Extending the start-up loans programme will help more aspiring entrepreneurs to take the plunge. Further funding for the knowledge transfer partnerships will place graduates in smaller firms across the United Kingdom. The fivefold increase in the annual investment allowance will help to support firms as they invest and grow, and the £1.5 billion boost to small high street retailers, including £900 million in business rates relief, will support small businesses right across the country.
The post office in our high street has been downgraded from a Crown post office and its services are being reduced. Our retailers in our high street are worried that this will mean fewer people coming into the community. What can the Minister say to reassure the retailers in our high street?
One of our proudest achievements in Government has been to halt the destruction of the post office network—[Interruption.] It is substantially the same in numerical terms across the country as it was when we came into office. That is very important, for exactly the reason that the hon. Lady has set out. Post offices are crucial to many high streets and to the many small businesses that make use of their services.
We are in the early days of a period of spectacular opportunity for Britain. The truth is that none of the achievements that are within our grasp would be possible without the willingness of investors and entrepreneurs to take a risk in backing new ideas.
Notwithstanding the attractions of Cornwall, the vertical take-off site for the UK is going to be in my constituency, and I would be churlish if I did not express my thanks to Her Majesty’s Government for that decision. In Caithness, we have exactly the kind of skills and knowledge in Thurso and Dounreay that the Secretary of State is referring to. Will the Government ensure that those skills and that knowledge are transferred and used to boost the laudable scheme for the space launch in my constituency?
I am glad to hear that from the hon. Gentleman. I had a great visit to his beautiful constituency and he is right to say that it has skills that can be deployed in the space industry now. It also has the opportunity, working with local colleges, to develop and grow the skills that the space industry will need if it is to create good, well-paid jobs there in the future. This decision is great news for the north of Scotland and for the whole of the United Kingdom.
I welcome the £200 million more that is to be given to the British Business Bank as part of the Budget, and also the announcement that a team from the bank is to be based in Scotland. The Secretary of State knows that I have an ongoing concern about the availability of quality patient capital, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises. What is his assessment of the current availability of that kind of capital?
My hon. Friend highlights a piece of advocacy that he has made personally and as a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee to ensure that we give growing businesses the ability to expand. That investment by and through the British Business Bank, particularly through its regional focus on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is very important. It should be close to the people in whom it is investing.
By investing in new equipment and employing new people, it is businesses that create jobs, not the Government. Businesses provide people with the earnings they need to live good lives. After the family and education, it is businesses that provide most of us with the best opportunity to develop and make the most of our talents. It is businesses that pay for every single one of our public services, both directly and by employing people. Governments cannot do such things, but they can stand in the way. There is no successful society anywhere in the world that is not based on successful busi