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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
13 March 2019
Volume 656

Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

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

Leaving the EU: No Deal

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1. What recent progress his Department has made on preparations for the UK leaving the EU without a deal. [909760]

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If you will indulge me for 30 seconds, Mr Speaker, I would like to apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office for his absence from the Chamber. As I think you know, he has a commitment that means that I am taking his place today.

I say to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) that we have published over 300 items of no-deal content and we have broadcast across some 200 commercial radio stations. The Cabinet Office is facilitating the redeployment of staff between Departments, and it is co-ordinating contingency planning through established structures.

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It was announced overnight that the Government plan to slash tariffs on the majority of products imported from outside the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Such a move would mean cheaper steel imports, with business saying that that could destroy our steel sector and our manufacturing sector more broadly. What consultation did the Government undertake with the steel sector before the announcement?

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The temporary tariff regime aims to minimise costs to business and mitigate price impacts on consumers while supporting UK producers. I stress again that that is a temporary scheme, and business will be consulted over the first 12 months.

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This morning, right hon. and hon. Members and I were serving on a statutory instrument Committee. Along the Committee corridor, there are SI Committees almost every day, preparing not only for a deal-Brexit but for a no-deal Brexit. Can I tell my right hon. Friend that we are prepared, in my view?

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Aren’t we? I think that is where the question mark comes.

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As the Government have said consistently over the past couple of years, we are working so that we are prepared, whatever the outcome. The legislative default for this Parliament is to leave without a deal, if we do not agree a deal.

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The country is hanging on to a no-deal cliff edge. Today, we read about the Government’s latest brilliant idea: a ludicrous TV advert telling the public, from Friday onwards, “Don’t panic”, which is a bit like Corporal Jones in “Dad’s Army”. However, this is not the Home Guard in the 1940s, and the prospect of thousands of job losses and shortages of food, medicine and so on are no joke. We can prevent this. Today, the Commons will take control from the Government to prevent such a disastrous scenario. Will the Minister join us?

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I find it somewhat ironic that the hon. Gentleman, along with his colleagues, is talking about preparation—the previous question was about preparation too—but complains that we are preparing the public for what may happen on 29 March. The simple answer is that he and his colleagues should have voted with us last night to make sure that we left the EU with a deal.

Civil Service Pay

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2. What recent discussions he has had with trades unions on civil service pay. [909761]

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The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I regularly engage with unions on a range of civil service workforce issues, including pay. I most recently met union representatives across the wider public sector last month, and I will meet civil service trade unions on pay for 2019 very shortly.

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Since 2010, wages for workers in the civil service have fallen 10% to 13% behind workers in the NHS, local government and the education sector. Despite that, the Cabinet Office has confirmed that any pay rise above 1% will have to come from further cuts in jobs, and in terms and conditions. Is it not time that the Government backed up their claim to be ending austerity by ending it first for their own employees?

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As the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, we have removed the 1% pay cap, and it is up to each Department to find efficiency savings and better ways of working to pay for greater pay rises. That is exactly what we have seen. For example, the Foreign Office agreed a deal of 4.6% on average over the course of two years, giving a pay rise but funded properly by efficiency savings.

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Will my hon. Friend say whether in the discussions he has been having he has reflected on how much the national living wage will increase from next month, and how many workers that will benefit?

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As ever, my right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. In fact, the effect of the national living wage this year is to hand workers a £700 pay rise.

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Can the Minister confirm that permanent secretaries agreed a 1% pay offer across the board in Departments last year? Does that not make a mockery of the fact that the Government have 200 separate pay negotiations across the civil service?

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As the hon. Gentleman is aware, in respect of lower grades—those below the senior civil service—there is a delegated pay process. The overall framework is set by the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, and it is for individual Departments to decide. We will go through the proper process, and no final decisions have been taken.

Election Candidates: Disabilities

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3. What plans the Government have to encourage more candidates with disabilities to stand for election. [909762]

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In December 2018, we launched the £250,000 EnAble fund, which provides grants to help cover disability-related expenses that people might face when seeking elected office ahead of the May local elections.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. In the past, I have been a trustee of SHIELDS—Supporting, Helping, Informing Everyone with Learning Disabilities in Southend. What plans do the Government have to engage people who have learning disabilities in the electoral process?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend, as I know he works hard in supporting what SHIELDS does. It is clearly doing positive work for people with learning disabilities in Southend. We are committed to supporting people with learning disabilities in participating in democracy. We are working, to that end, in partnership with the Royal Mencap Society, including, for example, through facilitating a meeting between Mencap and political parties on the provision of easy-read manifestos.

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Perhaps I should declare an interest, in that my wife is disabled and I have been glad of her support in my elections in the past. At the recent snap election, we faced an issue with access to voting stations; sometimes a school would be declared unsuitable because repairs were being carried out and another place had to be found for a voting station. Sometimes disabled access was an issue. What are the Government doing to make sure that it is made as easy as possible for disabled people to get in there and cast their vote?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We are working with returning officers on this issue, and there is the wider issue of engaging with people with disabilities to address. All of us, in all political parties, can do more about that. We should be looking at what we can do to encourage people to get involved. That is why I am so proud of being part of the Conservative party whose Conservative Foundation does exactly that.

Leaving the EU: Civil Service Responsibilities

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4. What assessment he has made of the capacity of the civil service to manage its additional responsibilities as a result of the UK leaving the EU. [909763]

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The Government are equipping themselves with the right people and the right skills to deliver the UK’s exit from the European Union. We now have more than 14,500 people working specifically on EU exit-related policy and programmes across government. Workforce plans will continue to be reviewed to ensure that the civil service can always respond to emerging capacity and capability requirements.

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What assessment has the Department made of the impact on other Departments, many of which have seen civil servants transferred into working on our strategy for exiting the EU?

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We have more than 400,000 civil servants across Departments and across the country, many of whom have areas that cross over with the work they are doing on the EU. We work with Departments to ensure that we are using the right skills in the right places to make sure that we are prepared to leave the EU in a good and orderly fashion.

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Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what measures are being taken to return civil servants who work in the EU—in Brussels and other parts—to the UK to carry on their duties?

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Obviously, as we leave the European Union, the civil servants who have been focused on those issues will continue to do the work they need to do that relates to the EU. Where that work ceases, they will be moved back into the relevant civil service areas, as is required, across Departments.

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At a meeting of the Cabinet Office in December, it was reportedly agreed that all non-essential Government business is to be suspended so that civil servants can concentrate on no-deal planning. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government consider the housing crisis, resourcing the Home Office to process settled status applicants, the failure of universal credit and the delays to HS2 to be essential or non-essential business?

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The best advice I can give the hon. Lady is not to get tempted to believe rumours of Cabinet leaks that she reads about in the newspapers. If she looks at the Government’s track record, she will see that we are delivering record employment levels and record low unemployment, that we are improving wage levels for people who work for the Government, and that we are delivering for people, with good and outstanding education continuing. I am sure she will look forward to hearing more about that in the spring statement later today.

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Compared with two years ago when we triggered article 50, how much more and better prepared is the civil service right across the UK for what needs to happen in the next few months?

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Work has continued over the past two years. As the hon. Gentleman may recall from answers I have given at the Dispatch Box over the past year or so, the number of civil servants focused on this policy area has changed and increased as required, so that we are ready to leave the European Union on 29 March.

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It is clear, is it not, that Brexit will mean a lot of change, upheaval and uncertainty for ordinary civil servants throughout the country. I was therefore genuinely astounded to learn last week from the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union that not a single meeting had taken place with national officers of that union to discuss Brexit. When will the Government start to discuss these matters with representatives of the workforce they depend on to deliver services throughout the country?

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We are engaged not only across the devolved authorities but with union officials, at both ministerial and official level, on a regular basis.

Dark Money

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5. What assessment he has made of the effect of dark money on (a) transparency and (b) influence in UK politics. [909764]

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We have a robust legal framework for money in elections, to ensure that elections are free and fair. Donations to political parties of more than £500 must be from permissible donors, which include individuals on a UK electoral register, UK-registered companies and trade unions, and UK political parties. Responsibility for regulating that sits with the independent Electoral Commission.

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Even this week, hundreds of thousands of pounds of dark money is being spent on social media adverts by a pro-Brexit organisation warning MPs not to “steal Brexit”. There is no information in the public domain about who is funding these ads, which are being so heavily promoted at a critical time in the Brexit process and are clearly aimed at influencing it. There is no place for dark money in British politics. The Electoral Commission has been calling on the Government to take action for years; why have the Government failed to act?

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A number of recommendations have been made in this and related policy areas—for example, by the Electoral Commission and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. As would be expected, we are considering them all together and will respond in due course.

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This matter really is first-order business for the Government. Our electoral system has always been something of which this country has been proud. I urge my hon. Friend to push ahead with the steps needed to control this activity, because it is clear that on these big issues it is very bad news if people believe that the electoral system has been corrupted.

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My right hon. Friend makes a weighty and important point. He is absolutely right that we should not be complacent about the way our electoral system runs. We have already taken forward a series of measures to ensure that it is secure, and we will do more of that to ensure that our system is good for today and fit for tomorrow.

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9. The problem is that the Government spend an awful lot of time condemning the actions of the press or social media platforms, but right now there are social media posts describing Members of this House as traitors and asking for us to be targeted to make sure that we vote a particular way. It is no good our condemning that sort of language in this House if Ministers do not take real action now to make election laws fit for now, to ensure that Members of Parliament can do their jobs freely and not be intimidated to vote a particular way. [909768]

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The hon. Gentleman will have noticed the written ministerial statement that I published only last week, which outlined the steps that the Government have already taken and will be taking to reduce intimidation in public life. It has to be a collective job, though, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life was right to ask various organisations, including the social media companies, on which I know the hon. Gentleman does some work with one of his all-party groups, to take action.

Government Departments: Living Wage

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6. If he will make it his policy to introduce the real living wage in all Government Departments and to seek accreditation from the Living Wage Foundation. [909765]

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We are addressing this issue through the application of the statutory national minimum wage and the national living wage, based on the advice of the Low Pay Commission. From April, the national living wage will rise again, from £7.83 to £8.21 per hour, handing a full-time worker a further £690 annual pay rise.

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The real living wage is £9 an hour, and, in terms of paying it, Scotland is already the best performing part of the UK. Over the next three years, the Scottish Government will be lifting more people— 25,000 more people—out of poverty and on to the real living wage. When will the UK Government follow Scotland’s lead in paying the real living wage, not the bogus national living wage?

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I am sorry to hear the hon. Lady referring to the national living wage as bogus. It is a very proud achievement of this Government and it is actually rising faster this year than the real living wage. Over the past three years, since it was introduced, the national living wage has handed the lowest paid workers a pay rise of almost £3,000.

Cyber-security

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7. What steps his Department is taking to help improve the cyber-security of public and private sector organisations. [909766]

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Our world-leading national cyber-security strategy, supported by £1.9 billion of transformational investment, sets out the steps that we are taking to defend our people, deter our adversaries, and develop the skills and capabilities that we need. Our vision is that, by 2021, the UK is secure and resilient to cyber threats and prosperous and confident in the digital world.

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I was concerned to read that three quarters of FTSE 350 companies are not aware of the risks associated with businesses in their supply chain, particularly with businesses with which they have no contact. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that their own suppliers understand these vulnerabilities?

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As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this very important issue. Companies must do more to understand their supply-chain risks. Our cyber essentials scheme extends our influence to organisations that provide products and services to Government; it specifies standards that will improve their cyber-security. We use contractual arrangements to ensure that they help those in their supply chains, often small companies, to be more secure.

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Technology can help deliver public services which are better, smarter, more tailored and put people in control, but that requires investment in people, processes and equipment. The 2017 WannaCry attack on the NHS was a consequence of a lack of investment in all three. What is the Minister doing specifically to give local authorities and other public service deliverers the resources and the skills that they need to ensure secure digital public services?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the challenge of cyber-security, but we have responded to that challenge. That is why we have created the National Cyber Security Centre, funded by £1.9 billion of additional money. On the WannaCry incident, we have learned the lessons since that attack and we are, for example, rolling out Windows 10 across the NHS.

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We know that 43% of businesses experience cyber-security breaches each year and, as we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), we know that half of all local authorities in England still rely on unsupported server software. We know from the Minister himself that the Government have no idea how many cyber-attacks hit Government. Does the Minister accept that we need a new approach? We need to look at how we foster cultural cyber-change and we need to look at how we put the public good rather than private interest back at the heart of Government cyber strategy.

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The hon. Lady says that we have no idea of the level of attacks. I am happy to set out the number for her. We have already managed more than 1,100 major incidents through the National Cyber Security Centre. The national cyber security strategy is delivering, for example, the removal of more than 4.5 million malicious emails every month, and the taking down of 140,000 fraudulent phishing sites. This strategy is bringing together the commercial side and the Government side and it is delivering.

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We are out of time, but we must hear the question of the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan).

Intimidation in Public Life

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8. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of intimidation of people in public life. [909767]

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The increasing prevalence of intimidation in public life can seriously damage our democracy, as we have already just discussed. The Government are taking a range of actions to tackle this problem, including a consultation on a new electoral offence of intimidating candidates and campaigners.

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I thank the Minister very much for that reply. She may have seen the “Exposure” programme broadcast last week, which captured the abuse and threats of death that I have faced, that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) has faced, and that my former right hon. Friend—still a friend—the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), has faced. There was also an excellent response from the Speaker to a point of order that I raised on the matter. Does the Minister agree that the systematic intimidation of MPs in this place on the way they vote should be a real concern to anybody interested in our democracy?

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Yes, I do agree. The Government have therefore been working closely with the parliamentary security team, the police, administrators and others, because tackling this issue requires action from everyone. It also goes wider than just Members of Parliament. For example, we are helping candidates at the local elections this year to be safer with their home addresses.

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One sentence, Tom Brake.

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10. Will the Minister commit to conducting a Mueller-style public inquiry into the alleged electoral fraud that has been committed in electronic campaigning by, for example, the leave campaign and potentially Arron Banks, who is being investigated by the National Crime Agency? [909769]

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The right hon. Gentleman is of course concerned about the implications for intimidation, to which I am sure the question relates.

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The right hon. Gentleman should know that the Government cannot have such an inquiry because the agencies investigating are independent, and rightly so. I can reassure the House that we have seen no evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes, and that is as we would wish it to be.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [909775]

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Last week, the Minister for the Constitution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), updated the House on the actions we are taking to tackle the inexcusable intimidation of people in public life. We have legislated so that candidates in local elections have the choice to remove their home addresses from ballot papers. We have consulted on a new electoral offence of intimidatory behaviour. It is vital that everyone in the House works together to prevent such behaviour and address this worrying trend.

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My constituents rightly care about the security of their ballots. May I ask for Crawley to be considered for a future voter ID pilot?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. We will be looking carefully at the evaluations from the 2018 pilots and—when they come forward in a few months—the 2019 pilots to help inform our next steps and to shape how the final policy will look when introduced. We can benefit from close collaboration with local authorities, and we would welcome the involvement of Crawley as we progress.

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There have been reports that the Conservative party is preparing to take part in the upcoming European elections. The Opposition have heard that on Monday, there was a telephone conference between the Cabinet Office and regional returning officers, who would run such an election, during which preparations for European elections were discussed. Are the Government saying one thing in public and another in private?

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As I said to the hon. Lady’s colleague earlier, she should not believe every rumour she reads in a newspaper or on Twitter. It is simply not true.

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T4. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the arbitrary 15-year rule that prevents Britons abroad from voting in UK elections. Will she recommit the Government to supporting the private Member’s Bill of our hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), when it comes back to the House next week? [909778]

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point. The Government continue to support that Bill and think it is the right thing to do.

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T2. On Sunday, the BBC reported that Interserve is likely to go into administration on Friday. What steps is the Minister taking to protect jobs and pensions, should Interserve collapse? [909776]

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As the hon. Lady would expect, we keep under review the situation in relation to all our strategic suppliers. I assure her that we take appropriate contingency measures in respect of every strategic supplier.

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T5. Can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on delivering more public services online? [909779]

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To date, we have already delivered almost 800 services online on gov.uk. In addition, I regularly engage with ministerial colleagues, principally through the digital implementation task force, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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T3. The Government claim that they have lifted the pay cap and declared austerity over, but it seems that this does not apply to their own employees. The lack of consultation on the civil service pay guide is just shameful. When will the Minister make it his policy to return to national pay bargaining? [909777]

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This Government do not support national pay bargaining. It has been a step forward that we tailor pay to the needs of each individual Department. But I engage with all trade unions as we set the overall delegated framework that applies to pay grades below the senior civil service.

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T7. I welcome the announcement from the Cabinet Office on reforming the way that Government contracts are awarded so that they consider social impacts. Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of the effect of these changes on social enterprises? [909782]

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My hon. Friend rightly raises the issue of social enterprises. That is why, earlier this week, I made an announcement that we would be consulting on how to allow social enterprises to bid for a range of Government contracts and set out a clear framework for them to do so. I am confident that we will be able to unlock the opportunities of the over 100,000 social enterprises we have in this country.

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T6. Should private sector companies delivering public sector contracts be subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000? [R] [909781]

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We had a lengthy Westminster Hall debate on this last week. We are considering the Information Commissioner’s report on it, but we think that we are already supplying a lot of transparency on information and that that is adequate.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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Q1. If she will list her official engagements for Wednesday 13 March. [909745]

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I am sure the whole House will want to join me in expressing our deepest shock and sadness at the news of the air crash in Ethiopia on Sunday. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of all 157 who were on board, including the British nationals who were among the casualties. I have sent a personal message of sympathy to Prime Minister Abiy and extended an offer of UK assistance.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary, who very helpfully offered to teach me sign language. In addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.

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I am sure all of us concur with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the disaster in Ethiopia.

Many of us recognise the Prime Minister’s efforts to secure a deal, but given that we profitably trade with the majority of the world’s GDP outside the EU on largely World Trade Organisation, no-deal terms, has the time not come to look beyond this remain-dominated Westminster bubble and for all of us to recognise that the default position of our votes to trigger article 50 is that no deal is better than a bad deal, so that we can honour the referendum and leave the EU on 29 March?

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It may be to the benefit of the House, Mr Speaker, and I am sure that people will recognise this, if I try to keep my answers shorter than usual today. Let me say to my hon. Friend that I want to leave the European Union with a good deal. I believe we have a good deal. Yes, no deal is better than a bad deal, but I have been working for us to leave on 29 March and leave with a good deal.

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I absolutely concur with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the disaster of the air crash in Ethiopia, and indeed the earlier crash in Asia that affected the same type of aircraft. I commend the Civil Aviation Authority and the European Union for taking prompt action about the safety of the aircraft concerned. We need to ensure that all air passengers are as safe as they possibly can be.

The Prime Minister has been stubbornly declaring that the only choice is between her deal and no deal. Last night’s vote finished off her deal. Tonight she is not even showing the leadership to whip on no deal. Just a few weeks ago, she whipped her MPs against ruling out no deal. So how will she be voting tonight?

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I will be voting for the motion standing in my name.

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Well, there may well be other votes, and the Prime Minister’s Brexit strategy is clearly in tatters. Her deal has been twice rejected and is now dead, and she is not even asking her MPs to support her on it tonight.

A couple of months ago, the Chancellor, who is here today—we will hear from him later—reassured business leaders that the threat of a no-deal Brexit would be taken off the table, while the Business Secretary said that a no-deal Brexit would be “ruinous” to the UK economy. Indeed, the Government’s own forecasts suggest that no deal would knock 10% off the economy, damaging jobs and industry. Why is the Prime Minister still ambivalent about the outcome?

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I have been working for leaving the EU with a deal. Businesses and business organisations have been clear across the UK that they want MPs to back the deal. Yes, businesses worry about the uncertainty of Brexit, but there is one thing they worry about more, and that is a Corbyn Government.

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The Prime Minister does not seem to understand. Her deal has been flatly rejected twice by this House by unprecedented majorities. Even this morning, the CBI said that no deal would be a “sledgehammer” to the economy and went on to say that there has been “no consultation with business”, adding:

“This is no way to run a country.”

The reason the Prime Minister’s deal is now dead is that at every step of the way, she has refused to listen—refused to listen to manufacturers and refused to listen to trade unions about the best way to protect jobs in this country, which is to agree a customs union. Manufacturing is now in recession. Many companies have laid off many workers. Her own deal has been decisively rejected. When will she listen to workers who are concerned about their jobs and to businesses that are concerned about their future and accept that there has to be a negotiated customs union with the EU?

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The CBI said that the Labour party’s policies would lead to a drop in living standards. That is not very good for the people who the right hon. Gentleman claims to stand up and represent. He talks about a customs union, which of course was part of proposals that he put forward. That is yet another position he has taken. He has moved to being in favour of a second referendum, but I note that last night, he did not actually refer to a second referendum. He has just spoken about a deal involving a customs union—that has already been rejected, and in the past, very often rejected by him.

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It would be rather reckless for the Prime Minister to rule out any option at the present time, I would have thought. I do not think her answer will help workers at Honda in Swindon, those at Nissan in Sunderland or many others who are very concerned about their future because of the danger to the manufacturing industry.

Britain’s food producers are also in despair. A coalition of UK producers asked the Prime Minister to call for tariff-free access to the single market. With her red lines now in tatters, will she back the view of UK food producers and back close alignment to the single market, to secure their industry? After all, she promised at Chequers that there would be frictionless trade.

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The deal that we have negotiated includes access to the European Union on the basis of no tariffs. It might help if he had actually read it.

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Former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), said while campaigning to leave in the referendum—this is not the kind of language I would use—that

“Only a madman would actually leave”

the single market.

The Prime Minister has previously said that we cannot just reject no deal; we need to be for something. With her own deal now so decisively rejected, can the Prime Minister inform us what she is now for? Does she recognise that the Labour alternative—the five pillars we put forward—is the credible show in town, available and ready to be negotiated? Is it not time she moved on from her red lines and faced the reality of the situation she has got herself, her party, this Parliament and this country into?

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The right hon. Gentleman talks about not wanting no deal yet repeatedly votes in a way that brings no deal closer. The deal that he is proposing has been rejected several times by this House. I may not have my own voice, but I do understand the voice of the country. They want—[Interruption.]

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Order. The House must calm itself. I want to hear what the Prime Minister has to say and what everybody has to say, and it should not be necessary for voices to be raised for a Member to be heard.

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And that is that people want to leave the EU, they want to end free movement, they want us to have our own trade policy, and they want to ensure laws are made in this country and judged in our courts. That is what the deal delivers, and that is what I continue to work to deliver. The right hon. Gentleman used to believe that too. Why is he just trying to frustrate it?

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I do have sympathy for the Prime Minister with her voice, and I hope it soon recovers. I understand how painful this is.

The Prime Minister’s deal has failed, and she no longer has the ability to lead. This is a rudderless Government in the face of a huge national crisis. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) recognises it, saying that the Government

“is not fit for purpose. We are not doing what we need to do, which is govern the country properly and effectively.”

Where the Prime Minister has so obviously failed, this House needs to listen to the country—listen to unions, people in work fearful for their future, manufacturers and businesses, workers, European Union citizens who have made such a fantastic contribution to our society and British citizens across Europe who are all facing uncertainty. With jobs and industry at risk and the country in crisis, she needs now to show leadership, so can the Prime Minister tell us exactly what her plan is now?

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I continue to believe that the House today will have an opportunity to vote on no deal, and it will then have an opportunity tomorrow, depending on how it has voted tonight, to vote on the question of the extension of article 50. As I said last night, there will be hard choices for this House, but this House will need to determine what its view is on the way forward. As far as the Government are concerned, we want to continue to work to leave the European Union. That is what we will deliver for the people on the vote in the referendum. We will continue to work to deliver leaving the European Union, but to deliver leaving the European Union with a good deal.

As for the right hon. Gentleman, he does not agree with Government policy; he does not even agree with Labour party policy. He has nothing to offer this country.

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Q6. The whole House will want to send its condolences to the families of the recent victims of knife crime, including 17-year-old Jodie Chesney, who was tragically murdered in my borough of Havering. When two thirds of those carrying a knife escape a custodial sentence and one in five repeat offenders avoids prison, what assurances will the Prime Minister give that we are serious about getting tough on knife crime, and does she understand why so many people are fed up with soft sentencing? [909750]

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First, I am sure that Members from across the whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest sympathies and condolences to the family and friends of Jodie. I know there is nothing that we can do or say that is going to ease the pain the family are going through at her loss.

We are very clear that judges must have the powers they need to impose tough sentences on those involved in serious violence and knife crime. The law already provides for a mandatory prison sentence for a second offence of carrying a knife, and conviction of a knife or offensive weapon offence is now more likely to result in some form of custodial sentence—and for longer—than at any point in the last 10 years. Obviously, individual sentencing decisions are a matter for the courts, but we are catching and prosecuting more people who carry a knife, and those who are convicted are now more likely to go to prison and for longer. As I set out in Prime Minister’s questions last week, both I and the Home Secretary are working to see what more we can do to deal with the serious violence and knife crime that has beset so many of our communities.

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May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on the tragedy in Ethiopia and the tragic loss of life?

On this day, we of course commemorate the sad loss of the 16 young children and their schoolteacher in Dunblane who were cruelly cut down by Thomas Hamilton. The sanctity of young life is something we remember today when we hear the news from the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) that his wife Krystle has given birth to their young son, and I am sure the whole House will want to congratulate him.

A no deal will result in unprecedented harm. Does the Prime Minister really want to be the first Prime Minister in history to deliberately plunge the United Kingdom economy into recession?

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First of all, I am pleased to add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Moray and his wife on the birth of their son. I am also sure that the thoughts of the whole House are with the right hon. Gentleman in remembering the terrible loss of young life we saw in Dunblane.

The right hon. Gentleman will of course hear the spring statement from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a short time, and I am pleased to say that it will show the strength of the United Kingdom’s economy, in which Scotland is able to participate as a member of the UK.

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In 16 days the United Kingdom runs the risk of crashing out of the European Union with no deal, which we know from the Government’s own analysis will crash the economy. Why does the Prime Minister not show some leadership today, do the right thing and whip all her MPs to take no deal off the table on 29 March and forever?

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You can only take no deal off the table by doing one of two things: either revoke article 50, which means betraying the vote of the referendum; or agree a deal. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to take no deal off the table, he should have voted for the deal.

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Q8. As our hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) said, nearly a fifth of people convicted on a second or subsequent time for possessing an illegal knife are spared a prison sentence. We would not accept that for firearm offences. Will the Prime Minister look again at sentencing guidelines and practice to ensure that anyone carrying an offensive weapon gets the sentence they deserve? [909752]

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I fully appreciate the concern that my hon. Friend, our hon. Friend the Member for Romford and others across the House have shown on this issue. The most recent statistics show that 82% of offenders received a custodial sentence for repeat possession offences. Obviously, as I have said, sentencing decisions are a matter for the courts, but the Government regularly look at ensuring that the powers are there to allow tough sentences to be imposed on those involved in knife crime.

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Q2. On Friday, some of the excellent headteachers in my constituency sent their pupils home with letters detailing to parents how their budgets have been slashed by 8% and how they are struggling to make ends meet. On three separate occasions since September 2018 they have asked for a meeting with the Secretary of State for Education to discuss school funding shortages in Kent, but they have been refused. Will the Prime Minister please ask the Secretary of State to meet Ms Spinks, Ms Hines, Mr Wright, Mr Cooper, Ms Butcher, Ms Knoupe, Mr Pywell and others as a matter of urgency? [909746]

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I will ensure that Ministers in the Department for Education have heard the hon. Lady’s request, but let me just remind her and Members of the House that the schools budget this year is £42 billion, which is the highest it has ever been—[Interruption.]

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Order. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) usually advocates good and respectful behaviour, which she must now herself exemplify, notwithstanding her passion or insistence upon her point of view, in which she in not exceptional.

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The schools budget is the highest ever this year, and we have given every local authority more money for every pupil in every school this year.

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Q10. I think that the whole House could unite in agreeing that the Prime Minister has put an enormous amount of hard work and energy into trying to resolve the European Union issue, and we certainly wish her well and hope that she gets better soon. Has the Prime Minister had an opportunity to look at amendment (f) on today’s Order Paper, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), the former Deputy Prime Minister, and signed by many Conservative remainer MPs and Conservative leaver MPs, and by the parliamentary leader of the Democratic Unionist party and Labour Members? I believe that the amendment could unite those on the Conservative Benches and attract support from the Opposition. Has the Prime Minister had an opportunity to consider whether she would be able to support the amendment? [909754]

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I am grateful to my right hon. and hon. Friends for the spirit in which they have sought to broker a compromise in this House. The amendment has four propositions. The first is that we should publish our day-one tariff schedules; we have done so this morning. The second is that we should seek to extend the article 50 process; we remain committed to giving the House the opportunity to debate and vote on that tomorrow. The third is that we should unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK; I am pleased to reconfirm that we have done that. The fourth is to seek to negotiate an implementation period in return for a financial payment but without the withdrawal agreement that we have agreed. The EU has made it clear that there will be no agreement without a withdrawal agreement, and that includes what we have already negotiated on citizens’ rights, a financial settlement and a Northern Ireland protocol. The plan that exists and has been agreed is, obviously, the deal that was put to the House and rejected by it last night. As I have said, the EU has made clear that it would not accept elements of what is in the current withdrawal agreement without them being in a withdrawal agreement.

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Q3. Monday will mark 40 years since the Golborne mining disaster in the constituency of Leigh. The disaster resulted in the tragic death of 10 miners, which still reverberates throughout our community and affects the families of those involved. Will the Prime Minister send her support for the commemoration service on Sunday and recommit, in their honour, to increasing work safety standards and providing all the necessary support to our ex-mining communities? [909747]

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I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest sympathies and condolences to the families and friends of those affected by that terrible tragedy. I am pleased to say that our health and safety record for mines has improved greatly since 1979. That improvement has resulted from learning from previous incidents such as the Golborne tragedy and preventing as far as possible disasters like it. As the hon. Lady may know, in 2015, following an extensive review, the Mines Regulations 2014 replaced all previous legislation relating to health and safety in underground mines. They provide a comprehensive and simple goal-setting legal framework to ensure that mine operators provide the necessary protection for mine workers and others from what we all accept are inherent hazards in mines. I assure the hon. Lady that we will continue to review safety regulations so that we can make sure that a tragedy like this never happens again.

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Q11.   Given that no-deal Brexit is the Government’s default position, will the Prime Minister kindly inform the House that she will instruct the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make available whatever funds are required to ensure that the country is as best prepared as possible in the event that we do leave on a no-deal basis? [909755]

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Obviously we continue to work to leave in an orderly fashion with a deal, but we have made funding available and it is being used to make sure that we have preparations for a no deal.

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Q4. The Prime Minister routinely deflects questions on child poverty, insisting on absolute rather than relative measures. Can she assure the House that if the figures published later this month on her own preferred measure of absolute poverty show that child poverty is rising, she will at last join those of us calling for a pause to universal credit? [909748]

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I continue to believe, as I have said in this House before, that the best route out of poverty is through work. The hon. Lady refers to figures that I quote. I also quote figures, which I have to say are very important for this House, regarding the reduction in the number of children living in workless households. There is very clear evidence of the advantages of children being brought up in a house in which there is work. Universal credit is encouraging work. It is delivering on ensuring that we see more people in work and able to provide for their families.

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Q13. As a former technology entrepreneur, I have seen the barriers that face aspiring women seeking to start up new businesses, yet we know that £250 billion could be added to the UK economy if women can start and scale up businesses at the same rate as men. Therefore, does the Prime Minister welcome Alison Rose’s review into female entrepreneurship, and will she call for the banks to adopt those recommendations without delay? [909757]

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue and for bringing her successful experience as an entrepreneur to the House. I am happy to join her in welcoming Alison Rose’s review. We are setting out our ambition to increase the number of female entrepreneurs by half by 2030 in various ways. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), will sponsor an industry-led taskforce alongside Treasury Ministers that will drive forward work to encourage greater investment in female entrepreneurs by all types of finance providers, including the banks.

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Q5. Last year, 690 children were attacked or threatened with a knife in the west midlands. Parents are terrified. Police officers across the country agree that there is a link between the knife crime epidemic and the Prime Minister’s decision as Home Secretary to cut 20,000 police officers from our streets. Is she the last person standing to deny that link? [909749]

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I set out last week steps the Government are taking to increase our work on knife crime. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary met the west midlands chief constable at the end of last week to discuss policing there. The hon. Lady refers to decisions taken by the Government in 2010. Yes, those were tough decisions in terms of public sector funding, but they were taken because of the appalling circumstances of the economy left by Labour.

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Order. I understand that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) is about to namecheck his mother, an admirable woman—a former teacher and, in my view very importantly, my constituent.

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Q14. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I think she loves you more than me these days, because she is also a Labour supporter—albeit that you are of course independent.On behalf of me and my lovely mum, I point out that there are parts of the country, from Sheffield to Staffordshire and Sussex, where pupils receive less money per head than pupils in other parts of the country. I know the Prime Minister values a good education—she went to the same school as my mother, who became a teacher. Therefore, for me and my lovely mum, we want three things: first, more funding for our schools; secondly, on special educational needs, we need more focus and priority on stopping academies excluding pupils unnecessarily because of their targets; and thirdly, the lowest-funded areas should be funded first when we get this right. [909758]

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I was tempted to start by saying that I suspect his mother and I were at the school at a different time—[Interruption.] Oh, he says it is true. Good.

I recognise that we have asked schools to do more. We have responded with £1.3 billion extra investment in our schools this year and next, so the core schools budget will rise by around £2.6 billion in total, and the Government are protecting overall per-pupil funding in real terms. Every school is attracting at least 1% more per pupil by next year, and thousands of schools will attract significantly larger gains of up to 3% per pupil per year.

That investment will mean more children having the chance of a better future, but the quality of education also matters. I commend my hon. Friend’s mother, who I understand was a teacher, for the work she has done in education. I say thanks from the whole House to all our teachers up and down the country for the work they are doing in education.

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Q7. As I told the Prime Minister a month ago, my constituent Maryam was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy 1 —SMA1—in November last year when she was just four months old. She needs Spinraza now and is likely to live only a few months without it. NICE met last week but, cruelly, to date has not even announced a decision. Last time, the Prime Minister told me to see a Minister—I did, and nothing changed. All I am asking is that baby Maryam has the same chance of getting Spinraza as she would have if she lived in Scotland, Germany, Italy, Romania or 20 other European countries. Let me be clear: I am asking the Prime Minister to intervene. Will she? [909751]

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I am sure that everybody across the House sends their sympathies and concerns to the family of Maryam. We recognise that this must be an incredibly difficult time. Decisions on such matters are rightly taken not by politicians but by clinicians. I understand that the hon. Lady recently met my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary, and as she says, NICE considered the relevant information and recommendations at its appraisal committee meeting on 6 March. It is right, however, that the benefits and evidence in relation to new medicines be properly considered by the experts and clinicians in the field. The Department of Health and Social Care is working with NICE on this issue.

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My constituent Nicola Morgan-Dingley is a wife and mum. She was just 36 when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, the most virulent form, and, sadly, at 38, she has a terminal diagnosis. Nicola has asked me to ask three things today. First, will the Prime Minister consider publicising the fact that women should never miss a mammogram and the importance of attending? Secondly, will she consider lowering the age at which women can seek a mammogram so that more women are not missed out? Thirdly, there are some immunotherapy trials taking place across the country that could offer a lifeline to Nicola. Will she consider expanding those trials so that Nicola can get the help that could save her life?

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I am sure the whole House shares my hon. Friend’s concern for his constituent Nicola. Our sympathies are with her and her family and friends. She asked about three things. On the age at which a screening becomes available or is required, that matter has been considered previously and I am sure will be considered again as part of the long-term plan, but I understand that the decision is based on the evidence of the benefits of screenings at certain ages.

My hon. Friend referenced immunotherapy. To date, the National Institute for Health Research has delivered 64 studies of immunotherapy for women with breast cancer, 28 studies are being opened up to recruitment and 14 studies are currently in set-up, but I will ask the Department to respond to him on the specific case of his constituent. On the third point, Nicola is absolutely right. I would urge all women to attend their mammogram appointments—they are vital: they could save your life.

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Q9. Does the Prime Minister not feel guilty that parents and teachers are being forced to buy books and pens for schools and that heads are cleaning classrooms? [909753]

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The hon. Gentleman heard my response earlier. We are putting more money into our schools and ensuring that overall per-pupil funding is protected. Yes, we have asked schools to do more, and I recognise the pressures on them, but the Government have responded with more funding.

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I call Mr David Duguid. No? He previously signalled an interest, and I was trying to accommodate him, but never mind.

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If my right hon. Friend had been elected leader of the Labour party, would she be allowing a free vote this evening?

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There are passionately held views and differences of opinion on this issue, and I think it would be of benefit to the House if there were a free vote across the House.

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Q12.   On Sunday, the community of Fair Isle in Shetland suffered a devastating blow when its world-renowned bird observatory was destroyed in a fire. The impact of such a thing on a community of 60 people is devastating, and they are still coming to terms with it. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking those who have already supported Fair Isle, including the firefighters who tackled the blaze and those who transported them, and will she commit her Government today to supporting the community in Fair Isle as it looks towards rebuilding what is a globally important research resource so that it can get back into action as soon as possible? [909756]

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I send my deepest sympathies to all those who work in, and indeed who visit, the observatory. As the right hon. Gentleman says, the fire will have been devastating for the local community. I also offer my praise to the local fire and coastguard services for all their efforts in bringing the blaze under control. I understand that investigations to establish the cause are ongoing. The right hon. Gentleman’s question gives me an opportunity also to thank the firefighters who dealt with a fire in my own constituency of Maidenhead yesterday, in the town centre.

I understand that the building to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred was comprehensively insured and the owners are not seeking additional funding at this time, but I will ask a Minister from the Scotland Office to meet the right hon. Gentleman to see whether any further support could be provided.

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On 29 January, the House—including virtually the entire Conservative party, Brexiteers and remainers alike—voted for the Brady amendment, with the strong encouragement of the Government. The amendment was designed to facilitate the so-called Malthouse compromise. We do not yet have the Speaker’s selection of amendments for the debate, Prime Minister, but if he is minded to select amendment (f)—which is the Malthouse compromise—one, will there be a free vote, and two, how will you personally vote on it?

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I referred to the elements of that amendment, which refers to one part of what became known as the Malthouse compromise, in response to an earlier question from one of my hon. Friends. As I said, the Government have already addressed some of those issues. However, my right hon. Friend referred to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady). That was about alternative arrangements replacing the backstop, and my hon. Friend also indicated other ways in which concern about the backstop could be dealt with. What we have agreed with the European Union, in a legally binding character, is that commitment to ensuring that alternative arrangements are indeed available by the end of December 2020, so that they can do what that amendment required and replace the backstop.

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Q15. Jodey Whiting was a mother of nine from Thornaby who died by suicide in 2017. Just before her death she missed a work capability assessment because of health problems, and was sanctioned. The independent case examiner has found multiple and significant failings on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions, including five missed opportunities to identify her mental health problems and safeguard her properly. Her family are asking for an apology, and for the Department to ensure that this can never happen again to anyone else. Can the Prime Minister offer that? [909759]

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this appalling case, and our thoughts and sympathies are with Ms Whiting’s family at this time. As he said, it has been identified that there were mistakes in the handling of her case. The Department has apologised for its failings, and is providing compensation for the family. That, of course, can never bring Ms Whiting back.

The point that the hon. Gentleman made is that we need to learn from this case, and that is why the Department is looking at it to ensure that we never see such failings happening again and leading to such a tragic consequence.

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The Prime Minister has rightly made it a priority to deliver more homes, so will she welcome the great work of pro-growth Rugby Borough Council? It is currently providing new homes at more than three times the UK average rate: 739 were built last year and 860 are now under way, with four house builders at Houlton.

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I am happy to commend the work of my hon. Friend’s local council in providing more homes, which is very important. I am also pleased that last year, under this Government, more homes were built than in any of the last 30 years bar one. That is a record of which we should be proud, and obviously the hon. Gentleman’s council is very helpfully contributing to it. I am sure that it will continue to help to meet the real need to ensure that we have sufficient homes for families up and down the country.

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You will know, Mr Speaker, that West Dunbartonshire has two notable anniversaries this week. First, today is the 78th anniversary of proportionally the worst aerial bombardment in the history of the United Kingdom, the Clydebank blitz, and I am sure the Prime Minister will wish to be the first ever British Prime Minister to note it. Secondly, on Monday my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal will have been incarcerated for 500 days without trial and has suffered trial by media—sanctioned, some would say, by the Indian state. I appreciate that Ministers are working very hard, but can the Prime Minister now say this to their own Foreign Secretary: no guilt has yet been established and there has been no trial, so why will Ministers not meet with myself as the constituency MP and the family to hear what impact this incarceration is having on them?

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First, I recognise the point the hon. Gentleman made about the aerial bombardment all those many years ago and the impact that had on the local community.

On the specific case, Ministers are dealing with this; they have been actively involved in it. Obviously the Foreign Secretary has heard the hon. Gentleman’s request for a specific meeting; I believe one of the Ministers is dealing with this case and will, I am sure, be pleased to meet with him.

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The media have started calling this place a failing Parliament; there was nothing failing about this place three weeks ago when we unanimously voted to protect the rights of citizens—British and EU nationals here. Aside from the letter the Secretary of State has written to Michel Barnier, can the Prime Minister update this House on what she has personally done? For example, has she phoned Merkel or Macron or President Tusk to help protect British citizens in the EU and EU nationals here?

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Yes, I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that I have spoken to a number of EU leaders about the desire that we have for UK citizens in their countries to be fully protected were there a no deal, and to be protected on a reciprocal basis. Some countries have already published legislation; we want to make sure that the basis on which they are providing guarantees for UK citizens is the same as the basis on which we are providing guarantees for EU citizens here.