The Secretary of State was asked—
Fiscal Framework Agreement
I welcome you to your new role, Mr Speaker, and give you my very best wishes for 2020.
The UK Government continue to work closely with the Scottish Government to implement the fiscal framework agreed in February 2016. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), who played his part in that agreement. A review of the arrangements is due in 2021.
I also welcome you to your position, Mr Speaker, and the new Secretary of State to his. One of the interesting features of the negotiations was that the venue alternated between London and Edinburgh, which might be an idea for other negotiations that are about to start. The fiscal framework, combined with the Scotland Act 2016, helped create possibly the most powerful devolved Parliament anywhere in the world. Could the Secretary of State tell us, however, what the consequences of fiscal devolution have been for Scottish taxpayers?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Scottish Parliament is the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world, and with those tax powers it is much more accountable than was previously the case. However, I regret its decision to make Scotland the most highly taxed part of the United Kingdom.
May I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr Speaker, and the Secretary of State and the Minister to their positions?
The 2016 framework was established before we knew what the impact of Brexit would be. The world has changed. Consideration will now have to be given to what powers pass from Brussels not just to Whitehall and Westminster but to Holyrood. This gives the Secretary of State an opportunity to reach out, cross-party, and to establish a proper future framework on what powers should rightly be with the Scottish Parliament and Government. He also has to take responsibility for ensuring that a financial package goes with those new powers.
In the spending round, there is an extra £1.2 billion for Scotland. That is quite clear. Discussions on frameworks are ongoing and are proving to be successful. Not a single power is being taken away from the Scottish Parliament as we come out of the European Union. If anyone can think of one, they should write and tell me because, on the contrary, the Scottish Parliament will have more powers after we leave the European Union.
This is my first opportunity to say what a privilege it is to have been re-elected as the Member of Parliament for Moray, representing my home area, and to now work in the Scotland Office. May I also wish you a very happy new year, Mr Speaker? As we say in Scotland, lang may yer lum reek.
Leaving the European Union will afford the fishing industry in Scotland, and across the United Kingdom, many opportunities. We will no longer be shackled to the common fisheries policy, and we will control who catches what, where and when in our waters. This Government will work tirelessly to that aim with our fishermen and coastal communities across Scotland.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. It is fantastic to see him in his place and I congratulate him on his new role. Scotland has a proud history of fishing the finest seafood, and the same is true of local fishermen in Selsey in my constituency. There is great concern, however, that the next generation are not entering the industry, and the situation is made more urgent given the growth we expect in UK fishing once we leave the EU. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with colleagues to develop an industry pipeline for future fishermen and women?
I accept that for many years, the fishing industry has not offered attractive job opportunities for young people in Scotland or across the UK. I strongly believe that when we leave the European Union, there is a bright future for this industry. I hope that that will encourage more people to look to fishing as an area where they can have a successful career. My hon. Friend has been a great champion for the fishing industry in Selsey, and I know that she will continue to promote her constituency and its strong links with the fishing industry during this Parliament.
When the Minister was a Back Bencher, he understood full well the need for non-European economic area crews to come into Scottish waters, particularly on the west coast. What will he and his Front-Bench colleagues do to make sure that can happen? Or will they demonstrate their powerlessness, ensuring that nothing happens, as has been the case for years?
To prove what will happen, I encourage the hon. Gentleman to wait for question 8 from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), which is about exactly that. I will answer that point then, and I hope that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) will be encouraged by the response.
“Scotland’s Right to Choose”
I will answer these questions together. There is no independence of thought in the questions.
The Prime Minister has received the First Minister’s correspondence, which contains the Scottish Government publication, and he will respond in due course.
The Secretary of State repeatedly said to the people of Scotland during the general election campaign that every vote for the Conservatives is a vote to “say no to indyref2”. That went well for them, didn’t it? It saw them lose over half their seats and left them with barely a rump of MPs. Will the Secretary of State now listen to the people of Scotland, as reflected by the 80% of seats won by the SNP, and support their expressed democratic will to choose their own future?
Some 45% of Scots voted for the SNP in the 2019 election, and 45% of Scots voted for independence in 2014. The numbers simply have not changed. Further, in 2014 the independence referendum came on the back of something called the Edinburgh agreement, which was signed by Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, the then deputy leader. The Edinburgh agreement stated that both parties would respect the outcome of the referendum, and that has not happened.
A good new year to you, Mr Speaker. The Scottish Secretary has anticipated that the Scottish Parliament will refuse legislative consent for the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. He said:
“that’s something we understand and respect because their position is that they don’t support Brexit.”
When consent is refused today, how will the UK Government demonstrate that respect?
What we are respecting is the democratic outcome of referendums, which the SNP does not respect. The referendum in 2016 was a United Kingdom referendum, and we voted to leave the European Union. We are respecting that. Under the Sewel convention, we have provision for what is known as “not normal”. This is a constitutional matter. Constitutional matters are reserved, and they are not normally under the remit of the Scottish Parliament. We are delivering what the 2016 referendum requested us to deliver.
This Tory Government are claiming that their 43% of the vote in the last general election provides them with an overwhelming mandate to implement Brexit. Can the Secretary of State therefore explain the absolutely blinding contradiction of his own position when he says that the 45% vote for the SNP, providing 80% of Scottish seats in this very House, does not equate to a mandate for the people of Scotland to choose our own future?
The Secretary of State’s performance thus far highlights just how untenable the Government’s position is on this matter. He has completely failed to answer my colleagues’ questions, so I remind him that his party enjoys 43% of the vote to deliver Brexit yet denies the SNP, with its 45% of the vote in Scotland, its right to give the people of Scotland their say. What is his democratic case for denying the people of Scotland their right to choose their own future?
The First Minister has asked for the right to set and decide the context for future referendums. We are very clear that constitutional matters are reserved. It would be completely wrong for us to hand over those powers to the Scottish Parliament because we would end up with a series of neverendums, which would be bad for the Scottish economy and bad for Scottish jobs. It would reduce tax income and therefore damage already failing public services.
The UK Government have ignored Scottish people’s voices and votes in every election and referendum since 2016, careering on with both Brexit and austerity. What precise electoral event would convince the Secretary of State that Scotland’s people should have the right to choose their own future?
First, on austerity, the Scottish Government’s own independence figures show that there would be a £12.6 billion hole in the Scottish finances, which would mean real austerity. On when the time will be right, both Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond said at the time of the referendum that it was a once-in-a-generation, once-in-a-lifetime decision. I do not feel that either a generation or a lifetime has passed.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister to the Dispatch Box.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this document is just another expensive and time-wasting stunt by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP? The people of Scotland chose decisively in 2014 to remain in the United Kingdom, and it is time that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP accepted that and moved on.
May I start by thanking my predecessor for his four years as Secretary of State for Scotland and, prior to that, five years as Under-Secretary and four years as a shadow spokesman? In all, he spent 13 years as a spokesman on Scottish affairs in this House, and I think the last person to do so for that length of time was Willie Ross under Harold Wilson. I thank him for all the hard work and service he has given to the people of Scotland.
It is quite clear that the Scottish Government constantly harp on about independence and separation because they want to deflect from the main issue, which is that they are failing on our school standards and failing our NHS.
I welcome the new ministerial team to the Scotland Office. In Scotland, education standards are falling and the NHS is failing patients with missed waiting-time targets. Does the Secretary of State share my embarrassment that the First Minister of Scotland, rather than sorting out these important issues, is obsessing with independence?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the SNP has every right to continue making the case for independence, and to do so with passion and force, but that what it does not have the right to do is to keep dragging the people of Scotland and Scottish businesses around the same mountain time and time again to try to get the answer it did not get the first time?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. What Scotland needs now is a period of peace and tranquillity, not division and rancour. We need to take the opportunities that Brexit will bring us, not least on the common fisheries policy and other great trade deals, and make 2020 a year of optimism and growth.
The NHS is a precious asset that is just as important to people in Scotland as it is to my constituents in Redditch. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Scottish Government’s obsessive attraction to independence detracts from their focus on the NHS? They should focus first on the people of Scotland who are missing the 12-week treatment target, which the Scottish Government have never met.
Ministers and officials have regular discussions with the Scottish Government on many issues, including the block grant. The latest spending round gave the biggest funding settlement for the Scottish Government in a decade, with an extra £1.2 billion to help grow the economy and invest in our vital public services across Scotland.
Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that, at the upcoming Budget, Scotland will receive its fair share of funding through the Barnett formula and, further, that the commitments made by the previous Government on the eight city and regional deals will be honoured in full?
I can reassure my right hon. Friend that Scotland will receive fair funding thanks to the block grant and the Barnett formula, and that will continue. On city and growth deals, we are already investing £1.4 billion across Scotland and we are committed to a deal in every part of the country, including in my own area of Moray, where we agreed to £32.5 million from the UK Government matched by the Scottish Government, making this the highest funded growth deal per head of population anywhere in the country. That is a sign to constituents across Scotland of what Scotland’s two Governments can do when they work together.
First, I want to commend the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) did in this role before me. He did a sterling job and could not have set a better example. Yesterday, my colleagues asked the Chancellor for an explanation as to why the UK is delaying its Budget until 11 March, despite the fact that the Scottish Government must pass their budget by 1 April and that 11 March is the legal deadline by which Scottish councils must set their budgets and their council tax levels. No explanation was given yesterday and I doubt I will get one now, so instead I want to ask: if and when did the Secretary of State raise this issue with the Cabinet? If he did raise it, what answers was he given?
Let me begin by welcoming the hon. Lady to her position as shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, following the reshuffle by the Scottish National party recently, and by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East for the work he did in that role previously to her. The Chancellor made it clear to the new SNP shadow Chancellor that there is nothing to prevent the Scottish Government from setting their budget ahead of the UK Government setting theirs, and the UK Government have already shared estimates of tax and welfare block grant adjustments, based on the latest Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts in December, to aid the Scottish Government in these preparations.
It is ridiculous for the Scottish Parliament to be expected to know what money it is going to be getting, given that the UK Government have not told it yet; I am very quickly realising why many believe that this Department is utterly obsolete. Scotland is needing to wait on this place getting its act together and to wait for permission to be told what we can spend money on. Will the Minister at least concede that none of this would be happening if Scotland instead had the full fiscal powers of an independent and competent nation, in order to let us get on with the job properly?
The hon. Lady is asking for “us” to be allowed to get on with the job, but the “us” is the SNP Scottish Government in Holyrood, who are letting down our health service and education service, and overseeing cuts to local government, which are affecting every local authority in Scotland. Perhaps this is not about the amount of money that Scotland gets from this UK Government, which is the highest level in a decade, but about the way it is spent—or, in many cases, misspent—by the Scottish Government in Holyrood.
Those answers are simply not good enough. The Scottish Government in Holyrood and the Scottish local authorities are entitled to know what the block grant is so that they can plan their future. Anybody who has tried to set a budget dependent on UK central Government funding knows that delay in this makes it almost impossible to manage. When will the Scottish Government be given certainty about what that block grant is, so that they can begin to plan their future?
I hope that some certainty was given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday, when he gave the commitment and the understanding that there is nothing to prevent the Scottish Parliament from passing a budget before the UK Parliament does. We shared the estimates on tax and the welfare block grant with the Scottish Government in December last year, and we will continue to engage with them going forward.
Again, it is simply not good enough. Not only can the Scottish Government not set a budget, but Scottish councils cannot. That affects non-governmental organisations, businesses and services. What the Minister is doing is a measure of incompetence. When will the Secretary of State say to the Chancellor that he has to do more? There must be certainty; we cannot wait till March.
As the Chancellor of the Exchequer takes his seat, I am sure he is listening to these discussions, and he answered the points made by the SNP representative yesterday. Before I first entered this place, I was a local councillor for 10 years on Moray Council, so I know the council’s important role in setting its budget. In recent years, that has been made more difficult by the greater cuts the council has received from the SNP Scottish Government in Holyrood, which are affecting local services in Moray and throughout Scotland.
To date, the UK Government have committed over £1.4 billion in Scotland through the city region and growth deal programme, which will be rolled out to all the other regions of Scotland very shortly.
I fully support our Government’s ambitious plans to make sure that every part of Scotland benefits from a growth deal. Does the Secretary of State agree that the £1.4 billion that the UK Government have already invested in city and growth deals is another fine example of how Scotland benefits from being in a strong United Kingdom?
I do agree, and that is just one example of how Scotland benefits from being in a strong United Kingdom. Another example is the Union dividend, which is worth more than £2,000 per annum to every man, woman and child in Scotland. I should add that the Prime Minister has announced a further £300 million to complete the growth deals throughout all the regions of Scotland, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland. In October, I was pleased to announce the quantum for Argyll and Bute, and I shall soon announce the quantum for both Falkirk and the islands.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his being reappointed to the Cabinet.
Growth deals are of course important, but have the Government had any conversations with the Scottish Government on how the latter plan to plug their 8% fiscal deficit to meet the European Union’s 3% fiscal deficit rule so that they could enter the European Union in the event of there being an independent Scotland?
The hon Gentleman makes a good point. Were separation to happen, for an independent Scotland to join the European Union, under the Maastricht criteria its fiscal deficit would have to be 3% of GDP or less. That simply is not the case—Scotland’s fiscal deficit currently runs at more than 7%—so as things stand the economics are pure fantasy.
The borderlands growth initiative has proven to be very popular in the borderlands region, and the initiatives in it will be implemented in the next year or two. [Interruption.] Will the Secretary of State commit to a second growth deal for the borderlands?
My hon. Friend will not be surprised that I missed the end of his question because our Prime Minister was being cheered by colleagues. I think that my hon. Friend asked me to commit to the delivery of the borderlands growth deal. We have announced the quantum and we will have the heads of terms very soon.
Will the Secretary of State put to one side his fluffy rhetoric and answer this? When he considers the regional growth deal for Edinburgh and the Lothians, will he look into the mess that his Government have made in respect of the closure of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office in Livingston and the move to Edinburgh? Will he do as his predecessor did and come to Livingston and West Lothian, speak to my constituents, the workers, the unions and the elected representatives, and look into what can be done to fill the gap and sort out the mess made by his Government?
On the subject of the quantum for the islands’ deal, to which the Secretary of State has already referred, will he confirm that he will pursue with the Treasury a basis that is different from the per capita funding of other deals, because otherwise the deal for the islands will never be a meaningful one?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a very good point. Previously, these deals have been done on a per capita basis, but we recognise that the islands is a huge geographical area and that per capita would bring a very low outcome. We are in discussions with the Treasury about raising the quantum.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I should begin by saying that, of course, we condemn the attack on Iraqi military bases hosting coalition forces. Iran should not repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks, but must instead pursue urgent de-escalation.
I know that the thoughts of the House are also with our friends in Australia, as they tackle the bushfires, and with the families of those killed in the Ukrainian air crash.
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.
Motor neurone disease is a terrible terminal illness, with a third of people dying within a year and more than half within two years of diagnosis. The last thing that terminally ill people and their families should be worrying about are their finances. The Scrap 6 Months campaign by the Motor Neurone Disease Association, which is based in my constituency of Northampton, South, has managed to bring the important issue of payments to those with terminal illnesses to the fore. I welcome the Department for Work and Pensions review of the special rules for terminal illness announced last July, but may I ask the Prime Minister to join me in pressing the DWP to complete its review and to scrap six months?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he is doing for those suffering from motor neurone disease, which is indeed a terrible illness. We are doing everything that we can to ensure that the welfare system works for sufferers of that illness. That is why the Department for Work and Pensions is indeed looking at how it can change the way that we help people nearing the end of their life with the most severe conditions, including motor neurone disease. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be only too happy to meet my hon. Friend at the earliest opportunity.
I wish to start by paying tribute to Andrew Miller, the former Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, who sadly died on Christmas eve. He is a sad loss to this place. He spent more than 20 years here, was an expert on science and technology, and made an enormous contribution to this House. Our thoughts are with his family and friends. He is deeply mourned by Labour Members because of the great contribution that he made.
I join the Prime Minister in sending sympathy and support to our friends in Australia, where the fires have claimed the lives of more than 20 people. Along with the loss of human life, hundreds of millions of animals have also been destroyed as a result of the fires. This is a warning about global warming and what it does to us all, and we must take the threat of climate change very seriously.
I also join the Prime Minister in sending our thoughts to the friends and families of those who sadly died in the Ukrainian plane that crashed in Tehran last night.
Following last night’s attack on the United States bases in Iraq, will the Prime Minister confirm that, in this situation, he opposes any further retaliation or escalation in violence, as the region is at real risk of going into a full-scale war?
Of course I can confirm that. Let me point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the United Kingdom has been working solidly since the crisis began to bring together our European allies in particular in their response. The House will have noted the E3 declaration that was issued by France, Germany and the United Kingdom, in which we drew particular attention to the baleful role played in the region for a very long time by Qasem Soleimani. That is a collective European view, but it is a view that does not yet appear to be shared by the right hon. Gentleman. I have been interested that, in all his commentary, he has not yet raised that matter.
That is an important question. I can confirm that, as far as we can tell, no casualties were sustained last night by the US and no British personnel were injured in the attacks. We are of course doing everything we can to protect UK interests in the region, with HMS Defender and HMS Montrose operating in an enhanced state of readiness to protect shipping in the Gulf. As the House heard yesterday from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, we have relocated non-essential personnel from Baghdad to Taji, and we will do everything we can to prevent an escalation.
Clearly, the strict issue of legality is not for the UK to determine, since it was not our operation. I think that most reasonable people would accept that the United States has a right to protect its bases and its personnel. I remind the House that the individual concerned—General Qasem Soleimani—was, among other things, responsible over many years for arming the Houthis with missiles with which they attacked innocent civilians; arming Hezbollah with missiles, which again they used to attack innocent civilians; sustaining the Assad regime in Syria, which is one of the most brutal and barbaric regimes in the world; and, of course, supplying improvised explosive devices to terrorists who, I am afraid, killed and maimed British troops. That man had the blood of British troops on his hands.
If we stand by international law, as I am sure the Government do and would want to, surely killing somebody in a foreign territory is an illegal act and should be condemned as such. If we believe in international law, it should be the solution to the problems in the world. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, could the Government say what representations have been made to ensure that the Iranian officials who want to attend the Security Council to try to bring about a resolution to the very dangerous situation in the region will be allowed to attend? In the event of the US Administration blocking them, what representations will the Prime Minister personally make to President Trump to ensure that the UN can operate in the way in which it should and must be able to?
The Iraqi Parliament passed a resolution calling for foreign troops to leave its country. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the British Government will respect any decision made by a sovereign Parliament and Government in Iraq that may make such a request in the future and will respect the sovereignty of Iraq as a nation?
As the House can imagine, I have spoken extensively to our friends around the world, including our friends in Baghdad and Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, who, like many people in Iraq, has come to rely and depend on the support of coalition forces, not least from the UK. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there is a very significant NATO mission in Iraq at the moment, helping in the fight against Daesh. It is my wish and the wish of this Government—and it should be the wish of this House—that we do everything we can to support the security and integrity of Iraq and the Iraqi people.
My question was whether the Government would respect the sovereignty of Iraq, its Parliament and its Government, and the Prime Minister did not answer that question.
The actions of the United States have undoubtedly escalated the risk of a dangerous conflict in an already destabilised region, putting civilians, UK troops and nationals at risk and leaving the Iran nuclear deal in danger of being dead in the water. This Government’s response is not putting the interests of this country first but instead seems more interested in prioritising the Prime Minister’s relationship with President Trump over the security of the region and of this country. Is not the truth that this Prime Minister is unable to stand up to President Trump because he has hitched his wagon to a trade deal with the United States, and that takes priority over everything else that he ought to be considering?
I was waiting for the little green men thing to come out at the end about the trade deal. This is absolute fiction.
But what I will say is that the UK will continue to work for de-escalation in the region. I think we are having a great deal of success in bringing together a European response and in bridging the European response with that, of course, of our American friends, and working both with the Iranians and with the Iraqis to dial this thing down. The right hon. Gentleman should be in absolutely no doubt—this is, of course, a Leader of the Opposition who has famously received £10,000 from the Iranian Press TV—that we are determined to guarantee with everything that we can the safety and security of the people of Iraq, whereas he, of course, would disband NATO. It is this Government who will continue to stick up for the people across the middle east who have suffered at the hands of Qasem Soleimani and the Iranian revolutionary guard Quds force that he has led and whose terrorism he has promoted. I am very surprised at the end of these exchanges that the right hon. Gentleman has yet to condemn the activities of Qasem Soleimani and the revolutionary guard.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the passionate campaign that she wages. I can tell her that the current number is 2,190, which is patently unacceptable, but it is moving down. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary tells me that the number is coming down rapidly. We have a pledge to reduce it by 50%, and I am sure that he will meet her very shortly.
May I welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker, and wish you, all Members and staff a good new year?
I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister for our friends in Australia and on the tragedy of the Ukrainian airline crash. We want to see a resumption of democracy in Iraq. We want to see a return to peace, and of course we support all measures to make sure that diplomatic efforts can get us to a better place.
Prime Minister, who should determine the future of Scotland—the Prime Minister or the people who live in Scotland?
This is about democracy. In 2016, the people of Scotland voted to remain in the European Union, yet they are being dragged out of Europe against their will by this Prime Minister. In 2019, the people of Scotland elected a majority of SNP MPs to Westminster. The Scottish National party won the election on the premise of Scotland’s right to choose its own future, rejecting the Prime Minister who lost more than half his seats in Scotland. Today, the Scottish Parliament will decline legislative consent to the EU withdrawal Bill that we are deliberating later today. Why are this Conservative Government dismissing the will of the people of Scotland, ignoring their voice and disregarding our Parliament?
I think the real question is, why do the SNP keep going on about breaking up the most successful union in history? It is to distract from their abundant failures in government. In spite of getting £9 billion a year from the UK Exchequer, which of course they would lose if they were so foolish as to break away, they are mismanaging their healthcare. It is not the fault of Scottish pupils, but we are seeing Scottish schools falling behind in educational standards. Concentrate on what you are doing and stop going on about breaking up the Union.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all that she has done to campaign for families. It was thanks to her, I think, that we put family hubs in the manifesto, so she should be in no doubt that we are working with local authorities to champion and deliver family hubs.
I have to say to the hon. Lady that I share her outrage, and I understand what she says. We are developing contingency plans for a replacement for Northern Rail. We are also looking at the whole way that the franchising system operates, and she will have seen Keith Williams’s very valuable report on that.
I am not surprised by what my hon. Friend says about the cavalier behaviour of the Lib Dem council in Eastleigh. We will ensure that, in so far as we need to build many more homes, which we do, we will supply the infrastructure necessary and do it on brownfield sites.
I see my right hon. Friend’s point with great concern. As we move to a net zero economy by 2050 under this groundbreaking Conservative Government, it is vital that we tackle those kinds of emissions. That is why we are establishing the Office for Environmental Protection, and I will chair a new Cabinet Committee to drive forward action on climate change across the whole of Government.
Yes, indeed I will. I pay tribute, by the way, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb)—where is he?—who campaigned for so long for synthetic phonics, which has done such a huge amount to help kids to read in this country. This is the only country in the G7 where the reading performance of disadvantaged pupils has actually improved since 2009. We need to do more, and as my hon. Friend says, that is why we are investing more now—record sums—in education.
Mr Speaker, you, being a northern MP like myself, would welcome the news that more money is going to be spent in the north of England. I want to reiterate that Morecambe needs the Eden Project. Would my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister like to come to Morecambe to see me and the Eden team about getting the Eden Project back in Morecambe again, to make Morecambe the best place on the face of this earth?
Yes, of course. I make a general point that we have done a huge amount to lift the burden of taxation on the low-paid, and we are lifting the living wage by the biggest ever increase, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will welcome the opportunity to discuss the particular matter that the hon. Gentleman raises in person.
In the period 2018 to 2019, overseas companies investing in Northern Ireland created nearly 1,500 new jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if Stormont were to be up and running again, then this year that number would be considerably higher, and that it is important that no stone is left unturned in efforts by the Northern Ireland parties to seek agreement so that the Northern Ireland Assembly can be properly functioning again?
I am proud to say that the UK is now the third highest recipient of foreign investment in the world, but Northern Ireland could get even more than it currently does if, as my hon. Friend rightly says, people took their responsibilities and got Stormont up and running again.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising a very important issue and a difficult problem. The question is how do we, as it were, introduce consumption rooms without encouraging consumption; that is the challenge we face. As he knows, we are having a drugs summit this year; it will be held in Scotland, and we will be announcing a date shortly.
My local NHS trust is currently consulting on closing the stroke rehabilitation service at Bishop Auckland hospital. Staff on the ward are rightly very concerned about the proposed closure and the impact it will have on local residents, particularly those in my rural communities, so may I ask the Prime Minister whether he is willing to work with me and the Health Secretary, take this matter seriously and prove to the residents of Bishop Auckland that we are on their side?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting elected, and welcome her, and indeed all new colleagues, to their first edition of Prime Minister’s Question Time. I thank my hon. Friend for raising her concerns with me; I have heard just now from the Health Secretary, passing the ball straight down the line, that he is indeed going to address the matter that she raises as fast as possible. As she knows, we are putting record sums into the NHS and it is our intention to help Bishop Auckland.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns about the lack of educational achievement and aspiration among so many of our working-class boys across the country? Will he make it a top priority for his Government to ensure that all schoolchildren throughout the country are given the opportunities to maximise their talents?
Yes I can; and not only are we investing record sums in primary and secondary education, but we are also setting up a national skills fund to help those who do not necessarily think that they are candidates for university but have a huge amount to offer the economy and need all the help they can get—they have massive, massive potential.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. As he knows, it is our view that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action remains the best way of preventing nuclear proliferation in Iran—it is the best way of encouraging the Iranians not to develop a nuclear weapon—and we think that after this crisis has abated, which of course we sincerely hope it will, that way forward will remain. It is a shell that has currently been voided, but it remains a shell into which we can put substance again.
In recent months, the performance of West Midlands Trains for my constituents and for constituents across the region has been absolutely woeful. Does the Prime Minister agree with Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, that if it does not shape up by the end of January, it too should have an inspection by the Secretary of State for Transport and potentially have its franchise taken away?
The House will have heard what I had to say to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) about the performance of various franchise holders across our rail network. We are looking at the whole issue and the bell is tolling for West Midlands rail, if I hear my hon. Friend correctly.
I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s continued commitment to invest and level up across our country. This will be particularly welcome in Cornwall, which continues to be one of the poorest parts of the UK. Will the Prime Minister confirm to the people of Cornwall that we will continue to be at the heart of his Government’s plans to invest in the regions of the country?
Absolutely. I can confirm that. My hon. Friend and I have discussed this issue many times. Not only will Cornwall continue to receive all the cash it gets through the shared prosperity fund, but we will do extraordinary things with infrastructure—the A303, you name it—to improve road and rail transport to Cornwall and the NHS. Truro and Penzance and virtually every hospital in Cornwall—and St Austell—will be there.
In 2005, my constituent Steven Gallant did a bad thing for which he is serving a life sentence in prison. However, on 29 November he was the third man on London Bridge. He wrestled the knife-wielding murderous terrorist to the ground so that police marksmen could shoot him dead. Steven is rightly serving life in prison, but will the Prime Minister congratulate and pay tribute to Steven for his bravery that day, which no doubt saved lives?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for making a very good point, on which I think the whole House would agree. I am lost in admiration for the bravery of Steven Gallant, and indeed of others who went to the assistance of members of the public on that day and fought a very determined terrorist. Obviously, it is not for the Government to decide these things, but it is my hope that that gallantry will in due course be recognised in the proper way.