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Engagements

Volume 669: debated on Wednesday 8 January 2020

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.

Following the Government’s support for the United States over the assassination of General Soleimani, is the Prime Minister confident that United Kingdom troops and civilians are not at further risk in the region and beyond?

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.

The Government have said that they are sympathetic to the assassination of General Soleimani. What evidence has the Prime Minister got to suggest that this attack on General Soleimani, and his death, was not an illegal act by the United States?

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 right hon. Gentleman is probably well aware that the United States has a duty under international law to allow people to visit the UN, and that is indeed the position that the UK supports.

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.

Q2. In the past 10 years, there have been volumes of reports, independent reviews and recommendations calling for an end to inappropriate in-patient care for people with learning difficulties or challenging behaviour. In the wake of the Winterbourne View scandal alone, there were seven such reports. As we start a new decade, would my right hon. Friend state how many people are still trapped in inappropriate care settings and instruct the Department of Health to act on those recommendations and the asks of families of campaigners so that these very vulnerable people can get the care they need and deserve? (900071)

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?

I think the answer is very clear—it is the people of Scotland who voted decisively only four or five years ago to stay members of the most successful political partnership in history by a decisive majority in a once-in-a-generation choice.

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.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree that at the heart of our one nation Government is our manifesto commitment that“A strong society needs strong families”?After last week’s £165 million boost to extend the troubled families programme, will he outline how the Government will additionally fulfil our manifesto pledge to champion family hubs, to“serve vulnerable families with the intensive, integrated support they need to care for children”? (900078)

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.

Q3. Finally, it appears that some action is being taken against Northern Rail. Will the Prime Minister commit to stripping it of its franchise and to devolving the power and money to the regions, so that local people have the power over their local transport and never have to suffer the appalling catalogue of delays, overcrowding, cancellations and disruptions that have gone on far too long? (900072)

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.

Q10. My right hon. Friend has always been a vocal advocate of localism, so what advice can he give to my constituents who are concerned about the local Lib Dem council’s unwanted housing plan in Eastleigh, which would lead to even more overdevelopment without securing the vital infrastructure that Eastleigh needs? (900079)

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.

Q4. The Prime Minister is a man of vision, apparently. What is his vision for the constitutional relationship between Wales and England in the event of Irish reunification and Scottish independence? (900073)

Our relationship, like the relationship of the whole United Kingdom, will go from strength to strength.

Q13. American company Wheelabrator has a track record of breaching environmental legislation in the USA and now seeks to build a massive incinerator in the beautiful Test Valley. Local residents are looking to this Government because of their concerns about emissions levels and are seeking reassurance from my right hon. Friend that regulations on emissions from incineration will be further enhanced and greener alternatives encouraged. (900082)

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.

Q5. Happy new year to you and all your staff, Mr Speaker, and everyone in the House. The Prime Minister knows that his “Get Brexit done” slogan was vacuous. He also knows that it is not even the end of the beginning, with no deal firmly back on the table. Will he now acknowledge that any job lost and any impact on British industry as a result of his Brexit policy is firmly at his door? (900074)

Contrary to the predictions of the gloomsters, unemployment is at a record low—we have put on about 800,000 jobs since the referendum—and we will indeed get Brexit done by 31 January.

Q15. For social justice, for life chances, for opportunities for the next generation, education is the key, and that is why the Prime Minister’s pledge for additional funding is so welcome, especially for historically underfunded areas such as Dorset and Poole; but equally important are discipline and standards. Will the Prime Minister ensure that there is a continued focus on the most disadvantaged, especially when it comes to vital literacy and numeracy skills? (900084)

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.

Q6. Margaret Thatcher— Hurrah! Order. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Margaret Thatcher, John Major and the right hon. Gentleman’s immediate predecessor all accepted that the Union of the United Kingdom can only be maintained by consent. Yet despite winning three elections seeking to test that consent, the Prime Minister insists that the SNP Government do not have a mandate to hold another independence referendum, so could he tell me exactly what mechanism is available to the Scottish people to give their consent or otherwise for maintaining this Union, and how they should go about exercising that? (900075)

I can only repeat my point, which is that the Scottish people do have a mechanism. They used it in 2014: it is a referendum. It took place, and as I think SNP Members all confirmed, it was a once-in-a-generation event.

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?

Indeed, the Eden of Britain—[Interruption.] I have just heard from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that he does indeed: the House should know that the Eden Project is now, thanks to the Chancellor, very likely to come to Morecambe.

Q7. For more than two years, I have been campaigning on behalf of my constituents in Harthill and 4,000 other low-income Roadchef workers across the UK who have waited more than 20 years to receive share ownership money that is rightfully theirs. In 2018 there was a breakthrough, when Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs agreed to repay millions of pounds in wrongfully paid tax. However, I understand that it is trying now to recoup tax on every penny possible from those low-income workers. Given that the trust was set up as a non-tax employee ownership scheme, does the Prime Minister think it is fair that HMRC would seek to run roughshod over that, and will he now meet me to discuss this projected saga? (900076)

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.

Q8. In the twilight of the last Parliament both the Scottish Affairs and Health Select Committees produced reports on the drugs crisis. Both reports drew on international evidence and recommended a change in the law to allow vulnerable addicts to be able to consume substances in secure facilities under medical supervision. I know this is a complex and controversial area and I am not expecting the Prime Minister to make policy on the hoof, but I want to ask him whether he will consider, on a pilot basis, the establishment of overdose prevention centres in order to gather evidence as to whether that could help prevent deaths in this country, as it has in other countries. (900077)

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 myself 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.

Q11. As in much of the rest of the country, hospital A&E waiting times in Coventry have been under constant pressure, with the latest figures showing that almost a quarter of attendances are waiting four hours or more to be seen. I am aware that the Government have made commitments to invest in the NHS, so will the Prime Minister agree to meet a delegation from Coventry to discuss the prospect of opening a second walk-in centre in the city to alleviate some of the pressure on our overstretched A&E department? (900080)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue with me, and if I can’t do it I am sure the Health Secretary can.

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 every help they can get—they have massive, massive potential.

Q12. May I wish a happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and everyone else in the Chamber? Can the Prime Minister detail what steps he has taken, working in concert with Germany and France, in helping to restore the Iran nuclear deal since he was appointed Prime Minister in July? (900081)

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.

Q14. During the festive season, I was thinking about the Prime Minister basking in his hammock in Mustique, maybe contemplating his mandate. But that mandate is absolutely nothing compared to the mandate won in Scotland by my colleagues on the SNP Benches. Winning 45% of the popular vote and 80% of the seats, our mandate is unassailable. The Prime Minister’s holidays are over and it is now time to deliver on that mandate. The Scottish Government have an oven-ready Edinburgh agreement 2.0. When will discussions begin? (900083)

I think I have given this answer a couple of times already. The people of Scotland had the chance to decide, and they decided emphatically in favour of remaining in the UK. That decision should be respected.

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.