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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 669: debated on Wednesday 15 January 2020

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Welsh Language

My Department and I are 100% committed to supporting the Welsh Government’s ambition of 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, as well as to increasing Welsh language services across Whitehall and supporting the growth of the Welsh language in Wales. I am proud that my constituency is home to S4C, and welcome ideas from all Members on ways we can promote the Welsh language.

I am a keen supporter of the language and a Welsh learner myself. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Diolch yn fawr; thank you. Does the Minister agree that the best way to support the language is through economic prosperity, which means supporting jobs, skilled employment and projects such as Wylfa Newydd on Ynys Môn?

May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend on her fantastic election result? She has already brought an energy and a fizz to her part of the world, which will be appreciated across the House. I know that her father is watching these proceedings from his hospital bed, and he will be as proud as we are that she is among us.

As far as the Welsh language is concerned, I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s recognition that a vibrant economy and a vibrant language go hand in hand. The language of Wales is one of the oldest in the world and we are rightly proud of it—even those of us who are perhaps not as fluent as others. On the question of Wylfa, I cannot think of anybody better in the House to take forward that project. I am happy to commit to helping her to do that and I know the Welsh Government will be doing the same, so fingers crossed; we will definitely work together on our shared ambitions in that regard.

Shared Prosperity Fund

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the UK shared prosperity fund. (900133)

I have already had productive discussions with the First Minister and his colleagues. Only last week I met Jeremy Miles to discuss the UK shared prosperity fund, and I am excited about the opportunities that the fund will create to bind together the whole United Kingdom, tackling inequality and deprivation across each of our four nations.

Diolch yn fawr. The EU funding that comes to an end in 2020 has delivered more than £2 billion of investment in Wales since 2014. This money has been used according to priorities set in Wales, for Wales, by the Government of Wales. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that Wales will receive not a single penny less under the Government’s funding scheme, and that the priorities for Wales will continue to be set in Wales, by the people and the Parliament of Wales?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for strengthening the Union by coming here to support Welsh questions, which is very much appreciated. I hope that I can reassure him by describing the shared prosperity fund as a good news story, because for the first time in 45 years, a substantial sum of money is going to be distributed in Wales by Welsh politicians who are directly accountable to Welsh voters. That has not been the case for some time. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the collaborative approach I take with the Welsh Government over the distribution of the fund should ensure that it goes to the places where it is most needed, and is not—as some might argue has been the case in the past—blown on vanity projects. The relevant Minister in the Welsh Government is with me on this; we have a shared ambition to ensure that outcome, and to do so collaboratively and efficiently.

I am all for strengthening the Union, as most Welsh politicians are. I am completely against nationalism and all it stands for, but the reality is that I am also in favour of supporting the devolution settlement. This funding has always been controlled by the Assembly, so can the Secretary of State confirm that he will rule out subverting the Welsh Government by funding local government directly in Wales? Bypassing the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales will do nothing to strengthen the Union.

The reassurance I can give is that nothing contained in the proposals for the shared prosperity fund will in any way drive a coach and horses through the devolution settlement.

The Secretary of State answered the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) by saying that there would be a “substantial” amount of money. Will he, though, confirm that there will not be a penny less nor a power lost, as the First Minister of Wales put it, to Wales, and that spending decisions will in fact be taken where they should be—by the Welsh Government?

On the first part of the hon. Lady’s question, our manifesto commitment was clear on that. As for the second part, my discussions with Jeremy Miles so far have been very clear about taking a collaborative approach so that the UK and Welsh Governments, working together, ensure that this money gets to the right place in a timely fashion.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his new post? I also congratulate my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), on his long-anticipated and—may I say?—long-awaited promotion to the Front Bench.

As Wales leaves the European Union, the Secretary of State will be aware, because we have heard it in the questions so far, that there are deep concerns about the continuation of structural and investment funding. I have to say that his answers to my hon. Friends have not been that reassuring so far. Can he clear up the uncertainty now with two unequivocal guarantees—not a penny lost, and the Welsh Government having complete control of the funding?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first question—there are lots of double questions going on—the answer is yes. That was in the manifesto and we made it clear. As for the second question, the Welsh Government do not even have complete control over the situation now, so he is asking about something that is not even the status quo. I think he should refer to his ministerial and party colleague in Cardiff—Jeremy Miles, who I have spoken to—who is perfectly adamant, and perfectly content, that this should be a joint UK Government-Welsh Government initiative. What the hon. Gentleman is hinting at is actually contrary to the policy of his own party in Cardiff.

May I warmly congratulate my right hon. and good Friend on his appointment as Secretary of State?

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that since 2000 more than £4 billion of European aid has been spent in Wales but communities have not yet felt the benefit of that money, and the prioritisation of that spend by the Welsh Government has been brought into question by many local authorities and businesses alike? Does he agree that this is an opportunity to reset the formula and reset the way in which money is distributed, and to enable Members of this House to have some influence on how it is spent?

May I, with your patience, Mr Speaker, start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend and predecessor? There is a saying in politics: “There is no such thing as real friends, only sharks circling waiting for a sniff of blood”, but no such situation would describe our relationship. He has done a fantastic job for Wales. He has boundless energy and I know that Wales will benefit from that again.

On my right hon. Friend’s comments about the shared prosperity fund, I hope I can reassure him by saying that this is a reset of the meter of the relationship between the Welsh and the UK Governments. It is absolutely right that he highlights the priority that we should give to this, which is getting the money to the right place in a timely way and in a way that is accountable to Welsh voters as it never has been before.

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Speaker. Under the Welsh Labour Government, Wrexham has missed out on opportunities for the past 20 years. Can the Secretary of State give assurances that Wrexham will now start to receive benefits from the shared prosperity fund?

May I congratulate my hon. Friend too? It is going to be a day of congratulating new Members, which is a happy place to be.

I hope—my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will confirm this in due course—that, as far is Wrexham is concerned, the answer is yes. As for growth deals, that is an ongoing and positive development for Wales on which further information will be made available as we proceed. It is absolutely right that my hon. Friend highlights the specifics for her particular part of Wales, and yes, we will certainly comply and co-operate with that.

May I, too, warmly welcome my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister to their positions?

The shared prosperity fund represents a unique opportunity for all parts of Wales to benefit from Brexit. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that it is essential that in the design of the architecture of the fund, the priorities of local authorities and the interests of the people they serve should be properly reflected?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the advice that he has so generously given me over the years. It should be a source of encouragement that the early conversations I have had with the relevant Ministers, including the First Minister in Cardiff, suggest that they are as attuned as we are, or are certainly getting that way, to the need to ensure that the shared prosperity fund money that will be benefiting Wales is targeted at the areas where it is most needed and recognise the arguments being made across all parts of Wales. There is a public perception that this is always just about Cardiff, but this will be more about more than just Cardiff, and it is my job and the job of the Welsh Government to ensure that that is the case.

13. Those on the Opposition Benches see the shared prosperity fund as primarily a constitutional issue, but it is fundamentally an economic issue, and the previous rounds of European funding have failed in their objective of lifting Welsh GDP to EU average levels. Does my right hon Friend, whom I strongly welcome to his position, agree that however we design the new shared prosperity fund and however we share the responsibility with the Welsh Government, we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past? (900137)

I thank my right hon. Friend and west Walian neighbour for his question. The answer is yes. One of the reasons we are in this position—one of the reasons the Brexit vote went the way it did in June 2016 and the general election went the way it did in December 2019—is exactly the point he makes: people were beginning to lose faith. They knew that there were substantial sums of money, but somehow it never quite reached the places it should. The new arrangement—the reset to which I referred—will address exactly that point.

Steel Industry

3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the future of the steel industry in Wales. (900127)

The UK Government are committed to supporting a productive, modern and vibrant steel industry in Wales. With that in mind, I have already had discussions with the Welsh Government and unions. I plan to visit the steel industry in Wales within the next few days, and I look forward to my meeting later today with the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), who has initiated a meeting with other Labour colleagues to discuss the steel sector.

We know now that Liberty Steel is cutting 72 jobs in Newport, and although it is based in the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), those job losses will affect people across our city—east and west. The losses follow the disastrous decision to mothball the Orb steelworks at Christmas. The UK steel industry is disappearing before our eyes, and it is happening on this Government’s watch. We can see with Flybe that this Government can take steps to save jobs and industries when they want to, so when will the Secretary of State sit down with his ministerial colleagues and agree a plan that will protect jobs, livelihoods and the steel industry across Newport, Wales and the rest of the UK?

I am pleased to say that that process is already happening. I am sitting down not only with my ministerial colleagues but with the hon. Lady’s ministerial and parliamentary colleagues, as well as unions and management, all in the space of a few days. I am absolutely conscious of the huge impact, uncertainty and worry that the current circumstances are resulting in. I will say it again: it is our shared responsibility with the Welsh Government to steady the situation and rectify the position. There are a number of ways of doing that; energy prices is one, and business rates is another, which we will look at closely to see how we can help.

This is my first appearance at the Dispatch Box in 2020, so may I wish all hon. and right hon. Members a happy new year? I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place, and I wish the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), well. Given the average length of tenure of previous Wales Office Ministers, his first achievement will be to last more than a few months. I understand that he is a junior Whip as well, which may be even more challenging.

The Liberty Steel announcement is yet another blow to the steel industry, following Tata Steel’s announcement about Orb. Our thoughts are with the steelworkers and their families at this very anxious time. I must commend my hon. Friends the Members for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and for Newport West (Ruth Jones) for all the work they have done on this. I am sure that the Secretary of State has heard Welsh Government Economy Minister Ken Skates ask the UK Government to intervene more directly to reduce energy prices. Will he use his voice in Cabinet to make that call?

I thank the hon. Lady. I am sure the whole House will want to extend its congratulations to her on becoming a grandmother this week. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I hope she will not mind my mentioning that for the public record.

The answer to the hon. Lady’s question is, of course, that the UK Government made £53 million available in, I think, 2018, by way of compensation for energy prices. The conversation I want to have is also with her colleagues in Cardiff—perhaps she can lead this herself—about business rates, and where Welsh Government can help the industry in that regard as well. However, the shared ambition to make sure that there is a future for steel in Wales is absolute, and the hon. Lady can rely on the fact that I and my Cabinet colleagues will work to ensure that.

My question was about energy. In other countries, large companies pay far less for their energy. All that Welsh steelworkers need is a fair deal. Steel is a foundation industry, and this UK Government and this Secretary of State need to do far more. Will the Secretary of State act now, decisively—or will he be just a bystander in the decline of the vital steel industry in Wales?

The hon. Lady may have misheard me, but I have already commented on the £53 million being made available by way of compensation for energy prices, and I restate what I said just now: one way in which the Welsh Government could step in now, and help significantly with the certainty around steel, is by addressing the issue of business rates. It would be a powerful message if she and I, combined, could make that case to Welsh Government.

Infrastructure

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the resilience of infrastructure in Wales. (900128)

Last week I met Ken Skates, the Minister for Economy and Transport, to discuss how we can work together on infrastructure in Wales. I look forward to a productive and collaborative relationship with Welsh Government, and with Members in all parts of this House. In particular, I reaffirm this Government’s commitment to rebuilding the M4 relief road.

The Secretary of State’s predecessor long dodged giving answers to questions about the lack of electrification further west than Cardiff. Will the Secretary of State, and the Minister, do better, and get Swansea and west Wales the investment that they deserve by funding a more integrated system, such as a Swansea Bay metro?

My predecessors felt—and I share their view—that it would have been difficult to justify spending hundreds of millions of pounds on electrifying the line from Swansea to Cardiff, which would not have delivered any decreases in journey times. So we put £5.7 billion into the Great Western main line, £2.8 billion into the Great Western main line modernisation, over £1.5 billion into the Wales and borders route—all investments that have benefited Welsh travellers. We look to continue to do that, and I would be delighted to work with the hon. Lady to develop plans for further rail improvements in west Wales.

Diolch yn fawr, Lefarydd. Dw innau hefyd yn croesawu’r Ysgrifennydd Gwladol newydd a’i Weinidog i’w seddi ac yn gobeithio y cawn ni gydweithio efo nhw. [Translation: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I also welcome the new Secretary of State and his Minister to their seats, and look forward to working together.]

Wales currently benefits from EU funding to the tune of £680 million a year, including many infrastructure projects—£4.4 million for Blaenau Ffestiniog, £3.4 million for Tywyn, and £7.5 million for Llanbedr airfield, to mention just a few in my constituency. But as we leave the EU, we sadly leave behind the principles that underpin such funding—principles whose objectives were to tackle deprivation, poverty and inequality. The old political adage says follow the money. Can the Minister and the new Secretary of State allay my fears that, after this Tory Brexit, the money will not mainly find its way into the constituencies presently coloured blue on the political map of Wales?

I ddechrau, a gaf I ddweud diolch yn fawr iawn am y croeso? [Translation: First of all, may I say thank you very much for the welcome?] Can I assure the right hon. Lady that this Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that Wales does not lose out by one penny as a result of Brexit. Indeed, as a result of the growth deals that will now be taking place in all parts of Wales, we are going to see hundreds of millions of pounds invested in the economy of Wales, levelling up communities.

I am delighted to hear the Minister’s commitment that Wales will not lose a single penny. We should be building the whole of our nation. One idea is a railway from north to south, so that we no longer have to travel to the neighbouring nation to go from one end to the other of our country.

I hope that the Minister has had a chance to look at the iTunes charts, where Dafydd Iwan’s protest song “Yma o Hyd”—“We’re Still Here”—has been going up the charts. It has reached No. 1 this week. It was originally, of course, released in the midst of Thatcher’s relentless attacks on Wales, and it might be time to update the lyrics:

“er gwaetha’r hen Foris a’i griw;

ry’n ni yma o hyd.”

[Translation: Despite Boris and his crew, we are still here.]

I thank the right hon. Lady. The north-south link has been talked about for years, and I look forward to seeing some costs on that. East-west links in both north and south Wales have finance available to them, and I very much hope that the Welsh Labour Government will again consider the commitment to the M4 relief road. I congratulate Dafydd Iwan on that fantastic song. As far as the Conservative party and this Conservative Government are concerned, with hundreds of millions of pounds going into growth deals for Wales, his other song, “I’r Gad”, springs to mind.

Has not the whole point about infrastructure and the M4 been missed so far—unless I missed it during the singing—because of the fact that the Severn crossing is now free? Is it not that point that will help Cardiff and Swansea?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My predecessor, who managed to get tolls on the Severn bridge scrapped, has done wonders for the south Wales economy. The Welsh Government must now match the commitment shown by the UK Government, by getting the M4 relief road built and continuing to support the south Wales economy through a good transport link.

Mid-Wales Growth Deal

5. What recent discussions he has had with (a) the Welsh Government and (b) Welsh local authorities on the mid-Wales growth deal. (900129)

Over the past week I have held discussions with the Welsh Government’s Minister for Economy and Transport, Ken Skates, and I look forward to working collaboratively with our partners to discuss the mid and west-Wales growth deal.

The Minister will be aware that people in Ceredigion and across mid-Wales are keen to see swift progress on the growth deal. With that in mind, will he consider meeting groups and businesses in Ceredigion that are involved in some of those proposals, to see how we can get them implemented as soon as possible?

When I was invited to join the Government, one of the only things that might have dissuaded me was that I was planning to visit Ceredigion with the Welsh Affairs Committee—I believe the hon. Gentleman had arranged for us some whisky tasting and to see some cheese factories. I will therefore take his question as an invitation to visit Ceredigion. I hope it will go on to the Wales Office, and I look forward very much to accepting it—diolch yn fawr.

North Wales Growth Deal

Together with the Welsh Government and the leaders of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, heads of terms for the north Wales growth deal were signed in November 2019. The opportunities provided by that deal are the latest example of the Government’s commitment to levelling up communities across the United Kingdom.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. In the past 20 years, the people of north Wales, and the people of Aberconwy, have grown used to being overlooked and underfunded by a Cardiff-based, Labour-led Welsh Government. It will not have escaped the attention of the House that seven of the nine MPs from north Wales are now Conservatives. Does my hon. Friend agree that that represents a new chapter for north Wales?

May I offer the warmest welcome to my hon. Friend? This Government note that the people of north Wales appear to have rejected 20 years of Labour government, and have already begun to build an impressive piece of infrastructure—a political blue wall that now stretches from Ynys Môn to Clwyd South. I look forward to seeing that political infrastructure followed up by physical infrastructure, as we release hundreds of millions of pounds in the growth deals into north Wales.

I welcome the Minister to his place. I hope he lasts longer than his predecessors, and that I can meet him more than once about the north Wales growth deal—more than I did any of his predecessors. May I ask him for more money, because the money on offer is not enough? I also ask for a strategic growth deal, not a series of pet projects across north Wales.

We have absolutely no intention of allowing the sort of pet projects to go ahead that we have seen money wasted on in previous years. All growth deal projects will be rigorously scrutinised to ensure value for money, but at the end of the day, if the right hon. Gentleman wants to criticise the Government for putting hundreds of millions of pounds into the north Wales economy, then I plead guilty and I am absolutely delighted to be a part of the Government who are doing it.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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.

Last Thursday, we received the devastating news that more than 350 steel jobs will be lost in Sheffield, Rotherham and Newport—yet another blow for steelworkers, their families and their communities. When will the Government bring forward a comprehensive plan for the steel industry that tackles high energy costs and business rates and ensures that steel is at the heart of all infrastructure plans? Action is needed now. Will the Prime Minister stay true to his word and repay the trust of communities that voted for him only last month?

I thank the hon. Lady, and I can assure her that the Government are indeed embarking on a plan to do everything we can to make sure steel made in this country has all the competitive advantages we need. She makes some excellent points. In the particular case of Liberty Steel, I understand that whatever happens —it is a commercial decision for that company—all those affected will be offered an opportunity to remain within the GFG Alliance by joining a new company.

Q2. The Conservative manifesto promises in relation to the roll-out of broadband and mobile phone signal are incredibly welcome, but does my right hon. Friend agree that rural constituencies like mine, wherever they are in the United Kingdom, should not be left behind? Does he agree that these vital technologies should be rolled out, and will he set a firm timetable for their roll-out? (900186)

Yes, the Cotswolds needs broadband and the Cotswolds is going to get gigabit broadband. That is why we are putting £5 billion into the roll-out of gigabit broadband. My hon. Friend asks for a deadline and he will get it—2025.

May I just put on record our pleasure at the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly and, hopefully, the restoration of the peace process in Northern Ireland? I know there is a statement coming on this after Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Will the Prime Minister let the British people know why, after almost 10 years of Tory Government, patients are waiting longer for essential NHS care, whether it is in A&Es, on waiting lists or for a GP appointment?

We are investing record sums into the NHS. Indeed, I think the House should be very proud today that we are passing the NHS Funding Bill, which will guarantee such funding not just this year but into the future.

Well, passing legislation that will guarantee underfunding of the NHS, yes. The number of patients waiting more than four hours in A&E is now at its highest on record for the second month in a row. We have had months of promises, but people need action. There probably is not a family in the United Kingdom that has not been affected in some way by cancer, yet last year we saw one in four patients waiting more than two months for the start of their cancer treatment. How many more patients will face life-threatening delays because our NHS is understaffed and underfunded?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is a massive demand on the NHS, which, as he also knows, is doing a fantastic job, particularly in oncology, where tremendous progress has been made. He is right to signal the delays that people are facing. They are indeed unacceptable. That is why we are investing in 50,000 more nurses, that is why we are investing in 6,000 more GPs, and that is why this Government are investing record sums in the NHS. We will get those waiting lists down.

Twenty thousand of those 50,000 already work for the NHS, actually, Mr Speaker.

Delays in cancer treatment can reduce a patient’s chance of survival. The target of 85% of patients being seen within two months was last met four years ago, in December 2015. Action is needed urgently.

Last week, we heard of the heart-rending case of a 92-year-old RAF veteran in Leicester who had to go through the indignity of waiting almost 12 hours on a hospital trolley because there were no beds available. I want the Government to apologise to him and many others and to explain why, despite the extraordinary efforts of NHS staff all over the country, over 2,000 patients had to wait more than 12 hours before they could get into a hospital bed last month alone.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the case of the RAF veteran, and I think everybody in this House will have every sympathy for people who have a bad and unacceptable experience in the NHS. We all share that. On the other hand, I would say that most people in this country—most patients of the NHS—have a fantastic experience of our healthcare, and we should pay tribute to our nurses and our staff. The hospital he mentions, Leicester, is one of those that, as he knows, we are rebuilding under this programme, with 40 new hospitals and 20 upgrades under this Conservative Government.

The A&E has already been rebuilt in Leicester, actually, as I understand it. The problem is that the Prime Minister promised 40 hospitals. In reality, it was 20 and then it became six. The issue of people waiting on trolleys is a very serious one. The number doubled in December and it is now at the highest ever level on record. The Prime Minister promised to put the Conservative party’s inadequate NHS funding pledge into law. Can he explain why it is necessary to cement into law a pledge that the Health Foundation has said is

“below the amount needed to maintain current standards of care”?

It is only under this Conservative Government that we have the resources that will enable us to invest in our NHS, and it is because of our stewardship of the economy, after the wreckage that Labour left when it was in office, that we have been able to make those colossal investments. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that not only was it this Conservative Government who rebuilt the A&E, as he correctly points out, but it is this Conservative Government who will be rebuilding the entire hospital in Leicester. We are putting more money into the NHS as a direct result of our careful management of the economy.

Well, I understand that another hospital has been closed to pay for it. The question is: why would the Government need to put into law an inadequacy of funding for our national health service? Health professionals have said that the NHS needs more money than the Government are saying in order to keep patients safe.

It has now been almost three years since the Government promised a Green Paper on social care and seven months since the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and said he had prepared a clear plan to fix the crisis in social care. Well, what is the hold-up? Where is the plan?

I am delighted by the right hon. Gentleman’s constructive attitude, because as he knows, we intend to begin cross-party talks to build a consensus. I think there is a growing consensus in this country on the need to tackle the issue of social care, so that everybody has dignity and security in their old age and nobody has to sell their home to pay for the cost of their care. We can do it, and we will do it. With the help and co-operation of the Labour party and other parties in this House, we will go ahead with a fantastic plan for social care. I look forward to his support, but I point out to him that it is thanks to the Conservatives’ stewardship of the economy, and indeed the mandate of the people that we have, that we are now able to tackle a problem that was shirked not just by the Labour party, but Governments for decades after decades. We are going to do it now.

I do not know if the Prime Minister had a chance to read the Labour manifesto in the election, but we made it very clear that we have a plan—a very clear one: free personal care, more funding and support for carers. I am very happy to send him another copy of our manifesto so he can read it.

The Prime Minister said many times that he is going to put the NHS funding issue into law, but all this gimmick means is even longer waiting lists, more delays for cancer patients and more A&E departments bursting at the seams, while patients continue to suffer while he continues to provide excuses. If he is really committed to fixing the crisis that his Government have created over the last decade, he should end the empty rhetoric and back our proposals to give the NHS the funding it needs, rather than putting into law an insufficiency of funding. The NHS is our most precious national institution. Fund it properly so that everyone can rely on it—those that cannot afford private healthcare.

I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman is still fighting on the manifesto he submitted to the attention of the British people at the last election. It was pretty clear what they thought of it and of the credibility of the promises he made. It was also clear what they thought of what we were going to do. They see that we are the party of the NHS and that it is this Government who invest in hospitals, in schools, in policing and in bringing down crime. That is because the Government’s careful stewardship of the economy has led to record employment and record low unemployment, which is what delivers the tax revenues that enable us to pay for it all. Whenever Labour are in office, they wreck the economy, make unemployment higher and make us less able to pay for great public services. We are taking the country forwards; they would take it backwards.

Q3. Despite the clear improvement in educational standards and funding, white working-class boys massively underperform at every stage of the education system compared with their better-off peers. Given the exciting infrastructure projects on the horizon and the high-value apprenticeships that will be unleashed, does my right hon. Friend agree that reforming the apprenticeship levy and investing in apprenticeships will allow us to ensure that white working-class boys climb the skills ladder of opportunity? (900187)

Apprenticeships play a vital part in the progression of the kids my right hon. Friend is talking about, and it is right that we should follow his advice—he has been on this for a while now—and reform the apprenticeship levy. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will be updating the House in due course on our proposals.

I congratulate all the parties in Northern Ireland on reforming the Northern Ireland Executive.

The Prime Minister sent a letter to the First Minister of Scotland rejecting the democratic right of the people of Scotland to have a choice over their own future. This was not a surprise: the Prime Minister is a democracy denier. I say to the Prime Minister that, as his colleagues privately admit, this position is undemocratic, unacceptable and completely unsustainable. He has shown utter contempt for Scottish democracy, for Scotland’s Parliament and for Scotland’s people. Does he accept that, by ignoring Scotland, by imposing Brexit and by his pursuance of cruel and punishing policies, he is strengthening the case for Scottish independence?

It was not only the right hon. Gentleman, who leads the SNP in this House, but Alex Salmond and his protégée, Nicola Sturgeon, who said at the time of the referendum that it was a once-in-a-generation event. He said it, they said it. They were right then. Why have they changed their minds? He is the denier of democracy.

The Conservative party signed up to the Smith commission, which recognised the right of the people of Scotland to determine their own future. That is the reality.

The Prime Minister lives in a fantasy land, but people across Scotland know the reality of his broken Brexit Britain. The truth is, the only union he is truly interested in is his union with Donald Trump—a partnership that threatens to sell off our precious national health service. Only yesterday, the Prime Minister called for the replacement of the Iran nuclear deal with, as he put it, a “Trump agreement”. The public deserve the truth. What backroom deals are being done with Donald Trump? Why is the Prime Minister putting our NHS at risk? Repeatedly during the election campaign, he promised that the NHS was not for sale. Will he now commit to supporting the SNP proposal for an NHS protection Bill? Without that commitment, what price will he make us pay for his toxic Trump deal?

Actually, the SNP welcomed our statement on the JCPOA yesterday; but, seriously, this is the problem with the SNP. Scotland under the SNP is the highest-taxed part of the UK. Its deficit is six times the UK average. Maths and science in schools in Scotland, unlike any other part of the United Kingdom, is going down in the PISA rankings. That is no fault of the pupils of Scotland, by the way. It is the fault of the Government of Scotland, under the SNP, who are not giving them the chances that they deserve because they are obsessed with breaking up the United Kingdom. Change the record!

Q5. Investment in superfast broadband is an excellent way of levelling up the whole United Kingdom, boosting British business and reducing carbon emissions, but can the Prime Minister reassure rural residents of West Sussex, many of whom have little or no access to broadband today, that the Government’s scheme to guarantee minimum broadband speeds is on track and ready to be launched in March this year? (900189)

My hon. Friend speaks well for the interests of his constituents, and he is absolutely right. As I said earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), of course we are rolling out superfast broadband—gigabit broadband. We have put in £5 billion, the legislation is on track, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has given me every assurance that Arundel and South Downs will be very well catered for.

Q4. Research published by Oxford University this week shows that our oceans are heating up at an alarming rate, that the process is accelerating, and that it will lead to more incidents of extreme, catastrophic weather. The Government are on track to miss most of their environmental goals in 2020, and that record looks set to get worse in future years. The Government make the right noises, but fail to come to the right conclusions. Will the Prime Minister commit himself to legally enforceable targets, and give the new Office for Environmental Protection powers to fine the Government if they fail to live up to their promises? It is the Government who should be under scrutiny, not the protesters who expose their shortcomings. (900188)

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the new Office for Environmental Protection will have powers to hold the Government to account, but let me draw his attention to the record of this Conservative Government. Under this Government, we have seen carbon dioxide emissions fall by 42% from 1990 levels, despite a 75% increase in GDP. On some days, most of our energy now comes from renewable sources. We will be leading the COP26 summit, where we will introduce enforceable limits not just for this country, but for the whole world.

Q7. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his endeavours to get Brexit done, but, as he knows only too well, something else needs to be got done. In an exchange with me on 25 July, he said that Southend would become a city. Before all that happens, however, will he join me in thanking the religious orders of Nazareth House in Southend for caring for vulnerable people for 147 years, and will he meet me and others to ensure that its caring mission continues on that site? (900191)

I thank my hon. Friend for everything that he does for Nazareth House. I saw the good work that it does when I was Mayor of London, and I am happy to support it. As for the “citification” of Southend, it continues at a pace set by my hon. Friend.

Q6. There are 1,200 people living with dementia in my constituency, and there are 850,000 across the United Kingdom. Dementia is the leading cause of death in the UK today. Will the Prime Minister commit himself to supporting the recommendations of the report published by Alzheimer's Research UK, and the aim to find cures and new treatments for all forms of dementia? Will he also support the call from the Alzheimer's Society for dementia care to be fixed as a matter of urgency? (900190)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on what she has done personally to support that campaign. She is absolutely right to stress its vital importance for the whole country. Dementia is one of the biggest challenges that we face, which is why we are doubling funding. As my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has said, we want to make a moon-shot effort to isolate the causes of dementia, and to cure it if we possibly can.

Constitutional Reform

A constitution, democracy and rights commission will be established to examine the broader aspects of the constitution and to develop proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates. Careful consideration is needed on the composition and focus of the commission, and further announcements will be made in due course.

I can tell my right hon. Friend that our independent courts and legal system are admired around the world. We will continue to ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of individuals against an overbearing state while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.

Engagements

Q9. I congratulate the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and all the parties in Northern Ireland on the re-establishment of the Assembly. The press were briefed last year that the Prime Minister was going to bring an end to all ongoing investigations from the conflict, and he said on Monday that he would not support vexatious claims when there was no new evidence. However, the Stormont agreement includes the Historical Investigations Unit, and the point of all the ongoing investigations is that the original evidence has never been properly investigated, so will the Prime Minister tell us today, yes or no, whether he now supports the investigation of every single outstanding claim? (900193)

We will go ahead and, as I said yesterday, I think that a good balance has been struck, in getting Stormont going again, between those who need truth and those who need certainty in the protection of our armed services. I want to reassure the House that nothing in the agreement will stop us going ahead with legislation to ensure that no one who has served in our armed forces suffers vexatious or unfair prosecution for cases that happened many years ago when no new evidence has been provided. We will legislate to ensure that that cannot happen.

Q10. Staff at my local hospital, the George Eliot, have been praised by their bosses for the superhuman effort that they put in during the Christmas period, which was not only their busiest on record but the fourth busiest across the whole of the west midlands. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking them for the amazing work that they do? Will he also update the House on the progress of the NHS workforce plan, which will be key to ensuring that hospitals such as the George Eliot are able to attract and retain the inspirational people we all rely on to deliver our healthcare services? (900194)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on everything that he is doing to campaign for the George Eliot Hospital in his constituency, and I thank the staff there for everything that they do. The people plan will be coming forward in the spring, but I fancy that he already knows some of the details: 50,000 more nurses, 6,000 more doctors in general practice and 6,000 more primary care professionals in general practice. Today, as he knows, the House is legislating to ensure that we guarantee record multi-year funding for our NHS.

Q11. My constituent, Rosanna, came to the UK as a Kurdish refugee fleeing persecution and human rights abuses committed by Turkish-backed fighters in Syria. Her family remain in the area, and she lives in daily fear for their lives. There have been multiple reports of human rights abuses against Kurdish civilians in Syria, including reports that Turkish forces used white phosphorus against children. Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning the human rights abuses committed by Turkish forces against Kurdish civilians in northern Syria, and what will his Government do to prevent further atrocities? (900195)

As the hon. Lady knows, we have raised our concerns about the operation in northern Syria with the Turkish Government and with President Erdoğan several times. We certainly deplore any abuse of human rights and the suffering that she has identified. May I make a proposal to the hon. Lady? I would be happy to look at the details of the case she has raised myself, because I am deeply concerned about what is happening.

Q13. As the Prime Minister knows only too well, Britain is a nation of animal lovers, and leaving the European Union and decoupling from its lesser standards will mean that we can lead the world in animal welfare. Will he commit the Government to making that their utmost priority in the months and years ahead? (900197)

Yes, indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for everything he does to promote and protect animal welfare. This Government brought in the toughest ivory ban in the world, and we are bringing in new laws on animal sentience and to cut the illegal smuggling of puppies and dogs. As we come out of the EU, we will of course be able to ban the live shipment of animals, which has been a disgrace for so long and against which the British people have campaigned. The Labour party, however, is still trying to work out whether it wants to rejoin the EU or stay in the customs union and the single market, making any such reform of the protection of animal welfare impossible. It is time that Labour made up its mind.

Q12. Will the Prime Minister support Tees MPs and the Mayor in opposing the dumping of nuclear waste at Port Clarence in my constituency? (900196)

Given the Prime Minister’s post-Brexit vision for an outward-looking, global Britain and given Africa’s huge potential for trade and investment, will he update the House on the Government’s plans for next week’s UK-African investment summit?

Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has followed such matters with great interest over many years. The summit on 20 January in this country will be a chance to show people not only in the UK, but around the world, particularly in Africa, our huge commitment to Africa, our massive investments in Africa, and the massive opportunities to strengthen our long-standing ties, bonds and commercial relationships.

Q14. The writer and broadcaster Muriel Gray said last week that the end of the Erasmus scheme“is an utter disaster, academically, culturally and socially. Politicians have just voted to make our young people more insular, narrow and parochial. Heartbroken.”What would the Prime Minister say to 2014 no voters like Muriel who thought that the future of Scottish students was safe in the hands of a British Prime Minister? (900198)

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is talking through the back of his neck. There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme, and we will continue to participate in it. UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners, just as they will be able to continue to come to this country.

At the end of this month, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the nation will come together once again to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The theme for this year is “Stand Together”. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Holocaust Educational Trust, which says that, welcome though they are, signatures in books are not as valuable as action? Will he commit to more action to stamp out antisemitism and all intolerance in this country?

I will be commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day along with my hon. Friend and others. As he knows, this Government and this House—people across the House—want to do absolutely everything we can to stamp out the resurgence of antisemitism. As someone who is now 55 years old, I find it absolutely incredible that antisemitism is rising again in this country in the 21st century. It is a disgrace, and we must stamp it out.

Q15. The seasonal agricultural workers scheme affords a limit of 10,000 temporary visas for agricultural workers to come and work in the UK in support of food production. Given that my constituency alone requires 4,000 and neighbouring constituencies a similar amount, will the Prime Minister concede that 10,000 is clearly not enough even for Tayside, much less for Scotland or the rest of the UK? Will he therefore instruct the Home Secretary to review the situation in support of the National Farmers Union of Scotland and our whole agricultural sector and commission that review to look upwards to a limit that will support the actual operational requirements of agriculture in our country? (900199)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We have doubled the scheme and will ensure that not only the Scottish agriculture sector, but the agriculture sector of the entire country has access to the seasonal workforce it needs. That is why we are introducing a points-based immigration system that will enable this country to get the skills that it requires.

Child sexual abuse is not a thing of the past in this country. Over 4,000 offences of online child abuse were recorded by the police last year. Organisations such as Facebook and Instagram find it easy to analyse our online shopping habits but less easy to keep children safe. Can my right hon. Friend say how the Government will continue to make it their priority to protect children from sexual abuse online?

My right hon. Friend raises a subject of massive interest to the House and to the whole country, and we are indeed very concerned about what is happening online. The Cabinet discussed it yesterday, and the online harms White Paper sets out our plans to make companies more responsible. We will be taking further action in the near future to stamp out this vice.

I thank all those involved in the important progress in Northern Ireland.

When my mother was widowed with three young children, bereaved families received small payments until the youngest child left school. In our case that would have meant payments for 14 years, except my mother died too early. The duration of the payments was reduced in 2017, and a new bereavement support payment was paid for only 18 months. Many of us feel that is far too short. Will the Prime Minister deliver on his Government’s promise to review the new bereavement support payment, and will he meet me and charities helping such families to discuss how we can better care for bereaved parents and their children?

Yes. I know this is an issue that is very close to the right hon. Gentleman’s heart, and it is absolutely right that we should provide people with easily accessible support following their bereavement. I will indeed commit to meeting him.