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Prime Minister

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 22 January 2020

The Prime Minister was asked—


This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

I welcome the announcement from the Government this week that tougher sentences, an end to early release and a complete review of the management of convicted terrorists are among a range of measures designed to strengthen this country’s response to terrorism—a promise made by this Prime Minister and a promise delivered. [Interruption.] Does he agree that we need to do everything we can, whatever it takes, to stop sickening terrorist attacks taking place?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the threat that we face. That is why this Government are putting more resources into catching terrorists, and it is why we have announced a major shift in the UK’s approach to the sentencing and management of terrorist offenders. This Government will do all that we can to keep our people safe.

Next Monday, we will be commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. It is a time for us all to reflect on the horrors of the past and to remind ourselves of the evils of Nazism, genocide, antisemitism and, indeed, all forms of racism, which we must always be implacably determined to root out wherever it appears.

This Saturday, hundreds of millions of people will be celebrating Chinese new year around the world, and I am sure that the Prime Minister will join me in welcoming the year of the rat and inviting all Chinese people to have a great time.

If a worker earning just over £12,500 a year receives a £300 bonus, how much of that bonus does the Prime Minister think that worker should be allowed to keep?

Let me join the right hon. Gentleman in what he has said about the importance of Holocaust Memorial Day and of stamping out the resurgence of antisemitism in our country. On his point about the low-paid, I think perhaps the best answer I can give him is to remind him that just this week this Government increased the living wage by the biggest-ever amount so that people on the living wage will be receiving an extra £1,000 a year. If he wants further elucidation on his point, perhaps he could ask a better question.

Greggs is currently giving 25,000 workers a £300 bonus, but some of those workers who are on universal credit will be allowed to keep only £75 of that £300. If the Prime Minister can answer my question and show me that that is just and fair, I will buy him a vegan roll from Greggs myself. The first aim of universal credit, which is set to affect 6 million people, was to make work pay, but when low-paid workers cannot even keep their own bonuses, it is clear that the Government are punishing, not supporting, people. Will the Prime Minister do something to ensure that workers at companies such as Greggs who are on low pay will be allowed to keep their bonuses?

Under this Government, people on low pay will be able to keep more of the money that they earn. It is this Government who are cutting national insurance contributions for everybody in the country, and it is this Government who were increasing the living wage. It was the right hon. Gentleman who voted against tax cuts for the low-paid to the tune of £7,800.

The Prime Minister himself fought with unbelievable levels of energy to protect the bankers’ bonus. Why can he not do something about the low-paid on very low wages who need to be allowed to keep their bonuses? The Resolution Foundation report published yesterday highlighted the serious distress caused by the dysfunctional nature of the universal credit system. One claimant says, “Sometimes you are starving”, another said, “It was…horrendous”, and another said:

“It was very hard for me because I’m not very good at computers.”

Does the Prime Minister think that universal credit is meeting its second aim of making the social security system simpler?

Yes, indeed; we are making the social security system simpler because we have massively reduced unemployment. On the right hon. Gentleman’s specific point about Greggs, as far as I can understand the situation, Greggs is producing record figures—£7 million extra. One person, I believe, has complained about the bonus system that the right hon. Gentleman remarks upon, but that is in the context of unparalleled growth in employment, with 359,000 more jobs in this country this year than last year and the International Monetary Fund now confirming that the UK economy will grow faster than the eurozone. When is he going to stop talking Britain down and start recognising the extraordinary achievements of the UK economy?

The real issue is that many people in work are also in poverty and have to access universal credit, with almost 1 million on zero-hours contracts and more people rough sleeping than ever before. Those are the issues that ought to be concerning the Prime Minister. The third aim of universal credit, it was claimed, was to reduce poverty, but we know that it is having the opposite effect. Under this Government, 65 million meals were handed out by the Trussell Trust food banks over the past five years. The five-week delay for new claimants is leaving people without enough money to cover basic needs. Why is the Prime Minister not taking action to end this punitive and vicious five-week wait for benefits?

Universal credit has in fact succeeded in getting 200,000 people into jobs. Contrary to what the right hon. Gentleman says, the number of people in poverty has diminished by 400,000 under this Government and wages have been increasing solidly for the last 22 months. Labour is supposed to have had a period of reflection since the last election—it is supposed to have been reflecting on the result of the general election. Labour has decided, as far as I understand it, that what it wants is even more Corbynism—a four-day week, increases in taxes on working people and uncontrolled immigration from everywhere. I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer that the British people gave to him four weeks ago.

Wouldn’t it be truly wonderful if the Prime Minister answered a question about universal credit? He has dodged every question on it. The reality is that about half the people going on to universal credit are worse off as a result. The same is true of the very cruel and callous two-child limit under universal credit, which caps benefits for larger families. There are half a million more children living in poverty than there were in 2010 and the number of children in deprivation has soared in the last few years. Why does the Prime Minister just not have the guts to admit that there is a link between poverty and the two-child limit?

The right hon. Gentleman cannot accuse me of failing to answer the question when I have answered it very clearly a couple of times. There are 400,000 fewer people in poverty and there has been a substantial reduction in child poverty. He does not like the answers. The reality is that there is a massive increase in employment and growth in this economy. I really think it is time that the Labour party changed its tune, although I have some good news for the leader of the Labour party. He was voted by Labour members as the most popular Labour leader since records began. I want him to know that those sentiments are warmly shared by many on this side of the House.

The Labour party will never abandon the poor of this country. The levels of child poverty are a national scandal. The Prime Minister seems unable, incapable or unwilling to answer that question.

Universal credit had three aims. It was meant to make work pay, but low-paid workers are not even allowed to keep their bonuses. It was meant to be simple, but it has created mind-numbing complexity. It was meant to reduce poverty, but it is driving people to food banks. As we have seen today, the Prime Minister is not able to answer questions on it. The fact is that this Government have baked in austerity for tens of millions of people. When will he finally accept that the universal credit system is broken, damaging and dangerous to people’s living standards, and that it should go?

The right hon. Gentleman wants to do nothing else except keep people in the welfare trap and stop helping people out of welfare and into work. I think he should pay tribute to all the people who, by their own hard work, have found fantastic jobs over the last year. He should pay tribute to the growth in employment in the UK economy.

Quite frankly, it is this Government who are getting on with delivering on the priorities of the British people: 40 new hospitals, 50,000 more nurses and 20,000 more police officers. The Labour party is still split from top to toe about whether to stay in the EU or to remain run by the EU. It still cannot make up its mind, and he still cannot make up his mind. We deliver on the people’s priorities.

Q2. I welcome Ofsted’s annual report on our schools. It was released this week and shows great progress, not least that 86% of schools are now rated good or outstanding. With every school in Mansfield set to benefit from a funding increase later this year, the Government can be proud of the progress they are making. However, there is more to do, not least dealing with the 14% of schools that still do not reach that standard, many of which are based in areas that experience all sorts of other inequalities, too. What more can my right hon. Friend do to support and intervene in those schools to level up our education system and make sure that every child can access a good education, regardless of their postcode? (900309)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the passion he brings to this debate and to this subject. He is entirely right that Ofsted’s most recent report shows that standards for the kids he and I care about are rising, with 86% of schools now rated good or outstanding. Of course there is more to do, which is why we are investing £40 billion more, but I am regretfully obliged to compare the performance of the schools to which he draws attention with the schools in Scotland where, through no fault of the pupils, performance in maths and science is at a record low.

Perhaps the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who is about to rise to his feet like a rocketing pheasant, will explain why his party is still so obsessed with breaking up our Union rather than delivering for the children and the pupils of Scotland.

I associate myself with the remarks about Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday. We should always stand up against antisemitism and any form of racism.

Last night, the Lords voted to reinstate the Sewel convention that the devolved Governments must give consent to legislation that affects them. Devolution is under attack from this Tory Government. Powers are being grabbed back to Westminster, and there is no respect for the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, their Governments or their decisions. Yesterday, the Welsh Assembly became the third devolved Parliament to refuse consent for the Tory Brexit Bill. Why are the UK Government ignoring the principle of consent for our national Governments?

The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that it is no part or implication of the Sewel convention to break up the oldest and most successful political union in the world.

I am afraid that the Prime Minister ignores the Smith Commission, which recognises that it is up to the people of Scotland to determine their future. The Prime Minister just does not get it; this is an unprecedented attack. Scotland said no, and we meant it. Not only does he not have the legislative mandate for his Bill, but he does not—[Interruption.] As those on the Government Benches bray, it is clear that this place simply does not accept the reality that the Scottish Parliament speaks for the people of Scotland. The devolution settlement must be respected. Prime Minister, all three devolved Parliaments—and even the House of Lords—have called on you to end your Government’s attack on devolution. Will the Prime Minister stop the attack on our Parliaments?

I agreed for a second with the right hon. Gentleman, because he said that Scotland said no and it meant it. He was right: the people of Scotland said no to independence in 2014 and they meant it. They meant it because they were told it was once in a lifetime, both by Alex Salmond and his protégé Nicola Sturgeon, and indeed by the right hon. Gentleman; they were told it was a once-in-a-generation event. The people of Scotland did this because they know full well that £9 billion net comes from the UK to Scotland and that 60% of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the UK, and they can see the vast investments in manufacturing that come from the UK to Scotland, be it in Rosyth—£1.5 billion in building fantastic ships—or at Govan, where there are fantastic investments in manufacturing. We support manufacturing in Scotland; the Scottish National party Members support nothing except manufacturing grievances, and they know it.

Q3. After being inundated with complaints from the people of Dewsbury and Mirfield, does the Prime Minister agree with me that the Northern rail service is no longer fit for purpose? (900310)

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we have indeed started a process that could result in either stripping Northern of its franchise or issuing it with a very different form of contract.

Q4. Both myself and the Northern Powerhouse Minister are concerned that power cables over the Tyne are a real barrier to businesses securing work for large renewable energy structures. Will the Prime Minister, through his good offices, undertake to support the National Grid’s energy transmissions bid to Ofgem for the permanent removal of the cables and to unlock the potential of the Tyne? (900311)

The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue with me. Of course it is right that these decisions are independently made by Ofgem, but I appreciate the problem that she raises and we will do whatever we can to ensure that it is sorted out as fast as possible.

Q6. My right hon. Friend will know that the quarries of the Peak district provide a huge proportion of the national building and mineral needs of this great nation. We would be delighted to see him in the Derbyshire Dales, so that he can see at first hand the men and women who work at the quarry face, who will be at the heart of the post-Brexit economy, and look at the need for my local Ashbourne bypass—this is necessary to deliver Brexit to the people. Does not this support for these hard-working people show who the real Conservatives are and that this party is the party of the working man? (900313)

Order. May I just say that Prime Minister’s questions is going to run on because of this and that we must have short questions? I will work with Members, but Members have to work with the Chair.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend very much for what she has said. I will certainly do whatever I can to see her in the Derbyshire Dales as fast as possible and to get to the bottom of what we can do to support the bypass at Ashbourne. She is right: we speak for working people. I thought it was sad and surprising that the president of the Durham miners’ gala should say the other day that Conservative MPs are not welcome. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will dissociate himself strongly from those remarks.

Q5. This week, the Cater Street surgery in Kempston was placed in special measures. Such is the extent of the GP crisis in our country that the surgery has had to rely on locums and was found to have a three-month backlog of new-patient files. Will the Prime Minister urgently increase the funding for primary care services, for the safety, health and wellbeing of the 4,000 of my constituents who are patients at the surgery? (900312)

The hon. Gentleman raises an excellent point. As he knows, we are hiring not only another 50,000 nurses but 6,000 more GPs to deal with the very problem that he raises.

Q8. Cheltenham’s Renewable Design Company supplies low-carbon heating systems, such as ground-source heat pumps. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a successor to the non-domestic renewable heat incentive so that the roll-out can accelerate and we can send a message, in this year of COP26, that global Britain will be a force for a greener planet? (900315)

Absolutely. I congratulate my hon. Friend on everything he is doing in Cheltenham to encourage renewable heat supplies, including ground-source heating. I can confirm that we are indeed looking for successor arrangements to the renewable heat incentive.

Q7. Brexiteers will be cheered by the fact that a possible trade deal with America might raise GDP by 0.2% and one with New Zealand and Australia might raise it by 0.02%, but they should be sobered by the fact that such trade deals, if achieved, would claw back only one 30th of what the Prime Minister’s own Government say leaving the single market and customs union will cost. Given that Cabinet Ministers are now breezily talking about divergence from our biggest trading partner—the 27-country trading bloc—will the Prime Minister commission and publish impact assessments so that it is clear to all in pharmaceuticals, aerospace, car manufacture, ceramics and food and drink just what these breezy gambling deals might cost? (900314)

I might take the hon. Gentleman more seriously if he would deal with the fact that 60% of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the United Kingdom. His proposals for a break-up of the United Kingdom would necessitate a border at Berwick. He is proposing that the pensioners of Scotland should have their assets now denominated in a new currency whose name the SNP cannot even specify.

Q10. The need to prevent the build-up of green algae in the Solent means that local authorities such as Test Valley Borough Council cannot grant planning permission for children’s homes and care facilities and to small self-builders. There is a blockage in the system; I urge my right hon. Friend to get out his plunger and make sure that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Natural England and the Environment Agency all work together to protect our waterways, to make sure that housing commitments can be met. (900317)

We will make sure that the ministerial Dyno-Rod is employed to sort out the blockage that my right hon. Friend is experiencing. It is important that we deal simultaneously with nitrate neutrality and satisfy our environmental needs while ensuring that her community gets the housing that it needs. I think there is a way forward and I would be happy to take it up with her.

Q9. Rail users in Halifax and across the north are suffering every week because of the Government’s failure truly to invest in rail infrastructure over the past decade. The north now needs both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail to make a real start in tackling the north-south divide. Will the Prime Minister commit to publishing the already late Oakervee report this week, and to delivering both these projects in full, to deliver a rail service that is fit for purpose for my constituents and for the north? (900316)

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. We are already investing a record £48 billion in rail services, excluding HS2. It is right that we should look at the value that this country could get from a scheme as costly as HS2, with estimates now rising to £100 billion. I assure the hon. Lady that the Oakervee report will indeed be published in full in due course.

Q13. Misery is a polite word to explain the daily commuting experience of those using the Calder Valley train line. It is not just about cancelled, late or even broken-down trains; it is about infrastructure. Will my right hon. Friend sit down with me and the trains Minister to see how heads can be knocked together finally to clear the bottleneck in the £3.9 billion trans-Pennine upgrade, which is at a standstill? (900320)

My hon. Friend makes a good point, following on from the question from the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). We are indeed committed to improving the trans-Pennine route and will be investing very considerable sums to ensure that that is done.

Q11. A damning inspection by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission concluded that Wandsworth Council’s special educational needs and disability provision is weak and requires significant improvement. There is a backlog of 170 outstanding education and healthcare plan assessments, and when an assessment has been carried out, as in the case of my young constituent with autism, he is being forced to wait months before that plan is implemented. It is scandalous that these children are not getting a decent education, so does the Prime Minister agree that every child with a special educational need or disability should have the right to a good education, and will he address the funding shortfall in SEND provision? (900318)

I remind the hon. Lady that this Government are putting another £780 million into SEND provision. We are encouraging the creation of more SEND schools across the country. She mentions Ofsted, which is, of course, a paradox, as Ofsted is the best guarantor and protector of children of all abilities, and the manifesto to which the Labour party is still committed proposes to abolish Ofsted.

Q14. My right hon. Friend will know that the Bracknell constituency is the proud home of more than 150 internationally focused companies. Will he please reassure the House that what is being done to develop new post-Brexit worldwide trade deals is for the benefit of everyone in Bracknell, Crowthorne, Finchampstead, Sandhurst and, of course, right across the UK? (900321)

From the 31st of this month, we will begin the process of negotiating free trade agreements not just with the EU, but with friends and partners around the world, so Bracknell will be at the epicentre of global free trade.

Q12. The Prime Minister has said that he wants to be known as a Brexity Hezza, and so, on that basis, will he commit to giving the Humber docklands the sustained support that Michael Heseltine gave to the London docklands to transform it from the 1980s onwards? (900319)

The hon. Lady raises a very important point. That is among the schemes that we are certainly looking at and, as you know, Mr Speaker, we are looking also at the potential for free ports around the country, which can deliver a great deal of benefit to coastal communities.

Solihull is next to Britain’s second biggest city, yet many of my constituents—myself included—struggle to get adequate broadband, which is something that is repeated across the House. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is a matter that needs intense parliamentary scrutiny, and will he commit to put the Government’s shoulders to the wheel to get providers to improve our country’s broadband?

Together with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, I chaired a meeting only a couple of days ago with all the broadband providers. It would be fair to say that we collectively wielded the knout over their heads, because I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to make progress. We will make progress and we will deliver gigabit broadband, with £5 billion going into that programme over the next five years.

Q15. Last week, the Prime Minister did not know anything about a plan to dump radioactive waste in my Stockton North constituency, but I hope that he remembers what I told him a few weeks ago in my request for a new hospital—that men in his constituency live 14 years longer than those in mine. Just when is he going to end the scandal that means that Teesside men have the same life expectancy as those in Ethiopia, and to tackle the health inequalities in our area? (900322)

The hon. Gentleman’s point is absolutely valid. The discrepancy in life expectancy in this country is a disgrace. None the less, it is coming down, and it will come down. Life expectancy overall is at an all-time high. On his specific issue of the disposal of nuclear waste, I understand that my hon. Friend the Environment Minister has written to him on the matter.

You may have noticed, Mr Speaker, that it has been a long time since I was a teenager. [Hon. Members: “Never!] My memory has faded over the years, yet I still remember the embarrassment and shame that I felt each month when I had my period: we could not afford sanitary products, and I was forced to use toilet paper or, when we did not have that, newspaper. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge the work of Amika George, founder of the Free Periods campaign group, which means that no young women of school age in this country should ever have to feel the shame that I felt and remember all those years ago?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaign that she is waging on this issue, and I am delighted to tell her that free period products are to be made available to all schools and colleges in England so we can ensure that no young person’s education is disrupted by their period. I would like to pay particular tribute to the work of Amika George, who has done so much to bring about change. I remind the House that it is when we get Brexit done, which we will—and which the Opposition would still block—that we will be able to cut VAT on sanitary products and make period products cheaper for everybody in the country.

As we approach the moment when we will leave the European Union, the Prime Minister will be aware of concerns in Northern Ireland. We welcome his assurance that there will continue to be unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the UK single market, but does that commitment also apply to goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland?