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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 22 January 2020

Cabinet Office

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

Infrastructure Investment

2. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure value for money in public sector infrastructure investment. (900324)

This Government are working to level up economic and social infrastructure, with an additional £100 billion investment commitment. We will ensure that all citizens across the UK benefit. The Cabinet Office works closely with Her Majesty’s Treasury through the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. This helps to ensure that taxpayers get good value for money. The IPA evaluates and assures major projects from their initial stages through to completion.

May I first congratulate the Minister on his appointment? He should be aware of the detrimental impact on Runnymede and Weybridge from our over- stretched road network, particularly the A320 and M25. What are the Government doing to target investment at the modern infrastructure that all our communities and businesses need?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words and congratulate him on his election to this place. I can reassure him that the Government are committed to investing across our regions and nations, including the south-east. A business case has been submitted for the A320 north corridor; it is at an early stage, and the Department for Transport is working closely with the local authority to develop the scheme. Between 2015 and 2020 the Government will have spent nearly £18 billion on England’s strategic roads. On the M25 this is delivering additional capacity, including through junction enhancements.

I too welcome the Minister to his place. He should be aware that Broadland needs the construction of the western link road, the missing link in Norwich’s answer to the M25. What steps is he taking to ensure that public money is spent efficiently so that all communities represented in this House get the infrastructure they deserve?

I thank my hon. Friend for what I believe is his first question in this place, and for his kind words. This is not just a concern of his Broadland constituents; by the sound of it, it is a concern shared by his constituency neighbour and my neighbour here on the Treasury Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). I understand that a business case for the link has been submitted and that officials from the Department for Transport are engaging with the local authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) is absolutely right that the IPA, through direct support, and independent assurance reviews and leading a network of project delivery professionals, helps drive cost-effectiveness across Government.

One of the biggest projects that the Government have to deliver is the restoration and renewal of this Palace, which is one of the most loved buildings in the world. If we are to do that, we need skills that currently are not available in the workforce. Does the Minister agree that this presents a major opportunity to ensure that in every constituency in the land young people are being trained in those skills so that everybody has an investment in this building?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is a great opportunity to ensure that we upskill our workforce. We are very proud of the fabric of this building, and very proud of what it symbolises for our country, and it will be great if we can make certain that we are engaging people across the United Kingdom in the work that needs to be done.

Yesterday it was established that the majority of supply chain contracts for the offshore wind farm Neart Na Gaoithe are going abroad. When are the UK Government going to incentivise the auction process so that bidders who use local supply companies such as BiFab and CS Wind in Scotland are awarded the contracts, creating further green jobs?

Throughout Government we are determined to ensure that we have the simplest possible process for procurement, and the Government Contracts Finder has made certain that we have more transparent procurement, which helps SMEs, among others. The hon. Gentleman raises a good point, but I will have to look into the specifics.

Civil Service Reform

This new Government are committed to delivering on Brexit and seizing on the exciting opportunities presented by our new manifesto, but in order to do this we need to build on the successful reforms of the civil service since 2010, going further and faster to ensure that it has the new skills, such as in data analytics, better training, greater accountability and the right pay and incentives to transform the United Kingdom.

The Institute for Government estimates that the number of civil servants based in London is growing, with two thirds now working in the capital. How does the Minister reconcile that with the Prime Minister’s statements about moving Whitehall Departments to the north of England and making Government more relevant to people in the north, for example my constituents in West Lancashire?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point about the need to move Government activity out of London. That is why, for example, we have created a default whereby when new agencies are created, they must be located outside London and the south-east. I know that the Prime Minister is determined to go further and faster with that agenda.

I welcome the manifesto commitment to offer guaranteed interviews for veterans—people for whom public service is so hugely important—in the public sector. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will be taking that forward with real energy as they consider wider reform?

As ever, my hon. Friend raises an important point. People who have served in our armed forces can also make an enormous contribution to wider life, including in the civil service. That is why I am determined that we deliver on that manifesto commitment, and I have already instructed officials to make that happen.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This is the first time I have asked a question with you in the Chair, so congratulations.

The Government are right to press forward with looking carefully at how we can modernise the civil service, whose independence and professionalism, as I am sure we all agree, are essential to good governance. On current trends, it looks as though the Government are going to spend £50 million in this Parliament on political appointees. Is that a wise decision? Three of them earn as much as the Prime Minister, more or less, and one of them thinks it is okay to advertise on his blog for “weirdos and misfits” to apply for the civil service. Meanwhile, 40% of professional civil servants in the Department for Exiting the European Union have left in the last year—it is a shambles.

As Minister for the civil service, will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance now that he will protect civil service professional standards, even though that may mean that from time to time he comes into conflict with politically inspired chaos from No.10 Downing Street?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a large number of points. First of all, I can of course reassure him that the independence and integrity of the civil service will be upheld. I notice that he has taken an interest in Dom Cummings’ blog; he is very welcome to register his interest in applying for such a role. However, the point that the hon. Gentleman was making is important: if we are to have a good civil service for the 21st century, it is essential that we harness all the talents of this nation. That includes, for example, people with data analytics skills and a diversity of talent.

I know that my right hon. Friend agrees with me that this is a Government for the entire UK—one of Scotland’s two Governments, in fact. In the spirit of civil service reform, what thought has he given to moving more civil service jobs out of London—to the north-east of Scotland, for example?

As ever, my hon. Friend raises an important point, and I look forward to joining him this Friday in the north-east of Scotland. I am sure that we will discuss exactly those sorts of opportunities. Recently, I saw a large new hub being created in Edinburgh so that we can bring together Government services for Scotland in one place.

Every Government should get the civil service that they deserve, and this oddball bunch of hard Brexiteers are possibly entitled to their army of weirdos and misfits. Given that Dominic Cummings practically runs this Government, let us celebrate this Government of all the wackos!

It is also rumoured that the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is to be made de facto Deputy Prime Minister. How does he fit into this talent pool agenda? Is he entirely sure that he has the approval of Mr Cummings?

I can think of no one whom I would rather work alongside in delivering reform of the civil service than my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who has done so much to reform education and justice. I am sure that he will help do exactly the same in relation to the civil service.

Election Candidates: Protection

Everyone should be able to participate in politics without fear. The increasing level of abuse directed at those in public life is a worrying trend, which stops talented people standing for public service and puts voters off politics. We in Government work across a range of Departments and other bodies to ensure a thorough response to incidents and deliver the best security advice and support. We are also committed to introducing a new electoral offence of intimidating a candidate or campaigner in the run-up to an election.

I thank the Minister for that response, and I welcome her back from maternity leave; it is a pleasure to see her back in her place. Does she agree that at times during the last election the commentary and actions of others were misleading, inaccurate and vicious, and that there should be no place for that in our politics, regardless of political persuasion? What steps does she think we should take to ensure that, as leaders in our communities across parties, we conduct our engagement together in an open, respectful and honest way?

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words and welcome her to her place, along with all new Members. She is absolutely right to set the tone that we should aim to strike in the Chamber and in our work for our constituents. Robust political debate is fundamental, but threats and other forms of abuse are not acceptable. I extend to her the invitation that I have recently circulated to hon. Members, to talk to me about any aspect of the elections that they have recently experienced after this session at 1 o’clock, when I shall be delighted to hear more.

Now that we have a Government elected with a majority, can we please address the situation whereby people can post online abuse without having to have their names and addresses published?

First, I think that companies need to tackle such abusive behaviour and take responsibility for that on their services. That could include taking steps to limit the use or abuse of anonymity. The Government are also taking forward measures to put digital imprints on online political material. That will be a way to help voters to see who is saying what and hold them to account.

According to the international fact-checking agency, First Draft News, almost 90% of ads posted on Facebook by the Minister’s party in the first few days of December were misleading. Does she agree with the Information Commissioner—

Political Advertising

5. What assessment he has made of the level of accuracy of political advertising in the 2019 general election. (900327)

Thank you very much for that helpful clarification, Mr Speaker.

We do not assess or regulate political arguments, which can be rebutted as part of normal debate. In a free democracy it is for voters to decide on the value of those political arguments, but we think that our regulation should empower voters to do so and be modernised. That is why we are taking forward the digital imprints regime, which I just referred to.

Thank you, Mr Speaker—I will go again. According to the international fact-checking agency First Draft News, almost 90% of the ads posted on Facebook by the Tory party in the general election were misleading. Does the Minister agree with the Information Commissioner that the current electoral laws on digital campaigning are not fit for purpose?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his place and back to Question No. 5. I think I dealt with the point about regulation in my response, but I am afraid I have to add that the report that he refers to is entirely discredited. I think he misses the point in another way as well: we trust voters to make their decisions on political arguments, and in the biggest decision of all voters chose the Conservatives to take matters forward.

I am sure that the Minister would agree that the UK should lead with best practice when it comes to political campaigning. If she is confident that the Tory party adverts were beyond reproach during the general election, why will she not ask the Electoral Commission to conduct an independent review of political advertising?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place on the Opposition Front Bench; this is the first time that I have engaged in questions with her. I think that, in her question, she misunderstands the fundamental nature of independence. I am not in a position, and neither is any Minister, to direct the Electoral Commission, and nor should we be. Moreover, she entirely misses the point; the voters took their choice on the validity of the arguments put at the general election, and her side’s were not good enough.

Leaving the EU: Departmental Preparedness

6. What steps he is taking to ensure the preparedness of Government Departments for the UK leaving the EU on 31 January 2020. (900328)

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Speaker.

In 10 days the United Kingdom will once more be an independent nation and ready to assert our international role with renewed confidence. Departments across Government are undertaking all the necessary work to embrace these new opportunities, and we will continue to do so during the implementation period, which ends on 31 December.

One of the most important things we can do as we approach independence day is to have a highly skilled workforce. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, when businesses and organisations bid for Government contracts, apprentices make up a high proportion of their workforce?

My right hon. Friend is right that one of the many benefits of leaving the EU is the chance to overhaul Government procurement to make it more efficient, more responsive and more flexible, and to ensure that British talent takes its place at the forefront of wealth creation, and at the heart of that must be more young British apprentices. This will develop the skills we need to succeed in the 21st century.

14. Those fine words will mean nothing if the contracts do not go to British companies, so will the Government take the opportunity at last to give priority to British firms and get local authorities and other public bodies to do the same? Let’s give business to British firms employing British workers. (900337)

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making the case that was made so eloquently by Vote Leave in 2016. There is more joy in heaven over one Member for Warley who repenteth than over many others who still take a different view. He is absolutely right; one of the many benefits of Brexit is that we can buy British and put British firms, British workers and the whole United Kingdom first.

Office for Veterans’ Affairs

7. What steps the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is taking to (a) support and (b) care for veterans. (900329)

No previous Government have been more committed to our armed forces, as shown by our creation of the new Office for Veterans’ Affairs. The Government are championing veterans and will ensure that the UK is the best place in the world to be a veteran. Today we are publishing our response to the consultation on the strategy for our veterans. This is the first stage of a step change in the nation’s relationship with her military and veterans community.

As a Royal Air Force veteran and president of the Huddersfield branch of the Royal Air Forces Association, I am delighted that the Government are cracking on in delivering the veterans’ railcard, which will leave more money in the pockets of those who have made a unique commitment to our country. Can the Minister confirm details of when the railcard will be available and confirm that discounted rail travel will also be available to veterans’ families?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the support he gives to veterans in the House. The veterans’ railcard will be available by Armistice Day this year, and the support will extend to families so that they can enjoy the advantages of discounted travel as well.

Constituency Boundary Review

8. Whether he has plans to bring forward legislative proposals to implement the recommendations of the 2018 review of parliamentary constituency boundaries. (900330)

As we set out in our manifesto, the Government will ensure that we have updated and equal parliamentary boundaries, making sure that every vote has equal value. We continue to monitor closely the current legal proceedings in relation to the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland’s final report. The final reports of the four boundary commissions and the 2018 boundary review were submitted to the Government and laid before Parliament in September 2018. We will provide further details in due course.

Do the Government intend to legislate for the proposals in the previous review, or will they be conducting a new review with new parameters?

As I said, we will bring forward details in due course, and I can assure the hon. Member that those will follow our manifesto commitment to equal boundaries and equal vote values. I sincerely hope that her party believes in the same thing.

Topical Questions

The year 2020 will be one of growth and opportunity for our entire United Kingdom. The year has started positively with the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland, and I pay particular tribute to all the parties involved. I am delighted to say that the Prime Minister has ruled out a divisive rerun of the Scottish independence referendum and has encouraged our colleagues in the Scottish Government to concentrate on the day job and ensure that they improve health and education for the citizens of Scotland. I am glad that the political division and uncertainty that a referendum would cause have been ruled out, and I look forward to meeting Ministers from the devolved Administrations in Cardiff next week to see how we can work together in the interests of all.

Can the Minister take the necessary steps to confirm Heather Anderson as the new MEP for Scotland following the election of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) to this House, and can he confirm that the UK Government will not allow the voters of Scotland to be under-represented in their European Parliament when it votes on the withdrawal agreement that they have overwhelmingly rejected?

The hon. Lady has made a fair point, and it gives me an opportunity to congratulate the new hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), who served with distinction in the European Parliament. We will, of course, do everything we can to ensure that there is appropriate representation for every part of the United Kingdom for the remaining 10 days of our membership.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend set out for the benefit of the House the work being done across Government and co-ordinated by his Department to ensure that farming communities like mine in North Devon climb, soar and succeed as a result of Brexit? (900340)

It was one of the joys of my previous job as Environment Secretary to visit farmers in North Devon. Theirs is some of the finest produce in the United Kingdom, and as we leave the European Union there will be an opportunity for us, on a global stage, to ensure that that Devonian produce reaches all the customers that it deserves to reach.

What plans have the Government to bring the House of Lords into the 21st century? If, as I suspect, the answer is none, may I remind the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that it was the House of Lancaster that won the Wars of the Roses, and may I suggest, if the Government are looking to relocate their lordships, that we have a fine mediaeval castle in the city of Lancaster which has recently been vacated by the Ministry of Justice?

I yield to no one in my admiration for the Duchy of Lancaster. I recognise that as the Government decide where agencies of both Government and Parliament should go we should think fondly of the north-west as well as Yorkshire and the north-east, but I cannot help saying to the hon. Lady that when she talks about fratricidal conflict in mediaeval times, when people were putting each other to the sword, she reminds me of nothing so much as the deputy leadership contest of the Labour party.

T4. Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker, and may I say how lovely it is to see you in your place?The Government’s aim of creating a level economic playing field between the north and the south is laudable and much needed, but can the Minister assure me that, in the rush to create this much-needed equality, we will not overlook deprived coastal areas in the south, such as some in the Clacton constituency which have been overlooked so often in the past? (900341)

The reason that, in just 10 days’ time, we on this side of the House are getting Brexit done is so that we can drive growth across our United Kingdom. From Clacton to Caithness, from Holyhead to Hull, we will be investing millions of pounds in communities, not least £2.5 million in the coastal community of Clackers.

T2. I wonder whether the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster shares my concern about the lack of transparency in campaigns, and about rumours of wrongdoing in previous campaigns. Will he be responding to the recommendations of our all-party parliamentary group on electoral campaigning transparency, which include regulating the ability of campaigns to target voters on the basis of personal data, and streamlining national versus local spending with a per-seat cap on total spending? (900339)

T5. As office costs are substantially cheaper in Stoke-on-Trent than in London, and it is only an hour and a half away on the train, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be the perfect place for the relocation of civil servants? (900342)

First, let me thank my hon. Friend for being such a passionate and effective advocate for the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Let me also welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), who have joined him on these Benches.

The Government have made it clear that the civil service needs to be less London-centric if it is to attract the best talent and do the best possible job. The Cabinet Office has established the Places for Growth programme to drive the necessary planning and preparation in Departments for the relocation of roles, including senior grades, out of London and into the regions in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker, and congratulations again.

More than 1,000 voters have lost the chance to have their say in local elections because of the identification requirements that have been highlighted over the past two years. That figure is 30 times higher than the total number of allegations made about polling station fraud in the whole of England in 2018 and 2019. Does the Minister agree with Professor Toby James from the University of East Anglia that there is no evidence to justify the introduction of voter ID requirements? I say that because the hon. Lady said earlier that we must trust voters when they make their decisions.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her seat. On this question, the evidence is on our side, the experience is on our side from pilots and Northern Ireland and, what is more, the British people are on our side as this was a core part of our manifesto. The Labour party needs to ask why it is not on the right side of this question.

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.

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 isdisrupted 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?