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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 673: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2020

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Women In Public Office

1. What steps she is taking to encourage women to enter (a) politics, (b) the judiciary and (c) other public office. (901466)

This House now has 220 women MPs, which is a record. I believe that it is through transparency and meritocracy that we bring more great people into the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend on being one of the first three Welsh female Conservative MPs.

Eighty-one per cent. of Wrexham county councillors are male. I am the first female Conservative MP for Wales and one could ask why it has taken so long, although that is for a different debate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that organisations such as Women2Win Wales and the Women’s Equality Network of Cardiff are vital and essential when trying to equalise the gender balance in higher public office?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Anybody who has met Baroness Jenkin will know that she is a force of nature to be reckoned with. She does not just ask women to stand; she tells them to stand—and she has made it happen.

The Centenary Action Group reports that only some of the diversity data on candidates seeking parliamentary nomination is collected and published; that is because it is currently voluntary. I hope that the Minister agrees that that is simply not good enough, so today will she either commit to enacting section 106 of the 10-year-old Equality Act or at least explain why she refuses to do so?

I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that more transparency is always helpful in highlighting where we need better opportunities for people to get into public life and politics, but we have to recognise that it is partly down to political parties to show that leadership and make that happen within their own organisations.

Period Poverty

Last year, NHS England announced that it would offer period products to every hospital patient who needs them, and the Home Office announced plans to change the law to provide period products to those in police custody. In January this year, the Department for Education launched a scheme to provide access to free products in state-funded schools across England.

That is welcome progress, although I would suggest that domestically there is still some work to do.

ActionAid tells us that one in 10 girls in Africa misses school because they do not have access to sanitary products or even private toilets. The Government have a target of eradicating period poverty in developing countries by 2030 and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) has introduced a Bill to improve transparency on that. Will the Minister meet me and my hon. Friend to discuss our Bill?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I am sure that we welcome the Bill. In 2019, the Department for International Development announced a global campaign of action on this very issue—to end period poverty globally by 2030. The global campaign was kick-started with an allocation of up to £2 million for the small and medium-sized charities working on period poverty in DFID’s priority countries.

A recent report by Women’s Aid shows that almost half of domestic abuse survivors living in refuges do not have enough money to pay for essentials. Schools, prisons and hospitals now provide free sanitary products for women and girls, so when can we expect victims of domestic abuse living in refuges, and their daughters, to be extended the same courtesy?

The hon. Lady makes an absolutely essential point. The tampon tax fund has dealt with a number of these points; it was established in 2015 to allocate funds generated from VAT on period products to protect vulnerable women and girls on this very issue.

Affordable Childcare

3. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps the Government is taking to increase the availability of affordable childcare. (901468)

5. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps the Government is taking to increase the availability of affordable childcare. (901470)

13. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on steps the Government is taking to increase the availability of affordable childcare. (901478)

Over 1 million children are benefiting from the Government’s investment in early years entitlements, which can save their parents up to £5,000 every year. In the next financial year, we plan to spend £3.6 billion on this. Furthermore, our manifesto commits to another £1 billion for more wraparound and holiday childcare places from 2021. We have already started working on the details.

Further to my hon. Friend’s answer, what is being done to increase the availability of affordable childcare for parents with disabled children who may require more specialist provision?

Disabled children get an extra 15 hours of early years education from the age of two, and their parents can also receive extra support through tax-free childcare of up to £4,000 per child per year until the child is 17. The disability access fund also gives providers £615 per eligible child to support access to those early years settings.

I welcome the fact that, in their manifesto, this Conservative Government announced £1 billion for the flexible childcare fund, but, in light of the recent outbreak of coronavirus in Staffordshire, may I ask what extra provision the Government are providing for wraparound childcare while this epidemic continues?

Coronavirus is the top priority, and we must follow medical and scientific advice. Public Health England continues to advise schools and settings, and that includes early years settings, to remain open unless otherwise advised. We are aware of concerns from early years providers about potential closures and are working to minimise the impact. This is a top priority. In the meantime, there is a dedicated helpline for schools and their parents. Mr Speaker, the helpline number for schools and parents is 0800 0468687.

On a recent visit to the Overton Playcentre in my constituency of Clwyd South, the manager, Rachel Harris, described the childcare offer that they deliver to parents as “life-changing”. Does the Minister agree that the seamless transition that is offered by the Overton Playcentre between its childcare and the education at the nearby St Mary’s Church in Wales Primary School, with which they work very closely, offers an effective model for maximising the availability of affordable childcare?

May I pass on my congratulations to the Overton Playcentre? It is absolutely great when we see a pre-school and early years establishment work together with schools in the best interests of children. It really does make a difference. Last year, nearly three out of every four children were reaching a good level of development by the time they ended reception, and that is up from just one in two back in 2013. That is partly due to excellent playgroups and schools working together such as those in Clwyd South.

The SNP is transforming childcare and the lives of parents in Scotland with our commitment to the most generous offer in the UK. Currently, 600 hours are provided per year to all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds. We are increasing that to 1,140 hours from August this year. Why have the UK Government not yet matched that offer?

This UK Government are the most generous provider of childcare. Early entitlements for children in England is up £3.6 billion this year for 30 hours of childcare for three and four-year-olds plus an extra 15 hours for disadvantaged two-year-olds. It saves up to £5,000 per child per year. Furthermore, tax-free childcare gives every parent a maximum of another £2,000 per annum for every child, which goes up to £4,000 for children with disabilities.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about the helpline for early years providers worried about the corona- virus, but she will know that Lou Simmons, the owner of Abbottswood Day Nursery in my constituency, contacted me because the helpline was unable to give the answers that providers need. What assurance can my hon. Friend the Minister give that that helpline is now up to speed and that early years providers are getting the right information in a timely fashion?

I am aware of early years providers’ concerns about the potential impact of coronavirus. Early years providers give vital support to families and children, and it is important that they follow the advice to stay open. It is a top priority for me to give them the reassurance they need, and I will make that announcement as soon as possible.

My constituent is studying to be a teacher, but has had to pull back from her course because of the way in which universal credit interacts with student finance. Will the Minister look at this issue urgently to ensure that women are not discouraged from bettering themselves and their own lives because of the way in which the universal credit system works?

The universal credit system can give up to 85% of childcare costs, and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), is happy to meet the hon. Member to follow up on that point.

Flexible Working

The Government are clear about the benefits of flexible working for employers and employees. Last year, we consulted on proposals to require large employers to publish flexible working policies and to advertise jobs as suitable for flexible working, and we will respond to that consultation in due course. Since then, we have committed in our manifesto to make flexible working the default. Subject to consultation, we will bring forward these new measures in our employment Bill.

The majority of unpaid carers in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke are women caring for young children or elderly relatives. Does my hon. Friend agree that increasing opportunities to work flexibly will benefit women by sharing caring duties more equally, and will ultimately lead to more equality for women in work and more opportunities for women to get into work?

My hon. Friend is working on a modern “silicon Stoke”, and to get that he needs modern working practices. Flexible working helps people with a range of needs to remain in and to access work, including mothers, carers and parents. We want to give everybody a choice to determine how best they can balance their home and work life, including fathers. Flexible working can give them that choice, which is why we are keen to do more.

Women’s Life Expectancy: Disadvantaged Areas

6. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on improving life expectancy among women living in disadvantaged areas. (901471)

Life expectancy at birth in England is the highest that it has ever been. Every single person deserves to lead a long, healthy life, no matter who they are or where they live. This Government have been clear that we will address the needs of all those who have been left behind.

Well, that is not true for women in the poorest communities in our country, is it? The Marmot review shows that life expectancy has fallen for women in the poorest communities. Frankly, that is what happens after 10 years of public service cuts and falling living standards. When are the Government going to take responsibility for the misery they have inflicted on the poorest women in the country?

I thank the hon. Member for explaining women’s health inequalities to me, but I fully support the Government’s commitment to delivering £33.9 billion of investment in the NHS—the largest cash boost in its history—which will make reducing health inequalities for all possible.

Will the Minister explain what action is being taken to support women—especially black and minority ethnic women, and single mothers—who have faced not only disproportionately more poverty under years of austerity, but also the greatest barriers to work? How are Ministers breaking down barriers to lift those women out of the poverty that this Government have put them in?

The hon. Member specifically asks about women from the poorest backgrounds, and black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), for the work she is doing in this regard. Through the long-term plan, the NHS will accelerate action to achieve 50% reductions in stillbirths, maternal mortality, neonatal mortality and serious brain injury by 2025, which specifically affect those women the most.

Office for Disability Issues

7. For what reason responsibility for the Office for Disability Issues transferred from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Equalities Hub in the Cabinet Office. (901472)

The Office for Disability Issues transferred to the Cabinet Office from the Department for Work and Pensions in November 2019. It joined the race disparity unit and the Government Equalities Office to be part of the new Equalities Hub in the Cabinet Office. The new cross-departmental disability unit will work closely with disabled people, and disabled people’s organisations and charities, to rightly bring disabled voices into the heart of Government.

Ministers will be aware that the DWP is currently preparing a cross-government national disability strategy. At the same time, the DWP has lost the cross-government Office for Disability Issues, as it has been subsumed into the Cabinet Office’s Equalities Hub. Do the Government believe that this will enhance or detract from the eventual national disability strategy? It must surely be to its detriment.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue and highlighting that it is part of the Cabinet Office’s Equalities Hub. In the meantime, the Department for Work and Pensions is bringing forward a Green Paper in the coming months to see how the welfare system can work with our claimants and people with health conditions. We have already done roundtables and workshops on this. This is a priority for this Government and my Department. Whether it sits in the Cabinet Office or not, it remains a priority that we will work together on.

Women Living in Poverty

Work offers the best opportunity to move out of poverty, irrespective of gender. We are proud that the female employment rate under this Government is at a record high of 72.4%, with nearly 2 million more women in work than back in 2010. Wages have outpaced inflation for 23 consecutive months. Shortly, from April, the national living wage will increase again, also benefiting women the most.

But a recent report by Welsh charity Chwarae Teg highlights the fact that 38% of women in Wales on universal credit are in work compared with 29% of men. What is the Minister doing to ensure that there is strong action in the Budget to tackle women’s in-work poverty?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. Wales and opportunities for women is an issue close to my heart—she will know that. I had my best opportunities working in Wales, and I want that to extend to everyone. Universal credit will offer 85% of childcare costs. The flexible support fund also helps women into work. I would urge all women to take the opportunity to go into their jobcentre and ask about the mix of benefits and support they can get. But one particular issue always holds women back, and that is confidence. Women should feel confident that they can go for it under this Government and under universal credit.

I speak to many mothers in Dudley South who say that they want to return to work but the level of childcare costs means that it is not financially worthwhile. What action are the Government taking to help parents to return to work?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Under this Government, ensuring opportunities for women’s progression is an absolute priority for me, the Secretary of State and the Department for Work and Pensions. The fact that women get more childcare costs under universal credit is really important. Under the legacy system the figure was 70%, and under universal credit it is 85%. People should not forget the flexible support fund, which means that they can return to work at any time. If they talk to their jobcentre, it can help them with that.

Ensuring opportunities for women’s progression absolutely is a priority, as I have already said at the Dispatch Box this morning. We need to see what the barriers are. Sometimes confidence about returning opportunities is minimal. We are using our fuller working lives policy and strategy. Tomorrow I will be in Newcastle talking to women returners to see what is holding them back. It is about time that women got the progression and the pay rises they deserve.

Topical Questions

Over the past week, we have been holding a number of brilliant International Women’s Day celebrations, including a lively debate here in the House, the launch of The House magazine’s list of the 100 most influential women in Westminster, and last night a fantastic event at the US embassy celebrating brilliant transatlantic women. I was hugely inspired by the year 9 girls looking at careers in science with the Prime Minister last week at No. 10. We have a brilliant generation of young women coming through.

I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work she is doing to improve opportunities for women in this country and across the world. However, what steps are the Government taking to support and encourage disabled candidates seeking office in the forthcoming local and police and crime commissioner elections?

We want to encourage more people with disabilities to come forward. They often face extra challenges and costs. That is why we have extended the EnAble fund, to support disabled candidates in local elections and police and crime commissioner elections.

Can the Minister confirm that the disproportionate impact on women was specifically considered at the recent Cobra meeting dealing with the effects of coronavirus? Our country’s social infrastructure has been weakened by this Government’s cuts—86% of the cuts have fallen on women. The gig economy and zero-hours contracts have affected women more than any other group, hence the rise of in-work poverty. Caring responsibilities and volunteer work in our country are built on an army of women and grand- parents—the system is dependent on unpaid work by older women. What provisions have the Government made to address the adverse impact on women?

We have shown that we have delivered for women. We have a record number of women in work. We have more girls than ever studying science, technology, engineering and maths, with a 30% increase at A-level and an increase in the number of women studying STEM degrees. I suggest to the hon. Lady that her party should show a bit of leadership by enacting a female Labour leader.

T2. On Sunday, I played netball for the first time since university at Clanfield sports and community centre with mothers and children. What is my hon. Friend doing to encourage more women and girls into sport? (901482)

We want to get more women and girls embracing sport and physical activity. Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign has already inspired 3.9 million women to get active. Sport England is encouraging more women to work in sport, including coaching and volunteering. We are hosting the Euro women’s football championship next year and the Commonwealth games in 2022, which will no doubt encourage even more women and girls to take up sport.

T6. TUC analysis shows that 70% of the 1.8 million workers who do not earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay are women. Over a third are in insecure work or on zero-hours contracts, including many in my constituency. Will the Government agree to the TUC’s calls for the threshold to be removed as part of the emergency powers being brought forward? (901487)

My Department is looking at everything to support people to stay in work. Our welfare system treats people as individuals and all genders equally. However, the upcoming legislation on this issue will be suitable for looking at everyone. For those on universal credit, that will be the right way to adjust for the money that they need. If people need any further help or support, they should contact their jobcentre. If they are unable to attend due to self-isolation, they should let their work coach know. We are prepared to support everyone through every eventuality, while protecting public health.

T3. If schools and nurseries in Hyndburn are forced to close because of coronavirus, the burden of care will inevitably fall on women. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that they will be supported, especially if they end up losing money due to caring responsibilities? (901483)

Schools and nurseries need to take the latest scientific advice, which at the moment is to stay open. Employees are entitled to take time off work to help someone who depends on them in an emergency, and that would apply to situations to do with coronavirus—for example, if they have to look after their children because the school is closed. There is no statutory right to pay for that time off, but some enlightened employers will pay.

T4. Has there been any discussion with the Department for International Trade regarding the fair payment of women farmers in any trade deals post Brexit as a foundational principle? (901485)

We are determined to ensure that we protect our fantastic food safety standards in any trade deal that we do. The hon. Gentleman will welcome, as I do, the fact that the US has lifted its ban on British beef, benefiting British beef farmers—particularly the Ladies in Beef group, which represents women beef farmers.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend think that those from the left constantly attacking our fantastic first female Prime Minister, saying female Ministers should be lynched or constantly attacking our superb female Home Secretary help to encourage women into politics? (901486)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There was a despicable cartoon about the Home Secretary in the weekend’s Guardian. She is doing a brilliant job—fighting crime, getting our new immigration system in place—and it is the hypocrisy of those on the left that, when it is not a woman they agree with, they do everything they can to undermine her.

A consultation on accessible housing was announced in June 2019 by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but has not happened. Can the Minister say when the consultation will take place, and will he meet me and representatives of wheelchair users to discuss it?

We have been working across Government on accessible housing provision, and will consult in a matter of weeks on options to raise the accessibility standards in new homes. The consultation will consider making high accessibility standards mandatory, recognising the importance of suitable homes for old and disabled people. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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

We need to build more homes on brownfield sites, but we also need to make sure that the houses we have are of a decent standard. In estates across my Birmingham constituency—the Three Estates in Kings Norton, Weoley Castle and Frankley—we need investment to make sure that those estates have decent homes. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that improving homes will help level up our economy and deliver for working-class communities like mine?

My hon. Friend is spot-on, and he will be hearing more about that in just half an hour’s time. He is quite right that we should be building on brownfield sites, and building the beautiful homes that people actually want.

Our thoughts are with the loved ones of those who have sadly died after contracting the coronavirus, and those who are still suffering from the disease, including the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries). I want once again to pay tribute to our medical staff, who are working so hard to combat the spread of this disease and care for those affected. I think we should all express our gratitude to the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, who have shown exceptional leadership throughout, and we will continue to follow their advice.

Sunday was International Women’s Day—a day when we celebrate the achievements of women around the world, recognise the advances made in working towards a goal of gender equality and, most importantly, reflect on how far we have to go to achieve that. A quarter of social care workers, who are overwhelmingly women, are on zero-hours contracts. It is essential that care workers self-isolate if they experience symptoms of coronavirus, but many may feel they have no choice but to continue working. Will the Prime Minister finally bring in emergency legislation to guarantee sick pay for zero-hours workers to help contain the spread of the virus?

I know the whole House will wish to join the right hon. Gentleman in wishing my hon. Friend the Mental Health Minister a speedy recovery; having talked to her, I know that she will make one. I know, Mr Speaker, that you have issued a letter to everybody across the parliamentary estate, and as you say in your letter, we will be

“guided by Public Health England…in our response to this situation”.

It is also providing guidance to hon. Members and to their offices.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, in just a few minutes we will be hearing from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about what measures we are taking to protect everybody. As he knows, we have already brought forward statutory sick pay from day 4 to day 1, but for those who are on all types of contracts, we will ensure that they get the protection that they need and nobody who does the right thing by staying at home is penalised.

I hope that legislation comes rapidly, and that it does guarantee that people do not have to make a choice between spreading the virus because they have to go to work, and staying at home and self-isolating, as obviously they should do if they have the symptoms.

Can the Prime Minister explain why, according to a report by the Institute of Health Equity, life expectancy has gone down for the poorest women in our society?

Overall life expectancy stands at its highest level—the highest level ever—which is a tribute to the consistent work of this Government and others, but it is absolutely true that there are too many instances in too many parts of the country where we are seeing life expectancy not rise in the way that we would like. It is true that there are parts of this country where, for instance, only one in 50 pregnant women are smokers, and parts of the country where one in four pregnant women are smokers. What we want to see is a uniting and a levelling up across this whole country. That is why we are putting record sums—£12 billion—into public health, and that is why this is the Government and this is the party of the NHS, who are now putting record investment into our NHS, precisely for that purpose.

I don’t think the Prime Minister answered my question. It is no surprise that life expectancy has gone down, when 86% of the cuts made by successive Tory Governments have landed disproportionately on the shoulders of women. We are one of the richest countries in the world, and it is mind-boggling that life expectancy should be falling in this country. [Hon. Members: “It’s not!] For the poorest people in our society, life expectancy is falling, and the Government should have an answer to that.

The Prime Minister supports the absolutely horrendous rape clause in the child tax credit rules. Why does he think it right that 200 mothers have to prove to the Government that their child was conceived as a result of being raped, so that they can keep their child tax credits?

I want to correct a point that the right hon. Gentleman made earlier: as has been revealed in the last few days, mortality is at its lowest level in this country since 2001. [Interruption.] Since 2001. On his point about the recipients of benefits, he draws attention to an injustice, and we will do everything we can to rectify it.

Well, I would hope that means that the Prime Minister is going to introduce regulations to end the two-child policy in the benefits strategy, because that is exactly what happens—women who are victims of rape have to prove they have been raped in order to get benefits for their child.

Fifty years ago, the Labour Minister Barbara Castle introduced the Equal Pay Act, yet women are still paid 17% less than men. Under this Government, it is estimated that the gender pay gap will take another 60 years to close. Why has the Prime Minister not followed Labour’s lead and set a target for closing that gap by 2030?

Not only are there now record numbers of women in employment in this country, but the gender pay gap is at a record low. It was this Conservative Government who made sure that companies have to report on the gender pay gap.

There is a still a 17% gap. It is too big, too wide, and should be closed, and the Government should do something about it.

Every fortnight, three women are killed by their partner or ex-partner, and domestic violence is likely only to increase if large numbers of people have to self-isolate. Ten years of austerity has denied councils the funding they need to support victims of domestic abuse. Will the Prime Minister commit to the extra £173 million that is needed every year to ensure that survivors get the support they so desperately need?

We have just put record funding back into councils to support them in all their responsibilities. The right hon. Gentleman talks about domestic abuse, and we are committed to bringing forward a victims’ law, to guarantee the rights of victims. The Government have an outstanding record in tackling violence against women and girls, and that is why we are taking forward in this Parliament our landmark Domestic Abuse Bill.

Without funding, the Domestic Abuse Bill will simply be a piece of paper. There has to be funding to ensure that those who are victims of domestic violence get the support they need in the centres they need, which are underfunded by this Government.

The Prime Minister has made repeated offensive remarks against single mothers and their children. [Interruption.] Yes; he described them as

“ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate.”

He made remarks against Muslim women, saying that they look like “bank robbers”, and against working women, by suggesting that the best way of dealing with advice from a female colleague is to “just pat her on the bottom and send her on her way.” Words have consequences, and the Prime Minister’s offensive words are backed up with offensive and discriminatory policies, from the rape clause to dismantling local services on which women— particularly black, Asian and minority ethnic women, or disabled women—disproportionately rely. Will the Prime Minister apologise for his offensive comments, and ensure that those discriminatory policies are reversed by his Government?

I am proud of what the Government have done to promote the rights of women. I am proud that we have a record number of female MPs in our party today. I am proud that this is the only party that has produced not one, but two female Prime Ministers. Wouldn’t it be an extraordinary and amazing thing if the Labour party were to produce a female leader of its own? Don’t hold your breath, Mr Speaker. I will take no lessons on sexism from a party where good female MPs are bullied out of their party just because they have the guts to stand up against the climate of antisemitism in the Labour party.

Q2. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is, I know, a great champion of the countryside and farming, and its great benefits, from producing high animal welfare food to the amount of carbon that is held in the soil through permanent pasture. In our Conservative manifesto, we stated, on page 57:“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”Will the Prime Minister meet me and other colleagues with rural farming constituencies to discuss how to support farmers and growers in trade deals, to provide them with more opportunities to produce even more food under high animal and environmental welfare? (901452)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will not compromise on animal welfare. We will not compromise on food standards and hygiene. I am only too happy to meet him and his fellow farmers to discuss the opportunities ahead.

As the numbers infected by coronavirus grow, the level of public concern naturally grows with it. Last week, the Prime Minister gave me a firm reassurance that no one would be financially penalised for following health advice, yet still millions of self-employed workers have been left in deep uncertainty as to what financial help they will be given if they are forced to stop working. In this House, we are in a privileged position. We will not be financially worse off. Millions of workers are not in that privileged position. They may be forced to rely on social security for an extended period because of this virus. For the record, can the Prime Minister tell me what the statutory sick rate of Ireland is compared to his UK Government?

It is not my duty to comment on the pay rates of other countries. What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, which he knows very well, is that the Government have already advanced statutory sick pay from day 4 to day 1. We will make sure that those on universal credit and other benefits get the help they need from day 1. If the right hon. Gentleman can contain his impatience for just a little bit, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be telling him more about what we will be doing to protect everyone in society to make sure that nobody is penalised for doing the right thing.

Let me try to help the Prime Minister and perhaps inform him of the detail. In Ireland, in response to the coronavirus, the Government have just raised their statutory sick rate to the equivalent of £266 per week. That covers those employed and those in self-employment. In Germany and Austria, it is £287. In Sweden it is £230. In the Netherlands, it is £201. In Spain, it is £121. In the UK, Prime Minister, it is a meagre £94.25 per week.

Prime Minister, up to 80% of people across the United Kingdom could face infection in the weeks and months ahead. Many of them will be forced to rely on statutory sick pay. If the Prime Minister is truly committed to levelling up, a good place to start must be statutory sick pay. Will he take the opportunity to stand up today and commit to raising the UK payment to the average EU level?

As I think most Members of the House understand, the UK is distinct from many other countries around the world, certainly in the EU, because we have a universal free health system, free at the point of delivery. We have an extensive benefits system, free for people across this country, and indeed, our health system is very well managed and very well prepared for this epidemic. I congratulate everybody in the NHS responsible on making the preparations that they have.

Q6. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Burnley hospital to see a demonstration of an advanced surgical robot, which represents a leap forward in the health provision in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister agree that technological advances in the NHS are paramount to providing the best level of patient care, and will he work with me to keep Burnley at the cutting edge of that health revolution? (901456)

Yes, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and I are determined to advance robot technology—artificial intelligence—in the NHS. We have put in another £200 million. In my hon. Friend’s area, the NHS East Lancashire is receiving over £500 million more—a cash increase of nearly 5% on last year.

Q3. A month ago, I asked the Prime Minister about his plans to tackle the crisis in recruiting overseas consultants to work in our overstretched NHS. The Prime Minister dodges the truth, claiming it is devolved, when visas are clearly an immigration issue for his UK Home Office. So, second time lucky: can the Prime Minister today confirm exactly what steps he is taking to ensure that overseas consultants will apply for NHS visas to work in all our hospitals? (901453)

I cannot remember whether I said this to the hon. Member last time, but that is why we have introduced a fast-track NHS visa.

War Widows

Q7. If he will make it his policy to introduce an ex gratia scheme to compensate war widows who had their war widow’s pension withdrawn on cohabitation or remarriage. (901457)

My right hon. Friend has made this point to me in person. I have heard from the war widows themselves about their own concerns. The Ministry of Defence is looking at what can be done to provide meaningful support to those who have lost their loved ones.

Given that the previous Defence Secretary sought and was refused permission from the Treasury to help the estimated 265 war widows whose pensions were cancelled when they remarried, and can be permanently restored only by their going through a divorce and remarriage to their second husbands, will the Prime Minister personally meet Moira Kane and Mary Moreland of the War Widows’ Association finally to put an end to this deplorable and dishonourable situation?

The Ministry of Defence is looking at this very problem, and I am conscious of the issue that my right hon. Friend raises—it has been raised with me. I have asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to meet the chairman of the War Widows’ Association to discuss further what we can do.

Engagements

Q4. Last week, Emmy award-winning actor and musician Riz Ahmed released a hard-hitting new album and a short film, “The Long Goodbye”, which powerfully expresses the heartbreak of many British minorities who feel unwanted in Britain, where hate crime is rising and hate speech infects public life. These are also the concerns of Muslims in my constituency. I urge Members of the House to listen to it and watch it. Will the Prime Minister, for once without hiding behind the robes of his Muslim ancestors—yes, we all know he had them—or clinging to the fig leaf that his ex-Chancellor’s presence in the Cabinet provided him, or resorting to the potentially divisive, tit-for-tat deflection of the very serious issue of antisemitism, and given the 300 complaints of Islamophobia in his party, simply tell me what he is doing to assure Britain’s Muslims that their Prime Minister is not an Islamophobe and takes their concerns seriously? (901454)

I can reassure the hon. Member that there is absolutely no room for hatred or racism in this party—in our Conservative party—and I wish I could say the same of her own party.

Q12. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the news that he and Carrie are expecting their first child. All parents want the best start in life for their children. With the UK lagging behind the rest of the world in the number of diseases that we genetically test for—we test for only nine genetic conditions in this country—does he agree with and will he support my campaign calling for a review of the new-born baby screening programme? (901462)

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. I am glad that, starting this year, screening for babies with severe combined immunodeficiency will be evaluated for inclusion in the screening programme, but my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary says he is more than willing to meet her to discuss further how screening could be improved.

Further to the questions posed by my right hon. Friend the leader of the SNP, irrespective of what other countries are doing, policy in this country is the Prime Minister’s responsibility, so what will he do to help the self-employed during this coronavirus crisis?

What we are going to do, obviously, is ensure that nobody is penalised for doing the right thing and that everybody has access to the benefits and support they need. If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will set out more in just a minute.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the mighty Loughborough swim team on their five gold medal haul at the McCullagh international open league last month? The swimmers involved were: Luke Greenbank, James Wilby, Abbie Wood, Max Litchfield and Molly Renshaw. Surely, this is the very epicentre of sporting excellence.

Having worked with Loughborough University on the Olympics at the fantastic site in east London, I know its formidable global reputation, and I have no hesitation in congratulating Loughborough swimming team on my hon. Friend’s behalf.

Q8. Can the Prime Minister explain why he is so singularly unpopular in Scotland? He has lost half his Scottish MPs and support for independence is at an all-time high. Is it because he thinks he can say no to a nation, or is it because the blustering buffoonery just jars with the Scottish people? (901458)

I notice that support for breaking up the Union is actually declining in Scotland. Maybe that is because they have a Scottish nationalist party in charge that has the highest taxes anywhere in the United Kingdom, is failing Scottish children in their schools and is not running the Scottish health service in the way it should. Maybe the hon. Member’s bluff and bluster is covering up for the abject failures of the Scottish nationalist Government. Maybe the Scottish nationalists should stick to the day job.

As this is the country that brought railways to the world, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to celebrate their 200th anniversary in 2025? Does he stand with the people of Darlington to prevent the removal of Locomotion No. 1, the world’s first passenger steam engine, from Darlington, where she has resided for over 160 years?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the people of Darlington on the historic role they played in our railway history and heritage, and I will do what they can to support his campaign to prevent Darlington from being despoiled of the iconic Locomotion No. 1.

Q9. The week before Christmas, Luton food bank issued 339 food parcels, of which 124 were specifically for children. The level of child poverty in Luton has risen to a shameful 46%. While Luton’s unemployment rate may be going down, more people are in low-paid, insecure jobs. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is wholly unacceptable that families are in work but children are growing up in poverty? Will he commit to ending poverty pay? (901459)

Not only are we cutting national insurance contributions for everybody, whatever their pay; we are also lifting up the national living wage by the biggest ever increase, which will benefit people across the country to the tune of £4,000 a year. This is a one nation Government looking first at the needs of the poorest families in this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Gary Sambrook) makes the case for Birmingham, but in the west midlands, more than 31,000 new homes have been built since Andy Street became our Mayor—smashing his own target of 25,000 new homes. The vast majority have been built on derelict brownfield sites. Will the Prime Minister support me to ensure that we keep the focus on the regeneration and remediation of brownfield sites?

Yes. I congratulate Andy Street on what he is doing, and on his fantastic record on homes. It is always the Conservatives who build the homes. This House will hear more in just a few minutes about what we intend to do to give everybody, and every young person, in this country the chance to own their own home.

Q10. In this financial year, the Government have redistributed funding meant for veterans’ charities. That has resulted in severely reduced services from Combat Stress, a renowned mental health charity serving veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It has also meant a reduction from 24 to 10 beds in our residential unit in my constituency, and the loss of 50 jobs. Will the Prime Minister show his support for veterans’ mental health today by initiating an urgent review of that redistribution of this critical funding, so that we can stop life-changing and often life-saving services being lost? (901460)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of veterans and their needs, and that is why this Government appointed a Minister for Defence People and Veterans, and a veterans taskforce—a special unit in the Cabinet Office. He will hear a little more in just a few minutes about what further steps we intend to take to protect and promote the rights of veterans.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Budget is a historic moment for levelling up our economy and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to succeed, especially in Stoke-on-Trent?

Stoke-on-Trent is the crucible in which the future of this country will be forged, as it has been in the past. It could not have a more doughty or valiant advocate. I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend said.

Q11. It is vital that the funds announced this morning are distributed effectively to the businesses and self-employed people affected by coronavirus, but the banks must fulfil their responsibilities as well. Businesses are telling me that some banks are shoring up their balance sheets at the expense of business customers and their workforce. Will the Prime Minister make sure that banks that were bailed out by the taxpayer now play their part in supporting businesses and their workers in their hour of need? (901461)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He will have seen what the Governor of the Bank of England has done today to the cost of borrowing overall. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be meeting the banks continually to ensure that they look after the interests of all our people.

Rural areas such as my constituency are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to broadband connectivity and mobile phone signal. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this Government’s £1 billion deal with mobile phone providers will boost 4G right across the country, and especially in mid-Wales?

Q13. This morning, a range of expert mental health organisations, including the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness have called for an urgent inquiry into avoidable deaths linked to failures in the UK social security system. A family in my constituency lost their father and husband to suicide in similar circumstances, and they, like too many others, want answers. When will the Prime Minister instruct such an inquiry to listen to those families, and the experts? (901463)

There are indeed some very hard cases, and some very tragic outcomes. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is looking at that, and is very happy to work with the hon. Gentleman to make sure that in such tragic cases, the family’s needs are met.

According to The Economist, over the past five years, salaries in Dudley have risen faster than anywhere else in the country. As part of his levelling up agenda, will the Prime Minister work with Andy Street to ensure that the west midlands continues to get the investment in skills and infrastructure that it needs to power the midlands engine?

I do not think that I can be accused of anticipating the Budget excessively when I say that there is about to be an infrastructure revolution in this country, which will benefit, among other places, the west midlands, and Dudley in particular.

Q14. As the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) said, statutory sick pay in the UK is among the lowest in Europe. It is less than £95 a week. If the Prime Minister does not think he can live on that, he should not expect our constituents to live on it either, so I urge him to act before it is too late and introduce decent sick pay for every worker in Britain. (901464)

I answered the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) earlier. We will do everything we can to ensure that people get protected throughout this outbreak and nobody is penalised for doing the right thing.

Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that the great south-west has a fantastic opportunity to become the first region to become not just net zero but net negative? Will he assure me that that will be a top priority in the levelling-up agenda?

There are already more than 400,000 jobs in the low-carbon economy in this country, and the great south-west is going to play a leading role in the green revolution of the future.

Q15. The Shetland Space Centre, a limited company in my constituency, is working in partnership with Lockheed Martin to build a sustainable space economy in Shetland. Will the Prime Minister give me some assurance that the very welcome Government support for the space industry will be allowed to follow the best commercial and technical options, and confirm that those in companies such as Lockheed Martin are the people best placed to make such judgments? (901465)

We will of course be guided by the best scientific judgments in all these matters. I can certainly confirm that it is our firm determination to have a second spaceport in Scotland, and we are looking for candidates to send into orbit.

Today is the 15th annual day in memory of victims of terrorism throughout Europe. Next week, in my constituency of Warrington South we will commemorate the 27th anniversary of the IRA terrorist attack in my town, which killed two children. Over the past quarter of a century, the Peace Foundation, based in Warrington, has worked tirelessly to provide the national support service for victims of terrorism in Great Britain. Will the Prime Minister join me in commending its work, and agree to ensure that its funding continues?

I certainly commend the work of all those at the Warrington Peace Centre. We will do everything that we can to ensure that funding continues.

I associate my party with the good wishes sent to the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) and, indeed, to anyone who has contracted coronavirus. I welcome the fact that the Government are listening to experts on coronavirus, but given that the NHS has to face the coronavirus challenge with a record shortage of nurses, and the care sector has more than 120,000 vacancies, does the Prime Minister not agree that the three Conservative Governments since 2015 should have fixed the roof when the sun was shining?

I seem to think that the right hon. Gentleman was in that Government, but leaving that point on one side, there is now a record number of doctors and nurses in our fantastic NHS. There are 8,700 more nurses this year than last year, and we are recruiting another 50,000 more. The right hon. Gentleman will be hearing more about what we are doing to support the NHS in just a minute.

Bill Presented

Protest (Abortion Clinics) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Sarah Olney, supported by Dr Rupa Huq, Sir Peter Bottomley, Caroline Lucas, Lisa Nandy, Liz Saville Roberts, Layla Moran, Munira Wilson and Daisy Cooper, presented a Bill to prohibit anti-abortion protests within 150 metres of abortion clinics; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 June, and to be printed (Bill 111).