Skip to main content


Volume 600: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2015

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

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Following an extensive public consultation, the Government’s retail sector champion, Kevin Hawkins, described our current Sunday trading laws as

“a workable compromise. Most people seem to be satisfied with it most of the time.”

Does the Prime Minister agree?

I do not agree. I think that there is a strong case for change, but it is a change that we should allow local authorities to decide on, which is why we will be putting in front of the House, in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, the opportunity for that to happen. Let me give the hon. Lady and the House two examples of where I do not think the current situation works. First, there are these restrictions on opening hours for many stores—[Interruption.] Someone shouts, “What about families?” Well, there are many stores that families would like to shop in, but if they go to those stores they have to walk around for hours before they are actually allowed to buy anything. Secondly, people can already shop on Sunday—and anywhere they like—on the internet. I think that it is time to modernise our approach, give families more choice and help create jobs at the same time.

Q2. I have here a question from Iain of Enfield. He says:“This is an appeal to help those who no longer have any dignity and self-respect; the down and outs.”He calls for “a constructive attempt to tackle this growing urban problem.” Those words, which were spoken nearly 50 years ago by the late, great Conservative Member for Enfield West, Iain Macleod, resonate today, so will the Prime Minister’s all-out assault on poverty tackle and prevent homelessness? (901673)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. Iain Macleod was indeed a great statesman, a great politician and someone who believed, as I do, that we should be as active in social reform as we are in economic reform. When it comes to tackling homelessness, we have the “No Second Night Out” initiative, which is working, particularly in London, to find people a home. Frankly, we have to do more, particularly with troubled families, as my hon. Friend has said, who need an intervention to help them, often in relation to mental health issues, and make sure that they get all the help they need to deal with their problems and ensure that they have not only a roof over their head, but a job and a livelihood too.

I know that the Prime Minister will absolutely welcome my first few questions, because they return to his favourite subject: tax credits. Yesterday, one of his Back Benchers said

“too many people will be adversely affected. Something must give. For those of us proud enough to call ourselves compassionate Conservatives, it must not be the backs of the working families we purport to serve.” —[Official Report, 20 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 876.]

Where was she wrong?

The tax credit changes are part of a package that includes a higher national living wage and tax reductions, and I think that is the right approach for our country. Let us make work pay, let us allow people to earn more, let us cut their taxes, and let us make welfare affordable. I am delighted that once again this measure passed the House of Commons last night with a big majority.

If the Prime Minister is keen on tax credits helping people into work, I have got a question for him from Lisette, who says:

“A lot of people are setting up their own businesses as self-employed especially in rural areas where job vacancies are limited and pay is often low; tax credits help them until their business becomes established.”

Cutting tax credits damages her life opportunities and the life opportunities of anyone she might employ. Does the Prime Minister not see the value of giving support to people trying to improve their lives rather than cutting their ability to survive properly?

Of course we want to help the self-employed on low incomes, and that is why the people on the lowest incomes will continue to receive the child tax credit at £2,730. But there are other things we are doing to help the self-employed. We are cutting income tax—that helps the self-employed. We are introducing the employment allowance to cut the national insurance budget for the self-employed—that helps. Above all what we are doing is creating an economy with 2 million more people in work—an economy that is growing, wages that are rising, and inflation that is at zero. All these questions on tax credits in a way come back to the same point, which is how you build a strong and secure economy. You do not do it on the back of a massive deficit and an ever-increasing debt, which is what Labour left us with.

This is all very strange, because the Prime Minister seems to have changed his mind on this subject in rather a large way. John emailed me to say:

“The Prime Minister solemnly declared on National television shortly before the last”—[Interruption]

yes, solemnly, and I am solemn as well—

“shortly before the last general election that tax credits would not be affected.”

Is there any reason why this change has come about or any reason why we should believe the Prime Minister on any assurances he gives in relation to tax credits?

What we said before the election is that we would reduce welfare by £12 billion as part of getting the deficit down, part of getting the economy growing, and part of creating 2 million jobs. That is what happened at the election, and we are keeping our promises by delivering that stronger economy. The hon. Gentleman talks about something strange happening. Something quite strange did happen last night: we had a vote on tax credits and the deputy leader of the Labour party did not turn up. Can he explain that strange outing?

If the Prime Minister cannot answer now on tax credits and the devastation that is causing—[Interruption.] Thank you—and the devastation that the cuts are causing to many people’s lives, can I ask him to deal with another subject, namely the steel industry? Does he appreciate the devastating effects that the Government’s non-intervention in the steel industry are having on so many people? I have got a question from a maintenance fitter at the Tata steelworks in Scunthorpe. He is helping to produce steel for Network Rail and many companies that were exporting it. He wants to know what the Prime Minister is going to do

“to support the steel industry and its workers facing redundancy.”

Is it not time to walk the walk rather than talk the talk about an industrial strategy?

We do want to help our steel industry, and we recognise—[Interruption.] Well, I will set out exactly how we will help the steel industry. It is in a very difficult situation. World prices have collapsed by more than half, and the surplus capacity in the world is more than 50 times the UK output, but our plan is to take action in four vital areas—in procurement, in energy costs, in unfair competition and dumping, and in tax and Government support. [Interruption.] Opposition Members are asking, “What have you done so far?” Well, let me take one example. We changed the procurement rules so that it was easier to source UK steel. That is why Crossrail—26 miles of tunnels, the biggest construction project anywhere in Europe—is being completed using almost exclusively British steel. That did not happen under the last Labour Government; it does happen now.

Is not the real problem that the Government do not actually have an industrial strategy to protect this country’s most important industries? If they had, they would not have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this House three times in the last eight days. Thousands of jobs have already gone or are at risk in Redcar, Scunthorpe, Rotherham, Motherwell, Cambuslang, Wrexham and across the west midlands. Is it not time for concrete action today so that there is Government intervention and support for our steel industry and so that we have a viable steel industry for the long term, which this country desperately needs?

We do want a strong and viable steel industry, and that means taking action across all the areas that I mentioned. Let me mention another one: energy costs. We have already put £50 million into cutting energy costs, and our plans will mean hundreds of millions of pounds extra to cut them.

Order. I apologise for having to interrupt the Prime Minister. Mr Blenkinsop, a statesman-like demeanour is what I would hope for from someone who has served with distinction in the Opposition Whips Office. Calm yourself or take a sedative.

On energy, we will save hundreds of millions of pounds. I say to the Leader of the Opposition that last week in the House of Lords the Labour party voted to add to energy bills by opposing the measures we are taking on wind power. So, yes, we do have a strategy; we do have a plan and we should be working across the parties to deliver it. I met the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and neighbouring MPs back in November last year to make sure we could take all the action necessary, and across each of these areas that is exactly what we will do.

Well, the Prime Minister met those Members to discuss the issue 11 months ago, but he has yet to go to the European Union to discuss how the British Government could intervene to protect our industry.

The final question I want to put to the Prime Minister comes from Louis. This is deeply embarrassing to all of us in this House and, indeed, to this country as a whole. He writes:

“The United Kingdom is currently being investigated by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities because of allegations of ‘grave and systematic‘ violations of disabled people’s human rights.”

This is very sad news indeed, but it is even sadder that we need to be investigated because of violations that have occurred. Will the Prime Minister commit to co-operate fully with the inquiry and publish in full the Government’s response to it, so that we can ensure that people with disabilities are treated properly and legally and given full respect by and opportunities in our society?

First, let me take up the hon. Gentleman on the point he made about intervention in Europe. We have been doing this for months, making sure that there is proper action against dumping in the European Union. We have taken the cases to the European Commission and will continue to do so.

On the issue of helping disabled people in our country, tens of thousands more disabled people have got into work under this Government. Because of legislation passed by a previous Conservative Government, we have some of the strongest equality legislation anywhere in the world when it comes to disability. Of course I will look at any United Nations investigation, but sometimes when you look at these investigations you find that they are not necessarily all they are originally cracked up to be. There are many disabled people in our world who do not have any of the rights or any of the support that they get here in Britain, and I think we should be proud of what we do as we co-operate with this report.

Q5. Bruntcliffe school in my constituency was a struggling school, but it recently achieved its second best results in its history. The school reopened this September as part of the highly successful Gorse Academies Trust and continues to grow from strength to strength. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that all pupils have access to a great education and that no school is left behind? (901676)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We are always happy to hear positive news from Morley and Outwood—it was not always that way. She makes an important point, which is that in school after school in our country, and often in some quite challenging neighbourhoods, inspirational headteachers are using the new tools we have given them and driving up standards. Measuring the percentage of those children getting good GCSEs is a key way to measure progress. I have myself been to schools where I have seen a 10, 20 or sometimes even 30-point improvement. Often, schools in inner-city areas are doing better than many schools in rather more well-heeled suburban areas. That shows that, with the right teaching and the right leadership, we can have real social opportunity right through our country.

Information has recently been released showing that a coroner has found that a 60-year-old disabled father of two from north London, Mr Michael O’Sullivan, committed suicide following his work capability assessment. The coroner warned that there is a risk of further deaths. The Department for Work and Pensions has reportedly undertaken 60 investigations into suicides that occurred after benefits were withdrawn or reduced, but it has so far refused to publish what it has learned. Will the Prime Minister publish those findings?

I am aware of the case the hon. Gentleman raises, although I am sure he will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to discuss the specifics of the cases. Suicide is always a tragic and complex issue. We should take these matters incredibly seriously. I will look very carefully at the specific question he asks about publication. We have changed the work capability assessment to lead to significant improvements, following a number of independent reviews, to make sure that people get the support that they need, and I think that is vitally important.

Under the Prime Minister’s plans to cut tax credits, a couple with two children living in a council house who both earn just above the minimum wage stand to lose more than £2,000. That is the equivalent of their basic rate of income tax rising a staggering 90%. Does the Prime Minister have the faintest idea of the human cost of his plans?

The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is this: if the couple live in a council house, they are actually seeing a cut in their social rent, because of the plans set out in the Budget. If that couple have children, they will have support in terms of childcare. If that couple are working for a small business, they will have the opportunity of the enhanced employment allowance. If that couple are earning just above the minimum wage—if they are earning, for instance, £7 an hour and working a full-time working week—they will see a huge benefit as we increase the income tax allowance to £12,500. They will almost be paying no income tax at all. What we are doing is introducing higher pay and lower taxes, and that is the way to better family finances and a stronger economy.

Q6. Given the increasing violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, will my right hon. Friend wish the United Nations Secretary-General well on his visit to Jerusalem today? Does he agree with him when he says that“walls, checkpoints, harsh responses by the security forces and house demolitions”cannot achieve the peace that Israel desires? (901677)

I would agree that of course those things do not lead to peace, and what is required is a peace process to deliver a two-state solution. We will all have seen appalling murders on our television screens—knife stabbings of entirely innocent people in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel—and that is completely unacceptable. We need to make sure that this peace process gets going on a genuine basis of a two-state solution.

Q3. Food bank use has risen by 1,665% since the Prime Minister took office in 2010. In Cardiff Central I meet people every week who rely on food banks to feed their families. Does the Prime Minister know how many more families will be relying on food banks as a result of his Government’s cuts to tax credits, and does he care? (901674)

What is happening in the hon. Lady’s constituency is that the number of people claiming unemployment benefit is down 20% in the last year, the youth claimant count has fallen almost 20% in the last year and long-term youth unemployment has fallen in the last year by 38%. That is what is happening. Of course, I do not want anyone in our country to have to rely on food banks, but the right answer is a growing economy, creating jobs, higher wages, the national living wage and cutting taxes. That is what we are delivering and that is how to help Britain’s families.

Q12. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the key to getting higher wages and improving our export drive is actually tackling the productivity gap between ourselves and our European partners? Does he think that providing more skills for our manufacturing and engineering sectors is essential to that and will help us to deliver that mission? (901683)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Britain has had an excellent record over recent years on employment, with record numbers in work. We now need the productivity improvements that will make sure that we see real and sustained increases in living standards. Part of that is increasing the skills of our population. That is why the school reform, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) referred, is so important and why our target of 3 million apprentices for this Parliament is vital.

I represent a constituency of hard-working, decent people, yet in the forgotten communities of Milton, Possilpark, Springburn, Germiston, Garngad, Royston, Blackhill, Ruchazie and Haghill, child poverty lies at an astonishing 38.1%. I was going to ask whether the Prime Minister was at all touched by the waves of compassion coming even from his Back Benches in yesterday’s tax credit debate, but I think we have the answer to that, so I simply ask whether he can offer a personal guarantee that no child in my constituency will be worse off a year from now.

The point I would make to the hon. Lady is that those poverty figures come after 20 years of the great tax credit experiment. What we saw was an increase in the cost of tax credits and an increase in in-work poverty. We say that it is time for a new approach: higher pay, more jobs, lower taxes. In her constituency, the claimant count has come down by 10% in the last year. Compared with the time of the 2010 election, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit in her constituency is down 43%. I say let us give people the chance of a job, a salary, a decent wage and lower taxes.

Q13. Given Russia’s military expansion and North Korea’s development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile system that can strike the west, does the Prime Minister agree that this is no time to campaign for nuclear disarmament? (901684)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is right to maintain our independent nuclear deterrent. Anyone who has any doubts about that only has to look at the dangers and uncertainty in our world. Frankly, it is very disappointing for this country that after having a cross-party consensus for so long that the nuclear deterrent was right for Britain, we now have a Leader of the Opposition who is campaigning with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Today, we are celebrating that great film, “Back to the Future”. I am not surprised that many people sitting behind him say that he should get in his DeLorean, go back to 1985 and stay there.

Q7. This morning, I was contacted by John who is a junior doctor in Newcastle and Alex who is a junior doctor in my constituency of Gateshead. They asked me to ask the Prime Minister how much longer he will support the Secretary of State for Health, when virtually the entire health service has no confidence in him. (901678)

I support the Secretary of State, because he is doing the right thing by increasing the investment in our health service by £10 billion across this Parliament. Let me speak directly to the junior doctors, whom the hon. Gentleman rightly represents. The plans that we have are not for increasing junior doctor hours, they are not for cutting junior doctor pay, and they are not even for making savings in the overall amount that junior doctors receive. They are about making sure that the health service works better for doctors and, above all, for patients. They are part of delivering the seven-day NHS that should be the objective of every Member of Parliament and everyone in our country.

Q14. On Sunday, I met parents from the Gidea Park primary school in my constituency to talk about the huge increase in the birth rate and the need to expand schools in outer London. There is a crisis at the moment. Will the Government ensure that there are adequate resources for outer London boroughs such as Havering, and is the Prime Minister prepared to meet a delegation of parents and members of the local council to discuss how we can resolve this serious issue? (901685)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We spent £5 billion on new school places in the last Parliament and we will spend £7 billion in this Parliament. I will look carefully at what is happening in outer London, but there is no doubt that there are pressures in our system. He makes the good point that our birth rate is going up, which is replacing our population, whereas the birth rate in countries such as Germany is not. We therefore do not need the wide-scale immigration that we have had and need to make sure that the numbers are properly under control.

Q8. Will the Prime Minister tell the House what plans are in place to ensure that the interests of all devolved nations are taken into account in his forthcoming letter to the European President, Donald Tusk, on EU reforms? What plans are in place to ensure that the devolved nations are represented in renegotiation discussions before the EU summit in December? (901679)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary recently met the First Minister of Scotland to discuss Europe, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom, and the Edinburgh agreement said that we should respect the decision of the Scottish people. We had a United Kingdom general election, and we will have a United Kingdom referendum. On this of all days I was hoping he might raise the fact that, because of the Chinese state visit, Alexander Dennis, the bus maker in his constituency, is signing a £2 billion deal that will provide thousands of jobs. [Interruption.]

Order. Members of the Scottish National party must calm themselves. The hon. Lady is asking what I think is her first question to the Prime Minister, and that question will be heard in full.

I recently visited the British Army training unit in Suffield in Canada, and I met many of our brave men and women who are undergoing advanced combat training, including my constituent, Major Iain Wallace of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Many of them support the Government’s commitment to spending the NATO target of 2% of our GDP on protecting Britain’s interests. Will my right hon. Friend explain how that commitment will go towards investment in technology and equipment, and enable people such as Major Iain Wallace to do his job properly?

First, I thank Major Iain Wallace for his work. Crucially, that 2% of GDP will ensure that all those who join our splendid armed forces in the coming years know that they will have world-beating equipment and technology at their fingertips. That is a really important part of ensuring that we build strong morale in Britain’s excellent armed forces.

Q9. The operators of Hunterston coal terminal in my constituency, Peel Ports group, has announced significant redundancies. How will the Prime Minister work with Peel Ports to explore alternative uses for the terminal which is suitable for imports and exports of a wide range of bulk solids, liquid products, and offshore decommissioning? (901680)

The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue. The Government work closely with Peel Ports because of the enormous amount of key infrastructure and land that it owns. I will look carefully with the Secretary of State and the devolved authorities to see whether there is more that we can do in this instance.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, if the other place were to vote against changes to working tax credits, that would be a serious challenge to the privilege of this House—a privilege that was codified as long ago as 1678? Does he further share my concern that such a move would entitle him to review the decisions of Grey and Asquith on creating more peers, to ensure that the Government get their financial business through?

My hon. Friend makes an important point—his knowledge of history is clearly better than mine, because I thought the key date was the Parliament Act 1911. Under that Act, issues of finance are supposed to be decided in this House. This House has now decided twice in favour of the measure on tax credits—once when voting on the statutory instrument and again last night in a vote scheduled by the Opposition. The House of Lords should listen to that carefully and recognise that it is for this House to make financial decisions, and for the other House to revise other legislation.

Q10. My constituent, Esther Sebborn, is a working mother of one and she is worried. She earns above the so-called national living wage, but is set to lose about £1,700 per year if the Government’s changes to tax credits go ahead. What has the Prime Minister got to say to Esther? (901681)

What I would say to Esther is that we want to help by making sure we cut her taxes, so that her first £11,000 is entirely tax free. That comes into effect next April. If Esther has children, we want to help with the childcare, not just for the two, three and four-year-olds but with tax relief on childcare in future years. If Esther is running a small business, we are helping through the employment allowance. In all those ways, I would say to Esther and to everybody else, this is a package. We want to see higher pay, lower taxes and reformed welfare. The biggest damage to Esther and to all those in that situation would be to return to Labour’s high taxing, high spending and high borrowing wrecking our economy.

Extremism is one of the biggest social problems that we currently face in Britain. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need to redouble our efforts, through the Government’s counter-extremism strategy, to address the scourge of extremism in Britain?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we passed the Prevent duty and put that duty on every public body in our country—on schools, colleges and universities. The Home Secretary and I were in a school in Luton this week listening to teachers who said it has made a real difference and that referrals into the Channel programme are happening far more quickly because of the changes we have made. Fighting extremism and recognising that we have to attack it before it becomes violent extremism is going to be the struggle of our generation. We have to undermine the awful narrative of victimhood and grievance, which so many are using, that eventually leads to violence.

Q11. On 16 September, the Prime Minister told this House that he would do everything he could to keep steelmaking on Teesside. He failed. Now we learn that the £30 million support package that the Government promised for retraining and economic regeneration is not only going towards the statutory redundancies of those who lost their jobs: I have an email from the Minister with responsibility for the northern powerhouse to a constituent in Stockton South that says it will also be used to pay for the final salaries of those who have lost their jobs in the past month. This is an insult. How much more injustice does the Prime Minister think the people of Teesside can endure? (901682)

We will do everything we can to help, including the financial package that the hon. Lady set out—making sure we help people with retraining and new opportunities, and with bringing new industries to the area—but let me tell her what we cannot do. We cannot in this House set the world price of steel and we cannot overcome the fact that the SSI plant had lost £600 million in this Parliament. Those are the facts which, frankly, Opposition Members have to engage with.

In answer to my question yesterday about our EU renegotiations, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that there was little or no prospect of this Parliament alone being able to say no to any unwanted EU directive, tax or regulation. Can I ask the Prime Minister to try to put that right?

What we have said is that we want to see a system of red cards on new EU regulations. It is for national Parliaments to work together to deliver that, but that is only one of the things that we want to change in our relationship with Europe. For instance, getting Britain out of ever closer union is not simply a symbol; it will be taken into account in all future jurisprudence when the European Court of Justice is considering whether to go ahead with a measure. In the end, hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, will have to choose whether to stay in Europe on an amended basis or whether to leave. I am determined to deliver the strongest possible renegotiation that addresses the concerns of the British people, so that we have a proper choice.

Q15. Did the Prime Minister make clear to the Chinese President the urgent need to stop Chinese steel dumping? If so, what was the response? Will he meet once again with north Lincolnshire MPs to see what more can be done to support steelmaking in Scunthorpe? (901686)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was at the summit on Friday. I met him back in November, and I am always happy to meet him and neighbouring MPs again. After this Question Time, I am going straight to No. 10 for several hours of talks with the Chinese President, and there will be every opportunity to talk about this issue. I began those discussions last night. I think the Chinese recognise that they have huge overcapacity in their steel industry, which they have to address as well, but I say again that I do not want to make promises I cannot keep—[Interruption.] We cannot set the steel price here in this—[Interruption.] We cannot set the steel price here in this House, and we cannot go beyond the sorts of steps I have talked about on procurement, energy and industrial support. Opposition Members might, however, like to remember their own record. Under Labour, steel production halved. Under Labour, employment in steel halved. Since I have been Prime Minister, steel production has gone up and steel employment has stayed the same. So before we get a self-righteous lecture from Labour, I would say to them, “Look at your own record!”

I suspect those cheers were for the Prime Minister, rather than me.

Does the Prime Minister agree that one reason some steel plants have suffered difficulties is that wholesale electricity prices in this country are twice the level in Germany, and that the many green taxes imposed by the former Labour party leader, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), under the last Labour Government are a significant reason for that?

Order. We do not need to waste time with this. It has nothing to do with Government policy. [Interruption.] Order. It has nothing to do with current Government policy.

Thousands of people who installed cavity wall insulation now have damp, mouldy houses because the system has failed and let in rainwater. Many people, misled into believing that it was a Government scheme, now find the industry guarantee difficult to access and insufficient. Will the Prime Minister take a personal interest in this scandal, to ensure that disabled people in particular are fully compensated and to avert further reputational damage to the Government’s energy conservation measures?

I will look carefully at the issue, because it touches on the larger point that the obligations we put on energy companies lead to higher prices—and that goes directly to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) was quite rightly trying to make. Even last week, the Labour party in the House of Lords voted to put up energy prices, which impacts on steel users. They ought to try doing the same thing in the House of Lords as in the House of Commons.