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Volume 617: debated on Wednesday 16 November 2016

I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to the families and friends of the seven people who lost their lives and to those who were injured in the tragic tram incident in Croydon last Wednesday. We all thank those involved in the rescue operation.

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.

Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming today’s news that the unemployment rate has fallen to an 11-year low? Will she join me in thanking all those businesses that create jobs, such as Jennifer Ashe & Son, whose funeral home on Brownhills High Street in my constituency I was kindly asked to open last weekend?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I am pleased to say that in the last year, employment in her constituency of Aldridge-Brownhills has gone up by 88,000. It is good to hear of companies that are providing new jobs. The employment figures show the strength of the fundamentals of our economy: the employment rate has never been higher and the unemployment rate is lower than it has been in more than a decade. I am sure that Members from all parts of the House will welcome yesterday’s news that Google will create another 3,000 jobs.

I concur with the remarks the Prime Minister made about the disaster in Croydon last week. We send our sympathies to all those who lost loved ones and express our solidarity with the emergency workers who went through such trauma in freeing people from the wreckage.

It appears from press reports that the Chagos islanders who were expelled from their homes over 40 years ago will suffer another injustice today with the denial of their right of return. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary told European media that Brexit would “probably” mean leaving the customs union. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether that is the case?

I think the right hon. Gentleman was trying to get two issues in there. On the issue of the Chagos islanders, there will be a written ministerial statement to the House later today, so everybody will be able to see the position the Government are taking.

On the whole issue of the customs union and the trading relationships we will have with the European Union and other parts of the world once we have left the European Union, we are preparing carefully for the formal negotiations, but—[Interruption.] We are preparing carefully for the formal negotiations. What we want to ensure is that we have the best possible trading deal with the European Union once we have left.

I asked the Prime Minister, actually, about the Foreign Secretary’s remarks about leaving the customs union. He is only a few places down from her. Mr Speaker, would it be in order for the Foreign Secretary to come forward and tell us what he actually said? I am sure we would all be better informed if he did.

Earlier this week, a leaked memo said that the Government are

“considerably short of having a plan for Brexit…No common strategy has emerged…in part because of the divisions within the Cabinet.”

If this memo is, as the Prime Minister’s press department says, written by ill-informed consultants, will she put the Government’s plan and common strategy for Brexit before Parliament?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that, yes, we do have a plan. Our plan is to deliver the best possible deal in trading with and operating within the European Union. Our plan is to deliver control of the movement of people from the European Union into the United Kingdom. Our plan is to go out there across the world and negotiate free trade agreements around the rest of the world. This Government are absolutely united in their determination to deliver on the will of the British people and to deliver Brexit. The right hon. Gentleman’s shadow Cabinet cannot even decide whether it supports Brexit.

Well, the word does not seem to have travelled very far. I have to say, I sympathise with the Italian Government Minister who said this week, about the Prime Minister’s Government:

“Somebody needs to tell us something, and it needs to be something that makes sense.”

Is not the truth that the Government are making a total shambles of Brexit, and nobody understands what their strategy actually is?

Of course those in the European Union whom we will be negotiating with will want us to set out at this stage every detail of our negotiating strategy. If we were to do that, it would be the best possible way of ensuring that we got the worst result for this country. That is why we will not do it.

Talking of worst results, the Foreign Secretary has been very helpful this week, because he informed the world that “Brexit means Brexit”—we did not know that before—and that

“we are going to make a titanic success of it.”

Taking back control, if that is what Brexit is to mean—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister is getting advice from the Foreign Secretary now; can we all hear it? Taking back control clearly requires some extra administration. Deloitte has spoken, saying:

“One Department estimates it needs a 40% increase in staff to cope with its Brexit projects”,

and that overall expectations are of an increased headcount of between 10,000 and 30,000 civil servants. If that estimate is wrong, can the Prime Minister tell the House exactly how many extra civil servants will be required to conduct these negotiations? Her Ministers need to know—they are desperate for an answer from her.

I repeat for the right hon. Gentleman that we are doing the preparations necessary for the point at which we will start the complex formal negotiations with the European Union. I have set up a Department for Exiting the European Union, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is doing an excellent job there in making those preparations.

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that from the confusion that he has on his Benches in relation to the issue of Brexit, it seems to be yet another example from Labour of how where they talk, we act. They posture, we deliver. We are getting on with the job, he is not up to the job.

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. I say to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry), calm yourself, man. You should seek to imitate the calm and repose of your right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is setting an example for all Members of the House.

I do not wish to promote any further division on their Benches, Mr Speaker.

These are the most complex set of negotiations ever undertaken by this country. The civil service has been cut down to its lowest level since the second world war. The Prime Minister’s main focus surely ought to be coming up with a serious plan. May I ask her to clarify something? If, when the Supreme Court meets at the beginning of December, it decides to uphold the decision of the High Court, will the Lord Chancellor this time defend our independent judiciary against any public attacks?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there have been two cases in the UK courts on the prerogative power and its use. The Northern Ireland court found in favour of the Government; the High Court found against the Government. We are appealing to the Supreme Court. We have a good argument, and will put the case to the Supreme Court. I believe and this Government believe in the independence of our judiciary, and the judiciary will consider that decision and come to their judgment on the basis of the arguments put before them. But we also believe that our democracy is underpinned by the freedom of our press.

My question was on defending the independence of the judiciary. We should all be doing that. We have an International Development Secretary who is opposed to overseas aid, a Health Secretary who is running down our national health service, a Chancellor with no fiscal strategy, a Lord Chancellor who seems to have difficulty defending the judiciary, a Brexit team with no plan for Brexit and, as has just been shown, a Prime Minister who is not prepared to answer questions on what the actual Brexit strategy is. We need a better answer than she has given us.

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what we have got. We have an International Development Secretary delivering on this Government’s commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international development, a Health Secretary delivering on £10 billion of extra funding for the health service and a Chancellor of the Exchequer making sure we have the stable economy that creates the wealth necessary to pay for our public services. And what we certainly have got is a Leader of the Opposition who is incapable of leading.

Q6. The Prime Minister understands that we are a one nation party or we are nothing, something our political opponents consistently underestimate, to their cost. In the autumn statement next week will she continue to pursue that agenda with all the resource and vigour she can muster, including by increasing significantly further the personal allowance, so that the lower paid disproportionately benefit? (907163)

Order. It is always interesting to hear the thoughts of the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) but they should not be articulated from a sedentary position and will have to wait for another occasion.

Before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, may I wish his wife all the very best in the treatment she is going through at the moment? The thoughts of the House are with her.

My hon. Friend is right. We have a manifesto commitment to increase the personal allowance. By increasing it from £6,475 in 2010-11 to £11,000 in 2016-17 and £11,500 next year, we have cut income tax for more than 30 million people and have taken 4 million people out of paying income tax altogether. That is important. It has helped people at the lower end of the income scale.

We join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in extending our condolences following the tragedy in Croydon and in paying tribute to the emergency services.

The Institute for Government, which has close ties to the civil service, has published a report saying that the UK Government’s approach towards Brexit is “chaotic and dysfunctional”, that Brexit poses an “existential threat” to operations in Whitehall Departments, that the Prime Minister has a “secretive approach” towards Brexit, and that the present situation is “unsustainable”. Does the Prime Minister plan to carry on like this regardless?

The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised when I tell him what the Government are doing in relation to Brexit. As I said earlier, the most important thing for the Government to do is calmly and carefully to get on with the job of preparing for complex negotiations. One of the most important things we can do is to make sure that we are not giving a running commentary on those negotiations and on our stance, because that would be the best way to get the worst deal for this country.

On the day we hear that “post-truth” has become the international word of the year, we have a running commentary from the Foreign Secretary. He is prepared to tell the media in the Czech Republic that the United Kingdom is likely to leave the EU customs union post-Brexit, but that it still wants to trade freely afterwards. In response, his colleague from the Netherlands said that that option “doesn’t exist” and is “impossible”. Both those things cannot be correct, so will the Prime Minister confirm today, to Parliament and to the country, whether the UK is likely to leave the EU customs union post-Brexit—yes or no?

The right hon. Gentleman does not actually seem to understand that the customs union is not just a binary decision, but let us set that to one side. Let us look at what we need to do: get the best possible deal for access to, trading with and operating within the single European market. He stands up time and again in Prime Minister’s questions and says to me that he wants access to the single European market. I might remind him that it was only a couple of years ago that he wanted to take Scotland out of the single European market by making it independent. [Interruption.]

Order. [Interruption.] Order. Mr Docherty-Hughes, you are in a very emotional condition. I normally regard you as a cerebral denizen of the House. Try to recover your composure, man!

Q15. In Southend, crimes such as burglary and vehicle theft are down, but knife crime is on the increase, particularly that perpetrated by drug dealers and drug users. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that this will be a priority for Her Majesty’s Government? Specifically, is there anything more that she can do to help police and crime commissioners such as Roger Hirst to deal with this very big challenge? (907172)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising an issue that is very important for everybody in the House. Certainly the Government will do all they can to support police and crime commissioners such as Roger Hirst, who is already doing an excellent job in Essex. Since 2009, knife crime figures have fallen overall, but I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns. That is why the Home Office has been supporting police forces such as Essex in conducting weeks of action against knives under Operation Sceptre. We have legislated to ban dangerous knives, including zombie knives. We are putting tough sentences in place and making sure that offenders are punished. We should send a very clear message that we will not tolerate knife crime in this country.

Q2. Many people in this country visit the United States every year to study, on business, or simply to enjoy one of the greatest countries on earth. What action will the Prime Minister take if the new President-elect carries through his campaign promise to discriminate against our citizens on the basis of their religion? Will she give a commitment that the special relationship which she believes her Government have with the US presidency will be conducted on the basis of respect for the dignity of all our citizens, irrespective of their race or religion? (907159)

I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that our special relationship with the United States is, I think, very important to both the United States and the United Kingdom. We will continue to build on it, as was clear from the conversation that I had with President-elect Trump shortly after his election, and of course we want to ensure the dignity of our citizens. It is up to the United States what rules it puts in place for entry across its borders, but we will ensure that the special relationship continues, and does so in the interests of both the UK and the US.

Last Tuesday, I attended an infection prevention and control summit that highlighted the great work done by the Department of Health, the NHS and other organisations dramatically to decrease MRSA infection rates, yet also raised the growing threat of E. coli and sepsis. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending such events and outline the Government’s strategy for combatting superbugs?

I absolutely join my hon. Friend, who raises a very important issue, in commending such events. It true that the DOH, Public Health England and the NHS are doing vital work to decrease infection rates. We have already seen some very good results—a 57% reduction in MRSA bloodstream infections since 2010 and a 47% reduction in C. diff infections—but of course there is more to do, which is why we are setting bold objectives to halve gram-negative blood infections by 2020, and why last week we announced a new national infection lead to champion and oversee this effort. This is an important issue and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it.

Q3. Free trade is vital to our future prosperity, and Brexit does not mean rejecting globalisation. Will the Prime Minister ensure that any new trade deals with the wider world after Brexit are based on the mutual recognition of standards, not on the kind of over-elaborate, prescriptive, top-down regulatory regime that underpins the European single market? (907160)

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for free trade. He is absolutely right that as we leave the EU we will be looking for opportunities to develop flexible trading relationships around the world that suit the United Kingdom. Given the strength of our economy, I believe that we can go out there and be a global leader in free trade, and I welcome his support for that.

Last Wednesday, seven people tragically died and 50 were injured in a tram accident in Croydon. I am sure that the whole House will join the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the SNP in extending our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families. Three investigations—by British Transport Police, the Office of Rail and Road, and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch—are under way. Will the Prime Minister assure the House and the families that any recommendations to improve safety on trams in Croydon and across the country that are made by those investigations will be rapidly implemented by the Government?

I join my hon. Friend in once again sending our condolences to the families and friends of the seven people who died in this terrible incident, in expressing our sympathies for those injured and affected, and in thanking our emergency services. It is important that we allow these investigations to continue and that they can come up with recommendations in due course; we will, of course, look very seriously at them. We can never be complacent about safety and security regarding such issues, so we need to make sure that if there are lessons to be learned, they are indeed learned.