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Commons Chamber

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2017

House of Commons

Tuesday 28 February 2017

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

New Southgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]

(By Order)

Third Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 7 March (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Department of Health: Funding

Annual funding to the Department of Health is already being increased by £17 billion by 2020-21. This reflects the priority that the Government put on investing in the NHS.

OECD statistics show that the Governments of Germany, France, Holland, Sweden and Denmark spend an average of 9% of GDP on health compared with 7.7% in the UK—a massive difference of £23 billion a year. The NHS is desperately underfunded and it is no surprise that it is suffering, so is the Chancellor really going to take this seriously in the Budget?

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the OECD has more recently put out revised numbers to show that the UK’s expenditure on health is very close to some of those other countries. The fact is that we can only have a properly funded NHS if we have a strong economy, and only the Conservative party can deliver it—a point that the people of Copeland may have noticed.

When lives are on the line it is imperative that we as parliamentarians get it right. We need some honesty about what the current NHS crisis means: cuts to staff, longer waits, and hospitals at risk of closure. Does the Minister agree that the Government need to provide a long-term, sustainable financial package to guarantee NHS services for the future?

It was this Government who announced a long-term, financially sustainable package, which is why, in real terms, funding for the NHS will increase by £10 billion above inflation by 2020-21. Let us remember that since 2010 there are 2,300 more people attending accident and emergency departments within the four-hour A&E standard, 5,000 more operations every day, and 1,400 more people every day treated for mental health conditions, and the NHS is conducting 16,000 more diagnostic tests every day.

For the past two years the Department of Health has cut its capital budget by 20% and used that for running costs and to pay for salaries. Did the Treasury press for these cuts in capital spending—I hope not—and does the Chief Secretary agree that raiding the capital budget is no way to find efficiency savings?

The switch from capital to resource was actually made at the request of the health service and the Department of Health. In terms of finding efficiencies in the NHS, and indeed in the public sector as a whole, it is important that we deliver sustainable efficiencies, embed a culture of efficiency, and ensure that we get value for money for the taxpayer.

While I welcome this Government’s commitment to health, may I invite my right hon. Friend to take a leaf out of President Trump’s book and increase defence expenditure by 10%, funded from the bloated overseas aid budget?

It is quite a naughty idea, not because of its merits or demerits but because it has nothing to do with the Department of Health budget, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) is perfectly well aware. However, the Minister is a dextrous fellow and I am sure he can answer in an orderly way.

Although, as you say, Mr Speaker, there may perhaps have been a slightly tenuous link with the question, it was still a predictable question from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). We are delivering on the 2%-plus expenditure commitment on defence, and we are increasing defence spending in real terms. Again, it is important that we have a strong economy so that we can properly fund our defence.

The shocking revelation that NHS Shared Business Services Ltd misplaced more than 500,000 pieces of sensitive medical data is a direct result of a health service that is being squeezed by the Chancellor’s purse strings. The Tory Government are clearly putting patient safety at risk through lack of resourcing and a targeted savings drive. Will the Chancellor immediately reassess the situation and the level of NHS funding?

On the level of NHS funding, the hon. Lady will find that expenditure has gone up more in England than it has in Scotland. Given that it is a devolved matter, she might want to raise her concerns with the Scottish Government.

Will the Chief Secretary confirm that record amounts of money are being spent on the NHS, that record numbers of patients are being treated and that he will give clear incentives to local authorities and health services to join up the delivery of NHS and social care?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He is absolutely correct about the resources that we are putting in, but if we want to improve the quality of healthcare, particularly in the context of social care, it is also important that there is greater integration. That is why we announced the better care fund, which is making an important contribution to supporting social care and improving integration.

The Chair of the Treasury Select Committee is absolutely spot on. If the Chancellor does discuss with the Department of Health any increase in levels of funding, will he point the Health Secretary in the direction of the Public Accounts Committee report, which says that he should stop “plundering” NHS funds? In particular, it asks him to stop his “repeated raids” on NHS capital funds, with £950 million having been taken out of £4.5 billion.

First, may I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his promotion to the post of shadow Chief Secretary? He is my eighth shadow as a Treasury Minister, so I look forward to sparring with him over the weeks ahead.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: the agreement on the budget settlement for the NHS and the balance between resource spending and capital spending was reached with the Department of Health. Indeed, that switch towards more on resource was very much pushed by the Department of Health.

So I am the eighth shadow Minister,

“How very promiscuous of you”,

as I said in my tweet to the Chief Secretary.

Some 4,000 urgent operations have been cancelled, 18,000 people a week waited on trolleys in January, 3,000 community pharmacies are going to be lost and £4.6 billion has been cut from social care. When those funding levels are discussed with the Department of Health, will he tell his colleague that he should be caring for the NHS, not giving it a lethal injection?

If the Labour party’s policy could move beyond the level of placard design, that might help. Let me be clear: we are putting more money into the NHS and it is providing more support and help to people than ever before. I have listed some of the achievements since 2010. This Government remain committed to the NHS, which is why it has been a priority in our public spending plans for the past seven years.

Economic Growth: Yorkshire

The Government will drive productivity and economic growth in Yorkshire by investing in its infrastructure, developing the skills of its people and supporting its companies. At autumn statement we announced that the four local enterprise partnerships covering Yorkshire will receive £156.1 million from the local growth fund to back local priorities and support new jobs, as well as £3.7 million extra investment to bolster its resilience to flooding.

Will the Chancellor join me in welcoming recent investments by the likes of Boeing and McLaren in Yorkshire? Will Yorkshire continue to receive investment through the northern powerhouse investment fund, which is backed by the British Business Bank?

Yes. I welcome those investments by large companies, which will bring a large number of jobs to the area. It is also important that we support small and medium-sized enterprises, and the northern powerhouse investment fund will have a specific remit to target and support smaller businesses across the north.

Fourteen months after the devastating Storm Eva floods, it is welcome news to people in Kirkstall that the Sheesh Mahal restaurant will reopen tomorrow. However, many other businesses in my constituency are still struggling with astronomical increases in the costs of insurance and we still do not have a date for having proper flood defences in my constituency. What assurances can the Chancellor give businesses in my constituency that he has not forgotten about us?

As I have said, we have put additional money into flood defence spending, but—notwithstanding the reopening of the Sheesh Mahal restaurant—I take on board the hon. Lady’s comments about the delay that others are experiencing and I will look at the facts.

Absolutely, Mr Speaker. By the way, I would love to visit that restaurant.

My right hon. Friend will know that Boeing is a major employer in the United Kingdom. The opening of Boeing Sheffield, as it will be known, means that a major manufacturing plant—the only one of its type—will be introduced into Europe. Is that not a major endorsement by Boeing of post-Brexit Britain?

Yes, that is two things: it is a major endorsement by a global company and a major vote of confidence in the British economy. It is also a reflection of this Government’s policy that where we place large contracts for military equipment, as we have done with Boeing, we insist on some compensating investment in our economy, so that the investment in our military capability pays for jobs, skills and technology in the UK.

The Chancellor referred to local enterprise partnerships. Will he undertake to bring the LEPs across Yorkshire together to look at what further powers can be devolved to them to decide priorities on regional infrastructure investment and on the skills agenda? Will he also bring them together to talk about what needs to be done to prioritise their potential for inward investment in terms of Brexit?

We are very keen on LEPs working together across regions so that these very large pots of devolved funding, including some of the money in the national productivity investment fund that I announced in the autumn statement, can be used to maximum effect across a coherent economic geography. I am not so sure that it is within my power to bring them together, but I would certainly encourage them to work together.

Yorkshire is of course home to some of the country’s finest financial institutions, such as the Yorkshire Bank and the Yorkshire Building Society—

Like all financial institutions in the UK, they will be desperately keen to understand what the Government’s Brexit plans will mean for financial services. The Treasury still has not replied to my letter in January asking for some basic clarity, but we need to know how the Government intend to achieve equivalence, how it will be made certain and how we will avoid becoming just a rule taker from the rest of the EU. Chancellor, these are reasonable questions, so may we start to have some answers, please?

They are perfectly reasonable questions. I am not sure that the Skipton Building Society is holding its breath on how equivalence will work to allow it to carry on marketing complex financial instruments across the European Union. These are matters for negotiation. If we end up with an equivalence regime to allow financial services businesses to continue to trade into the European Union, it will be important that that equivalence regime is based on objective criteria, not political criteria, so that as long as our regulatory regimes are in fact equivalent, we can be confident of continuing to be able to trade.

National Insurance Revenues: Health and Social Care

3. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of ring-fencing national insurance revenues for spending on health and social care. (908950)

As hon. Members will know, although national insurance contributions are primarily used to fund state pensions, a proportion of NICs is already allocated directly to the NHS, but beyond that, the Government do not have any plans to ring-fence national insurance contributions to fund health and social care.

I thank the Financial Secretary for that answer, but with a view to the long-term sustainable financing of health and social care, will she look into this as a means of depoliticising the debate and ensuring long-term funding for health and social care not just for today, but for decades to come?

I understand my hon. Friend’s core point. The Government have taken action to ensure that the NHS has the funding it needs by increasing its annual budget by £10 billion above inflation by 2020-21. We are mindful of the long-term challenges. The issues were recently highlighted by the Office for Budget Responsibility, which laid them out quite starkly in its latest fiscal sustainability report. On depoliticising the debate, I would say that backing the NHS’s own plan for its own future in the way we have done is the best way of doing that.

Back in 2010, to meet the rising costs of social care I proposed a compulsory care levy on all estates. From memory, the Conservatives produced an election poster with gravestones on it and called it a death tax. I read in The Times today that Ministers are now considering exactly the same proposal. Can this possibly be true?

There is, however, an emerging consensus that we need to better integrate our social care and health system. We already have the better care fund and the Chancellor’s prudent management of the economy, but if he has any wriggle room in the forthcoming Budget may I ask him whether we can have some transitional relief for social care until we can work out the best model?

The Government have been very clear on a number of occasions that we recognise the pressures in the system and additional money has been made available through the social care precept. We are well aware of the pressures in the system and, as my right hon. Friend says, the long-term need for more integration—the Chief Secretary has already referred to the better care fund—but his point is well made.

How can it be right that the local authorities under the most pressure in terms of social care can raise the least amount through the council tax precept, when that precept is the basis of the Government’s social care policy? East Riding Council, next to my own, can raise 56% more than Hull even though it has less demand.

As the hon. Lady knows, the better care fund, which we have already referred to, adjusts for that. We are responding to the pressures, which we acknowledge, in the social care system in a range of ways.

Regional Infrastructure Development

We recognise the need to enhance public infrastructure across all regions of the UK. That is why at autumn statement 2016 we committed additional capital to fund new productivity-enhancing economic infrastructure through the national productivity investment fund. We are committed to putting local and regional needs at the heart of the fund. For example, we are spending £1.1 billion on local projects to improve our existing transport networks.

As the UK automotive sector continues to embrace new technologies, ensuring the necessary energy supplies are in place is of increasing importance. What support can the Government give to the midlands, so that our region can lead the transformation of the sector, not least with electric vehicles?

My hon. Friend is right that the midlands is home to some of the world’s leading automotive manufacturing. It is also home to cutting edge battery technology research, including by the Warwick Manufacturing Group at Warwick University. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we are going to electrify the vehicle fleet, we have to ensure that clean, sustainable and reliable supplies of electricity are available to meet the needs of the 21st century economy. Our national infrastructure plan does exactly that.

On leaving the EU, areas like Yorkshire will no longer benefit from EU structural funding. How will the Chancellor meet the shortfall?

As we have made clear, the arrangements we have with the European Union, and with any of the organisations and funds the EU operates, remain to be discussed during the negotiation phase. If the hon. Gentleman is right and we end up not participating in such arrangements in the future, we will clearly have to make separate similar arrangements on a UK-only basis—or, indeed, on an individual nation within the UK basis.

14. Does the Chancellor agree that alongside large-scale investment in infrastructure, such as the Thameslink upgrade, relatively small amounts of money on local roads and station facilities can rapidly improve journey times and therefore boost productivity? (908961)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is often the smaller local projects that deliver the greatest benefit. They do not have the same kind of grandstanding possibilities around them and therefore are not always quite as favoured, but they are often the most effective way of intervening. They have another benefit: they can often be delivered very quickly by local levels of government, rather than having to go through many years of planning.

The Chancellor simply did not answer my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). The UK Government’s funding and investment in London has always far outstripped that for any other region. The OECD says that we have had no regional policy since 2010, so will he answer my hon. Friend? What will happen to investment in the north when Brexit occurs?

We will continue to invest in our economy, and the distribution of that investment will be in accordance with the Government’s priorities. The hon. Lady should look at the industrial strategy paper that we have published and at statements the Government have made, including on the national productivity investment fund we announced in the autumn. We are committed to infrastructure development in all the regions of the UK. It is a key element of our productivity agenda.

23. In order to support infrastructure investment effectively, we will need to upskill our workforce to deliver the projects we need, especially hi-tech projects. Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer agree that we need investment in the post-16 arena quite quickly to ensure we fill that skills pipeline? (908971)

I will take that as a Budget representation, and yes I do agree with my hon. Friend. We set out in the autumn statement how we would increase investment in infrastructure. That is one of the challenges we face in raising this country’s productivity. Skills is another.

The Swansea Bay city region deal has the potential to boost infrastructure development in the west of my country. The board’s proposals, which have been presented to the Treasury, have the support of the relevant local authorities and universities and of the Welsh Government. When can we expect the Treasury’s response to them?

This discussion is still ongoing. I hope we may bring it to a conclusion within, let’s say, the next eight days.

Beer Duty

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and note the constructive meeting we had just yesterday with representatives from across the beer and pubs sector. In addition, the Treasury has received representations from several other organisations and individuals with suggestions for what should be in the Budget, including measures on beer duty.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the great contribution that the great British pub and great British beer make to local economies, employing nearly 1 million people and contributing £10 billion in tax. The Government have a proud record: in the last three years, we have scrapped the hated beer duty escalator and cut beer duty for three consecutive years. Will she seriously consider continuing the good work by cutting beer duty?

As the Chancellor just said, I will take that as a Budget representation. Of course we recognise the contribution of the beer and pubs industry across the UK—I am particularly aware from my previous job of the role pubs play in promoting responsible drinking— but it is worth noting that the public finances assume that alcohol duties rise by retail prices index inflation each year, meaning that there is a cost to the Exchequer from freezing or cutting alcohol duty rates. As I say, however, we consider all representations carefully.

When considering beer duty, will the Minister maintain, or at least not further erode, the differential with cider duty? Labour’s lower cider duty has led to a fantastic renaissance in both cider drinking and orchard planting in England, but if the differential is narrowed any further I am afraid it will do untold damage to our cider makers.

I am well aware of the sensitivities around the duty bands, on which we have received a number of representations, and of the renaissance not just in the industry to which the right hon. Gentleman refers but, for example, in respect of the number of microbreweries and the flourishing investment in that area. There have been a number of good news stories in this sector in recent years.

24. The Minister has also received representations about a wholly different kind of cider that has not seen much of a real apple, and that is super-strength white cider, which is very harmful and cheap. Will she consider using the new freedoms following Brexit that will enable the Government to take seriously the evidence in favour of a minimum unit price of alcohol, given its consequences for the health of young and vulnerable people? (908972)

I am extremely well aware of the points my hon. Friend makes, not least, as I say, because of the role I last held in government. We look carefully at all these things, particularly the issue of white cider.

Small Businesses

The Government continue to support small businesses to access the finance they need to grow through the British Business Bank, which supports almost £3.4 billion of finance to 54,000 smaller business. In the autumn statement, I announced an additional £400 million of funding for the bank. We also reaffirmed our commitment to the business tax road map, including the permanent doubling of the small business rates relief and the extension of the thresholds for the relief, so that 600,000 small businesses—occupiers of one third of all business properties—will pay no rates at all.

Federation of Small Businesses research says that over a third of small businesses expect their business rates to increase from 1 April. Small shops will be hit hard, while large supermarkets are set to gain. In Hounslow, the estimated 12% increase has led worried businesses to tell me that they expect to see jobs and investment cuts. The Chancellor would not want his fiscal decisions adversely to impact on growth and prosperity, so will he now commit to righting this wrong in his Budget? Will he also support Labour’s five-point plan to help small businesses through the revaluation?

I think the last thing small businesses need is any help from the Labour party. From what I have seen of Labour’s plans, that would be the final straw for most of them.

As we have said, we recognise that some small businesses are facing very substantial percentage increases, even where the actual amounts might not be very large, and that that can be difficult for businesses to absorb. We have committed to coming forward with a proposal that will address those who are hardest hit by that phenomenon.

In Stow-on-the-Wold in my constituency, the actual business rates payable by Tesco, which is five minutes’ walk from the centre, is £220 per square metre, whereas a delicatessen in the centre of the town will pay £500 per square metre. Does not my right hon. Friend think that the system of rating valuation needs to be re-examined?

The rating system is what it is; it reflects the rental value of properties. I readily acknowledge that in an economy that is changing shape rapidly, where the digital economy plays a much larger role and where some of the biggest businesses are not based on bricks and mortar, there are some very significant challenges for us, which we need to look at. In the short and medium term, business rates play a vital role in providing revenue to the Exchequer—and from 2020, of course, they will be used wholly to support local authorities.

16. In York, many businesses are paying inflated rents from overseas and local landlords, pushing up the rateable value, so business rates are sky high. The revaluation has caused some businesses a 600% increase, which is detrimental to the local economy and the high street. Will the Treasury work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to carry out an urgent review on the whole business rate system, because the model is broken? (908963)

I will say something more about the medium and longer-term challenges to business rates when I deliver my Budget next week. The hon. Lady would not want to alarm anybody in her constituency and she will know that nobody will see their rates bill go up by 600%.

Nobody will see their rates bill go up by 600%, and the damping mechanisms make that clear. Of course rateable values may go up by very significant amounts. I shall have more to say about this next week.

I welcome the Chancellor’s promise to explain more about what he is going to do about business rates in the Budget next week. Does he recognise, however, that in taxing our towns and villages around the UK, especially the beautiful ones in west Kent, he is in danger of changing the culture that is at the heart of our community, not just raising money for the Exchequer?

Yes, I absolutely recognise my hon. Friend’s concern. It is for that reason, as well as for reasons connected to the economic sustainability of individual businesses, that we have said that we will look at how best to help those most seriously affected.

20. Excellent businesses such as Dunn’s Bakery, the Railway Tavern and Elsie Café in high-value areas such as Crouch End and Muswell Hill have made representations. Will the Chancellor please confirm that he will look again at the business rates revaluation? (908968)

What I cannot do is look again at the business rates revaluation, which is an independent statutory exercise undertaken by the Valuation Office Agency. As the hon. Lady will know, if experience is anything to go by, of the 2 million business properties revalued, about 1 million will lodge appeals, so there will be a process of reviewing the way in which the valuations have been conducted. I have said I will look at those small businesses facing the largest increases and see how best to help them.

I strongly welcome the Chancellor’s commitment to look again at small business rates taxation in the Budget. The big four supermarkets are being given, on average, a 6.9% cut in their business rates. Will the Chancellor consider setting that rate at zero so that it is becomes “upward only”, and using the extra money to soften the blow for smaller businesses?

I do not think that that is the right way to proceed. The business rates revaluation reflects the underlying value of premises, and I am afraid it is an inconvenient fact that some large organisations have premises in low-value areas and some small organisations have premises in very high-value areas.

The Chancellor was right to talk about access to finance, but most small businesses depend on lending from safe high street banks. What discussions has he had with the banks to ensure that they remain safe and continue to fund small businesses so that they can benefit from the other fiscal measures?

Different high street banks have different models, but it is certain that some high street banks are aggressively pursuing small and medium-sized enterprises. When I say “aggressively pursuing”, I mean actively seeking their business. However, it is also important for us to diversify the range of financing options that are available to small and medium-sized enterprises, which is one of the reasons why we have pushed money, through the British Business Bank, towards other intermediaries that can provide equity and debt finance for SMEs.

The other part of my question was about the banks staying safe, which is vital to small businesses and the whole economy. The Chancellor will have observed the worrying signals from the United States that the new President intends to roll back some of the regulation that was introduced to make banks safer. Will the Chancellor assure us that he does not intend to play follow my leader and deregulate the banks unnecessarily in this country?

Our banking system in the United Kingdom ensures that our banks are safe, and is tackling the “too big to fail” culture. We have a high level of confidence in our banking system. The reserve ratios of our banks are improving consistently, and we do not want to do anything that would undermine them.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to join my former team today to discuss this important issue.

As we have heard, the FSB has found that more than a third of small businesses will see an significant increase in business rates, whereas the big four supermarkets may see a 5.9% reduction. Crucially, more than 55% of those small businesses plan to reduce, postpone or cancel further investment. If the Chancellor is serious about productivity, will he tell us what additional transitional relief he will provide for businesses that are facing a cliff edge?

The hon. Lady is only repeating what I have already acknowledged. Many very small businesses will see big increases because they are coming out of small business rates relief and facing the full rates regime for the first time. We understand the stress that they will experience at that point, and we will be considering how best to deal with those that are worst affected by the phenomenon.

Digital Infrastructure

The Government are taking action to give the United Kingdom the world-leading infrastructure that it needs. The Government-led £1.7 billion superfast broadband programme will extend coverage to 95% of UK premises by the end of 2017.

From artificial intelligence to mechanisation, we live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and the Government should foster it in rural and urban areas. Can the Economic Secretary confirm that he will resist the calls of a new generation of Luddites for robots to be taxed?

I was going to make a joke about the Liberal Democrats, but as there are none in the Chamber I will merely reassure my hon. Friend that the Government have no current plans to introduce a robot tax.

Current tax rules do not allow companies to set the cost of mathematical research against tax. That is obviously very out of date in an era of data science, and it does not apply to science and engineering. Will Ministers take this as a Budget representation, please?

We have significantly increased R and D tax credits; and, as a mathematician, I agree with the hon. Lady that maths is always important.

Long-term Infrastructure

We recognise that the need to increase public spending on infrastructure is at the heart of our productivity agenda. That is why, at autumn statement 2016, we committed £23 billion of additional capital to fund new productivity-enhancing economic infrastructure through the national productivity investment fund. Coupled with the commitments made at spending review 2015, that means that between 2016-17 and 2020-21 central Government investment in economic infrastructure will rise by almost 60%, from £14 billion to £22 billion.

After a 40-year wait, I am delighted that the Chancellor has announced a £25.7 million investment in the Stubbington bypass—vital infrastructure that will ease the terrible congestion between Fareham and Gosport. I commend my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), for her work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a great example of partnership between Hampshire County Council and Solent local enterprise partnership and that it will be the catalyst for a boost in jobs and the creation of growth?

I think the Stubbington bypass was well worth waiting for. It will indeed support growth and development by improving access to both the M27 and the A27, allowing much needed business investment, creating new jobs, but also enabling the development of 900 new homes. Where we can get transport infrastructure investment to perform its transport function but also to help to open up land for development for new homes, that is a double hit.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the appetite for non-Government sources to provide funding for UK infrastructure. Can he confirm whether the Government are considering regional, national or project-based infrastructure bonds? Will he agree to meet me and a group of funders to discuss the attractions of such bonds?

The most economical way for the Government to fund infrastructure investment is through conventional gilts—that is the lowest cost to the public purse. However, the Treasury backs infrastructure bonds and loans issued by the private sector through the UK guarantees scheme. At autumn statement, I announced that that scheme would be extended until at least 2026. It has played a vital role not just in underwriting and guaranteeing finance for projects, but in allowing a large number of projects to go ahead without the Government guarantee, simply by having underwritten the financing during the programme phase.

What steps is the Chancellor—I agreed with his answer on clean-energy long-term projects—taking to support and facilitate with the Welsh Government and with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project, following the Hendry review?

We have received the Hendry review report and we are considering the merits of the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project, including discussions with the Welsh Government.

Does the Chancellor believe that the balance of infrastructure spending between the north and the south-east is fair?

First, I should say that the Government are committed to addressing infrastructure needs across the UK. We will look at how best to use the available infrastructure funds based on the value for money of the projects that are brought forward, and different regions of the country will receive different allocations according to the projects that are available for development. The hon. Gentleman’s constituency has done well out of infrastructure funding.

Order. We have to be sensitive to the fact that lots of other Members are trying to get in. It is a matter not just of giving the answer but of knowing that other people want to take part. It is a fairly elementary point.

Social Care Funding

9. What discussions his Department has had with the Department for Communities and Local Government on the potential effect on the economy of the level of social care funding. (908956)

The Treasury regularly discusses social care funding with the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government. We have introduced a new social care precept and additional grant funding for social care. Taken together, those provide an additional £7.6 billion of dedicated funding for social care over the four years of the current settlement. That means that councils can afford to increase spending on social care every year.

The lack of funding for social care is having a devastating impact on people requiring care, carers and workers themselves. The 3% levy raises only £2.8 million for Rochdale. That does not even cover the cost of increasing the minimum wage for care workers. Does the Minister accept that?

As I say, it is not just about the council tax precept. We also have the better care fund coming in. We should also accept that this is not just about money. There is very variable performance around the country. It is worth pointing out that 50% of the delayed discharges attributed to social care take place in only 24 local authority areas.

Some areas, including the island, have taken the difficult decision to increase council tax by 3% to protect social care. Would the Chief Secretary to the Treasury consider finding ways of ensuring that councils have done all that they can to help themselves as well as ensuring that any Government support is made available now?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is a considerable amount of discretion for local authorities in regard to how much they want to prioritise social care, and the Government have given them greater flexibility in relation to the council tax precept.

Ayrshire Growth Deal

The Government have focused on taking forward city deals with Edinburgh, Stirling and Tay cities and we are looking to agree city deals with all of Scotland’s great cities. The Government have also published their Green Paper on the industrial strategy and are engaging closely with the Scottish Government and local partners on how the strategy can work for all parts of the United Kingdom.

We heard earlier about investment in Yorkshire. Would the Chief Secretary to the Treasury acknowledge that the Ayrshire growth deal would provide a much-needed economic boost to the area and reflect the Government’s promise to drive growth throughout the whole country, as outlined in their recently published industrial strategy?

As I said, we are focusing the city deals on cities. If the Scottish Government wish to take forward projects to enable growth in Ayrshire, they are able to do so.

British Wine Industry

The UK’s wine industry benefited from a duty freeze at Budget 2015, which means that the price of a typical bottle of wine is 7p lower since the end of the wine duty escalator in 2014.

The English wine industry is going from strength to strength, particularly in Sussex. I have five award-winning vineyards in my constituency. The Wine and Spirit Trade Association estimates that a 2% reduction in duty would not only boost the industry but generate an extra £368 million for the Treasury. Will that be considered in the Budget next week?

I heard those arguments directly from the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, alongside representatives from the all-party parliamentary wine and spirit group, recently. The issue of English and Welsh wine was raised, and I listened carefully to their Budget representations.

UK Financial Services: Passporting into the EU

15. What options he is discussing with the City of London to secure passporting for UK financial services into the EU. (908962)

We are ambitious for a deal, and it is clear that it is in the interests of both sides to maintain reciprocal market access. The important thing, however, is the end result, rather than the mechanism.

A lot of jobs in the UK depend on EU banking passports. For example, US banks can locate subsidiaries in the UK and then trade freely across Europe. In the Minister’s view, what are the prospects for keeping all those jobs in the UK after Brexit?

We want to ensure that British companies have the maximum freedom to trade and operate within European markets, and financial services are one of the areas in which we will be seeking a bold, ambitious agreement.

As the Minister continues his discussions on passporting, will he ensure that he maintains a dialogue with business associations and trade bodies such as TheCityUK, to ensure that we get the best possible settlement?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Treasury is very much in listening mode. We definitely want the best possible deal and we are clear that it is the end result, rather than the mechanism, that is important.

Depreciation of the Pound: Disposable Income

17. Whether his Department has made an assessment of the effect of the depreciation of the pound on levels of disposable income. (908964)

I am pleased to say that the Government are taking action to support the level of real disposable income per head, which is forecast to be 2.8% higher by 2021 than it was in 2016.

There can be few things more tragic than a Treasury in denial. As sure as night follows day, the collapse of the pound will lead to higher prices, particularly for food and household technology, so when will the Minister’s Department get its head out of the sand and bring forward proposals to boost disposable income, to help people to meet these rising costs?

Average earnings growth has now outstripped inflation for 27 consecutive months, and the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast that real disposable income will be 2.8% higher in 2021 than it was in 2016.

Recent Office for National Statistics figures show that exports have grown and imports have fallen. Is that not good for jobs, the economy, and employment?

Topical Questions

As we approach the beginning of the UK’s negotiations with the European Union, my principal responsibility remains delivering near-term measures to ensure stability and resilience in our economy, while also addressing the UK’s long-term productivity challenges. The package that I will announce at spring Budget next week will address both objectives.

Not replacing teachers, scrapping subjects, and even going to a four-day week are just some of the measures that our hard-pressed schools are having to take given what the Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed are the first cuts to schools’ budgets in over 20 years. Will the Chancellor use his Budget to invest in our future, reduce the productivity gap, and ensure a high-skilled, high-wage economy?

Yes. There was a slight disconnect in the hon. Lady’s question, but I will certainly do those things. Investing in our future, addressing the productivity challenge, and dealing with the skills gap will be at the centre of the Budget.

T2. What steps are the Government taking to support economic growth in Medway through investment in transport infrastructure, such as the lower Thames crossing and roads, and help for small businesses? (908975)

The Government are taking forward plans for the lower Thames crossing and major road upgrades, such as at junction 5 on the M2. We are also establishing a Thames estuary 2050 growth commission, which will set out a vision for development in the area.

Last week, the Government snuck out a statement on regulations denying 150,000 disabled people access to personal independence payments awarded by the upper tribunal. That was brutal. Last year, the previous Chancellor absorbed the costs when the Government were forced to halt cuts to personal independence payments to disabled people. In this case, are those disabled people being denied benefits because the Chancellor has refused to absorb the costs resulting from the upper tribunal decision?

What we are doing is restoring Parliament’s original intention for the payments, ensuring that they go to the people to whom they were intended to go and that the benefits cap, which is in place as part of our fiscal rules, is able to be met.

One of those people contacted us. She has type 2 diabetes, fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety. As a result of the Government’s action, she will now not be extended the support that the courts awarded her. It is clear from last night’s announcement of further austerity measures for Departments that the Government are all about forcing Departments to meet the Chancellor’s spending targets so that he can pay for further tax giveaways to the wealthy. Will he rule out further unfair tax giveaways, such as cutting the top rate of income tax to 40p in this Parliament? Otherwise, it is clear that he wants tax giveaways for the wealthy few and austerity for the most vulnerable in our society.

The right hon. Gentleman will have to wait until next week to find out what my proposals are, but let me be clear that we have no plans for further welfare reforms in this Parliament. However, the reforms that we have already legislated for must be delivered, and Parliament’s original intent in legislating for those reforms has to be ensured.

T3. In constituencies in London suburbs such as mine, ordinary family homes are caught by the upper levels of stamp duty land tax, and estate agents regularly tell me that that is creating cirrhosis in the market. If people are not moving at that level, people are not moving further down, meaning that others are unable to get on to the housing ladder. Is it not time to look again at the unintended consequences of the upper levels of that tax on home ownership and mobility? (908976)

It is worth noting that the SDLT reforms in the 2014 autumn statement reduced the tax for the vast majority of homebuyers and that all transactions up to £937,000 now pay the same or less in SDLT. As a London MP, I am obviously aware of the phenomenon to which my hon. Friend refers, but from the available data we do not yet have a clear consensus on the market impact of the higher rates of SDLT for additional residential properties or those at the upper end. We will continue to look carefully at that.

T7. The systemic maltreatment of businesses, as exemplified by the Royal Bank of Scotland’s dash for cash, requires action. Does the Chancellor accept the case for imposing a duty of care on the banks, particularly in their dealings with small and medium-sized enterprises? (908980)

The Financial Conduct Authority has published a summary of the main findings of its skilled persons report on RBS’s global restructuring group. The FCA is carefully considering that, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment while the process is ongoing.

T4. I have been conducting a survey in my constituency with local campaigners Peter Booth and Nick Craker, and many people have raised concerns about road safety in our towns and villages. Can my right hon. Friend inform me of any additional funding for road safety improvement? (908977)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and road safety is a key priority for the £15.2 billion road investment strategy. In November 2016 we announced an additional £175 million to improve the 50 most dangerous roads in the country. As she will be aware, Cornwall has received £78 million from the local growth fund, including for investment in local roads.

Our biggest businesses are already benefiting significantly from the cut to corporation tax, yet today we find that profit-making Caffè Nero has paid zero in corporation tax. Given that the Chancellor is trying to balance the Budget on the backs of the disabled and the ill, what more will he do to stop profit-making companies avoiding tax on his watch?

As the hon. Lady will know, I cannot discuss the affairs of an individual taxpayer in this House, but this Government and their immediate predecessor have taken more steps over seven years than the previous Labour Government did over their whole 13 years in office to address the abuse of the tax system and aggressive tax avoidance and evasion.

T5. In the past year international tourist rates and spend grew faster in the south-west than in London, and the south-west also attracted more domestic tourists than any other region. Given the Mayor of London’s plans for a hotel levy, will the Chancellor look again at cutting the rate of VAT on tourism? (908978)

I agree that when a man is tired of London he should visit Somerset. Although tourism growth across the UK is indeed very welcome, and the Government will look at all opportunities to support it, reducing VAT would cost up to £10 billion, which is money that is needed to underpin our public services and to help to deal with our deficit.

I am glad that the Chancellor is in listening mode on the mess created by the Government on business rates. Can I urge him similarly to be in listening mode on the potential mess that will be created by the provisions of the Local Government Finance Bill on funding local authorities?

I will take the hon. Gentleman’s comments as a Budget submission, and I will pass them on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

T6. Does the Chancellor share my concern about reports that billions of pounds in VAT and customs duties are not being accounted for? Will he look carefully at the role of fulfilment houses such as Amazon and eBay to ensure that we get the money that is due to the Exchequer? (908979)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and at Budget 2016 the Government announced new measures to better enable Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to tackle just such activity. The measures are forecast to raise £875 million in total by 2021. Over the past year, HMRC has already seen a more than tenfold increase in online non-EU businesses applying to register for VAT.

A week before the election, the Chancellor’s predecessor came to Sussex and pledged support for infrastructure improvements to the rail line between London and Brighton. He commissioned a £100,000 study that has never been released. When will the Government release the south coast and London main line upgrade programme report?

T9. For many of my constituents in Kettering even a small amount of household debt can turn out to be unaffordable and can turn into a personal financial nightmare for them and their family. When will the Treasury respond to the excellent “Breathing Space” proposals to help people who are trying to get on top of their household debts by giving them statutory protection from unscrupulous, ruthless lenders? (908982)

The “Breathing Space” proposals are being carefully considered by the Government and we will report on them shortly.

Unsecured consumer credit is rising at a level last seen before the banking crisis. Does the Chancellor accept that that is unsustainable?

Clearly, it cannot go on forever, but households do have some capacity for debt, and consumer borrowing and consumer spending have been an important component of the robustness of the economy over the past few months. What I hope to see is business investment and exports providing a greater share of the growth during 2017.

I very much welcome this Government’s healthy commitment to scientific spending over several years, but it seems that our business investment in research is below the OECD average. May I urge the Chancellor to examine measures that will increase private company business expenditure on research?

As the Chancellor announced at the autumn statement, the Government are significantly increasing investment in research and development, rising to an extra £2 billion a year by 2020-21. We have also made the R and D tax credit regime much more generous. We want to ensure that the UK remains an attractive place for business to invest in innovative research.

Given the shameful neglect of social care spending in the autumn statement and straws in the wind about how that is going to be put right in the Budget, will the Chancellor take account of the fact that authorities such as ours in Wirral are having to deal with £45 million-worth of pressure due to the number of our older people who are needing help, and that a 3% increase in council tax will deliver us only £22 million?

I generally find it best not to comment on straws in the wind, but I recognise the pressure that many authorities are under from underlying demographic trends. As we have said before, we are alert to that concern and will seek to address it in a sensible and measured way.

For people moving into a residential care home the means test takes into account the value of their home, whereas it does not do so if they are applying for care in their own home. Does the Chancellor agree that there should be one simple system of means-testing, for whatever state funding people are applying?

The system that my hon. Friend refers to has been around for many years and predates the deferred purchase agreements which all local authorities now offer to people contributing to their care. We do not just need to look at individual, specific aspects of this challenge; we need to look broadly at the question of how to make social care funding sustainable for the future, in the face of a rapidly ageing population.

Since 1994, the Government have received £10 billion of pension cash which could have benefited miners. A Treasury written answers says that a further £153 million will be pocketed in the next three years. Will the Chancellor use the Budget to look again at the injustice of the mineworkers pension scheme?

I do not recognise the numbers the hon. Lady has given the House, but I will look at them and write to her accordingly.

Estate agents report that the number of transactions of so-called “prime properties” in London and elsewhere fell by 50% last year and that at the beginning of this year the situation is even worse than it was the year before. If it were proven that tax revenues had fallen as a result of policy, would the Chancellor be willing to review and change it?

As we have mentioned, it is not really clear that there is a consensus on what the data are saying. However, as with all taxes, we keep this one constantly under review.

Oil and gas received only a passing mention in the industrial strategy and was classed as a low priority for the Brexit negotiations. Will the Chancellor commit to actually doing something to support the future of the oil and gas industry in next week’s Budget?

The hon. Lady will have to wait and see, but I am well aware of the concerns that the industry is expressing. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary met industry representatives last week and we understand their principal asks.

Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer give a guarantee to the House that the details of the Budget will be first revealed to this House, and that we will not find out about them in this weekend’s press?

What I can do is give my hon. Friend a guarantee that I will follow all proper procedures. Unfortunately, I cannot give him a guarantee that that will necessarily lead to the outcome that he seeks.

The former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), has said that withdrawing from the single market would be

“the biggest single act of protectionism in the history of the United Kingdom”

and that the Government have chosen not to make the economy the priority. Is the former Chancellor launching a soft coup, or has he got this Government absolutely bang to rights for their economic vandalism?

The hon. Gentleman understands very well that being a member of the single market was not an option for the UK given the clear views expressed by the electorate in the referendum, but having comprehensive access to the single market will deliver the great majority of the benefits that he seeks from single market membership.

Some 100,000 UK businesses have already registered companies in the Republic of Ireland to hedge their bets given the policy and regulatory uncertainty caused by the vote to leave the European Union. Will the Chancellor urge his Cabinet colleagues, when they are negotiating around the table, to give policy and regulatory certainty to industries such as the chemical industry, which are not waiting to see what the Government are doing, but are simply haemorrhaging jobs and investment out of this country?

I agree with the hon. Lady that certainty as soon as possible is important, as are understanding of what implementation arrangements will look like and over what timescale. However, I urge her not to be hysterical about these things. [Interruption.] Many companies are making contingency plans, including setting up and incorporating subsidiaries in other European Union countries. It is another step altogether to be moving jobs and enterprises abroad. Most of the companies that we talk to have made it clear that there is more time yet for them to be reassured during this process before we see irrevocable moves.

The Treasury supported the launch of the National Needs Assessment’s infrastructure report, which clearly states that carbon capture and storage is required as part of energy policy going forward. When will the Treasury do the right thing and reinstate the funding for carbon capture and storage?

I think the hon. Gentleman was talking about carbon capture and storage. That is a matter for my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and I will raise with him the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Point of Order

In response to my recent Treasury question, the Chancellor of the Exchequer accused me of being hysterical. May we have a ruling from you in the Chair, Mr Speaker, about that sort of sexist language, which is used to diminish women who make a perfectly reasonable point? That sort of language would not have been used had I been a man. My question on the registration of companies in Ireland had nothing to do with the condition of my womb travelling to my head, as in the traditional rhetoric about hysterics. I expect that sort of language from the sketch writers of the Daily Mail, not from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I did not accuse the hon. Lady of being hysterical; I urged her not to be hysterical. [Interruption.]

Order. A point of order has been raised. The Chancellor is responding. Before anybody else says anything, we must hear what he has to say.

If my comments have caused the hon. Lady any offence, I of course withdraw them unreservedly.

I think that we should leave it there. I thank the Chancellor for what he has said. There is a difference between order and taste. People will have their own view about taste, but the point has been raised, and the Chancellor has made a gracious statement in response. For today, we should leave it there.

Prison Officers Association: Withdrawal from Voluntary Tasks

(Urgent Question): The prisons Minister told the Select Committee on Justice this morning that he has the number of the chair of the Prison Officers Association on speed dial.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting a little ahead of himself. At this stage, all he needs to do is put the urgent question in the very simple terms in which it was put to me, by saying, “To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if she will make a statement on the Prison Officers Association instruction to withdraw from voluntary tasks.” I have just done the hon. Gentleman’s work for him. If he wants to say it again, he may, but that is the way to deal with it. He will have his opportunity to speak in a moment. He is ahead of himself, which I suppose is better than being behind the curve.

Mr Speaker, thank you for asking the urgent question on behalf of the Opposition. I am grateful for the chance to update the House on this important issue.

Strike action is unlawful, as we have said to the Prison Officers Association. It will seriously disrupt normal operations in prisons and, although we will of course take any actions we can to mitigate the risks, we are clear that action of this nature by the POA poses a risk to the safety of prisons and prison staff. The duties that the POA refers to in its bulletin are not voluntary but a fundamental part of a prison officer’s role, and essential to running a safe and decent prison. They include: assessment of those at risk of suicide; first aid; restraint training and intervention; and hostage negotiation. The instructions by the POA are clearly designed to disrupt the safe and decent running of prisons.

We have made the maximum pay offer that we could to all operational staff in prisons. In addition, we offered a £1,000 retention payment to all operational staff and a reduction in pension age to 65, fully funded by the Government. We were disappointed that the offer was rejected by the POA membership, despite being endorsed by the POA leadership. This year’s pay award is now a matter for the independent Prison Service Pay Review Body, which will take evidence from all parties and report to the Government in April. The POA, of course, has the opportunity to make its case to the pay review body, but we are not waiting for the pay review body to respond.

In the past week, we have outlined progression opportunities that will take earnings to more than £30,000 a year for more than 2,000 staff across the country. We have also introduced allowances in areas in which the cost of living is higher to take basic rate prison officers up to £30,000 a year. We understand that prison officers do a difficult job in very challenging circumstances, so we are making these moves on pay to recognise their effort and hard work. In addition, the Government are investing £100 million to increase the net number of prison officers by 2,500 in the next two years. I urge the shadow Minister, if he has good sense and cares about the safety and order of our prisons, not to put prison officers and prisoners at risk, but to condemn this unlawful strike action.

The prisons Minister told the Justice Committee this morning that he has the number of the chair of the Prison Officers Association on speed dial. If the Minister is dialling, it is clear that he is not connecting because the situation could easily have been avoided. Ministers could have spoken to the POA before imposing a pay policy that has proven to be so divisive and unpopular. They need to sit down and talk to the POA, rather than threaten legal action and claim the action is unlawful before any court has made any such determination. In order to fix a prison system currently relying on staff doing extra work voluntarily—for no extra money—to keep our system running, Ministers need to focus on the real problems.

At the Conservative party conference back in October, the Justice Secretary announced 400 more officers to work in 10 challenging prisons, but the staffing shortfall at those prisons has grown in the last quarter. After the White Paper announcement of 2,500 additional officers, there was a fall of 133 staff in the last quarter of 2016. That 2,500 is now further away than it was in November.

So where is the Justice Secretary? Why have some prisons with no recruitment and retention problems received the pay award, while some prisons struggling most on that front have received nothing? How much additional money has been earmarked for this recruitment drive? What discussions have taken place with the POA leadership today?

To turn around this mess, we need a Justice Secretary who is serious—serious about working with prison officers—and we need a prisons Bill that will deliver serious reform. Sadly, at the moment, we have neither.

In relation to the additional allowances that were announced for staff last week, and also the pay progression opportunity for 2,000 prison officers across the estate, the POA was consulted. If the hon. Gentleman had read its press release in detail, he would have noticed that the POA actually welcomed those things; its issue was that it wanted them to apply to all the country. However, it is not novel to have a pay allowance in areas where it is difficult to recruit and where the cost of living is too high—it is not novel in the Prison Service, and it is not novel in the public sector.

The hon. Gentleman talked about extra money that is going into the Prison Service. I made it absolutely clear that we have £100 million for a net 2,500 officers. He referred to data relating to December last year, following our announcement in November, so let me update him briefly on where we are on prison officer recruitment. We are on track to recruit the 400 new officers the Secretary of State announced in October for the 10 most challenging jails. We have more people in training today to be prison officers than ever before. We are also investing £4 million in marketing to attract new prison officers.

The Labour party, I am afraid, is confused on prisons. Last year, it told us that it wanted the prison population cut from 80,000 to 45,000. Last Sunday, we heard from the shadow Attorney General that prisoners should be allowed to keep mobile phones so that they can carry on their life of crime in prison. Until the Labour party has sorted out its position, it is in no position to question us.

The Justice Committee has always made it clear that it recognises that there are great pressures on our prisons, and that includes pressures on the dedicated men and women who work in them. However, does the Minister accept that it is not helpful, given the efforts that are being made to turn the situation around, which takes time to achieve, to embark on a course of action that, legal or otherwise, creates further restrictions on the regime and, therefore, further tensions in the prison population? That makes it harder to deliver rehabilitation and, sadly, makes the job of prison officers harder in the long term.

The Chairman of the Justice Committee makes an important point. We have made progress on pay with the Prison Officers Association, and we have had progress on health and safety; indeed, today we were to meet the POA to discuss pensions. I absolutely agree with the Justice Secretary that today’s action only puts prisoners and prison officers, who work very hard, at risk.

As we have heard, prison staff in England and Wales have been demoralised by understaffing, underpayment and overcrowding in prisons. While the Government have offered a pay rise to prison staff to encourage further recruitment and retention of current staff, as we have heard, that will apply only in the south-east and London. The Minister said that that is not novel, but it does not address the issue of morale across the board.

This is a matter for England and Wales, but I am here to encourage the Minister to look at the Scottish Government’s attempts to reduce the number of people in prisons by moving away from ineffective, short-term prison sentences and making more use of community alternatives. Does he agree that he should concentrate efforts on such schemes? Never mind the marketing budget he spoke of to recruit people, what will he do to ensure that newly recruited prison officers are retained and that the morale of all prison staff, who already have a very stressful job, is restored?

The hon. Lady is right—the morale of prison officers is important to us. However, let me be clear: we had a pay deal endorsed by the Prison Officers Association towards the end of last year that was rejected. That pay deal is now a matter for the independent pay review body. We have submitted evidence and the POA can submit its evidence, so we are taking action on pay for the Prison Service as a whole. We have also put in place additional allowances for 31 jails where it is particularly hard to recruit. Further to that, we have created a new progression opportunity for 2,000 prison officers across the country, and today we were due to be in talks about pensions. We value prison officers and the work they do, and we want to support them, but unlawful strike action is not the way to progress. It would actually achieve the opposite, which is to put prison officers at risk.

While strongly regretting the strike action announced by the POA, I welcome the reduction in retirement age to 65 that the Minister has told the House about. In his further discussions on pensions when this strike is over—I hope he will be able to get back around the table soon—will he bear in mind the comparison with the pension offers for the police and the armed services, in that members in those schemes have to pay more?

I will certainly bear that in mind, although the pension deal offered to the POA and prison officers would have been fully funded by the Government.

Last year 119 prisoners took their own lives in our prisons—the highest level of suicides on record. The POA instruction urges members to withdraw from ACCT—assessment, care in custody and teamwork. While I have every sympathy with the 7,000 POA prison officers who now face these challenges in our prisons, what impact will that withdrawal have on the already dismal mental health support available in our prisons?

As I said earlier, involvement in ACCT processes and ceasing suicide and self-harm are fundamental to a prison officer’s duty. I would encourage and urge all prison officers to carry on with their tasks as they should.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work that he is doing with a difficult pack of cards? Does he agree that a prison officer joins to serve, and that that means to serve in whatever guise without striking?

I certainly do agree. In fact, the legislation on this was introduced by the previous Labour Government, so I was surprised that the shadow Minister would not condemn this unlawful strike action.

When prisons are in crisis and staff are on strike, every available penny should be spent on making prisons safe. Is the Minister aware that last year £500,000 of compensation was paid to serious criminals because they were released late from prison? When will he get that under control and provide prison officers with a safe working environment and prisoners with a safe and drug-free environment in which to be detained?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we published a White Paper last year, and only last week introduced the Prisons and Courts Bill—the first Bill in 65 years that not only puts turning around our prisoners’ lives at the centre of our work but improves safety and security in our prisons. We are taking action.

Will the Minister update the House on some of the measures in the Bill that should help to resolve the situation and ensure that our prisons are places of safety and reform?

The central aspect of the Bill is to make it very clear that the fundamental purpose of prisons is to turn around offenders’ lives. If prisons are focused on that, we will reduce reoffending, and the £15 billion reoffending bill, but also help to make our prisons places of safety and reform.

To avoid any doubt, will the Minister say today that he will accept the recommendations that the independent pay review body makes?

We will obviously look at its recommendations. Let me make this clear: we value prison officers and the hard work they do, and we have already taken a lot of action to recognise that. The right hon. Gentleman cannot ask me to commit at the Dispatch Box to results that I do not know.

I agree with the Minister that it is wrong for this strike to go ahead, particularly given the services that it affects. I know he will share my concern at the 6,000 assaults on prison officers up until June 2016. Will he reassure me on the actions being taken to tackle this and to ensure that those who commit these assaults are held to account?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Prison officers work in a very challenging environment, and our job is to keep them safe in that environment. We are looking at a number of things, including making sure that any crime scene is preserved, working with the local police forces that attend the scene, and making sure that impact statements are well prepared and admissible in court. We are also ensuring that when someone assaults a prison officer and is convicted, the sentence is consecutive rather than concurrent with their existing sentence. I agree that it is vital that we keep prison officers safe.

This dispute is, on the surface, about pay, and the Minister has said an awful lot about that, but he must realise that it is also about unhappiness that has been developing in the Prison Service for many years now, principally about safety at work. The levels of assaults on prison officers, suicide and self-harm are unprecedented. Fixing that is how the Government are going to resolve this in the longer term. When are we going to start to see safety in prisons improve?

I have said right from the start that the levels of violence in our prisons are too high. We have been working very closely with the Prison Officers Association on health and safety and have made progress—for example, on regime management plans that the POA would accept. We are also investing £100 million to add 2,500 officers to the frontline, in addition to the points on pay that I have already made. These problems were long in the making, and yes, it will take time to resolve them, but we have the resolve to do so and we are doing it.

The job of prison officers is made more difficult by the presence in our prisons of drugs and mobile phones. Can my hon. Friend tell me by what date will we have at least one prison—just one—that is free of drugs and mobile phones?

My hon. Friend will have noticed measures in the Bill that we introduced last week to make it easier to test for drugs and deal with the problem of drugs in our prisons, and we are taking a lot of action on mobile phones. For example, new legislation under the Serious Crime Act 2015 has allowed us to turn off 160 mobile phones in our jails in the past few months. We are also working with mobile network operators so as to be able to switch off mobile phones in our jails. A lot of work is being done, but it will take time.