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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 8 March 2017


The Secretary of State was asked—

Article 50

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on the process for triggering article 50. (909071)

I encourage the whole House to recognise that today is International Women’s Day. Events are taking place here in Parliament and across government.

I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to ensure that our exit from the EU is a success. As members of the European Union Exit and Trade Cabinet Committee and the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations), we are committed to working closely with the devolved Administrations to ensure that exiting the EU has a fair and strong outcome.

I join the Secretary of State in welcoming International Women’s Day.

At yesterday’s sitting of the Exiting the EU Committee, the Welsh Finance Secretary, Mark Drakeford, voiced concerns about the UK Government using Brexit to grab new powers over such things as farming and fishing, which should without question go directly to Cardiff and Edinburgh under the existing devolution settlements. Can the Secretary of State give a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no such attempt to undermine and row back on devolution?

We have already said that no decisions currently taken by the devolved Administrations will be removed from them. We will use the return of decision making from Europe back to the UK to strengthen devolution and the Union.

On behalf of the people of Wales, will my right hon. Friend tell the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union that nobody—not the unelected House of Lords or anybody else—is going to stand in the way of the will of the Welsh people to have their freedom?

My hon. Friend reminds us that Wales voted to leave the European Union at the recent referendum. There is an obligation on the Government and on both Houses of Parliament to accept its outcome.

9. A hard Brexit would be bad for jobs in Wales. Blaenau Gwent has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, yet the Department for Work and Pensions proposes shutting Tredegar jobcentre. Will the Secretary of State meet me to talk about supporting the people of Blaenau Gwent into work? (909079)

I will happily meet the hon. Gentleman, although I do not necessarily recognise his message about our approach to Brexit—we want a deal that works for every part of the United Kingdom.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that unemployment across Wales is lower than the UK average, which is remarkable considering the industrial heritage of constituencies in Wales such as the hon. Gentleman’s. I will happily work with him on the issues he raises in connection with the Department for Work and Pensions.

In his evidence to the Brexit Select Committee yesterday, Cabinet Secretary Mark Drakeford also said that the Welsh Government were, disgracefully, not made aware of the UK Government’s 12-point Brexit plan or their White Paper. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the Plaid Cymru-Welsh Government Brexit White Paper is fed into the article 50 letter and accompanying documents?

The Welsh Government’s White Paper on exiting the European Union was considered by the Joint Ministerial Committee at the end of February, and we have a significant amount of common ground. The Welsh Government talk about “unfettered access”, while my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has talked about “frictionless” access and trade. We can work on the basis of a lot of common ground, and I am optimistic that we will continue to work in a positive environment with the Welsh Government and the other devolved Administrations to secure a Brexit deal that works for every part of the United Kingdom.

Infrastructure Investment: North Wales

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on infrastructure investment in north Wales. (909072)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I hold regular discussions with colleagues from across Government to champion the people and businesses of north Wales. Our commitment to north Wales is demonstrated by the Government’s £212 million investment in HMP Berwyn, and we have opened the door to a north Wales growth deal further to strengthen the region’s economy.

The Mersey Dee Alliance meets tomorrow in Wrexham at Glyndwr University. It has presented a coherent and effective transport plan for improving links between north Wales and the rest of the country. Will the Government give us not just warm words, but a financial commitment to north Wales to match the investment put in by the Welsh Government?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the plans that he supports for better connectivity between north Wales and the north-west of England are also strongly supported by the Wales Office. The proposals made by stakeholders in north Wales are being given serious consideration, but I would not want to prejudge any financial decision made by other Departments here in Westminster.

Is the Minister aware of significant concerns among local authorities covering north Wales, west Cheshire, east Cheshire, Warrington and other areas abut the inadequacy of the current proposals for the HS2 station at Crewe, in terms of both line routeing and platform and junction arrangements? Will he undertake to represent those concerns at the highest level to ensure that a fit-for-purpose Crewe hub station can bring regional connectivity and economic benefits?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in respect of the importance of connectivity between north Wales and the north-west of England, as well as more widely. He is clearly aware of the potential of HS2 to open the door to better connectivity. I recognise his concern about the Crewe hub. We are discussing the issue at a ministerial level, but I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it further at any point.

I look forward to welcoming the Secretary of State to my constituency tomorrow so that he can see the importance of connectivity between Wales, Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. On the broadband universal service obligation, has the Minister made the case to other Departments for finance to roll out superfast broadband to the extra 5%?

The hon. Gentleman is well known for championing Anglesey. I thoroughly agree with him about the importance of connectivity, both digital and by road and rail. The Wales Office is continually making the case for a scheme to ensure that the whole UK is well served by digital connectivity as we exit the European Union.

Given the interconnective nature of the Wales-England border to constituencies such as mine, does my hon. Friend agree that collaboration between local leaders and industry is essential for people living on the borders?

That is an important point. I was in mid-Wales over the weekend, and there is no doubt that that connectivity is part of day-to-day life there. I agree that both the Government and business need to co-operate across the Wales-England border.

11. In the context of infrastructure, we have just heard that Brexit rebel Lord Heseltine, who had been overseeing work on the already overdue Swansea city deal, has been ousted by the Government. What hope have we of securing similar deals for the rest of Wales if experts are axed at the whim of an insecure Executive who are fearful of parliamentary sovereignty? (909081)

The hon. Lady highlights an issue that is in the news today. It should be emphasised that the Swansea Bay region city deal has a bottom-up agenda. Lord Heseltine did contribute significant expertise during a challenge session, and I am confident that we will have a city deal for the region, followed by further growth deals for Wales as a result of the Government’s work to ensure that Wales benefits from investment in the same way as any other part of the United Kingdom.

May I bring the Minister back to north Wales and raise the issue of its connectivity through my constituency? In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), he seemed to pass the buck to another part of the Government, and that is not good enough. Will he ensure that the Government and their silos do not restrict connectivity between Wales and English cities, and will he arrange a cross-governmental meeting with Members of Parliament who want more investment in the connection between north Wales and Merseyside?

As a north Wales Member, I am very happy to be brought back to north Wales—that is nothing other than a pleasure.

The Government are moving ahead with a cross-border growth deal that will benefit north Wales and the north-west of England. The aim is to improve connectivity between north Wales and the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. I am proud of the fact that 57 trains a week now travel from my constituency to Manchester, but we need more of that to improve the economies of north Wales and the north-west of England.

I wish a happy International Women’s Day to all the women in the world, especially my daughter, Angharad, who has been my inspiration.

Last week, Economy and Infrastructure Minister Ken Skates launched “Moving North Wales Forward”, the Welsh Government’s “Vision for North Wales and the North East Wales Metro”. When will the Minister launch his vision for north Wales?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her post, and I am delighted to respond to her question on International Women’s Day. However, I am disappointed that the Welsh Government’s “Vision for North Wales” seems to be a vision for north-east Wales. The Department and the Government have a vision of connectivity throughout north Wales.

Welsh Language

I was delighted that, on St David’s day, the House resolved that the use of Welsh be permitted in parliamentary proceedings of Select Committees and of the Welsh Grand Committee held in both Wales and here at Westminster. That is just one example of the work that we are doing to promote the Welsh language throughout the UK.

I might represent an English constituency, but I am also proud of my Welsh ancestry. Does the Minister welcome the increased viewing figures for S4C in England?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It was highlighted to me at a recent reception in the Wales Office that since the partnership between S4C and the BBC has seen S4C programmes being available on the iPlayer, the largest area of S4C viewing figure growth has been in England—a 25% rise over the last year alone. This must be welcomed by everybody who cares about the Welsh language and culture.

The funding last year for S4C was £6.7 million; the funding for next year is £6.1 million. How does that square with the manifesto commitment that the Minister stood on in 2015 to protect funding for S4C?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the commitment was that the funding for S4C would be frozen until after the delivery of a review of S4C, and I am quite certain that there will be an announcement that the funding will be frozen until after the review has taken place.

I proudly served on the Bill Committee that considered the Welsh Language Act 1993, during the John Major Government, so I am fully in favour of the use of the Welsh language, but may we have some consistency in Wales on road signs? In some areas Welsh is first followed by English; in other areas it is vice versa—that does make life complicated.

I think that the whole House is aware of my hon. Friend’s commitment to and support for Wales—and certainly his support for Welsh questions. He makes an interesting point, but with road signs in Wales it is very much a case of localism—this is a devolved issue. If a local authority wants Welsh first, Welsh is first, but if an authority, because of the linguistic nature of the area, prefers to have English first, it can choose to do so.

May I press the Minister a bit further? He says that he is “quite certain” that a positive announcement will be made, but can he guarantee that the freeze will be carried on until the review of S4C is concluded? S4C does marvellous work not only in Wales but across the world, and it needs the reassurance that its funding will be frozen again.

The hon. Gentleman is well known for his support for S4C and the Welsh language, but I have stated very clearly that this Department is committed to ensuring that that manifesto commitment is delivered. More importantly, we need a long-term agreement on the future of S4C, and the whole point of this review is to ensure that S4C not only has a decent financial situation for this year, but is on a strong footing for the future.

This institution has spent four centuries disrespecting the Welsh language, which existed and was a sophisticated literary language for 1,000 years before English existed, so we pay tribute to the late Wyn Roberts and my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for this step forward now: “O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau.”

Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman that the deployment of another language should in all courtesy be immediately followed by a translation for those who would benefit from it—but the hon. Gentleman can save that delight up for us for another occasion.

The hon. Gentleman finished his comments by saying, “Long may the language live,” and I subscribe to that viewpoint. I am very grateful to him for highlighting the work of my predecessor Lord Roberts of Conwy in relation to the Welsh Language Act 1993 and Welsh language education. The fact of the matter is that the Welsh language is no longer a political football, and it should never be a political football again. We need to support it in all parties across Wales.

All in the Scottish National party support the Welsh language and Sianel Pedwar Cymru—S4C. Will the Minister use his good offices to reciprocate the good wishes of the SNP and urge the BBC to fund BBC Alba to the same levels as Sianel Pedwar Cymru so that we have the same support for Welsh and Gaelic across the UK, as they rightfully should have?

I have a very fond recollection of a holiday on the isle of Barra when I was 10 years old where I heard Scots-Gaelic being spoken in the streets. I understand that an increase of £1 million for BBC Alba has been announced, which is to be welcomed, and I would say that people in Scotland want to support that language in Scotland in the same way as people in Wales want to support the Welsh language.

International Business

4. What assessment he has made of the strength of Wales’s international business links since the UK’s decision to leave the EU. (909074)

Wales is an exporting nation. Welsh lamb, Penderyn whisky and Anglesey sea salt are all known well beyond our own borders, but we can do more. On Monday I hosted a business export summit in Cardiff to ensure that businesses in Wales have full access to UK Government business support for exports.

What steps is the Secretary of State taking to engage with and understand the needs of smaller businesses in Wales as we negotiate to leave the European Union?

My hon. Friend recognises this Government’s global trading ambition. There are 1,200 staff in the Department for International Trade, across 109 countries. Any businesses based in Swansea are as entitled to the same sort of support as businesses based in Swindon, and I encourage them to use the Department for International Trade.

Some 44% of trade goes to the EU, but the amount from Wales is 70%. Last week in Swansea, the CBI and producers told me that it is imperative that we retain access to the single market and the customs union. The people of Wales did not vote to leave them. Will the Secretary of State assure us that he will do everything he can to keep that going so that our exports are free to continue?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that on Monday I held an event to promote exports to not only Europe but all parts of the globe. Clearly there are great opportunities, and last year 4,000 Welsh companies took their first steps towards exporting. Europe is an important market. We want frictionless trade with Europe, and we also want to look to the great opportunities that exiting the European Union will bring to not only Welsh businesses but businesses across the whole United Kingdom. [Interruption.]

Order. An excessive number of rather noisy private conversations are taking place. I understand the sense of anticipation, but it is very unfair on Members asking questions and the Minister answering. Let us have a decent audience for Mr Stephen Crabb.

Despite Wales having world-leading companies that contribute to humanitarian efforts in some of the poorest nations on earth, no Welsh company has been able to secure a contract with the Department for International Development. Will my right hon. Friend look into that and work with the excellent International Development Secretary to make DFID not only more pro-business, but more pro-Welsh business?

My right hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. Not only has he been a strong champion for Wales over many years, but he has shown a strong interest in overseas development. I will happily work with him and my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary on overseas aid to ensure that Welsh businesses get the same opportunity as any other UK business to win contracts to help to support and develop those nations.

At a St David’s day celebration, Wales’s First Minister, Carwyn Jones, declared that Wales is open for business. Last week he spent four days in America, boosting post-Brexit trade between the USA and Wales. Does the Secretary of State plan to visit the USA and recruit more business for Wales?

May I welcome the hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box for her first Welsh questions? Last week GE Aviation announced a £20 million investment in Nantgarw. The UK and Welsh Governments worked together to land that significant employment opportunity, which will secure 1,200 jobs for more than two decades. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade always rightly underlines that every business in Wales is entitled to the same support as any business in England, and I am working closely with him on not only that but trade missions.

Steel Industry

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the future of the steel industry in Wales. (909075)

I recently met the unions. Following the positive outcome of the recent ballot, it is now vital that all parties work together to deliver the agreed proposals. We will continue to engage with the sector, as well as with the unions, the devolved nations and other partners, as we seek to find a long-term viable solution for the industry.

The International Trade Secretary is said to have stated that the Government should ignore those who argue for protection. Will the Welsh Secretary agree to argue for a proper trade defence mechanism for steel, if that is what is required?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look to this Government’s positive record, in spite of the scaremongering of many Opposition Members. There are already 41 trade defence measures in place and the outcomes speak for themselves. Rebar coming into the European Union has reduced by 99%, as has wire rod—the statistics speak for themselves. This Government are determined to take the right action to support not only free trade but Welsh and UK businesses and industry.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what action has been taken to ensure that Welsh steel is used in British procurements across the UK?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that significant steps have been taken since 12 months ago when the crisis broke. Energy-intensive industry support has meant that £134 million has now been paid to the steel sector, and I have already mentioned the fact that 41 trade defence measures are in place. We have also introduced flexibility over EU emissions regulations. We are determined to ensure that everything will be done to make the steel industry sustainable over the longer term.

There has been much discussion in the past week about the automotive industry, particularly about Ford in Bridgend and the acquisition of Vauxhall by PSA, which are of major importance in south Wales and north Wales respectively. The presence of a domestic steel industry is key to our automotive industry, so will the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues about the automotive and steel industries and what assurances he can give to both industries about the Government’s commitment to their sustainability?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and I are in regular communication, not only about steel but about the automotive sector. Although Ellesmere Port is not in Wales, there are clearly a significant number of Welsh employees in the workforce there. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take encouragement from major investments such as that being made by Nissan in Sunderland. There are 100 automotive component industries based in Wales that will have access to those contracts—

Valleys Lines: Electrification

The Government have confirmed their commitment to contribute £125 million to the Cardiff city deal, which will provide an investment fund for the region and support for the electrification of the valleys lines. The project has the potential to broaden employment opportunities for those living in some of Wales’s most deprived communities and to act as a significant incentive for business investment. The scope, planning and delivery of electrification are matters for the Welsh Government.

That is a pitiful answer. It does not answer the question at all. The former Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), who is talking to the present Secretary of State for Transport, told the House in October 2012 that the project would be finished by May 2015, but it has not even started. When will the Minister ensure that my constituents get the proper service that they require, with clean trains, disabled access, proper toilets and services that do not break down?

I think that the whole House enjoys the hon. Gentleman’s rhetoric, but it would appear that he—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. One cannot fail to hear the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), but I want to hear the Minister’s reply.

It would appear that the hon. Gentleman does not understand the way devolution works. The city deal has been agreed with the Welsh Government, and the scope, planning and delivery of electrification are matters for the Welsh Government. I advise him to speak to his colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government.

With the arrival of electrification in south Wales and the Government’s investment in the new bimodal trains, which have been greatly welcomed in my constituency, we need the correct infrastructure to ensure that people in south-west Wales can benefit. This could be realised by the creation of a Parkway station at Swansea. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this, please?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing to ensure that south-west Wales also benefits from the electrification of the Great Western main line. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss the proposals for a Swansea Parkway station, which would be a huge boost for that city as it moves towards a city deal.

“Securing Wales’ Future”

7. Whether he is taking steps to implement the Plaid Cymru-Welsh Government’s White Paper entitled “Securing Wales’ Future”, published in January 2017. (909077)

The White Paper, “Securing Wales’ Future”, was presented to the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations in late February, and we are discussing the detailed proposals with the Welsh Government.

Does the Minister realise that there is a difference between discussing a paper and taking action on it? When are the devolved Governments going to have any tangible action taken on their Brexit strategies; or are the devolved Assemblies not going to be part of empire 2.0 and instead be left with the scraps from the table?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there is a significant amount of common ground between the Welsh Government’s paper and the 12 principles that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has outlined. This Government are determined to deliver a deal that works for every part of the United Kingdom. We have already said that no decisions currently taken by the devolved Administrations will be removed from them and that we will use the return of powers from Europe to the United Kingdom to strengthen devolution and the Union of the United Kingdom.

Over 5,000 EU students study in Wales and over 1,300 EU academics teach and do research, greatly adding to our national wellbeing. The Welsh Government’s EU White Paper makes it clear that their position must be secured. Why will the Secretary of State’s Government not adopt that elementary piece of economic good sense?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others have said that we want to seek the earliest agreement to secure the status of EU nationals living in the UK and of UK nationals living in the EU. It is not in our interests to undermine any one sector. We would like to press for an early agreement, but it takes two people to come to an agreement.

Today, on International Women’s Day, my constituent Shiromini Satkunarajah will be studying for her final exams in electrical engineering. She is likely to get a first in her field, in which there is a world shortage of qualified people, women in particular. Had this Government had their way, she would have been deported last week. How would her deportation have steadied the Chancellor’s dodgy post-Brexit spreadsheet?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we do not comment on individual cases, but he will know the detail and the latest situation. I hope that he will recognise, on International Women’s Day, that no other nation across the European Union has lower unemployment among women than Wales.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that Members across the House will wish to join me in marking International Women’s Day, as we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women both here and around the world. We are also redoubling our efforts to tackle the problems that women all too often still face.

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

I join the Prime Minister in celebrating International Women’s Day. Since 2010, Conservatives in government have a proud record of protecting and supporting both the victims and those at risk of domestic violence and abuse. I saw that myself when I visited my local police, and I thank them for the difficult job that they do. The evil is that far too many women are still at risk and are still suffering. What more can the Prime Minister do to tackle this abhorrent crime?

My hon. Friend raises a serious issue. It is one in which I have taken a particular personal interest, and I attach great importance to the issue. Tackling domestic violence and abuse is a key priority for the Government. What we have already done in government has the potential to transform the way in which we think about and tackle these terrible crimes when they take place. We have already committed to bringing forward new legislation, and I have confirmed today an additional £20 million to support organisations working to tackle domestic violence and abuse. This means that the total funding available for our strategy to end violence against women and girls will be over £100 million in this Parliament.

May I start by wishing all women a very happy International Women’s Day today? I am proud that the Labour party has more women MPs than all other parties in this House combined and a shadow Cabinet of which half the members are women.

A month ago, I raised the question of the leaked texts between the leader of Surrey County Council and Government officials about social care. The Prime Minister’s response was to accuse me of peddling “alternative facts”. Will she explain the difference between a sweetheart deal and a gentleman’s agreement?

First, the right hon. Gentleman references women in this House, and I point out to him that, actually, the Conservative party has recently taken a further measure in relation to women in this House by replacing a Labour male MP with a female Conservative.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the issue in relation to Surrey County Council. The substance of what he asks is whether there has been a particular deal with Surrey County Council that is not available to other councils, and the answer is no. As I have said before, the ability to raise a social care precept of 3% is available to every council. The ability to retain 100% of business rates will be available to a number of councils in April. Let us look at them: Liverpool, Manchester and London. What do we know about those councils? They are all under Labour control. So what he is actually asking me is why a Conservative council should have access to an arrangement that is predominantly currently available to Labour councils.

My question was about the arrangement between the Government and Surrey County Council. A recording has now emerged showing that the leader of Surrey County Council, David Hodge, said that there was a “gentleman’s agreement” between him and the Government that meant that the council would not have to go ahead with a referendum. My question is: what deal was done with Surrey County Council? There is an acute social care crisis affecting every council, with £4.6 billion of cuts made to social care since 2010. Can the Prime Minister tell every other council in England what gentleman’s agreement is available for them?

On today of all days, if the right hon. Gentleman could just be a little patient and wait half an hour for the Budget, he will find out what social care funding is available to all councils. If he is asking me whether there was a special deal for Surrey that was not available to other councils, the answer is no. If he is looking to uncover a conspiracy, I suggest he look behind him.

If all the arrangements are so clear and above board, will the Prime Minister place in the Library of the House a record of all one-to-one meetings between the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Chancellor and any council leader or chair of social services anywhere in England? If there is no special deal, can she explain why Surrey is the only county council to be allowed into the business rates retention pilot when it has been denied to others?

The business rates retention pilot will come into force for a number of councils this April, and that includes, as I have already said, Liverpool, Greater Manchester, Greater London and others. In 2019-20, it will be available to 100% of councils. Councils will be able to apply to be part of a further pilot in 2018-19, and that goes for all councils across the country.

The text said that there was a memorandum of understanding, and the Prime Minister said that there was no deal. She is now unclear about that. Did she actually know what arrangement was made with Surrey County Council? She is not keen to answer questions about that.

There is another area of deep concern across the whole country. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many new school places will be needed by 2020?

The right hon. Gentleman really should listen to the answers I give before he asks the next question. He said I did not answer the question about a special deal for Surrey; I think that I have now answered it three times, but I shall do it a fourth time: there was no special deal for Surrey that was not available to other councils.

The Prime Minister was also asked just a moment ago about the number of new school places needed by 2020. Perhaps she could explain why we have a crisis in school places and class sizes are soaring, thanks to her Government. What is the answer on the number of new school places needed, Prime Minister?

This Government have a policy that is about not only increasing the number of school places but doing more than that. I want to increase the number of good school places, so that every child has an opportunity to go to a good school. That is what the money we are putting into education is about. It includes money for new free schools, which will be faith schools, university schools, comprehensives, grammar schools and maths schools. There will be a diversity, because what I want is a good school place for every child and for parents to have a choice. What the right hon. Gentleman wants is for parents to take what they are given, good or bad.

The National Audit Office tells us that a very large number of new school places are needed—420,000. Nothing the Prime Minister has said gets anywhere near to that. Instead, she proposes a flagship scheme to build the wrong schools in the wrong places, spending millions on vanity projects such as grammar schools and free schools, while at the same time per-pupil funding is falling in real terms. Is it not time that this colossal waste of money was addressed? It is doing nothing to help the vast majority of children and nothing to solve the crisis of school places and soaring class sizes. That is what every parent wants, not vanity projects from her Government.

It is no vanity project to want every child to have a good school place. The majority of free schools that have been opened have been in areas where there is a need for school places, and the majority have been opened in areas of disadvantage, where they are helping the very children we want to see have the opportunity to get on in life. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that this is about a fairer society. On this Budget day, we see that we are securing the economy; Labour wants to weaken it. We are working for a fairer society; Labour opposes every single reform. We are fighting for the best deal for Britain; Labour Members are fighting among themselves. That is Labour: weak, divided and unfit to govern this great country.

Q2. This week in Erewash, it is likely that, sadly, four people will suffer a stroke. With that in mind and given that the current highly successful stroke strategy expires later this year, will my right hon. Friend commit her Government to publish an updated strategy that includes advances in stroke treatments, such as mechanical thrombectomy, which dramatically improves outcomes for one in 10 patients? (909122)

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. I assure her that the NHS wants to continue to build on the successes of the current stroke strategy. We all recognise that there have been huge improvements in stroke care over the past decade, and we want to deliver our ambition for truly world-leading care. On the particular treatment to which she refers, I understand that the NHS has already approved the use of mechanical clot retrieval in specific cases. The NHS rigorously audits the quality of stroke care throughout the country, so that we can ensure we are delivering on our commitments. We have some of the fastest improvements in hospital recovery rate for strokes and heart attacks in Europe.

On International Women’s Day, we wish all campaigners for equality well, including those from the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. The cross-party Brexit Committee has recommended that the UK must guarantee the status of EU nationals living in the UK and act unilaterally, if necessary. The Committee went on to say:

“The current process for consideration of permanent residency applications is not fit for purpose and, in the absence of any concrete resolution to relieve the anxiety felt by the estimated three million EU citizens resident in the UK, it is untenable to continue with the system as it stands.”

Given the massive positive contribution that European nationals make to this country, what concrete plans does the Prime Minister have to deal with this matter?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we want to have an early agreement that will enable us to guarantee the status of EU citizens living in the UK, but also we need to guarantee the status of UK citizens living in the European Union. On the process of application, the Home Office is looking at that and at how it can improve the systems and simplify them, which it regularly does.

Since 2010, the Home Office has seen its full-time equivalent staff cut by 10%, so, at current rates of processing applications for permanent residency, it would take the Home Office more than 50 years to deal with 3.2 million European nationals living in the UK. That is clearly totally and utterly unacceptable. Will the Prime Minister tell us how quickly she hopes to be able to guarantee all European nationals permanent residency?

The right hon. Gentleman cannot just stand up and say that because the Home Office is getting more efficient, it will take longer for answers to be given. Yes, the Home Office is getting more efficient at dealing with these things. I do not know whether he has ever heard about technology, but these days people apply online and they are dealt with online.

Q3. Following the recent findings of a study of terror convictions in Britain, it is clear that there are serious problems with how communities integrate into society and a danger that that lack of integration leads to acts of terror. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the Government’s counter-extremism strategy and response to these findings? (909123)

Again, this is a very serious issue that my hon. Friend has raised. The Government are taking a comprehensive approach to tackling terrorism and violent extremism at source, but also, through our counter-extremism strategy, we are looking at extremism more widely. We want to defeat not just terrorism and violent extremism but extremism wherever it occurs. We will shortly be publishing a new counter-terrorism strategy. In the coming months, we will be responding to Dame Louise Casey’s report on integration. That is backed up by additional investment in our security and intelligence agencies—£2.5 billion over five years—and I am clear that the Government are doing everything they can to tackle issues around integration, extremism and terrorism.

Q5. I come from a Westminster Hall debate on behalf of my young constituent Sam, who is 11 years old. He developed narcolepsy as a result of receiving the Pandemrix vaccine to protect him from the swine flu. Sam’s mum, Di, is in the Public Gallery today. In these rare and devastating cases, the link between Pandemrix and narcolepsy is proven, yet families like Di’s face long legal battles with the Government. Will the Prime Minister today promise that no more of these disabled children will be hounded through the courts, apologise to the families concerned and oversee payments to support the children’s long-term care needs? (909125)

May I first congratulate the hon. Lady on securing a Westminster Hall debate on this important topic? At the end of her question, she refers to the issue of payments. I am sure she realises that the vaccine damage payment scheme is not a compensation scheme, but a one-off tax-free lump sum that is paid to help to ease the burden of those who are disabled as a result of vaccination, and it is part of a range of support that is provided. She has raised a very specific case. Obviously she has had that Westminster Hall debate, but we want to ensure that the process is open and fair at every stage. The Department for Work and Pensions does look at every claim based on its own facts. If she wants to write with the details, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work will look into the specific case that she has raised.

Midlands Engine

Q4. What recent assessment she has made of the (a) performance of the economy and (b) adequacy of provision of public services in the Midlands Engine region; and if she will make a statement. (909124)

Although I will not speculate on the statement that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will make very shortly, I can assure my hon. Friend that the fundamentals of our economy are strong. Since 2010, employment in the west midlands has risen by 215,000 and private sector employment alone grew by 80,000 in the past year. We have also seen schools and police budgets being protected, and more doctors and nurses in his local hospitals.

And of course we have also witnessed the post-Brexit vote of confidence from Nissan, Boeing and Dyson investing in other parts of the country, but will my right hon. Friend say a little bit more about firms like Jaguar Land Rover in the west midlands?

I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that in the wider sense, of course, our plans for the midlands engine show that we want an economy that works for everyone. We have already confirmed over £330 million in the growth deal funding and money is going into the midlands engine investment fund and the Birmingham rail hub, but it is also important to recognise the investment that is being made in the UK by companies like Jaguar Land Rover, which will be building its new Range Rover model in Solihull. That is very good news for the west midlands and also for the British economy. It is a sign of the confidence that Jaguar Land Rover has in the UK for the future.


Q7. My Blackpool casework is now full of the anxieties that the DWP and the Home Office are imposing on vulnerable constituents, including officials’ attempts to overturn tribunal decisions protecting benefits and residents. That includes a family settled here for eight years and a man with a severe brain injury. If the Prime Minister wants people to respect the idea that “Brexit means Brexit,” should she not respect the idea that tribunals mean tribunals and not try to block them with grubby regulations affecting 164,000 disabled people? (909127)

If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the decision that has been taken in relation to the courts and personal independence payments, as I explained to the House last week, and as has been explained by the Secretary of State, this is about restoring the system to the state that was intended when Parliament agreed it. It was agreed by the coalition Government and by Parliament after extensive consultation.

Q6. In National Apprenticeship Week, it is important to recognise this Government’s commitment to investment, apprenticeships and skills. Will the Prime Minister look at encouraging a greater commitment to degree apprenticeships as part of the Government’s strategy, as championed by businesses in my constituency such as BAE Systems, which has been at the forefront in developing these new programmes through its engineering degree apprenticeship scheme? (909126)

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. As we look to the future, we want to ensure that people here in the UK have the skills they need for the economy of the future, and degree apprenticeships will be an important part of that. Companies such as BAE System, which he referred to specifically, have been right at the forefront of developing these new programmes. I am pleased to say that the apprenticeship levy will take the total investment in England to £2.45 billion, which is double what was spent in 2010. That means more opportunities for young people to gain the skills they need for their future.

Q8. Tomorrow a memorial will be unveiled to those men and women who served our country in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should all pay tribute to their service and commemorate their sacrifice, not just with a memorial but with a commitment to learn from the past and do better in the future? (909128)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. The unveiling of the memorial will be a very significant ceremony. I think that all of us across this House should pay tribute to those recognised by the memorial for the sacrifice they made—those in our armed forces and all those civilians who worked to deliver aid, healthcare and education. It is important that we recognise the sacrifices made by our armed forces and by their families. That will be a significant moment tomorrow. We are very clear that we do need to learn lessons from the past, and that is exactly what we will do.

Q11. I was delighted by the Prime Minister’s intervention in mental health in January, which I still feel has not had the attention it deserves. In Plymouth we are completely reconfiguring our mental health services, because we understand that parity of esteem means nothing without parity of provision. Will the Prime Minister visit Plymouth to see some of the pioneering work that we are doing, perhaps during national Mental Health Awareness Week in May, when I am hoping that Plymouth will take a national lead? (909131)

I thank my hon. Friend, because I know that this is an issue that he has championed and that is very close to his area of concern—he has done a lot of work on mental health. He talks about parity of esteem, which the Government have introduced, which is very important. More money is going into mental health provision than ever before. I would certainly be delighted to see the work being done in Plymouth, provided my diary allows for that.

Q9. In my constituency of Burnley, primary and secondary schools are severely underfunded, and maintained nursery schools are struggling to survive. Why, then, at a time when we cannot adequately fund the schools we already have, is the Prime Minister suggesting spending millions of pounds to create new grammar schools that will help only a minority of children? That is unfair as a new funding formula, and will do nothing to help social mobility. (909129)

Let us be clear about what the Government have done. Record amounts of funding are going into education. It was a Conservative-led Government that introduced the pupil premium and it is a Conservative Government that has protected the core schools budget. The new money that will be going into schools as a result of today’s announcements is not about a return to a binary system of grammar schools and secondary moderns. That is not what we are going to do. What we are doing is ensuring that there is a diversity of provision—so, yes, some grammar schools, but also comprehensives, faith schools, university schools and maths schools. I want a good school place for every child and, more than that, the right school place for every child.

Q12. On this International Women’s Day, it is absolutely fantastic that we have the highest female employment rate and the highest percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards on record, that the gender pay gap is at the lowest on record, and that we have an amazing female Prime Minister. However, I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that there is still much more to do, particularly in supporting women back to work after a career break. Will my right hon. Friend outline what more the Government are going to do to level the playing field? (909132)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. When I stood on the steps of Downing Street back in July and talked about a country that works for everyone, I meant that. That is why we are taking a number of measures, including on International Women’s Day today. We are setting up a new fund to help mothers returning to work after a long career break. Returnships are important. They are open to men and women, but we should all recognise that the majority of those who take time out of a career are women who devote themselves to motherhood for a period. Getting back into employment is often very difficult for them; they find that it is closed off. That is why, as well as making economic sense, it is right and fair for those women that we provide for returnships to enable them to get back into the workplace.

Q10. Everyone agrees that early years education is crucial for the welfare and future of our children. However, nurseries in my constituency tell me that the funding for 30 hours of free childcare is not sufficient, and many of them will be forced to close. What steps will the Prime Minister take to ensure that those nurseries do not close? (909130)

The hon. Lady talks about the 30 hours that is being introduced, but let us look at what we are doing on childcare. We have already introduced 15 hours of free childcare a week for all three and four-year-olds, 15 hours of free childcare a week for disadvantaged two-year-olds, help with up to 70% of childcare costs for people on low incomes, and shared parental leave. We will spend a record £6 billion on childcare support by the end of this Parliament. That is a Conservative Government, and it is Conservatives in Government who have a record of supporting parents with childcare needs.

Q15. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is indefensible for the Labour police and crime commissioner in West Yorkshire to be raising the council tax precept when he has £120 million in reserves and underspent this year’s budget by £4 million? (909135)

As my hon. Friend knows, it is of course for the directly elected police and crime commissioner for West Yorkshire to decide what to do about the police precept of council tax, as it is in every area that has a police and crime commissioner, but I would always encourage those commissioners to look at ways to introduce efficiencies into their forces before looking to increase local taxes. Over the past six years, we have seen that police forces can find sensible savings and reduce crime at the same time.

Q13. Mr Speaker, you will know that the Royal College of Physicians has found that 40,000 people die prematurely each year from diesel pollution, at a cost of £20 billion to the economy, and that YouGov has found that 45% of diesel drivers are willing to switch, given the right scrappage or tax incentive schemes. Will the Prime Minister commit today to a fiscal strategy and a new clean air Act to put us on a new, cleaner, healthier trajectory and to take global leadership, rather than being dragged into the courts to fulfil basic EU air quality standards? (909133)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are looking at the measures that we need to introduce to improve air quality. There have been improvements in recent years, but we do need to go further, and that is what the Government are looking at across Departments, obviously with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs paying most attention to that, because it is within its remit. We will be bringing forward proposals on air quality in due course.

International Women’s Day is a chance to reflect on how Governments and democracies across the world serve women. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, when it comes to female Prime Ministers, it is 2:0 to the Conservatives?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having pointed that out, which I refrained from doing earlier in response to questions. I think it is very telling that the Labour party spends a lot of time talking about rights for women, giving support to women and getting women on, whereas it is the Conservative party that is the party in this House that has provided two female Prime Ministers.

Q14. Will the Prime Minister give an undertaking that any new Scotland Act will be drafted only after full consultation with the people of Scotland and with the consent of the Scottish Parliament? (909134)

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is referring to discussions that are currently taking place about the powers that might be available to the devolved Administrations once we have left the European Union, but she knows full well that we undertake full discussions with the Scottish Government on measures that are reserved matters and on measures where we are negotiating on behalf of the whole of the United Kingdom.

Crowdcomms, a business in my constituency, operates out of the small market town of Sturminster Newton; it also has offices in Seattle and Sydney. It employs 24 people, providing high-quality IT jobs, and it avails itself of high-tech, fast rural broadband and mobile telephone communication. That is the recipe for growing our rural economy. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to ensure that her Government do all they can to fill the blackspots in our rural areas?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we very much want to ensure that we are doing that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is looking at our digital strategy and ensuring that broadband is available in rural areas and, indeed, at good speeds in other areas, which might be less rural than my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Finally, Mr Tim Farron. [Interruption.] Order. I do not know whether Members are cheering because it is “finally” or because of the popularity of the hon. Gentleman, but he is going to be heard.

You are all so very, characteristically, kind.

On International Women’s Day, we stand with women and girls across the world and note with resolve that we must not take for granted the progress we have made towards equality over the last few decades.

Yesterday, we heard that hundreds of families of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan have been denied seats at tomorrow’s unveiling of the memorial to our fallen troops. Inviting a relative of each of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan would have taken up fewer than a third of the 2,500 seats at that event. Will the Prime Minister now apologise to those families for what I assume is a careless oversight and rectify that mistake immediately so that bereaved families can come and pay their respects to their fallen loved ones?

May I reassure the hon. Gentleman that charities and groups representing the bereaved were asked to put forward names of attendees, and we look forward to welcoming them so that we can publicly acknowledge the sacrifice that their loved ones made on our behalf? Over half of those attending tomorrow are actually current or former members of the armed forces. No one from the bereaved community has been turned away, and everyone who has applied to attend has been successful, but I have been reassured that if there are any bereaved families who wish to attend, the Ministry of Defence will make every effort to ensure that they are able to do so.