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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 22 March 2017

Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—


1. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of the government transformation strategy 2017 to 2020 on cyber-security. (909379)

Cyber-attacks are growing more frequent, sophisticated and damaging. The government transformation strategy will ensure that government protects all its services and products from cybercrime, and will ensure that all systems are designed with cyber-security and appropriate privacy safeguards in place.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Can he reassure us that as the transformation strategy, for very good reasons, puts more and more of our personal data—on our taxes, on our health and so on—online, none of those data will be at risk of ending up in the wrong hands?

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. Central to what we are doing is protecting not only the information that government requires to be kept confidential, but, as importantly, the information that citizens require to be kept confidential. That is partly why Verify has been designed so that it protects citizens’ data in the inquires that they make of government.

Last night, I had a very pleasant evening, in Blacks Club, with Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, who is my own personal GP from Lichfield. She was telling me that NHS data on patients will now be held on the cloud—and this system will work, of course, because individual programmes will access it. But how secure will the cloud be?

My hon. Friend has doctors in high places. All I would say to him is that specific inquiries about NHS digital services should be directed to the Health Secretary, but I shall ensure that my hon. Friend receives a proper reply from him. As for the Government’s general strategy, our purpose is to make sure that we have the most secure government information systems anywhere in the world. That is what lies behind the government transformation strategy and the Government’s cyber-strategy, too.

Is the Government’s strategy on big data not the wrong way round? It is concentrating on big organisations having a central repository of data over people, whereas this should be about an empowering state where individuals have control over their own data—they should not have them held by big organisations.

The Government are seeking to achieve precisely the latter of those things, which is why Verify has been built as it has. It is very important that citizens have complete faith in the data held by government and feel able to interrogate data in the way that is open to them. We are not quite where I would like to be on this yet, but as we design digital services in the future I want to arrive at precisely the point the hon. Gentleman indicates.

Will the Minister update the House on the action he is taking to ensure that businesses are aware of their responsibilities on cyber-security, particularly those businesses that trade with government, so that businesses are safe and government is made safe?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important matter. I direct businesses to look at the cyber essentials pack on the National Cyber Security Centre website, which details the essentials of what businesses can do to protect themselves. The NCSC’s purpose is to ensure that businesses that work with government adhere to the same high standards of cyber-security that the Government expect of themselves.

Domestic Abuse Victims: Voting

I published a policy statement on 3 March proposing reforms to anonymous registration and seeking feedback from interested parties by 26 May. I want to reflect the experiences of domestic abuse survivors so that they can more easily exercise their right to vote. This will help to ensure that we have a democracy that works for everyone.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and welcome any moves towards making it easier for both men and women who have suffered domestic abuse to register to vote. Will he outline further what changes he is making, and confirm that the names and addresses of those men and women who are registering anonymously will not be on the electoral register?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that names and addresses do not appear on the electoral register as a result of the application to register anonymously. The Government are proposing to make it easier for an applicant to demonstrate that their safety is at risk by expanding the type of documentary evidence required and the people who can attest to this, and as part of the consultation process we are looking at every point of contact that the survivors of domestic abuse come across to make sure that they exercise their right to vote.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s efforts to make it easier for victims of domestic abuse to register to vote, and to have the all-important right to have their say and be heard, which has been raised in my surgeries by Wealden constituents who have survived domestic abuse. One part of the Government’s plan is to increase the number of attestors by lowering the seniority required of them in the police and social services, and possibly by expanding the number of professions they come from. Will training or guidelines be provided to help the new attestors when they are called on to adjudicate in a specific case?

The Cabinet Office will be working with the Electoral Commission and representative bodies to provide the relevant guidance that will be required.

I commend the Government on the work they have done with Women’s Aid and other organisations. Will my hon. Friend assure me that this work will continue to ensure that the victims of all types of domestic abuse are heard at the ballot box?

I have worked closely on this issue with domestic abuse charities over the past six months, including Women’s Aid, to explore what can be done to improve the anonymous registration process. I look forward to continuing this work with Women’s Aid and other domestic abuse charities.

For 26 years before I was a Member of Parliament, I worked in the field of domestic abuse. Will the Minister make sure that he considers the extent to which domestic abuse perpetrators will make efforts to track down their victims, often for many months and years after the relationship has ended?

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution to the field of domestic violence work. She is absolutely right that someone is a survivor of domestic abuse not just for two or five years, but for the rest of their life. When we give people the right to vote, we must ensure that they and their names and addresses are protected. We will carry forward that work as part of the consultation process, and given her expertise, I welcome any contribution that she would like to make.

It is great that the Government are showing bureaucratic flexibility to help domestic abuse victims to vote, but such flexibility should be put into all the Government’s voter registration efforts. Will they build “register to vote” links into all their online service application pages?

During the past couple of years, we have introduced the ability to register to vote online. It has been highly successful, with 24 million people taking the opportunity to register to vote online. As part of our democratic engagement strategy, which I will publish in the summer, I am keen to look at digital democracy and where it can work, and to see what we can do with other Departments to ensure that we have such points of contact and that we base democratic registration around individual users. I will be taking forward exactly what the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Will the Minister ensure that the utmost application of secrecy will be adhered to for victims of domestic abuse who are severely traumatised and have found it difficult to apply for either postal or proxy votes.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to ensure that we learn from the experience of domestic abuse survivors. We must look at that particular journey and ensure that the registration process, when we have it, works for women who need extra protection. We must also look at refuge managers to ensure that we provide the support that they will need.

It is obviously welcome that the Government are seeking to protect the voting rights of domestic violence survivors by making anonymity easier—by the way, the announcement of a one-off cash injection for specialist refuges is also welcome, although much more is needed. However, people cannot easily vote if they have no fixed abode. The truth is that Women’s Aid estimates that one in six of all specialist refuges have closed since 2010, and, tragically, over 150 women plus 100 children per day are unable to find a specialist refuge. Will the Minister ensure that the inter-ministerial group now addresses the twin central questions: providing sustainable funding for refuges and ensuring comprehensive refuge provision in every part of the country?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have increased funding for women’s refuges. The Prime Minister has set out very clearly that she wishes to make domestic violence one of her personal priorities, and a review is ongoing. When it comes to registration, let me be clear: this issue was raised with me, through Women’s Aid, by a lady called Mehala Osborne. She is a survivor of domestic abuse, and she has fought bravely by putting her name out in the public domain to campaign for other women. There are potentially 12,000 women who, by virtue of their circumstances, cannot take the step of registering to vote, and we are determined to give them their voice so that they are heard.

Voter Registration

3. If he will make it his policy to include in national insurance notification letters to 15 and 16-year-olds information on being able to register to vote from the age of 16. (909381)

4. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of promoting voter registration in national insurance notification letters. (909382)

Although this matter falls within the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, I am pleased to confirm that the Cabinet Office and HMRC officials are working together to identify how best to promote electoral registration further in relation to national insurance numbers, including notification letters.

Clearly, any steps to improve voter registration have to be welcomed, but does the Minister agree that a far more efficient and cost-effective way to do so would be simply to introduce a system of automatic voter registration?

The Government have been clear in their determination to ensure that we have individual electoral registration. Voting is not just a right; it is a responsibility. I am delighted that the Electoral Commission said in a report published last year that the number of 16-year-olds registering to vote increased by 17.7%.

The national insurance registration process is one way to increase electoral registration and therefore democratic participation, but there are others, including education, auto-enrolment—as my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) suggested—and, of course, online voting. When previously I pressed the Cabinet Office on this matter, it said there would be a plan in the spring to widen democratic participation. Spring is here. Where is the plan?

Indeed, spring has sprung, and my commitment to ensuring that we have a democratic engagement plan is still maintained and in place. We will publish that plan shortly, in due course. We are committed to ensuring that we have a democracy that works for everyone, and that includes young people as well.

We welcome the Government’s commitment to look at promoting voter registration on national insurance letters. We know how important it is to make sure that young people and students are registered to vote—they are often the people missing from the electoral roll. Will the Government commit to supporting the amendment from the other place to the Higher Education and Research Bill? It would allow universities to auto-enrol students on campuses.

I met Baroness Royall yesterday to discuss her amendment. I have been working over several months with universities, the Cabinet Office funded the University of Sheffield pilot that looked at this enrolment process with £10,000, and we are looking at other universities that are beginning to introduce it. It is right that we have a democracy that works for everyone and that we make it easier for electoral registration staff and universities to work together. We are determined to look closely at this process.

Government Efficiency Savings

The Government are conducting an efficiency review to deliver savings and embed an efficiency culture into government. The Chief Secretary and I are leading the review together. Cabinet Office functions provide support, expertise and assurance, helping Departments to work together to cut waste and inefficiency.

What progress is being made with the single departmental delivery plans across every Government Department? How will they align cost savings and Government policy initiatives more closely to deliver our manifesto?

The House, especially those interested in plans, will be pleased to know that this is the first time in the history of Government plans that we have done a second iteration of a plan—that is an exciting point. We are aligning the plans with the efficiency review, which means that, amazingly, we are going to plan government with money at the same time.

The electrification of the railway from Paddington to Swansea has an overspend of £1.2 billion. The Minister knows that it is not an isolated case, with a number of infrastructure projects overspending. What is the Department doing to ensure, before the Government sign contracts, that the targets are not over-optimistic?

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority was set up to assess infrastructure projects rigorously, which is why we have been able to reduce the number of overspends he correctly identifies. The complex transactions unit in my Department also assesses transactions before they happen to make sure that we are protecting the Government. I hope the big projects that are coming down the line are going to be framed even better than others have been in the past few years.

Government Transparency

The UK is recognised as a world leader in transparency, and the Government are committed to being the most transparent in the world. We have published an unprecedented amount of data—more than 35,000 datasets, including data about the workings of government.

Will my right hon. Friend outline how the Government are being informed by international best practice to meet their manifesto commitment to be the most transparent Government in the world?

We must learn from each other, which is why we are members of the Open Government Partnership, which this country helped to set up. I have been to the OGP conference to learn from others, and we will continue to learn in that way, including from the OECD, the G20 and the International Aid Transparency Initiative.

Does the Minister believe that transparency should begin at home? If he does, can he please explain where the response is to my letter of 19 December, which is addressed to his Department and to the director-general of his Department’s propriety and ethics team, because I have yet to receive it?

I profoundly apologise to the hon. Lady if we have not responded in time. It is very important to me that we respond courteously and quickly to Members, and I shall chase up the matter immediately and make sure that she gets a proper response.

15. I welcome the Government’s steps to increase transparency and look forward to the final stages of my own private Member’s Bill, which aims to extend public access to local audit documents in local authorities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that increasing transparency at all levels of government—local and national—is a crucial step forward towards increasing trust? (909393)

It is worth remembering that it was Margaret Thatcher who made it possible for local councils to conduct their hearings in public, which is something that we now take for granted. That is why we need to continue this if we are to reinforce the relationship between citizens and the public bodies that serve them.

I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland how many meetings he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to discuss the Ayrshire growth deal. His answer was that he has had lots of meetings in general, but that the details of ministerial discussions are not routinely disclosed. Does the Minister agree that the lack of transparency in his answer is a disgrace?

It sounds entirely transparent to me. The Secretary of State is on the Bench. He has heard the question and no doubt he will want to be caught afterwards to discuss it further. I know that he has almost daily discussions with the Chancellor about the interests of Scotland, which is why he was able to secure an additional £350 million for Scotland in the Budget. That shows the advantages of being in this Union of the United Kingdom.

Electoral Registration: Funding

The Cabinet Office committed to the funding of additional costs of individual electoral registration for the remainder of the Parliament. Local authorities maintain their previous statutory responsibilities to maximise the completeness of the registers and are responsible for the funding of the costs of the household canvas.

Research carried out after the EU referendum by Newcastle University’s Dr Alistair Clark on behalf of the Electoral Commission said:

“Alarmingly, concerns about levels of funding were raised with nearly half of local authorities claiming that they have insufficient funds to maintain the electoral register.”

Does the Minister not find that statement deeply worrying for our democracy, and, if so, what are the Government doing about it?

The Government have committed to fund local authorities to cover the additional costs of IER. In 2016-17, those costs came to £21 million, and a further £49.5 million is committed to the end of this Parliament. In particular, Newcastle City Council received £145,000 for 2016-17 to fund its delivery of IER and the register.

Voter Registration: Proof of Identity

10. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of allowing alternative forms of proof of identity for voter registration. (909388)

Where an applicant’s identity cannot be verified in the first instance, an exceptions process allows for a number of alternative forms of identification to be used to support that application. Finally, an attestation can support an applicant if they are able to provide any of the documentation required.

Last year, it was reported that only 25% of people knew their national insurance number, which is one of the key identifiers. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact that that will have on voter registration?

When it comes to the voter registration process, I am delighted that the Electoral Commission reported last week that we now have a record 47.3 million people on the register. Our democracy is more engaged than ever before. We have had 24 million applications online using the national insurance number, but, as I have said, there are alternatives for those who do not have national insurance numbers, including the attestation process, which works very effectively.

Topical Questions

The Cabinet Office is the centre of government. The Department is responsible for the constitution, for supporting the design and delivery of Government policy and for helping government to deliver the finest public services through more efficient working and attracting and developing the finest public servants.

The House of Lords has amended the Higher Education and Research Bill to ensure that HE institutions give their students the option to go on the electoral register. What will the Minister do to assist that process as statistics suggest that only 13% of students are registered at present? It would save both them and councils money.

As I stated in an earlier answer, I met Baroness Royall to discuss her amendment. I am committed to ensuring that more students are able to register easily, which will save money for electoral registration officers. I am working on looking at this process. The Cabinet Office funded the pilot in Sheffield in the first place, and we are determined to ensure that we carry on this work.

The Cabinet Office has set up a centre of expertise that is working with public bodies to understand the overall problem, agree and monitor aspirations for a reduction of fraud, and put in place standards for organisations. As a result of that work, we had the benefit of savings of £733 million for 2015-16.

The ministerial code clearly states that former Ministers require advice from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments prior to announcing any new business appointments. ACOBA is unable to report on its advice retrospectively after a new post has been made public. Can the Minister explain why he gave different advice to the House during his response to the urgent question on Monday? Was it just a mistake, or have the rules conveniently been changed in the space of a week?

The hon. Gentleman has made his point very clear. ACOBA is coming to its determination and it will consider all the evidence in the round. It is important that it does so without my prejudicing its decision by passing comment.

Order. There is excessive noise, which is rather discordant and very unseemly. Let us have a bit of order for Mrs Sheryll Murray.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend agree that local authorities should strive to be as efficient as possible? To that end, perhaps he can assist the Lib Dem/Independent-led Cornwall council in prioritising the interests of residents rather than political vanity projects. (909398)

I am very concerned that the Liberal Democrats in Cornwall are not seeking to use the One Public Estate programme, which is set up precisely so they can save public money and direct it to the frontline. That is where they should be directing their efforts.

Fortunately for the right hon. Gentleman, he is not responsible for the Liberal Democrats—either in Cornwall or anywhere else.

T3. What is the Minister’s assessment of the results of the British attitudes survey, which shows that only one in four people trust the Government’s use of statistics? (909396)

I am as concerned as the hon. Gentleman will be. That is why we need to make sure that the independence of our statistics machine, to which other countries look for advice, is shown to the public to be the best in the world. That is what it is.

We have made considerable progress. According to our original timetable, we will be able to release the results of the first part later this year. That will be a moment of reckoning for this country, as we face up to the serious challenges still ahead of us in making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity, no matter what their colour or background.

T4. Some £200,000 of election spending misreported or omitted from returns; an unwillingness to co-operate with the Electoral Commission; a £70,000 fine that the Tories can just shrug off because of their wealthy donors: does the Minister agree that there needs to be a greater punishment for political parties that break the election spending rules? (909397)

It is clear that on that issue the Electoral Commission has taken action against parties across the political divide. It is right, going forward, that we look at incremental ways in which we can reform party funding, but our elections are the most transparent in our democracy. They ensure the publication of spending and it is right that that should take place.

T8. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to maximise opportunities for UK industry through cross-Government procurement? Does he have any early sense of how the new procurement guidelines are bedding down? (909401)

My hon. Friend is right to point out that it was this Government who introduced new guidance to make sure that we could support the UK steel industry wherever possible. That has been well received by the industry, and I hope to be able to write to my hon. Friend quite shortly with the results of where we have got so far.

Will the Minister for Digital and Culture recuse himself from decisions on Government media policy, given his close relationship to the new editor of the London Evening Standard?

My right hon. Friend the Minister is a decent and honourable man, and he will make his own decision about his ministerial responsibilities. It is wrong to impugn his motives in the House, if I may say so.

Does the Minister intend to expand the One Public Estate initiative? It not only rationalises our public buildings for financial reasons, but gives us the opportunity to create better and more streamlined services for our residents.

My hon. Friend has it in one: not only does this initiative allow us to save costs so that we can direct money to the frontline, but it means that public services are far simpler for our citizens to deal with, because they are located in one place.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I would like to express my condolences to the family and colleagues of the former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness. Of course, we do not condone or justify the path he took in the earlier part of his life, and we should never forget that, or the victims of terrorism. However, as my noble Friend Lord Trimble set out yesterday, he played an indispensable role in bringing the republican movement away from violence to peaceful and democratic means and to building a better Northern Ireland.

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.

The Prime Minister says that there is more money for the national health service, more nurses and more doctors, yet Bassetlaw breastcare unit has been cut back and Bassetlaw children’s ward has been closed overnight. Something, clearly, does not add up. Therefore, the mothers of the most seriously ill children, who use the children’s ward the most frequently, and I offer to work with the Prime Minister to solve this problem. Is her door at No. 10 open to us?

If we look at what has happened in the hon. Gentleman’s area, we see that his NHS Bassetlaw clinical commissioning group is receiving a cash increase, and that the Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has 80 more doctors and nearly 30 more nurses. He talks of listening to the voice of local people in relation to health services in the local area, but that is exactly what the sustainability and transformation plans are about—hearing from local people and local clinicians, and putting together the health provisions that ensure they meet local needs.

Q2. Telford is a story of transformation and progress. From the ironmasters of the first industrial revolution through to a new revolution in high-tech manufacturing at Telford’s T54 today, it has helped to build Britain. As the Government deliver on the democratic will of the British people and trigger article 50, will my right hon. Friend tell us how Telford will prosper from Brexit and from her plan for Britain? (909403)

As I have said before, the referendum result was not just about membership of the EU; it was a vote to change the way that this country works, and who it works for, forever, to make Britain a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. That is why the plan for Britain is a plan to get the right deal for Britain abroad, but also to build a stronger, fairer Britain for ordinary working families here at home, like those in Telford. I am pleased that we have already provided £17 million of funding to The Marches local enterprise partnership to improve local infrastructure in Telford. This Government are putting those resources in, and our plan for Britain will deliver that stronger, fairer economy and a more united and more outward-looking country than ever before.

I start by echoing the words of the Prime Minister concerning Martin McGuinness, the former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. He died this week, and our thoughts go to his family, his wife Bernie and the wider community. Martin played an immeasurable role in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland, and it is that peace that we all want to see endure for all time for all people in Northern Ireland.

This Government are cutting the schools budget by 6.5% by 2020, and today we learn that the proposed national funding formula will leave 1,000 schools across England facing additional cuts of a further 7% beyond 2020. Can the Prime Minister explain to parents why cutting capital gains tax, cutting inheritance tax, cutting corporation tax and cutting the bank levy are all more important than our children’s future?

This Government are committed to ensuring that all our children get the education that is right for them and that all our children have a good school place. That is what the Government’s plans for education will provide. That is building on a fine record of the past six and a half—nearly seven—years of Conservatives in government, when we have seen 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools. We have protected the schools budget. The national funding formula is under consultation, and obviously there will be a number of views. The consultation closes today and the Department for Education will respond to it in due course.

The manifesto on which the Prime Minister fought the last election promised:

“Under a future Conservative Government, the amount of money following your child into school will be protected.”

No wonder even the editor of the London Evening Standard is up in arms about this. The cut to school funding equates to the loss of two teachers across all primary schools and six teachers across all secondary schools. So is the Prime Minister advocating larger class sizes, a shorter school day, or unqualified teachers? Which is it?

We have, as I said, protected the schools budget. We now see more teachers in our schools and more teachers with first-class degrees in our schools. As I say, we see 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools. That is a result of this Government’s policies of diversity in education: free schools, academies, comprehensives, faith schools, university schools, grammar schools. We believe in diversity in education and choice for parents; the right hon. Gentleman believes in a one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave-it model.

The Prime Minister was clearly elected on a pledge not to cut school funding, yet that is exactly what is happening. Maybe she could listen to headteachers in West Sussex who say they believe that savings will come from

“staffing reductions, further increased class sizes, withdrawal of counselling and pastoral services, modified school hours, reduction in books, IT and equipment.”

I have a heartfelt letter from a primary school teacher by the name of Eileen. Eileen is one of our many hard-working teachers who cares for her kids, and she wrote to me to say:

“Teachers are purchasing items such as pens, pencils, glue sticks and paper out of their own pockets. Fundraising events have quadrupled, as funds are so low that parents are having to make donations to purchase books! This is disgraceful.”

Does the Prime Minister agree with Eileen?

We are seeing record levels of funding going into our schools. We have protected the schools budget; we have protected the pupil premium. But what matters for parents is the quality of education—

Order. People should not keep yelling out, “What about Eileen?” The Prime Minister is giving her response to the Leader of the Opposition, including the references to Eileen.

What matters for all of us who are concerned about education in this country is that we ensure that the quality of education that is provided for our children enables them to get on in life and have a better future. That is what this Government are about. It is about ensuring that in this country you get on on the basis of merit, not privilege; it is about ensuring that every child—[Interruption]every child across this country has the opportunity of a good school place. That is what we have been delivering for the past seven years, and it is what we will deliver into the future—and every single policy that has delivered better education for children has been opposed by the right hon. Gentleman.

Maybe the Prime Minister could have a word with her friend the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), who said this week:

“Under this new formula, all my large primaries and all of my secondaries will actually see a cash cut in their budgets.”

In the Budget, the Government found no more money for the schools budget, but they did find £320 million for the Prime Minister’s special grammar schools vanity project. There is no money for Eileen’s school, but £320 million for divisive grammar schools. What kind of priority is that?

First of all, what we have done in relation to the funding formula is to address an issue that Labour ignored for all its time in government. Across this House there has generally been, for many years, an accepted view that the current formula for school funding is not fair. I was saying this—I was calling for a better funding formula—more than 15 years ago when I was the shadow Education Secretary. We have put forward a proposal, and we are consulting on it. The consultation closes today, and we will respond to that consultation.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the sort of system we want in schools. Yes, we want diversity, and we want different sorts of schools. We have put money into new school places. But I say to him that his shadow Home Secretary sent her child to a private school; his shadow Attorney General sent her child to a private school; he sent his child to a grammar school; and he went to a grammar school himself. Typical Labour—take the advantage and pull up the ladder behind you.

I want a decent, fair opportunity for every child in every school. I want a staircase for all, not a ladder for the few. The Prime Minister has not been very good at convincing the former Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), who wrote last week:

“All the evidence is clear that grammar schools damage social mobility.”

What evidence has the Prime Minister got that the former Secretary of State is wrong in that?

The evidence is that for the poorest children, the attainment gap in a selective school is virtually zero. That tells us the quality of the education that they are getting. What I want is a diverse education system where there are genuine opportunities for all to have the education that is right for them. That is why in the Budget, as well as dealing with the issue of new school places, we have put extra money into technical education for young people for whom technical education is right. The right hon. Gentleman says that he wants opportunities for all children, and he says that he wants good school places for all children. He should jolly well support the policies that we are putting forward.

It is not just the former Education Secretary; the Chair of the Education Committee also says that grammar schools

“do little to help social mobility”

and are an “unnecessary distraction”. The Prime Minister and her Government are betraying a generation of young people by cutting the funding for every child. Children will have fewer teachers, larger classes and fewer subjects to choose from, and all the Prime Minister can do is to focus on her grammar school vanity project, which can only ever benefit a few children. Is the Prime Minister content for the generation in our schools today to see their schools decline, their subject choices diminish and their life chances held back by decisions of her Government?

Protected school funding, more teachers in our schools, more teachers with first-class degrees in our schools, more children in good or outstanding schools—it is not a vanity project to want every child in this country to have a good school place. That is how they will get on in life, and that is what this party will deliver. But this shows that there is a difference between the right hon. Gentleman and me. Earlier this week, he recorded a video calling for unity. He called for Labour to

“think of our people first. Think of our movement first. Think of the party first.”

That is the difference between him and me: Labour puts the party first; we put the country first.

Q4. For centuries, Prime Ministers have taken a close personal interest in the effectiveness of Dover and the channel ports as gateways to and guardians of the kingdom, so may I ask my right hon. Friend to take a close interest in making sure that Kent ports are ready for Brexit on day one, and not just in terms of customs, but with the M20 lorry park on schedule, and the A2 upgrade and the lower Thames crossing being taken forward? Mr Speaker, will you join me and the Prime Minister in wishing Dame Vera Lynn a happy 100th birthday this week and thanking her for her service to the white cliffs and to the nation? (909405)

I did not have that opportunity a couple of days ago, so I am happy to join my hon. Friend in wishing Dame Vera Lynn a very happy 100th birthday this week. It is right that we recognise the service that she gave to this country, as many others did.

My hon. Friend raises the important issue of transport links in Kent, which I have discussed with him and other Kent MPs on a number of occasions. In addition to the M20 lorry park, I assure him that the Department for Transport is fully committed to delivering a long-term solution as quickly as possible. It is currently considering the findings of the lower Thames crossing consultation, and Highways England will be doing more detailed work on the A2. The Home Office will be looking very closely at what measures need to be in place for Brexit for those coming across the border into Dover.

May I begin by extending condolences, as the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party have done, to the family, friends and colleagues of the former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness? We pay tribute to his contribution towards peace, while never forgetting the terrible human price during the troubles.

Last year, the Prime Minister promised that she would secure a UK-wide agreement between the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and her Government, before triggering article 50 on Brexit. Since then she has delayed, she has blocked, she has been intransigent and she has lectured—surprise, surprise; she has no agreement. There is no agreement. Will those be her negotiating tactics with the European Union?

Over the past few months, every effort has been put in, at various ministerial and official levels, to work with all the devolved Administrations to identify their particular concerns and interests, and to ensure that we are able to take those into account throughout the negotiating process. Discussions will continue in the future. What we want to ensure is that we get the best possible deal when we leave the European Union for all the people of the United Kingdom, including the people of Scotland, because at heart we are one people.

Viewers will note that the Prime Minister totally glossed over the fact that she has reached no agreement with the devolved Governments of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister says that she wants article 50 negotiations to lead to a deal and people to know the outcome of that deal before it is approved. Will she confirm that in the period for an agreement, the House of Commons will have a choice, the House of Lords will have a choice, the European Parliament will have a choice and 27 member states of the European Union will have a choice? If it is right for all of them to have a choice about Scotland’s future, why should the people of Scotland not have a choice about their own future?

This is not a question about whether the people of Scotland should have a choice about the future—[Hon. Members: “Yes, it is.”] The people of Scotland exercised their right to self-determination and voted in 2014 to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The people of the United Kingdom voted last year to leave the European Union. We are respecting both those votes; the right hon. Gentleman is respecting neither of them.

Q6. With her strong commitment to defence, does my right hon. Friend agree that we must stem the outflow from our shrinking forces? I urge her to reconsider the policy that she inherited of encouraging service families to get on to the housing ladder on the one hand, while on the other hand increasingly focusing the Army in areas where there is no affordable housing, and then applying the new landlord tax arrangements to buy for let. (909407)

I recognise the passion with which my hon. Friend always raises issues about the armed forces. He raises an important point, but I can assure him that we are fully committed to our goal of an 82,000-strong Army by 2020. On his specific point about service accommodation, we want to ensure that people have a greater choice in where they live by using private accommodation and meeting their aspirations for home ownership. That is why we set up the £200 million forces Help to Buy scheme and continue to support subsidised housing for service personnel—the pot of money will not be cut. The Ministry of Defence is working with the Treasury on the issues my hon. Friend raises, and I am sure that they will keep him updated.

Q3. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be 95 years old in December. In that UK, Scottish economic growth is a quarter of that of independent Iceland and a third of that of independent Ireland. Given that the Prime Minister supports Irish independence and the benefits that that has brought to Ireland’s economy and population, why does she oppose it for Scotland? Will she show Scotland the respect that the EU showed the UK in regard to a referendum? (909404)

If the hon. Gentleman is looking at issues around economic growth—he cited figures on growth—he should pay attention to the most important market for Scotland: the market of the United Kingdom. That is why Scotland should remain part of it.

Q9. Last week, with cross-party support, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and I set up the all-party group on Lyme disease. This debilitating disease is a growing problem across the country, including in my constituency, yet awareness of it among the public and GPs is incredibly low. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that her Government do all they can to raise the profile of the disease and to resolve the problems surrounding both diagnosis and treatment? (909410)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I commend him and my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) for the attention that the House is now giving to the issue. He is right that we need to raise awareness, but we also need to ensure that early diagnosis and treatment is available, because that is the best way of limiting the complications from this particular disease. The Department of Health is already taking steps. Clinical guidelines are being updated and enhanced by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, and NHS England has undertaken robust reviews on diagnosis, testing and treatment. However, there is more that we can do, so Public Health England is holding regular medical training days and conducting outreach across the medical community to raise awareness and ensure that that early diagnosis is in place.

Q5. During yesterday’s Adjournment debate, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), said that the issue in hand was above his pay grade. On the basis that the Prime Minister has the top pay grade, can she give us a clue about when we will see the long-awaited and very late tobacco control plan? (909406)

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working on the tobacco control plan and that one will be issued in due course.

Q11. A substantial number of Ministers took the opportunity to visit Cumbria recently and saw for themselves not only its beauty, but its industrial strengths and potential. If the Government’s industrial strategy is to succeed, places such as Cumbria need to be part of that success. Will the Prime Minister ensure that Cumbria gets the infrastructure investment that it requires to ensure that it really does fulfil its potential? (909412)

My ministerial colleagues and I were delighted to be able to take the opportunity to visit the beautiful county of Cumbria, and we are even happier now that Cumbria has another strong voice in the form of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), a Conservative MP.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) is right: Cumbria and the north-west have huge industrial potential. That is why we are getting on with delivering our investment plans throughout the country, including the north-west. Let me give the House some figures: £556 million has been allocated from the local growth fund to boost local productivity; and the north is getting £147 million to tackle congestion and improve local transport. However, it is our plan for Britain that will deliver that stronger, fairer economy and those higher-paid, higher-skilled jobs for people throughout the country.

Q7. The Prime Minister is in denial. Today’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirms that schools are already facing“the largest cut in school spending per pupil over a 4 year period since at least the early 1980s”, and that, as a result of her new national formula, funding is being diverted from schools with very high levels of deprivation. Every single school in my constituency will lose an average of £584 per pupil. Has the Prime Minister failed at maths, or failed to read her own manifesto? (909408)

I responded to that point earlier, but let me just reiterate what I said. Across the House, for many years, there has been a general acceptance that the current funding formula for schools is unfair, and that is why this Government are seeking a fairer formula. A consultation exercise is taking place, and the Department for Education will respond to it in due course. We are grasping this issue, whereas Labour did nothing for 13 years.

Q12. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, following the forthcoming debate on the restoration and renewal of Parliament, all Members, including Ministers, will have a completely free vote on what is a House matter? Does she understand that many of us believe that in these times of austerity, we should not be frontloading billions of pounds of expenditure on ourselves at the expense of schools and hospitals, but should carry on the work and stay in what is the iconic image of the nation? (909413)

The Palace of Westminster is world-renowned. It is a very important part of our national heritage, and it belongs to the United Kingdom. Of course, we also have a responsibility to our constituents to preserve this place as the home of our democracy. It will be for Parliament to make the final decision, but I assure my hon. Friend that, as this will be a House matter, there will be a free vote.

Q8. Air and road pollution, brought about mainly by diesel engines, causes 40,000 early deaths in this country, while also causing severe lung diseases such as bronchitis and asthma among young people and children. Hafodyrynys Road in Crumlin, which is in my constituency, is the most polluted road in the United Kingdom outside London. It is an absolute disgrace. Most of the pollution is caused by heavy goods vehicles such as lorries and trucks, which travel along the road spewing out noxious gases on to residents. Will the Prime Minister commit herself to ensuring that hauliers will start using newer diesel engines, cleaner technology and cleaner energy, so that everyone, including young people, can enjoy a better quality of life, especially on Hafodyrynys Road? (909409)

The hon. Gentleman speaks up well for his constituents. We all recognise the problems relating to air quality. The Government will present further proposals, but some changes have already taken place. We have invested in green transport initiatives, and plans to introduce clean zones around the country will help to tackle the problem. In fact, we have been at the forefront of action in Europe in dealing with some aspects of it. However, I accept that there is more to be done, and, as I have said, we will present further proposals in due course.

Q13. The compensation paid by Network Rail to train operators for delays far exceeds the amounts that the passengers who experience the delays are claiming because the ticket refund process can be cumbersome. Will the Prime Minister insist that train operators ring fence that money, and spend it on automated smart ticketing so that customers can tap on and tap off their train, and receive money in their bank accounts for the delays that they have been caused? (909415)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, which I know is a source of much frustration to many rail passengers. I thank him and others for the way in which they have spoken up on behalf of passengers, especially those using lines such as Thameslink and Southern. The best way to ensure that the operators do not profit from unclaimed compensation is for passengers to claim the compensation that they are entitled to. The Department for Transport is looking at how we can ensure that we publicise compensation schemes and make claims easier. We are rolling out improved Delay Repay compensation to allow passengers to claim after a delay of just 15 minutes. The Department is continuing to look at this issue, and I am sure it will pick up the points that my hon. Friend has raised.

Q10. Last week the Electoral Commission imposed on the Conservative party its largest ever fine for breaking crucial election rules. What did the Prime Minister, her Cabinet and her aides know about any of this activity, and who was responsible for designing and signing off all this? Does she agree that this was at best wilful negligence and at worst pure electoral fraud? (909411)

The hon. Gentleman asks me to respond to something that is a party matter, but I can assure him that the Conservative party did campaign in 2015 across the country for the return of a Conservative Government, and we should be clear that such campaigning would be part of the party’s national return, not candidates’ local return, as the Electoral Commission itself has said. The party accepted in April 2016 that it had made an administrative error on its national spending. It brought that to the attention of the Electoral Commission in order to amend its national return. As I have said, national electoral spending is a question for the national party, not individual Members. The Electoral Commission has looked into these issues, as it has with issues for the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party. It has issued fines to all three parties, and those fines will be paid.

The International Trade Committee has been taking evidence about exports from chambers of commerce this morning. Given the Prime Minister’s commitment to a global Britain, does she agree that we can maintain good relations with our European friends as we leave the European Union and also build on our long-standing relationships with our Commonwealth friends across the world to trade our way to greater prosperity?

One of the four pillars of our plan for Britain is a global Britain—that more outward-looking Britain. My hon. Friend is right that this is not just a question of ensuring that we get the right relationship with Europe when we leave the EU. We do want to continue to have a partnership—to be able to trade freely across Europe, and for companies in EU member states to trade with us—but we also want to enhance and improve our arrangements for trade with other parts of the world, including members of the Commonwealth.

Q14. Last week, through no fault of her own, Amy and her young daughter became homeless. After months of looking for a flat, she finally went to Merton Council, which told her that it could only offer her temporary accommodation in Birmingham, 140 miles away from her job, her daughter’s school, and the friends and family who make it possible for her to be a working single mum. May I ask the Prime Minister how it can be right that in one of the richest cities in the world, where Russian oligarchs and Chinese banks own scores of properties and leave them empty, a London-born working family like Amy’s have not a room to live in? (909416)

The issue of housing in the London Borough of Merton is one that the hon. Lady and I worked on many years ago when we were on the borough’s housing committee together. I recognise that she has raised a concern about a particular constituent. Obviously I will not comment on that individual case, but I will say is that it is important that, overall, the Government are dealing with the issue of homelessness. We are ensuring that we are building more homes and giving more support to people to get into their own homes, but this will take time as we make sure that those properties are available and that we maintain our record of providing housing support across all types of housing in this country.

As the Prime Minister has already said, it must be right that the same pupils with the same characteristics should attract the same amount of money. The unfairness in the system was not challenged for 13 years under Labour. Yes, there might need to be changes to the current draft formula, but I hope that she will commit to fulfilling our manifesto promise to make school funding fairer. I think she would agree that if the Labour Government had carried on in office, their spending plans would have led to what has happened in Greece and Spain, where not just hundreds but tens of thousands of teachers have had to be fired.

My right hon. Friend is right. As I said earlier, the issue of the funding formula for schools was ducked for too long—it was certainly ducked by the last Labour Government. We have started to address it: we have been looking at the formula, and we have brought forward a proposal. We will look at the consultation responses and respond in due course. She is also absolutely right about the Labour party. Its education policies would mean fewer opportunities in schools, and its economic policy would mean less funding for schools.

Last week, the Prime Minister’s Government confirmed that there had been no assessment of the economic impact of a failure to strike a trade deal with the EU before Brexit. Is it not the case that, in triggering article 50 next week, she is the modern-day equivalent of Lord Cardigan, the military commander responsible for the charge of the Light Brigade? We all know how that ended.

In triggering article 50 next week, what I am doing is responding to the wishes of the British people.

Does the Prime Minister agree that we urgently need to find a solution to the impact of the national living wage on sleeping shifts in the care sector? This, together with the policy of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs of insisting on the payment of six years’ back pay, plus penalties, could have a devastating impact on this vitally important sector.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Through the national living wage, we are giving Britain a pay rise and making sure that pay is fair in all sectors, including social care. On his specific point, we are looking at that issue carefully, including in the context of funding pressures on social care. We are working to ensure that enforcement protects low-paid workers in a fair and proportionate manner. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget, £2 billion of extra money is going into the social care sector, but the specific issue that my hon. Friend raises is being carefully looked at by the Treasury.

Despite austerity, shocking pay increases were awarded to the board of the Liverpool clinical commissioning group, with a lay deputy chair now being paid more than £100,000 following a 43% increase. Will the Prime Minister agree to investigate the failures of governance within the CCG and the lack of scrutiny within the wider Liverpool health economy, and ensure that no mergers take place while those matters are being investigated?

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has asked NHS England to investigate the remuneration of non-executive directors at Liverpool CCG, and I am sure that he will keep the hon. Lady updated. We want to make the NHS even more efficient so that every possible penny can be spent on frontline patient care, and I am pleased to say that we are seeing results. The financial position has improved by £1.3 billion compared with this time last year, with 44 fewer trusts in deficit. As I say, NHS England is investigating the issue that the hon. Lady has raised.

The Prime Minister will be aware that the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness is calling us all to action to highlight and tackle loneliness. In Northumberland, Forward Assist, a small charity of which I am a patron, is taking up this challenge, working with female military veterans who are suffering from severe isolation issues. Will the Prime Minister meet me and some of those extraordinary women to learn about how our Government can help to avoid this outcome in the future?

I commend the work that is being done by Forward Assist in my hon. Friend’s constituency. It sounds like a valuable project that is doing important work. The Secretary of State for Defence will be happy to meet her.

The Schools Minister has been good enough to agree to meet Erdington headteachers tomorrow. The constituency is rich in talent, but it is one of the poorest in the country. Some 96% of Birmingham’s schools will lose a total of £20 million under the Government’s fair funding formula, yet Surrey gains £17 million, Suffolk gains £10 million, and Windsor and Maidenhead gains £300,000. How can that possibly be fair?

I note that the Schools Minister will be meeting the hon. Gentleman and headteachers to discuss the issue. The fair funding formula is about trying to ensure that the unfair funding that has existed up until now is actually dealt with. There are some very, very stark differences. There are schools in London, for example, that get almost twice the funding of those in other parts of the country. We need to ensure that we address the unfairness in the funding formula but, as I said earlier, there is a consultation exercise and the Department for Education will respond in due course.