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Commons Chamber

Volume 624: debated on Wednesday 19 April 2017

House of Commons

Wednesday 19 April 2017

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Faversham Oyster Fishery Company Bill [Lords]

Bill, as amended, considered.

Oral Answers to Questions

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Scotland’s Contribution to the UK

As the Prime Minister has said,

“at the heart of the United Kingdom is the unity of our people: a unity of interests, outlook and principles. This transcends politics and institutions, the constitution and the economy. It is about the values we share”

and our “solidarity”. I will never stop making the passionate and positive case for our United Kingdom, and I look forward to having the opportunity to do so during the forthcoming general election.

With the Defence Secretary confirming a £1.7 billion investment in Scottish military bases, does my right hon. Friend agree that Scotland plays a crucial role in defending my constituents in Eddisbury and those throughout the whole United Kingdom from growing threats at sea, in the air and on land, and that the divisive policies of the nationalists threaten that crucial role?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend—Scotland is on the frontline of defending the United Kingdom from growing threats at sea, in the air and on land. It is the home to essential defence capabilities, and our commitment to the future of defence in Scotland is underlined by increasing investment in better infrastructure for our armed forces, which is helping them to keep the whole of the United Kingdom safe.

Given that in the last quarter the Scottish economy contracted by 0.2%, is it not about time we got off the independence referendum—and, indeed, the general election—merry-go-round, and got the Prime Minister and the First Minister to concentrate on what is important, which is the economy of Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman would have a lot more credibility in making that statement if he was not standing on the ticket of a leader who has said that he has no problem with another independence referendum and who clearly would do a deal with the Scottish National party to get the keys of No. 10.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that Scotland’s membership of the single market of the United Kingdom is more important to Scotland than its membership of the single market of the European Union?

My hon. Friend is correct. It is absolutely right to highlight the fact that the market for Scottish goods and services in the rest of the United Kingdom is four times greater than that market in the EU. The UK is the vital Union for Scotland.

In the last few years, Iceland and Ireland have leapfrogged the UK in terms of growth and deficit reduction, and they have always had a higher GDP per capita over the last 10 years. Norway’s oil fund is now $920 billion, having grown by $105 billion from $815 billion. The equivalent figures for the UK are zero, zero and zero. Does the Secretary of State not agree that Scotland could be as good as tiny Iceland, as good as Ireland and even as good as Norway with our independence? What is he scared of for Scotland?

I well remember when the SNP advocated the “arc of prosperity” for Ireland, Scotland and Iceland. I very much doubt that the people of Scotland would want to endure the pain that the people of both Iceland and Ireland have endured to ensure that their economies are back on a stable footing.

Perhaps all of us on this side of the House can agree that Scotland’s greatest contribution has been to show that there is actually an alternative to the destructive policies of this UK Tory Government. It is worth remembering that in Scotland we have free prescriptions, free eye tests, free childcare and free university tuition. We have scrapped bridge tolls, reopened railways and invested in infrastructure, and we are building more council houses than any UK nation. That is what the SNP has delivered in government in Scotland. Does the Secretary of State not agree that that stands in marked contrast to the Tories’ mismanagement and destruction of public services south of the border?

What I see in my constituency is falling educational standards, with Scotland’s once-proud education system having the lowest international ratings ever. What I see is my constituents experiencing increasing waiting times for the health service and having to deal with inadequate infrastructure. I do not believe that the SNP Government in Scotland are focusing on the day job. They are focusing on their obsession—independence.

Quotes about doing the day job when the Government are calling an early general election are a bit cynical. Let us rest on a neutral observer, not a Tory party research officer. What about the director of the Institute of Health and Society, who said:

“Scotland is in a much stronger position than England with respect to both health and social care”?

He went on to say:

“The problem is at the moment that the English government is not committed to a national health service”.

Is not that another example of the fact that the real alternative to the Tory UK Government is the progressive policies of the SNP?

Absolutely not, and I look forward to debating these subjects over the next six weeks. The right hon. Gentleman was very careful not to mention education standards in Scotland, which the latest international figures demonstrate are the lowest ever on record. That is not a proud record of the Scottish Government. I look forward to holding them to account over the next six weeks.

Joint Ministerial Committee

2. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Joint Ministerial Committee in ensuring that the needs of all regions and nations of the UK are taken into account in negotiations on the UK leaving the EU. (909642)

In our negotiations with the EU, we will be seeking the best deal for all parts of the UK. The Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) was established to facilitate engagement between the UK Government and devolved Administrations, and has had regular substantive and constructive discussions.

If the Secretary of State is so keen on and supportive of the JMC, why did the Government vote against putting it on a statutory footing for Brexit negotiations during the passage of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017? Secondly, when was the last time a positive idea—I am sure that there have been many from the devolved Administrations—was taken on board to form part of the Brexit negotiations to improve the exit from the EU for the devolved nations?

We have been very clear about “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, the Scottish Government’s contribution to the discussions. There have also been constructive contributions from the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. They have set out many things that formed part of the White Paper and the Prime Minister’s speech. They will be part of the discussions as we negotiate our exit from the EU.

The role of the machinery of government in helping to hold together the United Kingdom is an important issue. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a priority for the new Government should be to take a long, hard look at developing new ways of working between Ministers and civil servants across the devolved Administrations to strengthen our United Kingdom?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, who has considerable experience. Despite what we hear at Question Time and in the media, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations are able to work together very closely and constructively on a range of issues. That is the element that we should support and promote.

The Prime Minister told the Scottish Parliament that

“now is not the time”

when it wanted to let Scotland decide its own future and relationship with Europe, but now is the time for a screeching U-turn and this opportunistic general election. Does the Secretary of State therefore also believe that it is time for the Scottish people to reject the UK Government’s austerity obsession, their assault on the poor, the obnoxious rape clause, and their desire to drive Scotland over the cliff edge of their hard Brexit?

I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman is an expert on screeching, but the Prime Minister’s proposal to have a general election in six weeks’ time, to ensure certainty, clarity and security for the period of the Brexit negotiations, is different from a proposal to have a disruptive referendum campaign during the period of those negotiations.

Common commercial policies for the UK to pursue as we leave the EU, for example in animal health and food safety, are as essential to Scotland as they are to Somerset. How can the JMC help to ensure that they will be adopted?

I would certainly hope that the JMC(EN) will be involved in the discussion on the repatriation of important powers from the EU to the Scottish Parliament and the other devolved Administrations. I recognise more than anyone how important it is to have common animal welfare arrangements, as the main livestock market for my constituency is a mile south of the Scottish border in England.

Scotland voted to remain in the EU and the single market, but the Scottish Government’s paper that would have kept Scotland in the single market and the UK was roundly ignored by a Tory UK Government intent on pursuing a reckless hard Brexit. Will the Secretary of State tell us what personal action he took to convince the Prime Minister to take account of the views of the people of Scotland, and can he provide an explanation for why he failed?

I have been clear that “Scotland’s Place in Europe” did play an important part in the Government’s thinking—[Interruption.] Just so that the hecklers on the Opposition Benches are clear, the Government formally responded to the Scottish Government in relation to “Scotland’s Place in Europe”. Surprisingly, the Scottish Government asked us not to publish our response.

In the Secretary of State’s assessment of the effectiveness of the Joint Ministerial Committee, did he share my conclusion that it would be much more effective if all parties were focused on building a strong UK after Brexit, not separatist agendas?

As we head into unprecedented peacetime negotiations with the EU, it is vital that all parts of the United Kingdom pull together to take a Team UK approach. By doing so, we will get the best possible deal for Scotland and the whole UK.

The JMC is supposed to be the platform through which the devolved Administrations have their voices not just heard but responded to. The Secretary of State paints a rosy picture, but he is not listening to those voices. Northern Ireland voices are not being heard at the moment, because they are not allowed to attend. From what we have heard this morning, the Scots are saying clearly that their voice is being ignored. The Welsh feel, at best, less than impressed. Will the Government give this body the teeth it needs, put it on a statutory footing and let it do its job properly?

The purpose of the JMC is to bring together the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, and to work together to formulate our position as we go forward in the negotiations. I very much regret the fact that the Northern Ireland Executive have not been able to be politically present in recent times—we all want that situation to be brought to a conclusion—but the meetings have been robust and, I believe, certainly in terms of the actions that have flowed from them, constructive.

Tax

The UK and Scottish Governments continue to engage closely on the devolution of new tax powers. The Scottish Government are now responsible for setting the rates and thresholds of income tax. It is of course incumbent on them to use their powers to make Scotland an attractive place to live and work.

Now that the Scottish Government have unprecedented power to shape the economy of Scotland, will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on the Scottish National party to start delivering jobs and economic growth in Scotland, rather than focusing on a second independence referendum? [Interruption.]

The shouts from Opposition Members just highlight the complacency of the SNP in relation to the Scottish economy, which contracted by 2% in the fourth quarter of 2016 while the UK economy grew by 0.7%. No Scot can be proud of that comparison.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is terrible that middle earners in Scotland are being penalised £400 this year by the Scottish Government, and by up to £1,400 by 2020-21, compared with England, where we have higher tax thresholds to help hard-working families?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that point. I might not like the plans to make Scotland the most taxed part of the United Kingdom, but I acknowledge that that is a matter for the Scottish Government. They will have to account for their taxation policies, and the forthcoming general election will no doubt highlight these issues.

The average band D council tax bill in Scotland is almost £400 lower than it is in England. Will the Secretary of State’s discussions consider how local authorities in England can learn from Scotland’s successes in providing local and national services while maintaining the lowest council tax rate in the UK?

The hon. Lady may have spoken to the SNP press office, but she certainly has not spoken to councils throughout Scotland, which are uniform in their negativity in respect of the Scottish Government’s approach to local government funding.

As a last act of kindness, and while he still has his seat and his position, will the Secretary of State address the closure of the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office in my constituency, which threatens 1,000 job losses and a move to Edinburgh? A cross-party group of politicians, including members of his own party, has written to him, but he has ignored that. As his swansong, will he come to Livingston and save those jobs?

As the hon. Lady knows, I have set out clearly, in correspondence with all who have been in touch with me, the rationale for the move and the changes in the arrangements for HMRC. Many of those changes were called for by Members on both sides of the House on the grounds of efficiency and effectiveness, but obviously no Members like to see significant changes in employment patterns in their constituencies, and I commend the hon. Lady for the way in which she has pursued the issue.

Leaving the EU: Private Sector

5. What discussions he has had with Scottish businesses on opportunities for the private sector after the UK leaves the EU. (909645)

7. What discussions he has had with Scottish businesses on opportunities for the private sector after the UK leaves the EU. (909647)

The UK Government’s plan for Britain is intended to help businesses throughout the United Kingdom to trade beyond Europe, and to make Britain a leading advocate for free trade all over the world. Scotland Office Ministers have held more than 70 meetings with businesses across Scotland since last summer’s referendum, and only last month my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade was in Glasgow to meet innovative Scottish businesses that are trading with the world.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support international trade and investment in the devolved nations?

We in the Department for International Trade are clear about the fact that ours is a Department for the whole United Kingdom. All our services are accessible to companies in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, including the GREAT campaign and its portal GREAT.gov.uk, and the Tradeshow Access Programme. In recent months, there have been major announcements about more overseas investment in all parts of the UK.

Will my right hon. Friend tell us his view of the damage that would be caused to Scottish business if Scotland left the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. If Scotland were to leave the UK, the potential damage to Scottish business and Scottish trade would be huge. The Scottish Government’s own figures show that 64% of goods and services leaving Scotland go to the UK, whereas only 15% go to the rest of the EU. That is £49.8 billion versus £12.3 billion.

I think the hon. Gentleman is missing the point. The point, surely, is the centrality and importance of the UK single market as we go forward from here. I will give the House the figures again: £49.8 billion goes to the rest of the UK; only £12.3 billion goes to the EU. It is clear that the Union that matters most is the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State has said previously that he supports the European single market and that being part of the single market is clearly the best possible deal for Scotland. Will he tell his constituents whether he will now stand on a manifesto to take Scotland out of that single market?

The Prime Minister and the whole Government are absolutely clear about the fact that our objective is to secure a comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union as we leave the EU. That will be in the best interests of all parts of the UK, including Scotland.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the opportunities for increasing whisky exports across the world as part of a free trade agreement once we leave the European Union? [Interruption.]

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Whisky is a vital part of our export mix: whisky exports reached £3.999 billion in 2016—a big increase—and whisky has been at the heart of quite a few of our trade missions. Notably, when the Secretary of State for International Trade, the Prime Minister and I visited India in November, we took with us the Scotch Whisky Association, and we have seen big increases in exports to India.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron promised he would not resign if he lost the EU referendum; he reneged on that promise within hours. The current Prime Minister said on seven occasions that she would not call an early election; she reneged on that promise yesterday. Will the Minister, answering on behalf of the Secretary of State, give him the chance to break the mould and renew the commitment given to this House on at least three occasions that whatever support is put in place for businesses in the north-east like Nissan will be put in place for Scotland?

We have been absolutely clear that our support for Nissan and the rest of the automotive sector will be enduring. That is the most important point, and I am sure it will be an important point in the general election campaign. I look forward to the Conservatives being competitive in the north-east in this coming general election, and we look forward to taking the fight to the official Opposition there.

The question was whether the Secretary of State will renew the promise given to Scotland that it would have the same deal, and, if he will, will he tell the people in the oil and gas supply chain, given the report from Robert Gordon University which last week found that Brexit would cost them £200 million, that that money will be sorted and they will be looked after in the same way as Nissan—or will he ignore that and break another promise?

I am certainly glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the question of oil and gas in Scotland: I know that he and I will agree that what would be most disastrous for the Scottish economy, including the oil and gas sector, would be Scottish separation, leading to an overnight budget deficit of around 9% of GDP. That would be a disaster.

UK Single Market

Sales from Scotland to the rest of the UK are now worth nearly £50 billion, an increase of over 70% since 2002 and four times the value of exports from Scotland to the EU. There is no doubt that the United Kingdom is the vital Union for Scotland.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best deal for Scotland is to stay part of the United Kingdom and to work with the UK Government to do all it can to support a new free trade agreement with the EU?

The International Monetary Fund predicted dire consequences for the UK economy if we voted Brexit, yet it upgraded our growth yesterday, for the second time in three months, to 2%. Much of the confidence about the growth in the UK economy is deserved under the leadership of our Prime Minister. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when people look to buy British, as a quality marque “made in Scotland” is very important?

My constituency has a long and proud tradition of textile companies, many of which trade with all parts of the United Kingdom. How will those companies be helped by Scotland leaving the hugely successful UK single market?

Obviously, they will not, because, as my hon. Friend will know, in 2015 Scotland exported £49.8 billion to the rest of the UK, four times more than exports to the EU and three times greater than sales to the rest of the world.

The benefits to Scotland of full access to the UK market are clear. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Scottish representation in this Parliament must focus on what benefits the whole of the UK single market?

Absolutely. That is why I can confirm to my hon. Friend that when Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives go into the general election, it will be on the basis of keeping Scotland at the heart of our United Kingdom.

12. Seventy-five per cent. of Canada’s exports go to the US, whereas only 63% of Scotland’s exports go to the rest of the UK. Canada is a successful, independent country. Does the Secretary of State agree that neighbouring countries can have close trading relations while still maintaining their sovereignty? (909652)

Of course countries can have close trading relationships, but Scotland benefits from being part of the United Kingdom because there are no barriers to trade, and there is freedom of movement between Scotland and the rest of the UK. That is good for Scottish business and the hon. Lady should support it.

15. The value of Scottish exports of food and drink has doubled in the past 10 years, to £5.5 billion in 2016. This week, the chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, James Withers, said that he was afraid that the consequences of leaving the European Union without a trade deal would result in tariffs. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the Scottish food and drink sector will not have to deal with such a situation? (909655)

From my discussions with the Scottish food and drink industry, I understand that its greatest concern is that the Scottish National party would seek to drag Scotland out of the United Kingdom.

Does the Secretary of State stand by his comments last year, when he said:

“My role is to ensure Scotland gets the best possible deal and that deal involves clearly being part of the single market”?

Will he be honest with his constituents in a few weeks’ time? Will they be voting for an MP who supports being in the single market, or for one who wants to go along with a damaging hard Brexit, whatever the cost to families and businesses in his constituency?

When I contest my constituency in the next general election, I look forward to knowing exactly what the SNP position is on the EU. Is it for taking Scotland back into the EU, or is it not? I hope we will find out in the next six weeks.

The Tories’ strategy worked a treat against the Liberal Democrats in the south-west of England at the last election. Will the Secretary of State be urging his colleagues to export that strategy to Scotland in the coming election?

Ruth Davidson has already made it absolutely clear that her stance in the forthcoming general election will be to stand up for Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom and against a divisive second independence referendum.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure that Members across the House will wish to join me in offering our condolences to the families and friends of Andreea Christie, who died following the London attack, and of Chris Bevington, who was among those killed in the terrorist attack in Sweden. Our thoughts are also with the family and friends of Hannah Bladon, who was murdered in Jerusalem last week.

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 would also like to join the Prime Minister in offering the condolences of the people of South Leicestershire and myself to the families of those individuals.

Strong countries need strong economies. Strong countries need strong defences. Strong countries need strong leaders. As the nation prepares to go to the polls, who else in this House, apart from my right hon. Friend, can provide the leadership that is needed at this time?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are three things that a country needs: a strong economy, strong defence, and strong, stable leadership. That is what our plans for Brexit and our plans for a stronger Britain will deliver. That is what the Conservative party will be offering at this election, and we will be out there fighting for every vote. The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) would bankrupt our economy and weaken our defences and is simply not fit to lead.

I concur with the condolences that the Prime Minister just sent to the families of the three people who so sadly and needlessly died. It is important that we recognise that as a cross-party proposal today, and I thank the Prime Minister for it.

We welcome the general election, but this is a Prime Minister who promised that there would not be one—a Prime Minister who cannot be trusted. She says that it is about leadership, yet she refuses to defend her record in television debates. It is not hard to see why. The Prime Minister says that we have a stronger economy, yet she cannot explain why people’s wages are lower today than they were 10 years ago or why more households are in debt. Six million people are earning less than the living wage, child poverty is up, and pensioner poverty is up. Why are so many people getting poorer?

I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that I have been answering his questions and debating these matters every Wednesday that Parliament has been sitting since I became Prime Minister. I will be taking out to the country in this campaign a proud record of a Conservative Government: a stronger economy, with the deficit nearly two thirds down, a tax cut for 30 million people, with 4 million people taken out of income tax altogether, record levels of employment, and £1,250 more a year for pensioners. That is a record we can proud of.

If the Prime Minister is so proud of her record, why will she not debate it? Wages are falling and more children are in poverty. Page 28 of the Tories’ last manifesto said:

“We will work to eliminate child poverty”.

They only eliminated the child poverty target, not child poverty. In 2010, they promised to eradicate the deficit by 2015. In 2015, they promised to eradicate the deficit by 2020. Austerity has failed, so does the Prime Minister know by which year the deficit will now be eradicated?

I know that it has taken the right hon. Gentleman a little time to get the hang of Prime Minister’s questions, but he stands up week in, week out and asks me questions and I respond to those questions. With a stronger—[Interruption.]

We have a stronger economy, with the deficit two thirds down, but people will have a real choice at this election. They will have a choice between a Conservative Government who have shown that we can build a stronger economy and a Labour party with an economic policy that would bankrupt this country. What voters know is that under Labour it is ordinary working people who pay the price of the Labour party. They pay it with their taxes, they pay it with their jobs, and they pay it with their children’s futures.

Only this year the new Chancellor pledged to eradicate the deficit by 2022. I admire Tory consistency: it is always five years in the future. Another Tory broken promise.

The Prime Minister leads a Government who have increased national debt by £700 billion, more than every Labour Government in history put together. Debt has risen every year they have been in office. We know their economic plan was long term. Does she want to tell us how far into the long term it will be before we get the debt falling?

The right hon. Gentleman stands up and talks about debt. This is a Labour party that will be going into the election pledged to borrow an extra £500 billion. What does that mean for ordinary working people? Well, I will tell him what it means. We know what Labour’s plans would entail because we have been told by the former Labour shadow Chancellor. He said that if Labour were in power,

“you’d have to double income tax, double National Insurance, double council tax and you’d have to double VAT as well.”

That is Labour’s plan for the economy.

All her Government have delivered is more debt and less funding for schools and hospitals. Schools funding is being cut for the first time in a generation. The Prime Minister is cutting £3 billion a year from school budgets by 2020. She says that the Government have created a stronger economy, so why are there tax giveaways to the richest corporations while our children’s schools are starved of the resources they need to educate our children for the future?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about levels of funding for schools and the NHS. There are record levels of funding going into schools and record levels of funding going into the NHS, but let us just talk about schools. It is not just a question of funding; it is actually a question of the quality of education provided in schools. Some 1.8 million more children are in good or outstanding schools under this Conservative Government, which is 1.8 million more children with a better chance for their future. What would Labour give us? It would be the same old one-size-fits-all, local authority-run schools: “No choice, good or bad, trust your luck.” We do not trust to luck, and we will not trust the Labour party. We will provide a good school place for every child.

Many parents taking their children back to school for the summer term will receive a letter begging for funds to buy books and fund the school. The Conservative manifesto promised

“the amount of money following your child into school will be protected.”

It is not. It is another Tory broken promise.

For the first time in its history, NHS funding per patient will fall this year. The NHS has been put into an all-year-round crisis by this Government. Why are more people waiting in pain, with millions of elderly people not getting the care and dignity they deserve?

I am proud of our record on the NHS. We saw more doctors, more nurses, more midwives, more general practitioners and more people being treated in our national health service last year than ever before, with record levels of funding going into our national health service. We can only do that with a strong economy. What do we know we would get from the Labour party? Bankruptcy and chaos.

That is a very good reason for why we should have a debate about it, because it is another Tory broken promise. A broken promise of the Tory manifesto, which said that they would continue to

“spend more on the NHS, in real terms”.

Say that to those waiting in A&E departments and to those who cannot leave hospital because social care is not available.

Is it not the truth that, over the last seven years, the Tories have broken every promise on living standards, the deficit, debt, the national health service and school funding? Why should anyone believe a word they say over the next seven weeks?

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will be out campaigning and taking to voters the message of not only the record of this Conservative Government, but, crucially, of our plans to make Brexit a success and to build a stronger Britain for the future. Every vote for the Conservatives will make it harder for those who want to stop me getting the job done. Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the European Union. And every vote for the Conservatives will mean we can stick to our plan for a stronger Britain and take the right long-term decisions for a more secure future for this country.

Q2. For years I have been campaigning for fairer funding in Wiltshire schools. Will the Prime Minister please reaffirm her commitment to this and to a review of the pupil premium to encompass other forms of key disadvantage, such as being a young carer, having mental health problems and dealing with bereavement? In this way, we can create a country that will work for everyone. (909675)

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and I know she has campaigned long and hard in her constituency and worked hard for her constituents on this and other issues. We want to ensure that young people, irrespective of their background, have the opportunity to make the most of their talents, and the point of our reforms is to try to end the postcode lottery in school funding and to support our plan for a fairer society, where success is based on merit and not on privilege. She refers to the pupil premium, and that is of course worth £2.5 billion a year. It is an important part of our policy because it gives schools extra support for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, but I think it is right that schools are best placed to prioritise the needs of their pupils and can use their funding to ensure that they are supporting any pupil facing disadvantage, financial or otherwise.

May I join in the condolences extended by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party?

The tone and content of democratic debates, including in a general election, are very important to all of us, so does the Prime Minister agree that political opponents are not “saboteurs”, and that all elected mainstream parties and parliamentarians have a mandate and that that should be respected?

In this House and in this Parliament it is right that we have proper debate and scrutiny of proposals put forward by the Government, and that arguments on both sides of the House are rightly challenged and those discussions take place. But I say to the right hon. Gentleman that what the British people—what the people of the United Kingdom—voted for last year was for the UK to leave the European Union. We have set that process in motion; there is no turning back. It is clear from statements made by the Scottish nationalists and others that they want to use this House to try to frustrate that process. I will be asking the British people for a mandate to complete Brexit and to make a success of it.

It is disappointing that the Prime Minister did not take the opportunity to condemn intemperate language in describing other democratic politicians as—[Interruption.] There is heckling from the Government side, and I think the Prime Minister should take the opportunity to underline something that we should all agree on: that describing people in the way we have seen them described in some daily newspapers by some leading politicians is not acceptable.

Most people know that the reason we are having a general election is because of the woeful state of the Labour party. If the Prime Minister is so confident that her hard Brexit, pro-austerity, anti-immigration case is right, she should debate it with Opposition leaders during the campaign. We look forward to the straight fight between the Scottish National party and the Tories. Will the Prime Minister tell the people why she is running scared of a televised debate with Nicola Sturgeon?

First, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that one of the crucial things we have in this country that underpins our democracy is a free press? I believe that is important and I believe that people in this Chamber should stand up for the freedom of the press. As to the TV debates, I can assure him that I will be out there campaigning in every part of the United Kingdom, taking out there our proud record of a Conservative Government who have delivered for every part of the United Kingdom.

I might also suggest to the Scottish nationalists that now is the time for them to put aside—[Interruption.] Wait for it: now is the time for them to put aside their tunnel vision on independence and actually explain to the Scottish people why the SNP Government are not putting as much money into the health service as they have been given from the UK, they are not exercising the powers they have been given and Scottish education is getting worse. It is time they got back to the day job.

Q4. I too welcome the announcement from the Prime Minister yesterday, and I look forward to the general election and to taking my positive message to my constituents in Cheadle in June. Over the past two years, I have pressed for first-class transport infrastructure for Cheadle, and this week I launched my transport survey so my constituents can have their say on what is needed to keep Cheadle moving and be at the heart of the northern powerhouse. Does my right hon. Friend agree that residents in Cheadle need to vote Conservative on 8 June to ensure that we get continued investment in transport and infrastructure, not only in Cheadle but across the north-west? (909677)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that point. I know she has been working very hard for her constituents in Cheadle on transport and other issues. Of course, it is under this Government that the Department for Transport is investing £290 million to improve transport links to Manchester airport through Cheadle, and £2.1 million has been committed to improving walking and cycling routes around the Cheadle Hulme district centre. That is why the choice is so clear. As my hon. Friend says, if she wants to see that funding for infrastructure, we need a strong economy, which only the Conservatives can deliver.

Q3. Because of the Prime Minister’s changes to education funding, every school in the country will face real- terms cuts. Manchester will be hit harder than anywhere outside London—[Interruption.] It’s true. Chorlton High School and Parrs Wood High School in my constituency will each lose the equivalent of more than 30 teachers. I ask the Prime Minister the same question a headteacher asked me: what would she cut to balance the books and from what subjects would she choose to sack teachers? (909676)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, record levels of funding are going into our schools. Everybody across this House has recognised for many years that the current funding formula is not fair across the country, and it is necessary for us to look for a fairer funding formula. We have consulted on that and will obviously be responding to that consultation. As the hon. Gentleman faces up to the election, I note that last year he failed to back—he opposed—the leader of his party. If the hon. Gentleman was not willing to support him as leader of his party then, why should his voters support him as leader of the country?

Q6. The only way to fund crucial infrastructure is with a strong economy. To that end, does my right hon. Friend agree that the St James Mill link road in Northampton would help with traffic flow in the town and unlock development in the enterprise zone? Will the next Conservative Government continue to support me, as the MP, in backing the scheme? (909679)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to have a strong economy if we are to be able to fund that crucial infrastructure. That is why, since 2015, we have increased our annual investment in economic infrastructure by almost 60% to £22 billion per year by 2021, including £2.6 billion for improvements in transport projects. I am happy to see the link road proposal being put forward by his local enterprise partnership; it will improve access to business and unlock development in the area. My hon. Friend has worked hard to see it happen, and I am sure he will continue to campaign on issues like that which matter so much to his constituents.

Q5. Recent changes to housing benefit entitlement for 18 to 21-year-olds will affect 195 young people in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. The Government are constantly challenging young people to train and leave benefits for the world of work, but homelessness charities such as Llamau are concerned that the changes will be a major barrier to learning and training for youngsters who do not have a safe and secure environment at home. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should be doing everything we can to help young people in the job market, including by offering financial support for housing? Will she pledge to strengthen the guidelines so that no more young people risk falling through the net and ending up on the streets? (909678)

The principle behind the changing of housing benefit is the right one, which is to say that it is only fair that people are not able to make decisions when they are on benefit that they would not be able to make if they are actually in work. However, it is right that we ensure that those young people who have a particular difficulty with staying at home are supported through the system, which is why significant exemptions are in place. We recognise that need and have taken it on board.

Kettering

I would be happy to visit the Kettering constituency in the future if my diary allows. In fact, I suspect that I will be visiting quite a few constituencies across the country in the next few weeks.

Life for ordinary working families is harder than many people at Westminster realise: “You have a job, but not necessarily job security. You are just about managing, but you are worried about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school. You are doing your best, and a Conservative Government will do all it can to make sure that you have more control over your life.” These were the inspiring words of the Prime Minister when she took office last July. Will she come to Kettering, Britain’s most average town, and repeat these, her core beliefs? If she does so, I know she will be warmly and widely acclaimed as the Prime Minister this country needs for the next five years.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight ordinary working families who do rely on the Government to provide stability and certainty for them, and that is what this Conservative Government have done. Looking at what we have done, we see that we have supported jobs through significant new investment in skills, we have invested in public services such as childcare and the NHS, and we have enhanced consumer protections. I am happy to repeat the words that I said outside Downing Street on 13 July last year, but it is Conservatives in government who have delivered strong and stable leadership, and that is the message I will be taking out to the country during this election.

Engagements

Q7. Does the Prime Minister support the people of Darlington who oppose the downgrading of their A&E and maternity services? They want an answer they can trust, Prime Minister. Is it yes or no? (909680)

The proposals for the configuration of health services in local areas is a matter that is being determined by local commissions in the best interests of services in the local area.

I am interested that the hon. Lady refers to the views of her constituents in Darlington. She has said of the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of her party:

“My constituents in Darlington have made it clear to me that they cannot support the Labour party under your leadership.”

How can they possibly support him as leader of the country?

Q9. May I welcome the fact that, because the Conservatives have managed the economy so well, there is record school funding this year? East Sussex, for example, has some of the best performing schools in the country, and they are set to receive an increase of 3%. However, in Lewes, in my constituency, many of my small rural primary schools are set to see a reduction. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that she will look at the issue of rural primary school funding so that we can even out the distribution of money? (909682)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the record levels of funding that are going into schools. It is also the case, as I said earlier, that over the years there has been a general acceptance across this House that the current system of funding is not fair in certain parts of the country. That is why we want to end that postcode lottery and look at a system that is fairer and more up to date and that will support our plan for a society where progress is based on merit and not on privilege. I am very happy to look at her concerns. I recognise that small rural schools have particular issues, and I am happy to look at them to ensure that we get the funding formula right and that we can spread the money as fairly as possible.

Q13. Every school in Hyndburn is facing a massive budget cut. Why is a child in Hyndburn worth less than a child in Tory heartlands in the south? (909686)

Currently, significant sums of money are going to children in certain schools, sometimes double the amount going to a child in another school. We need to find a fairer system. We have consulted on that system and we will be responding to that consultation.

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said about the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of his party. He said:

“He’s not fit to rule. The public see this is a man who doesn’t take responsibility seriously and that he can’t take the party forward other than in a divisive way.”

If he cannot take the party forward, how can he hope to take the country forward?

Q10. Small businesses provide the lion’s share of jobs in Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly. The difficulties of attracting credit, rising operational costs and red tape make running a small business an increasingly difficult task. What can my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister do to help small businesses so that they can continue to be the engine of rural economies like West Cornwall’s? (909683)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that small businesses are the engine of the economy. I know that he has been a champion of small businesses in his constituency. He recognises that if we are to ensure that we can create those jobs, we have to encourage small businesses. That is why in the Budget my right hon. Friend the Chancellor provided £435 million to support businesses in England facing the steepest business rate increases, why we will cut business rates by nearly £9 billion over the next five years, and why we have listened to small businesses and given more than 3 million of them an extra year to prepare for Making Tax Digital. I recognise the importance of small businesses in Cornwall, and I look forward to visiting in the next few weeks and being able to talk my hon. Friend and others about the importance of small businesses in the county.

I join the Prime Minister in the expressions of condolence that she led earlier.

This election can change the direction of our country, from the consequences of a potential hard Brexit outside the single market to the future of our NHS and social care, our schools and our environment. The British public deserve to hear the party leaders set out their plans and debate them publicly, but the Prime Minister has refused to take part in televised leaders debates. Back in 1992, when she and I were both candidates, we debated publicly, forcefully and amicably. Indeed, she called out the then incumbent for not showing up for some of those debates. Why will she not debate those issues publicly now? What is she scared of?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will be debating these issues publicly across the country, as will every single member of the Conservative team. We will be taking out there the proud record of a Conservative Government, but, more than that, we will be taking our plans for the future of this country, for making Brexit a success and delivering a stronger Britain. He talks about the possibility of changing the future of this country. What do we know that the leader of the Labour party, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and the leader of the Scottish nationalists have in common? Corbyn, Farron and Sturgeon want to unite together to divide our country, and we will not let them do it.

Q11. The Government wish to pursue a national industrial strategy. Cumbria has some specific strengths, such as tourism, agriculture and nuclear, but it also has some weaknesses. Will the Prime Minister agree that any industrial strategy in the next Parliament must take into account regional and sub-regional factors, and will she be receptive to a Cumbrian industrial strategy that works within a national one? (909684)

My hon. Friend points to a very important part of our plans for a stronger Britain for the future, which is the modern industrial strategy that we are developing, because we want an economy that works for everyone, delivers good, high-skilled, high-paid jobs and creates conditions for competitive world-leading businesses to prosper here in the United Kingdom. But he is right to say that as we look at that industrial strategy we also need to look at particular factors in particular parts of the country. He has long been a champion not just for Carlisle but for Cumbria. I recognise the need, as does the Business Department, to tailor the industrial strategy according to the needs of particular areas of the country.

The Prime Minister yesterday said that she was calling a general election because Parliament was blocking Brexit, but three quarters of MPs and two thirds of the Lords voted for article 50, so that is not true, is it? A month ago, she told her official spokesman to rule out an early general election, and that was not true either, was it? She wants us to believe that she is a woman of her word. Isn’t the truth that we cannot believe a single word she says? [Interruption.]

Order. The House is rather over-excited. The question has been heard. The answer will be heard.

This House and this Parliament voted to trigger article 50, but the Labour party made it clear that it was thinking of voting against the final deal, the Scottish nationalists have said that they will vote against the legislation necessary to leave the European Union, the Liberal Democrats say that they are going to grind government to a standstill, and the House of Lords has threatened to stop us every inch of the way. I think it is right now to ask the British people to put their trust in me and the Conservative party to deliver on their vote last year—a Brexit plan that will make a success for this country and deliver a stronger, fairer, global Britain in the future.

Q12. I have seen rats and fly-tipping as a result of bins not having been emptied for up to three weeks across Lib Dem-run Sutton following a shambolic change to refuse collections. [Interruption.]When bin collections get into the national headlines, you know something has gone wrong. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in accepting greater delegated powers, elected councillors must consult residents properly, plan major changes carefully and take full responsibility as accountable representatives when things go wrong? (909685)

I do not know why there are howls of derision from the Opposition Benches, because my hon. Friend raises an important point about an issue that actually matters to people up and down the country. It is our goal to reduce littering and litter in England to ensure that our high streets, villages and parks are the cleanest and most pleasant places that they can be. We have published the first ever national litter strategy for England, and we are supporting comprehensive and frequent bin collections. But what my hon. Friend says the Liberal Democrat-run Sutton Council is doing shows not only that the Liberal Democrats charge the highest council taxes, which we already knew, but that under the Liberal Democrats you pay more and get less.

Will the Prime Minister join the Scottish Government, North Ayrshire Council and all Ayrshire local authorities by today pledging to support the Ayrshire growth deal, which requires £350 million of targeted investment to regenerate Ayrshire and improve the lives and prospects of all its people?

As the hon. Lady will know, we have already shown our commitment to growth deals in Scotland with the deals that have already been agreed. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has met the Scottish Government to discuss the growth deal for Ayrshire. We are in discussions about that deal, but we have shown our commitment through the deals that have already been struck—for example, for Aberdeen.

Q14. As part of Southend’s celebrations as the alternative city of culture, stilt walkers will walk non-stop from Southend to No. 10 Downing Street on the morning of Monday 1 May to raise money for the Music Man Project to help people with learning difficulties, and for a charity for child refugees. Will my right hon. Friend arrange, on the morning of Tuesday 2 May, for someone on her behalf to receive the stilt walkers and accept from Southend’s town crier the proclamation that in this, the 125th anniversary of the founding of the borough, Southend be declared a city? (909687)

When I first heard about the stilt walkers, I thought it sounded a bit of a tall order, but I am sure they will be making great strides as they approach Downing Street. I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend says about the Southend celebrations, but also about the efforts that are being made to raise funds for very, very important causes. We will certainly look very carefully at what can be done in Downing Street when the stilt walkers arrive.

Will the Prime Minister give a guarantee that no Tory MP who is under investigation by the police and the legal authorities over election expenses in the last general election will be a candidate in this election? If she will not accept that, this is the most squalid election campaign that has happened in my lifetime.

I stand by all the Conservative MPs who are in this House and who will be out there standing again, campaigning for a Conservative Government who will give a brighter and better future for this country.

Q15. I am proud that my party in government has ensured that in this country we fulfil our commitment to NATO to spend 2% of GDP on defence and our commitment to the UN to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid. Will my right hon. Friend please commit the future Conservative Government to do the same? (909688)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Obviously we have committed to meet our NATO pledge of 2% of GDP being spent on defence every year of this decade. We are delivering on that. We have got a £36 billion defence budget that will rise to almost £40 billion by 2020-21—the biggest in Europe and second largest in NATO. We are meeting our UN commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas development assistance. I can assure him that we remain committed, as a Conservative party, to ensuring the defence and security of this country and to working for a stronger world.

Schools in Cheshire West and Chester were already underfunded by about £400 per pupil on average before the new national fair funding formula came in, and now every school in Chester is cutting staff and raising class sizes. That is how the Government have protected the education budget, so will the Prime Minister explain to the House why the national funding fair formula provides neither fairness nor funding?

As I have said in this Chamber before, we need to look at the funding formula. We have published proposals for fair funding, we have consulted on those proposals, and in due course the Government will respond to those proposals.

I was very interested to see the hon. Gentleman being interviewed yesterday and being asked whether he would put a photograph of the Leader of the Opposition on his election literature. Sadly, he said that the only photographs he wanted on his election literature were his own; he was not prepared to support the leader of his own party.

Child Maintenance (Assessment of Parents’ Income)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I am sure the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) is greatly encouraged by the interest in his ten-minute rule motion.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to equalise the assessment and enforcement of child maintenance arrangements of children of self-employed parents with that of children of other employed parents; and for connected purposes.

I welcome the great interest and attendance of hon. Members for my Bill, but I feel somewhat like the filler in the Prime Minister’s sandwich. I guess that hon. Members’ attention will be focused on the next motion rather than on my Bill. However, many parents have waited all too long for fair child maintenance for their children, and they will not let a general election get in the way of their campaign. The campaign message at the heart of my Bill, to use the Prime Minister’s parlance, is that we need a child maintenance service that works for everyone, not just for a privileged few. [Interruption.]

Order. Stop the clock, please. I appreciate the interest in other matters, but the subject matter of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill is of very great importance to huge numbers of parents and children around the country. I think it is, to put it mildly, unseemly that while the hon. Gentleman is speaking to his Bill, there are a number of rather animated private conversations taking place, including those being conducted by normally immensely courteous Members of the House. If the House can settle down and listen to the eloquence of the hon. Gentleman, I think we will all be grateful for that.

This is an issue of great importance and interest to the public. It is a cross-party issue, but it has been a Conservative cause since the Thatcher Government recognised the principle that all parents have a continued responsibility to contribute reasonably to their children’s upkeep. When parents cannot agree about a child’s maintenance, the state steps in to protect the child’s interests. It is there for parents who are in need of child maintenance and have nowhere else to turn. As such, it must cater for all children, including those whose parents are self-employed and who have complex financial affairs.

My interest in this issue has arisen from the case of my constituent Elizabeth, who is in attendance today, as well as those of four equally brave and determined women whom my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) refers to as her supermums. Similarly like-minded, brave and determined women will have come to the surgeries of other hon. Members.

Elizabeth, Melissa, Jo-Anne, Sue and Kate have for years relentlessly pursued their cases with the Child Support Agency, and they could write the textbook on how non-resident parents can easily evade the system by claiming self-employment. The ability to challenge on the grounds of assets or “lifestyle incompatible with earnings” that existed in the CSA system has been removed from the replacement Child Maintenance Service process. Those flaws have led me to introduce this Bill, and they have encouraged my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire and the Select Committee on Work and Pensions to hold an inquiry into the CMS; that inquiry is due to report imminently.

The fact of the matter is that a child whose non-resident parent is self-employed is at risk of being financially disadvantaged in comparison with a child whose non-resident parent is employed. Non-resident self-employed parents are being indulged by the CMS. The Government’s defence against the charge of injustice is that closing the loopholes that make possible such child maintenance avoidance is “expensive and time-consuming”.

However, the Government do not take such a relaxed attitude towards individuals who avoid paying their benefits or taxes. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a 56,000-strong tax collecting department with an annual budget of more than £4 billion, but even with that money it fails to get a grip on non-resident parents who hide their income from the CMS by exploiting legal loopholes.

It is welcome that HMRC has beefed up its financial investigations unit to a 50-strong team. It is good that, as the Minister for Welfare Delivery, my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes)—she is here today to listen—told the Work and Pensions Committee, the team has the power to look at bank accounts and tax records and seek clarification when things

“just do not add up”.

I do not believe that is good enough, however. Children should not be paying the price for the ongoing injustice of unpaid child maintenance. Unpaid maintenance is estimated to total £52.5 million, which means that more than half of eligible children do not receive anything at all. Elizabeth’s son should not be paying the £40,000 price—that is what he is owed for more than six years of child maintenance—simply because his father has a clever accountant who can help to hide his assets in non-income-bearing accounts, businesses and property.

That maintenance liability would not have been uncovered without Elizabeth’s determination in taking the case through to tribunal hearings under the old CSA system and in relying on the old rule, which allowed for an assets variation. The hearings eventually revealed that the other parent had assets to the value of some £800,000 from the sale of various businesses and from inheritance, and found that he could regularly pay CSA maintenance to support their teenage son.

Yet the problem my Bill seeks to resolve is that, under the 2012 CMS scheme, the same parent is held legitimately to have a nil child maintenance liability—it was £40,000, but it is now nil—based largely on gross taxable income figures provided by HMRC. I accept that this model works in the majority of straightforward cases, where a paying parent’s sole income is from pay-as-you-earn employment. It works less well where the paying parent takes income in other forms, such as dividend or rental income. It does not work at all where the paying parent’s living costs are met from income that does not show up at HMRC—for example, income from ISAs, or from venture capital trust fund dividends. There are also some non-resident parents who do not support their lifestyle from income at all—they may have substantial assets, such as from capital gains or property transactions, but no apparent income—and such paying parents may have no child maintenance liability at all.

Parents are now left with a limited child maintenance support system that may be cheap and more efficient for simple cases, but for more complex cases is weak and leads to injustice. This injustice is compounded by the 2012 rules, which not only abolished the grounds for challenging assessments, but cut off the avenue for redress through the courts. The Government’s response to my constituent Elizabeth was that the

“assets grounds for variation proved difficult to administer...and difficult for our clients to understand.”

However, what has proved difficult for my constituent Elizabeth is to obtain justice for the maintenance of her son, and what is difficult for her to understand is why the state has chosen to prioritise its own administrative convenience above the interests of her child.

The Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into this issue has heard evidence from parents about other non-resident parents whose lifestyles do not match their declared income. The CMS advised them to contact HMRC’s fraud hotline, only for them to be left in limbo, because non-resident parents are not committing tax fraud, only avoiding child maintenance, which means that they can hide behind their self-employed status. They have organised their financial affairs in a tax-efficient manner by taking income in forms other than earnings, which are beyond the reach of the CMS. One mother told Mumsnet how the CMS advised her

“to ‘accept’ my £100 pcm payment from my ex as he was self-employed and it was the best I could hope for”.

That was regardless of her evidence that he was capable of paying more because he had a very successful business, multiple properties and, in her words,

“more physical assets than you can imagine.”

Fiona Weir, the chief executive of Gingerbread, which I commend, has said:

“Britain’s child maintenance system is contributing to a culture where too many parents think it’s optional, rather than obligatory, to pay their child’s maintenance.”

It cannot be right—can it?—that a haulier can avoid paying child maintenance because his relevant tax return year removed his liability. Why was that? Because during that year he had bought a truck. The CMS should not allow the financial interests of a truck to come before a child. The state should not be an accessory to child maintenance avoidance. The Government rightly have their eye on the self-employed in wanting to make the tax system work for everyone, and they should include the child maintenance system in that.

My Bill will reform the CMS to correct its current failure to cater for the children of traders, company directors and those with financially complex affairs. The variation ground previously available in the CSA scheme, whereby a notional income could be assumed where a paying parent’s lifestyle was inconsistent with income, should be made available in the new CMS scheme. A new variation ground should be made available in the new scheme whereby a notional income at a fair rate of interest can be assumed from an asset or assets capable of producing a reasonable level of return, where a paying parent has chosen to forgo such income without good reason, bearing in mind their maintenance responsibilities for their children. My Bill will also grant the court jurisdiction where the non-resident parent has assets or a lifestyle inconsistent with income and the CMS is unable to determine, or incapable of determining, the child maintenance and support.

My Bill admittedly comes at the very end of this Parliament, but it may just help to prompt the publication of the Government’s spring report setting out the conclusions of the 30-month review into the progress of the CMS and a statement on future policy. Back in 2012, the noble Lord Freud said that

“we will make clear our intentions, including a specific view on the position of the poorest parents.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 February 2012; Vol. 735, c. 778.]

No doubt that will include the impact on poor families of the £20 fee from which my Bill would seek to exempt them. Gingerbread, which has led the campaign on behalf of single-parent families, has found that child maintenance can lift a fifth of parents on low incomes out of poverty. The lack of child maintenance should be seen as another burning injustice for the Government to tackle.

Given the next motion, I appreciate that this Bill is probably the least likely ever to become law during its parliamentary Session. Some may think, “Well, what’s the point? Sit down, and let’s get on with the general election motion.” As my hon. Friends who are supporting the Bill know, however, there is every point in highlighting —on behalf of our constituents and, more importantly, their children—the unfairness of the present child maintenance system. If you will indulge me, Mr Speaker, let me make a bid for this issue to be in the Conservative manifesto, and let me make an early and most public bid for its inclusion in the next Queen’s speech. Either way, I look forward to the return of a Conservative Government who will deliver social justice with an improved and fairer child maintenance system for all.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr David Burrowes, Heidi Allen, Suella Fernandes, Antoinette Sandbach, Mrs Cheryl Gillan, Dame Caroline Spelman, Stephen McPartland, Dr Tania Mathias, Mr Ranil Jayawardena, Nusrat Ghani, Nigel Adams and Kit Malthouse present the Bill.

Mr David Burrowes accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May, and to be printed (Bill 169).

Early Parliamentary General Election

I beg to move,

That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.

I rise to speak to the motion on the Order Paper in my name and those of my right hon. Friends. The motion confronts every member of this House with a clear and simple opportunity—a chance to vote for a general election that will secure the strong and stable leadership the country needs to see us through Brexit and beyond. It invites each one of us to do the right thing for Britain and to vote for an election that is in our country’s national interest.

My priority when I became Prime Minister was to provide the country with economic certainty, a clear vision and strong leadership after the long and passionately fought referendum campaign. This Government have delivered on those priorities.

In the time-honoured fashion, my right hon. Friend has called this election in what she considers, and I consider, to be the national interest at this moment. It would be a brave man or woman who voted against this motion. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is therefore seen to be an emperor without clothes—it serves no purpose, and many of us have questioned it for many years. Will the first line of our manifesto be to scrap it?

My hon. Friend tries to tempt me down that road. What is clear is that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act gives us an opportunity, notwithstanding the fixed-term element of it, to have elections at another time, but it is of course for this House to vote for such an election. Like him, I think it is very clear that every Member of this House should be voting for this election.

The Prime Minister pledged time and again not to call an early election. In her Easter message, she talked greatly of her Christian values, so will she explain why she has such a loose and complicated relationship with telling the truth?

Order. The Prime Minister is perfectly well able to fend for herself, but what the hon. Gentleman has said is a breach of order and I must ask him to withdraw it. He is versatile in the use of language—he used to pen articles for newspapers; he is a journalist—so withdraw, man, and use some other formulation if you must. At the very least, however, withdraw it.

I am very happy to withdraw and reformulate what I said. Why does the Prime Minister have such a complicated and loose relationship with giving the country a clear indication of her intentions?

I say to the hon. Gentleman that yesterday I gave the country a very clear indication of my intentions. If he has a little patience, he will hear the reasons why I did that.

As I was saying, the Government have delivered on the priorities that I set out last year. Despite predictions of immediate financial and economic danger, since the referendum we have seen consumer confidence remain high, record numbers of jobs and economic growth that has exceeded all expectations. At the same time, we have delivered on the mandate we were handed by the referendum result by triggering article 50 before the end of March, as we pledged to do. As a result, Britain is leaving the EU and there can be no turning back.

We have a Fixed-term Parliaments Act that enables us to have fixed-term Parliaments. I believe that at this point in time, it is right for us to have this debate and this vote in this House, and I believe that it is right for Members of this House to vote—I shall explain why—for us to have a general election at this stage.

I will not take any further interventions for a while. This is a limited-time debate and hon. Members wish to make their contributions.

Today we face a new question: how best to secure the stability and certainty we need over the long term in order to get the right deal for Britain in the Brexit negotiations and make the most of the opportunities ahead. I have come to the conclusion that the answer to that question is to hold a general election now in this window of opportunity before the negotiations begin.

I believe it is in Britain’s national interest to hold an election now. A general election is the best way to strengthen Britain’s hand in the negotiations ahead. Securing the right deal for Britain is my priority and I am confident that we have the plan to do it. We have set out our ambition: a deep and special partnership between a strong and successful European Union and a United Kingdom that is free to chart its own way in the world. That means we will regain control of our own money, our own laws and our own borders, and we will be free to strike trade deals with old friends and new partners all around the world.

I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. I can understand that she wants to give the House the opportunity to determine whether there should be an election, but if the House determines that now is the time, why is it that the Prime Minister stands in the face of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, which have voted for a referendum on Scotland’s future? If it is right that the people here have a voice and a vote on the future of this country, why should not the Scottish people be given a vote as well?

Now is the time for a general election because it will strengthen our hand in the negotiations on Brexit. Now is not the time for a second Scottish independence referendum because it would weaken our hand in the negotiations on Brexit. Strength and unity with the Conservatives; division and weakness with the Scottish nationalists.

I will just make a little more progress.

I believe that our plan for Brexit delivers on the will of the British people. It is the right approach for Britain and it will deliver a more secure future for our country and a better deal for all our people. But it is clear that other parties in this House have a different view about the right future for our country, while Members of the other place have vowed to fight the Government every step of the way.

In the referendum, the people of Rossendale and Darwen gave my right hon. Friend and the Government a mandate to exercise article 50. She has done that and we are now grateful to have the opportunity to strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand so that she can go out there and get the best possible deal for people who live in Rossendale and Darwen, manufacturers in Rossendale and Darwen, and every family in Rossendale and Darwen.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should be united in this Parliament in wanting to get the best possible deal not just for the country as a whole, but for everybody across the whole of this country. I commend him for the work that he has done in Rossendale and Darwen to support his constituents on this matter.

I can see how it suits the Prime Minister’s purposes to make this election all about Brexit, but does she accept the possibility that it may just become a referendum on her brutal cuts, which have left older people without care, schools sending begging letters to parents and a record number of homeless people on the streets of Greater Manchester?

Of course when we come into the general election campaign, people will look at a wide range of issues. They will look at the fact that pensioners are £1,250 a year better off because of the actions of the Conservative Government. They will look at the fact that 1.8 million more children are in good or outstanding schools. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about impact on the economy, I suggest he searches his memory for the time he spent as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when Labour were trashing the economy of this country and leading us to virtual bankruptcy.

No, I am going to make some progress.

I have set out the divisions that have become clear on this issue. They can and will be used against us, weakening our hand in the negotiations to come, and we must not let that happen. I believe that at this moment of enormous national significance, there should be unity here in Westminster, not division. That is why it is the right and responsible thing for all of us here today to vote for a general election, to make our respective cases to the country, and then to respect the result and the mandate it provides to give Britain the strongest possible hand in the negotiations to come.

In the last election, the Conservatives made a manifesto commitment to stay in the single market. Will the Prime Minister withdraw that commitment from the new manifesto and, if she does, will that not weaken her negotiating position, as well as removing two months from the negotiation window?

We gave a commitment in the last manifesto to provide the people of the United Kingdom with a vote on whether or not to leave the European Union. We gave them that vote, with the support of Parliament, and they gave a clear message that they want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. That is exactly what we are going to do.

I fully support the fact that the Prime Minister needs a stronger hand going into the negotiations as we leave the European Union. Does she not think it perverse that some people who did not want a referendum in the first place now want a second referendum at the very end of the procedure, just in case the British Government do not get a good deal from Brussels? Does she not believe that if we were to have that second referendum, it would deeply weaken her position in the negotiations she will have with the European Union?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in his description of what would happen. Those who say that they want a second referendum would actually be denying the will of the people, because people voted for us to leave the European Union. We are going to go out there and get the best possible deal.

Waiting to hold the next election in 2020, as scheduled, would mean that the negotiations would reach their most difficult and sensitive stage just as an election was looming on the horizon. A general election will provide the country with five years of strong and stable leadership to see us through the negotiations and ensure we are able to go on to make a success of the result. That is crucial. That is the test. It is not solely about how we leave the European Union; it is what we do with the opportunity that Brexit provides that counts.

Leaving the EU offers us a unique, once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape a brighter future for Britain. We need the leadership provided by a strong and stable Government to seize it: a Government who have a plan for a stronger Britain, a Government with the determination to see it through, and a Government who will take the right long-term decisions to deliver a more secure future for Britain. The Conservative party I lead is determined to be that Government.

Is the Prime Minister at all concerned that, having tried her best to build a reputation for political integrity both as Home Secretary and Prime Minister, she is now seen, after all the denials that there would be a snap election, simply as a political opportunist?

I have not denied the fact that when I came into this role as Prime Minister, I was clear that what the country needed was stability and a Government who would show that they would deliver on the vote people had made in the referendum on leaving the EU. We have provided that over the last nine months. Now it is clear to me that if we are to have the strongest possible hand in the negotiation, we should have an election now. As I have just said, leaving the election to 2020 would mean that we would be coming to the most sensitive and critical part of the negotiations in the run-up to a general election. That would be in nobody’s interests.

I have said that the Conservative party I lead is determined to be that Government who have the determination to see through our plan for a stronger Britain. We are determined to provide that leadership, and determined to bring stability to the United Kingdom for the long term. That is what the election will be about: leadership and stability.

Does the Prime Minister, like me, appreciate decisiveness? Does she agree that voting yes to the motion signifies strength, whereas abstaining is a symbol of weakness?

Absolutely: voting yes is a sign of strength, but I would say a little more about abstaining. Anybody who abstains and thinks we should not have a general election is presumably endorsing the record of the Conservative Government, so we are happy both ways.

Does the Prime Minister agree with Lord Hill, who was a European Commissioner? When asked by the Foreign Affairs Committee what was the best strategy for negotiation, his response was that we have to come together, because our interlocutors will be watching this place and will exploit any weakness in our political system.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am grateful to him for reminding us what Lord Hill, with his experience, said. It is important that we come together, that we do not show the divisions that have been suggested in the past, and that we are able to show a strong mandate for a plan for Brexit and for making a success of it.

We are determined to bring stability to the United Kingdom for the long term. That is what this election will be about: leadership and stability. The decision facing the country will be clear. I will be campaigning for strong and stable leadership in the national interest with me as Prime Minister. I will be asking for the public’s support to continue to deliver my plan for a stronger Britain, to lead the country through the next five years, and to give the country the certainty and stability that we need.

On the timetable before yesterday, the Prime Minister would have concluded her negotiation by 2019. We would have gone into the general election in 2020, a year later, talking about her deal. That would have given the country an outlook as to what it would be voting for. She is asking the country to strengthen her hand, but does she agree that she is asking the country to vote for a blank cheque?

No, I am not asking the country to write a blank cheque. We have been very clear about what we intend in terms of the outcome of the negotiations. I set that out in my Lancaster House speech in January, it has been set out in the White Paper, and it was set out in the letter we submitted to the President of the European Council to trigger article 50.

The choice before the House today is clear. I have made my choice to do something that runs through the veins of my party more than any other. It is a choice to trust the people, so let us vote to do that today; let us lay out our plans for Brexit; let us put forth our plans for the future of this great country; let us put our fate in the hands of the people; and then let the people decide.

We welcome the opportunity of a general election because it gives the British people the chance to vote for a Labour Government who will put the interests of the majority first. The Prime Minister says she has only recently and reluctantly decided to go for a snap election. Just four weeks ago, her spokesperson said

“there isn’t going to be an early general election”.

How can any voter trust what the Prime Minister says?

Britain is being held back by the Prime Minister’s Government. She talks about a strong economy, but the truth is that most people are worse off than they were when the Conservatives came to power seven years ago. The election gives the British people the chance to change direction. This election is about her Government’s failure to rebuild the economy and living standards for the majority; it is about the crisis into which her Government have plunged our national health service; and it is about the cuts to our children’s schools, which will limit the chances of every child in Britain, 4 million of whom now live in poverty. It is a chance of an alternative to raise living standards. More and more people do not have security in their work or their housing.

I try not to take it personally that, having arrived so recently, the Prime Minister is that desperate to get rid of me that she is calling an election.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister, in calling this election, has essentially said that she does not have confidence in her own Government to deliver a Brexit deal for Britain? One way in which she could secure my vote and the votes of my hon. Friends is to table a motion of no confidence in her Government, which I would happily vote for.

I congratulate my Friend on his election to the House and on his work. I agree with him: I have no confidence in this Government either.

Six.

My right hon. Friend highlighted the fact that the Prime Minister for 12 months dithered over whether she wanted an election, and all the time said that she did not want one, but is not the reality that her mind was focused by the fact that she may well lose some of her Back Benchers if the Crown Prosecution Service has its way?

The timing of the election and the role of the CPS is extremely interesting, and it is interesting that the Prime Minister did not mention it in her contribution.

The Leader of the Opposition talks about trust in leaders. What trust can the public put in a leader who has no confidence from his parliamentary colleagues, and who is put in place not by people inside Parliament, but people outside?

I was elected leader of my party by 300,000 votes. I do not know how many people voted for the Prime Minister to be leader of her party. I suspect it was none whatsoever.

To the 6 million people working in jobs that pay less than the living wage, I simply say this: it does not have to be like this. Labour believes that every job should pay a wage people can live on, and that every worker should have decent rights at work. To the millions of people who cannot afford a home of their own, or who have spent years waiting for a council home, I say that this is their chance to vote for the home their family deserves. Labour Members believe that a housing policy should provide homes for all, and not investment opportunities for a few. To the millions of small businesses fed up with the red tape of quarterly reporting, hikes in business rates and broken promises on national insurance, I say that this is their chance to vote for a Government who invest and who support wealth creators, not just the wealth extractors.

The Prime Minister says that she has called the election so that the Government can negotiate Brexit. We had a referendum that established that mandate. Parliament has voted to accept that result. There is no obstacle to the Government negotiating, but instead of getting on with the job, she is painting herself as the prisoner of the Lib Dems, who have apparently threatened to grind government to a standstill. There are nine of them and they managed to vote three different ways on article 50, so it is obviously a very serious threat. The Tories want to use Brexit to turn us into a low-wage tax haven. Labour will use Brexit to invest in every part of this country to create a high-wage, high-skill economy in which everyone shares the rewards.

The Prime Minister says this campaign will be about leadership, so let us have a head-to-head TV debate about the future of our country. Why has she rejected that request? Labour offers a better future. We want richer lives for all, not a country run for the rich.

Order. Is the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) giving way? [Interruption.] No, he has finished. [Interruption.] Order. I have known the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) for more than 30 years, since we stood against each other in a student election. He is not going to take it personally, but the right hon. Member for Islington North has finished his speech. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford wants to raise a point of order, I will hear it with courtesy.

It is very generous of the right hon. Gentleman to seek to invest me with additional powers, but the question of whether it is “it”, as he puts it, is a matter not for me but for the right hon. Member for Islington North, and he has completed his contribution.

I accept entirely the logic laid out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in her statement yesterday in Downing Street. I reached that conclusion somewhat earlier, but I did not believe it was possible to deliver. Indeed, I found myself discombobulated by a reversal in Government policy for the second time in a few weeks, having told the readers of the Forest Journal in terms that there was no question of there being an early general election, because it was not in the Prime Minister’s gift to deliver it. Because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, that decision lies with a two-thirds majority of the Members of the House of Commons and, as I told those readers with absolute confidence, turkeys will not vote for Christmas. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having achieved the impossible and secured the fact that today those turkeys will indeed vote for that.

I first reached the opinion that an election was necessary during the passage of the article 50 Bill. Opposition Member after Opposition Member got up to announce their recantation that, notwithstanding having voted to remain, they were now going to abide by the will of their constituents. Yet at every opportunity they cheered to the rafters those few who spoke out to say that they remained with the 48% and believed that, as events unfolded, the 48% would become a majority. They pursued a strategy of desperation: a strategy of “Hang on, something might turn up”, whether that was the long-promised economic shock or whatever. The “hang on” strategy, however, requires an essential ingredient: delay. Delay was the tactic they clearly pursued through their amendments to the Bill and they promised there would be more.

The other place is currently not bound, in respect of the Government’s policy, by the Salisbury convention. The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and I were invited to debate in front of a City audience the motion “That the United Kingdom is leaving the EU”. Two highly respected peers—Lord Butler, the former Cabinet Secretary, and Lord Lester, one of our premier human rights lawyers—argued the case that we would not leave the European Union because they were in a position to prevent it and would do so. The policy the Prime Minister announced, of pursuing a general election and securing a mandate in this House and a mandate to bind the other place to the Salisbury convention, is therefore essential.

I am confident that the Prime Minister will achieve that majority, because I am confident that she will be backed by the overwhelming majority of this nation. She will know that last year I voted for every other possible candidate for the leadership of the Tory party. I have to tell her that I have become her greatest fan. As my constituents recognise and tell me continually, she is doing magnificently. May she long continue to do so.

The Prime Minister says that she wants unity and an end to division; she intends to achieve that by crushing opposition, with political opponents described as “saboteurs”. I invited her earlier to distance herself from that, but she was not prepared to do so. This is not a vision or an understanding of mainstream democracy that I share with the Prime Minister.

For months we have heard from the Prime Minister that

“now is not the time”

for the public to vote, that “no one wants it”, and that it is important to

“get on with the day job”.

We have been told that the Prime Minister needs to concentrate all her time on the Brexit negotiations and that nothing should get in the way. In the past 24 hours, however, we have learned that that was all empty rhetoric.

There are two key reasons why there is going to be an early general election. The first is total political expediency—it is about the woeful, unelectable state of the Labour party, and not wanting to repeat the political error that Gordon Brown made. The Prime Minister wants to receive her own electoral mandate and to crush political opposition in England. The second reason for holding an early general election is that it has finally dawned on the UK Government that the Brexit negotiations are going to be very difficult and the realities of the hard Brexit that the Prime Minister is pursuing have not yet fully dawned on the public. As one commentator wrote today:

“The EU is not going to roll over and give the UK free and ‘frictionless’ access to the internal market. The Prime Minister is cutting and running; getting a vote in before the reality of hard Brexit hits home”.

The Prime Minister might think she can get her way with all this against the Labour party in England, but she will not get away with it in Scotland.

On the subject of hard Brexit, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is incumbent on those who advocate it to set out very clearly their assessment of the impact on jobs of our coming out of the single market and the customs union?

In a normal general election campaign, there would be an opportunity to do just that when the party leaders debate issues on the record. There has been an interesting development since this debate began—I notice colleagues looking at their mobile phones—because ITV has confirmed that there will be a leaders debate. I am looking around at a number of the other party leaders in the Chamber. Does the Leader of the Opposition intend to take part in the debate? I suspect that he probably will take part in a television debate as, no doubt, will the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Green party. It is unsustainable in the multimedia age of the 21st century to go to the country but not debate with the leaders of the other parties. The notion that the UK Prime Minister might be empty-chaired because she was not prepared to stand up for her arguments is just not sustainable.

As I said in the House yesterday, I hope that the Prime Minister will go head to head with the leaders of other parties, and the reason is quite simple: she would floor them all.

I do not think that the Prime Minister would manage that with Nicola Sturgeon. However, I am surprised by, and welcome, what the hon. Gentleman has to say in encouragement to the Prime Minister. I think that the public deserve a debate—indeed, more than one debate—during the election campaign, and I think that the Prime Minister should have more confidence in herself. She should be prepared to address the country, and to debate the ideas presented by all the different political parties in the United Kingdom. We in Scotland, of course, have already learnt that the Prime Minister is prepared to ignore the mandate and wishes of the Scottish electorate, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, so why would anyone in Scotland vote for such a dismissive and disrespectful party and Prime Minister?