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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.]
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
What assessment has the Minister made of Scotland’s contribution to the EU single market?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
The Prime Minister was asked—
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.