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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 627: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2017


The Secretary of State was asked—

Barnett Formula: Public Sector Pay Cap

1. What assessment he has made of the effect of the removal of the public sector pay cap in Scotland on the Barnett formula if that cap is retained in England. (900486)

Mr Speaker, I am sure you will join me in congratulating Jamie Murray in the mixed doubles and Gordon Reid in the wheelchair doubles for ensuring that we again had Scottish champions at Wimbledon, where your enthusiasm for tennis was in evidence once again.

The Barnett formula applies to changes in UK Government funding and will not be impacted by Scottish Government decisions on public sector pay.

The Secretary of State’s constituents, and mine, have benefited from the Scottish National party Government’s ending of the public sector pay cap for their public sector workers in Scotland. The SNP tried to help public sector workers in England and throughout the UK by voting to end the UK public sector pay cap too. However, Scottish Tory MPs voted against helping workers in England. With the SNP helping workers in his constituency and mine, are he and his colleagues not ashamed of voting against removing the public sector pay cap in England to help workers there? What does he have against English workers?

From that question, Mr Speaker, you would not think that since 2007 the SNP Government in Scotland have been responsible for public sector pay and that a public sector pay cap has applied for most of that time. As far as I am aware, the SNP Government have not lifted the public sector pay freeze in Scotland; they have announced a consultation.

May I put on record the fact that the Scottish women’s football team will play an important European championship match tonight? I wish them all the best in their endeavours.

I do not think the Secretary of State fully appreciates the sense of grievance about the pay cap among hard-working public sector workers in Scotland. The Scottish Government have declared their intention to review and end the pay cap; will he argue in the United Kingdom Government for the same policy?

May I first welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new place? When the new SNP leader at Westminster said that he was reluctant, I did not realise that he was going to be reluctant to do Scottish questions, or that he was going to downgrade them.

I am clear that hard decisions have to be taken on public sector pay. If the Scottish Government, in their responsibilities, are saying that they are going to increase public sector pay, they have to identify where the funds are coming from.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words, but he and I will get on a lot better in this process if he does me the courtesy of answering the question. I asked him to state his intention to argue within Cabinet and the British Government to end the pay cap in Scotland so that workers in the public sector there will get the same rate of pay for the job, whether they work for the Scottish Government or for his Government.

I think I did answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. The Government have struck the right balance on pay and ensuring continued employment. We see that in Scotland, where we have the lowest unemployment figures on record. It is better that more people are in work in the public sector than that we had changed the public sector pay cap in previous years.

I, too, send my best wishes to the Scottish women’s football team for tonight. I also congratulate our tennis players on a wonderful tournament.

It is a pity that the SNP has bounced Labour’s proposal on lifting the public sector pay cap in November. Will the Secretary of State tell me what assessment has been made of the effect of the Government’s pay cap on the living standards of public sector employees in Scotland? Does he share the view of the Chancellor, who was recently reported to have said that public sector workers are overpaid?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place and congratulate her on her success in the election. I also send my best wishes to her predecessor, Dave Anderson, who was one of the Members who voluntarily left this Parliament at the last election. Of course, I pass on my best wishes to the Scottish women’s football team as I should have done in answer to the question of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). I agree with the Chancellor that we have struck the right balance in public sector pay on the basis that we have ensured that 200,000 public sector jobs were able to be maintained during this period of difficult fiscal conditions.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but it is very clear that the Government are in complete chaos on this issue, which is very much like the SNP Government, who claim that they will abandon the public sector pay cap—[Interruption.]—despite voting it down in a proposal in May. Is it not the case that public sector workers in Scotland are being let down by two weak and wobbly Governments who have the wrong priorities, and that only a Labour Government have the policies and the political will to lift the public sector pay cap, ban austerity, stand up for public sector workers and stand up for Scotland?

Although I might be tempted to agree with the hon. Lady’s comments on the SNP Scottish Government, the position with Labour is absolutely clear in that no funds have been identified to increase public sector pay. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has made it very clear that, if we want to make a real difference on public sector pay, we have to do something that hits everybody—put a penny or two on the rates of income tax or VAT or something such as that. We cannot make a big difference just taxing the rich. The Labour party in Scotland and here in Westminster has the soundbites, but it does not have the policies to deliver what it is promising.

Jobcentre Closures

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the planned closure of job centres in Scotland on local communities. (900487)

4. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the planned closure of job centres in Scotland on local communities. (900489)

6. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the planned closure of job centres in Scotland on local communities. (900491)

15. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the planned closure of job centres in Scotland on local communities. (900500)

We will continue to provide excellent support to those seeking work, or who cannot work, through a network of offices, which are modern, accessible and meet future requirements.

As yet, no equality impact assessment of the closures has been published. Will the Secretary of State tell this House whether the Government plan to publish such an assessment, and, if so, when?

In making these decisions, the Department has fulfilled its duties under the Equality Act 2010 and paid due regard to the impact of the proposals on the staff, and the communities and customers that they serve.

Given that UK Government cuts to social security and new sanctions on low-paid workers are likely to increase demand for jobcentres, do Ministers agree that it is reckless and perverse of the Government to be closing them down, especially in our most deprived communities that have some of the highest rates of unemployment?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, of course, in looking forward in time to our future needs, we plan for the expected demand on jobcentres and allow for some contingency as well. I also reassure him that the rate of sanctions has been coming down. As we are in Scottish questions, it is particularly relevant to note that the rate of sanctions in Scotland is lower than it is in the rest of the UK.

May I ask the Minister whether he and his colleagues will consider the term in which the excess fares allowance will be paid to Department for Work and Pensions staff across Scotland who are being forced to move office? The Department has refused to use its discretion to pay the EFA for five years, and will cover staff for only three years, which contrasts with previous decisions made by the Department.

We do think that we have a fair and reasonable approach to relocation. Of course we are asking some staff to move offices, and we try to do everything we can to facilitate that. Part of that is providing the excess fares policy that the hon. Gentleman mentions, which is greater in its extent than in many other organisations and we do think it is a reasonable approach.

The Minister says that there is a low level of sanctions in Scotland, but if a substantial number of jobcentres are closed will it not make journey times longer and routes more complicated, leading to an increase in missed appointments and in sanctions? What mitigating measures will he introduce to deal with an increase in sanctions?

The first thing to say is that missing or being late for an appointment does not necessarily result in a sanction. We expect people to make reasonable efforts to make it to appointments and, as I have said, the rate of sanctions has been coming down, but we expect people to have time—the entire working week—available to seek work. That involves going to job interviews and visiting the jobcentre. For an able-bodied person without children, for example, that would be up to 35 hours a week. Obviously, if a person has caring responsibilities, we expect them to have correspondingly less time available.

Can the Minister confirm that reforms to the DWP estate will not lead to a reduction in the number of frontline jobcentre staff?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. In fact in every nation and region of the UK, including Scotland, we are looking to increase the number of frontline staff and work coaches helping people into work.

Mr Clark, you were standing a moment ago. Do you wish to give the House the benefit of your thoughts?

It is quite clear that the Minister has offered no convincing assurance about the maintenance of access to jobcentre facilities in Glasgow and across Scotland. We have seen a commitment to cut the number of jobcentres in Glasgow by six. These are areas where unemployment is twice the national average and where 35% of people cannot access IT facilities to allow them to apply online for support. There is a clear issue with the provision of a footprint and the citizens advice bureaux have offered a solution through the co-location of services in community hubs alongside citizens advice bureaux, housing associations and council services. Has the Minister given any consideration to those mitigating measures so that we can maintain the footprint or is it, as PCS has said, merely a cost-driven effort to abandon unemployed, sick and disabled people, making it harder for them to access these vital services?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important question. Of course we consider opportunities to co-locate our services with other public sector and third sector services, as he mentions. We continue to consider those opportunities. In the specific case of those jobcentres where we are moving operations more than 3 miles or 20 minutes away, we are considering new outreach facilities. I also want to mention that, of course, in the city of Glasgow the unemployment claimant count has come down by 43% since 2010.

If the hon. Lady does not wish to participate in the exchange, that is perfectly all right. It is not compulsory. I call Gerard Killen.

Public Sector Pay Cap

12. What recent discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues on the public sector pay cap. (900497)

I hold regular discussions with my Cabinet colleagues on a wide range of matters of importance to Scotland. The Scottish Government are responsible for Scottish Government pay.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and I want to give him another opportunity to clarify his view on the reported comments of the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the weekend. Does he agree that public sector workers are overpaid?

The hon. Gentleman will have seen what the Chancellor said on Sunday: he said that there are areas in the public service where recruitment and retention are becoming an issue and areas of the country where public sector wages and private sector wages are getting out of kilter in the other direction. It is important that we have a discussion on those issues.

Yesterday, in this Chamber, a Treasury Minister declined to answer a question on the grounds that it was way above his pay grade. Should not we be grateful to our public sector workers for not taking that attitude, and is it not high time that they got the pay rise they deserve?

I fully acknowledge the contribution that public sector workers make across the UK, and particularly in Scotland. Of course we will listen carefully when the pay boards make their recommendations.

Sixty-six per cent. of public sector workers in Wales, another devolved country, are women, and I suspect that the figure is a lot higher in Scotland. In the light of that, does the Secretary of State not agree that the public sector pay gap is now fundamentally unsustainable and is not only eroding the living standards of women and families but damaging the economy?

We are all concerned about the gender pay gap. Some figures released within the last hour by a public sector organisation suggest that there are significant gender pay gap issues at the BBC. I set out my position in my previous answer: it is for the Scottish Government to determine pay for Scottish Government employees, and the Government’s position has also been set out.

Leaving the EU: Fishing Policy

7. What discussions he has had with representatives of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation on the Government’s policy on fishing after the UK leaves the EU. (900492)

It is perhaps remiss of me not to welcome new Members from Scotland and elsewhere to this House, in particular when I am answering a question from one of the potential Scottish Fathers of the House.

Since the vote to leave the EU last year, I have spoken regularly with the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, which I most recently met in Peterhead on 16 June. In our discussions I emphasised that we will take Scotland out of the failed common fisheries policy and extend control of our waters up to 200 nautical miles or the median line with nearby coastal states.

I hope the Secretary of State will join me in welcoming the news today that the Marine Stewardship Council has again accredited North sea cod as a sustainable species. The cod recovery programme saw some of the best and worst examples of fisheries management. The best were the measures that came from the industry and had credibility with the industry. Will the Government look at the lessons of the cod recovery programme and take the best examples of fishery management to inform future policy?

I, too, absolutely welcome today’s announcement on cod. I confirm that we will look to the industry to help shape its future. One thing is clear: this Government will take Scotland and the UK out of the hated common fisheries policy, but the SNP Scottish Government would take us right back in.

Will the whole Scottish fishing industry, including processors and catchers, have the opportunity to be represented in consultations on the design of the new fisheries policy?

I very much welcome my hon. Friend to this House as the MP for one of the most important fishing constituencies in the United Kingdom, for which he will be a strong advocate. As he knows, when I visited Peterhead I had the opportunity to meet processors, and I take on board fully their importance in shaping the future of the industry after the CFP.

News has reached Westminster that the Secretary of State has a new deputy in the House of Lords. Will he therefore instruct his deputy to procure a copy of the “Brexit: devolution” report that the House of Lords published yesterday, which states

“that, in the event that the UK Government does not secure a UK-wide agreement that adequately reflects Scotland’s specific needs”—

that includes fishing—

“there is a strong political and economic case for making differentiated arrangements for Scotland”?

I hope you, Mr Speaker, will forgive me for laughing when I hear the SNP extol the House of Lords, which on every other occasion it condemns. The reference—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Docherty-Hughes, despite the fact that your shiny pate is secreted behind the face of Mr Cowan, I can tell what you are up to. You are behaving in your usual outlandish manner, from which I hope you will now desist.

There will in any event be no need for the provision to which the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) refers—this United Kingdom Government will deliver a good deal on Brexit for Scotland and the whole of the United Kingdom.

Jobcentres: Glasgow

DWP officials engage regularly with local authorities, which can of course include exploring opportunities to share accommodation. We are introducing 40 new such arrangements, three in Scotland. These arrangements bring benefits for colleagues, customers and the taxpayer. I am keen that we continue to explore more opportunities into the future.

Given that the hon. Gentleman is going to close quite a number of jobcentres in the city, does he not think he should at least sit down with Glasgow City Council, which is concerned that organisations such as the Scottish Association for Mental Health, the Prince’s Trust and others are going to have to pick up the slack of his closure in supporting people into work? He needs to have a discussion about how that will work and what financial support he will give them.

We will continue to work with local authorities and third sector organisations, but I must remind the hon. Gentleman that before these changes the city of Glasgow had the greatest coverage of jobcentres per head of population of any large city in the UK. After these changes, it will still have the greatest coverage of jobcentres of any large city in the UK.

While the hon. Gentleman is having discussions with Glasgow City Council, will he pick up the phone to the City of Edinburgh Council and explain why he can find £1.5 billion for the Democratic Unionist party, but cannot find a solitary pen to sign the Edinburgh city region deal?

I am told by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that he may have excitement coming soon.

Agreement with the DUP: Funding for Scotland

9. Whether the additional funding provided to Northern Ireland announced in the Government's agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party will have consequences on funding for Scotland. (900494)

11. Whether the additional funding provided to Northern Ireland announced in the Government's agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party will have consequences on funding for Scotland. (900496)

14. Whether the additional funding provided to Northern Ireland announced in the Government’s agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party will have consequences on funding for Scotland. (900499)

Like previous Northern Ireland support packages and city deals in Scotland and Wales, this funding is a targeted intervention to address a specific set of unique challenges. As with those previous interventions, this exceptional funding will be made outside the normal, ongoing Barnett funding system. [Interruption.]

Order. There is excessive noise in the Chamber. To my certain knowledge, at least one retired teacher is in the precincts of the Palace observing our proceedings; she would want there to be a seemly atmosphere.

The running total given by the UK Government to city deals in Scotland since 2014 is already dwarfed by the sums given by local government and the Scottish Government. If £1.5 billion can be found overnight for the DUP deal to hold up this Tory Government, when will the Government find the money for the Tay cities deal, the Ayrshire growth deal and the Perth deal?

I am surprised at the hon. Lady’s tone because the Government have committed to delivering city deals across Scotland. There will imminently be some exciting news about Edinburgh. I would have thought she would welcome that, rather than simply politicking.

I would like to put on the record the best wishes of everyone on the Scottish National party Benches to the Scottish football team. I am wearing their colours; I hope they do not mind. I used to play alongside two of Scotland’s national players at university—their football careers have obviously been better than mine.

Livingston and West Lothian already have a low proportion of public sector jobs in Scotland; the local authority ranks 20 out of 32. The private sector is strong, but with the loss of HMRC jobs, the percentage of public sector jobs is going to fall. Will the right hon. Gentleman come to my constituency and face up to the reality of those job closures and at least receive a delegation, as is his duty as Secretary of State?

May I remind the Secretary of State of his own words? He said that he would not

“agree to anything that could be construed as back-door funding to Northern Ireland.”

We expect him, as Scotland’s representative in the Cabinet, to fight for fiscal fairness for Scotland and not to be short-changed by £3 billion. Did he make any representations to the Prime Minister before or after the deal was signed?

I take my responsibility to fight for Scotland’s fiscal priorities very seriously. That is why, two years ago when the hon. Gentleman was walking through the Lobby to deliver full fiscal freedom and a £9 billion black hole to Scotland, I voted to keep the Barnett formula.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the benefits to the north-east of Scotland brought about by the UK Government’s Aberdeen city region deal? Does he share my concern at the dither and delay of the SNP Government in improving the rail journey times between Aberdeen and the central belt, which may take until the 2020s? We need urgency from the Scottish Government.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. As a noted councillor in Aberdeen, he played a significant role in bringing together the Aberdeen city region deal, which has been such a boost to the north-east of Scotland. I am disappointed to hear what he says about the actions of the SNP Government, but, sadly, I am not surprised.

The Secretary of State could not be clearer:

“I’m not going to agree to anything that could be construed as back-door funding to Northern Ireland.”

This is not just back door; it is locked away in secure accommodation. Will he therefore detail in full what representations he made to the Prime Minister and what he did at any time to offer any objections on behalf of Scotland?

On 8 June, the people of Scotland delivered their verdict on which party in this House stands up for Scotland and Scotland’s financial arrangements. Scottish Conservatives—12 additional MPs. The Scottish National party—21 less.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


As we approach recess, I am sure that Members from all parties wish to thank the staff of the House for their dedication to our work here in what has been a particularly challenging year. We saw terrorists attack our democracy and our way of life—not just in the Westminster attack, but in the attacks at Manchester, Finsbury Park and London Bridge. It is thanks to the professionalism and bravery of people such as Elizabeth Bryan, an off-duty A&E nurse from Cambridgeshire who ran to help at the scene of the Borough Market attack and who is with us in the Gallery today—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear]—that these attacks will never succeed. We are united in defending the values that define our nation.

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

Of course the whole House associates itself with the Prime Minister’s words about defending our values. Her schedule does not seem so busy, so could she find time to visit Coventry? I can assure her of a warm welcome from the city’s three Labour MPs, who all doubled their majorities in the recent general election that she called; we were very grateful for that.

On a serious note, is the Prime Minister aware that Coventry is the designated national research and development centre for the controls of driverless vehicles? Would she not consider it an appropriate location to relocate her whole Government to? Then she could see the controls of driverless vehicles in practice.

Well, I am always happy to visit the west midlands. I am particularly pleased to visit the west midlands under its new Mayor, Andy Street, who is doing a very good job. The hon. Gentleman mentioned automated vehicles. This country is a leader in automated vehicles. That is part of building a strong economy and that is what this Government are doing.

Q4. Our national health service was last week judged the best, safest and most affordable healthcare system—better than that of France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand. Too often in this House, we focus on the negatives. I have heard the Labour party attempt to weaponise the NHS. Will my right hon. Friend—and, I hope, the Leader of the Opposition when he stands—congratulate NHS staff on their skills and dedication, and on the hard work they have put in to achieve these high standards? (900574)

I am very happy to stand here and congratulate all NHS staff, who are delivering such a fantastic service and who have made the NHS, once again—this is not the first time—the No. 1 health system in the world. We are determined to continue to enable that high level of service to be provided, which is why we will be investing more than half a trillion pounds in our NHS between 2015 and 2020.

I join the Prime Minister in thanking all the staff of this House for all the work they do all the year round. They are fantastic, supportive and inclusive, and they are great with the public who come here. I want to thank them for everything they do.

I also join the Prime Minister in thanking all our emergency services for the way they coped with all the terrible emergencies we have had over the past few months in this country, and I thank those communities, such as my own in Finsbury Park, that have come together to oppose those who try to divide us as a community and as a people. The emergency services were in action again yesterday, protecting the people of Coverack from the flood they suffered. We should always remember that we rely on those services.

The Chancellor said this week that some public servants are “overpaid”. Given that the Prime Minister has had to administer a slapdown to her squabbling Cabinet, does she think the Chancellor was actually talking about her own Ministers?

First, I join the right hon. Gentleman not only in praising the work of our emergency services, but in recognising the way in which after the terrible terrorist attacks, and of course the appalling tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire, we have seen communities come together and support those who have been victims of those terrible incidents. I was very pleased, as he knows, to be able to visit Finsbury Park after the attack there and see for myself the work that had been done in that community and the work that he had done that night in working among his constituents to ensure that the community came together after that terrible attack.

On public sector pay, I simply say this to the right hon. Gentleman: I recognise, as I said when I stood on the steps of Downing Street a year ago, that some people in our country are just about managing—they find life a struggle. That covers people who are working in the public sector and some who are working in the private sector, which is why it is important that the Government are taking steps to, for example, help those on the lowest incomes through the national living wage. It is why we have taken millions of people out of paying income tax altogether; and it is why under this Government basic rate taxpayers have seen a tax cut of the equivalent of £1,000. But you only get that with a strong economy, and you only get that with a Conservative Government.

I thank the Prime Minister for what she said about my own community; I am obliged to her for that. However, my question was about whether the Chancellor had said that public service workers are overpaid or not. The reality in this country is simply this: a nurse on a median salary starts on £23,000; police officers start on £22,800; and jobcentre clerks start on £15,000. I had a letter from Sarah who wrote to me this week about her sister-in-law, who is a nurse. Sarah said:

“she has sacrificed her health for the caring of others. She has had a pay freeze for the last five years. Only her dedication and passion for her vocation keeps her going. Why is this happening”.

What does the Prime Minister say to Sarah and those others working in our NHS?

What I say to Sarah and to those working in the national health service is that we recognise the excellent work they are doing. We recognise the sacrifice that they and others have made over the past seven years. That sacrifice has been made because we had to deal with the biggest deficit in our peacetime history—left by a Labour Government. As we look at public sector pay, we balance being fair to public sector workers, protecting jobs and being fair to those who pay for them. The right hon. Gentleman seems to think it is possible to go around promising people more money and promising that nobody is ever going to have to pay for it. He and I both value public sector workers. We both value our public sector services. The difference is that on this side of the House we know that you have to pay for them.

The Prime Minister does not seem to have had any problem finding money to pay for the Democratic Unionist party’s support. The Conservatives have been in office for 84 months, and 52 of those months have seen a real fall in wages and income in our country. In the last Prime Minister’s Question Time before the general election, the Prime Minister said:

“every vote for me is a vote for a strong economy with the benefits felt by everyone across the country.”—[Official Report, 26 April 2017; Vol. 624, c. 1104.]

Does she agree you cannot have a strong economy when 6 million people are earning less than the living wage?

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman when you cannot have a strong economy: it is when you adopt Labour party policies of half a trillion pounds of extra borrowing, which will mean more spending, more borrowing, higher prices, higher taxes and fewer jobs. The Labour Government crashed the economy; the Conservative Government have come in—more people in work, more people in jobs, more investment.

May I invite the Prime Minister to take a check with reality on this? One in eight workers in the United Kingdom—that is 3.8 million people in work—are now living in poverty. Some 55% of people in poverty are in working households. The Prime Minister’s lack of touch with reality goes like this. Low pay in Britain is holding people back at a time of rising housing costs, rising food prices and rising transport costs; it threatens people’s living standards, and rising consumer debt and falling savings threaten our economic stability. Why does the Prime Minister not understand that low pay is a threat to an already weakening economy?

The best route out of poverty is through work, and what we now see is hundreds—[Interruption.] Yes, it is.

Order. The question has been asked. The Prime Minister’s answer must—and however long it takes, it will—be heard.

The best route out of poverty is through work. That is why it is so important that, over the last seven years, we have seen 3 million more jobs created in our economy. It is why we now see so many thousands of people in households with work, rather than in workless households, and hundreds of thousands more children being brought up in a household where there is work rather than a failure to have work. That is what is important. But what is important for Government as well is to ensure that we provide support to people. That is why we created the national living wage. That was the biggest pay increase ever for people on the lowest incomes. When did the Labour party ever introduce the national living wage? Never! That was a Conservative Government and a Conservative record.

It was Labour that first introduced the minimum wage—with opposition from the Conservative party.

Wages are lower than they were 10 years ago. The Prime Minister has been in office for just one year, and during that time disposable income has fallen by 2%. The economic consequences of austerity are very clear, and so are the social consequences: life expectancy stalling for the first time in 100 years. Today, the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts that income inequality is going to get worse and that child poverty will rise to 5 million by 2022. Does the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Order. Members are shouting, and shouting excessively. They must calm themselves. Take some sort of soothing medicament.

I will try to help hon. Members, Mr Speaker. Does the Prime Minister not realise that her talk of a strong economy does not remotely match the reality that millions of people face, with low wages and poverty at home?

The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, wrong in some of the facts that he is putting forward. In fact, inequality is down. Life expectancy is continuing to rise. What we know is that what will not deliver a strong economy for this country is Labour’s policies of more borrowing, more spending, higher taxes and fewer jobs. What the right hon. Gentleman wants is a country that is living beyond its means. That means making future generations pay for his mistakes. That is Labour’s way, and the Conservatives will never do that.

What we want is a country where there are not 4 million children living in poverty and where homelessness does not rise every year. I look along the Front Bench opposite and I see a Cabinet bickering and backbiting while the economy gets weaker and people are pushed further into debt. [Interruption.] Well, they can try talking to each other. The economy is—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) is gesticulating in a distinctly eccentric manner and he must stop doing so. Shakespeare’s county deserves better.

The reality is that wages are falling, the economy is slowing, the construction sector is in recession, the trade deficit is widening, and we face crucial Brexit negotiations. Is not the truth that this divided Government are unable to give this country the leadership it so desperately needs now to deal with these issues?

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman the reality. The reality is that he is always talking Britain down and we are leading Britain forward. Let us look at the record of the Conservatives in government: 3 million more jobs, 4 million people out of paying income tax altogether, over 30 million with a cut in their income tax, record levels of people in employment, record numbers of women in work, the deficit cut by three quarters, inequality down, and record levels of foreign direct investment. That is a record to be proud of, and you only get it with a Conservative Government. [Hon. Members: “More!”]

Q5. The black country flag has come under attack from Labour Members in recent days. Will the Prime Minister join me in again congratulating Gracie Sheppard, who designed the flag, reflecting our industrial heritage, when she was just 12 years old? Does the Prime Minister agree that the latest figures showing the west midlands as the fastest-growing part of this country show once again that the black country remains a great place to do business? (900575)

As my hon. Friend says—he is absolutely right—the black country remains a great place to do business. I would like to congratulate Gracie on designing that flag at the age of only 12. I am sure that she and others, including the Express & Star, have been surprised at the attitude from the Labour Benches on this particular issue. I commend my hon. Friend and my other hon. Friends in the black country, and indeed the Express & Star, for the work that they are doing to promote the black country as that great place to do business, to live, and to bring up children like Gracie.

Does the Prime Minister believe that her Government have delivered pension fairness for women who, like her, were born in the 1950s?

What the Government are delivering for women is a better state pension for women so that women in future will be better off under the state pension than they have been in the past. We are equalising the state pension age, and I think that everybody across the whole House will recognise that that is the right thing to do.

The Prime Minister has found up to £35 billion for Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, up to £200 billion to replace the Trident missile system, and £1 billion for a deal with the DUP just so she can keep her own job. She seems to be able to shake the magic money tree when she wants to. Will she now end the injustice for those women who are missing out on their pensions before she herself thinks about retiring?

I am a little surprised, given the hon. Gentleman’s background, that he said what he did about Hinkley Point. Hinkley Point is actually privately funded—this is not money that is coming from the Government to develop Hinkley Point—so I find that a little strange. We have put £1 billion extra into the question of the change in the state pension age to ensure that nobody sees their state pension age increase by more than 18 months from that which was previously expected. I must also say to the hon. Gentleman that the Scottish Government of course now have extra powers in the area of welfare. Perhaps it is about time that the Scottish Government got on with the day job and stopped talking endlessly about independence.

Q8. Businesses in Stafford and other constituencies need as much certainty as possible now about what will happen after we leave the EU in March 2019 for investment decisions they are making in the coming weeks and months. As the Government work on the comprehensive future relationship with our European neighbours, will they also negotiate time-bound transitional arrangements that prioritise the jobs of our constituents and the health of our economy? (900578)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have said in this Chamber and elsewhere, we want to avoid a cliff edge for businesses, because people want to know where they stand, and to be able to carry on investing in the UK and creating the jobs that we have seen being created. As I have also said before, once we know—once we have negotiated through this two-year period—what the end-state relationship for the UK and the European Union will be in the future, it will then be necessary to have an implementation period when people can adjust to that new end state that is coming in. There will be some very practical things that need to be done during that period. As part of the negotiations, it will be important for us to agree what that implementation period, or periods, is, and what the arrangements will be during that.

Q2. Since Winnie Ewing’s maiden speech 50 years ago this year, SNP MPs and MSPs have been arguing for the voting age to be lowered. In recent elections, young people have proven themselves to be the most knowledgeable and most engaged that they have ever been. I believe there is a majority in this House in favour of lowering the voting age. Will the Prime Minister support giving votes to 16 and 17-year-olds? (900572)

I would say to the hon. Lady that this is one of those issues on which people will obviously have different views. My view has always been and continues to be that 18 is the right age. We expect people to continue in education or training until the age of 18, and I think that is the right point for the voting age.

Q9. In Harrow and up and down the country, young people will be eagerly anticipating their A-level results to see whether they qualify for a university education. Will my right hon. Friend confirm the dramatic increase in the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university, and can she think of anyone who should apologise for misleading the British public? (900579)

I think it is very important, as people are thinking about going to university, that they are not misled in any way. It is the case that more disadvantaged 18-year-olds are now applying to university than ever before. I believe the Leader of the Opposition said exactly the opposite, and I think he should apologise for that. I think the Labour party should actually go further. At the election, the Leader of the Opposition vowed to deal with student debt, and Labour were going to abolish student debt; now they say it was not a promise at all. Students know Labour cannot be trusted on student fees.

Q3. The Prime Minister will now know what it is like to have a job but to lack job security. Sometimes it can even bring a tear to the eye. Given her new-found empathy for millions of workers in insecure work, why is she now cutting six Department for Work and Pensions jobcentres in Glasgow and also back-office staff at Springburn in my constituency, where unemployment is twice the national average? (900573)

May I start by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his new job in this House? What is happening in relation to jobcentres in Scotland is that the DWP is ensuring it is using the estate properly and to the best advantage. As a result of what is happening, no services are going to be cut. In fact, services to people using jobcentres will be enhanced in future. I think what matters is actually the service that is provided to people attending those jobcentres.

Q11. The brave men and women of our armed forces put themselves in extremely challenging situations in their efforts to keep us all safe. We therefore owe it to them to do all we can to support them and their families when they have completed their service. I warmly welcome the launch of the “Defence people mental health and wellbeing strategy” yesterday, but will my right hon. Friend tell the House how we can co-ordinate this excellent programme with our international allies? May I also wish her a very well deserved break when she finally decides to take it in the recess? (900581)

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. Members across the House recognise the importance of ensuring that we provide that support to those who are in our services and our veterans. The issue of mental health and wellbeing is very important, and I welcome the new strategy for mental health and wellbeing in the armed forces. I also pay tribute to the tireless work of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), particularly on mental health, since he came to the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) raises an issue that is important not just for us in the UK; we need to see how we can work internationally on it. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence launched the strategy at an international conference yesterday, with counterparts from the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. We will all campaign against the stigmas around mental health so that members of our armed forces and our veterans can get the help they need.

Q6. In my constituency of Liverpool, Walton, almost 40% of children are growing up in poverty. With schools closing this week and local support services cut to the bone, austerity bites and kids do not get fed. The Prime Minister says that her mission is to make Britain “a country that works for everyone”.What is she doing now to stop kids going hungry this summer in Liverpool, Walton? (900576)

May I first of all welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place in this House? He is right to say that it is important that we look at the provision made in school for children and at the issue of households and poverty, but as I said to his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the best way we can deal with poverty—the best route out of poverty—is for people to get into the workplace and then for us to ensure that other, better-paid jobs are provided for people in the workplace in the future.

Q12. A young woman in Telford who gave evidence in a horrific child sexual exploitation case five years ago is living in fear. The perpetrator, who received a 22-year sentence, is about to be released early. CSE victims are too often overlooked and ignored. Does the Prime Minister agree that CSE victims should be properly consulted on the release of perpetrators and that in this case the perpetrator should not be returned to Telford? (900582)

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. We all know that child sexual exploitation is an absolutely horrific crime. It is absolutely right that if victims are going to come forward to report this abuse, they need to know that they will be supported so that they can have the confidence to do so and be confident in their future security and safety. The victim contact scheme is supposed to treat victims properly and ensure that consideration is given to victim-related conditions when looking at an offender’s licence on release. If my hon. Friend would like to write with the details of the case to my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary, he will look at it very carefully.

Q7. The interim Prime Minister has repeatedly refused to answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, so may I try again? It was reported over the weekend, by the temporary Chancellor’s own Cabinet colleagues, that he had said that some public sector workers are “overpaid”. Will the Prime Minister tell the House, the country and those public sector workers which ones she thinks are overpaid, which ones she thinks are underpaid and what she is going to do about it? (900577)

As I said earlier, I recognise that there will be people working in the public sector who do find life a struggle and are just about managing, and there will be people in the private sector who are in the same place. I also say to the hon. Gentleman that, as we have seen in the figures released today, there are some people working in the public sector who are very well paid. We need to ensure that, when we look at public sector pay, we balance being fair to workers, protecting jobs and being fair to those who pay for the public sector, and that we also support people by ensuring that they can keep more of the money they earn. That is why we believe in cutting taxes.

The Government are under predictable pressure on public sector pay and public sector spending, which we would all like to respond to if there were some sensible demands. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way in which a responsible Government can increase public sector pay is if we restore to this country strong economic growth and a sensible Government fiscal balance sheet, and that the biggest threats to our achieving either of those things over the next two years are a bad Brexit deal that puts up barriers to trade and investment, or the return of a hard-left, old-fashioned socialist Government?

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. As a very successful former Chancellor of the Exchequer, he speaks with expertise on this issue. He is right that we need to get a good Brexit deal, but he is also right that the policies of the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor, were they ever to get the opportunity to put them into practice, would not lead to more money for nurses, our national health service or our public sector; they would lead, through higher spending and higher borrowing, to jobs going, higher prices, higher taxes for people, less money available for our health service and less money available for our nurses.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister know that her universal credit process is failing my constituents? The Salvation Army and Streetlife report that vulnerable Blackpool people are juggling a month’s money without help, that there are unfair sanctions for people with mental health issues, that a six-week wait for money is causing more stress, and that there is a phone helpline that Citizens Advice says can cost claimants 55p a minute and take 39 minutes to answer. Can she start by getting them a freephone number? (900580)

The importance of the universal credit scheme is that it is ensuring that being in work always pays. With the universal credit scheme, we are seeing more people getting into the workplace. The DWP is constantly looking at the scheme and how it is operating around the country to ensure that any problems that people raise are addressed.

Thousands of my constituents and millions of consumers in this country have to pay surcharges when they use their credit or debit card—a highly unfair practice. Will my right hon. Friend outline the impact of lifting surcharges on consumers in this country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is very important that this issue is being addressed. We believe that rip-off charges have no place in modern Britain. That is why card charging abuse is going to come to an end. This is about fairness and transparency. We do not want people to be surprised, when they come to pay for something, that an extra surcharge is suddenly added because they have used a particular card. The total value of such fees in 2010 was estimated to be £473 million. That money will be put back in the hands of shoppers across the country, so that they have more cash to spend on the things that matter to them.

Q13. In her Lancaster House speech, the Prime Minister said that the UK would be leaving the single market. Will she tell the House whether that red line on the single market also applies to any transitional agreement or implementation period that might be agreed for the period after March 2019? (900583)

We said that we would no longer be a member of the single market because we will no longer be a member of the European Union and, as the European Union says consistently, its four pillars are indivisible. Therefore, the fact that we do not wish to be subject to other issues, like the European Court of Justice and free movement requirements, means that we will no longer be a member of the single market. At the end of the two years, when we have negotiated the end state deal, there will be an implementation period for that deal, but we are very clear that at the point at which we reach the end of the negotiations, we will be out of the European Union.

I welcome the Institute for Fiscal Studies report this week on income inequality in the UK. It clearly shows that, contrary to Labour propaganda that was often repeated during the general election, the income gap between rich and poor in our country has reduced every year since 2010. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that clearly shows that those with the broadest shoulders are bearing the heaviest burden in dealing with the debt we inherited from the last Labour Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The IFS report clearly shows what he has said today. As we know, the top 1% of taxpayers are bearing 27% of the tax burden. That is a higher burden than in any year under the Labour Government.

Q14. NHS England commissions child and adolescent mental health beds at a private hospital in my constituency, which recently received a damning Care Quality Commission report. The CQC found that the hospital was unsafe not least because, on inspection, it found a young woman with MRSA with open wounds on a ward. Does the Prime Minister share my concern that a shortage of mental health beds risks the NHS placing vulnerable young people in unsafe environments, and will she consider giving NHS England the responsibility for, and the resources to investigate, the quality of care before it commissions? (900584)

The hon. Lady has raised a very significant point. On mental health, of course we are boosting the funding that is going into mental health in the national health service and across the picture, across Government, in terms of dealing with mental health. We are taking a number of steps to improve mental health. She has raised a very particular case, which I am sure everyone in the House will have been concerned to hear, and I will ensure that the Secretary of State looks into the case she has raised.

Daesh’s atrocities have failed to deliver a caliph or a fictional caliphate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our international partners must provide resources and commitment to apply international law and bring prosecutions against Daesh fighters and those who choose to partner with them, making it clear that wherever a death-cult terrorist hides, we will find them and hold them accountable for their barbaric crimes?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. It is important that those who have committed these horrific crimes are brought to justice. We have done good work as a United Kingdom in helping those in these theatres to see how they can collect evidence that can then be used in prosecutions. We want to do this work internationally through the United Nations and it is an issue that I spoke about to Prime Minister al-Abadi of Iraq yesterday. We want to work with them and others to ensure that we can send the very clear message that my hon. Friend identifies.

Q15. Does the Prime Minister agree that the huge increase in knife crime has tragic consequences for families in constituencies such as mine? What will she do to work with me and other Members on both sides of the House to find solutions to this blight on young lives, including looking again at the budget for policing? (900585)

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place in the House. Her presence has enabled me to appoint a very good chief of staff to my office at No. 10. She raises the very serious issue of knife crime. The Government have been taking a tougher stance on knife crime. We do think this is an issue and we have done this in a variety of ways. Now, if people carry a knife in public they are much more likely to go to prison. But we do recognise that there is more to do in this area. That is why yesterday my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced plans to consult on new offences to toughen up knife crime laws, including restricting the online sale of knives—we have done some of that already, but we think there is more for us to do—and banning possession of dangerous or offensive weapons on private property. The hon. Lady has raised an important issue and the Government have been addressing it. We recognise that we need to do more, and that is what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is doing.

Before the election, the Government committed to removing the faith-based cap for free schools and even included that promise in our election manifesto. Catholic dioceses up and down the country are anxious to open free schools and some have even purchased sites. Will the Prime Minister commit her Government to honouring that solemn pledge in our manifesto?

My hon. Friend will recognise that the reason we put that in our manifesto, and the reason it was in the schools Green Paper that we published before the election, is that we do believe it is important to enable more faith schools to be set up and more faith schools to expand. This is an issue that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is considering and she will publish further details on our overall view in terms of improving school diversity and encouraging the creation of more good school places in the near future.

Last week the Prime Minister refused to make public a report on the foreign funding of extremists in the United Kingdom, despite pressure from Members in all parts of the House and beyond. Last night, survivors of 9/11 also urged her to make the report available. Has she refused to do so simply because the content of the report will embarrass the Government’s friends in Saudi Arabia, or because Ministers care rather more about arms sales to Riyadh than they do about public safety in Britain?

It is absolutely nothing to do with that. There is certain confidential information in the report that means that it would not be appropriate to publish it, but my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it available, on a Privy Council basis, to Opposition parties.

For signs of the strong economy that the Prime Minister has so eloquently outlined this morning, we need look no further than Taunton Deane. It is a microcosm of the national picture, with record house building, record employment, and record Government investment in road schemes such as the A358 upgrade and the expansion of junction 25. Does the Prime Minister agree that to build on the economic success that this Government have overseen, those key road projects should not just speed up traffic and ease congestion but unlock more jobs, thus further fuelling the rise in productivity?

I am very happy to recognise Taunton Deane as a microcosm of the excellent economy that we see across the country. My hon. Friend has made an important point about the need to invest in infrastructure in order to boost our economy. It is a point that the Government readily understand and accept, which is why, in last year’s autumn statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was able to announce a £23 billion national productivity investment fund, a considerable portion of which will go into infrastructure. We fully recognise not just the importance of large-scale transport projects such as Crossrail, HS2 and the expansion of Heathrow, but the importance of investing in projects at a more local level if we are to unlock further economic growth in areas like Taunton Deane.

With no legal powers, funds or criteria, and with schools and Parliament not open, Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust is once again consulting on the closure of the hospital and the building of a new £400 million hospital in Belmont. There have been five consultations over 18 years, wasting £40 million of taxpayers’ money. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to step in and put a stop to it, and allow this important hospital to get on with the day job?

I understand that Epsom and St Helier Trust is indeed seeking views on future specialist care at the trust, and on how the existing buildings can be improved. I also understand that the discussions are at an early stage, that no final decisions have been made, and that any proposals for major service change will be subject to a full public consultation.

Not only has the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that we have the narrowest income gaps for a decade, but the Office for National Statistics has said that Britain has some of the lowest levels of persistent poverty in Europe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right that this country is governed by the true facts and not by fake news, and that this Government are committed to building a strong economy for all?

Let me start by welcoming my hon. Friend to the Chamber. She is absolutely right: we owe it to our constituents—we owe it to the public—to ensure that when we debate these issues we debate them on the basis of the facts, and not on the basis of the sort of fake news that we hear all too often in the Chamber.

Lakeside children’s centre is a lifeline for often struggling kids and their parents in one of the poorest wards in Britain, giving them the best possible start in life, yet it is one of 26 children’s centres that face closure in Birmingham. Does the Prime Minister understand the consequences of her actions? Does she understand that £700 million of cuts in the city council’s budget are having a devastating impact on the provision of children’s centres? Will she act properly to fund those centres, and to reverse a tidal wave of closures that will otherwise have a devastating impact on the life chances of a whole generation of children?

Obviously, decisions on this issue are being taken by the Birmingham local authority, but it ill behoves any Member of the Labour party to stand up in this House and complain about the issues with public spending that we have had to address, because they are the direct result of the failure of a Labour Government to manage our economy.

The hon. Lady is signalling that she wishes to raise a point of order, but customarily points of order come after urgent questions and statements. If the hon. Lady can hold herself until that point, we look forward with eager anticipation to hearing of what she wishes to unburden herself then.