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Volume 628: debated on Wednesday 13 September 2017

I am sure that the thoughts of Members across the House remain with all those affected by Hurricane Irma, particularly in our overseas territories. I would like to update the House briefly. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has travelled to the overseas territories to see the recovery work at first hand and assess what more is needed. As I told the House last week, we had a Navy ship pre-positioned in the region and humanitarian experts on the ground to co-ordinate the UK response. Since Thursday Cobra has met regularly to co-ordinate the Government’s response, bringing together military, aid and consular effort, and today I am announcing an additional £25 million to support the recovery effort, further to the £32 million of assistance that I announced last week. We have now deployed over 1,000 military personnel to the region, with an additional 200 to arrive in the next few days, along with over 60 police. More than 40 tonnes of aid has now arrived. I am sure that Members across the House would like to join me in paying tribute to the hard work of the many people, military and civilian, who are doing an incredible job in difficult circumstances.

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 like to echo the Prime Minister’s words of sympathy for the families, but especially the children, affected by Hurricane Irma.

Oxford West and Abingdon has a vibrant local economy, but, reliant on the university, science and car industries, it is set to shrink if we leave the single market and the customs union, risking thousands of local jobs. Is it not time that the Prime Minister was frank with people about the dangers of leaving and allowed them a say when we finally know the full facts?

The hon. Lady’s view of what is going to happen when we leave the European Union is not the right one. If she is telling her constituents that, then she needs to think again. She needs to work with the Government to ensure that as we leave the European Union we get the deal that gives us access to the single market and enables us not just to have that access, but to do trade deals around the world and bring prosperity and jobs here to the UK.

Q2. Many of my constituents feel that Yorkshire has not had its fair share of the transport infrastructure cake over recent years, especially compared with London and the south-east. Will the Prime Minister therefore promise to significantly increase the proportion of transport infrastructure that is spent in the north generally and Yorkshire in particular in this Parliament? Perhaps my right hon. Friend can start as she means to go on by ensuring that we get the much-needed and long-awaited Shipley eastern bypass. (900820)

My hon. Friend never ceases to raise his constituents’ concerns in the House, as he rightly should, and he makes an important point. We are committed to ensuring that the whole country gets the transport infrastructure it needs. I reassure him that that is not about making a choice between north and south. We are carrying out one of the biggest investments in transport in the region for a generation, spending £13 billion—the largest in Government history—on northern transport in this Parliament. On the Shipley eastern relief road, I believe there is a decision to be taken by the local authority. We do want to see such improvements being supported, which is why we have allocated up to £781 million for the West Yorkshire Plus transport fund to deliver local priorities.

I share the Prime Minister’s sympathy for all those affected by Hurricane Irma in whichever part of the Caribbean they have suffered. I hope the Prime Minister will be prepared to look carefully at the speed of our response to Hurricane Irma, and that, if demands are made in the next few days or weeks from any country affected, Britain will respond as generously as we can in helping people at what must be the most catastrophic time of their lives.

The situation facing disabled people in Britain is described by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as “a human catastrophe”. Does the Prime Minister think it was right that while her Government funded tax giveaways to the richest, disabled people have been hit hardest by the cuts her Government have made?

On the UK response to Hurricane Irma, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that it was a speedy one. RFA Mounts Bay was already pre-positioned, as I have said, and it was able to go in immediately to Anguilla to make necessary repairs, such as ensuring that the hospital there could continue to operate. We recognise that the devastation that has taken place means there will be a significant need for reconstruction in those British overseas territories and in other Caribbean member countries and countries in the region that have been hit. There will be a point at which it is right to start the reconstruction work, and we will work with our overseas territories to ensure that those countries and their economies can be brought to life once again, enabling their people to have a good life.

On disabled people, we have seen during our time in government more disabled people get into the workplace, we have focused support to disabled people, crucially, on those who are most in need, and we have increased the overall support being given to disabled people. The picture that the right hon. Gentleman presents is, again, not a fair one.

The United Nations committee says that the Government’s policies have caused “grave and systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people. We have seen punitive assessments and sanctions, cuts to disability benefits, and the bedroom tax that has hit disabled people, 4.2 million of whom now live in poverty. At the weekend, we were told that the public sector pay cap had been dropped. On Monday, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson said the pay cap would continue as planned, and yesterday we were told it was over, yet later we found out that police and prison officers still face a real-terms pay cut. Will the Prime Minister tell us what the position is at midday today?

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we spend more than £50 billion on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. As a share of GDP, our public spending on disability and incapacity is the second highest in the G7. I suggest, therefore, that he thinks again on this matter.

On public sector pay, I said to the right hon. Gentleman only last week, I think, when questions were raised on the matter, that two further public sector pay review bodies—for prison officers and for police officers—were to report and the Government had to respond to them. They reported and made their recommendations, and as we have accepted the recommendations of the independent pay review bodies across the public sector, we accepted them for those two groups of workers. We also recognise, as I have said to him previously, that we need to balance out protecting jobs in the public sector, being fair to public sector workers, and being fair to taxpayers who pay for it, many of whom are public sector workers. There is a need for greater flexibility as we look at these issues of public sector pay in the future. We will be working on that in the lead-up to the Budget, and the remits for the pay review bodies for 2018-19 will be published in due course.

Does the Prime Minister understand that inflation is now 2.9%, so anything less than that means that dedicated public servants are worse off again? They have been made worse off every year for the past seven years. Yesterday, the POA was not impressed either with the 1.7% offer, saying,

“it is a pay cut. It is not acceptable.”

As we discovered that prison officers and the police have been offered a slightly smaller real-terms cut in their incomes, there came the news that this would be funded by more service cuts. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that no more police or prison officers will be lost as a result of decisions that she has made this week?

What the right hon. Gentleman fails to remind people is that these pay review bodies that have reported and recommended these sums of pay are independent bodies. They make a recommendation to the Government, and the Government have taken those recommendations. He has also failed to mention one or two other things: he has failed to mention the automatic pay increases over and above the 1% that many public sector workers get. Indeed, a calculation suggests that a new police officer in 2010, thanks to progression pay, annual basic salary increases and the increase in the personal allowance, which is a tax cut for people, has actually seen an increase in their pay of over £9,000 since 2010—a real-terms increase of 32%.

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. We will get through all the questions, however long it takes; it is just a bit tedious if it is disrupted by excessive noise.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. There are 20,000 fewer police officers and 7,000 fewer prison officers than in 2010, 43% of police stations have closed in the past two years alone, and police budgets have been cut by £300 million, but the Chancellor is absolutely on the money on this one, literally. Last week, at the 1922 committee, he told Conservative MPs:

“look at us, no mortgage, everybody with a pension and never had more money in the current account.”

A Conservative Prime Minister once told Britain it had

“never had it so good.”

Now Tory MPs tell each other, “We’ve never had it so good.” Can the Prime Minister tell us what has happened in the last seven years to the average person’s bank account?

I am very interested; the right hon. Gentleman is talking about ordinary people and the situation that they face, but this is his fourth question and he has not yet mentioned the employment figures today, which show unemployment at its lowest levels since the mid-1970s, and that employment—people in work; people taking home a wage, a salary, to support their family—is at record levels, the highest levels since records began.

The only problem is that more people in work are in poverty than ever before. More are in insecure work, and more rely on tax credits and housing benefit to make ends meet. Consumer debt is rising by 10% as wages are falling. Household savings are lower than at any time in the past 50 years. That is the Conservative legacy.

A young woman called Aisha wrote to me last week. She says:

“I have recently graduated from university, with a hefty amount of debt on my head”.

She goes on—[Interruption.] I really cannot understand why Conservative MPs do not want to listen to this question; however, I will persist. She goes on:

“However I am scared about the futures of other young people. People who have always dreamed of being nurses no longer want to train to become one.”

The Prime Minister’s Government, with the support of the Lib Dems, trebled tuition fees. This afternoon, will the Prime Minister take the opportunity to vote against another Tory hike in student fees?

Once again, there are a few things about people’s circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman failed to mention—things that the Government have done, such as giving a tax cut to 30 million people. For a basic rate taxpayer, that means £1,000 more in their pocket. That is what sound management of the economy by a Conservative Government delivers for people.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about delivering for students. Let us talk about delivery and let us talk about promises that are made. He promised—

Order. There is far too much noise on both sides of the Chamber. I say in all candour and friendliness to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), who is in a very animated state: I don’t know what you had for breakfast, but I think I ought to steer clear of it.

The right hon. Gentleman promised workers that he would protect their rights and on Monday he let them down. He promised students that he would deal with their debt and he has let them down. He promised the British people that he would support Trident and he has let them down. He promised voters that he would deliver on Brexit and he has let them down. What people know is that it is only the Conservatives who deliver a better Britain.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that English graduates have the highest student debts anywhere in the world. The poorest students now graduate with an average debt of £57,000. Who is responsible for that situation but the Prime Minister’s party and the Liberal Democrats?

We are in the middle of an economic slowdown. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that there is a growing risk of recession on the Prime Minister’s watch. Growth is slowing, productivity is worsening, wages are falling, jobs are becoming more insecure, personal debt is increasing, saving levels are falling, and homelessness is rising all over the country. It is forecast that by the end of this Parliament, 5 million children in this country—the fifth richest country in the world—will be living in poverty. Is it not true that not only is our economy at breaking point, but for many people it is already broken, as they face up to the poverty imposed by this Government?

I just say to the right hon. Gentleman that, yet again, he failed to mention something on student fees. Who was it who introduced tuition fees? It was not the Conservative party; it was the Labour party that introduced tuition fees.

Let us look at what has happened in our economy. What do we see? We see record levels of direct investment in the British economy—firms investing in this country because they believe in the future of this country. We also see from today’s employment figures that there are more people in work than ever before. We see more women in work and more 16 to 24-year-olds in work or full-time education than we have seen before. That is what we get with a strong economy.

What do we know and what do the people know? That the Labour party, with its high debt, high taxes and fewer jobs, would only destroy our economy, as it did last time. We had to sort it out. The only people who pay the price for the Labour party are ordinary working families.

Q4. Britain’s countryside—and, I would argue, Charnwood’s countryside —is the most spectacular in the world, because it is cared for by our farmers. Given that today is the National Farmers Union’s Back British Farming Day, will my right hon. Friend join me in recognising the huge contribution that farming makes to our economy and our country? In her clear determination to deliver a Brexit that works for Britain, will she ensure that Brexit works for Britain’s farmers as well? (900822)

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in marking Back British Farming Day and recognising the enormous and important contribution that is made to our economy by the food and farming industry. As he implies in his question, leaving the EU does give us a new opportunity for UK agriculture. We will be able to design policies for our agriculture industry, and our food and farming industry, that suit the United Kingdom, our countryside and our environment, and that can provide better value for the taxpayer. Yes, I am happy to back Back British Farming Day, and, yes, we will make a success of leaving the European Union for our food and farming industry.

Since 2007, annual real wage growth in the OECD has been an average of 6.4%. Can the Prime Minister explain to the House how the UK has measured up over the same period?

It might be quite interesting if the hon. Gentleman were to tell the House about the economy in Scotland. I seem to recall that the economy in Scotland is not doing as well as—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) should not yell from a sedentary position. I have been doing my best to nurture the hon. Gentleman’s rise to statesmanship, but he thwarts me at every turn. Calm; repose—the statesmanlike behaviour of the Father of the House would be more appropriate.

The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) should look at what is happening to the economy in Scotland under an SNP Government. An SNP Government are failing the people of Scotland, but the people of Scotland now have a strong voice in this House through our 13 Conservative Members of Parliament.

I was under the impression that this was questions to the Prime Minister. If the Prime Minister wants to question the Scottish Government, perhaps she can get Ruth Davidson to ask her question.

The UK’s record on earnings has been significantly worse than that of almost any other developed country. In fact, real wages in the UK have fallen by 2.6% since 2007. Wages are not growing, the cost of living is rising and household budgets are stretched. The Government can find the money for quantitative easing—£435 billion since 2009—but they cannot find the money for fiscal measures to grow the economy. This is a Government who do not understand how to use economic levers, and our people are paying the price. Will the Prime Minister take responsibility for the Government’s gross mismanagement of the UK economy?

I notice that in the hon. Gentleman’s rather lengthy question never once did he record the increase in employment that has taken place across the United Kingdom, as shown by today’s figures.

The hon. Gentleman started off by standing up and complaining that I had referenced the acts of the Scottish Government. He believes in independence; he believes that Scotland should be run only by the Scottish Government. So I think that the Scottish people deserve to look at, and we in this House deserve to talk about, what the Scottish Government are or are not doing for the people of Scotland. The one thing that I can tell him and others is that the Scottish economy and the livelihoods of the people of Scotland are better off in the United Kingdom.

Order. We have some very excitable denizens of the House today. They ought to take some sort of medicament and calm down.

Q5. Residents in communities across the Wells constituency have been angered this summer by a seemingly endless stream of illegal Traveller encampments. Will the Prime Minister look at what more the Government could do to help local authorities to close these illegal encampments more quickly and at less cost to local taxpayers? (900823)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, and it is not unique to his constituency; it is felt by many Members across the House. We are concerned about unauthorised encampments and the effect when they leave communities. A wide range of powers is available to local authorities and the police, and we want to see them working together and with local landowners. We do keep these matters under review, and I am sure my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss them.

Q3. Four years ago, after the death of her mother, my constituent Elissa became the sole carer for her three siblings. Now her eldest sister has gone to university and Elissa has had a child of her own, but despite saving the state hundreds of thousands of pounds in care costs, she is ineligible for the Sure Start grant and for child tax credit. This is an anomaly for kinship carers. Will the Prime Minister today commit to reviewing this ahead of the autumn Budget? (900821)

Obviously there are certain rules in place for these situations, but the hon. Lady raises a situation with various aspects to it. May I suggest that she writes to me about it, and I will look at the detail that she has set out?