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Volume 631: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2017

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will wish to join me in congratulating Sarah Clarke on her appointment as Lady Usher of the Black Rod. She will be the first woman to hold this role in its over-650-year history, and we offer her our best wishes.

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

The BBC is currently broadcasting “Drugsland”, a documentary series shot in my Bristol West constituency showing the catastrophic impact of drugs and drug laws on not just users, but the police and innocent bystanders. Will the Prime Minister commit to watching “Drugsland” and to setting up a royal commission on our drug laws, which are plainly failing?

I am pleased to say that the Home Office, under my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, launched the Government’s drugs strategy only a matter of weeks ago. We recognise the importance of this issue. Drugs significantly affect people’s lives. Sadly, we also see people dying as a result of not only taking drugs, but the criminal activity that takes place around drugs. We take this very seriously; that is why we have launched our strategy.

Q2. Divorce and family breakdown take an emotional toll on all those involved, but the family dynamic that is often overlooked is that between grandparents and their grandchildren. If access to their grandchildren is removed or blocked, some grandparents call it a form of living bereavement. Will the Prime Minister therefore join me, Dame Esther Rantzen and thousands of grandparents across the country in calling for a change to the law to give grandparents access rights to their grandchildren, as is the case in France? (901989)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that grandparents do play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren. We can all, I am sure, sympathise with those who experience the anguish of being prevented from seeing their grandchildren if a parental relationship ends. Of course, when making decisions about a child’s future, the first consideration must be their welfare, but the law already allows family courts to order that a child should spend time with their grandparents. I understand that my hon. Friend has recently seen the Minister of State for Justice, and I am sure that the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education will consider these points carefully.

I join the Prime Minister in congratulating the new Usher of the Black Rod. I am really pleased that it is at last a woman who has got that position.

I hope that the whole House will join me in sending solidarity following the atrocious suicide bombing that killed 50 people in eastern Nigeria. We should express sympathy to those who have lost loved ones for the obvious trauma they are all going through.

The Irish Prime Minister, who has discussed Brexit with the British Government, says:

“Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they have thought all this through”,

so can the Prime Minister reassure him by clearly outlining the Government’s policy on the Irish border?

First, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has welcomed the new Lady Usher of the Black Rod. I hope it will not be 650 years until the Labour party has a female leader. He also referred to the attack that has taken place in eastern Nigeria. Of course, I am sure that the thoughts and condolences of the whole House are with those who have been affected.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to outline our policy in relation to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I am very happy to do so; I have done so on a number of occasions. We are very clear that in relation to the movement of people, the common travel area will continue to operate, as it has done since 1923. On trade, and the movement of goods and services across the border, we will not see the introduction of a hard border. We have been very clear that we will not put physical infrastructure at the border.

Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said:

“There can be no hard border. That would be unthinkable”.—[Official Report, 21 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 848.]

Maybe, but the Government have had 17 months to come up with an answer to this question, and there still is no answer, because they have not engaged with the negotiations properly.

There is another person who does not think that the negotiations are going too well: the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood). He was a very enthusiastic campaigner for Brexit, but he also—he is a busy man—finds time to be the chief global strategist for Charles Stanley investments. He recently advised clients to invest elsewhere, as the UK is hitting the brakes. Does the Prime Minister take advice from the right hon. Gentleman, and does she agree with him?

On the first issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises, we have been engaging fully in the negotiations in relation to Northern Ireland and other issues, and indeed significant progress has been made. That is why, for example, I have said that we have got agreement on the operation of the common travel area for the future. He says that we have not put out any ideas about the border, but I have to say to him that we published a paper back in the summer on possible customs arrangements. We are very happy to move to further detailed discussions of the customs and trading relationship that will exist not just between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but between the United Kingdom and the European Union. That does mean moving on to phase 2, so the question for the right hon. Gentleman is: if he thinks that is so important, why did his MEPs vote against it?

The EU’s chief negotiator said this week that the UK financial sector will lose its current rights to trade with Europe. It seems as though neither EU negotiators nor the Government have any idea where this is going. Last week, the Brexit Secretary said that he would guarantee free movement for bankers post Brexit. Are there any other groups to whom the Prime Minister believes freedom of movement should apply? Nurses; doctors; teachers; scientists; agricultural workers; careworkers—who?

I am very interested that the right hon. Gentleman has found that his appearances at Prime Minister’s questions have been going so well that he has had to borrow the question that the leader of the Liberal Democrats asked me last week. Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition should pay a little more attention to what happens in Prime Minister’s questions.

We have been absolutely clear that we will introduce new immigration rules. As we introduce those immigration rules, we will take account of the needs of the British economy. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to advise, as it always does, on the areas in which we need to pay particular attention to migration into the United Kingdom.

We want to get on to deal with the question of our future trading relationship with the European Union. I am optimistic about the opportunities that will be available to this country and about the deal that we can get from the negotiations. The right hon. Gentleman cannot even decide whether he wants to be in the customs union or out of it, and whether he wants to be in the single market or out of it. He needs to get his own act together.

In April, the Brexit Secretary was confident that the European Banking Authority would be staying in London; now he cannot even guarantee that banks will have a right to trade with Europe. Last week, the Government voted down Labour amendments to protect workers’ rights. The Foreign Secretary has described employment regulation as “backbreaking”, and has repeatedly promised to “scrap the social chapter”. Why will not the Prime Minister guarantee workers’ rights—or does she agree with the Foreign Secretary on these matters?

We have guaranteed workers’ rights: we introduced a Bill in the House of Commons to guarantee workers’ rights, and the Labour party voted against it.

The record is clear: this Government voted down our amendment to protect workers’ rights. The Environment Secretary said he wanted a “green Brexit”, but yet again Conservative MPs voted down Labour amendments to guarantee environmental protection.

On 5 December, the European Finance Ministers summit will address the issue of tax dodging, as exposed by the Paradise papers. There are three proposals on the table: blacklisting tax havens like Bermuda; new transparency rules for tax intermediaries; and mandatory country-by-country reporting for profit. Will the Prime Minister back those proposals, or is she still threatening to turn Britain into a tax haven?

I will take no lectures from the Labour party on dealing with tax avoidance and tax evasion—£160 billion more has been taken as a result of action taken by Conservatives in government; there are 75 new measures to deal with tax avoidance and tax evasion; and recently, I am pleased to say, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs won an important case on tax avoidance in the Supreme Court, which means a further £1 billion coming to the United Kingdom. The right hon. Gentleman may talk about tax avoidance and tax evasion; it is this Government who take action and make sure we collect it.

The right hon. Lady’s predecessor blocked EU-wide proposals for a public register of trusts; again, Conservative MPs voted down Labour amendments to deal with tax avoidance.

When it comes to Brexit, this Government are a shambles. [Interruption.]

Order. Far too many Members on both sides of the House are gesticulating in a frenetic and, frankly, outlandish fashion. [Interruption.] Order. I say to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) that he should seek to imitate the Zen-like calm and statesmanship of the Father of the House.

I have much in common with Zen, Mr Speaker.

Seventeen months—[Interruption.] I understand that these days the Tory Whips are choreographing who shouts at whom in the Chamber—they are making a very bad job of it.

Seventeen months after the referendum, the Government say there can be no hard border, but have not worked out how. They say that they will protect workers’ rights but then vote against it. They say they will protect environmental rights but then vote against it. They promise action on tax avoidance, but vote against it time and time again. Once again, the Foreign Secretary has offered his opinion, as has the Environment Secretary, saying that “insufficient energy” is going into these Brexit negotiations—their words, not mine. Is not the truth that this Government have no energy, no agreed plan and no strategy to deliver a good Brexit for Britain?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about voting against tax avoidance measures, but it was the Labour party that refused to allow tax avoidance measures to go through in a Bill before we called the general election, so he should look at his own record.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about people having different opinions. I might remind him that on Monday, in the Bill—[Interruption] Perhaps the shadow Chancellor would like to listen to this. On Monday, when we were putting through that important piece of legislation on customs, taxation and Europe, 76 Labour MPs voted in a different Lobby from his and the Leader of the Opposition’s Front Benchers. The party in this Commons that has no clue on Brexit is the Labour party. But week in, week out, the right hon. Gentleman comes to this House and talks down our country and is pessimistic about our future. Well let me tell him that I am optimistic about our future. I am optimistic about the success we can make of Brexit. I am optimistic about the well-paid jobs that will be created. I am optimistic about the homes we will build. That is the Conservatives building a Britain fit for the future—all he offers is a blast from the past.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister reassure people that this Conservative Government are committed to maintaining the United Kingdom’s strong commitment to the highest standards of animal welfare, both now and post-Brexit? (901992)

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that commitment. As she and others will know, we already have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and as we leave the EU, we should not only maintain, but enhance them. We have already set out our proposals to introduce mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses; to increase sentences for animal cruelty to five years; to ban microbeads, which damage marine life; and to ban the ivory trade to help bring an end to elephant poaching. We also recognise and respect the fact that animals are sentient beings and should be treated accordingly. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 provides protection for all animals capable of experiencing pain or suffering which are under the control of man. But I reaffirm to her that we will be ensuring that we maintain and enhance our animal welfare standards when we leave the EU.

Can the Prime Minister tell the House how many jobs have been lost this week with the departure of the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority from London?

Of course, we are seeing those two agencies leave the UK and go elsewhere in the European Union. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the number of jobs being created, and under this Government we have seen 3 million jobs being created. That is a record I would have thought even he would be willing to welcome.

But of course the Prime Minister refused to answer the question. Let me tell her, just so that she is aware of the cost of the hard Tory Brexit, that losing the EMA and EBA means losing more than 1,000 jobs. The Bank of England has told us that the City will lose 75,000 jobs. Jobs are already gone and jobs are going; Brexit is already biting. Will the Prime Minister recognise that exiting the EU is losing jobs and sector excellence from the UK?

I recognise, as I said, that those two agencies are leaving the UK. The right hon. Gentleman talks about numbers of jobs being lost, so I repeat: since the Conservatives came into government 3 million jobs have been created—that is 3 million more people in work. That is 3 million more people able to provide an income for themselves and their families.

Q5. Last year, housing associations generated £5.5 billion in cash surplus—this is money that could be used to build 48,000 new homes in this country. The accumulated reserves of housing associations come to £42 billion, which would mean that 36,500 properties a year for the next 10 years could be built. Will my right hon. Friend examine ways in which we could ensure housing associations use the money to build the new homes that people want, rather than having this sitting in the bank? (901993)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He has campaigned strongly on the whole issue of housing, and on homelessness in particular. That approach is already taken by housing associations. As they are non-profit organisations, their surpluses are reinvested in the business, often in the next year. For example, in 2015-16 their investment in new and existing properties was more than double the surpluses they generated.

I recently announced an additional £2 billion of funding for affordable homes, including those for social rent. Last week, housing associations were reclassified to the private sector, taking £70 billion of debt off the country’s balance sheet and meaning greater certainty for housing associations in getting on with the job that my hon. Friend and I both want them to do, which is building more homes.

Q3. My thoughts are with my many constituents who have friends and family in Nigeria.The SNP has asked 140 times for the VAT paid by our police and fire services to be scrapped, and for the £140 million to be refunded. The Chancellor said only last month that legally, we would not be able to recover VAT and that the UK Government are now constrained by the VAT rules that are in place. Was he misleading us? (901990)

The SNP may have asked a number of questions, but of course it knew, when it took the decision to create a single police and fire authority, that this would be the VAT treatment.

Q6. Given that revised housing proposals would force unprecedented numbers of homes, equivalent to the size of a new town, to be built on what is left of Medway’s green belt, will the Prime Minister assure me and my constituents that the necessary large-scale investment will be made to boost the public service infrastructure, which will have to cope with up to 100,000 more people? (901994)

That is an important point for people not just in my hon. Friend’s constituency but elsewhere. We do want more homes to be built, because I want young people to have the prospect of the future that their parents and grandparents were able to have through owning their own homes. We will go further in building more homes, but she is absolutely right that, as we do that, we need to make sure that the infrastructure is in place. We are putting in billions of pounds from central Government for economic infrastructure in every year up to 2021. That includes transport projects and fibre broadband connections. We recognise the importance of making sure that homes are supported by the right infrastructure.

Q7. I am proud that the last Labour Government lifted more than 1 million children out of poverty. This Government seem committed to doing the very opposite, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicting that an additional 1.2 million children will be pushed into poverty by 2021, and that comes on top of the 4 million in 2015-16. Is the Prime Minister proud of her Government’s record of failure on this issue, and does she think that that worrying forecast is acceptable? (901995)

Far from the way in which the right hon. Lady has portrayed the situation, since 2010 we have seen 600,000 fewer people in absolute poverty—a record low—300,000 fewer working-age adults in absolute poverty, and 200,000 fewer children in absolute poverty. We have also seen families getting into work: there are nearly 1 million fewer workless households as a result of the actions of this Conservative Government.

Q9. As the Prime Minister is aware, Scotland is lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom in the roll-out of superfast broadband. My constituency of Angus is even further behind the poor Scottish average. A huge volume of my casework comes from one of my largest towns, Arbroath, where 20,000 of my constituents reside. It could hardly be deemed a remote area. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the next generation of UK funding to support the roll-out of Scotland’s full fibre broadband will bypass the shambolic Scottish Government and go directly to local authorities so that businesses and residents in my constituency of Angus get the broadband they deserve? (901997)

I am very happy to confirm that to my hon. Friend. She will know that we are making progress on this in Scotland, but we need to go further. Programmes such as local full fibre networks and 5G will allocate funding directly to local projects, based on the quality of the bids put forward. The Minister for Digital, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), recently confirmed in the House that we will deliver the next generation of technology directly to local authorities in Scotland, rather than going through the Scottish Government. We will make sure that Scotland is not left behind.

Q8. In 2014, an inquiry was set up to look into the drug Primodos—it was given to millions of pregnant women in the ’60s and ’70s—which caused deformities. Documents show a clear cover-up. Last week, a report was published, which was condemned by MPs across the House as being a whitewash and misleading. Will the Prime Minister meet the victims and order a public inquiry, so that justice can finally be done for these people? (901996)

I know this is an issue that a number of Members have been concerned about and I recognise that the result of the review was not what some Members and families were hoping for. It was a comprehensive, independent scientific review of the available evidence by experts. All the meetings of the expert working group were attended by Nick Dobrik, as an invited independent expert from the Thalidomide Trust and at the request of the patient group, the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests. I am informed that the overall conclusion is that the scientific evidence does not support a causal association, but that does not detract from the very real suffering experienced by the families. I recognise that these conclusions are hard to accept, but the Department of Health is focused on implementing the review’s recommendations which will strengthen detection and better communicate the risk of medicines during pregnancy.

Q10. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the right revised offer to the EU, far from throwing money away, will be worthwhile to secure the UK’s future trade relationship with our European neighbours? (901998)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I set out in my speech in Florence that the UK will honour the commitments we have made during our period of membership. We do not want our European partners to fear that they will have to receive less or pay more during the current budget plan as a result of our leaving the European Union, but we can only resolve the financial implications of the UK’s withdrawal as a part of the settlement of all the issues I spoke about in Florence. Once that is done, of course, the days of Britain paying vast sums of money to the EU every year will end.

Q11. Every Prime Minister since 1946 has successfully appointed a British judge to the International Court of Justice. Why hasn’t she? (901999)

The British Prime Minister does not appoint judges to the International Court of Justice. There is a process that is undertaken in the United Nations. We wish all the judges who have been appointed by the votes through the United Nations to the International Court of Justice well.

Q12. My right hon. Friend might be aware that in a Westminster Hall debate last week, Members of the Scottish National party declared that if the Scottish Government did not agree with the final Brexit deal they would push for another independence referendum. This obsession with breaking up our United Kingdom is damaging the Scottish economy and causing uncertainty, so will she join me today in calling for the SNP to drop, once and for all, its obsession with a second independence referendum? (902000)

The point my hon. Friend raises is very important. Scotland had a referendum in 2014. That referendum was legal and fair, and the result was decisive: the people of Scotland voted clearly to remain part of the United Kingdom. At the election, they sent a message that they did not want a second referendum on this issue. I say to the Scottish Government, as we prepare to leave the EU, that they should be working with the UK Government to get the right deal for the whole of the UK, not taking Scotland back to the divisive constitutional debates of the past. I agree with my hon. Friend that the SNP should take its unwanted proposal off the table once and for all.

Q13. Will the Prime Minister support steel jobs in Scunthorpe and elsewhere by guaranteeing that, if the current flexibility within the emissions trading scheme is not retained to March 2019, she will act immediately to ensure that British industry is not financially penalised? (902001)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about steel. Of course, the Government have done a considerable amount over the last few years to support the steel industry here in the United Kingdom, and I was very pleased earlier in the year to visit and meet steelworkers to talk about the prospects for steel in the UK. We will, of course, look carefully to ensure that the arrangements in place are in the national interest, and we have supported steel in the past.

May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question from the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire)? Quite apart from commending the quality of the BBC programme she mentioned, may I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that global policy on drugs prohibition is beginning to change, in the face of the evidential failure of the policy since the 1961 UN single convention on narcotic drugs? Will she look at the evidence that will emerge from the United States and Canada on the legalisation and regulation of cannabis markets there, as well as decriminalisation in Portugal and elsewhere—

Order. We have heard the gravamen of the hon. Gentleman’s inquiry. We are a little clearer now and are immensely grateful.

When I was Home Secretary, work was undertaken by the Home Office on the experience in a number of countries and the different ways they approached the issue of drugs, but I am afraid that I have a different opinion from my hon. Friend on drugs, as would those dealing with people affected by drugs. I think of my constituent Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, who set up DrugFAM after the suicide of her son, who was a drug addict. I think of the work she is doing with families affected because a family member is on drugs, and of the incredible damage it can do to families and the individuals concerned. I am sorry but I take a different view from him. It is right that we continue to fight the war against drugs.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield has migrated a considerable distance from his usual place, but we look forward to hearing from him anyway.

Q14. People with the most severe disabilities moving on to universal credit have discovered that they are up to £100 a week worse off because there is no severe disability component in the payment. Whatever happens about the delays in the next hour, does the Prime Minister realise that universal credit will continue to shame her Government so long as it pushes the most disabled into the worst poverty? (902002)

We spend more than £50 billion a year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions—that has increased by more than £7 billion since 2010—and spending on disability benefits will be higher in every year to 2020 than in 2010. As regards universal credit, as I have said in the Chamber before, it is a simpler, more straightforward system, but, crucially, it is helping people to get into the workplace and making sure they keep more of the money they earn.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Leigh-on-Sea branch of the British Legion and local artists Beth Hooper and Mary Lister on using a lottery grant for school children in Southend to make 7,500 ceramic poppies and displaying them on Southend’s cliffs? Does she agree that that is a further good reason to make Southend-on-Sea a city?

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Leigh-on-Sea branch of the Royal British Legion on its work in ensuring that young people recognise the importance of remembrance and the sacrifices made by previous generations for our safety and security. As to his second point, he puts in a very interesting bid. I know that Southend-on-Sea is close to his heart and that he champions it all the time. I am sure that his bid will be looked at carefully.

My constituent Hayley Crawley is receiving palliative care for bowel cancer, and she needs a specialist cancer drug that is available for other cancers. She waited for months to hear that her case for funding had been rejected by NHS England, and we are now waiting again for a reply to her appeal. Please will the Prime Minister write to NHS England to ensure that Hayley’s case is treated as a priority?

Obviously I am aware that that will be causing distress to Hayley while she is waiting for the appeal decision, and I am sure that the Secretary of State for Health will look closely at the case that the hon. Lady has raised. We were of course able to introduce the Cancer Drugs Fund, which has allowed some patients to have access to drugs that would otherwise not be available, but I recognise the concern and distress from which the hon. Lady’s constituent will be suffering while she waits for the decision.

The Prime Minister will be aware that under President Mugabe, British citizens living in Zimbabwe, especially landowners, suffered considerably. Can she assure the House that as we see a new regime coming to Zimbabwe, the British Government will do all they can to persuade that new regime to treat British citizens living lawfully in that country with respect, and to give them the safety and security that they should have, along with all other Zimbabwean citizens?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point as we see that change taking place in Zimbabwe. I think that the resignation of Robert Mugabe gives Zimbabwe an opportunity to forge a new path, free from the oppression that has characterised the past. We want to see a democratic, free, secure Zimbabwe, where people across communities throughout Zimbabwe are able to lead their lives without fear and oppression, and we want to see the country rejoin the international community. We have obviously given Zimbabwe some support in the form of UK aid, and, as the country’s oldest friend, we will do everything we can to support its change into a country that is free and democratic, and free of all oppression for all communities.

Bill Presented

Clean Air Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Geraint Davies, supported by Hilary Benn, Eleanor Smith, Tim Farron, Derek Thomas, Wera Hobhouse, John Mc Nally, Mr David Lammy, Sir Edward Davey, Rosie Duffield, Chris Evans and Preet Kaur Gill, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to set, measure, enforce and report on air quality targets; to make provision about mitigating air pollution, including through the use of clean air zones; to make provision about vehicle emissions testing; to restrict the approval and sale of vehicles with certain engine types; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 December, and to be printed (Bill 130).