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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
29 November 2017
Volume 632

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Yemen

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1. What humanitarian support her Department is providing to Yemen. [902617]

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3. What humanitarian support her Department is providing to Yemen. [902619]

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Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 21 million people in need of aid. The crisis will lead to famine unless all sides allow immediate commercial and humanitarian access throughout the country. The UK is playing a leading role in the current humanitarian and diplomatic response.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I also welcome them to their position and wish them all the very best.

At the Select Committee on Defence two weeks ago, General Sir Richard Barrons stated that

“intelligent, thoughtful officials like the National Security Adviser are looking at the £62 billion we spend on aid, diplomacy and defence and wondering if they can get a mix out of that.”

Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the balance is being struck between the United Kingdom’s tax receipts for sales to Saudi Arabia for it to flatten Yemen and the money that we are spending on development aid to rebuild Yemen?

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We have been very clear that although we understand the coalition’s security concerns, they are not incompatible with allowing food and other supplies into the country. A huge diplomatic effort is being made, led by the Prime Minister, and she is using her visit this week to press further still. There has been movement in getting some aid and commercial supplies through, but that will not be enough. We need to keep pressing, and that is what this Government will do.

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The Foreign Secretary met a range of international partners yesterday. Unfortunately, the communiqué from that meeting seemed to talk a lot more about weapons than about getting aid and commercial goods into Yemen. Will the Secretary of State tell me a bit more about what the UK Government are doing to get aid and commercial goods into the country? Aid agencies know that the country needs not just aid but commercial goods. Each day, 130 children are dying in Yemen. We cannot wait any longer.

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The communiqué did speak about what we are doing. In addition to the diplomatic efforts, a large part of my time since I have been in post has been spent looking at the other possible options in order logistically to get what is needed to the people who need it. There are immense problems, but we are looking at plan B—what else we can do. The key thing, and the only way to get the full supplies in, is to open up those two ports, and that is what we are pressing for.

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I welcome my right hon. Friend to her place and am delighted to see her there. Given the vital need to get humanitarian aid into Yemen, will she confirm what work the UK Government are doing via the United Nations to secure this access, particularly given our role in the Security Council?

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I have been in close contact with both the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and the Secretary-General himself. We are all working together to impress upon the coalition the importance of getting in not just aid but, critically, commercial supplies. That has been the main thrust of our argument. Clearly, a political settlement is needed in the long term, and we are pushing for all partners to engage.

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The situation for Yemen’s remaining Jews is harrowing, particularly for those outside the capital. What work is her Department doing to support the work of other Government Departments in helping to provide safe passage to other countries for these individuals?

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We are extremely conscious of this matter. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has been doing an enormous amount of work, looking at particular communities. There are enormous numbers of people—21 million—who are in an absolutely dire situation. As well as trying to get the immediate issues resolved, we must keep pressing for a political process and for all parties to engage with efforts of the UN’s Special Envoy.

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It does not look as though the Prime Minister is being any more successful on this issue than she is on so many others. It really is a disgrace that although the Secretary of State’s Department is working on the humanitarian aspects by providing food and other aid to Yemen, we continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, which fuels the conflict. Where is the sense in that?

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I understand the right hon. Lady’s concerns, but as I have said, while we do accept there are legitimate security concerns, that is entirely separate from, and should not be conflated with, preventing aid and commercial supplies from getting to a population. We are extremely concerned about the situation; we are extremely concerned that the coalition may be in breach of international humanitarian law, and I would refer her to the statement my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East gave on 7 November.

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I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her new role. I heard what she just said, but on Sunday it emerged that the UK had been providing military assistance to Saudi Arabia to carry out military training as part of Operation Crossways. With the Foreign Secretary hosting Foreign Ministers from the region yesterday for talks, does the Secretary of State think that the UK’s military support and arms sales to Saudi Arabia are helping or hindering a political solution to the simply appalling and worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen?

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I thank the hon. Lady and other Members who have welcomed me to my post.

Although the UK military has provided training on targeting, to try to reduce civilian casualties, that has been entirely separate from the Saudi coalition’s actual campaign. We are trying to utilise the military-to-military contacts that we do have, which are deep, as part of our diplomatic process to try and get the coalition to realise that it must let aid into the two ports. We are also providing £1.3 million to help the UN’s verification and inspection mechanisms. If we can supply any practical support to give the coalition confidence that weapons are not coming in with aid, we will do that.

Polio

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2. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of international efforts to eradicate polio. [902618]

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Since 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has been highly effective in leading international efforts that have reduced polio cases by more than 99%. Only 15 cases have been reported in 2017—in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan—and we hope the last case will come through at the end of this year or early next year.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. May I also take the opportunity to welcome the leadership the Government have shown in the battle to eradicate polio from the face of this earth? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is exactly the sort of thing the great British public can get behind, support and welcome our aid being used for?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right. Eradicating polio will be one of the great global public health success stories. United Kingdom taxpayer support since 1988 has helped prevent 1.5 million childhood deaths, and 16 million people are walking today who would otherwise be paralysed. People across the UK can be proud—not least those who support the Rotary movement, because the Rotary movement worldwide has played an important part, and I thank my colleagues in the Sandy Rotary club for their efforts in this regard.

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Does the Minister agree that what has marked out the fight against polio is its international nature, and that we should be pressing this same approach to tackling other diseases at the Commonwealth summit next year?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The use of United Kingdom funds to support things such as the Global Fund, which take part in international activity, and to strengthen global health systems is important. We have to work in partnership with others. The Commonwealth summit will provide a good opportunity to emphasise more of what we can do together.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Department on the work that is being done to help eradicate polio. However, there is a risk that it can return if inoculations do not take place. Will he use the opportunity of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next year to press the case for further inoculations across the Commonwealth?

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We are working with those who are putting together the Commonwealth summit to make sure there is an ambitious agenda devoted to all aspects of life in the Commonwealth, including global health. My hon. Friend is right on immunisation: through the GPEI, the UK will immunise 45 million children against polio and save more than 65,000 children from paralysis each year, so there will be no let-up in immunisation and the fight to make sure polio is eradicated.

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Will the Minister show the same level of commitment he has shown on the international level to the prevention and eradication of animal and livestock diseases—something that poses a grave threat to very rural constituencies such as mine?

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Order. That is scarcely even tangentially related to the matter on the paper. What the hon. Gentleman is implicitly saying is, “I don’t really like this question, and therefore I’d like to propose the insertion of another in its stead.” It is ingenious to the point of being cheeky. A one-sentence reply of no more than 20 words from the Minister.

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I will draw the attention of one of my hon. Friends in the Government to the hon. Gentleman’s question.

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Splendid.

Value for Money

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4. What steps she is taking to promote value for money in aid spending. [902620]

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5. What steps she is taking to promote value for money in aid spending. [902621]

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We work continuously to improve the way we design, implement and monitor programmes. Spending money well, wisely and efficiently makes sense both because it is British taxpayers’ money and because it allows us to deliver better education, better healthcare and better nutrition for some of the world’s poorest people.

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Greater transparency in how and where aid money is spent is vital to ensure public confidence. Will my hon. Friend champion the transparency agenda and ensure that aid to the Palestinian Authority does not fund radicalisation?

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My hon. Friend’s question on the Palestinian Authority is for my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, but the basic principle is clear. This is not just about transparency. Transparency is not an end in itself, but a means to achieving accountability. It is not just about getting the data out there; it is about making sure that people in the developing world can access the data, understand the data and use the data. We can improve only if we are challenged.

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I welcome the Minister’s comments on accountability. My constituents raise value for money in aid spending with me on a regular basis. Does he agree that accountability to people in poor countries is essential in getting value for money?

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Absolutely, and the challenge of accountability in the developing world is great. Here in Britain, where there is a free media and a lot of civil society, it is very easy, as we all know, for people to challenge a rail project or what is happening in a hospital. In the developing world, we need to invest in ensuring that we have the right kind of beneficiary feedback, because it is the people on the ground who know more, and we will improve only if we listen.

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Last week, the Select Committee on International Development published our first report of the Parliament on global education. I urge the Government to respond soon to our recommendation that we should fully fund replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education and to make that announcement as early as possible.

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We will be announcing the refresh of our education policy early next year. The key thing, on which we agree absolutely with the Select Committee, is to drive up the quality of education. Attendance is right up, but far too many children are coming out entirely illiterate.

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11. Is the Minister convinced that expenditure on private schools in Africa is the best use of public money and provides the best outcomes, given the report published recently by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)? [902628]

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Ninety five per cent. of all our education spending goes to public education. However, there is a place, particularly in some of the poorest and most remote parts of the world, for recognising that the private sector is filling with low-cost education a hole that the public sector sometimes cannot fill.

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What assessment has the Department made of the value for money of its spending in Bangladesh to help the Rohingya people, particularly given the Secretary of State’s recent visit to the area?

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Our assessment is that our humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh, which at the moment amounts to more than £40 million, is carefully monitored and well spent. It is focused, above all, on providing shelter and protection, particularly protection against sexual violence in conflict.

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May I first welcome the Secretary of State to her new post? May I also welcome the Moderator of the Church of Scotland to the Gallery?

There is no greater value for money in aid spending than protecting the future of our natural world for generations to come. Following the UN COP23 talks earlier this month, which I attended, it is undeniable that we are reaching the tipping point of no return on climate change, and all nations agreed that we must go “further, faster, together”. Given that the Department for International Development is a major shareholder in the World Bank, which still spends much more on oil, gas and coal than on clean energy, will the Secretary of State give me her personal commitment that she will use all her powers of persuasion with the World Bank to ensure that it invests more in clean, safe renewables than in fossil fuels?

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The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this in the past, and I pay tribute to the work that he does on the environment. We are pressing the World Bank to do that, and that is one of the functions of the new financing facilities that we have established, but there is still a place for non-renewable energy generation, particularly to meet the desperate needs in Africa.

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One of the best ways to spend money is on malaria, as I have seen as chair of the all-party group on malaria. The “World Malaria Report” is released today, and it shows a worrying stalling in progress on malaria. Could my hon. Friend commit the UK Government to ensuring that as much as possible is done to make further progress?

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That is a very important issue, in which the UK Government are proud to have invested heavily, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the US Government, who have done a lot on this. There is, I believe, an event in Speaker’s House immediately after this to commemorate some of the progress that is being made on malaria, but my hon. Friend is absolutely correct that this is an issue on which we need to do much more, and the fact is that progress is stalling.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role, and I look forward to our exchanges across the Dispatch Box. The Secretary of State’s predecessor resigned because she was caught trying to give aid money to the Israeli defence forces. Securitisation and militarisation of the aid budget, which is supposed to go to the world’s poorest, seem to be the new normal under this Government. What are the Secretary of State’s plans on spending aid money on military and the police, and will the spending go up or down?

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It is absolutely central to remember that we must address the root causes of poverty, and a lot of those lie in fragile and conflict-affected states. If we try to separate off the work we do on education, health and humanitarian assistance from the political and military drivers of conflict, we will never resolve these problems. But we absolutely take on board the fact that our prime responsibility is towards the poorest in the world. Our programmes on conflict are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. I would like to ask the hon. Lady: who made the 0.7% target? It is absolutely central that we do these things together.

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I thank the Minister for his response, but new figures show that in 2016 aid spending on the £1 billion conflict stability and security fund increased by £27 million. That was spent mainly through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on propping up the military and police in places such as Bahrain, Ethiopia and Syria. With no scrutiny from DFID or Parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, how can we measure the impact? Does the Minister believe that this is value for money?

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I absolutely believe it is value for money. There are currently 23 million people at risk of starvation in north-east Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. The reason why they are at risk of starvation is conflict. These are not natural disasters; they are driven by conflict. Unless we find political solutions to these conflicts, we will have 23 million people continuing to die throughout the world. We will not apologise for our approach, because it is a central part of our development policy.

Modern Slavery

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6. What steps her Department is taking to tackle modern slavery in developing countries. [902622]

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The Department is playing a leading role in the cross-government effort to tackle the scourge of modern slavery, and expanding our work in developing countries to tackle this barbaric crime. Our “work in freedom” programme has already reached over 380,000 women and girls in south Asia and the middle east.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and I welcome her to her position. Saturday was International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Given that around 75% of victims of modern slavery are women, will she join me in paying tribute to campaigners and organisations across the country, including the Women’s Aid refuge in Barrhead in my constituency, for what they do to tackle this crime?

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I would be very happy to congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituents for the work that they are doing. Modern slavery is something that many people across the country are concerned about. We should be proud that our country and our Prime Minister are leading the way, most recently in convening leaders at the UN to launch the call for action to end modern slavery, which now has 40 signatories.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [902647]

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I have just returned from Bangladesh, where I saw for myself the Rohingya camp and heard from refugees of the horrific atrocities that they have endured. I applaud the generosity of the Bangladeshi Government and the people of Bangladesh, as well as British taxpayers and all who have donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal. Although every refugee has expressed the desire to return home, I have made it clear to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that any returns must be voluntary, safe and sustainable. Those conditions are far from being met.

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As in Bangladesh and Burma, the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Yemen is a man-made one. The Secretary of State talked about having influence on the perpetrators of that conflict. With the tax take from arms sales now outstripping the level of aid, does she not think the time has come to stop arms sales to the combatants in that conflict?

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I will say it for the third time: there are genuine security concerns on the part of the Saudi-led coalition, but that is entirely separate from the issue of allowing aid and commercial supplies into ports. We think that they can address their security concerns, and we are prepared to assist them in some measure to do that, but there is no excuse, legitimate though their concerns are, for stopping food and supplies getting to the individuals who need them.

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T2. British non-governmental organisations are now the largest recipients of grant funding through the EU’s ECHO humanitarian programme, precisely because they are very good at what they do. Will the Secretary of State look at ways of continuing a relationship with ECHO once we leave the EU, so that our NGOs can have stable funding to continue to do their important work in fragile states? [902648]

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: our NGOs are second to none. If we are going to continue to make our funds deliver, provide value for money and have the impact required, British NGOs still need to be delivering that aid. All this will be part of the negotiations, but I concur exactly with my right hon. Friend’s sentiments.

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T4. What recent discussions has the Department had with United Nations Women on the UK Government’s contribution to its core funding? [902650]

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Support to protect women and girls, whether in relation to education, sanitation or refugees, has been a significant part of the work DFID is doing. We are constantly in contact with UN agencies about what more can be done both for women in conflict and for women in developing countries, and that is a major part of DFID’s programme.

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T3. Will the Government ensure that their aid focuses on projects to improve sanitation and infection control to reduce the need to use antibiotics, as part of our global commitment to tackle antimicrobial resistance? [902649]

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Reducing the transmission of infection is an effective way of decreasing the need for antibiotics. Our approach is to strengthen national health systems to address infection prevention and control, and this includes hygiene and sanitation in health facilities.

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T5. The House will be aware that this Friday marks World AIDS Day. Will the Minister tell us what the Department is going to do to build on this country’s expertise and investment to date to ensure that critical AIDS vaccines are delivered to Africa? [902651]

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I am pleased to join the hon. Gentleman, and I am sure the whole House, in commemorating World AIDS Day. We have been a long-term supporter of the international AIDS vaccine initiative, and we are the largest international funder of HIV prevention, care and treatment. From the £1.1 billion going into the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, 1.3 million retroviral drugs will be provided through the UK this year. There will be no let-up in the fight, and we are united on that. [Official Report, 4 December 2017, Vol. 632, c. 3-4MC.]

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T7. Following the recent resignation of Robert Mugabe, will my hon. Friend outline what reviews the Department will be taking of the provision of UK aid to help Zimbabwe to secure a positive and prosperous future? [902653]

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I have recently returned from a visit to Zimbabwe. These are early days, and we need to watch very carefully what kinds of economic and political reforms are introduced by Mr Mnangagwa’s Government. However, if such reforms are forthcoming, there is a great deal that the British Government can do: first, in supporting governance reform; secondly, in supporting the business climate; and thirdly, in getting International Monetary Fund support for the Government of Zimbabwe.

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T6. On Monday evening, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow presented its excellent report on “Global Citizenship in the Scottish Health Service”. [Interruption.] What discussions have taken place between DFID and health service officials across the UK about harnessing the huge mutual benefits of supporting health staff to volunteer overseas? [Interruption.] [902652]

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Order. I hope the Secretary of State heard that question amidst the clubbable hubbub. It is very important that the question be heard, otherwise the hon. Lady will have to blurt it out again.

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If this answer is not satisfactory because I did not hear the hon. Lady’s question, please will she let me know? We are looking to refresh a number of schemes, including the International Citizen Service, and at what healthcare professionals and other professions can offer with regard to aid while enhancing their own personal professional development.

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T8. I recently hosted a meeting with the China-Britain Council to explore opportunities for developing markets. What discussions are taking place between the Department for International Trade and DFID to ensure that trade joins aid as a way to help the developing world? [902654]

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We have close discussions with our colleagues at the Department for International Trade. The trade and aid programme has enabled more than 40 countries to put development at the heart of their own plans.

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I recently visited young Send My Friend to School campaigners at Sydenham School in my constituency. They spoke with great passion about the need for global education and why greater financing for education matters to them. What action will the Secretary of State take to ensure that this Government listen to those young people and show leadership by increasing funding for education through the Global Partnership for Education?

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We were and are the largest founder contributor to the Global Partnership for Education. With 387 million children expected to leave primary school unable to read, there is no doubt that the continuing efforts of the United Kingdom, along with others in the partnership, are important. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said earlier, we will publish a refreshed education strategy early in the new year. The hon. Lady can be sure that strengthening education systems around the world, and supporting teachers and children who may be marginalised through missing out on education, will be key parts of that.

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I recently visited some schools in Africa where, in classrooms of more than 100 pupils, those with special educational needs, right at the back, had very little chance of accessing education. How will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—I congratulate her on her new position—prioritise disability support in education in developing countries?

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising this subject, which is very close to my heart. He will not have long to wait—perhaps it will be a matter of hours—for my first announcement on how the DFID budget will support disability.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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Q1. If she will list her official engagements for Wednesday 29 November. [902632]

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I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is abroad in the middle east furthering our interests in a region that is fundamental to our national security and prosperity.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering our warmest congratulations to His Royal Highness Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and in wishing them every happiness in the future.

Today also marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the RAF. The whole House will want to express our thanks for a century of service to this country.

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I add my congratulations to those of the First Secretary of State to Prince Harry on his engagement.

Thanks to the outstanding efforts of the Labour-run North East Lincolnshire Council, the Government have included the Greater Grimsby project in their industrial strategy document, but we need more than a byline in a glossy magazine to make its potential a reality. When can we expect the Government to put their money where their mouth is, so that we can get going?

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I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady welcomes the industrial strategy, as she should do. It will be good for Grimsby and many other communities around this country, particularly those that may feel that they have been left behind in the past. I am happy to assure her that the industrial strategy will come with money attached, as she will have heard in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s Budget statement.

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Q5. Making a success of the South Tees mayoral development corporation is vital for Teesside, and I was delighted to welcome the Prime Minister to my constituency this summer. Will the First Secretary join me in recognising the scale of the opportunity represented by the MDC, agree that it offers a chance to redefine Teesside to the world and commit that the new money awarded in the Budget is only the start of the process of delivering on its huge potential for change? [902637]

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I can see that my hon. Friend is getting the hang of questions already. I am happy to assure him that we are committed to working with him, and indeed with the Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, who is doing so much to help develop the area. We want to support him and the South Tees Development Corporation on the work they are doing on the long-term regeneration of the south Tees area. As he said, the Chancellor announced £123 million of new funding in the Budget, because we recognise the significant economic opportunities in the area.

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Let me join the First Secretary of State in congratulating the RAF on its anniversary, and in congratulating Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their engagement—that is one Anglo-American couple that we in the Opposition will be delighted to see holding hands. I am sure that Prince Harry, as the patron of Rugby League, will be joining all of us in supporting the England team in the world cup final on Saturday—I, for one, will of course be waving my St George’s flag.

On a much sadder note, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our thoughts to all those killed and injured in Friday’s horrific attack on the mosque in north Sinai. It is a bitter reminder that the vast majority of the victims of jihadi terror are Muslims.

Before I get on with my questions, can I ask the First Secretary of State about a simple point of principle? Is he happy to be held to the same standards in government that he required of others while in opposition?

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Yes, I am. I think that all Ministers should respect and obey the ministerial code, and I absolutely think that is a very important part of confidence in public life. I also echo the right hon. Lady’s thoughts about the terrible events in Sinai. She might find it difficult to wave the St George’s flag, but I will be doing so for the English rugby league team. [Interruption.] As a Welsh rugby fan, I might find it even more difficult than she does.

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The First Secretary of State looked rather perturbed at my line of questioning, but he does not need to worry; I really am not going there. I was merely wondering whether he remembered the question he asked at Prime Minister’s questions almost 17 years ago, when John Prescott stood in for Tony Blair, and whether he could answer the same question today. The question was this:

“what percentage of the new nurses recruited in the past 12 months are now working full time?”—[Official Report, 13 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 630.]

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I cannot remember asking that question, but I would love to know what the then Deputy Prime Minister answered. I am happy to assure the right hon. Lady that we have more nurses, more midwives and more doctors working in the health service now. The health service is performing more operations now, and certainly more than it was 17 years ago. In particular, in the Budget last week my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was able to announce more than £6 billion extra on health spending, which will make the health service even stronger in future than it is now.

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that response, but since he failed to answer my original question, I will do it for him. According to the Government’s latest figures, more than 40% of newly recruited nurses are leaving full-time employment within their first year. It is not just new recruits who are quitting; the overall number of NHS nurses and health visitors is down by 1,500 this year. The numbers are now lower than when this Government came to office. Why does he think that so many nurses are leaving?

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There are, as I say, more operations being done, and more nurses, more doctors, more midwives. The health service is expanding. We have got 14,900 more doctors, 1,500 more medical school places each year and 10,000 more nurses on our wards, and we have announced an increase of more than 5,000 extra nurse training places every year. In addition, the Chancellor said in his Budget that we would commit to making sure that the nurses’ pay increase, the action for change—[Interruption.] The “Agenda for Change” staffing covered would not come out of other health spending. So nurses can be reassured that the Government will continue to support them both on pay and in terms of numbers. That is why our health service in England is getting better. If the right hon. Lady wants to look at a health service where things are getting worse, she can look to the Labour Government in Wales, and she does not need to take it from me; she can take it from the public, because public satisfaction with the NHS in Wales is lower than in England. That is the effect of a Labour Government on health services.

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I hate to break it to the First Secretary, but there are more nurses in the NHS than just those working in emergency and acute wards, including district nurses, the number of whom has halved under the Tories. And guess who picks up the slack if those nurses are not there? It is nurses in emergency and acute care. I asked why so many nurses were leaving the vocation they loved. According to the Royal College of Nursing, the top four reasons are excess workload, staff shortages, low pay, and worries about patient care. According to the Government’s own figures, the number of nurses quitting because of worries about their finances or health has doubled since the Tories first froze their pay. So let us get on to the question—the question he asked John Prescott 17 years ago. The First Secretary said then that nurses at his local hospital were warning that

“staff shortages are putting patients’ lives at risk”—[Official Report, 13 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 630.]

What are those same nurses telling him today?

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Since 17 years ago—and it is interesting that 17 years ago many years of Labour Government still lay ahead, with all the pressures the right hon. Lady has just exposed—the number of nurses in post has risen significantly. I did not quite understand her point about wards—she seemed to go on and off the wards—but we know that we have 10,000 more nurses on our wards, which is where people want to see them. Also, if she is interested in nurses’ pay, I hope that she will find it in herself to welcome the tax cut announced in the Budget—the increase in the personal allowance—which will help nurses, just as it will help workers across the public and private sectors. This is good news for nurses. The Budget was good not just for the health service but specifically for the nursing profession. As I say, I hope that she can bring herself to welcome that.

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I notice that the First Secretary did not want to talk about patient care at his local hospital. Could the reason be that his local accident and emergency department, according to the board’s most recent minutes, has

“Severe staff shortages in medical and nursing staff”,

meaning that patient safety is being put at risk, and the only option to tackle those shortages is to cancel outpatient clinics? And it gets worse: there is to be a public meeting tomorrow to consider closing his local A&E for good—in other words, all the things he has been denying. What are you doing to our NHS? It is happening on your own doorstep. Is it not about time he got a grip?

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Order. I am entirely innocent in this matter.

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The right hon. Lady’s grasp of the facts is pretty shaky. The meeting tomorrow in my constituency is about the strategic transformation plan. [Interruption.]

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I am happy to assure the right hon. Lady that I am entirely in favour of option 1 of that strategic transformation plan, which suggests not just leaving A&E services in the hospital in my constituency, but actually expanding specialist services there. I strongly suggest that she does not try to think she knows more about what is going on my constituency than I do.

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I suspect that neither the nation nor the First Secretary’s own constituents will have taken any reassurances from that answer. We have an NHS in the grip of a chronic funding and staffing crisis: GPs are quitting in record numbers; junior doctors are running A&E departments without supervision; our nurses are at breaking point—and all this is before the winter crisis that is coming. So let me finally ask him: what does it say about the Government’s priorities that last week’s Budget could only find £350 million to help the cash-strapped, stretched-to-the-limit NHS cope with the winter fuel crisis? [Interruption.] [Hon. Members: “Keep going.”] Only £350 million to cope with the winter crisis, but it was able to find 11 times that amount to spend on a no-deal Brexit. Is that not the very definition of a Government who are fiddling away while the rest of the country burns?

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The right hon. Lady is determined to talk the NHS down. It is a Conservative Government who are increasing NHS funding so that it remains the best health service in the world, as the independent Commonwealth Fund has described it for the second year in a row. It is this party that promised and delivered more money for the NHS in 2010 and 2015, and in last week’s Budget my right hon. Friend the Chancellor promised it an extra £6.3 billion. That means more patients being treated, it means more operations being carried out by more doctors, and it means more nurses.

The right hon. Lady ended her remarks by saying that the Government were wasting £3 billion on preparing for Brexit. We now know that Labour Members do not think it is worth preparing for Brexit, but they do think it is worth preparing for a run on the pound. That is all we need to know about the Labour party.

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Q11. This week one of Labour’s last two remaining councillors in Boston crossed the floor to join the Conservative party. He said that he did not want to see the country go back to 1973. Will the First Secretary join me in welcoming this new member to the Conservative party, and does he agree that an open, optimistic Britain deserves better than reheated Marxism and Labour’s bankrupt economy? [902643]

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I am very happy to agree with my hon. Friend, and, indeed, with the wisdom of the Labour councillor who has joined the Conservative party. My hon. Friend is quite right. What we hear from Labour Members shows that a Labour Government would lose control of public finances and hike taxes to their highest ever peacetime level. I have discovered a new quotation—the shadow Chancellor called business “the enemy”. That is what the modern Labour party is about.

Let me also point out that the local councillor may just have moved in anticipation. I understand that moderate councillors are being deselected by the hard left of the Labour party.

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May I join the First Secretary in congratulating Prince Harry and Meghan on their engagement, and wish them a long life and happiness together? May I also welcome the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Right Reverend Derek Browning, who is with us in the Gallery today?

Will the First Secretary of State now tell the House how much money the UK Government have received from Saudi Arabia as a result of arms sales since the war in Yemen began?

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I am afraid that I do not have the figure to hand. However, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to recognise that our defence industry is an extremely important creator of jobs and prosperity, in Scotland as well as in other parts of the country. Obviously I am aware of the current terrible situation in Yemen, but he should also recognise that this country has one of the most rigorous and robust defence sales regimes in the world, as was recognised in a court case last July—and we are absolutely determined to maintain the most rigorous and robust system because that is the right thing to do, both for our prosperity and to ensure that we keep proper control of arms sales.

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That was a long time to be unable to answer the question. I can tell the First Secretary that the UK Government have received £4.6 billion from selling arms to Saudi Arabia since the war in Yemen began—a war that has created a devastating humanitarian crisis. Yemen is now on the brink of famine, and UNICEF has said that 150,000 children will die by the end of the year. Does the First Secretary not agree that the best thing the Prime Minister can do in her meetings today is follow the example of the Netherlands and suspend licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia to stop killing children?

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I should correct something the right hon. Gentleman said: that the Government receive the money. It will be the companies that receive the money, and therefore their workers. He can take that position if he wants, and it was the Labour party’s position as well, but that would certainly entail significant job losses.

It is very important not only that we have the robust regime I talked about, but that we continue the humanitarian efforts that we make to try to alleviate the terrible conditions in Yemen. We are the fourth largest humanitarian donor to Yemen, and the second largest to the UN appeal. I also remind the right hon. Gentleman that the involvement of the Saudis in this conflict came at the request of the legitimate Government of Yemen and has UN Security Council backing. That is why we support it. This is a conflict supported by the UN Security Council, and I would hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have some respect for the Security Council.

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Q14. This Government’s ambition to build more homes is welcome, especially among those struggling to get on the housing ladder, and Taunton Deane is playing its part. With its garden town status, we must have homes that are good places to live—energy-efficient, sustainable drainage, green spaces, and maybe even, Mr Speaker, where there are showers, no shower gels with microbeads. However, we must also have the right roads in these developments. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the housing infrastructure fund is key to unlocking funds for vital roads such as the spine road through Staplegrove in Taunton? [902646]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know what a stout champion she is of the people of Taunton Deane. She is right about the housing infrastructure fund as well. We need more homes, but we also need the infrastructure to back them up, and that is why the Chancellor doubled the housing infrastructure fund in the Budget.

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Q2. As the First Secretary of State will know, being my near neighbour in Kent, as a result of underfunding the Conservative county council has run out of cash and is cutting the funding of buses in Kent by 70%. Four hospital buses, 14 school buses and over 100 other routes are to be cut. Thousands of pensioners, especially in rural areas, are to be trapped at home. Does the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for Ashford, really support such cuts? [902633]

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I do not recognise the characterisation of Kent County Council’s position that my constituency neighbour has expressed. All local authorities, as all parts of the public sector, have to live within their means, because we have to continue paying down the deficit run up by the previous Labour Government. Kent County Council is an extremely good county council that does many good things in transport and other fields for the people of Kent, and will continue to do so.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that, for decades now, the richer member states in the European Union have made large contributions to the EU budget because the macroeconomic benefits of belonging to the large free trade area of the single market make it a bargain to pay that share of the costs? Should we not therefore welcome the rumours in today’s press of a possible imminent settlement of the method of calculating future contributions, which may now enable us to get on with the serious negotiations about how we retain the maximum future access to all those benefits of that free trade?

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My right hon. and learned Friend has been around long enough to know not necessarily to believe everything he reads in the newspapers, and it would clearly be wrong for me to go into figures now, but he is absolutely right that what we are about, and what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is about, is making sure we get the best possible deal at this stage of the process, so we can move on to the trade talks. Britain, as a country that meets its international obligations, of course will, as it exits the EU, meet the obligations and have all the rights that we have in that process, so that we can maintain a deep and special partnership with the other 27 members of the EU, as we move forward in friendship and co-operation after we have left the EU.

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Q3. Being believed, reliving trauma, fear of publicity, and a culture of denial are some of the reasons why very many women are reluctant to report rape, assault and sexual harassment. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Government and Parliament need to lead by example? Will he, on behalf of the Government, apologise to the victims that Parliament and the Government have been letting down? [902634]

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I absolutely agree that this place as an institution and all the political parties need to improve complaints procedures and other aspects of the culture of politics to ensure that young men and young women who are interested in politics do not in any way feel deterred from playing an active role in it. There is a place for everyone in this House, on all sides and in all parties, and among the House authorities, to ensure that this is the best possible working environment for young people to come into.

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Many mothers in this Chamber know how hard childbirth can be, but we would never use that knowledge in a veiled threat against a journalist, in the way that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) did when being questioned by a Channel 4 journalist recently. As I assume that the First Secretary is not pregnant, will he please complete the work that that journalist tried to do, by asking the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn to use her influence with her aunt, who is the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, whose regime is responsible for the kidnapping of Ahmad Bin Quasem, to ask for his release?

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rose—

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Order. Before the First Secretary replies, I am sure that the—[Interruption.] Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) notified the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) of an intention to refer to her in this question—

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indicated dissent.

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She did not? Well, that was disorderly—[Interruption.] Order. Nevertheless, the question has been asked and it would be perfectly proper for the First Secretary briefly to reply.

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Mr Speaker, you and the House will be aware that I can speak only on behalf of the Government. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) that Bangladesh remains an important human rights priority area for the Foreign Office and that we continue to raise allegations of enforced disappearances at all levels of the Government of Bangladesh. I think I should stop there.

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Q4. At the present rate of progress, it will take the three officials at the First Secretary’s old Department more than 70 years to investigate the claims of around 4,500 WASPI women who are being deprived of their state pension. I know that this Government are slow, but is this not adding insult to injury? [902635]

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government committed a sum of more than £1 billion to ensure that no one’s pension would be delayed more than 18 months from the original period. I am sure that he also, as a reasonable man, recognises that, with increasing longevity, it is inevitable that the pension age will rise. That is what this Government are doing, and by next year pension inequality will have been removed. We will hit 65 for both sexes next year, and that means that we will then have an equal pension system.

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The Royal Air Force is unique among the three services in having been established by an Act of Parliament, which received Royal Assent 100 years ago today. Will my right hon. Friend find time in his busy diary to join me and Members of both Houses and staff from throughout the Palace in celebrating the magnificent service that the RAF has given to this nation over that 100 years, at a unique parade in the atrium of Portcullis House at 7.30 this evening by the Queen’s Colour Squadron?

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I have already mentioned the centenary today, and my hon. Friend is right to bring it up again. We cannot pay high enough tribute to the men and women of the RAF for a century of service that will go on for a long time into the future as well. I am glad that he has managed to get an advert in for the parade this evening in Portcullis House.

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Q6. The United Kingdom has lost its seat on the International Court of Justice, EU agencies are pulling out of London, and there will be no more European capitals of culture in the UK. Is the sun setting on empire 2.0 before it has even begun? [902638]

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It is not really surprising that EU institutions are not going to be in a state that is not a member of the EU. That cannot come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman. As for the capitals of culture, I rather agree with him. After British cities, including some in Scotland, were invited to be part of the process, it is extremely disappointing that the Commission has decided that they cannot apply. We are in urgent talks with the Commission about that, and we are ensuring that all the cities that applied can continue with their cultural development, which has been shown to be an extremely good basis for the regeneration of cities and towns across the United Kingdom.

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This Saturday, I will be announcing the winners of my annual local shop competition as part of Small Business Saturday. Will my right hon. Friend wish all Cannock Chase retailers the best of luck and will he congratulate the winners?

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I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating her retailers. Like many Members, I will be celebrating Small Business Saturday this weekend. It has become an extremely important part of the calendar. Supporting small business is absolutely at the heart of this Government’s economic strategy, and we should take every opportunity to celebrate the hugely important work that small businesses do in innovation, in entrepreneurship and in serving the people.

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Q7. Today, we see shocking new figures that child knife deaths are nearing a 40-year high. The Prime Minister promised action five months ago, but she has failed to deliver. There was nothing in the Budget for policing and nothing meaningful to tackle the causes as well as the crime. It is clear that we need intervention now and not just from the Home Office. Funding youth workers in major trauma centres is proven to get young people out of the cycle of violence, and it would cost £6 million a year to fund. Will the First Secretary establish a cross-Government programme of action to make good on the Prime Minister’s promise? [902639]

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I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that this Government’s stance on knife crime is actually tougher than ever. We have made the punishment for repeat offenders stronger, and we have banned cautions for the most serious offences. There is now a very clear message: if you carry knives in public, you are more likely than ever to go to prison. The latest figures show that 42% of adult offenders were given an immediate custodial sentence—the highest rate in nearly a decade—so I hope that she can be reassured that this Government are actually being tougher on knife crime than any previous Government.

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Does the First Secretary agree that we do not need to break into the computer or iPad of the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) to work out that the half a trillion pounds that he wants to borrow will attract £7.5 billion of interest payments every year?

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Order. The one difficulty with that otherwise ingenious question is that it bears no relation to Government policy, for which the First Secretary is responsible, and relates instead to the policies of the shadow Chancellor, for which he is not.

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Q8. Sharon Jones is a constituent who had a malignant brain tumour removed some 20 years ago, leaving her with excruciating headaches and severe pain in her neck and shoulders. Sharon has been in receipt of employment and support allowance, and the Department for Work and Pensions accepts that Sharon is not fit for work. However, she has now been placed in the work-related activity group and her benefit has been reduced. Will the First Secretary justify that to Sharon? [902640]

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Obviously, I cannot be aware of the individual issues in that case, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be happy to consider that case to see whether something needs to be done for Sharon.

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I very much welcome the announcement of the borderlands growth deal, which is positive news for the border area. Can the First Secretary assure me that this initiative will receive sufficient resource to ensure its success?

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I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for the borderlands growth initiative. I have seen the many benefits of city deals and growth deals around all parts of the United Kingdom since I became First Secretary. The borderlands growth initiative is particularly important because it will show the mutual prosperity of his part of the north of England and the southern part of Scotland. All I can say is that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is the MP for a constituency in the southern part of Scotland, I know this deal will get particularly strict attention inside the Cabinet.

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Q9. Does the First Secretary agree with the Lord Speaker’s committee that the House of Lords should be reduced to 600 and that the term should be limited to 15 years? Does he not feel the slightest sense of embarrassment that the crisis of credibility in the undemocratic upper Chamber has become so acute that its Members are themselves begging for reform while the elected Government refuse to act? [902641]

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When the hon. Gentleman says that all Members of the House of Lords are begging for reform, he may not necessarily be representing the entire range of views in another place, but I am happy to assure him that the Government are looking very carefully at the proposal of the Burns committee. We will, of course, respond in due course.

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Can my right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour say what action the Government propose to take against Russian-backed agencies that are spreading fake news and disinformation? We know they have been doing it in our political campaigns, but there are also worrying reports that disinformation may be being spread on important issues such as accessing vaccines and the flu jab.

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My hon. Friend is right to raise cyber-security, which is an extremely important issue, and fake news and the dissemination of potentially dangerous information is one part of that. The National Cyber Security Centre is looking very hard at the issue, and it is taking a number of measures to combat it, some of which obviously have to remain private. I absolutely assure him that the issue is very high on the agenda of the National Cyber Security Centre, which is just over a year old and which is doing very good work in ensuring that the whole area of cyber-security is much better than it used to be.

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Q10. An 11-year-old primary school pupil approached me to tell me that he, his mother and his two brothers live in a single room in a bedsit in Ilford and to ask whether I could find him a council flat like the one in which I grew up. What is heartbreaking is that I know, and the First Secretary will know, it is very unlikely he will ever have one. Given that the measures announced in last week’s so-called housing Budget will not solve the scale of the problem that sees more than 100,000 children living in temporary accommodation, what will the First Secretary do to make sure that that boy, his family and every other child living in a bedsit or in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation gets the decent home they need and that they can call their own? [902642]

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I absolutely agree that this is a serious problem, and it is one of the reasons why housing was at the centre of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s Budget.

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What are you doing, then?

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I see the right hon. Lady has recovered her voice. I will tell her what we are doing. Last year we delivered more homes than were delivered in all but one of the last 30 years—217,000, which takes us to 1.1 million since 2010. Over the next five years we will invest £44 billion in home building, boosting the funding for council, social and low-cost housing to over £9 billion. We are building more social housing than the Labour Government did in their 13 years in office. We will build even more in the future. This is a Government who are addressing the problems of the constituents of the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting); previous Labour Governments signally failed to do so.

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At the recent extremely successful Cheltenham literature festival, Hillary Clinton talked about the importance of ensuring that the Russians are not allowed to meddle in British or, indeed, American elections. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should be building an offensive cyber capability so that our opponents know we have the will and the wherewithal to strike back?

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My hon. Friend is exactly right, as we would expect, given that he is the Member of Parliament who represents GCHQ; he is absolutely right about the offensive capacity we may well need in the cyber area, and I am happy to assure him and the House that we are indeed developing that.

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Q12. Without mentioning the new state pension or apprenticeships, without stating the falsehood that the Scottish Government can somehow fix the problem, and given that the Prime Minister is a WASPI woman herself, how can the First Minister justify a rise of 413% in the number of women over the age of 60 in receipt of employment and support allowance because of this Government’s refusal to give them their pensions? [902644]

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I said this in reply to a previous question on this subject, but I hope the hon. Lady would recognise the principle, which is right: that as we live longer we need to move up the pension age. She knows as well as I do that the Scottish Government do have the capacity to top up welfare payments. Scottish National party Members like to sit here and deny that, but in Holyrood they know they could do this. So, as ever with the SNP, they should stop simply moaning in this Chamber; they should go back to their own Government in Scotland and say that if they want to do something, they should do it. They should get on with the day job of running Scotland.

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I very much welcome the Government’s modern industrial strategy, which was launched this week. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is really going to be important, as this country moves forward and we seek a global Britain, in creating more and better-quality jobs?

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My hon. Friend is exactly right; the point about the industrial strategy, which is a hugely important moment, is to create not just a stronger economy but a fairer economy for decades to come. That is why it is looking forward to 2030; it is a long-term attempt to make sure that we have not just a global, outward looking economy—I completely agree on that—but a modern economy where we can capitalise on our huge research strengths and our huge intellectual strengths to make sure that, unlike so often in the past, we benefit commercially from that for decades to come. That is the route to rising productivity and rising prosperity.

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Q13. This Sunday, 3 December, is the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. So far, the Government have refused to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of their social security policies on people living with a disability. Will the First Secretary now mark this day by doing the right thing for disabled people and carrying out a full cumulative impact assessment? [902645]

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I am sure the hon. Lady, who has great expertise in this field, will know that this Government are spending £90 billion on disability benefits. More to the point, we are being more successful than ever before in giving disabled people a degree of independence. Hundreds of thousands more disabled people are in work than have ever been before. We have a plan to have an extra million in work over the next 10 years. That is an extremely important and practical way to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people. That is what this Government are doing, and that is what we will continue to do.

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Given that President Rouhani of Iran has said that his will not be the first country to breach the joint comprehensive plan of action, will the First Secretary assure us that British diplomats are working hard in Washington DC to persuade our American friends that it is in the interests of the west and of Iran to uphold the JCPOA as an essential prelude to solving other regional problems?

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My hon. Friend is right; we think that the JCPOA is a very important part of attempting to improve conditions, not just between Iran and its neighbours but across the wider middle east. We will continue to argue that case in all parts of the world.

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I, too, join in offering congratulations to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their engagement. One issue that Prince Harry has rightly highlighted and campaigned on is mental health. The Invest in Life campaign in Northern Ireland is doing a fantastic job in highlighting the need for extra resources on that issue. We join in that campaign and have secured extra resources. But at a time when issues such as mental health, education and all the rest of it need to be prioritised in Northern Ireland by a locally devolved Government working on these issues and representing the people of Northern Ireland, does the First Secretary agree that it is a gross dereliction of responsibility for Sinn Féin to announce this week that it is not going to engage in further discussions on the restoration of devolution? If that is the case, we now need to move quickly to restore accountability and Ministers to Northern Ireland to get on with the people’s business of responsible government in Northern Ireland.

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The right hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working as hard as possible to restore democratic control and to restore the Northern Ireland Executive. We all want to see proper devolved government restored in Northern Ireland. That would be by far the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland, and the Government will continue to work tirelessly to that end.