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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.]
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
Order. I am entirely innocent in this matter.
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.]
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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—
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What are you doing, then?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.