The Secretary of State was asked—
The threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism continues to be severe within Northern Ireland, meaning an attack is highly likely. This Government will always give the fullest possible support to the brave men and women of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and MI5. We remain fully committed to keeping people safe and secure, and to ensuring that terrorism never succeeds.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although much of our time and focus are spent on international terrorism threats, it is vital that we do not lose sight of the very real and continuing threat from dissidents in Northern Ireland? In that context, will he commend the ongoing work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in disrupting their activities?
I absolutely will. There have been five confirmed national security attacks so far in 2017, and a small number of dissident republican terrorist groupings continue their campaign of violence. The threat is suppressed by the brave efforts of the PSNI and others, and by the strategic approach that we pursue. The PSNI and others who work to keep people safe have our full support for the public service they give.
The Secretary of State will be aware that a significant proportion of the resources available to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to fight terrorism has to go towards investigating legacy cases. Will he give a commitment that any money used for legacy cases will be replaced to ensure that the PSNI has the resources it needs to combat the existing terrorist threat?
The right hon. Gentleman may know that we have committed specific funds—an extra £32 million a year over the five-year spending review period—to deal with Northern Ireland-related terrorism. His point about legacy is valid and important, which is why we both want to see the Stormont House bodies take forward a new approach to legacy. That is what I want to see in the new year.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the potential security implications of the Bombardier-Boeing dispute. In their telephone conversation yesterday, was the Prime Minister able to raise her concerns with the President directly?
There have been various discussions with the US and Canadian authorities, and with Bombardier itself, in relation to the continuing dispute. Obviously, we see this as unjustified and unwarranted. We await the latest determination, but we will continue to challenge this and to underline our key focus and endeavour on seeing that those important jobs in Belfast are protected.
The right hon. Gentleman, with his experience, will know about the cross-border work. I commend the work of the PSNI and the Garda Siochana in delivering security on the island of Ireland. Their very close co-operation points to a number of EU-related structures, which is why, knowing the significance and importance of deepening that relationship into the future, we want to see a new treaty established that is able to respond and address that co-operation.
Leaving the EU: Alignment
We have been clear that the UK as a whole will be leaving the customs union and single market. We want our future relationship with the EU to be a deep and special partnership that works for all parts of the UK, while recognising Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances.
As the joint report highlighted last week, there are three steps: reaching a free trade agreement; then providing responses that meet the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland; and, finally, the issue of alignment. We believe that it is possible and that we will address all these issues to ensure that we have not a hard border but a frictionless border that maximises the trading relationship without creating any new barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, where there is a reliance on trade, which is so important to the economy.
Has the Secretary of State’s office shown more diligence than the Department for Exiting the European Union in producing impact assessments on the effects to the Northern Ireland economy of all eventualities of leaving the European Union—and if not, why not?
I know this issue of impact assessments has been debated in this House previously. There are no formal impact assessments. Obviously, the Department for Exiting the European Union has provided detailed reports for the Select Committee, and it will be for the Committee to determine what happens with them. I can assure the hon. Gentleman of the joint working across government of assessing the implications and informing those negotiations, so that we get the right deal for Northern Ireland and for the UK as a whole.
Yes, trade—economic activity—between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is several times more than that in relation to Ireland. But the point is that we look to strengthen the whole economy. Indeed, as the UK leaves the European Union, we want to see the Irish economy equally having that access to Great Britain. A reliance is placed upon that. We want to succeed and prosper as we leave the European Union.
Is the Secretary of State not right to highlight that Northern Ireland’s rightful place is to make sure it is aligned with the rules of the rest of the UK, which is why Conservative Members had a clear manifesto commitment to do nothing to damage the single market of the United Kingdom?
As we prepare to exit the EU, it would be far better if the Northern Ireland Assembly were in place. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State comment on the report by Trevor Rainey on the pay of Members of the Legislative Assembly? Secondly, will the Secretary of State bear in mind that the same principles that apply to MLA pay should also apply to Members of Parliament who do not fulfil their functions in this place?
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we want to see the Executive restored, and we will be approaching this in earnest in the new year to seek to see that re-established. That matters on so many different levels. He highlights the issue raised in Trevor Rainey’s report. I commend Mr Rainey for providing the report and I will be considering the responses carefully.
As well as not having the Assembly, not having Executive Ministers in place is of course a major disadvantage to Northern Ireland. As the Secretary of State knows, if the Assembly were called tomorrow, the Democratic Unionist party would re-enter government, as would many of the other parties, apart from Sinn Féin. That is a dereliction of duty on its part, for which it has to answer. Does he accept that if we do not have an Executive up and running quickly, he will have to step in and provide Ministers from the Northern Ireland Office to direct Departments in the Province?
I know firmly that an increasing number of decisions need to be taken. That has been highlighted this week by the Northern Ireland civil service publishing a consultation on budgetary issues, showing some of the determinations that need to be made. I want to see Ministers and an Executive up and running as quickly as possible to do those things. Obviously, it needs to happen quickly, given the decisions that need to be taken.
If the Irish border deal means no regulatory divergence after Brexit, can the Secretary of State tell us where the regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU will be? Will it be in the Irish sea? Does this mean Northern Ireland is staying in the customs union and single market, or will the UK simply adhere to the rules of the customs union and single market after Brexit, without having any input into the rules?
I know the Prime Minister dealt with this in her statement on Monday, but let me say that we will be leaving the customs union and the single market. The hon. Lady talks about divergence, but actually the joint report talks about alignment, which is about pursuing the same objectives. That could be the same way, but it could be different. That is the whole point. It is about achieving those positive objectives, and that is what we will do.
As you know, Mr Speaker, agriculture is more important in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK, and Northern Ireland is more reliant on EU farm payments than any other part of the UK, so 30,000 Ulster farmers need certainty about what Brexit is going to mean for them. In her Florence speech, the Prime Minister reassured them that transition would occur under
“the existing structure of EU rules and regulations”—
including, I presume, the common agricultural policy—but on Monday she said the opposite. She said that on 29 March 2019, we will be leaving the common agricultural policy. Which one is right?
They are both right. We have said clearly that yes, we are leaving the common agricultural policy, but we have also said that we will maintain payments in relation to those arrangements through to 2020. Indeed, if the hon. Gentleman wants to look back at what the Prime Minister said about maintaining the same arrangements during the implementation period, that will answer his question.
That cannot be correct. It cannot be right both that we will be under exactly the same EU rules and regulations, which is what the Prime Minister said in Florence, and that we will be leaving the common agricultural policy. If it is true that we are leaving the common agricultural policy, those 30,000 Ulster farmers and their families need to know how they are going to pay their mortgages and meet their other commitments in just 15 months’ time. This is a complete shambles. The Prime Minister is going to be here in a minute—can the Secretary of State tell her to sort this out?
The only shambles is the Opposition’s approach to Brexit. At this time of the year, many people will mark the 12 days of Christmas; we have had at least 12 different approaches to Brexit from Labour. Yes, we will be leaving the common agricultural policy, as the Prime Minister said on Monday, but she also underlined clearly our commitment in respect of those direct payments and, as I say, the transition and the need to provide certainty. The hon. Gentleman’s scaremongering does nothing to add to this—
Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013
My position on this issue is clear: I voted in support of same-sex marriage in England and Wales and, like the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, I hope that this can be extended to Northern Ireland in future. I believe marriage should be a common right across the UK. However, the fundamental position remains that same-sex marriage is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland.
If my husband and I stick to our plans to retire one day to his home town in Northern Ireland, upon my death, my better half would lose a husband in every sense of the word. The registry confirms that no reference to the marriage will be included on any certificate issued and my husband would be recorded simply as a surviving civil partner—years of marriage wiped out by the stroke of a pen. Does the Minister agree that, if the Democratic Unionist party is so keen on having no regulatory divergence from the UK, this is a good place to start?
I very much sympathise with this issue and share the frustration encapsulated in the letter to which the hon. Gentleman refers. However, this is not the time to be unpicking the devolution settlement on this issue. It is, rightly, an issue for a future Executive to return to and look at. We hope that the Executive can be brought back to do that and deal with many other important issues.
I would welcome assurances from the Minister that she and the Secretary of State have already met the leaders of the four main Churches in Northern Ireland to discuss the sensitive issue of the recognition of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. That assurance would be very helpful.
Leaving the EU: Border Discussions
We speak regularly with counterparts in the Irish Government on a range of issues. As the Prime Minister has said, we will maintain the common travel area, there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and no new borders within the United Kingdom.
I am grateful both to the Secretary of State and to the Minister for making it very clear that there will be no hard borders within the island of Ireland and no hard borders between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Will she make it very clear that a hard Brexit for the United Kingdom would be incompatible with the statement that she has just made? It is important that we have that clarity.
Is it not the case that there already are different tariffs, for example, on petrol and diesel, and yet there is an open border? Surely the best way to ensure that there is an open border is to have a comprehensive free trade agreement with the rest of the European Union.
Quite right. My hon. Friend is correct on two counts. The first is that, of course, there is already co-operation across the border. He mentions the way that we need to be able to deal with fuel, for example, on the two sides of the border. He is also absolutely correct that what we want is a free trade agreement—a comprehensive deal—which is laid out in the agreement that the Prime Minister brought back from Brussels. That is the work ahead.
Minister, in recent comments, the Irish Prime Minister, Mr Varadkar, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Coveney, have indicated that they will draw a border down the middle of the Irish sea. May I say that those sorts of comments do not give much confidence back to the people of Northern Ireland and the Unionist community that I represent, who want to be an integral part of the United Kingdom?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we in this House want to see no new borders inside the United Kingdom. We think that the Union is a precious thing that must be preserved. I will also just note, as I did to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), that the relationship that we have with the Irish Government and that we want to continue to have with them should be one of close partners. We should work together to ensure the prosperity of the people in Northern Ireland, and I shall leave it to the Irish Government to continue to hold that strong relationship with us.
Given that the vast majority of trade goes from the Republic to the north in terms of coming to the UK, can my hon. Friend confirm that we will have no need for a hard border and that the only prospect of a hard border is if the EU sets one up in southern Ireland?
Leaving the EU: Free Trade Agreement
As the Prime Minister has made clear, we are seeking a bold and ambitious free trade agreement that is of greater scope and ambition than any existing agreement. We are determined to reach a deal that works for the people of Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole.
At the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this morning, the Environment Secretary made it clear that the plus-plus-plus in a Canada-plus-plus-plus agreement ought to include agri-foods, which is obviously really important to Northern Ireland. What steps is the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland taking to try to ensure that that is included in any future deal?
In assessing the evidence around a potential trade deal of this nature, did the Secretary of State conclude, as I have, that for decades we have successfully operated the common travel area between ourselves and Ireland and we will be able to do so under a similar deal, and that any hard border in Ireland will be the responsibility of Dublin and Brussels, not London and Belfast?
On the Canada-EU trade deal, Bombardier in my constituency is a company that greatly benefits from that trading relationship. Will the Secretary of State not only continue his support for Bombardier, but ensure that any future trade agreements do nothing that will injure such an important part of our local economy?
This Government are committed to building an economy that is fit for the future right across the United Kingdom. That is clear from our industrial strategy and from the benefits for Northern Ireland in the Chancellor’s Budget. Ultimately, though, the key requirement for stronger growth is political stability, and I return to the theme that we should see devolution restored.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the recent labour figures for Northern Ireland showing 3.9% unemployment, which is down from over 7% in 2010? Does she agree that yesterday’s CBI study, which exemplifies the fact that this country is ready to grow and provide jobs, is a testament to Northern Ireland businesses growing a strong economy?
I join my hon. Friend in remarking on the important figures. The unemployment rate in Northern Ireland is now down to 3.9% from over 7% in early 2010. Indeed, it is lower than the rate for the UK as a whole. That is, indeed, thanks to many businesses in Northern Ireland creating jobs, but it is also down to a Government who take a balanced approach to public spending, unlike the Labour party, and we wish to see more of that.
A strong economy requires stable politics. Does the Minister agree with this week’s editorial in the News Letter—Britain’s oldest running newspaper—which states categorically that Her Majesty’s Government need to “slap down” Mr Coveney, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, because the comments he is making are destabilising the economy of Northern Ireland?
The simplest thing to say is that we stand fully behind the Belfast agreement. We do have a strong relationship with the Irish Government that we wish to continue. My hon. Friend is right that political stability is required for a strong economy. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), the Government are committed to building an economy that works for everyone. We would like to see a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland who are able to do the same.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker.
Well, this is all very well, but the Secretary of State referred to yesterday’s statement by the Northern Ireland civil service that is casting a dark pall over Northern Ireland. Will the Minister take this opportunity to say that, when the Government suggest ways of balancing the books by February, they will rule out scrapping the free bus pass, scrapping education maintenance allowance or even—heaven forfend—reintroducing prescription charges?
There are indeed important challenges to be faced in order to secure sustainable finances in Northern Ireland for the long term. Tackling those challenges requires political decisions, which is why we should all wish to see a restored Administration in Stormont.
Leaving the EU: Customs Officers
Customs is a matter for phase 2 of the withdrawal negotiations with the EU. The Government are committed to ensuring that the border remains open with no physical infrastructure, as set out in the joint report agreed with the EU on 8 December.
When even the Government accept that their proposals for a frictionless border are untested and go beyond existing precedents, we can see why businesses read that as undeliverable, unless ongoing membership of the single market and customs union are involved. Given that the Minister insists that such membership is not necessary, will he tell us what progress has been made in exploring and designing alternative solutions?
The joint report highlights the progress that has been made. It sets out the framework that will take us into phase 2, with customs and other arrangements to ensure that there is no physical infrastructure on the border and to see that open trading relationship.
The Exiting the European Union Committee visited Northern Ireland a few weeks ago, and everyone we spoke to was very anxious to press on us the fact that any change at all to the status of the Irish border would be seen as a backward step. Does the Secretary of State agree that the reddest of all red lines in the Brexit negotiations must be the maintenance of the integrity of the Good Friday agreement and the peace process that depends on it?
I have no current plans to propose any changes to the devolution settlement. This would be matter for discussion between the main Northern Ireland parties and the UK Government in accordance with the Belfast agreement.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but given that the failing of the Executive and the Assembly to exist is detrimental to Northern Ireland, and given that it is only one party in Northern Ireland that is refusing to allow them to function, is it not time to look at the Belfast agreement to see whether we can evolve it so that, in future, the Assembly and the Executive will continue to serve the people of Northern Ireland? [Interruption.]
I agree with my hon. Friend in terms of the need to see devolved government restored. That is where the focus needs to remain and it is why the Government will be doing all that we can, and reinjecting further momentum into the process, so that we see that Executive re-established and devolved government functioning for all the people of Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister was asked—
May I start by wishing all Members and staff a merry Christmas and a happy new year? I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in sending our warmest Christmas messages and wishes to all our armed forces who are stationed overseas. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for the sacrifices that they make on our behalf.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
In 2009, the Prime Minister said it was
“a tragedy that the number of children falling into the poverty cycle”
was “continuing to rise.” Every child deserves to have a roof over their head and food on the table, yet on her watch, in Wandsworth alone, the number of families forced to survive on food banks is continuing to rise, and 2,500 children—yes, children—will wake up homeless on Christmas day. So my question is simple: when will this austerity-driven Government say enough is enough and put an end to this tragedy?
The hon. Lady should note that, in fact, this Government have lifted hundreds of thousands of children out of absolute poverty. But it is important for all those who have heard her question to be aware of this: she talks of 2,500 children in Wandsworth waking up homeless on Christmas day; anybody hearing that will assume that what that means is that 2,500 children will be sleeping on our streets. It does not. [Interruption.] It does not mean that. [Interruption.]
It is important that we are clear about this for all those who hear these questions because, as we all know, families with children who are accepted as homeless will be provided with accommodation. I would also point out to Opposition Members that statutory homelessness is lower now than it was for most of the period of the last Labour Government.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue on behalf of his constituents. As he will know, a local authority may alter a green belt boundary only in exceptional circumstances. In our housing White Paper, we were very clear that this means
“when they…have examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting…identified development”
needs. Of course, that includes looking at and building on brownfield sites. In the case of Guildford, I understand that the local plan was submitted for examination earlier this month, and of course it will be examined by an independent inspector for soundness in due course. I can assure my hon. Friend that he is absolutely right that we want to ensure that green belt is protected.
Could I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, to wish you, all Members of the House, all our public servants and all our armed forces a very happy Christmas and all best wishes for 2018?
I pay tribute to our very hard-working national health service staff, many of whom, unlike us, will not get a break this Christmas. Is the Prime Minister satisfied that the national health service has the resources it needs this winter?
First of all, I join the right hon. Gentleman in his comments about those NHS staff who will not get a break a Christmas and will be working very hard. Of course, it is not only our NHS staff who will be working hard this Christmas; it is also those in our emergency services and many others who go to work on Christmas day so that others can enjoy their Christmas day. We thank all of them.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about preparations for winter. I can say this to him:
“The health service has prepared more extensively for this winter than ever before. These plans are helping to ensure safe, timely care for patients”.
As it happens, those are not my words—they are the words of the chief executive of NHS Providers.
Well, Simon Stevens did say that the NHS needs £4 billion next year just to stand still, and the reality is that the Government have given the NHS less than half of what he asked for.
The Prime Minister talks about the money that the NHS needs, but 50,000 people were left waiting on trolleys in hospital corridors last month. Last week, more ambulances were diverted to other hospitals because of A&E pressures, and 12,000 patients were kept waiting in the back of ambulances because there was no room at the A&E. So I ask the Prime Minister again: has the NHS got the resources it needs this winter to deal with this crisis?
The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that NHS funding is at record levels, and in the autumn Budget we put some extra funding into the NHS for this winter, in addition to the £6.3 billion extra that is going into the NHS over the coming years.
Time and time again, the right hon. Gentleman comes to this House and complains about what is happening in the health service. Can I just tell the House what is happening in the health service? We see now 7 million more diagnostic tests than seven years ago, 2.2 million more people getting operations, and survival rates for cancer at their highest ever level. Those are figures, but what does that mean? It means more people getting the treatment they need. It means more elderly people getting their hip operations. And it means that today there are nearly 6,500 people alive who would not have been if we had not improved our cancer care.
In the first three weeks of this winter, 30,000 patients were left waiting in the back of ambulances for more than half an hour. These delays risk lives. If the NHS had the resources it needed, we would expect it to be meeting its key treatment and waiting time targets. Can the Prime Minister give us a cast-iron pledge that all those targets will be met in 2018?
In 2018, we are looking, yes, to improve the standard of care that we provide in our health service, and to ensure that we improve on the figures that I have just given the right hon. Gentleman so that more people are treated in our health service and we have better survival rates for cancer. That is why we have been putting the extra money into the national health service. But it is not just about putting extra money into the national health service; it is about the proper integration of health and social care at grassroots level. That is what the sustainability and transformation partnerships in many areas are about—opposed by the Labour party. That is why we have lifted the cap so that there are more nurse training places—opposed by the Labour party. It is about ensuring that our NHS has the staff and the capability to deliver the first-class, world-class service that is our NHS. We should be proud of our NHS. We are, and we are going to make it even better.
A&E waiting time targets have not been met for two and a half years. Cancer treatment targets have not been met for two years. Our A&E departments are bursting at the seams because the Government have failed to ensure that people can get a GP appointment when they need one. The Government promised to recruit an extra 5,000 GPs by 2020. Where are they?
We are seeing more training places for our GPs. The right hon. Gentleman talks about A&E, and if he wants to look at targets, let us talk about what has happened in Wales. The standard on A&E in Wales was last met in 2008. Let me just think: which party is in government in Wales? Is it the Conservatives? No, it is the Labour party. On cancer care, the standard was last met in June 2008 in Wales. The right hon. Gentleman should look at what the Labour party is actually delivering before he comes to this House and complains.
The Welsh Government rely on a block grant from England that has been cut by 5% to 2020. Despite that, 85.5% of cancer patients in Wales start their treatment within 62 days, which is a rate higher than that achieved in England.
My question was about GPs. Perhaps the Prime Minister is not aware that there are 1,000 fewer GPs than there were on the day she became Prime Minister. It is not only the lack of GPs; another issue that is driving people into A&Es is the £6 billion of cuts made to social care budgets. Some 2.3 million older people have unmet care needs. Does the Prime Minister regret the fact that the Chancellor—he is sitting right next to her—did not put one penny in his Budget into social care?
We put £2 billion of extra money into social care in the spring Budget. The right hon. Gentleman started his question by referencing the record of the last Labour Government on health. The last Labour Government’s NHS legacy was described as a “mess”, and we are clearing that up and putting more money into the NHS. Who described Labour’s NHS legacy as a “mess”? It was the right hon. Gentleman. When he is running for leader, he denounces the Labour party, but now he is leader of the Labour party he is trying to praise it.
I can quote something the Prime Minister might be familiar with:
“If government wants to reduce the pressures on the health service and keep people out of hospital in the first place, then it needs to tackle the chronic underfunding of care and support services in the community, which are at a tipping point.”
Who said that? Izzi Seccombe, the Conservative leader of Warwickshire County Council.
The question was on social care, but the issue is about the NHS as a whole. It is there to provide care and dignity for all if they fall ill, but our NHS goes into this winter in crisis: nurses and other workers—no pay rise for years; NHS targets—not met for years; staff shortages; and GP numbers falling. The reality is mental health budgets have been cut, social care budgets have been cut and public health budgets have been cut. The Prime Minister today has shown just how out of touch she is. The truth is our NHS is being recklessly—I repeat, recklessly—put at risk by her Government. That is the truth.
The right hon. Gentleman is wrong because NHS funding has gone up. He is wrong because social care funding has gone up. But not that long ago, he was saying that he would be Prime Minister by Christmas. Well, he was wrong; I am, and the Conservatives are in government. Not that long ago, he said we would not deliver on phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations. Well, he was wrong; we have made sufficient progress and we are moving on to phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations. And not that long ago, he predicted that the Budget would be a failure; in fact, the Budget was a success, and it is delivering more money for our national health service. Labour—wrong, wrong, wrong; Conservatives—in government, delivering on Brexit, with a Budget for homes and the health service: Conservatives delivering a Britain fit for the future.
I am very pleased to welcome the development that is taking place in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, and I am also pleased to agree with him—I know he believes very strongly in this—on the importance of skills and training for the future; and that is a good commitment of this Government. It is more important than ever that people in this country are developing the skills they need to get the highly skilled, well-paid jobs of the future. That is what we are doing with our money going into technical education, and the college in his constituency will play an important part in that.
May I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, all Members, staff and of course our armed forces and emergency personnel a merry Christmas and a good new year when it comes? We also, I am sure, wish for a peaceful election tomorrow in Catalonia.
In 2013, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, when reflecting on his position in representing the majority interest in the Royal Bank of Scotland on the departure of its then chief executive, said that
“of course my consent and approval was sought.”
Was the Government right to intervene in the departure of the chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland?
Obviously, decisions have been taken in the past in relation to Royal Bank of Scotland; the key decision was taken at the time of the financial crisis in relation to the support that the Government provided to Royal Bank of Scotland. If the right hon. Gentleman is going to raise branch closures, as he did last week, I am afraid I have to tell him that he will get the same answer as he got last week. This is a commercial decision for Royal Bank of Scotland, but the Government do ensure, through the protocol that is in place and the work that has been done with the Post Office to provide extra services, that services are available for people.
It is supposed to be Prime Minister’s questions; the Prime Minister is supposed to at least try to answer the question. If it was right in 2013 for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to intervene on the departure of the chief executive officer, then of course it is quite right that the Government shoulder their responsibilities when the last 13 branches in town are going to be closed in Scotland. Prime Minister, show some leadership: stand up for our communities. Bring Ross McEwan into 10 Downing Street and tell him that you are going to stand up for the national interest and stop these bank closures.
The decision on individual bank branches is, of course, an operational decision for the bank. The right hon. Gentleman talks about standing up for communities and standing up for people across Scotland. I have to say to him, that is a bit rich, coming from an SNP which, in government in Scotland, is going to increase taxes for 1.2 million Scots. The Conservative Government are reducing tax for 2.4 million Scots. There is only one clear message to people in Scotland: “Conservatives back you; SNP tax you.” [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker, I join you in congratulating my hon. Friends on their forthcoming wedding, which unfortunately, because of my travels, I will not be able to attend. I wish them all the very best.
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, and I absolutely agree with him that defence is the first duty of the Government. That is why we are committed to our NATO pledge to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence every year. We have a £36 billion defence budget, which will rise to almost £40 billion by 2020-21, and we are spending £178 billion on equipment over the next 10 years. He is absolutely right: a party like the one opposite, which wants to get rid of our nuclear deterrent, cut our armed forces and pull out of NATO, would not strengthen our defences; it would weaken them.
We and the EU have been clear that Gibraltar is covered by the withdrawal agreement and our article 50 exit negotiations. Just to confirm what I said on Monday, as we negotiate this, we will be negotiating to ensure the relationships are there for Gibraltar as well. We are not going to exclude Gibraltar from our negotiations for either the implementation period or the future agreement. I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance.
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in commending the work of our dairy farmers. He talks about the importance of dairy. He is, rightly, a great advocate for rural issues. It is one of the most efficient, innovative and high-quality dairy industries in the EU. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary will be very happy to discuss the particular points he raises, but I join him in recognising the importance of our dairy industry.
First, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Home Office recently published the Government’s updated drugs strategy. I have a different opinion to some Members of this House. Some are very liberal in their approach to the way that drugs should be treated. I am very clear that we should recognise the damage that drugs do to people’s lives. Our aim should be to ensure that people come off drugs, do not go on drugs in the first place and keep clear of drugs. That is what we should focus on.
I was very happy to meet my hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members to discuss these important issues that have a real impact on women’s lives. Women want answers to what has happened, and I can assure her that the Government and I will continue to listen on these issues. We will continue to look to see what we can do to ensure that women do not suffer in the way that they have in the past. We will keep that clear focus on women’s health.
On Thursday last week, there was a very important local referendum in Christchurch. The result was that 84% of the people of Christchurch want to keep it as an independent sovereign borough and are against its abolition. [Interruption.]
As an hon. Friend says from a sedentary position, other councils in the area support a change to the governance structure. Of course, DCLG will be looking very carefully at the views of the councils to ensure that the best result is achieved for the people of Dorset.
We in North West Durham have some of the very best schools, but whatever the new funding formula, they are dealing with deficits after years of real-terms cuts and feeling the corrosive effect of academisation. On collaboration, school staff are working for longer for less pay. Please, Prime Minister, do not say there is more money in our schools. The fact remains that a significant proportion of schools in North West Durham will see totally unjust reductions in their funding. We have run out of ways to meet the Government’s cuts. Will she tell us what they should do next?
The hon. Lady asks me not to say that there is more money going into our schools, but of course there is more money going into our schools. That is the reality. The figures are that funding for our schools will rise by over £1.4 billion next year and almost £1.2 billion the year after, and we have protected the pupil premium, which is worth nearly £2.5 billion to support those who need it most. If we listen to the Labour party, education seems only to be about the amount of money put in, but actually parents are looking at the quality of education provided, and I notice that there is an increase of over 12,000 children in the County Durham local authority now in good or outstanding schools. That is because of this Government.
The year 2017 has been an excellent one for Fareham College: rated outstanding by Ofsted, shortlisted by The Times Educational Supplement for college of the year and successful in its bid to the local enterprise partnership to deliver its civil engineering provision. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing the principal and his staff a happy Christmas, congratulating them on supporting our young people into work and—because it is Christmas—creating a Britain fit for the future?
I am very happy not only to send Christmas wishes to the principal, staff and students at Fareham College, but to congratulate them on working hard to achieve such excellent results. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about ensuring that young people have the skills, training and education they need for the jobs of the future. It is about building a Britain fit for the future.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we have to deal with cases where somebody has a terminal illness with the utmost sensitivity. These issues have been raised before. The conditions and principles applied to terminally ill people claiming universal credit are in fact the same as those for people claiming employment and support allowance, and have remained the same for successive Governments. A number of approaches can be taken, and there are several options for how people progress through the system, but he is right that we should deal with terminally ill people with sensitivity. That is what the system intends to do.
This morning I met Liam Allan, the young student whose life was put on hold for two years and who had to endure torture until his case collapsed last week. This week another case collapsed because of a lack of disclosure. Does the Prime Minister agree that when allegations are made there should be a full investigation, and that full disclosure should be made to the Crown Prosecution Service and to both lawyers?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point. The issue of disclosure has come to a focus of concern as a result of the case that he has cited and, I understand, another case which is in the press today. I can tell him that, even before these cases arose, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General had initiated a review of disclosure. I think it important that we look at the issue again to ensure that we are truly providing justice.
The social mobility action plan
“will play an important role in enabling less advantaged young people to get on in life.”
That is not what I have said; it is what the Sutton Trust has said, and the Sutton Trust has a fine record in helping disadvantaged young people to get on in life. If the hon. Lady wants some more quotes, the Association of Colleges has said:
“The plan sets out an ambitious agenda to tackle longstanding and deep-seated inequalities which the education system struggles to overcome.”
It is a good plan, and it will make a real difference to young people’s lives.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. As I was saying, in the 1980s Mrs Thatcher famously asked why, if Vietnam was so wonderful, millions of people were getting into boats to leave it. With that in mind, may I ask my right hon. Friend, as she enters the second phase of the Brexit negotiations, “If World Trade Organisation rules are so wonderful, why do so many countries seek WTO trade agreements?”
Of course countries around the world can trade. The question is, on what terms are they trading? We want to see a free trade agreement negotiated with the European Union. We also want to see free trade agreements negotiated with countries around the rest of the world. We are believers in free trade, because we believe that it brings growth, prosperity, jobs and a secure future to this country.
May I wish you and everyone else a very happy Christmas, Mr Speaker?
Does not Michel Barnier’s claim that UK banks will lose their passporting rights post-Brexit—as opposed to the Bank of England’s statement that EU banks will be able to continue to operate here—vindicate my right hon. Friend’s principled and strong stance in negotiating reciprocity for EU and UK citizens?
We value the important role that the City of London plays, not just as a financial centre for Europe but as a financial centre for the world, and we want to retain and maintain that. Mr Barnier has made a number of comments recently about the opening negotiating position of the European Union. Both the Bank of England and the Treasury have today set out reassurance about ensuring that banks will be able to continue to operate and the City of London will continue to retain its global position. That will, however, be part of the negotiations on phase 2 of Brexit, and we are very clear about how important it is.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the work of Fortalice, which has provided domestic abuse support in Bolton for 40 years? Will she consider under the current reforms the benefits of a new funding structure for domestic abuse refuges separate from the supported housing sector, so that refuges can continue to deliver their specialist support?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the question of refuges, and I am also very happy to join him in praising the work of Fortalice and services like it across the country. He mentions the reforms that we are putting in place. Indeed, that is because we feel that at the moment the system is not responsive to the needs of vulnerable women in local areas. That is why we want to put the funding in the hands of local authorities, but bring in new oversight to make sure we are delivering the right support for the right people. It is trying to ensure that we are focusing the support on those who need it and that the system is more responsive to the needs of vulnerable women.
My understanding is that this issue is being properly looked into. Of course, I recognise the concerns that have been expressed by the hon. Gentleman, and indeed will have been expressed by other Members of this House, and the Government are looking into that.
Does the Prime Minister share my dismay that the Scottish National party Government are planning on raising taxes on hard-working Scots when they could raise the same amount, if not more, by just getting their own house in order and improving efficiencies?
What the Scottish Government are proposing means that there are 1.2 million Scots earning over £26,000 who will be paying more tax than people in England. [Interruption.] I was not aware of the fact that my hon. Friend has given this House, which is very important—[Interruption.]
I was making the point that my hon. Friend has made an important addition to the knowledge of this House, which is that if the SNP Government got their own house in order, they could save the same amount of money that they will be raising by raising taxes, and not put that extra tax burden on people earning over £26,000.
In light of the very loose, inaccurate and misrepresentative language coming from politicians outside Northern Ireland who should know better, will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to repeat to the House and the public in Northern Ireland—both sides of the community—the well established three-stranded approach to Northern Ireland, which makes it clear that the internal arrangements and decisions on Northern Ireland are a matter for the United Kingdom Government and the parties in Northern Ireland?
I am very happy to make that clear to the right hon. Gentleman, and to confirm what he says. We are very clear about the position and the decisions that will be taken about Northern Ireland. What we of course want to see is a Northern Ireland Executive restored so that devolved decisions can be taken by that Northern Ireland Executive. The right hon. Gentleman also wants to see that Executive restored, and we will continue to work with his party and other parties across all communities to see that happen.
As one of the signatories to amendment 400 to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, may I seek an assurance from the Prime Minister that its provisions to change the date of our leaving the EU will be invoked only in extremely exceptional circumstances, if at all, and only for a very short period?
I am happy to give my right hon. Friend and others that reassurance. We are very clear that we will be leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 at 11 pm. The Bill that is going through does not determine that the UK leaves the EU; that is part of the article 50 process and a matter of international law. It is important that we have the same position legally as the European Union, which is why we have accepted the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), but I can assure my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and the House the we would use that power only in exceptional circumstances for the shortest possible time, and that an affirmative motion would be brought to the House.
The Government, the Ministry of Justice, NHS England and the Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust should be thoroughly ashamed of their part in the national disgrace that is HMP Liverpool. Will the Prime Minister assure the whole House that those responsible for the deplorable conditions, for the lack of care and harm that has led to the suicide of some prisoners, and for the harm that has been caused to staff and prisoners will be held to account, that proper disciplinary action will be taken, and that they will not be allowed simply to move to other jobs? We need accountability for this tragedy.
As I understand it, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) said yesterday that he expects the report on HMP Liverpool to be published early in the new year. I understand that a number of actions have been taken, including changes to prison management. Overall, of course, we are increasing frontline staff in our prisons by putting more money into that, and we are increasing the support available to vulnerable offenders, especially during the first 24 hours of custody. We have also invested more in mental health awareness training for prison officers. But of course my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary will look carefully at the report when it is published.
And a merry Christmas to you as well, Mr Speaker.
The Prime Minister has just given an assurance that amendment 400 will be used only in extremis and for a very short period of time. May I press her to be more specific? Will she assure the House that if the power is used at all, it will be used only for a matter of weeks, or for a couple of months at most? There is a concern that it could indefinitely extend our stay in the EU.
I thank my hon. Friend for seeking further clarification on that point. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, we are going to leave on 29 March 2019. That is what we are working to, but we want to ensure that we have the same legal position as the European Union, which is why amendment 400, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, has been accepted. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay that, if that power were to be used, it would be only in extremely exceptional circumstances and for the shortest possible time. We are not talking about extensions—[Interruption.]
Order. We would hear better if the Prime Minister faced the House, but we would also hear better if Members did not keep wittering from a sedentary position. Let us have a new year’s resolution that there will be an end to sedentary chuntering, wittering and hollering.
Mr Speaker, I apologise for not facing the Opposition, but I was hoping to ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay heard my response. I can assure him that we are talking about the shortest possible time, should that power be used. I am clear that we are leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019.
Last Friday, Jo Cox’s sister Kim, the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) and I published the Jo Cox loneliness commission manifesto. Will the Prime Minister join us in urging everybody to look out over Christmas for neighbours, family and friends who are struggling with the pain of loneliness? Will the Government also play their part by publishing a strategy on loneliness and by responding fully to our recommendations in the new year?
I know that the hon. Lady has worked extremely hard on this important issue together with my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). We are getting more and more awareness of the impact of loneliness on people, and we all recognise that social isolation is an issue. The matter is of importance to the Government, and we are looking at a number of things that we can do to help reduce loneliness. However, this is not just about what the Government can do; as the hon. Lady says, it is about what communities and neighbours can do. In my constituency of Maidenhead, I am pleased to say that the churches work together on Christmas day to bring elderly people who would otherwise be on their own together for a community lunch. That is just one small example of what we can all do in our communities to help to overcome the problem of loneliness.
It is very welcome that the Prime Minister is taking personal charge of building the homes that this country needs, which is such an important social justice issue for our country’s future. How does the Prime Minister see our doing that at the necessary scale and speed?
My hon. Friend is right that we need to build more homes and that we need to build them at scale. I am pleased to say that we saw 217,000 new homes built last year, which is a level of house building that has not been seen, apart from in one year, over the past 30 years, but we need to go further. That is why we have proposed several changes in terms of support for affordable housing, for councils and for people trying to get their foot on the housing ladder. We are also working with local authorities in a number of ways to ensure that land is released and that builders build out the planning permissions that they have.
Thank you for your characteristic greeting, Mr Speaker. I wish everyone a merry Christmas, especially the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson).
The Prime Minister will be aware that NHS England has extended the deadline for its consultation on the allocation of radiotherapy services into the new year. Will she therefore take this opportunity to ensure that one of the criteria is shortening the distances that people have to travel—travel time has a massive impact on outcomes—so that people who live in places such as south Cumbria can access this life-saving, utterly urgent treatment safely and quickly?
We are of course all aware of the need to ensure not only that people are able to access the treatment that they need, but that they can access it in an appropriate way. We recognise that in some rural areas that means travelling longer distances than in other parts of the country. As the hon. Gentleman says, there is a consultation, and NHS England will be looking closely at the issues. I am sure that he will have made representations.