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Commons Chamber

Volume 635: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2018

House of Commons

Wednesday 24 January 2018

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: Devolution of Powers

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament after the UK leaves the EU. (903398)

It would be remiss of me not to point out that tomorrow marks the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, and I am sure that the whole House would like to join me in wishing well not only to those who are organising and participating in events around the world but to everybody who celebrates the life and legacy of Scotland’s great bard.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, we are intensifying our discussions with the devolved Administrations on powers returning from the EU. I had a useful discussion with Mike Russell early in the new year, and I am confident that discussions will continue to be productive.

The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) said during the Committee stage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill:

“I will not support a Bill that undermines devolution and does not respect the integrity of the Union.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2017; Vol. 632, c. 733.]

If that is the position of the Scottish Conservatives, why did they vote against the Labour amendment that would have safeguarded devolution?

It is quite easy, in opposition, to pursue stunts and gimmicks, and that is what the Labour amendment was. This Government have made it quite clear that we would agree an amendment to the Bill with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government, and that is what we are doing.

Figures published today show that trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK is four times more important to Scotland than its trade with the European Union. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that, as powers return from the EU to Scotland, we must ensure that we protect the UK internal market so that businesses in Scotland may continue to flourish?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I would point out that those figures were produced by the Scottish Government themselves. Trade within the UK is worth four times as much to Scotland as its trade with the EU. When “Scotland’s place in Europe” was published last week, it disappointed me that that fact was not recognised.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House what he thinks is wrong with the devolution powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and how he would like to see them fixed? Or is it that, in this week of Burns celebrations, he is just the great puddin’ o’ the chieftain race?

The hon. Gentleman always has an interesting take on events, but I am clear that we want to work with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government, and with the Scottish Parliament, whose Finance and Constitution Committee has set out its views on clauses 10 and 11 of the Bill. I want to reach agreement with them, so that the Government will recommend a legislative consent motion.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Brexit presents an enormous opportunity for the Scottish Parliament to gain even further powers?

It represents not only that opportunity but an opportunity to use those powers. We never hear the Scottish National party talking about how the powers devolved to Scotland after we leave the EU will actually be used. That is the debate we should be having now.

First, on behalf of the lassies, may I echo the sentiments expressed by the Secretary of State and wish everyone in the House a happy Burns day? In December, I stood at this Dispatch Box and was comforted to hear the Secretary of State commit to bringing forward amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill on Report. Sadly, he did not keep that commitment. Will he now please tell us why?

The answer is very simple: we could not meet the timescale that we had aspired to. I take responsibility for that. I gave a commitment at the Dispatch Box that we would bring forward amendments on Report, but we were unable to reach agreement with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government on those important amendments within the timescale. Significant work is ongoing in that regard, and the commitment to amend the Bill is unchanged. However, it will involve an amendment that can command the support of the Scottish Parliament, not a gimmick amendment.

That lack of planning is extremely disappointing, because the Secretary of State, in failing to keep his commitment, has now singlehandedly put the future of the devolution settlement in the hands of the other place. Given his lack of judgment in his previous commitment, how confident is the Secretary of State that an amendment will come back to this place that all parties will find acceptable?

The hon. Lady is relatively new to this House, but she will know that this Chamber will be able to discuss the amendment, which will be discussed by the Scottish Parliament when we seek its legislative consent. The Scottish Labour party has been all over the place on the EU, and I have no idea how it will vote on a legislative consent motion when it comes to the Scottish Parliament, but I hope that it will be yes.

2. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on devolving powers to Scotland after the UK leaves the EU. (903399)

5. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on devolving powers to Scotland after the UK leaves the EU. (903402)

6. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on devolving powers to Scotland after the UK leaves the EU. (903403)

9. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on devolving powers to Scotland after the UK leaves the EU. (903406)

10. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on devolving powers to Scotland after the UK leaves the EU. (903407)

13. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on devolving powers to Scotland after the UK leaves the EU. (903410)

14. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on devolving powers to Scotland after the UK leaves the EU. (903411)

15. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on devolving powers to Scotland after the UK leaves the EU. (903412)

And yet the Secretary of State cannot name one. He failed in his promise to amend clause 11 in this House to avoid undermining the principle of devolution to Scotland and Wales, as not just Scotland’s governing party, but all Scottish MPs will be excluded from the next stage of the debate. Will he tell us now what proposals will be brought forward in the Lords?

I echo the remarks that Michael Russell made yesterday in Holyrood, where he said:

“The Scottish Government… aims to agree amendments to the bill with the UK Government that would allow a legislative consent motion to be brought to the chamber and passed.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 23 January 2018; c. 31.]

Mr Russell and, indeed, Mark Drakeford in the Welsh Assembly have not given a running commentary on the negotiations, and I do not intend to do so either.

Holyrood’s Finance and Constitution Committee has stated that clause 11, as currently drafted, is incompatible with the devolution settlement in Scotland. Does the Secretary of State agree?

I have committed to amending the Bill—my commitment remains exactly the same—so that it meets the concerns of the Committee set out in its report and so that a majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament can vote for a legislative consent motion in respect of the Bill.

The Secretary of State was left looking a bit glaikit this morning when the Brexit Secretary said that the Secretary of State had potentially made a promise that he could not keep. Is not the reality here that all the talk from the Tories about giving power back to Scotland is nothing less than a power grab and that that lot—the Scottish Conservatives—are just Lobby fodder?

The pantomime season is over, and the hon. Gentleman’s theatrical tone strikes a discordant note with the tone set yesterday by Michael Russell, the Minister in the Scottish Government responsible for such matters. There was no suggestion of a power grab. The suggestion was that both Governments are engaged in intensive negotiations to agree an amendment to the clause.

I appreciate the Secretary of State’s honesty in saying that he ran out of time to get the amendments in, but unfortunately that is not good enough. How can he justify it being okay that Michelle Mone and Alan Sugar will have more of an impact on the Bill than Scotland’s elected Members, some of which sit on the Secretary of State’s side of the House?

From everything that I see and read in Scotland, the hon. Lady has a considerable impact on events in Scotland, and I am sure that her views on the Bill will be well recorded. The amendment will be debated in the House of Lords. I regret that it is being brought forward in the other House, but we simply did not meet the timescale to which we aspired. There will be a further opportunity to debate the amendment in this House, and the Scottish Parliament, which SNP Members say they are concerned about all the time, will also be able to have an extensive debate and vote on the clause.

Will the Secretary of State’s colleagues in the House of Lords make the changes he promised us he would make to the Brexit Bill? And will he sit down with the Scottish Government thereafter to discuss what further powers need to be devolved?

I intend to sit down with the Scottish Government next week to discuss progress on amending clause 11. In relation to further devolution, the Smith Commission determined the nature of the settlement, to which all parties in the Scottish Parliament signed up. This Government do not support changes to the devolution arrangements, as agreed in the Smith Commission.

The Secretary of State has failed to answer for his broken promise to this House and to his Tory colleagues in Scotland on clause 11. That means Karren Brady, Sebastian Coe, Joan Bakewell and 26 Church of England bishops now have more say over Scotland’s future than Scotland’s elected MPs. Will the Secretary of State finally apologise for that sad state of affairs?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s views and mine on the future of the House of Lords are closer than he would anticipate. I have taken full responsibility for not meeting the timescale I originally set out. We are committed to amending the Bill, and to amending the Bill in agreement with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government. I would have thought that that is something even Opposition Members would recognise.

In a rare lucid moment, the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) said

“the Government made a clear commitment to the House on the amendments to clause 11, and I took those commitments at face value. As a Conservative Member, I never want to get to the point where I cannot take commitments given to me…at face value”,

and that

“they have let this Chamber down by not delivering on what they promised.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 819-21.]

Will the Secretary of State apologise to his own colleagues, to this House and, more importantly, to the people of Scotland for letting us all down?

I think the hon. Gentleman seeks to conflate two issues. The commitment to amend the Bill remains unchanged. The Bill will be amended in agreement with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government. We failed to meet the timescale to which I aspired, and I take full responsibility for that.

Resistance to further devolution of powers comes from many quarters, such as the Constitutional Research Council led by the Secretary of State’s friend, and prominent Scottish Tory, Richard Cook. As we all know, the CRC funded the Democratic Unionist party’s version of hard Brexit in the campaign. Does the Secretary of State now agree that it is time for full disclosure of those funds? If he does not, it undermines the very principles of liberal democracy that he says he stands up for.

That is an entirely separate issue. As you will recognise, Mr Speaker, a whole range of procedures are in place for people who have issues or concerns about the funding of political activity.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the flag of this nation will remain the Union flag and that no devolved Assembly should try to restrict it from being flown, whether at the white cliffs of Dover, Land’s End or John o’Groats?

As my hon. Friend knows, in September 2014 the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain within the United Kingdom, and the Union Jack is the flag of the United Kingdom. It beggars belief that, at a time when children’s hospital wards are being closed, educational standards are falling and Police Scotland is in chaos, the priority of the First Minister of Scotland is flags.

The Secretary of State talks a good game but, unfortunately, delivery does not appear to be his strong point. Speaking of auld acquaintance, it turns out that his key adviser tasked with increasing awareness of devolution across Government is none other than the interim chief executive of Carillion. Given the shambolic handling of clause 11 last week, how does the Secretary of State think that is going?

First, it is not correct to suggest that non-executive directors take policy decisions in relation to Government Departments. Keith Cochrane has done an excellent job as a non-executive director of the Scotland Office, and I pay tribute to him as one of Scotland’s most respected businessmen. However, in order not to become a distraction at a time of very important work for the Scotland Office, he has decided to step aside from his responsibilities until the investigation into Carillion and any subsequent inquiries are complete.

May I also wish you a very happy Burns season, Mr Speaker?

The Secretary of State talked of a powers bonanza and could not list one new power. He promised amendments on clause 11 and no such amendments were tabled. Can we now believe another word he says in this House?

I know that the hon. Gentleman does not necessarily have the best of relations with some people in the Scottish Government, but perhaps he could have a word with them about the publication of the frameworks. I am keen that we publish what has been agreed in relation to frameworks, but the current position of the Scottish Government is that that should not be published.

The right hon. Gentleman is personally responsible for a breakdown in the relationship between this House and the Scottish Government, and the breakdown in relationships between all the Members of this House. The Brexit Secretary today has suggested that the right hon. Gentleman is the blockage to progress. He has accepted full responsibility for not producing these amendments. Has he now had the time to think about his own position?

Again, the hon. Gentleman strikes a completely different tone from Michael Russell, who has pursued a very professional approach to these matters. They are complicated and difficult matters, and it is important that they are thoroughly debated, discussed and agreed. The reason the Government did not bring forward an amendment at that stage was that no amendment had been agreed with the Scottish Government, but we are committed to delivering that.

Economic Development: Cross-border Co-operation

3. What plans the Government have to further cross-border co-operation on economic development between Scotland and the rest of the UK. (903400)

Today’s figures from the Scottish Government again show that Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK is worth nearly four times that with the EU. We know that more than half a million Scottish jobs depend on the vital UK internal market, and that people in Scotland want a UK-wide approach to trade. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, it is essential that we ensure that the important UK internal market can continue unimpeded.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the First Minister of Scotland recently said that,

“independence must be an option”,

highlighting once again some people’s interest in separation, not governing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that keeping separation on the table makes constructive, co-operative working difficult, and that opportunities will be missed both for Scotland and the UK as a result?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It has just become absolutely clear that when Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are asked what they want from Brexit, the answer is another independence referendum.

Brexit poses the biggest risk to Scotland’s economy. If the Government want to show co-operation with the Scottish Government, does the Secretary of State agree that the sectoral reports that are available to MPs in this place should also be made available to MSPs?

I understood that they had been made available to MSPs. If that is not the case, I will ensure that it is.

This week, Moray Council discussed the projects that will be included in the ambitious Moray growth deal. The Secretary of State knows of my strong support for the bid, so will he join me in Moray to meet the people involved in the Moray growth deal bid, to show the UK Government’s commitment to take these from proposals to projects delivered?

These growth deals and city deals across Scotland are very important to the economy as we prepare to leave the EU. I am excited by the proposals that have been brought forward by stakeholders in Moray and I would be delighted to visit with my hon. Friend.

Does the Secretary of State agree that today’s export statistics show the importance to Scotland of remaining in both the EU and the UK, despite the SNP’s latest attempt to break that link by taking down the flag?

The hon. Lady will expect that I will agree with part of what she said. Of course, as the people of Scotland voted, Scotland must remain in the UK and benefit from the UK internal market, but the people of the United Kingdom have voted to leave the EU, and we are leaving the EU.

Renewable Energy Sector

4. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on Government funding for the renewable energy sector in Scotland. (903401)

Thanks to the investments that we have all made in the future of renewables and the Government policy framework, Scotland’s renewable energy is thriving. A quarter of the UK’s renewable capacity is based in Scotland because of the climate and the geography. That capacity has more than doubled since the Conservative-led Government came to power in 2010, and we will be going further in bringing forward energy from remote offshore wind projects in the next auction, in 2019.

That is not what Scottish Renewables says. It says that, with the exception of offshore wind, growth across all other technologies is low to stagnant. How much funding will be available to Scotland under the Government’s clean growth strategy? Has the Minister assessed the impact that it will have in Scotland?

As I was pleased to set out in the clean growth strategy, we will make almost £560 million available up to 2025 to support all forms of renewable energy. As we have now set out, we will enable offshore wind projects, which are so vital to the remote islands, to bid in that next auction. We want to keep it going; Scotland is doing incredibly well. Last year, renewable energy right across the UK contributed a third of our electricity generation. We are on a renewables road.

City Region Deals

7. What recent discussions the Government have had with the Scottish Government on the implementation of city region deals in Scotland. (903404)

I spoke to the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work last week. We will meet again shortly to discuss our joint approach, including how we can deliver for my hon. Friend on the Stirling and Clackmannanshire deal.

Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that the UK Government are committing new money to the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal, not simply rebadging existing funding? When he next meets the Scottish Government, will he secure a similar commitment from them that they will put new money into the deal and not just rebadge existing funding?

I confirm that the UK Government will definitely put new money into the Stirling and Clackmannanshire deal. That has always been our approach to such deals, and that is why they have such a transformative effect. I will speak to Keith Brown on the issue my hon. Friend raises, but I know Mr Brown takes a particular interest in that deal.

All the city region cash that has gone Inverness’s way is most welcomed by residents of Inverness. However, other communities in the Highlands such as Wick, Thurso and Tain struggle to see the benefit. It is supposed to be a city region deal. Will the Secretary of State look into why it is not working as it should?

I will of course look into the hon. Gentleman’s point, which was also raised with me when I was on Skye. May I use this opportunity to rebut the fake news that Skye is full and not open for business to tourists? It is open for business and a great destination.

Leaving the EU: Economic Opportunities

8. What recent discussions he has had with businesses in Scotland on the economic opportunities available to them after the UK leaves the EU. (903405)

It is always a pleasure to speak to Scottish businesses. In fact, there have been more than 100 such conversations in the past year in my Department. I look forward to meeting many more businesses this Friday, when I travel to Aberdeen as the Government’s oil and gas champion, including a visit to the Oil and Gas Technology Centre, which benefited from £180 million as part of the Aberdeen city deal in 2016.

As Corby is the most Scottish town in England, I am well aware that Scotland produces some of the UK’s best-known products, including Scotch whisky. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that, as we leave the European Union, new opportunities are taken, for the benefit of the whole of the United Kingdom economy?

I am told that Corby is a great place in England to buy an Irn-Bru and a pie. As we know, whisky is one of the UK’s greatest exports. Forty thousand people are employed in the industry, and the value of exports is more than £4 billion. It absolutely stands to benefit from post-Brexit trade opportunities. Both our industrial strategy and—[Interruption.]

Order. This is rather discourteous. The Minister is giving us a detailed answer, which I think the House should hear.

I am sure whisky drinkers everywhere will be grateful for that intervention, Mr Speaker.

The industrial strategy sets out other opportunities with industries across the UK to grow their productivity, improve their exports and create high-value jobs. I am pleased to say we are working closely with the Scottish Government to implement the strategy.

To mitigate the extreme hard Tory Brexit and create further job opportunities in Scotland, will the Minister commit to speaking to onshore wind developers and allowing them to bid in future contract for difference auctions?

As the hon. Gentleman knows from conversations around the Dispatch Box, we are keen to bring forward renewable technology at the right price for bill payers and consumers right across the UK. We will continue to offer opportunities for all sorts of renewable businesses to get involved in CfD auctions going forward.

Leaving the EU: Common Frameworks

11. What progress the Government have made on ensuring that common frameworks with the Scottish Government are in place when the UK leaves the EU. (903408)

The UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments agreed the principles that will guide how we approach common frameworks in future at the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations on 16 October. Those principles have facilitated constructive engagement at official level, and we expect to make significant further progress in the coming months, including publishing our analysis.

During those constructive discussions, has the Secretary of State received any indication from the Scottish Government about how they intend to use the plethora of new powers that they will receive?

As I said in response to a previous question, we have heard nothing from the Scottish National party or the Scottish Government about how they intend to use the new powers that will be available after we leave the EU. Let us have a debate about using powers for Scotland’s benefit, not about process.

Hospital Car Parking Charges

12. Whether he has had discussions with the Scottish Government on their abolition of hospital car parking charges. (903409)

I have not had discussions with the Scottish Government regarding hospital car parking charges. The policy falls wholly within their area of devolved competence.

The vast majority of national health service hospitals in Scotland do not charge for car parking. Will my right hon. Friend initiate discussions with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to explore the options for extending that to England?

I am sure that my colleague the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will have heard my right hon. Friend’s comments.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure that Members throughout the House will wish to join me in marking Holocaust Memorial Day this Saturday and in remembering all those who endured such appalling suffering in the holocaust.

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. Later, I will travel to Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum and—who knows?—I might even bump into the shadow Chancellor while I am there.

Mr Speaker, as you and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will know, last week saw the successful launch of the Year of Engineering campaign, which is aimed at changing the perception of engineering and inspiring the next generation of engineers. I know that the Prime Minister is personally committed to the campaign, so may I invite her to join me and 80,000 young people at this year’s Big Bang fair, to reinforce the message that engineering is a great career that is open to everyone, regardless of their background, ethnicity and gender?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The issue of engineering, and particularly the need for more women to see engineering as a career, is something that I have promoted for many years now. Engineers are vital to our economy, which is why we want to see everyone, whatever their background—this is about not only gender but background and ethnicity—having a chance to build a good career in engineering. The Year of Engineering gives us a great opportunity to work together with business to do exactly that. If my diary allows, I would be happy to attend the fair to which my hon. Friend referred.

I join the Prime Minister in commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. Many Members will be signing the book of remembrance and attending the event tomorrow. We have to teach all generations that the descent into Nazism and the holocaust must never, ever be repeated anywhere on this planet.

Does the Prime Minister agree with the Foreign Secretary that the national health service needs an extra £5 billion?

As I recall, the right hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber for the autumn Budget speech delivered by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which he announced that we will be putting £6 billion more into the national health service.

The only problem with that is that it was £2.8 billion, spread like thin gruel over two years. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister told the House that

“it is indeed the case that the NHS was better prepared this winter than ever before.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 315.]

Sixty-eight senior A&E doctors have written to the Prime Minister about what they describe as

“very serious concerns we have for the safety of our patients.”

They say that patients being treated in corridors are “dying prematurely”. Who should the public believe—the Prime Minister or A&E doctors?

It is right that the NHS was better prepared for this winter than it ever has been before. We saw 3,000 more beds being brought into use over the winter period; we saw the use of the 111 call system leading to a significant reduction in the number of call-outs and the number of people having to go into hospital; and we saw the changes made in accident and emergency, with GP streamlining, helping to ensure that people who did not need to go into hospital did not go into hospital. Overall, we saw 2.8 million more people last year visiting accident and emergency than did so in 2010. Our NHS is indeed providing for patients. There are winter pressures; we were prepared for those winter pressures. We will ensure, as we have done every year under this Conservative Government, that the NHS receives more funding.

Since 2010, we have lost 14,000 NHS beds. The King’s Fund, the Health Foundation and the Nuffield Trust all agree that the NHS needs another £4 billion. In December, the month just gone, NHS England recorded its worst ever A&E performances, with more patients than ever waiting more than four hours. Now the UK Statistics Authority says that the numbers may be worse because the figures have been fiddled. Can the Prime Minister tell the House when figures calculated in line with previous years will be published?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that the NHS is open in publishing a whole variety of figures in relation to its targets. We are putting more money into the NHS, year in and year out, and we are continuing to do that. If he wants to talk about figures and about targets being missed, yes, the latest figures show that, in England, 497 people were waiting more than 12 hours, but the latest figures also show that, under the Labour Government in Wales, 3,741 people were waiting more than 12 hours.

The Prime Minister is responsible for the underfunding of the Welsh Government and the needs of Wales. Despite that, the overall Welsh Labour Government health budget has grown by 5% in 2016-17. It is Labour Wales that has a problem of underfunding from a Conservative Government based in Westminster. So far this winter, 100,000 patients have been forced to wait more than 30 minutes in the back of an ambulance in NHS England, for which she is responsible, yet still she refuses to give the NHS the money that it needs. Can she tell us how many more patients will face life-threatening waits in the back of ambulances this winter?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that of course we want to ensure that people are not waiting in those ambulances, but the only answer that he ever comes up with is on the question of money. The question—[Interruption.] No, the question is this: why are there some hospitals where the percentage of patients waiting more than 30 minutes is zero and other hospitals where the percentage of patients waiting more than 30 minutes is considerably higher? If he wants to talk about funding, perhaps we should look at what the Labour party promised at the last general election last year. [Interruption.] It is all very well shadow Ministers shouting about the comparison of money. The point is that, at the last election, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said this:

“Labour and the Conservatives are pretty much on the same page…there’s not much to choose between them in terms of the money they’ll put into the NHS.”

A Labour Government would not be underfunding the NHS. A Labour Government would not be privatising the NHS. A Labour Government would not be underfunding social care. A Labour Government would be committed to an NHS free at the point of use as a human right.

According to a whistleblower, as many as—[Interruption.] Hang on, hang on. According to a whistleblower, as many as 80 patients were harmed or died following significant ambulance delays over a three-week period this winter. This is a very serious situation, and the Prime Minister must be aware of it. What investigation is the Department of Health carrying out into these deeply alarming reports?

When we hear reports of that sort, of course they are very alarming. That is why the Department of Health makes sure that investigations take place. That may be undertaken by the Department of Health or by the particular trust involved—the ambulance trust or the hospital. These issues are properly investigated, because we do not want to see this happening; we do want to see people being properly cared for. If there are lessons to be learned, then they will be learned, because our support for our NHS is about providing it with the funding, the doctors, the nurses, the treatments and the capabilities that it needs in order to be able to deliver for patients. That is why we are backing the NHS with more funding. It is why we are ensuring that it gets the best treatments; survival rates for cancer are higher than they have ever been before. It is why we are ensuring that we have better joined-up services across the NHS and social care so that people who do not need to go into hospital are able to be cared for at home. And it is why we are ensuring that we are reducing waste in the NHS so that taxpayers’ money is spent as effectively as may be on patient care. That is a plan for the NHS, but it is a plan that puts patients first.

The Prime Minister must be aware of ambulances backed up in hospital car parks, with nurses treating patients in the back of ambulances. Ambulance drivers and paramedics desperate to get on to deal with the next patient cannot leave because the patient they are dealing with at that moment cannot get into the A&E department. It has been reported that a man froze to death waiting 16 hours for an ambulance. Last week, a gentleman called Chris wrote to me, saying:

“My friend’s 93 year old father waited 4 hours for an ambulance after a fall.”

These are not isolated cases; they are common parlance all over the country. It needs money, it needs support, and it needs it now.

The Prime Minister is frankly in denial about the state of the NHS. Even the absent Foreign Secretary recognises it, but the Prime Minister is not listening. People using the NHS can see from their own experience that it is being starved of resources. People are dying unnecessarily in the back of ambulances and in hospital corridors. GP numbers are down, nurses are leaving, the NHS is in crisis—[Interruption.] Tory MPs might not like it, but I ask this question of the Prime Minister: when is she going to face up to the reality and take action to save the NHS from death by a thousand cuts?

There is only one part of the NHS that has seen a cut in its funding—the NHS in Wales under a Labour Government. This is a Government backing the NHS plan, putting more money into the NHS, recruiting more doctors and nurses, and seeing new treatments come on board which ensure that people are getting the best treatment that they need, because this is a Government who recognise the priorities of the British people: to ensure that our NHS remains a world-class healthcare system—indeed, the best healthcare system in the world—to build the homes that people need, and to make sure that our kids are in good schools. This is a Government who are building a country that works for everyone, and a country in which people can look to the future with optimism and hope.

Q8. The British people need to be confident in the integrity of our voting system, so what is my right hon. Friend doing to follow up on Sir Eric Pickles’ report, “Securing the ballot”, to minimise voter fraud, whether for referendums, general elections or local elections? (903516)

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on a very good council by-election result in Hulton, where the Conservatives took a seat from the Labour party?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue about strengthening our electoral process and enhancing the confidence people have in our democratic processes. We are shortly going to be running pilot schemes in five local authorities to identify the best way to implement voter ID and nationality checks. Tower Hamlets, Slough and Peterborough are going to be piloting measures to improve the integrity of the postal and proxy vote process. Our democracy matters, but it is important that people can have true confidence in it.

May I wish you a happy Burns day for tomorrow, Mr Speaker?

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister about Holocaust Memorial Day? We should never forget the horrible tragedies and the price that people had to pay. However, we should also remember the genocide that has happened in many territories since that time as well, and we all must work to eradicate that scourge from our society.

Earlier this week, the Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive officer, Ross McEwan, admitted—in a leaked memo—that closing 22 local branches would be “painful” for customers. Thirteen towns in Scotland are to lose their last bank. Prime Minister, I will give you one other opportunity: as the majority shareholder, will you meet RBS and make the case to keep the bank branches open?

The right hon. Gentleman has asked me this question on a number of occasions, and I have made the point in response to every one of those questions—and the answer is not going to change today—that these are commercial decisions for the banks involved. We do have a duty as a Government: we look at how the market is working for people, and that is why we established the access to banking standard that commits banks to carry out a certain number of steps before closing a branch. It is also why we welcome the fact that the Post Office has reached an agreement with the banks that will allow more customers than ever before to use post office services, so about 99% of personal customers are able to carry out their day-to-day banking at a post office as a result of that new agreement. That is the Government making sure that people are covered by the services they need.

I would simply say to the Prime Minister that we own RBS: it is time that you took your own responsibilities. By closing these branches and replacing some with mobile banking vans, which do not provide disability access, the Royal Bank of Scotland appears to be in breach of the UK Equality Act 2010. Wheelchair user Sandra Borthwick has described her experience of banking outside as “degrading”. Does the Prime Minister agree that RBS has a legal responsibility to offer equality of services to disabled customers, and will she hold RBS to account on this issue?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that, of course, we all want to see that all customers are able to access the services that they need—that is, both customers who are disabled and customers who live in remote areas. As I have said to him, this is a commercial decision that has been taken by the Royal Bank of Scotland. Banks are closing branches—other banks are closing branches—because what they see is actually less use being made of those branches. As the right hon. Gentleman has been talking about matters financial, I am sorry that he was not able to stand up and welcome the fact that today’s trade figures for Scotland show that their biggest export market remains the rest of the United Kingdom.

Q11. Thank you —it is a lot easier asking them than answering them.It is vital for long-term prosperity that the Government maintain infrastructure investment. With this in mind, and especially as proposals for new bridges are currently fashionable, may I ask the Prime Minister to commit the Government to a very practical idea, which is an early start on the lower Thames crossing between Kent and Essex? This would create up to 5,000 jobs, relieve pressure on the motorway network and provide a significant boost to the economy of the whole eastern side of England. (903519)

My right hon. Friend is right in drawing attention to the impact of infrastructure when it is developed in various parts of the UK. On the specific point of the lower Thames crossing, I know that is going to unlock opportunities and economic growth for the region and the country, and will offer better connections, new connections and better journeys. It is, of course, part of the biggest investment in England’s road network in a generation.

As my right hon. Friend knows, Highways England has announced the preferred route; it did that last year. I recognise this has raised some concerns in affected constituencies, but may I assure him and other Members that there are going to be further opportunities, for both those who support these proposals and those who do not, to give their views and to have their say? But he is absolutely right: new infrastructure developments such as this can make a huge impact not only on jobs during the development of that infrastructure, but on the economy, locally and nationally.

Q2. Outside a customs union with the EU, many UK businesses would face, in the Brexit Secretary’s own words, “complex and punitive ‘rules of origin’ tariffs”.Given the Prime Minister’s aim for frictionless trade post-Brexit, will she confirm whether she intends to pursue a customs union with the EU? (903509)

I have said this on many occasions and I am very happy to repeat it: leaving the European Union means that we will be leaving the single market. We will no longer be members of the single market or the customs union. We want to be able to sign and implement trade deals with other parts of the world, as part of an independent trade policy. We are looking forward to the negotiations for a bespoke deal—a comprehensive free trade agreement—between the UK and the European Union for the future. We will be looking for as tariff-free and frictionless a trade agreement as possible.

Q12. Many Members on both sides of the House, myself included, have expressed concern about the future of our national defences. Of course, the fact is that this Government will always take the right long-term decisions to protect our national security, so will my right hon. Friend assuage those concerns and assure the House that this approach will continue? (903520)

My hon. Friend has raised a very important subject. In July the Government initiated the national security capability review, in support of the ongoing implementation of the 2015 national security strategy and strategic defence and security review, to ensure that we do indeed have the capabilities, and the investment in those capabilities, that we need in our national security, and that that investment and those capabilities are as effective and joined up as possible.

I agreed the high-level findings of the review with ministerial colleagues at the National Security Council, and I have directed that the work should be finalised, with a view to publishing a report in late spring. It has been a significant piece of work and it will help to ensure that we have the right capabilities. As part of that, we recognise that more work is needed on defence and on modernising defence. We want to ensure that the defence budget is being spent intelligently and efficiently, and that we are investing in the capabilities we need to keep our nation safe. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will update the House in due course.

Q3. It is a tragedy that in the past year knife crime has risen by 26%. The Youth Violence Commission is conducting the first national youth survey of experiences of trauma and violence. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss the root causes of youth violence and how we can find solutions? (903510)

This is an important issue and obviously we need to look at it. Although, as the hon. Lady will know, crimes traditionally measured by the independent crime survey have dropped by well over one third since 2010, we need to consider the root causes of violence—particularly among young people, and especially knife crimes. The nature of crime is changing; it is important that we remain adaptable and resilient, but we need to understand that. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be happy to meet the hon. Lady to talk about youth violence and the causes of youth violence.

Q14. On 28 December, the East of England Ambulance Service attended an address in Lowestoft at which a man was sadly confirmed as having died. This followed on from a call the previous afternoon from the police regarding the same person, who it appears was left outside overnight in what were inhospitable weather conditions. I have now spoken to the person who made the initial call to the emergency services and I have serious concerns as to how the matter was handled, including why the case came to light only in the past few days. Will the Prime Minister endorse my request to the East of England Ambulance Service and Suffolk police to instigate immediately a full and independent inquiry to establish exactly what happened and to then put in place measures to ensure that such a tragic event does not happen again? (903522)

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about this event and the tragedy that happened. First, we should recognise that all those who deliver our ambulance services work hard and regularly go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure our safety, but concerns have been raised about the provision of services in the East of England Ambulance Service trust, including, obviously, this very, very worrying, tragic case.

As I said earlier in response to the Leader of the Opposition, we take these cases very seriously—any claims that patient safety has been put at risk are taken seriously. The Department of Health and Social Care has received assurances that these reports are being investigated by the trust, in conjunction with its commissioners, as a serious incident. This is also an issue that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Health has discussed with the chief executives of NHS England and NHS Improvement.

Q4. Three million people live in homes that are unfit, posing a threat to their health and safety. Not only is that hell for tenants but it costs the cash-strapped national health service billions. Last week, the House gave a Second Reading to my Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill, which will give tenants new legal rights to act against the worst landlords. I was grateful for the support of the Government as well as the backing of the Opposition. Time for private Members’ Bills is inevitably limited, and tenants cannot wait. Will the Prime Minister assure me that she will do all that she can to make sure that that important and now consensual Bill will make rapid progress and become law? (903511)

The hon. Lady raises an important matter. Over the past six or seven years a significant number of homes have met the decent homes standard, but the conditions in which people live is an important concern, and I will ask the Leader of the House to look at the issue that she has raised about her Bill.

Cumbria is celebrated internationally for its lakes and mountains, and it is known for nuclear excellence. This afternoon, Parliament hosts “A Taste of Cumbria”, showcasing our fine food and drink. May I extend a warm invitation to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Prime Minister, to pop along and join us to sample some of our finest fare?

I am afraid that my diary does not permit me to attend “A Taste of Cumbria” this afternoon, but if I can drop my hon. Friend a hint, I understand that there was a taste of Lincolnshire event recently, and my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) sent me some Lincolnshire products after the events. I am not hinting at anything, but—

Q5. This morning, thousands of people across the country heard my friend and former boss, Baroness Tessa Jowell, talk for the first time since she was diagnosed with a high-grade brain tumour. As ever, it was a joy to hear her utter relentless positivity and complete commitment to changing the world. In a speech in the other place tomorrow, she will call for improved cancer diagnosis and treatment. Will the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary meet Tessa, me and health experts to discuss how to improve outcomes to meet Tessa’s goal and ultimately save lives? (903513)

The whole House was saddened to hear of Baroness Jowell’s diagnosis, but I am sure it was encouraged by the positive approach that she has taken. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary says that Baroness Jowell’s speech this morning was very moving. I am sure that everyone across the whole House sends her their very best wishes.

Cancer treatment is a priority for the Government, and we want to make sure that the best treatments are provided. We will consider investing in anything that improves that. We have accepted 96 recommendations in the NHS cancer strategy, but we need constantly to look at this. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is happy to meet the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) and Baroness Jowell.

Tessa Jowell has been an outstanding public servant. I hope that the House understands if I say that in my 20 years here I have never met a more courteous or gracious Member of Parliament.

I am only just beginning, Mr Speaker.

The Prime Minister will know of the devastation, debt and despair caused by fixed-odds betting terminals, which are now widespread—a far cry from the charm of the bingo hall, the pools coupon or the style of the sport of kings. Given the fact that there is a review, will she meet me and others to discuss how the maximum bet on those terminals can be reduced, and will she take the chance simultaneously to plan a crackdown on online gambling sites that target young children? The stakes are too high to gamble with our children’s futures.

We are clear that the fixed odds betting terminals stakes will be cut to make sure that we have a safe and sustainable industry where vulnerable people and children are protected. As I suspect my right hon. Friend knows, the consultation that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport launched on this closed yesterday, so a final decision will be made in due course. He will know, with regard to the specific point about children—this is important—that there are in place controls to prevent children and young people from accessing online gambling. The Gambling Commission has asked the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board to examine the wider relationship between children and gambling. I think it is important, as we take these decisions, that we all recognise the potential threats and dangers, but that we ensure that we have the best information possible in order to be able to act.

Q6. Amber Rose Cliff, my 25-year-old constituent, lost her battle with cervical cancer and died in January last year. Amber went to her GP around 30 times with symptoms and repeatedly asked for a smear test, but she was refused. She got the test only when she paid to have it done privately, and sadly, the cancer had spread by that point. Will the Prime Minister support Amber’s family in their campaign to introduce Amber’s law, which would change the regulations so that women under 25 could access a smear test on the national health service when they were symptomatic? (903514)

I send my condolences—I am sure the whole House does—to Amber’s family on this terrible thing that has happened. Look, the smear test is hugely important. Sadly, what we see, even for those women who qualify today to have the smear test, is that too many women do not take it up. I know that it is not a comfortable thing to do, because I have it, as others do, but it is so important for women’s health. I first want to encourage women to actually have the smear test. Secondly, the hon. Lady raised an issue about the availability of that test. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to look at this issue. It is a question that has been raised before for those who are under the age of 25. Of course, action has been taken in terms of the vaccine that has been introduced for teenagers. There have been some questions about that—I have had people in my constituency raising questions about it. We need to address this issue in every way possible, so we will look at the question of the age qualification for the smear test. My overall message is, please, those who are called for a smear test, go and have it.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Bexley rugby club on its 60th anniversary and agree with me that the pursuit of sport is good for health and wellbeing?

I am happy to endorse what my right hon. Friend says about sport, and indeed to join him in congratulating Bexley rugby club on this significant anniversary. I am sure that over all those years it has given many young people and others an introduction to the joy of sport and the way that sport can be both good for the community and for society, and for the individuals, so I am happy to endorse his claim.

Q7. This week, I have been approached by a constituent, Emma-Jane Best, who is a single mum, and up until December, was a teacher. She has been told that she is going to have to wait over six weeks for a universal credit payment and has been denied a hardship loan. This means that she is living on £20 a week child benefit and the charity of food banks. Will the Prime Minister tell us, is that how universal credit is supposed to work, and does she regret Emma-Jane’s son now joining the nearly 9,000 children living in poverty in Batley and Spen? (903515)

As the hon. Lady will know, we made changes to the operation of universal credit, which were announced in the Budget, including changes that mean that the availability of advance payments has increased and that the size of those advance payments has increased. But I am sure, if she would like to write in with the details of the case, that we can look at it and make sure that it is properly considered.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the Government are making further progress in reducing the deficit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be reckless to change course now in favour of a policy of renationalisation, which would burden taxpayers such as those in Erewash with an estimated bill of over £170 billion?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It has not been easy reducing the deficit in the way we have. We had to deal with the biggest deficit in our peacetime history, which was left to us by the Labour party, but by decisions the Government—[Interruption.] Yes, yes. Labour might not like hearing that, but it is what happened. It is by the hard work of the British people and by decisions the Government have taken that we have been able to reduce the deficit. Adding to it an extra £170 billion to meet the ideological desires of the Leader of the Opposition would saddle people up and down this country with higher debt, and ordinary people would pay the price.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister instruct the Department for Work and Pensions to release the details of benefits claimants with disabilities who took their own lives after their claims were turned down or their payments stopped without notice or significantly reduced? (903517)

The DWP does not give details of individuals with whom it deals, and that is absolutely right; what it does is ensure we have a welfare system that provides support to those who need it and increasingly encourages those who can to get into the workplace, because we continue to believe that work is the best route out of poverty.

In a December press release, the Bank of England described the UK’s financial system as both “a national asset” and “a global public good”. Does my right hon. Friend think it unreasonable that the UK financial services sector, which pays billions of pounds in taxes, wants to hear the Government’s ambition to ensure that the City of London remains a global pre-eminent financial centre, in the same way they set out their ambition for other sectors last summer?

I have said in this Chamber and outside that we retain the ambition of ensuring the City of London remains a global financial centre, and that is indeed what we are working on. I was very pleased to welcome a number of senior representatives from the financial services sector to No. 10 Downing Street only a few weeks ago and to sit down and talk to them about how to do exactly that. London’s place as a financial centre for the world is not just a benefit to the UK; it is a benefit to the global financial system and to the EU.

Q10. It is wonderful that while others are talking about building walls we in Britain are talking about building bridges—connecting communities, despite Brexit—but let me reassure our American friends that the Mexicans, no, the French, will be paying for it, because our NHS needs to be properly funded first. Rather than building an airy-fairy 22-mile-long bridge over the English channel or a £50 billion Boris airport in the Thames estuary, however, will the Prime Minister confirm when the western rail link, the 6 km rail track to Heathrow from my constituency, which will connect Wales, the south and the west directly to Heathrow, will finally be built? Or will we be subjected to further sluggish studies and consultations? (903518)

I believe that there is very strong cross-party support for the western rail link for Heathrow. The hon. Gentleman has expressed his support, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) has also been supporting it. It would reduce journey times for passengers in the south-west and could support the Thames valley economy as well. I myself, as a Thames valley MP, have looked into it previously. Development funding has been committed for the project and the Department for Transport will provide further detail on the timing in due course.

I congratulate the Prime Minister and the parties in Northern Ireland on the resumption today of talks at Stormont. What more can be done to ensure that the Executive are restored and the nightmare of direct rule avoided?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The people of Northern Ireland need strong devolved government and political leadership, and cannot continue to have their public services suffer from the lack of an Executive and Ministers to make key policy and budget decisions. We are determined to re-establish a fully functioning, inclusive devolved Administration that works for everyone in Northern Ireland. We believe that a basis for a deal exists, and that is why, as he has said, today my right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary has started a set of political talks to restore the Executive. I believe that this is very important, and I would strongly encourage all parties to come together and focus on the job of restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Q13. Over Christmas, Toon Aid and Newcastle United football fans raised more than £50,000 for the West End food bank in my constituency—which you are soon to visit, Mr Speaker—helping to feed people like John, who, despite having chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, arthritis, dyspepsia, prostatism, type 2 diabetes and anxiety and depression, was sanctioned for not trying hard enough to find work. Will the Prime Minister congratulate the people of Newcastle on their generosity, and will she explain why it was necessary? (903521)

I applaud all those who have given their time voluntarily and raised money through their activities across the board. The hon. Lady has given a specific example of the work of people in Newcastle. I commend people who raise money for causes, but, as she knows, I cannot discuss an individual case at the Dispatch Box. I think it important for us to have a system that works properly and fairly, and I am sure that if she wishes to raise the individual case with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, it will be looked into.

The Prime Minister will know that the welcome introduction of the national minimum wage has created an as yet unresolved difficulty for the care sector, specifically relating to 24-hour care for those with significant learning difficulties. The issue is connected with sleep-in shifts and money owed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Will she agree to meet me, and a number of concerned colleagues, so that we can discuss how we can best find a way out of the impasse?

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue that is of concern to a number of organisations and Members of Parliament, and I should be happy to meet her to discuss it. The Cabinet Office has been working with the relevant Department—now called the Department of Health and Social Care—to try to resolve it, and measures have been taken to defer the implementation of certain aspects. However, we continue to work on it, and are happy to look into it further.

No one has been charged over Poppi Worthington’s death, although the 13-month-old was probably anally penetrated in the hours before her death at home. Poppi was not known to social services, despite a staggeringly troubled family history. Will the Prime Minister respond to our cross-party calls for a public inquiry, so that we can learn lessons from this and make children safer throughout the country?

Everyone in the country who is aware of the horrific abuse that was carried out has been shocked and appalled by it, and, obviously, by the tragic circumstances of Poppi’s death. I am sure that all Members will join me in offering condolences.

I understand that the Crown Prosecution Service has announced that it is considering the coroner’s decision in liaison with the Cumbria constabulary. I think it right for us to allow that process to continue and to await the outcome before deciding whether any further action is needed. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I—along with, I think, all other Members—am well apprised of the significance of the issue and how appalling this tragedy was, and of the need for us to ensure not only that there is justice but that lessons are learnt.

Presidents Club Charity Dinner

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he thinks that it is appropriate that David Meller remain a non-executive director in the Department for Education following the revelations about the men only Presidents Club dinner.

Mr Speaker, I am sure you have seen the papers this morning. It has been reported that last Thursday, the Presidents Club—this is the first time I have heard of the club—[Interruption.] I am just saying, I had not heard of it before. This club hosted a charity dinner to raise money for causes such as Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. I understand from reports that there are allegations of inappropriate and lewd behaviour at this event.

It is quite extraordinary to me that, in the 21st century, allegations of this kind are still emerging. Women have the right to feel safe wherever they work, and the type of behaviour alleged to have occurred is completely unacceptable. I have recently taken on ministerial responsibility for the board of the Department for Education and was previously Minister for Women. As hon. Members will know, David Meller has been a non-executive board member in the Department for Education and chair of the apprenticeship delivery board. The Government expect board members to adhere to the code of conduct for board members of public bodies, which clearly states that they should adhere to the seven principles of public life.

David Meller is stepping down as a non-executive board member for the Department for Education and as a member of the apprenticeship delivery board. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is absolutely clear that that is the right thing to do. In case right hon. and hon. Members or you, Mr Speaker, are in any doubt, the event was absolutely nothing to do with the Department for Education.

I thank the Minister and welcome David Meller standing down. The undercover report in the Financial Times about the event organised by the charitable trust that David Meller chairs tells more than just an alarming story. I notice that the organisation wants to put the blame on the individual members, but what actually happened is that women were bought as bait for men—rich men—not a mile from where we stand, as if that is acceptable behaviour. It is totally unacceptable.

The Department for Education recently published a response to the Women and Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment in schools, saying:

“The scale and impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools set out by the inquiry shines a light on a worrying picture: sexual harassment and abuse of girls being accepted as part of daily life…and a prevailing culture in schools which seemingly condones sexual harassment as being ‘just banter’. It is clear that action is needed”.

Those are the words of the Department. Does the Minister think that one of the junior Ministers in that Department attending that event is appropriate? Did that Minister—the Minister for children and families—raise concerns with the Department about David Meller and his conduct after he realised what was going on at the event? What is the Department going to do to make sure that a message is sent that this “lads culture” has no place in our Department for Education and it has no place in our country?

My hon. Friend raises a number of important issues, not least sexual abuse and harassment in schools, and that is where the sort of culture that ends up at a dinner like last night’s starts. Unless we get it right in schools, it will simply feed through to the rest. The Department for Education is clear that this is unacceptable right from the word go. All Departments and public bodies need to ensure that this sort of behaviour is not going on anywhere; it cannot be tolerated. This is not just about forcing people to do the right thing; it is about changing attitudes. The reports of women being bought and sold are extraordinary. I contributed to a WhatsApp group this morning and said that words failed me. I am quite old—I was born in 1955—and as I have said at the Dispatch Box before, I thought that things had changed. However, it is absolutely clear that things have not changed. I think that there is an association between wealthy people and this sort of behaviour, and we have to send a clear message that it is unacceptable.

As a mother of three young women who are the same age as the hostesses who attended this function, I can only describe my initial response as emotional and like a lioness. I immediately put myself in the position of it having been one of my daughters. That must be the reaction of every woman and every mother across the country—[Hon. Members: “And fathers!”] And fathers, too. My apologies. I am a single parent; I never think of fathers. I support the Minister in her response. It was not just Conservative men at that dinner; they were from all political denominations. The problem is with the dinner itself, and the fact that there are men who attend those dinners and think that that is appropriate. One of the prizes on the brochure was plastic surgery to

“add spice to your wife”.

It is appalling that this continues, and I support the Minister in her response. We all have a duty to ensure that these dinners never happen again.

My hon. Friend is a lioness in so many ways. I also speak as the mother of a daughter, and this can become very personal. I have also been the Deputy Chief Whip, and to some extent had duties and responsibilities towards women in the House. This is an issue on which women across the House combine. We have to send out a clear message that this is unacceptable. People need to know where the line is, because there is a line. This is about changing attitudes.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing this urgent question. I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place and thank the Minister for her comments today. I hope that the Secretary of State is as disappointed as I am that a board member and a Minister in his Department attended an event that described itself as

“the most un-PC event of the year”.

Let us be clear about what that meant. It meant an event where women were invited not as guests but as objects for rich and powerful men. They had to act as hostesses and were forced to wear revealing clothes. A number have reported that they were groped and sexually harassed. Will the Secretary of State make it clear that, like me, he believes those women and that the reported events were totally unacceptable?

I welcome the Minister’s comment that organising this kind of event should not be acceptable for any official, let alone a member of the board of the Department. I also welcome the fact that David Meller is standing down. He should not have any other role in education. Will the Secretary of State also investigate the attendance at the event of the Minister for children? Can he confirm reports that the Minister attended previous events and was invited personally by David Meller this year? His Department is responsible for safeguarding millions of children, for caring for thousands of victims of child sexual exploitation and abuse, for tackling sexual harassment and violence in our schools, colleges and universities and for educating another generation of girls and boys. Is it not time that it started leading by example?

I will lead by example. I have spoken to the Secretary of State this morning, and I know that he is equally appalled by the reports of this event. I have also spoken to my fellow Minister in the Department. He did not stay at the event long—[Interruption.]

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister found the event extremely uncomfortable. He left, and he was truly shocked by the reports that have emerged. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) said, this is an event that is attended by men of various party political allegiances—[Interruption.] Sadly, they do not know any better, and that is the tragedy—[Interruption.] That is the tragedy. Opposition Members are right to feel appalled. Believe you me, I also feel appalled. It is a tragedy that they do not know where the line should be and that they attended these events.

In this centenary year of suffrage, is this not an opportunity for all female parliamentarians to unite and send a clear message on behalf of all women in this country that this behaviour is no longer acceptable?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In this centenary year, there is an important opportunity for women not just in this House but around the country —but particularly here—to join together and send out the message that this has to change. If there are men who do not understand what precisely it is that needs to change, they can come and talk to me and I will tell them.

Obviously, the Minister has been fairly robust in the comments she has made so far, but she said that those men “do not know where the line should be”. This event was billed as

“the most un-PC event of the year”,

so they clearly do know where the line should be, and they decided to cross it. We have heard reports of toilets being monitored and of women who were lingering too long in them being called out and led back to the ballroom. That is not sexism; that is slavery. It is appalling. I was a teacher for 20 years, and I had occasion to deal with sexism, but never on this scale or to this degree. Back in October, the previous Secretary of State for Education said that

“sexist…language must have no place in our society, and parliamentarians of all parties have a duty to stamp out this sort of behaviour wherever we encounter it”.

We might think that everyone agreed with that statement, but we need to ask ourselves whether the current Secretary of State and the Government really do agree with it. This comes at the start of what we were told would be a radical shake-up of the culture of sexual harassment—

Order. I recognise the extreme sensitivity of this subject, and I respect the hon. Lady and want to hear what she has to say, but she has now exceeded her time. She has given us a real sense of her anger, and I ask her now to put her question, please.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will put a couple of questions. First, what message does this send to our young people, and how are we giving our teachers the ability to fight sexism when the Government are appointing such people to prominent roles? I also ask the Minister, what screening is being carried out of people who are being appointed to all Departments?

I thank the hon. Lady, but I would just like to say that I do not think my attitude towards this issue and many others affecting women could be described as “fairly robust”. I am extremely robust and extremely radical. She made a point about where the line should be drawn. I have not seen how the event was billed, but the people who attended it clearly did not know where the line was. We need to make it clear where it is—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members would listen for a minute, I would just like to say that this is not about this Government. I will answer the points about due diligence and governance, but this is an issue for women that goes right across the political spectrum. This is not just about this Government or Conservative Members; this happens everywhere. If hon. Members do not think that it happens everywhere, they will be in for shock. The Government do understand, and there is no doubt that measures will be put in place so that proper due diligence is done. We cannot do that just once, however; we have to look at people’s behaviour continually. We cannot just do it as a one-off and leave it at that.

I thank the Minister for her strong condemnation of this event. Does she share my disgust for the women who put themselves in a position of leadership and groomed and pimped the young ladies involved? Does she agree that their actions are also abhorrent?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that related but important issue. There were women in leadership roles who painted these women, and it does not fall far short of payment for sex. It is shocking that such women were probably encouraging other women into these sort of jobs.

Is the Minister aware that, according to the Financial Times, the Presidents Club actually includes the following disclaimer in its corporate literature for the event? It states:

“The Presidents Club shall accept no responsibility and shall not be held liable for any actions of its members, staff or event attendees that amount to harassment.”

The fact that it tried to include that disclaimer in the first place shows how shocking things are. It was trying to disclaim any responsibility for what happened. The organisers chose to make it a men-only event. They chose to treat the hostesses in this way, making them parade across the stage in front of the men, making them wear black skimpy outfits and specifying the colour of their underwear. They chose to ask them to drink before the event. Does the Minister agree that all the organisers, including the Presidents Club and all the private companies involved in organising the event, should be investigated for breaches of the law and charity rules?

The right hon. Lady is obviously very angry about this, and her report—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, do I look like somebody who is not angry? Do I look like somebody who is in any way excusing this sort of behaviour? I am not. I am absolutely shocked by the Presidents Club. If the organisers were trying to deny responsibility in their literature, perhaps they will wake up at the end of this urgent question and realise that they now do have some responsibility. Things are now out in the public domain, and Members’ contributions today will have added to that. It is shocking, but do not cry at me; I feel as appalled as all Opposition Members.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement today. She has done absolutely the right thing. I share everybody’s anger, disgust and, frankly, astonishment that an event of this nature can even have taken place. Does she think that possibly one of the best things that we could do is to ensure that every single person at that dinner who runs a big business in our country damn well gets their gender pay gap data published?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. Never miss an opportunity, I say, to mention the gender pay gap. She is absolutely right that every single business and organisation that attended that dinner should report that data at least by the end of this week.

The Fawcett Society recently published a report stating that violence and harassment against women was endemic in our country, with two thirds of women over 16 reporting that they have suffered sexual harassment. Does the Minister note that the employment contracts and notes for the women attending the event as hostesses asked them to be “tall, thin and pretty” and that they had to deal with what was expected to be harassment? That is surely against the law. Will she look at employment law protections and make it certain that the law is enforced, that the Equality and Human Rights Commission looks at the event and that we get some protection for vulnerable women?

The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I will certainly ensure that the situation is looked at with regard to employment law. I commend the Fawcett Society, which does brilliant cross-party work to further women’s rights and women’s political representation. But clearly—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady asks me from a sedentary position whether these women were self-employed. I do not know anything about the Presidents Club—[Interruption.] Let me finish. I know nothing about the Presidents Club, but we will clearly look into it, particularly if there is a suggestion that the law was broken. If any hon. Member knows of something that they think should be investigated, it would probably be helpful if they used me as a conduit and sent me their emails. I will investigate and ensure that, if any law has been broken, the full force of the law will come down on those who have broken it.

Order. I selected this urgent question because I regard it as a matter of the utmost importance, and I would like to accommodate every colleague who wants to contribute. I ask colleagues to bear in mind that there is a ten-minute rule motion to follow and two Opposition day debates, the first of which is particularly heavily subscribed. If we can have brief questions and brief replies, that would be helpful, but I do want colleagues to be heard.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s response and the resignation of the individual concerned. Does the Minister agree that there is much cross-party work that we could do to ensure that such events have no place in our society and that such behaviour is condemned?

“Cross-party” is absolutely the phrase to use, and perhaps that work will start from today.

The outstanding journalism of Madison Marriage at the Financial Times shines a spotlight on a real problem in our society. Some men, especially the rich and powerful, feel entitled to women, view their bodies as playthings and think that the lecherous pawing and groping of women is acceptable behaviour. That a charity is prepared to facilitate that behaviour as long as wealthy men are opening their chequebooks beggars belief. I am glad that David Meller has stepped down from the board of the Department for Education—perhaps he was encouraged to do so—but does the Minister agree that the Charity Commission urgently needs to investigate the failure of the trustees of this charity to discharge their duties to protect health and safety and the reputation of the charity?

The hon. Lady mentions rich entitled men, but I will also mention powerful entitled men because this is not just about the rich. I gather that Great Ormond Street Hospital is not going to take the money that was raised by the event, which is a start, and I also gather that the hon. Lady has raised her point with the Charity Commission.

I thank the Minister for her robust response, which is unequivocally supported by Conservative Members. The businesses involved need to be hit in the pocket. What more can the Minister do to send out a clear message that this culture is unacceptable and to damage their profits?

Today’s contributions from all around the House should send an important message to businesses that such behaviour is unacceptable, but this does not just happen at big charity events. We have heard about sexual abuse and harassment in this House but, believe you me, it is also going on in the workplaces of businesses up and down the country.

I suggest to the Minister that this is more than a collective misjudgment; it is a deliberate sticking up of two fingers to those who are perceived to be part of the PC culture. One way in which her Department could root out this behaviour is to expedite the introduction of compulsory personal, social, health and economic education in our schools, so that at least the next generation of men will know that it is totally unacceptable.

Sex and relationships education is now compulsory. The hon. Lady raises an important point that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) also raised. What really matters is that we breed a new generation of young people who understand where the boundaries lie. What has gone so terribly wrong that we have bred young men—I suggest that a lot of people at the event were perhaps 20 or maybe even 30 years younger than me—who think that this sort of thing is acceptable?

I thank the Minister for her considered response. However, it is frankly not good enough to say that the Minister for children and families stayed a short time, which is a very subjective term—it might be an hour to some and three hours to others. Can she advise whether that same Minister reported back after he had seen, at worst, illegal or, at best, unsavoury activities during that event?

The hon. Lady will have to take me as vouching for the Minister for children and families. I know he felt deeply uncomfortable. I would be surprised if he had seen all the publicity material for the event, but I know he felt very, very uncomfortable. The hon. Lady will have to believe me that, from his demeanour this morning, the Minister for children and families was truly shocked.

I was profoundly shocked by the reports of what happened at the event organised by the Presidents Club, and I am pleased that the Minister has given such a robust condemnation of the event. Although she has been very loyal to her ministerial colleague, who reportedly did not stay for any long period of time, it is also reported that the same hon. Gentleman attended the Presidents Club event on a previous occasion. I have no idea whether that is true, but that is what has been reported. If that is the case, should he not consider his position?

I have no idea whether the Minister for children and families has attended the event before, but I know that senior Members on both sides of the House have attended this event. Let us hope that this urgent question draws a line in the sand and demonstrates to hon. Members that they should think twice about attending any event like this ever again.

With 64% of teachers in mixed secondary schools telling UK Feminista that they hear sexist language on a weekly basis, what message does the Minister think the attendance of the new Minister for children and families at this event sends to those teachers who are trying to combat sexism in their classrooms? And what action, not words, will the Department take to address it?

I know the Secretary of State will want to look at all aspects of this, not least the due diligence. The hon. Lady is right, but hearing sexist language in the playground and in schools is just the tip of the iceberg. The stories of sexual abuse, rape and harassment happening in some of our schools are shocking.

In light of the fact that a departmental non-executive director and a Minister attended this despicable event, does the Minister agree that it may be time for a review of the ministerial code of conduct and of the seven principles of public life to ensure that they reflect the commitment to the standards of equality and decency that we expect from our public servants? That will set an example and send a message to society as a whole.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is looking at a number of issues, and I believe the code of conduct is being reviewed. The tragedy is that we should not need a code of conduct, but we clearly do. It is a tragedy that we need it. Why do people need to be told to behave appropriately? Why do they need to be told not to use sexist or racist language? Why do they need to be told where the boundaries are? People clearly do, and that is the sadness of it. I am robust and angry, but a little bit of me is also extremely sad.

As a former Education Minister, I know jolly well that civil servants brief Ministers on what events are in their diary and give them information. I have a lot of time for the Minister. Can she find out exactly what was said to the Minister for children and families about attending the event last week?

The Minister for children and families did not attend in any official capacity. I understand that he attended not as a Minister, but as a private individual.

The Financial Times reports that lot four of the charity auction last week included lunch with the Foreign Secretary. Has the Minister spoken to him? Does she know whether the lunch is still going ahead? What message does it send out to the world that our Foreign Secretary endorses such an event?

I make it absolutely clear that the Foreign Secretary knew nothing of his inclusion in any auction, and he in no way endorsed the event.

It is absolutely clear from the Financial Times report that the women were employed to be harassed. They were forced to sign a disclaimer beforehand that they were not given time to read. Whatever the Minister’s personal views, will she take away the message from this House that we do not have confidence in the Minister for children and families, who attended the event and who is meant to be in charge of child protection?

Yes, I think they were employed to be a great deal more than harassed. We will look at all aspects of this in relation to employment law. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) said earlier, this brings into sharp light the women leaders—the people who run the businesses that employed these young women. We need to look at it all, and we will take robust action. Have no fear about that.

As a former teacher, I woke up this morning thinking, “What on earth will my former students be thinking this morning about the state of the world?” It is absolutely disgusting. I press the Minister on the point already made about bringing sex and relationships education into schools for the upcoming academic year. Sex and relationships education has never been more needed. Please can we have it sooner rather than later?

We have an ongoing call for evidence. [Interruption.] I think it is extremely important to hear the views of young people themselves, because they are very aware of what sort of relationship and sex education is needed. There is no doubt that the Department will make sure these guidelines are out as soon as possible, because there is clearly an urgent need. It is absolutely right that we hear the views of young people on how they feel this should be delivered.

What talks does the Minister intend to have with the Financial Times? This was not a one-off incident, and the Financial Times must have had some suspicions that something like this was going to happen. How many times has it happened before?

That is a very good question. It is important to talk to journalists about this event and about whether they know of any others, how they found out about it, et cetera, particularly if we want to pursue the issues that have been raised about a possible breach of employment law.

It seems to me that the Minister for children and families has attended this event and failed to report his concerns about its nature. Will the right hon. Lady please inquire with him as to why he did not submit a report, and will she urge him to do so even at this late stage?

The Minister for children and families submitted a report to me first thing this morning, at the earliest opportunity.

The Minister talks about the importance of talking to young people. I am sure that all Members here spend time talking to young people, and I have been shocked, in my six months of being an MP, at the young girls who have an expectation that it is normal to sleep with their boyfriend’s friends, carry their boyfriend’s knives and behave in a certain way; and language is so important, as well as words. If it transpires that the Minister did not report his concerns, and that he attended the event on previous occasions, it is obvious that he needs to resign. Our women, our young girls are too important to be getting this kind of message from our leaders and to think that it is acceptable.

Language is critical because language says more than the words that are said, because it describes underlying attitudes. With relationship and sex education in schools, I think we can make young people understand what attitudes lie behind the words that they use.

These were crimes against women, but I hope the Minister will also agree that these were crimes against a decent society, and that plenty of men share my bewilderment and revulsion at what has gone on. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) the Minister offered to be a conduit, so would she possibly be a conduit to Home Office Ministers, who might then refer the matter on to the Metropolitan police for consideration of crimes such as indecent exposure and sexual assault?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, because it is important that we all recognise that men can be very powerful agents for change, at all levels, concerning the abuse of women. The appropriate authorities will look at all of this. Obviously, today’s exchanges in the Chamber will be read by Home Office Ministers, and I know they will take this matter very seriously; I give the hon. Gentleman my assurance of that.

What can I say? It is an absolutely appalling event. It objectified women, undermines the steps we have taken towards equality and perpetuates fundamentally abuse in society. When it comes to the Minister, I have to say I believe it is absolutely incongruous to be working seriously on sexual harassment in Parliament and beyond whilst attending this type of event.

I will finish where I started, and that is to say that I share the hon. Lady’s views. Words absolutely failed me when I heard reports of this event.

Points of Order

Several hon. Members rose—