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Volume 635: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2018

I have been asked to reply. Mr right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in China, building on the existing strong ties between our two countries, and she is accompanied by the largest business delegation that this Government have yet led.

A number of Carillion employees and former employees live in my constituency; indeed, the company has an apprenticeship training centre in Gateshead. They all still face an uncertain future. Will the Government act now to prevent similar corporate theft, whereby pirate directors have syphoned off what should have been hundreds of millions of pounds in pension contributions to pay bogus dividends and unearned corporate bonuses to themselves? Exactly what action do the Government propose to take?

I completely understand the anxiety that must be affecting the apprentices and their families in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He probably heard me say during last week’s debates that the Construction Industry Training Board has taken responsibility for finding alternative employers to enable all those apprentices who were with Carillion to continue and complete their qualifications. It is making good progress in that work, but I shall ensure that the particular concern that he has expressed about Gateshead is brought to its attention.

On the broader question, the House will understand that it would be wrong for me to pre-empt findings by an independent inquiry by the official receiver, but we have already made it clear that we will be publishing proposals later this year to stop directors being able to siphon off pension funds in the way the hon. Gentleman described.

Q2. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the country faces significant cyber-threats from other countries and from non-state actors. He will also be aware that we are protected from those by our security and intelligence services, including the men and women at GCHQ in my county of Gloucestershire. When the Government publish the results of the security review, will he confirm that we will continue, as we have since 2010, to invest in those capabilities to keep our country safe? (903647)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct and I am happy to give him that assurance on behalf of the Government. The sad truth is that, in this country, we face a growing threat of cyber-attacks from states, from serious crime gangs and from hacking groups. We do have a robust national cyber-security strategy to protect critical services, including our democratic processes, and that is underpinned by nearly £2 billion of Government investment.

Let me start by welcoming the Minister back to his role deputising for the Prime Minister. The last time he did so was in December 2016, when the Conservative party was 17 points ahead in the polls, and he told the House that the Labour party was “quarrelling like” in the film

“‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ as re-shot by the ‘Carry On’ team.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 208.]

Well, what a difference a year makes.

But I am not going to intrude further on the Government’s public grief, because I genuinely hope that we can reach consensus across this House today on a very important issue. Next Tuesday will be the centenary of women gaining the right to vote in Britain; that was followed later in 1918 by a second right, to stand for Parliament. I am sure that the Minister will agree that we have a long way to go with regard to the second right; after all, I am the only Emily elected since 1918, and he is one of 155 Davids. The women behind me on the Labour Benches represent one quarter of all the women elected in the last 100 years, but it is still not good enough. Will the Minister tell us how we can best increase female representation in this House?

May I first thank the right hon. Lady for her words of welcome? Clearly, my previous remarks struck a chord with her, to have been treasured in the way that they have. It is a delight to me to see the right hon. Lady still in her place, when no fewer than 97 members of her Front Bench have either been sacked or have resigned since the Leader of the Opposition took office. I pay credit to her sticking power, although she must sometimes whisper to herself, “Surely, I’m a celebrity. Please get me out of here!”

The point that the right hon. Lady raised is a serious one. I think that all political parties represented here—she is right to seek to make this consensual—want to encourage more women candidates to come forward. I am pleased that the Conservative party, since I was first elected 25 years ago, has made very considerable progress, but I also accept that there is more to be done. I hope that she, for her part, will accept that we have now had two women leaders and Prime Ministers, so the Labour party has a bit of catching up to do.

If the Conservative party is so proud of having a female leader, why are so many of them trying to get rid of her and why has she had to run away to China to get away from them? However, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer and I totally agree with his sentiments. Let me ask him about the first right that I mentioned, a right that millions of women received 100 years ago this week: the basic right to vote. It was originally restricted to women with property over the age of 30. Then 90 years ago, it was extended to all women over 21. Almost 50 years ago, it was extended to all men and women over the age of 18. I ask the right hon. Gentleman a simple question: how many more years do we have to wait until the vote is extended to everyone over 16?

The age of 18, rather than 16, is widely recognised as the age at which one becomes an adult and that is when full citizenship rights are attained. Only a handful of countries have a nationwide voting age below 18 and we believe that it is right that the age of majority—18—should continue to be the age at which people become eligible to vote.

The right hon. Gentleman makes international comparisons, but I have to say to him that it was this country and a Labour Government that led the way in Europe and the English-speaking world in reducing the voting age to 18 in 1969. Where we led, others followed, and it will be the same here.

Let me move on to a second question that I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman. I have listened carefully to his answer, but I did not hear any logical explanation for the different rights that we give to 16-year-olds in this country. At 16, we are free from parental control, we can leave home, we can start a family, we can get married, we can start work, we can pay taxes and we can join the forces, so can he give us a logical explanation of why a 16-year-old should not have the right to vote?

I am slightly baffled by the right hon. Lady’s comments when compared with what her party did in office, because it was the last Labour Government who raised the legal age for buying cigarettes to 18, raised the age for sales of knives to 18, raised the age for buying fireworks to 18 and raised the age for using a sunbed to 18. If she wants a lesson in inconsistency, she might like to examine the mirror.

The right hon. Gentleman mentions a range of restrictions that we have until the age of 18, but those are for the most part to do with public health, public safety and the prevention of crime. They are not the same as the basic right to vote on issues that affect your life once you are considered old enough to make other independent decisions about your life, such as leaving school, leaving home and getting married. Let me give him a specific example—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sure that it will not have escaped public notice, and it is rather a sad irony, that when a woman is addressing the House, quite a lot of noisy, boorish and, in one case rather stupid, individuals are trying to shout the right hon. Lady down. Cut it out!

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

I want to give the right hon. Gentleman a specific example to illustrate what I am talking about. According to the Government’s own figures, the number of 16 and 17-year-olds receiving carer’s allowance for looking after disabled relatives at home has risen by more than 50% over the past four years, so last year, over 2,000 16 and 17-year-olds gave up their youth and often their schooling to care for relatives at home. How can it be fair and how can it be logical to expect them to take on that responsibility because of failures of the state and then to deny them a say on how that very state is run?

The logic of the right hon. Lady’s argument is that she wishes to lower the age of majority from 18 to 16. She listed a number of areas in which she supported the age at which activity should be allowed to 18, on the grounds that only then could people be expected to have sufficient maturity and responsibility to have those rights. My argument to her is that the age of majority should be set matching both rights and responsibilities. I think that it is perfectly reasonable to say that, from the age of 18, we entrust young men and women to exercise those rights and responsibilities in full. On the final point she made, it is right that sensible local authorities have particular care for the role of young carers. In my experience, local authorities, whichever party runs them, make every effort to do that.

I am genuinely surprised at the Minister’s response. This is what he said two years ago, speaking to the Youth Parliament:

“When the voice and the vote of young people is absent, decisions are taken that affect young people’s lives that they have not always chosen”.

Not for the first time in these exchanges, I have to say that I agree with him—all of us on the Labour Benches agree with him. Why does he no longer agree with himself?

If the right hon. Lady had been with me at the Youth Parliament, which was indeed both a memorable and an enjoyable occasion, she would have discovered that a significant number of the young men and women there were actually over the voting age. I fully support the role that the Youth Parliament plays, the role that its members play throughout the country and the role that organisations such as school councils play in getting young people used to the idea of exercising democratic responsibility. That seems to me to be excellent training for the full adult responsibilities they will inherit when they turn 18, and I hope that it will encourage more young people to go out and vote.

The Minister says that he was only talking about 18 year olds, but you were there, Mr Speaker; he was talking to 370 under-18s. These discussions have revealed that there is no logical principled objection to votes at 16. That is why the Welsh and Scottish Governments support it and why every single political party in the House supports it, except, of course, the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist party—joined, once again, in opposition to change. They are not the coalition of chaos; they are the coalition of cavemen. [Interruption.] Does he not realise—

Order. One Member who thinks he knows what he is talking about is gesticulating at me. The answer is that it is a matter of taste, not of order. It is blindingly obvious and should not really escape somebody of great intelligence.

I was talking about cavemen, Mr Speaker. Why does the Minister not realise the lesson that we women taught his predecessors 100 years ago? When change is right it cannot be resisted forever, and this is a change whose time has come.

My advice to the right hon. Lady is to wean herself off the habit of watching old versions of “The Flintstones” on the relevant cartoon channel.

We ought to salute the fact that not just the Youth Parliament but many schools and other youth organisations throughout the country are working hard to get young people used to the idea that, as they grow up, they should take an interest in current affairs and then, when they reach the relevant age, exercise the full rights and responsibilities of an adult by participating in elections and political campaigning, The situation here, with the national voting age at 18, is one that is followed by 26 out of the 27 other members of the EU and by the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Unless she is going to denounce all of those countries as somehow inadequate by her own particular standards, she ought to grow up and treat this subject with greater seriousness.

Q3. The Government’s policy on tax has made the UK one of the most competitive places to do business, as was confirmed by the recent growth figures. Does my right hon. Friend agree, therefore, that raising tax would damage the UK economy, as we have seen in Scotland, where growth has fallen behind the rest of the UK? (903648)

I am very happy to agree with my hon. Friend. We devolved new powers from this House to Holyrood, and it is obviously for the Scottish Government to determine how to use them. It is a matter of great regret, however, that they have chosen to use those powers to break their promises and penalise aspiration in Scotland. In our Budget, we increased the Scottish Government’s spending power by £2 billion, so the SNP has no excuse for hiking the taxes of hard-working people, including public servants, and penalising businesses. The leader of the Scottish nationalists in Westminster used to champion wealth creation and free enterprise. I hope he will ask the First Minister of Scotland to think again.

I welcome the Minister to his place. If the reports are true, he may be auditioning for a new role. I wonder if he is sending a “round robin” letter.

The Minister has previously said that

“the Single Market is essential to this government’s agenda for trade and competitiveness.”

Since BuzzFeed published the leaked Brexit analysis, has the Minister recognised that the single market is essential to jobs and prosperity?

When we leave the European Union in March next year, we will, as a matter of legality, leave the single market and the EU customs union. The Prime Minister and the entire Government have also made it clear, in both the Lancaster House speech and the Florence speech, that we are seeking a new partnership with our neighbours in the European Union that will ensure that we continue to have frictionless trade, which is in the interest of not just our people but the people of every one of the 27 other EU countries.

I must say that I am surprised at the Minister, because it is not a question of legality. We are going to be in a transitional deal, so we will still be in the single market when we leave the EU.

This is a Government who are in crisis, and an international embarrassment. The Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Scottish Conservatives and the Home Secretary have all supported membership of the single market, but despite that, the Government are still prepared to make everyone poorer. Where is the leadership?

The leadership that the right hon. Gentleman wants was set out very clearly at Lancaster House and then again in Florence, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be making further speeches on these issues in the weeks and months to come. Let me point out to him, however, that the single market that is most important to the people of Scotland is the single market of the United Kingdom, which is worth nearly £50 billion every year to the Scottish economy—four times more than trade with the European Union. It is our deep and special partnership with the EU in the future, not the separatist policies pursued by the Scottish National party, that will help to deliver prosperity to Scotland.

Q5. I know my right hon. Friend shares my passion for ensuring that all children have opportunities to succeed, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Can he tell us what progress the Government have made in reducing the attainment gap between less well off secondary school pupils and their peers, and—given their positive impact—when the round of free school applications will open? (903650)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government’s clear ambition and purpose is to ensure that our school system works for every child in every community in this country. Our reforms have already raised school standards. Nearly 2 million more children are attending good and outstanding schools, and since 2011 the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has shrunk by 10% at GCSE and by 10.5% at key stage 2. I know that Education Ministers will be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about their plans to further improve standards in schools.

Q4. Last Sunday in my constituency, Reece Oduleye-Waters, who was just 17, was stabbed, with life-changing results. The knife crime that is happening across our country is not being driven by minors and young people; it is being driven by gangsters, organised criminals, and dirty money. Cocaine alone is worth £12 billion to the market in this country, with 100 tonnes of it crossing our borders. So I ask the Minister this: why are we cutting our border force, why are we cutting our police, and why has London been offered, in the violence reduction strategy, a community fund of only half a million pounds? No one could buy a house for half a million in London. (903649)

I, like every other Member of this House, have nothing but the most heartfelt sympathy for Reece and his family and friends for the most appalling experience that they have endured and are still living through. The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that there are complex causes of the knife crime we are seeing. I agree that there is no doubt that organised crime is contributing to this, and is exploiting young people; organised criminals try to groom young people and attract them into criminal gangs. The Government will publish later this year a violent crime strategy looking not just at the criminal justice system, but at how we can work effectively with all other agencies to ensure that young people are diverted away from that sort of activity in the first place. But it is also true that those carrying a knife can now expect to end up in jail; we have toughened the sentences. And despite what the right hon. Gentleman said, we have also protected police budgets; a quarter of all police are in London.

Q8. Demand for school places in the London Borough of Bromley is forecast to grow by some 20% over coming years, but repeatedly proposals for much needed schools have been delayed, in no small measure because of concerns at the way the Education and Skills Funding Agency has handled the planning application process. On behalf of the Prime Minister, will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss the very real concerns of local parents as to the competency of the agency? (903653)

Either I or my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary will be happy to talk to my hon. Friend. The purpose of the ESFA, formed at the start of this financial year, is to provide a more joined-up approach to funding, covering both schools and colleges and other providers. I note that Bromley has increased both primary and secondary school capacity by more than 6,300 places since 2010, and the ESFA is delivering nine schools in Bromley, but there is clearly more work to be done, and Ministers will gladly talk to my hon. Friend about that.

Q6. Recent research shows that international students are worth a staggering £20 billion to the UK economy; that research was commissioned by Nick Hillman, Conservative parliamentary candidate in Cambridge in 2010 and a former adviser to Lord Willetts. Yet the policies of the Prime Minister have stopped that steady increase in the number of international students coming to our country. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is a touch careless of the Prime Minister to have squandered billions of pounds that could have been available to our schools and hospitals? (903651)

The facts say that we are the second most popular destination in the world for students and university-sponsored visa applications are up by nearly one fifth since 2010, so I would argue that, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman alleges, we are doing a good job in attracting international students.

Q10. South Dorset is the most beautiful constituency in the whole of the United Kingdom, so improving the infrastructure to create jobs and prosperity is difficult. What we can do is improve our rail links on the Salisbury line and at Yeovil Junction to get faster trains to Weymouth. Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents and me that the Government are behind this scheme, to do exactly what the Government want: create more wealth and prosperity in South Dorset? (903655)

As my hon. Friend will know, the Chancellor last year set aside very considerable sums of money—more than £20 billion—to finance infrastructure improvements in rail, road and broadband, in order to generate growth around the country and facilitate housing developments; my hon. Friend’s constituency has seen considerable new housing development in recent years. I will ensure that Transport Ministers talk to him about the particular concerns he has expressed.

Q7. On 25 January 1985, the Conservative Government promised that no nuclear waste would be dumped in the Billingham anhydrite mine. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirmed that that promise still stands? (903652)

The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me, but my memory for statements that were given in 1985 is a little bit rusty. That was seven years before even I was first elected to this House. I will look into the point that he has raised and write to him to set out the position.

Q13. To secure our future prosperity and to meet the employment challenge posed by artificial intelligence, this country has an urgent need to improve its digital skills base. Will my right hon. Friend therefore congratulate the Open University in my constituency on securing a leading role in the Government’s Institute of Coding? (903658)

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Open University on securing that lead role in the Institute of Coding, which is an important new initiative to get universities to work closely with business to develop specialist coding skills. The Government are investing £84 million to deliver a comprehensive programme to improve the teaching of the computing curriculum, and we look forward to working closely with the university and the institute.

Q9. After 10 years in this country, one of my constituents missed out on the right to claim indefinite leave to remain by 22 days when she left the country to attend her father’s funeral and broke her leg, making her unable to return. The Home Secretary is aware of this case, and my constituent has been told that she will have to wait a further 10 years to reapply. This will mean that she will be unable to adopt a child, which could be the only way in which she can start a family in this country. Will the right hon. Gentleman raise this issue with the Prime Minister when she returns, and may we have a meeting to discuss the issue? (903654)

Obviously I know no more details of the case than those that the hon. Gentleman has just described, but, like many Members, I have immigration casework in my constituency, so I am familiar with the type of problem that he describes. If he would like to write to me after these exchanges to set out the details, I will discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and the relevant Minister will certainly meet him.

Q14. Last week, I visited RNAS Culdrose as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and was delighted to see the great outreach programme that the sailors are using to promote science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—skills and innovation in the local community. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this initiative to inspire the skills that our armed forces and our country will need to succeed in the future is a huge credit to the forward thinking of the team at Culdrose and that its approach should be highly commended? (903659)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know about the important role that Culdrose plays in the life of Cornwall, but he has highlighted the fact that its work deserves to be in the national spotlight as well. We want and need to build the science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills that we will need in a growing and rapidly changing economy, as we highlighted in the Government’s industrial strategy, and the initiative at Culdrose will contribute to the success of those objectives.

Q11. It is an extraordinary fact that this year, last year and every year for more than a decade, one London borough, the London Borough of Islington, has received more Arts Council funding than all the midlands and northern ex-coalfield communities combined. Who is going to be brave enough to reverse that inequity so that my constituents, especially my young constituents, can have fair and equitable access to arts funding? (903656)

I am not sure whether that was meant as an attack on the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) or the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), but I can say to the hon. Gentleman that if there is a particular bid that he feels has been unfairly treated, he is welcome to take that up with the new arts Minister, who I know will want to examine the case carefully. In general terms, however, more than half the arts funding in England is awarded to arts activities outside Greater London.

Q15. Holiday homes in Cornwall are a mixed blessing. They provide important support to our local economy, but they also take up vital housing stock and push up prices beyond the reach of many local people. In addition, many people avoid paying council tax on them by switching them to business use and then enjoying the benefits of small business rates relief. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that unacceptable? Will he use his good offices to help the Government to find a way of closing the loophole? (903660)

My hon. Friend raises a valid point, and it is right that holiday home owners should pay the correct tax. Obviously, individual decisions on whether a property should pay council tax or business rates rests with the Valuation Office Agency, which rightly operates independently of Ministers. However, if a property is available for rent for 140 days or a more a year, it will be subject to business rates. If it does not meet that test, council tax will be due. If an individual provides false information in order to seek business rates relief, that person is liable to summary conviction or a fine or both.

Q12. The Prime Minister wants to bring forward legislation to tackle domestic violence and abuse, but her Government are currently taxing the same survivors for using the Child Maintenance Service. For survivors of domestic abuse, using the collect and pay service is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of safety. Will the right hon. Gentleman urge the Prime Minister to commit to using legislation to scrap the tax for survivors of domestic violence? (903657)

A Government consultation on this matter is imminent, and I urge the hon. Lady to make her representations to that consultation and also directly to the relevant Minister.

Following last year’s terrorist attack in Manchester, the Government committed £24 million to the city. With the effects still being felt across the area, including in my constituency, will the Government provide an assurance that they will continue to support Manchester?

We will certainly continue to support Manchester right across Government through the various agencies and spending programmes that the Government have available. Manchester demonstrated its resilience and its strong sense of community identity and purpose last year, and they will serve it well both economically and socially in the years to come.

The whole House will warmly welcome the fantastic news that has saved thousands of jobs at Bombardier in Northern Ireland. We should pay tribute to Bombardier’s management, both in Belfast and in Canada, the workforce and the unions, which worked well together, hon. Members on the Democratic Unionist party Bench, including my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and the Government, which rode in strongly to support the company. I urge the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to get behind improving manufacturing in Northern Ireland, because vital decisions are outstanding. I also gently urge the Government, who always listen very carefully, to get on with it.

May I first thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words? Although it is now a few years since I had the opportunity to visit Bombardier in Belfast, I still remember how important that enterprise is for the provision of high-quality, well-paid skilled work both in the city and more widely in Northern Ireland. He is right to say that the Government worked closely with Northern Ireland leaders and politicians. The Prime Minister raised the matter personally more than once with President Trump and with Prime Minister Trudeau, and my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has also been active on Bombardier’s behalf. We are pleased by the outcome. The right hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the Government will remain a strong supporter of business in Northern Ireland, but the sooner that we can get back to devolved government in Northern Ireland, the easier it will be to ensure that practical benefits flow back to Northern Ireland.

A vibrant high street is critical in traditional market towns such as Knaresborough, which has had a market since 1310. In this age of internet shopping, will my right hon. Friend confirm the Government’s support for traditional markets and for policies that will boost our high streets?

My hon. Friend is right to speak up on behalf of his constituents, and I know he is a tireless campaigner for Harrogate and Knaresborough. Markets like the one in Knaresborough are part of the local fabric and tradition of towns right across this country. The Government want to help those markets and town centres to prosper in a rapidly changing retail environment. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will be happy to write to him with further details.

Lincoln’s walk-in centre will close in a few weeks, despite there being inconsistent and insufficient service provision in place to mitigate the closure. Will the Minister pass on to the Prime Minister my request for her to meet me both to discuss and review that closure?

If the hon. Lady would like to provide a bit more detail than she has had the time to set out today, I will ensure that a Minister sees her about this.

Next Wednesday we will be assessing and voting on the local government finance settlement. A group of us from the shire counties are very concerned that there is not enough money for rural counties like ours, where adult social care costs are spiralling out of control. My own county is facing a black hole of £10 million because of adult social care costs. What message should I take back to the leader of my council?

One message is that the Government have made an extra £2 billion of funding available to local authorities for social care. Obviously, local authorities are currently deciding whether to use the more flexible precepting powers they have in respect of social care. My hon. Friend met my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary a few days ago, and I would encourage him to continue talking to the Communities Secretary and other Ministers in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about the particular circumstances in Shropshire.

The current edition of The Economist carries an article that says the hostile takeover bid for GKN by Melrose

“casts doubt not only on the survival of GKN, Britain’s third-largest independent aerospace and defence firm, but on much of the rest of the industry, too.”

The right hon. Gentleman knows that, where national security issues are involved, Ministers have the power to intervene to protect the public interest. Will they do so in this case?

As I understand it, the bid for GKN is being examined by the relevant independent authorities. Clearly this is also something that the appropriate Ministers in the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be monitoring very closely. For now, it would be wrong of me to speculate about this case in more detail.

My constituency of Chelmsford is a very popular place to live, and this week we have had the very good news that more first-time buyers are getting on the housing ladder than at any time in the past decade. Will my right hon. Friend update us on the Government’s progress on helping people to buy a house?

I am pleased to be able to say that the number of first-time buyers is now at the highest level for about 10 years, which is a tribute to the various initiatives that both the Communities Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have put in place to encourage first-time buyers—the cut in stamp duty, for example, will benefit about 95% of first-time buyers—but we also need to improve housing supply. Constituencies like hers and mine are showing the way to much of the rest of the country on the need to build houses to meet the legitimate demands and expectations of young people who are working incredibly hard and want to get a foot on the housing ladder.