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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 649: debated on Wednesday 14 November 2018

Cabinet Office

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Postal Voting System

1. What recent assessment he has made of the integrity of the postal voting system in local and national elections. (907572)

The British public deserve to have confidence in our democracy, and the Government are committed to ensuring that our electoral system, including postal voting, is fit for the future. Next year, Peterborough and Pendle will pilot improvements to the security of postal voting. The Electoral Commission’s evaluation of some similar 2018 pilots was published in July.

Does the Minister acknowledge that the combination of postal voting on demand in Great Britain, but not in Northern Ireland, and large extended family networks sometimes gives rise to accusations of undue influence? What safeguards can be put in place?

I would condemn any such undue influence, and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I agree on that wholeheartedly. It is really important that postal voters are aware that their vote is theirs alone. That was the subject of a major awareness campaign at past local elections, and we hope to see similar again.

Will my hon. Friend examine what happened at the local elections last year, particularly those in London? Large numbers of voters were added to the register, had postal votes and then disappeared off the electoral register very soon afterwards. There are clearly potentially fraudulent activities at work.

I would certainly expect returning officers to look into that carefully, and I would support them in their efforts to do so. It is difficult for me to make any more detailed comments on that from the Dispatch Box, but in general terms we certainly wish to keep the postal voting process secure and safe and to ensure that that process contributes to the overall integrity of our elections.

Will the Minister assure the House that if there is an early general election, our postal vote system is robust enough and able to cope?

Does the Minister share my view that strengthening the integrity of the postal voting system will ensure that our electoral system is fit for the future?

Yes, I do, which is why I refer again to the pilots that I mentioned in my first answer. They will be important to give voters reassurance and confidence that our system is doing what we expect it to do and thus that our elections overall are secure.

Does the Minister accept that we must ensure that there is no repeat of what happened in the most recent election in Northern Ireland, where, because the proxy and postal vote system did not require people to produce photographic ID, there was a 600% increase in such voting in one constituency, resulting in a perversion of democracy?

I am happy to take a closer look at the figure that the hon. Gentleman cites and the specifics of that case. I mention again the pilots that we have tested in 2018 and that will run again in 2019, which are about helping voters to be confident that the whole system—not only postal and proxy voting but the rest of the electoral system—is secure, by means of looking into ways for voters to identify themselves and show that they are who they say they are.

Eric Pickles’s report “Securing the ballot” suggested that postal ballot applications should have to be made every three years. Is my hon. Friend looking into that suggestion?

Indeed. I am grateful to Lord Pickles for his report and his work, and we are looking carefully at the huge majority of his recommendations and taking them forward wherever we can.

Infected Blood Inquiry

The inquiry has now completed its preliminary hearings and plans to start its formal public hearings at the end of April 2019. Between now and then, the inquiry will hold public meetings in 18 places throughout the United Kingdom to enable people who have been affected or infected to express their views to the inquiry team. The inquiry has appointed 1,289 core participants, of whom 1,272 are people who have been either infected or affected by contaminated blood.

What steps will the Minister take to repair the damaged relationship with those infected, whose confidence in the Government has been undermined by the fiasco around their entitlement to legal aid and now by the failure of the Cabinet Office to swiftly notify Departments not to destroy relevant files?

As far as legal aid is concerned, more than £250,000 has been provided to those affected by this scandal to help them pay for their legal representation. As regards the other matter that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, this was an honest mistake caused by an administrative error. We explained that in full in the form of a written statement to the House and apologised to the inquiry as soon as it was discovered. All Departments, other than the Legal Aid Agency and the Courts and Tribunals Service, have now confirmed that no relevant records were destroyed during the relevant period.

Last month, the chair of the inquiry, Sir Brian Langstaff, said that many victims of the infected blood scandal are still living on the breadline today. The inquiry is not due to look at financial support until 2020, so what more now can the Government do to help the people affected?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, different compensation packages have been agreed by the Department of Health and Social Care in the different parts of the United Kingdom. Sir Brian did ask the Government to look at the case for some additional measures, which are being considered by the Secretary of State for Health and his ministerial team, and the Minister responsible for mental health, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), is very willing to talk to the inquiry team about that.[Official Report, 20 November 2018, Vol. 649, c. 7MC.]

The very comprehensive nature of this inquiry is important, and it is also important that it should have a timeframe that is kept to. Is my right hon. Friend able to give us any idea whether the timetable is still robust and when we can expect to see a final report?

As my right hon. and learned Friend will know, it is a matter for the independent chair of the inquiry to determine its duration. In my conversations with Sir Brian, he has always been very clear that he does not want this inquiry to drag out; he wants to get justice and a clear outcome for the survivors and the victims, and he will be striving to secure that objective.

A number of my constituents are affected by this scandal and have waited for decades for answers on how it was allowed to happen. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Members are updated about where those meetings outside London are held so that we can keep our constituents informed and get the maximum participation?

I do have a list, but rather than read it out now perhaps I can write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of it in the Library so that all Members know where those meetings will be taking place.

May I suggest to the Minister that one measure that he could take quite quickly is to level up all the payments that those who are infected and affected receive? There is a variation around the United Kingdom at the moment because of devolution, and such a move would go a long way to show good faith to this community.

The hon. Lady has always been the most ardent champion of those who have been affected by this scandal, but it is the legal and constitutional position that each part of the United Kingdom is responsible for its own compensation scheme, which reflects the devolution settlement as regards health policy.[Official Report, 20 November 2018, Vol. 649, c. 8MC.]

Will my right hon. Friend say a little bit more about the role that those who have been affected by this tragedy will have in setting the terms and the scope of the inquiry? I particularly raise this because of the issue of access to treatment, which is something that I have regularly raised and that I think should be explored.

That issue is certainly one that I know Sir Brian and the inquiry team want to examine and call evidence on. People who have been directly affected have had opportunities at the preliminary hearings to express their views. More than 1,200 of them have now been appointed as core participants and the forthcoming public meetings will give them a further chance to make sure that their views are indeed heard. Sir Brian is determined that that will be the case.


3. What steps the Government are taking to help improve the cyber-security of public and private sector organisations. (907574)

Our world-leading national cyber-security strategy, supported by £1.9 billion of investment, sets out measures to defend our people, businesses and assets, to deter our adversaries and to develop the skills and capabilities that we need.

I am grateful for that response. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a sovereign capability is very important when it comes to cyber-security and that, when Government contracts are awarded, British companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, should be given preference?

Where national security interests are at stake, exceptions can be made to the normal rules on public procurement, as my hon. Friend knows. The other thing that we need to do is drive up standards among all Government suppliers, large and small, and that is something where we have an active programme of work.

A Wrexham constituent was concerned that a cyber-security breach at his business was being dealt with from central London and was very disappointed with the responsiveness of the authorities when the breach was reported. Will the Minister do more to ensure that people understand where cyber-security breaches are investigated and improve the system?

I am happy to look into the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. I encourage all businesses and third sector organisations to look at the materials available on the website of the National Cyber Security Centre, because it includes plenty of evidence about best practice in improving cyber-security for large and small organisations.

Cheltenham is a national centre of cyber-security because of its strength at GCHQ. Does my right hon. Friend agree that T-levels will help us to remain ahead of the curve in ensuring that we have a rich and deep pipeline of talent?

T-levels will indeed be an important contribution to improving this country’s skills in cyber-security, and I am pleased that Education Ministers have identified the digital T-level as one of the first to be rolled out in 2020.

We heard last week that there is an estimated shortage of 50,000 cyber-specialists in the UK—estimated because, unbelievably, the Government have not made any assessment of their own. The Government’s immediate impact fund, designed to quickly increase the number and diversity of cyber-specialists, is helping just 170 people, only 28% of whom are women. Does not this prove that this Government are failing at the first hurdle when it comes to keeping this country safe and bolstering our cyber-resilience?

No. The hon. Lady made a point about women cyber-security specialists. It is true that only about a 10th of cyber-professionals anywhere in the world are women. That is why the Government this year launched the CyberFirst Girls competition, which is getting more teenage girls actively interested and involved. That is the way to help develop further cyber-skills in our workforce.

Cyber-specialist Vacancies

Departments are responsible for ensuring that adequate staffing levels are met. As part of the national cyber-security strategy, we have newly established a Government security profession unit to support Departments in quantifying and managing their cyber-skills gaps and in building career pathways for specialists.

In July, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy criticised the Government for not properly addressing the cyber-security skills and recruitment gap, which it said is of vital importance to Britain’s defence and economy; but today the Minister still cannot tell how many of these specialist role vacancies exist across the Government. When will the Department tasked with upholding cyber-security standards make this tier 1 national security threat a priority?

The Committee praised what the Government had done, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, it also said that we needed to do more. I do not dissent from that conclusion. Indeed, the Government made that clear in their response to the Committee’s report. It is important that every Department feels ownership of cyber-security; it is not something seen as for the centre only to worry about. The profession framework, which will be outlined in the spring of next year, will run right across the Government and will outline the job families for specialists and the pay, rewards and career progression that they should be able to expect anywhere in the Government. [Interruption.]

The Minister was offering a serious and comprehensive reply to which there was a less than attentive audience, which is perhaps a tad discourteous. Let us have some order in the Chamber so that we can hear Mr Nigel Huddleston.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK is actually already a world leader in cyber-security, and will the Government continue to commit, through education and training, to ensure that we continue to be so?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that commitment. I could list a range of programmes that the Government are undertaking with school-age students and tertiary education students to drive up those standards, as well as working with international partners, who look to us for some of the best practice around the world.

I call the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). I thought that the hon. Gentleman wanted to come in on this question. No? It is not obligatory. Speak now or forever hold your peace, man.

I am very sorry, Mr Speaker—I could not hear you for the hubbub.

One would think that a cyber-attack against such a lovely country as Scotland would be unthinkable. Does the Minister have any feel for how the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament are getting on with cyber-security?

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to go into detail, but we do work very seriously and closely with the devolved Governments in both Scotland and Wales and with the Northern Ireland civil service. In my experience, Ministers and senior officials in those Administrations take this challenge very seriously indeed.

Electoral System: Overseas Interference

5. What steps the Government are taking to protect the electoral system from overseas interference. (907576)

9. What steps the Government is taking to protect the electoral system from overseas interference. (907580)

We have not seen evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes. However, we are not complacent, as the Prime Minister has said, and we will do what is necessary to protect ourselves and work with our allies to do likewise. The Cabinet Office co-ordinates cross-Government work to protect our democracy and to ensure the public’s confidence in our elections.

Does the Secretary of State support the work of the Petitions Committee in looking into cyber-bullying?

I shall speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and I am sure that he will be happy to take a look at that.

Deepfake videos have the potential to do tremendous harm, as they can easily be fabricated to show candidates making inflammatory statements or, God forbid, simply looking inept. Civic discourse will further degrade and public trust will plummet to new depths. This is the new wave of disinformation and election interference coming from overseas. What are the Government doing to prepare?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her very serious question and engagement with this important issue. I share her concern about that as an example of disinformation. The Government are acting to counter disinformation in a number of ways, including following on from our manifesto commitment to ensure that a high-quality news environment can prevail. I look forward to working further with her on this important issue.

Given the activities of the Russians with cyber-attacks, and looking at Florida, what with hanging chads and all the rest of it, will my hon. Friend give the House an assurance that we will not move to an online voting system?

Yes, I can give that assurance, which derives from the Conservative party’s manifesto. I can also say that the system we do use of pen-and-paper voting is, by its nature, rather more secure.

What action are the Government taking to seek a range of views on potential measures to secure our voting system from overseas interference?

We are doing that in a number of ways. I would be very happy to have a longer conversation with my hon. Friend on this subject. Work goes on across the Government to look at these matters, including with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and in the Home Office. We, collectively, will ensure that we seek those views.

In the past week, the police have begun an investigation into whether Arron Banks used foreign money to buy the Brexit referendum. We have also seen Shahmir Sanni victimised for blowing the whistle on electoral crime by Vote Leave. Is it not now time for the Government to admit that the legitimacy of their mandate for the referendum is fatally compromised?

I think that the hon. Gentleman draws the wrong conclusion from his argument. The Government will be delivering the outcome of that referendum, on which, I have no doubt, we will hear more from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in just a minute. What I will say, crucially, about the investigation into Arron Banks is that the Government will not comment on an ongoing criminal investigation.

A lot of the focus on foreign interference, particularly from the Russians, is on technological interference, but there is also a large amount of Russian money swilling around that is finding its way into political parties. What are the Government doing to restrict Russian financial influence on political parties at national and constituency level?

We are fully behind the law as it stands, which is that it is not permissible for parties on campaigns to accept foreign donations. We uphold those laws. We will examine recommendations recently made by, for example, the Electoral Commission, about how more may be done.

Government Hubs: Civil Service Efficiency

6. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of Government hubs on levels of efficiency in the civil service. (907577)

The hubs programme saves money and creates a better place to work by bringing together Government activity on to single sites. We make extensive use of shared spaces, smarter working and workplace design. This encourages productivity as well as reducing vacant space. Indeed, in total, the programme is saving £2.5 billion over 20 years.

The Minister knows what a capable and deeply talented Minister he is, and there are plenty of people like him in Plymouth, Moor View. Does he agree that Plymouth would be an ideal place for one of these Government hubs?

Flattery will get my hon. Friend everywhere, and may I repay it by saying that I know what a powerful advocate he is for the city of Plymouth? He once again makes his case exceptionally well. While further hub locations cannot be confirmed until commercial negotiations have concluded and Departments have informed staff, future locations are under active consideration.

There is cross-party support for moving Government hubs to Plymouth. What support can the Minister give to local authorities such as Plymouth City Council, which is working to create the buildings and land for these Government hubs to move into?

The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights the Government’s One Public Estate programme, and the example he cites in Plymouth is just one of many. Overall we expect to release land for 25,000 new homes and create 44,000 jobs by 2020.

Topical Questions

Yesterday I chaired the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations, attended by Scottish and Welsh Government Ministers and civil servants from Northern Ireland. This, the eighth such JMC meeting that I have chaired this year, followed the significant progress made in recent months with the devolved Governments in developing UK-wide frameworks to protect the vital internal market of the United Kingdom.

From policing to education, health and the environment, the approach of the Scottish National party Government is that control from Edinburgh is best, and when in doubt, centralise. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on what he is doing to ensure that the Smith commission promise to ensure decentralisation from Edinburgh is met?

The Smith commission was clear that it is the responsibility of the Scottish Government to work with the Scottish Parliament, civic Scotland and local authorities to ensure that power is devolved from Holyrood to local communities. For our part, we are ready to help the Scottish Government to implement the Smith commission in full and will give them our support if and when they choose to do that.

Will the Minister confirm without equivocation that the Government will fully comply with yesterday’s resolution that all information provided to the Cabinet will be made available to the House as soon as the Cabinet finishes, if it ever does?

I set out the Government’s position yesterday in the debate. We will reflect upon the outcome of the vote yesterday, but at the moment, there is no agreed deal. There is a provisional agreement between negotiators, which has yet to be considered by the UK Cabinet or the 27 member states meeting in Council.

T2. In the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, how do we encourage greater diversity among candidates for public office, such as Amandeep Garcha, a Sikh woman in my constituency? (907587)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is fantastic to see such wide diversity of candidates in Walsall. I remind the House that the Government Equalities Office is providing financial assistance for all MPs, to encourage female constituents to come here on 21 November, and I hope more colleagues will take up that opportunity.

T5. In addition to the register of lobbyists, in the interests of transparency, shouldn’t all think-tanks be obliged to publish their funding sources? (907590)

We believe that the legislation is working well, but we would be happy to look into any specific further points that the hon. Gentleman would like to make.

T3. The Government Equalities Office funding is in Education, its staff are in the Home Office and its Ministers are in the Department for International Development. My Select Committee recommended a year ago the wholesale move of the GEO to the Cabinet Office. Does my right hon. Friend agree with that? (907588)

My right hon. Friend and her Committee did indeed make a powerful case. It has needed a lot of cross-departmental discussion, but I hope that in the very near future, we will be in a position to give her a definitive response.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister. Everyone is present and correct, and it is no bad thing to start Prime Minister’s questions precisely on time.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. The Cabinet will meet this afternoon to consider the draft agreement that the negotiating teams have reached in Brussels, and the Cabinet will decide on the next steps in the national interest. I am confident that it takes us significantly closer to delivering on what the British people voted for in the referendum. We will take back control of our borders, our laws and our money and leave the common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy while protecting jobs, security and the integrity of our United Kingdom. I will come back to the House to update it on the outcome.

Yesterday saw the best wage growth figures in a decade and the best employment figures in my lifetime. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that that can only be delivered by the free market economics that unite this side of the House, and not by the bankrupt socialism opposite?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He references yesterday’s figures, which showed more people in work than ever before. They showed the female unemployment rate at a record low and, as he said, the fastest regular wage growth in nearly a decade. However, may I say to my hon. Friend that that is on top of figures last week that showed our economy growing three times faster than the eurozone average, the share of jobs on low hourly pay at a record low and the number of children in workless households at a record low? You only get that through good Conservative management of the economy.

After two years of bungled negotiations, from what we know of the Government’s deal, it is a failure in its own terms. It does not deliver a Brexit for the whole country, it breaches—[Interruption.]

Order. If necessary, I will say it again and again to Members on both sides of the House: voices must be heard. I happen to know that there are visitors from overseas in the Gallery. Let us try to impress them not merely with our liveliness, but with our courtesy.

The Government’s deal breaches the Prime Minister’s own red lines and does not deliver a strong economic deal that supports jobs and industry, and we know that they have not prepared seriously for no deal. Does the Prime Minister still intend to put a false choice to Parliament between her botched deal and no deal?

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong in the description that he has set out. Time and time again, he has stood up in this House and complained and said, “The Government are not making progress. The Government are not anywhere close to a deal.” Now that we are making progress and are close to a deal, he is complaining about that. That clearly shows that he and the Labour party have only one intention, which is to frustrate Brexit and betray the vote of the British people.

After the utter shambles of the last two years of negotiations, the Prime Minister should look to herself in this. She has not managed to convince quite a lot of the Members who are standing behind her. The rail Minister resigned last week, saying:

“To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis”—

and that from a Tory MP. Last night, the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator reportedly told the 27 European ambassadors that the UK

“must align their rules but the EU will retain all the controls.”

Is that a fair summary of the Prime Minister’s deal?

As I have said all along, throughout the negotiations, we are negotiating a good deal for the United Kingdom. We are negotiating a deal that delivers on the vote of the British people; that takes back control of our money, law and borders; and that ensures that we leave the common fisheries policy, we leave the customs union and we leave the common agricultural policy, but we protect jobs, we protect security and we protect the integrity of the United Kingdom.

Under the Prime Minister’s deal, we are going to spend years with less say over our laws or how our money is spent. The International Trade Secretary said last week that the decision to withdraw from any backstop agreement could not be contracted to somebody else. Can the Prime Minister confirm whether under her deal, it will be the sovereign right of the UK Parliament to unilaterally withdraw from any backstop?

There needs to be a backstop as an insurance policy, but neither side actually wants us to be in that backstop, because we want to bring the future relationship into place at the end of December 2020. I am aware of the concerns that we do not want to be in a position where the European Union would find it comfortable to keep the United Kingdom in the backstop permanently, and that is why any backstop has to be temporary.

I think that that non-answer has confirmed that Parliament will not have that sovereign right. The International Trade Secretary breezily declared that he would have 40 trade deals ready to be signed the second after midnight when we leave the EU. With four months to go, can the Prime Minister tell us exactly how many of those 40 deals have been negotiated?

We are doing two things. First, we are negotiating to ensure that we maintain the trade deals that currently exist with the European Union when we leave—[Interruption.]

Order. It is not acceptable for Members to shout at the Prime Minister when she is answering questions. We have been talking recently in this Chamber about respect and good behaviour. On both sides, the person who has the floor must be heard, and that is the end of the matter.

We have been negotiating on two fronts. We are negotiating on the continuity agreements, which ensure that the trade deals that we have been party to as a member of the European Union can continue when we leave the European Union, and we have also started discussions with other countries about the trade deals that we can forge across the world once we leave the European Union. If the right hon. Gentleman is interested in trade deals, he really needs to sort out the Labour party’s position on this issue. Originally, the Labour party said that it wanted to do trade deals around the rest of the world. Now, he says that he wants to be in the customs union. That would stop him doing trade deals around the rest of the world. We know what is good for this country: an independent trade policy and trade deals—good trade deals—with Europe and with the rest of the world.

The International Trade Secretary is not the only one who does not understand international trade rules, and he is not the only one in the Cabinet who does not understand a few things. The Brexit Secretary said last week:

“I hadn’t quite understood the…extent of this, but…we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing”.

When did the Prime Minister become aware of this absolutely shocking revelation about Britain’s trade routes?

The right hon. Gentleman stands here and reads out something that says that we do not know about trade policy, but we do know about trade policy. That is exactly why we are negotiating the continuity agreements, and it is why we will be taking our place as an independent state in the World Trade Organisation. If he wants to talk about different positions that are being taken, what we are doing is delivering a good deal that will deliver on the vote of the British people. We are delivering Brexit. What have we seen recently from the Labour party? Well, the Labour leader said: “we can’t stop” Brexit, but the shadow Brexit Secretary said that we can stop it. When the right hon. Gentleman stands up, he should make it clear: is it Labour party policy to stop Brexit?

Labour respects the result of the referendum. What we do not respect is the shambolic mess the Government have made of negotiations: the mess they created that they cannot now get themselves out of. We will not let them destroy this country’s economy or the jobs and life chances of so many others.

If the Brexit Secretary is still in office by the time the Cabinet meets this afternoon, could the Prime Minister take him to one side and have a quiet word with him? Will she tell him that 10,000 lorries arrive at Dover every day, handling 17% of the country’s entire trade in goods, estimated to be worth £122 billion last year? This woeful ignorance by a person in high office is disturbing to so many people.

This Government spent two years negotiating a bad deal that will leave the country in an indefinite halfway house without a real say, yet they think they can impose a false choice on Parliament between a half-baked deal and no deal, when a sensible alternative plan could bring together—[Interruption.]

Order. No matter how long it takes, the right hon. Gentleman will not be shouted down in the House of Commons. It is as simple and unarguable as that.

When a sensible alternative plan could bring together Parliament and the country. Even Conservative MPs say the Prime Minister is offering a choice between the worst of all worlds and a catastrophic series of consequences. When will the Prime Minister recognise that neither of those options is acceptable?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about woeful ignorance. I will tell him where the woeful ignorance lies: it lies with those on the Labour party Front Bench who think they can build a better economy by spending £1,000 billion more, putting up taxes and destroying jobs. The real threat to jobs and growth in this country sits on the Labour party Front Bench. I will tell him what we are delivering in relation to Brexit. [Interruption.] He says, “What about Brexit?” I will tell him what we are delivering on Brexit: we will not rerun the referendum, we will not renege on the decision of the British people, we will leave the customs union, we will leave the common fisheries policy, we will leave the common agricultural policy, and we will take back control of our money, laws and borders. We will deliver Brexit and the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019.

Q4. Is the Prime Minister aware that if the media reports about the EU agreement are in any way accurate, you are not delivering the Brexit people voted for and that today you will lose the support of many Conservative MPs and millions of voters across the country? (907597)

Order. Members must calm themselves. I have often advised taking some sort of soothing medicament. People may feel better as a consequence. I want to hear what the Prime Minister has to say and I hope the House has the courtesy to want to do so as well.

I say to my hon. Friend that what we have been negotiating is a deal that does deliver on the vote of the British people. In the list I set out earlier, I left out one of the things that the British people are very keen to see from this deal, which is an end to free movement. We will ensure that we deliver on that, as well as the other elements I set out. What we are doing is a deal that delivers on that vote, and in doing so protects jobs, protects the integrity of our United Kingdom and protects the security of people in this country.

The Scottish National party, with the leaders of other Opposition parties, has written to the Prime Minister, urging her to drop plans to prevent a truly meaningful vote on the Brexit deal. Shamefully, it seems that the Government are seeking to prevent Opposition amendments to the deal, effectively gagging the sovereignty of Parliament by playing dirty tricks with procedures. I ask the Prime Minister: what is she afraid of? Is her Government so weak that the Brexit deal will not succeed when other solutions are still on the table?

We have been very clear that there will be a meaningful vote in this House. We have also been clear that the motion on the deal will be amendable, but I say to the right hon. Gentleman that if you went out and asked any member of the public, “When the Government bring a deal back from Europe, what do you expect Parliament to vote on?”, I think they would expect Parliament to vote on the deal.

We expect Parliament to take its responsibilities, which are to hold the Government to account and amend the deal. This Prime Minister is hamstrung, divided, desperate and looking defeated. In a total panic, the Prime Minister has been reduced to playing political games rather than playing fair. This is not a game. The SNP will never, ever gamble with Scotland’s future. There is only one lifeline left: to protect jobs in Scotland, we must stay in the single market and the customs union. The Prime Minister will not drag Scotland out against its will. If there is a deal to protect the economy in Northern Ireland, why not Scotland?

The right hon. Gentleman stands up and says that the SNP will not gamble with Scotland’s future. I say to him that the SNP gambles with Scotland’s future every time it stands up and talks about independence.

Q5. Figures released yesterday show that for the first time ever, more than half of disabled people are now in work, including many military veterans, so will the Prime Minister join me in thanking those employers who have signed up to the Disability Confident scheme, which has allowed such great strides to be made in this area? (907598)

First of all, it is very good news to see more disabled people getting into the workplace, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the Disability Confident scheme. I praise the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who created and has personally championed the scheme since it started back in 2013. As my hon. Friend obviously knows, it works directly with employers and aims to challenge the perceptions of what it means to employ a disabled person. We will continue to ensure that we are making every possible effort to make sure that more disabled people who want to be in the workplace are able to take their place in it.

Q2. The Prime Minister’s likely Brexit agreement will “leave our country economically weakened”, mean that we take EU rules without any say, and will give “years of uncertainty for business”— not my words, but the words of her latest ministerial resignation, or at least the latest as far as we know. Does she agree, and is it not about time that she admitted that there is little to no support for her reckless plan in her Cabinet, and even less in Parliament? (907595)

As I said earlier, what we are negotiating is a deal that will deliver on the vote, that will actually ensure—under the proposals that we put forward in the summer—that we are able to see that frictionless trade across borders and a free trade area with the European Union, and that gives Parliament a lock on those rules.

Q6. In 2017, Ministers committed to providing visualisations of the rolling stock depot and viaducts proposed in my constituency by HS2 Ltd. After a whole year of delaying, HS2 Ltd is now refusing to deliver on this commitment and ignoring Ministers. Will the Prime Minister ensure that within the next week, my constituents get the visualisations of the viaducts and rolling stock depot that they were promised, so that they are able to comment on the draft environmental statement? (907599)

I recognise the concern that my hon. Friend’s constituents have raised about this issue and thank her for the hard work that she has undertaken to campaign on this issue on her constituents’ behalf. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is aware of this issue. He is urgently looking into it, and I encourage my hon. Friend to continue to engage with him on this matter to ensure that her constituents get what they were promised.

Q3. Post offices are closing in their hundreds as postmasters struggle to make a living under the contract introduced by this Government. Through its North Star initiative, the publicly owned Post Office is aiming for £100 million of profit by 2012, while postmasters’ pay has declined by £107 million since 2012. Will the Prime Minister take action now to save our post office network and intervene to ensure that postmasters get a fair rate? (907596)

Obviously we have seen a change to the post office network across the United Kingdom—it has happened as people’s pattern of behaviour in relation to these matters has changed—but I am sure the Post Office is making decisions that it believes are right for local communities and to ensure that services are there where they are needed.

Q7. Reductions in business rates will help thousands of small and medium-sized shops, restaurants and pubs in our town centres. Will the Prime Minister commit to continuing to work for fundamental reform of local business taxation so that local shops and businesses of all sorts can compete fairly with the online giants? (907601)

I thank my hon. Friend for referring the House to the fact that we are bringing in those changes to business rates to help local businesses. We are determined to help local businesses, which is why we are also implementing reforms to make the system fairer and more effective, including three-year evaluations, removing the so-called staircase tax and the new check, challenge and appeal system. We also aim to increase the local share of local business rate receipts to 75% from 2020-21. On future taxation, I can assure him that we will of course continue to keep it under review.

Q8. The brutal murder of a mother in my constituency, shot in the back with a crossbow in front of her family just four weeks before she was due to give birth to her baby, has shocked people up and down the country to the core. I know I speak for every Member in expressing our deepest condolences to the family and our best wishes to the baby for a speedy recovery. Given that weapons such as the crossbow used to kill my constituent are readily available for sale online, can I urge the Prime Minister to look urgently and seriously at expanding the ambit of the Offensive Weapons Bill so that we can toughen up the scope of the laws governing the sale, possession and use of these deadly weapons? (907602)

The hon. Gentleman raises a terrible and tragic case in his constituency, and, as he says, the thoughts of the whole House will be with the victim’s family and friends. Our deepest condolences go to them following this terrible attack. Crossbows are subject to strict controls, but we keep the legislation under review and will consider the risk that such weapons pose to public safety and whether further measures are needed, and we will of course look at that in the context of the legislation we are bringing before the House.

Q13. Does my right hon. Friend agree that while the Government have invested millions in our railways, when my constituents are still suffering from chronic overcrowding on carriages it is incumbent on Network Rail to deliver projects on time, so that new rolling stock can be quickly put in place to alleviate the overcrowding? (907607)

My hon. Friend highlights the fact that we are delivering the biggest rail investment programme since the Victorian era. He says we are spending millions on our railways, but actually we will be spending nearly £48 billion on modernising and renewing our railways, which will deliver better journeys and fewer disruptions. He is right, however, that it is absolutely vital that Network Rail delivers its projects on time. I am told that Northern’s new rolling stock is currently planned to serve lines from June and July next year, but I know he has been campaigning excellently on this issue, and I encourage him to continue to do so.

Q9. I am privileged to have two award-wining sixth-form colleges in my constituency, but with no increase in funding since 2010, Winstanley College has cut German A-level from the syllabus and St John Rigby has drastically reduced pastoral support. Does the Prime Minister believe, like the Chancellor, that these are just little extras, or does she agree that it is time to raise the funding rate? (907603)

If the hon. Lady looks at what we have been doing for education funding overall, she will see that we have been putting extra money into funding—[Interruption.] Members say, “Not in FE”, but we have invested nearly £7 billion in further education this year to ensure that there is an educational training place for every 16 to 19-year-old who wants one. We are also transforming technical education through T-levels, and £500 million will go into those once they are fully rolled out. By 2020, the funding to support adult participation in further education is planned to be higher than at any time in England’s history.

Q14. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to my constituent Dennis Brock, who will celebrate his 100th birthday next week? Uniquely, he has been ringing the bells at St Mary’s church in Sunbury-on-Thames for 87 years, and we confidently believe that he is the oldest bell ringer in the world. (907608)

I call the Prime Minister. [Interruption.] Order. I want to hear about the bell ringing situation.

I am very pleased first to wish Dennis Brock a very happy 100th birthday, and secondly to pay tribute to him for his 87 years of bellringing. As my hon. Friend has said, that is a considerable and significant record, and I think the support he has given, the work he has done and his commitment to St Mary’s in Sunbury-on-Thames are truly inspiring.

Q10. More than a third of the children in my great city are currently living in poverty. Our local food banks have seen a 42% increase in demand since universal credit was imposed on us in June. Most referrals come from the Tory-led city council, which is refusing to give them a penny. Is that compassionate conservatism? (907604)

As the hon. Lady is well aware, we are introducing universal credit because the previous system, the benefits system that we inherited from the Labour party, did not work. It left more than a million people living on benefits, trapped on benefits for up to a decade. What we are doing is ensuring that people are given more encouragement to get into the workplace, and that when they are in the workplace, work always pays. As I have said, we are seeing very good figures showing a significant reduction in the number of children in workless households.

We are currently in the middle of a swirl of rumours about the proposed deal with the European Union, and a torrent of criticism from all the Government’s most ferocious critics. One of the rumours is that if the Cabinet agrees to the deal this afternoon, the Government propose to publish a White Paper setting out all the details later today.

Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that, if and when this deal is published, a statement will be made to this House of Commons when it is produced? It is this Parliament that will have to decide now what to do next, and we do not want Parliament to be consulted only after another 24 hours of rumours and criticism. We want to re-establish parliamentary sovereignty, and I wish the Prime Minister well in obtaining a majority for some course of action in future that is in the national interest.

There are, in fact, two stages—potentially two stages—in this process. As I said earlier today, the Cabinet will be looking at the draft agreements that the negotiating teams have produced, and will consider and determine what the next steps should be in the national interest, as my right hon. and learned Friend requests us to do. I can assure him that we will be looking at this in the national interest.

As I said, I will return to the House to explain the outcome of that, but I should also say to my right hon. and learned Friend that there is then the issue of ensuring—as we will—when a final deal is agreed with the European Union, that proper analysis is available to Members before the meaningful vote takes place, and that briefings on the details of the proposals that are laid are available to Members, so that, as he has said, Members are able to make their decision in the light of an understanding of the details of the deal that has been agreed.

Q11. Home Office documents, the Met commissioner, the Police Federation and now even the Home Secretary say that the Government’s cuts to policing have had an impact on the surge in violent crime. We cannot continue to see the levels of violence which resulted in five fatal stabbings in six days in London just two weeks ago. How many times does the Prime Minister need to be told about the dire consequences before she gives our frontline policing the resources it so clearly needs? (907605)

I am sure that we are all concerned across this House about the attacks that have taken place in recent days in London. We are concerned about knife crime and the serious violence we have seen. We heard earlier from the right hon. Lady’s colleague, the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), about the use of a crossbow to attack and, sadly, kill an individual. The right hon. Lady talks about police funding. We have protected police funding overall since 2015. We are putting more money into the police. We are making more money available—we have announced that. But this is also about ensuring that the police and the criminal justice system have the powers they need to deal with knife crime, and if she is concerned about knife crime I suggest that she asks her right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition why he voted against increasing the powers to deal with knife crime.

I say to my right hon. Friend that I am not going to be asking about Brexit—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] For now. I was enormously proud of my Government for agreeing to lower the stake on fixed odds betting terminals to £2 because they have caused endless harm and terrible damage to families. It was the right decision. Since then there has been a hiatus about the date on which this will start. Is it a reality that now we have put down an amendment the Government will accede and we will get this process started on 1 April next year?

My right hon. Friend has campaigned on that issue with a passion because, as he says, the question of the maximum stake for FOBTs has an impact on vulnerable people as well as their families and loved ones. I recognise the strength of feeling on the issue. I know that gambling addiction can devastate lives, so our priority is making sure that this change delivers the results we all want to see. We are listening to concerns being raised by colleagues and, if he will have a little patience, I can tell him that the Culture Secretary will set out further details later today.

Q12. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has indicated that, by 2021-22, child poverty will have risen from 30% to 37%. When a Government treat their people like that, they are not worth their salt, but I suppose this Government never had any salt anyway. Should not the Government be ashamed of themselves for allowing that situation to develop for children? (907606)

What we have seen under this Government is absolute poverty reducing to a record low. We have also seen, as I referenced earlier, a significant reduction in the number of children in workless households. When we look at the figures, we see that actually three quarters of children are taken out of poverty when their household moves from being a workless household to a household with work, which is why the changes that we are making, to ensure that our benefit and welfare system encourages people into work and makes sure that work pays, are the right changes.

Former New Zealand high commissioner and experienced trade negotiator Sir Lockwood Smith told our International Trade Committee:

“If you remain bound into the EU regulatory system you will not be able to have a significant global trade strategy”.

Will my right hon. Friend advise whether this might be one of the prices to pay for her Brexit deal?

No, it is not one of the prices paid that my hon. Friend refers to. We will still be able to strike those deals around the rest of the world. I am pleased to say that not only are a number of countries expressing an interest in that, but, as we have seen and as I saw two or three weeks ago, countries including Japan, Vietnam and Australia are keen that we should talk to them about joining the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-pacific partnership. We specifically looked at our ability under the proposals we put forward to strike those trade deals around the world, and we will have an independent trade policy—we will able to strike those trade deals.

It is no secret that the Labour Welsh Government have been somewhat lacklustre in what they demand from the British Government on Brexit, so I will speak on behalf of Wales. When will the devolved Parliaments be given the opportunity to see the withdrawal agreement texts and to see for themselves the devastating effect that leaving the European frameworks will have on each of the devolved nations?

As I have indicated in response to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), we will ensure that information is available to Members of this House on the withdrawal agreement and on the future relationship that is agreed with the European Union. We will ensure that briefings are available, that documents are available and that the analysis that the Government have previously committed themselves to is available, so that, when Members of this House come to the meaningful vote on a deal, they will be able to have that information and to cast their vote against the background of that information.

Further to the point raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), will my right hon. Friend endeavour as soon as practicable following the Cabinet meeting this afternoon to make available to all Members the details of the draft agreement, so that those of us who wish to do so can comment on them on the basis of fact, rather than on the basis of ill-informed speculation?

Obviously the Cabinet is meeting to determine what the next steps are in relation to this issue. If this is a deal that is then taken forward for further debate and negotiation with the European Union, I believe it is the intention to ensure that the details of that deal are made public so that people can look at the facts.

If what is being reported is correct, the Prime Minister is set on ploughing through with a Brexit deal that will be bad for our economy, bad for our jobs and bad for a hard-working people up and down this country. If she honestly believes that she commands the will of the people, will she put her Brexit deal to the people, either through a general election or, failing that, through a new referendum?

First, we are negotiating a deal that will be good for the economy of the United Kingdom. It will be a deal that will ensure that we continue to have a good trading relationship with the European Union but also that we are able to strike independent trade deals around the rest of the world. On the issue of the second referendum, there was a referendum in this country in 2016 in which we asked the British people whether they wanted to remain in the European Union or to leave it. They voted to leave, and that is what this Government will deliver.

This morning, an incredibly well-attended annual general meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on thalidomide took place. May I invite my right hon. Friend—and indeed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to lend their support, to talk to the German Government to persuade them of the merit of social justice, and to deliver a lasting solution for those who have suffered for too long?

I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has been championing this cause. It is significant that, so many years after thalidomide caused the problems and difficulties for people that it did, he and others like him are still having to campaign on this particular cause. I will certainly look into, and ask the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to look into, what he says about the possibility of speaking to the German Government on this issue.

Asia Bibi spent eight years on death row in Pakistan for a crime that she did not commit. Since the High Court quashed her conviction, she has been in hiding. Weekend reports suggested that she had applied for asylum in Britain. Does the Prime Minister agree that Britain should be a beacon for human rights and for those fleeing religious persecution?

Our primary concern is for the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family, and we want to see a swift resolution of the situation. Obviously there is an issue for the Government and courts in Pakistan, and the Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has publicly supported the Supreme Court and promised to uphold the rule of law while providing continued protection for Asia Bibi. A number of countries are in discussion about providing a safe destination for her once the legal process is complete—

I am sure the House will understand, given the sensitivity of this case, that it would not be right to comment on the details of those proposals at this stage, but we remain in close contact with international partners to ensure Asia Bibi’s long-term safety and interests.

The Prime Minister confirmed earlier that we will indeed be leaving the common fisheries policy, which is welcome, but she will be aware that there is still considerable concern within the industry. Can she give an absolute assurance that it will be for the UK, and the UK alone, to determine who fishes in our national waters after a deal is signed?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we will become an independent coastal state, and it will be the UK negotiating on the UK’s behalf in terms of access to UK waters.

The Prime Minister will know that, back in 1965, there was a neighbourhood agreement between Northern Ireland and the Republic that each could fish in the other’s six-mile waters. Two years ago, the Irish Republic reneged on that. We, of course, taking the moral high ground, did not renege, so now all the Irish fishermen can come into Northern Ireland waters, but Northern Ireland fishermen cannot go into Republic waters. Will the Prime Minister try to speak up sometimes for Northern Ireland fishermen and not feel that she always has to support the Irish Government?

Consistently throughout these negotiations one of the issues that I have had at the forefront of my thinking has been the people of Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady raises a specific issue about fishing, and I am happy to look at the specific issue of the six-mile waters. We will become an independent coastal state, as I have just said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). We will ensure that it is the United Kingdom that is negotiating on behalf of the UK for access to UK fishing waters, but the people of Northern Ireland are at the forefront of our concerns in relation to the deal that we are negotiating.

The Prime Minister is to be commended for initiating her race disparity audit, which showed, among other facts, that Traveller children have the worst educational, health and employment outcomes of almost any group. Given the acute distress also caused to many settled residents by policy in this area, and given the support yesterday for my ten-minute rule Bill calling for a review of this area across the House, will the Prime Minister please appoint a senior Cabinet Minister to undertake a complete review of this area so that we can have better outcomes for all our constituents?

My hon. Friend raises an issue that I know is of concern for many across the UK in terms of what they see in their constituencies. As he said, there is also a concern about the impact on the educational attainment of Traveller children. As he will know, we published a consultation on tackling unauthorised encampments in April, and we will respond on that in due course. We are committed to strengthening local councils’ and the police’s powers to address these problems and to ensure fair play. We take this issue very seriously, and we are carefully considering the response that we can give to the consultation.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that her deal will leave the United Kingdom a rule taker, not a rule maker —in other words, a vassal state? Is not the best way to get herself out of the mess that she and her colleagues have caused to allow the people a vote in a people’s vote?

I think I have given the right hon. Gentleman the same answer to this question on a number of occasions. This Parliament gave the British people the vote on whether or not to stay in the European Union in 2016. The British people voted—they voted to leave—and it is this Government who will deliver on that vote and deliver Brexit.