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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 671: debated on Wednesday 12 February 2020

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Poverty

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the level of child poverty in Scotland. (900708)

The Government are committed to tackling poverty so that we can make a lasting difference to long-term outcomes. This Government have lifted 400,000 people out of absolute poverty since 2010, and income inequality has fallen. While the Scottish Government have powers to tackle poverty through the devolution of skills, education, health and employment programmes, it is important that Scotland’s two Governments work together to address this critical issue.

It is estimated that one in four children in Scotland —230,000 of them—are living in poverty, and that is substantially higher than in many other European countries. Like poor children everywhere, these children are likely to achieve less in school and more likely to suffer chronic illness and poor mental health. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that child poverty could rise to about 37% by 2021. Does the Minister not agree that this Tory Government’s welfare policies, such as the two-child benefit cap, zero-hours contracts and the dreaded universal credit, are contributing to the increasing rate of child poverty in Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I disagree with him. Since 2010 there are over 3.8 million more people in work and 730,000 fewer children growing up in workless households. Over three quarters of this employment growth has been in full-time work, which can be proven substantially to reduce the risk of poverty. But I know how passionate the hon. Gentleman is on this issue, and I would be very happy to meet him to hear his concerns.

The Minister has got to reflect on his answer. Yes, of course he is right about the growth of employment, but the majority of children in poverty in Scotland—230,000 of them—are living in families with parents in work. That is a disgrace. What are this Government going to do about it?

We do not want to see one individual family or child in poverty. The hon. Gentleman talks about in-work poverty. We are taking action, as a Government, to tackle in-work poverty. Real wages have risen for over a year—22 months in a row—and total wages rose by 3.2%. The national living wage rises to £8.72 in April, and we want to go further. That is why the Chancellor has announced that the national living wage will rise to £10.50 by 2024. We also have a focus, through a network of jobcentres, on in-work progression.

We know that children living in poverty experience poor physical and mental health, employment difficulties, stigma, and chronic low self-esteem. This creates problems not just for the individual but for government further down the line, so would the Minister surprise us all and welcome the Scottish Government’s introduction of the Scottish child payment later this year?

I am looking very closely at that measure and its impact. I gently suggest to the hon. Lady that this is in fact evidence of devolution working. There is no monopoly on good ideas, and where the evidence suggests that a measure works, we should of course explore it, and I will. I stress that I am committed to working with the Scottish Government to improve the life chances of people across Scotland, as I am across our whole United Kingdom.

If this is evidence of devolution working, I would like to remind the Minister that that is why we want all the welfare powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Once rolled out, this new payment will help roughly 30,000 children out of poverty. So if it is a good measure for the Scottish Government, why are his Government not following suit?

I think I have already answered that question—I will look at it very closely. If the Scottish Government are serious about addressing child poverty more broadly, they should be making full use of the powers to reduce housing costs, improve earnings, and enhance social security. As I said, the Scottish Government have powers to tackle poverty through the devolution of skills, education, health and employment programmes. In fact, the UK Government do welcome the Scottish Government’s child poverty strategy. I look forward to working very closely with my counterpart in the Scottish Government to ensure that we cover these devolved areas.

The child poverty payment is welcome, but does the Minister share my concerns that the vast number of welfare powers that the SNP Scottish Government argued for, which were transferred in the Scotland Act 2016, have not been taken forward? In fact, some of them are now delayed until 2024. Is welfare not just another victim of the Scottish Government’s obsession with the constitution, rather than focusing on the day job?

I thank my right hon. Friend and recognise his huge expertise in this area. The Scottish Government, and indeed this Government, want to address these issues, and I am committed to working with my counterparts in the Scottish Government to tackle child poverty and poverty in all its forms.

Renewable Energy

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the renewable energy sector in Scotland. (900709)

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the renewable energy sector in Scotland. (900716)

My Department has regular engagement with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on a range of issues relevant to Scotland, including the renewable energy sector.

Scotland has a huge geographical advantage when it comes to wave and tidal energy, with reports suggesting that up to 40,000 jobs could be created in the sector if it had Government support. What work is being done in Government to explore wave and tidal technology?

The hon. Lady is right; we have an advantage with that and with our wind speeds, mountains and hydro schemes. The Government are supporting technology. Wave and tidal technology is being investigated in universities, and we are completely behind that, should it prove to work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) is right about the geographical advantage. What infrastructure work are the Government undertaking—for example, interconnectors and storage—so that the clean green energy that Scotland is able to generate can be shared with the rest of the United Kingdom?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, interconnectors are a devolved matter, but we are looking at upgrading the schemes so that we can transfer our power across the United Kingdom and the advantage that we have in Scotland with renewables and our growing renewable industry can benefit the whole UK.

The Secretary of State will recall that, when EDF was given a licence to develop the wind farm at Neart na Gaoithe, 10 miles off the Fife coast, there was a commitment that 1,000 jobs would be created in making the jackets for the wind turbines. Can he tell the House how many jobs have been created?

No, because I do not know the answer—that is a perfectly straight answer to a straight question. What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that the sector deal aims to create 27,000 jobs by 2030.

I will tell the Secretary of State how many jobs were created: 1,000—in Indonesia. Is the GMB union right in saying that the transportation of those wind turbines from Indonesia to the Fife coast will be the equivalent of 35 million cars on the road? How does that fit our commitment to greening the economy, and what confidence can people have in Scotland that jobs in a wind farm 10 miles off the Fife coast will be created for people in Scotland, not people in Indonesia?

That is the market economy, and we need to be better at pricing and better at producing our turbines—that is the straight answer. We will discuss this issue and many others at COP 26 in Glasgow later this year, when we discuss the climate emergency, but I do not dispute the fact that bringing turbines from Indonesia is not the answer; we need to find a better way of efficiently delivering them in the UK.

We are 13 minutes in, and I am tempted to ask the Secretary of State—and it is to do with wind, because Saturday was a windy day—about us winning the Calcutta cup. [Interruption.] Come on! You have to be happy with that.

We have had a balance of payments deficit, with lots of wind farms in Scotland being paid not to produce any electricity. Is that likely to take place later this year?

Obviously I disagree with my hon. Friend on the Calcutta cup; that goes without saying. It was a wet, windy and miserable day at Murrayfield for me.

We are trying to improve the way in which wind works for Scotland. Contracts for difference provide certainty for investors over the longevity and protect consumers. In October 2019, at the last round of contracts for difference, six of the 12 awarded went to projects in Scotland.

Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the untapped capacity for using renewables in Scotland, and how many jobs would be created as a result of enhancing that capability?

There is enormous capability not just with more offshore wind schemes, but with more hydro schemes. As I said earlier, we intend to create 27,000 more jobs through using that untapped capacity.

Offshore wind and contracts for difference entry was cost-free to both the Government and the consumer as the strike price was below the typical wholesale price, but 240 MW of that remains stranded because Ofgem demands that the island of Lewis has at least 369 MW to build an interconnector cable. Another 180 MW could have been consented to, and that would have been cost-free, but they were not consented to due to Government caps. Can we have some joined-up thinking in the Government between the interconnector and the contracts for difference to ensure we are not billowing out fossil fuels when we could instead have 600 MW of wind being produced?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. One of the things the UK should look at, for future infrastructure and shared prosperity, is building that interconnector.

Trade

3. What recent economic assessment his Department has made of the value of trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK. (900710)

12. What recent economic assessment his Department has made of the value of trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK. (900720)

Busy day—[Hon. Members: “Ah.”] It appears I have woken a few people up.

Scottish exports to the rest of the UK increased in 2018 by £1.2 billion to £51.2 billion. As a result, the rest of the UK continues to be Scotland’s largest market for exports, accounting for three times the value of exports to the European Union.

Given the Secretary of State’s assessment, will he confirm that Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK is worth more than three times that with the EU, and this is only one of the benefits on offer of being part of the United Kingdom, not least for British firms?

The Scottish Government’s own figures show that Scotland’s most important trading partner is the rest of the UK and, as my hon. Friend said, that is worth more than three times the trade with the other 27 EU countries combined. In other words, the Scottish Government’s figures show that over 60% of Scotland’s exports go to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Indeed, I would argue that this is just one of the many benefits that Scotland has from being part of the United Kingdom.

Given the excellent figures my right hon. Friend has just given, does he share my concern that the separatist agenda peddled by the SNP is a direct threat to Scottish jobs and that it would inevitably end up, if its dreams come true, in a hard border?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that Nicola Sturgeon’s separatist agenda is a real threat to Scotland’s jobs, businesses and the economy, and that is why I am against the First Minister’s demand for another independence referendum. We want 2020 to be a year of growth, stability and opportunity for Scotland and for the whole of the United Kingdom, whereas the SNP wants 2020 to be a year of more political wrangling and wasteful debate.

Labour MSP Monica Lennon has introduced the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill to the Scottish Parliament to give free provision to women in Scotland, but it is opposed by the SNP Government because of “tampon raids” by the English into Scotland to steal the products. If that is the case, what kind of border does the Secretary of State think will be required in the event of an independent Scotland, with a separate currency, a different regulatory environment and different provisions on trade?

The hon. Gentleman makes an exceptionally good point. That is a border we need to avoid, and it makes no sense to have any sort of border between Gretna and Berwick. As for the SNP opposing that, and the opportunity to reduce VAT rates and other things that would help people on the poorest incomes, I simply do not understand what it is thinking.

If the Secretary of State truly values the trade between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, why is he prepared to countenance a situation in which we would lose frictionless trade between Scotland and Northern Ireland?

As the Prime Minister said, there will be “unfettered access” between Scotland and Northern Ireland and indeed the rest of the United Kingdom.

Maritime Security

4. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on maritime security off the coast of Scotland. (900711)

The Scottish Secretary and I regularly meet the Secretary of State for Defence to discuss a range of issues of importance to Scotland, including maritime security.

Not least because of the Minister’s own constituency, he will understand that there is an obvious breach point in the high north of Scotland for adversaries to come into, as has happened before. Can he assure the House that the Scotland Office will be engaging fully with the upcoming integrated defence review, and will he agree to meet me to discuss some of the issues that are important to him and to the rest of Scotland?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman, and we can continue that discussion about the great investment by the UK Government into Scotland, and into Moray. Last week we welcomed the first of nine P-8A aircraft, the “Pride of Moray”, which touched down at Kinloss. That is a huge investment by the UK Government and Boeing, and I also put on the record the outstanding work done by local firm Robertson, in building the Poseidon facility.

Will the Minister update the House on his discussions with the Ministry of Defence about the protection of fisheries, not just regarding enforcement, but also monitoring?

That is a devolved issue, and I know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and other Departments, are in continued dialogue about that with the Scottish Government, and others. My hon. Friend’s longstanding commitment to the fishing industry has again been raised in the House, and he continues to stand up for his constituents in Banff and Buchan on that subject, and on many others.

Taxation

UK Government Ministers and officials have regular discussions with the Scottish Government on matters of importance, including the Scottish fiscal framework. That historic arrangement delivers one of the most powerful and accountable devolved Parliaments in the world, and it is up to the Scottish Government to use those powers wisely further to increase the economic prosperity of Scotland.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Scottish Government’s decision to make Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom is not only regrettable but yet another broken SNP promise?

It goes without saying that I agree with my hon. Friend, and it is disappointing that Scottish taxpayers who earn more than £27,000 will pay more tax in Scotland than they would in the rest of the UK. Furthermore, taxpayers in Scotland will pay 41% income tax on earnings between £43,500 and £50,000, compared with just 20% in the rest of the UK. That means that a police officer with 10 years’ experience—mid thirties; bringing up a family—will pay 21% more tax on earnings between £43,500 and £50,000 in Scotland than they would pay in the rest of the UK.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that for the third consecutive year more than half of Scottish income tax payers will pay less tax than taxpayers in the UK? Will he explain to those UK taxpayers why his Government is ripping them off?

That figure about less tax is correct—about 56% of Scots will pay less tax. [Interruption.] Before the Scottish nationalists become over-jubilant, I point out that that is the grand amount of 40p per week.

Leaving the EU

6. What recent assessment his Department has made of the (a) economic and (b) social effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. (900713)

Now that we have left the European Union, we are free to determine our own future. We want 2020 to be a year of economic and social growth for Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The Secretary of State has stated in the Chamber that the UK internal market represents the majority of Scotland’s total export market, and it is therefore vital that he makes provision to develop and strengthen that market. Will he confirm that the Government will prioritise the UK’s internal market over any future US-UK trade deal that the Prime Minister wants with Donald Trump?

I absolutely can because the UK internal market is so important for this country and Scotland. The Secretary of State has mentioned some figures today, and Scotland does 1.5 times more in trade with the rest of the UK than it does with the EU and the rest of the world combined.

The financial services sector is a major employer in my Chelmsford constituency, as well as in Scotland. Will my hon. Friend ensure that all parts of the Scottish economy are preserved and cared for in our future trade negotiations?

Absolutely. The future of Scotland’s economy and the UK economy will be buoyant, and as we leave the European Union we want to ensure that all our sectors continue to thrive. I assure my hon. Friend that we in the Scotland Office will do everything possible to facilitate those discussions.

The response we have heard from the Government Front Bench today might explain why the Minister has lost half of his Scottish colleagues, why the SNP is at 51% in the polls and why the majority of the Scottish people now want independence. In the real world, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster says that border checks are now inevitable for almost everybody because of the Government’s disastrous Brexit. How will this help Scottish business?

The hon. Gentleman mentions the real world, so let us look at the real world in Scotland where the SNP is in power: we have bridges that people cannot get across; we have hospitals that it cannot open; and we have an education system that is failing. That is the record that the Scottish Government and the SNP will have to go to the people in a little over 15 months’ time. I look forward to that election, when what the Scottish Government and the SNP have done to Scotland since 2007 will have an impact on the result.

Fisheries

Thank you very much. I am busy today, Mr Speaker.

At the end of 2020, we automatically take control of our waters. This opens up a sea of opportunity for our fishing industry in Scotland, and across the UK. As I have said before, this Government will work tirelessly with our fishermen and coastal communities across Scotland.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that by becoming an independent coastal state once again we will be able to deliver a better deal for fishermen across the United Kingdom, and that ultimately we will control who fishes in our waters?

I can confirm that we will no longer be bound by the EU’s outdated and unfair method for sharing fishing opportunities. We will set our own fishing quotas, based on science, and decide who can fish in our waters. I have to say that I share my hon. Friend’s optimism for the future of our industry, and it is an optimism that I have heard time and time again from fishermen and fishing communities the length and breadth of Scotland.

Can the Secretary of State reveal whether the UK Government’s stated intention of agreeing a mechanism of co-operation within the EU on fishing will include an extended agreement on access to waters as part of an EU trade deal?

Clearly we are in discussions about this, but we have a positive vision for our fishing industry in Scotland now that we have left the European Union. How does that reflect on the SNP’s vision for fishing in Scotland, which is to take us back into the European Union, to be shackled once again by the common fisheries policy? That is something that many Scots and many fishermen voted comprehensively to leave, but the SNP wants to put us right back in.

Budget

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the forthcoming Budget. (900717)

I have regular discussions with all my Cabinet colleagues on issues important to Scotland’s economy, including the forthcoming Budget in March. The Government will deliver a Budget for Scotland’s businesses and Scotland’s people. We will set out ambitious plans to unleash Britain’s potential, and level up across the nations and regions of the UK.

Given the close economic relationship between the south of Scotland and the north of England, particularly within the borderlands region, will the Minister make representations to the Chancellor on and give his support to a freeport at the Carlisle Lake District airport?

I welcome the recent freeports announcement, and I have no doubt that freeports will unleash the potential of our proud historic ports, boosting and regenerating communities across the UK. I and other Ministers on the Front Bench—the Chancellor is here—have heard my hon. Friend’s early representations on behalf of his airport and his area. Not only is he a great champion for the borderlands, but he is a great champion for the Carlisle Lake District airport.

Page 64 of the 2015 statement of funding policy document confirms that HS2 should have 100% Barnett consequentials for Scotland. Will the Secretary of State ask for those Barnett consequentials, roughly £750 million in relation to what is being spent on HS2, to be delivered in the Budget?

There already has been a Barnett consequential relating to HS2 spending. In the next spending round, we will see what money is allocated to the Department for Transport. That money will have a Barnett consequential.

Over the weekend, Kingsbarns distillery in my constituency won the “Best Lowlands Scotch, 12 years and Under” award at the world whisky awards. However, the impact of US tariffs continues to impede the growth of the Scotch whisky industry in my constituency and across Scotland. Will the forthcoming Budget include provisions to help our distilleries to compete internationally, despite those stifling tariffs?

I know that the hon. Lady has a lot of experience of this, having formerly worked for Diageo. The 25% tariffs on malt whisky are a consequence of the Boeing-Airbus dispute between the EU and the USA. In the next carousel, by having useful negotiations on a US trade deal, we want to get those tariffs removed.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

The whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest sympathies to all those affected by the weekend’s flooding. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has announced the activation of the Government’s emergency Bellwin scheme to provide financial support for qualifying affected areas in the north of England, and we continue to work closely with our partners to help those affected and, above all, to keep people safe.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall hold further such meetings later today.

Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review

Q1. If he will take steps to ensure that the security, defence and foreign policy review is completed before the comprehensive spending review. (900758)

We will continue to transform the UK economy through the Budget in March and the comprehensive spending review later this year. The timing of that integrated review will be announced shortly.

I am grateful for that reply. May I urge the Prime Minister to recall what happened to the last combined security and defence review, which was done within a straitjacket of fiscal neutrality? It meant that every extra pound spent on cyber or security was a pound to be cut from the conventional armed forces. Therefore, will he try to ensure that the next attempt at a combined security and defence review will not face such a straitjacket and will be concluded before rather than after the comprehensive spending review?

I understand very well the point that my right hon. Friend makes. I can assure him that the integrated review will be the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the cold war. I can also assure him that by transforming this country’s economy and by raising productivity, we will ensure that both defence and security are amply provided for.

Engagements

I join the Prime Minister in expressing sympathy and support to the victims of flooding and thank the Environment Agency and all the emergency services that are doing their best to help people.

Our thoughts are also with those who suffer from the coronavirus and with the Chinese community in this country, who are, I am sorry to say, facing increasingly alarming levels of racism within our country. As this virus spreads, I also thank public health workers who are helping those affected and raising awareness of the danger of the virus.

Does the Prime Minister think that someone who came to this country at the age of five, was the victim of county lines grooming and compelled to carry drugs, was released five years ago and has never reoffended deserves to be deported?

I think the whole country would agree that, while I cannot comment on individual cases, it is entirely right that foreign national offenders should be deported from this country in accordance with the law.

The Government have learned absolutely nothing from the Windrush scandal. This cruel and callous Government are trying to mislead the British people into thinking that they are solely deporting foreign nationals who are guilty of murder, rape and other very serious offences. This is clearly not the case. Take the example of a young black boy who came to the UK aged five and is now being deported after serving time for a drugs offence. If there was a case of a young white boy with blond hair who later dabbled in class A drugs and conspired with a friend to beat up a journalist, would the Prime Minister deport that boy; or is it one rule for young black boys from the Caribbean and another for white boys from the United States?

Quite frankly, I think the right hon. Gentleman demeans himself and besmirches the reputation of the Windrush generation, who came to this country to work in our public services, to teach our children and to make lives better for the people of this country. He has no right to conflate them with the foreign national offenders we are deporting today.

The Windrush generation have been disgracefully treated by a Government who deliberately created a hostile environment. While the Government were fighting to deport people who legally came to this country as children, the Foreign Secretary refused to tell the family of Harry Dunn the reason the US is blocking the extradition of the woman who is alleged to have killed him. I now ask the Prime Minister straight: is Anne Sacoolas being shielded from justice because she is a former CIA officer?

The whole House will know that the Foreign Secretary and I, and the Government at every level, have tirelessly sought the extradition of Anne Sacoolas for justice in this country, and we will continue to do so.

It is widely reported that Anne Sacoolas is in fact a CIA operative. Now we know that the Foreign Secretary misled the Dunn family, who are being denied justice by the US Government, will the Prime Minister commit to his removal from office tomorrow in his reshuffle?

The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that the Foreign Office has been told that Anne Sacoolas was notified to the UK Government as a spouse with no official role. We will continue, without fear or favour, to seek justice for Harry Dunn and his family, and we will continue to seek the extradition of Anne Sacoolas from the United States.

This morning Charlotte Charles, Harry’s mum, said: “We thought we had bridged the gap with the Government. But they have not been honest with us”. This is only the latest case of our country’s one-sided extradition treaty with the USA. This lopsided treaty means the US can request extradition in circumstances that Britain cannot. While the US continues to deny justice to Harry Dunn, will the Prime Minister commit today to seeking an equal and balanced extradition relationship with the United States?

To be frank, I think the right hon. Gentleman has a point in his characterisation of our extradition arrangements with the United States. I do think that elements of that relationships are unbalanced, and it is certainly worth looking at, but that is totally different from the case of Harry Dunn and Anne Sacoolas. We continue to seek the extradition of Anne Sacoolas to face justice in this country.

It has everything to do with the relationship with the USA that Anne Sacoolas has not been extradited back to Britain, because the US refuses to do it because of this lopsided treaty. I am glad the Prime Minister at least acknowledges that point about the treaty. This deep disparity with the US is about to be laid bare, when the courts decide whether the WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange will be extradited to the US on charges of espionage and for exposing war crimes, including the murder of civilians and large-scale corruption. Does the Prime Minister agree with the parliamentary report that is going to the Council of Europe that this extradition should be opposed and the rights of journalists and whistleblowers upheld for the good of us all?

I am not going to comment on any individual case, but it is obvious that the rights of journalists and whistleblowers should be upheld, and this Government will clearly continue to do that.

Q2. My wife is a volunteer with the local branch of the Samaritans, and my right hon. Friend will know what good work they do in helping to keep people safe online in Sedgefield and the rest of the UK. Does he agree that today’s announcement that we are putting Ofcom at the helm of a strong regulatory regime shows that we are delivering on our commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online? (900759)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. As we deliver gigabit broadband to every part of this country, including to the people of Sedgefield, we will also ensure that the UK is the safest place to be online.

In northern Syria, displaced women and their children are literally freezing to death. There are reports of babies dying as a result of the extreme conditions, and 45,000 people remain stranded with nowhere to go. The Syrian war is considered to have caused the biggest wave of displacement since the second world war. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what responsibility his Government have taken for this humanitarian crisis?

As I think the whole House will know, and as I have said several times in the House, the UK leads the world in supporting humanitarian relief efforts in Syria. This country has committed £3.2 billion to that cause.

My question was about the children who are literally freezing to death. That was not an answer from the Prime Minister.

In 2017, as Foreign Secretary, this Prime Minister enacted a policy of accepting the Syrian dictator Assad’s rule over the country. Assad has delivered death and destruction to his people—a man who has gassed his own civilians. The humanitarian situation has reached crisis point, and there are now fears of all-out war. Is the message that the Prime Minister wants to send from the House today that the UK Government are washing their hands of the Syrian people, and that he is content for Assad’s regime to continue enacting these atrocities?

I really think the right hon. Gentleman needs to consult his memory better. He would find that this country and this Government have persistently called for the end of the Assad regime, and indeed have led the world in denouncing the cruelty of the regime towards Assad’s own people. That has continuously been the policy of the British Government.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister join me in supporting a new initiative I am launching in my constituency to train mental health first aiders in schools, workplaces and the community throughout the constituency to tackle loneliness and challenge mental health stigma, and may I ask whether he could find time in his diary to join me at the launch? (900760)

I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to champion mental health services in Watford. We are massively increasing support for good mental health in schools, and, if I can, I will do my best to attend the launch event.

Q4. After three years of extensive evidence-gathering and research, on 26 March the Youth Violence Commission will publish its final recommendations. The overwhelming verdict of victims, youth workers, community leaders and other stakeholders is that short-term solutions do not work. Violence reduction units are a welcome first step, but they need long-term funding and leadership from the top. Will the Prime Minister commit to that funding, and will he attend our report launch to hear directly from victims and experts how we can get to grips with this crisis? (900761)

I think the hon. Lady is right: we have to do both, which is why we are putting £200 million into the Youth Endowment Fund as well as supporting violence reduction units. We are also putting 20,000 police on the streets of this country, and giving them the powers, which the Leader of the Opposition opposes, to take knives off the streets with stop and search.

Q5. The Prime Minister has made transport connectivity a priority for the Government. Does he agree that connecting my constituency of Southport with Preston through the Burscough curve link would not only give my constituents more access to the rail network, but help us to unleash our economic potential? (900762)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign for the restoration of the Burscough curves. That sounds to me like a great idea. What he needs to do is put forward a costed business plan, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will look at it very carefully.

Q6. Does the Prime Minister agree with me and 10,800 of my constituents who signed petitions, that the building of a gasification plant in Washington would be terrible for the people of Sunderland, due to the public health concerns, and air quality, and would indeed be a blot on the landscape of Sunderland, and that now as a frequent visitor to Sunderland, I’m sure he shares my concerns on this matter? Will he therefore support me and my constituents, who oppose the building of this plant? (900763)

I will certainly look into the matter that the hon. Lady raises. We will ensure, of course, that if there is a problem with the gasification plant that she describes, Sunderland will continue to prosper and to lead the UK economy.

Q12. Blyth has the potential to become one of the most strategically important ports in the UK for the export of renewable technology as well as wind turbines. Would my right hon. Friend consider visiting Blyth, where I am sure he would get a warm Northern welcome— rose —and see for himself the strength of Blyth to become a freeport? (900769)

The answer was in the question, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the potential of Blyth, although I must remind him that the allocation of free ports will be decided in an entirely fair and transparent way.

Q7. Every day, an estimated 280 shopworkers will be victims of violence at work. At my local Co-op, a staff member was hit with a glass bottle. The Co-op is a good employer, and it wants this to stop, so it and other local retailers engaged with the Government’s call for evidence on violence towards shop staff. Seven and a half months later, they are awaiting a response. Prime Minister, will you commit today to publishing your response to the call for evidence, and will you meet me and a group of shopworkers who have experienced violence at work to hear about what happened to them? (900764)

I certainly will make that undertaking to the hon. Gentleman. I am glad that he has raised this matter. We should not tolerate crimes of violence against shopworkers or indeed anybody else. I therefore find it paradoxical that the leader of his party is soft on the deportation of serious violent offenders.

Q14. This year, we mark the 75th anniversaries of VE-day and VJ-day. As we honour those who have served our country, will my right hon. Friend outline how his new Office for Veterans Affairs is giving our veterans and their families the support they deserve? (900771)

Our new Office for Veterans Affairs is helping veterans to transition to new jobs and to secure homes. A discount railcard will be rolled out by Armistice day, and veterans will get guaranteed interviews for civil service jobs so that we have more veterans bringing their talents to government.

Q8. The Prime Minister’s junior Scotland Office Minister told the National Farmers Union last week that substandard food would be allowed into the UK under a US trade deal, but that it would have to be labelled as such. The Prime Minister has denied this in the past, so who is telling the truth and which of them does not know what is coming? (900765)

I can assure the hon. Lady that the UK has and will continue to have the highest standards in the world for our food.

Q15. In Greater Manchester, frontline police officers are increasingly having to resort to using a pen and paper because of the failing iOPS computer system. This is putting the police at risk and undermining their ability to protect residents and vulnerable children. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister intervene to solve this problem? (900772)

My hon. Friend is, I am afraid, entirely right. We know that there are concerns about this system, and that is why I have asked the Minister for Crime, Policing and the Fire Service, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), to ask Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary for an independent review of the operation of the system. We will ensure that my hon. Friend is kept informed.

Q9. Northwick Park Hospital, which serves my constituents, has not met its four-hour A&E target since August 2014. It has been starved of capital investment and it is short of intensive treatment unit beds. It is expected to have close to a £100 million deficit by the end of the financial year—one of the highest in the NHS. When does the Prime Minister expect Northwick Park to receive a little Government love and attention? (900766)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, but as he will know, the highest-ever number of people attended A&E in this country last month—2 million people. The demand is exceptional, and I pay tribute to the work of NHS staff. As he knows, we in this Government are responding with a record investment in the NHS of £34 billion, and we are recruiting 50,000 more nurses, which will help to deal with that crisis.

In the past week, Storm Ciara has wreaked havoc along West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, affecting the constituencies of Members across the House. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister seek to find time to visit my constituency? Horbury Bridge, where “Onward Christians Soldiers” was penned, has been acutely affected. Will he see for himself the terrible damage done to people’s homes, lives and businesses? Will he tread where the saints of our communities and emergency services have trod and continue to toil undivided towards recovery?

I pay tribute to the emergency services for what they are doing in my hon. Friend’s constituency and, indeed, in all flood-affected areas. As he knows, we have activated the Bellwin scheme to protect homeowners, and we are putting £4 billion into flood defences. I certainly will do what I can to take up his offer to visit his constituency and see the scene for myself.

Q10. The new daily allowance for the unelected and unaccountable Peers being stuffed into the House of Lords by the Prime Minister is set to rise to £323. The monthly allowance for a single person over 25 on universal credit is £317.82. Is that the levelling up that the Prime Minister keeps talking about? (900767)

I hate agreeing with these people, but I do find it odd that the House of Lords has chosen to do that, but it is a decision for them.

The Prime Minister was instrumental in banning the trade in ivory in this country. Will he be equally decisive in getting rid of the importation of hunting trophies into this country, particularly of endangered animals?

Yes, I thank my hon. Friend for her campaign against illegal wildlife trading and trophy hunting, and we mean to end the import into this country of trophies hunted elsewhere.

Q11. In 2018, Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Vladimir Putin’s former deputy Finance Minister, paid £20,000 for lunch with the then Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, who we believe is soon to be ennobled. Will the Prime Minister remind the House once more why his Government are yet to publish the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into alleged Russian interference in UK politics? (900768)

As I think the hon. Gentleman knows very well, the report will be published as soon as the Intelligence and Security Committee is reconvened. As I have told the House several times, those of a conspiratorial cast of mind will be disappointed by its findings.

May I commend the Prime Minister for his belief in Britain and the massive boost to infrastructure investment around the country? However, the cost of landing fees at Heathrow airport is £25 per passenger, and those fees will rise with a third runway, leading to Heathrow becoming the least competitive airport on the entire planet. Given the delays and the escalating costs, does the Prime Minister agree that it may well be time to review progress and perhaps to deploy the bulldozers elsewhere in the country?

The House of Commons voted effectively to give outline planning consent to the third runway. It was supported by people across the Chamber—not by me, as it happens. I wait to see the outcome of the various legal processes that are currently under way to see whether the promoters of the third runway can satisfy their legal obligations under air quality and, indeed, noise pollution.

Q13. Since 2015, the number of GPs working in Sunderland has fallen by 16%—much higher than the national average. After almost a decade of Tory control, our GP services are inadequate and getting worse, so who does the Prime Minister hold responsible? (900770)

We are, of course, responsible, and we take full responsibility, but overall GP numbers are up and we are now recruiting 6,000 more. We are able to do that because we are running a sound economy and investing massively in our NHS across the whole country.

As the coronavirus hits the headlines every day, will the Prime Minister join me in thanking and paying tribute to the supreme professionalism of those at Public Health England and, in my area, to RAF Brize Norton for bringing home people who have been affected? Their work often goes unremarked, but it has the admiration of all of us.

My hon. Friend puts it beautifully, and I salute everybody involved in bringing home the victims and potential victims of coronavirus for the difficulties and risks they face. Indeed, our NHS has so far done an outstanding job in preparing and informing the country.

When Kevin Simpson’s partner of over 12 years died and his two children lost their mother, the family received no bereavement support payments at all. Because the parents were unmarried, the law denied that support to the two grieving children. The High Court ruled last Friday that this breached the children’s human rights, so when will the Government obey the rule of law and legislate to respond both to that ruling and to the similar ruling by the Supreme Court in the McLaughlin case in 2018? Will there be no further delay so that we can start supporting the thousands of similar children across our country every year who lose their mother or father?

The right hon. Gentleman has raised this with me before, and I have undertaken to meet him on the matter. We will certainly look at the case he mentions to see what exactly our response should be. He is right to draw attention to this injustice, and we will do all we can to remedy it.

On Thursday last week, two people were stabbed in Redcar in broad daylight. Another person was injured in a horrific knife crime on Saturday evening outside a busy nightclub. Figures released by the Ministry of Justice in January show that the Cleveland force area has the highest number of knife and offensive weapon offences per head of population in all of England and Wales. What additional support can my right hon. Friend give to Cleveland police to tackle this problem, and when will we start to see more police on the streets of Teesside?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this. Knife crime is intolerable, and its recent rise must be combated. That is why we brought in knife crime prevention orders, which give police the powers, where they suspect a knife crime is about to be committed, to make the interventions that are needed. That is why we are putting 20,000 more police on our streets, with the encouragement and the political support they need to carry out stop and search.

The Oxford-Cambridge so-called expressway is a 20th-century roadbuilding solution to a 21st-century challenge, and at the election Labour rightly pledged to scrap it. I wonder whether the Prime Minister has caught up with us. Will he announce today whether the expressway has finally been put to rest and scrapped?

I must ask the hon. Gentleman to wait and contain his impatience until the Budget, when he will learn more about the national infrastructure plan.

I support the Prime Minister’s decision yesterday to go ahead with HS2, although I have to tell him there is little enthusiasm among my constituents because it does nothing to improve connectivity to Cleethorpes. To build up enthusiasm among the people of Cleethorpes, may I urge him: to instruct London North Eastern Railway to reintroduce the direct train service from Cleethorpes through to King’s Cross; to make the Gainsborough-Brigg-Cleethorpes service, which at present runs one day a week, into a seven-day service; to manufacture the rails at Scunthorpe; and, of course, to reopen Suggitts Lane level crossing?

The voice of Cleethorpes has been heard, and my hon. Friend makes a vivid and compelling case. As I stood up to answer, the Chancellor whispered in my ear that we will certainly be looking at it in the infrastructure review.

The prosperous future of our young people all too often depends on their family wellbeing and their school readiness, which requires investment in early years. Does the Prime Minister regret the Conservative cuts to around 1,000 Sure Start centres, including in my constituency? Will he commit to greater funding and support for early years development, particularly in our most deprived communities?

The hon. Lady raises an important point, and this is why we are putting record sums into early years funding—£14 billion is going into education. It is under this Government that people will see the biggest improvements, because it is under this Government that we have a robust, strong, dynamic economy—the third fastest growing in the G7. We are able to make those investments in early years precisely because of our sensible management of the economy.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the private finance initiative deals signed by the last Labour Government to build hospitals such as King’s Mill in Ashfield, at a cost of £1 million a week, are nothing short of a national scandal? Will he please ensure that this never happens again?

It was one of the many scandals of the last Labour Government. From memory, the PFI deals that they did saddled the taxpayer with £80 billion-worth of debts in exchange for £12 billion-worth of hospital assets. That is how Labour runs government. That is how Labour runs the economy. Let’s not let it happen again.

Will the Prime Minister bring to an end the sickening outrage of a witch hunt against former police officers who served Ulster through the heat of the troubles and who will now face the most odious prosecutions for non-criminal misconduct? That would not be tolerated in this part of the United Kingdom and it should not be tolerated in mine.

We will make sure that we give support for all those who face unnecessary prosecution, and I am well aware of the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises.