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Volume 673: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2020

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

We need to build more homes on brownfield sites, but we also need to make sure that the houses we have are of a decent standard. In estates across my Birmingham constituency—the Three Estates in Kings Norton, Weoley Castle and Frankley—we need investment to make sure that those estates have decent homes. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that improving homes will help level up our economy and deliver for working-class communities like mine?

My hon. Friend is spot-on, and he will be hearing more about that in just half an hour’s time. He is quite right that we should be building on brownfield sites, and building the beautiful homes that people actually want.

Our thoughts are with the loved ones of those who have sadly died after contracting the coronavirus, and those who are still suffering from the disease, including the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries). I want once again to pay tribute to our medical staff, who are working so hard to combat the spread of this disease and care for those affected. I think we should all express our gratitude to the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, who have shown exceptional leadership throughout, and we will continue to follow their advice.

Sunday was International Women’s Day—a day when we celebrate the achievements of women around the world, recognise the advances made in working towards a goal of gender equality and, most importantly, reflect on how far we have to go to achieve that. A quarter of social care workers, who are overwhelmingly women, are on zero-hours contracts. It is essential that care workers self-isolate if they experience symptoms of coronavirus, but many may feel they have no choice but to continue working. Will the Prime Minister finally bring in emergency legislation to guarantee sick pay for zero-hours workers to help contain the spread of the virus?

I know the whole House will wish to join the right hon. Gentleman in wishing my hon. Friend the Mental Health Minister a speedy recovery; having talked to her, I know that she will make one. I know, Mr Speaker, that you have issued a letter to everybody across the parliamentary estate, and as you say in your letter, we will be

“guided by Public Health England…in our response to this situation”.

It is also providing guidance to hon. Members and to their offices.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, in just a few minutes we will be hearing from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about what measures we are taking to protect everybody. As he knows, we have already brought forward statutory sick pay from day 4 to day 1, but for those who are on all types of contracts, we will ensure that they get the protection that they need and nobody who does the right thing by staying at home is penalised.

I hope that legislation comes rapidly, and that it does guarantee that people do not have to make a choice between spreading the virus because they have to go to work, and staying at home and self-isolating, as obviously they should do if they have the symptoms.

Can the Prime Minister explain why, according to a report by the Institute of Health Equity, life expectancy has gone down for the poorest women in our society?

Overall life expectancy stands at its highest level—the highest level ever—which is a tribute to the consistent work of this Government and others, but it is absolutely true that there are too many instances in too many parts of the country where we are seeing life expectancy not rise in the way that we would like. It is true that there are parts of this country where, for instance, only one in 50 pregnant women are smokers, and parts of the country where one in four pregnant women are smokers. What we want to see is a uniting and a levelling up across this whole country. That is why we are putting record sums—£12 billion—into public health, and that is why this is the Government and this is the party of the NHS, who are now putting record investment into our NHS, precisely for that purpose.

I don’t think the Prime Minister answered my question. It is no surprise that life expectancy has gone down, when 86% of the cuts made by successive Tory Governments have landed disproportionately on the shoulders of women. We are one of the richest countries in the world, and it is mind-boggling that life expectancy should be falling in this country. [Hon. Members: “It’s not!] For the poorest people in our society, life expectancy is falling, and the Government should have an answer to that.

The Prime Minister supports the absolutely horrendous rape clause in the child tax credit rules. Why does he think it right that 200 mothers have to prove to the Government that their child was conceived as a result of being raped, so that they can keep their child tax credits?

I want to correct a point that the right hon. Gentleman made earlier: as has been revealed in the last few days, mortality is at its lowest level in this country since 2001. [Interruption.] Since 2001. On his point about the recipients of benefits, he draws attention to an injustice, and we will do everything we can to rectify it.

Well, I would hope that means that the Prime Minister is going to introduce regulations to end the two-child policy in the benefits strategy, because that is exactly what happens—women who are victims of rape have to prove they have been raped in order to get benefits for their child.

Fifty years ago, the Labour Minister Barbara Castle introduced the Equal Pay Act, yet women are still paid 17% less than men. Under this Government, it is estimated that the gender pay gap will take another 60 years to close. Why has the Prime Minister not followed Labour’s lead and set a target for closing that gap by 2030?

Not only are there now record numbers of women in employment in this country, but the gender pay gap is at a record low. It was this Conservative Government who made sure that companies have to report on the gender pay gap.

There is a still a 17% gap. It is too big, too wide, and should be closed, and the Government should do something about it.

Every fortnight, three women are killed by their partner or ex-partner, and domestic violence is likely only to increase if large numbers of people have to self-isolate. Ten years of austerity has denied councils the funding they need to support victims of domestic abuse. Will the Prime Minister commit to the extra £173 million that is needed every year to ensure that survivors get the support they so desperately need?

We have just put record funding back into councils to support them in all their responsibilities. The right hon. Gentleman talks about domestic abuse, and we are committed to bringing forward a victims’ law, to guarantee the rights of victims. The Government have an outstanding record in tackling violence against women and girls, and that is why we are taking forward in this Parliament our landmark Domestic Abuse Bill.

Without funding, the Domestic Abuse Bill will simply be a piece of paper. There has to be funding to ensure that those who are victims of domestic violence get the support they need in the centres they need, which are underfunded by this Government.

The Prime Minister has made repeated offensive remarks against single mothers and their children. [Interruption.] Yes; he described them as

“ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate.”

He made remarks against Muslim women, saying that they look like “bank robbers”, and against working women, by suggesting that the best way of dealing with advice from a female colleague is

“just pat her on the bottom and send her on her way.”

Words have consequences, and the Prime Minister’s offensive words are backed up with offensive and discriminatory policies, from the rape clause to dismantling local services on which women—particularly black, Asian and minority ethnic women, or disabled women—disproportionately rely. Will the Prime Minister apologise for his offensive comments, and ensure that those discriminatory policies are reversed by his Government?

I am proud of what the Government have done to promote the rights of women. I am proud that we have a record number of female MPs in our party today. I am proud that this is the only party that has produced not one, but two female Prime Ministers. Wouldn’t it be an extraordinary and amazing thing if the Labour party were to produce a female leader of its own? Don’t hold your breath, Mr Speaker. I will take no lessons on sexism from a party where good female MPs are bullied out of their party just because they have the guts to stand up against the climate of antisemitism in the Labour party.

Q2. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is, I know, a great champion of the countryside and farming, and its great benefits, from producing high animal welfare food to the amount of carbon that is held in the soil through permanent pasture. In our Conservative manifesto, we stated, on page 57:“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”Will the Prime Minister meet me and other colleagues with rural farming constituencies to discuss how to support farmers and growers in trade deals, to provide them with more opportunities to produce even more food under high animal and environmental welfare? (901452)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will not compromise on animal welfare. We will not compromise on food standards and hygiene. I am only too happy to meet him and his fellow farmers to discuss the opportunities ahead.

As the numbers infected by coronavirus grow, the level of public concern naturally grows with it. Last week, the Prime Minister gave me a firm reassurance that no one would be financially penalised for following health advice, yet still millions of self-employed workers have been left in deep uncertainty as to what financial help they will be given if they are forced to stop working. In this House, we are in a privileged position. We will not be financially worse off. Millions of workers are not in that privileged position. They may be forced to rely on social security for an extended period because of this virus. For the record, can the Prime Minister tell me what the statutory sick rate of Ireland is compared to his UK Government?

It is not my duty to comment on the pay rates of other countries. What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, which he knows very well, is that the Government have already advanced statutory sick pay from day 4 to day 1. We will make sure that those on universal credit and other benefits get the help they need from day 1. If the right hon. Gentleman can contain his impatience for just a little bit, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be telling him more about what we will be doing to protect everyone in society to make sure that nobody is penalised for doing the right thing.

Let me try to help the Prime Minister and perhaps inform him of the detail. In Ireland, in response to the coronavirus, the Government have just raised their statutory sick rate to the equivalent of £266 per week. That covers those employed and those in self-employment. In Germany and Austria, it is £287. In Sweden it is £230. In the Netherlands, it is £201. In Spain, it is £121. In the UK, Prime Minister, it is a meagre £94.25 per week.

Prime Minister, up to 80% of people across the United Kingdom could face infection in the weeks and months ahead. Many of them will be forced to rely on statutory sick pay. If the Prime Minister is truly committed to levelling up, a good place to start must be statutory sick pay. Will he take the opportunity to stand up today and commit to raising the UK payment to the average EU level?

As I think most Members of the House understand, the UK is distinct from many other countries around the world, certainly in the EU, because we have a universal free health system, free at the point of delivery. We have an extensive benefits system, free for people across this country, and indeed, our health system is very well managed and very well prepared for this epidemic. I congratulate everybody in the NHS on making the preparations that they have.

Q6. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Burnley hospital to see a demonstration of an advanced surgical robot, which represents a leap forward in the health provision in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister agree that technological advances in the NHS are paramount to providing the best level of patient care, and will he work with me to keep Burnley at the cutting edge of that health revolution? (901456)

Yes, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and I are determined to advance robot technology—artificial intelligence—in the NHS. We have put in another £200 million. In my hon. Friend’s area, the NHS East Lancashire is receiving over £500 million more—a cash increase of nearly 5% on last year.

Q3. A month ago, I asked the Prime Minister about his plans to tackle the crisis in recruiting overseas consultants to work in our overstretched NHS. The Prime Minister dodges the truth, claiming it is devolved, when visas are clearly an immigration issue for his UK Home Office. So, second time lucky: can the Prime Minister today confirm exactly what steps he is taking to ensure that overseas consultants will apply for NHS visas to work in all our hospitals? (901453)

I cannot remember whether I said this to the hon. Member last time, but that is why we have introduced a fast-track NHS visa.