The last 12 months have been the most difficult for a generation, and I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with all those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. I also want to pay tribute to every person in this country for playing their part, whether working on the frontline, staying at home to prevent the spread of the virus, or working on vaccine development and supply. It is that vaccination programme that has brought hope, allowing us to set out the cautious but irreversible road map out of lockdown.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
Many independent countries, from Switzerland to New Zealand, have bilateral veterinary agreements with the European Union and face lower non-tariff barriers than the UK, despite our very high standards. With the Food and Drink Federation reporting a massive drop in UK food exports—over 90% in some areas—and with sanitary and phytosanitary checks constituting the main challenge for the Northern Ireland protocol, surely the Prime Minister should be making it a priority to negotiate a bespoke UK-EU veterinary agreement?
That is exactly why we put in temporary and technical measures to allow free trade to continue across the whole of the UK. It is very important for those who object to the measures that we have taken that the protocol should uphold the principle of east-west trade, as well as north-south trade, and that is exactly what we are trying to do.
I can certainly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Adam Doyle, Charlotte Luck and Dr Susie Padgham for all their efforts, and my hon. Friend is completely right in what she says about the foundations of the UK’s vaccine success. I had my jab on Friday. I do not know whether you have had yours, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] You certainly have. I know that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has had his. I encourage everybody to get it.
May I start by joining the Prime Minister in his remarks about yesterday’s day of reflection for the 126,000 people who lost their lives to covid? That is a shocking number, and behind every one of those numbers is a grieving family. As soon as restrictions lift, there must be a full public inquiry, because that is the only way we can get to the bottom of the many mistakes that were made during the pandemic and find justice for those who have suffered so much.
Why did the Prime Minister promise at the last election that he would
“not be cutting our armed services in any form”?
That was because what we were going to do was actually increase spending on our armed services by the biggest amount since the cold war. We are investing £24 billion in modernising our armed forces, with no redundancies, and keeping our Army at 100,000, if we include the reserves. I must say that I take it slightly amiss from the right hon. and learned Gentleman given that he stood on a manifesto to elect a man who wanted to pull this country out of NATO.
The Prime Minister is fighting the last war. Is he trying to pretend, hidden in that answer, that the Army stands at over 100,000—the number that the Prime Minister just quoted? When the Secretary of State for Defence made his statement to the House on Monday, he was absolutely clear:
“I have therefore taken the decision to reduce the size of the Army…to 72,500 by 2025.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 638.]
Only this Prime Minister could suggest that a reduction from 82,000 to 72,000 is somehow not a cut.
The Prime Minister did not answer my question, which was: why did he make that promise? He said, before the last election—it is all very well him looking up—that
“we will not be cutting our armed services in any form”.
What did he do this week? He cut the British Army by 10,000; he cut the number of tanks; he cut the number of planes for our RAF; and he cut the number of ships for the Royal Navy. I say “he”—the Prime Minister did not have the courage to come to the House himself to say what he was doing. Let me ask the Prime Minister a simple question, going back to that promise before the election: did he ever intend to keep his promise to our armed forces?
Not only did we keep our promise in the manifesto, but we actually increased spending by 14% more than that manifesto commitment. It is frankly satirical to be lectured about the size of the Army when the shadow Foreign Secretary herself wrote only recently that the entire British Army should be turned into a kind of peace corps, and when, as I say, the Leader of the Opposition stood on a manifesto and wanted to elect a leader who wanted to disband the armed services. We are making a massive investment in our defences and in our future. It is wonderful to hear the new spirit of jingo that seems to have enveloped some of those on the Labour Benches—they don’t like it up ’em, Mr Speaker.
Let’s try this for up ’em. The Prime Minister might want to avoid the promises he made, but I have found an interview that he gave during the general election campaign. Here is the headline: “No troop cuts—Tories will maintain size of armed forces”. The article then goes on to quote the Prime Minister: “Boris Johnson has promised that he will not make any new cuts to the armed forces. He also promised”—the Prime Minister might want to listen to this—“to maintain numbers at their current level, including the Army’s 82,000.” Now, I know the Prime Minister has form for making up quotes, but can he tell us whether he thinks the newspapers have somehow misquoted him? Or does he now remember making that promise?
Yes, because there will be no redundancies in our armed forces and, as I said to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, if we include reserves, we are even keeping the Army at 100,000. On top of that, we are doing what is necessary to modernise our armed forces, taking them into the 21st century. We are building more frigates and investing in cyber-warfare. We are doing all the difficult things that Labour shirked during its time in office, including modernising and upgrading our nuclear deterrent, which half the shadow Front-Bench team would like to remove, leaving Britain defenceless internationally.
I have every respect for our reservists, but the Prime Minister is just playing with the numbers. He knows very well that the numbers have been cut. The trouble is that we just cannot trust the Conservatives to protect our armed forces. [Interruption.] Let us look—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, let us look at their most recent manifestos. These are the manifestos that Conservative Members stood on. The 2015 manifesto—[Interruption.]
The 2015 manifesto said:
“We will maintain the size of the regular armed services”.
The 2017 manifesto:
“We will maintain the overall size of the armed forces”.
In 2019, the Prime Minister said that
“we will not be cutting our armed services in any form.”
The truth is that since 2010 our armed forces have been cut by 45,000 and our Army will now be cut to its lowest level in 300 years. Let me remind the Prime Minister and Conservative Members why this matters. Lord Richards, former Chief of the Defence Staff, has warned that with an armed force of this size now
“we almost certainly…would not be able to retake the Falklands…and stop genocides”.
[Interruption.] He says it is rubbish. That is Lord Richards, Prime Minister. After 10 years of Conservative government, is the Prime Minister not ashamed of that?
This Conservative Government are massively proud of the investment that we made in our armed forces which, as I have said, is the biggest uplift since the cold war. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should look at what the NATO Secretary General had to say about our investment, which is absolutely vital for the future success of the alliance and, indeed, for the security of many other countries around the world. It is a £24 billion investment—investment in the future combat air system, the new Army special operations Ranger Regiment, £1.3 billion to upgrade the Challenger main battle tanks, a massive investment in the Typhoon squadrons and so on.
We are investing in the future. Yes, of course, we have had to take some tough decisions, but that is because we believe in our defences and we believe that they should be more than merely symbolic. It is the Labour party that is consistently, historically—it is hilarious to be lectured about the Falklands, Mr Speaker—weak on protecting this country. It was most visible last week during the debate on the integrated review, when it was plain that those on the shadow Front Bench could not even agree to maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent. That is absolutely true, Mr Speaker.
What is weaker than making a promise to our armed forces just before the election, then breaking it and not being prepared to admit it—not having the courage to admit it? There is a pattern here. The Prime Minister promised the NHS that they would have “whatever they need”; now nurses are getting a pay cut. He promised a tax guarantee; now he is putting taxes up for families. He promised that he would not cut the armed forces; now he has done just that. If the Prime Minister is so proud of what he is doing, so determined to push ahead, why does he not at least have the courage to put this cut in the armed forces to a vote in this House?
I am proud of what we are doing to increase spending on the armed forces by the biggest amount since the cold war. The only reason that we can do that is that, under this Conservative Government, we have been running a sound economy. It is also because we believe in defence. We have been getting on with job. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about nurses and investment in the NHS. I am proud of the massive investment that we have made in the NHS. Actually, we have 60,000 more nurses now in training, and we have increased their starting salary by 12.8%. We are getting on with the job of recruiting more police—20,000 more police. I think that we have done 7,000 already, while they are out on the streets at demonstrations, shouting, “Kill the Bill”. That is the difference between his party and my party. We are pro-vax, low tax and, when it comes to defence, we have got your backs.
The question, Prime Minister, is why not have the courage to put it to a vote. That question was avoided, Mr Speaker, like all of the questions. We all know why he will not put it to a vote. Let me quote a Conservative MP, the Chair of the Defence Committee, because he recognises—he has experience and respect across the House—that this review means
“dramatic cuts to our troop numbers, tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and more than 100 RAF aircraft”.
He went on to say—this is your MP, Prime Minister—
“cuts that, if tested by a parliamentary vote, I do not believe would pass.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 644-645.]
Those words are not from me, but from the Prime Minister’s own MPs.
I want to turn to another issue that affects thousands of jobs and many communities across the country. Some 5,000 jobs are at risk at Liberty Steel, as well as many more in the supply chain. The UK steel industry is under huge pressure, and the Government’s failure to prioritise British steel in infrastructure projects is costing millions of pounds of investment. Will the Prime Minister now commit to working with us and the trade unions to change this absurd situation, to put British steel first and to do whatever is necessary to protect those jobs?
Just a reminder—I am, of course, happy to co-operate in any way—that the steel output halved under the Labour Government. I share very much the anxiety of families of steelworkers at Liberty Steel. That is why my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has had, I think, three meetings with Liberty Steel in just the last few days to take the question forward and see what we can do. We are actively engaged. We are investing huge sums in modernising British steel, making a commitment to British steel plants and making them more environmentally friendly.
We have a massive opportunity, because this Government are engaged on a £640 billion infrastructure campaign: HS2, the great Dogger Bank wind farm, Hinkley, the Beeching railway reversals. All these things that we are doing across the country will call for millions and millions of tonnes of British steel. Now, thanks to leaving the European Union, we have an opportunity to direct that procurement at British firms in the way that we would want to, whereas I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would like nothing more than to take this country back into the European Union and remove that opportunity for British steel and British steelworkers.
Yes; my message is just to thank them for what they have put up with and to say that I am sorry about how difficult it has been for their generation. I do not think there is any group of young people who have been put through so much and who have had to sacrifice so much in our lifetimes. We owe it to them to repair their education and get them into work as fast as we possibly can. That is why we have set out the £2 billion kickstart fund and many other schemes that I hope will be useful to my hon. Friend’s constituents.
Yesterday, my brilliant colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), made his final speech to this Parliament. He is standing for the Scottish Parliament and is doing the right thing by stepping down as an MP. By doing the right thing, he will avoid a dual mandate and a separate by-election that would cost the public £175,000. The Scottish Tory leader in Westminster is also seeking a place in the Scottish Parliament, but he is refusing to step down as an MP. As his boss, will the Prime Minister order the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) to resign his seat, avoid a dual mandate and save the taxpayer £175,000—or are dual mandates one more Tory policy where they think greed is good?
My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is doing an excellent job of holding the Scottish National party to account for their manifold failings, not least on education—failing to deliver on crime and failing, in my view, to deliver for the people of Scotland, so caught up as they are in their desire for independence and another referendum for separation. I am amazed that the right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned that so far, but perhaps he will now.
[Inaudible] simply yet again a Prime Minister failing to answer a question and that charge that “greed is good” in Tory policies.
We know that Tory leaders in Scotland have a habit of dodging democracy. Baroness Davidson is fleeing the House of Lords and the current Tory leader is too feart to stand in a constituency. No wonder this morning’s Daily Record declared that the Scottish Tories have
“exposed themselves as shameless…nasty”
and just “plain daft”. It also says:
“They are led by…a man so devoid of imagination that when asked what he would do if he was prime minister for a day, replied: ‘I would like to see tougher enforcement against Gypsy travellers.’”
Does the Prime Minister really have confidence in a Scottish Tory leader who does not even have the courage to put himself before the voters in a Scottish constituency?
Of course. The right hon. Gentleman represents a party that is so devoid of imagination that they cannot come up with any workable solutions to help the people of Scotland improve their education, improve the fight against crime, or cut taxes in Scotland, where they are the highest in the whole of the UK. They are so devoid of imagination that they are a one-track record—all they can talk about is a referendum to break up the United Kingdom. That is their song. I am amazed, actually, that it is twice he has not mentioned it—maybe he is getting nervous of singing that particular song. It is rather curious. He is not coming back now, is he, but next week, or after Easter, let us see if he mentions it again.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a passionate and successful advocate for her constituents and for steelmaking in this country, in which this Government passionately believe. That is why, as I said to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), we are supporting the UK steel industry with more than £500 million of relief, and also with huge investments to make our steelmaking greener and more competitive. We will do everything we can to ensure that we continue with British jobs in producing British steel with the infrastructure investments that I have mentioned and directing procurement at British jobs in the way that we now can.
The Prime Minister talks about restoring freedoms as we emerge from the lockdown, yet he is pushing a Bill that will restrict one of our most fundamental freedoms—the right to peaceful protest and peaceful assembly—and tomorrow he is asking for another blank cheque to restrict everyone’s freedoms until September, even though we now know that the vast bulk of the Coronavirus Act 2020 is not needed to tackle the pandemic. So will the Prime Minister, for once, match his actions to his words, drop these draconian laws, and instead publish a road map to revive civil liberties and freedoms in our country?
I sympathise very much with the right hon. Gentleman’s desire to see freedoms restored, and I want to do that as fast as we possibly can. That is why we have set out the cautious but, we hope, irreversible road map that we have, which I hope he supports—and I hope the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras also supports, although you can never tell. What we also want to do is make sure that we are able to deal with the very considerable backlog that we have faced because of the pandemic: making sure that we have powers still to accelerate court procedures with Zoom courts; making sure that we allow volunteers to continue to help in the NHS and retired staff to come back to the colours; and making sure that we have powers that are necessary in education. It is important to be able to continue with those special measures for the months ahead, and that is why we have set out the Bill as we have.
I certainly understand my hon. Friend’s strong feelings on this issue, and her campaign is shared by many Members across the House. That is why we launched the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, which has made quite fast progress. Yes, we do want to learn the lessons. Yes, we do want to make sure that the right people are held to account for what happened and that the Post Office never repeats a mistake like this.
I knew it would n0t be long—there they are! There are a couple of reasons. First of all, senior members of the hon. Member’s party said that it was a “once in a generation” event in 2014. I think that that point of view is shared across the House, and quite rightly. The other reason, which is absolutely plain to people in this country, is that we are all trying to build back better and get out of a pandemic. That is the priority for the British people—it is the priority for the whole country —and I think people are, frankly, amazed to hear the Scottish nationalist party still, in these circumstances, banging on about their constitutional obsessions.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for raising this important question and for championing research into motor neurone disease, and I thank him also for raising the excellent work of the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation. We have spent £54 million in the last five years towards this cause, and we are looking at ways significantly to boost the research that we are supporting.
I want to say to the hon. Gentleman that I know that the whole House shares my sympathies and my sorrow for his loss, and we sympathise also with his entire family. I know that his experience is one, as he rightly said, that has been shared by far too many families up and down the country. That is why, as soon as it is right to do so, as soon as it would not be an irresponsible diversion of the energies of the key officials involved, we are of course committed to an inquiry, to learn the lessons, to make sure that something like this can never happen again.
I am very happy to do whatever we can to meet the hon. Gentleman and take the matter forward, but the Dutch Government, I am told, have confirmed they will allow the continued supply of Bedrocan oil against UK prescriptions until at least the summer—
Given the past 12 months I, like many others, would not want the job of Prime Minister, even for all the tea in China. However, the job does give opportunities to directly improve the lives of people who are very, very sick. March is Brain Tumour Awareness Month and over 100,000 people have signed a Brain Tumour Research petition calling for the Government to match brain tumour research funding with that for other devastating cancers. We know from covid that properly funded research really can bring improved care, treatment and a cure. Will my friend the Prime Minister meet me to receive the petition, when it is safe to do so?
Yes, indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he is doing to champion research into brain cancer. I know, from activists in my constituency, where Centre of Hope runs the Hillingdon brain tumour and injury group, how vital it is, because too often people do not appreciate the number of people who are the victims of brain tumours. We have put another £40 million into brain tumour research and we are certainly going to put more. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend.
Forty years on from my predecessor Dame Peggy Fenner’s opposition to the closure of Chatham dockyard, with the loss of thousands of jobs, I am now opposing the closure of what today is Chatham docks, with the loss of over 1,000 skilled jobs. Closing this regionally important asset, home to successful maritime and construction businesses—all growing, in spite of covid—to make way for flats represents short-term profit for the landowner at the expense of long-term economic and environmental benefit. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me, local councillors and the “Save Chatham Docks” campaign that coastal infrastructure plays a significant role in the growth of our local economies, creating jobs and clean maritime technology that contributes to our net zero ambition?
Yes. One of the reasons we put £24 billion into defence alone is that it drives 400,000 jobs around the country, including the building of new frigates and new ships of all kinds. I hope very much that Chatham will benefit from the £100 million funding we put in on 24 December to rejuvenate coastal towns. The planning issue my hon. Friend raises is a matter for the local council, but I do hope a solution can be found that gives the benefits that she describes for the local community.
In addition to the £3.5 billion of investment that we have provided to remediate the cladding and the £1.6 billion that we have already done, we are providing a new scheme for leaseholders in the lower-risk buildings of, I think, the kind that the hon. Gentleman is describing, to pay for unsafe remediation over the long term. There will also be a new levy and tax on developers, so that they also contribute to the remediation costs.
Before the Prime Minister became Prime Minister, we had a discussion to do with the prescribed medical use of cannabis, and how it was helping to save really seriously ill children—not hundreds or thousands, but about 150. We changed the law in November 2018 to make it legal for those prescriptions to be written by top consultants. Today, we have three children who have it free on the NHS, and about 150 children whose families have to beg and borrow and remortgage their homes so that they can pay about £2,000 a month. I say to the Prime Minister that this is wrong. As a father, like I am, we would do everything possible for our families, and these families are doing everything possible for their children. Can we have a follow-up meeting to the one in 2018, where I will bring one of the mothers who gets it free—not to stop her getting it free, but to explain to the Prime Minister how wrong it is that children’s lives are going to be lost if we have to go through the process that the NHS is proposing?
This is the second time I have been asked about this; I thank my right hon. Friend very much, and he is right to raise it. We will make sure that we have a proper meeting with the Department of Health so that we can resolve the issue of how to make sure that the supply of the Bedrocan or the cannabis-based products that are coming from Holland can be made secure, and can continue.
To paraphrase the late, great, much missed Eric Forth, I believe in individual freedoms and individual responsibility. I believe that individuals make better decisions for themselves, their families and their communities than the state makes for them. I loathe the nanny state, and I believe in cutting taxes. Prime Minister, am I still a Conservative?
Not only was this the first Government to create a Veterans Minister specifically with a charge of looking after veterans, and not only have we invested in them, but we have taken steps to protect our armed services veterans from vexatious litigation, pursued by lefty lawyers of a kind sitting not a million miles away from me today, who pursue them long after they have served Queen and country and when no new evidence has been provided. We tried to protect them, we have protected them and the Labour party voted against it.
The Prime Minister has always enjoyed his visits to my constituency of North West Leicestershire, whether it is Ashby-de-la-Zouch on the eve of the historic referendum or Castle Rock School, Coalville last August. He will therefore be pleased, but not surprised, that Leicestershire County Council for the last three years has been the most productive county authority in the country, despite also being the lowest funded. Can my right hon. Friend assure all the residents of Leicestershire that our Conservative-controlled county council will imminently benefit from fairer funding and the Government’s levelling-up agenda so that it can continue to deliver excellent public services?
Yes. I thank Leicestershire County Council for the way it is conducting itself and for delivering value for money. That is what the elections that are coming up in May are all going to be about, and invariably these Conservatives deliver better value, deliver better services and lower taxes. That is what Leicestershire County Council has done, and I congratulate it on it. I fully agree with what my hon. Friend has said.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, in Ogmore and across Wales, the people of Wales and the Welsh Government will receive an additional £5.2 billion of resource funding, on top of the spring Budget funding of 2020-21; £800 million of the levelling up fund is going to the devolved nations; and each local authority in Wales—each local authority in Wales—will receive £125,000 in capacity funding. I look forward to working with him and with Welsh local government to deliver those improvements.