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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2021

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Same-sex Couples: Insemination Services

Regulation of fertility treatment services is UK-wide, but policy is devolved. In England, decisions about local fertility services are determined by clinical commissioning groups, taking account of National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines, which include provision for same-sex female couples.

At present, Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority guidance largely prohibits supplying sperm for insemination at home. Same-sex couples who are trying to get pregnant have few options via the NHS other than to access insemination services from a registered UK clinic. That means that couples who live further away from such clinics face further costs in their aspiration to start a family. Will the Minister, working with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the HFEA, explore ways in which this issue could be mitigated?

On the question about the delivery of sperm to residential addresses, that can be done across the UK, but the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority advises against it because the origin of the sample and whether it is undamaged cannot be guaranteed. Undergoing treatment at a licensed UK clinic provides the donor and the patient with legal certainty about their parental status and their future responsibilities, but I am very happy to take up the hon. Lady’s question further with the Minister for Innovation, as this sits in his portfolio.

Covid-19: Female Employment

The latest Office for National Statistics official statistics show the female employment rate at 71.8% at the end of January 2021. The Government recognise that times are hard for many women and men, which is why we have extended the furlough scheme until September, alongside new measures in our plan for jobs, such as our £2 billion kickstart scheme and the restart programme, which launches this summer.

Covid forced short-term modifications to working practices, which demonstrate that change is possible, but proactive steps are needed to secure long-term improvements in flexible working to support the work and caring responsibilities of women in particular. Does the Minister agree that flexibility should be available from day one of a new job rather than being a possibility six months in, will she ensure that the forthcoming employment Bill provides for that, and will she confirm that that Bill will be in the Queen’s Speech?

The hon. Lady raises something really important. At the Department for Work and Pensions we have been incredibly flexible with our team, and they have been incredibly flexible as a result, so I absolutely agree that flexibility is really important and will be keenly supporting changes to make sure that more women are part of the workforce. It is pleasing that, compared with men’s, the fall in women’s employment has been better through the covid pandemic. As the UK Government, we want to do as much as we can to support women to progress and thrive in the workplace or, indeed, working at home more flexibly.

UK’s G7 Presidency: Role of Women

As part of the G7, we will be hosting the gender equality advisory council. Led by Sarah Sands, it will help women build back better across the world, including on ending violence against women, women’s economic empowerment, and education for women and girls.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her response. Does she agree that flexible working is key, not just to open up more opportunities for more people but to address the UK’s perennial productivity puzzle?

My hon. Friend is right: flexible working should be the standard offer from employers. Recent Government Equalities Office research shows that there are 30% more applicants where jobs are advertised as flexible. That particularly brings benefits to women and those who live outside the major cities, and it can help us level up our country and make it more productive.

Safer Streets for Women

The tragic death of Sarah Everard has reminded us that we need to work together to ensure women do not feel at risk of harm on our streets. Since this senseless tragedy, we have taken immediate action by more than doubling the safer streets fund and building on what works by supporting measures such as better lighting and CCTV. The Minister for Crime and Policing will also hold a summit with police, the violence against women and girls sector, and industry representatives from the night-time economy on preparations to protect women as pandemic restrictions lift.

I thank the Minister for her response. Following that tragic case, a good number of my constituents have been in touch with their concerns over whether their local area is safe. One of them, Courtney Beech, who is an outreach worker for Drop Zone in Barrow, is concerned about the lack of lighting in local parks and the cemetery. What efforts are the Government making to ensure that good practice is being shared with local authorities and other local organisations to keep women feeling safe and secure, especially at night time?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. No one should feel unsafe walking on the street, least of all those who are doing valuable work in the community like Drop Zone. I hope he can reassure his constituents of the Government’s commitment to this issue. The safer streets fund has been more than doubled so it can support interventions such as street lighting and CCTV, which will make people feel safer, and they are the responsibility of local authorities.

In order to make the streets safer for women, we must tackle the culture underpinning male violence. Does my hon. Friend agree with the conclusion of the February 2020 report of the Government Equalities Office that the use of pornography is an important contributing factor to harmful sexual behaviours? If so, how will she make sure that the Government emphasis is not simply on street lights, but also on the causes of male violence against women?

I think I can certainly say that I personally agree with my right hon. Friend. I do know that these issues have been looked at by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). She is not here today, unfortunately, but she has been looking into this issue and I will follow it up with her to provide a more comprehensive response to my right hon. Friend’s question.

Female Participation in STEM

Science and technology will drive our country’s future and women are brilliant at STEM— science, technology, engineering and maths. There are now more girls taking chemistry and biology at A-level than boys, but we need to continue to make progress in other subjects. Initiatives such as T-levels provide an excellent opportunity for girls interested in STEM.

Could I ask the Minister to encourage young women to utilise options like the South Durham University Technical College in Newton Aycliffe, where every one of last year’s students got an outcome they wanted, whether it was a job or further education? The UTC is supported by companies such as Hitachi and Gestamp, and that can create great STEM-based career opportunities. However, currently only about 20% of the students are female. Does she agree with me that more should consider this educational option? The next time she is in the north-east, will she come to see for herself the opportunities that are being created,?

I thank my hon. Friend for championing women in STEM. I congratulate the UTC in Newton Aycliffe for helping women to gain access to prestigious engineering jobs and higher technical opportunities. It is great to see more women taking up subjects such as engineering, but we would like to see more. A really proper and meaningful conversation with a woman role model who has already broken through STEM barriers can inspire girls and young women to enter STEM careers. Companies, such as those he mentions, have an important role in that.

I welcome the Minister’s reply. Participation in STEM can lead to exciting career opportunities in such sectors as renewable energy, but to ensure that young women have every opportunity to pursue their ambitions there must be a career-long pathway that enables them to realise their full potential. That should include fair recruitment processes, the promotion of alumni networks that ensure skill retention and the development of retention programmes. I would welcome an assurance from my hon. Friend that she is liaising with her ministerial colleagues to put in place a route map that includes such staging posts.

It is really positive that we have more women studying to become doctors and that four out of five students studying to become vets are women, but it is less good that only one in five engineering students are women. Initiatives such as Tomorrow’s Engineers Code, which was launched by EngineeringUK, is bringing together Government, business and academia to increase the number and diversity of young people pursuing engineering codes. As one of many Government organisations who have signed the code, we have pledged to work with the engineering community to improve quality targeting, inclusivity and reach of engineering activities.

Covid-19: Disabled People

What steps the Government are taking to help protect disabled people from the effects of the covid-19 outbreak. (914006)

The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 outbreak. As part of Access to Work, we have introduced a more blended offer to help disabled people find and stay in work, including prioritising applications from disabled people in the clinically extremely vulnerable group.

The UK’s high and unequal covid death toll includes disabled people, who account for six out of 10 covid deaths. Last month’s Office for National Statistics data showed that both disabled men and women are more than three times more likely to die if they contract covid than non-disabled people. Even when we adjust for various factors including age or pre-existing health conditions, there is still an additional covid risk associated with disability. So I repeat my question from last June: what assessment have the Government undertaken of the covid deaths of working-age disabled social security claimants? Given their additional risk, what are the Government doing to protect them?

I know that the hon. Lady is very passionate about making sure that anybody with barriers, anybody impacted on by this pandemic, is absolutely supported, and that is something that we have been doing at DWP. Through our Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, we are listening to and engaging with charities and hearing from those people who are working, those with learning disabilities, autistic people, and people with complex needs. Of course, this is an incredibly worrying time for people with disabilities. The Minister is looking at this very carefully and will keep it under review.

Conversion Therapy

I am committed to banning conversion therapy. It is an abhorrent practice and I will shortly be bringing forward plans to do just that.

I am grateful for that response. I am absolutely clear that this practice has no place in a civilised society. Being from the LGBT+ community is not an illness to be treated or cured, and I agree with the Prime Minister who calls conversion therapy “abhorrent” and “repulsive”. In the light of this, what can the Minister do to accelerate the ban?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have been working to make sure that the measures that we put in place are enforceable and fully researched. I am confident that we will be able to announce progress on this very soon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) are absolutely right to condemn this dreadful practice. The problem with it is that not only is it cruel, but it does not work—it is absolutely pointless. As well as imposing a ban, what can my right hon. Friend do to educate religions or other groups who think that this abhorrent practice has a purpose?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that practices that harm or try to convert somebody into being something they are not, are not just wrong but completely inappropriate and unacceptable. That is why we will be bringing forward our plans to ban this practice very shortly. He is right that it should be true in all circumstances, including with religious practices. Of course, we must protect religious free speech, but we cannot condone those harmful practices taking place.

It is good to hear the Minister’s words after three years of dither and delay that have cost the Government three members of their LGBT panel. Can she now give us a legislative timetable for when ending this archaic practice of conversion therapy will be on the statute book once and for all?

I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to get on with doing this. I can assure her that since I got this job a year ago I have been working to make sure that the ban we put in place is properly enforceable and has the right measures in place. We have been looking at international experience to ensure that we do this correctly, but I am very keen to get on with it and I can assure the hon. Lady that we are very much on it.

The Minister will be aware that it has been almost three years since the Government committed to ending the practice of conversion therapy. Will she therefore take this opportunity to apologise to all those who have been harmed by these abhorrent practices as a result of the Government’s inaction, and commit today to bringing forward a full legislative ban on practices to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, to give all LGBT people the protection that they deserve?

I am very clear that these practices are utterly abhorrent. I would point out that I have been in this job for a year and I have been working to make sure that the ban we put in place is enforceable. I have also dealt with a number of other long-standing issues, such as responding to the consultation on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to make the process simpler and kinder for transgender people, improving transgender health care and changing the blood donation criteria for gay men donating blood. We are also working on an international LGBT conference, entitled Safe to Be Me, to end discrimination across the world. It is always important with legislation to ensure that we get it right and that it is properly enforceable, and we will be bringing plans forward shortly.

Covid-19: Working Parents

What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on working parents. (914011)

We know that the pandemic has been hard on all families, especially those who have been juggling work and childcare. That is one of the reasons why schools have remained open to the children of key workers throughout this time, and why early years settings have remained open to all since last June. I meet regularly with colleagues across Government to discuss support for families.

Universal credit’s young parent penalty denies single parents under 25 years old the same level of social security as those above that age, pushing those affected—90% of whom are women, and the majority of them in work—into poverty. What representations is the Minister making to her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to fix this arbitrary inequality and discriminatory practice in the social security system and to abolish the young parent penalty?

This UK Government have put unprecedented amounts—billions—into support for jobs and incomes, including the £150 million flexible support fund, which helps women access childcare. The billions that the UK has put into supporting jobs, especially for those on low incomes, are yet another reminder of why the people of Scotland increasingly agree that they are better off as part of the UK.

Topical Questions

We have a huge opportunity, as we recover from covid-19, for women across the world to build back better. That is why I am convening a group of leaders in the G7 gender equality advisory council this year under the newly appointed chair, Sarah Sands, with leaders such as Professor Sarah Gilbert, who spearheaded the Oxford vaccine, Ritu Karidhal, who helped to lead India’s Mars orbital mission and Iris Bohnet, who has revolutionised our understanding of fairness in the work- place. Together, we can lead on education for women and girls, women’s economic empowerment, and ending violence against women across the world.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. May I commend her on her choice of Darlington for the newly announced Department for International Trade hubs? I look forward to welcoming her to the Tees Valley. I also welcome her commitment to a ban on conversion therapy. Does she agree that this so-called therapy is abuse and that those who perpetrate such abuse should be prevented in law from being able to do so? As a gay man and a Christian, I believe that such controls must also extend to religious organisations that seek to change a person’s sexuality. Will she ensure that the ban extends to these too?

I was delighted to announce yesterday that we will be bringing a trade and investment hub to Darlington. We are also looking at moving the headquarters of our Equalities Office to the north of England, and no doubt Darlington will be putting in a bid for that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to stamp out coercion and causing people harm wherever it takes place. That is what I am determined to do, and that is what I will be bringing forward shortly.

Over the past 10 days we have seen the Government try to defend their poor record on ending violence against women. They have recently reopened the consultation on this issue, but there is no use in consulting people if the Government are not going to take any action. Take the consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace, which closed 18 months ago. We have seen no response from the Minister and no action from the Government, despite the fact that half of women experience sexual harassment at work. Can the Minister tell the House today when she will respond to this consultation and take the much-needed action to end sexual harassment?

It is quite wrong to say that the Government are taking no action on tackling violence against women. We will be publishing a new strategy in spring 2021, which will help to better target perpetrators and support victims of these crimes. The call for evidence to input into this work has been extended to 26 March, and it is vital that we hear from women everywhere, especially given recent public discussions and concerns.

There is so much that we have been doing, including the end-to-end rape review, which is looking at how every stage of the criminal justice system handles rape cases from police report to the final outcome at court. If the hon. Lady does want to work with us to end violence against women, the way to do it is constructively and not by making accusations that we are not taking any action.

We on this side of the House are very committed to ending violence against women and girls, but there is a pattern with this Government. They consult and they review, but they take very little action.

Yesterday we marked a year since the first national lockdown. The pandemic, as we all know, has had an unequal impact on our black, Asian and ethnic minority people. Last July, the Prime Minister commissioned a review into race and ethnic disparities. It was due to be published in December last year, than they delayed it until February this year, and it is now nearly April and still no report.

Can the Minister tell us when the Prime Minister intends to publish his report, and will it be accompanied by a race equality strategy to tackle the ongoing structural and institutional inequalities?

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities will be reporting shortly, but it is disappointing that the hon. Lady seems to forget it is an independent commission. It is not the Prime Minister but an independent commission that will be publishing the report. What will happen afterwards is that the Government will provide their response to the commission’s recommendations, and we shall wait and see what the commission recommends.

What I have intended is that the commission has the freedom and the space to provide a set of recommendations that are robust. We are doing this not on dates but on data, and we need to make sure it is something that will stand the test of time and not just be a response to Opposition Members who are not actually interested in solving this problem but want to use it politically.

One of the less talked about but more impactful and successful recent Government-run programmes is the period product scheme for schools and colleges in England, which provides access to free sanitary products for those in education, including approximately 5,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 in my Wakefield constituency. Many women across the UK, however, continue to struggle with access to sanitary products, including those experiencing homelessness and those in financial hardship as a consequence of the pandemic. Will my hon. Friend kindly outline for the House what steps she is taking to promote access to female sanitary products? (913986)

The Government have taken several important steps to ensure women are able to access the sanitary products they need. From 1 January 2021 the tampon tax has been abolished, with a zero rate of VAT applied to women’s sanitary products coming into effect. The Department for Education is leading a scheme to provide access to free period products in schools and colleges in England, NHS England announced in March 2019 that it will offer free period products to every hospital patient who needs them, including long-term patients, and the Home Office has changed the law to ensure that all people in custody are provided with free health and hygiene products, including period products.

In lockdown, we have all become much more dependent on technology, yet that technology is not designed to treat us equally, with video-conferencing and photo-sharing apps that do not recognise black faces, recruitment algorithms that discriminate on ethnicity, and the Home Office’s own visa application algorithm withdrawn because of bias. In this week of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, what is the Minister doing to prevent structural racism from being further entrenched by new technologies? (913980)

The hon. Lady raises a very interesting question, and this is something the Government are aware of and are looking into. Yesterday, I spoke to Dr Tony Sewell, who is chairing the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities; I am aware that it has researched this extensively and I look forward to seeing what its report says on it.

I am sorry we did not get as many Members in as normal, but we have to move on to questions to the Prime Minister.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

In Sussex, by the end of this week we will have delivered 1 million covid jabs. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the local vaccine heroes and, in particular, to Adam Doyle and his leadership in Hailsham, to Charlotte Luck in Uckfield, and to Dr Susie Padgham in Crowborough? Does the Prime Minister agree that the UK’s success is built on the confidence that people have in the fantastic vaccine technology and that should, and when, our constituents be contacted to have a vaccination, they should definitely take up the first available appointment? (913877)

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.]

Order. I am struggling to hear the Leader of the Opposition, and I will hear the Leader of the Opposition. Please, I want respect for the Prime Minister and I expect the same for the Leader of the Opposition.

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.

Order. I genuinely mean this: I do not believe that any Member of Parliament would support that “Kill the Bill”. We are all united in this House in the support and the protection that the police offer us and nobody would shy away from that.

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.

Last night, I spoke with young people in Aberconwy about their experiences of 12 months living with lockdowns. They were very articulate about the challenges they have overcome and their concerns for the future, such as finding a job and moving to a new university. Does the Prime Minister have a message for Evie, Jonas, Saul and Lauren, and for other young people thinking about their futures and a life after lockdown? (913879)

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.

As my right hon. Friend has already said, the steel industry is fundamental to our future in the UK, and we cannot reach our net zero commitments or our infrastructure targets without steel. Liberty Speciality Steel in my constituency has an uncertain future because of the funding challenges faced by Liberty Steel Group. The Stocksbridge works is a strategic asset of national importance. So what assurances can my right hon. Friend give my constituents that the Government will do what it takes to safeguard jobs and livelihoods and secure the future of steelmaking in the UK? (913882)

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.

My constituent Tracy Felstead is at the Court of Appeal today, along with 41 other sub-postmasters. She is seeking to clear her name in a grotesque miscarriage of justice: the Post Office Horizon scandal. The Court has heard about the “institutional imperative” to back a flawed IT system and to convict sub-postmasters, destroying the lives of decent men and women in a ruthless determination to protect the Post Office come what may. Taxpayers will be picking up the bill for this multimillion-pound reckless wrongdoing. Does the Prime Minister agree that, in order for justice to be truly done, those responsible for this failure and its cover-up must be held to account? Does he agree that heads should roll? (913884)

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.

Subject to certain conditions being met, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 allows for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call a referendum on Irish reunification and for Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom within seven years of a previous referendum. Those conditions for a referendum have all been more than met in Scotland since the independence referendum in 2014, seven years ago. We are allegedly a Union of equal nations, so why, as a democrat, will the Prime Minister not agree to a section 30 order, enabling the democratic will of the people of Scotland to be measured? Is it because he is fearful of the likely outcome? (913875)

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.

Scottish rugby legend Doddie Weir lives in my constituency and has been diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Doddie’s foundation, the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, is campaigning alongside the research community, patients, MND Scotland and the MND Association for the Government to invest £50 million over five years to establish a virtual MND research institute. I understand that positive discussions have already taken place with the Health Secretary, but it is important to ensure that other priorities such as this are not lost in the pandemic. Will the Prime Minister commit the Government to supporting this initiative, so that we can work towards finding a cure for this devastating disease? (913885)

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.

A year into this crisis and more than 126,000 lives have been lost. Behind that staggering figure are millions grieving for their loved ones. In my family, we have lost an entire generation. I could not hold my mum’s hand as she lay dying, and I recently lost both my father and mother-in-law within just days of one another. Grieving families like mine want and deserve to understand what happened and whether anything could have been done to prevent this tragedy. Will the Prime Minister today commit to launching a full public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic as soon as current restrictions are lifted? (913876)

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.

On 3 May, Wembley is scheduled to host the finals of the FA Vase and FA Trophy—not from this season, but delayed a year from the last one. But that date means that no fans can go, even though a trip to Wembley to follow their team is like a holy grail, especially for the smaller clubs. The MPs for the clubs involved—the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) and myself—have raised this with the Football Association. Will the Prime Minister join us in encouraging those scheduling the matches to do all they can to move the date, so that the fans can attend? (913887)

I hope very much that the Football Association will have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said and that they will do what they can. I look forward to 17 May, when spectators, according to the road map, may return.

Seventeen months ago, Prime Minister, on 23 October 2019, I stood in this place and asked you what you were going to do to get medical cannabis to children suffering from rare forms of epilepsy. You said to me that you recognised their “desperate difficulties”, and that you would take up the matter “personally” with me. Their difficulties are still desperate and you have not taken this up personally with me. In the interim we have developed new medicines, distributed them around the country and given them to people who need them, free of charge. Why are we discriminating against these children? What are they—are they worth less than the general public? Will the Prime Minister move to make medical cannabis available to children with epilepsy? If you could please, Prime Minister, take this opportunity personally, five minutes of your time today could go a long, long way. (913878)

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—

Until July, as the hon. Gentleman says. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is working to find a permanent solution and I have no doubt that he will be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.

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.

My constituents Ronald and Julia Sheriff’s daughter Danielle currently lives in Gran Canaria. Last year, aged just 33, she suffered an aneurysm. Danielle remains deeply unwell and her family are crowdfunding to bring her back home to live. They have been advised that when she does return home, she will not be eligible for the treatment that she needs on the NHS. Please can the Prime Minister support the crowdfund for Dani, and give his personal assurance that she will receive the care that she needs from our NHS? (913880)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising the case. My deepest sympathies are with Danielle and her family. I will make sure that the relevant Health Minister meets her to discuss the case as fast as possible.

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.

Last night, I met again with leaseholders whose lives have been torn apart by the cladding and building safety scandal. The Prime Minister will recall that he told the House on 3 February that “no leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects that they did not cause and are no fault of their own.”—[Official Report, 3 February 2021; Vol. 688, c. 945.]No ifs, no buts: an unequivocal pledge. The Government’s measures so far fall well short of fulfilling it, so could the Prime Minister say now not what has been done, but what he will do to deliver his promise? (913881)

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.

I personally thank you, Mr Speaker, for your support for Parliament’s covid memorial quilt. Prime Minister, after PMQs, I will be presenting my cross-party private Member’s Bill, the Coronavirus (No. 2) Bill, to Parliament. It is based on scientific advice, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies guidance, and lessons learned. Will the Prime Minister please commit to reading this Bill and providing me with a written response, maybe by tomorrow—I know that is a bit of an ask—but, if not, within the next two weeks? (913883)

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?

We learned today—unfortunately, from the media, rather than a Minister—that the Treasury has informed the Office for Veterans’ Affairs that its budget is to be cut by 40%, from £5 million to £3 million. This cannot be right, as just yesterday Graeme Dey, the SNP Scottish Government’s Veterans Minister, announced a further £1 million to support Scottish veterans alone. These disparate positions are irreconcilable. This is a tale of two Governments, so will the Prime Minister follow the SNP’s lead and assure the House today that he will not allow this cut to UK funding for veterans? (913886)

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.

The Government are saying that the community renewal fund is a fantastic opportunity for Wales, yet Bridgend county is not listed as a priority place for the fund. On 10 February at the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister invented a world-leading battery plant for Bridgend in response to the significant job losses we have faced across my county borough in the last two years, something the Prime Minister has still refused to apologise to my constituents for. When will he stop treating my constituents as an afterthought, keep true to his promise of not a penny less for Wales and ensure that he brings real investment to my constituents in Ogmore? (913888)

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.

That was the final question, and I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements before we start the next business.

Sitting suspended.