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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 692: debated on Wednesday 21 April 2021

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Northern Ireland Protocol: Trade with Great Britain

What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of the Northern Ireland protocol on levels of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (914354)

Before I answer, let me say that I am sure the whole House will join me in offering my support and thoughts to the Police Service of Northern Ireland officer who was subject to a cowardly attack earlier this week. Those who attack our public servants and emergency services personnel have nothing to offer the communities they claim to represent. I am sure the whole community will join everybody across this House in support for that officer and for such a way forward, and people will I hope come forward with any information they may have to help bring those responsible to justice swiftly.

Overall freight flow between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has returned to normal levels. We are continuing to monitor and assess the situation, including any potential change in trade patterns. The temporary operational steps that we announced in this House in March have ensured that we prevented any significant immediate-term disruption to goods flows, as I have outlined, including food, and have provided space for the continued discussions on the protocol implementation in the Joint Committee.

I share the Secretary of State’s concern and alarm over recent events.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers and industry leaders are expected to withdraw up to 90% of medicines sent to Northern Ireland from the UK due to the unaffordability of meeting new Brexit-incurred costs and red tape, with Lord Frost stating last week that “difficult issues remain”. What do the UK Government plan to do to minimise and prevent further disruption of the distribution of medical supplies to Northern Ireland caused by a hard Brexit?

As I think we showed with the action we took just a month or so ago, which I have outlined, we will ensure that we take the action we need to take to continue to see the flow of goods and products. Obviously, the medicines issue is one we are working on intensively with the European Commission to address, with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and Lord Frost working at the moment on all of those issues—the outstanding issues—that the hon. Member highlights. There are some difficult issues, but we will do what we need to do, working in partnership with the EU, to get a resolution that works for the whole of the UK.

I join the Secretary of State in condemning unreservedly the attack on the female police officer, and our support is fully with her and her colleagues at this time.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the difficulties that the Northern Ireland protocol continues to cause for both consumers and businesses. What steps are the Government going to take to replace this protocol with arrangements that fully restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market?

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, as I am sure will the Police Service of Northern Ireland for its personnel.

The protocol is about safeguarding Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market, as we outlined in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which legislated for that very fact. I have been very clear that there are outstanding issues with the protocol, and some of them are difficult issues. They are ones that need to be resolved from the point of view of both consumers and businesses, and just to restore confidence across all the communities—the whole community—of Northern Ireland. We are determined to do that, and I think we have shown with the actions we have taken that we want to do that in a pragmatic, flexible way that works for the people of Northern Ireland. We are also working, through the work Lord Frost is doing, to do that in partnership with our colleagues and friends in the EU. Ultimately, however, this is about making sure that we are protecting the Good Friday agreement in all of its strands.

The Secretary of State will also be aware that there is potential for significant difficulties with the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol. Again I ask the Secretary of State: what measures do the Government intend to introduce to ensure that medicines flow freely into Northern Ireland, and that everyone here in Northern Ireland will not be disadvantaged in accessing medicines and pharmaceutical products?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which of course we are working on and take seriously. The recitals to the protocol themselves state that it

“should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities”,

and very clearly, as well as food supplies, medicines absolutely fall within that. So it is well within the remit of the protocol to ensure that that flow can continue in the proper and flexible way it always has. We continue to work intensively with our friends and partners in the EU, but as I have said before, we will do what we need to do to ensure that Northern Ireland has access to the market in the way it would as part of the United Kingdom. That is what the structural integrity of the United Kingdom’s internal customs union is about.

Can I echo the comments of the Secretary of State on the despicable attempted murder of a serving police officer? All my thoughts are with the officer, her colleagues and her family today.

As recently as Monday, when wider protests over the Northern Ireland protocol resumed, anonymous social media accounts were still being used to exploit the situation and lure young people to the interface in Belfast, with provocative messages inflaming an already tense situation. Will the Secretary of State, working with the police, make it clear in the strongest possible terms that social media giants such as Facebook have a responsibility to act to prevent their platforms from being exploited to inflame tensions in the interface communities?

Yes, and I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments. I think it actually—I hope Members excuse the colloquial language—beggars belief that anybody could think that the cowardly act of putting a police officer and a young child at risk is a way to further their cause. I warmly welcome the condemnation all around of that cowardly action.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: as I outlined in the statement I made last week, it is important that we are very alert to the risks of social media. People who look at social media should be alert to who may or may not be behind encouraging them to do things in a hugely inappropriate way that could ruin their lives and the lives of others. Yes, this is something we are taking forward and working on with social media companies—absolutely.

The Social Democratic and Labour party sends every good wish to the PSNI officer, after the appalling experience she has had at the hands of the warped throwbacks who have absolutely nothing to offer people here.

We appreciate that sanitary and phytosanitary checks are a tricky issue internally for the Conservative party, but as the person in government in charge of speaking up for Northern Ireland, has the Secretary of State personally articulated to his Cabinet colleagues how the UK-EU veterinary and SPS arrangements could address the frictions in trade? Has he directly asked them to put the interests of Northern Ireland ahead of a theoretical power to diverge that the UK does not look as if it is going to use any time soon?

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s comments as, I am sure, does the PSNI.

Obviously, I am always making the case in the UK Government for the best outcome for people in Northern Ireland, and it is right that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom in terms of trade. As I have said, SPS checks in one form or another, recognising the single epidemiological unit and biosecurity of the island of Ireland, have been in place since about the 19th century. We must ensure that we have a proper, pragmatic, flexible, free flow of goods, so that a consumer in Northern Ireland is able to have the same experience as a member of the United Kingdom anywhere in the United Kingdom. We are determined to ensure that we deliver that.

Recent Disorder

What steps the Government are taking to tackle the causes of the recent disorder in Northern Ireland. (914355)

The sporadic localised disorder that we have seen in Northern Ireland is completely unacceptable, and I appreciate the comments made by the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) in that regard over the past couple of weeks. The factors behind that disorder are complex and, as I have said, multifaceted. All communities in Northern Ireland must work together to resolve current tensions and unrest. I have been in regular close contact with political and community leaders, as well as with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and it is clear that, as we know in this House, the only way to resolve differences is through dialogue. In that regard, we all have the ability to lead the way by example.

I join colleagues in expressing full solidarity with the police officer affected this week. It is important always to remain united in opposing terrorism. Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is a trade-off between the nature of the UK’s Brexit, and the level of checks down the Irish sea as a consequence? The UK Government can play a key role in defusing those tensions if, like many other sovereign states, they follow through and negotiate that bespoke agreement.

As I outlined in a statement last week, and as I have just said, the tensions and issues that led to violence a couple of weeks ago are multifaceted and, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, a number of issues are going on. I would be wary of putting this on any one issue, or of giving anyone the view that it is acceptable to argue that, because of tensions over the protocol, it is acceptable to use violence. There is much more to what happened the other week than that. As I have said, we want to work towards a practical pragmatic solution with our partners in the EU, to ensure we have that good, free and flexible flow of products between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the way we want, and as we deliver from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

I agree with the Secretary of State that the reasons behind the violence are multifaceted, but the barriers to trade, which the Prime Minister repeatedly and wrongly denied existed, have played a part in the growing political instability in Northern Ireland. We need solutions. Will the Secretary of State do what he did not do in last week’s statement and confirm that his Government are seeking an agreement on common veterinary standards? That would go a long way to lowering barriers to trade in food products across the Irish sea.

We are working intensely with our partners and colleagues in the European Union. Lord Frost is currently working with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič on a wide range of issues, including agrifoods, so that we get a resolution that works for the people of Northern Ireland, with Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have seen an increase in tensions, particularly in Unionist communities, and we need to recognise the issues around a sense of identity. We can all play a part in helping the EU to understand better the lasting impact of the action it took when it went to trigger article 16 just a couple of months ago. The disruption affects people across all communities in Northern Ireland, and we want that to be resolved in partnership with the EU.

May I associate myself, as others have, with the remarks that the Secretary of State made with regard to the horrible and horrific event yesterday in Dungiven? That and recent scenes remind us all too well of the horrors of the past and surely must reinvigorate us all to ensure that they do not become either endemic to the present or part of Northern Ireland’s future.

Will the Secretary of State assure me that the PSNI has adequate resourcing to proactively interrupt social media platforms and posts, which are clearly the new way of communicating types of disorder? The PSNI needs to be able to monitor and intervene. Can he assure me that the full resource of the state is available to it to ensure that this important work is done to the best of its abilities?

My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee makes a very important point, as others have, about the impact and importance of dealing with social media. Yes, absolutely: I have spoken to the chief constable and outlined to him our full support and we are working with the police to ensure that they have access to the full capabilities to work and deal with social media issues. We obviously recognise that policing is a devolved matter, but they have our full support and we will continue to work with them on those issues.

May I, too, associate myself with the comments about, and send our best wishes to, the serving police officer? As a former special constable, I know that the whole police family will be reeling today, and my thoughts are with them all.

It is not an exaggeration to say that, in the 23 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the peace process has never been as vulnerable as it is now. The north-south institutions fundamental to the support of Irish nationalists are under pressure, and the east-west relationship has been seriously undermined by the Prime Minister and his approach to Brexit. The Secretary of State bears a responsibility to help stabilise the situation, so will he ensure that the British-Irish Council is urgently convened to give Northern Ireland representatives a voice in discussions around the protocol and huge decisions about their own future?

Yes. I suggest that the hon. Lady looks back: a while ago, we announced that the British-Irish Council would meet on 11 June. It continues its regular meetings, which have never stopped; the last one was in November. But yes—as it has been regularly meeting.

I suggest that 11 June is not an urgent meeting and recommend that that meeting should be brought forward urgently to discuss these important issues.

The Secretary of State will know that some very young children, born long after the Good Friday agreement, have been involved in some of the recent disorder. Does he agree that, wherever appropriate, working with the PSNI, restorative justice should be used to ensure that those children are not criminalised and do not run the risk of falling into the toxic, coercive grip of paramilitaries?

Yes, absolutely. I will also just say that the Northern Ireland Executive have been involved in the specialist committee, which feeds into the Joint Committee, through the work that we do through the engagement forums and, actually, a meeting with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič just a few weeks ago. They are consistently involved and feeding into the process and the work that we do with the EU, but as I say, the British-Irish Council date was set a short while ago.

On the hon. Lady’s comments about young people, she is absolutely right; I fully support that point. Community groups and youth groups have been working with young people, not just in the last few weeks but consistently over the last year or so. They do amazing work to help young people to see a way through to a prosperous and exciting future. We should all be doing all we can to support, promote and encourage that so that people are not tempted, whether through social media or though bad advice in the heat of the moment in the streets, as we saw a few weeks ago, into the type of behaviour that gives them a criminal record and curtails their opportunities for the future.

May I take this opportunity to associate myself and my party with the comments that have been made on both sides of the House about the disgraceful and despicable attempt on the life of a serving police officer in Dungiven on Monday?

In these times of heightened tensions in the community, language and leadership matter, so does the Secretary of State consider that the Prime Minister’s referring to the “ludicrous” barriers that result from the protocol—a protocol that he himself insisted on the terms of—are a help or a hindrance to reaching a solution in Northern Ireland that all parts of the community can accept?

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman betrayed a lack of understanding, in the sense that people of the whole community of Northern Ireland are affected by these problems and the outworkings of the protocol. Whether it is somebody who has a nationalist constitutional view or a Unionist constitutional view, the practical outworkings for both consumers and businesses are real for the whole community. There is an added sense, as I outlined earlier, that the identity of the loyalist Unionist community in Northern Ireland has been affected, so the Prime Minister was absolutely right. It is helpful in that it clearly recognises—the hon. Gentleman sadly does not—the sense of injustice and feeling of attack on identity that is there in the Unionist community. We have to be clear that we recognise that and want to deal with that with our partners in the EU. To pretend it is not there simply is not going to handle the problem.

Dissident republicans tried to murder a police officer and her young child in County Derry this week. I take this opportunity, as an Irish nationalist, to send those dissident republicans a very clear message: your quarrel is not with the police, it is not with the British state; it is with the people of Ireland and that is a battle you will never, ever win.

Given the Prime Minister’s very speedy response to an issue about football—as important as that is—compared with the quickness of his response to the violence on the streets of Northern Ireland for almost 10 days, does the Secretary of State agree with me that we need an active, engaged and interested Prime Minister in dealing with our peace process?

Yes, absolutely, and I am very proud of the fact that we do. We have a Prime Minister who has been very much engaged. The hon. Gentleman should look at the Prime Minister’s comments and the fact that he was talking to the Taoiseach in the early stages. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks about dissident republicans. The Prime Minister has been actively involved. He has been in full communication all the way through this process. In terms of looking at how people deal with this, I would just say that all Members of this House, including some in the hon. Gentleman’s own party, need to think very carefully when they are tweeting things that could be seen as incendiary to make sure we all take the right tone on these matters to ensure we return calm for people as quickly as possible.

Having spoken to my constituent yesterday who was the subject of such a disgraceful attack, I can tell the House that the victim and her family deeply appreciate the unanimous support, and that the wider community in County Londonderry does as well. The Secretary of State has indicated his concern about the rising tensions. Will he take more steps now to understand the activities that are going on, the rationale behind them and the need to stand up to the violence, but also the need to understand and take action to deal with the underlying problems that exist in those areas?

Yes. I think the hon. Gentleman alludes to a wider issue that the previous questioner rightly raised in the statement last week. A multi-faceted set of issues came together over the last few weeks. We should not allow ourselves to miss out on the fact that it is important and highlights why we have to do more work to ensure that, as we are levelling up and building back better across the United Kingdom, that reaches all communities and that all communities can benefit, see opportunities, see growth, and really have a better opportunity for a better and brighter future.

Police Officer Numbers

What assessment the Government have made of the potential effect of Budget 2021 on police officer numbers in Northern Ireland. (914356)

The UK Government fully support the excellent work of the PSNI. I would like to thank all the officers involved in keeping people safe during the recent unrest and send my best wishes to those who were injured, as well as associating myself with the remarks we have heard across the House today about the appalling and cowardly act in Dungiven. Policing in Northern Ireland and police funding are primarily devolved matters. I welcome the further funding allocated to the PSNI by the Executive, which provides the PSNI with an additional £12.3 million for staffing. But how the PSNI allocates its funding is an operational matter for the Chief Constable, in consultation with the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

The Minister will know that 7,500 officers was a core commitment of New Decade, New Approach. Given the vital importance of neighbourhood policing in tackling disorder, what steps will the Government take to ensure that commitment is met?

The hon. Gentleman is right: this was a commitment for the parties in the Executive under the New Decade, New Approach announcement. Clearly, the UK Government provide funding to the Executive through the block grant, but the Secretary of State has also spoken to the Chief Constable and made clear that, if he puts together a business plan, we will work with the Department of Justice to make sure that that can be properly supported. We certainly stand ready to support them in that regard.

Leaving the EU: Peace in Northern Ireland

In the 23 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was signed, there has been a transformative change in Northern Ireland. The hard-won peace has created the conditions for economic growth, investment and stability. As we left the European Union, the protocol was designed to protect the agreement in all of its strands and to safeguard the stability created. It is only by respecting all elements of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—north-south as well as east-west, and, obviously, Northern Ireland itself—that we will secure strength and stability into the future.

My good friend the late Charles Kennedy attended Lochaber High School and Glasgow University. He went on to represent a highlands constituency with distinction for many years. The fact that he was a Roman Catholic was neither here nor there. I would say that Charles Kennedy was an excellent example of integrated education. What more can the UK Government do to assist the Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland Government in getting integrated education going in the Province and reaping the benefits from it?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important and powerful point, which I absolutely agree with. One of the things in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that has not managed to be delivered on enough is integrated education. I am absolutely determined for us to do all we can to support the Executive to take that forward—obviously, education is devolved. As I have outlined in relation to the new deal package of money, it is an area that I am very focused on, and I want to work with the Executive to take integrated education forward over the period ahead for the benefit of the long-term stability, peace and prosperity of people in Northern Ireland.

Would the Secretary of State agree that it is not Brexit or leaving the EU that has had an impact on peace in Northern Ireland, but the Northern Ireland protocol that has been imposed in Northern Ireland by the EU, leaving us in a position where we have not yet got the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom, leaving us with a trade barrier between east and west? This has meant additional bureaucracy and administration for local businesses and that there are businesses from England that do not wish to engage in the additional checks that are required. What progress is being made to remove this injustice from Northern Ireland, as we feel we are being punished for leaving the EU?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As I said earlier, some of the tension that we have seen over the last few weeks is multi-faceted, with a number of issues involved. On the hon. Gentleman’s points about the protocol, that is something that we are working through. We are working intensively with our partners in the EU. Lord Frost is working with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. We are very much aware that the protocol is there. From the EU’s point of view, it wants to protect the sacrosanct position of its single market. We are focused on and determined about protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, as I said before, in all three of its strands, and we are very alert to the fact that east-west is as important as any other strand. We want to make sure that we deliver on that and get a solution that means that this can work in a proper, pragmatic way that means that a consumer, a business and a citizen of Northern Ireland can have the same experience as a citizen anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Recent Disorder

What representations he has received from relevant stakeholders on the recent disorder in Northern Ireland. (914359)

I have been in close conversation with political and community leaders and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in response to recent events. Their unification in condemning the unrest has been a welcome sign that those engaged in the destruction and disorder that we saw do not represent Northern Ireland. We as a Government will continue to engage with stakeholders across the whole community in Northern Ireland to find solutions that work for everybody and to ensure that we are always clear that the right way to express concerns is through dialogue, engagement and the democratic process—never violence.

The Secretary of State is right: dialogue is important, as are inter-Government relations between the UK and Ireland. It is a vital part of upholding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and managing tension that leads to disorder, so why has the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference never met under this Prime Minister, and why has the Prime Minister never chaired the British-Irish Council? Can he commit that he will chair the next meeting, whether it is in June or sooner, as it should be?

The British-Irish Council has never ceased to meet regularly and has always been chaired in the same way. The conversations are ongoing between ourselves and the Irish Government. Even over the last few weeks, whether that has been with Foreign Minister Simon Coveney or the Prime Minister talking to the Taoiseach, that engagement has been ongoing and will continue, because we are partners working together, with a long relationship—a positive relationship—that is of benefit to the people of the Republic of Ireland and the whole of the UK.

Mental Health Services Funding

What comparative assessment he has made of the adequacy of levels of funding for mental health services in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (914363)

We recognise the importance of ensuring that there is proper provision and access to mental health services right across the UK. Health services are devolved in Northern Ireland. The funding allocated to this specific service is therefore a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive to allocate from within the substantial resources provided by the UK Government. The Government are providing funding of £14.2 billion to the Executive in 2021-22 and we would, of course, support them allocating some of this funding for these vital services.

Recently published figures show that between January 2017 and September 2020 mental health referral targets were missed more than 42,000 times at emergency departments in Northern Ireland. Given that rates of suicide in Northern Ireland continue to be the highest of any part of the UK, will the Minister please confirm that the funding in New Decade, New Approach to tackle the mental health crisis will be urgently released?

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the acute demand on all health services across the UK, including in Northern Ireland, and she is also right to refer to the funding in the NDNA agreement. There was £50 million allocated for mental health support through the confidence and supply agreement. That funding is part of £350 million provided under that agreement to support the health sector, but there is a further £60 million of capital and resource funding for medical purposes that the Government have since announced and approved, and we continue to deliver on our NDNA commitments to the Executive.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know that the whole House will want to join me in sending our very best wishes to Her Majesty the Queen on her 95th birthday.

Last night’s verdict in Minneapolis delivered justice for the family and friends of George Floyd, and I know that the thoughts of the whole House remain with them.

I welcome the decision taken by the six English football teams not to join the European super league. The announcement was the right result for football fans, for clubs and for communities across the country.

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

May I extend my good wishes to the Queen today in what must be a difficult time? I hope that she finds herself surrounded by friends and family and that she can find it within herself to take some time to celebrate her 95th birthday.

I know that the Prime Minister is not a supporter of basic income, but given that Hull, Belfast, Norwich, Leeds, Lambeth, Guildford, Swansea, Glasgow and 24 other councils around the United Kingdom have expressed a desire to run pilot schemes that would enhance our knowledge of all the pros and cons, would he consider facilitating any pilot projects in the United Kingdom? Have the UK Government considered any research into basic income, and if so, what?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his support for a UK-wide proposal. I trust that he understands the irony of that, when we consider that his party is, as I understand it, still hellbent on calling an irresponsible referendum on breaking up the United Kingdom.

As we come out of lockdown and look to the summer, many people are going to be concerned about their body image. There are 1.25 million people who suffer from eating disorders and 1 million people using steroids, and the number is getting worse. Two weeks ago, the Women and Equalities Committee released a report on body image, which concluded that the use of“doctored photos promoting unobtainable or unrepresentative body images was having a ‘detrimental’ impact”. Will the Prime Minister consider all options, including labelling digitally altered images, to help deal with the issues raised on body image? (914528)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He and the whole House are aware of the pressure that young people, in particular, can feel as a result of doctored images. As part of the consultation on the online advertising programme, we will look at what we can do, and I know that we will be responding to the Select Committee’s report in due course.

May I join the Prime Minister in wishing Her Majesty a very happy birthday? The last few weeks have been a time of incredible personal anguish and we all send Her Majesty and the royal family our very best wishes.

May I also join the Prime Minister in his comments about the verdict in the George Floyd case? There has been justice in that case.

Even as an Arsenal season ticket holder, I join the Prime Minister in his comments about the European super league, which would have destroyed football. We now need to get on with the other changes that are necessary.

Finally, Mr Speaker, may I send my condolences to the family of Frank Judd, who died earlier this week? Frank was a much-loved Member of this House and the other place for many decades and was highly respected as a Labour Minister. He was a great internationalist and campaigner for peace and human rights and he will be sadly missed.

What does the Prime Minister think is the right thing to do if he receives a text message from a billionaire Conservative supporter asking him to fix tax rules?

First, I echo the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s remarks about Frank Judd.

In response to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question, if he is referring to the requests from James Dyson, I make absolutely no apology at all for shifting heaven and earth and doing everything I possibly could —as I think any Prime Minister would in those circumstances—to secure ventilators for the people of this country, to save lives and to roll out a ventilator-procurement process that the Labour-controlled Public Accounts Committee itself said was a benchmark for procurement

Let us be clear what the texts show. The Prime Minister was lobbied by a wealthy businessman and close friend for a change in the tax rules; the Prime Minister responded: “I will fix it”. Then, after a discussion with the Chancellor, whom everybody seems to be lobbying these days, the Prime Minister texted his friend to say, “it is fixed”. How many other people with the Prime Minister’s personal number has he given preferential treatment to?

I recall the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying at the time that we should do everything that we could to get more ventilators. Indeed, he congratulated the roll-out—he said well done to everybody involved in the ventilator challenge.

May I just remind the House of what we were facing in March last year? We had a new virus that was capable of killing people in ways that we did not understand. The only way to help them, in extremis, was to intubate them and put them on ventilation. We had 9,000 ventilators in this country; we secured 22,000 as a result of that ventilator challenge. I think it was entirely the right thing to do to work with all potential makers of ventilators at that time. And by the way, so does the former leader of the Labour party—a man to whom I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman should listen—Tony Blair.

I am surprised the Prime Minister brings up former leaders as it is his former leader—his friend Dave—who is at the heart of much of this.

I acknowledge that thousands of businesses stepped up during the pandemic. That was a good thing and we celebrate that. The difference is that they did not all have the chance to text the Prime Minister to ask him to fix the tax situation in exchange for doing so. That is the difference.

At the heart of this scandal are people’s jobs and wasted taxpayers’ money. Take, for example, the thousands of jobs at Liberty Steel that are on the line in Hartlepool, Rotherham and elsewhere following the collapse of Greensill Capital. The Prime Minister has not fixed that—in fact, he has done nothing to help steelworkers. Is it now quite literally one rule for those who have the Prime Minister’s phone number and another for everybody else?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman calls it a scandal; he voted for the changes that we brought in. He called our ventilator challenge an outstanding success and I think he was completely right. This is a Government who get on, deliver for people in distress and deliver on the people’s priorities.

Yes, of course I am concerned for the families of steelworkers up and down the country. That is why the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has been meeting the unions and the management of Liberty Steel repeatedly over the past few days. We believe in British steel. It was under the last Labour Government that jobs in steel fell by more than 50% and output fell by more than 50%. We now have a 5 million-tonne pipeline of British steel, with our massive infrastructure investments, and we intend to use our new freedoms under Brexit to make sure that procurement goes to British companies.

The Prime Minister says, “We believe in British steel”. Well, do something. I have to say to him that steelworkers waking up this morning will find it deeply offensive to hear the Prime Minister boasting to his friends that he is the First Lord of the Treasury and can give them the backing they need. He will not give the steelworkers the backing that they need. This shows that, once again, favours, privileged access, and tax breaks for mates are the main currency of this Conservative Government. If that is not the case, if one of the 3 million self-employed people who have been excluded from Government support for over a year and now face bankruptcy texted the Prime Minister to ask for a tax break so that they could survive, would he change the rules for them, too?

This Government have supported the self-employed with more than £14 billion throughout the pandemic. That is part of a vast package of support for jobs and livelihoods across the country. We continue to do everything it takes. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should take back what he said about the ventilator challenge. He attacks the ventilator challenge—our efforts to get more ventilators at a very, very difficult time for this country—in the same way, by the way, in which he opportunistically attacked the Vaccine Taskforce at a critical moment, which he will recall. We take the tough decisions that are necessary to protect the people of this country and get things done.

If I had to correct the Prime Minister for everything that he gets wrong, I would be here all day. I take it that that is a no as an answer to the question in relation to the 3 million. There we have it: an open door for those with the Prime Minister’s number; a closed door to the 3 million. What this shows once again is the extent of the sleaze and cronyism that is at the heart of his Conservative Government. Let me try another way, Prime Minister. If an NHS nurse, who has been working on the frontline during the pandemic, had the Prime Minister’s phone number, would they get the pay rise that they so obviously deserve?

I am proud of what this Government have done to support the NHS throughout the pandemic with record investment of another £92 billion. To help nurses, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we put in, last year, the bursary of £5,000, plus the £3,000 on top to help with training and the costs of childcare; and in the past couple of years, a 12.8% increase on the starting salary. Above all, we are helping the profession by recruiting more nurses than ever before. There are already 50,000 more people in the NHS this year than there were last year, and 10,600 more nurses. That is what I would say to many of the nurses that I have talked to in the past few days and weeks, and we will continue to back them to the hilt.

If the Prime Minister had been talking to the NHS frontline he would know how insulted they are by his pay cut after everything they have put in over the past year. They did not get a text from the Prime Minister; they got a kick in the teeth. Mr Speaker, there is a pattern to this Government: the Prime Minister is fixing tax breaks for his friends; the Chancellor is pushing the Treasury to help Lex Greensill; the Health Secretary is meeting Greensill for drinks; and David Cameron is texting anybody who will reply. Every day, there are new allegations about this Conservative Government: dodgy personal protective equipment deals; tax breaks for their mates; and the Health Secretary owning shares in a company delivering NHS services. Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze, and it is all on his watch. With this scandal now firmly centred on him, how on earth does he expect people to believe that he is the person to clean this mess up?

I will tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman why this Government are doing the right thing at the right time. The difference between us and the Labour party is, I am afraid, staringly obvious. We get on with taking the tough decisions to protect the people of this country and to take our country forward, uniting and levelling up. We take the tough decisions to procure tens of thousands of ventilators in record time, which, apparently, he now opposes. We put forward tougher sentences for rapists and violent criminals, which he then opposes on a three-line Whip. We take tough decisions to stick up for the fans of our national game. While captain hindsight snipes continually from the sidelines, this Government get on with delivering on the people’s priorities.

Back in 2019, the Government gave the Labour council in Bradford hundreds of thousands of pounds to carry out a feasibility study for the Shipley eastern bypass. It was due to report in autumn 2019, but this was put back to April 2020, yet a year on there is still no sign of it. Will the Prime Minister please intervene to ensure that this vital infrastructure project is delivered? Will he also meet me and our hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) to see how we can progress our campaign to break away our constituencies from Bradford Council and set up a truly local unitary authority to deliver for our constituents? (914529)

On my hon. Friend’s second point, I am sure that the relevant Minister would be happy to meet and consult him. On his point about the Shipley bypass, the matter is currently with Bradford Council. I suggest that that Labour-controlled council follows the example of many Conservative-controlled councils and delivers that essential infrastructure on time, creating jobs and opportunities for his constituents.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on both the Queen’s 95th birthday and the justice that we have now seen in the George Floyd case?

This morning’s revelations surrounding the Prime Minister’s interference in covid contracts are incredibly serious. Whether it is cash for questions in the ’90s or texts for contracts during this pandemic, people know that this is the same old story; this is how the Tories do government. The Prime Minister is at the very heart of this scandal. Will he reveal today how many more covid contracts he personally fixed? If he has nothing to hide, will he publish all personal exchanges on these contracts before the end of the day?

Of course, there is absolutely nothing to conceal about this. I am happy to share all the details with the House, as indeed I have shared them with my officials, immediately. It is thanks to that immediate action that we have been able not just to deal with the ventilator challenge, but to help the people of the whole United Kingdom to get access, in record times, to the vaccines on which we all depend. The same goes for rolling out PPE. We have had to work at incredible speed, and I think the people of this country understand that it is sometimes necessary to act decisively to get things done.

If the Prime Minister says, “There’s nothing to see here”—publish those exchanges. Let us all see them and have that transparency. Frankly, his excuses just do not stack up.

Last March the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had all the time in the world to fix contracts for a cosy club of friends and Tory donors, but did not have any time to support the millions of self-employed. Those 3 million people did not have a David Cameron or a James Dyson to text the Prime Minister for them; they were on their own and they were left behind by this Prime Minister. This Tory texts for contracts scandal is growing more and more serious with every revelation—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister was eager to initiate an inquiry into his predecessor, David Cameron—[Interruption.] Will he be as quick to commit to a public and comprehensive inquiry into himself and his own Government?

Well, Mr Speaker—the right hon. Gentleman says we had all the time in the world. In fact, as the House will recall, at the end of March last year the pandemic was taking off very fast and we had to act very fast, as I think people up and down the country understand. I thought that his dog made a more sensible contribution just now than he did.

Farmers in Brecon and Radnorshire have worked tirelessly to give us world-class British food throughout the pandemic. In return, the Welsh Labour and Liberal Democrat Government have given them a slap in the face with their nitrate vulnerable zone policy, which will do nothing for water quality and ignores the water companies dumping thousands of tonnes of sewage into our rivers. Does the Prime Minister agree that this demonstrates Welsh Labour’s absolute contempt for rural areas such as mine? (914530)

Yes, my hon. Friend is entirely right, because agriculture is of course devolved in Wales. If people want to send a clear signal and they want change in the way farmers are treated in Wales, then I hope they will vote Conservative in the Welsh Assembly elections in just two weeks’ time and vote for a party that actually champions agriculture and believes in it.

Prime Minister, I was proud to put on the uniform of the Crown and to serve with tens of thousands of men and women from our armed forces and our police in protecting the entire community in Northern Ireland from the ravages of terrorism during our troubled past. The Prime Minister gave a commitment in his election manifesto to introduce legislation to protect those men and women from vexatious prosecutions. Will he stand by and honour that commitment?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much, first of all, for his service, and I know that the whole House will agree. I want to put on record, by the way, my thanks to the former Minister for Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), for all that he did to help with improving the lot of veterans across our country. We have protected many veterans with the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. There is more to be done, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, in the case of veterans of the Northern Ireland conflict, and we will be bringing forward further measures in due course.

Since 2019 Blyth Valley has benefited from significant investment for levelling up, including the towns fund, the future high streets fund, and the reinstatement of the rail line. We know now that Blyth will be the home of the UK’s first gigafactory developed by BritishVolt, further demonstrating the commitment to build back better. Can I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his drive and commitment to helping areas that have been neglected for so long and ask him to assure the House that he will do all that he can to help those areas realise their full potential? I would like to offer him an open invitation to visit this fabulous constituency of Blyth Valley, where I am sure he will receive a very warm welcome. (914532)

I thank my hon. Friend very much. It was only lately that he and I stood on the seafront at Blyth and looked out at some of the incredible wind farms—the harbingers and the prelude to the huge Dogger Bank wind farms that are going to be built in the North sea. I am delighted that a gigafactory for batteries is being established in Blyth Valley. Thanks to his help and his leadership, we are seeing Blyth Valley and many other parts of the north-east at the forefront of the green industrial revolution delivering high-wage and high-skilled jobs across our country.

Last week, hundreds of GMB gas engineers were sacked for refusing to sign new contracts expecting them to work harder and get paid less. Fire and rehire abuses by rogue employers are spreading through workplaces like a virus. The Government have called the practice “unacceptable” and “bully-boy tactics” but refuse to take action to ban it. I am giving the Prime Minister the chance to show us all where he stands. Will he commit, here and now, to include proposals to end this shameful and immoral practice of fire and rehire in next month’s Queen’s Speech—yes or no? (914525)

I repeat what I have said about that practice. If the hon. Lady would be kind enough to send me details about the case that she raises, I will be happy to take it up.

Access to superfast broadband is critical in today’s society but many people living in Runnymede and Weybridge cannot access it. While this question is essential viewing, my constituents may struggle to watch it streaming at home this evening if someone else is catching up on the “MasterChef” final. Does my right hon. Friend share my ambition that everyone in Runnymede and Weybridge should have access to superfast broadband just as every house should have access to water and electricity? (914534)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is why we have massively accelerated the roll-out of superfast broadband and gigabit broadband. Coverage of reliable gigabit broadband was just 9% when this Government took over; it will be 60% by the end of this year. We are driving it up across the whole country, uniting and levelling up and unleashing the potential of the entire UK.

Day after day, we see more corruption come to light, yet day after day, I speak to more desperate constituents who are excluded from this Government’s support—people who have lost livelihoods, homes and businesses built up over the years and have been unable to put food on their table. It seems that all they needed was the Prime Minister’s or the Chancellor’s phone number. Frankly, I am ashamed on behalf of this country. Will the Prime Minister and the Chancellor now take the calls of my constituents in Cardiff North and meet me and them to discuss how they can rebuild their lives after losing so much? (914526)

I am proud of the roll-out of the ventilators—the 30,000 we delivered from scratch—[Interruption.] I am proud of it. I am proud of the decisions that we took. I am proud of what we did—criticised by the Labour party—to roll out vaccines at record speed. I am proud of what we did to support the people of this country throughout the pandemic, with an overall package of £407 billion to support them. We in this country will bounce back all the better and all the stronger because of the strong economy that we ensured this country had going into the crisis, which would have been impossible under a Labour Government. That is what the hon. Lady should tell her constituents.

I was deeply concerned at the weekend following reports in the Sunday Express that the statue of the great United States President Ronald Reagan that once stood in Grosvenor Square has been removed and remains out of public sight. I know the Prime Minister will agree with me that President Reagan was a true friend to the United Kingdom who, alongside Margaret Thatcher, ended the cold war and supported Britain during the liberation of the Falkland Islands. Now that our American friends have moved to a new embassy in Wandsworth, does the Prime Minister agree that President Reagan’s statue should be moved to a more prominent location on Parliament Square, so that visitors from home and across the globe can honour this remarkable man? (914535)

Did you notice, Mr Speaker, how those on the Opposition Benches recoiled at the idea of the recapture of the Falkland Islands? We have just heard the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) say that she was ashamed of her country. It is no wonder that people take that kind of attitude. I think my hon. Friend is entirely right in what he says about President Reagan. He was a very distinguished president. It is not up to me to install a statue for him; I think that is for the Greater London Authority. I think he has to appeal to the current Mayor of London, although let us hope that there is a new one to do justice to the memory of Ronald Reagan.

Polio, a disease that kills and maims children, has been eliminated in all but one region of the world due to the incredible work of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. In 2019, the then UK International Development Secretary, the right hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) pledged £400 million to the programme, as he said to do otherwise would risk a return to thousands of new polio cases every year. Will the Prime Minister now reassure the House that he will honour that commitment? (914527)

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has been backed by £1.37 billion of UK aid since 1995. As the hon. Lady rightly says, there are many proud successes of that programme, and polio across the planet, largely thanks to the help of the British taxpayer, has been almost eliminated.

I am pleased that common sense has prevailed and all six English clubs have now committed to withdraw from the European super league. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to protect the beautiful game further, football clubs must put fans at the heart of their decision making? (914536)

Yes, I do. One of the most worrying features of the European super league proposals is that they would have taken clubs that take their names from great, famous English towns and cities and turned them just into global brands with no relation to the fans and the communities that gave them life and that give them the most love and support. That was, in my view, totally wrong, to say nothing of the lack of competition. It is entirely right that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) will do a root-and-branch investigation into the governance of football and what we can do to promote the role of fans in that governance.

The Prime Minister will be aware that opinion polls continue to show a majority in favour of Scottish independence. Does he agree that one factor is the fact that we have been lumbered with a Prime Minister who thinks that £1 spent in Croydon is of more value to the country than £1 spent in Strathclyde? (914531)

I think what the people of Scotland need is an Administration in Scotland who spend the taxpayers’ money in Scotland better and more wisely, because the results of the Scottish nationalist party are dismal. They are failing on education. They are failing on crime. They are failing on their taxation policies. No wonder all they can talk about is another irresponsible referendum and breaking up this country.

Recycling is one way in which we can all individually tackle the climate crisis. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating West Sussex County Council on recycling 53% of its household waste—almost double the level of neighbouring Brighton and Hove City Council? (914537)

My hon. Friend draws attention to a very valuable and important point, which is that across the country, it is Conservative councils that keep council tax low, overwhelmingly, and deliver better services, such as recycling. He is absolutely right to laud the efforts of the Conservative-led council in West Sussex.

In a recent Conservative party political broadcast, the Home Secretary claimed that only Conservative police and crime commissioners are responsible for increasing police officer numbers, yet Humberside’s police and crime commissioner, Keith Hunter, has put well over 500 additional officers on our streets since 2016—the largest proportional increase in the country—and was doing so well before the Government pledged to reverse their own cuts. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to do the decent thing: correct the record and congratulate Keith Hunter on taking Humberside police from the worst-performing force to one of the best in his time as police and crime commissioner? (914533)

I do not wish to sound like a stickler for accuracy—[Laughter]—which is my normal position, Mr Speaker, as you know, but since becoming Humberside’s PCC in 2016, the force has recruited 434 officers. Of those, 129 have been recruited as part of the Government’s 20,000 drive, and Mr Hunter himself praised the Government’s police recruitment strategy, saying that the Government’s target had lifted officer numbers in Humberside above 2,000. So I think it would be fair to say that Mr Hunter’s efforts, however laudable they may be, would have been impossible without the determination of this Government to recruit more police officers and put them out on the street.

When my right hon. Friend visited the west midlands earlier this week to meet our brilliant Mayor, Andy Street, was he aware that the Mayor has increased sevenfold the investment in transport, and we now have 108 shiny new carriages for the cross-city line? What advice does he have for my constituents in the royal town of Sutton Coldfield on 6 May?

Andy Street is rolling out not only 50 new stations but 150 miles more track, linking up communities across the west midlands, delivering job opportunities, delivery growth and delivering hope for the west midlands, and that is why I think the people of the west midlands should vote for another term for Mayor Andy Street.

I shall decline that invitation, as a west midlands voter. The Prime Minister said earlier that he would use new freedoms to ensure that we buy British steel. Over the last year, the difficulties with PPE provision and vaccine production have demonstrated clearly the risks of neglecting British production capacity, let alone the impact on the prosperity and levelling-up agendas. So will the Prime Minister now instruct Government Ministers, civil servants and public bodies that when purchasing goods and services they must buy British first? (914538)

Yes, of course—look at what we are achieving. Since the PPE crisis began—since the pandemic began—we have turned things round. We have procured 32 billion items of PPE, and 85% of it can now be made in this country, which was completely impossible before the pandemic. Look at what is happening on vaccines: we have the Valneva factory in Scotland, and we have Novavax in Teesside, which is going to be absolutely indispensable for our future success. Those investments will not only help to protect our country against pandemics for the future but will help us to drive jobs and prosperity for the long term across the whole of the UK.