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Prime Minister

Volume 692: debated on Wednesday 21 April 2021

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.